Category Archives: Shudder Premiere

Friend for the End

Revealer

by Hope Madden

The apocalypse really brings out the best and the worst in people, doesn’t it?

Take Sally (Shaina Schrooten), for example. She’s been waiting for the end of days for as long as she can remember, but now that it’s here, is she really happy?

And what about Angie (Caito Aase)? She was pretty angry to start with, working a peep show booth in a 1980s Chicago strip mall, dealing with leering customers, a cheap boss, and that judgy bitch Sally. You think she might embrace the end times.

Filmmaker Luke Boyce traps the two in the peep booth while trumpets of doom sound outside and they have to work through their nonsense, make sense of the situation and try to survive.

Tiny cast, minimal sets, distractingly fun set—the film has all the earmarks of smartly made low-budget horror. Solid creature effects help Revealer transcend financial limitations and a sassy turn from Aase elevates an often threadbare script.

Boyce co-writes, along with Michael Moreci and Tim Seeley, but they run out of things to say or ways to say them. A lot of time is spent with illogical action contrived to extend conversations. Those conversations unveil all backstory, context, character growth—and with few places for his characters to go, Boyce seems hard-pressed to invent ways to show us rather than tell us what’s happening.

What is happening is that two people rethink who’s really a saint and who’s really a sinner and whether it really matters while Chicago burns. There’s not a lot of subtlety.

Boyce shows instincts for making the most of the frame. His visual ideas pay off comedically, amplifying the frenemy vibe while creating a fun atmosphere. The time period seems an odd choice, given the actual apocalypse, but it’s executed well enough.

In fact, a lot of Revealer is done just well enough. It could have been a really fun short. But at feature length, Boyce’s film feels like a lot of filler.

Madness Rein

Mad God

by Hope Madden

You may not know Phil Tippett by name, but you’ve certainly seen his work. The monsters of his imagination were on the Dejarik board in Star Wars. They roamed Jurassic Park. They wrought havoc in Starship Troopers.

Now Tippett’s demons take center stage in his stop motion head trip 30 years in the making, Mad God.

It’s like a Bosch painting and a Tool video accusing each other of being too lighthearted.

Dense with grotesquerie and craftsmanship, the animated tale follows a lone figure across and through a noxious landscape bubbling with creatures large and small. Our hero has a map to aid him and a gas mask to protect him. His journey brings him in contact with violence of both the sadistic and thoughtless sort.

Mad God delivers a nightmare vision like little else, overwhelming in its detail and scope. Tippett plumbs cycles of mindless cruelty. Then, just when you think his film speaks of war and commerce, the commerce of war, he turns focus.

We enter a hospital, witness a medical harvesting. And then suddenly, we turn to a series demonstrating ways in which history and societies have been built on sadistic entertainment.

Suddenly, a sequence full of day-glo colors and relative gaiety feels momentarily like a respite. Nope.

Mad World revels in Tippett’s vulgar, potent fantasy without belaboring a clear plotline. The world itself resembles, at least at first, a post-apocalyptic wasteland you might recognize. Tippett peoples this somewhat familiar landscape with figures and images that also feel reminiscent: a doll’s befouled face, a fiendish surgeon, a cloaked figure.

Certain sequences and score sections recall Alan Parker’s Pink Floyd: The Wall, while others bring to mind Shane Acker’s underseen 2009 animation, 9. Rather than pull you through these images with a clear destination, Tippett meanders.

Mad God asks you to take in the chaos, the slurry of misery in its tactile, malevolent nightmare and find, if not hope — you will not find hope — then maybe sympathy.

Scream Queen

All About Evil

by Hope Madden

Creepy twins! Librarians! Drag queens! These are a few of my favorite things…

The long-lost 2010 cult-film-in-the-making All About Evil brings all this and more to its Shudder debut this week. What’s it about?

The business of show!

Natasha Lyonne is Deborah Tennis, anxious librarian. Deb inherits her dad’s beloved single-screen San Francisco theater and vows to keep it afloat, no matter how. Her plan of action: make grisly, hyper-realistic horror shorts with literary puns for titles.

You’d be surprised how well it works.

Writer/director Joshua Grannell (aka Peaches Christ, who co-stars) surrounds Lyonne with some underground heavy-hitters including Mink Stole and Cassandra Peterson. Between that and the Herschel Gordon Lewis love, All About Evil is a mash note to camp.

Performances and writing fall right in line. It’s community theater bad, but in the best way. Lyonne is in her element, hamming her arc from mousy literary type to vampy directress with Gloria Swanson skill. She’s even more fun when she’s directing her fine crew (Jack Donner, Noah Segan, and Nikita and Jade Ramsey – all so fun).

The underlying story that we need to stop assuming every troubled, white high school boy is a danger to society has not aged well. But Grannell also hits on timeless lessons about cell phone use during a movie (never OK!) and Elvira’s hotness (eternal!).

All About Evil offers clever midnight-movie fun from start to finish. The filmmaker is clearly a devotee of cult and kitsch, a love that brightens every frame of the film. Plus, the film memorabilia! Come for the movie posters, stay for more movie posters, enjoy some madcap campy mayhem in between.

28 Zombies Later

Virus: 32

by Hope Madden

It’s nearly impossible to watch a zombie film without seeing pieces of this, pieces of that. Virus: 32 does call to mind a handful of other genre flicks. 28 Days Later is all over it. Sequences call to mind Rammbock: Berlin Undead. The film’s claustrophobic, spook-house vibe might conjure Rec from time to time.

Still, Gustavo Hernández (The Silent House) braids these ideas into something unnerving, tense and moving.

Iris (Paula Silva), living an extended adolescence in Uruguay with her roommate, finds herself saddled with her young daughter for the day. She’d forgotten and picked up a shift, which means Tata (Pilar Garcia) will join her today at “the club.”

The club is an old, abandoned sports club. Iris is on security patrol. Tata can occupy herself in an old gym with some basketballs while Iris makes her rounds and keeps an eye on things from the security footage she accesses through her phone.

No sweat.

Unbeknownst to the two, a virus has infected Montevideo, turning people insatiably violent.

Sweat.

The title comes from the brief reprieve the illness offers. The infected become catatonic for 32 seconds after quenching their bloodlust. It’s contrived, but Hernández — writing again with Juma Fodde — enlists the pause button effectively.

Fermin Torres’s sometimes creeping, sometimes soaring camera generates anticipation and dread in equal measure. Security footage — often a lazy gimmick in a horror movie — gets real purpose and style here. Likewise, the poorly lit passages, shadowy staircases and rooms reflecting leakage and rot create an atmosphere of decay that suits the effort.

Nothing works harder or more forcefully, though, than Silva. Her believable tenderness, drive and instability combine to create a hero you root for, understand and worry about. She’s brilliant.

Daniel Hendler joins the cast at about the midway point, injecting a needed sense of calm and purpose. His presence pulls the narrative out of its chaos and points things toward resolution. He and Silva elevate scenes that could feel perfunctory. Their talent and Hernández’s skill turn even the most zombie-eaten tropes into riveting action.

Virus: 32 can’t entirely overcome its set of borrowed notions, but it grips and tears nonetheless.

Alone in the Dark

See for Me

by Brandon Thomas

There’s nothing better than a thriller with a great hook. Sometimes it’s as simple as a private investigator with a fear of heights being used as a pawn in a murder, such as Hitchcock’s Vertigo. Sometimes the hook is much more elaborate like the narrative and truth-bending nature of Christopher Nolan’s Memento. In director Randall Okita’s See for Me, the hook falls somewhere in the middle as a blind housesitter is pitted against three thieves. 

After a skiing accident leaves her visually impaired, Sophie (Skyler Davenport) is hired to house sit for a wealthy client. After the sun sets, Sophie is surprised by three intruders looking for a massive cash score from the home’s safe. While able to call 911, Sophie needs immediate help and uses an app called “See for Me” to connect with a technician who can relay what they’re seeing through Sophie’s phone. Luckily for Sophie, Kelly (Jessica Parker Kennedy) is a former combat vet. As the intruders become aware of Sophie’s presence, Jessica uses her expertise to direct the at-risk Sophie out of harm’s way.

Great hook or not, See for Me is a fairly simplistic movie in execution. Okita never tries to jazz the picture up with crazy camera work or elaborate set pieces. Panic Room this movie is not (and more so for budget reasons, one would think). Okita uses the frame wisely as the suspense of Sophie’s predicament slowly plays out. The house is one of the stars of the movie with its large rooms, high ceilings, and exposure through floor-to-ceiling windows. Okita makes sure we’re allowed to see so much of what’s happening within the house while Sophie cannot, a strategic move that naturally increases the tension.

Davenport commands every second of her screen time. A visually impaired person in real life, Davenport’s approach to Sophie is one of complexity. There’s a stubbornness to the character as she refuses to be seen as anything less than capable in the eyes of those around her. Sometimes that comes out as hostility toward family, friends and even clients. This stubbornness becomes an important asset as Sophie barters with her would-be captors, and uses Kelly’s guidance to fight back. 

The use of the “See for Me” app threatens to strain believability at times, mostly in how Sophie is turned into an expert marksman with little to no guidance. For a film so grounded for most of its running time, these bits in the movie’s back half tend to stick out and betray its smarter elements. 

Through a clever hook and a great lead performance, See For Me becomes one of 2022’s first stand-out thrillers. 

Mojave Monster

The Seed

by Hope Madden

It’s got a little Brian Yuzna, definitely some Larry Cohen, a touch of Eraserhead, and the exact set of Revenge. Plus, sci-fi/horror flick The Seed maintains maybe the single most used premise of the last few years: three friends rent a place to stay and bad things happen.

There’s nothing necessarily wrong with that. A small cast and limited locations are just smart plays for an independent filmmaker working with budget confinements, and there are moments when writer/director Sam Walker transcends such trappings.

Just not many.

Vampy social influencer Diedre (Lucy Martin), her somewhat vapid bestie Heather (Sophie  Vavasseur), and their down-to-earth pal Charlotte (Chelsea Edge) head to a luxurious, isolated spot in the Mojave desert and witness a meteor shower.

It’s gorgeous, but now their phones are on the fritz, which means they can’t call an uber or get in touch with civilization at all. Worst of all, there’s some stinky dead armadillo bear thing oozing all over their pool deck.

There’s no question Walker is a fan of late 80s horror. The social media angle is the only element of The Seed that feels like it wasn’t hatched in 1985, actually. Walker goes for a sharpness in the color that does call Yuzna to mind, and attempts at social satire by way of body  horror link Cohen as well.

Walker just doesn’t seem to know where to go with it all.

Martin does. She elevates tired mean girl dialog and cuts an exceptional narcissistic presence. Both she and Vavasseur find the comedy in the script, and their bickering buddies often entertain.

Edge is the weak link, which is unfortunate because – given the 1980s roots and the wholesome character – she’s telegraphed early to be the film’s hero.

The fact that The Seed is set in the exact house Coralie Fargeat used to gorgeous, bloody extremes in her 2017 treasure Revenge only makes you want to see Walker do more with his location.

So little about this film feels fresh and that retro vibe only carries it so far. The beast itself is sometimes laughable, but not often enough to be fun, which is par for the course with the film. Walker wades into dark comedy/satire territory for the first two acts, then abandons it entirely for a dusty, predictable, humorless finale.

Hell Bent

Hellbender

by Hope Madden

Unusual family dynamics tend to be at the heart of movies made by Adams Family Films, a collective that shares writing, directing, and acting duties.

They’re also a family: co-writer/co-director/co-star/mom Toby Poser, co-writer/co-director/dad John Adams, co-writer/co-director/co-star/daughter Zelda Adams, co-star/daughter Lulu Adams. No word on Cousin It.

The clan’s 2019 horror The Deeper You Dig centered on the bond between mother and daughter, both outsiders in a rural mountain town. The Family’s latest, Hellbender, orbits similar territory.

Poser — again cutting an impressive cinematic figure — is a mother who keeps her teenage girl Izzy (Zelda Adams) far, far from prying eyes. The two enjoy each other’s company, even playing in a 2-person punk band (bass & drums, hell yeah!) called Hellbender.

But Izzy is lonely, and she’s beginning to distrust her mother’s claims that illness prevents socialization. Izzy doesn’t feel sick.

It turns out, Mom isn’t trying to protect Izzy. She’s trying to protect everybody else.

A soundtrack full of the band’s music creates an effective atmosphere of rebellion, anger and evil. Zelda Adams haunts the film, a central figure of awkwardness and naivete blossoming with power.

There’s barely another face onscreen and even fewer behind the camera. Aside from Trey and Samantha Lindsay, who pull crew duties, every role from costume design to sound, editing to cinematography to music is handled by a member of the family.

They are impressive. Hellbender looks great. It sounds great. The story is fluid and creepy, punctuated with psychedelic carnage and informed by lived-in relationships.

A muddy backstory and slight anticlimax keep the film from utterly beguiling, but the coming-of-age center impresses. Hellbender delivers a moral ambiguity that questions society’s fear of female power.

The Adams Family doesn’t represent a gimmick or a “good for you for trying” brand of filmmaking. These people are the real deal and I look forward to their next effort.

Brotherly Love

Slapface

by Hope Madden

Abuse is easy to confuse with a complicated form of love, especially if you’re a child. For the feature length expansion of his 2018 short Slapface, writer/director Jeremiah Kipp complicates his tale of grief and rage with these confusing notions of abuse.

He relies mainly on the unexpected bond between Lucas (August Maturo, exceptional) and a monster sometimes called the Virago Witch (Lukas Hassel, reprising his role from the short). Lucas lost his parents in a car accident and grieves deeply for his mother. He lives just off the woods with his older brother Tom (Mike Manning, who also produces).

Tom’s new girlfriend Anna (Libe Barer) is concerned about the way the siblings live. The only other companionship Lucas has is a trio of bullies. One of those bullies, Moriah (Mirabelle Lee) is willing to be Lucas’s girlfriend as long as he keeps it secret.

In this way, Kipp layers his original tale of grief with conflicting emotional baggage. It’s to his credit, and the endless benefit of his film, that the filmmaker never tidies up these emotional storylines. In fact, it is Lucas’s confusion over the characters who seem to both love and harm him that creates his greatest turmoil.

The monster becomes a remedy of sorts to this internal conflict. The larger-than-life, terrifying presence works much the way that the monster in J.A. Bayona’s 2016 treasure A Monster Calls works. The beast allows Lucas to process the complicated reasons for his pain.

Kipp’s film trades in Bayona’s melancholy magic for something more brutal. But Hassel and Maturo find sincere tenderness in their time together onscreen, which makes the horror even more heartbreaking.

Not every performance is as strong, but Kipp’s ensemble finds nuance in characters that help the film compel more than just terror.

Feed My Frankenstein

Boris Karloff: The Man Behind the Monster

by Hope Madden

Who doesn’t love Boris Karloff? From Frankenstein’s monster to the Grinch, he’s brought to life some of the world’s best (and greenest) baddies. And he did it with grace, understatement and more than a touch of weirdness.

Co-writer/director Thomas Hamilton, like many of us, loves Boris Karloff and wants to celebrate his legacy. The vehicle for this celebration is the documentary Boris Karloff: The Man Behind the Monster.

Interviews from gushing fans including filmmakers Guillermo del Toro and Joe Dante, as well as film historians, colleagues and Karloff’s daughter, Sarah Karloff, ground the doc. With these voices, Hamilton shapes a picture of the actor as a lovely soul, humble, and more talented than audiences of his time realized.

We’re also treated to a smorgasbord of scenes from Karloff’s 50+ years onscreen. Ample time is spent with the many incarnations of Frankenstein, of course, including mention of the partnership Karloff and make-up magician Jack Pierce shared in the creation of cinema’s most iconic monster. The film hits the other obvious highlights as well: The Mummy (1932), The Black Cat (1934), Black Sabbath (1963) and Targets (1968) among them.

Hamilton also digs into Karloff’s TV experience, which reinvigorated his career as well as his love of acting. Low lights, such as Karloff’s list of racist Asian characters, most notably the abomination that is The Mask of Fu Manchu (1932), are touched on if never fully examined.

Most interesting is footage of del Toro and Dante, two greats of genre cinema, both detailing the career and impact of a hero. Conversation with Peter Bogdanovich, who directed Karloff in the chilling Targets, leaves the most lingering impression.

Man Behind the Monster falls short in two fairly important areas. There’s no revelatory information, and that’s OK, but there’s little more insight here than what you might find on Wikipedia.

The second real shortcoming is in production value. Most subjects sit in front of weakly imposed green screen images. Even artwork rendered by Joe Liotta finds itself lost in front of garden variety backdrops.

The end result is a pleasant enough chance for Karloff fans to soak up like-minded love of one of cinema’s greatest genre performers. Hopefully everyone can come away from it with a list of new Karloff movies to discover.

Into the Woods

Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched: A History of Folk Horror

by Hope Madden

Every so often you come across a movie and think it must have been made specifically for you. In my case, that film is Kier-La Janisse’s 3-hour documentary Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched: A History of Folk Horror.

Yes, that does seem like a very big time commitment to folk horror, but Janisse’s film repays your undertaking with not only an incredibly informative documentary but an engaging, creepy and beautifully made film.

Dividing her topic into chapters, Janisse portions out information theme by theme. And while this essay-style documentation is driven by expert commentary, the filmmaker surrounds the scholarly material with beguiling imagery.

Every chapter has its own look and feel, each one opening with an appropriately bewitching bit of rhyme. Then it leads you through a clearly articulated and fairly comprehensive examination of certain moments in folk horror. Janisse opens on the big three, The Unholy Trinity–Blood on Satan’s Claw, Witchfinder General and The Wicker Man—as a way to ease us into the conversation by pinning major themes on well-known films.

She goes on to explore TV and written tales tangentially, though her focus is always primarily on film, taking us from The Wicker Man through Midsommar. In between, she introduces dozens of underseen films and traces not only the history of folk horror but the societal anxieties that these films represent.

And while many may think mainly of British films of the 1960s and 70s for this category, Janisse presents an intriguing global history that unveils universal primal preoccupations from England to Argentina, the US to Lapland and beyond.

Dry as that may sound, between the snippets of the movies themselves and the fluid, often creepy presentation, Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched becomes as transfixing a film as those it dissects. And it digs deep, into obscure titles new and old. Border! White Reindeer! Onibaba! Viy! Prevenge!

Bonus: You can find a gorgeous array of folk horror streaming on Shudder this month, including The Wicker Man, Blood on Satan’s Claw and Witchfinder General.

There are so many, you can’t blame even a 3-hour film for leaving some out. Here are a few masterpieces glimpsed but not discussed and well worth your time:

And even then, there are some favorites not discussed at all that you might want to check out:

How can three hours of folk horror discussion not be enough? It’s a question that points to what may be the greatest strength of Janisse’s film. Like any truly strong documentary, her film not only covers its topic comprehensively, it inspires you to dig deeper on your own time.