Nun But the Faithful

Agnes

by George Wolf

After Agnes, some disgruntled horror fans may end up checking the credits for the stamp of A24. Don’t get me wrong, I consistently love A24’s brand of spooky, but I can’t deny that some of their trailers write a visceral check that the films themselves don’t always cash.

So don’t come to Agnes for some standard demonic possession fare, cause it ain’t here. But what director/co-writer Mickey Reece has in store ends up being bold and weird, funny and captivating, and in the end, even sweetly hopeful.

Opening with a convent birthday gathering that gets out of hand fast, Reece then introduces us to Father Frank Donaghue (Ben Hall), whose knowledge of the rite of exorcism earns him a meeting with the Bishop. Back at Santa Teresa, young sister Agnes (Hayley McFarland) seems to have the Devil in her. Church elders want Father Frank and his neophyte Benjamin (Jake Horowitz) to cast it out.

Things don’t go well, leading Father Frank to call in reinforcement from the renegade Father Black (Chris Browning), a cocky, chain-smoking padre who puts Agnes through a hilarious bit of exorcising straight out of Airplane!

If you saw Reece’s Climate of the Hunter, you won’t be surprised by the layer of dark humor running through his latest. But what might surprise you is realizing that what happens to Agnes isn’t really the point here. The point is what happens to Mary (Molly C. Quinn).

Sister Mary committed to the convent after a tragic loss in her life but abandons the order following those clumsy attempts at driving the devil from her friend. From there, Reece also leaves the convent behind to focus on Mary’s attempts at re-adjusting to “normal” life.

The film’s tone takes a major shift, establishing a clear contrast between nunnery silliness and real-world struggles that reinforces an early observation made by Father Frank.

Belief in evil is on the rise, so where is the increased belief in Godly things?

Quinn (Mrs. Grady in Doctor Sleep) invites both curiosity and sympathy as Mary wanders wide-eyed and often expressionless, looking for a reason to believe. She proves a wonderful vessel for both Mary’s crisis of faith and Reece’s unconventional methods for raising worthwhile questions.

Follow its admittedly jarring path and Agnes just might make you find comfort in your next ham sandwich.

Oh, Hell

Hellarious

by Hope Madden

Short films rarely get their due, and getting an audience is rarer still. Any opportunity to sit down with a set of shorts that made a splash in the festival circuit is an opportunity worth taking. If arterial spray and laughter are your thing, Hellarious is a chance worth taking.

The compilation contains seven short films, each a horror comedy. There’s no framing device or theme, simply a collection of sometimes bawdy, once in a long while sweet, mostly viscous horror. There are a lot of fluids here.

Like an automatic door to hell, James Feeney’s Killer Kart opens things. His creeping camera sets a fun tone for an absurd “ordinary item” monster movie (a la Rubber). An inspired score by Daniel Hildreth, Christine Rodriguez and Ray Bouchard matches the mayhem nicely.

Robert Boocheck’s charming Horrific—a tale of mutant varmints, hula hoop porn and besotted tidy whities—lands laughs thanks to Mike Nelson’s semi-heroic central performance. Likewise the Deathgasm-esque Death Metal offers a highly enjoyable and sometimes morally questionable bloodbath with the most delightful practical effects.

A sweet authenticity drives Bitten, Sarah K. Reimers’s romantic, dog-loving upending of the werewolf tale. (Who’s a good boy? Iggy is! Iggy’s a good boy!) If you can take your eyes off that adorable dog, you’ll notice two tenderly funny performances by Francine Torres and Michael Curran.

Director Jason Tostevin, who also compiled the films, helms two of the shorts in the program, both co-written with Randall Greenland. ‘Til Death offers a post-mortem comeuppance tale boasting several strong performances. Born Again, though, is one of the compilation’s two highest points.

Six and a half minutes with the worst Satanists ever exposes you to a really beautifully filmed subversion of expectations. Slyly comical performances top to bottom entertain, but Greenland is a laugh riot in a starring role.

The collection’s second high peak comes thanks to Clarissa Jacobson and J.M. Logan’s sloppy concoction, Lunch Ladies. This is a delirious fantasy about underdogs rising to the challenge and making their dreams come true—becoming personal chefs to “the Depper,” Johnny Depp. Donna Pieroni and Mary Manofsky deliver consistent laughs in a film that almost makes a person want to love Johnny Depp again.

Variety, laughs, mayhem, blood spatter, romance, cheerleader pot pie—Hellarious is a tasty treat of bite sized horror.

Benny and the Deaths

Benny Loves You

by Hope Madden

There is something inescapably silly about toy horror. Whether it’s a marionette or a ventriloquist doll, a china doll (with those creepy eyelashes) or a friend til the end, the toy itself can only generate so much authentic terror. After that, it’s just goofiness.

Karl Holt embraces that combination for his vengeful toy story, Benny Loves You.

We open on a spoiled child, her new Barbie, and the now-discarded stuffed dog, Todd. But soon we’re entrenched in the subpar life of Jack (Holt, who also writes and directs). It’s his 35th birthday. He still lives with his parents, still sleeps in his childhood bedroom that is still decorated as it was when he was seven.

Jack is a toy designer, but co-worker Richard (a colossal tit) makes him look like a peon. They’re both up for the same promotion. Things go from bad to worse, then worse, then worse still. Finally, Jack decides to grow up and put away all his childish things, including his beloved stuffed bear (Bear? With those ears?), Benny.

It goes less than well, the unruly toy responding like a bloodthirsty if very cheery jilted lover.

Holt turns in a solid performance as the stunted man-child living a nightmare of adulthood, and there are times when his writing suggests something deeper. He almost develops themes about arrested development, the entertainment/gaming/toy industry, maybe even masculine entitlement. Almost.

Instead of digging in, he settles for a superficial but generally charming and very violent comedy. (Dog lovers may want to skip this one.)

Low-rent FX heighten the film’s silliness and general wrong-headed glee. All the support work is on target, from George Collie as the noxious Richard to the love interest (Claire Cartwright), dog-loving boss (James Parsons), and incompetent cops (Anthony Styles and Darren Benedict). Each understands the tone here and nails it.

It’s just that it doesn’t amount to much. A mean spirit punctuates the romplike atmosphere a couple of times and feels wildly out of step with the balance of the film, but other than that, Benny Loves You offers forgettable, bloody fun.

This Was Not a Ski Accident!

The Wolf of Snow Hollow

by George Wolf

How good does a movie have to be before it can’t be improved by adding werewolves?

Don’t answer yet, let’s backtrack.

Two years ago. Thunder Road was a pretty fantastic breakout for writer/director/star Jim Cummings. A visionary character study with alternating moments of heart and hilarity, it felt like recognizable pieces molded into something bracingly original.

Now, Cummings feels it’s time to throw in some werewolves.

While The Wolf of Snow Hollow may not be exactly the same film, the road it travels is pretty thunderous, with Cummings playing a very similar character on a very similar arc.

He’s officer John Marshall of the Snow Hollow sheriff’s department. John’s father (Robert Forster, in his final role) is the longtime sheriff of the small ski resort town, but Dad’s reached the age and condition where John feels he’s really the one in charge.

John’s also a recovering alcoholic with a hot temper, a bitter ex-wife and a teen daughter who doesn’t like him much. But when a young ski bunny gets slaughtered near the hot tub under a full moon, suddenly John’s got a much bigger, much bloodier problem.

As more mutilated corpses stain the snowy landscape, John faces the wrath of scared townsfolk and the growing belief from his own deputies (especially Chavez!) that a werewolf might have come to Snow Hollow.

John doesn’t agree. “It’s a man! When do I get to be right about something?”

This script, like his last, is full of life, and has Cummings again juggling random outbursts of absurd non-sequiturs and hilarious anger with real human issues of struggle and loss. John’s afraid of losing his father, women are being preyed upon, and a drink would sure hit the spot.

And there’s a beast out there threatening the lives and livelihood of Snow Hollow. Yes, you’ll be reminded of Jaws, as well as any number of werewolf films and even Silence of the Lambs.

And if you have seen Thunder Road, you’ll quickly be struck by how much more stylish of a director Cummings is this time out. He’s got a bigger budget and it damn sure shows, with some gorgeous outdoor landscapes, frisky visuals (he must be an Edgar Wright fan) and a confident grip on his monster vision.

Forster’s mere presence brings a bittersweet authenticity to the supporting ensemble, and a stellar turn by Riki Lindhome as Snow Hollow’s most reliably steady deputy gives John’s manic nature a welcome contrast.

Cummings appears to have a gift for taking a pile of familiar, reshaping it and emerging with something endlessly interesting and effortlessly entertaining. The Wolf of Snow Hollow is all that and more.

At its core, it’s a super deluxe re-write of Thunder Road with werewolves. I call that a bloody good time.

Don’t Pet the Animals

Little Monsters

by Hope Madden

“Teddy McGiggles isn’t my real name.”

The fact that there is a character named Teddy McGiggles in writer/director/Aussie Abe Forsythe’s new horror gem Little Monsters—let alone that Teddy (Josh Gad) has to clarify that it is not his given name—tells you a lot about the film.

McGiggles, a beloved and boldly dressed kids’ show host, is just one of the uninfected trapped in the souvenir shop at Pleasant Valley Farm Petting Zoo (now with Mini Golf!).

Miss Caroline (Lupita Nyong’o, glorious as always) has taken her kindergarten class on a field trip. Little Felix’s (the criminally adorable Diesel La Torraca) ne’er do well Uncle Dave (Alexander England) has tagged along as a chaperone, but really he’s just crushing on Lupita.

Who isn’t?!

The petting zoo sits next door to a military testing facility, one thing eats the brains of another and suddenly Miss Caroline is hurdling zombies and convincing her class this is all a game.

Basically, Little Monsters is Cooties meets Life is Beautiful.

Even though the film is being compared to Shaun of the Dead, please go into this with your eyes open. Though it has an incredibly sweet heart and a bus load of insanely cute children, the film is definitely R rated.

Mainly because of Gad, whose character has, shall we say, some bad habits and a pretty ugly catharsis on the playground. It’s pretty funny, but a surprisingly mean kind of funny.

Still, Little Monsters is, in its own bloody, entrail-strewn way, adorable. Honestly. And so very much of that has to do with Nyong’o. Miss Caroline’s indefatigable devotion to her students is genuinely beautiful, and Nyong’o couldn’t be more convincing.

The enormously likable cast and a tight script elevate the film above its slight story and often borrowed ideas. But the pace is quick, the bowels are spilling, and I’ve never enjoyed Taylor Swift’s Shake It Off more.

A Very Merry Unbirthday

Happy Death Day 2U

by Hope Madden

Two years ago, writer/director Christopher Landon’s Happy Death Day managed the unexpected. It took an immediately tiresome premise—Groundhog Day meets Scream—and generated enough audience good will to entertain.

This was mainly thanks to Jessica Rothe, whose performance was funny enough to be simultaneously likable and detestable, and whose character arc mostly felt earned. (Bill Murray’s are big shoes to fill.)

Well, Rothe is back for a second helping of death day cake, as is Landon, who again writes and directs. Can the pair keep the story fresh for a sequel?

Why, no. Thanks for asking.

Where the original was a funny slasher with a SciFi bent, the sequel is a standard Eighties romcom with an occasionally morbid sense of humor. Think Real Genius, only dumber and more tedious.

Or Zapped. Remember Zapped?

Tree (Rothe) believes she’s broken free of her murderous time loop by killing the person who was out to kill her—and learning some hard-won life lessons in the meantime.

She was wrong, though, because the truth is that her boyfriend Carter’s (Israel Broussard) weird roommate Ryan (Phi Vu) has gotten all Timecrimes in the college lab and that’s what caused the loop. In fact, it’s causing another loop into a parallel dimension.

Everyone from the original is back and almost the same as last time (because this is a parallel universe). Any new character who is not white joins Ryan in the lab. Nerds – another sad Eighties theme that won’t stay dead.

Slapstick humor (Oh, this blind French thing is enough to make your brain bleed) and dumbfounding gaps in logic follow. A list of what does not follow: tension, horror, laughter.

Seriously, though, if you haven’t seen Nacho Vigalondo’s 2007 mindbender Timecrimes, you should definitely do that instead of going to HDD2U.

Oh! You know what else is great in that SciFi/time loop/horror neighborhood? The Endless.

The point is, if you are in the mood for some genre bending SciFi fun, you won’t find it here.





My Roof, My Rules

Mom and Dad

by Hope Madden

I brought you into this world, I can take you out of it.

It’s a joke, of course, an idle threat. Right?

Maybe so, but deep down, it does speak to the unspeakable tumult of emotions and desires that come with parenting. Wisely, a humorous tumult is exactly the approach writer/director Brian Taylor  brings to his horror comedy Mom and Dad.

Horror films have been coming up with excuses to exorcise our forbidden desire to kill our own children for decades, mostly with little-seen cult films like It’s Alive or The Children or Cooties. In those films, the children themselves become monsters and the adults have no choice, you see.

Taylor (co-director of the Crank series) has a different take. In what is basically a long and very bloody metaphor for a mid-life crisis, parents the world over simply give in to an unspecified but urgent need to kill their own offspring.

It’s an epidemic picture, a zombie film without the zombies. Which doesn’t sound that funny, I’ll grant you, but Taylor and a game cast indulge in many of the same family tensions that fuel most sitcoms. They just take it one or two or three demented steps further.

So why do you want to see it? Because of the unhinged Nicolas Cage. Not just any Nic Cage—the kind who can convincingly sing the Hokey Pokey while demolishing furniture with a sledge hammer.

This is one of those Nic Cage roles: Face/Off meets Wild at Heart meets Vampire’s Kiss. He’s weird, he’s explosive and he is clearly enjoying himself.

Selma Blair lands the unenviable role of sharing the screen with Cage, but she doesn’t try to match him as much as keep him focused: they do have a job to accomplish, you know. The result is a fascinating picture of marital teamwork, actually. Good for them.

Taylor’s frantic pace and hiccupping camera mirror Cage’s lunatic energy, and clever writing toys with our expectations while delivering a surprisingly transgressive film.

Others have done it better. (I’m looking at you, Babadook.) But this may be the most amusing way to spend 90 minutes watching people try to murder their own children.





Fright Club: Homage Horror

Who loves horror? We do, you do, and that’s probably why homage horror is so satisfying. Filmmakers take a self-referential approach to draw attention to the tropes of the genre they – and we – love. It’s not a spoof, not a satire, it’s a loving ode to the genre. It’s like a big, bloody bear hug, and we are in!

5. Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon (2006)

This loving slasher offers not just clever, self-referential writing, but surprisingly likeable performances, given the topic. Leslie (Nathan Baesel – magnificent) intends to become the next great serial killer. Not your garden-variety killer, but the stuff of legend: Jason, Freddy, Michael Myers, Leslie Vernon.

A documentary news crew (of sorts) led by intern Taylor (Angela Goethals) documents Leslie’s preparations.

Director/co-writer Scott Glosserman nails a tone that’s comical, affectionate to the genre, and eventually scary. Part Man Bites Dog, part Scream, the film could easily feel stale. It does not.

This is partly due to the wit and intelligence in the screenplay, but an awful lot of the film’s success rides on Baesel’s shoulders. As the budding legend, Baesel is so charming as to be impossible to root against. He’s borderline adorable, even as he slashes his way through teen after teen unwise enough to party at the old, abandoned Vernon farm.

4. Stitches (2012)

There are a lot of scary clowns in films, but not that many can carry an entire film. Stitches can.

This Irish import sees a half-assed clown accidentally offed at a 10-year-old’s birthday party, only to return to finish his act when the lad turns 16.

Yes, it is a familiar slasher set up: something happened ten years ago – an accident! It was nobody’s fault! They were only children!! And then, ten years later, a return from the grave timed perfectly with a big bash that lets the grisly menace pick teens off one by one. But co-writer/director Connor McMahon does not simply tread that well-worn path. He makes glorious use of the main difference: his menace is a sketchy, ill-tempered clown.

Dark yet bawdy humor and game performances elevate this one way above teen slasher. Gory, gross, funny and well-acted – it brings to mind some of Peter Jackson’s early work. It’s worth a look.

3. Tucker and Dale Versus Evil (2010)

Horror cinema’s most common and terrifying villain may not be the vampire or even the zombie, but the hillbilly. The generous, giddy Tucker and Dale vs. Evil lampoons that dread with good natured humor and a couple of rubes you can root for.

In the tradition of Shaun of the Dead, T&DVE lovingly sends up a familiar subgenre with insightful, self-referential humor, upending expectations by taking the point of view of the presumably villainous hicks. And it happens to be hilarious.

Two backwoods buddies (an endearing Tyler Labine and Alan Tudyk) head to their mountain cabin for a weekend of fishing. En route they meet some college kids on their own camping adventure. A comedy of errors, misunderstandings and subsequent, escalating violence follows as the kids misinterpret every move Tucker and Dale make.

T&DVE offers enough spirit and charm to overcome any weakness. Inspired performances and sharp writing make it certainly the most fun participant in the You Got a Purty Mouth class of film.

2. Cabin in the Woods (2012)

You know the drill: 5 college kids head into the woods for a wild weekend of doobage, cocktails and hookups but find, instead, dismemberment, terror and pain. You can probably already picture the kids, too: a couple of hottie Alphas, the nice girl, the guy she may or may not be into, and the comic relief tag along. In fact, if you tried, you could almost predict who gets picked off when.

But that’s just the point, of course. Making his directorial debut, Drew Goddard, along with his co-scribe Joss Whedon, uses that preexisting knowledge to entertain holy hell out of you.

Goddard and Whedon’s nimble screenplay offers a spot-on deconstruction of horror tropes as well as a joyous celebration of the genre. Aided by exquisite casting – particularly the gloriously deadpan Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford – the filmmakers create something truly special.

Cabin is not a spoof. It’s not a satire. It’s sort of a celebratory homage, but not entirely. What you get with this film is a very different kind of horror comedy.

1. Scream (1996)

In his career, Wes Craven has reinvented horror any number of times. When Scream hit screens in 1996, we were still three years from the onslaught of the shakey cam, six years from the deluge of Asian remakes, and nearly ten years from the first foul waft of horror porn. In its time, Scream resurrected a basically dying genre, using clever meta-analysis and black humor.

What you have is a traditional high school slasher – someone dons a likeness of Edvard Munch’s most famous painting and plants a butcher knife in a local teen, leading to red herrings, mystery, bloodletting and whatnot. But Craven’s on the inside looking out and he wants you to know it.

What makes Scream stand apart is the way it critiques horror clichés as it employs them, subverting expectation just when we most rely on it. As the film opens, Casey (Drew Barrymore) could have survived entirely (we presume) had she only remembered that it was not, in fact, Jason Voorhees who killed all those campers in Friday the 13th; it was his mother. A twisted reverence for the intricacies of slashers is introduced in the film’s opening sequence, then glibly revisited in one form or another in nearly every scene after.

We spent the next five years or more watching talented TV teens and sitcom stars make the big screen leap to slashers, mostly with weak results, but Scream stands the test of time. It could be the wryly clever writing or the solid performances, but we think it’s the joyous fondness for a genre and its fans that keeps this one fresh.





Halloween Countdown, Day 28: Zombieland

Zombieland (2009)

Zombieland is quite possibly the perfect movie. Just when Shaun of the Dead convinced me that those Limey Brits had create the best-ever zombie romantic comedy, it turns out they’d only created the most British zombie romantic comedy. The Yank counterpart is even better, and with this amount of artillery, it’s certainly a more American vision.

Let’s start with the effervescently clever writing. Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick take the tried-and-true zombiepocalypse premise and sprint with it in totally new and awesome directions.

And the cameo. I cannot imagine a better one. I mean that. I’m not sure a walk on by Jesus himself could have brought me more joy.

That’s not true. Plus, in zombie movie?! How awesome would that have been?!

The performances kick ass, also. Thank you Rubin Fleischer for respecting each character enough to allow them a good balance of stupid mistakes, solid decisions and laughs.

Jesse Eisenberg anchors the film with an inspired narration and an endearing dork characterization. Yes, we’ve seen him dork before. One dork nearly won him an Oscar. Still, this is one of his finer dorks.

But Woody Harrelson owns this film. His gun toting, Twinkie loving, Willie Nelson singing, Dale Earnhart number wearing redneck ranks among the greatest horror heroes ever.

I give you, a trip to a loud and well-lit amusement park is not a recommendation Max Brooks would make during the zombiepocalypse. Still, you’ve got to admit it’s a gloriously filmed piece of action horror cinema.

Listen weekly to MaddWolf’s horror podcast FRIGHT CLUB. Do it!





Halloween Countdown, Day 20: Aaaaaaaah!

Aaaaaaaah!

by Hope Madden

Aah, the precarious position of the alpha male. Oh should I say Aaaaaaaah!? Because that is the delightfully appropriate title of Steve Oram’s feature directorial debut.

An absurd horror comedy, the film offers no dialog at all, just grunts, as humans – devolved into ape mentality – go about their poop-throwing, territory marking, television smashing daily existence.

It’s the kind of overly clever premise you expect to wear thin, but honestly, it doesn’t. Much credit goes to a game cast (including Oram) that sells every minute of the ridiculousness, and to Oram again as director. He keeps the pace quick, his images a flurry of insanity you need to see more than once to fully appreciate.

Oram has more in store than a wickedly bloody send up, though. His film wisely deconstructs our own human preoccupations and foibles in a way that’s strangely touching, even sad at times.

The lack of dialog suits the experiment in the same way Steven Soderbergh’s meta-dialog suited his weirdly personal 1996 effort Schizopolis, or the way Miroslav Slaboshpitsky’s use of unsubtitled sign language fits his brilliant film The Tribe. While Aaaaaaaah! is far lighter and more madcap than either of these, it still asks you to use another means of understanding character actions, which allows you to see humanity on a more jarringly primal level.

It wouldn’t even be a horror movie were it not for all those severed penises.

Oram and his appealing cast keep you interested as seemingly divergent stories blend and reshape, and domestic hierarchies shift. Lucy Honigman is particularly compelling, but every actor has surprising success in articulating a dimensional character with nary a word to help.

A familiar face in British comedy, Oram stood out in Ben Wheatley’s 2012 horror comedy Sightseers. He’s playing against type here as the threatening male presence, but he’s equally hilarious. The talent has to rely primarily on sight gags, obviously, and Oram has a flair for presentation. His quick 79 minute running time helps, but there’s never a dull moment in this jungle.

Listen weekly to MaddWolf’s horror podcast FRIGHT CLUB. Do it!