Tag Archives: horror movie reviews

I Spy

Lair

by Rachel Willis

Opening with a very tense scene of a young boy hiding under the stairs, writer/director Adam Ethan Crow sets us up for a suspenseful horror tale.

It’s unfortunate he can’t keep the momentum going. Following this immensely creepy start, Lair falls back on a mundane expository scene where we’re introduced to our main character, Dr. Steven Caramore (Corey Johnson). Disbelieving the existence of demons and the supernatural, he nonetheless decides to test out several supposedly haunted items on a group of unsuspecting renters in his building.

The clueless renters are Maria (Aislinn De’ath), her girlfriend Carly (Alana Wallace), and her own two daughters. The apartment is wired to watch for any sinister activity, so the film sinks into voyeur territory. Caramore watches these women in intimate situations, but Crow treats this as an unfortunate part of spying on your neighbors for demonic activity. It would have made more sense to mine this behavior to sinister effect, and combine it with Caramore’s habit of sneaking into the women’s apartment to place new, haunted items.

His tenants, unaware of this invasion into their lives, have their own drama to deal with. Head of a newly constructed family, Maria is trying to integrate Carly into her daughters’ lives. Carly attempts to figure out where she fits—is she the girls’ friend (particularly the teenage daughter) or an authority figure? This, along with the haunted apartment, is reason enough for interest. Dr. Caramore’s place in the mix begins to seem unnecessary. Why is his story patched into the family’s horror?

And yet, you can appreciate what Crow is trying to accomplish. The bones of a great tale are here, but the narrative falls apart as it’s fleshed out. Poor dialogue and an excess of exposition hurt the overall story. The actors embrace their roles and bring a level of realism to the movie, even as you try to wrap your head around some of the things they do or say.

Lair’s best aspects are the visual effects. There are some terrifying scenes, a couple of impressive jump scares, and some well-imagined demonic activity. Crow delivers enough horrific moments to satisfy even as his movie leaves something to be desired.

It’s also refreshing to see a demon movie that doesn’t revolve around possession—a genre explored almost as much as the zombie oeuvre.

Though Lair is not without its flaws, it’s nonetheless an intriguing idea.

A Sort of Homecoming

Lantern’s Lane

by Rachel Willis

Urban legends are everywhere. But some are real.

So begins writer/director, Justin LaReau’s attempt to combine urban legend, local myth and slasher horror in Lantern’s Lane.

When Layla (Brooke Butler) returns home from the city at the invitation of old friend Missy (Ashley Doris), the two (and two others along for the ride) end up at one of their high school haunts – Lantern’s Lane. The legend is that a ghost woman wanders the road with a lantern. However, the referenced urban legend doesn’t quite make the woods around the lane sinister.

Neither does the cast of characters, despite what noises they hear or antics they get up to. The most interesting part of the first act is the clear tension between Layla and Missy.

The enmity between the former friends is uncomfortable. Layla’s disdain for their old high school hijinks — ever present for the ones left behind in their hometown — grates on those who feel judged for their choices. This tension represents the one successful tactic in the movie because it feels like the others are trying to punish Layla for moving on. Looks exchanged between characters suggest something going on behind the action on screen.

But for a horror film, that’s just not enough. A boarded-up house offers some promise, but little of what’s found in the house frightens. There’s nothing you wouldn’t expect in an empty home vandalized by local teens. (But thank goodness for those maxi pads someone left behind.)

The action is very slow to get started, so much so that we’re still waiting for scares at more than halfway through the running time. The few attempted jump scares are ineffective. Once the horror does starts, the previous half’s attempted misdirection leaves us feeling flat. And the villain that comes to call doesn’t inspire much terror.

There are little bits thrown in here and there, but they never connect into something satisfying. Worse, first half padding mainly reiterates what we already know. And yet, despite the time we spend with these characters, none of them really come to life.

LaReau never manages to make you care what happens to Layla, Missy or any of the others. Without characters – or a villain – to root for, this horror mashup becomes a floundering mess.          

The Bored and the Beautiful

Dead & Beautiful

by Hope Madden

Oh, they’re so attractive. They’re so rich. In fact, the five souls at the center of writer/director David Verbeek’s Dead & Beautiful are so attractive and rich that they have to stick together because literally no one else on earth can understand where they come from.

Each has a family fortune in the billions, and every week one of the five takes a “turn” — they decide what the group will do for fun, and their buddies have to participate, no questions asked. But it’s so hard! They’ve done everything.

Verbeek makes his point early. These five people contribute nothing to the world. As the rich and beautiful, they are the alpha predators. And yet, their unfulfilled lives spin out of control after one “turn” may have inadvertently changed them into vampires.

Thus begins the psychological experiment. When you have no soul to begin with, you’ve essentially lived off the masses your whole life, is there really any difference between you and a vampire?

We find out in rain-slicked, neon-tinted urban late nights, following five impossibly thin and unreasonably attractive people through a whole lot of nothing.

Very, very little happens during this movie. Camaraderie and sexual tensions feel fake. Individual suffering rings false. The psychological game at the heart of the action is as bloodless as the film itself. This is a horror film in the loosest sense.

Dead and Beautiful would play more like a social satire if it didn’t emulate the same tedious, vacuous billionaire youth that it pretends to skewer.

A handful of funny moments help the time pass, mainly thanks to Philip Juan, whose character believes he mind-controlled his way into a pack of Wrigley’s spearmint gum. A frustrating number of scenes begin with great promise — well-framed, intriguingly populated possibilities for those alpha predators to prove their label. What’s frustrating is how blandly these scenes all end.

Verbeek lenses a gorgeous late-night cityscape — never sinister, never forbidding, just pretty and mainly empty. Like his film.  

Spirits In the Material World

Soul (Roh)

by Hope Madden

There is a satisfying if confounding unpredictability about Emir Ezwan’s Malaysian folk horror Soul (Roh).

A slow burn set in an unspecified past, the film shadows a bloody, filthy little girl (Putri Qaseh) in a jungle as she watches a village burn before disappearing into the tree cover. When she later follows a pair of siblings back to their isolated hut, we know Mom (Farah Ahmad) probably should not take the straggler in.

But how could she turn her away?

What follows is a spooky tale of rural superstition that sees humans as gullible playthings to supernatural forces.

Ezwan draws naturalistic, believable performances from the cast of six, three of them children. Though Qaseh delivers only one line, she makes it count. But it’s Ahmad’s performance unadorned performance that generates the film’s uneasy central idea that a person’s character, choices, strengths or weaknesses are irrelevant in the face of a cruel and random power.

Whether that power is God or evil, nature or society doesn’t much matter.

Making the most of limited resources, the filmmaker casts a spell of a kind only found deep in the woods. The setting itself behaves as its own character, menacing and magical. Saiffudin Musa’s camera conjures the beauty and decay, both danger and sustenance around every turn.

You never know what you’ll find—true of the jungle and of this film.

There’s nothing showy about Ezwan’s feature debut. Instead, a raw but graceful understatement balances something supernatural with something profoundly earthly to deliver blood, dread and fear.

Dangerous Deutschland

Demigod

by Brandon Thomas

We know we’re in for a good time when a couple of hapless Americans venture into rural Europe. I’ve lost count of how many of these movies have been released over the years, but they’re almost always worth a casual look. I consider myself a well-traveled fella, but there’s always been something about the backwoods of Europe that sends a shiver down my spine.

I’m sure Europeans feel the same way about Kentucky.

Robin (Rachel Nichols, G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra and TV’s Alias) and her boyfriend, Leo (Yohance Myles), travel from the U.S. to a rural part of Germany after Robin’s grandfather, Karl (Jeremy London, Mallrats), dies. Robin and her father left Germany when she was young, and she hasn’t been back since. As she and Leo explore the cabin and its grounds, they are soon confronted by a strange cult, and find themselves scrambling through the region’s famed Black Forest, fighting for their lives. 

For a film that has folklore at the forefront, Demigod never gets bogged down by too much world-building exposition. Director (and co-star) Miles Doleac keeps the film moving at a snappy pace. The action sequences are well shot and edited, with a delightful level of energy.

The majority of the production value is found in the cinematography and how it captures the vast, isolated forest. But when the Demigod himself makes his eventual appearance, the result is borderline disappointing. Having your titular character look like a distant cousin of the laughing deer head in Evil Dead II isn’t going to set the word of mouth on fire. Thankfully, the sheer brutality of the character helps keep the chuckles away.

The film’s cast is pretty solid from top to bottom. Nichols makes for a strong heroine, selling the vulnerability of the character better than she does physicality. Director Doleac himself makes the biggest impression as German woodsman, Arthur. It’s a well-written character that allows Doleac to dance back and forth from a good guy to a bad guy to every gray area in between.

Demigod doesn’t have a lot of narrative surprises up its sleeve. However, what it lacks in story twists and turns, it more than makes up for with exciting, bloody carnage.

Who Can It Be Now?

Knocking

by Rachel Willis

It’s easy for horror films to pigeonhole the mentally ill into stereotypical terrors that disturb those who’ve never experienced mental illness (or known someone to suffer from it). You often find the “split personality” films where one of the personalities is a murderer, or with a paranoid schizophrenic who can’t tell reality from hallucination terrorizing friends and family.

But once in a while, a horror film reminds you there is a real person suffering – someone who is more than their label. And that’s when things get truly unsettling.

Working from a script by Emma Broström, director Frida Kempff captures the uncertainty and fear of a woman struggling to be believed in the Swedish film, Knocking.

Molly (Cecilia Milocco) suffered a mental breakdown following a traumatic event. After spending time in a mental health facility, she’s deemed capable of being on her own. Moving into a new apartment and advised to turn it into a home, Molly attempts just that.

But the nightly knocking on her ceiling keeps her from settling into her new life.

What follows is a fairly predictable conundrum – is Molly hallucinating or is the knocking—perhaps attempts at Morse Code and a cry for help—real?

This isn’t the sole focus of the film. Kempff isn’t just interested in letting us guess at Molly’s situation, she also digs into the quickness with which people dismiss her. Because of Molly’s often erratic behavior and her past, police, neighbors, and health care workers tend to disregard her fear.

Milocco nails her role. She convincingly sells the character’s firm belief yet utter confusion surrounding the knocking. She portrays a woman trying to cope yet infused with obsession. As Molly tries to solve the mystery behind the knocking, everyone in her building becomes suspect.

In a particularly captivating scene, we watch Molly confront a group of men who live on the floor above her – the floor from which the knocking persists. The men recognize and respond to Molly’s distress, but they’re not listening to her. Though raising an alarm that someone needs help, the men make their own conclusions based solely on Molly’s behavior. The scene would be flawless if not for some cliché and distracting camerawork.

When you’re mentally ill, everyone is quick to disbelieve you (extra skepticism if you’re a woman). In the film, this creates disturbing tension as the knocking reaches a pitch of intensity. It doesn’t really matter if the knocking is real; what matters is that Molly believes it – but nobody believes her. A truly terrifying concept.

Dark Academia

Detention

by Christie Robb

Dead Poet’s Society meets Pan’s Labyrinth in John Hsu’s Detention, based on a 2017 2-D video game.

Set in 1960s Taiwan, the state is under martial law. Reading communist and other left-leaning books is punished severely—in some cases by death. In the midst of this repression, two high school teachers start a secret book club that meets in a storeroom and introduces students to works of “subversive literature.” One of the students narcs on the group, unleashing government-sanctioned violence upon the school.

The story unfolds in several parts. “Nightmare” starts with two of the students waking up in the now-empty and somewhat dilapidated school building, unaware of how they got there and what happened before they went to sleep.  The students are literally haunted by their own recent past. Some of the horror tropes are familiar: long, vertigo-inducing, ill-lit hallways, creepy girls with hair hanging in front of their eyes, fairly effective jump scare. This section seems to be most heavily influenced by the videogame source material. What is particularly effective here is a literal embodiment of the repressive state that menaces the corridors.

The section “The Whistleblower” shows the events that led to the outing of the book club. It takes an onion-peeling approach, showing the motivations and potential culpabilities of various participants, layer by layer. Awe-inspiring and sadly realistic how so much deplorable violence can result from the banal foibles of adolescents and their ever-so-slightly older teachers.

“The Ones Who Live” establishes the thesis of the work, that it’s important for those who live on to remember and admit to mistakes made in the past. As long as there are people living, there is hope.

Well-acted, with cinematography and sound design that keep us poised for scares, Detention does a wonderful job delivering a SpooOOooOOky season movie while also conveying a message about the price of freedom and liberty.

Ghosted

Martyrs Lane

by Hope Madden

Six years ago, filmmaker Ruth Platt released the thriller The Lesson. While essentially no one else saw the film, I was impressed enough by it to look forward to whatever else Platt wanted to make.

So here’s her follow up, the grief-driven horror Martyrs Lane.

Platt’s story of a haunting walks in familiar circles, as confused and lonesome 10-year-old Leah (a heart-bruisingly melancholy Kiera Thompson) makes a spooky new friend (Sienna Sayer, wonderful). By day Leah rattles about the vicarage where her father (Steven Cree) is minister, her older sister (Hannah Rae) kills time before fleeing for university, and her mom (Denise Gough) mourns something secretly.

At night, the creaks and whistles combine with Leah’s fears, imagination and loneliness to conjure a visitor who leaves Leah with clues to follow.

There is a lot about Martyrs Lane that feels familiar, but Platt grounds her spectral tale in messy, lived-in family drama. Set design, costuming, framing, moments of silence, pointed cruelties followed by protective love—all of it combines to create an atmosphere both familial and haunted. No austere staircases, empty nurseries, or any of the other chilly and spare environs where you might expect to set a mournful ghost story. Instead, Leah’s home bears the weary chaos and forced cheer of family and absence.

Thompson’s performance is driven by the recognizable, shapeless guilt that looms in a child’s imagination, making every perceived transgression somehow unforgivable and therefore impossible to share, even with a caring adult. Cree’s bright presence offsets the gloom nicely, while Sayer’s ghostly cherubic image is wonderfully, tenderly haunting.

Gough’s understated frailty is the unease that haunts the film from its opening, a feeling that blossoms into dread as the tale wears on.

Platt and her talented group do not fail to deliver on the promise of their ghost story. The issue is only that, while the execution is impeccable, the story itself is a bit tired. Wisely, Platt capitalizes on character over story, leaving you so invested in this little girl and her family that you’ll likely forgive the sense of having been here before.

And, like me, you’ll probably keep an eye out for wherever it is Platt wants to take you next.

Basic Witch

Witches of Blackwood

by Christie Robb

It’s never a good sign when you head back to your hometown and all your old school friends sidle up to you and want to get you alone to give you an elevator pitch about this new thing they’ve gotten into.

Nine times out of ten it’s an MLM selling makeup or essential oils or nutritional supplements. 

Sometimes it’s a cult.

In Kate Whitbread’s new film, the townful of anemic-looking women sporting clothing made of natural fibers in a neutral color palette and the dark undereye circles of recent motherhood are selling witchcraft. 

Claire Nash (Cassandra Magrath from Wolf Creek) is back in town to uncover the circumstances of her dad’s recent sudden death and that of her mother years before. Were their deaths a consequence of mental illness and substance abuse? Or was it really the demon that haunts the forest? And are they really even dead? Why are all these townswomen carrying around bleached bones and acting like they are infants? And why are they all interested in Claire?

Magrath works hard to bring her character to life, but the script isn’t doing her any favors. The movie is full of evocative settings and creepy imagery, but there’s not much time spent in character development and no real sense of the stakes. Plot elements are introduced and then dropped. Characters that appear to be important basically wander off and an antagonist…doesn’t seem to actually do anything. 

So, when the climax comes, it feels hollow and meaningless–very much an “is that it?” kind of moment. 

The Witches of Blackwood is not a good movie and it’s not quite bad enough to be fun. 

Evil (Corporate) Empire

Behemoth

by Brandon Thomas

The intersection of corporate greed and evil incarnate feels like a match made in cinematic heaven (I know, I know). While the idea itself is teeming with possibilities, the execution in director Peter Szewcyck’s Behemoth leaves a lot to be desired.

Joshua Riverton (Josh Eisenberg) was once a top sales rep for a massive chemical company. When his daughter became mysteriously ill, Joshua believed his employer to be responsible and became an outspoken whistleblower. As his daughter gets sicker, Joshua’s need for answers intensifies into obsession. After a chaotic altercation with his former employer, Dr. Luis Woeland (Paul Statman), an injured Joshua is forced to hide out in a seedy motel with two friends and a captive Woeland. As the night progresses, Joshua begins to lose his grip on reality and question whether his horrific visions are in his head or caused by the malevolent Woeland.

First thing’s first: Behemoth is a mess. Szewcyck and co-writer Derrick Ligas’s script erratically bounces back and forth between corporate thriller and demonic sfx extravaganza at a moment’s notice. The problem is that the movie doesn’t do either sub-genre very well. The thriller side is preachy in a “college freshman discovering politics for the first time” kind of way, but lacks subtext surrounding corporate America. 

The horror elements aren’t any stronger. There’s a notable attempt to create interesting creatures throughout the film, but the dodgy effects work does more harm than good. The creatures have interesting designs and might have worked if made practically, but as they are, these digital counterparts look silly and don’t fit within the film’s more serious tone. 

As flimsy as the material itself is, the acting isn’t any better. The majority of the cast delivers the script’s clumsy dialogue with a mix of histrionics and forced exasperation. Chemistry is wholly absent between the main trio. Only Statman knows how to handle the material he’s working with. He walks an impressive line between corporate sleaze and evil minion with grace. 

Behemoth makes a noble attempt at infusing a standard-ish creature feature with timely real-world issues. However, the weak script and subpar acting never allow the film to live up to its aspirations.