Tag Archives: horror movie reviews

Fright Club: Lovable Losers in Horror Movies

Sure, the Losers Club leaps to mind. But the truth is that horror films are littered with lovable losers – often their corpses. Why? It’s easy to root for an underdog, and nothing packs an emotional wallop like watching that bumbling, vulnerable sweetheart meet a grim end.

We love them all: Sean & Ed, Viago & Vladislav, Melvin Juno and 100 Bloody Acres‘s Reg & Angus Sampson. But these are our favorites.

5. Oskar, Let the Right One In (2008)

In 2008, Sweden’s Let the Right One In emerged as an original, stylish thriller – and the best vampire flicks in years. A spooky coming-of-age tale populated by outcasts in the bleakest, coldest imaginable environment, the film breaks hearts and bleeds victims in equal measure.

Kare Hedebrant‘s Oskar with a blond Prince Valiant cut needs a friend. He finds one in the odd new girl (an outstanding Lina Leandersson) in his shabby apartment complex. She, as it turns out, needs him even more.

This is a coming-of-age film full of life lessons and adult choices, told with a tremendous atmosphere of melancholy, tainted innocence, and isolation. Plus the best swimming pool carnage scene ever.

The unsettling scene is so uniquely handled, not just for horrifying effect (which it certainly achieves), but to reinforce the two main characters, their bond, and their roles. It’s beautiful, like the strangely lovely film itself.

4. Lionel Cosgrove, Dead Alive (1992)

Rated R for “an abundance of outrageous gore,” Dead Alive is everything the early Peter Jackson did well. It’s a bright, silly, outrageously gory bloodbath.

Lionel Cosgrove (Timothy Balme) secretly loves shopkeeper Paquita Maria Sanchez (Diana Penalver), but she has eyes for someone less milquetoast. Until, that is, she’s convinced by psychic forces that Lionel is her destiny. Unfortunately, Lionel’s milquetoast-iness comes by way of decades of oppression via his overbearing sadist of a mother, who does not take well to her son’s new outside-the-home interests. Mum follows the lovebirds to a date at the zoo, where she’s bitten (pretty hilariously) by a Sumatran rat-monkey (do not mistake this dangerous creature for a rabid Muppet or misshapen lump of clay).

Braindead is so gloriously over-the-top that nearly anything can be forgiven it. Jackson includes truly memorable images, takes zombies in fresh directions, and crafts characters you can root for. But more than anything, he knows where to point his hoseful of gore, and he has a keen imagination when it comes to just how much damage a lawnmower can do.

3. Katakuri Family, The Happiness of the Katakuris (2001)

Takashi Miike is an extremely prolific director. He makes a lot of musical films, a lot of kids’ movies, a lot of horror movies, and then this – a mashup of all of those things. Like Sound of Music with a tremendous body count.

The Katakuris just want to run a rustic mountain inn. They’re not murderers. They’re lovely – well, they’re losers, but they’re not bad people. Buying this piece of property did nothing to correct their luck, either because, my God, their guests do die.

You might call this a dark comedy if it weren’t so very brightly lit. It’s absurd, farcical, gruesome but sweet. There’s a lot of singing, some animation, a volcano, a bit of mystery, more singing, one death by sumo smothering, and love. It sounds weird, truly, but when it comes to weird, Miike is just getting started.

2. Evil Ed, Fright Night (1985)

Fright Night takes that Eighties, Goonies-style adventure (kids on an adult-free quest of life and death) and uses the conceit to create something tense and scary, and a bit giddy as well. The feature debut as both writer and director for Tom Holland, the film has some sly fun with the vampire legend.

Roddy McDowall got much deserved love at the time for his turn as a washed-up actor from horror’s nostalgic past, and Chris Sarandon put his rich baritone to campy, sinister use.

Still, everyone’s favorite character was Evil Ed, the manic, pitiful loser turned bloodsucking minion. Credit Stephen Geoffreys for an electric and, at least in one scene, heartbreaking performance.

1. Tucker& Dale, Tucker and Dave vs. 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 DeadT&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 best buds (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 most weaknesses. Inspired performances and sharp writing make it certainly the most fun participant in the You Got a Purty Mouth class of film.

The Children Are Our Future

There’s Something Wrong with the Children

by Hope Madden

There are things about There’s Something Wrong with the Children that feel familiar. It’s a cabin-in-the-woods horror film, sure, but director Roxanne Benjamin complicates those tiresome tropes because the forest partiers are a little older than your typical co-eds.

The film drops us somewhere near the end of the first night of vacation. Ben (Zach Gilford) and Margo (Alisha Wainwright) are spending the weekend in adjoining cabins with Margo’s best friend, Ellie (Amanda Crew), and her husband and two kids.

There’s a camaraderie as well as a distance among all partiers that feels authentic. Ellie drinks a great deal for a parent whose kids are on-hand. Ben seems more comfortable playing nerdy forest games with the kids than he does hanging out with the adults. Ellie’s husband Thomas (Carlos Santos) is clearly upset with his wife about something.

The kids seem fine.

And then Ben drags everyone on a forest hike that requires a machete to complete. They stumble upon a ruin with a deep, deep well. Everybody gets a little weird, the children’s noses spontaneously bleed, and the campers decide to retire to their cabins.

The kids – as you might predict from the title – are no longer fine.

The entire cast is solid. Even when the film wades into too-familiar territory, the actors elevate the material with realistic and reasonable performances. Both David Mattie and Briella Guiza as the children in question evolve beautifully from precocious youngsters to something terrifying yet still playful.

I appreciate the way Benjamin dwells in that fun-and-games space where adults do childish things, where dangerous behavior can masquerade as playfulness. She draws you into a supernatural world that feels whisper close to reality.

The most intriguing thing about this film is its stance on motherhood. As much as I enjoyed M3GAN, its mom-shaming got to me. Horror (and not only horror) has a terrible habit of developing storylines meant to prove to women that they do, indeed, have a maternal instinct. And woe be to those women who simply do not.

Benjamin, focusing a script by T.J. Cimfel and David White, instead explores the tension involved in simply owning your own decision not to become a mother. Indeed, There’s Something Wrong with the Children wholly approves of this choice. Makes a great case for it, even.

Post Traumatic

Take Back the Night

by Hope Madden

It’s a story we all know too well, some of us better than others.

With their monster movie/social justice thriller Take Back the Night, co-writer/director Gia Elliot and co-writer/star Emma Fitzpatrick spin a pointed tale about a specific character. But the universality of this monstrous situation is never in question. There is only one character with a name, and that name is Jane Doe.

This could be anybody.

Jane has a lot to drink because she is celebrating. This is a big day. But something horrific is about to squeeze out any memory of the joy of this day as she finds herself alone in an alley with a malignant force.

What sets Take Back the Night apart from other similar films is that the attack itself is not the point. Neither is the attacker. Rather, Elliot and Fitzpatrick smack you with the trauma of surviving what comes next.

Jane submits to tests and procedures, swabs and scrapes, photos and questions — all of it tough to witness — with the resigned belief that this humiliation and pain will be followed by justice. Or at least a little sympathy.

Instead, of course, she finds judgment, harassment, disbelief and the threat of prosecution.

Interesting as well that men are mainly a non-presence in the film. There’s a brief interlude in the first act, although we barely glimpse the man’s face. Jane is later interviewed by a male police officer, although he’s never seen at all, only heard in voice-over. And then there is the attacker.

What we do see are the women involved: Jane’s sister, the detective on the case, the news reporter. There are friends and fans, a woman at the party. Not one of these women does the right thing.

That’s the focus of Take Back the Night. The actions of men are irrelevant in this world of overcoming the trauma of an attack, the filmmakers seem to say. What will kill you is being abandoned by the people who should know better, who should be able to empathize.

Fitzpatrick’s fiery performance gives the metaphor its heartbeat. Flawed and hostile, her Jane challenges status-quo thinking about how victims should behave, or what makes a woman a victim in the first place. Fitzpatrick delivers something raw and believable, anchoring the fable with realism.

Not every performance is as strong and the film’s microbudget rears its head on more than one occasion. But Take Back the Night and its filmmakers deliver thrills and realizations in equal measure in a memorable feature debut.

Friends to the End


by Hope Madden

Friends are the family we choose.

Yeah, that’s all well and good until one of them turns into Annie Wilkes from Misery.

But it looks like Javi (Javier Botet) has chosen well in David (David Pareja). Director Óscar Martín’s film Amigo, co-written with both Botet and Pareja, opens on David carrying Javi from his car, across a snowy lawn, into an old farmhouse, and to a comfortable bed. That’s not all. David will sit up all night in the chair next to Javi’s bed, just in case his friend-in-need needs anything. That’s devotion.

As the next 80 minutes crawl past, we’re alone with the pair in their isolation. They’re far from town. Snow and ice have made the streets impassable. David’s low on his own medication, and that scar on his forehead marks the throbbing pain he can’t control without it. Plus, shouldn’t Javi be in a hospital?

Slowly but surely, Martín’s film descends with its characters into a nightmare, kind of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane without the egos or lipstick.

To develop palpable tension, Martín takes full advantage of Javier Botet’s physical presence. The actor’s made a name for himself playing silent, nightmare images in REC (Nina Medeiros), Mama (Mama), The Conjuring 2 (Crooked Man), Insidious: The Last Key (Key Face), Slender Man (Slender Man) and more. While he put his physical performance to use doing creature work for Guillermo del Toro, Álex de la Iglesia and other filmmakers, Amigo changes that perspective. Botet’s long, gaunt frame is webbed with the scars of an auto accident, his gangle of bones a macabre reminder of his vulnerability.

Botet’s performance, much of it nearly silent, aches with rage, melancholy and helplessness. Javi’s quiet, burning anger could simply be the natural result of his situation. And his best friend David counters the hostility with buoyant, devoted energy and an unflagging smile.

Pareja’s depiction of David’s gradual decline unsettles. Martín rushes nothing, and though he leaves breadcrumbs, you’ll never know for sure where he’s leading you. The result is a somber, unnervingly realistic punch to the gut and a reminder that friendship does not have to be forever.

Thicker than Water

Blood Relatives

by Hope Madden

Noah Segan – a welcome surprise in a Dude-esque role in Rian Johnson’s mystery romp Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery – embodies quite a different character for another new release, Blood Relatives.

Segan writes, directs and stars as well, upending the traditional coming-of-age perspective as a vampire learning of a teenage daughter and figuring out how to become a parent. It’s a darkly comedic road trip toward mundanity.

Segan’s screenplay is loose but knowing. It never feels overly scripted but offers enough backstory to ground the tale. And though moments feel familiar – maybe a bit of Near Dark and Stakeland with far more humor and far less dystopia – there is something pleasantly new afoot in this film.

Francis (Segan) is a loner in a muscle car, making his way hither and yon across dusty old by-ways and trying not to draw attention to himself. It’s a lonesome road, but what are you going to do? Jane (Victoria Moroles, Plan B) is a 15-year-old: sarcastic, hostile – you know, normal. Only she’s not normal and now that her mom’s gone, she intends to find out who she is.

That’s the simple success of Segan’s story. It’s about two people figuring out who they are, as we all must. Without feeling preachy or pretentious, Blood Relatives offers some real insight into what parenting ought to be. Even when the only thing you really have in common is the desire to suck the life out of people.

Moroles excels in the role of an angsty teen who recognizes the symbolism of turning into a monster as you hit adolescence. She’s slyly funny but moments of tenderness humanize her Jane. Likewise, Segan finds an arc that suits a man-turned-killer trying to turn back into a man.

Supporting turns, while small, all add a nice spark to the proceedings. Josh Rubin, in particular, is a creepy delight in a Renfield-esque role.

The film’s greatest weakness is its final act, which is enjoyable but unsatisfying. Still, the entertaining Blood Relatives delivers a savvy family comedy.

Sister, Sister


by Brandon Thomas

Growing up is tough, especially once adolescence rears its ugly head. Your body gets weird, emotions are all over the map, and you don’t know shit despite thinking you do. Now imagine growing up amidst a global catastrophe with an overbearing mother and not being able to step foot into the daylight. In Shadows, this scenario ends up being a recipe for disaster.

Alma (Mia Threapleton) and her sister Alex (Lola Petticrew) live in total isolation with their mother (Saskia Reeves). The girls remember nothing of their lives before a catastrophic event drove the family deep into the woods. By day, the family stays indoors hiding from mysterious entities known as “Shadows” – beings that live in the daylight and fully inhabit the land beyond the river. As the sisters’ rebellious curiosity takes hold, they begin to wonder about the world beyond the river, especially as their mother’s grip on reality becomes more and more tenuous. 

Director Carlo Lavagna makes the close bond between Alma and Alex the focal point of Shadows. The mother almost exists on the periphery of their lives – appearing to reprimand them or scare them back into obedience. Even though they are teens, there’s a stunted immaturity to the sisters that’s hard to ignore and makes their situation all the sadder. Threapleton, daughter of actress Kate Winslett, walks a tightrope between inner strength and debilitating reliance on her emotionally distant mother. Many times Threapleton does both within the same scene.

The depiction of Mother is another bright spot. Mother appears sparingly – keeping the audience at arm’s length just as she does with Alma and Alex. Her coldness is rivaled only by her calculated survival instincts and desire to keep the sisters confined and “safe.” The mysterious nature of Mother helps keep us in the same shoes as the constantly confused and fearful sisters. 

For a film that spends so much time in the same location, the cinematography is a standout. Cinematographer James Mather (Frank, Extra Ordinary) has an incredible eye for space and makes the world the family lives in feel spacious, yet closed in and emotionally walled off. The daytime threat of the Shadows themselves is visualized through a harshness in the few daylight scenes that is contrasted perfectly by beautiful nighttime photography.

Where Shadows stumbles is on its way to the finish line. Most viewers will see the “surprise” ending telegraphed a mile away and feel a bit underwhelmed at its perceived cleverness. The climax – while not wholly original – doesn’t retroactively make the rest of the film feel lesser. 
Shadows doesn’t break any new ground on a narrative level, but it does feature three captivating performances by an entirely female cast.

Deja View

Girl at the Window

by Hope Madden

Rear Window was first, but an awful lot started with Hitchcock. In 1985, Tom Holland’s Fright Night reconsidered the concept – a voyeur certain he spies villainy through a neighbor’s window – with less visual panache, more nostalgic supernatural horror. Then D.J. Caruso essentially remade Fright Night in 2007 with Disturbia, Craig Gillespie did remake it in 2011, and last year, Joe Wright did Hitch’s original pulpy homage with The Woman in the Window.

Can director Mark Hartley do anything new or interesting with his spin, Girl at the Window? Even the title feels borrowed.

Hartley’s take is more specifically horror than the films it apes – not supernatural, just horror. It’s a bit low rent and borrows quite liberally from better films. Still, it does take some fine turns.

Ella Newton stars as Amy, a troubled teen who’s moved with her mom (Radha Mitchell) to a small town after a tragedy. The goal is to start fresh, but immediately Amy becomes suspicious of her next-door neighbor’s late-night trips. When a dormant serial killer seems to return, Amy decides it’s definitely the guy next door. But her own trauma may be clouding her judgment.

Mitchell’s solid as always, and the supporting cast delivers believable, often quite endearing turns. Newton makes for a fun central character, although there are times when Amy’s choices are idiotic and beyond forgiveness. Worse still, her tragic backstory, heavy-handed as it is, goes nowhere.

Hartley is best known for fascinating documentaries on genre filmmaking. His narrative work is less impressive, unfortunately. His 2013 reboot of Richard Franklin’s 1978 horror flick Patrick (an inexplicable favorite of mine, if I’m honest) felt safe, tame, updated without soul.

To a degree, those same flaws plague Girl at the Window. There’s nothing wrong with it and there are moments of fun to be had, but there are also five better riffs on the same tune you should probably watch instead.

Your Friends and Neighbors

Speak No Evil

by Hope Madden

There’s little as uncomfortable as a good horror of manners—like a comedy of manners, but the social discomfort makes way for grim, horrifying death. Michael Haneke did it best with Funny Games (either version). Just last month, Shudder released the lighter but no less bloody Who Invited Them.

Denmark comes knocking with co-writer/director Christian Tafdrup’s Speak No Evil, a terribly polite tale of Danes and Dutchmen that veers slowly but relentlessly toward something sinister.

Bjørn (Morten Burian) is facing a crisis of masculinity. He’s too polite to articulate it, which only exacerbates that strangling sensation.

It’s a testament to Burian’s performance that he remains sympathetic throughout the film, however selfish and weak his actions. Playing his wife, Sidsel Siem Koch easily embodies the proper but awkward and easily cowed Louise.

Their adversaries? The good-looking, fun-loving, demonstrative Dutch couple Patrick (Fedja van Huêt) and Karin (Karina Smulders). The two families — each with a youngster in tow — run into each other on holiday and become pals. Sometime later, when Bjørn & Louise receive a postcard inviting their family to visit, Bjørn is anxious to go.

It takes some quiet, polite maneuvering, but before long, he, Louise and little Agnes (Liva Forsberg) are face to face with their hosts and the escalating tension grows almost unendurable. Speak No Evil quickly becomes a sociological experiment that questions our tendency to act against our own instincts, side with the cool kids, and lose who we are.

Van Huêt ably maneuvers Patrick’s manipulations, his about-faces, and his indefatigable charisma.

Sune Kølster’s score works deliriously against cinematographer Erik Molberg Hansen’s beautiful images to create dissonance (again, in much the same way Haneke did, but if you’re going to copy someone, he’s as good a place to start as any).

Tafdrup’s script, co-written with Mads Tafdrup, is sneaky in the way it treads on social anxiety, etiquette, politeness. You see how easily gaslighting alters the trajectory of a conversation, the course of action.

There is a resignation that feels unearned, even contemptuous. But actions throughout are believable enough, each couple’s interactions authentic enough, and the tensions palpable enough to forgive slight lapses. Speak No Evil is a grim trip, but there is no question that it’s well made.

Hell Bent


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.

I Spy


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.