Tag Archives: horror movies

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.

Daddy Issues

Legions

by Hope Madden

I watch a lot of movies. More than anything, I watch horror movies. Once in a long while, you uncover a little treasure, something that sneaks up on you with a distinct voice and magical storytelling. Such is the case with Fabián Forte’s Legions.

Antonio (Germán de Silva) recounts his life stories to the other residents in the hospital where he’s being held instead of prison. Some people call him a shaman. He prefers to be called a mediator between worlds. It’s that mediation that landed him in the hospital and caused a likely irreparable rift between him and his daughter, Helena (Lorena Vega).

But the blood moon is coming and with it a demon that will use Helena to bring about the apocalypse. To save his daughter, Argentina, and the world, Antonio has to make his daughter believe in him again.

Forte’s film traverses three different time periods and three distinct tones but the filmmaker masterfully blends them one to the next. Each new era has a different color palette and score to emphasize the change in tone, as Antonio’s stature and the respect he receives from those around him and from his daughter diminish. Finally, with a fully comedic tenor, Antonio finds himself quarantined in his old age.

In this way, Legions bears a passing resemblance to Don Coscarelli’s amazing Bubba Ho-Tep, though the humor at the expense of residents is sometimes patronizing. Still, by having patients mount a stage production of Antonio’s tales strengthens the thread connecting truth and fiction, real-life horror and entertainment, and day-to-day cynicism with faith.

Forte channels not just Coscarelli but, and far more obviously, Sam Raimi. Still, the film feels entirely its own, partly because it glides through different sub-genres so smoothly, and partly because it wears its heart on its sleeve.

At its core, Legions is a fantasy about regaining the respect of your adult children, and because of that, it’s both relatable and touching.

Fright Club: Best Lakeside Horror Movies

To some, it’s a lovely spot for a holiday or a proposal or just a little picnic. But we know better. Filmmakers have long taken advantage of the idyllic yet dangerous nature of a lake for horror. Almost always, it’s the irony, of finding death and mayhem exactly where you’re expecting joy and frivolity that makes lakeside horror so compelling.

Here are our favorite horror movies side at a lake.

5. Lake Mungo (2008)

This deceptive slow boil of a documentary is two movies in one: the one you think you’re watching and the one beneath. The obvious film is a clever true-crime bit, constantly introducing new information and fascinating twists, each delivered by incredibly authentic performances.

Alice Palmer drownd. Her parents and brother are having a hard time accepting it, and the noises coming from her bedroom at night promote their skepticism. They investigate, turning up a lot of peculiar intel.

But writer/director Joel Anderson does more than lead you through a surprising mystery. He layers into that the melancholy lonesomeness that any ghost story must have, and the two stories together become one wonderfully sad film.

4. Lake Placid (1999)

Fun! Writer David E. Kelly is known more for his quirky TV series, but he takes the exact same approach –smart, bantering and bickering characters facing a huge challenge – to the big screen with this crocodile hunt.

Veteran horror director Steve Miner (Warlock, House, Friday the 13th parts 2 & 3) delivers thrills and comedy in equal measure, but the film lives and dies with this unbelievable cast.

Betty F. White and Brendan Gleeson! Both! And she tells him to suck her dick!! I don’t know what more you want, but you get Bridget Fonda, Oliver Platt, Bill Pullman and Meredith Salenger in a fun, bloody romp.

3. Friday the 13th (1980)

Before the mask, Sean Cunningham’s 1980 slasher penned by Victor Miller created the splatter-by-numbers blueprint for dozens of horror movies to follow – including 10 of its own sequels. Friday the 13th was a cultural and cinematic turning point that changed horror and the way we thought about summer camp.

With next to no budget but plenty of short shorts, remarkable blood fx by maestro Tom Savini, genuinely original kill sequences, and a masterful twist ending, the film awakened something in moviegoers. It’s been copycatted to death, but upon reinspection, the original is still champion.

2. Funny Games (1997/2007)

A family pulls into their vacation lake home. They are quickly bothered by two young men in white gloves. Things, to put it mildly, deteriorate.

Writer/director/genius Michael Haneke begins this nerve-wracking exercise by treading tensions created through etiquette, toying with subtle social mores and yet building dread so deftly, so authentically, that you begin to clench your teeth long before the first act of true violence.

His 2007 English language remake is a shot-for-shot repeat of the 1997 German language original. In both films, it is the villains who sell the premise. Whether the German actors Arno Frisch and Frank Giering or the Americans Brady Corbet and Michael Pitt, the bored sadism that wafts from these kids is seriously unsettling, as, in turn, is each film.

1. Eden Lake (2008)

The always outstanding Michael Fassbender takes his girl Jenny (Kelly Reilly) to his childhood stomping grounds – a flooded quarry and soon-to-be centerpiece for a grand housing development. He intends to propose, but he’s routinely disrupted, eventually in quite a bloody manner, by a roving band of teenage thugs.

Kids today!

The film expertly mixes liberal guilt with a genuine terror of the lower classes. The acting, particularly from the youngsters, is outstanding. Most impressive, Jack O’Connell’s performance as the young psychopath is chilling.

There’s the slow boil of the cowardly self-righteous. Then there’s this bit with a dog chain. Plus a railroad spike scene that may cause some squeamishness. Well, it’s a grisly mess, but a powerful and provocative one. Excellent performances are deftly handled by the director who would go on to helm The Woman in Black.

Come Upstairs

Skinamarink

by George Wolf

(Tom Hanks SNL voice) “My name is Kyle Edward Ball…and I’m going to scare the HELL out of YOU!”

And you know what? He just might do it.

Be extra prepared if the title Skinamarink reminds you of those fun singalongs from Sharon, Lois & Bram. Because Ball’s brand of nightmare fuel taps into the very essence of childhood fears, exploiting those exposed nerves with a committed resolve we haven’t seen since Laurence Olivier in Marathon Man.

Is it safe? It is not.

Ball’s premise is brilliant simplicity. It’s 1995, and two young children, Kaylee (Dali Rose Tetreault) and Kevin (Lucas Paul), wake in the night to find they are alone, with the windows and doors in their house suddenly gone. In an instant, the stakes are familiar – but not because you’ve seen this before.

It’s because there’s probably some version of this nightmare in your past. You were just a kid, separated from your parents and trying in vain to reach them or call out for help, or maybe just escape.

Remember how scared you were? Ball and cinematographer Jamie McRae do, and they twist that knife again and again for 100 slightly bloated minutes of dark, disorienting dread.

Cinematography and sound design are intertwined in an analog, cathode-ray aesthetic that recalls vintage, grainy VHS. The children whisper to each other (“Where do you think Dad is? I don’t know.”) as they wander from room to room, with Ball’s camera never allowing you one second of relief.

All through this fright night, familiar sources of comfort such as toys and cartoons turn eerily sinister, accentuating the feeling that it’s not just these kids that are in peril, it is childhood itself. POV is often at floor level, and then tight into a corner of the ceiling or high above the room and rising. You squint in the direction of the children’s flashlight, trying in vain to decipher anything about the house that will give you some sense of its layout, and you strain to separate the cracks of white noise from that deeper voice speaking to the children.

Come upstairs. Look under the bed. Close your eyes.

Ball started down this harrowing hallway by filming 3-4 minute short films of the actual dreams described by viewers of his YouTube channel. Some two years ago, his 29-minute short Heck emerged as the wonder of primal fear that inspired Skinamarink. And though it is a bit disappointing that the single most bone-chilling (and to be fair, most explanatory) moment of the short didn’t make it in the feature, Ball’s $15,000 budget buys much more killer than filler.

More than just nightmarish, this is a literal nightmare onscreen. And the intimate nature of nightmares means that the film’s patient, psychological assault is likely to bring out the “nothing happens!” barbs from those seeking more universally visceral thrills. But for others, the whispers of Skinamarink will hit like a sonic boom.

And they will be hard to shake.

Rad Chad’s Metaverse

Scare Package II: Rad Chad’s Revenge

by Hope Madden

Three years ago, Aaron B. Koontz delighted die-hard horror fans with the squishy, oozy, gory mash note to the video store, Scare Package. It was an anthology of horror shorts, and those only tend to work if they have a compelling frame. In this case, each short represented a film on the shelf at Rad Chad’s Horror Emporium.

For the sequel, Scare Package II: Rad Chad’s Revenge, survivors from Part I regroup for Rad Chad’s funeral. But they find themselves trapped by a sinister mastermind with deadly games they must play if they hope to make it out alive.

Why do they watch the short films? That’s less clear this go-round, but the shorts they do watch are all pretty solid.

Both Alexandra Barreto’s Welcome to the Nineties and Anthony Cousins’s The Night He Came Back Again! Part VI: The Night She Came Back – like Koontz’s framing story – rely on your knowledge of horror tropes to generate laughs. Barreto’s film has some of the sharpest insights via dialog as it celebrates the changing of the “final girl” guard once the grunge-and-garage era took hold.

Rachele Wiggins’s We’re So Dead is a fun Aussie adventure, part Stand by Me part Re-Animator, with a wry delivery. Like all the other shorts in the program, We’re So Dead offers metacommentary without surrendering its standalone charm.

For Special Edition, director Jed Shepherd sets a handful of friends in a lighthouse for the night with a one-of-a-kind video. But what is the film, exactly? As one woman obsessively rewinds, fast forwards and pauses, her friends are the ones making the big discoveries.

Nods to Aliens, Black Christmas, Halloween, Friday the 13th Part 5, A Nightmare on Elm Street Part 3, Hellraiser, Saw and more flavor the product and mark its makers as bona fide fans. You may have to be a fan of Scare Package to appreciate Koontz’s framing story because it picks up not long after the first left off, without explanation. Being in on the joke, as always, makes the gag more satisfying. But that’s the basic premise of every story told in this collection.

Cabin of Curiosities

A Wounded Fawn

by Hope Madden

In 2019, Travis Stevens directed his first feature, Girl on the Third Floor, a haunted house film in which the house is the protagonist. It not only looked amazing, but the unusual POV shots did more than break up the monotony of a film set almost exclusively inside one building. Those peculiar shots gave the impression of the house’s own point of view – a fresh and beguiling choice.

Stevens’s 2021 film Jakob’s Wife waded more successfully into feminist territory, benefitted from brilliant, veteran performances, and turned out to be one of the best horror shows of the year. In many ways, the filmmaker’s latest, A Wounded Fawn, picks up where those left off – which does not mean you’ll see where it’s heading.

Josh Ruben is Bruce. Marshall Taylor Thurman is the giant Red Owl Bruce sees, a manifestation of that part of Bruce that compels him to murder women. The next in line seems to be Meredith (Sarah Lind). After finally getting past the trauma of a long-term abusive relationship, Meredith is taking a leap with a nice new guy, heading for an intimate weekend at his cabin.

This sort of sounds like Donnie Darko meets about 100 movies you’ve seen, but it is not. Not at all. Bruce bids on high-end art at auctions, Meredith curates a museum, and Stevens’s film is awash in the most gorgeous, surreal imagery – odes to Leonora Carrington, among others. And, like the POV shots from Girl on the Third Floor, these visual choices do more than give the movie its peculiar and effective look.

At the center of Bruce’s personal journey is a sculpture he stole from his last victim, a piece depicting the Furies attacking Orestes, who was driven mad by their torture for his crimes against his mother. It’s a great visual, an excellent metaphor for a serial killer comeuppance movie. It’s also an excellent reminder that art has a millennia-long history of depicting women’s vengeance upon toxic men – in case anyone is tired of this “woke” trend.

Lind more than convinces in the character’s tricky spot of being open to new romance and guarding against red flags. We’ve seen Ruben play the nice guy who’s not really as nice as he thinks, but his sinister streak and sincere narcissism here are startling.

The film does an about-face at nearly its halfway mark, not only changing from Bruce’s perspective to Meredith’s, but evolving from straightforward narrative to something hallucinatory and fascinating.

The final image – unblinking, lengthy, horrible and fantastic – cements A Wounded Fawn as an audacious success.

Insidious

Soft & Quiet

by Rachel Willis

The idea that the kindergarten teacher at your child’s school might be a member of an Aryan group is terrifying enough, but writer/director Beth de Araújo takes that idea even further in her first full-length feature, Soft & Quiet.

The kindergarten teacher, Emily (Stefanie Estes), is our focus as we watch her leave school one afternoon to attend a meeting of like-minded women. Right from the beginning, it’s clear Stefanie is unlikeable. She coerces a young boy into confronting a janitor over mopping the floor, painting it to the child’s mom as teaching him to be empowered.

From this uncomfortable moment, the movie takes us further into discomfort as we follow Emily in real time as her evening progresses. Giving away anything more would remove the tension that is slowly built as the movie moves from unsettling to disturbing to terrifying.

Telling a story in real time takes a truly talented editor, and Lindsay Armstrong nails it. Her cut is seamless, and it helps deepen the tension. The editing work keeps you in the moment, showing how quickly mob mentality can take over – especially if the group in question feels threatened (even when the threat actually comes from the group in question).

Most of the time, the cinematography complements the writing and editing. But on occasion, it feels like we’re watching a found footage film, which detracts slightly from the tension. While there are many moments filmed to unsettle, at other times it removes us from the moment. However, these minor faults are easily overlooked.

The acting throughout is perfect. Every woman feels like someone you might know. From the pregnant Stormfront member to the woman living paycheck-to-paycheck, each actor brings a realism that lends to the dread we feel as we follow the group.

Though we follow Emily, it’s impossible to feel any sympathy for her. She is at times coerced into action and other times the leader of the pack. What she chooses to do is horrifying, and her responses to the events don’t evoke understanding.

There are several themes running in the film, but all of them work together to paint a picture that isn’t hard to envision.   It’s easy to imagine women like these among us. That’s the scariest part of all.

Ain’t That a Shame

Prey for the Devil

by Hope Madden

Shame preys on Catholic girls. It’s guilt that does us in. Just when you think there can be no new or relevant approach to exorcism horror, director Daniel Stamm picks that scab.

Jacqueline Byers is Sister Ann, and she wants to be an exorcist. She attends to patients/inmates/victims as a nurse in a prestigious, centuries-old facility for exorcism in Boston. She also sneaks into classes where no woman is welcome, until Father Quinn (Colin Salmon) notices her unusual connection to some of the afflicted.

Is the church ready for a little feminism?

Wait, the Catholic church?

Prey for the Devil scores points in understated ways. Virginia Madsen’s psychologist dismisses the rite and believes Ann suffers from unresolved trauma. This is treated as something to consider rather than as a narrative device representing good or evil. In the world created by writers Robert Zappia, Todd R. Jones and Earl Richey Jones, science and religion are equally helpful and problematic. It’s often fascinating the way the film respects and undermines simultaneously.

On the whole, exorcism films fall into two categories. One: religion is fake and Catholicism, in particular, is so steeped in misdeeds and debauchery that it may as well kneel to Satan. Two: faith is the only hope. Prey for the Devil suggests a more nuanced approach.

The film’s strengths are its moments of outright feminism because they feel informed rather than flippant. They’re also a bit muted by an acceptance of the “working from within the system” failure.

The other failure is the horror itself, and Stamm should know better. His 2008 gem The Last Exorcism is a standout in the sub-genre (and one of the welcome features where there’s nary a priest on the screen). The horror was inventive, primal and it packed an emotional punch.

A PG13 film, Prey for the Devil suffers from lack of imagination. If you’ve seen one crab walk you’ve seen them all, and Stamm doesn’t deliver a single unique moment of horror in 93 minutes.  

But he knows that nothing takes down a Catholic girl faster than a lifetime of guilt and shame. That metaphor fits a tale of an irredeemable soul better than any I’ve seen, and a little slap of feminism is probably the only thing that can help.

Chicas Malas

Piggy (Cerdita)

by Hope Madden

Mean girls are a fixture in cinema, from Mean Girls to Carrie, Heathers to Jawbreaker to Napoleon Dynamite and countless others. Why is that? It’s because we like to see mean girls taken down.

Writer/director Carlota Pereda wants to challenge that base instinct. But first, she is going to make you hate Maca (Claudia Salas), Roci (Camille Aguilar) and Claudia (Irene Ferreiro). In one tiny Spanish town, the three girls make Sara’s (Laura Galán, remarkable) life utterly miserable. Like worse than Carrie White’s.

And though Sarah’s relationship with her mother (Carmen Machi) is a rose garden compared to the one Carrie shares with her wacko mom, things could be better. Sarah’s mom veers from unobservant to dismissive to defensive. Even when she’s trying to be helpful, that aid comes with a heaping dose of insensitivity.   

But it’s those pretty, skinny high school girls whose contempt nearly kills Sarah. In a scene that’s difficult to forget, cruelty blossoms into something brutal and horrifying as Sarah tries to take advantage of a nearly empty swimming pool.

Traumatized by the afternoon, a dazed Sara makes a choice that she will wrestle with for the balance of the film. Pereda doesn’t present a simple, single reason for what Sarah does. Or, more to the point, does not do.

In this scene and all others, the filmmaker complicates every trope, all the one-dimensional victim/hero/villain ideas this genre and others feast on. Redemption doesn’t come easily to anyone. Pereda also seamlessly blends themes and ideas from across the genre, upending expectations but never skimping on brutal, visceral horror.

Much of that horror would feel unearned were it not for substantial performances from every member of the cast. But Sarah is the most complicated character by far, and Galán performance is a reckoning. She’s utterly silent for long stretches, Sarah trying to make herself invisible. It’s in those still moments that Galán shines most fiercely.

Piggy is a tough watch, there’s no doubt. It’s also a ferocious and stunning piece of horror cinema.

Which Witch

Two Witches

by Tori Hanes

From first-time feature director Pierre Tsigaridis, Two Witches follows the familial inheritance of witch powers from grandmother to granddaughter, sparing no gory detail while examining the pair’s reign of terror. From eating babies to sexual satanism, Two Witches straps horror fans in and puts a cement block on the gas.

The first of two chapters starts without a bang- in fact, it fully embraces the mundane horror tropes of the past: haunted, creepy entity only visible to the hauntee, overly skeptical boyfriend, goofy nonbeliever friends. It dutifully, albeit spookily, hits the key beats of any witchy tale. If the film had stayed on this trajectory, the review would likely end here. 

Thankfully, Tsigaridis veered off course. The second chapter highlights the newly christened witch granddaughter (Rebekah Kennedy) and spins into a freshly horrifying tale, chalk to the brim with overt and delicious camp. Whether the film took the first chapter to find its footing or whether the sharp turn into camp was purposeful by Tsigaridis is unclear, but one thing is obvious: the first and second chapter feel almost like entirely different films.

Is the presence of two tonally different chapters in one movie jarring? Yes, a bit. Is it the best choice to create a continuous flowing narrative and feel? No, probably not. Is it interesting and largely unseen in the horror genre? Definitely. 

A struggle unique to this dramatic shift of tone is performance evaluation. Due to their largely different styles, holding performances to a consistent level is nearly impossible. While pregnant Sarah (Belle Adams) of the first chapter plays the disturbed victim well, witch Masha (Kennedy) delivers her newfound inheritance with intriguing camp in the second chapter. The two performances could not feel further from each other, though they both hold the title of protagonist for their respective stories. This confusion in differing performances inherently elicits an opinion of uncertainty from audiences. Unfortunately, ambivalence and uncertainty are perhaps the worst reactions a film’s protagonists could garner. 

For the most adrenaline-seeking among us, Two Witches has enough genuine scares to smooth over the narrative bumps. For the rest, the winding story may lead you off course. If audiences can embrace the uniqueness of the camp, however, it may be a welcomed detour.