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.

To All Who Enter

Woe

by Hope Madden

What is it that haunts us, really?

Horror has a blossoming subgenre that’s particularly spooked by that inescapable curse of heredity. The metaphorical horror of facing what your family has to hand down to you whether you want it or not fueled Relic, Hereditary, The Dark and the Wicked, and now, Matthew Goodhue’s family horror, Woe.

It’s been a year since his father died, but Charlie (Adam Halferty) still hasn’t seemed to put it behind him. He toils on his dad’s old house but doesn’t ever make any real progress. Same with the backyard. Same with everything. He barely evens speaks to his family anymore, even though his sister Betty (Jessie Rabideau) is about to get married.

Charlie’s not just grieving. There’s something really weird happening to him in that house, and it colors his perceptions of everyone and everything else. Mysterious phone calls and a sketchy meeting out in the woods might set things straight.

Wait a minute, when has that ever helped anything?

Goodhue’s script avoids easy answers or simple metaphors. He evokes an eerie atmosphere, one that seems to envelop Charlie and threatens to take in Betty, but something that everyone else appears to be immune to. That’s especially true of Betty’s well-meaning doofus of a fiancé, Benjamin (Ryan Kattner, as an endearing as any could possibly be).

The three performances sell the story, the Twilight Zone weirdness, and the human pathos that underly everything. Woe is a slow burn, rushing nothing but punctuating its fog of depression and sorrow with bursts of action and brief, welcome splashes of humor.

Video Nasty

Censor

by Hope Madden

Catch catch a horror taxi

I fell in love with my video nasty

            –The Damned

Damned, indeed.

Stern, driven Enid (Niamh Algar) takes her responsibilities seriously. Unfortunately for her, they come at a high price. Enid is a film censor in the most punishing time and place for such an endeavor: Thatcher’s England. It’s 1985, an era when controversial films hoping to make their way to screens big and small found themselves more butchered than their characters.

Co-writer/director Prano Bailey-Bond takes inspiration from this notion in her feature debut, Censor—an immersive era-specific horror. It is especially immersive for Enid.

She spends long hours deliberating on exactly where the line is between danger and acceptability: rewinding, examining frame by frame, if necessary, regardless of the nonchalance and casual derision of her co-workers. Enid is convinced it is her duty to protect people from these images.

As she herself drowns in repeated viewings of the most violent and depraved material, you have to wonder whether she might be better off protecting herself.

Bailey-Bond has other questions in mind, like why is it that Enid is so preoccupied with this job, how might it feed her own darkness, and what happens when her worlds blend together?

Censor is a descent into madness film—nothing new in the genre. And moments of Censor can’t help but call to mind fellow Brit Peter Stickland’s 2012 treasure Berberian Sound Studio. But Bailey-Bond and co-writer Anthony Fletcher evoke such a timestamp with this film, not just in the look and style, but with the social preoccupation.

As coincidences pile up – a definitive family decision, a horror movie-style murder spree, a film that hits too close to home — Enid seems to suspect that her real motive has been to censor her own thinking.

When she stops doing that, look out.

Algar’s prim and sympathetic, deliberate and brittle. It’s clear from the opening frame that Enid will break. But between Algar’s skill and Bailey-Bond’s cinematic vision, the journey toward that break is a wild ride.

Unchained Melody

Caveat

by Hope Madden

The room is dark, decrepit. A wild-eyed woman with a bloody nose holds a toy out in front of her like a demon slayer holds a crucifix. The toy – what is it, a rabbit? A jackalope? – beats a creepy little drum. Faster. Slower. Hotter. Colder.

This is how writer/director Damian Mc Carthy opens Caveat and I am in.

The woman is Olga (Leila Sykes), and we’ll get back to her in a bit, but first, we’re part of a conversation between the hush-voiced Barrett (Ben Caplan) and the foggy Isaac (Jonathan French). What can we tell from the conversation? They seem to know each other, Isaac’s had some kind of an accident, Barrett needs a favor.

The favor involves Olga, that house, and a long stretch of tightly fastened, heavyweight chain.

Dude, how good is Mc Carthy at this?

An expertly woven tapestry of ambiguity, lies and misunderstanding sink the story into a fog of mystery that never lets up. Isaac’s memory can’t be trusted, but he seems like a good guy. He looks like a good guy. Surely, he is a good guy! He’s just not making good decisions right now.

French shoulders the tale, and you hate to compare anything to Guy Pearce in Memento because who can stand up to that? No one, but still, Mc Carthy and French draw on that same type of damaged innocence and unreliable narration to stretch out the mystery.

Meanwhile, the filmmaker unveils a real knack for nightmarish visuals, images that effortlessly conjure primal fears and subconscious revulsion.

Caveat is not without flaws. Once or twice (when possibly channeling Mario Bava) Mc Carthy dips into camp unintentionally. OK, twice. These moments feel out of place in the unnerving atmosphere he’s created, which makes them stand out all the more. But it’s hardly enough to sink the film.

Mc Carthy does a lot with very little, as there are very few locations and a total of three cast members—all stellar. You won’t miss the budget. Mc Carthy casts a spook house spell, rattling chains and all, and tells a pithy little survival story while he’s at it.  

Or Did the Case Solve Us?

Spiral

by Hope Madden

It’s been five years since we’ve had a new episode in the Saw series.

I know! You thought it was longer, right? That’s because the last iteration, 2017’s Jigsaw, was so lackluster and forgettable that you forgot it.

Well, what if they go in a new direction? (Not really, but at least there are name actors.)

What if they bring in filmmakers from the series heyday? Not James Wan and Leigh Whannell. I mean, they have bigger fish to fry. But Darren Lynn Bousman, the guy who directed Saws 2, 3 & 4, is on board. Along with the scribes who penned Jigsaw, Josh Stolberg and Pete Goldfinger.

To summarize, the guys who wrote the worst episode in the Saw franchise have returned with a middling director to take a borderline novel direction for the 9th chapter.

But Chris Rock!

He’s not enough. Neither is Samuel L. Jackson.

We open, as we must, on the first victim. We wander with him into what he doesn’t realize—although we surely do, unless you are very new to this franchise—is a trap, and one that will not end well.

So far so good, to be honest. If this is the kind of horror you enjoy and you aren’t sick beyond words of it just yet, the opening gag is serviceable.

Then we cut to Det. Zeke Banks (Rock), undercover and getting off a couple funny lines concerning the Forrest Gump universe. Nice. But don’t get comfortable because within minutes we’re dropped into Zeke’s precinct, where the coppiest of all the cops vie for most obviously borrowed cop cliché.

Undercover without backup?! You’re off the rails!

Do not team me with a rookie. You know I work alone!

You’re too close!

And so many more sentences articulated with need of an exclamation point. Zeke is, indeed, teamed with a rookie (Max Minghella), the only cop in the precinct who doesn’t hate him for what he did years ago…

Sam Jackson’s kind of fun, though. And it’s hard not to hope that the excruciating opening act exposition and cop grandstanding is all a way to quickly build the world in which these cleverly planned, torturous games are played.

It is not. It is the whole movie. And it isn’t clever, it isn’t fun, it isn’t gory, it isn’t scary.

It isn’t necessary.

South African Mayhem

Fried Barry

by Hope Madden

So, Fried Barry then.

Four years ago, South African writer/director Ryan Kruger made the 28th short film of his young career, a quick and experimental one-man meth attack starring Gary Green called Fried Barry. On the merits of Kruger’s vision for harrowing realism underlying a scifi vibe, as well as the startling central figure (Green is quite something to gaze upon), the short film made a big impact.

It’s also a single scene of a profound reaction to a drug. Not a lot to build on, and yet that’s just what Kruger does in his feature of the same name, streaming this week on Shudder.

Green returns as a Cape Town low life whose latest high is complicated due to an alien abduction.

Or is he just really, really, really high?

Kruger maintains an experimental feel, although his feature takes on more of a traditional cinematic structure. This primarily consists of Green—looking as disheveled, lean and imposing as ever—wandering wide-eyed and silent through Cape Town. Oh, the adventures he finds!

Most of them involve different women who are curiously interested in having sex with this obvious junkie. He must just smell so rank! Suspend disbelief. The movie is nuts.

It’s not entirely unique, though, as it continuously calls to mind Rolf de Heer’s notorious 1993 film Bad Boy Bubby—another Huck Finn style adventure about a man-child and the curiosities he stumbles into.

And to be honest, de Veer’s film is far more of a mind f*ck.

Fried Barry also conjures Terry Gilliam and Panos Cosmatos (top-notch purveyors of drug-fueled mayhem), and maybe even an especially high-octane Lynch. Which is to say, the film offers insanity to spare. Kruger’s episodic fever dream blends frenetic editing and a charged soundtrack into something harsher and harder than a psychedelic trip, but the film lives and dies with Green.

It isn’t as if the actor performs alone. He stumbles into and upon a slew of wild, weird and sometimes insane (literally) characters. But it’s Green you cannot take your eyes off of.

Dude is fried.

Thirst Like a Gang of Devils

Boys from County Hell

by Hope Madden

Lend me ten pounds and I’ll buy you a drink.

That’s Eugene’s (Jack Rowan) line. He’s done working for his Dad (Nigel O ‘Neill), the meanest bastard ever to run a construction crew. Eugene’s happy to waste his youth drinking with his mates in The Stoker and ushering naive tourists to that pile of stones they come out to see – not that there’s really a vampire under there. Certainly not the one, true vampire that inspired Bram Stoker in the first place.

Right! So, many pints and backhoes and buddies later we find out whether ol’ Abhartach under those stones is a myth or not.

As writer/director Chris Baugh adapts his 2013 short into a fun, effective monster flick, he begins by tossing out vampire tradition. Ireland’s own Bram Stoker had written a piece of fiction, after all, and this is reality. The new mythology is a little muddier and more monstrous than Dracula, but never less than fun.

Baugh taps into the same kind of smalltown boredom that situates the nation’s most memorable monster movies, from Grabbers to Rawhead Rex. He does a lot with a small budget, suggesting the monster more than showing it until the final act, but there’s plenty of blood to make up for the subtlety.

A couple of veterans (O’Neill, as well as John Lynch, also on Shudder right now in Christopher Smith’s The Banishing) give the cast a strong backbone. A solid group of young ne’er do wells (Louise Harland, Michael Hough and Fra Fee joining Rowan) create a lived-in camaraderie. The charm and familiarity among the ensemble are undoubtedly the reasons the film works as well as it does.

Boys from County Hell is a horror/comedy, but it’s rarely laugh-out-loud funny. It’s actually a good deal more tender in its own endearingly bull-headed way, with a narrative more focused on the father/son dynamic than on coming of age or bloodshed. Baugh’s deep sense of these characters and this terrain benefit the relationship building and give the film a nice throughline.

This is a “what are you going to do with your life” film, and for some people, it takes a good, old-fashioned bloodletting to help them make up their minds.

Out of the Darkness

The Power

by Hope Madden

Simultaneously sympathetic and vengeful, Corinna Faith’s ghost story The Power sets an emotional tone that suits its core themes.

Today is Val’s (Rose Williams) first shift at a rundown London hospital. It’s 1974, and a coal miners’ strike means rolling blackouts. Val hadn’t anticipated still being at work when the lights went out, but a power struggle with Matron (Diveen Henry) means putting up or shutting up.

Unfortunately, Val’s not great with darkness.

Williams provides a tender central figure, terrified of everything: her new bosses, the sprawling building itself, the dark, failure. Val doesn’t get a lot of support from the rest of the staff, particularly one creepy janitor, a repugnant handyman and a viciously catty colleague (Emma Rigby, spectacular).

When the abuses turn supernatural, Faith begins to dig into the real terrors that faced women in 1974 (and in 974 and in 2021). But the filmmaker never abandons her ghost story in favor of a podium. The Power is an effective allegorical tale, but before that it’s a spooky horror story set in an old hospital.

Why are those always so scary? Session 9 may be the high-water mark, but Faith taps into our fears of the powerlessness that comes with illness and institutions, and she exploits them.

The director makes good use of familiar elements—the Seventies vibe, the crumbling edifice, the darkness—and not only to create an unease that heightens the scares. She crafts an environment that amplifies and clarifies the theme, whether it’s the strike, the systemic sexism and classism, or just the insidious nature of abusing and silencing those without power.

Wonderful performances throughout elevate story tropes that could get old, and the filmmaker’s instincts for using light, shadow and reflection give the film an eerie quality that’s hard to shake.

What Big Feet You Have

Dawn of the Beast

by Rachel Willis

Seriously, who still thinks camping in the woods is a good idea?

There’s something about the woods that haunts us, so it’s the perfect setting for many a horror movie.

In director Bruce Wemple’s latest film, Dawn of the Beast, it’s the ideal locale for a group of cryptozoology students on the hunt for Sasquatch.

Wemple likes the creature feature – a look at his past work uncovers another film about Bigfoot (Monstrous), as well as one about the mythological Wendigo. Writer Anna Shields must also enjoy the ‘Squatch, as she not only penned Monstrous, but Dawn of the Beast as well. You’d think with two movies about Sasquatch under their belts, these two would have something new to say about Mr. Foot.

And in a way, they do, but unfortunately, what they have to say about their monster is buried beneath a run-of-the-mill ‘cabin in the woods’ horror trope.

There is some fun in Dawn of the Beast. There are a few jokes, characters you root for, as well as one or two you root against, but there’s also a lot of drudge here. You find yourself sitting through too much filler while you wait for the more interesting moments.

Shields also co-stars in the film as Lilly, but her talents seem better suited to writing. There are some genuinely creepy moments – yellow lights (are those eyes?) drawing you into the woods, one or two effective jump scares, and some funny dialogue. And what Lilly and her classmates find in the woods is a lot more terrifying than the legendary Bigfoot.

However, the film’s best aspect is – far and away – the creature effects. They add a degree of tension and fear that would be otherwise absent without such convincingly scary monsters. In some films, the addition of a monster removes the tension; seeing too much destroys the mystery. But in this case, it really works.  

It’s around the film’s third act that Dawn of the Beast begins to hit its stride, embracing the funnier elements and dropping the attempts to inject a seriousness to the film that it largely doesn’t need. A funny horror movie can still be scary, so anything too serious in this movie (a kidnapping, for example) is time wasted for the audience.

Perhaps if Wemple and Shields attempt a third Sasquatch film, it’ll be the charm that lands them a horror film that hits all the right notes.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t_CStrAZZWI

The Not-So-Friendly Skies

Embryo

by Brandon Thomas

Good old alien horror doesn’t come around as much as I’d like. Outside of the occasional Alien or Predator sequel, this subgenre is pretty much stagnant or banished to the realm of mico-budget dreck. Embryo might skirt the line of microbudget, but this eerie alien tale is anything but dreck. 

The bulk of Embryo follows campers Kevin (Domingo Guzman) and Evelyn (Romina Perazzo) as they venture into the woods of southern Chile. Their camping getaway turns into a nightmare after Evelyn is abducted by extraterrestrials, leaving her in a state of shock. As the effects of her alien abductors take hold, Evelyn becomes increasingly more bloodthirsty, leaving a trail of bodies in her wake.

Director Patricio Valladares approaches alien abduction as a blend between Fire in the Sky’s creeping dread and Cronenberg body horror. Evelyn’s descent into other-worldly terror reveals itself in visceral, extreme violence. We’re talking lots of blood and guts here. However, the explanation of her metamorphosis is kept an enigma. The guessing game surrounding the aliens themselves is left to the deepest levels of the audience’s subconsciousness. It’s an act of omission probably born out of budgetary concerns, yet it ends up aiding the film more than the filmmakers could have foreseen. 

Valladares throws a curveball when constructing the film’s narrative. There’s an occasional break in Kevin and Evelyn’s story where Embryo attempts to open up the world a bit more. This allows the filmmakers to weave together other tales of close encounters in this small Chilean town. Not only are the stories different, but so is the style of filmmaking. By switching to found footage, Valladares is able to emphasize suspense and dread over the fantastical gore that oozes through the main segment.

Despite telling three individual tales, Embryo clocks in at a scant 72 minutes. Even with the different stories, the film threatens to run out of steam on multiple occasions. There’s a repetitiveness to the Kevin and Evelyn segment especially that starts to detract from its overall effectiveness. I can’t believe I’m saying this, but there are only so many times Kevin can lose Evelyn only to find her feasting on a biker, doctor, or other camper. 

Embryo doesn’t quite cross the finish line at full speed, but through deft tone management and a willingness to get gross, the film leaves an overall positive impression.