Tag Archives: independent horror movies

Schoolhouse Rock

House of Screaming Glass

by Hope Madden

A descent into madness when the protagonist is probably already mad makes for a very short trip and not a particularly dramatic arc, but director David R. Williams gives it a go with his latest indie, House of Screaming Glass (which is a great title).

Elizabeth Cadozia (Lani Call) has inherited the old schoolhouse her grandmother has used as a home. It came to Elizabeth on her 27th birthday, upon the death of her mother. We don’t know what happened to Elizabeth’s mother, or anything Elizabeth chooses not to share with us directly. The only dialog in the film is done in voice over, Elizabeth telling us pieces of her story, and she does not seem like the most reliable narrator.

Call, in essentially a one-person show, really is mesmerizing. But she has an awful lot on her shoulders and Williams’s direction is not always on her side.

Having a camera trained on  your face as you wordlessly morph from dreamy apathy to dread to horror to tears and back again tests an actor, and Call passes beautifully. It’s the kind of scene that could easily become the watershed moment in any film, horror in particular. In keeping with Williams’s “more is more” direction throughout, Call is put through this about six times during the film’s hour and 45-minute run time.

This is symptomatic of a frustrating lack of focus that mires the entire effort in unfocused, self-indulgent tedium. This is especially disappointing because Call’s performance is genuinely arresting, and because Williams drops a good number of seriously startling, impressive images of horror throughout the film.

A sort of marriage between Lovecraft and Judeo-Christian hauntings, House of Screaming Glass succeeds when it unveils gooey shocks of body horror and practical monster effects. Call’s awkwardly sensuous turn amplifies the horror, but the imagery either gets lost in the unfocused narrative, or the scene in question goes on for such an unnecessary length that you lose interest.

House of Screaming Glass could have been a memorable hypnotic fever dream had Williams pruned at least 30 minutes. It’s still worth watching—Call’s performance, Stephen Rosenthal’s cinematography and many of Williams’s nightmarish visuals are transfixing.

Put On a Happy Face

Faceless After Dark

by Hope Madden

Back in 2016, Jenna Kanell made a horror movie, a low budget affair, the unofficial sequel to a very minor indie nearly no one saw. By that point in her career, Kanell had made half dozen or more low budget indie features, done loads of TV,  shorts, and a few music videos. In all likelihood, Terrifier didn’t register at the time as anything other than one more microbudget horror flick.

But that is not what Terrifier turned out to be, is it? The little clown killer that could undoubtedly changed Kanell’s career, perhaps not in all the ways the actor/writer/director/stunt performer might have wanted it to. What’s a not-final girl to do?

Kanell channeled the experience into the new feature, Faceless After Dark, which she co-wrote with Todd Jacobs. Directed by Raymond Wood, the film follows a disgruntled struggling actress named Bowie (Kanell) who pays more bills selling autographs at horror cons than through actual acting gigs—but the clown from her hit movie earns more.

Plus, her more famous girlfriend is still closeted about the relationship, and her longtime best friend’s film got greenlit—as long as he gives the lead to a different actress.

And, of course, you have the creepy fans.

It all gets to be too much one night, until Bowie taps into her own creativity and becomes the artist she was meant to be.

Meta can get very tiresome, especially in horror, but there’s something wearily honest about its application in Faceless After Dark. At its best, the film is a reflection of the maddening obstacles facing people—women, specifically—trying to survive Hollywood.

Kanell delivers a commanding performance and the writing is sound, even if the plotting is a little obvious and superficial and the psychotic break feels unearned. But as a showcase for Kanell’s charisma, and an often satisfying reaction to the rampant misogyny in cinema and particularly in fan culture, it’s fun.

Endure What Cannot Be Cured

Mind Body Spirit

by Hope Madden

There is something clever underlying directors Alex Henes and Matthew Merenda’s first feature, Mind Body Spirit.

Anya (Sarah J. Bartholomew) is sharing videos of her journey to wellness. She’s just moved cross country into the home her departed grandmother Verasha left her. She never knew her grandmother, but she sees this as an opportunity for a new life.

Her only friend on this side of the country—wellness influencer Kenzi (Madi Bready)—stops by occasionally to check in and collab on videos. But she can’t really get behind Anya’s new direction, taken from a hand-written book left by the deceased and written mostly in Russian.

Mind Body Spirit has a bit more compassion for influencers than most horror films do. Though the tale mines the cultural appropriation and blissful ignorance that is easy to find among influencers—particularly those peddling wellness—the depiction is not entirely one sided.

Bartholomew’s performance is endlessly vulnerable and empathetic, but even rushed and cynical Kenzi gets a nice arc that deepens the impact of the film’s horror. Because naturally, naïve Anya misinterprets the underlying message in the tome her departed grandmother left her.

The directors also write, along with Topher Hendricks, and their script sometimes dances with language, toying with the way mystical turns of phrase can easily be used, depending on inflection, to terrify.

Shot in one location with a total cast of 4 (one of whom appears exclusively via FaceTime), Mind Body Spirit rarely gives evidence of its budget. The found footage approach is sometimes fresh—the ads between video segments are inspired—but like most films of the genre, there is no integrity to the actual footage: who shot it, who edited it, why and how it got posted, etc.

More problematic is the occasional blood gag. Outright horror is included sparingly, but when it is, the unreality of the gag is pretty evident. The filmmakers don’t really tread any new ground, either. They just pull in social media as a slightly askew way to tell the same story you’ve seen a number of times.

Nonetheless, Bartholomew shoulders what is at least 75% one-person-show and does it with enough tenderness that Mind Body Spirit never loses your attention.

No Place Like Home

Invader

by Hope Madden

Lean, mean and affecting, Mickey Keating’s take on the home invasion film wastes no time. In a wordless—though not soundless—opening, the filmmaker introduces an unhinged presence.

Cut to Ana (Vero Maynez). She’s sleepy, it’s late, the bus is empty except for the driver hustling her off, his voice constant, annoyed, and on repeat: Come on. Get off the bus. Last stop. You gotta go.

It’s 4:30 am. The bus was late, the station is deserted, and Carmilla—Ana’s cousin—is not answering.

Immediately Keating sets our eyes and ears against us. His soundtrack frequently blares death metal, a tactic that emphasizes a chaotic, menacing mood the film never shakes. Using primarily handheld cameras from the unnerving opening throughout the entire film, the filmmaker maintains an anarchic energy, a sense of the characters’ frenzy and the endless possibility of violence.

Keating strings together a handful of believably tumultuous moments early in the film—particularly a couple of run-ins with a horn-blaring cabbie—to work the nerves and leave you feeling as raw and vulnerable as Ana. Rather than dip and settle, Invader delivers relentlessly on that early sense of harried terror.

Scenes possess an improvisational quality that coincides with the rawness of the overall effort. Keating is spare with exposition—if you can’t figure out what’s going on without having it explained to you, you are clearly not paying attention. The verité style accomplishes what it’s mean to, lending Invader an authenticity that amplifies the horror.

Maynez carries that authenticity. Ana never feels written, she feels alive. Her confusion, anger, fear—all of it runs together in a way that reflects what the audience is experiencing in each moment. Her limited screentime with Colin Huerta introduces enough tenderness to give the sense of terror real depth.

Joe Swanberg, with limited screentime and even more limited dialog, crafts a terrifying image of havoc. His presence is perversely menacing, an explosion of rage and horror.

Invader delivers a spare, nasty, memorable piece of horror in just over an hour. It will stick with you a while longer. 

The Horror of Microagressions

Raging Grace

by Christie Robb

When Filipina illegal immigrant Joy (Max Eigenmann) has to come up with an extra five thousand pounds to fund her quest to obtain a work visa, she’s thrilled to get a job offer that pays one thousand a week under the table. It’s a live-in housekeeping gig at a swanky British estate that hasn’t been given a once-over in quite a long time.

There are few downsides. First, she’ll have to hide her young daughter Grace (Jaeden Paige Boadilla) from her employers. Second, she’ll have to look after the dying old white guy upstairs. And that involves following orders barked at her by the dying guy’s total Karen of a niece. Only, maybe the niece’s intentions aren’t entirely well-meaning. And then there’s the racism…and the classism…and the sexism. But, while Joy may be stressed, she’s also stoic and resilient.

This updated Gothic thriller helmed by debut director Paris Zarcilla and co-written with Pancake Zarcilla effectively suspends the viewer in a state of wary suspicion. Dim lighting, spooky old sheet-draped antiques, a discordant musical score, and a kid with a penchant for pranks and squeezing into tight spaces provides ample opportunity for jump scares.

But it’s not the long shadowy corridors, or the judgmental eyes of the family portraits on the walls, or the suspicious locked doors that spook Joy. It’s the worry that her kid is going to get her in trouble with the boss and she’ll end up getting deported.

Toward the end, the social-critique/Gothic horror gets a little bit too complicated and hard to follow for a few minutes with character choices that seem alternatively forced or not dialed up enough, but ultimately it was an effective take on the traditional atmospheric horror.

Could have used more rage, though.

Slay, Girl, Slay

KillHer

by Daniel Baldwin

Tell me if you’ve heard this one before: a bunch of hot young twentysomethings haul off into the woods for a weekend of fun, only to find themselves at the mercy of a psychopath. You have? Well, how about the one where a bunch of hot young twentysomething ladies get together for a pre-wedding party to cut loose? That one too? Well, how about if we mash them together? Alright, now that’s better.

Robyn August’s KillHer is one part rural terror, one part bachelorette slumber weekend, and all parts psycho-slasher flick. It’s a novel combo, especially when it actually involves tent camping, as opposed to riffing nonstop on “glamping” (although there is a bit of that too). We follow four young women opting to “rough it” for a weekend before their bestie gets married. Most of them aren’t the camping type, but the bride-to-be’s fiancée is, and she wants to impress him by trying it out.

What follows is a comedic terror tale that rolls straight down the usual checklist of tropes. Spotty cell signals? Check. Spooky forest noises? Check. Big sketchy dude also camping nearby? Check. Someone they were supposed to meet is M.I.A.? Check. From a writing standpoint, nothing too unexpected occurs and the dialogue isn’t the greatest. The special effects work is also a bit spotty at times, but that comes with the low budget territory.

What sets KillHer apart from the rest of the killer-in-the-woods subgenre? Actress M.C. Huff. She is an absolute firecracker from start to finish, nailing every last bit of emotion that the film calls upon her to perform. Whether she’s being bubbly & sweet, playful & funny, or whenever she’s tasked with dishing out the extreme levels of hysteria and mania that this particular genre specializes in, Huff is up to the challenge. The film around her might not knock your socks off, but her character Eddie is THE reason to check this one out. Huff is one to watch, folks.

OK with Age

Aged

by Brandon Thomas

The subject of aging has become a popular trope in the world of horror. Films like M. Night Shyamalan’s Old and the Aussie favorite Relic used our own fears of natural mortality to tap into something more supernatural. Ti West’s X comments on how aging – and the supposed loss of beauty – can have deeper psychological implications. Director Anubys Lopez’s Aged may not reach the highest highs of the aforementioned films, but what it lacks in originality it more than makes up for with old school things that go bump in the night.

Veronica (Morgan Boss-Maltais) has recently taken a temporary job as a caregiver for the elderly Mrs. Bloom (Carla Kidd). Shortly after arriving at Mrs. Bloom’s remote home, Veronica begins to sense a presence in the house. As the strange events in the house escalate, Veronica also begins to suspect that Mrs. Bloom herself might be harboring a sinister secret.

Aged checks a lot of low-budget horror boxes right off the bat. 

Single location? Check. 

Small cast? Check. 

Simplistic story that requires little in the way of production value and special effects? That would be a check. 

These aren’t detriments by any means. The simplicity of Aged is actually the film’s greatest asset… well, except for Kidd’s old-age makeup. That gag is right out of a Spirit Halloween and pretty wince-inducing. 

Lopez aims high with the film’s visuals. The low-budget still manages to shine through here and there, but the emphasis on production design and shooting every nook and cranny of the desolate farm house helps create a real sense of place. Lopez has a good eye – so good, in fact, that it’s a shame much of Aged was filmed in the brightness of day. 

Boss-Maltais and Kidd spend nearly all of their scenes together. Kidd chews up an enormous amount of scenery as the venomous Mrs. Bloom. Boss-Maltais’s Veronica is your standard bland non-personality-having lead. Veronica’s role is to walk the audience through the plot of the movie and not to have any real arc of her own. 

Aged isn’t the first movie you should seek out this weekend – heck it might not even be the 10th – but it is an entertaining enough haunted house flick that’ll keep your attention for 90 minutes.

Assault on Overlook Hotel

Malum

by Hope Madden

Equal parts Assault on Precinct 13 and The Shining by way of Charles Manson, Anthony DiBlasi’s Malum is a quick, mean, mad look into the abyss.

Jessica Sula stars as a rookie cop whose first night on the job is a babysitting gig, so to speak. The new station is up and running and all she has to do is sit tight at the old station, redirect anyone who stops by, and wait for morning. So far, so Carpenter.

Jessica (her character’s name, as well) actually requested this stint because her dad, a hero, ended his career in this very building and she just wants the two careers to overlap, if only for one shift. But the cult that her father put an end to one year ago tonight has designs on Jessica.

DiBlasi is reimagining his own 2014 flick Last Shift, although it feels more like a riff on Carpenter’s 1976 Precinct 13 than anything. Regardless, what the filmmaker does is confine the audience along with our hero in a funhouse.

As the film wears on its nightmarish vibe intensifies. Weird characters and genuinely unsettling scenarios play out, some of them predictable but most of them surprises. The jump scares work, the gore plays, and the creature effects are top notch.

Inspired supporting turns from Natalie Victoria, Sam Brooks and Kevin Wayne keep the bizarre tensions building and Sula’s grounded, understated hero holds the mayhem together well

Malum gets nuts, exactly as it should. Though it never feels genuinely unique, it manages to avoid feeling derivative because of DiBlasi’s commitment to the grisly madness afoot. The result is a solid, blood soaked bit of genre entertainment fully worthy of your 92 minutes.  

Honey of a No

Winnie the Pooh: Blood and Honey

by Hope Madden

Leaving the screening of Winnie the Pooh: Blood and Honey, I overheard another viewer say, “So many questions.” I, too, have a lot of questions. Why do Pooh and Piglet have man hands? Where do they get their clothes? When did they learn to drive? What am I doing at this movie?

No, that last one’s not real. There was no question I was going to see this movie. Like most people, I grew up with Winnie the Pooh and all his friends in the 100 Acre Wood. I loved the illustrations in A.A. Milne’s books. I loved the Disney cartoons. That live-action kids’ show, though, with people in suits – that freaked me out. That was just wrong, and it was the kind of wrong I was hoping for with the film.

Nope.

Though the sound mix is often muddy, the film does boast some technical qualities: production values, set design, lighting – writer/director Rhys Frake-Waterfield gathered a competent crew. The problem is the writing. There’s about enough script for a 30-minute film, and even that would not have been very good.

First, Christopher Robin (Nikolai Leon) returns to his old stomping ground to introduce his beloved to his oldest, dearest friends, only to find that Pooh and the gang have not exactly thrived in his absence.

Meanwhile, Maria (Maria Taylor) follows her therapist’s suggestion to take a break, unplug and relax with her girlfriends. She and her besties head to the same stretch of forest for a quiet weekend of grisly, man-bear related slaughter.

The acting throughout is awful, but it’s hard to slight the actors themselves when each of their scenes is stretched to 4 minutes longer than it should be and they have to just find a way to take up the time. This leads to a lot of inaction when action would be reasonable, and an awful lot of repeated, “Why are you doing this?”

Plus, there’s a gun that appears and disappears scene to scene, and a laugh-out-loud car sequence. But any intentional humor is woefully absent.

Whatever the film’s many – almost countless – flaws, Frake-Waterfield deserves tremendous credit for seeing an opportunity and seizing it. Milne’s catalog fell into the public domain last year, a fact Frake-Waterfield met with an idea. What if Pooh and the gang went feral?  

And the world was in. I know I was.

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.