Tag Archives: independent horror

A Walk in the Woods

Lovely, Dark, and Deep

by Hope Madden

What is the draw of the deep woods? Ticks? High likelihood of injury with haphazard chances of rescue? Cocaine bears?

Even the obvious reasons to steer clear of the woods can’t deter a lot of people. Writer/director Teresa Sutherland’s Lovely, Dark, and Deep links two risks that have haunted writers and creators throughout existence. Some people go crazy in the woods, and many get lost in there and never come out.

“And into the forest I must go, to lose my mind and find my soul.” John Muir said that. The “father of the National Parks” may not have predicted Sutherland’s translation.

Sutherland drops new ranger Lennon (Georgina Campbell, Barbarian) in the National Park back country, where she will spend the season mainly alone in her ranger hut. Does she know that Ranger Varney (Soren Hellerup) disappeared last season?

Likely it wouldn’t dissuade Lennon, who has a past to reconcile and some podcasts on missing people to listen to.

Campbell’s performance shifts as Lennon’s determination makes way for absolute confusion and terror. What begins as single-minded pursuit shows itself to be desperation in disguise. Willfulness gives way to horror as Lennon’s investigation turns up wooded weirdness and wickedness she did not predict.

Wide shots and drone work keep Lennon dwarfed by an increasingly claustrophobic forest, though Campbell never lets the character feel overmatched by nature. Not nature. But a disorienting woods as deep as these (it’s actually Portugal) can easily conceal a lot that is far from natural.

Sutherland’s film is a bit of a slow burn, but once it hits its stride, she throws an unsettling assortment of hellish visions at you. You don’t have to have a natural (and really healthy, I think) fear of the woods to know it’s time to get the F out of Jellystone.



by George Wolf

You get the sense early on that the German thriller Trunk may have some pleasant surprises in store.

Malina (Sina Martens, terrific in a physically demanding role) wakes up to find herself badly injured and confined to the trunk of a car. The trunk is ajar, and before the driver returns to shut her inside, Malina is able to retrieve her cell phone.

And lemme guess, the phone’s almost dead, right?


Okay, then, here we go! Dialing a series of well-chosen contacts, Malina has to 1) stay alive, and 2) piece together what’s happening while she looks for an escape route.

Writer/director Marc Schießer proves a solid triple threat here, also handling the editing duties with a deft hand and solid instincts for pacing and tension.

The cinematography is on point, as well. And while this particular trunk seems unusually roomy, Scheiber consistently lands precisely the type of claustrophobic camera angles and POV shots that Liam Nesson’s recent car-centric thriller Retribution tried in vain to achieve.

You may end up sniffing out some the mystery at play, but even so, Schießer’s finale will be no less satisfying. Trunk is a tense, crowd-pleasing thriller, one that adds enough detours to a well-traveled road until it’s fun again.

So climb in, and enjoy the ride.

American Nightmare

Ghosts of the Void

by Christie Robb

Jason Miller’s directorial debut Ghosts of the Void is successfully unsettling.

Jen (Tedra Millan, Daddy’s Girl) is barely keeping her shit together. She’s been supporting her husband Tyler’s (Michael Reagan, Lovecraft Country) ambition to become a novelist. He’d shown promise in college, but now they’ve been evited from their home and are trying to find an inconspicuous place to park for the night with only $40 and the contents of the car to their names.

They’ve driven to the “nice” side of town, just outside a country club’s fence. But physical proximity to the middle class will not be enough to secure their safety.

Jen’s not slept in weeks. They don’t have health insurance. And what’s with those creepy masked folks in the woods?

The film flashes back from the couple’s chilly car to scenes of the past, depicting the growing strain of the financial and creative pressures on their marriage and Jen’s growing emotional servitude to an unstable partner.

With a cast of just eight people and a very limited number of locations, Miller delivers an unexpected amount of creeping unease. Danger could come from multiple angles, so you find yourself scanning the screen, hoping to keep one step ahead of the jump scare.

Millan and Reagan deliver layered and realistic performances that keep the pace of this slow-burn of a character-driven horror moving.

With themes of financial and housing insecurity and lack of access to health care,  Miller really taps into the ways in which the American capitalist system can easily shift from an ambitious dream to a living nightmare.

The Beast of Walton St.

by Brandon Thomas

A good creature feature is hard to do on an indie budget. Many filmmakers have tried – and failed spectacularly – to bring monsters to life with little money and even worse, little imagination. The Beast of Walton Street bucks that trend by delivering thrilling monster mayhem and a steady supply of wit and heart. 

In a nameless Ohio town, a beast is roaming the Christmas decorated streets and picking off the most vulnerable: the unhoused. Friends Constance (Athena Murzda) and Sketch (Mia Jones) live on the fringes of society – barely scraping by and living in an abandoned auto repair shop. As the two notice more and more of the city’s at-risk residents disappearing, they decide to take matters into their own hands and defend their town from the ravenous beast. 

There’s a palpable level of energy that flows through the entirety of The Beast of Walton Street. Director Dusty Austen’s competency behind the camera is evident and admirable. The level of care and skill shown toward the craft of filmmaking is immediately recognizable in the editing, blocking, lighting, and shot composition. Craft is something that unfortunately falls to the wayside in many indie films, but in The Beast of Walton Street it’s on full display.

Austen is wisely economical when it comes to showing the titular beast (which is actually a werewolf). How Austen chose to shoot and edit around the beast is truly impressive. This reviewer was reminded of Ridley Scott’s Alien on more than one occasion. The ferocity of the werewolf is never lost on the viewer and so much of that is due to Austen’s confident handling of craft.

On the flip-side, the human element of Beast of Walton Street is just as impressive. While Murzda carries the film as the lead, both she and Jones have a delightfully charming chemistry that makes the beast-less scenes just as fun. While neither actor has a long resume (yet!), their comfort and flexibility in front of the camera is evident. 

The Beast of Walton Street doesn’t reinvent the werewolf wheel, but what it does is offer up an Amblin-esque punk rock creature feature, and that is more than enough for me.

Departing Seniors

by Hope Madden

With her feature debut, director Clare Cooney skates some familiar ice but tweaks the high school slasher enough to produce a charming, compelling and strangely fresh slasher with Departing Seniors.

Jose Nateras’s script centers on Javier (Ignacio Diaz-Silverio), a high school senior who loves his best friend Bianca (Ireon Roach) and his gig on the high school paper, and maybe new guy William (Ryan Foreman). Otherwise, high school blows, but it’s almost over and then – even if Ginny (Maisie Merlock) steals his slot as valedictorian – he and Bianca will be out of this Podunk town and on to better things.

Graduation can’t come soon enough, though, because Ginny and her letter-jacket buddies have amped up the bullying. Things are so bad Javier barely even notices when the first of the popular jock dumbasses dies in the pool of apparent suicide.

At its best, Departing Seniors breathes life into the tropes of coming-of-age horror films. Cooney has gathered a truly talented and memorable group of young actors to elevate a clever if somewhat predictable take on the high school slasher. This cast, top to bottom, impresses and Nateras writes characters that they can sink their teeth into.

Diaz-Silverio reimagines the bullied teen with tenderness, resilience and humor. An exceptional, empathetic central figure, it is impossible not to root for Javier. 

Roach continues her streak (after Jennifer Reeder’s Knives and Skin and Perpetrator as well as Nia DaCosta’s Candyman) of carving memorable characters regardless of screen time. She brings a relatable, cynical humor that also emphasizes Javier’s kindness.

The traditional plotting eventually limits the film’s creative success and the speechifying undoes a lot of the nuanced storytelling that preceded it, but you never stop caring about the characters. Departing Seniors subverts every one-dimensional high school slasher cliché to deliver a startlingly empathetic and effecting thriller.


by Rachel Willis

In the anthology horror film Cryptids, horror veteran Joe Bob Briggs plays radio show host Major Harlan Dean. Dean hosts the call-in show, The Truth Serum. With that kind of name, you might suspect a show dedicated to all manner of conspiracy-style neuroticism. However, in the episode we’re privy to, Dean’s focus is cryptozoology – he wants callers to recount their encounters with cryptid creatures. 

By setting up the framing story this way, each call into the radio show becomes its own entry. As with any anthology horror, some of the shorts are better than others. In this case, all deal with creepy creatures – some familiar beasties, like chupacabras, and others that are unique to this movie. 

The first segment is a bit of a stretch for its inclusion in a film about cryptids since the creatures in question are technically human. However, they’re creepy and unnerving enough that you probably won’t mind their presence. The first short is also a nice warm up for what’s to come. It’s not the best of the bunch, but it’s fun and just a little creepy.

Since each mini movie has only so much time to work with, every short opens with a call into Dean’s show before jumping right to the heart of the matter – the monsters.

The movie’s best aspect is the creature effects. Each creature has its own unnerving features, and each is unique, though some resemble monsters you may have seen before. Little creatures that hatch from a giant egg were my personal favorite beasties as they were both creepy and adorable (something only a mother could love?).

There is always a certain amount of enjoyment that comes with anthology horror since you’re not always sure what will come next. While in this case, it’s clear to be some kind of creature, what they are and what they do is where the fun comes in. Some of the creature antics are gruesome, leaving no shortage of gore and carnage in many of the segments. While the writing can sometimes leave a little to be desired, the film’s overall effect is entertaining. If you like creature features, each of Cryptids little creature slices is enjoyably nasty.

Blood Relative

My Heart Can’t Beat Unless You Tell It To

by Hope Madden

Horror films are often—perhaps even always—metaphorical. Classic monster myths seem to be endlessly malleable in this way, one generation’s personification of xenophobia becomes the next generation’s malevolent elite becomes the following era’s image of addiction.

Making an unnervingly assured feature film debut, writer/director Jonathan Cuartas commingles The Transfiguration’s image of lonely, awkward adolescence with Relic’s horror of familial obligation to create a heartbreaking new vampire tale.

Many things are left unsaid (including the word “vampire’), and My Heart Can’t Beat Unless You Tell It To confines itself to the daily drudgery of three siblings. Dwight (Patrick Fugit) longs to break these family chains, but sister Jessie (Ingrid Sophie Schram) holds him tight with shame, love, and obligation to little brother, the afflicted Thomas (Owen Campbell).

What could easily have become its own figurative image of the masculine longing for freedom mines far deeper concerns. Cuartas weaves loneliness into that freedom, tainting the concept of independence with a terrifying, even dangerous isolation that leaves you with no one to talk to and no way to get away from yourself.

The film exemplifies this best as Dwight’s repulsion and reluctance to fulfill his task of bringing home the blood his brother needs to survive. Dwight and a homeless man named Eduardo (Moises Tovar) talk to each other, neither understanding the other’s words, both misinterpreting the conversation. And yet both, unbeknownst to the other, bare their own hopelessly lonesome situation in just one of a dozen or more nearly perfect scenes.

Fugit, who always excels as the conflicted good guy, displays a light touch with the leading role. The result is heartbreaking, which wouldn’t be possible without Schram’s delicate and nuanced turn as the authoritative sister. Both siblings show cracks from the strain of this love and obligation, and their lashing out feels deeply realistic regardless of the supernatural dilemma.

Campbell fills Thomas with wide-eyed naivete that, again, deepens the film’s ache. You want better for these characters, however hopeless that desire is.  

As meticulous as Jonathan Cuartas’s direction is brother Michael’s cinematography. They frame the internals in a spooky, claustrophobic beauty and the exteriors with a bleakness that underscores not only this family’s plight, but the toll poverty takes on a community.

Dwight and his family shop at thrift stores, work at diners, and waste nothing. Unlike so many genre filmmakers, Cuartas ensures that their victims — those on the lowest rungs of society, those who no one would miss —are treated with empathy.

My Heart Can’t Beat Unless You Tell It To is not high on horror, but it succeeds in telling a beautiful, heartbreaking story.

To All Who Enter


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.

Fjords of Forgettable


by Brandon Thomas

If we’ve learned anything from horror cinema over the decades, it’s that Europe is a scary place and to avoid it at all costs. Werewolves on the moors, rage zombies, predatory hostels – just go to Myrtle Beach again and try your luck with the drunk rednecks. And now, with Sacrifice, co-writers/co-directors Andy Collier and Toor Mian give us a taste of the unsavory side of Norway.

Isaac (Ludovic Hughes) and Emma (Sophie Stevens) return to Isaac’s birthplace on a remote Norwegian island to claim his inheritance. Unknown family truths bubble to the surface as Isaac confronts a dark legacy and Emma fears not only for her husband’s sanity but for the life of her unborn child. 

Sacrifice is a frustrating film from the start. The basic “fish out of water” premise is one we’ve seen time and time again, and Sacrifice offers nothing new to this subgenre. The opening credits promise a story built around the works of H.P. Lovecraft, but the closest we get to Lovecraft is unsubtle nods to Cthulhu.

Subtlety in horror certainly has its place. There are countless horror movies that take a more methodical approach to dole out the scares. These movies eventually pay off, though. Sacrifice is a film that tries to build tension and atmosphere, but whiffs at every opportunity. Semi-odd behavior from backwoods Norwegian folk isn’t exactly edge-of-your-seat material. And I would be ashamed of myself if I didn’t mention how the film uses the tried and true “character wakes up from a nightmare that seemed real” device a grand total of four times. 

At this point, I was hoping the movie was a dream.

So much of the films’s tension is built around the unraveling of Isaac and Emma’s relationship. The problem with this is that the characters toggle between unlikable and uninteresting from the get-go. Isaac’s descent into madness never once borders on tragedy. Instead, this turn feels like the filmmaker’s checking off a box on their genre bingo card. 

Even the illustrious Barbara Crampton (Re-Animator, From Beyond) doesn’t come out unscathed. It’s a role that asks her to do little more than be a suspicious local and deliver an uneven Norwegian accent. 

The film does get a lot out of the location shooting in Norway. The lush green fjords with their raging waterfalls inject a strong sense of place. These scenic establishing shots help set an “otherness” to the island, even if the remainder of the film does a poor job of maintaining the eerie mood. 

Sacrifice tries to set itself alongside Europe-centric horror movies like The Wicker Man and Midsommar, but instead comes off as a watered-down, and quite lazy, copy of better movies.