Tag Archives: independent horror

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. 

Asking for a Friend


by Hope Madden

What did we do before Tinder?

Back in 1990 there weren’t even online dating sites, let alone handy apps for lonely singles, and David (Brian Landis Folkins) is lonely. He cares for his mother by day and spends evenings in his basement, viewing new VHS tapes from a dating service—a service he’s belonged to for six months without a single match.

When he goes back in to record a new video of his own, David stumbles across a different kind of tape: Rent-A-Pal.

This video doesn’t tempt David with first person accounts of women who won’t be interested in him. No, Andy (Wil Wheaton) is a real friend, even if he is just a recording.

It’s like Blue’s Clues, except it’s aimed at desperately lonely men, which is maybe the creepiest premise I can remember.

From the top loading VCR to the woody wagon, writer/director Jon Stevenson has David clearly defined. Even for 1990, he is behind the times. He’s a loser. But Stevenson doesn’t dismiss David, and he definitely doesn’t mock him. Which is not to say Rent-A-Pal is entirely sympathetic.

Stevenson and Folkins work together to make David a believable, heartbreaking, damaged human being. Were he a caricature of that loser who lives in his mom’s basement, Rent-A-Pal would not pack nearly the wallop it does. Folkins’s layered, vulnerable performance and his character’s evolution are powerful, awful, and awfully relevant.

It’s a pre-internet story of a lonely white guy, easily convinced of his entitlement to everything he wants by another, similar white guy. Thanks to this other voice, so very similar to his own and so very supportive, David’s self-pity turns bitter.

Rent-A-Pal is a cautionary, pre-incel tale of the insidious dangers of blame and entitlement. Driven by a smart script, excellent supporting work (both Amy Rutledge and Kathleen Brady are wonderful), and an unerring lead turn, Rent-A-Pal delivers an alarming kind of origin story.

Grave Digger

The Deeper You Dig

by Hope Madden

Micro-budget horror movie The Deeper You Dig is co-written and co-directed by husband and wife John Adams and Toby Poser, who co-star alongside their daughter Zelda Adams. This is a story about an unusual family created by an unusual family.

The film centers on a close if unconventional mother/daughter duo (Poser and Adams the younger). The two make ends meet in a rugged mountain town by taking advantage of townies looking to hear their fortunes. But when her daughter goes missing, Ivy (Poser) reconnects with her long-forgotten abilities to determine what the police can’t.

Poser is particularly impressive, and what may be the most intriguing thing about the way the film is written is how both Ivy and daughter Echo are characterized. No cliché suits these two—each is carved out uniquely, a blend of dissonant ideas that feel authentically human. Their undiscussed but clearly present “outsider” nature only serves to underscore their emotional need for each other, which gives the mystery resonance and adds a little integrity to the supernatural elements as well.

Ivy’s relationship with new-in-town Kurt (John Adams) is even more peculiar—rightly so. Adams the elder delivers a twisty, haunted performance that’s the real heart of the film’s horror. His work is both physical and emotional, with personality changes that never feel forced or showy.

Not every performance is as strong as the central three, and not every beat in the plot works. Certain moments feel pulled from TV melodramas, and the film’s micro-budget is most felt whenever CGI is employed.

But The Deeper You Dig makes an excellent case for seeking out low-budget indies. It’s creepy and satisfying. It explodes clichés, keeps you guessing, and takes advantage of the clear trust among the actors to create an unusual and compelling family dynamic.

Even with its handful of missteps, The Deeper You Dig clearly represents a group of filmmaking talent to keep an eye on.

Killer Tween


by Hope Madden

Finally, someone truly understands what it’s like to be an incredibly angry adolescent girl.

At the very least, Jonathan Milott and Cary Murnion’s film Becky understands enough to be afraid of her.

The titular 13-year-old, played with convincing charisma by Lulu Wilson, is a handful for her widowed father (Joel McHale). Still, dad has decided this is the weekend to take Becky for a getaway with his girlfriend (Amanda Brugel), and her 5-year-old (Isaiah Rockcliffe). They head to the old vacation cabin for a big talk.

He soon finds that his 13-year-old may not be the scariest thing on earth.

Or, you know what? Maybe she is.

Kevin James plays against type as a swastika-tatted up inmate, leader of a band of escapees. James may be hoping to catch the same mid-career fire Vince Vaughn has been fanning, mainly portraying the heavy in various indie thrillers. Early scenes play well, James cutting a solemnly menacing figure as he quietly organizes and orchestrates. But as the film wears on it becomes clear the actor can’t manage the sinister energy needed to really make an impression.

I’ll take this over Paul Blart, though.

Robert Maillet’s a lot of fun, though. At 6’10”, the one-time wrestler dwarfs even the gangly McHale. He’s no master thespian, but his arc creates a spectacular punctuation for Becky’s own transformation and his sheer immensity brings a little needed anxiety to the film.

The writing team, which includes Lane and Ruckus Skye of the brilliant and as-of-yet undistributed Devil to Pay (originally titled Reckoning), cheats a little with this script. Backstories, motivations and mysteries—particularly as they articulate the villainous characters—feel less undefined than lazily obscured. Between that and James’s inability to truly sell the viciousness in his character, the family’s jeopardy lacks the intensity it needs for this film to truly impress.

Wilson does not. In her hands, Becky is a fascinating character, and it is with this character that the writing team and directors score the most points. The film is bloody, angry and, even for its fairly formulaic premise, unpredictable.


Eat the Soup!


by Hope Madden

How does one create a Patrick Bateman?

On its surface, Pledge may appear to be little more than a competently made fraternity horror in the tradition of Skulls. It is a cautionary tale about hazing taken to its sadistic (if likely logical) extreme.

But director Daniel Robbins’s latest horror show, from a tight script by co-star Zack Weiner, digs into issues bigger than tribe mentality. Pledge is not just about how far you’d go to belong. It asks about compliance, cowardice, and the cost and definition of success.

Weiner plays Alex. Alex is a college freshman and a nerd. He’s joined by buddies Ethan (Phillip Andre Botello) and Justin (Zachery Byrd), the three forming a trio of losers looking for acceptance. As the day of fraternity pledge party embarrassments wears on, a pretty girl shows up from nowhere and invites the buddies to a different kind of party.

Who can say too “good to be true”? Well, anybody who’s ever seen a movie, but Pledge has some surprises hiding behind those kegs.

The film’s first obvious strength is the cast. Each of the primary trio of actors delivers a believable outcast, and their chemistry feels fresh and honest enough that you never doubt their actions.

In fact, all the performances are quite solid—the good guys occasionally unlikeable, the bad guys sometimes teetering on sympathetic—and the writing is sharp.

Once Robbins has you rooting for his sad sack heroes, the film works well enough as a straightforward exercise in bloodlust and torture. And nasty ass soup.

But where Weiner’s savvy script and Robbins’s sly direction really excel is in digging into this predictable plot (see Hostel, American Werewolf in Paris and any number of other “hot chick invites doofus guys to a party at their own peril” subgenre) to find an ugly picture of American privilege.

Pledge is no masterpiece. It is, however, a tightly packaged, insightful and mean little flick.

Hillbilly Elegy

Rust Creek

by Hope Madden

College co-ed (Hermione Corfield) follows her GPS into the backwoods of Kentucky, and hits a dead end before bumping into some less-than-helpful locals: tussle, injury, escape into the woods.

I don’t know how many times you’ve seen that very film, but I have probably seen it twice already this week. (It’s a problem, I know.)

This woman-in-peril pairing with the “city folk lost in the backcountry” formula equals one very tired experience.

The fact that filmmaker Jen McGowan, working from a script by Julie Lipson, offers us a victim/heroine who fights and thinks is not quite enough to save Rust Creek from drowning. But McGowan’s tricky, and she has more surprises packed in her double-wide than you might think.

The film, on its surface, asks us to rethink the victim in a hillbilly thriller. But Rust Creek cuts deeper when it requires that we—and the heroine, for that matter—rethink the hillbilly.

Michelle Lawler’s cinematography sets a potent mood, enveloping the proceedings in an environment that is in turns peaceful and gorgeous or treacherous and brutal, and she does it with natural, almost poetic movement.

This imagery allows the Kentucky woods to become the most vibrant character in the film, although those tree-covered hills are peopled by a few locals worthy of notice—not all, but a few.

Jay Paulson—best known to normal people for his brief stint on Mad Men, best known to my people as the porn-obsessed psychopath in Robert Nathan’s Lucky Bastard—cuts an intriguing, lanky figure as Lowell.

Slyly fascinating from the moment he takes the screen, Paulson shares an uncommon onscreen chemistry with Corfield. The smart, human relationship they build as they bide their time and cook some meth may be reason enough to see Rust Creek.

McGowan doesn’t burst as many clichés as she embraces, unfortunately. Still, the biggest obstacle facing her as she maneuvers her tropes to serve a (hopefully) unexpected purpose is that her protagonist is the least interesting character in the movie. This is not necessarily Corfield’s fault. She does what she can with limited resources. Sawyer is just the fuzziest character, and the one with the least articulated arc.

That means the resolution packs less of a wallop than it should, but certain moments and characters will linger.

Meat is Meat

We Are the Flesh

by Hope Madden

Are you squeamish?

This is actually the first question my friend was asked in an interview for an internship with a meat packing plant, but it’s also a good piece of self-reflection before you sit down to We Are the Flesh.

First time feature writer/director Emiliano Rocha Minter announces his presence with authority – and a lot of body fluids – in this carnal horror show.

A hellish vision if ever there was one, the film opens on a filthy man with a lot of packing tape. He’s taking different types of nastiness, taping it inside a plastic drum to ferment, and eventually turning it into a drink or a drug. Hard to tell – loud drum banging follows, as well as hallucinations and really, really deep sleep.

During that sleep we meet two siblings, a teenaged brother and sister who’ve stumbled into the abandoned building where the hermit lives.

What happens next? What doesn’t?! Incest, cannibalism, a lot of shared body fluids of every manner, rape, maybe some necrophilia – depending on your perspective – a lot of stuff, none of it pleasant.

Minter has created a fever dream as close to hell as anything we’ve seen since last year’s Turkish nightmare Baskin.

Had Minter not found an anchor for the overwhelmingly lurid imagery, his movie would have felt like little more than self-indulgent horror porn (like literally horror and porn).

Noé Hernández conjures a goblin-like image, his unblinking eyes and demonic grin permanent fixtures as he mentors his teenage charges in his repellant ways. The boy he’s dubbed Skeletor (Diego Gamaleil) resists, though his consistently surprising sister (María Evoli) is less inhibited.

There’s little chance you’ll watch this film in its entirety without diverting your eyes – whether your concern is the problematic sexuality or just the onslaught of viscous secretions, the screen is a slurry of shit you don’t really want to see.

What opens as a post-apocalyptic hellscape eventually morphs into a social comment on Mexico City’s disposable population, which is both the film’s strength and its weakness.

Unfortunately, though Minter’s movie boasts deeply unnerving ideas and compelling performances, in light of other Mexican filmmakers making social commentaries – Jorge Michel Grau’s brilliant 2010 We Are What We Are, in particular – We Are the Flesh comes up slightly lacking.





Fright Club: Best Irish Horror

St. Patrick’s Day approaches, and thoughts turn to flowing green meadows, flowing Guinness taps, and – if you’re us – flowing Irish blood. Yes, we celebrate this holiday the way we celebrate every holiday, with carnage and shreiking. So join us over on the Emerald Isle as we count down the 5 best Irish horror movies.

5. The Hallow (2015)

Visual showman Corin Hardy has a bit of trickery up his sleeve. His directorial debut The Hallow, for all its superficiality and its recycled horror tropes, offers a tightly wound bit of terror in the ancient Irish wood.

Adam (Joseph Mawle) and Clare Hitchens (Bojana Novakovic) move, infant Finn in tow, from London to the isolated woods of Ireland so Adam can study a tract of forest the government hopes to sell off to privatization. But the woods don’t take kindly to the encroachment and the interloper Hitchens will pay dearly.

Hardy has a real knack for visual storytelling. His inky forests are both suffocating and isolating, with a darkness that seeps into every space. He’s created an atmosphere of malevolence, but the film does not rely on atmosphere alone.

Though all the cliché elements are there – a young couple relocates to an isolated wood to be warned off by angry locals with tales of boogeymen – the curve balls Hardy throws will keep you unnerved and guessing.

4. Citadel (2012)

In the colorless world of Edenstown, an Irish slumland abandoned by the police just beyond the last bus stop, an agoraphobic young father (Aneurin Barnard) struggles to remain sane and take proper care of his infant daughter. He’s plagued at night by the feral, hooded children that roam the area – the very monsters that killed his wife. Now they seem to want to take the baby, too.

Writer/director/Irishman Ciaran Foy builds dread beautifully in a picture that borrows from Cronenberg’s The Brood, among other films, but still manages to offer a fresh take on the horror of evil, faceless children. Taking shots at a lot of the underlying causes of rampant Irish urban poverty (each of which translates well across the pond), Foy is optimistic and brutal at the same time.

He spins an urban blight nightmare where fatherless children run amuck, perpetrate violence, and spread malevolence like a disease across a town too trapped by poverty to escape. An unholy Catholic church and impotent social services do more harm than good. In Foy’s parable, nothing can be changed until a father grows a pair and faces his responsibility.

A handful of predictable obstacles aside, Ciaran’s unsettling film hits a nerve, and if you follow the metaphor through to the conclusion, his image of correcting the situation is certainly provocative.

3. Byzantium (2012)

Director Neil Jordan returned to the modern day/period drama vampire yarn in 2012 with Byzantium. With more understatement and talent, he far exceeds the middling effort that was Interview with the Vampire. Thanks go to two strong leads, a lonesome atmosphere, well-handled flashbacks, and a compelling story.

A mother and daughter land in a coastal carnival town. Saoirse Ronan is the perfectly prim and ethereal counterbalance to Gemma Arterton’s street-savvy survivor, and we follow their journey as they avoid The Brotherhood who would destroy them for making ends meet and making meat of throats.

Jordan attempts a bit of feminism but the film works better as a tortured love story. A host of fascinating, dimensional supporting characters and dual storylines that work well together gel in Jordan’s most hypnotic work in years.

2. Stitches (2012)

There are a lot of scary clowns in films, but not that many can carry an entire film. Stitches can.
This Irish import sees a half-assed clown accidentally offed at a 6-year-old’s birthday party, only to return to finish his act when the lad turns 16.

Yes, it is a familiar slasher set up: something happened ten years ago – an accident! It was nobody’s fault! They were only children!! And then, ten years later, a return from the grave timed perfectly with a big bash that lets the grisly menace pick teens off one by one. But co-writer/director Connor McMahon does not simply tread that well-worn path. He makes glorious use of the main difference: his menace is a sketchy, ill-tempered clown.

Dark yet bawdy humor and game performances elevate this one way above teen slasher. Gory, gross, funny and well-acted – it brings to mind some of Peter Jackson’s early work. It’s worth a look.

1. Grabbers (2012)

This joyously Irish horror comedy contends with an alien invasion in the most logical way to deal with any problem (at least in my very Irish family): Maybe if we drink enough, it’ll just go away.

Director Jon Wright takes Kevin Lehane’s tight and fun script, populating it with wryly hilarious performances and truly inventive and impressive creatures. The FX in this film far exceeds the budgetary expectations, and between the brightly comedic tale and the genuinely fascinating monsters, the film holds your attention and keeps you entertained throughout.

Drunken fisherman Paddy (Lalor Roddy) finds something more than lobsters in his trap. Indeed, not-lobsters are making a quick horror show of the island where Paddy lives, but somehow Paddy has gone unscathed. What’s his secret? It’s his truly heroic blood alcohol content, which is poisonous to the monsters. So, all the islanders have to do is hole up in the local pub, drink til they’re blind, and wait for the sun to dry up the island so the sea creatures are immobilized.

It amounts to a surprisingly tender, sweet, and endlessly funny creature feature that pairs well with a hearty stout or a shot of Jamo.