Cue and A

V/H/S/94

by George Wolf

You ready for scary?

1994 was almost thirty years ago. Three zero.

So the fourth film in the V/H/S series places the found footage premise in a decidedly nostalgic vibe, with plenty of videotape filter effects, “taped over” moments and no worries about smartphones crashing the internal logic.

Five filmmakers deliver separate short film visions, as four segments are bookended by an anchor meant to tie them all together as a narrative whole.

Jennifer Reeder handles the wraparound, entitled “Holy Hell,” which follows a SWAT team invading a compound while members shout about drugs and search warrants. They find much more than drugs in a frantic, satisfactory opening that suffers from some uneven production values and pedestrian acting.

Chloe Okuno’s “Storm Drain” finds an Ohio TV reporter and her cameraman investigating the local legend of the Rat Man. Venturing a little too deep in the sewers, what they find sheds a nicely subtle light on the plight of the homeless before the creature effects come calling.

Okuno’s camerawork and dark tunnel framing is effective, and Anna Hopkins delivers a fine performance as the reporter, but like all the segments here, “Storm Drain” feels like a great idea that’s never fully realized.

That is the most true with Simon Barret’s “Empty Wake.” Barrett, writer of You’re Next, The Guest and Blair Witch, gives us a funeral home employee waiting out a wake that no one is attending. As a storm escalates outside, noises from inside the casket suggest a soul may not be ready to move on.

Barrett lays out some nicely simplistic stakes, and plays a fine game of peek-a-boo with the inside lights going off and on, but the payoff ultimately lands as a bit familiar and anti-climactic.

The opening shot of Timo Tjahjanto’s “The Subject” grabs your attention immediately, bringing you into the horrific laboratory of a mad scientist conducting human experiments. What starts as a fun and gore-filled homage to both Frankenstein and Tetsuo descends into an overlong, first-person shooter game that squanders much of its early potential.

“Terror,” the final segment from Ryan Prows, brings horror comedy to the party with a look at good ‘ol boy militia members aiming to overthrow the government. They’re more than well-armed, they’re fostering a supernatural entity. And you can guess how well that goes.

Prows never completely sets the tone, as the few truly comedic moments crash into an overall atmosphere that plays it too straight for satire.

Reeder closes it all out with the conclusion of “Holy Hell,” bringing a surprise to one of the SWAT teamers and an overly tidy reinforcement of the videotape theme.

V/H/S/94 presents a host of promising ideas and several solid moments. A step up from Viral for sure, but with too many false starts for a rewind-able experience.

Kandywoman

Kandisha

by George Wolf

Early on, plenty in the Shudder original Kandisha is going to remind you of Candyman. The filmmakers wisely address this early as well, and then move right along with a brisk and bloody realization of a Moroccan vendetta born from centuries-old roots.

On summer break from school, teen best friends Amélie (Mathilde Lamusse), Bintou (Suzy Bemba) and Morjana (Samarcande Saadi) are busy practicing their graffiti art in a dilapidated building. Peeling back some rotting drywall, Amélie spots a spray-painted tag of “Kandisha,” and Morjana recounts the legend.

In 16th century Morocco, Kandisha fought the Portuguese occupation that took her husband’s life. She even managed to kill six enemy occupiers before being caught, tortured, and killed.

Now, she roams the netherworld as a half-beast walking upright on hooves, waiting for a summons that will require her to slay six men before returning to her eternal unrest.

And how do you summon Kandisha? You look in the mirror and say her name five times.

“Like in the movies?”

Yes, girls, just like in the movies.

Writers/directors Alexandre Bustillo and Julien Maury (the unforgettable Inside) are smart enough to take what we’re thinking and make it organic. We instantly relate to the girls’ scoffing, which helps make us feel connected to the journey that will make them believers.

Once Amélie conjures Kandisha to avenge an assault, it’s a trip that doesn’t waste much time getting down to business. There’s no trace of the silly humor Bustillo and Maury added to Inside, but their penchant for grandiose bloodletting is front and center as Kandisha begins counting to six.

The girls turn to an Imam for help reversing the curse, a narrative thread that ultimately provides more than just monstrous thrills. It’s also the chance for international audiences – especially in America – to see Islam depicted as a source for salvation instead of the stereotypical terrorist breeding ground.

If you’re going back to the well of Bloody Mary and Candyman, the water gets finer via each original filter. Kandisha adds a fresh cultural and female-specific lens to a bloody, take-no-prisoners approach that does much to overcome the tale’s familiar building blocks.

Man Oh Man Oh Mansion

Stay Out of the F**king Attic

by George Wolf

Big, old, empty houses are creepy, right? Lots of dark, musty spaces to get the imagination conjuring up all manner of nasty things that might be lurking.

There are some nasty things lurking in Shudder’s Stay Out of the F**king Attic, but the way they’re conjured leans more toward laborious and silly.

Shillinger (Ryan Francis), Imani (Morgan Alexandria) and Carlos (Bryce Fernelius) are three ex-cons working for the Second Chance moving company. When they show up to move the elderly Vern (Michael Flynn) out of his mansion, he surprises them with a hard-to-resist offer.

If the three will work through the night to get the job done by morning, Vern will reward them with a nice chunk of cash. Two things, though: stay out of the attic and the basement.

Bet they don’t.

The use of the edited F**king in the title suggests a mischievous, knowing tone that got off the bus in a totally different zip code than director/co-writer Jerren Lauder. That’s too bad, because this film is in serious need of lightening up.

Almost every element – from performances to dialog to cheesy score to practical creature effects – lands as stilted and overly staged. Though Flynn does make an effective villain and one particular creature ain’t half bad, even the brisk 80-minute run of Lauder’s feature debut seems like an overstayed welcome.

As our Second Chance movers uncover secrets about Vern (and each other), Lauder leans on body horror closeups and weak jump scares on the way to a big reveal that is bigly ridiculous.

Shudder’s been on an impressive run of originals lately, which makes this misfire a little surprising. Here’s hoping Lauder’s second chance will be a bit more worthy of the investment.

Luck Be a Lady

Lucky

by George Wolf

Lucky takes a well-known horror trope – the masked killer whose “dead” body vanishes when you turn your back – and puts it in a freshly relevant light.

A gaslight, if you will.

May (Brea Grant, who also wrote the screenplay) is a self-help author living in the California suburbs with her husband Ted (Dhruv Uday Singh). They are working to get past a rough patch in their marriage when a strange, persistent threat presents himself.

Every night, a masked man (Hunter C. Smith) tries to break in and kill May. She fights him off – sometimes spilling plenty of blood in the process – but he always seems to get away. The police are on the case, but they’re more interested in why Ted doesn’t appear to be around anymore.

And they’d really like her to calm down.

Grant’s script is often smart and timely, and director Natasha Kermani peels enough layers successfully to hit a number of societal bullseyes. But an extended metaphor such as this is tough to keep constantly afloat, and some gaps of logic in the narrative work against the film’s subtlety and in turn, its overall power.

Grant and Kermani end up walking an entertaining line between subversive humor and metaphorical slasher. Lucky works best in that center, when May becomes a living example of that internet meme comparing what men and women do each day to avoid becoming a victim.

This is the final girl in a modern world of gaslighting and victim-shaming, where women form common bonds overs fears too often dismissed.

Just calm down, Honey, you’re lucky to be alive!

Scary Movie: The Movie

Warning: Do Not Play

by George Wolf

Basing a horror film around the “scariest movie ever made” premise is ambitious. Is it smart?

Well, it’s ambitious. Because at some point, you’re going to have to show at least a snippet of this deadly frightening flick your film is referencing, and your audience is already poised to dismiss the impact.

Remember the “killer” tape in the The Ring? We had to see it, and if it didn’t totally creep us out when we did, the entire movie would have crumbled. But that video WAS creepy as Hell, giving The Ring the anchor it needed to stand as one of the best PG-13 horror flicks ever made.

Shudder’s Warning: Do Not Play remembers The Ring/Ringu quite well, building a familiar mystery around some urban legendary long lost film footage.

Mi-Jung (Ye-ji Seo) is a “film festival prodigy” on a two week deadline from a big South Korean studio to come up with a great horror script or she’s out.

She needs inspiration!

Film students at the local university hip Mi-Jung to the legend of a graduation film from years earlier. They can’t remember the title, but it supposedly screened once, with repercussions so dramatic the film was rumored to be directed….by a ghost.

Mi-Jung asks for help in an online forum and is instantly met with an ominous demand to cease the inquiries, which only draws her deeper into the mystery.

Writer/director Kim Jin-won provides some nifty atmospherics in the early going, but little else to demand your attention. While Kim doesn’t rely on cheap jump scares (thank you), he pushes the unreliable narrator trope via enough “waking from a dream” sequences to quickly become tiresome.

But the blood and the body count pick up in act two, as the film adopts some Blair Witch tactics – and openly cops to it, which is nice. Mi-Jung finds herself deep inside the cursed production, and we’re left to sort out the psychological strands of her experience.

The film-within-a-film may never grasp the elusive Ring ambitions, but hang in past the setup and Warning delivers a competent mystery and some fun terror in the aisles.

Tale of Two Mothers

The Wrath

by Hope Madden

This week, Shudder premieres a Korean ghost story, and there is always reason to be optimistic about a Korean ghost story.

Young-sun Yoo’s The Wrath revisits Hyeok-su Lee’s somewhat obscure 1986 period thriller, Woman’s Wail. A young woman of humble birth is brought to the ancient home of a high ranking Korean official, ostensibly to marry his youngest son. In truth, she’s been brought here to trick a vengeful spirit.

What unspools is a historically set spectral tale of family dysfunction, classism, sexism, and women who hate other women—or, in a single label, the horrors of patriarchy. All of which has been done before, and better. (Please see Jee-woon Kim’s masterpiece A Tale of two Sisters. Seriously, please see it.) But The Wrath is a very pretty film that delivers a fairy tale quality and solid performances.

The Wrath is more of a spook show than Two Sisters, with lots of wraiths and jump scares, lots of blood spitting and black ooze spitting and blood spatter and arterial spray, plus gorgeous costumes and a well-designed and well-used set.

The film drops us into a story in progress. A young girl (Na-eun Son) traveling to the secluded property is intercepted by a well to do son returning home. His step-mother (Young Hee Seo, wonderful), who appears to be head of the household, offers a chilly reception to both travelers.

Soon the girl is pregnant, the son is dead, and there’s something suspicious out in the storage shed.

Yoo’s film works best when he doesn’t try to explain too much. Heavy-handed flashbacks to the events that led to the family’s curse feel perfunctory and uninspired, while the hinted at spookiness generates more atmosphere.

For a period film, Yoo contains the environment to create something both believable and economical, the image of a very pretty yet desolate trap.

Na-eun Son, whose role offers the most layers, particularly impresses, but the whole cast embraces these somewhat slightly written characters. Each performer draws on period appropriate attitudes and, more importantly, finds a way to generate chemistry with the others trapped in the same confined quarters.

If you’ve seen much from Korea’s deep cinematic closetful of wronged-women-turned-vengeful-spirit options, there are few real surprises to be found in The Wrath. It’s a capably made film that wastes little time, boasts strong performances and offers familiar but creepy fun.