Tag Archives: Shudder

Night Crawlers

Arcadian

by George Wolf

Nicolas Cage has become such a mythic figure in film culture that each new outing tends to bring questions.

Is this the unhinged “rage in the Cage?” Arthouse Cage? Mass appeal or self effacing Cage?

You can file Arcadian under “understated Cage leading a YA leaning creature feature.”

He stars as Paul, who’s living in a remote farmhouse with his twin teenage sons in a dystopian future. By day, the men follow a careful routine of security and sustenance. Because at night, there are visitors that really want to come in.

The exact details of the invasion are a little sketchy, but never elusive enough to derail our interest in the family’s survival.

Thomas (Maxwell Jenkins) is the impulsive, romantic brother, and his visits with Charlotte (Sadie Soverall) at the farm down the road have been keeping Thomas out dangerously late. His twin Joseph (Jaeden Martell) is the introspective thinker. Joseph has been studying patterns of the nightly attacks and believes the creatures have been testing, and planning.

He’s right.

Director Benjamin Brewer isn’t trying to reinvent anything here. He teams with producer-turned-screenwriter Michael Nilon for an unassuming horror thriller than benefits greatly from an impressive cast and a frightening creature design.

I don’t want to give anything away, but these bad boys have one specific trait that will get your attention right quick.

These themes aren’t new. There will be peril, bloodshed, and sacrifice as the creatures get smarter and the young begin to take on responsibilities of adulthood and cherish the things that matter. But thankfully, that familiarity doesn’t breed pandering. Brewer is also able to land some solid thrills, while the three younger co-stars provide impressive support for Cage’s elder statesman grace.

Ultimately, Arcadian doesn’t feel that much like a stereotypical “Nicolas Cage movie.” And the film is better for it.

Away from Home for the Holidays

The Sacrifice Game

by Hope Madden

The Holdovers by way of Blackcoat’s Daughter, Jenn Wexler’s latest mines the Manson-esque horror of the American Seventies for a new holiday favorite.

The Sacrifice Game opens on December 22, 1971. A homey suburban couple has just wished its last Christmas party guests a good night when the band of four who’ve been watching from the  yard come a knocking.

And that’s the thing about the Seventies. People still answered the door to strangers.

Not every scene in Wexler’s era-appropriate gem sings quite like the opener, but genre fans will be hooked, and rightly so.

Nearby, in the Blackvale School for Girls, news of the murder spree has kids happier than ever to go home for holiday break. Except poor Samantha (Madison Baines) and weird Clara (Georgia Acken). Which means their teacher, Rose (Wexler favorite Chloë Levine) has to stay behind, too.

Just as they sit down for Christmas Eve dinner, a knock at the door.

Naturally, Rose answers.

Part of the reason The Sacrifice Game works as well as it does is the casting of the cultish murderers, each with a fully formed character and each somehow reminiscent of the kind of Satanic hippie villains that once gloriously populated trash horror.

Olivia Scott Welch convinces as former Blackvale girl turned bad while Derek Johns delivers a sympathetic turn as the misguided veteran. Laurent Pitre’s self-pity is spot on, but Mena Massoud’s narcissistic charm outshines them all.

There’s enough grisly material for the true horror moniker, but nothing feels gratuitous. Each scene serves a purpose, and all dialog allows characters to unveil something of themselves. The youngers in the cast are not quite as strong as the rest of the ensemble, but their relative weakness is not crippling.

The film looks fantastic, and though the storyline itself is clearly familiar, Wexler’s script, co-written with Sean Redlitz, feels consistently clever.

It’s a rare year to be gifted with multiple enjoyable holiday horrors, but 2023 already boasts Thanksgiving and It’s a Wonderful Knife. The Sacrifice Game more than merits a seat at the same table.

Night of the Penned In

Night of the Hunted

by Hope Madden

Sometimes simplicity in horror is very effective. Take a very routine moment, something so familiar to viewers they realize they wouldn’t even think twice about it, and turn it into something sinister.

It’s late. You stop for gas. A sociopath with a high-powered rifle and good aim is hiding behind a God Is Nowhere billboard.

Franck Khalfoun’s Night of the Hunted is the latest horror to make what it can of a tiny cast, limited set of locations, and modern anxieties. Camille Rowe is Alice. She and John (Jeremy Scippio) are on their way back from a conference – their relationship is complicated – but Alice is in a hurry. And not in a great mood.

It’s 2 am. They stop for gas. The sniper makes excellent use of the well-lit, heavily windowed setting. There’s also a walkie talkie.

Any film that focuses so heavily on an exchange between two people only works when the writing and performances are strong. Rowe delivers when the script lets her. Alice is savvy and angry, recognizes her weaknesses but makes frustrating choices. Those choices are, of course, part of the character’s arc. They may also be due to the fact that all five writers and the director are men.

Night of the Hunted pulls in a lot of buzzy ideas and mixes and matches in a way that’s sometimes clever – the sniper toys with Alice, but why would Alice (or the audience) believe he means anything he says? It’s also sometimes frustrating for a number of reasons, chief among them that the monologue never ties to anything concrete in the story. No insight is gleaned – which is fine as no insight is needed, but the film behaves as if the speechifying has relevance.

There’s tension and some smart moments, although Night of the Hunted is still just another horror movie made by men in which the female lead has no purpose or value until she finds her maternal instinct.

Rad Chad’s Metaverse

Scare Package II: Rad Chad’s Revenge

by Hope Madden

Three years ago, Aaron B. Koontz delighted die-hard horror fans with the squishy, oozy, gory mash note to the video store, Scare Package. It was an anthology of horror shorts, and those only tend to work if they have a compelling frame. In this case, each short represented a film on the shelf at Rad Chad’s Horror Emporium.

For the sequel, Scare Package II: Rad Chad’s Revenge, survivors from Part I regroup for Rad Chad’s funeral. But they find themselves trapped by a sinister mastermind with deadly games they must play if they hope to make it out alive.

Why do they watch the short films? That’s less clear this go-round, but the shorts they do watch are all pretty solid.

Both Alexandra Barreto’s Welcome to the Nineties and Anthony Cousins’s The Night He Came Back Again! Part VI: The Night She Came Back – like Koontz’s framing story – rely on your knowledge of horror tropes to generate laughs. Barreto’s film has some of the sharpest insights via dialog as it celebrates the changing of the “final girl” guard once the grunge-and-garage era took hold.

Rachele Wiggins’s We’re So Dead is a fun Aussie adventure, part Stand by Me part Re-Animator, with a wry delivery. Like all the other shorts in the program, We’re So Dead offers metacommentary without surrendering its standalone charm.

For Special Edition, director Jed Shepherd sets a handful of friends in a lighthouse for the night with a one-of-a-kind video. But what is the film, exactly? As one woman obsessively rewinds, fast forwards and pauses, her friends are the ones making the big discoveries.

Nods to Aliens, Black Christmas, Halloween, Friday the 13th Part 5, A Nightmare on Elm Street Part 3, Hellraiser, Saw and more flavor the product and mark its makers as bona fide fans. You may have to be a fan of Scare Package to appreciate Koontz’s framing story because it picks up not long after the first left off, without explanation. Being in on the joke, as always, makes the gag more satisfying. But that’s the basic premise of every story told in this collection.

Thicker than Water

Blood Relatives

by Hope Madden

Noah Segan – a welcome surprise in a Dude-esque role in Rian Johnson’s mystery romp Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery – embodies quite a different character for another new release, Blood Relatives.

Segan writes, directs and stars as well, upending the traditional coming-of-age perspective as a vampire learning of a teenage daughter and figuring out how to become a parent. It’s a darkly comedic road trip toward mundanity.

Segan’s screenplay is loose but knowing. It never feels overly scripted but offers enough backstory to ground the tale. And though moments feel familiar – maybe a bit of Near Dark and Stakeland with far more humor and far less dystopia – there is something pleasantly new afoot in this film.

Francis (Segan) is a loner in a muscle car, making his way hither and yon across dusty old by-ways and trying not to draw attention to himself. It’s a lonesome road, but what are you going to do? Jane (Victoria Moroles, Plan B) is a 15-year-old: sarcastic, hostile – you know, normal. Only she’s not normal and now that her mom’s gone, she intends to find out who she is.

That’s the simple success of Segan’s story. It’s about two people figuring out who they are, as we all must. Without feeling preachy or pretentious, Blood Relatives offers some real insight into what parenting ought to be. Even when the only thing you really have in common is the desire to suck the life out of people.

Moroles excels in the role of an angsty teen who recognizes the symbolism of turning into a monster as you hit adolescence. She’s slyly funny but moments of tenderness humanize her Jane. Likewise, Segan finds an arc that suits a man-turned-killer trying to turn back into a man.

Supporting turns, while small, all add a nice spark to the proceedings. Josh Rubin, in particular, is a creepy delight in a Renfield-esque role.

The film’s greatest weakness is its final act, which is enjoyable but unsatisfying. Still, the entertaining Blood Relatives delivers a savvy family comedy.

Monster House

Deadstream

by George Wolf

If you’re old enough to remember Al Franken’s “one man news gathering unit” bits on SNL, you’ll get an extra few kicks out of Deadstream, a Shudder original that packs smart, sarcastic, silly and scary into a fun 87 minutes.

Joseph and Vanessa Winter share writing and directing duties, with Joseph also starring as Shawn Ruddy, a disgraced internet personality. After seven years hosting his “Wrath of Shawn” livestream stunt show, Shawn’s trying to win back the followers lost through a series of ill-fated hijinks (such as paying a homeless guy to fight him).

So Shawn figures there’s only way to pull off “the biggest comeback event since the first Easter.” He will confront his greatest fear live on camera.

Ghosts.

Strapping on a Franken-worthy solo streaming outfit, Ruddy begins a live broadcast from inside Death Manor, “the most haunted house in the United States.” Of course, the one man nature of Ruddy’s show means Joseph is the only actor in the early going, and he proves to be a naturally engaging and amusing guide through the possibly supernatural.

Even as the film’s pace moves from calm to chaotic, Joseph gives Ruddy some sharp comic timing, reacting to viewer comments with deadpan asides and his own accidental expletives with pleas of “don’t demonetize me!” Joseph is able to find that middle ground between clueless douchebag and lovable goofball, enough to make gags like Shawn’s cringe-worthy apology for a racist stunt land with a satirical LOL.

And just when you think this premise might be treading water, a Ruddy superfan (Melanie Stone) crashes the live stream to take the fear factor up more than a few notches.

The Winters also handled the film editing, which may be the real MVP. The multiple cuts between Ruddy’s camera, his computer screen, and security cameras in the house often come in a fast, furious nature, but the technical craftsmanship and narrative integrity never waver.

Deadstream is a slick piece of work. It lands solid wink-wink zingers at the expense of both horror tropes and internet culture, while earning the “horror” in horror comedy with some serious haunts in the house.

Log in, and smash that “like” button.

Father Knows Best

What Josiah Saw

by Hope Madden

Just when you think you know where director Vincent Grashaw’s Southern Gothic What Josiah Saw is going, you meet Eli.

One at a time, Grashaw introduces us to the Graham children. At first, it’s poor Tommy (Scott Haze), a simple fella living at home with Graham patriarch, Josiah (Robert Patrick). Josiah doesn’t think much of Tommy. He doesn’t think much of God, either, but he’s having a change of heart.

Then Grashaw switches gears and introduces us to Tommy’s brother Eli (Nick Stahl), who lives hard. He’s run afoul of some bad people (including Jake Weber in a welcome cameo) and is in some pretty desperate straits. Finally, we meet sister Mary (Kelli Garner), whose trauma sits far nearer the surface and strengthens our unease about the inevitable family reunion.

The Grahams reunite, drawn by the lure of oil money: the Devlin corporation hopes to drill on their land. The money could mean a fresh start for everyone. But some details need to be handled first.

Moving from story to story, What Josiah Saw keeps you on your toes. Grashaw glides easily from one style to the next, although Eli’s gritty thriller storyline is the most intriguing. It feels more complete, less bait and switch, and benefits from Stahl’s naturalistic, resigned performance.

Not every episode works as well. The stones left unturned and strings left untied from one tale to the next, though, give the film a rich, dark present-day. From the outset it’s clear there’s a traumatic backstory waiting to be revealed, so it’s to Grashaw and writer Robert Alan Dilts’s credit that the messy present keeps pulling our interest.

Patrick delivers a strong turn, mean-spirited and commanding. He’s at the center of the mystery, the center of everybody’s trauma in a film mainly concerned with how you live with the marks left by your childhood.

Ambiguity in the third act is becoming a theme in horror this year. Alex Garland’s Men, the recent stalker horror Resurrection, and now, What Josiah Saw. Sometimes it’s brave to let the audience own the experience and make the call. More often, it feels indecisive or muddy. I’m not sure all the clues are here to help make the determination for What Josiah Saw, but even without proper closure, Grashaw paints a creepy picture.

28 Zombies Later

Virus: 32

by Hope Madden

It’s nearly impossible to watch a zombie film without seeing pieces of this, pieces of that. Virus: 32 does call to mind a handful of other genre flicks. 28 Days Later is all over it. Sequences call to mind Rammbock: Berlin Undead. The film’s claustrophobic, spook-house vibe might conjure Rec from time to time.

Still, Gustavo Hernández (The Silent House) braids these ideas into something unnerving, tense and moving.

Iris (Paula Silva), living an extended adolescence in Uruguay with her roommate, finds herself saddled with her young daughter for the day. She’d forgotten and picked up a shift, which means Tata (Pilar Garcia) will join her today at “the club.”

The club is an old, abandoned sports club. Iris is on security patrol. Tata can occupy herself in an old gym with some basketballs while Iris makes her rounds and keeps an eye on things from the security footage she accesses through her phone.

No sweat.

Unbeknownst to the two, a virus has infected Montevideo, turning people insatiably violent.

Sweat.

The title comes from the brief reprieve the illness offers. The infected become catatonic for 32 seconds after quenching their bloodlust. It’s contrived, but Hernández — writing again with Juma Fodde — enlists the pause button effectively.

Fermin Torres’s sometimes creeping, sometimes soaring camera generates anticipation and dread in equal measure. Security footage — often a lazy gimmick in a horror movie — gets real purpose and style here. Likewise, the poorly lit passages, shadowy staircases and rooms reflecting leakage and rot create an atmosphere of decay that suits the effort.

Nothing works harder or more forcefully, though, than Silva. Her believable tenderness, drive and instability combine to create a hero you root for, understand and worry about. She’s brilliant.

Daniel Hendler joins the cast at about the midway point, injecting a needed sense of calm and purpose. His presence pulls the narrative out of its chaos and points things toward resolution. He and Silva elevate scenes that could feel perfunctory. Their talent and Hernández’s skill turn even the most zombie-eaten tropes into riveting action.

Virus: 32 can’t entirely overcome its set of borrowed notions, but it grips and tears nonetheless.

Mojave Monster

The Seed

by Hope Madden

It’s got a little Brian Yuzna, definitely some Larry Cohen, a touch of Eraserhead, and the exact set of Revenge. Plus, sci-fi/horror flick The Seed maintains maybe the single most used premise of the last few years: three friends rent a place to stay and bad things happen.

There’s nothing necessarily wrong with that. A small cast and limited locations are just smart plays for an independent filmmaker working with budget confinements, and there are moments when writer/director Sam Walker transcends such trappings.

Just not many.

Vampy social influencer Diedre (Lucy Martin), her somewhat vapid bestie Heather (Sophie  Vavasseur), and their down-to-earth pal Charlotte (Chelsea Edge) head to a luxurious, isolated spot in the Mojave desert and witness a meteor shower.

It’s gorgeous, but now their phones are on the fritz, which means they can’t call an uber or get in touch with civilization at all. Worst of all, there’s some stinky dead armadillo bear thing oozing all over their pool deck.

There’s no question Walker is a fan of late 80s horror. The social media angle is the only element of The Seed that feels like it wasn’t hatched in 1985, actually. Walker goes for a sharpness in the color that does call Yuzna to mind, and attempts at social satire by way of body  horror link Cohen as well.

Walker just doesn’t seem to know where to go with it all.

Martin does. She elevates tired mean girl dialog and cuts an exceptional narcissistic presence. Both she and Vavasseur find the comedy in the script, and their bickering buddies often entertain.

Edge is the weak link, which is unfortunate because – given the 1980s roots and the wholesome character – she’s telegraphed early to be the film’s hero.

The fact that The Seed is set in the exact house Coralie Fargeat used to gorgeous, bloody extremes in her 2017 treasure Revenge only makes you want to see Walker do more with his location.

So little about this film feels fresh and that retro vibe only carries it so far. The beast itself is sometimes laughable, but not often enough to be fun, which is par for the course with the film. Walker wades into dark comedy/satire territory for the first two acts, then abandons it entirely for a dusty, predictable, humorless finale.

Hell Bent

Hellbender

by Hope Madden

Unusual family dynamics tend to be at the heart of movies made by Adams Family Films, a collective that shares writing, directing, and acting duties.

They’re also a family: co-writer/co-director/co-star/mom Toby Poser, co-writer/co-director/dad John Adams, co-writer/co-director/co-star/daughter Zelda Adams, co-star/daughter Lulu Adams. No word on Cousin It.

The clan’s 2019 horror The Deeper You Dig centered on the bond between mother and daughter, both outsiders in a rural mountain town. The Family’s latest, Hellbender, orbits similar territory.

Poser — again cutting an impressive cinematic figure — is a mother who keeps her teenage girl Izzy (Zelda Adams) far, far from prying eyes. The two enjoy each other’s company, even playing in a 2-person punk band (bass & drums, hell yeah!) called Hellbender.

But Izzy is lonely, and she’s beginning to distrust her mother’s claims that illness prevents socialization. Izzy doesn’t feel sick.

It turns out, Mom isn’t trying to protect Izzy. She’s trying to protect everybody else.

A soundtrack full of the band’s music creates an effective atmosphere of rebellion, anger and evil. Zelda Adams haunts the film, a central figure of awkwardness and naivete blossoming with power.

There’s barely another face onscreen and even fewer behind the camera. Aside from Trey and Samantha Lindsay, who pull crew duties, every role from costume design to sound, editing to cinematography to music is handled by a member of the family.

They are impressive. Hellbender looks great. It sounds great. The story is fluid and creepy, punctuated with psychedelic carnage and informed by lived-in relationships.

A muddy backstory and slight anticlimax keep the film from utterly beguiling, but the coming-of-age center impresses. Hellbender delivers a moral ambiguity that questions society’s fear of female power.

The Adams Family doesn’t represent a gimmick or a “good for you for trying” brand of filmmaking. These people are the real deal and I look forward to their next effort.