Tag Archives: thriller movies

Some Pig


by Hope Madden

The pandemic was tough on everybody. Eula (Chantelle Han) lost her grandpa, made a bad decision with her bartender friend (Charles Boyland), and may lose her restaurant if things don’t turn around.

So, at the height of lockdown, these two restauranteurs takeoff into the night with a mysterious letter sent just after Grandpa died by a recluse he saved during the war. They decide to drive that letter 20 hours to the recluse’s acreage where they hope to find him and some truffles.

Really, really valuable truffles.

In the hands of co-directors Han and Steven Garbas, Peppergrass is, on the surface, a kind of backwoods culinary heist movie – which is more than intriguing enough. But the film, which Garbas co-wrote with Philip Irwin, delivers more than that.

The film is beautifully shot, from the somber color and framing of the urban opening act to the purposeful camera and sound work throughout the balance of the forest-heavy second and third acts.

Han’s Eula – in charge, no nonsense, desperate – anchors the film beautifully. The perfect counterbalance, Boyland plays at being the harmless dumbass. Thanks to a lived-in chemistry between the two actors and Boyland’s committed performance, you never root against his Morris no matter how much you want to smack him.

The script is clever, sometimes roughly funny, often surprising. Tonal shifts can be a problem, but generally Garbas and Han move smoothly, their framing and pace matching the swiftly shifting genre. Peppergrass swings from heist to horror to survival tale and back again, losing its footing only rarely.

Fear of contagion timestamps the film, but it also generates a kind of paranoia that heightens tension – the kind of tensions suited to backwoods survival tales. But Peppergrass’s greatest strength is how deftly it tells its real story – the one motivating the heist, which is never discussed outright, though it haunts the film.

Tense, surprising and delightfully unusual, Peppergrass is a gem of a thriller worth seeking out.

Diary of a Mad Woman

The Attachment Diaries

by Hope Madden

Tell me you’re having a bad day without telling me you’re having a bad day.

Argentinian filmmaker Valentin Javier Diment knows how to articulate desperation with nothing more onscreen than a sidewalk, heavy rain, and a broken heel. From there, The Attachment Diaries sets up an eerie power dynamic between forlorn Carla (Jimena Anganuzzi) – pregnant, alone, very wet and in need of help – and Irina (Lola Berthet).

It’s 1970-something. Irina is a doctor willing to perform abortions, but Carla, is too far along. If she’s willing, Carla can stay with Irina, give birth and make some money with an arranged adoption.

Diment invests time in both characters, neither of whom is quite what she seems. The more we learn about each the less we really know, but trouble’s brewing, that’s for sure. And the greater the intrigue, the stranger the film.

The filmmaker wades hip deep into triggers: abortion, self-harm, sexual assault. And his approach unsentimental. No, it is blunt. Nothing is sacred, or to be honest, even interesting enough for Irina’s thoughtful consideration. Trauma and mental health are not treated delicately, either. No kid gloves, but loads of intentionality – Carla is often as shocked by Irina’s blasé attitude as we are, and Carla’s no delicate flower.

Berthet and Anganuzzi deliver everything a moviegoer needs from the heroes and villains of this twisted tale. Berthet is the hard candy shell to Anganuzzi’s messy middle, and neither character is easy to root for. But together, their almost hostile yet somehow tender chemistry fuels the human madness developing in the film.

Flashes of Hitchcock and Almodovar (that’s a fun pairing!) flavor the film’s aesthetic and movement, Diment blending inspiration with his own impeccable sense of detail to create a film full of intensity, eccentricity and style.

The filmmaker sets up gorgeous shots, both to keep you off balance and for the sheer odd beauty of them. His use of color is also fascinating. At first it feels a little too on-the-nose, but the truth is that, once again, he’s underscoring a change in the power dynamic.

The escalating lunacy nearly tips to melodrama or even parody, but the duo at the center of it all manages to hold it all together somehow. The Attachment Diaries is a dark, bizarre mystery thriller that flirts with B-movie status in a way that somehow makes the experience richer than it had any real right to be.

Follow You, Follow Me


by George Wolf

It’s taken awhile, but it seems more filmmakers have gotten a grip on how to handle this social media thing. Just last year, B.J. Novak’s Vengeance and Quinn Shephard’s Not Okay found smart and savvy new angles to explore, and now director/co-writer Kurtis David Harder does the same with Influencer.

Harder’s approach leans more Neo-noir thriller, as the cold and calculating CW (Cassandra Naud – outstanding) spins a dangerous web for an unsuspecting social butterfly.

Madison (Emily Tennant) is a media maven who is making sure her followers see nothing but an amazing trip to Thailand. But the real real is lonely and boring, thanks to a boyfriend who bailed on her and no friends in sight. So, Madison is only too happy to chat up fellow traveler CW, and to accept her offer for a tour of the most IG-ready spots around.

But there will be no friend requests, and Madison will be the only one posing. CW has no online presence at all, and in fact seems very insistent on avoiding photographs. Weird, right?

Maybe. Or maybe creepy. Suspicious, even.

Harder and cinematographer David Schuurman create an absolutely gorgeous pot for boiling this mystery. From atop deserted island beaches to below crystal clear waters and inside lavish vacation homes, Harder’s nimble camera and visual aesthetics reinforce the notion that pretty pictures don’t always tell the whole story.

And once Madison’s friend Jessica (Sara Canning) slides into these DMs, events take even more deliciously twisty turns, with CW scrambling to juggle her many different versions of just what Madison is doing and just why she is suddenly such a big part of it.

Naud sells it completely, evolving CW into a compelling combination of chameleon and parasite. She’s an absolutely in-the-moment creature, and Naud crafts the perfect vessel for Harder and co-writer Tesh Guttikonda to upend conventions while they pull at our cultural strands of misinformation, envy and objectification.

You won’t find the satirical humor that both Novak and Shephard wielded so effectively, but Harder’s approach is no less effective. With sharp dialogue, skillful plotting and simmering dread, Influencer is plenty worthy of that “Like” button.


Soft & Quiet

by Rachel Willis

The idea that the kindergarten teacher at your child’s school might be a member of an Aryan group is terrifying enough, but writer/director Beth de Araújo takes that idea even further in her first full-length feature, Soft & Quiet.

The kindergarten teacher, Emily (Stefanie Estes), is our focus as we watch her leave school one afternoon to attend a meeting of like-minded women. Right from the beginning, it’s clear Stefanie is unlikeable. She coerces a young boy into confronting a janitor over mopping the floor, painting it to the child’s mom as teaching him to be empowered.

From this uncomfortable moment, the movie takes us further into discomfort as we follow Emily in real time as her evening progresses. Giving away anything more would remove the tension that is slowly built as the movie moves from unsettling to disturbing to terrifying.

Telling a story in real time takes a truly talented editor, and Lindsay Armstrong nails it. Her cut is seamless, and it helps deepen the tension. The editing work keeps you in the moment, showing how quickly mob mentality can take over – especially if the group in question feels threatened (even when the threat actually comes from the group in question).

Most of the time, the cinematography complements the writing and editing. But on occasion, it feels like we’re watching a found footage film, which detracts slightly from the tension. While there are many moments filmed to unsettle, at other times it removes us from the moment. However, these minor faults are easily overlooked.

The acting throughout is perfect. Every woman feels like someone you might know. From the pregnant Stormfront member to the woman living paycheck-to-paycheck, each actor brings a realism that lends to the dread we feel as we follow the group.

Though we follow Emily, it’s impossible to feel any sympathy for her. She is at times coerced into action and other times the leader of the pack. What she chooses to do is horrifying, and her responses to the events don’t evoke understanding.

There are several themes running in the film, but all of them work together to paint a picture that isn’t hard to envision.   It’s easy to imagine women like these among us. That’s the scariest part of all.

No Bromance

To the Moon

by Rachel Willis

Written, directed by, and starring Scott Friend, To the Moon attempts to capture a tense weekend when a husband and wife are forced to spend time in the company of the husband’s estranged brother.

Dennis (Friend) and Mia (Madeleine Morgenweck) have retreated to the family cabin to help Dennis kick his numerous addictions. From what we gather, this isn’t the first time the couple has done this. An accident in Mia’s past, and a hinted miscarriage, compound the couple’s troubles.

To complicate matters, the two wake up one morning to find Dennis’s brother, Roger (Will Brill), performing a strange, yoga-like ritual in the yard. The dog seems just as confused by this newcomer as Dennis and Mia.

What works for this taut little thriller is the obvious tension between Dennis and Roger, as well as between Dennis and Mia. There is a lot going on beneath the surface of their dinner table conversations, and from the moment Roger arrives, something is in the air between the brothers. Mia does her best to keep up cheery conversation, but Dennis makes it difficult. Roger also has a bad habit of offering his opinion in places where it isn’t wanted.

However, when Dennis describes this very Zen Roger as malevolent, it seems like a strange choice of words. There isn’t a lot of information forthcoming regarding Roger’s back story. He mentions a hospital, but the we’re left wondering about Roger’s past.

WIthheld information makes Dennis’s mistrust seems ill-conceived. Hallucinatory moments don’t exactly help us put faith in Dennis. Though Roger is nosy, a bit creepy with his mannerisms, and a little “out there,” he doesn’t put off a vicious vibe. Unlike Dennis. Everything from his resting bitch face to his tone of voice suggests a potential for violence.

It can be hard to convey paranoia on film, but Friend manages with a few key moments. However, his streamlined script leaves too much unsaid and unexplored. As we approach the climax, it isn’t enough to leave the audience wondering if Dennis’s paranoia is justified or simply a result of his withdrawal.  

Light the Corners of My Mind

Minor Premise

by George Wolf

“Don’t make me psychotic. You wouldn’t like me when I’m psychotic.”

Okay, that’s not the exact quote, but science fiction and horror stories have been mining the conflicting personality premise since well before Bill Bixby on 1970s TV. Minor Premise ups the ante in stellar fashion, with no less than 10 identities competing for one man’s consciousness.

Dr. Ethan Kochar (Sathya Sridharan) is a scientist living in the shadow of his late father, but Ethan’s on the verge of a breakthrough that would make his spotlight quite a bit brighter.

His work is centered on mapping memories as physical imprints on neural pathways. If Ethan can isolate sections of the brain, he foresees amazing possibilities such as boosting intellect, erasing Alzheimers and PTSD, maybe even constructing consciousness.

But when Ethan goes full Brundlefly and experiments on himself, his identity is fractured into 10 different emotions – ranging from euphoric to psychotic – each operating at 6 minute increments.

Anyone familiar with 2004’s wonderful Primer will feel right at home, especially after Ethan’s colleague and former flame Allie (Paton Ashbrook) drops by to help him put the pieces of his mind back together. From there, the film becomes a one setting two-hander, as director/co-writer Eric Schultz unveils a feature debut of clever intellect, stylish pacing and claustrophobic, beat-the-clock tension.

Sridharan and Ashbrook make a formidable team, anchoring their wary chemistry and heady dialogue with a “try to keep up” attitude that’s organically right for their characters. They’re brilliant scientists (Schultz, by the way, studied psychology at Harvard) and we’re not, so if you pay enough attention and suspend a little disbelief, Minor Premise crackles with some major sci-fi thrills.

Bottle Feeding

The Empty Man

by George Wolf

Okay, so here’s the story: if you’re on a bridge at night and blow into an empty bottle, you’ll conjure the Empty Man. And in three days, he’ll find you.

Right, so it’s a bit of Candyman, some of The Ring, lots of jump scares and kills for Halloween, got it.

I don’t think you do…unless you’ve read Cullen Bunn’s graphic novels.

Writer/director David Prior adapts the series with James Badge Dale in the lead as James, an ex-cop still grieving from the loss of his wife and son. When the daughter of his good friend Nora (Marin Ireland) goes missing, James sidesteps the local Missouri cops for a rogue investigation of his own.

Prior, a video vet making his feature debut, lays down an atmosphere that gets plenty creepy, but seldom horrific. As James digs in, the film becomes a dark mystery, one full of freaky cult members with aspirations of total consciousness and malevolent chaos.

Dale keeps your interest with a terrific performance full of wounded determination, getting solid support from Ireland (plus Stephen Root in a memorable cameo).

But at nearly two hours and twenty minutes, it’s a bit too much of wandering slog in need of a leaner path.

Come in looking for a tidy little slasher, and you’re going to be disappointed. But if you’re down for a dark and moody rumination on grief, metaphysics and itchy brains, you could conjure up worse than The Empty Man.

Paradise Found

Beasts Clawing at Straws

by Hope Madden

Who doesn’t enjoy a good bag o’cash flick?

Whether it’s the darkly humorous Lucky Grandma or lyrically tragic A Simple Plan, the terrifying innocence of Millions, or the violent masterpiece that is No Country for Old Men modern cinema has proven that you can do a lot with the combination of thrill, hijinks and dread that come along with an unexpected satchel full of bills.

Writer/director Kim Yong-Hoon pieces together just such emotions with his first feature. A nice guy, a missing person, that bag of cash, a mean tattoo, a lucky pack of cigarettes, a cool title—Beasts Clawing at Straws looks like it has it all.

Telling his tale in chapters that disjoint the narrative into a series of six interconnected plotlines, the filmmaker borrows the cinematic language of Tarantino and the Coens. If you’re going to steal from somewhere, you could do worse.

His pacing, framing, use of color and light all give the film its own swagger, though, and whether you guess where it’s all headed or you don’t, you’re bound to remain interested.

Where the filmmaker really strikes it rich is with this cast. Every actor adds a little exaggerated pathos to the mix as we ascend the ranks of smalltime crooks, each looking to score off another, all of them somehow connected to this stuffed Luis Vuitton bag.

Woebegone and hard working, Sung-Woo Bae offers the picture an emotional center. But the mid-film entrance of Do-yeon Jeon—glorious as ever—gives Beasts new life. She offers the chapters a sleek, devious tone the film had been missing.

Beasts Clawing at Straws offers mainly visceral if superficial thrills, but periodically it does ask us why it is we find ourselves rooting for the baddie. In the world created in this film, good and bad are separated by shades of grey and blood stains and no matter how you define yourself, you’re only one big, fat bag of cash away from finding out the truth.

Mother Knows Best

Evil Eye

by George Wolf

Though they live in different countries, Usha (Sarita Choudhury) and her daughter Pallavi (Sunita Mani) talk often, and Mom always seems to have two main things on her mind.

Does Pallavi have a boyfriend yet? And is she remembering to wear her “evil eye” bracelet?

It’s been years since Usha and her husband left the U.S. for their native India, as Pallavi stayed behind with aspirations of writing a novel. Now, as her very American daughter nears thirty, the traditional Usha is getting impatient for a wedding, and trusts in the bracelet to protect Pallavi against any evil spirits preventing her from marriage.

So, when Pallavi begins a serious relationship with the dashing Sandeep (Omar Maskati), she is shocked when Mom objects, and strenuously.

You’d object, too, if you believed your daughter was dating a reincarnation of the abusive boyfriend who tried to kill you three decades before.

Originally a best-selling Audible original, Evil Eye is directors Elan and Rajeev Dassani’s contribution to Amazon’s Welcome to the Blumhouse series. With an adapted script from source author Madhuri Shekar, the film lands as a delightfully cultured mystery. As narrative layers develop, the atmosphere is more supernatural thriller than outright horror show.

Plot turns tend to rely on convenience and in the absence of any sustained tension or outright fear, the real draw becomes the mother/daughter dynamic propelled by the two lead performances.

The veteran Choudhury makes Usha a fascinating conundrum, haunted by her past, fearing for her daughter’s future and forced to question some beliefs she’s long held dear. When the script wavers, Choudhury elevates it, selling every moment with conviction.

Mani, an up-and-comer seen in Glow and the current Save Yourselves!, provides the effective contrast. Pallavi’s modern path is, at first, only mildly affected by her mother’s traditional sensibilities. But when Usha comes west to present her concerns in person, Pallavi must confront her own inner turmoil.

By the time the final twist is revealed, you’ll most likely have already guessed it. But what you’ll remember about Evil Eye has little to do with the mysterious occurrences surrounding this mother and daughter. It’s the humanity flowing between them that sticks.

Rage Inside a Machine


by George Wolf

I remember watching that classic TV movie Duel with my mom in the early 70s. It was tense and exciting (a young Spielberg directed!), but the thing that most unnerved Mom was the fact that…SPOILER ALERT… you never find out why that truck driver was terrorizing a frazzled Dennis Weaver.

Unhinged offers no such ambiguity. Russell Crowe is just really pissed off.

Well, the unnamed driver Crowe plays is, anyway. The Man has lost his wife, and his job, and now he’s in traffic getting beeped at, passed and gestured to by a woman in a big hurry.

The Man catches up, rolls down the window and calmly explains civility to young Kyle in the back seat (Gabriel Bateman from Lights Out and the Child’s Play reboot) while asking Rachel in the front for an apology. She declines, so The Man vows to show Rachel (Slow West’s Caren Pistorius) what a bad day really is.

Things get nasty in a hurry. And though the script from Carl Ellsworth (Red Eye, Disturbia) often flirts with ridiculous, it offers more clever construction that you might expect. The premise certainly recalls Falling Down, but Ellsworth isn’t interested in darkly comic social commentary. This is an overt explosion of murderous male rage, one that also manages – almost as an afterthought – to deliver a blunt cautionary tale about smart phone addiction as effective as any we’ve seen on film.

Director Derrick Borte (The Joneses) keeps the pace moving nicely with tension and bursts of brutality, which is perfectly fine for a disposable thriller. What’s even better, he knows what the real point of all this is.

Russell on a rampage. That’s it.

You want some of that? Crowe and Unhinged deliver it, with all the when’s, why’s, and how’s right up in your face.

You know, so Mom won’t be left hanging.