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When Wrestlers Act: Doom (2005)
DIRECTED BYAndrzej BartkowiakSTARRINGKarl Urban - John “Reaper” GrimmDwayne “The Rock” Johnson - Asher “Sarge” MahoninRosamund Pike - Dr. Samantha GrimmRichard Brake - Dean PortmanDeobia Oparei - Roark “Destroyer” GannonBen Daniels - Eric “Goat” FantomRaz Adoti - Gregory “Duke” SchofieldAl Weaver - Mark “The Kid” DantalianDexter Fletcher - Marcus “Pinky” PinzerowskiGenre - Horror/Action/Science Fiction/Video GamesRunning Time - 113 Minutes [Unrated Director’s Cut]As a lot of movie goers know, the process of adapting a video game property into a feature film [and vice-versa] hasn’t had the greatest percentage of succeeding. Ever since 1993’s SUPER MARIO BROS., Hollywood has struggled to capture what made the video games so popular into a live-action film format. While each adaptation may have a highlight or two within their respective films, only a few adaptations can be considered good. 1995’s MORTAL KOMBAT is a fun and cheesy flick that, at least, managed to adapt its source material as much as possible for the time. 2001’s TOMB RAIDER is a pretty solid action flick and turned Angelina Jolie into a huge star. The RESIDENT EVIL series, as divisive as they are, proved that audiences will latch on to a property if there’s enough fun things going on within it. 2006’s SILENT HILL is actually a pretty solid and atmospheric horror film that still works. And 2019’s POKEMON: DETECTIVE PIKACHU proved that not straying away from the source could reap some huge rewards commercially. Unfortunately, the major of video game adaptations are either really bad, or just extremely disappointing due to its unfulfilled potential. I feel 2005’s DOOM fits under this criteria - an adaptation of one of video game’s most important and influential first person shooters that didn’t appeal to many despite casting Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson in a lead role. It’s also surprising the film didn’t do better considering one of the franchise’s most popular entries, Doom 3, was released a year prior to great success. But with a $70 million dollar budget, the film only made about $56 million at the box office - not only making DOOM a box office bomb, but continuing a trend at the time for one Dwayne Johnson, who was struggling with maintaining his supposed star power. I hadn’t watched DOOM in about 13 years, not remembering it fondly and considering one of Dwayne Johnson’s biggest flops in his movie career. Even Johnson himself dislikes this film, feeling it never lived up to its potential. But my interest in rewatching DOOM comes at a time where the video game franchise has gained a lot of strength and good will in the last few years, especially with Doom Eternal being considered one of 2020’s Most Anticipated Games. Netflix is even streaming a quasi-sequel to this film, DOOM: ANNIHILATION, that isn’t considered to be any good but is at least praised for capturing the essence of the source material better than this film did. Considering all the negativity surrounding it, is DOOM really that bad? Were we expecting too much out of this adaptation fifteen years ago? Or does it deserve to be destroyed by a BFG for good?PLOTA team of space marines known as the Rapid Response Tactical Squad, led by Sarge (Dwayne Johnson), is sent to a science facility on Mars after somebody reports a security breach. There, they learn that the alert came after a test subject, a mass murderer purposefully injected with alien DNA, broke free and began killing people. Dr. Grimm (Rosamund Pike), who is related to team member Reaper (Karl Urban), informs them all that the chromosome can mutate humans into monsters - and is highly infectious.REVIEWRewatching DOOM again after so many years, I didn’t hate it as much as I had previously. In fact, I can tell there’s a good film in DOOM somewhere if it had been written and executed better in its final form. And while the film does have some positive things going for it in hindsight, DOOM still remains a heavily flawed film and a video game adaptation that could have and should have been better on so many levels.Let’s get the positives out of the way first. The highlight of DOOM, which many who have seen the film will probably agree with, is during the final act where we see the recognizable first-person Doom point of view as Reaper shoots and dodges creatures trying to kill him. Director Andrzej Bartkowiak shoots the scene pretty close to the style of the video game, giving us five-to-seven minutes of hope that someone on the production team actually cared about using the source material to cater to fans of the video games and put a smile on their faces. The Unrated Director’s Cut is the way to go when it comes to this scene, as this edition adds more of the first-person-shooter aspect and makes us wish more of this aspect had been implemented throughout the rest of the film during the action scenes. It stands out against the rest of the standard and generic visual presentation, still holding up pretty well and proving that video game adaptations could be fun if you just gave the fans what they want.Speaking of the visual presentation, I also liked the Universal opening logo using Mars instead of Earth, which is a nice touch. I wish more films with certain themes would do that more. And the closing credits with the first-person-shooting isn’t as good as the one within the actual story, but it’s still cool that the producers knew enough to use it. It’s not too hard to cater to the fan base while making the material more Hollywood, as long as it’s not forced or overdone.I thought that while the creatures didn’t look as cool as their video game counterparts, at least there seemed to be a focus on making them look good. The monsters seemed more practical than CGI for the most part - maybe besides the Pinky monster - and I liked their designs. They looked threatening and stood out enough to make an impression. I also didn’t mind the futuristic set designs and the gory moments that thankfully pushed DOOM into an R rating. Cool monster bites on necks, vicious wounds, and multiple severed body parts compensated for other things that lacked in this film.I also didn’t mind much of the acting in DOOM. A lot of the actors don’t get a whole lot of dialogue, especially good dialogue. But the main actors try to make good with the material given, even if they’ve done better work on other projects before and since. Karl Urban and Rosamund Pike struggled with their accents at times, but I liked their performances as both Reaper and Dr. Grimm. Urban is great at brooding and always looks believable when performing action scenes, so I thought he fit well here. Pike is mainly there to be the token female and say science things that drive the plot, but she does it like a champ. I found it funny, though, that Urban and Pike shared a more romantic chemistry than a sibling one, which made watching DOOM pretty uncomfortable at times. There was an interesting vibe there. I also liked Raz Adoti as the flirtatious and loyal Duke, sharing some genuinely cute and funny moments with Pike. It presented a nice change of pace from the rest of the film. And I enjoyed Richard Brake as Portman, playing up his trademark unhinged performance that he’s perfected ever since this movie, especially in his appearances in recent Rob Zombie movies. A lot of the actors weren’t allowed to display any sort of personality since they were directed to play gruff soldiers. But Brake seems to enjoy hamming it up as a lunatic and it more than worked for me.Now we get to the things that aren’t so good about DOOM. And it pains me to put him here since he was the draw at the time. But Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson just seems off in this film and I don’t fully blame him for that either. I’m not saying his performance is terrible because it isn’t at all. He does a commendable job playing Sarge and shouting orders like you’d expect a drill sergeant would. But this man is one of the most charismatic movie stars in the world and for whatever reason, he’s not allowed to display any sort of fun or swagger in this acting. It’s not sure if Andrzej Bartkowiak directed him to play the role straight, or if Johnson’s agent and/or manager at the time convinced him to be less “Rock” and more “Dwayne” - wanting him to a more serious actor by not playing up to the persona that made him a star to begin with. Johnson just seems checked out, even when the twist happens. Johnson, himself, has stated a few times that DOOM is his least favorite project for various reasons. Judging by his lacking, yet competent performance, I can see why.And then we get to what really brings DOOM down - the script itself. There are a lot of issues with the story here. For one, this is a pretty loose adaptation of the source material. Instead of fighting demons invading space from Hell, DOOM is nothing more than an ALIENS ripoff mixed with what studios felt worked in the RESIDENT EVIL film series at the time. Doing any film resembling 1986’s ALIENS is automatically going to make that movie look inferior, especially when the most you know about the characters are their nicknames. And it sucks that the demons from Hell were replaced by infected zombie-like people from a Mars lab. At least I think it was Mars, since we barely see anything outside of the lab. The switch was probably due to budgetary reasons, but it just turns DOOM into another zombie film influenced by the much more popular RESIDENT EVIL films. The characters saying scientific stuff, as if the actors playing them knew what the hell they were talking about, is unintentionally hilarious at times though. I hear the new DOOM film caters more to the demons from Hell deal than this one does. It’s kind of disappointing. And I like I wrote earlier, the characters don’t have much depth really besides nicknames that pretty much tell us a certain personality trait or their job within the squad. Sarge just shouts at his troops and wants to have things his way by any means necessary. Reaper is haunted by his parents’ death and is the group’s best sharpshooter. The Kid is the Rookie. Portman is the token crazy member. Duke is the flirt. Goat is the religious one. And Dr. Grimm probably has the most character as she’s the smart scientist with a tragic past with connections to several members of the squad. Even when a certain character turns to the dark side, there’s no real reason for it to happen besides the film needed a human antagonist besides the zombies. Unlike the films DOOM is trying to emulate, the characters don’t share a ton of chemistry with each other because they’re not really allowed to. Regardless of how you feel about those RESIDENT EVIL films, at least they have the characters form some sort of relationship with each other to build character and enough depth for audiences to care enough to sit through six films. You don’t really care about what happens to these people because you’re really not supposed to. It’s not like the video games have deep protagonists anyway, since you’re mainly just a shooter who travels through corridors and bases to shoot demons until you beat the game. But DOOM could have at least tried harder, since you feel disconnected as if you’re watching someone play the game rather connecting to it if you were playing it yourself.And while some of the direction is decent, especially in the film’s final act, there is a lot to be desired visually for majority of the film. For one, why is DOOM so freakin’ dark? The color scheme within the corridors of the Ark are nice, with blues and reds. But these scenes are barely lit, making it hard to see the monsters or whatever action is going on when the characters are walking inside of this location, which is more often than not. It’s not like the creatures look terrible, because they don’t. And maybe at the start, using darkness could build some tension and anticipation for what we’ll eventually see. But I shouldn’t have to squint during a film to figure out what I’m seeing. It was frustrating and made me wonder how anyone believed this was a good idea. Gritty is a mood, not a lighting scheme. And when there wasn’t any action happening, the vibe of the film just fell flat. There wasn’t a whole lot of energy when the characters would interact with each other via dialogue. A lot of action films usually have decent pacing because even the non-action moments buzz and build to the next action sequence. You don’t really get that with DOOM. At least the dialogue scenes lead to other scenes, unlike a lot of video game adaptations, but I wish they grabbed you more.And the soundtrack is pretty much nondescript. You get a remix of a Nine Inch Nails song and a generic nu-metal type score. I barely remember it as I type this, to be honest with you. Solid…THE FINAL HOWLDOOM is not the worst video game adaptation to have ever been presented in a live-action film format, but it’s not a good adaptation either. The film is lit too dark, the characters have no depth at all, and it’s barely based on the games themselves besides a few names, the concept, and some of the weapons. And Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, one of the most charismatic personalities in any media, acts as if he doesn’t want to be in the film and gives one of his flattest performances against Karl Urban and Rosamund Pike, who clearly outshine him here. But the film does look polished, has a great video game moment with that awesome first-person shooter sequence near the end, displays cool creature designs inspired by the games and above average acting from most of the cast [especially Urban, Pike and Richard Brake]. And the silly dialogue has its unintentional moments of entertainment that elevate a film that could have and should have been better. A lousy video game adaptation, but an average ALIENS meets RESIDENT EVIL rip-off.SCORE2 Howls Outta 4

Original vs Remake - Ju-On: The Grudge (2002) & The Grudge (2004)
DIRECTED BYTakashi ShimizuSTARRINGMegumi Omina - Rika NishinaMisa Uehara - Izumi ToyamaMisaki Ito - Hitomi TokunagaYui Ichikawa - ChiharuTakako Fuji - Kayako SaekiYuya Ozeki - Toshio SaekiTakashi Matasuama - Takeo SaekiYoji Tanaka - Yuji ToyamaKanji Tusda - Katsuya TokunagaShuri Matsuda - Kazumi TokunagaGenre - Horror/Supernatural/GhostsRunning Time - 92 MinutesDIRECTED BYTakashi ShimizuSTARRINGSarah Michelle Gellar - Karen DavisJason Behr - Doug McCarthyKaDee Strickland - Susan WilliamsWilliam Mapother - Matt WilliamsClea DuVall - Jennifer WilliamsGrace Zabriskie - Emma WilliamsBill Pullman - Peter KirkRosa Blasi - Maria KirkTed Raimi - Alex JonesTakako Fuji - Kayako SaekiYuya Ozeki - Toshio SaekiTakashi Matsuyama - Takeo SaekiGenre - Horror/Supernatural/GhostsRunning Time - 92 MinutesWith the latest remake/reboot of THE GRUDGE starting the 2020 movie season, I figured I would look back at the 2002 original Japanese film and its first remake from 2004 - both films that seem to look like bigger successes than the current film that’s been released if the critical and commercial response is any indication. With films like 2016s TRAIN TO BUSAN and even 2019’s PARASITE prove, Western audiences are willing to enjoy horror films from an Asian market without an Americanized adaptation to boost name recognition for some Hollywood studio. That wasn’t always the case, as a bunch of Americanized remakes of Asian horror films were constantly released in the 2000s to varying success. Obviously, the most successful and probably best remake to come out of this era is 2002’s THE RING, a well-made American version of 1998’s RINGU. In fact, I think THE RING is a slight improvement over RINGU, taking what made the original film good and expanding on it a bit to great results. And considering how lame many of the remakes that came after THE RING ended up being, it’s pretty safe to say that the 2004 remake of 2002’s JU-ON: THE GRUDGE, THE GRUDGE, is the second best Japanese-to-American remake of this era. Both films were huge hits, creating many tropes and visuals that would get copied into other horror films dealing with the same subject matter even today.It had been about fifteen years since I had sat down to watch either JU-ON: THE GRUDGE or THE GRUDGE, even though I pretty much remembered the many similarities and some differences both versions of the same story [directed by the same director no less] had. And it was interesting to see why audiences were so gravitated to these films, as they felt fresh and narratively original at the time - but feel very dated today. Even though neither film holds up all that well in my opinion, I still think they were important in the history of the horror genre and are both worth a look. The question is if I would have to recommend just one of these films, which one would I choose? Let’s see the pros and cons of both of these films.PLOTIn Tokyo, multiple characters enter a so-called haunted house where a terrible murder-suicide took place between an angry and jealous husband and his wife, which unfortunately included their young son and family cat. In Japanese culture, this type of hateful act creates a vengeful spirit known as The Grudge, possessing and imprinting on those who step foot where the scene of the crime occurred. Whether inside that very house or outside of it, the spirit will spook its victims, creating mysterious deaths while passing on its curse to anyone who has entered that home. Figuring out what’s going on, characters attempt to break the spell before the curse spreads across multiple victims.REVIEWJU-ON: THE GRUDGEWith the huge success of 1998’s RINGU and its American remake, 2002’s THE RING, it’s not surprising that JU-ON: THE GRUDGE was as successful and an easy target for its own American version. What many probably don’t know is that JU-ON: THE GRUDGE was actually the third installment in that series, with the first two films being made for television. I guess those films were successful enough to warrant a theatrical release for the third installment, which helped build its brand since on a worldwide level.It’s easy to see why JU-ON: THE GRUDGE appealed to so many. While it did take aspects of RINGU, especially when it came to a curse being passed through some means and a dark-haired spirit haunting people, JU-ON: THE GRUDGE forged its own path to stand out from a lot of the other Japanese films coming out at the time. While the scare factor is probably not as strong as it was almost 20 years ago, it’s obvious that director Takashi Shimizu was more focused on creating this haunting and sinister atmosphere rather than telling a memorable narrative. The visual presentation is still JU-ON: THE GRUDGE’s strongest aspect, still managing to creep you out somewhat with its creepy visuals and tension building scenes. While meme’d and parodied since, those moments where the vengeful spirit Kayako crawls down the stairs with a creaking sound that’s still very effective today are so well shot that it brings a sense of unease most modern horror films lack. The little boy, Toshio, is also presented well, as he’s always hiding in a window, a corner, under a table, or in a closet with a wide-eyed stare that’s unsettling. The meowing is a bit silly, even back then, but it gives Toshio character and presents something most mainstream audiences hadn’t really seen in a film. There are barely jump scares with loud noises, which strengthen the film’s power, letting the tension build enough to turn those lights on while watching. I also think Takashi Shimizu films the Tokyo interiors and exteriors so well, bringing something foreign even to people who live there. In a lot of ways, I think JU-ON: THE GRUDGE is a better directed film than Hideo Nakata’s RINGU, as I get a sense of fear more out of the former than the latter.Unfortunately, style over substance is a risk that could either elevate or bring down a film. And JU-ON: THE GRUDGE does suffer from the lack of a linear narrative that tries to explain things out of order, but doesn’t really. While we’re given title cards at the start of the film explaining how the curse of the Grudge is created within Japanese culture, not much is done with that other than knowing the cause of the creation of this curse. We never learn why this curse spreads to other people, strangers even, who seem perfectly happy with their lives and had nothing to do with the situation. It doesn’t help that the story is told through segments rather than some sort of linear structure. You’re watching Act E before you’re watching Act B, but Act C will play out before you even get to Act B. It’s kind of a mess because you’re not really sure how each segment connects to the other besides the curse itself. And when you do figure out how each segment fits with the others, you just wish it was told in a somewhat linear way so it would flow better and actually build a lot of tension and suspense as the film nears its end.This fragmented storytelling also hurts character development, as there never seems like there is a main protagonist throughout the entire film. This creates lack of depth for every one of the victims, as we soon learn that they’re just there to react to some evil spirits haunting them before killing them. That may work in a slasher film, but a ghost movie needs more substance in its narrative for audiences to really care what’s going on other than what they see visually. The closest we have to a main hero is social worker Rika, whose entrance into this home is the catalyst for the rest of the scenarios that are displayed out-of-order to let us in on what’s going on. But we don’t spend enough time with her to root for her and she isn’t as proactive in her actions after the fact to make her a hero. The segments themselves are perfectly fine and each have great storytelling moments within them. But JU-ON: THE GRUDGE has too many characters and when you do start to know them, they’re quickly disposed of. By default, the only characters that get some development are the Saeki family. Even then, we only know about what happened to them and why they all became evil spirits. And even their haunting and scaring people starts to become tedious two-thirds into the film. At least the actors are all solid and help elevate a weak script. Otherwise, this film would be worse off.THE GRUDGEAs for the 2004 American remake, most of the film is pretty much shot-for-shot the same as the original film. Considering it’s the same director, the film doesn’t tread too far from what made the original a success. You have similar characters who are dealing with the same vengeful spirits who meow, croak, etc.However, there are some differences that do make THE GRUDGE a worthy companion to JU-ON: THE GRUDGE. Since the film is mainly cast with American actors in a Japanese world, the story has to change a bit to accommodate them. The main character, Karen, is our Rika substitute - playing a fish-out-of-water social worker who enters the haunted home and never leaves it the same woman. But instead of being tossed away for majority of the film and not doing much of importance like how Rika was portrayed, Karen actually has enough depth for us to care about what she’s doing. She has a boyfriend who supports her and cares about her very much. Even though she’s out of her element in a foreign land, she seems driven to be a caring social worker. And when she’s confronted by Kayako and clan, she actually decides to research the house, what happened to the family that had lived there, and investigates in how to stop the curse from hurting others. This edition to the plot actually helps drive the film to its inevitable conclusion, giving the audience more substance to chew on when it comes to this ghost story. It also helps us side with Karen, as she’s willing to do anything to stop the insanity, which is more than I can say for her counterpart.More storytelling differences? Less characters, as a segment wasn’t repeated in this version. I actually enjoyed the scenes with the school girls in the original, but it wouldn’t have added much in this remake. We also learn more about the man Kayako was apparently in love with - a college professor who she started to crush on, but was only one sided as he was a married man. This crush led to the deaths of the Saeko family, eventually leading to some bad things for the professor as well, as he entered the house after-the-fact to discuss Kayako’s feelings and let her down - only to find their corpses instead. And probably the biggest difference is that the storytelling takes a more Hollywood approach, crafting a more linear series of events rather than a narrative that’s all over the place. Some flashbacks do take place like in the original, but it only happens when it wants to explain why certain characters are behaving as they are. If the remake has anything that trumps the original, it’s that the story and plot are much more assessable for audiences and actually help elevate the story into something more sensible. I think the tension and suspense are allowed to build much better in the remake, which is a definitely plus.That being said, while Takashi Shimizu directs his remake as much confidence as he does the original, the power he visually displayed is lessened the second time around. Even if you don’t watch both films back-to-back, there are things that visually work for another culture that don’t work for an American one. The original film has a more quiet presentation when it comes to the scares, never really alerting the audience of danger until you hear that creaking sound that sends chills down your spine. In the remake, those loud audio cues to make the audience jump are here, making the same scenes feel less than. Also, Shimizu edits a few of the scenes, giving less time for these moments to cook, which takes away some of the impact. But I will say the film looks a lot better than the original in terms of cinematography, looking extremely polished and making Japan a beautiful place we would love to visit. It also flows better due to the story structure being stronger. And while the film does have questionable CGI at times, I don’t think it looks all that bad honestly. I’ve seen effects a lot worse than THE GRUDGE during this time frame, and I feel the use of CGI ghosts doing cool things adds to the visual presentation. I really liked that severed jaw bit and some of the faces that morphed into other things. The acting is also pretty decent. THE GRUDGE was meant to make Sarah Michelle Gellar a movie star after her memorable run on Buffy The Vampire Slayer had ended in 2003. She does well enough as Karen, giving us someone to care about as she tries to figure out what’s going on. I think she’s an odd fit at times, as her acting could be a bit stronger when bad things happen. But her name value at the time allowed audiences to root for her and she seems invested in the role enough to take it seriously. I’m surprised the success of this film [and her previous television work] didn’t place Gellar on the A-list. She’s not bad here. The rest of the actors had less to do, but filled their roles adequately. Jason Behr, fresh off of the original version of TV’s Roswell, plays Karen’s boyfriend Doug. Considering the two worked together on an episode of Buffy and hung out in the same circles, Behr’s chemistry with Gellar feels natural and you can buy them as a couple trying to figure out Japan. I wish he had more to do, but at least he helped add depth to Karen and had a decent presence in the film’s final act. The other two actors of note are Clea DuVall and Bill Pullman. DuVall doesn’t do a whole lot either, but she does the best that she can in her short role. And Pullman is always a welcomed presence in any project he’s a part of. He was given more to do than both Behr and DuVall, getting to believably create a bit of depth to his college professor character. His reactions of fear were nicely convincing, so I appreciated him here. Also, shout out to Ted Raimi. Again, small role but I like that guy, so win. THE FINAL HOWLJU-ON: THE GRUDGE was a critical and commercial success, while its 2004 American remake may not have been as big of a hit with critics but made a ton of money at the box office at the time. Both films have their pluses and their minuses and you’re probably better off watching both of them if you’re interested in this franchise for whatever reason. But if you only have time for one, it depends on what kind of moviegoer you are. If you’re willing to sacrifice a more understandable and linear plot for a more effectively creepy visual effects and sound design with really good acting, stick with the original. But if you’re willing to deal with a lesser creep factor and a more Hollywood presentation of horror for a stronger story with deeper characters with logical motivations, 2004’s THE GRUDGE is for you. I personally feel both films are two sides of the same coin, each side depending on what you look for in a horror film like this. And considering what I’ve been hearing about the 2020 reboot for this series, you’re probably better off watching either one of these two films anyway. SCOREJU-ON: THE GRUDGE (2002) & THE GRUDGE (2004)2.5 Howls Outta 4JU-ON: THE GRUDGE (2002) TrailerTHE GRUDGE (2004) Trailer

Lunar Cycle - December 2019
Since I don’t have as much time to write longer reviews than I used to, I figured I would just post shorter reviews for horror/cult films that I feel deserve your attention. Expect these Lunar Cycle posts once per month.INTO THE DARK: POOKA! (2018) - **1/2 out of ****Directed By: Nacho VigalondoStarring: Nyasha Hatendi, Latarsha Rose, Jon Daly, Dale Dickey, Jonny Berryman, Bryan Billy Boone, Caden DragomerGenre: Horror/ThrillerRun Time: 83 MinutesPlot: A struggling actor gets a holiday season job as a Christmas character in a plush suit to promote the hottest toy of the year, Pooka; he slowly develops two personalities - one when he’s in the suit and one that’s outside it.Review:Continuing through Hulu’s Into the Dark TV-movie anthology series, I decided to watch last year’s Christmas episode POOKA! - one of last season’s most talked about episodes. Using the holiday as more of a backdrop than as a true focus like PILGRIM did for Thanksgiving, POOKA! still manages to use the idea of toys during the holidays to push its narrative along. Not knowing much about the film, I figured POOKA! would just be like a CHILD’S PLAY clone with some evil dolls would become sentient and cause chaos during Christmas. But I wasn’t expecting this deep and serious psychological thriller about a struggling actor who is hired to be a popular toy’s mascot, only for him to use this new persona to satisfy his more evil side. Maybe that’s why POOKA! doesn’t work fully to the story’s premise, as it’s trying to be a lot of things at once.POOKA!’s make focus is on main character Wilson, who has moved to a new city for a brand new start. The holidays seem to be especially hard on him for some reason, but he forces himself to audition for some mystery acting gig that leads him into becoming the global mascot for a Pooka doll - pretty much a Teddy Ruxpin talking doll that records certain phrases and has a nice and naughty meter that changes occasionally - blue light means nice, red light means naughty. The Pooka doll is the Christmas toy sensation, with Wilson having to dress up as a life-size Pooka doll to promote the toys. Things seem to be going his way. He’s made friends with an eccentric neighbor. He’s met a beautiful real estate agent who is also a single mom, starting a relationship with her. Plus with the toy’s success, he’s making a lot of money. But strange things seem to happen, especially when the Pooka suit is on. Wilson starts getting violent and angry, lashing out on others. However, there are times where Wilson isn’t wearing the suit, watching the Pooka hurt people as an outsider. So is he having a split personality? Is someone else in the outfit? Is it all in his head? What’s the deal?Even though these questions are answered by the film’s end, I do feel that the journey getting there could have been a lot better and more assessable to a certain portion of the audience. I’ve never seen director Nacho Vigalondo’s other films [I’ll probably get to some of those in 2020 as catch up] but I’ve heard he thrives on non-linear storytelling like POOKA! So I can’t compare how this matches up to his other projects. For the most part, I thought the story was well written and quite compelling. While I wish hints were given along the way about what was really going on, I was pretty invested in the film, constantly wondering what was the real deal and how it would all be resolved. I would think the film was going one way, when it would take a stranger direction that made me question what I was watching. I’ve read some people claiming they felt the last act was predictable, but I honestly didn’t see it coming. Even then, I still had questions though and wondered about the film’s narrative time and space. As a strange character study of a man conflicted by seemingly two halves of his personality, I think it’s an interesting one to see play out. But I’m not sure if it worked to its fullest potential since I felt a bit unsatisfied by the film’s end and wish POOKA! was told in a more linear way where the hallucinations and different perspectives would ground the story more and give audiences a more conclusive narrative that would provide enough answers that could keep the mystery intact. I respect that screenwriter Gerald W. Olson made POOKA! feel surreal and dreamlike from beginning to end. But being too vague sometimes will turn people off, especially when the final few minutes tell you what’s going on, but at the same time don’t really. Interesting story, but I think the execution could have been a bit tighter and more easier to digest. I felt like POOKA! explored a lot of things about past trauma while not exploring them enough for me to feel like I got my 90 minutes worth. There shouldn’t be new questions made during the film’s resolution.I’m also sort of torn on how I feel about how the Christmas aspect was used in POOKA!. On one hand, I’m glad that we see Christmas trees, lights, and even media craze over a popular toy like I used to see all the time on the news back when I was younger. But I wish more was done with it, because I honestly feel POOKA! could have taken place during any other holiday besides Christmas and not much would have changed. I think Christmas is the right call if you want to really explore past trauma, since it’s a family holiday. But it just felt like it was more of a backdrop than a holiday that actually plays into much of the film’s narrative. I do feel it did more with the holiday than FLESH & BLOOD did with Thanksgiving. But besides objects and mentions of it, POOKA! didn’t really feel like Christmas to me for much of the film.I do think Vigalondo directed a nice film here visually. The film is well paced and Vigalondo maintains a good creepy tone throughout. The use of colors would make Dario Argento proud, with his use of reds and blues flooding the screen at times, depending on Pooka’s mood. It creates a ton of atmosphere and a surreal feeling, as if you’re watching reality turn into some colorful nightmare or mind f*ck that could only happen in someone’s unstable mind. I also thought the use of blinking red and blue lights, resembling an emergency siren, were a neat touch considering what the colors would represent later in the film. The film also looked really polished and I loved the commercials and news segments looking different from the rest of the film. I haven’t seen any of Vigalondo’s V/H/S’ segments or COLOSSAL, but if his direction is supposedly better on those, then I’m definitely going to cover those in 2020. I dug his style a lot.The acting is also quite good. But the real star here is Nyasha Hatendi as Wilson, portraying so many emotional layers in a quick, yet believable span. You root for him. You fear him. When you learn the truth about his situation, you feel conflicted. It’s almost a commentary on a man suffering from mental illness due to his past haunting him in ways he’ll never recover from, which Hatendi plays perfectly subtle. I enjoyed seeing him playing both sides of his personality - good and evil - slowly deteriorating by the film’s conclusion. Without Hatendi’s strong performance, POOKA! wouldn’t have worked.Overall, POOKA! is a decent Christmas Into the Dark installment. Nacho Vigalondo’s direction is pretty solid, greatly using colors to create a bit of surrealism to showcase the dissociative state of a fractured mind during the holidays. Nyasha Hatendi’s performance as a man who is slowly losing his sense of reality while trying to rebuild his life in a new place is fantastic and keeps the film’s narrative strong. While POOKA! has a compelling story that twists and turns towards a somewhat logical conclusion, the non-linear structure getting there doesn’t work as well as it should. Plus POOKA! has one of those endings that answers the mystery while creating another one, leaving you both satisfied and unsatisfied at the same time. I preferred both Thanksgiving stories over POOKA!, but POOKA! is worth a watch if you’re a fan of this Hulu series and need a bit of Christmas terror in your December viewing cycle. INTO THE DARK: A NASTY PIECE OF WORK (2019) - *** out of ****Directed By: Charles HoodStarring: Julian Sands, Dustin Milligan, Angela Sarafyan, Natalie Hall, Kyle Howard, Nico Greetham, Molly HaganGenre: Horror/ThrillerRunning Time: 78 MinutesPlot: A mid-level corporate employee finds out he’s not getting the Christmas bonus he was expecting, but his boss invites him to earn a promotion by beating his professional rival in a violent competition.Review: One of the better installments of Hulu’s and Blumhouse’s Into the Dark series and slightly ahead of last year’s POOKA! episode, 2019’s A NASTY PIECE OF WORK doesn’t really celebrate the Christmas holiday all that much, but the film carries its influences really well to give us a story that will probably continue to resonate with some people for many years to come. Instead of focusing on Christmas, the film is more focused on class differences and the idea of capitalism having to destroy morality and ethics for one to get ahead in life. This theme of class politics seems to have been a common one in 2019, especially when you have films like KNIVES OUT and READY OR NOT really using it to give their respective stories substance. The same can be said for A NASTY PIECE OF WORK, which uses the idea of workers not getting a Christmas bonus [influenced by NATIONAL LAMPOON’S CHRISTMAS VACATION] to persuade them into hurting and even killing each other to get a promotion at their workplace that the bonus will go to. The story takes three couples - the manipulative boss and his unfulfilled wife, the main character and his wife [who both have morals] and the main character’s elitist rival and his trophy wife - and brings them together to subject them in embarrassing and revealing situations that will force the two male employees to hurt each other for a job. Or maybe the boss and wife are just having fun at the expense of two couples they see lesser than them because they don’t own nice things or have power of any kind that matters to them. In a way, the film pretty much showcases the reality of working in a competitive profession - having to step on others to get ahead in terms of status and salary, creating a “survival of the fittest” environment that creates a lot of drama. I won’t go into major details about things that revealed by all parties involved or give hints as to how it all ends, but A NASTY PIECE OF WORK tells its story in a very satirical way that sort of makes fun of the situation at hand, while also criticizing the selfishness that comes with capitalism. Both employees try to one-up the other, first with their brains until they realize that none of them will get what they want unless physical violence comes into play. The use of shotguns [that may hold blanks or not], large hammers, and other objects give way to some decent gore and death sequences that push forward the agenda of the movie. And when things start to unravel, you start to realize that maybe no one is the good guy in this situation. It’s well written in a black comedy sort of way rather than a horror film, still managing to make you cringe at points because of how messed up this all is.If I did have issues with the story, it’s because there are plot points introduced that don’t get enough attention to really mean much. There’s this deal where a story comes up about someone living within the walls of the boss’ mansion, leading to situations where someone is peeping on the characters through holes in the wall. But it never really goes anywhere, wondering why you wouldn’t do more with such a creepy plot device. There’s also a thing where murders also happened at this mansion, but we’re never really given any information about those. I’m guessing it has to do with other people competing for some sort of promotion, but nothing much comes out of it. But the twists and turns the story takes are quite fun and definitely worth investing in.I think the one thing POOKA! does have over this film is the visual style of the film. While POOKA! used a lot of colors and had strangely surreal visual cues that made you wonder what you were watching, A NASTY PIECE OF WORK is a pretty simple one-location type of set up that feels like a TV movie rather than some sort of cinematic experience. Charles Hood does a good job presenting the story in a simple manner that we can all follow. But I felt like the film could have been more tense and suspenseful visually. It’s well framed, shot, and even uses the violent portions in an entertaining manner. But the film could have used a bit more flash, considering how grounded the premise was. It doesn’t have to be over-the-top, but a bit of style every now and then wouldn’t have hurt. The acting is also pretty good. All the actors play their roles well - like Kyle Howard’s kiss-ass, yet moralistic Ted and Angela Sarafyan who plays his supportive wife Tatum. Dustin Milligan isn’t too bad as the douchey Gavin either. But the film definitely belongs to both Julian Sands and Molly Hagan, as the boss and his bothersome wife. Sands, the friggin’ WARLOCK, is always an awesome presence in any film or television show he appears in. He brings so much class along with him, giving us a boss character that you want to hate but can’t help be charmed by. He plays the role very seriously until you see a certain gleam in his eye that makes you see how much fun he’s having being the bad guy. Hagan, who Sands has great comic chemistry with, is more boisterous in her performance as a seducing and alcoholic wife who enjoys tearing down her husband and his employees every chance she can get. While Sands is more matter-of-fact, Hagan is more playful and livens up the film quite a bit. Hagan made me laugh quite a bit, making me understand why all the characters were pretty annoyed with her behavior.Overall, A NASTY PIECE OF WORK is one of Hulu’s Into the Dark’s best segments. While it could have used the Christmas holiday more to create a certain atmosphere, as well as tie up loose ends that are brought up but never addressed much afterwards, the film still manages to be a fun black comedy that satirically looks how the class warfare still affects many especially in the workplace. The twists and turns of the characters’ personal information unraveling to elevate the drama between them is well done. I also thought the more horror-thriller aspects of the film were handled well, despite Charles Wood’s a-bit-too-simple direction. The actors make the story fun, especially the always awesome Julian Sands and Molly Hagan, who embrace their devilish characters and show how much fun they’re having being bad. Not as good as similar films this year like KNIVES OUT or READY OR NOT, but still very watchable and worthy of a look for those interested in this anthology series. ANGEL HEART (1987) - ***1/2 out of ****Directed By: Alan ParkerStarring: Mickey Rourke, Robert De Niro, Lisa Bonet, Charlotte Rampling, Stocker Fontelieu, Brownie McGhee, Dann Florek, Kathleen Wilhoite, George BuckGenre: Mystery/Horror/Satanic/VoodooRunning Time: 113 MinutesPlot: Down-and-out private detective Harry Angel is ordered by the mysterious Louis Cypher to go on a mission to find a mission person. His routine failure soon leads to a bloody spar with himself, as he goes on a supernatural journey into his own soul.Review:1987's ANGEL HEART is a film I watched quite frequently for a time in the late 1980s and early 1990s, as my late uncle was a huge fan of the film. While I remembered a couple of things that happened, the adult storytelling and themes went way over my head. I had been wanting to watch the film again for a while, seeing it pop up on streaming sites for the last few years. Before 2019 was over, I decided to take the plunge and see why my uncle enjoyed this film so much and why I barely had a recollection of it besides the voodoo stuff.As a child, ANGEL HEART won’t grab you on a narrative level, even if it might visually at times. But as an adult, I have a whole new appreciation of this film and really get why my uncle and so many others praise it so highly. In a way, ANGEL HEART is a pretty underrated horror-noir flick that doesn’t get a whole lot of discussion. But it absolutely should since it has a lot going for it in terms of direction, mystery and especially the acting.Getting too deep into the story would spoil things for people who haven’t had a chance to watch ANGEL HEART. But what I will say that while the mystery is pretty obvious [especially now that I understand the references as an adult], the screenplay is still well constructed and builds onto the film’s shocking [not shocking?] climax that poses new questions that never get answered. It captures the neo-noir feel well and as detective Harry Angel continues along his investigation within a supernatural world of voodoo to uncover the truth, you stay interested and committed to the film’s narrative. The characters all have dimension, like the charismatic yet haunted Harry Angel, to the dark and mysterious Lou Cypher [how did I not see who he was right away as a child?], and the captivating and sultry Epiphany. The deep characters help build this bleak universe in the 1950s where there is more than meets the eye, leading to answers that not only satisfy the viewer, but damage the characters who are blindsided by the conclusion they’re given. It’s an intelligently written film that’s truly meant for mature audiences who will get all the hidden meanings and adult subject matter that encompass this world. ANGEL HEART could have been cheesy, cheap and shocking for all the wrong reasons. But the story has class and wants to legitimately entertain the audience it’s appealing to.The story is helped by Alan Parker’s direction. Prior to ANGEL HEART, Parker directed some high-profile films like 1978’s MIDNIGHT EXPRESS, 1980’s FAME and 1982’s PINK FLOYD: THE WALL - later he would direct 1988’s MISSISSIPPI BURNING and 1996’s EVITA. The man knows how to create mood and atmosphere, especially when it comes to period pieces. ANGEL HEART is no different, maintaining the look of 1955 with a grittiness and bleakness one wouldn’t expect from that time. Old school New York City is wonderfully created and New Orleans really captures this surreal and sweaty locale that will change many of the characters’ lives. In many ways, Parker doesn’t direct a horror film at all, letting the story itself slowly build tension and fear. Parker is more focused on the drama between the players, giving us glimpses of who they are when they’re alone and especially when they interact with one another. Focusing on Harry Angel makes him an unreliable narrator as we suspect that he was hired for the investigation intentionally, as if he’s meant to find out the truth for his own good as well. But Parker does give us glimpses of the dark side of voodoo, with chicken blood pouring on people during erotic situations, making blood almost sexy in a gross way. And the use of hallucinations and visions only add to the visual presentation, giving audiences a puzzle they need to think about and solve by the film’s conclusion that doesn’t insult their intelligence. And while we don’t see the acts of murder until the very end, the aftermath is pretty gruesome at times. Parker directs a solid mystery-thriller that’s super confident and grounded, despite the themes that inhabit the narrative.And ANGEL HEART has some solid performances. Mickey Rourke is at his peak here, in my opinion, looking like the epitome of a grizzled private eye who will do anything to find the answers. He’ll sleep around. He’ll bully people for information. And he’ll place himself in situations that will probably do him more harm than good. Rourke takes the role seriously, playing all aspects of the character perfectly. He’s believably cool and charming, while also convincingly haunted and disturbed as he gets deeper into the mystery. It saddens me that he did so much plastic surgery on himself because Rourke was a good looking dude with solid acting chops that should have made him a bigger star. He’s amazing in this film. Robert De Niro also gets to chew up some scenery as Lou Cypher, the man who hires Harry Angel for this particular assignment. It took a lot of convincing for De Niro to appear in this film, as he was originally courted for the Harry Angel role but refused because he wanted a smaller role with less to do. Plus he wanted concrete locations and direction for his character before signing up to do it. Lou Cypher is more of a cameo role than anything, but De Niro certainly makes his presence as this mysteriously sinister figure who seeks answers, even if these answers aren’t meant for him personally, but for someone else. It’s a quieter role than De Niro usually does and it works for the film, especially when you figure out his true intentions. A nice casting coup for Parker - one that worked out very well. The other major actor in the film is Lisa Bonet as Epiphany, the daughter of a voodoo priestess. Bonet is wonderful as a sultry distraction for Harry Angel, who looks innocent but those looks may be deceiving. She shares quiet chemistry with Rourke and their sex scene almost led to ANGEL HEART having an X rating - it’s that intense. While her performance is memorable, it was unfortunately overshadowed by Bill Cosby being displeased with the role and firing her from The Cosby Show at the time, moving her into the spinoff A Different World instead. That’s kind of funny, considering Bill Cosby was far from a saint himself in his personal life. We also get smaller performances from Charlotte Rampling, Stocker Fontelieu, Dann Florek, Kathleen Wilhoite, and George Buck that add nicely to the film and the film’s mystery. Overall, ANGEL HEART is one of those underrated horror-thrillers from the 1980s that still holds up extremely well after all these years. While the mystery is probably fairly predictable, the storytelling is still strong and well-written enough to bypass that. The characters are fleshed out, the universe they live in is given depth, and the build up leading to the climax flows extremely well and feels mostly satisfying. Alan Parker’s confident direction helps create an awesome neo-noir thriller with interesting imagery and moody set-pieces that would fit right in the genre. And the acting from Mickey Rourke [especially], Robert De Niro and Lisa Bonet are wonderful, bringing the script to life in a believable way and makes you empathize with some of the characters when the mystery is solved. As a child, I had no idea what was going on with this film besides the voodoo aspect of it. But as an adult, I can truly appreciate ANGEL HEART as a classy and thrilling film with a soul that probably deserves more mention than it actually gets.

Lunar Cycle - November 2019
Since I don’t have as much time to write longer reviews than I used to, I figured I would just post shorter reviews for horror/cult films that I feel deserve your attention. Expect these Lunar Cycle posts once per month.ALUCARDA (1977) - ***1/2 out of ****Directed By: Juan Lopez MoctezumaStarring: Tina Romero, Claudio Brook, Susana Kamini, David Silva, Lily Garza, Tina FrenchGenre: Horror/Thriller/Satanism/VampiresRunning Time: 74 MinutesPlot: A young girl’s arrival at a convent after the death of her parents marks the beginning of a series of events that unleash an evil presence on the girl and her mysterious new friend, an enigmatic figure known as Alucarda. Demonic possession, Satan worship, and vampirism follows.Review:Take Ken Russell’s THE DEVILS, add some of THE EXORCIST to it and sprinkle a bit of CARRIE, and you get 1977’s infamous Mexican horror film ALUCARDA. ALUCARDA is a tough film to review because I feel my reaction to it will be wildly different to someone else who stumbles onto this one. This movie is so many things at once that I’m still processing whether this is a good film or not. But damn if it isn’t memorable!While the main premise of ALUCARDA is pretty linear and straightforward with its Satanic corruption arc and attempt of some sort of redemption of our main characters, it’s obvious director Juan Lopez Moctezuma had something to say when it came to institutions of religion and the idea of good versus evil. Is ALUCARDA a film criticizing the Church and how they practice Catholicism? While the nuns and priests in this convent seem to be on the side of good in the first and last acts of the film, it’s that middle portion that doesn’t paint them in a good light at all. Nuns whipping each other? Priests forcing exorcisms on people, eventually leading to grave circumstances without much remorse, wanting to hide the truth? It’s not a pretty picture and it’s no surprise this film created a lot of controversy at the time. Then again, the fact that the Church does try to stop evil from winning in the end makes me wonder if Moctezuma still had faith in some sort of religion or higher power? The Satanists aren’t portrayed as good people either, manipulating and seducing girls into joining their cult to destroy the words of God. Moctezuma shows us that good nor evil is black or white, both sides having bits of grey that reveal their flaws in their arguments. It’s a provocative film that will upset many.The strength of ALUCARDA is due to the two main characters, Justine and Alucarda. Two orphans who quickly befriend each other out of nowhere [the film is only 74 minutes, so relationships need to develop quickly], we’re never given really time to question their fast friendship since they’re corrupted as soon as possible, leading to them destroying the convent their living in from within. The powerhouse performances by the actresses playing these characters really drive the film, making it one to watch. Tina Romero is captivating as Alucarda, giving us a performance that feels more like a force of nature than actual acting. Quiet and aloof, she lingers in the darkness and pops out of shadows as if she were a supernatural creature. Romero also gives looks of innocence, while subtly revealing layers of sin and corrupting underneath when bad things occur. It makes you wonder if Alucarda was corrupted by Satanists, or she was already evil from the start [she was born in a Satanic temple, of course]. There’s a power in Romero’s performance that most horror actresses aren’t able to achieve for whatever reason. Even though you know she’s acting, you start thinking otherwise by the film’s end. She’s amazing. Susana Kamini isn’t as powerful in her performance, but she doesn’t need to be. Her more quiet and human portrayal of Justine compliments Romero’s Alucarda perfectly, as Justine starts as the audience’s character in terms of her reactions to Alucarda’s reactions and her eventual downfall. The supporting actors also do their job well in bouncing off of Romero and Kamini to create a dire situation that the audience is curious about and how it will all end up for everyone involved. There are so many layers in the performances, fleshing out the layers in the narrative tenfold, that you’re just going along for the ride even if some of the things that ALUCARDA present can be fairly uncomfortable to watch.Juan Lopez Moctezuma directs ALUCARDA really well, creating a trippy nunsploitation flick that manages to be a Satanic film that also expresses the debate of science versus religion, while adding a vampire element to the proceedings as well - and it actually works and manages to be fun! The set locations, with the demon looking statues in the temple and giant crosses in the convent, are very nice and add atmosphere to the film. There are also great visual moments - one involving a scene where Justine and Alucarda are being converted to the dark side inside of the convent, as the sky outside changes multiple colors like a Dario Argento film. There’s another moment where a nun is praying for Justine and Alucarda while the two girls are dancing naked with the rest of the Satanists in the other side of the town. The juxtaposition of both scenarios, as both sides effect each other through their respective powers of good versus evil, is so well shot and presented that you’re glued to the screen to see who wins the battle. I also thought the exorcism scene was shot really well, with some nice tension. And the fiery and explosion final act, with nods to CARRIE, displays great action and choreography. The film also flies by due to its quick run time and good pacing. Plus, you get cool undead make up effects, gore and blood, as well as nudity. Sounds like a good time to me! Moctezuma did a great job behind the lens.Plus - the screaming. Oh geez, the screaming that pretty much takes up like forty-percent of the film. Once it starts, you feel like it never ends. And when the film gets a bit more quiet, you’re just wondering which character is going to start it all over again. I thought that screaming kid from THE BABADOOK was annoying, but ALUCARDA may have proven me wrong. It’ll definitely grate on people unless you’re able to tolerate it, like I did. But it does add a mood to this film not many others can claim to have. It’s… something.Overall, ALUCARDA is one of the strangest and more controversial horror films in the genre. It’s a cocktail of THE EXORCIST, THE DEVILS and CARRIE all shook up to create this blasphemous film that also manages to be captivating and deep despite its nunsploitation elements. The performances by Tina Romero [especially] and Susana Kamini are strong and carry the film from beginning to end, while Juan Lopez Moctezuma’s eye for the camera is fantastic, visually expressing the nightmarish situation these two girls are placed in and their actions coming out of it. Plus, you have this anti-religious slant going for it while also making the religious people the “heroes” with the help of science, making me wonder what Moctezuma is really trying to tell us. Either way, ALUCARDA left me confused, intrigued, amused and disturbed all at once. Whether one thinks ALUCARDA is a good film or not, they can’t say it isn’t memorable because this is one that will linger for a while. A totally bonkers film that is probably worth a least a watch - and a few screaming spells along with it.INTO THE DARK: FLESH & BLOOD (2018) - *** out of ****Directed By: Patrick LussierStarring: Diana Silvers, Dermot Mulroney, Tembi Locke, Lavetta Cannon, Krystin Goodwin, Heidi SulzmanGenre: Horror/ThrillerRunning Time: 94 MinutesPlot: Doting father Henry tries to help his teenage daughter, Kimberly, who suffers from agoraphobia and has not left the house since her mother’s still-unsolved murder; a year after the death, Kimberly begins to suspect that she is in danger in the house.Review:Continuing my journey through Hulu’s & Blumhouse’s TV-movie anthology series, Into The Dark, I decided to check out the series first Thanksgiving episode, FLESH & BLOOD. Unlike the first Halloween episode, THE BODY, which is tonally all over the place since it wants to be many things at once and has no idea how to balance it all, FLESH & BLOOD is your straightforward family drama/thriller that seems to know what it wants to say and how to say it. FLESH & BLOOD is pretty much a claustrophobic affair between a grieving father and daughter, whose relationship starts to deteriorate around Thanksgiving due to the matriarch of the family having been murdered the prior year, with the murderer still on the loose. The daughter, Kimberly, is an agoraphobe, constantly having panic attacks at the thought of or attempt at leaving her home. She has a visiting therapist struggling to get her treated, while the drugs she takes tend to make her feel numb and cold to things. Kim’s father is too busy renovating the house and spending long hours out of the house to really give her the attention she deserves. It’s not until she watches a news story about a missing girl, who wears a very similar necklace that her father recently gifted her for her seventeenth birthday, that Kimberly starts suspecting that maybe her father is a murderer. This mystery leads to a ton of tension between the two characters, making the Thanksgiving holiday a much harder time to process in the long run.Unlike THE BODY, where you had multiple characters with different motivations and were written in ways that made you wonder whether you’re supposed to laugh or feel scared by what you’re watching, FLESH & BLOOD plays things as seriously as possible, crafting a mystery that leads to a predictable conclusion if you’ve seen a thriller or two in your lifetime. While generic and maybe stretching the narrative longer than it probably needed to, FLESH & BLOOD at least manages to be a less frustrating watch and entertaining little family drama with solid performances and simple twists and turns that start to build to answers that we expected, but are logical at the same time. The film tries to make Kimberly an unreliable narrator, since her medication had side effects of mood swings and delusions, making you wonder if her feelings on her father’s connections to the missing girls [and even her own mother’s murder] were legit or just all in her head. Her father’s erratic reaction to it all also made you question whether he really was a crazy murderer, or just frustrated with his daughter’s current mental state and feeling helpless that he couldn’t make her get better. The story takes all the cliche steps towards the film’s violent conclusion, but at least you understand how and why the film gets to where it’s going. Unlike THE BODY, which was all over the place, FLESH & BLOOD is extremely linear in design and more satisfying because of it. We understand the characters before the questions start to build and we understand once it’s all revealed. Both Kimberly and her father change through the course of ninety minutes, yet still maintaining the many layers they revealed prior to the shit hitting the fan. Maybe the story has some filler and doesn’t try to reinvent the wheel, but at least I could connect to it and enjoy it all as a spectator.The most surprising about FLESH & BLOOD is that it is directed by Patrick Lussier - the man behind really stylish and crazy visual-heavy films like DRIVE ANGRY, MY BLOODY VALENTINE 3D and DRACULA 2000 [and its sequels]. This Into the Dark installment strips all the style, rather focusing on simple visuals that prefer the actors and the script to be more of the showcase rather than the direction. That’s not to say the film looks terrible or anything. It’s a visually nice looking film that contains all the professional editing and shots needed to make the storytelling mostly a success. And the panic attack scenes aren’t fresh, but the distorted visuals and crazy pans and tilts do give off the desired effect. Maybe the pacing is a bit off due to some filler and scenes going a bit too long at times, but overall it’s a solid Lussier directorial film. The violent stuff at the end is shot pretty well - it’s not as bloody or as gory as THE BODY - while Lussier manages to create a nice level of tension and suspense due to the claustrophobic nature of the story as the film only takes place inside this one house. While Lussier’s stylish flashes help the other films he has directed, I kind of liked the simplicity this time around. Maybe the budget was lower and he had less to play around with, but I think it helps makes FLESH & BLOOD stand out from the rest of his filmography.What really sells this film are the two main performances. Diana Silvers, who was the main female protagonist in 2019’s MA, does a solid job as Kimberly. She gets to play with a whole lot of emotions for ninety minutes, going from stoic, to panicked, to confused, and to vengeful all convincingly. Having lost my mom a few years ago, I understood her pain and lack of enthusiasm in terms of the holidays. Her anger and confusion over her mom’s murder is justified, with Silvers believably portraying that, continuing once she learns the truth and becomes a stronger person because of it. I don’t think she’s done much film work yet, but I could see her doing big things if she continues to pick the right projects. And then you have veteran actor Dermot Mulroney as her father, stealing the show with his colorful performance. As he bounces off of Silvers, his acting is quite fun to watch. He plays the loving and understanding father at one point, slowly creating a more coy performance that slithers into something more sinister and malicious by the movie’s end. Mulroney’s acting reminded me of Dennis Quaid in this year’s THE INTRUDER, but with better material and actors to work with. Mulroney is not really known as the antagonist, so seeing him play against-type was a treat. I thought he was super solid and he shared nice father-daughter chemistry with Silvers. The cast really elevated the material and made FLESH & BLOOD a good watch.Overall, FLESH & BLOOD is an improvement over the previous installment, THE BODY. The film  has a more confident tone and linear narrative that bounces between drama, horror and psychological thriller. While predictable, cliche and probably not feeling as fresh as the film would probably like, it’s still told well enough to care about what’s going on and what the main characters are going through within the story. Patrick Lussier’s direction is solid enough, even though some of his style feels a bit lost due to the simple story and probably the lack of ability to play with more things due to a lower budget than he’s probably used to. But he lets the narrative and actors be more of the focus, which is the right move since both Diana Silvers and Dermot Mulroney are excellent in their roles as daughter and father respectively, portraying multiple layers of human grief and trauma very well. Once the mystery starts to peel away, both actors really go at it against each other, leading to a fun watch. I wish the film had more to do with the Thanksgiving holiday - it’s just a backdrop really - but I still dug FLESH & BLOOD for the most part. INTO THE DARK: PILGRIM (2019) - *** out of ****Directed By: Marcus DunstanStarring: Reign Edwards, Beth Curry, Kerr Smith, Antonio Raul Corbo, Peter Giles, Elyse Levesque, Taj Speights, Tessa GossGenre: Horror/Slasher/Home InvasionRunning Time: 80 MinutesPlot: Based on a shocking true story: In an attempt to remind her family of their privilege and help them bond, Ms. Anna Barker invites Pilgrim re-enactors to stay with them over Thanksgiving. When the “actors” refuse to break character, the Barker family learns that there is such a thing as too much gratitude.Review:Another Into the Dark review, this time for the newest entry in the series - PILGRIM - an entry that has gained a ton of buzz due to the fact that us horror fans don’t have many Thanksgiving horror films to really go to during the holiday season, making PILGRIM one of the few horror films that actually uses the holiday to its advantage and makes it quite chilling. Unlike last year’s FLESH & BLOOD, which only used Thanksgiving as a backdrop and not much else, PILGRIM goes all in on the holiday, while also providing a ton of social commentary that will surely make its audience wonder how truly grateful we all are in our current society.The commentary is really what PILGRIM has got going for it in terms of a narrative. The villainous pilgrims that terrorize the Barker family and their community believe in the old ways of doing things, feeling that everything will be alright as long as people are grateful for what they have around them. And by old ways, I mean raping, pillaging and corrupting the lands of the Native Americans who tried to show them hospitality - trying to force religion onto them and killing them with disease and probably by physical means. The lead character, Cody, even acknowledges that the holiday was built upon something sinister, which the rest of her family just brushes to the side with denial and ignorance. Then again, we’re talking about a society that believes Thanksgiving is just about family eating turkey, cranberry sauce and pumpkin pies at a large dinner table giving thanks, while quickly eating and running to the nearest mall to buy the latest item during a Black Friday sale. Speaking of commentary, PILGRIM uses the Pilgrims to show how reliant we are on technology, as it slowly has led to a lot of us communicating less in person and disassociating ourselves from other people in our own living space. Cody would rather be on her iPhone and laptop. Her father is too busy on his phone looking at the stock market to be aware of what’s going on in his own family. Cody’s step-mother doesn’t use the Pilgrims to bring her family together like in the old days, but rather as some social status in the neighborhood she can probably post about on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram. The only one who actually wants to learn is young Tate, who is too young to become cynical through the use of technology. While the Pilgrims are obviously the villains here, they don’t hide the fact that they’re hurting people to spread their agenda. The Barker family are hurting each other by not spending time or caring about what’s going on in each other’s lives outside of social media. If we’re ignorant to what has happened before our time, isn’t that how history repeats itself?Honestly, the Pilgrims are the more interesting characters in this film because we, as an audience, know right away what their roles are and who they are as characters. When they show up and appear to be actors who are putting on this kind performance as people from the 1600s, we still know right away that there’s something sinister underneath it all. And they do a lot of things we would expect from Pilgrims. They try and push Christianity on people. They build property, decorate places and force their presence where they have no right to. There are also a lot of sinister moments where the lead Pilgrim, Ethan, is way too close to a young child that borders on pedophilia. He also gets in the personal space of lead character Cody as well, intimidating and worrying her. Ethan’s wife, Patience, is no better. She’s mostly quiet, but her stoic and cold face stay a lot about how she feels about modern citizens. There’s nothing ambiguous about the antagonists. We know who they are and we know we shouldn’t like them.I wish I could say the same for the so-called protagonists. Got to be honest - most of them are so unlikable, you really don’t care what happens to them. This even implies to the lead character, Cody. While smart, tough and proactive, she has too much of a bad attitude for much of the film. This stems from her parents divorcing during Thanksgiving when she was young and making a wish to bring her family back together someday on a wishbone [which indirectly led to the Pilgrims arriving into her home], but she’s a young woman now and just brushes people off besides her younger brother Tate and her boyfriend. While usually right on things, she judges situations way too quickly, giving people an attitude when things don’t go her way or don’t see her perspective. You can fault this on being young, but it’s grating to watch someone you want to like and root for behave so pessimistically. You can be smart and treat people with some level of respect. Cody never gives anything a chance because it’ll affect her alone time during a family holiday like Thanksgiving, which is pretty selfish. Plus when she realizes how bad things are, she never goes for help deciding to do it herself. She becomes a better character in the final act, thankfully, making us care about her again. But it’s a rough time getting there.The other characters are a bit of a struggle too. Cody’s father only cares about the stock market and how much money he’ll make from it, not noticing what’s going on around him until it’s too late. His priorities are all out of whack. Cody’s stepmother brings the Pilgrims in as a way to get attention within her neighborhood and group of friends [who talk about her behind her back], but it does seem like she cares about bring her estranged family together even if it’s for the wrong reasons. The neighbors, who also have to deal with this mess, are either too focused on fulfilling their carnal desires or not appreciating what they have around them, wanting something more and different. The only likable character is young Tate, who is too young to understand why there is so much danger and tension around him, while having enough smarts about him to hide away from the villains when they start looking for him. I’m not saying these characters are the worst ever written because they have to all be flawed in order for the commentary to work. But give them some sort of likable trait of us to want them to survive. Luckily the final act saved the characters from being total failures once they banded together, but a lot of viewers may not even bother getting to that point if the characters don’t relate to them on some level. I was torn on how to feel about any of them, and that’s a problem.The direction by Marcus Dunstan is actually pretty damn solid. The writer of the later SAW sequels and FEAST films, as well as director of THE COLLECTOR series, builds a lot of tension towards the final act with a simple and quiet visual style until the film’s bonkers last half hour, where Dunstan goes for broke and just lets it all out on screen. He displays his love for Sam Raimi with oddly framed close-ups and zoom ins, as well as people puking blood as if they were a fountain. He’s inspired by Tobe Hooper with a dinner scene that’ll interest you to the point where you’ll want to see where it goes and how it’ll all end. The use of a creepy choir during the violent scenes just creates a surreal and humorous vibe that helps the audience laugh a bit because the situation itself is so creepily strange that it’s funny. The death scenes and gorier moments are shot really well, although they’re not as graphic as one would think considering the man behind the lens. Plus the film looks good and is paced really well, as it’s only 80 minutes long. The tone of the film is horror mixed with a black comedy and it works better than it has any right to. I really liked Dunstan’s work on this.The acting is very good as well. While I wish her character was more likable, Reign Edwards was solid as Cody. Her attitude was convincing and I bought her tough, smart girl act by the end. Peter Giles was fantastic as Pilgrim Ethan, bringing a menacing vibe to the film with his method acting and sinister screen presence. He stole the film any time he appeared on screen. Elyse Levesque was also very good as Patience, playing a cold Pilgrim who wanted her ways of life to continue in the modern world by any means necessary. While Giles intimidated through words, Levesque did it via body language and a lack of facial expression, showing a woman who was mostly calm in how she lived her life and made things happen, even if it ended a person’s life for not being grateful enough. She was also very good in READY OR NOT earlier in the year playing a similar character. And it’s nice to see Kerr Smith still acting after all these years, even though I wish he did more in the film. He was cool in that final act though.Overall, PILGRIM is a solid entry in Hulu’s Into the Dark series. The use of the Thanksgiving holiday is wonderful here, finally giving us a horror film that’s worthy of watching during this particular holiday. Marcus Dunstan does a solid job behind the camera, filming a quiet and simmering two-thirds until going all out with his bonkers final act that flipped the film on its head with crazy visuals and homages to Sam Raimi and Tobe Hooper. I wish the protagonists were more likable - the villains were cool - but they got better by the time the final act started and the actors involved [especially Reign Edwards, Peter Giles and Elyse Levesque] were all solid and helped sell the commentary of an older generation trying to teach gratitude to a newer one disconnected from personal interaction [thanks technology!] and unappreciative of what they already have by forcing upon their values by any means necessary. PILGRIM is no BLOOD RAGE or THANKSKILLING, but it’s still worthy of stuffing your face with on Thanksgiving.A CURE FOR WELLNESS (2016) - *** out of ****Directed By: Gore VerbinskiStarring: Dane DeHaan, Jason Isaacs, Mia Goth, Roland Pembroke, Celia Imrie, Adrian Schiller, Ivo Nandi, Tomas NorstromGenre: Horror/Science Fiction/Mystery/ThrillerRunning Time: 146 MinutesPlot: An ambitious young executive is sent to retrieve his company’s CEO from an idyllic but mysterious “wellness center” at a remote location in the Swiss Alps but soon suspects that the spa’s miraculous treatments are not what they seem.Review:A CURE FOR WELLNESS is a horror film that probably ought to be better than it actually is while being more hit than miss. The film was director Gore Verbinski’s follow-up to his failed 2013 adaptation of THE LONE RANGER after so many successes with the PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN franchise, the 2002 THE RING remake and even 2011’s animated hit RANGO. A CURE FOR WELLNESS didn’t come close to lighting the box office on fire - there was barely a spark actually since barely anyone watched this film or even talks about it - but there’s something oddly old-school and appealing about this film that it probably deserves a look if you have 150 minutes to spare.I think the most positive aspect of A CURE FOR WELLNESS is how well-made it is. The film looks absolutely beautiful from beginning to end, obviously influenced by the gothic style of other horror films directed by James Whale, Stanley Kubrick, Guillermo Del Toro and even Tim Burton. The film constantly looks washed out, with whites, grays and blacks taking up prominence to reflect the narrative’s haunting tone and atmosphere. The exteriors always look dreary, while the interiors of the “rehab center” are mainly all white until you go underground, leading to a more shadowy and darker colors. The film was shot in Germany and Switzerland, with Verbinski showcasing the beautiful landscapes, as well as turning the rehab castle location into its own character by using the interiors to their fullest extent. Some of the film’s shots are just beautiful, especially when characters are submerged in water, creating this surreal dreamlike fantasy that wouldn’t feel out of place in a Hammer horror film. Verbinski has always been great in creating visual art as a director, giving his audience a ton of polished style to feast their eyes on, even if the storytelling varied in quality. My only issue with the direction would probably be the pacing, as the film does drag a bit and feels longer than it should. But he was trying to create a slow-burn psychological thriller here, so it sometimes comes with the territory. But I think the film could have lost twenty minutes and still managed to maintain what Verbinski was attempting to visualize.I also thought the acting was fine as well. Dane DeHaan is a hit-or-miss actor for me, either being the highlight of the film [CHRONICLE] or feeling miscast and doing nothing for me [THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN 2]. DeHaan is pretty good as Lockhart, our main character who arrives to this rehab to bring his company’s CEO back home, only being trapped there and having to deal with some of his personal demons. I’ll get to issues with his character in a moment, but I felt DeHaan did everything that is asked of him and did it well. He has an interesting and quiet charisma about him, fitting right in a film like this both physically and his acting. Jason Isaacs is also very good as the local doctor who claims he’s curing his patients, but obviously behaves in such a shady way that you know he’s doing some sinister stuff behind the scenes. They usually involve water and eels, not necessarily in that order. Plus he has this creepy fixation with a young woman who lives at the center, which Isaacs plays up once the truth slowly gets revealed and becomes creepier than you’d expect. The man makes for a good antagonist and it’s no different here. The only other actor of note is Mia Goth, probably best known for her roles in both Lars von Trier’s NYMPHOMANIAC: VOL. II and Luca Guadagnino’s 2018 remake of SUSPIRIA. I honestly think she’s the best actor in the film, only because she has such an unique look about her and she plays her mysterious role so subtly and quietly that you’re captivated by her every action. Goth plays her character of Hannah with such childlike innocence at times that it starts to surprise you when she does weird things that come across as strange and awkward. She’s an interesting young actress I’d like to see more from because she brings something unique to every role she plays.Where the film falters, besides its too-long running time, is the narrative. Personally, I enjoyed the first half of the film compared to the last half. The first half was building the film’s universe and slowly building a mystery of this town and the castle used as a hospital/rehab center, giving the audience nice looks into the characters and making one wonder whether all the strange things happening were all in their heads, or were really happening. I wanted to know what this supposed “cure” was and why it seemed to brainwash a majority of the patients inside. Creepy hospital staff and eels appearing out of nowhere just continued to create this nightmarish scenario that questioned whether Lockhart was an unreliable narrator or not. After all, his father had committed suicide right in front of him when he was younger and his mother was mentally ill, so who’s to say the visuals were all delusions Lockhart was struggling with?The second half is more exciting since there’s a lot more action, violence, and investigations leading to answers going on. But I felt a lot of the detective stuff was extremely repetitive. Lockhart would sneak into a room, get caught and then get tortured. He would do it again, same result. This happened a few times within a small time frame and got kind of tedious. Plus while I liked the HOUSE OF WAX inspired ending, it was never really explained all that well and left me wondering what the deal was. It’s sad that I found the more disgusting sexual angle more intriguing. And the very end of the film is a total letdown, considering all the time it took to build a decent mystery for over two hours.The characters didn’t help either, especially Lockhart. He’s just not an interesting character at all, despite his flashbacks revealing some cool information about his background and why he came across as so cold and angry most of the time. It’s obvious the film was about capitalism and how it destroys and traps people who aren’t able to play fair and be competitive, leading to disastrous things when the truth comes out. And Lockhart obviously tried to live up to his father and failed since he was involved in a bit of malpractice that would get him in federal trouble. But I never felt his character changed all that much. Sure, he tried to save the patients and especially Hannah when he realized some evil stuff was going down. But he never came across as heroic or apologetic for his previous actions, making me wonder why I should care about what happens to him. Not all characters need to be likable. Some of the best protagonists are jerks. But at least be interesting to watch and if it wasn’t for DeHaan giving it his all, the story would have been a total fail. The doctor and Hannah each had a bit of substance, so their arcs made the narrative watchable. And the other supporting characters had mysteries that kept you watching to see how they would unfold. But Lockhart, especially in the last half, was kind of frustrating to watch. Overall, A CURE FOR WELLNESS is a stylish throwback to more gothic horror that takes its inspiration from the original Universal horror films, Hammer, and even works from Tim Burton and Guillermo del Toro. The film is a stunner, looking extremely polished and beautiful with great shots of the exterior German locations and a wonderful use of the interiors of a large castle that feels like its own character throughout the film’s runtime. However, the narrative is more hit than miss, clearly giving us the struggle of what capitalism and trying to compete in a money hungry world can do to a person both mentally, emotionally and especially physically if you’re at the wrong place at the wrong time. I thought the slow burn mystery building of the first half was solid stuff, but the film became repetitive and lost its way a bit as it neared the finish line [enjoyed the climax of the film though with its nod to HOUSE OF WAX and other classic horror of the same ilk]. While the acting was solid for the most part, the characterization of the main character was a bit frustrating since he wasn’t all that likable or interesting, never really changing too much from beginning to end. And that ending pretty much took the power away from a lot of the things established prior to it, making me wonder why the film didn’t end sooner than it did [the film was a bit long in the tooth to begin with anyway]. Still, A CURE FOR WELLNESS has enough going for it to make it a watch at least once if you’re into this type of Lovecraftian psychological horror-thriller like the much better SHUTTER ISLAND or even EYES WIDE SHUT. VICTOR FRANKENSTEIN (2015) - ** out of ****Directed By: Paul McGuiganStarring: James McAvoy, Daniel Radcliffe, Jessica Brown Findlay, Andrew Scott, Charles DanceGenre: Horror/Drama/Science Fiction/ThrillerRunning Time: 109 MinutesPlot: Eccentric scientist Victor Von Frankenstein creates a grotesque creature in an unorthodox scientific experiment.Review:Considering all the negative reviews I’ve heard and read about 2015’s VICTOR FRANKENSTEIN all these years, I was expecting an abomination close to 2014’s I, FRANKENSTEIN. And while VICTOR FRANKENSTEIN isn’t a good movie, it’s still a pretty decent watch to leave in the background to look at while you’re doing something else, I guess. It at least takes a familiar story and gives it a new perspective with some good performances, nice looking set pieces, and a commentary that argues which one should be favored - science or religion?VICTOR FRANKENSTEIN plays out as this romanticized prequel of sorts to the Mary Shelley story you already know. The film is told through the perspective of the hunchback that would be later named as Igor, being abused as he worked at the circus until he’s saved by Victor Frankenstein after Victor learns how savvy Igor is in terms of science and human anatomy. Together, they begin conducting experiments that would bring the dead to life through electricity - first with animals and then with an actual human being. Along the way, they both have to deal with a rival of Victor’s who wants the glory for himself, as well as an obsessed detective who’s so religious, he sees Victor’s act of science as the work of the Devil. The story itself isn’t fresh or all that interesting since we’ve seen this story done much better in many adaptations previous to this film. But having the narrative told through Igor’s eyes is an inspired one, as he sort of plays the role of the audience who sees Victor’s experiments as something he shouldn’t be doing since he’s power hungry and playing the role of God. But while he knows that, Igor gives us reasons as to why he supports his friend, wanting to save him from himself rather than judge or condemn him for the tragedy that’s he about to bring forth onto the world. It gives some character development for Igor, as well as for the other characters he interacts with. Seeing things through his perspective gives us interesting looks at Victor, who just wants to correct wrongs from his past by bringing balance back to the spectrum of life and death. I think it does play it a bit too safe, since it’s a bit biased in terms of Igor’s feelings towards Victor’s, never truly criticizing him. And we’re not really sure about Victor’s backstory or how he interacts with people outside of Igor’s eye, giving us only a small glimpse of the man’s full character. But it’s still a nice storytelling twist that hasn’t really been done for this story, so it gets respect from me for that.Honestly, the strongest aspect of the narrative is the commentary. Igor and Victor are scientists who live in an era where such a thing is considered demonic and evil [considering the actions taken, there may be a point there], while the supposed good guys [the detectives chasing after them] believe in God so much, they’re willing to break laws and hurt others to make sure good wins out at the end. The debate works because both sides have their merits and their flaws. Victor wants to use science as a way to atone for his brother’s death and prove to his father he’s not a disappointment by bringing knowledge to those who may be ignorant to the subject. He obviously doesn’t believe in a higher power, feeling science holds the answers to life and death. He feels his brother’s death was because of something man did, not God, feeling science could correct the balance if someone was brought back from the dead. On the other side of the spectrum, you have Inspector Turpin - a man who is so obsessed in proving that Victor is a heretic and a vile criminal that he’s willing to put to cloud his moral judgment in order for his own personal beliefs to be the true law and order. Instead of following police law, his overly religious nature will cause him to do anything to prove what Victor doing is sinful, even if his own personal actions to make that happen could also be considered sinful by others. In many ways, their differences make them the same person. Both men are willing to prove the other wrong by doing things many would consider unlawful, feeling it would prove that their respective stances are right in the end. Maybe half of the film focuses on the ideology conflict, especially in the last half where events just blow out of proportion. But it works for a film like this and you wonder why the rest of the movie didn’t focus on this aspect more.Instead we get this love angle between Igor and Lorelei, a former acrobat at his former circus troop who he saved after she had an accident during an act. While it’s novel to see Igor get some lovin’ from a beautiful and smart woman, it never really works because it’s just bland. It also feels like something a studio would force onto a project to cater to a certain demographic to raise profits, which obviously didn’t work for this movie. The romance subplot ruins the flow of the film, as well as take away a lot of the main focus of Victor’s descent into madness. There’s also many who believe there is a bromance between Victor and Igor that feels like a one-sided love story since Victor gets jealous and angry whenever Igor wants to spend time with Lorelei over him. I could see where they’re coming from, as Victor does seem more infatuated with Igor than vice-versa. But personally, I just saw it as a man who finally found a real friend and partner who believed in him and shared similar interests, not wanting him to spend time with someone else out of fear of losing him. It was more about possession rather than love for me, but I won’t criticize another person’s opinion if there is justification for it. I found the relationship between the two men more interesting myself.The direction by Paul McGuigan is alright. The direction of the many set-pieces were nice and the creatures that do appear look pretty cool. The undead chimpanzee was less impressive than the actual Frankenstein monster at the end due to wonky CGI, but the Frankenstein monster seemed to be practical effects and looked awesome for the short time he appeared. The film isn’t scary and barely borders on horror really, making it a strange way to tell a Frankenstein story. And it’s not really heavy on action either, even though the film does focus more on that more than the horror aspect. I mean, when MGuigan is using slow motion during action sequences, it’s obvious the studio wants teens to fall head over heels for this film. It’s a nice, polished looking film that doesn’t do anything visually interesting other than that really. It’s fine and nothing more.The acting is also pretty good, which is not surprising considering who’s starring in this. Even though the film is called VICTOR FRANKENSTEIN, the film is more focused on Igor and Daniel Radcliffe is asked to carry the film. Radcliffe, even after all these years, is still trying to shed Harry Potter. But he does a good job here, even if he takes the script a bit too straightforward and seriously. The character feels like too much of a square [that’s screenwriter Max Landis’ - ugh - fault] and could have used a bit more color. Radcliffe didn’t have the freedom to put his personality into the role, which is a shame. But he’s still okay in the role. It doesn’t help that he’s outshone by James McAvoy as Victor Frankenstein, who gets the revel in the sinfulness and craziness of the situation. It’s obvious he’s enjoying the role, smiling and almost laughing throughout at the prospect of playing a mad scientist who won’t take no for an answer. He has a charisma that can’t be denied, managing to be both charming and disgusting at the same time. His manic performance brings life to the film, with McAvoy trying to elevate Radcliffe to his level but not really succeeding. I can see the two actors being a balance for each other, but McAvoy is just so much more interesting to watch that Radcliffe is really no match for him, despite playing the role as well as he could. Jessica Brown Findlay is also pretty solid as Lorelei, even though she doesn’t have much of a character. And I thought Andrew Scott was good as Inspector Turpin, believably growing crazier and obsessed as the film rolled on. McAvoy overshadowed all of them because he had a character he could bite his teeth into, but the other actors were fine.Overall, VICTOR FRANKENSTEIN is a better film than what its reputation may perceive it to be. I'm not saying that it's good or anything, but it has a fair amount of content that makes it worth at least a single watch if you have time. The narrative is generic and there’s a romantic subplot that does nothing for the film really, but the commentary about religion versus science is pretty interesting and allows one to decide which side to take on this particular matter. The direction by Paul McGuigan is fine, as he displays the set-pieces and monsters well [although they don’t appear for too long], but does the cliche slo-mo action sequences way too much. The acting is okay as well, with James McAvoy outshining everyone in the cast including co-star Daniel Radcliffe - who takes the role too seriously to make the audience have fun with the silly premise. I was expecting a lot worse considering many people told me to avoid it for years, but it was fine for what it was. I probably would never watch it again, but I have no regrets giving this movie a bit of my time.

Doctor Sleep (2019)
DIRECTED BYMike FlanaganSTARRINGEwan McGregor - Dan TorranceRebecca Ferguson - Rose the HatKyliegh Curran - Abra StoneCliff Curtis - Billy FreemanCarl Lumbry - Dick HollorannZahn McClarnon - Crow DaddyEmily Alyn Lind - Snakebite AndiBruce Greenwood - Dr. John DaltonJacob Tremblay - Bradley TrevorGenre - HorrorRunning Time - 152 MinutesPLOT (from IMDB)Years following the events of THE SHINING, a now-adult Dan Torrance (Ewan McGregor) meets a young girl (Kyliegh Curran) with similar powers as he tries to protect her from a cult known as The True Knot who prey on children with powers to remain immortal.REVIEWEven though Stephen King released his sequel to the 1977 novel The Shining back in 2013 to big success, not many people were clamoring or asking for a follow-up to either King’s book or the divisive Stanley Kubrick adaptation from 1980 that even King himself dislikes. But Doctor Sleep received both commercial and critical acclaim at the time of its release, although some had issues with the story’s villains and how some of the newer characters were connected to the Danny Torrance character that they felt was an unnecessary retcon of sorts. Personally, I enjoyed Doctor Sleep and figured it would be turned into a film or television adaptation because of how big THE SHINING has been regarded as a horror classic. But with King hating the Kubrick adaptation, and his own 1997 faithful-to-the-novel miniseries being considered near the lower end of King adaptations, how would the film version of DOCTOR SLEEP be presented? Apparently Mike Flanagan, of TV’s The Haunting of Hill House fame, figured it out and decided to adapt the novel as faithfully as possible, while at the same time having it take place within Kubrick’s universe. With King’s massive approval and a solid cast bringing the adaptation to life, I’m more surprised that more people didn’t go out and watch DOCTOR SLEEP this weekend than how well the adaptation was presented. DOCTOR SLEEP is a pretty great sequel and horror film in general - even having good buzz and marketing behind it, which makes me wonder what went wrong in terms of audiences.What really sells DOCTOR SLEEP is the cast, who all do a great job in bringing these characters to life from the novel. Ewan McGregor is very good as Dan Torrance, the adult version of the young kid from the original story. McGregor is a versatile actor and he’s able to portray Dan’s trauma, fear, confusion and eventual reluctance to use his gift to save others in a believable way. Even though he did a good job filling some big shoes, I thought there are other actors that outshined him. But he is a solid lead nonetheless. Honestly, I was more impressed with Rebecca Ferguson and Kyliegh Curran as Rose the Hat and Abra Stone respectively. Ferguson plays a great villain as Rose, using her beauty to lure victims in, portraying a charm that hid a level of evil underneath. She also portrayed a malicious side that I found captivating as her character grew more desperate towards the finish line. I’ve seen Ferguson in other films and always thought she was fine in those other roles. But this is the first time I felt truly impressed by any one of her performances. She’s really good here, as her presence here is pretty amazing. I also like Curran’s performance as the young Abra, a teenage girl who also has similar powers to Dan, but much stronger. Curran is truly confident in her performance, portraying a typical teenager well who is smart, brave and intuitive. She also upstages both McGregor and Ferguson at times, making her a force to watch. I also liked Cliff Curtis in his role as Billy, sharing some nice chemistry with McGregor as their two characters grew as friends and started to trust each other. Zahn McClarnon is also solid as Crow Daddy, Rose’s lover and right-hand man. He had a threatening presence that added a lot to the story. And it was cool to see a cameo from the original Danny Torrance, Danny Lloyd, who has retired from acting and is now a school teacher. Just a really solid crew of actors all around.I also though Mike Flanagan did a great job bringing both the novel and Kubrick’s vision together in a logical and believable way visually. The flashbacks and the last act that occur within The Overlook Hotel, which looked exactly how it did back in the 1980 film, were shot and directed really well. Even with new actors playing familiar roles within these scenes, you still felt Kubrick’s presence while catering to Stephen King’s vision for these characters. I also felt the rest of the film, which just adapted the Doctor Sleep novel, looked great and felt like it’s own film outside of THE SHINING. If you’ve seen GERALD’S GAME or The Haunting of Hill House, you’ll be pleased at how similar the film looks to both of those, but with a bit more style and flair that doesn’t overshadow the story. Flanagan also focuses more on the suspense and tension rather than jump scares, even though there are a couple that don’t really work as well as they should. But overall, Flanagan focuses more on atmosphere and mood rather than frights, which is fine for this sequel. I also thought DOCTOR SLEEP was paced extremely well, going really fast for a two-and-a-half hour movie. There are some editing and transition choices here and there I could nitpick and probably change if it were me, but overall doesn’t take the experience away. I do feel that maybe the film is a bit too long for some, which may have caused the box office failure of the film. Plus, those expecting a true SHINING experience may be disappointed as DOCTOR SLEEP would rather be its own thing for the most part. I thought this was Flanagan’s best work as a director just for taking such a scary task to follow up a classic movie and actually making it work by pleasing both fans of the Doctor Sleep novel and Kubrick film all in one.As for the adaptation itself, I thought it was mostly handled really well. Many of the core elements of the novel were done with justice in DOCTOR SLEEP. Dan’s alcoholism was touched upon, including his eventual sobriety and his role as an orderly in a hospice care facility where he’s dubbed “Doctor Sleep” due to speaking with patients moments before they pass due to this uncanny morbid awareness of the hospice's cat [who may have the “Shine” itself, as it senses death]. Then you get all the True Knot stuff where this group attacks young children who have this “Shine” so they can feed off of them like vampires, leading to an eventual confrontation with Abra [who may have the strongest “Shine” of all] with Dan helping her. Unlike Kubrick’s THE SHINING, much of what I read in Doctor Sleep feels pretty much intact on screen. However, the film does take some liberties with the novel, but I feel a lot of them were improvements over the source material. In the novel, there is a connection between Dan and Abra that I feel would have upset a lot of people unfamiliar with it since it would have seemed tacked on if they’ve only watched Kubrick’s film and nothing else. I think getting rid of it here was a good move and just would have complicated the adaptation. The major change from book to film is pretty much the entire act. In The Shining novel, Jack destroyed The Overlook Hotel to save his family and Dick Hollorann by setting it on fire and blowing it up. But since Stanley Kubrick completely changed the ending in his adaptation and that’s what most people are familiar with, The Overlook Hotel was left standing. So Flanagan decided to keep Doctor Sleep’s ending setup while combining it somewhat with the novel’s ending to The Shining. I’m not sure which ending for DOCTOR SLEEP I prefer, but I think the one Flanagan used is a better fit for cinematic reasons. It keeps the spirit of the novel’s ending while giving Kubrick’s version of things a fitting conclusion at the same time, surprising me at how much it truly worked when it really shouldn’t have. If I had to nitpick anything, it would be the use of the True Knot members. Rose the Hat and Crow Daddy are used very well and come off as threatening. Even Snakebite Andi gets some great moments to shine, even though I feel she was underutilized during the middle portion of the film. Grandpa Flick, the oldest member of the crew, has some nice emotional moments as well. But the rest of the crew are just faceless goons and I wish they had personalities to differentiate one from the other. I get every group needs a couple of pawns, but even the pawns should have names and characters I should remember by the movie’s end. At least they still managed to come across as evil as they brutalized a few children. That scene with Bradley Trevor is really messed up and translates well from novel to screen better than I would have thought. Children haven’t had the best of luck in Stephen King adaptations this year, have they?THE FINAL HOWLEven though mainstream audiences didn’t bother to go out and see this film for whatever reason, I thought DOCTOR SLEEP was a worthy and solid follow-up to the 1980 Stanley Kubrick’s film with a faithful-enough adaptation of the Doctor Sleep novel with added elements of both the novel and film versions of THE SHINING. The cast - Ewan McGregor, Rebecca Ferguson and Kyliegh Curran in particular - is pretty damn great, while Mike Flanagan managed to successfully adapt Stephen King’s work into Kubrick’s universe by focusing more on mood and atmosphere over jump scares and keeping many of the story elements from the novel intact. Even the changes that were made for the adaptation in terms of certain characters and even the ending work in the film’s favor, pleasing both fans of the novels and films. While some of the villainous True Knot characters could have been used more, and some abrupt moments are noticeable visually, I’d say DOCTOR SLEEP is a bigger success than I would have believed when the film was first announced. Let’s hope more people wake up for DOCTOR SLEEP because it deserves to do better than what it is currently doing box office wise. SCORE3.5 Howls Outta 4

Vice Squad (1982)
DIRECTED BYGary ShermanSTARRINGSeason Hubley - PrincessWings Hauser - RamrodGary Swanson - Detective Tom WalshPepe Serna - Pete MendezBeverly Todd - Luise WilliamsNina Blackwood - GingerJoseph DiGiroloma - KowalskiMaurice Emanuel - EdwardsGenre - Action/Crime/Mystery/ThrillerRunning Time - 97 MinutesPLOT (from IMDB)A Los Angeles businesswoman, known only by her street name of Princess (Season Hubley), turns to prostitution to support herself and her young daughter when she’s forced by Detective Tom Walsh (Gary Swanson) and his vice squad to help them arrest a brutal pimp named Ramrod (Wings Hauser) for the murder of a prostitute named Ginger (Nina Blackwood). But when Ramrod learns that he was set up, he escapes from police custody and begins a long night of tracking down Princess while Walsh and his vice squad are always one steps behind him.REVIEWVICE SQUAD is an exploitation action crime thriller that I hadn’t seen in decades and totally forgot about until its recent Scream Factory blu-ray release earlier in the summer. Sure, I’ve recently seen the clips of Wings Hauser going psycho in TERROR IN THE AISLES, where Hauser proves he’s easily the best part of VICE SQUAD. But I hadn’t seen the film as a whole for a very long time until the last couple of days, and I still dug it quite a bit. It’s not perfect, nor is it the best exploitation crime thriller I have ever seen. But there’s a lot to like here to make it worthy of a blu ray purchase at least.Even though it’s not the best exploitation film out there, it’s probably hard to rival one as entertaining as VICE SQUAD for majority of the film. VICE SQUAD is one of those films that seems to balance multiple sub-genres better than it has any right to. It’s a crime movie. It’s a thriller. It’s also a sort of slasher flick where a psycho pimp is targeting a prostitute who did him wrong. Every scene in the film has something going on that will keep you invested in what you’re watching, no matter how major or less so it is for the movie’s narrative. Not many exploitation films can capture that for all the right reasons, but VICE SQUAD definitely does.I think what makes VICE SQUAD’s story work are the main characters, who all have some sort of arc that intercepts in the final act. Our main protagonist is Princess, who we follow for much of the film as she leaves her young daughter behind to head into Los Angeles to become a prostitute to support her family. She’s caught up in this police sting to arrest this terrible pimp named Ramrod due to her association with Ramrod’s main prostitute, Ginger, who brutally abuses and rapes Ginger to death. Just wanting to make a living for herself and her daughter, she’s constantly reluctant to help the police, who threaten her with prison time over her work, while getting the attention of Ramrod, who realizes that she’s technically an informant who wants to stop his rampage. While we only see a glimpse of Princess’ life prior to prostitution, VICE SQUAD mainly follows her as she encounters multiple johns who reveal… interesting fetishes and kinks that will make most mainstream audiences’ eyes widen. Once Ramrod comes into the picture though, she has to evade him at every turn before he kills her. We realize that prostitution is something she’s doing for her family and not because she enjoys it, putting on a performance any time she tries to sell herself. Through the night, her initial enthusiasm fades, just wanting the night to be over while an evil pimp and eager cops are after her for one thing or another. Through her actions and reactions to the situations she puts herself in willingly or not, we learn a lot about Princess. She may have a tough exterior, but she’s just a scared, desperate woman who just wants to get her job over with so she can go back home to her daughter.The main antagonist, Ramrod, is a piece of work himself. Unlike Princess, who is completely sympathetic, Ramrod is a horrible person in every way. He abuses his workers. He rapes some of them with coat hangers and gets some sort of sick pleasure out of it. He forces himself on random women by either pressing himself on them, putting his dirty fingers in their mouths, and other disgusting things. He believes he owns the place and is totally corrupted by the reputation he has gained on the streets. He’s a deplorable character with no redeeming quality, so you want justice to be served whether peacefully or violently when it comes to Ramrod.And then you have the police characters, in particular Detective Tom Walsh who is eager to take down Ramrod and play hard ball with Princess to make that happen. He’s surrounded by incompetent cops, which frustrates him to no end. And while he can be a bit of a hard ass when it comes to threatening to put Princess in jail for prostitution, he does care for her and wants to make sure she’s safe enough to continue supporting her daughter. He wants to do the right thing, even if he has to get dirty at times to make it happen.And the supporting characters, while not having a ton of screen time, add a lot to build the atmosphere of VICE SQUAD. You get colorful pimps, other prostitutes doing their thing, and clients who raise the exploitation level by being really bizarre at times. You ever wanted to know how hiring a prostitute for a funeral wedding scenario would turn out? This is your movie! Ginger, the troubled friend of Princess and Ramrod’s main prostitute, doesn’t get a lot of screen time either, but she’s the catalyst for the entire story. She suffers from Battered Wife Syndrome, wanting Princess to help her get away from Ramrod, but falls for that trap when Ramrod apologizes and states his love for her. You feel sad for Ginger, especially after what Ramrod does to her. You know enough about her and situation to feel something towards everyone involved. I thought the good writing helped in that.The narrative is your pretty standard police procedural where cops use a prostitute to bust a pimp, which backfires on them and causes the prostitute to be the pimp’s new target. But VICE SQUAD does it well, even though I feel the first half of the film - the universe building portion - is the more interesting and engaging portion of the film. Once Ramrod wants revenge on Princess in the second half of the film, the storytelling gets extremely random as there aren’t a lot of moments of Ramrod going after Princess, but rather Princess hanging out with her friends or encountering men who have interesting sexual requests for her. It’s not until the final fifteen minutes when Ramrod and Princess finally encounter each other, does VICE SQUAD pick up again. I’m not saying what Princess deals with is terrible, because those scenes are memorable and entertaining. But you get a sense that the filmmakers needed to fill up time before the climax. I think the Princess and her clients scenes add a lot to her personal story, but they don’t really matter by the film’s end to be honest.Gary Sherman, best known for his directorial work on 1981’s DEAD & BURIED, 1986’s WANTED: DEAD OR ALIVE and 1988’s POLTERGEIST III, confidently directs a good looking exploitation film that captures the vibe of early-1980s Los Angeles. All the characters, the locations and even the awesome soundtrack feel authentic - creating this gritty nostalgia for me that a part of me wishes I could go back to. Sherman captures a sleaziness and dirtiness that a film like this should definitely have, keeping up with a rapid fire pace and well shot scenes that are extremely memorable and worth discussing within film circles. Sherman actually cut the film down quite a bit, feeling there was too much filler and only wanted to maintain the scenes that focused on Ramrod’s pursuit of Princess. This would explain the disjointed feeling of the film’s second half, but Sherman did the right thing taking out as much filler as possible. It’s a short film and never wears out its welcome, making an easy watch for exploitation fans.I feel the strongest aspect of VICE SQUAD is the acting. I might as well start with Wings Hauser - an actor I feel is extremely underrated and should have had a more memorable career than he did. Hauser is absolutely electric as the despicable Ramrod, taking what should have been a caricature B-movie villain and turning him into this genuine monster who leaps off of the screen and grabs you by the balls. Hauser is so into the role, relishing in being evil and devoting his performance to make audiences hate the guy - even though I’m sure some people love Ramrod because of Hauser’s colorful performance. He’s just so great in this film, to the point where TERROR IN THE AISLES had no choice but to include his scenes in their horror compilation, even though VICE SQUAD isn’t technically classified as “horror”. Hauser truly steals the film from everyone else, crafting one of the most entertaining and hateful psychopaths in exploitation film history. Hauser also sings the film’s opening song, “Neon Slime”, which is interesting in its own right. The man is VICE SQUAD, plain and simple.Season Hubley is also great in her own way as Princess. Going through a terrible divorce from her then-husband Kurt Russell, Hubley used a lot of that sadness, grief and anguish to make Princess a sympathetic figure despite if one believes her profession is low class. Hubley is both tough and vulnerable, making her actions and reactions believable. The two scenes, where she finds out about Ginger and the end where Ramrod tries to murder her, show her range in capturing a complex character who continues to sink into a situation she’s trying to get out of. I wish Hubley and Hauser had more scenes together because it would have been great to see them play off of each other within multiple scenarios.The other actors are very good as well. Gary Swanson plays your typical 80s police detective, giving the character a likable toughness and empathy towards Princess that another actor could have screwed up. Swanson plays the role seriously and makes Tom Walsh a fully fleshed out character who peels multiple layers from start to finish. The only other actor of note is Nina Blackwood as Ginger. Blackwood, one of the original MTV VJs, does very well as a troubled prostitute who is so abused and put down by her pimp, that she’s victim of going back to him and dealing with the negatively as long as he takes care of her. You totally believe her and while you question her decisions by the end of her story arc, you also understand it, making it all the sadder. Really solid cast for a film you’d probably wouldn’t expect that of.THE FINAL HOWLAfter all these decades, VICE SQUAD still manages to be an entertaining exploitation flick that has more than earned its cult status. While the first half of the film is stronger than the second half [besides a suspenseful final ten to fifteen minutes], the script builds colorful characters who feel right at home in a gritty, sleazy 1980s Los Angeles. Director Gary Sherman manages to create atmosphere and suspense by allowing the audience to follow three separate people living in different worlds - a tough yet vulnerable prostitute, a murderous pimp, and a hungry-for-justice cop - as they come to a collision course along a road of blackmail, abuse, and sexual fetishism that would make a lot of people blush. While Season Hubley and Gary Swanson are very good as the prostitute and cop respectively, it’s Wings Hauser as psychotic pimp Ramrod who steals the show through his powerfully manic and vicious performance. VICE SQUAD is a grungy, memorable and fun ride of a film that should be a must-see for any exploitation fan needing a fix.SCORE3.5 Howls Outta 4

Lunar Cycle - October 2019
Since I don’t have as much time to write longer reviews than I used to, I figured I would just post shorter reviews for horror/cult films that I feel deserve your attention. Expect these Lunar Cycle posts once per month. THE INTRUDER (2019) - *1/2 out of ****Directed By: Deon TaylorStarring: Dennis Quaid, Meagan Good, Michael Ealy, Joseph Sikora, Alvina August, Lee ShortenGenre: Horror/Thriller/DramaRunning Time: 102 MinutesPlot: A psychological thriller about a young married couple who buys a beautiful Napa Valley house on several acres of land only to find that the man they bought it from refuses to let go of the property.Review:Back in August, one of the Lunar Cycle features was for a film called THE PERFECT GUY - an “erotic” thriller that would have instantly gone on Lifetime’s Movie Network if not for its recognizable cast. It starred Michael Ealy as this psycho lover who doesn’t take rejection well, going FATAL ATTRACTION on his former lover until it’s predictable ending. It wasn’t a great film but had enough moments to be something you’d have on the background while you’re doing something else.Funny enough, I’m back with another film that stars Michael Ealy that could have also been on Lifetime’s Movie Network - 2019’s THE INTRUDER. While Ealy plays the protagonist this time around [along with the beautiful Meagan Good], we have Dennis Quaid playing our villain. It’s very rare to watch the usually heroic and charming Quaid play a bad guy in a film, which pretty much raised its marketing appeal over other films that follow this sort of template. And believe me, he’s the main attraction of THE INTRUDER by a country mile, casting a big shadow over his co-stars and the film’s very predictable and pedestrian narrative.Seriously, without Dennis Quaid, THE INTRUDER would be a forgotten flick on Lifetime during a Saturday Night. The man goes all out here, hamming it up for the audience and creating truly unintentionally funny moments while also being creepy at the same time. That is quite a feat! Even from his first appearance in the film, Quaid never hides the fact that there is something not right with his character of Charlie Peck, a widower who sells his house to a young couple, but is unwilling to let it go for whatever reason. His twitchy performance is great, slowly building into a performance where Quaid goes all Joker on some naive fools. Quaid gives the character a level of sympathy at the start of the film, making you think he’s still in that grieving process where he feels socially awkward and just comes across as weird to those who haven’t been in his shoes. But there are moments where you see the man is about to snap, but holds it together, until we start learning the truth and the rubber band snaps towards a violent conclusion. Quaid could have played the role subtly and just have been an unmemorable villain in a generic thriller. But you can tell the actor is loving playing against-type, going over-the-top by the end to entertain the audience. He took a bland screenplay and made it fun to watch just through his hilarious acting. He’s so enjoyable that I wish he were playing the same role in a much better film. Honestly, Quaid would be the only reason I would recommend anyone to watch THE INTRUDER.Michael Ealy and especially Meagan Good are fine in their roles as Scott and Annie. It’s too bad they’re given material that’s been seen and done before. Ealy plays his usual charmingly cool performance, letting his looks do most of the talking for him. He’s given a decent role of a husband who is suspicious of his new home’s previous owner, while feeling somewhat bitter about his marriage and his wife’s naive behavior towards a total stranger. There are moments in the script where Ealy wants to make Scott this flawed character who hates his current role in his marriage, while also being portrayed as a flirt who sometimes takes it a bit too far. You can tell the actor wants to give the role some depth and make him someone we want to root for. But Ealy comes off as bland because the script and direction don’t allow him to be anything else. Good also suffers because she has to play an idiot until the last few minutes of the film, playing dumb to Quaid’s actions while feeling jealous and neglected with her more observant husband. There’s no real female empowerment with her character, nor is she all that interesting as a character. She’s just a damsel-in-distress waiting to be saved until she wakes up and sees things for what they are. She deserved a better role than what she got.I thought the only interesting actor other than Quaid was Power’s Joseph Sikora, who plays Scott’s best friend Mike. While he’s not in the film a whole lot, he has great chemistry with all of his co-stars. Plus, he gets a few scenes where he banters with Quaid, creating a level of tension and drama that’s not really found in the rest of the film. It’s a shame that Sikora wasn’t given a bigger role in this film because he actually had a character I could relate to one some level, unlike the others.The direction by Deon Taylor of MEET THE BLACKS and CHAIN LETTER fame [sorry, I almost puked typing that] is nothing special. It looks and feels like any other thriller of this kind, but at least it’s well paced and well edited. And the film does look polished. There are some moments of genuine tension and suspense, especially near the end, that work. It’s just unfortunate what we’re watching is nothing new and we know all the beats by now. Not everything needed to feel fresh, but there wasn’t enough twists and turns to make THE INTRUDER stand out visually. The problem is really the screenplay, which gives all the interesting stuff to the villain while making the protagonists pretty dumb and sometimes unlikable as characters. Charlie’s the one with all the backstory and mysterious aura. Did his wife really die of cancer, or is something more sinister at play? Why is he so obsessed with this house? Why is he testy with Scott but kind to Annie? Charlie is an interesting character, unlike either Scott or Annie - who are just bland people without much going on without Charlie interfering with their lives. Annie, in particular, is just there as an object for Scott and Charlie to fight over. Scott, at least, has a small backstory involving his dislike for firearms, as well as visible profession in marketing that leads to a cheating sub-plot that ends before it could even get started. Honestly, this young couple aren’t so much protagonists, but victims of Charlie’s twisted story.The only interesting thing about this generic and predictable thriller is that THE INTRUDER may have some sort of political subtext that the film never really focuses on. Scott and Annie are a young African-American couple who are able to buy a million dollar home from a white man who wears a red cap and enjoys shooting animals and possibly human beings as well. While people agree with it or not, there’s definitely a commentary dying to get out here. But the screenwriters either feel too afraid to lean towards a political and social direction, or just didn’t care enough to explore it further to make THE INTRUDER stand out amongst the rest. I think exploring this angle would have brought some controversy to a standard thriller, but at least it would have given the film a personality and something to discuss. Unfortunately without it, no one is talking.Overall, THE INTRUDER is your typical horror-thriller that would play during a random weekend of Lifetime if it wasn’t for the cast. The story is beyond predictable and generic. There’s obvious political commentary that wants to be told, but is held back for whatever reason. Most of the actors are given nothing interesting to do besides playing victims to a crazy man’s game, while the direction isn’t visually special [though the film does look polished and extremely well made]. The only reason I would recommend this film to anyone is to see a really great Dennis Quaid performance, where he tackles a rare role as an insane villain who wears a red cap and enjoys hunting. He’s also obsessed with a house, causing him to tick and twitch more than once when the new owners change some of it around. It’s quite the bizarre, unintentionally fun, yet entertaining performance by a class actor. If you have 100 minutes and want to see some prime Quaid, this is your film. Otherwise, don’t bother breaking into this one. THE APPARITION (2012) - 1/2* out of **** [WTF? Vault]Directed By: Todd LincolnStarring: Ashley Greene, Sebastian Stan, Tom Felton, Julianna Guill, Rick GomezGenre: Horror/Thriller/Supernatural/GhostsRunning Time: 82 MinutesPlot: Plagued by frightening occurrences in their home, Kelly and Ben learn that a university’s parapsychology experiment produced an entity that is now haunting them. The malevolent spirit feeds on fear and torments the couple no matter where they run. Desperate, Kelly and Ben turn to a paranormal researcher, but even with his aid, it may already be too late to save themselves from the terrifying presence.Review:With my cousin having lent the DVD to me years ago without an ounce of complaint about getting his copy back, I should have realized that THE APPARITION from 2012 isn’t going to be anyone's favorite horror film anytime soon. Hell, I’d be surprised if anyone would bother watching this movie more than once, as the film even struggles to be mediocre as it wants to be JU-ON: THE GRUDGE and PARANORMAL ACTIVITY both at once and fails at either. Hell, the trailer feels more complete of a film than this does. What a bland, boring film that makes one wonder why or how it was even made and released into theaters.That plot summary above is as deep as the film ever goes. The concept is interesting and I have a fascination with the paranormal and supernatural that I’m willing to watch THE APPARITION. But there is no character development at all, as we get two prologues pretty much telling us why some evil spirit is haunting this beautiful young couple, leading to another mystery a third into the film that reveals why this couple is being haunted to begin with. After that, it’s just a series of cliches and tropes that have been done to death for decades, but never as interesting or fresh. I could barely tell you anything about Kelly and Ben other than their professions. Hell, I didn’t even realize Kelly was the main character’s name until the end credits! I’m given no reason to believe Kelly and Ben are this loving couple who decide to live together and share their lives because I have no backstory, no personality for either one of them, and most importantly - no chemistry between the characters or the actors playing them. I wish the spirit had fed quicker on these two so the film would have ended sooner. And the film is already like 72 minutes long not including the end credits!It doesn’t help that these characters are written terribly stupid. Ben figures out that being part of the parapsychology experiment led to all this, but doesn’t really feel any sort of urgency to tell his girlfriend or do anything about it until the third act. Kelly is even worse, as she barely reacts to the strange things happening around her. In fact, when Kelly figures out that Ben is part of the reason she’s being haunted by watching a video on a hard drive of his group conjuring up this spirit, she’s more upset that Ben didn’t reveal his relationship with a girl in his group he had dated prior to meeting Kelly rather than some evil ghost messing up her shit! At one point, she even tries to stop the spirit by locking it inside of a closet, because doors will stop any evil presence from hurting someone. Hell, even the spirit tries to kill Kelly by smothering her in her sleeping blanket via dutch oven. While unintentionally hilarious, dying via dutch oven is a new one even for me.Add in Ben’s parapsychology partner Charlie, who is just around to give the audience expository dialogue, without giving him much purpose besides that. I think even if he was left out of the story besides the prologue and the hard drive footage, he wouldn’t have been missed at all. None of these characters are written well nor are we given any reason to sympathize with them. It just feels like first time writer/director Todd Lincoln was inspired by other films and just wrote what he liked about them on paper, not giving anything any sort of subtext or cohesion for any audience to care.His direction is slightly better, but THE APPARITION still drags because what we see is nothing we haven’t seen done better in other films. We get a ton of objects moving inside rooms, hands crawling from behind people, animals sensing danger and dying because of it, and things disintegrating for whatever reason. We also get moments of found footage that could be worse, while some reject from JU-ON: THE GRUDGE makes its presence known in a closet. The film also happens to be way too dark at times, especially when things that should be scaring and shocking people happen. The editing is also rough at times, cutting away from things we ought to be invested in. I think the worst part of the direction [and the screenwriting] is having characters react and investigate what’s going on, only for these moments to be quickly transitioned to an aftermath that falls flat. You have to build tension and suspense for a film like this, and it seems Lincoln didn’t even understand that. The film looks nice, I give it that. But other than that, it’s just visually bland with some moments that’ll make you laugh more than they’ll scare you.The acting is probably the best part of THE APPARITION, but even that isn’t all that good. Ashley Greene, best known for her work in those TWILIGHT films, looks great and has a moment or two where she acts like a human being. But most of the time, she’s directed not to react naturally to freaky stuff happening around her. Instead of screaming or having this flight-or-fight response, she’ll just look confused. Sebastian Stan is a good actor, but he’s not given anything to do here but play the guilty boyfriend. At least he reacts to things more naturally than Greene did, but he didn’t have much material to bite into. Tom Felton, of HARRY POTTER fame, isn’t given much to do but recite exposition. At least he does it well, I suppose. Dude deserves better. I think with a better script, these three would have contributed to a watchable movie. THE APPARITION isn’t it.Overall, THE APPARITION is pretty much a horror movie fail on all levels. It wants to be both JU-ON: THE GRUDGE and PARANORMAL ACTIVITY so badly, yet failing on both accounts enough for anyone to wish they were watching any of those two films instead. The script is nothing but a skeleton, with paper-thin characters put in a predictably generic situation that have been done to death and done much better. The direction is bland, although the film does look nice. For an 80-minute film, the pacing drags and director Todd Lincoln uses too much darkness, terrible editing, and not enough suspense or tension for anyone to care about what they’re watching. Even the actors try and make something out of this film, but mostly fail because the script doesn’t give them much to do but react poorly to things. Not one the worst horror film I’ve seen, but man, it comes pretty close. I don’t blame this evil spirit for being so upset. I would be too if I had to star in this movie. ALL THE COLORS OF THE DARK (1972) - *** out of ****Directed By: Sergio MartinoStarring: George Hilton, Edwige Fenech, Ivan Rassimov, Nieves Navarro, Julian Ugarte, George Rigaud, Maria Cumani Quasimodo, Marina Malfatti, Luciano PigozziGenre: Horror/Thriller/Supernatural/GialloRunning Time: 94 MinutesPlot: Jane lives in London with her boyfriend Richard. Her mother was murdered when she was young, she recently lost a baby in a car crash and she’s plagued by nightmares of a knife-wielding man. Richard thinks the cure is vitamins, while Jane’s sister recommends psychiatric help. But a new neighbor promises that if she participates in a Black Mass, all her fears will disappear, instead it just seems to bring her nightmare to life.Review:ALL THE COLORS OF THE DARK is a film I’ve wanted to watch for a while now. Even though I hear a great blu-ray was released earlier this year, Shudder had it ready to stream and I decided to check it out this Halloween season. What an interesting trip this film is. Psychedelic and nightmarishly bizarre, this not-so-giallo is a film I’ll probably remember for a while now. There’s so much thrown at the wall and not all of it sticks, but when it does, you’re just captivated by what you’re watching unfold.Martino was obviously inspired by 1968’s ROSEMARY’S BABY and the rise of the whole “Satanic Panic” that was infiltrating the media and pop culture in general. Jane, suffering from losing her mother at a young age and then losing her own baby in a car accident, is our unreliable narrator as she has horrible visions of pregnant woman [and even herself] getting stabbed repeatedly by this man with striking blue eyes - who eventually begins stalking her in real life even though she had never met him before. Many doubt her visions, thinking she’s just stark-raving mad and needs to talk to a psychiatrist [something recommended by her sister]. Her boyfriend Richard thinks that vitamins will cure everything, as if he’s Tom Cruise or something. But her neighbor believes that joining a Satanic cult will cure her after they force her to drink fox’s blood and gang rape the hell out of her. That white padded room doesn’t seem so bad if these are her friends and family!The film jars you right away with this nightmare that Jane has of herself and a pregnant woman getting murdered by this blue-eyed stranger. And as the film plays on, we witness more nightmarish visions and hallucinations that make us question what we’re really seeing is reality or just a figment of a emotionally wrecked woman’s imagination. Nothing really beats the opening of the film, as it’s so weird that you kind of hope the rest of ALL THE COLORS OF THE DARK would keep up with that vibe. But the film, besides the rollercoaster changes between reality and fantasy, never really lives up to that opening, pretty much playing things straighter than you would expect out of a film involving a Satanic cult. I will say that the second half of the film is more interesting than the first, as Jane deals with the aftermath of joining the cult and then regretting her decision and wanting to leave - which the cult has a huge issue with. The twists and turns keep coming, making you question what is the real deal with all of these characters and why Jane has been targeted from the start. I do think the ending is extremely flat and makes you wonder how anyone could just end the film with such a whimper, considering the loud bang the film begins with.I also feel the idea that ALL THE COLORS OF THE DARK is a giallo is a bit misguided. It doesn’t really contain the tropes any common giallo would have, like a shadowy figure who wears a disguise and gloves stalking and killing people until it leads to a very convoluted resolution of the killer’s identity. The film feels more like a thriller involving a troubled woman who enters a cult of Satan worshippers, being targeted for a particular reason once she refuses to assimilate. The only mystery is why Jane is having these particular nightmares that predict certain futures and introduces us to characters we hadn’t met yet up to that point. All the characters all have particular motives and reasons to pull Jane in multiple directions that end up doing more harm than good.The characters aren’t the most interesting honestly. Jane is really the only character given any depth as she’s the main focus of the film, learning about her backstory pretty quickly and watching her emotional distress as she interacts with her boyfriend, her sister, this cult, and so on. The other characters all so have personalities and most of them come across as pretty unlikable people, but we end up only caring about Jane at the end because we’re understanding the story through her eyes - making us wonder if it’s all in her head or if it’s really happening. I think the best part of ALL THE COLORS OF THE DARK is the fantastic direction by Sergio Martino. The surreal nature of Jane’s dreams and hallucinations are perfectly shot, as the shot scale is all over the place and we get weird editing that make us realize what we’re watching isn’t at all natural. In other scenes where the characters are acting in interior locations, Martino uses greens and reds in certain rooms that make these particular scenes pop and create an atmosphere through this unnatural lighting scheme. The pacing is also well done, as the film is less than 90 minutes and breezes right by. I also thought the gore we do see was done well, as well the make up and costumes used for the cult - especially the leader who had fabulous jazz hands displaying his blue and gold nails. Never knew 70s Hans Gruber could accessorize. While I prefer TORSO, I do feel this film is better directed and captures much of the “Satanic Panic” he was going for.The acting is pretty solid as well. The standout here is obviously Edwige Fenech as Jane. Not only is she one of the most beautiful genre actresses to have ever been in horror films, but she wonderfully portrays a woman suffering through a ton of emotional and mental setbacks. Fenech sells the terror believably, making us empathize with her as she goes through the ringer and hopes someone will believe her claims. She also sells the horror of entering the cult, especially during the rape scene, as she clearly doesn’t want anything to do with this. She carried this film extremely well. I thought the other actors filled their supporting roles well, never overshadowing Fenech but adding to her performance as the film ran along.Overall, ALL OF THE COLORS OF THE DARK is a weird little flick that doesn’t really live up to insanity of the opening five minutes [which involves pregnant woman, an old woman with messed up teeth, and a blue-eyed dude with a stabbing fixation], but still manages to be a worthwhile watch for those who appreciate Italian horror cinema. The film is a more of a “Satanic Panic” vehicle rather than an actual giallo, but the mystery of Jane’s emotional and mental breakdown has enough twists and turns to keep an audience invested until it’s unfortunate bland and flat ending. This may be Sergio Martino’s best directorial work, as his nightmarish visions are shot perfectly with weird shot scales and editing, while his use of colors at random locations create an atmosphere we want to invest our time in. Plus, you have the beautiful Edwige Fenech believably playing a woman on the verge of a mental and emotional breakdown, making us wonder what we’re seeing through her performance is reality or fantasy. Fenech pulls it off well and carries the film without much issue from beginning to end. ALL THE COLORS OF THE DARK is an eerie and evocative horror flick that just reminds the audience that they sure don’t make many films like this anymore. ZOMBIELAND: DOUBLE TAP (2019) - *** out of ****Directed By: Ruben FleischerStarring: Woody Harrelson, Jesse Eisenberg, Emma Stone, Abigail Breslin, Zoey Deutch, Avan Jogia, Rosario Dawson, Luke Wilson, Thomas MiddleditchGenre: Horror/Comedy/ZombiesRunning Time: 93 MinutesPlot: The group will face a new zombie threat as a new breed of zombie has developed. This new super-zombie type is faster, bigger, and stronger than the previous strain of zombies and harder to kill. These super-zombies have started grouping up into a horde going from city to city leaving a path of destruction behind them.Review:ZOMBIELAND: DOUBLE TAP is probably a sequel that shouldn’t exist, but I have no issue with it otherwise. There had been talks for years about a sequel to the 2009 zombie hit - even a television show with different actors playing the same roles was considered for a while. But the original cast is here, joined by new faces, and the chemistry amongst them all has not changed at all. For that very reason, DOUBLE TAP works better than it ought to, even when this sequel pretty much follows the same template as the first one.DOUBLE TAP doesn’t bring anything new to the series, or zombie films in general. The characters still behave the same way, even to the point where the girls end up leaving the boys again for a short time because they’re afraid of getting attached - even though they’ve been a family for 10 years. And it all leads to random encounters until they end up at a known destination that becomes overrun by zombies due to the survivors not learning that light and loud noises will just get their attention. The great new element in DOUBLE TAP is the evolution of the zombies themselves, as some have become “Homers” (dumb zombies) or “T-800s” (super strong and intelligent zombies who won’t stay down). This adds a level of unpredictably to the story, where you feel like sometimes a main character may actually get bit by one of these things. We also bring in new characters for laughs, like Madison - the ditzy blonde who is absolutely clueless and hilarious throughout the film, having the best moments in the film. You also have Albuquerque and Flagstaff, who are Tallahassee and Columbus from a parallel universe or something. The interaction between all four when they meet is wonderfully well written and entertaining as hell. I wish the film had a bit more of it, but it’s a definite highlight of the film. And Nevada is a nice addition to the crew, giving Tallahassee a love arc that adds another dimension to the character. We also have Columbus and Wichita dealing with relationship issues, with Columbus wanting to deepen their relationship, while Wichita has cold feet. And Little Rock, now an adult, wants to branch out and experience life outside of the foursome. So there are things to latch onto with DOUBLE TAP, making it feel like an extension of what the first film had done.I will say that I feel DOUBLE TAP probably should have been released eight years ago. When the first film was released in 2009, the popularity of zombie media hadn’t reached its zenith yet. That wouldn’t happen until the year after when The Walking Dead would premiere on AMC to a massive audience that was unheard of for cable television at the time. Zombies would become the money monsters, with other media arriving quickly after The Walking Dead - like WORLD WAR Z, Z-Nation, iZombie, Fear the Walking Dead, WARM BODIES, and so on. Zombies have become so oversaturated by this point that I’m surprised DOUBLE TAP did as well as it did during its opening weekend. Luckily DOUBLE TAP is a good film and sequel, but it makes one wonder whether it was needed or not.The direction by Ruben Fleischer is just as good as it was in the first ZOMBIELAND, maybe even flashier due to recent years of working on comic book films like VENOM. The film is well paced, colorful, and has some fun moments with some cool gore. The acting is even better as the original cast step right back into their roles as if they had never left. They have great chemistry and play off of each other very well. The newer additions, like Rosario Dawson, Luke Wilson, Thomas Middleditch and Avan Jogia, help create new foils and a bigger universe within Zombieland. The star of the film though is Zoey Deutch as Madison, portraying a stereotypical blonde Paris Hilton type ditz who comes in between Columbus and Wichita, while creating hilarious situations for the cast. She’s so charming and infectious that I hope I see her in more films. Overall. ZOMBIELAND: DOUBLE TAP is not as good or as fresh as the first ZOMBIELAND from 10 years ago. After the last decade of over saturation of the zombie market in all facets of pop culture, you kind of have to wonder why anyone thought it was a good idea to release this sequel now instead of seven to eight years ago. Even so, the film still mostly works as the humor is more hit than miss. The cast is still wonderful and maintain the same chemistry they had in the first film, with newer additions [Zoey Deutch in particular] adding some needed personality to what could have been a cash-in sequel. And I thought Ruben Fleischer’s flashy direction worked well to create a colorful world within a zombie apocalypse. I don’t think there was much demand for DOUBLE TAP, but it’s nice to see a zombie property that plays things for laughs in a world that probably needs more of that.  THE BODY [INTO THE DARK] (2018) - **1/2 out of ****Directed By: Paul DavisStarring: Tom Bateman, Rebecca Rittenhouse, Aurora Perrineau, David Hull, Ray Santiago, Harvey Guillen, Max Adler, Raymond Forchion, Chasty Ballesteros, Sasha Grey, Patrick Hume, Alex WinterGenre: Horror/ThrillerRunning Time: 85 MinutesPlot: A sophisticated hitman with a cynical view on modern society finds his work made difficult when he has to transport a body on Halloween night, but everyone is enamored by what they think is his killer costume.Review:It took me over a year to finally sit down and watch Hulu’s anthology movie series, Into the Dark - a series I was interested in when it premiered but didn’t really allow time to give it a shot. Figuring it’s Halloween season and the first episode of the first season is a Halloween episode [each episode takes place during a certain holiday], I finally sat down to watch THE BODY - a tale of a hitman who has trouble transporting a body on Halloween night, trying to blend in with other costumed people to get a ride to his final destination. He eventually meets a woman at a party who is turned on by his murderous ways once it’s all revealed, leading to more complications for the hitman.It’s surprising that not a lot of people in my horror circle discuss this Into the Dark series. It’s been a year since the series began and I barely know anything about the episodes included on the show. So I was a bit apprehensive starting this series because if no one is discussing it, it must not be worth the investment, right? Fortunately THE BODY happens to be slightly more positive than negative when it comes to its storytelling and presentation. Taking a short story and extending it into a feature-length film isn’t ideal, but it can work if the right people are behind the project. THE BODY does have interesting story elements going for it most of the time, but you can definitely tell there is a lot of filler involving characters and conversations that aren’t really relevant by the movie’s conclusion. There are portions in the film where I felt some of the exposition dragged and slowed the flow down, creating banter and exchanges that either hit or missed, making certain moments feel unnatural at times.I also thought that as the film went on, the quality of the three acts declined by the film’s end. The first act is the most interesting, as it’s pretty much the simple plot of the story where we’re introduced to our main character, who murders someone for a bounty and has no means of claiming the body for his prize. That is, until he meets some annoying strangers that want to party with him because they think his hitman attire is a costume and the wrapped dead body he’s dragging around is nothing but a prop. You get to see how different his life is from theirs, as he’s stoic and all business while they just want to drink, get high and have fun on Halloween night. That changes when he encounters Maggie, a technological expert who becomes slightly unhinged once she finds out who the hitman is and falls for him.This reveal leads into a decent second act where the conflict begins, as the annoying strangers steal the body while the hitman and Maggie try to hunt them down. While the hitman’s and Maggie’s relationship begins to grow and begin to understand each other, the other group fight amongst themselves as they realize they’re in over their heads in trying to stop the hitman from completing his mission. The hitman’s relationship with Maggie is a strong aspect of the story as she reveals how twisted and lustful for murder she is, willing to do anything to be the hitman’s partner-in-crime. He, however, doesn’t understand her but appreciates how much she seems to understand him. They begin to scare their rivals through their cell phones, attempting to frame them for everything the hitman has done that night. The annoying strangers aren’t as interesting, too busy fighting amongst themselves and performing dumb actions they haven’t bothered to plan properly. Considering the fact that the hitman is supposed to be the villain of this story, this group of three seem more antagonistic and less worthy to root for.A surprising twist leads into the final act, which downgrades into a stereotypical slasher flick that doesn’t feel earned at all. The hitman, who has been having trouble locating these idiots, suddenly finds them, shows his cunning and apparent invulnerability, and plays with his victims instead of finding the body - which he is under a time limit over thanks to his mysterious boss. While some of the things that happen are pretty cool in terms of violence and gore, it just feels pedestrian and predictable. The build up is so well written and the thriller aspect is pretty damn good, I feel like the final part of the film cheapens everything that came before it. I thought the ending was kind of funny, but even that felt a bit unearned. The direction by Paul Davis is good for the most part. The film looks nice and is paced well enough that THE BODY never drags. The kill sequences don’t really happen until the final act, but I thought Davis handled those very well. Most of it was done via CGI, but it was good looking CGI. Throats are slashed, knives get impaled through skulls, we get gun play and there’s a cool scene of someone’s skull getting crush through someone’s eye sockets. For a TV movie, it’s well shot and well produced.The acting is pretty solid as well. Tom Bateman is quite good as the hitman, never really playing things for laughs until he becomes a slasher villain. His dialogue may look silly and read heavy-handed on paper, but Bateman delivers them in such a serious way with his British accent that it feels natural for this particular character. I thought Rebecca Rittenhouse played his foil pretty well, slowly becoming more crazy as the film went on. I thought she had good chemistry with Bateman, as they mainly played off of each other through much of the film with ease and interest. Ray Santiago, of Ash vs. Evil Dead fame, plays the comic relief as best as he can with the material given. He’s a lot better in the beginning than he is at the end, but he gives it his all. The rest of the main cast, David Hull [who looks like Seth McFarlane’s younger brother] and especially Aurora Perrineau, are solid as well. It’s a good cast that try to make the most of a script that loses its way as it reaches the finish line.Overall. I liked THE BODY more than I didn’t. I enjoyed the build up of the plot and introduction of the main characters in the first act, while the decent second act was a bit disjointed, leading to a final act that wants to be a slasher film when not much before it really set that up. The tone was all over the place in this film, but when it stuck to one, the film was very watchable. The direction by Paul Davis is good, pacing this TV movie well enough so it doesn’t wear out its welcome. The kill sequences don’t show anything new, but are shot well and look better than they have any right to. And the acting, especially by Tom Bateman, Rebecca Rittenhouse and Ray Santiago is strong. I wanted this to be better since I dug the concept, but I liked the film enough to give the other episodes a go. We’ll see whether this series is worth going Into the Dark for.

From Beyond (1986)
DIRECTED BYStuart GordonSTARRINGJeffrey Combs - Dr. Crawford TillinghastBarbara Crampton - Dr. Katherine McMichaelsTed Sorel - Dr. Edward PretoriusKen Foren - Bubba BrownleeCarolyn Purdy-Gordon - Dr. BlochGenre - Horror/Science Fiction/FantasyRunning Time - 86 MinutesPLOTA group of scientists have developed the Resonator, a machine which allows whoever is within range to see beyond normal perceptible reality. But when the experiment succeeds, they are immediately attacked by terrible life forms.REVIEWThe follow up to his critically and commercially acclaimed 1985 film RE-ANIMATOR, Stuart Gordon’s adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft’s short story FROM BEYOND is an odd sci-fi/horror flick that doesn’t get as much love or attention as its predecessor. I’m not really sure why that is. FROM BEYOND has a lot of the superficial elements that audiences loved with RE-ANIMATOR - gooey and cheesy special effects, a mad scientist angle gone wrong, and this really twisted perception when it comes to horror and sex. But maybe the story, or the characters, or even the situation itself doesn’t really attract enough people to give it the time of day, or even discuss the film in general. Honestly, I hadn’t watched FROM BEYOND in decades until my recent viewing of the film, barely remembering anything important that went on besides Barbara Crampton in a hot BDSM number until this re-watch. I think as a teenager, I was more titillated by the sexual aspects rather than anything else going on. But as an adult, I appreciated the general plot and everything that encompassed it both visually and conceptually, even if the film isn’t near the level of RE-ANIMATOR.I think what brings the film down over RE-ANIMATOR is the story itself. RE-ANIMATOR has a lot going on for it narrative wise. It has a mad scientist wanting to play God, bringing corpses back to life to not-so-great results. You have a love triangle that turns twisted when one of sides becomes this decapitated head wanting to force oral sex onto his trapped obsession. You also had the science aspect itself, which created interesting scenarios and memorable moments. And probably the best part of the narrative - it was just silly fun that was meant to scare audiences as much as it was to entertain them. The visuals would enhance the story as well, creating this complete package that gave people what they would want in a sci-fi/horror film.Unfortunately, FROM BEYOND’s narrative isn’t as strong or as interesting as the previous film. It’s not surprising, honestly, when you realize that what the film is trying to adapt is a simple short story that’s about six pages long and only encompasses maybe the opening fifteen to twenty minutes of the actual film. Stuart Gordon and Dennis Paoli had to extend the plot in order to make a feature film, adding characters and strange scenarios for the rest of the running time while keeping much of the Lovecraftian essence intact. It’s because of this that the story isn’t as strong as the film wants it to be, giving us characters who aren’t exactly sympathetic or have much depth to them. None of these characters come close to being as iconic as RE-ANIMATOR’s Dr. Herbert West, even though there is some attempt with the Dr. Katherine McMichaels character in a bit of a role reversal for the actors from the previously mentioned film. The characters in FROM BEYOND are more characters that live within the moment we’re given to witness, changing due to nature and situations that surround them. Dr. Edward Pretorius’ invention - a machine called the Resonator that allows the growth of normal perceptible reality through the pineal gland - turns characters seeking knowledge into different people by the end of the film. Some crave the knowledge so much that they either turn corrupt with power or just become crazy because they’re unable to handle it. Mostly, the machine seems to heighten the natures of sexuality and sensuality in whoever it encounters, using lust as a way to gain leverage over its victims.But we only really know these characters through exposition and how they deal with the situation, which isn’t a whole lot to be honest. Dr. Crawford Tillinghast is just a victim to the Resonator, transforming into a creature who hungers for blood and sex. But he mostly cowers and grows ill from the machine. Dr. Edward Pretorius created the machine, obsessed in learning things “from beyond”, turning corrupt with the power he learns while his body deforms into something more hideous each time we see him. Dr. Katherine McMichaels is a psychologist who doesn’t believe in drugs and hospital methods of treating mentally ill people, having her own agenda as she wants to learn what Tillinghast is so scared of, becoming something Pretorius wants her to be eventually. Dr. Bloch is the skeptic in this whole mess, thinking these characters are crazy. And you have Detective Bubba Brownlee, who is investigating what’s going on while being a victim of “wrong place, wrong time”. Other than that, we don’t really know much about them nor do we care about them too much. Yes, it’s fun watching them change because of this weird invention. But I don’t feel like there are any stakes or any reason for the audience to wish for their survival either physically or mentally. The characters in RE-ANIMATOR are fleshed out and have personality that we can latch onto. FROM BEYOND suffers from a lack of that. And it’s kind of disappointing because the concept of the film is pretty cool and still manages to work and flow well in a superficial, “popcorn and beer” sort-of-way.The real reason to watch FROM BEYOND are for the special effects, which are still pretty damn cool over thirty years later. Yes, a lot of the effects are dated, especially the green screen matte floating phallic monsters that reminded me of those Dream Demons from FREDDY’S DEAD: THE FINAL NIGHTMARE. In an HD world, they really stick out as pretty lame CGI. But something about 1980s horror makes me find these sort of effects charming in a so-bad-it’s-good manner. The real highlight involves Dr. Pretorius’ constant transformation from a normal looking human being to this melting and slimy pinkish monster that grows more disgusting with each appearance. Done with practical effects by John Carl Buechler and others, Pretorius’ metamorphosis is the highlight of the film as he changes about five times throughout the film, looking more monstrous each time. Nowadays, CGI would handle all this and make everything look more like a video game. The practical effect work create a realistic slime creature that I could believe the Resonator would create “from beyond”. We also get some cool effects involving a third eye coming out of people’s foreheads, heads either melting or getting fed upon, and random insect attacks that mutilate a body or two. While the character portion of the film may not be as strong as it should be, at least the science fiction and horror aspect of the story works due to the strong visual effects.The direction by Stuart Gordon is just as solid as it is for RE-ANIMATOR. Just really a really confident eye in terms of twisted science fiction and horror, Gordon uses the special effects wonderfully to create an eerie and surreal atmosphere that drives the characters into making decisions they normally wouldn’t make in a normal scenario. The film is short and the pace is dead on, as Gordon directs his actors strong enough for us to enjoy what goes on with them, even if we can’t sympathize with them as much as one would like. Gordon gets to do a lot visually with so little, which makes him one of the more prolific horror directors of the 1980s.The acting is pretty great as well. Jeffrey Combs and Barbara Crampton seem to have switched roles from RE-ANIMATOR, in a way. Combs plays a more tragic character as Tillinghast, caught up in another man’s horrible experiment, not knowing how to make it stop so things can be normal again. He goes through the most change both physically and emotionally, as his body decomposes due to the Resonator while he begins to lose his mind, with people thinking he’s becoming schizophrenic due to his rantings. While I think he’s had stronger performances before and after FROM BEYOND, it’s still a solid job because he’s engaging in no matter what he does. I think Crampton has a slightly stronger showing as Katherine, going from a demure psychologist with an interesting agenda to a BDSM sexpot who is full of lust in a strangely convincing manner. Unlike in RE-ANIMATOR, Crampton has a more dominant role that she can bite her teeth into and portray two very different sides of the same character. Crampton’s super talent is at full display here, as well as knocking it out of the park in her sex attire. Ken Foree is also solid as Bubba, playing a cool cat who unfortunately gets involved with something he had no idea he signed up for. He has swag and attitude for days, playing up his macho persona in an entertaining way. Ted Sorel is your typical 80s horror villain as Pretorius. He’s given one-liners and amusing dialogue as if he were Freddy Krueger in the later NIGHTMARE films, pulling off the madness he suffers through as his body changes due to his experiment. Carolyn Purdy-Gordon is also decent as Dr. Bloch, playing your typical skeptic physician. Small, but effective cast of actors.THE FINAL HOWLFROM BEYOND may be Stuart Gordon’s weirdest film with strange creatures, strong yet interesting performances and a level of sexual power that probably wouldn’t be released in theaters today. The characters could be fleshed out more for us to care about their plight, but the science fiction and horror aspects of the narrative are super solid due to strong John Carl Beuchler practical effects that range from odd to disgusting. And the actors, especially Jeffrey Combs and Barbara Crampton who take their roles seriously and seem to be having fun playing against-type, elevate a good adaptation that probably could be a bit better with stronger writing. It’s no RE-ANIMATOR, but still a memorable and well-structured horror film that probably deserves more love and attention than it actually does.SCORE3 Howls Outta 4

Alien (1979)
DIRECTED BYRidley ScottSTARRINGTom Skerritt - DallasSigourney Weaver - RipleyVeronica Cartwright - LambertHarry Dean Stanton - BrettJohn Hurt - KaneIan Holm - AshYaphet Kotto - ParkerBolaji Badejo - The AlienGenre - Horror/Science FictionRunning Time - 117 MinutesIf you’ve seen film revolving around space for the last forty to fifty years, they’re usually inspired by two films. If you have a science-fiction drama, it probably has aspects from Stanley Kubrick’s 1968’s 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY. But if you have a science-fiction horror film involving monsters attacking and murdering a space crew, then it’s most likely inspired by Ridley Scott’s 1979 classic ALIEN. ALIEN has inspired sequels, prequels, spin-offs, video games and a ton of imitators that have used the template to tell their individual stories to varying success. It made Ridley Scott a top director in Hollywood. It turned Sigourney Weaver into a household name. And after forty years, it’s still a horror film that many consider near the top of the genre - yours truly included.PLOTThe crew of the Nostromo are woken up from a cryogenic sleep while traveling back to Earth. As they try to readjust being awake again, they receive a distress call from a nearby planet. While they’re initially unsure about answering the call, they eventually go to see what’s the deal. When the crew lands, they discover this humongous space ship that seems barren besides a few strange eggs spread around the planet’s surface. They soon realize that the received call was not a call for help, but a warning to stay away. Unfortunately, the investigation leads to crew member Kane (John Hurt) being attacked by an organism hugging his face and infecting him through his mouth. Even though they believe they’re in the clear after they detach the creature from Kane and he seems okay after, Kane starts falling ill and an tiny alien bursts through his stomach. It runs away before the crew can stop it, leading to a series of dangerous events as this alien grows larger and waits inside the Nostromo to prey on the rest of the crew.REVIEWEven though the film was inspired by previous science-fiction films like 1951’s THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD, 1958’s IT! THE TERROR FROM BEYOND SPACE and 1965’s PLANET OF THE VAMPIRES, ALIEN is, without a doubt, the most influential science fiction film in movie history. It’s produced so many B-movie and cult imitators over the decades that it would take forever to list them all. Plus, so many of the moments within the film have become pop culture lexicon that it’s crazy to imagine a world without ALIEN in it. While snobs would probably list the film as just science-fiction, ALIEN is a horror film at heart - an outer space,  haunted house film providing tension, suspense and a cat-and-mouse chase that is undoubtedly slasher. ALIENS may be the favorite of many due to its slick action direction and memorable characters with great one-liners, but ALIEN is the creepiest with its simple execution of easy-to-understand characters, phenomenal direction, and wonderful acting that made many of the actors bigger stars coming out of it. After four decades, the film is still that damn good.I think one of the best things about ALIEN is how simple Dan O’Bannon's screenplay is. If you really think about it, there’s no real deep plot here. We just have a space crew who got way too curious, leading them to the danger they quickly preys upon them. The characters aren’t all that deep. We don’t know much about the Alien that attacks them. And it’s more than fine, as the film just builds and builds up tension and never lets up. The characters have been on this crew for a while it seems, as they bicker and bond like long-term co-workers or friends. They all have their roles to play, using their special traits to find a way out of this mess. And in like a haunted house movie or slashers, characters will split up to perform a task, only for them to find themselves in a perilous situation that will end up getting them killed. There are also issues of claustrophobia and paranoia amongst the crew, especially after the Alien makes its presence known and one of the crew members isn’t at all who they claim to be. We also have characters trying to save a damn cat, even though the ship is about to blow up. And by the end of the film, the story seems to imply that the Alien is some sort of phallic symbol meant to overpower the crew - especially the female members. It’s a horror film through and through… and a fun one to boot. The script never complicates the story, its characters and the situation they’re in. We know enough about these people. We know why the Alien is on the ship attacking them. All we care about is how they will get out of this danger. Sometimes that’s all you need in a movie and I wish more screenwriters would realize that less is indeed more.ALIEN’s strength and what people mostly take away from the film is Ridley Scott’s confident and strong direction. The film is a visual masterpiece in almost every way, bringing the audience something new in each frame, each scene and in each sequence that constantly builds and builds as the shots grow closer and closer by the film’s end. The direction is impeccably mapped out and storyboarded, as everything we see means something.Scott really uses the darkness of the ship and space itself as a main character to tell his story. Since the Alien is a black color, it can easily hide in the shadows and pop up when we least expect it. In fact, the lack of lighting in most of the film within the ship raises the tension, as it’s a pretty creepy location that feels more like underground tunnels rather than a work station. It may be the safest area in the world, but Scott wants us to believe there’s something hiding in the dark even if there isn’t. It creates an atmosphere a lot of the imitators lacked later on, really creating a vibe that something majorly bad is about to happen. It’s made worse when we don’t know when, how, or even why.What also makes ALIEN stand out are the sleek and strangely intriguing designs of the late H.R. Giger. Groundbreaking for their time, the Swiss surrealist really captured a grittier and darker look at space within the Hollywood landscape. The Alien creature itself, was a Giger design, giving audiences a meaner and scarier alien than the generic big head and big eyed green aliens that have become iconic. It’s through Giger that the sexual context of the film takes shape, as his designs seem phallic in nature most of the time. The space jockey looks like an erect penis. The face-huggers attaches themselves through the victim’s mouths, almost performing an act of fellatio in order to infect their victims with eggs to incubate inside the human body. In a way, the Alien seems to be a sexual predator of sorts, raping its victims in order to impregnate them to build a new family of space villains. Even when the Alien reaches its adult stage, it seems to want to get rid of the men first while saving the women for last for its own personal pleasure. One of the female crew members’ last moment shows the Alien using its tail traveling up between her legs. And the Alien enjoys being a voyeur as Ripley undresses before striking. These acts make the Alien much creepier, sadistic and a lot smarter than most people would give it credit for. I can only imagine how this all would have come across if Giger didn’t have a hand in putting his vision onto film history.Scott also takes his time building up to the horror moments in the film, making them stand out and genuinely create scares for the audience. Nothing scary really happens in the first act, slowly building tension until the face-hugger pops up and attacks Kane. It’s strictly sci-fi at that point still, until the classic moment where the baby alien pops out of Kane’s stomach before running away in a great creature effect. I still enjoy that moment where the blood splatters all over actress Veronica Cartwright, as the range of blood surprised the hell out of her to create a genuine scared reaction. From there, Scott builds tension in a different way, creating more of a slasher vibe as the protagonists must hide and survive from the Alien who plans on having its way with them. Like I mentioned earlier, the use of darkness and shadow really create a gritty atmosphere, executing wonderful moments of the Alien just coming into the light behind someone and scaring the crap out of them. That scene where the cat just watches a crew member get mauled by the Alien [which we don’t really see besides the cat’s frightened and stunned reaction] is wonderfully shot. And that great moment at the end where Ripley opens up a hole in the ship so the Alien can get sucked into space is visually impressive. It also helps when you have Jerry Goldsmith composing your movie and perfectly capturing every tone and beat within the scene. Ridley Scott would continue to make visually stunning films, especially 1982’s BLADE RUNNER and 1985’s LEGEND, but ALIEN is his masterpiece.What completes the greatness of ALIEN is the wonderful acting by actors who would later become more famous after this. This is Sigourney Weaver’s major film debut and she does an excellent job playing Ripley. She’s tough and strong, yet vulnerable enough for us to care about her. Weaver would get to do a lot more in the sequels, but her first performance as Ripley is a great foundation to her character that would only build and change from here. The underrated Tom Skeritt, probably best known for his TV work on Picket Fences, is also great as the ship’s captain Dallas. He’s tough, commanding, and heroic. Veronica Cartwright doesn’t get to do much honestly, but she’s easy on the eyes and is great at screaming. Harry Dean Stanton, as usual, plays the comic relief as Brett. Stanton is always great and it’s no exception here. Ian Holm is stoic through most of the film, giving off a quiet and creepy vibe that pays off big time. John Hurt gets memorable moments, but I wish he was in the film more. He’s a great actor and seems underutilized here. Yaphet Kotto is another reliable actor who is solid as the smart and trough Parker. And a lot of love for Bolaji Badejo as the Alien. There are times near the end where you can tell it’s someone in a costume, but man - what a great looking costume. Badejo did a fine job bringing a soon-to-be classic horror villain to life. A pretty amazing cast for an amazing film.THE FINAL HOWLTo call ALIEN other than a “sci-fi horror classic" would question my ability to even review films of the genre. It has inspired so many other films and other facets of pop culture, yet none have done it as well as Ridley Scott’s 1979 masterpiece. It has tension. It has atmosphere. It has incredible set design and sexual subtext via H.R. Giger. It has a great use of light and dark thanks to Scott. And the Jerry Goldsmith score and talented cast elevate what could have been a silly science fiction B-movie with a bigger budget. After 40 years, ALIEN is the epitome of what any sci-fi horror film should aspire to be. You don’t need an alien bursting through your chest to make you see that.SCORE4 Howls Outta 4

Lunar Cycle - September 2019
Since I don’t have as much time to write longer reviews than I used to, I figured I would just post shorter reviews for horror/cult films that I feel deserve your attention. Expect these Lunar Cycle posts once per month. DEAD RISING: WATCHTOWER (2015) - ** out of ****Directed By: Zach LipovskyStarring: Jesse Metcalfe, Meghan Ory, Keegan Connor Tracy, Virginia Madsen, Dennis Haysbert, Rob Riggle, Julia BensonGenre: Horror/Action/Science Fiction/Zombies/Video GamesRunning Time: 118 MinutesPlot: Based on the game, DEAD RISING: WATCHTOWER takes place during a large-scale zombie outbreak. When a mandatory government vaccine fails to stop the infection from spreading, the four leads must evade infection while also pursuing the root of the epidemic, with all signs pointing to a government conspiracy.Review:Based on the successful Capcom video game franchise, DEAD RISING: WATCHTOWER was Legendary Studios’ first entry into their digital department and exclusive to Crackle for a while. The film must have done well streaming, as a sequel called DEAD RISING: ENDGAME was released a year later. But I’ll get to that film whenever I get a chance to see it.As for WATCHTOWER, it’s pretty much your standard zombie film that wouldn’t feel out of place on a SyFy Saturday Night marathon. It looks like a TV movie with a bigger budget, following many predictable tropes that one would find in most zombie films. If you’ve watched a zombie movie in the last 51 years, you’ll know exactly what to expect and how things will end for the most part. WATCHTOWER even takes things from other films. We have a mother and her zombie daughter like NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD. We have a leather and face painted biker gang that’s a mix of the original DAWN OF THE DEAD and THE ROAD WARRIOR. And one of the characters is living with the virus and has become sort of immune like in those RESIDENT EVIL films. Plus, you have the military and scientists who claim they’re there to help during the zombie apocalypse, but have their own agendas going on like in most zombie films. Also, the characters trapped within the outbreak zone have to find a way to get out of there in sort of an ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK sort of way. There’s nothing really new when it comes to the screenplay, playing it safe while attempting to build a franchise that connects with the games themselves [WATCHTOWER apparently takes place in between Dead Rising 2 & Dead Rising 3].The characters aren’t anything great, but they’re written competently. Chase Carter, our main hero, starts out as this sensationalist journalist who wants to exploit certain situations to become famous and gain a following for his video news blog series. But as he finds out the truth behind the zombie outbreak and has to rely on strangers to get this information out and escape a mass bombing the military is planning to eliminate the zombie infection, Chase becomes a bit more heroic and learns to be more human within an undead world. Jordan Blair, Chase’s camerawoman, is the conscience of the story and is the one who investigates the outbreak until she finds out the truth. Crystal is the film’s badass woman who knows a lot [maybe a bit too much] about the zombie situation while threatening and fighting her way to survive. But she also has a vulnerable side, which she only shows to Chase once he saves her life. Maggie is the grieving mother who just wants to get back to her daughter, knowing she’s a zombie. And you have General Lyons, who says and does all the right things in the public’s eye when it comes to eliminating the zombie issue, but has his own agenda that might go against the heroes. The only characters that seem fresh within the generic characters and story are reporter Susan Collier and Frank West himself, who hilariously banters with Collier to the point of annoyance, while telling the public how they need to survive the outbreak in the most blunt and realistic ways possible. Again, not a terrible script but nothing you’ll remember a week from now since you’ve seen it done so many times and done much better.The direction by Zach Lipovsky is nothing really special. The movie is almost two hours long and it feels like it, due to a dialogue-heavy middle portion that’s sandwiched in between action-packed openings and endings. The film looks like any other digital looking movie you’ve seen in the last few years, with no real visual splashes. The use of Go-Pro cameras for some of the first person point-of-view shots during the action are a nice touch, though. And while the middle drags, at least the action flows as well as one would expect. I also thought the zombies looked pretty cool, especially this clown zombie that was a highlight. And having the characters use weapons from the video game was great, as I liked seeing these weird looking contraptions take out the undead. It’s a fine looking movie but nothing you wouldn’t see from a SyFy production.The acting is probably the best part of WATCHTOWER. Jesse Metcalfe makes for a good hero as Chase, having the physical look to pull off action sequences convincingly. I also thought he brought some depth to his character that probably wasn’t on paper due to his facial reactions and body language. He’s more of a soap opera actor than anything, but this is probably some of the best stuff he’s done in his career. I also liked Meghan Ory as Crystal. Her tough girl performance was well portrayed and showed some nice vulnerability for viewers to care about her plight. I also liked Keegan Connor Tracy [of Bates Motel fame] as camerawoman Jordan. She has a likable presence on screen and I felt she grounded the film immensely whenever she was on. Shout out to both Carrie Genzel and Rob Riggle, who did nothing but banter and flirt with each other in front of a green screen posing as a news studio. They had the best dialogue and their interactions were always amusing. As for the negatives, I wish Virginia Madsen had more to do besides cry and look worried. She’s an Oscar-nominated actress who deserves something meatier to do. And I appreciate Dennis Haysbert, but he plays a typical military general and nothing more. And was that both Sylvia and Jen Soska as zombies? Pretty cool.Overall, DEAD RISING: WATCHTOWER is just an okay video game adaptation that’s more than watchable, but won’t stay in your memory after it’s over. It takes many elements from other zombie and genre films to create a generic zombie movie that you’ve seen done countless times, with some doing it much better and more memorably. The direction is also just there, besides some nice Go-Pro shots from time to time. But it has mostly a solid cast [although some don’t get a whole lot to do], very good looking zombies, and a nice connection to the video games with the makeshift weapons and a familiar character that I’m sure fans of the Dead Rising franchise will appreciate. DEAD RISING: WATCHTOWER isn’t a must see at all, but it’s something you can put on in the background while you’re doing something more fulfilling.TUCKER AND DALE VS. EVIL (2010) - ***1/2 out of ****Directed By: Eli CraigStarring: Alan Tudyk, Tyler Labine, Katrina Bowden, Jesse Moss, Philip Granger, Brandon Jay McLaren, Christie Laing, Chelan Simmons, Travis Nelson, Alex ArsenaultGenre: Horror/Comedy/Survival/BackwoodsRunning Time: 89 MinutesPlot: Two hillbillies are suspected of being killers by a group of paranoid college kids camping near the duo’s West Virginian cabin. As the body count climbs, so does the fear and confusion as the college kids try to seek revenge against the pair.Review:Have you ever wondered during a horror film involving hillbillies whether the hillbillies themselves weren’t the villains, but actually the misunderstood victims of our supposed heroes’ prejudice towards those who live and frequent the backwoods? Well that’s what TUCKER AND DALE VS. EVIL brings onto the table to change our misconceptions on the standard backwoods survival horror we see now and then with films like DELIVERANCE, THE HILLS HAVE EYES, JUST BEFORE DAWN, the WRONG TURN series and etc. Not only is the film making fun of the tropes these type of films generate, but it’s a lot of fun to watch and worthy of the cult status the film has obtained over the years.TUCKER AND DALE VS. EVIL clicks pretty much from top to bottom, but the screenplay is one of the best horror-comedy scripts I’ve seen acted out in a long while. I’m really surprised that the switch from having the traditional hillbilly villains be the heroes of the story hasn’t been done before, or not done often. It helps that the character development for both hillbilly characters is super strong, as both have distinct likable personalities. Tucker is technically the boss of the two - a bit more intelligent to the ways of the world and more extroverted in terms of making things happen. Dale is the follower - an insecure man due to his weight, but has a huge heart and cares about people. They’re best buds who balance each other out perfectly, creating a pair of protagonists we can care about and root for.On the other side of the field, we have our archetypical college students who stumble into the backwoods area for a weekend of camping. Probably having seen a couple of horror films and believing urban legends about the people who live in these kind of areas, the students believe Tucker and Dale are creepy, stupid and probably planning on murdering them. The best part about these characters is that they all come off as stupid and naive, even though they’re following every single trope that makes most audiences sympathetic towards these sort of characters. They believe one of their friends has been kidnapped by Tucker and Dale, even though they’re just taking care of her after they saved her from drowning. And because they want to save their friend, they end up trying to attack the two hillbillies - only ending up in fatal accidents that Tucker and Dale get blamed for. The leader of this group, frat boy Chad, seems to know a bit more about the hillbilly lifestyle and wants revenge on Tucker and Dale over something that had happened to his family years ago that the two targets had nothing to do with. The twist in the traditional narrative is played for laughs, but also as a weird commentary on how we should never judge a book by its cover regardless of how the media has portrayed things for decades. The dialogue works, the reverse in portrayals works, the hilarious and horrific situations work, and even the ridiculous twist in the final act does the job. I was not expecting TUCKER AND DALE VS. EVIL to be as clever and witty as it is.The direction by Eli Craig is nothing special or dynamic, but it’s directed as one would expect from this sub-genre. Craig’s best work is with the film’s pacing, as the film is only 89 minutes and breezes by due to things happening onscreen quite frequently. The accidental murder sequences are shot really well, using both a mix of practical and CGI effects. My favorite one is probably the wood-chipper death, but we also get a lot of people impaling themselves on sharp objects. Plus we get a nice explosion moment, as well as some good makeup for burn victims and people who get their face mutilated by a lawn mower. And for a low budget feature, the film looks pretty damn great and colorful. The visuals aren’t going to leave much of an impression once the film ends, but it does what it needs to do when the film is on.The acting is also very strong. Alan Tudyk, best known for his work on Firefly, is pretty great as Tucker. Of the two main actors, Tudyk plays things a bit more straight while drinking beer and getting attacked by college students over a misunderstanding. Tudyk is pretty much great in all of his projects and this one is no exception. I thought even better is Tyler Labine as Dale, playing a perfectly lovable hero who is as dim-witted as he is charming. I thought he had great chemistry with Tudyk and Katrina Bowden. Speaking of Bowden, I thought she was very good as Allison - the only college student who saw Tucker and Dale for the nice guys that they were. While she doesn’t have a ton of depth besides being Dale’s potential love interest, she did a good job being a lovely presence on film. Of the other actors, I thought Jesse Moss as Chad was pretty great as the supposed hero of the college students, who ends up being a loose cannon who’s missing a few of his marbles. His switch from nice guy to psycho was fun to watch. Overall, a solid cast that made the experience enjoyable.Overall, TUCKER AND DALE VS. EVIL is a pleasant surprise that made me upset that I hadn’t watched the film sooner, even knowing of its reputation. It has a great storyline twist in terms of having the usually evil hillbillies be the heroes of the story rather than the usually good college students who are nothing but idiotic and judgmental enough to lead to funny accidental death sequences. The film is extremely well paced, with great use of both practical and CGI effects to showcase some nifty deaths that end up being more funny than anything else. And the cast, especially Alan Tudyk and Tyler Labine, are excellent and bring the witty and clever narrative to life. I keep hearing there are attempts to make a follow-up and I hope it happens. TUCKER AND DALE VS. EVIL is a whole lot of fun and worth multiple watches whether at home, or at your new vacation home in the backwoods.  THE HOUSE WITH A CLOCK IN ITS WALLS (2018) - **1/2 out of ****Directed By: Eli RothStarring: Owen Vaccaro, Jack Black, Cate Blanchett, Kyle MacLachlan, Renee Elise Goldsberry, Sunny Suljic, Vanessa A. Williams, Colleen Camp, Lorenza Izzo, Eli RothGenre: Family/Fantasy/HorrorRunning Time: 106 MinutesPlot: When ten-year-old Lewis is suddenly orphaned, he is sent to live with his Uncle Jonathan in a creaky [and creepy] old mansion with a mysterious ticking noise that emanates from the walls. Upon discovering that his uncle is a warlock, Lewis begins learning magic, but when he rebelliously resurrects an evil warlock he must find the secret of the house and save the world from destruction.Review:After all the controversy over directing films like HOSTEL, THE GREEN INFERNO and that not-so-great remake of DEATH WISH, who would have thought that a family company like Amblin Entertainment would hire Eli Roth to direct a family-friendly horror film for a younger demographic? But it happened, as THE HOUSE WITH A CLOCK IN ITS WALLS hit theaters before Halloween and was a success at the box office. I didn’t catch the film in theaters, never had read the 1973 John Bellairs novel the movie is adapted from, and thinking it looked like another GOOSEBUMPS or modern Tim Burton vehicle that probably wouldn’t entertain me all too much these days. But knowing Roth had directed this film intrigued me enough to give it a shot. And while it’s pretty generic for the most part, it still managed to be entertaining for all the right reasons.Even though the source material is older, THWACIIW might feel like a copycat of the HARRY POTTER series just with more horror elements added in. Both have a young protagonist who is an orphan. Both are thrusted into a world of magic and becoming powerful within it. And both include an evil magician who is raised from the dead to destroy the world. The only difference is that our main character is an outcast who isn’t treated well by most of his peers, hoping that learning magic will help bring his deceased parents back which obviously backfires. The film treats Lewis’ arc pretty well, giving him a lot of emotional beats for us to care about him. The other protagonists, Uncle Jonathan and Florence Zimmerman, also get bits of emotional arcs [more Florence], although the narrative doesn’t really focus on them as much. The villains’ arc is also pretty standard stuff, with Isaac Izard and wife Selena, using dark magic to destroy all of mankind. In fact, the film doesn’t really focus on Izard’s plan all that much until the final act - focusing more on Lewis’ adjustment to his new life and surroundings, trying to find his place in the world. The narrative is well written and we get to learn enough about the characters to care about what’s going on, but the story never seems to really know what it truly wants to focus on.The problem with the film’s narrative is that it’s a bit too simple. Maybe this is because the film is catered to a young demographic and producers felt the story needed to be a bit dumbed down. But the character moments between Lewis, Jonathan and Florence are the strongest and more interesting part of THWACIIW. You quickly see how the three characters connect as a strange family who embrace their weirdness while teaching magic to Lewis. Their personal decisions also affect the rise of Izard back to the world of the living. Lewis’ struggle to make friends leads to Izard’s resurrection, creating a redemption arc in the final act. Jonathan’s reluctance to share everything with Lewis plays a hand in Izard’s return. And Florence’s grief over her past, which quickly bonds her to Lewis, emotionally stunts her magical ability, which quickens Izard’s plan of action in the final act. Even Izard’s motivations for his evil is easy to understand, making him a pretty deep character within a short time. But the film doesn’t have enough moments like this because Eli Roth would rather focus on the whimsy of the magic stuff, as well the horror moments that take precedence in the last part of the film. All of it is done well, but the film never feels quite cohesive because of it. The film feels like three movies trying to balance each other out, showing how much care went into all those HARRY POTTER films and other films of this ilk. This is the most visually impressive film of Eli Roth’s career. Roth seems to be having a lot of fun crafting great shots of CGI Jack-O’Lanterns attacking our heroes, evil mannequins haunting the magic house, and other objects flooding the screen to visually stimulate the audience. While the special effects are nothing that we haven’t seen before in other films, the film looks very slick and polished. Young children would definitely be impressed by what plays on screen. However, while the garden griffin looks great, the running poop joke gag isn’t really funny and seems forced. I get it’s used for levity, but I felt it ruined whatever tone the film goes for at the time. I also thought that CGI baby with Jack Black’s head on it was not good. Probably the scariest image in this film by a mile. Other than that, the film is paced well and it’s obvious Roth wants to create jump scares and creepy moments to carry the story rather than the characters themselves for much of the film. I wouldn’t mind seeing Roth tackle more films like this because he did a good job.The acting is probably the highlight of the film. Jack Black is over-the-top and steals any scene he’s in as Jonathan. Depending on whether you appreciate his schtick, you might find him amusing or annoying. I thought Black brought a lot of life to the role, and even carries the short time when he needed to be serious extremely well. Even better is Cate Blanchett, who elevates the class and prestige to any film she’s involved with. The role of Florence could be a bit one note, but Blanchett fleshes it out and creates a dimensional character you really care about. I also liked her banter with Black, as you can tell the two were having fun acting together. Young Owen Vaccaro mostly does well as Lewis, carrying the emotional beats of the character believably. He can be a bit annoying at times, especially when he overdoes something, but he’s mostly likable does an okay job carrying much of the film. The other actor of note is Kyle MacLachlan, who hams it up and seems to be enjoying playing an evil warlock. I do wish he was more of a presence throughout the film, but he’s a definitely highlight during the final act.Overall, THE HOUSE WITH A CLOCK IN ITS WALLS is a great starter point for younger children who want to start their horror film journey. Eli Roth surprisingly does a good job pacing the film well and crafting polished horror imagery that will impress younger viewers. The acting by Jack Black, Cate Blanchett and Owen Vaccaro [for the most part] is pretty great and gives a lot of a life to a pretty generic story that has been done to death in Young Adult film adaptations by this point. The character development portions of the narrative are handled well, but it’s obvious Roth would rather focus on the whimsy of the magic stuff, as well as scares involving evil mannequins and Jack-O’Lanterns. And at times, the film doesn’t know whether it wants to be scary, serious, or a comedy, struggling to maintain a balance to appeal to all audiences. While other films have taken this sort of story and done it much better, THE HOUSE WITH A CLOCK ON ITS WALLS still would have been a film I loved as a child. As an adult, it’s flawed and not all that memorable once its over. But it’s amusing enough for a recommendation for parents to share this one with their children during Halloween season.MARTYRS (2015) - *1/2 out of ****Directed By: Kevin & Michael GoetzStarring: Troian Bellisario, Bailey Noble, Kate Burton, Caitlin Carmichael, Melissa Tracy, Romy Rosemont, Toby Huss, Elyse ColeGenre: Horror/Mystery/Thriller/DramaRunning Time: 86 MinutesPlot: A woman and her childhood friend seek out revenge on those who victimized and abused them.Review:By 2008, French horror cinema was at an all-time high with classics such as HAUTE TENSION, FRONTIER(S), INSIDE and especially MARTYRS - a film that, to this day, still makes me uncomfortable to watch on multiple levels. The gore is excessive, the reveal of the mystery is downright sad and disturbing and the foreign feel of the film adds a level of atmosphere and bleakness that you don’t find all that much in American films. It’s not a film meant to entertain the audience, but to create a visceral stimuli that will linger much after the film is over. I would give it my highest recommendation to watch at least once because you’ll get something out of it whether it appeals to you or not. It’s one of those horror films that is beyond a rating system.Unfortunately, the success of MARTYRS led to the production of an American remake that was released back in 2015. Now don’t get me wrong - some Americanized remakes of foreign films can work well. That was proven with 2002’s THE RING, which I actually prefer slightly over RINGU. But there’s no way you could take a deep, visceral film like MARTYRS and remake it for an American mainstream audience who would prefer a brainless popcorn film. Plus, a lot that can be gotten away with in France will surely not fly in America. Things will be lost in translation - which this remake proves because this feels like a Cliff Notes version of the original film. That’s not a good thing.The first half of the remake pretty much follows the exact same shot and scene structure of the French original. The two main protagonists meet up as young girls as an orphanage, the brutal family scene is still intact, as well as the clean up and finding a tortured prisoner within the family’s home. Only this time, the cult mystery isn’t so much of a mystery, the brutality isn’t as severe, and the tortured prisoner isn’t some scarred person, but a young child who takes a liking to one of the protagonists. Unlike the original version, where the scenes are able to breathe and reveal things about the characters and the situations they’re put into, the remake condenses them a bit and reveals things in a way that allows audiences to feel more comfortable rather than disturbed. There never seems to be a feeling of dread unlike in the original, but a weird sense of hope that friendship will protect our characters and figure a way out. I think this might work for those who haven’t seen the original, but the storytelling is way more powerful in the French version.The second half takes a detour from the original, pretty much changing the characters’ fates and adding an element of female empowerment that wasn’t at play previously. There’s no suicide attempt. There’s barely any skinny alive for the villains to get their answers in a way that physical pain will gain them some “enlightenment”. And one of the characters manages to escape, becoming a total badass warrior as she enters the villain’s headquarters to save her friend and the young girl she’s grown fond with. While I give points for the filmmakers for taking the story in a different direction and not making the exact same movie [something remakes should do], it also diminishes the essence and reason for why the original MARTYRS existed to begin with. The original film wasn’t about heroism, redemption, or empowerment. It was about brutality, disturbing moments both visually and emotionally, while giving the audience something to think about whether it’s worth going through immense pain in order to get answers on what’s in the afterlife. The philosophy about the extreme measures some will go to gain knowledge we’re probably not meant to receive make the original MARTYRS so powerful. The remake never really does that, rather settling for a more action-oriented final act that would rather tell the audience what we’re supposed to get out of the film without letting the audience figure it out for themselves. I will give the film this - the two halves flow better together than they do in the original film. But neither half is as interesting or powerful, which is what I was afraid of when I heard MARTYRS was getting an American remake. The original concept is not meant to be turned into a somewhat hopeful and upbeat Hollywood story. The remake of MARTYRS turns from a profound philosophical and psychological mind-twister into a predictable and pedestrian horror-thriller with bits of “torture porn” included because the original film did.While the remake totally doesn’t understand why MARTYRS has affected so many people who have watched the original, at least it has good things going for it. The direction by both Kevin and Michael Goetz is better than I expected, with good pacing and editing in its favor. The cinematography is also quite beautiful, giving the film that Hollywood polished look that is visually pleasing to the eye. And even though the violence is tame compared to the original, I thought all of it was shot very well and look practical rather than CGI, which is a plus.The acting is also a bright spot. It’s especially true in the case of both lead actresses, Troian Bellisario and Bailey Noble, who are believable in their roles. They hit all the emotional and physical beats the story required and never tried to copy what the original actresses had done. I think without their presence, I probably would have shut off the film before it ended. The rest of the actors, including Kate Burton and Toby Huss, did well also. My only issue is that I could tell these talented people were playing roles. In the original film, the actors seemed to endure so much more to the point where you’re not even sure where reality and fantasy start or ends. But that’s not the fault of anyone in front of the camera.Overall, the remake of MARTYRS isn’t the total train wreck it could have been. Yet, it’s not particularly a good film, or even a necessary one when you have a more interesting and way more memorable original French version that will make you feel multiple emotions all at once by the time it’s over. You’ll probably just shrug your shoulders by the end of this one because it doesn’t really add anything that improves upon the original. At least the visuals and acting are good, which saves this film from being a total waste of time if you never bothered with the original film. I respect the filmmakers for trying to change the last half of the film to craft their own interpretation on the original story [even though it just diminishes what made the 2008 version so special]. But if you’re going to watch any version of MARTYRS, stick with the original. It might haunt you for a while once it’s over, but it’s still better than wasting 90 minutes of your life and feeling “meh”. THE CANDY SNATCHERS (1973) - *** out of ****Directed By: Guerdon TruebloodStarring: Tiffany Bolling, Ben Piazza, Susan Sennett, Brad David, Vince Martorano, Bonnie Boland, Leon Charles, Dolores Dorn, Phyllis Major, James WhitworthGenre: Thriller/Crime/Drama/Exploitation/CultRunning Time: 94 MinutesPlot: An abused autistic boy is the sole witness to the kidnapping of a teenage heiress.Review:Even though I’m a fan of grindhouse-era exploitation from the 1970s, THE CANDY SNATCHERS is a film that escaped my attention for longer than it should have. I was pretty much expecting a sleazier LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT rip-off with a more crime vibe than horror. But this one pretty much surprised me with how twisted, darkly comical and fun it is. For ninety-minutes, I was completely glued to see where this story was going to go. And while the ending is both satisfying and unsatisfying at the same time, I still didn’t feel too disappointed by this hidden gem.The basic plot of THE CANDY SNATCHERS is that three criminals kidnap a teenage daughter of a jewelry mogul, hoping that a ransom will guarantee them lots of diamonds to become rich. But they soon realize that this mogul doesn’t really care about his daughter [or step-daughter], wanting her dead in order to gain an inheritance that will grant him over a million dollars. Realizing that they’re stick with this teenager, the criminals start imploding within their own group. They also are unaware that this autistic child has witnessed most of what they’ve done, involving himself in trying to save this girl.I really want to go deeper into the story and how well written it really is, but doing that would spoil the multiple twists and turns that escalate until it’s shocking conclusion. Not all of it works, or even integral to the story itself, but most of it is a true rollercoaster ride that never lets up until that final bang. I really enjoy films where you expect will go a certain way because that’s how it’s usually done, only for it to take you to places that will surprise you.The twists also reveal a lot about these characters, with most of them really despicable people you hope will get punished by the end of the film. The three criminals all have distinct personalities, with some better than others. Alan is the psychopath of the trio, always down for maiming and killing, raping and torturing people to get his way. His sister Jessie is the tough and angry one, although it seems to come from a bit of insecurity to gain some power against the two men in her group. And Eddy isn’t the sharpest tool in the shed, but he does have a bit of a conscience and just wants the diamonds without having to hurt anyone. He also grows fond of Candy in a protective sort of way, while his feelings for Jessie lead to some questionable actions towards his partner. Candy’s step-dad Avery is a character whose jerk status increases as the film rolls. And the Newton family, especially the mother, are just awful people who abuse their child because he has autism, seeing him as a hindrance to getting ahead in life. The only likable characters are Candy and Sean Newton. Candy is just a victim whose future doesn’t look too bright. Not only does she have to deal with three criminals who kidnap her, bury her in the ground to hide her, and even have thoughts of killing and sexually abusing her, she also has to deal with a step-father who wants her out of the way and a mother who seems clueless about the reality around her. Sean Newton is Candy’s only hope, but the child is not only autistic but a mute as well. He makes attempts to save Candy, but he’s disabled by his lack of speech and just being a young kid who is over his head. He’s also a victim of abusive and ignorant parents, as well as his parents’ friends, who laugh at Sean for not being able to communicate verbally. You root for both of these characters, hoping they’ll somehow make it out of their respective darkness. I thought the screenplay was really well written and it pulled the right emotions out of me throughout, hoping justice was served for everyone involved in this entire mess.The direction by Guerdon Trueblood is nothing really special. It looks like a TV-movie from the 1970s. It has a TV soundtrack from 1970s programs. There are moments where the camera will zoom in to create this odd, surreal effect. But they’re brief and don’t happen too often. The film is paced very well though, with nice editing and a good use of multiple locations to create a bit of atmosphere. The exploitative stuff isn’t as sleazy as I would have expected, but the tropes are here and Trueblood directs them well enough to make them matter. THE CANDY SNATCHERS is the only film that Trueblood directed, focusing more on producing and writing [including the infamous JAWS 3-D]. It’s surprising since he doesn’t do a bad job and would have been interesting to see if he would have gained a bit of style with more filmmaking.The acting is most solid. The standouts are former Playmate Tiffany Bolling as tough Jessie [hitting multiple emotional beats believably], Vince Martorano as less-than-evil Eddy, Ben Piazza as slime bag Avery, and especially Christopher Trueblood [the director’s son] as Sean Newton. I’m not sure if Trueblood was really autistic or mute, but damn I bought everything he did. One of the better child performances I’ve seen in an exploitation film, or any film period. Special mention goes to Bonnie Boland as Sean’s mother, who gave an annoyingly shrill performance for an extremely unlikable character who I couldn’t wait to get hers. The grating performance made me hate the character more, which benefited the film for sure.Overall, THE CANDY SNATCHERS is an underrated gem in the exploitation film genre. While the direction looks and feels like a TV movie from the 1970s [with appropriate soundtrack included!], the strong narrative gives the film a reason to put this in your queue. I could see how filmmakers like Quentin Tarantino and Rob Zombie would take influence from this one. It has colorful characters, awesome twists and turns that never stop coming, and a genuine sense of black comedy during really bleak moments of murder, rape and child abuse. The acting, especially by Tiffany Bolling and young Christopher Trueblood as an ahead-of-its-time autistic child, are pretty solid. I can’t believe it took me this long to finally watch this movie. One of the smartest and most confident grindhouse-era films I’ve seen in a while. Really good stuff.

Alice, Sweet Alice (1976)
DIRECTED BYAlfred SoleSTARRINGLinda Miller - Catherine SpagesMildred Clinton - Mrs. TredoniPaula Sheppard - Alice SpagesNiles McMaster - Dominick ‘Dom’ SpagesJane Lowry - Annie DeLorenzeRudolph Willrich - Father TomMichael Hardstark - Detective SpinaAlphonso DeNoble - AlphonsoBrooke Shields - Karen SpagesGenre - Horror/Giallo/Slasher/DramaRunning Time - 108 MinutesPLOT (from IMDB)Alice Spages (Paula Sheppard) is a withdrawn 12-year-old girl who lives with her young sister Karen (Brooke Shields) and their mother Catherine (Linda Miller). Karen gets most of her mother’s attention, and Alice is often left out of the spotlight. When Karen is found brutally murdered in a church before her First Holy Communion, Alice is in the spotlight of suspicion, but is a 12-year-old girl really capable of such savagery? As more people die at the hands of a merciless killer, Alice’s family and the police don’t know what to believe.REVIEWThe last time I watched 1976’s ALICE, SWEET ALICE, I was a teenager who didn’t really get or appreciate the vibe the film was throwing at me.  Even though it had a creepy looking killer and some cool murder sequences near the end, the underlying themes of the film went right over my head and I just found the film boring due to its slow burn and lack of thrills. Even though friends mention this film and I’ve seen others present clips of ALICE, SWEET ALICE to show why it’s a horror cult classic, I never bothered to rewatch the movie until recently. And while I don’t think it’s as scary or as great as others make it out to be, there is a lot going on with ALICE, SWEET ALICE that makes its worthy of attention by more than just the horror community.ALICE, SWEET ALICE is a different film in its first half than it is in its last. The first half of the film is focused on the murder of young Karen Spages and how her family and community react to it. Through Karen indirectly, we learn about the players in this story and how her death reveals harsh truths that were kept hidden due to the Catholic religious upbringing the community upholds as law at points. This is the portion where we really know Alice Spages, Karen’s older sister and main suspect of her murder. Whether or not she’s the killer, we don’t find that out until the middle of the second half. But it’s easy to see why she would be a lead suspect via her strange behavior towards people and situations. She lashes out when she feels her mother, Catherine, is taking Karen’s side over hers. Children in the neighborhood make fun of Alice, which makes her meaner and more anti-social because of it. Even people in her building, like her creepy landlord and even her own aunt, look down on Alice because she doesn’t behave like a “normal” child would. Alice’s pastime of going down to her building’s basement and pulling out a creepy three-headed doll, lighting candles, and putting on a scary mask to freak others out [especially Karen and the maid of the local Father] doesn’t win her any points either. Alice obviously has behavior issues due to neglect by a mother who favors Karen over her, dealing with the separation of her parents and not understanding why it happened, and having to deal with family who see her as a nuisance rather than part of their circle. Alice also displays some psychopathic tendencies and does mean things to other without feeling any sort of sense of guilt in the process. ALICE, SWEET ALICE never really says it, but I think the film is giving us a look of a child dealing with mental illness during a time where that was considered quite taboo. This is especially true in religious circles, as good and evil were determined by your actions, with some believing mental illness was the work of Satan’s influence. Since the film occurs in the early 1960s, I’m sure many of the characters in the film dismissed the fact that anything was mentally wrong with Alice, feeling it was just a phase. In fact, many of the adults that care for Alice seem psychiatry as sort of a bad stigma, as if anyone getting therapy outside of church had to be considered insane. Even by the end of the film, we know Alice has issues that will only continue to get worse as she grows older, only because the people that she needs supporting her are too busy dealing with their own issues to help her. Some see Alice as a creepy child, but I kind of feel sorry for her because she’s stuck in a world of denial.As for the other characters, it’s hard to like any of them. While that’s usually a bad thing in movies, it actually benefits ALICE, SWEET ALICE in giving us more suspects, as well as giving us a glimpse of a fractured family and a hypocritical community who uses religion as a way to justify things. Catherine, Alice’s and Karen’s mother, is a complicated woman who seems overwhelmed with dealing with two young girls who don’t seem to like each other at all, forcing to pick sides that will make the other upset [usually the goody-too-shoes Karen over the more abrasive Alice]. She also has to deal with a sister who tries to tell her what to do and how to handle Alice without knowing the situation. Her relationship with the girls’ father, Dominick, is strained because he moved on while she hasn’t, with both still having feelings for each other even though he’s married. Catherine is also oblivious to what is going on around her, being ignorant about Alice going on a slow path to self-destruction, living with a pedophile for a landlord, and not realizing until it’s too late why some members of her community look down on her family for some reason. In some ways, she’s a victim of circumstance, but also plays a big role in why her family is falling apart in front of her eyes and not doing much of anything to stop it from happening.The girls’ father, Dominick, arrives when Karen is murdered, but is too busy investigating the situation when he should be caring for and consoling Catherine and Alice. While it’s obvious he cares about his family, he’s too focused on his grief to understand that his investigation is not making things better for himself or his old family who feel neglected them. Alice seems like a Daddy’s girl, but he never really pays her any mind for much of the film until things look bad for her and he tries to figure out what’s going on. There’s even a moment where he and Catherine take their frustration and grief and almost have sex, only stopping when his wife calls pressuring him to come home and making him tell her those three simple words. It’s awkward and just shows how messed up he is.Then you have the supporting characters - like Aunt Annie, who is a shrill woman who tries to control Catherine’s life and treats Alice as a pest she would rather not deal with. Even after she’s attacked by someone who wears Alice’s creepy mask, Annie has no issue blaming her niece for it knowing it will strain her relationship with Catherine. Annie claims she loves Alice, but won’t do a thing to protect her. The landlord, Alphonso, is just a repulsive, filthy man who is infatuated with Alice - to a point where he even tries to molest her. He has no issues blaming Alice for everything even when he hasn’t seen any evidence of wrongdoing, probably wanting to get rid of the one person who sees him for who he truly is. The policemen also seem ready to pin everything on Alice with just the slightest of evidence, with some members of the force complimenting on her 12-year-old breasts in a disgusting bit of dialogue. Only Father Tom seems to be a likable character because he actually cares about the community and tries to give Alice the help he feels she needs, even though her parents are looking the other way. Tom’s maid Mrs. Tredoni is a bit weird, however, although she cares greatly for the church and especially for Father Tom. All these characters are severely flawed and use religion as a way to justify their actions and attempt to make things better within the community; not realizing that while it’s a great idea, it’s probably just making everything bleaker for everyone involved.The second half of the film is more of your mystery-thriller portion, where truths are revealed and all the action plays out. Many have claimed ALICE, SWEET ALICE as a proto-slasher of sorts since it has a person in a creepy mask and costume targeting random people with a large knife. But if we’re being honest, the film is more of an Americanized giallo film, as the film is more focused on mystery rather than the shock factor of over-the-top deaths. The film has many twists and turns, making you wonder if Alice really did it or someone else is at play here to frame her for whatever reason. We get the reveal right before the film’s final act, making you realize why many believe this film is anti-religion. The person responsible uses their faith in God and Catholicism to give a reason as to why they commit the murders, believing confessing their sins in a way that it doesn’t implicate them, while making sure they eliminate any witnesses and take out the people their targeting still happens because they consider it an “act of God”. I do think there is some of that in the film, especially in this portion of the film. Religion is not treated as the best thing ever, considering how it’s not exactly fixing what’s wrong within this community. But I feel the film is more about the fracturing of family and home life, as well as the lack of supervision and aide towards those dealing with mental and emotional issues - whether that is anti-socialism, neglect, or especially grief over a lost one. The community goes to the church, hoping that will heal all woes. Maybe for some that does work, but for the main characters here, it seems to be the center of all their problems. Maybe that’s where the anti-religion belief comes from and I understand why some don’t feel comfortable with that.Overall. I think the narrative of ALICE, SWEET ALICE is a strong one given all the layers that are at play here. It’s a film that takes its time with building up a mystery that leads into a memorable conclusion that will offend some people and please others. Some of the supporting characters don’t add a whole lot to the mystery, even though they reveal how despicable some of them actually are. In fact, I think the film had too many characters and probably should have been cut down. It wouldn’t have effected the mystery at all. And while I think the unlikable characters help the mystery, it doesn’t really help the entertainment value. Every film should have a couple of characters to root for and like. ALICE, SWEET ALICE doesn’t really have that going for it. But the themes of religion, family and grief are powerful enough to resonate for many even today. And I think the reveal of the mystery works better than it ought to.The direction by Alfred Sole is pretty good, with flashes of style every now and then. Sole does a great job with his pacing, giving ALICE, SWEET ALICE a simmer feel before hitting you with a random murder sequence that will disturb some people. I think these are the moments where Sole excels at, because they’re shocking without hitting you over the head with it. Watching a young girl get strangled inside of a church during her Communion is still a disturbing aspect of any film, especially when the murder of children is still considered risqué even in today’s society. I could only imagine how audiences felt about Brooke Shields dying on screen and then getting burned inside of a trunk back in 1976. We also get a lot of people getting stabbed, especially in the final act in one of the more memorable moments of any horror film I could remember. There’s also a scene involving a jar of cockroaches that’s just messed up near the end as well. I also liked the shots of actors inside the church location, as it always felt claustrophobic inside the area due to the many close-ups throughout these scenes. We also get a lot of religious imagery, almost making it seem these people are trapped within the idols that fill up their faith. It seems Sole was putting his own beliefs within the visuals, as Sole considered himself an “ex-Catholic”, making church seem like a place where one would feel trapped by the teachings of a religion they don’t believe will make things safer or better. In fact, anytime there was a church scene in this film, only bad things would happen inside.Other than that, ALICE, SWEET ALICE has the look and feel of a 1970s TV movie or soap opera. Besides what I mentioned and the look of the killer’s creepy mask, there’s not much style in the film. Some may say the film looks drab and boring visually, but I think Sole did a good enough job to convey what he wanted to say. I don’t think it’ll compete with any Italian giallo, but it’s fine for what it is.Where I have my biggest issues with ALICE, SWEET ALICE is with the acting. Now, I know that acting in the 1970s has a different feel and presentation compared to films of the 2010s. But I think some of these actors were really overdoing it, to the point where I couldn’t take the actors seriously within the context of the story. This is particularly true of Jane Lowry as Aunt Annie, who was so melodramatic in her delivery that I thought she felt she was in a different movie not called ALICE, SWEET ALICE. Her acting would work wonderfully in some daytime soap opera, but in a serious horror film, it took away from the story. I even thought Linda Miller as Catherine had some of these moments as well, hamming it up a bit too much as if we wouldn’t understand her point-of-view without it. But she evened it out with subtle moments that worked in the film’s favor. I guess I would also add Alphonso DeNoble as the perverted landlord in this mix, as he was creepy in a stereotypically caricature sort of way. I don’t know if his off performance was intentional, but I found it hard that no one in this community - especially those living in his building - wouldn’t look at this dude and not see “SEXUAL PREDATOR” in big neon letters. I think a more subtle performance would have worked a lot better to surprise the audience that the guy was really a pedophile.As for the rest of the acting, it was fine. Paula Sheppard is pretty great as Alice, conveying a child who isn’t all there in the head and has behavior issues that need to be addressed sooner than later. Sheppard was actually 16-years-old playing a girl four years younger, which actually added to the level of understanding the different emotional beats she had to play in order for the character to work. I totally bought her act and I’m surprised she didn’t get to have a stronger career after this. Brooke Shields would become a major star a few years after this film was released [leading to two more releases to capitalize on her budding fame], but she doesn’t really leave much of a presence in this film. She does an okay job as the sister Alice is jealous of, dying way too quickly within the film to make any sort of impact acting wise. But hey, it was a good start for Shields and led to bigger and better things along the way. I also liked Mildred Clinton’s performance as Mrs. Tredoni, the maid. She had a snarky attitude that made me chuckle, as well as great emotional beats where you kind of feel sorry for her, while wondering why she’s protective of her boss. Speaking of him, Rudolph Willrich is also pretty good as Father Tom. He’s one of the few likable and sensible characters in the film, which Willrich portrays perfectly. I felt the acting was a mixed bag, but the mystery was strong enough for me to get over it for the most part.THE FINAL HOWLALICE, SWEET ALICE isn’t as good as its reputation would make you believe, but it’s still a solid horror film that is worthy of anyone’s time. While most of the characters won’t win anyone over, the themes of family dissolution, not understanding behavior issues and mental illness, as well as possibly negative statements on Catholicism help build a well-told Americanized giallo mystery that will definitely create an opinion or two on the messages the film is presenting to the audience. Albert Sole’s direction keeps a nice slow burn pace until the memorable murder sequences pop up, while building a bleak overlook of a community crumbling due to their own ignorance and using religion to justify everything and anything in order to move on with their lives - not realizing that they’re just trapping themselves because of their unwillingness to look outside of their faith. The acting, especially by young Paul Sheppard as Alice, is mostly good, while others are way too melodramatic and hammy to take seriously within a well-told horror-drama. While not really scary or one of the best horror films ever created [as some people have claimed], ALICE, SWEET ALICE is still worthy of its cult status and definitely should be a film on your radar if you’re looking for a horror film that has something interesting to say, whether you agree with it or not. SCORE3 Howls Outta 4

3 From Hell (2019)
DIRECTED BYRob ZombieSTARRINGSid Haig - Captain SpauldingBill Moseley - Otis B. DriftwoodSheri Moon Zombie - Vera-Ellen “Baby” FireflyDanny Trejo - RondoDee Wallace - GretaDaniel Roebuck - Morris GreenJeff Daniel Phillips - Warden Virgin Dallas HarperRichard Brake - Winslow Foxworth “Foxy” ColtraneEmilio Rivera - AquariusPancho Moler - SebastianGenre - Horror/ActionRunning Time - 111 MinutesPLOTAfter being shot multiple times by the police during an attempted getaway, Otis Driftwood (Bill Moseley), Captain Spaulding (Sid Haig) and Baby (Sheri Moon Zombie) somehow managed to survive and are quickly incarcerated for their vicious crimes throughout the years. Spaulding and Otis have been placed on Death Row, while Baby still gets an option of parole that never goes in her favor. Arrogant Warden Harper (Jeff Daniel Phillips) thinks he has the remaining members of the Firefly Family where he wants them for the past ten years. But things turn sour once Otis finds a way of escaping with the help of his previous unknown half-brother Winslow Foxworth Coltrane (Richard Brake), murdering multiple witnesses including Rondo (Danny Trejo), who was part of his capture a decade prior. Realizing that Baby needs their help, Otis and Foxy decide to torture the Warden’s family and friends until the Warden can somehow get Baby to escape. Once Otis, Foxy and Baby are free together, they continue their murder spree until they reach Mexico, believing it’s their sanctuary. However, the leader of the Black Satans, Mexico’s most notorious gang, has revenge on his mind and plans on eliminating the 3 From Hell for good.REVIEWIt’s amazing to think that after all these years, Rob Zombie remains a controversial figure in the horror community. He seemed to have gained a lot of goodwill with his 2002 debut, HOUSE OF 1000 CORPSES, while gaining a ton of both commercial and critical praise for its 2005 sequel, THE DEVIL’S REJECTS. However, once those HALLOWEEN reboots were released near the end of the 2000s, Zombie’s light began to dim for much of the mainstream audience that supported his earlier works. While Zombie’s films are an acquired taste and not all of them have been all that impressive [I’m talking about you, 31!], you can’t deny that Zombie definitely has a voice when it comes to his movies. You know what you’re getting with the guy - white trash dialogue, gritty cinematography, music video editing, classic rock songs and a focus on serial killers that come close to praise during a time where we wonder whether glorifying this sort of violence is a good thing or not. Zombie’s latest film, a sequel to both CORPSES and REJECTS called 3 FROM HELL, is not different from any Zombie films you may have seen or even heard about. It follows the Rob Zombie template to a tee in every single way, which makes me wonder whether it’s time for him to try something new and finally take that step to branch out that he’s been struggling with. But 3 FROM HELL still does more right than wrong, even though I can’t help but feel if the film even needs to exist.I’m not saying that 3 FROM HELL isn’t worth a look if you’ve enjoyed Rob Zombie’s previous films, or if you’re just a fan of the Firefly Family and their rampage in previous movies. But for many, THE DEVIL’S REJECTS is considered to be Zombie’s best film. It also has an ending that’s satisfying within the context of the story, making you feel something for Otis, Baby and Captain Spaulding as they’re being shot up during a sequence with Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Free Bird” playing in the background. Those characters, despite their demise, went out on top like the film had, gaining a lot of respect for Zombie in the process as a filmmaker with something to say. A part of me feels like 3 FROM HELL takes away from that finale, finding a lazy way [let’s be honest] to keep them alive just so they can have another film killing people while Zombie attempts for the audience to like them as a characters despite how evil they are. I understand Zombie loves these characters and knows that they’ll help make the film succeed financially so he can use that money for non-horror projects he’s been trying to get off of the ground with no luck. But sometimes you need to leave well enough alone, which will make many feel down on this film because the previous one ended pretty perfectly.That being said, I did have fun with 3 FROM HELL. It was pretty much what I expected out of it, showcasing Zombie’s voice and aesthetic that most horror fans are no strangers of. While it was lazy to just keep the characters alive by sort of giving a non-excuse as to how that was even possible, I did enjoy the documentary-like presentation revealing the events of what happened after THE DEVIL’S REJECTS had concluded. Within ten minutes, you learn what these characters have been dealing with for the past ten years when it comes to the court system, hospitalization, and their fates inside of prison. There’s also a bit of social commentary on how some people turn these killers into celebrities, creating a creepy fandom for them to the point where their fans are pleading for their freedom. They also comment that they can’t be that evil if they’re so attractive and sexy, which seems to reflect on certain portions of our current society when it comes to shows and documentaries on serial killers, especially those recent ones on Ted Bundy. Zombie is glamorizing the killers while criticizing those who do the same. I guess he’s calling himself a hypocrite, I don’t know, but it’s an interesting look at himself and at others who sensationalize this sort of thing.Even though the main characters are given likable personalities and funny dialogue for the audience to get on board with them in a strange way, the first half of the film pretty much makes them very unlikable and never shies away on how devious they are. Otis and Foxy take pleasure in torturing their victims until they get tired of them, making their loyalty to Baby wrong to support because of how they handle it. Baby is also pretty grating during this portion, but it’s for a reason. Being stuck in jail has affected her mind to the point where she’s seeing things and acting more crazy than usual. Add in a guard who abuses her and a Warden who makes an example out of her, and you see that Baby is in a situation beyond her usual control. She can’t seduce her way out of this jam, making her vulnerable, but also making her more evil since she can’t release all the killer instincts she contains within her.In a lot of ways, the structure of 3 FROM HELL is pretty much the same structure as THE DEVIL’S REJECTS. The Firefly Family are evil bastards at the start of the film, but once they murder a bunch of people, they become more lovable and sympathetic in the second half of the film. That’s exactly what happens when Baby escapes and rejoins her family. They murder a bunch of people they take hostage at the Warden’s home [which reminds you of the motel scene from TDR]. They escape to a motel in Mexico to hide out for a while to figure out their next move while the men bang prostitutes [just like the brothel in TDR]. And then they have to survive a villain who wants revenge on them for murdering someone in their family [just like the Sheriff in TDR]. While THE DEVIL’S REJECTS handles all of this stuff way better and with more emotional stakes, Zombie knows you shouldn’t fix what isn’t broken. While not as powerful the second time around, at least Zombie handles this part of the storytelling logically well enough to make us forgive him enough to go along with it. But you can’t help but feel you’ve seen this before and more memorably.As for the dialogue, I still think Zombie ought to let someone handle the writing duties based on his story while he focuses on the visual aspect. Zombie can write some great lines, but his characters all sound the same for the most part, as if he only knows how to portray one type of person and not much else. That being said, I thought the dialogue in 3 FROM HELL was tamer than usual. Yes, there are some outlandish words being said by many of the characters here. You still get your usual F-bombs and sexual innuendos. But Zombie seemed to have restrained himself a bit, giving the dialogue a bit more of a punch, even if it won’t win everyone over. The script won’t win any awards and Zombie still needs to figure out how to give different characters different voices to separate one from the rest. But there is some poignant stuff here, especially in the second half, as well as genuinely funny dialogue that made me laugh. Not everything clicks, but Zombie seems to be maturing a bit. Or maybe he’s just bored trying to be over-the-top with his language since he’s done it so many times before. Whatever the case, I do think it’s time to try something new, whether that is writing characters who aren’t white trash, or having someone else write for him. The story does have issues, though. While I did enjoy having Foxy around, he’s no Captain Spaulding. That’s not Zombie’s fault, as Sid Haig has been in ill health for years now and could only commit to a day of filming. Zombie actually had to write Spaulding out for much of the film, giving most of the dialogue to Richard Brake’s Foxy instead. Foxy is a great character once the film plays out, as his dialogue reveals aspects about the man that will either make you disgusted by him or likable because of how comical he sees the world. I just wish he had been introduced better, since we had no idea Otis and Baby even had a half-brother in the previous films. I’m not saying it’s impossible, but having him just pop up and an narrator telling us he’s related seemed a bit uninspired.And while the last act of the film is the most exciting part of 3 FROM HELL, I wish the villains were fleshed out more. All we know about the leader is who he’s related to and that he has a Mexican gang that the locals seem terrified by. But that’s it and we’re never given an opportunity to care about him and his agenda. It’s a shame because this gang is 100 percent bad ass and deserved to be more of a presence in the entire film. It’s almost as if Zombie tried to make the Warden the main antagonist to the 3 From Hell, but decided that recreating the revenge sub-plot of THE DEVIL’S REJECTS would be more entertaining. I do think the Mexican gang were more entertaining as threats, but having the Warden being the main villain would have giving this sequel a different and more grounded feel, in my opinion. But maybe Zombie felt the film needed to be more fun than serious and went a different route. I can’t say I wasn’t entertained by it all on some level.That being said, Zombie needs to have someone else write for him, or have a script doctor that will tighten up his narratives in the future. You can’t really introduce story arcs and not really follow them through for whatever reason. And characters need to have their own voice and not all sound like derivatives of one another. And I felt the counterpoint that both HOUSE OF 1000 CORPSES and THE DEVIL’S REJECTS had doesn’t really exist here, at least not in a way that’s developed a whole lot. Most of Zombie’s films work better because they have something to say and we feel something afterwards. I think 3 FROM HELL starts doing that but then just drops it to give the fans what we all expect. It’s a fun script, but it’s not necessarily a strong or memorable one.Despite issues with his screenplay, Zombie’s direction is still very good and tries to emulate THE DEVIL’S REJECTS as much as the lower budget would allow him to. Visually, it felt like Zombie took each act and directed them all differently from the others. The first act had more of a visual look that was similar to the one he used for his remake of HALLOWEEN in 2007. The grainy documentary footage of criminals going to jail or being filmed behind bars, the claustrophobic feel, and the descent of characters slowly going insane and more violent all seem inspired by that film. We even have a dreamlike sequence that is very HALLOWEEN 2, although how many will dig it depends on what they felt about all those white horse sequences. The second act is shot very closely to how Zombie filmed THE DEVIL’S REJECTS, with this grainy film look and dirtiness that doesn’t hide how brutal is the story he’s trying to tell. There are a lot of earth colors and definitely has that 70s gritty vibe going for it. Then we get the last act in Mexico, which quickly reminded me of the earlier Robert Rodriguez films like EL MARIACHI and DESPERADO. It looks and plays out like a spaghetti western of sorts, as this is the portion with all the action. It’s less about brutality for the sake of violence and more about survival of the fittest, which I dug a whole lot. In fact, I felt the middle portion felt and looked old hat, while the outer acts felt fresh and different compared to what Zombie usually does. It was cool to see Zombie try new things.However, I did have issues with some of the editing. If you’re going to film action sequences, especially one-on-one action, you need to let your audience see it play out on screen for us to feel something about what we’re watching. I’m not sure if it was a budgetary reason or Zombie just isn’t good with filming fight choreography, but using quick flash cuts like I’m watching a damn nu-metal video isn’t the way to go. It really annoyed me and took me out of the film because I wanted to see what was going on instead of just the brutal aftermath. And I thought some of the CGI blood used during gunfights looked really cheap, with some being timed a bit off as well. But overall, it looked and was paced like a Rob Zombie film. If you’re into that, you’ll have no issue with 3 FROM HELL.I felt the acting was the best part of the film, which is usually the case with Rob Zombie films regardless of the quality. Bill Moseley is still great as Otis, playing the character more of how he was near the end of THE DEVIL REJECTS with a more sarcastic and subtle tone than the more violent one he used for HOUSE OF 1000 CORPSES. In fact, I think Moseley evolved Otis in a way that made the character feel almost tired of the life he had been living for years, almost portraying a more resigned and wiser version of Otis who did what he needed to survive and escape, but wasn’t really enjoying murdering anymore. It almost feels like Zombie was writing a bit of himself in Otis and Moseley did a solid job. Sheri Moon Zombie is going to be hit-or-miss with anyone who watches Zombie’s films, but we can pretty much all agree that Baby Firefly is probably her best role overall. And Zombie shines in 3 FROM HELL, giving us a multi-layered performance I was not really expecting from her. Of all the actors, she has the most to play with and does it really well. Her descent into madness is well acted in an over-the-top way, she handles the comedy stuff well, and she plays a cool badass woman you know you shouldn’t root for, but you kind of want to. Zombie is not the best actress and she won’t win any major awards, but she knows Baby like the back of her hand and believably portrays the devolution and then her eventual return to her REJECTS character without sweating it. Without her, I think 3 FROM HELL would have been a total bomb. Another great performance was Richard Brake as Foxy, getting all the best dialogue and reciting them with great comic timing and much enthusiasm. He was memorable in both HALLOWEEN 2 and 31, continuing that here as a replacement for the missing Captain Spaulding character. While not as colorful as Sid Haig [providing a memorable cameo at the start of the film], Brake fits right in with Zombie and Moseley to complete the trio.The supporting actors are great too. Jeff Daniel Phillips goes from calm and cool, to scared and manic as Warden Harper, giving another solid performance in a Zombie movie. Dee Wallace probably could have been given more to do as prison guard Greta, but she works with what’s given. Clint Howard is pretty damn great as an unfortunate clown who ends up being at the wrong place at the wrong time. Emilio Rivera had a great presence as vengeful Aquarius, while Pancho Moler’s turn as Sebastian was well-acted, providing the audience with a lot of sympathy for him through the eyes of Baby. Zombie always has a solid cast of people in his movies and this is no exception.THE FINAL HOWLIf you’re not a fan of Rob Zombie’s films, you’re going to hate 3 FROM HELL. If you were a big fan of THE DEVIL’S REJECTS and think this film shouldn’t exist, you’re probably not going to love 3 FROM HELL. It’s definitely a flawed film and it might feel pointless at times, but I still managed to be entertained by this long-awaited sequel. The screenplay has issues and Zombie really needs to have others write down his concepts and ideas in script form while he just handles the visuals. But there are fragments of great ideas and commentary within the context of this new narrative, even though it follows the structure of THE DEVIL’S REJECTS probably way more closely than it should and not as good. But the new characters are welcome additions, and I thought a lot of the dialogue was pretty funny and memorable. The visuals are Zombie’s strength, as it’s a well-made film done on a much cheaper budget than his previous films. But the three acts all feel different, yet still feel cohesive in a strange way, making you wonder where exactly he’s taking this story in a good way. The acting, especially by Sheri Moon Zombie and Richard Brake, is excellent and carries the film strongly until it’s unfortunate flat ending. But 3 FROM HELL is pretty much what you expect out of Rob Zombie - foul language, white trash characters, brutal violence, and a leaning towards favoring the villains over the typical Hollywood heroes. I’m probably being generous with my score, but I never felt bored once and I had fun watching these old characters return to do more damage in a world that doesn’t know how to contain them. Not as good as THE DEVIL’S REJECTS, but I liked it slightly more as a film than HOUSE OF 1000 CORPSES. Plus, it was way better than 31, which automatically gets points from me. For those who hated the film, I totally get it. But I'm on the side of those who are more positive on this one.SCORE3 Howls Outta 4

The WTF? Worst Films Extravaganza Presents: Barb Wire (1996)
DIRECTED BYDavid HoganSTARRINGPamela Anderson - Barbara “Barb Wire” KopetskiTemuera Morrison - Axel HoodVictoria Rowell - Dr. Corrina “Cora D” DevonshireJack Noseworthy - Charlie KopetskiXander Berkeley - Alexander WillisUdo Kier - CurlySteve Railsback - Colonel PryzerGenre - Action/Science Fiction/Comic BooksRunning Time - 98 MinutesIn the mid-1990s, there was probably no bigger sex symbol on the planet than one Pamela Anderson. While already a Playboy centerfold and appearing frequently on Married… With Children and Home Improvement, it wasn’t until she joined Baywatch that Anderson became a household name and the fantasy of many - including yours truly. As a young teenager during this time, I didn’t admire her for her acting skills, but for her beauty and buxom figure. She had a seductive appeal I couldn’t turn away from, completely invested in whatever project she was a part of.It was because of Anderson that I even knew what Barb Wire was. The character appeared in 9 issues, plus a mini-series, between the years 1994 and 1996 - a bar owner/bounty hunter who did jobs to pay for her bar and protect people who needed her help. As someone who never read the comics or even knew anyone who talked about them, it’s strange that it was even greenlit as a film project. But in 1996, BARB WIRE was released upon moviegoers, hoping that Anderson’s fanbase would come out in droves. Plus the 1990s weren’t the comic book movie haven the last 20 years have been. Studios were still figuring out how to present these characters, struggling with balancing between the source material and the Hollywood business model of making money through cinema. While only a few comic book films stood out from the pack [BATMAN RETURNS, THE CROW and BLADE among them], BARB WIRE was one of the comic book adaptations that neither audiences or critics cared much for, only making over a third of its budget back and getting nominated for Razzie Awards.Twenty-years have passed since BARB WIRE was released, as well as the last time I even watched this film. Some bad comic book adaptations have gained a level of cult status and can be appreciated in modern times, but BARB WIRE is still seen as one of the worst films of all time and is currently the 48th film on IMDB’s Bottom List. Is BARB WIRE as bad as many have claimed? Is it as bad as I had remembered it?PLOTIt’s the year 2017 and the United States is currently dealing with a Second American Civil War. The future has become dystopian, as the former government are now Congressional fascists wanted to control the country with an iron fist, while there is a small number of resistance fighters trying to revolt. Only one city in the United States is considered a free haven for both sides of the fight - Steel Harbor - which also happens to be the home of one Barb Wire (Pamela Anderson), a bar owner of the Hammerhead nightclub who keeps her business running through her job as an undercover bounty hunter. Even though there’s obviously a right side, she remains neutral when it comes to the new Civil War to maintain some peace within the chaos around her.Things for Barb change when her ex-lover Axel Hood (Temuera Morrison) shows up at Hammerhead needing her help. He’s married to a scientist named Cora D (Victoria Rowell), who the Congressionals have targeted, and both need a pair of retina contacts to get past any retinal scans that would easily allow their escape to a Canadian sanctuary. When both sides cause trouble for her allies and her business, Barb is forced to choose a side.REVIEWI’m just gonna come out and say this - BARB WIRE is not a good film in the slightest. And it honestly deserves its low ranking on IMDB because this film has a lot of problems one cannot overlook. But there are a few good things that don’t make BARB WIRE a complete failure.I think the best thing about BARB WIRE is the film’s production design and slick direction. The film has this 90s MTV music video aesthetic, with quick edits and muted colors. Steel Harbor is your typical dystopian city, looking as gritty as you’d expect out of a comic book film during this time [BATMAN's Gotham City, THE CROW’s Detroit and SPAWN’s New York City]. It matches the noir tone of the story, visually making one understand why characters behave as scummy as they do and why Barb Wire wants an exit strategy to a better place. Even the computer effects look like they were pulled out of a 90’s time capsule. And while the story feels a bit rushed at times, the pacing by director David Hogan is decent enough where the film doesn’t drag all that much. Hogan even manages to craft some good action sequences in a 90s syndicated TV action show sort of way. BARB WIRE looks sort of cheap, but I find some charm in that as the comic book wasn’t a major deal to begin with. The lower budget of $9 million actually helps the film rather than hurt it, in my opinion. While everything else that’s major about BARB WIRE quickly falls apart in front of your eyes, the visuals save the movie from being a total bomb. Not a bad job for a director who was picked to save the film [he tried] because the first director had no idea what he was doing with the project.The music is also very 90s, with a sort of industrial rock-metal sound that dates the film quite a bit. That being said, I liked most of the music of the 1990s and this soundtrack is no exception. I’m not saying this is the greatest music I’ve ever heard, but it fits BARB WIRE’s world extremely well. The opening credits [which I’ll get more into detail in a bit] play out to Gun’s cover of the popular Cameo song, “Word Up.” It’s not a bad cover, although it’s weird to hear once the film starts. We also get a great cover of War’s “Spill the Wine” by late INXS singer Michael Hutchence, Hagfish’s cover of Nick Gilder’s “Hot Child in the City” and “Planet Boom”, a song by Pamela Anderson’s then-husband Tommy Lee of Motley Crue. It’s not a classic soundtrack, but the music stood out as one of the better things about this movie.As for the acting, there aren’t that many compliments I could make when it comes to BARB WIRE. However, there were some decent actors who tried to make the script watchable. In particular, Jack Noseworthy as Barb’s brother Charlie was particularly good. Even though he probably knew he was on a sinking ship, Noseworthy makes the character relatable and sympathetic as a blind man who wants to bring the light back out of the darkness that surrounds Steel Harbor. I liked his interactions with the other actors, bringing a level of snark and attitude to the role. He was less of a comic book character and more of a real person, which I appreciated. I will also say that Clint Howard is pretty fun in his small role as Schmitz and Udo Kier’s odd performance as Barb’s right-hand man Curly did enough to make me interested in his backstory.And believe it or not, the concept of BARB WIRE is actually kind of relevant on the surface. The film takes place in 2017 within the United States during a state of crisis where two sides are conflicting over how the country should move forward under new leadership.Sound familiar?I’m not going to get into politics or religion or anything that will cause a major debate. But it’s eerie that BARB WIRE almost nailed what’s going on in America right now on the surface. Hopefully we won’t have to kill ourselves over a pair of retina contacts and escape to another country to make things better.As for the bad stuff, where to start? I guess discussing the terrible acting would be a good place. While she may look the part, Pamela Anderson is really bad in BARB WIRE. I can only judge by the film itself since I know nothing about the character this film is adapting. But I can’t imagine anyone being a fan of BARB WIRE by the way Anderson portrays the role. She seems bored throughout, acting stoically and speaking in this low, gruff voice that doesn’t suit her at all. She’s trying to be both the hero and femme fatale in a modern noir action film and it never clicks believably. She handles the action stuff decently, but there are moments where you can tell she’s uncomfortable with some of the choreography involved. She looks great in tight outfits though.Most of the supporting cast are disappointing, considering they’re better actors than Anderson and she still steals their spotlight. Temuera Morrison is miscast as Axel Wood, Barb’s former love interest who needs her help. Morrison doesn’t have any sort of chemistry with Anderson, making the idea of a relationship between them pretty laughable. He also doesn’t get to do a whole lot until the final act and it still isn’t a whole lot. Victoria Rowell, of The Young and the Restless fame, is just as bland as Cora D. She doesn’t really bring anything to the role, which is barely one-dimensionally written. Xander Berkeley gets a bit more to do as a corrupted police officer that antagonizes Barb, but he hams it up more than he should. If the film was taken less seriously and had fun with itself, Berkeley would fit right in. While he seems in on the joke, the film never tells him to be funny. And Steve Railsback plays your typical comic book villain who twirls his mustache and overdoes the camp to compensate for the fact that the film should be silly fun but never is. It’s not a strong cast and it’s a shame they try not to be either.Another strike against BARB WIRE? Taking a comic book concept and subtly turning it into an action remake of the 1942 classic, CASABLANCA! Seriously, who thought it was a good idea in thinking that Pamela Anderson is a logical successor to Humphrey Bogart? And in case you haven’t figured it out - Temuera Morrison is Ingrid Bergman’s Ilsa Lund, Victoria Rowell is Paul Henreid’s Victor Lazlow, Xander Berkeley is Claude Rains’ Louis Renault, and Steve Railsback is Conrad Veidt’s Major Strasser. I guess Jack Noseworthy and Udo Kier are Sam and Carl respectively. The original film never received any credit for this until people who actually watched BARB WIRE figured it out and saw how similar the two films are.The problem is that CASABLANCA works to this day because it’s plot driven and carries a lot of substance during World War II. Hell, CASABLANCA still resonates today in a lot of ways. You cared about the characters, their relationships and the struggles they faced to escape tyranny and find a level of freedom many felt wasn’t possible. You also felt Rick’s journey from being neutral to wanting to help his ex-lover and her husband live a better life, even if it meant sacrificing the one true love of his life to another man and place. Each character had personality and real reasons to behave the way they did within the context of the story.BARB WIRE may be more about action, but that can only go so far when the story itself isn’t strong enough to support it. BARB WIRE is about style over substance, but that doesn’t matter when the style isn’t even as good as other comic book adaptations that had been released prior to it and especially compared to those that came right after. The characters of CASABLANCA are in BARB WIRE, but nothing is fleshed out enough for anyone to care about what will happen to each of them. Barb and Axel supposedly had a past relationship, but we never see flashbacks showing them loving each other and struggling with being together. The film’s “letters of transit” are these retina contacts that disrupt retina scanners in order to gain passage to anywhere in the world. But the film just treats them as a plot device to get to the film’s ending rather than something that should really matter to the characters involved. Axel and Cora D want these contacts to escape, but they never seem proactive about it. The villains want them destroyed, but their evil egos take precedence over doing their jobs.Barb herself is not a likable main character at all, doing selfish things to maintain her club and please her own agenda. When people really need her help, she still would rather please herself until someone she’s close with dies because of her actions. Even though she finally realizes what the right thing is after that, her change of opinion doesn’t feel earned at all. It’s like someone watched CASABLANCA and did a cliff notes version but with more guns and boobs. A part of me admires the balls that someone attempted to remake such a Hollywood classic for a modern audience. But the other part thinks it’s kind of insulting that anyone felt that adding comic book action and hot women would improve on CASABLANCA, when there is absolutely nothing wrong with it.I also think BARB WIRE, while not a total success, marketed Pamela Anderson in the best way possible that Hollywood would probably allow for the mainstream. They knew people weren’t going to see the film because of her acting, so they blatantly used her sex appeal to get as much interested people in theaters. And the film itself doesn’t try to hide her best assets. The opening credit sequence is Anderson stripping in a tight leather outfit that could barely contain her breasts while water pours all over her. In fact, every outfit in this film has no trouble revealing how huge her breasts are, giving the audience a peek of cleavage and side boob as much as possible. And let’s not forget that scene where Anderson stands up from a bubble bath with only soap covering all of her naughty bits.The film tries to make Barb seductive, but it’s more a tease than anything. For a film that tries to capitalize on Anderson’s sex appeal, it’s extremely tame and limp. Besides, you can just Google her name nowadays and get way more explicit shots and footage of the 90s star. But back in 1996, this is probably the best way to get your rocks off if you didn’t own any of her previous Playboys. In the internet age, her tease of nudity isn’t even worth marketing. But I’m sure it worked somewhat all those years ago.THE FINAL HOWLIs BARB WIRE the worst film I’ve ever seen? Not even close. Is BARB WIRE the worst comic book adaptation out there? Not at all. But it’s also not even close to being a good film, as it’s nothing but a lame CASABLANCA remake but with more guns and boobs. For a film that’s marketed on its sex appeal, it’s pretty prudish for the most part. The acting, especially by Pamela Anderson, drags the film down big time since she’s not a star that’s meant to carry an action film like this on her shoulders. Most of her supporting actors, who would have elevated a film like this, aren’t given much to do since their measurements don’t compare to the film’s star. BARB WIRE does have a good 90s visual look going for it though, with decent enough action sequences and an industrial rock-metal soundtrack that’ll keep most audiences somewhat engaged. And its dystopian concept resonates today, as America is sort of in a midst of a Civil War socially and politically if you really think about it. Unless you’re a huge Pamela Anderson fan and need to see every comic book adaptation out there, then check out BARB WIRE. Otherwise, call the film “babe” and let it knock you into unconsciousness. You’ll get more out of that than watching this flick.SCORE1 Howl Outta 4

It: Chapter Two (2019)
DIRECTED BYAndy MuschiettiSTARRINGJames McAvoy/Jaeden Martell - Bill DenbroughJessica Chastain/Sophia Lillis - Beverly MarshJay Ryan/Jeremy Ray Taylor - Ben HanscomBill Hader/Finn Wolfhard - Richie DozierIsaiah Mustafa/Chosen Jacobs - Mike HanlonJames Ransone/Jack Dylan Grazer - Eddie KaspbrakAndy Bean/Wyatt Oleff - Stanley UrisBill Skarsgard - Pennywise the Dancing ClownTeach Grant/Nicholas Hamilton - Henry BowersGenre - Horror/SupernaturalRunning Time - 169 MinutesPLOT27 years after overcoming the malevolent supernatural entity Pennywise, the former members of the Losers’ Club, who have grown up and moved away from Derry, are brought back together by a devastating phone call.REVIEWBesides AVENGERS: ENDGAME, IT: CHAPTER TWO was probably my most anticipated film of 2019. Having read the novel, still enjoying Tim Curry’s performance as Pennywise in the 1990’s TV miniseries and loving the 2017 adaptation of the first part of the story, I was very excited for the last part of the IT story to hit the big screen. With mainly the same crew behind the project and casting some great choices to play the grown-up versions of the younger cast, I was hoping for nothing but the best with the new adaptation to a flawed portion of the novel. And I gotta say - IT: CHAPTER TWO is faithful to King’s novel in that the film is also flawed next to the superior 2017 portion. But regardless of that, IT: CHAPTER TWO does more right than wrong, still managing to be a fun time and decent conclusion.Let’s start with the good stuff. IT: CHAPTER TWO’s biggest asset is its cast. Not only is the younger cast from the first film back [and doing a great job as before], but the grown-up actors portraying them were probably as close to pitch perfect in terms of looks and personality wise. Out of anyone here, the standout is clearly Bill Hader as comic relief Richie. The moment he appears and starts bouncing off dialogue with the other main characters, you can honestly believe that he’s the same character that Finn Wolfhard perfected in the 2017 film. Hader has the best lines and recites them with some great comic timing that you can’t help but love the guy. And I was most impressed by the fact that he handled the dramatic moments really well, honestly making me feel bad for his character during certain situations. I know a lot of people just see Hader as that funny guy on Saturday Night Live years ago, but if you’re a fan of the HBO show Barry, you know Hader is the real deal. He’s a big reason to watch this film and I could see him at least getting a Golden Globe nomination early next year. He’s that good.The rest of the cast varies in terms of performance. James Ransome as Eddie is really good, playing off younger Jack Dylan Grazer’s hypochondriac behavior and hilarious banter against Hader. He had a lot to play with and exceeded expectations. James McAvoy and Jessica Chastain do as best as they can with the material given to them as Bill and Beverly respectively. Both get some memorable moments and definitely prove they are more than capable actors. It definitely erased some of that DARK PHOENIX stink, at least. The rest of the main cast [Jay Ryan, Isaiah Mustafa and Andy Bean] are fine, but the script probably could have given them more to do.As for Pennywise, Bill Skarsgard is still great as the evil clown. I wish he was in the film more, but Skarsgard makes all of his scenes memorable and creepy. He has a really great scene involving a young girl under the bleachers that showcases how great Skarsgard is in the role. And special mention to Teach Grant as bully Henry Bowers. He plays crazy and vengeful pretty well, although he’s kind of given the short straw when it comes to screen time. As for the cameos, it was great to see Stephen King and Peter Bogdanovich doing their thing.And like the first film, IT: CHAPTER TWO uses nostalgia very well. I love seeing a poster for THE LOST BOYS in a clubhouse and that awesome marquee for A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET 5: THE DREAM CHILD at the local theater. Plus, we get some good music like Cameo’s “Word Up”, New Kids on the Block’s “Cover Girl” and a tiny blip of Juice Newton’s “Angel of the Morning” [even though the song didn't fit the scene and I thought someone's ringtone had played inside of the theater, odd song choice that made no real sense]. But the flashback scenes still felt like they belonged in the late-80s, which made me content.As for the present day scenes, I think the best moments of IT: CHAPTER TWO are when the gang are together onscreen. One of the best scenes is when the gang are in the restaurant together during their long awaited reunion. As they try to remember the things they all blocked out once they left Derry, the friends are reminiscing about their childhood and present in such a way that it feels authentic. You honestly feel like these are the same characters from the first film, as they rag on each other and just reaffirm their bond with one another underneath the dread of Pennywise wanting his revenge. It also leads into this great scene involving some messed up fortune cookies that reminds the group why they left Derry to begin with.And of course, the reunion in the final act leads to some great dramatic moments that increase the tension of the battle against It. They’re all fragmented and selfish for their own reasons at the start of the confrontation, but end up remembering why they are The Losers’ Club and battle their fears together. I wish more of the film had these scenes because they’re the strongest of this film and the closest to having the characters be as similar as those in the first installment. Great storytelling when The Losers are just that - a Club.I also have to commend IT: CHAPTER TWO for taking LGBTQ themes and treating them in a serious matter. The horror genre, in particular, has always tried to sneak in hints and nods to different sexualities. Sometimes they’re used to create a mood in terms of narrative and visual presentation. Sometimes these themes are the obvious focus of the film to cater to a certain demographic. Other times, some filmmakers will try to create situations where LGBTQ characters are treated as objects or humor for other characters, not realizing it may be offending some viewers. IT: CHAPTER TWO starts just like the second half of the novel does - with a disturbing gay bashing of a local Derry couple that leads into one of them being a victim of Pennywise. This scene could have been handled so offensively in the wrong hands, or even years ago when PC Culture wasn’t a strong influence. But Adrian and Don are portrayed as a normal loving couple, wanting to have fun at a carnival even when three bullies are calling them derogatory names and trying to start a fight with them. Even through all this, they never shy away from expressing how much they love each other, making the scene not only realistic, but tragic in that hate like this still occurs in modern times. It was nice to see two people just share a realistic attraction and affection for one another, regardless of their gender and sexuality. Not many horror films [or films in general] portray that well or for the right reasons. The gay bashing scene would feel gratuitous, except it leads to the reveal of a certain character of The Losers’ Club being gay, giving us some dramatic moments near the end of the film. But it’s never a main focus of the last half of the film, nor does the character ever feel like their sexuality is their reason for being in the film. This character is a fully dimensional player in the story with multiple layers that many people will relate to and sympathize with. It may not have been needed for this character, but it’s handled respectfully and with class. I wish more films would handle these sort of things with this much respect, instead of treating it as some taboo gimmick. It’s 2019 and it’s time to grow up. IT: CHAPTER TWO proves you can do it believably well.And I gotta give director Andy Muschietti credit - for a film that’s almost three hours, IT: CHAPTER TWO never feels that long. While certain parts of the middle portion drag a bit in terms of how it’s edited and placed on the script, the film never feels like it’s wearing out its welcome. I do think AVENGERS: ENDGAME handled its pacing and editing better by having nicely switching it up with quieter moments followed by action sequences leading a massive 45-minute boss battle epic. But IT: CHAPTER TWO does manage to pop in a few “scares” and disturbing imagery to keep the audience engaged and wanting more. In fact, I thought the ending of this version was superior to the ending of the mini-series, as it was just handled more organically visually and seemed to be building to a crescendo. I do think the spider-deal is still silly in all versions of this story, but at least Muschietti tried to make it visually exciting enough for the time to fly right by.As for some negatives, I don’t think IT: CHAPTER TWO was as effective as the first film in terms of scares. I felt like a lot of the scarier moments in the film were too similar to the first film, which honestly is probably the right way to go in terms of telling a story from beginning to end. But I wish the film had raised the ante a bit, as it would have given the adults more dangerous situations to deal with compared to when they were kids. I felt that the first film had a more haunted house creepy vibe, while this film relies more on jump scares to jolt the audience. I’m sure that still affects a lot of people, but it didn’t do much for me.I also felt the lack of Pennywise the Clown here as well. In one way, it was probably better to disguise Pennywise in other various forms to trick the audiences into a sense of calm before scaring them. Since IT has become a pop culture phenomenon, the Pennywise character isn’t as scary as he once was due to social media existing, which it didn’t back in 1990. However, Pennywise is the face of the IT brand, so not seeing Bill Skarsgard do his thing as much as he did in the first part is something I kind of missed this time around. Damned if you and damned if you don’t.I also thought separating the characters for a long period of time was a big mistake in terms of the narrative. I get that the characters had to split in order to remember things and gather things for their confrontation against It. But most of the solo adventures dragged the film down for me and felt like they existed just to showcase the flashbacks with the more interesting younger characters. I did enjoy the Beverly, Richie and Eddie moments. Bill’s was good as well, even though it revealed a secret I wasn’t that much in favor for because it made him look kind of bad. The others didn’t really stand out in any way. Like I said, I felt the film was stronger when the characters stuck together because their adult counterparts just weren’t as interesting as their younger ones.That’s mainly because there is a lack of depth in the adult characters. The most we really know about them are their occupations and their fears. I think Richie got the most depth out of anyone in the film because secrets were revealed that explained his behavior in both portions of IT. But the love triangle between Bill, Beverly and Ben doesn’t connect because the film doesn’t really focus on it until the end, leading to a conclusion that feels more forced than organic. And characters left out of the film, like Bill’s wife and Beverly’s abusive husband, would have added some much needed color to their adult characters. I even felt Mike’s borderline crazy behavior was too subtle compared to the novel and original mini-series, making his decisions feel more deliberate and mean-spirited rather than desperate and ignorant. Even bully Henry Bowers felt like something that had to be added in the film because some audiences are familiar with his big role in both the novel and mini-series. The character has an interesting arc as a mini-boss, but it feels sort of rushed and not all that necessary here.As for the CGI, I thought it was more good than bad. The monstrous creatures looks pretty good. The It spider deal still looks silly, but at least it was an improvement over what the mini-series did. And that homage to a certain John Carpenter film, with quote and all, was pretty awesome. But those flashback de-aging scenes - man, some of those looked pretty bad. It was almost distracting at times, especially when it came to Finn Wolfhard’s facial features. I get the young actors got growth spurts since 2017’s IT, but it makes me wonder why they didn’t just shoot extra footage of the child actors if they knew they were doing a second chapter. Probably would have saved them a lot of grief getting most of the flashbacks out of the way, only using the de-aging stuff if they had to reshoot something. But other than that, the effects were fine and were on par with the first film.THE FINAL HOWLWhile I think 2017’s IT is the better portion of the complete story, IT: CHAPTER TWO is still a good conclusion that fans of the first film will probably enjoy. The older cast is solid [especially Bill Hader and James Ransone], even though some of them aren’t given a whole lot to do nor have much depth compared to their younger counterparts [who are still just as great as they were in the first chapter]. The pacing is pretty damn good for a three-hour film, never feeling like it wears out its welcome, regardless of some parts dragging a bit in the middle portion of the film. Most of the CGI is fine, but the de-aging process is more distracting than impressive when it comes to certain actors. And while Bill Skarsgard is still as great as ever as Pennywise the Clown, I wish he was in the film more since he had the creepiest moments in the film. IT: CHAPTER TWO isn’t perfect and has flaws I can’t overlook when it comes to the narrative at times. But it’s still charming, silly, and has great dramatic moments that make you sympathize with some of the players involved. More importantly, the film is a weird, fun time and a worthy adaptation that improves on the second part of the 1990 mini-series in every way.SCORE3 Howls Outta 4

Lunar Cycle - August 2019
Since I don’t have as much time to write longer reviews than I used to, I figured I would just post shorter reviews for horror/cult films that I feel deserve your attention. Expect these Lunar Cycle posts once per month. UNFRIENDED (2014) - **1/2 out of ****Directed By: Levan GabriadzeStarring: Shelley Hennig, Moses Storm, Renee Olstead, William Pelz, Jacob Wysocki, Courtney HalversonGenre: Horror/Supernatural/Found FootageRunning Time: 82 MinutesPlot: While video chatting one night, six high school friends receive a Skype message from a classmate who killed herself exactly one year ago. At first they think it’s a prank, but when the girl starts revealing the friends’ darkest secrets, they realize they are dealing with something out of this world, something that wants them dead.Review:As someone who is not the biggest fan of found footage horror films, it took me a while to sit down and watch UNFRIENDED - a film that uses a first-person perspective of certain internet apps and websites in order to tell its story. Even though a few of my friends had actually praised the film for doing what it needed to do well, I pretty much dismissed it. Then, I was reminded of the film again when I saw the trailer to its sequel UNFRIENDED: DARK WEB. Again I dismissed it, feeling like I would be wasting my time watching another overrated found footage flick. But recently, I had a conversation with someone about modern horror, which led to this person bringing up and praising UNFRIENDED for being a film that will remain relevant to society as long as technology and social media are a huge part of our lives. Wanting to see what all the fuss was about, I finally sat down and watched the film. And to my surprise, I really dug UNFRIENDED for the most part. While simple in terms of its plot, the visual execution is clever enough to engage our modern society. The subject of cyberbullying and its part in increasing the statistics of suicide in teens and young adults is a sad one to even think about, but resonates so much in our current social climate that I respected how UNFRIENDED handled it. Sure, the film exploits the theme in a supernatural tale of revenge on those who may have contributed to the suicide of a teenage girl, but it still manages to ground the guilt, fear and misery these characters endure when confronted with their own dark secrets that begin to shatter their friendships. Watching our main character constantly click between websites, emails, Skype, Facebook and YouTube shouldn’t be as engaging as it happens to be. We’re drawn into the mystery and want to know what led to the suicide and if our main characters were part of it. The rollercoaster storytelling as each character suffers their own cruel fate is pretty well done, grabbing me until its, unfortunate, silly conclusion that brought the film down big time for me. But hey - I went into this with low expectations and dug most of it.I saw a lot of people criticize the characters and how annoying and unlikable they happen to be. In a lot of films, I would definitely find this to be a flaw. But in UNFRIENDED, it just adds to the story because these characters happen to act like real teenagers on the internet, trying to solve a mystery that ends up revealing things that none of them wanted to come out. The way they engage each other, mostly cruel if I have to be honest, is believable because I’ve seen friends within a single group act like this. Even the characters who are more likable than others soon start looking worse and worse as the film goes, but that’s human nature, isn’t it? I thought the actors did a really good job portraying people we want to like, but end up disliking towards the end of the film. The most notable star here is Shelly Hennig - a Emmy-nominated actress who is probably best known for being 2004’s Miss Teen USA, as well as for her roles on Days of Our Lives and especially MTV’s Teen Wolf series. I thought she did a really good job as our main character, Blaire. The rest of the actors were just as solid, as I bought their anger, betrayal, frustration, and fear throughout the movie. The visual style by Levan Gabriadze is nothing special on the surface really. But watching a first-person account of someone using the internet during a terrifying mystery is pretty novel and a cool way to twist the found footage trope. I’m sure many technologically challenged folks were turned off by the visual presentation, especially if they’re not familiar with the apps and terminology used. I personally thought it would be really annoying to watch this all play out in this manner. But you get used to it as the film goes on, embracing a style that shouldn’t have worked but really does for this story. I think without it, there’s no reason to really watch UNFRIENDED.I do wish the film was creepier or scarier. Some of the death scenes were pretty cool, but I never felt nervous or terrified by what I was watching. And while I understand that Skype can get really pixelated on a terrible internet connection, having that during the death sequences was a bit of a cop-out. Overall, I really liked UNFRIENDED more than I thought I would. While the premise isn’t for everyone and the ending was dumb, the film worked better than it had any right to. The drama stuff was a lot stronger than the horror aspects of the film, with the actors really giving it their all to convince people this was really happening. And I appreciated the use of a very important social commentary that needs to be addressed more often, regardless of the producers using it as a way to exploit scares to pop an audience. A definite surprise for me, as I’ll keep it on my modern horror news feed for the time being.UNFRIENDED: DARK WEB (2018) - *** out of ****Directed By: Stephen SuscoStarring: Colin Woodell, Betty Gabriel, Rebecca Rittenhouse, Andrew Lees, Connor Del Rio, Stephanie Nogueras, Savia Windyani, Chelsea AldenGenre: Horror/Found FootageRunning Time: 93 MinutesPlot: When a 20-something finds a cache of hidden files on his new laptop, he and his friends are unwittingly thrust into the depths of the dark web. They soon discover someone has been watching their every move and will go to unimaginable lengths to protect the dark web.Review:Really a sequel in name only, UNFRIENDED: DARK WEB was a film I had no real interest in due to my lack of love for found footage films. But after watching the first UNFRIENDED and liking that more than I thought I would, I decided to check last year’s sequel. And I don’t know what it is about this new franchise, but UNFRIENDED is now 2-for-2 as I liked this movie as much as the first one, albeit for different reasons. Using a similar visual presentation as the previous film, DARK WEB gets rid of the supernatural aspect of the first story and aims for a creepier, more grounded internet experience that would definitely unnerve the hell out of me if I were to experience it. In a world of data breaches and hackers gathering and selling personal information in the black market, DARK WEB plays on those fears as it puts a group of close friends chatting on Skype on a roller coaster of a messed up night of extortion, blackmail, misunderstandings and flat-out murder. While I personally prefer the first film’s story slightly, I do feel the characters in DARK WEB are way more likable and seem genuinely close with one another. While they do fall for horror tropes, the characters do believable things and act realistically to the situation that’s happening to them. I won’t spoil major plot points that would ruin the film’s mystery, especially in the last half of the film, but DARK WEB is a way more disturbing and plausible story that makes you wonder how much control some really evil tech-savvy people have on all of us who use social media and other popular applications. It never plays the situation off as silly either, really putting us in the seats of the characters as they’re victims to a situation they accidentally clicked into. Knowing that a group of hooded figures are doing some evil things in order to make money and making sure that information remains secret by any means necessary is nerve racking. These people could be anyone - your friends, neighbors, co-workers - and you wouldn’t even know it until it’s too late. On a personal level, we get a sub-plot with our main character, Matias, who seems to be a in broken relationship with Amaya. Picking up a “new” laptop, he wants to use it to finish a program that would convert speech into American Sign Language due to Amaya being deaf. During the terror and unwinding of the mystery, we still get moments where we’re reminded what started this whole mess to begin with - Matias just trying to win his girlfriend back. Their interactions are believable and you already know that it will connect with the mess Matias has placed himself and his friends in.And while that’s great in DARK WEB, I feel the other characters don’t get as much depth. Sure, we get who they are by how they behave and reveal in the first act of the film. But I thought that the first film was stronger in terms of connecting more with the audience on a personal level, even if the characters in that film weren’t as likable. I can understand the effects of cyberbullying and wanting revenge for that. The story here isn’t as personal for me, but it’s still well told and will keep your attention throughout for sure. I will say that having the sequel be more grounded in “reality” is a better fit for a movie like DARK WEB than having a supernatural element that seems tacked on for shock value. The film also had a creepier ending as well, which I greatly appreciated.The direction by Stephen Susco just follows what was done in the first UNFRIENDED, with the first person perspective of someone using the internet as a deadly mystery unfolds. But I thought there was much more going on here, as we were given a really dark look of the internet in terms of websites we shouldn’t be clicking on and having our characters watch snuff films that are realistically disturbing to watch. I also liked the pixelation anytime a hooded figure would appear, as if they were messing with the wifi frequency to keep their cover as they do disturbing things to our characters and people they care about. No ghosts here making people commit suicide. These shadow figures go for their targets and take them out in ways that would legitimately would appear on a news story somewhere. The back and forth of Matias going from Facebook chat, to Skype, to downloaded videos and to random internet sites to gather information is handled extremely well and didn’t feel as forced as it was done in the first film. The actors all play their parts well. I thought Colin Woodell was really good as Matias, playing the heartbreak as believably as his confusion and fear over what his curiosity had caused. It was also nice to see Betty Gabriel, a frequent Blumhouse alum [GET OUT and THE PURGE: ELECTION YEAR], who does well with the material given to her and is given a memorable moment near the end. I bought the actors here, as it felt pretty real what they were going through.Overall. UNFRIENDED: DARK WEB is another surprise and an improvement over its predecessor. It’s nothing fresh or will it change the horror genre in any way, but it’s definitely creepy and disturbing in terms of its atmosphere and tone. The actors were all solid and I liked that the series has now gone into a more realistic and plausible scenario that will make people think twice in digging deep into a world on the internet they have no clue about. Those who aren’t fans of the found footage sub-genre should at least give UNFRIENDED: DARK WEB a watch, as it’s really dark and more engrossing than it has any right to be. There’s nothing scarier than humanity, which this film proves in spades.READY OR NOT (2019) - *** out of ****Directed By: Matt Bettinelli-Olpin, Tyler GillettStarring: Samara Weaving, Adam Brody, Mark O’Brien, Andie MacDowell, Nicky Guadagni, Melanie Scrofano, Elyse LevesqueGenre: Horror/Thriller/ComedyRunning Time: 95 MinutesPlot: A bride’s wedding night takes a sinister turn when her eccentric new in-laws force her to take part in a terrifying game.Review:READY OR NOT is this year’s YOU’RE NEXT - a horror-comedy that will gain cult status within a few years due to its cute premise, colorful characters, and intense violence. Even from watching the trailer months ago, I knew I would get a big kick out of a pissed-off bride struggling to survive a dangerous game of Hide & Seek from the very family she married into. Even with the backlash over the terrible violence happening in America, with Hollywood even pulling certain projects that are felt to “promote” violent acts [THE HUNT being the biggest example], I’m glad READY OR NOT got a chance to be seen by a theatrical audience because it’s pretty rad.I won’t get into the story all that much since it’s better to experience it first-hand without someone telling you the beats of the narrative. And seriously, you can get much of what the film is about just from the trailers. And if you watched YOU’RE NEXT, you should probably know what you’re getting into. I will say that the concept and premise of READY OR NOT is pretty great, taking something so simple like a cat-and-mouse chase as some sort of initiation into a family and bringing out themes of trust, love, loyalty, and tradition in a way that makes you question how much is enough to protect the ones you love. There is a purpose for the game this family plays, regardless of how messed up it is, leading to a satisfying conclusion after the film keeps you guessing whether it’s all worth it or not. The film also plays up opinions on the upper class and how they look down on those not a part of it. I wish the film could have played with that a bit more throughout the game itself, but I guess the supernatural element involving the tradition had to take precedence. But judging by certain members of the family who married into it and how they’re treated by the original clan, it’s easy to see that they probably had hoped Hide & Seek popped up more often than it does.Through this game, it also fleshes out most of the characters. It turns naive and scared bride Grace into a badass woman who won’t let anyone hurt her, even if they are her in-laws. Then we have certain members of the Le Domas family who have no problem playing this game to achieve their goal, while others question themselves and their loyalty to the family along the way. Certain character actions do come across a bit silly at times, and predictable twists in moral [or immoral] character happen in the final act. And the reason why this tradition even exists [it involves some superstitious Satanic shenanigans] could have been fleshed out more besides through general expository dialogue. But the ride for a meager 95 minutes is a lot of fun, balancing the expected horror elements with the black comedy situations the characters put themselves in quite well for the most part.The direction by the Radio Science guys [Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett] has off-pacing at times, especially in the middle portion of the film. But other than that, the film looks great and the violence is shot really well. The use of the film’s setting [a huge mansion and even the woods surrounding it] is done marvelously. It has this gritty look with dark colors and lots of shadows that makes this mansion feel less of a home and more of a dungeon of sorts. For their first full-length feature, the directors do a confident job of visualizing this fun story and making a film that’s easy to watch if you can separate reality from fantasy.I think the best thing Bettinelli-Olpin and Gillett do is create a new feminist badass character women will root for and sympathize with from beginning to end. That’s further cemented by the acting of Samara Weaving [Hugo Weaving’s niece], who takes what could have been a generic stock character and fleshes her out in a way that she becomes a real person we care about. Weaving recites the dialogue with a great timing and understanding of her role. She knows when to be serious. She knows when she needs to be sarcastic so the audience can laugh along with her. She never plays it tongue-in-cheek, which makes her a valued asset on this production. I was extremely impressed by how she handled herself here. The facial expressions and body language were dead on. The tone of her voice throughout the film fit within the context of what was happening. She gets it and I hope she becomes a huge star. Samara Weaving is awesome and I can see why anyone would want to marry her.I liked a lot of the other actors as well. Favorites? I thought Adam Brody as the alcoholic brother-in-law, Daniel, was really great. He played his role mostly numb to what was going on, only giving us glimpses of his true feelings about the situation and how it was effecting Grace. I have always liked him since The O.C. and I’m glad he’s having some sort of renaissance lately. He’s a standout. I also enjoyed Henry Czerny as the desperate patriarch, Wynonna Earp’s Melanie Scrofano as the coke-snorting and hysterically funny sister, and Nicky Guardagni’s scary aunt who enjoyed murdering people after lurking in the shadows to scare them. I thought male lead Mark O’Brien was on-and-off at times, but I felt he had nice chemistry with Weaving - enough where I felt for the both of them and wanted the happy ending. And it’s great to see Andie MacDowell on any project, especially a horror film like this one. I wish she had more to do than just being the supportive mother, but it was nice to see a familiar face.Overall, READY OR NOT is not a perfect horror-comedy film, but it’s a damn good time nonetheless. The use of The Most Dangerous Game premise usually works every time it’s on film, and this movie is no exception - using a nice balance of horror and black comedy to keep the audience engaged through its short and to-the-point runtime. Samara Weaving as the lead is a revelation and just wonderful throughout, carrying the film confidently on her shoulders and getting the emotional core of the character perfectly. The supporting cast, especially Adam Brody, Henry Czerny, Melanie Scrofano and Mark O’Brien play off of Weaving very well and give us characters we can easily love or hate. I also think the themes of loyalty, family and tradition are explored believably here, regardless of the supernatural element that looms in the background, while the “eat the rich” element could have been fleshed out more [it’s there though]. And both Matt Bettinelli-Olpin & Tyler Gillett do a great job with their first full-length directorial effort, giving all potential brides-to-be a nightmarish scenario they hope not to be entering into on their wedding night. I don’t think it’s the best horror film of the year, but READY OR NOT may be the most fun and entertaining one so far in 2019. I hope more people see it in theaters, but this one will definitely be a streaming favorite during Halloween season.AVENGING ANGEL (1985) - * out of **** [WTF? Vault]Directed By: Robert Vincent O’NeillStarring: Betsy Russell, Rory Calhoun, Susan Tyrell, Ossie Davis, Ross Hagen, Robert F. Lyons, Deborah VoorheesGenre: Thriller/Action/ComedyRunning Time: 93 MinutesPlot: Molly, former baby prostitute “Angel” from Sunset Boulevard, has managed to leave her street life with help of Lt. Andrews. She studies law at an university and aims to become attorney. When she learns that Andrews was shot during a failed observation by brutal gangsters, she returns downtown to take revenge.Review:Last month, I reviewed 1984’s ANGEL - a cult exploitation film that’s less sleazier and controversial than its reputation would perceive it to be. However, it has a certain charm about it with some good performances and a creepy killer storyline that makes it worth a watch or two. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for it’s quick follow-up, 1985’s AVENGING ANGEL - a film that I respect for not copying the first film in every way, even though it probably would have been a much better movie if it had.Instead of a tame, yet gritty exploitation flick about an underage prostitute being targeted by a serial killer, AVENGING ANGEL goes more for a revenge action-thriller that borders so much on slapstick at times that it’ll probably make Lt. Frank Drebin of Police Squad roll his eyes. Hey, it’s cool that this sequel is attempting a different type of tone and narrative to separate it from the first film, while still making it a logical sequel. But if your father figure is murdered while investigating a crime, the last thing one should do is take their vengeful feelings and portray it as comedy as if it doesn’t mean a thing. And that’s what this film does - take the deep relationship between Molly/Angel and Lt. Lyons and make it feel as if they were just passing acquaintances, with no sense of anger or grief towards getting some justice. The Molly/Angel character, in general, is problematic here. It’s great she’s using both her street smarts as a former hooker and her book smarts as a future lawyer to take down the bad guys. But everything comes way too easy for her, eliminating any sort of previous passion the character had. She does nice things for others and uses her intelligence to get out of certain jams, but it’s hard to believe this character would do the things she’s doing because it feels lifeless. The original Molly/Angel character had a ton of depth and you sympathized with her. I didn’t feel any of that with this version of the character.The supporting characters are just as colorful as they were in the previous film, for better or for worse. Cowboy Kit Carson returns, doing a whole lot more in the sequel, becoming Molly’s right-hand man. But he seems like a caricature of himself, playing up the wild cowboy aspect of his persona to an eleven and acting more like a cartoon than a real person most of the time. Solly is still foul-mouthed as ever, but now she’s taking care of a baby in a storyline that doesn’t really go anywhere but raise certain stakes during the film’s final act. And even those stakes are treated as a joke. Yo-Yo, the Charlie Chaplin guy, returns as well - still not doing much of anything. And we then get this guy named Johnny Glitter, who’s gimmick is to look like Boy George and spread glitter everywhere… because? He’s the witness to Lt. Lyons’ death and leads Angel to the killers, joining her squad of misfits. Unfortunately, Glitter is nothing more than a gimmick - an annoying one, in fact. Not sure why anyone believed this character was a good one to add, but he sure was grating anytime he appeared.The villains are nowhere as interesting as the serial killer from the first film. They’re standard mob goons doing mob things. There’s nothing different about them that you couldn’t see in another action film with evil mob bosses trying to control a town.As for the tone of the film, Robert Vincent O’Neill doesn’t balance it all that well. The action stuff, while standard, is still well shot and decently choreographed. There’s even a good bit of tension during the opening murder scene of an undercover cop, due to its slick editing and use of Bronski Beat’s “Why?” It also contains some nudity that sleazed things up a bit, but not enough to make the film better. Unfortunately, O’Neill doesn’t know how to do comedy because the slapstick stuff doesn’t really work within a serious narrative. If AVENGING ANGEL was a spoof sequel of the previous film and maintained that the entire way, it would be easy to let it slide. But the film wants to be thrilling and serious one minute before turning into a cartoon in the next. The film doesn’t know what it really wants to be. Technical wise, the film is more than fine. But tone is very important, especially when these characters were established in a more serious film a year prior. You’re just confusing your audience. If the comedy was good, this wouldn’t be an issue.The acting is a mixed bag. Donna Wilkes didn’t return to play Molly/Angel, so Betsy Russell was hired to replace her. Russell is a beautiful woman and AVENGING ANGEL takes advantage of that with all the tight dresses Russell wears throughout. But she’s never been the greatest actress and action scenes don’t suit her either. Her performance is very flat here and the Angel character loses all charm that Wilkes had brought to it in the first film. I don’t think she feels comfortable in the role. The supporting actors as fine, especially Rory Calhoun and Susan Tyrell. Barry Pearl as Johnny Glitter was annoying, while villains Paul Lambert and Ross Hagen were fine. And Ossie Davis probably did this film for a paycheck, but at least he made the most of his appearance. Not as solid as the first film’s cast, unfortunately. Overall. AVENGING ANGEL is a really lackluster sequel that suffers from an identity crisis. The film never knows whether it wants to be a revenge movie, an 80s action-thriller like 48 HOURS, or a goofy comedy with cartoonish performances and silly sound effects [damn you, Johnny Glitter]. Betsy Russell has a stunning onscreen presence and the camera loves her, but she never feels comfortable as Molly/Angel and brings the film down big time with her flat performance. The supporting actors are also a mixed bag, trying to balance between being believable and being annoying. The film does look good though and has a decent pace, with the action scenes being handled better than the comedy stuff. And the 80s soundtrack is odd, but memorable. AVENGING ANGEL is a big come down from the original 1984 cult hit, deserving to be stripped of its wings.THE PERFECT GUY (2015) - *1/2 out of ****Directed By: David M. RosenthalStarring: Michael Ealy, Sanaa Lathan, Morris Chestnut, Kathryn Morris, Rutina Wesley, Holt McCallany, Ronnie Gene Blevins, Charles S. Dutton, John Getz, Jessica Parker KennedyGenre: Thriller/Drama/RomanceRunning Time: 100 MinutesPlot: After a painful breakup, Leah seems to meet the perfect guy. But she soon discovers his violent side that disrupts her life.Review:What do you get when you’re pitched a Lifetime movie premise, but you get the benefit of a good budget and a decent cast of name actors? You get 2015’s THE PERFECT GUY, a supposedly “erotic” thriller that does everything you’d expect out of a film that would fit right in on a certain network’s weekend movie marathon. The fact that this film even had a major theatrical release years ago and did well at the box office is kind of surprising, considering it doesn’t have much appeal other than the fact that a majority of the cast are made up of African-American actors. THE PERFECT GUY never reaches the heights or pop culture knowledge like a FATAL ATTRACTION, THE CRUSH, OBSESSED or even its other 2015 erotic-thriller, THE BOY NEXT DOOR. If it wasn’t for the cast, this would have your typical Saturday Night Movie of the Week that you would have forgotten about the moment it stopped airing.THE PERFECT GUY checks every trope you’d expect out of a film like this. Empowering female lead? Psychotic ex-boyfriend who changes from angel to devil in a second? Stalking? Sneaking into homes? Gathering information to use against the lead? Disturbing shrines? The villain eliminating all opposition that interferes with his obsession? Cops wanting evidence before catching the villain? It’s all here and predictably in all of the right places within the film. You know what’s going to happen throughout. You know how it’s all going to end. It’s been done before and done much better.I will give the film credit, however, for making the main protagonist Leah a character that you can root for because she’s pretty aware for the most part. You understand her when she breaks up with her good boyfriend because he doesn’t want marriage and children. You understand why she would fall in love with too-good-to-be-true Carter, an IT expert, because she’s so damn charming and says and does all the right things in front of her friends and family. But unlike a lot of women in this type of film, Leah quickly ends things the moment Carter starts getting violent with people he’s threatened by. She doesn’t stick around hoping he’ll change. Leah knows something is wrong with Carter and wants him to leave her alone, which leads to Carter stalking and harassing her. She talks to her friends about what’s going on. She goes to the police when things start getting overwhelming. She notices and realizes when people around her begin to get hurt or even killed, her first suspect is Carter. And when Carter interferes with her profession and threatens to kill her and make it look like a suicide, she takes some unlawful words from a sympathetic detective and takes matters in her own hands. Sure, Leah falls into generic pitfalls in the name of storytelling every once in a while. But she’s very well written and has more depth than expected for a film like THE PERFECT GUY. While the ex-boyfriend is your typical good dude, the villain your typical sociopathic killer who stalks and hides in the shadows to gather information or pounce, and the supporting characters just there to create a universe for the main characters to live in, Leah is a person you can believe in and wish her nothing but the best in getting rid of this creepy guy.Other than that, there’s not much to this film in terms of a narrative. There are some unintentionally funny moments, especially when it comes to the Carter character. He’ll kiss and lick up lipstick left on Leah’s glass of wine after he breaks into her home. He’ll also lick and suck on her toothbrush… for reasons. He’s also a cat stealer and someone who enjoys listening to his ex have sex while underneath her bed. I wish there were more moments like this, where the film got a bit campy and you can just enjoy it on a popcorn level. But THE PERFECT GUY takes itself way too seriously most of the time, which doesn’t work when the situation, while believable, is played out pretty silly. I also feel the first half of the film was way too rushed, as the film quickly skims through Leah and good guy Dave’s relationship before getting right into her fling with Carter - which is rushed as well. The second half is stronger since it’s more about the cat-and-mouse game between Leah and Carter. Not the worst script, but nothing you wouldn’t see on Lifetime.The direction by David M. Rosenthal is nothing special. It looks like any other romantic thriller that you’ve seen in the last ten to fifteen years. It’s a very glossy and well polished production that nails every trope to perfection. Even the few death scenes we get are shot as one would expect, with no style or visual splash to make them memorable. And the film seems to badly execute passage of time, as the first 30 minutes speed right by without giving us anything of substance, while days and weeks pass without much of a title card or transitions to let us know. I mean, I understand that the story was flying by, but some audiences have issue with that.The cast is what elevates the film a bit. Sanaa Lathan is pretty strong as Leah, playing all the emotional cues one would expect of a character in her situation. She never played the role as a total victim or a total badass, but as a woman who was in over her head in a messed up situation. Lathan honestly deserves to be in better films, but she gives a good performance regardless of quality. Michael Ealy was decent as psycho Carter, playing the creepy role a bit more subtle than expected. He never goes full Glenn Close, but he does have menacing moments. Morris Chestnut doesn’t get a whole lot to do as Dave, but he does his best with what he’s given. Kathryn Morris and Rutina Wesley aren’t given much to do either, but never embarrass themselves. And it’s always good to see Charles S. Dutton and John Getz in anything.Overall, THE PERFECT GUY is a film that you can catch any weekend on Lifetime Movie Network, just with a bigger budget and a well-known cast. It’s generic, predictable, and hits every romantic thriller beat one would expect out of a film like this. The film looks great, but there’s no real style to make the film visually memorable. And if it wasn’t for the portrayal of the lead protagonist on paper and Sanaa Lathan’s acting giving the role some depth, THE PERFECT GUY wouldn’t be worth having on as background noise with a peek every now and then. The rest of the cast also do what they can with the material given, especially Michael Ealy trying to be creepy while still attracting his admirers with his good looks and soft voice. THE PERFECT GUY is not a perfect film or a must see, but those who love dumb romantic thrillers may want to take a chance on it.

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