Sunday, September 15, 2019

Fear of the unknown in real life


"The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown." 

Love? What about all those heartfelt and sad songs and poems, guys? I digress.

The great H.P. Lovecraft, known for his short stories and creative mythos in the earlier part of the 20th century, made infamous his opening phrase—from a larger essay—"...fear of the unknown" that gave ominous, who's-that-behind-you presence throughout his work. Countless artists have capitalized on it, such as the wave of modern Japanese horror films relying on superstitions and ghostly apparitions appearing and disappearing before you can say hello or sayonara. Going away from the unnameables and creatures from beyond that might suddenly require you to make a snap decision to fight or run for cover, my question is: What does it mean to have fear of the unknown in real life and not just in an anything-can-happen world?

Let's take the example of going hiking and camping in an uncharted terrain of woods with someone who has always lived in the city, or has a sheltered life that is oblivious of the potential dangers. Would that be fear of the unknown in this context? Would this person just suddenly become irrational and conjure up their own horrific scenarios because it's unknown to them? It's possible. The jitters and anxiety get the best of some. Though, let's say someone is about to go hiking and camping in an uncharted terrain of woods but they've previously watched a few animal attack videos or they read an article about that thing you lug around called a human body only being able to last so many days without food and water. Now, this set of woods is unknown to them but they have a prior set of separate circumstances that they have to fall back on. A partial experience and a partial knowing.

What I want to know is: do you need at least some knowledge prior to be afraid of an unknown situation? People do questionably unsafe things with a dab of innocence and no fear all the time; just ask any ranger at a National Park when someone toys with a bison, or stands too close to a cliff edge. That exact situation sparked the thoughts behind this piece. These people might be intelligent in other contexts of day to day life, but got put into a situation where their instincts didn't kick in or they simply had no alarm bell going off in the back of their head. So, is a blank slate of unknown still terrifying because you can't grasp your head around it? Or is it just because you're unable to control the outcome when throwing out the dice? Is it sacrilege to question H.P. Lovecraft? Will he rise for revenge from the grave? These are the kind of questions that keep me up at night. Well, maybe the first few.

Here's another that puts it into perspective more: "The ignorant and the deluded are, I think, in a strange way to be envied. That which is not known of does not trouble us, while an imagined but insubstantial peril does not harm us. To know the truths behind reality is a far greater burden." - H.P. Lovecraft

Monday, May 27, 2019

Hold the Dark (2018)

Rage; isolation; canines


"Hold the Dark" takes place in a particular area of Alaska that becomes a character in itself. It's cold, it's harsh, it's remote: it attracts a variety of different types that adapt to a degree, or transform into something else entirely. The sleepy town gets turned up side down when a researcher gets called to look into a local woman's child who was recently visited by wolves.

At the forefront of this feature, the atmosphere and pacing has a certain grip that squeezes tighter and tighter. It's intense, somber, and transfixing—wanting to see more and be involved with these particular people and this particular place. It's as dark, moody, and violent as a thriller at select times, while also being heavy on the mystery, and sporadic with knives-raised, guns-drawn action. It's full of bizarre behaviors and motivations that'll make you cock the head to the side, and then possibly lock a few doors just in case. On the one hand your brain has a hundred and one questions, but on the other you feel the sheer ferocity and emotional impact of the moment. The film has so many bizarre aspects going on as to be its own form of an alternate reality that goes back and forth between rightfully teasing your sense of disbelief to making you question its take on rational viewpoints. The story is layered in enough elusive directions that it might take two viewings and some clever discussions with your friends to unravel it all.

"Hold the Dark" comes across as a mix of mental illness, supernatural hints, animalistic behavior, and forgotten/neglected locals who've lost their way. There are times where you have something to follow; there are other times where you are led astray to have a surprise that hits you broadside. The film is methodical and carefully paced—crafting and developing a certain scene before moving on to the next sensation. The story isn't going to take the place of other features with richer character development and more dramatic moments you can sympathize with. Though it took something you've probably seen before and gave it a unique, more aesthetic spin. In other hands it could have been a complete, convoluted mess from so many angles and tone shifts.

What's interesting is with or without the mystery angle, it still works as a cold-blooded, unmerciful revenge thriller involving the woman's husband who's returned from war with a cold, unflinching demeanor and a dangerous set of skills. As often seen, the person goes through a transformation, but there's never a clear cut winner on either side. Just fragments of emotions with jagged corners that still manage to cut and sting when reflected on.

Rating: 7.5/10

Director: Jeremy Saulnier (Blue RuinGreen Room)
Actors: Jeffrey Wright; Alexander Skarsgard
Info: IMDB link
Trailer: YouTube link

Sunday, March 10, 2019

What Still Remains (2018)

One person's freedom is another's prison


With the population dwindling from a decades past event, human interaction has taken on another life of its own. It comes down to having enough strength and defensive tactics to make your own choices, or having choices made for you by those in a position of power.

"What Still Remains" is a post-apocalyptic drama along the lines of "The Walking Dead" meets "The Handmaid's Tale" that follows a young woman named Anna living on her own in the wilderness. She befriends a kind and hopeful man named Peter who welcomes her to his community to escape her solitude.

The film deals with a mix of emotions: from loneliness, mistrust, control, fear, and hope. Despite more open spaces to roam and lack of laws and government, those still standing become more vulnerable from predatory types lurking at every corner. The story shows us one person's freedom is another person's prison.

The lead character, Anna—played by Lulu Antariksa—feels like she doesn't always strike a balance between her tough, untrusting nature, to looking at the brighter sides of things, to then losing control when the situation gets out of hand. Her role is more show than tell, but her face and body language is often a mask, and doesn't always make you feel the hardships of what she's going through. Some of that could be excused if this were a gritty, hard-boiled action film, but as progressively paced as this film is it's not as commanding as it could have been with a more dramatic involvement. The character of Peter—Colin O'Donoghue—has more of a consistent driving point and duality to his role, but starts to come apart at the seams towards the finale.

What holds the film back from being more powerful is the direction and pacing feels like a formulaic television drama that steadily gives you bit by bit to lure you on. Then due to the shorter length of a feature film, some of the nuances are grazed over and feel rushed for a conclusion. This is not a film that's going for colorful creativity, explosions, gore, or terrifying jumps, but instead the human condition. However, it could have benefited with some more scenes to create its own unique mood, or to actually get the heart racing. If it's any consolation, the story isn't confusing and it moves with you, but without some more thrilling moments, or some break out performances to back up those complex ideas and emotions, the overall experience feels middle road.

Rating: 4/10

Director: Josh Mendoza
Actors: Lulu Antariksa, Colin O'Donoghue
Info: IMDB link
Trailer: YouTube link

Saturday, March 9, 2019

Haunting on Fraternity Row (2018)

Can be watched with the lights on


A rowdy, life-is-one-giant-joke-and-party fraternity is throwing a luau to end all luaus. The drinks are bottomless, dancing is all night, and as a safety precaution pledges are there to keep things in order for what's going to be one heck of a cleanup. Oh, right, the horror portion of it. The story throws in some secrets uncovered at the same time. Soon enough, buzzes and sex drives are squashed when some strange ghost like stuff starts to feed on the festive energy.

This is filmed as a moment-by-moment, shaky camera mockumentary with both a raw and measured take. You get a flashy feel one moment, random shenanigans over here, and then some loose shreds of a story over there with a human element for some character to character connection, and then also a supernatural side for mystery's sake. It's up to a paranoid pothead to weave back and forth from the party to research what should have stayed locked away.

The film feels like it's trying to pull the loose vibe of, say, "Dazed and Confused" meets an amateur YouTube compilation meets a haunted house experience. You get a crazy collection of hopeful, young people with little direction and more energy than they know what to do with up against an unmatched entity. It ends up coming across as a clash of tones from jumping back and forth and having little to show for itself other than a few creative ways to have fun and some skin in the mean time.

The horror portion is pushed to the wayside in order to gear up for a finale, but feels like it was thrown in as an after thought. You get your standard pop-ups and did-you-see-that CGI scares that are so vague and lazy in build up as to be more head-scratching than anything remotely terrifying or even cinematically gripping. You could watch this with the lights out, with black candles burning, and the worst-of-the-worst tarot cards laying on the coffee table and the mood still wouldn't be set with how this constantly pulls you out of it.

"Haunting on Fraternity Row" doesn't come full circle. You get characters that either suddenly flee, or die at random with little fight. It desperately tries to be diverting with your typical, brainless college age revelers, but never ends up overcoming its superficial characters and story that doesn't require a second thought as soon as the credits roll.

Rating: 2/10

Director: Brant Sersen (Blackballed; Sanatorium)
Actors: Jacob Artist, Ashton Moio, Shanley Caswell, Molly Tarlov
Info: IMDB link
Trailer: YouTube link

Friday, March 8, 2019

Family Blood (2018)

Mothers to depend on; mothers with dependencies


It's disappointing how certain aspects in life can come between a potentially hopeful and happy family. Especially where the bond starts to split at the seams from something as trivial as a few man-made pills at the bottom of a bottle.

"Family Blood" is a drama/horror that mixes pharmaceutical addiction with another more supernatural kind. It deals with the chaotic, distrusting environment of two teenage kids living with an addict for a mother. Except, this is every kid's nightmare times two when something more sinister enters the family portrait.

The mother goes through this pull and tug dynamic of chemical dependency and living a normal life as an enveloping wing that swoops in to provide for and protect her kids. As the tables turn to the supernatural portion of the film, it begins to lose that inner struggle that made the story start out strong. It then turns into a kind of Stockholm syndrome angle with the villain's shadow taking over every crevice of their household till survival is the only option. It makes it feel like it had a great, wide-open premise but then wrote itself into an ordinary box.

The villain is supposed to come across as a powerful, commanding entity that makes stern, matter-of-fact statements, but he ends up feeling stiff, forced, and emotionless. It could have made him a key element to a true mental and physical struggle between the mother and her kids, but it instead gave him this more primal, black and white facade that made decisions and outlooks more clear cut.

With little more to show for itself, the subtle, careful tone and direction starts to drag its feet with a trailing driving point. It makes it feel like the story and characters lost their tragic struggle and turned more into a lost cause. It's a shame as this could have been much more powerful of a film and experience to dissect the layers.

Rating: 5/10

Director: Sonny Mallhi (Anguish)
Actors: Vinessa Shaw, Colin Ford, James Ransone
Info: IMDB link
Trailer: YouTube link

Wednesday, March 6, 2019

When Angels Sleep (2018)

Crossing the line


This Spanish made thriller is essentially about a perfect storm of events leading up to someone getting hurt from one bad choice after another. It doesn't outright lay its cards on the table, but it instead requires you to individually process the situation by leaving room for interpretation to some debatable aspects: from an over-worked society, trying to be everywhere at once for your family, to not accepting responsibility. No one in this film is capable of listening, asking for help, or following the rules. It's like watching a preventable, horrific train wreck from a little thing called stubbornness we often succumb to.

What's different over your typical story is it blurs the lines between good and bad. There is no hero or better person, though there may be a villain in some form of the definition. There may be someone to root for, or nothing they may do may be relatable in the slightest and get on your nerves. It depends on your patience, morals, or stand points to analyze and pick apart the layers. Sure, the police and the courts would have something to say about it, but it's at a gray point where things turn into a tangled mess. It reminds me in some ways of the beginning of "Breaking Bad," though with different people in different circumstances. Specifically where the character initially crosses the line, and then after is locked into creating his own framework that's at a complete 180 from the societal norm for the sake of his family.

The majority of the film takes place in rural areas at night, so attempting to watch this with any shred of light in the room and you may end up squinting. Its mode of action starts to shuffle itself back and forth with driving this way, running that way, or fighting over here. The performances—I'd recommend the Spanish language version over the dubbed—from the two leads gives this a certain divide, where oh-crap-I-messed-up desperation meets I-took-some-scary-drugs panic. Some of the latter was amped up to the extreme to further the narrative. While possibly true to the state of confusion and distortion of reality, it still can come across as about as fun as attempting to argue logic with your aggressive, drunk friend.

While not a perfect execution of its more action oriented scenes or its more complex themes, the film—while also not a pleasant or appeasing experience in the normal sense—is still worth a go if you're looking for a challenging debate between your friends.

Rating: 6/10

Director: Gonzalo Bendala (Asesinos inocentes)
Actors: Julian Villagran, Ester Exposito, Marian Alvarez
Info: IMDB link
Trailer: YouTube link

Tuesday, March 5, 2019

Ánimas (2018)

Family, friends, and loved ones


This Spanish made film is a deep-rooted, psychological look at a connected group of relationships, but unlike any other you may have seen before. In a creative twist, it deals with moving on from negative aspects of family, moving away from old friends holding you back, and moving closer to new ones that may bring on a shimmering hope of light to all of the enshrouding darkness. One can only dream.

This maintains an overall downbeat vibe with a mix of symbolism and hidden meaning: such as material objects and sense of time playing tricks. The film is strange and allusive; with interactions and dialogue that are as slippery as tap shoes on ice. Though it's also well-crafted in that it moves with a sense of grace and allure. It's part drama, mystery, and thriller, with the intention to alternate tones in order to peel back the bruised layers and get to a more ripe resolution. It's more show than tell, delivering a share of slow burn atmosphere that causes your thoughts to mainly linger around a particular evolving apartment complex that takes on a life of its own. One can hide or seek help.

"Ánimas" maintains a great balance between being artful, emotional, and stirring all at once. While this has some thrilling moments to rile the senses, this is far from action oriented in order to become intimate with the characters and settings; it flows more dream-like, bordering on nightmarish at times than anything else. The main star, Alex—played by Clare Durant—delivers a dynamic performance: from self-loathing, to caring of others, and then looking for a sense of need and purpose related to her family and best friend Abraham. Ultimately, the obscured though measured messages in the film tend to stay with you. Such as showing us the careful balance of being alone and in our own head growing up; pessimism is a rain cloud that will eventually blow away, but, even with help, it's up to us to take charge and make that change. One can do more than just dream.

Rating: 8.5/10

Director: Laura Alvea, Jose F. Ortuno
Actors: Clare Durant, Ivan Pellicer
Info: IMDB link
Trailer: YouTube link

Monday, March 4, 2019

Romina (2018)

Last place in a creative race


"Romina"—a low budget Mexican made horror feature—is a nonsensical mix of a camp slasher with a rape-revenge plot with no commentary to speak of, nothing to read between the lines, and on top of that weak thrills and suspense that only gets weaker as the wall clock seems to slowly come to a crawl.

It involves the kind of homicidal psychopath that only exists in movies, except where others would use that gross exaggeration to create a powerful, commanding villain full of raw energy and memorable characteristics, the film's driving point and plot are so far gone as to have been mixed in a blender, swallowed, half digested, and then thrown up. It feels like a short paragraph of premise was outlined on a napkin on the way out the door, and before you know it production was underway with little funding and a group of close friends to make it happen. I can only imagine it was a blast to shoot for those involved, but for everyone else it feels like a stretched out exercise in wasted energy.

The story is deceiving because initially the flow and direction seems simple enough—a group of energetic young men and women on a road trip to their potential doom—but then how one aspect leads up to another is like a hand-me-down jigsaw puzzle missing all the important pieces. You get to watch spineless characters excitedly talking over each other, bickering, and then splitting up and running around with little background, no direction, or game plan in mind. Yep, they're sure to be executed in a bloody fashion, but the film fails to make you care. I've been more moved by a half-heard quick sensationalist clip on the local news. Sure, the main point is to emulate the old grindhouse classics, and to also see some sex and carnage—adding another notch to the realms of horror and widening the eyes a little further—but even then the suspense and build-ups lack creativity and vision to feel like nothing more than a numbing wound.

Rating: 1/10

Director: Diego Cohen (Perdidos; Honeymoon)
Actors: Francisca Lozano
Info: IMDB link
Trailer: YouTube link

Saturday, March 2, 2019

Mara (2018)

Wide eyed and helplessly frozen


Sleep: the true reset feature us humans have to maintain our health and carry on to the next day without seeing pesky hallucinations or losing our minds to a maze of utter confusion. A chain of events leads to a husband being killed in his own bed. The wife—a little raving mad at the moment—appears to be the primary suspect. A criminal psychologist is called in to investigate the wife's mental state and motivations, but ends up getting more than she signed up for on her first murder case.

What's interesting over your typical one-body-down-another-to-go horror film is the story here gives a human connection between the characters. The desperate circumstances, and then the growing number of deaths, begin to affect the psychologist—Kate, played by Olga Kurylenko. To make matters worse, she's becoming afflicted by an unexplainable, helpless frozen state as she looks on to a horrific creature that gets closer and closer. The concept in itself is both creepy and curious. The film lays it all out in the open as a carefully crafted formula—elevated stages that get increasingly more dangerous and all. That makes it predictable to what happens next, though for anyone who has had sleep paralysis happen to them, it still comes with a sense of dread and loss of control once played out.

The manipulation of volume here will get you to jump no doubt. Though it's the point of being frustrating at times in how low the normal sound effects are or how the characters talk, then BAM there goes your ear drums and a knock from the neighbors. The direction has a tendency to go from dragging its knuckles to white-knuckle intense in a split second. In some respects it gives this a certain energy after a slower scene from the raw emotions and helter-skelter action, though in others it makes it over-the-top in a not-so-believable way that jars you out of it. For instance, a character at a group for sleep paralysis sufferers starts spouting off like a cartoonish superstitious peasant that's all fear and no sense. I get that it's a tough nut to crack for a performer, though it doesn't always translate well on screen. On the other hand, Craig Conway—as Dougie—strikes a certain balance between a sense to survive and a fearful, sleep-deprived mind that goes in and out of rationality. He gives the character a certain on screen presense and a driving point to accelerate the events.

Rating: 5.5/10

Director: Clive Tonge
Actors: Olga Kurylenko, Craig Conway, Javier Botet
Info: IMDB link
Trailer: YouTube link

Thursday, February 28, 2019

The Cloverfield Paradox (2018)

Wasted energy


The main focus of "The Cloverfield Paradox" takes place in the cold, harsh realms of space with a crew of international scientists on a mission to undergo a potentially hopeful, though risky experiment to save humanity during a life or death energy crisis.

Back on the big blue planet, you watch one of the crew's husband act as your eyes and ears, except with every excuse not to show something more interesting: from reading vague messages, to half-heard reports, close-ups, confused conversations, hiding themselves away. I get the whole mystery angle this series relies on and using the ol' noggin for interpretation, though as a third film laying the ground rules it would make more sense to show some of the unimaginable beasts and utter pandemonium you've long wanted to see since the original film came out. It tries to go for the global consequences of "Armageddon" meets "The Day After Tomorrow" with an "Event Horizon" twist, except without the intricate steps or layers to get there. Just a repeat of the outline of the main agenda—we need energy NOW—making that portion feel an after thought and lose its driving point. Including an all-huff-no-facts conspiracy theory dude made one cross their arms more than it did solidify the message.

The most interesting and grab your attention feature here is the moral questions related to multi-dimensional alternate choices and circumstances. It's a perfect mix of something technical meets something emotionally relatable. While the story makes attempts at being fresh and exciting with some creative scenes, it also feels like it makes up rules and circumstances with the wave of a hand. You get slick looking sets, on top of neat gadgets and gizmos like any science fiction film with a budget, except they're often used as major plot points on a whim. Right. Those. While the acting had its certain charms and layers of emotions, it also felt like it created a sense of false drama out of nowhere. I mean, turn up the heat back home with warring nations, though a group of scientists coming together for a greater cause was treated like a petty group of nobodies.

In some respects the film moves quickly and makes attempts to be dramatic and set itself apart from the usual fare. In other respects it clashes tones and grazes over the finer details to make you drop your guard and be fully taken away by its sense of magic.

Rating: 4/10

Director: Julius Onah (The Girl Is in Trouble)
Actors: Gugu Mbatha-Raw, David Oyelowo, Daniel Bruhl, Chris O'Dowd
Info: IMDB link
Trailer: YouTube link

Wednesday, February 27, 2019

Extinction (2018)

War and peace


The majority of us are just busy ants locked into our day to day lives. Some would argue that we lose sight of the world as a whole as a result, while others ignore the naysayers and prefer that bubble that keeps us comfortable and content. Putting your guard down and getting too relaxed can also have its own share of problems when something would otherwise interrupt that near-sighted tranquility.

A man is having strange visions that are beginning to affect his work and personal life. All at once, the answers to a swirling mix of questions comes to light. "Extinction" is a sci-fi/action in the vain of "Independence Day" meets "Total Recall." It's a kill-kill-kill, destroy-destroy-destroy everything kind of film, but with a twist. While this had the potential to be another among the ranks of science fiction to reference or look back on, the story is delivered in an otherwise clunky, convenient, and black and white fashion.

Some scenes have some emotion injected, though two little girls who are incessant screamers and huggers gets tiring. The bad guy has actions that are commendable over your typical villain, yet he feels more planted by the writers to submit to everything the audience wants to hear than a personality with actual backbone that gives and takes. The lead—Michael Peña—plays an imperfect but loving dad who's currently out of step. The character is withdrawn and aloof, but then transitions into a one-track, every-kind-of-man concoction that does and says the right things than his own thinking, reasoning person.

Some of the surprises don't always have a smooth transition, with how one aspect is important towards social justice and giving this some sentiment, but other aspects towards defense or evolution are swept under the rug? It makes it feel more noticeably slanted and manipulated to evolve around a single surprise; making it backtrack more than it expands on its concept. Its mode of action turns into a stale formula: wasn't there for my family, now I must be there for my family when dire events arise. Must run, hide, scream, hug, and fight as bullets and explosions mysteriously fail to never hit their targets while everyone else is conveniently obliterated as the good cinematic martyrs they are.

Rating: 4.5/10

Director: Ben Young (Hounds of Love)
Actors: Michael Peña, Lizzy Caplan
Info: IMDB link
Trailer: YouTube link

Tuesday, February 26, 2019

How It Ends (2018)

More like: Why We Carry On


What length would you go to for a loved one? Would you wait it out? Would you weigh your options? To some, those are important questions to sit on. To others, the answers are already rapidly checked off as they're walking out the door no matter the stakes.

After an unexplained event cuts all communications, a do-what-it-takes retired Marine and a suit-and-tie lawyer take a cross country trip to the west coast to be reunited with their loved one. There they encounter the slow erosion of not only the landscapes, but also a chip away at humanity.

The film gives different perspectives: from various shots of how vacant the world has become; such as the beauty of nature, to its more perilous side. It's also haunting how different inventions and contraptions cease to have use; or how humans are still holding on to material things, or going for the throat when it comes to resources.

This is more a tried and true tale of survival for a small group of people than it is about showing a moment-by-moment 360 degree viewpoint of the concept such as "Outbreak" or "2012." Like "The Road," hints are given, but nothing is outright outlined to maintain the perspective as the characters would experience it: as a loss of control of everything they know through confusion and chaos. To some, they may feel robbed for their patience, to others they may be rewarded for the thrills and more emotional investment the story delivers. As far as apocalyptic films, there are a few scenes that require you to dust off the ol' brain and read between the lines. There are also a few other scenes that are about as over-the-top as they come.

The film does a decent job balancing a mix of drama, suspense, and action without doing one just for the sake of it or getting stuck in a certain mode. The characters grow from the outset and use the journey as a crutch to move on and then settle some differences. It's essentially a race to get over a series of hurdles while running blindly in the dark, with you the audience to root them on.

The most stand out performance is Forest Whitaker, which gives the film a certain intensity and driving point. It's the kind of story where things are handled and get done, but then the emotional toil and impact comes rearing its head after the fact. The leading character, the lawyer who's determined to get to his gal, straddles between blending in to the background, to being the ordinary man doing extraordinary things.

While "How It Ends" isn't something to throw on more than once, or hand out moral questions or poignant commentary that will keep you up at night, the film does what it set out to do: to deliver a simple story with human characters with gravitating determination and willpower, and to drop reminders as to why we carry on. It's the kind of film that can be torn apart for its easy to spot formula and more stripped down delivery. Or it can become a basic and diverting form of entertainment if you let your guard down and absorb it for what it is.

Rating: 6/10

Director: David M. Rosenthal (A Single Shot; The Perfect Guy)
Actors: Theo James, Forest Whitaker
Info: IMDB link
Trailer: YouTube trailer

Monday, February 25, 2019

#SquadGoals (2018)

Death by scholarship


On its surface, this is a day in the life story of some articulate, mature, and personable high school students about to head off to the next phase of their life. Underneath, an uglier side lingers that might threaten their future outlooks when some fellow students die in strange ways. Adults never listen and it's up to the head school reporter to unlock the truth.

As a drama-light this works to a degree with some decent acting chops and natural chemistry between the characters, though as a mystery/suspense film the premise never gets over being preposterous to fully get behind its darker side. It has long enough stretches in between its more thrilling moments in order to get to know the individual roles, but at the same time it causes you to put your guard down and then never put it up again. Its delivery is more on the safe side than it is crass, menacing, or blood-thirsty; more like a sarcastic/self-aware, tongue-in-cheek tone than anything else.

Sure, "#Squadgoals"—aka "Deadly Scholars"—is charming to an extent and some trying things happen for kids that age, but it's also not daring or adventurous enough to make this a two-times over watching experience. It feels like your everyday, by-the-book TV drama that decided to throw in some attempts of a crazed person angle, but both end up jiving like a shark hunting prey on land. It's got that we need to explore everybody's feelings and let that simmer angle, with the putting you on the edge of your seat for something that will keep you up at night side screaming to get out. It's hard to tell who this would be targeted at, but it's not to say that the filmmakers and performers didn't put some effort into what they were given.

Rating: 4/10

Director: Danny J. Boyle (Killer Assistant; Abduction of Angie)
Actors: Kennedy Lea Slocum, Sheryl Lee, Corey Fogelmanis, Alexa Mansour, Peyton Clark
Info: IMDB link
Trailer: YouTube link

Sunday, February 24, 2019

Kuntilanak (2018)

Prime for the pickin'


This Indonesian horror film is based on Malaysian folklore depicting an evil female entity who died while carrying a child. It turns the legend into a kind of found object horror tale with a one-track minded diabolical presence that catches unsuspecting victims in its snare. It's a sort of "The Monster Squad" meets a more recent "Stranger Things" and "It" with a group of young kids who take a strange mystery into their own hands while adults are busy doing adult things.

How the legend is depicted starts to feel as ordinary as they come if you watch horror on a regular basis. For the folks that seldom do, then maybe this might catch you off guard and be something new. The story relies on sheer coincidence that the object would land in the hands of a household with a young kid. This particular foster home has five, which ends up being a buffet for the spirit with sharp teeth and talons designed for unimaginable pain to potentially feast on. Even with that, the villain feels like a con man who shows up with a gun and ski mask that's all show and no bite, rather than slowly trapping them with something more creepy and consequential. On the one hand, it's relentless and keeps your attention to a degree, but on the other all of its mystery is out in the open: you know what it is, you know what it is after, yet you watch the kids still follow it into traps over and over again.

This has all of the familiar horror trappings: splitting up, can't reach help, following noises or visions where you shouldn't. The end result is accompanied by a sudden noise and jarring image to make you throw the popcorn in the air and shout "Lord have mercy" with the enthusiasm of a 60 year old black lady in Sunday dress. While the sets and cinematography gives this a slick look, and there are some grisly effects and a few inventive takes on this beastly looking demon, after doing the rounds on that formula it starts to feel predictable.

It's one of those stories where the villain hasn't reached a true plateau yet, and the filmmakers are meanwhile gearing up to set up a finale over dropping a bomb shell too early. The kids give some of their own personable attributes of little squabbles, getting a closer connection to each other despite their differences, along with some kind of over-used xylophone effect to signify that you should laugh on cue with them. When it gets time to throw down, they are still kids with kid logic who's main go-to is yelling each other's names back and forth to the point that you should have them memorized by the time the credits roll.

All and all, "Kuntilanak" is a simple movie with simple results you can count on at times, but shouldn't expect much more than that.

Rating: 4/10

Director: Rizal Mantovani (The Chanting; 5 cm)
Actors: Sandrinna Michelle, Aurelie Moeremans
Info: IMDB link
Trailer: YouTube trailer

Saturday, February 23, 2019

The Secret: Suster Ngesot Urban Legend (2018)

A secret that fall on deaf ears


Time. One has ample opportunity in this day and age to do something that amuses and entertains. We could go out and enjoy the fresh air; find a corner and read a book; or sit down and potentially get lost in another world with a film. "The Secret: Suster Ngesot Urban Legend "—an Indonesian horror/thriller—is neither an adequate escape, nor will you come out better than you left for deciding to spend the next hour and thirty eight minutes with it.

Essentially a young woman races out of her dad's glitzy mansion. Blinded by emotions, she veers off the road and ends up in the hospital. Then after she gets random visits by a series of zombie-like ghosts who always pop up when you least expect. This feels like it was directed by one of the interns on a soap opera set where the acting is overly dramatic, there are more coincidences than you can count, and the tone has a tendency to have erratic mood swings.

One of the biggest issues is it has a tendency to jump right into something, then backtrack as to where it was headed. It's to the point that when attempting to establish frights, you have no idea what you're supposed to be actually scared of. Often it works up to some suspense, then fizzles away as if the day goes on. It has little driving point to get behind other than borrowing this or that from more effective thrillers. Something bad is happening to a spoiled woman who has the personality and character development of a wooden shoe. Is that really a selling point? There are a share of non-sensical, out-of-place scenes that go from head-scratching, annoying, to laugh-out-loud for all the wrong reasons. It feels like the film had a different script rewrite each day.

The setups and the character interactions feel forced and often times come on too fast. Even the little things that would make this world real: such as a cut and pasted scene at the hospital with a woman who mishears a nurse and thinks her relative got it more worse was supposed to be a comedic setup. The main character gets invited into a home of a person she doesn't know. Cut scene to "Drink this," and they are intimately chatting about supernatural events like it's an every day occurance. Practically everything here feels like a puppeteer that becomes visible and you can't get the strings orchestrating it out of your mind.

Its footing flows as smooth as cleats on concrete. It has no concept of natural progression, or establishing any sort of suspension of disbelief. You end up feeling so disconnected to the events and characters that every slow and agonizing second that goes by feels another minute you could have been doing something else.

From Black to Red recommends instead: "The Abandoned" for showing us how you can take a simple haunted house type story and effectively make the hairs stick up on the back of your neck.

Rating: 1/10

Director: Arie Azis
Actors: Nagita Slavina, Raffi Ahmad
Info: Wikipedia link
Trailer: YouTube link
Urban legend info: Link 

Friday, February 22, 2019

May the Devil Take You (2018)

You may lose your lunch


An evil witch and a greedy man walk into a basement. No, that's not a setup for a joke. But what transpires is a pact sealed with hair and blood that turns hellish for everyone related to the man then after.

"May the Devil Take You" is an Indonesian spin on what "The Evil Dead" and "Drag Me to Hell" did for overpowering demons and impossible curses let loose on seemingly ordinary people. It's like an amusement ride of inventive scares and frights: the kind where you get a jump and nervous laugh, but then can't wait for the next one. It's over-the-top, which makes it more fun, tingling, and with a gross-out factor than it is outright chilling to the bone. Though some of the imagery that goes along with it can leave dark impressions still present after you blink. It works on a different level due to creating their own grisly mechanics and hideous landscapes to get lost in.

The story is as basic and timeless as they come, however the filmmakers turned this into a unique and moody experience that feels like the lines got blurred to a never ending nightmare that's at odds with reality or rationality. The performances at times dance between being grounded, exaggeratedly cinematic, to going off the rails; though are often recovered from the next moment by throwing something else new at you. While the film has a certain flow that keeps the senses alive, some scenes feel more pieced together rather than seamless to a consistent timeline.

"May the Devil Take You" is the kind of film where some drama and story is established, but ends up being background fodder and long forgotten for the real reason the premise was set up: to trap a bunch of unsuspecting victims in a house and one by one torture them and ultimately take their souls. Yep, it's sadistic and effective enough with a certain mood, sense of kinetic action, and built-up suspense that your eyes become frozen to the screen to not miss a thing. You end up rooting for both sides due to a fight that looks every bit as grueling, passionate, and animalistic as they come. There's no time limit, the rules are loose, though the stakes may be your life. But who's counting?

Rating: 7/10

Director: Timo Tjahjanto (Macabre; Headshot)
Actors: Chelsea Islan
Info: IMDB link
Trailer: YouTube link

Thursday, February 21, 2019

Malicious (2018)

Don't open, don't follow, don't trust


A couple gets the chance to move to a large house in a remote area for a fresh start. With a new career and a baby on the way, things are looking up. Yet, an item gets delivered to their home that sets off a chain of events that leads to an evil spiral of despair.

At its dark heart, "Malicious" is a simple story of a hopeful family being torn apart at the seams by a manifestation beyond their powers. It sets up a certain atmosphere with a growing collection of scares, though not much else. It's the kind of film that's catered to the audiences' perspective either with the score, camera angles, to certain crafty setups. The individual performances and chemistry, on the other hand, leave more to be desired. They manage to connect the scenes together and give this a certain flow at times, yet there aren't many scenes that give the actors more room to grow or expand on their roles beyond that boxed in scope. It's more of an aesthetic film that relies on past horror formulas than it is one of greater substance or creativity to break out of the mold.

The husband's range goes from either holding back his emotions, to jumping out of his shoes from fright when his eyes play tricks on him. The actor—Josh Stewart—plays the role with a mumbling intonation and in a sort of daze that never clears from the get-go. The wife is limited to a range of no-one-believes-me, to thanks-for-believing-me-it's-a-little-too-late. The sister—Melissa Bolona—plays an unlikable character on top of having wooden acting chops, which makes her on screen presence feel like unexpected lemon juice in the eyes.

There are some aspects that become redundant: such as returning to a random painting, or repeating a math phrase over and over. That or illogically included: such using evil doppelgangers that feel borrowed from other films that had a more effective reasoning for it, such as "The Broken." The villains also aren't the brightest bulbs and end up harming whatever diabolical plan they had in mind through their own volition.

This is the kind of horror that's going to hit you where you're most vulnerable, then dig in deeper just because. The first half of the film delivers some mystery and intrigue for what will come next. It had me scooting closer to the screen and nodding my head. Some work was put into the sets, camera angles, and score. However, when it eventually gets to its more action oriented scenes, it doesn't always come with a balanced upper hand that's passed from its victim to villain. What also holds it back towards the end is that its driving point for a greater dynamic or resolution starts to fizzle due to doing its worst early on. Then again, it's hopeless and dark, well, because it can be.

Rating: 4/10

Director: Michael Winnick (The Better Half; Code of Honor)
Actors: Bojana Novakovic, Josh Stewart, Delroy Lindo
Info: IMDB link
Trailer: YouTube link

Wednesday, February 20, 2019

He's Out There (2018)

Before pressing play, power down the brain


What could be better to get away from it all than a nice relaxing time with the family at the summer cabin by the lake? Love, laughter, and a sadistic, masked killer with another diabolical plan in mind. Well, everything except for the last one.

"Friday the 13th Par...," I mean "He's Out There" has a straightforward plot that's as simple as they must stay alive and dodge getting their innards splattered from the bad guy with an obsession for tea parties and severed body parts. After some introductions, this delivers a moment by moment horror/thriller where every second counts. You get to see trip-over-their-own-two-feet, ordinary people getting pulverized by a villain with too much time on his hands to trap his victims every move.

The film has a certain timing to it, to where the tension is constant. By keeping the maniacal ax wielder in the shadows, it manages to make him become everywhere at once. It's more of a tried and true, emotionally jarring movie than it has anything to do with having deeper layers or being a sophisticated one. With that, it doesn't always keep your mind from racing or thinking ahead to see some of the predictability of it all if you've seen a few trapped in a house by an unflinching murderer kind of films. I mean, some violent and twisted things happen to pass the time, though the film isn't as memorable as, say, the sheer intensity and terror of "Inside" or "The Collector." These are still normal people like you or I with two scared out of their minds little girls that are more high-pitched squealers than they are fighters. Now, that would have been an interesting twist.

Rating: 4.5/10

Director: Quinn Lasher
Actors: Yvonne Strahovski
Info: IMDB link
Trailer: YouTube trailer

Tuesday, February 19, 2019

All Light Will End (2018)

Thrillers: weekend retreat killers


A woman—who suffers night terrors from childhood—debates going on a trip to her home town for her brother's graduation. She finally makes the decision and a group of her friends gear up for the road trip to head to her parents' cabin. There, the culmination of her nightmares rears its head.

The film drops pieces to the puzzle and delivers some mood with dreams and flashbacks, though it's to the point where the mystery angle becomes unbalanced and it turns into a giant string-along. I mean, we get to see the lead's day-to-day, which is often a numbing, withdrawn experience as she's haunted by something inexplicable. Either from lack of direction or an undeveloped character, her face is like a pretty backdrop that rarely changes expression. Her dad—the local Sheriff—has a strange investigation going on around the small country town with his inept, out-of-place, comic relief back up that stands around cracking sarcastic jokes.

The story is so vague and rough around the edges for a portion of its duration that by the time it decides to pull out of a lower gear to create tension and suspense, they lost you to a maze of vagaries. It's far from predictable, yet it's like the writer went back in the script and took out every related clue that would have given away the twist. But at the same time it took the wind out of its sails and made the ride somewhat obscured, directionless, and head-scratching related to some segments after the fact. It's a prime example of just how challenging writing and then, in turn, telling a well-rounded mystery can be; it requires gravitating characters and a layered story you can get behind more so than crafty manipulation or smoke and mirrors. Eventually there's a violent finale in the vain of a horror showdown, however without the intricate motivations to make this reality believable, it comes across as shake-the-head ridiculous. 

"All Light Will End" has fragments of potential that might have instead worked better as a short mystery/thriller to keep the experience flowing like a well-greased machine. As a full length feature it lacks the kind of consistent and intriguing content to keep your eyes wide and your brain searching in the right directions.

Rating: 2/10

Director: Chris Blake
Actors: Ashley Pereira, Sarah Butler, Andy Buckley
Info: IMDB link
Trailer: YouTube link

Sunday, February 17, 2019

House of Deadly Secrets (2018)

She makes a killer cherry pie


A mother and daughter move into a new house that turns out to have a dark past. Meanwhile, one of the neighbors—a kind of Betty White meets Norman Bates—has the intention to see that they get out no matter the consequences.

This has the look and feel of a stepping stone movie where almost everyone involved already has their sights on the next project. It's somewhat dry and boxed in at times; the difference of a peak at a real home versus a department store catalog one. For a story about deep rooted issues related to obsession and dual personalities, it feels awfully pedestrian and like they were imitated from other fiction. Instead of having the character act out her motivations, she often narrates out loud and takes the punch right out of her supposed dark actions. I'm all for stories taking their time to build up suspense and character development, though it strikes too much of a balance in that she's able to conveniently recognize her own behavior as normal or strange when it suits the story. They made her jaded but sympathetic, which seemed like the only focus to details.

This is not an experience to constantly jolt the senses—it's more basic story-telling that explores one aspect at a time and then leads into the next progression. Though even with that, its layers are as easily visible and exciting as a glass ant farm with a few ants moving about and every now and again something happens that would alter their course. Minimalist stories can work either through mood, pacing, or the performances to keep the senses awake, yet this still feels somewhat lacking in an overall gravitating immersion that instead requires a few pauses and stretches to get through it.

The actors tend to read their lines and meet their marks without bridging that into something more than the script called for. For instance, the whole shaky relationship angle between mother and father felt slapped in for some forced drama; the reasoning was just a weak excuse to have resolution. The mother and daughter also acted more as a catalyst to the events than characters with layers or backbone. One of those, "I don't know what's going on, but this is crazy" kind of casual observers you see at the scene of a crime rather than someone with more stakes and involvement.

While the film was professionally made to an extent, the story was too easy at times. Watch it on a sleepy, rainy afternoon, though don't expect it to make your Saturday night more alive.

Rating: 3.5/10

Director: Doug Campbell (Locked Away; Bad Sister)
Actors: Patty McCormack, Angie Patterson
Info: IMDB link
Trailer: YouTube trailer

Saturday, February 16, 2019

St. Agatha (2018)

Vows of pain


Careless mistakes and poor decisions in life come with repercussions: from setbacks, guilt, to even punishment. A young woman named Mary—not of divine namesake—managed to stack up a few, which leads her to seek help with a group of nuns at a catholic boarding house from little elsewhere to turn. The dwelling is remote: not a good sign. There are impossible rules to follow: another nope. Then there's the punishments: something that makes a slap on the knuckles with a ruler look like child's play. The idea should have been golden, since all is forgiven in the Lord's eyes. Clean slate... fresh start... not a chance.

The film has a generous mix of themes interconnected within its story. It takes your typical preying on helpless women horror movie trope and blends that with cultural morals of the '50s, not to mention a cult angle using nuns that are more sinful than a whole congregation of normal church goers combined. It's more evolved than the random person walking home alone on a dark night kind of movie by turning the victim/villain angle into a unique story of its own. It's out there and let's just say it wouldn't happen to you or someone you know, however the individual atrocities and tortuous setups put you in the moment and force you to take it all in whether you'd like to or not. It's the kind of horror where if you were looking for a relaxing night in front of the TV, the director instead yanks you by the shirt and reels you in to feel what they feel.

Its idea of elaborate and sadistic torture becomes a new level of pain, stress, and terror. Yet, it doesn't come all at once, but slowly traps the lead character Mary in a simmering pot where the heat grows stronger and the walls grow taller by the minute. Things go from mildly edgy, uncomfortable, to outright unsettling with a creative twist or two, while all you can do is sign the cross and hope that there's some shred of a miracle in the chaos and darkness.

"St. Agatha" is a highly atmospheric, terrifying, and inventive experience that not only has a share of layers, but manages to do them well enough to come away with a head full of scarring questions related to the dark and insane. The film has a certain trippy vibe going on with exaggerated blues and reds. There are splices of dream-like imagery of Mary's past troubles and present confusion that give it another angle of mood. It's a tale where good isn't anywhere to be found, but it still manages to create a back and forth of constant tension between its "hero" to its masterclass villainess by the name of "Mother." The acting feels practiced and genuine. Sabrina Kern—as Mary—delivers the performance of an intelligent, agonized animal with a stubborn will to survive. Carolyn Hennesy—as the main villain—comes with a duality of sly charm, to then fleshing out the moral-less unchecked power of a cult leader in holy get-up.

This is a film that has the intention to rile you up. It pokes you with a stick, though it has the patience to see how you'll react. It's more emotionally driven than it is sophisticated: the idea is to tap into all of your senses rather than just easily using loud sounds and over-the-top imagery. Most people would become comatose or hide in a corner. Now, imagine you're someone with no where to go or to turn to. What's your next move?

Rating: 8.5/10

Director: Darren Lynn Bousman  (Saw II, Mother's Day, The Barrens)
Actors: Sabrina Kern, Carolyn Hennesy
Info: IMDB link
Trailer: YouTube link

Friday, February 15, 2019

Curse of the Nun (2018)

An evil nun is in the neighborhood


This centers around—you guessed it—a diabolical nun that has a one-track mind to kill. Where it gets strange is she has the power to distort reality and trap people within this normal looking suburban house. For a gal named Anna—who's about to move out with her family to a place of her own—it just turned into her worse nightmare she never knew she had when she's suddenly terrorized by Sister Catherine.

This goes for a sort of "The Evil Dead" tone where it straddles between being dark to almost cartoonish and self-aware. It likewise has a low budget, but the former still managed to concoct a constant barrage of creativity, atmosphere, and down-right zany creations. Essentially, where it goes off the cuff or makes fun of itself, it has three more tricks up its sleeve to win you over. "Curse of the Nun" injects some personality and doesn't take itself too seriously at times to not end up feeling like your typical, wooden horror feature. Though it also doesn't always come with the same amount of unique aspects or ambiance that would put to rest some of the short comings it points out itself. There is action here, yet most likely due to budget constraints the characters also have tendency to bide their time by talking or hiding.

This turns your standard linear story up on its head in how what you see, feel, or hear can't always be trusted or relied on. It uses some drama and backstory to establish Anna and give her a constant driving point to see the light at the end of the tunnel. Her back and forth struggle with the crazed nun is like an unwelcome boot camp in how she's constantly running, ducking, and putting her body to the test. I feel like they established her well and gave her room for some range of emotions, yet I can't help but feel the undead nun angle is slapped in. There's no tragedy or intrigue related to Sister Catherine, just one weak excuse to throw her in there. It makes it a challenge to fully get behind that.

On the one hand the story is using an unlikely place you'd least suspect to create horror, though it's still an unexplainably dark and twisted nun haunting a modern house that never changes the look and feel of being, well, an average home. Sure, lure them into what looks like something out of "Pleasantville," but then they should have slowly peeled away the layers of its true identity with something more infectious and gravitating. Take the classic "Dead Dudes in the House," for instance. That way there's more dynamic with making the home a character in itself. Otherwise, it causes its world view to be somewhat limited and your imagination to stop expanding.

If it's any consolation, I can imagine this was fun to make for those behind the scenes. There was also enough effort past the norm or just getting by that I can see the next project being capable of working through some of its kinks to suck you in further.

Rating: 4.5/10

Director: Aaron Mirtes (Clowntergeist)
Actors: Lacy Hartselle, Brad Belemjian, Jonathan Everett, Rae Hunt
Info: IMDB link
Trailer: YouTube trailer

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

The Nun (2018)

Festering evil


When growing up, some people realize—either through word of mouth or experience—that there are places that come with certain vibes. There's a little bit of the good and bad in every place. Though some areas come with more of a tip to that balance. In the world of "The Nun," unholy forces seem to utterly dominate an abbey deep in the wilderness of Romania. It's the kind of domain where crosses and holy scriptures are strewn about, but it might not be enough for this kind of festering evil.

The Vatican sends in two of their own—a priest with knowledge of exorcisms, and a nun-to-be with special visions—to investigate. They meet a feisty foreigner who drops them off by horse and carriage at the abbey and points them in the direction of a resent death there. From then on out, the trio must find some answers before the sinister forces gain the upper hand.

There are plenty of set ups for scares and attempts at atmosphere with "The Nun." This makes full use of its budget for some elaborate sets and locations, not to mention some effort was put into the grisly effects. Though one can't help but sense a formula going on here to the point that it feels more a tingling head rush than it does something more substantial to walk away with. The sets are drenched in fog, shadows, and more crosses than one can count. It's a play of your nerves with spirits so vile that they were able to corrupt even the holiest of the holy. Some devote catholic viewers might be on edge just for the sake of it. Though some devote horror freaks might have crossed arms that get tighter and tighter.

There are some genuine surprises and unique scenes sprinkled about, such as a neat set up with dormant nun-zombies with their faces covered and one of the characters must slowly walk by without disturbing them. It was like "The Exorcist III" stepped into a "Silent Hill" nightmare. Yet there are plenty of others that rinse and repeat. Such as constantly having the characters walk into similar scenarios of the did-I-see-that-did-I-not variety. Till, yes, you did see and hear that. Stop repeatedly following spirits into traps! The comic relief with the foreigner made this go from potentially against the grain with an evil nun angle, to dulling its edge by making an obvious attempt at being a well-rounded film to sell tickets.

The character motivations and backgrounds—villains, good guys, the lot—feel quickly thrown together. It's to the point that if one were unaware of the later films—"The Conjuring" series—you could easily replace the characters with anyone else with official looking clothes to fill their shoes. It's the difference of making this world feel real and with a driving point, or..."Hey, what time is it? I've got things to do tomorrow."

There's little tension of why they should stay and torture themselves despite there being an obvious evil manifestation that's well over their heads. Yeah, there's the truth, sure, but not at a convincing cost that the story lays out. Eventually, there's the whole good must triumph and oh-crap-we're-finally-trapped reasoning, but with everything leading up to it, it felt more a forgetful and formulaic amusement park ride than it did an all-around convincing or credible tale to get fully invested with.

Rating: 5/10

Director: Corin Hardy (The Hallow)
Actors: Taissa Farmiga, Demian Bichir, Jonas Bloquet
Info: IMDB link
Trailer: YouTube trailer

Friday, February 8, 2019

The Harvesting (2018)

Stubborn minds never heed to warnings


A family moves away from the city for an attempt at rekindling a deeper connection, while at the same time putting to rest deeper issues between husband and wife. The destination is a remote house in the country—specifically Amish country—where the grass is greener, air is cleaner, and things are simpler than the concrete, technological boxes we've trapped ourselves in. This puts them more in touch with nature: something that can bring about a tranquil side of us, or a more primal one that can be a beast to contain once unleashed.

The framework of "The Harvesting" (aka "Soul Harvest") is built around a psychological horror drama. The story is basic in itself, though it has a certain gravitating fluidity to it from the rhythmic camera work to the worked through and natural dialogue. I mean, simple Amish folks and remote landscapes with nothing but wind to create drama with leaves and blades of grass isn't something you'd think would stir the senses or interest. Though the film has a certain consistency to it to draw you in to see what comes next with this particular place and these set of people.

This has a unique dynamic to it with how it splices between troubles in the established Amish household, and then to the newly arrived city folks. The woods act as a looming central character to bridge them together. Instead of a knife wielding maniac, this acts as a villain that distorts thoughts and reality for someone who lets turmoil, anger, and confusion into their mind. It makes it feel more relatable than seeing someone playing hide and seek with a Michael Myers clone in your everyday horror feature. There are certainly scares, though not of the pop-out, blood-and-guts variety. More like ones that slowly get under your skin and are more uncomfortable and unsettling than they are outright all-at-once stressful.

Unlike some other horror features that use drama between the characters as filler, or to create a false sense of tension, this uses it as an integral part of its story. This is more subtle than, say, a survival horror that delivers a one-body-down, who's who, visceral experience you can almost reach out and touch. The film has a rough outline at times that weaves and bobs between tracing along the dotted line to connect through down-to-earth vibes of relationships, to then steering off the path into uncharted territory that doesn't come with hand painted signs to tell you how far you've come or where you're headed to next. It makes the brain turn over a little more than outright spilling the beans or holding your hand. While the story wasn't mind-blowing from what's been done before, and the final destination wasn't flooring, "The Harvesting" is still a well-made film from a series of worked through mechanics to keep you engaged using a premise that some might otherwise over look.

Rating: 7.5/10

Director: Ivan Kraljevic
Actors: Chris Conner, Elena Caruso, Greg Wood
Info: IMDB link
Trailer: YouTube trailer

Tuesday, February 5, 2019

Fear Level (2018)

An anthology on fear and morality


This ambitious project has different moods, shades, and masks it alternates throughout. It begins as one thing, branches off into another, and before it's over you're able to walk away with a cloudy head—for better or worse.

The story explores interconnected stories specifically related to irrational fears of various types: from ones that are grounded—such as jealousy—to others that are out of left field—such as killer clowns. It begins with purpose and intent, like a Ted Talk went out and produced a drama-horror movie by showing how this emotion us humans call fear can consume us or bring down others. Then at some point it does a 180 and goes full dark and abstract. It has a sense of sadness, tragedy, and terror, like a doom and gloom segment of the local news met an episode of "Tales from the Crypt" by showing grave consequences of choices gone wrong in the blink of an eye.

This comes with more intent and meaning than your typical horror feature. I dig the theory behind making this, though I wish I could have enjoyed the actual experience more all the way through. It handles some aspects well, such as the dramatic segment about a girl gone missing. The score, pacing, and acting were well done. The mother did a fantastic job of conveying melancholy and desperation to a realistic degree. Though with others, its meaning can be seen a mile away. Such as the over-the-top religious fanatics being bigots in one way, shape, or form. Or the racist gang straight out of a rated R cartoon.

The film has an experimental quality that helps set itself apart, yet it doesn't always come with a careful refinement to seize every moment. For instance, the camera angles and movement in the first few segments are often disorienting and confusing on where its main focus lies. It shifts around so much that it calls unnecessary attention to itself and takes away from the interactions between the characters. There are some points where it feels like a ghost shadow boxing the characters. The cinematographer has a penchant for low-to-high shots, extreme close-ups, blur-outs, and people's lower halves can be shown as much as their face. It constantly makes your eyes adjust to focus on what's going on. Towards the latter half of the feature, the set ups start to let the characters take hold of the reins more and it seems more fitting to the experience.

Instead of being treated by, say, a haunted house maze under the banner of a main, tangible villain, this uses our own actions and choices to battle against us from anywhere. That in itself is a unique concept. You get a taste of this and that, with the central idea to give an overall sour feeling that will carry over after everything is said and done. In order to pull that off, there needs to be a certain steady focus to explore those deep rooted thoughts and motivations, which would lead to some common ground, relatability, or connection. The director takes on one segment at a time, but I can't help but feel a slight disconnect. For instance, I'm not going to be irrational enough to the point of paranoia, or even angry enough to commit violence against a significant other. Others certainly might though. Convince me.

With shorter segments and an ambitious overview, it tries to fit it all in while not always being on top of everything. The last half of the film compared to the first—while creative and came with a darker edge—went from walking on concrete to attempting to tread the clouds off on its own. One half of me wants to say that it was an unexpected turn, while the other half of me wants to say the writers didn't know how to wrap this one up so they buried their final intention under a few feet of effects and dream-like imagery. Splitting this into a few less segments might have worked better to develop the characters more, not to mention for the audience to get behind and fully invested in each idea as it passes. Juggling this many themes and varying personalities reduced the feature to convenient extremes, or viewpoints that are more predictably black and white.

Rating: 4.5/10

Director: JD Allen
Info: IMDB link
Trailer: YouTube trailer

Monday, February 4, 2019

College Pranks (2018)

Anything for the camera or a quick buck


To be young: cash strapped, looking for direction, and ready for the next adventure and opportunity at the drop of a hat. Up comes a chance to win $25,000 in a game held at a remote area of the Colorado mountains with a couple of lucky, hand-picked contestants. Nothing could go wrong there.

This combines reality TV contests with YouTube prank fads sweeping the web. The story follows four college age folks going about their everyday life before they get selected to take part. Once they make it to mountains, rumors spread of past deaths in the area. Then things start to get a little strange, making it too late to turn back.

This is a horror film on the low budget side with a share of upcoming talent, so some things aren't going to be dealt with by using a fine tooth comb. Think: local film festival quality over bombastic Hollywood theater experience. Some of the more elaborate setups are going to take some suspension of disbelief on your own part. Though what actually hurts the film is namely the script and direction.

The initial premise is not a terrible idea on paper, however the filmmakers spend too much time setting up everyday interactions with little worry about putting you on the edge of your seat for the horror/thriller portion. Having someone being jumpy from typical pranks—such as messing with a sleeping person, or water dumped on the head—doesn't count as nerve wracking. The tone has this light, friendly, carefree quality. It's like a bunch of people showed up for one gathering, turned it into a party and winged it on theme.

Once the game begins, even their cut and pasted motivations for wanting to compete don't give it solid reasoning or tension. The idea is to show that they're everyday people just like you or I, then—BAM!—they get struck by some terrifying, mind-boggling event. Yet, the director missed horror movie 101 by not setting up a consistent atmosphere to back it up, apart from a few out-of-nowhere scenes sprinkled in that are more head-scratching than intriguing.

The pacing is slow moving and stretched out at times; leading the audience on towards hopefully a bigger pay off for your patience. What makes the head shake so hard it spins, and both hands take turns slapping the forehead, is the horror turns into a "Saw" set up—except far enough distanced in quality to be a third cousin's neighbor's friend who seldom visits—with one ludicrous and coincidental motivation after the next. The weight of that nearly crumbles in on itself with too many ridiculous revelations at once and then an ambiguous ending that's more what?! than it is nightmare inducing.

If the direction went more drama/action-adventure it might have worked by using past family troubles and future outlooks, combined with the unique scenery and harsh landscapes of the mountains. Heck, "Deliverance" still holds up almost 50 years later for showing us how vulnerable we are in a naturistic setting. Yet, as a horror experience "College Pranks" falls flat.

Rating: 3/10

Director: Brian McCulley (Broken Cross)
Actors: Shannon McKinnon, Kevin Derkash
Info: IMDB link
Trailer: Youtube link