Archive for the Family Secrets Category

FRESH MEAT (2012)

Posted in 2013, Cannibals, Crime Films, Dark Comedies, Family Secrets, Film Festival Movies, Fugitives, Horror, LL Soares Reviews, New Zealand Horror with tags , , , , , , , on June 4, 2013 by knifefighter

FRESH MEAT (2012)
Movie Review by L.L. Soares

Fresh-MeatAfter recently getting some buzz at the Tribeca Film Festival (I didn’t think they even showed horror movies there), the New Zealand film FRESH MEAT (2012) got a small theatrical run and popped up on cable OnDemand. So I wanted to check it out for CinemaKnifeFight.com.

The basic plot, of criminals on the lam ending up in a house where things go from desperate to worse, has been done several times before, in movies such as Xavier Gens’ above-average scare flick FRONTIER(S) in 2007. Unfortunately, right off the bat, we get some comedic elements, as each member of the family which will later be taken hostage by criminals is introduced with “witty” comments onscreen, like the fact that over-achieving college student Rena Crane (Hanna Tevita)’s main interest in “Girls.” Or that her dad, Hemi (Temuera Morrison) is a college professor and author of several books, all of which are sadly unpublished. Are you laughing yet?

The onscreen words get even more clever when the bad guys are introduced. This begins with a prison truck carrying some dangerous criminals, including Ritchie Tan (Leand Macadaan) whose crimes include not just murder but “selling fruit without a license.” His rescue team, including his girlfriend Gigi (Kate Elliott), brother Paulie (Ralph Hilaga) and hired gun Johnny (Jack Sergeant-Shadbolt), shows up at a gas station where the prison van has stopped. After Johnny completely screws up with some dynamite trying to blow the truck’s doors open, and almost kills everyone involved, we learn via his onscreen intro that he is the “explosives expert.”

Escaped convict Richie is injured and has a broken/bleeding hand after Johnny’s attempt to “rescue” him, and his gang brings him to their car and takes off after a shootout with the prison guards. They then tear up the asphalt as they are part of a high-speed chase, being pursued by a police helicopter.

The fleeing criminals end up in a densely populated neighborhood and when they see the door to the Crane family’s garage is open, they drive in, to avoid being detected by the helicopter, and then proceed to take the family members inside hostage.

Meanwhile, Rena is home for school vacation and learns the troubling news that her dad and famous cooking show host mom Margaret (Nicola Kawana) have had a major epiphany and now are part of a cannibal cult that worships a boy prophet named Solomon Smith. Well, Dad seems obsessed with Smith and his teachings (that eating human flesh makes you immortal) and Mom just seems to find the meat especially delicious, and a key ingredient for some great recipes she’s trying out. They have also indoctrinated Rena’s brother Glenn (Kahn West) into their new lifestyle.

So it’s the criminals versus the cannibals. But where a movie like FRONTIER(S) took this subject matter into some pretty dark territory, FRESH MEAT can’t seem to decide whether it wants to have fun with it all, or take it seriously, which results in an uneven tone throughout. Some directors are great at combining comedy and horror, but for people who think it’s an easy trick to master, you could not be more wrong. Most people who attempt it, mess it up. And the director here, Danny Mulheron, gives us a mixed bag of presents – some we want, and some we could do without. Mulheron’s previous directing work was mostly in television, but one of his bigger credits was for being one of the writers and stars of Peter Jackson’s MEET THE FEEBLES (1989).

Let’s look at the pluses first. The cast for this one is pretty good. I especially liked college girl Rena and badass girl with a shotgun, Gigi, who slowly start to fall for one another (Gigi has a great look, with shorts and especially sexy stockings to match that pump-action shotgun of hers). Gigi might just be my favorite character here, and actress Kate Elliot previously had roles in XENA: WARRIOR PRINCESS (which was shot in New Zealand), as well as several New Zealand television series. In fact, most of the cast come from New Zealand TV (and it’s amazing how many of them had roles in one of the many POWER RANGERS franchises, which I’m guessing were also shot on location there).

Badass criminal Gigi (Kate Elliott) just might be my favorite character in FRESH MEAT (2012).

Badass criminal Gigi (Kate Elliott) just might be my favorite character in FRESH MEAT (2012).

Maori actor Temuera Morrison, who plays Rena’s increasingly insane father, is kind of New Zealand acting royalty, having previous starred in the amazing 1994 drama ONCE WERE WARRIORS (which I suggest you seek out instead). He may be more recognizable to American audiences as the cloned warrior who became Boba Fett in the most recent STAR WARS movies EPISODE II: ATTACK OF THE CLONES (2002) and EPISODE III: REVENGE OF THE SITH (2005). Morrison is a plus in FRESH MEAT, until his character gets more and more over-the-top in his behavior, becoming so unbearably unbelievable in the final act of the film, when he completely loses his mind, as to border on irritating.

There’s little suspense as the criminals invade the house and think they have the upper hand. We know it’s only a matter a time before the flesh-hungry family turns the tables on them. By the time geeky next door neighbor Shaun (Will Robertson) pops in, because he has a thing for Rena, and is invited to share the family dinner by Hemi, and then the cops show up, things degenerate from clever and well-acted to chaotic and just plain silly.

In FRESH MEAT, the family taken hostage is more dangerous than the criminals. (from left to right, Nicola Kawana, Temuera Morrison and Kahn West)

In FRESH MEAT, the family taken hostage is more dangerous than the criminals (from left to right, Nicola Kawana, Temuera Morrison and Kahn West)

With a more assured hand to keep things sharp and smart until the end, FRESH MEAT could have been a tasty morsel for those who enjoy cannibal movies (there sure seem to have been a lot of them in recent years). As it is, it’s a clever, fun movie that runs out of ideas in the final act, and goes for complete anarchy instead of a satisfying conclusion.

I’m not really sure how this one got selected for the Tribeca Film Festival, but its festival pedigree made me expect something a lot better, and I was pretty disappointed with this one.

Not a complete loss, but not a complete success, either. I give this one two and a half knives.

© Copyright 2013 by L.L. Soares

LL Soares gives FRESH MEAT ~ two and a half knives!

Transmissions to Earth: DEADLY FRIEND (1986)

Posted in 1980s Horror, 2013, Cyborgs, Family Secrets, LL Soares Reviews, Medical Experiments!, Morgue Hijinks, ROBOTS!, Trasmissions to Earth, Twist Endings, Wes Craven Movies with tags , , , , , , on May 30, 2013 by knifefighter

TRANSMISSIONS TO EARTH Presents:

zontar_sage_2
DEADLY FRIEND (1986)
Review by L.L. Soares
Deadly-Friend-movie-poster

It’s no secret that I’m not much of a fan of the SCREAM movies by director Wes Craven and writer Kevin Williamson. And I think their collaboration, CURSED (2005), is even worse. But I wasn’t always down of Craven’s films. There was a time when I was actually a fan. Just not lately.

He started out his career with one of the most intense and disturbing horror flicks ever made, LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT (1972), which remains one of my favorite horror films ever. This one had a real edge to it that made it one of the high points of 1970s horror. And after that, Craven made some other solid movies, like the original THE HILLS HAVE EYES (1977) and the first A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET (1984), which isn’t perfect, but was, as we now know, influential as hell. It gave the world Freddy Krueger.

But once Craven drifted into the mid-to-late 1980s and the 90s, his output wasn’t that impressive. This was the time of movies like SHOCKER (1989), THE PEOPLE UNDER THE STAIRS (1991), and NEW NIGHTMARE (1994), which a lot of people thought reinvigorated the Freddy series, but which I didn’t care for, and then, of course SCREAM (1996) and its sequels.

I can’t say all of his output from this period was awful. I am a big fan of his 1988 voodoo movie THE SERPENT AND THE RAINBOW. But for the most part, I just stopped being that interested in what Wes Craven was putting out anymore.

Somehow, I completely missed DEADLY FRIEND (1986), when it first came out. And rediscovering it now, so many years later, I find that it is pretty dated, especially since its plot has a lot to do with computers and robotics. And yet, it has a kind of creative spark and charm to it that is lacking in most of his later films.

Based on the novel “Friend” by Diana Henstell, DEADLY FRIEND is the story of computer nerd Paul Conway (Matthew Labyorteaux, probably most famous before this as Albert Ingalls on the TV series LITTLE HOUSE ON THE PRARIE), who moves into a new neighborhood with his single mom, Jeannie (Anne Twomey). Even though he’s the age when he should be in high school, Paul is a genius who has skipped a bunch of grades and has just enrolled in the local Polytechnic Institute. And he has already built his first robot, a clunky, goofy bucket of bolts named BB, which he claims has the power to learn. He even calls it an “A.I.” which is pretty amazing, since he’s a kid who built a robot in his basement, and major experts in the field of computer science have not figured out how to give a computerized brain the ability to think on its own.

But hey, that just goes to show you how smart Paul is. Not only has he built a fully functioning robot – which is an achievement on its own – but his can think!

Loveable robot "BB" is fun, playful, and he has a fully functioning mind!

Loveable robot “BB” is fun, playful, and has a fully functioning brain!

Right away, moving into their new house, Paul makes a friend: the local paper boy Tom Toomey (Michael Sharrett), who sees the robot and asks what it is. So much for computer nerds not being social. Paul and Tom hit it off right away, and Tom tells Paul all about the neighborhood he’s just moved into. Other local highlights include the spooky, gated house of the reclusive Elvira Parker (Anne Ramsey, who also played Mama in THROW MAMA FROM THE TRAIN, 1987) who clearly doesn’t want any visitors, and Samantha Pringle (Kristy Swanson, also in FERRIS BUELLER’S DAY OFF, 1986), who goes by Sam, and who lives next door to Paul with her drunken, abusive father, Harry (Richard Marcus).

So Paul seems to fit in right off the bat. Not only does he immediately find a buddy, but he gets the pretty girl, too. Sam comes over with a housewarming gift of store-bought donuts (explaining that her father wouldn’t let her bake something), and you just know where that’s headed. Paul spends a lot of time with Tom and Sam, but it’s clearly Sam he’s most interested in, and who can blame him. She is the original BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER (1992) after all. And Sam seems more than eager to spend a lot of time hanging out at Paul’s house, since it gets her away from her creepy dad, who’s always drinking and shouting, and who comes into her room late at night (we never really see him do anything to her, and she tells him to get out when she wakes to find him hovering over her bed, but, well…).

Then things start to go bad. It begins on Halloween night when they get BB to open the gate to Mrs. Parker’s house, so they can play a prank on her. She comes out with a shotgun and blasts poor BB to kingdom come. So much for Paul’s revolutionary robot. Maybe he should take better care of his toys! Especially if they are scientific marvels!

Then, during an especially drunken binge, Harry Pringle berates Sam for sneaking out of the house on Thanksgiving (imagine that! She would rather have a normal Thanksgiving dinner with Paul and his mom than cower in her room while Daddy drinks and shouts at the television!). He slaps her, and she falls down the stairs, hitting her head against a wall, and dies. Harry tells the police that she tripped.

Paul can’t accept that she’s dead. So when she is taken off of life support, he sneaks into the hospital and performs some quick surgery on her corpse, imbedding the memory chip from good old BB into her brain. He and Tom take her away and put her in the shed behind Tom’s house.

Sam comes back to “life,” but at first she’s little more than a zombie, with big circles around her eyes and limited responsiveness. She has to learn to sit up, stand, and walk around, all over again. Then she sees her father through the shed’s window and learns something new – the desire for revenge. It’s not long before people start turning up dead, starting with dear old Dad and moving on to that cranky old bitch, Mrs. Parker (the scene where Sam kills Elvira Parker by throwing a basketball at her head, and squashing it like a melon, has become a classic). The police are baffled as to who is doing these things, and Tom threatens to go to the cops (he can’t live with the knowledge anymore), but it’s not long after that that the secret is out, and the police are tracking down the resurrected Sam in a parking lot.

You can tell she's the evil reanimated Sam because of the dark circles around her eyes.

You can tell she’s the evil reanimated Sam because of the dark circles around her eyes… oh and the stiff robotic movements!

There’s a lot about this movie that is pretty goofy, from the robot BB in the beginning (it’s so cutesy-looking, it looks like a refugee from the movie SHORT CIRCUIT, 1986) to the fact that Sam’s abusive father, Harry, seems more quirky than scary. He almost seems like a comic relief character until you realize exactly what he’s doing to his daughter when the lights are off. Imagine how much more effective this movie could have been if his character was played by an actor who could actually make him as serious and disturbing as he should have been?  You think that maybe the filmmakers here were too uncomfortable to show Harry for what he really was – and then you realize – this is the guy who directed LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT!!

The science in this movie is pretty laughable, and the computer talk is outdated and just plain silly at this point. But somehow, the movie is still very watchable. The acting, for the most part, is pretty good in this one. Matthew Labyorteaux is goofy but likable as Paul, and he’s believable as some boy genius who’s emotionally stunted. Anne Towmey is equally likable as Paul’s mom, and Michael Sharrett is fine as Tom Toomey.

The real reason to see this one, though, for me anyway, is Kristy Swanson. I’ve always liked her, and her character Sam is extremely likable here, with an awkwardness that comes from constantly hiding family secrets from the outside world. When Paul first meets Sam, he notices a bruise on her arm, which immediately defines her for us, and I was actually bummed out that Sam and Paul never really get to go “all the way” before Sam’s untimely death. Their relationship maintains a kind of odd innocence throughout.

I just wish that the rest of the movie was up to the performances. The script by Bruce Joel Rubin (who also wrote the incredibly sentimental GHOST, and the much more interesting JACOB’S LADDER, both from 1990) is lighter and a bit sillier than it should have been. A little bit darker, and more serious, take on this this subject matter would have helped this become a much more substantial movie. And the light touch Wes Craven uses with the direction doesn’t help. You can tell that this was made during the same decade as THE GOONIES, 1986, and E.T. THE EXTRA-TERRESTRIAL). By this point in time, too, you could already tell that Craven was much more interested in making easily-accessible commercial films than the hard-edged movies of his youth (that harder edge would have actually made DEADLY FRIEND much more effective).

I liked DEADLY FRIEND much more than I expected to, and I recommend that fans of 80s movies seek this one out, but I’m also disappointed that it wasn’t handled better. It just seems like a missed opportunity, which happened a lot in Wes Craven movies around this time (which makes THE SERPENT AND THE RAINBOW all the more fascinating, because it stands out so much from his other films of this period).

Oh, this one also has a “shock ending” which was pretty typical of horror movies from the 1980s. I almost hate to spoil it here, but it’s so damn silly, I have to mention it. After poor Sam dies a second time, Paul goes to find her in the morgue. He pulls out the drawer she’s in and looks down at her, and she grabs him. But it is then revealed that an evil version of the robot BB is underneath her skin and pops out.

Evil BB makes a shocking appearance at the end...

Evil BB makes a shocking appearance at the end…

What the hell?? There is absolutely no logical reason for this ending. I would say it was a crazy dream, but there is nothing to show us Paul is dreaming. How would imbedding a microchip into a corpse’s skull transform it into a complete robot underneath its human skin? This has to be one of the stupidest endings of all time.

But it sure did make me laugh out loud.

© Copyright 2013 by L.L. Soares

deadlyfriend_poster

Bill’s Bizarre Bijou visits TERROR CREATURES FROM THE GRAVE (1965)

Posted in 1960s Horror, 2013, B-Movies, Barbara Steele, Bill's Bizarre Bijou, European Horror, Family Secrets, Ghosts!, Gothic Horror, Italian Cinema, Italian Horror with tags , , , , , , on May 23, 2013 by knifefighter

Bill’s Bizarre Bijou

By William D. Carl

This week’s feature presentation:

TERROR CREATURES FROM THE GRAVE (1965) bbbtcposter

Welcome to Bill’s Bizarre Bijou, where you’ll discover the strangest films ever made.  If there are alien women with too much eye-shadow and miniskirts, if papier-mâché monsters are involved, if your local drive-in insisted this be the last show in their dusk till dawn extravaganza, or if it’s just plain unclassifiable – then I’ve seen it and probably loved it.   Now, I’m here to share these little gems with you, so you too can stare in disbelief at your television with your mouth dangling open.  Trust me, with these flicks, you won’t believe your eyes.

First of all, this movie has one of the greatest titles in the horror pantheon.  Come on, who wouldn’t pay good money to see TERROR CREATURES FROM THE GRAVE (1965)? There’s gonna be terror, creatures of some sort, and possibly some graves.  This title is up there with some of Al Adamson’s best movie monikers, like HORROR OF THE BLOOD MONSTERS (1970) or BLOOD OF GHASTLY HORROR (1972).  Fortunately, TERROR CREATURES FROM THE GRAVE is a much better film than anything Adamson ever attempted, and there’s actually quite a bit of truth in that unbelievable title.  TCFTG is one of many European gothic horror films that found their way across the pond.  These movies, made with little money but lots of imagination, were often stylish and bizarre.  The women were beautiful and possessed only costumes with plunging necklines.  The heroes were strong-jawed, masculine men with hair all over their bodies.  The doctors were all mad.  The castles (of which Europe has in large quantities—hurray for cheap locations!) were always decaying.  And the zoom lens was quite often hyperactive.  It was as if France, Spain, England, and especially Italy were attempting to out-Hammer Hammer Studios.  Sometimes, they did, but often they fell short.  Still, they were dripping with gothic atmosphere and sheer spookiness.

TERROR CREATURES FROM THE GRAVE has an ace in its pocket, however, as it stars the lovely Barbara Steele, Queen of Euro-horror and the main attraction of such other films as BLACK SUNDAY (1960), PIT AND THE PENDULUM (1961), CASTLE OF BLOOD (1964), THEY CAME FROM WITHIN (1975), and the original PIRANHA (1978).  Her face was all ice-queen, innocent one minute and warped with wickedness in the next, with cheek-bones that could cut glass.  She often played more than one part in these films: the good sister and the bad or the burned witch and the woman she later possesses.  And she could pull it off!  She had a sort of otherworldly look to her that prevented her from becoming a true box office star, but she could work those horror movies (and the fans) like nobody else, becoming a cult figure later in life.  She’s still working, too, having just starred in THE BUTTERFLY ROOM (2012), an Italian/U.S. co-production that is a disturbing psychological horror film.

Anyway, Barbara Steele is fabulousness personified, and if you’ve never watched her movies, go and rectify that immediately.  Now, on to today’s feature presentation, TERROR CREATURES FROM THE GRAVE!

The great Barbara Steele in TERROR CREATURES FROM THE GRAVE.

The great Barbara Steele in TERROR CREATURES FROM THE GRAVE.

Filmed n gloriously moody black and white, we don’t even have to wait five seconds before we get our first fast camera zoom!  A man having a drink in a tavern sees a hand outside the window (Zoom in on that hand!), and he dons his hat and coat and rushes outside into the streets of some unnamed village circa 1920 or so.  He stumbles to his horse, and the animal decides it doesn’t like him any longer, rearing back and kicking the man in the face, opening up his skull in a gruesome scene. 

As credits roll, so does a man driving a primitive automobile to a decaying castle (natch), Villa Hauff.  This is strong-jawed, young attorney, Albert Kovac, played by Walter Brandi (BLOODY PIT OF HORROR,-1965, THE PLAYGIRLS AND THE VAMPIRE, 1960, CURSE OF THE BLOOD GHOULS, 1962…oh the sheer joy of those titles!).  He greets the daughter of the deceased Dr. Hauff, Corinne, played by the lovely Mirella Maravidi (I KILL, YOU KILL, 1965).  Albert has been sent for to look over Dr. Hauff’s will, and he isn’t even disturbed that the man is now dead…or by the box of disembodied hands in the foyer!  The daughter takes him to her step-mother, the doctor’s second wife, Cleo, played by the wonderful Barbara Steele.  She informs him that Dr. Hauff has been dead for a year after falling down the stairs.  So, who sent the message to Albert’s office?

A storm comes out of nowhere, and the attorney is invited to spend the night until the weather breaks.  The women are at the villa to transfer Dr. Hauff’s corpse from his grave in the ground to the family crypt, per the dead man’s wishes.  It turns out the good doctor was a practitioner of the black arts, a kind of sorcerer.  And the villa was erected on the ruins of a fifteenth century hospital where the victims of the plague in the area all died after having their hands cut off so they couldn’t spread the disease. 

Before going to bed, the attorney finds a recording from the doctor all about the plague victims that were buried in the garden.  He also claims that he’s summoned the victims from their graves and now he is among them.  Corrine bugs out, claiming she’s seen her father walking the hallways.  Mom, however, doesn’t believe in the supernatural and calms her down a bit. 

Severed hands of plague victims in the foyer..l

Severed hands of plague victims in the foyer..l

The next morning, Albert finds that an owl has flown into the engine of his car and destroyed it (What? Does this happen often in Europe?).  During the day, Albert falls for Corinne, Corinne freaks out several times, seeing her father stalking the countryside, and various villagers shake their heads and mumble about the anniversary of Hauff’s death.  The village’s new doctor is murdered, discovered by Corinne and Albert (who don’t seem very worried about it).  The coroner states it is a case of heart failure, even though there are long scratches covering the man’s face and acid burns on his cheeks.  The villagers believe anyone who was present at Hauff’s death (such as this new doctor) is marked to die.  Sure enough, three of the five people who were in the house when Hauff tumbled down the stairs have died mysteriously.  The fourth person on the list of witnesses is murdered and felt up by a pustule-ridden rotten hand.  There is a fifth witness signature, but it’s illegible.  Who will be the fifth victim of the Hauff Curse?

Albert, still hanging around after two days without a client, is present for the disinterment of Dr. Hauff’s corpse.  The gardener opens the casket, revealing an empty grave.  Cleo, wearing one fabulous hat, is stunned by the revelation.  Albert figures out that the fifth name on the list is his boss, who was busy and didn’t come to the Villa Hauff when summoned.  Only, now he really is coming to the moldering manse.  When the attorney, Morgan, shows up, he is instantly attacked by Hauff.  Only, nobody else sees it!

When night falls, all the secrets behind Dr. Hauff’s mysterious death will be disclosed.  Passions will be ignited, and the handless plague victims will rise from their graves to avenge the doctor’s name while unleashing a virulent new strain of the plague.  It’s a creepy, surreal finale that does include terror, graves, and creatures!  Will anyone survive?

Only—if the plague victims’ hands were chopped off and displayed in the foyer—then why do they have hands when emerging from their graves? 

Plague victims rise from the dead in TERROR CREATURES FROM THE GRAVE.

Plague victims rise from the dead in TERROR CREATURES FROM THE GRAVE.

TERROR CREATURES FROM THE GRAVE is full of spooky atmospheric touches like a maid with her own secrets, cobwebbed corridors, violent thunderstorms, curses, a mute gardener, sweeping music, one eerie song about pure water, odd dubbing, elaborate sets, and creepy sound effects.  Despite the effectiveness of the movie, the director, Massimo Pupillo (BLOODY PIT OF HORROR) didn’t like the end product, so the film was originally credited to producer Ralph Zucker.  In a weird twist, TERROR CREATURES FROM THE GRAVE played on a double bill in America with BLOODY PIT OF HORROR!  Wouldn’t that have been a fantastic night at the drive-in?

TERROR CREATURES FROM THE GRAVE isn’t the best Euro-schlock-horror to be made in this period – it’s no BLACK SUNDAY – but it’s an eerie little film, buoyed by terrific atmosphere and the wonderful Barbara Steele. 

I give it three owls in engines out of four.

© Copyright 2013 by William D. Carl

 

Pickin’ the Carcass: THE PACT (2012)

Posted in 2013, Family Secrets, Ghosts!, Haunted Houses, Horror, Indie Horror, Michael Arruda Reviews, Pickin' the Carcass, Psychic Powers with tags , , , , , , , on May 8, 2013 by knifefighter

PICKIN’ THE CARCASS:  THE PACT (2012)
By Michael Arruda

The Pact - poster

Welcome to PICKIN’ THE CARCASS, that column where we scour the countryside looking for horror movie gems which, for one reason or other, we missed the first time around.  Sadly, there’s usually a good reason we miss these flicks during their first run, but lately I’ve had some luck as I’ve caught films that I’ve actually enjoyed.

The subject of today’s column, THE PACT (2012) ,gets off to such a strong start and features such likable performances, I found myself forgiving all the problems its plot runs into later on.

THE PACT, now available on Streaming Video, opens with a young woman, Nichole (Agnes Bruckner), on the phone trying to convince her sister that she needs to return home to attend their mother’s funeral, but her sister says no, that she hasn’t forgiven their mother for all the awful things she did to them.

Nichole is alone in her deceased mom’s home, and shortly after hearing some strange noises and feeling an unseen presence behind her, she decides to Skype her young daughter who’s with a babysitter.  In the middle of the conversation, her young daughter asks, “Mommy, who’s that standing behind you?”  Yikes!

Nichole’s sister, Annie (Caity Lotz), changes her mind about skipping her mom’s funeral, and she arrives at her mom’s house to find that her sister has disappeared.  Annie’s cousin, Liz (Kathleen Rose Perkins), had been babysitting Nichole’s young daughter, and after the funeral, they all stay overnight at Annie’s mom’s house while they try to figure out what happened to Nichole.  That night, there are more eerie noises and strange going’s on, and Liz disappears.

Annie goes to the police, and since there is evidence of a struggle, she finds herself a suspect in both disappearances.  A local police officer, Bill Creek (Casper Van Dien), takes an interest in her case and offers to help her.  However, Annie suspects the real threat is a supernatural one, and so she turns to a medium, Stevie (Haley Hudson), who comes to the house with her assistant, Giles (Sam Ball).

Annie, Stevie, and Giles encounter more weird happenings inside the house and discover a secret room hidden behind the walls of the home.  Stevie is able to shed some light on the entity inside the house and provides Annie with some important clues regarding the whereabouts of Nichole and Liz.  But the biggest discovery comes later, when Annie realizes the threat against her and her family isn’t just a paranormal one.

There’s a lot to like about THE PACT, from its story, which is more than just a PARANORMAL ACTIVITY rehash, to its strong acting performances, to a bang up directorial effort by writer/director Nicholas McCarthy.

THE PACT contains a lot of cool scenes and provides some neat images, like the creepy man sobbing on the edge of a bed.  There are some violent sequences as well, including a gruesome stabbing scene, and the gore looks real.  There’s no CGI blood in sight.

The film opens in such spine-chilling fashion, the unsettling feeling it instills at the outset remained with me throughout.  When Nichole finds herself alone in her mother’s house, the film resembles the PARANORMAL ACTIVITY movies and does so again when the sinister force inside the house abducts Liz.  But the fun part here is that there’s more to this story than just evil spirits.  On the other hand, the details don’t always make sense, and this comes back to bite the film later.

The cast is excellent.  Caity Lotz is terrific as Annie.  She’s feisty, strong, and very sexy.  She makes a formidable adversary for the threats which occupy her mom’s house.  Casper Van Dien is also very good as Bill Creek, the police officer who helps Annie investigate her sister’s disappearance.  Their scenes together are particularly enjoyable to watch as they share some nice onscreen chemistry.

Agnes Bruckner makes the most of her brief screen time as Nichole, and Kathleen Rose Perkins is also excellent as Annie’s cousin Liz.

But my favorite supporting performance belongs to Haley Hudson as the medium Stevie. The first time we meet her, she’s in this oddball household full of unceasing background noise, as TVs and rock music blare constantly.  She’s quirky yet sincere, and so she comes off as very believable.  And Sam Ball is nearly as good as Stevie’s friend and assistant Giles, who’s just as peculiar as she is.

And THE PACT packs some serious eye candy.    Caity Lotz is striking and spends much of the movie in short shorts and sexy T-shirts.   The other three actresses, Agnes Bruckner, Kathleen Rose Perkins, and Haley Hudson, are just as stunning.

And if you’re a female viewer, you’ve got Casper Van Dien and Sam Ball, two very good looking actors.  This flick is very easy on the eyes.

I liked that the story aimed high and tried to be more than just your typical paranormal entity tale.  It gets an A for effort.  Where it falters is in the details.

For instance, at one point in the movie, the ghost physically attacks Annie, which I’m not sure ghosts can do, but this raises a question about the entire premise of the movie.  If this ghost can physically attack human beings, then in light of what the film reveals later on, the question has to be asked, why didn’t the ghost simply tackle the other threat in the story on its own?  Why did it need a human being’s help?

I also didn’t like the very ending of the movie.  For it to make sense, one would have to surmise that there is yet another threat inside the house not revealed in the movie.  I found this notion difficult to swallow.  As it stands now, it plays like one of those endings where something creepy is added on simply to give the film an eerie conclusion, as opposed to a logical progression of the story.

Overall, once the movie starts putting the pieces of its puzzle together, it does so with too much obscurity, and so instead of sitting back and enjoying the ride, I found myself asking a lot of questions, which ultimately got in the way of my enjoying the movie.  What really becomes of Nichole and Liz?  You pretty much know, but you don’t really know.  What does the “pact” from the title refer to?  I can guess, but I’d rather know.  Just how abusive was Annie’s and Nichole’s mother?  What about that creepy hidden room in the middle of the house?  How come no one ever noticed it before?  And just how much did Annie’s mother know about what was going on inside her house?

I would have enjoyed the movie more if its second half provided clearer answers.

So, ultimately, the screenplay by director Nicholas McCarthy is a mixed bag.  It provides a compelling story, but it doesn’t always make good on getting the details right.  But it gets the scares right, and on that note, THE PACT delivers.

I give it two and a half knives.

—END—

© Copyright 2013 by Michael Arruda

Michael Arruda gives THE PACT ~ two and a half knives!

CRITERION AFTER DARK: THROUGH A GLASS DARKLY (1961)

Posted in 2013, 60s Movies, Art Movies, Classic Films, Criterion After Dark, Enigmatic Films, Family Secrets, Foreign Films, Garrett Cook Articles, Lovecraftian Horror, Madness with tags , , , , , , , , , on April 24, 2013 by knifefighter

CRITERION AFTER DARK
THROUGH A GLASS DARKLY: ELDER GODS WHERE YOU LEAST EXPECT THEM
By Garrett Cook

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It’s been forever since I’ve written one of these columns. People and cities and ideas and lives change and mine did in several big ways in the last year. I missed writing for Cinema Knife Fight, and now I’m gonna do it again. I thought maybe I would start by finding a weird, shocking, filthy, perverse Criterion film. Something that would blow your mind and take you to the very edge of perception. And I did. Did I ever.

Cronenberg? Bunuel? Malle? Nope. Asian horror? Nope. Some kind of Swedish erotic art film? A little warmer. Imagine if Tennessee Williams and H.P. Lovecraft collaborated on a family drama set on an isolated island, a place tinged with madness, with the stench of malevolent cosmology hanging in the air. And there’s sin and sexual dysfunction and a sinister play with a dark truth at its core. So let’s add a little Robert “The King in Yellow” Chambers to the mix. Moody black and white cosmic horror. Yeah, that’s the stuff. So, who pray tell is the twisted mind behind this?

The man whose work inspired Wes Craven’s THE LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT (1972) and who had a knight in plague-stricken medieval Europe confront the grim reaper himself. A true master of the horror genre. Who knows terror like…Ingmar Bergman? That can’t be right. But it is. Bergman is the genius behind THE VIRGIN SPRING (1960), which was later remade (reimagined?) as THE LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT, and pitted a knight in a chess game against death in THE SEVENTH SEAL (1957). His film THE MAGICIAN (1958) had all of the elements of one of Val Lewton’s classics of psychological horror: from a man terrorized by doubts in his psyche to a murder that may or may not have been in the province of the supernatural. THE MAGICIAN is, as well as being a period piece and an excellent story about the power of art, a masterpiece of quiet horror.

And so is THROUGH A GLASS DARKLY (1961).

THROUGH A GLASS DARKLY is one of those movies that defines in people’s mind what an art film is, or what a drama is. It looks on the surface to just be a story about a disintegrating family. The setup is not particularly horrific: a novelist takes his son, his daughter and her husband on vacation. His daughter is schizophrenic. She finds out his novel is about her and gets upset. Why is this of interest to a column on horror culture and filth in the Criterion Collection?

Because as I said, there are traces of cosmic horror and weird fiction here that are hard to ignore, but enjoyable to savor, as they seem to be in the wrong place. Near the beginning of the film, the son puts on a play starring the daughter, involving a knight’s strange relationship with a ghost. It’s cool that it calls back to the questing knight facing death in THE SEVENTH SEAL, but fans of vintage weird fiction might see another connection, another great “Death and the Maiden” play, embedded in a narrative: Robert W. Chambers’ The King in Yellow centers around an ominous play where the heroine’s sad song freezes the heart of the viewer. This play hints at love and death interweaving on a cosmic level, and at there being something deeply wrong in this family and on this island. The King in Yellow terrorizes you with evil in the walls of a metanarrative, and THROUGH A GLASS DARKLY does the same. Something is wrong with this play. Something is wrong with reality. Something is loose in the theater.

Karin comes to a realization in Bergman's THROUGH A GLASS DARKLY.

Karin (Harriet Andersson) comes to a realization in Ingmar Bergman’s THROUGH A GLASS DARKLY.

Although her father feels Karin is incurable, Karin’s husband is trying to remain optimistic. He does not believe her condition will have to eat away her life. And it doesn’t seem to, until Karin finds her father’s manuscript. In her father’s manuscript, the heroine is an incurable schizophrenic, in her father’s manuscript, Karin his hopeless. When Karin reads this, she is naturally upset, but it seems to go beyond that and once again into the realm of weird fiction and magic. The fictional Karin is sick, so the real Karin becomes sick. The fictional Karin is too crazy to heal, so the real one must be as well. It works like a voodoo doll and warps the world like the sinister play in Chambers’ story. It has even, in some ways, turned into a grimoire like the Necronomicon from Lovecraft’s books.

Karin begins describing her hallucinations about people behind the walls watching her, judging her. She seems to have a strange sixth sense that she’s not just the protagonist of a novel, but that of a movie as well. She seems to see the framework and that there’s no difference between life and art and reality and fantasy. She faces the realization of the protagonist of Lovecraft’s story Pickman’s Model, who discovers that the hideous paintings of his friend Pickman were modeled after a photograph from life. So the movie returns to the Pickman’s Model/King in Yellow delusion, the stuff that Lucio Fulci’s A CAT IN THE BRAIN (1990) and John Carpenter’s IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS (1994) deal with, along with Stephen King’s THE DARK HALF (made into a film by George Romero in 1993). The reality-warping power of madness shines in Karin’s dialogue, because Bergman has isolated the movie from the rest of reality. On this little island, all we have are people’s opinions on Karin’s madness, and Karin’s madness itself. Like Shakespeare’s power to conjure images, Karin’s makes things happen in your head, turning words into imagery, and therefore turning her words into reality.

Karin succumbs not just to insanity, but to her worst urges, performing an act of incest. Her behavior has gone from simply crazy to truly aberrant, committing on of the worst sins imaginable. This is a pretty sordid world Bergman has created, one without hope or moral high ground or a chance to gain rectitude, a world ruled over by a force that is less than benevolent. Without a single tentacle, we have the feelings Lovecraft sought to convey of smallness, depravity, insanity and isolation. And the feeling that Karin’s visions are right. There are people outside the screen watching and judging her and waiting for her to fall apart on both sides of these realities. And she is under the power of a man behind a camera who is frankly not going to be very nice to her.

As Karin finally cracks, she does so in fine Lovecraftian form, terrified by confronting the image of God. Creatures like Nyarlathotep and Cthulhu appear before the eyes of Lovecraft’s heroes to shatter their minds or prove that the minds of the hero have been shattered.

“God is a spider,” Karin says.

And while Bergman does not show the spider, we have now gotten the idea in our imagination that Karin has seen some dark god. Does it matter that she is crazy? Has this god driven her crazy? We can’t say definitively that Lovecraft’s protagonists have seen the Elder Gods, and we can’t say with any certainty that Karin doesn’t know something in this Swedish art-house gothic that shows no monster at all, THROUGH THE GLASS DARKLY has as much in common with Val Lewton’s deep psychological thrillers for RKO in the 40s, in fact sharing a lot of themes with CAT PEOPLE (1942), THE SEVENTH VICTIM (1943),. and other films of their ilk. And all leave you with the same horrendous impression that something is out there and that mad and malformed as the human mind can get, there is a grain of truth to all of the hallucinations and all of the cosmic horror.

The discriminating viewer is not just one who finds meaning in the depraved and the weird and the horrific, but also one who finds the depraved, the weird and the horrific in the things that academics and squares and stuffed shirts say are meaningful and THROUGH A GLASS DARKLY has that stuff in spades. So, if you like Lovecraft, Hitchcock or Lewton—or just an uncomfortable chill and a lump in your throat—Ingmar Bergman might be the scare you need.

© Copyright 2013 by Garrett Cook

THE PLACE BEYOND THE PINES (2013)

Posted in 2013, Crime Films, Drama, Family Secrets, LL Soares Reviews with tags , , , , on April 9, 2013 by knifefighter

THE PLACE BEYOND THE PINES
Movie Review by L.L. Soares

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After last year’s DRIVE, I’ve been looking forward to more dramas starring Ryan Gosling. He’s an actor I noticed fairly early on (in movies like 2001’s THE BELIEVER and 2006’s HALF NELSON) and it was pretty obvious then that he was going to be a big star. The fact that he continues to pick interesting projects is to his benefit. So when I heard this one was directed by Derek Cianfrance, who also made BLUE VALENTINE (2010), another interesting showcase for Gosling, I was doubly convinced this was going to be a good one.

THE PLACE BEYOND THE PINES takes place in Schenectady, New York (supposedly, Schenectady literally means “the place beyond the pines”), and it begins with Luke (Gosling), a stunt motorcyclist for a traveling carnival. The movie doesn’t really dwell much on what Luke does with that ‘cycle, but it’s actually kind of amazing. Three guys drive motorcycles into this big metal ball and then they drive inside of it, upside down and across, at high speeds, and somehow avoid colliding with and killing each other. I wanted to know more about this fascinating profession, but THE PLACE BEYOND THE PINES just uses it as an interesting bit of background, which I found disappointing (how do they do it?).

Luke finds out that a girl he had a fling with the last time he was in town, Romina (Eva Mendez), has given birth to his son, and that she is raising the baby with another man, Cofi (Mahershala Ali). Luke is upset when he finds out, and demands to be a part of the child’s life. He quits his job at the carnival, because he wants to stay in town, but he has trouble finding work, until he meets Robin (Ben Mendelsohn, who was also really good as Daggett in last year’s KILLING THEM SOFTLY), who has his own garage where he fixes cars (it’s actually the garage attached to his house!). Robin offers Luke a job as a mechanic, and a trailer in his backyard as a place to live.

Luke can barely support himself, but he’s intent on getting enough money to take care of his son, and he still believes he can get Romina to run away with him. Money seems to be his biggest roadblock in these plans. Robin tells him a way he can make more money—robbing banks. Turns out Robin used to do it himself in his youth, and he knows how to pull it off. The fact that Luke is an expert motorcyclist doesn’t hurt, either, since it gives him a great getaway vehicle.

This first storyline is pretty interesting, and reminded me of the strong character development that director Cianfrance gave us in BLUE VALENTINE. Unfortunately, this is just one of three stories in the film (which are kind of separate but interconnected at the same time). I would have really liked to see more of Luke and Romina, but we only get to focus on them for a short time.

The second storyline involves Avery (Bradley Cooper), a cop who has a run-in with Luke. The movie then follows him as he gets involved with a scam involving some corrupt cops (led by the always reliable Ray Liotta as Deluca). Should he blow the whistle on the corrupt cops, or should he just go with the flow? His conscience tells him one thing, but it’s made clear to him that cops who rat on their own may not have a long life expectancy.

The final storyline focuses on the sons of Avery and Luke, now in high school, and both of them are troubled. Avery’s son AJ (Emory Cohen) has become pretty volatile since his parents’ divorce, and trouble seems to follow him wherever he goes. Jason (Dane DeHaan), Luke’s son, seems more clear-headed at first, but he spirals down once he meets AJ (who transfers to his school) and starts getting involved in his shenanigans.

The acting is very good. Gosling is the obvious stand-out here, but Cooper is quite good as well (in a less compelling role). The boys who play their sons are good here, too. Cohen is spot on as a troubled kid who is constantly acting out, and DeHaan (who was so great in last year’s CHRONICLE) is riveting as a good kid gone bad. The support characters are good, too, including Eva Mendes (I wish she had had more screen time, she’s really good here), Rose Byrne as Avery’s wife (a less developed role) , and Mendelson.

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The script however, is not as strong as BLUE VALENTINE. In that previous movie, Cianfrance was able to show us the slow disintegration of a marriage and make it captivating. I really enjoyed that film a lot. In comparison, THE PLACE BEYOND THE PINES is good, but kind of a letdown. Part of the problem is the triptych sequence in which the stories are told. In BLUE VALENTINE, we got one storyline throughout, and it was made stronger as we examined the characters closely over time. In PLACE BEYOND THE PINES, we never get to spend enough time with any one set of characters, and it hurts in establishing that connection between movie and viewer.

The first part with Gosling is very good. The second part, with Cooper, felt less fresh to me. A good cop trying to stay clean among corrupt peers has been done hundreds of times before, and the movie doesn’t really give us anything new in that regard. Cooper does what he can with the role, but the truth is, Avery just is not as compelling as Luke, and the movie loses a little steam once Avery’s story begins. The final segment, involving the teenage sons of both men, is good, but once again, not as strong as the first part with Gosling. Over all, it’s an interesting movie, even if it is a little uneven at times, but it’s not as good as it could have been. Cianfrance has shown us what he’s capable of, and PINES just seems to fall a little short.

I liked it, and recommend it to fans of Gosling and Cooper, but it’s not either of their best work. I give THE PLACE BEYOND THE PINES three knives out of five.

© Copyright 2013 by L.L. Soares

LL Soares gives THE PLACE BEYOND THE PINES ~three knives.

GHOUL (2012)

Posted in 2013, Cable movies, Family Secrets, Grave Robbing, Horror, Monsters, Paul McMahon Columns, Supernatural, The Distracted Critic, TV-Movies with tags , , , , , , , on April 3, 2013 by knifefighter

GHOUL (2012)
Review by Paul McMahon, The Distracted Critic

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GHOUL is a movie I’d been following since I heard it was in production. Brian Keene’s novel remains my favorite work of his, and one of the more effective horror novels I’ve read. The reason Keene’s novel works is because the main horrors do not come from the creature haunting the graveyard, but from the parents who have the responsibility of raising their children in a safe and secure environment. This means, however, that a lot of the novel’s effectiveness comes from internal dialogues and the inner thoughts of the characters, both of which are very difficult to show on screen. As thrilled as I was that someone was finally filming a Brian Keene story, I thought that they couldn’t have picked a tougher story to adapt. Because of this, I went into the movie with high hopes but low expectations.

We start with Timmy (Nolan Gould, from the TV show MODERN FAMILY) digging his comics out from under his bed. As soon as he gets comfortable, his mom calls lights out. It demonstrates that kids are at the mercy of their parents’ rules and whims, setting the tone for the film. The next morning, Timmy watches cartoons while his Dad demands his attention. “The start of summer vacation doesn’t save you from your chores!” Timmy’s grandpa shushes him, pretending that he’s watching TV as well. Frustrated, Dad leaves the room. Grandpa (Barry Corbin, NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN, 2007) calls Timmy over and asks what he and his friends are planning to do with the underground clubhouse they’re building near the cemetery. Timmy is shocked because they thought nobody knew about it. Grandpa assures him nobody else does.

Later on, Timmy and Grandpa are working in the garden and Timmy’s friend Doug (Jacob Bila) bikes up out of breath, having been chased by a stray dog. Grandpa offers to finish Timmy’s chores and sends him on his way. Doug and Timmy go to Barry’s house, where Barry’s Dad (Dane Rhodes, DJANGO UNCHCAINED, 2012) bullies them, calling Doug a fag and telling him that’s probably why his Dad left. Timmy responds by accusing him of making Barry do his job while he sleeps off last night’s bottle. Barry’s dad forbids them to play near the cemetery again.

Dane Rhodes, as Mr. Smeltzer, terrorizes Timmy and Doug in Brian Keene's GHOUL.

Dane Rhodes, as Mr. Smeltzer, terrorizes Timmy and Doug in Brian Keene’s GHOUL.

Timmy and Doug meet up with Barry (Trevor Harker) and together they head to their clubhouse. They look at Doug’s hand-drawn map of the surrounding area. Suddenly, they hear Timmy’s Mom calling him. She’s frantic, distraught. “It’s your Grandpa, honey, I’m sorry.”

There are a lot of other things going on, and we get quick scenes depicting some of it. Three older kids on bikes, obviously up to no good, are searching the woods for the clubhouse. A pair of lovers making out in the woods are attacked and presumably killed.

After Grandpa’s funeral, Timmy and his friends are in the cemetery when Doug falls waist-deep into a sinkhole. Barry and Timmy pull him out. Barry says the sinkholes are all over the place because of the old mining operations. While Barry goes for the first aid kit, the stray dog appears, charging and barking. Barry grabs a shovel and attacks the dog viciously, cussing it out while he wails on it. The ferocity of his actions shocks Timmy and Doug. Later on, as they help Barry put away the tools, they discover another sinkhole in the caretaker’s shed, covered by a jagged piece of plywood. That night, over dinner, Timmy asks his dad about the stories of the ghoul. His dad tells him the ghoul is the equivalent of Bigfoot or the Loch Ness Monster.

Steve, one of the three bullies from earlier, spied Timmy and his friends in the shed. That night, Ronnie and Sammie join him and they break into the shed, planning to vandalize what they think is the kids’ clubhouse. They wonder how Timmy and his friends could have shoveled out the maze of tunnels they find, and then Ronnie and Steve continue on, leaving Sammie to stand watch. Predictably, Ronnie and Steve are attacked. Sammie runs back the way they came, arriving at the hole to see Barry’s Dad staring down at her. She pleads with him for help. “You shouldn’t play where you’re not invited,” he says, then pulls the plywood over the hole while she screams.

It’s difficult to distance yourself from a novel as good as GHOUL in order to take a movie adaptation on its own terms. Part of what makes the book so memorable is that it reaches beyond the usual coming-of-age story. These kids are dealing with some heavy-duty subject matter. Doug confesses that his mother comes to him at night and does things to him. Barry’s Dad regularly and brutally beats on him and his mom. From an acting standpoint, staying true to these emotional wallops would tax even the most practiced actors. The three kids in these roles do all they can, and in some scenes they fare pretty well, but in many others they seem disconnected from what’s going on. It felt like they saved their energy for the “big scenes,” which left many of the slower scenes flat.

Nolan Gould, Jacob Bila and Trevor Harker give their all while tasked with monumental acting challenges.

Nolan Gould, Jacob Bila and Trevor Harker give their all while tasked with monumental acting challenges.

The biggest problem I had with the movie is that it didn’t flow as a whole. It felt bumpy, as if I was watching something that had been heavily edited to fit time constraints. You learn to expect that from a made-for-TV movie, but with this one every time I started to get a handle on what was happening, the scene jumped away, plunging me into something else with no transition time.

Changes have been made to the story as well. Timmy’s parents are not what they were on the page. His mother is more prominent and caring, while his dad is in only two scenes and comes off as simply crabby and overworked. The most traumatic scene of the book has been cut entirely from the movie. If you read the book, you know what scene I’m talking about. There was also a major change to the ending, which I understand kept the focus on the humanity of the story, but it’s not a change any fan of the book will embrace.

GHOUL was a bold choice to put before the cameras, but, sadly, I can’t recommend the finished product. Fingers crossed that the upcoming DARK HOLLOW is a stronger film and more worthy of Keene’s name.

I give GHOUL 1 and one half stars, with 2 timeouts.

© Copyright 2013 by Paul McMahon

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