Archive for the Indie Horror Category

MANIAC (2012)

Posted in 2013, Art Movies, Based on Classic Films, Cult Movies, Disturbing Cinema, Exploitation Films, Grindhouse, Indie Horror, Intense Movies, Joe Spinell Films, Kinky Killers, LL Soares Reviews, Psycho killer, Remakes, Serial Killer flicks, Sleaze with tags , , , , , , , on July 16, 2013 by knifefighter

MANIAC (2012)
Movie Review by L.L. Soares

 Maniac

Yet another in a long list of  movies that do not need to remakes, William Lustig’s original MANIAC (1980) featured the amazing Joe Spinell (who also provided the story and co-wrote the screenplay) as Frank Zito, a violent psychotic who kills women and then scalps them, so he can attach their hair to mannequins that surround his bed like lovers. Visceral stuff, made all the more effective by the teaming of Lustig, Spinell, and effects maestro Tom Savini at the peak of his powers. This was one movie that lived up to its title, and yet there were tender moments as well, focusing mostly on the friendship (and blossoming romance?) between Spinell’s Zito and Caroline Munro’s photographer, Anna D’Antoni. It didn’t hurt that Munro was one of the most beautiful women to grace celluloid at the time. But Spinell somehow, through this relationship, made you sympathize with a man who is otherwise a deranged animal. You somehow cared about Zito and wanted to see him redeemed. Of course, in these kinds of movies, redemption eventually gives up and steps aside, so that punishment can take control of matters.

In the new version of MANIAC (2012), Franck Khalfoun gives us a strange recreation of the original film, with just enough quirks and differences to make it enjoyable on its own terms. Even if it comes nowhere near the gut punch of the original. This time, the script is co-written by Alexandre Aja, the director who has given us such recent horrors as the HILLS HAVE EYES remake (2006), MIRRORS (2008) and who is currently adaptating Joe Hill’s HORNS for the big screen. As for Khalfoun, he previously directed the murder in an underground parking garage flick, P2 (2007) and has acted in Aja films like HIGH TENSION (2003) and PIRANHA (2010).

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The new MANIAC stars Elijah Wood, oddly enough, perhaps the exact physical opposite of Joe Spinell. Where Spinell was genuinely creepy and yet always had a strange vulnerability to him, Wood seems slight and wimpy, but has a kind of strangeness to him that could easily be perceived as a capacity for violence. This aspect of Wood has been exploited previously in SIN CITY (2005), where he played an intense and merciless hit man with a penchant for eating human flesh. So this is hardly the first time someone saw Elijah Wood and thought “Hey, he might actually be an effective psycho.”

In MANIAC, however, Wood’s appearance and attributes are given only a small chance to shine, since the movie also adopts the rather odd gimmick of giving us the story from the killer’s point of view. What this means is that, throughout most of the film, we see everything through Frank Zito’s eyes. So whether or not Wood looks the part, we only see him occasionally, when he happens to look at himself in a mirror, for example.

Elijah Wood is actually quite good in the remake of MANIAC. I just wish he was onscreen more.

Elijah Wood is actually quite good in the remake of MANIAC. I just wish he was onscreen more.

This POV seems very artificial, making us very aware that this is not a gritty tour of the gutter like the original film, but something different. The new MANIAC strives toward art, towards being something more than just another killer on the loose flick. And yet, considering the subject matter, this arty direction doesn’t always work. We’re not watching a MANIAC film for artistic merit. We want to see a psychotic on the verge of complete madness, and the POV actually distances us from the meat of the film, even as it thinks that it is bringing us closer to the madman, by showing the film from his eyes.

The POV works some of the time. It’s not a bad thing, per se. There are some scenes that use this to nice effect. But in a movie like this, it doesn’t really elevate the story in any way. It’s just a fancy trick that tells us “No, you don’t have to really see Frank get his hands dirty.”

I actually like Elijah Wood. I’m not really a fan of projects like the LORD OF THE RINGS movies (or the HOBBIT films), but he’s been in plenty of other things that have impressed me. I think I first noticed him in Ang Lee’s THE ICE STORM (1997), and he has a kind of intensity that gives him a lot of range. I even enjoy him in the odd FX TV series WILFRED, where he plays a man whose best friend is a man in a dog suit (the rest of the world sees it as an actual dog). But the point is, Wood is kind of fearless and open to playing a wide variety of roles, however offbeat, and for what he does in MANIAC, I think he does a decent job. In a way, though, I would have preferred to see the whole “from the maniac’s eyes” viewpoint ditched, so that we could have really enjoyed Wood’s performance to the fullest.

In the new movie, Anna is played by Nora Amezeder as a French photographer who is drawn to Frank via his strange little shop where he carries on his family’s business of restoring antique mannequins. She uses mannequins in her photographs for artistic effect, and his equally artistic display of actual mannequins might just be the perfect complement to her photos in her upcoming gallery show. Can she borrow some of his work? He catches her taking pictures of his shop’s display window and invites her inside. The fact that she sees beauty in the same objects he does creates an immediate connection. And the groundwork is there for the one normal relationship in Frank Zito’s life.  Sadly, whatever normality there is between them won’t last for long. There’s no way it could.

Unfortunately, no matter how good Elijah Wood is as Frank Zito, he can never come close to Joe Spinell's performance in the original film.

Unfortunately, no matter how good Elijah Wood is as Frank Zito, he can never come close to Joe Spinell’s performance in the original film.

Wood’s Frank Zito has mother issues, after all, that go as deep as Norman Bates’s. We see flashbacks to Frank as a child, forced to watch as his mother has sex with all comers, whether its two sailors at once in her bedroom as he peers out from between the slats of a closet door, to a late night assignation in a parking garage, Frank wants his mother as much as he is repelled by her, and it is only a matter of time before relationships he has with other women dovetail into his feelings for his mother—even the one he has with poor Anna.

Feeling a possessive jealousy for whatever woman he comes across that he finds attractive, that same need to have them always turns into a stronger need to punish them. And therefore, he can’t really have any enjoyment with them while they are alive. He can only truly possess them (and come close to “loving” them) when they have been recreated, with their bloody scalps stapled onto the heads of his mannequins. In the darkness of his apartment, he convinces himself that the mannequins are the real women, and that they are now in an environment he can control. It is only then that he can show them that he cares.

So he drives around the city late at night, picking victims at random based on how they elicit lust in him, and making quick work of them. He tries to break the cycle, even joining an online dating service and meeting Lucie (Megan Duffy), a tattooed beauty who actually seems to act motherly towards him (uh oh!) when he complains of a migraine at the restaurant they agree to meet at, and who takes him back to her place afterwards for some almost-successful seduction. You really think Frank might finally loosen up and enjoy himself, but in the end, we know that’s impossible.

There are some interesting set pieces, including Frank hunting down Anna’s agent, Rita (Jan Broberg), breaking into her glorious Manhattan apartment to kill her in her bath tub. This sequence is done quite well

I liked this new version of MANIAC. It’s a good film, despite its flaws. It’s just easier to judge it as a stand-alone film about a psycho played by Elijah Wood. To compare it to Lustig’s original is to its detriment. There is no way this movie could deliver the goods like the original movie did.

I give it three knives.

© Copyright 2013 by L.L. Soares

LL Soares gives the 2012 version of  MANIAC ~three  knives.

 

(Despite being made in 2012, the new version of MANIAC is only now getting limited release in theaters in some cities. It is available on cable OnDemand in some markets as well.)

maniac_version3-2012-movie-poster

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AMERICAN MARY (2012)

Posted in 2013, Crime, Film Festival Movies, Gangsters!, Indie Horror, Nick Cato Reviews, Surgical Horror with tags , , , , , on June 5, 2013 by knifefighter

AMERICAN MARY (2012)
Movie Review by Nick Cato

 american-mary-posterA favorite on the film festival circuit in 2012 and the latest from directors Jen and Sylvia Soska, AMERICAN MARY came directly to pay per view and had a limited theatrical run this past May.

Meet Mary Mason. She’s in medical school studying to be a surgeon. Her professor thinks she has the goods (despite yelling at her for texting in class…I didn’t know students were yelled at in college?) and Mary is indeed dedicated; she even practices suturing on turkeys in her spare time. But her funds are running low, and Mary realizes she needs to make some serious cash or she’ll be studying for her finals as a homeless person…without her cell phone.

She visits a local strip club, intending to audition for the sleazy owner, Billy, who is taken aback by her resume (because, you know, all stripping jobs require one). But in the middle of her “audition,” the club’s bouncer interrupts Billy and demands his presence in the basement. He returns (remembering Mary’s medical resume) and asks her if she wants to make $5,000.00 in cash. She follows him downstairs to find a man slashed from scalp to navel. With the five grand before her, she agrees.

Before long Mary is making a ton of cash as an underground surgeon for Billy, who is apparently involved with all kinds of shady trades. She also begins to work with people looking to have unusual body modifications, and her reputation on the underground circuit grows quickly.

Meanwhile, her professor invites her to a “high-scale” party where he drugs and rapes her.

The rest of AMERICAN MARY is basically a revenge film, as she goes to extreme lengths to get even with her professor for his evil deed. Now with her back turned to the professional medical community, Mary continues to cater to those who can afford her services (including filmmakers Jen and Sylvia Soska in a small role as twins looking to have their left arms switched), although a detective begins asking her questions in the wake of her professor’s disappearance and eventually comes crashing down on her.

The film reminded me somewhat of EXCISION (2012), but where EXCISION features a few truly disturbing sequences, I only found one scene (when we first see the modified professor) to be even slightly chilling. Star Katherine Isabelle does a good enough job, although I think many might have a hard time buying the idea that a favored medical student would throw everything away in the face of low funds and a perverted professor (with the right lawyer Mary could have sued him for all he was worth!).

AMERICAN MARY paints a world where all men are dogs (even the upright detective annoys us the second time he’s seen) and where female empowerment comes via barbaric surgeries. It can get gruesome at times, but it’s not half as graphic as some early reviews suggested.

This is worth a view, if only to see a vast improvement on the part of the Soska sisters as directors (aside from a few shorts, their only other full length was the campy but forgettable DEAD HOOKER IN A TRUNK from 2009). Once they learn to build suspense and tighten up their scripts, I can see some good things coming from them. Their black hearts seem to be in it … now they just need to work on the execution (full pun intended). I give this one 2 and a half knives.

© Copyright 2013 by Nick Cato

 

Mary (Katherine Isabelle) goes to work in AMERICAN MARY.

Mary (Katherine Isabelle) goes to work in AMERICAN MARY.

Nick Cato gives AMERICAN MARY ~ two and a half knives!

 

KISS OF THE DAMNED (2013)

Posted in 2013, Art Movies, Gore!, Highly Stylized Films, Independent Cinema, Indie Horror, LL Soares Reviews, Vampire Movies, Vampires, VIOLENCE! with tags , , , , , , on May 28, 2013 by knifefighter

KISS OF THE DAMNED (2013)
Movie Review by L.L. Soares

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For fans of vampire movies, these have been trying times. The TWILIGHT movies have pretty much defanged undead bloodsuckers for the time being, and aside from a few indie flicks, there hasn’t been a lot of hope that vampires will regain their former glory.

The new independent film KISS THE DAMNED tries to correct this, but unfortunately it’s just not strong enough to do the heavy lifting required to save the genre. That said, it’s a pleasant enough film regardless.

Josephine de La Baume stars as Djuna (pronounced Juna—“The D is silent,” as Jamie Foxx would say), a modern-day lady of mystery who sleeps during the day and comes out at night. She seems a little too eager to avoid contact with other people, but this intrigues screenwriter Paolo (Milo Ventimiglia) when they first see each other in a video store. She immediately feels uncomfortable when he returns her gaze, and flees the store, but he follows her outside. After some heated make-out sessions get cut short (Djuna is determined not to let things go too far), Paolo refuses to just walk away and demands to know why she won’t let their relationship go any further. At this point, she relents, and draws him into her world. Unfortunately, this involves him getting a couple of fangs in his throat, and being “turned” into something not quite human.

But Paolo is cool with losing his humanity, and seems to be the perfect mate for Djuna, who has been lonely for decades and hasn’t had someone to share her “life” with for way too long. Their love affair seems to be going in a good direction, until Djuna’s sister Mimi (a very sexy Roxane Mesquida) shows up.

Where Djuna is mature and afraid to get too close to anyone, Mimi is more reckless and violent. Djuna has sworn off hunting humans to get the blood she needs and has turned to animals, something she tries to instill in Paolo as well, but Mimi just doesn’t consider it dinner unless it’s running on two legs.

Mimi has come to stay with her sister for a week, while her “new place” in Phoenix (some kind of vampire version of rehab) is being readied for  her. The house the three of them “live” in is owned by another vampire, the successful actress Xenia (Anna Mouglalis, another standout here) who seems determined to give the wild child Mimi a second chance. Djuna, on the other hand, wants nothing to do with her sister and finds the new arrangement completely unsatisfactory, especially since she’s trying to start a new relationship with newbie vampire Paolo and all.

Djuna (Josephine de La Baume) initiates Paolo (Milo Ventimiglia) into the world of the undead in KISS OF THE DAMNED.

Djuna (Josephine de La Baume) initiates Paolo (Milo Ventimiglia) into the world of the undead, after some strenuous sex, in KISS OF THE DAMNED.

Of course, Mimi shows that Xenia’s trust in her was misguided, and Djuna was right all along, but not before she turns all of their lives upside down. One scene, where Mimi even tricks the totally-in-control Xenia into breaking one of her rules, is especially riveting.

KISS OF THE DAMNED is clearly a homage to the kind of European vampire film that was prevalent in the 70s and 80s, by filmmakers like the French master Jean Rollin (who gave us such classics as 1971’s REQUIEM FOR A VAMPIRE and FASCINATION, 1979), Spanish director Jess Franco (who gave us the classic VAMPYROS LESBOS, 1971) and Harry Kumel (Belgian director of the unforgettable DAUGHTERS OF DARKNESS, 1971). Most, if not all, of these kinds of movies focused on female vampires with European accents. From the stylized cinematography by Tobias Datum to the original score by Steven Hufsteter, KISS OF THE DAMNED clearly wears its influences on its sleeve and is intent on “bringing sexy back” to the vampire genre.

Director Xan Cassavetes (full name Alexandra Cassavetes, daughter of indie legend John Cassavetes) does a good job here, capturing the mood and the inherent claustrophobia of the nighttime blood-drinking set. Xan previously directed the documentary Z CHANNEL: A MAGNIFICENT OBSESSION, about one of the first pay cable stations to focus exclusively on art films in California and its many devoted followers, and acted in such films as ALPHA DOG (2006) and, when she was younger, some of her father’s films like A WOMAN UNDER THE INFLUENCE (1974) and MINNIE AND MOSKOWITZ (1971).

The cast emphasizes the European flavor of the proceedings. French actress Josephine de La Baume was previously in movies like ONE DAY (2011) and JOHNNY ENGLISH REBORN (also 2011). Roxane Mesquida, also from France, was previously in such diverse films as the Catherine Breillat films FAT GIRL (2001) and SEX IS A COMEDY (2002), as well as Greg Araki’s KABOOM (2010) and Quentin Dupieux’s RUBBER (also 2010).

American actor Milo Ventimiglia will probably be most familiar here to American audiences, mainly for playing Peter Petrelli in the TV series HEROES (2006 -2010). He’s also been in some interesting independent flicks since, like the horror film PATHOLOGY (2008), which I liked a lot. With a dark beard and smoldering eyes, Ventimiglia is a strong presence here, and holds his own quite well with the attractive women he plays opposite. There’s also a small turn by actor Michael Rappaport (COP LAND, 1997, and DEEP BLUE SEA, 1999) as Paolo’s clueless agent, Ben, who shows up unannounced at one point, wanting to see how Paolo’s latest screenplay is coming.

I’m a fan of the kinds of movies Xan Cassavetes is clearly trying to recapture here, and I think she does a pretty good job evoking the same sense of time and place, but I never had the feeling that KISS OF THE DAMNED was adding anything new to the genre. It all seemed like things we’ve seen before, and while it’s a stylish throwback to the days when vampire films were both sexy and chilling, it doesn’t have enough of an original voice to stand out.

Still, I’d rather see something as visually appetizing as KISS OF THE DAMNED than a hundred TWILIGHTs, so I don’t want to be too negative. I just wish it had been more ambitious and tried to do something different with this kind of storyline. As KISS OF THE DAMNED ended, I found myself wanting more of these characters, and at the same time realizing that they really didn’t have all that much to say.

I give KISS OF THE DAMNED, three knives. Not perfect, but it will still wash the foul taste of TWILIGHT out of your mouth.

© Copyright 2013 by L.L. Soares

Kiss-of-the-Damned-Retro

LL Soares gives KISS OF THE DAMNED ~three knives.

The Distracted Critic – ENTER NOWHERE (2011)

Posted in 2013, Enigmatic Films, Existential Horror, Indie Horror, Paul McMahon Columns, The Distracted Critic with tags , , , , , , , on May 15, 2013 by knifefighter

ENTER NOWHERE (2011)
Review by Paul McMahon – The Distracted Critic

Enter-Nowhere

ENTER NOWHERE is a film with aspirations. It wants to go places, get noticed, be remembered. It wants to be a contender.

A rough-looking couple enters a convenience store called Catena’s and walks directly to the furthermost corner without so much as a glance toward the attendant. They start making out and you get the definite feeling that this is a kiss for luck. Next thing you know, they’re both holding guns on the attendant and demanding all the money in the register. Once they have it, the man runs for the car, but his girl stays behind and demands the attendant open the safe.

“I’ll open it, but I don’t think you’ll like what’s inside.” He then challenges her about making the life decisions that have led her to be holding a gun on him. “You don’t even care that you’re going nowhere,” he says. She shoots him.

Title Card: ENTER NOWHERE

Now there’s another woman, lost and afraid, wandering through the woods. Her movements are clipped and tight. She comes to a cabin in the woods. Inside, she finds a backpack with a baggie full of granola and eats a fistful. Someone starts moving around outside the cabin. We see dark shoes approaching, see the head of an axe dragging in the dirt. The man with the axe, Tom, turns out to be a nice guy. Both he and the woman, Samantha, have been stranded here because of car trouble. Tom says he’s been here for a few days, but hasn’t been able to find a way out. While there’s no phone, they do have an antique two-way radio. Of course, it’s broken. Night falls, Samantha says she’s pregnant, and Tom lets her have the bed, volunteering to sleep on the floor.

The next morning, Tom sets out for her car, thinking he can siphon the gasoline from his crashed truck and use it to get Sam’s car running. While he’s gone, Sam hears someone else wandering around outside the cabin and opens the door to find the blonde girl from the opening segment, the one who shot the attendant, passed out on the porch. Samantha moves her inside the cabin where she wakes and is none to happy to be there. She tells Samantha her name is Jody, but that’s as friendly as she gets. When Tom returns and takes her lighter to start a fire to warm the cabin, she gets downright belligerent.

Later on, Jody makes an offhand comment to Samantha, asking why she’s way out in Wisconsin, and Samantha insists they’re in New Hampshire. Tom thinks them both crazy, because he knows for a fact that they’re in South Dakota. Each of them is absolutely sure where they are. A plane they can’t see passes overhead.

The next morning they set off together determined to walk until they reach civilization. After walking most of the day, Jody trips and falls hard to the ground. Sam discovers that she tripped on a trap door in the woods. They hope that whatever is behind this door will hold the answer to why they’ve been brought together, but they find only a bomb shelter filled with German antiques and old wine. They take what food they can carry and resume their walk, only to come upon the cabin again. “That’s impossible,” Jody says.

There are no clues snuck in just for the audience in this film. We get to discover what's going on along with the protagonists.

There are no clues snuck in just for the audience in this film. We get to discover what’s going on along with the protagonists.

All the elements are here to make a film people will notice and talk about for a long time. It’s got a premise we’ve seen before (most notably CUBE, 1997 and IDENTITY, 2003), strangers coming to an unfamiliar location with no inkling of why they’re there. The resolution is one that writers Shawn Christensen and Jason Dolan took some time to think up. First time director Jack Heller (the upcoming DARK WAS THE NIGHT, 2013) cites Roman Polanski and Alfred Hitchcock as role models, and truth be told you can imagine either director wanting to be at the helm of this story. This is one of those rare tales that is compelling because the audience learns what’s happening at the same pace that the characters do. Heller does a very good job with a limited budget. His credits previous to this include work as a producer on seven movies. It’s plain to see that he’s spent a lot of time on set, watching directors work.

Sara Paxton (THE INNKEEPERS, 2011) plays Jody, and she makes this character pop off the screen. This is a woman who’s had nothing easy her entire life and has learned to act out in anger, causing pain to everyone she meets before they have the chance to hurt her. Katherine Waterson (MICHAEL CLAYTON, 2007 and ROBOT & FRANK, 2012) plays Samantha, and at first I thought her rigidity was an acting fault, but later on we learn that it’s entirely reasonable behavior for her character. Scott Eastwood (GRAN TORINO, 2008 and TEXAS CHAINSAW 3D, 2013), son of legendary actor/ director Clint Eastwood, plays Tom. His character is a “nice guy,” almost to a fault. There were times that he seemed disconnected from what was happening, though, at times so profoundly that it pulled me from the spell of the story.

For all its desire to be an important film, there are a few logic lapses that throw a bump in the narrative flow, as well as one blatant “goof” that had me rewinding the scene to be sure I saw it correctly. I did.

I saw a lot of promise here, for the director, for the writers, for the actors. While the film itself is pretty good, I wouldn’t urge you to go out of your way to hunt it down. At the same time, I wouldn’t recommend you avoid it at all costs, either.

Apparently, this classic model car was equipped with power windows when it was made.

Apparently, this classic model car was equipped with power windows when it was made.

I give ENTER NOWHERE two stars, with three timeouts.

© Copyright 2013 by Paul McMahon

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!

THE LORDS OF SALEM (2013)

Posted in 2013, Demons, Devil Movies, Indie Horror, Intense Movies, LL Soares Reviews, Monster Babies, Nightmares, Rob Zombie Films, Strange Cinema, Witchcraft, Witches with tags , , , , , , , , , on April 23, 2013 by knifefighter

THE LORDS OF SALEM (2013)
Movie Review by L.L. Soares

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I’ve been a fan of Rob Zombie’s for quite a long time now. First his music, then his movies when he started directing, beginning with HOUSE OF 1,000 CORPSES (2003), which I liked a lot, and then THE DEVIL’S REJECTS (2005), which I pretty much loved. Then he made his two movies in the HALLOWEEN franchise (2007 and 2009), and while they had some good moments, they were disappointments over all. So I’ve been really itching to see him back to making low budget films based on his own characters. The HALLOWEEN stuff just wasn’t a good fit.

His new movie, THE LORDS OF SALEM, is a step in the right direction.

Gone is the studio oppression. And a lower budget means Rob can stay true to his vision. So just what is his vision for LORDS OF SALEM? Well, I better add a disclaimer. Not everyone is going to dig this movie. But I had a lot of fun with it.

It begins in 1692 Salem, Mass. with the coven of Margaret Morgan (an almost unrecognizable Meg Foster, who was also in John Carpenter’s THEY LIVE, 1988, and a lot more movies and TV series). Margaret is a genuine Satan-worshipping, baby killing monster of a witch. No Mother-Earth loving Wiccan is she. When she cuts open a pregnant woman, in order to sacrifice her child to Satan, Reverend Jonathan Hawthorne (Andrew Prine, star of lots of cool 70s flicks like SIMON, KING OF THE WITCHES, 1971) has her and her coven rounded up and executed for their crimes. But, of course, Margaret curses Hawthorne and his bloodline before she dies.

Skip to modern-day Salem, Mass., where the Reverend’s descendent, Heidi Hawthorne (Sheri Moon Zombie), is a recovering drug addict and a DJ at a local radio station, along with Herman Jackson (Ken Foree, who you’ve got to remember from Romero’s DAWN OF THE DEAD, 1978) and Whitey (Jeff Daniel Phillips, looking a lot like a stand-in for Rob Zombie, he was most recently in the above-average revenge movie FASTER, 2010). The three of them do a “morning zoo” type show during the late night hours, and things get weird when they get a visit from a death metal singer named Count Gorgann (Torsten Voges), who goes on a blasphemous rant about his philosophy of life. Things get even weirder when a mysterious vinyl record shows up for Heidi in an antique wooden box, addressed simply from “The Lords.” The music it plays has a very strange effect on Heidi and some of the women of Salem who hear it.

The-Lords-of-Salem-poster #2There’s also Heidi’s deceptively friendly landlady, Lacy (Judy Geeson, TO SIR WITH LOVE, 1967) and her “sisters” Sonny (Dee Wallace, whose resume includes such classic films as the original HILLS HAVE EYES, 1977, E.T. THE EXTRATERRESTRIAL, 1982, CUJO, 1983, and more recently in Chris Sivertson’s adaptation of Jack Ketchum’s THE LOST, 2006) and Megan (Patricia Quinn, Magenta herself from THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW, 1975). These three ladies would fit in just fine in a production of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, if you know what I mean. They set Margaret Morgan’s curse into modern-day action.

The curse manifests itself in Room # 5 of the house where Heidi lives – an apartment long empty (and presumably un-rentable) that has now become some kind of portal into Hell, complete with a very strange-looking dwarf monster in a rubber suit at one point (the scenes with this dwarf demon are equally funny—because of the low-budget look of the monster —and weird, but actually work in a bizarre way). As Whitey slowly becomes aware of his true feelings for Heidi, he tries to save her. Also in heroic mode is Bruce Davison (WILLARD, 1971 and THE CRUCIBLE, 1996), as a writer and expert on historical witchcraft who is a guest on Heidi’s radio show, and figures out what is going on. But they’re up against some particularly formidable nasties.

There’s a scene towards the end that is pure Rob Zombie, a series of images that play out as a prolonged acid trip, and it’s stuff like this that makes THE LORDS OF SALEM so enjoyable. Yesterday, Michael Arruda and I reviewed the new Tom Cruise movie, OBLIVION, and opined that, despite the huge budget, the movie was kind of hollow because of a weak story, and a sanitized feel. THE LORDS OF SALEM is the exact opposite of something like OBLIVION. With a very low budget, Rob has to be more creative in putting his vision onscreen (thus that funny-looking demon) , and yet, because it is such a personal vision—and he has such a unique style—LORDS just seems more satisfying. Where OBLIVION is sterile and perfectly manicured, LORDS is dirty and depraved— coming at us warts-and-all—but that’s fine, because this is a horror movie after all.

There are parts of this movie that reminded me of Roman Polanski’s ROSEMARY’S BABY (1968, an inevitable comparison), and some of the flashbacks from the 1600s had a slightly BLACK SUNDAY (1960) feel to them; there’s also a bit of the insanity from something like Andzej Zulawksi’s 1981 film, POSSESSION (that crazy dwarf demon) and the films of Alejandro Jodorowksy. The acting is mostly right on, especially Sheri Moon Zombie, who is becoming quite an effective leading lady for this kind of thing. There are some scenes that have her doing very bizarre things, but she’s a trooper, and you truly care about her character (frankly, I wanted an even deeper look at her life before the curse kicks in). I found myself wishing that more directors would use her in their movies (although Mr. Zombie has been giving her some plum roles over the years, it’s not just because she’s his wife –  she has actually done a good job with them).

I would have had liked to see more of Ken Foree’s character (we only get a taste of what he can do as an actor here), and Jeff Daniel Phillips and Bruce Davison are good as the forces of good (I’m actually a big fan of Davison, and have been since the original WILLARD, and was happy to see him here, as well as the great Andrew Prine in what is, unfortunately, little more than a cameo). And the witches—well, they’re just terrific here, and probably the main reason to see the movie (aside from Sheri).

There’s also a very strong 70s feel to the movie, starting with the opening credits-on, which should come as no surprise to fans of his films. Zombie has been strongly influenced by the horror films of the 1970s, which is just fine with me. I consider the 70s to be one of the two main golden ages of cinema, the other being the 1930s. And, like some of the witch films from the 70s, there are some clichés of the genre here, but there’s also enough originality to keep things fresh.

THE LORDS OF SALEM is in limited release right now (only one theater in my area was showing it, so it’s not going to be easy for some people to find), but it deserves a wider audience. Also, before the movie was released, a book came out by Rob Zombie (with B.K. Evenson), which is a novelization of the film. Or rather, it is based on the first version of the script, before budgetary constraints forced Zombie to change a lot to save money. Reading the novel, which is presumably what he originally intended to do on film, it’s fun to compare this to what actually got made. I’m about 100 pages into the book, and already there are some interesting changes between his original concept and the finished film.

The novel version of THE LORDS OF SALEM is also available now.

The novel version of THE LORDS OF SALEM is also available now.

Since the HALLOWEEN films, I have been eager to see Rob Zombie go back to his roots and give us something that was truly his own. He really should try to avoid directing remakes of other people’s films. His style is just too idiosyncratic to be used to present other people’s ideas. Like a Jodorowsky or a David Lynch, his best work is that which originates with him.

As I said before, a lot of people might not enjoy this movie as much as I did. The attempts at characterization might be a little slow for some people, and Zombie’s style during the weird stuff might be too bizarre for them. But for me, everything kind of clicked, and I was really pulled into this film. I loved the feel of it, the strong sense of atmosphere, and the imagery here. I do not think it is Rob Zombie’s best work (that remains THE DEVIL’S REJECTS), but after two steps back, this is a big step forward toward getting him back on track in making the kinds of movies only he can make, and I hope he gives us many more films in the future.

Welcome back, Rob. I give this one three and a half knives.

© Copyright 2013 by L.L. Soares

LL Soares gives THE LORDS OF SALEM ~three and a half knives.

Cinema Knife Fight/New Filmmakers Edition: CELL COUNT (2012)

Posted in 2013, Body Horror, Cinema Knife Fights, Conspiracy Theories, Disease!, Indie Horror, Mad Doctors!, Mutants!, New Filmmmakers, Science Fiction with tags , , , , , , on March 25, 2013 by knifefighter

CINEMA KNIFE FIGHT.NEW FILMMAKERS EDITION
CELL COUNT (2012) Directed by TODD E. FREEMAN
Review by Michael Arruda & L.L. Soares

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(THE SCENE: A lab, almost prison-like, with plain gray walls, and security doors and cameras all around.  Several “patients” sit around a table.  The security door buzzes open and MICHAEL ARRUDA & L.L. SOARES enter wearing lab coats.)

L.L. SOARES:  Welcome everyone to a special edition of CINEMA KNIFE FIGHT.  Today we bring you the latest installment in our “Up-and-Coming Filmmaker” series, where we review movies by new directors who are trying to make a name for themselves.

MICHAEL ARRUDA:  So today we are reviewing CELL COUNT (2012) by writer/director Todd E. Freeman.

But let me say first, that our good friend, best-selling author Rick Hautala passed away unexpectedly on Thursday, and both out of respect for Rick and his family, and out of genuine grief, I’m not much in the mood for joking today.  I almost prefer a straight review.

LS: I agree that it was sad news, but knowing Rick, I don’t think he’d want us to tone down the column on his account.

MA:  True.  For me, it’s more that I’m not in a joking mood this weekend, but I don’t see why we couldn’t throw in a few jokes here and there, I guess.

Anyway, let’s get things started.  CELL COUNT  is—.

PATIENT #1:  Excuse me?  What are we doing here exactly?

LS:  You’re our audience.

PATIENT #1:  We didn’t sign up for this.  We’re supposed to be—.

(LS suddenly Tasers the guy, who falls to the floor, writhing in pain.)

LS:  You’re also the comic relief.  Anyone else have any questions?

(Other patients shake their heads.)

LS:  Good. Let’s continue.

MA:  So much for toning things down.

As I was saying, CELL COUNT is a science fiction horror movie about a group of people subjected to one very weird and unsettling medical experiment.

The film opens with Russell Carpenter (Robert McKeehen) comforting his dying wife Sadie (Haley Talbot) in a hospital.  It’s clear that these two are very much in love. Russell is informed by Dr. Victor Brandt (Christopher Toyne) that his wife is going to die in no uncertain terms, unless…and then he makes Russell an offer.  He tells Russell that he’s involved with a special study that is seeking test subjects like his wife in order to treat this deadly disease.  He tells Russell that he can guarantee his wife will be cured. But Russell will have to be part of the experiment as well if he wants to come with her.

I guess Russell never heard “if it sounds too good to be true, it really isn’t” because he agrees…

LS: Of course he agrees! He doesn’t want to lose his wife.

MA: … and he and Sadie find themselves inside a weird prison-like facility with other “patients.”  All of them have small incisions in their chests, where Dr. Brandt supposedly implanted the powerful viral cure into their bodies.  In addition to these patients, there are also two “special” patients housed in a secure part of the building—two convicted criminals who are highly dangerous.

Cell-Count-2012-Todd-Freeman-movie-3When the group begins to suffer from weird side effects, they begin to suspect that something is wrong, and they discover that Dr. Brandt’s vision of a cure isn’t quite what they expected.  They’ve been implanted with a strange worm-like creature that burrows out of their mouths at will, and does some other things as well, like one wrapping itself around its victim’s face, forming a mask that resembles an alien in a bad science fiction movie.

LS: I actually thought the “mask face” thing looked pretty cool.

MA: I liked the idea of the “mask face” but I didn’t think it looked good.  It looked like Dumb Donald from FAT ALBERT.

So, it’s up to Russell and Sadie to lead their fellow patients out of Dr. Brandt’s high security lab, while trying to defeat the monstrous “cure” that they now have inside their bodies, a cure put there so it can literally eat the disease. The trouble is it devours other things as well.

(Patient #1 keels over onto the floor, and a large worm-like creature oozes out of his mouth.  LS Tasers the worm creature and then stabs it with a giant fork.  He carries it across the lab and deposits it into a huge pot.)

LS:  Gotta let this simmer.

PATIENT:  I’m cured!  I’m cured!  Thank you for curing me!

LS:  Keep your shirt on.  You’re not cured yet.

PATIENT: I’m not?

LS:  Not until after you’ve had my soup.

MA:  If you survive his soup, (Points to large pot on stove.) you’re cured.

PATIENT:  Couldn’t I just take a pill instead?

LS:  And skip my all-natural worm soup du jour?  No way, buddy.  Soup for everyone!

(There is a collective groan.)

MA: I hear it tastes like chicken.

Anyway, CELL COUNT succeeded in drawing me in initially.  I liked the opening scene where Russell comforts his wife, and then listens as Dr. Brandt entices him with his offer to cure her.  Anyone who’s had to deal with very sick loved ones can attest to the temptation of doing whatever it takes to cure that person, no matter how unconventional the method may seem.  So I bought this set-up.

LS: Yeah, I got hooked early on, too. While I don’t think they ever actually say it’s cancer during the course of the movie (they just say “the disease”), it seems pretty obvious that’s what is going on here. And it would make sense that people would do just about anything to avoid the inevitable.

MA: I liked the acting performances, even if they weren’t as polished as you might find in a mainstream movie.  I enjoyed Robert McKeehen in the lead role as Russell Carpenter.  He made for a believable hero, and I bought that he’d go the extreme route to save his wife.  Admittedly, there were a few scenes where his performance was uneven—the scene where he first sees the worm thingie climb out of someone’s throat, for instance, his over the top reaction made me laugh out loud.  I don’t think that was the reaction he was looking for.

LS: Yeah, I agree there are a few missteps, but overall, McKeehan is really good here. He looked like an elongated, big-eyed Christoph Waltz to me at times.

MA: I also enjoyed Haley Talbot as his wife Sadie.

LS: Sadie was my favorite character. Once she gets “better” and has a major role in what’s going on, I found her strong and very likable. Despite “the disease,” I think she’s the strongest one in the movie. Kudos to Haley Talbot.

MA: I agree.  Christopher Toyne made for an effectively mysterious Dr. Victor Brandt, although at times, especially towards the end of the movie, he tends to overact.

LS: I actually thought was a little over-the-top from the first time we meet him. He’s effective here, but he does tend to ham it up. Which isn’t completely bad. He’s entertaining at least. He’s just not as believable as some of the other characters, and you distrust his motives right away.

MA: The supporting cast is actually very good.  Adrienne Vogel and John Breen stand out as fellow patients Mary Porter and Billy Mayor, and Ted Rooney’s performance as Abraham Walker, one of the “violent inmates,” who it turns out isn’t such a bad guy after all, is especially memorable.

LS: I liked Rooney a lot. Don’t forget Judd Eustice as  Timothy“Tiny Tim” Jacobs, He’s the other dangerous criminal who “agreed” to be part of the experiment, and he’s pretty creepy. He’s the closest thing the movie has to a human villain, except for maybe Dr. Brandt.

MA: Even one of the Baldwin brothers shows up, Daniel Baldwin, in what amounts to nothing more than a cameo, so I guess someone needed a paycheck!

LS: Yeah, what was up with that? I know he was hired to give the movie a little bit of star power, but his role actually made me laugh. He comes onscreen like he’s some heroic figure, but he’s actually kind of a dud.

MA: Again, the set-up to the story works.  I believed that these people would subject themselves to this kind of test treatment if they believed they would be cured.  The middle part of the movie, where you really weren’t certain as to what was going on, and who to trust or who to believe, reminded me a little bit of some those early episodes from the TV show LOST, where you weren’t sure what Benjamin Linus and his family of “Others” were up to.

LS: This movie looks great. But I had trouble understanding some of the motivations here. And the way the “facility” was set up—I know this abandoned prison must have seemed like an amazing location to set a film, and it is—but there were more than a few things that didn’t make sense to me.

For example, in one part, Billy takes Russell through the facility. You have to press your hand against a pad so that it can identify you and give you access to certain areas. They go to this locker room where Billy’s dog, The Kid, is. We hear Dr. Brandt tell them that they shouldn’t really be interacting with the animals that are part of the experiment, but then he pretty much says it doesn’t matter. Later, in another scene, Mary Porter brings the dog back to where the people are, and Dr. Brandt comes to visit. He doesn’t have any problem with them having the dog there. Then why make an issue of it initially?

MA:  Yeah, that didn’t make any sense to me either.

LS:  Also, characters are able to get into the section of the facility where the dangerous criminals are located. When they get to that area, a recorded voice tells them that this is a dangerous area, and they should turn back. Why not just have the door there coded so that it denies access? That didn’t make any sense to me.

MA:  Right.  I kept thinking there was a reason Dr. Brandt wanted his test subjects to interact with the dangerous criminals, but we’re never given that reason.  And then later the recorded voice does announce that it’s time to intermingle, and the dangerous prisoners are released, but for what reason is never explained.

LS:  There’s another scene where they “coax” one of the worm monsters out of someone, and instead of trying to pull it out when it makes an appearance, they simply take this as a sign that the person in question is beyond help. Why not just try to get it to come out again and grab it?

MA: And, when it gets to pay-off time, the film falters.  First off, visually, the special effects weren’t all that special.  I’ve seen worse, but the effects here weren’t good enough for me to buy into them.  And several key moments, which could have made for some very dark grisly scenes, were glossed over, as the camera would cut away at the last minute.  I expected that this was going to turn into a gruesome—or at the very least, intense—horror movie, but it never reaches that level.

LS: Well, this is a low-budget movie (although, once again, it looks great). So it makes sense that in certain scenes, the camera cuts away. They probably couldn’t afford to show everything they wanted to.

I didn’t think the effects were bad. For the most part, they worked for me. I really liked how Tiny Tim’s insides come out of his mouth and then cover his head for that “bag head” effect. That was pretty cool. The worm thingies weren’t perfect, but they looked good, too.

MA: At times, it seems to be striving for that WALKING DEAD feel—a story about a group of survivors against a deadly threat—and while the characters in this movie are somewhat interesting—enough so that in a better movie I’d follow their plight—the situations they find themselves in here never become so riveting that I was really into it.

For the most part, I liked the story, as written by writer/director Todd E. Freeman, but I certainly could have used more information.  I never really had a firm grasp on what the cure was or even what the disease was.  I understood the reactions of the victims, but I didn’t understand the motives of the guy causing all the trouble, Dr. Brandt, other than a generalized notion that he was seeking a “cure.”  While the patients seemed real, Dr. Brandt played like a mad scientist in a bad science fiction movie.

LS: I wasn’t always clear why people did the things they did. Motivations seemed cloudy to me. It was almost like they did things to further the story, but they weren’t necessarily things that made sense.

I just thought that the script, also by director Todd Freeman, was the weakest aspect of the movie.

And yeah, Dr. Brandt does seem like your typical mad doctor. It would have been nice if he had more depth to him. Early on, he says that he was the first patient to be experimented on, when they first created the cure. That was a step into humanizing him more, but the script really doesn’t flesh him out much more than that.

MA: Behind the camera, director Freeman does an adequate job, but his effort needed to be stronger.  There are some cool scenes here, but at the end of the day, it’s simply not enough.  The film needed more of an edge.  Perhaps it was budget restrictions that caused those unfortunate cutaways and mediocre special effects.  If this was the case, then more creative direction should have been in order.  I just wasn’t feeling it at the end.

LS: I wasn’t completely sold on the ending, either. I wasn’t clear on why some of the characters did what they did.

MA: But I’ve seen much worse, and for the 90 minutes I spent watching CELL COUNT, I was entertained.

I give it two knives.

LS: I thought there were a lot of strong aspects about this movie. I liked Freeeman’s direction for the most part, the actors were mostly good, the effects decent (considering the budget constraints), and I just thought the movie looked slick and professional (the cinematography is by “The Brothers Freeman,” i.e., Todd and Jason Freeman). But the script was uneven. I give it two knives as well.

But I do see a lot of potential here, and I’d be interested in seeing what Freeman does next.

MA: Well, we’re done here. I guess it’s time we headed out.

(DR. BRANDT suddenly bursts into the room)

DR. BRANDT: No, you cannot leave. It is too dangerous. The “cure” has infected you.

LS: What are you talking about? We didn’t have any surgery to have the cure implanted in us.

DR. BRANDT: But you did eat the meatloaf in the cafeteria!

MA: Oh no. I thought that tasted funny.

DR. BRANDT: Yes, you must stay here in Quarantine now, until I am ready to extract the cure.

LS: Screw that (Tasers Dr. Brandt, who writhes on the floor)

MA: Nice job.

LS (to other patients): Let’s blow this joint. I hear Daniel Baldwin has a bus ready for our escape. If he can start it up!

-END-

© Copyright 2013 by Michael Arruda and L.L. Soares

Michael Arruda gives CELL COUNT ~ two knives!

LL Soares gives CELL COUNT ~two knives.