Archive for the The Distracted Critic Category

The Reassessment Files takes a second look at THE PROPHECY (1995)

Posted in 1990s Horror, 2013, Angels, Christopher Walken Movies, Paul McMahon Columns, Reassessment Files, Supernatural, The Distracted Critic with tags , , , , , , on June 12, 2013 by knifefighter

THE PROPHECY (1995)
A “Reassessment File” by Paul McMahon, the “Distracted Critic”

P - VHS coverIt will come as a no-brainer to anyone reading this that I’m into horror movies. I have favorites outside the genre, of course, as well as a brother who is a full-fledged movie buff who has introduced me to a great many films I would not have chanced without his urging. One memorable night a number of years ago, he showed up at my place waving a VHS box at me. “I have a horror movie you’ve never heard of!” he said. At the moment I would have snickered at his folly, he dropped THE PROPHECY in my lap. “It’s Christopher Walken playing a bad angel. You’re gonna love it!”

The movie held my attention throughout. At the time, I was reading a great many books on the philosophy of religion, comparing theologies between Sky Father faiths and Earth Mother beliefs. While THE PROPHECY didn’t delve into this head-on, it did bring the two together in an interesting way. Not interesting enough for me to remember the specifics, though. Whenever discussion of the movie has come up, I’ve remembered that I watched it, but couldn’t recall anything beyond Christopher Walken playing a bad angel.

Looking back, I don’t remember anything significant about it, so I’d retro-actively rate it a single star. Recently, due to the urging of another friend, I dug up a copy and popped it in to see if I’d missed some deeper worth years ago.

We open with a voice over tale of the first war of Heaven and the banishment of Lucifer along with a third of heaven’s legion of angels. God’s elevation of man over angels precipitated the second war of Heaven, which split the remaining legion in half, leaving the sides locked in a stalemate that has kept the gates of Heaven closed since the beginning of time. The Angel Gabriel has come to Earth—where angels are mortal—with a plan to break the stalemate by stealing an evil human’s “dark soul” and making it fight for his side, thus breaking the stalemate and winning Heaven.

From here, we are dropped into a church. There is Latin, clouds of incense, a Cardinal, bishops, and deacons awaiting Ordination as priests. We’ll choose to ignore the major movie goof of a completely empty church behind them– ordinations are typically SRO.  Deacon Thomas is called. Anyone with a passing acquaintance with Sunday School knows that a character named Thomas in a religion-themed movie will lose his faith. As Deacon Thomas lies prone before the feet of the Cardinal, he is assaulted by visions of bloodied angels that make him cry out and turn away. In the very next scene, Thomas is a LAPD detective standing on a rooftop and looking down at the city—taking in an angel’s perspective, if you will.

Now it’s time for more exposition as the Angel Uziel drops in on the Angel Simon, who has been sent by God to keep the dark human soul from Gabriel. Simon throws Uziel out of an apartment window, where he is crushed by an out-of-control automobile that is barreling down that exact dead-end alley at that exact time. By the reactions of the investigating officers, they never expected to find anyone behind the wheel and aren’t at all concerned that no one’s there.

Here comes Deacon Detective Thomas. He pokes around Simon’s apartment and finds an obituary for a Colonel Arnold Hawthorne from Chimney Rock, Arizona; a theological text that Thomas himself wrote back in the day; and an ancient, hand-written Bible that contains a twenty-third chapter of the Book of Revelations. “There is no twenty-third chapter,” he tells the medical examiner. After Gabriel incinerates Uziel’s body on the floor of the morgue, leaving nothing for the medical examiner to investigate, Thomas decides to head to Chimney Rock, because apparently the LAPD has no budget to telephone law enforcement in Arizona to follow up on leads, and, apparently, there are no jurisdiction lines in this movie, so Thomas’s LAPD badge gives him carte blanche across state lines.

Simon steals and then hides the dark soul in a school girl who was nice to him, because nothing displays eternal gratitude like jamming the soul of a cannibalistic war criminal into someone’s head. Gabriel finds Simon and tortures him, but Simon will not reveal the location of the soul. Thomas enters Hawthorne’s apartment and discovers a trunk full of evidence that the deceased Colonel is a Korean War criminal, because criminals like this keep mementos of their crimes out in the open for easy access on the off chance that an out-of-his-jurisdiction cop will show up without a warrant to poke through their belongings. Shaken, Thomas enters a local church to contemplate his situation. Gabriel appears in the pew behind him and freaks him out by knowing things about him that he shouldn’t. Then Gabriel disappears, forgetting to warn Thomas off the case, or fooling him with a false trail, or anything else

Proof that Gabriel is an angel and not a man-- when he gets lost he actually stops to ask for directions. (His assistant here is played by Amanda Plummer, PULP FICTION (1994).

Proof that Gabriel is an angel and not a man– when he gets lost he actually stops to ask for directions. (His assistant here is played by Amanda Plummer, PULP FICTION (1994).

Gregory Widen, best known for writing 1991’s incredible firefighter movie BACKDRAFT, wrote and directed this one. He does everything by the numbers here, using tried and true camera angles throughout and taking no risks, thereby failing to put a personal touch on the work. The writing is circular and hollow, silly in places, and doesn’t hold up to the slightest theological scrutiny.

When the movie ended, I remembered my brother’s words from so long ago. “It’s Christopher Walken playing a bad angel,” and that is part and parcel of this film. In fact, that’s what they should’ve written on the back of the VHS box. Walken acts creepy and delivers his lines in that halting, oddly emphasized way of his. There’s a feeling of “That was cool” when the final credits roll, but nothing more substantial than that. Walken has made a career out of this unique delivery, utilizing it in such films as THE DEER HUNTER (1978), BILOXI BLUES (1988), PULP FICTION (1994), SUICIDE KINGS (1997) and SEVEN PSYCHOPATHS (2012)…. He’s got 123 titles listed on IMDb, and all of them have in common the “Walken Mystique.” I’ve heard it said that if you’re a casting director in Hollywood and you need to fill the “Walken Type,” you are stuck with having to cast Christopher Walken or re-define the type. This is his movie, plain and simple.

Viggo Mortensen and Elias Koteas share a moment in THE PROPHECY. If he'd had more screen time in his surprise role, Viggo would have stolen this movie from Christopher Walken

Viggo Mortensen and Elias Koteas share a moment in THE PROPHECY. If he’d had more screen time in his surprise role, Viggo would have stolen this movie from Christopher Walken

Elias Koteas, (LET ME IN, 2010), plays Thomas Dagget. He does a good job with the role, but with 82 titles beneath his name, he hasn’t exactly created a “Koteas Mystique.” Eric Stoltz,(MASK, 1985 and also PULP FICTION), shines as the angel Simon. He’s been in 115 movies, and what little I can find of a “Stoltz Mystique” is not very flattering. As the film rolls along, there’s a surprise role played by Viggo Mortensen, known mainly for playing Aragorn in Peter Jackson’s LORD OF THE RINGS TRILOGY (2001-2003) and Tom Stahl in David Cronenberg’s HISTORY OF VIOLENCE (2005). With only 55 titles to his credit, Viggo is well on his way to establishing a “Mortensen Mystique.” Virginia Madsen plays Katherine, the school teacher who teams up with Thomas to protect the possessed child from Gabriel. She will be best known as the protagonist of CANDYMAN (1992). She also played Tommy Lee Jones’s love interest in 1988’s GOTHAM. There is definitely a “Virginia Madsen Mystique,” but it may only affect me….

Altogether, watching this one a second time after so long, I was slightly more impressed with it story-wise, however it still felt like there was way more unsaid and unexamined than showed up on the screen, and I don’t mean that in a good way. Still, there was a lot of interesting acting from both Christopher Walken and Viggo Mortensen, and I’m always interested in watching Virginia Madsen grace the screen. If your aim is to watch any of these actors do their thing, you could pick far better showcases for their work. The story here remains uncompelling and unmemorable.

Original rating: 1 star.

Reassessment: 1 star.

© Copyright 2013 by Paul McMahon

 P - British cover

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The Distracted Critic visits HOUSE (2008)

Posted in 2013, Christian Horror, Haunted Houses, Paul McMahon Columns, The Distracted Critic with tags , , , , , , on May 29, 2013 by knifefighter

HOUSE (2008)
Review by Paul McMahon – The Distracted Critic

H - dvd

I watched HOUSE by accident. It was a drab and boring night and I was flipping through Netflix Instant Watch when I saw the listing and thought, “William Katt? George Wendt? Richard Moll? That was a fun movie!” I clicked the title and saw that this one starred Reynaldo Rosales “Never heard of him.” Heidi Dippold “Who?” and J.P. Davis “I thought he died… no, that was J.T. Walsh.” Just as I was going to flip away from it, I noticed that the director’s last name was Henson “Brian Henson? I loved his NIGHTMARES AND DREAMSCAPES episode ‘Battleground’!” I clicked PLAY.

The opening was pretty cool, interspersing a tale of a woman being stalked by her husband with the names of the cast. Names like Michael Madsen, Bill Moseley, Leslie Easterbrook and Lew Temple. With a cast like that, I decided to stick around.

We meet a couple driving through Alabama, obviously lost. Jack Singleton (Rosales), a stereotypical man, acts like if he can just drive fast enough he’ll magically arrive at someplace he knows. Stephanie Singleton (Dippold), his wife, hounds him to slow down. He screams “BE QUIET!” at her a few times, but doesn’t slow down. A cop passes them, giving a few blips of his siren as a warning. As they argue about the meaning of the cop’s actions, they come across a wreck and almost run the cop over. Jack apologizes, his wife flirts like crazy, and instead of ticketing them for speeding or reckless endangerment or failure to yield, he tells them a shortcut back to the highway.

The cop is played by Michael Madsen who has 217 actor credits on IMDb. He’s been a ton of different characters throughout his career, but I will only ever think of him as the ear-collecting Mr. Blonde in Quentin Tarrantino’s 1992 RESEVOIR DOGS.

Michael Madsen plays the cop, the chicken's role is uncredited.

Michael Madsen plays the cop. The chicken’s role is uncredited.

Jack and Stephanie head off on the shortcut but don’t get far before they hit a chunk of metal in the road that punctures two of their tires. They pass another car with tire trouble as they walk for help. No surprise, they come upon the same old house where the man hunted his wife in the opening montage of the movie.

They find a guestbook in the front hall, but Jack and Stephanie do not sign it. All they want is the use of a phone so they can be on their way… and that’s what they’d ask for if anyone was around. They call out a few times and then another couple comes down the stairs, Randy (Davis) and Leslie (Julie Ann Emery). Randy incorrectly assumes Jack owns the place. Jack correctly assumes Randy owns the disabled Beemer back on the road. They discuss what to do next, and are interrupted by a very creepy looking guy who looks at Leslie and says: “You’re purdy.”

Lightning flashes outside, and suddenly there’s a woman standing on the other side of the room. She introduces herself as Betty. She says the creepy guy is her son Pete, and her husband Stewart is fixing the fuse. She says the rates are twenty dollars a night, per person. Randy asks if that includes food and Betty says there’s enough to go around. “But you gotta clean up,” she says. “Only pigs… eat in their own muck.”

Betty is played by Leslie Easterbrook, Pete by Lew Temple and Stewart by Bill Moseley. They’ve each got dozens of acting credits, but they’ll be best remembered by readers of this site by another film they did together, Rob Zombie’s 2005 masterpiece, THE DEVIL’S REJECTS.

Mother and Otis Firefly are reunited with Adam Banjo in Robby Henson's 2008 movie HOUSE.

Mother and Otis Firefly are reunited with Adam Banjo in Robby Henson’s 2008 movie HOUSE.

As the couples dine, a commotion rises outside and the “family” panics and starts locking all the doors and windows. Betty starts yelling at the two young couples, scolding them for bringing the “Tinman” to their home. A tin can is dropped down the chimney, and upon it has been written the House Rules. “Rule number one: God came into my house, and I killed Him. Rule number two: I will kill anyone who comes into my house like I killed God. Rule number three: Give me one dead body before sunrise, and I’ll let rule number two slide.” With this reveal, their night of survival begins.

There was a lot that struck me as “off” about this film. There was no profanity that I could recognize. Though Leslie wore a dress that revealed a good amount of cleavage, at no point was there nudity. On top of that, creative cutaways kept the violence—the horror-movie money shots—off screen. Those were just the stylistic oddities. The philosophical oddities were subtle but even more disturbing.

Leslie’s childhood was terrorized by sexual abuse perpetrated by her uncle. The onus for this is placed squarely on her for being “an evil temptress,” not just by the creepy backwater family, but by everyone present. Jack and Stephanie’s marriage was shattered by the accidental death of their daughter. Again, it’s accepted by everyone present that the onus for that is entirely on Stephanie. Jack is the poor soul doomed to shoulder her failure for the rest of his life—even though we’ve seen in flashback that Jack had been present when the accident happened, but was too busy working to even speak civilly to his daughter. I began to feel irritated by this movie.

Horror films have long gotten a bad rap for being misogynistic. For every film that depicts a strong female character that tries to survive instead of relying on a man to save her, you can find dozens that treat women like baggage the male characters have to coddle, protect and lug around. While the women in HOUSE seemed stronger than your average horror movie fodder, the movie reared its misogynous head in a creepily different way. It played as if everything bad that ever happened was a woman’s fault. It’s even implied early on that Jack would never have had any trouble driving if Stephanie hadn’t been nagging him.

As the plot entered its endgame, the characters began to speak Christian-ese. That’s when I realized what was going on. Christian-ese is a language Christians use when they don’t want non-Christians to realize they’re being preached to. It wasn’t until the end credits that we were told the movie was “Based on a novel by Frank Peretti and Ted Dekker.” For those unfamiliar with the culture, Peretti and Dekker are Christian novelists who sell insane amounts of books. A novel penned by them side-by-side is the Christian equivalent of Stephen King and Peter Straub’s THE TALISMAN. Had I seen that credit at the start of the film (and there was no hint of it, I went back and checked), the “Original Sin” attitude of the movie wouldn’t have taken me by surprise.

Robby Henson has directed Christian horror before, 2006’s THR3E. To many, the phrase “Christian horror” sounds as satisfying as “diet cotton candy” or “virtual hug.” It’s an interesting phrase, but it’s bound to lose something in the practical world. The vast majority of fans do not appreciate horror movies with explicit “Good wins over all” endings. POLTERGEIST III (1988) and THE DEATHS OF IAN STONE (2007) leap to mind as examples. Both of these films came across as sermons. HOUSE isn’t quite as heavy-handed as that, though the movie hopes to convince you you’re a sinner so that you’ll dedicate your life Christian ideologies. I’m not going to judge whether or not the film succeeds at that. I only have to judge its merits as a horror film.

If you want the experience of watching “Christian horror,” then I’d have to say that this is a movie to check out. Not only does it boast a fairly lucid plot (Christian sensibilities and philosophies aside), you get to enjoy Michael Madsen and horror movie cult favorites Bill Moseley and Leslie Easterbrook chewing the scenery as only they can. If, however, you’re after a really good horror movie, then I’d have to recommend you steer clear. Hunt down something better… like, say, Brian Henson’s awesome short movie “Battleground.”

I’m gonna give HOUSE two stars, which surprises me, but it’s possible I was enthralled with seeing Mr. Blonde and Otis Firefly onscreen together. I kept hoping they’d break into an Epic Rap Battle. As for timeouts, there were three– a “trinity” of them, as it were.

Reynaldo Rosales is Jack and Heidi Dippold is Stephanie, who are terrorized in the HOUSE.

Reynaldo Rosales as Jack and Heidi Dippold as Stephanie are terrorized in the HOUSE.

© Copyright 2013 by Paul McMahon

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

The Distracted Critic: SEVENTH MOON (2008)

Posted in 2013, Asian Horror, Demons, Doomed Tourists, Enigmatic Films, Evil Spirits, Paul McMahon Columns, Supernatural, The Distracted Critic with tags , , , , on May 1, 2013 by knifefighter

SEVENTH MOON (2008)
Review by Paul McMahon, The Distracted Critic

SeventhMoonb

SEVENTH MOON is a movie that slipped past me back in 2008. It was part of the Ghost House Underground series released by Lionsgate. If memory serves, that specialized line of movies was the main gist of its advertising, so I’m not surprised I never realized Eduardo Sanchez (THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT, 1999, and ALTERED, 2006) directed it. I was excited to learn of the film’s existence while I researched his film LOVELY MOLLY (2011) last November, and have looked forward to checking it out.

Eduardo Sanchez is becoming a favorite director of mine. He knows how to develop scary situations and is good at creating characters you can care about. He does that here, too… at least for a little while. The action starts in late afternoon and lasts until dawn. The instant the sun set on screen, though, the most frustrating movie experience I’ve had in a very long time began. But, before I get ahead of myself…

The film opens with a quote, as all Sanchez’s movies have so far. “On the full moon of the seventh lunar month, the gates of hell open and the spirits of the dead are freed to roam among the living.”—Chinese myth.

We meet Yul (Tim Chiou) and Melissa (Amy Smart, MIRRORS, 2008, and both CRANK movies, 2006 & 2009), an American couple on their honeymoon in China. They are wandering a crowded street during the festivities of The Hungry Ghost Festival, marveling at the actions of the locals who are burning papers in the street. The papers signify sacrifice (in order to have the wish written on the paper granted, they have to sacrifice it). After Yul has a debilitating share of wine, they leave the area and meet up with Ping (Dennis Chan, THE MAN WITH THE IRON FISTS, 2012), their chauffer.

Ping starts to drive them to Anxian, where Yul’s family lives. Yul falls asleep almost immediately. The sun sets. Melissa falls asleep, too. Ping stops at the top of a hill and Melissa wakes up. He apologizes for getting lost. “These roads are tricky,” he says. He points to a small village down the hill and says he will go and ask for directions. An hour later, Melissa wakes Yul and tells him what’s going on. He, of course, decides they should leave the car and go look for Ping.

At first they think the village must be deserted. Then they find a crowd of animals tied up in the center of town. They knock on doors and shout questions about Ping. In response, the hidden residents yell out the same words over and over. Melissa asks what they’re saying, but Yul’s Cantonese isn’t very good and all he can say for sure is that they’re calling something to join them. Mel and Yul return to Ping’s car and find that he left the keys, so they start it up and try to drive back to civilization.

It isn’t long before Yul swerves to avoid a naked man running across the road. The car bogs down in mud. He climbs out to push while Mel drives. It takes the added motivation of a ghostly shriek from the dark woods to get him to shove the car free. As she drives, Melissa blames Yul for everything that’s happening because he’d been the one that wanted to come to China.

Mel tries to swerve as another man, this one clothed, runs into the road. She strikes him, and then insists on getting out of the car to help. He is more wounded than the car can account for, but he is conscious and says in Cantonese that the Moon Demons are coming. Mel and Yul get the injured man into Ping’s car, but as soon as Yul climbs behind the wheel, four naked men jump on the car and start pounding on it.

One of the better lit images in the film, a shot of what is called in the credits: 'Pale Men.' Yup. That's what they're called.

One of the better lit images in the film, a shot of what is called in the credits: ‘Pale Men.’ Yup. That’s what they’re called.

Yul guns the engine and drives in reverse because the road is too narrow to turn around. Predictably, he drives off the road and crashes.

Mel immediately realizes that the naked men will follow the car’s path through the brush so she leads Yul and the injured man away from it. The three of them freeze and listen to the Moon Demons thumping on the car, and after a while, the injured man tells them they must find something alive to leave behind for the Moon Demons to kill. That way, they will leave them alone. He might have given Yul a sidelong glance, but it was impossible to be sure, because the thing was so ridiculously dark.

Apparently, these things glow when caught in headlights. This is the clearest nighttime image I could get from the nighttime sequence of the film.

Apparently, these things glow when caught in headlights. This is the clearest nighttime image I could get from the nighttime sequence of the film.

I’ve enjoyed Sanchez’s work before, as I said, but this film is plagued by shockingly poor decisions. The first is his choice of lighting the film…or should I say, his choice of NOT lighting the film. While I realize the majority of the film’s action transpired in a remote area of China that was without streetlights or any other kind of electricity, the night this all happened was supposedly a full moon. Surely the lighting could have been fudged just a little bit? As it was, the majority of the film was nothing but a mass of dark shadows offset by squiggles and blotches of darker shadows. It was literally impossible to make out what was happening on screen. With a make-up effects man as experienced as Mike Elzalde (DREAMCATCHER, 2003, PAUL, 2011, ATTACK THE BLOCK, 2011 and the upcoming NOTHING LEFT TO FEAR), I’d think you’d want to showcase the work you paid for. Apparently not so much.

The second poor decision is the use of a hand-held camera for the entire movie. There is no reason for this at all. The shaky camera work was an important part of the story in THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT because it was supposed to be shot by an amateur film crew (i.e., the main characters did the work). There is no such situation in SEVENTH MOON. Not only is the shaky camera dizzying and hard to follow (especially since nothing is lit properly), it doesn’t stay with one point of view. It jumps all over the place, inside and outside of the car. There are far-off establishing shots and other shots so dark and undecipherable, it seems as if they might have kicked the camera under the car seat.

I’d like to comment on the actors performances, but I have to be honest and admit that I couldn’t see much. There was a bit of screaming and a LOT of heavy breathing, though, and I’ll assume it was all done in the right places. The story, or what I could discern of it, wasn’t memorable. It lacked the element of humanity that’s been present in Sanchez’s other works. Instead of working through problems and confronting personal fears as in BLAIR WITCH, ALTERED and LOVELY MOLLY, in this one it’s just a couple of characters who aren’t very well developed trying to survive the night. It seemed that these characters continually made foolish choices because that’s what they were created to do.

It disappoints me to have to recommend that you ignore a film by Eduardo Sanchez, but truth be told, there’s nothing to see here. At all.

I’m giving this one 0 stars, and although it’s misleading, I’m giving it 0 time outs, as well. Truthfully, I itched to walk away from it for most of the running time, but I knew that if I did I would never go back.

© Copyright 2013 by Paul McMahon

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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The Distracted Critic Enters THE TUNNEL (2011)

Posted in 2013, Australian Horror, Faux Documentaries, Horror, Indie Horror, Paul McMahon Columns, Suspense, The Distracted Critic with tags , , , , , , , on February 26, 2013 by knifefighter

THE TUNNEL (2011)
Review by Paul McMahon – The Distracted Critic

The Tunnel

THE TUNNEL is an Australian film written by Enzo Tedeschi and Julian Harvey, who have stepped beyond the “found The ” angle by concocting a faux documentary complete with interviews and enhanced screen shots, which reveal images the original crew didn’t realize they’d caught. They’ve crafted a decent story, giving their characters the kind of solid motivations that are rarely found in Hollywood releases. Another way it differs from Hollywood films is that they cast age-appropriate actors who you can believe hold the jobs of their characters, rather than casting pretty-looking twenty-somethings obviously too immature and inexperienced to hold the jobs they portray.

The movie opens with a spin on the “Sleight of Hand Start” (which is when the director reveals a scene from the ending to create tension right off the bat)—a 911 call, complete with subtitles, on a black screen. It tells us very little while it conveys panic and desperation. It’s a popular opening sequence for many documentaries, so it didn’t feel out of place here.

Next, we get a montage of news reports detailing a water shortage in Sydney. The reports cover a government plan to convert an abandoned subway station into a water reclamation facility. This will allow the use of water from a huge underground lake deep beneath the train tunnels. Further reports outline opposition to the plan, including worries that the evicted homeless will flood the streets. Finally, there’s a dismissive report that the plan has been shelved, though no one will explain why.

Now we meet Steve and Tangles, having drinks at their executive producer’s birthday party. Someone is filming the festivities for the hell of it, and Steve is happy to narrate the inter-office politics, while making fun of everyone the camera pans across. We see Pete and Natalie in an intense discussion, and Steve insinuates that Pete is hitting on her. When Natalie moves away warily, Steve and Tangles laugh.

In an interview segment, Steve describes Natalie as: “Just another young person coming in, getting paid too much money, hadn’t really proved herself, but you know, she was ‘the next big thing.'”

Natalie latches onto the abandoned water reclamation project, and when her investigation uncovers stories of people disappearing in the tunnels, Pete is yanked from a story that will take him to China so he can help Nat with her project. It’s a decision that Pete is painfully unhappy with.  He tells Steve and Tangles that Natalie’s: “…treading on thin ice. That’s why John put me onto this, to make sure she doesn’t f___ up again.”

Eventually, Natalie coerces Pete, Steve and Tangles to accompany her into the tunnels, insisting that John knows where they are. They break in through a maintenance gate and wander about using an outdated map. In an interview segment, Natalie confesses that she could not get the necessary permits to film in the tunnel, and she believed that without them the station would cancel her story. “…I put a lot of work into my career and I think it was all basically hanging on this one story. I didn’t really have a choice.”

Eventually, the team makes their way to the underground lake. Here, Natalie tries to record a sequence for her report, but Tangles keeps cutting her off to tell Pete and Steve to quit whispering. They deny doing it, but Tangles doesn’t believe them and accuses them of “punking” him.

Later on they find the “Bell Room,” where we learn that the tunnels were used as a public air raid shelter during WWII. The bell used to alert citizens to a bombing raid is still intact. Tangles complains that it’s too loud when Nat rings the bell, so he takes his microphones into the next room to try and dull the sound. Steve dons Tangles’ headphones and watches the gauges while Pete takes over the camera. The instant Nat rings the bell, Steve screams Tangles’ name and runs into the next room. Tangles has disappeared. They return to the bell room and discover their gear has disappeared as well….

They do manage to locate Tangles' flashlight, however.

They do manage to locate Tangles’ flashlight, however.

Director Carlo Ledesma has experience with real documentaries, having directed both FOOD MATTERS [2008] and HUNGRY FOR CHANGE [2012]. With THE TUNNEL, he has put together a “horror documentary” with a true-to-life feel. We see reporters like this all the time in real life, self-important gung-ho types who believe that their cameras and microphones will magically protect them from danger and keep them separate from anything that happens around them.

The acting is very good. Bel Deliá (THE LOVE OF MY LIFE, scheduled for 2014– I’ll be looking for it), as Natalie, conveys the desperation of someone on a last chance to save her job while trying to conceal her own self-doubt. She is believable throughout. Andy Rodoreda (BLACK WATER, 2007) plays Pete, who is increasingly relied upon to lead the group as Natalie’s composure begins to fracture. Steve Davis (the Australian TV series EVENT ZERO, 2012) plays Steve, the cameraman. It was a surprise to learn that his primary filmmaking experience is with cinematography and camera work, because his acting was fantastic.

Steve Davis plays Steve, a surprisingly good actor for a cameraman.

Steve Davis plays Steve, a surprisingly good actor for a cameraman.

Lastly, Luke Arnold (BROKEN HILL, 2009 and a lot of TV work down under) is excellent as Tangles, who, wearing the sound man’s headphones, gives most of the early tension to the film. There are a handful of moments when Steve focuses on him staring intently into the blackness as if he expects to see someone or something out there.

THE TUNNEL has some frightening moments and above-average suspense, though it does contains one eye-rolling sequence where you have to question the director’s judgement. (It involves the re-appearance of a minor character in a place he has no business being.)

In the end, the documentary format is not a new idea. It was used in the Australian film LAKE MUNGO in 2008, and there have undoubtedly been others. THE TUNNEL is more reminiscent of THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT (1999), the Spanish film [REC] (2007), and even CLOVERFIELD (2008). While it differs from these movies by coming at you like a legitimate documentary instead of a VHS cassette filmed by dead people, you don’t walk away from the movie feeling that difference on any meaningful level. It comes off, all told, like another entry into the ‘found footage’ pantheon. A good entry, but still.

I give THE TUNNEL two and a half stars with a single time out.

© Copyright 2013 by Paul McMahon

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The Distracted Critic visits MADISON COUNTY (2011)

Posted in 2013, DVD Review, Horror, Indie Horror, Paul McMahon Columns, Psycho killer, Serial Killer flicks, Slasher Movies, The Distracted Critic with tags , , , , on February 15, 2013 by knifefighter

MADISON COUNTY (2011)
Review by Paul McMahon – The Distracted Critic

Madison-County

Oh, how I miss video stores. I miss popping in with an evening to kill and browsing the shelves of cover art, trying to determine from an artist’s rendering whether a film would be worth a rental or not. When the “box art” for MADISON COUNTY(2011) appeared on my Netflix Instant Watch menu, I immediately knew it was something I would’ve snagged off the VHS shelf back in the day.

The movie was written and directed by 22-year old Eric England, who starts out the film with a bold choice for an opening—a bloodied, scantily clad blonde in the bed of a blue pickup truck, her face distorted with terror. It reminds you instantly of the ending of THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE (1974), giving you the subconscious impression that all the terror of that classic film has come before this. The driver of the truck brakes, and immediately the blonde climbs out and tries to escape. She calls for help to someone off-camera while the driver comes up behind her, knocks her out with a shovel, and throws her in the cab of the truck. As he drives off, the camera pans to a run-down house a few feet off the road, where a grinning old man sits on his rocker, enjoying the show as all this goes down.

Now we meet James and Will, excited about embarking on a trip once they pick up “the girls.” They’re off to Madison County to interview the author of a book about Damien Ewells, a serial killer who murdered 33 people. James has been corresponding with the author and is planning his school thesis on the case. Will is going along to take pictures. Presumably, “the girls” are going so “the boys” don’t get lonely. They arrive at Brooke’s house, and since Will is her boyfriend, he knocks. Brooke’s brother Kyle answers the door, glaring. He’s a coiled spring who we realize is ready to rip Will limb from limb. Brooke and Jenna finally come out of the house, and while they greet James and Will, Kyle climbs into James’s truck. Apparently, he’s decided he’s going with.

“Are you freakin’ kidding?” Will asks Brooke. “He hates me!”

Once within Madison County, they stop at a diner with gas pumps out front. The diner is jammed with creepy-looking townsfolk who stare at the newcomers. It’s a real TWILIGHT ZONE moment, as we realize that James’s car was the only one outside, so how did all these people get here? James manages to get directions to author David Randall’s place. After ignoring the POSTED: KEEP OUT sign and climbing over a gate at the end of the drive, they find the author’s home deserted. Confused, they try to decide what to do next. Kyle drives back to the diner, alone, to get further advice. James and Jenna stay at the house to wait while Will and Brooke set off down the path to check out the barn on the property.

With our heroes thus split up, it’s time to introduce Big Pig Head, so he can start shedding blood.

In this corner... weighing 190 pounds... Big Pig Head!

In this corner… weighing 190 pounds… Big Pig Head!

The actors do exactly as well as expected for a movie like this, with no one really standing out above the rest. They’re all relative newcomers, though Ace Marrero, who plays Kyle, has a role in England’s movie ROADSIDE (2012) while Matt Mercer, who plays Will, is appearing in England’s upcoming CONTRACTED (2013). Colley Bailey, who plays James, appeared in last year’s DONNER PASS. The girls, Joanna Sotomura as Brooke and Natalie Scheetz as Jenna are making their first feature film appearance.

Eric England’s direction is pretty advanced for a young person making his first feature film. He’s creative and chooses interesting shots, at one point framing the car in a bright red dust mote, sort of like a bull’s eye. At another point, Kyle is glaring at Will and a flash of light looks like a knife in Kyle’s hand. Possibly most interesting of all is how, except for one brief scene, he films the entire movie in broad daylight. Artistically, Eric might be a director to keep an eye on, especially with the two more films already on the way, ROADSIDE and CONTRACTED. As far as his writing, though, MADISON COUNTY ends up losing points.

Director Eric England is a newcomer to watch. Writer Eric England... he can only get better from here.

Director Eric England is a newcomer to watch. Writer Eric England… he can only get better from here.

There are at least three moments in the film where minor characters assure James, and therefore us, that “he’ll understand before it’s all over.” This is a point that’s made and re-made throughout the first three quarters of the movie, usually after a weird swerve in the plot that leaves us scratching our heads. When it’s all said and done, though, there are no answers to be found. There is no final revelation that makes the movie come together in a flash of understanding. The credits roll abruptly and leave us wondering what in the hell was going on, which really drained my enjoyment of the film.

It’s not that I don’t like movies that leave us with unanswered questions. I recently reviewed LOVELY MOLLY, which left more than a few. In that film, though, Eduardo Sanchez never promised that we would understand everything. In MADISON COUNTY, England goes out of his way to foreshadow that answers will be coming, but then he ignores these promises and leaves us feeling cheated. I’m going to chalk it up to a rookie mistake and hunt down ROADSIDE as soon as I can, to see if this was a fluke. In the end, though, I find it difficult to recommend MADISON COUNTY overall.

I give MADISON COUNTY one and a half stars, with no timeouts.

© Copyright 2013 by Paul McMahon

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