ALTAR’s Familiar Yet Fresh & Character Driven

Altar. 2016. Directed & Written by Matthew Sconce.
Starring Stefanie Estes, Brittany Falardeau, Deep Rai, Jessica Strand, Michael Wainwright, Tim Parrish, Tina Johnson, Jesse Parr, & Master Dave Johnson.
Movie Heroes Studios/Schumacher III/Stellar Lense Productions
84 minutes. Not Rated.
Horror

★★★1/2
IMG_0271I’ll always defend found footage because, when done right, the results can be shockingly impressive, and really scary. There’s a lot of misfires. It’s a relatively new subgenre, in terms of popularity, considering movies like Cannibal Holocaust and 84C MoPic have been around since the ’80s, even before The Blair Witch Project turned bigger audiences onto the idea. Because the subgenre became a hot property for studios, and an easy way to make movies for amateur filmmakers or even anybody nowadays with an iPhone, we’ve been inundated with a ton of found footage titles.
Altar starts out with a typical sort of setup, with a bunch of old college classmates who wind up lost on their way to a reunion in the Sierra Nevada. From there, we see a few similarities to popular entries in the genre, particularly The Blair Witch Project. Director-writer Matthew Sconce ultimately treads his own path by using expected conventions and a few of his own tricks along the way.
This film doesn’t flip the subgenre on its head, nor does it show us anything wildly different from what we’ve seen before. It does offer a creepy, unexpected slice of horror that feels like genre comfort food – the same ole good stuff you’d hope to get, plus a twist of originality in the execution.
IMG_0274Altar succeeds investing the audience in the characters. These people feel real, like they’re actually a group of friends who’ve known one another a long time, we revisit their nostalgia alongside them on this reunion trip. There’s a lot of good organic little scenes where the characters all build up through dialogue that’s not just jammed with exposition. Even a decent explanation aside from ‘I wanna record our reunion’ that plays well into the relationships between certain characters. While not every aspect of the writing impresses me, Sconce makes it all feel natural. Lending to that are the believable performances of the lead actors.
A nice addition in the cast of characters is that one of them has Asperger’s – the guy holding the camera. Not a POV we often see, so the inclusion is great, and the fact it all comes to bear on the character himself, what happens to him (et cetera) is really great.
When you’re engaged and you care about the people in a found footage film it’s easier putting yourself in their shoes. The woods are more often than not in this subgenre used as just a default place to send actors where they can run and scream into the darkness. Whereas Altar instead puts more work into the story, adding an ultra creepy bit of ancient mystery in the forest. There’s a familiarity around many a corner throughout the film, though Sconce combats that with some ingenuity. If anything, you’ll at least find a nagging curiosity on the brain concerning the titular altar.
IMG_0276The creeps are subtle and spaced out. It isn’t until the final 20 minutes when things unleash, when the tension boils over and there’s nothing but a spiral towards madness. Sconce avoids the usual ‘Turn off the camera’ moments, the constant infighting, sudden ruined friendships over fear. He opts to go for more of a group terror, one that lingers like static every moment we follow the group of friends. It’s not as if anything unexpected happens. What works is the tense, unsettling suspense of the last 20 minutes.
One thing I loved? A character actually brings a gun with her. You always wonder why people going into the mountains or the backwoods. Well, this time someone did! Whether that helps in the end, you’ll have to see for yourself.
Throughout Altar are a few eerie images. Such as the altar in the woods itself, which is so strange from the first time we see it onscreen. The axe guy in the beginning is almost chuckle-worthy at times, yet he’ll stay with you, getting under your skin in a brief amount of time. I did laugh at him, only to see the characters sitting by a campfire later and asking myself if they were to be slaughtered. Trust me, the answers aren’t as easy as that, they’re much more gruesome fun.
When the true evil of the story comes round, the first appearance is fuzzy, out of focus. You can pick out a shape, enough to feel frightened. Later, the evil becomes more defined, as it takes the characters on a hell of a ride.
IMG_0278I personally feel Altar‘s more worth your time than many efforts out there. Better than most of the sequels to Paranormal Activity. There’s a solid ending, too. Not one that begs for another film with a weak finish. Rather, we’re treated to – in this day and age of cinematic universes galore – a closed-ended story. There’s a mythology that of course isn’t totally laid out through expository writing for us, part of why I dig the storytelling. No sequel setup, no mush mouth explanations of worthless dialogue trying to create a huge backstory for the movie’s big evil.
Herein lies the greatest strength of the movie: it gives just enough without giving us more than necessary. I’m impressed, Mr. Sconce. Hope we see more soon. Horror won’t ever pass up guys like him, working with familiar territory and giving us his own take.

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Take a Tense Little Ride with Trigger Man

Trigger Man. 2007. Directed, Edited, & Written by Ti West.
Starring Reggie Cunningham, Ray Sullivan, Sean Reid, Heather Robb, James Felix McKenney, Seth Abrams, & Larry Fessenden.
KINO International/Glass Eye Pix/Scareflix/CCR Productions.
Unrated. 80 minutes.
Drama/Thriller

★★★1/2
POSTER This is a slightly unusual film out of Ti West’s filmography. He is a great director, in my opinion. You either dig him, or you don’t; no middle ground. And that’s fine, if everybody liked the same thing we’d be a boring lot of humans. For those of us who enjoy West and his brand of horror, Trigger Man comes as a surprise. I remember listening to an interview he did talking about how this film sort of came up on a whim. He wrote a script, brought it to Larry Fessenden, and then they had time to shoot it, so a real indie shoot came about. Ultra low budget. Almost rogue-style filmmaking.
Apart from the visual feel and the actual use of digital rather shooting on film, West looks at a more dramatic thriller angle than anything horror. Sure, the horror of humanity comes out. That’s a huge element. Most of his movies, aside from recently with The Sacrament, tend to go for classic horror elements while he does his best to subvert expectations, keeping with the spirit of indie film. Trigger Man works because it doesn’t necessarily try to change anything. It works by building up an atmosphere of dread, each scene slowly, steadily amping up the feeling that at any moment a horrible event is about to take place. True to what later became signature to his personal directorial style, West slow burns through his plot before reaching a nicely executed finale. Then if the terror isn’t enough for you concerning real people and their sometimes hideous actions in this raw look at a story that’s not unbelievable in the slightest, maybe I’m weak. Maybe I should hang up the ole horror hat.
Nah. I dig this one. It isn’t near perfect. However, West makes me sweat enough throughout this sparse flick that I can’t help watching it now and then. It’s a tough one to find on DVD, but luckily I picked it up last year. I’ll always support West’s films and I can admit when there are faults. I refuse to not acknowledge a solid low budget thriller when it’s in front of my face. You shouldn’t expect his best, though don’t sell West short here.
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This movie was never intended to be on a grand scale. West had the time and wanted to make something with a very minimalist take, so instead of opting to shoot on film (as he usually does) he went digital. The entire film is much different from any of his other work, even his early feature The Roost. With a handheld and kinetic style, West uses this feel to create as much tension possible. If anything, this is a nice exercise in suspense. You can judge this for being low budget and all that, but it wasn’t ever meant to be anything more. Larry Fessenden, a mentor of West’s in the industry, gave him about $10K to make it. They found some nice locations, kept the cast to a bare minimum. West had a small story that worked for the basic needs. Nobody’s expecting a reinvention of the genre. Part of me enjoys Trigger Man because West isn’t exactly swinging for the fences, as he so often does with his other brilliant features. Here, he does his best at cultivating a specific mood of tension that worms its way through the short 80 minute runtime. Many might not find the finale rewarding. I do. The tension pays off in an excellent way and I find it properly horrifying. Along the way we’re treated to a couple smatterings of blood, one particularly chunky, gross practical effect honestly looks real. I found that one unsettling, in the best kind of horror way.
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Ultimately, I don’t know if there’s even a lick of truth to the concept that West claims this is inspired by a true story. If so, I’d love to see what the real scenario was, how it played out, what exactly went down the whole time. But forgetting all that this is still a real-feeling situation. These guys essentially wander into the path of something over which they have no control. Then it’s a sort of city dweller v. backwoods story that descends into utter nastiness. Part of the ultra-realism is the sound design by Graham Reznick. When these guys are out in the midst of the forest, near the river, running for their lives, we get the feeling of being right next to them, as the river rushes and their voices carry. Some likely find that annoying, which I totally understand. To me, these elements only add to the extremely raw atmosphere. There’s also not so much a score as there is this wonderfully ambient noise from Jeff Grace . At times that does morph into something more musical in terms of short pieces that accompany specific moments. Still, the best parts Grace offers up are these brutish shrieks and hypnotizing swirls of sound that wrap you up then rattle you; almost representative of the mental processes going on in someone’s head were they in such a life threatening, insane situation as these guys. Everything is minimal. The story is contained. The blood is gruesome when it comes, but only comes in a couple little bursts. The camera work consists of digital handheld shooting, nothing fancy; only once or twice do we get shots that are motionless, everything else keeps the chaotic pace by wavering and keeping on the move with the characters, zooming from the landscape to their faces and expressions of fear. The music is kept down to a handful of places where it’s nearly perfect. Through and through, Trigger Man is a utilitarian production that if anything knows how to use its bare necessities and structures itself accordingly.
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You’ll either dig it a bit, or find it unappealing. There’s really nothing halfway about Trigger Man. Similar to the way people seem to feel about its director. Personally, Ti West is someone I find incredibly talented. He and I are close in age, so part of my affinity for his work has to do with the fact many of the movies he seems to admire and have grown up watching are the same ones as myself. Because of that they reflect in his own work, in turn capturing my attention. Not only that, though. West is simply a great director. He makes interesting choices, as well as the fact he’s an interesting writer. Preferring to take things slow, his films are sometimes categorized as being boring. A word I’ll never use in reference to any of his features. But to each their own. For me, he’s a fascinating artist that often takes a genre story we know and brings his unique vision to a story in order to freshen things up. Trigger Man doesn’t necessarily liven the survival thriller sub-genre. It does excite and keep you on edge, or at least it does for me. Give this one the chance, it’s a taut piece of work. Ignore the flaws and get past the handheld stuff. West is a scary guy, no matter if he’s working within the walls of a haunted hotel, dealing with vampire bats that turn people into the living dead, or wandering the forest with people running for their lives. It’s all spooky.

The Hills Run Red with the Sounds of Slasher Horror

The Hills Run Red. 2009. Directed by Dave Parker. Screenplay by John Dombrow & David J. Schow.
Starring Sophie Monk, Tad Hilgenbrink, William Sadler, Janet Montgomery, Alex Wyndham, Ewan Bailey, & Danko Jordanov. Fever Dreams/Warner Premiere/Dark Castle Entertainment.
Rated R. 81 minutes.
Horror/Thriller

★★★1/2
POSTER I’m a lover of the slasher sub-genre. When I was young, renting a slasher flick was like the ultimate rebellion in terms of what I could rent at the video store. I’d seek out any little film if it had an interesting mask, a creepy villain, anything that felt ready made to chill. Sometimes that led me to terrible efforts that didn’t simply show their budget, but also contained nothing in the way of good acting or decent writing. Other times I stumbled across hidden gold, movies to this day I still watch on occasion. Back in the day this wound up introducing me to classics like The Burning and the wonderfully unique Candyman.
In 2010, I got the chance to see The Hills Run Red. There are times the acting isn’t completely amazing, though never is it pitiful like some slashers at the bottom of the barrel. But what this sub-genre picture does right is it brings an interesting and unique story, also offering up a nasty slasher villain with an eerie mask.
So for all its fault, this film tries hard. Boasting a premise centred around a fabled slasher movie made by reclusive auteur horror director named Wilson Wyler Concannon, The Hills Run Red takes on the DNA of a backwoods thriller that takes city folk into the deep, dark woods. What lies beneath is a twisted and vicious slasher that has such bloody sights to show us.
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The mask is creepy enough on its own. Sadly this one won’t turn into a franchise, though it would make for one hell of a series in my mind. But that mask, the baby face, it has the potential to be iconic. Babyface himself is a terrifying figure. The way we slowly find out more about him throughout the screenplay is excellent. And the writing also serves him well. Instead of seeing some of the more gruesome moments, such as him assaulting Serina (Janet Montgomery) which clearly happens as evidenced by the post-credits scene, the writers opt to let the lead-up speak for itself. The blood and gore is there for Babyface, however, as opposed to some other movies with similar events this one decides not to go too hard for the jugular on unnecessary sexual violence. And that makes the villain scarier to me. Sure, he still does awful things. Not seeing some of them increases the fear, as what we don’t see then becomes heavier than what we do. There’s one moment where Babyface becomes infinitely more unnerving: when he captures Serina she tries pleading with him as if he’s this absolute maniac, then he speaks to her in plain words, so matter-of-fact and – dare I say it – sane. His brief line or two here sends chills down my spine.
We got solid doses of blood here. Even the movie within a movie shot where the blood literally runs down the hills actually used a massive amount of fake blood, which in turn looks awesome. The cult slasher they track down is fun, as we get to see actual clips ourselves. Between the kills there and those in the actual movie itself, there is plenty to indulge.
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A few particularly solid slasher kills. One is the two trees scene from the lost movie by Concannon where Babyface essentially tears a woman apart with barbed wire. This one is outrageous, but so much horrific fun. Its implausibility be damned; I love a weird, wild murder like that amongst some of the others. This is a trope of the sub-genre, and director Dave Parker uses it well, among others. Then there’s some of the more realistic stuff like later when Lalo (Alex Wyndham) is being tortured and killed. Finally, we return to the excellently ridiculous stuff such as when Babyface has his mask ripped off, then is forced to wrap it back on with barbed wire. Gnarly stuff, which I dig. The entire final 15 minutes has got some proper horror work, from the kills and the blood to the face underneath Babyface’s mask. All of it is the epitome of macabre and wonderfully grim.
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The performances are decent. However, it’s William Sadler and Sophie Monk that are worth watching. Sadler is always enjoyable – I’ll always remember him most as the stuttering, hard ass convict in The Shawshank Redemption. Here, he gets very dark. Concannon is a mystery, an enigma, and he seems pretentious like an arthouse horror director full of himself to the point of nausea. Later on we discover there are highly hideous layers to the skin he wears for the outside world, and Sadler brings out the mania of the character so well in the last half hour (or less) once we see him more. Then there’s Monk, someone I’ve personally never watched in anything. She doesn’t do anything overly amazing, but she does in fact fool me. Part of that’s the writing. Yet she is able to subtly play a part that could easily telegraph its development miles ahead. Rather, Monk gives us a view of this complex woman, and then when her character is fully fleshed out near the end it’s genuinely surprising. Nothing awards calibre, though this film doesn’t need anything like that. Monk plays it coy and sexy early on as the junkie stripper, then becomes much more sinister as the time goes on.
Also, I cannot do a review without mentioning the man playing our unnerving slasher villain, Danko Jordanov. He is silent the entire time except for grunts mostly, then the one or two lines which absolutely crush my soul, so to keep a certain presence onscreen with only a costume and a mask and his physical intimidation is an impressive feat. Yes, the mask is a scary piece in itself. Aside from that just how Babyface moves inspires fear. To me, this killer is iconic. I don’t care if this movie is way under watched and unloved. Babyface belongs up there with a lot of the big baddies in the slasher sub-genre.
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No, The Hills Run Red is nowhere near a great slasher picture. Although I’ve got to say, it’s a sort of favourite of mine ever since first seeing it. It suffers from some less than stellar acting from a few of those involved. Monk and Sadler save the film on that front just by giving it their all with an enticing energy. What this movie lacks in certain areas it makes up for greatly in its fun. There are wild kills, raw and honest ones. The central aspects, its killer and the lost film, are interesting. On the whole, the elements which need to work are well executed. Every time I throw on the DVD now I still have a ton of horror fun, no matter if a few bits and pieces don’t match up with its best parts.
And no, this isn’t going on to become a series, spawning an entire franchise.
But let me tell you this, none of that means Babyface isn’t a great slasher killer. He is a villain commanding attention, fear, respect. Okay, maybe not the last one.
Just don’t expect to live if you hear his rattle. Respect that.

The Never Ending Terror of Eden Lake

Eden Lake. 2008. Directed & Written by James Watkins
Starring Kelly Reilly, Michael Fassbender, Tara Ellis, Jack O’Connell, Finn Atkins, Jumayn Hunter, Thomas Turgoose, James Burrows, Tom Gill, Lorraine Bruce, Shaun Dooley, James Gandhi, Bronson Webb, Lorraine Stanley, & Rachel Gleeves. Rollercoaster Films/Aramid Entertainment Fund.
Rated R. 91 minutes.
Horror/Thriller

★★★★
POSTER There are many city v. rural films out there in the thriller genre. From Deliverance to any number of backwoods horror movies, such as the Wrong Turn series and plenty others. But not all of those have the effect of James Watkins’ Eden Lake.
Before Michael Fassbender broke out big time and in the days prior to Kelly Reilly’s huge break, Watkins crafted an equally pulse pounding and disturbing horror-thriller with these two in the lead roles. Aided by a script with some sharp teeth, as well as the tense action which keeps the film’s pace at a quick pace, Eden Lake will linger with you afterwards. This one boasts a terrifying finish that lets you get no rest, no matter that the rest of the film is brutally intense and shocking. However, there’s no shock for shock’s sake. Rather, we get a glimpse into the world of misled youths whose lives were likely influenced into running down the drain by their equally nasty parents. Not everything is completely tight in the screenplay from Watkins, but he makes up for those bits with interesting writing and two (or more) lumps of tragedy stirred in.
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Heading into the bush for a weekend getaway, Steve (Michael Fassbender) takes his girlfriend Jenny (Kelly Reilly), a nursery school teacher, for some swimming and a bit of camping. They lounge on a nice freshwater beach enjoying the surroundings, the warm weather. After a little time, some young hooligans arrive with their loud music, their big dog, and start to make things less pleasant. Led by the crass Brett (Jack O’Connell), they get on Steve’s nerves, especially when the dog gets a little too close to Jenny. Soon the kids leave, then Jenny and Steve enjoy their time alone.
The next morning, turns out the kids broke a bottle and punctured one of Steve’s tires. He chases them in town after seeing them on their bikes, and later finds one of their houses. But this is only the beginning. When the couple encounters the crew again and the situation turns ugly, Brett’s dog is accidentally stabbed and killed by Steve, in self defense. This prompts an all-out war between the couple and the teenagers.
Steve and Jenny may not make it home from their trip after all.
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The first thing we see in Eden Lake is Jenny at the school where she teaches. There are little innocent kids, who play child-like games, they laugh and fool around. Jenny’s obviously good with them, comfortable in her career. So to see everything get juxtaposed here with the situation not long after with the older kids is interesting. We go from little innocent children to big bad teenagers who, somewhere along the line from then to now, grew up from being kids into becoming full-fledged monsters. Also, I love the transformation Jenny undergoes as a meek, mild-mannered teacher who later is forced to become a warrior and survivor. Particularly – SPOILER ALERT – once Steve is dead, Jenny is left to her own devices. Even before he dies, she’s got to take care of herself, and him due to his awful injuries. There’s this long line of character development in a short time. Leading up to the serious confrontations, Jenny appears as quiet, reserved, someone who doesn’t want to rock the boat. The tragic events which unfold throughout the film mold her into someone fierce and assertive, and somebody not afraid to defend herself at all costs. For the handful of really dumb moves by Jenny and Steve, there are enough instances of well-written characters and the main parallel between Jenny’s occupation/where she ends up to justify Eden Lake as a solid thriller. Late in the film, Jenny is made to commit a terrible act – another one of self defense in this plot – but it is devastating, for us and for her. This is probably the pinnacle of the parallel in her character.
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Even from the small supporting roles of the teenagers we get solid acting. Above them all stands Jack O’Connell. Recently he’s done amazing turns in films like Starred Up, but in 2008 this was a performance to watch. He is a terrible young man capable of extremely vicious violence, his personality a sick and turgid cesspool. The depth of depravity comes out, especially in a scene that comes just after the one-hour mark; his enjoyment is far too evident, which makes the character so powerfully menacing. This film could have had any number of young people take the role of Brett. With O’Connell, the performance is disturbing and forceful and you hate Brett to the core. Note: in the last moments with his character, you can almost see a twinkle of something in his eye, but largely I believe it’s not regret; it’s the same twinkle people like Ted Bundy and other killers would get in their eyes, holding back their real selves just behind it.
Fassbender does well with his role and it comes off naturally. Although, it is ultimately Reilly whose talent sells Eden Lake into its suspense. We’re often taken by the danger of a thriller when it’s a woman in danger, simply because she’s a woman, men are after her, et cetera. Yet Reilly brings a life to Jenny. Again, she’s a timid sort of lady, though, as time progresses this timidity wears off, and her battle-face shows. The vulnerability of her character always shines through, most scarily in the last scene. But she commands your attention to the presence of her character, and you truly feel for her every step of the way, despite some of the dumb choices (fault of writing; not her performance).
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The ending still leaves me in shambles. Really puts the cap on things as far as determining whether or not the behaviour of the teenagers has been ingrained in them over time.
A 4 out of 5 star film, indeed. There are certainly a few spots where Watkins needed to tighten up some things, such as a few truly strange choices the characters made. But none of that ruins what is an effective, violent, and edgy thriller. This one will take you to the brink. Then, just when you’re sure the lead character and you have each had enough, Watkins piles it on to leave us with that grim taste in the mouth. Trust me. Eden Lake is a keeper, and if you can forgive a few blemishes this will really hit the spot if you’re looking for a horror-thriller to damage you.

Gary Oldman Fights for Innocence in BackWoods

BackWoods. 2006. Dir. Koldo Serra. Screenplay by Serra & Jon Sagalá.
Starring Gary Oldman, Virginie Ledoyen, Paddy Considine, Aitana Sánchez-Gijón, Jon Ariño, Lluís Homar, and Kandido Uranga. Lionsgate.
Rated 14A. 97 minutes.
Thriller

★★★★ (Film)
★1/2 (DVD release)
tirtle-backwoodsThis is one of those films I may never have heard of, if only maybe for a late night search spree on lesser known Gary Oldman flicks, except for the fact I stumbled across it in a $5 bin at a local rental place a few years back; in fact, the disc still has the store’s sticker on it to this day. I saw it, realised that not only was Oldman in it but also Paddy Considine of whom I’m a really big fan, and snatched it up quickly. Turns out it wasn’t just a decent little snag for five bucks. It’s a quality movie. An old school backwoods style thriller. There are times it not only feels set in the 1970s, I truly felt a lot of moments could’ve almost been filmed back then, as well. There’s certainly moments of homage towards both John Boorman’s classic Deliverance, as well as Sam Peckinpah’s 1971 dramatic revenge thriller Straw Dogs. Mainly there’s just a really great nostalgic feel about the story and the setting, which comes across quite well.
BackWoods sees two couples, Paul (Oldman) and Isabel (Sánchez-Gijón), as well as Norman (Considine) and Lucy (Ledoyen), venturing into the Spanish back country. Paul and Isabel now live in the Basque region after they married. Norman, and his young wife Isabel, are heading to visit. An idyllic vacation in the forest turns to a nightmarish situation when Paul and Norman stumble across a deformed little girl who has been locked up in a small shed-like structure, pad locked and hidden away. They bring her back to Paul and Isabel’s home in the woods. But not long after, local men from the village show up looking for the girl, and all is not as it seems in the quaint little pocket of Spain. Paul and Norman find themselves facing a desperate and brutal situation, fighting for their lives, as well as those of their wives.
This goes down some of the same roads we see in Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs. Specifically, the character of Norman is really pushed to his limits here. Initially even the sight of a rabbit being killed by Paul is shocking to him; there’s a lingering shot of Considine looking fairly troubled by watching the rabbit die. However, Paul tells his friend something which resonates through the whole film – “there are hunters and prey, Normanits the only fucking truth in this world.” While Paul understands the human nature of hunter and prey, Norman doesn’t quite get it. His rude awakening comes later in the film when the men coming to look for the deformed girl appear to be more ruthless than he could have ever imagined. It’s a really great way to introduce these themes, all starting with just a tiny little rabbit. Nice touch.
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I really enjoy how this film stayed mostly as a dramatic thriller. It had a few little elements of horror (the backwoods ‘battle’ between city folk & villagers + the deformed girl locked away in the woods/ et cetera), but it didn’t stray into full on terror or anything. This works really nicely as a 1970s style thriller.  It’s also particularly performance driven, as opposed to plot. While the plot is deceptively simple, the characters here are rich and very full.
For instance, Oldman’s character Paul is a pretty diverse character. There is a lot to him. I get the feeling he sort of went out living in the forest with his wife as a kind of challenge. One aspect I enjoyed once the villagers lay siege on Paul and the others is how there was so much tension between the two sides. On one hand, Paul feels he belongs there, and he does because he already lives there; he made it his home. The other side, the villagers, see him still as an outsider. Worse still, he has clearly wandered into their world. He is not one of them, regardless of how well he hunts and navigates the male-dominated world of the villagers.
This leads me to another part of BackWoods I enjoyed a lot. Whereas a lot of films might have taken up a portion of the running time drawing out the deformed girl’s story, rounding things out and maybe giving her some kind of history, Koldo Serra leaves intrigue to spare. We don’t get any definitive answers on what exactly the deformed girl is doing out in the woods, in the sense of who she is or where she came from – it’s simply a plot element. It sets up the city versus nature theme running throughout the film, which ultimately drives Oldman’s character. Norman, Considine’s character, is also affected by this theme, as he is even less of the “back country” type than Paul. He is even more thrown into chaos because of how far removed from that lifestyle living in the city keeps him. There’s even a scene where Norman raises his gun to kill a rabbit of his own – ultimately, he is unable to actually pull the trigger. This sets the stage for the real burning question to come later – can he pull the trigger when it’s more than a rabbit staring down the barrel of his rifle? We get the answer later in a very tense, horrifying scene. Of course, what happens then sets off a whole other chain of events.
The entire presentation of these themes is really well done, and made the film more than just a backwoods thriller. It lifted this from out of simple genre fare. This could very well have been some exploitation film, a cheap grindhouse style movie. Instead, it becomes a tension-filled dramatic thriller.
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For the most part, a lot of BackWoods surprised me. I figured it might go down the same road as similar films. Instead, it subverts a few of my expectations. For instance, the scene where Norman is finally forced to either pull the trigger, or else face possibly terrible consequences, I really didn’t expect it to pan out the way it ended up going. I was happy because I thought Norman wasn’t going to change whatsoever as a character. His actions both change him and create more issues for his character to deal with. It’s really great stuff.
The ending, as well, was not something I particularly saw coming.
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This can safely be categorised as a 4 out of 5 star film. There isn’t a whole lot wrong with it, but it’s not perfect whatsoever. I think Gary Oldman and Paddy Considine did a really wonderful job fleshing out the characters they portrayed. Particularly, Oldman gives a strong and emotional performance, unlike a lot of the roles I often enjoy him in, and I don’t know how more people don’t talk about this one, or at least mention it in passing – solid lesser seen role by Oldman. There are also a couple excellently paced chase sequences which help move the film along nicely.  The pacing was helped by how the plot never gets too bogged down in one area, however, that’s also a drawback – I wanted to know more about Paul and Isabel because it seemed there was more to their relationship than what we were given. While sometimes it’s nice when less is more, there are case, like BackWoods, where I could have even done with an extra few scenes just to really give us a portrait of their lives. Oldman does such a spectacular job with his character, I feel even more justice might’ve been done to the film in general had they provided more insight.
Regardless, BackWoods is a pleasant surprise. When a lot of tripe gets doled out in terms of thriller films, this is a refreshing little movie that doesn’t go down all the expected routes.
While the DVD is fairly lame, providing only the film itself (though the picture/sound is beautiful & it looks gorgeous in widescreen) and a trailer, I highly would recommend anybody who can get their hands on a copy of the film do so – it is worth your time. I don’t watch it often, when I do I’m always impressed with the thrill it provides. If you’re a fan of Oldman, Considine, or just those gritty 1970s revenge thrillers in the vein of Straw Dogs and the backwoods city versus nature themes found in classics like Deliverance & even less praised titles like Southern Comfort, this will no doubt quench your thirst. You can do far worse for a movie night than BackWoods.

The Real Life Fear of The Houses October Built

The Houses October Built. 2014. Dir.  Bobby Roe.  Written by Roe, Zack Andrews & Jason Zada.
Starring Brandy Schaefer, Zack Andrews, Bobby Roe, Mikey Roe, Jeff Larson, and Tansy Alexander. Room 101.
Unrated. 91 minutes.
Horror/Thriller

★★★1/2

Any horror movie, regardless of how its end product is perceived, always benefits from some decent performances. Whether it’s a central lead, or an ensemble cast of competent actors, horror can be really effective if you have natural performances to help grip the audience. In this respect The Houses October Built benefits from the fact that its main cast including Brandy Schaefer, Zack Andrews, Bobby Roe, Mikey Roe, and Jeff Larson all did what their characters here (essentially themselves) do in this film except in real life – The Houses October Built was also previously a 2011 documentary by Bobby Roe, featuring the same cast, and documenting the various haunts of America. The documentary was simply an exploration for the purpose of taking a real look into these worlds where people from all walks of life come to join together, and scare the living shit out of others.

imageIn 2014, Bobby Roe directs a dramatised version of their journey. This time, things go further.
Bobby and the crew set out on the road looking to find the absolute scariest haunt in America. Bobby claims he’s out seeking the haunts with “no rules” and “no regulations”; those little places off the main track, far beyond the beaten path. His brother Mikey thinks he’s foolish, but is well-enough along for the ride it seems. The rest, too.
At first, the haunts are a little creepy – lots of strange make-up, killer clowns, jump scares around every corner, oddities and weird horror in dimly lit rooms, the offering of a real life experience laying in a closed coffin.
After a little bit of time, though, the gang begins to encounter more nefarious characters. A brief interview with a man in clown paint outside a haunted house has him confirming “shady shit” most likely goes down in such places. At one haunt Bobby and a couple of the crew get up onto what looks to be a roof – one very devilish-looking clown is not pleased. Afterwards, he shows up in the headlights in front of their R.V. The gang’s clown trouble does not end here. Later, another clown seems pretty intent on harassing Mikey and Brandy; they were told not to film inside a particular haunt and yet, of course, Bobby did indeed film. The clown is insistent they need to get out of there, or else things might get worse. Events continue to spiral downwards. Bobby and his friends have a strange encounter with a girl from one of the earlier haunts, who somehow ends up miles upon miles away from where they’d first seen her – she shows up by their R.V out in the bush. After being invited in, she makes a few creepy noises, unsettling everybody, and then takes off into the night.
These are just a few of the things which happen to Bobby and his friends while wandering down a scary highway of strange roadside attractions and backwoods roads searching for the perfect haunt. Eventually, they find what promises to be the worst, most horrifying experience of their lives, let alone for a Halloween night.
And as Bobby’s brother Mikey questions him at one point – there’s only so far it can go before someone actually gets hurt.
film-review-the-houses-october-built-ed03f358-af21-4f9e-8c08-15baf29d3f99Some people complained about too many jump scare-type gags. I understand that in other films, however, this one is about haunted houses. You should go into this expecting at least a certain degree of those scares right off the bat.  Secondly, a lot of them paid off because it’s done in found footage style. They go for a much more natural found footage feel because everything really terrible is saved for the end. There’s a tense build-up towards the truly awful moments. So, unlike a regular film where you’d probably have a bunch of jump scares involving people getting killed off, or something equally intense, in The Houses October Built we see a lot more jumps where it’s only the world of the haunted houses working on us.
Later, the scares get less about making us jump and concern themselves more with grating on our nerves, making us uneasy, taking us away from those comfortable areas where we think “here comes another jumpy one”, and instead shows us a more relentless and disturbing conclusion. There’s a drawn out nature – we start the entire film seeing Brandy being, what appears to be, abducted. So we know there is a build to something sinister. However, I don’t think it’s drawn out in the sense it becomes boring. As I said before, there’s a tension built up by Roe here. There comes a point where the viewer feels safe in the knowledge we know where this is going, how it’s going to play out, but Roe toys with those expectations.
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One of my favourite things is Bobby Roe uses found footage very well. There are countless found footage horror films out there, to the point of exhaustion. I mean, how many different possession movies came out after Paranormal Activity hit the market? Tons. Even before that, after the success of Blair Witch filmmakers started coming out of the woodwork to capitalize on the newfound popularity of these techniques (a lot of people harp on about Cannibal Holocaust as really making the found footage genre ‘a thing’ yet also forget to mention the fantastic and unique 84C MoPic from 1989 that does not get the credit it deserves for making good use of the sub-genre while also making a great film overall). Yet a lot of these movies tend to fall by the wayside opting to forget the ‘rules’ of found footage – most times we’re left ending up wondering how the footage really ever was found. At times, the ways certain scenes end up being filmed start to defy the movie’s internal logic. The Houses October Built, on the other hand, really sticks to the found footage aspect, and even at a few points when you do find yourself wondering exactly how something is being filmed there is a perfectly good explanation. The plot itself allows for a number of different possibilities; this is proved by a scene a little over halfway through the movie’s running time where Bobby and his friends wake up to find they’ve been filmed during the night, and it’s been posted online. This is one of the best parts about the entire movie because it really makes us feel like we’re still watching a documentary.
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The performances are fairly natural, which is aided by the fact these people are obviously friends in real life. They’ve already gone on this journey before just for real instead of following a script and shooting a dramatic feature. I really like the chemistry between the characters because we feel their history, they don’t seem like this is the first or second time they’ve all talked together as it often does in low budget found footage outings. The found footage sub-genre is littered with terribly acted films. It helps that The Houses October Built boasts some, at times, tense, and natural performances. I felt for these people, as opposed to loathing their every second on camera and hoping soon to see their fictional death – as is the case with way too many horrors in general, let alone found footage.

There were times the pacing of the film was a bit slow. I enjoy a slow and tense ride through a film, but at a certain point I just wanted The Houses October Built to really kick into gear. The running time isn’t long, but they could have actually trimmed even another 10 minutes or so out of the movie without hurting the overall finished film.
That being said, once things start to get really creepy (cue: Jeff walks down a dark alley & is then confronted by some of the horrible people they encountered earlier in their trip) everything spins out of control, wonderfully, for everyone involved. The pacing totally ruins anything. Although, there could be a bit better of a flow to the entire film had they eliminated a few bits of fat here and there.
HOB_STILL_M-1024x576I feel safe giving this movie a 3.5 out of 5 star rating. It isn’t perfect. The pacing slows down some of the effect simply by not building the tension appropriately.  nstead of a slow burn to the terror in the finale, it muddles things a bit to the point where you sort of want the movie to really pick up and get a move on. Other than that, I love the premise, I love the characters and the performances of the actors involved, and there were some genuinely creepy, unsettling moments throughout: from the strange and balding trans-looking masked girl, to a few moments in the various haunts, to even just a few more subdued scenes involving the interviews Bobby conducted on the trip. All in all, this makes for a great found footage film, as well as a decently spooky horror. Check this out for a nice little scare, and keep it on your list for Halloween!

Feed the Gods Leaves Everyone Hungry

Feed the Gods. 2014. Dir. Braden Croft.
Starring Shawn Roberts, Emily Tennant, Britt Irvin, Tyler Johnston, and Aleks Paunovic. Compound B.
Unrated. 84 minutes.
Horror/Thriller

★1/2

There are times I’ll admit I am fooled by an interesting title. When I first heard of Feed the Gods I’ve got to say, I was absolutely hooked. Just by the title alone. So I waited, and finally it came to VOD. I wasn’t particularly aware this film had anything to do with Bigfoot, or a Bigfoot type legendary creature, until the poster art showed up. Maybe I’m not in the loop (I know I’m not in the loop – that’s called a joke), but going by the description I basically imagined a sort of strange backwoods cult. It made me think of something similar to Jug Face, which is a great modern backwoods horror. However, this is nothing like that great film. Unfortunately, I can’t really say much positive about Feed the Gods.

feed-the-godsThe premise of the film isn’t a bad one. Two brothers, who don’t really like one another, decide to seek out their birth parents after the death of their adopted mother. It brings them to a mountain-woods town. The locals are a bit strange, a bit quirky. And also there’s the running legend about a Bigfoot creature in the forest. They call it The Wild Man. The Wild Man takes people, they say. Not a bad setup.

I’m not really saying the plot isn’t great because I was really intrigued by what might happen. It’s just that there wasn’t any fear.
Usually Bigfoot freaks me out. Some recent sasquatch centric movies I’ve enjoyed and found creepy are Willow Creek, and most recently the brilliantly executed Exists by found footage master Eduardo Sanchez. Feed the Gods aims to be a really unique movie in the Bigfoot filmography, but fails.
feed-the-gods-3The acting wasn’t awful, at least not to a point where I cringed; though one or two times at the beginning I did wince slightly. Regardless, a few times I actually chuckled at a bit of the humour weaved in. The biggest problem Feed the Gods suffers from is a lack of any real dread, no suspense or tension. They aim to give that backwoods feeling of terror. The town in which the main characters end up almost has a feeling similar to when the boys first show up in Deliverance to try and find someone to drive their vehicle; they wander into such a funny yet creepy, eerie place with the kid and his banjo. I almost expected a scene close to it, but they didn’t go too hamfisted here. Yet there wasn’t enough of anything.

Feed the Gods is a confused film a lot of its running time. There are points, as I said, where I did laugh, but those were essentially in part because of one of the brothers who worked as comic relief. Even at the end, I didn’t expect it to end. Things came to a close so abruptly.  I felt like there was going to be a bit more resolution. Not because I need it – I love when a film, horror especially, can leave things either ambiguous or just plain depressing even – but because it felt as if the film was moving towards some resolution. I’m not saying it’s meant to be a good one. The finale really blew things.
On that note, I did not dig the monster in this film. Near the end there’s a really bad shot. Kudos to the filmmakers for going with their own sort of unique look. Wasn’t my thing. I didn’t find it too frightening, at all. That also had to do with the entire film. A sense of dread and fear comes along with a sasquatch type creature lurking in the woods. Unfortunately for Feed the Gods, and me I guess, I did not have that at all here. So when there’s some real screen time for this creature it just didn’t affect me much. As opposed to a film like Sanchez’s Exists, which in my opinion had one of the best Bigfoots on film. Period. This film did right by not going for too many shots of the creature head-on, however, when they do go for it the creature only disappoints.
Feed-The-Gods-photo11-620x248All in all this is just a rough film. I respect trying to take a new look at the whole Bigfoot idea, and sort of zooming in on a more local legend aspect, but this does not work. The writing isn’t especially good. Not that I’d consider it horrible – I love the story itself. The plot wound up coming across boring when it could’ve been so much more with increased suspense and tension. The acting isn’t awful. It’s wooden, though, and this helps nothing. I did enjoy the older brother, played by Shawn Roberts; he was funny at times, others he was believable. Most of the other characters were either overplayed or just poorly done. He seemed like the only one with an actual personality.

Also, another little thing I didn’t like was the trailer – it is badly cut. I know the difference because I’ve watched the film, but I know a couple people already who’ve mentioned to me they assumed the three main characters were brothers and sister. That’s because the trailer is cut in the beginning with a line from Will (Roberts) stating “we want to go find mom and dad”, or something similar. There’s nothing else in the trailer to indicate the girl of the trio is not a relative; she’s in fact the girlfriend of Will’s younger brother. Nothing to get upset over. You discover quick enough once turning on the film they’re in a relationship together. This is an instance of pure laziness. Careless and sloppy to have a shoddy trailer, which has clearly confused more than a couple people after starting to watch this. It doesn’t ruin anything, but it sort of makes you wonder why they’d cut a trailer that way. The least they could’ve done is make sure the trailer was tight. Because the writing isn’t, and it falls apart basically after the premise gets into place.
feed-the-gods-1I can only give this 1.5 stars out of 5.
I don’t mean to hate on the film. Like I mentioned, I really loved the whole setup. There was a lot of promise in the story for the film, but unfortunately this didn’t extend into the plot and any of the rest of the film. You can’t even really call this a horror, as far as I’m concerned. I would mostly throw this into the category of a dark thriller.

I always try to give Bigfoot movies some breathing room, so to speak, because it isn’t easy to effectively do one right. I can’t extend much courtesy to Feed the Gods. It really let me down in the end. I didn’t even initially realize this was a film concerning Bigfoot. Once I realized it was, though, I got excited. Recently I saw Late Phases, which really came off as a great modern werewolf horror, and as far as werewolves go it’s hard for me to find a movie with their kind in it I really love; I loved that one, and it really did good for the genre in a fresh way. I hoped then that Feed the Gods might be capable of doing the same sort of thing with Bigfoot. I hoped in vain. That being said, I would like to see Braden Croft write and direct another feature because he has great ideas floating around.
Check this out if you have some time to kill, but don’t expect much, and don’t waste your money if there’s something else looking more promising in the VOD queue.