A struggling actor gets a crash course in literal method acting after he decides to rob a bank
When heavy metal collides with demonic possession, and the devil becomes a painter: Sean Byrne's follow-up feature, THE DEVIL'S CANDY.
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Life moves on in Alexandria. For the most part.
Cheap Thrills. 2014. Dir. E.L Katz.
Starring Pat Healy, Sara Paxton, Ethan Embry, and David Koechner. Pacific Northwest Pictures. Rated 14A. 88 minutes.
Cheap Thrills begins as Craig (Pat Healy) loses his low paying job. On top of that, he and his wife, as well as their new baby, are on the verge of being evicted from their property. After losing his job Craig heads to a bar for a few drinks. He ends up running into an old friend from high school, Vince (Ethan Embry), and the two catch up. They also come into contact with Colin (David Koechner) and his young wife Violet (Sara Paxton) who begin a friendly little game of wagers for big money. Seemingly the answer to both Craig and Vince’s problems, the two down-and-out old buddies go along with the childish little games Colin comes up with for cold, hard cash. Eventually, however, the games get darker, and more sinister. At first it begins with Craig getting knocked out by a bouncer, but soon it ends up with he and Vince breaking into houses. The evening gets crazier until the two former friends start wearing thin on one another, each of them becoming more aggressive with the other as the challenges get more intense, and they soon begin to regret what they’re willing to do just for money.
I think the two big performances here are most definitely from Ethan Embry and Pat Healy, both of whom I really enjoy in other movies. Embry plays a great character – at first you really find him fun and a bit wild, but eventually you start to see what kind of guy he really is and it is not nice. Embry really gets into it. I’ve been a fan of his since the show Brotherhood specifically, and he does very well with dark material, or at least characters who have some sort of darkness in them; great actor. Healy does a fine job, as well, playing Craig. The evolution of his character from beginning to end is wonderful. In the beginning, he is a truly meek individual, but by the end (especially the last shot which may be my favourite of the entire film) he really comes out the other side as a bad ass dude.
There are a couple really laugh out loud moments in Cheap Thrills and I think one of those is absolutely when Craig has the incident with his finger. I don’t want to ruin anything more than I already have, but this is just absolutely priceless. Between the way Vince acts, how Craig reacts to the finger incident, and Colin screaming “fuck yeah motherfucker” – it’s all just way too damn funny. I laughed my ass off during that scene.
While most of the comedy is quite dark, this is the sort of comedy I really love the most personally. There’s something really great when filmmakers can capture the hilarity behind grim situations. E.L Katz really could have done this as an outright horror movie, and believe me there are a few moments worthy of horror in here (maybe this could be called a psychological horror in some respects). Instead he keeps this a real dark comedy with dramatic elements and certainly a good dose of crime. I think the driving force behind Cheap Thrills has two significant parts: the friendship between Craig and Vince, as well as the overall competition in which they engage. Everyone can probably think of someone they might have a relationship with from high school similar to Craig and Vince – maybe not as contemptuous, but definitely someone you may not have as great of a relationship with in the present as you did in the past, and one that may cause tension. This just cranks those types of relationships up another notch. Combined with the fact these guys are desperate enough in their current life situations to go in on an increasingly dangerous and twisted game, this makes for great drama.
I think the whole game for money with Colin and Violet really works as a modern tale about greed. Although this is mainly meant as a great and thrilling dark comedy, it really does work on deeper levels. Similar to the recent film 13 Sins, Katz does a great job telling a story that relates to our modern society – a society filled to the absolute brim with people who will do anything they can, aside from work for an honest living, to make as much money as possible in as little amount of time as possible. The increasingly sick nature of the things Colin suggest for Craig and Vince to do is really unsettling. One part I really thought was a little funny but also sad, in regards to the game itself, is when they’re dared to eat a dead dog – they tie in the end and Vince asks Craig to open his mouth to prove his finished, to which his friend replies maniacally “I’m finished“, opening his mouth with an “ahh” noise to verify. It makes you chuckle while also feeling disgusted with these two guys. And it only gets worse.
This is absolutely a 4.5 out of 5 star film. To be honest, while he wasn’t bad at all, I think David Koechner was a weak link for Cheap Thrills. If someone else had played this character I may have been more intrigued. He did not do bad whatsoever, I just didn’t really get into his performance specifically. I suppose he served his purpose well enough. The whole movie is just great, though, and his performance didn’t at all take away from it in any real significant sense. I cannot recommend this film enough. Ever since I first saw this I’ve been raving to others about how great of a movie experience this provides. A lot of fun. Albeit, a bit of sick fun along the way, but totally worth the ride. Two amazing central performances and a lot of gritty, dark laughs make this a must-see film. One of the best releases in 2014 my way. I hope others will enjoy it as much as myself.
The Guest. 2014. Directed by Adam Wingard. Written by Simon Barrett. Starring Dan Stevens, Maika Monroe, Brendan Meyer, Sheila Kelley, Leland Orser, and Lance Reddick. Picturehouse.
Rated 14A. 99 minutes.
To begin, I’ve been a fan of Adam Wingard a long while. I think the first time I actually saw one of his films it was A Horrible Way to Die, which I recently got on Blu ray and enjoyed again to the fullest. After that I got the chance to see both Home Sick and Pop Skull within a couple days. Though I enjoy his later work more, I still really dug those films. Wingard really has a different sensibility about the way he makes movies than a lot of new, young horror directors. Not to mention, Simon Barrett, who has been writing films for Wingard since, I believe, A Horrible Way to Die. Barrett is a really interesting writer; another of his works I enjoyed before his partnership with Wingard is the creepy Confederate gold horror Dead Birds. Together, the two of these guys are a great pair as writer-director partnerships go. Especially in the horror genre. I think these guys continually prove they’re the next big thing (hell – I think they’re the big thing right now) in horror.
That being said, after You’re Next, Barrett and Wingard have moved onto a slight change of pace with The Guest.
This story follows a young soldier named David (Stevens). The film begins as we follow behind him, jogging. Soon, he reaches the home of a soldier he knew, Caleb, who recently died. David tells the family Caleb wanted him to find them and give them his love. David also says he promised Caleb he’d do anything possible to help them. Anna (Monroe), Caleb’s sister, seems suspicious. However, the rest of the family, especially the mother (Sheila Kelley) and younger brother (Brendan Meyer), take a liking to David. Even some of Anna’s friends, including a sleazy sort of dude named Craig (a nice small role played by Joel David Moore), think David is the best. Eventually, David’s past comes back to haunt him. People start dying.
And soon enough, Anna starts finding things out about David; dangerous things.
The movie plays out like something we’ve seen before, and yet The Guest feels different. A lot of people focus on it seemingly being a throwback to 1980s action-thrillers, and also some of John Carpenter’s works specifically, which I agree; a lot of this film seems very much inspired by the look of Carpenter, as well as the feel of certain action movies from the 80s, most specifically probably The Terminator. Regardless, The Guest is not some 80s rehash. It’s a smart little thriller with the entertainment of thrillers we’ve known before. Yes, there are influences here. Yes, the soundtrack is most certainly a heavy lean towards the 80s.
But Barrett and Wingard both are too clever to make this just a throwback piece.
For anyone who has not actually seen The Guest yet, what I’m about to say in the next little bit has a huge SPOILER in it. So, if you’d rather not have the film spoiled, and I’d rather you not because I don’t want anyone complaining when I’ve clearly forewarned them (even though I think the whole concept of ‘spoiler alert’ is ridiculous – if you don’t want anything spoiled, stay away from the fucking internet), PLEASE TURN BACK.
So, one of my favourite pieces in the entire movie is nearing the finale. Just as things start going haywire for David, he and Mrs. Peterson (Kelley) are in the kitchen, taking cover from gunfire and such. I honestly believed David was going to protect the family. I figured we’d be treated to a massive shootout, as well as maybe a few hand-to-hand combat scenes. Instead, Barrett subverts those expectations, and David instead stabs Mrs. Peterson just before she yells to the men outside the house as she figures out his intentions. I really didn’t see that coming. Also, I think this is really clever because even earlier when David kills two other people, we don’t necessarily switch him to the bad guy. We’re still wondering what exactly is going on with him; maybe the government has done his head in, maybe they turned him into a killing machine without the off switch – who knows?
But once David kills the mother, all bets are off. We now see him as an unstoppable force. He strategically snuffs out any single person who may, or possibly may not, it doesn’t matter, become a trail leading back to him. Then from this point on things get even wilder.
This is one of the many reasons I really enjoy The Guest. Another thing – Wingard avoids going for some extended, unnecessary sex scene during a party in the film. Whereas a lot of other filmmakers might make it into a whole scene, Wingard keeps it at a very brief few shots, which gives us enough information to deduce that, yes, the two characters indeed have sex.
It’s not that I’m against sex scenes. In fact, I’m not at all. I think if the plot provides a moment where a sex scene is organic and natural, then why not? But on the contrary, if there is no need for it, if it doesn’t serve the plot or characters in any way, then why include it? Only makes for a bit of fast forward. You can either have sex or watch it on the internet whenever you want – it doesn’t need to be filler in a movie. Not for me anyways. Kudos to Wingard for not falling into the same old traps other filmmakers do. Instead, he uses every scene, every shot, because they’re all meant to be in there. Signs of a good filmmaker, in my opinion.
I really enjoyed Dan Stevens as David. I’ve never personally seen him in anything else, though I know what he’s done. His portrayal of this character was incredible. He swung between charming and handsome, to dark (still handsome) and brooding. There were times he genuinely chilled me with a few of the looks on his face; not even his words, just expressions. I think I’ll definitely have to see some of his other work. Great casting.
Though there are a few small performances I enjoyed (Ethan Embry as a small-time arms dealer, Joel David Moore as the burnt out Craig, Lance Reddick as Major Carver, the always unique Leland Orser as Mr. Peterson), the one other performance aside from Stevens I enjoyed most was Maika Monroe. She did a wonderful job as Anna. Again, I don’t ever really recall seeing her in anything else, but she was great here. This could’ve easily been played badly had they cast someone else, however, Monroe turns the character of Anna into someone less-angsty and a bit more intelligent than most young characters we see in horrors, action-thrillers, and the lot. Also, she gets to utter the final line – I absolutely love it. The way she says it, the three words themselves; it all puts things perfectly in perspective. Another great instance of casting. She and Stevens played well off one another, as well. Some really great scenes between the two.
The Guest is a fun and weird ride through what could have been a typical action-thriller, but instead comes off as the next legitimate step on the path towards greatness for Adam Wingard and Simon Barrett. I think this is not only better than most action coming out post-2000, it’s also just one of the better action-thrillers I’ve seen. I recently rewatched The Terminator on Blu ray (and I probably consider that to be the best action-thriller ever), and I can honestly say, for me, The Guest ranks up there with that film.
I love the dialogue, as I usually do in movies scripted by Barrett; I never find myself stopping and wondering why someone had to say that, why the screenwriter left this in there, et cetera. The plot is a lot of fun, and Wingard really executes things well. He is great with a lot of the handheld work in his previous films, but I think with the bigger budgets his and Barrett’s talents have started bringing in his films will start to see more and more stabilized framing. Not to say handheld isn’t good, or that Wingard isn’t good at it (the opposite – as I said he is great), I just think with The Guest, Wingard proves he is capable of true beauty with more steady framing and shot composition. There are just absolutely magnificent shots here; one such action-style shot is when Craig (Moore) is running away from David, who lets him go, and eventually picks him off with a headshot from long range. Just really great and twisted stuff.
The Guest will be on Blu ray January 6th, but is also going to be available for purchase as a Digital HD release on December 16th through VOD services. As soon as you can, check this out. I’m looking forward to the Blu ray because this is a gorgeous looking film with great camerawork, a killer soundtrack, and some top notch performances.
Late Phases. 2014. Dir. Adrián García Bogliano. Screenplay by Eric Stolze.
Starring Nick Damici, Ethan Embry, and Lance Guest. Dark Sky Films/Glass Eye Pix.
Not Rated. 95 minutes.
Werewolf movies are a real hit or miss for me. That being said, I love a good werewolf flick. If it’s done right. The problem with creature features in general is the presentation of the monster itself. People want to say it’s shown too much, not enough, too soon, too late. So many complaints. Honestly, I could care less how long the monster is onscreen. Though I care about two things: as long as it looks decent, and as long as the rest of the film holds up its end. Late Phases is a particularly interesting character piece. Of course it all revolves around the werewolf. It’s the catalyst for the events in the film.
But the whole story really revolves around Ambrose (Damici).
Ambrose moves into a new neighbourhood, into a new home. His son (played by a favourite of mine, Ethan Embry) tries to help him settle, but his father is a bit of a surly war veteran, retired from the United States Armed Forces; he served during the Vietnam war. On the first night in his new place, Ambrose experiences some strange events. Next door is a lot of noise. Banging on the door. Followed later by screams, a loud crashing, terrible sounds. Something kills the lady next door. Then it bursts its way into his home, killing his service dog. Ambrose is left with his bloody canine friend in his arms, but alive.
Something seems to be plaguing the community. The werewolf of course could not fully be identified by Ambrose. He is blind. This is what heightens the plot of Late Phases from a simple creature feature to a werewolf horror containing a character study.
Also, while I do enjoy certain werewolf films focusing on a person becoming the monster, it’s excellent that Late Phases opts to instead take on the perspective of an outsider. It really works to have Damici’s character as a blind man. The heightened sense of smell he sorts of develops (nothing inhuman, simply an army man whose whole professional life perhaps has been spent relying on his abilities to pay attention to more detail than the average man, and now blind uses it as a means of retaining some sort of control over his life) almost puts him in the same league as the werewolf; he has an animalistic side, coupled with the war veteran in him. Damici himself does an excellent job as Ambrose. Not only does Damici nail the movements of a blind man (at least as far as I can tell), he really gets into this character. We’ve seen the ‘wounded war veteran’ a hundred times; some performances are great, others very typical or even boring. The Vietnam vet in particular has been done to death. Everything from the 1980s horror-comedy House to one of my favourite films of all-time, featuring Robert DeNiro and Christopher Walken both playing fantastic roles, The Deer Hunter. However, Damici manages to not go all the typical routes. His blindness is a part of that, but really he keeps it subdued. He isn’t the typical binge drinking or depressed type of person. Ambrose is most certainly a cynical and mostly hopeless, in terms of his outlook on life, yet he isn’t a man without purpose. And once his dog is killed by the werewolf, he knows something is not right. He can tell. This particular event gives him more purpose. Damici plays Ambrose in a subtle fashion, which really helps Late Phases elevate itself from just a creature feature to something more.
There are some other little treats as far as acting goes in this film. Ever since I first saw Manhunter I thought Tom Noonan was perfect for horror. He is fascinatingly creepy, and a wonderful actor. Here he plays a priest who gets close (or as close as anybody can get) to Ambrose. Even more, Larry Fessenden shows up, right off the bat even, in a few scenes as a man trying to sell a headstone to Ambrose. All around everyone does a great job, too. Even Fessenden in his brief part.
As I mentioned before, Ethan Embry is an actor I really enjoy. He has this sort of energy about it which really lends itself to dark roles in horror and thrillers, or even just a very black comedy like his recent film Cheap Thrills. He does a good job playing son Will to Damici’s Ambrose. They give off that troubled relationship quite easily. A great pairing here. One scene I really enjoyed comes when Ambrose nearly shoots Will after believing him to be an intruder initially. This gives way to some real serious father-son drama for a few moments. Really tense.
The cinematography is also pretty awesome. Adrián García Bogliano, who previously did the gritty rape-revenge thriller I’ll Never Die Alone, as well as Penumba, Here Comes the Devil, and the segment “B is for Bigfoot” in The ABCs of Death, really knows how to draw out creepy imagery. There are times when it’s very subtle, like the acting in Late Phases, while at others it can be very striking. The beginning of the film opens with a real bang. It isn’t long until we’re treated to a look at the monster. Leading up to this there are a couple shadowy shots, but Bogliano doesn’t pull any punches. There are some good little bloody bits. There are also a few quieter moments, such as Ambrose sitting in the dark of the shadows; he slowly pulls back into the black, disappearing. There’s enough balance between outright horror and restraint to make this a creature feature, but also put it in the category of being a slow burn. Bogliano works on the characters and then brings out shades of horror from time to time.
Then in the last 25 minutes we’re treated to a transformation. Yes, you do get to see a man become a werewolf here. Even if his perspective is not the chief point-of-view throughout the film. And this transformation scene is really awesome. The effects were pretty great, and definitely old school. It helped that the whole thing didn’t look like a CGI-fest because that’s often what takes me out of a good film. The creature doesn’t have to be perfect, but if we’re going to have a good look at it, as we do a few times throughout Late Phases and particularly during the finale, it has to look at least decent. And CGI just can’t cut it in that sense. At least for me. I like to see at least some use of practical make-up effects when it comes to werewolves. I don’t know, maybe that’s silly of me – who knows. It helps make horror specifically look better if the effects are done in practical fashion. CGI takes the life out of it. It doesn’t have to be every bit practical, but the more lifeless and computer-ish things look the more the humanity comes out of it. I know we’re talking about a movie concerning werewolves. There just still needs to be some sort of way to emotionally connect people to a horror film, if it’s going to be a great one. And once the effects, essentially the “pay offs”, become more and more fake there’s less and less connection on the part of the audience. In my opinion. Late Phases succeeds by having a pretty creepy werewolf design.
Overall I’d have to say Late Phases is a near flawless addition to the werewolf sub-genre of horror films. A great central performance by Nick Damici. The film is basically a character study dropped into the framework of a werewolf horror. It works because Damici is a talented actor. Late Phases also knocks it out of the park as a creature feature style flick. Especially in the finale. You’ll really get a kick out of Damici’s battle with the werewolf. It really pays its dues as a werewolf movie at the end when we get to see a little more of the creature (plus extra wildness I’d not anticipated & of course I will not spoil) and there are balls-out sequences to really get excited about.
This a 5 out of 5 star film for me. It completely subverted my expectations. I thought for awhile I knew where things were going, but then the movie took a different path. I can’t often say that these days about too many films.
Movies like this one, as well as the recent indie Starry Eyes, are the reason why I pay less and less attention to the ‘horror’ bullshit pulling in hundreds of millions at the box office, and keep more of an eye on independent horror, and any smaller films willing to take chances instead of sticking with a moneymaking formula or whatever is the trend of today.
See this now! It’s available on VOD. Support it. We need more horror like this in a market inundated with shit.