THE DARK TAPES: Fresh Indie Found Footage

The Dark Tapes. 2017. Directed by Vincent J. Guastini & Michael McQuown. Screenplay by McQuown.
Starring Emilia Ares Zoryan, David Banks, Jonathan Biver, Sara Castro, Michael Cotter, Denise Faro, Brittany Fisheli, Jo Galloway, Aral Gribble, Shane Hartline, David Hull, Clint Keepin, Casey James Knight, Shawn Lockie, Matt Magnusson, Anna Rose Moore, Tessa Munro, Jake O’Connor, Cortney Palm, David Rountree, Katherine Shaw, Wayne River Sorrell, Meredith Thomas, Brittany Underwood, Julian von Nagel, Ryan Allan Young, & Stepehn Zimpel.
Thunder Road Incorporated.
Not Rated. 98 minutes.

Dark Tapes 1Director Michael McQuown sent me a screener for his and co-director Vincent J. Guastini’s independent film, The Dark Tapes. I’d heard of it awhile, hearing plenty of good things. Not overhyped; hyped just enough. I’m always ready to dig in on a found footage flick, no matter how tired the sub-genre seems to get with so many low budget efforts being pumped out simply to get a director and some actors a credit to their names.
The Dark Tapes isn’t a perfect movie. There are a few missteps that could’ve been avoided to make the whole thing more effective, certain tapes in the lot aren’t as good as others. Often anthologies suffer from this fate. The lesser tapes are still good. There’s nothing bad here. Each tape, regardless of its setbacks, has an eerie quality to it respectively.
McQuown and Guastini use a meagre budget wisely, choosing to use effects sparingly and, for the most part, they work. This is one of their best moves, because they don’t set the bar too high yet clearly focused on staying creepy. There are standouts in the series of tapes, presented through the narrative of being proof of government conspiracy-type stuff, the truth the powers that be suppress and keep from the people – a couple deserve their own full-length treatments. Certain segments stand up with some of the best of the V/H/S series (no surprise considering Guastini is not only an effects guy, he did work on the third entry, Viral).
Dark Tapes 2My only beef, and I’ll get to this first before discussing what I enjoyed so much, is that the directing is mostly excellent. Then, they choose to show us too much. For the longest time what we only get glimpses of in frame is what drives the pulse-pounding terror. As you can see in the photo above, that’s a startling shot. Love that moment; freezing the frame only compounds the fear. However, the directors lose some of that momentum later when they choose to show this demonic figure up close for too long. They try offsetting this with the use of camera glitches (et cetera). But it never makes up for the undoing of the fright from seeing the creature long enough we can start picking out some of the less stellar aspects of its creation.
The rest of the tapes are presented with brief shots and bits that are framed properly so that the low budget qualities don’t glare. And honestly, it’s only the one main demon in the “To Catch a Demon” segments that comes off as cheesy, which is late in the game. Otherwise, in the “Amanda’s Revenge” tape, the creatures (or whatever you want to call them) look legitimately gnarly, in the best horror sense. Particularly in that tape, we get some wonderfully old school film shots, the rickety frame, catching a presence in the distance, and it’s so genuinely perfect for the type of eeriness for which this segments is aiming.
Dark Tapes 3The tapes have an overall framing narrative, though I think that while there’s a connection between the tapes as a whole, it isn’t as connective as the filmmakers might hope. Mostly, I don’t feel that the connections are tight enough. The writing is interesting, at every turn. I can’t help think McQuown could’ve brainstormed something better to make them all into the cohesive unit the beginning (and mid-credits) speech we hear wishes it’d become. If this were tighter then it would’ve greatly improved the film.
But the stories, they’re fresh. Even in the moments some of them don’t exactly work as intended, they’re innovative. I found “The Hunters and the Hunted” was my favourite because it caught me so off guard once the revelation came, until then I expected a run of the mill bit of paranormal shlock; a proper twist, if there ever were! Also enjoyed “Cam Girls” except the end devolved into a ham-fisted mess. Before that it was wildly creepy, the editing made it feel very kinetic and full of horrific energy; while it falls apart later with absolutely no subtlety and a ton of unnecessary exposition that could’ve been given to us through imagery earlier (a missed opportunity), this segment  was insane.
And “Cam Girls” has an underlying metaphor in it, about our porn-obsessed culture that involves men watching women through their screens performing, some thinking they’re falling in love just by watching. If only the plot of this segment were worked out better, it’d be a devastating short.
Dark Tapes 5For a low budget, non-studio film, The Dark Tapes has an impressive production value. This is one of the things that keeps even the lesser pieces involving, it’s better than the average indie found footage attempt. With so many of these sub-genre flicks saturating the market, incredibly easy to make on a shoestring to non-existent budget, it’s nice to see what’s so obviously a labour of horror love come to the screen from these directors.
Sure, not every segment is perfect. A couple are scary as hell. And like I’ve yammered on, even in those segments which don’t measure up there’s still things to pique your interest. If anything, the effort the team on this film put in is astounding. Kudos to them all, I certainly hope that McQuown and Guastini do more, whether it’s in found footage that’s up to them. Without a doubt they’ve got horror sensibilities.
The Dark Tapes, warts and all, is one of the better found footage movies I’ve seen as of late, running the gamut of horror, thriller, and science fiction with relative ease. Like Tales of HalloweenHolidaysV/H/S, and Southbound, this is an anthology worth dipping into for a fright.


Short Film Review: A Late Thaw is a Beautifully Dark Look at Grief

A Late Thaw. 2015. Directed & Written by Kim Barr.
Starring Michelle Boback, Lucas Chartier-Dessert, Kathleen Fee, Helena Marie, & Ivan Peric.
14 minutes.

POSTER Over at ChicArt Productions they’re consistently putting out interesting little short independent films. Some are great subversions of genre, others are merely great examples of the genres in which the films exist. In the past six months or more, I’ve received a lot of fun screeners from them. I’m only now just getting around to seeing each film and reviewing them. No matter how big or small a production, it’s always a major honour for me to be asked by filmmakers and their publicity teams to take a look at their work. Getting a screener is like Christmas for me!
But it’s even better when these shorts are actually solid pieces of cinema. Usually, I receive requests for horror movies, seeing as how my website is (for the most part) fairly horror-based. All the same, I find many genres wind up in my inbox.
Director-writer Kim Barr’s most recent short, A Late Thaw, is less a horror – though it contains the essence of creepiness most of the time – and more a drama-fantasy. Better yet it reminds me of contemporary Gothic Literature, honestly. You could almost say it’s one long hallucination with bits of reality peppered in. No matter how you define it – perhaps dark fantasy might work best – Barr executes an innovative little screenplay to make 14-minute film into something magical, otherworldly, and excruciatingly personal. More than that, this short examines grief, how people deal with it, when they do, and how that grief can reach out from a person’s past to either strangle or give way to their future.
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The cinematography is beautiful, at times quite surreal. Very much dig the fantasy elements, as they’re woven around the story fairly well. When Tara (Helena Marie) walks through the house and the snow is falling, frost is on the doorknob, you feel in an entirely other reality. The snow-covered stairs, the hallway shrouded with foggy, blowing snow; each moment is like something out of a dream. And then soon comes the paranoia, which includes great little sound design thrown on top of everything else. The score sits perfectly beneath all the camerawork. It pulls the viewer in with an ambient sound, swelling, fading, and helps to put us in a nostalgic frame of mind while we continue to watch on, wondering what will come next: dreams, or reality. These elements come together to create a strange atmosphere; strange in a good way. Barr’s directorial choices work well alongside the cinematography to create a space that feels like one step in a different direction through this house will take you to a whole other world. Short films by nature only have a limited window to take you inside their universe. A Late Thaw immerses us into this story so easily, so quickly, that it’s a seamless transition. One minute you’re here, the next you find yourself walking through this dreamy, cloudy house, snow falling, the air thick. A remarkable aesthetic overall, which is something I’m big on. Although the story is excellent, it could’ve been only half decent an the technical work on this film would still make it highly enjoyable.
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When it comes to the titular thaw, we find out Tara has been trying to move on from a previous tragedy. Only now, with the new house and all its happiness, her old grief is thawing and working its way up to, and out of, the surface. The film’s imagery with the snow and all the frostiness is so dark without needing horror. This personal drama about a woman is moving in that it explores very touchy, tragic memories. Certainly the snow and all that are partly representative of the old lover and their apparent death on a mountain, climbing somewhere; it’s as if that atmosphere has moved itself into her house, mentally and visually we see it literally. At the same time, the snow buries, it covers up and conceals. So the further things progress in the film, the more snow covered and cloudy things become, until even Tara finds her own face and eyes covered. In a way, the snow is also grief.
Further than that those memories are evoked with interesting images and writing. For instance, at first you’ll believe the wall climbing scene is something out of place. I did, and found myself questioning what exactly was the purpose – other than to look neat – to have this woman and her friend at a rockwall climbing spot. Then as the short moves by and gets closer to the end you begin understanding why Barr decided to include this moment, as it becomes totally relevant to Tara’s plot. Even better, there’s a terribly creepy scene which sees Tara sort of falling further and further into the hole of memory, calling back the climbing. This is one of my favourite moments, it is so unique that I felt the scene stick with me long after the film finished. Again, there’s no outright horror here, yet Barr lets the psychological terror seep through the drama at the center of this story to make everything edgy, uneasy, hard to predict. The imagery is so damn powerful, I had to go back and watch this a couple times after my first viewing.
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Personally, this is one of my favourite short films I’ve ever seen. There are a handful or two of shorts that are just near perfect in my mind; this is one of those movies. Kim Barr is definitely talented, and it may be her work in other areas before coming into her own as director which helped shape some of her style. I’d dig a full-length feature from Barr because if this is any indication of her talent, any studio would be glad to have someone with the writing skills she possesses, along with the fact she has a knowledgeable grasp on her role as director. Keep an eye out – if you get the chance to see A Late Thaw, do it. You will not regret these 14 minutes. And maybe, like it did me, the film just might leave a mark, too.

YellowBrickRoad is An Uneven But Interesting Psychological Horror

YellowBrickRoad. 2010. Directed/Written by Jesse Holland & Andy Mitton.
Starring Cassidy Freeman, Anessa Ramsey, Laura Heisler, Clark Freeman, Lee Wilkof, Alex Draper, Tara Giordano, Michael Laurino, and Sam Elmore. Points North. Rated R. 98 minutes. Horror/Thriller.

Yellowbrickroad_MoviePoster There’s always something fun and interesting about a horror movie that tries to take a part of literary history and craft it into a real story. While of course this is not a documentary, the premise of the film tries to take an element from The Wizard of Oz and involve it with supposedly true events. Now, Friar, New Hampshire is not a real location. It is a fictional place. But what I do enjoy about YellowBrickRoad is that, within its own universe, it attempts to bring that old familiar L. Frank Baum tale into a real life situation.
I don’t think that this is necessarily a great movie. However, I also don’t believe YellowBrickRoad is without its merits. The ending is a slight letdown. All the same, there’s a decently creepy atmosphere throughout much of the film, as well as the fact at times I found the plot to be unpredictable, in the best sort of way.
yellowbrickroad3According to the film’s own folklore, in 1940 every last man, woman, and child in the settlement of Friar, New Hampshire – 570 odd people – walked up through a trail heading into the mountains and the bleak wilderness. They left everything behind, from personal possessions to money, only taking the clothes on their backs. No one understands why, as they were never heard from again. Until a few hundred were found dead, most frozen to death; many others were mysteriously butchered. The remaining citizens have still, to this day, never been found.
Then in 2008, the supposed coordinates to the “Yellowbrickroad” trail were released. Researchers plan on heading up to the trail. A sizeable group pack their things and head out into the trail, moving towards the heart of the woods, but what they will face is nothing any of them could have ever prepared for. Instead, they all begin to hear old music seemingly playing out of a gramophone, unseen in the forest, and the further in they go the stranger things become.

What if the people of Friar believed this was the road to some god? Some Wizard, or something to stop the war from ever coming.
You can ask the Wizard for anything, can’t you?
IMG_1398In her book The Rural Gothic in American Popular Culture: Backwoods Horror and Terror in the Wilderness, Bernice M. Murphy says this: “the horror [in films like YellowBrickRoadThe Blair Witch Project] pivots on the desperate fear of losing oneself in the wilderness. The further the characters stray from ‘civilization’ and towards the intangible something that lurks at the heart of the American forest, the further they stray from their daylight, or rational ‘original‘ selves” (p.1).
This perfectly describes what happens throughout YellowBrickRoad, as each of the people on the expedition begins to experience a separation of self. We begin to witness, after a certain point, the dark side of each individual, as if the further they go on down the trail the worse they become.

The music is what precipitates all the weirdness which begins to happen. Once they first hear this, afterwards follows memory loss, disassociation, and complete, utter madness.
Slowly what happens is that they start to see the forest itself an evil, malevolent force. But again, as Murphy points out in her book they’ve “gone looking for trouble in the forest, and [have] been horrified to find it” (p. 2). This movie almost speaks in a way about our curiosity in regards to stories such as this – we are curious, we want to find something horrible and terrifying in the little rural towns, in the forest trails and abandoned locales, just as the researchers here are hoping to find horror and insanity somewhere along the trail in the forest. When they do come upon it, of course, they’d never thought what happens could ever possibly happen. Yet, still it does.
yellowbrickroad-yellow-brick-road-movie-berries-woodsAs far as the horrific elements in YellowBrickRoad, things pick up quickly. I was actually surprised when things kick off between brother and sister duo, onscreen and in real life, Erin and Daryl (Cassidy & Clark Freeman). Things got insanely vicious and also bloody, so I’ve got to give it to the filmmakers: this movie is far from amazing, but still has some punch.
Naturally, once this happens they all realize the horror of what the “Yellowbrickroad” trail may hold further along.

I’ve got to say that the acting wasn’t particularly incredible stuff. A few of the actors held their own, however, for the most part this is where the film is really lacking. Perhaps if the actors were a tad stronger then it may have helped things overall. At the same time, it isn’t all bad. The actors give it their best shot and some scenes come off well. The problem is that with a plot needing tons of emotional weight in certain sections, you really need the actors to elevate the material in order to grasp an audience, and in turn then hold onto them for the rest of the film. If not, you sort of get lost and bored with the emotionality of it all. I found myself wanting to skip through a bunch, honestly, but I never do that. I always trick and stick with a movie, just for the sake of it; takes a lot of people to put together a film, tons of time and effort, so the least I can do is watch the whole damn thing, no matter how good or bad. If YellowBrickRoad had a more solid cast I feel as if the script would’ve come out better onscreen and the weight of the story might have resonated more.
Do need to mention Anessa Ramsey, though, as I’ve enjoyed her ever since first seeing The Signal; a kickass movie in which she’s excellent. So I’d say she is probably the most solid out of the cast here, which is good because we see some decent and intense at times scenes out of her character.
IMG_1399Most of all, though, the ending puts a terrible damper on this movie. As of late, I’ve reviewed a couple movies – The CanalThe Last Broadcast – which both suffer from the tragedy of poor endings, albeit the latter more than the first.
YellowBrickRoad does itself a huge disservice with the ending. While I do enjoy an open ending, there’s also a way to do it effectively and without making you feel as if you’ve watched a whole 98 minutes only to discover nothing at all. There’s a difference between an open end and a complete lack of resolution in any sense; you don’t have to tie everything up in a neat little bow, at the same time you can’t expect to make your film enjoyable with a poorly thought out conclusion.
My problem with the ending is this – even if you want to make things feel circular, or as if they’ve wandered completely into another world of some kind, the way this ended did nothing for the rest of the film or the plot. I just don’t dig how they brought things back to that theatre.
IMG_1397I have to say I loved some of the visuals and camerawork. For an independent film, this really did a good job with a few trippy scenes. For instance, at one point there’s this screeching sound that knocks them all over. During that sequence, there are neat visuals which throw you off-balance. Plus, nice shots of the landscape looking all at once bright and shadowy, both gorgeous and ominous all together. There are plenty more indie horror films which don’t have near this amount of decent cinematography. They could’ve easily went for another found footage style horror movie, but the work from cinematographer Michael Hardwick is a much better option; what probably would have ended up as shakiness, screaming, and other typical fare of the lesser found footage films is instead real nice to look at. This is something that at the very least lifts YellowBrickRoad above all the general trash out there.
IMG_1396In the end, I think YellowBrickRoad is a 3.5 out of 5 star film for me. It would be much higher, if not for the ending, and if there had been some better performances aside from that of Anessa Ramsey. Though the actors hold their own enough, it could’ve had more of a heavy impact if the plot played out through some nicer acting. Regardless, it’s mostly the ending I’m not a fan of. If it weren’t for the finale, I’d probably say this was awesome. As it stands, it’s decent. That’s enough, though. I’d definitely watch this again some other time, as I had fun.
My biggest rave about this one is how it incorporates Baum’s Wizard of Oz in a bunch of different ways. It’s a fun twist and puts this a head above of a lot of modern horror. With improvement it could have came off much greater. It’s still an enjoyable hour and a half despite all its issues.

CLOSER TO GOD and the Ethics of Science

Closer to God. 2014. Directed and Written by Billy Senese. Starring Jeremy Childs, Shelean Newman, Shannon Hoppe, David Alford, and Isaac Disney. LC Pictures. Unrated. 81 minutes. Horror/Sci-Fi/Thriller.

Usually I keep my ear out and head up for any new horror films that sound different, or for whatever reason pique my interest. Closer to God went on the checklist of my IMDB account a long while back, before there was ever a trailer, any pictures online. It was just a poster. Not the one I’ve put on here, but a simple red background with a black outlined tree extending its roots out underneath down towards the movie’s title.
I was surprised when I finally got to see Closer to God because, though it’s not a masterpiece by any stretch of the imagination, the film was really interesting. Billy Senese, both writer and director, crafts a decent tale of horror, which acts as a film metaphor for the fears people get over human cloning, genetic manipulation, and the ethical/moral implications and ramifications of these practices. While it very literally tackles the subject, the ideas work well with the horror element of the film. This turns out to be more horror than science fiction, even if it wishes to be more the latter.

Dr. Victor Reed (Jeremy Childs) has completed the first successful cloning of a human being. He creates a baby girl – Elizabeth. She is a full-on experiment; made for research and genetic modifications. Not to mention little Elizabeth is made with the genetics of Dr. Reed/an unnamed individual. Naturally everyone is outraged. People hate what the doctor is doing, but they’ve got no idea what else is going on inside the house.
While the storm of angry people push on, morally outraged by the new cloned baby, another child is causing trouble – Ethan.

The housekeepers at Dr. Reed’s home, Mary and Richard (Shelean Newman and Richard Alford), are trying to take care of this boy, troubled little Ethan, who seems to be proving too much. Things only get more difficult, and it turns out Ethan is growing, he’s hurting, and he might just want to get the hell out of the good doctor’s family home.
75-3Something I’m a little tired of is all these indie films, horror or science fiction, which try to be the next Frankenstein. I love Mary Shelley – I’ve read the book, loved it, and I even enjoy the Kenneth Branagh starred-directed version. What I’m sick of is the fact that either critics try to claim a movie is drawing from Shelley, or the film itself relies too heavily on those comparisons within the script. I mean, there’s even a point where we see someone hold up a sign that says – you guessed it – FRANKENSTEIN! And someone literally calls Dr. Reed – Dr. Frankenstein.
Plus, Dr. Reed’s first name is Victor. Y’know, it just feels like a thick layer of cheese over top of what could be a good enough film on its own.
maxresdefaultIt’s a tired, tired comparison. And I get it, the obviousness of it sits right in front of us. I’ve discussed the ethics of human cloning enough via university courses in Philosophy and English Literature to last me a full lifetime.
My biggest issue is that, by relying on the comparison between its own material and Shelley’s Frankenstein, Senese creates an environment where there’s too much reliance on the comparison itself. Frequently the Frankenstein connection comes out, as I mentioned before, and it’s so often that the whole concept becomes annoying. Senese easily created an atmosphere of dread and tension without invoking Shelley, over and over.

When Closer to God really works, though, it works.
A scene truly got to me a little ways in; when Mary (Shelean Newman) goes up to bring Ethan some food. We get a glimpse of him in the corner – you can only barely make out his face, but it is one of pure evil, or emptiness, a void lacking any humanity. He doesn’t make a sound, Mary is clearly unnerved. She leaves, but just as she does and the camera moves back with her Ethan comes running out to the table, smashing things, and screaming in this utterly soul crushing voice that cuts through your skin and your bones. I like to think I’ve seen a lot of horror – in general I’m up to almost 4,100 films in total – but this moment genuinely frightened the shit out into my pants. I was wide-eyed and actually had to text my girlfriend, who is out on a Saturday night unlike her cinephile boyfriend, to tell her how scary the damn scene came off. A great, great bit of subtle horror.

There’s another creepy, brief scene I like, but it’s not nearly as terrifying. There’s an almost horror-beauty to it: Dr. Reed heads out to the gate in front of his house and watches as protesters lob burning plastic baby dolls over and into the yard, just about right at his feet. The way Childs simply stands there, watching these flaming plastic heaps come at him – it’s eerily appealing.
Closer-God-protestor-yelling-700x467As most of the reviews so far have pointed out, the perhaps greatest part of the entire film is the central performance by Jeremy Childs as Doctor Victor Reed. He is an unconventional looking guy to be the lead of a movie – not that I care because I love movies that feel like their characters are real people. There are just so many perfect moments where Childs pulls off the doctor so well. A great exchange happens after SPOILER AHEAD Mary is killed by Ethan – Victor and his wife Claire (Shannon Hoppe) have a short yet rough argument, and Childs does great work with the dialogue between them. He is believable, and that’s what sells the character of Dr. Reed; no matter how cheerily named after Shelley’s titular doctor he may be.
I think if the lead in Closer to God had to have been someone weaker there are tons of scenes that wouldn’t have been able to carry the emotion they did. The chemistry between Childs and Hoppe as the troubled married couple is good stuff. Too many independent films suffer from having wooden acting, along with bad dialogue. These two really sell the fact they are a married couple, it feels like a bad relationship of course, especially considering the circumstances of the film, but it’s real, it doesn’t come out forced and you don’t see two actors acting as husband and wife. The movie is immersive, and certainly the fact Senese wrote a decent script helped that along.
screen_shot_2015-07-08_at_9.51.22_am.pngIn the end, I think what detracts most from this movie being great is the fact it doesn’t pay out on all the ideas of morality and ethics surrounding the original premise. We get excellently developed tension, a slow and steady pace for most of the film, and then it devolves from what could’ve been, at times, fairly profound horror/science fiction.
Instead of doing more with the science fiction angle, Closer to God drops off into complete horror. Not that there’s anything wrong with that either, I am a horror hound. But I can’t help feeling at least slightly cheated, in a sense. There’s a promise of grand concepts here. The finale of the film becomes a typical sort of thing – I don’t want to fully ruin the ending or anything. Mainly, I love how creepy the Ethan character was, I just don’t think Billy Senese went anywhere innovative or fresh with what he was doing. Essentially all those Frankenstein comparisons never truly go anywhere, all paths leading to a slasher film-like conclusion.

I think Closer to God, for all its creepiness and tension and the incredibly believable performance by Jeremy Childs, is still only a 3 out of 5 star film for me. There was so much promise in the whole project, but I feel as if Billy Senese squandered a lot of what he’d built up. Again, the comparisons to Mary Shelley’s famous gothic horror novel is an angle I’m frankly done with unless it gets taken somewhere useful.
Don’t get me wrong. There are some beyond creepy scenes in this film. So much of the material involving the failed experiment of Dr. Victor Reed’s that is his “son” Ethan could have really went into incredible territory. Unfortunately, that territory never gets explored. What Senese does with the material is creep us out awhile and then go for the jugular with a far too heavy handed approach at the finish.
Check this out if you’d like to see some interesting horror/science fiction, but know this: it is mostly generic horror you will find. Even with the supremely creepy bits sprinkled throughout, Closer to God is closer to nothing special. See it for, if anything, Jeremy Childs, and a handful of eerie scenes.

THE STRANGER is Eerie Indie Vampire Horror

The Stranger. 2015. Directed and Written by Guillermo Amoedo. Starring Cristobal Tapia Montt, Ariel Levy, Luis Gnecco, and Nicolas Duran. Sobras International Pictures. Unrated. 93 minutes. Drama/Horror/Mystery.

the-stranger-poster Eli Roth, though some may say different, is a great talent. I enjoy his movies because they’re fun. I really enjoy him as a producer, as well. He manages to find people with interesting little concepts and help the directors/writers/et cetera bring them to life. One such film is the latest from writer-director Guillermo Amoedo, The Stranger, which is now available through VOD platforms.

The film has a fairly simply premise we’ve seen before – the titular character, the ever mysterious Stranger (Cristobal Tapia Montt) ends up in town looking for a woman. One night, a group of idiots confront him for no other reason than boredom. Peter (Nicolas Duran) watches these same idiots leave the man for dead, beaten, stabbed in the street. After the group leaves, Peter heads back and takes the Stranger home to his place. From there, the Stranger’s arrival in this small town creates a number of problems, all falling over one another, and everyone he comes in contact will be affected.

This isn’t a perfect film, nor can say I it’s perfect to me, but it’s a real great little independent horror. One of The Stranger‘s biggest strengths is that, while still remaining balls-out horror, it does not push too far too soon. Good horror can be like good food – way too much at once and it’s no good, boring even. There are good hardcore horrors, but the absolute greatest, in my opinion, are those which deal out equal doses of horror and of character, good dialogue, and a certain feel. For the most part, The Stranger has those.
4guide_the-strangerMy biggest complaint is the dialogue. Some of it is pretty good – I like a lot of the exchanges between the Stranger and Peter, especially nearing the end, for reasons you’ll understand once you see the film. The cop, played by Luis Gnecco, is my issue. I don’t know what’s worse, Gnecco or the written character. I think the dialogue was really stiff when it comes to the cop, and there were some cringeworthy moments between him and his son, played by Ariel Levy. Gnecco doles out some terribly stunted, flat, and downright boring delivery. To his defense, I really don’t think that character was written well, along with the other police officer who seemed highly one-dimensional.
Other than that, I was impressed with the acting. Particularly I thought Cristobal Tapia Montt was excellent in the role of the Stranger. He played very subtle, laid back, which gave the character a great vibe; instead of the whole ‘tough guy outsider’ he seemed more fragile, even when angry, and the brief outbursts from the regular subtlety he conveyed were still contained, they were like a scared and wounded snake. I think if the Stranger had been miscast there could have been major problems, the character needed the qualities Montt brought personally. Very expressive actor.
THE_STRANGERI like that there weren’t jump scares and all the typical bells and whistles modern horror movies often move towards. This one bucks the trend, or more like what’s become a habit. The atmosphere of dread builds towards intense scenes or shots, in turn this makes the fear more visceral than many modern horrors with shiny cinematography, jump scares, pretty looking actors, and CGI buckets of blood. I like that there weren’t jump scares and all the typical bells and whistles modern horror movies often move towards. This one bucks the trend, or more like what’s become a habit. The atmosphere of dread builds towards intense scenes or shots, in turn this makes the fear more visceral than many modern horrors with shiny cinematography, jump scares, pretty looking actors, and CGI buckets of blood.
The slow reveal of what’s really going on behind The Stranger‘s story is what propels this movie past a lot of recent efforts. Even once you’ve figured out what’s happening, who the Stranger is, the rest of the film doesn’t come off as played out or tired. From the beginning things get going. In the first fifteen minutes I was actually thinking to myself “this is a bit too vague”. However, by the time I thought that the mystery quickly wrapped me up. The more things are given out to us in terms of backstory, the more I found myself thrilled with the suspense, wondering when we’d find out exactly who or what the Stranger might be. There are some slowburns which really don’t end up being worth how slow the burn was, but Amoedo does a fantastic job creating a perfect atmosphere.
the_stranger_stillI can safely say The Stranger is a 3.5 out of 5 star film. There are things I would’ve loved to see changed; mainly my problems with the cops, particularly Luis Gnecco, and the dialogue. One thing I also keep coming back to is that I wonder why there was a need they felt to set the film in Canada? I’m a Canadian, and love to see fiction of any kind set in my country, but it just struck me odd after watching that there was any reason the filmmakers would have set it in Canada. Not that it’s a bad thing, just strange. Especially seeing as how they didn’t shoot it in Canada.
I highly recommend giving this movie a shot. The main character does a great job, as does the actor who plays Peter. The dialogue them both is spot on. There is plenty of horror, it’s just doled out sparingly, when it needs to be. So those of you horror hounds who need the blood, hang in there – blood will come. The make-up effects are so damn solid; later on, the character Caleb (Levy) has some injuries and they are incredibly nasty looking, stellar practical effects.
I don’t want to say exactly what “type” of movie this is – you’ll figure that out once the plot moves along. Let’s just say it’s one we’ve seen plenty of. Yet this doesn’t feel like it is jumping on the trend or anything, this is a genuinely fresh take. Amoedo isn’t exactly offering up completely new visions of this sub-genre in horror, but I do think he’s given us something at least not as predictable as others, and certainly not squeamish – late in the film there is one severely nasty little kill, emphasis on little, which harkens back to ballsy films like John Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13 containing a kill along similar but different lines.

Snatch this up on VOD – I love seeing independent horror making waves lately. There seems to be a change of tide, people are recognizing, as those of us who love the genre have always known, that horror is not all just blood, guts, killers. There is more to it, and the indie horror scene in the past few years now has been really churning out the good product; not all, but plenty. So support this, hopefully you like it, and equal hope to seeing more fun, innovative ventures in the horror genre from interesting minds like Guillermo Amoedo.

IT FOLLOWS: S.T.G (Sexually Transmitted Ghosts)

It Follows. 2015. Directed & Written by David Robert Mitchell.
Starring Maika Monroe, Keir Gilchrist, Olivia Luccardi, Kelly Height, Daniel Zovatto, and Jake Weary. Northern Lights Films. 14A. 100 minutes. Horror/Mystery.


There’s been a massive amount of praise roll in for David Robert Mitchell’s new horror It Follows, and it seems equal portions of people trying to say it isn’t what the hype is preaching. My take? Mitchell doesn’t reinvent the wheel, but he does a damn fine job at making it spin smooth, intense, and a little better than the rest.

For the uninitiated, those who’ve yet to get a chance to see this film, It Follows starts with Jay Height (Maika Monroe who many know from Adam Wingard’s incredible action throwback, The Guest) who is a regular young woman – she goes to classes, hangs with her friends, and is seeing a seemingly nice guy named Hugh (Jake Weary). One night, Jay and Hugh are at the movies when he starts acting strangely, talking about a girl in a yellow dress who doesn’t look to be present when Jay searches for her. They leave, date over. The next time they go out, Jay sleeps with Hugh in the back of his car. Afterwards, Hugh suddenly throws a rag over her mouth and the next thing Jay knows she is waking up, strapped in to a wheelchair. Hugh explains he has ‘passed it on to her’ and that it will follow her, try to kill her – if it does, the thing will only circle back to him, so he warns her of some ground rules he has discovered. From there, things spiral out of control for Jay, and her friends are along for the ride. Everyone believes Jay was sexually assaulted, but the truth is far, far worse.

When I first heard of the basic premise I was almost reminded of the great graphic novel Black Hole by Charles Burns, which deals with a group of kids who encounter a very dangerous, strange disease being passed around through sex. Of course, the comic goes into a very different direction, but it sort of seemed like there was a creepy, similar vibe to both stories. It Follows is much more of a ghost story, obviously. One of the things I enjoyed most was the fact only Jay, or whoever is afflicted plus the person who has passed it on to them, can see ‘it’. There’s a great scene where Mitchell puts it to use when the group of friends are all hanging out at the beach, trying to help Jay as best they can with what they believe is just nutty behaviour after the supposed assault by Hugh. They all sit around casually, and Jay has her back to a trail coming out of the woods. Slowly a figure appears and we can tell with each passing second this is ‘it’ and not some random person. Very effective.
Leading out of that, I love how Mitchell really played around with this idea, of how the afflicted are the only ones who can see ‘it’. There are certain scenes you can notice a person in the background, their step slightly skewed and walk not quite right, they move at a snail’s pace, and you’re left to wonder – is that ‘it’? The ending also plays off pieces of this, but I don’t want to ruin anything on that end.
Even further, Mitchell also pokes fun at this concept, and directly at his own movie, which provides great tongue-in-cheek moments. There’s one exceptional part I laughed at hard when they track Hugh down again, discovering his name is not even Hugh but Jeff – he’s in the middle of explaining the whole concept of ‘it’ when a girl walks up on them, and frightened he yells out asking if anyone else sees her, to which they all reply ‘yes’. It’s always fun to see a solid horror film, or any film for that matter, poke fun at its own concepts and it comes to the horror aspect of the film, a lot of people who don’t find it scary, that’s fine. I thought it was very creepy. One of the first moments when Jay realizes someone, or something, is following her is downright terrifying. The actors playing ‘it’ do a phenomenal job, even though they don’t even speak. I just find the whole concept of the slow-moving ghost, zombie, whatever, a real creepshow – it’s been said time and time again, but it really is a great metaphor for death and how eventually, somehow, somewhere, some way, death is going to come for us all. Tired old cliche? Maybe. Works, though. The look of the film, the atmosphere, and the score combined all make for a great flick. Beautiful cinematography, which I love to see from horror films; it isn’t glossed over like an Anchor Bay remake, it looks gritty and raw and real but captured wonderfully. Disasterpiece does the score and it reminds me definitely of something a couple decades old yet still with a fresh, electronic sound. These qualities make It Follows one of the better looking and sounding horrors out there in recent years. 23-it-follows.w1200.h630There’s only one point of the film I didn’t like – when they’re at the beach. It isn’t because the scenes are bad, or the writing, or acting – all great. What I didn’t like were a couple of the ‘it’ appearances. For the first bunch of times we see ‘it’, the make-up and look is super unsettling. Then at the beach, there are a couple of the ‘it’ moments where the look is like a bad rip-off of Asian Horror, with the hollow eyes and the black around the sockets.
It felt as if, for some reason, Mitchell wanted to expand on ‘it’, but instead of keeping with a similar style he tried something different. By no means does it take away from the film overall. It did make those moments less frightening. In particular, there’s a tall version of ‘it’ who shows up, and had they kept with the practical looking make-up of the earlier appearances it would’ve been mind-blowing scary for me. That’s the only real nitpick I have. Some people have problems with the “monster logic” of the film. I don’t see much trouble there. I also don’t want to go into explaining why I think there’s not much to pick away at because it will ruin things, so if you do have opinions on their logic – comment, let’s have a discussion! Even when I love a film I can always admit if someone has a good point that counters my own. it-follows-2All in, I give It Follows a solid 4.5 out of 5 stars. If Mitchell kept the same look throughout for ‘it’, in all forms, I would’ve said this is a full knockout. But once again, this doesn’t ruin anything. It’s still a really solid film. I’m a horror fanatic and often I like a few movies along the way others think are trash. I just can’t see this being one of them. Sure, people won’t like everything the same way, but in a state of film like we are in today, with all the terrible horror films being pumped out, all the subpar found footage [I love the sub-genre yet there are only a sparse few actually worth seeing], it’s great to see someone trying to do things a little differently. People have also whined about how the movie seems to try so hard to be retro? I don’t get that. Sure, the soundtrack has a retro sound to it, harkening back to the 1980s and genre classics like Maniac, I just don’t think there’s anything else in the movie people can say has that feel. It’s very modern, I’d almost say it has an urban gothic feel with all the rundown neighbourhoods and buildings and the lives of the young people in it. See it for yourself, be the judge. One thing’s for sure – Maika Monroe is building a great name for herself, which I hope continues as she did a great job with this film. Solid acting, writing, and for those who don’t pretend to be jaded [I’ve seen almost 4,000 films, the majority of which are horror – I’m not desensitized, so stop trying to be tough about movies and just be creeped out!] you’ll get a couple fun scares plus lots of creepy weirdness.

DADDY’S LITTLE GIRL: Father as Savage Vigilante

Daddy’s Little Girl. 2012. Directed & Written by Chris Sun.
Starring Michael Thomson, Billi Baker, Allira Jaques, Sean Gannon, and Christian Radford. Slaughter FX.
Unrated. 107 minutes.


daddys_little_girlDaddy’s Little Girl doesn’t exactly tread any new ground in the revenge sub-genre of horror, however, it most certainly treads the waters well enough to be enjoyable.  At times the acting doesn’t particularly hold up to the standards it should in an effort to match the subject matter’s weight.  Aside from this, I enjoyed the film, and I think it was a little darker, a little more gritty than most by-the-numbers revenge thrillers out there.

This film tells us the story of Derek [Michael Thomson], a single dad whose daughter Georgia [Billi Baker] is forced to live in existence between him and her mother Stacey [Allira Jaques].  Derek isn’t perfect; many times he drops his daughter into the lap of his brother Tommy [Christian Radford].  One thing is for sure – Derek does care about his daughter.  One night, though, everything goes tragically wrong for both Derek & Stacey when Georgia seems to have gone missing.  While the search begins for the little girl, it soon comes to an abrupt end when police find her dead and assaulted body on the beach.  After trying to come to terms with Georgia’s death, Derek stumbles across evidence that leads him directly to her murderer.  This sets him on a brutal, devastating, and revelatory path towards punishing the sick man who killed his daughter.
1_zpsbe783907.jpg~originalI totally agree with people who aren’t exactly thrilled with the acting.  In the early portions of Daddy’s Little Girl, I did not think anyone was really knocking their role out of the park.  Once things picked up, though, I think Michael Thomson really came into his own as Derek.  In the beginning, his emotions seemed a little wooden, but I really think the last hour he did good work.  Especially once Derek tracks down his daughter’s killer – Thomson really gets into the character’s mindset.

Most of the other actors I was not really impressed with, at all.  I really thought Christian Radford, as Tommy, was rough – he never got any better [except maybe once his dialogue became less and less in the latter half of the movie].  It was painful.  As well as the fellow who played the character at the shop with Derek – I can’t remember the name.  He was especially bad.  There was maybe one moment of his entire screen time I thought he was all right, and that’s pushing it.  You’re really only going to get some decent acting from Thomson, and as I said, it takes a little bit of time for his chops to really shine.  I think, eventually, they really do.
2_zps1ce9bebd.jpg~originalA lot of Daddy’s Little Girl rides on the horror aspect.  The major portion of this movie, which is about the final fifty minutes, is really dedicated to the revenge portion of the plot.  So, if Chris Sun had opted instead to go weak on the horror element of the film things could’ve really gone downhill.  I think this is one of the strongest pieces.  There is one really brutal moment, almost a throwback to Misery, where Derek decides to redefine Georgia’s killer with a new walk – or maybe no walk at all – and you get one of the nastier leg breaking scenes I’ve witnessed in awhile.  At the very least, you’ve got to give it to Sun for showing us some naughty, violent bits with a couple real worthy effects.
4_zpsf97424bd.jpg~originalThis also leads me to one of my other favourite aspects of Sun’s movie – I think the way Derek decided to go about learning his methods for torture were fresh, and a unique way of going about an all too familiar film plot.  For instance, to figure out how one might remove a few teeth, or you know, something along those lines, Derek takes a trip to the dentist and slyly broaches the subject saying he’d seen a primitive tooth removal on the internet.  All too often, these revenge thrillers fall into the traps of giving their audience the impression anyone wronged & out for revenge is an automatic CIA-trained interrogator, well-versed in many different methods of torture.  Here, Derek comes across as a very intelligent man who goes about things in an intelligent way, and yet he isn’t made out to be some all-knowing revenge seeker whose own lust for revenge somehow conjured up an inherent knowledge in all of us of how to torture and kill other people flawlessly.  Sun includes some really great pieces leading up to Derek’s eventual trapping of the murderer – we see him casually draw out details he’ll later use to torture his daughter’s killer.  I thought it worked very well and was untypical of these types of films.
7_zps7cf8231f.jpg~originalWhile not perfect by any means, I think Daddy’s Little Girl deserves a 3 out of 5 star rating.  There are so many revenge thrillers out there, plenty which dive into horror, and many of those are not worth talking about.  Sun’s film tackles some heavy subject matter.  Not only that, Sun chooses to go about things without feeling the necessity to make this a typical rape-revenge thriller where we’re forced to endure long scenes of explicit rape or sexual assault [just so you know I love the original The Last House on the Left but not so much a fan of the remake & other modern films that feel the need to follow its brutal-for-brutal-sake trend].  He could very well have opted to include some sick stuff, and yes there are other bits of sick stuff here just nothing sexual – instead, this goes for the gut in other ways.  There are excellently gory moments.  I thought near the end particularly Sun did an amazing job with these savage scenes.  They fit, they looked good, and we weren’t forced to watch someone be sexually assaulted for the nasty actions of revenge to carry weight.  The acting certainly could’ve been a lot better in places.  Mostly, I do believe Michael Thomson did a good job with the character of Derek, and brought a more level-headed, realistic “father out for revenge” to life in Daddy’s Little Girl, as opposed to other similarly themed films.  Don’t go in expecting something altogether different – like I said, there are a lot of others out there like this one.  I do believe this one is a better example, just not as great as it could have been. Highly recommend you at least give this a shot and keep an open mind – the bad acting does redeem itself later as Thomson pulls out the stops in the third act, and the gore won’t disappoint any horror hounds, I don’t think.

CHEAP THRILLS in a Bleak Economy

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.
cheapthrills2There 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.

cheapthrillsI 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.
cheapthrillsbd720_01_01_12_00006This 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.

SUMMER OF BLOOD: Unlikeable Hipster Vampires

Summer of Blood. 2014. Directed & Written by Onur Tukel.
Starring Onur Tukel, Anna Margaret Hollyman, Vanna Pilgrim, Jason Selvig, and Melodie Sisk. Dark Sky Films. Not Rated. 86 minutes.


SUMMER_OF_BLOOD_poster_1-thumb-600x900-107753Erik Sparrow, played by writer and director Onur Tukel, seems to have a stable life – he has a nice job, he lives in a decent place in a good city, and he’s also got the love of a good woman. However, Erik is also very unaware of how much of an idiot he really is, and takes everything in his whole life for granted. Especially Jody (Anna Margaret Hollyman). She proposes to Erik, but he opts not to say ‘yes’. This turns into an awkward night where they run into an old male friend of Jody, named Jason, and Erik really makes an ass out of himself. She goes off with Jason and Erik is left alone. He goes out and tries to find someone else, but unfortunately for Erik nobody wants anyone remotely like him – he is arrogant, ignorant, pessimistic, and is terrible at having sex. All this changes after one fateful night when Erik ends up meeting a vampire who, of course, turns him into one with a bite. After this encounter Erik suddenly becomes a very different man: he is cool and sort of interesting, optimistic, and he can have sex for hours and hours on end. Although these new changes in his life provide lots of excitement, Erik still needs to feed. Hilarity and horror ensue.
SUMMER-OF-BLOOD-620x400While I did think there’s a lot of refreshing and genuinely hilarious stuff going on in Summer of Blood, I almost couldn’t overcome my dislike for the character of Erik. I know he isn’t mean to be likable. Part of the whole plot is wrapped up in the fact Erik is a really despicable sort of dude. I like plenty of characters who are meant to be jerks, but there’s something about this guy I really didn’t enjoy. Whatsoever. There are a lot of wonderful comedic moments in this film. Because of Erik, though, they didn’t come off as well as they possible might have had the character been better.
Summer-of-Blood-Bloody-740x493My biggest problem is evident near the beginning in one of the first scenes – Erik encounters a man with a bad neck wound (whom we’re lead to assume later was a victim of a vampire also), and basically watches him bleed out forever instead of actually getting help, or trying to get help. Now – part of this scene is meant to be funny, and it is – I just think it went too far. I wasn’t offended – nothing offends me. I believe this is simply bad writing. It was funny at first, and grim, but it is far too unbelievable. This Erik character is a real douchebag. Regardless, no one, except for psychopaths, would let a man bleed out in the alleyway so ignorantly.
Summer-of-Blood-670-x-443Yes, the character of Erik is ignorant, but this ignorance plays out much better in other scenes than it did with this moment. It only continues on throughout because Erik time and time again proves how unlikable he is, I just think there’s a big suspension of disbelief required to get into this guy. Obviously we suspend disbelief to get into a story about vampires – this much is clear. Not everything is meant to require such a suspension. I’m willing to go real far for horror, and especially horror comedies, I just don’t think this is a particularly well-written film.

That brings me to my next point – the film wobbles all over the place a little too much for my taste. I really love genre-bending films.  Summer of Blood is just a bit misguided. After the finale of the film, I found myself a little disappointed. While I was truly digging this movie’s take on vampirism, and how they really took a fresh look at an extremely tired subject (we all know vampire films are played out), the ending really felt like Tukel didn’t know where to really go with the whole subject. I feel like there’s a certain amount of satire aimed towards the vampire sub-genre, but at the same time there’s not enough to really ‘say anything’. Not that I’m looking for a profound statement, I just felt as if the whole film was going somewhere, and along the way Tukel sort of lost the map. There were really great bits and pieces. As a whole, though, the script feels like a hugely disjointed work of horror-comedy.
Summer-of-Blood-C-670-x-443I think this film is about a 2.5 out of 5 stars. It wasn’t amazing, but also nowhere near being the worst. I really respect Onur Tukel for trying to do something different with vampires, as opposed to trying to really mess with vampirism itself (there are far too many films out there trying to force in twists to fundamentally change vampires). That being said, my respect for his attempts at innovation don’t make this a real great film or anything. It’s a mediocre indie. Though, I did laugh at a few bits fairly hard. There are a nice couple gory moments, as well, and I really enjoyed those scenes. I’ve seen some others say this movie is a “mess of ideas” which come together – I respectfully disagree. I did enjoy portions of the film, but mostly, as I mentioned, things seemed out of place, messy, and it made the finished product feel sloppy. A good effort on the whole. Just not something I’m likely to ever watch again.

Drowning in Love, Alcohol, & Serial Killing: A Horrible Way to Die

A Horrible Way to Die. 2011. Dir. Adam Wingard. Written by Simon Barrett.
Starring A.J Bowen, Amy Seimetz, Joe Swanberg, Brandon Carroll, and Lane Hughes. Anchor Bay Entertainment. Rated R. 87 minutes. Horror

★★★★1/2 (Movie)
★★★★ (Blu ray release)


I’ve been a longtime fan of Adam Wingard and Simon Barrett. Though, I did experience Barrett’s writing in the eerie Civil War-era horror film Dead Birds before I experienced his recent partnership as a writer-director team with Wingard. They are a really great pair. I think Wingard doesn’t just work well with Barrett in the sense they’re probably good friends, he seems to get what the writer is saying, or at least they appear to have the same sensibilities. This translates really well onto film. I don’t think they’ve exactly reinvented horror, but I do think they continually succeed in breathing new life into tired genre filmmaking.

Always hesitant to say it myself, Wingard belongs to the small group of horror filmmakers people like to dub with the yawn-worthy label “mumblegore” – an offshoot of “mumblecore, what I see as a silly labeling of films concerned with more natural approaches to dialogue, story, or any aspects really, as opposed to a lot of the fake, plastic genre filmmaking pumped out of Hollywood. “Mumblegore” then are simply horror films that look to achieve these sorts of aesthetics. A Horrible Way to Die is a new look at the serial killer horror movie, which is presented to us through Wingard’s unique eye from a script by Barrett. The whole thing might seem, to some, as an aimless sort of method towards telling a story and visually showing us the film. On the other hand, I think Barrett and Wingard present a truly humanistic version of what could be a simple story about the psychology behind that of a serial killer balancing his home life and his criminal life on a razor’s edge. It also doesn’t hurt there’s a nice little twist in the finale.
great-genre-filmsA Horrible Way to Die tells the story of Garrick Turrell (Bowen), a convicted serial killer operating in the southern United States. He escapes custody while being transported from his prison facility. He starts to kill his way back towards home. There, his former girlfriend Sarah (Seimetz) is drying out. Sarah spends her nights now trying to kick the alcoholism she adamantly believes caused her to overlook Garrick’s true personality. Through Alcoholics Anonymous, Sarah ends up meeting a guy named Kevin (Swanberg) with whom she begins to get close after slowly letting down her guard. All the while, Garrick continues a path of destruction trying to reach Sarah once more.
hjwvkI think one of the reasons this movie came across so well for me is due to the amazing cast. First of all I’ll mention Joe Swanberg because his role is the smallest in comparison to the two leads. His character starts out feeling sort of awkward, but not because Swanberg’s acting is bad; he conveys Kevin as a bit of an odd guy, obviously struggling with his own alcohol problems. Eventually, however, you start to sense something about him is not exactly quite right. You just can’t put your finger on it. I think Swanberg did a lot of subtle acting with this character and it really worked well for the plot. I think not enough focus is given to how well he plays off Amy Seimetz here. Partly because she is really great.

Seimetz does a great job playing a very conflicted women in A Horrible Way to Die. I think a lot of people, who just want to complain, might try and say Barrett writes her poorly as a strong female role. I disagree. Women don’t have to be perfect. Just as they don’t have to look pathetic and near complete helplessness like Stanley Kubrick’s portrayal of Wendy Torrance in The Shining. Sarah is a complex woman with difficult problems on her plate. If there hadn’t been such a great performance by Seimetz perhaps this character may have come off like a real pushover. Instead, I get the impression she’s someone who doesn’t want to give up. One scene shows her having a bit of a relapse and then proceeding to pour all the rest of her liquor down the toilet; you can tell, while she fell off the wagon briefly, a realization set her back in place. Unfortunately for Sarah, there are other, higher powers at work threatening to undo everything. It’s a really great role and I think nobody else but Seimetz could do it. She fits in very well with the style of Wingard.
a-horrible-way-to-die-aj-bowenThe ultimate best part about A Horrible Way to Die is absolutely A.J Bowen. I’ve been a fan of his for awhile now ever since I first saw a movie called The Signal; he was fantastic in it, and ever since I’ve paid attention to anything with him in the cast. Here, his portrayal of Garrick Turrell really does something for me. He’s a lot more dapper and charming than Michael Rooker’s titular character from Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer. Still, there is something about him in this film which reminds me of Rooker. Underneath Bowen’s boyish good looks and disarming voice lurks the presence of evil – Turrell can barely go fifty feet without seeing another person he wants to kill. It’s like this part of him is engrained into his DNA, hardwired to his brain. He can’t forego the urges.
I think casting Bowen really helped this character. Very well-written, but Bowen brings the Ted Bundy-ish charm to Garrick Turrell. I can see how this guy would get away with things so long if he were being careful, just as Bundy himself was doing until he went even more insane than he initially was and got himself caught – the charming nature really takes people off their guards and leaves them vulnerable to Turrell’s sick whims.

I really loved the opening scene of the movie when Garrick is sitting in his car; he snaps awake, as if out of a nice nap, gets out and opens a trunk to  reveal a woman bound and gagged. He apologizes and tells the lady he must have dozed off. It’s the way he says it which really sets the tone for things to come. There are a few interactions Turrell has with people that speak to his chilling character, such as in a flashback scene to a night when he gets home to Sarah late, and naturally she has questions; coupled with what we know about him already and what we’ll learn more of soon after, the ease with which lies come out of his mouth to explain his otherwise unexplainable whereabouts is astonishing.
Again to reference real life, I imagine this might be how many serial killers have sounded to their significant others. Specifically I think of a man like Dennis Rader, a.k.a B.T.K (Bind Torture Kill), who went home to his wife and children every night while also going out to do heinous things, maybe after they all went to bed or maybe he made up a story like Turrell to explain his absence later. I imagine Rader probably sweet talked just like this. It’s very chilling. Bowen is amazing in this movie, and in general. His casting is genius here.
AtSw8As a film, I absolutely give this 4&1/2 stars. There’s nothing wrong with A Horrible Way to Die. Admittedly, some may not necessarily enjoy all the cinematography Wingard chooses to use. I think while the story tries to distance itself from the typical outings we usually get in regards to serial killers, as there are tons, the handheld camerawork Wingard does in this movie really sets it apart from what we’re used to – apart from a few unique slashers, Se7en, as well as more recent works like the Red Riding trilogy and HBO’s True Detective, there aren’t too many really fresh takes on serial killers floating around. A lot of the same old meal. I have to at least admire, above all else, the effort on the parts of both Barrett and Wingard to try and subvert expectations a little while still somewhat working with a formula familiar to audiences.
Most recently, they’ve moved into action-thriller territory with a fabulous film, The Guest, attempting to do the same thing with a different genre. I will always keep my eye on either of them, whether as a team or not. Great director and great writer.

The Blu ray release from Anchor Bay Entertainment I have also comes with three other films: WWE Films’ No One LivesHatchet, and The Alphabet Killer. While it does have a bit of extra content, it’s less than you might expect from a single release of the title. That being said, I really, really enjoyed the commentary with Barrett and Wingard. Lots of valuable insight not only into the film, but also into their thought process, both personally and artistically. They’re genuine guys from what I can tell, so it’s always nice to hear an audio commentary where the people talking are concerned first and foremost with discussing the film, and not themselves. Also, there’s a nice little featurette, “Behind the Scenes of A Horrible Way to Die” where you get to see a lot of fun little bits from the production of the film. I admire Wingard a lot as a director because he really loves to be hands on, and you get to see a lot of small bits where he’s basically doing the job of director, as well as director of photography (for those who don’t know – this would be the individual in charge of the camera/lighting crews).  While it is a small movie, it’s still great to see how much of Wingard’s vision is really coming across in the finished film.
ahwtddeath082410This is absolutely a fresh film on an old subject. If you’re a fan of Wingard’s earlier work, or even his latest, you should definitely see this – likewise with Barrett [Dead Birds is the first of his movies I saw & I really love it – own it on DVD – so if you’ve seen his other stuff please check that out also]. There are lots of visually interesting scenes in this movie. Some might not enjoy the frenetic look of the camerawork. I think it really fits the tone and subject of A Horrible Way to Die, and brings a unique perspective to the serial killer sub-genre. Not to mention the score of this film is totally ominous; this is one of those dark, brooding scores where the music really crawls under your skin, rattles your bones and teeth, and generally unsettles you. Everything works together here to provide horror with, at the very least, something different. A Horrible Way to Die is a great and non-typical experience amongst so many other movies trying to do the same thing while failing to actually do so. There’s an atmosphere and mood about this one that will haunt you for days. It haunted me. Still does.

For my review of You’re Next, the home invasion horror-thriller by Adam Wingard & Simon Barrett, click here.