Tagged Indie Horror

The Last Winter: Larry Fessenden’s Fossil Fuel Horrorshow

The Last Winter. 2006. Directed by Larry Fessenden. Screenplay by Fessenden & Robert Leaver.
Starring Ron Perlman, Connie Britton, James Le Gros, Jamie Harrold, Zach Gilford, Kevin Corrigan, Jamie Harrold, Pato Hoffmann, Joanne Shenandoah, Larry Fessenden, and Oscar Miller. Antidote Films/Glass Eye Pix/Zik Zak Kvikmyndir. Rated 18A. 101 minutes.
Horror/Thriller

★★★★
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It’s no secret I’m a huge Larry Fessenden fan. His collection of films recently hit Blu ray, so I luckily snatched up a copy from eBay at a solid price. The entire 4-disc collection includes his films No TellingHabitWendigo, and of course The Last Winter. Included are a ton of extra bits like music videos and short films Fessenden pulls out of virtual obscurity, as well as the man himself talking us into the pictures, plus the short pieces too. The commentary is great all around, everything about this collection is magic.
The Last Winter is a rare bird. While I’m not huge on certain special effects in this movie, I can’t fault it much more outside those elements. In a day and age where too many people deny climate change, not to mention its impact(s), Fessenden takes the horror genre and weaves a contemporary issue through its cliches and tropes in a unique way. The story, above all else, is what matters. Add to that some solid performances, excellent tension developed by Fessenden’s directorial style, and this is a supremely creepy effort among a ton of post-2000 horror movies which aren’t worth their weight.

American oil company KIC Corporation is drilling in the arctic, constructing an ice road into the Northern Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to find more locations in which they’ll explore for more deposits. At a station ran by corporate shill Ed Pollack (Ron Perlman), a team of environmentalists work side by side with people from KIC. James Hoffman (James Le Gros) and his assistant Elliot Jenkins (Jamie Harrold) are the most recent scientists evaluating the project. When Pollack bumps heads with Hoffman, the latter is taken away from the project permanently; no doubt due to Ed’s pull at KIC. At the same time, young crew member Maxwell McKinder (Zach Gilford) goes missing for a while. Upon his return, he seems distant, disturbed. One night, he wanders out into the wilderness, naked and mentally unstable. The rest of the crew find him dead, eyes only empty sockets. And then, they realize the environment may be starting to take back what they’ve drilled so relentlessly out of its bones.
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Hoffman: “Why do we despise the world that gave us life? Why wouldn’t the world survive us, like any organism survives a virus. The world that we grew up in is changed forever. There is no way home. Is there something beyond science that is happening out here? What if the very thing we were here to pull out of the ground were to rise willinglyconfront us. What would that look like? What if this is the last winter, before the collapse? And hope dies.”

The cinematography is spectacular. So many of the exterior shots in particular, they’re marvelous to look at – from the wide shots of the Arctic Circle, to the helicopter and sweeping crane shots of the camp. Every last sequence in the entire film looks gorgeous, even the dark, shadowy moments. Again, as I said earlier, there are a few shots involving special effects I don’t think come off so great. At the same time, the camerawork itself is all around fascinating. Fessenden has a great eye for unique looking shots, things which catch the eye: crane and helicopter shots, tight and wide angles, the whole spectrum alike. Here, he’s aided by cinematographer G. Magni Ágústsson.
Together with a distinctive look and feel, The Last Winter‘s atmosphere comes across so feverishly in part due to the inclusion of an eerie score by Jeff Grace (Cold in JulyThe House of the Devil, The Roost). Not only is there a quality score, the tone consistently set between that and the visuals, there’s incredible sound design courtesy of Abigail Savage (who many will know well from her turn as Gina Murphy on Orange is the New Black). Everything is creeping, in terms of sound: the wind in the background, the stamp of ghostly hooves across the frozen arctic plains, and later the crashing plane, all the fire which follows and so on. I’m always keeping my ear out for good sound design, as well as score. But there’s something about the background sounds and noise of a film which really elevates a film properly if accomplished well. The sound design can truly make a movie less interesting if the sounds incorporated are annoying or aggravating, instead of compelling and rich, as they certainly are in this film.
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While I could rave on about Ron Perlman, even James Le Gros or Connie Britton, most of what interests me about The Last Winter is the plot and the story. Fessenden creates an ecological horror film out of the fear of global warming/climate change. The character of Pollack (Perlman) represents those stubborn sort who think the tipping point has passed, even if they’re willing to admit the world climate is changing for the worse. His hardheaded nature is the type which got us to this point. But yet in this film, we literally see the evidence climbing up and out of the ground. The living embodiment of nature fighting back against us. I know a lot of viewers may find Fessenden’s themes here heavy handed and obvious. However, I find the presentation makes things so interesting, it’s hard to deny the thematic power at play. Fessenden uses many typical horror genre tropes to explore the sociopolitical issues inherent in the dynamic between those who quest for oil versus those who keep telling us to be wary of our reliance on fossil fuels without worrying (or caring) about the consequences.
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The Last Winter, despite some of its less than stellar computer generated imagery, is a 4 out of 5 star film. For me, it is. Others may be turned away from its environmental message, buried beneath its thrills and its horrific moments. Some might not like other aspects, who knows. But I cannot tear myself away from the grim tone, the compelling cinematography, sound design and writing. Even more than that, the writing helps bring out some timely messages about us, our world, and the future that could come to be eventually. I don’t think it’ll look exactly like this portrait of madness Fessenden illustrates. All the same, I’m inclined to feel we’ve absolutely treated this planet like shit. Some day we might pay for all our transgressions against this world we claim to love.

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Cooties: It’s Okay to Kill the Children

Cooties. 2015. Directed by Jonathan Milott & Cary Murnion. Screenplay by Leigh Whannell & Ian Brennan.
Starring Elijah Wood, Rainn Wilson, Alison Pill, Jack McBrayer, Leigh Whannell, Nasim Pedrad, Ian Brennan, Jorge Garcia, Cooper Roth, Miles Elliot, Morgan Lily, Sunny May Allison, and Armani Jackson. Glacier Films/SpectreVision.
Rated R. 88 minutes.
Action/Comedy/Horror

★★★★
2490326_bigOfficially out now on iTunes, Cooties was announced a little over two years ago. I remember seeing the premise alone and thinking this would be, at the very least, a bit of a good laugh. Admittedly, I’m not actually huge on horror-comedies. Funny that I love comedy and I am way in love with horror, yet the combination of both isn’t something that immediately appeals to me.
That being said, there are definitely instances of horror-comedy I’ve loved. Like Shaun of the Dead, which is almost the pinnacle to me of the sub-genre. There’s also Dead Alive, Gremlins, pieces of An American Werewolf in London are definitely full of comedy, Return of the Living Dead, House (a favourite of mine), and many more.
Cooties isn’t perfect, but it’s one of the best horror-comedy films to come out in awhile. There are lots of good laughs, solidly executed horror, and a pretty excellent script. This movie never takes itself too seriously; not to a fault, but enough to make it feel genuine. Some good performances help the whole film succeed, even in its slower moments. Rainn Wilson, of whom I’m not a fan, actually is pretty awesome. Not just him: Elijah Wood is great, Alison Pill cracked me up almost constantly, Nasim Pedrad played such an amazingly satirical character and proves she’s a real good comedian, and even the other much smaller roles had me in stitches.
But it’s the horror I love – the sweet, sweet horror.
Screen Shot 2015-09-18 at 10.25.24 PMThe opening sequence of the film is pretty spooky, as well as nasty. Like churn your stomach nasty. Tainted nuggets… need I say more?
After this opener, Cooties shifts into comedy/dark comedy mode for a little portion. Which works extremely well. From a screenplay by Ian Brennan and Leigh Whannell, the comedy is genuine. It’s not awkward comedy, as some might expect seeing Rainn Wilson, however, it isn’t at all. There are some hilarious moments, especially from Elijah Wood whose character has a boyish charm while carrying the weight of the adult world on his shoulders; a writer trying hard to be whats he wants, stuck teaching when he’d rather be writing a novel as he says he is.
Still, things get intense fairly quick once the horror rears its fierce head. What I love is that the movie is only an hour and a half, not even, so the plot kicks in and runs wild without enough preamble to numb you. For a horror-comedy, this is an efficient technique and certainly made me enjoy Cooties even more than I might normally enjoy other movies in the sub-genre.
Screen Shot 2015-09-18 at 10.26.17 PM Screen Shot 2015-09-18 at 10.26.35 PMKiller kid movies always freak me out. Something about the innocence of children combined with evil – and in this case an illness/virus – really just gets to me, in an awfully heavy way.
The kids in Cooties are creepy. Plain and simple. One of the first intense scenes is when Wade Johnson (Rainn Wilson) finds himself trapped on the basketball court, surrounded by a bunch of the kids; they’re hissing, snarling, growls and blood and pus come out of them.
Something I enjoy about the killer kid sub-genre is how it subverts how we feel about children. You don’t feel any fear from them. When you see a kid, as an adult, there’s nothing threatening about them. Even when it comes to really messed up kids who might talk a good tough game, worst comes to worst you can pick a kid up and throw them if necessary. However, when the evil aspect comes into play – in film – there’s something in that subversion, something about how the children suddenly become threatening, which unsettles me at the core. It’s the innocence coming back into play, in a very sinister sense.
Even more so, Cooties pits school teachers against the kids they’re meant to be teaching, caring for, moulding into responsible young adults. There’s something even more wrenching about seeing these educators forced to kill the ones they’ve protected so long, similar to zombie films where we see parents have to kill their children or children forced to kill their parents. Something about this whole idea eats away at me. And even though there’s plenty of comedy peppered in throughout, I think there’s an absolutely relentless sense of dread happening from start to finish which never ever lets go.
Screen Shot 2015-09-18 at 10.26.47 PMWhat I enjoy so much about this movie is the fact it balances so well the aspects of horror and comedy. This is the strength of any solid horror-comedy, if they can find a balance somehow that ultimately works equally on both fronts. What I found worked, for me, is that Cooties teeters back and forth between riotous moments and nasty horror. I mean, there’s a genuine dose of R-rated horror here a lot of other filmmakers would be too afraid to include in their own films.
When Johnson (Wilson) kills the first kid with a fire extinguisher, I knew it was coming but there’s still an effective scare in that moment. Particularly I love the makeup special effects, the blood spray all over Johnson and the wall behind him, speckled red dots everywhere. A true horror scene. Often times there’s a comedic aspect to kills in horror-comedy; this is not one of those kills. In the midst of the comedy comes a brutal, vicious scene. Not only that, the weight is evident on the character of Wade Johnson, as he sorts of loses his fun loving attitude afterwards and takes a bit of time alone.
Screen Shot 2015-09-18 at 10.27.03 PM Screen Shot 2015-09-18 at 10.28.00 PMThe cinematography all around is pretty awesome. There’s a genuine atmosphere from start to finish, which sort of evolves from section to section. Lyle Vincent is the one responsible for the camerawork here – he also did 2012’s Devoured, a decent little indie horror with some teeth, and also the downright fantastic A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (you can see a marquee poster for this movie at around the 1 hour 17 minute mark, or a little after, as the survivors pass a theatre). So knowing those two pieces – liking the latter more than the former – it’s no surprise Vincent is able to give Cooties an interesting look and feel. At the start, even in the creepy/nauseating opening sequence, there’s this real bright, shiny type of aesthetic happening – this leads through a bit to when the darkness comes into play. Following the “turn” of the children, a more gritty yet still colourful scheme begins. The vividness of colour persists, only darker now, along with the shadowy halls of the school, lit here and there with neon Exit signs, and the dull, sickly makeup of the kids, bloody and diseased looking. Tons of great visual stuff happening in terms of how the cinematography is both bright and gritty.
Also, there’s a rocking score from Kreng (Pepijn Caudron) – lots of cool electronic stuff happening. Unlike many modern horror movies trying to evoke a retro 1980s style soundtrack, I found this goes for the electronic sound while not necessarily trying to riff off the ’80s particularly. It might have that type of vibe, but for me it’s not the typical modern horror score. Helps the different aspects of Cooties become more intense, along with Vincent’s cinematography, whether it be the action-horror scenes near the end or the plain creepy horror moments throughout. A great horror score, definitely a bit different than some of the other stuff as of late from the indie horror scene.
Screen Shot 2015-09-18 at 10.28.24 PMI have to mention one of my favourite scenes. It’s very close to the end, so without spoiling anything, the group of teachers trying to fend off all the infected/zombie children wander into a sort of McDonalds PlayPlace type of building. They find the PlayPlace itself, a massive jungle gym full of infected kids, frothing at the mouth, hissing and screaming, laughing like maniacs. The part I love is the lead-up, where first the group comes inside and the dark closes everything in, the flashlights give us enough to see bright party decorations, half eaten cake and nuggets; there’s this eerie quality to the scene I found incredible. Then when the lights go up, a neon multicoloured disco light ball turns, there’s this WHOA second where you can’t get over how wildly creepy the scene has become.
Screen Shot 2015-09-18 at 10.28.47 PMWith a decent ending, that doesn’t try to wrap things up cleanly and to a precise point, I think Cooties overall gets a 4 out of 5 star rating. I loved the excellent mix of horror (good dose of blood/gore) and comedy. Plenty of good laughs, but horror wins out above anything else. There’s a lot of great intense kid-centric horror. This doesn’t shy away from showing any kids infected, bleeding, or straight up being killed. Though it isn’t malicious in the sense of useless violence. Mostly, as I said before, the subversion of the roles of the teachers in this film really makes things interesting, and horrific at various times for both the audience and the characters.
This is out now via iTunes, so get a copy! Maybe not everyone will love it like I did, but as someone not often drawn into horror-comedies, I’d at least suggest you give it a try.

THE PACT: A Family’s Haunted Promise

The Pact. 2012. Directed & Written by Nicholas McCarthy.
Starring Caity Lotz, Casper Van Dien, Mark Steger, Sam Ball, Haley Hudson, Kathleen Rose Perkins,Agnes Brucker, Dakota Bright, and Petra Wright. Preferred Content.
Rated R. 89 minutes.
Horror/Mystery/Thriller

★★★★
the-pact-poster01I’ve got to confess, I really have a thing for Nicholas McCarthy’s films. Of course I saw this before Home a.k.a At the Devil’s Door (which I’ve reviewed).
The Pact took me by surprise. There’s nothing here which reinvents the wheel, changing the horror genre. All the same, I feel like there’s good suspense in this movie. There is something to say for having a nicely executed film when it comes to tension.
Personally I enjoy the slowburn film, and The Pact is certainly one of those. McCarthy doesn’t just give it all up quick, revealing everything at once; there are motions to get to where he is headed. There are plenty of comparisons to the cult TV movie Bad Ronald, a classic in its own right, but I don’t feel like there’s anything ripped off here. Similarities at one point in the plot, otherwise it’s nothing to seriously consider for long.

McCarthy’s film is interesting – it weaves aspects of the haunted house sub-genre with very raw, serial killer-esque horror. The fusion is definitely creepy, and I found it a whole lot of fun. I’ve seen it a couple times now since it first came out, I was excited to see it when it had been first announced, and I’m sure I’ll watch it again – watching it once more as I review. There are faults, like a lot of horror out there, there aren’t so many that it ruins anything. One of the better indie horror movies I’ve seen over the last 5 years.
The-Pact-2012-01Nichole Barlow (Agnes Bruckner) goes back home with her daughter Eva (Dakota Bright) for the funeral of her mother. Her sister, Annie (Caity Lotz) hates their mother; it’s clear she was an abusive, possibly insane woman. Annie has too many residual feelings to go back to their old house. Finally, Nichole is able to convince Annie to come home, but when Annie does her sister is suddenly missing. With Nichole up and disappeared, Eva is sent to live with cousin Liz (Kathleen Rose Perkins). However, when Liz vanishes as well, Annie experiences a strange, supernatural event in the childhood home she hates so much.
The police, of course, are involved, but naturally they don’t believe a supernatural entity is causing the disappearances. One cop, Detective Bill Creek (Casper Van Dien) gives Annie the benefit of the doubt after they work past an initially rocky introduction. They go back to the house, looking for clues; Annie finds a hole in the wall, like a peephole, but not too much else. Annie tracks down a girl she knew from high school, Stevie (Haley Hudson), who acts as a ghost medium of sorts. Stevie is brought to Annie’s childhood home, where she channels the spirits – she also cries out “Judas!” over and over in a fit, until her handler Giles (Sam Ball) ushers the girl away, literally beating Annie away from them.
From there, the discoveries Annie begins to uncover are less supernatural, more real, more threatening and violent than she could’ve ever imagined.
vlcsnap-2013-01-06-16h15m59s104SPOILERS AHEAD – Don’t blame me for ruining a film if you’re here mining for clues about it before watching; that’s just fucking nonsense.
There is plenty of debate over whether or not Charles Barlow (Mark Steger), a.k.a Judas, is a ghost. People often cite the fact there is one scene where Dt. Creek visits the Barlow house and his camera catches an apparent ghost on the screen. First of all, there’s no real way you can say for sure that the ghost-like apparition on the camera screen is Judas; it’s a blurry shot. People try to argue about the screen of the lens, the shot of the camera on film, yadda yadda. Look – it could easily be the ghost that’s already established to be in the house: the mother. We shouldn’t have to mull over a part of the film that can easily be explained without getting stuck on a small shot, that seems, to me, fairly obvious in its intention. Sure, it may be a little trick to some, but I don’t think it points to the fact that Judas is a ghost. He is not a ghost, in my opinion. He is a real killer, still alive, and still killing.
haley-hudson-as-stevie-in-the-pact-2012I mean, look at this way – if Judas was a ghost, like the mother was a ghost, they wouldn’t be seen, right? Then why didn’t he just wreak havoc on the several people in the house when Annie brought Stevie over?
Logically if Judas is a real living, breathing person, he’s not going to come up and start trying to attack three people at once. Even with a knife, there’s no guarantee he would make it out of there without at least one of them getting a good punch/kick/something in on him. Judas clearly had to be somewhat intelligent enough to come up with an intricate way of snaking around the house unsuspected, killing people all those years and remaining hidden away from the outside world – so, a smart killer would know when to kill, when not to kill.
Not to mention, Stevie the ghost medium picks up on the mother; she can feel the bad things, the abuse which happened, because she hovers around the closet, which is where so much of the abuse clearly took place at the hands of the mother. Stevie doesn’t say anything that could definitively make the case that Judas is a ghost; it doesn’t seem she comes out with any indications that his is the ghostly presence being felt in the house. Could be I’m wrong, I just don’t see anything pointing directly that way when it comes to her character. A decent indication, in my mind.
Some cite when Annie sees him on the bed in the motel, I believe that’s the scene. That also does not fly. She was having some serious dreams going on, she saw a decapitated woman; don’t forget, she jumped in the air towards the door as it closed and everything froze. I mean, do we really need to start to break down such obvious dream sequences? No. We do not.
The pupil dilation argument will not stand! When a person dies, their pupils dilate immediately. Judas doesn’t have massive pupils, however, we don’t see him immediately after he dies. He lays on the floor, the door opens – we see another reaction shot of Annie – all before the camera zooms in on the dead eyes of Charles. So, we again cannot make a definitive judgement with that information because it doesn’t fully jive. The reason, I believe, that they zoomed in on the eyes is obviously because of the earlier shot of Annie – we clearly see her eyes have heterochromia. It’s visible in other shots, particularly one right near the end when she’s crying, looking in the rearview mirror of her car and wiping off the tears; both different coloured eyes are seen. What does that suggest? Well, as far as I know, heterochromia is an inherited trait, so that would come to suggest that Charles Barlow is simply an uncle – he is Annie’s own father. At least, that’s how I see it anyways. I think others out there have noticed this long before myself.

My bet is on Charles Barlow, the Judas Killer, being very much alive. Not a ghost. That’s also the dichotomous part of what I dig in this movie: one part supernatural entity horror, one part serial killer mystery-thriller. Maybe I’m wrong, and Nicholas McCarthy has this pegged as totally supernatural. Though, I doubt that. If it’s all supernatural, that sort of spoils my fun. I like the bits of ghost stuff we get with the mother – as if the pact she’d made with Judas was so wrong she couldn’t move on to death fully until it was made right – she fought to push her own daughter Annie away, even as a ghost, to try and make up for what happened in that house. It’s a real fun mix, that’s one of The Pact‘s biggest strengths as a genre picture; there’s a crossover between the types of sub-genres throughout the film.
The-PactI thought the acting was pretty damn great, especially when you consider that there are so many indie horror bombs out there saturating the market to the point of overflow.
Particularly, I found the central performance by Caity Lotz as Annie Barlow to be a knockout. She is a great actress. Certain horror films seem to want to delegate the Scream Queen role to women – not all, but a good deal. The Pact doesn’t make the man the saviour – even when Casper Van Dien rears his chiseled head to seemingly lend a helping hand (he only ends up with a slit throat for his trouble) – instead, Annie Barlow is the one who must solve the mystery, who has to confront all the worst that her childhood home has to offer; both supernatural, as well as far too murderously real. Lotz shows a good range of emotion.
This also has a good deal to do with the script. Nicholas McCarthy doesn’t make Annie out as the victim. Instead, she is a tough, maybe even hardheaded woman who won’t take no in her search for the truth as an answer. Mainly I’m just glad McCarthy didn’t make this a typical horror – even if some of the moves are cliched at times. There are predictable elements, but he avoids (most of) the pitfalls.
Also loved Judas – so damn creepy. Mark Steger did such a fucking perfect job embodying this nasty, weird killer. I was just so chilled by his love of murder, the way he moved, the way he looked. When he was crying on the bed in several of those scenes… wow.
My biggest complaint about this one is at the VERY FINAL SHOT when McCarthy cops out, going for this one last sort of freak out – an eye opens wide, peering (seemingly) through a hole in the wall. I’m not even sure what McCarthy wanted it to achieve. Most of all, I think the shot confuses his message. On the director’s commentary, I believe he actually said he regrets choosing this shot and leaving it there, if I’m not mistaken. Too bad he ended up putting it here, it really doesn’t do justice to any part of the film; cheapens the ending when I found it all effective enough. I’ve not yet seen the sequel, and don’t exactly intend to because I thought this was good enough as a standalone film without needing a follow-up.
caity-lotz-as-annie-in-the-pact-2012The Pact is a 4 out of 5 star horror film. I really do love the mix of supernatural and serial killer themes. That being said, I think that’s part of what makes the movie suffer. It’s not Nicholas McCarthy’s fault if people don’t get what the movie is aiming for – except for maybe that dreaded closing shot of the eye; big mistake. I do see that mistake as being a mixed message on the part of McCarthy.
It does not ruin the movie for me. I can’t let something minor like that closing shot totally destroy all the mood and suspense McCarthy setup throughout the entire film. Great horror movie, and again, it’s one of the best indie horror movies I’ve seen in the past 5 years or so. I dig McCarthy, and hope to see more horror from him in the future. He seems to do well with supernatural elements, though, I’d like to see him also try something that’s totally serial killer-centric; those latter parts worked so eerily for The Pact, McCarthy executed them with finesse.
See this if you haven’t yet. Maybe you’ll have a totally different opinion. Either way, I could watch this even more often than I already have because it’s creepy, fun, and a little fresh – despite what some others might have you believe.

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.

★★★
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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.

Mark Duplass is CREEP(y)

Creep. 2015. Directed by Patrick Brice. Written by Patrick Brice & Mark Duplass.
Starring Patrick Brice & Mark Duplass.
Blumhouse Productions.
Rated R. 82 minutes.
Comedy/Horror


★★★★★creep-posterI know Mark Duplass mainly from two sources – his amazing portrayal of Pete on FX’s raunchy fantasy-football comedy The League, and the film Baghead which he co-directed with his brother Jay Duplass. He’s a great talent, and of course I’ve seen his other work; another film he wrote and directed with his brother I love is the acerbically funny Jeff, Who Lives at Home. But it’s his performance on The League I love most.
In Creep, Mark Duplass channels brief spots of Pete, which I think are mostly culled from his own personality anyways, and yet there is a real childish gentle quality to the character he plays – at least in the beginning. This, above all else, drives Creep into terrifying territory.
The film starts with Aaron (Brice) who is heading to meet someone he has contacted through Craiglist that wants to be filmed, of course in exchange for money. Aaron arrives at a cabin in the hills where he meets Josef (Duplass) who explains he is dying, and about to be a father, so he wants the video of him to reflect the good & bad of him; later to give to his son. Josef wants to be filmed constantly. Even as he strips naked for a bath, what he calls “a tubby“, which is recorded all for his yet-to-be-born son, Josef asks Aaron “are you okay?“, and seems to want him to be at ease during the process. Uncomfortable, yet harmless, the conversation and relationship develops between Josef and Aaron, but all is just not as it seems.

For those who don’t want a small portion of the film spoiled – turn away. I think when I really started to finally become unsettled is partway through the film as Aaron shuts off the video on his camera, but leaves the audio recording, and Josef reveals something he’d never told anyone before. It starts off like a weird animal porn story, evolving into a quasi-rape Josef says he perpetrated on his wife while wearing a wolf mask. This comes only awhile after we first see the mask – Josef tells Aaron initially the thing was a mask his dad had, a character named Peach Fuzz that he’d developed. But once the story is told, which worked well only as audio because it ratcheted up the suspense, the wolf mask takes on a new terror.
creep-mark-duplassWhat I love most about Creep is that the found footage sub-genre is used appropriately. Maybe there are a few minor nitpicks, but for the most part this film really follows the unwritten rules of the sub-genre to perfection. Best of all, the premise of the story fits in very organically with found footage.
Even further I think the idea of the whole thing initiating from a Craiglist ad is a great post-modern twist on the genre; while scary and enjoyable as a movie, it actually makes you re-think the whole idea of the online communities such as Craiglist where people anonymously perform transactions on everything from professional jobs to the unprofessional world of buy, sell, trade, and online prostitution. But most of all, the fact it’s just two guys, two characters, for the most part in one remote setting the greater portion of the film really works for the whole story. The found footage sub-genre often fails and seems beyond stale when the style is being forced inorganically into a situation where there’s disparity between how a camera should or shouldn’t play into each scene, and so on. This in turn stirs the nitpickers who will tear a film apart, sometimes rightfully so, to say ‘this doesn’t follow the “rules”‘ or what not. The sparse setting, characters, and basic plot really help the environment remain controlled and helps showcase the found footage style without too much going on.
Picture 1The moment that got me most is the phone call from Angela, when Aaron picks up the phone. A real great reveal, so to speak. It sort of peels away Josef’s facade slow with each sentence until you sort of gasp to yourself – not terror, but the feeling of the moments before a terror strikes – and from that moment on the creepiness descends upon us in torrents, waves, scene after scene, up to the end.
The mask really creeps me out. At first it wasn’t so scary, but in the final half hour it becomes the thing of nightmares; one scene, as Josef wears the mask and stands blocking a doorway, is spectacularly weird and creeped me out wholly.
There’s a genuine amount of suspense going on throughout the closing fifteen minutes or so, an air of dead, which ultimately leads to a real shocking conclusion. I thought it was about to go one way, yet still the finale was surprising, and didn’t come exactly as I’d expected it to. Duplass really makes the last couple scenes pop with the creep factor he puts out, and you should freeze frame it if you can right before the credits roll – a very dark, suggestive shot, brief and yet long enough to get under the skin. Then the title appears, the credits go, and you’re left to ponder. Great stuff.

I’ve got to give this a full 5 stars. Going into any Blumhouse film I’m honestly weary. There are a couple films I don’t mind, a couple I like, and then several I hate. Creep delivers the goods. Sure, it’s a very contained and limited film, but that’s not to say those are negative commentary. As I said earlier, I think found footage can be terrible if it tries to put in too much, this is exactly why Brice’s film is directed so well in my mind, why the shots all work and things seem to flow naturally without being forced. This is one of the most efficient uses of the sub-genre in horror. Along the way there are some excellent comedic moments, mostly dark I think, and they come in little bursts. I honestly found myself dropping my jaw a few times, amazed at the way things were going in the awkward relationship between Aaron and Josef – I watch a ton of horror, I’ve seen a ridiculous amount of gore and shock horror and all that, but regardless, Creep has so much tension, suspense, and the performance Duplass gives is creepy beyond belief, that the film goes over perfectly.
See this, ASAP. It’s on VOD via iTunes, and I would assume other platforms, today. Real great little watch. It isn’t an outrageous horror with elaborate plot, it doesn’t have any blood in it, or monsters, or supernatural entities – it is a straight up, balls to the wall psychological horror, and it melted me. I loved it. I can’t say that enough. And not to ruin anything, but I hope that they’ll expand and go for a sequel. No doubt Blumhouse is already champing at the bit for a sequel, or two, or three. This is one film I wouldn’t mind seeing more of, maybe even a prequel to see Josef before he arrived to his relationship with Aaron.
This is a creeper of a movie. I can’t wait to watch it again.

Madison County is Weak & Trite Backwoods Horror

Madison County. 2011. Directed & Written by Eric England.
Starring Colley Bailey, Matt Mercer, Ace Marrero, Joanna Sotomura, Natalie Scheetz, Nick Principe, Dayton Knoll, Adrienne Harrell, and Katie Stegeman. Image Entertainment.
Rated R. 81 minutes.
Horror/Mystery/Thriller

★1/2mcpbOne of the young characters asks the question “where did he get the ideas if they weren’t true?” at an early point of the film while inquiring about a local legend the locals say is only just that – nothing more.  This really represents the sort of tired dialogue and story inherent in Madison County. Granted, the character speaking the line isn’t exactly the brightest seeming sort of guy, I still find it a really rough portion of dialogue. At least Eric England had the sense enough to let the old woman who’s asked the question explain it to the young man. Still, it is a bad piece of dialogue.

Other than this film, I’m actually a fan of England after seeing his most recent effort, Contracted, and I really would like to see his portion of Chilling Visions: 5 Senses of Fear. He definitely has his own unique vision, I just don’t think that vision is most fully realized in the mediocre effort of Madison County.
MadisonCounty_4This movie tells the story of a young group who head into the backwoods of Madison County. They’re looking for an author of a book which details the real life account of horrible murders that took place there years before. Unfortunately, Madison County is much, much more horrifying than any book could ever make it seem. Once they’re in the small town, things escalate from one thing to the next, and as the day wears in it’s more than obvious they’ve stumbled across more than the author of some book. And they will be lucky to ever make it out of Madison County alive.

The plot description I’ve given could really sound like that of any other basic slasher movie taking place in the backwoods country of any state on the map. It’s real formulaic setup. I can’t really say much for how it developed, either. There isn’t much going on in Madison County to make me feel like England put a new spin on slasher material. When I said the dialogue is lazy, as well as the story, I don’t mean everything is totally a waste – there are moments of good dialogue, and also a few scary bits now and then. However, it’s the laziness which really overtakes the entire film. For instance, on their way into Madison County, the group encounters the archetypal “messenger” character many horror films include – the old man, often, who gives directions that lead a group into horror territory. On the contrary, here the group opt to not take the road mentioned, as it will most likely get them lost. This subverts our usual expectations for horror movies with this sort of setup.
37273398.pngThe first time we see the man wearing his pig mask, I thought that was done pretty well. I was sort of expecting something would eventually happen, but regardless I found the shot itself where he is introduced pretty chilling. We see a nice wide shot of the victim standing on top of a tiny waterfall, getting ready to hopefully jump in the water with two naked young women, and then – BAM – pig mask killer. There’s nothing revolutionary going on here. It’s just a really effective opening to the killing, which begins in full throttle after this scene. Also, the inclusion of the two girls is key – after the victim is stabbed and dumped in the water, the girls casually get out, as if their job was done – and it was, certainly. We get a lot of information here because if there were any hesitations as to whether or not the town itself were all in on the killer’s secret, those are completely dispelled after this death scene. Honestly, this is probably my favourite scene in the film. Effective and creepy.
madison-county-movieMy problems with this film are the problems I have with many horrors, and slashers in particular. I try not to judge a lot of characters in these movies in regards to real life – you can’t judge how you would react when confronted with a pig mask killer, or Leatherface, or any of these horror movie killers. That being said, if I’d seen my close friend with a baseball bat jammed into his mouth, blood spurting, a man in a pig mask standing over them, I would run until my breath ran out. Instead, the girl here runs until she finds one of her friends. Then the action slows down – she is crying, she can’t complete a sentence.  Sorry, but this is just awful. I mean, anyone would probably just run, even after meeting up with the friend. Yet we’re treated to another real mess of a horror because of ridiculously stupid decisions coming out of very tired writing. If that’s not enough, England has the pig mask killer creep up on the two friends moments later, right behind them on a dirt road nonetheless – but of course neither of them hear him. Somehow he manages to be quiet enough to wait for a really good swing, and still he misses. It’s just situations like this which do nothing for the slasher sub-genre. It makes the characters look stupid. Most of all, though, it makes the writer look sloppy. Basically, after the creepy introduction to the pig masked man, it loses the appeal and reverts back into the same old garbage. The whole section where he is chasing the two girls really grated on my nerves – so many bad choices, not only by the girls but also by the killer. Another example is when one of the girls decides to lure the killer away. I still don’t understand, at all, why the killer didn’t just take a nice swing at the one girl’s neck, kill her, and then chase down the other one. This movie makes no one out to be smart – neither the killer nor his victims. Too many missteps on every side.
matt-in-madison-countyFor a slasher, there are a few nasty bits. On the whole, however, I wasn’t overly impressed with any of the horror gags. I like the first knifing, but that was mainly due to the introduction of the killer, and how nice the shot itself looked; pretty aesthetically pleasing overall. Aside from that, the blood wasn’t anything spectacular. Most slashers try to go for an interesting kill or two. Madison County sticks mostly with a lot of axe-work and things of that nature. Not that I don’t like to see a good axe murder on film – don’t get me wrong, I do. I just think a slasher really needs to try and do something different to set it apart from the usual, typical pack. Even if it’s a few neat little bits of blood and guts, or a couple visually cool kills – there needs to be a defining element if the filmmakers want it to go above the hordes of low budget slasher horror movies out there stinking the place to high heavens. I feel like England could have done something much better. His latest film, Contracted, was really great on all fronts – innovative, gross, creepy. This is his second feature, so I don’t expect him to have been a master, but I do wish there was something more to this than the regular fare so often pumped out.
71728366.pngI give this a 1.5 out of 5 stars. There were a couple moments I enjoyed, mainly due to the level of violence, which helped it as a slasher. Unfortunately there were not enough of these to make this anything memorable. I can guarantee I will not be watching this again. I’d seen it once before, and watched it today for review purposes. After this, I won’t revisit Madison County. It’s a by-the-numbers slasher, set in the backwoods, and there’s really nothing special here to take away. If you want something at least more creepy, maybe check out Just Before Dawn or even Deliverance, because this just does not deliver as a backwoods horror. I hope to see more from England, and maybe wouldn’t mind seeing him take on a slasher movie again. If he does, there will hopefully be better characters, dialogue, and all around a more complex, original story than this altogether unremarkable slasher outing.