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.
Horror/Sci-Fi/Thriller

★★★1/2
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.

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LAID TO REST is Flawed Yet Nasty Slasher Horror

Laid to Rest. 2009. Directed & Written by Robert Hall.
Starring Bobbi Sue Luther, Kevin Gage, Lena Headey, Sean Whalen, Richard Lynch, Johnathon Schaech, Thomas Dekker, & Nick Principe. Dry County Films.
Rated R. 90 minutes.
Horror/Thriller

★★★

A slasher horror doesn’t always have to bring innovation to the table in order to make a film exciting. Sometimes it’s okay to just let go, have a bit of fun. I’m a fan of slashers from the classic stuff like A Nightmare on Elm StreetHalloween, to the post-modernity of Scream, and even 1980s gems such as The Burning and Terror Train. There’s all types of ways to make one of these movies. Lots of interesting angles.
Laid to Rest doesn’t necessarily try to give a unique take on the slasher sub-genre. However, it does try to up the nastiness and go for the jugular, both figuratively in how it attempts terrifying the viewer, as well as literally in the sense many of the movie’s kills are brutish. If you can turn your brain off and ignore certain huge missteps then there’s hope. If not, you’ll probably hate this movie. I don’t think Laid to Rest is amazing, though I own it and once every so often I decide to throw it on. There are excellent slasher movie moments that work, time and time again. If anything, you’ll get a good dose of blood and gore to sooth that dirty little soul of yours. Don’t expect any of the characters to exactly suck you in. My hat goes off to director-writer Robert Hall for using a female protagonist. Unfortunately she isn’t the best, either in terms of the character’s writing nor in the quality of acting. The movie has a twisted atmosphere that’s constant from the first frame until the last. Problem is that bloody deaths, a creepy antagonist, they’re not enough to keep the whole thing above water. Despite how fun those things may be for horror fanatics.
Pic3 What I love most about the writing is that we’re given a fun slasher, Chrome Skull, whose history isn’t clear. Certainly, this went on to spawn and sequel, that one gives us more evidence as to where this guy came from, what he’s about, why he kills, and so forth. In this first film he’s only defined by brutality. There’s no attempt at showing us his origins, and that’s okay. Why do we need to be explained his backstory? There isn’t a pressing need. Because like the original Halloween‘s depiction of Michael Myers, this is a villain we need not necessarily discover all about right away. The unknown is more frightening. Skull is a vicious character. The more we discover in the sequel, the less he’s this foreboding killer and becomes less exciting because of it. Relentlessly, Skull kills his victims without hesitation, without ever saying a word, and so there’s a terror inherent in him that only gets more unsettling as the time goes by.
Whereas some sequences feel quite low budget, much of the action involving the kills, the chase moments feel stylised. A perfect example being when the group wanders into the police station finding things already in shambles, then Chrome Skull comes out of nowhere. This sequence is well executed with a very ’80s feel, and much of the film has that type of atmosphere.
Pic2 There’s some great sound design which goes along with the effects. First time I noticed it is when we initially see Chrome Skull from behind, sitting with his camera and briefcase full of trinkets, and he dabs away at his face – we don’t know at this point what his face looks like, nor have we seen his mask full on yet. But there’s this nasty, squishy sound accompanying his cotton ball dabbing that’s utterly disgusting. Dig it. This is simply the first of many gross moments – some are from the sound design, others from the practical effects.
Parts of the cinematography make this come off very low budget, in a bad way. Other scenes feel excellently shot. I do enjoy the camera footage from Chrome Skull, as it’s not too shaky and unwatchable, as well as the fact it’s intensely odd to watch him play the video back, sort of getting off on his own work. Also, you begin wondering immediately: is he recording for his own sick benefit, or does he do it for another reason, for somebody else maybe? We don’t come to find out, in this first film anyway. A few scenes have a stylish feel juxtaposed with the more simplistic type camera work that does its best to cultivate a foreboding tone. Apart from the more low budget moments, which aren’t overkill, most of the film’s look as a whole is spot on for its sort of ’80s throwback DNA.
Overall, the acting isn’t so bad for a low budget horror-thriller. In several scenes, I definitely think there’s a lack of good acting. Mostly the main actors hold their own and manage to carry the story. There’s certainly a nice degree of fear they’re able to get across, which is ultimately all a film like this needs from its actors. Still, I can’t help imagine what this might have been if there were more competent acting, perhaps better writing to boot. The actors aren’t totally to blame, as the writing makes the characters do a few incredibly idiotic things throughout the plot. I’m not one to bash on a horror for characters doing strange things; we can never fully gauge exactly what a person in real life might do during times of major stress like when a serial killing slasher is messing about killing people.
Pic3-2 Laid to Rest does what it can with all it has to make Chrome Skull a memorable slasher killer. Now, he isn’t about to go down in the history of horror cinema alongside guys like Michael Myers, Jason Voorhees, Freddy Krueger, not even the Leprechaun or all the little creeps from Children of the Corn. All the same, he is damn sure remarkable. Even if I don’t feel the sequel fleshes out his character properly, instead opting for the trope of a big organisation lurking behind it all, there’s lots to enjoy about the character. He is an unstoppable force, he feels not supernatural but plain and simple evil incarnate. The kills he heaps upon the audience are gruesome, they are gag-worthy at times. Best of all, this first movie doesn’t harp on trying to explain everything, so that a certain amount of mystery remains hovering over the entire film. Add to that Chrome Skull’s eerie look, his speechless murder rampage, and the movie is a little better than you’d expect. It could all be better. Yet it could also be worse. In an era where so many slashers are beyond predictable or relegated to the realm of found footage, Laid to Rest is slightly refreshing despite so many bad choices. If you want a fun little flick to throw in with your friends, this is one worth seeing amongst a crowd.

Cannibal Holocaust: A Documentary of Hell on Earth

Cannibal Holocaust. 1980. Directed by Ruggero Deodato. Story by Gianfranco Clerici.
Starring Robert Kerman, Francesca Ciardi, Perry Pirkanen, Luca Barbareschi, Salvatore Basile, Ricardo Fuentes, and Carl Gabriel Yorke. F.D Cinematografica.
Rated R. 95 minutes.
Adventure/Horror

★★★★ (Film)
★★★★★ (Grindhouse Releasing DVD)
cannibal-holocaust-poster
Nearly two decades before The Blair Witch Project horrified audiences with its low budget realistic techniques, Ruggero Deodato’s Cannibal Holocaust shocked horror filmgoers to their core; the first found footage horror movie. While this movie is a solid horror, much of its legacy comes from controversy – where it be from the graphic onscreen violence depicted throughout its runtime, or the explicitly depicted killing of real animals, this movie is infamous rather than famous.
Plenty of famous horror filmmakers have expressed their love for Deodato, this film in particular. Most notably as of late is Eli Roth whose film The Green Inferno is finally making it into theatres and is heavily inspired by/an homage to Cannibal Holocaust.
However, aside from the controversy and praise of other filmmakers, as well as the cult following it has developed consistently over the years, I think the realism of Cannibal Holocaust succeeds due to its use of found footage (the whole thing is not done in shaky cam style as has become the trend in the past 15-16 years), the inclusion of Native peoples in the Amazon, the makeup effects, and the ability of the actors to make everything feel very visceral.
why-cannibal-holocaust-is-an-essential-horror-movie-looks-like-the-film-crew-made-a-go-293867The plot of Cannibal Holocaust sees an American film crew disappear while filming in the Amazon rainforest. They were there to do a documentary on an indigenous tribe, one that still engages in the act of ritualistic cannibalism, as well as violent acts of torture used for punishment.
Harold Monroe (Robert Kerman), an anthropologist, takes on the task of travelling to the Amazon and encountering the tribe in order to determine what exactly happened to the original film crew.
Eventually, once Monroe is able to in effect assimilate himself slightly into the Ya̧nomamö tribe by imitating some of their behaviour – mainly bathing naked in a river with some of the women – he ends up coming across the picked clean remains of the film crew, along with some of their remaining equipment. Monroe is horrified, as well as disgusted. Through participating in a cannibalistic ritual with the tribe, they agree to give him reels of footage.
But the real horror lies in what happens with the footage, as Monroe brings it back to New York where executives from the Pan American Broadcast Company say they’ll be making a documentary out of the footage; one which they hope to have him host. Unsure whether the true atrocities lie in the jungle or the city, Monroe shares footage of what the film crew experienced at the hands of the Ya̧nomamö and no one is close to prepared for what they will see.
FoundfootageCannibal-HolocaustI can’t say that I enjoy the animal cruelty bits. While I believe a lot of it ended up being eaten by natives – I know for sure the monkey brains did because the tribe actually requested those not be faked because they’re considered a delicacy in their tribe – there’s still no way to feel good about watching the animals killed onscreen.
That being said, part of me does believe it served a purpose. Not condoning it, so don’t fucking jump down my throat or anything over it. But the film crew were there watching this tribe, they were exploiting every moment of their existence, anything they could film, so I see the whole movie as dealing with how the media loves to glorify and sensationalize violence, atrocities, murder, blood, death, et cetera. Plenty of other films do this in a way that does not involve animal cruelty. However, it comes to bear on how the film crew are just as savage as they deem the Ya̧nomamö to be. They want to film every last bit, they want to see it and have it put on television back in America and have everyone enjoy their documentary.
Seeing them both film the animals being killed, and in the case of the turtle consuming the meat for dinner, we’re led to understand how little difference there seems to be between these indigenous tribes and the curious, exploitative American film crew.
Worst of all is when their guide Felipe (Ricardo Fuentes) gets bitten by a snake. The amputation does not save his life. Still, the camera rolls on and captures everything; Felipe’s dead face in a nicely framed shot. They don’t even seem particularly upset that Felipe dies, only determined to continue on into the jungle.
1280x720-cuMSo let’s forget about the animals for now. I don’t like that this is included, but hey – on the DVD release I own, you can actually watch an Animal Cruelty-Free version, so that’s a plus!
The makeup effects used in Cannibal Holocaust are really something to behold. There’s no wonder people were actually under the impression that people were killed, or died during the making of the film, because for 1980 this looks INCREDIBLY REALISTIC. Very raw, very gritty. You’d swear it was a documentary. We can’t see that now, most of us anyways, because our society is incredibly deep into found footage and we’re so used to it that nothing seems to phase us any more. But in 1980, man – if I were a little older and had seen it when released, I’d probably have been blown away. I’m still blown away today.
Even the scene where Felipe has his leg amputated, it looks as if it were a true documentary watching a man have his snake-bitten leg cut off. The blood, the noise and the feverish movement of everyone around him trying to help, it’s extremely raw and serves to make things feel terrifying.
Of course there are a ton of instances where the makeup effects really get the visceral nature of the film pumping in our veins. The now infamous woman impaled on a spike scene is VICIOUS! I mean, some say they don’t understand how it could’ve appeared so real to an audience, but I say they’re blinded and can’t look at things in hindsight. There are many images, such as the poor impaled lady, which appear torn right out of reality and that’s ultimately why so many people find the movie unsettling. Even when you watch this on the Animal Cruelty-Free version, you realize that aspect isn’t what’s so upsetting about Cannibal Holocaust: everything just looks so god damn real.
big_thumb_7804f4ee5bb0b1fc731a0eefe69ade55Most of all, I think people look solely at the controversy of Deodato’s film and they don’t pay enough attention to the social commentary behind all the blood, horror, madness, and mayhem onscreen.
This all culminates when the film crew actively decides to start messing with the tribe, in order to illicit some type of reaction. A misguided notion all around, and disgusting, which is what leads to the film crew’s disappearance, as well as the hostile Native reaction when Professor Monroe (Kerman) and his team initially arrive as the search party.
When the crew burns down all the huts, with the villagers screaming and trying to escape, you can see so blatantly how Deodato is aiming his horror film at the media. It’s already obvious, but this scene has such a scary aesthetic: that beautiful music playing in the background, the fire, the sounds of the tribe screaming, the film crew each laughing and having fun terrorizing these people; all that makes for a heavy impact.
We’re seeing something that has become even MORE prominent nowadays, more so than even when Cannibal Holocaust was filmed and released – certain pockets of the media (and also religious groups) want to go in an antagonize cultures, peoples, and they want to try and spread their ways of living to supposedly uncivilized places. Of course the film crew here is a bit of an extreme example, but these are the types of vultures we see more and more with the new forms of media erupting.
Most telling in that regard for me is when Alan Yates (Gabriel Yorke) and his film crew stand by and watch a pregnant woman have a tiny child, barely older than a fetus, ripped out of her belly – it’s put in a hole in the mud by the river, drowned, suffocated, then the woman is beaten bloodily to death. All the while, Alan gladly films and gets the best shots of the so-called ritual on film, all the misery. Yet it’s constantly described as some sort of informational process, as if they’re learning great stuff that’s worth sitting through the horror to see. All the horror captured on tape in the name of anthropological knowledge, except really it’s aiming towards ratings, views, money, funding, and so on.
Even worse than that, the film crew – aside from Faye (Francesca Ciardi) – rapes a member of the Ya̧nomamö tribe while filming. It’s bad enough they sexually assault this poor young Native girl, they go ahead and film it all. They went far beyond even just terrorizing this tribe, they actively assaulted and raped a member, which then prompts the infamous impaling. Sickest of all is how Alan turns on the horror for the camera, pretending to have no idea why this girl would’ve been executed in such a fashion when obviously being raped is what precipitated her death, sadly. Another moment where you can see how Deodato is taking hard shots at the media and how they wish to sensationalize pain, suffering, and certainly violence.
cannibal-holocaust-e1380713512864Something I forgot to mention but cannot: the score. It is beyond unsettling. There’s something both very 1980s and also incredibly effective about the score. At times they have the beautiful score playing, even juxtaposed with brutal acts of savagery by both the tribe and the film crew; a technique I enjoyed a ton. Then we get deep, dark electronic sounding bits where it makes your pulse pound thick. I think without the score, many of the moments wouldn’t have properly come off, so this goes to show how a horror can effectively use a score and music to push along a feeling. Such is definitely the case here, as the music really gets under my skin; I always noticed it and each time I see the film I make a comment, to someone, anyone who will listen, that I find the score one of its best elements.
Cannibal_Holocaust_1I’m going to give Cannibal Holocaust a 4 out of 5 star rating. If Ruggero Deodato hadn’t opted to include such graphic and horrifying animal cruelty onscreen, I’d be more inclined to say this is near the perfect horror film. So many incredible makeup effects are included here and the gritty, raw nature of the look makes everything work better than I’d ever have imagined. While it is a tough movie to sit through, even for some of the most initiated horror hounds out there (of which I include myself as a card carrying member), I do think Cannibal Holocaust belongs amongst the most classic horror movies of all-time. It is nasty and at times unnecessary, however, Deodato has a message behind all of the terror and the gore about how the media derides violence yet at the same time choose to focus in on it, zoomed, close-up and tight on the horror for your viewing pleasure.
The DVD, which is a double disc set, from Grindhouse Releasing is a spectacular release! 5 stars all the way. There’s a good few hours of extras, including behind-the-scenes featurettes on the filming, as well as interviews, and everything from the music to the effects. I have to say I’m more than pleased with the DVD. I hadn’t gone through all the Special Features until now, but it is well worth the $25 I paid a few years back. You can dive in and learn all sorts of stuff about Deodato’s film with the second disc of the set, totally dedicated to the extras.

I recommend that if you’ve not seen it, and think you can handle it, watch Deodato’s notorious horror classic. As I said, on the DVD release I own you can watch a version completely devoid of the animal cruelty. So if possible, I’d say view it and judge for yourself whether this is exploitation at its worst or if it is a cult horror that deserves all the recognition it gets.

The Gallows: Wasted Opportunity & Wasted Youth

The Gallows. 2015. Directed & Written by Travis Cluff/Chris Lofing.
Starring Reese Mishler, Pfeifer Brown, Ryan Shoos, Cassidy Gifford, Travis Cluff, Price T. Morgan, Theo Burkhardt, David Herrera, Gannon Del Fierro, Mackie Burt, and Adrian Salas. Blumhouse Productions.
Rated 14A. 81 minutes.
Horror/Thriller

★★
the-gallows-posterFound footage is a sub-genre I do enjoy, honestly. That being said, there is still a fine line between what I enjoy and what I find crap. Some people say it’s all crap; that’s just dismissive, to me. I’m a fan of Cannibal Holocaust, unapologetically I love The Blair Witch Project, and then there’s newer stuff I’ve enjoyed like the V/H/S trilogy (I got a ton of online shit on an IMDB message board for my love of all three especially the third), Lovely Molly, and the terrifyingly unsettling Home Movie. There are other titles, I just don’t want to go on. You get the picture: if something is done right using found footage, I believe there’s no reason it can’t be enjoyable. Certain people seem to think the whole sub-genre is useless, but again, I say that’s nonsense. Found footage needs to be used effectively, otherwise it’s simply another gimmick. To say there’s no good found footage is ignorant.
The Gallows has a fun premise and I haven’t seen any found footage so far to use this setting. The majority of what I enjoyed about this movie is the atmosphere, most of which came from the location of the school’s auditorium/theatre. Otherwise, I found almost all the characters to be stiff; the high school dramatics felt real, I did think Reese Mishler and Cassidy Gifford were pretty decent throughout the movie, but overall the cast wasn’t very solid. With only a little to enjoy, The Gallows feels more like a wasted opportunity than an absolutely useless horror.
1280x720-bgLStarting with a recorded home video from 1993, we see a boy named Charlie Grimille accidentally hang to death during a high school play. Worst of all, it happens in front of an audience who watch on in absolute fear and horror.
The present day in The Gallows sees a new production of the play being put off. In one of the main roles, a jock named Reese Houser (Reese Mishler) tries his best to play his part opposite a girl he has a crush on named Pfeifer Ross (Pfeifer Brown). At the same time, Reese’s jock budy Ryan Shoos (that’s also his real name) films everything behind the scenes, supposedly helping but doing nothing except make a mockery of the production while others work hard and passionately to make it the best they can.
In an effort to supposedly save his buddy Reese the shame and failure of going onstage, Ryan suggests breaking into the school’s theatre at night and trashing the set. That way the production would be halted and Reese could ‘comfort’ Pfeifer. Misguided and foolish, Ryan, Reese, and Ryan’s girlfriend Cassidy (Cassidy Gifford) head into the school through a door said to never be locked, due to it being broken for years.
However, once they run into Pfeifer inside – who wonders why they’re even there in the first place, as they wonder the same about her – they discover the door is now locked, out of the blue. What follows is a horrifying night for the group of friends while they begin to figure out all about what happened 20 years ago to Charlie Grimille, and why he’s still lurking in the shadows of the school.
the-gallows-movie-image-1There’s certainly an innovative aspect to The Gallows in its premise. I think beyond that, there’s not much to distinguish it from other found footage horror movies. However, the whole concept is pretty fun. Theatres in general all have their own spooky nature; there’s something eerie about a theatre, all the history and the many people who’ve graced both the stage and the seats. Add in a school and it’s even creepier, as old schools all have their own history, many lives passing through its halls and corridors, as well.
Unfortunately, I don’t think the filmmakers used this premise enough to their advantage. As I said, most of The Gallows sticks to the bargain basement techniques of Found Footage 101. For instance, there’s an early and needless jump scare – that you can’t even fully call a proper jump scare – which involves Ryan (Shoos) just popping up in front of his camera in his bedroom; not even horror, simply him trying to pull a gag. Stupid, and also gets your heart pumping for no good reason. A jump scare is effective if there’s a reason, if there is purpose to it, however, if you simply make people jump without any substance whatsoever then it’s a piss off. For me, anyways. There’s always the “trick jump scare” in horror movies, but this is not one of those at all. It’s just a dumb addition; in fact, the scene in which it’s involved serves no purpose itself, so the whole 1 minute or so could’ve easily been trimmed out of the film.
Horror-2015-The-Gallows-MovieEven though the movie uses so much of the shaky cam style, there’s still a decent atmosphere all the same. As someone who acted a great deal from a young age up until my early twenties, I spent a massive amount of time in theatres; specifically the big one at the Gordon Pinsent Centre for the Arts back in my hometown, which partly resembles the auditorium of the school in this film. There’s something inherently spooky about the cold, sterile like hallways in the basement, the darkness of the theatre behind the stage, which immediately makes things unsettling.
If this were done in straight style, using some more steady handheld work even, I think it would’ve benefited greatly. Now I know, Blumhouse most likely wanted to try another lower budget found footage effort and try to make big bucks; the estimated budget is only$100K, which by industry standards in Hollywood is a minuscule production. But still, this is where the concept of the entire film becomes wasted. I’m confident had the filmmakers chosen to do this without found footage, a ton more emotion would’ve come through, the backstory might’ve benefitted – as well as the ghostly presence of Charlie – and the scares could’ve been ten times more effective.
Sadly, The Gallows comes out much like so many of the low budget indie efforts in the found footage genre – the ones unable to rise up to the weight of their premise.
maxresdefaultOne particular scene I did find effectively creepy, regardless of the found footage style (mostly because the phone camera being stationary for the shots), was when SPOILER ALERT Cassidy (Gifford) is in the red lighted hallway; behind her in the dark creeps the figure, hooded like the Hangman from the play. What I find most scary here is how there’s a moment where you don’t see anything, then all of a sudden – as if magic – the noose is around her neck. An unseen force drags her away through a door in the background of the shot, and it slams shut behind her. Very good and creepy scene, I found it wasn’t jumpy it was simply a nice shock to the system. A solid scare.
Furthermore, there’s a scene where Reese (Houser) and Pfeifer (Brown) are running from the ghostly presence of Charlie, clad in the suit of the Hangman, and they’re climbing up a ladder – we get an excellent, terrifying look at the Hangman mask/suit up-close. It’s again not a jump scare, so much as it’s one brief look that gives you enough to make you go WHOA. I’d almost love to see a slasher now set in medieval times, or before, with a hangman as the slasher – it’s just the first thing that popped in my mind when I saw the mask. Awesome little shot, not too long and not too short.
1280x720-uqwA part of the plot I did like was when everything returned in a circular fashion to the stage, as Reese and Pfeifer act out their scene together, and the camera turns on. The lights go up  as well and the stage is set.
However, after that sequence I found things started to fall off. What I don’t like is how Blumhouse is basically setting things up right at the end for another movie. That’s essentially what happens, can anyone disagree? It’s like a mash of things happening right at the end. There’s simply too many reaching connections. So SPOILER ALERT AGAIN we’re meant to believe that Charlie’s girlfriend – the woman who continued to sit in the same seat and watch the practices, waiting for another performance of the play which killed her boyfriend 20 years ago – is also Pfeifer’s mom? I’m pretty slick most of the time, so I apologize if I’ve misunderstood. But the finale is pretty much tell us all that. I found it very mixed and matched, like puzzle pieces not intended to fit together which were simply mashed into a pile for the sake of trying to turn The Gallows – and Charlie – into an iconic style horror movie.

But this is another problem I have, I feel like Charlie is made out to be this slasher type killer. Instead he’s a ghost with a noose. That’s fine. At the same time, the movie is being marketed in a sense that Charlie’s supposed to be aimed toward becoming the next Jason Voorhees or Michael Myers. I think not. First of all, the movie itself is nowhere near good enough to become anything like either John Carpenter’s Halloween or Friday the 13th. Second, Charlie just doesn’t come across in that way. There are most certainly a couple creepy scenes, there’s not enough viciousness for me to say Charlie is a bonafide slasher. Maybe had he really done a psychotic job on one of the high school kids, I could give in and say there are elements about the character which fit the bill. I can’t say that at all because most of what happens is ghostly creeping in the background, supernatural deaths, and nothing in the way of any blood. It’ all about the noose. Certainly no gore anywhere to be found. Is there really any way we can call Charlie a SLASHER if he did no slashing? Something to think about. I guess that’s partly the marketing’s problem. Still, I feel as if the filmmakers were also pushing towards that, particularly with the ending. There’s just no way I can get with that.
qjtA9NJI can give The Gallows a 2 out of 5 star rating and feel okay with that. Some people say this is utterly trash. That’s fine, I respect anyone’s opinion as long as they’re not trying to force it on me as if I should feel the same way. However, I don’t think every last piece of this movie is bad. There are spots I thought were incredibly unsettling – one scene where Ryan slowly discovers there’s a body hanging up in between the walls in this tight crawlspace-like room I found to be VERY CREEPY. Ultimately though what makes The Gallows fall short is a reliance on horror cliches and tropes to the point of retreading too deeply through the footsteps of so many other found footage horror efforts, as well as the fact I found much of the acting (aside from Cassidy Gifford and Reese Mishler) extremely wooden. Not to mention I found the ending poor, beyond rushed, and it felt as they were forcing everything down our throats. While I did find parts of it scary, that finale did nothing for film overall and only served to make me actually say aloud once the lights came up: “Oh wow – that end was rough”.
Like I’d mentioned before, I think The Gallows would’ve made a better film if it went without found footage. Alas, Blumhouse – while doing exciting things on other ends – loves to go for the low budget shots in the dark like this after their huge success with bleeding dry the premise of Paranormal Activity. So it’s no wonder they went for a found footage style here instead of filming it regularly. Maybe more money would’ve been pumped in, but it still could’ve told the story more effectively, creeped people out in a much more visceral way than they accomplished here, and perhaps the performances might’ve also benefited from having a solid style. I can’t recommend this much, however, it isn’t as terrible as some critics and people online are making it out to be.
See it if you want to judge for yourself, and I urge you to do so – I’m no one to be listening to, really. Just don’t believe all the trashing, while at the same time you need to remember you won’t find anything more than a generic found footage horror. There are tons of better found footage movies out there to get you creeped out.

A Family Terrorized: Wes Craven’s The Hills Have Eyes

The Hills Have Eyes. 1977. Directed & Written by Wes Craven.
Starring John Steadman, Janus Blythe, Peter Locke, Russ Grieve, Virginia Vincent, Suze Lanier-Bramlett, Dee Wallace, Brenda Marinoff, Robert Houston, Martin Speer, James Whitworth, Michael Berryman, and Lance Gordon. Blood Relations Co.
Unrated. 89 minutes.
Horror/Thriller

★★★★ (Film)
★★★ (eOne DVD release)
tumblr_mwzabkMwCR1qh35m6o1_1280 I want to start off this review by talking solely about Wes Craven. It’s hard to pick a top director in horror for me because there are many different, talented individuals in the genre who have put out a ton of great work. But at the top of the list, you’ll always find Craven.
With his first feature in 1972, the now infamous The Last House on the Left, Wes Craven announced himself to the world as a young and angry filmmaker with not just balls, but with a vision. I truly think many of his movies can be looked at as more than just horror, they often have a bit of message buried deep down; sort of in the similar way George Romero instills his zombie films with a bit of political/social commentary from time to time.
He went on to do The Hills Have Eyes, but his career was only beginning to cook with gas around this time. Another 7 years in, he had movies like Deadly BlessingSwamp Thing, and a much hated (but a movie I actually enjoy a bit) sequel The Hills Have Eyes Part II. Then came A Nightmare on Elm Street, and from then on it was Master of Horror Wes Craven, not simply Wes Craven.
Also just to note, I’m a big fan of his movie The People Under The Stairs. If you feel like it, check out my review here. I’ve got a lot to say about it and I won’t take up your time any more here than I already am!
So needless to say, in regards to Wes, I love a bunch of his movies. Even despite what others might say and how they may feel, I’m a big fan of the first three Scream movies; the fourth wasn’t terrible or anything, just not my cup of tea. Most people I know hate the 3rd, sort of like the 2nd. Some I know don’t even like the very first one. For me, they came at a time when I was just on the verge of high school – the first came out when I was 11 years old. So I’m not sure, maybe nostalgia plays a part in it. But I still watch Scream at least a couple times a year, plus the other two usually get a view not long after.
Back to The Hills Have Eyes, though. This is one of those 1970s horror movies that hits you right in the gut. I know that Craven is a big fan of Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, so there’s no surprise to me even the cinematography is a little similar. Above all, I think Craven probably meant bits of his film to be – at least in small part – an homage to Hooper’s movie. I don’t know, but it feels that way to me. Not at all saying Craven rips TCM off. This is its own beast. Comparisons probably come from a few of these minor points: 1) Carter family is out in their car/camper driving on a roadtrip, 2) they’re in an unfamiliar place, and, 3) a family (of sorts) descends upon them and terrorizes each one. Other than that I don’t see anything else similar, totally different stories. Each a great horror in its own right.
What The Hills Have Eyes has going for it is a genuinely dreadful atmosphere, in part through the cinematography and direction, as well as everything from the music by Don Peake to the locations Craven used while filming. A truly horrific movie that smacks of realism while also drawing in almost urban legend-like fears to make the audience experience the terror of the Carter family in a visceral fashion.
eis5The Hills Have Eyes sees the Carter family on vacation – Big Bob (Russ Grieve) and his wife Ethel (Virginia Vincent) driving their car along with their teenage kids Bobby (Robert Houston) and Brenda (Susan Lanier); in the camper out back is the oldest daughter Lynne (Dee Wallace), her husband Doug (Martin Speer), and their baby Katie, as well as the dogs Beauty and Beast. At an old gas station, they stop and meet a man named Fred (John Steadman). He advises to keep on the main road, but the Carters further on end up running off the road and crashing the car. Once they’re stranded, Bob leaves for the gas station to find Fred and get help. At the same time, one of the dogs – Beauty – runs into the hills where someone attacks her. When Bobby finds Beauty’s body, torn up and bloody, he’s terrified, but falls and knocks himself out. Coming to, he’s afraid to scare his family.
Meanwhile, Big Bob witnesses Fred killed and hung in an outhouse by a crazed lunatic: a hideous looking man named Mars (Lance Gordon) hiding in shadows. Once all hell breaks loose, the rest of the unsuspecting Carter family lays in wait out in the darkening desert, unaware that Bob will not be returning.
But somebody will. And he’s bringing his brother.
hillshaveeyesI honestly love this film. Though, I do love the remake by director Alexandre Aja a tiny bit more. Shoot me, whatever.
Reason I say this is because one thing I do enjoy more in the original is the scene involving Big Bob Carter (Grieve) and the old man at the gas station, Fred (Steadman). First of all, their acting is solid. Each of them holds their own. What I like most is how Fred lays out a little bit of the history about the people in the hills; he makes mention of whacking the “devil man”, as he calls him, right in the face with a tire iron. Not that it’s anything earth shattering, I just like how later when we get our first good look at Papa Jupiter (James Whitworth) there’s that noticeable, jagged split in his forehead. Mostly, I think John Steadman does a fantastic job with the short supporting role of Fred; it’s brief, but the story he tells Big Bob at the gas station is creepy, sort of unsettling. An awesome bit of drama with the horror to follow.
The_Hills_Have_Eyes_(1977)_2Much of what I think appeals to a lot of horror fans, like myself, is the fact Craven gives the film such a low budget style and it effectively brings us into its realism. Sure, the story is out there. At the same time, parts of it are so very raw and realistic that it’s hard to deny how scary The Hills Have Eyes can be at times.
For instance, one real perfect scene in terms of being unsettling is when Bobby (Robert Houston) first hears a bunch of noise out in the bushes in the dark. It’s an eerie few moments. The way the camera tightens in on his face, the darkness around him. We see little glimpses of Papa Jupiter making noise out in the desert bushes.
But then the worst of all happens, as Bobby goes back to the camper where he finds himself locked out. Rattling at the door, Craven gives a peek inside where Pluto (the amazing horror actor Michael Berryman) is waiting with his hand right by the handle. The Carter women – Ethel and Brenda – sleeping soundly. Highly effective scene, and the way in which it’s presented really makes it work. Craven served as editor on this one, so I love some of the techniques he used. In my mind, if he’d chosen to let Bobby go on and wake up Doug/Lynne, then went back to show Pluto inside, this would’ve been far less shocking. It’s the way we watch the camera almost move through the door, Craven cutting from Bobby outside, to see Pluto’s hand, and then the camera slowly crawls up to reveal his face. Amazing example of how editing can do all the work in terms of an effective creep-out moment.
large_hills_have_eyesl_blue_blu-ray_6Another part of why this movie is a hit amongst horror hounds has to do with the viciousness of it all. This came even a year before John Carpenter’s Halloween, but films like Peeping TomPsycho to a certain extent, and most certainly the fantastic Black Christmas had already begun the slasher trend; even if it was in its early stages at that point. What The Hills Have Eyes does is take away the slasher gimmick. In turn, it tries to aim for that real life feel, as I’d mentioned before. I’m glad Craven didn’t go with everything he’d initially planned, as it was meant to be a modernized version of Sawney Bean. Apparently it would’ve been nearly 20 years into the future, and honestly it all sounds like a real mess.
With the film we know today, Craven brought a sense of reality to it all. I think Alexandre Aja did a good job updating things and including other real life situations into the remake. But here, there’s very much a gritty, visceral atmosphere throughout the entire movie. It’s a savagely emotional horror, as we’re watching this normal family on a roadtrip together become fodder for a bunch of cannibalistic serial killers living out in the desert. And I think that’s another aspect of what takes The Hills Have Eyes away from the slasher sub-genre more than it already is – the whole family is involved. Not only do some of them get killed, it isn’t one sole survivor left as is so often the case in the typical slasher horror movie; Doug, Brenda, and Bobby are the three last bastions of civilization left out in the desert once their loved ones are killed and the baby is stolen. I find that a neat aspect. Particularly in 1977, I think though Craven went on to do some slasher stuff he did a nice job of not doing the same old thing everyone else was doing. Even some of the nasty stuff in Black Christmas, a favourite of mine, doesn’t compare to the brutality of Craven. Furthermore, while we do get a bit of explicit terror here, there is an excellent use of shadow in all the locations in which Craven films, adding a mysteriously creepy quality. Just goes to show also what you can do on a budget. Not everything in horror requires tons and tons of cash being thrown into special effects and whatever else; part of it requires innovation and a keen eye for natural lighting, as seems to be the case here.
hills6Producer Peter Locke does a good commentary on the DVD release from eOne Entertainment, alongside director-writer Wes Craven. Pretty enlightening stuff. Also, it’s fun to hear these two guys watch the movie and be captivated by it. Funny because so many artists, filmmakers particularly, don’t actually like to sit and watch their stuff much. Or at least that seems to be the gist of opinions and even more so with actors. Craven and Locke both admit at one point they forgot to say much because they were sucked in watching; Locke had recently watched it again to prepare, Craven says he hasn’t watched the film in years.
Moreover, I think Craven puts a point on what I’d said earlier about his films. One line from Mars has him say “I’m in yer out!”, as he gnaws on Big Bob’s forearm and rants at a dead, burned Bob. Chilling scene. But what Craven says is that this is the white man’s ultimate fear, that the outsiders are going to get in and then they’ll be ousted. So again, I think behind even some of Craven’s most outrageous horror there are poignant pieces of knowledge. Maybe they don’t always come across perfectly, especially for those who aren’t deeply into horror. However, I don’t think you can deny it once you look at it long enough and think about what Craven says. Of course you can always make your own subjective meaning out of movies, but this one really does fit. Aja picks up on this aspect of the original and amplifies it during the remake, which is a reason why I enjoyed it even a little more.

Finally, the acting is all solid. From Michael Berryman, always a treasure onscreen in horror, to Papa Jupiter played by James Whitworth who is extremely unsettling each time we see him. Most of all, I thought Susan Lanier as Brenda did an impressive job with her character. As Pete Locke says on the DVD commentary, you actually feel for her situation and you feel that she’s beyond broken, it’s sadness you get out of her in so many scenes. The one scene with Susan Lanier and Virginia Vincent, as her mother Ethel who is all but fully dead, is heartbreaking and amazing all at once.
All over, I think the acting helps this film’s script, as the actors all put in their good work to help everything off the page come alive.
hills_have_eyes141Overall, I love this movie and it is most certainly a 4 out of 5 star horror. Some of the acting could’ve been a little better, but most is excellent. My biggest problem is with a bit of the costuming and the makeup. Naturally, the budget was less than a quarter million dollars, which in terms of movies is a very low budget independent project. So I can’t knock them terribly. All the same, it still could’ve been better.
Either way the little problems I have with the movie don’t take away from its greatness. This is a classic of terrifying horror cinema. Wes Craven has created so many memorable horror characters and films that it’s sometimes impossible to believe it. There’s seemingly no end to it at times. The Hills Have Eyes, no matter if it’s one of his first, will always be one of the best Craven movies and I can watch it again and again. Solid horror with creepy performances and an unsettling premise.
Check it out if you’ve never seen it, I always recommend it as a classic horror from the late ’70s. The DVD from eOne is nothing spectacular, though, it does contain the commentary which I enjoyed thoroughly. I’d love to pick it up on Blu ray soon to see if there are any further features. I’d love to see some of what was cut because it sounds vicious and pretty wild horror fun!

GirlHouse: A Sleazy Modern Slasher

GirlHouse. 2014. Directed by Jon Knautz & Trevor Matthews. Screenplay by Nick Gordon.
Starring Ali Cobrin, Adam DiMarco, Slaine, Alyson Bath, Elysia Rotaru, Alice Hunter, Chasty Ballesteros, Nicole Arianna Fox, Zuleyka Silver, Wesley MacInnes, and Erin Agostino. Brookstreet Pictures.
Rated 18A. 99 minutes.
Horror/Thriller

★★★★
girlhouseTouted as a Halloween-style slasher for the digital era, GirlHouse is a pretty decent modern slasher. Whereas most low-budget slashers incorporate nudity to sell their film, this one actually finds its story and plot based around nudity, in a way. Taking the slasher horror movie into the issues of modern day, directors Jon Knautz and Trevor Matthews show us what happens when a deranged young man becomes lonelier and lonelier, only able to turn to technology for comfort, and he meets a young woman simply trying to get by in today’s ever increasing capitalist world.
While I don’t think GirlHouse says anything massively profound, I do believe it takes the slasher horror movie and makes good use of the sub-genre to craft something decently fresh, and absolutely a whole lot of terrifying fun. Giving us a relatable and understandable story to start, the film shows its fair share of nudity and sexuality, however, underneath there is a story, there are decent characters, and we’re introduced to one of the most villainous, eerie horror movie slashers that has come around in awhile. A few flaws set the film back – mainly, even though the story calls for a little, there’s too much focus on full-frontal nudity. Aside from that, though, I found myself enjoying all the other aspects of GirlHouse and it’s definitely a movie I’d watch again when in the mood for a good and savage slasher.

GirlHouse tells the story of Kylie Atkins (Ali Cobrin), a young woman who needs money for tuition, and general living – we get the impression her mother needs help back home, her father having recently passed. Such a relatable story for many, as well as one very familiar to everyone.
In a quest to find reliable employment, and something to actually pay very well, Kylie moves into GirlHouse – a house with a bunch of women streaming live content for a website jammed with horny men subscribing to watch them on camera. Moving in, at first she finds everything is luxurious and a bit of fun. However, once an insane fan hacks their system to try and locate where GirlHouse actually is, Kyle will find not everything in her new home is fancy and fun and full of cash.
IMG_1402The opening scenes absolutely floored me. No matter how you feel about the rest of the film, you’ve got be able to admit the sequence at the film’s start is some downright shocking horror. It isn’t too bloody or anything – just enough in fact. What it is, though, is beyond unsettling. The unfortunate young girl from the flashback cold open is Camren Bicondova – most people will recognize her nowadays from her stint on Gotham as a young Selina Kyle a.k.a Catwoman – and I think having her as a character, albeit a brief one, helped immensely. Whether you like the prequel show to Batman and Gotham City’s villains, she is undeniably a good actress. Here, coupled with the disturbed and jilted Young Loverboy (Isaac Faulkner), it’s one whopper of a sequence to start GirlHouse rolling. It’s a horror movie which sets its tone immediately. You know, regardless of story, there’s going to be some misguided revenge killing on behalf of poor Loverboy.

Honestly, for a while I thought overall GirlHouse was going to be all softcore porn. There’s a lot of skin, no doubt. Even an actual bunch of straight up full-frontal nudity. Yet amongst all the female bodies and the whole concept of the GirlHouse, there’s more to the movie than just showing off sex.
I was afraid that the film and the script would stray towards maybe making it a situation where these women in the house, showing themselves on camera, would end up being punished for their sexuality. Because I’m not the type who finds anything like that interesting. There’s so much hypocrisy in the idea that millions of men jack off to women online, then many turn around and believe that women “like that” are “asking” for any sexualized violence/et cetera which comes their way.
On the other hand, GirlHouse begins to take apart some of the issues surrounding the digital age and the streaming content from girls behind their laptops going into the millions of homes of men around the world. For instance, I thought it was a nice touch to have the owner of GirlHouse – a man you’d expect to be a greasy, exploitative pimp-like character – be a gentlemanly gay man. I thought, for the longest time until we see a scene with him in bed with another man, that he was some sleazy dude running another website taking advantage of poor young women trying to find a job that isn’t minimum wage while they’re trying to start their lives and make their way in the world.
What I found most interesting in terms of what the movie actually tries to examine, re: internet culture, is the bystander effect, I believe it’s called. As some of the pervy dudes watch on live streaming camera while the first girl is hacked up and tortured, neither of them really do anything because they all assume someone else will, if in fact what’s happening is real.
This is where one of the characters – Ben Stanley – comes into play a little more than simply a love interest for Kylie (I’ll go into this a bit further shortly). He is one of the only people who truly cares about Kylie, instead of being another horny guy watching her online, and so this helps up the stakes a little more. Not to mention the fact Ben’s involvement gives the story more action.
IMG_1404IMG_1405One thing I was hugely impressed by is the performance of Slaine, a.k.a George Carroll. I’ve seen him before in stuff like Killing Them SoftlyThe Town, and particularly Gone Baby Gone which I really enjoyed him in. He has that street type sense about him in most of what I’ve seen. Except here, there’s a way different sensibility about him. Slaine takes on the character incredibly. Even in the few scenes where we first see Loverboy grown up, his performance is silent – only speaking through typed words initially – and whoa, is it ever intense! The way he breathes and stares into the screen, he almost shakes with excitement building inside him. It is incredible work, I must say. Excellent casting choice for the role of Loverboy.
It isn’t only Slaine’s performance as Loverboy I find excellent. The whole character itself is disturbing. Starting with that opening sequence, we get a view into the deranged world of a slighted young man who grows up into a depraved, perverse serial killer. Once things move forward and we get a look at Loverboy’s mask, it’s seriously creepy and weird as hell. I couldn’t get enough of how unsettling the mask/get-up is and it’s immediately scary. Not to mention the fact Slaine is a big fella to begin with, and underneath the mask, his coveralls from work, there is a menacing, foreboding presence to him physically. So in the way characters like Michael Myers and Jason Voorhees are similarly scary due to their size and stature, Loverboy is also a terrifying man. For slashers, the mask and/or their gimmick is always a key element. I think GirlHouse succeeds enormously in this department, as Loverboy is a cross between Leatherface and Michael Myers, but not merely a copy; he is a haunting entity all of his own.
IMG_1406Furthermore, I think the addition of the Ben Stanley (Adam DiMarco) character really made the story of the film more interesting. Having the childhood crush Ben has on Kylie become a part of the movie gives more depth to characters and it makes things a little different than the typical slasher. Not to say it’s totally new or innovative, it’s simply the fact there is more than girls stripping on camera to watch – we actually have story. This helps to ratchet up the tension in terms of Kylie’s story as well because we see her starting to connect with him, even after he seems rattled slightly by the fact she is a member of GirlHouse. Once their relationship begins, this is also where terror slowly sets in.
IMG_1408IMG_1407For a relatively low budget compared to so many other horror movies out there – just shy over $3-million – I find that GirlHouse uses it so effectively. What I imagine is that most of the budget ended up going to whatever the paid for that house, whether they rented it or whatever, as well as the bit of technology that went into making the film in terms of GirlHouse being rigged up with cameras, and all the other stuff.
In terms of makeup effects there’s not much onscreen blood or gore. That being said, the few intense onscreen kills and gory scenes are well-done. They certainly did not slouch on the effects, regardless of where the bulk of the budget ended up going.
IMG_1409My favourite is when Devon (Alyson Bath) is attacked by Loverboy – the chopped up hands are viciously well-executed. Then the hacksaw cutting scene goes down pretty savage; without happening too explicitly, there’s a gnarly, wicked shot of a bloody head falling to the floor between Loverboy’s legs. These two bits alone are enough horror to satisfy the gore hounds.
IMG_1410 IMG_1411 IMG_1412All in all, I’ve got to give this a 4 out of 5 stars. In terms of slasher horror, I definitely think this is one of the best I’ve seen in the last few years. Honestly. I mean, I could do without the nudity personally; I don’t worry about a little, but even for a movie centred around a house of women streaming stripteases (etc) online there was SO MUCH.
Not every last bit of GirlHouse is perfect, not at all. Some of the acting wasn’t exactly stellar. But most importantly, the main characters – Kylie, Ben, and Loverboy – were handled incredibly well, in my opinion. A slasher movie can get truly awful if the acting is abysmal, something that has happened time and time again over the years. Particularly in lower budget films. Luckily for this one, the actors who matter here all bring their A-game.
If you’re looking for a nasty slasher villain, rough horror kills, and some competent/interesting characters, then I think you can do much worse than GirlHouse. There’s a lot to like, if you give it a chance. Definitely subverted my expectations, even right off the bat with its opening scene. Hopefully others might feel the same.

Why the fear of John Carpenter’s Halloween endures nearly 40 years on

John Carpenter’s Halloween. 1978. Directed by John Carpenter. Screenplay by John Carpenter & Debra Hill.
Starring Donald Pleasence, Jamie Lee Curtis, P.J. Soles and Nancy Loomis. Compass International Pictures. Rated R. 91 minutes. Horror/Thriller.

5 out of 5 stars
John Carpenters HALLOWEEN 1978 v1 Beyond Horror Design
When it comes to movie reviews, more often than not I try to bring something new to what’s being said about a film. Whether I actually succeed or not is another story. But try, try, try, you know?
With John Carpenter’s masterpiece of slasher horror, Halloween, there’s really not much more I can say about it that hasn’t been said. Maybe someone, some day, will come out and say new, innovative things about this classic horror nobody has ever thought of saying. Maybe, though, I doubt it very much. But that’s not to say that we can’t appreciate it. Furthermore, we can continue to appreciate it more and more by hearing how others react to it. That’s honestly one of my favourite things about cinema and the film experience in general: seeing the way other people feel about it. For instance, the way I get scared or creeped out by a movie is not necessarily the same as the next person, or perhaps anyone else. Filmgoing is a unique and personal experience. While some movies thrive off that group experience, ultimately I think most movies you’re going to see have a quality about them which makes you want to look inward, if you think about it hard enough.
A lot of people might look at Halloween and think it’s simply Michael Myers, the mental ill little boy who hacked up his sister on the night that’s meant to be fun and games and candy, stalking down teenagers and killing them in the night, terrorizing the whole fictional town of Haddonfield. Is that all the movie can be? Not at all. There are different reasons people find the movie scary, so what I’d like to do with this review is ignore talking too much about the actual plot, and more so I would like to bring attention to the bits which truly got me, the scariest moments, the best technical pieces, and why I think that Halloween continues to last in our collective horror movie memories as a classic – one that continues to inspire, even 37 years after the fact.
halloween3One of the great bits on the Blu ray is that John Carpenter does an incredibly thorough commentary, which also includes the ever wonderful Debra Hill (R.I.P) and the original Scream Queen herself, Jamie Lee Curtis. We get everything from moments where Hill talks about the budget and how they were able to execute certain scenes, shots, et cetera, to bits with Carpenter where he discusses the music, the cinematography, the script, character, and even a few jabs at the silliness of believing movies and television and games warp our minds; his sly comments are always the best. Carpenter is one of those strong auteurs in the horror genre. He’s made a couple movies I don’t particularly find that great, but honestly he has made so many great pieces of film I can forgive him a DOZEN bad ones (though he only has a couple – nowhere near a dozen). To hear some of his opinions while watching Halloween is truly good stuff.
We also get a window into Carpenter’s mind, in the sense of what he finds creepy, what scares him and how he tries to make his own films scary. The reason I love him so much, and why Halloween is such pure dread at times, is because Carpenter knows exactly how to build up suspense and tension. If you’ve read any of my reviews, which you’ve probably not, you’ll know that suspense and tension is what I find actually builds up a horror to where it ought to be in order to actually, genuinely scare people; without resorting to a ton of jump scares. Another reason I find this movie so creepy and particularly enduring is because it does not go for a bunch of those, instead Carpenter uses the cinematography, the music, and he builds things up slowly. This movie has a dreadful air about it, which makes you feel like anything could happen, at any time.
So many times we watch Michael Myers creep around in the back of shots. There are actually moments that, if you don’t keep an eye on the shot, you could miss Michael in the background. While there are jumpy moments, I think they’re not as jarring as some of the modern horror we see these days, essentially relying solely on sudden movement to spook people. Here, Carpenter makes us jump slightly, however, it’s what happens directly afterwards that makes you get really creeped out.
1280x720-nC3Jamie Lee Curtis, in the commentary, brings up an amazing point I always loved, which everyone has certainly noticed time and time again – when Michael pins Lynda’s (P.J. Soles) boyfriend to the wall and steps back, he tilts his head, as Curtis points out, just like a dog. This is one of the moments you realize Myers is human, but he’s not quite fully human. He has animalistic, primitive qualities, aside from the fact he’s a total mute.

And there are a bunch of moments happening like this. Another excellent scene is when Michael goes back up to the room where Lynda (Soles) is, and he has the blank sheet ghost costume on, with her boyfriend’s glasses over top. Like Carpenter says in his commentary, the scene takes its time to build. We know that it’s The Shape/Michael underneath the sheet, while Lynda does not, and it’s like that old Alfred Hitchcock idea: show them the bomb, then let the audience sweat out the results. As the time goes on, things get more and more tense, until finally Lynda is dispatched by Michael. He picks up the phone and just listens, something I found super creepy. He’s frozen in that primitive child-like stage from when he first committed murder at such a young age. Bits of the Myers character come out from a role that’s played with no spoken words at all. Pretty impressive to me, not sure if that was all scripted or if some of that came out on-set as Carpenter had the cameras rolling.

Once the terror kicks in full gear, I think the most genuinely frightening bit for me is when Jamie Lee Curtis is trapped in the closet, curled up in the corner, and Michael is beating his way in through the folding doors, the light is swinging around and his hand is smashing through – just a genius bit of horror that always gets my heart rate pumping! After Michael goes down a little later, then in the back of a shot as Jamie Lee Curtis tries to regain her composure he rises up and looks over ever-so-slightly, I’m absolutely floored, each time I see it. Creepy as all hell.
halloweenSomething I think that helps Halloween is that Carpenter and Hill, in their script, didn’t go for a teenage bloodbath, as so many of the films which came after it, attempting to emulate its success, ended up doing. In opposition, Carpenter and Hill focused more on building up that suspense, scene after scene, and making the characters feel believable instead of a bunch of young people who nobody cares about and consequently nobody gets too frightened when they’re killed. There’s a tiny bit of blood in this movie, other than that – virtually nothing at all. Every bit of horror we get comes from creepiness that extends out of all that slow building Carpenter goes for with the tracking shots via Steadicam, the quiet bits of Myers lurking in the back of shots, and so on. If Carpenter instead tried to make everything bloody, pumping the gore into each kill, I really think that would’ve taken away from the important aspects which actually frightened me. Blood doesn’t equate to a good horror movie.
extrait_halloween_9Finally, I’ve got to mention the music. I mean – how can you not? The fact John Carpenter is so excellent at writing his own little pieces of score makes him that much more of an auteur. Who doesn’t recognize the iconic Halloween theme? I don’t know if there’s anyone over the age of 25 who doesn’t. Even before I’d actually seen it at twelve-years old, I knew the theme from pop culture. So to think that Carpenter crafted every little piece of this film to his liking, it always strikes me as one of those genuine horror masterpieces. Everything in this movie has Carpenter over it; though many people were involved, his fingerprints and DNA are inside this and you can tell by watching other bits of his work. There’s something amazing about this movie because it’s not simply Halloween – it truly, truly is John Carpenter’s Halloween. Something which will always set it apart from the pack of horror movies out of the 1970s, and even everything after. One of the greatest horror films ever made.
Also cannot forget – to have Donald Pleasence in this film is a true stroke of genius on the part of Carpenter. One of the most iconic rivalries in all of horror is that between Myers and Dr. Loomis. The way Pleasence plays the role is absolutely perfect, I don’t know if anyone else could’ve brought what he does to the part. There’s a craziness to him, but also this cold, sane rationality. May actually be my favourite performance of any horror just because of Pleasence’s performance; the character isn’t even that developed, other than his connection with Myers as psychiatrist, however, Pleasence brings a special something that makes this man feel full, real, and very intriguing. He’s definitely seen a lot, knows even more, not to mention he’s a stark opponent of evil.
screen-shot-2012-10-14-at-7-05-32-pm-2Ultimately, I think what makes Halloween so enduring – almost 40 years now since its release – is the fact that, while it is horror, one of the earlier slashers (not the earliest as some claim but close), John Carpenter crafted a really beautifully filmed, expertly suspenseful piece of work. The character Jamie Lee Curtis plays is also so relatable, with the angle of babysitting and such a quiet, middle-class neighbourhood, and I think it helps lull people into a sense of security like the way in which she sees the world. Then, once Carpenter is done building and building on all of what he calls his “maximum dread”, the finale of film breaks out and brings the terror.
Such incredibly executed techniques on Carpenter’s behalf. Another shot I love is when Jamie Lee Curtis stumbles back into a corner, then we see Myers’ mask slowly appear out of the darkness. SO INCREDIBLY UNSETTLING! Subtle and terrifying all at the same time.
To have a horror film pay attention to the technical elements, to try and go for genuine horror/scares, it makes things worthwhile. There’s nothing worse than seeing too much attention paid to the wrong aspects, in the end rendering a movie useless in the horror department. Instead, Carpenter pulled out all the stops, even on a film that’s budget was only about $300K. He made sure there was tension, like a good helping of Hitchcock mixed in with the stuff of pure nightmares. Added to all that, Carpenter busts out a creepy score that adds an extra dimension of terror.

I can’t express my love for this film enough. The Blu ray is fantastic. I’ve watched it about a dozen or more times; before that, I had the DVD, before that it was VHS. So who knows how many times I’ve seen Halloween, in the end it doesn’t really matter. Dig it, or don’t dig it. I will always tout this as one of the best horrors on film, which it will continue to be until I die.

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.

★★★★1/2
it-follows-poster

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 logic.it-follows-3When 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.

Drop Something on a Walk Down Toad Road

Toad Road. 2012.  Directed & Written by Jason Banker.  Starring James Davidson and Sara Anne Jones.  WTFilms.  Unrated.  76 minutes.  Horror/Thriller.

3.5 out of 5 stars

I didn’t know until recently, but Elijah Wood and his company SpectreVision were the ones to present Toad Road.  They’ve been starting to bring some interesting films to the world including this one, the recent Open WindowsCooties [which I can’t wait for], and my personally most highly anticipated horror of 2014, A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night [which people have been raving about a lot lately – dying to get a chance to see this].
Toad-Road-FRONT-COVERToad Road has been described as being a cross between Kids and The Blair Witch Project.  I’d definitely agree there is an aspect of Harmony Korine in there, not only in the characters but also in the way Banker shot everything.  Aside from that alone, I don’t think I’d really try and draw any parallels between Toad Road and The Blair Witch Project; to my mind, there isn’t anything really paranormal, supernatural, or whatever, going on here.  One of the best descriptions [albeit coming from a negative review] is a contemporary annotated version of Dante Alighieri’s Inferno.  To this, I can draw comparisons absolutely.

The story isn’t anything really challenging, or complex – James [Davidson] is a guy who hangs around with a group of people that get their kicks out of drugs, everything, anything they can get their hands on, but mostly psychedelics.  He then meets a girl named Sara [Jones], who has the false belief she can find herself, find something, in drugs.  While James tries to talk her away from all of this, Sara is unmovable.  She wants to experience more through drugs.  Soon, James drops the name of Toad Road into conversation, telling her drugs are a path similar to that place; an urban legend about a path in the woods behind a mental institution, which goes through the Seven Gates to Hell.  Sara becomes obsessed, believing Toad Road to be a beautiful legend instead of creepy.  Eventually, James and Sara go down Toad Road, as she believes going through the Seven Gates will be some sort of revelation; not the Christian Hell, but something real, and possibly miraculous.  Reluctantly, James goes along with Sara.  Nobody has ever made it past the fifth gate, where time starts to warp, and change.  No one has ever gotten to the sixth or seventh gates, apparently.  She wants to take drugs, and experience Toad Road like some sort of literal path to enlightenment.  Sara says “something attached itself” to her after her experience on mushrooms earlier.
As they wander further through the gates, it’s evident there may be a lot more to the legend of Toad Road than James had ever thought.
Toad Road 5The whole film has a very documentary style feel.  I’m not positive if the people in the movie were taking actual drugs or not.  Regardless, they did a good job of showing what it’s like to be on drugs.
For people who’ve never experienced drugs or the people who have while managing to never really slip into the whole lifestyle, the characters in Toad Road may seem unrealistic, maybe even foolish.  Yes, they’re definitely a bunch of druggies, fairly ridiculous crowd, but for those like myself [luckily I turned my life around – that’s a whole other tale unto itself] who’ve been into that lifestyle, these characters are all too painfully real.

For an indie film, this has a decent little story.  It’s simple yet effective.  The message isn’t particularly anti-drugs or anything, but the plot really does help work against any decision people might make soon about dropping acid and heading out into the woods.
As James and Sara head down Toad Road, The Seven Gates of Hell mirror the plot.  Soon, Sara is missing, and time stretches out much longer than James conceived it to be.  He makes it out of the woods, she is nowhere in sight.  Suddenly, the police, friends, family are looking for her.  They all think James knows something more than he is letting on.  Essentially, The Seven Gates of Hell come to represent the whole lifestyle James and Sara were falling into, and while they went further and further down the road, The Gates took on real meaning in their lives.  They made it all the way down Toad Road.  And they also paid the price.
toad road 3The acting is fairly good, as I mentioned before.  If they were taking drugs for real, it’s certainly a testament to the fact they could still be coherent at times to do any dialogue.  If not, the acting is even better because they really put forth the feeling of being under the influence of hallucinogenic drugs, and the like.  Davidson and Jones carry things nicely, even more so when the plot focuses in solely on them as they begin their journey down Toad Road.

One of my favourite bits concerning the acting was Jones’ voiceover as Sara.  It played over various portions of the film.  Most effectively, Banker used the voiceover narration to really drive home the points where James is really going insane, straight off the deep end, near the film’s finale.  She narrates his spiral downward, as he essentially is recalling her tell him about what happens as you pass through each gate on the way to Hell.  Some really chilling moments, which I enjoyed a lot.  Very quiet, subdued moments coupled with great cinematography, a few beautiful locations.  This really worked.  Jones’ voice is beautiful and kind of guides us down Toad Road in a way.  Spooky stuff.
I think the real problem with Toad Road overall as a film is that even though there are things happening, a lot of time gets chewed up almost feeling like a documentary about a bunch of drug addicts.  Though there are some good moments, and certainly scenes which add to characters of both James and Sara, the pacing starts to really drag in several spots.
toad-road-3I also think the finale of the film is a bit hindered by the fact there’s no real huge climax.  It almost feels as if there should’ve been more additional scenes involving the aftershock of Sara’s disappearance – it seems like the police went really soft on James.  Although we see a few scenes where James is being interrogated, I feel like those were the scenes which ultimately lacked sincerity.  We get a lot of reality, documentary style moments in the early half of Toad Road, but once it starts to shift into a more mystery/thriller genre for the last half [which could have worked wonderfully] it lacks the composition of a real drama.

The switch from the reality-based portion of the beginning to a forced dramatic and thrilling angle didn’t work.  I didn’t particularly think the cop interrogating James was really great either.  Not terrible, just not great.  It didn’t feel as if those bits matched up to the rest of the film.  Even the closing moments of the finale, those worked very well with the atmosphere and tone built up by the first half of the film.  I just think they would’ve benefited by either giving the cops more screentime and making it feel as reality driven as the earlier scenes, or just cut out those parts; they could’ve just as easily focused mainly on James trying to evade police, talking to his friends [bits of which they did include], and then went with the finale they’d chosen.  Instead, the parts with the cops really throw off the balance, and make the last quarter of the film a bit sloppy.
Toad Road 1Though there are some flaws here, I think Toad Road is a pretty decent horror outing.  Certainly for an independent horror film.  There’s a lot of visual flair here, and you can tell Banker has an eye for beauty in horror.  That being said, I did have a problem with some pacing issues here, and if they could be ironed out I think this would be an even better film.  I still loved it.  Once the credits start rolling [with an appropriate dedication to one of the film’s stars, Sara Anne Jones, who died of a drug overdose just as Toad Road started screening in different places], there’s a haunting little song to go along.  It really all works.  Toad Road stuck with me for days and days after I first saw it.  You can get it on DVD now I believe, as well as through Amazon and other VOD options.  I had to come back to it after seeing it a long while ago when I got the chance, and while there were small bits I felt held it back, overall Toad Road is good, and definitely a lot better than the hordes of low budget horror out there tackling the same zombies and vampires and masked killers as the hundreds which came before them.  This film at least aims the bar higher.  I hope to see more from Jason Banker, and look forward to his upcoming Felt, which recently found distribution.

Get yourself a copy of Toad Road.  Even if you’re divided after watching, it’s hard not to admit the film has a certain charm to it, and a creepy, haunting quality.