THE HAUNTING (1963) revisited

January 30, 2021

*** This is an entry into my “Revisited” series where I re-watch a classic movie and then write about it – not with a traditional review, but rather a general discussion of the movie, those involved with it, and its impact or influence.

 Greetings again from the darkness. Long ago, filmmakers figured out how to have fun with ‘things that go bump in the night’. Of course some do it better than others, and how scary or creepy you find a movie will depend on your personal phobias and preferences. For a combination of haunted house, ghost story, and psychological thriller, few are better than this 1963 gem from director Robert Wise. I’ve strategically planned this after the recent success of two limited series from Netflix: “The Haunting of Hill House” (2018) and “The Haunting of Bly Manor” (2020). Although the two series were marketed as being related, in fact only the 2018 series was based on the 1959 novel from Shirley Jackson … the same as Wise’s 1963 film.

The story begins with Dr. John Markway (Richard Johnson) being contracted to conduct a scientific study of psychic phenomena and paranormal activity in the now vacant Hill House mansion that has a 90 year history of strange and tragic endings for its past inhabitants. He will be joined by two hand-picked volunteers, Eleanor Lance (Julie Harris) and Theodora (Claire Bloom), as well as Luke Sanderson (Russ Tamblyn), the young man who stands to inherit Hill House. Eleanor has a history of paranormal connection (as a child) and Theo is a clairvoyant with ESP tendencies. Luke is mostly an obnoxious rich kid hoping to cash in on his inheritance.

We get an early introduction to Eleanor’s home life, and in those days she would likely have been labeled a spinster. She has spent many years taking care of her recently deceased mother, and is now out of step with reality … and burdened with guilt from her sister, who not only treats her like a child, but also blames Eleanor for their mother’s death. Being selected for the Hill House research is a dream come true for her – a chance to do something for herself. Her arrival at the gates of the manor provide a glimpse of just how important this is to her. She refuses to heed the caretaker’s (Valentine Dyall) warning, and demands to be allowed in.

Our first view of Hill House is seen through Eleanor’s eyes and we hear her inner voice acknowledge the feeling of having the house “watch her” as she drives up. The exterior shots of the neo-Gothic mansion are truly awe-inspiring and intimidating. She is greeted at the door by the other caretaker (Rosalie Crutchley), who takes socially awkward to a new level with her zombie-like warnings of the night and the dark. Soon the others arrive, and the initial conversations allow us to understand the differing personalities and get our first look at the interior of Hill House.

The initial set-up is for a scientific, first hand analysis of supernatural occurrences inside the house … all led, of course, by Dr. Markham. Sexual tension plays a role here as Eleanor is attracted to Dr. Markham, who conveniently has not mentioned that he’s married. Simultaneously, Theodora teases and flirts with Eleanor, while only admitting to not being married, yet still cohabiting as an “us”. What is abundantly clear from the beginning is that Hill House itself is a featured character. Director Wise and cinematographer Davis Boulton utilize creative camera angles and specialized lighting, and capture the essence of the home through terrific set design. In a rare case for horror movies, very few special effects are present outside of sounds; although the spiral staircase in the library and the heaving wooden doors are quite memorable.

Director Robert Wise was a 4 time Oscar winner (THE SOUND OF MUSIC, 1965, WEST SIDE STORY, 1961) and was also Orson Welles’ film editor on CITIZEN KANE (1941). Wise directed such diverse films as STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE (1979); the sci-fi classic THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL (1951); SOMEBODY UP THERE LIKES ME (1956), which turned Paul Newman into a star; RUN SILENT RUN DEEP (1959) a submarine movie starring Clark Gable and Burt Lancaster; THE SAND PEBBLES (1966), which was Steve McQueen’s only Oscar nomination; and another horror gem AUDREY ROSE (1977). Well-liked by actors and respected in the industry, Mr. Wise died in 2005 at age 91.

Screenwriter Nelson Gidding and director Wise both previously received their first Oscar nominations for I WANT TO LIVE (1958), and were frequent collaborators, including: ODDS AGAINST TOMORROW (1959), THE ANDROMEDA STRAIN (1971, adapted from Michael Crichton’s novel), and THE HINDENBURG (1975). Gidding adapted Shirley Jackson’s tremendous novel, “The Haunting of Hill House”, with some variations that turned it into more of a psychological cinematic experience. Mr. Gidding passed away in 2004 at age 84.

 Julie Harris received her Oscar nomination for EAST OF EDEN (1955), where many fell in love with her as Abra, the girl torn between two brothers, one of which was played by Oscar nominee James Dean in his star-making turn. Ms. Harris’ career spanned seven decades (1948-2009), and, as a 5-time Tony winner, she remains one of the most honored and respected stage performers of all-time. Much of her later career was on stage and television, including a long run on “Knot’s Landing”. She passed away in 2013 at age 87.

Claire Bloom, who plays Theodora, is still alive today and turns 90 the day after Valentine’s Day 2021. He acting career has spanned eight decades (1948-2019), and one more gig will get her to a remarkable nine! Never one to shy away from controversy, Ms. Bloom shines here as the lesbian with ESP, and she is also a renowned stage actress recognized for her Shakespearian work. She had marriages to Oscar winning actor Rod Steiger and Pulitzer Prize winning author Phillip Roth, and many will recall her role as Queen Mary in THE KING’S SPEECH (2010).

The two male leads in the film were played by Richard Johnson and Russ Tamblyn. Mr. Johnson is known as the actor who turned down the role of James Bond in 1962, setting the stage for Sean Connery’s historic run. Johnson was briefly married to Kim Novak (VERTIGO, 1958), and his career lasted seven decades (1950-2015), and he remained working until his death in 2015 at age 87.  Mr. Tamblyn was coming off his role as Jets’ leader Riff in Robert Wise’s WEST SIDE STORY (1961), and he had earlier appeared in SEVEN BRIDES FOR SEVEN BROTHERS (1954). He was Oscar nominated for his role in PEYTON PLACE (1957), and during his 8 decade career (1948-2018), he appeared in 6 movies that were Oscar nominated for Best Picture. He is 86 years old and recently appeared in the 2018 limited series “The Haunting of Hill House”. He is the father of actor Amber Tamblyn.

For fans of James Bond movies, you’ll be pleased to see Lois Maxwell appear in this film as Dr. Markway’s wife. Of course, Ms. Maxwell is known to fans as Miss Moneypenny in 14 James Bond movies, second only to Desmond Llewelyn’s 17 appearances as Q. She passed away in 2007 at age 80.

 In the movie, Hill House is described as a 90 year old New England house with a history of psychic phenomena. However, the exterior shots are actually of a neo-Gothic mansion (hotel) in Ettington Park near Stratford-Upon-Avon. It’s an active hotel with a history tracks back to the 11th century. The interior shots were conducted on a UK studio set. In 1999 director Jan De Bont (SPEED, 1994) delivered a second adaptation (not a remake) of Jackson’s novel, starring Liam Neeson and Catherine Zeta Jones. A different house was used for Hill House.

Wise’s film is now nearly 60 years old, and it holds up today thanks to the house, the performances, the direction, and the decision to create a psychological thriller and character study. The power of suggestion is key, yet it never loses the core of being a haunted house story … a house that seems to want Eleanor (note the parallels to the origin story of Abigail told in one of the early scenes). There have been debates about whether that initial set-up takes too long, or if more attention should have been paid to why the house is drawn to Eleanor (and vice versa), but overall, it holds up very well as classic horror. On a separate note, no one could accuse the film of being cursed, as most everyone associated, enjoyed a long a fruitful career and life … even the house!

WATCH THE TRAILER

 


GRIZZLY II: REVENGE (1983/2021)

January 6, 2021

 Greetings again from the darkness. The slate of movies I review each year leans heavily towards serious and dramatic material, but is there anything more serious than an 18 foot tall grizzly bear seeking revenge for the poaching of her cubs? And is there a better springboard to success for actors than the sequel to a cheesy land-based riff on JAWS? OK, I sense your skepticism. What if I told you that sequel featured three Oscar winners, and the original was one of the most profitable ROI films of the year? Starting to come around, aren’t you?

Well, before you get overly excited in anticipation of this film’s release, please allow me to explain … or come clean. This 1983 film has its own special place in cult film lore. Some even doubted its existence (or at least the actual title). But now, after all these years and rumors, the legend comes to life, and has not only been “completed”, but is getting a semblance of release. If you love schlock horror where nature-goes-awry, with the added bonus of ‘spot the actor’ (now almost 40 years older), then there is the possibility you are worthy of watching this … this … abomination (meant here as a term of endearment).

You should know that there are very few sightings of the enormous grizzly bear; although we do get an opening sequence with some quality camera work featuring grizzlies in the wild. Even though we don’t see much of the titular beast, she does dominate the story. The earliest sequence features three young campers ignoring bear warning signs. These three campers are why we are all here. A pre-“E/R” George Clooney (21 years old) sports a denim vest before climbing in a sleeping bag with a partially clothed 16 year old Laura Dern, who has somehow managed to complete the hike wearing sandals and whining the entire time. The third wheel is played by a 17 year old with hair hanging in his eyes and acne on his face. You’ll recognize him as Charlie Sheen, although here he looks very much like brother Emilio. If you show up for this trio, hold off on the potty break, because there’s an angry grizzly lurking.

There are other pieces to the story … and I use ‘pieces’ in a manner similar to what one sees in an intersection after a couple of cars collide. A group of drunk poachers roam the woods looking to collect grizzly gall bladders, which evidently have value on the black market. The Park Rangers are preparing for an upcoming rock concert where 100,000 attendees are expected. A concert promoter played by Louise Fletcher (an Oscar winner as Nurse Ratched in ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST, 1975) bullies the newest Park Ranger played by Steve Inwood (who also appeared in STAYING ALIVE that same year, reaching world class clunker status twice in 1983) into “the show must go on” despite the grizzly killings.

This was director Andre Szots’ second and final feature film as a director, though he did have a career as a producer. The husband and wife writing team of David Sheldon and Joan McCall ‘crafted’ the screenplay. He was also a co-writer on the original GRIZZLY (1976), while she appeared on screen in it. Continuing our game of ‘spot the actor’, we can’t help but notice Deborah Foreman as the lead Ranger’s wide-eyed daughter. Ms. Foreman was a very popular actor in the 1980’s, including a starring role in VALLEY GIRL (1983). Unfortunately her career never hit the heights many predicted, although she does have one of the best lines in this film when she proudly states her skill at working a phone – both dial and push-button! Fans of either the “Lord of the Rings” or “Indiana Jones” franchises will surely get a kick out of John Rhys-Davies as a lumberjack-American Indian, who is renowned for his expertise in hunting “the devil bear”. Other familiar faces include a young Timothy Spall (MR TURNER), Deborah Raffin (rumored to be the second choice for Sandy in GREASE), Ian McNiece (ACE VENTURA: WHEN NATURE CALLS, 1995), Dick Anthony Williams (a hard-working actor from the 1970’s until his death in 2012), Jack Starratt (actor in FIRST BLOOD, 1982, director of RACE WITH THE DEVIL, 1975), and Charles Cyphers, who played the Indians’ General Manager in MAJOR LEAGUE (1989).

The joy in seeing these folks in one place is compromised (to say the least) by the horrendous 1980’s pop music being performed by those on stage attired in just about any outrageous 80’s fashion you can recall. Initially comical, the musical acts quickly evolve into something stomach-churning to watch. The kindest description of the production quality is “low-budget”, but there is simply no term for the effects. A Darth Vader breathing sound is heard when the grizzly is near, a speeding Ranger jeep on a dirt path is used to create suspense (the same shot is used multiple times), the day-night inconsistencies could be their own drinking game, and fireworks and a forklift prove to be a bad mix with our grizzly. Finally, for reasons we never really understand, a US Senator is a guest at the concert, and these days a Senator would likely be considered a greater threat than an 18 foot grizzly. You’ve heard the adage, “so bad it’s good”, well this one is simply so bad it’s bad. William Girdler directed the original GRIZZLY in 1976, and he tragically died at age 30, just two years later.

Available On Demand January 8, 2021

watch the trailer

 


HUNTER HUNTER (2020)

December 19, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. The initial assumption is that this is a story of a lone wolf stalking a family. Early on, it shifts into the story of Joseph Mersault, a throwback trapper teaching his 13 year old daughter how to survive off the land. Yet, what writer-director Shawn Linden ultimately delivers is the story of Joseph’s wife, Anne, who combats not only the wolf, but something even worse.

Joseph (Devon Sawa) is one grumpy dude. He’s no fan of society or people, and the only pleasures he seems to find in life are living in an isolated cabin and teaching his daughter Renee (Summer H Howell) how to do the same. They are joined in this quiet and very hard life by wife and mother, Anne (Camille Sullivan). Anne dutifully carries out her chores, but dreams of a more normal life for herself and her daughter. The family barters animal skins for food and supplies and live mostly off the grid – and we later learn there are complications to even something as simple as their cabin.

The forests of Manitoba provide what the family needs, but just barely. Winter is approaching and now a wolf is stealing from their traps, leaving them short of food. This wolf has previously stalked the family, and Joseph aims to hunt him down. The camera work in the forest is terrific – giving us the visual beauty, as well as the constant danger. And in this story, danger and traps take on many forms, including the secrets folks keep from each other.

The wolf only makes a couple of appearances, yet the threat is always present. There is a terrific sequence that cuts between Joseph, Anne, and Renee, as each are in different areas of the forest at the same time. Each of the situations is tension-filled and our minds are bouncing around as much as the characters. Other characters enter the story, including a couple of Rangers who are unprepared for what they are about to face, and another character (Nick Stahl) who shifts the entire dynamic of the film.

Director Linden gives us a survival thriller, one that probably best compares to LEAVE NO TRACE. This one is also a psychological study of just what a person is capable of when pushed to the limit. Anne’s story is about her ability to navigate this world while raising a daughter. The final sequence leads to extreme violence, and acts as her emotional release every bit as much as rage and revenge.

VOD beginning December 18, 2020

watch the trailer

 


COME PLAY (2020)

October 28, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. Hopes are always high this time of year for a creative new horror film. As each Halloween approaches, we search for new movies that will frighten us in an entertaining way, or at least be creepy enough to make us sleep with the lights on! Looking to be this year’s horror breakout, writer-director Jacob Chase has expanded his own 2017 5-minute short film LARRY into a full-length feature film.

Azhy Robertson (the young son in Noah Baumbach’s Oscar nominated MARRIAGE STORY, 2019) stars as Oliver, a dead-ringer for Danny Torrance in THE SHINING (1980). Oliver is an autistic, non-verbal boy who has no friends and depends on his electronic devices to communicate and entertain (he loves “SpongeBob SquarePants”). His parents, Sarah (Gillian Jacobs, “Community”) and Marty (John Gallagher Jr, SHORT TERM 12, 2013) constantly argue, which exacerbates Oliver’s hyper-sensitivity. When Dad moves out, an overwhelmed mother does her best to follow the advice of Oliver’s therapist. What she doesn’t know initially is that some being or creature named Larry is tracking her son through an online story called “Misunderstood Monsters” that pops up on his mobile devices.

Larry just wants a friend.” As the story slowly unfolds on the tablet Oliver’s dad found in the lost & found in the parking lot booth where he works, we come to understand exactly what is happening, and who and what Larry really is. The theme has some similarities to Jennifer Kent’s excellent film, THE BABADOOK (2014), with a dose of THE RING (2002), but the suspense never builds to that level despite a nice performance from young Mr. Robertson.

A clever twist actually ends up lessening the fright factor here. The monster can (mostly) only be seen via the mobile devices, which means the visuals are often limited by the size of the screen, although I’m a fan of the practical effects. Because of this, sound effects are critical, as are the reactions of Oliver and his parents … as well as the classmates unfortunate enough to get volunteered for a sleepover.

It seems only fitting that in 2020, loneliness is the real monster, and technology is the conduit for its impact. Additionally, all parents will relate to the extremes Sarah and Marty go to protect Oliver, and the final scene does offer an all-knowing moment that reverts to a simpler time … one that Larry wouldn’t appreciate.

watch the trailer


RENT-A-PAL (2020)

September 10, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. “Everybody loves somebody sometime.” So sang the great Dean Martin. But what about the exception that proves the rule? Writer-director Jon Stevenson (in his directorial debut) offers up David, a 40 year old lonely heart, who is a full time caregiver for his dementia-afflicted mother. In between cleaning up after his mother and spoon-feeding her meals, David dreams of finding a soul mate.

Brian Landis Folkins stars as David, and he delivers a terrific performance in one of the strangest roles of the year. He manages to make David a guy we care about, despite his being … well … not the most exciting or charismatic dude you’ve met. Does it help that he doesn’t have a job and lives on his mother’s social security? No?  How about the fact that he lives in her basement? Still not impressed? Well, the film takes place around 1990, and David is a member of Video Rendezvous, a VHS dating service – the Match.com of 30 years ago. Getting hopeful for David?  Well you should know he has had zero matches. Poor guy.

One of Mr. Folkins best scenes occurs when we see him filming his personal video for the dating service. Well, it’s his re-do … and then a re-do of his re-do. That’s pretty much how David’s life goes. Later, while rummaging through the VHS tapes bargain bin, he stumbles upon one titled “Rent-A-Pal”. At home, he pops it into the VCR and just like that – Andy (played by Wil Wheaton, STAND BY ME) appears on screen, and over a few days, David and Andy form an odd bond – maybe the strongest bond you’ve seen between a person and a character on screen talking directly to the camera/person watching. Andy is chummy and charismatic, and also a bit creepy. In fact, some of this reminded me of the Mark Duplass movie CREEP.

We witness David deal with the disappointment of each day. He finds some joy when his mother (Kathleen Brady) is reciting Cary Grant’s dialogue in HIS GIRL FRIDAY, and suddenly things look up when he has a match with Lisa (Amy Rutledge). Their first date is at Skate Land, and features the awkward chemistry of two lonely hearts, rather than one. They seem to like each other, though it may just be they are each excited to be noticed by anyone.

Since the film is billed as a thriller, we know things will go sideways at some point. However, even if you figure out where it’s headed, the path it takes may catch you off guard. As the bond between David and Andy crumbles, we witness David’s descent into madness. Whereas his connection to Lisa should have made his life better, his extended loneliness has pushed him to the brink, and he struggles to distinguish between fantasy and reality. The final 10-15 minutes turn very dark (and feel a bit rushed), and are kinda sad to watch. Director Stevenson has ensured a bleak feeling through most of the film with a washed out color palette. The only signs of brightness are the Skate Land sign, the receptionist’s jacket, and Andy’s glowing face on the TV. The performances are fun to watch, and Stevenson’s debut is a keeper. “So long, Pal.”

IFC will release this in select theaters and On Demand September 11, 2020

watch the trailer:


CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON (1954) revisited

July 26, 2020

Greetings again from the darkness. This is another addition to my “revisited” series where I re-watch and then write about a classic movie. Why are “creature features” so appealing, and why was Universal so good at producing these movies that mesmerized me during childhood (and yes, still to this day)? The Universal Monsters of the 1930’s and 1940’s included such classics as Dracula, Frankenstein, The Mummy, The Wolf Man, The Invisible Man, and The Phantom of the Opera. Many cinematic iterations of these characters/creatures exist including sequels, remakes and contemporary re-boots, and there is something magical about the mystique and legend and lore behind each of the monsters. By the 1950’s, Universal was looking to revive the genre.

William Alland is credited with the idea for CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON. It’s a twist on the 1740 fantasy classic “Beauty and the Beast” from French novelist Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve. Mr. Alland is the film’s Producer, and years earlier he played reporter Jerry Thompson in Orson Welles’ CITIZEN KANE (1941). Maurice Zimm is credited with the story, and the screenplay was co-written by Harry Essex (IT CAME FROM OUTER SPACE, a Ray Bradbury story) and Arthur A Ross (an Oscar winner for BRUBAKER, 1980).

Quite similar to KING KONG, the story from Edgar Wallace and Merian Cooper, this movie follows a scientific expedition down the Amazon River where a prehistoric “Gill-man” (half man, half amphibian) is discovered and captured. The creature seems enraptured by Kay, the fiancé of one of the scientists – much like Kong was drawn to Ann Darrow. There is the expected battle between science and commerce: the value of marine life research vs the chance to make a pot of money. The feuding scientists also have to remain focused on the ongoing concern for the safety of those on the expedition … especially Kay.

Jack Arnold is remembered today as one of the great sci-fi movie directors of the 50’s. His work included THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN (1957), IT CAME FROM OUTER SPACE (1953) TARANTULA (1955), and the excellent Audie Murphy western NO NAME ON THE BULLET (1959). He also directed many episodes of some of the top TV shows of the1950’s, 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s. For this one, he deserves a great deal of credit for generating sympathy for the creature, by positioning him, not as the villain, but rather as the victim of a home invasion by the humans. Director Arnold also does a nice job early on of teasing us with footprints and fossils, and letting us hear about the legend, prior to actually seeing the creature.

 For a movie that spends most of its time on a small boat named Rita, the cast is deep and talented. Richard Carlson (LITTLE FOXES, 1941) plays David Reed, the scientist engaged to Kay. Mr. Carlson dreamed of being a playwright, and had many guest starring roles on TV; however, “I Led 3 Lives” was his only starring role in a successful series. It was reportedly Lee Harvey Oswald’s favorite show. Co-starring here was Julie Adams (billed as Julia at the time) as Kay Lawrence, personal favorite of both David and creature. In the film she is stalked by the creature, even while she’s out for a leisurely swim in the Amazon (not recommended). Ms. Adams was a favorite on the cult movie circuit, and she died in 2019 at age 92. Having been crowned Miss Little Rock at age 19, she acted regularly into her 80’s, and even had a role at age 91, the year before she passed.

Richard Denning plays Mark Williams, the money man behind the expedition, and David’s boss and nemesis. He’s the one who sees dollar signs while capturing the creature. Mr. Denning served on a submarine in the US Navy during WWII. He starred with Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr in AN AFFAIR TO REMEMBER (1957), and then in the late 1960’s took an acting job as Governor on the original “Hawaii Five-0”, since he already lived in Hawaii. Mr. Denning’s wife, actress Evelyn Ankers, was known as “Queen of the Screamers” for her work as damsel in distress in many thrillers in the 1940’s (Wolfman, Frankenstein, Dracula movies).

Other cast members include familiar face Whit Bissell as Dr. Thompson. Mr. Bissell was a frequently working character actor from 1940 -1984 in TV and movies. He had over 300 credits, including I WAS A TEENAGE WEREWOLF (1958) with Michael Landon. Nestor Paiva plays Lucas, the Captain of the Rita, as a kind of Walter Brennan type. Mr. Paiva also appeared in more than 300 projects, and his wife was once employed as personal secretary to Howard Hughes. Antonio Moreno plays Carl Maia. Mr. Moreno had a huge career from 1912 to 1959, and was a rival of Rudolph Valentino for many “Latin lover” roles. The film’s narrator, Art Gilmore, became known for his narration and voice acting in shows such as “Dragnet”, “The Waltons”, “Adam-12”, “The Red Skelton Hour”, “The Roy Rogers Show”, and many more.

Of course everyone who watches the movie wants to know more about the creature. Well, two actors were involved. Ben Chapman, who was a Marine during the Korean War, played the creature on land, while Ricou Browning played the Gill-man we see in the water. Mr. Browning was also the co-creator of the popular TV series “Flipper” (1964-67), and directed the iconic underwater scenes in the James Bond classic THUNDERBALL (1965). Also involved here were a young Henry Mancini as uncredited composer and cinematographer William E Snyder. Mr. Mancini was a 4 time Oscar winner best known for his iconic “Pink Panther” theme, and Mr. Snyder achieved 3 Oscar nominations

 Director Arnold insisted on shooting the film in 3-D, despite its low budget, and over the years, it became quite a cult classic (with its’ own festivals). There is even a scandal associated with the film. For many years, Hollywood make-up legend Bud Westmore took credit for the design of the creature. It took more than 50 years, but Mallory O’Meara’s book, “The Lady from the Black Lagoon: Hollywood Monsters and the Lost Legacy of Millicent Patrick”, finally allowed Ms. Patrick (pictured, left) to receive due credit for her design work. Sequels to the film included: REVENGE OF THE CREATURE (1955), and THE CREATURE WALKS AMONG US (1956), but it was perhaps director Guillermo del Toro’s stunning THE SHAPE OF WATER (2017) winning the Oscar for Best Picture, that brought CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON back into prominence. This allowed a new generation of movie lovers to behold the classic sequence of the creature’s synchronized swimming just below Kay in the murky Amazon water. What a sight!

watch the original trailer:


AMULET (2020)

July 24, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. Horror films tend to serve up relatively simple plot points so that viewers are controlled by emotions rather than deep thinking. The exceptions typically use multiple story lines and atmosphere to build up suspense that often ends with a twist or surprise ending. You might recognize Ramola Garai as an actress from SUFFRAGETTE (2015) or the TV series “The Hour”, and this is her first feature film as writer-director. She definitely chose the latter plot path, and the result is likely a film that will be divisive amongst the horror crowd.

Tomaz (Alec Secereanu, GOD’S OWN COUNTRY) is a former soldier with such a horrid case of PTSD that he must bind his own hands when he sleeps. He’s now homeless and adrift, merely surviving day-to-day. We see flashbacks to his time as a soldier working a checkpoint deep in the forest. The war is never identified, but one day he decides to help a frantic woman (Angelika Papoulia) rather than shoot her (as we assume his orders dictate). This story and their time together pop up periodically through the movie to the point where we start to believe we have an understanding of Tomaz’s background.

While squatting with other homeless folks, the building where they sleep catches fire, and soon after Tomaz is taken in by Sister Claire (Imelda Staunton), a caring nun who gives him a purpose – helping out a woman who is dealing with a sick, elderly mother. Magda (Carla Juri, BLADE RUNNER 2049 seems withdrawn and initially not particularly happy that Tomaz is living in her house. And, oh my, that house. Dilapidated is too kind as a description. So in addition to a bed, and Magda’s cooking, Tomaz begins repairing the house. And while you may have your own renovation stories to tell, did you ever pull an albino bat out of the toilet? Tomaz has.

Magda does not allow Tomaz to see her mother. He (and we) only hear the confrontations and see the bite marks on Magda’s arms. Clearly something is amiss. The flashbacks to Tomaz as a soldier with Miriam make for a stark contrast between the forest and Magda’s creepy house. It’s in the forest where Tomaz finds the titular amulet buried. If you’ve always thought of an amulet as a good luck charm, your definition will likely change.

It’s interesting to watch the shifts in the relationship between Tomaz and Magda, culminating with a night out dancing, where she reminds us a bit of Elaine Benis at the company party … although Magda’s is a pure emotional release, rather than a comedic effect. As you might expect, the film is at its best when Imelda Staunton is on screen. Unfortunately, these moments are too rare. The “old school” gothic graphics for the opening credits do make for a terrific stage-setter. While Magda’s locked-away mother provides some mystery, the tension of the story never really matches the creepy atmosphere of the house. Ms. Garai includes some excellent moments of horror images, but the deliberately slow pace doesn’t deliver a satisfying payoff.

Available OnDemand July 24, 2020

watch the trailer:


RELIC (2020)

July 10, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. Anyone who has a friend or relative afflicted with dementia knows it’s often like living in a real life horror film. It’s frustrating and claustrophobic and guilt-inducing and above all, frightening. The first feature film from director Natalie Erika James deals with dementia, amongst other topics, in the guise of a horror film. Is it a haunted house movie? Is it a demonic presence movie? Well, yes to both. The script from Ms. James and Christian White blends multiple familiar aspects of horror films into something that ends up quite original.

“Ends up” is the key, because the first two-thirds of the story moves slower than a glacier in the middle of winter. Don’t get me wrong, the film looks great – the house and the atmosphere are ultra-creepy. It’s just that almost nothing happens during that span, and that’s an eternity for set up. Kay (Emily Mortimer) receives a call that a neighbor hasn’t seen her mother in a while. Kay and her 20ish daughter Sam (Bella Heathcote, PRIDE AND PREJUDICE AND ZOMBIES, 2016) take the drive over the hills and through the woods to grandmother’s house. Their initial measured walk-thru of the house tells them (and us) much. Post-it notes are stuck everywhere, including one that says “Don’t follow it”. Spoiled fruit on the counter, a favorite chair moved, and food for a pet long ago passed, are all indicators that something is off. If that’s not enough, the house that grandma is missing from has mold on the walls and ceiling, and strange locks on doors.

After an unsuccessful search party through the nearby woods, Grandma Edna (Robyn Nevin) reappears with no recollection of where she’s been. Of course, this doesn’t really improve things for anyone. We sense that workaholic Kay and her mother have never really been close, and the same can be said for Kay and Sam. Generational disconnect is on display. And poor Edna has lost her husband, her pet dog, and most of her essence … except for the few moments when she snaps back to lucidity.

Dread and impending doom dominate every scene for the first hour. Kay has dreams of an old cabin from her past, and Edna has an unexplained bruise on her chest.  The stained glass window on the front door is a key, and the sounds coming from the walls are unable to be tracked down. As disoriented as Edna is, the house itself has that impact on us and Sam. Is it the house that’s haunted, or the characters?

The cinematography from Charlie Sarroff plays well off the stillness and unknown, and the sound design and music (Brian Reitzell) work hand-in-hand in establishing the creepy atmosphere. The three actresses are superb, and I especially enjoyed Ms. Nevin and her piercing eyes, as she is known mostly for her live theatre work (and also as Councillor Dillard in The Matrix movies). For her first feature, Ms. James has delivered a high-concept Australian horror/suspense film with a very original (and weird) ending. Others may be a bit higher on the film, but we likely all agree that Ms. James is an intriguing filmmaker.

IFC Films will have this available VOD beginning July 10, 2020

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BECKY (2020)

June 6, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. Actress Lulu Wilson is not yet 15 years old (13 when filming this one), and yet her resume is already quite impressive, featuring roles in such high profile projects as “The Haunting of Hill House” (2018), “Sharp Objects” (2018), and ANNABELLE: CREATION (2017). She’s clearly on the path to stardom, so seizing the lead role in a low budget ultra-violent home invasion flick provides her some fun and shows off her range.

If you are going to have a young teenage girl go full ‘Rambo’, you might as well have her facing off against some neo-Nazi escaped convicts. You might question the casting of Kevin James as the gang leader – a dead-eyed hulk with shaved head, long beard, and swastika tattoos (on his scalp). James typically plays a funny schlub like Paul Blart or a loveable simpleton like his character on “The King of Queens.” Not this time. His Dominick is relentless and lacking all compassion in his quest for the key – a key that we never really learn the purpose of or the reason it’s hidden where it is.

Co-directors and Design School buddies Jonathan Milott and Cary Murnion bookend the story with scenes of Becky being interrogated by the Sheriff after all the audacious events. So we know going in that Becky will survive – we just don’t know about the others. Some fancy editing trickery has us bouncing between Becky at school and Dominick in the prison yard. The escape of he and his three buddies is chronicled alongside Becky’s dad (Joel McHale, “Community”) taking her and their two dogs to the family lake house. She’s happy until Kayla (Amanda Brugel, “The Handmaid’s Tale) and her young son Ty (Isiah Rockcliffe) pull up.

Becky is still grieving her beloved mother who died of cancer. We see flashbacks of their final days together. Becky is not ready for her dad to re-marry, and when she envisions the merged family, she bolts from the dinner table into the woods. Soon after Dominick and his boys knock on the door and take everyone else hostage. Becky dons what appears to be a knitted chipmunk cap (it’s her nickname), and arms herself for battle. It doesn’t take long for us to see that this is a rare, ultra-violent gore-fest featuring a rampaging teenage girl. One might compare to Kevin in HOME ALONE, but it’s more similar in tone to READY OR NOT (2019) and THE HUNT (2020).

The script was written by Nick Morris and the husband and wife team of Ruckus Skye and Lane Skye. While there are some memorable moments, we do find ourselves wishing that the film veered a bit more in one direction – either more ominous or more tongue-in-cheek/outlandish. Perhaps a bit of background on Dominick, or some prep work on how Becky turns so quickly from angry teenager to murderous psychotic with an instinct for violence and mayhem. Dominick admits “Becky is a little more than we bargained for”, and she’s probably a bit more than we can accept.

Still, the scenes between Kevin James and Lulu Wilson are enough to keep us watching, and the cinematography from Greta Zozula (the excellent LIGHT FROM LIGHT, 2019) delivers the visuals to keep us cringing. For those who enjoy violence and gore served in bulk, you’ll likely be satisfied.

Now available on RedBox OnDemand

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THE HUNT (2020)

March 12, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. Let’s face it. It was a brilliant marketing strategy. In the wake of mass shootings, the release date of this film was delayed when its subject matter was deemed controversial, even scandalous The film’s new marketing slogan became, “The most talked about movie of the year is one that no one’s actually seen.” Of course, it wasn’t really true, as very few were actually talking about it. But that’s what made it genius marketing … they created interest amidst controversy that has since proven unnecessary. Director Craig Zobel (Z FOR ZACHARIAH, 2015) has delivered the least controversial, non-polarizing film of the year. It basically laughs at extremes on the left and right, and reminds us how laughing at something can often take away its power. And regardless of your “side”, you’ll find some laughs here.

If you’ve seen the trailer, you know that the premise has a group of liberal elites hunting a hand-selected group of social media-active MAGA deplorables. It’s a twist on Richard Connell’s 1924 short story “The Most Dangerous Game”, although the modern day rich aren’t hunting for sport, but rather for political affiliation – gun lovers and climate change deniers. That may sound politically charged, but in fact, it plays as more comedy than comeuppance. Sure, the violence is over-the-top and often quite graphic, but this is a skewering of both red and blue.

Preventing the project from falling into B-movie muck is a standout performance from Betty Gilpin (“Glow”) as Crystal. She’s a Rambo-type who speaks (with a southern drawl) only when necessary, and seems to have learned a lot while serving in Afghanistan. Most of the time she looks like she has “a pinch between her cheek and gum” (a tip of the Stetson to Walt Garrison), and she also hums to herself and tosses down some unusual facial expressions. This is a seriously oddball performance that is the film’s highlight.

One of the best sequences of the film comes quite early as the dozen or so ‘deplorables’ slowly wake-up and find themselves gagged in a field. A container of weapons leads to an early massacre that allows the filmmaker to tease us with numerous familiar faces taking turns as the heir-apparent lead. Some of the faces that pop up include Ike Barinholtz, Wayne Duvall, Ethan Suplee, Emma Roberts, Christopher Berry, Sturgill Simpson, Kate Nowlin, Amy Madigan, Reed Birney, Glenn Howerton, Hannah Alline (flight attendant), and Usman Ally.

Of course we know this is headed to a showdown between Crystal and Athena (2-time Oscar winner Hilary Swank), the ringleader of the hunting party. A fight scene reminiscent of the KILL BILL movies (sans Samurai swords) takes place at Athena’s “manor”, and it is stunningly staged and executed. Unfortunately this scene also highlights the mostly inadequate dialogue that exists throughout the film. Some of the quips click, but many fall flat – surprising since the co-writers Nick Cuse and Damon Lindelof have previously collaborated on “Watchmen” and “The Leftovers.”

Blumhouse Productions keeps cranking out these offbeat genre films, and this one likely benefits from a misplaced scandal, and it strives for self-importance by comparing itself to George Orwell’s “Animal House” and with an obscure reference to TEARS OF THE SUN (2013). It’s not at the level of last year’s gem READY OR NOT, and it missed the opportunity to make some political points, but it’s a hoot to watch and as an added bonus, Hilary Swank teaches us the proper way to make a grilled cheese sandwich!

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