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Under the Skin – 8

January 26, 2015 Leave a comment

Director – Jonathan Glazer

Cast – Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy McWilliams, Lynsey Taylor Mackay, Adam Pearson, Jessica Mance, Dougie McConnell, Kevin McAlinden, D. Meade, Andrew Gorman, Krystof Hádek, Scott Dymond, Michael Moreland

Release Year – 2014

Reviewed by John of the Dead

Earlier this year I learned that there would be a horror film starring Scarlett Johansson as an alien seductress who lures men to their doom. If you ask me, that sounds like a kickass grindhouse film – I was dead wrong. The more I learned about the film the more it came off as an art house masterpiece with hints of influence from Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Regardless, with so many cool elements involved I had to give this a watch, and was pleased at the outcome. Under the Skin is an experience that must be experienced. It’s a horror, thriller, drama, and fantasy effort that makes for one of the most unique horror films this millennium.

The storyline is as simple as the first sentence of this review. Scarlett stars as an unnamed woman who removes the clothes from an unconscious woman and then embarks on an unmentioned mission to seduce random men. That is, of course, after the film’s immense opening sequence. I really cannot tell you what happens at the beginning of the film, but it is this sequence that makes me mention 2001: A Space Odyssey when I speak of this flick. The first word is not spoken until 13 minutes into the film, and I was very surprised to learn that much of the dialogue was unscripted. To get a realistic feel, most of the men that the woman meets are non-actors who had their conversations with the woman recorded and were then offered roles in the film. This is a bold move by writer/director Jonathan Glazer that worked out in his favor in the end. So, instead of an actual screenplay the film is written more as a blueprint, with the non-actors giving “true” performances as they were unaware that they were speaking to Scarlett Johansson, who was wearing a wig and makeup.

A very long first act gives us approximately an hour of the woman seeking men, both successfully and unsuccessfully, and disposing of them. The first kill appears at the 21-minute mark, and it will leave you bewildered as to what exactly happened. Do not worry though, the next kill, at 35 minutes, explains what happens to her unsuspecting victims…and it is truly haunting. For this being such an artsy film I was quite surprised at how effective the horror was. I can’t say that this will give me nightmares, but I was definitely left in shock over what I saw. The second act slows things down as she travels a bit and begins to find herself. At times it feels like she is curious to know what life is like as a human, but she is on a mission and we are made aware that those who sent her to Earth are covertly watching her. The third act gives us the woman’s first true conflict, which is short-lived and leads to a climax you will either love or hate.

Jonathan Glazer’s direction is what sells the film, and it was unexpected given his previous efforts, which are Birth and Massive Attack videos. His provides a visceral experience with long, drawn-out sequences that play on your senses with amazing visuals and a haunting score. Scarlett is great, and the execution of her character, from looks to mannerisms, surpasses her acting. This is not because her acting is poor, but because the performance is so basic. Glazer’s direction of the kills was quite out of this world, with the uneventful ones still captivating me thanks once again to the visuals. I mentioned earlier that there is at least one haunting scene, and its effectiveness is incredible. Glazer draws these scenes out to achieve the highest amount of tension possible, leaving you to squirm in your seat, eyes glued to the screen, and in complete submission to the film. I cannot say that happens often, and I give him props for that.

Overall, Under the Skin is an experience that must be experienced. If you are looking for a film to entertain a group of friends with then this is probably not for such an occasion. However, if an incredibly unique effort is what you seek, you have found it here.

Rating: 8/10

Jessabelle – 7

January 23, 2015 Leave a comment

Director – Kevin Greutert

Cast – Sarah Snook, Mark Webber, Joelle Carter, David Andrews, Ana de la Reguera, Amber Stevens, Chris Ellis, Brian Hallisay, Vaughn Wilson, Larisa Oleynik

Release Year – 2014

Reviewed by John of the Dead

I personally feel that we do not see enough horror films involving voodoo/hoodoo, and seeing that Jessabelle was such a flick I was stoked to give this a watch. While not exactly similar to The Skeleton Key, aside from its location and voodoo, I was hoping for a familiar feel set in the spooky swamps of the deep south. From Saw VI and VII director Kevin and the writer behind the silly Night at the Museum films, Jessabelle is a good film but not one that I personally enjoyed very much. The horror is there, and it is good at times, but in the end this is one of those “good” films that I will not watch again.

Returning to her childhood home in Louisiana to recuperate from a horrific car accident, Jessabelle comes face to face with a long-tormented spirit that has been seeking her return – and has no intention of letting her escape. – Lionsgate

Writer Robert Ben Garant kicks things into gear right away, throwing us face-first into a terrible tragedy that claims the life of someone close to Jessabelle. On top of this, she is severely injured and must remain bound to a wheelchair during her recovery. We see the first hint of superantural terror only 10 minutes into the film, and four minutes later she finds what I thought to be the most interesting element of the story: video tapes her mother recorded for her when she was a child. Jessabelle lost her mother at a very young age, and only now did she realize that her mother left her the tapes. Before this she had only seen pictures of her, never video, so she is quite elated to finally experience her mother’s voice and personality. The videos consist of her mother using tarot cards to predict Jessabelle’s future, and her future does not look bright. Elation turns to terror when her mother’s predictions ring disturbingly true about a supernatural presence in the home that wants Jessabelle out at all costs. Nobody believes her, and she is stuck to a wheelchair, so she is not going anywhere. The first really good horror hits at the 31 minute mark, and to me it was the scariest scene the story had to offer. At the time it makes little sense, but nonetheless it was highly effective. For the majority of the film we are left to wonder whether the horror Jessabelle is experiencing is internal/psychological or supernatural/malevolent, and I am glad to say that the scarier of the two is eventually revealed as the answer. There are constant developments and revelations regarding Jessabelle’s past, which is now haunting her present day life, and I credit them with keeping things interesting when the horror subsides. For such a simple film there sure is a lot going on, and I know that seems like a contradiction but it is something that is hard to explain and must be experienced yourself. At times I felt like the story was losing me. It dragged at times and the horror, while good, was too infrequent and its effect did not last long enough until the next scare hit the screen. On top of this, I found none of the characters likable. I don’t need likable characters. I am just fine with every character dying because I hated them all, but when a film drags or the content loses your interest an enjoyable character is a remedy to keep you engaged. Thankfully, while I have said before that I would not watch this again, I do feel like it offered a really unique premise to the “horror in the swamp” scene, so props to Garant for breaking away from lame Night At The Museum movies.

Director Kevin Greutert is a big reason behind why I am giving this film a positive rating despite some writing faults. A swamp setting provides awesome atmosphere for a horror film, and while this was filmed in North Carolina (set in Louisiana) the sets and locations were employed well. I loved the spooky old home Jessabelle was forced to reside in during her recuperation, and Greutert’s dark and gloomy cinematography made the simplest of scares more effective than they should have been. There are some scares, though, that will be remembered as some of the best I have seen in 2014. The first and last attack sequences are amazing. From the shaky-cam, to the extreme audio, to the utmost in live-action gore, these scares are incredible and make the film worth viewing at least once. Trust me, if you watch the film wearing over the ear headphones like I did you will jump in your seat. Guaranteed.

Overall, Jessabelle is a film that gets things right and wrong yet still delivers a solid experience in the end. The horror is there, and while the supreme scares are infrequent they are superbly executed and will leave a memorable impression. Like I said, this is worth at least one watch.

Rating: 7/10

…Additional Stills…

Summer of Blood – 7

January 18, 2015 Leave a comment

Director – Onur Tukel

Cast – Jonathan Caouette, Zach Clark, Dustin Guy Defa, Juliette Fairley, Dakota Goldhor

Release Year – 2014

Reviewed by John of the Dead

I only found out about this film until recently, and what gave me the drive to watch it is it was referred to as a “hipster horror film”. I don’t count because that would be mainstream, but I know I have plenty of “hipster” friends who would get a kick out of such a film, so I gave this a watch and left pleased with the results. The story follows Eric Sparrow – a self-centered asshole who sucks in bed and makes the mistake of his life when he turns down his beautiful girlfriend Jody’s marriage proposal. He tries to move on without her…and to no avail. Each date ends worse than the one before, his job becomes more and more unbearable, and to make matters worse…Jody is now dating her college crush. Eric’s life is falling apart, but he receives the chance of a lifetime when he is bit by a vampire. Eric awakes as a different man. He is confident, strong, and now a sexual maestro with the opposite sex. There is only one problem – he is a vampire, and vampires need to eat.

Writer/director Onur Tukel stars as Eric and delivers one hell of an opening sequence. The story begins with Eric and Jody having an exquisite dinner at their favorite restaurant. When Jody proposes Eric uses his bafoonish wit to say “no” with the highest number of words possible, turning the issue to himself and the fallacies of married life. This intro lasts almost 8 minutes and will leave you shaking your head over how much of an idiot he is. I am sure lots of us, both male and female, have been in situations where we let a good person go for stupid, selfish reasons, and this intro did a good job of reminding me of the hurt I felt. Tukel’s writing is fantastic, with excellent dialogue from Eric that shows how arrogance and a “hipster” way of looking at things can cost you. Of course, this is done so in hilarious fashion. The head-shaking continues as you watch Eric fail at everything that matters. He has a pathetic way of using his logic to rationalize the life he lives, and before he can realize how much he is bullshitting himself…he becomes a vampire.

The second act is where Eric begins to bring home his new life. He is epically fired from his job, gives no f*cks about the rent he owes, and unlike before, he is having lots of success with women. So is this even a horror film? Yes it is. The first kill occurs 39 minutes in, and it is gory as hell. The kills continue at a brisk pace for the next 10 minutes or so, with kills coming from many angles, including while engaged in coitus with a beautiful woman. Conflict eventually arises, and while it is tame in comparison to the rest of the film it still managed to keep me engaged. At times I felt like despite its mere 86 minutes in length that the film dragged here and there. Eric’s long responses/monologues about this or that hipster case-in-point eventually exceed their welcome, yet he somehow manages to remain a guy that you’d love to hang out with – at least in small doses. I would not exactly call this a horror comedy, but it does have its comedic elements. Thankfully they blend well with the horror and the carnage does not take a backseat to the lulz.

Tukel’s direction is fantastic, and he secures a great performance from…himself as Eric. Tukel’s acting (if he’s even acting) dominates the character-driven experience and as I mentioned earlier, it’s hard not to love the guy. He’s a dick, and he’ll piss you off, but I’d love to hang out with him just so I could laugh at his troubles. Despite some dragging moments his execution, via atmosphere, music, and laughs, is enough to keep you engaged and into what is going on before you. Most importantly, though, his execution of the horror is fantastic. I was surprised at the level of gore seen in the film, and it all comes via live-action effects and not that lamestream CGI nonsense. His execution is full-frontal and with the kills drawn-out to gory extremes you will leave pleased at experiencing more horror than you expected for a “hipster” horror flick.

Overall, Summer of Blood is a fun watch and one that I recommend to all, even if you’re not a hipster.

Rating: 7/10

…Additional Stills…

The Frighteners – 8

January 18, 2015 Leave a comment

Director – Peter Jackson

Cast – Michael J. Fox, Trini Alvarado, Peter Dobson, John Astin, Jeffrey Combs, Dee Wallace, Jake Busey, Chi McBride, Jim Fyfe, Troy Evans, Julianna McCarthy, R. Lee Ermey, Elizabeth Hawthorne

Release Year – 1996

Reviewed by John of the Dead

Horror consumes my life, but even then I have not seen every major horror film there is. The Frighteners is the most recent notable effort to be remove from such a list, and it was as good as I expected it to be. Michael J. Fox stars as Frank Bannister, a man who attained a unique ability to speak to the dead after the sudden death of his wife. Frank does not use his abilities lightly though, and has since become a con man who employs spirits to haunt unsuspecting / potential “customers” and leave them no choice but to call him to remove the “evil” presence. However, when a real demonic spirit invades the town and starts killing at will, Frank becomes the only hope in saving the living from the dead.

The story kicks off right away and gives you the impression that this is going to be a really scary movie, then you realize you are being fooled just like Frank’s “haunted” customers. It is then that you realize this flick is going to be more “fun” than scary, which I expected because over the years I never heard this film referred to as scary. The first act is highly comedic, with fun characters and consistent jokes for you to enjoy. These jokes come from both Frank Bannister as well as his restless undead companions, each with their own unique personality. Nearly all of the main characters was colorful in their own right, with FBI Special Agent Milton Dammers taking the cake as the most outlandish. He was written superbly awesome, in the weirdest of ways, and left me laughing in my seat on several occassions. During the second act the kills begin to hit the screen, with a Grim Reaper-esque being delivering death via squeezing the life out of his victim’s heart. Frank’s unique abilities allow him to see, in sequential order, who the demon’s next victim will be, but only moments before they are to be taken from this world. This gives him little time to save the person’s life, or even convince them that they are in danger, which of course increases the conflict and tension. A fair amount of kills are written into the film and paced at just the right times, but don’t expect much when it comes to gore. There is ONE kill that will leave gorehounds happy, which was added when the filmmakers realized they were going to be tagged with an R-rating with or without the kill. When the third act hits we are provided a unique development where Frank goes through a drastic measure to make himself closer to the demon. This was done because he was powerless beforehand, but now he can fight. Jackson and his longtime co-writer Fran Walsh include constant developments over what is going on behind the killings, and while not overly shocking I did find the revelations towards the end of the film enjoyable.

Jackson’s direction is as good as his writing, although if you are expecting this to be like his previous horror flicks, Bad Taste and Dead Alive, you are in for a rude surprise. He sets the fun tone early on with great performances from Michael J. Fox and his ghastly companions, however horror legend Jeffrey Combes steals the show as Milton Dammers. It was incredible to see Combes deliver such an odd yet wonderfully executed performance unlike any you have seen in his filmography. Several other notables provide supporting roles, like R. Lee Ermy, Jake Busey, and another horror legend – Dee Wallace. Jackson’s horror was good, and while not scary it definitely kept me entertained. I enjoyed the look of the antagonist and the kill sequences, while tame on the surface (heart attack via a squeezed heart) were executed in strong fashion. Sadly, the antagonist and everything that has to do with him comes via CGI effects, which naturally lessens the severity. The CGI was not terrible, but it was not good either. With Jurassic Park debuting a few years earlier it is obvious that good technology was out there, but it was not in The Frighteners. Thankfully, there is so much more going on in the film that you learn to forgive it for the CGI blasphemy. Just look at Peter Jackson’s works since then, his Hobbit trilogies are nothing without computer-generated imagery.

Overall, The Frighteners is a great 90s film that provides a fun story with great execution from one of the genre’s masters who has sadly refrained from returning. You won’t find many scares here, but this is a flick that you can enjoy with a group of friends.

Rating: 8/10

…Additional Stills…

Jeffrey Combs

The Damned – 5

January 14, 2015 Leave a comment

Director – Victor Garcia

Cast – Peter Facinelli, Sophia Myles, Nathalia Ramos, Carolina Guerra, Sebastian Martinez, Gustavo Angarita, Juan Pablo Gamboa

Release Year – 2014

Reviewed by John of the Dead

Don’t you just love stories where unsuspecting know-it-alls believe they are doing a good deed, only to find out that their deed proves to be the worst possible decision they could have made? I love those stories, and that is the case with The Damned. When a group of family and friends barely survive a flash flood, they beg for refuge in a secluded inn. They find a young girl locked in the basement, and without pause they let her free…unknowingly releasing an ancient spirit that will consume them all.

The screenplay comes written by Thirteen Ghosts writer Richard D’Ovidio, and shares a story credit with David Higgins (Burning Bright). The events come rolling in pretty quick, with the traveling band of naïve individuals ignoring the pleas of a local police officer and suffering a dangerous crash when their vehicle is swept away by the tremendous rainwater. They wind up at the hotel pretty early, and right from the get-go we are informed that there is something very “off” about the place. There have been no guests in 30 years, the phone lines have been cut, and it is obvious the caretaker, Felipe, is not keen to strangers and does not want them snooping around. Sure enough, they snoop around and let the girl out at the 28 minute mark, sealing their fate. From then on out the horror creeps and eventually develops into a possession film with nowhere to run but plenty of space to die. The writers include an interesting element for the possession, where the only way you can become possessed is if you kill the possessed person. Naturally, one would say “well don’t kill the person”, however the person is still trying to kill you, or someone you love, so in a sense there are situations where you have no choice but to make the kill and leave yourself as the possessed individual. I did not necessarily enjoy this method, as I prefer more typical methods of possession (they’re creepier), but I’ll give credit for being different.

So how is the horror? It’s OK. It’s a possession film, which is cool, but as I mentioned earlier the possession scenes aren’t as creepy as standard possession tactics. Those possessed talk in cheesy demonic voices and eventually develop a decayed look, but it appears that only happens when they get angry, which is silly. We are provided plenty of kills, but sadly some of them occur offscreen and are nowhere near as gory as one would expect for such a film in the possession / Spanish sub-genres – both known for good gore.

Mirrors 2 and Hellraiser: Revelations director Victor Garcia directs this piece, and he a fair job. The atmosphere is great and he sets the tone early with gloomy cinematography (exposure, desaturation) and solid sets for the home and underground prison. When the horror gets going I felt his execution should have been better. The voices were too cheesy (not the good kind) and the look of the possessed was not the least bit scary, or cool. His kill sequences were pretty tame as well, with little gore and seldom were they filmed in a frontal fashion. There was much potential for good horror here, but it failed to surface.

Overall, The Damned is another mediocre flick out there that you should pass over for better efforts.

Rating: 5/10

The House at the End of Time – 8

January 12, 2015 Leave a comment

Director – Alejandro Hidalgo

Cast – Ruddy Rodriguez, Rosmel Bustamante, Adriana Calzadilla, Simona Chirinos, Gonzalo Cubero, Guillermo Garcia

Release Year – 2014

Reviewed by John of the Dead

I had been waiting for this film to release on Video on Demand formats ever since its many positive reviews after debuting (in the US) at the Frightfest Film Festival earlier this year. This marked my first time viewing a Venezuelan horror film, and pardon my ignorance but I was unaware that Venezuela put out horror films to begin with. Going into this flick I was expecting a supernatural tale heavy in ghosts and paranormal activity, but what I was given turned out to be so much more than that. The House at the End of Time uses its supernatural elements in a manner I was not expecting, which is partly my fault because I expected the usual cliches seen in other Spanish language horror films. What we are given here is an emotionally absorbed story that moonlights as a typical spookfest, excelling at both, and making this one of my favorite horror films of 2014.

Thirty years ago Dulce suffered the effects of a supernatural presence that left her husband dead. Convicted of his murder, she has been released to spend her remaining days in her old home, where she will once again face the forces that haunted her thirty years prior.

The opening sequences takes nearly seven minutes to complete, and it will leave you sucked in for everything else writer/director Alejandro Hidalgo has to offer. To begin the film the older, post-thirty-year-incarcerated Dulce is released from prison and reluctantly brought to her home. It is obvious that she is uneasy about returning to the location of such despair, and it is also obvious that the demons, which she referred to as “intruders” have been waiting for her. With the unsolicited help of a local priest who took an interest to the strange circumstances behind the murder, she begins to piece together what exactly happened that night, and how she can fix the past. I mentioned before that this is much more than a supernatural film. Without giving too much away I will say that the story uses time in a very unique manner. For the first two acts you will likely be confused about what is going on, but the third act ties everything together in what I can only describe as a “beautiful” manner.

Atmosphere to the extreme…

So is this even a horror film? Heck yes it is. The first act plays off like the traditional haunted house flick, but as the story progresses it loses that element and ventures into a time / reality-bending theme that had me glued to the screen. We are still provided scares during this progression, but keep in mind they are of a different nature. It would be safe for me to say that the horror is toned down a bit after the first act, but the tension remains high and that should do enough to keep you on edge. I keep saying it, but this story is more than what it appears to be. It is an emotional film as much as it is a ghost flick, and to be honest this is one of the few genre films to make me genuinely sad. I would call this a good kind of sad, but nonetheless…it’s not often a flick leaves me feeling this way. Bonus points for the unique experience.

Alejandro Hidalgo’s direction is equally as good as his story. From the get-go he portrayed this like the creepy paranormal tale this was disguised as, giving me chills with even the simplest of scares. Good execution will do that. He employs amazing atmosphere and a creepy home to sell the spooks and keep the tension high, and I believe this visual appeal helped keep my attention during the film’s slightly confusing (eventually not confusing) moments. The actors deliver solid performances too, making this an all-around great film from a first-time filmmaker in a country not known for horror films.

Overall, The House at the End of Time is one of my favorite flicks of 2014 and an experience I highly suggest to you. Watch, pay attention, and you’ll enjoy.

Rating: 8/10

…Additional Stills…

At the Devil’s Door – 6

January 7, 2015 Leave a comment

Director – Nicholas McCarthy

Cast – Catalina Sandino Moreno, Naya Rivera, Ashley Rickards

Release Year – 2014

Reviewed by John of the Dead

I am sure we have all seen numerous films where a strange person shows up to someone’s front door, they let them in with good will, and the decision turns out to be a disastrous one. On the surface it looked like At The Devil’s Door would be this type of film, but I was wrong. While something similar does occur, writer/director Nicholas McCarthy (The Pact) delivers a truly unique experience that is unlike the majority of horror films we see these days. With such a story comes a few faults that kept it from greatness, but thanks to mostly-positive direction At The Devil’s Door provides a few good spooks.

When ambitious young real estate agent Leigh is asked to sell a home with a checkered past, she crosses paths with a disturbed girl whom she learns is the runaway daughter of the couple selling the property. When Leigh tries to intervene and help her, she becomes entangled with a supernatural force that soon pulls Leigh’s artist sister into its web – and has sinister plans for both of them.

McCarthy’s story begins with an engaging intro where a young girl makes the hasty decision to sell her soul to the Devil. The man who aids her in this transformation informs her that “he” will call for her soon, and soon enough he does. We are given some spooky scenes early on, about 12 minutes into the flick, where inanimate horror is used to taunt the young girl, and the viewer. I really enjoyed this sequence because its simplicity was highly effective, and inanimate horror has always been spooky for me. At the same time, we are also introduced to Leigh, and the hit/miss relationship she has with her sister Vera. Leigh first comes across the mysterious girl in red at the 20-minute mark, but she, and the viewer, are left to not think much of it. However, bout 15 minutes later we are exposed to an extreme development that changes everything we know about the girl in red. Hold on though, there is more. Less than ten minutes after this we are given another development that changes the scope of the plot, and this is a character-related one that I did not see coming. It is at this point that the horror begins to manifest greatly, giving us some surprising creature action and solid spooks until the flick’s love/hate climax.

I liked the story, but at the same time there was always something missing. It had the spooks, and they were paced very well, but the end result did not align with the horror seen beforehand. There is a payoff, but it is hardly a payoff worthy of the positive terror seen early on. I also was left a bit unengaged with the character play. The two sisters dominate the plot, but neither was really likable and that naturally leaves me not giving a damn about what happens to them. The same can also be said for the girl in red, so really, there is nothing to look forward here except for the horror and that is not always a good thing.

McCarthy’s direction fared much better than his writing. I enjoyed the atmosphere he provided and found its gloomy exposure and “temperature” to be fitting for the subject matter. His horror, especially the inanimate horror, left me very impressed as it gave me chills that I was not expecting. He managed to keep good tension as the film progressed, with the latter sequences of horror still spooking me despite some cheap CGI. The performances from the main actresses were fair, but that is about it. They were nothing special and nobody stole the show here, which is the one element of McCarthy’s direction that mimicked his writing.

Overall, At The Devil’s Door is one of those flicks that gets the good things right but at the same time lacks the elements that make for a good film. I enjoyed the horror, and you probably would too, but is it worth sitting through the rest of the film? You’ll need to watch and decide for yourself.

Rating: 6/10

…Additional Stills…

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