Director – Zachary Donohue
Cast – Melanie Papalia, David Schlachtenhaufen, Matt Riedy, Adam Shapiro, Victoria Hanlin, Brian Bell, Matt Lasky, Kirk Bovill, Bill Oberst Jr.
Release Year – 2014
Reviewed by John of the Dead
While attending Texas Frightmare Weekend 2014 in Dallas, TX I had the opportunity to screen several films, and the one I was most excited for was The Den. I am a video chatter and a sucker for the “found footage” sub-genre, so naturally The Den appealed highly to me. Sadly, I pulled an all-nighter so that I could enjoy the festivities after driving 9 hours to Dallas and chose to sleep instead of wait until midnight for The Den’s screening. I told myself that I probably did not miss much, but now that the film has hit Netflix I have been proven dead wrong.
Elizabeth is a young social media studies graduate student who has just received a grant for her thesis. Her research consists of studying the online activities and habits of the users of a video chat website known as The Den. During one of her random chats she witnesses the brutal murder of a teenage girl, but the police dismiss it as a clever viral prank. Elizabeth now takes it upon herself to find the truth behind the video, which leads her into the darkest cells of the internet as the killer makes her and those around her his next targets.
Writer/director Zachary Donohue and co-writer Lauren Thompson are first-timers who give us a story that is unlike any I have seen. Smiley is a horror film that involved video chatting, but he was a supernatural entity while the antagonist in this effort is a mortal human. They do a good job of setting a positive tone early in the film, enveloping me into the experience as if I was there in Elizabeth’s shoes. Before long, about 21 minutes into the film, she witnesses the brutal murder that was brilliantly executed. This was not completely out of nowhere, as she had contact with the shady anonymous user before, but this was the first time he let her know what she was dealing with. Like the plot summary says, nobody really believes Elizabeth about the video and she is forced to to her own investigating. This forces the killer to fight back and make her life a living hell. At first he does this by hacking into her life and ruining the researching she has worked so hard for, and before long he begins killing those around her. The horror manifests throughout the experience and by the third act all Hell has broken loose as he tries desperately to escape the clasps of her attacker. I was really surprised at the level of horror that was in this story. I expected a relatively tame experience with only enough horror to make this a horror film, but no, the carnage is heavy and builds up to an all-revealing climax you may or may not see coming.
This story gets a lot of things right, but there is one major fault that I must discuss. The story is downright unbelievable. The antagonist’s abilities are almost as inhuman as Smiley’s, from the scenes where he takes control of Elizabeth’s camera to the scenes where he gives her third-person views to the murders of her friends. If I foresee any complaints about the film it is going to be how unrealistic it is, and this unrealism takes place during the entire second and third acts. There is another potential fault, which is more subjective than the first, and that is the film’s climax. This climax will also fall under the preceding fault as it is quite unrealistic as well, but it also will be love/hate to the film’s viewers. While I balked at how unfathomable it was, I did find it pretty engaging and horrific as it was happening in real time, so I will say that for the most part it had a positive effect on me.
So, if this is the horror genre, which centers heavily on protagonists fighting a seemingly unbeatable force, why is the film’s lack of realistic conflict such a big deal? The reason is that this story is meant to mimic real life and our obsession with technology – namely video chatting. If you look at films where Jason Vorhees is the killer, a man who has died almost a dozen times but still slays all he comes across, these are flicks that are not representative of real life. That is not the case with The Den.
Donohue’s direction is good and I believe he made a name for himself with this effort. As I mentioned earlier, I was enveloped from the get-go and that is because of his great execution early on. If you have ever video chatted before then you should know what to expect, and if you have not then it is possible you won’t be interested or you will be highly engaged at something new in the genre. Elizabeth is executed as a mostly likable woman pursuing a dream that means a lot to her and not so much to everyone else. Maybe if her thesis was on a scientific matter than things would be different, but not too many people take you seriously when your field of study is online behavior. The acting performances from those involved are positive, with any faults falling into the unrealistic dialogue they had to spew. Also, keep an eye out for actor Bill Oberst Jr. in an insane cameo role. While I missed out on screening this film at the convention I was able to barely fit into the screening for the Oberst Jr.-starring Circus of the Dead, which was incredible. Moving on… When the horror first hits he ensures the shock value is high and he manages to keep shocking the viewer as the film progresses. Some of the kills are basic and others are quite brutal, and despite this being a film relying much on CGI there was no CGI gore that I noticed. I highly applaud Donohue for this because he could have easily relied on the CGI for the kills but he instead did things the right way and of course it added to the intensity of the kill sequences.
Overall, The Den is a unique film that provides good horror in a relatively short 79 minute package. To date I have not seen a film like this, and that says something for the convoluted found-footage sub-genre. The horror is solid and pretty shocking at times, showing that Donohue has a future here if he can keep this up. The film will definitely come off very unrealistic for the majority of viewers, but if you can look past that you will probably enjoy the ride.
Director – David Koepp
Cast – Johnny Depp, Maria Bello, John Turturro, Timothy Hutton, Charles S. Dutton, Len Cariou, Joan Heney
Release Year – 2004
Reviewed by John of the Dead
I remember wanting to see this film back when it hit theaters in 2004 but for whatever reason I never gave it a shot until now – 10 years later. The idea of a Stephen King adaptation starring an established Johnny Depp intrigued me, and to make it even more interesting it comes from the director behind Stir of Echoes. I assumed that this would be more of a dramatic thriller than an out right horror film, and I was correct, but much to my surprise this adaptation contains enough horror to warrant a review. Well-executed, written, and acted, Secret Window is a solid experience with good tension and enough horror to satisfy genre fans.
While going through a bitter divorce, mystery writer Mort Rainey is carefully tucked away at his remote lake house when a stranger named John Shooter knocks on the door. Shooter claims that Rainey has plagiarized his short story and profited from it. Assuming the man is just another psychotic fan, Rainey brushes him off. Little does he know, Shooter will stop at nothing to attain the justice he desires.
Adapted from Stephen King’s Secret Window, Secret Garden, a novella in his Four Past Midnight collection, David Koepp writes a convincing thriller that is of course sold by the expert actor Johnny Depp. I am not familiar with the source material so I am unable to compare the two, but as someone who enjoys writing it was fun to watch a film about a writer and his writing. The story however does not really follow Mort’s writing, or focus too much on how he and Shooter both wrote the same story. Instead, we follow Mort’s suffering at the hands of Shooter, which is expanded by his marital woes. Shooter is not the only character of conflict for Mort. There is his wife, who he has a somewhat civil relationship with, and her new lover Ted (Timothy Hutton) who Mort has a VERY poor relationship with. Charles S. Dutton portrays Ken, Mort’s private investigator, but his role is minuscule and did not serve the film as much as he could have (not sure if that’s on Koepp or King). The horror written into the film is good but tame, with a few deaths that occur offscreen and serve as shock value. Koepp includes enough tension to make this a bit scary at times, with the possible home-invasion scenes upping the ante.
Koepp’s direction is as good as his writing, and he managed to keep my attention with good execution. Naturally, this film is sold by Johnny Depp, and his performance is his usual slightly cooky one. There are other notable actors as well and they are all executed in very positive ways. The location and country home were a great setting to set up decent atmosphere and a very lonely feel for when Mort felt vulnerable to Shooter’s chaos. His execution of the horror was good and shocking, not needing much more than a little blood to seal the deal. Again, it’s tame compared to other films of this day, but still very effective.
Overall, Secret Window is a film I enjoyed. The story is an interesting one and Koepp’s execution kept me interested even when the horror and tension were not on screen. With good acting performances and decent horror to keep genre vets happy, this may be a film you should check out but don’t expect too much.
Director – Kevin Connor
Cast – Peter Cushing, Ian Bannen, Ian Carmichael, Diana Dors, Margaret Leighton, Donald Pleasence, Nyree Dawn Porter, David Warner, Angela Pleasence, Ian Ogilvy, Lesley-Anne Down, Jack Watson, Wendy Allnutt, Tommy Godfrey
Release Year – 1975 (USA)
Reviewed by John of the Dead
Amicus are famous for producing several great horror anthologies, including Asylum, The Vault of Horror, and The House That Dripped Blood, and From Beyond The Grave seems to be one of their lesser-known efforts. That by no means makes this a bad film. Told in the same format and starring horror legend Peter Cushing, this is another solid Amicus anthology that lacks the punch of the other films mentioned but still provides a solid effort in the end.
This story follows Peter Cushing as the Proprietor, an old gentleman who runs an antique shop packed full of items for every desire. He does not like it when his customers rip him off, but he need not worry about it as vengeful consequences always find those who wrong him. In “The Gate Crasher” a man buys an old mirror inhabited by a ghost who forces him to provide fresh corpses to heal him from his pain. Next is “An Act of Kindness”, where a man who steals a war medal to impress a former soldier gets more than he bargained for. “The Elemental” is next, which focuses on a man who swaps price tags at the old man’s boutique and finds himself hounded by a malicious demon. The last entry is “The Door”, which tells the tale of an old wooden door that forms a gateway to another realm.
The screenplay comes from three writers who each had very short film careers but still managed to deliver a good story here. I will say that the events that occur are pretty tame compared to other Amicus anthologies, but they are engaging nonetheless. “An Act of Kindness” and “The Elemental” are the better of the four stories, with “The Gate Crasher” giving us the most kills (and maybe the most horror) and “The Elemental” failing to take full advantage of the demon bombarding the lead character. None of the entries were bad and I did enjoy them all, but some were definitely better than others. The wraparound involving the Proprietor was also very enjoyable and ends the experience on a very positive note.
Director Kevin Connor did pretty well and this effort marks the beginning of his career. He later went on to direct some of my favorite films as a child, like The Land That Time Forgot, At the Earth’s Core, Warlords of the Deep, and he also directed the awesome 1980 film Motel Hell. His execution of the atmosphere is what makes this feel like an Amicus film, with lots of fog, dark shadows, excellent use of colors, and proper execution of kill scenes that are tame as far as gore goes. Somehow he did find a way to make the kills a bit shocking, but of course some of the entries delivered better horror than others. The acting performances are all worthwhile, with Peter Cushing and a pre-Halloween Donald Pleasance stealing the show, so I definitely recommend you Pleasance fans give him a watch here.
Overall, From Beyond The Grave is another solid entry into the Amicus series although it is not as hard-hitting as its cohorts. Still, we are given four tales of UK horror that are sure to please those who enjoy 70s anthologies.
Director – Lucio Fulci
Cast – Jennifer O’Neill, Gabriele Ferzetti, Marc Porel, Gianni Garko, Ida Galli, Jenny Tamburi, Fabrizio Jovine, Riccardo Parisio Perrotti, Loredana Savelli
Release Year – 1979 (US)
Reviewed by John of the Dead
Italian horror director Lucio Fulci is known by many as “The Godfather of Gore”, and rightfully so. Zombi put him in the international market, and his gorefest zombie films City of the Living Dead, The Beyond, and The House By the Cemetery solidified this. Before he made his mark on the zombie sub-genre he had already made his mark in the giallo scene with A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin, Don’t Torture a Duckling, and The Psychic. Known as one of the most overlooked and under-appreciated horror gems, The Psychic brings a crafty story, superb direction, but comes limited on the horror. At times the lack of horror makes this feel like an uncharacteristic Fulci experience, but in the end this directing maestro excels at delivering a solid thriller.
Throughout her life Virginia has been cursed with clairvoyant abilities, beginning with seeing her mother’s suicide in a vision. Her most recent vision, where an old woman is murdered then hidden within a wall, becomes reality when she decides to renovate her husband’s abandoned mansion and finds a skeleton hidden in the exact same manner. With her husband charged with the killing, Virginia tries desperately to clear her husband’s name, only to realize the possibility that she too may share the victim’s fate.
Fulci and his longtime writing collaborators Dardano Sacchetti and Roberto Gianviti pen a captivating story that envelops us into the horror going on within Virginia’s mind. Her terrifying visions are proving true, and much to her dismay her husband is deemed responsible with the most recent one. We are left to assume he did not do it, as his traveling outside of the country should be a solid alibi, but the writers will keep you guessing until the very end. Several possible suspects come to light, each with their own questionable backgrounds and whereabouts for the night, making this a classic giallo storyline. Watching Virginia slowly descend into madness over the ordeal is haunting in itself, and things only worsen when she begins to realize that she is on a direct path to suffer the same fate as the woman buried within the wall. I mentioned earlier that this film is low on the horror for a Fulci film, and that is because there is absolutely no gore and very few kill sequences. In fact, most of the kills occur in Virginia’s visions and not during the present time, as with most other giallos where suspects are being eliminated as the story progresses. This is not a bad thing though, and I still consider this a horror film. Fulci finds ways to insert horror here and there, especially during the kills seen in Virginia’s visions. I will say that Fulci’s goal was not to terrify or shock the viewer like his other films, but that does not mean The Psychic lacks punch – it has plenty of that without resorting to gore.
Fulci’s direction is where the film truly excels, and he does a fantastic job of bringing this somewhat tame (for Fulci) experience to life. His execution of the kill scenes is phenomenal as always, including a face-smash on a cliff scene that should remind you of a very notable death in Don’t Torture a Duckling. Fulci brings with him his longtime cinematographer Sergio Salvati, who makes this a very visually appealing and engaging 90 minutes. The horror is full-frontal, the atmosphere is fantastic, and as with many of Fulci’s giallo films he makes excellent use of colors. I cannot comment on the acting performances because they are of course dubbed in English, but I will say that the dub was a bit on the negative side at times regarding volume. Ultimately Fulci’s direction proves to seal the deal for this piece, which includes a phenomenal closing sequence that will leave you in awe.
Overall, The Psychic may be one of Fulci’s lesser known efforts, but it is up there as one of his best. With a great story and even better direction, this “tame” experience is one you should check out.
Director – Joe Dante
Cast – Bradford Dillman, Heather Menzies-Urich, Kevin McCarthy, Keenan Wynn, Dick Miller, Barbara Steele, Belinda Balaski, Melody Thomas Scott, Bruce Gordon, Paul Bartel
Release Year – 1978
Reviewed by John of the Dead
Watching Piranha as a child is one of my earliest memories, and much to my own surprise I have not seen this film in the 20 years since then. My re-visitation of this experience brought back that awesome feel that 70s films deliver, and it also appeased my desire for animal horror. A simple film with a miniscule budget, this effort manages to deliver hard-hitting creature horror that was quite ambitious for the pre-CGI late 70s. It may be a bit tame for our modern day post-Saw community, but I found Piranha to be as enjoyable as the best films of 2014 (so far).
While searching for two missing teenagers, amateur skip tracer Maggie McKeown joins forces with the town drunk Paul Grogan and accidentally releases a swarm of genetically modified piranhas from a secret abandoned Army laboratory. As the killer fish make their way into the local river system and eat everyone in their path, it is up to Maggie and Paul to prevent disaster and stop them from reaching a children’s summer camp.
Writer John Sayles pens this piece, and it proved to be a career-starter as he also wrote creature films Alligator and The Howling only a few years later. The story is classic 70s cheese, involving a military cover-up and typical characters that are also rehashed in Alligator. After the success of Jaws, producer Roger Corman wanted to capitalize on public interest with a similar piece, and I loved the idea of involving piranhas. Also a carnivorous fish known to kill man, instead of one big fish we get lots of little piranhas doing even more damage. Sayles’ story starts off in OK fashion, giving us an opening kill sequence and then introducing us to the main protagonists. Their quest leads them to the abandoned Army laboratory, and as mentioned earlier the piranhas are accidentally released into the populace. This really is a simple film that focuses on Maggie and Paul’s hectic experience as they try to stop the piranhas from reaching the children’s camp, which has Paul’s daughter in attendance. Of course nobody believes them, and when the military gets involved there is a cover-up at play, but these clichés prove fun if you enjoy 70s horror. The kills are sporatic at first and come in single doses, but eventually you do get the payoff you go in for when the piranhas find a multitude of people to munch on during a crazy closing sequence.
This marks director Joe Dante’s first horror film, and it showed the man had much promise. He proved this true by later on directing The Howling – one of the greatest werewolf films of all time – as well as Gremlins, Gremlins 2: The New Batch, The Burbs, Twilight Zone: The Movie, and he returned to the genre a few years ago with The Hole. Dante does a fantastic job of keeping you engaged without showing you much until the big payoff at the end. His atmosphere sucks you in and the sets used compliment the visual engagement. Good acting performances are also to be credited, with Bradford Dillman stealing the show as the drunk-turned-hero Paul Grogan. Also, keep an eye out for horror legend Dick Miller in a small but enjoyable role. Dante’s execution of the horror is solid too, making the most of what little he had to work with. At first we don’t see the piranhas delivering the kills, but soon enough we see live-action schools of piranhas ripping the flesh off of their victims. I personally expecting more gore, but what Dante did was enough to give us solid horror at the hands of the razor tooth piranhas.
Overall, Piranha is a classic tale of creature horror. One of the most recognizable 70s horror flicks, it kick-started the horror career of famed director Joe Dane and is an experience I suggest you check out / revisit.
Director – Mark Hartley
Cast – Charles Dance, Rachel Griffiths, Sharni Vinson, Peta Sergeant, Damon Gameau, Martin Crewes, Eliza Taylor, Simone Buchanan
Release Year – 2014
Reviewed by John of the Dead
With Hollywood consistently remaking horror classics, namely slasher films, I was surprised to see a remake of Richard Franklin’s 1978 Aussie classic, Patrick. Not as well known to the public as Halloween and Friday the 13th, I had to double check when I saw this coming with a familiar storyline.
When a young nurse begins work at an isolated psychiatric ward, she quickly becomes fascinated with Patrick, a brain dead patient who is the subject of a mad scientist’s cruel and unusual experiments. What starts as an innocent fascination quickly takes a sinister turn as Patrick begins to use his psychic powers to manipulate her every move, and send her life into a terrifying spiral out of control.
This story comes from first-timer Justin King, and while it has some similarities to the original this is a very bland effort. Most of the horror early on consists of cheap jump scares, with some supernatural elements kicking in at about 28 minutes. 5 minutes later the mental horror takes place, with hallucinogenic scenes serving as the source of conflict. Eventually Patrick begins to reveal his powers to Kathy, luring her in until he has a firm hold on her life and those around her. He uses his telekinetic powers to eliminate all who stand in his way and also to remind Kathy that he will always be watching her. After a while I found this telekinetic horror getting old, boring, and cheap. There are even some laughable scenes where he somehow finds a way to text Kathy without having a phone himself. The characters were OK, with nobody stealing the show and most of them adhering to the usual clichés. I wanted more from the evil Dr. Roget and more insight into Kathy’s background, but this script is about as basic as it gets.
Director Mark Hartley did a great job to start, giving us spooky atmosphere and an excellent location for supernatural terror. This atmosphere was complimented by a classical horror score that I am sure was meant as a homage to the original. The acting performances are fairly good, with the only issue being the mediocre writing of each character. Eventually I saw Hartley’s direction begin to decline as the story began to grow and migrate. Horrible CGI is used for car crashes and oceanside scenery, and at times the execution of the horror, like the texting scene, is just stupid. The execution of Patrick also got old, and that is not a surprise to me. He spends all of the present day scenes in bed (there are flashback scenes), so at times this one-dimensional antagonist became a bore to watch. It takes good writing and direction to make this interesting, and that was not the case here.
Overall, Patrck is a mediocre effort that does not do justice to its great but under-appreciated predecessor. The atmosphere and performances are good, but everything else becomes silly over time.
Director – Wes Craven
Cast – Christina Ricci, Jesse Eisenberg, Portia de Rossi, Joshua Jackson, Milo Ventimiglia, Derek Mears, Jonny Acker, Eric Ladin, Mya, Shannon Elizabeth, Kristina Anapau, Daniel Edward Mora
Release Year – 2005
Reviewed by John of the Dead
In 2005 I was working as a projectionist for a local Cinemark movie theater. I remember Cursed playing there but despite my love for Craven’s films I never watched this effort in its entirety. I remembered certain scenes because I would peek in to make sure the film was running right, but with so many bad reviews I was not interested in coming in to see the full experience. Almost 10 years later I figured enough time has passed and I should finish off the last few Craven films I have passed over, so I gave Cursed a shot. Not only did I not know it starred a young Jesse Eisenberg, but it also features Bowling For Soup covering “Little Red Riding Hood” during the opening sequence. I learned a lot watching Cursed, but that is not enough to recommend this film to you.
When a werewolf in Los Angeles curses the lives of Jesse and Christin, the brother and sister learn they must kill their unknown attacker if they hope to keep from forever becoming werewolves too.
Craven and writer Kevin Williamson took a break after Scream 3, and Cursed was their return after a 5 years hiatus. The story is an OK one but it is not anything special. If anything this is a very basic flick that gives us the usual teen horror format and offers nothing new or even slightly original to the werewolf sub-genre. Now a story does not necessarily need to break new ground to be a good story, but this was just bland – plain and simple. The character play is cliché, with each protagonist and antagonist portrayed in highly predictable fashion, and while I don’t mind “cheese” – in fact I love it – this is not the type of horror cheese I find joy in. As far as the horror goes Williamson writes in a few kills and several chase sequences, but with some of the kills occurring offscreen the horror is unlikely to appease most genre vets.
Like most of Craven’s directing efforts he provides a good “feel” that just sucks you in, even if the story is a bit tame. His atmosphere is fantastic as usual, making every nighttime location a creepy one. His execution of the characters was decent, with nobody delivering a horrible performance but no one giving a solid one either. Everyone was just OK. I was however very disappointed with the use of the werewolf. With effects guru Rick Baker, AKA the man behind the effects in An American Werewolf in London, on set I expected to see some great werewolf action. Sadly, the werewolf was a disappointment. All of the good scenes were filmed with a CGI beast, and while I could understand some of the acrobatics being CGI I was saddened to see even basic scenes in the CGI format. Close-up simple scenes provided a live-action beast, but the biggest blasphemy involved the transformation scene. With Rick Baker in tow and Wes Craven behind the camera I figured we’d get the best transformation scene of this millennium, but instead I saw that I believe is the biggest disappointment – a CGI transformation. Maybe this was for budgetary reasons, or time constraints, but regardless…it was a damn shame.
Overall, Cursed is a mediocre run-of-the-mill teen werewolf film that offers nothing worth going out of your way to see. This is one of those “if it’s on I’ll watch it” films, and nothing more than that. With Wes Craven, Kevin Williamson, and Rick Baker on board I expected much better, especially the transformation.