Movie Review ~ The Wretched

The Facts

Synopsis: A defiant teenage boy, struggling with his parent’s imminent divorce, faces off with a thousand year-old witch, who is living beneath the skin of and posing as the woman next door.

Stars: John-Paul Howard, Piper Curda, Jamison Jones, Azie Tesfai, Zarah Mahler, Kevin Bigley

Director: Brett Pierce, Drew T. Pierce

Rated: NR

Running Length: 95 minutes

TMMM Score: (6.5/10)

Review:  It was all the way back in 1991 when I was first introduced to the novels of Christopher Pike with the classic, Whisper of Death.  The pseudonym of Kevin Christopher McFadden, writing as Pike he gave teens a boatload of thrills tinged with some mature themes and I just couldn’t get enough of them.  Pike is going to have a bit of a resurgence now that it’s been announced super-hot director Mike Flanagan (Doctor Sleep) is adapting his novel The Midnight Club (and interweaving a few others) into a new series for Netflix.  I also couldn’t quite get Pike’s prose out of my mind while watching The Wretched, a new indie horror flick released on streaming that’s better than you think even if it plays like a really strong YA novel adaptation.

Sent to live with his dad in a sleepy resort town on the coast of Michigan for the summer after a bit of wild teenage fun got out of hand (and left him in a cast), Ben (John-Paul Howard, Hell or High Water) is all angst and over-it attitude.  However, he starts to come around when he is coaxed out of his shell by Mallory (Piper Curda), a co-worker at the marina his dad oversees.  The fun doesn’t last long, though, because Ben’s neighbors with two small children are starting to act funny…perhaps it’s because of the grotesque creature we saw crawl out of a deer carcass and hide in their basement or the strange markings on their front porch.  When their children vanish and no one claims to remember them, Ben becomes convinced something strange is happening…and it all seems to center on a tree in the woods that hides a terrifying creature.

There’s a lot of good stuff going on in The Wretched, starting with a spooky prologue set 35 years ago and writer/directors Brett and Drew Pierce keep things moving at a decent clip for the first hour or so.  While the territory is familiar with no one believing the already troubled teenager, there’s a particular comfort in watching it play out so by-the-numbers.  Maybe it’s because the cast is so benignly appealing and the production values are a step-up from the normal indie schlock-fest.  The make-up effects (by a dude named Erik Porn, no joke) are aces and much of the work is practical with CGI used sparingly, at least as far as I could tell.  Genre fans will have fun picking out the influences on hand, from Rear Window to Fright Night to Invasion of the Body Snatchers…heck, even to William Friedkin’s much maligned 1990 movie The Guardian…but instead of leaving feeling that the movie lifted the best bits I got the impression the filmmakers had a deep affinity for those movies they wanted to emulate and they succeed with that.

Where The Wretched gets into some trouble is not being able to connect the dots to its ideas at the end of the day.  Like that spooky prologue I mentioned before.  It sets a nice tone but unfortunately (and this isn’t a total spoiler) it doesn’t truly come back in a meaningful way later in the film.  Even the most strident of television movies would have at least find a way to bring that back but the Pierce brothers seem to have forgotten about furthering their mythology about whatever wicked presence has long been feeding in the area.  Also, I have to say the doozy of a ending didn’t work for me…like, at all.  It’s one of those rug-pulling twists that could have worked but it doesn’t have the logic (or running time) to back it up.

Even if it falters toward the end, I found The Wretched be a far above average entry in the genre film that pops up on my recommended list.  It’s scary but not aggressively so, one of those weeknight watches you won’t feel too bad about spending time with

Movie Review ~ 1BR

The Facts

Synopsis: New to Los Angeles, a woman moves into a seemingly perfect apartment complex, and soon finds out that there are consequences for breaking the rules.

Stars: Nicole Brydon Bloom, Giles Matthey, Naomi Grossman, Taylor Nichols, Alan Blumenfeld

Director: David Marmor

Rated: NR

Running Length: 90 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review:  The other night I was having a bad case of The Scrolls.  You know what The Scrolls are.  You have every streaming service available, a healthy library of digital movies, and are staring at a wall of BluRays and DVDs of countless films but you just can’t find anything to watch.  Do you go for an old classic or do you try something new?  It’s getting late so now you can’t pick anything too long because it’s a weeknight…but wait, we’re in a quarantine and you work from home so you could stay up a little later.  Then again, you are kind of tired so something shorter would be nice.  You settle for something new and your genre of choice is, of course, horror because your partner doesn’t care for it and he’s busy in the other room playing the remake of Final Fantasy on PS4.  A title pops up that looks like a pass but the reviews are decent…it’s 90 minutes so why not?

This, dear readers, is how I came to find my way into 1BR, a nifty little thriller that’s out now to stream.  It’s budget is low and it’s production values are slim but it’s more effective that you might imagine and it goes to show (once again) how you must never judge a movie by its cover.  First impressions aren’t always everything…especially when it comes to indie-horror films.

Arriving in Los Angeles with hopes of being a costume designer, Sarah (Nicole Brydon Bloom) is also trying to leave the bad memories of her fractured family behind her.  With only her cat as companion, she’s living week to week in a motel while she finds an affordable place to live in the city of stars.  Attending an open house at a well-manicured, gated apartment complex with friendly, if guarded, residents, she’s sure she won’t get the apartment and surprised when she gets the call that the one bedroom dwelling is hers.  Ignoring the no pet policy, she sneaks her cat in…her first mistake…or is it really her second?

To give away what happens to Sarah is to break the lease of trust I have with you in terms of spoilers so I’ll just hint that this apartment is far from serene perfection and the tenants not entirely what they appear to be.  Writer/director David Marmour makes up for a small budget and limited shooting locations with a well-formed idea that he gets a lot of mileage out of.  I had no idea where this one was going and definitely no clue where it was headed…which makes for an entertaining watch.  Twists are doled out fairly and characters make choices that feel motivated by choice, rather than phantom direction from a script that hasn’t been fully realized.

It also helps Marmour has assembled a complex full of interesting actors, starting with Bloom as the tormented Sarah.  The way Bloom plays her, Sarah is a bit of an enigma, so we get the feeling Sarah might not be entirely who we think she is at the beginning…so we’re never sure how much we should trust her or feel for her plight.  Maybe she’s holding a secret that we don’t know yet and whatever empathy we have for her isn’t totally deserved.  There’s nice work from Giles Matthey (Ford v Ferrari) as a possible romantic interest for Sarah, Taylor Nichols (Jurassic Park III) as the overly kind landlord, and Clayton Hoff as a mysterious neighbor who recently lost his wife.  I also particularly liked Susan Davis as an elderly resident that Sarah forms a friendship with…a bit of trivia I learned is that Davis was the English voice of Pippi Longstocking for the 1968 film of the same name.  It gives her a little twinkle in her eye, which masks some deeper wells of deceit.

Others with a case of The Scrolls might find themselves skimming by this one, assuming it’s just another low-grade bit of garbage but this is one to add to your watchlist pronto.  It’s not going to change the world but for 90 minutes it’s going to hold your attention.  In a way, some of it’s low-rent trappings (re-using a few of the same shots, obvious continuity errors) make it that much more appealing – but ultimately it acquits itself nicely for having some originality because it carries itself confidently toward a satisfying conclusion.

Movie Review ~ We Summon the Darkness

The Facts

Synopsis: Three best friends cross paths with sadistic killers after they travel to a secluded country home to party.

Stars: Alexandra Daddario, Keean Johnson, Johnny Knoxville, Logan Miller, Maddie Hasson, Amy Forsyth, Austin Swift

Director: Marc Meyers

Rated: R

Running Length: 91 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review:  I find that more and more I’m an easy target for any movie that starts out saying it is set in the 1980s.  Maybe because it’s the decade I was born and started to gain some consciousness (movie consciousness came in the 1990s, though) but there’s something so fun and carefree about the 80s that lends itself well to a retro bit of cinema.  For comedies, it’s a slam dunk to set your film in the Carter or Reagan era of our timeline but for the horror genre it’s especially wild because you’ve then freed yourself from the technical advances of future decades that make being stranded at a remote location that much more easy to navigate out of.

I hadn’t known We Summon the Darkness was set in 1988 before I started it on early Sunday morning so it already began on a high note.  In all honesty, I went into this one as blind as possible and knew nothing save for the synopsis that you can read for yourself above.  That’s really the best way to go into this because it has a twist that I wouldn’t dream of spoiling and it’s revealed pretty early into the feature.  Genre aficionados will probably spot it before the characters onscreen do but it’s a tribute to writer Alan Trezza and director Marc Meyers that they are able to keep things under wraps as long as they are able to.

Girlfriends Alexis (Alexandra Daddario, Texas Chainsaw 3D), Val (Maddie Hasson, Novitiate), and Beverly (Amy Forsyth, Beautiful Boy) have hit the road for a trip to a local concert.  Stopping at a gas station for some refreshments they’re alerted to a rash of cult killings of teenagers that have been plaguing the area so the audience knows they have been fairly warned for whatever happens next.  At the death metal concert they buddy up with Mark (Keean Johnson, Alita: Battle Angel), Kovacs (Logan Miller, Love, Simon), and Ivan (Austin Swift, Live by Night) and they all agree to go back to Alexis’ parents’ home after to continue the party.  At the sprawling manse that is appropriately cut-off from anyone that could interfere, the six will go through a night of hell…but it’s not totally what you think.

The previews for We Summon the Darkness have given away some of the major twists and that’s unfortunate because going into the film without that knowledge made the lead up an enjoyable bit of suspense and misdirection.  Being robbed of that would, I think, dampen the entertainment value so it’s up to you if you want to have that experience cooled a bit – I think you should just go headfirst into the bloody nightmare Trezza and Meyers have cooked up because it’s not only a lot of fun but it’s fairly funny as well.

As is the case with many of these types of horror films that are laced with comedy, the laughs start to grow old about as fast as the blood dries on the victims and it wouldn’t be fair to let the filmmakers off the hook and say the movie is smooth sailing.  While there’s little spared in terms of blood, gore, and guts, the humor starts to get repetitive and grating around the 70 minute mark and that’s just about the time Johnny Knoxville (Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles) turns up as Daddario’s Bible-thumping televangelist preacher papa.  Knoxville’s presence is not needed here as the younger actors are holding things down just fine (Hasson and Forsyth are both standouts) but he’s given a longer leash that required and he drags the taste level down a bit.  Thankfully, it recovers nicely for a decent finale which pulls no punches.

Add We Summon the Darkness to the growing list of watchable horror films that are harmless distractions during this quarantine.  I’m not sure we’d be as forgiving if there was an abundance of other films in theaters to watch…but then again we likely wouldn’t be devoting much attention to smaller movies like this in the first place.  So, in that regard, I’m glad indie horror films like We Summon the Darkness are getting viewed at all.  Meyers and his team are clearly talented and know their way around the genre, with some editing of the script it could have been even better.

Movie Review ~ Spaceship Earth

The Facts

Synopsis: A true, stranger-than-fiction, adventure of eight visionaries who in 1991 spent two years quarantined inside of a self-engineered replica of Earth’s ecosystem called BIOSPHERE 2.

Stars: John Allen, Tony Burgess, Kathelin Gray, Linda Leigh, Jane Goodall,

Director: Matt Wolf

Rated: NR

Running Length: 115 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review:  When I first heard there was a documentary arriving called Spaceship Earth I’ll admit that as a Disney fan I was fully expecting it to be on the creation of the ride at EPCOT Center in Florida that occupies that iconic dome in the futuristic theme park.  While my original excitement was dampened a bit (hey, I’ll take a Disney doc any day of the week on the most mundane topic!) I was still intrigued to learn more about a group of established idealists that set out to complete an ultimate test of next-level global thinking.  Also, a movie about a group of people willingly sequestering themselves (or quarantining, if you will) for two years couldn’t come at a more prescient time.

Though director Matt Wolf’s documentary is, on the surface, about the experiment known as Biosphere 2 that launched in 1991, much of the film’s running length is devoted to its genesis, starting in the 1960s California when a motley group of creative forces were gathered by a fatherly figure to form a theatrical troupe, as so many did in those hey days.  Through a truly astounding amount of archival video (it seems as if every day was captured on film for three decades), we see how these individuals coalesced into more than just a communal tribe, morphing into a business-minded collective that started their own farm, built a ship from the group up, and lived a nomadic life across the globe.  What set this group apart is that they didn’t just create and run things to ruin before pulling up stakes as we’ve seen in other failed Utopian societies.  No, this group was smart in their model and set-up businesses along the way that funneled money into their coffers to fund future investments and projects – which leads us to Oracle, AZ and the project that became known as Biosphere 2.  Recognizing Earth’s resources were limited, the group wanted to see if it was possible to replicate our ecosystem on another planet and simulate that experience for two years.

Attracting national attention and a media frenzy, the training and eventual selection of the “biospherians” was closely watched…not so dissimilar to keeping an eye on astronauts preparing for their next mission.  I was only 11 at the time so I don’t remember all the hoopla, but the clips of worldwide news coverage shows just how much of a three ring circus the experiment devolved into.  As you would expect, with all the attention, it made the stakes of the experiment even higher and that’s when problems began to arise not just for the eight people within the dome but for their supposed support staff working outside.  The dramatic rise and fall of the Biosphere 2 is hard to watch, but it stands as an example of how a good idea can go bad the more people have a say in its creation.

At this point, I’m starting to feel like I’m living in my own Biosphere with only the occasional release into the outside world so I’m betting the experience of watching Spaceship Earth now is very different than it would have been had I seen it in theaters.  Yet, it was the earlier parts of the film that showed the group coming together that stuck with me the most.  Hearing the interviewed members discuss it now, they all found something important and meaningful when they joined this initiative and whether they were designing a ship to sail the ocean or picking the plants to go in Biosphere 2, all found strength and purpose in their task.  That it doesn’t feel cult-y or nuts and berries granola helps, too.  Sure, there is dissent and some questionable ethics at times…but what group (or family, for that matter) doesn’t have the occasional squabble?  The film starts to feel a bit long and stretched for length, with Wolf trying to find some dramatic tension in situations that don’t have much energy in them.  Still — it’s hard to deny the wealth of footage is not fascinating to watch.

You can watch Spaceship Earth now on Hulu (or at, and I do suggest setting aside some time one of these nights after your work from home day is done to catch it.  It’s a great example of idealism at its most pure, though it may not have achieved its ultimate goal the experiment (and documentary) are well-intentioned and well crafted.