31 Days to Scare ~ The Sentinel (1977)

The Facts:

Synopsis: A young woman moves to an apartment in a building which houses a sinister evil.

Stars: Cristina Raines, Chris Sarandon, Eli Wallach, Martin Balsam, Jerry Orbach, Christopher Walken, Sylvia Miles, Beverly D’Angelo, John Carradine, Ava Gardner

Director: Michael Winner

Rated: R

Running Length: 92 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review:  Largely due to the success of Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist, there was a huge boom in horror films with religious overtones released in the ‘70s.  Seemed like at the heart of every haunted house or strange acting neighbor was a gate to hell or devil possession.  It didn’t just stop on the sliver screen either, television movies got into the game as well with above average entries like Summer of Fear pitting Linda Blair against a devil-ish relative.  By the time The Sentinel was released to theaters in February of 1977 ,there wasn’t a whole lot movie-goers hadn’t already been exposed to.

What elevates The Sentinel a bit higher than its fellow occult brethren is a first-rate cast of big names, sure-handed direction from a director that knew his way around the material, and a script thoughtfully adapted from a best-selling novel.  Maintaining the mood of Jeffrey Konvitz’s popular 1974 tome, Konovitz and director Michael Winner lift the story from the page to the screen with ease, transferring a plot with several different threads into an efficient chiller with plenty of twists, turns, and more than its share of scares.  While it falls into excess at times and may invoke some winces seen through “woke” eyes, it makes it though largely on its high production values and overall sophistication.  Did I mention the cast?  It’s like The Love Boat for the inhabitants of Hell.

In New York City, in-demand model Allison (Cristina Raines) is looking for a place of her own.  Though cohabitating with her long-term boyfriend (Chris Sarandon), she’s never lived by herself and feels like she needs space to be independent.  All the apartments she finds are too expensive (even though an early montage shows Alison on no less than 7 major magazine covers so…how broke is she?) but fate takes her to the offices of Helen Logan (Ava Gardner) who just happens to have the perfect spot for her.  A handsome brownstone with a great view, the furnished apartment is hers for the bargain price of $500, no, make that $400.   It’s a no-brainer.  To the brownstone, Alison will go.

Haunted by a teenage trauma she carries with her even today, living alone doesn’t go so well for Alison.  Though she meets a kindly neighbor (Burgess Meredith) just after moving in, she begins to experience strange occurrences and hears another neighbor loudly clomping around above her bedroom during the night.  She begins to suffer horrible migraines and fainting spells, all unexplained events that coincided with her moving into her new apartment.  When she meets a few more neighbors that aren’t so genial (including a mute Beverly D’Angelo who does something rather explicit in front of Alison) and begins to be curious about the blind priest that lives on the top floor, she starts to investigate with the help of her boyfriend.  The more she learns about the history of the building, the deeper into darkness she’ll plunge because it’s not just the neighbors she has to be afraid of.

Director Winner had already made numerous films that had received acclaim before he took on The Sentinel so it’s easy to see why he didn’t have any trouble securing his roster of stars.  Rains makes for a lovely lead, even when she devolves into a sweaty screaming mess she has an air of dignity about her that makes us care for the character.  In smaller roles that may require them to exhibit perverse behavior (or simply act out a perversion), the veteran stars shine in their brief bits of screen time.  Gardner, in particular, seems to be taking glorious delight playing a glam grand dame of NY real estate.  Check out Christopher Walken (The Dead Zone) as a cop with no lines who is partnered with Eli Wallach called in to investigate when Rains goes off the deep end.   The bit parts could also double as a Before They Were Stars clip — so many people show up here that went on to have long careers.

The movie is problematic to be sure, with some attitudes toward different sexual orientations a bit passé and a finale that’s downright offensive…but it’s all a time capsule of the temperature of the time the movie was made and released.  Winner isn’t shy about showing a bundle of extremes be it gore or nudity so audiences are warned to gird their loins and steel themselves when the film goes barreling toward its abrupt but appropriate conclusion.  There’s quite a lot of good stuff going on here and it’s spooky enough to warrant a recommendation if you’re so inclined.

31 Days to Scare ~ The Invisible Man (1933)

The Facts:

Synopsis: A scientist finds a way of becoming invisible, but in doing so, he becomes murderously insane.

Stars: Claude Rains, Gloria Stuart, William Harrigan, Henry Travers, Una O’Connor, Forrester Harvey

Director: James Whale

Rated: NR

Running Length: 71 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review:  I think it’s safe to say The Invisible Man doesn’t get as much love as his fellow Universal Monsters, Dracula, Frankenstein, The Mummy, and The Wolfman.  Heck, I’d even say The Creature from the Black Lagoon gets a few more hits on his Instagram.  While The Invisible Man (actually Dr. Jack Griffin in this first installment) may not be as instantly memorable as others in Universal’s stable of spooky characters, his debut film is a landmark achievement in technique and surprisingly complex storytelling for the era.

After the success of other monster movies Universal made this adaptation of the novel by H.G. Wells a priority and went through several screenplays that strayed from the Wells source material.  Having been burned by the last adaptation of his work, 1932’s middling Island of Lost Souls based on The Island of Dr. Moreau, Wells insisted The Invisible Man stick closer to his original vision. Screenwriter R.C. Sherriff’s final draft paid attention to the wishes of Wells and there are only slight differences between the novel and the movie.  Overseeing it all was director James Whale, who scored such profound success in the horror genre with Frankenstein and The Old Dark House, not to mention Bride of Frankenstein which was on the horizon after The Invisible Man.

What makes The Invisible Man so interesting and creatively different from the jump is that it isn’t an origin story, per se.  When we first meet Griffin (Claude Rains) on a wintery night arriving at a small pub looking for a room, he’s already been through an experiment that has turned him invisible.  Seeking a quiet space where he can rest and perform tests to find a way to reverse his condition, it’s only when the pub owner and his wife (a hilariously campy and over the top Una O’Connor) won’t leave him alone when the trouble starts.   Lashing out in the first of several increasingly violent episodes, Griffin eventually descends into mad scientist territory as he terrorizes his sly former colleague (William Harrigan) and a countryside gripped with fear.  The only person he reserves any warmth for is Flora (Gloria Stuart, Titanic), his fiancé who is willing to stick with him, even knowing his murderous impulses.

For a 71-minute movie, Sherriff (via Wells) packs quite a lot of ideas and layered narrative into the action.  In a movie-going time that was still getting used to “talkies”, audiences had to truly listen to the dialogue to follow along and learn how Griffin came to his current state and how he plans to fix it.  All of the backstory usually shown to us is relayed via rapid-fire dialogue so you better strap yourself in and don’t miss a beat.  When Griffn goes off the rails and begins to use his invisibility as a weapon, there are various plots on how to catch The Invisible Man and not all of them are as simple as throwing a bag of flour on the guy.  I was surprised and pleased to find such confidence put in audiences by the filmmakers, they clearly were aiming for a sophistication that maybe wasn’t quite present in earlier Universal monster movies.

The effects utilized are impressive, even now.  Sure, some of the unmasking’s are a little rough around the edges and you can see the image overlay technique used.  More often than not, though, it’s hard to detect immediately how the effect was accomplished and even harder to spot the wires for the items that float through the air as if Griffin is carrying them from one place to another.  Even films 80 years later aren’t as consistently clean in their efforts to hide the magic.  Watching a documentary after the movie ended revealed most of the tricks and while some were simple bits of practical on-set effects, there were many that required time-intensive work…but the results are worth it.

While I loved seeing another film directed by James Whale and the source material of H.G. Wells is grand, I wouldn’t say The Invisible Man is my favorite of the Universal Monster films. It may lack the thrill of Frankenstein or the creepy chills given by Dracula but there’s something about The Invisible Man that’s particularly captivating.  Spawning several sequels and almost getting a reboot a few years back as part of the now scrapped Dark Universe, there’s no substitute for the original.   I’d never seen it before this year but it’s absolutely one of those titles you can’t let slip by you.

31 Days to Scare ~ Vampire Circus

The Facts:

Synopsis: As the plague sweeps the countryside, a quarantined village is visited by a mysterious traveling circus. Soon, young children begin to disappear, and the locals suspect the circus troupe might be hiding a horrifying secret.

Stars: Adrienne Corri, John Moulder-Brown, Laurence Payne, Thorley Walters, Lynne Frederick, Anthony Higgins

Director: Robert Young

Rated: R

Running Length: 87 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review:  A longtime fan of Hammer Studios and their horror tales, I’ve come to see recently just how limited my scope was in my formative years.  I’m making up for the time that I focused in on some of the more generic (but still worthy!) offerings and am quite enjoying expanding my horizons. With titles that might not be so in the mainstream featuring the familiar names that trigger a notion of what you can expect, like a Dracula or a Frankenstein or a Werewolf, I’m finding some fairly excellent experiences on a regular basis. I almost feel bad saying I’ve “discovered” these movies because they’ve been there all along just waiting for me to find them. So, with great humility, let’s talk about Vampire Circus.

How had I never seen this one before?  I’d heard Vampire Circus spoken of highly before and know I’ve seen the poster numerous times over the years; it’s striking image of eyes wide and a mouth open and fangs bared is instantly memorable.  Making an impact with promises of blood and mayhem, I can say the movie delivers on all accounts and it’s an R-rated delight from a studio that started off a little tentative in their willingness to go the extra mile.  From the beginning, it’s clear this isn’t just another standard vampire flick filmed against an eastern European backdrop…there’s some plot that’s been thought out and it’s exceedingly well made.

An extended prologue finds a group of villagers in the Serbian village of Stetl finally doing away with the vampire Count Mitterhaus (Robert Tayman) who has been preying on the young children in the village.  As he dies, he curses the townspeople and their children, promising they will all die in order for him to live once more.  Entrusting a follower (Domini Blythe) to find his relation and tell him what the villagers had done, the Count dies and his castle is destroyed.  Fifteen years pass and the village has indeed been plagued by one problem after another.  A plague has cut them off from the rest of the world and no one can go in or out…until the circus comes to town.

Led by a flame-haired gypsy woman (Adrienne Corri), the Circus of Night arrives in the village under mysterious circumstances and quickly begins to enthrall the townspeople with their unbelievable acts of daring and transformation.  High flying twin acrobats turn into, well, bats.  A panther can turn into a smoldering man in the blink of an eye.  Then there are the dancers who perform a risqué pas de duex (with full nudity, another reason the movie was slapped with an R rating) along with a funhouse hall of mirrors that turns deadly.  Oh…and most of them are vampires.  So begins a three-ring act of violence and revenge, with each victim being brought to the Count’s final resting place and being offered as a sacrifice, their blood restoring him to his full gory glory.

It takes longer than it should for the townspeople to figure out what’s going on but even when they do there are still a few mysteries yet to be solved that are gradually doled out before a blood-soaked finale set in a tomb.  The special effects are well-rendered and it’s more than a little bit scary at times.  In general, the atmosphere is right on target for the time and place, something Hammer was always so pitch perfect in achieving time after time.  The production design is lovely and the location shooting in Europe adds to the authenticity of the work.  Even the performances manage to be more than just your standard victim and prey stock characters, though not everyone can bare their fangs and sink them into necks as good as Anthony Higgins.

This is an absolute must-see for fans of horror, classics and new.  Especially if you have a penchant for the vampire genre and especially the Hammer brand of filmmaking, it’s an essential watch.  It drags ever so slightly in the middle with a bit of repetitive kills and sensuality but at 87 minutes you aren’t waiting around too long before things pick up again and the Vampire Circus prepares for its big finale.

31 Days to Scare ~ The Stuff

The Facts:

Synopsis: A delicious mysterious goo that oozes from the Earth is marketed as the newest dessert sensation. But the sugary treat rots more than teeth when zombie-like snackers begin infesting the world.

Stars: Michael Moriarty, Andrea Marcovicci, Garrett Morris, Paul Sorvino, Scott Bloom, Danny Aiello

Director: Larry Cohen

Rated: R

Running Length: 86 minutes

TMMM Score: (4/10)

Review: When schlock director Larry Cohen passed away in March of 2019, he left behind a legacy of campy horror films that ran the gamut in tone and style.  He was comfortable with tightly paced Hollywood fare like Cellular and Phone Booth, likely because he was used to filming quick and fast having cut his teeth in low-budget horror films It’s Alive and God Told Me To.  Though his movies were amusing in a throwback sort of way (I dare you not to watch the ‘80s monster movie Q: The Winged Serpent and not have just a little bit of fun) they often were one joke/concepts that didn’t always have a resolution to their rather fantastical set-ups.  Good starts, bad endings.

Never is that more apparent than in The Stuff, Cohen’s 1985 sci-fi horror satire about a tasty substance that becomes everyone’s favorite snack.  Obviously commenting on the yogurt craze that was happening around that period of time, Cohen spends the first half hour or so of the film nicely structuring a framework of a society eager to jump on the bandwagon of the latest craze.  Marketed as The Stuff, every supermarket has a healthy stock and nearly all American households have one or more cartons in their refrigerators waiting to be consumed.  The advertising parodies Cohen has dreamed up are a riot, with commercials and jingles for The Stuff providing some decent laughs in their ridiculous earnestness.

There’s something bad about The Stuff, though, and we know it early on.  Suburban boy Jason (Scott Bloom) wakes in the middle of the night looking for a midnight treat and when he opens the fridge he sees The Stuff moving…crawling back into its carton.  His parents and brother don’t believe him, likely because they have been eating The Stuff on the regular and soon are trying to get him to eat it as well.  At the same time, a private investigator (Michael Moriarty) is hired by a rival corporation interested in stealing The Stuff’s formula and he begins to suspect the food may not exactly have the full support of the FDA.  Teaming up with an ad exec (Andrea Marcovicci) who had been working on The Stuff’s campaign, the investigator uncovers more than he bargained for and is soon on the run with Jason joining their ranks.  Can they stop the spread of The Stuff?

Cohen wastes no time diving headfirst into the action.  Literally, within the first moments of the film we see the goo bubbling out of the ground where an old man finds it, samples it, and thinks it could be something the entire world would want.  This all in the span of, oh, twenty seconds.  The first half of the movie is so front loaded with information and action that Cohen runs of interesting developments before the film has reached the sixty-minute mark.  That’s when he brings in Paul Sorvino (The Gambler) who has been waiting in the wings and, let me tell you, he is hungry to nosh on some scenery.  Sorvino’s military figure battling The Stuff like he’s going to war with the communists is a tired old cliché and only shows you how little the finale was truly thought out.

The concept of The Stuff is intriguing but Cohen did not fill the rest of the movie with anyone we remotely want to root for.  As Jason, Bloom is a total dud lacking conviction in any of his line readings and Marcovicci might have made for an interesting female lead playing a powerful businesswoman of the ‘80s…if Cohen didn’t have her jump into bed with Moriarty immediately when she thought he was a headhunter for another account she wanted.  As for Moriarty, he’s the lead and is truly, truly, atrocious.  A longtime Cohen favorite, Moriarty is going for some slick kind of character with, I’m guessing from his accent, some kind of bayou roots but winds up giving a bad performance for the history books.  Sporting a hideous toupee and laughing at the material almost as much as the audience is laughing at how bad he is in the movie, Moriarty pretty much ruins the movie.

When The Stuff starts to take on a life of its own, there are some decent special effects but it too often reminded me of The Blob (the original and the fun ‘80s remake), reminding me it had been a while since I’d fired one of those films up.  When you spend more time thinking of when you can start another movie you know the one you’re watching isn’t filling you up.  The Stuff isn’t a feast, just an interesting first taste.

31 Days to Scare ~ Wolfman’s Got Nards: A Documentary

The Facts:

Synopsis: This heartfelt documentary explores the power of cult film told through the lens of the 1987 classic The Monster Squad and the impact it has on fans, cast and crew, and the industry.

Director: André Gower

Rated: NR

Running Length: 91 minutes

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review:  After horror, if there’s one genre that I just can’t get enough of it has got to be documentary features.  There’s something about that reality of interviewing real people or hearing a true life tale recounted that produces a similar charge within that I get from watching a movie meant to send chills up my spine.  So a documentary about a favorite horror film from my youth?  I’m SO there.  Most often, these documentaries are relegated to a bonus feature on whatever special edition DVD/BluRay has been produced from a long-lost classic finally making its debut in a restored print. That’s cool and all, but on the rare occasion a behind the scenes insight into a film’s genesis and staying power is created for distribution in cinemas…well now, that’s an event to be celebrated.

In the past several years, documentaries on beloved horror/cult classics have upped their ante with lengthy explorations on the Friday the 13th (Crystal Lake Memories) and Nightmare on Elm Street (Never Sleep Again) series prime examples of those that have exhaustively covered the work.  What makes a documentary like Wolfman’s Got Nards so unique is that in 91 minutes it manages to amply cover the highlights of the making of 1987’s The Monster Squad while also exploring it’s unexpected resurgence as a cult classic taught in college curriculum and as a touchstone for numerous genre aficionados from the heartland to Hollywood.

By all accounts, when it debuted two weeks after The Lost Boys in August of 1987, The Monster Squad was a total bomb.  Mis-marketed and poorly reviewed, it likely should have been held back a bit longer and built on the success of screenwriter Shane Black’s (Iron Man 3) current project Lethal Weapon, which had been released the previous March.  Fading from theaters and the minds of most people shortly thereafter, a core group of hardcore fans held the movie close to their hearts for years.  I vividly remember renting the movie numerous times from my local video store; after all, I was the target audience for a PG-13 rated film surrounding pre-teens doing battle against a horde of monsters out to rule the world.

It wasn’t until 2006 when a longtime fan partnered with the Alamo Dratfhouse in Austin, TX to hold an anniversary screening that the film started getting the long lost love it richly deserved.  Surprising the cast and director Fred Dekker more than anyone, it kicked off a whirlwind of press and promotion that resulted in the movie making its much heralded debut on DVD and numerous screenings over the last decade.  It also inspired star André Gower to team up with Henry Darrow McComas to produce this documentary about the film, how it’s reputation changed over time, and what that shift meant to those involved.

This is one of the best documentaries made about a movie I’ve seen in quite some time.  Obviously, with Gower involved there’s going to be some sort of level of reverence to the piece, but even if the original film has flaws that’s not what we’re sitting down and watching this for.  It’s also not a straight making-of documentary either.  At my screening, Gower and McComas were present to introduce the film and they mentioned it wasn’t a behind-the-scenes or where-are-they-now film and they’re right.  While it covers the elements of making the movie (which I was grateful for) and includes tidbits not found on the DVD making of doc, it’s more interested in committing to film interviews with fans and supporters who have championed the movie over time and can pinpoint exactly what about the experience of the film is so important to them.

I was surprised at how unexpectedly emotional it was on top of everything else.  One of the most loved characters in the movie is Horace (aka Fat Kid) and the actor who played him, Brent Chalem, sadly died at 22.  Many fans, including myself, only found this out when the collectors edition DVD came out and it’s been a sensitive subject ever since.  This documentary interviews three family friends who give us a bit more information on Brent as the person while several of the film stars get choked up thinking about what he would have thought about all this newfound popularity of his character.  Sitting in the theater watching this sequence, I found myself shedding a tear or two – definitely didn’t think that was going to happen.  While it would have been nice for the doc to acknowledge the several key cast members that are also no longer with us (including the brilliant Mary Ellen Trainor, who played Gower’s mom), I do get why Brent/Horace got his own special shout-out.

Handsomely produced with little padding to extend its running time to 91 minutes, this is a blueprint for how to produce a movie doc that’s not just about how the script came together and why the director cast the actors.  The interviews with the technicians that worked on the film are fascinating and the amount of fan interviews featuring people from all walks of life was astounding.  These types of serious-minded reflections can only happen decades on and I’m glad Gower and company were moved to take the approach they did with this look back on a popular title that continues to gain new fans.  I even stayed after and re-watched The Monster Squad for the first time in a theater and was reminded what a fun watch it was…so is this documentary.

 

Check out my original review of The Monster Squad right here:

 

 

31 Days to Scare ~ Mary (2019)

The Facts:

Synopsis: A family looking to start a charter-boat business buys a ship that holds terrifying secrets once out on isolated waters.

Stars: Gary Oldman, Emily Mortimer, Jennifer Esposito, Stefanie Scott, Owen Teague, Michael Landes

Director: Michael Goi

Rated: R

Running Length: 84 minutes

TMMM Score: (4/10)

Review: There’s a myth in Hollywood that winning a Best Actress Oscar puts a kind of curse on your career for a period of time after you take home the statue.  Most of those who hold some sort of stock in this cite Halle Berry as the prime example of the jinx with the actress starring in a seemingly endless series of flops and non-starters.  After all, her two headlining movies out of the gate after winning her award were Gothika and the notoriously reviled update on Catwoman.  I mention this because we may want to expand this dark cloud watch to the Best Actor Oscar as well because of recent Best Actor winner Gary Oldman setting sail on the high seas with this well-intentioned but ultimately listless horror film.

Unfulfilled with his days working on a tourist fishing boat for a company he doesn’t own, David (Oldman, Darkest Hour) seeks out a cruiser he can invest in to start an excursion business he can manage the way he chooses.  His wife Lisa (Emily Mortimer, Mary Poppins Returns) wants him to be practical with the little savings they do have, so she’s wary when he’s drawn to a ship in bad shape.  As the audience, we know David and Lisa should steer clear of the ship, having been treated to an earlier introduction to the vessel where we get an bloody idea of how her last crew wound up.  David remains resolute and soon, along with their daughters Lindsey (Stefanie Scott, Insidious: Chapter 3) and Mary (Chloe Perrin, Jurassic World) the family has restored the ship and are taking it for a maiden voyage.

Of course, this is when strange things start to happen on board and this is one reason you’ll be glad the movie clocks in at a scant 84 minutes, including credits.  See, the ship might just be under a witch’s curse, having been a Puritan vessel that carted women accused of witchcraft to their watery graves.  Now, a spirit seeks to inhabit the soul of a family member…maybe young Mary.  The family and two crew members aren’t too far out to sea when they experience visions of death and burned corpses, are possessed by an evil host, and just generally go a bit nuts, all culminating in a life or death battle during a particularly nasty storm. The close quarters provide little wiggle room for changes of scenery and the vast ocean horizons give the sense of solitude and just how alone they truly are.

There’s a framework set up in the script from Anthony Jaswinski (who wrote the far more enjoyable Kristy and The Shallows) that takes the air of surprise out of things from moment one.  Opening with one of the characters being interviewed by an officer (Jennifer Espositio, Don’t Say a Word) about the events that happened on the ship, you know the ending already and start to work backward from there.  That unfortunately robs any suspense from the rest of the film and even a last minute, um, Hail Mary, can’t save the awkward plot device.  I never understand why a movie will take this approach without turning it into something more interesting and upending our expectations.  I kept expecting Jaswinski to treat this musty old contrivance with a little more flair – instead I was left feeling this was an early script he dusted off and sold without tinkering with it before turning it in.

Looking at Mary from a 1,000 feet level, one has to wonder how it attracted Oldman in the first place.  Though featured prominently on the poster and billed first (obviously), there’s precious little for Oldman to do for much of the movie, relegating co-star Mortimer to do a fair amount of the heavy lifting which she does admirably.  I kept feeling that wherever the action was taking place, Oldman was on a different deck of the ship, oblivious (or off filming another movie?) to what was going on.  It’s certainly a well-made film that has a clear atmosphere established; television director Michael Goi also served as cinematographer, which I’m guessing added to the film feeling efficiently produced.  The only scares are of the jump variety and Goi at least keeps the movie interesting to look at – I just wish the port of call was a bit more alluring.

31 Days to Scare ~ Scanners

The Facts:

Synopsis: A scientist sends a man with extraordinary psychic powers to hunt others like him.

Stars: Jennifer O’Neill, Stephen Lack, Patrick McGoohan, Lawrence Dane, Michael Ironside, Robert A. Silverman

Director: David Cronenberg

Rated: R

Running Length: 103 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: Around the same time Canada was hopping on the American bandwagon and producing a bunch of teenager slasher films, they also were nurturing a strange vision of another type of horror.  Beginning in 1975 with the landmark Shivers, director David Cronenberg has been a pioneer in crafting a particular type of scare fest that goes beyond an outside force acting hacking away at an unsuspecting innocent.  He’s clearly been more intrigued with persona and the “body horror” subgenre in films like Rabid (a woman becomes a zombie after having plastic surgery), The Brood (psychotherapy produces demonic entities), and Videodrome (the original attack on mass media’s negative influence) and, of course, Scanners.

Released in 1981 and probably best remembered today as the movie where that guy’s head explodes, it’s so much more than that.  While it doesn’t feature any revolutionary technique in filmmaking or the kind of memorable (okay, good) performances that stand up against similar movies released in that era, its themes are sophisticated and more often than not well ahead of its time.  Cronenberg (A Dangerous Method) obviously had deeper themes about the rising of the next generation of leaders and wanted to say something about the dangers in handing over the keys to a fragile kingdom so fearlessly.

There’s a new weapon on display courtesy of a company called ConSec and they are called “scanners”.  With the ability to control the minds of others, these psychics are initially meant to be a way to infiltrate enemies consciousness and anticipate their next move or prevent them from taking action.  However, as with any weapon designed for good there are those who want to use it for evil and that’s where scanner Daryl Revok comes in.  After making a rather messy demonstration of a scanner with lesser strength, Revok (Michael Ironside, Hello Mary Lou: Prom Night II) goes on the run and exposes he has formed his own group of aggressive scanners that oppose the more docile troupe employed by ConSec.  Revok’s more take charge minions want to be calling the shots and not rely on the passive ConSec scanners to lead the way.

The man behind the the ConSec operation is Dr. Paul Ruth (Patrick McGoohan, Braveheart) who reluctantly calls in troubled scanner Cameron Vale (Stephen Lack, Dead Ringers) to help track down Revok before he goes too far with his plans.  Vale has suffered terribly with his dark gift, winding up on the street and not always being able to control his powers.  With the aid of a new drug  meant to quiet some of his unstable rumblings, Vale agrees to help Dr. Ruth (save your jokes) because he’s the only one that’s any kind of match for Revok. Picking up another individual with special skills along the way (Jennifer O’Neill, The Psychic), the trio are in a race against time to figure out where Revok will strike next.  There’s an added layer of mystery involving a link between Vale and Revok that, convenient as it may be, helps keep the film coloring inside the lines until its rushed ending.

I’d say Scanners is about ten minutes longer than it needed to be with a few too many dips in the action.  While I applaud Cronenberg building out some character backstory with Vale and even more so by giving Revok a decent amount of motivation beyond being a simple megalomaniac, it does weigh down the film when it should be picking up steam.  Credit also to Lack and Ironside (and all the scanners, actually) for developing their own facial twists and tics in conveying their powers – it could be laughable to some but it’s highly effective when paired with Howard Shore’s pulsating score.  The effects are a bit hokey but somehow it all works as part of the grand design of Cronenberg’s master plan.

There’s a reason why Scanners has gone on to become a cult classic and spawn several lesser-than sequels (but oddly no remake) and it’s not because of that aforementioned head-exploding scene, which I must say is divine.  It’s because it’s a smart, well-constructed film that delivers the goods when necessary.  I’m not sure it has a high yearly re-watchability factor but it’s absolutely something you could revisit every five years or so with satisfaction.

31 Days to Scare ~ 12 Feet Deep

The Facts:

Synopsis: Two sisters are trapped under the fiberglass cover of an Olympic sized public pool and must brave the cold and each other to survive the harrowing night.

Stars: Nora-Jane Noone, Alexandra Park, Diane Farr, Tobin Bell

Director: Matt Eskandari

Rated: NR

Running Length: 85 minutes

TMMM Score: (6.5/10)

Review: To this day, I’m thankful for my parents starting me in swim classes when I was six months old because it helped me get comfortable with the water.  An active swimmer my entire life, I’m confident I could hold my own if there was a water problem to be solved, though drowning remains one of my out and out biggest fears.  Maybe that’s why I’ve always been attracted to movies set in the ocean or bodies of water, there’s that sense of danger in the back of mind at all times which keeps me on high alert.

A few years back I was scouring the offerings at the Twin Cities Film Fest for something off the mainstream radar.  What I have come to enjoy about our local film festival is that while the programming has snagged some top anticipated Hollywood films, they have also been able to feature under the radar horror/thrillers that might otherwise go unnoticed.  I make it a special point each year to prioritize these selections above all else and that particular year the premise of 12 Feet Deep caught my eye.  With the 2019 TCFF beginning again, I felt it was a good time to highlight this well-made thriller that stays afloat much longer than I was anticipating.

Two sisters with their own personal baggage have met up at a local pool before a long Thanksgiving weekend.  Competing against each other in the pool and out, Bree (Nora-Jane Noone, Brooklyn) has recently gotten engaged to her boyfriend while Jonna (Alexandra Park, Ben is Back) feels she is lagging behind her sister in many ways.  In a jealous moment, she throws Bree’s engagement ring in the pool just as the manager (Tobin Bell, Jigsaw) is ready to close up for the evening.  Regretting her actions, she dives in to retrieve it with Bree following behind.  Not noticing the girls have entered the pool, the manager activates the pool cover, trapping the girls inside.

With plenty of space to breathe and the shallow end not that far away, this seems like a not exactly life-threatening situation for the sisters to find themselves in….just a very inconvenient one.  As they squabble about how they got there it brings up memories of their youth with their abusive father and questions arise regarding his mysterious death in a fire.  Various attempts to escape are explored but it’s the introduction of another character that truly raises the stakes and gives the film a nice little twist that carries it through to the end.   Now, an Olympic sized swimming pool becomes a danger zone for the two women as they have to tread water to avoid something else at the edge of the pool.

In several ways, the movie doesn’t hold up to high scrutiny.  It gets a little waterlogged as it nears the finish line and a late-breaking malady feels like one bit of peril too many.  Even so, it’s highly watchable and gamely performed by the small cast who believably handle a rather unbelievable set-up. Throughout, director Matt Eskandari and his co-writer Michael Hultquist make enough wise choices that you almost can’t believe the premise works as well as it does.  Claustrophobics may have a tough time with this one but those interested in a compact little thriller should dive right in.

31 Days to Scare ~ The Ritual

The Facts:

Synopsis: A group of university friends trekking through the forests of north Sweden are stalked by a malign presence that doesn’t want them to leave.

Stars: Rafe Spall, Robert James-Collier, Arsher Ali, Sam Troughton, Paul Reid, Maria Erwolter

Director: David Bruckner

Rated: TV-MA

Running Length: 94 minutes

TMMM Score: (7.5/10)

Review:  For a while, it seemed like Netflix was getting to be a place where cheap-o horror was coming to flourish.  I can’t tell you how many times I was enticed in by an interesting bit of artwork, description, or star rating only to be opting for something else five or ten minutes in because the movie was garbage.  Then, once the company started to become a fledgling-movie studio and wanted to be taken a bit more seriously, you could see a shift in the way they started to acquire content to release under their own banner.  While Netflix would soon get into the game of financing their own films, in order to build out their library they had to track down some quality completed work first.

That’s how they came to procure The Ritual, a nifty little horror yarn based on a 2011 novel by British author Adam Nevill.  Adapted by Joe Barton who helped to give the story a bit more of an arc and directed by David Bruckner (V/H/S), this was another one of those pleasant surprises I wasn’t expecting to enjoy as much as I did.  Like Apostle, what The Ritual may have lacked in overall prestige had it been made in the studio system, it more than makes up for in creativity and atmosphere.  Receiving a small release in the UK before Netflix bought it, it’s a movie I can see not being totally right for theaters but working better as an at-home watch.

A yearly weekend trip for a group of five university friends takes on a special meaning a year after losing one to a random act of violence.  Paying tribute to their fallen buddy by moving forward with his idea of hiking the mountains in Sweden, Phil (Arsher Ali), Dom (Sam Troughton), Hutch (Robert James-Collier, Downton Abbey), and Luke (Rafe Spall, Prometheus) are approaching middle-age and realizing they aren’t the same kind of friends they were in their youth.  They squabble and press each other’ s buttons, clearly missing their one friend who seemed to be the glue that held them all together.  The hike isn’t half over before one is injured and they have to find a way back to town.  Opting for a shortcut through a nearby wood proves a fatal mistake as the men walk headfirst into a place of evil.  Resting for a night in a ramshackle deserted cabin filled with the kind of harbingers of doom that scream “Turn back!”, the men wake up the next morning having had visions of death in their dreams to find strange marks on their body.  As the fear of the unknown mounts, so does the paranoia.  Unable to find their way out of the forest, they delve further inward toward an unspeakable terror waiting to be fed…and it’s mighty hungry.

With a small cast and modest budget, Bruckner does good work by never letting the audience get too far ahead of the game.  There’s a lot of exposition in Barton’s script near the end that has to be conveyed without slowing the action down and it’s nice to see these important final scenes aren’t bogged down by all of this explanation.  As is often the case, the solution isn’t always as interesting as the mystery but The Ritual manages keep us engaged longer than most.  The gore is doled out appropriately and the performances from the men are nicely metered in comparison to the emotional stakes presented to them.

I hope Netflix continues to take cues from successful acquisitions like The Ritual.  While the film may be a bit cliché in some of its crude moments of violence, I liked the quieter times it focused on the men and their relationships to each other.  It produces some more than decent chills and works hard to bring its audience into the mood of the situation.  A cut above, no doubt.

31 Days to Scare ~ Ghost Stories

The Facts:

Synopsis: Skeptical professor Phillip Goodman embarks on a trip to the terrifying after being given a file with details of three unexplained cases of apparitions.

Stars: Alex Lawther, Martin Freeman, Andy Nyman, Jill Halfpenny, Jake Davies, Nicholas Burns

Director: Jeremy Dyson & Andy Nyman

Rated: NR

Running Length: 98 minutes

TMMM Score: (7.5/10)

Review:  It should be clear by now that I’m a fan of anthology horror.  If you don’t believe me, take a gander at my reviews of After Midnight, Cat’s Eye, From Beyond the Grave, Tales from the Crypt, Asylum, The Willies, Tales of Halloween, and the Creepshow films.  There’s something satisfying about compact tales of terror that are to the point and, if they aren’t your cup of tea, don’t overstay their welcome.  What you often have to deal with in these omnibus films are framing devices that are hackneyed and can have little to do with the interwoven stories.  This makes the overall experience feel choppy.

Why Ghost Stories is unique, aside from the fact that it’s adapted from a stage play, is that the interstitial scenes that tie everything together actually play a part in the tales themselves.  So there’s value in paying attention to what’s going on throughout. Even when the film starts to go off the rails near the end, it remains a cleverly crafted and unique entry in the anthology genre…and one that is often quite frightening.

A TV personality known for debunking supernatural occurrences, Phillip Goodman (writer and co-director Andy Nyman, Judy) is summoned to meet one of his childhood idols, Charles Cameron.  A leading paranormal investigator in his day, Cameron is haunted by three cases he was unable to solve and asks Goodman to take a look to see if he can figure out the mystery that surrounds them.  The first case involves a night security guard (Paul Whitehouse) working at an abandoned women’s sanitarium that might not be as empty as it seems.  Next, Goodman looks into a teenager (Alex Lawther, The Imitation Game) who has a literal run in with the Devil.  Finally, we’re introduced to Mike Priddle (Martin Freeman, Black Panther) a man awaiting the birth of his child who arrives with…complications.

Each story has it’s own stable of shivers but it’s the first one set in the shuttered hospital that will really give you the chills.  With some great camera work and expert timing, Nyman and his co-director/writer Jeremy Dyson goose the audience with the right amount of scares to get the blood pressure up.  The subsequent investigations have nice moments of dread but are ultimately a bit more depressing than scary.  The outcome of Goodman’s inquiries are surprising and not exactly what you’d expect…just when you think you might know how it’s going to end (or when it’s going to end), Dyson and Nyman have another trick to unmask.  It’s not an entirely slam-dunk ending, to be honest, but it definitely wasn’t what I could have guessed at the beginning.

I can’t imagine how this was produced on stage and would have loved to see this one during its initial run in the West End where it played to great success for some time.  It subsequently toured through Europe but I’m unaware if it’s had a premiere stateside yet.  I would think it would be a special engagement show NYC audiences would get a kick out of but would take some expertise in staging regionally.  In any event, Dyson and Nyman have translated it to the screen with style and if the play is half as scary as the movie I’d bet the shrieks would be as loud as the applause.