Movie Review ~ South of Heaven

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The Facts:

Synopsis: After serving twelve years for armed robbery, Jimmy gets an early parole. Upon his release from prison, he vows to give Annie, his childhood love, now dying from cancer, the best year of her life. The best last year of her life. If only life were that simple.

Stars: Jason Sudeikis, Evangeline Lilly, Mike Colter, Shea Whigham

Director: Aharon Keshales

Rated: NR

Running Length: 120 minutes

TMMM Score: (7.5/10)

Review:  I don’t know about you, but it’s a little funny to me that the same weekend Jason Sudeikis closes out his second season playing the Emmy-winning title role of his multiple award lauded serio-comedy Ted Lasso, he’s also premiering a hard-nosed crime drama that at one point sees someone sliced in half.  That he pulls both off convincingly is a sure sign that Sudeikis is another SNL alum that was always meant for something more.  Up until now, Sudeikis has mostly thrived in comedic films but South of Heaven represents a gear shift that’s likely to feel jarring for many of his fans that have come to expect a lighthearted Sudeikis or, more recently, the Ted Lasso-y Sudeikis with a perennial good-nature we secretly all wish we could emulate more of.

The sunniness Sudeikis brings to that show on Apple TV+ is mostly cloudy in South of Heaven.  Right from the start when we see Jimmy Ray (Sudeikis, We’re the Millers) in front of a parole board being up front and honest that he should be released so he can spend as much time as he can with his terminally ill fiancé.  Yes, he committed a crime but it was a first offense and after 12 years, has his time been served?  He’s a middle-aged white guy so…of course he’s let out.  Waiting for him is Annie (Evangeline Lilly, Ant-Man and the Wasp) and with her pixie cut and glowing aura, she looks like she’s already practicing for her guardian angel gig she’s most certainly getting hired for.  The reunion between the two is sweet, bittersweet, and then ultimately tender as both realize how quickly they have to re-learn their old routines to maximize the time they have left with one another.

Not long after Jimmy Ray’s return, his rat-like parole officer (Shea Whigham, The Quarry, always on call when a weasely character is needed) makes sure Jimmy Ray knows that he’s under his thumb and even prompts him to get involved with under the table business on his behalf or risk being sent back to prison on trumped up charges he creates.  Unwilling to part from Annie again, Jimmy Ray agrees to retrieve a package for the parole officer and it’s on his way back that something happens which shifts the film from being one story to a different one in a similar vein.  It’s one of several adjustments director and co-screenwriter Aharon Keshales makes for the next 75 minutes which will keep the audiences on their toes, wondering where all of these tone shifts are going to lead.  Will they add up to beautiful music or is just all banging on a keyboard?

Working with fellow screenwriters Kai Mark and Navot Papushado, Keshales manages to make South of Heaven into that rare bird that refuses to stay in one place for too long but doesn’t feel too flighty at the same time.  The movie has about 5 endings as it nears its conclusion (and that was one too many for me) and with each progression to a new level the stakes are raised quite convincingly and, more importantly, with an entertainment value that works for nearly everyone involved. The only person it isn’t completely successful with is its leading man.

I’m not sure if it was Sudeikis now being so tied to the Ted Lasso of it all but it took a long time for me to lock into what he was doing here and go with it.  There was a dramatic side to him that he doesn’t wear totally convincingly in, oh, 78% of the movie and it’s only working with Lilly in some of the final scenes and in a climactic sequence near the end that it feels like the talented actor is working in a zone.  Yet you see the actor trying new things and new ideas as he journeys to get to that zone and you can’t fault someone that’s actively trying to make something work in what had to be a tight shooting schedule.  He’s got great support with, as mentioned, Lilly who is a real breath of fresh air here and Mike Colter (Girls Trip) as a soft-spoken crime boss that doesn’t like to have to ask for things twice.  I also got a kick out of seeing former C-movie action star Michael Paré as a mostly silent hired muscle for Colter, who isn’t too shabby in the bicep category himself.

If there’s one thing that might be problematic for viewers it’s that Keshales doesn’t seem to be able to settle on the mood of the film, shuffling the deck at random.  This tends to lessen the weight of heavier scenes and makes you wonder whether dialogue that is supposed to be dramatic is coming off just a tad phony.  In more than one scene, an actor is drawing from a deep well to convey emotion but the sincerity was so over emphasized that the effect is insincere.  Put all of these little moments in a line and it would result in an unconvincing watch but when they are peppered within the fabric of a film you can forgive it a little easier as a quirk the filmmaker is working through.

At this point, you have to be wondering what I’m even thinking about the film, right? It sounds like I’m down on it but I was way more into South of Heaven than I originally thought I would be, even when it overstays its welcome ambling toward one of its many endings.  For all its emotional ups and downs, I didn’t have a clear idea of where it was headed and that’s a refreshing feeling after sitting through countless tales that are sunk by predictability.  When it does get to its ending, it’s not what I expected (and probably not what I wanted) but I appreciated one final rug pull from a director that wasn’t afraid up until that point of shaking things up to keep the action interesting.

Movie Review ~ Prisoners of the Ghostland

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A notorious criminal must break an evil curse in order to rescue an abducted girl who has mysteriously disappeared.

Stars: Nicolas Cage, Sofia Boutella, Bill Moseley, Nick Cassavetes, Yuzuka Nakaya, Lorena Kotô, Canon Nawata, Charles Glover, Cici Zhou, Louis Kurihara

Director: Sion Sono

Rated: NR

Running Length: 103 minutes

TMMM Score: (6.5/10)

Review:  Here’s what we all need to realize about Nicolas Cage – he knows exactly what he’s doing.  Anytime a GIF or a meme is passed around with one of Cage’s signature crazy eye looks or classic freak out faces, it’s the result of a carefully calculated plan on the part of the actor to dig into whatever character he’s playing.  It gives the director something to work with, something to drive his fellow actors crazy, and it makes audiences nervously anticipate his next move/movie because you truly don’t know how he’ll pivot. 

Once a mainstay on the Hollywood A-List, after Cage won his Oscar in 1995 he toiled about in various blockbusters until his star waned after one too many fails at the box office.  That’s when Cage started thinking in volume, not quality, and the sheer number of films he was in rose dramatically.  While lazy actors like Bruce Willis have taken over the mantle of this business model, Cage was king of making these random films that were almost indistinguishable from one another.  I’m not sure exactly when or how it happened, but I noticed Cage began to stretch again in 2018 with the release of Mandy, a well-received horror film that was often a nightmare to watch which genre fans went ape over.  Coming back a year later with Color Out of Space, an even more impressive blend of Cage-iness mixed with a trippy H.P. Lovecraft vibe, it was obvious the actor was finding his groove with projects and directors that spoke to him.

Continuing to star in the occasional quickie, Cage set the film community ablaze already twice this year with two different projects, the bizarre Willy’s Wonderland and one of his best performances to date, Pig.  Now, I’m still willing to work for Cage’s team to help them mount a campaign for him to get in the Best Actor race for his work in that excellent film but I’m thinking he won’t need much help getting there on his own.  The end of the year may be getting crowded but what he did with that film is still so fresh in my mind that I can imagine voters that saw it will be feeling the same way.  Perhaps it’s best to keep certain voters away from Cage’s latest movie, though.  It might undo some of that goodwill Pig served up.

Let me state for the record before we gain entry to Prisoners of the Ghostland that I found the first English-language film from director Sion Sono to be almost operatic in nature and often just as frustrating to sit through.  It has moments that are wildly creative, sucking you into its energy field with an enticing mythology and fringe characters that have you craning your neck to see more.  On the other hand, Sono displays his typical taste for excess and winds up almost choking the life out of the picture before anyone has a chance to get much of anything done.  The extreme director is a good match for Cage, and both know it, so it’s just a question of who wants to go bigger before going home. 

Set in a world undone by a nuclear catastrophe where scattered cultures have created a mishmash of design and community, Prisoners of the Ghostland drops us into Samurai Town, a brothel run by the smarmy Governor (Bill Moseley, Texas Chainsaw) who has lost something near and dear to him.  His adopted granddaughter Bernice (Sofia Boutella, Climax) has vanished, and the Governor needs a professional to travel to the dangerous Ghostland to find her.  The man for the job is, naturally, named Hero (Cage, Valley Girl) and to incentivize him to keep his cool in all matters he’s wired with explosives at particular points of his body. Think about hitting a woman?  Bye-bye arm.  The bombs on his nether regions are self-explanatory…there will be no unauthorized breeding in Ghostland.  Fail to find her, and that bomb around his neck will efficiently end his life.

With only a few short days to find Bernice and bring her back, he’ll have to work fast because while finding Bernice turns out to be easy, returning her isn’t a walk in the park.  As Hero learns more about the horrific conditions in Ghostland and its inhabitants, he plans a revenge plot to secure his freedom and the liberty of others.  Yet a memory from the past still plagues him, a memory that turns out to have a major impact on his current mission, throwing a significant wrench in the outcome of the plot to overthrow the powerful Governor and those that follow him. 

The screenplay from Aaron Hendry & Reza Sixo Safai is surprisingly original and not based off any previous work and both writers have given the dynamics of Ghostland some intriguing wrinkles.  In Sono’s visionary hand, the world creation is complete and so you have something that is marvelous to look at, if just a tad vacant overall.  It’s like those walls of a community theater production that look so impressive from the 12th row but once you get up close you see that it’s just a two-inch flimsy piece of painted plywood…but for a while, you were fooled.  This ruse is helped along by, no surprise here, Cage’s fully immersed performance that never comprises or belies any doubt in the material.  That’s the special sauce which keeps Cage operating so reliably at 120% from film to film.  Like him or loathe him, he believes in what he’s doing and that in turn creates an atmosphere where everything is possible, and anything can happen. 

In previous films, not everyone has been as game as Cage but Sono has surrounded his star with a roster of like-minded actors that go for broke and don’t care who’s watching.  Boutella is, in many ways, an actress after Cage’s heart that’s more than willing to go toe-to-toe for control of scenes.  Lithe in body and able to tap into relatable and raw emotions, she’s an interesting counterpart to Cage’s deep well of regret…both are individuals in pain that need saving and perhaps this journey will wind up benefitting both.  Moseley and a scary Nick Cassavetes (The Other Woman) as Cage’s former partner now mysterious rival, pop off the screen with appropriate villainy but watch out for Tak Sakaguchi silently stealing the movie as a cunning assassin who gets some ferociously fun fight sequences.  While the film is filled with several memorable performances for the right reasons, there’s a central character that’s so atrociously annoying it begins to cast the rest of the actors in a bad light.  I’m going to refrain from passing that name along but once you see the movie, you’ll know who she is.

Along with Mandy and Color of Space, Prisoner of the Ghostland feels like it’s completing a trilogy of interesting reaches by Cage into foreign territory.  Not only are they gambles that have by and large paid off for him creatively, but critically and commercially they’ve done well for his credibility…far more than his direct to video feed-trough junk he had been making.  Couple that with a quieter and more reflective role in Pig and you begin to see an actor coming into another stage of their career where box office isn’t key, but fulfillment of mind, body, and soul is.  Lucky for us, that desire also comes with an entertainment value as well.

Movie Review ~ Great White (2021)

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A blissful tourist trip turns into a nightmare when five seaplane passengers are stranded miles from shore. In a desperate bid for survival, the group try to make it to land before they either run out of supplies or are taken by a menacing terror lurking just beneath the surface.

Stars: Katrina Bowden, Aaron Jakubenko, Kimie Tsukakoshi, Tim Kano, Te Kohe Tuhaka

Director: Martin Wilson

Rated: NR

Running Length: 91 minutes

TMMM Score: (4/10)

Review:  It’s honestly a miracle, when you think about it.  Considering how far technical achievements in film have come since the release of JAWS over 45 years ago, you would think that by now someone would have figured out how to create a decent shark to terrorize nubile women and beefed-up men that dare enter the ocean.  Sadly, instead of putting the elbow grease in and attempting to get back to the type of haunting magic that was created from the depths in Steven Spielberg’s summer blockbuster masterpiece, studios and filmmakers seem determined to go cheap and low-tech and the results are resoundingly heinous.  If you’re dealing with another cheesy direct to streaming piece that is meant to be silly (House SharkGhost Shark? Ouija Shark?) then some allowance must be made for quality, but when you’re settling in with a release clearly aspiring to be taken as serious as the 1975 granddaddy of them all, you expect far more.

Every so often, we’re graced with a well-calibrated entry that understands the game and arrives ready to play.  The Shallows, The Reef, and Bait 3D were all superior examples of directors getting it right.  I also found The Meg to be a fun, if PG-13 sanitized, take on a scary novel that should have been adapted two decades earlier when studios would have let it be released with all the violence intact.  While Deep Blue Sea from 1999 is maybe the shiny diamond of shark movies in recent memory in my book, it’s straight to video sequel in 2018 sits near the bottom of the overall list.  Shockingly, Deep Blue Sea 3 from 2020 bounced back nicely and earned a reprieve for the franchise.  With a sequel to The Meg about to shoot and the constant threat of a JAWS remake hanging over out heads (I put this into the universe: please do NOT do this, just do a 2018 Halloween-style sequel that picks up 50 years later), audiences that don’t mind sticking to swimming pools are left with the occasional scraps of underwater thrillers.

Scraps is a good way to classify Great White because it’s compiled of a lot of different pieces, never fully finding its own identity.  With slack pacing, poor CGI, and a main attraction that remains frustratingly below the surface for much of the trim run time, it definitely doesn’t have the goods to be considered among the better entries in the genre, though it is considerably better made than most.  Mostly known as a producer, screenwriter Michael Broughen’s lack of experience shows with a threadbare plot that finds a tour guide/pilot, his medic/girlfriend, a cook, and the couple that hired them all for the day to take them to a secluded island fending off a marauding shark when their sea plane sinks in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.

Director Martin Wilson makes his feature film debut with Great White, and he certainly captures the beauty of the Brisbane coast beautifully, albeit it with characters touting how infested the waters are with man-eating sharks.  Yay, tourism!  Things actually start off sort of well for Great White, with a young couple finding themselves a bit too far from their boat when confronted with a deadly foe, but then Broughton’s issue-filled script kicks in and we have to wade through a lot of personal business before we can get back to shark business.  Most of this involves pilot Charlie (Aaron Jakubenko) and Kaz (Katrina Bowden, Piranha 3DD) who are working through a bump in taking the next step of their relationship.  When they are joined by Michelle (Kimie Tsukakoshi) and Joji (Tim Kano) for a brief moment you get the feeling Broughton is going to spice things up by creating a few characters with a darker depth but, small spoiler, it’s shallow wading for all.

Looking at the cast, anyone that’s ever watched one of these movies could likely go through and number off the order in which they’ll become fish food and if the film has anything going for it, it’s that there comes a time when you aren’t quite sure the usual suspects will make it to the end.  Wilson manages to get quite a lot of mileage out of the viewer watching Bowden’s legs kicking furiously in the dark blackness and it would wrong of me to lie and say my heart wasn’t beating a little faster when one character enters the water in a totally misguided moment.  You’ll be screaming at the screen the entire time at their lunacy…I was.

While all of this is happening, audiences are going to be waiting for a look at what’s hungrily chomping at the cast members and every time the shark appears it looks like stock footage that’s been blown up to look like a far more fearsome creature.  The rapid shift to clear nature documentary shots only confirms a severe lack of actual CGI created…or at least until the end which is where the significant amount is used.  Still, by then it’s too late to have the same kind of impact that would have been nice to have had all along.  At least Spielberg (and subsequent sequel directors) gave us an animatronic scare every now and then that at least looked believable. 

Acting their way around an enemy that isn’t there is difficult, and the cast does a fine job in selling what they are supposedly seeing.  Bowden was always a bit of a blank spot during her tenure on NBC’s 30 Rock and hasn’t made an impression in the years since, but she’s a believable heroine here and easily outpaces the bland Jakubenko and his character who suffers from PTSD after surviving a shark attack years before (do you think he’ll have to face his fears at some point?).  Tsukakoshi is around for the screams and Kano is there to give you someone above the water to loathe when the shark isn’t around.  While his character makes a few spectacularly stupid decisions, Te Kohe Tuhaka’s cook is the most agreeable in the bunch.

One of these days we’ll get a director and studio that wants to spend the money and time creating a creature that looks like the real thing and moves like the real thing.  Maybe it’s created on a computer, maybe it’s something tangible the actors can react to in the moment.  Whatever it is, it has got to be better than the downward slide that is going on now.  If we can create free apps for our phones that can make it appear our friends are singing “Chim-Chim-Cher-ee” with Julie Andrews, we simply must be able to get a shark to swim through the water and eat an unfortunate swimmer…right?  Until that time, watch Great White and think about what could have been.

Movie Review ~ Séance

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Camille Meadows is the new girl at the prestigious Edelvine Academy for Girls. Soon after her arrival, six girls invite her to join them in a late-night ritual, calling forth the spirit of a dead former student who reportedly haunts their halls. But before morning, one of the girls is dead, leaving the others wondering what they may have awakened.

Stars: Suki Waterhouse, Inanna Sarkis, Madisen Beaty, Ella-Rae Smith, Seamus Patterson, Marina Stephenson Kerr, Megan Best, Stephanie Sy, Jade Michael

Director: Simon Barrett

Rated: R

Running Length: 92 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review:  What terrific fortune is this?  Two respectably good female-led slasher films released within weeks of each other?  Can it be?  After a long dry spell with a pile of duds and clunkers, an eerie wind of change is blowing and bringing with it revitalized energy to a genre that was barely standing.  Early May’s Initiation was a clever subversion of the typical college-set slice and dice thrillers that populated many cinemas throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s, giving tired tropes an entertaining dust off.  Now along comes Séance with its spooky boarding school setting and Craft-ian vibes to send some chills through your screen. What both films may lack in overall budget and the benefit of a release via a larger platform, they more than make-up for in playful deference to their treasured inspirations.

I could understand some dubious feelings about Séance at first glance, because I had them too.  The original poster with pouty girls in school uniforms in front of a foreboding dormitory made it look like one of those generically terrible Redbox cheapie titles that come out of nowhere and offer little return for your overnight fee.  A closer inspection (and a better poster) unveils some pedigree behind the scenes and that was enough to get me signed up for writer/director Simon Barrett’s feature debut.  A screenwriter on respectable genre outings like You’re Next and The Guest, Barrett also penned the attempted reboot of Blair Witch in 2016 that was better than many gave it credit for.  Teaming up with Dark Castle Entertainment (the production label responsible for remakes of House of Wax, House on Haunted Hill, and original titles The Apparition, Ghost Ship, Gothika, and Orphan) and streaming service Shudder, Barrett was able to get this one made during the pandemic without sacrificing any of its effectiveness in the scare department. 

The exclusive Edelvine Academy for Girls is supposedly haunted by the spectre of a former student that died under mysterious circumstances.  At least that’s what the group of girls attempting to call her spirit forth late one night in a dark bathroom mirror are hoping for.  Saying her name into their reflections several times doesn’t produce the result they are expecting, but it does leave one skeptic so frightened that she winds up dead later that night.  Was it an accident, was it the spirit, or was it someone else with a razor-sharp axe to grind?  The tragedy leaves an opening for a new student, though, and Camille Meadows (Suki Waterhouse, Pokémon Detective Pikachu) is the next name on the list. 

Failing to make a great first impression to the headmistress (Marina Stephenson Kerr, The Grudge, a sort of B-list Michelle Pfeiffer) after getting into a nasty fight with HBIC Alice (Inanna Sarkis) before she can even unpack her bags, Camille doesn’t fit the new girl mold in kowtowing to existing hierarchies or ways of doing business.  Instead, she asserts her dominance from the get-go and isn’t above landing or taking a punch from Alice or any of the other girls that run in her gang. (Side note: when did girl fights get so crazy? Camille refuses to move from Alice’s table and in response Alice punches her several times right in the face for her ‘crime’. Yeow!)

Camille does manage to find some people she likes; shy Helina (Ella-Rae Smith, The Commuter) was friends with the girl who recently died and Trevor (Seamus Patterson, Books of Blood) is the son of the headmistress and a handyman/boy around campus.  Through them, Camille learns more about the “accident” and other strange goings-on around the school, just in time for her detention to begin with the other girls for their opening day fight.  While they’re cleaning out and organizing a musty section of the school, they decided to press their luck and try out another séance, but this time their ceremony definitely brings something into reality…a slinky killer that begins to swiftly chop away at the girls. 

As he has with his previous scripts, Barrett makes efficient use out of his dialogue and doesn’t waste a lot of time with extraneous tangents.  It’s not Pulitzer Prize winning stuff, nor is it intended to be.  However, there is a mystery at the heart of Séance the audience is meant to figure out and clues are dropped along the way to help those paying close attention unravel in advance of the Big Reveal (one of several, I might add) near the end.  Barrett also excels at creating strong female characters that fight back, not just those that have a surge of energy when they most need it, either.  These are women that are prepared and not helpless and I like that he seems to have that in mind as he develops the story.  The idea of victimhood isn’t at the forefront of his mind and none of the women in the movie are portrayed as feeble or lacking…only in terms of perhaps coming up short in the conscience department.

There is a nice overall tone achieved and more than a few sly frights along the way. With the scary comes the silly and a dance sequence with some questionable skill level is one you’ll just have to bite your tongue through.  It’s also worth noting that it took my partner and I a full forty-five minutes to decide if this was a prep school or a college because the ages of the actresses are so varied you can’t quite tell the academic institution they are attending.  If you’re looking at Waterhouse, it should be a college.  Then you look at Madisen Beaty (To the Stars) and you’d believe it could be a boarding school for children of rich parents. 

Nitpicks and a few plot holes aside, Séance is one I think horror fans can join hands and get their arms around with ease.  It’s well made and at brisk 92 minutes moves at a nice clip, dotting it’s time with the appropriate amount of momentum so that it doesn’t experience that middle sag which can drag a lesser film down.  It joins recent feminist slasher films in skewering expectations without beating audiences over the head with any agenda to do so.  Would be a great Saturday night choice or could even be enjoyed as a late afternoon watch if the clouds grow dark and the rain falls.

Movie Review ~ Jakob’s Wife

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The Facts:

Synopsis: After a chance encounter with “The Master,” the wife of a small-town minister discovers a new sense of power and an appetite to live bigger and bolder than before…even as the body count around her grows.

Stars: Barbara Crampton, Larry Fessenden, Bonnie Aarons, Sarah Lind, Phillip Jack Brooks, Robert Rusler, Mark Kelly

Director: Travis Stevens

Rated: NR

Running Length: 98 minutes

TMMM Score: (2/10)

Review: Growing up, movie length was a big deal to me for some reason.  I think it was because I enjoyed going to the movies (and film in general, let’s be real) so much that the longer the movies were, the more time I could be lost in that experience.  When a movie I was waiting forever for, like Batman Returns, clocked in over two hours, I rejoiced.  If the umpteenth horror sequel in a long running franchise along the lines of Halloween H20: 20 Years Later only made it to 86 minutes (with credits) it filled me with honest to goodness grief.  Eventually, I started to realize that 86 minutes might equal less character development in favor of pure audience pleasing thrills and over two hours could mean an overstuffed narrative that was unnecessary to the overall plot. It all depended on the movie. 

Now, reviewing movies as much as I do, you better believe I pay attention to time because it’s more precious than ever when you have multiple films to watch.  Did that Australian revenge drama I watched a month ago really need to be two and a half hours?  Could a documentary about the ‘90s been a bit longer?  Mostly, I fall on the side of everything needing some trimming; I like a well-paced film but not one that breathlessly needs to finish the race at lighting speed.  Horror films are typically the trickiest to get the timing right and lately I’ve noticed a trend away from the shorter, rock ‘em, sock ‘em thrills in favor of the more auteur-driven pieces, handsomely made efforts that milk all they can out of extra time that winds up counteracting their good intentions. 

Lonely Anne (Barbara Crampton, You’re Next) dreamed of traveling the world but instead has spent her formidable years as the wife of a minister in a tiny town on the outskirts of Nowheresville.  Her stoic husband (Larry Fessenden, The Dead Don’t Die) is a fuddy-duddy bore that appears to notice the unhappiness present in his congregants more than in her.  You understand why she jumps at the chance to meet up with a former flame (Robert Rusler, Scream, Queen! My Nightmare on Elm Street) who even in his current middle-aged state reminds her of the chances she didn’t take.  It turns out to be too little too late for both, because they wind up touring an abandoned warehouse where things heat up but blood runs cold as they come across the temporary resting spot of a new monster in town. 

That’s not the end of Anne’s story however, because she emerges from the warehouse a changed woman.  She’s stronger and more confident, able to speak up when once before she was less inclined to say what she wanted.  More importantly, she finds a nice big cup of blood makes all of her new senses amplified tenfold…the fresher, the better.  Her husband doesn’t understand what’s happening to his newly sexualized wife but gets an idea quickly after a run-in with a missing parishioner that also had a nighttime meet-up with The Master (Bonnie Aarons, The Nun), a Nosferatu-ish rat-like beast that likes to whisper names and rip open necks that explode with blood for feasting.  With Anne transitioning into a ghastly beast and Jakob waking up and realizing her value, it’s time to exterminate The Master once and for all. 

Nothing would have made me happier than to report that Jakob’s Wife is worthy of your time and, more importantly, of a horror icon like Barbara Crampton’s.  Sadly, it’s a gore snore that appears to have spent more time and energy on devising ways to get blood the color and consistency of Hawaiian Punch to gush like a geyser out of necks than it did on any other production value.  Aarons make-up as The Master is ghoulish to be sure but it also feels like vampire-rodent 101. As an actress, Aarons is quite good at selling these freaky creations but even she can’t get this fiend to frighten. 

If Crampton had been afforded more of the true spotlight with interesting moments we haven’t seen before, the film may have cut some new territory as well.  Instead, the revitalized Anne trades her gray sweats and mousy hair for the vamp tramp look which is about as cliché as you can get.  Crampton didn’t get to her legendary status in horror for her acting, let’s be honest, but she brings a certain aura of sophistication to her roles. Even she looks uncomfortably out of sorts for the majority of the film, a rare occurrence. It’s likely because Anne may change outwardly but screenwriters Kathy Charles, & Mark Steensland (who I discovered was a production intern on 1987’s Mannequin…a trivia fact I had to include) haven’t done much to show the true changes she feels within…and that can’t be left to Crampton to do on her own.  In a similar vein (heh heh) Fessenden has a certain genre following that I don’t quite understand, and he doesn’t fit this material in the least.  Dead or undead, Anne needs to pack it in and leave Jakob in the dust and we don’t need to wait 90 minutes to understand this.  As for the rest of the supporting cast, let’s leave them with their anonymity as they deserve. 

What a curiously bad film like Jakob’s Wife serves to remind us of is that no matter what, horror will live on in interesting forms.  I just don’t think it needed to be a feature film that’s quite so long.  At over 90 minutes, it doesn’t have the plot (or, frankly, the budget) to make its case and that becomes brutally clear with each passing frame.  Instead, I wish a director like Travis Stevens, who has begun to make a name for himself in horror with a buzzy calling card flick like Girl on the Third Floor, would gather his contemporaries and get back to the anthology days of the fight film.  A number of genre directors right now have interesting ideas, can attract decent names, know how to stretch a buck, but often feel the need to make everything feature length.  I’d be willing to bet a nickel or two that if Stevens, who also co-wrote, presented Jakob’s Wife as a thirty-minute chapter in a longer anthology the reaction to the film would be far different.  In its current state, it doesn’t do anyone, apart from the special effects folk, any favors. 

Indie horror is where the creative juices can flow and that’s why Jakob’s Wife should have found some more skilled ways to subvert the vampire genre considering its limitations.  Instead, it feels like the filmmakers embraced these shortcomings too much and tossed their money behind the wrong horse.  We’ve seen excessive blood flow and gore before…what we really want are the stories and characters to back-it all up.  Without that, it’s all rat droppings. 

Available in Select Theaters, On Demand, and Digital on April 16th

Movie Review ~ Son (2021)

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: When a young boy contracts a mysterious illness, his mother must decide how far she will go to protect him from terrifying forces in her past.

Stars: Emile Hirsch, Andi Matichak, Luke David Blumm, Kristine Nielsen, Rocco Sisto, Erin Bradley Dangar, Cranston Johnson

Director: Ivan Kavanaugh

Rated: NR

Running Length: 98 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review:  When it comes to writing reviews, I find that I’m not one of those people that is good with the ‘instant reactions’ that like to be gathered up the moment the lights pop on and we’re left wincing like newborn moles.  I need some time to think over the film I just saw and while my opinion might not shift too far in either direction there are a number of times when the longer I sit with a movie I’m middling on, the more I’ll find myself thinking of reasons why I liked it.  It’s the films I know are turkeys you don’t want me to stew over; that will only lead to me getting more creative with my takedowns.

The new horror film Son is a solid example of one that moved up a couple of notches in my book in the weeks after I saw it.  Originally, when it finished, my first reaction was that I found it to be a little too perfunctory and not where I wanted it to have settled itself.  Though I had enjoyed most of what writer/director Ivan Kavanaugh had presented over the preceding 90-ish minutes, I wasn’t sure the ending provided me with the wrap-up that made the most sense.  Then, since I rarely book it to the computer and do my write-up, I had a good three weeks to give the movie more consideration and it led to a greater appreciation as an above average effort.  Though it still has some weak spots that no amount of time were going to patch, it juggles competing narratives well and manages to keep the audience in the dark concerning what exactly is happening longer than expected.

It’s best that you keep yourself free from distractions during Son because there’s a lot of clues dropped throughout by Kavanaugh that may help you solve the mystery of why a young pregnant girl is fleeing in the middle of the night from shadowy figures that are pursing her.  Eventually giving birth in the back of a car as she makes her way to freedom, the timeline jumps ahead several years after Laura (Andi Matichak, Halloween) has moved on from her past and made a life for herself and her young son David (Luke David Blumm, The King of Staten Island) within the tranquility of a quiet town.  As the young schoolteacher grades papers one evening while David sleeps, she thinks she hears a noise and goes to investigate, her body naturally on high alert thinking someone from long ago has returned for her.  She’s mistaken though.  It’s not an intruder.  It’s many.

It’s a great scene to propel the film into its second act, giving Laura reason to fear for David’s safety after he is stricken with a terrible disease that puts his life in jeopardy.  As she cares for her son and gets closer to a detective assigned to her case (Emile Hirsch, The Autopsy of Jane Doe), we still never can quite figure out where she came from or why the target on her back might have shifted over to her son.   Determined to protect her child against an evil she can’t see outright, Laura eventually takes matters into her own hands, drawing on her dark past and the horrors that come with it.  The further Laura and David run, the more bodies pile up in their wake until the police and Laura’s love interest begin to question if they are chasing a vicious killer or being sent on a wild good chase.

For a film that hinges on a twist that is revealed early on, I was a bit surprised at how Kavanagh manages to keep us questioning the solution almost until the very end.  He’s gone ahead and very nearly told us what’s going on but then continues to shuffle his puzzle pieces around, forcing us to second guess ourselves.  That makes for a fun experience and likely why the ho-hum ending felt so flat in comparison. It felt like we traveled a long road with these characters only to run out of gas five miles outside of town.  So it mostly falls to Matichak to round off some of these rough edges and she’s excellent (though a tad young) as the harried mother trying to do right.  Hirsch seems too young as well but he’s the kind of pro that can sell an age disparity to us with ease.  I must admit it was tough to warm up to Blumm at first and it takes a while to see what Laura sees in David, but it’s in the latter half of the film when the action takes a brutally bloody turn that the young actor earns his stripes quite assuredly.

What keeps me coming back to movies like Son are the promise of a new idea in the horror genre or scary storytelling that I haven’t seen before.  Or, maybe not even as restrictive as that.  Let’s say a variation to an existing way to frighten that has bothered to take the time to really think about the kind of work that’s out there and actively tries to take a different approach.  Even if it isn’t 100% successful, critics (and fans of this variety of film) often applaud that reach and eventually want to see more from those involved. Son isn’t a perfect film, but it’s closer to hitting the mark than you might originally think after sitting with it for a time.  Thanks to some spine-tingly imagery and committed performances that add to the realistic tone Kavanaugh achieves, it’s a laudable effort that’s well worth your time to check out.

Movie Review ~ The Reckoning

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The Facts
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Synopsis: In the aftermath of the Great Plague and amidst the subsequent witch-hunts against women, a young widow grapples with the tragic death of her husband in a society completely consumed by fear and death and faces her own inner demons as the devil himself starts to work his way into her mind.

Stars: Charlotte Kirk, Sean Pertwee, Steven Waddington, Joe Anderson, Suzanne Magowan, Ian Whyte, Callum Goulden, Sarah Lambie, Leon Ockenden

Director: Neil Marshall

Rated: NR

Running Length: 110 minutes

TMMM Score: (1/10)

Review:  In the early 2000’s there was the real possibility that UK director Neil Marshall could have made a significant play for the big leagues.  Achieving good notices for his first feature film in 2002, the cult werewolf creature feature Dog Soldiers, he followed that up in 2005 with the bona fide classic in the horror genre, The Descent.  I vividly remember seeing that majestically haunting movie after hearing the advance buzz and the reports on how truly scary it was and wondering during the screening who was screeching so loudly at the numerous terrifying moments…only to realize it was me.  Marshall clearly was gaining momentum.  Of course, Hollywood came calling and if the next films weren’t all that creative, they weren’t bad but didn’t make a dent at the box office.  Retreating to television for the next decade, Marshall wouldn’t make another film until the failed attempt to reboot the Hellboy franchise and, well, all know how that turned out.

Imagine my surprise to see Marshall’s name attached to an indie horror film like The Reckoning and you better believe I was all over that screening opportunity.  Something about the film’s subject matter (witch hunts around the Great Plauge near the end of the 17th century) seemed to fit perfectly with Marshall’s oeuvre and I wondered if this wouldn’t be a fine return to form for the director that clearly had a sense for visuals, just not one for picking the right scripts to make those visuals come to life.  Then I started to get more information and my hopes started to sink.  The film was co-written, executive produced, and starring Charlotte Kirk.  Charlotte Kirk is Marshall’s fiancé.  Oh.  It started to make sense why he’d be involved in a smaller picture like this but I still held out some hope it wouldn’t be a mere vanity project for the lovebirds to hang out together and get paid for it.  After The Reckoning is released to the public on February 5th, I’ll be amazed if they ever tie the knot.

It’s been a while since I’ve seen a movie so ineptly terrible as The Reckoning and I’ve seen a lot of ‘em.  My tolerance for these genre offerings are high so when I tell you I seriously considered stopping this on several occasions and pretending the link never arrived in my inbox, take it to heart at how poor this experience can be for you if you get a notion to explore the horrors that Kirk, Marshall, and company have worked up for you.  (By the way, I would never do that…pretend a link never arrived so I wouldn’t have to review it — I’m in it for the long haul no matter what!)  Whatever promise of jangled nerves was held in the very real story of women falsely accused of witchery and subjected to brutal tortures and death is replaced by your own fear of never escaping the dungeon of repulsive imagery, sets so cheap a brisk wind would knock them over, and acting so horrendous it makes a chicken in a cage playing Tic-Tac-Toe look like Chekov.

You have to hand it to Marshall, it takes bravery to follow-up an extended title sequence that alternates between the production credits and a slow motion shot of an unknown family being forcibly removed from their home with another drawn out scene showing how new mother Grace Haverstock (Kirk, Non-Stop) has come to bury her husband Joseph (Joe Anderson, The Grey) after he winds up at the end of a noose.  I can’t verify this and I didn’t write it down, but I’m fairly certain Marshall acts as his own editor so these were his decisions and it gets the movie off to a glacial pace, hobbling it narratively from the get go.  Without a man to provide for her, Grace asks the owner of their land for an extension on their rent but he’ll only consider a different kind of payment that she isn’t willing to fu…I mean, fork over.

In those days, there was nothing worse than a man with a hurt pride and finger to point out the latest woman that rejected his advances as a witch.  Before long, Grace is in prison surrounded by pestilence and growing visions of a horned devil that prefers her without clothes and greased up, if possible.  No one will step up to save Grace, especially when she comes before the Witchfinder General Moorcroft (Sean Pertwee, Event Horizon) and his assistant Ursula (Suzanne Magowan) a former accused witch burned at the stake by Moorcroft that survived and now works to help him do the same to other women.  (Y’know, a real girls girl.  Gee, thanks Ursula!)  Though he doesn’t know it, Grace has history with Moorcroft and as his methods of extracting a confession out of her grow more devious, she plots a revenge that has been long in the making.

In the honor of full transparency and giving the little credit I can offer, there’s a rather interesting story going on in The Reckoning that I thought could have been explored/exploited to a far greater effect had the filmmakers access to better, well, everything.  It’s the production across the board that makes the film sink like a stone and stink like a sore.  I’m sure Kirk and co-screenwriters Marshall and Edward Evers-Swindell must have done SOME kind of research in putting this storyline together, it’s just a waste of a story with such silly execution.  If you don’t outright laugh the first time you see the small “town” in the middle of a green field I applaud you.  It looks like someone cut out a castle from a children’s book, scanned it, and photoshopped it onto a postcard.  Really terrible.

If you ever wondered how long eye make-up stayed on in the 17th century, especially after being lashed multiple times, take a look around the halfway mark of the film and see Kirk’s nigh-perfect eyeliner and mascara.  She’s just been whipped within an inch of her life but her face looks gorgeous, darling.  In fact, though her body is put through the wringer (one scene in particular is so far over the line of good taste I’m not surprised it took over a year for the film to find a distributor) her lipstick and foundation game are always on point.  The rest of the cast are best left unmentioned in the hopes they will all either go on with their lives in a different chosen profession or find better projects next time.  The only one I will call out is Magowan who is a bright spot as the only character that appears increasingly conflicted (at least adequately) as the brutality against Grace goes on.  She’s obviously been through something similar and lived to tell about it.  Her burned flesh is covered by black robes and her face is hidden by a fabric veil but just through her eyes we can see the worry grow.  It’s a lively performance in an otherwise deathly film.

Absolutely the lowest of the low where film is concerned, the only consolation is that Marshall may eventually make a comeback on a smaller scale and leave the feature length films alone.  His television work has been impressive in the name recognition but sporadic in terms of occurrence.  It’s because of these types of blunders that sully his once-good name.  I won’t even go into all the mess surrounding Kirk (Google her and do investigate yourself) but starring in this one awful movie isn’t going to do any more damage at this point in time.  The final question of The Reckoning is more or less if you’re willing to sit through nearly two bodaciously bad hours of this nonsense.

Movie Review ~ Psycho Goreman

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The Facts
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Synopsis: After unearthing a gem that controls an evil monster looking to destroy the Universe, a young girl and her brother use it to make him do their bidding.

Stars: Matthew Ninaber, Nita-Josee Hanna, Owen Myre, Adam Brooks, Alexis Kara Hancey, Kristen MacCulloch, Reece Presley, Rick Amsbury, Matthew Kennedy, Timothy Paul McCarthy, Conor Sweeney, Robert Homer, Anna Tierney, Rich Evans

Director: Steven Kostanski

Rated: NR

Running Length: 99 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review:  During the tumult of 2020, one big positive I took was getting to see more indie horror films long before they became another new release to add to a growing queue of titles I would struggle to return to.  With space on the schedule thanks to the studios moving their bigger projects out months or years, my inbox became an increasingly fertile ground for all kinds of features with creatures both real and imaginary. Most were expectedly good, some unexpectedly great, and of course we had a stinker or two that just balanced everything out in the end in my eyes.  Each week there seemed to be something new to spook you and it’s important to keep these studios/titles/filmmakers in mind as we head into 2021 when we start to get back to “normal.”  That’s a thought for another day though because there’s another title out that’s worth your time here and now and while Psycho Goreman may have some rough edges and more schlock than shock, it’s a goofy good time that can serve as a throwback for fans wanting retro kicks or a perfectly enjoyable modern take on a popular formula.

As the film opens, an introductory scroll tells us of the Archduke of Nightmares and how he was defeated by the good people of the planet Gigax.  Imprisoned on Earth for his crimes and separated from his power source, a glowing gem that was buried deep within the soil, his reign of terror over the galaxy was put to an end and everyone lived happily ever after.  That is, until the present day when suburban siblings Mimi (Nita-Josee Hanna) and Luke (Owen Myre) accidentally awaken the demon during their afternoon match of Crazyball and hypercompetitive Mimi winds up with her bratty hands on the amulet he is desperate to be reunited with to regain his full strength.  Realizing that as long as she has what he wants he’ll do anything for her, she names her new pet Psycho Goreman (PG for short) and sets about wreaking almost as much havoc as PG did, sometimes with more disastrous results.

In between montages of PG learning about the people of Earth, there are secret neighborhood crushes turned into a oozing oversized brain and a run in with the police that turns into a face melting bad time for one of the officers.  To the increasingly horrified Luke, this is the stuff of nightmares, but to Mimi it’s her own plan for world domination coming to fruition…just a few years earlier than she expected.  As Mimi and Luke befriend PG, who grits his teeth as Mimi’s personal gopher, galaxies away his revival has sent an alarm to the Gigax elders and alerted them that their ancient nemesis may be making a return visit.  In short order, the alabaster warrior Pandora (Kristen MacCulloch) is sent to Earth to make it clear they aren’t accepting visitors. Then, when a horde of PG’s former fiendish allies also descend upon the small town and several double-crosses are revealed that loop in the kids’ squabbling parents (Alexis Kara Hancey & Adam Brooks), Mimi and Luke turn to their beastly bud for assistance and find that PG might turn out to be the savior of Earth and not its destroyer.

Writer/director Steven Kostanski has a clear affinity for the low-budget efforts from studios like Troma, Full Moon Entertainment, and Empire Pictures.  These production houses churned out cult classics that might have been stuck together with goopy glue and popsicle sticks that still had remnants of a Fudgsicle on them, but they were so much fun to watch you hardly minded.  Film production has come a long way since then so Psycho Goreman uses its low budget in all the right places, going sparse in the way of special effects and focusing on make-up and costuming instead.  That’s where the creative energy really starts to flow and there are several of the old PG friends that were designed to be so disgusting and/or funny that you very nearly want to stand up and applaud the imagination brought to life.

That same energy flows into the performances as well, starting with Matthew Ninaber under layers of latex (and, later, some goofy costumes to disguse himself) as the titular character.  The suit is always a suit but it has a surprisingly effective presence even when you can see it puckering in at odd angles on the actor.  All of the actors in full costume deserve major props for navigating what I’m sure where hard conditions to film in; it can’t have been comfortable, but the results are well worth the efforts.  If the humans feel a little second banana, it’s only because they are so ordinary compared to the extraordinary nature of their out-of-this-world co-stars.  Audiences are either going to love Hanna’s preposterously awful Mimi or wish she’d get a laser blast to the cranium post haste and while it took me longer than it probably should have to warm up to her, by the end I understood why she had to be drawn with such big bold lines.

Definitely bound to appear on every “Best Movies You Haven’t Heard Of” lists for whatever streaming service this one lands on and more than likely headed toward a status of cult, Psycho Goreman is a fun film that takes itself only as seriously as you’d let it.  It delivers everything it promises and more, with a plot that’s more fleshed out than usual, excellent physical effects that blend nicely with computer generated ones, and performances that sell the material without turning it into a poorly timed farce.  The final act (and specifically the last 15 or so minutes) is really going to tweak a sweet spot for horror fans but by then I’m betting most viewers will already have been won over by PG’s R-rated antics.

Movie Review ~ Archenemy

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The Facts
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Synopsis: A teen meets a mysterious man who claims he lost his superpowers after arriving from another dimension. Together, they take to the streets to wipe out a vicious crime boss and his local drug syndicate.

Stars: Joe Manganiello, Skylan Brooks, Zolee Griggs, Amy Seimetz, Glenn Howerton, Paul Scheer

Director: Adam Egypt Mortimer

Rated: NR

Running Length: 90 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: Showing you just how much time truly has flown during this whole being cooped up in our homes for much of 2020 business, I could have sworn that Archenemy director Adam Egypt Mortimer’s previous film Daniel Isn’t Real came out earlier this year.  Looking back at my reviews, however, points out that my write-up for that ambitious yet not quite satisfying mind-bending thriller came out a little over a year ago.  Though I wasn’t ultimately sold on the merits of that film being a solid success, there were enough good ideas to keep me interested in seeing what Mortimer was going to get up to next and I guess I got my wish faster than it felt like I would.

For his third feature, Mortimer is changing things up a bit.  While his first two movies Some Kind of Hate and Daniel Isn’t Real were more horror-oriented and co-written with Brian DeLeeuw (Paradise Hills), Archenemy has a different tone to it and that could be due to co-writer Lucas Passmore coming onboard.  From the start, there’s a feeling that Archenemy, with its comic book animation prologue and noir-ish voice over narration from star Joe Manganiello is going to be something with an original spin and thankfully the screenplay and direction deliver that and then some.  Though it shows some cracks here and there and takes a hair longer to find its rhythm, when Archenemy locks in on its target it can’t miss.  And you shouldn’t miss it either.

I was a little scared at first that I’d mistakenly agreed to screen and review a completely animated feature…and not the kind of animation that has true movement to it but one with static images that sort of just slide.  Y’know?  It’s unsophisticated and rough, coupled with Manganiello (Magic Mike XXL) delivering some ultra-serious backstory about Max Fist, his galactic hero persona from another dimension and how he wound up crash landing on earth.  Thankfully, the animation acts as connecting pieces of storytelling and turn out to be enjoyable bits of fantasy as the movie races through its brisk 90 minute run time.  Eventually revealing this animated introduction morph into the live-action main feature, picking up Manganiello in the middle of a typical drunken rant.  From what we gather, the ragged and homeless earth-bound Max will deliver his origin story to anyone that listens and it’s just the first way the screenwriters keep us guessing along the way if Max is truly who he says he is or if the guy is just felled with mental instability.

More on Max later because the focus soon turns to two siblings living different lives from within the same tiny apartment.  Hamster (Skylan Brooks, Southpaw) wants to be a writer for a hot social networking site and winds up finding Max to be the perfect subject that will attract readers with his interesting tales of space warriors and battles from the stars being fought amongst the world population.  On the flip side of things, his sister Indigo (Zolee Griggs, Bit) sees an opportunity to earn more money for the future by sidling up to The Manager (Glenn Howerton, The Hunt) a crime boss that takes a liking to her and gives her an opportunity to prove herself.  As Hamster follows Max around and gains his trust, Indigo heads off on her first assignment…and that’s where the worlds of the two siblings begin their path toward eventual collision.  When an encounter with a no goodnik (Paul Scheer) that’s holding a bundle of money goes south, Indigo finds herself with a target on her back, unwittingly involving her brother and Max in a war that’s closer to them all then they originally thought.

This is one film that was a nice surprise to find, not just because it has an almost jovial charm gleaned from its well-cast leads but thanks to an abundance of creative energy that helps it glow in key moments.  There’s that constant question lingering on the sidelines of the action if Max Fist really is from another world and that helps create a nice sense of anticipation anytime the siblings get into a bind and need his help.  Credit to Mortimer and Passmore for not chickening out when moving toward their resolution that sees the arrival of a mysterious blonde (Amy Seimetz, Pet Sematary and the director of She Dies Tomorrow earlier this year) with a connection to The Manager who looks an awful lot like Fist’s nemesis from a different solar system.

I think audiences that happen upon Archenemy will be in for a pleasant, if not entirely life-changing, fun time of a film and one that feels like an intelligent substitution for the blockbuster comic book hero movies we didn’t get this summer.  Though smaller in scale than those big-budget behemoths, there’s something mighty aspirational at the core of Archenemy that gives it some tremendously fantastical and unexpectedly entertaining passages.  A nice film for a laid-back weekend watch.

Movie Review ~ The Dark and the Wicked

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The Facts
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Synopsis: When adult siblings Louise and Michael return to the farm where they grew up to say goodbye to their dying father and comfort their distressed mother, they soon find themselves overwhelmed by waking nightmares and an unstoppable evil that threatens to consume them all.

Stars: Marin Ireland, Michael Abbott Jr., Xander Berkeley, Lynn Andrews, Julie Oliver-Touchstone

Director: Brian Bertino

Rated: R

Running Length: 95 minutes

TMMM Score: (5/10)

Review: Now that we’re in November and I’ve made it through October’s 31 Days to Scare, where I bombarded myself with numerous scare titles throughout the course of the month (numbering more than 31 I should add), I had a realization.  There’s a simplicity in the best scary movies that no loud music stings, gory displays of bloodletting, or cats thrown in front of the camera to make you leap back in your seat can match.  Not every filmmaker has that kind of restraint to resist the urge to go for that easy out.  So whether it be an antsy studio worried their target audience won’t be satisfied or a director that gives into their commercial side of the brain, I started to notice how many films wind up on this path…especially the thrown cats.

It’s been twelve years, but I think my nerves still haven’t quite recovered from seeing The Strangers, director Brian Bertino’s 2008 debut feature, so I was prepared for the same kind of spine-jangling experience with his fourth film, The Dark and the Wicked.  Bertino is a filmmaker that takes his time between films and doesn’t seem to be driven or tempted by the financial side of the business.  In all honesty, I haven’t seen the two films he’s made since The Strangers but get the impression they follow the same efficient tactics he employed in his first film.  Watching his new offering as part of The 56th Chicago International Film Festival, I tried to recreate that experience from home by checking it out late at night with all the lights off.  While it has the requisite scares that admirably often emanate not from something leaping out but just quietly appearing in the frame, if you sweep all that away there’s not a whole lot left for the film to offer viewers seeking more than a quick thrill.

Not that Bertino and his cast don’t give it a helluva good college try.  I almost instantly regretted starting it so late and considered turning a small light on thanks to a prologue that opens in a workroom adjacent to an isolated farmhouse where a woman (Julie Oliver-Touchstone) works mending clothes late at night.  What’s scary about that, you may ask?  Well, all the mannequins, of course.  A disturbance among her farm animals is the first sign to us of imminent danger but is gradually revealed as an evil presence that has set up residence on the property, preying on her and her invalid husband.

The arrival of the couple’s two grown children should alleviate some of this burden but both bring their own baggage along.  Louise (Marin Ireland, The Irishman) is single and without much in her life, a never-worn wedding dress still sitting half-completed in her mother’s workshop.  Leaving his wife and two young daughters at their home a far distance away, Michael (Michael Abbott Jr., The Death of Dick Long) has returned after a long absence to confront some guilt he’s pushed down for not being there to help in the care of his sick parent.  These emotions play a part in the overall horrors that unfold over the time the family spends together, with late night happenings turning from frightening to tragic.

Bertino keeps up a good sense of dread, at least for a while.  Yet it becomes repetitive and stagnant quicker than I had hoped.  Despite a rather unsettling visit from a preacher man (Xander Berkeley, The Wall of Mexico) their agnostic mother had supposedly found comfort in, the cycle of nightly spooky sights runs out of steam.  In films like this that depend on engagement, once the mind starts to wonder what the point of all this intense terror is for, you know something is amiss.  Also, the whole fractured family trope with grown children returning home to find one or more of their parents “not quite right” feels stale and the cracks show in Bertino’s script, though the performances try to keep it fresh.

I tried to like The Dark and the Wicked, actively tried, but the longer it kept establishing and re-establishing the broken relationships and continued in its bleak journey toward nowhere, the less I was interested in the destination.  In his past films, Bertino has been more comfortable in a certain inevitability with his characters but here he doesn’t seem totally able to decide if he wants to relinquish their fates with as much of a clear cut message. That leaves them and the viewer in a strange, uncomfortable place…and not in a good way.

**Note: A shorter version of this review appeared in my coverage of The 56th Chicago International Film Festival**