Candy Corn

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It’s almost Halloween. A group of local punks decide to honor their longtime tradition of pranking the local outcast while he’s at work at the visiting freak show. When the guys take things too far, a ritual is used to bring him back to life. Now he will take his revenge on this sleepy little town.

For me, Candy Corn has been one of my most anticipated horror films of the year.  The film was written, directed, edited, and produced by Josh Hasty (Honeyspider, In Hell Everybody Loves Popcorn: The Making of 31).  Immediately we are introduced to the group of young adults who just love hazing the local outcast, Jacob. The three young men are your typical small-town jerks who get pleasure out of other people’s misery. When they accidentally kill Jacob, it is Jacob’s employer, Dr. Death, who comes up with a plan to bring him back. This introduction to the various characters automatically makes the audience despise the locals and sympathize with Jacob and the freaks. It also plays well to those in the audience who have ever been bullied. When it comes down to it, that’s all those who tormented Jacob really are; a bunch of bullies. Watching them get torn apart is incredibly satisfying.

The film is one part supernatural and one part slasher resulting in a thrilling and bloody ride. This blend of horror subgenres helps to make Candy Corn the perfect fall film. It captures the essence of what horror fans love about this time of year. Part of that Halloween feel also comes from the filmmakers who clearly influenced Hasty in this film. The most obvious influences are John Carpenter and Rob Zombie. From the filming style to the sets to the characters and the music, Hasty shows his passion for the great filmmakers who came before him while still creating a film that is entirely his own. Even though those influences are clearly felt, Hasty still creates a really entertaining and unique mythos around the freak show and the ritual Dr. Death. Hasty wisely leaves some of the mythology vague, yet gives the audience enough to follow what’s happening, which leaves the film open to sequels that expand on that mythos.

It is clear that each artistic decision made by Hasty was chosen to make Candy Corn a new Halloween classic. From the first frames the look of the film transports the audience back to the 70’s. While it isn’t explicitly stated, it is clear from the wardrobe, the cars, and the technology used in the film. Even the somewhat gritty look of the film and the slightly washed-out colors harken back to that era of filmmaking. This time period and look also feel very reminiscent of Carpenter’s and Zombie’s films. One thing that doesn’t work quite as well is the use of freeze frames and removing audio, except for the music, in scenes where people are killed. This is similar to some of Zombie’s filming methods. It looked interesting in a couple scenes, but it is a bit overused throughout the film.

Other artistic elements help to make the film exciting, gory, and fun. The mask worn by Jacob when he returns to exact his revenge is absolutely terrifying. It almost looks as if a jack o’lantern was combined with the Michael Myers mask to create something out of a nightmare. Candy Corn also primarily sticks to gruesome practical effects for the kills. Each kill has a high level of brutality created with the practical effects and minor CGI enhancement, mostly utilized to add extra blood spatter. Then of course there is a fantastic score composed by both Hasty and Michael Booker. It is ominous, yet has a lightness to it that helps to build both suspense and excitement. Much like the plot, the score simply feels like the Halloween season.

This indie film has several faces horror fans know and love. Courtney Gains (Children of the Corn, The Funhouse Massacre) stars as the local sheriff, Sam Bramford. The sheriff tries his best to keep the peace between the local punks and the visiting freak show, but when the bodies start piling up he’s left with no choice. Acting opposite him is Pancho Moler (31, American Fright Fest) as Dr. Death, leader of the freak show. While on the surface he seems stern and mistrusting of outsiders, it is also clear that he cares deeply for his freaks and is sick of seeing them treated like second-class citizens. These two characters play off each other quite well because neither of them is purely good or bad, they simply want to protect the ones they care for. Unfortunately, they care for people on opposing sides. Other notable horror favorites are Tony Todd (Candyman, Final Destination), PJ Soles (Halloween [1978], Carrie), and Sky Elobar (The Greasy Strangler, The Rocker).

When it comes to the group of punks who attack Jacob, the performances are well done, but the casting is a bit confusing. The group is played by Cy Creamer in his feature film debut as Steve, Madison Russ (Junkie) as Carol, Caleb Thomas (The Terror of Hallow’s Eve) as Bobby, and Jimothy Beckholt (Corky and Bob Get a Job!) as Mike. They all do a great job of making the audience dislike their characters, which in turn makes it more fun to watch them die. The issue is it is difficult to figure out what age these kids are supposed to be. Most of the actors could pass for teenagers or very early 20’s, yet Beckholt appears to be older than the rest of the group. It may be a small detail, but in a genre where it’s typically either teens or college kids being slaughtered, that missing piece stood out.

Candy Corn is a love letter to Halloween and classic slashers of the 70’s and 80’s that is sure to be a holiday favorite for horror fans. Hasty’s passion for filmmaking and his influences are clearly felt. It perfectly balances the line between homage and originality resulting in a violent thrill ride with a unique mythology. The cast of horror fan favorites and newcomers all do a fantastic job. Then of course the film looks like it came straight from the 70’s, has gory practical effects, and the score is so fantastic that I can’t wait to buy it. You’ll want to watch the film now and then again for Halloween.

OVERALL RATING: 8.5/10

Tigers Are Not Afraid

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Drug wars have turned cities into ghost towns. They have also left children without parents or homes, forced to fend for themselves on the streets. After Estrella’s mother doesn’t come home, she is left to seek shelter and help from a group of orphaned boys. Their fight for survival on those unkind streets takes the children down a twisted fairy tale complete with wishes, zombies, and tigers.

Written and directed by Issa López (Casi Divas, Ladies’ Night), this film is one of the most talked about indie horror films of the year. Much of the talk about Tigers Are Not Afraid is thanks to legendary director Guillermo del Toro (Pan’s Labyrinth, The Shape of Water) singing its praises. Much like traditional fairy tales, the film opens by introducing us to the lovely “princess” in the form of Estrella. Everything that happens in the film is either shown from her point of view or the leader of the orphaned boys, Shine. They are all doing their best to survive on the streets while avoiding the cartels. At the same time, Estrella is haunted by the memory of her mother and the weight of three chalk pieces that may or may not be able to grant her wishes. She bears this weight all on her own since the other orphans don’t see the things Estrella sees. This childlike point of view allows for the reality of the brutal crimes happening all around the kids to seamlessly blend together with the fantastical elements. The result is an incredibly unique story that is as unsettling as it is beautiful.

All of the main characters in Tigers Are Not Afraid are children, and each of them is a joy to watch on the screen. Young leading lady, Paola Lara, makes her feature film debut as Estrella. When Estrella joins the group of boys, she immediately takes on a maternal role, yet her longing for her mother keeps her trapped in the twisted fairy tale. Lara manages to show a certain amount of vulnerability, while also showing how Estrella is able to adapt in order to survive. Also making his feature film debut is Juan Ramón López as Shine. His performance, for me, is the stand-out of the film. Poor Shine is both emotionally and physically scarred from losing his mother to the cartels. Shine takes care of the other boys and takes on a tough-guy persona, but López shows the ocean of emotional depth hidden just beneath the surface of that persona. Both Lara and López are great on screen together, naturally taking on the roles of mother and father to the other boys despite being kids themselves. The other children in their small band of orphans are also a joy to watch, including Hanssel Casillas (Sitiados: México) as Tucsi, Rodrigo Cortés as Pop, and Nery Arredondo as the adorable Morrito.

The film is a feast for both your eyes and ears. As the film begins, the sets are slightly run down apartments and makeshift rooftop shelters. Then the fairy tale element is played up more throughout the film when the kids discover what appears to be an abandoned old mansion. What might be the most surprising artistic element of Tigers Are Not Afraid is the superb use of CGI. For the most part, the effects themselves are subtle, but because they all relate to the fantasy in the plot the effects still stand out. There are dragons, sentient blood trails, tigers, and more all done with gorgeous CGI. Then of course the plot is emphasized by the melancholy and captivating score by composer Vince Pope (Misfits, Black Mirror). The film is stunning on how well it combines the horrors of life and nightmares with the hope of children and their fairy tales.

Tigers Are Not Afraid is a uniquely dark fairy tale rooted in the real life horrors experienced by children. López has shown the world she can not only write a compelling film, but she can also direct and bring it to life in a way that is simultaneously haunting and heartbreaking. It is the kind of film that can make the audience feel the full gamut of emotions through effective storytelling and fantastical visuals, not to mention the amazing performances from the entire cast of young actors. One thing I will warn people of is that this Mexican film is in Spanish and is subtitled. While this should never deter a viewer from watching a film, I know in this day and age many people shy away from subtitled films. Tigers Are Not Afraid is the kind of film that will be noticed by a wide range of audiences, not just horror fans. I can’t wait to see what López does next.

OVERALL RATING: 9.5/10

Freaks

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Chloe lives alone with her father. He has many rules. The windows must always be covered, the doors have to stay locked, and Chloe can never go outside or bad people will kill her. Yet, being a child, Chloe wants to go outside and be a normal kid. Her contact with those outside her home will reveal the truth about the outside world.

Freaks is a film that takes a unique approach to an age-old concept. The film is co-written and directed by Zach Lipovsky (Leprechaun: Origins, Ingress Obsessed) and Adam B. Stein (Ingress Obsessed, Nerd Court). Together this duo creates a film that continually manages to subvert expectations. It begins by introducing the audience to a young girl, Chloe, and her dad. They live alone in a dilapidated house with all the windows covered by boards and newspaper. Chloe’s dad is very strict and has elaborate rules that must be followed in order for them to stay alive. After years of living this way, a chance encounter begins to unravel Chloe’s world.

This film effectively keeps the audience guessing by showing everything from Chloe’s perspective. She is a child so everything she knows about the world is what her dad told her. The strange happenings are rationalized in her child mind and the audience is kept guessing as to what the truth behind it all is. We don’t initially know if Chloe’s dad is telling the truth or if he is paranoid. We hear mention of “freaks” and a “mountain,” but the significance and weight of those words mean nothing to Chloe. It’s an effective means of storytelling that allows the filmmakers to reveal things at the pace of a snowball rolling down a mountain; just a small bit at first, but then the revelations get bigger and come barreling down even faster.

At times, Freaks comes across as a more grounded version of an X-Men film. It is much more focused on the familial relationships between father and daughter, but the strange revelations happening around Chloe are still very important to the plot. Because that father-daughter relationship is so vital, it makes certain scenes in which the two do not quite get along a bit jarring. It is normal for a young girl who is just discovering the outside world to act out and rebel a bit. Yet Chloe takes things to a whole new level that seems too extreme. One minute she is a sweet child, the next she seems to be capable of murder. The best way to rationalize this behavior is Chloe’s isolated upbringing and the lack of human interaction to truly understand the difference between right and wrong.

Across the board, Freaks has fantastic performances. The true star of the film is young Lexy Kolker (Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Shooter) as Chloe. Kolker carries the film and pushes the plot forward. At first Kolker portrays Chloe as a sweet young girl who loves her father and follows his rules. As curiosity gets the better of her, an inner ferocity comes out of Chloe. Kolker particularly shines when she is able to bring that ferocity to the surface. Emile Hirsch (Into the Wild, The Autopsy of Jane Doe) plays Chloe’s dad. At first the dad is hard to read. He seems as if he’s paranoid, possibly a drunk, and a generally disheveled man. He clearly loves Chloe, but his sanity isn’t as clear. Hirsch does an amazing job of conveying that paranoia and hysteria, then as the truth is revealed he helps the audience to see the dad in a different light. Hirsch and Kolker play off of each other very well. You can feel the struggle between them, yet you can also very clearly feel the love between father and daughter.

The filmmakers behind Freaks made some very interesting and striking visual choices. This is most evident in the difference between inside and outside Chloe’s home. The shots from inside the house are very dark and dingy. Everything takes on an old, yellowish hue. It makes the home appear even more depressing and unfit for a little girl to live in. The outside world is the exact opposite. That world is bright and every color is so vidid, almost beyond reality. There are also stunning special effects used in the climax of the film. Between the truth about Chloe’s dad and the outside world, there is ample opportunity for the filmmakers to create interesting visual representations with these effects.

Freaks takes a familiar and arguably fatigued sci-fi subgenre and gives in new life. Lipovksy and Stein deliver a compelling story about the relationship between father and daughter. They also put ample focus on the power behind fear of the “other.” The film is brought to life by powerhouse performances from Kolker and Hirsch, as well as stunning visual storytelling. While I have a feeling this film may fly under the radar upon initial release, it has enough mass appeal to garner a cult following as word about the film spreads.

OVERALL RATING: 7/10

Artik

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A group of young boys live on a remote farm with their mother and father. The eldest boy helps his father with some strange tasks, including finding individuals to torture and murder. When the boy meets a man named Holton, who shows him kindness, the life the bizarre family has built is threatened.

Writer and director Tom Botchii Skowronski creates a very unique and strange debut feature film with Artik. The genre bender includes elements of a thriller, sci-fi, and even a bit of superhero flair. The plot follows Boy Adam, a young boy who is seemingly being groomed by his father figure, Artik, to continue his work. Artik is obsessed with comic books and is clearly on some kind of quest to find a certain type of person, yet in most cases he simply ends up brutally murdering these people. Then Boy Adam meets Holton. Holton is a straight-edge man who is likely the first to show the boy any true kindness. That moment is the catalyst that sets the rest of the film in motion as the boy realizes there could be another way of life and Holton attempts to help him. After the disturbing opening, the film takes on more of a gradual build of suspense leading up to the bloody, violent climax.

Artik at first feels like it takes place in an alternate reality. The way the world looks from the boy’s point of view on the farm leads the viewer to believe the world is a dangerous and desolate place. It’s when Holton is introduced that the world of Artik comes back to reality. It’s a very effective bit of filmmaking because it shows how Artik’s delusions influence the boy’s point of view. To him the world is a dark and dangerous place, until Holton shows him the world outside the farm is very different from what he has been lead to believe.

The film is very unique and builds suspense well, but it also leaves a bit too many unanswered questions. For one, Artik’s comic book obsession is almost a bit too subtle. There are some great visual cues including a target with Loki’s face in the center, comic book style drawings of Artik committing his crimes, and even the outfit Artik wears when he commits these crimes makes him look an awful lot like The Winter Soldier. While I don’t mind not knowing where this obsession came from, I wish it was a bit more clear how this obsession dictates his actions. The audience learns early on that Artik is looking for a specific person, or type of person, and that is why he maims and kills. It isn’t until the climax of the film that it is revealed what qualities he is looking for in these people, but it is never fully explained why he wants them. It is also unclear if the boys on the farm are truly Artik’s children or if they were kidnapped and raised on the farm, but the mystery around this doesn’t necessarily detract from the plot.

One of the high points of Artik is the performances. Indie horror fans will likely recognize many of these faces. Chase Williamson (Beyond the Gates, Sequence Break) stars as Holton. He is an interesting character because on the outside he is covered in tattoos, dresses tough, works in a metal shop, and generally looks rough around the edges. Yet his character doesn’t do any drugs or alcohol and immediately shows kindness to a strange boy spray-painting the side of the shop. He is obviously a purely good person. Artik is played by Jerry G. Angelo (American Warfighter, Color of Souls). Angelo is an imposing figure and his portrayal of Artik is incredible to watch as you see him force his decisions on those around him and manipulate the boy to do his bidding. Other great performances from horror fan favorites come from Lauren Ashley Carter (Imitation Girl, Jug Face) as Artik’s wife, Flin Brays, Matt Mercer (Contracted: Phase 2, Beyond the Gates) as addiction counselor Kar, and Gavin White (14 Cameras) as Boy Adam.

The artistic elements, from the score to the practical effects, are all stunning. The film’s score, by Corey Wallace, matches the dark and gritty look of the film and adds to the suspense perfectly. The practical effects in Artik are very well done. There is a fair amount of blood and gore in this film, so the practical effects are a vital part of the storytelling. Each wound and kill are executed quite well, especially one rather gruesome scene involving a fork. Even the set design and wardrobe help with the storytelling of Artik. The most notable of these is the outfit Artik wears when he kills, which I mentioned before as looking similar to The Winter Soldier, aka Bucky Barnes. Fans who know more about that character know he has a sordid past, yet as a whole the character is typically seen as a hero. This likely indicates that is how Artik sees himself. It is the attention to detail like this that really add to the overall appeal of the film.

Artik is a tense film that will appeal to those who love gritty horror and comic books. Skowronski proves he knows how to create compelling characters and build tension within the plot. That being said, there are aspects of the film that remain too vague and unexplained. There are also aspects of the film viewers might not understand as well if they aren’t familiar with the comic book references. Yet the film still combines stunning artistry and a cast filled with indie favorites to bring in a wider horror audience. Between the music, gore, and performances, this film is definitely worth checking out.

OVERALL RATING: 7/10

IT Chapter Two

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It’s been twenty-seven years since the Losers’ Club thought they defeated Pennywise the clown. Now, he’s back and taking children again. The friends are called back to reunite in Derry to try to stop It once again. As they remember their past, the old friends will have to face the monster head-on to break the cycle and save the children of Derry… and themselves.

The second half of Stephen King’s legendary novel is yet again brought to life in IT Chapter Two by screenwriter Gary Dauberman (The Nun, Annabelle Comes Home) and director Andy Muschietti (IT [2017], Mama). The film begins right where the previous film left off, with the Losers’ Club together in the field right after defeating Pennywise for the first time. After seeing a sign from Pennywise, the only person in the group to have stayed in Derry, Mike, calls his friends and reminds them of the promise they made all those years ago. From there the film weaves back and forth between the past and the present as each member of the group is called and brought home, then as their long-forgotten childhood memories finally come back to them. The way the plot is integrated with past and present is done perfectly in a way that still allows the film to naturally flow and move forward.

Dauberman and Muschietti do a fantastic job of including the important scenes and aspects of the source material, while still giving audiences something new. It allows the filmmakers to capture the spirit and feel of the book, even if it is not an exact adaptation. In several scenes, fans of the book will recognize what is happening. Yet there are still many exciting new things that did not come from King’s novel. Some of the changes were entire scenes, while others were more subtle, but impactful changes in the characters. One specific aspect of the novel I know many people were curious to see in the film is the “ritual of Chud.” Without giving away too many details, they do reference the ritual and have it in the film, but it might not be quite what fans of the novel expect. The climax of the film is thrilling, frightening, and heartbreaking. It pays homage to King’s work, but changes things up in order to give fans something unexpected and new.

Considering the IT Chapter Two has an almost three hour run time, somehow the film still felt like it went by very quickly. This is great because it means that, despite the long run time and everything they are able to include, the film is exciting and intriguing enough to keep the audience interested. Yet it also almost feels like many aspects of the film were simply brushed over instead of giving them the more in-depth look they deserved. Considering the length of the source material and how much the filmmakers were able to include in the film, I still applaud this cinematic achievement.

Fans of the first film were likely blown away by the kids’ performances. The adults in IT Chapter Two are no different. Of course, everyone knew James McAvoy (Split, Dark Phoenix) and Jessica Chastain (Mama, Molly’s Game) as adult Bill and Bev would be phenomenal. Jay Ryan (Beauty and the Beast, Terra Nova), who plays adult Ben, is one of the least known actors in the Losers’ Club. What makes his performance so great is how much he is able to convey more than words can with just a look, even when the camera is focused on other characters. James Ransone (Insidious, Generation Kill) is perfect casting as adult Eddie and comes across as the same person as the child we saw in the first film. One of the most surprising performances comes from Isaiah Mustafa (Chuck, Shadowhunters) as adult Mike. He is unrecognizeable as the “Old Spice guy” in this role. Not only does his character get more spotlight than his younger counterpart in the first film, but Mustafa is clearly up to the task and shines in the role. All of these actors are fantastic, but Bill Hader (Trainwreck, Barry) as adult Richie will be the one audiences remember most. Hader is absolutely hilarious, adding some great laugh out loud moments in the middle of the most tense moments. Yet what makes his performance so amazing is the emotional depth he conveys beyond the humor on the surface. Last, but not least, it is important to mention Bill Skarsgård (Castle Rock, IT [2017]) as Pennywise the clown. Just like his performance in the first film, Skarsgård manages to play what is likely the most terrifying clown in movie history.

Between practical effects, CGI, sets, and Easter eggs, IT Chapter Two has many stunning visual elements. As with the first film, the many terrifying creatures and characters IT appears as are a fantastic combination of practical effects and CGI enhancement. The two modes combine seamlessly to create some of the most shocking, disgusting, and frightening imagery. The filmmakers utilize familiar sets from the first film, such as the barrens and the house on Niebolt Street, but also incorporate gorgeous new ones. Some of the most memorable sets are the elegant old inn and the place deep underground where the final showdown takes place. The film also utilizes some really fascinating transitions. These transitions allow the filmmakers to maneuver from the past to the present and back again in unique, beautiful ways.

One of the most intriguing visual aspects of IT Chapter Two is the many Easter eggs hidden throughout. Some of these are characters in the film with small cameos, including Muschietti himself and the actor who played young Ben in the 1990 IT miniseries, Brandon Crane, and one cameo I will leave as a surprise. Other Easter eggs are references to the 1990 IT and other popular films from the 80’s. One especially memorable moment is a creature that is a combination of practical and CGI effects that appears to be an Easter egg or homage to John Carpenter’s The Thing.

IT Chapter Two is a thrilling and heart-felt conclusion to the story of our favorite losers that captures the feel of King’s novel while still giving us something exciting and new. Muschietti and Dauberman clearly know how to tell a compelling story that has a strong emotional core, amazing sets and effects, tons of scares, and even more laughs. They also honor King’s work by creating this cultural phenomenon of a film for horror fans and non-horror fans alike to adore. Every single actor embodies the characters they play in a way that reminds us of the children from the first film. And, of course, Skarsgård still brings the terror with his unique and terrifying portrayal of Pennywise. Purists who want an exact adaptation of the book or fans who are devoted to the miniseries may not be thrilled by the film, but this film is undoubtedly one of the horror highlights of 2019.

OVERALL RATING: 8/10

They’re Inside

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An aspiring filmmaker and her estranged sister travel to a remote cabin with a small film crew. The plan is to make an emotional film about an experience the filmmaker had with her husband. Not long after settling in, strange things begin to happen. What starts as noises during the night quickly escalates as two deranged killers have other plans for the film crew.

They’re Inside is directed by John-Paul Panelli, making his feature film debut with this film. Panelli also co-wrote the film with Schuyler Brumley, also in his feature-film debut. The film begins with a delightful cold opening. It shows a man on New Years Eve attempting to record what the audience can assume is his YouTube channel. As he goes through different takes trying to film the perfect video, unexpected visitors crash his video. Honestly, this opening is my favorite part of the film. It not only gives an interesting look behind the scenes at recording the perfect video, but it also uses some great framing to build tension.

From there the film goes to the two sisters reconnecting as they attempt to film a movie in a remote cabin with a small group of actors and crew. As small happenings lead to larger scares and growing paranoia, the group eventually realizes they are being watched by people with murderous intentions. To add some interest and mystery to the plot, the filmmakers interspersed clips of animals on the hunt and of the lead actress. It is unclear when or where these clips of the actress take place and it makes the viewer question her level of involvement in all that is happening. These elements make it unclear what is truly happening and keeps the audience guessing right up to the fairly unique climax of the film.

While They’re Inside has a great cold opening and interesting plot points that are unexpected, the film feels like many films that came before it. Home invasion films featuring creepy mask-wearing psychopaths are quite common. While this idea has been done time and time again with varying degrees of success, this film falls somewhere in the middle of the pack. The crew behind They’re Inside do make an attempt to bring something different with the various surprises thrown into the mix. This makes an otherwise forgettable film stand out in the viewers’ mind, especially with how the filmmakers chose to end the film.

In general, the performances in They’re Inside are very well done. Karli Hall (Being Charlie, The Hollow Point) stars as the aspiring director, Robin. What makes her performance stand out is the uncertainty she builds around her character. Along with the small scenes cut into the film, Hall’s performance forces the audience to question whether or not Robin is somehow involved with the horror inflicted on her friends. Amanda Kathleen Ward (Fate) plays Robin’s estranged sister, Cody. Ward’s performance becomes more compelling as the plot progresses and Cody’s paranoia intensifies. As the events intensify, it seems as though Cody’s sanity might completely unravel. The rest of the cast also deliver great performances including Sascha Ghafoor (Rift, The Wedding Invitation), Chelsea D. Miller (Big Time Rush, Spaceman), and Jake Ferree (The Baxters, Loop).

They’re Inside makes attempts at creating a unique home invasion and found footage mash-up, but it doesn’t have quite enough to truly stand out. Panelli and Brumley create compelling and complex characters while also adding interesting elements to their film I haven’t seen before. On top of that, the film is helped by compelling performances from the cast. The opening of the film and the end are the standout moments, but what happens in-between doesn’t do enough to break away from other successful films in the subgenre. There are moments that will be memorable, but as a whole They’re Inside is a film that will fade from peoples’ minds by the end of the year.

OVERALL RATING: 5/10

Incident in a Ghostland

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A mother and her two teenage daughters move into the home of a recently deceased relative. On the first night, intruders attack and force the family to fight for their lives. After seeming to escape, the women move on as best they can. 16 years later they reunite in that same house, but the tragedy of their past may still be part of their present.

Writer and director Pascal Laugier (Martyrs, The Tall Man) once again brings his horror expertise to the screen with Incident in a Ghostland.  Immediately Laugier sets the tone with a creepy story and an even creepier candy truck. When the intruders arrive at the rural home, the family’s worst nightmares become reality. As the plot weaves the past and the present, there is almost a supernatural element. Yet the truth may end up being more terrifying than any ghost.

This plot has two main focuses. The first is the relationship between sisters. At first the two girls are at odds with each other and don’t get along. It takes the extremely horrifying event of the home invasion to bring the two together. Between terror and time, there is little that can keep these sisters from fighting for each other and for their survival.  The second focus is the lengths the mind goes to in order to cope with that trauma. The mind can do incredible things in reaction to trauma. Sometimes the mind erases the trauma, sometimes it generates false memories, and sometimes it allows you to escape to another place where the trauma doesn’t exist. Laugier did a gorgeous job of conveying this aspect of the plot into the film, although certain aspects that are meant to be surprises are telegraphed too obviously.

There is one part of the plot in Incident in a Ghostland that is quite problematic. This is evident in how the villains of the film are portrayed. There are two villains who seem to have a sort of mother-son relationship. The son is a giant beast of a man who appears to have a mental disability. He doesn’t speak and is very childlike in the way he acts, communicating primarily in grunts. His “mother” is played by a man. It’s unclear if this person is meant to be a transgender woman or a man who dresses in drag. The biggest issue I have with this is how it perpetuates the unfortunate horror trope of mental illness and LGBTQ+ individuals not only being the same, but also being evil. In this day and age one would hope filmmakers would move away from this trope, but it is still very common.

The performances from the female protagonists are truly moving. Most notable are the two women who portray Beth. Emilia Jones (High-Rise, Brimstone) gives viewers the first glimpse of Beth as a young teen. Jones’ performance is absolutely breathtaking as she portrays Beth going through terrifying experiences most people will never have to experience in their lifetime. Her adult counterpart is played by Crystal Reed (Teen Wolf, Swamp Thing). The adult version of Beth is quite different. She is very poised and put together. Reed does a great job of portraying Beth as the more successful and well-adjusted member of her family 16 years after the tragedy. Yet, both young and adult Beth have denial in common when it comes to what happened in that house and that is where both Jones and Reed truly shine. It is important to note Taylor Hickson (Deadpool, Deadly Class) as young Vera and Anastasia Phillips (Reign, Skins) as adult Vera also deliver powerhouse performances.

On top of the compelling tale of sisters and survival, Incident in a Ghostland is also truly stunning to look at. Between the set design, the props, and the makeup, there is a lot to look at. The house where the horrible events take place is dark and old, yet still beautiful. It needs some sprucing up and it is filled with old antiques. Yet the thing that stands out is the abundance of creepy dolls, which play an important role in the film. The dinginess of this places offers a stark contrast to the life adult Beth leads, which is very neat and clean. The brightness of it offers a great juxtaposition to the time spent inside the rural home. The young versions of the sisters get put through the ringer and the physical wounds from that are very well done with the help of makeup and prosthetic application. At one point, doll-like makeup is applied over these wounds and it creates a haunting image for the viewer.

Incident in a Ghostland is a stunning look at the bonds of sisterhood and dealing with trauma. Laugier clearly knows how to convey extremely traumatic events and the lengths the human mind will go to in order to protect a person from that trauma. He also has a great handle on creating dynamic sisterly relationships that are complicated, but grounded in love for each other. The plot still has its problematic areas, such as the portrayal of people with mental disabilities, mental illness, and LGBTQ+ individuals. It is something I hope to see change in the horror industry over time, but the story of Beth and Vera is still a fascinating one.

OVERALL RATING: 7/10