The Toybox

toybox

An aging father buys an old RV to take his estranged family on a road trip. Along the way the family picks up a pair of siblings stranded on the side of the road. The road trip has barely begun before things take a turn for the worst. The group ends up broken down in the middle of nowhere, but they are not alone. There is something haunting the rusty old RV, and it’s out for blood.

The Toybox is an interesting blend of horror subgenres. The film is directed by Brian Nagel (ClownTown) and written by Jeff Denton, both also starring in the film. This is Denton’s debut as a screenwriter, and it is a strong start to his writing career. There are a couple scenes where the dialogue doesn’t quite feel true to life, but otherwise the dialogue and plot flow very well. Together Nagel and Denton create a film that is emotionally driven by the family members coming together during the terrifying events, while also giving audiences a frightening film.

For the most part the film is a spooky ghost film. There is an entity haunting the RV, and all it wants to do is maim and kill anyone who enters it. What makes the film a blend of horror subgenres is who is haunting the RV. The film does a great job of leaving little clues throughout the plot as to who the ghost could be, or at least the type of person they were when they were alive. As a film about ghosts, there are some very scary moments in the film as well. There is at least one decent jump scare that got me, but what the film does even better are some of the more subtly tense moments. The filmmakers set up many frightening moments where you can easily see what is going to happen, but they make you wait and wait and wait, building the suspense so you are at the edge of your seat before the trap is sprung. It is a very effective method, and it makes for some of the more memorable moments in the film.

The cast of The Toybox is a talented mix of actors, some of which horror fans will easily recognize. Likely the most widely recognizable actor in the film is Denise Richards (Wild Things, Starship Troopers) as wife and mother, Jennifer. Richards portrays Jennifer as the peacekeeper in the family, whether it be between her husband and his brother, the brother and his father, or keeping her daughter calm. The film also boasts Mischa Barton (The Sixth Sense, The O.C.) as Samantha. In the past few years Barton has been a prominent figure in indie horror films, and she does a great job in this role. She portrays Samantha as a strong, independent character who is also intuitive. Samantha is the first character to notice something isn’t quite right with the decrepit RV. The remaining cast also delivers strong performances including writer Jeff Denton (Inoperable) as Steve, director Brian Nagel (Ouija House) as Jay, Greg Violand (ClownTown) as Charles, Matt Mercer (Beyond the Gates) as Mark, and young Malika Michelle in her first film role as Olivia.

While overall the plot and performances are high points of the film, there are certain aspects that are not quite as strong. One of the lingering questions I was left with after watching this film is who did Charles buy the RV from. There are ways that it could have been done supernaturally or through the internet. Unfortunately, it is mentioned that a man sold the RV to Charles in person, but that person is never referenced again (so it is left unknown if he was somehow in cahoots with the ghostly entity). The other aspect that doesn’t quite fit with the continuity of the film is the appearance of a ghost girl. Based on the nature of the haunting, without giving away too many details, the ghostly young woman simply doesn’t make sense. She is also featured in a scene that is one of the more frightening moments. The issue with this scene is that the haunting is supposed to be limited to inside the RV, yet the ghost girl is scene in the desert landscape.

The Toybox is a tense indie horror film that combines ghostly thrills with a claustrophobic setting. There are a couple aspects of the plot that may leave the audience with lingering questions, but it is still a strong first feature film from screenwriter Denton. He and Nagel clearly make a great filmmaking team. The highlight of the film is how the filmmakers build anticipation and terror. Add compelling performances, especially from the two strong female leads, and it is hard to deny the strengths of the film. This indie horror film is one road trip horror fans won’t want to miss.

OVERALL RATING: 7/10

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The Nun

nun

A young nun kills herself in a remote Romanian castle. The Vatican sends a troubled priest and a young nun who has yet to take her final vows to investigate. Their search leads them down a dark path. The pair realize an ancient evil is trying to escape and it is up to them to stop it.

This latest installment in The Conjuring universe is written by Gary Dauberman (Annabelle: Creation) and directed by Corin Hardy (The Hallow).  The film has a very dark and ominous tone. It creates a great gothic atmosphere that lends itself to the ancient Romanian castle. The plot is, for the most part, very simple. The ancient castle holds an evil that the nuns have been able to hold off over the years, but now it threatens to escape. That entity is the character Conjuring fans will remember as Valak. The film has some pretty frightening moments and Valak is not someone you would want to run into in an ancient Romanian castle.

Sadly, there are many flaws in this film as well. One that many fans will likely notice is how little Valak is actually in the film. There are many faceless nuns haunting the halls, but it isn’t really until the climax of the film that Valak becomes a prominent figure. The film also seems to lack any true direction. Other than trying to find out why the nun killed herself and stopping the evil entity, there are only a couple half-realized plot points. The story touches on the priest’s tragic past performing an exorcism, but then only uses that as a mechanism to include more scares in the film. The young nun accompanying him had visions when she was young, yet those visions don’t have much relevancy to the plot. What’s even more disappointing is how the filmmakers connected The Nun to The Conjuring films. Without giving anything away, there was a simple and more obvious way to connect the characters and the films. Yet, for some reason the filmmakers went for a route that was more forced and felt out of place with the rest of the film. There are also aspects of the climax that seem to be derivative of Demon Knight. Again, since I don’t want to reveal any spoilers, I won’t get into specifics, but those who have seen Demon Knight will see what I mean.

While the characters may not be fully fleshed out, the performances are still quite good. Taissa Farmiga (The Final Girls, Anna) stars as Sister Irene. Sister Irene is a different kind of nun than audiences are used to seeing. She asks questions, yet she is very devout in her faith. Her visions seem to be an important part of who she is as a person and why she chose to become a nun, yet they are really only mentioned in passing. Luckily, Farmiga acts beyond what she was given in the script to still allow audiences to connect to the character. Demián Bichir (The Hateful Eight, Savages) also gives a compelling performance as Father Burke. Similar to Sister Irene’s story, Father Burke discusses how he lost an innocent during an exorcism. This seems like it is a large part of his character, yet this part of his past ends up just being used as a way to scare audiences. Bichir does what he can, making me wish I could know more about his character. Then there is Jonas Bloquet (Elle, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets) as Frenchie. He is clearly meant to be comedic relief throughout the film, and Bloquet definitely is funny, yet the humor does not fit with the overall tone of the film. Frenchie is an entertaining character, but he feels pigeonholed into the film. A great cast is clearly underutilized, yet they did as much as they could with the material they were given.

The highlight of The Nun is the visuals. The set design is by far the most impressive aspect. The castle and surrounding grounds are both beautiful and haunting, making the film sinister from start to finish. Even though the film takes place in the 1950’s, it has a very medieval feel which lends to the ancient demonic presence the priest and nun are fighting. The evil itself has a very iconic look as well. Valak has a very striking look that is terrifying without needing to really try. While fans will recognize Valak and that demon’s look, the film uses other nuns as well to add to the fear. These nuns are faceless. They are creepy and their style allows for Valak to stand out as the primary focus. There is a good mix of jump scares and more subtle, spine-tingling moments that balance out nicely throughout the film.

Despite its early buzz, The Nun is likely to be quickly forgotten. The film boasts strong performances and some of the most striking visuals of any film in The Conjuring universe. What it lacks is fully developed characters and a complete story that connects well to the other films in the franchise. The Nun has enough frightening moments to make it a fun popcorn flick, but it lacks some of the substance fans will be used to from the rest of the franchise.

OVERALL RATING: 6/10

Diane

diane

A wounded military veteran lives a solitary life. He goes through the same routine day in and day out, until something unexpected breaks that routine. He awakes one morning to find the body of a beautiful singer in his back yard. Before calling the police, he takes a picture of her. As the police investigation tries to prove his guilt, the image of the dead woman haunts the man, threatening to shatter his sanity.

Michael Mongillo (The Wind) takes the helm as writer and director of this haunting film. The film is a slow burn. It begins with a small amount of character development before the discovery of the body. From there the film focuses on many different factors affecting the protagonist as his obsession with the dead woman grows. Around him there is the police investigation, people in the neighborhood who think he must be guilty, and maybe even the ghost of the woman he found. All of these things unravel the man’s mind. At times he even talks to himself or has wild dreams and hallucinations, all revolving around the woman. The tension slowly builds until the truth is revealed, which almost comes as a release of that tension in a more therapeutic way than is typically found in horror films.

The opening of the film is a bit odd. It starts with a somewhat awkward, drawn out song sung by the woman who will eventually be found dead. This is followed by a sort of “day in the life” sequence showing how the main character typically spends his days. The discovery of the body comes after the screen flashes “one month later.” In all honesty, the song and the “one month later” come across as quite unnecessary. It isn’t until the climax of the film that these cinematic choices by the filmmakers fall into place. The “one month later” becomes more significant, as does the song. I still believe the song borders on uncomfortable to watch, especially with how long it goes on, and the film would have benefited by simply starting with the day in the life of the main character.

Slow-burn horror films only work if the performances can carry the intensity and intrigue throughout the plot. There isn’t a large cast, so most of that responsibility is on the shoulders of the protagonist. The star of the film is Jason Alan Smith (Before I Wake) as Steve. Smith portrays Steve as a silent, brooding wounded military veteran who primarily keeps to himself. This character portrayal works well in the film. The military background specifically works well because it makes it more believable that a man would become so invested in what happened to the woman he found. The mental effects of combat would also explain his issues with memory loss and seeing things, even though the things he sees could also be supernatural.

There are many different color schemes used throughout the film that add some visual interest. The color schemes are used to differentiate between the present, memories, dreams, and hallucinations. The present has a rather bleak color palette, favorite washed out colors and greys.  It lends to the rather bleak existence Steve lives. The past is more vibrant and has more lifelike colors. In the dream sequences the primary color used is red, making it simple to determine when Steve is dreaming. When the hallucinations, or ghostly apparitions, appear they have a staticky appearance as if watching through an ancient television. Generally speaking this technique works well for the purpose of storytelling throughout the film. I personally have never liked the grey-scale, washed-out color scheme commonly found in small budget horror films, but it clearly has a purpose in this film.

Diane gives viewers a haunting mystery that blends psychological thriller with the supernatural. The plot presents an interesting puzzle to be solved and that puzzle is solved rather nicely by the end of the film. The color palette makes sense for the plot, despite my personal dislike for the grey-scale which is most commonly used. If the colors had been a bit more true to life, and the opening scene was cut, the film would have been more appealing. Yet this film still has a compelling story with a strong performance from Smith.

OVERALL RATING: 6.5/10

Tap (Short)

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A woman awakes in the night to a tapping sound. Upon investigation she discovers something more sinister than she could possibly imagine.

This short film is written and directed by Dave Bundtzen (The Maestro, The Record Keeper). It is a fairly simple premise. A phantom tapping wakes a woman up in the middle of the night. From there the filmmakers create tension by having the tapping sound grow and grow. There are also some good jump scares thrown in for good measure. The tapping itself is also quite effective. The taps always come in threes, creating a clear pattern as the taps grow more and more violent. Considering the fact that this short is just shy of 3 minutes long and has one line of dialogue, it still tells a complete story. The viewer may not have all the details on why these events are happening, but that is something that tends to work well in a short film. It is intriguing and gives the film a sense of mystery, but no so much that the plot is disappointing.

The small production has two cast members. The only one I can really critique for acting is Katherine Celio (The Yellow Wallpaper, Malaise) as Amanda. Celio gives a great performance. There is a balance of both fear and strength in her portrayal of Amanda that works well. She is clearly scared by the tapping and the events that follow, but she also has a strength that keeps her from being your average victim.

In a short film there typically isn’t a large budget for effects. This short has some minimal effects, but some aspects are more successful than others. There is an interesting effect done in a mirror that appears to be a combination of CGI and practical effects. While at first it is very effective and eye-catching, it progresses into something that does’t quite insight the fear it is meant to. It is a situation where “less is more” would likely have been a more appropriate approach. The makeup design for the evil entity in the film is striking in its color pallet, but it also seems bit too minimalistic. It is as if some of the effort put into the mirror effects should have instead gone towards creating a more iconic makeup design. Either way, it still manages to create memorable imagery that lends to the plot.

Tap is a simplistic yet effective short film. It utilizes a basic sound pattern to build suspense leading up to the startling end. While the effects and makeup design leave a little bit to be desired, the overall look is still memorable and works will with the short. Add a great performance from Celio, and the result is a compelling short film. It gives viewers just enough to satisfy their horror needs, but rightfully leaves them wishing they could know more.

OVERALL RATING: 3.5/5

IHSFF 2018: Horror Shorts B

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The International Horror and Sci-fi Film Festival always shows a great collection of short films. Because there are so many to discuss, I decided to write-up little blurbs about each one and organize them by how the short films were programmed in the festival. Here are my reviews and ratings for the short films in HORROR SHORTS B:

ALFRED J HEMLOCK – Written by Edward Lyons & Melissa Lyons, Directed by Edward Lyons

This darkly twisted tale follows a young woman whose date ditches her in an alley one night. In that alley she meets a strange character named Alfred J Hemlock who is anything but human. This short has strong performances and a fascinating concept. The one thing that will make this film less enjoyable is that it feels like it tries too hard to emulate the work of Tim Burton, yet it falls short. If the styling had been different, putting the focus more just on the characters, it would have been a much stronger short. OVERALL RATING: 2.5/5.

HOPE – Written by Adam Losurdo & Chris Stival, Directed by Adam Losurdo

In a world filled with zombies, one zombie wanders around looking for love. The zombies are different in this short; they don’t attack people. Instead, it’s the people who are terrible to zombies. The film is unique, funny, and has a great ending. It’s the kind of film that makes you hate people and human nature, which is something I always enjoy. Plus, the zombie makeup is pretty fun to look at as well. OVERALL RATING: 4.5/5

EN PASSANT – Written/Directed by Barron Hilton

One thing I can say definitively about this short film is that it is beautiful. It is filled with beautiful people, beautiful cinematography, and beautiful sets. It is the kind of film that blends sexy and dark very well. There is even an appearance by the late Rick Genest (aka Zombie Boy). Beyond the beauty the film lacks a bit of substance, choosing to have no dialogue and focusing more on the sex appeal rather than the sinister ending. With just a bit more explanation into the “why” of what happens, even without dialogue, the film would have been exponentially better. OVERALL RATING: 3/5

WHAT METAL GIRLS ARE INTO – Written/Directed by Laurel Vail

The film follows a group of female metal fans as they rent a place to attend a metal music festival. They quickly realize their host is up to no good. The plot is quirky, humorous, and has a very satisfying ending. The film is also relevant in the #MeToo era. Audiences will even recognize Matt Mercer (Contracted: Phase II) as the creepy rental host and writer/director Laurel Vail (Contracted: Phase II) herself also stars in the short. Of all the shorts at the festival I had the most fun watching this one, and it is honestly probably my favorite this year. OVERALL RATING: 5/5

THE DAY MUM BECAME A MONSTER – Written/Directed by Josephine Hopkins

This short film comes from France and follows a young girl who lives with her divorced mother. The estranged father is supposed to come for the girl’s birthday, which delights the girl but has the opposite effect on the mother. This short has a similar feel to The Babadook. As the mother becomes more depressed over her situation she goes through a physical transformation that represents her internal turmoil. It’s a very compelling, gorgeous, and well acted film. It also has some fantastic practical effects portraying the mother’s transformation. This is a short you won’t want to miss. OVERALL RATING: 5/5

GRIN – Written/Directed by Tanuj Chopra, Story by Sheetal Sheth

A young woman goes on a photoshoot where the photographer crosses a line that should never be crossed. The short film follows her mental and emotional unravelling after these events with stunning visuals. The film is beautifully shot, but it lacks a bit of substance. It seems to focus to much on making something visually beautiful rather than sending the intended message that relates to the #MeToo movement. There needs to be a bit more actual plot to go along with the artistic imagery. As it is, the short is more of an art installation than a well hashed out story. OVERALL RATING: 2.5/5

IHSFF 2018: Horror Shorts A

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The International Horror and Sci-fi Film Festival always shows a great collection of short films. Because there are so many to discuss, I decided to write-up little blurbs about each one and organize them by how the short films were programmed in the festival. Here are my reviews and ratings for the short films in HORROR SHORTS A:

LOVE CUTS DEEP – Written/Directed by Veronica Shea

This short follows Jeremy, played by Trevor Stevens (Swipe Right), as a serial killer who hates love. That is, until he meets someone who could be the girl of his dreams. This short is quirky and fun. It has a little bit of something for everyone, from a sweet and romantic story to blood and gore. Stevens is great as the lead. He has a distinct American Psycho vibe as he plays Jeremy as a charming sociopath, even breaking the fourth wall throughout most of the short by talking to the audience. OVERALL SCORE: 4.5/5

FISHER COVE – Written/Directed by Sean Skene

A fisherman and his dog go out for a normal fishing trip, which turns strange when a mysterious creature appears. This short actually won Best Horror Short Film at the festival, and it’s easy to see why. It’s an exciting plot that goes in a direction you wouldn’t expect for a short film. The practical effects for the creature are also very well done. What might be even more surprising is that the creature has an apparatus on his head that moves that was done with CGI, but when I saw the short I was convinced it was practically done. That is very unexpected in a low budget short, and a sign that this is a must-see flick. OVERALL SCORE: 4.5/5

IT BEGAN WITHOUT WARNING – Written/Directed by Jessica Curtright & Santiago C. Tapia

The generally premise of this short film is very interesting. Without giving away too much of the plot, I will say the filmmakers do a really great job of making you think one thing is happening, only to turn the tables. It gives audiences a shocked or “aha” moment when the realize the truth. It’s surprisingly effective, especially considering there is virtually no dialogue. The one thing that detracts from the short a bit is a practical effects “creature.” It looks a bit too much like they just grabbed a wound prosthetic and turned it into an evil being. Still, the short film is worth a watch. OVERALL RATING: 3.5/5

THE NIGHT DELIVERY – Written/Directed by Scott O’Hara

This is probably the only short at the festival that genuinely scared me. The creepy short film follows three grocery story delivery boys turned would-be thieves who discover something evil is in the house they targeted. The short feels like a well thought out, complete story and the three leads do a great job. There are also some phenomenal practical effects and creature design that elevate the beautifully shot short film. OVERALL RATING: 5/5

THE DOLLMAKER – Written by Matias Caruso & Directed by Alan Lougher

A dollmaker offers to make doll in the likeness of a child who has died to help the family grieve, but there are rules that come with the magical doll. This is a sad, sentimental short that will touch anyone who has experienced loss and/or any parents. Sean Meehan (The Normal Heart) and Perri Lauren (Grey Lady) both give compelling performances as the grieving parents. The filmmakers do a great job of keeping a constant sense of dread throughout the film as it approaches the inevitable, yet still somewhat shocking end. OVERALL RATING: 4/5

AVULSION – Written/Directed by Steven Boyle

This short film is interesting because it begins with what appears to be an encounter between a high-class prostitute and a client. As the plot progresses things take a turn for the gory. One of the most successful aspects of this film is the little clues the filmmakers leave for the audience. When the big twist is revealed at the end it is shocking, yet when you think back to the bread crumbs left throughout the film it all makes sense. There are also a lot of really well done gory practical effects and a creepy creature design. If you enjoy gore and films that discuss the darkness inside everyone, then this is the short for you. OVERALL RATING: 4/5.

SOMETHING IN THE DARKNESS – Written/Directed by Fran Casanova

All the way from Spain comes a short film about a little girl’s fear of what lurks in the dark. This is something that almost every horror fan (or really any human being) can relate to, especially from their childhood. Young Luna Fulgencio (El es tu Padre) is perfect as Veronica. The film does a lot by simply setting the mood and putting the audience on edge as they experience the little girl’s fear. There are also some fun twists and turns to thrill and shock the audience. OVERALL RATING: 4.5/5

RIGOR MORTIS – Written by Matthew E. Robinson & Shandton Williams, Directed by Matthew E. Robinson

This is the most comedic short of this block at the festival. Conjoined twins go through the surgery to separate. When one of them wakes up, he realizes his brother didn’t survive the surgery. From there it is a lot of strange hallucinations of his brother intertwined with comedic elements as the surviving twin goes through survivor’s guilt. It is an interesting concept with decent acting, but there is something about the color pallet and sound mixing in the film that detracts from the overall appeal. OVERALL RATING: 3/5

Show Yourself

showyourself

An actor, Travis, is grieving the sudden loss of his friend. To honor him, Travis goes to their favorite childhood camping spot to scatter his ashes. As Travis works through his grief in the woods, strange things start to happen. It becomes clear that he definitely isn’t alone in these woods. Is it the ghost of his dearly departed friend? Or is it something much more sinister?

This film is not only an interesting character study, but it also offers a deep look into grief and guilt. Writer and director Billy Ray Brewton (Dead Ahead) really excels at giving the audience a compelling character that they care for, even with his flaws. The film weaves home videos throughout the plot in order to help build on the character development. What makes this aspect more successful than other films that may use the same tactic is that many of the things the audience sees in these home videos become relevant to what is happening in the present. There is a lot of time devoted to character development in this film. While some may argue it is too much time, and not enough on any really scary stuff, I think it works for the tone of the film. It’s by no means a very scary film. Instead, Brewton gives audiences an eerie and emotional film that shows how Travis works through his grief and personal guilt by incorporating supernatural elements. The resulting film ends up being something that even people who don’t like horror can enjoy.

Another successful piece of this film is how Brewton leaves just enough up to the imagination of the audience. There is really only one scene where the audience gets a clear view of whatever is in the woods. For the most part it is implied, left in the shadows, or just out of focus. This is actually brilliant for two reasons. The first is the budget. With a low budget indie film it makes sense to utilize these methods so they don’t have to blow the budget on crazy practical or CGI effects. And honestly, in an intimate film like this, it is entirely unnecessary. The second reason this is a smart idea is because it lets the audience decide what the entity is. It is mostly out of view, and never fully explained, so each individual can get something different from the film. Is it the ghost of the dead friend? Is it a demon? Is it a physical manifestation of Travis’s guilt? Personally, I think it’s the latter, but the great thing is that you can decide for yourself when you watch the film.

When it comes to the acting in this film, the clear highlight is Ben Hethcoat (The Babysitter Murders) as Travis. Losing a friend is difficult, and watching Travis go through his journey is quite compelling. Hethcoat does a great job of portraying Travis as he goes through the complicated emotions relating to grief. Travis reacts by pushing some people away while he tries to reconnect with others, he lashes out at people, he clearly feels some level of guilt, and he feels like scattering the ashes is his sole responsibility. Considering Travis is the only character on screen for almost the entire film it is important to have a strong actor in the role, and Hethcoat fills that role very well.

Show Yourself uses the supernatural to tell a tale about grief. Brewton shows that he is clearly a skilled storyteller who can write compelling characters. In a film like this that focuses so much on a single character, a compelling character is exceedingly important. Hethcoat also gives the audience a fantastic performance as the lead, Travis. While the film blends the supernatural elements well with the plot, for many horror fans it might not be enough. I can already hear the complaints saying it isn’t a horror film simply because it didn’t scare you. If you’re a person that often makes that complaint, then this film isn’t for you. Yet I highly encourage everyone else, even people who don’t typically enjoy horror films, to seek this film out.

OVERALL RATING: 8/10