Month: April 2016

Green Room

A punk rock band is coming to the end of their cross-country tour. In a last minute change of plans, the band gets booked for a gig at a venue in rural Oregon that is known as a skinhead hangout. They decide to take a chance and perform, hoping to get the money they need for the long drive home. After their set ends, the band witnesses something horrific in the green room. It soon becomes clear that this group of friends is going to have to fight in order to survive the night.

While I anticipated this film would be exciting, I did not anticipate the brutality and depth of it. There were multiple layers to the plot, and the characters all had so much more than what was just on the surface. One of the things I love about this story is how quickly the feel goes from everything being fine to all hell breaking loose. It was like the flick of a switch. From that single moment the band realizes something horrible has happened, they know that their lives are in danger. That intensity and fear bleeds from the screen and surrounds the audience. It is almost impossible as an audience member to not be at the edge of your seat, feeling like you are fighting through this horrific situation along with the band. This would not have been possible if the filmmakers had not done such an amazing job with the character development. They made you care about the band members and whether or not they would survive the horrors they faced.

This was a film that really had some unexpected brutality. What made it work was that it wasn’t brutality just for the sake of having violence. It was brutality that moved the story along and showed how truly evil this skinhead gang was. Of course, it is difficult to really talk about the violence unless you also discuss the insanely perfect practical effects. Green Room has some of the most amazing, realistic practical effects I have seen in recent memory. What made the combination of violence and practical effects work so well is because most of the time it happened at an unexpected moment. The filmmakers did a great job of letting the audience know that something horrible was happening, but then it went even further and shocked them by the sheer barbarity and gruesome nature of the wounds inflicted. I found myself on more than one occasion while watching Green Room wanting to cover my eyes with my mouth hanging open in shock. The ferocity of the violence truly took this film to another level.

There were so many incredible performances in Green Room, it is difficult to select just a few to focus on. While everyone was amazing, I’m going to narrow it down to three performances that still stand out in my mind days after seeing the film. I, of course, have to begin by talking about Anton Yelchin (Odd Thomas, Star Trek) as the band member, Pat. Full disclosure, I have a soft spot for Yelchin. I think he is an incredibly talented actor, and I have yet to see him in a film I didn’t love. Green Room was no exception. His character is lovable, kind of spacey, and ever the optimist in the darkest of circumstances. Another great performance came from Imogen Poots (28 Weeks Later, Fright Night) as the mysterious Amber. Poots was absolutely tremendous in this film. What I found so engaging about her character is that she comes from the backwoods skinhead culture, so as things unravel she acts almost as a guide for the band. She clearly understands what is going to happen, but she doesn’t associate herself as part of the malicious group of skinheads. Finally, I was really surprised by Macon Blair (Blue Ruin, Murder Party) as Gabe. Gabe acts as a manager at the skinhead bar. What I loved so much about Blair’s performance was how clearly he showed Gabe’s internal struggle. On the one hand, Gabe desperately wants to impress his boss and move up in the skinhead gang’s ranks. On the other hand, Gabe knows what is being done is wrong, and he is clearly battling with himself on what he should do. This was the first film I had seen Blair in, and my focus was drawn to him every time he was on screen. I want to be sure to mention all the amazing actors that made me love this film, so I will give a “shout out” to Alia Shawkat, Joe Cole, Mark Webber, Callum Turner, Eric Edelstein, Kai Lennox, and of course Patrick Stewart.

I really can’t emphasize enough how much I loved this film. Green Room is a ruthless tale of savagery that will excite and shock audiences. What takes this film to the next level is that it has all these traits while also having substance. There is a real story here that draws you in. The viciousness of the acts is only a byproduct of the unfortunate events that occur. Do not pass on this punk rock tale of a group of friends fighting for their lives against unspeakable odds.

OVERALL RATING: 9/10

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Foxglove (Short)

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In a remote area of Western Ireland, an engineer lives with his young daughter. He is there to continue work on a wind turbine project. The engineer decides to sign off on building more of these turbines, despite concerns of the environmental impacts. Soon after, it becomes clear that he and his daughter are being targeted by something ancient, and it is not pleased by the changes to its land.

I was lucky enough to get to view this short by director Brian Deane after discussing his previous short, Blight. While the two shorts are very different in theme and plot, they are both frightening tales. Foxglove is a chilling story set in modern times. What I really love about the plot is that it takes a modern concept like finding renewable energy and adds in elements of ancient folklore. Most of the folklore that is referenced in this short comes from old stories about fairy folk and fairy rings. Even today, folklore is a part of Irish tradition. The film made the combination of these two opposing aspects meld together to create a fascinating plot. While I will spare specific details, I will say the end of this short film made my jaw drop in the best way possible. It was simple, yet shockingly effective.

The acting in this short was also quite powerful. Bob Kelly (1916 Seachtar Dearmadta) played Dave, the engineer father. It is clear that Kelly’s character is concerned about the environmental impact of his wind turbine project, but circumstances are keeping him from taking the time to make sure it is safe for the environment. When his actions lead his family into darkness, the desperation that a father feels when protecting his child comes across as intense and genuine. Not only did Kelly star in this short, but he wrote it as well.

Foxglove makes excellent use of “unseen” characters. Throughout the story you hear the fairy folk speaking to Roisin, the young daughter. While we cannot understand what they are saying, or see them, Roisin clearly does. It almost makes it even more menacing not to see the very thing you are supposed to be afraid of. On the other hand, the wind turbines are also a bit of an unseen character. The turbines are shown from time to time, but even when they are not on screen you can hear them around the house. During the final moments of the short, the sounds from the wind turbines act as a score. It is a very effective approach that adds to the intensity of the last few moments.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: what makes a short successful for me is that it works in the small run time it has, but it leaves me wanting more. This is a short I can easily see becoming a feature length film. What I would especially love to see is the plot going deeper into the ancient folklore surrounding the fairy folk. Luckily, I knew a bit about the stories from other films and books, but some viewers might not be as aware. When this short becomes available online, or if it is showing at a festival near you, run, don’t walk, to see it. Foxglove is a chilling story that brings the dark side of fairy tales into the modern age.

OVERALL RATING: 5/5 (short film scale)

The Blackcoat’s Daughter (February)

Nestled in the country is an all girls Catholic boarding school. Two girls end up stranded at their school during break when they are the only two whose parents fail to pick them up. The girls begin to experience strange happenings in this cold, secluded school. Elsewhere, a young woman is doing whatever she can to get to that same boarding school. As the web that connects these three girls becomes unraveled, it soon becomes clear there is something sinister at work.

The Blackcoat’s Daughter (formerly known as February) was a huge accomplishment for first time directer Osgood Perkins. This is the kind of horror film that has such an atmospheric presence. You often know bad things are coming – sometimes you even know what those bad things are – yet when the moment finally happens, it is no less shocking or terrifying. Perkins, who also wrote the film, does an excellent job of revealing different plot points in a way that isn’t necessarily chronological, but in an order that helps you to understand more of the story when it is important. There are elements of a traditional devil/possession horror film present, but much of the way it is presented feels fresh. It is clear from the beginning that this film focuses more on the characters involved and creating a feeling of impending doom, rather than traditional scares. In this regard, The Blackcoat’s Daughter is a masterpiece.

The three female leads in this film were incredibly strong. Keirnan Shipka (Mad Men) was absolutely haunting as Kat, the youngest of the two girls at the boarding school. As you can see from the trailer, Shipka’s portrayal of Kat moves from a lonely innocence to deeply disturbed during the course of the film. Lucy Boynton (Copperhead) was also amazing as the other girl stranded at the school, Rose. What I loved about Boynton as Rose was that she was a bit of a bad girl, but she was incredibly relatable at the same time. You felt for Rose and cared about her well being. I will be completely honest, generally I am not a huge fan of Emma Roberts (Scream Queens, We’re the Millers). Despite this, I still thought she did a great job as the mysterious Joan. Joan is clearly broken in some way and has been through a lot in her life. Roberts conveys this aspect of Joan quite well. All three actresses stood out and drew me into their individual stories.

This is the kind of film where the evil is almost entirely working behind the scenes. There are only a couple small glimpses where you see the entity that is pulling the strings. I loved the look that the filmmakers went for. The evil in The Blackcoat’s Daughter has a look that is generally familiar in the world of devil worship and possession, but they made some small tweaks to give it a bit more unique look. I also thought it was smart for the evil entity to never really be in full view; it’s shown as more of just a shadow or silhouette. In a film like this where ambience reigns over frightening imagery, keeping the evil in the background was a wise decision.

When I didn’t get a chance to see this film at Cinequest, I was devastated. Luckily it was picked up by the Phoenix Film Festival. The way the stories of the two high school girls and the wandering young woman unravel was done in such a stunning way that it leaves your heart on the floor. The Blackcoat’s Daughter is a haunting tale that breaths new life into the idea of possession and the loss of innocence. By the time the credits rolled I felt stunned and awestruck. What was great about the feelings the ending invoked was that many people I spoke with got the same feeling, even though I interpreted the ending a different way than others did. No matter what you think the final scene conveys, it will still effect you in ways you didn’t expect. While I can see horror fans that prefer more scares and gore not enjoying this film as much, people who love films for the way they make you feel will not be disappointed. If this film comes to a theater near you, do not pass it up.

OVERALL RATING: 9.5/10

Night of Something Strange

A group of teenagers get stranded in a creepy motel on their vacation. Little do they know, they are being followed by zombies. What’s worse is that this zombie virus is a STD, so you can imagine the interesting way that it spreads. One by one the teens turn into the living dead. Will any of them be able to avoid this horrific STD?

While there have been films in the past that use the idea of an STD being the origin of a zombie virus, there are no other films that take it to the extreme that Night of Something Strange does. In all honesty, there are a few scenes in the film that take it a bit too far for me. There was more than one occasion where I was cringing and felt a bit uncomfortable about what I was watching. That isn’t to say the film isn’t hilarious in how outrageous almost every minute is. The story is meant to be insane and campy. In that regard, the film makers did an excellent job.

The characters were even extreme in many ways. In general, they all fit some horror film stereotype you expect to see. These stereotypes can especially be seen in the male characters. There is the douchey boyfriend, the nerdy virgin, the man-whore, and the hunky hero. With the exception of the hero, all of the male characters are exaggerated to the point where they are completely unlikable. This makes it hard to believe that the seemingly intelligent young women in the film would waste their time with these idiots, but at the same time it works in making the situations more humorous.

This film had a very entertaining group of actors. For me, there were two performances that stood out. The first was from Michael Merchant (She Kills, Science Team), who plays Freddy. Freddy is quite possibly the most despicable character in this film, but at the same time he’s so funny you can’t help but enjoy every time he’s on the screen. Poor Freddy also gets into some of the worst situations, so you sympathize for him at least a little bit. The second performance I loved was Trey Harrison (Ithaca, Faux Paws) as Dirk. Dirk is singled out as the hero of the film fairly early on. What I loved about his performance is that he had some of the best one-liners throughout the entire film. The way he delivered the one-liners was so cheesy and hilarious I couldn’t help but laugh.

Another high point of the film was the practical effects. Being a zombie flick, you expect there to be quite a bit of blood and guts. Add the STD factor, and it makes for some more interesting practical effects. All of these were disgusting and fantastically done. I also loved that each zombie had its own individual look, while still appearing to have been infected by the same virus. There are two specific practical effects that occur later in the film that are hilarious, disgusting, and incredibly well made.

This is the kind of film that sticks with you long after it’s through. While I’m not going to give it the highest overall rating, that doesn’t mean I didn’t have fun while watching the film. Night of Something Strange is a cringe-worthy gore fest that will hilariously go places you probably will wish it hadn’t. The film embraces its camp, and you can tell the film makers really had a blast creating this disturbing tale. Be forewarned, it is not for the faint of heart… or stomach.

OVERALL RATING: 6.5/10

The Cruel Tale of the Medicine Man

The House of Choade is an avant-garde burlesque theater run by the infamous Mr. Choade. After a tragic “accident” leaves the theater short a performer, the young and innocent Linda gets hired to be the new dancer. As she goes deeper into the darkness of Choade’s little world, Linda realizes that some of the onstage kills may be more real than they appear. What’s worse is that Mr. Choade is behind these deaths. He has made a deal with the Medicine Man for fame and fortune, but what the Medicine Man gets in exchange is quite diabolical.

The Cruel Tale of the Medicine Man is a bizarre, twisted film with a very unique plot. Unfortunately, the plot left me with more questions than answers. I found myself throughout the film confused about simple things such as when the film was supposed to take place. There were also random characters thrown into the story that were never really explained, making the plot seem more and more nonsensical. The overall storyline involving Linda and her journey as a performer at the House of Choade was very interesting. While that was enjoyable, it was hard to look past the parts that felt random for randomness sake, as opposed to adding to the story.

The performances were definitely the high points of the film. Some of them were very campy, but it was clear this was on purpose and worked well with the feel of the film. One of the stand-out performances for me was Mr. Choade, who happened to be played by the director, James Habacker (How He Fell in Love). His delivery was hilarious in the way it was incredibly monotone and lacked any real emotion, no matter what the occasion was. I also really enjoyed the Medicine Man, played by Joe Coleman (Don Peyote), for the exact opposite reason that I loved Mr. Choade. Every time he spoke it was in a sing-songy, poetic manner. It was almost as if he was casting a spell on you with each word he spoke. I also greatly appreciated that actual burlesque performers were used in the film. It added an extra layer of authenticity to this fantastical story.

There was a healthy amount of gore in this film, both fun fake blood used in the burlesque performances and various body parts in the real kills. Like many of the performances, much of the gore seemed to be done in a purposefully campy way. There was only one practical effect that even now I can’t get out of my head: Mr. Choade’s nose. Mr. Choade has an extremely long nose. This nose prosthetic was not applied very well. You could see the edges in the makeup at all times. This could have been fine, except I was never really sure if Mr. Choade’s nose was supposed to be real or fake in the film. If it was supposed to be fake, then the poor appliance would have been fine and only added to the bizarre look of this character. If his nose was supposed to be real, then more effort should have been put in to make the nose appear natural. Since I don’t know what the intention was, it will always be something that bothers me about the film.

While this was a visually appealing film with different aspects that I liked, there were definitely more aspects that I didn’t enjoy. Aside from the issues I had with the plot and the practical effects, there was something about the general feel of the film that did not seem like a horror movie. If anything, it felt more like a dark comedic fantasy film. This made quite a bit of sense during the Q&A after the film, where the director said he actually wasn’t really a fan of the horror genre. He was using it more as a way to break into film making. Hearing this after seeing the film helped me to understand why there was something that simply felt “off” about the film for me. Looking past that, The Cruel Tale of the Medicine Man is a visually stimulating acid trip of a film dripping in dark humor. Just don’t go into it expecting a film that really fits into the horror genre.

OVERALL RATING: 5/10

Last Girl Standing

What happens to the last surviving girl after a slasher film? Several years after her friends were brutally murdered by a deranged serial killer, soul survivor Camryn tries to live a reclusive life. Everything changes when a new guy gets hired at her work. Soon after, Camryn believes she is being stalked by the same killer she dealt with years ago. Can she save her friends the second time around?

The entire concept of this film is something I have wondered about myself. After watching your friends get killed, and after almost getting killed yourself, what would life be like after a slasher film ends? Luckily, writer/director Benjamin R. Moody decided to give audiences an idea of what that may be like. The audience is brought into the film during the climax of a slasher film. Then we are brought forward a few years to Camryn’s new life. She is quiet, reclusive, and generally just does her job and spends the rest of her time at home. Fast-forwarding to her new life was very effective because we got to see how devastating the effects of her tragedy were, without having to go through all the trials, investigation, and therapy that likely immediately followed the massacre. We also enter into Camryn’s new life just as she is beginning to make new friends, branching out of the bubble that has kept her safe.

While the first 10 minutes of the film are in the vein of a classic slasher film, the rest of the film reads more like a horror-drama. The characters still somewhat fit into a classic slasher film stereotype, but they have much more dynamic personalities. The audience gets to meet realistic characters doing and saying things that you would expect real people to, as opposed to what you typically see in a slasher film. It makes the story more raw and in many ways more frightening, because it is something that feels likely to happen in the real world. The realism only added to the tension and suspense that built as the film went on.

Another element of the plot I really enjoyed was the Pagan aspect. The serial killer, known as “The Hunter,” is said to have been killing all of those kids in order to perform some kind of ritual. What that ritual was, we don’t know. This made it seem plausible that the killer did in fact come back after we see him killed (it’s not a spoiler, it happens in the first 10 minutes of the film). For all we the audience know, that ritual was meant to make The Hunter immortal. That small addition of mysticism to the story added an extra layer of depth that keeps you guessing as to what is really going on. He also had an awesome “mask” that made The Hunter stand out from other serial killers.

This film had a very talented ensemble cast. While everyone did an amazing job, it is impossible not to feature Akasha Villalobos (Now Hiring) as a clear stand-out. Villalobos was able to show the many different emotional phases of someone who has dealt with extreme tragedy. She shows Camryn as the scared little girl in the beginning, then we see her as a recluse, then we see Camryn begin to come out of her shell, then we see her determination and paranoia when she believes the serial killer has come back. It takes quite a bit of talent to seamlessly portray all those personality traits without it feeling forced.

This being a slasher film, you can’t fully discuss the film without talking about the gore. I won’t lie, the screening that I went to for this film was quite dark. This made it harder to see a lot of the night-time blood and guts. What I did see was phenomenal. There was a ton of blood, some bodies that had been ripped open and gutted, knives and hatchets stuck in people, and even a grotesque decaying body. I can only assume that these practical effects would look even better if it had not been as dark. In the filmmaker’s defense, the screening was not meant to be this dark. The showtime for Last Girl Standing I went to was actually meant to be a different film at the Phoenix Film Festival, but there was a last-minute switch. From what I understand, the screening that I saw was from a DVD. Despite this, I still enjoyed what I saw.

This film combines so many horror sub-genres that it will appeal to many different audiences. Besides the darkness of the film, which was a fluke, there really isn’t much I didn’t enjoy while watching this film. Last Girl Standing takes audiences into the unknown aspects of slasher films and uses it to thoroughly mess with their heads. There are so many times where you find yourself second guessing what you thought was going on. This will happen right up until the climax of the film, which is exciting, fun, and bloody (as any good slasher movie ending is). If you have a chance to see this film on the big screen, I highly recommend it to anyone and everyone.

OVERALL RATING: 9/10

Under the Shadow

A mother gets left alone with her daughter in post-revolution Tehran in the eighties. Everyone is on edge because of the constant threat of bombings from Iraq. With tensions already running high, things only get worse when an evil entity begins to haunt the apartment the mother and daughter call home. Life gradually become more dangerous, both outside their home and inside. Which threat should they be most fearful of?

This was my first Iranian horror film, and there were so many things I loved about it. While this is a horror film, it focuses quite a bit on what life was like for a more liberal family living in post-revolution Iran. Not only do we see the oppression that the lead character goes through as a woman in that time, but we are also shown a glimpse of what it was like to live with the constant fear of a bomb coming through your ceiling. As if this isn’t terrifying enough, the mother and daughter also have to deal with something evil. This evil is known as a “djinn,” which is a supernatural spirit from Islamic mythology. Using the ancient evil in a modern, war-torn landscape created an excellent juxtaposition.

Under the Shadow was shockingly successful at keeping you tense from start to finish. By the time the film ended, I had a horrible headache from clenching my jaw and tensing my muscles in anticipation of what would come next. On top of that, the filmmakers managed to have a few excellent jump scares thrown in to add to the suspense. While the film is generally what would be described as a “slow burn,” the last 15 minutes manages to keep you at the edge of your seat and peeking at the screen from behind your hands.

While there are some periphery characters, there primarily is just the mother and the daughter. Shideh, the mother, was played by Narges Rashidi (Aeon Flux). Rashidi delivered a powerful performance. It is hard to imagine what it would be like living as a woman in warn-torn Iran in the eighties trying to take care of your daughter alone, while at the same time combating an evil that you don’t even know is real or not. However, Rashidi does a great job giving us a glimpse into that world. Dorsa, the daughter, was played by Avin Manshadi. This was Manshidi’s first acting role, and she definitely delivered. As many horror fans know, children in horror films can easily lean towards a more annoying performance. Luckily, this was not the case for Manshidi. She was very talented, and her performance was truly believable.

Being more of a suspenseful film, there aren’t that many special effects. Most of the effects enter at the end of the film, which of course I will not give too much detail on. The effects are primarily CGI, which from a practicality standpoint was the only way to achieve the climax of the film. The effects are simple, especially in the styling of the djinn, but they are highly effective. The simple design managed to send chills down my spine and make something seemingly harmless absolutely terrifying.

When I went to see this film in the theater, I went in blind. The only thing I knew about it was that the film was from Iran. I’m thrilled I didn’t pass up the chance to see it on the big screen. The atmosphere of the film left you in a perpetual state of dread. This feeling was only amplified by being in a dark theater. Under the Shadow gives you a glimpse into the old and new aspects of Iranian culture, while also giving you a fright you won’t soon forget. This is the kind of film that will appeal to many viewers, not just because of the scares, but also because you learn things you may not have known about a different culture while watching it. It’s a horror film and a history lesson all in one.

OVERALL RATING: 8.5/10