Month: April 2017

Killing Ground

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A couple goes on a New Year’s Eve camping trip in the Australian Outback. When they reach their lonely campsite the couple notices another tent. After staying one night they realize the owners of the tent haven’t returned. It soon becomes clear that something bad happened to the fellow campers. When the couple finds a toddler wandering alone near the campsite they decide it’s time to get help. Soon the couple regrets ever coming to this seemingly idyllic campground.

Killing Ground has a plot that isn’t extraordinarily original. It is an intense thriller packed with rape, torture, and murder. Yet there are aspects of this film that make it stand out from other films with similar plots. One interesting part of the story is that it is told in a more modular format rather than a linear story. The main focus is the young couple, but we learn fragments of what happened to the family whose tent gets left behind. It is very effective storytelling to show the two storylines side by side, while one is in the past and one the present, until the two finally converge. It adds a bit of interest to an otherwise average story. Another element that adds intrigue to the plot is the addition of the toddler. Saving yourself from murderous people is difficult enough on its own. Add a child into the mix and things become much more stressful and chaotic.

There are two main pieces of the plot that I need to commend the filmmakers for. The first has to do with the rape in this film. The filmmakers made the wise decision to show what happens before and after, but not the act itself. Seeing the aftermath of a rape scenario can be effective in getting the point across to audiences without having to show the rape take place. In the wake of remakes like Last House on the Left and I Spit on Your Grave, I appreciate the less is more approach used in Killing Ground. Another aspect the filmmakers do an excellent job with is creating honest reactions to the events taking place. I won’t go too far into it because it may reveal some spoilers, but I will say in most thrillers the characters always somehow manage to keep a cool head and someone always comes in to be the hero. While I’m not saying this doesn’t happen in Killing Ground, many of the actions by the characters are more realistic and people react in ways I personally have always thought people would truly do in these situations.

This is yet another film from the International Horror and Sci-fi Film Festival that is very well acted by the entire cast. Specifically, the four leads do a fantastic job. Aaron Pedersen (Goldstone, Jack Irish) plays level-headed and deadly German. He is almost a mentor in this film, but unfortunately he teaches his pupil ways to maim and kill without getting caught. Pedersen’s performance is quite unsettling because of the way he portrays German’s calm demeanor, no matter what is going on around him. Aaron Glenane (Molly, Truth) is also fantastic as Chook, German’s willing student. Glenane’s performance may be even more disturbing than Pedersen’s. At first Chook seems a bit unsure of what the diabolic duo are doing, but once he gets a taste for blood Glenane shows us how much enjoyment Chook gets out of it. The two are polar opposites, German being calculated and relaxed, Chook being erratic and inexperienced. Another strong performance comes from Harriet Dyer (Love Child, Down Under) as Sam. Dyer portrays Sam as a sweet and caring person with an inner strength that allows her to step up when she needs to. Then finally there is Ian Meadows (The Wrong Girl, The Turning) as Sam’s medical school boyfriend Ian. Ian’s medical background makes him a helping kind of person, but he is still human, and Meadows shows that side of Ian perfectly. The common thread between all four of these characters, especially the couple, is that their actions and reactions feel authentic. They make the audience feel less like they are watching a movie, and more like they are watching actual horrific events.

Killing Ground is one of the most disturbing films I have seen in recent years. It’s not necessarily because of the events that take place, since those are things seen in other films, but it is because of the way the characters are written. While there are clearly “bad guys” in this story, there are still good people who make poor decisions. It blurs some of the lines that distinguish good and bad, and the actors that play these characters do a phenomenal job. This is not a story for the faint of heart, but it is truly an intense and grisly film.

OVERALL RATING: 8/10

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Dave Made a Maze

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Dave never finishes anything. He picks up hobby after hobby trying to create something, but he never finishes. One day he decides to build a cardboard labyrinth in his living room while his girlfriend is out of town. As he’s building, he accidentally traps himself inside. When his girlfriend gets home she gathers friends to go in and find Dave. What they don’t realize is that the labyrinth is much bigger on the inside, and the creatures and traps Dave built have taken on a life of their own.

Dave Made a Maze is the single most original film I have seen in years. Most people growing up built some kind of fort or maze out of whatever is in the house as a child. Most people also pretend that what is inside is real. The filmmakers create a cardboard world that is beautiful and nostalgic all at the same time. They quite literally bring to life a childhood that many people experienced. The maze Dave builds doesn’t look like much from the outside. It’s just a bunch of cardboard boxes taped together in the middle of a living room. Yet the maze has a TARDIS-like quality (Doctor Who reference for those who don’t know) in that it becomes a full-size labyrinth once inside. To add to the sense of whimsy in this film even the booby traps and creatures that are made from paper and cardboard come to life including giant heads, origami cranes, and the legendary Minotaur.

In many ways the maze itself represents Dave’s lack of focus. It is just another unfinished project and the many traps within are the things that distract him from completing anything. There is even one scene where Dave and his girlfriend get stuck in what looks like their apartment in this odd continuous daily loop of monotony. While this scene is up for interpretation, I see this as yet another trap in Dave’s maze. This trap locks Dave back into the life he is currently living and never achieving greatness like he so desperately desires. This is why, even when his friends enter the maze and they are all being chased by the Minotaur, Dave insists that the only way to escape the maze is by completing it. Yet again, this is a representation of Dave being forced to break out of the cycle he has created for himself. This metaphor is something that many viewers can relate to and will empathize with.

The world created in this film manages to be both whimsical and somewhat terrifying all at once. The set design is breathtaking, each part of the maze being made almost entirely out of cardboard. What’s even more impressive is that each set was built and disassembled in one day and filming time only took 22 days. The amount of work and artistry the filmmakers put into these sets is truly amazing. Even the various traps are made out of cardboard and when someone meets their end in a trap instead of blood, red streamers pour out of their body. It makes the death scenes absolutely hilarious and allows the filmmakers to have a certain level of gore without any actual blood or guts. The creature design is also primarily cardboard and paper, which is beautiful when the creatures come to life. Unfortunately this is where I find one negative about the film. Dave made everything out of cardboard, and most of the creatures are cardboard, yet the Minotaur doesn’t quite follow that rule. His head is a gorgeous cardboard design, yet the head sits atop of big, buff, shirtless human body. If the Minotaur had been made fully in cardboard it would have been more effective and stayed within the continuity of the film.

This fantastical world would not be as compelling without the characters who venture through it. Nick Thune (Urge, Dreamland) plays the builder, Dave. His character has a very interesting story arc and Thune does an excellent job of portraying Dave as he goes on this unique adventure. Thune makes the audience initially think Dave is just kind of a loser, but as the story progresses he manages to change how Dave is perceived. Much of the supporting cast is excellent as well. Meera Rohit Kumbhani (The Engagement Clause, Weird Loners) is delightful as Dave’s girlfriend, Annie. She stands out because she is tolerant of her boyfriend and tries to support him in his endeavors, even when his actions seem a bit on the crazy side.  Adam Busch (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Colony) is also great as Dave’s best friend, Gordon. Much like Annie, Gordon tries to be supportive of Dave, but he is also great at making fun of Dave’s shortcomings in a friendly way. While watching the film you really get the feeling that these people are relatable friends reacting in honest ways, and that is all due to the acting.

Dave Made a Maze is a bizarrely perfect blend of horror and whimsy. It is almost as if we enter an alternate universe where Jim Henson makes horror films. The gorgeous sets and fantastical creatures create a beautiful new world. The fact that the filmmakers were able to achieve this in 22 days of filming is still baffling to me. My biggest complaint is simply the Minotaur. While the head is a gorgeous cardboard creation, it doesn’t make sense to me that it would have a normal human body. This film is truly one of the most stunning and unique films made in years and it breaks the barriers of the horror genre, providing something for everyone to enjoy.

OVERALL RATING: 8.5/10

The Night Watchmen

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A group of night watchmen and their new recruit keep watch over the offices of a newspaper. One night, when everyone is staying late to do inventory, a coffin is accidentally delivered to the building. Little do the night watchmen know that the late great Blimpo the clown is in that coffin and he met an untimely death in Romania. Blimpo is now a vampire and soon the night watchmen find themselves fighting for their lives as people in the office are turned into bloodthirsty monsters.

Of all the films at the Phoenix Film Festival and International Horror and Sci-fi Film Festival, I can say without a doubt that The Night Watchmen is the most fun horror film they programmed. This film really has everything one could want from a gory horror-comedy; lots of laughs, awesome practical effects, hilarious actors, and a fun story. The filmmakers managed to combine different things that scare people in order to create a spooky, hilarious hybrid. Clowns and vampires can be terrifying on their own. When you join them into one “clownpire,” then you get absolute insanity. The filmmakers also make the vampires in the film almost more zombie-like until they become a bit older and have more blood. This is smart because it allows them to create more carnage and excitement because the young vampires are essentially feral, wild animals.

Obviously the entire concept of this film is hilarious, but there are smaller details that elevate it to a higher level of humor. The three night watchmen and their new hire make up quite the team. The leader of their team is the typical buff ex-military guard. He is more experienced than the others so he naturally takes the lead. This character is hilarious because he fits into a certain stereotype, until the craziness begins and then you see that he isn’t quite the macho man he appears to be. The leader’s best friend and fellow night watchman is described in the film as “the worst black guy ever.” He commonly says common phrases incorrectly and enjoys things a stereotypical black man would not enjoy. This is a trait that can be seen in most of the main characters. The filmmakers do a great job of introducing caricatures and stereotypes of different people, but then show that they actually do not fit into that mold at all. It adds a more subtle layer of humor amidst all the fart and sex jokes.

The interesting and complex characters would be nothing without the actors who play them. The Night Watchmen is filled with laugh out loud performances from the lead characters all the way down to the smallest roles. All of the watchmen deliver performances wrought with humor and even a certain level of complexity not typically seen in this kind of horror-comedy. Ken Arnold (Men in Black 3, Lovely Molly) plays tough-guy leader, Ken. Arnold adds many layers to his character’s personality making him much more engaging and lovable. Kevin Jiggetts (Concussion, Won’t Back Down) plays the equally lovable Jiggetts, Ken’s best friend and the aforementioned “worst black guy ever.” Jiggetts does an amazing job of acknowledging the stereotypes people expect his character to fall into and then he completely shatters that stereotype. Max Gray Wilbur (Thrill Kill) is yet another example of breaking expectations in his portrayal of the rookie who is fondly known as “Rajeeve.”  One would expect him to be the hero of the story since he is the young fresh face, but the audience quickly learns that is not the case. Then there is Kara Luiz (Jerks with Cameras, American Poltergeist 3) as the strong female lead of Karen. I love the character of Karen and Luiz’s portrayal of her because she is not a damsel in distress. In the workplace she ranks higher than the male leads and she takes charge and refuses to be the helpless victim. Other great performances come from Dan DeLuca (Crazy Eights), Tiffany Shepis (Tales of Halloween), James Remar (Unnatural), and of course Gary Peebles as the great Blimpo.

This is a very gory, bloody film. It would have failed miserably without those who create the amazing practical effects. Every wound and bit of gore is very well done. It is definitely over the top at times when looking at the amount of blood and guts, but it works in this kind of film. The creature design for the vampires is one of the best aspects of the practical effects. I appreciate that, instead of the usual two elongated fangs and alluring demeanor, the filmmakers broke the vampire mold (much like with the main characters) by having a mouth full of sharp teeth and rabid behavior. The vampires are feral, wild beasts instead of the usual calm and composed sex symbols. It makes them more frightening and dangerous, especially as they slowly begin to gain more intelligence with each drop of blood they drink. I also love that they make Blimpo stand out as the leader by making him the strongest, most intelligent, and making him appear larger than everyone else. Blimpo is not a clown you would want to meet in a dark alley.

The Night Watchmen is an insanely fun and bloody ride that is sure to tickle the funny bone of horror fans everywhere. In this film you get lots of gore, excitement, and laughs. While the fart jokes may go on a little too long, the filmmakers make up for it by giving the audience surprisingly complex characters. Those complex characters are portrayed by an all-around fantastic cast that has electric chemistry between them. I not only want to see more of these characters, but I also can’t wait to see what the filmmakers come up with next.

OVERALL RATING: 8.5/10

The Transfiguration

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Milo is a teen boy living in a rough urban neighborhood. Alienated from his peers for being weird, he spends most of his time watching vampire movies. As his mental illness and fascination with vampirism takes over his life he meets Sophie, another troubled teen who moves into his building. Now Milo is going through an internal struggle between his obsession and his yearning to be with the girl he cares about.

The Transfiguration is a beautiful story. Milo clearly has some kind of mental disorder. He not only is fascinated with vampires, but he actually believes he is one. He believes it to the point where he will kill a stranger to drink their blood. To him it isn’t wrong, it is just what he has to do in order to live. Then Sophie comes into the picture. She has many of her own mental issues, but when compared to Milo she seems like a relatively normal girl. When she enters his life, Milo is forced to look at his actions for what they are and take his mental illness head on. Not only is this a rather depressing look at mental illness in youth, but specifically inner city kids who don’t have the resources to get the help they need.

The plot has elements that will appeal to many audiences. It is mysterious, thought provoking, and horrific in its own way. What drives a lot of this story is not only the social commentary threaded throughout, but also how it makes you question what is real. Is Milo just an unstable teen, or could he possibly be an actual vampire? Watching the story unravel in a way that gives you clues as to the origin of his thirst for blood is truly fascinating. The only qualm I have with this film is that the pacing can be very slow at times. This is a more character and story driven film, rather than relying on lots of action and excitement, but there are still many times where virtually nothing happens. The audience often watches Milo walk around town, without any dialogue or true purpose to the scenes except to create a feeling of unease. There are likely some scenes that can be cut to make the film move at a somewhat quicker pace without losing any of the unsettling atmosphere.

The two young leads in The Transfiguration are some of the best new talent I have seen in a long time. Eric Ruffin (The Good Wife, Nature Calls) is simply incredible as the disturbed Milo. Ruffin portrays Milo as emotionless throughout most of the film, but always shows a bit of heart when Sophie is involved. He shows the audience that Milo definitely has issues that need to be taken care of, but underneath it all he isn’t a bad person. Chloe Levine (The OA, King Jack) is also stunning as Sophie. One could argue that she is equally as disturbed as Milo, just in a vastly different way, and Levine does an amazing job of conveying that to the audience. These are two young actors you will want to pay attention to.

Visually this is a very interesting film. It isn’t necessarily beautiful or shot in a way that makes it look like art. Instead it is somewhat gritty. The colors are dulled so everything has a bit of a grey, dirty tinge to it. This is an interesting choice by the filmmakers, and a smart one. It adds to the gloomy, depressing feeling and emphasizes the themes seen throughout the film. The filmmakers also chose to go very minimal and realistic with any scenes involving blood and murder. Again, this is smart because this is a film very much rooted in the reality of mental illness. If they had gone more the gory horror route then it would take away from the message being sent. All around it is stunning the same way abandoned, crumbling buildings can be stunning.

The Transfiguration is not only a sort of sad love story, but it is also a story of unchecked mental illness. Those who need it most do not get the help they need, and this film shows the effects that has on the individual and those around them. The only true negative about this film is the pacing can drag for unfortunately long periods of time. Yet it is still one of the most interesting and thought-provoking horror films of the decade. The Transfiguration is able to blur the genre lines by the many themes it takes on. Because of that, it is something that has the ability to bring in non-horror audiences in a way that not many other horror films can. It is powerful, it has two phenomenal leads, and it forces audiences to take a deep look into mental illness and the state of inner city youth. The Transfiguration is definitely a must-see film.

OVERALL RATING: 9/10

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Lake Bodom

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In 1960 four teenagers were murdered at Lake Bodom in Finland. Decades later, two teenage boys invite two girls to go camping with them. What these girls don’t know is that they are going to the same spot where those teens lost their lives so many years ago. One of the boys is determined to test his theory about who committed the murders. Once the group arrive at the lake things quickly go down a dark and twisted path that some may not survive.

One of the most interesting aspects of this film is that the murders in 1960 are true. Four teenagers went camping at Lake Bodom, and only one survived, although he suffered terrible injuries and mental trauma. To this day the murders remain unsolved. Instead of doing what most films do with true events, and trying to recreate them on film, the filmmakers of Lake Bodom decided to simply use that as a springboard for their story. The previous murders are acknowledged and used as the motivation for this new group to camp in the same spot. From there the plot dives into intrigue, deception, betrayal, and many equally interesting layers.

What makes Lake Bodom stand out to me is that every time you think you have things figured out, a new layer to the story is revealed. While I love that about the film because it keeps the audience guessing, it also felt like there may be one too many layers to the plot. If the filmmakers had held back just a little bit the film would have a stronger overall story. It is almost as if they try to put too many twists and turns into the plot to the point where it is hard to determine where the filmmakers wanted to go with the film. Despite that, I will say the layer that could be taken out does at least make audiences call into question if what they see is real or not.

Lake Bodom is the most visually stunning film I have seen so far at the Phoenix Film Festival/International Horror and Sci-fi Film Festival. Every single shot looks like it is a work of art. The cinematography in the forest setting is not only gorgeous, but is done in a way that looks eerie as well. The filmmakers even do a great job of filming primarily at night, but there is enough light to clearly see what is happening. This is not easy to do without the artificial light being completely obvious. While watching the film it just looks like moonlight, and that only adds to the creepy atmosphere and beautiful style of the film.

The entire cast of Lake Bodom is amazing. Nelly Hirst-Gee (If You Love) portrays the innocent and broken Ida. She is the damaged one of the group and has to go through more of an emotional transformation to find her own strength, and Hirst-Gee does an amazing job in that role. Mimosa Willamo (Headfirst) plays Nora, the strongest personality in the group. Willamo stands out because, much like Hirst-Gee as Ida, she reveals the many aspects of Nora in a compelling way. The two male leads, Santeri Helinheimo Mäntylä (Bitwisards) as Atte and Mikael Gabriel (Flowers of Evil) as Elias, also give excellent performances. Both male characters can come across as creepy and sweet in turn, and both actors convey that very well. One thing they all have in common is that at different points during the film you call into question each of their motives and intentions.

Since this is more of a slasher film, most of the effects are on the minimal side. There isn’t a ton of blood and gore. There is enough blood to feel realistic for the injuries, but not so much that it turns into an over-the-top bloodbath. The kills themselves are also fairly minimal. There is really only one death that is a bit more unique. This one stands out because the way this character is killed fits in so well with what they say just before their death. This is clearly a deliberate choice by the filmmakers to give the audience a bit of an “ah-ha” moment. Also, by keeping things simple with the effects, it forces audiences to focus more on the story at hand.

Lake Bodom is a film filled with murder, betrayal, obsession, and deception. The many different aspects of the film add a lot of intrigue, but it also makes the film seem convoluted at times. Despite that it is still a stunningly filmed story with superb acting from the four leads. It also gives audiences a great mystery that twists and turns in ways that will keep you guessing from start to finish. This is another film that will appeal to many different types of horror fans and non-horror fans alike.

OVERALL RATING: 7.5/10

Happy Hunting

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An alcoholic gets a call that an old girlfriend has passed away leaving her young child, his child, alone. He must travel to Mexico to meet the child he never knew existed. Along the way he stops in a small dilapidated town that was once a bustling mecca for hunters. Little does the alcoholic drifter know that the residents of this quiet town have an annual tradition he is now a part of, whether he likes it or not.

On the surface Happy Hunting is an exciting thrill ride chalked full of insanity and carnage. Underneath is a film that offers interesting commentary on how society deals with individuals it finds less desirable. It also shows a man suffering from severe alcoholism and the extreme circumstances it takes to finally make him quit his addiction. When you walk around any large city you see the “undesirables.” These are the homeless people, the drunks, the criminals. Typically they are left to their own devices by society. In this strange small town the people take matters into their own hands. Every year they have a hunting festival in honor of an age old tradition when the land was rife with buffalo. Instead, the townsfolk gather the undesirable people of their town. This gives them the chance to get rid of the riff-raff dirtying their town while also having fun hunting human beings, the ultimate prey. It creates an exciting, and often times hilarious, scenario.

The drunken protagonist of this film, Warren, has to have booze in his system at all times or he suffers the symptoms of alcohol withdrawal. Even when he discovers his ex has died and he has a child that is now his responsibility, he doesn’t stop drinking. It isn’t until he is thrown into the hunting competition, as prey, that he has to face his addiction and find a way to overcome it. What makes this aspect of the story so interesting is how the filmmakers show the great lengths Warren goes to in order to consume alcohol and how deeply rooted the addiction really is.

This is a film that has a lot of humor mixed into the insanity. While many of the themes are very serious, I don’t think this film would have worked without the humor. The idea that a small town near the Mexican border not only hunts people, but gets away with it, is absurd. By adding funny parts to the plot it tells audiences that the filmmakers know this is a crazy idea, so they made certain aspects more light-hearted and humorous. Often times this is seen by making specific characters hilarious caricatures and stereotypes.

Some of the performances in Happy Hunting border on being over the top. In certain cases this makes a performance stand out as bad, and in other instances it actually works for the character. Ken Lally (Heroes, Puncture Wounds) plays one of those over the top characters, Steve. Steve is a resident of the small town and Lally plays him as the stereotype of the happy suburban husband, much like you would see in old TV shows like Leave it to Beaver. This actually works very well for the character of Steve, especially when we learn more about his backstory. Lally does a great job of injecting comedy into stressful situations, as well as showing the many sides of Steve. The shining star of this film is Martin Dingle Wall (Strangerland, Cops LAC) as Warren. Watching Wall portray Warren’s ups and downs through alcoholism is riveting and he makes the audience sympathize with the character, despite the fact he is a rather horrible human being.

There is one big negative aspect of this film, and that is the effects. Many of the wounds and fake blood look fine. The issue arises whenever CGI is used. Whenever a character is shot there is simply dreadful looking CGI blood spray or mist. Not only does it look bad, but it seems unnecessary as well. The most noticeable use of CGI involves fire. The blood may not stand out to most people, but it is impossible to not see that the flames are very poorly executed CGI. One can only hope that the effects are fixed before the film gets a wider distribution.

Happy Hunting is a film that has it all; social commentary, humor, and intense bloodshed. This film even has a character that many people suffering through addiction can relate to, and maybe even learn from. It really is the “every man’s” horror film because it has something almost everyone can enjoy. The only drawbacks are some of the performances by the smaller characters are too exaggerated, and the special effects look a bit more like what you would expect from a Syfy channel original movie. All in all this was a great way for me to start my experience at the 2017 Phoenix Film Festival and International Horror and Sci-fi Film Festival. It is a film that will be enjoyed by many.

OVERALL RATING: 7/10