Month: June 2020

The Oak Room

Late one night during a snowstorm, a man wanders into a bar in his hometown. He has a debt to settle with the bartender, but he offers the bartender a story instead of money. It’s a story of intrigue, murder, and lies. He won’t believe what happened in The Oak Room.

Director Cody Calahan (Antisocial, Let Her Out) brings to life the thrilling noir screenplay written by Peter Genoway, who makes his feature film debut. The Oak Room takes the art of oral storytelling and injects it into every aspect of the plot. Stripping it down to its core, the plot follows two main stories. The first is that of the drifter returning to his hometown. His father has died and he wants to collect his ashes from the grumpy bartender. The problem is, he owes the bartender money and he won’t hand over the ashes until he gets what he is owed. The second main story is the one the drifter is telling. He spins a yarn about a bar in a nearby town where a man passing through during a snowstorm stumbles into a bar as it’s closing, much like the drifter did himself. Then there are other, shorter stories being told within those stories.

At times the weaving of the many different stories creates a lack of focus in the film, but it presents an interesting format that is essentially an anthology and generates intrigue as audiences have to wait until the end to find out how the two main stories end. The filmmakers also cleverly ended the film in a way that leaves it up to the audience members on whether or not those two stories will collide or not.

One of the more compelling aspects of the storytelling in The Oak Room is how the filmmakers play with focus and elaboration. As the stories are being told, the storytellers often choose to either focus on one specific aspect of a larger story, or they tell a story non-synchronously. The bartender also emphasizes “goosing the truth.” This basically means changing details of a story to make it more exciting and interesting. It points out how different stories can be depending on who the storyteller is and who they are telling the story to.

While there are many fantastic performances throughout the many stories in The Oak Room, the actors in the two main stories stand out. RJ Mitte (Breaking Bad, The Recall) stars as the drifter, Steve. What really makes Mitte’s performance memorable is how Steve starts out seeming like he’s just a screw-up, but as the plot progresses, he seems to have mysterious, maybe even sinister motives. Peter Outerbridge (Lucky Number Slevin, Saw VI) plays the bartender, Paul, whom Steve goes to see. Paul is a very ornery, grizzled bartender who clearly dislikes Steve. Outerbridge does a great job of being grumpy, but also somehow likable in his gruffness. Then there are the two main characters from the story being told by Steve. Ari Millen (Darken, The Expanse) plays the bartender of The Oak Room, Michael. Much like Paul, Michael is rather gruff and rude, but Millen plays Michael in a much more menacing way. He has the same presence as a lion preparing to pounce. Then there is the late-night bar patron, Richard, played by Martin Roach (The Shape of Water, Cube Zero). Roach does a fantastic job of toeing the line between grateful and haughty. Richard is relying on Michael’s hospitality since the bar is technically closed, but he also is an entitled city boy who clearly expects to get what he wants. Each pair of men perfectly conveys the tension and hostility between the characters.

The Oak Room utilizes unique storytelling techniques to create a neo-noir thriller that is reminiscent of an anthology. Calahan and Genoway weave together different tales while still drawing focus to the two main plots. It creates a sort of nesting doll effect of revealing a story within a story, then putting them back together to return to the tale of Steve and Paul. The film has strong performances to help move the varying plots foward. At times the many stories lead to a lack of focus despite the fact that they are each intriguing. There is no shortage of intrigue and by the time the film ends viewers will be trying to decide what parts of these tales being told were fact and which were fiction.

OVERALL RATING: 7/10

Yummy

In a secluded Eastern European hospital, a woman goes to get breast reduction surgery while her mother is getting more work done to look younger. While they are prepped for surgery, the woman’s boyfriend accidentally stumbles upon something he shouldn’t have, unleashing a nightmarish zombie outbreak inside the hospital walls.

This zombie gore-fest hails all the way from Belgium. Lars Damoiseaux (10 jaar leuven kort, Undercover) directed and co-wrote the film along with Eveline Hagenbeek (Undercover, Rokjesdag). Yummy takes humorous jabs at plastic surgery and the lengths people will go to feel young and beautiful, while also delivering copious amounts of blood and guts. When we are introduced to the young woman, her mother, and her boyfriend, it creates an interesting dynamic. This is especially evident with mother and daughter. The daughter has the “God given gift” of very large natural breasts, but she hates the attention they bring her so she wants breast reduction. The mother, on the other hand, has already had multiple procedures to look younger and comes to the hospital wanting more. While both sides represent being unhappy with who you are and the way you look, the mother is the more traditional view of plastic surgery most viewers will think of. The film creates a kind of “be careful what you wish for” scenario as the doctors accidentally created the zombie virus in their quest to unlock the secrets of eternal youth. It sends a strong message, but it also allows the filmmakers to inject quite a few laugh-out-loud moments.

While for the most part Yummy delivers lots of fun along with the carnage, there are some drawbacks. There are one or two scenes that lean a bit too far into the realm of distasteful humor. It’s clear they want to push the envelope, especially with some of the effects, but it ends up bordering on offensive. That being said, most of the practical effects throughout Yummy are very well done. There are a lot of terrifying and gruesome zombies in this film and each one looks fantastic. In a few scenes there are practical effects to replicate cosmetic surgery or other aspects of the human body and those are also quite realistic. The film even has a great score, although during one scene it sounds very similar to the score from 28 Days Later.

There are many great performances in Yummy, but three stand out. The first is Maaike Neuville (De Dag, Clan) as Alison. What really stands out about Neuville’s performance is how she conveys being uncomfortable with her own body. Alison doesn’t want the attention her breasts give her, and the attention most women at the clinic desire, and Neuville excels at showing us that. Bart Hollander (Salamander, Callboys) plays Alison’s boyfriend, Michael. Michael is like a big, maybe slightly pathetic puppy dog; he’s goofy and hates the sight of blood, but he clearly adores Alison. Hollander plays this role well, especially when his many attempts to be the hero don’t quite work out. Then there is Benjamin Ramon (Carnival, Toxic Anyway) as hospital employee Daniel. Ramon does a fantastic job of being incredibly sleazy in one moment, then completely sweet in the next, depending on who he’s interacting with. These three actors also play off of each other very well.

Yummy is a zombie cautionary tale about the consequences of trying to look young forever. Damoiseaux and Hagenbeek definitely create a film that is as funny as it is grotesque. Gore hounds will be delighted with how drenched in blood and guts Yummy is from start to finish. There may be a couple of distasteful moments and a mildly lackluster ending, but it is sure to entertain viewers. The performances and cosmetic surgery hospital backdrop help to make this zombie film stand alongside others of its kind, even if it doesn’t stand above them. And because in this day and age some people still refuse to watch a film with subtitles, I will let potential viewers know that it’s about 50/50 English vs subtitles. If you’re looking for mindless fun, then this is definitely a great choice.

OVERALL RATING: 6/10

Etheria Film Night 2020

We all have experienced the major changes the COVID-19 pandemic has caused. Everything from daily life to events we looked forward to has drastically changed.

Etheria Film Night would normally have played its short films in Hollywood’s Egyptian Theatre, but this year they had to come up with a new plan. Lucky for all of us who don’t live in the LA area, Etheria Film Night 2020 instead is showing nine short films made by women exclusively on Shudder. The horror-focused streaming service has made quite a name for itself with the amazing Shudder exclusive films and even Shudder original shows. It is the perfect place for Etheria to showcase these short films.

Etheria’s co-founder and director of programming, Heidi Honeycutt, kicks things off with a lovely intro. She addresses how they are doing things differently this year due to the pandemic. Honeycutt also gives everyone a nice reminder to wear your mask! From there the block dives into the nine short films, all of them unique and fun in their own way.

WAFFLE

Directed by Carlyn Hudson and written by Kerry Barker and Katie Marovitch, who also star in the film, Waffle follows two women having a sleepover. What seems normal quickly becomes strange when the audience learns the women having the sleepover are a bizarre orphaned heiress (Marovitch) and a “best friend” (Barker) she is renting. What I love about this one is how awkward and uncomfortable it gets as the heiress becomes increasingly unhinged. It is hilarious, weird, and even offers a social commentary on how we live in an isolated society of artificial relationships. OVERALL RATING: 4/5

MAGGIE MAY (Jury Award Winner)

Writer and director Mia Kate Russell delivers a truly disturbing tale with her short film, Maggie May. After the death of her mother, a woman takes her infant twins to stay with her sister, but her sister takes doing nothing to a shocking extreme. This short film has some great moments that will make you gasp, as well as stunning practical effects. It also has a truly brilliant and haunting performance by Lulu McClatchy as the titular character, Maggie May. Of all the short films in this block, Maggie May is sure to disturb audiences and stick with them long after. OVERALL RATING: 5/5

BASIC WITCH

I immediately loved this short because it began with a disclaimer about consent and hexing the patriarchy. Basic Witch is directed by Yoko Okumura and written by Lauren Kurek Sweeney Cannon. The short film follows a young women the night after an unfortunate sexual encounter with her date. Feeling conflicted about the night’s events, she hexes a pumpkin spice latte for her date to drink so he can feel everything she felt, both physically and emotionally. Olivia Castanho perfectly plays Lily, the young witch, and Chris O’Brien does a great job as her date, Brian. This short film really excels at conveying the mixed emotions women go through when they are forced to do something sexual they didn’t want to do, but they don’t necessarily feel was rape. It even touches on the ethics of Lily forcing these same things onto Brian. The message of Basic Witch is important, well done, and something everyone should watch. OVERALL RATING: 5/5

CONVERSION THERAPIST

In this short film, written and directed by Bear Rebecca Fonté, a pansexual, polyamorous trio kidnap a religious anti-LGBTQ+ fundamentalist and conversion therapist to torture him. The short includes some great performances, especially from Sara Fletcher, Evelyn Jake, and Jordan Morgan as the kidnapping trio. Conversion Therapist, in a way, has the same cathartic viewing experience as a rape-revenge film. This is a short about the LBGTQ+ community getting back at those who have wronged us, and it’s quite satisfying to watch. The one drawback to the short is the frequent use of the word “f*ggot” by the lead kidnapper. I understand the reason for using it in the context, but it is still jarring to hear and used a bit too much. OVERALL RATING: 3.5/5

OFFBEAT

Set in a future with horribly polluted air, director Myrte Ouwerkerk and writer Chiara Aerts tell the story of a young drummer named Olly trying to earn his way into the clean air dome, where only the best of the best get to live. This film comes all the way from the Netherlands and is very well done. The story stands out because it shows, almost immediately, how the testing to get into the dome is incredibly biased and clearly is made so certain demographics can’t get in, including artists and members of the LGBTQ+ community. Christopher van der Meer is completely lovable as Olly and does a great job of taking us through this strange new world. Offbeat is fun and has great production value and effects, but more importantly it shows the inherent bias in testing that exists even today. OVERALL RATING: 4.5/5

THE FINAL GIRL RETURNS (Audience Award Winner)

This short film by Alexandria Perez takes on a strange journey with a young man seemingly stuck in a loop where he encounters final girl after final girl. This short captures the look and feel of classic 80’s slashers, including a fantastic 80’s inspired musical score, but from there it brings something new to the subgenre of horror. One of my favorite aspects of the short is that we see many final girls of all shapes, sizes, and colors, which is not very common in the slasher subgenre. The plot leaves a lot of the “why” to the unknown, but it does a great job of showing how we have to take our destiny into our own hands. It’s a slick update to a tired concept with a huge cast that absolutely nails it. OVERALL RATING: 3.5/5

LIVE

Taryn O’Neill writes, directs, and stars in this short film about a livecaster whose online persona is getting to be too much for her. There are two main aspects of modern social media and technology at play in this short. First, the personas we play online and how they differ from who we are in reality. Second, the increasing dilemma of how much a person should be willing to share with the world in order to make a buck. Perhaps it’s not quite nuanced enough at times, but still a compelling story that makes the audience think. It’s an interesting concept shown with futuristic technology to convey ideas that are very relevant in today’s social-media hungry society. OVERALL RATING: 3.5/5

MAN IN THE CORNER

Written and directed by Kelli Breslin and co-written by Daniel Ross Noble, Man in the Corner follows a young guy hooking up with what appears to be a perfect guy, but things go downhill when he realizes they’re not alone. Part of what makes it so unsettling is the performance by Matt Pascua as Daniel. The audience experiences the encounter through his POV. It makes many of the unanswered questions and the strange events work because we only know as much as Daniel knows. There is some striking imagery and a few specific moments that will likely be seared into the viewers’ brains. This is an eerie, unsettling short film that is beautifully shot and makes great use of lighting and color. OVERALL RATING: 4/5

AVA IN THE END

After an unfortunate accident leads to a young woman’s death, her consciousness is uploaded to the cloud until her new body arrives, leaving her to wait with an AI. Written by Addison Heimann and directed by Ursula Ellis, Ava in the End tackles some very deep ideas. In a future where your consciousness can just go to another body when you die, it is easy to take your life for granted. This short uses this futuristic setting and technology in order to show the consequences of that and encourage individuals to use the time they have to seek out their dreams. The filmmakers wisely use a single set for the physical representation of the cloud and Elsa Gay is fantastic as the recently deceased Ava. It’s a strong short film to end on, hopefully inspiring viewers to go out and try to achieve their goals. OVERALL RATING: 4/5

Scare Package

What’s better than seven tales of horror wrapped in one package? Seven meta tales of horror filled with laughs, gore, up-and-coming filmmakers, and familiar faces wrapped in one package. This and more awaits viewers in the new horror anthology, Scare Package.

Scare Package brings together a host of talented writers and directors. They all used their individual segments to hone in on various horror tropes and either subvert them or highlight those tropes. Viewers will no doubt watch the seven short films and see numerous nods to classic horror films, some more obvious than others. Sometimes the plots take a back seat to the visual aspects, but these aspects often tell a story of their own for the trained horror fan’s eye. Through all the meta filmmaking and Easter eggs, the filmmakers still manage to tell stories that are as funny as they are unique.

“Cold Open” hilariously honors the characters in horror films that are briefly seen and don’t get enough credit for setting up the film, while also honoring one of the most popular horror films of all time. “Rad Chad’s Horror Emporium” is not only a place I wish I worked, but it’s also the overarching story that ties everything together as each segment is presented like a rental at Rad Chad’s. “One Time in the Woods” is probably the goriest segment that also throws as many horror subgenres at you as it can. “M.I.S.T.E.R.” is likely going to piss off a few male viewers, but I mean that in the best way possible because it perfectly plays with the idea of what makes a real man. “Girls’ Night Out of Body” can be found in the post modern feminist slasher revenge body horror section at Rad Chad’s, and that honestly sums it up perfectly. “The Night He Came Back Again! Part IV: The Final Kill” plays into the classic horror trope of the masked killer that somehow always comes back, no matter how you kill him! “So Much to Do” exemplifies how important shows are to some people and the dangers of revealing spoilers. And finally, “Horror Hypothesis” takes everything you know about slashers and puts it to the test.

The performances in Scare Package are all fantastic, many of them being highly satirical and sure to make viewers laugh. Because many of the segments are meant to a mockery of horror tropes, some of the performances come across as intentionally cheesy. That might not appeal to all viewers, but definitely made me laugh. A clear standout performance from the beginning is Jeremy King (The Pale Door, Sinister Seduction) as none other than Rad Chad himself. King perfectly embodies all the good and bad aspects of hardcore horror lovers. His portrayal will make you love Chad as much as you also can’t help but roll your eyes at him. Another great performance comes from none other than Noah Segan (Knives Out, Mohawk) who stars as the husband in the segment he also co-wrote and directed, “M.I.S.T.E.R.” Segan does a fantastic job of acting as a typical nice guy with an underlying creepiness. Toni Trucks (Grimm, Franklin & Bash) stars in the “So Much To Do” segment as Franchesca. Trucks really shines in this role mostly because she kicks some serious ass. She has one of the most physical roles of all the segments, and she definitely delivers. Really all the performances are delightful and horror fans are sure to see more than a few familiar faces.

One thing I can promise viewers is that there is a lot of gore in Scare Package. The film relies on practical effects to create creative kills, gruesome monsters, and devious killers. There is definitely no shortage of blood, guts, and goo. While all of these segments utilize great practical effects, the most memorable in that regard is definitely “One Time in the Woods.” Not only does it have a high body count and unique kills, but it also has a fantastic melting character that looks absolutely amazing. If lots and lots of blood is more your speed, then “The Night He Came Back Again! Part IV: The Final Kill” is definitely the segment for you. The effects have a little something for everything horror fan.

Scare Package hilariously highlights the good, the bad, and the ugly of horror films. It’s clear this anthology was put together by horror fans for horror fans. Each segment is a hilarious take on various horror tropes, but there are still delightfully unique stories to be seen. At times it might be a bit too meta and tongue-and-cheek for some viewers. I for one scared my pets multiple times by bursting into laughter. Scare Package showcases the beginnings of promising careers for these writer and directors. Fans will also be laughing along with the fresh new actors and cheering for the horror favorites that pop-up. It might be a bit goofy at times, gory horror anthology that viewers are sure to adore.

OVERALL RATING: 7.5/10