Horror Comedy

Secret Santa

secret santa

A large family comes together for Christmas. Like many other families, this one is broken and estranged and dysfunctional. As they all come together around the table for Christmas dinner the fighting begins. But these aren’t your ordinary family arguments. The fights turn violent and this average holiday get-together becomes a bloody, chaotic massacre.

Everyone believes they have a weird family. Some family members you love and others you can’t stand. Writer/director Adam Marcus (Jason Goes to Hell: The Final Friday, Texas Chainsaw 3D) and co-writer Debra Sullivan (Conspiracy, Texas Chainsaw 3D) take something we are all familiar with and amplify it. This family has deep seeded issues due to divorce, remarriage, success, failure, and of course a large dose of sibling rivalry. When something happens that turns the family members into crazed, bloodthirsty killers the excitement really kicks in. The dynamics between various family members are some of the highlights of the film because many audience members will see themselves and their families in the film. The hilarious dialogue helps to highlight those strained relationships and it even carries into some of the kill scenes. As truths are revealed and the non-crazy family members try to fight for their lives, things get very thrilling and hilarious.

There are a few breakout performances in this film that will stick with you long after the credits roll. A early standout is Nathan Hedrick (Art of War, Seven Deadly Sins) as Jackson, the outspoken horndog half brother. Hedrick’s performance is totally over the top, but it works for his character. He’s loud, he’s crazy, and when he becomes violent he has some hilarious scenes. A Leslie Kies (The Newsroom, Jane the Virgin) shines as April. April is the perfect child among all the siblings. On the surface she seems too perfect, but as the film progresses Kies shows April’s hidden flaws and secrets in a compelling way. The true star of this film, in my opinion, is Ryan Leigh Seaton (NerdGirls, Dogs & Me) as Penny. Penny is the black sheep of the family and Seaton plays her as the sarcastic sibling who hates everyone incredibly well. Seaton also has some of the most hilarious lines and her delivery will leave you in stitches. While the entire cast is really fun to watch, Seaton is likely the one who will be remembered the most.

It’s safe to say that there is a lot of blood in this film. Fans of gore will not be disappointed. On top of that, there are some really unique kills. The film even opens with a fight from the point of view of a snow globe, which ends up being used as a weapon. This allows the filmmakers to show some very creative effects. All the attacks, from severed heads to cut Achilles tendons, are grotesque and thrilling.  Not only are these kills creative and even funny at times, but the practical effects look amazing as well. There is a level of campiness with the amount of blood and gore, but it fits in very well with the tone of the film.

Secret Santa is the holiday horror film to watch when you want to see a family that is more dysfunctional than your own. It is equal parts carnage and laughs, with outrageous characters that have you laughing and screaming from start to finish. This is the kind of film that you go into knowing it is meant to be humorous, gory, and campy. Slasher horror comedies with this kind of humor and gore can be an acquired taste, but they can also be some of the most fun experiences you’ll have in watching a film. This film will clearly become a holiday staple for horror fans.

OVERALL RATING: 7/10

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Lowlife

lowlife

El Munstro is the latest in a long and proud line of famed luchadors. While El Munstro had always been a symbol of hope for the Mexican people, this El Munstro works for his thug father-in-law named Teddy who meddles in underage prostitution and organ harvesting. Crystal is a recovering addict. She struggles with running her motel while also trying to keep her alcoholic husband alive, with Teddy’s help. Keith is Teddy’s accountant who picks up his best friend, Randy, from jail. Except Randy walks out of the prison doors with a giant swastika covering his face. These people don’t have much in common, but their worlds are about to collide.

This is director Ryan Prows’ first feature film, which he cowrote. The film was also written by Tim Cairo, Jake Gibson, Shaye Ogbonna, and Maxwell Michael Towson (Towson being the only one to have written a feature length film before). Lowlife is broken into different sections, allowing you to get to know each of the main characters. The segments are titles “Monsters,” “Fiends,” and “Thugs.” People will immediately be reminded of Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, mostly due to the way the film is broken into separate subplots that all intertwine. While that connection is justifiable, Lowlife seems to take that concept and perfect it. The individual stories for each character feel complete, and with each segment more and more is revealed. The filmmakers designed it so the audience can understand more about what is happening with each segment, while also showing what is happening from different points of view. When the different subplots finally come together, it makes the climax of the film all the more intense and enthralling.

What pushes this film beyond being a typical suspenseful (sometimes comedic) drama with a bunch of unsavory characters is how much heart this film has. For the most part, all of the characters are truly horrible people. Yet, somehow, the filmmakers still make you care about what happens to them. The character arcs also show some interesting changes and growth from beginning to end that isn’t normally seen from these types of characters. There are also so many layers, not only to the plot but also to each character, that show no one is perfect. Each individual just tries to live their life the best they know how to.

The multidimensional characters would not have been as fascinating without the work of some fantastic actors. Ricardo Adam Zarate (Deadly Films) makes his feature film debut as El Munstro. This character speaks entirely in Spanish and is never seen without his luchador mask on. Zarate perfectly portrays how El Munstro straddles the line of being the noble fighter he believes he is, and the somewhat unstable madman he truly is. The way Zarate is able to emote through the luchador mask is also outstanding. Nicki Micheaux (The Shield, Animal Kingdom) shines as motel owner Crystal. Micheaux’s performance stands out because she brings the most heart and emotion of all the characters. It is impossible to watch her performance and not feel a strong sense of empathy for Crystal. Jon Oswald (Mata Hari, Boomerang Kids) plays the now ex-convict Randy. As soon as Randy appears on the screen with a swastika on his face, audiences will expect to hate him. Surprisingly, the writing combined with Oswald’s performance make Randy the most enjoyable character. He is funny without trying to be, and he is probably the only one of the characters who could be considered a wholly good person, despite what his appearance would suggest. Finally, there is the character Teddy, played by Mark Burnham (Wrong Cops, Hidden in the Woods). Burnham’s look in the film at first seems over-the-top, but his performance of the despicable and soulless Teddy brings all the flash and color back to earth. All of these actors, as well as one not mentioned here, will make you remember this film.

This is not a horror film, yet I am still writing this review for it. It may defy being placed in any one genre, but I would say it is mostly a thrilling crime drama with comedic elements. After watching this film at the International Horror and Sci-fi Film Festival, it was clear to me that I couldn’t see it without spreading the word about it. Lowlife gives a riveting snapshot into a world filled with criminals, yet it chooses to focus on the good within that deranged world. It weaves through multiple different plot lines, then sews them together seamlessly by the end of the film. The entire cast is outstanding, the writing is phenomenal, and it is incredibly well directed. If the fact that I wrote a review for this film on my horror site doesn’t make it explicit enough, let me make it more clear: go see this film.

OVERALL RATING: 9/10

Rock Steady Row

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In the not so distant future, college campuses become survival of the fittest. Two warring fraternities have taken over Rock Steady University campus leaving the rest of the student body to fend for themselves. On his first day of college, Leroy’s bike is stolen by one of the fraternities. Leroy attempts to get his bike back leading to fights, conspiracies, and a very strange freshman year.

This film is very difficult to fit into a specific genre. There are both dramatic and comedic elements, and at times there is action. An argument could be made that it is post-apocalyptic, and the film even feels like watching a video game in certain scenes. The film is definitely a hodge-podge of many different genres all rolled into one, and that is part of its charm. This is the first feature film directed by Trevor Stevens and written by Bomani Story. The pair took a simple concept, a freshman’s bike being stolen on campus, and turned it into an epic tale. While the universe created in the film is an extreme caricature of the real world, it is still something relatable and accessible to any viewer who spent time going to college. The plot simultaneously makes fun of fraternities, points out the capitalist habits of many universities, and shows that it often takes more than just intelligence to get a higher education.

The cast features many caricatures of people you likely encountered in college. Heston Horwin (Run, Speechless) plays freshman Leroy. In a way he is a typical college freshman, completely self absorbed and only concerned with himself and his bike. As his arc progresses, Horwin brings more heart to the character. Leroy goes through some fairly elaborate schemes to get his bike back, and watching Horwin portray this character through all his trials and tribulations is quite entertaining. Two of the most fun characters to watch throughout the film are the two fraternity leaders, Andrew Palmer and Augustus Washington III. Andrew is played by Logan Huffman (Final Girl, Lymelife). Huffman plays the caricature of the ultimate bro frat boy who thinks he can get whatever, and whoever he wants.  He is everything a person could hate in a frat boy, and Huffman plays Andrew so well he will make you laugh while your skin is crawling. Augustus is played by Isaac Alisma (Ready Set Blahe, The Arabian Warrior). Augustus is a different type of frat boy. He is the leader of the intelligent, borderline geeky, but still hip and cool frat. Alisma does a great job of making it unclear who Augustus is loyal too, although it is no secret that his own fraternity is always number one. Diamond White (Boo! A Madea Halloween, F*&% the Prom) plays Piper. We all know that person on college campus who is the perpetual activist, trying to expose the truth and make the campus a better place. Piper is that person in Rock Steady Row. White portrays Piper in a way that makes her straddle the edge of being too perfect, but she is still the most grounded and heart-filled character of the bunch. All of these actors and characters work well together on camera, making for scenes that run the gambit of emotions for the audience.

Of all the films I saw at the International Horror and Sci-fi Film Festival, this was probably the one with the most unique visuals. The film start with a fun animated back story, allowing the audience to get to know this somewhat futuristic world they are about to witness. From there the film focuses on a lot of really fascinating uses of color and light. Most of the color pallet is desolate beiges, greys, and other muted colors. Only the frat brothers wear bright colors; red for Andrew and his frat brothers, blue for Augustus and his frat brothers. When Leroy is traveling back and forth, trying to find a way to get his beloved bike back, the “travel” is shown by backlighting Leroy on a sound stage so all you see is his silhouette and whatever color is being projected in the lights. These scenes are where audiences will really get a sense of the video game and comic book style of the film. The film is really stunning to watch and  feels somewhat reminiscent of films like Turbo Kid and Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, but with its own unique flare.

Rock Steady Row is a film that defies definition, as well as expectations. Its a genre bending tale that will surely become a cult classic, especially with the unique imagery and storytelling style. The fact that there are so many different genres thrown into this melting pot can be a bit overwhelming, especially since there are so many different styles going on throughout the film. This means the film won’t be for everyone, but it is hard to deny how much fun this film is. It is sure to win the hearts of many cinephiles because of its unique content and style.

OVERALL RATING: 7.5/10

Cynthia

cynthia

Robin and Michael are the perfect couple. The only problem is, they can’t seem to get pregnant. The couple resorts to fertility injections mailed in from over seas. After months of trying they finally get pregnant, but along with the baby there seems to be a large cyst. The baby is born healthy, and the doctor removes the cyst. Everything seems fine, but the cyst isn’t just a cyst, and it will do whatever it takes to get back to mommy.

This is a very unexpected film. This is the first film written by Robert Rhine (Road Lawyers and Other Briefs) in almost twenty years. His recent focus has been on his magazine, Girls and Corpses, and this film is a great way for him to make his return. His plot is equal parts ridiculous, hysterical, and gory. Rhine’s script is combined with the directing powers of Devon Downs (Anarchy Parlor) and Kenny Gage (Anarchy Parlor). Fertility issues are something that many women go through, so creating a fun horror film around it not only makes the film relatable, but it also makes it more fun. It is almost as if some of the pressure of trying to get pregnant is taken away by being able to laugh about it in this film. There is an extra layer of hilarity when it comes to seeing such a perfect couple unravel after they get the baby they have always wanted, and seeing how a mother will care for her child no matter what. The film is definitely filled with campiness and dark humor that won’t be for everyone, but horror fans that enjoy a healthy dose of comedy with their gore will likely love this flick.

Cynthia has a cast filled with horror royalty doing what they do best, as well as giving us a few surprises. The leading lady of this film is Scout Taylor-Compton (Halloween, Halloween II) as Robin. There isn’t anything Robin wouldn’t do to have the family she’s always wanted. Taylor-Compton perfectly shows the change in Robin when her family unit doesn’t turn out quite like she planned. Another standout performance of this star-studded film is Sig Haig (The Devil’s Rejects, Razor) as Detective Edwards. This was a very different role for Haig, since fans are used to seeing him as the bad guy, yet he plays a detective very well. Despite his good-guy performance being different than what fans are used to, he still manages to inject a little bit of the classic Haig we know and love. Other noteworthy performances come from Bill Moseley (The Devil’s Rejects), Robert LaSardo (Anarchy Parlor), Kyle Jones (The Boonies), and Rebecca Marshall (Raze). Each and every one of these actors is guaranteed to make you laugh.

The best part of this film is Cynthia herself. The creature design is absolutely brilliant because the filmmakers managed to create something that is both disgusting and cute at the same time. They make you love Cynthia, despite her appearance and the horrific things she does. This design feels slightly reminiscent of the evil baby from Dead Alive, except it is somehow more grotesque and lovable. She was created entirely with practical effects and puppeteers, which makes her all the more endearing. The filmmakers wisely were slow to reveal Cynthia. It is just the right amount of delayed gratification for the audience, because when the full reveal finally happens we are already emotionally invested in this character. The audience becomes attached to her sweet little baby sounds and farts, bringing out our paternal instincts, before seeing how horrific looking she truly is. After seeing this film I can only imagine fans will want their own Cynthia to cuddle with at night.

Cynthia is a campy delight with the most hideously adorably creature ever made. It is really a perfect storm of different horror elements. The film has a fantastic cast, superb creature design, and it is hilarious. The only downside to the film is some of the medical scenes and terminology are off, but since the rest of the film involves a strange baby-creature these inaccuracies are easy to overlook. This film isn’t for everyone, and there are many who will not appreciate the camp or the gore. Still, the comedic approach to telling a story about a couple struggling with fertility will delight audiences everywhere. If this film is coming to a film festival near you, then be sure to check it out.

OVERALL RATING: 7/10

Mom and Dad

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Parents have a natural instinct that makes them willing to do anything to protect their offspring. One day, all that changes. Something is happening to all the parents. Suddenly the parents will stop at nothing to kill their own children. Carly, a teenage girl, must fight to protect her little brother from their own mom and dad, who want nothing more than to murder them.

The premise of this film is very simple. One day, instead of wanting to protect their children, all the parents suddenly want to brutally murder their children. That’s pretty much it. The film never even explains why this sudden change occurs. While not knowing the ‘why’ behind all the carnage is somewhat troublesome, it allows you to focus on the relationships within the main family unit and what it means to be a parent. This aspect is the most interesting part of the film, although some may see it as mean-spirited.

Every parent thinks negative thoughts about their kids, especially when the kids are in their teenage years. Mothers think about how having children ruined their bodies. Fathers think about how they lost their freedom by getting married and having kids. Granted, this isn’t how all parents think, but I’d be willing to bet that a lot of parents occasionally think thoughts along the same lines. While in the real world these are just thoughts, and they don’t take away from how much a parent loves their child, that isn’t the case in this film. A lot of these negative thoughts are the driving force behind the parents killing their kids. Some viewers will likely think this makes the film cruel. I think it adds to the dark, and sometimes overly honest, humor threaded throughout the film.

Another aspect of the film that might make people dislike it is the violence towards children. While for the most part the film focuses on the teenage daughter, the filmmakers do show violence towards younger kids and even infants. Again, this will be off-putting to some viewers. There aren’t many filmmakers willing to show that kind of violence towards kids, but in real life children are not immune to violence. It makes sense that even the youngest children wouldn’t be immune to it in this film, especially since every parent is affected by whatever mysterious force makes them want to kill their children.

While the film is primarily told through the eyes of the teenage daughter, the adults have the standout performances. The role of the father, Brent, seems like it was written for Nicolas Cage (Knowing, Face/Off). Cage is known for his freakout moments in past films, and this film is filled to the brim with classic Cage craziness. Anyone who is a fan of Cage’s over-the-top acting style will want to see him in this. Selma Blair (Cruel Intentions, Hellboy) plays the mother in this psychotic duo, Kendall. Blair typically plays the more shy, awkward characters, but not in this performance. In this film, audiences get to see her go through an interesting transformation. Initially she is the quintessential perfect mom doing anything and everything for her children. Then, as all the other parents become murderous, her change to wanting nothing more than to kill her own kids is even more pronounced. Together they make an insane and often hilarious couple, fitting into various parenting stereotypes.

Mom and Dad is a hyper-violent and darkly funny film that says all the things about parenting that parents aren’t supposed to say. This film takes some risks in how it portrays violence (with children on the receiving end of this violence). As a result, there will be some who undoubtedly will hate this film. In my opinion, the film is an entertaining flick chalked full of mindless violence. Throw in the classic Nic Cage craziness and Selma Blair’s evil charms, and it is easier to overlook the somewhat skimpy plot. This film may be forgotten by the end of the year, but I have a feeling it will develop quite the cult following over the years.

OVERALL RATING: 6.5/10

Heartless (Short)

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Shelby, a young business associate, is unappreciated by her superiors. When her boss doesn’t show up to work Shelby is forced to do a big presentation. As she attempts to complete the presentation her mind becomes unhinged. A dark secret is knocking away at her sanity like the beating of a heart.

Heartless is a short film inspired by Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart.” Writer/director Kevin Sluder took Poe’s concept and updated it for the modern age. It focuses on a young woman trying to make it in the business world, only to have opposition from both her female boss and the other “boys club” type businessmen. This refreshing update makes Poe’s story more accessible for viewers. Most people can relate to trying to make it in the business world. Even more poignant is watching a woman in the workplace facing discrimination and cruel jokes from her male superiors. Sluder does an excellent job of making viewers empathize with Shelby, even as we learn more about her rather disturbing secret.

The storytelling of the short is very well done. The film begins with Shelby as she is about to enter the conference room where she must do her presentation for the male executives. As the short progresses, little things take Shelby back to the night before. The audiences gets more and more bits of information about the events leading up to the presentation. Then, of course, there is the beating of a heart. That beating leads to the unravelling of Shelby’s mind while also making her finally stand up for herself. This format only adds to the empathy audiences will feel for Shelby as the story unfolds. Yet she isn’t completely innocent.

The performances in this short film are entertaining to watch. Stacy Snyder (Pretty Dudes) is an excellent leading lady as Shelby. What I enjoy most about her performance is how easily she transitions from being a relatable, stressed out businesswoman to being completely unhinged. Snyder at times reminds me of the character Patrick Bateman in American Psycho. The supporting cast is also quite enjoyable to watch. Shelby’s boss, Clare, is played in a delightfully evil way by Joanna Sotomura (Contracted: Phase II). Matt Mercer (Contracted: Phase II), Blaine Vedors (Mainline), and Ron Morehouse (Hill Yes) make up the business executives. Their performances are great because they are the kind of men you can’t help but hate. Together the cast helps to create a darkly humorous short film.

Kevin Sluder’s Heartless is a dark and funny horror short highlighting what it is like for a woman in a male-dominated business world. Sluder’s inspiration from “The Tell-Tale Heart” is apparent, and the update to a modern work setting gives the short an American Psycho vibe as well. The entire cast does a great job of blurring the lines of what makes a person good or bad, especially Stacy Snyder as Shelby. The story is relatable, as most people have either been overlooked in their career or experienced sexism in the workplace. Heartless is a relevant short film with classic inspiration that many viewers will enjoy.

OVERALL RATING: 4/5 (short film scale)

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