Slasher

Fantasia Review: The Mortuary Collection

A young woman visits a mortuary to interview for a job. Throughout the course of the interview, the creepy mortician tells ghastly tales of how some of the bodies came to be in his mortuary. Spanning from the 50’s to the 80’s, each tale is more horrifying than the last.

Writer and director Ryan Spindell brings his feature-film debut to the Fantasia International Film Festival. The Mortuary Collection tells four tales of terror with a single overarching plot to tie it all together. That overarching is the story of a somewhat frightening mortician in his mortuary. After a funeral he gets a knock at the door and meets a young woman looking for a job. As he goes through the motions of the interview process, the young woman encourages him to tell scary stories. But these aren’t just any scary stories. These stories are about how and why certain bodies ended up in this mortuary.

The audience gets to hear stories from different subgenres of horror including a pickpocket from the 50’s who finds more than she bargained for, a 60’s frat boy who learns a lesson the hard way, a husband forced to make a tough choice about his invalid wife in the 70’s, and an homage to the classic 80’s babysitter/serial killer story. These stories are fascinating, yet I couldn’t shake the feeling that it has a bit of a “woman-hating” tone. Each of the main female characters typically is portrayed in a negative light or meets some kind of violence. I believe it may seem this way because the film also tends to portray women in roles typically reserved for men, but it was an aspect that gave me pause.

Despite spanning four decades and covering a wide range of topics, these stories feel unified. Each tale in The Mortuary Collection is unique, but Spindell unifies them by giving all of them the same, somewhat cheeky tone. There is a perfect marriage of gruesome events sprinkled with moments of dark humor. It gives the film a bit of a lighthearted feel despite some of the more horrifying and graphic stories being told. Even the overall look of the film helps tie the different stories together. They all have the same visual style, utilizing a heavily blue and green color palette. The filmmakers also had all the stories take place in the same town of Raven’s End. The scary, yet humorous tone combined with the eerie look of the film all blend seamlessly. It’s as though Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark and Creepshow came together and had a spooky baby.

Other visual aspects of The Mortuary Collection that enhance the look and vibe of the film are the production and effects designs. From the moment the camera moves through the streets of Raven’s End, the audience is transported back in time. The cars are clearly decades old, the buildings all look as if they have been around for at least 100 years, and the clothing matches the time period. The mortuary itself is an absolutely gorgeous Victorian building that I would definitely live in, even if it was haunted. The sets and costumes also help us move through the decades in each story and match perfectly to their respective time periods. To bring terror into these tales, the filmmakers use absolutely gorgeous practical effects. There is some CGI enhancement, but for the most part you can tell they wanted to keep it old school. The effects are just as stunning as they are disturbing, plus they add quite a bit of fright to the film.

From each segment, The Mortuary Collection encompasses tremendous performances. Everyone is truly magical, but it is the mortician and the young woman he is interviewing who stand out. Clancy Brown (Shawshank Redemption, Starship Troopers) stars as the mortician himself. This man is creepy, decrepit, and always seems to be laughing at some inside joke in his head. Clancy brings this character to life in the most memorable way, being both scary and funny all at once. Caitlin Fisher (Teen Wolf, Extraction) plays the interviewee, Sam. Fisher’s performance really stands out because, on the outside, Sam appears to be just a sweet girl looking for a job. Yet Sam is cunning and challenges the mortician at every turn and Fisher conveys that defiant nature quite well. Brown and Fisher also have a great banter between the two of them and seem to challenge each other for dominance at every turn.

The Mortuary Collection is an enthralling blend of scares and laughs that is a delight to watch from start to finish. The fact that this is Spindell’s feature-film debut makes me believe he is a writer/director horror fans should keep an eye on. As a whole and also looking at the individual tales of horror, the various plots are all unique and intriguing to watch and every performance is impressive. Unified by the gorgeous visuals and the storytelling mortician, The Mortuary Collection delivers a group of tales audiences are sure to enjoy.

OVERALL RATING: 8.5/10

Fantasia Review: The Columnist

After a columnist’s article goes viral, she gets a great book deal. The downside is, now she has trolls constantly harassing and threatening her on social media. The columnist decides to take matters into her own hands and exacts revenge on those trolls.

Hailing all the way from the Netherlands, Fantasia International Film Festival brings the darkly comedic horror film, The Columnist. The film is directed by Ivo van Aart (Quantum Zeno, Zes Dates) and written by Daan Windhorst (Quantum Zeno, Zes Dates). Together, this duo deliver a black comedy that is both hilarious and humorous. As a writer, this is a story that really hits home. Femke Boot is a columnist who writes a controversial piece that sets some of the more conservative readers on the attack. Trolls hound her on social media by threatening her, calling her names, and so on. It’s unfortunately all too common for the anonymity of the internet to embolden people to say whatever they want without fear of repercussions. Yet Famke isn’t going to take this harassment anymore. She begins tracking down some of the more vicious trolls and getting her revenge.

The plot of The Columnist is very straight-foward, if not a bit too on-the-nose, but still brings the laughs. Femke gets up to some very bloody and violent antics tinged with dark humor. What makes her violent acts even more hilarious is that they seem to help her break any writers block she runs into while writing her new book. It’s very clear how the filmmakers feel about internet trolls. They address it in a comedic way, but it also doesn’t leave a lot of room for complexity within the plot. The only thing driving the story, aside from Famke trying to finish her book by killing trolls, is whether or not she will be caught. It leads to a rather predictable end, but the film is still a fun watch.

Each actor in The Columnist plays the role relatively straight, which makes their performances even funnier. The characters seem so normal on the surface, but their actions prove otherwise. Katja Herbers (Westworld, The Leftovers) stars as Famke Boot. Famke seems like the most normal, mild-mannered woman. Herbers does a great job of giving off that persona for the character, while also showing Famke becoming more unhinged the longer she scrolls through social media. It makes her murderous actions shocking, yet still plausible. Despite these violent methods, Herbers still shows Famke as a sympathetic character. Bram van der Kelen (Centraal, 4Jim) plays another writer, Steven Dood. At first Steven seems like he’s against Famke, but he eventually reveals he is simply playing a spooky persona to match his books. He’s an interesting character who is surprisingly sweet and van der Kelen’s performance adds a bit more commentary on the roles we play in the public eye. Herbers and van der Kelen are not only great together on screen, but they also perfectly show two opposing types of writers.

Despite the generally lighthearted tone of The Columnist, it still has a fair amount of gore. Each time Famke kills, the murder scenes become a bit more elaborate and violent. The best part is the “souvenir” she takes from each victim. The practical effects are disturbingly realistic. They are all the more disturbing because of the juxtaposition between the murders and the otherwise cheery Netherlands setting.

The Columnist is a delightful revenge fantasy for anyone who has dealt with internet trolls, despite it being a bit gauche. Windhorst and van Aart have a clear message they are sending to Fantasia International Film Festival audiences. There could have been a bit more subtlty, but the bloody dark comedy is still incredibly entertaining to watch. Both Herbers and van der Kelen deliver delightful performances. It’s an almost therapeutic watch that will hopefully make at least a few trolls think twice before posting hate on the internet.

OVERALL RATING: 6/10

The Rental

To celebrate a successful business deal, two couples decide to rent a secluded vacation home on the coast for the weekend. What begins as a pleasant weekend quickly spirals out of control. They have to deal with relationship issues, a creepy racist property manager, and someone might be watching them.

The Rental is the feature film debut for director Dave Franco, who is primarily known for his acting. Franco also co-wrote the screenplay with Joe Swanberg (V/H/S, Easy). This thriller manages to maneuver through many different plot points, while still being cohesive. As soon as the two couples arrive at the vacation rental, there is immediate tension as the property manager is outed for his racist behavior. Things only escalate from there after a drug-fueled night of partying leads to many bad choices. The true catalyst for the horrifying events that follow is the discovery of a hidden camera in the rental. In this modern age when most people are staying in vacation rentals rather than hotels and technology is so advanced, the fear that the owner or someone else could have camera installed to watch you is a very real fear. This discovery is what sparks the shift from a purely suspenseful film to a chilling slasher. Individually, these varying plot points are relatively simple, but when put together they create a more complicated story. It doesn’t necessarily always add up and I wish some aspects could be explored more in-depth, but it manages to generate more than a few white-knuckle moments. It almost ends up feeling like the film is split in half, the first part being a new-age thriller and the second half being a classic slasher.

Packed with indie favorites, The Rental has several recognizable faces and memorable performances. Sheila Vand (A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, Argo) stars as Mina. Mina is the total package; she’s smart, beautiful, kind, and incredibly strong. Vand makes it clear Mina will always stand up for herself by confronting the racist property manager when others want to avoid conflict. Dan Stevens (The Guest, Apostle) plays Mina’s business partner, Charlie. Stevens does a great job of making Charlie seem like a great guy on the surface, but the more we learn about him, the more he seems a bit shady. Jeremy Allen White (Shameless, Bad Turn Worse) plays Josh, Mina’s boyfriend and Charlie’s brother. Josh has had a rough past, but White makes him a very endearing character. He clearly adores Mina and is trying his best to be a better man. Finally we have Alison Brie (GLOW, Horse Girl) as Charlie’s wife, Michelle. Brie plays Michelle in a way that makes her the most sympathetic character in the entire film. Together, all four actors play off of each other very well, creating different chemistries and building tensions in turn.

This film relies heavily on the set and other smaller details to visually enhance the plot. The location of The Rental is a truly stunning home with lots of big windows overlooking the seaside cliffs and the ocean beyond. Surrounded by the beach and ocean on one side, then nothing but green forest on the others, this home is definitely isolated. Even before the tiny hidden cameras are discovered, there is a sense of paranoia and being watched that comes from being in a secluded place with those huge windows open for all to see in. One detail that isn’t shown much in the film, but still leaves quite an impression, is a mask worn by the killer. It is an eerie, almost featureless human face so it takes a moment to realize you’re looking at a mask. All these visual aspects add to the general sense of paranoia and being watched.

The Rental is a manic, paranoid thriller turned slasher and a strong directorial debut for Franco. It does almost feel like watching two films in one, but that doesn’t take away from the overall success. Franco and Swanberg show a mastery of bringing together various threads to gradually build the suspense and keep the audience at the edge of their seat. The entire cast carries the film beautifully, but it’s Vand that delivers the most memorable performance. The stunning vacation rental offers a gorgeous setting that quickly turns ominous. The Rental is sure to make audiences wary of where they spend their next vacation.

OVERALL RATING: 7/10

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

The Killer of Grassy Ridge (Short)

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The Shenandoah backcountry is a gorgeous place frequented by hikers. Unfortunately, it is also the hunting ground for a dangerous serial killer. With several bodies already discovered, now the killer is stalking their latest victim.

Making his premiere as a writer and director, Johnny K brings horror fans his short film, The Killer of Grassy Ridge. This short film is less than 10 minutes long and utilizes minimal dialogue, but still manages to pack a punch. Johnny K does this by playing with the viewers’ expectations of the short. It opens on a dirty, somewhat frightening looking man burying something in the woods. As if that isn’t creepy enough, he soon encounters an injured young female hiker who is all alone in the wilderness. The man has no lines while the woman sparse dialogue. The only context we get in the short film is from a radio the man is listening to. It is turned to a news station that talks about another body being found. This is the source of the danger, as having a scary man in the woods is only enough to cause alarm rather than inducing fear. The lack of dialogue and setting up of certain horror expectations, or even tropes, allows K to have fun with the short and include a few great “aha!” moments in the climax.

The lack of dialogue makes it a bit more difficult to give a complete analysis of the performances. One thing I can say about the two leads of The Killer of Grassy Ridge is that they have great presence on screen. Michael Stumbo makes his film debut as the grimy looking sinister figure, Wetzel Reid. Wetzel doesn’t speak during the short, but Stumbo still manages to be an imposing figure. Many horror fans may watch Stumbo on screen and immediately think Wetzel sure looks a hell of a lot like Otis Firefly from Rob Zombie’s The Devil’s Rejects, played by Bill Moseley. I can only assume this was a deliberate choice to make sure viewers look at Wetzel as the villain without it needing to be explicitly explained. Opposite Stumbo is Heather Stone, also making her film debut, as the hiker. Stone’s performance in The Killer of Grassy Ridge stands out because she shows quite a bit of range in the short amount of time she’s on screen. She starts out as a happy hiker enjoying nature, to being injured and alone in the woods asking for help, to something quite different during the climax.

The Killer of Grassy Ridge skillfully presents stereotypical characters and horror cliches, then proceeds to roll them in their grave. Johnny K takes care to make sure all signs point to a single logical conclusion. Everything from the lack of dialogue, to the casting, to the radio news context lends to one possible outcome. Then he flips the script and delivers something a bit more unexpected. The one thing I’m not sure The Killer of Grassy Ridge fully achieves is telling a complete story while also leaving the audience wanting more. There is definitely a complete story told here, and it could easily be expanded upon. Yet there isn’t anything making me crave more information from the plot. Either way, this is a strong debut from K, Stumbo, and Stone. The Killer of Grassy Ridge is a fascinating short thriller that feels fresh by using classic horror tropes to subvert your expectations.

OVERALL RATING: 3.5/5

Black Christmas (2019)

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A group of sorority sisters at a prestigious college decide to stay at their sorority house over winter break. Unfortunately for these women, the school has a sordid tradition of misogyny and racism. This holiday, that tradition involves killing female college students who are “out of line.” The sisters will have to fight for their lives if they want to make it until Christmas.

Continuing a long and delightful tradition of Christmas horror films comes Black Christmas. This re-imagining of the 1974 classic is directed by Sophia Takal (New Year New You, Always Shine), who also co-wrote the film with April Wolfe in her feature film debut. Instead of recycling the same plot of the original film, Takal and Wolfe have created a culturally-relevant thrill ride that still has some of the same spirit of the original. The film focuses on Riley, a sorority sister who has had enough of the fraternity brothers. After a scandalous Christmas performance at the frat house, the sisters find themselves in mortal danger as a masked figure attacks them in their sorority house. The mythos created around the university and the founder of the school is very interesting, albeit not as well developed as it could have been. Either way it is still very entertaining. Even though this film is a complete re-imagining of the original, eagle-eyed fans of the 1974 Black Christmas will still see a few fun nods to the original film sprinkled throughout.

This film is incredibly politically charged, definitely written for women, and it’s going to piss off a lot of men. It addresses the rampant male toxicity in the world today and how it affects women. Much of the plot, both the normal interactions and the murderous ones, involve experiences that are unique to women. The most obvious female-specific experience is the sexual harassment and assault women deal with on a daily basis. It even shows how we can’t walk down the street alone without having to be completely aware of our surroundings. Some of the more subtle interactions are likely ones most men won’t pick up on. There are references to Diva cups, periods, and vibrators that are sure to get some good laughs from the women in the audience. What I especially enjoyed about the update of this film is how it essentially lets men know women are done taking all of their shit. These women are strong, powerful, and they are done with misogynistic men trying to control and ruin their lives.

While I love the update in this Black Christmas and commend the message it sends, that doesn’t mean it’s a perfect film. One issue I have with the plot is a lack of character development. Aside from Riley and maybe one other sorority sister, it doesn’t feel like the audience really gets to know the women very well. Another aspect that felt unnecessary is the character of Landon. While the character is nice and the performance is great, his character felt like an afterthought. It was almost as if the studio asked the filmmakers to include at least one guy to fit into the “not all men” category. Finally, I feel like Cary Elwes (The Princess Bride, Kiss the Girls) was greatly underutilized. It’s obvious from the beginning that he isn’t a good guy, and we’ve seen in him a great villain in past films, but his character just doesn’t quite reach that same malevolent level fans will likely want and expect.

Each of the women in Black Christmas deliver great performances of complex and strong females. Imogen Poots (Green Room, 28 Weeks Later) stars as Riley. She is a survivor of a sexual assault and doubly strong because she persevered despite not being believed. Poots does a fantastic job of conveying Riley’s trauma and how it has changed her, but she is also able to be strong and powerful with the help of her friends. Aleyse Shannon (Charmed, Instinct) stars as Riley’s sorority sister, Kris. Kris is a very political character and a clear fighter who isn’t afraid to speak her mind. Shannon is great at exuding confidence as Kris while also being a great support system for her sisters. Honorable mention goes to Lily Donoghue (Jane the Virgin) as Marty, Brittany O’Grady (Above Suspicion), and Caleb Eberhardt (The Post) as Landon.

To keep up with the legacy of the original film, this Black Christmas had to be sure to have some great visuals. For one, the lighting in this film is phenomenal. There is a lot of great use of Christmas lights to draw the viewer’s eye while also creating gorgeous color play on the screen. While I feel as though the filmmakers shied away from showing the kills a bit too much, they did find a clever way to show some gore within the constraints for the PG-13 rating. I will leave this as a bit of a surprise since it relates to hidden aspects of the plot, but suffice it to say there is at least a bit of gore for the gore-hounds out there. Earlier I mentioned there are great Easter eggs from the first film, but also be sure to keep an eye out for a delightful little nod to The Exorcist III.

Black Christmas is a film made by women, for women, that is sure to bring in hoards of new young female horror fans. It is clear that Takal and Wolfe made this film for young women with the goal of empowering them and bashing male toxicity. If this film makes even one young woman feel empowered after leaving the theater, then it is a successful film. Naturally, the political message and the idea of empowering women is a threat to many men, as we see in the film and has already been evident on social media around the film. I for one really enjoyed Black Christmas. It has it’s flaws, but its fun, has great characters young women can look up to, and will definitely appeal to its target audience. Hopefully this will lead to many more studio horror films geared towards women who love horror. There are definitely going to be plenty of men who don’t like this film, which is fine, but if you’re a guy just remember: this film wasn’t made for you.

OVERALL RATING: 6.5/10

The Furies

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A woman and her friend are kidnapped during the night. She wakes up the next day and finds herself in a box alone in the Australian wilderness. Soon she realizes not only are there other women trapped here, but there are also hulking men wearing terrifying masks out to kill the young women. It’s a fight for survival and no one can be trusted.

Writer and director Tony D’Aquino makes his feature film debut with the Australian thriller, The Furies. From the opening shot D’Aquino makes it clear this is going to be a feminist take on slashers as two of the female characters are shown spray painting “FUCK PATRIARCHY” on a wall. This moment between the two women is very brief, but still manages to establish who the characters are before throwing them into peril. From there the filmmakers waste no time in delivering high-octane thrills. Once the women are thrown into the remote Australian setting they have to battle masked madmen, those who have trapped them all here, and each other. It’s a relatively simple plot that relies heavily on the bloodshed and mayhem, but D’Aquino manages to make it feel fun and different.

There are many aspects of this plot that make it interesting and unique. One obvious difference from other similar films is how these women and killers ended up in this remote location together. The women were obviously kidnapped and brought to this place, but the surprise is that the killers appear to have arrived the same way. The boxes the women arrived in are all marked “beauty” and the boxes the men arrived in are marked “beast.” The people who brought everyone to this place are clearly very organized and use advanced technology which creates an odd dynamic between all the captives and interesting sets of rules they must follow. Another interesting aspect is how the female lead, Kayla, not only acts as a feminist icon, but she also shows how women with physical or mental illnesses are as capable as anyone else. Kayla has epilepsy. She has always seen this as a hindrance to her being an independent woman, yet it gives her a strange advantage when she is thrown into the twisted cat and mouse game. It allows her to see that she is capable of being a self-reliant warrior woman. All of the other woman are also quite compelling characters because none of them fit into any stereotype often seen in horror films.

Since the vicious men in the film don’t speak a single word, the women of The Furies carry the performances. Airlie Dodds (Killing Ground, Ready for This) stars as Kayla. She starts out in the film as very meek and she is convinced her illness keeps her from being able to take care of herself and live life to the fullest. Dodds does a fantastic job of showing Kayla evolve throughout the film as she is thrown one curveball after another. Linda Ngo (Mako Mermaids, Top of the Lake) plays another captive in this deranged game, Rose. Rose is an interesting character because she is slightly odd and innocent, but there is also something hidden just beneath the surface that is waiting to be released. Ngo is quite memorable in her portrayal of Rose and how easily she straddles the line between naive and creepy.

This film doesn’t hold back on the gore and luckily the practical effects are fantastic. The first thing viewers will notice is the truly disturbing masks worn by the killers. Each one is very distinct, unique, and terrifying. The practical effects of the various wounds and kills are so well done. They look incredibly realistic to the point where some viewers might have to turn away. In addition to the effects, the way the film is shot also gives it a unique look. As soon as Kayla emerges from the box, the entire film has a white-washed look to it. The filtering and color palette are clearly meant to add to the barren and sun-scorched Australian landscape. This appearance not only adds to the idea that the setting is exceedingly hot, but it also makes the blood and gore stand out as the most vibrant colors.

The Furies delivers a unique slasher dripping with girl-power and gore. This is a very strong feature film debut for D’Aquino. He manages to deliver a film that is familiar, yet injects intricacies that make the plot still feel fresh. Each performance is great from the dynamic women to the physical acting of the killer men. All of the gore hounds out there will have a ball watching this film with it’s fantastic practical effects and others, who like a bit more depth to their slashers, will enjoy the fascinating rules the film puts into place. Not only is this film sure to be on many must-watch lists this October, but it also has the potential to spawn a new horror franchise.

OVERALL RATING: 7/10

Candy Corn

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It’s almost Halloween. A group of local punks decide to honor their longtime tradition of pranking the local outcast while he’s at work at the visiting freak show. When the guys take things too far, a ritual is used to bring him back to life. Now he will take his revenge on this sleepy little town.

For me, Candy Corn has been one of my most anticipated horror films of the year.  The film was written, directed, edited, and produced by Josh Hasty (Honeyspider, In Hell Everybody Loves Popcorn: The Making of 31).  Immediately we are introduced to the group of young adults who just love hazing the local outcast, Jacob. The three young men are your typical small-town jerks who get pleasure out of other people’s misery. When they accidentally kill Jacob, it is Jacob’s employer, Dr. Death, who comes up with a plan to bring him back. This introduction to the various characters automatically makes the audience despise the locals and sympathize with Jacob and the freaks. It also plays well to those in the audience who have ever been bullied. When it comes down to it, that’s all those who tormented Jacob really are; a bunch of bullies. Watching them get torn apart is incredibly satisfying.

The film is one part supernatural and one part slasher resulting in a thrilling and bloody ride. This blend of horror subgenres helps to make Candy Corn the perfect fall film. It captures the essence of what horror fans love about this time of year. Part of that Halloween feel also comes from the filmmakers who clearly influenced Hasty in this film. The most obvious influences are John Carpenter and Rob Zombie. From the filming style to the sets to the characters and the music, Hasty shows his passion for the great filmmakers who came before him while still creating a film that is entirely his own. Even though those influences are clearly felt, Hasty still creates a really entertaining and unique mythos around the freak show and the ritual Dr. Death. Hasty wisely leaves some of the mythology vague, yet gives the audience enough to follow what’s happening, which leaves the film open to sequels that expand on that mythos.

It is clear that each artistic decision made by Hasty was chosen to make Candy Corn a new Halloween classic. From the first frames the look of the film transports the audience back to the 70’s. While it isn’t explicitly stated, it is clear from the wardrobe, the cars, and the technology used in the film. Even the somewhat gritty look of the film and the slightly washed-out colors harken back to that era of filmmaking. This time period and look also feel very reminiscent of Carpenter’s and Zombie’s films. One thing that doesn’t work quite as well is the use of freeze frames and removing audio, except for the music, in scenes where people are killed. This is similar to some of Zombie’s filming methods. It looked interesting in a couple scenes, but it is a bit overused throughout the film.

Other artistic elements help to make the film exciting, gory, and fun. The mask worn by Jacob when he returns to exact his revenge is absolutely terrifying. It almost looks as if a jack o’lantern was combined with the Michael Myers mask to create something out of a nightmare. Candy Corn also primarily sticks to gruesome practical effects for the kills. Each kill has a high level of brutality created with the practical effects and minor CGI enhancement, mostly utilized to add extra blood spatter. Then of course there is a fantastic score composed by both Hasty and Michael Booker. It is ominous, yet has a lightness to it that helps to build both suspense and excitement. Much like the plot, the score simply feels like the Halloween season.

This indie film has several faces horror fans know and love. Courtney Gains (Children of the Corn, The Funhouse Massacre) stars as the local sheriff, Sam Bramford. The sheriff tries his best to keep the peace between the local punks and the visiting freak show, but when the bodies start piling up he’s left with no choice. Acting opposite him is Pancho Moler (31, American Fright Fest) as Dr. Death, leader of the freak show. While on the surface he seems stern and mistrusting of outsiders, it is also clear that he cares deeply for his freaks and is sick of seeing them treated like second-class citizens. These two characters play off each other quite well because neither of them is purely good or bad, they simply want to protect the ones they care for. Unfortunately, they care for people on opposing sides. Other notable horror favorites are Tony Todd (Candyman, Final Destination), PJ Soles (Halloween [1978], Carrie), and Sky Elobar (The Greasy Strangler, The Rocker).

When it comes to the group of punks who attack Jacob, the performances are well done, but the casting is a bit confusing. The group is played by Cy Creamer in his feature film debut as Steve, Madison Russ (Junkie) as Carol, Caleb Thomas (The Terror of Hallow’s Eve) as Bobby, and Jimothy Beckholt (Corky and Bob Get a Job!) as Mike. They all do a great job of making the audience dislike their characters, which in turn makes it more fun to watch them die. The issue is it is difficult to figure out what age these kids are supposed to be. Most of the actors could pass for teenagers or very early 20’s, yet Beckholt appears to be older than the rest of the group. It may be a small detail, but in a genre where it’s typically either teens or college kids being slaughtered, that missing piece stood out.

Candy Corn is a love letter to Halloween and classic slashers of the 70’s and 80’s that is sure to be a holiday favorite for horror fans. Hasty’s passion for filmmaking and his influences are clearly felt. It perfectly balances the line between homage and originality resulting in a violent thrill ride with a unique mythology. The cast of horror fan favorites and newcomers all do a fantastic job. Then of course the film looks like it came straight from the 70’s, has gory practical effects, and the score is so fantastic that I can’t wait to buy it. You’ll want to watch the film now and then again for Halloween.

OVERALL RATING: 8.5/10

They’re Inside

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An aspiring filmmaker and her estranged sister travel to a remote cabin with a small film crew. The plan is to make an emotional film about an experience the filmmaker had with her husband. Not long after settling in, strange things begin to happen. What starts as noises during the night quickly escalates as two deranged killers have other plans for the film crew.

They’re Inside is directed by John-Paul Panelli, making his feature film debut with this film. Panelli also co-wrote the film with Schuyler Brumley, also in his feature-film debut. The film begins with a delightful cold opening. It shows a man on New Years Eve attempting to record what the audience can assume is his YouTube channel. As he goes through different takes trying to film the perfect video, unexpected visitors crash his video. Honestly, this opening is my favorite part of the film. It not only gives an interesting look behind the scenes at recording the perfect video, but it also uses some great framing to build tension.

From there the film goes to the two sisters reconnecting as they attempt to film a movie in a remote cabin with a small group of actors and crew. As small happenings lead to larger scares and growing paranoia, the group eventually realizes they are being watched by people with murderous intentions. To add some interest and mystery to the plot, the filmmakers interspersed clips of animals on the hunt and of the lead actress. It is unclear when or where these clips of the actress take place and it makes the viewer question her level of involvement in all that is happening. These elements make it unclear what is truly happening and keeps the audience guessing right up to the fairly unique climax of the film.

While They’re Inside has a great cold opening and interesting plot points that are unexpected, the film feels like many films that came before it. Home invasion films featuring creepy mask-wearing psychopaths are quite common. While this idea has been done time and time again with varying degrees of success, this film falls somewhere in the middle of the pack. The crew behind They’re Inside do make an attempt to bring something different with the various surprises thrown into the mix. This makes an otherwise forgettable film stand out in the viewers’ mind, especially with how the filmmakers chose to end the film.

In general, the performances in They’re Inside are very well done. Karli Hall (Being Charlie, The Hollow Point) stars as the aspiring director, Robin. What makes her performance stand out is the uncertainty she builds around her character. Along with the small scenes cut into the film, Hall’s performance forces the audience to question whether or not Robin is somehow involved with the horror inflicted on her friends. Amanda Kathleen Ward (Fate) plays Robin’s estranged sister, Cody. Ward’s performance becomes more compelling as the plot progresses and Cody’s paranoia intensifies. As the events intensify, it seems as though Cody’s sanity might completely unravel. The rest of the cast also deliver great performances including Sascha Ghafoor (Rift, The Wedding Invitation), Chelsea D. Miller (Big Time Rush, Spaceman), and Jake Ferree (The Baxters, Loop).

They’re Inside makes attempts at creating a unique home invasion and found footage mash-up, but it doesn’t have quite enough to truly stand out. Panelli and Brumley create compelling and complex characters while also adding interesting elements to their film I haven’t seen before. On top of that, the film is helped by compelling performances from the cast. The opening of the film and the end are the standout moments, but what happens in-between doesn’t do enough to break away from other successful films in the subgenre. There are moments that will be memorable, but as a whole They’re Inside is a film that will fade from peoples’ minds by the end of the year.

OVERALL RATING: 5/10

Nightmare Cinema

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One by one, people are drawn to a seemingly abandoned movie theater. As they take a seat in the empty rows the lights go down and the projectors starts up. What these people see on screen is their worst nightmares. Each person must face their fears. Then they must face the projectionist.

Horror fan-favorite Mick Garris (Hocus Pocus, Sleepwalkers) brought his latest Masters of Horror-like film, Nightmare Cinema, to the Portland Horror Film Festival. In this film, Garris brought together other well-known horror directors to create an anthology that touches on many different subgenres. The connecting plot is by Garris himself and revolves around characters from each segment being drawn to the old movie theater. Once inside, a creepy projectionist shows them their greatest fears on the big screen. From there the film goes into different segments, each with a very different look, feel, and tone.

The first is written and directed by Alejandro Brugués (Juan of the Dead, ABCs of Death) that starts out as an 80’s style slasher, but quickly turns into something else. Then the audience is shown the more horrific, if not darkly funny, side of plastic surgery directed by Joe Dante (Gremlins, The Howling). From there we get a more traditional demonic possession segment directed by Ryûhei Kitamura (Midnight Meat Train, Versus) that has an epic climax. Writer and director David Slade (Hard Candy, 30 Days of Night) takes on the fourth segment with a black and white Twilight Zone-like story about a woman who is struggling to keep hold of her sanity as she sees monsters all around her. Finally, Garris returns in the last segment in his heartwarming supernatural thriller about a boy in a hospital who can see the dead.

What makes this anthology work so well is that each chapter feels entirely unique and independent from one another. Yet, at the same time, the overarching story of the projectionist and his empty theater acts as a fantastic connector between each segment. The film also delivers a little something that every horror fan can enjoy. There are parts that are in the realm of horror-comedy, some of it is supernatural and eerie, and there are even some aspects that venture into the sci-fi side of things. I personally enjoyed each chapter of the film, but even if others don’t, there will at least be one segment that tickles their fancy.

There are a wide array of acting styles in Nightmare Cinema, and each of them is incredibly entertaining. Each actor does a great job of molding their performances to fit with the tone of the segment they are acting in. There are a few select performances that stand out. One of the most powerful performances comes from Elizabeth Reaser (The Haunting of Hill House, Ouija: Origin of Evil) in Slade’s chapter, “This Way to Egress.” Reaser plays Helen, a mother struggling to determine if the world she sees around her is real or all in her mind. She acts with her entire body, showing the depth of her tension and anxiety in a powerful way. A surprise performance can be seen in Brugués’ segment, “The Thing in the Woods,” in the form of Sarah Elizabeth Withers in her first feature film role as Samantha. What I love about Withers’ performance is how she perfectly captures the acting style of classic 80’s slasher final girls. While these two performances are my favorite, it is a difficult decision to make because everyone truly does a wonderful job.

With each segment of Nightmare Cinema being completely different, there is a wide variety of effects used. For the most part the various chapters utilize practical effects. This can be seen in everything from corpses, extreme plastic surgery, people with monstrous faces, and more. All of it is beautifully done and enhances the stories being told. CGI effects are used a bit more sparingly, aside from certain scenes in “The Thing in the Woods” segment. The CGI in that story can look a bit cheesy, but it is in keeping with the classic 80’s theme. It is clear that a lot of thought was put into each effect and how they could be used to add visual interest to each chapter.

Nightmare Cinema brings together horror greats to create a variety of chilling tales to appeal to every kind of horror fan. Each chapter is completely unique when compared to the others and each one is highly entertaining. There are shocks, laughs, scares, and everything in between. The various segments are filled with fantastic performances and amazing effects that only help to make each story all the more fun to watch. Mick Garris clearly knows how to gather the best directors to create brilliant works of horror. I hope Nightmare Cinema is just the first in what has the potential to be a fantastic anthology franchise.

OVERALL RATING: 9/10