Thriller/Suspense

Better Watch Out

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In a typical, quiet suburban neighborhood, Ashley goes to babysit twelve-year-old Luke. The cold, wintry night starts out like any other night babysitting, but then intruders break into the house. Ashley does what she can to keep Luke out of harm’s way, but this is no ordinary break-in. It soon becomes clear to Ashley that there is something much stranger going on and she is going to have to fight to survive the night.

It seems like every year there is a new Christmas-themed horror film released to the masses. Some of them become instant classics, while others fade into obscurity. Better Watch Out definitely has the potential to become one of those instant classics. The plot starts out like your everyday slasher. It has the standard formula of a babysitter being terrorized by a mystery person (or persons) and having to protect the child they are babysitting. The terrorizing begins with creepy phone calls and quickly escalates from there. Without going into spoiler-filled details, what makes this film stand apart from other films with a similar plot is all the surprising twists and turns. There is always something more going on than meets the eye and it keeps the audience guessing right up until the credits roll. Many of these surprises allow the filmmakers to inject humor in creative and hilarious ways. The film also gives nods to other holiday flicks that we all grew up watching.

Apart from having a great plot, this film also has fantastic performances. Olivia DeJonge (The Visit, The Sisterhood of Night) plays the babysitter, Ashley. While this character fits more into the usual archetype commonly seen in babysitter-slashers, DeJonge makes it her own. DeJonge especially shines in how she portrays Ashley’s strength despite the odds being stacked against her. The true highlight of this film is Levi Miller (Pan, A Wrinkle in Time) as Luke. While Luke tries to be serious and appear older, since he has a crush on Ashley, he often brings laughs when he gets exasperated and his puberty-stricken voice cracks. Miller delivers a performance that is equals parts shocking, hilarious, and intriguing. Both DeJonge and Miller carry the film and make it all the more enjoyable to watch.

Being a holiday thriller means there is a healthy amount of blood throughout the film. The filmmakers don’t shy away from blood, yet there is a noticeable lack of practical effects in the film. When a person is stabbed the audience is shown the blood, but the wound is never visible. Many of the shots are clearly deliberately set up to avoid showing any real gore. This seems like an odd choice for an R-rated film. Whether this is a conscious decision to not focus on gore or if it is a budget issue, I can’t say, but I believe by not showing any wounds, the filmmakers inadvertently draw more attention to them. When I watch a slasher flick, I expect to see when a knife enters a person’s body and that is one of many things not shown in Better Watch Out. This absence of gore is the one true drawback to the film.

Better Watch Out breaks the mold of the typical holiday slasher and is sure to be on everyone’s holiday must-watch list. It takes everything audiences love about the holidays and everything they love about horror to create a fun new Christmas movie. It is clever, entertaining, and exceedingly well acted. If there had been a bit more gore, I believe the film would have been a near perfect slasher. As it is, the film is still highly entertaining and one I would recommend to anyone looking for something different to watch this Christmas.

OVERALL RATING: 8.5/10

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I Baked Him a Cake (Short)

I Baked Him a Cake - Official Poster

A young girl wakes up the morning of her father’s birthday. She is excited for him to come home from work to celebrate. As she goes through the day baking a cake for her father, the young girl notices her mother’s increasingly strange behavior. What’s even more strange is that her father is late coming home and her mother may have something to do with it.

The simplicity of I Baked Him a Cake is a strength as well as a weakness for the short film. The simple plot allows director Vanessa Ionta Wright to focus most of the short film on the palpable tension that builds as the story progresses. We, as the audience, know something terrible has happened right from the beginning, but the young daughter has no clue. The building of tension doesn’t rely on impending death, but it does rely on keeping the audience guessing as to how long the mother will let her daughter think daddy is simply running late from work. While this is a very interesting and effective method of storytelling, I found myself with a few too many lingering questions. I enjoy when short films leave loose ends, making you want either a short sequel or for the short to be expanded into a feature length film, but this short left things a bit too open.

I Baked Him a Cake has two actors total, which leaves little to no room for error. If someone isn’t performing well it will stand out like a sore thumb. Luckily, the performances in this short are very well done and stand out for all the right reasons. Fleece (The Perfect Murder) delivers an unnerving performance as the mother. I got an unexpected laugh from her when she explains away a substantial amount of blood by claiming it is due to “that time of the month.” What makes it so funny is her deadpan delivery of the line. Throughout the short, Fleece makes the mother seem more and more disturbing as she continually lies to her daughter while disposing of the evidence of what truly happened to her husband. Lillian Gray (Leshyapa) also goes a great job as the daughter, Lenora. Lenora is at the age where she is old enough to know something isn’t quite right, but young enough to believe what her mother tells her. Gray portrays that delicate balance very well.

A strong aspect of this short film is how visually interesting it is. This visual interest isn’t achieved with any kind of practical or CGI effects, like many films in this genre. Instead it is the simple use of darkness and light that makes many of the scenes appear quite beautiful. Each scene is primarily in darkness, giving the home a dark and gritty appearance. Yet there is also a place of brighter, usually natural light (i.e. candlelight or light coming in through a window) that draws your eye where the filmmakers want it to go. The cinematography, combined with the use of shadow and light, adds to the otherwise simplistic short film.

I Baked Him a Cake is a compelling character study that expertly plays with light to catch the eye. The performances from the two leads carry the short, and the overall look of film is enough to hold my interest. While the short does check most of the boxes I looked for, such as working as a short film while still making me want more, I can’t help but feel I am left wanting a bit too much. There are just a few too many questions and not enough answers throughout the plot. Despite that, I Baked Him a Cake still brings something original by shifting the focus from death to the aftermath.

OVERALL RATING: 3.5/5 (short film scale)

The Recursion Theorem (Short)

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A man wakes up alone in a room. He doesn’t know how or why he is there. No matter how hard he tries there doesn’t seem to be any way out of the room. What’s even more strange is that the room appears to defy all the laws of physics. Is he in Hell? Is he in another dimension? Will he ever escape?

The Recursion Theorem is the second film venture by writer/director Ben Sledge. He truly knocks it out of the part with this short film. It is a short that would fit right in as an episode of The Twilight Zone, and even has scenes that are reminiscent of The Shining. The concept of a man waking up trapped in unfamiliar surroundings is a smart and simple start. It is what happens after the man wakes up that makes Sledge’s story unique, interesting, and at times even funny.

The thing that makes The Recursion Theorem stand out the most is the performance by Dan Franko (The Night Watchmen, Veep). Considering the fact that there is only one person in the entire short film it is incredibly important to cast someone who can captivate audiences. Franko excels in this as the ill-fated Dan Everett. We see Dan go through all the stages one would expect when realizing you are locked in an otherworldly prison. He feels anger, hysteria, insanity, fear, and everything else in between. Franko perfectly portrays the array of emotions and gives viewers a multifaceted performance. He single handedly carries the film and holds your interest through to the end.

Along with a compelling story and great acting, this short also has beautiful imagery. The cinematography is outstanding. Some of the shots are framed so perfectly that they are truly works of art. Since the filmmakers chose to film the short in black and white it it was wise to focus on the cinematography. It adds a lot of visual interest that may normally by lost by the lack of color. The effects, while quite minimal, are also well done – specifically in one scene where Dan’s body seems to appear in a wisp of smoke. It is a small effect, but it is so well executed. It has a finesse that one might not expect from a short film.

The Recursion Theorem is a masterful descent into madness that will bring you back to the Twilight Zone era. It makes me wish Sledge would do his own reboot of the series, as this short film is evidence he would do it justice. The film has a fascinating story, is insanely well acted, and is very pleasing to the eye. While I normally want short films to leave me wanting more of the story, The Recursion Theorem doesn’t quite do that. I think it is great just as it is. Instead it makes me want Sledge to do more similar work, and it makes me want to see Franko in many more screen roles. I think we will be seeing great things from them both in the future.

You can view the short film by clicking here.

OVERALL RATING: 5/5

Game of Death

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A group of spoiled rich friends partying at a lake house stumble upon a strange game. The box says it is called the “Game of Death.” The group decides to play the game as a joke. When the strange game takes a bit of each player’s blood and says they have to kill 24 people to survive, the friends leave the game and go back to their drugs and alcohol. Soon it becomes explosively clear that if they don’t play the game and kill 24 people before time runs out, it will be the friends who lose their lives.

The concept for Game of Death is definitely a fun and interesting one. The idea that if these kids don’t do as the game says it will kill them makes for an exciting ride. It is almost like a horror version of Jumanji with a hint of Battle Royale mixed in. Unfortunately, that is about where the good plot points end. The two biggest flaws in this film are the characters and the dialogue. In horror films there are often characters that are despicable for various reasons. These are the characters you don’t care as much about, so when they get killed it’s more of a relief than anything else. This is how every character in the film is written. None of them have any redeeming qualities that make you care whether they live or die. When the whole point of the film is life and death, it makes the events that follow feel rather lackluster. The dialogue between the characters is also a bit cringeworthy. It is very choppy sounding and forced, almost as if you are watching a soap opera. It is unfortunate that such a promising idea falls short of its potential because of these factors.

Whether because of the writing or not, the acting is yet another shortcoming of Game of Death. I have a feeling the various young actors in this film are perfectly fine in other roles, but because of the characters they play and the lines they are forced to deliver there is not one among them that I can say I enjoyed. At the same time I don’t think I can say any one of them was terrible either, another sign that this is more due to the writing than anything else. Of the entire cast the most enjoyable performance came from Erniel Baez Duenas (19-2) as the pizza delivery boy and drug dealer, Tyler. Even though he is a drug dealer, Tyler is the least revolting of the characters. Duenas does a good job of making Tyler the most relatable character as well because he wants to survive, but he also seems to be the one with the biggest conscious of the group. Beyond that, it is hard to find another character or performance that doesn’t make me cringe at least twice.

One of the best aspects of this film is the visuals. The opening sequence is particularly gorgeous. The filmmakers went with an eighties-inspired video game look for the credits. As I watched them it made me hopeful for the rest of the film. Another instance of great visuals is a strange killing spree montage. Here the filmmakers implemented many different animated styles to show two of the characters having a grand time killing people for the game, without actually showing any real violence. This was probably one of the smartest moves made in the film. It shows some restraint in what could have otherwise been a complete gorefest. The few practical effects of the film are also surprisingly beautiful. Without giving too much away, the way the kids playing the game are killed if they fail to kill someone else in time is quite graphic. The practical effects for those kills are incredibly well done and create some horrific imagery.

Game of Death is a fun concept for a horror film that leaves a lot to be desired. The writing is the most unfortunate part of the film, but looking at the other credits of the writers for the most part this is the first (or one of the first) film each of them have written. That leaves room for growth, so don’t necessarily write them off just for this film. If you can make it through the regrettable dialogue and the repugnant characters, at the very least you will get to see some fascinating visuals scattered throughout.

OVERALL RATING: 4/10

Sweet, Sweet Lonely Girl

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Adele has always been a shy, sweet, responsible girl. Adele’s mother sends her to live with and care for her sick, agoraphobic aunt. Soon after moving in she meets Beth, a sensual, mysterious young women. The more time the young women spend together the more Adele’s limits are tested. Soon her life begins to spiral down a path of lust, obsession, and something much darker.

From the very first frame this film has the feel of the 1970’s. Everything from the clothing to the cinematography transports you to a different era. It isn’t until we see Reagan on a television in the background that the time period is confirmed as likely being in the early eighties. To be honest, the addition of Reagan on the TV was unnecessary to determine the time the film takes place in, and I believe the film could be a bit more intriguing if this had been excluded. The gorgeous cinematography, the haunting music, and the mysterious nature of the plot all lend to the early-seventies, Italian-inspired atmosphere of the film. It gives the film a distinct giallo look and feel.

The film has a very sexy gothic quality to it that only enhances the relatively simple story. Adele is so innocent and naive. As she spends more and more time with Beth, who is a wild and a free spirit, Adele starts to do things that she normally would never do. What is even more interesting is how her actions directly affect the aunt that she cares for. It is fascinating and tense to watch Adele’s actions spiral out of control as she becomes increasingly infatuated with Beth. While the story is interesting and the film itself is beautiful to watch, the end is a bit rough. It adds a supernatural element that works with the style of the film, yet it doesn’t make very much sense. When I finished the film I found myself trying to analyze the end and was unable to make sense of it. It is almost as if there should be one more scene in the film, that perhaps got cut, that would better connect all the elements.

Sweet, Sweet Lonely Girl continues the horror film trend in recent years that focuses on young women coming into their own. Adele is shy, awkward, and clearly repressed in more ways than one. She always does what she is told whether it be by her mother or her aunt. Beth is the conduit that allows her to break free from the bonds of responsibility. Their friendship allows Adele to branch out from her comfort zone, both by breaking the rules and discovering her inner sexuality. It is almost as if Beth is the embodiment of the person Adele wishes she could be.

Both of the young actresses in this film do a stellar job. Erin Wilhelmi (Disconnect, Perks of Being a Wallflower) is brilliant as shy little Adele. She is so innocent and follows all the rules. It is fascinating to see Wilhelmi convey Adele’s transformation as she has a sort of sexual, rebellious awakening as she spends more time with Beth. Quinn Shephard (Unaccompanied Minors, Hostages) is also brilliant as Beth. Shepard plays the character in such a way where you sense there is more to her than meets the eye, and she simply oozes sensuality. Wilhelmi and Shephard together have amazing on-screen chemistry. It is impossible to take your eyes off of them.

Sweet, Sweet Lonely girl is a seductive and atmospheric film that will take you back to a different era of film. The sinister and sexual nature will draw you in and hold your focus, as will the astounding cinematography and remarkable performances by both Wilhelmi and Shephard. This could almost be a flawless film if not for the somewhat confusing ending. While it doesn’t necessarily ruin the film, it may leave you scratching your head as the credits roll. My advice would be to simply take the ending for what it is, and don’t attempt to read too much into it. Either way, you are in for a treat.

OVERALL RATING: 8.5/10

The 6th Friend

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Six friends throw a party for their college graduation. When an uninvited guest shows up things get out of control, leading to traumatic events. Five years later the women agree to meet again to reconnect and try to move on from what happened. As soon as night falls it becomes clear that the girls are not alone. Is it the same uninvited guest coming for revenge, or is it something much more sinister?

The 6th Friend has a lot of potential. The story is simple enough, but still fun and interesting. The filmmakers do a great job of building the suspense and paranoia once the friends are gathered at the cabin and realize they are being hunted. While the characters can be a bit stereotypical, they are still enjoyable. From there, however, the film goes a bit downhill. The filmmakers try to generate hysteria by causing confusion. Is the killer the same man from 5 years ago, is it his ghost, is it a demon, or is it maybe even a copycat killer? This is great and would have made for an intriguing and suspenseful film. Unfortunately, there are two huge mistakes made that give away the “big twist.” I won’t get too much into what that is, because I don’t like to give spoilers, but I will say I figured everything out very early on in the film (certain elements even before the opening credits). With just a few minor changes the plot could be elevated in a way that makes every twist and turn much more thrilling.

As I mentioned before, the characters can sometimes fall into certain archetypes commonly seen in horror films. This is especially apparent in much of the dialogue. That being said, there are still many instances of well-written banter between the characters that is both humorous and charming. Much of it depends on the acting. While in general the performances are fine and there is great on-screen chemistry between the six friends, some of the performances leave a bit to be desired. For me the strongest performance came from Tania Nolan (Underworld: Rise of the Lycans) as Sahara. There is something about her performance that comes across so natural on the screen. I believe she is Sahara and knows these women and has been friends with them for many years. While none of the performances by the other five women could be considered bad, per se, there is one role that stands out to me as the least enjoyable. Chantelle Albers (Moo Moo and the Three Witches) plays Melissa. Her mother owns the cabin the friends are staying at, and she is an aspiring starlet. Watching Albers in the role I can’t help but feel that she plays Melissa a bit exaggerated. This may be a conscious decision since Melissa is trying to use her tragic past as a means to get into the acting world, but there are times where Albers goes a bit over the top. While none of the remaining performances stand out as being terrible, but they don’t stand out as being amazing either. They are good enough to enjoy watching the film.

This is a film that doesn’t have many visual effects. The biggest effect involves distorting shots when the killer is in view. This technique emphasizes the notion that the killer could potentially be a supernatural force rather than a flesh and blood murderer. This would be an effective tool if, as I mentioned before, the clues to the truth were less obvious. One big positive is the design for the mask the killer wears. It almost looks like a skull within a skull, and it is downright creepy. My only complaint about the mask is that I wish it was in the movie more. Aside from scenes involving the mask and the killer, there is one other part that stands out as having amazing effects. That doesn’t mean that the filmmakers didn’t use simple tricks to create terror. There is a segment where a few of the friends are running through the woods to get away from the killer, then one of them gets caught in a noose. It creates such a great amount of suspense and is also quite well done, as it appears to be a real hanging. This particular scene is likely the most intense sequence of events that occurs in the entire film.

The 6th Friend is a film that many viewers may feel a bit blasé about. It isn’t terrible, but it isn’t particularly thrilling or scary either. If anything, I found the scenes involving humor to stand out more than the scenes of terror. The story is fine, the performances are fine, and the villain has a very unsettling mask. With just a few minor adjustments I truly believe this film could be much more frightening and exciting. As it is now, it is a  fun, light thriller that audiences will likely enjoy well enough. However, with the many amazing films to come out so far in 2017, it may quickly be forgotten.

OVERALL RATING: 6/10 (no pun intended)

Killing Ground

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

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

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

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

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

OVERALL RATING: 8/10