Thriller/Suspense

The Last Ones

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A deadly virus has wiped out most of the population. John and Michael have been surviving together since the beginning, finding food and avoiding the creatures that come at night. After months with no sign of another living human, the appearance of a young woman tests their friendship. It soon becomes clear not everything is as it seems.

The Last Ones (previously titled Last Days) is the feature-film debut of writer and director Andrew Jara. At first glance, this film seems like just another zombie apocalypse film. The film opens with John desperately trying to find his family with very unfortunate results. He is left alone in this post-pandemic world with his friend, Michael. The eventually find a daily routine as the months go by with no other living humans to be seen. Yet at night Michael guard their home from the living dead who sometimes stalk the area. Then John runs into a mysterious woman, Karina. Her presence changes the course of the film, bringing some interesting  and unexpected elements into the plot.

In general, the plot is a very interesting one. There are some various twists and turns that deliver something audiences might not expect. Watching The Last Ones, horror fans will likely feel an influence of George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. It is a slow burn of a film that gradually builds tension. Like Romero’s work, the plot also focuses much more on the tumultuous relationships between people rather than the undead threat outside. This shows a lot of promise for Jara’s future work.

Yet there are some elements of the film that don’t work quite as well. The beginning of The Last Ones is a bit rough at times. Some of the dialogue is a bit clunky and forced as it attempts to give the audience a bit of exposition. This feeling of clunkiness unfortunately isn’t help much by the performances. Mark Ocegueda plays John in his feature-film debut. His delivery of the dialogue is a bit awkward and void of emotion, but the dialogue and his delivery gradually improves as the film progresses. Marcelle Bowman (The Virus, Refuge) plays Karina. Her performance is adequate and also seems to improve throughout the film. The highlight performance in the film comes from Algernon D’Ammassa (Doc, The Cellar Door) as Michael. Some of his dialogue also feels a bit forced, but D’Ammassa does a great job of conveying an underlying menacing feeling about him.

Along with the overall plot of The Last Ones, the look of the film also appears to be an homage to Night of the Living Dead. The most obvious visual choice that hints to that is the fact that the film is entirely in black and white. This nod to Romero is also a wise decision as a micro-budget horror film. It allows the filmmaker to create the illusion of blood and gore without having to spend too much on practical or CGI effects. There is some minimal prosthetic makeup for the undead that realistically might not be that visually appealing, but the black and white masks it and makes the effects passable. One aspect that surprised me is the well-crafted musical score by Jordon Schranz.

The Last Ones is a classic zombie film with a twist that has its shortcomings, but still shows promise. Considering it is a micro-budget horror film and the first feature film by Jara, it is surprisingly well done. The film gets off to a rough start, from the dialogue to the performances, but gradually improve as the tension build. D’Ammassa is sure to stand out in viewers’ minds as a memorable performance. From the unique take on the zombie subgenre of horror to the homage to Romero, this imperfect film is still worth a watch. It holds my interest enough to make me curious what Jara will do next.

OVERALL RATING: 4/10

The Invisible Man

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Cecilia finally left her abusive ex. Shortly after, she gets word he’s killed himself. Cecilia believes her nightmare is finally over. Then strange things begin to happen, making her think she could be losing her mind. Her nightmare is only just beginning.

Horror favorite writer and director Leigh Whannell (Saw, Upgrade) brings an updated take on the classic Universal monster film with The Invisible Man. This iteration of the film focuses on Cecilia as she finally escapes the clutches of her emotionally and physically abusive boyfriend. She then learns that her ex killed himself and left his fortune to Cecilia. Her life finally starts to be going on the right track, until things take a turn. What starts out as small accidents, such as misplacing something, quickly escalates. Cecilia knows her ex is alive and trying to continue to ruin her life. The problem is, no one believes her. It gives the film a great updated edge, while also updating the source of the invisibility. This time it’s a purposeful, technological advancement that makes sense without the need for over-explanation. There may be a twist or two that seasoned horror fans will see coming, but it doesn’t take away from the overall enjoyment of the film.

There are so many aspects of The Invisible Man that not only make a great feminist film, but it’s also just a fantastic thriller. Cecilia is a battered woman. She stayed with her ex for far too long out of fear of what he would do and because he convinced her she couldn’t escape him. As if that wasn’t bad enough, he uses his brilliance to pull off the most invasive and traumatizing gaslighting I have ever seen on film. Cecilia has to fight to be believed by everyone from the police to her best friend to her own sister. At times, even the audience may question Cecilia’s sanity, even though we know the truth behind it all. Her struggle to break free of the cycle and to be believed is one many women can relate to all to easily. Inserting this into an updated monster movie creates heightened suspense that will keep the audience white-knuckled and on the edge of their seats. This ex is not only a terrifying monster, but he’s also a very real monster (despite the invisibility aspect). That almost makes The Invisible Man more terrifying than any other Universal monster.

While this film as a fantastic ensemble cast, we need to talk about the unstoppable talent that is Elizabeth Moss (The Handmaid’s Tale, The Kitchen) as Cecilia. At the start of The Invisible Man, Cecilia is a terrified, battered woman trying desperately to escape. Moss is truly haunting as she portrays this woman evolve from someone debilitated by fear to a strong heroine who knows she can only rely on herself for survival. What is especially mesmerizing about Moss’s performance is how she eventually gets to an almost primal state of being as she fights tooth and nail for that survival. Moss clearly carries the weight of the film, but it important to also note Oliver Jackson-Cohen (The Haunting of Hill House, Emerald City) as Adrian. We might not see much of Adrian in the film, but Jackson-Cohen’s portrayal of this all-to-human monster is sure to chill audiences to their core. Other great performances come from Aldis Hodge (Hidden Figures, Straight Outta Compton) as James, Storm Reid (A Wrinkle in Time, Sleight) as Sydney, and Harriet Dyer (Killing Ground, No Activity) as Emily.

Because the film is called The Invisible Man, naturally the attacker is unseen throughout a majority of the film. The filmmakers still manage to make his presence known with very simple and subtle techniques. Probably the most simplistic method is drawing focus to a specific spot on camera. It may appear there is nothing there, but by focusing on a single spot, potentially even slowly zooming in on that area, we know he’s there. Often times the audience is just barely able to see something move when Cecilia has left the room. When we do finally see Adrian in his suit that allows him to become invisible, it is a basic design achieved with a combination of practical and CGI effects that is sleek, modern, and function. It is a perfect look for this modern age tale. Be sure to also keep an eye out for lots of Easter eggs hidden throughout the film from homage to the original Invisible Man to nods to some of Whannell’s past films.

The Invisible Man expertly brings the classic Universal monster flick into the modern age. It is an enthralling tale of resilience and survival against a familiar evil. Whannell truly knocks it out of the part with his variation on the classic tale. He took a much simpler approach while making this film than past Universal monster updates, and that likely is a large part of why The Invisible Man is a hit. Even those who don’t like horror films should see this film for the compelling message it sends and to see Moss’s visceral performance. This is sure to end up on many “top 10 of 2020” film lists.

OVERALL RATING: 8.5/10

The Room

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A couple leave their old jobs and home behind to start a new life in a rural fixer upper. Soon after moving in, they find a hidden room. What makes this room special is it will grant you any physical desire. After many wishes, the couple wishes for something most wouldn’t dare. Yet they soon discover that everything has a cost.

Written and directed by Christian Volckman (Renaissance) and co-written by Eric Forestier (La troisième partie du monde), The Room spins an interesting yarn. We meet this couple as they arrive at their new home, having left their jobs and life in the city behind. While working on various repairs to the house, they discover a hidden room. Any physical thing you could want, the room will provide. Money? Clothes? Furniture? It will conjure it for you. Yet we all know everything has a price and a consequence. When the wife impulsively wishes for a baby, it not only puts a strain on their relationship, but it threatens to ruin every aspect of the life they’ve built together.

This film takes a unique yet simple concept and runs with it. It forces the audience to wonder what they would wish for and what they would be willing sacrifice. The plot is very effective, and the filmmakers don’t spend too much time trying to explain how or why the room works this way. There are some minor hints, but for the most part the audience is just made to accept it as the way things are. When the couple wishes for a baby, after the wife has suffered miscarriages, it leads to some very unexpected twists and turns. This is when the plot loses me a bit. It veers into very strange territory that, while very thrilling and suspenseful, is also quite uncomfortable to watch. I would wager that this is the goal of the filmmakers, but it seemed like an unnecessary direction to take.

The two leads in The Room are both fantastic. Olga Kurylenko (Mara, Quantum of Solace) stars as Kate. Kurylenko brings an emotionally charged performance. As Kate we see her go from wariness about the wish-granting room to emotional duress as she tries to hold the frayed pieces of her life together with ill-advised wishes. Her husband, Matt, is played by Kevin Janssens (Revenge, The Ardennes). Matt is a loving husband who wants to provide anything and everything his wife desires. Yet her desires lead to an unexpected place that Matt doesn’t quite know how to handle. Janssens plays a surprisingly warm character who has fits of rage, but his love for his wife is always evident. The pair have amazing on-screen chemistry and convey the subtleties of a committed relationship.

Most of the artistry of The Room involves the production design. The house where the film takes place is stunning. As the couple accumulates more things from their wishes, each room in the house takes on a variety of themes. The entire inside of the house turns into something out of a fairy tale. At one point another world is created within the wish room, which creates a very striking image that plays with the eye a bit. It is the kind of house some might never want to leave.

The Room is a simplistic morality tale that makes audiences wonder what they would do if they could wish for anything physical they desired and what they would be willing to sacrifice to keep it. The filmmakers do a great job of slowly building up the wishes until they become out of control. The house, in a way, is a character itself that drives a wedge between the family unit as it gives them whatever their hearts desire. The performances from both Kurylenko and Janssens are phenomenal and only reaffirm how talented they are. The film veers into a direction that might put off some viewers, but overall it is a well crafted and suspenseful story.

OVERALL RATING: 7/10

Transference

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Orphaned twins Joshua and Emma are in hiding. Emma has strong supernatural abilities, but she isn’t able to control them. Joshua does his best to protect his sister and keep her hidden from the outside world. Yet they will both soon learn some things can never be contained.

Transference is the latest pseudo-superhero film trying to bring something different to the subgenre. Director Matthew Ninaber (Extraction Day, Last Run) co-wrote the film along with Jennifer Lloyd (Extraction Day) and Aaron Tomlin, the latter making his feature film debut as a writer. The film starts at a very intense, stressful point for the twins. From there, we see Emma being held in captivity by Joshua as he tries to find a way to make her better. The film deals with a lot of different themes and some new ideas. Some areas the film glosses over are the death of their father, being adopted by a priest, others with abilities, those who wish to control Emma, and the connection between twins and how it relates to Emma’s abilities. Unfortunately, many of these themes are never fully realized. There is a lot of information that is lightly touched on, but by the time the film ends it doesn’t seem as though any of the mysteries set up are ever resolved. I can understand wanting to maintain an air of mystery, but these go to an extreme and the film doesn’t appear complete.

While the writing of Transference leaves a bit to be desired, the actors do their best with the material to deliver compelling performances. Jeremy Ninaber (Extraction Day, Forest Fairies) stars as Joshua. While I don’t feel like audiences really get to know Joshua, aside from his love for his sister and anger issues, Ninaber does his best to try to convey the inner feelings and turmoil of this character. Melissa Joy Boerger makes her debut in this film as twin sister Emma. Much like Joshua, we don’t get a lot of information about who this character is beyond her abilities. We know she is powerful and we know she has issues with drugs and depression, but there isn’t any clear reasoning behind her actions. Boerger does a good job of playing the different sides of Emma, but without knowing why she does the things she does the character ends up coming across as disjointed. Aaron Tomlin (Extraction Day, Last Run) plays Malcolm, a man who Joshua brings to try and help his sister. Tomlin’s performance is interesting because his intentions are never really clear, giving him a somewhat sinister aura that comes through the screen. It would be interesting to see the actors in these roles if the characters were better developed, but they do a fine job with what they are given.

Since this, at its core, is a superhero film, it is important to have some great fight scenes and effects to show the supernatural abilities. Emma is able to do different things, but one major ability is that she can move things with her mind. The filmmakers chose to have this visually manifest as what looks like sound waves moving through the air. This is a wise decision because it is a simple CGI effect that makes a striking visual impact. Joshua, on the other hand, likes to use his fists. There are some nicely choreographed fight scenes that are entertaining to watch and at times are almost dance-like. These artistic elements help hold the viewers’ interest.

Transference throws a lot of interesting ideas at the audience, but these ideas never stick or have a coherent resolution. This makes the film just okay; there isn’t necessarily anything I dislike about it, but there also isn’t anything to truly keep me engaged. This may be an issue of too many cooks in the kitchen when it comes to writing the script, however, this film shows potential. It has nice visuals and the performances are strong in light of the material the actors are given. Transference might not be a hit, but it’s intriguing enough to make me interested in what these filmmakers will do next.

OVERALL RATING: 5/10

Girl on the Third Floor

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Don buys an old home in a small town. He plans to fix it up so he and his pregnant wife can get a fresh start. The more work he does on the home, the more he learns about the secrets hidden within its walls, and those secrets are out for blood.

This supernatural thriller is the feature film debut for director Travis Stevens, who also wrote the screenplay inspired by Trent Haaga, Paul Johnstone, and Ben Parker. Girl on the Third Floor wastes no time in getting the juices flowing. From the moment Don enters the house, there is obviously something ominous at work. The film also makes sure to immediately make the viewers uncomfortable with some very disgusting looking fluids found throughout the house. As Don begins working on the home to fix it up, those fluids seem to become more active. The house clearly has a life of its own, as well as some other strange inhabitants. Despite the immediate eeriness and unease of the film, it’s still more of a slow burn. The audience is gradually given new clues and bits of information leading up to the nightmarish conclusion.

Girl on the Third Floor is a strange and unique nightmare. It combines elements of a haunted house film, a Fatal Attraction-esque thriller, and body horror. The haunted house element is the most obvious. The decrepit old home clearly has a sordid past and the restless spirits to go along with it. When Don settles into the house, he meets a mysterious, seductive woman. What he thought was a one night stand turns into repeated ominous visits and thinly veiled threats that could destroy his relationship with his pregnant wife. When it comes to the body horror aspect, I don’t necessarily mean a human body. The body in the case of Girl on the Third Floor refers to the house itself. The house is clearly a living thing and this is especially apparent when the house gets ooey and gooey in response to Don knocking holes in the wall and fixing things up. All of these elements combine to tell a tale of morality and show just how dire the consequences to your actions can be.

With a small cast, Girl on the Third Floor has a great range of performances. Phil “C.M. Punk” Brooks (Rabid) stars as Don. Don is really not a very likable guy. He lost his job after doing something illegal, he’s an alcoholic, and he cheats on his pregnant wife. Yet Phil Brooks manages to play Don in a way that is just endearing enough to make you like the guy, but you still want to see Don get what’s coming to him. Sarah Brooks (There, Chicago Med) plays the mysterious Sarah. Sarah Brooks is the perfect combination of sultry and sinister in this role. Trieste Kelly Dunn (Blindspot, The Push) plays Don’s wife, Liz. While Liz at first glance appears to be the typical loving wife who trusts her husband and is carrying his child, it eventually becomes clear she is much more than that. She’s the sole breadwinner, running a business while also going through pregnancy and picking up the pieces of her husband’s failures. Dunn not only does a fantastic job in this role, but she offers a strong juxtaposition as a truly good, successful person compared to Don’s overall failure. Honorable mention goes to the house itself, which might not be a credited actor, but definitely is a vital character in this film.

There is no shortage of artistry in Girl on the Third Floor. Everything from the camera angles, to the practical effects, to the copious amounts of goo combine to create a stunning film. There is a lot of great camera work. There may be something happening in the foreground, but the camera work will draw your eye to minute details that normally would just catch the corner of your eye. The practical effects overall are stunning. Much of it is truly unique, especially for one specific character, and straddles the line of realism and fantasy. One specific kill is questionable in terms of how realistic it is, but the effects themselves are still very well done. Of course this film wouldn’t be quite as effective if it wasn’t for all the icky bits. All of the ooze and goo and slime help to make the audience as uneasy as possible and it definitely does the trick.

Girl on the Third Floor oozes atmosphere as it tells a disturbing and sticky tale of morality. Stevens proves that he is a highly skilled storyteller in his feature-film directorial debut. He not only knows how to create a compelling film, but he knows how to make viewers squirm in their seats while watching. Phil Brooks gives a surprisingly good performance and manages to hold his own alongside both Sarah Brooks and Dunn. The combination of the visceral use of slime, practical effects, and cinematography creates a stunning film. This film has a little something for everyone with the overlapping themes and is definitely a must-watch for horror fans.

OVERALL RATING: 8.5/10

Blood on Her Name

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After an accidental death, a woman decides to dispose of the body instead of going to the police. The guilt begins to eat away at her. As she continues to make rash decisions, the life she has built for herself and her son crumbles around her.

Director/writer Matthew Pope and co-writer Don M. Thompson both make their feature-film debut with Blood on Her Name. The film opens in the seconds after the accidental murder. We are immediately introduced to Leigh, the owner of the auto garage where the murder happened. As the shock wears off, we see Leigh make the unfortunate decision to clean up and hide the body instead of calling the police. We don’t know why this murdered happened, who the man is, or why she decides to get rid of the body. The answers to the many mysteries behind the man’s death are revealed slowly and methodically, making each revelation more surprisingly than the last. The film also shows how each decision Leigh makes, while dripping with good intentions, ultimately makes her situation more and more dire. For the most part this method of storytelling will hold the interest of audiences and delivers a fascinating mystery, yet there are some areas where the pace seems to drag a bit.

The filmmakers make an interesting decision to never actually show the murder. While gore lovers will likely be disappointed by this, I think it helps to set up Leigh as an unreliable storyteller. We see everything from her point of view. By not showing the murder itself we are forced to believe her ever changing story of events. This also makes the trickle of truths all the more shocking.

Blood on Her Name is carried by strong performances from a talented cast. Bethany Anne Lind (Doom Patrol, Ozark) stars as Leigh. This woman is hardworking and cares deeply for her son. Not only does Lind perfectly convey the turmoil Leigh goes through after the murder, but she shows how this character tries so hard to escape the legacy of her father and ex-husband. Will Patton (Swamp Thing, Halloween) delivers a strong performance as Leigh’s father, Richard. Richard is a local cop, but he clearly isn’t the cleanest man in law enforcement. Lind and Patton play off of each other very well, especially in the more tense conversations. We watch a daughter who would rather avoid communicating with her father forced to seek out his help, and a father who wants to solve his daughter’s problems in ways she doesn’t agree with. It creates a very tense dynamic between the two characters, and it makes watching Leigh’s attempt to break the cycle she’s known her entire life even more compelling.

The film has a griminess to it that compliments both the plot and setting. Colors are dull and lack vibrancy, and everything looks dirty. It matches the rural setting and the lives the characters lead in Blood on Her Name. This relatively monochromatic look also appears to further Leigh’s POV. To her, the world she lives in is grey and unhappy, so it makes sense the film would fit in with her POV.

Blood on Her Name is a compelling noir thriller from the point of view of an unreliable protagonist. Lind plays Leigh perfectly as we follow her story and try to determine what really happened and why she makes the choices she does. While the film has a tendency to meander a bit, there is still a definite storytelling skill that shows promise for both Pope and Thompson. Blood on Her Name is a great first feature film that will make critics and audiences take note of these filmmakers and what they do in the future.

OVERALL RATING: 6/10

Bliss

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A talented painter is experiencing a creative block as an important deadline approaches. In a desperate attempt to break that block, she seeks out drugs to spark her creativity. Instead she sparks a twisted journey filled with drugs, sex, hallucinations, and blood.

Writer and director Joe Begos (Almost Human, The Mind’s Eye) brings his distinctive flare in his latest horror film, Bliss. Much like his previous films, Begos creates a stunning, 80’s-inspired film that relies heavily on complex characters, a unique plot, fantastic practical effects, and brilliant music. Bliss is a film that takes a unique look at vampirism, addiction, and obsession. The film follows Dezzy, the talented young artist who is on a tight deadline to finish her next big piece or else she will go broke. After a long time with no real progress on her latest work, she decides it’s time to hit up an old friend who can provide her with drugs that will hopefully bring artistic inspiration. After a night of drugs, drinking, and partying, Dezzy’s entire world spins out of control. Between manic episodes and drug-induced stupors, it becomes more and more difficult for her to separate what is real and what isn’t.

When it comes to vampire films, it is easy to make the connection between the need for blood and addiction. Yet I feel like Bliss really conveys the gritty, less glamorous side in a truly compelling way. This is likely because audiences see Dezzy using drugs at the same time as she experiences her more eccentric addiction. Whether this is related to the drugs she’s taking or a chance encounter with an old friend, she can’t be sure. Dezzy is obsessed with finishing her masterpiece, which makes her more vulnerable to both the drugs and the need for blood. There is a disturbing co-dependence that develops between her need for drugs and blood; the physical effects not only visible in Dezzy herself, but also on the canvas. There are a few moments where the lack of mythos around these vampires can make the rules around their existence a bit confusing. It is only really noticeable in a few scenes, but the focus is more on the addictive nature of vampirism which distracts from those moments.

Fans of Begos’ films are sure to see a number of familiar faces from his previous films. The one face in Bliss that might not be as familiar is Dora Madison (All That We Destroy, Chicago Fire) starring as Dezzy. It is impossible not to fall in love with Madison in this role. Dezzy is a bit of a mess and if it wasn’t for her artwork, she would just be another jobless hack spending what money she does have on drugs and booze. Yet, between the way Begos wrote the character and the way Madison portrays her, Dezzy is an enigmatic character audiences can empathize with as she battles addiction and her own obsession to finish her art. This is truly Dezzy’s story, but another strong female performance comes from Tru Collins (Awkward, The Price) as Courtney. She has many of the same demons as Dezzy, but she’s much more wild and unpredictable. Collins plays the character in a way where her intentions are always hidden until the last minute, making her quite unpredictable. Fans will also be pleased to see indie film favorites such as Jeremy Gardner (The Battery, The Mind’s Eye), Graham Skipper (The Mind’s Eye, Beyond the Gates), and Rhys Wakefield (The Purge, You Get Me).

Bliss is a film that assaults your senses, in the best way possible. Visually, the film has a dreaminess to it. Much of the film forces the audience to look through a haze, lending a vintage look to everything. That haze is backlit by bright neon lights, drawing the viewer’s eye to specific areas on screen. To add a bit of grit to that dreaminess, each scene takes place in dirty sets spattered with drugs and drenched in blood. Begos fans have come to expect amazing practical effects in his films and Bliss doesn’t disappoint. These effects are grotesque, realistic, and add to the visual appeal of the film. Then there is the music, which ties everything together quite beautifully. Steve More (Mayhem, The Guest) composed the fantastic score. It perfectly ties together the gritty and dreamy visuals of Bliss and compels the viewer to turn the volume up.

Bliss is a gritty, blood-soaked fever dream that perfectly blends vampirism and addiction on film. Begos wows once again by bringing his unique filmmaking style to a subgenre of horror that has been done to death, yet he manages to make it feel fresh. At times the vampire mythos is too vague, but it’s clear the focus is meant to be on the addiction. The entire film feels like a manic episode and the stunning look of the film only adds to that feeling. Madison carries the film on her very capable shoulders with some horror favorites working alongside her. A rocking musical score and amazing practical effects result in a truly gorgeous film.

OVERALL SCORE: 8/10