Thriller/Suspense

Reborn

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On a stormy night, a stillborn baby girl is brought back to life in the morgue by an electrical surge. The morgue attendant takes the baby home, never telling the mother her baby is alive. 16 years later the girl escapes the torment of her adoptive home. Now she searches for her mother and she won’t let anyone get in her way.

This year, the Portland Horror Film festival introduced Portlanders to Reborn. This film is directed by Julian Richards (The Last Horror Movie, Summer Scars) and it is the feature film debut of writer Michael Mahin. The film begins by showing the strange attendant working in the morgue when suddenly a storm causes a bolt of electricity to bring a stillborn baby back to life. The film then jumps 16 years later. The mother is an actress who is having a hard time finding her inspiration, and the daughter is trapped in a horrific life with the morgue attendant. On the girl’s 16th birthday she manages to escape and track down her real mother. The girl is clearly unstable from the horrific life she had to live and she is so determined to reconnect with her mother. What takes her determination to a whole new level is the fact that her resurrection also gave her electrokinetic powers, which she uses to destroy anyone who tries to get in her way.

Reborn offers audiences an intriguing and suspenseful film, but it’s not without its flaws. One of the biggest issues is that the film often goes back and forth on how the daughter is portrayed. Early on she is shown as a victim of obvious abuse from her “adoptive” home. This leads to some obvious mental issues that accompany being held captive and likely tortured for 16 years. As the film progresses, she becomes more of a villain, obsessing over her mother and killing anyone who wrongs her. She also can’t seem to decide if she wants to reconnect with her mother or kill her as well. Again, this is likely due to the mental trauma she has experienced for years, but the back and forth happens so instantaneously that is ends up being more jarring than anything.

One of the stronger aspects of Reborn is the performances by the two leading ladies. Horror fans will immediately recognize Barbara Crampton (Re-Animator, Castle Freak) as the mother, Lena. This is actually the second film Crampton appeared in at PHFF, which is a testament to how beloved she is in the horror genre. While her character comes across as being a bit bland, Crampton is still enjoyable to watch as she brings Lena to life. Kayleigh Gilbert (Break Night) plays Lena’s electrokinetic daughter, Tess. Gilbert does a surprisingly good job of performing alongside Crampton. She also does a great job of showing the different sides of Tess from desperate to deranged. There is also a fun cameo by Chaz Bono (American Horror Story, Dirty) as Ken, the creepy morgue attendant.

At the beginning of Reborn there are some great makeup and practical effects used in the opening morgue scene. There is one cadaver that is featured quite a bit in this scene and it looks great. There is another body found later one that looks almost mummy-like which is also very well done. When the film gets to Tess’ kills, that is when the effects team loses me a bit. She uses her electrokinetic powers to shock people to death, and the CGI effects used to convey that electric power look very hokey. In one specific death scene I almost laughed out loud. Luckily, Tess’ powers are the focus of the film and the few deaths that utilize this power can be overlooked.

Reborn has great star power and an interesting concept, but it fails to really cash in on that idea. There are simply too many instances where the motivations and focus of the plot switch back and forth, making the tension wane. Tess’ power also seems to be almost an afterthought and more of a gimmick for them to use in death scenes rather than an integral part of the plot. It is a great first effort for Mahin and enough to make me interested in what he does next. The biggest draw for this film is clearly Barbara Crampton, and fans of her work will likely still enjoy this film enough for a watch, but it won’t stand out in her stellar filmography.

OVERALL RATING: 5.5/10

Depraved

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On a late-night walk home, a man is randomly attacked. When he awakes, he finds himself in a room filled with medical instruments. His terror truly sets in when the face looking back at him from the mirror isn’t his own. A field surgeon suffering from PTSD has pieced the man together from different bodies in an attempt to defeat death.

Horror alum Larry Fassenden (Beneath, Wendigo) wrote and directed this updated take on Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein. While past iterations of Shelly’s classic tale have primarily focused on the doctor’s point of view, Fassenden chose to focus more on the “monster” with Depraved.  He opens the film by introducing the audience to Alex as he gets into an argument with his girlfriend about moving in together. While Alex isn’t the greatest guy, this moment allows for the audience to quickly become invested in Alex and his relationship. When he is killed not long after that, he awakes in a monstrous new body made up of different parts. While it is a different face, it is the same brain so the audience still cares about his fate. The monster, dubbed Adam, has limited motor and intellectual skills. He has to re-learn everything and as he learns more he also remembers more. It creates a compelling story from the perspective of the man brought back from the dead with interesting moral issues the audience likely hasn’t seen before.

Depraved also focuses somewhat on the doctor. At first it is simply through his relationship with Adam. There is clearly a fatherly affection there as he teaches Adam how to problem solve and communicate and, essentially, how to be a man again. While this aspect is interesting, the film gradually shifts its focus from Adam to the doctor and not necessarily for the better. The audience is suddenly faced with flashbacks from the doctor’s time in the war and his drive to defeat death as a result from his PTSD.

This shift in focus causes some problems for the plot for two main reasons. First, it stalls the plot making it go from a slow burn to a sputtering crawl in some parts. There is a clear forward momentum and this shift in focus almost completely eradicates that momentum. Second, by focusing more on the doctor it changes the sympathetic point of view. For the first half of the film the focus is on Adam and he is conveyed as the protagonist we should be rooting for. As that focus changes to the doctor, not only does he become the more sympathetic character, but Adam also does increasingly monstrous things. It almost makes all the character development from the first half of the film irrelevant.

The film has a small cast of extremely talented actors. Alex Breaux (Bushwick, John Harvard) stars as the newly created Adam. What makes his performance especially compelling is the way he acts with his entire body. From a simple limp, to conveying poor motor skills, to showing emotions through his face when he can’t speak, Breaux truly brings Adam to life (pun intended). Another great performance comes from David Call (The Magicians, The Sinner) as the disillusioned doctor, Henry. Call excels at showing the audience that Henry isn’t a bad person and he cares about Adam, but he is single-minded in his scientific quest. On top of the great performances there are a few familiar horror faces fans will recognize such as Chloe Levine (The Ranger, The Transfiguration) and Joshua Leonard (The Blair Witch Project, Bates Motel).

Unlike most Frankenstein-inspired films, the filmmakers behind Depraved opted to go for a bleak color scheme and more minimalistic effects. The film appears to be drained of color, providing a monochromatic color palette. This choice enhances the dark and depressing tone of the film. The practical effects are solely focused on Adam. Minimal prosthetics on the skin give the appearance that Adam is made up of different body parts stitched together. While these are very well done and the minimal use gives the body a more realistic look, I almost wish the effects team had taken it a bit further. Even though the body is stitched together, it still looks like it is all from the same body. The overall look would have been more striking if the pieces looked more like they were from different bodies of different colors and sizes.

Depraved delivers a unique, updated version of Frankenstein’s monster with a more sympathetic eye toward the undead creation. The film is filled with excellent performances and well done makeup effects, although I wish the effects had been a bit more elaborate. Fassenden manages to give the audience something different from the commonly remade source material. While the plot does a great job of focusing on the “monster,” the eventual shift to focusing on the doctor messes with the pacing of the film and ultimately confuses who the protagonist is. It is still a very well made film, but it likely would have been stronger if Adam had been the primary focus of the story.

OVERALL RATING: 6/10

Stay Out Stay Alive

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A group of friends goes on a camping trip. While on a nighttime stroll through the woods, one of the friends falls into an old mine shaft. When the rest of the group finds her, they also discover gold in the mine. They decide to mine what gold they can, but as each of them feels the power of greed and paranoia, it soon becomes clear something supernatural is at work.

Stay Out Stay Alive had it’s world premier at the Portland Horror Film Festival. While he is known for his visual effects work in films such as Iron Man and Star Trek, this is Dean Yurke’s feature film debut as writer and director. Stay Out Stay Alive is noted as being based on a true story. I was lucky enough to hear Yurke speak about his film at the festival (and he is an absolutely delightful human). He explained the true aspects of the film are almost split into two parts; half of the truth is a true Native American curse, the other half is people often disappear or die in caves and mines. This inspiration lead to a tension filled slow-burn with some great frights thrown in the mix.

The plot follows a group of five friends. When they stumble upon the mine, the girl who has fallen in is trapped under a rock, but they all choose to dig for the gold before finding help since what they are doing is illegal. What starts out innocently enough quickly escalates as the group becomes paranoid, greedy, and deadly. One of the things I really love about the plot in Stay Out Stay Alive is that there is a supernatural element, but it isn’t the true threat. The curse is only really a punishment rather than a murderous force. It is the friends who end up being the true danger as their lust for gold grows exponentially. This aspect of Stay Out Stay Alive is vital because it makes it clear the Native Americans are not the villains of the film. The film ultimately becomes a commentary on things like greed, the destruction of sacred land, and the murder of Native Americans.

Often times, smaller budget indie horror films are hit or miss when it comes to the acting. The performances across the board in Stay Out Stay Alive are fantastic. One stand out is Brandon Wardle (Frisky, Bumblebee) as Reese. Wardle’s portrayal of Reese is truly disturbing as he goes from a typical jock to completely paranoid as his greed takes over. The change can be seen through both his performance and also in his body language and facial expressions. Another strong performance comes from Brie Mattson (Eastwick, D-Railed) as Bridget. Similar to Wardle’s performance, Mattson shows Bridget as she goes from the stereotype of a ditzy blonde to the surprising voice of reason in the group. Equally entertaining to watch are Sage Mears (Half-Dragon Sanchez), Christina July Kim (Dropping the S Bomb), William Romano-Pugh (January Jaguar), and the ever-amazing Barbara Crampton (Re-Animator) as Ranger Susanna. The way all the actors play off of each other helps to build the tension throughout the film.

With Yurke’s background in visual effect, it’s no wonder Stay Out Stay Alive has some stunning visual aspects. The first thing audiences will notice is the interesting camera work and cinematography. Yurke works in some unique angles and framing that is unlike what I have seen in other films. He perfectly uses nature as a mechanism to build suspense without the need for elaborate effects. The CGI effects Yurke does use are subtle. It allows for the supernatural elements to enhance the tension from the friends’ strained relationships rather than being the focus. There is one bigger effect saved for the climax of the film. It is still somewhat subtle, but it creates a compelling image for the audience that is spine-chilling.

Stay Out Stay Alive is a suspenseful descent into the power of greed that shows Yurke’s potential as a filmmaker. Not only is the film bubbling with tension, but it also sends a powerful underlying moral and social message to the audience. Yurke smartly opted for more subtle effect, despite his visual background, which allowed the characters and the suspense to carry the plot. The film also boasts a terrific ensemble cast, as well as the star-power of Barbara Crampton. This was not a film I went to the Portland Horror Film Festival knowing anything about, but it is definitely one I recommend horror fans seek out.

OVERALL RATING: 8/10

The Perfection

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Charlotte was once a musical prodigy, but she had to leave school to take care of her sick mother. Years later, she seeks out her old teachers and meets the young cellist who replaced her. The two young women become instantly connected. From the moment they meet the pair are entangled in a twisted spiral leading them into chaos and madness.

I’m going to be fairly vague with this review because it is nearly impossible to go more in-depth without giving away spoilers. Eric C. Charmelo (Supernatural, Ringer) and Nicole Snyder (Supernatural, Ringer) co-wrote The Perfection along with director Richard Shepard (Girls, The Matador). This trio creates a truly engrossing film with fascinating, dynamic characters. From the moment the film starts the audience is drawn into Charlotte’s story. When she meets the other cellist, Elizabeth, there is a connection between them that is impossible to ignore. Yet there is an underlying tension that builds like a ball of snow; slow and subtle at first, then a giant thundering mass that threatens everyone in its path.

There is so much to enjoy with the plot of The Perfection. It all centers around the need to be perfect and the pressures, both internal and external, that compound that pressure until it causes a person to implode. This is one of the many aspects of the plot that feels both poignant and relevant to things going on in the world today. The film is broken into chapters, and each chapter brings an all new revelation that is sure to shock audiences. The numerous twists and turns perfectly keep you on the edge of your seat. Every time I thought I had figured out what was happening in the film I was proven to be dead wrong. I have never seen a film with so many fantastic twists that still tells a compelling and cohesive story.

Both of the female leads in this film deliver powerhouse performances. Allison Williams (Girls, Get Out) dazzles as Charlotte. On the surface Charlotte seems like a well-adjusted young woman, but there is an intensity that bubbles up from under the surface. Williams shows, yet again, that this is the genre she was born to act in. Logan Browning (Bratz, Dear White People) plays the magnetic Elizabeth, who also goes by Lizzie. She is the polar opposite of Charlotte as she is edgier and more outgoing. This is the first film I’ve ever seen Browning in, and she absolutely blew me away. Both of these characters are incredibly well written, and the chemistry between Williams and Browning is absolutely electric.

As if this film doesn’t have enough going for it, the visuals are also amazing. Most of what makes this film stunning to look at is through simple framing and lighting. Some of the most beautiful scenes to look at are when either Charlotte or Lizzie are playing the cello. These scenes are shot in a way that allows the audience to almost feel part of the music, moving between close ups of the player’s hands and wide shots where the player is perfectly framed. One unexpected aspect of the visuals is some very subtle CGI work. It is so subtle and so well done that it is hard to even tell that what you’re looking at isn’t practically done. It allows for some rather shocking and disturbing imagery in an otherwise gorgeous film.

The Perfection lives up to its name by delivering a suspenseful film with endless twists that still result in a complex, cohesive story. It is the kind of plot that not only keeps you guessing, but leaves you speechless. I found myself thinking about the film long after it ended. The filmmakers create movie magic, and the performances by both Williams and Browning absolutely blew me away. My one concern is whether or not this film will be as effective upon a second viewing since the filmmakers rely so heavily on the twists and turns. I do recommend audiences go in as blind as possible and avoid the trailer, as it does show some images that could spoil a few of the twists. Instead, be sure to catch it on Netflix as soon as you can. Looking back on the film, I think it is safe to say that it is my favorite film of 2019… so far.

OVERALL RATING: 9.5/10

Murder Made Easy

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It has been one year since Joan lost her husband. With the help of a friend, Michael, Joan puts together a series of dinner parties with old friends and colleagues of her husband. Unfortunately for the dinner guests, Joan and Michael have more than just dinner on the menu.

Murder Made Easy is a feature film debut for both director Dave Palamaro and writer Tim Davis. This thriller is a delightful little murder mystery entirely contained within a single house on a single evening. Crime lovers and Agatha Christie fans will especially love this film. It takes a classic premise of a murder at a dinner and turns it into a highly entertaining mystery that is also satirical and filled with dark humor. The film is even broken up in acts the same way a play is, each act being the set up and demise of individual dinner guests. This format allows for different twists and turns to take place in a way that keeps the audience guessing. There are various clues sprinkled throughout for audiences to find. If you pay close enough attention you might be able to easily see where the plot is going, but it is still highly amusing.

One of the most entertaining parts of the film is the various dinner guests. Each one of them is conveyed as horrible in some way. Some of the guests are annoying or obnoxious, while others are shown as being backstabbing and sinister. It makes the audience sympathize with Michael and Joan as they go through the motions before finally offing their next victim. Yet with any good murder mystery there are always bumps in the road and more going on than meets the eye.

The performances in Murder Made Easy can sometimes come across as a bit theatrical, but it works for the plot and formatting of the film. Jessica Graham (And Then Came Lola, BnB Hell) stars in the film as widowed Joan. There is something about Joan that is very cool and calculated, even during the murders. Graham perfectly balances that line of grieving widow and stone-cold killer. Christopher Soren Kelly (Infinity Chamber, Ink) plays Joan’s partner in crime, Michael. He is kind of the opposite of Joan in that he is a bit more spontaneous and appears to get more joy out of the killing. Kelly conveys this in a way that is unsettling, but also fun to watch. All of the dinner guests do a fantastic job, but the one who stands out is Emilia Richeson (Psycho Sleepover, Scumbabies) as Cricket. I love Richeson’s portrayal of Cricket because she is so annoying that by the end of this dinner you can’t wait to watch her die. Each actor, much like in stage performances, knows when to play the room more seriously and when to bring in more comedic elements.

The filmmakers made a lot of smart decisions in the making of the film to fit within the smaller indie-film budget. One way they did this is to set the film entirely in a single house, only using a few rooms in the house. This not only saves money on elaborate set design and multiple locations, but it is in keeping with the feel of old murder mysteries. The murders are also each done in a different way, giving the audience some variety. The kills are also wisely minimalist, most of them being smartly done in ways where there is no need for blood. These stylistic elements allow the focus to be on the characters and the mystery at hand.

Murder Made Easy is an entertaining murder mystery with some great moments of dark humor. It comes across as a delightful mix of an Agatha Christie novel and Clue. At times the plot can be a bit predictable, but not enough to take away from the overall enjoyment. Palamaro and Davis have delivered a strong debut feature film for audiences that will make people excited to see what they come up with next. The play-like format goes perfectly with the plot as well as the theatrical performances from the entire cast. This is a murder mystery you can watch with anyone, even your non-horror loving friends.

OVERALL RATING: 7.5/10

Don’t Look

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After inheriting the family farm, a young woman decides to take a trip to the property. She invites a group of friends to check the place out and celebrate the holidays. When they arrive they meet the bizarre renters who live on the property. Yet the friends soon find out these country folk are the least of their worries when a strange masked man starts killing them one by one.

Don’t Look is a feature-film debut for director Luciana Faulhaber, who also stars in the film, as well as a debut for co-writers Jessica Boucher and Danielle Killay. The film comes across as a tribute to the classic 80’s slasher film. It has all the elements one would expect; a group of young people, they are alone in a secluded area, they are partying, and there is a masked killer who wants nothing more than to murder them all. Many of the characters even fit the classic stereotypes one would expect from an 80’s slasher film, including most of the characters not necessarily being that likable. That may seem like a bad thing, but it ultimately makes it more enjoyable to watch the cast get killed off.

The homage to 80’s slashers is great, but there are quite a few drawbacks to the overall quality of Don’t Look. One thing that makes the film somewhat forgettable is that it is too similar to 80’s slashers, and not necessarily like the great ones horror fans remember. It is very “murder by numbers” to the point where the plot is a bit dull. Much of the information about Don’t Look describes it as a film that redefines the role of women in slashers. With the exception of one female character being ever so slightly more proactive than in typical slashers, all of the characters follow the archetypes used in the 80’s. The backstory created for the killer is also on the weaker side. The backstory, and the reveal, come across as more of an afterthought instead of an integral part of the plot. Finally, there are times when the dialogue sounds unnatural and doesn’t flow in the vein of normal conversations. This is mostly prevalent in the first act of the film, then it gradually improves as the plot progresses.

Much like the dialogue, the performances start out a little rough, but then improve as the film pushes forward. The only performance I think is consistently good throughout the film comes from director Luciana Faulhaber (Shades of Blue) herself as Lorena. She is the only character one could argue breaks the mold of the typical women seen in slashers. Faulhaber plays a dynamic character who is both empowered and vulnerable quite well. Other than Faulhaber, the performances range from difficult-to-watch to passable. As the writing improves the performances seem to improve as well, but not enough to make Don’t Look more than simply “okay.”

Don’t Look attempts to honor 80’s slashers while also creating more independent female characters, yet it falls short of reaching that goal. I do believe director Faulhaber and writers Boucher and Killay show promise, this being their debut, but the film overall is not a strong display of their talents. The dialogue leaves something to be desired, and the killer’s backstory feels tacked on. While for the most part the various performances are just fine, at least for a portion of the film, Faulhaber’s performance is the only one that stands out as actually being good. Fans of classic 80’s slashers will likely enjoy watching this film, but there isn’t enough to make it stand out from the crowd.

OVERALL RATING: 5/10

Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil, and Vile

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In the 1970’s the world watched as Ted Bundy went on trial for horrific crimes. Throughout much of this time he was supported by his longtime girlfriend, Liz. As Bundy went on trial for increasingly terrible crimes, Liz struggled with whether or not she believed his innocence. While we all know how the trail ended, many may not know Liz’s story.

Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil, and Vile is a film adapted from Elizabeth Kendall’s autobiography titled The Phantom Prince: My Life with Ted Bundy. The film was adapted for the screen by screenwriter Michael Werwie in his feature film debut and directed by Joe Berlinger. Berlinger has a long history of working on projects related to true crime such as Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes and Unspeakable Crime: The Killing of Jessica Chambers. Leading up to this, his work has been primarily documentaries rather than narrative film. 

Going into the film I wasn’t as well versed in Ted Bundy as other true crime buffs. I knew in general what he did and that he had killed many women. The film begins with Liz visiting Bundy one last time in prison. From there their history is recounted from the moment the two met. As expected, for much of the film Bundy is perceived as a handsome, charming, loving man. This will likely bother some viewers, but it is important to remember that this is how the media saw him for much of the trial, and this is why he was able to repeatedly commit unspeakable crimes. His good looks, charisma, and charm disarmed people and made it easier for him to operate as a serial killer for so long. The filmmakers chose to primarily focus on the trials starting with Bundy’s arrest in Utah, leading up to his final trial in Florida.

While Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil, and Vile does a great job of showing how charming Bundy could be and the process of the legal proceedings, it lacks any real depth. The book was written by Liz, so it includes much of her story as well, but this gets lost a bit in the film. The audience gets a glimpse into how Liz initially believed he was innocent. It even glosses over how she turned to alcoholism as the trials went on and caused her more emotional turmoil. When it comes to Bundy himself, for the most part, he is shown as the charming man Liz likely fell in love with. There are only a few moments where his true nature shows through, but it doesn’t feel like enough to show the monster he truly was. With all of these aspects the filmmakers only touch the surface, leaving the film somewhat devoid of any real drama.

The strongest aspect of Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil, and Vile is the performances. Even simply by watching the trailer it is clear to see that Zac Efron (Neighbors, The Greatest Showman) is a perfect casting choice as Ted Bundy. Not only does he have a shocking resemblance to the real Bundy, but he plays the balance of charming and unsettling quite well. As I said before, throughout most of the film Bundy is only shown as the man women all over the country watched on TV and strangely fell in love with. Yet, there are a few moments when that facade breaks and Efron allows the audience to see the man behind the charisma. Lily Collins (The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones, Mirror Mirror) plays Liz. While I wish the film had gone deeper into her story, Collins still portrays Liz well. The internal struggle she goes through reads all over her face as it becomes more and more difficult to believe Bundy is innocent. The chemistry between the two actors makes their relationship interesting to watch, but it also makes it a bit too easy to forget the monster the film is about.

Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil, and Vile is filled with highs and lows that ultimately keep it from being a great film. The obvious highlight is the performance from Efron as Ted Bundy. The biggest issue holding the film back is likely Berlinger’s background making true crime documentaries. Watching the film, it ends up coming across more as a courtroom reenactment. Fans of true crime and thrillers will likely enjoy Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil, and Vilebut it lacks the depth to be a memorable film.

OVERALL RATING: 6/10