anthology

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

All the Creatures Were Stirring

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Two people go on an awkward Christmas Eve date to the theatre. The tiny stage production is bizarre and goes through a series of little vignettes. These vignettes go over a range of topics such as an office party gone wrong, a twist on A Christmas Carol, a killer reindeer, a Christmas demon, and an alien encounter. The one thing all of these have in common is the holiday spirit.

There are so many reasons why All the Creatures Were Stirring is the new standard in holiday horror anthologies. This is the feature film debut for Rebekah and David Ian McKendry who co-wrote and directed the film together. Their names are well-known in the horror community, and their love of the genre can be felt throughout this film. The McKendrys came up with an array of compelling short films relating to Christmas and found an ingenious way of connecting them all together. This makes the film stand out from others like it because it is rare for the short films in an anthology film to have the same writer/directors. It is even more rare for shorts by the same writer/director to be so varied in style and tone. Even with the small budget, the film also has a little something for everyone.

The overarching story follows two people on a date. It is as awkward as you would expect for a Christmas Eve date, and the hilarious little stage production they go to makes the date even more awkward. Even with the humor, the date slowly turns sinister as the plot progresses. Each vignette of the play transitions us to the next short that comprises the film. It is hilarious to catch a glimpse of the story being told on stage compared to the short film telling the same story. Each short is so entertaining in its own way. The segment featuring an office Christmas party gone wrong is violent, thrilling, hilarious, and has some unexpected moments. One segment is a reinvention of A Christmas Carol. The filmmakers do a great job of reinventing the classic story in a way that is modern and relatable for audiences, and yet creepy as well. One of my favorites shorts follows a Twilight Zone-esque alien encounter. This short feels the most sentimental and quirky, and it has two fantastic performances from the leads. In probably the most frightening segment, a last minute shopper is stranded in a parking lot where he meets two strange women. It is dark, unique, and creates a mythology I want to learn more about. Then there is the killer reindeer short, which is probably the most hilarious vignette. It has such a fun and ridiculous concept that is executed by including POV shots from a certain nameless red-nosed reindeer (wink wink, nudge nudge). I also love the vibrant red and green Christmasy color pallet used. Some of these shorts are stronger than others, but when you put them together the audience gets a great anthology film.

Each segment has fantastic actors, including many who horror fans will recognize. It is difficult to select the standout performances, but the first two that come to mind are the actors from the alien segment. Morgan Peter Brown (Ouija, Absentia) stars in this short as Steve. Brown is hilarious because of how he shows Steve’s resignation to his holiday visitors. This also plays well off of Constance Wu (Fresh off the Boat, Eastsiders) as Gabby. Gabby is not quite so used to be around aliens, and Wu’s performance is a perfect juxtaposition to Brown’s. And, what would an indie horror film be without an appearance from Graham Skipper (Beyond the Gates, Almost Human) as Max, the guy on the unfortunate theatre date of the overarching story? Skipper plays the awkward characters so well, and his performance in this short is no exception. I could write an entire article just about the perfect performances of this film, so instead I will give honorable mention to the rest of my favorites: Jonathan Kite (2 Broke Girls), Jocelin Donahue (The House of the Devil), Ashley Clements (Non-Transferable), Amanda Fuller (Red White & Blue), Makeda Declet (The Thinning), Matt Mercer (Contracted: Phase II), Matt Long (Ghost Rider), and Maria Olsen (Reunion). The entire ensemble, even those I didn’t mention, are fantastic.

The visual aspects of this film are also very well done for a low-budget film. There are a few instances of CGI used throughout the film, but they are used fairly sparingly. The most prominent use is in the segment that retells A Christmas Carol. There are some great practical effects as well, but what the filmmakers truly excel at is controlling where the audience’s eye goes and implying things without actually showing anything. For example, in the killer reindeer segment you never actually see the four-legged killer. Instead, the audience knows what it is by the noises it makes, the glowing red nose, and the reason behind it’s sudden thirst for blood. Between the color pallets, use of black and white in certain segments, camera angles, and POV shots, there is a lot of visual interest that catches the eye. The filmmakers prove that sometimes less is more when it comes to storytelling, and it is something they do quite well.

All the Creatures Were Stirring is the new must-watch horror film for the holidays. It will be loved for Christmas the way people love to watch Trick ‘r Treat for Halloween. Not only does this film stand out from other similar anthologies because each short is written and directed by the McKendrys, but each short feels distinctly different from each other and offers a range of styles and concepts. There is something that appeals to every member of the family. Combine that with stunning visuals and fantastic performances and you get the new standard in Christmas horror. This is one film you will definitely want to add to your horror collection.

OVERALL RATING: 8.5/10

XX

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XX is a unique horror anthology in that not only stars women, but all of the shorts are also written and directed by women. Since women writing and directing in the horror genre tend to be few and far between, it is refreshing that these talented females collaborated to create this film. The anthology starts with what could be called an overarching story, but really it is simply a bizarre string of stop motion images to set the eerie tone for what’s to come. While there didn’t seem to be much of a purpose to the stop motion animation other than to act as a visual intermission between segments, it was still quite beautiful in a disturbing way. In order to properly review the rest of the film I will divide by each segment in order of how they were shown.

The Box: This segment was written and directed by Jovanka Vuckovic. Her work has primarily been in short films up to this point, and you can see from this segment that it is something she does very well. The Box is about a boy who looks into a gift box belonging to a man on the subway. From that moment on he completely loses any desire to eat for no apparent reason. The rest of the film focuses on the mother, played by Natalie Brown (The Strain, Channel Zero), as she watches her family wither away into nothingness. The makeup and practical effects used to make the son look like he’s starving to death are disturbingly realistic. This short is a slow burn into darkness that is atmospheric and somewhat melancholy. It is a beautifully done short that is also well acted, but I found myself wanting just a little more from the ending.

The Birthday Party: A woman finds her husband dead the morning of her daughter’s big birthday party. Trying not to ruin the celebration, the woman does what she can to keep the body out of sight. This short is written and directed by Annie Clark (also known as St. Vincent). While Clark is known for her music, this is her first attempt at writing and directing a short film. One of my favorite things about this short is the twisted sense of humor about it. Additionally, it had a strange, brightly-colored mid-century modern look to it that reminded me a bit of Edward Scissorhands. I also thought Melanie Lynskey (Togetherness, Up in the Air) was hilarious and relatable as the mother, Mary. This is probably the most visually stunning of the shorts in this anthology, and the most fun.

Don’t Fall: Of all the shorts in XX, Don’t Fall feels the most like a classic horror film. Written and directed by Roxanne Benjamin (Southbound), this short follows a group of friends going on a hiking and camping trip in the desert. After the four friends find ancient cave paintings, one of the friends becomes possessed by a creature that was depicted in those paintings. This is by far the most frightening of the shorts, as well as the most action-packed. There are some excellent shots set up in such a way that the possessed girl appears to be doing things that should be impossible. It is easy to see how the filmmakers achieved these scenes, but it doesn’t take away from the visual impact.

Her Only Living Son: This short is written and directed by Karyn Kusama (The Invitation, Jennifer’s Body) who is probably the most well known of these four women due to her previous work in horror. The story follows a mother preparing for her only son’s eighteenth birthday. In the days leading up to this we learn that her son has some sociopathic tendencies that get worse as his birthday approaches. The main aspect of this short that I really enjoyed was the sense of impending doom. Also, one could easily look at the story as an unofficial sequel to Rosemary’s Baby (and perhaps that was the intent). I thought Christina Kirk (Love is Strange, Taking Woodstock) performed the role of Cora, the mother, quite well. Despite this I still didn’t love the character. She is a bit too meek throughout most of the film and can’t muster the strength to control her son’s dangerous actions.

The aptly named XX (so named because the XX chromosomes determine female sex) is a celebration of women creating bewitching works of horror. These shorts result in a highly entertaining anthology focusing on different areas of horror. While each of them are marvelous in their own way, I would have to say my favorite segment of XX is The Birthday Party. It is quite fitting this anthology would be released during the eighth annual Women in Horror month. By watching this film you are lending your support to women who want to make a name for themselves in the horror industry by working behind the camera rather than in front of it. This is a trend I hope to see more of in the future.

OVERALL RATING: 8/10