Barbara Crampton

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

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

Beyond the Gates

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After their father’s mysterious disappearance, two estranged brothers come together to go through their father’s belongings. The first stop is the family’s old video store. While combing through the large inventory the brothers come across an old VHS board game. They decide to take the game home and give it a try. As soon as they hit play the brothers realize that this game may have something to do with their father’s disappearance, and they have to play in order to save him.

Beyond the Gates immediately does an excellent job of immersing viewers in the past while keeping the film in the present. As soon as the brothers step into the old video store it is like taking a step back in time. It will instantly make you think of your Friday nights spent perusing the racks of VHS tapes at Hollywood Video or Blockbuster. While not everyone experienced the VHS board games that were popular in the 80’s and 90’s, the nostalgic message still comes across loud and clear. The audience gets to experience that nostalgia through the eyes of the brothers, one who is trying to move on from the past and one who seems to be stuck in it. Gordon is the level-headed brother that wants to forget his father and be rid of all his father’s assets. His brother, John, still has fond memories of better times spent in the video store. They have an interesting dynamic because it is clear at one time they were very close, but time and distance has pulled them apart. They start their reunion off quite awkwardly around each other. It isn’t until they dive deeper into the game that they become closer.

In general, the plot is very compelling. The relationship between the brothers and the mystery is fascinating to watch unfold. Unfortunately, the film loses some of its spark in the final act. The excitement builds and builds throughout the film, but then what should be the climax “inside” the game ends in a fizzle. When the brothers cross over into the game the smaller budget becomes apparent, resulting in funky lighting, fog machines, and not-so-scary bad guys. It’s hard to determine if this was due to the film’s budget, or if this was another stab at nostalgia since many films of that era ended in a similar fashion. Either way, it detracted from the rest of the events that preceded it.

While the entire cast of this film are phenomenal, special recognition goes to the two leads. Graham Skipper (The Devil’s Dolls, Space Clowns) plays the straight-laced Gordon. Despite his somewhat rigid demeanor, Skipper makes Gordon a likable and complex character. Skipper especially shines when the story dives deeper into why Gordon hates his past so much. Then there is Chase Williamson (Sequence Break, John Dies at the End) as John. This is the kind of character that Williamson is best at, a man stuck in the past that could potentially be considered a bit of a loser. Yet he is always endearing and lovable. The on screen brotherly chemistry between Skipper and Williamson is pure magic.

Since Beyond the Gates highlights the 80’s and 90’s VHS board games, it only makes sense that the filmmakers would opt for practical effects. That being said, there really aren’t a lot of them. The director smartly found creative ways to carry out the couple kills in the film in a way that hints at gore more than anything else. It was a very imaginative way to give the audience the excitement they expect from a horror film without completely blowing their budget on elaborate practical effects. The only part of the film that could have benefited from more effects was the climax, but everything leading up to the point works well within the context of the film.

Beyond the Gates is dripping with nostalgia and gives horror fans a compelling story that will take them back to their childhood. It has such a fun and unique story, as well as a great cast of characters, that I have no doubt it will become a cult classic. Barbara Crampton (Re-Animator, From Beyond) has a hilarious cameo that alone makes the film worth a watch. Unfortunately the climax will likely leave viewers wanting something more. If it can be overlooked, then Beyond the Gates will become a household favorite among horror fans young and old.

OVERALL RATING: 7/10