Chase Williamson

Artik

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A group of young boys live on a remote farm with their mother and father. The eldest boy helps his father with some strange tasks, including finding individuals to torture and murder. When the boy meets a man named Holton, who shows him kindness, the life the bizarre family has built is threatened.

Writer and director Tom Botchii Skowronski creates a very unique and strange debut feature film with Artik. The genre bender includes elements of a thriller, sci-fi, and even a bit of superhero flair. The plot follows Boy Adam, a young boy who is seemingly being groomed by his father figure, Artik, to continue his work. Artik is obsessed with comic books and is clearly on some kind of quest to find a certain type of person, yet in most cases he simply ends up brutally murdering these people. Then Boy Adam meets Holton. Holton is a straight-edge man who is likely the first to show the boy any true kindness. That moment is the catalyst that sets the rest of the film in motion as the boy realizes there could be another way of life and Holton attempts to help him. After the disturbing opening, the film takes on more of a gradual build of suspense leading up to the bloody, violent climax.

Artik at first feels like it takes place in an alternate reality. The way the world looks from the boy’s point of view on the farm leads the viewer to believe the world is a dangerous and desolate place. It’s when Holton is introduced that the world of Artik comes back to reality. It’s a very effective bit of filmmaking because it shows how Artik’s delusions influence the boy’s point of view. To him the world is a dark and dangerous place, until Holton shows him the world outside the farm is very different from what he has been lead to believe.

The film is very unique and builds suspense well, but it also leaves a bit too many unanswered questions. For one, Artik’s comic book obsession is almost a bit too subtle. There are some great visual cues including a target with Loki’s face in the center, comic book style drawings of Artik committing his crimes, and even the outfit Artik wears when he commits these crimes makes him look an awful lot like The Winter Soldier. While I don’t mind not knowing where this obsession came from, I wish it was a bit more clear how this obsession dictates his actions. The audience learns early on that Artik is looking for a specific person, or type of person, and that is why he maims and kills. It isn’t until the climax of the film that it is revealed what qualities he is looking for in these people, but it is never fully explained why he wants them. It is also unclear if the boys on the farm are truly Artik’s children or if they were kidnapped and raised on the farm, but the mystery around this doesn’t necessarily detract from the plot.

One of the high points of Artik is the performances. Indie horror fans will likely recognize many of these faces. Chase Williamson (Beyond the Gates, Sequence Break) stars as Holton. He is an interesting character because on the outside he is covered in tattoos, dresses tough, works in a metal shop, and generally looks rough around the edges. Yet his character doesn’t do any drugs or alcohol and immediately shows kindness to a strange boy spray-painting the side of the shop. He is obviously a purely good person. Artik is played by Jerry G. Angelo (American Warfighter, Color of Souls). Angelo is an imposing figure and his portrayal of Artik is incredible to watch as you see him force his decisions on those around him and manipulate the boy to do his bidding. Other great performances from horror fan favorites come from Lauren Ashley Carter (Imitation Girl, Jug Face) as Artik’s wife, Flin Brays, Matt Mercer (Contracted: Phase 2, Beyond the Gates) as addiction counselor Kar, and Gavin White (14 Cameras) as Boy Adam.

The artistic elements, from the score to the practical effects, are all stunning. The film’s score, by Corey Wallace, matches the dark and gritty look of the film and adds to the suspense perfectly. The practical effects in Artik are very well done. There is a fair amount of blood and gore in this film, so the practical effects are a vital part of the storytelling. Each wound and kill are executed quite well, especially one rather gruesome scene involving a fork. Even the set design and wardrobe help with the storytelling of Artik. The most notable of these is the outfit Artik wears when he kills, which I mentioned before as looking similar to The Winter Soldier, aka Bucky Barnes. Fans who know more about that character know he has a sordid past, yet as a whole the character is typically seen as a hero. This likely indicates that is how Artik sees himself. It is the attention to detail like this that really add to the overall appeal of the film.

Artik is a tense film that will appeal to those who love gritty horror and comic books. Skowronski proves he knows how to create compelling characters and build tension within the plot. That being said, there are aspects of the film that remain too vague and unexplained. There are also aspects of the film viewers might not understand as well if they aren’t familiar with the comic book references. Yet the film still combines stunning artistry and a cast filled with indie favorites to bring in a wider horror audience. Between the music, gore, and performances, this film is definitely worth checking out.

OVERALL RATING: 7/10

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

Sequence Break

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Video games can be addicting. For Oz, they are his whole life. Not only does he love playing them, but he also works at an arcade game repair shop. In a short amount of time two interesting things happen; Oz meets a young woman, and a mysterious arcade game gets left at the shop. From then on, Oz is pulled in two different and opposing directions. One is the pull to be with the woman he cares for and the desire to live a complete life, and the other is his obsession for the arcade game – and the game does not want to lose.

Graham Skipper manages to create an interesting, creepy, and sometimes disgusting story in Sequence Break. On the surface the film is about a video game that threatens to destroy a man’s life. After Oz finds it in the shop and plugs the game into an old arcade console, it quickly begins to take over his life. What’s more bizarre is that the game seems to come alive every time Oz plays it. The game even takes on certain organic physical characteristics, creating a biomechanical monstrosity. These scenes create disturbing imagery and can be downright gross at times, but they are also quite fascinating. There is also a strange drifter always in the background, willing Oz to play the game more and more. It all results in a unique film, utilizing something familiar like a video game and turning it into something much more sinister.

The second, deeper layer is what makes this film a true work of art. There is a constant underlying metaphor for obsession and addiction. In this particular case it is an addiction to video games, but it can be applied to any addiction. Oz’s whole life is taken over by video games even before the mystery game appears. The first time he meets the woman he falls in love with, he doesn’t even notice her because he is so consumed with whatever game he is working on at the time. It isn’t until he starts dating the woman and begins to move away from his obsession with the games that the mystery game tries to take hold of him. The game is his addiction, and it attempts to be everything for Oz so that he will never need the outside world. There are even instances where the filmmakers manage to insert subtle clues as to Oz’s state of mind throughout the film. The story and imagery create such a compelling metaphor that shows, no matter how hard a person tries to break free and live their life, addiction will always try to suck them back in.

The two leads in this film are great, and their on screen chemistry is electric. Horror fans may recognize their chemistry as both leads acted together in another horror film, John Dies at the End. Chase Williamson (Beyond the Gates, The Guest) plays Oz. What makes Williamson’s performance so compelling is how he can make a pathetic slacker character so lovable and enjoyable to watch. This is something we have seen Williamson do in previous roles as well, and he never disappoints. Then there is the ever lovely Fabianne Therese (Southbound, Starry Eyes) as Tess. Therese brings a lot of heart to the film in her portrayal of Tess, which she will need to get Oz away from his addiction. Every time Therese is on screen your eye is immediately drawn to her. She lights up the screen and plays Tess in a very endearing way. Williamson and Therese’s powers combine to create the perfect duo to tug at the audience’s heart strings through every twist and turn.

Throughout the film there is a rather unsettling use of practical effects. All of the effects are centered around the mystery video game. Specifically, when the game moves away from the mechanical side and goes more toward the biological side. Not only are these effects incredibly well done, but they are sometimes a bit gross. The first time the biological aspects are seen it makes viewers feel like they are watching something they shouldn’t be. It adds a peculiar sexual aspect to an inanimate object that makes the viewer feel a bit uncomfortable, but at the same time you can’t look away. Each time the game is played the effects become more and more grand, leading to some very unusual and fantastical imagery.

Sequence Break is a surreal scifi-horror mashup that manages to be both unsettling and beautiful all at once. It is incredibly disturbing to watch, yet it also brings to light the sad truth of addiction and how it can completely consume a person’s life. The striking visuals and amazing acting by the two leads only add to the power behind the plot. While there are a few scenes that made me cringe and want to look away, I can say with confidence that my eyes never left the screen. This is a film that will leave your eyes devouring every moment, no matter how disturbing.

OVERALL RATING: 8.5/10