cult

1BR

Sarah moves to LA to start a new life and pursue her dreams. After staying in a crummy hotel, she finally finds what might be her dream apartment. At first it seems like the perfect place to live, clean, great location, friendly neighbors, but Sarah soon learns that nothing is quite as it seems.

Making his feature film debut, writer and director David Marmor brings to life what might be my actual worst nightmare with 1BR. From the very first scene, Marmor establishes a feeling of unease as the camera tracks along, showing an apartment courtyard filled with friendly, waving neighbors. Anyone who has ever lived in a city apartment knows that neighbors are never this friendly and rarely even make eye contact, especially knowing this film takes place in LA. When Sarah first tours the apartment, the open house has dozens of other hopefuls vying for the apartment, so when she is the chosen one, she is elated. That joy isn’t long lived as she is kept awake night after night by loud noises in the walls and has increasingly strange encounters with her neighbors. Then the true motives of the neighbors are revealed. Sarah is forced to decide if she wants to become part of this community, allowing every moment of her life to be monitored and controlled, or find a way to escape.

The idea of 1BR works very well for me, primarily because I would rather eat glass than interact with my neighbors. It’s interesting because it points out how segregated we have all become and how there is no true sense of community these days, at least not in the city. Yet it also shows how cult-like communities can be when left to their own devices. The film ends up being very suspenseful and manages to keep the audience guessing as to what will happen next. Again, this worked for my because it played to my own person anxieties, but it might not be for everyone. The tension is banking on viewers being more antisocial, so individuals who are more social creatures might not find it quite as suspenseful. Without giving too much away, 1BR also does one thing common in horror films that always comes across as a somewhat cheap attempt and shock. As soon as we see Sarah in her hotel room, we know one minor plot point will inevitably happen and it is something I wish horror films would steer away from.

This film has a surprisingly large cast. Each actor is great in their respective roles, but three of them truly stand out. Nicole Brydon Bloom (The Affair, Law & Order: SVU) takes on the leading role of Sarah. This is Bloom’s first starring role in a feature film and she definitely delivers. Sarah is a very kind, vulnerable person, but Bloom also makes it clear to the audience that she has an inner strength and conviction because of her past. Taylor Nichols (Jurassic Park III, The Boiler Room) plays the apartment manager, Jerry. Jerry has all the attributes we have come to expect of a cult leader-type character. Nichols makes Jerry charming, even-tempered, and authoritative. He speaks in a soothing voice and he is able to get people to do his bidding. Then there is Giles Matthey (Jobs, True Blood) as Sarah’s neighbor, Brian. Matthey stands out in this role because at first, Brian seems like the sweet, cute guy in the building. Once the truth of what the community is comes to light, Matthey does a sort of Jekyll and Hyde personality transformation and is quite disturbing.

Visually, 1BR is highly successful at creating tension with space and creating minor details for the audience to notice. Even before we learn the sinister truth of the apartment building, the unease of the place is quickly established. The building almost becomes a character itself as we learn its secrets. It also takes on a claustrophobic quality, especially when in the courtyard at the center of the building, surrounded by the eyes of other tenets and no clear means of escape. There are also tons of little details within the apartment itself, as well as on the other residents, that elude to the truth of what’s happening.

1BR is the embodiment of my worst nightmare: being forced to be part of a community with my neighbors. In an increasingly anti-social world, this is likely a cause of anxiety for many. Marmor exacerbates this feeling with his film, while also pointing out how we have become far too separated from those around us in a selfish world. It likely will not strike the same chord with all viewers, but it still creates a suspenseful, unsettling story with strong performances. There is definitely a moral to this story, but whether it’s to be more or less involved with your community will likely vary quite a bit from person to person.

OVERALL RATING: 7/10

Black Christmas (2019)

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A group of sorority sisters at a prestigious college decide to stay at their sorority house over winter break. Unfortunately for these women, the school has a sordid tradition of misogyny and racism. This holiday, that tradition involves killing female college students who are “out of line.” The sisters will have to fight for their lives if they want to make it until Christmas.

Continuing a long and delightful tradition of Christmas horror films comes Black Christmas. This re-imagining of the 1974 classic is directed by Sophia Takal (New Year New You, Always Shine), who also co-wrote the film with April Wolfe in her feature film debut. Instead of recycling the same plot of the original film, Takal and Wolfe have created a culturally-relevant thrill ride that still has some of the same spirit of the original. The film focuses on Riley, a sorority sister who has had enough of the fraternity brothers. After a scandalous Christmas performance at the frat house, the sisters find themselves in mortal danger as a masked figure attacks them in their sorority house. The mythos created around the university and the founder of the school is very interesting, albeit not as well developed as it could have been. Either way it is still very entertaining. Even though this film is a complete re-imagining of the original, eagle-eyed fans of the 1974 Black Christmas will still see a few fun nods to the original film sprinkled throughout.

This film is incredibly politically charged, definitely written for women, and it’s going to piss off a lot of men. It addresses the rampant male toxicity in the world today and how it affects women. Much of the plot, both the normal interactions and the murderous ones, involve experiences that are unique to women. The most obvious female-specific experience is the sexual harassment and assault women deal with on a daily basis. It even shows how we can’t walk down the street alone without having to be completely aware of our surroundings. Some of the more subtle interactions are likely ones most men won’t pick up on. There are references to Diva cups, periods, and vibrators that are sure to get some good laughs from the women in the audience. What I especially enjoyed about the update of this film is how it essentially lets men know women are done taking all of their shit. These women are strong, powerful, and they are done with misogynistic men trying to control and ruin their lives.

While I love the update in this Black Christmas and commend the message it sends, that doesn’t mean it’s a perfect film. One issue I have with the plot is a lack of character development. Aside from Riley and maybe one other sorority sister, it doesn’t feel like the audience really gets to know the women very well. Another aspect that felt unnecessary is the character of Landon. While the character is nice and the performance is great, his character felt like an afterthought. It was almost as if the studio asked the filmmakers to include at least one guy to fit into the “not all men” category. Finally, I feel like Cary Elwes (The Princess Bride, Kiss the Girls) was greatly underutilized. It’s obvious from the beginning that he isn’t a good guy, and we’ve seen in him a great villain in past films, but his character just doesn’t quite reach that same malevolent level fans will likely want and expect.

Each of the women in Black Christmas deliver great performances of complex and strong females. Imogen Poots (Green Room, 28 Weeks Later) stars as Riley. She is a survivor of a sexual assault and doubly strong because she persevered despite not being believed. Poots does a fantastic job of conveying Riley’s trauma and how it has changed her, but she is also able to be strong and powerful with the help of her friends. Aleyse Shannon (Charmed, Instinct) stars as Riley’s sorority sister, Kris. Kris is a very political character and a clear fighter who isn’t afraid to speak her mind. Shannon is great at exuding confidence as Kris while also being a great support system for her sisters. Honorable mention goes to Lily Donoghue (Jane the Virgin) as Marty, Brittany O’Grady (Above Suspicion), and Caleb Eberhardt (The Post) as Landon.

To keep up with the legacy of the original film, this Black Christmas had to be sure to have some great visuals. For one, the lighting in this film is phenomenal. There is a lot of great use of Christmas lights to draw the viewer’s eye while also creating gorgeous color play on the screen. While I feel as though the filmmakers shied away from showing the kills a bit too much, they did find a clever way to show some gore within the constraints for the PG-13 rating. I will leave this as a bit of a surprise since it relates to hidden aspects of the plot, but suffice it to say there is at least a bit of gore for the gore-hounds out there. Earlier I mentioned there are great Easter eggs from the first film, but also be sure to keep an eye out for a delightful little nod to The Exorcist III.

Black Christmas is a film made by women, for women, that is sure to bring in hoards of new young female horror fans. It is clear that Takal and Wolfe made this film for young women with the goal of empowering them and bashing male toxicity. If this film makes even one young woman feel empowered after leaving the theater, then it is a successful film. Naturally, the political message and the idea of empowering women is a threat to many men, as we see in the film and has already been evident on social media around the film. I for one really enjoyed Black Christmas. It has it’s flaws, but its fun, has great characters young women can look up to, and will definitely appeal to its target audience. Hopefully this will lead to many more studio horror films geared towards women who love horror. There are definitely going to be plenty of men who don’t like this film, which is fine, but if you’re a guy just remember: this film wasn’t made for you.

OVERALL RATING: 6.5/10

Satanic Panic

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Sam is strapped for cash, so she takes a job delivering pizzas. After a terrible first day, she makes one last delivery to a rich part of town. After the customer stiffs her on the tip, she finds her way into the house and in the middle of a Satanic cult. Now they want her for their virgin sacrifice.

One of the most anticipated films of this year’s Portland Horror Film Festival is Satanic Panic. The film is directed by Chelsea Stardust (All That We Destroy, Seeing Green), who has been making quite a splash in the horror industry this year. The story came from both Ted Geoghegan (Mohawk, We Are Still Here) and Grady Hendrix (Mohawk), with Hendrix helming the script. I went into the film blind to the plot and actors, but it was impossible to escape all the buzz around this film. I had heard so many great things, and luckily the film did not disappoint.

Satanic Panic takes on a classic 80’s feel. The idea of “satanic panic” was prevalent in the 80’s, plus the film is equal parts gore and laughs. It plays perfectly into the idea that people are rich got that way by making a deal with the devil. The plot follows Sam, who is the sweetest, kindest, most innocent young woman without being annoying. The audience watches as her first day as a pizza delivery girl goes from bad, to worse, to deadly. The resulting chaos is a perfect mix of gore and humor as Sam tries to avoid becoming a virgin sacrifice. Despite her innocent nature, Sam has a knack for getting herself into trouble and then accidentally getting out of trouble in unexpected ways. Her interactions with the cult members are hilarious and the dynamics within the cult are even more hilarious. Watching as Sam tries to stay alive is highly entertaining and takes the audience down some unexpected paths.

I mentioned before that I went into this film blind, so I was shocked at the star power behind Satanic Panic. The film stars relative newcomer Hayley Griffith (Drew, All My Children) as Sam. She is probably the most sweet and innocent character I have ever seen in a horror film. Yet Griffith does a great job of showing Sam’s inner demons and her surprising ability to get out of dangerous situations. One of the most surprising appearances and performances in the film is from Rebecca Romijn (X-Men, Femme Fatale) as the cult leader, Danica. It’s great to see a female leading the cult, and Romijn is both fierce and hilarious in her role. In a smaller role as Danica’s husband, Jerry O’Connell (Piranha 3D, Stand By Me) makes an appearance as Samuel. His role may be smaller, but O’Connell’s performance is still memorable and brings the laughs. Finally, there is Ruby Modine (Shameless, Happy Death Day) as Danica and Samuel’s daughter, Judy. Judy probably has some of the best lines, and Modine’s deadpan delivery of her outrageous dialogue is sure to make her a crowd favorite. All of the strong female leads give the film a welcomed feminist edge. The entire cast from top to bottom is truly hysterical and had many opportunities to go over the top with their performances, but they straddled the line perfectly.

The film utilizes some fantastic visual effects that also feel reminiscent of the 80’s. Satanic Panic delivers quite a bit of carnage as the cult hunts down their virgin. It’s all very well done, although I wouldn’t necessarily say the guts and gore are realistic. Instead the filmmakers opted to stay with the 80’s feel and make the gore a bit more campy and bright red, which only adds to the humor of the film. There is even a running theme with the use of vibrant red between the gore and the outfits worn by the cult. It is a simple identifier to show the audience who is evil that packs a visual punch. On top of that the film has some gorgeous set design and even a bit of creepy creature design, making the film as stunning as it is funny.

Satanic Panic is a delightful gore-fest that delivers side-splitting laughs horror fans will absolutely adore. It further proves 2019 is becoming the year of Chelsea Stardust. The characters, the humor, the blood and guts, and the various twists and turns are perfectly balanced in this crowd-pleasing film. It is also the kind of film that is best seen on the big screen where you can laugh out loud along with the audience. You can still catch it on the big screen while Satanic Panic is still on it’s festival run, then it will be released in theaters and VOD on September 6th.

OVERALL RATING: 9.5/10

The Heretics

heretics

A young girl is kidnapped by a cult. They use her to perform a ritual under the locust moon, but then the entire cult commits suicide. Years later she struggles to cope with the trauma of that day. As a new locust moon approaches, the girl is kidnapped again by a lone survivor of the cult, but he claims to want to save her from an evil growing inside her. She must decide to believe him or escape, and time is running out.

The single strongest part of this film is the premise. Chad Archibald (Bite, The Drownsman) came up with the story and directed while Jayme Laforest (Bite, Gods of Accident) wrote the screenplay. The plot is interesting because it almost instantly subverts your expectations. When you see a young girl kidnapped by a cult, you expect her to be sacrificed for some demon or god. That isn’t what happens here. The cult actually sacrifices themselves, leaving the girl alone on the alter to find her way home. It isn’t until years later that the horror truly begins. The film flips back and forth between what is happening with the kidnapped girl and her captor, then showing the people who are searching for the girl. It allows the filmmakers to slowly reveal details as the plot progresses. There is also a really interesting level of surreal hallucinations as it gets closer to dawn. The idea behind the film is great, but the film leans more towards melodrama and camp in a film that otherwise has a very serious and sinister tone.

The performances in this film are a bit of a mixed bag. Nina Kiri (The Handmaid’s Tale, Let Her Out) plays Gloria, the victim of two kidnappings. For the most part Kiri’s portrayal of Gloria keeps the audience interested and empathetic, especially as we learn the PTSD she experiences in the wake of the first kidnapping. There are times in her performance later on where she comes off as a bit breathy (I know that may sound odd, but it is the word that comes to mind). She sometimes speaks softly and with the breathiness of someone trying to talk after going for a long run. While this technically works for the circumstances she is in, it comes across as more of an acting tool rather than a genuine reaction to the circumstances. Ry Barrett (The Demolisher, Inspiration) plays kidnapper Thomas. This is likely the most complex character. He was a member of the cult and, in an act of regret and cowardice, he does not sacrifice himself with the others. Now he kidnaps Gloria again in order to redeem himself. Barrett does a good job of conveying the complicated emotions Thomas goes through as he tries to overcome his guilt. Jorja Cadence (Helltown, Y2K) plays Gloria’s girlfriend, Joan. Cadence’s performance starts out fine, but as she goes into hysterics after Gloria is kidnapped her performance becomes a bit over the top. There is a lot of yelling and screaming that is exaggerated to the point of being almost humorous.

One of the stronger points of the film is the practical effects. The longer Gloria is locked away in the secluded cabin, the more she begins to transform. The filmmakers take their time with the transformation, allowing there to be subtle changes as the plot progresses. These changes eventually get fairly grotesque. The grotesque features altering such a beautiful young woman make the changes even more disturbing. The final transformation moves away from practical effects and turns to CGI, which unfortunately takes away from the shocking imagery and cheapens the overall look.

The Heretics is a film with the makings of a great plot that just wasn’t executed as well as it could have been. The idea behind it is great and the plot has some surprising points to keep audiences interested. For the most part it has compelling performances as well, but again there are times when the acting goes over the top into the realm of campy B-movies. The special effects stand out as a high point, until the end when the filmmakers make the choice to move from practical to CGI effects. It is obvious that the film is split down the middle when it comes to high and low points, making it just an okay film.

OVERALL RATING: 5/10

The Void

void

A small town sheriff finds a bloody man on the side of the road during the night. He takes the man to the nearest hospital. Unfortunately, it is in the process of closing down so there is only a small skeleton crew there to help. Soon after the sheriff arrives, strange people wearing cloaks and hoods surround the building. What’s worse, people are dying and turning into something otherworldly, threatening the existence of the sheriff and the hospital staff.

The Void has a dark and mysterious plot that encompasses many themes. While this film has its own original story there are many aspects that are meant to remind the audience of classic eighties horror movies. Watching this film you will see things that are reminiscent of The Thing, Hellraiser, and various Lovecraftian films. Because of these nods to previous films audiences will be split on their opinion. Some will love the nostalgic touch this film has while still bringing something new to viewers. Others will think the filmmakers were simply being lazy or stealing from previous films. Either way, the film is creepy, intense, and it will keep you interested in what happens next.

There are some areas where the plot is a bit lacking. One of the major issues is the relationship between the sheriff and his ex wife, who happens to be a nurse at the desolate hospital. There isn’t enough character development for either character, let alone their strained relationship. There are also scenes that are visually interesting, but they don’t necessarily serve the plot. If anything, they distract from the story line because these scenes attempt to add a few too many subplots. While overall the plot is exciting, there could be improvements. Aside from the various issues with character development and subplots, the most distressing issue is the very last scene of the film. Without giving too much away I can say that I simply wish the last scene had been completely cut. It is unnecessary and takes the film to a laughable place.

The special effects are where The Void truly excels. The filmmakers opted for practical effects, which is in keeping with their desire to bring a bit of nostalgia to their modern, unnerving film. The bizarre mutations shown throughout the film will not only remind you of the classic films listed above, but they are also simply beautiful. It isn’t all good news though. The coloring of the film is so dark that many of these gorgeous effects are virtually impossible to see. When I watched the film I had to turn the ‘brightness’ level up significantly on my television in order to clearly see what was going on and how the practical creations looked. With all the effort that clearly went into creating these monstrosities it seems careless to make them disappear in the darkness of the film.

In a film with such a small cast, one bad performance can ruin the entire movie. Lucky for The Void, none of the performances stand out as being poorly done. Although there aren’t any performances that stand out as being great either. This could be a result of the lack of character development mentioned earlier; there was simply no dimension to the characters resulting in a void (excuse the pun) of outstanding performances. The two leads, Aaron Poole (The Conspiracy, Forsaken) and Kathleen Munroe (Supernatural, Resurrection), are perfectly fine in their roles. They are likely the only two actors audiences will remember after watching the film. Sadly, it is probably because they simply had the most screen time.

I had high hopes for this film. The Void pays homage to many frightening films that came before it, but it sadly doesn’t quite live up to the legacy it honors. There are several highlights, such as the practical effects and the overall story, but there are quite a few aspects that diminish the quality of the film. If the film could be brighter in color, focus more on the character development, and eliminate some of the frivolous scenes, then The Void could become something very accomplished. As is, it is a fun flick and will remind you of films you watched growing up.

OVERALL RATING: 6/10