film

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

Saint Bernard (2013)

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Bernard has loved music his entire life. He grows up to be a composer. On the surface he has achieved his dream, but Bernard’s reality unravels right along with his mind.

In 2013, special effects master Gabriel Bartalos released a film he wrote and directed that was his second feature film, Saint Bernard. The film flew under the radar for most horror fans. Now, six years later, Severin is finally bringing it to blu-ray. The film focuses on Bernard, a composer who loses his mind as he turns to drugs and alcohol for comfort. While that plot sounds simple enough, it is shown in quite a unique way, primarily relying on visual metaphors. The film is very unique and strange in a way that almost makes it difficult to review.

From the very first frame, many viewers will likely wonder what the hell they are watching. It only gets more bizarre from that point on. There is a lot of commentary through the visual metaphors. The film touches issues such as drugs and alcohol addiction, religion, capitalism, childhood trauma, anxiety, depression, and much much more. Bartalos takes on a very surrealist approach to his film. It almost takes on the appearance of a Salvador Dali painting. There is a heavy reliance on imagery over substance from start to finish. Normally this would be an issue for me, but somehow it works very well in Saint Bernard. Many of the various elements seem random, but there is still a story hidden behind all of the strange and spectacular imagery.

With Bartalos’s background in special effects, it’s no wonder his film relies so heavily on different types of effects of set design. The film utilizes a mix of multiple different mediums. There are prosthetics, puppets, creatures, disturbing props, and CGI. All of these elements lend to the surrealistic appearance of the film and they are all beautifully done. One of the most memorable effect used is a Saint Bernard head. As the film goes on the head decays more and more. It is rather disgusting, but very well done. The sets are sometimes even more elaborate than the effects ranging from rotting buses, wood junkyards, and an outrageous police station. The effects and sets lend a tactile element to the film. You can almost feel the wood grains, the salted woods, and the rotting goo through the screen.

There are an odd range of performances in Saint Bernard. In one of his few leading roles, Jason Dugre (Moonbeams) plays Bernard. It is fascinating to watch Bernard as we see the world through his eyes. What is even more fascinating to to see Dugre convey Bernard’s shock, dismay, and confusion at the world around him while everyone else acts as though the world is as it should be. While it is a smaller role, I was thrilled to see Warwick Davis (Willow, Leprechaun) as Othello. He was the main draw for me when the film was brought to my attention, and he does not disappoint. As a whole, the cast is weird and wild in a way that fits perfectly with the tone of the film.

Saint Bernard is a weird fever dream that relies more on imagery over content, yet it works so well. If audiences are able to follow the outlandish metaphorical visuals, then there is still a complete story to be told in the film. While the performances are entertaining, the true star of the film is the fantastic effects and stunning set design. It is truly like watching a work of art. There is no doubt this film will polar audiences, but I highly recommend everyone watch it at least once just for the experience.

OVERALL RATING: 8/10

Saint Bernard is available for purchase here.

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

The Head Hunter

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In Medieval times, monsters roam free. After losing his daughter, a warrior makes it his life’s mission to kill as many monsters as he can. He has killed many monsters, but one still manages to elude him. His quest will not end until he collects the head of the monster who murdered his daughter.

The Head Hunter is a unique film. Director Jordan Downey (ThanksKilling) co-wrote the film with cinematographer Kevin Stewart (ThanksKilling). The collaboration between Downey and Stewart leads to some interesting filmmaking choices. The most unique aspect is the storytelling choices the duo make. The film starts with a bit of exposition through voiceover, revealing the warrior’s daughter was killed by a monster. After that there is virtually no dialogue moving the plot forward. Instead, the filmmakers rely on visual queues to tell the story.

As the film progresses it becomes clear that the warrior has become a literal head hunter. We know this as the audience because we see the warrior sharpen a stake for his wall, ride off ready for battle, and return with a monster head to adorn his wall. It also seems clear that a nearby kingdom is giving him rewards for slaying these creatures. This becomes apparent because every hunt is precipitated by the sound of a horn and when the warrior returns from his hunt he also has what appears to be a medieval “wanted” poster with a drawing of a monster. All of this plot is told with no monologue, dialogue, voiceover, or anything other than simply what the audience sees on the screen. It is a form of storytelling I have not seen in a feature-length film, and it works surprisingly well in The Head Hunter.

While the storytelling method works, for the most part, there are still aspects that feel as though there isn’t enough meat to the film.  As I mentioned before, multiple times the audience is shown the warrior riding off to kill a monster then returning with its head. It seems like an odd choice that we don’t get to see the warrior engaged in battle with these creatures. I can only assume it was due to budgetary constraints, but with how many times he rides off into the distance it becomes more and more apparent that we are missing the battles. There are two battles shown, but they are primarily in darkness so the action isn’t as palpable as it could be. The Head Hunter is already a shorter film clocking in at 1 hour and 12 minutes, but with the storytelling method, lack of dialogue, and minimal action it may have worked better as a short film.

The two most vital aspects of the film are the acting and the visuals. The Head Hunter is almost entirely filmed with one actor, Christopher Rygh, in his first feature film role. While Rygh doesn’t have much dialogue in the film, he still has quite a presence on screen and is able to emote very well. He truly embodies the look of a warrior and expertly conveys a wide range of emotions. On the visual side, the two strongest aspects are the cinematography and the creature designs. The cinematography does a majority of the storytelling and it as absolutely stunning. Each shot is purposefully framed and focused in a certain way to draw the eye. While for the most part we only see creature heads, the designs are varied and very well done. There is every sort of creature one could want and the big bad in the climax of the film is quite memorable.

The Head Hunter is a stunning feat in visual storytelling, yet it feels a bit devoid of the excitement and tension one would expect from this kind of film. I commend the filmmakers for taking on this fascinating style and creating a beautiful film. The performance from Rygh only helps to make the tale of this warrior compelling to watch. Some will likely notice the lack of tension that comes from skipping over a majority of the monster kills. Some will also likely feel the method used to propel the film forward requires more dialogue. While I stand by my statement that the film may have worked better as a short, it is still an accomplishment in filmmaking and beautiful to watch.

OVERALL RATING: 6/10

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

Room for Rent

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A recently widowed woman named Joyce realizes her late husband left her with nearly nothing to live on. To bring in some money she decides to rent out a room to guests as her own little BnB. When one mysterious guest takes up residence, Joyce becomes obsessed with him, leading her down a dangerous path.

Room for Rent is directed by Tommy Stovall (Aaron’s Blood) and it is writer Stuart Flack’s debut film. This thriller is unique in that the entire film centers around an elderly woman. It is very rare, especially in the horror genre, for the protagonist to be a woman of this age. What makes this even better is the filmmakers chose horror legend Lin Shaye to play the lead. The film begins in the moments after Joyce’s husband has died in an accident. In the days after his death, she discovers there is almost no money in their bank account, so she must come up with a way to earn some money. That is when she discovers the glorious world of renting out rooms online a la Air BnB, VRBO, and the like.

As Joyce goes from timid widow to entrepreneur, we also see the arrival of a handsome guest bring out a second sexual awakening in her. She changes from modest, monochromatic clothing to more revealing and brightly colored outfits to try and seduce the new man in her life. It ends up being an interesting character study of this woman, who is much more than she appears to be, as she becomes utterly obsessed with her guest. That being said, her character still is underdeveloped. Joyce’s motivation is unclear throughout the film, although one could assume her ultimate goal is to find someone to love her unconditionally.

While the basic premise of Room for Rent works in many ways, there are still a number of problems with the film. The look into Joyce’s psyche is great, yet underdeveloped. I also believe this is one of an increasingly popular subgenre of horror focusing on Air BnB type rentals and the horrible things that can happen in these places. However, there are just far too many subplot points that are hinted at, but the audience never gets a satisfying payoff. One example is that the renter, Bob, clearly has some very dark and illegal history that has brought him to this place. It is vaguely mentioned throughout the film in a way that implies it is important to the plot, but then his background is never explained and never lives up to that implied importance. This happens quite a bit when it comes to Joyce as well. She is a compulsive liar, but the audience never discovers the truth behind many of her lies. It also feels like the film hints that she may have had something to do with her husband’s death and yet there is no payoff at the end. The filmmakers seemed to have wanted to leave a lot left to the imagination of the audience, but they simply went too vague on many plot points. It unfortunately ends up also affecting the pace of the film, making it feel very slow and meandering with only a few moments of tension thrown in.

If it weren’t for Lin Shaye (Insidious, The Final Wish) in the lead as Joyce, the film wouldn’t have been as enjoyable to watch. Shaye is a force in the horror industry and she is absolutely delightful to watch. Time and time again I have wished to see her as the leading lady in a horror film, so in a way I got my wish with Room for Rent. Unfortunately, the film doesn’t quite live up to Shaye’s stay power. She gives a fantastic performance and often shines beyond what was written for her, but even her shine can’t completely erase some of the weaker plot points and dialogue. Oliver Rayon (In Transit) and Valeska Miller (First List) deliver passable performances, although I think the issues come more from some of the odd character choices by the filmmakers rather than their portrayals of those characters.

Room for Rent has all the right pieces to be a great thriller, but it fails to deliver on its promise. I wanted to love this film and I definitely tried. The idea of an older woman being the lead is one that many filmmakers shy away from, and I commend these filmmakers for making the attempt. It simply leaves many plot points too vague and doesn’t clearly convey what is driving Joyce with every decision she makes. It makes the film meander and move at too leisurely a pace to create any real tension. Lin Shaye helps to make this film more enjoyable to watch and I know many horror fans have wanted her to be the leading lady of a horror film for years. Yet even Shaye’s star power is dimmed in this otherwise dreary film.

OVERALL RATING: 5/10

The Silence

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A primeval species that hunts by sound is accidentally unleashed from a cave system. As they spread and take down city after city, one family flees in hopes of reaching an area away from cities. The journey is treacherous and even reaching a remote cabin isn’t enough to keep them safe. The family will not only have to keep each other safe from the creatures, but also from other people.

The Silence is one of a slew of films to recently be released with similar concepts including A Quiet Place and Bird Box. There are definitely similarities between this film and last year’s hit, A Quiet Place, but the novel by Tim Lebbon this film is based on was released in 2015. There is the same basic premise of a family trying to survive in a world where deadly creatures can hunt by sound. The similarities continue as the film focuses on a daughter who is deaf and her relationship with her father. The plots diverge from each other from there, but it is impossible to ignore the similarities.

Brothers Carey and Shane Van Dyke (Chernobyl DiariesThe Sacred) took on adapting Lebbon’s novel for the screen while John R. Leonetti directed (Annabelle, Wish Upon). Despite the multiple similarities between The Silence and other films, there are still some differences that set it apart. One of the biggest differences is that audiences will immediately know the origin of these creatures. Their existence isn’t shrouded in mystery, giving the film almost a more scientific monster movie feel at first (although this part will likely also make horror fans think of films such as The Descent and The Cave). Events quickly escalate after the creatures are released. The audience gets brief introduction to the various characters before they are thrown into the end of the world. Something that makes the daughter in this film different is that she only became deaf three years ago, yet she adapted to her new state of being quickly. There are many instances that force the audience to think what they would do in a similar situation as the family is forced to make numerous difficult decisions. It makes some of the more intense scenes evoke emotions one wouldn’t expect. These are the scenes that will likely stand out the most in the minds of viewers.

The thing that had the potential to make this film stand out the most is the introduction of a bizarre cult. This could have been the most interesting part of the film and it could have added a lot of tension to the film. Unfortunately, it’s never fully developed. The cult isn’t even introduced until the third act of the film. It ends up coming across as an afterthought used simply to make the climax of the film more exciting, but it doesn’t necessarily achieve that.

The Silence is a star-studded film with many familiar faces, a few being familiar for other roles in Netflix original projects. Kiernan Shipka (Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, The Blackcoat’s Daughter) stars as Ally. Because Ally is deaf she is able to notice things other are not, such as warning signs of danger. Shipka for the most part delivers a great performance, but there are a few instances where she appears to react to sound despite her character being deaf. Stanley Tucci (The Hunger Games, Spotlight) plays Ally’s father, Hugh. Overall Tucci’s portrayal of Hugh is interesting to watch as he does what he can to protect his family from harm. The biggest issue I have with his performance is likely a choice made by the filmmakers; for a dad who cares so much about the well being of his daughter, he barely ever uses sign language with her. In fact, many conversations with Ally and Hugh make it easy to forget that Ally is deaf because neither character signs very much with each other. They do make a point of saying Ally can read lips, but it still seems like an odd choice. The only time sign language is really used is when the family is in danger and needs to communicate while being completely silent.

There are many interesting visuals in The Silence. The creatures themselves are brought to life with CGI. Considering they are from a dark, sealed off cave, they have the right look one would expect. These things are relatively small, look almost like a cross between a bat and a small pterodactyl-like creature, have pale skin, are blind, and use sound to find their prey. Some of the most gorgeous images in the film are seeing the creatures fly and swarm from afar. It ends up being both terrifying and beautiful all at once. To add to the terror, there is an unexpected amount of practical effects gore throughout the film. Unfortunate victims of the creatures tend to get torn to shreds, and the filmmakers wisely chose not to hold anything back when showing the aftermath.

The Silence has the potential to bring audiences something new and terrifying, but it sadly fails to surpass other films with similar plots. There are some elements that keep the audience interested such as decent performances, a well-known cast, great effects for the creatures, and a healthy dose of blood and gore. What ultimately holds this film back is numerous underdeveloped aspects of the plot. This is the most obvious with the sparing use of sign language, despite the main character being deaf, and with the cult not even being introduced until the third act. The film is entertaining enough to be worth a watch, but it doesn’t do enough to stick with viewers for long.

OVERALL RATING: 6/10