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The Candy Witch

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For months a family in England has been haunted by a ghost known as the candy witch. A pair of paranormal investigators, a psychic and his girlfriend, agree to try to help the family get rid of the ghost so they can film the events for their online following. Time is running out as the ghost becomes more violent, and the investigators uncover more and more secrets.

The Candy Witch is the latest film directed by Rebecca Matthews (Pet Graveyard, The Watcher 2) and written by Scott Jeffrey (The Bad Nun, The Watcher 2). There are many layers in this film drawing focus to different areas. There is the couple who does paranormal investigations and shares them on social media. Reece, the psychic, tries to use his ability to help people, but it takes a toll on him. There is the family being haunted. They seem like any normal loving family that only wants to be rid of this malevolent presence. Then there is the legend of the candy witch herself. What is interesting about this plot is that the witch who is haunting the family isn’t some urban legend from olden days. Instead, she is the ghost of a woman who once worked for the family as a nanny. As rumors spread about her murdering children, she turned into the mythical “candy witch.” These various subplots come together surprisingly well to create a story with several interesting twists and turns.

While the overarching story in The Candy Witch is entertaining, there are some definite bumps along the way. As I mentioned, I like that the ghost is of someone the family actually knew, taking it away from the stereotypical haunted house scenario. The problem is that the urban legend around the nanny being a candy witch feels incomplete. The rumors about her abusing children and murdering kids makes sense, but there isn’t really any point in time when they explain where the candy aspect came into play in her legend. Despite it never being explained, we see candy often used throughout the film. When we see the candy witch, she is often holding a giant, jagged-edge candy cane and she typically murders people using candy. It unfortunately makes most of the kill scenes comical when they are clearly not meant to be. It’s hard not to laugh when a ghost is killing someone by shoving handfuls of cotton candy down their throat until they choke to death (which I also feel realistically wouldn’t work with how quickly cotton candy dissolves in your mouth).

There is also a vagueness surrounding Reece. We learn about his ability to see and speak with the dead, but that it somehow takes a physical toll on him. Specifically, it seems to damage his ability to hear. We also learn that his father had the same gift. These are all things mentioned fairly early on in the film and seem like they are of some importance, but then never discussed again or resolved. Why does his gift make him lose his hearing? It seems like these are things have some significance, but the audience never gets to learn what the significance is.

Similar to the plot, the performances have high and low points, but generally speaking they are enjoyable to watch. Jon Callaway (The Mermaid’s Curse, Cupid) stars as psychic medium and paranormal investigator, Reece. This character is the most calm and collected of everyone because his abilities give him insight about the dead normal people don’t have. Callaway plays that quite well, but I wish when things take a turn for the worse he would ramp up the intensity, although I suspect this is an issue related to directing more than his performance. Heather Jackson (The Phantom of the Opera at the Royal Albert Hall) plays the matriarch of the family, Ruth. At first, Jackson’s portrayal of Ruth comes across as a bit false. As the plot progresses, Jackson’s performance stands out for all the right reasons and even makes her portrayal of Ruth earlier in the film better. The true standout performance comes from Will Stanton (Silent Place) as Ruth’s son, Tom. There is a sincerity of Stanton’s performance that makes the climax of the film all the more thrilling. The single biggest negative I can say of the cast isn’t related to any performance. It’s that the film takes place in England, yet only one of the main characters/actors is English. The filmmakers could easily have used the same cast and had it take place in the US, especially since the location isn’t significant to the plot.

When it comes to the visuals of The Candy Witch, there isn’t a lot to discuss. The sets are great, especially the house where the haunting takes place. It is a beautiful old estate that feels rich, but is also old enough to feel a bit sinister. It also looks like a home that could easily be in England. The design of the ghost seems very much to be a physical embodiment of the rumors about the nanny. She looks like a stereotypical witch with somewhat greenish skin and warts or boils all over her face. The practical effects to make the witch aren’t the best, but the effects for the wounds she inflicts are fairly well done.

The Candy Witch tries to tell an interesting story, but ultimately can’t overcome the holes in the plot. There is a seed of a good film within Matthews’ and Jeffrey’s work. There are simply too many things set up that either don’t make sense or don’t get the resolution they deserve. The performances are adequate and the effects are decent. Most of the issues with the film stem from the candy witch herself. From her look, to her method of killing, to her origin story, it seems as though the filmmakers cared more about injecting a memorable villain rather than creating a compelling and cohesive plot. There are enough unique aspects of the plot to make it an interesting watch, but too many drawbacks to make it a truly successful film.

OVERALL RATING: 4.5/10

The Nightshifter

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Stênio works the night shift at a morgue in Brazil. While his life seems fairly mundane, there is one thing that makes Stênio unique; he can speak to the dead. Each night he communicates with the dead who end up on his slab. When Stênio messes with forces more powerful than he understands, he unwittingly unleashes his own hell on Earth.

This frightening Brazilian film is an adaptation of the novel by Marco de Castro. Cláudia Jouvin (Alone Man) co-wrote the adaptation with director Dennison Ramalho (ABC’s of Death 2). What makes The Nightshifter so fascinating is the unique mythology it creates. The film quickly established Stênio’s ability to speak with the dead and that he has always had this ability. Yet he keeps it a secret and it is not revealed why he has this strange gift. For the most part all the dead can do is talk. That is, until Stênio breaks the rules of the dead and unleashes an evil that is dedicated to ruining his life. Unfortunately, this is also where the mythology gets a little foggy. The rules are not well established and result in a bit of confusion as to what the dead are capable of doing.

One thing the filmmakers of The Nightshifter are very skilled at is the building of tension. Even when the dead are not a threat, there is something absolutely disturbing about them. As things get more intense, the suspense becomes palpable. Some of the most tense scenes involve an evil entity attempting to make Stênio appear as though he’s insane. Many of the scares are also quite effective. I watched the film on a computer during the day and certain scenes still managed to make my hair stand on end. I can only imagine how terrifying the film would be on a bigger screen in the dark. While for the most part the film has great intensity, the pacing is a bit off in certain areas. It leads to strange lulls interspersed throughout the tension and makes the film seem like it goes on longer than it truly does.

The performances in The Night Shifter are all fantastic, even if some of the characters aren’t that well written. Daniel de Oliveira (Liquid Truth, Boca) is a delight to watch as Stênio. He may not be perfect, but Stênio is dedicated to his work and clearly loves his children. When his children are in danger, he does his best to protect them. Oliveira commands attention every time he’s on screen. While the female leads are written as unfortunate stereotypes, the performances are fantastic. Fabiula Nascimento (492, A Wolf at the Door) plays Stênio’s wife, Odete. She is the stereotype of the bitchy, unfaithful wife who seems to hate her husband. Bianca Comparato (3%, In Treatment) plays the virginal, sweet, and helpful Lara. Both Nascimento and Comparato play their characters well despite the archetypes they represent. I can only imagine these are how the women were written in the book, but I wish the filmmakers had made these women a bit more complex.

There are some really great effects used in the film. The Nightshifter utilizes a combination of CGI and practical effects in order to achieve gorgeous imagery and spine-chilling frights. For the most part, the bodies in the morgue are made to look gruesome through practical effects. It is nearly impossible to tell these are not real bodies, even during the autopsy scenes. The CGI comes in when the dead talk to Stênio. There appears to be CGI layered over the face of the cadavers to create a truly eery and disturbing appearance. The filmmakers also smartly utilize lighting in their favor, illuminating scenes in a way that draws focus to a specific area while also making the film beautiful to look at.

The Nightshifter is a spine-chilling tale that shows one should never meddle with the dead. While I’m not familiar with the source material, Ramalho and Jouvin clearly delivered an effective adaptation. It brings plenty of tension and scares, along with fantastic performances. There are some areas where the pacing falters a bit and the female characters leave something to be desired. Despite that, the film is still an achievement in Brazilian filmmaking. Horror fans, be sure to thank Shudder for bringing such a beautiful film to the states.

OVERALL RATING: 8/10

The Toybox

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An aging father buys an old RV to take his estranged family on a road trip. Along the way the family picks up a pair of siblings stranded on the side of the road. The road trip has barely begun before things take a turn for the worst. The group ends up broken down in the middle of nowhere, but they are not alone. There is something haunting the rusty old RV, and it’s out for blood.

The Toybox is an interesting blend of horror subgenres. The film is directed by Brian Nagel (ClownTown) and written by Jeff Denton, both also starring in the film. This is Denton’s debut as a screenwriter, and it is a strong start to his writing career. There are a couple scenes where the dialogue doesn’t quite feel true to life, but otherwise the dialogue and plot flow very well. Together Nagel and Denton create a film that is emotionally driven by the family members coming together during the terrifying events, while also giving audiences a frightening film.

For the most part the film is a spooky ghost film. There is an entity haunting the RV, and all it wants to do is maim and kill anyone who enters it. What makes the film a blend of horror subgenres is who is haunting the RV. The film does a great job of leaving little clues throughout the plot as to who the ghost could be, or at least the type of person they were when they were alive. As a film about ghosts, there are some very scary moments in the film as well. There is at least one decent jump scare that got me, but what the film does even better are some of the more subtly tense moments. The filmmakers set up many frightening moments where you can easily see what is going to happen, but they make you wait and wait and wait, building the suspense so you are at the edge of your seat before the trap is sprung. It is a very effective method, and it makes for some of the more memorable moments in the film.

The cast of The Toybox is a talented mix of actors, some of which horror fans will easily recognize. Likely the most widely recognizable actor in the film is Denise Richards (Wild Things, Starship Troopers) as wife and mother, Jennifer. Richards portrays Jennifer as the peacekeeper in the family, whether it be between her husband and his brother, the brother and his father, or keeping her daughter calm. The film also boasts Mischa Barton (The Sixth Sense, The O.C.) as Samantha. In the past few years Barton has been a prominent figure in indie horror films, and she does a great job in this role. She portrays Samantha as a strong, independent character who is also intuitive. Samantha is the first character to notice something isn’t quite right with the decrepit RV. The remaining cast also delivers strong performances including writer Jeff Denton (Inoperable) as Steve, director Brian Nagel (Ouija House) as Jay, Greg Violand (ClownTown) as Charles, Matt Mercer (Beyond the Gates) as Mark, and young Malika Michelle in her first film role as Olivia.

While overall the plot and performances are high points of the film, there are certain aspects that are not quite as strong. One of the lingering questions I was left with after watching this film is who did Charles buy the RV from. There are ways that it could have been done supernaturally or through the internet. Unfortunately, it is mentioned that a man sold the RV to Charles in person, but that person is never referenced again (so it is left unknown if he was somehow in cahoots with the ghostly entity). The other aspect that doesn’t quite fit with the continuity of the film is the appearance of a ghost girl. Based on the nature of the haunting, without giving away too many details, the ghostly young woman simply doesn’t make sense. She is also featured in a scene that is one of the more frightening moments. The issue with this scene is that the haunting is supposed to be limited to inside the RV, yet the ghost girl is scene in the desert landscape.

The Toybox is a tense indie horror film that combines ghostly thrills with a claustrophobic setting. There are a couple aspects of the plot that may leave the audience with lingering questions, but it is still a strong first feature film from screenwriter Denton. He and Nagel clearly make a great filmmaking team. The highlight of the film is how the filmmakers build anticipation and terror. Add compelling performances, especially from the two strong female leads, and it is hard to deny the strengths of the film. This indie horror film is one road trip horror fans won’t want to miss.

OVERALL RATING: 7/10

Diane

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A wounded military veteran lives a solitary life. He goes through the same routine day in and day out, until something unexpected breaks that routine. He awakes one morning to find the body of a beautiful singer in his back yard. Before calling the police, he takes a picture of her. As the police investigation tries to prove his guilt, the image of the dead woman haunts the man, threatening to shatter his sanity.

Michael Mongillo (The Wind) takes the helm as writer and director of this haunting film. The film is a slow burn. It begins with a small amount of character development before the discovery of the body. From there the film focuses on many different factors affecting the protagonist as his obsession with the dead woman grows. Around him there is the police investigation, people in the neighborhood who think he must be guilty, and maybe even the ghost of the woman he found. All of these things unravel the man’s mind. At times he even talks to himself or has wild dreams and hallucinations, all revolving around the woman. The tension slowly builds until the truth is revealed, which almost comes as a release of that tension in a more therapeutic way than is typically found in horror films.

The opening of the film is a bit odd. It starts with a somewhat awkward, drawn out song sung by the woman who will eventually be found dead. This is followed by a sort of “day in the life” sequence showing how the main character typically spends his days. The discovery of the body comes after the screen flashes “one month later.” In all honesty, the song and the “one month later” come across as quite unnecessary. It isn’t until the climax of the film that these cinematic choices by the filmmakers fall into place. The “one month later” becomes more significant, as does the song. I still believe the song borders on uncomfortable to watch, especially with how long it goes on, and the film would have benefited by simply starting with the day in the life of the main character.

Slow-burn horror films only work if the performances can carry the intensity and intrigue throughout the plot. There isn’t a large cast, so most of that responsibility is on the shoulders of the protagonist. The star of the film is Jason Alan Smith (Before I Wake) as Steve. Smith portrays Steve as a silent, brooding wounded military veteran who primarily keeps to himself. This character portrayal works well in the film. The military background specifically works well because it makes it more believable that a man would become so invested in what happened to the woman he found. The mental effects of combat would also explain his issues with memory loss and seeing things, even though the things he sees could also be supernatural.

There are many different color schemes used throughout the film that add some visual interest. The color schemes are used to differentiate between the present, memories, dreams, and hallucinations. The present has a rather bleak color palette, favorite washed out colors and greys.  It lends to the rather bleak existence Steve lives. The past is more vibrant and has more lifelike colors. In the dream sequences the primary color used is red, making it simple to determine when Steve is dreaming. When the hallucinations, or ghostly apparitions, appear they have a staticky appearance as if watching through an ancient television. Generally speaking this technique works well for the purpose of storytelling throughout the film. I personally have never liked the grey-scale, washed-out color scheme commonly found in small budget horror films, but it clearly has a purpose in this film.

Diane gives viewers a haunting mystery that blends psychological thriller with the supernatural. The plot presents an interesting puzzle to be solved and that puzzle is solved rather nicely by the end of the film. The color palette makes sense for the plot, despite my personal dislike for the grey-scale which is most commonly used. If the colors had been a bit more true to life, and the opening scene was cut, the film would have been more appealing. Yet this film still has a compelling story with a strong performance from Smith.

OVERALL RATING: 6.5/10

Show Yourself

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An actor, Travis, is grieving the sudden loss of his friend. To honor him, Travis goes to their favorite childhood camping spot to scatter his ashes. As Travis works through his grief in the woods, strange things start to happen. It becomes clear that he definitely isn’t alone in these woods. Is it the ghost of his dearly departed friend? Or is it something much more sinister?

This film is not only an interesting character study, but it also offers a deep look into grief and guilt. Writer and director Billy Ray Brewton (Dead Ahead) really excels at giving the audience a compelling character that they care for, even with his flaws. The film weaves home videos throughout the plot in order to help build on the character development. What makes this aspect more successful than other films that may use the same tactic is that many of the things the audience sees in these home videos become relevant to what is happening in the present. There is a lot of time devoted to character development in this film. While some may argue it is too much time, and not enough on any really scary stuff, I think it works for the tone of the film. It’s by no means a very scary film. Instead, Brewton gives audiences an eerie and emotional film that shows how Travis works through his grief and personal guilt by incorporating supernatural elements. The resulting film ends up being something that even people who don’t like horror can enjoy.

Another successful piece of this film is how Brewton leaves just enough up to the imagination of the audience. There is really only one scene where the audience gets a clear view of whatever is in the woods. For the most part it is implied, left in the shadows, or just out of focus. This is actually brilliant for two reasons. The first is the budget. With a low budget indie film it makes sense to utilize these methods so they don’t have to blow the budget on crazy practical or CGI effects. And honestly, in an intimate film like this, it is entirely unnecessary. The second reason this is a smart idea is because it lets the audience decide what the entity is. It is mostly out of view, and never fully explained, so each individual can get something different from the film. Is it the ghost of the dead friend? Is it a demon? Is it a physical manifestation of Travis’s guilt? Personally, I think it’s the latter, but the great thing is that you can decide for yourself when you watch the film.

When it comes to the acting in this film, the clear highlight is Ben Hethcoat (The Babysitter Murders) as Travis. Losing a friend is difficult, and watching Travis go through his journey is quite compelling. Hethcoat does a great job of portraying Travis as he goes through the complicated emotions relating to grief. Travis reacts by pushing some people away while he tries to reconnect with others, he lashes out at people, he clearly feels some level of guilt, and he feels like scattering the ashes is his sole responsibility. Considering Travis is the only character on screen for almost the entire film it is important to have a strong actor in the role, and Hethcoat fills that role very well.

Show Yourself uses the supernatural to tell a tale about grief. Brewton shows that he is clearly a skilled storyteller who can write compelling characters. In a film like this that focuses so much on a single character, a compelling character is exceedingly important. Hethcoat also gives the audience a fantastic performance as the lead, Travis. While the film blends the supernatural elements well with the plot, for many horror fans it might not be enough. I can already hear the complaints saying it isn’t a horror film simply because it didn’t scare you. If you’re a person that often makes that complaint, then this film isn’t for you. Yet I highly encourage everyone else, even people who don’t typically enjoy horror films, to seek this film out.

OVERALL RATING: 8/10

Rings

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Julia’s boyfriend, Holt, disappears after beginning a special assignment for one of his professors. She goes to his college to try to find out where he has gone. She discovers that the professor and Holt are involved in an investigation surrounding a mysterious tape that kills people seven days after watching it. Julia watches the tape, but something is different about the images this time. Julia and Holt race to find the meaning behind these images before Julia’s seven days have run out.

Rings is the kind of film one goes into with very low expectations. It is the third installment of the American franchise of The Ring, there was a large drop in quality between the first and second installments, the film is rated PG-13, and the two leads are played by relatively unknown young actors. This film has many flaws, but considering how low my expectations were I was pleasantly surprised with what I saw. This installment of the franchise built a lot on some of the mythology that was slightly hinted at in the previous films. I really enjoyed how the filmmakers added different images to the tape we already knew in order to create a new and interesting investigation into Samara’s past.

While the expansion of the mythology was fascinating, the plot focused so much on this aspect that there was virtually no tension. Not only did the film lack any truly tense moments, but there weren’t even any good jump scares. Jump scares are a pivotal part of PG-13 horror films. There were scenes where the filmmakers were clearly trying to elicit fear from the audience, but they did not succeed. The film felt more like a drama or mystery that just happened to have a cursed tape and a ghost girl. Rings also had incredibly weak opening and closing scenes. The opening scene was just ludicrous. It attempts to set up what we already know about how the cursed tape works, but on such a ridiculously grand scale to the point where it is almost laughable. It is also unnecessary since shortly after there is another scene that acts in the same function with much more striking imagery. The end scene ruined the plot a bit for me because it felt all too familiar and didn’t really work with some of the implications from earlier events in the film.

There seems to be a recent trend with PG-13 horror films where the leading roles are filled by unknown actors that aren’t necessarily great at their job, and then lesser roles are filled by recognizable faces. In Rings there are two actors that not only do a good job in their supporting roles, but they are also people audiences will likely be familiar with. Johnny Galecki (The Big Bang Theory, In Time) played the egocentric college professor while Vincent D’Onofrio (Daredevil, Jurassic World) played a blind man who managed the graveyard where Samara was buried. Both actors gave great performances and added hidden depth to their characters. In the leading role of Julia we had Matilda Anna Ingrid Lutz (Summertime, L’Universale). There were two main issues with her performance; 1. There were many times where I could hear her Italian accent come through while she was portraying an American. 2. She seemed almost aloof through most of the events that took place, which was part of the reason why the film didn’t feel as tense. The role of Julia’s boyfriend, Holt, was played by Alex Roe ( The 5th Wave, The Cut). He also gave off a bit of a nonchalant vibe throughout the film. It’s difficult to say if that was a conscious choice by the director or if these two were simply inexperienced and unable to show true emotion. Together the two leads were completely lacking in on screen chemistry as a couple, and I did not find them even remotely believable as eighteen year old kids.

Rings provides an interesting expansion on the mythology of Samara, but offers little else. The intrigue was enough to keep my interest. The complete lack of scares, bad acting, and horrendous opening and closing scenes turned a story with potential into a mediocre film. I think the film was better than what the trailer led people to believe, but in the end it will likely be forgotten by the end of the month. If you are a fan of The Ring franchise then you will likely enjoy learning more about the curse. For the more casual movie goers, you may want to pass on this particular film.

OVERALL RATING: 5/10

The Wailing

A strange Japanese man arrives at a small village in South Korea. Soon after, people begin to go mad and kill their families. A local cop is assigned to these strange cases. His own daughter eventually starts to exhibit the same symptoms as the others who went mad. With the help of his friends, a priest and a shaman, the cop does whatever he can to stop the Japanese stranger from harming his daughter, or anyone else in town.

The Wailing is the second great Korean horror film I have seen this year. Similarly to Train to Busan, the focus of this film is the relationship between a father and his young daughter. Once the daughter is thrown into peril we see the father grow as a person and try to rescue her. The father adds a comedic aspect to the beginning of the film up until the point when his daughter gets sick. From there the film takes a more serious turn. It also does an interesting job of blending different types of mythology. There are satanic rituals, shamanism, ghosts and spirits, a zombie-like illness, and possession. The filmmakers expertly weave all of these aspects together into a chilling, and often times humorous, story. The only issue I had with the plot is that the ending felt a bit convoluted. It seems like the filmmakers are trying to insert too many twists and turns to the point where the audience is left with one too many questions.

This film has multiple amazing performances that lure the audience into the story. One standout is Do-wan Kwak (The Berlin File) as the cop and father, Jong-Goo. The fact that his portrayal of Jong-Goo shows him as a rather dopey and fearful cop who finds his strength when his daughter is in danger feels natural and compelling. Do-wan Kwak manages to make me laugh and make me feel compassion for Jong-Goo and his family. I also love Jun Kunimura (Kill Bill: Vo. 1 and 2) as the stranger. He doesn’t have many speaking scenes until later in the film, but it is hard not to feel his presence. With just a stare, Kunimura is able to send chills down my spine and add to the unsettling ambience of the film.

The effects of this film are subtle, which works well with the story. The infected people first get strange rashes. These rashes eventually cover the whole body, and the eyes of the infected turn white before they become violent. The rashes are grotesque and very well done. One scene involves an infected person having a convulsive fit that results in a bone protruding from the skin. It is disgusting, but also beautiful in how they are able to achieve it with the practical effects. There is another scene at the climax of the film that involves a different kind of transformation. This one I can’t get into too much detail for, but it is one of the most unnerving scenes in the entire film.

While The Wailing isn’t my favorite Korean horror film I have seen this year, it is definitely a memorable one. It has a unique and intricate plot that will keep you hooked through to the end, which is impressive considering it is over two and a half hours long. While the climax does get a bit tangled and confused, it still makes for a riveting mystery. This is another film to add to the rather long list of great foreign films that have come out in the past year. It will appeal to a multitude of horror fans and non-horror fans alike.

OVERALL RATING: 7.5/10