Ghosts

The Night

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An Iranian couple living in the US is driving home one night after a gathering with friends. They decide to take their baby and stay the night in a hotel instead of making the drive home so late. In this dark and quiet hotel, the couple is forced to face the demons of their past or else this bizarre night may never end.

Writer and director Kourosh Ahari (Generations, The Yellow Wallpaper) and co-writer Milad Jarmooz (Maybe There) create an eerie tale with The Night. The film opens with our two protagonists, Babak and Neda, at a gathering with friends. We get to know who they are by how they interact with the people who know them best before we really see them interact much with each other. It is clear there is some subconscious strain between the married couple, and it only escalates after they leave the gathering with their baby girl. When they decide to stop and stay the night in a hotel, things go from strained to a complete nightmare. Strange sounds and ghostly visions plague them all through the night. The couple gradually realizes the secrets of their past are coming back to haunt them, threatening to destroy the life they’ve built together in the States. The fact that their baby is with them only makes the situation more dire and frightening.

For the most part, The Night creates a haunting and tense mythos. The increasingly strange and intense visions seem to be connected to matching tattoos the married couple chose at random to get together the very day the film begins. Whatever this symbol is, it has managed to manifests itself as Babak and Neda’s innermost secrets and forces them to face their past. It’s an interesting concept that definitely results in delightful frights, but this is also where the mythos gets a bit muddy. The tattoos look almost like an Aztec or Mayan coin, spilt in half between the pair. Then, before any ghostly apparitions appear, the couple repeatedly encounter a creepy black cat. This automatically makes me think of ancient Egyptian folklore. While I appreciate keeping the origin and the reasoning for the events of this one night being left to the imagination of the viewers, having a stronger cultural origin at the very least would have been wise.

Both leads deliver striking performances in The Night. Shahab Hosseini (The Salesman, A Separation) stars as Babak. Babak is a very closed off man who appears to cope with his feelings with alcohol rather than talking with his wife or friends. Niouhsa Jafarian, who I couldn’t find on IMDb, plays Neda. Neda is the more grounded of the two, yet she keeps things bottled up just as much as her husband. Jafarian and Hosseini play off of each other very well. There are subtleties to their dynamic shown through curt remarks and body language that expertly show the strain between them. It’s obvious Neda carries resentment towards Babak and Babak doesn’t seem to be able to be around Neda without drinking. This bizarre night shows how similar the two are, especially with the secrets they keep, yet it’s how they react when confronted by those secrets that will decide who survives.

The Night brings audiences a chilling tale of past secrets breaking into the present in a truly haunting way. Ahari once again shows he has a knack for creating frightening ambience. Together Ahari and Jarmooz deliver a tense plot, although the mythos leaves a bit to be desired. Luckily the focus is more on the secrets and ghostly manifestations of those secrets, which makes it easier to overlook some of the flaws. The suspenseful film is helped by great performances from Hosseini and Jafarian, as well as the creepy hotel setting. The Night is sure the send chills down your spine while also making you take a hard look at the secrets you keep.

OVERALL RATING: 7/10

The Grudge (2020)

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When an emotional, violent crime is committed, it leaves a stain. That stain grows and festers, affecting all those who encounter it. After a woman returns from a job in Japan, a curse infects her home. It leads to a chain of horrific events and disturbing deaths. A detective will have to investigate to stop the curse and save herself from the ghosts haunting her.

January is generally considered a throw-away month for films released in theaters, especially horror films. The first horror release of January gave some horror fans hope that trend would be broken. The Grudge has a long film history beginning with the 2002 Japanese film, which spawned many sequels, and then the 2004 American remake. Now, writer and director Nicolas Pesce (Piercing, The Eyes of My Mother) has created another addition to this lucrative dynasty. Unfortunately, this latest iteration is riddled with issues. The most obvious issue is the pacing. Much like the film’s source material, the plot jumps back and forth to different periods of time beginning with the woman who brought the curse back from Japan and ending with the detective investigating it all. While audiences have seen this work, even within the frame of The Grudge films, in this version it makes the film feel like it drags. There simply isn’t enough that happens between the time jumps to keep things exciting.

For some reason, whether an artistic choice or a decision made by the producers, the film directly connects to the house fans will know from Japan. That means it also relates back to Kayako. This connection seems unnecessary in the 2020 version of The Grudge. The film ends up being a weird sequel/remake/reboot all in one. This version would have been better served to stand on its own, separate from the Japanese version. It ends up creating more confusion because there isn’t a solid mythology to build from. The first woman carried the curse back from Japan, but then it is only her ghost and the ghosts of her family we see haunting people, not the ghosts from Japan. It begs the question why the curse followed that specific woman and started a new curse in her home, but then the same thing didn’t happen to those cursed in the states. While there are many plots points that are not fully developed and various plot holes, this mythos, or lack thereof, is the most apparent.

Fans of this franchise will likely go into The Grudge expecting plenty of tension and scares. People who know me will likely know I am a huge wimp and get scared easily. If this gives any indication, I was not scared at all during the entire runtime of this film. The film relies too heavily on unearned jump scares that don’t manage to cause much jumping, and it fails to build the tension between scares as well. The Grudge also relies too much on grotesque images to attempt to elicit fear. While these practical effects to create the horrifying ghosts are beautifully done, they also come across as more of a gimmick to achieve an R rating, rather than something vital to the plot.

While the character development is lacking, the most successful aspect of The Grudge is the performances. The standout performance by far is horror fan-favorite Lin Shaye (Insidious, Room For Rent) as Faith Matheson. Faith is a woman whose physical and mental health are on a swift decline. Her interactions with the curse are somewhat unique from others, and Shaye delivers a spine-chilling performance in this role. The other two performances that are enjoyable come from John Cho (Searching, Star Trek) and Andrea Riseborough (Mandy, Oblivian). Both Cho and Riseborough do well in their respective roles, although the characters are not very well written so they come across as flat. They do the best they can with what they are given.

The Grudge lacks a solid mythos to build a terrifying story, resulting in a slow and lackluster start to 2020. Based on Pesce’s body of working leading up to this film, which consists of some great films, one can only assume he was restricted by producers. The film moves along far too slowly, fails to create the scares fans expect, and contains one plot hole after another. My one hope is that this doesn’t keep Pesce from continuing to make the kinds of films we all know he’s capable of.

OVERALL RATING: 3/10

Hell House LLC III: Lake of Fire

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After several years, the Abaddon Hotel will once again be open to the public. This time, famed interactive-show director Russell Wynn is putting on a live performance in the hotel called Insomnia. Wynn invites the new Morning Mysteries crew to come and document the making of his latest show. What they film is even more horrors in this cursed building.

Like the first two films, Hell House LLC III: Lake of Fire was written and directed by Stephen Cognetti. The film is a combination of found footage and mocumentary style. As with those first two films, this one takes place in the Abaddon Hotel. Despite the numerous reports of strange happenings, disappearances, and deaths, a new crew is entering the hotel. In the second film we met the new host and crew of Morning Mysteries, the TV segment whose previous host and crew were in the second film. They are sent to the Abaddon Hotel to document the making of a live interactive performance called Insomnia. At first everything seems normal, but then increasingly frightening things happen. What’s worse is the creator of this show, Russell Wynn, seems to know more that he lets on and is determined to finish the show.

Cognetti’s final installment of the Hell House LLC franchise does a fantastic job of upping the stakes. It comes to new revelations fans didn’t already know and brings the tale of the Abaddon Hotel to a close. In some respects, the final act of this film is a bit too neat in how it brings all the various storylines to a end. There is such a thing in horror as too much closure. The very last scene of the film does a nice job of bringing everything full-circle, but it is still too tidy.

One thing Cognetti has been incredibly successful with in all three films is capturing the feel of walking through a haunt. There is a near constant feeling of tension just from the eerie set of the hotel itself. As we follow the camera walking from room to room, you never know if something is going to jump out at you from around the corner. Cognetti also knows how to use subtlety to his favor. The first scares are small and involve a creepy sound or a slight movement of something that shouldn’t move. From there the scares build, often feeling reminiscent of a true haunt when you aren’t sure if something is a prop or a person until they finally jump out and scare you to death.

The filmmakers also wisely chose to go for very simplistic makeup, also much like a haunt. Lake of Fire includes some familiar spooky faces including a creepy woman who likes to lurk in one of the upstairs rooms and the clown mannequin who likes to move around on his own. These chilling characters are created with very minimalistic makeup and masks. The climax of the film utilizes some CGI effects. Much like with the previous films, I don’t think the CGI works as well in this found-footage, lower budget film, but it doesn’t detract from the overall appeal of the film.

Luckily, Lake of Fire continues the trend of great performances for the Hell House LLC films. The entire ensemble cast is fantastic and conveys fear quite well. Gabriel Chytry (Altruism) plays the creator of Insomnia, Russell Wynn. Russell is an interesting character as he clearly is hiding things from the crew. Chytry balances the character between appearing to have sinister intentions and simply being an eccentric director. Elizabeth Vermilyea stars as Morning Mysteries host, Vanessa, in her first feature film role. Vermilyea’s portrayal of Vanessa also plays a balancing act as she attempts to prove herself in a male-dominated industry while also doing what’s best for the people around her rather than her career. Other notable performances come from Sam Kazzi (Law & Order: SVU), Bridgid Abrams (Contributions), Leo DeFriend (Mordeo), Jordan Kaplan (My Alien Girlfriend), and Scott Richey (Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell).

Hell House LLC III: Lake of Fire is a fitting end to a trilogy that perfectly captures the feel of walking through a Halloween haunt. Cognetti created an intricate a complicated plot spanning three films, each one raising the stakes and revealing terrifying new information. While the end of the film attempts to tie all the various subplots up too cleanly, the franchise still ends in an impactful way. Of all the films, Lake of Fire may be the least scary, but there are still plenty of spine-chilling moments that will keep you up at night. Along with great performances and creepy effects, it’s hard to escape the thrilling feeling of walking through a haunted attraction. Lake of Fire rounds out a great trilogy that is a must-watch for the Halloween season.

OVERALL RATING: 7.5/10

Stay Out Stay Alive

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A group of friends goes on a camping trip. While on a nighttime stroll through the woods, one of the friends falls into an old mine shaft. When the rest of the group finds her, they also discover gold in the mine. They decide to mine what gold they can, but as each of them feels the power of greed and paranoia, it soon becomes clear something supernatural is at work.

Stay Out Stay Alive had it’s world premier at the Portland Horror Film Festival. While he is known for his visual effects work in films such as Iron Man and Star Trek, this is Dean Yurke’s feature film debut as writer and director. Stay Out Stay Alive is noted as being based on a true story. I was lucky enough to hear Yurke speak about his film at the festival (and he is an absolutely delightful human). He explained the true aspects of the film are almost split into two parts; half of the truth is a true Native American curse, the other half is people often disappear or die in caves and mines. This inspiration lead to a tension filled slow-burn with some great frights thrown in the mix.

The plot follows a group of five friends. When they stumble upon the mine, the girl who has fallen in is trapped under a rock, but they all choose to dig for the gold before finding help since what they are doing is illegal. What starts out innocently enough quickly escalates as the group becomes paranoid, greedy, and deadly. One of the things I really love about the plot in Stay Out Stay Alive is that there is a supernatural element, but it isn’t the true threat. The curse is only really a punishment rather than a murderous force. It is the friends who end up being the true danger as their lust for gold grows exponentially. This aspect of Stay Out Stay Alive is vital because it makes it clear the Native Americans are not the villains of the film. The film ultimately becomes a commentary on things like greed, the destruction of sacred land, and the murder of Native Americans.

Often times, smaller budget indie horror films are hit or miss when it comes to the acting. The performances across the board in Stay Out Stay Alive are fantastic. One stand out is Brandon Wardle (Frisky, Bumblebee) as Reese. Wardle’s portrayal of Reese is truly disturbing as he goes from a typical jock to completely paranoid as his greed takes over. The change can be seen through both his performance and also in his body language and facial expressions. Another strong performance comes from Brie Mattson (Eastwick, D-Railed) as Bridget. Similar to Wardle’s performance, Mattson shows Bridget as she goes from the stereotype of a ditzy blonde to the surprising voice of reason in the group. Equally entertaining to watch are Sage Mears (Half-Dragon Sanchez), Christina July Kim (Dropping the S Bomb), William Romano-Pugh (January Jaguar), and the ever-amazing Barbara Crampton (Re-Animator) as Ranger Susanna. The way all the actors play off of each other helps to build the tension throughout the film.

With Yurke’s background in visual effect, it’s no wonder Stay Out Stay Alive has some stunning visual aspects. The first thing audiences will notice is the interesting camera work and cinematography. Yurke works in some unique angles and framing that is unlike what I have seen in other films. He perfectly uses nature as a mechanism to build suspense without the need for elaborate effects. The CGI effects Yurke does use are subtle. It allows for the supernatural elements to enhance the tension from the friends’ strained relationships rather than being the focus. There is one bigger effect saved for the climax of the film. It is still somewhat subtle, but it creates a compelling image for the audience that is spine-chilling.

Stay Out Stay Alive is a suspenseful descent into the power of greed that shows Yurke’s potential as a filmmaker. Not only is the film bubbling with tension, but it also sends a powerful underlying moral and social message to the audience. Yurke smartly opted for more subtle effect, despite his visual background, which allowed the characters and the suspense to carry the plot. The film also boasts a terrific ensemble cast, as well as the star-power of Barbara Crampton. This was not a film I went to the Portland Horror Film Festival knowing anything about, but it is definitely one I recommend horror fans seek out.

OVERALL RATING: 8/10

Book Review: Osgood as Gone

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Author Cooper S. Beckett is known for his previous novels and a memoir all focusing on non-monogamous relationships. Osgood as Gone is his first foray into the more strange and supernatural side of fiction.

The plot focuses on Prudence Osgood, a paranormal investigator and podcast host. Osgood, as she prefers to go by, is a queer woman who just got out of a polyamorous relationship. She has a rather dark past and suffers from chronic pain, which she dulls with alcohol and drugs. Osgood is a flawed person, which makes her an interesting character to read about. She is strong, vulnerable, flawed, and brilliant. Much of Osgood’s life revolves around a horrible accident she was part of that still gives her nightmares. The reader gets to learn about the various events from Osgood’s life that made her the way she is and how it relates to her investigation.

The mystery in Osgood as Gone begins simply with an email. The email is special because it came from no one. It leads Osgood and the readers on a bizarre investigation. Osgood, along with the help of a tech-guru named Zack, soon realizes the email relates to hundreds of missing people, including someone from Osgood’s past. What is even more strange is how all of these disappearances connect to a band most people haven’t thought about in years. With each new clue the plot takes different twists and turns. Each one seems to be even more shocking and strange than the last. The investigations covers an email, a band popular in the 90’s, rest stops, and aspects of Osgood’s own past.

There is a lot to enjoy about this book. Beckett introduces a character unlike any I have read about before and the many facets of her history are revealed in unique ways throughout the book. It is very refreshing to read not only about a queer character, but one who doesn’t follow the traditional ideas of monogamy. On top of that, her chronic pain is the kind of invisible illness many suffer from, but rarely do characters like this get to be in the limelight. While I’m sure there are characters like Osgood out there, they are not typically in the more mainstream works of fiction. Not only is the character development for Osgood very well done, but the development for other characters such as Zack and Osgood’s former partner, Frost, is also well developed.

Beckett makes Osgood as Gone easy to read, and the pacing is absolutely perfect. It is instantly enthralling and holds the reader’s attention as they follow the breadcrumbs. Each new find is thrilling because of how it connects to the investigation, as well as to Osgood and those close to her. It is impossible not to be sucked in by the fascinating, and sometimes frightening, mystery. There are certain aspects in the climax of the book that leave me with more questions than answers, but based on the way the book ends, and what I have gathered from social media, it is clear Beckett is working on a sequel. I would imagine some of the less clear aspects were purposely left vague so they can be further addressed in the second Osgood book.

Osgood as Gone grips the mind of the reader, then plays with it like putty. It is the kind of book that appeals to a wide variety of readers. If you want an entertaining read that is fairly quick, this is the book for you. If you want a book about a queer character, this is the book for you. If you want a book that deal with invisible illnesses and substance abuse, this is the book for you. If you want a mysterious and thrilling tale of the supernatural, this is the book for you. In short, I’m saying Osgood is Gone is a great novel by Beckett, and I look forward to reading the next book in Osgood’s saga.

Osgood as Gone is available in paperback and eBook on April 22, 2019 and audiobook May 20, 2019. You can purchase your copy, as well as Beckett’s previous works, by clicking here.

OVERALL RATING: 4.5/5

Dry Blood

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Brian is an addict. After a particularly rough night, he decides it’s time to get clean. He travels to his remote mountain cabin in the hopes of detoxing himself in seclusion. Brian’s stay at the cabin forces him to face withdrawals, hallucinations, possible ghosts, and a bizarrely sinister cop. He has to discover what is real and what is fantasy, or else he might just lose his sanity.

Dry Blood is written by Clint Carney and directed by Kelton Jones. While the two have plenty of credits to their name, this is the first feature film in their respective roles as writer and director. The plot woven throughout the film is quite intricate. Every turn seems to add a new layer of mystery and intrigue, forcing the audience to follow different clues. The plot becomes more and more complicated, leading up to the shocking final act. For a first feature film, Jones and Carney deliver a compelling story that takes some brain power to figure out. There is a ton of potential here, but it there is a high likelihood it will leave audiences unclear about certain aspects. There are times when it is obvious that Brian is hallucinating, and other times where he could be seeing ghosts. By the end of the film there is one big reveal that allows the audience to have a sort of “aha” moment. It allows the audience to make certain deductions about what they have witnessed, but there are still too many unanswered questions because of how many layers there are to the mystery.

Brian’s reasoning for going to the cabin in the first place is clear enough, yet things get quite complicated for him almost immediately. It starts with an odd cop who either has sinister motives or is really obsessive about being Brian’s friend. This leads to some conversations that are simultaneously creepy and humorous. There is one schtick that happens in practically every conversation between these two that manages to make me laugh while also being somewhat uncomfortable to watch. Aside from these interactions, the film has a very dark tone in both content and style. The dramatic themes of addiction, mental illness, and death run rampant. It creates a very haunting tale as Brian’s hallucinations (or ghosts) become more prevalent, making his road to recovering more and more difficult.

Not only did Jones direct and Carney write Dry Blood, but they also starred in the film. Carney takes the leading role as Brian, this also being his first acting role in a feature film. For the most part Carney excels in his performance. There are a few more dramatic moments when Brian is particularly terrified and Carney’s portrayal turns a bit towards caricature. Jones also makes his feature film acting debut in this film as the cop. The cop is this ominous presence always looming over Brian, and Jones does a great job playing him. Between his odd behavior and the sometimes comical conversations, the cop is a character audiences will remember. Yet another feature film acting debut comes in the form of Jaymie Valentine as Brian’s friend, Anna. Anna comes to the cabin to try to help Brian get over his addiction. Unfortunately, I found Anna’s character and Valentine’s performance distracting. Valentine comes across as monotone and doesn’t really show any strong emotions, even when her character is in the face of danger. For some reason Anna’s character also wore a disastrous wig. While this is not the actor’s fault and it doesn’t have anything to do with her performance, the wig was so dreadful it took my attention away from the film itself.

Aside from the wig, the various visuals are actually the strongest aspect of the film. There are some fantastic practical effects that really bring terror to the audience. Most of these are used to create what could be hallucinations or they could be ghosts. These entities are created primarily with stunning practical effects, but they are enhanced with some exceptionally well done CGI work. The result is brutal, haunting, and stunning imagery. After finishing the film these effects are what is likely to stand out in your mind.

Jones and Carney create a complex, chilling tale with Dry Blood that shows the filmmakers’ potential, but it falls just short of being truly successful. The film has wonderful special effects, especially for a low-budget indie film, and weaves an interesting plot that will keep you guessing. Unfortunately, the film ends with too many unanswered questions, and the performances deliver a mixture of results from successful to monotone. If nothing else, I would recommend this film for the effects. Either way, the film displays Jones and Carney have the building blocks to create something special as filmmakers and I look forward to seeing what they do in the future.

OVERALL RATING: 5.5/10

Mandao of the Dead

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Jay lives a simple life, but that all changes in the days around Halloween when the veil between worlds is thinnest. A series of strange events leads him down an unbelievable road. Jay discovers he can astral project, and he inadvertently witnesses his nephew Jackson’s ex-girlfriend murder a man. Because of Jay’s newfound abilities, he is able to see and speak to the ghost of the murdered man. The clock is running out of time for Jay to save the man – and his own sanity.

The masterful Scott Dunn (Schlep) not only wrote the screenplay for Mandao of the Dead, but he also directed and starred in the film. At first glance, this film looks like any other low-budget indie horror movie that might have a few laughs, but is overall a crass and forgettable film. Yet Dunn’s film actually has an intricate and compelling plot, hilarious characters, and more than a few heart-felt moments. The film ends up being a strange mix of elements that end up working well together. It’s one-part supernatural horror, one-part vampire movie, one-part murder mystery, and one-part buddy comedy. Somehow, all of these elements work well together.

One of the aspects of the plot that works surprisingly well is the lack of explanations. We don’t know why Jay is suddenly able to astral project, except for a few hints here and there. It is suggested that Jackson’s ex-girlfriend is a vampire, but it’s a bit ambiguous as to whether she just think she’s a vampire or she actually is a vampire. It leaves the viewers as ignorant to the truth as the characters, which works well in this film. It also forces the audience to simply accept things as being the way they are. This is important in how the film tends to go through different dimensions and different timelines. If you simply accept these parts of the plot as being this way, without further question, it makes for a humorous adventure.

Each character – and the actors playing the characters – manage to make me laugh in this film. Dunn shines wearing one of his many hats as the star of the film, Jay. He is probably the most practical and pragmatic character, which leads to some humorous interactions when he discovers his new abilities. It is amazing to see Dunn perform so well in the role that he also wrote and directed. Sean McBride (Schlep) offers an interesting juxtaposition to Dunn’s performance as Jay’s adult nephew, Jackson. Jack is a loser who sleeps in a tent in Jay’s living room, and he is only Jay’s nephew in the loosest sense of the word. McBride gives a hilarious, dimwitted, yet likeable portrayal of this goofy character. These two actors play off each other in a way that makes the film even more entertaining. Other equally entertaining performances can be found in Gina Gomez (Schlep), David Gallegos (2-Headed Shark Attack), Marisa Hood (The Post Relationship), and Sean Liang (2Survive).

For the most part, the visual effects in Mandao of the Dead are reserved for the scenes when Jay is astral projecting. There are three methods used to create a distinct look: lighting, distorted sound, and the use of haze or smoke. When Jay is astral projecting the world loses a lot of its color, resulting in a grey, monotone look. The only time more vibrant colors are used in these scenes is through neon lighting – or when the point of view switches to the real world. Not only does this add a lot of visual interest to the film, but it also ensures the viewers can tell the difference between the real world and the dream-like world where ghosts and astral forms dwell.

Mandao of the Dead is a surprisingly well-made indie horror comedy that has heart and delivers plenty of laughs. Dunn proves with this film that he can excel at any role, whether it be director, writer, or actor. The intricate and humorous story he creates gives viewers something that will keep them entertained from start to finish. It has its cheesier and over-the-top moments, but they work quite well with the overall tone of the film. The performances, the plot, and the visuals all lend themselves to a fun flick. While you should catch this film as soon as you can, I would wager it will end up on many horror fans’ “31 Days of Horror” film lists this year.

OVERALL RATING: 8/10