Ghosts

Dry Blood

dry blood

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

Advertisements

Mandao of the Dead

mandao

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

Insidious: The Last Key

insidious

Parapsychologist Elise Rainier is back, and this time her newest case will take her to where it all began. A man calls asking for Elise’s help. It turns out the man lives in her childhood house. Elise is forced to remember her tragic past and the horrifying events that lead up to her returning to her hometown. She must solve this case in order to save her family from the demon that ruined their lives.

I want to start by giving some context to the film as it is technically another prequel to the first two installments. This film takes place after Elise has helped Quinn, and before she helps Dalton. The timeline for the Insidious films is as follows: Insidious: Chapter 3, Insidious: The Last Key, Insidious, Insidious: Chapter 2. That being said, there is a lot of timeline overlap between the films thanks to the Further breaking the rules of time and flashbacks. The best part of this installment is that it finally gives me what I wanted; more of Elise’s backstory. Through a series of flashbacks and dream sequences the audience finally gets to learn about Elise’s childhood and the events that lead her becoming a parapsychologist. It is the strongest aspect of the film, and I wish there was much more of it.

Much of the downside to this film is when we get to the present. The first half of the film deals with more of Elise’s past, but when we see the investigation at her childhood house things begin to spiral downward. The main issue is that the filmmakers attempt to cram too many subplots into one story. There is Elise’s origin, the investigation at her old house, and what happens when she once again enters the Further. While any two of these would work well together, having all three storylines together in a single film is a bit much. As a result, while Elise’s backstory feels more complete, the other two subplots are underdeveloped. It gives the impression that the resolutions come too quickly and too easily. Especially when looking at what happens in the Further, there is virtually no explanation for much of what is shown. What’s even worse is that we never get a true sense of what the ultimate villain is trying to achieve or why. Many of his actions have no purpose, or at least not one that is apparent to audiences. If you look back at the early trailers and some of the promotional stills from the film there are several scenes that were not in the final cut of the film. It makes me wonder what this film could have been and if there was more explanation before the studio got their hands on it.

Along with Elise’s backstory being a strong point for The Last Key, Elise herself is likely the strongest aspect of the entire Insidious franchise. Lin Shaye (Insidious, Insidious: Chapter 2) has been the one constant as Elise throughout the films. She always delivers a strong performance, and the fact that a horror film franchise focuses on a strong elderly woman is absolutely fantastic. Shaye makes the most of this film, despite some of the clunky dialogue, and makes audiences fall in love with her all over again. No matter what, Shaye shines through and commands the screen. As always, Elise has her trusty sidekicks by her side in this installment. There is Leigh Whannell (Insidious, Insidious: Chapter 2) as Specs and Angus Sampson (Insidious, Insidious: Chapter 2) as Tucker. They bring some heart and comedic relief to the thrills and chills of the film.

The Insidious films are known for having iconic and stylistic demons. The Last Key is no different. The villain, known only as KeyFace, has some disturbing creature design created with prosthetics, which are worn by none other than Javier Botet (Mama, REC). Unfortunately the amazing character design gets lost in the lack of character development. It is unfortunate that Botet’s talent is somewhat wasted in this fantastic design simply because the character is weakly written. Despite that, he is still frightening and he is the focal point for several scares throughout the film. Much like in Chapter 3, The Last Key relies heavily on jump scares and lacks some of the more subtle scares of the first two films. This film succeeds the most in building the anticipation for the jump scares. The filmmakers make you wait and wait, knowing that jump scare is coming, before the scare is finally delivered. Unfortunately, in many cases, the anticipation is more thrilling than the actual scare, but there are still plenty of frightening moments.

Insidious: The Last Key fulfills my wish of learning more about Elise, but it is still probably the weakest installment of the franchise. There are simply too many subplots, not enough development of those subplots and characters, and there are several weak points in the dialogue. Despite that, there are still some positives of the film. Elise has a fascinating backstory that audiences finally get to learn, and Shaye does a fantastic job reprising the role of Elise. While we don’t get enough information about him, the design for KeyFace is still quite iconic and disturbing. I only wish there had been more focus on him as a villain and his motivation. The Last Key completes the story of Elise in the Insidious franchise. It is an important piece of the puzzle worth watching, but I can only hope there is a director’s cut in the future that will give fans something more polished.

OVERALL RATING: 5.5/10

The Spirit Machine (Short)

Final-Poster_100percent

A down on his luck widower searches through a remote home, along with his teenage daughter, looking for old items he could sell for a profit. While rummaging through the piles of junk the daughter finds evidence suggesting Thomas Edison’s last invention may be hidden somewhere on the property. The pair decide to search for the invention known as “The Spirit Machine.” What they find is much more than they bargained for.

When I received the email telling me Timothy Plain had written and directed another horror short I was thrilled. Almost a year ago the first short film I reviewed was another short he directed, Over My Dead Body. While that film was more of a comedic short, Plain went in a different direction for The Spirit Machine. This supernatural adventure will take you back to some of your favorite childhood films. Plain drew inspiration from the booby traps of Indiana Jones films and the frightening specters from Poltergeist, as well as other classic films. The passion that went into the making of this film can even be seen in where the funding came from. In less than a month The Spirit Machine raised a whopping $96,000 on a Kickstarter campaign, and the filmmakers utilized that budget quite well. The sets are more elaborate, the period costumes are beautiful, and both the fabricated items and the CGI are very well done. It is all much better than I would have expected from a short film.

One of the most intriguing aspects of the film is that the so called “Spirit Machine” may actually exist. While it has never been found, rumors of the machine’s existence have been circulating since the 1920’s. Using this device as a springboard, Plain is able to create a compelling plot that goes even deeper than just the mystery of the machine. While the machine is what brings excitement to the film, this is also very much a story about grief and the relationship between a father and his daughter. It is a story that has a lot of heart behind it. My one true critique would be for a couple of the scenes with the daughter. She often seems a bit too knowledgeable or nonchalant about the strange things that are happening. For example, at one point the girl and her father almost get sliced by a booby trap, and she doesn’t seem even remotely phased by her near-death experience.

The two leads of The Spirit Machine did quite well. Andrea Ferreyra played the teenage daughter, Jane. This is his first acting role in a film, but you wouldn’t know it from watching the short. She does a great job overall. The only thing I found bothersome were those couple scenes where she is simply too nonchalant about what is happening. I know most teens are often that way in real life, but I also think they would be a bit more concerned after almost being decapitated. Will Springhorn (Loaded, Valentine’s Day) also does a great job as the father, Randy. Springhorn vividly portrays the deadbeat dad who would rather find his next moneymaking scheme rather than find a real job. I also want to give honorable mention to Karina Wolfe as the medium, who I recognized from Plain’s previous film, Over My Dead Body.

The Spirit Machine is a nostalgic and spooky adventure with beautiful steampunk touches. Plain does an excellent job of giving audiences a fun film that also goes deeper by touching on the different ways in which people grieve the loss of a loved one. You can tell while watching the film that the cast and crew enjoyed making this short. This film also passes my ultimate test for short films; it works well as it is but leaves just enough to make me want more. The only thing that I found irksome was how the daughter reacted to certain situations, but that is a small enough detail that it doesn’t detract from my overall enjoyment of the film.

You can view The Spirit Machine on YouTube by clicking here.

OVERALL RATING: 4.5/5

Personal Shopper

personalshopper_keyart1_fmhr

Maureen is a young American living and working as a personal shopper in Paris. She recently lost her twin brother to a heart defect that Maureen has as well. Also like her brother, Maureen may possess the abilities of a medium. As she attempts to contact her brother’s spirit she exposes herself to dangers she doesn’t understand. Someone, or something, is trying to make contact. Whatever is trying to reach out to Maureen will change her life forever.

The plot of personal shopper is relatively unique, but what makes it truly stand out is the way the film was pieced together. This isn’t a film that necessarily has a typical beginning, middle, and end. It feels more true to life in that there isn’t a linear story, instead the film flows with the ins and outs of Maureen’s daily life. There is also a lack of the expositional scenes audiences are used to when watching traditional narrative films. This style is very similar to what was done in the Golden Globe nominated film, 20th Century Women. Some may be put off by this style, especially since it does not lay the who, what, when, where, why out on a silver platter. I personally enjoy this method of storytelling because of the realism it adds to the film. This particular method also enhances the high fashion aspect. Maureen is a personal shopper for a high profile model, and that means she has access to fantastic haute couture clothing. When that is combined with the realistic storytelling the result is a raw and gorgeous film.

There is also a constant presence of death throughout the film, whether it be ghosts, thoughts of Maureen’s deceased brother, or her own impending mortality. Since she was a child, she has experienced the paranormal because she and her brother are mediums. Then when he dies of a heart defect that Maureen also has, death is brought into the forefront of her life. It is no longer static in the background, but something she has to face and learn to no longer fear. In a sense her brother’s death helps her to live her life the way she wants because there is no way to know when her time is up. She has to learn to accept and live with the idea of death because it is all around her.

There are a few downfalls to the plot. One scene is specifically bothersome. In it Maureen is having a conversation about her brother’s spirit with a friend’s boyfriend. The dialogue for this scene is choppy and sounds unnaturally forced. It is one of a few scenes where the dialogue sounds awkward. Additionally, there are a couple scenes that don’t make much sense or feel irrelevant. Some of this can be written off as part of the unique storytelling format, but one specific scene involves events implying a ghost is present. What makes it odd is that the ghostly presence is not explained or even acknowledged in any way. Again, this is likely due to the format of the film, but it definitely detracts a bit from the plot.

This film focuses almost solely on the protagonist. Many people will know Kristen Stewart as Bella from the Twilight franchise. In Personal Shopper she plays the complicated main character, Maureen. Historically the only film I have thought Stewart could act in was Panic Room. Luckily, Stewart seems to have broken the Twilight curse. Her performance in Personal Shopper is evocative, grounded, and she brings the character to life in a way I have not seen from her before. I will say there are times in the film where Stewart acts in stressful situations that gives me flashbacks to her Twilight days. Specifically, she tends to twitch and stutter to portray anxiety or fear much like she did as Bella. Not to say that these actions don’t work for the character of Maureen, but it still calls me back to memories of Stewart’s less competent performances. However, her overall portrayal carries the film and gives it life.

Since this is a film that is meant to feel as real as possible there is a minimal amount of effects. The only CGI effects in the film are used to create the ghosts Maureen sees. Most of the time it is just a glimmer in the darkness, but one scene involves a more full-bodied apparition. While the more minimalist CGI works well, the full-bodied work loses any sense of mystery and any chance of scaring the audience. This is a perfect example of “less is more” being the smartest route, especially in paranormal horror films. The cinematography works much better than the effects. Most of the shots, much like the story, are done in a way that makes the audience feel like they are peering into Maureen’s life. Yet there are still scenes that have a certain air of beauty. One specific scene that is masterfully shot manages to make a horrific event intriguing and bewitching. The audience is shown just enough to understand what is happening, without truly showing anything too disturbing. It fits with the overall themes of the film; sex, mystery, beauty, and death.

Personal Shopper is a film that has its flaws. If you can look past some of the less fortunate dialogue and lackluster CGI, then you will see the unsettling and seductive film that lies within. There is no one aspect of this film that narrates the story, except that it is Maureen’s life. Her life is revealed to the audience as she experiences events in an authentic portrayal of the darker side of humanity. The only theme that runs throughout the entire film is life in the fashion world and a sort of acceptance of death. If you enjoy fashion, intrigue, and the supernatural then this is a film you should seek out.

OVERALL RATING: 7/10

Sadako vs. Kayako

After discovering a mysterious blank tape, Natsumi decides to watch it to see if it is really the legendary cursed tape. She soon regrets her decision when she realizes it is the real tape. Now she is cursed and the ghost, Sadako, is going to kill her in two days. She enlists the help of a college professor, a priestess, a medium, and her best friend Yuri in order to try to get rid of the curse. The medium determines the only possible way to get rid of the curse is to have it battle with another curse: the curse of Kayako in her haunted house. It is the ultimate battle between The Ring and The Grudge.

Most people have seen either the US or Japanese versions of The Grudge and The Ring. Personally, I have only ever seen the US versions, so this was my first dive into the Japanese versions of the stories and characters. The plot in general was very interesting. The film definitely focused more on the Sadako part of the story, only briefly showing the curse of Kayako before the epic final battle. Because of this, it felt like the young girl who gets cursed by Kayako was a bit of an unnecessary character. They needed her to show what happens to those who enter Kayako’s home, but I believe it was shown sufficiently in scenes of other lesser characters entering the house. The unevenness was one of my biggest issues with the film. A lot of “vs” films tend to either focus too much on one character or not even have the two entities meet to battle. Freddy vs. Jason is an example of a flawed “vs” film, but it succeeded in having a relatively even split between the two villains.

The film had an excellent mix of thrills, shocks, and laughs. There were a few moments that were very creepy, and more than once I was surprised by the level of violence that some of the deaths had. The humor was probably the most surprising to me. Even with the final battle between Sadako and Kayako, there were a lot of unexpected things that happened and things that I couldn’t help but laugh at (in a good way). Most of the laughs happened when spiritual medium Kyozo and his young blind sidekick, Tamao, were on screen. Tamao especially had some hilarious one-liners. Her blunt and honest take on what was happening added much needed humor.

The entire cast did a great job. There isn’t any person I can single out as not giving a stellar performance. While everyone was great, there were two specific standouts for me. Masanobu Andô was great as spiritual medium Kyozo. Then, of course, there was his young partner in crime, Tamao, played by Maiko Kikuchi. These two were so hilarious together. You couldn’t help but laugh every time they were on screen. The pair of them were so enjoyable that I can see there could easily be a spin-off movie made just about the two of them and their work in the supernatural field. 

Surprisingly, there were very few effects used in this film. Beyond the makeup and hair on the two ghosts, what made truly them creepy was through their acting. With Kayako, most of what makes her scary is the way she contorts her body. There were some subtle, yet effective, practical effects used for some of the kills. These scenes really surprised me with how grotesque they were without really being gory or bloody. There was one huge CGI effect at the end of the film, but there is no way they could have done it with practical effects. It also wasn’t something that stood out in a negative way, so that means the CGI was well done.

Sadako vs. Kayako is Japan’s Freddy vs. Jason. While I enjoyed Freddy vs. Jason, Sadako vs. Kayako definitely surpassed it in almost every category. This film will chill you and make you laugh in equal measure. The only real drawback is that this definitely feels more like a Sadako film featuring Kayako. Beyond that, it is still an exciting thrill ride with an ending that you won’t soon forget. This is also a film that should be experienced on the big screen. Keep an eye out to see if it is playing near you. You won’t want to miss it. Also, be sure to stay after the credits; there is a little something extra awaiting you on the other side.

OVERALL RATING: 7/10

The Disappointments Room

A woman and her family move into a decrepit mansion in the countryside after a tragedy. The goal is to spend a year in the quiet rural home while the woman, who is an architect, rebuilds the mansion to its former glory. While going through the house to see what needs to be fixed, the woman finds a strange room in the attic that was not on the floor plan. It doesn’t take long after the room is discovered for strange things to start happening. Is the grieving mother seeing things, or is their new home haunted by something sinister?

While I saw this film several days ago, I didn’t jump to write my review for two reasons: 1. I knew audiences weren’t running to the theaters for this film. 2. This film was so unfortunate that I was dreading writing my review for it. The general idea of this story could have made for a great film. A “disappointments room” is a hidden room in the homes of wealthy people where they would keep their children born with some kind of birth defect. These children would be locked away and kept secret so the family could avoid any embarrassment. This simple idea could have led to an interesting film. Sadly, it did not.

This plot was one of the more convoluted stories I have witnessed in some time. The filmmakers were clearly trying to make it whether the lead was insane or if she was actually seeing ghosts part of the mystery. The problem is that at the end of the film, you still had no idea which one was the truth. The actions of both the lead and the ghosts made absolutely no sense. Consequently, as the screen fades to black, you can’t help but wonder if that was really the ending. There is even a murder shown in the film, and by the time the film is over you’re still unclear as to whether that murder actually happened or not. One aspect that made the plot confusing was the use of flashbacks. Initially, there was some attempt to differentiate flashbacks by using distinct coloring (so you could tell whether it was a flashback from the lead character’s life or the life of the ghosts). However, as the film went on they seemed to stop using any color differentiation, so it was never obvious if things were happening in the past or the present. Also, assuming the ghosts were real, their actions and motivations made no sense. What the ghosts did had me scratching my head, and there was no clear reason why they did these things. The whole story was just a mess of poorly written half-ideas.

The acting in this film wasn’t much better. Kate Beckinsale (Underworld, Total Recall) played the architect and mother, Dana. Normally I’m a fan of Beckinsale. It seemed obvious that she was just phoning it in for this film. There was no real commitment to her role, and as the audience you don’t feel any of her emotions (the horrible blonde hair didn’t help much either). Mel Raido (Legend) was difficult to watch as the loving husband, David. His entire time on screen was spent speaking in the kind of voice one uses to soothe a fussy baby, even when is wife was doing some absolutely insane and horrible things. The fact that both of these actors are also British doing American accents was a bit distracting, as neither of them did a great job of holding the accent.

The Disappointments Room could have been an interesting film, but instead it was a befuddled mess with a title that makes for a great pun. The disjointed story is enough to make you want to walk out of the theater. It also tried so hard to be scary, but when you don’t understand what you’re supposed to be afraid of the “scares” fall flat. This film would have had a lower score, but I’m giving it a couple points for 3 reasons. Firstly, I like the idea of a disappointment room, and I hope another filmmaker takes this idea and runs with it. Second, I liked the opening scene. It was funny and unexpectedly adorable. Finally, I like the exposition scene where Dana is learning about what a disappointment room is from a woman who likely would have been in one of those rooms had she been born during that time. Other than those minor details, there were not many redeeming qualities to this film. It was not a film I would recommend to viewers, nor would I ever watch it again myself.

OVERALL RATING: 2/10