Ghosts

The Spirit Machine (Short)

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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

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Personal Shopper

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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

Lights Out

When Rebecca was young her father walked out and her unstable mother spiraled into a deep depression. Soon after, something began to lurk in the dark. Now, after the mysterious death of her stepfather, the same thing is happening to Rebecca’s younger half-brother, Martin. Some evil entity is attached to their mother and the more unstable she becomes the stronger the evil gets. Now the family has a real reason to fear the dark.

If you haven’t seen the short film that spawned this horror flick, stop right now and watch it first (click here to view). Now that you’ve done that, let’s talk about the feature length Lights Out. We have seen many films in the past that deal with some kind of evil supernatural being that can only be in the dark. Once the light hits it, the evil either disappears or is hurt by the light. Even though it is something we have seen time and time again, Lights Out is probably one of the better versions of this idea. The evil known as Diana is attached to Sophie, who is Rebecca and Martin’s mother. Every time Sophie’s mental state relapses, Diana gets stronger and tries to convince Sophie she is her friend. Diana tried to get Sophie to stay in the dark with all the lights out because that is the only way Diana can exist. She disappears whenever the lights come on. There are only a couple things that bother me about the story. The biggest theme is that there are unanswered questions such as what kinds of light could get rid of Diana, how Diana ended up attached to Sophie after she died, and other smaller questions.

There are two aspects of this film that made it stand out. The first is that the director of the short film also directed the feature length film. For his first time directing a feature length film, David F. Sandberg does an excellent job. You can clearly see the influence of James Wan, who produced the film, in the style and scares. The second aspect is the plot. It seemed very much to be a metaphor for mental illness and how it not only affects the one with the illness, but it also affects everyone around them. When Sophie gets worse and Diana appears, it spirals Sophie into the dark (literally) while also greatly affecting her children. Diana is basically the physical embodiment of Sophie’s mental illness.

As it says in the trailer, everyone is afraid of the dark. As children we believe that there is always something waiting for us in the dark, whether it be in the closet or under the bed. That is why this relatively simple plot, and others like it, are so terrifying. It taps into the simplest of fears in a very effective way. Because the idea of fearing what’s in the dark is so simple, it makes sense that this film also went for simpler scares. The times that are the scariest usually consist of a good jump scare. Overuse of jump scares usually bother me or seem lazy, but in this film it works because of the concept and the fact that it is a PG-13 film. Along with the simple scares, the filmmakers go for a simple look when it comes to Diana. She is mostly just a creepy, black figure in the shadows with scraggly hair, long pointed fingers, and sometimes glowing eyes. There is one scene in the film where you see more of Diana and I really wish they hadn’t shown so much of her. Her look out of the darkness is nowhere near as terrifying, so it makes Diana less terrifying at a pivotal point in the film. This is a mistake I see time and time again in horror films. Just remember, less is more.

Lights Out has a great cast of characters that are very well developed. You actually care about the people in the story – a film is always scarier when you care about the characters. Teresa Palmer (Warm Bodies) is excellent as Rebecca. What made her acting, and her character, so compelling is that she is clearly damaged from her childhood, but when her little brother is in trouble her strength comes out. Martin, the younger brother, is played by Gabriel Bateman (Annabelle). His performance is great, but he tended to do this face that is halfway between a snarl and a concentration-type face. It is a bit distracting, but he still does a perfectly good job. I am surprised by Maria Bello (A History of Violence) as the mother, Sophie. Her portrayal of Sophie’s instability is amazing and sad all at once.

This is a creepy film. Lights Out is a simply scary story that will have you sleeping with the light on. It isn’t the most intricate plot, but you have to take it for what it is. This is a PG-13 film, which means they want younger audiences to be able to enjoy the film as well, with a first time feature length film director. It has lots of great jump scares and great acting. I believe the film will still be exciting even after the novelty of the jump scares has worn off. With the exception of a few issues I have with the plot and the fact that I believe Diana should never have been shown out of the shadows, I really enjoyed this film. Lights Out is something that most horror fans can enjoy if they take it for what it is; a fun, scary ghost story.

OVERALL RATING: 7/10

Ghostbusters (2016)

Someone is trying to amplify ghost activity in Manhattan. In an attempt to study these happenings, a group of skilled women get together and start a new business. The team includes a paranormal researcher, a physicist, a nuclear engineer, and a New York City subway worker. Together they will investigate the ghost sightings and try to determine what is causing them. Will the Ghostbusters be able to save the city from a ghost invasion?

The marketing campaign for this film was not well done. The trailers made it look cheesy and most people assumed that this would be one of the worst films of the year. While I agree that the trailers were not great, I was still optimistic about the new all-female version of Ghostbusters. I’m happy to say that this film delivers! When doing a remake or a reboot it is important to create something new and exciting while also paying homage to the original. The Ghostbusters of 2016 is a hilarious film that someone who has never seen the original can watch and absolutely love. At the same time there are numerous nods to the 1984 Ghostbusters, including many great cameos, that bring a healthy dose of nostalgia for the viewers that grew up with the original film. It is almost comparable to the Goosebumps (2015) movie as well in that it was made for old and new audiences to enjoy, while being completely self aware and adding in jokes about itself.

Ghostbusters (2016) has a great story line. The filmmakers do a great job of creating dynamic characters whom the audience really gets to know. It is clear which 1984 Ghostbusters are used as inspiration for the 2016 Ghostbusters, yet they clearly have their own personalities as well. They also do a great job creating a mystery as to how and why the supernatural occurrences are increasing in number and severity, leading up to the epic finale. The plot has many aspects that reminded viewers of the previous films, but it can stand on it’s own because the story is something audiences haven’t seen before. It is fun, exciting, and kept me laughing almost non-stop from the opening scene up until after the credits (helpful hint: stay until after the credits are done rolling).

All of the characters in this film are incredibly well cast and absolutely hilarious. We all know from the film Bridesmaids that Kristin Wiig and Melissa McCarthy have amazing on screen chemistry and are guaranteed to make us laugh. They do not disappoint in this film with Wiig as the physicist, Erin, and McCarthy as Abby, the paranormal researcher. The two lesser-known actresses are excellent as well. Leslie Jones (Saturday Night Live) does an amazing job as the NY subway worker, Patty. She brings a healthy amount of sass to the cast as well as bringing the street smarts and knowledge of New York history to the Ghostbusters team. The Ghostbuster who stole the show for me is Kate McKinnon (Saturday Night Live) as the outrageous Holtzmann. McKinnon manages to take the idea of a mad scientist to a whole new level. There isn’t a moment when McKinnon is on screen that my eye wasn’t drawn to her and she had me cracking up. All of these women were the perfect choices for an all female version of Ghostbusters. I also have to mention that Chris Hemsworth (Thor, The Avengers) delivers some great laughs as the dimwitted receptionist, Kevin.

While I am generally not a fan of CGI, this film would have been virtually impossible to accomplish without it. The ghosts in this film are similar to the original in that they are somewhat transparent and mostly green in color. In this film they also added blue tones to the look of the ghosts. The biggest difference is that the original film used CGI effects to turn actors into transparent ghosts. In this film the CGi is a bit more cartoon looking so when you see the ghosts it doesn’t look like an actor, but something entirely made by computers. I didn’t love the cartoon-like look, but again it would be very difficult for the filmmakers to achieve the film without the CGI aspect.

Ghostbusters (2016) is an uproarious film filled with laughs, intrigue, and girl power.  It will bring in a new audience that has never experienced Ghostbusters before, while also appealing to those who know and love the franchise. Before the film came out the internet essentially took a big crap on the film, whether it was because people opposed an all-female cast or because the trailer let them down. I’m here to tell you that this is one of the best reboots I have seen in a very long time. I don’t anticipate the film having a huge opening weekend, thanks to the marketing, but hopefully those who do see it will spread the word that this is a genius film. Go to the theater, enjoy the film, spread the word. The Ghostbusters are back in town.

OVERALL RATING: 8.5/10

Nina Forever

Rob is going through a rough time. The love of his life, Nina, died in a tragic car accident. Soon after Rob tries to kill himself, but fails. On his road to overcoming the grief he falls for his young coworker, Holly. There is just one small problem. Nina keeps coming back from the afterlife, and she thinks that her and Rob are still together. The worst part… Nina only appears when Rob and Holly are having sex.

I found this to be an interesting and original plot. It borders on being a “romcomzom,” except I would say Nina is more of a spirit in solid form than a zombie. It is also a very dark comedy. The idea that the haunting only occurs when Rob and Holly are having sex makes for some pretty awkward and humorous encounters. This is amplified by Nina’s extremely sarcastic point of view on the situation every time she rises. The story moves from Rob grieving over Nina, to falling in love with Holly, then trying to get rid of Nina so he can move on with his life. Holly and Rob just can’t seem to figure out why Nina keeps appearing. No matter what they do, the couple just can’t get rid of her.

There is really only one issue I have with the overall story. Rob is a very sweet guy that was clearly devastated when he lost Nina. We as the audience only ever see Nina after she dies, and she is not a very nice person. She understandably is upset that her boyfriend is sleeping with another woman, even though Nina is dead. The issue I have is how malicious she is. Nina is really such a horrible person in death that it makes it hard to believe she was different in life. It also makes it hard for me to understand why Rob was with Nina in the first place.

The three leads in this film all did an excellent job. Cian Barry (Real Playing Game, Help Point) was very endearing as Rob. It was impossible not to empathize with him as you watch his journey through the grieving process, especially when the more odd circumstances occur. He is constantly stuck between a rock and a hard place, but he does his best to do the right thing. I really enjoyed Abigail Hardingham (The Sparticle Mystery, Sealed with a Kiss) as the slightly odd Holly. Hardingham’s portrayal of Holly was delightful. She was a sweet, naive girl that had an inner weirdness. This weirdness comes out more and more throughout the film. Then, of course, there is Fiona O’Shaughnessy (Alexander, Goldfish Memory) as the recently deceased Nina. Not only was she devilishly sarcastic in a way that verged on evil, but O’Shaughnessy also gave an excellent physical performance (which I will discuss more in a moment).

There were very few practical effects in the film, but what they did include were spectacular. The only real effects that were in the film were used on Nina. Nina doesn’t come into the real world as a glowing, floating ghost, but as a deranged mess. We see Nina as she was when she died in the accident, which was bloody, bruised, and missing some body parts. Not only were these effects done in a way that looked shockingly realistic, but the way O’Shaughnessy moved her body added quite a bit to the look. From the way Nina moves, we assume that she broke her neck/back in the accident. This adds a bit of humor to the grotesque scenes with Nina because her body mostly just flops around, unable to hold itself up. This is what made O’Shaughnessy’s performance especially stand out for me. It cannot be easy to keep most of your body limp while attempting to move your mangled corpse of a body around and deliver a great acting performance. She should get some kind of award for that alone.

Nina Forever is a dark comedy filled with sex, blood, and sarcasm. There aren’t many other things I could ask for in a horror romantic comedy. Other than my qualm with Nina being a bit too evil to believe she was with Rob, there is really only one other thing about this film that bothered me. Unfortunately, it was an editing error. Usually I let editing errors slide, but this is such a huge one I don’t know how it made it to the final cut. Other people might not notice it, but it was quite obvious to me, so much so that it is still one of the first things that comes to my mind when I recall scenes from the film. Moving past these issues, the film is really quite enjoyable. It is a date movie for horror fans that delivers a sweet, somewhat sad story with a healthy dose of gore.

OVERALL RATING: 7.5/10