Holiday Horror

Scare Package

What’s better than seven tales of horror wrapped in one package? Seven meta tales of horror filled with laughs, gore, up-and-coming filmmakers, and familiar faces wrapped in one package. This and more awaits viewers in the new horror anthology, Scare Package.

Scare Package brings together a host of talented writers and directors. They all used their individual segments to hone in on various horror tropes and either subvert them or highlight those tropes. Viewers will no doubt watch the seven short films and see numerous nods to classic horror films, some more obvious than others. Sometimes the plots take a back seat to the visual aspects, but these aspects often tell a story of their own for the trained horror fan’s eye. Through all the meta filmmaking and Easter eggs, the filmmakers still manage to tell stories that are as funny as they are unique.

“Cold Open” hilariously honors the characters in horror films that are briefly seen and don’t get enough credit for setting up the film, while also honoring one of the most popular horror films of all time. “Rad Chad’s Horror Emporium” is not only a place I wish I worked, but it’s also the overarching story that ties everything together as each segment is presented like a rental at Rad Chad’s. “One Time in the Woods” is probably the goriest segment that also throws as many horror subgenres at you as it can. “M.I.S.T.E.R.” is likely going to piss off a few male viewers, but I mean that in the best way possible because it perfectly plays with the idea of what makes a real man. “Girls’ Night Out of Body” can be found in the post modern feminist slasher revenge body horror section at Rad Chad’s, and that honestly sums it up perfectly. “The Night He Came Back Again! Part IV: The Final Kill” plays into the classic horror trope of the masked killer that somehow always comes back, no matter how you kill him! “So Much to Do” exemplifies how important shows are to some people and the dangers of revealing spoilers. And finally, “Horror Hypothesis” takes everything you know about slashers and puts it to the test.

The performances in Scare Package are all fantastic, many of them being highly satirical and sure to make viewers laugh. Because many of the segments are meant to a mockery of horror tropes, some of the performances come across as intentionally cheesy. That might not appeal to all viewers, but definitely made me laugh. A clear standout performance from the beginning is Jeremy King (The Pale Door, Sinister Seduction) as none other than Rad Chad himself. King perfectly embodies all the good and bad aspects of hardcore horror lovers. His portrayal will make you love Chad as much as you also can’t help but roll your eyes at him. Another great performance comes from none other than Noah Segan (Knives Out, Mohawk) who stars as the husband in the segment he also co-wrote and directed, “M.I.S.T.E.R.” Segan does a fantastic job of acting as a typical nice guy with an underlying creepiness. Toni Trucks (Grimm, Franklin & Bash) stars in the “So Much To Do” segment as Franchesca. Trucks really shines in this role mostly because she kicks some serious ass. She has one of the most physical roles of all the segments, and she definitely delivers. Really all the performances are delightful and horror fans are sure to see more than a few familiar faces.

One thing I can promise viewers is that there is a lot of gore in Scare Package. The film relies on practical effects to create creative kills, gruesome monsters, and devious killers. There is definitely no shortage of blood, guts, and goo. While all of these segments utilize great practical effects, the most memorable in that regard is definitely “One Time in the Woods.” Not only does it have a high body count and unique kills, but it also has a fantastic melting character that looks absolutely amazing. If lots and lots of blood is more your speed, then “The Night He Came Back Again! Part IV: The Final Kill” is definitely the segment for you. The effects have a little something for everything horror fan.

Scare Package hilariously highlights the good, the bad, and the ugly of horror films. It’s clear this anthology was put together by horror fans for horror fans. Each segment is a hilarious take on various horror tropes, but there are still delightfully unique stories to be seen. At times it might be a bit too meta and tongue-and-cheek for some viewers. I for one scared my pets multiple times by bursting into laughter. Scare Package showcases the beginnings of promising careers for these writer and directors. Fans will also be laughing along with the fresh new actors and cheering for the horror favorites that pop-up. It might be a bit goofy at times, gory horror anthology that viewers are sure to adore.

OVERALL RATING: 7.5/10

The Lodge

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Grace goes on a holiday trip with her fiancé and soon-to-be step-children. Her relationship with the kids gets off to a rocky start. Things only become more awkward when her fiancé has to return to the city for a couple days. Then, when things finally start looking up, frightening events unravel in this wintery hell.

Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala, of Goodnight Mommy fame, bring their latest slow-burn of a film. The Lodge is co-directed and co-written by the duo, along with Sergio Casci (The Caller) also co-writing the screenplay. The film begins by introducing the father, his ex, and their two children. The audience gets to learn their family dynamic as well as how each family member feels about Grace long before her character is introduced. It isn’t until the father and children take their holiday trip to their winter getaway that Grace comes into the picture. This is an interesting tactic that allows us to gain all of our knowledge about Grace from unreliable second-hand sources who are openly hostile towards Grace. Suspense slowly builds from the tense relationship between Grace and the kids to outright terror as the trio is left stranded without food or heat in a winter storm. Franz, Fiala, and Sergio do a great job of crafting terror around the unknown. So many questions come up about what’s really happening as events unfold, leading to a truly haunting climax.

To say that The Lodge is bleak would be an understatement. The filmmakers are not afraid to deliver a film that’s as harsh and cold as the landscape. Between that and the slow pace of the plot, there are likely horror fans who won’t enjoy this film as much as others. I believe the pace was pitch-perfect for the story being told. Each layer of mystery is given time to be unraveled from the supernatural, to the religious, to the more earthly dangers. The one thing that doesn’t work as well for me is how the filmmakers telegraph the truth behind what’s happening a bit too clearly. This was also my biggest issue with the filmmakers’ previous film, Goodnight Mommy, although they did manage to be a bit more subtle with The Lodge. While the big twist might not be as much of a surprise as intended, it doesn’t change how impactful the final moments of the film are.

For a smaller indie horror film, The Lodge truly has a fantastic cast of easily recognizable faces. Riley Keough (It Comes At Night, Mad Max: Fury Road) stars as Grace. At first Grace comes across as cold and emotionless. After learning she is on medications for her childhood trauma, her personality makes more sense. Keough really brings the character to life once Grace is forced to go off her meds and her sanity gradually falls to pieces. Jaeden Martell (IT, Knives Out) plays Aidan, the angry son and protective older brother. Martell does a wonderful job of injecting his performance with an underlying sinister tone, even when he’s being kind to Grace. The only time Aidan feels genuine is when he’s interacting with his younger sister, and Martell makes those moments stand out. Lia McHugh (They Come Knocking, Along Came the Devil) plays young Mia. McHugh’s performance overall is great, but she really shines when she conveys Mia’s emotional devastation. It’s truly heartbreaking and on par with Florence Pugh’s performance in Midsommar. It’s also important to give shout outs to Richard Armitage (The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, Into the Storm) as loving father Richard and Alicia Silverstone (Clueless, The Crush) as the jilted ex-wife, Laura.

To create this austere tale, The Lodge employs a combination of chilling sights and sounds. Of course the beautiful cinematography and harsh setting are a large part of the film’s appeal, but there is more than that. One thing viewers are sure to notice is the dollhouse. Mia has an exact dollhouse replica of the vacation house, complete with a doll for each family member. The filmmakers often use shots of the dollhouse as a means to add a distinct eeriness to what is happening in the real house. There is also quite a bit of religious iconography used throughout the film. These images are not only unsettling, but they offer a connection between Grace’s past and present in a way that is both striking and disturbing. Rounding each scene out is the musical score by Danny Bensi (N0S4A2, The Outsider) and Saunder Jurriaans (N0S4A2, The Outsider). The combination of dissonant booms, stirring strings, and light trilling like snow falling lends itself to this grim tale.

The Lodge is a sombre psychological thriller that leaves the viewers feeling as desolate as the landscape. The filmmakers clearly know how to fashion a suspenseful plot that forces you to wonder what is real and what isn’t. That being said, there are some clues that make the final revelation a bit too obvious. Luckily, the final moments of the film still bring shock and awe. The performances from the star-studded cast and stunning artistry of the film add to the emotional devastation that ensues. The Lodge is sure to be a new favorite feel-bad film horror fans watch for the holidays.

OVERALL RATING: 7.5/10

Black Christmas (2019)

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A group of sorority sisters at a prestigious college decide to stay at their sorority house over winter break. Unfortunately for these women, the school has a sordid tradition of misogyny and racism. This holiday, that tradition involves killing female college students who are “out of line.” The sisters will have to fight for their lives if they want to make it until Christmas.

Continuing a long and delightful tradition of Christmas horror films comes Black Christmas. This re-imagining of the 1974 classic is directed by Sophia Takal (New Year New You, Always Shine), who also co-wrote the film with April Wolfe in her feature film debut. Instead of recycling the same plot of the original film, Takal and Wolfe have created a culturally-relevant thrill ride that still has some of the same spirit of the original. The film focuses on Riley, a sorority sister who has had enough of the fraternity brothers. After a scandalous Christmas performance at the frat house, the sisters find themselves in mortal danger as a masked figure attacks them in their sorority house. The mythos created around the university and the founder of the school is very interesting, albeit not as well developed as it could have been. Either way it is still very entertaining. Even though this film is a complete re-imagining of the original, eagle-eyed fans of the 1974 Black Christmas will still see a few fun nods to the original film sprinkled throughout.

This film is incredibly politically charged, definitely written for women, and it’s going to piss off a lot of men. It addresses the rampant male toxicity in the world today and how it affects women. Much of the plot, both the normal interactions and the murderous ones, involve experiences that are unique to women. The most obvious female-specific experience is the sexual harassment and assault women deal with on a daily basis. It even shows how we can’t walk down the street alone without having to be completely aware of our surroundings. Some of the more subtle interactions are likely ones most men won’t pick up on. There are references to Diva cups, periods, and vibrators that are sure to get some good laughs from the women in the audience. What I especially enjoyed about the update of this film is how it essentially lets men know women are done taking all of their shit. These women are strong, powerful, and they are done with misogynistic men trying to control and ruin their lives.

While I love the update in this Black Christmas and commend the message it sends, that doesn’t mean it’s a perfect film. One issue I have with the plot is a lack of character development. Aside from Riley and maybe one other sorority sister, it doesn’t feel like the audience really gets to know the women very well. Another aspect that felt unnecessary is the character of Landon. While the character is nice and the performance is great, his character felt like an afterthought. It was almost as if the studio asked the filmmakers to include at least one guy to fit into the “not all men” category. Finally, I feel like Cary Elwes (The Princess Bride, Kiss the Girls) was greatly underutilized. It’s obvious from the beginning that he isn’t a good guy, and we’ve seen in him a great villain in past films, but his character just doesn’t quite reach that same malevolent level fans will likely want and expect.

Each of the women in Black Christmas deliver great performances of complex and strong females. Imogen Poots (Green Room, 28 Weeks Later) stars as Riley. She is a survivor of a sexual assault and doubly strong because she persevered despite not being believed. Poots does a fantastic job of conveying Riley’s trauma and how it has changed her, but she is also able to be strong and powerful with the help of her friends. Aleyse Shannon (Charmed, Instinct) stars as Riley’s sorority sister, Kris. Kris is a very political character and a clear fighter who isn’t afraid to speak her mind. Shannon is great at exuding confidence as Kris while also being a great support system for her sisters. Honorable mention goes to Lily Donoghue (Jane the Virgin) as Marty, Brittany O’Grady (Above Suspicion), and Caleb Eberhardt (The Post) as Landon.

To keep up with the legacy of the original film, this Black Christmas had to be sure to have some great visuals. For one, the lighting in this film is phenomenal. There is a lot of great use of Christmas lights to draw the viewer’s eye while also creating gorgeous color play on the screen. While I feel as though the filmmakers shied away from showing the kills a bit too much, they did find a clever way to show some gore within the constraints for the PG-13 rating. I will leave this as a bit of a surprise since it relates to hidden aspects of the plot, but suffice it to say there is at least a bit of gore for the gore-hounds out there. Earlier I mentioned there are great Easter eggs from the first film, but also be sure to keep an eye out for a delightful little nod to The Exorcist III.

Black Christmas is a film made by women, for women, that is sure to bring in hoards of new young female horror fans. It is clear that Takal and Wolfe made this film for young women with the goal of empowering them and bashing male toxicity. If this film makes even one young woman feel empowered after leaving the theater, then it is a successful film. Naturally, the political message and the idea of empowering women is a threat to many men, as we see in the film and has already been evident on social media around the film. I for one really enjoyed Black Christmas. It has it’s flaws, but its fun, has great characters young women can look up to, and will definitely appeal to its target audience. Hopefully this will lead to many more studio horror films geared towards women who love horror. There are definitely going to be plenty of men who don’t like this film, which is fine, but if you’re a guy just remember: this film wasn’t made for you.

OVERALL RATING: 6.5/10

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

Candy Corn

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It’s almost Halloween. A group of local punks decide to honor their longtime tradition of pranking the local outcast while he’s at work at the visiting freak show. When the guys take things too far, a ritual is used to bring him back to life. Now he will take his revenge on this sleepy little town.

For me, Candy Corn has been one of my most anticipated horror films of the year.  The film was written, directed, edited, and produced by Josh Hasty (Honeyspider, In Hell Everybody Loves Popcorn: The Making of 31).  Immediately we are introduced to the group of young adults who just love hazing the local outcast, Jacob. The three young men are your typical small-town jerks who get pleasure out of other people’s misery. When they accidentally kill Jacob, it is Jacob’s employer, Dr. Death, who comes up with a plan to bring him back. This introduction to the various characters automatically makes the audience despise the locals and sympathize with Jacob and the freaks. It also plays well to those in the audience who have ever been bullied. When it comes down to it, that’s all those who tormented Jacob really are; a bunch of bullies. Watching them get torn apart is incredibly satisfying.

The film is one part supernatural and one part slasher resulting in a thrilling and bloody ride. This blend of horror subgenres helps to make Candy Corn the perfect fall film. It captures the essence of what horror fans love about this time of year. Part of that Halloween feel also comes from the filmmakers who clearly influenced Hasty in this film. The most obvious influences are John Carpenter and Rob Zombie. From the filming style to the sets to the characters and the music, Hasty shows his passion for the great filmmakers who came before him while still creating a film that is entirely his own. Even though those influences are clearly felt, Hasty still creates a really entertaining and unique mythos around the freak show and the ritual Dr. Death. Hasty wisely leaves some of the mythology vague, yet gives the audience enough to follow what’s happening, which leaves the film open to sequels that expand on that mythos.

It is clear that each artistic decision made by Hasty was chosen to make Candy Corn a new Halloween classic. From the first frames the look of the film transports the audience back to the 70’s. While it isn’t explicitly stated, it is clear from the wardrobe, the cars, and the technology used in the film. Even the somewhat gritty look of the film and the slightly washed-out colors harken back to that era of filmmaking. This time period and look also feel very reminiscent of Carpenter’s and Zombie’s films. One thing that doesn’t work quite as well is the use of freeze frames and removing audio, except for the music, in scenes where people are killed. This is similar to some of Zombie’s filming methods. It looked interesting in a couple scenes, but it is a bit overused throughout the film.

Other artistic elements help to make the film exciting, gory, and fun. The mask worn by Jacob when he returns to exact his revenge is absolutely terrifying. It almost looks as if a jack o’lantern was combined with the Michael Myers mask to create something out of a nightmare. Candy Corn also primarily sticks to gruesome practical effects for the kills. Each kill has a high level of brutality created with the practical effects and minor CGI enhancement, mostly utilized to add extra blood spatter. Then of course there is a fantastic score composed by both Hasty and Michael Booker. It is ominous, yet has a lightness to it that helps to build both suspense and excitement. Much like the plot, the score simply feels like the Halloween season.

This indie film has several faces horror fans know and love. Courtney Gains (Children of the Corn, The Funhouse Massacre) stars as the local sheriff, Sam Bramford. The sheriff tries his best to keep the peace between the local punks and the visiting freak show, but when the bodies start piling up he’s left with no choice. Acting opposite him is Pancho Moler (31, American Fright Fest) as Dr. Death, leader of the freak show. While on the surface he seems stern and mistrusting of outsiders, it is also clear that he cares deeply for his freaks and is sick of seeing them treated like second-class citizens. These two characters play off each other quite well because neither of them is purely good or bad, they simply want to protect the ones they care for. Unfortunately, they care for people on opposing sides. Other notable horror favorites are Tony Todd (Candyman, Final Destination), PJ Soles (Halloween [1978], Carrie), and Sky Elobar (The Greasy Strangler, The Rocker).

When it comes to the group of punks who attack Jacob, the performances are well done, but the casting is a bit confusing. The group is played by Cy Creamer in his feature film debut as Steve, Madison Russ (Junkie) as Carol, Caleb Thomas (The Terror of Hallow’s Eve) as Bobby, and Jimothy Beckholt (Corky and Bob Get a Job!) as Mike. They all do a great job of making the audience dislike their characters, which in turn makes it more fun to watch them die. The issue is it is difficult to figure out what age these kids are supposed to be. Most of the actors could pass for teenagers or very early 20’s, yet Beckholt appears to be older than the rest of the group. It may be a small detail, but in a genre where it’s typically either teens or college kids being slaughtered, that missing piece stood out.

Candy Corn is a love letter to Halloween and classic slashers of the 70’s and 80’s that is sure to be a holiday favorite for horror fans. Hasty’s passion for filmmaking and his influences are clearly felt. It perfectly balances the line between homage and originality resulting in a violent thrill ride with a unique mythology. The cast of horror fan favorites and newcomers all do a fantastic job. Then of course the film looks like it came straight from the 70’s, has gory practical effects, and the score is so fantastic that I can’t wait to buy it. You’ll want to watch the film now and then again for Halloween.

OVERALL RATING: 8.5/10

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

Slay Belles

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On Christmas Eve three friends decide to explore an abandoned holiday theme park for their online adventure show. Their fun is interrupted by a large, murderous, hairy beast known as Krampus. As the three women try to hide, they come across a man who claims to be the real Santa Claus. It’s up to these friends, Santa Claus, and a park ranger to defeat Krampus to save Christmas and the world.

Slay Belles is by co-writers Jessica Luhrssen and SpookyDan Walker, with Walker also directing the film. Both have worked on films in the past in other capacities, but this is the first feature film either has headed. The duo worked to create a campy, fun, low-budget holiday horror comedy mash-up. This film will likely appeal to many horror fans and individuals who frequent conventions. Two of the three leads are women who dress up in cosplay and go on adventures for their website and fans. This is what leads them to the abandoned holiday theme park on Christmas Eve. The characters feel like real people because they fit in so well with geek culture.

Another interesting and fun aspect of the plot is the new Christmas mythology it creates. Everyone knows Santa Claus, and by now, most people (or at least most horror fans), know Krampus as well. Slay Belles gives audiences a new image of what Santa is up to in this day and age. It paints a unique picture of Santa not as the holly jolly fat old man we know and love, but instead he is a bit of an eccentric hermit who looks like he could be part of a biker gang. It gives audiences something they haven’t seen before. The updated mythology for both Santa and Krampus lead to some hilarious and bloody shenanigans. There are even a few unexpected twists sprinkled throughout.

The film has an array of performances ranging from hilarious to not so great. Luckily, the three leading ladies of Slay Belles all gives highly entertaining performances.  Kristina Klebe (Tales of Halloween) stars as Alexi. She’s the hardworking, more practical friend in the group and the only one not technically part of the “Adventure Girls.” Despite the relative cheesiness of the film, Klebe delivers a solid performance. Susan Slaughter (Ouija House), a well-known paranormal investigator, plays the sassy Dahlia. Slaughter is part of the horror culture so her portrayal of Dahlia feels very authentic. Hannah Wagner (The Devil’s Carnival) plays Sadie, who is a bit ditzy and very spunky. The fact that Wagner has experience as a YouTube personality likely helped her to play Sadie in an entertaining yet realistic way. The trio not only act well individually, but their dynamics work great together as well. Of course, what would a Christmas horror film be without Santa Clause? I want to give a very special shoutout to Barry Bostwick (Rocky Horror Picture Show) for giving audiences one of the most unique portrayals of Santa I’ve ever seen.

A holiday B-horror film would be nothing without some memorable effects. For the most part, the film utilizes practical effects to create Krampus (as well as some delightful blood and gore). The Krampus makeup does a great job of creating the more classic look. He’s a hairy, horned, cloven-foot beast that wants to attack all the naughty children of the world. The overall look of Krampus is very well done, although there are a couple spots where it is obviously a hairless human arm that is simply painted. The most shocking aspect of the Krampus makeup design is the giant realistic penis. I had to rewind to make sure I wasn’t seeing things. While this practical effect would be over the top in other films, it fits in well with the overall theme of Slay Belles. One artistic aspect that detracts a bit from the film is that some of the climactic night scenes are too dark. It is one of the most exciting parts of the film, but it’s very difficult to see what’s going on.

Slay Belles isn’t the best holiday horror film, but it is still a riotous good time. The film boasts one of the more fun and original Santa and Krampus mythologies I’ve seen. All three leading ladies (and Bostwick) deliver strong performances, but there are other smaller characters who aren’t quite as good. The blood, guts, and Krampus practical effects bring thrills and laughs, although at times these effects also highlight the film’s small budget. Those looking for a more “refined” holiday horror film will likely want to steer clear of this film, but fans who enjoy campy B-horror movies will be delighted by Slay Belles.

OVERALL RATING: 6/10

Halloween (2018)

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It’s been 40 years since Michael Myers escaped and wreaked havoc on the quiet town of Haddonfield, IL. In that time the lone survivor of the attack, Laurie Strode, has done everything she can to prepare herself and her daughter for the inevitable day when Michael would escape. The night before Halloween, her greatest wish and biggest nightmare comes true. Michael escapes, and his rampage will take him back to the town where it all began. It’s up to Laurie to finally put an end to it all.

At this point, horror fans should have an idea of where this film stands in the Halloween franchise timeline. If you’re unfamiliar, here is a quick refresher: Halloween (2018) is a direct sequel to the 1978 Halloween. Basically, forget every other story line after that first film, because they are irrelevant to this sequel. The screenplay for this new imagining of Halloween was written by David Gordon Green (Joe), Danny McBride (Your Highness), and Jeff Fradley (Vice Principals) and it was directed by Green. The trio brings an interesting mix of background from more serious films, to comedies, to this being Fradley’s first feature film. As a result, there are some aspects of the film that shine and others that don’t quite live up to the franchise.

One of the single most successful aspects of this film is that the filmmakers managed to make Michael Myers even more sinister and murderous than he was in the first film. He is an unstoppable force and his kills are far more gruesome this time around. The development of Laurie’s character is also fascinating. She becomes obsessed with Michael to the point where it completely takes over her life, and it feels like an authentic direction for her character after the trauma she endured the first time Michael escaped.

The filmmakers decided to include many scenes and Easter eggs throughout the film that act as nods to the original Halloween as well as the sequels, even the Myers-less Halloween III. It makes it fun for the audience to watch closely to see how many hidden gems they can spot. At some point the film begins to feel like there are too many different things going on. There are simply too many characters the film follows, too many subplots, and even the Easter eggs get to be a bit excessive. Some of the issues I have with the film could be attributed to there being three screenwriters with varying backgrounds. They likely all wanted to put their mark on the franchise while also honoring the film they know and love, but the plot ends up being muddled in parts because the focus moves from place to place instead of focusing on one or two characters. The third act is where the filmmakers clearly hit their stride. Not only is it the most exciting part of the film, it also finally delivers what fans have been waiting for these past 40 years. The focus tightens on Laurie and her family as they face off with Michael, and the madness that ensues is sure to delight fans.

Even though it seems like there are too many characters to focus on at times, the entire cast does a phenomenal job. The obvious shining star of the film is Jamie Lee Curtis (Halloween, True Lies) as the one and only Laurie Strode. Only Curtis could bring to life such an iconic character, and it is great to see her reprise her role. Curtis excels as she portrays Laurie simultaneously traumatized by the events 40 years ago, while also dedicating her life to preparing to kill Michael. Judy Greer (Cursed, 13 Going on 30) also solidifies her own scream queen status as Laurie’s daughter, Karen. The dynamics between the estranged mother-daughter duo allow Greer to deliver a strong performance, especially as she is forced back to her roots in the third act. A smaller role in the film that resulted in some scene-stealing moments shows Jibrail Nantambu (Preacher) as young Julian, who is being babysat on Halloween night. This kid is downright hilarious, even when his night takes a dark turn, resulting in some of the most memorable lines of the film. Honorable mention also goes out to Andi Matichak (Evol), Haluk Bilginer (The International), and Toby Huss (Rescue Dawn).

The artistry in Halloween (2018) is by far one of the highlights of the film. Right away it is impossible to ignore the drool-worthy cinematography, enhancing the tension and beauty of the film. The original film went for more minimal practical effects, primarily relying on blood to emphasize any wounds. This film cranks out the gore, giving fans some fantastic practical effects for grizzly, unique kills by Michael. The effects team really put in the effort to give the audience something that is both horrifying and believable, and they succeeded. On top of that, it’s impossible to talk about Halloween without talking about the score. John Carpenter returned for the music in this film along with his son, Cody Carpenter, and Carpenter’s tour guitarist/godson, Daniel Davies. The three composers did an absolutely fantastic job of bringing the classic theme that fans adore while also breathing some new life into the rest of the score. The score truly brings the film to life in a way that only Carpenter and co. could pull off.

Halloween (2018) is a love letter to John Carpenter’s original that only true fans could pull off. There are moments when the film diverges into to many different directions, but there are many things to love about the film. The film has many fantastic nods to the original franchise, as well as thrilling new material including an even deadlier Michael (complete with more graphic kill scenes) and a badder, stronger Laurie. Even Carpenter, Carpenter, and Davies’ score gives a fresh twist to the familiar. The third act is when fans will truly see the film shine as Michael and Laurie become the focus. While the film may not quite live up to the hype, and perhaps a rewatch after the hype has died down will shed new light, the film still has something for every fan to enjoy.

OVERALL RATING: 7/10

***Spoiler/Tip: There is an end credit “scene.” Don’t bother staying around for it. It’s literally just a black screen and you can hear Michael breathing, that’s it. You’re welcome.

All the Creatures Were Stirring

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Two people go on an awkward Christmas Eve date to the theatre. The tiny stage production is bizarre and goes through a series of little vignettes. These vignettes go over a range of topics such as an office party gone wrong, a twist on A Christmas Carol, a killer reindeer, a Christmas demon, and an alien encounter. The one thing all of these have in common is the holiday spirit.

There are so many reasons why All the Creatures Were Stirring is the new standard in holiday horror anthologies. This is the feature film debut for Rebekah and David Ian McKendry who co-wrote and directed the film together. Their names are well-known in the horror community, and their love of the genre can be felt throughout this film. The McKendrys came up with an array of compelling short films relating to Christmas and found an ingenious way of connecting them all together. This makes the film stand out from others like it because it is rare for the short films in an anthology film to have the same writer/directors. It is even more rare for shorts by the same writer/director to be so varied in style and tone. Even with the small budget, the film also has a little something for everyone.

The overarching story follows two people on a date. It is as awkward as you would expect for a Christmas Eve date, and the hilarious little stage production they go to makes the date even more awkward. Even with the humor, the date slowly turns sinister as the plot progresses. Each vignette of the play transitions us to the next short that comprises the film. It is hilarious to catch a glimpse of the story being told on stage compared to the short film telling the same story. Each short is so entertaining in its own way. The segment featuring an office Christmas party gone wrong is violent, thrilling, hilarious, and has some unexpected moments. One segment is a reinvention of A Christmas Carol. The filmmakers do a great job of reinventing the classic story in a way that is modern and relatable for audiences, and yet creepy as well. One of my favorites shorts follows a Twilight Zone-esque alien encounter. This short feels the most sentimental and quirky, and it has two fantastic performances from the leads. In probably the most frightening segment, a last minute shopper is stranded in a parking lot where he meets two strange women. It is dark, unique, and creates a mythology I want to learn more about. Then there is the killer reindeer short, which is probably the most hilarious vignette. It has such a fun and ridiculous concept that is executed by including POV shots from a certain nameless red-nosed reindeer (wink wink, nudge nudge). I also love the vibrant red and green Christmasy color pallet used. Some of these shorts are stronger than others, but when you put them together the audience gets a great anthology film.

Each segment has fantastic actors, including many who horror fans will recognize. It is difficult to select the standout performances, but the first two that come to mind are the actors from the alien segment. Morgan Peter Brown (Ouija, Absentia) stars in this short as Steve. Brown is hilarious because of how he shows Steve’s resignation to his holiday visitors. This also plays well off of Constance Wu (Fresh off the Boat, Eastsiders) as Gabby. Gabby is not quite so used to be around aliens, and Wu’s performance is a perfect juxtaposition to Brown’s. And, what would an indie horror film be without an appearance from Graham Skipper (Beyond the Gates, Almost Human) as Max, the guy on the unfortunate theatre date of the overarching story? Skipper plays the awkward characters so well, and his performance in this short is no exception. I could write an entire article just about the perfect performances of this film, so instead I will give honorable mention to the rest of my favorites: Jonathan Kite (2 Broke Girls), Jocelin Donahue (The House of the Devil), Ashley Clements (Non-Transferable), Amanda Fuller (Red White & Blue), Makeda Declet (The Thinning), Matt Mercer (Contracted: Phase II), Matt Long (Ghost Rider), and Maria Olsen (Reunion). The entire ensemble, even those I didn’t mention, are fantastic.

The visual aspects of this film are also very well done for a low-budget film. There are a few instances of CGI used throughout the film, but they are used fairly sparingly. The most prominent use is in the segment that retells A Christmas Carol. There are some great practical effects as well, but what the filmmakers truly excel at is controlling where the audience’s eye goes and implying things without actually showing anything. For example, in the killer reindeer segment you never actually see the four-legged killer. Instead, the audience knows what it is by the noises it makes, the glowing red nose, and the reason behind it’s sudden thirst for blood. Between the color pallets, use of black and white in certain segments, camera angles, and POV shots, there is a lot of visual interest that catches the eye. The filmmakers prove that sometimes less is more when it comes to storytelling, and it is something they do quite well.

All the Creatures Were Stirring is the new must-watch horror film for the holidays. It will be loved for Christmas the way people love to watch Trick ‘r Treat for Halloween. Not only does this film stand out from other similar anthologies because each short is written and directed by the McKendrys, but each short feels distinctly different from each other and offers a range of styles and concepts. There is something that appeals to every member of the family. Combine that with stunning visuals and fantastic performances and you get the new standard in Christmas horror. This is one film you will definitely want to add to your horror collection.

OVERALL RATING: 8.5/10

Secret Santa

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A large family comes together for Christmas. Like many other families, this one is broken and estranged and dysfunctional. As they all come together around the table for Christmas dinner the fighting begins. But these aren’t your ordinary family arguments. The fights turn violent and this average holiday get-together becomes a bloody, chaotic massacre.

Everyone believes they have a weird family. Some family members you love and others you can’t stand. Writer/director Adam Marcus (Jason Goes to Hell: The Final Friday, Texas Chainsaw 3D) and co-writer Debra Sullivan (Conspiracy, Texas Chainsaw 3D) take something we are all familiar with and amplify it. This family has deep seeded issues due to divorce, remarriage, success, failure, and of course a large dose of sibling rivalry. When something happens that turns the family members into crazed, bloodthirsty killers the excitement really kicks in. The dynamics between various family members are some of the highlights of the film because many audience members will see themselves and their families in the film. The hilarious dialogue helps to highlight those strained relationships and it even carries into some of the kill scenes. As truths are revealed and the non-crazy family members try to fight for their lives, things get very thrilling and hilarious.

There are a few breakout performances in this film that will stick with you long after the credits roll. A early standout is Nathan Hedrick (Art of War, Seven Deadly Sins) as Jackson, the outspoken horndog half brother. Hedrick’s performance is totally over the top, but it works for his character. He’s loud, he’s crazy, and when he becomes violent he has some hilarious scenes. A Leslie Kies (The Newsroom, Jane the Virgin) shines as April. April is the perfect child among all the siblings. On the surface she seems too perfect, but as the film progresses Kies shows April’s hidden flaws and secrets in a compelling way. The true star of this film, in my opinion, is Ryan Leigh Seaton (NerdGirls, Dogs & Me) as Penny. Penny is the black sheep of the family and Seaton plays her as the sarcastic sibling who hates everyone incredibly well. Seaton also has some of the most hilarious lines and her delivery will leave you in stitches. While the entire cast is really fun to watch, Seaton is likely the one who will be remembered the most.

It’s safe to say that there is a lot of blood in this film. Fans of gore will not be disappointed. On top of that, there are some really unique kills. The film even opens with a fight from the point of view of a snow globe, which ends up being used as a weapon. This allows the filmmakers to show some very creative effects. All the attacks, from severed heads to cut Achilles tendons, are grotesque and thrilling.  Not only are these kills creative and even funny at times, but the practical effects look amazing as well. There is a level of campiness with the amount of blood and gore, but it fits in very well with the tone of the film.

Secret Santa is the holiday horror film to watch when you want to see a family that is more dysfunctional than your own. It is equal parts carnage and laughs, with outrageous characters that have you laughing and screaming from start to finish. This is the kind of film that you go into knowing it is meant to be humorous, gory, and campy. Slasher horror comedies with this kind of humor and gore can be an acquired taste, but they can also be some of the most fun experiences you’ll have in watching a film. This film will clearly become a holiday staple for horror fans.

OVERALL RATING: 7/10