horror comedy

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

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Cynthia

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Robin and Michael are the perfect couple. The only problem is, they can’t seem to get pregnant. The couple resorts to fertility injections mailed in from over seas. After months of trying they finally get pregnant, but along with the baby there seems to be a large cyst. The baby is born healthy, and the doctor removes the cyst. Everything seems fine, but the cyst isn’t just a cyst, and it will do whatever it takes to get back to mommy.

This is a very unexpected film. This is the first film written by Robert Rhine (Road Lawyers and Other Briefs) in almost twenty years. His recent focus has been on his magazine, Girls and Corpses, and this film is a great way for him to make his return. His plot is equal parts ridiculous, hysterical, and gory. Rhine’s script is combined with the directing powers of Devon Downs (Anarchy Parlor) and Kenny Gage (Anarchy Parlor). Fertility issues are something that many women go through, so creating a fun horror film around it not only makes the film relatable, but it also makes it more fun. It is almost as if some of the pressure of trying to get pregnant is taken away by being able to laugh about it in this film. There is an extra layer of hilarity when it comes to seeing such a perfect couple unravel after they get the baby they have always wanted, and seeing how a mother will care for her child no matter what. The film is definitely filled with campiness and dark humor that won’t be for everyone, but horror fans that enjoy a healthy dose of comedy with their gore will likely love this flick.

Cynthia has a cast filled with horror royalty doing what they do best, as well as giving us a few surprises. The leading lady of this film is Scout Taylor-Compton (Halloween, Halloween II) as Robin. There isn’t anything Robin wouldn’t do to have the family she’s always wanted. Taylor-Compton perfectly shows the change in Robin when her family unit doesn’t turn out quite like she planned. Another standout performance of this star-studded film is Sig Haig (The Devil’s Rejects, Razor) as Detective Edwards. This was a very different role for Haig, since fans are used to seeing him as the bad guy, yet he plays a detective very well. Despite his good-guy performance being different than what fans are used to, he still manages to inject a little bit of the classic Haig we know and love. Other noteworthy performances come from Bill Moseley (The Devil’s Rejects), Robert LaSardo (Anarchy Parlor), Kyle Jones (The Boonies), and Rebecca Marshall (Raze). Each and every one of these actors is guaranteed to make you laugh.

The best part of this film is Cynthia herself. The creature design is absolutely brilliant because the filmmakers managed to create something that is both disgusting and cute at the same time. They make you love Cynthia, despite her appearance and the horrific things she does. This design feels slightly reminiscent of the evil baby from Dead Alive, except it is somehow more grotesque and lovable. She was created entirely with practical effects and puppeteers, which makes her all the more endearing. The filmmakers wisely were slow to reveal Cynthia. It is just the right amount of delayed gratification for the audience, because when the full reveal finally happens we are already emotionally invested in this character. The audience becomes attached to her sweet little baby sounds and farts, bringing out our paternal instincts, before seeing how horrific looking she truly is. After seeing this film I can only imagine fans will want their own Cynthia to cuddle with at night.

Cynthia is a campy delight with the most hideously adorably creature ever made. It is really a perfect storm of different horror elements. The film has a fantastic cast, superb creature design, and it is hilarious. The only downside to the film is some of the medical scenes and terminology are off, but since the rest of the film involves a strange baby-creature these inaccuracies are easy to overlook. This film isn’t for everyone, and there are many who will not appreciate the camp or the gore. Still, the comedic approach to telling a story about a couple struggling with fertility will delight audiences everywhere. If this film is coming to a film festival near you, then be sure to check it out.

OVERALL RATING: 7/10

Mom and Dad

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Parents have a natural instinct that makes them willing to do anything to protect their offspring. One day, all that changes. Something is happening to all the parents. Suddenly the parents will stop at nothing to kill their own children. Carly, a teenage girl, must fight to protect her little brother from their own mom and dad, who want nothing more than to murder them.

The premise of this film is very simple. One day, instead of wanting to protect their children, all the parents suddenly want to brutally murder their children. That’s pretty much it. The film never even explains why this sudden change occurs. While not knowing the ‘why’ behind all the carnage is somewhat troublesome, it allows you to focus on the relationships within the main family unit and what it means to be a parent. This aspect is the most interesting part of the film, although some may see it as mean-spirited.

Every parent thinks negative thoughts about their kids, especially when the kids are in their teenage years. Mothers think about how having children ruined their bodies. Fathers think about how they lost their freedom by getting married and having kids. Granted, this isn’t how all parents think, but I’d be willing to bet that a lot of parents occasionally think thoughts along the same lines. While in the real world these are just thoughts, and they don’t take away from how much a parent loves their child, that isn’t the case in this film. A lot of these negative thoughts are the driving force behind the parents killing their kids. Some viewers will likely think this makes the film cruel. I think it adds to the dark, and sometimes overly honest, humor threaded throughout the film.

Another aspect of the film that might make people dislike it is the violence towards children. While for the most part the film focuses on the teenage daughter, the filmmakers do show violence towards younger kids and even infants. Again, this will be off-putting to some viewers. There aren’t many filmmakers willing to show that kind of violence towards kids, but in real life children are not immune to violence. It makes sense that even the youngest children wouldn’t be immune to it in this film, especially since every parent is affected by whatever mysterious force makes them want to kill their children.

While the film is primarily told through the eyes of the teenage daughter, the adults have the standout performances. The role of the father, Brent, seems like it was written for Nicolas Cage (Knowing, Face/Off). Cage is known for his freakout moments in past films, and this film is filled to the brim with classic Cage craziness. Anyone who is a fan of Cage’s over-the-top acting style will want to see him in this. Selma Blair (Cruel Intentions, Hellboy) plays the mother in this psychotic duo, Kendall. Blair typically plays the more shy, awkward characters, but not in this performance. In this film, audiences get to see her go through an interesting transformation. Initially she is the quintessential perfect mom doing anything and everything for her children. Then, as all the other parents become murderous, her change to wanting nothing more than to kill her own kids is even more pronounced. Together they make an insane and often hilarious couple, fitting into various parenting stereotypes.

Mom and Dad is a hyper-violent and darkly funny film that says all the things about parenting that parents aren’t supposed to say. This film takes some risks in how it portrays violence (with children on the receiving end of this violence). As a result, there will be some who undoubtedly will hate this film. In my opinion, the film is an entertaining flick chalked full of mindless violence. Throw in the classic Nic Cage craziness and Selma Blair’s evil charms, and it is easier to overlook the somewhat skimpy plot. This film may be forgotten by the end of the year, but I have a feeling it will develop quite the cult following over the years.

OVERALL RATING: 6.5/10

Dave Made a Maze

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Dave never finishes anything. He picks up hobby after hobby trying to create something, but he never finishes. One day he decides to build a cardboard labyrinth in his living room while his girlfriend is out of town. As he’s building, he accidentally traps himself inside. When his girlfriend gets home she gathers friends to go in and find Dave. What they don’t realize is that the labyrinth is much bigger on the inside, and the creatures and traps Dave built have taken on a life of their own.

Dave Made a Maze is the single most original film I have seen in years. Most people growing up built some kind of fort or maze out of whatever is in the house as a child. Most people also pretend that what is inside is real. The filmmakers create a cardboard world that is beautiful and nostalgic all at the same time. They quite literally bring to life a childhood that many people experienced. The maze Dave builds doesn’t look like much from the outside. It’s just a bunch of cardboard boxes taped together in the middle of a living room. Yet the maze has a TARDIS-like quality (Doctor Who reference for those who don’t know) in that it becomes a full-size labyrinth once inside. To add to the sense of whimsy in this film even the booby traps and creatures that are made from paper and cardboard come to life including giant heads, origami cranes, and the legendary Minotaur.

In many ways the maze itself represents Dave’s lack of focus. It is just another unfinished project and the many traps within are the things that distract him from completing anything. There is even one scene where Dave and his girlfriend get stuck in what looks like their apartment in this odd continuous daily loop of monotony. While this scene is up for interpretation, I see this as yet another trap in Dave’s maze. This trap locks Dave back into the life he is currently living and never achieving greatness like he so desperately desires. This is why, even when his friends enter the maze and they are all being chased by the Minotaur, Dave insists that the only way to escape the maze is by completing it. Yet again, this is a representation of Dave being forced to break out of the cycle he has created for himself. This metaphor is something that many viewers can relate to and will empathize with.

The world created in this film manages to be both whimsical and somewhat terrifying all at once. The set design is breathtaking, each part of the maze being made almost entirely out of cardboard. What’s even more impressive is that each set was built and disassembled in one day and filming time only took 22 days. The amount of work and artistry the filmmakers put into these sets is truly amazing. Even the various traps are made out of cardboard and when someone meets their end in a trap instead of blood, red streamers pour out of their body. It makes the death scenes absolutely hilarious and allows the filmmakers to have a certain level of gore without any actual blood or guts. The creature design is also primarily cardboard and paper, which is beautiful when the creatures come to life. Unfortunately this is where I find one negative about the film. Dave made everything out of cardboard, and most of the creatures are cardboard, yet the Minotaur doesn’t quite follow that rule. His head is a gorgeous cardboard design, yet the head sits atop of big, buff, shirtless human body. If the Minotaur had been made fully in cardboard it would have been more effective and stayed within the continuity of the film.

This fantastical world would not be as compelling without the characters who venture through it. Nick Thune (Urge, Dreamland) plays the builder, Dave. His character has a very interesting story arc and Thune does an excellent job of portraying Dave as he goes on this unique adventure. Thune makes the audience initially think Dave is just kind of a loser, but as the story progresses he manages to change how Dave is perceived. Much of the supporting cast is excellent as well. Meera Rohit Kumbhani (The Engagement Clause, Weird Loners) is delightful as Dave’s girlfriend, Annie. She stands out because she is tolerant of her boyfriend and tries to support him in his endeavors, even when his actions seem a bit on the crazy side.  Adam Busch (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Colony) is also great as Dave’s best friend, Gordon. Much like Annie, Gordon tries to be supportive of Dave, but he is also great at making fun of Dave’s shortcomings in a friendly way. While watching the film you really get the feeling that these people are relatable friends reacting in honest ways, and that is all due to the acting.

Dave Made a Maze is a bizarrely perfect blend of horror and whimsy. It is almost as if we enter an alternate universe where Jim Henson makes horror films. The gorgeous sets and fantastical creatures create a beautiful new world. The fact that the filmmakers were able to achieve this in 22 days of filming is still baffling to me. My biggest complaint is simply the Minotaur. While the head is a gorgeous cardboard creation, it doesn’t make sense to me that it would have a normal human body. This film is truly one of the most stunning and unique films made in years and it breaks the barriers of the horror genre, providing something for everyone to enjoy.

OVERALL RATING: 8.5/10

The Night Watchmen

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A group of night watchmen and their new recruit keep watch over the offices of a newspaper. One night, when everyone is staying late to do inventory, a coffin is accidentally delivered to the building. Little do the night watchmen know that the late great Blimpo the clown is in that coffin and he met an untimely death in Romania. Blimpo is now a vampire and soon the night watchmen find themselves fighting for their lives as people in the office are turned into bloodthirsty monsters.

Of all the films at the Phoenix Film Festival and International Horror and Sci-fi Film Festival, I can say without a doubt that The Night Watchmen is the most fun horror film they programmed. This film really has everything one could want from a gory horror-comedy; lots of laughs, awesome practical effects, hilarious actors, and a fun story. The filmmakers managed to combine different things that scare people in order to create a spooky, hilarious hybrid. Clowns and vampires can be terrifying on their own. When you join them into one “clownpire,” then you get absolute insanity. The filmmakers also make the vampires in the film almost more zombie-like until they become a bit older and have more blood. This is smart because it allows them to create more carnage and excitement because the young vampires are essentially feral, wild animals.

Obviously the entire concept of this film is hilarious, but there are smaller details that elevate it to a higher level of humor. The three night watchmen and their new hire make up quite the team. The leader of their team is the typical buff ex-military guard. He is more experienced than the others so he naturally takes the lead. This character is hilarious because he fits into a certain stereotype, until the craziness begins and then you see that he isn’t quite the macho man he appears to be. The leader’s best friend and fellow night watchman is described in the film as “the worst black guy ever.” He commonly says common phrases incorrectly and enjoys things a stereotypical black man would not enjoy. This is a trait that can be seen in most of the main characters. The filmmakers do a great job of introducing caricatures and stereotypes of different people, but then show that they actually do not fit into that mold at all. It adds a more subtle layer of humor amidst all the fart and sex jokes.

The interesting and complex characters would be nothing without the actors who play them. The Night Watchmen is filled with laugh out loud performances from the lead characters all the way down to the smallest roles. All of the watchmen deliver performances wrought with humor and even a certain level of complexity not typically seen in this kind of horror-comedy. Ken Arnold (Men in Black 3, Lovely Molly) plays tough-guy leader, Ken. Arnold adds many layers to his character’s personality making him much more engaging and lovable. Kevin Jiggetts (Concussion, Won’t Back Down) plays the equally lovable Jiggetts, Ken’s best friend and the aforementioned “worst black guy ever.” Jiggetts does an amazing job of acknowledging the stereotypes people expect his character to fall into and then he completely shatters that stereotype. Max Gray Wilbur (Thrill Kill) is yet another example of breaking expectations in his portrayal of the rookie who is fondly known as “Rajeeve.”  One would expect him to be the hero of the story since he is the young fresh face, but the audience quickly learns that is not the case. Then there is Kara Luiz (Jerks with Cameras, American Poltergeist 3) as the strong female lead of Karen. I love the character of Karen and Luiz’s portrayal of her because she is not a damsel in distress. In the workplace she ranks higher than the male leads and she takes charge and refuses to be the helpless victim. Other great performances come from Dan DeLuca (Crazy Eights), Tiffany Shepis (Tales of Halloween), James Remar (Unnatural), and of course Gary Peebles as the great Blimpo.

This is a very gory, bloody film. It would have failed miserably without those who create the amazing practical effects. Every wound and bit of gore is very well done. It is definitely over the top at times when looking at the amount of blood and guts, but it works in this kind of film. The creature design for the vampires is one of the best aspects of the practical effects. I appreciate that, instead of the usual two elongated fangs and alluring demeanor, the filmmakers broke the vampire mold (much like with the main characters) by having a mouth full of sharp teeth and rabid behavior. The vampires are feral, wild beasts instead of the usual calm and composed sex symbols. It makes them more frightening and dangerous, especially as they slowly begin to gain more intelligence with each drop of blood they drink. I also love that they make Blimpo stand out as the leader by making him the strongest, most intelligent, and making him appear larger than everyone else. Blimpo is not a clown you would want to meet in a dark alley.

The Night Watchmen is an insanely fun and bloody ride that is sure to tickle the funny bone of horror fans everywhere. In this film you get lots of gore, excitement, and laughs. While the fart jokes may go on a little too long, the filmmakers make up for it by giving the audience surprisingly complex characters. Those complex characters are portrayed by an all-around fantastic cast that has electric chemistry between them. I not only want to see more of these characters, but I also can’t wait to see what the filmmakers come up with next.

OVERALL RATING: 8.5/10

XX

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XX is a unique horror anthology in that not only stars women, but all of the shorts are also written and directed by women. Since women writing and directing in the horror genre tend to be few and far between, it is refreshing that these talented females collaborated to create this film. The anthology starts with what could be called an overarching story, but really it is simply a bizarre string of stop motion images to set the eerie tone for what’s to come. While there didn’t seem to be much of a purpose to the stop motion animation other than to act as a visual intermission between segments, it was still quite beautiful in a disturbing way. In order to properly review the rest of the film I will divide by each segment in order of how they were shown.

The Box: This segment was written and directed by Jovanka Vuckovic. Her work has primarily been in short films up to this point, and you can see from this segment that it is something she does very well. The Box is about a boy who looks into a gift box belonging to a man on the subway. From that moment on he completely loses any desire to eat for no apparent reason. The rest of the film focuses on the mother, played by Natalie Brown (The Strain, Channel Zero), as she watches her family wither away into nothingness. The makeup and practical effects used to make the son look like he’s starving to death are disturbingly realistic. This short is a slow burn into darkness that is atmospheric and somewhat melancholy. It is a beautifully done short that is also well acted, but I found myself wanting just a little more from the ending.

The Birthday Party: A woman finds her husband dead the morning of her daughter’s big birthday party. Trying not to ruin the celebration, the woman does what she can to keep the body out of sight. This short is written and directed by Annie Clark (also known as St. Vincent). While Clark is known for her music, this is her first attempt at writing and directing a short film. One of my favorite things about this short is the twisted sense of humor about it. Additionally, it had a strange, brightly-colored mid-century modern look to it that reminded me a bit of Edward Scissorhands. I also thought Melanie Lynskey (Togetherness, Up in the Air) was hilarious and relatable as the mother, Mary. This is probably the most visually stunning of the shorts in this anthology, and the most fun.

Don’t Fall: Of all the shorts in XX, Don’t Fall feels the most like a classic horror film. Written and directed by Roxanne Benjamin (Southbound), this short follows a group of friends going on a hiking and camping trip in the desert. After the four friends find ancient cave paintings, one of the friends becomes possessed by a creature that was depicted in those paintings. This is by far the most frightening of the shorts, as well as the most action-packed. There are some excellent shots set up in such a way that the possessed girl appears to be doing things that should be impossible. It is easy to see how the filmmakers achieved these scenes, but it doesn’t take away from the visual impact.

Her Only Living Son: This short is written and directed by Karyn Kusama (The Invitation, Jennifer’s Body) who is probably the most well known of these four women due to her previous work in horror. The story follows a mother preparing for her only son’s eighteenth birthday. In the days leading up to this we learn that her son has some sociopathic tendencies that get worse as his birthday approaches. The main aspect of this short that I really enjoyed was the sense of impending doom. Also, one could easily look at the story as an unofficial sequel to Rosemary’s Baby (and perhaps that was the intent). I thought Christina Kirk (Love is Strange, Taking Woodstock) performed the role of Cora, the mother, quite well. Despite this I still didn’t love the character. She is a bit too meek throughout most of the film and can’t muster the strength to control her son’s dangerous actions.

The aptly named XX (so named because the XX chromosomes determine female sex) is a celebration of women creating bewitching works of horror. These shorts result in a highly entertaining anthology focusing on different areas of horror. While each of them are marvelous in their own way, I would have to say my favorite segment of XX is The Birthday Party. It is quite fitting this anthology would be released during the eighth annual Women in Horror month. By watching this film you are lending your support to women who want to make a name for themselves in the horror industry by working behind the camera rather than in front of it. This is a trend I hope to see more of in the future.

OVERALL RATING: 8/10

Fear, Inc.

A horror movie buff has his friends come in from out of town to celebrate Halloween. He wants to experience big scares, but finds the typical haunted houses and mazes predictable. A stranger tells him about a mysterious company called Fear, Inc. that will create terrifying scares catered to what he fears. Despite his friends warnings, the horror fan calls the company. It doesn’t take long for him to realize that he has made a grave mistake. He has put his friends and himself in peril as this dangerous company plays its wicked game.

What made this film stand out to me is that it strikes a cord with true horror fans. The discussions the friends have and the movies referenced are all parts of conversations we have had with other horror fans. There are also quite a few hidden gems throughout the film. They are almost like little inside jokes for genre fans to notice. An example of this is when the two lead males dress up as Freddy Krueger and Jason Voorhees for Halloween. The reason this is hilarious is because one of those two actors was in the movie Freddy vs. Jason. I almost died laughing when I saw them in costume and made the connection.

In terms of the overall story, this film reminded me a bit of The Houses October Built. Both feature characters that are disillusioned by what Halloween haunted houses and corn mazes have to offer in terms of scares. As a result, they look for something more intense and terrifying. This leads the characters down a path they wish they hadn’t gone down. It plays into the idea of people wanting bigger scares to get the adrenaline going, but how far should it really go?

Fear, Inc. did a great job of making sure the audience understood the company manufacturing scares was not on the up and up. They will do whatever it takes to scare the participants, even if that means by physical means. The lead character thinks it’s all fun and games, but when it clicks in his head that the gore might be real things take a turn. The film quickly goes from more of a comedic style to an intense thriller. The end of the film is what really makes Fear, Inc. shine through. The filmmakers managed to create an ending that felt familiar to horror fans, but it was also something new and exciting that kept the audience guessing. The only downfall to the plot that comes to mind is a few minor questions I have (I don’t necessarily want to call them plot holes) about how certain things were achieved.

This was a film that had an all-around great cast you could tell had fun making the film. Lucas Neff (Raising Hope, Glitch) was quite lovable as the lead, Joe. I used to watch Raising Hope, and I almost didn’t even recognize him in this film. Not only did he physically look different, but he plays such a laid-back character compared to how I was used to seeing him. I loved watching Neff portray Joe as this carefree guy that thinks everything is a game until things go too far, and then we get to see his more intense side. Caitlin Stasey (Reign, All Cheerleaders Die) was also delightful as Joe’s girlfriend, Lindsey. She stood out to me because of how she could change her character’s disposition at the flick of a switch, while still making it seem natural.

Since this is a horror film made to appease genre fans, there was of course a healthy amount of gore. The filmmakers were very clever about how they showed the blood and guts. Much of what we see looks better than a low budget horror film, but also not too realistic. It is this odd in-between area where it could possibly be real, but it could be fake as well. It helped us stay in the same mindset as Joe so the audience is never sure if what we are seeing is real or all part of an act. This helped us to try to figure things out along with Joe.

If I had to say one thing about this movie it’s that it is fun. This film was a perfect homage to the horror genre and the loyal fans. Fear, Inc. is a film that makes you laugh and gasp in turn, and it keeps you guessing from start to finish. It is a movie that will be added to my list of  must-watch films for Halloween. If you are a true fan of horror, this is not a film you should pass up on. It may not be scary, and there may be one or two things that could have used a bit more explaining, but it is the most fun I’ve had watching a horror movie in  while.

OVERALL RATING: 8/10