Horror

IHSFF 2018: Horror Shorts B

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The International Horror and Sci-fi Film Festival always shows a great collection of short films. Because there are so many to discuss, I decided to write-up little blurbs about each one and organize them by how the short films were programmed in the festival. Here are my reviews and ratings for the short films in HORROR SHORTS B:

ALFRED J HEMLOCK – Written by Edward Lyons & Melissa Lyons, Directed by Edward Lyons

This darkly twisted tale follows a young woman whose date ditches her in an alley one night. In that alley she meets a strange character named Alfred J Hemlock who is anything but human. This short has strong performances and a fascinating concept. The one thing that will make this film less enjoyable is that it feels like it tries too hard to emulate the work of Tim Burton, yet it falls short. If the styling had been different, putting the focus more just on the characters, it would have been a much stronger short. OVERALL RATING: 2.5/5.

HOPE – Written by Adam Losurdo & Chris Stival, Directed by Adam Losurdo

In a world filled with zombies, one zombie wanders around looking for love. The zombies are different in this short; they don’t attack people. Instead, it’s the people who are terrible to zombies. The film is unique, funny, and has a great ending. It’s the kind of film that makes you hate people and human nature, which is something I always enjoy. Plus, the zombie makeup is pretty fun to look at as well. OVERALL RATING: 4.5/5

EN PASSANT – Written/Directed by Barron Hilton

One thing I can say definitively about this short film is that it is beautiful. It is filled with beautiful people, beautiful cinematography, and beautiful sets. It is the kind of film that blends sexy and dark very well. There is even an appearance by the late Rick Genest (aka Zombie Boy). Beyond the beauty the film lacks a bit of substance, choosing to have no dialogue and focusing more on the sex appeal rather than the sinister ending. With just a bit more explanation into the “why” of what happens, even without dialogue, the film would have been exponentially better. OVERALL RATING: 3/5

WHAT METAL GIRLS ARE INTO – Written/Directed by Laurel Vail

The film follows a group of female metal fans as they rent a place to attend a metal music festival. They quickly realize their host is up to no good. The plot is quirky, humorous, and has a very satisfying ending. The film is also relevant in the #MeToo era. Audiences will even recognize Matt Mercer (Contracted: Phase II) as the creepy rental host and writer/director Laurel Vail (Contracted: Phase II) herself also stars in the short. Of all the shorts at the festival I had the most fun watching this one, and it is honestly probably my favorite this year. OVERALL RATING: 5/5

THE DAY MUM BECAME A MONSTER – Written/Directed by Josephine Hopkins

This short film comes from France and follows a young girl who lives with her divorced mother. The estranged father is supposed to come for the girl’s birthday, which delights the girl but has the opposite effect on the mother. This short has a similar feel to The Babadook. As the mother becomes more depressed over her situation she goes through a physical transformation that represents her internal turmoil. It’s a very compelling, gorgeous, and well acted film. It also has some fantastic practical effects portraying the mother’s transformation. This is a short you won’t want to miss. OVERALL RATING: 5/5

GRIN – Written/Directed by Tanuj Chopra, Story by Sheetal Sheth

A young woman goes on a photoshoot where the photographer crosses a line that should never be crossed. The short film follows her mental and emotional unravelling after these events with stunning visuals. The film is beautifully shot, but it lacks a bit of substance. It seems to focus to much on making something visually beautiful rather than sending the intended message that relates to the #MeToo movement. There needs to be a bit more actual plot to go along with the artistic imagery. As it is, the short is more of an art installation than a well hashed out story. OVERALL RATING: 2.5/5

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IHSFF 2018: Horror Shorts A

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The International Horror and Sci-fi Film Festival always shows a great collection of short films. Because there are so many to discuss, I decided to write-up little blurbs about each one and organize them by how the short films were programmed in the festival. Here are my reviews and ratings for the short films in HORROR SHORTS A:

LOVE CUTS DEEP – Written/Directed by Veronica Shea

This short follows Jeremy, played by Trevor Stevens (Swipe Right), as a serial killer who hates love. That is, until he meets someone who could be the girl of his dreams. This short is quirky and fun. It has a little bit of something for everyone, from a sweet and romantic story to blood and gore. Stevens is great as the lead. He has a distinct American Psycho vibe as he plays Jeremy as a charming sociopath, even breaking the fourth wall throughout most of the short by talking to the audience. OVERALL SCORE: 4.5/5

FISHER COVE – Written/Directed by Sean Skene

A fisherman and his dog go out for a normal fishing trip, which turns strange when a mysterious creature appears. This short actually won Best Horror Short Film at the festival, and it’s easy to see why. It’s an exciting plot that goes in a direction you wouldn’t expect for a short film. The practical effects for the creature are also very well done. What might be even more surprising is that the creature has an apparatus on his head that moves that was done with CGI, but when I saw the short I was convinced it was practically done. That is very unexpected in a low budget short, and a sign that this is a must-see flick. OVERALL SCORE: 4.5/5

IT BEGAN WITHOUT WARNING – Written/Directed by Jessica Curtright & Santiago C. Tapia

The generally premise of this short film is very interesting. Without giving away too much of the plot, I will say the filmmakers do a really great job of making you think one thing is happening, only to turn the tables. It gives audiences a shocked or “aha” moment when the realize the truth. It’s surprisingly effective, especially considering there is virtually no dialogue. The one thing that detracts from the short a bit is a practical effects “creature.” It looks a bit too much like they just grabbed a wound prosthetic and turned it into an evil being. Still, the short film is worth a watch. OVERALL RATING: 3.5/5

THE NIGHT DELIVERY – Written/Directed by Scott O’Hara

This is probably the only short at the festival that genuinely scared me. The creepy short film follows three grocery story delivery boys turned would-be thieves who discover something evil is in the house they targeted. The short feels like a well thought out, complete story and the three leads do a great job. There are also some phenomenal practical effects and creature design that elevate the beautifully shot short film. OVERALL RATING: 5/5

THE DOLLMAKER – Written by Matias Caruso & Directed by Alan Lougher

A dollmaker offers to make doll in the likeness of a child who has died to help the family grieve, but there are rules that come with the magical doll. This is a sad, sentimental short that will touch anyone who has experienced loss and/or any parents. Sean Meehan (The Normal Heart) and Perri Lauren (Grey Lady) both give compelling performances as the grieving parents. The filmmakers do a great job of keeping a constant sense of dread throughout the film as it approaches the inevitable, yet still somewhat shocking end. OVERALL RATING: 4/5

AVULSION – Written/Directed by Steven Boyle

This short film is interesting because it begins with what appears to be an encounter between a high-class prostitute and a client. As the plot progresses things take a turn for the gory. One of the most successful aspects of this film is the little clues the filmmakers leave for the audience. When the big twist is revealed at the end it is shocking, yet when you think back to the bread crumbs left throughout the film it all makes sense. There are also a lot of really well done gory practical effects and a creepy creature design. If you enjoy gore and films that discuss the darkness inside everyone, then this is the short for you. OVERALL RATING: 4/5.

SOMETHING IN THE DARKNESS – Written/Directed by Fran Casanova

All the way from Spain comes a short film about a little girl’s fear of what lurks in the dark. This is something that almost every horror fan (or really any human being) can relate to, especially from their childhood. Young Luna Fulgencio (El es tu Padre) is perfect as Veronica. The film does a lot by simply setting the mood and putting the audience on edge as they experience the little girl’s fear. There are also some fun twists and turns to thrill and shock the audience. OVERALL RATING: 4.5/5

RIGOR MORTIS – Written by Matthew E. Robinson & Shandton Williams, Directed by Matthew E. Robinson

This is the most comedic short of this block at the festival. Conjoined twins go through the surgery to separate. When one of them wakes up, he realizes his brother didn’t survive the surgery. From there it is a lot of strange hallucinations of his brother intertwined with comedic elements as the surviving twin goes through survivor’s guilt. It is an interesting concept with decent acting, but there is something about the color pallet and sound mixing in the film that detracts from the overall appeal. OVERALL RATING: 3/5

Show Yourself

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An actor, Travis, is grieving the sudden loss of his friend. To honor him, Travis goes to their favorite childhood camping spot to scatter his ashes. As Travis works through his grief in the woods, strange things start to happen. It becomes clear that he definitely isn’t alone in these woods. Is it the ghost of his dearly departed friend? Or is it something much more sinister?

This film is not only an interesting character study, but it also offers a deep look into grief and guilt. Writer and director Billy Ray Brewton (Dead Ahead) really excels at giving the audience a compelling character that they care for, even with his flaws. The film weaves home videos throughout the plot in order to help build on the character development. What makes this aspect more successful than other films that may use the same tactic is that many of the things the audience sees in these home videos become relevant to what is happening in the present. There is a lot of time devoted to character development in this film. While some may argue it is too much time, and not enough on any really scary stuff, I think it works for the tone of the film. It’s by no means a very scary film. Instead, Brewton gives audiences an eerie and emotional film that shows how Travis works through his grief and personal guilt by incorporating supernatural elements. The resulting film ends up being something that even people who don’t like horror can enjoy.

Another successful piece of this film is how Brewton leaves just enough up to the imagination of the audience. There is really only one scene where the audience gets a clear view of whatever is in the woods. For the most part it is implied, left in the shadows, or just out of focus. This is actually brilliant for two reasons. The first is the budget. With a low budget indie film it makes sense to utilize these methods so they don’t have to blow the budget on crazy practical or CGI effects. And honestly, in an intimate film like this, it is entirely unnecessary. The second reason this is a smart idea is because it lets the audience decide what the entity is. It is mostly out of view, and never fully explained, so each individual can get something different from the film. Is it the ghost of the dead friend? Is it a demon? Is it a physical manifestation of Travis’s guilt? Personally, I think it’s the latter, but the great thing is that you can decide for yourself when you watch the film.

When it comes to the acting in this film, the clear highlight is Ben Hethcoat (The Babysitter Murders) as Travis. Losing a friend is difficult, and watching Travis go through his journey is quite compelling. Hethcoat does a great job of portraying Travis as he goes through the complicated emotions relating to grief. Travis reacts by pushing some people away while he tries to reconnect with others, he lashes out at people, he clearly feels some level of guilt, and he feels like scattering the ashes is his sole responsibility. Considering Travis is the only character on screen for almost the entire film it is important to have a strong actor in the role, and Hethcoat fills that role very well.

Show Yourself uses the supernatural to tell a tale about grief. Brewton shows that he is clearly a skilled storyteller who can write compelling characters. In a film like this that focuses so much on a single character, a compelling character is exceedingly important. Hethcoat also gives the audience a fantastic performance as the lead, Travis. While the film blends the supernatural elements well with the plot, for many horror fans it might not be enough. I can already hear the complaints saying it isn’t a horror film simply because it didn’t scare you. If you’re a person that often makes that complaint, then this film isn’t for you. Yet I highly encourage everyone else, even people who don’t typically enjoy horror films, to seek this film out.

OVERALL RATING: 8/10

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

The Ranger

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After a traumatic childhood, a teen girl lives a transient punk lifestyle with her friends. A police incident forces the group of punks to find a place to hide out. They go back to the place of the girl’s trauma where they meet the park ranger. Things go from bad to worse when the friends realize this isn’t your friendly neighborhood ranger.

This thrilling flick is the work of director Jenn Wexler and co-writer Giaco Furino, both making their feature film debut. At first glance this film seems like a typical popcorn slasher. While it does have many of the elements making it fun and exciting to watch, it goes even deeper than that. For one, the film has some great character development. A large portion of the beginning of the film allows the audience to really get to know the characters and care for them, especially the teen girl whose cabin they go to. All of the characters are flawed as well, making them more believable and relatable. There is a great aspect of the character development that explores both dealing with trauma and finding your place in the world. It is something that speaks to many different types of audiences, while still giving an entertaining story.

Another extremely successful aspect of the film is the treatment of LGBTQ characters. It is common in horror films for the LGBTQ characters to fit some stereotype or have their being gay be the focus of who they are as a person. In The Ranger there is a gay couple and the best part about them is that I didn’t even realize they were gay until a ways into the film. They feel like real people and, aside from them having a sweet couple moment or two, the filmmakers don’t focus on the fact that they are gay.

The only downside is that the character development may go on a little too long. When the action starts it almost feels rushed because so much time is spent on what happens before the kids even meet the ranger. There is also very little development of the ranger himself. In many ways it works. The ranger’s strange behavior is a mystery, which makes sense because the audience knows as much about the ranger as the teens do. Yet I can’t help wishing I knew more about some of the more bizarre things he does.

This film is filled with outstanding performances from the entire cast. The clear standout is Chloe Levine (The Transfiguration, The OA) as Chelsea. Chelsea went through a childhood trauma that lead her to finding a home in the punk scene. It’s fascinating to see how Levine portrays Chelsea as a young woman who is finding her way in the word. She also does a superb job of showing the audience Chelsea is a survivor who can adapt to any situation thrown at her. Another great performance comes from Jeremy Holm (House of Cards, Mr. Robot) as the ranger. Even when the ranger is being perfectly pleasant, Holm still manages to bring an edge to his performance. It is like he is a bear trap ready to spring at any provocation. When he finally does snap, Holm makes the ranger an entertaining and derange killer. Honorable mention goes to the rest of the punks including Granit Lahu (The Sinner), Jeremy Pope, Bubba Weiler (Puzzle), and Amanda Grace Benitez (All Cheerleaders Die), all of whom are perfect punks.

The artistry of the film is intriguing as well. As with any good slasher flick, there is a decent amount of blood and gore in this film. The practical effects are very well done. There is a high level of gore, but it is done in a very realistic way. This is great because there isn’t anything that feels over-the-top or overtly fake like in many classic slasher films. The music in the film also elevates it to a heightened level of art. The punk rock blends perfectly with the style and imagery to create something quite stunning to watch.

The Ranger is equal parts carnage, survival, and punk rock. It has all the appeal of an eighties slasher flick, but it also tells a more complex story. The plot allows for fascinatingly flawed characters to be thrust into extreme circumstances. This leaves room for great character development that explores the many facets of human nature, how people deal with trauma, and the will to survive. Sprinkle in a great killer and punk rock music and you get a very well made film. There may be a bit of room for improvement when it comes to the pacing of the film, but for a directorial and writing debut from Wexler and Furina, it is definitely a strong start.

OVERALL RATING: 8/10

 

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

The Heretics

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A young girl is kidnapped by a cult. They use her to perform a ritual under the locust moon, but then the entire cult commits suicide. Years later she struggles to cope with the trauma of that day. As a new locust moon approaches, the girl is kidnapped again by a lone survivor of the cult, but he claims to want to save her from an evil growing inside her. She must decide to believe him or escape, and time is running out.

The single strongest part of this film is the premise. Chad Archibald (Bite, The Drownsman) came up with the story and directed while Jayme Laforest (Bite, Gods of Accident) wrote the screenplay. The plot is interesting because it almost instantly subverts your expectations. When you see a young girl kidnapped by a cult, you expect her to be sacrificed for some demon or god. That isn’t what happens here. The cult actually sacrifices themselves, leaving the girl alone on the alter to find her way home. It isn’t until years later that the horror truly begins. The film flips back and forth between what is happening with the kidnapped girl and her captor, then showing the people who are searching for the girl. It allows the filmmakers to slowly reveal details as the plot progresses. There is also a really interesting level of surreal hallucinations as it gets closer to dawn. The idea behind the film is great, but the film leans more towards melodrama and camp in a film that otherwise has a very serious and sinister tone.

The performances in this film are a bit of a mixed bag. Nina Kiri (The Handmaid’s Tale, Let Her Out) plays Gloria, the victim of two kidnappings. For the most part Kiri’s portrayal of Gloria keeps the audience interested and empathetic, especially as we learn the PTSD she experiences in the wake of the first kidnapping. There are times in her performance later on where she comes off as a bit breathy (I know that may sound odd, but it is the word that comes to mind). She sometimes speaks softly and with the breathiness of someone trying to talk after going for a long run. While this technically works for the circumstances she is in, it comes across as more of an acting tool rather than a genuine reaction to the circumstances. Ry Barrett (The Demolisher, Inspiration) plays kidnapper Thomas. This is likely the most complex character. He was a member of the cult and, in an act of regret and cowardice, he does not sacrifice himself with the others. Now he kidnaps Gloria again in order to redeem himself. Barrett does a good job of conveying the complicated emotions Thomas goes through as he tries to overcome his guilt. Jorja Cadence (Helltown, Y2K) plays Gloria’s girlfriend, Joan. Cadence’s performance starts out fine, but as she goes into hysterics after Gloria is kidnapped her performance becomes a bit over the top. There is a lot of yelling and screaming that is exaggerated to the point of being almost humorous.

One of the stronger points of the film is the practical effects. The longer Gloria is locked away in the secluded cabin, the more she begins to transform. The filmmakers take their time with the transformation, allowing there to be subtle changes as the plot progresses. These changes eventually get fairly grotesque. The grotesque features altering such a beautiful young woman make the changes even more disturbing. The final transformation moves away from practical effects and turns to CGI, which unfortunately takes away from the shocking imagery and cheapens the overall look.

The Heretics is a film with the makings of a great plot that just wasn’t executed as well as it could have been. The idea behind it is great and the plot has some surprising points to keep audiences interested. For the most part it has compelling performances as well, but again there are times when the acting goes over the top into the realm of campy B-movies. The special effects stand out as a high point, until the end when the filmmakers make the choice to move from practical to CGI effects. It is obvious that the film is split down the middle when it comes to high and low points, making it just an okay film.

OVERALL RATING: 5/10