Matt Mercer

Artik

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A group of young boys live on a remote farm with their mother and father. The eldest boy helps his father with some strange tasks, including finding individuals to torture and murder. When the boy meets a man named Holton, who shows him kindness, the life the bizarre family has built is threatened.

Writer and director Tom Botchii Skowronski creates a very unique and strange debut feature film with Artik. The genre bender includes elements of a thriller, sci-fi, and even a bit of superhero flair. The plot follows Boy Adam, a young boy who is seemingly being groomed by his father figure, Artik, to continue his work. Artik is obsessed with comic books and is clearly on some kind of quest to find a certain type of person, yet in most cases he simply ends up brutally murdering these people. Then Boy Adam meets Holton. Holton is a straight-edge man who is likely the first to show the boy any true kindness. That moment is the catalyst that sets the rest of the film in motion as the boy realizes there could be another way of life and Holton attempts to help him. After the disturbing opening, the film takes on more of a gradual build of suspense leading up to the bloody, violent climax.

Artik at first feels like it takes place in an alternate reality. The way the world looks from the boy’s point of view on the farm leads the viewer to believe the world is a dangerous and desolate place. It’s when Holton is introduced that the world of Artik comes back to reality. It’s a very effective bit of filmmaking because it shows how Artik’s delusions influence the boy’s point of view. To him the world is a dark and dangerous place, until Holton shows him the world outside the farm is very different from what he has been lead to believe.

The film is very unique and builds suspense well, but it also leaves a bit too many unanswered questions. For one, Artik’s comic book obsession is almost a bit too subtle. There are some great visual cues including a target with Loki’s face in the center, comic book style drawings of Artik committing his crimes, and even the outfit Artik wears when he commits these crimes makes him look an awful lot like The Winter Soldier. While I don’t mind not knowing where this obsession came from, I wish it was a bit more clear how this obsession dictates his actions. The audience learns early on that Artik is looking for a specific person, or type of person, and that is why he maims and kills. It isn’t until the climax of the film that it is revealed what qualities he is looking for in these people, but it is never fully explained why he wants them. It is also unclear if the boys on the farm are truly Artik’s children or if they were kidnapped and raised on the farm, but the mystery around this doesn’t necessarily detract from the plot.

One of the high points of Artik is the performances. Indie horror fans will likely recognize many of these faces. Chase Williamson (Beyond the Gates, Sequence Break) stars as Holton. He is an interesting character because on the outside he is covered in tattoos, dresses tough, works in a metal shop, and generally looks rough around the edges. Yet his character doesn’t do any drugs or alcohol and immediately shows kindness to a strange boy spray-painting the side of the shop. He is obviously a purely good person. Artik is played by Jerry G. Angelo (American Warfighter, Color of Souls). Angelo is an imposing figure and his portrayal of Artik is incredible to watch as you see him force his decisions on those around him and manipulate the boy to do his bidding. Other great performances from horror fan favorites come from Lauren Ashley Carter (Imitation Girl, Jug Face) as Artik’s wife, Flin Brays, Matt Mercer (Contracted: Phase 2, Beyond the Gates) as addiction counselor Kar, and Gavin White (14 Cameras) as Boy Adam.

The artistic elements, from the score to the practical effects, are all stunning. The film’s score, by Corey Wallace, matches the dark and gritty look of the film and adds to the suspense perfectly. The practical effects in Artik are very well done. There is a fair amount of blood and gore in this film, so the practical effects are a vital part of the storytelling. Each wound and kill are executed quite well, especially one rather gruesome scene involving a fork. Even the set design and wardrobe help with the storytelling of Artik. The most notable of these is the outfit Artik wears when he kills, which I mentioned before as looking similar to The Winter Soldier, aka Bucky Barnes. Fans who know more about that character know he has a sordid past, yet as a whole the character is typically seen as a hero. This likely indicates that is how Artik sees himself. It is the attention to detail like this that really add to the overall appeal of the film.

Artik is a tense film that will appeal to those who love gritty horror and comic books. Skowronski proves he knows how to create compelling characters and build tension within the plot. That being said, there are aspects of the film that remain too vague and unexplained. There are also aspects of the film viewers might not understand as well if they aren’t familiar with the comic book references. Yet the film still combines stunning artistry and a cast filled with indie favorites to bring in a wider horror audience. Between the music, gore, and performances, this film is definitely worth checking out.

OVERALL RATING: 7/10

The Toybox

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An aging father buys an old RV to take his estranged family on a road trip. Along the way the family picks up a pair of siblings stranded on the side of the road. The road trip has barely begun before things take a turn for the worst. The group ends up broken down in the middle of nowhere, but they are not alone. There is something haunting the rusty old RV, and it’s out for blood.

The Toybox is an interesting blend of horror subgenres. The film is directed by Brian Nagel (ClownTown) and written by Jeff Denton, both also starring in the film. This is Denton’s debut as a screenwriter, and it is a strong start to his writing career. There are a couple scenes where the dialogue doesn’t quite feel true to life, but otherwise the dialogue and plot flow very well. Together Nagel and Denton create a film that is emotionally driven by the family members coming together during the terrifying events, while also giving audiences a frightening film.

For the most part the film is a spooky ghost film. There is an entity haunting the RV, and all it wants to do is maim and kill anyone who enters it. What makes the film a blend of horror subgenres is who is haunting the RV. The film does a great job of leaving little clues throughout the plot as to who the ghost could be, or at least the type of person they were when they were alive. As a film about ghosts, there are some very scary moments in the film as well. There is at least one decent jump scare that got me, but what the film does even better are some of the more subtly tense moments. The filmmakers set up many frightening moments where you can easily see what is going to happen, but they make you wait and wait and wait, building the suspense so you are at the edge of your seat before the trap is sprung. It is a very effective method, and it makes for some of the more memorable moments in the film.

The cast of The Toybox is a talented mix of actors, some of which horror fans will easily recognize. Likely the most widely recognizable actor in the film is Denise Richards (Wild Things, Starship Troopers) as wife and mother, Jennifer. Richards portrays Jennifer as the peacekeeper in the family, whether it be between her husband and his brother, the brother and his father, or keeping her daughter calm. The film also boasts Mischa Barton (The Sixth Sense, The O.C.) as Samantha. In the past few years Barton has been a prominent figure in indie horror films, and she does a great job in this role. She portrays Samantha as a strong, independent character who is also intuitive. Samantha is the first character to notice something isn’t quite right with the decrepit RV. The remaining cast also delivers strong performances including writer Jeff Denton (Inoperable) as Steve, director Brian Nagel (Ouija House) as Jay, Greg Violand (ClownTown) as Charles, Matt Mercer (Beyond the Gates) as Mark, and young Malika Michelle in her first film role as Olivia.

While overall the plot and performances are high points of the film, there are certain aspects that are not quite as strong. One of the lingering questions I was left with after watching this film is who did Charles buy the RV from. There are ways that it could have been done supernaturally or through the internet. Unfortunately, it is mentioned that a man sold the RV to Charles in person, but that person is never referenced again (so it is left unknown if he was somehow in cahoots with the ghostly entity). The other aspect that doesn’t quite fit with the continuity of the film is the appearance of a ghost girl. Based on the nature of the haunting, without giving away too many details, the ghostly young woman simply doesn’t make sense. She is also featured in a scene that is one of the more frightening moments. The issue with this scene is that the haunting is supposed to be limited to inside the RV, yet the ghost girl is scene in the desert landscape.

The Toybox is a tense indie horror film that combines ghostly thrills with a claustrophobic setting. There are a couple aspects of the plot that may leave the audience with lingering questions, but it is still a strong first feature film from screenwriter Denton. He and Nagel clearly make a great filmmaking team. The highlight of the film is how the filmmakers build anticipation and terror. Add compelling performances, especially from the two strong female leads, and it is hard to deny the strengths of the film. This indie horror film is one road trip horror fans won’t want to miss.

OVERALL RATING: 7/10

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