Occult

Annabelle: Creation

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A couple lost their young daughter in a tragic accident. Years later they decide to invite a nun and a group of orphaned girls to live with them after their orphanage closed down. An evil trapped within the house awakens and now it’s after the soul of one of the girls. The strange supernatural occurrences get worse with each passing day, threatening the lives of all who live in the house. It is up to the girls to try and defeat what could be the Devil himself.

After the less than well received Annabelle prequel of 2014, New Line Cinema decided to attempt a prequel to the prequel. They brought on Gary Dauberman, who also wrote the first Annabelle film, and director David F. Sandberg of Lights Out fame. These two manage to create a film worthy of being apart of The Conjuring universe. Bringing Sandberg in to direct was a great decision by the production company. Even though Annabelle: Creation is only his second feature length film, Sandberg has proven that he is a skilled horror storyteller who knows how to scare audiences. He expertly uses light and shadows to his advantage to not only bring exciting jump scares, but he also relies heavily on creating an unsettling atmosphere with more subtle spine-chilling scares. He also sets up scares in a very long, drawn out way that builds anticipation. You keep expecting the scare to come, but then it doesn’t until you are caught off guard again. Sandberg has already improved his skills since Lights Out, his first feature film, so I look forward to seeing more of his work in the future.

Bringing Dauderman on to write again was probably the best decision for this film. He has a clear understanding of the mythology created both in The Conjuring and in Annabelle. One of my biggest concerns going into Annabelle: Creation was how they were going to connect it to the first Annabelle film. I was almost expecting them to do what the latest Resident Evil film did and create an entirely new origin story, ignoring the previous film. Dauberman connects the two films in such a seamless manner. It is even more flawless than I could have imagined. On top of that, Dauberman creates a cast of compelling characters, each with their own fears that “Annabelle” tries to exploit. You care about each character, especially young Janice, who is recovering from polio. Caring about the characters makes the demonic presence all the more terrifying.

Having compelling characters would mean nothing if not for the actors who play them. While there are many characters, all of whom are important to the plot, it seems that there are two main characters of this film. Talitha Bateman (The 5th Wave, The Hive) plays Janice. Janice is a young orphan who is recovering from polio and has to use a crutch to get around. She suffers the most from the demon since she is the weak link of the orphan girls. Bateman is a new young talent and she absolutely shines in this role. From innocent girl trying to be strong for her friend to possessed by evil, Bateman shows range in her performance and I find myself completely enthralled by her. Lulu Wilson (Ouija: Origin of Evil, Deliver Us From Evil) also gives a stunning performance as Janice’s best friend, Linda. While Wilson excels in this role, I found her to be a bit of a distraction. She had just been in Ouija: Origin of Evil last year, and not only was this another horror prequel but it was set in a similar time (although I think chronologically Annabelle: Creation is earlier). Wilson is great as Linda, but I can’t stop thinking of her as Doris, especially since that film isn’t even a year old. The entire cast does a great job, making each character enjoyable to watch.

In keeping with other films in The Conjuring universe, Annabelle: Creation relies almost entirely on practical effects. Primarily the effects are to make the deceased daughter look unsettling. There is one scene where the makeup done on the girl goes a bit over the top, combined with her line of dialogue, to make it much more funny than scary. Aside from that, the effects are very well done, especially with the demon. While the demon is kept mostly in the shadow, which makes it even more disturbing, they keep its look simple and iconic. Often times what you don’t see is even more terrifying than what you can see, and Annabelle: Creation is a perfect example of that.

I went into Annabelle: Creation somewhat guarded and with low expectations. I came out of the theater with a partially numb arm from crouching awkwardly in fear. Annabelle: Creation is the most frightening film of 2017, so far, and it renews my faith in The Conjuring spin-off films. There are a couple scares that come across more funny than frightening, and I found the casting of Wilson to be rather distracting, but overall I am very pleased with this film. It is exceptionally well acted, has great scares, and perfectly connects to the films that came before it. Annabelle: Creation truly exceeds my expectations. Be sure to keep an eye out for a couple fun Easter eggs in this film, as well as a mid and post credit scene that you won’t want to miss.

OVERALL RATING: 7.5/10

The Dark Tower

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A young boy is consumed by his strange dreams. He sees a tower, a man in black who seeks to destroy the tower, and a gunslinger who seeks revenge. The dreams lead him to another world that has been ravaged by the man in black. He must find the gunslinger and aid him in defeating the man in black. If they fail, the tower will fall. If the tower falls, darkness will consume our world.

To start off I will say that I have never read The Dark Tower by Stephen King. I had no frame of reference going into this film so I had little to no expectations. Even with no expectations I still feel nothing but disappointment and confusion when thinking about The Dark Tower film. The film had such promise. It has a great cast, a big Hollywood budget, and (from what I understand) amazing source material. The number one issue with The Dark Tower is not only does it not follow what is written in the book, but it also creates this entire grand mythos without actually explaining any of it. The audience is introduced to the man in black and the gunslinger, but we don’t really learn anything about who or what they are and the motivations behind their actions. The audience is shown skin-stealing creatures who work for the man in black, but it is never explained what they actually are. There are entirely new worlds that are somehow connected by portals and the tower, but viewers never learn how this connection works. The film is only an hour and 35 minutes long. The fact that the filmmakers didn’t take an extra half hour to better develop the characters and the world they created is mind-boggling.

The effects of the film also leave much to be desired. The choice to use CGI throughout the film doesn’t bother me. With the world they are trying to create it is the most logical option. What does bother me is that there appears to be little effort put into these effects, making many scenes look like something from a made for TV movie instead of the blockbuster hit this film was supposed to be. The climax of the film is where the flaws are the most glaringly obvious. The final scenes look ridiculous, taking out any excitement or suspense, and the entire sequence of events is simply too brief. This is just another example that shows how a little more time and a bit more effort could have greatly improved the film.

The actors were one of the few positive aspects of The Dark Tower. The material the had to work with was thin, but the leads all did what they could with it. Idris Elba (Prometheus, Thor) did his best to make the gunslinger, Roland, as interesting and complex as possible. This is no easy thing to do with what Elba had to work with, but his talent still shows through the muck and the mire. It is clear that Matthew McConaughey (Interstellar, Dallas Buyers Club) has the potential to make an incredible villain. There are moments in his portrayal of Walter, who is also known as the man in black, where McConaughey expertly portrays the evil within. Sadly, the writing of his character and the way he is directed in certain scenes keep McConaughey from rising to his true potential. Tom Taylor (Broken Hearts, Doctor Foster) is probably the most developed character as the young Jake. This gave Taylor more opportunity to show his acting skills and to portray an enjoyable character, as far as the writing allowed. My one note for Taylor is that there are times where his accent breaks through, especially when he says the word “gunslinger.”

I want to like this movie. It is overflowing with potential and it creates a universe that I want to learn more about. The Dark Tower has an interesting premise and phenomenal actors. Unfortunately, not only will fans of Stephen King’s book leave wondering where the story they know and love went, but people who have never read the books will likely leave even more confused. There are simply too many plot points and characters that are not fully developed. The best part of The Dark Tower is hunting for the other Stephen King Easter eggs hidden throughout the film. If you plan on seeing this film I will say it will probably be more enjoyable on the big screen than on your television at home, but The Dark Tower isn’t a film I would go rushing to the theaters to see.

OVERALL RATING: 4/10

The Void

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A small town sheriff finds a bloody man on the side of the road during the night. He takes the man to the nearest hospital. Unfortunately, it is in the process of closing down so there is only a small skeleton crew there to help. Soon after the sheriff arrives, strange people wearing cloaks and hoods surround the building. What’s worse, people are dying and turning into something otherworldly, threatening the existence of the sheriff and the hospital staff.

The Void has a dark and mysterious plot that encompasses many themes. While this film has its own original story there are many aspects that are meant to remind the audience of classic eighties horror movies. Watching this film you will see things that are reminiscent of The Thing, Hellraiser, and various Lovecraftian films. Because of these nods to previous films audiences will be split on their opinion. Some will love the nostalgic touch this film has while still bringing something new to viewers. Others will think the filmmakers were simply being lazy or stealing from previous films. Either way, the film is creepy, intense, and it will keep you interested in what happens next.

There are some areas where the plot is a bit lacking. One of the major issues is the relationship between the sheriff and his ex wife, who happens to be a nurse at the desolate hospital. There isn’t enough character development for either character, let alone their strained relationship. There are also scenes that are visually interesting, but they don’t necessarily serve the plot. If anything, they distract from the story line because these scenes attempt to add a few too many subplots. While overall the plot is exciting, there could be improvements. Aside from the various issues with character development and subplots, the most distressing issue is the very last scene of the film. Without giving too much away I can say that I simply wish the last scene had been completely cut. It is unnecessary and takes the film to a laughable place.

The special effects are where The Void truly excels. The filmmakers opted for practical effects, which is in keeping with their desire to bring a bit of nostalgia to their modern, unnerving film. The bizarre mutations shown throughout the film will not only remind you of the classic films listed above, but they are also simply beautiful. It isn’t all good news though. The coloring of the film is so dark that many of these gorgeous effects are virtually impossible to see. When I watched the film I had to turn the ‘brightness’ level up significantly on my television in order to clearly see what was going on and how the practical creations looked. With all the effort that clearly went into creating these monstrosities it seems careless to make them disappear in the darkness of the film.

In a film with such a small cast, one bad performance can ruin the entire movie. Lucky for The Void, none of the performances stand out as being poorly done. Although there aren’t any performances that stand out as being great either. This could be a result of the lack of character development mentioned earlier; there was simply no dimension to the characters resulting in a void (excuse the pun) of outstanding performances. The two leads, Aaron Poole (The Conspiracy, Forsaken) and Kathleen Munroe (Supernatural, Resurrection), are perfectly fine in their roles. They are likely the only two actors audiences will remember after watching the film. Sadly, it is probably because they simply had the most screen time.

I had high hopes for this film. The Void pays homage to many frightening films that came before it, but it sadly doesn’t quite live up to the legacy it honors. There are several highlights, such as the practical effects and the overall story, but there are quite a few aspects that diminish the quality of the film. If the film could be brighter in color, focus more on the character development, and eliminate some of the frivolous scenes, then The Void could become something very accomplished. As is, it is a fun flick and will remind you of films you watched growing up.

OVERALL RATING: 6/10

Beyond the Gates

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After their father’s mysterious disappearance, two estranged brothers come together to go through their father’s belongings. The first stop is the family’s old video store. While combing through the large inventory the brothers come across an old VHS board game. They decide to take the game home and give it a try. As soon as they hit play the brothers realize that this game may have something to do with their father’s disappearance, and they have to play in order to save him.

Beyond the Gates immediately does an excellent job of immersing viewers in the past while keeping the film in the present. As soon as the brothers step into the old video store it is like taking a step back in time. It will instantly make you think of your Friday nights spent perusing the racks of VHS tapes at Hollywood Video or Blockbuster. While not everyone experienced the VHS board games that were popular in the 80’s and 90’s, the nostalgic message still comes across loud and clear. The audience gets to experience that nostalgia through the eyes of the brothers, one who is trying to move on from the past and one who seems to be stuck in it. Gordon is the level-headed brother that wants to forget his father and be rid of all his father’s assets. His brother, John, still has fond memories of better times spent in the video store. They have an interesting dynamic because it is clear at one time they were very close, but time and distance has pulled them apart. They start their reunion off quite awkwardly around each other. It isn’t until they dive deeper into the game that they become closer.

In general, the plot is very compelling. The relationship between the brothers and the mystery is fascinating to watch unfold. Unfortunately, the film loses some of its spark in the final act. The excitement builds and builds throughout the film, but then what should be the climax “inside” the game ends in a fizzle. When the brothers cross over into the game the smaller budget becomes apparent, resulting in funky lighting, fog machines, and not-so-scary bad guys. It’s hard to determine if this was due to the film’s budget, or if this was another stab at nostalgia since many films of that era ended in a similar fashion. Either way, it detracted from the rest of the events that preceded it.

While the entire cast of this film are phenomenal, special recognition goes to the two leads. Graham Skipper (The Devil’s Dolls, Space Clowns) plays the straight-laced Gordon. Despite his somewhat rigid demeanor, Skipper makes Gordon a likable and complex character. Skipper especially shines when the story dives deeper into why Gordon hates his past so much. Then there is Chase Williamson (Sequence Break, John Dies at the End) as John. This is the kind of character that Williamson is best at, a man stuck in the past that could potentially be considered a bit of a loser. Yet he is always endearing and lovable. The on screen brotherly chemistry between Skipper and Williamson is pure magic.

Since Beyond the Gates highlights the 80’s and 90’s VHS board games, it only makes sense that the filmmakers would opt for practical effects. That being said, there really aren’t a lot of them. The director smartly found creative ways to carry out the couple kills in the film in a way that hints at gore more than anything else. It was a very imaginative way to give the audience the excitement they expect from a horror film without completely blowing their budget on elaborate practical effects. The only part of the film that could have benefited from more effects was the climax, but everything leading up to the point works well within the context of the film.

Beyond the Gates is dripping with nostalgia and gives horror fans a compelling story that will take them back to their childhood. It has such a fun and unique story, as well as a great cast of characters, that I have no doubt it will become a cult classic. Barbara Crampton (Re-Animator, From Beyond) has a hilarious cameo that alone makes the film worth a watch. Unfortunately the climax will likely leave viewers wanting something more. If it can be overlooked, then Beyond the Gates will become a household favorite among horror fans young and old.

OVERALL RATING: 7/10

Sweet, Sweet Lonely Girl

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Adele has always been a shy, sweet, responsible girl. Adele’s mother sends her to live with and care for her sick, agoraphobic aunt. Soon after moving in she meets Beth, a sensual, mysterious young women. The more time the young women spend together the more Adele’s limits are tested. Soon her life begins to spiral down a path of lust, obsession, and something much darker.

From the very first frame this film has the feel of the 1970’s. Everything from the clothing to the cinematography transports you to a different era. It isn’t until we see Reagan on a television in the background that the time period is confirmed as likely being in the early eighties. To be honest, the addition of Reagan on the TV was unnecessary to determine the time the film takes place in, and I believe the film could be a bit more intriguing if this had been excluded. The gorgeous cinematography, the haunting music, and the mysterious nature of the plot all lend to the early-seventies, Italian-inspired atmosphere of the film. It gives the film a distinct giallo look and feel.

The film has a very sexy gothic quality to it that only enhances the relatively simple story. Adele is so innocent and naive. As she spends more and more time with Beth, who is a wild and a free spirit, Adele starts to do things that she normally would never do. What is even more interesting is how her actions directly affect the aunt that she cares for. It is fascinating and tense to watch Adele’s actions spiral out of control as she becomes increasingly infatuated with Beth. While the story is interesting and the film itself is beautiful to watch, the end is a bit rough. It adds a supernatural element that works with the style of the film, yet it doesn’t make very much sense. When I finished the film I found myself trying to analyze the end and was unable to make sense of it. It is almost as if there should be one more scene in the film, that perhaps got cut, that would better connect all the elements.

Sweet, Sweet Lonely Girl continues the horror film trend in recent years that focuses on young women coming into their own. Adele is shy, awkward, and clearly repressed in more ways than one. She always does what she is told whether it be by her mother or her aunt. Beth is the conduit that allows her to break free from the bonds of responsibility. Their friendship allows Adele to branch out from her comfort zone, both by breaking the rules and discovering her inner sexuality. It is almost as if Beth is the embodiment of the person Adele wishes she could be.

Both of the young actresses in this film do a stellar job. Erin Wilhelmi (Disconnect, Perks of Being a Wallflower) is brilliant as shy little Adele. She is so innocent and follows all the rules. It is fascinating to see Wilhelmi convey Adele’s transformation as she has a sort of sexual, rebellious awakening as she spends more time with Beth. Quinn Shephard (Unaccompanied Minors, Hostages) is also brilliant as Beth. Shepard plays the character in such a way where you sense there is more to her than meets the eye, and she simply oozes sensuality. Wilhelmi and Shephard together have amazing on-screen chemistry. It is impossible to take your eyes off of them.

Sweet, Sweet Lonely girl is a seductive and atmospheric film that will take you back to a different era of film. The sinister and sexual nature will draw you in and hold your focus, as will the astounding cinematography and remarkable performances by both Wilhelmi and Shephard. This could almost be a flawless film if not for the somewhat confusing ending. While it doesn’t necessarily ruin the film, it may leave you scratching your head as the credits roll. My advice would be to simply take the ending for what it is, and don’t attempt to read too much into it. Either way, you are in for a treat.

OVERALL RATING: 8.5/10

A Dark Song

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Sophia’s young son was kidnapped and murdered. Now she is trying to find a way to contact him. After much research and effort, she rents a house in a secluded part of Wales. Sophia then hires an occultist to come stay with her in the house in order to reach her Guardian Angel. The process involves days, weeks, and even months of meticulous rituals. This process will test them psychologically, and it will even threaten their lives.

Many people wish they could talk to a deceased loved one. So much so that it is common in horror films to have that as the driving force of the plot. While trying to reach the dead is common enough, A Dark Song manages to give a completely unique take on this concept. The ritual in this film isn’t some simple incantation or sacrifice that allows you to achieve your goal in a matter of minutes. It is a series of precise and intricate rituals that have to be performed over and over for weeks on end in order to purify your soul. The tedious nature of this makes the film very intense, almost even anxiety inducing. If one little mistake is made it could all end in disaster. What’s even worse is that the pair are trapped inside a house together for the entirety of the process, adding a claustrophobic feel to the situation. The first 3/4 of the film focuses entirely on the ritual process. Then there is a shift in events, and the last 1/4 of the film involves more excitement. No matter which part of the film you focus on, the originality of the plot is simply undeniable.

While A Dark Song is very much about magic and the occult, it is also about a woman against the world. Sophia has completely dedicated her time, money, and life to finding someone to perform this ritual. While her motives may not be quite what they appear, she is clearly consumed by the death of her son. Her family is against what she is doing, and she has no true support system. Even the occultist, Solomon, acts against Sophia. Despite the fact that she is paying him to perform this ritual he makes it clear that he is in charge, and Sophia has to do anything and everything he tells her to do. It creates a bizarre dynamic between the two because Sophia must follow Solomon’s instructions to achieve her goal, yet she clearly feels hatred towards him and following his orders goes against her instincts.

Because 90% of this film focuses on two characters it would not have turned out so brilliantly if it hadn’t been for the exquisite talent of the actors. Catherine Walker (Leap Year, Patrick’s Day) plays the grieving mother, Sophia. Walker does such a phenomenal job of showing Sophia’s internal struggle of wanting to complete the ritual, yet being distrustful of the occultist who is supposed to help her. It is amazing how her feelings play so well on her face, even if her actions are saying something different. Steve Oram (The Canal, At World’s End) is also fantastic as the occultist, Solomon. Even though he is there to help Sophia, and being paid to do so, Solomon has no filter and makes sure it is clear he is in charge. Oram plays this part so well because he manages to be completely deplorable while also making the audience like him for what he is doing to help Sophia. The dynamic between these two actors is so incredible that I couldn’t imagine any other actors in these roles.

A variety of effects are used throughout the film. While most of the effects can be seen at the climax, there are still some smaller ones scattered throughout earlier in the film. One scene that stands out early-on employs CGI to make it appear as though gold flakes are raining down from the ceiling. It is so beautifully done and adds an element of fantasy and whimsy in a film that is otherwise completely shrouded in darkness. The practical effects in A Dark Song are used sparingly and, again, primarily during the climax (so I won’t go into detail). I can say that they are well done and very creepy. The ultimate scene of the climax utilizes gorgeous CGI. Again, I won’t go into too much detail, but while the scene is beautifully done it will definitely divide audiences on whether they like it or not. I personally think it works quite well with the story, but others might find it to be a bit much.

A Dark Song is a gorgeous film that is guaranteed to be polarizing to audiences. Some people will prefer the first section of the film because of the tense feeling it creates, while other will find it a bit slow and boring. Then there will be some who prefer the last part of the film because it has the most action, and others will dislike it because it feels less grounded in reality than the rest of the film. Even the ultimate climax of the film is quite polarizing in how audiences will view it. As a whole, I think the film is fantastic. It is intense, beautiful, frightening at times, expertly acted, and has some of the most unique pieces of plot and imagery I have ever seen.

OVERALL RATING: 9/10

Personal Shopper

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Maureen is a young American living and working as a personal shopper in Paris. She recently lost her twin brother to a heart defect that Maureen has as well. Also like her brother, Maureen may possess the abilities of a medium. As she attempts to contact her brother’s spirit she exposes herself to dangers she doesn’t understand. Someone, or something, is trying to make contact. Whatever is trying to reach out to Maureen will change her life forever.

The plot of personal shopper is relatively unique, but what makes it truly stand out is the way the film was pieced together. This isn’t a film that necessarily has a typical beginning, middle, and end. It feels more true to life in that there isn’t a linear story, instead the film flows with the ins and outs of Maureen’s daily life. There is also a lack of the expositional scenes audiences are used to when watching traditional narrative films. This style is very similar to what was done in the Golden Globe nominated film, 20th Century Women. Some may be put off by this style, especially since it does not lay the who, what, when, where, why out on a silver platter. I personally enjoy this method of storytelling because of the realism it adds to the film. This particular method also enhances the high fashion aspect. Maureen is a personal shopper for a high profile model, and that means she has access to fantastic haute couture clothing. When that is combined with the realistic storytelling the result is a raw and gorgeous film.

There is also a constant presence of death throughout the film, whether it be ghosts, thoughts of Maureen’s deceased brother, or her own impending mortality. Since she was a child, she has experienced the paranormal because she and her brother are mediums. Then when he dies of a heart defect that Maureen also has, death is brought into the forefront of her life. It is no longer static in the background, but something she has to face and learn to no longer fear. In a sense her brother’s death helps her to live her life the way she wants because there is no way to know when her time is up. She has to learn to accept and live with the idea of death because it is all around her.

There are a few downfalls to the plot. One scene is specifically bothersome. In it Maureen is having a conversation about her brother’s spirit with a friend’s boyfriend. The dialogue for this scene is choppy and sounds unnaturally forced. It is one of a few scenes where the dialogue sounds awkward. Additionally, there are a couple scenes that don’t make much sense or feel irrelevant. Some of this can be written off as part of the unique storytelling format, but one specific scene involves events implying a ghost is present. What makes it odd is that the ghostly presence is not explained or even acknowledged in any way. Again, this is likely due to the format of the film, but it definitely detracts a bit from the plot.

This film focuses almost solely on the protagonist. Many people will know Kristen Stewart as Bella from the Twilight franchise. In Personal Shopper she plays the complicated main character, Maureen. Historically the only film I have thought Stewart could act in was Panic Room. Luckily, Stewart seems to have broken the Twilight curse. Her performance in Personal Shopper is evocative, grounded, and she brings the character to life in a way I have not seen from her before. I will say there are times in the film where Stewart acts in stressful situations that gives me flashbacks to her Twilight days. Specifically, she tends to twitch and stutter to portray anxiety or fear much like she did as Bella. Not to say that these actions don’t work for the character of Maureen, but it still calls me back to memories of Stewart’s less competent performances. However, her overall portrayal carries the film and gives it life.

Since this is a film that is meant to feel as real as possible there is a minimal amount of effects. The only CGI effects in the film are used to create the ghosts Maureen sees. Most of the time it is just a glimmer in the darkness, but one scene involves a more full-bodied apparition. While the more minimalist CGI works well, the full-bodied work loses any sense of mystery and any chance of scaring the audience. This is a perfect example of “less is more” being the smartest route, especially in paranormal horror films. The cinematography works much better than the effects. Most of the shots, much like the story, are done in a way that makes the audience feel like they are peering into Maureen’s life. Yet there are still scenes that have a certain air of beauty. One specific scene that is masterfully shot manages to make a horrific event intriguing and bewitching. The audience is shown just enough to understand what is happening, without truly showing anything too disturbing. It fits with the overall themes of the film; sex, mystery, beauty, and death.

Personal Shopper is a film that has its flaws. If you can look past some of the less fortunate dialogue and lackluster CGI, then you will see the unsettling and seductive film that lies within. There is no one aspect of this film that narrates the story, except that it is Maureen’s life. Her life is revealed to the audience as she experiences events in an authentic portrayal of the darker side of humanity. The only theme that runs throughout the entire film is life in the fashion world and a sort of acceptance of death. If you enjoy fashion, intrigue, and the supernatural then this is a film you should seek out.

OVERALL RATING: 7/10