Occult

The Golem

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A remote Jewish village is threatened by a plague and dangerous outsiders. While the men of the village believe prayer is the best course of action, one woman believes the village has to stand up for itself and fight. She performs a ritual to bring forth an ancient being that can protect those she loves. Yet this entity is something that cannot be controlled.

Brotherly directing duo Doron and Yoav Paz (Jerusalem) take the intriguing script by Ariel Cohen (Take Mama) and turn The Golem into a stunning film. The plot focuses on Hanna, a woman ahead of her time in this small Jewish village. She is a unique character because she is very independent and eager to learn more about her religion from books women are not allowed to read. As the film progresses it becomes clear she wants to read these texts as a way to grieve her deceased son. Her grief, independence, and unwillingness to have another child for fear of losing them drives her actions throughout the film. When the people she loves are threatened by outsiders bringing in the plague, she takes what she learns from those texts to bring forth an ancient entity known as a golem. These plot elements allow the filmmakers to create an external conflict (the outsiders and the plague) as well as an internal conflict (grief over the loss of a child).

From the moment Hanna creates the golem there is a sense of impending doom. The feeling of dread is carried out through to the end of the film. As a result, audiences know things are not going to end well, but it is the way events play out that keeps them interested in what happens next. There is an opening scene that sets the tone of the film, but there is one instance in this opening that doesn’t quite match the mythology established later in the film. It can lead to a bit of confusion regarding the rules surrounding the golem’s existence. The end of the film also leaves me with some unanswered questions, specifically about the fates of certain smaller characters, which are never resolved. These issues are subtle, making them easier to overlook, but I still believe they are worth pointing out.

As far as the performances go, the entire cast blew me away. Hani Furstenberg (The Loneliest Planet) is absolutely extraordinary as Hanna. There are many layers to Hanna that Furstenberg stunningly conveys. She shows the audience how Hanna finds strength in her grief in order to do the impossible, yet that grief may also be her downfall. Furstenberg commands your attention every time she is on screen. Another standout performance comes from Ishai Golan (Prisoners of War) as Benjamin, Hanna’s husband. Benjamin is very supportive of Hanna, despite what others think about her and their relationship. When things go from bad to worse in the village, Golan’s performance really shines and shows his character’s depth. The pair have great onscreen chemistry, and they are a joy to watch. I also want to give a special shoutout to Alex Tritenko (When the Dawn Comes) who plays the film’s villain in a way that makes you loathe him while also empathizing with his character.

Artistically, there are highs and lows throughout the film. The best bit of artistry in the film is the cinematography. Many shots are framed and lit in such a way that draws the audience’s eye and creates stunning imagery. Along with the cinematography, the set and costume design is fantastic. Not only do these elements add to the beauty of the film, but they also transport you back in time.

One of the less successful elements of The Golem is the special effects. The filmmakers implement practical effects which are enhanced by CGI. The problem arises in some of the bloodier scenes where the effects take on a Tarantino-esque level of blood spewing into the air. It looks quite out of place with the overall look of the rest of the film. Similarly, the score by Tal Yardeni (Noble Savage) doesn’t mesh well with the film’s somber look and feel. The score itself is very nice and is especially beautiful in the more melancholy scenes. Yet the score in the thrilling scenes stands out for all the wrong reasons. To my ears, the music in these scenes sounds more like what one would hear in a suspenseful action movie, not a gloomy horror film. Unfortunately, the music in these scenes takes me out of the moment because of how mismatched it sounds.

The Golem delivers a unique story rooted in Jewish tradition that is both beautiful and disturbing. The internal and external conflicts Hanna experiences provide a dynamic and intriguing plot for audiences. Furstenberg’s portrayal of Hanna drives the film while giving it a lot of heart, and the entire ensemble cast shines. The Golem is quite gorgeous to look at. Even the visual and musical elements that detract from the film are well done, they just don’t go along with the overall tone of the film. If you’re looking for a horror film that doesn’t center around Catholicism, demons, and the devil, then The Golem will be the breath of fresh air you won’t want to miss.

OVERALL RATING: 8/10

 

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Dry Blood

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Brian is an addict. After a particularly rough night, he decides it’s time to get clean. He travels to his remote mountain cabin in the hopes of detoxing himself in seclusion. Brian’s stay at the cabin forces him to face withdrawals, hallucinations, possible ghosts, and a bizarrely sinister cop. He has to discover what is real and what is fantasy, or else he might just lose his sanity.

Dry Blood is written by Clint Carney and directed by Kelton Jones. While the two have plenty of credits to their name, this is the first feature film in their respective roles as writer and director. The plot woven throughout the film is quite intricate. Every turn seems to add a new layer of mystery and intrigue, forcing the audience to follow different clues. The plot becomes more and more complicated, leading up to the shocking final act. For a first feature film, Jones and Carney deliver a compelling story that takes some brain power to figure out. There is a ton of potential here, but it there is a high likelihood it will leave audiences unclear about certain aspects. There are times when it is obvious that Brian is hallucinating, and other times where he could be seeing ghosts. By the end of the film there is one big reveal that allows the audience to have a sort of “aha” moment. It allows the audience to make certain deductions about what they have witnessed, but there are still too many unanswered questions because of how many layers there are to the mystery.

Brian’s reasoning for going to the cabin in the first place is clear enough, yet things get quite complicated for him almost immediately. It starts with an odd cop who either has sinister motives or is really obsessive about being Brian’s friend. This leads to some conversations that are simultaneously creepy and humorous. There is one schtick that happens in practically every conversation between these two that manages to make me laugh while also being somewhat uncomfortable to watch. Aside from these interactions, the film has a very dark tone in both content and style. The dramatic themes of addiction, mental illness, and death run rampant. It creates a very haunting tale as Brian’s hallucinations (or ghosts) become more prevalent, making his road to recovering more and more difficult.

Not only did Jones direct and Carney write Dry Blood, but they also starred in the film. Carney takes the leading role as Brian, this also being his first acting role in a feature film. For the most part Carney excels in his performance. There are a few more dramatic moments when Brian is particularly terrified and Carney’s portrayal turns a bit towards caricature. Jones also makes his feature film acting debut in this film as the cop. The cop is this ominous presence always looming over Brian, and Jones does a great job playing him. Between his odd behavior and the sometimes comical conversations, the cop is a character audiences will remember. Yet another feature film acting debut comes in the form of Jaymie Valentine as Brian’s friend, Anna. Anna comes to the cabin to try to help Brian get over his addiction. Unfortunately, I found Anna’s character and Valentine’s performance distracting. Valentine comes across as monotone and doesn’t really show any strong emotions, even when her character is in the face of danger. For some reason Anna’s character also wore a disastrous wig. While this is not the actor’s fault and it doesn’t have anything to do with her performance, the wig was so dreadful it took my attention away from the film itself.

Aside from the wig, the various visuals are actually the strongest aspect of the film. There are some fantastic practical effects that really bring terror to the audience. Most of these are used to create what could be hallucinations or they could be ghosts. These entities are created primarily with stunning practical effects, but they are enhanced with some exceptionally well done CGI work. The result is brutal, haunting, and stunning imagery. After finishing the film these effects are what is likely to stand out in your mind.

Jones and Carney create a complex, chilling tale with Dry Blood that shows the filmmakers’ potential, but it falls just short of being truly successful. The film has wonderful special effects, especially for a low-budget indie film, and weaves an interesting plot that will keep you guessing. Unfortunately, the film ends with too many unanswered questions, and the performances deliver a mixture of results from successful to monotone. If nothing else, I would recommend this film for the effects. Either way, the film displays Jones and Carney have the building blocks to create something special as filmmakers and I look forward to seeing what they do in the future.

OVERALL RATING: 5.5/10

Mandao of the Dead

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Jay lives a simple life, but that all changes in the days around Halloween when the veil between worlds is thinnest. A series of strange events leads him down an unbelievable road. Jay discovers he can astral project, and he inadvertently witnesses his nephew Jackson’s ex-girlfriend murder a man. Because of Jay’s newfound abilities, he is able to see and speak to the ghost of the murdered man. The clock is running out of time for Jay to save the man – and his own sanity.

The masterful Scott Dunn (Schlep) not only wrote the screenplay for Mandao of the Dead, but he also directed and starred in the film. At first glance, this film looks like any other low-budget indie horror movie that might have a few laughs, but is overall a crass and forgettable film. Yet Dunn’s film actually has an intricate and compelling plot, hilarious characters, and more than a few heart-felt moments. The film ends up being a strange mix of elements that end up working well together. It’s one-part supernatural horror, one-part vampire movie, one-part murder mystery, and one-part buddy comedy. Somehow, all of these elements work well together.

One of the aspects of the plot that works surprisingly well is the lack of explanations. We don’t know why Jay is suddenly able to astral project, except for a few hints here and there. It is suggested that Jackson’s ex-girlfriend is a vampire, but it’s a bit ambiguous as to whether she just think she’s a vampire or she actually is a vampire. It leaves the viewers as ignorant to the truth as the characters, which works well in this film. It also forces the audience to simply accept things as being the way they are. This is important in how the film tends to go through different dimensions and different timelines. If you simply accept these parts of the plot as being this way, without further question, it makes for a humorous adventure.

Each character – and the actors playing the characters – manage to make me laugh in this film. Dunn shines wearing one of his many hats as the star of the film, Jay. He is probably the most practical and pragmatic character, which leads to some humorous interactions when he discovers his new abilities. It is amazing to see Dunn perform so well in the role that he also wrote and directed. Sean McBride (Schlep) offers an interesting juxtaposition to Dunn’s performance as Jay’s adult nephew, Jackson. Jack is a loser who sleeps in a tent in Jay’s living room, and he is only Jay’s nephew in the loosest sense of the word. McBride gives a hilarious, dimwitted, yet likeable portrayal of this goofy character. These two actors play off each other in a way that makes the film even more entertaining. Other equally entertaining performances can be found in Gina Gomez (Schlep), David Gallegos (2-Headed Shark Attack), Marisa Hood (The Post Relationship), and Sean Liang (2Survive).

For the most part, the visual effects in Mandao of the Dead are reserved for the scenes when Jay is astral projecting. There are three methods used to create a distinct look: lighting, distorted sound, and the use of haze or smoke. When Jay is astral projecting the world loses a lot of its color, resulting in a grey, monotone look. The only time more vibrant colors are used in these scenes is through neon lighting – or when the point of view switches to the real world. Not only does this add a lot of visual interest to the film, but it also ensures the viewers can tell the difference between the real world and the dream-like world where ghosts and astral forms dwell.

Mandao of the Dead is a surprisingly well-made indie horror comedy that has heart and delivers plenty of laughs. Dunn proves with this film that he can excel at any role, whether it be director, writer, or actor. The intricate and humorous story he creates gives viewers something that will keep them entertained from start to finish. It has its cheesier and over-the-top moments, but they work quite well with the overall tone of the film. The performances, the plot, and the visuals all lend themselves to a fun flick. While you should catch this film as soon as you can, I would wager it will end up on many horror fans’ “31 Days of Horror” film lists this year.

OVERALL RATING: 8/10

Suspiria (2018)

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Susie Bannion has left her home and family in rural Ohio to pursue her dream of joining a dance academy in Berlin. She has no formal training, yet her dancing captivates Madame Blanc, the headmistress, and she is allowed to join the academy. As the dancers train for a very special performance, strange and violent things begin to happen. Dancers have gone missing, and it seems more and more likely the women running the academy are the ones behind it all.

Screenwriter David Kajganich (The Terror) and director Luca Guadagnino (Call Me By Your Name) have taken the basic premise and characters created by Dario Argento (Suspiria 1977) and Daria Nicolodi (Suspiria 1977) and constructed something absolutely breathtaking. At it’s core, the film is about a dance school run by witches. This is really all the two films have in common. The story created by Kajganich and Guadagnino’s filming style diverge greatly from the original, so I will do my best not to constantly compare the two films.

One of the most fascinating aspects of Suspiria (2018) is how the filmmakers built upon the with mythology. The rules, the dynamics, the magic, and the history is meticulously created in a way that is familiar, yet there is a complexity that adds a sense of mystery to the film. Often times, the intrigue comes from the division among the witches. These witches have a long history that sprang from three witches known as the “mothers.” There is the group who believes Madame Blanc should be in charge, and there is a group who believes the unseen Helena Markos should continue her rule. The witches are using the dancers to work towards a specific goal, and they need Susie to reach that goal. Between some of the dancers putting the pieces together and the division between the witches, there is immediate suspense and tension that carries throughout the film.

The way dance is incorporated into the film is stunning. Suspiria (2018) focuses on contemporary/interpretive dance rather than ballet. It is a wise decision because it allows the filmmakers to bring new meaning into the dance being performed. It isn’t simply a performance the dancers are training for, it is a bigger end-game for the witches. All of the dancers move beautifully through the rehearsals and the final routine.

While the cast holds a couple actresses I have not been a fan of in the past, every single person shines in their own way. Probably the most surprising performance in the film is Dakota Johnson (50 Shades of Grey) as Susie Bannion. While her acting is fine, it’s her dancing that truly blew me away. The filmmakers took a risk hiring an actress over a dancer in such a dance-heavy role, but luckily it payed off. Johnson portrays Susie with a sort of naive grace that develops into something much more powerful, and it is amazing to watch. The standout performance comes from Tilda Swinton (Doctor Strange) playing not one, not two, but three characters! While Swinton is amazing in each role, making them each distinctly unique characters even as she acts through layers of makeup and prosthetics, she is truly amazing as Madame Blanc. Similar to the portrayal of Susie, Madame Blanc has a graceful way about her, yet Blanc’s grace has much more power and authority to it. Swinton proves once again that she can play virtually any role and she is able to entirely transform into any character. The on-screen chemistry between Swinton and Johnson is electric, and their dynamics with the rest of the supporting cast is hypnotizing.

It is difficult to live up to Argento’s visuals, so Guadagnino made the wise decision to go in a different direction. Suspiria (2018) has a very stark palette lacking vibrant colors, which fits in well with the 1977 Berlin setting. The bright colors are instead replaced with bold patterns. The patterns can be found everywhere from the floors to the walls to the clothing. It creates striking and iconic imagery where the meticulous patterns feel reminiscent of the ritualistic choreography of the dances.

The bleak look of the film also goes well with the practical effects. These effects are used in a number of ways. The most prominent use is to turn Swinton into different characters, one of them an elderly man. Old age makeup alone is incredibly difficult to do well. Not only is the old age makeup in this film near-perfect, but it also transforms Swinton into a man. The effects are also used to produce some realistic and disturbing wounds, injuries, and gore. I was quite surprised by the brutality in certain scenes, and the practical effects in those scenes are sublime.

The film is only elevated by the astounding score by Thom Yorke of Radiohead. The score is soft, mysterious, and often times includes sounds from the film itself. One piece, titled “Hooks,” is most notable for incorporating sounds from the film such as sighs, breathing, and the whoosh of hooks through the air (which will make sense if/when you see the film). Yorke also includes a couple songs in which he sings. These songs are especially haunting, and are used at integral scenes where the songs are the perfect accompaniment to the events taking place. I would imagine, after this success, that we will be hearing more of Yorke’s work as a composer of film scores.

Suspiria (2018) is a haunting and ethereal tale of witchcraft, mutilation, and death. Guadagnino and Kajganich were inspired by Suspiria (1977), but they were able to create something new and thrilling with this film. The expanded mythology lends itself to an intriguing plot that will keep audiences guessing. The entire cast of performers deliver stunning acting and dancing skills that mesmerize. Add to that the brilliant visual artistry, including the practical effects, and Yorke’s gorgeous score and the result is a disturbing and beautiful film. This is one you won’t want to miss.

OVERALL RATING: 9/10

Overlord

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D-Day approaches. It is up to a band of American soldiers to infiltrate a remote French village. In this village, the Nazis have set up a communications satellite that must be destroyed before the American planes reach France. As the remaining soldiers make their way into the village, they soon realize the Nazis are up to something more sinister than they could ever have imagined.

Overlord, directed by Julius Avery (Son of a Gun) and written by Billy Ray (The Hunger Games) and Mark L. Smith (The Revenant), certainly packs a punch. The opening sequence is arguably the strongest part of the film, immediately immersing the audience in WWII as the American soldiers fly into France, preparing to parachute to their objective. This scene quickly establishes characters in a claustrophobic setting, then immediately tosses these characters into chaos. Once the surviving soldiers make it to the small French town, the film takes a more quiet, reserved approach as the men try to keep their presence hidden from the Nazis. The filmmakers do an amazing job of slowly revealing what the Nazi’s are doing, bit by bit, leading up to the action-packed climax.

The Nazi regime is known for performing experiments that border the line of being supernatural. What is happening in Overlord gives the audience a glimpse into what those experiments might have been. The gruesome results of what the Nazis do in the film add frightening and gory thrills to the film. The plot hints at why the Nazi’s chose this location, as well as how they were able to achieve creating these monsters, but not fully. I appreciate the filmmakers not going into the realm of over-explanation, but I am still curious to know just a little bit more about how the Nazis created the monsters.

The entire cast delivers absolutely fantastic performances throughout the film. Jovan Adepo (Fences, mother!) shines as Boyce, the reluctant soldier with a heart of gold. Adepo conveys Boyce’s internal struggle of doing what he has to as a soldier vs. what he believes is the right thing to do in a very compelling way. Wyatt Russell (22 Jump Street, Table 19) gives audiences a surprising performance as Ford, the man in charge of the mission. Most people are used to Russell in more comedic roles, but his performance in this film proves he can handle the grittier roles as well. The dynamic between these two characters is also wonderful to watch. There is tension, as they have different goals, but there is also a mutual sense of respect that can’t be ignored. I could write an entire review just about the acting, but to save time I will give honorable mention to the rest of the stunning cast including Mathilde Ollivier (The Misfortunes of François Jane), Pilou Asbæk (Game of Thrones), John Magaro (My Soul to Take), Iain De Caestecker (Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.), and Jacob Anderson (Game of Thrones).

For an action packed war horror film, Overlord is surprisingly beautiful to watch. The first act has particularly beautiful cinematography. From the time the film begins all the way until the end credits, audiences get a feast for the eyes. On top of the amazing cinematography, the film also boasts some stunning special effects. With a film like this where the Nazis’ creations are a focal point, the effects have to be well done. The effects team seamlessly blends practical and CGI effects to the point where it is hard to tell where one ends and the other begins. The results are some grotesque and spectacular monsters that bring terror to the silver screen.

Overlord packs monstrous frights into a claustrophobic WWII setting to deliver a thrill ride audiences won’t soon forget. This is the kind of film that easily could have been a dramatic war film, and the creature element only added to the excitement and the stunning visuals throughout the film. The amazing performances from the entire cast, especially from Adepo and Russell, drive the emotional core to balance out the horrific events. I only wish the filmmakers had given a bit more information into how the creatures are created by the Nazis in the film, but it’s not enough to take away from the rest of the compelling plot. Between these performances, the special effects, and the cinematography, it’s impossible not to enjoy this film. It’s a film I highly recommend horror fans take the time to see on the big screen.

OVERALL RATING: 8.5/10

 

Hell House LLC II: The Abaddon Hotel

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Eight years after the Hell House LLC tragedy, and the subsequent disappearance of a documentary film crew, the mystery of the Abaddon Hotel remains unsolved. An anonymous tip sent to a journalist claims all the evidence of what happened is hidden inside the hotel. The journalist and her crew, along with the only surviving member of the original documentary crew, decide to go back to the hotel to find the truth. They will have to sneak past police and break in, but the real battle will be getting out.

The highly anticipated sequel to Hell House LLC hit Shudder just in time for the Halloween season. Stephen Cognetti returns as writer and director of this found footage haunted house flick. The sequel is filmed similarly to the first film. There are documentary filmmaker shots, videos from phones and handheld devices, news reports, and interviews. This allows the filmmakers to include multiple different perspectives outside the main cast of characters. The scares are also done in a very similar way. They are subtle, and generally lack jump scares. This makes the film itself terrifying, but the fright factor has a lasting effect even after the film is over. Fans will recognize a couple of the more iconic frightening faces, including the absolutely creepy clown mannequin and the haunting ghost woman.

Unfortunately, there are certain aspects of the plot that make Hell House LLC II less successful than its predecessor. One of my only critical notes in the first one was a few unanswered questions. In a haunting film it is fine to have those, but there were some parts left a little too ambiguous. This film goes in the polar opposite direction. Not only does the plot try to tie up every loose end in this film, but it even goes on to answer the questions I had from the first film. The filmmakers end up putting everything into a neat package that is almost too clean. The film goes into so much explanation that it slows the climax to a crawl, taking any suspense out of the moment. The suspense leading up to that moment makes up for the sudden halt, but the climax still comes across as lackluster.

The performances are a bit of a mixed bag. Vasile Flutur (Far From Here) gives the strongest performance as Mitchell. He is intense, skeptical, but he also strives to find the truth behind the disappearance of his friends. A less enjoyable performance came from Jillian Geurts (The Algebra of Need) as the journalist, Jessica. This is partly due to writing and partly the performance itself. In terms of the writing, Jessica is just a generally unlikeable character because of her unwavering need to get the scoop on the history of the hotel. Geurts’ performance comes across as a bit over-rehearsed and her delivery is sometimes a bit exaggerated. It almost feels like a performance for the stage, which doesn’t fit well with the tone of this film. Kyle Ingleman (Attack of the Slime People) delivers a similar performance to Geurts, but it works better for his role as the psychic, Brock Davies.

One common theme amongst all the characters, perhaps with the exception of Brock Davies, is that the motives behind their actions don’t quite come across. In a found footage film it is so important to convey why these people would put themselves in these situations and film the entire time. The first film did this successfully, but it doesn’t hold up as well in the sequel. Davies can be written off because he is a TV psychic, so communicating with the spirits in the Abaddon Hotel and getting it on film would be huge for his career. As for the others, some of their motivations for going to the hotel make sense, but their reasons for staying and continuing to film are a bit hazy at best.

With the use of simplistic scares the filmmakers wisely went with simple effects as well. As I mentioned before, the eerie clown mannequin makes an appearance in this film. Not only is this the most frightening and simple look, but it is also the source of some of the most spine-chilling scares. There are other makeup looks done for some of the ghosts seen in the hotel that are the same as in the previous film, but they are more visible in Hell House LLC II. This may not have been a wise decision, as I am a firm believer in less is more when showing ghosts/creatures in horror films. The brighter lighting makes it more obvious that these characters look as if they are from a Halloween haunt, but that also lends itself well to idea the of this location being the ultimate haunted house.

Hell House LLC II: The Abaddon Hotel has many hits and misses. What works well is the subtle scares, which start earlier in the film than fans saw in its predecessor. It is also great to get some of the answers I was looking for in the first film. What doesn’t work as well is the film’s overall lack of direction. It doesn’t flow quite as well, likely because a lot of effort was put in making everything clear and obvious to the audience. It results in a subdued climax that should have packed more of a punch. Fans who enjoyed the first film will likely be disappointed, but this sequel is still likely to give you chills and make you avoid any abandoned hotels for a while.

OVERALL RATING: 5.5/10

 

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