Occult

Fantasia Review: The Mortuary Collection

A young woman visits a mortuary to interview for a job. Throughout the course of the interview, the creepy mortician tells ghastly tales of how some of the bodies came to be in his mortuary. Spanning from the 50’s to the 80’s, each tale is more horrifying than the last.

Writer and director Ryan Spindell brings his feature-film debut to the Fantasia International Film Festival. The Mortuary Collection tells four tales of terror with a single overarching plot to tie it all together. That overarching is the story of a somewhat frightening mortician in his mortuary. After a funeral he gets a knock at the door and meets a young woman looking for a job. As he goes through the motions of the interview process, the young woman encourages him to tell scary stories. But these aren’t just any scary stories. These stories are about how and why certain bodies ended up in this mortuary.

The audience gets to hear stories from different subgenres of horror including a pickpocket from the 50’s who finds more than she bargained for, a 60’s frat boy who learns a lesson the hard way, a husband forced to make a tough choice about his invalid wife in the 70’s, and an homage to the classic 80’s babysitter/serial killer story. These stories are fascinating, yet I couldn’t shake the feeling that it has a bit of a “woman-hating” tone. Each of the main female characters typically is portrayed in a negative light or meets some kind of violence. I believe it may seem this way because the film also tends to portray women in roles typically reserved for men, but it was an aspect that gave me pause.

Despite spanning four decades and covering a wide range of topics, these stories feel unified. Each tale in The Mortuary Collection is unique, but Spindell unifies them by giving all of them the same, somewhat cheeky tone. There is a perfect marriage of gruesome events sprinkled with moments of dark humor. It gives the film a bit of a lighthearted feel despite some of the more horrifying and graphic stories being told. Even the overall look of the film helps tie the different stories together. They all have the same visual style, utilizing a heavily blue and green color palette. The filmmakers also had all the stories take place in the same town of Raven’s End. The scary, yet humorous tone combined with the eerie look of the film all blend seamlessly. It’s as though Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark and Creepshow came together and had a spooky baby.

Other visual aspects of The Mortuary Collection that enhance the look and vibe of the film are the production and effects designs. From the moment the camera moves through the streets of Raven’s End, the audience is transported back in time. The cars are clearly decades old, the buildings all look as if they have been around for at least 100 years, and the clothing matches the time period. The mortuary itself is an absolutely gorgeous Victorian building that I would definitely live in, even if it was haunted. The sets and costumes also help us move through the decades in each story and match perfectly to their respective time periods. To bring terror into these tales, the filmmakers use absolutely gorgeous practical effects. There is some CGI enhancement, but for the most part you can tell they wanted to keep it old school. The effects are just as stunning as they are disturbing, plus they add quite a bit of fright to the film.

From each segment, The Mortuary Collection encompasses tremendous performances. Everyone is truly magical, but it is the mortician and the young woman he is interviewing who stand out. Clancy Brown (Shawshank Redemption, Starship Troopers) stars as the mortician himself. This man is creepy, decrepit, and always seems to be laughing at some inside joke in his head. Clancy brings this character to life in the most memorable way, being both scary and funny all at once. Caitlin Fisher (Teen Wolf, Extraction) plays the interviewee, Sam. Fisher’s performance really stands out because, on the outside, Sam appears to be just a sweet girl looking for a job. Yet Sam is cunning and challenges the mortician at every turn and Fisher conveys that defiant nature quite well. Brown and Fisher also have a great banter between the two of them and seem to challenge each other for dominance at every turn.

The Mortuary Collection is an enthralling blend of scares and laughs that is a delight to watch from start to finish. The fact that this is Spindell’s feature-film debut makes me believe he is a writer/director horror fans should keep an eye on. As a whole and also looking at the individual tales of horror, the various plots are all unique and intriguing to watch and every performance is impressive. Unified by the gorgeous visuals and the storytelling mortician, The Mortuary Collection delivers a group of tales audiences are sure to enjoy.

OVERALL RATING: 8.5/10

Fantasia Review: Sleep (Schlaf)

A woman plagued by vivid dreams travels to a remote German village to try to solve the mystery inside her head. She suffers a medical episode and her daughter stays in the town to be near her mother. The daughter picks up where her mother left off and begins to unlock the secrets behind her mother’s dreams.

Coming from Germany to Canada, Fantasia International Film Festival brings audiences Sleep. This is the feature-film debut of director Michael Venus, who co-wrote the film with Thomas Friedrich, also making his feature-film debut. Sleep begins with a tangle of different mysteries. The filmmakers take their time in unravelling these mysteries, building the tension and constant sense of dread throughout the film. It begins as the mother’s story, but when she is hospitalized the focus quickly shifts to the daughter. Despite that protagonist shift, it is still largely the mother’s story. Over time we slowly learn the answers behind the mother’s strange dreams and what brought her to the hotel in the remote village filled with tragedy.

Throughout Sleep, the idea of dreams and having trouble separating reality from what’s inside your head is a common theme. It’s a great way to make the audience second guess if what they are seeing is real while also including some nightmarish yet visually stunning scenes. Unfortunately, there are times when the plot seems to move a bit too slowly. This is likely at least in part due to a few subplots that are never fully explored. There are at least two subplots that are introduced later in the film that are never explained further nor do they reach any kind of resolution. It doesn’t necessarily take away from the primary plot, but it will likely leave at least a few viewers with lingering questions.

Each of the performances in Sleep are quite haunting. Sandra Hüller (Toni Erdmann, Requiem) plays the mother, Marlene. The most powerful aspect of Hüller’s portrayal of Marlene is her physical performance. During Marlene’s nightmare and mental episode, her body goes rigid and her eyes are clearly in another world. Hüller delivers a performance that is truly disturbing. Gro Swantje Kohlhof (Tatort, Ever After) plays Marlene’s daughter, Mona. It’s almost immediately established that Mona is more the parental figure than Marlene is. Kohlhof perfectly conveys that maternal instinct and Mona’s capability when it comes to taking care of business. August Schmölzer (Schindler’s List, Downfall) plays Otto, the owner of the hotel mother and daughter visit. Otto is a character who outwardly seems warm and helpful, but there is something sinister to him that makes it clear he can’t be trusted. Schmölzer does an amazing job of delivering that duality in his performance.

Aside from the interesting story, Sleep is simply beautiful to look at. A large part of that has to do with the setting, especially the hotel. It is large and industrial looking, but it’s barren. Through the entire film, the only guests we see are Marlene and then Mona. The architecture of the hotel and the rest of the town just feels slightly off throughout the entire film. It makes it incredibly eerie, especially with the dense surrounding forest. The cinematography also helps to create that unsettling feel along with sequences of nightmarish, psychedelic imagery and coloring. It all ties together to be both gorgeous and haunting.

Sleep is a waking nightmare that slowly unravels the mystery at its center. This is another Fantasia International Film Festival entry that delivers a powerful debut for first-time writers and directors. Venus and Friedrich clearly know how to tell a good mystery with supernatural elements. There are times when the film seems to stall, but it doesn’t take away from the film’s overall achievement. Sleep also includes strong performances and gorgeous visuals, making it an atmospheric, suspenseful film.

OVERALL RATING: 7.5/10

Impetigore

After a deadly encounter with a stranger, Maya decides to learn more about the parents she never knew. With her best friend Dini in tow, they travel to a small village where Maya might be from. They soon regret ever trying to uncover the secrets of Maya’s past.

Beloved Indonesian writer and director, Joko Anwar (Satan’s Slaves, Folklore) brings audiences around the world new terror. Impetigore wastes no time in bringing suspense to the screen. The protagonist, Maya, has a frightening encounter at work that leaves her shaken and questions her past. She was raised by her aunt and knows almost nothing about her parents or where she comes from. From there, the tension continues to build as the two friends arrive at the remote village and get a chilly reception from the locals. Anwar takes his time with the plot, allowing the audience to connect with the two female leads. He also takes his time in revealing shocking revelation after shocking revelation leading to the explosive finale. There are so many secrets to unpack throughout the film and each one manages to be more surprising than the last. This focus on building suspense and minor scares over bigger jump scares and horror leads to an edge-of-your-seat viewing experience. It also results in a film that stands apart from others like it and an ending you won’t see coming.

One of the things I love about watching foreign horror films, and Impetigore specifically, is learning about different cultures. Every culture has its own legends, customs, and ghosts. Impetigore offers a fascinating glimpse into the customs of a rural Indonesian village and their unique view of curses. While the legends are incredibly interesting, the integration of traditional Indonesian puppetry is not only stunning, but it adds another captivating cultural aspect. As an anthropology major, I greatly appreciate when a horror film can be eerie as well as a learning experience.

Impetigore has a wonderful cast who all deliver haunting performances. Tara Basro (A Copy of My Mind, Gundala) stars as Maya. Basro gives off an air of innocence, which works well for her character. She is unaware of her past and deals with new information as best she can throughout her hellish journey. Marissa Anita (Gundala, Folklore) plays Maya’s best friend, Dini. Dini is a much more outspoken character and Anita perfectly shows how she is Maya’s protector and does what she can to be a supportive friend. Ario Bayu (Java Heat, Soekarno) plays the village elder, Ki Saptadi. Bayu’s portrayal of this character is memorable because he comes across as a very calm, stately man, but he also manages to convey a sinister nature in his eyes. Honorable mention goes to Christine Hakim (Eat Pray Love, The Golden Cane Warrior) and Asmara Abigail (Gundala, Satan’s Slaves). Together these two women offer two differing points of view of the superstitions of the small village.

Every scene in Impetigore is gorgeous and atmospheric. The film opens in the big city, but as soon as Maya and Dini travel to the village it’s as if they have been transported to another time. The set and production design are truly stunning to behold from the smaller huts to the grand house Maya’s parents once owned. The puppetry scenes are also quite beautiful. It is a traditional Indonesian form of puppetry that utilizes light to project the shadows of the puppets onto a screen. The use of light and dark, like with the puppets, is a common theme throughout Impetigore. In the village there is no electricity, so many of the night scenes are lit by candlelight. It creates an unsettling ambiance while also making each scene captivating. On top of that, there is even a surprising amount of disturbing and realistic practical effects that result in rather shocking scenes.

Impetigore is a bewitching Indonesian horror film that drips with atmosphere and spins an intricate web of magic and deception. Joko Anwar proves yet again that he is a talented storyteller. His handle on Indonesian folklore allows the rest of the world to be exposed to his frightening tales. The performances from the entire cast are delightful, especially Basro’s portrayal of Maya. Through the slow unravelling of the mystery of Maya’s family, audiences will not be able to look away at the truly fantastic visuals. And, because I unfortunately still have to do this for some people, I will warn audiences that the film is subtitled. Yet I hope that won’t deter anyone from feasting upon all Impetigore has to offer.

OVERALL RATING: 9/10

Metamorphosis

After a failed exorcism, a Korean priest is questioning his faith and if he should remain in the priesthood. Shortly after, his brother’s family begins to experience strange happenings that become increasingly violent. It soon becomes clear that the vengeful demon is back to destroy the ones the priest loves.

Director Hong-seon Kim (Traffickers, The Chase) brings horror fans a frightening new possession film with Metamorphosis. The Korean horror film opens on the priest conducting an exorcism. It does not end well, and the demon makes it clear it wants to destroy his family. The focus then shifts to the brother’s family. Kim does a beautiful job of building the tension within the family unit, planting various seeds of doubt. There is a sense of paranoia for the viewer as we have to try and determine which family member is possessed and if what we are seeing is real or an illusion created by the demon. It conveys how easy it is for the devil and demons to play with the human mind and eventually take control. Many of the themes and images will be familiar to horror fans who have seen a fair amount of demonic possession films, but Metamorphosis still manages to pack a few surprises in there as well.

For the most part, the storytelling in Metamorphosis flows beautifully. The audience is given just enough information to understand what’s going on, but then shocking revelations are made to keep things interesting. That being said, there are some tangents, superfluous scenes, and extraneous characters. These scenes don’t necessarily take away from the plot, but they don’t really add anything to the film and could easily be cut. The tangents could be a hallmark difference between Korean and American films, as this is something I have noticed in other great Korean horror films. There is also a sequence of events that takes place in which audiences might wonder why the parents aren’t more concerned about the whereabouts of one of their children. Despite the distractions taking place to keep the parents occupied, it still seems a bit odd.

I was blown away by the performances in this film. Sung-Woo Bae (The King, The Swinders) plays the young exorcist, Joong-soo. Not only is Bae the driving force of this film, but he perfectly conveys how tortured Joong-soo is and his lack of confidence in his ability to save his family. Dong-il Sung (Take Off, The Cursed) plays Joong-soo’s brother, Gang-goo. Not only does Sung play Gang-goo, the loving father and husband, but he also plays a demonic version of himself. The moments where he plays his sinister doppelgänger are absolutely chilling to watch. Then there are the rest of the family members who all give equally fantastic performances. This includes Young-nam Jang (A Werewolf Boy) as Myung-joo, Hye-Jun Kim (Kingdom) as Sun-woo, Yi-Hyun Cho (Hospital Playlist) as Hyun-joo, and Kang-Hoon Kim (Lucid Dream) as Woo-jong.

There is a surprising amount of great practical effects throughout Metamorphosis. The most obvious is the transformation of individuals who are possessed. They all have prosthetics added to their face to give them a subtle, demonic look that is consistent with each individual. What is most shocking is the practical effects for all the horrific injuries. They are gory and realistic in a way I don’t typically expect from a possession film. There is a bit of CGI throughout the film as well, but for the most part it is minimal. The only exception is an excessive amount of crows throughout the film that act as a symbol for the demon, but they aren’t quite as well done as the rest of the effects. Between the practical effects, the cinematography, and the atmosphere created, there are a few different scenes that manage to make me jump out of my seat.

Metamorphosis is an achievement in atmospheric terror that results in one of the best possession films I’ve seen in years. It’s a perfect blend of the Catholic traditions we know from possession horror films and more uniquely Korean horror. Despite some of the scenes that seem unnecessary for the plot, Kim still proves he can tell a masterful tale dripping with suspense. Enhanced by the dynamic performances and gruesome practical effects, this is one film even those who hate subtitles won’t want to miss.

OVERALL RATING: 8/10

Scare Package

What’s better than seven tales of horror wrapped in one package? Seven meta tales of horror filled with laughs, gore, up-and-coming filmmakers, and familiar faces wrapped in one package. This and more awaits viewers in the new horror anthology, Scare Package.

Scare Package brings together a host of talented writers and directors. They all used their individual segments to hone in on various horror tropes and either subvert them or highlight those tropes. Viewers will no doubt watch the seven short films and see numerous nods to classic horror films, some more obvious than others. Sometimes the plots take a back seat to the visual aspects, but these aspects often tell a story of their own for the trained horror fan’s eye. Through all the meta filmmaking and Easter eggs, the filmmakers still manage to tell stories that are as funny as they are unique.

“Cold Open” hilariously honors the characters in horror films that are briefly seen and don’t get enough credit for setting up the film, while also honoring one of the most popular horror films of all time. “Rad Chad’s Horror Emporium” is not only a place I wish I worked, but it’s also the overarching story that ties everything together as each segment is presented like a rental at Rad Chad’s. “One Time in the Woods” is probably the goriest segment that also throws as many horror subgenres at you as it can. “M.I.S.T.E.R.” is likely going to piss off a few male viewers, but I mean that in the best way possible because it perfectly plays with the idea of what makes a real man. “Girls’ Night Out of Body” can be found in the post modern feminist slasher revenge body horror section at Rad Chad’s, and that honestly sums it up perfectly. “The Night He Came Back Again! Part IV: The Final Kill” plays into the classic horror trope of the masked killer that somehow always comes back, no matter how you kill him! “So Much to Do” exemplifies how important shows are to some people and the dangers of revealing spoilers. And finally, “Horror Hypothesis” takes everything you know about slashers and puts it to the test.

The performances in Scare Package are all fantastic, many of them being highly satirical and sure to make viewers laugh. Because many of the segments are meant to a mockery of horror tropes, some of the performances come across as intentionally cheesy. That might not appeal to all viewers, but definitely made me laugh. A clear standout performance from the beginning is Jeremy King (The Pale Door, Sinister Seduction) as none other than Rad Chad himself. King perfectly embodies all the good and bad aspects of hardcore horror lovers. His portrayal will make you love Chad as much as you also can’t help but roll your eyes at him. Another great performance comes from none other than Noah Segan (Knives Out, Mohawk) who stars as the husband in the segment he also co-wrote and directed, “M.I.S.T.E.R.” Segan does a fantastic job of acting as a typical nice guy with an underlying creepiness. Toni Trucks (Grimm, Franklin & Bash) stars in the “So Much To Do” segment as Franchesca. Trucks really shines in this role mostly because she kicks some serious ass. She has one of the most physical roles of all the segments, and she definitely delivers. Really all the performances are delightful and horror fans are sure to see more than a few familiar faces.

One thing I can promise viewers is that there is a lot of gore in Scare Package. The film relies on practical effects to create creative kills, gruesome monsters, and devious killers. There is definitely no shortage of blood, guts, and goo. While all of these segments utilize great practical effects, the most memorable in that regard is definitely “One Time in the Woods.” Not only does it have a high body count and unique kills, but it also has a fantastic melting character that looks absolutely amazing. If lots and lots of blood is more your speed, then “The Night He Came Back Again! Part IV: The Final Kill” is definitely the segment for you. The effects have a little something for everything horror fan.

Scare Package hilariously highlights the good, the bad, and the ugly of horror films. It’s clear this anthology was put together by horror fans for horror fans. Each segment is a hilarious take on various horror tropes, but there are still delightfully unique stories to be seen. At times it might be a bit too meta and tongue-and-cheek for some viewers. I for one scared my pets multiple times by bursting into laughter. Scare Package showcases the beginnings of promising careers for these writer and directors. Fans will also be laughing along with the fresh new actors and cheering for the horror favorites that pop-up. It might be a bit goofy at times, gory horror anthology that viewers are sure to adore.

OVERALL RATING: 7.5/10

The Candy Witch

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For months a family in England has been haunted by a ghost known as the candy witch. A pair of paranormal investigators, a psychic and his girlfriend, agree to try to help the family get rid of the ghost so they can film the events for their online following. Time is running out as the ghost becomes more violent, and the investigators uncover more and more secrets.

The Candy Witch is the latest film directed by Rebecca Matthews (Pet Graveyard, The Watcher 2) and written by Scott Jeffrey (The Bad Nun, The Watcher 2). There are many layers in this film drawing focus to different areas. There is the couple who does paranormal investigations and shares them on social media. Reece, the psychic, tries to use his ability to help people, but it takes a toll on him. There is the family being haunted. They seem like any normal loving family that only wants to be rid of this malevolent presence. Then there is the legend of the candy witch herself. What is interesting about this plot is that the witch who is haunting the family isn’t some urban legend from olden days. Instead, she is the ghost of a woman who once worked for the family as a nanny. As rumors spread about her murdering children, she turned into the mythical “candy witch.” These various subplots come together surprisingly well to create a story with several interesting twists and turns.

While the overarching story in The Candy Witch is entertaining, there are some definite bumps along the way. As I mentioned, I like that the ghost is of someone the family actually knew, taking it away from the stereotypical haunted house scenario. The problem is that the urban legend around the nanny being a candy witch feels incomplete. The rumors about her abusing children and murdering kids makes sense, but there isn’t really any point in time when they explain where the candy aspect came into play in her legend. Despite it never being explained, we see candy often used throughout the film. When we see the candy witch, she is often holding a giant, jagged-edge candy cane and she typically murders people using candy. It unfortunately makes most of the kill scenes comical when they are clearly not meant to be. It’s hard not to laugh when a ghost is killing someone by shoving handfuls of cotton candy down their throat until they choke to death (which I also feel realistically wouldn’t work with how quickly cotton candy dissolves in your mouth).

There is also a vagueness surrounding Reece. We learn about his ability to see and speak with the dead, but that it somehow takes a physical toll on him. Specifically, it seems to damage his ability to hear. We also learn that his father had the same gift. These are all things mentioned fairly early on in the film and seem like they are of some importance, but then never discussed again or resolved. Why does his gift make him lose his hearing? It seems like these are things have some significance, but the audience never gets to learn what the significance is.

Similar to the plot, the performances have high and low points, but generally speaking they are enjoyable to watch. Jon Callaway (The Mermaid’s Curse, Cupid) stars as psychic medium and paranormal investigator, Reece. This character is the most calm and collected of everyone because his abilities give him insight about the dead normal people don’t have. Callaway plays that quite well, but I wish when things take a turn for the worse he would ramp up the intensity, although I suspect this is an issue related to directing more than his performance. Heather Jackson (The Phantom of the Opera at the Royal Albert Hall) plays the matriarch of the family, Ruth. At first, Jackson’s portrayal of Ruth comes across as a bit false. As the plot progresses, Jackson’s performance stands out for all the right reasons and even makes her portrayal of Ruth earlier in the film better. The true standout performance comes from Will Stanton (Silent Place) as Ruth’s son, Tom. There is a sincerity of Stanton’s performance that makes the climax of the film all the more thrilling. The single biggest negative I can say of the cast isn’t related to any performance. It’s that the film takes place in England, yet only one of the main characters/actors is English. The filmmakers could easily have used the same cast and had it take place in the US, especially since the location isn’t significant to the plot.

When it comes to the visuals of The Candy Witch, there isn’t a lot to discuss. The sets are great, especially the house where the haunting takes place. It is a beautiful old estate that feels rich, but is also old enough to feel a bit sinister. It also looks like a home that could easily be in England. The design of the ghost seems very much to be a physical embodiment of the rumors about the nanny. She looks like a stereotypical witch with somewhat greenish skin and warts or boils all over her face. The practical effects to make the witch aren’t the best, but the effects for the wounds she inflicts are fairly well done.

The Candy Witch tries to tell an interesting story, but ultimately can’t overcome the holes in the plot. There is a seed of a good film within Matthews’ and Jeffrey’s work. There are simply too many things set up that either don’t make sense or don’t get the resolution they deserve. The performances are adequate and the effects are decent. Most of the issues with the film stem from the candy witch herself. From her look, to her method of killing, to her origin story, it seems as though the filmmakers cared more about injecting a memorable villain rather than creating a compelling and cohesive plot. There are enough unique aspects of the plot to make it an interesting watch, but too many drawbacks to make it a truly successful film.

OVERALL RATING: 4.5/10

Diablo Rojo PTY

Diablo Rojo PTY Poster FINAL

Thanks to the work of a coven of witches, a bus driver, his assistant, two cops, and a priest cross paths. They find themselves lost in a remote part of Panama. To survive, these men will have to combat witches, cannibals, and the legend of La Tulivieja. With only the bus for refuge, it will take all their effort to make it until morning.

Diablo Rojo PTY is the first horror film to come out of Panama, and it definitely jumps into the horror scene with a bang. The film is directed by first-time director Sol Moreno alongside J. Oskura Nájera (Megamuerte). Combining multiple different stories from Panamanian folklore, Nájera wrote the script along with collaborating writer Adair Dominguez, making his film debut. To say there is a whole lot going on in Diablo Rojo PTY would be an understatement. The opening of the film throws so many different things at the audience at once that many will likely have no idea what’s going on. Once the various characters are introduced, the filmmakers take time to make sense of what has already been shown. The various threads come together in a way that begins to make sense. Then in the final act the plot is thrown into chaos again, some things making more sense than others. It leads to a delightfully gory climax jam-packed with carnage.

It makes sense, since this is Panama’s first horror film, that the filmmakers would want to include as much folklore as possible into Diablo Rojo PTY. There are witches who have cursed the unfortunate men of the film. There is La Tulivieja, which has a similar origin story to Mexico’s La Llorona except La Tulivieja takes on a horrifying, ghastly form as she searches for her child along the river. There is even a deadly cannibal tribe hunting for human prey in the Chiriqui jungle. While these elements are interesting, it is really too much for one film. Viewers will see shocking things including the witches, cannibal tribes, a monstrous creature, infanticide, and even incest. Unfortunately, many of these things are shown, but never full realized or explained in enough detail. The plot ends up muddled and inconsistent as some areas are more explored while others are never fully resolved. The same can be said for the characters. Some of the characters, like Manuel, feel more fully formed compared to someone like Officer Pinilla who seems to just be there to have someone to dislike. Many viewers will likely find parts they can connect to and parts that leave them wanting more.

Despite the ups and downs in the plot and character development, the performances are still enjoyable to watch. Carlos Carrasco (Speed, Parker) stars as the Diablo Rojo bus driver, Manuel. He is by far the most complex character in the film, and Carrasco brings depth to a man who initially comes across as quite simple. Julian Urriola makes his debut as Manuel’s assistant, Juanito. Juanito is definitely a misfit, and that persona doesn’t really change even when facing certain death. While the character isn’t necessarily that likable, Urriola does a great job of bringing him to life. Blas Valois also makes his film debut as Officer Pinilla. This character makes the least amount of sense of everyone. He’s rude for no apparent reason, doesn’t seem to be a very good cop, and keeps stupidly going off on his own even when he knows what dangers lie in wait. The way this character is written unfortunately makes it really difficult to tell if Valois’s performance was part of the problem as well, or just the character.

As with much of the film, the visuals in Diablo Rojo PTY are also a mixed bag. For the most part I would say the visuals feel like what fans would expect from a low-budget horror flick. The filmmakers relied entirely on practical effects to create the creatures and gore. There are some particularly grotesque effects in the climax of the film that might not look the most realistic, but they are still very well done and make the scenes fun to watch. The creature design for La Tulivieja is definitely unique and is sure to remind horror fans of the demons from the Evil Dead franchise. That nod to classic horror is just one of many throughout the film, and honestly these nods are some of the most enjoyable parts of the film. The musical score by Ricardo Risco sometimes sounds very similar to the score from The Shining. Even the very last scene of the film takes iconic imagery that likely comes from Carrie and A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge. Again, I really enjoyed these visual nods to classic films, but sometimes they added to the muddiness of the plot.

Diablo Rojo PTY has some great moments and includes a lot of fascinating Panamanian folklore, but it quickly reaches the point of having too much. Moreno and Nájera have nuggets of greatness throughout the film. The problem is, when you try to include so many different elements, nothing ends up getting the time and attention it really deserves. A film that has witches, cannibals, and La Tulivieja is a lot to tackle in a film that is only about an hour and 16 minutes. The performances, practical effects, and visual nods to classic horror films make up for some of the film’s pitfalls, but there is still a lot to be desired. I do believe this is a promising start considering it’s the first horror film from Panama. Hopefully the filmmakers will remember this adage on their next film: sometimes, less is more.

OVERALL RATING: 4/10

Z

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An 8-year-old boy gets an imaginary friend. What begins as a simple childhood fantasy quickly turns sinister. The boy is acting out and blaming his imaginary friend. As the family’s life is turned upside down as they are terrorized by this invisible force, they will have to turn to the past in order to survive the present.

Z is the sophomore feature film of director Brandon Christensen (Still/Born), who also co-wrote the screenplay with Colin Minihan (Grave Encounters, What Keeps You Alive). Christensen and Minihan’s combined efforts manage to bring viewers a bit of the familiar along with some thrilling new bits. These days, horror films about imaginary friends seem to be increasingly common. The filmmakers take a bit of time introducing this imaginary friend, allowing time to establish the family unit and their dynamics first. When we do finally meet Z, the imaginary friend, it is just whispers and mentions of him as the son plays. Yet it doesn’t take very long for those whispers to turn to behavior issues and then full-blown terror. This gradual increase in suspense allows for some brilliant and terrifying scenes that are sure to haunt viewers. Z even takes the time to tackle many issues including the horrors of parenting, emotionally and physically abusive relationships, and suicide (take this also as a trigger warning for anyone who has difficulty watching these topics on screen). For the most part these aspects of the film are very well done, but certain parts feel a little derivative of other films, especially the climax. Z ends with a fair amount of closure, but the filmmakers wisely left some questions in the dark. I could definitely imagine a sequel to Z in the future.

One of the things about Z that surprised me was how it almost feels like two films. The first half of the film is very much a story of a mother and the love she feels for her son. When she first learns of her son’s behavioral problems, and feels the consequences of this in their social circle, she is completely in denial. Every mother wants to believe the best of their child, and it’s more difficult to see the truth with those blinders on. When the mother finally realizes the real danger, she has to battle a sinister imaginary friend, her disbelieving husband, and even her own son in order to try and save those she loves. At one point there is a scene I believed to be the end of Z, but to my surprise the film continues for another 20 minutes. This second section of the film feels much more like watching an abusive, controlling relationship. It is truly disturbing to see the woman’s life upended and left to the mercy of a male figure. Every moment of every day of her life is controlled by this entity, forcing her to distance herself from the outside world for fear its jealousy will lead to their harm. This is very powerful and disturbing in how it’s conveyed, but at the same time it makes the film feel a bit disjointed. The two halves work very well on their own, but I don’t know if they necessarily work together.

Every performance in Z is truly stunning. Keegan Connor Tracy (The Magicians, Final Destination 2) plays Elizabeth. While Tracy is fantastic through the entire film, she truly shines in the last half of the film. Elizabeth goes from questioning her own sanity to being willing to do anything it takes to save her son. Tracy absolutely shines in this role and brings heart-wrenching emotion to the horror of what’s happening. Jett Klyne (The Boy, Chilling Adventures of Sabrina) plays Elizabeth’s son, Joshua. The way Klyne shows Joshua’s gradual transformation from normal, sweet boy to a very disturbed child is a performance I won’t soon forget. While these two actors carry most of the film, Sean Rogerson (Grave Encounters) is great as husband and father, Kevin, while Luke Moore (Sex, Lies & Murder) frightens viewers as Z himself.

The filmmakers behind Z were very wise with their scares. Much of the terror is from the building of tension, including some long, drawn out images where you are at the edge of your seat waiting to see what will happen. Yet that tension is punctuated with some perfectly crafted jump scares. These are definitely earned jump scares that will still have an impact, if not necessarily the scare, upon subsequent viewings. Most of the bigger scares rely heavily on great camerawork, making sure your eye is drawn to the right place at the right time. But, of course, many of the scares wouldn’t be complete without Z. The single greatest thing the filmmakers did was barely show Z. Viewers will get starling glimpses here and there, giving enough of an impression of his frightening appearance, but for the most part he is invisible and left to the shadows. So many horror films show too much of their evil entities, but by leaving the imaginary friend mostly unseen the viewers are able to project some of there imagination onto the character. Z is also created with a combination of motion actor and CGI, which wouldn’t be quite as effective in full view.

Z brings a menacing imaginary friend to life in a way that tackles dramatic issues while also delivering scares. Christensen and Minihan definitely created a ghoulish tale to haunt horror fans, but they also managed to embed compelling takes on motherhood and trauma. boasts strong performances, especially from Tracy and Klyne, and has what is probably the most terrifying imaginary friend I’ve ever seen. While there is a clear divide that seems to split the film into two disjointed parts, both parts are fascinating in how they deal with certain topics. Despite the flaws in the overall story arc, there are definitive moments that are guaranteed to be embedded in your mind long after watching.

OVERALL RATING: 6.5/10

The Night

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An Iranian couple living in the US is driving home one night after a gathering with friends. They decide to take their baby and stay the night in a hotel instead of making the drive home so late. In this dark and quiet hotel, the couple is forced to face the demons of their past or else this bizarre night may never end.

Writer and director Kourosh Ahari (Generations, The Yellow Wallpaper) and co-writer Milad Jarmooz (Maybe There) create an eerie tale with The Night. The film opens with our two protagonists, Babak and Neda, at a gathering with friends. We get to know who they are by how they interact with the people who know them best before we really see them interact much with each other. It is clear there is some subconscious strain between the married couple, and it only escalates after they leave the gathering with their baby girl. When they decide to stop and stay the night in a hotel, things go from strained to a complete nightmare. Strange sounds and ghostly visions plague them all through the night. The couple gradually realizes the secrets of their past are coming back to haunt them, threatening to destroy the life they’ve built together in the States. The fact that their baby is with them only makes the situation more dire and frightening.

For the most part, The Night creates a haunting and tense mythos. The increasingly strange and intense visions seem to be connected to matching tattoos the married couple chose at random to get together the very day the film begins. Whatever this symbol is, it has managed to manifests itself as Babak and Neda’s innermost secrets and forces them to face their past. It’s an interesting concept that definitely results in delightful frights, but this is also where the mythos gets a bit muddy. The tattoos look almost like an Aztec or Mayan coin, spilt in half between the pair. Then, before any ghostly apparitions appear, the couple repeatedly encounter a creepy black cat. This automatically makes me think of ancient Egyptian folklore. While I appreciate keeping the origin and the reasoning for the events of this one night being left to the imagination of the viewers, having a stronger cultural origin at the very least would have been wise.

Both leads deliver striking performances in The Night. Shahab Hosseini (The Salesman, A Separation) stars as Babak. Babak is a very closed off man who appears to cope with his feelings with alcohol rather than talking with his wife or friends. Niouhsa Jafarian, who I couldn’t find on IMDb, plays Neda. Neda is the more grounded of the two, yet she keeps things bottled up just as much as her husband. Jafarian and Hosseini play off of each other very well. There are subtleties to their dynamic shown through curt remarks and body language that expertly show the strain between them. It’s obvious Neda carries resentment towards Babak and Babak doesn’t seem to be able to be around Neda without drinking. This bizarre night shows how similar the two are, especially with the secrets they keep, yet it’s how they react when confronted by those secrets that will decide who survives.

The Night brings audiences a chilling tale of past secrets breaking into the present in a truly haunting way. Ahari once again shows he has a knack for creating frightening ambience. Together Ahari and Jarmooz deliver a tense plot, although the mythos leaves a bit to be desired. Luckily the focus is more on the secrets and ghostly manifestations of those secrets, which makes it easier to overlook some of the flaws. The suspenseful film is helped by great performances from Hosseini and Jafarian, as well as the creepy hotel setting. The Night is sure the send chills down your spine while also making you take a hard look at the secrets you keep.

OVERALL RATING: 7/10

Darling, Darling, Wendy (Short)

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We all know the story of Wendy Darling and Peter Pan and their adventures in Neverland. But what happened after Wendy came back? It’s been 15 years, and Wendy is obsessed with Peter, Neverland, and finding her way back. Yet when she finally meets Peter again, things don’t go quite as planned.

Darling, Darling, Wendy is a short film directed by Elise Robertson (Donner Pass) and written by Katherine Sainte Marie (Wicked Mirrors). The short offers a unique look at what happens after the beloved story we all know and love. It is quickly established that Wendy, now married with a daughter of her own, has been a bit unhinged since her return from Neverland. She tries to spend most of her time in the nursery, and for some reason she is not allowed to be left alone with her own daughter. In hopes Wendy will leave these childish thoughts behind, her husband allows her to spend one final night in the nursery.

The plot weaves together various mysteries to keep the viewer intrigued. Was Neverland real? Why can’t Wendy be alone with her daughter? Will Peter come back? Darling, Darling, Wendy grips the viewers’ attention and makes us want to know what happens next. The filmmakers also do a great job of bringing something new to the familiar, while also giving it a very dark twist. One thing that caught my eye as being a bit odd was how a drug bottle was labeled. While this short film takes place in a different time, to my knowledge the drug shouldn’t have been labeled that way even back then. It may be a minor detail, but in a 13 minute short it stands out.

Darling, Darling, Wendy is filled with enjoyable performances. The small cast all perform well, but there are two particular performances that stand out. The first memorable performance is from the short film’s writer, Katherine Sainte Marie (Diaries From Wonderland), as Wendy. The Mexican-American actress does a fair job of portraying an English woman from a different time. There is a properness about Wendy that Marie conveys quite well, but there is also an underlying mania and obsession that constantly threatens to break through. The other memorable performance comes from Ty Shelton (First Kill) as Peter Pan. Since Peter is perpetually young, he has a childlike lack of filter when speaking to others that allows him to speak whatever truth he wants. He also has a wisdom from living many lifetimes, and this allows him to see the truth others might not. Shelton does a great job of maintaining that balance in his performance.

The visuals of Darling, Darling, Wendy are a bit of a mixed bag. The set and costume designs are the clear highlights. These aspects work quite well to transport the viewers to a different place and time. The visuals made the short film feel like something from Masterpiece Theater. At the end of the short the filmmakers utilize a bit of CGI or greenscreen effects. It is just a quick little scene at the climax, but it ends up looking a bit cheap like something out of a children’s TV show. While there are obviously financial constraints to work around when making a short film, these effects simply don’t come across as in keeping with the overall look and feel of the rest of the short film.

Darling, Darling, Wendy brings something new and dark to the fairy tale we all know and love. The filmmakers do a great job of creating a believable follow up telling viewers what happened to Wendy after she returned from Neverland. The plot is helped by strong performances and a great gradual reveal of surprises. There are some small missteps, such as the effects at the climax of the film, but it is still a compelling watch. Viewers who enjoy dark twists on classic stories will enjoy this short film.

OVERALL RATING: 3/5