Phoenix Film Festival

Game of Death

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A group of spoiled rich friends partying at a lake house stumble upon a strange game. The box says it is called the “Game of Death.” The group decides to play the game as a joke. When the strange game takes a bit of each player’s blood and says they have to kill 24 people to survive, the friends leave the game and go back to their drugs and alcohol. Soon it becomes explosively clear that if they don’t play the game and kill 24 people before time runs out, it will be the friends who lose their lives.

The concept for Game of Death is definitely a fun and interesting one. The idea that if these kids don’t do as the game says it will kill them makes for an exciting ride. It is almost like a horror version of Jumanji with a hint of Battle Royale mixed in. Unfortunately, that is about where the good plot points end. The two biggest flaws in this film are the characters and the dialogue. In horror films there are often characters that are despicable for various reasons. These are the characters you don’t care as much about, so when they get killed it’s more of a relief than anything else. This is how every character in the film is written. None of them have any redeeming qualities that make you care whether they live or die. When the whole point of the film is life and death, it makes the events that follow feel rather lackluster. The dialogue between the characters is also a bit cringeworthy. It is very choppy sounding and forced, almost as if you are watching a soap opera. It is unfortunate that such a promising idea falls short of its potential because of these factors.

Whether because of the writing or not, the acting is yet another shortcoming of Game of Death. I have a feeling the various young actors in this film are perfectly fine in other roles, but because of the characters they play and the lines they are forced to deliver there is not one among them that I can say I enjoyed. At the same time I don’t think I can say any one of them was terrible either, another sign that this is more due to the writing than anything else. Of the entire cast the most enjoyable performance came from Erniel Baez Duenas (19-2) as the pizza delivery boy and drug dealer, Tyler. Even though he is a drug dealer, Tyler is the least revolting of the characters. Duenas does a good job of making Tyler the most relatable character as well because he wants to survive, but he also seems to be the one with the biggest conscious of the group. Beyond that, it is hard to find another character or performance that doesn’t make me cringe at least twice.

One of the best aspects of this film is the visuals. The opening sequence is particularly gorgeous. The filmmakers went with an eighties-inspired video game look for the credits. As I watched them it made me hopeful for the rest of the film. Another instance of great visuals is a strange killing spree montage. Here the filmmakers implemented many different animated styles to show two of the characters having a grand time killing people for the game, without actually showing any real violence. This was probably one of the smartest moves made in the film. It shows some restraint in what could have otherwise been a complete gorefest. The few practical effects of the film are also surprisingly beautiful. Without giving too much away, the way the kids playing the game are killed if they fail to kill someone else in time is quite graphic. The practical effects for those kills are incredibly well done and create some horrific imagery.

Game of Death is a fun concept for a horror film that leaves a lot to be desired. The writing is the most unfortunate part of the film, but looking at the other credits of the writers for the most part this is the first (or one of the first) film each of them have written. That leaves room for growth, so don’t necessarily write them off just for this film. If you can make it through the regrettable dialogue and the repugnant characters, at the very least you will get to see some fascinating visuals scattered throughout.

OVERALL RATING: 4/10

Sequence Break

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Video games can be addicting. For Oz, they are his whole life. Not only does he love playing them, but he also works at an arcade game repair shop. In a short amount of time two interesting things happen; Oz meets a young woman, and a mysterious arcade game gets left at the shop. From then on, Oz is pulled in two different and opposing directions. One is the pull to be with the woman he cares for and the desire to live a complete life, and the other is his obsession for the arcade game – and the game does not want to lose.

Graham Skipper manages to create an interesting, creepy, and sometimes disgusting story in Sequence Break. On the surface the film is about a video game that threatens to destroy a man’s life. After Oz finds it in the shop and plugs the game into an old arcade console, it quickly begins to take over his life. What’s more bizarre is that the game seems to come alive every time Oz plays it. The game even takes on certain organic physical characteristics, creating a biomechanical monstrosity. These scenes create disturbing imagery and can be downright gross at times, but they are also quite fascinating. There is also a strange drifter always in the background, willing Oz to play the game more and more. It all results in a unique film, utilizing something familiar like a video game and turning it into something much more sinister.

The second, deeper layer is what makes this film a true work of art. There is a constant underlying metaphor for obsession and addiction. In this particular case it is an addiction to video games, but it can be applied to any addiction. Oz’s whole life is taken over by video games even before the mystery game appears. The first time he meets the woman he falls in love with, he doesn’t even notice her because he is so consumed with whatever game he is working on at the time. It isn’t until he starts dating the woman and begins to move away from his obsession with the games that the mystery game tries to take hold of him. The game is his addiction, and it attempts to be everything for Oz so that he will never need the outside world. There are even instances where the filmmakers manage to insert subtle clues as to Oz’s state of mind throughout the film. The story and imagery create such a compelling metaphor that shows, no matter how hard a person tries to break free and live their life, addiction will always try to suck them back in.

The two leads in this film are great, and their on screen chemistry is electric. Horror fans may recognize their chemistry as both leads acted together in another horror film, John Dies at the End. Chase Williamson (Beyond the Gates, The Guest) plays Oz. What makes Williamson’s performance so compelling is how he can make a pathetic slacker character so lovable and enjoyable to watch. This is something we have seen Williamson do in previous roles as well, and he never disappoints. Then there is the ever lovely Fabianne Therese (Southbound, Starry Eyes) as Tess. Therese brings a lot of heart to the film in her portrayal of Tess, which she will need to get Oz away from his addiction. Every time Therese is on screen your eye is immediately drawn to her. She lights up the screen and plays Tess in a very endearing way. Williamson and Therese’s powers combine to create the perfect duo to tug at the audience’s heart strings through every twist and turn.

Throughout the film there is a rather unsettling use of practical effects. All of the effects are centered around the mystery video game. Specifically, when the game moves away from the mechanical side and goes more toward the biological side. Not only are these effects incredibly well done, but they are sometimes a bit gross. The first time the biological aspects are seen it makes viewers feel like they are watching something they shouldn’t be. It adds a peculiar sexual aspect to an inanimate object that makes the viewer feel a bit uncomfortable, but at the same time you can’t look away. Each time the game is played the effects become more and more grand, leading to some very unusual and fantastical imagery.

Sequence Break is a surreal scifi-horror mashup that manages to be both unsettling and beautiful all at once. It is incredibly disturbing to watch, yet it also brings to light the sad truth of addiction and how it can completely consume a person’s life. The striking visuals and amazing acting by the two leads only add to the power behind the plot. While there are a few scenes that made me cringe and want to look away, I can say with confidence that my eyes never left the screen. This is a film that will leave your eyes devouring every moment, no matter how disturbing.

OVERALL RATING: 8.5/10

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

The 6th Friend

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Six friends throw a party for their college graduation. When an uninvited guest shows up things get out of control, leading to traumatic events. Five years later the women agree to meet again to reconnect and try to move on from what happened. As soon as night falls it becomes clear that the girls are not alone. Is it the same uninvited guest coming for revenge, or is it something much more sinister?

The 6th Friend has a lot of potential. The story is simple enough, but still fun and interesting. The filmmakers do a great job of building the suspense and paranoia once the friends are gathered at the cabin and realize they are being hunted. While the characters can be a bit stereotypical, they are still enjoyable. From there, however, the film goes a bit downhill. The filmmakers try to generate hysteria by causing confusion. Is the killer the same man from 5 years ago, is it his ghost, is it a demon, or is it maybe even a copycat killer? This is great and would have made for an intriguing and suspenseful film. Unfortunately, there are two huge mistakes made that give away the “big twist.” I won’t get too much into what that is, because I don’t like to give spoilers, but I will say I figured everything out very early on in the film (certain elements even before the opening credits). With just a few minor changes the plot could be elevated in a way that makes every twist and turn much more thrilling.

As I mentioned before, the characters can sometimes fall into certain archetypes commonly seen in horror films. This is especially apparent in much of the dialogue. That being said, there are still many instances of well-written banter between the characters that is both humorous and charming. Much of it depends on the acting. While in general the performances are fine and there is great on-screen chemistry between the six friends, some of the performances leave a bit to be desired. For me the strongest performance came from Tania Nolan (Underworld: Rise of the Lycans) as Sahara. There is something about her performance that comes across so natural on the screen. I believe she is Sahara and knows these women and has been friends with them for many years. While none of the performances by the other five women could be considered bad, per se, there is one role that stands out to me as the least enjoyable. Chantelle Albers (Moo Moo and the Three Witches) plays Melissa. Her mother owns the cabin the friends are staying at, and she is an aspiring starlet. Watching Albers in the role I can’t help but feel that she plays Melissa a bit exaggerated. This may be a conscious decision since Melissa is trying to use her tragic past as a means to get into the acting world, but there are times where Albers goes a bit over the top. While none of the remaining performances stand out as being terrible, but they don’t stand out as being amazing either. They are good enough to enjoy watching the film.

This is a film that doesn’t have many visual effects. The biggest effect involves distorting shots when the killer is in view. This technique emphasizes the notion that the killer could potentially be a supernatural force rather than a flesh and blood murderer. This would be an effective tool if, as I mentioned before, the clues to the truth were less obvious. One big positive is the design for the mask the killer wears. It almost looks like a skull within a skull, and it is downright creepy. My only complaint about the mask is that I wish it was in the movie more. Aside from scenes involving the mask and the killer, there is one other part that stands out as having amazing effects. That doesn’t mean that the filmmakers didn’t use simple tricks to create terror. There is a segment where a few of the friends are running through the woods to get away from the killer, then one of them gets caught in a noose. It creates such a great amount of suspense and is also quite well done, as it appears to be a real hanging. This particular scene is likely the most intense sequence of events that occurs in the entire film.

The 6th Friend is a film that many viewers may feel a bit blasé about. It isn’t terrible, but it isn’t particularly thrilling or scary either. If anything, I found the scenes involving humor to stand out more than the scenes of terror. The story is fine, the performances are fine, and the villain has a very unsettling mask. With just a few minor adjustments I truly believe this film could be much more frightening and exciting. As it is now, it is a  fun, light thriller that audiences will likely enjoy well enough. However, with the many amazing films to come out so far in 2017, it may quickly be forgotten.

OVERALL RATING: 6/10 (no pun intended)

Killing Ground

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A couple goes on a New Year’s Eve camping trip in the Australian Outback. When they reach their lonely campsite the couple notices another tent. After staying one night they realize the owners of the tent haven’t returned. It soon becomes clear that something bad happened to the fellow campers. When the couple finds a toddler wandering alone near the campsite they decide it’s time to get help. Soon the couple regrets ever coming to this seemingly idyllic campground.

Killing Ground has a plot that isn’t extraordinarily original. It is an intense thriller packed with rape, torture, and murder. Yet there are aspects of this film that make it stand out from other films with similar plots. One interesting part of the story is that it is told in a more modular format rather than a linear story. The main focus is the young couple, but we learn fragments of what happened to the family whose tent gets left behind. It is very effective storytelling to show the two storylines side by side, while one is in the past and one the present, until the two finally converge. It adds a bit of interest to an otherwise average story. Another element that adds intrigue to the plot is the addition of the toddler. Saving yourself from murderous people is difficult enough on its own. Add a child into the mix and things become much more stressful and chaotic.

There are two main pieces of the plot that I need to commend the filmmakers for. The first has to do with the rape in this film. The filmmakers made the wise decision to show what happens before and after, but not the act itself. Seeing the aftermath of a rape scenario can be effective in getting the point across to audiences without having to show the rape take place. In the wake of remakes like Last House on the Left and I Spit on Your Grave, I appreciate the less is more approach used in Killing Ground. Another aspect the filmmakers do an excellent job with is creating honest reactions to the events taking place. I won’t go too far into it because it may reveal some spoilers, but I will say in most thrillers the characters always somehow manage to keep a cool head and someone always comes in to be the hero. While I’m not saying this doesn’t happen in Killing Ground, many of the actions by the characters are more realistic and people react in ways I personally have always thought people would truly do in these situations.

This is yet another film from the International Horror and Sci-fi Film Festival that is very well acted by the entire cast. Specifically, the four leads do a fantastic job. Aaron Pedersen (Goldstone, Jack Irish) plays level-headed and deadly German. He is almost a mentor in this film, but unfortunately he teaches his pupil ways to maim and kill without getting caught. Pedersen’s performance is quite unsettling because of the way he portrays German’s calm demeanor, no matter what is going on around him. Aaron Glenane (Molly, Truth) is also fantastic as Chook, German’s willing student. Glenane’s performance may be even more disturbing than Pedersen’s. At first Chook seems a bit unsure of what the diabolic duo are doing, but once he gets a taste for blood Glenane shows us how much enjoyment Chook gets out of it. The two are polar opposites, German being calculated and relaxed, Chook being erratic and inexperienced. Another strong performance comes from Harriet Dyer (Love Child, Down Under) as Sam. Dyer portrays Sam as a sweet and caring person with an inner strength that allows her to step up when she needs to. Then finally there is Ian Meadows (The Wrong Girl, The Turning) as Sam’s medical school boyfriend Ian. Ian’s medical background makes him a helping kind of person, but he is still human, and Meadows shows that side of Ian perfectly. The common thread between all four of these characters, especially the couple, is that their actions and reactions feel authentic. They make the audience feel less like they are watching a movie, and more like they are watching actual horrific events.

Killing Ground is one of the most disturbing films I have seen in recent years. It’s not necessarily because of the events that take place, since those are things seen in other films, but it is because of the way the characters are written. While there are clearly “bad guys” in this story, there are still good people who make poor decisions. It blurs some of the lines that distinguish good and bad, and the actors that play these characters do a phenomenal job. This is not a story for the faint of heart, but it is truly an intense and grisly film.

OVERALL RATING: 8/10

The Night Watchmen

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A group of night watchmen and their new recruit keep watch over the offices of a newspaper. One night, when everyone is staying late to do inventory, a coffin is accidentally delivered to the building. Little do the night watchmen know that the late great Blimpo the clown is in that coffin and he met an untimely death in Romania. Blimpo is now a vampire and soon the night watchmen find themselves fighting for their lives as people in the office are turned into bloodthirsty monsters.

Of all the films at the Phoenix Film Festival and International Horror and Sci-fi Film Festival, I can say without a doubt that The Night Watchmen is the most fun horror film they programmed. This film really has everything one could want from a gory horror-comedy; lots of laughs, awesome practical effects, hilarious actors, and a fun story. The filmmakers managed to combine different things that scare people in order to create a spooky, hilarious hybrid. Clowns and vampires can be terrifying on their own. When you join them into one “clownpire,” then you get absolute insanity. The filmmakers also make the vampires in the film almost more zombie-like until they become a bit older and have more blood. This is smart because it allows them to create more carnage and excitement because the young vampires are essentially feral, wild animals.

Obviously the entire concept of this film is hilarious, but there are smaller details that elevate it to a higher level of humor. The three night watchmen and their new hire make up quite the team. The leader of their team is the typical buff ex-military guard. He is more experienced than the others so he naturally takes the lead. This character is hilarious because he fits into a certain stereotype, until the craziness begins and then you see that he isn’t quite the macho man he appears to be. The leader’s best friend and fellow night watchman is described in the film as “the worst black guy ever.” He commonly says common phrases incorrectly and enjoys things a stereotypical black man would not enjoy. This is a trait that can be seen in most of the main characters. The filmmakers do a great job of introducing caricatures and stereotypes of different people, but then show that they actually do not fit into that mold at all. It adds a more subtle layer of humor amidst all the fart and sex jokes.

The interesting and complex characters would be nothing without the actors who play them. The Night Watchmen is filled with laugh out loud performances from the lead characters all the way down to the smallest roles. All of the watchmen deliver performances wrought with humor and even a certain level of complexity not typically seen in this kind of horror-comedy. Ken Arnold (Men in Black 3, Lovely Molly) plays tough-guy leader, Ken. Arnold adds many layers to his character’s personality making him much more engaging and lovable. Kevin Jiggetts (Concussion, Won’t Back Down) plays the equally lovable Jiggetts, Ken’s best friend and the aforementioned “worst black guy ever.” Jiggetts does an amazing job of acknowledging the stereotypes people expect his character to fall into and then he completely shatters that stereotype. Max Gray Wilbur (Thrill Kill) is yet another example of breaking expectations in his portrayal of the rookie who is fondly known as “Rajeeve.”  One would expect him to be the hero of the story since he is the young fresh face, but the audience quickly learns that is not the case. Then there is Kara Luiz (Jerks with Cameras, American Poltergeist 3) as the strong female lead of Karen. I love the character of Karen and Luiz’s portrayal of her because she is not a damsel in distress. In the workplace she ranks higher than the male leads and she takes charge and refuses to be the helpless victim. Other great performances come from Dan DeLuca (Crazy Eights), Tiffany Shepis (Tales of Halloween), James Remar (Unnatural), and of course Gary Peebles as the great Blimpo.

This is a very gory, bloody film. It would have failed miserably without those who create the amazing practical effects. Every wound and bit of gore is very well done. It is definitely over the top at times when looking at the amount of blood and guts, but it works in this kind of film. The creature design for the vampires is one of the best aspects of the practical effects. I appreciate that, instead of the usual two elongated fangs and alluring demeanor, the filmmakers broke the vampire mold (much like with the main characters) by having a mouth full of sharp teeth and rabid behavior. The vampires are feral, wild beasts instead of the usual calm and composed sex symbols. It makes them more frightening and dangerous, especially as they slowly begin to gain more intelligence with each drop of blood they drink. I also love that they make Blimpo stand out as the leader by making him the strongest, most intelligent, and making him appear larger than everyone else. Blimpo is not a clown you would want to meet in a dark alley.

The Night Watchmen is an insanely fun and bloody ride that is sure to tickle the funny bone of horror fans everywhere. In this film you get lots of gore, excitement, and laughs. While the fart jokes may go on a little too long, the filmmakers make up for it by giving the audience surprisingly complex characters. Those complex characters are portrayed by an all-around fantastic cast that has electric chemistry between them. I not only want to see more of these characters, but I also can’t wait to see what the filmmakers come up with next.

OVERALL RATING: 8.5/10