Review

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

The Oak Room

Late one night during a snowstorm, a man wanders into a bar in his hometown. He has a debt to settle with the bartender, but he offers the bartender a story instead of money. It’s a story of intrigue, murder, and lies. He won’t believe what happened in The Oak Room.

Director Cody Calahan (Antisocial, Let Her Out) brings to life the thrilling noir screenplay written by Peter Genoway, who makes his feature film debut. The Oak Room takes the art of oral storytelling and injects it into every aspect of the plot. Stripping it down to its core, the plot follows two main stories. The first is that of the drifter returning to his hometown. His father has died and he wants to collect his ashes from the grumpy bartender. The problem is, he owes the bartender money and he won’t hand over the ashes until he gets what he is owed. The second main story is the one the drifter is telling. He spins a yarn about a bar in a nearby town where a man passing through during a snowstorm stumbles into a bar as it’s closing, much like the drifter did himself. Then there are other, shorter stories being told within those stories.

At times the weaving of the many different stories creates a lack of focus in the film, but it presents an interesting format that is essentially an anthology and generates intrigue as audiences have to wait until the end to find out how the two main stories end. The filmmakers also cleverly ended the film in a way that leaves it up to the audience members on whether or not those two stories will collide or not.

One of the more compelling aspects of the storytelling in The Oak Room is how the filmmakers play with focus and elaboration. As the stories are being told, the storytellers often choose to either focus on one specific aspect of a larger story, or they tell a story non-synchronously. The bartender also emphasizes “goosing the truth.” This basically means changing details of a story to make it more exciting and interesting. It points out how different stories can be depending on who the storyteller is and who they are telling the story to.

While there are many fantastic performances throughout the many stories in The Oak Room, the actors in the two main stories stand out. RJ Mitte (Breaking Bad, The Recall) stars as the drifter, Steve. What really makes Mitte’s performance memorable is how Steve starts out seeming like he’s just a screw-up, but as the plot progresses, he seems to have mysterious, maybe even sinister motives. Peter Outerbridge (Lucky Number Slevin, Saw VI) plays the bartender, Paul, whom Steve goes to see. Paul is a very ornery, grizzled bartender who clearly dislikes Steve. Outerbridge does a great job of being grumpy, but also somehow likable in his gruffness. Then there are the two main characters from the story being told by Steve. Ari Millen (Darken, The Expanse) plays the bartender of The Oak Room, Michael. Much like Paul, Michael is rather gruff and rude, but Millen plays Michael in a much more menacing way. He has the same presence as a lion preparing to pounce. Then there is the late-night bar patron, Richard, played by Martin Roach (The Shape of Water, Cube Zero). Roach does a fantastic job of toeing the line between grateful and haughty. Richard is relying on Paul’s hospitality since the bar is technically closed, but he also is an entitled city boy who clearly expects to get what he wants. Each pair of men perfectly conveys the tension and hostility between the characters.

The Oak Room utilizes unique storytelling techniques to create a neo-noir thriller that is reminiscent of an anthology. Calahan and Genoway weave together different tales while still drawing focus to the two main plots. It creates a sort of nesting doll effect of revealing a story within a story, then putting them back together to return to the tale of Steve and Paul. The film has strong performances to help move the varying plots foward. At times the many stories lead to a lack of focus despite the fact that they are each intriguing. There is no shortage of intrigue and by the time the film ends viewers will be trying to decide what parts of these tales being told were fact and which were fiction.

OVERALL RATING: 7/10

Yummy

In a secluded Eastern European hospital, a woman goes to get breast reduction surgery while her mother is getting more work done to look younger. While they are prepped for surgery, the woman’s boyfriend accidentally stumbles upon something he shouldn’t have, unleashing a nightmarish zombie outbreak inside the hospital walls.

This zombie gore-fest hails all the way from Belgium. Lars Damoiseaux (10 jaar leuven kort, Undercover) directed and co-wrote the film along with Eveline Hagenbeek (Undercover, Rokjesdag). Yummy takes humorous jabs at plastic surgery and the lengths people will go to feel young and beautiful, while also delivering copious amounts of blood and guts. When we are introduced to the young woman, her mother, and her boyfriend, it creates an interesting dynamic. This is especially evident with mother and daughter. The daughter has the “God given gift” of very large natural breasts, but she hates the attention they bring her so she wants breast reduction. The mother, on the other hand, has already had multiple procedures to look younger and comes to the hospital wanting more. While both sides represent being unhappy with who you are and the way you look, the mother is the more traditional view of plastic surgery most viewers will think of. The film creates a kind of “be careful what you wish for” scenario as the doctors accidentally created the zombie virus in their quest to unlock the secrets of eternal youth. It sends a strong message, but it also allows the filmmakers to inject quite a few laugh-out-loud moments.

While for the most part Yummy delivers lots of fun along with the carnage, there are some drawbacks. There are one or two scenes that lean a bit too far into the realm of distasteful humor. It’s clear they want to push the envelope, especially with some of the effects, but it ends up bordering on offensive. That being said, most of the practical effects throughout Yummy are very well done. There are a lot of terrifying and gruesome zombies in this film and each one looks fantastic. In a few scenes there are practical effects to replicate cosmetic surgery or other aspects of the human body and those are also quite realistic. The film even has a great score, although during one scene it sounds very similar to the score from 28 Days Later.

There are many great performances in Yummy, but three stand out. The first is Maaike Neuville (De Dag, Clan) as Alison. What really stands out about Neuville’s performance is how she conveys being uncomfortable with her own body. Alison doesn’t want the attention her breasts give her, and the attention most women at the clinic desire, and Neuville excels at showing us that. Bart Hollander (Salamander, Callboys) plays Alison’s boyfriend, Michael. Michael is like a big, maybe slightly pathetic puppy dog; he’s goofy and hates the sight of blood, but he clearly adores Alison. Hollander plays this role well, especially when his many attempts to be the hero don’t quite work out. Then there is Benjamin Ramon (Carnival, Toxic Anyway) as hospital employee Daniel. Ramon does a fantastic job of being incredibly sleazy in one moment, then completely sweet in the next, depending on who he’s interacting with. These three actors also play off of each other very well.

Yummy is a zombie cautionary tale about the consequences of trying to look young forever. Damoiseaux and Hagenbeek definitely create a film that is as funny as it is grotesque. Gore hounds will be delighted with how drenched in blood and guts Yummy is from start to finish. There may be a couple of distasteful moments and a mildly lackluster ending, but it is sure to entertain viewers. The performances and cosmetic surgery hospital backdrop help to make this zombie film stand alongside others of its kind, even if it doesn’t stand above them. And because in this day and age some people still refuse to watch a film with subtitles, I will let potential viewers know that it’s about 50/50 English vs subtitles. If you’re looking for mindless fun, then this is definitely a great choice.

OVERALL RATING: 6/10

Etheria Film Night 2020

We all have experienced the major changes the COVID-19 pandemic has caused. Everything from daily life to events we looked forward to has drastically changed.

Etheria Film Night would normally have played its short films in Hollywood’s Egyptian Theatre, but this year they had to come up with a new plan. Lucky for all of us who don’t live in the LA area, Etheria Film Night 2020 instead is showing nine short films made by women exclusively on Shudder. The horror-focused streaming service has made quite a name for itself with the amazing Shudder exclusive films and even Shudder original shows. It is the perfect place for Etheria to showcase these short films.

Etheria’s co-founder and director of programming, Heidi Honeycutt, kicks things off with a lovely intro. She addresses how they are doing things differently this year due to the pandemic. Honeycutt also gives everyone a nice reminder to wear your mask! From there the block dives into the nine short films, all of them unique and fun in their own way.

WAFFLE

Directed by Carlyn Hudson and written by Kerry Barker and Katie Marovitch, who also star in the film, Waffle follows two women having a sleepover. What seems normal quickly becomes strange when the audience learns the women having the sleepover are a bizarre orphaned heiress (Marovitch) and a “best friend” (Barker) she is renting. What I love about this one is how awkward and uncomfortable it gets as the heiress becomes increasingly unhinged. It is hilarious, weird, and even offers a social commentary on how we live in an isolated society of artificial relationships. OVERALL RATING: 4/5

MAGGIE MAY (Jury Award Winner)

Writer and director Mia Kate Russell delivers a truly disturbing tale with her short film, Maggie May. After the death of her mother, a woman takes her infant twins to stay with her sister, but her sister takes doing nothing to a shocking extreme. This short film has some great moments that will make you gasp, as well as stunning practical effects. It also has a truly brilliant and haunting performance by Lulu McClatchy as the titular character, Maggie May. Of all the short films in this block, Maggie May is sure to disturb audiences and stick with them long after. OVERALL RATING: 5/5

BASIC WITCH

I immediately loved this short because it began with a disclaimer about consent and hexing the patriarchy. Basic Witch is directed by Yoko Okumura and written by Lauren Kurek Sweeney Cannon. The short film follows a young women the night after an unfortunate sexual encounter with her date. Feeling conflicted about the night’s events, she hexes a pumpkin spice latte for her date to drink so he can feel everything she felt, both physically and emotionally. Olivia Castanho perfectly plays Lily, the young witch, and Chris O’Brien does a great job as her date, Brian. This short film really excels at conveying the mixed emotions women go through when they are forced to do something sexual they didn’t want to do, but they don’t necessarily feel was rape. It even touches on the ethics of Lily forcing these same things onto Brian. The message of Basic Witch is important, well done, and something everyone should watch. OVERALL RATING: 5/5

CONVERSION THERAPIST

In this short film, written and directed by Bear Rebecca Fonté, a pansexual, polyamorous trio kidnap a religious anti-LGBTQ+ fundamentalist and conversion therapist to torture him. The short includes some great performances, especially from Sara Fletcher, Evelyn Jake, and Jordan Morgan as the kidnapping trio. Conversion Therapist, in a way, has the same cathartic viewing experience as a rape-revenge film. This is a short about the LBGTQ+ community getting back at those who have wronged us, and it’s quite satisfying to watch. The one drawback to the short is the frequent use of the word “f*ggot” by the lead kidnapper. I understand the reason for using it in the context, but it is still jarring to hear and used a bit too much. OVERALL RATING: 3.5/5

OFFBEAT

Set in a future with horribly polluted air, director Myrte Ouwerkerk and writer Chiara Aerts tell the story of a young drummer named Olly trying to earn his way into the clean air dome, where only the best of the best get to live. This film comes all the way from the Netherlands and is very well done. The story stands out because it shows, almost immediately, how the testing to get into the dome is incredibly biased and clearly is made so certain demographics can’t get in, including artists and members of the LGBTQ+ community. Christopher van der Meer is completely lovable as Olly and does a great job of taking us through this strange new world. Offbeat is fun and has great production value and effects, but more importantly it shows the inherent bias in testing that exists even today. OVERALL RATING: 4.5/5

THE FINAL GIRL RETURNS (Audience Award Winner)

This short film by Alexandria Perez takes on a strange journey with a young man seemingly stuck in a loop where he encounters final girl after final girl. This short captures the look and feel of classic 80’s slashers, including a fantastic 80’s inspired musical score, but from there it brings something new to the subgenre of horror. One of my favorite aspects of the short is that we see many final girls of all shapes, sizes, and colors, which is not very common in the slasher subgenre. The plot leaves a lot of the “why” to the unknown, but it does a great job of showing how we have to take our destiny into our own hands. It’s a slick update to a tired concept with a huge cast that absolutely nails it. OVERALL RATING: 3.5/5

LIVE

Taryn O’Neill writes, directs, and stars in this short film about a livecaster whose online persona is getting to be too much for her. There are two main aspects of modern social media and technology at play in this short. First, the personas we play online and how they differ from who we are in reality. Second, the increasing dilemma of how much a person should be willing to share with the world in order to make a buck. Perhaps it’s not quite nuanced enough at times, but still a compelling story that makes the audience think. It’s an interesting concept shown with futuristic technology to convey ideas that are very relevant in today’s social-media hungry society. OVERALL RATING: 3.5/5

MAN IN THE CORNER

Written and directed by Kelli Breslin and co-written by Daniel Ross Noble, Man in the Corner follows a young guy hooking up with what appears to be a perfect guy, but things go downhill when he realizes they’re not alone. Part of what makes it so unsettling is the performance by Matt Pascua as Daniel. The audience experiences the encounter through his POV. It makes many of the unanswered questions and the strange events work because we only know as much as Daniel knows. There is some striking imagery and a few specific moments that will likely be seared into the viewers’ brains. This is an eerie, unsettling short film that is beautifully shot and makes great use of lighting and color. OVERALL RATING: 4/5

AVA IN THE END

After an unfortunate accident leads to a young woman’s death, her consciousness is uploaded to the cloud until her new body arrives, leaving her to wait with an AI. Written by Addison Heimann and directed by Ursula Ellis, Ava in the End tackles some very deep ideas. In a future where your consciousness can just go to another body when you die, it is easy to take your life for granted. This short uses this futuristic setting and technology in order to show the consequences of that and encourage individuals to use the time they have to seek out their dreams. The filmmakers wisely use a single set for the physical representation of the cloud and Elsa Gay is fantastic as the recently deceased Ava. It’s a strong short film to end on, hopefully inspiring viewers to go out and try to achieve their goals. OVERALL RATING: 4/5

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

Monstrum

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It’s an unstable time for Joseon, a kingdom of Korea. Between threats of plague, political unrest, and rumors of a vicious monster stalking the countryside, King Jung Jong’s reign is threatened. He sends the exiled Yoon Gyeom to investigate claims of the monster, but along the way he unlocks dark secrets and a conspiracy to dethrone the king.

Monstrum is a thrilling Korean film blending martial arts, history, and a giant monster directed by Jong-ho Huh (The Advocate: A Missing Body, Countdown). Huh co-wrote the screenplay along with first time screenwriter Heo-dam. I personally have always been a fan of Korean horror films. To date I haven’t seen one that I didn’t love, and Monstrum is no different. The plot combines multiple different genres and subgenres of film to create something beautiful. It is a period piece, showing a bit of 16th century Korean history intertwined with fiction. It is a political thriller, revealing sinister conspiracies to dethrone the king. It is a martial arts film, complete with fantastic fight choreography. Then, of course, it is a creature feature with a quite unique monster called Monstrum. Huh and Heo-dam seamlessly bring these elements together. The resulting film has a little something for everyone to enjoy.

The film builds suspense by gradually revealing information to the viewers. At first the rumors of the monster are just that, rumors. The filmmakers play with the audience by initially making it unclear if Monstrum is a real beast threatening the kingdom or if it’s a figment created by those wanting to overthrow the king. That makes the reveal of the monster even more exciting. There are many messages thrown around throughout the film, but what stands out as the prevailing theme is how those who suffer the most from coups are the common folk. Time and time again we see how the poor people in the kingdom are slaughtered, sacrificed, and left to starve or exposed to plague while those in power stay safe within their palaces. It’s a theme that stands out not only because it tells a thrilling story, but also because it is something that still happens today. In the world today, I think many of us can relate to the fear of plague and feeling as though those in power couldn’t care less whether we die or not.

Monstrum has a huge cast of characters and all of them are a delight to watch. Myung-Min Kim (Six Flying Dragons, Closer to Heaven) stars as the once exiled Yoon Gyeom. We we first meet Yoon, he’s kind of dopey and lives in the countryside with his daughter and brother. When he is called upon by the king to help the investigation into Monstrum, Myung-Min Kim completely changes the character to a respectable and formidable man, yet it still feels natural. In-kwon Kim (My Way, Tidal Wave) plays the lovable Sung Han. Living with Yoon and his daughter, Sung is definitely the goofy uncle. While he can clearly kick some butt as well, In-kwon Kim makes sure to keep that goofiness throughout the film. Hyeri Lee (Reply 1988, My Punch-Drunk Boxer) plays Yoon’s daughter, Myung. She is smart, skilled, and takes everything in stride. Lee shows how Myung’s strong will allows her to easily go from being a simple country girl to warrior fighting alongside her father. Honorable mention goes to Woo-sik Choi as royal guard member Heo, whom many will likely recognize from the Oscar-winning hit film Parasite. This motley band of heroes makes the film even more enjoyable because you have someone to really root for.

There are so many stunning visual elements that make Monstrum an artistic feat. The most obvious things viewers will notice are the fantastic costume and set design. It’s clear a lot of care was taken to not only make the costumes and sets visually appealing, but also true to the period of the film. Of course, the film also includes glorious fight choreography as well. Surprisingly, the film has some shockingly realistic and very well done practical effects. This is evident in various wounds and the physical effects of the plague. What I’m sure everyone is really wondering about is Monstrum himself. The beast is done with CGI and somehow manages to look both menacing and adorable. I may be alone on this, but I think Monstrum is cute. While the CGI itself isn’t necessarily the best, the actual creature has a stylish and distinct look. The design of the creature is stunning and feels reminiscent of the beasts one would find carved around ancient temples and palaces of Asia. There is just so much to look at, which may be discouraging for viewers who take issue with subtitled films, but it’s definitely worth the effort.

Monstrum is a gorgeous film brimming with action, beauty, suspense, and of course a giant monster. Jong-ho Huh and Heo-dam expertly put all these different elements and genres together in a way that tells a memorable story. It not only has great performances, but it also is one of the most visually appealing films I’ve seen so far this year. There is a lot for people to look at on screen while also reading subtitles so it can be difficult at times to take everything in, but don’t let that discourage you. Even if it takes multiple watches to catch all the details, it is one you won’t want to miss. Monstrum is sure to be on many “best of 2020” lists at the end of the year.

OVERALL RATING: 8.5/10

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

Blood Quantum

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In the early 80’s a zombie virus sweeps the country. Humans, and even some animals, are infected and turned into the walking dead. Yet the people of an isolated Mi’gMaq reserve of Red Crow appear to be immune. Now they must battle the undead while also battling whether or not they should let the white survivors into the reservation.

Jeff Barnaby (Rhymes for Young Ghouls) brings audiences his sophomore feature film as writer, director, and editor of Blood Quantum. The film tackles issues of colonialism in a modern way, allowing horror to act both as a metaphor and as a way to emphasize the message. Blood Quantum opens with a bang, then takes some time establishing the characters living on the reservation. From the beginning it’s clear there is resentment between family members as well as tensions between those on the reservation and those in town. The ensuing chaos of the virus and realization that the Mi’gMaq seems to be immune only exacerbate these deep-rooted issues. There is a constant fear of who you can trust, whether they are from the reservation or not, that ultimately leads to the final confrontation. It allows the film to be suspenseful and gory. Although, there are a few calm, still moments that slow the momentum of the plot a bit too much.

What I love about Blood Quantum is that it’s the kind of film that includes hidden meanings and details specific to indigenous people. There are things I could never fully grasp as a white woman, yet immersing the story in the horror genre allows it to be consumed by a wider audience. It also allows for a learning experience. Much like the subtle nods to various racial issues in Jordan Peele’s Get Out, Barnaby forces non-indigenous audiences to learn something from the film. A great example is simply the title of the film, Blood Quantum. After seeing the film, I learned this term refers to a controversial measurement that determines how much indigenous blood you have and whether or not you can become a citizen of a specific tribe. I can only imagine there are other details that went over my head that only add to the metaphors of the film.

Blood Quantum has stunning performances that bring the plot to life. The three stars of the film are a father and his two sons. They represent different points of view on colonialism and interacting with white people. Traylor, the father, is played by Michael Greyeyes (Fear the Walking Dead, True Detective). Greyeyes has a very commanding presence on screen, and his portrayal of Traylor conveys a lot of wisdom. This wisdom shows a wariness towards white people, but also a diplomacy that comes from his position as sheriff where he can easily work with them when needed. Traylor represents the middle ground while his two sons, who are half-brothers, are polar opposites of one other. Kiowa Gordon (The Twilight Saga: Eclipse, The Red Road) plays Traylor’s older son, Lysol. Lysol feels deep-seeded resentment for his father, as well as the white people who live in town. Gordon does a fantastic job of showing the anger build in Lysol throughout the film until it boils over at both the white people on the reservation and his own family. Then there is the youngest son, Joseph, played by Forrest Goodluck (The Revenant, The Miseducation of Cameron Post). Joseph is by far the most hopeful of this trio. Goodluck makes it clear to viewers that Joseph is a caring individual who wants to bring survivors together, whether they are Mi’gMaq or white. All three leads are wonderful on screen, and they create such a fascinating comparison with their different points of view.

The various artistic elements of Blood Quantum add to its overall appeal. The most immediate thing horror fans will notice is the stunning makeup for the zombies and the grotesquely realistic practical effects. There are multiple memorable zombie kills and gory moments that are sure to stick with viewers. To bring the film together, Barnaby and Joe Barrucco (Rhymes for Young Ghouls, Appiness) composed a haunting musical score. It manages to encompass an 80’s synth sound alongside more traditional indigenous sounds. Blood Quantum even includes striking animated scenes that create absolutely gorgeous visuals emphasizing dire events. One thing that seems odd is that the film takes place in 1981. While the clothes, cars, and lack of technology such as cell phones makes it easy to believe the film takes place in the past, it is also unnecessary. The area where the reservation is located is fairly remote, which stands to reason cell phones wouldn’t have great reception. Plus, the plot moves into the apocalypse quickly enough that the lack of technology would barely be noticed. Blood Quantum ends up with a timelessness where, if you didn’t know when it took place, it could easily take place in 1981 or 2020.

Blood Quantum masterfully delivers a social commentary on colonialism in the context of a zombie apocalypse. Barnaby clearly cares about the topic of his film and made sure to bring to life what he wanted by writing, directing, editing, and even co-composing the film. It includes captivating performances from the three male leads and remarkable visuals ranging from extreme gore to gorgeous animation. I won’t pretend I understand all of the various themes discussed. This is the kind of film that likely gets better with each subsequent viewing, particularly if you’re willing to do the research on what inspired these themes.

OVERALL RATING: 7/10