serial killer

Artik

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A group of young boys live on a remote farm with their mother and father. The eldest boy helps his father with some strange tasks, including finding individuals to torture and murder. When the boy meets a man named Holton, who shows him kindness, the life the bizarre family has built is threatened.

Writer and director Tom Botchii Skowronski creates a very unique and strange debut feature film with Artik. The genre bender includes elements of a thriller, sci-fi, and even a bit of superhero flair. The plot follows Boy Adam, a young boy who is seemingly being groomed by his father figure, Artik, to continue his work. Artik is obsessed with comic books and is clearly on some kind of quest to find a certain type of person, yet in most cases he simply ends up brutally murdering these people. Then Boy Adam meets Holton. Holton is a straight-edge man who is likely the first to show the boy any true kindness. That moment is the catalyst that sets the rest of the film in motion as the boy realizes there could be another way of life and Holton attempts to help him. After the disturbing opening, the film takes on more of a gradual build of suspense leading up to the bloody, violent climax.

Artik at first feels like it takes place in an alternate reality. The way the world looks from the boy’s point of view on the farm leads the viewer to believe the world is a dangerous and desolate place. It’s when Holton is introduced that the world of Artik comes back to reality. It’s a very effective bit of filmmaking because it shows how Artik’s delusions influence the boy’s point of view. To him the world is a dark and dangerous place, until Holton shows him the world outside the farm is very different from what he has been lead to believe.

The film is very unique and builds suspense well, but it also leaves a bit too many unanswered questions. For one, Artik’s comic book obsession is almost a bit too subtle. There are some great visual cues including a target with Loki’s face in the center, comic book style drawings of Artik committing his crimes, and even the outfit Artik wears when he commits these crimes makes him look an awful lot like The Winter Soldier. While I don’t mind not knowing where this obsession came from, I wish it was a bit more clear how this obsession dictates his actions. The audience learns early on that Artik is looking for a specific person, or type of person, and that is why he maims and kills. It isn’t until the climax of the film that it is revealed what qualities he is looking for in these people, but it is never fully explained why he wants them. It is also unclear if the boys on the farm are truly Artik’s children or if they were kidnapped and raised on the farm, but the mystery around this doesn’t necessarily detract from the plot.

One of the high points of Artik is the performances. Indie horror fans will likely recognize many of these faces. Chase Williamson (Beyond the Gates, Sequence Break) stars as Holton. He is an interesting character because on the outside he is covered in tattoos, dresses tough, works in a metal shop, and generally looks rough around the edges. Yet his character doesn’t do any drugs or alcohol and immediately shows kindness to a strange boy spray-painting the side of the shop. He is obviously a purely good person. Artik is played by Jerry G. Angelo (American Warfighter, Color of Souls). Angelo is an imposing figure and his portrayal of Artik is incredible to watch as you see him force his decisions on those around him and manipulate the boy to do his bidding. Other great performances from horror fan favorites come from Lauren Ashley Carter (Imitation Girl, Jug Face) as Artik’s wife, Flin Brays, Matt Mercer (Contracted: Phase 2, Beyond the Gates) as addiction counselor Kar, and Gavin White (14 Cameras) as Boy Adam.

The artistic elements, from the score to the practical effects, are all stunning. The film’s score, by Corey Wallace, matches the dark and gritty look of the film and adds to the suspense perfectly. The practical effects in Artik are very well done. There is a fair amount of blood and gore in this film, so the practical effects are a vital part of the storytelling. Each wound and kill are executed quite well, especially one rather gruesome scene involving a fork. Even the set design and wardrobe help with the storytelling of Artik. The most notable of these is the outfit Artik wears when he kills, which I mentioned before as looking similar to The Winter Soldier, aka Bucky Barnes. Fans who know more about that character know he has a sordid past, yet as a whole the character is typically seen as a hero. This likely indicates that is how Artik sees himself. It is the attention to detail like this that really add to the overall appeal of the film.

Artik is a tense film that will appeal to those who love gritty horror and comic books. Skowronski proves he knows how to create compelling characters and build tension within the plot. That being said, there are aspects of the film that remain too vague and unexplained. There are also aspects of the film viewers might not understand as well if they aren’t familiar with the comic book references. Yet the film still combines stunning artistry and a cast filled with indie favorites to bring in a wider horror audience. Between the music, gore, and performances, this film is definitely worth checking out.

OVERALL RATING: 7/10

Don’t Look

DONT LOOK

After inheriting the family farm, a young woman decides to take a trip to the property. She invites a group of friends to check the place out and celebrate the holidays. When they arrive they meet the bizarre renters who live on the property. Yet the friends soon find out these country folk are the least of their worries when a strange masked man starts killing them one by one.

Don’t Look is a feature-film debut for director Luciana Faulhaber, who also stars in the film, as well as a debut for co-writers Jessica Boucher and Danielle Killay. The film comes across as a tribute to the classic 80’s slasher film. It has all the elements one would expect; a group of young people, they are alone in a secluded area, they are partying, and there is a masked killer who wants nothing more than to murder them all. Many of the characters even fit the classic stereotypes one would expect from an 80’s slasher film, including most of the characters not necessarily being that likable. That may seem like a bad thing, but it ultimately makes it more enjoyable to watch the cast get killed off.

The homage to 80’s slashers is great, but there are quite a few drawbacks to the overall quality of Don’t Look. One thing that makes the film somewhat forgettable is that it is too similar to 80’s slashers, and not necessarily like the great ones horror fans remember. It is very “murder by numbers” to the point where the plot is a bit dull. Much of the information about Don’t Look describes it as a film that redefines the role of women in slashers. With the exception of one female character being ever so slightly more proactive than in typical slashers, all of the characters follow the archetypes used in the 80’s. The backstory created for the killer is also on the weaker side. The backstory, and the reveal, come across as more of an afterthought instead of an integral part of the plot. Finally, there are times when the dialogue sounds unnatural and doesn’t flow in the vein of normal conversations. This is mostly prevalent in the first act of the film, then it gradually improves as the plot progresses.

Much like the dialogue, the performances start out a little rough, but then improve as the film pushes forward. The only performance I think is consistently good throughout the film comes from director Luciana Faulhaber (Shades of Blue) herself as Lorena. She is the only character one could argue breaks the mold of the typical women seen in slashers. Faulhaber plays a dynamic character who is both empowered and vulnerable quite well. Other than Faulhaber, the performances range from difficult-to-watch to passable. As the writing improves the performances seem to improve as well, but not enough to make Don’t Look more than simply “okay.”

Don’t Look attempts to honor 80’s slashers while also creating more independent female characters, yet it falls short of reaching that goal. I do believe director Faulhaber and writers Boucher and Killay show promise, this being their debut, but the film overall is not a strong display of their talents. The dialogue leaves something to be desired, and the killer’s backstory feels tacked on. While for the most part the various performances are just fine, at least for a portion of the film, Faulhaber’s performance is the only one that stands out as actually being good. Fans of classic 80’s slashers will likely enjoy watching this film, but there isn’t enough to make it stand out from the crowd.

OVERALL RATING: 5/10

The House That Jack Built

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Jack is a serial killer. As he reminisces about some of the kills that stand out most in his mind, we learn more about this meticulous and highly intelligent man. He isn’t your typical serial killer, and each victim reveals something different about Jack. After twelve years and countless victims, has his reign of terror finally come to an end, or is it just the beginning?

Writer and director Lars von Trier (Antichrist, Melancholia) brings audiences a fascinating character study with The House That Jack Built. Often times, audiences don’t want to know the backstory behind the serial killer, but in von Trier’s film this is the basis of the entire plot. By examining five specific murders, the audience learns important aspects of Jack: who he is, why he kills, and his other eccentricities. The main difference between von Trier’s film and similar works is that he doesn’t teach the audience about Jack with the intent of gaining sympathy for the character. If anything, as we learn more about Jack, he becomes a continually more loathsome character. He is truly a horrible person; and yet, somehow, the more you come to hate this man the more fascinating he is to watch at work.

The plot is broken up into segments, each one featuring a specific murder that was significant in Jack’s life. Some of these segments also include further flashbacks in order to add more context to Jack’s actions. While this is very interesting to watch and offers an in-depth look into the mind of a sociopathic serial killer, the part of the film that stands out the most is the fact that Jack has OCD. He is obsessively compelled to clean which can be a bit troublesome for a serial killer, especially when murders get messy. In one scene, after completing a murder and cleaning up the evidence, Jack keeps imagining he has missed a spot of blood somewhere in the crime scene. It forces him to go back inside over and over and over again to clean and make sure he didn’t miss a single spot. The scene is both humorous and entirely nerve-wracking, as the longer he stays at the scene of the crime the more likely he’ll be caught. This kind of morbidly dark humor is sprinkled throughout the plot and is usually intertwined with the most tense moments, breaking up the otherwise gloomy story with an occasional laugh.

There are two potentially controversial aspects of this fill, aside from the fact that it’s about a serial killer. First, the film is built upon several instances of brutal violence towards women. It can be triggering for people, and many audience members will likely leave the film thinking von Trier is a woman-hating monster, just like Jack. While that may or may not be true, the violence towards women also feels authentic to the plot. Serial killers tend to commit unspeakable acts, and they tend to carry out those acts on one sex more than the other; just look at the Green River Killer and Ted Bundy. It adds an authenticity to the film, but it will undoubtedly still make some people despise it. The other controversial or polarizing aspect of the film is the climax. I won’t go into too much detail to avoid spoilers, but the climax takes quite a turn from the rest of the film. It moves towards a more fantastical, less realistic style that viewers will either love or hate.

The House That Jack Built is packed full of stellar performances from the entire cast. What really brings the film to an elevated state is the portrayal of the titular Jack by Matt Dillon (Wild Things, Crash). Jack is calm and collected when he isn’t experiencing one of his obsessive compulsive cleaning fits, yet he is absolutely disturbed at the same time. Dillon is entirely believable as this deranged serial killer. His performance is especially chilling when he goes from his usual stoic state to abruptly enraged and frightening when things don’t go quite the way he had planned (which happens much more than he would probably like). Other memorable performances come from the unfortunate women playing his victims including Uma Thurman (Pulp Fiction, Kill Bill), Siobhan Fallon Hogan (Men in Black, Funny Games), Sofie Gråbøl (The Killing, Flickering Lights), and Riley Keough (It Comes at Night, Mad Max: Fury Road).

One aspect of the film that adds beauty and gore to the experience is the practical effects. The effects start out relatively small, though still displaying a high level of brutality. It lends itself to the authentic feel of the murders. However, as Jack’s kills becomes more elaborate and more disturbed, so do the effects. The gore becomes more and more maniacal leading up to the shocking final act. From here the practical effects take on a strange and surreal tone, but they are still quite unsettling to look at.  The gore, the plot, and even Jack himself become more and more bizarre right up until the end.

The House That Jack Built is all at once a stunning and unhinged character study of a serial killer. The plot snowballs from a relatively simple tale into something much different by the time we see Jack’s fate. The practical effects are used in a way that moves the audience through this journey from raw and real to fantastical and absurd. Dillon’s performance is one of his strongest yet as he brings Jack to life. This film will no doubt polarize audiences for a number of reasons, including the violence towards women and the strange turn the film takes at the end. I’m even unsure of how I truly feel about the film, despite being able to appreciate its artistic attributes. Whichever side you will land on, the film is definitely worth watching at least once.

OVERALL RATING: 8.5/10

Summer of 84

84

In a suburban town young boys are disappearing. One paperboy believes his police officer neighbor is behind it. He convinces his friends they should spend their summer vacation spying on him to get proof. Their little investigation leads the friends down a dangerous path. Is their neighbor an innocent man, or is he a serial killer?

One of the unique things about this film is that it has three directors. The directors are Francois Simard, Anouk Whissell, and Yoann-Karl Whissell, who together also directed the film Turbo Kid. Something this trio is particularly known for is capturing the spirit of the eighties. Summer of 84 is no different. The plot follows along as the boys try to find proof their cop neighbor is the serial killer everyone is talking about in the news. Only one of the boys truly believes he is the killer, while the other three are just going along with their friend. While the film is an intriguing mystery thriller, it is also very much a coming-of-age story. This aspect of the plot is enjoyable, but it also makes certain parts of the film feel a bit slow. That doesn’t mean the plot isn’t very well written. There are just times when the various subplots, like a romance between two of the characters, is developed a bit too much, taking away from the main premise.

First time screenwriters Matt Leslie and Stephen J. Smith do a great job of getting the right eighties feel, creating a group of friends with a strong bond, and bringing a large dose of suspense. Specifically, in the climax of the film, there is a very well-written monologue that sends chills down the spine. Many of the revelations at the climax of the film are more than the characters ever bargained for. A common theme throughout the film is that people never reveal everything about themselves. While this theme is used to show that you never know who could be a serial killer, the writers also applied it to the people you think you know best. As the plot moves forward the audience learns there are things the friends keep from each other, and these things allow the audience to see a side of the kids no one else does. This layer of the plot adds a lot of depth to the coming-of-age aspect of the film.

For the cast of Summer of 84 the filmmakers primarily chose relatively unknown actors. Graham Verchere (The Good Doctor, Fargo) plays the leader of the group of friends, Davey. Davey is a bit of a conspiracy theorist, which is why when he tells his friends the neighbor might be a serial killer they all think he is just imagining it. Verchere gives a very endearing performance as he balances the line between investigating the cop, finding summer love, and being a good friend. Judah Lewis (The Babysitter) plays Eats, while Caleb Emery (Goosebumps) plays Woody. These two characters, and the actors’ performances, stand out because they act a certain way around people, but when you learn about their troubled home lives it gives the characters more depth. Rich Sommer (GLOW, The Devil Wears Prada) plays Wayne Mackey, the cop and suspected serial killer. Sommer’s portrayal of Mackey stands out because he straddles the line very well between being a typical nice neighbor and a creep. It keeps the audience continually guessing at whether or not he truly is the killer. The entire cast does a great job, delivering especially strong performances in the final act of the film.

This film had a lot of artistic details that make it very authentic and enjoyable. Both the clothing and the music do a great job of transporting the audience to 1984. Even the lighting and color scale used throughout the film lends to the desired time period. Another great artistic detail is the practical effects. The effects are saved until the climax of the film, and for the most part they are shrouded in darkness, but what can be seen looks great. There is a disturbingly gooey quality to the effects that makes them appear even more horrific. Each small bit of artistry adds to the overall appeal of the film.

Summer of 84 is a suspenseful throwback flick that hits close to home. It instills the idea that no one ever truly knows another person, and, in this film, that means anyone could be a serial killer – even your next door neighbor. The plot can meander a bit, but when it sticks to the primary premise it is thrilling and even heartfelt. All of the young actors do a fantastic job, and the suspected serial killer perfectly walks the line between being normal and suspicious. Summer of 84 is the kind of film that has a broad appeal, even for non-horror fans, and it will likely end up with quite the cult following.

OVERALL RATING: 8/10

Strawberry Flavored Plastic

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When two aspiring documentarians find a man who they believe is their perfect subject, they begin making their film. Unfortunately, they discover a little too late that his story wasn’t quite true. Instead of committing a single crime that he was imprisoned for, he has committed numerous murders, and he has yet to be caught. The filmmakers find themselves in an interesting position. By continuing to make their documentary they put themselves at risk in many ways, but it may just be worth the infamy.

Colin Bemis’ Strawberry Flavored Plastic surprised me in a number of ways. Going into the film I had certain expectations of what I was about to watch, and for the most part the film managed to subvert those expectations. I assumed a large part of the plot was going to be the beginning of filming the documentary and the eventual discovery that Noel, the subject of the documentary, had not been totally honest. Surprisingly, Bemis chooses to only mention this. Instead the film begins after the documentarians decide to continue filming despite their discovery. Initially, this felt like a missed opportunity for some interesting drama in the film, but it actually works better with the documentary style. The film is about Noel. It would be odd for the “documentary” to spend a lot of time on the drama behind the camera instead of Noel. Although part of me still wants to know how Noel’s true nature was discovered when he has never been caught by the police.

The film feels like a true documentary in the filming style and how it spends a majority of the time diving deeper into Noel’s life, who he is as a person, and why he does the things he does. While the behind the scenes drama in the discovery of Noel’s murderous ways was rightly left out to keep the feel of a true documentary, there are other scenes that do the opposite. While some of the scenes make sense for the storytelling of the film, many of them simply add subplots that are unnecessary. Most of these scenes are there to provide more information about the documentarians. Some of these work well because they relate back to the process of making the documentary and become ultimately important to the story.

When you first hear Noel speak it may seem odd. He speaks in a very formal, polite, and old fashioned way that isn’t what you would expect from a killer. It feels out of place until the audience learns that he grew up watching old movies from the 40’s and how those movies influenced him. This minor detail explains an interesting bit of background for the character that makes him even more complex. The film is shot like a classic documentary, relying on “confessional” style interviews, a single camera following the subject, and strategically placed cameras to catch more candid shots. Since Noel is a killer, the filmmakers choose to take an extra step and give him a body cam to use when he gets the “itch.” The first time we see Noel use the body cam is quite jarring because he goes from being a very polite, soft spoken man to a raving maniac who swears and says things like “sugar tits.” At first it seems out of place, but again when paying attention to the details of Noel’s life the puzzle pieces fit together in a way that is logical for the character.

Aidan Bristow (Black Widows, L.A. Macabre) stars as the complex and troubled Noel. Since the film focuses on Noel’s character, it is important to have a strong leading man to drive the film. Luckily for these filmmakers, Bristow delivers a powerful, fascinating, and sometimes disturbing performance. The film often plays with the idea of nature vs. nurture when it comes to why Noel gets the urge to kill, and the way Bristow portrays Noel convinces audiences he isn’t a bad guy, he just commits a brutal murder every now and again. Nicholas Urda (Audition) plays one of the filmmakers, Errol. This documentary is Errol’s passion project, and Urda does a great job of conveying that. Overall Urda performs well, but there are times where is dialogue comes across a bit awkward or overly formal. It is difficult to say if this is due to his performance or because some of the ways in which Noel speaks bleed into Errol’s dialogue. Andres Montejo also does well in his first film acting roll as the second filmmaker, Ellis. He brings a bit more lightheartedness to the otherwise serious film.

Strawberry Flavored Plastic takes a thought provoking and unexpected look into the mind of a killer. While initial reactions may draw comparisons to other recent found footage films, such as Creep, a closer look reveals something all its own. Bemis creates a film that digs at the psychology behind a sociopath, subtly debating nature vs. nurture, and making audiences question what makes a person good or bad. There are certain scenes that take the film out of the documentary style, but for the most part this is a rare “mockumentary” that feels like an authentic documentary. Bemis’ story and direction coupled with Bristow’s fantastic performance makes for a film with a surprising amount of heart that will keep audiences contemplating what they watched long after the film has ended.

OVERALL RATING: 7/10

Last Girl Standing

What happens to the last surviving girl after a slasher film? Several years after her friends were brutally murdered by a deranged serial killer, soul survivor Camryn tries to live a reclusive life. Everything changes when a new guy gets hired at her work. Soon after, Camryn believes she is being stalked by the same killer she dealt with years ago. Can she save her friends the second time around?

The entire concept of this film is something I have wondered about myself. After watching your friends get killed, and after almost getting killed yourself, what would life be like after a slasher film ends? Luckily, writer/director Benjamin R. Moody decided to give audiences an idea of what that may be like. The audience is brought into the film during the climax of a slasher film. Then we are brought forward a few years to Camryn’s new life. She is quiet, reclusive, and generally just does her job and spends the rest of her time at home. Fast-forwarding to her new life was very effective because we got to see how devastating the effects of her tragedy were, without having to go through all the trials, investigation, and therapy that likely immediately followed the massacre. We also enter into Camryn’s new life just as she is beginning to make new friends, branching out of the bubble that has kept her safe.

While the first 10 minutes of the film are in the vein of a classic slasher film, the rest of the film reads more like a horror-drama. The characters still somewhat fit into a classic slasher film stereotype, but they have much more dynamic personalities. The audience gets to meet realistic characters doing and saying things that you would expect real people to, as opposed to what you typically see in a slasher film. It makes the story more raw and in many ways more frightening, because it is something that feels likely to happen in the real world. The realism only added to the tension and suspense that built as the film went on.

Another element of the plot I really enjoyed was the Pagan aspect. The serial killer, known as “The Hunter,” is said to have been killing all of those kids in order to perform some kind of ritual. What that ritual was, we don’t know. This made it seem plausible that the killer did in fact come back after we see him killed (it’s not a spoiler, it happens in the first 10 minutes of the film). For all we the audience know, that ritual was meant to make The Hunter immortal. That small addition of mysticism to the story added an extra layer of depth that keeps you guessing as to what is really going on. He also had an awesome “mask” that made The Hunter stand out from other serial killers.

This film had a very talented ensemble cast. While everyone did an amazing job, it is impossible not to feature Akasha Villalobos (Now Hiring) as a clear stand-out. Villalobos was able to show the many different emotional phases of someone who has dealt with extreme tragedy. She shows Camryn as the scared little girl in the beginning, then we see her as a recluse, then we see Camryn begin to come out of her shell, then we see her determination and paranoia when she believes the serial killer has come back. It takes quite a bit of talent to seamlessly portray all those personality traits without it feeling forced.

This being a slasher film, you can’t fully discuss the film without talking about the gore. I won’t lie, the screening that I went to for this film was quite dark. This made it harder to see a lot of the night-time blood and guts. What I did see was phenomenal. There was a ton of blood, some bodies that had been ripped open and gutted, knives and hatchets stuck in people, and even a grotesque decaying body. I can only assume that these practical effects would look even better if it had not been as dark. In the filmmaker’s defense, the screening was not meant to be this dark. The showtime for Last Girl Standing I went to was actually meant to be a different film at the Phoenix Film Festival, but there was a last-minute switch. From what I understand, the screening that I saw was from a DVD. Despite this, I still enjoyed what I saw.

This film combines so many horror sub-genres that it will appeal to many different audiences. Besides the darkness of the film, which was a fluke, there really isn’t much I didn’t enjoy while watching this film. Last Girl Standing takes audiences into the unknown aspects of slasher films and uses it to thoroughly mess with their heads. There are so many times where you find yourself second guessing what you thought was going on. This will happen right up until the climax of the film, which is exciting, fun, and bloody (as any good slasher movie ending is). If you have a chance to see this film on the big screen, I highly recommend it to anyone and everyone.

OVERALL RATING: 9/10