Shudder

Bliss

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A talented painter is experiencing a creative block as an important deadline approaches. In a desperate attempt to break that block, she seeks out drugs to spark her creativity. Instead she sparks a twisted journey filled with drugs, sex, hallucinations, and blood.

Writer and director Joe Begos (Almost Human, The Mind’s Eye) brings his distinctive flare in his latest horror film, Bliss. Much like his previous films, Begos creates a stunning, 80’s-inspired film that relies heavily on complex characters, a unique plot, fantastic practical effects, and brilliant music. Bliss is a film that takes a unique look at vampirism, addiction, and obsession. The film follows Dezzy, the talented young artist who is on a tight deadline to finish her next big piece or else she will go broke. After a long time with no real progress on her latest work, she decides it’s time to hit up an old friend who can provide her with drugs that will hopefully bring artistic inspiration. After a night of drugs, drinking, and partying, Dezzy’s entire world spins out of control. Between manic episodes and drug-induced stupors, it becomes more and more difficult for her to separate what is real and what isn’t.

When it comes to vampire films, it is easy to make the connection between the need for blood and addiction. Yet I feel like Bliss really conveys the gritty, less glamorous side in a truly compelling way. This is likely because audiences see Dezzy using drugs at the same time as she experiences her more eccentric addiction. Whether this is related to the drugs she’s taking or a chance encounter with an old friend, she can’t be sure. Dezzy is obsessed with finishing her masterpiece, which makes her more vulnerable to both the drugs and the need for blood. There is a disturbing co-dependence that develops between her need for drugs and blood; the physical effects not only visible in Dezzy herself, but also on the canvas. There are a few moments where the lack of mythos around these vampires can make the rules around their existence a bit confusing. It is only really noticeable in a few scenes, but the focus is more on the addictive nature of vampirism which distracts from those moments.

Fans of Begos’ films are sure to see a number of familiar faces from his previous films. The one face in Bliss that might not be as familiar is Dora Madison (All That We Destroy, Chicago Fire) starring as Dezzy. It is impossible not to fall in love with Madison in this role. Dezzy is a bit of a mess and if it wasn’t for her artwork, she would just be another jobless hack spending what money she does have on drugs and booze. Yet, between the way Begos wrote the character and the way Madison portrays her, Dezzy is an enigmatic character audiences can empathize with as she battles addiction and her own obsession to finish her art. This is truly Dezzy’s story, but another strong female performance comes from Tru Collins (Awkward, The Price) as Courtney. She has many of the same demons as Dezzy, but she’s much more wild and unpredictable. Collins plays the character in a way where her intentions are always hidden until the last minute, making her quite unpredictable. Fans will also be pleased to see indie film favorites such as Jeremy Gardner (The Battery, The Mind’s Eye), Graham Skipper (The Mind’s Eye, Beyond the Gates), and Rhys Wakefield (The Purge, You Get Me).

Bliss is a film that assaults your senses, in the best way possible. Visually, the film has a dreaminess to it. Much of the film forces the audience to look through a haze, lending a vintage look to everything. That haze is backlit by bright neon lights, drawing the viewer’s eye to specific areas on screen. To add a bit of grit to that dreaminess, each scene takes place in dirty sets spattered with drugs and drenched in blood. Begos fans have come to expect amazing practical effects in his films and Bliss doesn’t disappoint. These effects are grotesque, realistic, and add to the visual appeal of the film. Then there is the music, which ties everything together quite beautifully. Steve More (Mayhem, The Guest) composed the fantastic score. It perfectly ties together the gritty and dreamy visuals of Bliss and compels the viewer to turn the volume up.

Bliss is a gritty, blood-soaked fever dream that perfectly blends vampirism and addiction on film. Begos wows once again by bringing his unique filmmaking style to a subgenre of horror that has been done to death, yet he manages to make it feel fresh. At times the vampire mythos is too vague, but it’s clear the focus is meant to be on the addiction. The entire film feels like a manic episode and the stunning look of the film only adds to that feeling. Madison carries the film on her very capable shoulders with some horror favorites working alongside her. A rocking musical score and amazing practical effects result in a truly gorgeous film.

OVERALL SCORE: 8/10

The Marshes

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A group of biologists venture out into the remote marshes of Australia. While conducting their research, they hear a legend of a murderous spirit that haunts the marshes. Soon they begin to hear strange noises and see things in the wilderness. Someone or something in the marsh is hunting them down one by one.

This thrilling Australian horror film is the feature-film debut of writer and director Roger Scott. The Marshes starts out slowly, taking its time introducing the audience to the key characters. It might be a bit too slow to start for some viewers, but I find this character development to be interesting as well as important. Not only does this time help to build an emotional connection to the characters, but it allows the filmmakers to plant various subtle clues that hint at what will eventually happen. This also allows the plot to gradually build suspense from multiple different angles. The scientists have to worry about sinister rednecks, the rugged environment, and something even more sinister. When things do finally turn sideways, the three researchers are thrown into a brutal fight for survival. There is plenty of suspense, violence, and gore to keep the audience at the edge of their seat.

I don’t want to spoil the movie, so I’m going to have to be very vague about my main complaint about the plot. The strange happenings are very small at first. These small events can almost be dismissed as figments of the character’s imagination, but as they increase with frequency and violence everything becomes more real. The problem is, there are moments where things either don’t make sense or it confuses what is real or imagined. If you pay attention to the clues I previously mentioned, then you might be able to figure out what exactly is going on. Yet you also need to have some very specific knowledge beforehand that isn’t explained in the film. It is likely knowledge much more common in Australia, but far less common to viewers from the US. I know this is incredibly vague, but the gist of what I’m getting at in the plot is intriguing and suspenseful, but might ultimately be confusing for many viewers. (Trust me, this paragraph will make more sense once you’ve seen the film)

The small cast of The Marshes delivers dynamic characters and great performances. Dafna Kronental (41, The Menkoff Method) shines as the lead researcher, Pria. She not only takes charge of the scientific study the trio is conducting, but she also takes charge when thrust into danger. Pria is bold in the face of injustice and danger. Kronental is absolutely brilliant in this role, and I want to see her in more roles in the future. Sam Delich makes his feature film debut as research student Will. Delich is very likable in this role. I like a man that can let a woman take charge, and Will has no problem taking orders from Pria. Then there is Mathew Cooper (Burning Kiss) who also does a fantastic job as Ben. This third researcher is a bit more prickly than his colleagues, but there is still something about the way Cooper plays Ben that still makes him endearing. All three actors play off of each other quite well and add to how much the audience cares about them.

As the film progresses, it gets surprisingly gory. The Marshes utilizes some truly fantastic and gruesome practical effects to create scenes some viewers will want to cover their eyes. Not only are the effects wonderfully done, but they create some disturbingly realistic gore to feast your eyes upon. The gorgeous setting and striking cinematography result in a gorgeous and haunting juxtaposition between the beauty of the scenery and the violence taking place.

The Marshes might be confusing to some viewers, but it still delivers a unique thriller. Scott shows that he knows how to craft a character driven plot filled with subtle details. This particular plot might not translate quite as well in different parts of the world because of those subtle details, but his talent is undeniable. The performances are fantastic, the imagery is gorgeous, and there is plenty of blood for the gore hounds. Definitely check this film out, and if you find yourself unsure of things by the time the credits roll, you know where to find me!

OVERALL RATING: 6.5/10

Daniel Isn’t Real

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As a child, Luke had an imaginary friend named Daniel. After a troubling incident, he locked Daniel away and moved on with his life. Now a freshman in college, Luke returns home to visit his mentally unstable mother. In rehashing past trauma, Luke releases his old friend to help him cope with his reality.

From the producers of Mandy comes an all-new film to blow audiences’ minds. Daniel Isn’t Real is based on the novel by Brian DeLeeuw titled This Way I Was Saved. DeLeeuw (Curvature, Some Kind of Hate) co-wrote the film with director Adam Egypt Mortimer (Holidays, Some Kind of Hate). This duo creates cinematic magic in this film and delivers a compelling story unlike anything I have seen before. The film introduces us to Luke when he is a child and dealing with his parents going through what is clearly a tumultuous divorce. It is during this time that Daniel makes his first appearance. Imaginary friends are a fairly common coping mechanism for children going through trauma, so his mother allows this fantasy to continue until that fantasy becomes dangerous. Then Daniel comes back into Luke’s life during another time of trauma. Daniel is a very alluring and charming person who is able to help Luke get through hard times, tap into his artistic abilities, and become more confident with women. But, as with most things, all of this is too good to be true and Luke’s life spirals out of control all thanks to Daniel. DeLeeuw and Mortimer clearly create a fantastic mythos for Daniel and relate it to real-world issues. It’s also a mythos that keeps the audience guessing as to whether Daniel is a figment of Luke’s imagination, a side effect of a mental health issue, or something far more sinister.

There are so many layers to the plot of Daniel Isn’t Real. The top layer primarily deals with mental health. Luke’s mother has schizophrenia that is clearly not being taken care of by a healthcare professional. Naturally, when Luke’s life starts to get out of hand he thinks he is like his mother. Not only is it sad to watch his mother lose her handle on reality, but it’s equally unsettling to see how much it alters Luke’s life both when he was a child and as an adult. With schizophrenia potentially being hereditary, it’s heartbreaking to see Luke question his own sanity and fear that he is becoming like his mother, despite his love for her. It’s really powerful to watch and creates a stunning yet depressing commentary on mental illnesses and how they affect more than just the afflicted.

Another layer to the plot of Daniel Isn’t Real is the allure of power and control. Daniel is able to improve Luke’s life in virtually every aspect at first. His mother finally goes into the treatment she needs, he gets into photography, and he finally is connecting with other people. The effect Daniel has is intoxicating to Luke, but it also means he lets his guard down around his newfound friend. Daniel ends up taking over his entire life. There is even a psychosexual element as Daniel’s power over Luke extends to the bedroom, yet Daniel appears to almost be jealous of these interactions. It’s a bizarre dichotomy that makes you wonder who is truly in control at any given moment. Yet, despite that battle for control, the two are very much dependent on each other as well.

Daniel Isn’t Real contains many truly phenomenal performances. Miles Robbins (Blockers, Halloween) stars as Luke. Up until this film I had only really seen comedic performances from Robbins. His portrayal of Luke absolutely blew me away. Robbins shows such emotional depth in this role and conveys Luke’s unraveling mental state perfectly. It’s the kind of performance that stays with you long after the film ends. Patrick Schwarzenegger (Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse, Grown Ups 2) stars opposite Robbins as Daniel. At first Schwarzenegger’s performance is quite subtle. He’s charming, helpful, sleek, and sexy. Then as the cracks in Daniel’s facade grow and his true nature shows, Schwarzenegger is able to really let his acting ability shine. He makes the character ominous and dangerous and pure evil in the best way possible. Both Robbins and Schwarzenegger also play off of each other very well. Other delightful performances can be found in Sasha Lane (Hellyboy) as Cassie, Mary Stuart Masterson (Fried Green Tomatoes) as Claire, and Chukwudi Iwuji (John Wick: Chapter 2) as Braun.

There are many gorgeous artistic elements throughout Daniel Isn’t Real. The filmmakers utilize a combination of both practical and CGI effects. While both are impressive, the practical effects are especially striking. They manage to be both beautiful and disturbing in a way that commands the screen and draws the viewers’ eye. The effects become more prominent and elaborate as the plot progresses and beautifully blends different worlds. Throughout much of the film, artwork is prominently featured as well. The most disturbing, beautiful, and iconic images are of Daniel. Along with the visual artistry, Daniel Isn’t Real also has a bewitching musical score by composer Clark (National Treasure: Kiri, Rellik). The score has an eeriness to it that matches the tone and look and the film.

Daniel Isn’t Real is a triumph of filmmaking. It claws its way into the minds and souls of audience members and never lets go. Both DeLeeuw and Mortimer deliver a masterpiece of a film. The performances from Robbins and Schwarzenegger demand attention and their on-screen chemistry is delightful to watch. What might be the biggest feat of Daniel Isn’t Real is how it takes ideas that wouldn’t traditionally work on screen and executes them perfectly. As an indication of how much I enjoyed this film, I went online and bought the novel Daniel Isn’t Real is based on as I wrote this review. This is a must-watch film and one that has solidified its place in my top films of 2019.

OVERALL RATING: 9.5/10

Creepshow: Season 1 Episode 3

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This week brings another all new episode of Shudder’s hit series, Creepshow. While the first two episodes had tonally similar segments, either both being spooky or both being humorous, this episode brings viewers a bit more variety.

First up is a Halloween-inspired segment titled “All Hallow’s Eve.” Here the story follows a group of teens on Halloween night. They’re probably a bit too old to go trick-or-treating, but they claim it will be their last time. As the friends venture out to collect their treat, it becomes clear they are looking for more than just candy and the townspeople dread these trick-or-treaters. This fun little throwback is written by Bruce Jones (Deadly Nightmares, Masters of Horror) and directed by John Harrison (Dune, Tales From the Darkside: The Movie).

This first segment of episode 2 has a very nostalgic feel to it. The style looks like something out of the 90’s, as do the costumes worn by our trick-or-treaters. It gives the overall look and feel of an episode of Goosebumps or Are You Afraid of the Dark? While some viewers might not appreciate this style and prefer more of the effects heavy 80’s horror typically associated with Creepshow, I personally loved “All Hallow’s Eve.” It took me back to my childhood and delivers a great classic Halloween tale.

There aren’t many effects in this story, but the four teens deliver strong performances. “All Hallow’s Eve” stars Connor Christie (Missionary) as Pete, Madison Thompson (Henry Danger) as Jill, Jasun Jabbar Wardlaw Jr. (Black Lightning) as Binky, and Andrew Eakle (Crimetime) as Bobby. While all of them want this to be their last Halloween night, Pete and Jill are clearly the more mature of the group and rein the other two in while Binky and Bobby enjoy a bit of mischief. These kids all feel like normal every day teens, but they all do a great job of gradually showing why there is more than meets the eye.

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The second segment is “The Man in the Suitcase,” directed by Dave Bruckner (The Ritual, V/H/S) and written by Christopher Buehlman in his debut as a screenwriter. In this segment we meet a down on his luck college student. After accidentally taking home the wrong suitcase from the airpot, he discovers a man trapped inside. Even more bizarre is the man seems to cough up gold coins whenever he’s in pain.

Horror fans who are familiar with Bruckner’s films likely know his films tend to be very dark, atmospheric, and sometimes rather terrifying. “The Man in the Suitcase” is a huge departure from that, leaning more towards a dark comedic tone. What makes the story so compelling is it creates a scenario where the viewer is forced to think about what they would do in a similar situation. Would you free the man from the suitcase or would you inflict pain upon him in order to get rich on his gold coins?

While the entire cast does a great job, there are two clear standouts. Will Kindrachuk (Preacher, Boy Erased) stars as Justin. Justin is the one who finds the suitcase. Kindrachuk excels at portraying Justin as he grapples with his desire for the gold and his desire to be a good person. Opposite him is Ravi Naidu (The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, Homeland) as the man in the suitcase. From the unfortunate position his character finds himself in to the way he manages to exude pain in a darkly comical way, Naidu gives it his all in this performance.

It was nice to finally get two tonally different stories in a single episode of Creepshow. The series is truly showing a diverse range of tales that can appeal to many different types of horror fans. At times, the budgetary constraints of the show can be felt, but it still stays true to the look and feel of the film that inspired the series.

You can catch this episode of Creepshow today on Shudder.

Creepshow: Season 1 Episode 2

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After a successful first episode, it’s time for episode two of Shudder’s hit new series, Creepshow. This week features two tales that lean more towards the comedic side compared to what fans saw in episode one. The two stories told in this episode are “Bad Wolf Down” and “The Finger.” These are two very different tales, but each one is sure to deliver the laughs.

The episode starts with “Bad Wolf Down.” This segment is written and directed by Rob Schrab (Monster House, The Sarah Silverman Program). The plot follows a small band of American soldiers fighting Nazis in France during WWII. They are forced to retreat and take shelter in a small building that once served as the jail for the remote area. Inside the men find a French woman locked inside the jail cell. Yet this woman isn’t as helpless as she appears.

“Bad Wolf Down” definitely takes the audience back to 80’s b-horror films with clunky dialogue, overacting, and somewhat laughable practical effects. This is clearly a deliberate choice made by Schrab. It is an intentional cheesiness that creates a hilarious throwback for horror fans. The most humorous aspect is the dialogue. Much of what the soldiers say to each other is so over the top and stereotypical of what you might expect soldiers to say to each other. It’s almost impossible not to laugh.

Of all the actors in this segment, horror fans will immediately recognize Jeffrey Combs (Re-Animator, From Beyond) as the vengeful Nazi commander, Reinhard. Combs is a gem and a great comedic actor, which leads me to believe his absolutely atrocious German accent is another purposeful choice to add to the humor. The other standout performances come from Dave MacDonald (Stranger Things, Doom Patrol) as Captain Talby, Scott “Kid Cudi” Miscudi (Need For Speed, Two Night Stand) as Doc Kessler, and Callan Wilson (A Mermaid’s Tale, All Hallow’s Evil: Lord of the Harvest) as Pvt. Rivers.

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So far, “Bad Wolf Down” has utilized the comic book style that normally bookends the stories more than any other segment. Some of this is more subtle, like including the blue and red backlighting fans will likely recognize from the first Creepshow film. Since this is a werewolf story, there is naturally a scene where the viewer is shown people transforming from a person to a wolf. Schrab and team wisely used the comic book style to show the transformation in an animated comic panel rather than blowing the budget on practical effects. It looks great, is smart and unique, plus it adds to the humor. The werewolves themselves are also a bit on the cheesy side, but each wolf has a really fun and individual look to them.

From there our beloved creep flips open a new comic for the second segment. This one is titled “The Finger.” Written by David J. Schow (The Crow, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre [2006]) and directed by Greg Nicotero (The Walking Dead), the story introduces viewers to a man named Clark. Clark likes to collect things other people would likely consider garbage. One day he finds a weird, shriveled up finger. He takes it home and realizes it is growing; first an arm, then an entire body. He names the strange creature Bob and cares for it, but Bob has a murderous way of showing his affection.

This is an absolutely laugh out loud story. “The Finger” stars DJ Qualls (Supernatural, The Core) as Clark. Clark is kind of a loner, so when Bob comes into his life he’s happy to care for the strange creature. Qualls’ performance is hysterical for two main reasons. First, he often breaks the fourth wall to talk directly to the audience, giving amusing commentary and summarizing events to save time. Second, he reacts to the bloody things Bob does the same way someone might react to their cat being annoying or bringing him a dead mouse. It is entirely relatable, but taken to such an unbelievable extreme it is sure to make viewers crack up.

“The Finger” also includes amazing practical effects. From the lone finger to the body that eventually grows out of it, Bob is a gross and creepy little creature that you also want to cuddle because he’s so cute. It is great creature design that fans are sure to remember as the series continues. On top of that, the little presents Bob brings home for Clark are also very well done. The entire episode is filled with fantastic practical effects, as one would expect in something directed by Nicotero.

Episode two of Shudder’s Creepshow took the series in a much more humorous direction. Both “Bad Wolf Down” and “The Finger” deliver laughs, although they are very different types of humor. On top of that, the performances are highly entertaining and the practical effects are delightful, even the somewhat hokier werewolves of “Bad Wolf Down.” Just like the first episode, be sure to look for the hidden Easter eggs in episode two, including a special quick cameo in “The Finger.”

The second episode of Creepshow will be available to stream on Shudder on Thursday, October 3rd. You can also watch it live on the Shudder channel at 9pm EST/6pm PST the same night.

The Furies

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A woman and her friend are kidnapped during the night. She wakes up the next day and finds herself in a box alone in the Australian wilderness. Soon she realizes not only are there other women trapped here, but there are also hulking men wearing terrifying masks out to kill the young women. It’s a fight for survival and no one can be trusted.

Writer and director Tony D’Aquino makes his feature film debut with the Australian thriller, The Furies. From the opening shot D’Aquino makes it clear this is going to be a feminist take on slashers as two of the female characters are shown spray painting “FUCK PATRIARCHY” on a wall. This moment between the two women is very brief, but still manages to establish who the characters are before throwing them into peril. From there the filmmakers waste no time in delivering high-octane thrills. Once the women are thrown into the remote Australian setting they have to battle masked madmen, those who have trapped them all here, and each other. It’s a relatively simple plot that relies heavily on the bloodshed and mayhem, but D’Aquino manages to make it feel fun and different.

There are many aspects of this plot that make it interesting and unique. One obvious difference from other similar films is how these women and killers ended up in this remote location together. The women were obviously kidnapped and brought to this place, but the surprise is that the killers appear to have arrived the same way. The boxes the women arrived in are all marked “beauty” and the boxes the men arrived in are marked “beast.” The people who brought everyone to this place are clearly very organized and use advanced technology which creates an odd dynamic between all the captives and interesting sets of rules they must follow. Another interesting aspect is how the female lead, Kayla, not only acts as a feminist icon, but she also shows how women with physical or mental illnesses are as capable as anyone else. Kayla has epilepsy. She has always seen this as a hindrance to her being an independent woman, yet it gives her a strange advantage when she is thrown into the twisted cat and mouse game. It allows her to see that she is capable of being a self-reliant warrior woman. All of the other woman are also quite compelling characters because none of them fit into any stereotype often seen in horror films.

Since the vicious men in the film don’t speak a single word, the women of The Furies carry the performances. Airlie Dodds (Killing Ground, Ready for This) stars as Kayla. She starts out in the film as very meek and she is convinced her illness keeps her from being able to take care of herself and live life to the fullest. Dodds does a fantastic job of showing Kayla evolve throughout the film as she is thrown one curveball after another. Linda Ngo (Mako Mermaids, Top of the Lake) plays another captive in this deranged game, Rose. Rose is an interesting character because she is slightly odd and innocent, but there is also something hidden just beneath the surface that is waiting to be released. Ngo is quite memorable in her portrayal of Rose and how easily she straddles the line between naive and creepy.

This film doesn’t hold back on the gore and luckily the practical effects are fantastic. The first thing viewers will notice is the truly disturbing masks worn by the killers. Each one is very distinct, unique, and terrifying. The practical effects of the various wounds and kills are so well done. They look incredibly realistic to the point where some viewers might have to turn away. In addition to the effects, the way the film is shot also gives it a unique look. As soon as Kayla emerges from the box, the entire film has a white-washed look to it. The filtering and color palette are clearly meant to add to the barren and sun-scorched Australian landscape. This appearance not only adds to the idea that the setting is exceedingly hot, but it also makes the blood and gore stand out as the most vibrant colors.

The Furies delivers a unique slasher dripping with girl-power and gore. This is a very strong feature film debut for D’Aquino. He manages to deliver a film that is familiar, yet injects intricacies that make the plot still feel fresh. Each performance is great from the dynamic women to the physical acting of the killer men. All of the gore hounds out there will have a ball watching this film with it’s fantastic practical effects and others, who like a bit more depth to their slashers, will enjoy the fascinating rules the film puts into place. Not only is this film sure to be on many must-watch lists this October, but it also has the potential to spawn a new horror franchise.

OVERALL RATING: 7/10

Creepshow: Season 1 Episode 1

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In 1982, the iconic horror anthology, Creepshow, was released. The anthology was written by Stephen King and directed by George A. Romero, who are both horror icons. The film spawned a sequel in 1987. Now, Creepshow is back in an exciting new way.

The horror streaming service, Shudder, is bringing back everyone’s favorite creep with his chest of comics and all new stories. Creepshow is getting a new life in the form of a weekly series. Every Thursday night Shudder subscribers can tune in to watch the latest episode live and the episode will also become available ondemand. Each episode will tell two different stories and each week fans will get to see work from some of their favorite actors, writers, and directors while also being introduced to some exciting new talent. The lovely folks over at Shudder were kind enough to give me an early look at the first episode. In this episode viewers will see two thrilling tales, “Gray Matter” and “The House of the Head.”

“Gray Matter,” based on a short story by legendary author Stephen King and adapted for the screen by Byron Willinger (The Commuter) and Philip de Blasi (The Commuter), starts off the episode with a bang. Directed by Greg Nicotero (The Walking Dead), the segment tells the tale of a father and son. After losing his wife, the father turns to alcohol to ease his pain with horrifying consequences. The story takes place on one dark and stormy night as most of the town has either left to avoid the storm or boarded everything up. This generates a claustrophobic feeling of being trapped as things gradually go from bad to worse.

This short was a great way to kick off the first episode. It is a frightening story that all culminates in fantastic practical effects that you have to see to believe. “Gray Matter” also includes a couple of fan favorite horror actors including Adrienne Barbeau (The Fog, Escape From New York) and Tobin Bell (Saw, Belzebuth). This segment also stars relative newcomer, Christopher Nathan (Barely Lethal, The Spectacular Now) as Timmy. Nathan delivers a compelling performance as he struggles between doing the right thing and his love for his father.

The second segment, “The House of the Head,” takes creepy dolls to a whole new level. This story follows young Evie as she plays with her doll family in their beautiful dollhouse. When a mysterious toy head appears in the house the lives of the doll family are threatened. “The House of the Head” is written by Josh Malerman, who also wrote the Bird Box novel, and directed by John Harrison (Tales From the Darkside: The Movie, Book of Blood).

This story is particularly frightening. The viewer sees the lives of the dolls through the eyes of young Evie. This is a highly effective storytelling tool because there is really no major action, we don’t ever even see the dolls move. It is Evie’s love of her dolls and childish point of view that allows the sense of danger to the dolls to come through the screen. Evie is played by the very talented Cailey Flemming (The Walking Dead, Peppermint). Flemming really makes the plot work. If it wasn’t for her love of the dolls and her ability to treat them as if they were real people, then the viewer wouldn’t care about the dolls and feel the peril they are in.

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Shudder and the entire team behind the new Creepshow series got the show off to a strong start with “Grey Matter” and “The House of the Head.” Both stories boast strong performances, beloved horror actors, favorite horror writers and directors, stunning practical effects, and chilling tales that are sure to give you goose bumps. Even more appealing is how both segments do what I always want to see from short films: they tell a complete story, but leave enough mystery to make you want more. It makes me excited to see what the future episodes will hold. I also love that Shudder is only releasing one episode a week, allowing for the collective live viewing experience that has been lost with many streaming services. With the success of the weekly episodes of The Last Drive-In with Joe Bob Briggs, I can only imagine how many Shudder subscribers will watch live and tweet along with the show.

The first episode of Creepshow will air on Thursday, September 26th at 9pm EST/6pm PST. If you aren’t a Shudder subscriber yet, be sure to sign up so you can be part of this fantastic weekly horror event.

Hell House LLC III: Lake of Fire

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After several years, the Abaddon Hotel will once again be open to the public. This time, famed interactive-show director Russell Wynn is putting on a live performance in the hotel called Insomnia. Wynn invites the new Morning Mysteries crew to come and document the making of his latest show. What they film is even more horrors in this cursed building.

Like the first two films, Hell House LLC III: Lake of Fire was written and directed by Stephen Cognetti. The film is a combination of found footage and mocumentary style. As with those first two films, this one takes place in the Abaddon Hotel. Despite the numerous reports of strange happenings, disappearances, and deaths, a new crew is entering the hotel. In the second film we met the new host and crew of Morning Mysteries, the TV segment whose previous host and crew were in the second film. They are sent to the Abaddon Hotel to document the making of a live interactive performance called Insomnia. At first everything seems normal, but then increasingly frightening things happen. What’s worse is the creator of this show, Russell Wynn, seems to know more that he lets on and is determined to finish the show.

Cognetti’s final installment of the Hell House LLC franchise does a fantastic job of upping the stakes. It comes to new revelations fans didn’t already know and brings the tale of the Abaddon Hotel to a close. In some respects, the final act of this film is a bit too neat in how it brings all the various storylines to a end. There is such a thing in horror as too much closure. The very last scene of the film does a nice job of bringing everything full-circle, but it is still too tidy.

One thing Cognetti has been incredibly successful with in all three films is capturing the feel of walking through a haunt. There is a near constant feeling of tension just from the eerie set of the hotel itself. As we follow the camera walking from room to room, you never know if something is going to jump out at you from around the corner. Cognetti also knows how to use subtlety to his favor. The first scares are small and involve a creepy sound or a slight movement of something that shouldn’t move. From there the scares build, often feeling reminiscent of a true haunt when you aren’t sure if something is a prop or a person until they finally jump out and scare you to death.

The filmmakers also wisely chose to go for very simplistic makeup, also much like a haunt. Lake of Fire includes some familiar spooky faces including a creepy woman who likes to lurk in one of the upstairs rooms and the clown mannequin who likes to move around on his own. These chilling characters are created with very minimalistic makeup and masks. The climax of the film utilizes some CGI effects. Much like with the previous films, I don’t think the CGI works as well in this found-footage, lower budget film, but it doesn’t detract from the overall appeal of the film.

Luckily, Lake of Fire continues the trend of great performances for the Hell House LLC films. The entire ensemble cast is fantastic and conveys fear quite well. Gabriel Chytry (Altruism) plays the creator of Insomnia, Russell Wynn. Russell is an interesting character as he clearly is hiding things from the crew. Chytry balances the character between appearing to have sinister intentions and simply being an eccentric director. Elizabeth Vermilyea stars as Morning Mysteries host, Vanessa, in her first feature film role. Vermilyea’s portrayal of Vanessa also plays a balancing act as she attempts to prove herself in a male-dominated industry while also doing what’s best for the people around her rather than her career. Other notable performances come from Sam Kazzi (Law & Order: SVU), Bridgid Abrams (Contributions), Leo DeFriend (Mordeo), Jordan Kaplan (My Alien Girlfriend), and Scott Richey (Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell).

Hell House LLC III: Lake of Fire is a fitting end to a trilogy that perfectly captures the feel of walking through a Halloween haunt. Cognetti created an intricate a complicated plot spanning three films, each one raising the stakes and revealing terrifying new information. While the end of the film attempts to tie all the various subplots up too cleanly, the franchise still ends in an impactful way. Of all the films, Lake of Fire may be the least scary, but there are still plenty of spine-chilling moments that will keep you up at night. Along with great performances and creepy effects, it’s hard to escape the thrilling feeling of walking through a haunted attraction. Lake of Fire rounds out a great trilogy that is a must-watch for the Halloween season.

OVERALL RATING: 7.5/10

Tigers Are Not Afraid

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Drug wars have turned cities into ghost towns. They have also left children without parents or homes, forced to fend for themselves on the streets. After Estrella’s mother doesn’t come home, she is left to seek shelter and help from a group of orphaned boys. Their fight for survival on those unkind streets takes the children down a twisted fairy tale complete with wishes, zombies, and tigers.

Written and directed by Issa López (Casi Divas, Ladies’ Night), this film is one of the most talked about indie horror films of the year. Much of the talk about Tigers Are Not Afraid is thanks to legendary director Guillermo del Toro (Pan’s Labyrinth, The Shape of Water) singing its praises. Much like traditional fairy tales, the film opens by introducing us to the lovely “princess” in the form of Estrella. Everything that happens in the film is either shown from her point of view or the leader of the orphaned boys, Shine. They are all doing their best to survive on the streets while avoiding the cartels. At the same time, Estrella is haunted by the memory of her mother and the weight of three chalk pieces that may or may not be able to grant her wishes. She bears this weight all on her own since the other orphans don’t see the things Estrella sees. This childlike point of view allows for the reality of the brutal crimes happening all around the kids to seamlessly blend together with the fantastical elements. The result is an incredibly unique story that is as unsettling as it is beautiful.

All of the main characters in Tigers Are Not Afraid are children, and each of them is a joy to watch on the screen. Young leading lady, Paola Lara, makes her feature film debut as Estrella. When Estrella joins the group of boys, she immediately takes on a maternal role, yet her longing for her mother keeps her trapped in the twisted fairy tale. Lara manages to show a certain amount of vulnerability, while also showing how Estrella is able to adapt in order to survive. Also making his feature film debut is Juan Ramón López as Shine. His performance, for me, is the stand-out of the film. Poor Shine is both emotionally and physically scarred from losing his mother to the cartels. Shine takes care of the other boys and takes on a tough-guy persona, but López shows the ocean of emotional depth hidden just beneath the surface of that persona. Both Lara and López are great on screen together, naturally taking on the roles of mother and father to the other boys despite being kids themselves. The other children in their small band of orphans are also a joy to watch, including Hanssel Casillas (Sitiados: México) as Tucsi, Rodrigo Cortés as Pop, and Nery Arredondo as the adorable Morrito.

The film is a feast for both your eyes and ears. As the film begins, the sets are slightly run down apartments and makeshift rooftop shelters. Then the fairy tale element is played up more throughout the film when the kids discover what appears to be an abandoned old mansion. What might be the most surprising artistic element of Tigers Are Not Afraid is the superb use of CGI. For the most part, the effects themselves are subtle, but because they all relate to the fantasy in the plot the effects still stand out. There are dragons, sentient blood trails, tigers, and more all done with gorgeous CGI. Then of course the plot is emphasized by the melancholy and captivating score by composer Vince Pope (Misfits, Black Mirror). The film is stunning on how well it combines the horrors of life and nightmares with the hope of children and their fairy tales.

Tigers Are Not Afraid is a uniquely dark fairy tale rooted in the real life horrors experienced by children. López has shown the world she can not only write a compelling film, but she can also direct and bring it to life in a way that is simultaneously haunting and heartbreaking. It is the kind of film that can make the audience feel the full gamut of emotions through effective storytelling and fantastical visuals, not to mention the amazing performances from the entire cast of young actors. One thing I will warn people of is that this Mexican film is in Spanish and is subtitled. While this should never deter a viewer from watching a film, I know in this day and age many people shy away from subtitled films. Tigers Are Not Afraid is the kind of film that will be noticed by a wide range of audiences, not just horror fans. I can’t wait to see what López does next.

OVERALL RATING: 9.5/10

Incident in a Ghostland

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A mother and her two teenage daughters move into the home of a recently deceased relative. On the first night, intruders attack and force the family to fight for their lives. After seeming to escape, the women move on as best they can. 16 years later they reunite in that same house, but the tragedy of their past may still be part of their present.

Writer and director Pascal Laugier (Martyrs, The Tall Man) once again brings his horror expertise to the screen with Incident in a Ghostland.  Immediately Laugier sets the tone with a creepy story and an even creepier candy truck. When the intruders arrive at the rural home, the family’s worst nightmares become reality. As the plot weaves the past and the present, there is almost a supernatural element. Yet the truth may end up being more terrifying than any ghost.

This plot has two main focuses. The first is the relationship between sisters. At first the two girls are at odds with each other and don’t get along. It takes the extremely horrifying event of the home invasion to bring the two together. Between terror and time, there is little that can keep these sisters from fighting for each other and for their survival.  The second focus is the lengths the mind goes to in order to cope with that trauma. The mind can do incredible things in reaction to trauma. Sometimes the mind erases the trauma, sometimes it generates false memories, and sometimes it allows you to escape to another place where the trauma doesn’t exist. Laugier did a gorgeous job of conveying this aspect of the plot into the film, although certain aspects that are meant to be surprises are telegraphed too obviously.

There is one part of the plot in Incident in a Ghostland that is quite problematic. This is evident in how the villains of the film are portrayed. There are two villains who seem to have a sort of mother-son relationship. The son is a giant beast of a man who appears to have a mental disability. He doesn’t speak and is very childlike in the way he acts, communicating primarily in grunts. His “mother” is played by a man. It’s unclear if this person is meant to be a transgender woman or a man who dresses in drag. The biggest issue I have with this is how it perpetuates the unfortunate horror trope of mental illness and LGBTQ+ individuals not only being the same, but also being evil. In this day and age one would hope filmmakers would move away from this trope, but it is still very common.

The performances from the female protagonists are truly moving. Most notable are the two women who portray Beth. Emilia Jones (High-Rise, Brimstone) gives viewers the first glimpse of Beth as a young teen. Jones’ performance is absolutely breathtaking as she portrays Beth going through terrifying experiences most people will never have to experience in their lifetime. Her adult counterpart is played by Crystal Reed (Teen Wolf, Swamp Thing). The adult version of Beth is quite different. She is very poised and put together. Reed does a great job of portraying Beth as the more successful and well-adjusted member of her family 16 years after the tragedy. Yet, both young and adult Beth have denial in common when it comes to what happened in that house and that is where both Jones and Reed truly shine. It is important to note Taylor Hickson (Deadpool, Deadly Class) as young Vera and Anastasia Phillips (Reign, Skins) as adult Vera also deliver powerhouse performances.

On top of the compelling tale of sisters and survival, Incident in a Ghostland is also truly stunning to look at. Between the set design, the props, and the makeup, there is a lot to look at. The house where the horrible events take place is dark and old, yet still beautiful. It needs some sprucing up and it is filled with old antiques. Yet the thing that stands out is the abundance of creepy dolls, which play an important role in the film. The dinginess of this places offers a stark contrast to the life adult Beth leads, which is very neat and clean. The brightness of it offers a great juxtaposition to the time spent inside the rural home. The young versions of the sisters get put through the ringer and the physical wounds from that are very well done with the help of makeup and prosthetic application. At one point, doll-like makeup is applied over these wounds and it creates a haunting image for the viewer.

Incident in a Ghostland is a stunning look at the bonds of sisterhood and dealing with trauma. Laugier clearly knows how to convey extremely traumatic events and the lengths the human mind will go to in order to protect a person from that trauma. He also has a great handle on creating dynamic sisterly relationships that are complicated, but grounded in love for each other. The plot still has its problematic areas, such as the portrayal of people with mental disabilities, mental illness, and LGBTQ+ individuals. It is something I hope to see change in the horror industry over time, but the story of Beth and Vera is still a fascinating one.

OVERALL RATING: 7/10