Suspense

Game of Death

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

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

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

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

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

OVERALL RATING: 4/10

Sweet, Sweet Lonely Girl

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Adele has always been a shy, sweet, responsible girl. Adele’s mother sends her to live with and care for her sick, agoraphobic aunt. Soon after moving in she meets Beth, a sensual, mysterious young women. The more time the young women spend together the more Adele’s limits are tested. Soon her life begins to spiral down a path of lust, obsession, and something much darker.

From the very first frame this film has the feel of the 1970’s. Everything from the clothing to the cinematography transports you to a different era. It isn’t until we see Reagan on a television in the background that the time period is confirmed as likely being in the early eighties. To be honest, the addition of Reagan on the TV was unnecessary to determine the time the film takes place in, and I believe the film could be a bit more intriguing if this had been excluded. The gorgeous cinematography, the haunting music, and the mysterious nature of the plot all lend to the early-seventies, Italian-inspired atmosphere of the film. It gives the film a distinct giallo look and feel.

The film has a very sexy gothic quality to it that only enhances the relatively simple story. Adele is so innocent and naive. As she spends more and more time with Beth, who is a wild and a free spirit, Adele starts to do things that she normally would never do. What is even more interesting is how her actions directly affect the aunt that she cares for. It is fascinating and tense to watch Adele’s actions spiral out of control as she becomes increasingly infatuated with Beth. While the story is interesting and the film itself is beautiful to watch, the end is a bit rough. It adds a supernatural element that works with the style of the film, yet it doesn’t make very much sense. When I finished the film I found myself trying to analyze the end and was unable to make sense of it. It is almost as if there should be one more scene in the film, that perhaps got cut, that would better connect all the elements.

Sweet, Sweet Lonely Girl continues the horror film trend in recent years that focuses on young women coming into their own. Adele is shy, awkward, and clearly repressed in more ways than one. She always does what she is told whether it be by her mother or her aunt. Beth is the conduit that allows her to break free from the bonds of responsibility. Their friendship allows Adele to branch out from her comfort zone, both by breaking the rules and discovering her inner sexuality. It is almost as if Beth is the embodiment of the person Adele wishes she could be.

Both of the young actresses in this film do a stellar job. Erin Wilhelmi (Disconnect, Perks of Being a Wallflower) is brilliant as shy little Adele. She is so innocent and follows all the rules. It is fascinating to see Wilhelmi convey Adele’s transformation as she has a sort of sexual, rebellious awakening as she spends more time with Beth. Quinn Shephard (Unaccompanied Minors, Hostages) is also brilliant as Beth. Shepard plays the character in such a way where you sense there is more to her than meets the eye, and she simply oozes sensuality. Wilhelmi and Shephard together have amazing on-screen chemistry. It is impossible to take your eyes off of them.

Sweet, Sweet Lonely girl is a seductive and atmospheric film that will take you back to a different era of film. The sinister and sexual nature will draw you in and hold your focus, as will the astounding cinematography and remarkable performances by both Wilhelmi and Shephard. This could almost be a flawless film if not for the somewhat confusing ending. While it doesn’t necessarily ruin the film, it may leave you scratching your head as the credits roll. My advice would be to simply take the ending for what it is, and don’t attempt to read too much into it. Either way, you are in for a treat.

OVERALL RATING: 8.5/10

The 6th Friend

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

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

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

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

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

OVERALL RATING: 6/10 (no pun intended)

Killing Ground

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

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

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

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

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

OVERALL RATING: 8/10

The Transfiguration

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Milo is a teen boy living in a rough urban neighborhood. Alienated from his peers for being weird, he spends most of his time watching vampire movies. As his mental illness and fascination with vampirism takes over his life he meets Sophie, another troubled teen who moves into his building. Now Milo is going through an internal struggle between his obsession and his yearning to be with the girl he cares about.

The Transfiguration is a beautiful story. Milo clearly has some kind of mental disorder. He not only is fascinated with vampires, but he actually believes he is one. He believes it to the point where he will kill a stranger to drink their blood. To him it isn’t wrong, it is just what he has to do in order to live. Then Sophie comes into the picture. She has many of her own mental issues, but when compared to Milo she seems like a relatively normal girl. When she enters his life, Milo is forced to look at his actions for what they are and take his mental illness head on. Not only is this a rather depressing look at mental illness in youth, but specifically inner city kids who don’t have the resources to get the help they need.

The plot has elements that will appeal to many audiences. It is mysterious, thought provoking, and horrific in its own way. What drives a lot of this story is not only the social commentary threaded throughout, but also how it makes you question what is real. Is Milo just an unstable teen, or could he possibly be an actual vampire? Watching the story unravel in a way that gives you clues as to the origin of his thirst for blood is truly fascinating. The only qualm I have with this film is that the pacing can be very slow at times. This is a more character and story driven film, rather than relying on lots of action and excitement, but there are still many times where virtually nothing happens. The audience often watches Milo walk around town, without any dialogue or true purpose to the scenes except to create a feeling of unease. There are likely some scenes that can be cut to make the film move at a somewhat quicker pace without losing any of the unsettling atmosphere.

The two young leads in The Transfiguration are some of the best new talent I have seen in a long time. Eric Ruffin (The Good Wife, Nature Calls) is simply incredible as the disturbed Milo. Ruffin portrays Milo as emotionless throughout most of the film, but always shows a bit of heart when Sophie is involved. He shows the audience that Milo definitely has issues that need to be taken care of, but underneath it all he isn’t a bad person. Chloe Levine (The OA, King Jack) is also stunning as Sophie. One could argue that she is equally as disturbed as Milo, just in a vastly different way, and Levine does an amazing job of conveying that to the audience. These are two young actors you will want to pay attention to.

Visually this is a very interesting film. It isn’t necessarily beautiful or shot in a way that makes it look like art. Instead it is somewhat gritty. The colors are dulled so everything has a bit of a grey, dirty tinge to it. This is an interesting choice by the filmmakers, and a smart one. It adds to the gloomy, depressing feeling and emphasizes the themes seen throughout the film. The filmmakers also chose to go very minimal and realistic with any scenes involving blood and murder. Again, this is smart because this is a film very much rooted in the reality of mental illness. If they had gone more the gory horror route then it would take away from the message being sent. All around it is stunning the same way abandoned, crumbling buildings can be stunning.

The Transfiguration is not only a sort of sad love story, but it is also a story of unchecked mental illness. Those who need it most do not get the help they need, and this film shows the effects that has on the individual and those around them. The only true negative about this film is the pacing can drag for unfortunately long periods of time. Yet it is still one of the most interesting and thought-provoking horror films of the decade. The Transfiguration is able to blur the genre lines by the many themes it takes on. Because of that, it is something that has the ability to bring in non-horror audiences in a way that not many other horror films can. It is powerful, it has two phenomenal leads, and it forces audiences to take a deep look into mental illness and the state of inner city youth. The Transfiguration is definitely a must-see film.

OVERALL RATING: 9/10

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Lake Bodom

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In 1960 four teenagers were murdered at Lake Bodom in Finland. Decades later, two teenage boys invite two girls to go camping with them. What these girls don’t know is that they are going to the same spot where those teens lost their lives so many years ago. One of the boys is determined to test his theory about who committed the murders. Once the group arrive at the lake things quickly go down a dark and twisted path that some may not survive.

One of the most interesting aspects of this film is that the murders in 1960 are true. Four teenagers went camping at Lake Bodom, and only one survived, although he suffered terrible injuries and mental trauma. To this day the murders remain unsolved. Instead of doing what most films do with true events, and trying to recreate them on film, the filmmakers of Lake Bodom decided to simply use that as a springboard for their story. The previous murders are acknowledged and used as the motivation for this new group to camp in the same spot. From there the plot dives into intrigue, deception, betrayal, and many equally interesting layers.

What makes Lake Bodom stand out to me is that every time you think you have things figured out, a new layer to the story is revealed. While I love that about the film because it keeps the audience guessing, it also felt like there may be one too many layers to the plot. If the filmmakers had held back just a little bit the film would have a stronger overall story. It is almost as if they try to put too many twists and turns into the plot to the point where it is hard to determine where the filmmakers wanted to go with the film. Despite that, I will say the layer that could be taken out does at least make audiences call into question if what they see is real or not.

Lake Bodom is the most visually stunning film I have seen so far at the Phoenix Film Festival/International Horror and Sci-fi Film Festival. Every single shot looks like it is a work of art. The cinematography in the forest setting is not only gorgeous, but is done in a way that looks eerie as well. The filmmakers even do a great job of filming primarily at night, but there is enough light to clearly see what is happening. This is not easy to do without the artificial light being completely obvious. While watching the film it just looks like moonlight, and that only adds to the creepy atmosphere and beautiful style of the film.

The entire cast of Lake Bodom is amazing. Nelly Hirst-Gee (If You Love) portrays the innocent and broken Ida. She is the damaged one of the group and has to go through more of an emotional transformation to find her own strength, and Hirst-Gee does an amazing job in that role. Mimosa Willamo (Headfirst) plays Nora, the strongest personality in the group. Willamo stands out because, much like Hirst-Gee as Ida, she reveals the many aspects of Nora in a compelling way. The two male leads, Santeri Helinheimo Mäntylä (Bitwisards) as Atte and Mikael Gabriel (Flowers of Evil) as Elias, also give excellent performances. Both male characters can come across as creepy and sweet in turn, and both actors convey that very well. One thing they all have in common is that at different points during the film you call into question each of their motives and intentions.

Since this is more of a slasher film, most of the effects are on the minimal side. There isn’t a ton of blood and gore. There is enough blood to feel realistic for the injuries, but not so much that it turns into an over-the-top bloodbath. The kills themselves are also fairly minimal. There is really only one death that is a bit more unique. This one stands out because the way this character is killed fits in so well with what they say just before their death. This is clearly a deliberate choice by the filmmakers to give the audience a bit of an “ah-ha” moment. Also, by keeping things simple with the effects, it forces audiences to focus more on the story at hand.

Lake Bodom is a film filled with murder, betrayal, obsession, and deception. The many different aspects of the film add a lot of intrigue, but it also makes the film seem convoluted at times. Despite that it is still a stunningly filmed story with superb acting from the four leads. It also gives audiences a great mystery that twists and turns in ways that will keep you guessing from start to finish. This is another film that will appeal to many different types of horror fans and non-horror fans alike.

OVERALL RATING: 7.5/10

Happy Hunting

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An alcoholic gets a call that an old girlfriend has passed away leaving her young child, his child, alone. He must travel to Mexico to meet the child he never knew existed. Along the way he stops in a small dilapidated town that was once a bustling mecca for hunters. Little does the alcoholic drifter know that the residents of this quiet town have an annual tradition he is now a part of, whether he likes it or not.

On the surface Happy Hunting is an exciting thrill ride chalked full of insanity and carnage. Underneath is a film that offers interesting commentary on how society deals with individuals it finds less desirable. It also shows a man suffering from severe alcoholism and the extreme circumstances it takes to finally make him quit his addiction. When you walk around any large city you see the “undesirables.” These are the homeless people, the drunks, the criminals. Typically they are left to their own devices by society. In this strange small town the people take matters into their own hands. Every year they have a hunting festival in honor of an age old tradition when the land was rife with buffalo. Instead, the townsfolk gather the undesirable people of their town. This gives them the chance to get rid of the riff-raff dirtying their town while also having fun hunting human beings, the ultimate prey. It creates an exciting, and often times hilarious, scenario.

The drunken protagonist of this film, Warren, has to have booze in his system at all times or he suffers the symptoms of alcohol withdrawal. Even when he discovers his ex has died and he has a child that is now his responsibility, he doesn’t stop drinking. It isn’t until he is thrown into the hunting competition, as prey, that he has to face his addiction and find a way to overcome it. What makes this aspect of the story so interesting is how the filmmakers show the great lengths Warren goes to in order to consume alcohol and how deeply rooted the addiction really is.

This is a film that has a lot of humor mixed into the insanity. While many of the themes are very serious, I don’t think this film would have worked without the humor. The idea that a small town near the Mexican border not only hunts people, but gets away with it, is absurd. By adding funny parts to the plot it tells audiences that the filmmakers know this is a crazy idea, so they made certain aspects more light-hearted and humorous. Often times this is seen by making specific characters hilarious caricatures and stereotypes.

Some of the performances in Happy Hunting border on being over the top. In certain cases this makes a performance stand out as bad, and in other instances it actually works for the character. Ken Lally (Heroes, Puncture Wounds) plays one of those over the top characters, Steve. Steve is a resident of the small town and Lally plays him as the stereotype of the happy suburban husband, much like you would see in old TV shows like Leave it to Beaver. This actually works very well for the character of Steve, especially when we learn more about his backstory. Lally does a great job of injecting comedy into stressful situations, as well as showing the many sides of Steve. The shining star of this film is Martin Dingle Wall (Strangerland, Cops LAC) as Warren. Watching Wall portray Warren’s ups and downs through alcoholism is riveting and he makes the audience sympathize with the character, despite the fact he is a rather horrible human being.

There is one big negative aspect of this film, and that is the effects. Many of the wounds and fake blood look fine. The issue arises whenever CGI is used. Whenever a character is shot there is simply dreadful looking CGI blood spray or mist. Not only does it look bad, but it seems unnecessary as well. The most noticeable use of CGI involves fire. The blood may not stand out to most people, but it is impossible to not see that the flames are very poorly executed CGI. One can only hope that the effects are fixed before the film gets a wider distribution.

Happy Hunting is a film that has it all; social commentary, humor, and intense bloodshed. This film even has a character that many people suffering through addiction can relate to, and maybe even learn from. It really is the “every man’s” horror film because it has something almost everyone can enjoy. The only drawbacks are some of the performances by the smaller characters are too exaggerated, and the special effects look a bit more like what you would expect from a Syfy channel original movie. All in all this was a great way for me to start my experience at the 2017 Phoenix Film Festival and International Horror and Sci-fi Film Festival. It is a film that will be enjoyed by many.

OVERALL RATING: 7/10