Suspense

Nightstream Capsule Review: An Unquiet Grave

The Nightstream Fest films keep coming; this time it’s the supernatural drama, An Unquiet Grave. This film is directed by Terence Krey (Winter Slides), who also co-wrote the film with one of its stars, Christine Nyland (The Garden Left Behind). An Unquiet Grave is the story of a man, one year after his wife died in a car accident, as he seeks the help of his wife’s twin sister to try and bring her back to life. It’s a tale of heartbreak, magic, and morality.

An Unquiet Grave plays out like a much more intimate version of Pet Sematary. The film entirely focuses on two actors, Nyland and Jacob A. Ware (Graves, Boardwalk Empire), who both give strong, emotionally charged performances. At only 72 minutes, the filmmakers stick to the basics of the plot, emphasizing the relationships between characters and the lengths people go to in order to be with their deceased loved ones. The mysticism of the plot is left relatively unexplained, but it is shown in such a simplistic way that the audience can put the pieces together.

At times, An Unquiet Grave might be a bit too bare-bones for some viewers. That being said, it succeeds in conveying the deep emotional turmoil each character experiences. Scattered in that turmoil is eerie suspense, haunting imagery, and even some disturbing practical effects. It all comes together to drive home the point many fail to miss, especially when it comes to the ones they love: be careful what you wish for. An Unquiet Grave pulls back the curtain to take an intimate look at love, loss, and the toll grief takes.

OVERALL RATING: 7/10

Nightstream Capsule Review: Lucky

One of the most unique films at Nightstream is definitely Lucky. The film is directed by Natasha Kermani (Imitation Girl, Shattered) and written by Brea Grant (12 Hour Shift, Best Friends Forever), who also stars in the film. Lucky tells the story of May, an author who finds herself hunted by a masked man who comes back every night to try and kill her. When the police end up being less than helpful, she has to take matters into her own hands to stop the masked killer. Grant is able to tell a familiar story in a very different way, and Kermani does a beautiful job of bringing it all to life.

This smart and thrilling re-imagining of a slasher film conveys the threat women face every day: men. The mask the killer wears makes him largely featureless. This not only makes him look terrifying, but it also allows him to represent all men who prey on women. Whenever May speaks to someone about what she’s facing, she is constantly told how brave she is, how “lucky” she is she survived, and even that this is just the way things are. Throughout the film, it’s never clear if this is a supernatural situation or something more sci-fi related, but it’s not something that feels like it needs to be explained.

Grant’s performance as May is wonderful. She makes the character feel relatable, but at the same time there is a slight coldness to her, which can even be felt in the title of her book, “Go It Alone.” The musical score by Jeremy Zuckerman (Horse Girl, The Legend of Korra) melds beautifully with every scene. The climax executes some distinctive ideas in a visually stunning way that adds to the overall mystery of the film. Lucky is a suspenseful, magnificently told metaphor for the real-life horrors women face on a daily basis.

OVERALL RATING: 8.5/10

Nightstream Capsule Review: Reunion

Writer and director Jake Mahaffy (Free in Deed, Wellness) brings his latest film, Reunion, to Nightstream audiences. Pregnant Ellie returns to her family home as her mother is getting it ready to sell. From the moment Ellie arrives, old memories haunt her and unravel her relationship with her family.

While the general concept for the plot is an interesting one, it lacks a bit of finesse in the execution. From beginning to end, Reunion maintains the same level of tension, or lack thereof. There is a lot of information provided right away, but there is a general lack of context for that information. Ellie immediately sees the ghosts of her past, yet at no point does this help to build suspense or fear for the audience. Even as the audience begins to put the pieces together and the big “revelations” are made in the climax, it doesn’t really feel that climactic. The filmmakers make an attempt to play with the idea of time, reality, and even magic, but it only further confuses the story.

Despite the film’s flaws, there are positives as well. The performances by both Emma Draper (This Town, Daffodils) and Julia Ormond (Legends of the Fall, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button) are quite good, given the somewhat monotone plot they were given. Between the setting of the old house and some of the practical effects, the visuals of the film are also enjoyable. The house itself is a fantastic set piece because, while it is quite large, the clutter from preparing to move makes it feels incredibly claustrophobic and increases the feeling of insanity. Reunion takes a stab at a complex idea, but it unfortunately ends up falling flat.

OVERALL RATING: 5/10

Nightstream Capsule Review: My Heart Can’t Beat Unless You Tell It To

Nightstream Fest brings audiences an intimate, emotional horror film, My Heart Can’t Beat Unless You Tell It To. Making his feature-film debut as both writer and director, Jonathan Cuartas tells the story of three siblings. The youngest brother, Thomas, suffers from an illness, and his older brother, Dwight, and sister, Jessie, have taken on the burden of caring for him. The film is a tight, family drama with horrifying elements woven throughout. It gets to the heart of the lengths people are willing go to for family and the ones they love.

From start to finish the tone of My Heart Can’t Beat Unless You Tell It To is dark and ominous, even in the scenes where the family has a happy moment. The knowledge of Thomas’ illness and what his siblings have to do to keep him alive is a constant weight that even the audience can feel. This feeling is emphasized by the stunning performances by all three leads, Patrick Fugit (Almost Famous, Wristcutters: A Love Story), Ingrid Sophie Schram (Phantom Thread, Electric Slide), and Owen Campbell (Super Dark Times, The Miseducation of Cameron Post).

Not only does the film deliver a slow burn with strong emotional beats, but it also includes plenty of blood and some subtle yet gorgeous practical effects. This is mostly tied to Thomas and his mysterious illness that seems closely tied to vampirism. It’s a very unique take that keeps the film grounded in reality. My Heart Can’t Beat Unless You Tell It To is a haunting family drama that cuts deep.

OVERALL RATING: 8/10

Nightstream Capsule Review: Bloody Hell

Nightstream is bringing the fun with Bloody Hell, written by Robert Benjamin (Welcome to Acapulco) and directed by Alister Grierson (Sanctum, Tiger). This violent ride follows the misadventures of Rex. He recently got out of prison and is looking to abandon his notoriety in his home town, then decides to flee to Finland. Unfortunately, he only traded one hell for another.

Bloody Hell dives right into the action and sets the tone for the strange, uniqueness of the film. As Rex goes from one bad situation to the next, the audience watches him work things out by talking to himself (no, really, we watch as he talks to another Rex). It’s a really fantastic way to punctuate the violence with some very dark humor. Ben O’Toole (Hacksaw Ridge, Detroit) shines as Rex. He is an endearing, complicated hero and O’Toole brings great physicality to the role.

This unique plot is made more interesting with the help fo Rex’s imaginary double and striking imagery. There is everything from neon pops of color to gruesome and gory practical effects. At times the film can lean a bit towards cheesy, but it generally feels in keeping with the tongue-and-cheek tone of the plot. Bloody Hell is sure to make you laugh at the most inappropriate times and keep you entertained from start to finish.

OVERALL RATING: 7.5/10

Fantasia Review: For the Sake of Vicious

A tortured father kidnaps a shady businessman and brings him to a nurse’s house. After the businessman calls for help, the trio become entangled in a violent power grab. They will have to band together to survive the night or die trying.

Directors Gabriel Carrer (The Demolisher, In the House of Flies) and Reese Eveneshen (Defective, Dead Genesis) bring their latest film to Fantasia International Film Festival. With a story by Carrer and screenplay by Eveneshen, For the Sake of Vicious wastes no time throwing the audience into suspense. We watch as the tortured father kidnaps the shady businessman and takes him to the nurse’s house in order to keep him alive. From there the filmmakers gradually reveal how these three very different people ended up in the house together and the way they’re all connected. It’s when the businessman is able to call for help that things really take a dire turn. It quickly throws the characters into chaos and blood. The ensuing fight for survival is action-packed, suspenseful, and will keep the audience on the edge of their seats. It’s a generally straightforward plot with great fight sequences to delight the gore hounds. While the action makes for a lot of excitement, the film still stays emotionally grounded with the relationships between the three main characters.

All three leads in For the Sake of Vicious deliver emotionally-driven performances to offset the physical brutality. Lora Burke (Lifechanger, Poor Agnes) plays Romina, the nurse whose home is invaded. As a nurse, it’s obvious Romina has a strong impulse to help others. Burke does a great job of conveying the conflict Romina feels because she can’t decide which of these two men she should really be helping. Nick Smyth (The Covenant, The Flying Man) plays Chris, the tortured father who brings the chaos into Romina’s home. There are two aspects of Smyth’s performance that truly blow me away. First, Chris’s determination to right a wrong comes through so clearly and powerfully. Second, Smyth has a great physicality to his performance. Between showing his emotions with facial expressions and body language to his physical prowess during the fight scenes, Smyth truly gives it his all. Colin Paradine (Defective, Kingdom Come) plays the shady businessman, Alan. Throughout the course of the film, Paradine keeps the audience guessing as to whether or not Alan is the villain of the story or not. Paradine does a perfect balance and cool and collected with a bit of a sinister edge that makes his intentions unclear. Together, this trio helps ground the film with their stellar performances.

Delightful practical effects, production design, and music add to the appeal of this film. Of all the films at this year’s Fantasia International Film Festival, For the Sake of Vicious stands out as one of the more gore-filled. In the beginning, there are only minor wounds, but when all hell breaks loose the film becomes a bloody, violent nightmare. The practical effects are shockingly well done and had me gasping and maniacally laughing in turn. From the moment the three main characters come together to the shocking end, the film takes place in Romina’s small rental. The small home is a nice, quiet place for the three characters to work through their issues. Yet when the cavalry arrives, it becomes a claustrophobic nightmare as it fills with murderous bad guys. The very well-choreographed fight scenes become even more exciting with the Carpenter-esque musical score by Carrer and Foxgrndr (If a Tree Falls). Each individual artistic element weaves together to make this film even more exciting.

For the Sake of Vicious is a delightfully violent thrill ride from start to finish. Carrer and Eveneshen make a fantastic team and create a simple yet effective story. To make the film even more suspenseful and shocking, the filmmakers utilized a claustrophobic set, an electrifying musical score, fantastic fight choreography, and jaw-dropping practical effects. Throughout all the thrills and gore, the performances from the three leads manage to keep the film rooted at an emotional core, making the film more than just an action thriller. For the Sake of Vicious ends up being a shot of adrenaline to the system.

OVERALL RATING: 7.5/10

Fantasia Review: Minor Premise

A neuroscientist is attempting to escape from his deceased father’s shadow. In a desperate move, he uses an experimental machine on himself, causing his psyche to fracture into multiple pieces. He has to find a way to put the pieces back together or face deadly consequences.

Minor Premise has one of the most fascinating stories I have seen at Fantasia International Film Festival. The film is directed by Eric Schultz, making his feature-film directorial debut. Schultz co-wrote the film with Thomas Torrey (Fare, Savannah Sunrise) and Justin Moretto, the latter also making his feature-film debut as a writer. As the film begins, we meet Ethan, the young neuroscientist. His work seems to center on being better than his father was and getting the recognition he believes he deserves. This is what leads him to test a machine on himself that fractures his psyche. There are now 10 versions of Ethan, each one focusing on a specific facet of his personality and only having 6 minutes to be “alive” at a time. This cycle takes a toll on his mind and body, giving him a short amount of time to put his mind back together. This alone leads to a very suspenseful film, especially since only a couple of the versions of himself are helpful in trying to solve the problem. To add to the suspense, there is one version of Ethan who is actively working against the real version of himself, attempting to take over both mind and body.

The driving plot of Minor Premise is different than anything I’ve ever encountered. It presents a unique scientific goal. The consequences of trying to reach that goal are shocking, but also make sense with what Ethan is trying to achieve. One thing I really appreciate about the film is that it makes a point of stating this is not a case of dissociative personality disorder. While they refer to the different versions of Ethan as “personalities,” the fact that they make sure to explain that each personality is really just a different, specific facet of Ethan. Thrillers and horror films so often show individuals with DPD in a negative light, so making this distinction is a much needed and welcome change. It ultimately helps Minor Premise stand out while still keeping the audience at the edge of their seats.

Minor Premise has outstanding performances, but the clear stand out is Sathya Sridharan (Bikini Moon, All the Little Things We Kill) as Ethan. Sridharan completely shines in every moment he’s on screen. Not only does he play the original Ethan, but he has to play the other 9 facets of Ethan’s personality. With subtle facial expressions, physical movement, and manner of speaking, Sridharan is able to easily convey which version of Ethan he is portraying in any given moment. It’s really a fantastic performance that drives the increasing suspense of the plot. Honorable mention goes to Paton Ashbrook (Shameless) as Alli and Dana Ashbrook (Twin Peaks) as Malcolm, who both also excel in their roles.

Because the performances in Minor Premise are the focal point of the film, the filmmakers opted for more subtle visuals. Aside from the production design, science experiment props, and darkly creepy lighting, the one thing that makes quite an impact is the makeup. As the plot progresses, the audience sees Ethan’s physical health decline as his body cannot withstand the constant switching between personalities. The makeup effects make him look more gaunt, pale, and sickly throughout the film. It begins with subtle changes, but becomes more and more pronounced. It’s a great way to show Ethan’s time running out and adds to the suspense.

Minor Premise is a unique sci-fi thriller that plays with the mind in the most delightful way. The filmmakers clearly have a firm understanding of how to create impactful suspense from start to finish. Sridharan is the true heart and soul of this film with his absolutely stunning performance as the many versions of Ethan. The film also boasts subtle yet effective makeup to convey just how dire the situation is. It’s the kind of film that brings up interesting scientific theories and the ethics behind them. Schultz, Torrey, and Moretto show the world they are highly skilled storytellers. Minor Premise is an especially strong debut for both Schultz and Moretto, making it known we should pay attention to their future careers.

OVERALL RATING: 8.5/10

Fantasia Review: Sanzaru

A woman is giving live-in care to an elderly woman with dementia. Due to dealing with health issues and the strain between family members, the strange happenings around the house at first go unnoticed. As the situation becomes more dire, the caretaker has to put the pieces together to save those she loves.

Writer and director Xia Magnus brings his feature-film debut to Fantasia International Film Festival. The plot of Sanzaru follows Evelyn as she begins to care for Dena, an elderly woman who has some mental and physical health issues. Evelyn and her nephew, Amos, live in Dena’s house while Dena’s son, Clem, lives in a trailer on the property. Since Evelyn is primarily alone in the house as she cares for Dena, she starts to notice that something about the house doesn’t feel quite right. We learn that everyone in the home has their secrets and some of those secrets are more dangerous than others. While increasingly sinister occurrences happen in the home, Evelyn begins to solve the puzzle of what haunts the home. It is a haunting, slow burn of a film that has some very eerie moments.

What makes it especially interesting are intercut scenes in which the audience hears Evelyn’s deceased mother speaking to someone named “Sanzaru.” It is these moments that make Sanzaru unique among other films like it while also allowing the audience insight into what’s happening before the main characters do. The film also does a fantastic job of showing the dangerous effects of secrets. Almost everyone in the home has a dark secret they are keeping hidden, and Magnus does a wonderful job of conveying how those secrets can fester and affect later generations.

The cast of Sanzaru gives understated yet powerful performances. Aina Dumlao (Ballers, McGyver) plays Evelyn. Dumlao is great at making Evelyn come across as a very reserved woman, but also dedicated to her job. It’s her dedication and capabilities that make the audience believe she can solve the mystery inside the house. Justin Arnold (Sister Aimee, Lawless Range) plays Clem. Clem struggles after returning from the military, but he has deep and dark secrets that tear him up even more. Arnold portrays Clem in a way that makes the character dark and mysterious, but also makes him entirely sympathetic. Both Dumlao and Arnold also have great on-screen chemistry together.

One of the things I enjoy most about Sanzaru is the unique depiction of ghosts. During the intercut scenes I previously mentioned with the voice of Evelyn’s mother, all we see is a glowing ball of light in the center of the screen. Eventually, those scenes bleed into the real world and the house where Evelyn cares for Dena. There is a brilliant use of light and shadow to convey spirits of those who have passed and also denotes whether these spirits are friend or foe. This not only adds visual interest to the film, but it also helps elevate the suspense in the climax of the film.

Sanzaru is an eerie and unique tale of a family haunted by ghosts and secrets. Magnus makes a strong debut for his first feature film. It’s clear he is one to watch in the future. The plot is a relatively simple, slow-burn, but Magnus adds depth and interest to make his film memorable. Strong performances and haunting visuals help bring everything together. The film is a great study on subdued horror and the generational consequences some secrets leave behind.

OVERALL RATING: 8/10

Fantasia Review: The Dark and the Wicked

On a secluded goat farm, a man is slowly dying. After being under the care of his wife, it seems as though he is running out of time. When his two adult children come to say their goodbyes, they become plagued with waking nightmares as something evil comes for them all.

Fantasia International Film Festival brings audiences yet another hit by writer and director Bryan Bertino (The Monster, The Strangers). The Dark and the Wicked tells a terrifying tale of something evil targeting a family. The film begins by introducing us to a woman caring for her ailing husband. It’s immediately clear something isn’t quite right. When her two adult children arrive to pay their respects before their father passes, the evil quickly becomes more active. Bertino is great and constantly implies the evil entity is lurking in the shadows, making for a terrifying movie-watching experience. He plays with the fear of the unknown as much as the fear of evil and death. The audience can’t trust their own eyes and it’s never obvious what is real and what is a sinister hallucination.

Bertino also excels at not only having traditional frights in his film, but also having complex family dynamics. In The Dark and the Wicked, there is immediate and obvious strain among the family members. The mother makes it known she didn’t want her children to come. Both the son and the daughter obviously haven’t been home in a while. There is also tension between the siblings. Every bit of family drama and deep-rooted issue boil over as the evil entity manipulates their emotions. It gets to the point where the family members can’t trust their own eyes and are led to the brink of insanity.

The Dark and the Wicked has a wonderful cast who give emotionally charged performances. Marin Ireland (The Umbrella Academy, Piercing) plays the daughter, Louise. Ireland’s performance is absolutely brilliant. There is clearly a lot of emotional strife within her family relationships, but a sense of duty and guilt drive Louise to stick around, even when it’s clear she’s in danger. Michael Abbott Jr. (Loving, Mud) plays Louise’s brother, Michael. It’s obvious that Michael feels a similar sense of duty, but his loyalties are pulled in two different directions because of his wife and kids. Abbott is great at conveying how his practical nature and love of his family make it more difficult for him to accept what’s happening on the farm. Both Ireland and Abbott act very well together, embodying that often times tumultuous relationship between siblings.

Bertino films are known for being very minimal when it comes to effects, yet they still have great visuals. Luckily, The Dark and the Wicked is no different in that regard. The stunning cinematography sets the tone. It showcases the beautiful sets while also drawing your eye to the things that don’t belong. The evil entity after this family never shows its true face. As a result, most of the more frightening scenes rely heavily on barely seen things in the shadows. The entity also plays with the minds of the characters and audience by constantly making it unclear what is real and what is a waking nightmare. It all results in terrifying look and feel sending chills down your spine.

The Dark and the Wicked is yet another achievement by Bertino that balances supernatural terror with character-driven drama. There are many truly frightening moments and the plot is compelling from start to finish. Between the subtly haunting visuals and the emotional performances from the entire cast, it’s impossible to deny the success of this film. It is the kind of film that is a punch to the gut, but in the best way possible. I have no doubt this will be on many “best of the year” lists for 2020.

OVERALL RATING: 9/10

Fantasia Review: The Block Island Sound

There is something off the coast of Block Island. It takes hold of members of one family. Those uneffected race to find the truth about what’s causing their loved ones’ strange behavior before it’s too late.

I can firmly say one of my favorite films at Fantasia International Film Festival is The Block Island Sound. Written and directed by Kevin and Matthew McManus (Funeral Kings, American Vandal), the film combines elements of aquatic and cosmic horror to create something truly wonderful. The film first introduces us to Tom Lynch, a father and grandfather who has been acting strangely recently. Shortly after his daughter and granddaughter come to the island to investigate strange occurrences with the local wildlife, he disappears. When the same strange behaviors start to happen to Tom’s son, it becomes clear there is some outside force making this happen. The McManus brothers do a brilliant job of subverting expectations and creating suspense out of the unknown. It creates a wonderful and frightening mystery with many twists and turns.

There is a lot to love about this film. The Block Island Sound has elements of both aquatic horror and cosmic horror, which seems to be increasingly popular recently. This combination works very well and allows for the McManus brothers to keep the audience guessing. The film also focuses a lot on the various members of the Lynch family. Great care is taken to properly develop these characters and show the various dynamics of the family unit. It makes viewers care a great deal more about what will happen to the Lynches, which only adds to the suspense.

With how important the family members are to the plot, it’s no wonder The Block Island Sound has such a fantastic cast. Neville Archambault (13 Cameras, Solomon Grundy) plays Tom Lynch. Archambault delivers quite a disturbing performance that at first makes Tom appear to be losing his sanity, but quickly veers into a more disturbing realm. Chris Sheffield (The Maze Runner, The Last Ship) plays Tom’s son, Harry. Harry has a bit of a temper, but he clearly loves his family. When the strange occurrences begin to change Harry, Sheffield delivers a wonderful, gut-wrenching performance. Michaela McManus (Law & Order: SVU, Into the Grizzly Maze) plays Harry’s sister, Audry. McManus conveys how practical and level-headed Audry is. Even when things take a turn for the worse, her calm and maternal instincts make her the most capable person to handle whatever comes her way. Sheffield and McManus also act very well together, perfectly portraying siblings who have a love-hate relationship with each other.

There is a balance of what is shown and what is hidden that is beautiful in The Block Island Sound. For the most part, we only see the environmental effects of whatever is happening on Block Island. Bodies of dead fish and birds that have mysteriously died on the shores of the island make up most of the physical presence of the strange happenings. Subtle makeup also creates a haunting look on both Tom and Harry to show how they are physically affected by whatever is causing their strange behavior. The source of the strange happenings is kept hidden, allowing the audience’s imagination to run wild. Instead, the source is made known by a strange sound that clearly triggers Tom and Harry to act strangely (hence the title, The Block Island Sound). Gorgeous cinematography helps to emphasize the beauty and strangeness of Block Island. It all harmonizes to incite anxiety and fear in the audience.

The Block Island Sound brings together the best parts of cosmic and aquatic horror to deliver a hauntingly wonderful film. The McManus brothers created a film that brings depth to the plot by focusing on the family as much as it focuses on the more frightening elements. The entire cast delivers brilliant performances that only add to the well-written characters. The Block Island Sound is definitely one of my favorite films of the year, so far, and it’s a film that will haunt you long after it’s over.

OVERALL RATING: 9/10