thriller

The Rental

To celebrate a successful business deal, two couples decide to rent a secluded vacation home on the coast for the weekend. What begins as a pleasant weekend quickly spirals out of control. They have to deal with relationship issues, a creepy racist property manager, and someone might be watching them.

The Rental is the feature film debut for director Dave Franco, who is primarily known for his acting. Franco also co-wrote the screenplay with Joe Swanberg (V/H/S, Easy). This thriller manages to maneuver through many different plot points, while still being cohesive. As soon as the two couples arrive at the vacation rental, there is immediate tension as the property manager is outed for his racist behavior. Things only escalate from there after a drug-fueled night of partying leads to many bad choices. The true catalyst for the horrifying events that follow is the discovery of a hidden camera in the rental. In this modern age when most people are staying in vacation rentals rather than hotels and technology is so advanced, the fear that the owner or someone else could have camera installed to watch you is a very real fear. This discovery is what sparks the shift from a purely suspenseful film to a chilling slasher. Individually, these varying plot points are relatively simple, but when put together they create a more complicated story. It doesn’t necessarily always add up and I wish some aspects could be explored more in-depth, but it manages to generate more than a few white-knuckle moments. It almost ends up feeling like the film is split in half, the first part being a new-age thriller and the second half being a classic slasher.

Packed with indie favorites, The Rental has several recognizable faces and memorable performances. Sheila Vand (A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, Argo) stars as Mina. Mina is the total package; she’s smart, beautiful, kind, and incredibly strong. Vand makes it clear Mina will always stand up for herself by confronting the racist property manager when others want to avoid conflict. Dan Stevens (The Guest, Apostle) plays Mina’s business partner, Charlie. Stevens does a great job of making Charlie seem like a great guy on the surface, but the more we learn about him, the more he seems a bit shady. Jeremy Allen White (Shameless, Bad Turn Worse) plays Josh, Mina’s boyfriend and Charlie’s brother. Josh has had a rough past, but White makes him a very endearing character. He clearly adores Mina and is trying his best to be a better man. Finally we have Alison Brie (GLOW, Horse Girl) as Charlie’s wife, Michelle. Brie plays Michelle in a way that makes her the most sympathetic character in the entire film. Together, all four actors play off of each other very well, creating different chemistries and building tensions in turn.

This film relies heavily on the set and other smaller details to visually enhance the plot. The location of The Rental is a truly stunning home with lots of big windows overlooking the seaside cliffs and the ocean beyond. Surrounded by the beach and ocean on one side, then nothing but green forest on the others, this home is definitely isolated. Even before the tiny hidden cameras are discovered, there is a sense of paranoia and being watched that comes from being in a secluded place with those huge windows open for all to see in. One detail that isn’t shown much in the film, but still leaves quite an impression, is a mask worn by the killer. It is an eerie, almost featureless human face so it takes a moment to realize you’re looking at a mask. All these visual aspects add to the general sense of paranoia and being watched.

The Rental is a manic, paranoid thriller turned slasher and a strong directorial debut for Franco. It does almost feel like watching two films in one, but that doesn’t take away from the overall success. Franco and Swanberg show a mastery of bringing together various threads to gradually build the suspense and keep the audience at the edge of their seat. The entire cast carries the film beautifully, but it’s Vand that delivers the most memorable performance. The stunning vacation rental offers a gorgeous setting that quickly turns ominous. The Rental is sure to make audiences wary of where they spend their next vacation.

OVERALL RATING: 7/10

1BR

Sarah moves to LA to start a new life and pursue her dreams. After staying in a crummy hotel, she finally finds what might be her dream apartment. At first it seems like the perfect place to live, clean, great location, friendly neighbors, but Sarah soon learns that nothing is quite as it seems.

Making his feature film debut, writer and director David Marmor brings to life what might be my actual worst nightmare with 1BR. From the very first scene, Marmor establishes a feeling of unease as the camera tracks along, showing an apartment courtyard filled with friendly, waving neighbors. Anyone who has ever lived in a city apartment knows that neighbors are never this friendly and rarely even make eye contact, especially knowing this film takes place in LA. When Sarah first tours the apartment, the open house has dozens of other hopefuls vying for the apartment, so when she is the chosen one, she is elated. That joy isn’t long lived as she is kept awake night after night by loud noises in the walls and has increasingly strange encounters with her neighbors. Then the true motives of the neighbors are revealed. Sarah is forced to decide if she wants to become part of this community, allowing every moment of her life to be monitored and controlled, or find a way to escape.

The idea of 1BR works very well for me, primarily because I would rather eat glass than interact with my neighbors. It’s interesting because it points out how segregated we have all become and how there is no true sense of community these days, at least not in the city. Yet it also shows how cult-like communities can be when left to their own devices. The film ends up being very suspenseful and manages to keep the audience guessing as to what will happen next. Again, this worked for my because it played to my own person anxieties, but it might not be for everyone. The tension is banking on viewers being more antisocial, so individuals who are more social creatures might not find it quite as suspenseful. Without giving too much away, 1BR also does one thing common in horror films that always comes across as a somewhat cheap attempt and shock. As soon as we see Sarah in her hotel room, we know one minor plot point will inevitably happen and it is something I wish horror films would steer away from.

This film has a surprisingly large cast. Each actor is great in their respective roles, but three of them truly stand out. Nicole Brydon Bloom (The Affair, Law & Order: SVU) takes on the leading role of Sarah. This is Bloom’s first starring role in a feature film and she definitely delivers. Sarah is a very kind, vulnerable person, but Bloom also makes it clear to the audience that she has an inner strength and conviction because of her past. Taylor Nichols (Jurassic Park III, The Boiler Room) plays the apartment manager, Jerry. Jerry has all the attributes we have come to expect of a cult leader-type character. Nichols makes Jerry charming, even-tempered, and authoritative. He speaks in a soothing voice and he is able to get people to do his bidding. Then there is Giles Matthey (Jobs, True Blood) as Sarah’s neighbor, Brian. Matthey stands out in this role because at first, Brian seems like the sweet, cute guy in the building. Once the truth of what the community is comes to light, Matthey does a sort of Jekyll and Hyde personality transformation and is quite disturbing.

Visually, 1BR is highly successful at creating tension with space and creating minor details for the audience to notice. Even before we learn the sinister truth of the apartment building, the unease of the place is quickly established. The building almost becomes a character itself as we learn its secrets. It also takes on a claustrophobic quality, especially when in the courtyard at the center of the building, surrounded by the eyes of other tenets and no clear means of escape. There are also tons of little details within the apartment itself, as well as on the other residents, that elude to the truth of what’s happening.

1BR is the embodiment of my worst nightmare: being forced to be part of a community with my neighbors. In an increasingly anti-social world, this is likely a cause of anxiety for many. Marmor exacerbates this feeling with his film, while also pointing out how we have become far too separated from those around us in a selfish world. It likely will not strike the same chord with all viewers, but it still creates a suspenseful, unsettling story with strong performances. There is definitely a moral to this story, but whether it’s to be more or less involved with your community will likely vary quite a bit from person to person.

OVERALL RATING: 7/10

The Beach House

A college-age couple drives to a family beach house for a romantic getaway. Shortly after their arrival, they discover an older couple are already guests at the house. The two couples decide to spend an evening together, but the weekend soon turns into a nightmare of catastrophic proportions as the world around them crumbles.

The Beach House is an incredibly strong feature-film debut for writer and director Jeffrey A. Brown. The film begins when the young couple, Emily and Randall, go to Randall’s family beach house. Brown takes his time with the plot, establishing these two characters and their relationship before introducing the older couple already staying in the house, Mitch and Jane. From there the plot takes on a slow burn approach to build the sense of tension and dread. It begins with awkward moments between the two couples over dinner, then escalates as the situation reaches an apocalyptic level. Brown also excels at leaving breadcrumbs throughout the beginning of the film to hint at what’s to come. The first half of the film does move at a slower pace, which may alienate some audience members, but it is vital to the way Brown builds the plot. It’s a very effective method of storytelling because it not only generates a feeling of unease right from the beginning, but it also allows Brown to essentially switch horror subgenres halfway through the film from a taut thriller to full-blown body horror. The film has an edge-of-your seat story that delivers surprise after surprise.

The cast of The Beach House, for the most part, is top notch. Liana Liberato (If I Stay, Light as a Feather) stars as Emily. At first, Emily comes across as a very soft and reserved young woman. Yet Liberato quickly asserts that Emily is also highly intelligent and capable of great things. Noah Le Gros (Depraved, A Score to Settle) plays Emily’s boyfriend, Randall. As first, Le Gros’s performance feels a bit stiff. Yet, as he gets his stride, he really becomes Randall and delivers a strong portrayal, especially in the second half of the film. Jake Weber (Dawn of the Dead, Meet Joe Black) plays Mitch, half of the couple who is already staying at the beach house. Weber is very skilled at presenting a calm persona, even in the face of terrifying circumstances. This is true even in his portrayal of Mitch, although his sense of calm actually adds to the fear and tension in this film. Maryann Nagel makes her debut as Mitch’s wife, Jane. Nagel is fantastic in this role starting out as a sweet, sickly woman and then transforming into something much more frightening. Each actor helps to bring this story to life and they have great on-screen chemistry, but it is Liberato who audiences will likely remember most from this film.

On top of having a fascinating plot and great performances, The Beach House is simply stunning to look at. Despite the many houses around the one Emily and Randall visit, there are virtually no other human beings around. This and the slightly monochromatic color palette helps to give the film a sense of emptiness. Then, during the first night, the filmmakers bring vibrant colors and lights that almost make it feel as though you’ve been transported to another planet. The colors and sets are enhanced by gorgeous cinematography, which also often heightens the suspense of the film. Then there is the horror-fan’s bread and butter, practical effects. There is some marvelous goo, fabricated monstrosities, and terrifying creature design. It is all incredibly well done and adds to the disturbing climax of the film.

The Beach House seamlessly transitions between horror subgenres and creates a gruesome story that feels hauntingly real. Brown takes a concept rooted in reality and throws it into a horror context making the audience ask the question, “What if?” The opening of the film might be a bit slow and off-putting for some horror fans, but the payoff at the end is well worth it. The strong performances from the entire cast, especially Liberato, ground the film by making us care about the fate of each character. Not only will viewers get a compelling tale with interesting characters, but they also get a visually stunning film that brings shock and awe.

OVERALL RATING: 8/10

The Oak Room

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

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

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

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

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

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

OVERALL RATING: 7/10

Scare Package

What’s better than seven tales of horror wrapped in one package? Seven meta tales of horror filled with laughs, gore, up-and-coming filmmakers, and familiar faces wrapped in one package. This and more awaits viewers in the new horror anthology, Scare Package.

Scare Package brings together a host of talented writers and directors. They all used their individual segments to hone in on various horror tropes and either subvert them or highlight those tropes. Viewers will no doubt watch the seven short films and see numerous nods to classic horror films, some more obvious than others. Sometimes the plots take a back seat to the visual aspects, but these aspects often tell a story of their own for the trained horror fan’s eye. Through all the meta filmmaking and Easter eggs, the filmmakers still manage to tell stories that are as funny as they are unique.

“Cold Open” hilariously honors the characters in horror films that are briefly seen and don’t get enough credit for setting up the film, while also honoring one of the most popular horror films of all time. “Rad Chad’s Horror Emporium” is not only a place I wish I worked, but it’s also the overarching story that ties everything together as each segment is presented like a rental at Rad Chad’s. “One Time in the Woods” is probably the goriest segment that also throws as many horror subgenres at you as it can. “M.I.S.T.E.R.” is likely going to piss off a few male viewers, but I mean that in the best way possible because it perfectly plays with the idea of what makes a real man. “Girls’ Night Out of Body” can be found in the post modern feminist slasher revenge body horror section at Rad Chad’s, and that honestly sums it up perfectly. “The Night He Came Back Again! Part IV: The Final Kill” plays into the classic horror trope of the masked killer that somehow always comes back, no matter how you kill him! “So Much to Do” exemplifies how important shows are to some people and the dangers of revealing spoilers. And finally, “Horror Hypothesis” takes everything you know about slashers and puts it to the test.

The performances in Scare Package are all fantastic, many of them being highly satirical and sure to make viewers laugh. Because many of the segments are meant to a mockery of horror tropes, some of the performances come across as intentionally cheesy. That might not appeal to all viewers, but definitely made me laugh. A clear standout performance from the beginning is Jeremy King (The Pale Door, Sinister Seduction) as none other than Rad Chad himself. King perfectly embodies all the good and bad aspects of hardcore horror lovers. His portrayal will make you love Chad as much as you also can’t help but roll your eyes at him. Another great performance comes from none other than Noah Segan (Knives Out, Mohawk) who stars as the husband in the segment he also co-wrote and directed, “M.I.S.T.E.R.” Segan does a fantastic job of acting as a typical nice guy with an underlying creepiness. Toni Trucks (Grimm, Franklin & Bash) stars in the “So Much To Do” segment as Franchesca. Trucks really shines in this role mostly because she kicks some serious ass. She has one of the most physical roles of all the segments, and she definitely delivers. Really all the performances are delightful and horror fans are sure to see more than a few familiar faces.

One thing I can promise viewers is that there is a lot of gore in Scare Package. The film relies on practical effects to create creative kills, gruesome monsters, and devious killers. There is definitely no shortage of blood, guts, and goo. While all of these segments utilize great practical effects, the most memorable in that regard is definitely “One Time in the Woods.” Not only does it have a high body count and unique kills, but it also has a fantastic melting character that looks absolutely amazing. If lots and lots of blood is more your speed, then “The Night He Came Back Again! Part IV: The Final Kill” is definitely the segment for you. The effects have a little something for everything horror fan.

Scare Package hilariously highlights the good, the bad, and the ugly of horror films. It’s clear this anthology was put together by horror fans for horror fans. Each segment is a hilarious take on various horror tropes, but there are still delightfully unique stories to be seen. At times it might be a bit too meta and tongue-and-cheek for some viewers. I for one scared my pets multiple times by bursting into laughter. Scare Package showcases the beginnings of promising careers for these writer and directors. Fans will also be laughing along with the fresh new actors and cheering for the horror favorites that pop-up. It might be a bit goofy at times, gory horror anthology that viewers are sure to adore.

OVERALL RATING: 7.5/10

Z

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An 8-year-old boy gets an imaginary friend. What begins as a simple childhood fantasy quickly turns sinister. The boy is acting out and blaming his imaginary friend. As the family’s life is turned upside down as they are terrorized by this invisible force, they will have to turn to the past in order to survive the present.

Z is the sophomore feature film of director Brandon Christensen (Still/Born), who also co-wrote the screenplay with Colin Minihan (Grave Encounters, What Keeps You Alive). Christensen and Minihan’s combined efforts manage to bring viewers a bit of the familiar along with some thrilling new bits. These days, horror films about imaginary friends seem to be increasingly common. The filmmakers take a bit of time introducing this imaginary friend, allowing time to establish the family unit and their dynamics first. When we do finally meet Z, the imaginary friend, it is just whispers and mentions of him as the son plays. Yet it doesn’t take very long for those whispers to turn to behavior issues and then full-blown terror. This gradual increase in suspense allows for some brilliant and terrifying scenes that are sure to haunt viewers. Z even takes the time to tackle many issues including the horrors of parenting, emotionally and physically abusive relationships, and suicide (take this also as a trigger warning for anyone who has difficulty watching these topics on screen). For the most part these aspects of the film are very well done, but certain parts feel a little derivative of other films, especially the climax. Z ends with a fair amount of closure, but the filmmakers wisely left some questions in the dark. I could definitely imagine a sequel to Z in the future.

One of the things about Z that surprised me was how it almost feels like two films. The first half of the film is very much a story of a mother and the love she feels for her son. When she first learns of her son’s behavioral problems, and feels the consequences of this in their social circle, she is completely in denial. Every mother wants to believe the best of their child, and it’s more difficult to see the truth with those blinders on. When the mother finally realizes the real danger, she has to battle a sinister imaginary friend, her disbelieving husband, and even her own son in order to try and save those she loves. At one point there is a scene I believed to be the end of Z, but to my surprise the film continues for another 20 minutes. This second section of the film feels much more like watching an abusive, controlling relationship. It is truly disturbing to see the woman’s life upended and left to the mercy of a male figure. Every moment of every day of her life is controlled by this entity, forcing her to distance herself from the outside world for fear its jealousy will lead to their harm. This is very powerful and disturbing in how it’s conveyed, but at the same time it makes the film feel a bit disjointed. The two halves work very well on their own, but I don’t know if they necessarily work together.

Every performance in Z is truly stunning. Keegan Connor Tracy (The Magicians, Final Destination 2) plays Elizabeth. While Tracy is fantastic through the entire film, she truly shines in the last half of the film. Elizabeth goes from questioning her own sanity to being willing to do anything it takes to save her son. Tracy absolutely shines in this role and brings heart-wrenching emotion to the horror of what’s happening. Jett Klyne (The Boy, Chilling Adventures of Sabrina) plays Elizabeth’s son, Joshua. The way Klyne shows Joshua’s gradual transformation from normal, sweet boy to a very disturbed child is a performance I won’t soon forget. While these two actors carry most of the film, Sean Rogerson (Grave Encounters) is great as husband and father, Kevin, while Luke Moore (Sex, Lies & Murder) frightens viewers as Z himself.

The filmmakers behind Z were very wise with their scares. Much of the terror is from the building of tension, including some long, drawn out images where you are at the edge of your seat waiting to see what will happen. Yet that tension is punctuated with some perfectly crafted jump scares. These are definitely earned jump scares that will still have an impact, if not necessarily the scare, upon subsequent viewings. Most of the bigger scares rely heavily on great camerawork, making sure your eye is drawn to the right place at the right time. But, of course, many of the scares wouldn’t be complete without Z. The single greatest thing the filmmakers did was barely show Z. Viewers will get starling glimpses here and there, giving enough of an impression of his frightening appearance, but for the most part he is invisible and left to the shadows. So many horror films show too much of their evil entities, but by leaving the imaginary friend mostly unseen the viewers are able to project some of there imagination onto the character. Z is also created with a combination of motion actor and CGI, which wouldn’t be quite as effective in full view.

Z brings a menacing imaginary friend to life in a way that tackles dramatic issues while also delivering scares. Christensen and Minihan definitely created a ghoulish tale to haunt horror fans, but they also managed to embed compelling takes on motherhood and trauma. boasts strong performances, especially from Tracy and Klyne, and has what is probably the most terrifying imaginary friend I’ve ever seen. While there is a clear divide that seems to split the film into two disjointed parts, both parts are fascinating in how they deal with certain topics. Despite the flaws in the overall story arc, there are definitive moments that are guaranteed to be embedded in your mind long after watching.

OVERALL RATING: 6.5/10

The Lodge

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Grace goes on a holiday trip with her fiancé and soon-to-be step-children. Her relationship with the kids gets off to a rocky start. Things only become more awkward when her fiancé has to return to the city for a couple days. Then, when things finally start looking up, frightening events unravel in this wintery hell.

Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala, of Goodnight Mommy fame, bring their latest slow-burn of a film. The Lodge is co-directed and co-written by the duo, along with Sergio Casci (The Caller) also co-writing the screenplay. The film begins by introducing the father, his ex, and their two children. The audience gets to learn their family dynamic as well as how each family member feels about Grace long before her character is introduced. It isn’t until the father and children take their holiday trip to their winter getaway that Grace comes into the picture. This is an interesting tactic that allows us to gain all of our knowledge about Grace from unreliable second-hand sources who are openly hostile towards Grace. Suspense slowly builds from the tense relationship between Grace and the kids to outright terror as the trio is left stranded without food or heat in a winter storm. Franz, Fiala, and Sergio do a great job of crafting terror around the unknown. So many questions come up about what’s really happening as events unfold, leading to a truly haunting climax.

To say that The Lodge is bleak would be an understatement. The filmmakers are not afraid to deliver a film that’s as harsh and cold as the landscape. Between that and the slow pace of the plot, there are likely horror fans who won’t enjoy this film as much as others. I believe the pace was pitch-perfect for the story being told. Each layer of mystery is given time to be unraveled from the supernatural, to the religious, to the more earthly dangers. The one thing that doesn’t work as well for me is how the filmmakers telegraph the truth behind what’s happening a bit too clearly. This was also my biggest issue with the filmmakers’ previous film, Goodnight Mommy, although they did manage to be a bit more subtle with The Lodge. While the big twist might not be as much of a surprise as intended, it doesn’t change how impactful the final moments of the film are.

For a smaller indie horror film, The Lodge truly has a fantastic cast of easily recognizable faces. Riley Keough (It Comes At Night, Mad Max: Fury Road) stars as Grace. At first Grace comes across as cold and emotionless. After learning she is on medications for her childhood trauma, her personality makes more sense. Keough really brings the character to life once Grace is forced to go off her meds and her sanity gradually falls to pieces. Jaeden Martell (IT, Knives Out) plays Aidan, the angry son and protective older brother. Martell does a wonderful job of injecting his performance with an underlying sinister tone, even when he’s being kind to Grace. The only time Aidan feels genuine is when he’s interacting with his younger sister, and Martell makes those moments stand out. Lia McHugh (They Come Knocking, Along Came the Devil) plays young Mia. McHugh’s performance overall is great, but she really shines when she conveys Mia’s emotional devastation. It’s truly heartbreaking and on par with Florence Pugh’s performance in Midsommar. It’s also important to give shout outs to Richard Armitage (The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, Into the Storm) as loving father Richard and Alicia Silverstone (Clueless, The Crush) as the jilted ex-wife, Laura.

To create this austere tale, The Lodge employs a combination of chilling sights and sounds. Of course the beautiful cinematography and harsh setting are a large part of the film’s appeal, but there is more than that. One thing viewers are sure to notice is the dollhouse. Mia has an exact dollhouse replica of the vacation house, complete with a doll for each family member. The filmmakers often use shots of the dollhouse as a means to add a distinct eeriness to what is happening in the real house. There is also quite a bit of religious iconography used throughout the film. These images are not only unsettling, but they offer a connection between Grace’s past and present in a way that is both striking and disturbing. Rounding each scene out is the musical score by Danny Bensi (N0S4A2, The Outsider) and Saunder Jurriaans (N0S4A2, The Outsider). The combination of dissonant booms, stirring strings, and light trilling like snow falling lends itself to this grim tale.

The Lodge is a sombre psychological thriller that leaves the viewers feeling as desolate as the landscape. The filmmakers clearly know how to fashion a suspenseful plot that forces you to wonder what is real and what isn’t. That being said, there are some clues that make the final revelation a bit too obvious. Luckily, the final moments of the film still bring shock and awe. The performances from the star-studded cast and stunning artistry of the film add to the emotional devastation that ensues. The Lodge is sure to be a new favorite feel-bad film horror fans watch for the holidays.

OVERALL RATING: 7.5/10

The Killer of Grassy Ridge (Short)

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The Shenandoah backcountry is a gorgeous place frequented by hikers. Unfortunately, it is also the hunting ground for a dangerous serial killer. With several bodies already discovered, now the killer is stalking their latest victim.

Making his premiere as a writer and director, Johnny K brings horror fans his short film, The Killer of Grassy Ridge. This short film is less than 10 minutes long and utilizes minimal dialogue, but still manages to pack a punch. Johnny K does this by playing with the viewers’ expectations of the short. It opens on a dirty, somewhat frightening looking man burying something in the woods. As if that isn’t creepy enough, he soon encounters an injured young female hiker who is all alone in the wilderness. The man has no lines while the woman sparse dialogue. The only context we get in the short film is from a radio the man is listening to. It is turned to a news station that talks about another body being found. This is the source of the danger, as having a scary man in the woods is only enough to cause alarm rather than inducing fear. The lack of dialogue and setting up of certain horror expectations, or even tropes, allows K to have fun with the short and include a few great “aha!” moments in the climax.

The lack of dialogue makes it a bit more difficult to give a complete analysis of the performances. One thing I can say about the two leads of The Killer of Grassy Ridge is that they have great presence on screen. Michael Stumbo makes his film debut as the grimy looking sinister figure, Wetzel Reid. Wetzel doesn’t speak during the short, but Stumbo still manages to be an imposing figure. Many horror fans may watch Stumbo on screen and immediately think Wetzel sure looks a hell of a lot like Otis Firefly from Rob Zombie’s The Devil’s Rejects, played by Bill Moseley. I can only assume this was a deliberate choice to make sure viewers look at Wetzel as the villain without it needing to be explicitly explained. Opposite Stumbo is Heather Stone, also making her film debut, as the hiker. Stone’s performance in The Killer of Grassy Ridge stands out because she shows quite a bit of range in the short amount of time she’s on screen. She starts out as a happy hiker enjoying nature, to being injured and alone in the woods asking for help, to something quite different during the climax.

The Killer of Grassy Ridge skillfully presents stereotypical characters and horror cliches, then proceeds to roll them in their grave. Johnny K takes care to make sure all signs point to a single logical conclusion. Everything from the lack of dialogue, to the casting, to the radio news context lends to one possible outcome. Then he flips the script and delivers something a bit more unexpected. The one thing I’m not sure The Killer of Grassy Ridge fully achieves is telling a complete story while also leaving the audience wanting more. There is definitely a complete story told here, and it could easily be expanded upon. Yet there isn’t anything making me crave more information from the plot. Either way, this is a strong debut from K, Stumbo, and Stone. The Killer of Grassy Ridge is a fascinating short thriller that feels fresh by using classic horror tropes to subvert your expectations.

OVERALL RATING: 3.5/5

The Night

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An Iranian couple living in the US is driving home one night after a gathering with friends. They decide to take their baby and stay the night in a hotel instead of making the drive home so late. In this dark and quiet hotel, the couple is forced to face the demons of their past or else this bizarre night may never end.

Writer and director Kourosh Ahari (Generations, The Yellow Wallpaper) and co-writer Milad Jarmooz (Maybe There) create an eerie tale with The Night. The film opens with our two protagonists, Babak and Neda, at a gathering with friends. We get to know who they are by how they interact with the people who know them best before we really see them interact much with each other. It is clear there is some subconscious strain between the married couple, and it only escalates after they leave the gathering with their baby girl. When they decide to stop and stay the night in a hotel, things go from strained to a complete nightmare. Strange sounds and ghostly visions plague them all through the night. The couple gradually realizes the secrets of their past are coming back to haunt them, threatening to destroy the life they’ve built together in the States. The fact that their baby is with them only makes the situation more dire and frightening.

For the most part, The Night creates a haunting and tense mythos. The increasingly strange and intense visions seem to be connected to matching tattoos the married couple chose at random to get together the very day the film begins. Whatever this symbol is, it has managed to manifests itself as Babak and Neda’s innermost secrets and forces them to face their past. It’s an interesting concept that definitely results in delightful frights, but this is also where the mythos gets a bit muddy. The tattoos look almost like an Aztec or Mayan coin, spilt in half between the pair. Then, before any ghostly apparitions appear, the couple repeatedly encounter a creepy black cat. This automatically makes me think of ancient Egyptian folklore. While I appreciate keeping the origin and the reasoning for the events of this one night being left to the imagination of the viewers, having a stronger cultural origin at the very least would have been wise.

Both leads deliver striking performances in The Night. Shahab Hosseini (The Salesman, A Separation) stars as Babak. Babak is a very closed off man who appears to cope with his feelings with alcohol rather than talking with his wife or friends. Niouhsa Jafarian, who I couldn’t find on IMDb, plays Neda. Neda is the more grounded of the two, yet she keeps things bottled up just as much as her husband. Jafarian and Hosseini play off of each other very well. There are subtleties to their dynamic shown through curt remarks and body language that expertly show the strain between them. It’s obvious Neda carries resentment towards Babak and Babak doesn’t seem to be able to be around Neda without drinking. This bizarre night shows how similar the two are, especially with the secrets they keep, yet it’s how they react when confronted by those secrets that will decide who survives.

The Night brings audiences a chilling tale of past secrets breaking into the present in a truly haunting way. Ahari once again shows he has a knack for creating frightening ambience. Together Ahari and Jarmooz deliver a tense plot, although the mythos leaves a bit to be desired. Luckily the focus is more on the secrets and ghostly manifestations of those secrets, which makes it easier to overlook some of the flaws. The suspenseful film is helped by great performances from Hosseini and Jafarian, as well as the creepy hotel setting. The Night is sure the send chills down your spine while also making you take a hard look at the secrets you keep.

OVERALL RATING: 7/10

The Last Ones

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A deadly virus has wiped out most of the population. John and Michael have been surviving together since the beginning, finding food and avoiding the creatures that come at night. After months with no sign of another living human, the appearance of a young woman tests their friendship. It soon becomes clear not everything is as it seems.

The Last Ones (previously titled Last Days) is the feature-film debut of writer and director Andrew Jara. At first glance, this film seems like just another zombie apocalypse film. The film opens with John desperately trying to find his family with very unfortunate results. He is left alone in this post-pandemic world with his friend, Michael. The eventually find a daily routine as the months go by with no other living humans to be seen. Yet at night Michael guard their home from the living dead who sometimes stalk the area. Then John runs into a mysterious woman, Karina. Her presence changes the course of the film, bringing some interesting  and unexpected elements into the plot.

In general, the plot is a very interesting one. There are some various twists and turns that deliver something audiences might not expect. Watching The Last Ones, horror fans will likely feel an influence of George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. It is a slow burn of a film that gradually builds tension. Like Romero’s work, the plot also focuses much more on the tumultuous relationships between people rather than the undead threat outside. This shows a lot of promise for Jara’s future work.

Yet there are some elements of the film that don’t work quite as well. The beginning of The Last Ones is a bit rough at times. Some of the dialogue is a bit clunky and forced as it attempts to give the audience a bit of exposition. This feeling of clunkiness unfortunately isn’t help much by the performances. Mark Ocegueda plays John in his feature-film debut. His delivery of the dialogue is a bit awkward and void of emotion, but the dialogue and his delivery gradually improves as the film progresses. Marcelle Bowman (The Virus, Refuge) plays Karina. Her performance is adequate and also seems to improve throughout the film. The highlight performance in the film comes from Algernon D’Ammassa (Doc, The Cellar Door) as Michael. Some of his dialogue also feels a bit forced, but D’Ammassa does a great job of conveying an underlying menacing feeling about him.

Along with the overall plot of The Last Ones, the look of the film also appears to be an homage to Night of the Living Dead. The most obvious visual choice that hints to that is the fact that the film is entirely in black and white. This nod to Romero is also a wise decision as a micro-budget horror film. It allows the filmmaker to create the illusion of blood and gore without having to spend too much on practical or CGI effects. There is some minimal prosthetic makeup for the undead that realistically might not be that visually appealing, but the black and white masks it and makes the effects passable. One aspect that surprised me is the well-crafted musical score by Jordon Schranz.

The Last Ones is a classic zombie film with a twist that has its shortcomings, but still shows promise. Considering it is a micro-budget horror film and the first feature film by Jara, it is surprisingly well done. The film gets off to a rough start, from the dialogue to the performances, but gradually improve as the tension build. D’Ammassa is sure to stand out in viewers’ minds as a memorable performance. From the unique take on the zombie subgenre of horror to the homage to Romero, this imperfect film is still worth a watch. It holds my interest enough to make me curious what Jara will do next.

OVERALL RATING: 4/10