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682 reviews in total 
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Subtle and violent, quiet and creepy, 17 October 2017

"Tombs of the Blind Dead" has all the makings of a great horror film as far as my tastes are concerned: The plot follows two female college friends who get in an argument over the affections of their male friend while on board a train going through the Spanish countryside. One of the women jumps off the back deck, and wanders through the country, stumbling upon the ruins of a medieval villa, where she decides to camp overnight. This unfortunately rouses the zombified Knights Templar from their tombs.

This is a phenomenally atmospheric and creepy film that is equal parts suspenseful and violent. The setup for the chain of events here lends itself well to the genre fittings, and there are some wonderful moments in the first thirty minutes that are ominous and subtle. Some have bemoaned the film as being slow-moving, which I honestly did not feel it to be. It's by no means an action film, and is far more occupied by generating mood than perhaps anything else.

The shift to the two other characters who have been left aboard the train and their quest to find their missing friend is nicely done, and there are a handful of chilling moments that arise as the plot begins to climb its crescendo. The zombie knights are surprisingly eerie looking, moving unnaturally as though almost hovering, feeling their way toward their victims (it is pointed out in historical background that they had their corpses had the eyes gouged out by birds after they were hanged for blasphemy).

The film's conclusion is curt but it is preceded by a playful (and gory) return to the train where the events all started. All in all, I found "Tombs of the Blind Dead" to be an enjoyable and adequately engrossing film, both subtle and violent. The quieter moments—primarily the first act in which the female runaway character wanders around the villa and camps there—are the most unsettling. In some ways, it reminded quite a bit of its contemporary Spanish chiller, "Let Sleeping Corpses Lie," which seems it would make as a good accompaniment piece. 9/10.

Considerable talent in a sinking ship, 16 October 2017

"Amityville: The Awakening" is the tenth installment in the "Amityville" series (but honestly, who's counting anymore?), and it follows Belle, a teenager girl who move into the famed 112 Ocean Avenue with her mother, little sister, and brain-dead twin brother on life support. Bad things happen, including her brother become a vessel for demonic energy.

It's been a long road for "Amityville: The Awakening": I remember seeing trailers at the movie theater for it at least two years ago, but it had numerous delays in typical Weinstein Company fashion—it also, if my suspicious are correct, was chopped to pieces by the Weinstein Company's subsidiary Dimension Films, who distributed (or were supposed to distribute) the film.

I have a soft spot for the "Amityville" movies, and have found even the worst of the installments at least amusing—what can I say? I love a haunted house flick. "The Awakening" starts out rather nicely with atmospheric, mundane goings-on as the family settles in, punctuated by genuinely chilling moments: On their second day in the home, the little sister says to Belle that their brother, James, has been cursing at her. The punchline? James is brain-dead and in a vegetative state. These sorts of moments in "The Awakening" genuinely work, and Franck Khalfoun's script gets meta when Bella and her outcast friends have an "Amityville Horror" movie marathon at the Amityville House. As they're watching the infamous "red room" scene from the 1979 original, the power goes out; it's 3:15am. While this move is risky in that it relegates all the other "Amityville" films to fiction, it's clever.

Unfortunately, as the film progresses, things get sloppier and sloppier; uneven editing and pacing matches uneven development of plot lines that are fairly one-note to begin with. About three- quarters of the way through, one begins to realize that there really is not much happening; the subtleties of the first act lead to payoffs that are frankly not that interesting. As I mentioned before, it's difficult to say who is at fault for the film's shortcomings, as the Weinsteins are notorious for cutting films to pieces (see "Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers," or "Cursed" for reference), and a lot of the issues come from what seems to be bad editing. Franck Khalfoun proved himself a talent in my eyes with 2007's "P2," and with people like Jennifer Jason Leigh, Kurtwood Smith, and Jennifer Morrison on board, there is considerable talent here. The young cast is even quite good, with Bella Thorne playing a sympathetic lead.

In the end, "Amityville: The Awakening" is actually one of the better sequels in the series, if we can call it that, and while it does offer some subtle and clever moments, it spins its wheels in the last act and errs into a rote, albeit shoddily-pieced-together conclusion. For series diehards, it's a must-see for the reasons I've stated above, but in general, it's a fairly unremarkable effort. 6/10.

Late-eighties Italian slasher is full of spunk, 15 October 2017

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

"StageFright" (released under varying titles such as "Deliria," "Aquarius," and "Bloody Bird") follows a group of stage actors who are working on an overnight rehearsal for an impending production about a serial killer. When the costume designer is killed in the parking lot that evening, the rehearsals must go on—police are enlisted to watch the building, and the cast and director lock themselves inside. Little do they know, they've also locked in a maniac who recently escaped from a mental institution.

In many ways, "StageFright" is about as run-of-the-mill as it could get. The premise is not remarkably original or interesting, and the "escaped lunatic" archetype feels familiar and lazy. The set-up which contains the characters (who are themselves varied in personality) in the theater also seems a bit odd in context. In spite of this, "StageFright" is insanely fun, playfully creepy and chock full of suspenseful scenarios and clever murder sequences that are surprisingly visceral. The villain dons an oversized owl mask from the production, which is surprisingly sinister in appearance.

The kills come in rapid succession until about midway through, until the final girl is left to her own accord, which makes for some of the film's most intense and clever scenes. Chase scenes through the rafters, down darkened hallways, and beneath the stage are colorful, well-shot, and well-choreographed. Accentuating the thrills is a jarring late-eighties metal score which does date the film and sound a bit silly at times, but it comes with the territory. The production values are high, which also elevates the proceedings.

Overall, "StageFright" is a wildly entertaining slasher flick that is marked by well-managed suspense, brutal murder scenes, and competent direction. Original it is not, but Soavi and the cast hit their marks here. It is a generally clever, well-paced slasher flick; of the crop of them that appeared in the late eighties, it's among the best I've seen. 8/10.

Witchcraft (1964)
Gorgeous compositions, ancestral curses, and black masses, oh my!, 14 October 2017

"Witchcraft" follows an English family who unearth the grave of a witch who was buried alive three centuries ago. As is par for the course, hell breaks loose, and the witch, who has apparently survived the centuries in her stone tomb, enacts vengeance on the family bloodline who imprisoned her.

I had never heard of "Witchcraft" and happened to catch it on late-night television by chance; it's not a particularly well-known film and seems to have been recorded in the footnotes of horror cinema, which is a bit of a shame because it's actually on par with (and actually better than) many of its peers. Cinematographically, there is gorgeous use of shadow and haunting long-shots that are reminiscent of Jack Clayton's "The Innocents." Candles flicker, women roam the darkness in nightgowns, and bats flap their wings. Car crashes occur at the whim of the witch's will. So it's not particularly original—but so what? It's remarkably atmospheric, and that's worth enough.

Lon Chaney Jr. plays a sinister descendant of the witch, while Yvette Rees rivals even Barbara Steele as the ice-cold Vanessa Whitlock, the titular witch. There are numerous haunting shots of Rees throughout, including a chilling appearance at the top of a staircase just before she cruelly attempts to claim a victim. The film runs at just under an hour and twenty minutes, and as predictable as the buildup is, the finale is playful and non-stop engrossing.

Overall, "Witchcraft" is an admirable effort, exquisitely filmed and punctuated by a handful of chilling moments. As a supernatural horror film, it delivers in terms o f both plot and style. It's familiar material and was so even in its time, but the fact remains that it's done well, and it's damned fun to boot. If black masses in black and white suit your tastes, give this one a go. 8/10.

A strong performance from Montgomery and some surreal scenes punctuate this television thriller, 7 October 2017

"The Legend of Lizzie Borden" follows the titular accused in what would become one of the most notorious murders in the United States. Part courtroom drama, part historical period piece, and part psychological slasher, this film has been hailed by many television critics over the years, and for fairly good reason.

The film focuses heavily on Borden's psychology, as well as the relationships she had with those around her—her sister Emma, the Borden's live-in Irish servant, Bridget, and her own father and stepmother, who met their fates with the brunt of a hatchet. The script here makes some intimations about Borden's relationship with her father that are in all reality probably sensationalized, but they function as a component of the character's psychology.

The dialogue is believable and the courtroom scenes were transcribed from original court documents, which is especially interesting. Interspersed in dramatic close-ups of Montgomery are almost hallucinogenic flash cuts (shot at Dutch angles) of the murders; the audience finally gets a full picture at the end of the film that shows Borden butchering her father and stepmother. Such moments are effective and disturbing, underwritten with haunting musical arrangements and trippy '70s cinematography, both of which add considerable flair.

Montgomery's performance elevates the material considerably, playing the aloof Borden who has something going on behind her eyes. Montgomery is supported by a cast of great actors: Katherine Helmond plays her protective sister, and Fionnula Flanagan plays the Irish maid who is a key in the trial. Ed Flanders plays the determined prosecutor with notable sternness.

Overall, "The Legend of Lizzie Borden" is a solid television film from a classic era of TV movies. It is a bit dated, but still effectively disturbing and stylishly filmed. The talent of the cast and the caliber of the material are noteworthy. The courtroom scenes grow tedious at points, but the fact that they are based on real dialogue is certainly unique, and offers a richness that is undeniable. 8/10.

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Generally flat followup, 1 October 2017

"Children of the Corn II: The Final Sacrifice" follows a reporter and his estranged son from New York who are traveling through Nebraska in the aftermath of the first film's events; naturally, he wants a story. The price? Perhaps his life.

The original "Children of the Corn" installment is not what I'd call high art exactly, but it is a fairly well-put-together horror film from a rather disreputable company (New World). This film picks up immediately where the first leaves off, shifting to new characters. Cue mysterious children, a "normal" girl-next-door love interest for the teenaged boy, and a few outrageous and violent death scenes (including one grand guignol scene in a church ceremony).

"Children of the Corn II" is at its core a fairly unoriginal film, but worse, it's actually quite dull and aimless. The script takes a hard right turn in the final act with a rather absurd ecological explanation for the events taking place, which itself is wrapped up in commentary on indigenous peoples and European settlers. The problem is that none of these things really seem to cohere as the film clunks toward its finale. Terence Knox seems bored, as does most of the cast here, and there is a fair amount of soap-opera acting throughout.

It's not entirely bad, though—I do think genre fans will find some amusement here with the death scenes and early-nineties stylistics. As a time capsule and a kitschy slasher oddity, it's amusing; as a sequel, it's unexciting, and dare I say anticlimactic. Oddly enough, I may prefer the successive sequels that followed it. 4/10.

Standard giallo, 27 September 2017

"Who Saw her Die?" follows an artist in Venice whose daughter is murdered in cold blood. In his search for her killer, it is revealed that a young girl met a similar fate at a ski resort in the French Alps five years earlier. His search leads him to various suspects, including a pedophile lawyer, a priest, and others.

Stylishly directed by Aldo Lado, who some credit as an auteur, "Who Saw her Die?" is a fairly standard giallo in that it doesn't offer its audience much in the way of innovation or newness—the narrative follows the giallo route through-and-through, hitting its marks along an intriguing (albeit sometimes slow) trajectory. It is at times dialogue-heavy with lots of "he said, she said" interactions and red herrings, and at times this grows tedious.

The upshot here is the film contains some inventive and disturbing murder sequences, including a covert movie theater strangulation (predating 1980's "He Knows You're Alone" and 1997's infamous "Scream 2" scene), and the opening murder of the young girl in the Alps is palpable and disturbing. The killer in the film is also remarkably spooky, shrouded from head to toe in black garb and donning a funereal veil; the POV shots take advantage of this, as the veil is literally lifted over the audience's eyes. An eerie score by Ennio Morricone permeates through these scenes, sometimes over-played, but no less effective.

The final reveal of the killer is rather bold given the time period and nation in which the film was made, although there is a slight twist that punctuates the last moments. All in all, this is a fairly routine giallo that is well-done in some regards, and a bit wonky in others. Fans of the genre will likely find something to be enjoyed in this mildly atmospheric outing. 6/10.

Mother! (2017)
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Spies in the house of love?, 15 September 2017

"Mother!" follows a couple (Lawrence and Bardem) who live in solitude in an expansive farmhouse that the wife has painstakingly restored from a fire. One evening, they are visited by a doctor (Ed Harris), whose wife (Michelle Pfeiffer) follows. The dynamics of the home are turned upside down, and chaos ensues.

I won't attempt to give a full plot summary here, as it's truly a waste of time. If the cryptic promotional materials and slim premise are enough to intrigue (as they did myself), then give the film a go. The first half of "Mother!" is just shy of brilliance, with bizarre character interactions, wry humor, and phenomenal performances from all involved. At times, the dynamics between Lawrence, Bardem, Harris, and Pfeiffer give one the sense that they're watching a zany stage play, and the actors (especially Pfeiffer and Harris) clearly have a ball with this. As the film progresses into its second half, it shifts and expands in ways that are unabashedly over-the-top, and Aronofsky quite literally pulls the rug out from under his audience.

The film is stuffed with metaphors that are clearly Biblical, but there are numerous bents and other influences spilling in, most notably "Rosemary's Baby," which seems to be a prominent influence Aronofsky wears on his sleeve here; that said, "Mother!" is a very different film from it. The second act is chaotic and grotesque, and it's effective up to a point, but it brazenly crosses the line that the first act so cleverly toed; and perhaps that's the aim here, but it's not as enthralling as what comes before it.

Overall, I found "Mother!" at times riveting and consistently well-acted. It moves from being delightfully off-kilter and sinister to fiery pandemonium, the latter of which doesn't have the same consistent pull as the former. It is no less a thoroughly weird and engrossing epic that demands attention, but I personally found the second act to run itself thin. 7/10.

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Boasts lush visuals and an impressive cast, but a fairly one-note retelling, 17 July 2017

"The Beguiled," based on the scant-read Thomas Cullinan novel that was made into a 1971 film starring Clint Eastwood and Geraldine Paige, focuses on a Civil War-era southern women's boarding school whose female dynamics are thrown dangerously out of whack when an injured (yet dashing) Union soldier ends up on their doorstep.

To be clear, I am a major fan of the 1971 Don Siegel film. I also happen to be a major fan of Sofia Coppola (I count "The Virgin Suicides" and "Lost in Translation" among my favorite movies of all time). When I heard she was redoing "The Beguiled" (with Nicole Kidman and Kirsten Dunst, no less), I was thrilled to see what a contemporary retelling of the story would offer, especially with the cast she assembled. The result? "Middling" is probably the best way I can describe it.

Some reviewers/critics are lauding the film as a political 21st-century feminist masterpiece, which is odd because I never got the impression that the Cullinan novel or the '71 film were pro or anti-feminist, and to be frank, I didn't get the impression that Coppola's retelling was either. This film slightly bends the narrative toward the perspective of the women in the house, but the dynamics between them and the male infiltrator lead to the same bubbling of chaos that ends in a topsy-turvy denouement that is the epitome of Southern Gothic if it's anything at all. What makes this material great is that it is rife with complexities operating from the most base human level: sexuality. Nothing is quite so black-and-white, and especially not that. This was the case for the novel, the 1971 film, and this version as well.

Coppola's angling of the film toward the female cast does offer a great deal of room for exploration, and the audience is subjected to the daily limbo these women inhabit. This means a plethora of gorgeous meditative shots of the prim Southern belles plodding about the plantation: They keep watch with a spyglass, hang-dry laundry in the wind, and lethargically tend to the overgrown garden while the faint sounds of artillery echo in the distance. It's effective to a point, but Coppola pushes these moments at the expense of the characters themselves. Each of the female characters—the post-adolescent ones, at least—wear their repression on their sleeves, but what else is there?

The cast here is admittedly fantastic, which makes this a shame; and while the chemistry at times felt odd to me, the performances on their own merits are strong. Kidman is reliable as always, stern and graceful; Farrell is sleazy and gentlemanly, and has the right amount of sex appeal here; and Dunst hits the right notes in terms of both being inflamed with desire and crippled by naivety. Fanning brings humor to the proceedings playing a nymphet-ish character, while the younger cast are commendably impressive. Even with the strength of the cast, I left the theater feeling like the film was truly not the sum of its parts.

If Coppola's sole aim here was to give us a more female-centric retelling, then I suppose she succeeded, though to what end, I'm not quite sure—especially given that her version more or less follows suit to both the source novel and the 1971 film. For as much as the audience is exposed to these various female characters, we don't necessarily get to know them any better for it. The film boasts an impressive cast and lush visuals, but I'm not convinced it's as thematically or narratively unique a take as Coppola seems to think it is. 6/10.

Atmospheric thriller with (a sensuous) Ms. Baker leading the picture, 4 July 2017

"The Sweet Body of Deborah" follows the American Deborah (Carroll Baker) who marries Marcel (Jean Sorel) in Europe. The two go to Geneva on their honeymoon, but find their marital bliss disrupted over accusations that Marcel caused his ex-girlfiend's suicide.

The first of many horror and giallo films that Carroll Baker made in the late 1960s–mid-1970s in Italy, "The Sweet Body of Deborah" is one of the more amusing ones—significantly melodramatic, and bolstered with atmospheric set-pieces and cinematography. The first half of the film feels fairly one-note, but it begins to gain steam at the midway point. Lush cinematography of the Geneva Alps contrasted with the sunny atmosphere of Nice leaves the film visually interesting.

The film was clearly dubbed in post-production (in English no less, the language it was shot in in the first place), so there is a disconnect between the filmed performances themselves and the vocal supply that leaves something to be desired. In any case, Baker seems to be enjoying herself here, playing the sensuous new bride who finds herself in grave danger. Jean Sorel is watchable as her hunky leading man.

Overall, "The Sweet Body of Deborah" is a decent giallo mystery with light tinges of horror. It's a treat for fans of Baker, but stands on its own as a solid early entry in the Italian thriller subgenre. Not a masterpiece by any means, but a surprisingly amusing, atmospheric romp. 6/10.

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