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Smiley (2012)
Horror with a Little Something on Its Mind, 5 February 2014
4/10

Nudity: 0 out of 10 (The closest thing you get to nudity is an unnecessary, but much-appreciated, shot of Nikki Limo's hindquarters. Unfortunately, they are covered by skimpy black underwear and their screen time is all too brief).

Gore: 3.5 out of 10 (Two somewhat graphic scenes involving a knife. The rest of the gore is mild, perhaps due to budget constraints).

--

Ashley (Caitlin Gerard - in a wildly uneven performance) is in her first semester at some west coast university. Still healing from her mother's successful suicide attempt and still grappling with bipolar disorder, she decides that she is ready for college. Her father reluctantly agrees.

Proxy (Melanie Papalia) is Ashley's roommate. They live off-campus together in a house that Proxy's parents bought, but never used.

Since it's the first week of college after all, they go to a party hosted by a guy named Zane (Andrew James Allen) that they don't know.

While there, they see what appears to be a man murdered on an online video chat program resembling Chat Roulette. The murderer has a featureless face of skin, save for some black stitches for eyes and a mouth. His name is Smiley.

Legend has it that if you type, three times, "I did it for the lulz" - Smiley will appear behind your unsuspecting video chat partner and slaughter him or her right in front of you.

Ashley and Proxy decide to test whether the legend is real or not on a complete stranger.

Are these murders real or a hoax? Or is Ashley, who has been off lithium for the past six months, losing her mind? Finally, does Smiley also eventually come after those who conjured him up?

-

"Smiley" poses two age-old questions to its viewers:

1) If people had the opportunity to harm others with impunity, would they do it? "Smiley" seems to suggest: Yes, many people would, especially when a vehicle like the internet makes it so effortless to do so. (If you'd like to investigate this topic further, please look through any number of message boards on IMDb or other prominent websites that invite anonymous participation).

2) Why? Why would so many people do this? What is their motive? For my money, this was the most interesting part of "Smiley": As Ashley's Reason and Ethics professor (Roger Bart) notes, we live in an age of nihilism, where the only meaning in life comes from sheer willing. What makes an action right and meaningful isn't because God endorses it or some other authority says it's right. It's right for me because I will it. It is completely acceptable for me to do something for the "lulz," for the hell of it. In fact, that's the only reasonable justification that we have left today.

Credit goes to director Michael Gallagher for exploring these weighty questions in a horror movie at the young age of 24, no less. There is a great deal of horror to be mined from the real world impact of "virtual" actions that are stripped of any accountability. I look forward to seeing more from him.

Still, "Smiley" is mostly ineffective. First, distractions like some of Professor Clayton's philosophy gobbledygook (Yes, Occam's Razor is a helpful concept, but why was it included here?) and Ashley's mental health (What was the significance of it? Was the fact that she is bipolar supposed to imply something? Why the repeated visits to the psychiatrist?) derail the proceedings.

Second, beaten to death horses like foreboding dream sequences and "Am I really seeing this?" hallucinations packed no punch whatsoever.

Third, the ending was indecisive. Without spoiling anything, Gallagher wanted it both ways, with the final shot being a groan-inducing one.

Finally, "Smiley" never builds any sense of dread, suspense or, sadly, horror. Aside from a handful of grating jump scares and rapidly shot Smiley stabbings, the movie could easily be mistaken as a drama.

As a result, gore hounds, undergraduate philosophy majors, cultural critics, and admirers of the female form at its barest will all leave disappointed.

10 out of 17 people found the following review useful:
AD Originals Losing Streak Continues, 25 May 2013
4/10

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

Nudity: 0 out of 10 (Absolutely none)

Gore: 2 out of 10 (One throat cutting, some non-graphic stabbings, and a strangling)

-

Penny (Pell James) and Alex (Johnathon Schaech) are together, but not engaged or married. Penny is pregnant. Alex is a successful musician in a band. They live in the city.

Nesting urges kick in and Penny realizes that she simply cannot raise her baby in the city. The suburbs are more suitable for children, she reasons. Their money goes further in the 'burbs too: a larger house and more land. With some reservations, Alex agrees to leave his band, buy a house, and take on the responsibilities of being a father. The baby is born. Off they go.

The move turns out to be ill-fated.

For one thing, the three of them can't get any sleep.

And for another thing, Penny and Alex keep seeing a spooky-looking woman who is dressed like Samara from The Ring. The woman is immensely interested in the newborn.

Is their sleep deprivation causing them to hallucinate? Or is this woman actually hell-bent on doing something to the baby?

--

Right out the gates, "Dark Circles" looks like it is trying to mine an under-explored area: the horror that could potentially emerge from all of the incredible demands and stresses of being a new mom and dad.

Feelings of inadequacy (Am I good enough to raise this baby?), next to no sleep, and having your world turned upside down (Alex and Penny loved their life in the city) can add up and take a psychological toll.

Added to the mix is the vulnerability of the baby and the possibility that someone under your roof may be trying to hurt your helpless little son.

This set-up works pretty well for about the first 40 minutes of the movie, but then "Dark Circles" runs completely out of gas.

It becomes painfully obvious that writer/director Paul Soter just didn't know where to go with the story.

Should it be a ghost story?

Should it be a cautionary tale for new parents?

Or should it be a standard slasher where there is villain who is out to hurt as many people as she can?

It was as though Soter wanted to leave all three of those balls in the air as long as humanly possible, until finally (and randomly) picking one at the last minute.

The result is an unsatisfying, relatively bloodless flick whose greatest shortcoming is that the entire second half is illogical and boring as hell.

If you are starving for a new horror movie, "Dark Circles" will give you some gristle to munch on, but afterward you won't lean back, unbutton your top pant button, and let out a blissful belch.

This one is for After Dark die-hards only.

1 out of 3 people found the following review useful:
Worth a Watch this Halloween Season, 30 September 2012
6/10

Nudity: 5 out of 10 (brief breast shots with a high reward to time-on-screen ratio)

Gore: 6.5 out of 10 (some graphic scenes that would be spoilerish to mention; many of the most effective scenes involving violence are implied)

-

Overwhelmed by guilt, down-on-his-luck Brent (Xavier Samuel) is having a hard time finding something worth living for.

Numb to the world, oblivious to pain, Brent plans on attending the prom with his girlfriend, Holly (Victoria Thaine).

His friend Jamie (Richard Wilson), meanwhile, is the beneficiary of a great deal of luck, as the sexy Mia (Jessica McNamee) surprisingly agrees to go to the prom with him.

Finally, third-wheel Lola (Robin McLeavy) decides to make her own luck after Brent turns her down as a prom date.

Come hell or high water, Lola (with help from her "Daddy", played very well by John Brumpton) takes measures to ensure that Brent will be spending prom night with her, not Holly.

What exactly do Lola and Daddy have in store for Brent?

-

If nothing else, "The Loved Ones" is memorable.

There are some squirm-inducing moments here, most notably the things that transpire but are not shown.

The glaring flaw of the movie isn't that torture is the centerpiece, but that various developments in the plot undermine the effectiveness of what Brent is enduring.

Many other people have commented on how distracting the Jamie/Mia sidestory is -- and those people have a point. Yes, ultimately, you could argue that the sidestory has a purpose (given Mia's relationship with her brother), but it is such a weak tie-in that it doesn't justify constantly breaking the tension built by the Brent/Lola-Daddy evening together. The comic relief brought by Jamie and Mia's prom night does not complement, enhance, or add significance to the main story.

So, there's that.

But the even bigger weakness is how the horror and suffering of Brent's evening is eventually wiped clean by absurd crowd-pleasing payoffs.

At its best, "The Love Ones" horrifies with its gritty realism (the simple, though wrenching scene in the tree is a fine example of this). I think you can even suspend disbelief and go along with how there are other inhabitants in the house (the reveal of who those inhabitants are may well be the best and most chilling part of the movie).

However, transforming Brent into an invincible cartoon, from a previously tough, stoic hero, leaves a bad taste in the mouth.

Speaking of mouths, the decision to remove Brent's voice for the majority of the movie was also ill-advised.

With glimpses of greatness, "The Loved Ones" just couldn't get out of its own way.

The hurried, ridiculous ending is a testament to that.

Definitely worth a look for horror fans, "The Loved Ones" frustratingly falls short of its potential.

2 out of 3 people found the following review useful:
Undeniably Powerful, 19 July 2012
7/10

Nudity: 8 out of 10

Gore: 8.5 out of 10 (the final quarter or so is a tough watch) -

Erica (in a fearless performance by Amanda Fuller) is promiscuous. Barely able to mask a deep sadness, she is more than willing to have one night stands with complete strangers. In fact, she even has rules to abide by: no friends, no more than one encounter, no contraceptives.

Nate (Noah Taylor, in a nuanced, unforgettable role) is a veteran of the Iraq war. He lives in the same apartment complex as Amanda and takes a strong liking to her.

Franki (Marc Senti who holds his own with Fuller and Taylor) works in the kitchen of a diner. A musician at heart, he still has aspirations for his band to make it big. Maybe they could tour Europe or Japan? T-shirt sales there suggest that they might have a fan base.

Erica and Franki (and friends) share some "quality time" with one another one evening. This ends up having a ripple effect that carries the rest of the plot.

Frustrated by this vague description? Well, see the movie for yourself. To give away more than this would cheat you out of an unforgettable movie watching experience.

-

I haven't seen director Simon Rumley's "The Living and the Dead," but I will now.

Watching "Red White & Blue" leaves you with the impression that Rumley has a lot on his mind.

But he also has a very good poker face on here.

Does the title refer to America? How this country is hostile to young girls who will eventually grow up to be women? Or how America has abandoned veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars? Or how the American dream has become impoverished to the point where only American Idol-esque hopes still stand tall with lower income young men?

Or does the title refer to the culture of Texas, with its flag sharing the same colors?

Or is one of the characters red, a second blue, and the third white?

Or is the movie divided into thirds, with the three colors representing each segment?

I don't know.

What I do know is that Rumley knows how to unsettle. The sparse score complements the three main character's broken lives.

Editing is top of the line.

Fuller and Taylor (and arguably Senti) could have - and should have - been nominated for Academy Awards.

This movie leaves a mark and I'll try to tell you why.

America is a big country, and if you are a citizen of this country, aren't we all responsible -- even to a microscopic degree -- for its dysfunction? All three characters have a job and work for a living. But do our responsibilities to one another go beyond that?

Nevermind.

Some other form of entertainment and distraction beckons.

Pass me a beer.

0 out of 1 people found the following review useful:
One Big Missed Opportunity, 16 July 2012
4/10

Nudity: 4 out of 10 (two shots of the same woman's breasts that feels obligatory and, I never thought I'd say this, boring)

Gore: 3.5 out of 10 (one over-the-top disembowel, a stabbing, and a fist fight in an alley)

-

Full Disclosure:

On paper, this movie has a ton going for it.

1) A Halloween back-drop

2) Director Jeff Lieberman who helmed one of the very best slashers of the 80's, "Just Before Dawn"

3) A horror/comedy

4) The truly beautiful lead Katheryn Winnick wearing a somewhat skimpy medieval-themed halloween costume for the majority of the movie. (Alas, if only those medieval women were a little more coquettish. A better costume choice would have been something along the lines of a sunbather at a nude beach).

Young Douglas (Alexander Brickel) is excited because it is Halloween. In addition, his sister Jenna (Katheryn Winnick) ferries home from college for trick or treating that night.

Douglas really enjoys playing a violent video game called Satan's Little Helper, so he decides to dress up as the game's namesake. He also enjoys being around and looking at his sister, and who can blame him?

Halloween takes a turn for the worse, however, when someone dressed up in a freaky costume seems to be harming some of the townsfolk.

Douglas catches this character in one of his acts, but since he thinks it is make-believe he volunteers to be "Satan's" (little) helper.

Is it really Satan who is performing these acts of violence? Or is it someone else?

--

A successful horror/comedy pulls off a delicate juggling act.

Those of you who like the genre probably know what I mean: the movie needs to be somewhat scary (at least in certain parts) and the laughs have to be well-timed and almost give you a release from the tension caused by what the characters are going through.

"Satan's Little Helper" fails to deliver on both the chills and the chuckles -- and this results in the movie's greatest sin: it just isn't very much fun.

The quirky and talented Amanda Plummer is wasted here beyond her delightful enthusiasm for all things halloween (cider mugs!)

The unnecessary background information on the boyfriend, Alex (Stephen Graham), wastes a bunch of screen time and leaves you scratching your head.

Even what could have been the penultimate scene, a bunch of drunk adults at a halloween party, feels like it was phoned in. Nothing novel, interesting, or exciting here.

Budget be damned, "Satan's Little Helper" is an uninspired offering well beneath Lieberman's pedigree.

This won't be on my television come October.

Absentia (2011)
37 out of 55 people found the following review useful:
Give Mike Flanagan a Budget, 29 July 2011
5/10

Nudity: 0 out of 10 (Look elsewhere if that's what you're here for)

Gore: 0 out of 10 (This is not a slasher)

-

Loosely based off of the Norwegian folktale "The Three Billy Goats Gruff," there appears to be something sinister lurking behind/under a pedestrian tunnel in "Absentia" - a movie that is less of a horror movie and more of a meditation on loss and grief.

Just-about-to-pop pregnant Tricia (real life pregnant Courtney Bell - who doubled as the line producer - you go girl!) has been grappling over the mysterious disappearance of her husband, who has been missing for seven years.

Pregnancies only last about nine months or so - which means that she has been impregnated by someone else.

Has she been disloyal to her missing husband? The reason that I ask is because it seems that her husband is trying to make his way back to her. He doesn't appear to be pleased.

Meanwhile, her wayward sister, Callie (the beautiful Katie Parker), is in town to support her sister through the later stages of her pregnancy.

Plot developments bring the two sisters closer and closer to the whereabouts of Tricia's husband.

You get the ominous feeling that they are approaching a web with a patiently waiting spider ready to pounce when they get too close.

Will this folktale have a happy ending?

-

Made on a shoestring budget, Mike Flanagan's "Absentia" has more depth and is far more engaging than the vast majority of horror movies released this day and age.

Particularly strong is the first half of the movie as a mounting sense of dread builds and builds. (Who knew that going for a jog could be portrayed as being so dangerous?).

The sisterly chemistry between Callie and Tricia is superb.

Cinematographer Rustin Cerveny wisely allows the camera to be an observer, rather than a distracting character of its own.

The two detectives are the weakest links here with too much screen time.

The Christianity/Buddhism contrast never really materializes in any meaningful way, despite Callie's actions at the end.

The most frustrating part of "Absentia" is the slew of unanswered questions, which weighs the movie down.

It doesn't come together in the end and you're left with a "parts are greater than the whole" feeling.

Regardless, "Absentia" bests nearly all mainstream horror movies and that is an impressive accomplishment.

With well less than 1% of the budget of Saw VI to work with, it's hard not to applaud an ambitious movie like "Absentia."

The Task (2011)
6 out of 14 people found the following review useful:
The "task" is making it to the end of this stinker, 28 July 2011
3/10

Nudity: 0 out of 10 (nothing even close to a female disrobing in this one)

Gore: 1.5 out of 10 (this movie could have been rated PG-13)

-

Six young adults have been hand-selected to participate in a reality television show.

1) Shoe (the luscious Ashley Mulheron who was part of the 2009 effort, "Lesbian Vampire Killers"): The ambitious, ditsy one of the bunch.

2) Dixon (Texas Battle who was an expendable character in Final Destination 3): The muscular, masculine presence in the film. As he notes early on, "people used to say" that he looked like Will Smith, "but now they say Barack Obama." (Yes, he actually says that).

3) Toni (Amara Karan): The cerebral one who is given embarrassing lines such as, "I have the IQ of Stephen Hawking and Einstein... put together."

4) Angel (Antonia Campbell-Hughes): Younger sister of Stanton. Fearless, money-driven. A Brit.

5) Stanton (Tom Payne): Older brother of Angel. The substance of his character is that he was dropped on his head when he was two. Also a Brit.

6) Randall (Marc Pickering): Self-professed "off-the-hook gay" man whose favorite book is OK Magazine. As the doors open to the prison early in the movie, he affirms, "And I thought coming out of the closet was scary..."

-

These six characters, in exchange for $20,000, agree to spend the night in an abandoned prison. A number of atrocities were committed there in the past by a deranged warden. It looks like an untoward place.

Once inside, each of the six characters has to perform a task or two that is revealed by a barbed wire-wrapped television set.

If they make it through the night, the cash is theirs.

But is the warden still around to "welcome" his visitors?

-

"The Task" is an odd duck.

In January of 2011, when the After Dark original movies hit the theaters, this one was curiously left off the roster. Why the long delay? Did it need more work? Or was it a stinker? We can safely assume that it was the latter.

A few of the movie's virtues: It has a decent set design. A handful of eyebrow-raising ideas. And it sometimes carries a campy feel (in a nostalgic, good way). The best directorial decision of all was having Alexandra Staden on the screen, front-and-center, for a good portion of the movie. Admittedly though, her top was cut a little high for my tastes.

Sadly, just about all of the fun of the movie is vacuumed out by the hideous dialogue, lumbering pace, Alexandra Staden and Ashley Mulheron's unremoved clothes, and the unforgivably lame kills. The darkest elements of the movie are only hinted at (like what the warden did to his female prisoners), but they are never explored.

If you've seen the execrable Halloween Resurrection, you know the drill. Killer in the building appears to be picking off the contestants. Viewers watch the murders on television, but can't decide if it is real or all part of the show. How far are the viewers willing to let it go?

To its credit, "The Task" does try to shake things up a little bit at the end. But it is hurried and unsatisfying.

This one is only for After Dark diehards. Otherwise, it is unessential viewing.

A similar and far superior low budget movie is Marc Evans' "My Little Eye."

17 out of 31 people found the following review useful:
The Ground is Fertile for Insanity, 31 May 2011
4/10

Nudity: 5 out of 10 (Leisha Hailey generously shows off her marvelous breasts not once, but twice. They are a sight to behold and more than reimbursed me for the price of my overnight rental at the local red kiosk)

Gore: 2 out of 10 (one violent stabbing scene; the rest is pretty mild)

-

Emily (Leisha Hailey) and Nate (Gale Harold) are married and in love.

All is right in the world.

Emily is with child. Nate is a promising painter. They have a chic apartment in a big city. What else could they ask for?

Tragically and unexpectedly, Emily has a miscarriage. On top of this, she is devastated by the news that she will be unable to have children for the remainder of her fertile years.

In search of a fresh start, the couple decides to move to the country. Nate is the heir of a house that has been in his family for over 150 years.

Maybe this house with its picturesque view is exactly what they both need to get their lives back together.

Unfortunately, strange occurrences begin to take place once the young couple get settled.

They find a number of artifacts that all suggest that Nate's forefathers were homicidal maniacs.

Is this anti-social tendency beginning to influence Nate?

Are malevolent forces that are tied to the house awakened by their new tenants?

Or is Emily losing her mind?

-

Of all of the different types of horror movies, a ghost story is easily one of the most difficult to pull off.

Reason being: there is very little margin for error.

Tone, pace, atmosphere, script, sound design, score, etc... all have to be close to flawless in order to have an effective ghost story.

About 30 minutes into "Fertile Ground," you realize that the directing/writing team of Adam Gierasch and Jace Anderson (they teamed up for another After Dark Horrorfest movie, Autopsy) are in way over their heads.

From the distracting and inappropriate Thomas Newman-like score to the over-reliance on telegraphed jump scares to, ultimately, an absolute disaster of a story, "Fertile Ground" will leave you bored, annoyed, and longing for Leisha Hailey to wear more of her sheer negligee.

For those of you who have seen Gierasch's previous After Dark effort, Autopsy, and are at least banking on "Fertile Ground" containing the same level of surprising gore, you will be sorely disappointed.

For a much better ghost story, check out Bayona's "The Orphanage".

For a much better After Dark original movie, check out "Seconds Apart".

25 out of 33 people found the following review useful:
Perhaps the Finest After Dark Movie to Date, 25 May 2011
8/10

Nudity: 0.5 out of 10 (one clothed love-making scene and a very rewarding, though brief, shot of the stunning Samantha Droke in her brassiere)

Gore: 4 out of 10 (effective use of violence - most of it is implied)

Near the beginning of the superb "Seconds Apart," Detective Lampkin (Orlando Jones) asks a priest if he can borrow his copy of Aristotle's Poetics. Turns out we have a good old fashioned tragedy on our hands folks, one that has what Aristotle would call a complex plot (both a reversal and recognition take place).

Two twin boys (real life twins Gary and Edmund Entin) are putting together a film project. They are blessed (cursed?) with the ability to cause people to sense things that are not really there. They can also peek into other people's minds, tapping into their vulnerabilities.

This project is terribly important to both of them. It is intended to make them feel something in particular.

Detective Lampkin is not convinced that their project is so innocent, however. What exactly are they doing - and why are they doing it?

People are dying. Does this have anything to do with the twins?

- First of all, writer George Richards deserves special praise for putting together an engaging, disturbing, and tightly knit story. Keen attention to detail (*wink* *wink* to Aristotle's mention of signs and memory); sharp dialogue; and a satisfying catharsis to boot.

At last, a fresh, unique horror movie.

For those of you who have seen several of the After Dark Horrorfest movies, "Seconds Apart" ranks at or near the top of this five year event (the only five that rival it are "Frontier(s)," "The Abandoned," "Lake Mungo," "Dread," and "From Within").

It is unfortunate that it got lumped in with truly putrid After Dark Original movies like "Scream of the Banshee" and "51" --- and moderately disappointing ones like "Husk" and "Prowl".

Needless to say, horror fans should make "Seconds Apart" a top priority.

Expect great things from director Antonio Negret in the future...

51 (2011)
30 out of 55 people found the following review useful:
Another After Dark Original Abomination, 1 April 2011
3/10

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

Nudity: 0 out of 10 (the only skin you see in this film is on people's hands and faces).

Gore: 2 out of 10 (a handful of alien impalements and bites).

Two intrepid reporters (one of which is the gorgeous Vanessa Branch), along with their two camera-wielding companions are permitted to take a tour of the mysterious military base in Nevada, Area 51.

On duty, patrolling the base, are several men and women in the armed forces, including Sergeant Hannah (played by After Dark icon, Rachel Miner). Unbeknownst to them, there are aliens being held captive as experimental subjects on site. This raises important ethical questions, like whether aliens have rights too while on American soil.

The aliens want out.

The reporters want a story.

The military wants neither.

For better or worse, the aliens orchestrate a successful break out of their cells, interrupting the reporters' tour.

Is there enough man and woman power to stop the aliens, keeping the whole affair hush-hush? Or will the aliens escape Area 51 and terrorize the American population? There's your plot.

- As bad as After Dark Original "Scream of the Banshee" turned out to be, "51" doubled-down with the cow chips and managed to play an even more putrid cinematic hand.

A failure on every level, "51" definitively shows once and for all how far The After Dark Horror Fest has fallen. (Aside: seeing Rachel Miner in this dung heap briefly reminded me of her memorable appearance in the inaugural year of AD's horror line-up in the vastly underrated "Penny Dreadful").

No cliché is left unturned here.

An uninspired soundtrack that will have you yawning by the 10 minute mark.

Blatant theft from far, far superior movies like Aliens and The Thing.

Lazy editing.

This was such a miserable viewing experience that I am going to leave the review at that.

I am going to go stick my finger down my throat to get it out of my system.


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