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Echoes (I) (2014)
A troubled writer gets tangled up with a homicidal wendigo in this bizarre, strikingly filmed chiller.
19 June 2015
Scenic Joshua tree locations and modern architecture accent Echoes, a stylish supernatural thriller. In yet the latest horror happening featuring, what else, a writer summoning up the occult, independent filmmaker Nils Trim blends stalker elements with phantasmagoria and tribal mythology in this Southwest supernatural whodunit. In it, Anna (Kate French) is an aspiring writer who suffers from a few minor, common psychological issues, such as partially waking from chronic nightmares only to experience ghastly hallucinations while trapped in a state of sleep paralysis. OK, maybe that's not so minor or common.

But heavily medicated Anna has a solution that she thinks will provide good therapy for her condition: spend several days alone, mostly in her underwear, at her boyfriend's curtain-less glass house, It's OK, nobody will see her and fixate upon her -the only other person around for miles is a shadowy, lurking, unshaven man with no fixed address or US citizenship, who's squatting in a decaying trailer a few hundred meters away. There will be plenty of peace and quiet. too. This plot of land, renowned for the perplexing, fatal disappearance of its previous owner, is so isolated from civilization, there's not even any cell phone reception.

Makes sense.

What could possibly go wrong with this idea?

Well, plenty as it turns out, when Anna promptly runs afoul of an apparent wendigo -a particularly malignant one -who fixates upon and sets out to possess her. Plenty of strange occurrences ensue, some of which demand that we accept characters' unlikely choices, and forgive lengthy exposition at the end revealing a complex and melodramatically sensational back-story explanation. But then this is horror, and horror tales and movies often require that we accept melodramatically sensational back-stories, because if we insist upon being too logically demanding and analytic, we might reject the ideas of monsters and ghosts altogether.

So we shall allow Echoes to take its artistic license with the credible, we will enjoy its unusual twists and unpredictable, if not illogical turns, because in addition to having some tense moments which are really scary (an increasingly rare commodity in horror movies), Echoes showcases arresting locations and surreal dream sequences emphasized by striking cinematography.

Viewers may recognize actor Steven Brand, who plays Ana's boyfriend, from The Scorpion King, and the HBO series The Mind of the Married Man, and Kate French from horror movies Sutures and Channeling. Perhaps the most interesting cast members in Echoes however are cute Oxley, the dog who plays Ana's canine companion "Shadow," with almost human expressiveness, and in a sense, the boyfriend's modernist glass house itself, which features prominently in the film and bears a strong resemblance to the historic Stahl House, a Los Angeles landmark used as a location in numerous films, photo-shoots and ads.
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A writer and his wife lose their grip on sanity when an inscrutable stalker gaslights them with bizarre, late night phone calls.
3 June 2015
In this nervous, edgy chiller, TV thespians Hal Ozsan (True Blood) and Nicholle Tom (Gotham, Stalker and the 1990's The Nanny) play Michael and Mary Lane, a yuppie couple in a strained relationship. He's an aspiring writer and she's supporting him. Mary is losing her patience for dealing with Michael's increasingly temperamental artist's personality while Michael, a recently reformed alcoholic, struggles with writer's block. Ordinarily bemused and good-natured when confronted by frustration, Michael's psyche swerves for the worse amid numerous domestic challenges. The situation turns grim when annoying nocturnal hang-up calls complicate Michael and Mary's swelling marital tension.

The calls evolve from apparent pranks into aggressive harassment. One or more disembodied, mostly unintelligible female voices abstrusely mumbles occultist nonsense before concluding with a provocative, "Remember me?" The source of the calls can't be determined. The caller ID displays only the elusive words, "PRIVATE NUMBER."

Fortunately for Michael, Mary hears the calls too -they're not just the product of her stressed husband's imagination. After consulting with the authorities, the couple is nevertheless ready to write off the messages for being the work of a jokester -until unplugging the telephone fails to stop it from ringing.

Circumstances rapidly disintegrate. Mary and Michael descend into an indeterminate and surreal state dominated by ever more abnormal occurrences. The obfuscating presence of silhouetted intruders in their home may or may not be real. Are Michael and Mary suffering a joint delusional breakdown, or are they experiencing supernatural visions? Neither they nor we can be sure, as the duo waivers, then loses their tenuous balance on the threshold between reality and fantasy. Private Number is a nocturnal horror story -most of the action occurs at night within the cloistered, cerulean confines of Mike and Mary's suburban home. False resolutions turn out to be merely dreams. As the edge separating the firmament of certainty from the abyss of bedlam blurs, we're reminded of Irene Trent's (Barbara Stanwyck) ordeal in William Castle's The Night Walker (1964); unable to escape from a perpetual nightmare, she screams over and over, "I can't wake-up!"

Judd Nelson has a role as the local sheriff who inexplicably throws obstacles to the investigation. With The Breakfast Club thirty years distant, a matured Nelson has become ingratiatingly credible in darker roles. He exudes that peculiar Rob Lowe/Robert Downey Jr. screen aura which suggests his character is at best questionable, likely untrustworthy, and certainly sleazy. Tom Sizemore, looking surprisingly fit after spending several years bloated from too many good times, plays Michael's convincingly weathered ex-alcoholic and ex- drug addicted sobriety counselor. It's not a huge stretch for Sizemore, but his portrayal of a character with depth indicates that Sizemore possesses greater theatrical range than he was permitted to exhibit in his many tough guy roles. Private Number's most commanding performances come from relative newcomers to the big screen, television actors Nicholle Tom and Hal Ozsan as Mary and Michael. Tom is well-cast and Ozsan displays commendable versatility when Michael undergoes a dramatic personality shift.

Since it's mentioned early on that Michael suffered a debilitating accident just after meeting Mary, that fact, along with his former alcoholism makes us wonder if Michael had a drunk-driving accident and a victim is the phone-phreaking culprit. When a sleuthing Michael resorts to journalistic instinct to dissect the eerie enigma, we discover ever more likely suspects. Foreshadowing may enable you to deduce who the monster is, yet as Private Number side-winds its serpentine way through Michael and Mary's hallucinatory conundrum, the fun is in the journey.

There's no shortage of horror movies about authors going crazy and summoning up the occult world. Notable examples include The Dark Half (1993) and In The Mouth of Madness (1994). Despite superficial similarities to The Shining and the 2012 movie, Sinister, Private Number manages to be new and different. The film's plot is uncanny and engrossing.

It's effective because writer/director LazRael Lison's unconventional mix of cross-genre story elements makes Private Number an unusual viewing experience. Private Number's offbeat combination of literary conventions shoves viewers off balance and keeps us guessing. The result may confuse and fail to satisfy those who yearn for traditional structure. Yet while Private Number doesn't strive to be an arty movie or to perplex us with an ambiguous open ending, its ambitious weaving of varying cinematic tropes combined with its unsettling, counter-intuitive conclusion will charm fans of those kinds of films.
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Smart and different, this film is exemplary of the days when Made-For-TV movies were worth staying in to watch.
22 May 2014
This was a Hallmark Hall Of Fame, CBS Production

PLOT: In 1946, a sharp-witted, selfless schoolgirl summons all of her resources to navigate her miserly father's conflicted psyche when a gifted Yule tree stirs a cascade of repressed family issues. Poignant, well-written, and free of cheap clichés and sappiness, it's better than it sounds.

The House Without A Christmas Tree is about the complexity of relationships and the evolution of personal character. Too slow for today's kids, and too somber for merrymakers, this forgotten gem of a film is holiday-suitable for serious drama enthusiasts only.

This CBS shot-on-video production won a Peabody Award, screenwriter Perry won an Emmy based on the script, and Director Bogart was nominated for a Director's Guild award. After decades in VHS limbo, The House Without A Christmas Tree has finally been released on DVD. The book, one of several by Gaill Rock about her experiences growing up in rustic Nebraska is still in print through Scholastic Press.

COMMENTS: Christmas, at least in its secular context, should be a time reserved for joy, happiness, and letting go of those bugaboos which worry one's conscience the rest of the year. Yet some people just insist on making themselves feel morose for the occasion. Case in point, the popularity of a sappy, cheaply emotionally manipulative Christmas song called "Dear Mr. Jesus," about a little girl who is beaten nearly to death by her abusive foster parents.

This corny, musically saccharin, structurally gimmicky trailer-trash classic, sung by then nine-year old Sharon Batt, a Beale Street-urchin who couldn't carry a tune in a shopping bag, remarkably made the rounds of nearly every US small-market country-music radio station during the late 1980's. Years later, it still rears its ugly head during the Christmas season and is clung to by all those who want to shed a tear while the rest of us rejoice

WHY?

Why do people want to wallow in the sordidness of a maudlin song about a vile tragedy when they could be celebrating the most joyous occasion of the year? For God's sake, whatever happened to jubilant, rum soaked revelers engaging in good cheer over hot toddies on Christmas, while belting out heartfelt renditions of high-spirited ditties such as "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen?"

So it is with great reservation that I recommend the following film. It's a different kind of Christmas movie, with a touching, sometimes sad, poignant chronology, but importantly, it's not maudlin, nor does it make cheap ploys to manipulate our emotions or spark phony sentiment.

What redeems its somewhat somber tone is that the story is so darn well put together and genuine. In fact, it's one of the best Christmas movies I've seen, even though it isn't overflowing with stunts and boisterous good times. This is a thinking person's Christmas story and features believable actors, credible dialogue, and a basic but worthwhile plot that offers a message without an agenda.

The House Without A Christmas Tree is a relic from the early 1970's when a significant number of made-for-television movies still contained elements of real artistry, and had meaningful story lines. The networks were not yet completely afraid to be experimental or to challenge their audiences. The House Without A Christmas Tree is a good example. It's a general-consumption, family-friendly film, yet it also has real depth and offers quality, substantial performances. There's a significant rapport between the superbly well-cast principal actors that is all too absent from today's television productions.

Pensive, sincere, simply but thoughtfully structured, The House Without A Christmas tree is about a little girl in a small Nebraska town in 1946. Ten year old Addie (Lucas) desperately wants a Christmas tree, but her parsimonious, emotionally absent father James (Robards) is a real scrooge about the holidays.

Bitter, stubborn, and perpetually grieving over the untimely death of Addie's mother years before, Addie's daddy doesn't have much enthusiasm for finding or spreading Christmas joy. Worse, he's a dreadful miser, having barely survived the Great Depression. Not only does James have difficulty showing Addie affection, but he has even more trouble opening the purse strings for the holidays. Frugal to the point of night-sweats, James sees a Christmas tree as being merely a frivolous and unnecessary expense.

But when Addie wins a Yule tree in a school contest, she excitedly brings it home to try and sway her father's lack of Christmas spirit. Addie soon learns however that her father's scorn for Christmas is not related to his miserliness after all. The tree turns out to be symbolic of some pretty heavy, repressed emotions regarding Addie's long dead mother. Addie's' relationship with her laconic, seemingly unsentimental father is far more emotionally charged than we -or they ever realized. Put to her ultimate test, will resourceful Addie find a way to help her bah!-humbug! father come to terms with his charred soul in order to save Christmas Future?

Truly solid character development and a well-developed plot distinguish The House Without A Christmas Tree. Despite its heavy focus on childhood, this is not a kid's movie. It's for adults who enjoy films which remind them of what it was like to be a kid. Moreover, the picture's Great Plains setting, as well as its strong essence of family, home and hearth, redemption, and emotional growth make it a prime and nostalgic pick for fans of the similarly-themed and popular Little House On The Prairie books and long-running '70's television series.
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Dark Skies (2013)
In this severely underrated independent gem, reality spirals into the dangerously surreal for a young man and his companion hot on the trail of their UFO-abducted lovers.
22 May 2014
What happens when our culture becomes disaffected and so intellectually irresponsible that it no longer provides reality checks to screen our darkest fantasies?

Darkening Sky is an offbeat thriller about a man, Eric Ranier (Rider Strong), obsessed with logically dispelling the UFO myth. But when his girlfriend disappears in an apparent UFO abduction, Rainier falls headlong into the true-believer's world of alien horror.

Writer/director Victor Bornia takes us on a claustrophobic journey of mounting uneasiness and dread which climaxes with an easily understandable, but ambiguous twist ending. The twist is a topper to this fresh treatment of a familiar plot device, and what makes Darkening Sky a real joy to watch is that Bornia tops the topper with an additional warp. The ending is more than appropriate because Darkening Sky is a movie that's all about ambiguity and it's frightening ramifications.

Darkening Sky opens with an unsettling collage of UFO culture images -X- rays of bodies, old news clippings, Area-51 photos. But more significantly, to a background score which suggests government radio signals and ethereal static, there are microwave transmitting stations, suburban homes with their on-the-roof TV aerials, and overhead high tension lines. They're all suggestive of our modern, high-speed data transmission -the electronic hubris of our user-generated popular culture. It's strongly reminiscent of scenes from John Carpenter's 1987 sci-fi occult story, Prince Of Darkness, when researchers tap into shaky broadcasts from the future transmitted backwards in time on tachyon particles.

The effect is disorienting and sets the stage for an ensuing psychological quandary of doubt and double meanings.

Like the montage from Lost Weekend (1945), in which an alcoholic Don Birnam (Ray Milland) floats down Gin Lane, his consciousness reduced to a mere bleary-eyed acknowledgement of an endless cornucopia of swirling neon bar signs and martini glasses, Eric Rainier is similarly overcome. Forming an uneasy alliance with a tag-along companion named Beth (Danielle Keaton), a dangerously enabling Goth slacker whose boyfriend went missing under the same circumstances, Eric is now obsessed with finding the "truth."

The pair plunges into a morass of conspiracy theories as they make the rounds of well-known UFO evangelists. The duo becomes not unlike a frustrated Harry Houdini on his serpentine sojourns to a succession of "psychics," dispelling each one's charlatanism in turn as he vainly struggled to find a genuine medium to channel the spirit of his dead mother.

From eerie sightings, to ghastly probes, to bloody organ snatchings, Ranier and Beth run the gamut of weirdos and fakirs until their twisted quest leads them to a discredited researcher (Ezra Buzzington) who seems to know what's really going on.

Or does he?

Because by now, having surrounded themselves with characters subscribing to some very whacky belief systems in a post-modern culture which rejects qualified authority and objective reality, Eric and Beth see their world through a distorted window. They have long since abandoned any reliable reference points by which to triangulate the real from the unreal. The misguided duo is lost in a surreal hinterland in which the line between fantasy and reality blurs in an otherworldly nightmare as fetid as the steadily mounting pile of alien-mutilated bodies.
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Strange Girls (2007)
In this blackly comic character study, bloody results ensue when psychically-bonded twin mental patients cope with the outside world under less than ideal circumstances.
22 May 2014
With strong shadings of the real life case of the notorious Gibbons Twins,

(LINKS: http://www.heraldscotland.com/arts-ents/stage-visual- arts/tragic-tale-of-twins-and-their-secret-world-1.1045865 and http://www.people.com/people/archive/article/0,,20094856,00.html )

gritty Pittsburgh locations accent this quirky, well-made independent effort. While darkly tongue-in-cheek, Strange Girls spans several genres - character study, romance, and slasher -with unexpected plot points and an ambiguous ending. It somehow manages to get where it's going, maintaining credibility along the way, even though it misses the opportunity that its unique premise dangles for the sorts of twists and turns which could make it more sophisticated and eerily engrossing.

Strange Girls brings a tale of two sisters who share a deep psychological bond along with their contemptuous hatred of everyone and everything in the world at large. Committed since early childhood, conducting all of their activities in synchronized unison including walking together in lock-step, Virginia and Georgia (Angela and Jordan Berliner) are insular, eccentric, taciturn -they haven't uttered a word to anyone in years, discounting their own clandestine, cloistered communications to each other in an invented language.

The duo suffers delusions of artistic grandeur: they are jointly authoring a misguided and amateurishly melodramatic, epic romance novel on the scale of Norma Desmond's Greek odyssey-length, Salome, in the 1950 noir classic, Sunset Boulevard. Virginia and Georgia yearn for independence so they can contrive their own poetically idealized, Boho- chic existence -but not by adjusting to their surroundings. Rather, the twins shall compel their surroundings to "adjust" to themselves.

Strange Girls begins by following in detail, the arrival of a freshly- minted psychiatrist (Adrienne Wehr) whose first assignment is to unravel the twin's enigma and get them to open up. But Strange Girls isn't about her challenges in doing so; in an abrupt and disorienting opening twist, the twins murder her when they discover she is going to delay their discharge. Obfuscating damning documents and forging new ones, Virginia and Georgia scheme a probationary release.

The girls set up housekeeping in a claustrophobic flat rented from a crotchety old biddy of a totalitarian landlady, who with a single complaint, wields the power to send the sisters right back to the booby- hatch. To make matters worse, due to state budget constraints, the apartment is located in a less than ideal section of Pittsburgh. It's not exactly the quaintly trendy, elite neighborhood of Shadyside. Rather, it's more like John Waters's anti-idealized, decrepit Baltimore, replete with a cavalcade of aggressive lowlifes and downtrodden deviants.

The sisters endure unpleasant run-ins with a hodgepodge of eccentric and garishly trashy local denizens, while staging an idyllic facade for their timid, unrealistically optimistic caseworker (Joanna Lowe). Then a new element injects itself into their conundrum: Virginia finds a boyfriend, Oyo (Andre Delawrence Rice Jr.). The trouble is, Oyo can't tell the twins apart. Up to now, the two sisters have managed to live in unison as one person. But this was in a controlled, and limited environment. With the array of new options which the outside world avails to them, the gruesome twosome discovers they're not as mutually in-tune as they have imagined -with horrid results.
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Patrick (2013)
Comatose Patrick is psychokinetic -and psycho in love with his nubile new nurse Kathy. He has some supernatural surprises for the scheming mental hospital staff.
22 May 2014
Patrick (1978) is a unique horror film from Australia, written by Everett De Roche who brought us three of Australia's most unusual and imaginative "exploitation" era horror films, The Long Weekend (1978) and its superb 2008 remake Nature's Grave (formerly reviewed here), Harlequin (1980), and Razorback (1984). In the 1978 film, bug-eyed Patrick is a catatonic mental hospital patient with a disturbing countenance and an even more disturbed psyche.

Through telekinesis, Patrick embarks on a one-sided romance with his pert, sympathetic caregiver, Nurse Kathy after she determines that he's not brain dead despite her administrators' claims to the contrary. How does Kathy figure this out? You must watch the movie to see it for yourself. Her strategy is surely lifted from a twisted scene in Dalton Trumbo's horrifying and controversial 1971 anti-war drama, Johnny Got His Gun.

Jealous of Kathy's paramours, and threatened by the hospital's director who has designs on him for sick experimentation, Patrick wreaks havoc by maliciously employing his special abilities. The idea isn't new; we saw it in the 1953 sci-fi movie, Donovan's Brain, based on Curt Siodmak's classic horror novel, about the possession of a scientific researcher by a willful tycoon, who exists as a brain kept alive in a laboratory tank.

In Patrick, Richard Franklin, who went on to direct Jamie Lee Curtis and Stacey Keach in the eerie Aussie, two-lane blacktop odyssey, Road Games (1981), and then brought us Psycho II (1983), does a pretty good job with this offbeat psychic concept by crafting Patrick into a straight- forward, memorable horror movie. The film was well-produced on a small budget, and despite a few flaws, withstands the test of time. Thirty six years later it's still a tensely compelling, watchable horror flick.

So why remake it?

With some exceptions, horror-movie re-dos often leave something to be desired. There have been a few good ones though. Invasion Of The Body Snatchers (1978) and The Thing (1982) come to mind. Without losing any of the charm of the originals, these subsequent shoots effectively capture the essences of their predecessors. New technology allowed graphic, frightening special effects. But importantly, the new versions of these films don't rely on showcasing new technology. They were made to better communicate their respective stories, and the improved production techniques enhanced, rather than replaced, solid literary devices.

Sometimes however, horror movies lose something in translation when they're updated to a modern context and to our contemporary values. To skirt the problem of predictability, filmmakers frequently alter the endings. This can be a bad idea, because the scriptwriters usually got it right the first time. Changes tend to either miss the point entirely, or lose the impact of the original.

The remake of Planet Of The Apes (1968) is a good example of a movie with a second-rate, amended climax. It simply can't compare to one of the most dramatic endings ever in American cinema, when in the 1968 film, astronaut Taylor (Charleton Heston) rounds a bend on a desolate beach and comes face to face with the wreckage of a famous idol from his past. That one, now iconic, chilling frame instantly and powerfully communicates the ironic, emotional thrust of the entire film.

Wonderfully, documentarian Mark Hartley's 2013 revamping of Patrick, entitled Patrick: Evil Awakens, is a positive departure from the trend of lame remakes. The new version is faithful to the original, but subtly tightens up the script, introducing credible character motivations, and tweaking the timing to build additional suspense. With a bigger budget and modern cinematic tools, the new Patrick is sleek, tight, and appropriately much darker and creepy. Italian horror composer Pino Donaggio whose credits include Brian de Palma's Carrie (1976) and Nic Roeg's Don't Look Now (1973) contributes a sharp, sassy score.

The refinements do Patrick justice in a way which demonstrates that Hartley is a true aficionado of the first version, and not merely going through the motions to execute a more marketable update. While this 2013 edition succumbs to a few stock conventions such as the use of dramatic orchestrations to inflate non-crucial surprises, the movie is a top- notch, general consumption chiller. Patrick: Evil Awakens is genuinely scary, rich with gloomy atmosphere and eerie tension, but free of camp, and doesn't insult your intelligence.
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Terri (2011)
An overweight teen finds allies in his struggle with the consequences of non-conformity.
22 May 2014
Cute movie with likable Jonah Hill clone, Jacob Wysocki, about an awkward, overweight non-conformist and his relationship with his understanding principal and chief advocate (John C. Reilly), his interactions with his dysfunctional friends and family, and his dysfunctional interface with the straight world at large.

Terri is more of a darkly comic, bittersweet ballad than a film with a decisive progression from Point A to Point B; nothing is resolved, and Terri neither receives particularly sound advice, nor gains any meaningful epiphanies into how to make life easier for himself.

Despite this, we do get the impression by the movie's end that Terri has at least stepped onto the long path to self-actualization. The film takes a cue from A Boy Named Charlie Brown (1969), repeating that story's poignant message that the world isn't going to come to an end just because you fail to meet mainstream society's expectations, and that it's OK to be who you are.
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A small entourage of pseudo-anthropologists encounters disorientation, bedlam and horror on the trail of an historic mass disappearance.
18 December 2013
A fortnight ago I discussed the independent puzzler, Resolution (2012). It's plodding and pensive, but delivers on its clever high concept with a disturbing climax. Akin to Resolution, the glibly entitled Yellowbrickroad follows a like formula and offers a similar experience. It's enigmatic, and saves all of its open-ended answers for its lurid finale. While Yellowbrickroad has fewer puzzler paradoxes than Resolution, first time feature film writer-directors, Jesse Holland and Andy Mitton do a pretty good job considering their half mil micro-budget, incorporating intriguing and colorful elements of mystery, and a couple of relevantly mesmerizing characters.

In Yellowbrickroad, several young academics set out to re-chart a rural New England zone inexplicably reopened and declassified after an unsolved mass exodus emptied a nearby town 70 years in the past. And, you guessed, it, everyone disappeared in them thar hills. Except for their intestines, that is.

OK, not just their intestines. Other parts were found too, but not nearly enough to account for everyone. Some of the emigrants, intestines and all, just...well they just vanished, it we get the general idea.

Or do we? Because except for several token nods to the 1939 classic, The Wizard Of Oz, Yellowbrickroad's enigma is so perplexing that we mostly forget to question several pretty far-fetched plot holes. Such as why people in the town where everyone disappeared a generation ago are so tight-lipped. If everyone left, presumably today's residents aren't the descendents, and so have no stake in the matter.

But that's OK, because something so unspeakable pervades the locale that just maybe it has a hold on everyone who is afraid to talk about it. One thing's for sure: when a group of 20-somethings venture into the spooky, spooky hills in search of a macabre mystery, we can predict that...well, let's just say, "we knew there'd be death!" A lot of it.

To its credit however, Yellowbrickroad avoids typical deep woods "Boo!" and splatter clichés, instead building on the wilderness atmosphere inherent in being disoriented in a labyrinthine forest. As the team's equipment fails, so do their minds, and the fact-seeking sleuths succumb to bedlam and violence. Time and space mean something different here, and all the while, period music from the era of the disappearance inexplicably wafts across the landscape. The trekkers can't determine it's source -or the way back. The path, nicknamed the "Yellow Brick Road" since its original followers departed from a local theater playing The Wizard Of Oz, held then, as today, some kind of symbolic "way out." Or not.

For the woods have swallowed our crew of intrepid explorers, their navigational aids won't work, and there seems to be no way off the trail. Reminiscent of an old fable about suicide, in which those who killed themselves were presumed to be dissatisfied with reality, and wound up sentenced to increasingly topsy-turvy, contrary worlds each time they attempted escape, the Yellow Brick Road in Yellowbrickroad obviously leads to some much weirder reality with the grim caveat of "be careful what you wish for." Like the aforementioned Resolution, or the engrossing but talky, independent sci-fi thriller, Primer (2004), Yellowbrickroad is a niche film. It takes is dialogue-saturated time delivering us to the sensational payoff. All three vehicles would be more effective as half-hour shorts.

Yellowbrickroad offers some gruesome, blackly comedic skullduggery along the way, however and there's one forceful, enigmatic hint for what is to come: an unsettling sound effect that everyone will instantly recognize, but absolutely not be able to place. Until the ending that is, which slaps you with a sickening epitome of recognition, and of course, this adds to the shock value, making the journey worth the time, even if one has to hasten the hiking pace via judicious use of the Fast Forward button.
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Resolution (III) (2012)
A young man tries to bring his friend back to reality, only to find that "reality" is not just open to interpretation, but malleable and ever-changing.
18 December 2013
In spite of some worn clichés -mysterious found footage, missing researchers, and a mystic medicine cabin obligatorily set on an Indian reservation, with Resolution, independent writer/director Justin Benson brings us a breath of fresh air. The film is technically adept on its small budget, and presents a real genre-bender of a plot. Resolution builds slowly as a crime drama, becomes a psychological suspension, then morphs into a puzzler riddled with paradoxes. It releases in a brief climax of occult horror.

In the story, yuppie Michael (Peter Cilella) travels to a remote squatters' shack, where his addict friend Chris (Vinny Curran), bristling with firearms and contraband, has holed up, resolved to kill himself with drugs. Michael restrains Chris, and forces him to withdraw "cold-turkey" over the course of a week.

A progression of weirdos make the scene. Chris's low-life cohorts (Kurt David Anderson and Kyler Meacham) drop in, demanding drugs. A tightly-wired Native American property owner (Zahn McClarnon) and his menacing gang show up to evict the occupants. A scheming real estate developer (Josh Higgins) creeps in, mistaking Michael and Chris for the deed-holders, and a doomsday religious cult is engaging in shenanigans a little too nearby for comfort.

Michael strives to maintain control over the situation to buy enough time to get Chris straightened out, and back to civilization and rehab. Despite the threat posed by oddball interlopers, the real tension is yet to come.

Someone...or some THING is watching -and recording everything Michael and Chris do. But how? The surveillance indicates a presence that looms closer and closer, yet Michael can't detect the observer.

Looking for clues, Micheal discovers strange footage shot by a missing anthropology team, then locates a laconic neighbor, Bryon (Bill Oberst Jr.), with an uncomfortably unorthodox existential philosophy. From here the story plunges into perplexing paradoxes. Chris's sleazy drug buddies and the landowner converge for a showdown. Mind-bending events knock Mike and Chris away from objective reality and any sense of control over their destinies.

Resolution is talky, but intriguing. The long-winded plot is better suited for an hour short. Aside from establishing an initial setting and circumstances, the first half of the film doesn't bear vital relation to the engaging concepts of the second. It's still pretty good. Unsettling developments keep us watching. Plot twists reveal a honeycomb of passages down which to venture. Rather than choose one of them and proceed, the filmmakers offer a twisted experience based on the fact that these alternate routes exist.

Part of the fun of Resolution is thinking about the various possibilities and what they mean. In our minds, we DO pursue them, trying to predict the outcome, but just when we think we know what's going to happen, Resolution throws us a new twist. Throughout it all ripples a nerve-jarring undercurrent of menace, indeterminate, and incipient. Mike and Chris's safe return to the outside world is increasingly unfeasible.

There's some subtle cinematic artistry in Resolution which reinforces the exposition. In the scene in which Michael is conversing with Byron, Byron discusses his views about narrative and story. As he explains to Michael, Byron holds a mirror. At first, the mirror is angled so that Micheal's reflection blends with Byron's face. The effect is to project Byron and Micheal as melded together, depicting a dual entity. But Michael cannot see it. Only we can see it.

Byron angles the mirror so that we see another mirror on the wall behind Michael, producing the illusion of endless repetition. It illustrates the concept of how a painter records a scene. There is the scene, and the painter painting it. But there is a larger scene. For us to see the painter painting the scene, there must be another painter, painting the painter painting the scene... and so on to infinity. This is a pivotal moment in the film. Resolution carries distinct, though not fully developed sub-themes about the evolution and structure of folklore, myth and story, and these are tied into the paradoxes.

Filmed in a half-completed lodge under construction, illuminated by hook lamps, and without background music, intimate camera-work increases a sense of realism, almost like seeing a documentary. The technique is effective because Resolution turns out to be all about deconstruction and the plastic nature of reality. By the time we realize this, we've accepted the actuality of what's transpired, only to have the drop sheet yanked out from under our feet.
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College students rent rooms in a mysterious mansion by the beach only to find that the landlords are a tad invasive.
21 November 2013
The Silent Scream is a dated relic of the "Unusual '80's" horror movie phenomenon. The 1980's produced a glut of highly conventional, large-draw slasher flicks such as Friday The 13th and the Halloween sequels. The decade also produced a couple of dozen unusual and distinctive efforts such as Fade To Black, My Bloody Valentine, Grandma's House, and Motel Hell. Odd films like these dwell on a darker, more rarefied level, one that hasn't been visited much in the intervening years. Newly released on DVD after 29 years, The Silent Scream is a noteworthy entry in this later category of period horror. Until last year it had been lost in the mysterious, silvery mists of screen-scream antiquity.

Barbara Steele stars as the villain in this dated '80's American-made shocker. Good character development, strong performances, and relatively little gore distinguish this effort from the usual slasher fare.

Here's the setup: Cute and saucy Scotty Parker (Balding) transferred to her university a couple of weeks late and missed out on the fun of bunking with a bunch of freaks she doesn't know in the dorms. Challenged to find accommodations. she gravitates toward the old Engels house, a foreboding, sea-side edifice.

The creepy Engels place is run on behalf of his very reclusive MOTHER! (De Carlo). by a wrapped-awfully-tight, real-life Milhouse Van Houten character named Brad (Reardon). Brad is harboring a wide variety of deeply seated personal issues. (Hey, who's that looking through my air vent?) Three more hormonally bloated students sign rental agreements and the school year is off to a beer and bodily fluid saturated start. For most of them that is. The fratboy-playboy ass-wipe barely gets out of the starting gate before he is found filleted rather than fellated on the beach, A psycho is roaming the dunes. Worse yet, there is something sinister going on in the Engels House, something really F ' D-UP in the attic. SOMETHING TERRIBLE!!!!! Creepy 50's music is mysteriously wafting down through the air vents, and who's burning that light bulb up there and thumping around at night? The cops show up and an erstwhile detective (Mitchell) starts keeping an eye out the desolate beach. But with more secret passages, hollow walls, trap doors and concealed rooms than H.H. Holmes' Chicago Murder Castle the real danger, don'tcha know, may be creeping through the crumbling walls of the old mansion itself.

The Silent Scream is variously reminiscent of The Unnameable (1988), The Shuttered Room AKA Blood Island (1967), Black Christmas, (1974), American Gothic ( 1987), Psycho (1960), and Hello Mary Lou: Prom Night II, (1987). With plot elements of all of these movies, The Silent Scream could be an unremarkable horror yarn, but instead it manages to add a fresh twist to the genre, and establishes itself as one of the more memorable 'old scary house at the top of the lonely hill' type movies.

While not the bloodiest '80's slasher piece, The Silent Scream offers genuine tension with a distinctive and offbeat feel. There's plenty of atmosphere for a small budget (but well-produced) '80's horror flick and a few stylishly shot, memorable scenes that will stick with you. (And yes it is a "flick" in very since of the word. No, not a film, a flick. Write that down.) Not so much a horror story as a thriller about a seriously dysfunctional family, The Silent Scream's plot falls a bit short in that it misses out on some chances to include more twists and turns, but it's still a good ride for nostalgic '80's horror fans.

PRODUCTION NOTES: Barbara Steele is noted for her Giallo and Euro-thriller characters among other types of roles. Despite Yvonne De Carlo's tremendous body of dramatic work, viewers may remember her best for her role as Lily Munster in The Munsters television series. Cameron Mitchell appeared in numerous horror and thriller films in the 1980's and Rebecca Balding may be familiar to audiences from her part as "Trish" in The Boogens (1981) as well as for a gigantic volume of television work. Jim and Ken wheat are the writer/producers behind films such as A Nightmare on Elm Street 4, Pitch Black, The Fly II and The Birds II.

The Silent Scream was first filmed in 1977 by Denny Harris. The original project was scrapped, then picked up and reproduced by Jim and Ken Wheat who constructed new sets around fifteen minutes of salvageable footage filmed at the original location house. A more appropriate house in Highland Park was used for the exterior shots in the re-shoot.

As an aside, The Silent Scream is one of the first horror movies to use CGI editing techniques. According to old timers (those antiquated souls who were coming of age in the 1980's) "everyone wondered how they did that." Apparently general audiences weren't that computer savvy in the nearly pre-silicon, medieval 1980's.

Utilized in establishing shots under the opening credits, the CGI created the illusion that the action in each frame was halted abruptly for a moment and frozen in time. This same result was achieved with freezes during the opening credits in the 1979 Chuck Pierce film, The Evictors. In that instance good old fashioned film lab printing techniques were applied to frames in the opening sequence to give a sense of antiquity to the past events they portrayed, and to emphasize the significance of those shots to the plot's subsequent events. Today, CGI editing is overused and abused so much that we take it for granted.

Thanks to the newly established company, Scorpion Releasing, The Silent Scream has been re-released on DVD in high definition after 30 years of obscurity (as "Silent Scream, not "THE Silent Scream"). The soundtrack has been remixed in true 5.1 and 2.0 stereo, with bonus featurettes, audio commentary and interviews.
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Grace (III) (2009)
Baby wants blood! And Mommy's in denial, in this derivative, but well-presented thriller.
21 November 2013
Remember all those "dead baby" jokes from junior high school? Well, here's the movie. Don't be fooled though. While Grace has a premise which if mishandled, could trigger an unintentional laughfest (see THE DEVIL WITHIN HER [1975], with Joan Collins and Donald Pleasance), it's a serious movie and the filmmakers competently execute the concept.

And here it is: when a yuppie named Madeline (Jordan Ladd) miscarries following a car crash, she insists upon carrying the dead child to term anyway. Eventually, while shopping, Madeline's water breaks. Only it's not "water" at all, but a bucket of plasma, all over a white throw rug at Bed Bath And Beyond.

Time for delivery. There's a LOT more blood. When amniotic fluid is drained from the baby's mouth, it all comes out greyish black. Not a good sign! Uncanny and unresponsive, Madeline's stillborn baby is obviously dead.

Or is it merely UN-dead? It's as if Madeline wills it to life. When her midwife attempts to take the corpse from her, Madeline's baby begins to move. Days later Madeline is back home, a happy, normal mom doting on her now healthy-looking infant.

But all is not quite right. Baby's hair starts falling out. Flies develop an affinity for hanging out around the cradle. Baby smells bad! Even a bath can't get rid of the odor of -well of SOME thing. Something awful! Nor, sadly can a bath rid GRACE of the musty scent of the highly derivative. We've seen this all before! (Among others, notably, IT'S ALIVE [1974]; THE BROOD [1979]; in the 1987 Vincent Price horror portmanteau, WHISPER TO A SCREAM, the story called "The Offspring." Then there's the one about a mother-to-be carrying carnivorous fetuses to term: THE UNBORN [1991], not to mention the most well-remembered maternal angst flick since THE BAD SEED [1956], ROSEMARY'S BABY [1968].) GRACE is sensibly assembled however, and to his credit, writer/director Paul Solet manages to get a novel spin on the well-worn convention. Derivative though it may be, GRACE doesn't feel so familiar that we can't enjoy the horror.

Intriguingly, with utter denial of the fact of a dead baby as the fulcrum of its turmoil, while featuring themes of disillusionment and family dysfunctionality, GRACE is superficially reminiscent of Sam Shepard's shocking, Pulitzer Prize-winning play, BURIED CHILD. In that allegorical work, conflict stems from a simultaneous demand and resistance to reveal an appalling, life altering truth.

In GRACE, which is merely a straight-forward fright-flick, the real horror arises not so much from the fact that Madeline's child is a monster, but from Madeline's compelling need, yet complete refusal, to acknowledge that fact and to be repelled by it. Madeline loses herself in a misguided, hellbound obsession to be a normal mother.

Even before the miscarriage, Madeline's soul seems nearly as charred as those of the family in BURIED CHILD. A closet lesbian in a loveless marriage, at extreme odds with her emotionally troubled, dominating in-laws, and with little use for her emasculated husband other than as a sperm donor, the unimpassioned, intellectually aimless Madeline is supremely empty inside. To substitute purpose for her spiritual destitution, Madeline fanatically clings to so rigorous a "green" lifestyle that she feeds her cat soy milk. The irony is that despite her strict vegan diet, Madeline's baby demands only blood for sustenance, and as its devoted nurturer, Madeline is driven to supply it.

But how?
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A woman tries to locate her missing sister who has vanished under sinister circumstances.
21 November 2013
The Seventh Victim is eerie without being violent or explicit. The film creates a tensely pernicious, balefully enshrouding atmosphere of dread. Relying on the power of allusion, insinuation, and the visual presentation of rich, black mattes, The Seventh Victim's singular story and guileless treatment of verboten subject matter sets it apart from modern movies when compared to current methods of creating horror.

When Mary Gibson (Hunter) ventures to Manhattan in search of her missing sister Jacquelin (Brooks), she enters a foreboding world of corruption, poison, mental illness, knife-wielding assassins, murder and suicide. It seems that dear ol' sis stopped paying Mary's tuition, and so Mary, bright and full of hope sets out to determine her whereabouts. But none of Jacquelin's friends have seen her.

We see her though. Jacqueline is striking and somber under her jet black hair and sharply planed bangs. Quiet, watchful, morose, her captivating visage thrusts onto the screen like a stiletto with her grave countenance and almost funereal presence.

Mary locates and enters her sister's apartment. She finds it unfurnished except for a hangman's noose suspended over a chair. It's not an encouraging development. Worse, Mary discovers that without asking for payment, Jacqueline signed over her successful salon and cosmetic business to a -well, shall we say to an assertive, independent woman with whom she had an evidently rather chummy association. Being made in the 1940's the film declines to further explore the exact nature of that relationship. But is seems there is a locked room at the cosmetics facility and Mary wants to know what's in it.

In trying to find out, Mary runs into a couple of private detectives who are looking for Jacqueline too, one of whom issues a warning and one of whom winds up dead. Before you can say, 'speak of the devil,' a shady doctor (Conway) shows up who knows all about Jacquelin, but isn't saying much. He's scared of something. Something unspeakable. And he knows that "sinister" means "left," but he sure isn't keeping to the right.

In addition to the doctor, there are some mysterious professional types in the area of Jacqueline's last known whereabouts. They all know each other, knew Jacqueline and are aware of something else. But what? They sure are tight lipped. Just what is everyone so afraid to talk about? And why do they all dress to the nines, some of them in black, to meet in a dimly lit apartment late at night? The Seventh Victim is a spooky film noir made with wonderful use of black and white film's deep range of subdued tones. The cinematography creates a veritable study in angular shadows, gritty textures and plush charcoal, chocolate tints. Basement cafes grace the screen with low angle lighting. Street lamps' luminescent oases punctuate a sheet-like viscous velvet of gloom.

Distinctive about the The Seventh Victim are it's dark atmosphere, even for a noir, and its refusal to conform to Hays Commission requirements in its frank, unconventional treatment of a variety of morbidly taboo material. An eerie shower scene precedes Robert Bloch's 1959 novel Psycho, and there are some hints at subversive feminism. Even the film score ends on a minor key. All of this is pretty racy for 1943, making The Seventh Victim a unique, precursor to the noir genre.

Notes: The character of Dr. Judd appears again in Val Lewton's Cat People. Actress Jean Brooks was thought to be quietly married at one point to Erich von Stroheim. Despite a couple of principle roles, stardom eluded her. Brooks's unique presence was never adequately exploited by Hollywood. The thespian's later years are as enigmatic as some of her characters. Fading into the billowing silver mists of off-screen obscurity, Jean Brooks's after-cinema life is shrouded in mystery and alcoholism. Her premature 1963 death in Costa Rica was overshadowed by the Kennedy assassination, and went unrecorded in Hollywood.
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Cracks (I) (2009)
At a wealthy boarding school, a dangerous love triangle erupts into savagery when a repressed teacher targets a precocious aristocrat.
21 November 2013
Warning: Spoilers
Tense and suspenseful, Cracks is a well-paced, carefully crafted period piece. It is about the consequences of creating insular environments which breed mean-spirited hierarchies and draw ill-motivated authority figures. Situations in which the authority figures empower, reward and smile upon petty tyrants because they share the same deviant mindset and orientation.

In this offbeat tale of hatred and hazing, the cloistered children of favored society engage in cruel conformity at an all-girls' school in rural 1934 England. The story focuses on an elite Brody set of girls who comprise the academy's token diving team. The girls are mentored by their vapid instructor and swim coach, Miss G. (Green). (An apparent tribute to Muriel Sparks's novel and film, The Prime Of Miss Jean Brodie.) None of the students are really happy or normal. They are the issue of the minor gentry. Their absentee parents unceremoniously dump them off at St. Mathilda, and never return. Disposing of their kids frees the adults to pursue their lavish lifestyles. And the girls know it. The polite rejection, combined with a stifling parochial environment turns the kids into seething stew-pots of repressed self-doubt and resentment.

A titled Spanish heiress arrives. She is a precocious and cultured patrician. Of course the other girls retaliate. Fiamma (Valverde) becomes a magnet for their jealousy, licentiousness and rage. While most of the girls lament that their parents seem to have forgotten about them and will never bring them home again, privileged Fiamma is vocally confident that her stretch will be short. Fiamma enjoys lavish gifts and delicacies from home. She shares them with her classmates while regaling them with wondrous tales of travel experiences and folklore. This only make things worse.

Di Rutfield (Temple), the swim team captain, is at once overshadowed and out-performed. Fiamma outflanks her socially, culturally, intellectually, and most devastatingly of all, athletically. Di no longer sets the bar by which the other girls are measured. To the contrary, she must now measure up to it.

More perilously, Di has lost her favored status as the apple of Miss G's eye. Coveted, courted and pampered by the girls' diving coach, Di was bonded to her by a barely suppressed. mutual undercurrent of romantic and sexual high voltage. Upon Fiamma's debut, Miss G's attentions shift to the enigmatic new enchantress.

My own snobby boarding school wasn't Catholic, and it was well enough administered that there was a minimum of clique exclusiveness, hazing and cruelty. But oh my, do I ever recognize the personality of Miss G. She is a tortured closet lesbian, perpetually titillated by her juvenile charges. A bundle of insecurities and self-perceived inadequacies, Miss G. fortifies her ego by reveling in the matriarchal power or her position. She is quietly desperate, dangling on a smoldering time-fuse, and primed for an angry episode of sexually frustrated, catastrophic hysteria at the first hint of a substantial challenge to her authority.

Damningly, Miss G. is also a fraud who recites adventures from Mary Kingsley's Travels To West Africa (1897), claiming the experiences to be her own. Having been at St. Mathilda continuously since she was a schoolgirl, Miss G. convinces her students that she's a feisty, liberated explorer. Fiamma really has traveled however, and Miss G resents it. Gifted, independent, rebellious by the standard of the day, it's obvious Fiamma is more wordily and educated than Miss G.

Miss G. loves Fiamma, and she hates her. She wants to alternately kiss and slap the girl. Miss G. is drowning in a swirling infusion of hormonal captivation and intimidated insecurity. She veils her own closeted sexuality and verboten urges for Fiamma behind a tenuous mask of low key hostility. Churning under her increasingly strained visage lurks a poisonous cocktail of spite, infatuation, and abject lust. Tensions amplify. Fiamma, Di, and Miss G. square off. Together they plunge into a sensational maelstrom of bitter jealously, taboo coitus, madness, and salacious mayhem.

As in William Golding's novel Lord Of The Flies, there's an irony at play in Cracks. In Golding's work, which has inspired several films, schoolboys are sent away from England to protect them from war violence. Yet they promptly do battle with each other upon being shipwrecked. Becoming utter barbarians, they revert to the trees within hours of marooning.

In Cracks the girls study Christian values, social and intellectual refinement, self control and etiquette. When Fiamma smashes their authoritarian hierarchy, the schoolgirls' cultural and humanist graces evaporate. Collectively, they atavistically plunge to the lowest common denominator of bilious rivalry, sexual jealousy and brutality.

Cracks carries strong shadings of the Muriel Sparks novel and film, The Prime Of Miss Jean Brodie, but it takes a dark departure. Tense, suspenseful, Cracks' gorgeous cinematography and top tier production values accentuate its thoughtfully plotted storyline. The result is a salacious firecracker of a picture! Cracks is a must-see experience for fans of such films as Heavenly Creatures, Loving Annabelle, and Picnic At Hanging Rock.
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A maniac conductor sadistically stalks hobos along his Depression era freight.
21 November 2013
Emperor Of The North Pole may not have the requisite look, feel, or scary music, but it is very much a horror movie. Instead of the supernatural, the monsters are men. The killer is no cloaked slasher striking by night, but a crazy-eyed, obsessed railroad man, insane with twisted rage, filled with frothing blood lust, armed with cruel and unusual instruments of punishment. He gets his kicks by smashing in skulls and he strikes in broad daylight unrestrained, with complete impunity. This incongruity - a horrifying film that masquerades as a suspense drama by telling an unconventional, real-world story -makes for a truly weird viewing experience. Adding to this larger than life archetypal characters, bizarre, colorful monologues, and a deceptively simple plot about a symbolic evil vs. slightly-less-evil struggle, results in a riveting, original movie.

Pastoral Oregon locations set an illusorily bucolic tone in the opening shots of Emperor Of The North Pole as a steam locomotive winds its way through rural woodlands. This is Union Pacific's Number 19 freight and it has a madman on board.

It is 1933, the depths of the Great Depression and 1/4 of Americans are unemployed. Many of those are literally starving to death. A mobile army of homeless men roams the country looking for temporary work, stealing rides on the railroads. They are nomads who live by no law but their own and dedicated to their destruction is the Railroad Man. On the Portland route, that man is Shack (Borgnine), a ruthless conductor who takes the "paying passengers only" rule with deadly reverence.

Railroads don't like it when you stow away on board or trespass on their tracks. Today they employ a battalion of federally licensed, armed railroad detectives to catch you, and these men behave like real bastards when they do. But in 1933 even the railroads were hard up. His actions condoned by underfunded, undermanned, corrupt law enforcement, Shack takes the job of controller, making sure that no one rides for free. Drawing from his own sadistic black book of dirty tricks he patrols his train like a monstrous gargoyle, perpetually on the lookout for bums.

Relentless and Argus-eyed, Shack is a real-life Terminator; he can't be reasoned with, he can't be bargained with, he has no mercy to appeal to, he is hard to kill, and he will never, ever stop. Shack has a savage arsenal of bizarre, creepy weapons at his disposal, but his favorite is the engineer's heavy, double-headed club mallet.

When Shack, creeping along the speeding 19's boxcar catwalk finds a tramp riding on the frame of a hopper car, he sneaks up on the hapless man. The bum, enjoying a sandwich, is blissfully unaware of the danger. With a fell swoop of the club hammer, Shack smashes the man's skull. His head laid open, dangling between cars, the hobo begs for his life before being sucked under. In a spectacular, graphic sequence the rail cars' sharp under-hangs ensnare the tramp and violently wad him up like a piece of garbage before the heavy wheels slice him in half like a biscuit.

For the Railroad Man, his pension and gold watch are at stake. For the hobo, it is a matter of survival. But for both, there is also pride. Shack is determined the hobos not see him as a free ride. He is humiliated and taunted by the hobo community when they marginalize him by defying his rules.

The hobos hate Shack, but they also want to prove themselves to each other. To be a master hobo, a skilled man of the road who can survive in style and avoid arrest is to become "Emperor of the North Pole," king of the tracks. The term is a cynical self-deprecation. Penniless, desperate, with no past, no future, no clout and nobody to vouch for them, the hobos perceive that they lead a futile, near meaningless, existence. The significance of the distinction is that anybody presiding over the North Pole would be emperor of a worthless desert.

In this context, the alpha male tramp of the West Coast hobo "jungle" camps is the admired A-Number One (Marvin). A#1 is determined to prove himself Emperor Of The North Pole by successfully riding notorious Shack's Number 19 all the way to Portland. He is dogged by a swaggering, inept, tag-along, upstart named "Cigaret" (Carradine). Using numerous tactics to sneak aboard and avoid detection on the 19, A#1 is caught between Shack's criminal tactics, and Cigraret's malicious recklessness. Despite A#1's paternal attempts to mentor him, Cigaret continuously betrays A#1 out of a sense of misguided competition.

In trying to derail Shack, A#1 and Cigaret nearly derail the entire train. To distract Shack and misdirect him, A#1 and Cigaret do their best to compromise and professionally ruin him with a series of sidetracking stunts. But the stunts are not mere jokes. They are heavy, malicious felonies which endanger the hobos, other trains, and entire crews with imminent bloody death.

While the "'Bo's" believe Shack deserves killin', their actions justify Shack's murderous rampage as well. Like a runaway train, the perverse feud escalates beyond the boundaries of any sensible limits. The locomotive steams and roars, The whistle shrieks. The pistons churn. The black smoke streams into the sky, The trio of enraged men highball over the steel rails. Their murderous plots against each other descend into a maelstrom of frothy, blood-soaked madness. As they barrel along among the swaying cars of the speeding train, the inflamed trio hurtles toward an ultimate gladiatorial showdown to determine who will be Emperor Of The North Pole.
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Alyce Kills (2011)
In this pointless, yet engaging psycho-thriller, a young woman spirals into anti-social behavior, dragging her acquaintances into the dark morass of her twisted psyche.
21 November 2013
With a cursory acknowledgment of the Lewis Carrol tale, Alyce is as much an entry-level clerical answer to the Fortune 500 American Psycho (2000), as it is a morbid odyssey of self discov- uh, make that self-destruction. Like a high-speed bullet train to Hell, Alyce Kills is novel, slick, and exciting, but it doesn't take us where we want to go.

Young, pert Alyce (Jade Dornfeld) toils away in a depressing corporate cubicle for a shrewish boss at a thankless job. After work she trudges home to her cramped apartment to freshen up before some much needed steam-venting at dingy nightclubs. It's not much of a life, but Alyce has her friend Danielle (Rena Owen), an alpha female who provides Alyce with a framework of guidance upon which follower Alyce proves to be reliant.

When Alyce and Danielle take the Generation X drug "ecstasy," Danielle sexually leads on Alyce. It comes out that Alyce has a crush on Danielle who then rejects her.

Is it an accident then when Alyce "accidentally" pushes her off the roof a short while later? It's not clear whether Alyce is vindictive and a little crazy, or merely reckless, and irresponsible. Danielle stands on the ledge, tempting fate, Alyce mock-pushes her. Alyce is playing a game and behaves as if she doesn't intend the result -Danielle's dive to the pavement. But Alyce definitely intends to make contact, and under the circumstances it's no surprise when Danielle plunges to her doom.

Despite that it led to tragedy, Alyce decides she likes ecstasy and trades sex for the drug from a repulsive dealer. Under the influence of the psychedelic, Alyce locks herself in her apartment for marathon-length trips during which she perpetually masturbates to violent videos. Conniving to obfuscate her complicity in Danielle's misfortune leads Alyce to take increasing risks until she pulls out all the stops. Traipsing across an urban landscape of bizarre characters, settings and situations, Alyce taunts the family of her victim, and eventually conspires bloody murder against those who annoy and inconvenience her.

Having now lost Danielle's boundary-defining structure, Alyce's fragile veneer of sanity falls away like an uncoupled caboose from a speeding express. Her locomotive throttle is wide open and there's no engineer in the cab. Alyce resolves to take charge of her own life, but her brand of self-assertive, feminist "empowerment" is to embark upon a self-indulgent journey of risky behavior. Yet it's more like a spree, and it degenerates into a maelstrom of self destruction, dragging those closest to her along for a hell-ride on her crazy train.

The theme of women scheming against men has been around at least since ancient Greece. From Aristophanes' Lysistrata, to the Biblical Eve convincing Adam to bite the proverbial apple, we've seen versions of the femme fatale in various literary incarnations through the ages. A few include Shakespeare's Lady Macbeth, and Cleopatra, Daniel Defoe's opportunistic Moll Flanders, Oliver Goldsmith's lighthearted, scheming, Katie Hardcastle in his 1773 play, She Stoops To Conquer, the conniving Matilda in Matthew Gregory's 1796 supernatural Gothic novel The Monk: A Romance, and the malevolent man-hater, Miss Havisham in Charles Dickens' Great Expectations.

Whereas these feminine plotters employed cunning and sexual manipulation to achieve their aims, their modern counterparts resort to brute force. The concept of the fairer sex outwitting men has evolved into the myth of womens' domination over men, and convoluted orchestrations have given way to the karate kicks and machine guns used by characters such as secret agent Emma Peel (Diana Rigg; Uma Thurman in the 1998 film version) in BBC's The Avengers, to Max Guevera (Jessica Alba) in TV's Dark Angel, and La Femme Nikita (Anne Parillaud; Bridget Fonda in the US remake). The latest trend has dark-psyched vixens engaging in just plain psychopathic killing sprees.

Alyce's quirky, but undeveloped character may be inspired by the leads in May (2002), and Neighbor (2009), two similar stories about loner hellcats who indulge their necrophilic and cannibalistic urges through acts of violence. Yet May (Angela Bettis), the film's namesake, commits her violence via a misguided search for an similarly misfit mate. In Neighbor, "The Girl," (America Olivo) thrill-kills for the sheer sadistic pleasure of it, making a living by robbing her victims and using their homes like motels.

Alyce however, lacks any sensible or even cognizant motivation at all. Her deeds defy logic, her methods are unsound, and Alyce's lack of planning is sure to bring her only more trouble. We're not sure if even she understands her actions. This makes her singularly one dimensional.

It's a profound disappointment, too. What's engrossing about Alyce's sexy character is not what she does, but the wry way she does it with her distinctively iconoclastic demeanor. It's not the revulsion inherent to her wanton acts of sex and violence that catches our attention, but the manner in which her smug, witty bearing holds out the promise of a satisfying payoff. We keep waiting to tumble into an epiphany of insight into her disturbed psyche, or at least some commentary about human nature or revenge. It never happens, and we're left feeling like the lone passenger on a runaway train with no destination in sight, and no emergency pull-cord to stop the projector.
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Stoker (2013)
A morose teen forms an uneasy alliance with her enigmatically sinister uncle, who is at once adversarial, controlling, and incestuously supportive.
1 October 2013
A thriller about psychopaths and sick agendas, Stoker's title summons connotations of the Dracula author. With its Gothic romance novel visual design, a moody anti-heroine right out of the Twilight craze, and a shower masturbation montage borrowing visual cues from Psycho, Stoker presumes to deliver a power-punch of stormy atmosphere and unsettling, offbeat storytelling. Provocative and lurid, artfully photographed, that atmosphere is indeed present in Stoker, as is its departure from the beaten path of mainstream studio fare.

The picture pulls its knock-out upper-cut however, by betraying a derivative (though not over-worn) story and a not-so-novel revelation of its mystery. The plot is essentially Hitchcock's Shadow Of A Doubt (1943), but this is a good one, full of potential for delightful and interesting variations, such as the wickedly disturbing 1966 Let's Kill Uncle with Mary Badham of To Kill A Mockingbird fame.

In Stoker, troubled India (Mia Wasikowska) reminds us of Wednesday from The Addam's Family. Wealthy, privileged, doted on, but misfit, morbid, and sporting a damningly annoying overbearing of sophisticated, anti-social charm, India is grudgingly and minimally cooperative. She's resentful, and seething with some inner grievances, but we're never made privy to what they are. There's a good and evil struggle within her, offset by a chronic, clear desire to be elsewhere. But rather than take action to affect change, she grumpily goes through the motions, while internally swimming against the current.

In East Of Eden, Cal Trask (James Dean) beguiles us by revealing an inner turmoil and a jagged chasm of obviously anguished, and likely twisted emotions. The feelings never have to be explained. It's sufficient that Cal's facial expressions betray them. Our imaginations run wild to fill in the rest. Similarly in Stoker, with her obviously charred soul, India is virtually a plot element unto herself, and the most intriguing one in the film. As with the old inmates' adage, family expectations and social constraints may imprison her, but in her mind she's free, and "they" can't take that away from her.

Or can they? India is stewing in repressed passions but we don't know what they are. Nor will we, for while we eventually receive simple explanation for the root cause of her condition, Stoker never explores the deep, murky waters of that bottomless pool personality behind India's ink-well black eyes.

There's a lot of masquerade in Stoker. While there's obviously more to India than we can fathom, and we want to know all about her, there's also more to her uncanny, disingenuous paternal Uncle Charles (Matthew Goode), and upon meeting him, neither we, nor India, are so sure we want to take a sounding. Charles makes the scene following the funeral for India's father whose very untimely death occurred in an equally unlikely accident.

Despite being extroverted and ingratiating, there's something just not right about Uncle Charley. He exudes a facade of Mormon-esque, overly enthused, positive cheer which nearly overshadows a subtle undercurrent of ruthless self-service. But maybe that's just India's cynical outlook rubbing off on us. Either way, Uncle Charley's here to stay, and after inviting himself as permanent house guest, he begins brazenly courting India's bereaved, yet bored and impulsive, emotionally vulnerable mother (Nicole Kidman). Vanquishing from the household all who might oppose him, such as the loyal housekeeper (Peg Allen) and India's suspicious great aunt (Jacki Weaver), we can only assume he's after the family fortune, but disturbingly, he seems to have deeper designs. These include India's very corpus corporis and mens mentis, as she openly defies Uncle Charley's attempts at domination until he discovers a way to manipulate India's, um, unusual susceptibilities.

At first resentful of Charles's intrusion. and put in an adversarial relationship with her mother who seems to be completely malleable to his will, India becomes jealous, but soon begins to bond with Charles. India's a gloomy, stifled little sexpot and she secretly craves the attention. The trio form a dangerous triangle, which sweeps them in a churning cat-and-mouse-play set of rapids toward the tumultuous falls of total bedlam. This is where Stoker shows its potential to become something original, to reveal fascinating, horrible things, to surprise us, and make us wonder, to keep us guessing on the edges of our seats.

It doesn't.

What could be a captivating web of competing, ulterior motives and petulant scheming never materializes. What could be an engrossing character portrait of India slams flat. We never get that coveted insight into India's motivations, how she sees the world or why she sees it that way. India is simply toxic and contrary with little explanation until the end, at which point she defies her own cunning nature and selects, in lieu of more interesting, profitable, and clever options, an irrational, self-destructive course of action.

Even so, Stoker is still pretty good. It's a satisfying change of pace from the patronizingly conventional and downright silly horror releases lately issuing from Tinseltown like effluent from a landfill, and most Gothic thriller fans will want to see it.

South Korean director Chan-wook Park is best known to fans of the weird for his bizarre, gory cult movies such as Oldboy from The Vengeance Trilogy. With Stoker, he makes his mainstream, US debut. To do so requires that he "sell-out" a little to the conventions of Hollywood marketing, and I suspect this is why he didn't tamper with co-producer, Wentworth Miller's script, even though its deficiencies beg to be tweaked. Stoker more or less works for non-discriminating audiences who can be dazzled by a bit of flash without being driven to look deeper. Park's penchant for the absurd and the gory is still subtly evident. Importantly, Stoker demonstrates Park's trustworthiness to competently direct conventional cinema. With Nicole Kidman on board, and an appeal to the current Twilight-style popular trend, Stoker will, we hope, allow the director to establish himself on the big-budget launching pad from which we anticipate more intriguing work to soar off in the future.
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A troubled- psychiatrist takes a sabbatical in her remote cabin, a former patient makes the scene, and bedlam spirals out of bounds.
9 September 2013
Like a brain surgeon's deftly wielded scalpel sinking into grey matter, skillful manipulation of cinematic elements merges with subtle transpositions in The Dark Hours. Along with clever segue-ways and strategically positioned ambiguity, The Dark Hours' filmmakers blur the line between objective and subjective reality in this fast-moving nail biter. It's engrossing, captivating, slickly edited and well-acted. Get ready for some disturbing twists and an unsettling climax.

The Dark Hours keeps us guessing, dangling over the precipice between our home theater easy chairs, contemplating "what ifs," and fretting over what will happen next. And what happens next is just ... well just awful! For the characters in the story, that is.

When institutional head-shrinker, Samantha Goodman (Kate Greenhouse) takes refuge from a personal crisis in her secluded snowbound cabin, she expects a quiet weekend with her aspiring novelist husband David (Gordon Currie) and sister Melody (Irius Graham). A worn expression about best-laid plans comes to mind, as one thing, something terrible, leads to another.

Much of the action takes place after dark in Sam's remote abode, illuminated in a flickering amber candle and fireplace glow. There's a claustrophobic feeling inside the bungalow, which contrasts with the utter desolateness of the wide open, frozen tundra nightscape upon which it vulnerably sits. Hanging precariously by only a few threads, a wispy, gauze-like veneer of sanity separates the known from the uncertain. Only the cabin's frail wooden door insulates the occupants from infiltration by malevolent elements which might appear from anywhere out in the night. Indeed, such elements come knocking and once that creaky door is opened, sheer hell breaks loose.

Instead of her hoped-for introspective interlude with David, from whom Samantha desperately requires emotional support, she instead discovers she's trapped in a love triangle between David and Melody. Just as Sam starts to unravel the details, the arrival of a duo of lunatics (literally) disrupts her family affair.

The more the merrier, however, as the uninvited guests intend to help Sam acquire some truly objective perspective about her situation -and theirs. One of the interlopers is a patient, Harlan (Aidan Devine), with whom Samantha has a controversial history. He's escaped, and now with twitchy teenage protégé Adrian (Dov Tiefenbach) in tow, Harlan wants to impress upon Sam that he never much cared for her less-than-Hippocratic bedside manner.

To boot, Harlan plans to help Sam sort out her domestic and professional issues, Jungian style. Or maybe just Nietzsche and Dr. Mengele style. Because while Harlan's diseased cerebrum is squirming like a toad, it turns out his is not the only one. Harlan detects that all present are in need of a little "psycho" therapy. Delightfully, he just happens to have a treatment regimen in mind for everyone -one which champions truth, illumination, and ... well this won't hurt a bit.

OK, maybe just a LITTLE! Because it's going to start with some excruciatingly morbid games, games at gunpoint which involve a telephone, a diary and pair of cutting pliers.

As the quintet prepare to venture on a schizophrenic journey of enlightenment, seamless perceptual juxtapositions provide an eerie insight to the escalating chain of developments, some of which are relayed via foreboding flashbacks and non-linear plot points. What ensues is pure bedlam when all involved spiral into a swirling maelstrom of horrid revelations and bloody confrontation.
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Earthling (2010)
Alien slugs possess and copulate with humans in this brooding, complex, cross-genre horror yarn.
5 September 2013
Here's another unique gem of an independent film. With its shockingly unnatural quirks, Earthling will resonate with fans of David Cronenberg's early efforts such as The Brood and Scanners. Earthling is a horror movie with some meaning, not a profound, philosophical meaning, but enough to put the ghastliness in a context that makes it resonate.

Earthling is not a fast-paced blood-fest. Arty and pensive, the film plays out like a character study, interspersed with elements of horror. Featuring an alien possession theme familiar to fans of such thrillers as Invasion Of The Body Snatchers, Night Of The Creeps, The Hidden, and Slither, Earthling takes a derivative idea and amps it up a notch, adding a degree of sophistication not seen in the aforementioned sci-fi entries. Earthling combines a multi-layered storyline, non-linear plot elements, touches of romance, lesbianism, and visceral sexual themes, with morbid body metamorphoses and grotesque, brain-inhabiting slugs, to produce a genuinely unique and offbeat viewing experience! In Earthling, Rebecca Spence plays Judith, a schoolteacher who begins having bizarre flashbacks and dreams about people she's never met, and events she's never lived. Worse, her body is changing -she's discovered a couple of gnarly growths on either side of her forehead, right at the hairline -she's becoming horny and not in a fun way! Judith doesn't understand what's happening to her, but several creepy people who introduce themselves seem to know quite a bit. The answer has something to do with her mother's death, a mysterious lake, and a comatose astronaut (Matt Socia) who was rescued from the orbiting space station after all hell broke loose up there. One of Judith's new acquaintances, a morose girl named Abby (Amelia Turner), likes to lure women to that enigmatic lake for gruesome littoral bait and switch encounters. The glade hides a repellent secret and after Judith's initial oddball brush with her, Abby's underground entourage of weirdo pals start turning up in unlikely places, triggering a twisted series of sick coincidences.

With touches of the 1972 Solaris (that dissertation-length Soviet movie about a planet with a living consciousness that begins to take cosmonauts under its influence, remade in 2002 with George Clooney), Earthling spans the gap between sociological exploration and outright icky sci-fi horror. Slimy aliens love to screw, and they like to screw humans, and it turns out, vice versa, but exactly who are the aliens and who are the earthlings? Is there truly so much difference between them and us, and does it really matter? What does it mean to be human, anyway? Judith is about to find out. As eerie repressed memories surface, what Judith discovers about herself, her new "friends," and her past is more than she'd like to know.

Judith pieces things together and the movie becomes a bit murky and disjointed. Is this an attempt on the part of the filmmakers to be arty, or does it help us understand her confusion, putting us in her perspective as she struggles to make sense of what's happening? I think the later, and as we go through Judith's experience with her, effective characterization and credible motivations draw us into Judith's nightmare and cause us to ponder. This is the best kind of story -the kind that makes you think. Earthling manages to stay a step ahead of us. Its twists and turns lead to an imaginative unraveling of reality with an ending that isn't predictable.

Even better, the horror of Earthling is the incipient sort, a mounting dread of losing control to something terrible and disgusting that's already deep inside and inescapable. Earthling is uncanny and unsettling because it's filmed like a drama, one that presents a deceptively reassuring, here-and-now sense of the cheery sunlit world around us, but at moments, that world distorts and reveals awful things. The contrast provides a subtle intensity which is delightfully disturbing. What is reality, and how much of it is subjectively determined by the way we conceive of ourselves? When Judith peels back her own mask and looks underneath, she -and we -discover the blood, veins, and mortality which we normally gloss over. The result is the type of revulsion that makes us squirm, the kind we can't get away from, because the horror is us.

Earthling isn't as momentous as 2001: A Space Odyssey, but like that imaginative, existential exploration, Earthling doesn't just hand us the concept; it requires the viewer to do some work, and upon the initial viewing, we carry away a general rather than a specific sense of what's transpired. Earthling's ideas are engaging and give us pause. If you found a planet populated by lifeforms whose personalities and values you really relate to, would you choose to go native? And if so, just how viscerally "native" would you be willing to go?
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Another Earth (2011)
A young woman becomes the lover of a man whose family she killed, while trying to determine if she committed the same crime in a parallel life.
5 September 2013
The ideas of parallel existences and multiple universes bolster Another Earth's introspective study of the concepts of choice, chance, what if's, and what-might-have-beens in this grim, despondent fantasy. Striking, a little dream-like, a tiny bit macabre, Another Earth is a different kind of science fiction movie.

When 17 year old Rhoda Williams (Brit Marling) gets her acceptance letter to MIT, she does the logical thing; gets wasted and goes for a drive. The thrust of the film relies heavily on this triggering incident, and as with other plot points in Another Earth, we have to disregard some inherent incongruity to appreciate the story. The incongruity is that the type of woman who Rhoda proves herself to be, not to mention the sort of capable person who gets into MIT in the first place, isn't the kind of character who drives drunk, especially with a bright future on the horizon. The whole point of Another Earth however, mandates sensitive protagonists linked by the weight of tragedies which happened by chance, so we'll forgive the unlikeliness of Rhoda's initial behavior to appreciate the whole of the effort.

There's plenty to appreciate, too. Nicely photographed, almost poetic in places, Another Earth is an atmosphere movie, but the atmosphere is derived more from quietly somber ideas, than from striking cinematography or dreamy settings.

In Another Earth, astronomers discover an Earth-like planet inexplicably approaching our own from behind the sun. As the discovery is announced over her radio, Rhoda, driving intoxicated, looks heavenward, and in her moment of inattention strikes another vehicle, killing a man's family, really splattering them all over the road like bugs. The survivor, the husband and father, John (Brit Marling), lingers in a four year coma, awakening from it at about the time that Rhoda is released from prison for her crime.

Rhoda is repentant and remorseful. ashamed, stunned by her actions, by the tragedy she's caused not only to others, but to herself as well. Living under an oppressive cloud of shame and humiliation, she withdraws from society as much as she can. In the meantime, the strange planet has been steadily approaching. It's now huge in the sky, and looks exactly like Earth. Overcome by her guilt, Rhoda contacts John. John, morose, withdrawn, soul-charred like Rhoda, living alone, and taking medications for his head injury, has no idea that Rhoda is the driver who smashed his life apart.

Sharing misfortune and isolation, Rhoda and John bond. She becomes his caretaker. She becomes his lover. It can only be a matter of time before John finds out who Rhoda is. Will he? What will happen if he does? At the same time, people make contact with the inhabitants of the parallel Earth. They are ourselves. It's populated by our doubles. But our two planet's synchronicity may have ceased the night each world became aware of the other, the night of the accident. Incredibly, Rhoda arranges passage to the new planet -but can she bring herself to leave John? If so, what will she find? Filmmaker Mike Cahill presents his story's premises matter-of-factly, and in such a quietly brooding tone that it causes us to effortlessly gloss over and accept Another Earth's innate artistic license with cosmology. Once we can accept the idea that somebody like Rhoda would commit vehicular manslaughter, we're pulled unquestioning into the ensuing events as if in a trance. There's no clear multiverse explanation for the approach of a second world. Another Earth isn't a realistic exploration of quantum theory or the physics of what would happen if a planet came close to our orbit. It's not that type of sci-fi. The film's ending is open to several interpretations. It's an art film, a mood piece. and despite the emotional charge of its events, Another Earth avoids being a melodrama because it's neither sappy and saccharine, nor emotionally manipulative. To the contrary, Another Earth cloaks us in an eerie ambiance, which despite the film's sober themes, leaves us in a state of azure overcast, ethereal introspection as if suddenly awakened from a leaden dream.
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Phase 7 (2010)
Quarantined in their apartment during a pandemic, a young couple must deal with misinformation and quirky, increasingly unstable neighbors.
6 August 2013
COMMENTS: Coco (Daniel Hendler) and Pipi (Jazmin Stuart) are a naive, happy couple who do normal kinds of things, like go to the grocery on Saturday morning. This Saturday morning is different however. On their way back, people begin swarming the streets in a panic. An epidemic has broken out and if the media is to believed, it's becoming worse by the minute. Monitoring the situation from home, Coco and Pipi's evening is interrupted by floodlights and loudspeakers. Their building's been quarantined and the emergency respondents are cordoning it off under a huge plastic tent, as if the tenants are termites to be exterminated. They find themselves sealed into their own apartment complex, forbidden to leave. They can only watch from their windows as the outside world turns to bedlam around them.

Bedlam is not confined to the outside for long. Inside, resources dwindle, utilities are cut off, and fellow residents get cabin fever and panic. Coco does his best to keep his head, protect Pipi, and hold down the fort.

It's not easy. It turns out that doomsday scenarios aren't necessarily like fast-paced action movies. Caught in the doldrums, Coco and Pipi are stuck waiting, waiting, waiting... Instead of excitement and contingency, the experience for the group of tenants is more about nagging spouses, running out of lightbulbs and toiletries, and putting up with annoying neighbors, i.e. each other -for awhile that is.

As the situation outside increases in severity, tension mounts. Pipi unwittingly works against Coco by innocently leaking critical personal information about their situation to an untrustworthy neighbor. Tenants fraction into factions. Coco must decide whether to go along with the prevailing group or stay out of it. The situation inside the complex degenerates further when under the auspices of moving a possibly infected neighbor off their floor, it becomes clear that the do-good members of the "apartment association" cell are out for their own gain. One thing leads to another and they attempt to force their way in on a fellow resident to loot his provisions.

The bodies begin to pile up. Residents are dying, but is it from a hemorrhagic plague, or are they being murdered? Sadly, Coco's best option seems to be to join forces with his paranoid but gregarious, survivalist upstairs friend Horacio (Yayo Guridi). He's a nice guy, but maybe insane. Horacio's apartment turns out to be a high-tech, reinforced bunker complete with an armory of automatic weapons, electronic surveillance equipment, maps, and stacks of classified government information. Horacio wants Coco to join forces with him, and offers him a CBR protective suit and a firearm. Then he invites Coco on patrol with him through the darkened stairwells and corridors of their massive apartment building. The neighbors are up to some monkey business of their own and these nightly sojourns through the edifice's labyrinthine passages turn out to be enlightening in an upsetting and disturbing kind of way. Maybe Horacio isn't so paranoid after all. He seems to know an awful lot about what's going on, more than anyone else. But can Coco trust him? Blackly comic but subtly so, Phase 7 combines suspense, grim social commentary, and unsettling insight into human nature in a thriller format which is interrupted by moments of horror. Artfully shot and well paced, Phase 7 makes dramatically good use of camera angles and framing. Lighting is alternately glaring and sterile, and gloomily claustrophobic. This emphasizes the film's thematic contrast; the delineation between the bright, logical, outside world of society, authority and officialdom, versus the insular, isolated, inner world of sanctuary and retreat. Yet as the film goes on, we begin to detect a double meaning; authority is questionable. Society is reasonable strictly on its surface, and only so long as everything is going well. Safe refuge, once cut off from the outside world, can quickly degenerate into an insular den of suspicion, irrational fear, and schizophrenia.

It's the cinematography that accomplishes this. Our sickening epiphany arrives not just from Phase 7's dialogue and action, but from a dual interpretation made possible by the very lighting and camera work itself. Ultimately, Phase 7 is about masquerade; how things -people and situations -can turn out to be something very different from their daily representations.

In Phase 7, Coco discovers that he can't trust anyone or anything other than his own judgment and instincts, but the trouble comes from not knowing for sure whether his personal interpretations are sound. Under the circumstances, with little reliable input to go on, and multiple variables and potential explanations for what's happening, every course of action is a gamble. Coco must do his best to make the right choices to deliver himself and Pipi from myriad dangers which mount behind every turn of their complex's twisting stairwells, foreboding cavernous parking garage, and eerily dimmed corridors.
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Penumbra (2011)
On the day of a full solar eclipse, a young businesswoman showing an apartment finds that it attracts an unusual clientèle, with designs on more than just the unit itself.
25 July 2013
This is the second unique, high quality thriller I've discovered this year that turned out to be from Argentina, the first being PHASE 7. Filmmakers, the Bogliano brothers, have come a long way from their last film, a disturbing, unfocused effort entitled COLD SWEAT, about abduction and captivity at the hands of a couple of aging serial killers who murder their victims by blowing pieces of them off with nitroglycerin.

Penumbra begins as a perverse psychological thriller, builds like a mystery, then turns a crimson corner into the panic territory of violence and the occult. Along the way, we're kept guessing. One can't determine where the truth lies. Unsettling is the use of sunlight to build a sense of foreboding. So many horror films depend upon twilight and gloom to blur the line between fantasy and reality. In Penumbra, the sun itself is somehow knowing and conspiratorial.

With Penumbra, the Bogliano brothers have created something fresh and interesting. With a hint of foreshadowing, the film's cross-genre approach throws us off-balance. We don't know where this story is going, so every turn it makes is a surprise. It doesn't shock us with spine-tingling chills, but it makes us uneasy and has a genuine creep-out factor that only becomes more disturbing upon its downbeat denouement. The story keeps building and building, adding unexpected elements and creating pressure like a tensile-strength test. The situation into which the protagonist entraps herself becomes increasingly brittle. We wonder what event is going to transpire to create the inevitable sickening shatter as the bottom drops out in little pieces.

Penumbra isn't profound, but it's solid. Its characters are credible, the dialogue is simple and effective, there's no awkward exposition -the story tells itself at it unfolds. There's nothing far-fetched about the plot, which takes its cue from familiar events, but utilizes them in a such a way that we get a story which is unfamiliar. Viewers looking for a change from the routine, but who prefer an effective, conventionally-shot film that's easy to follow, will enjoy Penumbra and wish to keep an eye on future efforts from Adrián and Ramiro Bogliano.

In the story, Margo (Brondo) a Barcelona entrepreneur pursuing a project in Beunos Aires, is having a peculiar day. Everything is a little off-kilter, from canceled appointments and business ambiguities, to just plain odd run-ins with panhandling soothsayers which escalate into misunderstandings with the authorities. Throughout it all flows a droll undercurrent of the absurd, as if the day can't get any weirder, that later it will be merely an anecdote to be laughed at. Adding to the irksome ambiance is a blazing white-hot solar furnace in a cloudless, azure sky. It's hot today, and unusually bright. Margo's not the only one to notice it. Something strange and troublesome is in the air as the sun makes its way toward a scheduled total eclipse.

Margo has invested in an apartment which she is showing. There's a quality that's not quite right about the prospective tenants. They're stalling, and while receiving them, Margo's keys disappear. Her cellphone minutes vanish. Because the door to the security building locks both ways. Margo can't get out, and help can't get in. Her clients begin to behave increasingly strangely. They are determined to buy. Margo is fiercely intent to sell. So why then can't they seem to finalize the transaction? A chain of events transpires, each in quick succession, yet the afternoon drags by. Margo begins to languish, and it's as if the day's events are suspended in a timeless ether, going nowhere -slowly. Other things start to go disturbingly wrong. Strange noises, a neighbor may be trying to drug or poison Margo, and the apartment's pantry door is stuck. Through the keyhole, Margo can see an oblong burlap bundle. Is it moving? Is she going mad? Something funny is going on, but Margo's not laughing. In fact, there's something funny about the apartment itself. It has a history which predates the very edifice, a secret, which obfuscated in the shadows of masonry and mortar for ages, has been waiting to reveal itself in the affirming light of some sunny day.

And look! The sun is coming up!
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London Voodoo (2004)
A dead Voodoo priestess snatches the body of a yuppie housewife, then sets her sights on the husband.
25 July 2013
Voodoo is alive and fashionable in this novel, swank supernatural chiller! Engaging, to-the-point cinematography, Steven Severin's moody score, and a fresh, pensive story make London Voodoo an arty choice for the thinking horror patron. It's brooding, yet suspenseful, with good timing and a quick pace. This is writer/director Robert Patten's first of two independent feature efforts. Patten achieves a good balance between credible horror and reality that doesn't insult our intelligence.

Business executive Lincoln Mathers (Doug Cockel) and his wife Sarah (Sara Stewart), move to a posh London town house. It's everything they could want. Quaint, chic, and historic, with a pair of century-old corpses in the basement. Of course, the moldy cadavers aren't a selling point. Sarah discovers them during renovations. That's normal for an old historic house, right? Except maybe for the eyes-rolled-up-in-the-back-of-her-head seizure Sarah endures when she tampers with them Buried with the bodies are oddball religious artifacts. Sarah's damned curious. Her latest hobby is local historical research, and she wants to solve the cadaver mystery. Doug is overwhelmed with a new high-salaried, 16 hour-a-day, executive position. He wants Sarah out of his hair so he leaves her to it.

Makes sense.

Sarah's hobby turns out to be ... well, consuming. The cellar dwellers aren't actually dead, they just smell that way. They're an evil Voodoo priestess and her lover, slain by her prior followers. The un-dead duo decide that existing in their decaying, de-animated bodies under the basement floor is a bit boring. The priestess condemns Sarah's sumptuous body for a soul transfer, and she's taking possession now! Before you can say, "that old black magic," Sarah's mere presence sours milk and rots fruit.. She finds deep joy in collecting bits of Doug's skin and hair. Sarah prowls the flat like a puma in heat. clad in BDSM lingerie, nipples erect, an obsessive, determined look in her eye. When Doug postpones sex to read a prospectus sent home by the boss, Sarah rips off the cover page, stuffs it between her legs, then crams it in his mouth while cursing in Creole.

The friendly neighborhood Voodoo sect wants to help, but Doug dismisses them as crackpots. ( Not that they're any stranger than the way Sarah's been acting.) Doug's too distracted with his soul sucking finance job to do more than write off Sarah's shenanigans as a midlife crisis. But as Sarah transforms into an undulating, deviant, sexually insatiable vixen, family politics grow awkward.

That local Voodoo cult has a solution, if Doug will only listen. It's not a pleasant treatment option to say the least, but Doug had better wise up because the Voodoo vixen and her dead lover think Doug's man-flesh is just what the witch doctor ordered.

Viewers may remember movie composer Steven Severin from Siouxsie and the Banshees and Sara Stewart as Martha Wayne in Batman Begins.

Fans of the genre seeking other intelligent entries of the same quality as London Voodoo might also enjoy Don't Look Now (1973), The Serpent and The Rainbow (1988), and True Believer (1989).
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MindFlesh (2008)
A troubled man summons an alien nymphomaniac. She just may represent a race of gods, and they're none too happy about her latest tryst.
25 July 2013
Wow! Mindflesh threw me for a loop and really knocked me back in my seat! Discovering a prize like this in a media slurry of mainstream mediocrity is like running across the fabled Star of India in a trash heap.

Slick, fresh, Mindflesh is a bizarre horror yarn about sexual obsession, body disassociation, and morbid metamorphoses. Independent writer/director Robert Patten outdoes himself, making an extreme departure from his first feature length effort, London Voodoo (reviewed below.) Mindflesh is a surreal shocker. It's sexy, grotesque, and provocative. It's a crazy, jarring ride through alternative consciousness, through the chilling, the macabre, the uncanny, and the wantonly perverse. Patten has accomplished the nearly impossible task of visually translating to the screen in a sensible manner, William Scheinman's quirky, metaphysical novel, White Light, replete with all of its dreamlike nuances, grim foreboding atmosphere, and otherworldly Ick! factor.

What transpires in Mindflesh isn't presented via corny, over-simplified exposition, yet we manage to achieve an intuitive grasp of the phenomena that unfolds. The result is a movie that challenges us with its imaginative concepts, yet is not hard to understand.

Chris (Peter Bramhill) lives after dark, quiet, solitary, driving a mini-cab through the swirling night fog along the damp asphalt traverses of darkened London. Dimmed neon signs, empty boulevards, abandoned parking lots, the lonely, sleeping city is his domain. Issuing from the receivers in his cab is the distracted soundtrack to his nocturnal patrolling, a mottled, perpetual backdrop of scratchy radio traffic -dispatch messages, police reports, weather bulletins, and static. It's a world alien to that which most of us are accustomed.

Chris finds out just how alien it can be.

He may have some special sensitivity. Chris is haunted by murky half-memories of something awful from years ago. Increasingly, he suffers from terrifying dreams and hallucinations. From a book, he encounters the hypothesis that trauma warps our plane of existence, creating holes in the fabric of space time through which various phenomena cross between parallel worlds.

Chris's suppressed angst, unmet inner need, wistfulness, and loneliness radiate from him like an aura. By chance, it catches the notice of an enigmatic stranger with a similar perceptive gift.

During his travels through the urban twilight, in shadows, out of the corner of his eye, in his rear-view mirrors -is it a trick of the light? - Chris gets mysterious glimpses of an apparition, a woman (Carole Derrien ), solitary, resolute, watching him.

Her appearance is accompanied by electromagnetic disturbances. His automobile compass spins wildly. Radio transmissions warp and undulate, becoming unintelligible. When Chris approaches the mystery woman, she vanishes into a smoke trail, shimmering out of sight in a spiral of mist.

Chris desires her absolutely. An inter-planar transcendence takes place. The woman achieves a physical manifestation, acquiring form out of thin air. Has Chris willed her into this world, or has she willed herself here, entwining with our plane of existence in order to entwine with Chris? She flickers in and out of earthly reality, until In an example of utter Pygmalionism gone awry she materializes from the skeleton up. Organs fill in the gaps, skin follows. Slick with lymph and blood, basking in the presence of Chris's humanity, she finalizes like a caterpillar transforming in the chrysalis.

She is a quantum Goddess; sex incarnate, saturated, oozing, seething with desire. She and Chris engage in a ghastly, slimy, ethereal coupling, an obscene union of heaving, illicit, inter-species sex. In her amorous frenzy, the Goddess trashes Chris's apartment, seducing him tirelessly, repeatedly, transforming him into a quivering lump of catatonia. She pulls him into her alien universe and he undergoes a bodily transformation into her peculiar native anatomy.

Problematically, some very frightful aliens make the scene. They have heavy grievances about Goddess leaving her plane for the earthly realm. They're willing to do some very nasty things to get her back.! Chris is burdened with the job of returning her, and sheer hell awaits him if he falters. To achieve his salvation, Chris must discover how the Goddess is linked to a sinister episode in his deliberately obfuscated past.

But how? Mindflesh is colorful and wonderfully twisted. Arban Ornelas's score effectively reinforces its vivid imagery and seamlessly blends the film's segue-ways. Patten's striking cinematic technique is captivating and compelling. His transitions between scenes, the way he melds flashbacks, dreams, and hallucinatory experiences artfully conveys their meaning in a manner that's concise and logically accessible to the audience.

Mindflesh is almost a 10 Pints Of Blood horror film. It just misses the bullseye. Chris's Achilles heel is right out of a famous Greek tragedy. The effect is melodramatic. More surprisingly, in the otherwise sound screenplay, there are a couple of easily avoidable logical flaws which occur later in the story, We try to overlook these incongruities because they pale in comparison to the movie's sensationally striking visual and imaginative elements. For a horror movie, Mindflesh is in the top tier, sporting visual effects and horror styling reminiscent of Altered States, Videodrome, Hellraiser, Possession (1981), Species, and Splice.
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Dark Souls (2010)
A man tracks his daughter's attacker, an enigmatic killer who injects a bizarre pathogen into his victims' brains.
14 May 2013
A toolbox killer is running loose in Oslo with a nasty drilling habit. After screwing a hole in his victims' skulls, he injects something strange into their brains which kills them. But not for long. They come back to life, their gradually rotting bodies producing a mysterious new hydrocarbon, like crude oil, a foul, caustic, bilious substance which they vomit up in great abundance.

When his daughter (Broch) is found dead with a drill hole in her cranium, Morten (Ravn) receives a call from the police requesting him to identify her body. But he can't, he answers, there must be some mistake. She's perfectly alright, right here at home, just came in the door.

But Morten's daughter Maria is anything but alright. Her face is rotting and she's barfing oil. When perplexed doctors ask to experiment on her, Morten decides to take Maria back home, covering all his furnishings with protective plastic to guard against her, um, frequent spills. Brain damaged, deranged, Maria stumbles about the apartment and stares blankly at the dinner table, repeatedly banging her spoonful of mashed potatoes into her cheek and forehead instead of into her mouth.

Meanwhile, the victim count rises as the mad driller strikes again and again throughout Oslo. Following a chance encounter in which the culprit attacks Morten, Morten, with Maria in tow, begins tracking the maniac. Morten discovers a ghastly connection to a sinister North Sea, deep drilling oil disaster, as he unearths a bizarre, nightmarish, dark plot.

Dark Souls is a Norwegian effort, and North Seas oil production is a major nationalized industry in Norway. Eighty percent of Norwegian petroleum production is owned by the government, which retains 85% of net petroleum revenues. The Norwegian government effectively distributes the benefits of its oil wealth, regionally and throughout its population. Due also in part to a generous social welfare system, an equitable labor relations system and a progressive tax system, Norway can boast one of the lowest levels of income inequality in the world.

The benefit comes at a cost; Like any country, Norway has had its share of shameful petroleum mishaps, from the June 2000 Project Deep Spill, the first ever international deep sea oil spill, to the more recent 2007 Statfjord oil spill, and the 2009 Full City oil spill. Norway has strong government oversight of oil exploration and extraction. Citizens expect accountability from their governing bodies. Controversial courses of action by Norway's Ministries of Industry and Petroleum and Energy have been the subject of major environmental protests and lawsuits. An example stems from the Norwegian government's go-ahead for continued Arctic drilling despite appalling, hazardous 2007 and 2008 StatoilHydro leaks in the Barents Sea.

It's little wonder then that Norway's Dark Souls' finds its inspiration in the viscous black well of its own petroleum industry. The film's prominent themes are familiar ones. The concept of environmental bad karma and mysterious substances which once ingested, wreak recombinant DNA havoc strongly smack of movies we've seen before. To wit: H.G. Wells' The Food of the Gods (1976), The Children (1980 and 2008 -previously reviewed here), and The Stuff (1985). In each of these films, malignant industries go too far in the name of greed. Fallout ensues in the form of a grotesque backlash where monsters dole out horrid retribution upon the society which passively stood by while corporate outrages were committed against nature.

Some subtle tongue-in-cheek posturing lets us know that Dark Souls doesn't take itself too seriously, yet it is never campy or silly. The film manages to combine some chills with delightfully disgusting revulsion. Featuring an abundance of Steadicam shots, Dark Souls imposes a close-in, almost documentary-style, gritty feeling, without straying into the realm of cheap "found footage" style movies. While more mysterious and eerie than horrifying and scary, Dark Souls is a first rate production with a few memorable scenes, and a refreshing lack of a Hollywood-requisite "happy ending."
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Shocking Blue (2010)
A teenager finds himself challenged by his best friend's untimely death, and his emotions complicated when he enters into a relationship with the boy's pregnant girlfriend.
18 March 2011
Shocking Blue is an hypnotically filmed character portrait and ballad about a boy's inner struggle to grapple with very strong, unanticipated emotions. Thomas (van Weelden) is dazed by shock and guilt over his high school chum's sudden and gruesomely violent death. The event triggers a flood of feelings for which no one has prepared him, at a time when life has already found him conflicted and uncertain.

Confronted with the requirement to understand his sentiments regarding a promiscuous sister, an estranged mother, and the opposite sex in general, Thomas has few coping options or sources of emotional support other than a third friend who was complicit in the accidental death, so he engages himself in his dream of breeding a rare, blue tulip. Thomas's quest to create the azure flower serves as a mild metaphor for the cycle and fragility of life, those things which are desirable, fleeting, or difficult to obtain, and the inevitability of death.

When Thomas meets a girl with whom he finds himself quite taken, he is appalled to discover that she is carrying his dead friend's child. This revelation triggers a new wave of confusion and conflict for him. Thomas finds himself facing his first significant challenge in life, when he must decide whether to cling to youthful abandon, or ascend to the next level in his maturation.

Shocking Blue surprised me in that the film manifests a rare depiction of teenagers who are genuinely likable, wholesome characters. Unlike the under twenty-somethings portrayed in most movies, they are neither Philistine, nor culturally self-destitute, wallowing in a frenzy of drug- fueled rap music, tattoos, and piercings. To the contrary, Shocking Blue's characters are reasonable, sympathetic kids. The gentle mood and quiet presentation of their story makes studying their interactions absorbing and thought-provoking.

Shocking Blue treats its subject in an intimate, non-convoluted manner. The plot is linear and the story deceptively simple. The viewer may find himself mesmerized into a serene state of enchantment until the climax slaps him back to reality with a sensational misfortune right out of a Sam Shepard play. There is little shock value in Shocking Blue however. No violence, nudity or plot twists. While the title, "Shocking Blue" tickled my twisted imagination and made me hope for a foreboding story about deception,jealousy, and murder, I am quite content to have instead discovered this intriguingly pensive and pastoral art film.
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