Sunday, December 29, 2019

Two Evil Eyes (1990)

Directors: George A. Romero, Dario Argento
Notable Cast: Adrienne Barbeau, Ramy Zada, Bingo O’Malley, Harvey Keitel, Madeleine Potter, John Amos, Sally Kirkland, Kim Hunter, Tom Atkins

As a horror fan, there a few things I’m a sucker for. Well, it’s a lot of things. For the sake of this review, it’s necessary to know four of them: Edgar Allen Poe, George Romero, Dario Argento, and anthologies. Combining these four pieces into one film should be a recipe for success. Going into Two Evil Eyes, that’s the mindset I adopted. Particularly when Blue Underground gives the film some incredibly lavish treatment in this latest 3-Disc Blu Ray set. It’s something of a shame that it’s a film that I haven’t seen until this point, if anything for the four reasons above, but lukewarm reactions from a lot of my cinephile friends created hesitation in me to leap into the film. Maybe the idea of it is better than the actual product.

Apprentice to Murder (1988)

Director: Ralph L. Thomas
Notable Cast: Donald Sutherland, Chad Lowe, Mia Sara, Knut Husebo, Rutanya Alda, Eddie Jones, Mark Burton, Adrian Sparks, Tiger Haynes, Minnie Gentry

The use of the ‘based on true events’ gimmick is such a wild card that it’s hard to predict what it actually means for a film. In the case of Apprentice to Murder, it’s a signifier that the film is going to ride its melodrama pretty hard. The film had a decent amount of hype around it for me, thanks to be somewhat of a rare film prior to the new Arrow Video Blu Ray release, but now that it’s in my collection, it’s understandable why the film went by the wayside without much of a murmur. Apprentice to Murder is forgettable. It certainly has its merits, particularly in how the film handles its performances and many of its subplots. On the whole though, perhaps it’s not so surprising that it was a film that fell off of the path of mainstream classics and into the ditch where cult cinema fans would find it.

Sunday, December 22, 2019

Malevolence Trilogy (Malevolence, Bereavement, Malevolence 3: Killer) (2004, 2010, 2018)

By 2004, the end of the post-Scream slasher resurgence was finally coming to an end. Although that is a heavily debated era of horror by fans and critics alike, its end spelled some good things to come for horror. Namely, it allowed the slasher genre to take a step back from the limelight and go back underground where it could find some creative forces. When the first Malevolence film premiered at the end of 2004 (although it did not receive a home video release until the next year – which is where I discovered the film) it was one of the films that marked that shift in style. It found enough of a cult audience that director/writer/producer Stevan Mena was able to finish off his trilogy of films, even against some horrific circumstances that had the third film postponed almost indefinitely. The trilogy has now found its way onto Blu Ray and it’s a welcome addition to any horror fan’s collection. This piece will cover all three films – a weird gap in our catalog admittedly since I sang the praises of the films since 2005 and hopefully, it will spur a few people to take a chance on this remarkably fascinating franchise.

Tuesday, December 17, 2019

Black Christmas (2019)

Directed by: Sophia Takal
Notable cast: Imogen Poots, Aleyse Shannon, Lily Donahue, Cary Elwes

Remakes are always a tricky business. I say this as one who’s generally more favorable to them than most. In theory, you have to serve the twin masters of appeasing the original fans and thrilling new ones or focus on one or the other, often alienating the unserved audience. There are certainly decent examples of all three and terrible examples as well, but it is a conflict all remakes share. The new version of Black Christmas largely focuses on the “thrilling new take” angle, and I think that it may have unlocked the true potential of this story’s concept, while admittedly walking into a few pitfalls of the genre as well.

Maintaining the basic conceit of sorority girls staying on campus during the holiday season and then being taunted by phone, stalked, and killed, it’s the only real callback to either previous version of this story. The original Black Christmas was very much an exploration of the “killer is calling from within the house” campfire story archetype, while this new one is a pure slasher focused through a lens of modern feminism. I think there are a lot of good ideas in play, although I do think the narrative fails the concept here.

Sunday, December 15, 2019

Toys Are Not for Children (1972)

Director: Stanley H. Brassloff
Notable Cast: Marcia Forbes, Harlan Cary Poe, Evelyn Kingsley, Luis Arroyo, Fran Warren, Peter Lightstone, Tiberia Mitri

Cult cinema provides a variety of surprises lying under the docile surface of what generally looks like calm waters. Even the most mundane of genres can pop with something impactful and strange once a person starts dragging the waters to find what’s beneath. Toys Are Not for Children is one of those odd films that can be dredged up from the depths. Taking what could have translated into a more serious and abrasive adult drama concept from a relatively exploitative baseline, the film has a raw and occasionally dream-like quality that adds a surprising amount of style to its low budget. The film struggles to find a cohesion of tone and the messages are blurred, albeit intentionally so at times, but the overall experience of what is brought to the surface here is evocative and gets the mind thinking – even if it stumbles through some of it.

Thursday, November 28, 2019

The Leg Fighters (1980)

Director: Lee Tso-Nam
Notable Cast: Ha Kwong-Li, Dorian Tan Tao-Liang, Wang Hsieh, Tsai Hung, Peng Kang, Sun Jung-Chi, Shih Ting-Ken, Chin Lung
Also known as: The Invincible Kung Fu Legs

The last few years has seen a significant uptick in the amount and quality of proper releases for martial arts films from the golden age of the genre. For fans, like myself, it’s about time. Living in the realms of bootlegs and poor-quality editions, getting restored home video releases of so many overlooked classics is a miracle. When it was announced that the fan favorite The Leg Fighters was getting a coveted Blu Ray release through a new label, Pearl River, I was shocked. Most of the proper HK and martial arts releases were from the major two studios, Shaw Brothers and Golden Harvest, and the others have been buried to questionable DVDs and dubbed/VHS rips on the Wu Tang Collection via YouTube. In fact, prior to this release, I had only seen a dubbed low-quality version of this film. Needless to say, the fact that this film even exists in this format for the US means its worth buying for all fans of the genre.

An American Werewolf in London (1981)

Director: John Landis
Notable Cast: David Naughton, Griffin Dunne, Jenny Agutter, John Woodvine, Brian Glover

Writing about An American Werewolf in London is a daunting task. There are a slew of other writers and film critics who have analyzed the film from beginning to end for its cultural relevance, the strength of execution, and its ability to weave genres and, truthfully, most of them are smarter than I am. Nonetheless, I was tasked with the insurmountable task of reviewing the new Arrow Video Blu Ray release of the film and, thus, it’s time to wear my shoes and hike this mountain. To say that An American Werewolf in London is an American cinematic classic is a bit of an understatement. It’s a film that has lasted the test of time with its strange and off-kilter blend of horror and humor, but it might be most remembered for how it helped to modernize the werewolf genre along with the other big werewolf film in 1981 – The Howling.

Tuesday, November 26, 2019

The Ring Collection (2019)

It was only a few years ago I wrote a piece at Blood Brothers about the relevancy of the Ring franchise for horror. At the time there was two new films due for release, the wildly entertaining Sadako vs Kayoko and the less-said-the-better American sequel, Rings. Now, it’s time to take a look at the franchise once again, not just because we are going another new film – Sadako, which sees the return of Hideo Nakata to the director’s chair, but because Arrow Video has done everyone a huge favor. They just released a phenomenal box set with new HD restorations of the first four Japanese and any fans of the films, cinema collectors, or even newbies will want to pick up this set and dig into its gold mine of contents.

It should be noted that the American release of this set is the same one as the UK one from last year, although the titles have been slightly changed to reflect the silly US titling which is Ringu and not Ring. I will continue to use the term Ring through this piece because, quite frankly, the name Ringu is stupid. Fortunately, my opinion on that seems to be backed fairly heavily on the special features of this set so at least there’s that.

Friday, November 15, 2019

The Prey (1983)

Director: Edwin Brown
Notable Cast: Debbie Thureson, Steve Bond, Lori Lethin, Robert Wald, Gayle Gannes, Phillip Wenckus, Jackson Bostwick, Jackie Coogan

There isn’t a lot that one can expect from the slasher genre if we are being truly honest with ourselves. If a film has depth, a unique character perspective, or style, it’s already sliding into the upper echelon of what is to be expected. When broken down, there is only one real thing that I want to see from a slasher – entertainment. The formula isn’t rocket science, but the film, good or bad, just needs to be entertaining to some degree. Of course, that’s exactly what The Prey lacks. Normally, if Arrow Video is going to go to the effort and deliver a release like this filled with a new restoration, tons of special features, and a great package – you assume the film is probably some sort of lost gem. The Prey is not one.

Sunday, November 10, 2019

Doctor Sleep (2019)

Directed by: Mike Flanagan
Notable cast: Ewan McGregor, Rebecca Ferguson, Kyliegh Curran, Cliff Curtis

Doctor Sleep has all the ingredients to be either an unmitigated disaster or an unambiguous victory. Positioning itself as a follow-up to both the book and filmic versions of The Shining while having to tell its own, largely unrelated story. That’s a lot of juggling for any film, but add to the metaphor that two of those flying balls are hand grenades, and I mean that in the sense that director Mike Flanagan has to show proper reverence to two masters.

The Shining, as a book, is on the shortlist of absolute Stephen King masterpieces and is unambiguously supernatural in its telling. There is no question that the ghosts that Jack Torrence sees are literal, and the whole thing, although thematically and metaphorically about addiction, is real and is really happening. The Shining, as a film, is on the shortlist of greatest films ever made period, directed by a man who never produced a single dud and is nothing but ambiguous about everything in its telling. Focused almost exclusively with Jack Nicholson’s far less hinged and sympathetic take on Torrence, this movie is an exploration of abuse, isolation and madness, while maintaining the theme of addiction. Suffice it to say, King famously loathes the adaptation, which is the final wrinkle in what makes the concept of a Doctor Sleep movie so wild.

Saturday, November 9, 2019

Telluride Horror Show 2019: Daniel Isn't Real (2019)

Director: Adam Egypt Mortimer
Notable Cast: Miles Robbins, Patrick Schwarzenegger, Sasha Lane, Chukwudi Iwuji, Mary Stuart Masterson

At this point, while the term ‘elevated horror’ is making the rounds, I feel like we should address the latest trend of ‘neon horror.’ Can we make that a thing? The Neon Demon, Mandy, Bliss, and a dozen other films have all come out in the last few years that utilize throwback aesthetics like heavy synth scores, saturated neon lighting, and throwback visuals. Well, regardless if anyone else is going to use the term, I am. More or less because this is exactly where Daniel Isn’t Real falls into. Surrealistic horror with an old school approach to the visuals, but a modern approach to the narrative. While I adore all of the films mentioned above (that’s also just horror – let’s not even get started on the neon elements of John Wick and how that has affected action cinema) Daniel Isn’t Real handily belongs to that group. It’s a manic ride through the urban setting of its youth culture, slyly integrating social and moral commentaries into a film that increasingly feels more Clive Barker-esque as it unravels. It’s enigmatic, engaging, and most fittingly – entertaining. Not only will this end up being one of the best horror films of the year, it could very well find itself on the best films of the year list.

The problematic part about reviewing a film like Daniel Isn’t Real is that the film leans so heavily on the experiential portion of connecting with its audience that, to truly talk about why this film works, it would spoil so much of its plotting and character beats. It’s a fuckin’ great problem to have. The start of the film features the protagonist, Luke (played later by a character-defining performance from Miles Robbins,) as a kid who is revealed to be from a rather volatile home life. When he sees the aftermath of a vicious mass shooting on the street, his imaginary friend Daniel first appears. Although Daniel allows him to cope with his situation and give him a friend to talk to, Daniel eventually starts to push Luke in some problematic ways and with that, and the help of his mother, he locks Daniel away. Fast forward to Luke as a college student where his life is perpetually disappointing and, in an attempt to free his imagination and work on his own mental state, he unleashes Daniel once again.

A large part of Daniel Isn’t Real feels like it’s meant to be the Fight Club for the next generation. Many of the same concepts remain including the use of an imaginary friend of extreme toxic masculinity, an undercurrent subtext about mental instability, and a fantasy-like sense of style. It just handles those themes and weighty ideas in a different manner. Daniel Isn’t Real isn’t much for replicating the films its pulling influence from, but it certainly takes some of the better qualities and mixes them together with its own sense of identity. The concoction is intoxicating.

 Director Adam Egypt Mortimer comes out all guns blazing on this sophomore effort too. As mentioned previously, there is a visual style to the film that encompasses both modern and throwback values. The use of synth scores, the neon caked lighting, and the growing existential surrealism of Luke’s descent and rise against his imaginary friend give the film immense amounts of tone and atmosphere. With the stellar performances, including a career-defining high for both Miles Robbins and a truly fascinating turn for Patrick Schwarzenegger, the film rarely has a weak spot to think of and even the romantic subplot, given some very palpable energy by the chemistry between Robbins and Sasha Lane, is well integrated into the main conflict of the story.

To go much further would undermine the experience of watching Daniel Isn’t Real and although there are a few reveals in the second half that felt like they needed a bit more exploration at times, the well-executed and intriguing film that is delivered remains one of the best this year. It’s unnerving, it approaches the anxieties of modern youth in a fascinating way, and the execution is top-notch. Daniel might not be real, but the quality of this film is.

Written By Matt Reifschneider

Saturday, November 2, 2019

Telluride Horror Show 2019: Sweetheart (2019)

Director: JD Dillard
Notable Cast: Kiersey Clemons, Emory Cohen, Hanna Mangan Lawrence, Benedict Samuel

As cinema continues to become more expensive for patrons to go to the theaters, the general clamor for bigger and more spectacular entertainment only becomes stronger. There are certainly counterpoints to this movement, but the percentage of films of a more intimate or smaller scale are quicker and quicker to be bumped from a wide release and onto streaming platforms. This is a trend that certainly ignites quite a few debates, but it’s a trend that is only becoming more prevalent as time passes. On the other hand, there’s a slew of great smaller and more intimate films that are still being made to help level out the playing field. Although I was fortunate enough to have the chance to see Sweetheart on the big screen via the Telluride Horror Show, this is a film that Blumhouse understandably sent to the smaller screen. It’s a fantastic film for what it is, but it doesn’t necessarily match the buzz and bluster that theatrical going audiences would want to visit in a wide theatrical release.

Countdown (2019)

Director: Justin Dec
Notable cast: Elizabeth Lail, Jordan Calloway, Talitha Eliana Bateman, PJ Byrne

Horror is an interesting genre to be a specific fan of. It tends to have the least studio oversight owing to lower overall budgets. This has been used to phenomenal effect over the years telling bigger, more insightful stories than you’d assume its plot allows. Hereditary and it’s exploration of family dynamics and legacy, Babadook and it’s exploration of mental health, The Shining and whatever interpretation is popular at the time. On the other hand, this can go the other way as well. With low budgets and low expectations come the people who see horror as low hanging fruit. A quick buck to be made, since they only have to be interesting enough to get comparatively few butts in seats to be profitable, and even if they’re not, they can license the movie out to several streaming services. The bottom line is they will make money, by and large, so they can be low effort.

I’m not trying to brush this lower effort class of film with a broad, universally terrible brush, because that wouldn’t be strictly fair. There are flashes of real ideas in these sometimes. I’m not saying Countdown is one of these better than it should be movies, quite the opposite actually, but I am trying to highlight that I believe there was potential, and perhaps potential in the future, because the idea here is actually pretty cool. In theory.

Monday, October 28, 2019

Legend of the Demon Cat (2017/2019)

Director: Chen Kaige
Notable Cast: Huang Xuan, Shota Sometani, Kitty Zhang, Qin Hao, Hiroshi Abe, Keiko Matsuzaka, Liu Haoran, Oho Ou, Zhang Tianai, Zhang Luyi

When the trailer for Legend of the Demon Cat originally dropped, there was a skepticism that came with it. The film looked to be a strange tonal balance, genre-hopping moment to moment and coming off as more of a gimmick than expected. Of course, this is something of a normal thing for Chinese cinema. When the film started garnering some awards attention, especially from the Asian Film Awards, my interest immediately piqued. Naturally, that excitement faded as the release of the film gestated for a long time before its US release from Well Go USA.  With its Blu Ray release now on store shelves, there is going to be an interesting reaction to Legend of the Demon Cat. It’s a bold classic fantasy tale Chinese mythology, ripe with mystery and some truly poignant imagery, but it’s also a film that often does not pander to more casual film fans. It’s an emotionally powered story first and foremost and will, in a shocking way, actively lean away from its genre conventions. For that choice, the film deserves a lot of respect, even if it ends up being more of a drama with fantasy elements than vice versa. 

Thursday, October 24, 2019

Gemini Man (2019)

Director: Ang Lee
Notable Cast: Will Smith, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Clive Owen, Benedict Wong

There are a couple of angles from which to view Gemini Man. As a film, obviously, but also as a technological feat. An average film is shot in, and subsequently released in, 24 – 29 frames per second, with television being shot on video, traditionally, at closer to 60 frames per second. There are both technical and budgetary reasons for this, but that’s beside the point I’m driving at. The point is that this is why soap operas have that “soap opera look” or why motion smoothing on your TV makes movies looks weird (motion smoothing effectively doubles the frame rate of whatever you’re watching), you’re literally seeing twice as much visual information per second. However, what’s interesting is that these numbers are arbitrary. There were technical reasons at some point in history, for all of this of course, that we consider the ‘look’ of a film is 24 frames per second. It’s now ingrained at a near “cultural memory” level. Recently, there is a group of filmmakers that really focused in on where the numbers were technically arbitrary and have been pushing ultra-high frame rates. Peter Jackson’s Hobbit trilogy was shot in 48fps, for a notable example. Gemini Man is shot at 120 frames per second.

Saturday, October 19, 2019

The Lighthouse (2019)

Director: Robert Eggers
Notable Cast: Robert Pattinson, Willem Dafoe

There is a certain temptation whenever one sees New England, the late 1800s, and tentacles in a horror movie trailer to assume it’s a Lovecraftian horror. It’s a tendency that makes a certain kind of sense when you have a surface level understanding of HP Lovecraft’s themes. Weird mysteries, madness and aquatic terror. After reading one of his works, let’s take Call of Cthulhu as an example which is a fascinating experience the first time, you realize that the titular creature is barely a factor in the story and the ultimate point was that a ship ramming it at full speed (the era’s equivalent to a nuclear bomb, mind you) wasn’t even enough to warrant the creature’s attention. It drives the narrator mad. That is not the kind of tale Eggers is telling in his follow-up to The Witch. I actually found the story, such as it is, much more Kafkaesque with a healthy portion of David Lynch and modeled on a fisherman’s tale in the way Witch was a dark fairy tale. To extend my comparison to its breaking point, Lovecraft stories tended to be about normal people in impossible, existential crisis, often learning that humanity might not be the biggest baddest thing on the planet, and that our planet is likely insignificant altogether. Kafka’s stories were about ordinary people in extraordinarily mundane situations that almost felt like a cruel punishment, often for no reason or at least inequivalent reasons, and that is more how The Lighthouse feels. The more that is shown the less the film makes sense, which is glorious within the film’s nightmare logic.

Tuesday, October 15, 2019

Telluride Horror Show 2019: 1BR (2019)

No poster currently available.

Director: David Marmor
Notable Cast: Nicole Brydon Bloom, Taylor Nichols, Giles Matthey, Susan Davis, Celeste Sully, Clayton Hoff, Alan Blumenfeld, Naomi Grossman

One of the best experiences of sitting in a cinema is having a film where the final act completely makes the film. Often times on social media, I’ll use the term #SavedByTheThirdAct, but occasionally it is just a film where the finale is such catharsis and a culmination of everything in such a fantastic manner it executes everything – flaws and all. This was the experience of watching 1BR at Telluride Horror Show this year. The film starts off with a relatively slow pace and loose narrative, but the final 20 minutes is a rip-roaring combination that makes all of the efforts of its ensemble work, it’s sly genre shifts, and slow character development pay off. It’s a solid film throughout, but that ending makes it worth it.

Sunday, October 13, 2019

Telluride Horror Show 2019: The Lodge (2019)

Directors: Severin Fiala, Veronika Franz
Notable Cast: Riley Keough, Jaeden Martell, Lia McHugh, Richard Armitage, Alicia Silverstone

It already seems like ages ago that The Lodge started making the rounds of internet hype. It was finished filming in early 2018 but didn’t receive its big debut until Sundance earlier this year. Since then, the hype around the film has gone strangely quiet despite the fact that it received generally favorable reviews. For this writer, the film was going to be one to see simple to see how directors Severin Fiala and Veronika Franz would follow up their immensely respected and surprise hit debut, Goodnight Mommy. The Lodge resides very comfortably in that same territory as Goodnight Mommy in a lot of ways – immaculate atmosphere, a plot that revolves around mother and child relationships, and the rather intimate seclusion of its setting. It doesn’t quite have the impact that one might assume from it, based on the hype and the established talent of the directors, but The Lodge still remains and chilling (pun intended) and dread-inducing film that works on the nerves in its own horrifying ways.

To touch upon the issues right away is not necessarily how I like to approach a review, but it’s the best way to dig into The Lodge. This is because the lingering nag of the film comes from the methodical, slow-burn pacing. The film clocks in at a rather reasonable 100 minutes, but the film takes a glacial pace to work through all of the necessary plot and narrative beats to get to the main conflict. Most of these feelings of meandering come in the second act, once the family gets to the titular remote cabin and the film starts to establish the “new girlfriend stuck with her potential stepchildren in a snowed in house” dynamic. With some thoughtful trimming, The Lodge might have been an even leaner and meaner film, but alas, it chooses to draw out the tension and suspense rather than run with the energetic momentum it builds in key sequences.  

To set that up that long narrative though, The Lodge has to jump through a lot of hoops to establish motive and character choices as a tactic to draw out the tension of its mood and tone. The setups in the first act and the payoffs in the third act work in some astonishingly effective ways. Much of the film’s success rides on the nuanced performances from its principle (and very intimate) cast as they ably leap through the hoops. A surprisingly small but an incredibly powerful role for Alicia Silverstone in the opening sequences sets up much of the style that directors Fiala and Franz will utilize. A dense cloud of distrust for all of the characters partnered with a penchant for some popping jump scares make the atmosphere and tonal dissonance palpable. Slick use of the settings, in particular, The Lodge which is shot in the same cold and calculated manner that Kubrick shot the Outlook in The Shining, adds to this sense of an unwelcome place – which is replicated as the kids and future stepmother start to question if their own tension is being manipulated by the other.

Once the tension is established, the film does start to meander as previously mentioned, but it’s the third act that sells the entire film. As the various pieces of the puzzle are laid out it becomes obvious that, while occasionally predictable, The Lodge has laid some impressive groundwork to make sure that even the most asinine leaps of logic or character choices pay off in the emotional terror and streams of darkness (and infrequent and surprising violence.) The Lodge packs one hell of a wallop in the final 20 minutes and it’s some of the best and most atmospheric material that horror has produced this year.

All in all, The Lodge is a step down from their impressive debut, but Fiala and Franz prove once again that they are a powerful voice in horror cinema at this time. The film is shot with an intense precision that maximizes a plethora of fantastic visuals, suffocating atmospheric tension, and a third act that will hang on its viewer like an emotional eulogy. It’s one flaw is its length and rather meandering second act, but the rest is worthy of the praise it has received thus far. The only real question remains is how the directors will follow this up.

Written By Matt Reifschneider

Saturday, October 12, 2019

Telluride Horror Show 2019: After Midnight (2019)

Director: Jeremy Gardner
Notable Cast: Jeremy Gardner, Brea Grant, Justin Benson, Henry Zebrowski, Ashley Song, Nicola Masciotra

Any self-respecting cinephile that cares about films gets excited when two creative forces team up on a new film. Whether it’s actors and actresses, directors, cinematographers, or any other namesake, the idea of the “supergroup” collaborating on a film is incredibly enticing. This is why After Midnight was a must-see film for me at Telluride Horror Show. Although I am not a particular fan of horror-comedy in general, the combination of writer/director Jeremy Gardner (this time co-directing with Christian Stella) and the producing duo of Aaron Moorhead and Justin Benson (directors of the phenomenal The Endless and Spring) was too salivating to pass up. The results are After Midnight, a dramedy with a penchant for some horror set pieces to parallel the emotional state of our lead couple. The film is a sure-fire crowd pleaser and the audience that I saw it with was eating the comedy, drama, and horror up enthusiastically. With a heartfelt relationship to ground the film, some remarkably charming secondary characters, and a silly horror premise that could have worked on its own, After Midnight is a strange buffet of genre and execution – that could only be pulled off by the talent behind it.

Telluride Horror Show 2019: Sator (2019)

Director: Jordan Graham
Notable Cast: Michael Daniel, Rachel Johnson, Aurora Lowe, Gabriel Nicholson, June Peterson

With the advent of various technologies that allow filmmakers to do things quicker, cheaper, and on their own laptops, perhaps it’s not surprising that the man behind Sator, Jordan Graham, essentially made the film on his own. Director, writer, music, production, and in a relatively candid interview after the first screening of the film at the Telluride Horror Show film festival, he casually mentioned that he built the cabin set of the film with his friend. To say that this film is, at its core, the result of one man's pure will power might be an understatement. The fact that it’s a rather impressive display of arthouse horror is what makes all of the mentioned work by Mr. Graham even more fantastical. Playing with naturalistic horror in a way that begs the question on why A24 hasn’t picked up the film yet is par for the course. The minimalistic approach to most of its plot and narrative can be both frustrating and fascinating. Sator is an intimate film with visual style seeping off the screen and an up-for-interpretation through-line that will certainly appease the horror fans looking for one of those slow burn arthouse horror flicks.

Wednesday, October 9, 2019

Bliss (2019)

Director: Joe Begos
Notable Cast: Dora Madison, Tru Collins, Rhys Wakefield, Jeremy Gardner, Graham Skipper, Chris McKenna, Rachel Avery, Mark Beltzman, George Wendt, Abraham Benrubi, Jesse Merlin

As a horror film fan, I’ve always had a soft spot for director Joe Begos. He has a phenomenal knack for creating throwback horror cinema in a way that is not playing its style as a gimmick as much as a love letter to the bygone eras of classic horror. When a debut is pure John Carpenter meets early David Cronenberg, as is the case with his film Almost Human, the filmmaker will end up on our list of people to watch. Although it seemed like his career had stalled out for a hot minute after his sophomore effort, Begos is back with TWO films this year. Both films immediately made my list as ‘must-see’ for the year and the first of the two, Bliss, finally dropped on VOD for consumption. Bliss is an intriguing film. It’s incredibly low budget, but it’s obvious how much Begos has grown as a filmmaker. The film certainly pulls from the past, once again as a stylistic choice, but Bliss is exactly the horror experience that its title would indicate - it’s fuckin’ Blissful in its drug-fueled, fever dream analysis of the grimy subsect of Los Angeles. It delivers on that experience with the gusto of an artist looking to capture the angst and intimacy of creating art and, while the film goes to some wild places, features a rather personal tone to it that uplifts the entire event.  

Tuesday, October 8, 2019

Kung Fu Monster (2019)

Director: Andrew Lau
Notable Cast: Louis Koo, Zhou Dongyu, Haden Kuo, Cheney Chen, Bao Beier

Foreign cinema can always have a feeling of being off-kilter for those not used to the style, tropes, or storytelling techniques of different industries from various eras. Initial trailers made Kung Fu Monster look scattered and perplexing, despite some talent and intriguing elements to it. However, as a wuxia fan and being open to the tonal whiplash that Chinese cinema occasionally uses as a narrative identity, I was happy to see what this film had to offer. With that in mind, it’s best to know that Kung Fu Monster is fuckin’ weird. It’s a genre-bending exercise in being a comedy first and a fantasy wuxia second with some other elements tossed in for good measure. When the tones and styles are working in conjunction, the film can be relatively enjoyable and highly entertaining. When they don’t, it’s as scattershot and perplexing as my initial fears for the film would indicate. Judging from the family comedy element meets fantasy wuxia from the director of The Guillotines, I probably should have known it was going to be a wild card. 

Sunday, October 6, 2019

The Climbers (2019)

Director: Daniel Lee
Notable Cast: Wu Jing, Zhang Ziyi, Zhang Yi, Jing Boran, Hu Ge, Wang Jingchun, Chen Long, He Lin, Choenyi Tsering, Jackie Chan

China’s attempts to be the next Hollywood are only getting larger. Whether it’s big-time disaster films, comedies, or science fiction (and to some extent all three at once in the blockbuster The Wandering Earth) the industry is hellbent on taking inspiration and attempting to out-Hollywood Hollywood at its own game. The Climbers is a product of this mindset. This film exists to a) be a huge action-packed and dramatic blockbuster to draw in audiences with its stars and big-name talent and b) as continued jingoistic propaganda for China. For all of the hype around Wu Jing teaming up with director Daniel Lee to tell the story of the Chinese expedition in 1975 to crest Mt. Everest, it’s almost fitting that the film ends up as a gigantic mess. It tries incredibly hard to be everything a major blockbuster film needs to be as a huge four-quadrant success and, unfortunately, lacks the balance of pacing and tonality to fit it all in there. There are a handful of things to respect in how The Climbers approaches its material, but for everything it does right, it makes a half dozen choices that don’t work in obscenely baffling ways.

Thursday, October 3, 2019

Joker (2019)

Director: Todd Phillips
Notable cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Robert De Niro, Zazie Beetz, Francis Conroy, Brett Cullen

In the 1928 film The Man Who Laughs, based on a Victor Hugo novel, Gwynplaine is a man whose face is disfigured into a permanent smile, so that he would always laugh at his fool of a father (executed via iron maiden by a political rival). This is a tragic romance and a drama, but the horrifying idea and image of a man who smiles no matter what was a major inspiration to Bob Kane and Bill Finger when they created the character of The Clown Prince Of Crime, Joker. The Joker has a famously ambiguous character history. In film and animation, he has always been something of an actor’s role, since by definition there is no wrong way to play it (Jared Leto’s take notwithstanding). The reason I mention the classic Paul Leni film is that in a way, I feel like Joaquin Phoenix’s take on the character is the first time I’ve ever blatantly felt The Man Who Laugh’s DNA in the character. This is also, largely, the only reference to the comic or any source material of The Joker’s though, because in all other ways this ostensibly plays out like a lost mid-70s Scorsese film, down to using the classic Warner Media logo.

Saturday, September 28, 2019

The Gangster, the Cop, the Devil (2019)

Director: Lee Won-tae
Notable Cast: Ma Dong-seok, Kim Mu-yeol, Kim Sung-kyu, Heo Dong-won

It didn’t take long for The Gangster, the Cop, the Devil to start making some waves when it premiered at Cannes Film Festival. Between a blissfully brilliant concept and having actor Ma Dong-seok (aka Don Lee because I guess they are still trying to make that name change a thing) in the film, it was primed to have certain cinephiles sold on seeing it. However, it’s when Sylvester Stallone announced his plans to already remake the film that I think even more casual fans stood up to take notice. All of this hype around the film could potentially spell high expectations and a chance for disappointment, but the film itself hardly disappoints when it comes to being a bombastic action thriller. The film plays its concept more straight forward than expected so this is not the artistic serial killer thriller in the same sect as The Chaser or I Saw the Devil. However, the combination of scene-stealing performances, brutal action set pieces, and an effective third act makes The Gangster, the Cop, the Devil a potent action experience.

Wednesday, September 25, 2019

Rambo: Last Blood (2019)

Directed by: Adrian Grunberg
Notable cast: Sylvester Stallone, Paz Vega, Yvette Montreal, Óscar Jaenada, Sergio Peris-Mencheta

Author’s Note: It’s hard to discuss anything to do with the Rambo franchise without observing the politics therein. They are all inherently political movies and I think the best of the franchise has something real to say. Now, I don’t think Rambo: Last Blood is so much actively making a statement as it is using some of the horrors of human trafficking and Mexican crime cartels as a generic “boogeyman” and as motivator, but in the reality we’re existing in now, it’s also not unfair to say that using these real-world horrors as dressing in your film means that it needs to be handled with a tact and grace that Last Blood doesn’t manage. This film has both cartoonish, Eli Roth movie-like gore effects and brutally realistic sexual violence/torture, and the incongruity of that is a problem, even if the politics themselves weren’t. I am going to review the movie as it is and not make any more specific political proclamations, and furthermore, I’m going to review this movie on its narrative and intent alone. The above is worth mentioning because, for some people, this movie will be difficult if not impossible to sit through and it bears mentioning up top.

Tuesday, September 24, 2019

Midnight Diner (2019)

Director: Tony Leung Ka Fai
Notable Cast: Tony Leung Ka Fai, Deng Chao, Eddie Peng, Vision Wei, David Cheng, Liu Tao, Kingscar Jin, Tony Yang, Joynce Cheng, Hao Ping, Zhang Yishang, Liang Jingkang, Wang Jingwen

Tony Leung Ka Fai might be one of the greatest actors in the world. Not just from China or Hong Kong, but in the entire world. He automatically uplifts any film he is in, whether it’s pulpy action thrills, weighty drama, or, in the case of Cold War, both. He’s showered in accolades as an actor from both the Hong Kong and Golden Horse awards. Midnight Diner was going to be a film to see simply because he’s in it. What makes this film even more interesting is that it is his directorial debut too. It made me start to wonder if his talents onscreen could translate behind the camera and whether the omnibus style of the film’s concept could serve him well.  

All of this combined is what makes Midnight Diner such a wildly missed opportunity. Despite another solid performance from Tony Leung Ka Fai, the film lacks a sense of direction and its multi-story pattern eventually crumbles under the melodrama and lacking screen development for any of the characters. It has its moments of heartfelt ideas, characters, and charm, but they are fleeting in a film filled with unjustified emotional punch and lacking cohesion.

Monday, September 23, 2019

Tazza: One Eyed Jack (2019)

Director: Kwon Oh-Kwang
Notable Cast: Park Jung-Min, Ryoo Seung-Bum, Choi Yu-Hwa, Woo Hyeon, Lee Kwang-Soo, Lim Ji-Yeon, Kwon Hae-Hyo

After one of the writers here at Blood Brothers raved about the first two entries into the Tazza series from South Korea, I was rather ecstatic to be able to see the third entry in theaters. Although I have not, at this time, seen the first two entries of the series, the impression I understand is that the if there is any kind of direct connection then it’s minute at best. This third film, under the title Tazza: The One Eyed Jack, is a highly entertaining film. Like it’s gambling thriller basis, One Eyed Jack doesn’t win all of the hands that it deals out, but it wins the long game by playing all of the cards at the right times – folding when it starts to get off track and going all-in during the finale. It might not be the most efficient film in telling its story, but the message rings loud and true and the thrills of its swindling plot are a sure-fire bet.

Friday, September 20, 2019

Who Saw Her Die? (1972)

Director: Aldo Lado
Notable Cast: George Lazenby, Anita Strindberg, Adolfo Celi, Dominique Boschero, Peter Chatel, Alessandro Haber, Nicoletta Elmi

Director Aldo Lado surprised me with the bold and well-executed choices of his giallo film, Short Night of Glass Dolls. This is what made me excited to finally partake in his only other film of this type and the focus of this review, Who Saw Her Die?. The inclusion of a relatively stacked cast, including one-time James Bond George Lazenby, only perked my interest further. If the film was anything like Short Night, it was bound to be one of the best giallo of the era. Through Arrow Video’s latest (and incredibly stacked Blu Ray), Who Saw Her Die? finally found it’s way to my viewing queue. Despite some great executions from Lado and company, the film features a rather by the numbers plot that doesn’t quite have the hooks and angles that made his other film so great. Still, despite a more traditional plot, the film finds its niche in some stylish use of setting, great performances, and snazzy kill set pieces to appease giallo fans and horror/thriller fans alike.

Tuesday, September 17, 2019

3 From Hell (2019)

Directed by: Rob Zombie
Notable cast: Sherri Moon Zombie, Bill Moseley, Sid Haig, Richard Brake

3 From Hell is a movie that requires some context to fully understand, so it’s necessary to briefly summarize how we got here first. Rob Zombie’s first movie, House of 1000 Corpses, tells us of the Firefly clan, a family of Texas psychopaths who trap tourists searching for the local spooky legend, an ex-Nazi scientist named Dr. Satan. In 1978, seven months after the killings depicted in the first filmSheriff Quincy Wydell leads a raid on the Firefly house. This kicks off the second film, The Devil’s Rejects, and the ensuing firefight kills most of the serial killing family and leads to the capture of the family matriarch who’s subsequently tortured to death by Wydell. Two members escape and act as our effective franchise protagonists. The first is Otis Driftwood, played by Bill Moseley (who’s own genre star-making performance in Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 made him a natural fit in Zombie’s TCM inspired world) who is a murderer, rapist, and self-aggrandizing taxidermist with a nihilist streak. The other is Baby, played by the director’s wife, Sherri Moon Zombie in her signature role, who is a deranged, dangerous, childish, and a game playing killer with a tenuous grip on reality at best. The two are joined eventually by Captain Spaulding (Haig), an evil clown and purveyor of “The Museum of Monsters and Madmen”, who sent victims to the Firefly’s by spreading the legend of Dr. Satan and, as we also find out, is Baby’s father. After The Devil’s Rejects (a self-branded moniker) are finally captured and confronted by Sheriff Wydell, they escape again just to drive straight into a wall of police, and the firefight (set, reasonably on the nose, to ‘Freebird’) ends the violent, terrible lives of the three human monsters. It’s a neat, perfect capper to what is a horrid, unblinking examination of the human capacity for evil. There are no heroes in this story, only bad people and worse people, and most couldn’t imagine we would ever revisit anyone from the family.

Monday, September 16, 2019

Freaks (2019)

Directors: Zach Lipovsky, Adam B. Stein
Notable Cast: Lexy Kolker, Emile Hirsch, Bruce Dern, Amanda Crew, Grace Park, Ava Telek, Michelle Harrison, Matty Finochio

The mystery box film has been something I’ve always enjoyed. Even when M. Night Shyamalan essentially claimed the entire genre as his own for a while, I’ve always appreciated a film that toys with its audience on what it’s doing or where it’s going. With the way that modern marketing has gone though, these are a style choice that’s a gimmick more than anything else. Thinking back to how JJ Abrams has maneuvered the Cloverfield franchise or his own Super 8, the way that the film industry makes the questions such a punchline can ultimately undercut the experience of the film. Audiences are immediately looking for the twist. This is what makes Freaks relatively special. Even the trailer that Well Go USA released gave us just enough about the basics of the film, but the final product plays with the details throughout so that it takes two acts before the audience even starts to put things together. It’s an incredible and powerful experience of cinema. The film ultimately ends up going into some familiar territory, but the manner that it gets there is riveting and incredibly well executed. For a mystery box film, it’s a wallop.

Saturday, September 14, 2019

Haunt (2019)

Directors: Scott Beck, Bryan Woods
Notable Cast: Katie Stevens, Will Brittain, Lauryn Alisa McClain, Andrew Caldwell, Shazi Raja, Schuyler Helford, Phillip Johnson Richardson

If you were to judge it based on its overall marketing, Haunt is the kind of film that should have dwindled away on VOD. There is a strong movement for “haunted house” horror films. Not the ones about ghosts, but the theme-park style haunted houses that people love to visit around Halloween time. Some of these have been good, Hell House LLC for example, and some have been less than good. Either way, there seem to be more and more lately as the genre continues to grow. When Haunt was announced it didn’t make much of a splash overall in most of my circles. It was getting a limited theatrical release which was the same day as VOD. Even though horror fans were most likely to see it, it’s the kind of film that to get a release without much fanfare.

There is one angle that made it a fascinating addition to that subgenre. Haunt was written and directed by Scott Beck and Bryan Woods and it’s produced by Eli Roth. The directors/writers proved they could modernize old school horror to a very successful extent with their written material for A Quiet Place and Eli Roth is relatively smart in the producer’s chair in bringing up talent. Fortunately, the combination proves to be very effective and Haunt ends up being one of the best films for the haunt movement and one of the best finds of the year.

Tuesday, September 10, 2019

Eerie (2019)

Director: Mikhail Red
Notable Cast: Bea Alonzo, Charo Santos-Concio, Jake Cuenca, Maxene Magalona, Mary Joy Apostol, Gabby Padilla, Gillian Vicencio

Initial trailers made me relatively excited for Eerie, the Filipino horror film that was recently picked up and released via Netflix in the US, but then the weird publications started to get a hold of it. Headlines that claimed it was too scary for regular audiences and how people had to sleep with the lights on started to make their way across social media and it immediately turned me off of it. Not that those kinds of claims indicate a film is good or bad – another Netflix release, Veronica, was a film I quite enjoyed that received the same treatment, but clickbait articles like those sour me a little. Having a bit of free time to review a few films for the year that I had not seen was the main reason I decided to partake in Eerie after some of that overzealous hype had worn down. Although there are certainly some creepy set pieces to be enjoyed in the film, the overly predictable nature of the plot and its adherence to so many tropes of the ‘ghostly girl’ sub-genre make it a rather mixed effort. For every interesting piece of execution, it follows it up with a mediocre one. For young horror fans, more casual film watchers, or those simply not versed in the sect of Asian ghost stories, Eerie might be appealing. For the rest of us, it’s a rather hum-drum addition to the genre.

Sunday, September 8, 2019

It: Chapter Two (2019)

Directed by: Andy Mucshietti
Notable cast: James McAvoy, Jessica Chastain, Bill Hader, Bill Skarsgård, Isaiah Mustafa, Jay Ryan, James Ransone, Andy Bean

It: Chapter Two serves as a really good reminder of why people remember and celebrate the childhood half of the story. That may seem harsh, but if anything, this movie does deserve praise for making the material as interesting as it’s possible to make it. The adaptation of the story and some of its more esoteric elements are at the very least bold and interesting. I’m a long-time devoted King reader, and I grew up with the Tim Curry miniseries, but I’m going to take this film strictly on its own merit. For a record of my potential bias, the miniseries doesn’t really hold up, and probably wasn’t that good in the first place, and the book is definitely upper tier King but admittedly kind of a mess. Especially the ending…

Itsy Bitsy (2019)

Director: Micah Gallo
Notable Cast: Bruce Davison, Elizabeth Roberts, Arman Darbo, Chloe Perrin, Denise Crosby, Treva Etienne

Maybe it was just fate. Perhaps there's the snapback of quality that is happening right now that comes every decade or so, but the creature feature genre is getting a hefty dose of ‘hell yeah’ in the booming horror scene. Earlier this year Aja and Raimi dropped a fantastic and efficient killer gator flick to theaters with Crawl and just last month saw the release of the Kickstarter funded and Shout!/Scream Factory distributed killer spider flick, Itsy Bitsy. It’s the latter film that’s the focus of this piece and, quite frankly, it deserves the praise. Although the film has certainly been on my radar for most of the year, particularly after the very effective trailer dropped a few months ago, Itsy Bitsy hasn’t had the word of mouth response in my circles that it rightfully deserves since it’s release on VOD last week. The fact remains, Itsy Bitsy is an efficient and effective throwback creature feature that pours on the tension, spikes it with some grotesque moments, and delivers on its simplistic and intimate premise. In a world where the stupidity and self-awareness of SyFy original monster films reigns, Itsy Bitsy is a serious and well-crafted piece of genre cinema aiming to take back the sub-genre.

Saturday, September 7, 2019

Don't Let Go (2019)

Directed by: Jacob Estas
Notable cast: David Oyelowo, Storm Reid, Byron Mann, Mykelti Williamson

Don’t Let Go is a Blumhouse Tilt movie that snuck into theaters last week to little fanfare. Much like other movies released under the Tilt name, this film has a lot of bold ideas and a reasonably young, fresh talent expressing those ideas. Like a couple of other BH Tilt movies, namely The Belko Experiment, The Green Inferno, and Upgrade before it, this plot is well navigated territory with a slight genre tint to help it stand out. Does it work as well this time as it did for those? Not quite and that’s too bad.

Friday, September 6, 2019

Red Peony Gambler 4: Second Generation Ceremony (1969)

Director: Shigehiro Ozawa
Notable Cast: Junko Fuji (Sumiko Fuji), Hiroyuki Nagato, Kyosuke Machida, Bin Amatsu, Hosei Komatsu, Shunya Wazaki, Tatsuo Endo, Shoji Nakayama, Hitoshi Omae, Kenji Takamiya, Misa Toki

“I wish you good luck from the shadows.”

By now the formula is established. The first three Red Peony Gambler films share a common structure and narrative that solidifies the identity of the series, but by the third film it was starting to wear thin – even if that film ends up being quite the impressive little period yakuza film. For the fourth film of this franchise, with the subtitle Second Generation Ceremony, the series takes a somewhat unique direction that differentiates it from its predecessors. One part of me enjoys the film for a relatively refreshing approach to telling the next chapter of Oryu’s saga as a wandering yakuza gambler. The other part of me found the film somewhat of a chore to sit through with its sluggish pacing and occasionally overbaked plot. Although it’s a flawed film, Red Peony Gambler 4 is still a decent film, but it doesn’t find the balance and effective thematic depth of the three films prior.

Monday, September 2, 2019

Ne Zha (2019)

Director: Jiao Zi
Notable Cast: Lyu Yanting, Cao Yalong, Wang Zheng, Chen Hao, Zeng Hongru, Yang Wei, Zhang Jiaming

One of the more fascinating pieces about the rise of the Chinese film industry over the last five to ten years is how incredibly unpredictable the entire thing is as a whole. Films that would seem to check off all of the boxes to soar in the box office flounder and yet other films come out as massive surprises. Of the latter category, Ne Zha might be one of the most astounding. China has been slowly putting together an animation film plan over the last few years to build an audience there and recent foreign box office successes like Disney’s Coco and a re-release of Spirited Away have laid the groundwork for a domestic giant to arise. As it turns out, that film is Ne Zha. Ne Zha took China by storm, generating astronomical box office numbers and becoming something of a legend seemingly overnight, enough so that international distribution label Well Go USA took notice and quickly generated a theatrical release for the film in the US. A surprising move since, well, it’s a foreign language animated family film. Still, now that the film his been unleashed on the unsuspecting US market, it’s safe to say that, yes, Ne Zha is a blast. The animation is fun and tight, balancing traditional cartoon choices with lush CGI detailing, and the story and narrative find a strong balance between the family-friendly moments and key fantasy action set pieces. This landmark animated film takes the best of the blockbuster formulas that China has learned from Hollywood and given it a delightful and distinctly Chinese spin. The results are a rip-roaring ride of laughs, action, and bigger than life fantasy morals.

Wednesday, August 28, 2019

Alice, Sweet Alice (1976)

Director: Alfred Sole
Notable Cast: Linda Miller, Paula Sheppard, Niles McMaster, Jane Lowry, Rudolph Willrich, Mildred Clinton, Michael Hardstark, Brooke Shields

The first time that Alice, Sweet Alice came into my awareness was probably a decade or so ago when a painting of the masked villain of the film popped up on my social media feed. The painting itself was fantastic, a modern exaggeration of the characteristics with bold yellows, reds, and blues. If I could remember the artist, they deserve some credit and I spent a good deal of time trying to find that picture again to very little luck. The message was clear though, I needed to see the film. At the time, there was only a shoddy version of the film available via Amazon Prime streaming and this is where I first experienced it. Too often Alice, Sweet Alice gets thrown into the lot of “forgotten slashers” on a variety of internet lists and, despite its fair share of cult cinephiles that champion the film, it tends to be despairingly overlooked. It doesn’t deserve to be. Alice, Sweet Alice is one of the true diamonds to be found in the genre. It toys with the expectations of the viewer, delivers on its off-beat quirks, and still manages to layer in a lot of thoughtful material both in the visuals and narrative to give the film punch on multiple watches. On top of all of that, this latest (and greatest) Arrow Video Blu Ray release lives up the strength of the film itself.

Saturday, August 24, 2019

Ready or Not (2019)

Directors: Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett
Notable Cast: Samara Weaving, Adam Brody, Mark O’Brien, Henry Czerny

Horror and comedy are two great tastes that taste great together. In a broad sense, it’s because they rely on the same psychological concepts to play out. They’re both about the building of tension and lean on resolving that stress in a surprising way. Ready Or Not enters a long lineage of this sub-genre and does so in a fun way. Perhaps not wholly unique, but it’s fun and it has style. It draws a specific line juxtaposing a gore heavy, violent and hard “R” slasher sensibility with a sardonic, low-key, borderline disaffected sense of humor and then rides that line for nearly all its worth before getting out and walking away. In other words, it’s a pretty perfect movie for the end of the summer and wonderful counter-programming to the standard August dumping ground fare.