Panic Fest Film Review: “Azrael”

Starring: Samara Weaving, Vic Carmen Sonne and Nathan Stewart-Jarrett
Directed by: E.L. Katz
Rated: NR
Running Time: 85 minutes

Our Score: 4 out of 5 stars

Movies being shelved is nothing new. However, the legend and infame of those films remains. Depending on the genre, that movie can spend years being whispered about before it ever sees the light of day or is shown beyond secret Hollywood home screenings. The latest potentially shelved and never to be seen again (I’ll get to this later) film is “Azrael,” a post-apocalyptic film that uses Biblical theology to tell a wordless story splattered in blood and shockingly delivers unexpected supernatural thrills without a single syllable of discernable dialogue.

Samara Weaving plays the titular Azrael, who roams the woods dodging mud covered looking creatures with disfigured twitching torsos and milky zombie eyes, and other humans looking to sacrifice her to those previously described creatures. All the humans we encounter, except for one, have removed their vocal cords, leaving a cross as a scar over their throat. You see, this film takes place after the Christian rapture, the supposedly end-of-times day where all of God’s believers are taken to Heaven before good and evil lay waste to the Earth in battle. So, as the movie goes, you automatically know nothing is off the table in terms of supernatural shenanigans, morality, and what happens to the pregnant villain of the story. That being said, nothing is officially known.

You will learn nothing as the film goes along and at times it’s almost like watching someone choose their own adventure based on knowledge they’re not telling you. Besides onscreen text, the magnificent facial acting of the entire cast (especially Weaving) the privileged few who attended a director screening of the cut (Me!), you will not ever 100% (maybe even 50-90%) know what is actually going on. It’s entirely possible that multiple people with different theories as to what is happening aren’t wrong. Even at the Panic Fest screening, the film’s writer, Simon Barrett, was mum on the more specific plot details and ideas.

“Azrael” deserves a proper autopsy if it is never released, but right now, it’s an unseen circus act I’m guaranteeing is worth the price of admission. It’s difficult to glow about a film that may never see the light of day because, as Barrett also stated at Panic Fest’s “Azrael” screening, the movie is currently in limbo. Just a little after it’s SXSW premiere, the distributing company for “Azrael” seems ready to do what other distributors have done recently, just like with “Batgirl.” Whether it’s because shelving the film will save “save money,” “trim fat,” or whatever potential lie the millionaire powers to be are claiming, it’s frustrating. Even if someone disagreed with me about “Azrael,” they deserve the opportunity to watch it. “Azrael” is more than a silent gimmick, it’s an experience you’ll never forget. Buoyed by Weaving’s face, the film is relentless, even as it blows past questions it’s never going to answer.

Panic Fest 2024 Review

Panic Fest, like any great idea, has gone from being that great weekend of horror in Kansas City to a national audience wanting to learn more because they saw it on social media or on someone’s T-shirt at the airport the Monday after the main events. Last year I noted that Panic Fest was beginning to become a recognizable gem in the Midwest, but this year felt like it’s now a recognizable gem from coast to coast, and amongst the right group of friends overseas. To quote what I said last year, and other years prior, if 2024 was any indication, Panic Fest continues to boldly grow without losing its indie charm.

Thursday could have been a harbinger of things to come. For nearly a month, Panic Fest had hyped up the return of Joe Bob Briggs and Darcy the Mail Girl with a presentation of “Night of the Comet.” On April Fool’s Day, just days before the start, word came down that Joe Bob Briggs was sick. As to not soil night one, Joe Lynch, Director/Panic Fest Ambassador/Honorary Kansas Citian, stepped up to take Joe Bob Briggs role introducing the movie. Joe Bob Briggs was kind enough to send a snarky, yet comedic slapdown of Joe Lynch for the crowd and even gave his iconic drive-in totals over the course of 14 glorious, digital minutes. After the 80s pajama party movie, it was time for the 21st century B-horror, “Sting.” Night one is something I’ve never felt in bigger cities on bigger stages, a feeling of “Panic Fest” and Screenland Armour doing things on their own terms despite the immense pressure for perfection.

On Friday, I started off my day with the Nick Stahl culinary thriller “What You Wish For,” followed by “Hippo,” a film where the title character can only be described as an obnoxious incel version of Napoleon Dynamite. “Livescreamers,” which was attended by the director, who also wrote, produced, and did damn near everything outside of acting in the film, was a blast, made even better by the creative ways in which it was filmed. Even a filmmaking newbie could see how much time and effort went into creating “Livescreamers” world. The finale of Friday was a film I hope you get to see even though you may never, according to the writer. The post-apocalyptic Christian, but not really Christian, muddy demon horror film “Azrael” is easy to describe, but impossible to fully explain.

Per usual, Saturday serves as a big night for special guests. First up was the premiere of “Ghost Game,” a social media challenge mixed with a haunted house that will have you guessing about what’s going on until the final few minutes. Next was the 4K restoration, and 40th anniversary of “A Nightmare on Elm Street,” with horror royalty Heather Langenkamp in attendance. It was clear in the following Q&A how much she still adores the movie and the journey that it started her on. But the Q&A of the weekend, and maybe for all of Panic Fest’s history, was not Langenkamp. Instead, it followed the 25th anniversary screening of “The Blair Witch Project.” Having not seen the film since renting it at Blockbuster in 2000, I watched the film with a fresh pair of eyes and ears, appreciating the do-it-yourself with nothing to lose tactics this revolutionary film implemented. I could probably listen to co-director Eduardo Sanchez and Mike “I kicked that fucker into the creek!” Williams talk about the filmmaking process for “Blair Witch” for hours. The night ended with “Mother Father Sister Brother Frank” about an adorable family who hilariously deal with their shithead uncle Frank through deadly means.

The hangover cure for many on Sunday was “New Life,” a film that feels all too real even as we get farther and farther away from the COVID-19 pandemic. For newcomers, the hefty drama is a reminder that Panic Fest is more than blood and guts. “New Life” was followed up with the spiritual horror about good versus evil, and dealing with the loss of a four-legged companion, “The Activated Man.” It was hard to keep a dry eye during the film, much less during the director Q&A. The evening ended with the Irish folk horror, “All You Need is Death” and the juggalo road trip to the promised land (the Gathering of Juggalos) film “Off Ramp.” I can fully and happily report that Faygos and laughs were had as Sunday came to a close.

Like every year, the weekend feels like a blur. For me, it was the films. There’s nothing like experiencing cinema with like minded strangers. While everyone felt that it wasn’t the ultimate experience, like mine. For others, it was the connections in the lobby over mixed drinks and beers. For some, it was the mutual love of a local podcast and meeting a fresh face, or new fan. So, while my experience feels like the highlight of 2024, for some, it’s the highlight of a lifetime. That’s the beauty of Panic Fest, it’s great no matter which way you enjoy it.

Blu-Ray Review: “Lisa Frankenstein”

Starring: Kathryn Newton, Cole Sprouse and Lisa Soberano
Directed by: Zelda Williams
Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 101 minutes
Focus Features

Movie Score: 3 out of 5 Stars
Blu-Ray Score: 4 out of 5 Stars

I’m not really one to talk about the qualities of feminist horror. Not because I don’t like it, but mainly because I’m a man and I’m more than likely going to miss the point. For example, I probably dismissed “Jennifer’s Body” in 2009, solely for its similar feel to the “Twilight” films of the time. Now it’s considered a feminist cult classic. I guess I should re-watch and re-evaluate my attitude towards it. So, I approach “Lisa Frankenstein” cautiously, enjoying the elements I liked and questioning whether or not my dislikes are merely a viewpoint that I’ll need to re-evaluate in 15 years.

When we first meet Lisa (Kathryn Newton), she seems like a modern-day Lydia Deetz, with a wardrobe consisting solely of black-on-black and spending her free time at an abandoned cemetery with her nearest, dearest and deadest friends. We’re uncertain if she’s always been the gloomy outcast, but she explains that her more morose attitude is because of the death of her mother, at the hands of a serial killer slasher. Her father quickly remarries Janet (Carla Gugino), a less than caring stepmother who seems to believe Lisa is the embodiment of every cautionary 80s and 90s PSA about teenage drug use, sex and violence. On the flip side is Lisa’s new stepsister, Taffy (Lisa Soberano) with a personality brighter than the sun.

Taffy, always looking to please her stepsister, doesn’t question anything when Lisa joins her at a house party. Lisa’s intention? Hoping to connect with the cute boy at school who may or may not have a thing for Taffy. During the course of the night, Lisa partakes in a spiked drink, gets incredibly loopy, struggles to get a creep off her and ignores the Biblical lightning storm that resurrects a young Victorian man (Cole Sprouse) in her favorite headstone hangout. The man, simply referred to as the Creature in the film’s credits, goes straight to Lisa who has spent who knows how much time opining about love and loss at his gravestone. The rest of “Lisa Frankestein” involves watching Lisa and the Creature, copy and pasted from Tim Burton’s universe, as they stick out and get in trouble in this John Hughes-esque world.

Despite its glorious goth nature, the film never capitalizes on the 80s aesthetic. There are actually more Gen X vibes in the film’s promotional material than there is in the actual film. While it’s not necessarily a bad thing, it makes you wonder how much more visually stylish and eye-catching “Lisa Frankenstein” could have been. What it lacks in, it makes up for in dark humor, high school hijinks, and Newton’s magnetism as the lead. The film is also surprisingly energetic, a course of electricity runs through everyone, living and dead. The audience also has to see how it all plays out as Lisa loathes the living to the point that she begins creating her own reality through the Creature.

While the film’s flaws don’t derail the whole thing, they do eat at the back of your brain. There’s a lot of dangling plot threads, like the masked serial killer who killed Lisa’s mother, Taffy connecting with her stepdad, and the fact that as people begin dying, no one seems to be concerned or curious about it. In that regard, it feels a bit like “Heathers.” The absolute lunacy of these situations seems to be like everyday disturbances and the characters at times struggle to state why these issues are minor inconveniences. I’m not sure if the issue is Diablo Cody’s script, Zelda Williams direction, or a combination of the two. It could also be that the studio kneecapped the film, demanding a PG-13 to better sell tickets. I can only imagine the macabre ideas that could have been with an ‘R’ rating. However, I honestly don’t think any of my issues haunt the film. “Lisa Frankenstein” is a late night, teenage popcorn flick. I imagine the film is best viewed in pajamas at a sleepover.  Maybe 15 years from now, I’ll see if it is a midnight masterpiece.

For big fans of this film, the “Lisa Frankenstein” blu-ray is loaded. First off, it has a fantastic feature commentary with Director Zelda Williams. That being said, I’m not the biggest fan of solo commentaries, but Williams holds her own as she dissects her first film. The blu-ray also comes with deleted scenes and a gag reel that highlights the onset shenanigans. The other features serve as behind-the-scenes peeks that feature interviews with Williams, writer Diablo Cody and others. 

 

Film Review: “Camp Pleasant Lake”

Starring: Jonathan Lipnicki, Bonnie Aarons and Andrew Divoff
Directed by: Thomas Walton
Rated: NR
Running Time: 90 minutes
Deskpop Entertainment

Our Score: 1.5 out of 5 Stars

The slasher genre is no stranger to parody. 2023 ended with “Totally Killer,” the “Scary Movie” franchise was built on slasher tropes, “Club Dread” was Broken Lizard’s follow-up to their smash hit “Super Troopers,” etc. The examples are endless. So, while “Camp Pleasant Lake” might have an interesting concept, an understanding of the slasher genre, and a cast that’s more than willing to slop it up with blood, the film barely tickles the funny bone and barely offers up anything remotely new or fresh.

“Camp Pleasant Lake” is about the titled summer camp, the site of an infamous murder from decades before, reopening under new management. The new owners are interested in cashing in on Camp Pleasant Lake’s horrific history by serving as an immersive horror attraction. Attendees are brought in on school bus, ready to see some fake blood and guts. What the owners aren’t expecting is an actual killer to show-up, who starts butchering camp workers and attendees. What follows is all promise and no payoff.

The biggest issue with “Camp Pleasant Lake” upfront is the cast. There are way too many characters and none of them are the lead. We don’t get any alone time with any and most of the time when they do talk, it’s awkward, forced, wooden and unfulfilling. The only time where “Camp Pleasant Lake” feels like a film with living breathing characters is in a flashback to the infamous incident that made Camp Pleasant Lake so…well…infamous. Even then, that flashback basically tells you who the killer is, quite easily. The only way you wouldn’t notice is if you were asleep.

Like I stated earlier, the movie just isn’t funny. The jokes are one note. If characters thinking an actual murder is fake because it’s a fake camp causes you to have giggle fits, I’d recommend this movie. For everyone else, you’re going to be wondering how many times characters can see this happen and still think it’s all staged. In fact, at one point, the killer goes to a group of remaining attendees and workers, at least 20 or more, and begins stabbing indiscriminately. At no point does a victim let out a “oh no, this is real” or anything to alert everyone living that the killer is a real killer. Nope, this just happens over and over again until the credits arrive.

All-in-all, “Camp Pleasant Lake” is empty on laughs, empty on suspense, and sometimes empty on gore despite the killer slashing his way through 30 people throughout its runtime. It’s really unfortunate because the idea behind the film is fantastic, the look of the killer is great for being low budget, and the killer’s origin story could easily be built into a franchise, but it never blossoms. Since you’ll have an unpleasant experience with “Camp Pleasant Lake,” I’d recommend a film like “Hell House LLC” or “Ruin Me,” because they do a much better job with the premise of a fake horror experience going awry.

Film Review: “Zone of Interest”

Starring: Christian Friedel and Sandra Huller
Directed by: Jonathan Glazer
Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 106 minutes
A24

Our Score: 2 out of 5 Stars

Watch Nazis raise a family. Watch Nazis play with their kids. Watch Nazis tend to their garden. Watch Nazis get short with their Jewish house servants. Watch Nazis plan a children’s party. Watch Nazis discuss their career paths in the war machine. “Zone of Interest” is a lot of watching Nazis do mundane things while the unthinkable genocide at Auschwitz takes place just over the hedges, over the fence, in the background, or just upstream from children horsing around. That’s “Zone of Interest” for 106 minutes, nothing less, and unfortunately, nothing more.

“Zone of Interest” is visually disgusting because the family, made up of Rudolf Hoss (Christian Friedel), his wife, Hedwig (Sandra Huller), and their five children seem to live this simple life. The children are oblivious, even when they sift through prisoner possessions, to the atrocities happening next door. Of course, if the kids did know, could they fully comprehend the extent of what’s happening?

Rudolf and Hedwig know good and well about the insufferable cruelty and mass death. Rudolf is one of the architects, but he views this simply as his work duties. Hedwig knows of her husband’s work, and what’s happening, but she’s enjoying a somewhat extravagant life with a vast, adorable cottage to raise her family with an army of trembling servants constantly cleaning, cooking and washing. So, we have to ask, do Rudolf or Hedwig care?

As I stated, Rudolf appears to have the nature of Adolf Eichmann, simply doing his job and unfortunately, being damn good at it. We never get a vibe for his feelings on it all. It’s possible he’s simply doing it because that’s what society, his government, and his wife expect him to do. While this may be horrifying, the worst part is that Rudolf never seems to reflect or realize the Holocaust he’s perpetuating. Ultimately, this makes Hedwig worse because she is personified privilege. She lords over the servants with threats of sending them to the crematorium herself or upset that her idyllic perspective and life isn’t as lavish as it could be.

What are we supposed to take away from a film like “Zone of Interest? That evil isn’t necessarily evil, more than a mass number of individuals doing a horrific thing to serve their own self-interest, whether it’s career goals, enjoying the benefits of new life, or reaping benefits from chaos? Is it that this can happen again because family responsibilities can force the average worker to become a cog in a sociopathic machine? “Zone of Interest” is actually so banal in discussing the banality of evil, it fails to deliver anything meaningful or even lasting.

I wanted to like “Zone of Interest” because it was telling an untold story of the Holocaust. When the final solution is discussed, it’s always the major players, the big wigs and Hitler. Never is it discussed or talked about how often average people did horrible things in seemingly quaint areas. Years and years ago, I visited the concentration camp Dachau and the biggest impression left on me wasn’t the crematorium where countless bodies were burned, the showers where people spent their last minutes on Earth in terror or the vast dormitories used to store thousands of starving, hopeless humans. It was how this camp of misery and death sat nestled in such a picturesque town. Dachau was in operation for over a decade and I could only imagine the people at home nearby who eventually became used to this horrific sight and went about their day. That kind of horror and shock isn’t in “Zone of Interest.”

Film Review: “American Fiction”

Starring: Jeffrey Wright, Tracee Ellis Ross and Issa Rae
Directed by: Cord Jefferson
Rated: R
Running Time: 117 minutes
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

Our Score: 4 out of 5 Stars

I’m not going to attempt any bad barely remembered quotes, but I’ve heard a solid critique from several African American film critics about when critics, award groups and associations award black films. The critique is that the film is either a movie about the worst time for black people in America (“12 Years a Slave,” “The Color Purple,” “Django Unchained”) or how their story needs the help of a white person to tell (“The Blind Side,” “Precious,” “Green Book”). “American Fiction” feels like that critique personified.

Thelonious Ellison (Jeffrey Wright), who also goes by Monk, is a professor and black writer, who receives praise from his fellow academics for his books. But none from his publisher, the public, or even his family. Monk, as he’s told, directly or indirectly, isn’t “black enough.” He watches as others in his field write books that he believes not only pander to white people and the surrounding culture but demean black voices. So, he begins writing “My Pafology” to not only mock the narrative he sees, but to jokingly see if anyone cares what he writes now. Unfortunately, they do.

Almost like a meta commentary, that’s what the trailer for “American Fiction” kind of says the movie is, but at no point did I ever feel the movie was a spoof. I almost began to wonder if the trailer was intentionally selling audiences, white critics like me and America on this notion that we’re about to watch an academic parody of how black people are reduced to caricatures with so-called hood talk for stereotypical films that highlight slavery or impoverished neighborhoods. Instead “American Fiction” uses that as a kind of background noise to the real story, Monk’s life.

He comes from a lower middle-class background in the northeast, but now lives in Los Angeles, far from his two siblings and an ailing mother Agnes (Leslie Uggams) who suffers from early signs of dementia. His sister, Lisa (Tracee Ellis Ross), takes care of her while Monk bemoans the literary industry and his brother, Cliff (Sterling K. Brown) has pretty much abandoned the family because he feels he’s being looked down upon by everyone, including Agnes. That’s because Cliff’s ex-wife divorced after catching him with another man. Unfortunately, we don’t get to know much about Agnes, because she dies suddenly from a heart attack.

Ultimately “American Fiction” is about Monk’s flawed perception because he himself seems to be living out a stereotypical American life we’ve seen in other family drama films. He’s dealing with the age of his mother, attempting to reconcile with a brother who’s nose deep in cocaine, and dealing with the unexpected death of a loved one while finding random romance in his older years. In that regard, that’s the kind of stories Monk wants people to see when it comes to black people. That’s what ultimately leads him to ridicule everything through “My Pafology.” The movie is still about a both, someone or something upping the drama in Monk’s life as the insult to professed book lovers begins to spin wildly out of control. Eventually Monk must reconcile with the fact that everyone lives life differently and similarly.

“American Fiction” plays like an indictment of society and pop-culture at-large. In some ways, it has me pondering the movies I’ve liked and if it’s simply because of my own personal expectations or if it’s because it’s telling a unique story. Do we, as critics, filmgoers, and consumers, want to hear black voices or do we want the same old narrative where white people alleviate a terrible situation or we see triumph under oppression? Do we even want to hear other minority voices or just more sad stories? There’s a lot to study in this film, for years to come. “American Fiction” tells us that everyone, while living the same experiences, enjoying the same triumphs and enduring the same tragedies, all have a unique story to tell.

Film Review: “Laced”

Starring: Dana Mackin, Hermione Lynch and Zach Tinker
Directed by: Kyle Butenhoff
Rated: NR
Running Time: 98 minutes
Dark Sky Films

Our Score: 3 out of 5 Stars

Molly (Dana Mackin) and Charlie (Kyle Butenhoff) appear to be having an intimate evening together. They share dinner in a remote cabin, surrounded by a record-breaking blizzard, and appear to have planned the whole thing. However, there’s no time for small talk, deep talk, cozying up by a roaring fire or even finishing the meal. That’s because Molly has poisoned Charlie.

I don’t want to say much more because “Laced” works purely on its performances and reveals. Sure, it doesn’t take us long to realize something is amiss and that Molly has intentionally poisoned Charlie. And sure, the initial exposition comes hot and heavy, or in the case of watching the trailer, almost too spoilery. We know things will continue to be complex and complicated, that’s why Molly has unexpected dinner guests that make “Laced” a rather effective winter thriller.

It’s an indie film so I can forgive the lack of style that could have made it more claustrophobic and made effective use of the blizzard. Seriously, I sometimes forgot a raging snowstorm was outside because of how much time is spent indoors in this singular setting without a peep. The howling wind seems like an afterthought as characters stab each other with icy dialogue. All of that being said, Mackin, Hermoine Lynch and Zach Tinker provide enough fireworks in their performances. Butenhoof, not so much, but I can’t fault an actor who dies about five minutes in.

However, Butenhoff serves as writer and director, showing a Hitchcockian knack for making the most of a simplistic story. In other hands, “Laced” would have just been another predictable murder film, but Butenhoff is creative with making us second guess the narrative, whether it’s from Molly’s perspective or the explanations of her unexpected dinner guests. While I certainly felt the film lacked that winter bite, “Laced” has enough creativity to entertain you for 90 minutes and has the potential to chill you to the bone.

Film Review: “The Sacrifice Game”

Starring: Mena Massoud, Olivia Scott Welch and Gus Kenworthy
Directed by: Jenn Wexler
Rated: Unrated
Running Time: 90 minutes
Shudder

Our Score: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

My partner and I enjoy doing a Christmas movie marathon every year in December. Generally, she picks the Christmas movies and I find a horror Christmas film that she’ll actually enjoy. While any horror fan would think that’s easy, she’s not really the kind of person who would enjoy “Silent Night, Deadly Night” or “Black Christmas.” It needs to have a heartwarming element or some form of character redemption. Thankfully I may have found this year’s pick with “The Sacrifice Game.”

You wouldn’t think a film like “The Sacrifice Game” could be heartwarming after it’s opening minutes, where we witness the brutal murder of a happy couple three days before Christmas. Jude, played by Mena Massoud who I last saw play Aladdin in the 2019 live-action adaptation, and three others make-up the cult that’s traveling about the 1971 countryside, cutting the flesh off people as part of an ancient ritual to summon a demon. We cut to an all-girls boarding school where we find students, Clara (Georgia Acken) and Samantha (Madison Baines), along with a teacher and her boyfriend. Clara and Samantha bond over their abandonment. We learn that Samantha was intentionally left behind at the school for holidays and that the loner Clara suffers from self-harm. The unlikely duo become friends as teacher tries to make things cheery for the two, even getting them gifts. Then the cult shows up for Christmas and all hell, quite literally, breaks loose.

Despite the gruesome kills, yuletide bloodlust and viciousness of the cult, I will reiterate that “The Sacrifice Game” is surprisingly heartwarming, much like how “Bad Santa” found humanity in a booze-soaked Santa. While the film may feel familiar, it does a fantastic job of twisting the narrative in the latter half of the film. “The Sacrifice Game” does an admirable job of warming your heart after forcing you to endure nearly an hour of brutality. It also helps that it’s one of those films where you can just tell that the group of murderers will get their comeuppance.

The film is also bolstered by the performances of the killers, specifically Massoud who chews on the scenery so ravenously, you begin to hate him for how good he is at portraying a sociopath. Acken and Baines work well with each other. I’m always impressed how horror films can find good child actors that don’t outstay their welcome or get on your nerves. Acken and Baines play such a delightful budding duo as they bring their own outcast misery to the table. Acken outshines Baines when it counts though.

While the movie does feel a tad too long, director/writer Jenn Wexler squeezes out of every drop of blood from her cast and every ounce of Christmas cheer from the ending exclamation point. There’s also a hint of girl power throughout the film, mainly because I would describe the male characters as all muscle and no brain while the women manage to be both. While “Sacrifice Game” may not become a yearly holiday watch, you won’t be disappointed if it winds up under your Christmas tree.

 

Film Review: Loop Track

Starring: Thomas Sainsbury, Hayden J. Weal and Tawanda Manyimo
Directed by: Thomas Sainsbury
Rated: NR
Running Time: 96 minutes
Dark Sky Films

Our Score: 3 out of 5 Stars

At the opening of “Loop Track,” Ian (Thomas Sainsbury) is ignoring call after call as he parks his car at the edge of a New Zealand wilderness. Sweat percolates his head even though it doesn’t appear to be hot outside. Once he sets out on a hike, to who knows where, he avoids hikers as best as he can. It’s obvious that something is going on with Ian, but we don’t know what it is. Is he outrunning somebody? Is he worried about running into someone he knows? Why is he seemingly escaping into the woods for a hike?

The potential answers are sidelined when Ian runs into the overly talkative Nicky (Hayden J. Weal). Instead of revealing what bugs him with the Nicky, who overshares about everything, Ian doubles down on the awkwardness and sweating. Stuck together, the duo stops at a hiking trail cabin for the night, encountering a honeymooning couple, Monica (Kate Simmonds) and Austin (Twaanda Manyimo). Just like the viewer, they realize something is off with Ian, but no one can figure out what it is. Oddly enough, they have a lot of patience for his panicky shenanigans.

“Loop Track” is a near masterclass in suspense, making you wonder if Ian is experiencing stress-induced delusions, if he’s legitimately seeing something distant and foreboding in the surrounding woods, or if he’s the true terror. I give major props to Sainsbury, who also wrote and directed the film. So much of the film is carried through his embarrassingly shy, self-loathing cringe character. Sainsbury also writes a perfect counter balance to Ian through Nicky, an unnaturally cheery, comic relief who seems more focused on getting laid by every female he encounters, rather than Ian’s growing paranoia. The newlyweds play as a middle ground between the two, reacting with nuance and grounded reality to Nicky’s horniness and Ian’s fears.

The payoff in the film is unpredictable, truly. Is it a good payoff though? It’s something I’ve been struggling with. My emotions in the final act ranged from genuine surprise to disappointment. That being said, the movie is crafted in such a way, even if the payoff doesn’t work for you, it has it’s claws in you and you can’t turn away. While Sainsbury may be known more for his comedic chops and talents, he has a keen sixth sense for horror. If “Loop Track” is a sign of Sainsbury’s prowess for horror, I can’t wait to see what he has in store next.

Film Review: “As We Know It”

Starring: Mike Castle, Oliver Cooper and Taylor Blackwell
Directed by: Josh Monkarsh
Rated: R
Running Time: 84 minutes
Buffalo 8 Productions

Our Score: 0.5 out of 5 Stars

When I began writing movie reviews about a decade ago, I noticed immediately that I had a problem writing more about how much I didn’t like a movie as opposed to writing a movie. I didn’t want to contribute to the general negativity of the Internet, and I wanted to celebrate one of the things I love in life, movies. So over the years I’ve tended to write more, in terms of word count and number of reviews, on movies I love. As for movies that are bad, I tend to keep it short and sweet, or sometimes don’t say anything at all if it’s at a movie festival where I could write more on something enjoyable. So, since I didn’t watch “As We Know It” at a movie festival, I’ll keep this short and sweet. This movie is downright awful.

James (Mike Castle) is dealing with writer’s block after the recent break-up with his longtime girlfriend Emily (Taylor Blackwell) He’s sulking in his Hollywood Hills home when his even longer longtime best friend Bruce (Olive Cooper) shows up. Bruce isn’t there to cheer him up though, he’s there to tell him that the world is ending due to a zombie outbreak caused by soy milk. Then there’s about 80 minutes of flat jokes, maybe six boring zombies, little blood or gore that would warrant the zombie genre tag, 90s movie references that feel more like people you don’t like laughing at their own farts, and dialogue that feels like it’s trying to be wittier than Quentin Tarantino.

If the film is a parody or an attempt to mock zombie movies, why does it take place in the 90s before the revival and rise of the zombie genre in the 2000s? If it’s attempting to make fun of Hollywood, why does it try to make James a sympathetic character? Is the film supposed to be a funny juxtaposition of friendship and love dynamics during a crisis? If so, why are the stakes so low and flimsy? The tone is such a mystery, it’s hard to tell sometimes if “As We Know It” is ridiculing the characters or if the dialogue is truly as limp and plodding as a zombie. I don’t think the acting is bad, I just don’t think the cast knew how to interpret the script or what the point of any of it was. Its ineffective script, purpose and character conversations were apparent early-on. Very rarely do I automatically know I’m going to hate a movie several minutes in.

Like I stated earlier, I don’t want to rip this movie, and unfortunately it’s very easy because it’s very bad. It reminds me a lot of my movie project in my video production class. It was a seven-minute short that sounded awesome in my brain and I thought it looked great as I wrote it out. Then the final product was handed to the professor who gave it poor marks, including how one frame was out of focus. At least “As We Know It” was in focus. It has that going for it.

 

Film Review: Courtney Gets Possessed

Starring: Lauren Buglioli, Madison Hatfield and Jonathon Pawlowski
Directed by: Jono Mitchell and Madison Hatfield
Rated: NR
Running Time: 86 minutes
TriCoast Entertainment

Our Score: 3 out of 5 stars

I’m sure there’s plenty of bridal party horror stories out there; I’ve heard a few myself. Imagine the awkward mashing of friends and family, who may not know each other, or may bring their own secret hatred towards one another. There’s the possibility someone will bring a luggage full of drama to unload before the night is over. Regardless, I don’t think anyone has had a bridal party from hell much like the one in “Courtney Gets Possessed.”

Courtney (Lauren Buglioli) is getting married to Glen (Zae Jordan). Courtney’s bridesmaids include a bookworm friend from college, a scheming sister and Glen’s sister. Unfortunately, it’s not the bridesmaids who are going to ruin the night. Dave (Jonathon Pawlowski), Courtney’s previous friend with benefits before meeting Glen, stops by and is welcomed into the house. Only problem with inviting Dave in to the house party, is that he’s the Prince of Darkness. The Devil has arrived to claim his bride-to-be, Courtney and the only thing standing in his way are the bridesmaids, some unlucky passerbys, and Glen and his ragtag bunch of groomsmen.

There are some pretty solid comedic bits, like an unusually hot pizza guy, mom stopping by to give a gift lube, and the way the film wraps up like some kind of offbeat Satanic sitcom. The horror aspect is non-existent. The film sometimes flips with dramatic overtones when the Devil flexes his might by killing people, threatening death to groomsmen and bridesmaids and forcing dark secrets to surface amongst everyone. It’s fine, but it doesn’t necessarily mix well with the comedy. The only time the dramatic elements work well is when the Devil possesses someone and the cast have to try and imitate Pawlowski’s devilish cockiness and playful evil. The drama between non-possessed people isn’t quite as fiery.

Buglioli actually steals a lot of the scenes, whether she’s playing the sympathetic, sad side of her character, the self-absorbed and vicious side of her character, or channeling the Devil’s delightfully wicked tricks. She really helps carry the film since Pawlowski isn’t on-screen as much as the Lord of Darkness. The Devil spends a lot of time inhabiting other people, but that’s to provide an equal number of stakes in the story along with the laughs. That being said, the film could have easily benefited from more screen time with Pawlowski. He’s instantly charming, and manages to be delightful throughout, even after he’s murdered several people.

While “Courtney Gets Possessed” isn’t necessarily on par with other horror-comedy greats, it’s still a lot of fun because of its use of an original setting for the overused genre. The film is also great with its subtle winks at the possession genre, remembering that there should be a great deal of blood and guts with your chuckles and never being boring; despite its predictability during its brief runtime. I actually had so much fun with the characters, I wouldn’t mind seeing a sequel of sorts, or at least more with Buglioli and Pawlowski sparring again.

 

Film Review: “The Hive”

Starring: Timothy Haug, Christie Griffin and Miles Taber
Directed by: Jared Allmond
Rated: NR
Running Time: 87 minutes
Buffalo 8 Productions

Our Score: 1 out of 5 Stars

Albie (Timothy Haug) and Penny (Christie Griffin) are in dire straits. They’re not only unhappy in their marriage, but are seemingly unhappy in most of their life choices, especially Albie who whines constantly about how he has yet to make it big with his script writing. The miserable married duo decides the best thing they can do for themselves is take a night off from adulting and parenting, but car troubles force the couple back home. Upon arrival at their home, they’re greeted by another couple who are complete strangers to Albie and Penny. The couple tells them that this is their home and they need to leave through loving smiles and an oddly upbeat attitude. What happens next is…well…repetitively dull because the movie spins its tires without getting anywhere remotely interesting.

“The Hive” bills itself as a home invasion thriller, even though the smiling strange couple didn’t apparently break-in, nor do the police seem interested in helping when Albie gives them a call. To make matters worse, Albie and Penny go to a nearby relative’s house, in the neighborhood, and the relative seems relatively calm about the entire situation. Nothing about this screams home invasion and by the time Albie and Penny hatch a plan, the movie u-turns into a sci-fi film without any real reason. Like any sci-fi/horror film, the absurdity of the situation is supposed to match a real-world idea or feeling. In “The Hive,” it’s painfully obvious from the first few minutes that the film is about a mid-life crisis and the horrors of realizing you weren’t meant for marriage, family and a white picket fence. Does it do anything unique or interesting with that? No.

Despite taking place in suburbia, the film does nothing with the setting or the idea of misery in the burbs. The injection of sci-fi elements feels like a random idea to make things interesting instead of massaging it cohesively into the film’s narrative. I kept wondering if maybe there would be a grand payoff, but instead the film whimpers to the credits. There’s a lot of things wrong with “The Hive,” but I don’t feel like faulting anyone besides the writer and director because its most egregious issue is attempting to use other genres and clichés simply because it has no original ideas of its own.

Despite an interesting set-up, “The Hive” does nothing outside of its first 10-15 minutes of exposition. It seems perfectly content with cyclical dull scenes of characters repeating dialogue and information. While “The Hive” may end up as an example of what not to do in scriptwriting and filmmaking, the trailer and poster for this film might end up as an example of false advertising.

 

Film Review: “Night of the Hunted”

Starring: Camille Rowe and Stasa Stanic
Directed by: Franck Kahlfoun
Rated: NR
Running Time: 95 minutes
Shudder

Our Score: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

As the credits for “Night of the Hunted” began to roll, I wondered about all my unanswered questions. I had plenty during the 95-minute cat and mouse game. In “Night of the Hunted,” Alice (Camille Rowe) spends a hellacious night over walkie-talkie with a Sniper (Stasa Stanic) at a remote gas station. Is it just bad luck? Is Alice being targeted? Is God punishing her for an unknown crime? Who is the Sniper? There are no answers, but maybe that’s the point.

Before being thrown into the mayhem, we meet Alice, who runs social media for a pharmaceutical giant, in a hotel room that she’s sharing with a male colleague. We wouldn’t think anything of it if she didn’t abruptly stop talking to her husband before her colleague enters the room. Are they lovers? The duo, who appear to have unsettled business, are on their way out of the room after a business convention. The pair stop at a 24-hour gas station for menial supplies and a tank fill-up. A nearby billboard says “GODISNOWHERE,” which feels ominous no matter how you view it, whether it’s “God is now here” or “God is nowhere.” Alice, noticing nothing at first, begins to realize no one is working in the store. As soon as she looks for an employee, she sees blood splattered on the wall behind the cash register, but the realization intertwines with a sniper bullet gashing her arm. Her colleague rushes in, only to be gunned down in front of her.

The back and forth between Alice and her would-be killer fill the rest of the film as passers in the night stop at the gas station to either meet their untimely end or fill their tank before going about their life. You could honestly comment on why certain people were killed and why others weren’t, more than they noticed the carnage or were oblivious to it. I digress though, Alice and the Sniper prod each other, trade insults, and attempt sympathetic comments about their lives. The more we learn about both, the more we wonder whether either is truly telling the truth. Alice has reason to make things up, she’s fighting for her life. The Sniper has reason to make things up, he’s a sociopath. This leads to Alice and the Sniper assuming things about each other, seemingly right, but also seemingly false.

My overarching belief is that “Night of the Hunted” is a commentary on 21st century discourse. We believe things about each other simply because we begin to attach others to different tribes. We pick at each other over perceived stereotypes and use those same beliefs to find reasons to hate. We also look to make the other party feel guilty for their own presumptions as we make our own. The Sniper drives a lot of that narrative, not only because he’s the killer, but because he seems to relay his own philosophy of being anti-vax, anti-government, anti-woke, etc. It’s a bit on the nose, but like I said, we’re never led to believe that either Alice or the Sniper is 100% true. Are they both mischaracterizing each other for their own goals or are they hitting each other like nails on the head?

A lot of people are going to be disappointed by the ending because of the lack of answers. Personally, it feels to match the verbal jarring and bloodletting throughout the film. Regardless of how you feel as the credits arrive, “Night of the Hunted” is a violent, tense, entertaining flick that will twist your stomach up in knots.


 

Film Review: “Herd”

Starring: Ellen Adair, Mitzi Akaha and Jeremy Holm
Directed by: Steven Pierce
Rated: NR
Running Time: 97 minutes
Dark Sky Films

Our Score: 1.5 out of 5 Stars

Despite the saturation of the zombie genre over the past few decades, I still have a soft spot for it. Films like “The Sadness” and “Wyrmwood: Apocalypse” show there’s plenty of fun ideas to still explore within the genre. Then other films seem to simply retread tired clichés, like how humans are worse than zombies or how we’ll fight each other before we fight zombies. Unfortunately, despite an interesting beginning, I’d put “Herd” in the latter category.

Jamie (Ellen Adaiar) and Alex (Mitzi Akaha) are going on a canoe camping trip to repair their breaking relationship. Things get tense during the trip and Alex injures her leg, trapping the duo near Jamie’s hometown, filled with bad memories, two warring factions, and a potentially abusive parent. On top of that, the zombie apocalypse has apparently broken out. While the calamity could provide some fresh meat to the genre, “Herd” goes a lot of predictable routes before it’s finale.

The obvious social commentary in “Herd” is ones we’ve seen before like the breakdown of civilization through overt classism and distrust of one another. “Herd” tries to bring a bit more to the table by offering up the LGBTQ+ relationship of Jamie and Alex. The duo worries about whether or not they’ll be accepted by what few people are left, or as the film title explicitly implies, the herd. It doesn’t necessarily work since the armed men running the show seem more afraid of every cough and sniffle they hear, but it’s clearly a commentary on how small-town acceptance only extends to straight white people.

Other than the commentary, the middle of the film tries to be a character study, focusing on the characters fears and concerns. It would have worked better if the humans and zombies were menacing. Like I said, the men with guns seem more concerned about the other men with guns and every time they hear someone clear their throat. The zombies are slow moving and are covered in boils, yet sometimes seem unconcerned with actually chomping into someone’s flesh. Instead they growl, claw and make gurgling scream sounds.

I’m willing to forgive bad zombie films as long as I’m entertained, but nothing about the “Herd” kept me engaged. The only thing that kept me going was the hope that the ending would somehow pull the rug out from under me or tie everything together in a way that would make my jaw drop. It didn’t, but I’ll give credit for the unpredictable nature of it. There’s a lot of skill, craft and effort in “Herd,” but all of that was bogged down by an uninspired script that made the 97-minute runtime feel like a zombie crawl.

Film Review: “When Evil Lurks”

Starring: Ezequiel Rodríguez, Demián Salomón and Silvina Sabater
Directed by: Demián Rugna
Rated: NR
Running Time: 99 Minutes
IFC Films

Our Score: 4 out of 5 Stars

On the same weekend that “When Evil Lurks” hits theaters, audiences will also be treated to “The Exorcist: Believer,” which is kind of ironic. That’s because 1973’s “The Exorcist” created the book on demon possession tropes. While I’m sure “Believer” has the book in hand throughout most of its film, “When Evil Lurks” clearly skimmed through and decided to make its own unflinching and unforgiving rules.

The Argentinian film opens on two brothers in a rural village hearing gunshots in the night. They speculate what it is, but decide to investigate in the morning. Their investigation leads them to half a corpse and then to a house where they find a putrid, bloated, rotting, but still alive human referred to as “the rotten.” The woman of the household urges them to leave it alone even though the obese creature is on the verge of birthing evil itself. The brothers also suspect the evil inside is the reason their rural village has been befallen by death, bad luck, bitter dirt, wilted crops and starving livestock. We eventually learn that a demon inhabits the rotten and simply killing the rotten unleashes the demon to go after other prey.

While the demon possession rules are a bit confusing, we’re told throughout that there are seven rules when encountering evil. Seven is a big number in Christianity, whether it’s how it took God seven days to create the Earth or the Book of Revelation in which there are seven seals. The film is rich in Christian theology, but a lot of times the rotten seem like more than just demons from Hell. There are several contagion themes, including the obvious idea that you truly never know who has been possessed until it’s too late. I also found it interesting that the gut reaction of every man in the film was to immediately shoot and kill the rotten (a big no-no in the seven rules). Meanwhile, the women know of the seven rules, know what to do and ultimately hold the potential key to ending the reign of terror. Themes aside, the movie is absolutely brutal.

From the corpse that you can smell from the screen at the beginning to the visually gruesome deaths of several characters throughout the film, “When Evil Lurks” could care less about your sense and sensibilities, much less your morals. Once we understand that evil will kill and cannibalize any human it comes across, every scene has a palpable tension, especially since animals, children and women seem to be the favorite target of the rotten. Adding to the shocking effect is practical effects that add to the general unease sprinkled throughout the film.

“When Evil Lurks” is an unholy assault on your senses with sudden nihilistic violence and an overall feeling of hopelessness. There is no silver lining or light at the end of the tunnel for our characters. Early on we understand that nothing good will happen and that no one will be saved. In a lot of ways that’s what makes “When Evil Lurks” a massive surprise. Even when it reveals its bleak cards, we want to see how it uses them.