Film Review: “To the Moon”

Starring: Will Brill, Madeleine Morgenweck and Scott Fiend
Directed by: Scott Fiend
Rated: NR
Running Time: 82 minutes
1091 Pictures

Dennis (Fiend) and Mia (Morgenweck) are having problems. The couple is dealing with a tragic loss as well as Dennis’ substance abuse issues. Instead of breaking up or attending a marriage counselor, the duo head to Dennis’ family cabin to repair their broken marriage. Not too long after their arrival, a third wheel arrives. Roger (Brill), Dennis’ estranged and “out there” brother, has been vacant from the couple’s life, but seems ready to insert himself into it because he believes he can help them overcome the losses they’ve experienced and the quarrels they’re having. Well, depending on who you believe or what scenes you believe are real, the answer is difficult to find.

“To the Moon” makes us a question who to trust throughout it’s runtime. Whether we can trust the new-age, peculiar tag-a-long, Roger, or the disturbed and not all there, Dennis. Both have their flaws and both seem to be willing and ready to throw the other under the bus. The brothers, even if they never admit it, are very much the same in this psychological thriller despite the differences in how they’re approaching this bizarre scenario. Both of them appear to be manipulating Mia when they discuss one another or themselves, slipping half-truths in between regular truths without ever saying anything that is an outright lie.

Outside the personal drama, there are several things that create this aura of doom. Roger seems to have too much fun, sometimes at others expense and keeps crafting a special tea for his brother that seems more nefarious each time he goes out to the woods to forage for berries. Dennis, despite having some of his flaws laid out to be picked at, is never upfront. What drug or drugs is he recovering from and why are some of his waking nightmares so in tune with his moods and emotions?

At a brisk 82 minutes, the trio never outstay their welcome, nor do they run out of things to squabble, bicker and hate each other over. While all three manage to gnaw and thrash amongst the gloomy scenery, the audience attempts to piece together the final truth before the film closes out. That being said, the film’s premise eventually pays off, but not without lingering questions. At least the questions it leaves unanswered allow us to plug in the gaps of the madness that just unfolded on-screen. Even those who have a bad time might walk away with a nagging curiosity.

Film Review: Clerks III

Starring: Brian O’Halloran, Jeff Anderson and Jason Mewes
Directed by: Kevin Smith
Rated: R
Running Time: 100 minutes
Lionsgate

Just like Kevin Smith, I can vividly remember the mundaneness of every menial customer service job I’ve ever had, whether it was stocking shelves with products, cashiering in a store by myself for hours on end or helping customers with useless commercial products that I could care less they bought or not. Maybe that’s why the “Clerks” franchise resonates so much with me and others. Not only because it feels like such a spot on representation of the minimum wage rage in America, but because we sympathize more realistically with Dante (O’Halloran) and Randall (Anderson) more than we do Tony Stark or Shrek.

“Clerks III” more or less picks up after “Clerks II,” even if it is a decade and a half later in the real world and fictitious View Askew Universe. Nothing has seemingly changed as Dante still runs the Quick Stop with Randall. When we last saw Randall in “Clerks II,” he was ready to reopen the video rental portion of the incredibly short strip mall, but the RST Video is now a dispensary run by Jay (Mewes) and Silent Bob (Kevin Smith). Jay and Silent Bob, who are now legal drug dealers, are more soft spoken and less zany, whereas Dante continues to seem lost in life and Randall simply mocks life. Of course, not everything stays the same as Randall suffers a near fatal heart attack. That reality check has Randall focusing on his own mortality and he gets the idea to film a movie about his and Dante’s life at the Quick Stop.

“Clerks III” is for fans of Kevin Smith, more or less. I wouldn’t expect a lot of filmgoers who haven’t seen the first two films to get much, if anything, out of this third helping. It’d be like hopping on board the Star Wars fan train at “Return of the Jedi” and asking everyone what a Chewie is. So since the film is solely for fans, I do believe you’d be hard pressed to find a fan who doesn’t leave “Clerks III” with a smile on their face and a tear in their eye. Not only because of how much we’ve watched these characters grow, but because in a lot of ways we’ve grown with these characters.

For those who don’t know, Kevin Smith has always been a writer/director who wears his emotions on his sleeve and in 2018, suffered his own nearly fatal heart attack. It’s safe to say “Clerks III” is a reflection of that incident, but it’s more than that. “Clerks III” is a lot of different things rolled into one doughy, but delicious mess. It’s sometimes a self-referential retelling as well as a nod, wink and jab to the ribs of viewers. Not all of the scenes work or make logical sense sometimes, but that’s the warped view we’ve become accustomed to over the year in Smith’s films. At moments it is so all over the place, you forget that the fun eventually has to come to an end in the final act.

I don’t want to spoil too much of a film that I believe will be a surprise to most fans who give it a watch. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t worried about going into “Clerks III.” I worried that these two slackers discussing nerdy pop culture and ridiculing others would out stay it’s welcome and ruin the good will built up by Smith himself. I’m glad I was wrong. “Clerks III” establishes the emotional stakes early on, laying visual and conversational groundwork for the film’s, and this trilogy’s, final act. Thank you Smith and crew, I didn’t know I needed more Clerks in my life and it’s been a blast.

Film Review: Glorious

Starring: J.K. Simmons, Ryan Kwanten and Tordy Clark
Directed by: Rebekah McKendry
Rated: R
Running Time: 79 minutes
Shudder

Wes (Kwanten) is hungover. Pantless and puking in a rest stop bathroom is probably not how he imagined ever meeting someone, but he does. As Wes tries to wash out puke from his mouth in the sink, he hears a disembodied voice (Simmons) coming from the stall in the corner. In that pitch black area we can only see the outline of the stall, but see no feet nor hear any kind of shuffling; just the voice. To talk back with the voice, Wes goes to the stall next to the disembodied voice’s stall and (no joke) communicates with him through a glory hole. “Glorious” is weird, funny, haunting…and kind of glorious.

I’m not sure if it’s a product of the pandemic or the declining budgets for films across the board, but “Glorious” is a bottle show that works better than its premise promises. In a lot of ways it reminds me of “Tales from the Crypt” where the setting is seedy and at times pornographic while the horror is cosmic and comedic. Despite spending most of the time with Wes and the glory hole, the film makes a lot of great use out of the surroundings of the cramped shitter. If the premise and setting isn’t enough to keep you thoroughly entertained, then you can always rely on Simmons’ powerful, yet comforting deep voice to guide you through this rest stop maze of madness.

So ultimately the question becomes what is happening to Wes? Before his hangover, Wes torches remnants of a romantic relationship outside the rest stop with a bottle of booze in hand. He’s clearly attempting to wipe the memories of something and those memories don’t seem to be a factor in his bathroom predicament. As for the bathroom predicament, is the talking glory hole an intergalactic creature torturing Wes? Is it God? Satan? Thankfully it all comes together in the end, so I will avoid any more plot point discussion since the movie delightfully reveals more and more about Wes and the glory hole with each passing minute.

One big key element to “Glorious” is its comedy, which barely skips a beat and finds the perfect punchline in every scene, even in the most tense of moments. Wes and glory hole manage to poke, pry and joke with each other even as the stakes of the scenario continue to increase with the drama simmering with rage in the background. I’m actually kind of surprised this isn’t getting a theatrical release of sorts (although it did premiere at Fantastia Fest) because the comedy that’s baked into the plot would work better with a crowd as opposed to my experience in my recliner in my living room.

“Glorious” isn’t perfect. The runtime, which is brisk, hints at the lack of enough set pieces or the inability to expand upon a lot of philosophical discussions within the confinement. I also think the ending works, but not as well as the film thinks it does. Overall I’m not upset that films like this are made. I love films that push the boundaries of expectations within their own genre. For horror, you expect to be rattled and rocked, and instead, “Glorious” manages to jar and joke with its audience. “Glorious” isn’t a film that lingers with you, but instead has a beer and some fun with you while discussing pathological darkness and the cosmos. Just ignore the bathroom smell.

 

Film Review: “When I Consume You”

Starring: Libby Ewing and Evan
Directed by: Perry Blackshear
Rated: NR
Running Time: 90 minutes
1091 Pictures

Siblings Daphne (Ewing) and Wilson (Dumouchel) are each struggling in their own ways. They appear to both live in squalor and there are hints that both also struggle with drugs. They provide support for each other in the face of unspeakable entities and shadows that have haunted their lives, while Daphne and Wilson within their own sibling relationship are appearing to keep secrets from one another. “When I Consume You” opens up Daphne and Wilson’s closets and asks you to start searching for the skeletons.

Skeletons range from crime, drugs, family and abuse. The phrase, “the universe is random and cruel,” is a perfect descriptor for Daphne and Wilson’s struggles, but Daphne isn’t so sure. While my overall experience with the film was positive, something kind of nagged at me. I  watched “When I Consume You” at Panic Fest, but it didn’t necessarily stick out to me as much as other films. It may or may not be the reason I find myself on the fence. For perspective, I watched around two dozen and a half films as a part of Panic Fest. When you push yourself through a proverbial gauntlet of horror, films have to be unique to stick out. Either that or my mind isn’t what it used to be. So while “When I Consume You” is slightly unique and visually haunting, it almost gets a bit lost in itself.

There are all these interesting set pieces, sometimes taking place in the past, while others may just be a figment of imagination. Trying to figure that out is sometimes amusing since the film provides a lot of visuals for the audience to munch on. Regardless of the context, what is revealed inside sometimes feels demonic, Satanic, cryptic, or as if someone or something is pulling the strings of misery. Other times, the revelations are all too real, at least for those who’ve dealt with trauma and the lacking support structure that sometimes accompanies that.

“When I Consume You” is a puzzle, forcing audiences to put it together as the film goes along. That may sell or kill whoever watches it while someone like me just may end up indifferent, constantly thinking about negatives for every positive thought I had about the film. The acting is spot-on, yet the actors sometimes seem like they have nothing to work with in terms of clues towards the ultimate answer. Hopefully you find that answer when you turn this movie on.

Film Review: “Prey”

Starring: Amber Midthunder, Dakota Beavers and Dan DiLiegro
Directed by: Dan Trachtenberg
Rated: R
Running Time: 99 minutes
Hulu

Just like the “Alien” franchise, I’m always a little surprised when another “Predator” movie comes out. It’s not that I don’t like the “Predator” franchise, (I’m actually a little bit too forgiving on its weaker elements) but I’ve always struggled to find other people who’ve watched the films or even enjoyed the films. It’s not hard to find people who’ve watched and treasured the 1987 Arnold Schwarzenegger film, but now I feel a new generation is about to watch and treasure 2022’s “Prey.”

For “Predator” fans, the first question is going to be: “So is “Prey” a sequel, prequel or what?” The answer is uncertainty. The film takes place in 1717 in the northern Great Plains (Montana? Canada?), about 250 years before Scharzenegger and his crew of macho men gets torn apart by an unseen creature in the jungle. Naru (Midthunder) is an aspiring Comanche hunter, despite the eye rolling done by her fellow tribesmen, hunters and even her Comanche hunter sibling. All that’s about to change with the arrival of an invisible extraterrestrial who’s made Earth its hunting ground.

Just like the first “Predator,” “Prey” spends the first third of the movie building up our hero’s backstory and arc while showing us flashes of the invisible to the naked eye space monster slashing and shooting his way through wildlife. As previous “Predator” films have established, this isn’t just a bloodthirsty creature, it’s a being that enjoys the hunt; much like Naru. So, throughout the film, there is this anticipation and build-up towards these two fighting to the death. Until then, we have some interesting character development…and a lot of blood and gore to get through.

If there’s been one complaint about each film in the franchise, it’s the humans; never the trophy hunting creature. Thankfully the humans aren’t obnoxiously flawed sacks of meat or overstay their welcome, or in the case of 2018’s “The Predator,” has a subplot where autism is a superpower. Naru not only moves and flows with her tribe, but she encounters French fur trappers who are about as likable as a wasp in summer time. So, their deaths are ultimately enjoyable and welcome. In that regard, “Predator” and “Prey” are similar in that the humans we like remain alive while the disposable flesh and blood is given to the least likable of the bunch.

That being said, this is the first time the protagonist has been a woman, but you’d never know it from the way the movie ebbs and flows. Instead of calling attention to itself or virtue signaling, the film uses Predator mythos to explain why Naru is the perfect match for this galaxy traveling warrior. It also helps that she plays into the film trope of, “We can’t believe what the woman/child says or sees, right?” It also helps that she immediately recognizes the danger while each man in the film puffs his chest and charges ahead before being ripped apart, stabbed, shot or any other myriad of horrific ways to die. It reminds me a lot of Linda Hamilton’s work in the “Terminator” films. Not only do Naru and Sarah Connor radiate confidence, but they both prove their intellect and action-movie badassness each time they encounter their foe.

The one thing that’s kind of always fascinated me about the franchise, even in its highs and lows, is how much the directors and writers stay true to the creature itself, rarely rolling the dice on a bizarre character development, but instead attempting new things within the realm of logic for this fictionalized species. Director Dan Trachtenberg proves that he can provide an equal balance of substance and style, hopefully breathing life into a franchise that was nearly left for dead by director/writer Shane Black four years ago. Not only does Trachtenberg give us a neat origin story about the first Predator hunting expedition on Earth, but gives us hope that maybe, for once in this franchise, we’ll start to have a string of decent Predator films.

San Diego Comic Con Stumbles Out of the Pandemic

“Has it really been three years?” That was my thought as I sat in my cramped, terrible plane to San Diego. Ignoring the terrible aviation service, I had my mind on the prize. While San Diego Comic Con technically came back last November, the turn out by vendors and patrons alike made it seem more like a test run before this summer’s return to glory. Was July 20-24 everything I hoped it was? No, but that’s OK.

The biggest takeaway for those outside the geeky bubble of the San Diego Convention Center and Gaslamp District was the return of Marvel Studios to Hall H. Not only did they unveil footage from “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” and “Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania,” Kevin Fiege, the Willy Wonka of the MCU, also unveiled their plans for phases five and six, revealing what the “Multiverse Saga” has in store for eager fans. Oh, and DC showed some new “Shazam” and “Black Adam,” but some are still wondering where Superman and Flash are.

Outside that big news, “Star Trek” had a lot to say, showing a look at “Picard’s” final season as well as info on a live-action/animated hybrid crossover that I’m sure Trekkies are already getting amped for. Outside the convention halls, Star Trek had an offsite experience called Ten Forward where Trekkies and others could partake in food and beverages in a “Star Trek” setting that had fans finally living in some of their favorite moments. Sci-fi wasn’t the only draw as “The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power” and “Dungeons and Dragons: Honor Among Thieves” rolled out footage that not only got fans pumped, but garnered attention from people who had no interest (me being one of them). D&D also wowed people with it’s offsite bar where people could partake in a fantasy brew while interacting in what can only be described as a cave tavern harassed by dragons.

Out of all the fandoms though, there was quite a bit of disappointment. Fans of Adult Swim’s offsite activations were left wondering where they were only to find a box in a field with a peephole advertising the Adult Swim Festival…taking place on the other side of the country. “House of the Dragon,” a “Game of Thrones” prequel, failed to generate buzz for people in Hall H, while the activation was apparently only for die-hards who left disappointed or content after standing in line for an average of five hours. The “Bob’s Burgers” panel was cancelled last minute, leaving Bob’s fans scrambling to find another favorite moment from this year’s festivities.

A lot of people actually may be signing up for Apple TV after the company’s first foray into SDCC. The fresh-faced streaming service highlighted several shows like “For All Mankind,” “Mythic Quest,” and this writer’s favorite, “Severance.” While not personally attending, the footage from inside the “Severance” offsite was astounding. It truly looked like people were walking into the world of “Severance.” Not only was it the most discussed and favorite offsite of this year, but it maybe the standard going forward for fully immersive rewarding offsites. One of the companies that manages to bring the fun to offsites, FX, returned this year with a maze featuring haunted dolls, muttering lunatics’, a vampire dance party and a chance to win various hot sauces.

Despite the highs of SDCC, something felt off. As a non-profit, it would make sense that SDCC would have to cut some corners and scale some things back with it’s return. But you have to wonder about some of the choices and decisions. One talking point that was (and still is) discussed is COVID-19. Was there a mask policy? Yes. Was it bothersome? Not really. The majority abided by it and it wasn’t like most people haven’t already spent a good portion of the past three years wearing one. That being said, I will flat out say that the COVID-19 wristband policy was stupid. To obtain a COVID-19 wristband, you must either be vaccinated or have a negative COVID-19 test result that was collected within 72 hours. If either of those requirements were met, you were given a flimsy paper wristband that was supposed to survive five days of sun, showering (maybe not everyone) and whatever else comes there way. The idea behind this is to prevent sick people from coming in, but as we’ve all found out, you can still become sick and a carrier of COVID-19 if you’re vaccinated and can still become infected and become a carrier within 72 hours after said COVID-19 test. So with all due respect, what was the point of the wristband? Another line? A sense of false security? Regardless, it was a completely unnecessary hurdle that frustrated hundreds if not thousands on a daily basis who showed up without a wristband and then had to wait in a lengthy hour-or-more line. I prepared and knew all about this, but not everyone is me and I can relate to the grief of having unnecessary requirements stand in your way of fun you’ve been craving for years.

Was there plenty of things that had me shaking my head in frustration? Yes. Was there plenty of things I enjoyed immensely regardless? Yes. In no way was this year a sign that it’s time for me to quit going and in no way will I say my experience was negative overall. There’s always going to be things I miss and things I will cherish forever. I’ve learned, grown and adapted to the things that happen every year like others…the long lines, the shocking amount of BO from fellow congoers and so on. Here at MediaMikes, we’re fairly confident SDCC 2023 will be better and 2022 will still have been a great year, just not as great as other years.

Panic Fest Marks 10th Anniversary and Return to Normalcy


As I sat in the main theater at Screenland Armour for the start of Panic Fest on Thursday, April 28, I couldn’t help but feel relief. That relief comes with the knowledge that since January 2020, I haven’t experienced anything like this in a little over two years. The pandemic extinguished the lights at repertoire cinemas across the country, but some managed to fight through the uncertainty to emerge victorious; shining brighter than ever. So Panic Fest 2022, the 10th iteration of the genre film festival, felt personal in the context that the pandemic is now over, we can begin congregating again to partake in films that make us peek at the screen between our eyes or laugh at absurd things with a large group of degenerates some of us refer to as friends or family.

The 10th annual Panic Fest kicked off with Joe Bob Briggs and Darcy the Mail Girl presenting a 20th anniversary screening of “Bubba Ho-Tep.” The second day of Panic Fest kicked things into gear with films ranging from the comically bizarre, “CRABS!,” to the gory insane, “The Sadness,” which kept the hundreds who were in attendance happy and horrified. The directors came out to play Saturday as Joe Lynch introduced, what he called an undiscovered gem waiting to become a cult classic, 1984’s “Surf II.” don’t bother asking me about “Surf I.”

Director Mick Garris was in attendance as a nearly sold out theater laughed along and cheered to 1992’s, “Sleepwalkers,” which I can only describe to people as a horror film featuring indescribable super powered cat people who are not only deathly allergic to house cats, but also incestuously horny. Spider One, the lead singer of Powerman 5000 and brother of Rob Zombie, attended the global premiere of his first film, “Allegoria.” Spotted amongst attendees Saturday at several films, including “Sleepwalkers,” was Lloyd Kaufman. Yes, that Lloyd Kaufman. Kaufman would be introducing his latest Troma film, “Shakespeare’s Shitstorm,” a Troma adaptation of Shakespeare’s “The Tempest,” on Sunday.

While the celebrities and filmmakers are just one joyous part of Panic Fest, the other joys come in the form of independent films looking to break the mold. This year’s line-up films ranged from tense thrillers about neighbors next door, “Watcher,” to nightmare fuel bat shit insanity, “The Outwaters.” Just like in 2021, this year’s Panic Fest was a hybrid of in-theater selections and virtual selections. For fans who only attended in-person, you missed out on some great stuff that was only available digitally through Panic Fest like “The Chamber of Terror,” which feels like a midnight film waiting to burst onto the scene and “Masking Threshold,” a serious contender for one of my favorite films of 2022. While a few films, both virtually and in-person, weren’t really my thing, most of the films were diamonds in the rough while others showed great promise for the future creators behind it.

While it’s clear that not everyone was ready to be back in a theater, Screenland Armour was hopping with life during the four days I was in attendance. It was refreshing to be around like-minded people devouring high-brow and low-brow horror content. While the pandemic certainly had an effect on 2021’s and 2022’s Panic Fest, it’s safe to say the founders haven’t skipped a beat when putting together a well-crafted mix of genre films and events that most certainly put a smile on everyone who sat down to once again enjoy the magic of the movies.

 

 

Panic Fest Film Review: “Watcher”

Starring: Maika Monroe, Karl Glusman and Burn Gorman
Directed by: Chloe Okuno
Rated: R
Running Time: 91 minutes
Shudder

During “Watcher,” I was reminded of a scene from the first season of “Master of None.” It shows the carefree nature of a man walking home from a night of drinking, as he giggles and dances sloppily on his way home. The flipside, which we see, is a woman, walking home, after that same night of drinking with the man, petrified because she can hear footsteps behind her. Instead of a joyous walk home, she speed walks without revealing to her potential captor that she knows she’s being followed. “Watcher” doesn’t take place in one night nor is the fear immediate, it creeps in over an hour and a half as we watch Julia (Monroe) sense and fight back against someone who may or may not be watching her from afar.

Julia, an American, starts out of her element. She’s in Romania’s capital, supporting her boyfriend who’s so busy at work, he hardly has time to see her, much less show up for dinner on time. Julia spends her days walking about town, having trouble communicating since she doesn’t speak Romanian, and wondering what is happening across the street. At night, she stares out her window and sees the lives of others, whether they’re at the dinner table, in front of a TV, or staring right back at her. She knows he’s there, even when she can’t see him. Her boyfriend shrugs it off, becoming more concerned about her mental health and damn near everyone around her seems content on brushing things off even as a serial killer stalks the streets as evident by his murders being details on the news.

The “Watcher” is a slow-burn, as it lets Julia and the audience settle into Eastern Europe, without ever making us feel fully comfortable with some affective jump scares and lingering shots that have us holding our breath. The influences are clear for this film as director/writer Okuno utilizes elements from films, like “Rear Window,” but I’m a little disappointed she never twisted any of those elements in an attempt to modernize or fool the audience. While “Watcher” is a great thriller homage that taps deeply into paranoia, it never quite does anything unique that makes it stand out as an instant classic, even though it’s shot and feels like it should be one.

Panic Fest Film Review: “The Chamber of Terror”

Starring: Timothy Paul McCarthy, Jessica Vano and Ry Barrett
Directed by: Michael Pereira
Rated: NR
Running Time: 93 minutes

In the opening moments of “The Chamber of Terror” we meet Nash Caruthers (McCarthy), a deep-voiced renegade. He’s sealing up a member of the Ackerman crime family alive in a coffin, making short grandiose statements about his personal revenge. The audience knows nothing about any of this and yet the movie continues to chug along. We flash forward a month later where Caruthers finds himself in the Ackerman family’s underground torture dungeon where revenge meets revenge, as well as the paranormal.

Any more info would ruin “The Chamber of Terror” even though I’ll admit the first 10 minutes of the film had me wondering if I had made a mistake hitting the play button, but thankfully this is all a part of writer/director Pereira’s plan. I would implore you not to turn it off even though that opening feels like a film school student who watched “Boondock Saints” way too much. Thank God I don’t rely on my gut instincts that much or else I would have missed out on the best low budget gorefest I’ve seen in years. And by low-budget, I mean that they probably spent the majority of their budget on every exploding head, blood geyser and chunky internal organs littered across this film.

As the movie progresses, the plot gets sillier and more intricate, with characters gradually breaking the fourth wall as if they realize they’re in some kind of film worthy of an 80s Saturday night on a UHF channel. Caruthers delivers most of the silliness, fighting back against his captors in bizarre ways and delivering phony lines that even Bruce Campbell would struggle saying with a straight face. It’s a difficult film to describe because its only inherent purpose is to introduce outlandish characters and watch them interact in a blood-soaked sandbox.

“WolfCop,” another Panic Fest film that has made the rounds for its comedic approach to insane ideas, is referenced early on in the film. If you’ve seen “WolfCop,” then you know what kind of film you’re in for and if not, don’t take your love of horror too seriously, or even “Chamber of Terror” for that matter. While “The Chamber of Terror” sounds like a bad haunted house attraction in a shopping mall, the film itself is a confidently directed horror comedy that gets more ridiculous and bloody as the film goes on. By the end, you hope that Caruthers winds up in another misadventure.

Panic Fest Film Review: “CRABS!”

Starring: Kurt Carley, Robert Craighead and Bryce Durfee
Directed by: Pierce Berolzheimer
Rated: NR
Running Time: 80 minutes

Sometimes it’s difficult to type or relay articulate thoughts with intentionally silly movies. CRABS! is the kind of film that I could easily just type, “Turn your brain off, pop an edible or get some beers, and enjoy the schlocky magic.” However, I can’t because you’re expecting an actual critique. All I can say in my opening paragraph is if my simplistic line above about the movie isn’t something that is in your own wheelhouse of pop-culture entertainment, just go-ahead and know you won’t like this movie.

For the rest of us though…CRABS! is a melting pot of Ed Wood and Japanese Kaiju monsters, with sprinklings of Gremlins, Tremors and CGI that might break Asylum films budget. CRABS! let’s you know immediately what kind of film you’re in for as the opening sequences are as follows: a crab makes cutesie noises as a nuclear power plant explodes, a young couple is having sex vigorously on the beach in broad daylight, a crab (potentially the one that got a front row seat to radioactivity) comes up to the couple only to kill the horny lovers. Once again, if your funny bone isn’t tickled before the title credits, then you won’t like the rest of the film.

CRABS! has an eclectic cast, featuring a boy in a wheelchair looking to create robotic legs, his girlfriend and her thirsty mom who teaches at the high school in town (she acts equally flirty and airheaded with the men and students in town), a foreign exchange student who is given the most ludicrous dialogue to say with his ridiculous accent, and a Sheriff’s Department that’s only made up of two men; both who really enjoy smoking pot. The plot, which there actually is one, is nonsense and almost unnecessary. Even a hint of scrutiny would make the plot crumble like a house of cards in a windstorm. Yet again, it’s definitely the kind of film that fits the phrase, “leave your brain at the door.”

However, even though the film wears its influences on its sleeve like a soldier being pinned with badges of honor, CRABS! really doesn’t offer anything new or different to a genre that’s ever changing and evolving. While it is an enjoyable trip, it’s not a film that’ll stick with you for years or even be begging for a rewatch; I’m not even sure if an unnecessary sequel is in the future for this film. “CRABS!” is intentionally terrible, and as long you understand that you might have a lot of fun with it.

 

Panic Fest Film Review: “Dawn Breaks Behind the Eyes”

Starring: Luisa Taraz, Frederick von Luttichau and Anna Platen
Directed by: Kevin Kopacka
Rated: R
Running Time: 73 minutes
Dark Sky Films

What happens when a couple inherits a big haunting castle? Margot (Taraz) and Deiter (Luttichau) have a lot of work to do, and while neither seen worried about the creaking and dark corners lurking around the castle, both are terrified by something in the cellar, so much so Deiter doesn’t even want to go down there again. Sounds like a great horror film set-up, right? “Dawn Breaks Behind the Eyes” isn’t a horror movie though, and honestly, I’m not sure what genre it fits in other than made-up ones mouthed by people on an acid trip.

Talking anymore about the plot behind this film would give a lot away, even though it appears I said next to nothing about the script or motives of the characters. I don’t want to spoil a film, regardless of how niche it is. I will say the twists and turns the movie takes are surprisingly interesting and inventive for a film that appears to be a general homage to European horror films of the 70s. While the film isn’t a tribute, the aesthetic it’s going for allows for it to evolve and flow naturally throughout its peculiar tale. I would say I’ve seen films that have done what it does better while I’ve also seen films, like “mother!,” fail spectacularly at what “Dawn Breaks Behind the Eyes” is going for.

A little while ago I reviewed “Strawberry Manson,” a film that I would almost consider to be a cousin of “Dawn Breaks Behind the Eyes.” There is this indie vibe that radiates throughout the film, despite the fact some scenes are so impressive they could be in any modern-day blockbuster. The relation between the two films appears to be one of ambiguity. Both films have a distinct message, but it’s so layered under popping visuals and a thick atmosphere. Layering it on the original message allows the story to branch off into different notions and ideas. Both films are a head trip, providing some sustenance throughout their brief runtimes while ultimately leaving a curious viewer hungry for more. The only problem is, I’m not sure I could watch either movie ever again.

There’s plenty of fine or even great movies I’ve only watched once. I thought “Walk the Line” was an impressive biography about one of country music’s greatest acts, but I have no interest in rewatching it. So, while rewatchability isn’t a defining factor of whether something is good or not, it does beg the question why something so curious and unique doesn’t elicit an emotion that makes me yearn for a second or third helping. I equate this to the “Infomercials” that Adult Swim airs. The line between “surprisingly rewatchable” and “once is enough” is so thin in these surreal ideas, the scale could tip either way because of the slightest thing. For me, the movie is mystical, but also kind of straightforward in that you either get it or you don’t so you won’t have to worry about watching it again to see what you missed. In that regard, “Dawn Breaks Behind the Eyes,” is worthy of a gander, especially since you’ll know right away if you’re in tune with it’s funky vibes or turned off by its puzzling madness.

Panic Fest Film Review: “The Outwaters”

Starring: Robbie Banfitch, Angela Bosolis and Scott Shamell
Directed by: Robbie Banfitch
Rated: NR
Running Time: 100 minutes

According to the San Francisco Gate, 1-2 people die every year In the Mojave Desert, specifically because it’s home to Death Valley. The iconic national park is known for its unforgivable heat, a record of 134 degrees in 1913, and being the driest and having the lowest elevation on the North American continent. It seems like every fact involving Death Valley, or even the Mojave Desert, is dreadful in its own unique way. But a new reason to avoid these three million acres will be found on three video camera memory cards.

The first memory card in “The Outwaters” shows us four people who aren’t necessarily brave enough to venture into Death Valley for fun, but more or less, have a legitimate reason. Robbie (Banfitch) is directing a music video for musician Michelle (Michelle May). In tow are his brother and a make-up artist, with the men in one tent and the women in another. They aren’t ignoring any warning signs or ominous news reports before they head off into the hottest place in the world. In fact, nothing would lead them to believe they are in danger, until night falls on their first night in the desert.

In the dead of night, a booming, rattling noise is heard. Not once, not twice, but repeatedly. It awakens everyone, but no one can see the cause. Is it a nearby vehicle? Is it the distant sound of thunder from a storm? Is it otherworldly? After some tense moments, they ease their nerves by settling on the idea that it’s distant thunder, but the idea seems false. We see it on their faces as they go back into their tents. Soon though, that’s not the only disturbing thing to happen and when the proverbial shit hits the fan, it’s sudden and frightening.

“The Outwaters” spends a decent amount of time setting everything up like pieces on a chess board. While I assume most people will be checking their phones during this, the set-up is crafty in that it feels realistic, natural and ultimately foreboding. It’s like a warm sip of cocoa before being shoved into an ice-cold lake. The second half of the film can only be described as bloody, trippy and ultimately nightmarish.

What made “The Blair Witch Project” a jumping off point for those in horror in 1999, is seen once again in “The Outwaters.” Banfitch (who writes, directs, stars, edits and probably did damn near everything else) pulls out all the stops to lull us into safety before throwing us in the hellish fires of his final act, which are equally unexplainable and hard to watch. The simplicity of the shots is never grotesque, but the ideas they convey take our minds to some morbid places about what is potentially happening to Robbie and the others.

As I’ve noted before and very recently, the found footage genre is a difficult one, with very few finding a unique and different way to tell the story, but “The Outwaters” almost feels like a rebirth, making you forget about the clichés of the genre as well as some other nagging questions that arise when you watch a found footage film. For instance, why does Robbie keep filming? In the darkness of the desert, it’s the only light he has to see with and if he turns it off, what demons/monsters/aliens are waiting to pounce? We feel for him as he cries and moans with every new moment he captures on his digital handheld. Eventually it feels like “The Outwaters” transcends the found-footage genre as it becomes viler and more repulsive. This is definitely the closest we’ll ever get to someone’s nightmare coming to life on-screen.

Panic Fest Film Review: “Masking Threshold”

Starring: Ethan Haslam, Johannes Grenzfurthner and Jason Scott Sadofsky
Directed by: Johannes Grenzfurthner
Rated: NR
Running Time: 90 minutes

What would be a good horror for Zoomers, the generation born in the very late 90s and early 2000s? Certain movies are able to tap into something in each generation, whether it be nuclear fears from generations who lived basically from the 50s to 80s or utilizing the internet to drum up interest like the “Blair Witch Project” did for my generation. I think “Masking Threshold” may be the kind of film that Zoomers will take notice of because it’s not your typical spook house genre film, instead focusing on the inherent narcissism that social media and self-filming can create.

The nameless protagonist, physically played by writer and director Grenzfurthner and voiced by Haslam, tells viewers that he’s an IT engineer who is going to buckle down at home and begin experimenting with sounds because he has suffered from severe tinnitus for three years. His tinnitus comes in waves, sometimes with the sounds boring into his skull like a jackhammer. He’s done his research, citing different studies and sources that have investigated the reasons behind tinnitus. Unfortunately for him, all those studies and sources have no answer and that’s why he’s looking to find his own answers.

He creates a makeshift lab in his basement, where he runs simple experiments, making notes, logging information and testing if the tinnitus is affected by any specific things. The tests, at the beginning, are ultimately harmless, but this is a film playing at a horror movie festival and you know something is going to go wrong. Is his tinnitus mad science? Is he simply being haunted? UFOs? What is it? Our lead, who explains a lot of his life in the first half of the film, is a geeky gay man whose narcissistic viewpoints have actually protected him from the torment he’s endured in life. So not only is he a minority, but is probably a minority within his own group of friends because of his perception that he’s smarter than everyone else in the room. To be fair though, he is smart. A lot of this background information and inward look at his self-obsessed nature comes in the form of video diaries that he’s uploading to Youtube, as well as his reactions to comments on social media about his experiments.

“Masking Threshold” is a first-person journey into madness. Grenzfurthner’s direction has this macabre confidence as it leads you to a paranoid isolation in hell. The film casually prepares you for the horrors that will unfold with close-ups of our protagonist doing mundane, yet kind of gross things like cleaning his ear wax, chewing loudly or other things. Maybe that’s not gross for everyone, but I find those things to be visually and audibly like nails on a chalkboard. It’s just the first of many crazy things our protagonist will subject us to in his quest for audible sanity, ironically enough.

It’s hard not to think about the pandemic during a film like this because of the isolation and depression that is accompanied with the film’s lead. In a lot of ways, we’re shown the causes of what finally happens in the finale of the film, but we’re never really given a direct link to which cause. If anything, it’s like a snowball rolling down a mountain, gradually getting bigger and picking up steam. Our protagonist’s psyche is fragile from years of crippling tinnitus and viewers are taken down a path to reveal the final nails in his mind’s coffin.

“Masking Threshold” is clever in that we’re sympathetic towards the plight of our protagonist. We understand that he’s a part of marginalized communities and is dealing with a paralyzing condition. Those moves are intentional because that sympathy will be tested and eventually spit on. If there were ever a film warning people about the perils of bathing in their own conceited echo chambers, “Masking Threshold” hits the nail on the head with a worst-case scenario that can only be created when one travels down a demented wormhole that continually feeds a broken and obsessed mind. I guarantee you’ve never seen a film quite like this before.

 

 

 

Panic Fest Film Review: “Malibu Horror Story”

Starring: Dylan Sprayberry, Robert Bailey Jr. and Valentia de Angelis
Directed by: Scott Slone
Rated: NR
Running Time: 93 minutes

If I had to pick a genre that’s hard to create something new in, it would definitely be the found footage genre. From “Cannibal Holocaust” to “Paranormal Activity,” there’s a lot of genre busting films that manage to take the basics of the genre and elevate them to a new brand or style of horror. But this seems to be a genre that’s more miss than hit in my opinion. For every “V/H/S,” there’s at least a dozen bad ones like “The Amityville Haunting” or every “Paranormal Activity” film with a number after it. So that brings us to 2022. I’m not gonna lie, “Malibu Horror Story” isn’t necessarily a good title for a found footage horror film, but never judge a film by its title or genre.

We open with four paranormal investigators in a reclusive cave amongst the mountains north of Malibu, California. They’re in this desolate location to film their latest episode and investigate what happened to four teenagers back in 2012. For more backstory on the teens, the film shows the investigators showing off what work on the episode has already been completed. From that point, we dive from found footage of the investigators into their show which features newspaper clippings, interviews with law enforcement and of course the found footage left behind by the teenagers. To the general public, the found footage only revealed that the teenagers were dirtbags. The search for the teens pretty much ended when the found footage showed the teens doing drugs and partying more than it actually show what happened to them. So, you could say it’s technically a found footage film within a found footage film or within a fake paranormal investigator show all wrapped around a conventional claustrophobic film. Either way, without getting too deep in the thick of it or confusing you, “Malibu Horror Story” structures the story like a puzzle so that we can comfortably sit back and let the mayhem and story unfold as the pieces fall into place.

The set-up and premise are actually quite clever in that it never becomes too confusing and it manages to give us enough exposition to explain things while making us thirsty for more of the mythos behind the cave and the potential Native American curse that is about to show our paranormal investigators what happens when they meddle in something they shouldn’t, much like those dirtbag teenagers. The film has some effective scares once the monster/entity/ghost/thing makes its appearance. Of course, you have to wonder why the teens continued forth once things were clearly going awry, much in the same way the paranormal investigators find out they’re someplace they shouldn’t be.

When characters keep filming, I always wonder if that’s the urge filmmakers or voyeurs get in that situation because if I was in their shoes, I’d be using the camera as a blunt weapon to escape instead of making sure I frame the monster right. I’m not the first to make an observation like that, nor will I certainly be the last. While “Malibu Horror Story” breaks the mold of found footage storytelling, it can’t help but rely on tropes to get us from point ‘a’ to point ‘b’. “Malibu Horror Story” doesn’t reinvent the wheel, but it manages to add a few neat spokes to it.

Panic Fest Film Review: “The Sadness”

Starring: Berant Zhu, Regina Lei and Ying-Ru Chen
Directed by: Rob Jabbaz
Rated: NR
Running Time: 100 minutes

This wouldn’t be the first time, nor will it be the last time, that I say that I ultimately enjoyed a movie I can’t really recommend. For perspective, I’ve said that about films like “Swiss Army Man,” “Vortex” and damn near anything with Troma’s name on it. Even then, I still talk about those movies as interesting films to watch in the hopes that someone amongst my group of friends who don’t watch the insane amount of films that I and other critics watch will give it a peruse and see what I see. I don’t think that will happen with “The Sadness.”

As if the zombie genre wasn’t already slightly depressing enough with its themes of the world ending and the trashiness of society, a film like “The Sadness” comes along and spits on all of them before flipping the bird. “The Sadness” begins with a couple, Kat (Lei) and Jim (Zhu) talking before their individual days at work. It’s through this early morning, post cuddling conversation that we learn about the Alvin virus, a virus that’s clearly an allegory for COVID-19. But unlike COVID-19, the Alvin virus has an alarming chance to mutate into rabies on crack. Which it does. Once it does, the couple is already split up heading off to work and now with everything descending into chaos, they have to work their way across Taiwan’s capital to reunite, but nothing is ever that simple.

The zombie virus in “the Sadness” turns everything up to 11, as the people who become zombified don’t simply walk around slowly and munch on brains. This virus makes people act upon their most primal urges, whether it be sadistic violence or even more sadistic sex. So, if you get squeamish over sexual violence, appendages being torn off, knives entering orifices’ or a blood orgy of severed limbs and viscera, this movie is probably one huge trigger warning that will have you running to the nearest exit and trash can to throw up in. But at my screening, every person sat in their seat horrified and mesmerized with the occasional “oh my god” and “what the fuck” splattered amongst us.

While the brutality clocks in at over an hour and a half, the film manages to squeeze in every bit of plot and mayhem without sacrificing the other or making the audience members, who have the stomach for it, check their phone for a time. The actors, who deliver some of the vilest lines seen outside of a snuff film, gnaw on the scenery with such ferocity I wouldn’t be surprised if people began having nightmares about their black, red tinted haunting eyes and blood-soaked grins. It’s very clear from the get-go that director/writer Jabbaz isn’t concerned about whether or not he’ll work again.

Like any good zombie film, “The Sadness” does have a message, albeit one deep in bitter nihilism. Having just exited a pandemic, “The Sadness” does reflect on humanity’s collective response to a virus as well as some jabs at the rising autocracies around the world that took advantage of the unthinkable. That being said, “The Sadness” seems to have its eye on future pandemics and how well humanity can come together to overcome the next mutated strain of a disease we have yet to encounter. If “The Sadness” is a representation of our past, present and future, I think it’s clear we are all fucked.