Film Review: Deadstream

Starring: Joseph Winter, Melanie Stone and Jason K. Wixom
Directed by: Joseph and Vanessa Winter
Rated: R
Running time: 87 minutes
Shudder

Up until recently I’ve shrugged off the found footage genre. During the 2000s I was blasted with advertisements of audiences watching the latest found footage film shrieking in terror with the ad assuring me that it’s the scariest film ever. While I can chalk that up to obnoxious and misleading advertising, the genre also suffered from several other things. For instance, screen distortions for cutaways, bothersome shaky cameras, predictable jump scares and flawed storytelling issues like, “Why is this being filmed? Why are they still recording?” My negative assumptions about the genre were thrown into an open grave in 2022 because of films like the surprisingly terrifying “Outwaters” and the journey into insanity, “Masking Threshold.” Now “Deadstream” has arrived with a shovel.

When we meet Shawn Ruddy (Winter), the host of the wildly popular Youtube show “Wrath of Shawn,” he’s attempting a comeback after being canceled. The practical joker, like a lot of real-life Youtubers, enjoys putting himself and others through crazy stunts like dog sledding in his underwear or crossing the Mexican border illegally in a trunk. The stunt that got him canceled though, he’s not upfront about. The stunt he’s going to do to put the woke mob at ease will be staying the night by himself in an abandoned Utah home known for paranormal activity simply referred to as the “Murder Manor.”

Shawn is ready to film and impress though. He has various cameras in tow that he sets up around the house, he removes spark plugs from his vehicle and locks himself in the house, and quite literally throws the key away. This is all to prevent himself, a self-professed scaredy cat, from escaping. I know you’re already thinking back to the first paragraph where I complained about found footage logic. But alas, “Deadstream” has a fantastic reason why Shawn is staying the night in a building with murder in it’s name. Money. To keep his few remaining advertisers happy, he is setting rules like investigating every ghostly sound or sight he encounters and allowing his advertisers to drop him like a sack of potatoes if he flees the premises.

Money aside, Shawn isn’t smart and is a legitimate coward. You think locking yourself in a home would be enough, but to completely immobilize your transportation to a home in remote Utah? Also, while deathly afraid of the unknown, he certainly doesn’t have any issues doing or saying things that might antagonize a ghost. He walks around with creepy Halloween music to play while he narrates the surroundings and stories about what haunts the Murder Manor. All that being said, Shawn is a real scummy individual, prioritizing profits and followers over his own well-being and those around him. So when the ghosts come out to play, we don’t necessarily feel sorry.

However, Winter, who not only plays Shawn, but directs and wrote the film with his wife, crafts Shawn to be oddly likable. His girly cries of terror made me laugh every time it happened and he manages to have a few agreeable jabs at the woke audience that has forced his hand. Given the circumstance, he does seem to channel the thoughts and reactions of an individual exploring the abandoned house of death. As someone who explores abandoned buildings on occasion, I’ve never explored a building that has death in its nickname, nor would I do it alone. It’s also obvious that the reason Shawn was canceled in the first place, continues to weigh on him consciously.

“Deadstream ” is what happens when the “Blair Witch Project” and “Evil Dead II” design a haunted house. The first third of the film has plenty of creepy moments and the inevitable jump scares that are more fun than annoying (he shrieks like a Kindergartener on a playground). The brisk first half of the film helps give way to a nightmarish funhouse bathed in blood and body parts as Shawn scrambles, fights and cries for safety. Funny moments range from the macabre ghouls that attack Shawn to Shawn interacting with the audience that’s watching on the livestream. Not only do they bait him into doing stupider things, but also remind him of his own fallacies as he begins to realize the direness of his situation. “Deadstream” is a fun found footage film that will make you laugh and cheer at the follies of an attention seeking Zoomer douchebag who deserves every ounce of terribleness heading his way.

Film Review: “The Munsters”

Starring: Jeff Daniels Phillips, Sheri Moon Zombie and Daniel Roebuck
Directed by: Rob Zombie
Running Time: 109 minutes
Rated: PG
Netflix

Growing up in the 90s I would watch Nickelodeon. For me and most people I knew at school, we would watch all the cartoons until the clock struck 7 p.m. and then we would keep watching, but it wasn’t cartoons that Nickelodeon would be showing at night. Nick at Nite, the counter kid programming, would air reruns of beloved classic sitcoms like “I Love Lucy,” “The Jeffersons,” “Gilligan’s Island,” and “The Munsters.”It would not surprise me if I ended up watching every single episode of those shows as a kid, and the astounding thing is my memory of all those shows is fond, but gray. The specifics of the shows, like individual plot lines, is fuzzy, but I remember the characters, their house, their catchphrases and all the other things that delighted audiences during their original run and those kids in the 90s that grew up on them. It’s fascinating when adoration for something churns about cinematic abortions like “The Munsters.”

I struggle writing this review because I do like Rob Zombie, as a musician and director, but more as a musician. Just like kids in the 90s my first taste of Zombie was playing “Twisted Metal” games and through that I would end up interested in buying some of his albums and would sometimes play “Twisted Metal” ad nauseum just to hear “Dragula” one more time. I’ve also seen Zombie live at least half a dozen times and I always recommend seeing him to fellow rockers and metalheads because he’s a very theatrical and explosive performer. As for his movies, I have a soft spot for “Devil’s Rejects” and “The Haunted World of El-Superbeasto,” and I don’t necessarily hate him like some horror fans do for rebooting “Halloween.” I can respect his vision and see what it was he envisioned, and appreciate it. That being said, “The Munsters” is still a cinematic abortion.

The 2022 film serves as a prequel, but don’t expect to learn how a Frankenstein’s monster and vampire ended up with a werewolf son. Dr. Wolfgang (Richard Brake) is putting together his perfect creation, but slip-ups along the way create Hermann (Phillips), who has the body of a giant lumbering oaf with the brain of a failed comedian. Hermann garners the attention of Lily (Moon Zombie), despite the objections of her father, the Count (Roebuck). It’s actually not a bad idea for a prequel, but the storytelling problems pop-up early before they become frequently obvious and annoying. While the material is faithful to the original, on the surface, it misses the point entirely. The black and white TV show featuring monsters on the outside, but a loving family on the inside has been rebooted into a 70s cartoon looking universe with characters that feel more like fan fiction bastardizations than they do actual representations of the originals. It brings to mind other failed films that missed the point of the original TV entirely, like “Wild, Wild West” and “Inspector Gadget;” similar cinematic abortions I might add.

The characters, who feel more like caricatures as opposed to living, breathing people monsters, are stuck in the proverbial “old country” for the first hour of the film and we’re never given a reason to care about their lives or the meaningless conflicts that arise. It’s impressive watching Zombie drag the wedding almost into the second hour of the film when we all know that’s the inevitable point that needs to be reached. The first hour of this film could have been whittled down to 20 minutes in capable hands, but instead we’re treated to bad jokes, odd montages, and scenes that just don’t fit, like Hermann being in a punk rock band. All of this adds up to an unenjoyable experience that makes you question every single moment as if you’re being fed a lie.

I hate to fault the acting, but I have to. At a certain point I wonder if Phillips and Moon Zombie recognized they were doing poor performances. They’re both talented, but in this film they’re barely able to move past being one dimensional characters. If you were to ask me about my impression of their attempts at recreating iconic TV show characters, I’d tell you that Phillips needs to sound less prepubescent when delivering Hermann’s lines and that Moon Zombie says “Hermy” so much I began to wonder if she was channeling Ms. Piggy saying “Kermy” more than anything.

I want to tear apart nearly everything I witnessed, but I don’t want to do that because I don’t believe it’s fair. This movie is obviously low budget and when listening to Zombie, you can tell that this vision came from a great place of adoration. That being said, I think it’s fair to ultimately place the blame for this trainwreck of a film at the feet of Zombie. I think he’s still an incredible talent, but it’s clear that “The Munsters” is his rock bottom as a director. The creativity on display, mainly in cameos and set designs, is overshadowed by lapses in creativity, like lumpy dialogue, jokes that feel more like aliens attempting human humor, bizarre misplaced acting and a plot that insults basic human intelligence. Let’s hope this is the last time someone attempts to resurrect a dead piece of entertainment property. I’m now left wondering if this is how all those “Halloween” fans felt back in 2007.

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.

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: “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: “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.

Film Review: “Wyrmwood: Apocalypse”

Starring: Luke McKenzie, Shantae Barnes-Cowan and Jake Ryan
Directed by: Kiah Roache-Turner
Rated: NR
Running Time: 88 minutes
XYZ Films

Unlike one of it’s clear influences, “Wyrmwood: Apocalypse” could care less if you haven’t seen 2014’s “Wyrmwood: Road of the Dead.” For the unaware, “Road of the Dead” was a “Mad Max” with zombies. But unlike “The Road Warrior,” Apocalypse keeps it’s foot on the gas and doesn’t bother reminding you who have the characters are. So as a refresher, in the world of “Wyrmwood,” zombie breath and blood are a fuel source for vehicles and other technological weaponry. It’s the kind of idea, at least on paper, that is absolutely stupid, but thanks to a gung-ho cast and plenty of zombie scenery chewing, it manages to become a modern B-movie worthy of any backwoods drive-in. But that’s “Road of the Dead,” how does its successor hold up?

Apocalypse” is about Rhys (McKenzie), an apocalyptic scavenger that bounty hunts the living and dead for his bosses, the evil remnants of the government’s military police. Rhys is handed a hefty bounty in the from of Brooke (Bianca Bradley), our zombie hybrid femme fatale from “Road of the Dead.” Brooke, we come to find out, killed Rhys’ brother making this bounty extra important for our lead. Lest I forget to explain, since the movie doesn’t, the zombie hybrids are able to tame their zombie side by drinking blood, which allows them a variety of odd zombie powers or, I guess you could say, powers that are made-up and needed when our heroes are in a predicament. Rhys has a bounty hunter’s change of heart when he encounters another hybrid, just like Brooke, by the name of Grace (Tasia Zalar).

The exposition, while thick and sometimes unnecessarily complicated in the first half of the film, is forgivable considering the richness of the film’s backdrop coupled with some spectacularly low-budget action sequences. For instance, Rhys home/compound feels like something you’d see in the video game “Fallout 4” while the ultimate battle between good and evil, the zombie hybrid alliance and the bloodthirsty military industrial complex, feels like Immortan Joe and Furiosa using Weyland-Yutani Corp. weaponry and science. If some of these pop-culture references are going over your head, you may not have as much fun as I did watching the final act bedlam of “Apocalypse” because writer/director Roache-Turner isn’t shy about his influences or leaning heavily into them.

“Apocalypse” feels nostalgic in the sense that it’s a mish-mash of 80s action, sci-fi and horror, all bathed in neon lights and shiny red gore.  If blood, guts, mayhem, carnage and the crunch of smashing vehicles is your thing, you’ll be smiling ear to ear during this. The world-building feels endless and lacking at the same time. Sometimes the small details are explained while the bigger details are glossed over, something I wish they flipped, but maybe that’s my own expectations for a sequel in general. That feeling doesn’t go away by the end, when it becomes obvious that “Apocalypse” may be the middle of an expected trilogy. Regardless of my nitpicks or hesitations, I’d be lying if I said I wouldn’t be the first in line for a third “Wyrmwood ” so that I can quench my own thirst for high octane vioelcne and apocalyptic theatrics by over-the-top characters.

Film Review: “Infinite Storm”

Starring: Naomi Watts, Billy Howle and Denis O’Hare
Directed by: Małgorzata Szumowska
Rated: R
Running Time: 104 minutes
Bleecker Street

I’m not very vocal about my side gig as a film and pop-culture critic. I’ve found that once people find out, they expect me to have watched every movie they’ve watched or for me to have fallen in line with critical consensus or mainstream opinions about said film. That’s a different topic altogether, but I also encounter the problem of having to divulge more information than most people on whether or not I like a film. And sometimes I just like something or don’t like something. It’s nice not having to think too hard about why I feel a certain way and instead just letting those emotions be. But in film criticism, I have to dig into why I felt the way I feel after a movie. So why did a well-shot, breathtaking film like “Infinite Storm” not resonate with me?

The film begins with Pam Bales (Watts) scaling Mount Washington in New Hampshire in mid-October. Visually, we see that she’s experienced and smart. She leaves notes about her whereabouts on her car windshield as she sets out alone into the wilderness, with extra clothes, food and supplies to keep her warm, safe and well-fed if something awful arises. It’s gray and chilly looking when she sets out, but by the time she starts to get towards the peak, the conditions have turned into a white out blizzard. While she isn’t concerned, the concerns begin to arise when she finds footprints in the snow that lead to a non-verbal man half dead in the snow.

“John” (Howle) isn’t his name, but Pam refers to him by that in the hopes of eliciting some kind of response or reaction. None follow. So in the midst of the blinding snow, Pam now finds herself having to lug along the equivalent of a corpse back down the treacherous mountain she just scaled. This all sounds fascinating and at times was, but none of it clicked when all was said and done. So I go back to the problem I have as a film critic, trying to pinpoint what it was that this movie failed to do for me. I wish I could just move on and say that it didn’t work for me, but alas I’m the one having to convince you on what you should be spending your time and money on.

In an attempt to figure it out, I read the article that this movie is based on. The descriptions of the unforgiving Mount Washington in the article are reflected well in “Infinite Storm,” but I never get a feeling for who Pam is, from the movie and article. I do get way more out of who “John” is from the article, whereas the film merely hints at it. Interestingly enough, the film focuses on the emotions of Pam while the article is more of a gut punch reveal about “John”. So who is “Infinite Storm” about? The film is about Pam, which isn’t a knock, she’s an individual who was in an extreme situation and acted with bravery. The article, while written from Pam’s experiences, feels like it’s more about life and emotions in general, depicted through “John.” In fact, the ending is drastically different between real-life and the film. I don’t want to say I have some kind of psychic level of intuition, but maybe the film shouldn’t have tinkered with what actually happened. I understand the need to make Pam the focus of the film, but I also understand the morals in this story and the moral necessity is about “John,” not about Pam. Unfortunately, there is no context unless you read the article and watch the film. So if you just watch the film, you miss a lot of context and what context you do get is a brief 10 minutes at the end of the film that feels more like an incomplete epilogue.

“Infinite Storm,” while visually engaging, never makes us care about the characters. Not even the based on a true story attachment at the beginning of the film ever makes us feel like elements of the story aren’t contrived. The elements appear to be manufactured as opposed to the actual harrowing journey. For instance, “John” disappears after falling into a stream, yet miraculously appears later seemingly unharmed. The article tells no such tall tale like this. The basis of “Infinite Storm” may be true, but its emotional core appears to be built on false pretenses.

Film Review: “Cyrano”

Starring: Peter Dinklage, Haley Bennett and Kelvin Harrison Jr.
Directed by: Joe Dante
Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 124 minutes
United Artists Releasing

I tell people that sometimes I’m grateful I’ve been ignorant of certain elements in pop-culture. 2022’s “Cyrano,” based on “Cyrano de Bergerac,” a play written in 1897, has been adapted dozens of times. So what does the new one have that the others don’t? I don’t know, but I can tell you that this “Cyrano” features a dazzling performance, some solid ensemble songs and some touching moments.

In the original story, the title character has a big nose that prevents him from proclaiming his love. In this updated story, Cyrano (Dinklage) has a size problem that prevents him from professing his adoration for Roxanne (Bennett). Instead of singing his love to her he lends a helpful ear when she needs one. That leads to him watching as she begins to fall for a Christian (Harrison Jr.), a young soldier that isn’t as witty, clever or skillful with a sword as Cyrano. Despite this, a love triangle forms as Christian recruits Cyrano to win over Roxanne, but is that what’s right for everyone?

It took me a while to warm up to “Cyrano” because I wasn’t quite sure if this movie had anything to say other than “looks aren’t everything” and I’m glad it did, but it took a while. That’s because the film is littered with several music scores (some great, some mediocre) that break up the pacing of the plot, especially when the song calls for something completely unrelated to the storyline. The thing that kept me hanging on during those down moments was Dinklage’s performance, one that I can say is one of the best of the year.

Despite his stature, Dinklage commands the screen and the actors around him. Dinklage doesn’t chew the scenery, he serenades it, enchants it and morphs into it raising everyone and everything up to his level. Bennett, Harrison Jr., as well as Ben Mendelsohn in the role of villain, only appear to be acting their proverbial butts off when Dinklage is in the vicinity. Otherwise the film seems a little lost without Dinklage’s magnetic presence.

Dinklage is such a massive part of this film, I was shocked that he wasn’t the director, writer (although his wife did pen the script), editor and distributor as well. While Dinklage is more well known for his time on HBO’s “Game of Thrones,” fans of his role as Tyrion Lannister may find themselves hypnotized by his quick wit and quick tongue in “Cyrano.” At the very least, “Cyrano” is a testament to Dinklage’s abilities as an actor and as a leading man in any role he’s given.