Film Review: “The Sacrifice Game”

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

Our Score: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

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

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

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

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

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


Film Review: Loop Track

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

Our Score: 3 out of 5 Stars

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

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

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

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

Film Review: “As We Know It”

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

Our Score: 0.5 out of 5 Stars

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

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

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

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


Film Review: Courtney Gets Possessed

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

Our Score: 3 out of 5 stars

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

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

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

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

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


Film Review: “The Hive”

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

Our Score: 1 out of 5 Stars

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

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

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

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


Film Review: “Night of the Hunted”

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

Our Score: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

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

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

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

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

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


Film Review: “Herd”

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

Our Score: 1.5 out of 5 Stars

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

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

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

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

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

Film Review: “When Evil Lurks”

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

Our Score: 4 out of 5 Stars

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

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

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

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

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

Film Review: “Totally Killer”

Starring: Kiernan Shipka, Olivia Holt and Charlie Gillespie
Directed By: Nahnatchka Khan
Rated: R
Running Time: 103 Minutes
Amazon Prime Video

Our Score: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Some of the hardest genres to write are comedy and horror. So, even if a comedy-horror ultimately comes off as generic, but still manages to tickle the funny bone while splattering the screen with blood and gore, that’s a good time in my book. While not a sharp generational criticism like 2022’s “Bodies, Bodies, Bodies,” or an entertaining mockery of horror tropes like “Scare Package,” “Totally Thriller” earns points for tackling one of the toughest genres with enough scattered jokes, gruesome kills and a dash of “who cares, just enjoy it” attitude to become an enjoyable slice of comedy-horror. Emphasis on the comedy.

“Totally Killer” opens on Halloween 2023 in the small town of Vernon which still can’t escape October 1987, when a masked killer, referred to as the Sweet 16 Killer, murdered three 16-year-old high-school girls by stabbing them 16 times. I’m not sure why he didn’t kill 16, but I digress. Pam Hughes (Julie Bowen) lives in fear that the killer will return, especially since she was friends with all three victims. Her daughter Jamie (Kiernan Shipka) is all like, “Whatever mom, get over it. Leave me the hell alone.” Then her mom is murdered by the Sweet 16 Killer. Distraught, Jamie meets up with her friend who is building a time machine (this is the first of many instances where the movie gets intentionally silly and once again shrugs its shoulders). Later on, Jamie is attacked by the Sweet 16 Killer only to be transported back in time to October 1987 through a bizarre knife to the time machine interface mishap.

“Totally Killer” works because it seems like as the film progresses, Jamie is slowly realizing she’s in a bad slasher film. Jamie name drops horror and time travel films, including “Back to the Future” which “Totally Killer” steals heavily from, comments on the out-of-date circumstances throughout the 80s and seemingly doesn’t mind screwing up the space time continuum by changing history. The film also gives away its future plot points through its movie name drops as if to say originality dies in this film with the teens. Even the killer’s mask, one we’ve never seen before, looks like Max Headroom doing Jim Carrey’s patented eyebrow raise. I’m not sure if anything in this movie isn’t a reference, wink or nod to something else. Like I said, this movie just kind of shrugs and goes, “Here’s a joke and knife to the guts.”

While this could normally ruin a film, “Totally Killer” just relishes in its own ridiculousness and it’s helped by Shipka’s performance which matches every scene perfectly. When she needs to point out the absurdity of a plot point, she does. When she needs to be the parent in charge of a bunch of horny drug fueled teens to make sure they don’t die, she does. When she needs to deliver exposition without questioning the absolute stupidity of what’s happening, she does. Even in the final act, when she has to be the movie’s badass, she does. If Shipka wasn’t with us on this crazy time traveling journey, “Totally Killer” would totally suck.

“Totally Killer” is totally unoriginal, but still totally fun. It’s a film that utilizes every slasher cliché while ridiculing the 80s decade it pulled those same clichés from. Sure, some of the jokes are predictable and the parody isn’t witty like “Airplane,” but “Totally Killer” is so comfortable with what it’s doing that you ultimately relax and wait for the next unpredictable joke or slasher moment. The whole intent of the film is to entertain, no matter how cheesy, lazy and predictable it sometimes is. There’s something admirable if not ultimately meta about that. Maybe “Totally Killer” will ultimately be forgotten and I’ll never watch it again, but if its entire intent was to make me chuckle and make me forget about the cruel world around me for 103 minutes, mission accomplished. 




Film Review: “V/H/S 85”

Directed by: David Bruckner, Scott Derrickson, Gigi Saul Guerrero, Natasha Kermani and Mike Nelson
Rated: NR
Running Time: 110 minutes

Our Score: 4 out of 5 Stars

Found footage has really hit its stride lately and that’s carrying over into one of the most unlikely ongoing franchises in the horror landscape, “V/H/S.” When the original came out in 2012, it didn’t necessarily light the world on fire, but since 2021, the “V/H/S” franchise has become a yearly tradition. 2021 saw the franchise become more chaotic as these movies became more memorable for breaking the mold and rules of found footage films. The latest addition, “V/H/S 85,” not only serves as an homage to the 80s, but finds the franchise tinkering with the clichés and found footage style once again with gloriously gory results.

The entire film plays like a dozen people recorded different things over the same VHS tape. The wraparound story, individual stories, are sometime interrupted by snippets of commercials that are so borderline realistic, I have to wonder if they’re from dead brands. “V/H/S 85” opens with our wrap around story, “Total Copy,” an “In Search Of…” and “Unsolved Mysteries” style TV show about a group of scientists studying a bizarre piece of intelligent life they name “Rufus.” The blobby shape-shifting creature is isolated in a room with American TV shows running 24/7. The idea, according to the scientists, is that the creature will eventually learn how to communicate with scientists, even though half the time the TV shows it appears to be watching are generic infomercials. Certainly, the wraparound story serves as a commentary on TV consumption, but we immediately know these scientists won’t have long to live if their idea of communicating with a suspicious lifeform is butt enhancing workout infomercials.

Busting out of the wraparound is “No Wake,” a tale of seven friends heading off to a lake for camping, swimming, drugs and sex. I immediately thought, “Oh, I’m about to watch an homage to an 80s slasher,” but once the blood squirts and the guts begin spilling, I really didn’t know what was happening or what was going to happen next, at all. The other interesting aspect to this short is that it kind of ends abruptly. Just as it’s about to hit its climax, it cuts to the next short. The conclusion to “No Wake” comes later in “V/H/S 85.” Without spoiling the set-up, you’ll be smiling ear-to-ear by the time “No Wake” wraps up its delightfully bonkers set-up.

After the camping trip to hell, we go south of the border to Mexico for “God of Death,” a bit of art mimicking life. The backdrop is the real-life 1985 Mexico City Earthquake, but the story opens before the quake in a news studio getting ready for one of its early morning reports. The earthquake hits and the staff are buried under rubble. Rescue workers show up to find that only a cameraman is left alive (of course). Their escape through the maze of rubble takes them down a path of blood, gore and coming face-to-face with the God of Death. As someone who’s never heard of this destructive event, I can’t help but think this short may be about how the God of Death, metaphorical or real in terms of government inaction, is just lying in wait for the next big one to kill thousands and thousands.

The next segment, “TKNOGD,” is difficult to describe because too much information kind of spoils the whole thing, but it feels very much like a punk rock avant garde art exhibit experimenting with technology. A performance artist is making a commentary on technology and God, something that oddly feels super relevant right now, before the predictable chaos and carnage of horror happens. It’s a short that still works like the previous ones because of its commentary, violent practical effects, and dark humor. It’s also the shortest of the entries, which is perfect for the story that it’s attempting to tell. It’s also a great lead-up to maybe one of the best shorts in “V/H/S” history.

“Dreamkill” is like an indie David Lynch teaming up with Wes Craven for a grisly and vicious tale. “Dreamkill” is about a police detective who keeps receiving VHS tapes showing a first-person view of violent murders, some of the more gruesome we’ve seen in the “V/H/S” series. The catch though, is that the murders happen days after the police detective receives them. He arrives on scene, already knowing how the killer got in, how he moved about and how he mutilated the victims, having watched the gonzo first-person footage. It’s one of those shorts that you could easily see becoming a full-length film, especially as we find out the person behind the footage and who the killer is. Even though I had a sneaking suspicion of who the killer was, I don’t think it took away from “Dreamkill” because of how everything unfolds. At times it’s very unsettling, dropping a bit of realism into the absurdity of it all. Like the killer’s knife, it’s likely to get under your skin.

Just like the previous installment, “V/H/S 99,” the found footage rules are broken left and right, but because of the unique choices that footage is incorporated into the overall product, it makes us forget some of the more nagging questions we might otherwise have. It’s really difficult to pinpoint a weakness in this anthology film. There’s always that one short that kind of sticks out like the ugly stepchild, but all the shorts in this work. I’m not sure if it’s because they all take place in 1985 or if one of the directors overlooked every product in an attempt to create a cohesive brutal vibe. If you’re a first timer to the anthology, or maybe stopped sometime after “V/H/S: Viral,” now is definitely the time to pick the franchise back-up. “V/H/S 85” is the best of the franchise; it’s a retro blast utilizing blood and guts to ingenious levels. It also stands to be one of the grittiest and best horror films of this year.


Film Review: “Condition of Return”

Starring: AnnaLynne McCord, Dean Cain and Natasha Henstridge
Directed by: Tommy Stovall
Rated: NR
Running Time: 93 minutes
Stonecutter Media

Our Score: 2.5 out of 5 Stars

If you Google “Condition of Return,” you’ll get the following synopsis: “A churchgoing woman makes a heinous deal with the Devil in order to save her soul.” Honestly, that’s all I needed to watch this film in the hopes of seeing a Satanic horror film. What I got was an unintentional comedy.

The movie opens with Eve (AnnaLynne McCord) walking into a Catholic church during mass and opening fire with an assault rifle, all the while tears well in her eyes as she watches the various attendees scatter in terror. We cut to much later, where Eve is shackled and Dr. Donald Thomas (Dean Cain) has been flown in to interview Eve. His goal, according to the police chief, is to declare that she is sane. That’s so that the state can cross that red tape checkmark off its list and pump Eve full of various drugs until she dies. With a recorder and notepad in hand, Dr. Thomas sits down for the silliest “be careful or you’re going to hell” movie of the 21st century.

Is that previous comment praise for “Condition of Return?” No. But that’s only because I feel like this movie was made in an earnest effort. I say that because throughout I kept checking if maybe I went in with the wrong expectations. After the first few chuckles, I checked the press email I got about the film. Sure enough, it’s listed as a “Faustian drama.” About halfway through, I checked IMDb which listed it as a “mystery.” By the end I had fully succumbed to my MST3K sensibilities and began laughing at the absurdity of it all.

If I had to describe “Condition of Return,” it’s a film with SyFy Creature Feature production values and a religious script that would make Kevin Sorbo drool at the sheer flawed morality of it. Eve’s tale to Dr. Thomas begins with her meeting a random guy at the bar, only to get knocked up, miscarry and marry the loser. Right off the bat, none of it feels real or genuine. Eve also drops the fact that she’s Catholic. A lot. So as her backstory progresses, she tells Dr. Thomas an increasingly bizarre story of her failing marriage which, no joke, leads to an FBI bust, time in prison, and finally searching “how to summon the devil” online where she lands on a website called Blood Knife. I felt like every unrealistic and stupid progression in Eve’s backstory was like a bad joke being delivered in just the right way to elicit an uncomfortable laugh.

It’s weird when you give a film a middling review when you know that some people will watch this and turn it off in the first 15 minutes, whether it’s the bad special effects, the stagnant dialogue or the go nowhere plot. Others though, like me, will relish in the sheer stupidity of it and will find themselves gleefully waiting to see what happens next, in pure morbid fashion. The old cliché phrase of “It’s so bad, it’s good,” applies to all 93 minutes of “Condition of Return.”


Film Review: “8 Found Dead”

Starring: Aly Trasher, Alisha Soper and William Gabriel Grier
Directed by: Travis Greene
Rated: R
Running Time: 82 minutes
Dark Sky Films

Our Score: 2.5 out of 5 stars

How do you begin to describe a movie that basically gives itself away in the title? Here’s the gist: A desert AirBnB will be the site of a get together between young Millennial/Zoomer couples Carrie (Aly Trasher) and Ricky (Eddy Acosta), and Sam (Alisha Soper) and Dwayne (William Gabriel Grier). However, since the couples arrive at different times, they’re greeted by the supposed original AirBnB guests, Boomer/Gen-X couple Richard (Tim Simek) and Liz (Rosanne Limeres). We aren’t sure who is murdered or why the murders are happening, but the film will slowly unravel that aspect after the opening moments when we witness the ax murder of AirBnB host, Jessie (Jenny Tran). We also know eight people die, thanks to the title and the framing narrative of two small town cops, who also used to be lovers, investigating the aftermath. If you’re keeping count at home, that’s nine characters. So at least the film doesn’t give away the one person who lives.

While the promotional material is very clear on who the killers are, the why and who lives is what keeps the movie flowing. The nonlinear storytelling is the greatest aspect of this film, especially since we learn more and more about each character in spellbinding fashion. Unfortunately the film never seems to utilize the horror of its AirBnB aspect. A film like “Barbarian” had me so distrusting of the characters and property in the first 30 minutes while “8 Found Dead” seems to just go, “Oops, double booked,” and seemingly reveals the killers in the first 20 minutes. Despite the flaw of not utilizing its AirBnB premise, my biggest issue with the film as a whole is, was it all worth it?

Like I said, we wonder about why the murders are happening? That’s the biggest question of the film for me, and I’m left wondering if there isn’t a subversive commentary on love, relationships and generational views. Richard and Liz are very blunt, sometimes offensive and possibly swingers. Richard and Liz clearly have relationship issues that were dragged into their professional lives as police officers while Carrie and Ricky and Sam and Dwayne have massive communication issues that feel complicated by technology. While there may be a commentary on relationships, you could also chalk up Richard and Liz to being more comfortable with each other and themselves after years together, as well as a shared demented sense of life and love.

While I wasn’t bored, I could see how people would be bored because so much is given away up front. I don’t want to spoil the film in this review because I’m ultimately recommending it, despite my on the fence view and rating. I think it has enough elements to make it a captivating watch, but I also foresee people losing interest during verbal chess matches between the older couple and the younger couples. The film also teases that this isn’t the first tale of murder associated with couples, which leads me back to, why? The why bugs me and that’s ultimately bogging down a film I did enjoy. If “8 Found Dead” has something rich to say, I wish it was as upfront as the title about it.

Film Review: “Nandor Fodor and the Talking Mongoose”

Starring: Simon Pegg, Minnie Driver and Christopher Lloyd
Directed by: Adam Sigal
Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 96 minutes
Saban Films

Our Score: 2.5 out of 5 Stars

At 2021’s San Diego Comic Con, I attended a panel for “Nandor Fodor and the Talking Mongoose.” I had an actual interest in the panel after having recently listened to Last Podcast on the Left doing an episode on the subject. The film is based on a peculiar incident from 1930s Britain about, well, a talking mongoose. While that seems straightforward, the movie isn’t. Honestly, it’s odd attending a panel where everyone has a difficult time articulating what the film is about. It’s even odder watching the film.

While listed as a comedy, I didn’t laugh once during the film, but I’m not sure the film was written and filmed as a comedy. Sure, you have Simon Pegg as Dr. Fodor, who begins the movie explaining a belief in the paranormal as someone who sees something that no one else can see. In fact, most scenes with Dr. Fodor seem to be moments written for dry chuckles. That’s because he’s a natural skeptic whose life has been debunking every psychic phenomenon, every bump in the night and every scare tactic he can get his hands on. It’s beginning to wear him thin as he glides through life one hoax and alcoholic beverage at a time. That’s when a fellow skeptic and professor, played by the delightful Christopher Lloyd, tells him about Gef, the talking mongoose. With his assistant Anne, played by Minnie Driver, in tow, Dr. Fodor is off to the Isle of Man to unravel a mystery that will never be solved.

I had the knowledge going into this film that Gef remains a mystery. Is it the work of bored playful humans? Was Gef an actual talking creature lost to time? Was Gef the culmination of poltergeist activity? There are way more theories than answers and honestly, the film mimics that true to life story. That could genuinely frustrate anyone looking for an engaging story, much less a comedic one. Since the film isn’t necessarily going to give you answers or a laugh, why can’t I flat out not recommend it?

The film is peculiar in that I was never bored. While the characters talk in hushes and whispers while silently thinking about the day’s event (usually over a drink or two…or three), it seems like someone is screaming something at the top of their lungs, just below the surface. Annie is the only one of the main cast that’s genuinely open minded to the possibility of Gef’s existence, at least, outside of the peculiar townsfolk and family side characters that have allegedly heard Gef. It’s almost like Annie, after years of watching Dr. Fodor unmasking mysteries, is beginning to tire of the dog and pony show. Or maybe she’s warming up to the idea of Gef, and life, being a giant question mark, while Dr. Fodor can’t possibly fathom a question without an answer.

So maybe the film is more than a look at this absurd true-life story, but instead an encapsulation of how we shouldn’t let small things bog us down in life. Especially since Dr. Fodor, who has obvious chemistry with Anne, never seems to act on those sparks. Instead he seems miserably content with being single and skeptical of everyone and everything, as long as he has a stiff drink in his hand. But in a way, that’s why I can’t recommend it. Maybe I’m giving too much credit to a poorly written and directed film that wanders aimlessly for 90ish minutes. Maybe that screaming I sensed underneath the surface was the cast demanding any form of direction. Just like Gef, this film is a tonal mystery.



Film Review: Bad Things

Starring: Gayle Rankin, Hari Nef, Rad Pereira and Annabelle Dexter-Jones
Directed by: Stewart Thorndike
Rated: NR
Running Time: 83 minutes

Our Score: 2 out of 5 Stars

I’m generally wary of movies that get compared to great films. Enter “Bad Things,” which bills itself as a female-version of “The Shining.” The early reviews reference how similar in vein it is to Kubrick’s 1980 film. So, I guess I’ll be the proverbial turd in the punch bowl by saying that, yes, it is similar to “The Shining” in a lot of ways, mainly visuals and hotel specters, but that’s about it since it’s far from being a horror classic, much less a horror film I can even recommend.

Ruthie (Gayle Rankin) has inherited her grandmother’s closed and aging hotel, somewhere in New England (most likely). Ruthie is just looking to sell the mid-century modern hotel because of bad childhood memories involving her mother, but Ruthie’s girlfriend Cal (Hari Nef) doesn’t quite see it like that. Cal sees an exciting business opportunity and organizes a girl’s week, inviting two pals, Maddie (Rad Pereira) and Fran (Annabelle Dexter-Jones). So, for the next 80ish minutes, we’ll be treated to gossip about a potential love rectangle between the four ladies, rumors of the hotel being haunted, and visuals that may or may not be real.

The film’s brief runtime and the hope that there’s a decent payoff kept me engaged throughout most of “Bad Things,” even if I found myself wondering what the purpose of any of it was. Cal seems so focused on reopening the hotel, but never really articulates why, which becomes annoying as Ruthie’s mental health declines as she’s constantly reminded about her mother’s parental shortcomings. If Cal was an actual caring partner to Ruthie, you’d think she’d drop the whole idea, much less convince her to have a gal pal weekend in it. As for Maddie and Fran, it seems like there’s skeletons in their closet when it comes to their prior relationships to Ruthie and Cal. It’s almost as if Cal has intentionally planned a weekend to sabotage her own relationship or is that willfully ignorant of other people’s emotions.

References to “The Shining” are sprinkled throughout, but never really feel like an homage or slice of true terror, coming off more like a cringy wink at the camera. The worst moment is when one of the characters sees ghosts eating breakfast in the hotel’s dining area, much like Wendy Torrance encountering a ghoulish party in the final act of “The Shining.” It doesn’t help that, unlike “The Shining,” the girls can leave at any time and are literally a block away from a strip mall. The isolationism that’s perfectly encompassed in Kubrick’s film is nowhere in sight of “Bad Things.”

Despite my frustrations, I was never bored, which is fascinating in of itself. Despite never being scared, the cinematography really makes the hotel a fascinating character. While you’re most likely to have your suspicions that the ghosts aren’t real, the hotel is filmed in such a way that you never feel like the characters are safe from something paranormal. Even in the bitter, snowy cold, the hotel doesn’t seem welcoming or the last place you’d want to be stuck in. Keeping things moving is the cast, which is constantly gnawing on the stale, peeling scenery of the hotel. Rankin steals the show by the end of the film, but Nef, Pereira and Dexter-Jones each have individual scenes they can add to their highlight reel because of how convincing they are in those moments.

I have to wonder how much better “Bad Things” would have been if the film’s promotional material wasn’t attempting to tell me how Kubrickian it was. There’s a lot going for it, including the cinematography, the acting and several ideas that are placed throughout. Even the ideas that I came to enjoy ultimately failed because they were never fully realized. I can’t help, but wonder how much better the film would have been if it leaned more into psychological horror or even implemented more slasher tropes. There’s definitely a way better film in this tangled mess, but “Bad Things” can’t overcome being a bad thing.


Film Review: “The Pod Generation”

Starring: Emilia Clarke, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Rosalie Craig
Directed by: Sophie Barthes
Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 109 minutes

Our Score: 1.5 out of 5 Stars

The word AI is beginning to permeate the landscape as humanity navigates an exciting, yet dangerous future. “The Pod Generation” has arrived at the near perfect time to comment on the machine learning phenomenon we’re all experiencing. The film is about NYC couple Rachel (Emilia Clarke) and Alvy (Chiwetel Ejiofor). Rachel works for an AI company that makes little eyeball products that are like some kind of 22nd century nightmare version of Alexa or Siri. Alvy on the other hand, is a botanist that teaches at a nearby college.

They’re polar opposites in their careers, whereas Rachel sees a bright digitized future, Alvy seems to yearn for a return to nature. This style clashes when the Womb Center, exactly what you think it is, says that they have a limited number of spaces for couples to have their baby in their pod-shaped incubator. Rachel is eager to sign-up, while Alvy is a bit hesitant. They both want children, but disagree on the path forward. Rachel eventually wins out, mainly signing up behind Alvy’s back, but Alvy warms to the idea when he watches the artificial insemination process. This is all fascinating and interesting, but that fades as the movie progresses.

The biggest issue in “The Pod Generation” is that it’s too long and only has surface level commentary that approaches the story like a shotgun blast of ideas instead of a sniper rifle of wit. While the film could have simply honed in on technology versus humans’ animalistic need to procreate, the film seems to throw every idea at us without rhyme or reason. For instance, we see women protesting the Womb Center, but never hear their counterpoint or why. We see these eyeball products everywhere, but never get a full idea of how intrusive they are. We see an entirely robot run school, but never get an idea if it’s beneficial to the children in it. We hear about how there’s a serotonin bliss meter being monitored by the government, but that’s about it. All these neat sci-fi ideas are just vomited on us without any kind of idea or point behind them.

Unfortunately, this continues for over 100 minutes, which begins to make your mind wander during the film. Which meant I began to poke holes in the various sci-fi tropes it’s utilizing. For instance, at one point, Rachel and Alvy begin seeing a marriage counselor that’s just another big AI eyeball that talks to them. You’re telling me that in this future, the human brain has been unlocked to the point that AI can articulately offer psychological advice, yet there’s still a need for human botanists to teach college kids? At one point the couple are watching “March of the Penguins” on a 32-inch TV and I had to wonder, because this is in the 22nd century supposedly, why is a couple watching a 100-plus year-old movie on what’s most likely a very tiny TV at this point in technological evolution? Also, we never made TV’s better than standard definition? I wouldn’t be having these nitpicky thoughts if I wasn’t so bored by its lack of in-depth philosophical ideas and unnecessary runtime. Then there are just scenes of Rachel dreaming like it’s an episode of “Black Mirror,” which just made me want to open Netflix.

I would hate this movie more if it wasn’t for the performances by Clarke and Ejiofor. They really ham it up in some scenes, even if I never believe that these two people are in an actual relationship, much less banging. I can’t help but wonder if this kind of plot and idea would have been better served in a “Black Mirror” episode with a twinge of despair or horror. I say that because the movie just kind of ends without any kind of climax of note. We’re just kind of left wondering, “That’s it?” In a contemporary world begging for AI satire, “The Pod Generation” may have actually benefited from an AI editor.