Film Review: “Faceless After Dark”

Starring: Jenna Kanell, Danny Kang and Danielle Lyn
Directed by: Raymond Wood
Rated: NR
Running Time: 83 minutes
Dark Sky Films

Our Score: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Has horror even been this meta? “Bodies Bodies Bodies,” “X,” “One Cut of the Dead,” and “Totally Killer” are just a few of the meta horror movies from the past couple of years that I can think of off the top of my head. It’s been an interesting subgenre for decades, but it seems to have crescendoed recently. However, have we ever had an actor or actress in a newly beloved horror film take on their own success through the meta medium? After several film festivals, “Terrifier” began making the rounds in 2018. Since then, and thanks to the highly successful sequel, “Terrifier 2,” Art the Clown is slowly becoming a household slasher name and Jenna Kanell’s career has taken off. I’ve seen Kanell once a year in one film or another and she has this dangerous, yet fun magnetism about her. This is basically what “Faceless After Dark” is.

Bowie (Jenna Kanell) is famous after starring in a film where she dukes it out with a sociopathic killer clown. It leads to more horror film offers, conventions on weekends and an internet buzz that seems inescapable. But it isn’t the boost to her career she was expecting. She doesn’t like the convention circuit, she doesn’t like being typecast as the final girl, she doesn’t like the lack of pay, she doesn’t like that her creative ideas and aspirations are ignored and she definitely doesn’t like the daily parade of older, uglier, fatter and hideous men sliding into her DMs. This frustration builds and builds until one night, a person imitating the sociopathic killer clown from Bowie’s famous film enters her home during another frustrating night of writer’s block. However, she may have just found her inspiration.

“Faceless After Dark ” blurs the lines so much between Kanell/Bowie, we’re unsure about quite a lot as the film progresses. We enjoy watching Bowie getting vengeance, but how much of this is entrenched in Kanell’s beliefs and existence within the artist and audience dynamic? There aren’t too many clues during Bowie’s blood rage to mine out a direct interpretation of Kanell’s attitudes. She might actually be a true sociopath if that was the case, but the film does have a very cathartic nature to it. We may not understand the strife on screen, but we understand how social media, the constant negativity it pours into our lives, and the contemporary world around us becomes more and more of a burden the more we allow our lives to bleed into social media. That’s when the mess of the world feels more tangible than other issues in our life that we can actually handle and change. It’s a human breaking point of needing to lash out when the world feels like it’s lashing you daily.

There’s a lot of pondering going on behind Kanell’s eyes, whether it’s while she checks her phone, edits video footage or stares with pure determination into the camera during a strobe light montage of violent imagery. On top of Kanell’s mysteriousness, “Faceless After Dark” makes a few interesting remarks about the slasher genre. The title slasher, whether it be Freddy Krueger, Jason Vorhees or even Art the Clown, always seems to be given the true love and adoration while the love and adoration for final girls like Bowie/Kanell may be at times genuine, but sometimes sexually motivated and overtly creepy. It’s also interesting that many slashers simply kill to kill, sometimes indiscriminately or, as it was stated for years, because they had sex. We still love those male slashes for it. In “Faceless After Dark,” it’s almost like Bowie needs an emotional excuse instead of indiscriminate slashing. Without that linchpin, we risk not liking her. Odd, isn’t it?

“Faceless After Dark” is a suitable slasher, but is way better as the meta slasher it angles to be. If you don’t know Kanell and the “Terrifier” franchise, I doubt you’d understand a lot of the film and I also doubt you’d be interested in this film in the first place.  Led by Kanell, who may deserve her own slasher series after this, “Faceless After Dark” is a vicious spectacle that will potentially have genre fans questioning their own fandom and what the film ultimately represents.

Panic Fest Film Review: “New Life”

Starring: Hayley Erin, Sonya Walger and Tony Admendola
Directed by: John Rosman
Rated: NR
Running Time: 85 minutes
XYZ Films

Our Score: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

We don’t know who or what she’s running from, but we know it’s serious when we first meet Jessica (Hayley Erin). Jessica, with a splattering of blood on her face, is heading to the Canadian border through the mountainous west. Hot on Jessica’s tail is Elsa (Sonya Walger), an FBI agent who just received a crippling diagnosis that is immediately viewed as a death sentence. Both are resourceful, Jessica is scrappy while Elsa is calculating, but only one is willing to put humanity on the line in this pursuit.

“New Life” isn’t what you’d expect from a first-time writer/director and a group of producers who’ve made nothing but horror films. There are some horror elements, but “New Life” is a slow burning look at humanity from two different lenses. Jessica is relatively young, still views the world optimistically and is simply looking to start anew and live. Elsa, is towards the end of her career, views the world sardonically and is so-focused on her job of catching Jessica, that she ignores helpful advice from her friends, co-workers and doctor. The individual journeys are more entertaining than anything else in the film, even the end of the world possibilities aren’t as weighty, but that’s intentional.

After a slow start, “New Life” gets straight to the point, giving us that personalized view of the world from each character. Elsa is ready to nab Jessica, but she isn’t. She doesn’t want to face what comes next. She’d rather face a crisis that’s existentially awful for everyone, and do it her own way. Jessica faces a recent past that’s already caught up to her, but has decided that her life is still worth living, even if that means death for everyone else. As to what happens when the two finally meets, is the ultimate thrill of “New Life.”

The acting by Erin and Walger is nearly flawless as they play two sides of the same coin. We relate to Jessica so well, even when she isn’t saying anything. We can sense immediately that she’s a good person who has found herself in the middle of an awful situation. We relate to Elsa equally because she’s able to command everything and everyone around her through her words, not her action. Even though Jessica’s the one being chased, it seems like we’re able to be at ease around her, but on high alert with Elsa at first. The great thing about “New Life” though, is that as the movie goes, the ease and tension, flip flop throughout until the final act.

“New Life” is about being human and the ensuing complications. Because we relate so well with Elsa and Jessica, the ending almost serves as an emotional thump to the chest. We don’t know whether to be happy, sad or indifferent. Life isn’t as black and white, even with two characters and those two characters carry the nuance of life with them. For these two alone, “New Life” is a must watch, even if you aren’t into slow burns.

Panic Fest Film Review: “Oddity”

Starring: Carolyn Bracken, Gwilym Lee and Tadhg Murphy
Directed by: Damian Mc Carthy
Rated: NR
Running Time: 98 minutes
Shudder

Our Score: 4 out of 5 Stars

At the 2021 Panic Fest, “Caveat” was one of the many films I missed. It wasn’t until last year that I gave it a watch on Shudder and couldn’t believe I had missed this film, and waited so long to watch it. Looking not to make the same mistake again, I saw that director/writer Damian Mc Carthy’s second film, “Oddity” was coming to this year’s Panic Fest and it’s another high recommendation.

Darcy (Carolyn Bracken) is home alone at her and her husband’s fixer-upper country home. The reconstruction process is so intense, the couple sleep in a tent in the living quarters while repairing it. Well, she at least sleeps alone at night because her husband, Ted (Gwilym Lee) works nights at a mental hospital. Settling in for another lonesome night, Darcy hears a frantic knock at the door to find one of her husband’s former patients warning her in the dead of night, “Someone is in there with you.”

Cut to one year into the future, Darcy is dead, believed to be murdered by that patient, but that story doesn’t sit right with Dani (Carolyn Bracken again), Darcy’s twin sister. However, Dani is blind and takes care of the family’s oddity shop. She serves as a medium for the store, seeing the power and spirits behind every object in the store. Dani, believing something is up, visits Ted’s rural home with one of the most horrifying wooden mannequins you will ever lay eyes on.

In lesser hands, a film like “Oddity” would have failed. The story would have gotten in the way of the spook house scares or the spook house scares would have overwhelmed the developing mystery. Either way, Mc Carthy is a master with this winding thriller. He has an extreme knack for effective and claustrophobic settings. Most of “Oddity” takes place at the rural renovated country home and you never feel comfortable any moment you’re there. Even when the sun is up and the lights are on, you constantly sense that something angry and vengeful is there.

Bracken turns in a fantastic performance as the twins. While we don’t get too much screen time with Darcy, we get plenty of it with Dani. Bracken is able to make Dani menacing even if she can’t see and is at times helpless. Her ferociousness is comedic, relatable and sometimes unnerving. Dani, as a character, is flawless. Complimenting Bracken’s performances is Lee, who plays a healthy skeptic, even if everything happening in the house is beyond any explanation he can think of.

All the haunted house thrills are scattered throughout “Oddity,” so you never feel comfortable, but you’re always being thrilled in some capacity. That’s why I believe the storytelling in “Oddity” shows how much Mc Carthy has grown as a writer since “Caveat.” While “Caveat” was hard to follow at times, “Oddity” is all red meat as it will make you laugh, peek between your fingers, and keep you on the edge of your seat. “Oddity” is sure to end up on some best of lists this year.

Panic Fest Film Review: “Cannibal Mukbang”

Starring: April Consalo, Nate Wise and Clay von Carlowitz
Directed by: Aimee Kuge
Rated: NR
Running Time: 104 minutes

Our Score: 4 out of 5 Stars

Have you ever seen a film title and it’s way too good to be true? My first thoughts are “Snakes on a Plane” or “The Man Who Killed Hitler and Then the Bigfoot.” So, when I saw “Cannibal Mukbang,” I thought, “Here we go. Another film that’s more title than anything.” Welp. “Cannibal Mukbang” is a genre roller coaster that not only pays off, but makes the title seem tame compared to what happens in the film.

When we first meet Mark (Nate Wise), he’s loveable in a sad puppy kind-of-way, but there’s something about him we can’t quite shake throughout the film. Mark’s self-doubt is apparent as he constantly compares himself to his brother, scrutinizes his body as if he was a Youtube comments section, and ignores when he’s lovestruck. Literally. Ash (April Consalo) hits Mark with her car by accident, and it’s love at first sight. Ash’s day job is filming mukbang videos. Mukbang is a South Korean video trend that’s gone global, highlighting people eating massive amounts of food while talking to their fans. Mark doesn’t judge and wants to know more. At night, Ash turns into a predator as she hunts down sexual predators to devour because she has an insatiable appetite for human flesh. Mark doesn’t judge and wants to know more.

What’s ultimately fascinating about “Cannibal Mukbang,” is that this initial sappy love story premise stays a sappy love story even as the blood, gore, human body parts, and sexual innuendo with the blood, gore and human body parts, amplifies. For every moment of hardcore horror, flesh munching and being crazy horny, there are these very human moments of Mark and Ash unveiling their emotional wounds to each other. In a macabre way, it’s understandable that Ash doesn’t want to get too close to someone. If you had a compulsion to eat human flesh, you wouldn’t necessarily be the most extroverted individual. As for Mark, his self esteem is non-existent because he constantly focuses on how someone like Ash could ever fall in love with a “loser” like himself. This is one of those scenarios where you recognize that they’re not necessarily the best thing for each other, but they oddly fit perfectly together.

In her directorial debut, Aimee Kuge has written a near modern exploitation masterpiece. I say masterpiece because she has taken a lot of the plot elements of exploitation films and funneled them into a mainstream dramatic rom-com. If the horror elements didn’t exist, we could only assume that a happy ending is around the corner for Ash and Mark, but because this is a film where picked clean bones keep piling up, we know it’s about to come crashing down in a horrific fashion. In some ways, we’re conflicted because we do like these soft, tender moments between the two while the cannibalism sits on the back burner. For a first film, Kuge’s vision and writing is not only impressive, but it’s reminiscent of other great first time horror directors like Stuart Gordon or Ana Lily Amirpour.

Not only is Kuge a director to keep an eye on as her career advances, but “Cannibal Mukbang” might end up being a word-of-mouth hit. The film brilliantly handles gruesome sexualism with genuine heartfelt love in a way that must be seen to be believed. It’s hard to not get wrapped up with the characters and story to the point you need to devour the movie again and again. “Cannibal Mukbang” has a near perfect list of ingredients, and while it satisfies any hunger you have before entering the film, only time will tell if it’s an acquired taste or a smorgasbord for all.

Panic Fest Film Review: “Infested”

Starring: Theo Christine, Sofia Lesaffre and Jerome Niel
Directed by: Sebastien Vanicek
Rated: NR
Running Time: 106 minutes
Shudder

Our Score: 4 out of 5 Stars

It’s interesting that Panic Fest 2024 is bookended by spider movies. The first being “Sting,” a fun B-movie about an adorable spider that gets bigger and bigger, while menacing an apartment complex. The second is almost a shade similar, but first you need to take out the B-movie fun and replace it with midnight terror. As for the adorable spider, go ahead and replace that with terrifying spiders that come in all shapes and sizes. Now you have the Shudder instant classic, “Infested.”

“Infested” takes place at a rundown, urban French apartment complex. The 14-story building appears to only be maintained by a short, frail Asian woman and inhabited by impoverished young adults. Kaleb (Theo Christine) struggles financially, making very little off the high-end sneakers he sells, while living with his sister Manon (Lisa Nyarko) who is prepping their inherited home to sell. The two are constantly bickering, but their differences percolate while we watch Kaleb buy an illegal spider from one of his shoe supplies. Kaleb is a creepy crawler lover, so he doesn’t suspect much about the spider. He’s going to add it to his growing collection which features a scorpion, centipede, and other multi-legged bugs and creatures. But as soon as he turns his back, the spider escapes. He simply thinks it’s taking refuge in his apartment, but it’s about to turn the apartment complex into it’s new nest. But first it’s got a lot of breeding and growing to do.

“Infested” throws us into a fresh new arachnophobia hell, as the few spiders that are spotted in the background begin to double in number and size. Soon the spiders become emboldened and we see them in all their detailed horror. While our characters bicker amongst themselves over past issues, their current situation is rapidly deteriorating, but they don’t know it until it’s too late. Every moment someone in the apartment complex peers into the dark, sticks their hand in a hole or generally does something they shouldn’t, the jump scares come fast and heavy. It may be my own arachnophobia speak, but every scare is earned and unique. The movie implements the creepy crawling speed and ferociousness with a heart pounding soundtrack. It’s the kind of film that might even scare the biggest of spider lovers.

While the spiders pick off the tenants, a growing sense of French society begins to come into focus. While they could just leave the apartment, the government has barricaded everyone inside, most likely finding out a spider infestation of apocalyptic proportions is happening. But the police quickly reveal their hand, showing they don’t care if everyone dies inside. “Infested” is also a movie about societal failure, and how the poorest of society are forgotten and easily disposable. That theme isn’t a big factor though because most of the time our heroes are attempting to escape the grasp of thousands of eight-legged freaks.

Sebastien Vanicek, the director of “Infested,” has already been tapped for the next “Evil Dead” movie and it’s easy to see why. “Infested” is the kind of film that gets your adrenaline pumping, your heart racing, and your fears running high. It also manages to squeeze in some hearty laughs, even as you know death and terror are right around the corner. If you aren’t seeing “Infested” in a crowded dark theater, not only are you doing yourself a disservice, but you risk feeling the spiders on you as you watch one of the best horrors of the year at home.

Panic Fest Film Review: “Boy Kills World”

Starring: Bill Skarsgard, Famke Jannsen and Jessica Rothe
Directed by:
Rated: R
Running Time: 111 minutes
Roadside Attraction/Lionsgate

Our Score: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

It’s very hard to pull off an action comedy that’s been punched up with different genres like sci-fi and horror. It’s definitely possible, Simon Pegg and Nick Frost basically pulled it off three times. But there are other films that pull it off by going balls to wall with bone crunching kung-fu fighting, deranged, yet hilarious violence, and creating a world of Looney Toons absurdism. Those are films like “Boy Kills World.”

Boy (Bill Skarsgard) is being trained by a mystery hobo ninja in the woods surrounding a post-Apocalyptic “Hunger Games” matriarchy-run city. Boy, when he’s fully realized his potential and goal as the ultimate weapon, is to beat the Van Der Koy family (Famke Janssen, Michelle Dockery, Brett Gelman and Sharlto Copley) to death with his crackling fists. He thirsts for Van Der Koy blood because his family was murdered at their hands, including his best friend, his little sister, who still talks to him, and dog him like little sisters do, as a guiding spirit. Oh, and because Boy is deaf and mute, and doesn’t remember his voice, his inner voice is H. Jon Benjamin.

While starting a little slow, like a warm-up jog, the film goes full slugfest, shootout bonkers when Boy realizes it’s time to fulfill his goal. While it could be visually taxing to wrap yourself around the the sweat, blood-covered Skarsgard dispensing bad guys with horrific weapons like a cheese grater, with Bob Belcher’s voice, the movie cleverly uses them separately and together throughout the film to let the action remain thrilling and the comedy to remain uproarious. As a viewer, we do end up admiring Boy because his emotional layers are peeled back through Skarsgard’s commanding eyes and his spirit ghost sister that pops up at inopportune times.

As for the action scenes, the majority hit the sweet spot between brutal believability and video game logic where you can kill people with a singular upper cut or have to spend 10 minutes bludgeoning your opponent to death. The film creates several traditional and bizarre set pieces for the Boy to play in, such as a weapons manufacturing warehouse and a candy winter wonderland of death populated by murderous sugary cereal mascots. While never worrying about how goofy the premise is, the film is serious about it’s fighting and choreography. In fact, the final fight scene is mapped out so well and pulled off with such high stakes fun, it’s worthy of “John Wick.”

The film does have some pacing issues here and there, and the plot sometimes gets in the way of the action. That wouldn’t be a problem if the plot was a little bit more straightforward because the twists and turns it makes don’t feel as satisfying. However, if you’re uncertain about what kind of film “Boy Kills World” might be, it’s important to note that Sam Raimi produced it. So even if “Boy Kills World” isn’t on par with a crazy action comedy orgy like “Kung Fu Hustle,” it is the kind of film you could fall in love with and watch over and over again.

Panic Fest Film Review: “Sting”

Starring: Ryan Corr, Alyla Browne and Penelope Mitchell
Directed by: Kiah Roche-Turner
Rated: R
Running Time: 91 minutes
Well Go USA Entertainment

Our Score: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Very few times can I describe a film with these words: heart-warming, funny and skin crawling. “Sting” is the story of a peculiar preteen girl, Charlotte (Alyla Browne) who makes friends with a spider, at least what we think is a spider. You see, on a snowy, icy night in New York City, a tiny meteorite smashes through a window at an apartment complex. The rock cracks open, revealing the dime sized spider that quickly makes friends with Charlotte. Since we know up front that it’s from space, we know that this isn’t an ordinary spider, but of course no one else knows this. Charlotte doesn’t even seem to mind too much that the spider doubles in size in hours, and suddenly requires more than just apartment lurking bugs to devour.

I’d say the majority of “Sting” hinges on the likability of Charlotte as a character and Browne’s acting abilities. It’s a difficult character to tackle because Charlotte is dealing with the loss of her father and isn’t as emotionally connected as she once was with her mom. It doesn’t help that her stepdad is a little bit aloof when it comes to Charlotte, talking to her but not actually listening to her. So when Browne interacts with her new pet spider, we truly understand why and actually believe it. I actually believed it, especially since I feel like people who own spiders are pets are sociopaths. As for everyone else who encounters the spider, it’s like midnight at the drive-in.

Part of the inherent cheesy fun of “Sting” is watching all the characters come into focus, while figuring out who’s going to be eaten first. There’s a baby, some elderly ladies, an exterminator who hates coming out to the apartment, a yappy dog and plenty of other tenants that could potentially become spider food. It’s the same formula as the a lot of 80s slashers, but instead of a knife wielding maniac, it’s an eight legged monster.

There is a sense that “Sting” is lacking something. It’s lacking a cast of characters we should all care about, but there’s inherently nothing wrong with watching the spider pick them one-by-one. “Sting” is more of a comedy than a horror first, but it’s not consistently fun. What I’m trying to say in so many words is that “Sting” isn’t perfect, nor is it great, but I admire that it seems like everyone knows they’re making a modern creature feature with chuckles and a cast that will put a smile on your face.

Panic Fest Film Review: “Azrael”

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

Our Score: 4 out of 5 stars

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

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

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

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

Film Review: “Camp Pleasant Lake”

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

Our Score: 1.5 out of 5 Stars

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

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

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

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

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

Film Review: “Zone of Interest”

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

Our Score: 2 out of 5 Stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

Film Review: “American Fiction”

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

Our Score: 4 out of 5 Stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

Film Review: “Laced”

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

Our Score: 3 out of 5 Stars

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

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

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

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

Film Review: “The Sacrifice Game”

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

Our Score: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

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

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

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

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

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

 

Film Review: Loop Track

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

Our Score: 3 out of 5 Stars

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

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

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

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

Film Review: “As We Know It”

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

Our Score: 0.5 out of 5 Stars

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

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

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

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