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: “Mother, May I?”

Starring: Holland Roden, Kyle Gallner and Chris Mulkey
Directed by: Laurence Vannicelli
Rated: NR
Running Time: 99 minutes
Dark Sky Films

Our Score: 3.5 out of 5 stars

When death occurs, it leaves a scar. Not only the loss of a loved one, but the words that will never be said. The emotions that will now never be conveyed or felt. The questions that will now go on unanswered. I won’t bother looking up who said it because it’s a universal truth, but the only sure thing in life is death. In “Mother, May I?,” death is really the only sure thing.

Emmett’s (Kyle Gallner) mother, who abandoned him, has recently passed. Understandably, he wants to go to her house, get in, get out and move on with his life. Emmett’s fiance, Anya (Holland Roden), is in tow as emotional support, but that support seems a little flawed. At least from my vantage point. In an effort to help alleviate the pain of the experience of being in her house, Anya recommends they take psilocybin mushrooms. I have yet to try this method, but seeing people on mushrooms without having to deal with trauma tells me…I won’t. While tripping, Emmett and Anya decide to play a little roleplaying game where Anya is Emmett’s mother. It’s weird, oddly sexual and freaks Emmett out a bit. However, the troubles continue when he wakes up the next day and Anya is still pretending to be his mother. Or is she?

“Mother, May I?” is the definition of unsettling. As the film progresses, we begin to wonder if something supernatural is happening. Anya, who professes to not know how to swim, begins to swim whilst continuing to “be” Emmett’s mother. She also begins to exhibit ticks that Emmett knows his mother had, but has never told Anya. The emptiness of the house they’re in, compounded by the callousness of Emmett’s mom in flashbacks, allows the film to creep slowly under your skin, wriggling around when tensions come to a boil. When things explode between the two, it’s like a therapy session in hell.

Since most of “Mother, May I?” is filled with our two leads, so much of the film’s emotional weight is carried by Gallner and Roden who do spot-on jobs when their characters are hurt, vengeful, remorseful and horny. Rarely does the film relent, seemingly putting its foot down on the emotional accelerator. At some points you have to wonder who’s attempting to inflict emotional damage and who’s using brutal honesty to progress their own self-reflected feelings forward.

So what exactly is going on with Anya? Is she possessed or is she creating a cruel new form of psychotherapy? Or better yet, what’s going on with Emmett? Is he truly disturbed and upset or is he a unique byproduct of a broken mother-son relationship that would have Sigmund Freud licking his lips? Since the film leaves every question unanswered, the film in of itself is like death. As the credits roll, we’re left wondering what if and why.

 

Panic Fest Film Review: “Birth/Rebirth”

Starring: Marin Ireland, Judy Reyes and Breeda Wool
Directed by: Laura Moss
Rated: NR
Running Time: 98 minutes
IFC Films

Our Score: 4 out of 5 Stars

You know you’re in for a good movie when a director is able to summarize their film without giving away too much. Before “Birth/Rebirth” began, Director Laura Moss discussed how the film was her own unique take on “Frankenstein” and how the idea has been simmering in her mind since she was a teenager. Even with that kind of spoiler in mind, one where I could expect the reanimation of a dead person, I couldn’t foresee what kind of horrors could be and would be mined in “Birth/Rebirth.”

Celie (Judy Reyes) is a natural as a prenatal nurse at the hospital she works at. She brings her motherly warmth to work to help patients and others, but that warmth will disappear in a flash. Celie’s daughter, Lila (A.J. Lister) abruptly dies, leaving Celie with so much to ponder. On the flip side, we meet a morgue tech by the name of Rose (Marin Ireland) who goes about her work with about as much warmth as the corpses she digs around in. Celie and Rose are strangers, but Lila’s death is going to bring them together in horrific ways.

The mantle of Dr. Frankenstein could be divided up between Celie and Rose, who work together after Rose reanimates Lila. Celie, despite being unable to communicate with the daughter she used to know, tries in earnest to recover what she had by focusing on nearly every aspect of Lila’s life. Rose on the other hand takes a more rudimentary, yet scientific approach to Lia as she makes notes, runs experiments and monitors the overall situation. Sometimes the roles flip as time goes on where one character assumes the role of scientist and the other as parental figure. Because the reanimated Lila remains mostly quiet throughout the duration of the film, it’s difficult to tell what’s actually going on in her head as opposed to the emotional projections by Rose and Celie.

I can’t think of a “Frankenstein” reimaging or story that heavily shifts the narrative to a female centric one. The original story could be viewed as man’s attempt to control what humanity cannot control, life and death. In some ways you could argue the original doctor was also driven by a need to create. The ability to create a human life is not possible for someone born as a man, so Dr. Frankenstein had to create human life in another form. “Birth/Rebirth” seems to explain the passion and need to control life and death as that of a woman/parent. We see how Celie and Rose work with Lila to ensure she survives, the sacrifices both of them make, but is it more about science or more about basic maternal instincts? Rose is the calculating, numbers driven and scientific to all her approaches, but the longer she spends with Celie and Lila, the more something else is taking shape beneath her expressionless face. On the flip side, Celie also realizes the lengths she’ll go to obtain what she used to have, but must also reckon with what it takes to reach that goal.

The film’s ending, which will certainly be annoying to some, leaves more questions than answers. The audience is supposed to reflect on the idea of motherhood and what parenthood in general does to us. The morals of the film are constantly being debated by the characters and by their inevitable actions. Just like the Mary Shelley classic, “Birth/Rebirth” asks us to examine creation, life and death, through our own selfishness, our own sacrifices and ultimately what we are willing to do to secure and fulfill what we see as our obligations to our creations. “Birth/Rebirth” is a monster that you’ll be thinking about long after the credits and lights go up.

 

Panic Fest Film Review: “Black Mold”

Starring: Agnes Albright, Andrew Bailes and Jeremy Holm
Directed by: John Pata
Rated: NR
Running Time: 92 minutes

Our Score: 3.5 out of 5 stars

I’m asked anytime by people who find out that I do urban exploring (the art of exploring abandoned buildings, tunnels and everything in between) about whether or not I get scared. Of course. That’d be like asking a trapeze artist if they’re ever worried about plummeting. The thought will always be there. When it comes to my side hobby, I’ve almost been attacked by humans and animals, nearly broken bones, and, worst of all, almost been caught by authorities. So when I recommend “Black Mold,” a film about two urban exploring photographers taking on a deadly task, it’s not because it taps into that fear.

Brooke (Anges Albright) is going through the motions as her and her budding photographer, Tanner (Andrew Bailes) are adding more photos to their portfolio. The abandoned countryside homes they photograph aren’t enough for Brooke today though. She’s got her eyes on the duo’s white whale, a rundown government facility that is the center of several area rumors. Ignoring the fencing, warning signs, and obvious threats, the two are dropped off by their driver, whom they tell to come back in three hours. The two then  set foot inside a building they may never leave.

“Black Mold” never does what you’d expect, which is a treat because it uses a lot of horror tropes. While the story is familiar, the path isn’t. Brooke, we learn, has never come to grips with a traumatic part of her childhood, the death of her father and the ensuing blame being directed at her. While the movie solely focuses on her, Tanner is also dealing with his own personal demons even though they’re never discussed or shown. We just see him react to what he thinks he’s seeing or actually seeing, just like Brooke begins to wonder if a homeless person they encounter in the building is her father.

That is one of the more befuddling parts of this film, what’s real and what isn’t. It’s intentional, but also confusing. For about half of the film, we’re left wondering what experiences are real and which ones aren’t. Eventually day turns to night and we even have to question if time is changing along with perception. I’m not sure why Tanner is in the film, but over time, I wondered if the film could have been better without Tanner because we have no emotional attachment to him. That, and I imagine the isolation would be more impactful for Brooke and the audience.

“Black Mold” is kind of a play on the idea that mold in a dilapidated building could impact your mind. I also believe it’s how the trauma that Brooke experienced not only effects her creatively and in her hobby, but also emotionally because it’s obvious she’s never dealt with her father’s death in any meaningful way or talked with anyone about it. Psychologically and visually speaking, “Black Mold” is a fascinating watch, but the horror itself isn’t as scary as it could be, and the ending feels like a little bit of a letdown.  Overall, the film is an enjoyable journey into the psyche of regret, loss and broken relationships.

 

Panic Fest Film Review: “Satan Wants You”

Directed by: Steve J. Adams and Sean Horlor
Rated: NR
Running Time: 88 minutes

Our Score: 4 out of 5 stars

Children are the greatest non-violent weapon humans have ever had. In 2020-21, my social media was being spammed with #savethechildren. Sounds noble. Besides, who hates children and wishes them ill will? Unfortunately, the #savethechildren people on social media were ignorant to the reasoning behind the hashtag. All these #savethechildren people were suckers for Q’Anon, a conspiracy theory about how the world’s elites are eating, raping, beating, sodomizing, and killing children. Not only children, but newborn infants. While it sounds too crazy to believe, “Satan Wants You,” is a reminder that we’re constantly doomed to repeat an inherent part of our history, believe stupid crap.

If you haven’t heard about the Satanic Panic of the 80s and early 90s, it’s kind of like Pizzagate for the pre-Internet age. They even had their own hashtag before hashtags, having people say “Believe the Children.” The insanity kicked off in 1980 with the book, “Michelle Remembers,” where Canadian Michelle Smith, with the help of her then-psychiatrist at the time, remembered buried memories. Those memories were of being kidnapped, caged, beaten, sexually assaulted, raped repeatedly and forced to eat babies along with other Satanists in a ritual meant to summon the Lord of Darkness himself. Makes for an interesting fiction novel, but “Michelle Remembers” was touted as a real life encapsulation of a secret cabal right under society’s nose.

“Satan Wants You” doesn’t dig around in every nook and cranny, but it’s an incredibly entertaining and serviceable documentary on the Satanic Panic, for those who know nothing about and those like me who could stand to learn a little bit more, including the interesting tidbit later in the documentary about how insurance companies may have saved the day. The documentary’s focus is on how such a perverse lie was able to spread around the U.S. like a new strain of COVID-19, while examining the possibilities of why Michelle would remember…a lie.

Michelle’s psychiatrist, Lawrence Pazder, eventually became her lover and husband. It doesn’t take an HR consultant for most people to recognize a doctor and patient hooking up is the biggest ethical red flag you could potentially spot. The documentary seems to imply more wrong with Pazder than it does Michelle, as it talks with his family members about how he abandoned them for one of his patients. It details how Pazder had a fascination with the perceived weirdness of other cultures and traditions, and how that kind of got channeled through his sessions with Michelle. In my personal belief, I think he was a sexual deviant and Michelle’s recollections were simply part of his fetish.

But what about Michelle? It’s easy to pin the blame on the person spinning these lies, but the documentary treats everyone fairly, including Michelle. If anything, she is a victim to Pazder’s delusions of grandeur, because he envisioned himself becoming famous with her recounting of the alleged demonic occurrences. She also was seeking psychiatric help because she had endured a miscarriage. So in a vulnerable position, she was most likely persuaded by Pazder. A lot of this is my own musings based on the film because “Satan Wants You” is so balanced and thoughtful in its approach. The film doesn’t look to demonize or point the finger of blame at anyone particularly. Unfortunately we can only blame ourselves, especially since history shows that anytime there’s a crisis of faith or a newfound religion, one side attempts to demonize and disparage that group with lascivious lies involving children. For a harmful conspiracy theory to flourish, it takes a village of idiots.

For those who are interested in the Satanic Panic, “Satan Wants You” is a must-watch, even for those who may not know anything about it. At times it feels like it doesn’t say enough while at the same time giving us enough information to completely understand and digest the whole damn mess. You may find yourself wondering aloud during the film, “How the hell do people believe this?” Well, just wait until 2060 when we release a film about all the morons who thought a billionaire narcissist was going to save all the babies from demonic Jews in positions of power eating babies or how Lil Nas X is the Anti-Christ or how social media campaigns never helped children.

 

Panic Fest Film Review: “Abruptio”

Starring: James Marsters, Christopher McDonald and Hana Mae Lee
Directed by: Evan Marlowe
Rated: NR
Running Time: 94 minutes

Our Score: 2.5 out of 5 Stars

Anytime I see human puppets, I immediately think of “Team America: World Police” or “Being John Malkovich.” I’m not sure if that’s because I discredit the art form of puppets altogether and can only tolerate self-mocking portrayals or if that’s because the films are top tier puppet films. While it’s still too early to say, I think I might start adding “Abruptio” to that mental list anytime I see someone with a marionette.

When we meet Les Hackel (James Marsters), he’s working a dead-end job, living at home with his parents still, and getting dumped by his valley girl sounding girlfriend. Then, without any warning, he notices an incision at the base of his neck. One of his buddies has one too, and his buddy knows what it is; a bomb. Then Les begins receiving mysterious messages on his phone stating that everything will be fine as long as Les does what they say. If not, boom goes the neck bomb.

“Abruptio” is a unique take on human puppets because they’re a mix of actual puppets and life-sized puppets; I think. I’m not sure about the actual puppets, but it is very clear from the get-go that actors on screen are wearing puppet looking masks, attire, hands, etc. The mix of real world and puppets is, at most times, visually unsettling. The puppets stick out like a sore thumb, but because of that very intent, it makes us question the reality that the life-size puppets are in. The preposterous plot and visuals only amplify the unease as Les has to do more and more sinister things from the mystery entity or entities.

Adding to the bizarre plot devices are the vocals. We have the late Sid Haig, THE Freddy Kreuger (Robert England), and Christopher McDonald giving us that Shooter McGavin tone. For a film that took seven years, I’m impressed at the range of people who inevitably signed on to such a unique, puzzling, puppet film. Outside of the technical aspects and voice acting talent, “Abruptio” sometimes feels and looks hollow.

Les is more of a villain than a hero, so following him throughout the film can be a moral drag. While this film sits neatly into the horror genre, there’s still some basic ethics in horror. For instance, the puppet nudity never felt necessary or earned. I know, you probably had to do a double take at the puppet nudity. While it didn’t bug me at first, it was utilized at certain points to an unpleasant degree. Some moments felt hateful while others were more masturbatory in their presentation. It also doesn’t help that Les’ character looks like a 55-year-old loser on the verge of shooting up a gas station and he’s having several woman issues throughout the movie.

I can’t completely disregard something like “Abruptio,” because the ending reveal may make everything prior seem like a big misunderstanding. For the horror community, “Abruptio” is a fine addition to the “so weird it’s oddly good” category, but for everyone else, the film will be too dark and miserable to enjoy.

Panic Fest Film Review: “Trader”

Starring: Kimberly-Sue Murray, Shaun Benson and Stephen Bogaert
Directed by: Corey Stanton
Rated: NR
Running Time: 84 minutes

Our Score: 4 out of 5 stars

Sometimes the strangest things in life end up becoming the best fodder for films. Since the first image flickered with life on-screen, movies have commented on politics, government squabbles, war, famine, Hollywood itself, etc. All of it has been caught by the watchful eye of directors looking to make a statement, whether it’s subtle or blunt. As I’ve mentioned in other reviews, the pandemic was a breeding ground for ideas, but I can honestly say I never expected a director to watch the GameStop squeeze in later 2021 and go, “That gives me an idea…”

Does the lead of “Trader” have a name? No. Kimberly-Sue Murray leads the way in “Trader,” a film shot in the apartment basement of a building with Murray as the only person we’ll see for the next 84 minutes. She lets us know what kind of person she is in the opening minutes as she scams an elderly person over the phone out of their credit card and personal information so she can dump some funds into her bank account. What does she want to do with that money? Stonking some tendies to the moon and back (Sorry, r/WallStreetBets lingo). I’m sure that sounds like a boring premise to some, but I assure you it is not. Murray, who delivers a tour de force performance, carries this film on her back as she learns about stock trading, learns about options trading, and attempts to hedge her way into a cutthroat world that may just end up eating her alive, unless she bites first.

Murray may just be the sole reason we watch “Trader.” It’s not a character study, but what we get out of her character is personal financial determination mixed with sociopathic tendencies. She’s a smart cookie, and will possibly break your arm for doubting it. She eventually makes her way through the message boards and connects with a broker named Bob who plays the stock market for social media clout and, of course, the millions of dollars. Murray’s character aches for that life and that luxury, but as one person in a basement on her lonesome, she has to make due with what she’s given. She’s been given Bob the Broker and will lie her way to a seat at the broker table.

Throughout the film, we’re told through discussions with Bob that Murray used to be a victim of sex trafficking, but can we believe that? Most of the time we see her lying, even to Bob, so when she does cry and seemingly stares off into the distance with all the seriousness of the world in her eyes, we have to believe her. But it’s that same kind of personality that she uses to fool others, whether it’s the geriatric at the beginning with his credit card in hand or Bob teasing a better life. One of the more fun aspects of the film is attempting to piece together who Murray’s character is and isn’t.

Even if you know nothing about GameStop or stock trading, “Trader” is a low-budget techno-thriller with plenty on its mind and plenty more to say. Murray gives the best performance of the year, so far, with equal amounts of pain and pleasure during the entire process. Murray’s character is physically, mentally and emotionally working through a past that’s never revealed, but watching her kick and crawl through the boy’s game at Wall Street is an absolute delight. If you’re lucky enough to see this on a streaming service or anywhere in the future, give it a watch and prepare to be blown away by its mesmerizing simplicities. 

Panic Fest Film Review: “Bury the Bride”

Starring: Krsy Fox, Scout Taylor-Compton and Dylan Rourke
Directed by: Spider One
Running Time: 90 minutes
Rated: Unrated
Tubi

Our Score: 3 out of 5 stars

If you had told me that within a half year time span that Rob Zombie would release his worst movie of all time, followed by his brother releasing his best film, I’d probably believe you. But that’s horror for ya. Sometimes directors and writers release something that might be incomplete or a fully unfulfilled idea. That’s what I thought about Spider One’s release at 2022’s Panic Fest, “Allegoria.” While I didn’t write a review for it, I kind of enjoyed it, but wouldn’t recommend it to anyone. That being said, I’m recommending the hell out of “Bury the Bride.”

How does a bachelorette weekend in a cabin in the desert sound? Terrible, right? Well, that’s what June (Scout Taylor-Compton) wants for her party, which automatically raises red flags amongst all her friends. Not only does she want a low-key bachelorette party, despite years of telling her friends about a really kickass one that she’s planning in her dream, but she’s marrying a redneck. To put this in perspective, June and her friends don’t look like they’ve ever spent time in the South or Midwest. And what I mean by that, is that they’ve never visited the true parts of the South and Midwest. I’m not saying they’ve never been to Nashville or Chicago, but they sure as hell haven’t been to Skidmore, Missouri or Jefferson, Texas. The really weird part? When June’s fiance does crash the party, the two seem blissfully happy. So what’s the deal?

“Bury the Bride” takes a lot of turns before arriving at its big twist, which quite honestly gave me a momentary sense of panic because I legitimately wasn’t expecting it. Even before the film, the audience was told of a fantastic twist so the whole time I sat there wondering what it could be and out of the 100 things I was thinking, I was still wrong. Props to Spider One and Krsy Fox, who wrote the story together and shot it after “Allegoria” had its world premiere at Panic Fest 2022. Even the twist has its twists in the third act, giving the film an overall unique spin on a rather worn out story we’ve seen dozens of times before.

Because the characters are written to be so genuine and real, the acting feels inherently natural even when things go completely off the rails. The performances are actually the strongest part of the film, which to me is equally impressive since most, if not all of the actors, were in “Allegoria.” It’s clear that Spider One and crew learned a lot from their debut pandemic-era film, not only how to keep a budget low, but also creating a cohesive story throughout. “Allegoria” was more of a hit-or-miss anthology without a connective tissue whereas “Bury the Bride” is a bloody killing spree in a desolate square of white trash. There are still some issues, like sound and visual goofs, as Spider stretches his eight creative legs, but with the leaps and bounds made from “Allegoria” to “Bury the Bride,” I’m hoping Spider makes another stop at Panic Fest next year for his third film.

 

Panic Fest Film Review: “The Third Saturday in October Part V” and “The Third Saturday in October”

Starring: Kansas Bowling, Darius Willis, Poppy Cunningham, K.J. Baker, Taylor Smith and Lew Temple
Directed by: Jay Burleson
Rated: Unrated
Running Time: 89 and 97 minutes
Dark Sky Films

Our Score: 4 out of 5 stars

Never seen or heard about “The Third Saturday in October: Part V” or the prior four films in the franchise? Don’t worry, no one has. The text crawl at the beginning of “Part V” tells us all we need to know about the franchise. It states that the first film in the series was created as a cash-in on the popularity of “Halloween” in 1978. It became a cult classic, spurring several slasher sequels over the next decade and a half, but the first film has been lost to time. Thankfully for you and I, “Part V” has been found.

Anyone who has read, heard or seen anything about this film knows that the first film is available. But for reasons I’ll explain later, you should watch “Part V” first. The killer of this non-existent, made-up franchise is Jakkariah “Jack” Harding, a scarred killer who appears every third Saturday in October to kill unsuspecting teens and other morons in the fictional town of Hackleberg. Both films basically have Jack murder his way through a group of high, drunk and horny high schoolers, and other random character clichés, gathering together to watch the iconic football game between Alabama-Mobile and the Tennessee A&M Commonwealth. In “Part V,” Jack wears a never before seen clown/child mishmash mask that isn’t scary or menacing. What this film is, is plenty of cheese dripping at the corners of your screen, a budget so low it’d make Lloyd Kaufman tear-up and comedy good enough for the “Scary Movie” franchise (at least the good movies in the franchise).

“Part V” is an homage and parody dropped into a blender with discount guts/gore, horror movie tropes and easily disposable caricatures. “Part V” was allegedly released in the early 90s and it definitely shows in the characters, using vernacular of the time with the style of goth kids from that era. The actors are clearly older than the “teens” they’re playing, adding to the overall goofiness of the film. There are several winks at movies outside the “Halloween” franchise, such as “Misery,” “Friday the 13th,” and “Texas Chainsaw Massacre.” The one thing the movie really nails is the odd thematic mix that was “Halloween 5: The Revenge of Michael Myers,” the main film being spoofed here. Without making this a laundry list of references, “Part V” is not only pure entertaining fan service, but also a retro throwback to early 90s horror which was ultimately a cash grab that failed to recognize or continue the story of the iconic slashers from the late 70s.

So what about the first film? “The Third Saturday in October” serves as the true beginning of the franchise, but watching “Part V” first gives you a sense of who the killer is while the first tells you the what and why of the killer. I won’t go too much into the first film, but it’s still a comedy-horror. Instead of relying solely on laughs, the film takes a bit of a more serious edge just like most slasher films did in their first franchise creating film. Everyone who’s watched “Nightmare on Elm Street” knows that Freddy Krueger is all menace and no jokes in the first of the franchise. The chuckles and one-liners don’t make an appearance until the third film, “Dream Warriors.” This happened a lot in franchises and 80s horror.

With his tongue firmly planted in his cheek, director Jay Burleson makes the most spot-on representation of two different time periods in horror cinema. He manages to take the best parts of those screenshots into history while ridiculing the parts that have aged about as well as 3D technology in late 80s horror films. He makes his supposedly menacing killer, who giggles behind the mask while maiming and killing, even trashier and goofier than Pinhead in 1992’s “Hellraiser III: Hell on Earth.” Burleson has done his research stylistically and writing wise, making “Part V” walk and talk like every other early 90’s horror that failed to do its horror icon justice. But since we’ve never been acquainted with Jack, we don’t necessarily feel the same way when Pinhead and Freddy focused more on one-liners than kills. With Jack and the cast of dopey teen characters, we relish the intentionally awful concept.

“Part V” is an insane amount of fun if you’ve ever grown up watching slashers or were like some 90s kid and watched one of those God awful 90s slasher films looking to capitalize on the success of its predecessors. I believe that’s the intent of Burleson, who most likely grew up as I did or knew someone who did. Growing up in the 90s, I didn’t have a lot of access to late 70s/early 80s horror content, so a lot of times with horror franchises, I would work backwards. Burleson does this with his franchise as an homage and meta commentary on the whole notion that regardless of when you start a horror franchise, if you vibe with the killer, you will ultimately like it all. It also may be a commentary on horror purists, who believe the sequels are inferior to the original, whereas someone like me watched “New Nightmare” before the original “Nightmare.” So sue me, I like “New Nightmare” better. Would that theory hold true if you watch the first “Third Saturday in October” before “Part V?” That’s another potential piece to this metaphorical puzzle. If you went to the video store back in the day and wanted a horror movie night, you were at the mercy of what’s available. So, maybe all you had upon your return home was the first “Friday the 13th” and “Jason Goes to Hell.”

I’m sure there’s some people rolling their eyes at the prospect of an intentional double feature that has to be watched out of order. That’s a fair point and one that I can’t really fault people on, especially when horror movies often tease a gimmick only to fail at making the gimmick work. Burleson not only makes the gimmick work, but I think it’s safe to say that without the internet or smartphones, he could have easily fooled people into believing this was some kind of diamond plucked from a Blockbuster dumpster. Even then, Burleson understands everything about these eras of horror, from how they were lit, how they were portrayed and the overall tone they were going for. He’s like a horror historian that decided to show his knowledge with his funny bone.

I wouldn’t be taking these two films as seriously if it wasn’t for how spot-on this film is at the decades and genres it’s lampooning. What makes this low budget, poorly acted film such a delight, is that everyone and everything is committed. The little girl who plays the trope of being too smart for her age along with the stereotypical babysitter are delightful along with their gaggle of friends that represent every high school teen stereotype. It’s also fun watching the douchebag jocks in each film get their cruel karma after they dish out some insults to the geeky kids. Because of that, we’re glad to see them meet their end at Jack’s hands. I tried as best I could to stay away from some of my favorite gags in this film (there are a lot) because each passing minute is a chance for Burleson to pay homage to one film, while ridiculing another, and then doing the complete opposite in another scene later on. If Burleson plans on doing the next logical thing, an early 2000s reboot, I’m all-in. Then of course we’ll need the 2020s approach, just make a sequel to the first and ignore all the other sequels. I wanna see what Jack does next and you should definitely see what he does in “Part V” and his origin story.

Panic Fest Film Review: “Razzennest”

Starring: Sophie Kathleen Kozeluh, Michael Smulik and Annie Weiner
Directed by: Johannes Grenzfurthner
Rated: Unrated
Running Time: 81 minutes

Our Score: 4 out of 5 Stars

One of the most scathing, yet hilarious lines on “Mystery Science Theater 3000” for me is from the episode about “Mac and Me.” There’s a scene where we see several old time radios explode and one of the robots asks, “What is that?” Jonah responds, “It’s a radio,” to which the robot asks what a radio is. Then Jonah delivers the best summary of radio before the 21st century, “It’s like a podcast you can’t control.” So what does this have to do with “Razzennest?” Well, if you ever wanted to know what it was like to sit around in the 1940s and listen to a radio play, then this is the most entertaining way to find out.

To say this film is unique is a disservice to how original and off-the-beaten path this film truly is. “Razzennest” is basically the recording of an audio commentary track for a documentary called “Razzennfest.” Through dialogue, we’re introduced to the narcissistic film director, along with several members of his crew, as well as a less narcissistic film critic. We hear them meet and greet as the audio engineer in the studio gives them direction. The two then begin to rant, rave and bash one another over endless images and b-roll. As the inauspicious conversation continues, the images and b-roll continue to cycle as we wait to see why this is a horror. To my benefit, and yours, I’ll stop with the plot right there.

I avoided as much as possible about this film, which in a lot of ways isn’t a film. Most of the action is articulated through sound, so the video portion of this film is almost secondary. When it began, it felt like what some podcasts do on Youtube, which is loop imagery or videos over the entire audio track. While some of the b-roll and images do reflect and play off what’s happening during the recording, mostly in the third act, it’s sometimes difficult to fuse both together when the images of a quaint village are smothered by the audible yells and screams happening in the recording booth. However, the juxtaposition is intentionally jarring.

I’m not sure if I’d classify this film as a horror because I wasn’t necessarily scared nor do I think most people would be. The audible terror can only do so much when the visual terror is nearly unnoticeable. Also I watched this at home and was mindful of my apartment neighbors so the volume wasn’t that of a 150-seat theater. I do see this film more as an experimental dark comedy. The first 15 minutes are clearly for comedic effect as we listen to the critic and director attempt to make off-the-wall remarks about the documentary, films in general and life. The director is clearly a blow-hard who reads too much of his own positive reviews while the critic is a clout chaser, heaping praise on a director and a film she knows little to nothing about. Listening to these two is like listening to your two worst enemies discuss topics they’re either misinformed on or triumphantly overconfident about. So when the horror finally hits, it’s hard to feel any sympathy for these self-absorbed doofuses.

Because “Razzennest” relies so much on your interpretation of what’s being said and heard, it’s difficult to parse what exactly the meanings are as the story unfolds. That’s why I found myself chuckling and wondering if this is all just a big middle finger to an industry of snobby film artists and their fart sniffing critics chasing their own form of fame and fortune. The scathing commentary is less and less noticeable as the horror elements drip in, but even during the film’s final act, it seems like the horror is also used to further demonize the director and critic as part of a flawed entertainment industry. It’s also possibly stating that the critics and media surrounding the film industry is some kind of codependent toxic relationship. I would say the meta commentary is a bit too narrow in its attacks, but I also believe most people recognize the obnoxiousness of artists and critics quibbling over artistic merits while the world burns.

Not to sound like the film critic dork in “Razzennest,” but this is the kind of indie film that could easily be the definition of an indie film. It’s hard not to think and believe that Director Johannes Greznfurthner brilliantly orchestrated a lot of what’s happening on film, even if it feels pointless and almost unnecessary at times. As I stated before, the film footage seems inconsequential at the beginning, but more purposeful at the end. I believe Greznfurthner did one of two things, he either purposely did that or all the footage is intentional. Because the film is commenting on my freelance work, I’m in a bit of a pickle attempting to critique a film that’s simultaneously critiquing people in my field. I do know that Greznfurthner also directed “Masking Threshold,” one of my favorite horror films of last year; another film with commentary on life and the effect media has on it. I’m sure by the time I finally figure out just what in the hell was going on in “Razzennest,” he’ll be ready to show me his next mind fuck of a film. And I’m ready for it.

 

Film Review: “Evil Dead Rise”

Starring: Alyssa Sutherland, Lily Sullivan and Morgan Davies
Directed by: Lee Cronin
Rated: R
Running Time:  97 minutes
Warner Bros.

Our Score: 3.5 out of 5 stars

Sometimes it’s hard to keep track of what exactly is going on in a horror franchise. The “Halloween” franchise has about five different timelines now, the “Hellraiser” franchise seemingly builds on it’s own mythos while constantly changing it’s own established rules, and the “Friday the 13th” franchise is such a mess, I could probably spend an entire article attempting to piece it together with summer camp craft glue. Meanwhile, the “Evil Dead” franchise always asks, “Will Ash/Bruce Campbell be in it?” For “Evil Dead Rise,” no, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a fitting addition to one of the meanest horror franchises known to man.

When I say mean, I generally mean sadistic. In the first and second “Evil Dead” films, Ash has to kill the possessed corpses of his friends, girlfriend, sister and others within one horrible night. Pronunciation is the meanest thing about “Army of Darkness.” In 2013’s “Evil Dead,” which is a remake/sequel, the demonic entities suck on one character’s crippling drug addiction. In “Evil Dead Rise,” the deadites feast on a family. Beth (Lily Sullivan) decides it’s time to visit her older sister Ellie (Alyssa Sutherland), mainly because she’s pregnant and struggling at adulthood. Not to be done, Ellie is also struggling at adulthood as she raises three children, including two teenagers, in her dilapidated apartment building that’s going to be shuttered in a month. On top of that, Ellie’s partner, the kid’s father, recently left. However, an earthquake is about to make these problems seem like a quaint afterthought.

The apartment sits on top of an old, sealed bank and the earthquake opens a hole into one part of the old bank. I’m unsure what part of the bank because I’ve never been to a bank where hundreds of crosses hang adorned from the ceiling and menacing voices whisper in the dark. Ellie’s son, Danny (Morgan Davies), finds a few records and a mysterious book with actual razor sharp teeth. Yes, you read that right. Teeth. Fans of “Evil Dead” know what happens next, but newcomers will get to experience a fresh kind of hell that only “Evil Dead” can portray to perfect gory effect.

“Evil Dead Rise” doesn’t skimp on the blood, gore and cruelty. At moments when you think the movie couldn’t possibly go there, it does. The demonic force goes after Ellie and then sets its sights quickly on her kids and Beth. What makes “Evil Dead Rise” unique is that this is the first instance of kids being used as potential deadite fodder. Sure the past movies have been “teens” at a cabin in the woods, but you and I know that everyone involved in those films wasn’t a “teen” or looked remotely close to that age. Just like the previous film, “Rise” tries to replace Bruce Campbell, a mistake that these new “Evil Dead” movies should stop right now. Unless you’re building towards an epic crossover, let the hero character naturally occur instead of forcing them down the same path as Ashley J. Williams. That path is for one, and one only. I digress though because “Rise” does a lot of things right, like bringing the “Evil Dead” into the modern world, taking the horror out of the cabin and injecting it into the city, all the while never relinquishing the brutality Raimi patented in 1981.

“Rise” does justice to a franchise built on carnage as it assaults all the senses at once like a chainsaw with a megaphone. Raimi’s dark comedy, which became a staple of the franchise in “Evil Dead II,” isn’t quite there. Making up for a lack of chuckles is Sutherland who is effectively brilliant, horrifying and admirable as the central deadite of the film. We see her as the loving mother who instantly panics about where her kids are when the earthquake hits at the beginning before evil turns her into a malicious mother that would give Casey Anthony a run for her money. Sutherland is believable when she’s thirsty for her children’s blood, making moments with her character ultimately chilling, moreso when she smiles. Even with an unnecessary bookend and a lack of Bruce (an immediate half-star dedication), “Evil Dead Rise” is a bloody good time, emphasis on bloody.

 

Panic Fest Film Review: “Sisu”

Starring: Jorma Tommila, Askel Hennie and Jack Doolan
Directed by: Jalmari Helander
Rated: R
Running Time: 91 minutes
Lionsgate

Our Score: 3 out of 5 Stars

When we meet the rugged dirt-covered Aatami (Jorma Tommila), we don’t know anything about him, not even his name. In the opening, wordless minutes of “Sisu,” we learn that Aatami is a prospector in northern Finland, digging around a stream with his trusty dog and horse, as the waning days of WWII are heard and seen in the distance. Aatami strikes gold, digs it out and triumphantly cheers towards the Heavens. He goes about his merry way through the bitter remnants of the Finnish countryside. It’s only until Aatami crosses paths with Nazis that we learn who he is and why you should never cross him.

Giving more information about the plot of “Sisu” would ruin a film that’s equal parts grindhouse, “Mad Max” and “Rambo.” Aatami shows multiple times throughout why he’s a one-man killing machine that should be feared instead of hunted. It’s slightly comical that everyone knows who he is, even the Finnish prisoners that are being taken who-knows-where by the dimwitted Nazis know that it’s only a matter of time before their freed. At least the persistence to kill Aatami and take his gold are explained reasonably, before we see some unrealistic and graphic kill scenes.

Unfortunately for the film, the desolate landscape doesn’t offer enough exciting action pieces for Aatami and the Nazis to play hide and seek in. It does force the director to utilize several unique escape plans for Aatami while simultaneously finding more and more bizarre yet infinitely creative ways to slice, dice and blow up Hitler’s stooges. The leader of the Nazi platoon, an SS officer played by Askel Hennie, plays a great opposite to Aatmi, sometimes having to pick up the slack when the film needs an exposition dump.

For me, the benefit of watching “Sisu” was the crowd. Anytime a Nazi blew up, got knifed, got shot, got run over, got…well…viciously killed, the crowd erupted in laughter and applause. I’m not too sure how this movie would fare at home by myself. That’s not to say that Tommila and Hennie aren’t a great WWII version of “Tom and Jerry” or that the ultimate goal of this film is to be entertained at the expense of history’s greatest foe being massacred. If you’re going to see “Sisu,” see it with a big crowd because everyone loves watching Nazis get their comeuppance. Will we ever tire of seeing Nazis killed? Probably, but not in my lifetime. I’m grateful for that and grateful for films like “Sisu,” even if it doesn’t go as balls to the wall as it could have.

Panic Fest 2023 Review

Even before the start of this year’s Panic Fest, “Mayhem” director Joe Lynch was salivating all over social media about Panic Fest, dubbing it one of his favorite film festivals. So we’re now at the point where you don’t have to take my word for it. You would probably get the same reaction from several other actors and directors who’ve attended over the years, but let me reiterate that if you’re in the vicinity of the Screenland Armour in North Kansas City, you should check out Panic Fest. The horror festival gem of the Midwest has slowly been building an audience, of normies like me, horror aficionados, celebrities and everyone in between, and if 2023 was any indication, it’ll continue to grow without losing its indie luster.

Panic Fest kicked off Thursday, April 13, with THE Nicolas Cage as Dracula in “Renfield,” which may have been one of the rowdiest and off-the-wall screenings in America. Slipping into Friday was what people have come to expect, low budget films with a lot to say, like “Give Me an A.” I’m sure the opening five minutes would surely infuriate any self-described “pro-lifer.” This was followed by a screening of Ted Geoghegan’s new film, “Brooklyn 45,” with Ted in attendance. Friday night ended with jam packed screenings of “Sisu” and “Evil Dead Rise,” both crowd pleasers. I can now also brag that I watched the new “Evil Dead” with Barbara Crampton in attendance. Sure we weren’t sitting anywhere near each other, or even in the same row, but I won’t pass up a mild brag.

Saturday may have been the big enchilada as filmmakers and their cast/crew were in attendance for several screenings throughout the day, including “Abuprtio” and “Blue Hour.” Things really kicked off when “Black Mold” had its world premiere with about two dozen members of the cast and crew in attendance. Not to be out done, Joe Lynch led a double feature of films starring Barbara Crampton, “From Beyond” and “We Are Still Here.” Saturday also saw the world premiere of “Bury the Bride,” a film that may just put Spider One on the map once it hits Tubi next month. If you can predict the twist in the film with absolute certainty, props to you.

While the pandemic is fading into the rearview mirror, the effects lingered throughout some of the films. “Trader,” one of my favorites of the fest, was a wild single setting ride, and it wasn’t alone. A lot of films utilized minimal crews, minimal spaces and worked with minimal time. “Invoking Yell,” which I wasn’t too fond of, was impressively shot in 72 hours while “Bury the Bride” managed to fit its insanity in a week of shooting. Even with packed screenings, packed lobbies, and long lines, Panic Fest has yet to lose its repertory cinema charm, highlighting some of the best indie horrors on the festival circuit and not shying away from some bizarre offerings like “Razzennest” and “Trim Season.”

The mix of mainstream and low budget horror has been a staple of Panic Fest, but this year seemed to be another peak scaled by the founders of the genre festival. Co-founders Adam Roberts and Tim Canton talked before nearly every film, talking about where they saw it or how they heard about it, at times, hyping up the crowd while equally showcasing their love of the genre and how much effort goes on throughout the year to get content to Panic Fest. While the festival still boasts an impressive line-up in-person, it also offers an impressive line-up of virtual films, which I am still binging through. While I may still be tired and struggling to focus at work, I can at least say the exhaustion and sleep deprivation was well worth it because Panic Fest remains the best horror fest in the Midwest.

Film Review: “To the Moon”

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

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

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

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

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

Film Review: “When I Consume You”

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

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

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

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

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