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.

Panic Fest Marks 10th Anniversary and Return to Normalcy


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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Panic Fest Film Review: “Watcher”

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

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

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

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

Panic Fest Film Review: “The Chamber of Terror”

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

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

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

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

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

Panic Fest Film Review: “CRABS!”

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Panic Fest Film Review: “The Outwaters”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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