Tuesday, May 24, 2016

The Poughkeepsie Tapes

Authorities find over 800 VHS tapes made by an elusive killer in and around Poughkeepsie, New York.  We the viewer – most of whom are absolutely not police or FBI agents – get to watch some of these and see what terrible things this killer did.  Awful things.  Twisted things.  Why did they let us watch these? 

My thoughts:
This wasn’t as much out-and-out scary as it was supremely unnerving.  I had to keep telling myself, “This isn’t real, this isn’t real.”  I believed myself for the most part, but a little part of me knew that I’m not a smart person and was probably lying.

This movie is 86 minutes long.  There is a whole lot of life-scarring material in this movie for it being so short.  There are things in this movie I will carry with me for years.  Maybe the rest of my life.  I may pass those things down to my children.  They don’t deserve this, man.

There is a lot of stuff going on here, but a decent portion of the movie deals with the kidnapping/torture of Cheryl Dempsey.  She was a teenager when she was abducted.  She was abused physically and mentally to a terrible extent.  We see the torture.  We see her mind cracking under the strain of it all.  It’s heartbreaking.
In a particularly chilling scene, the killer videotapes himself as he approaches Cheryl’s mom, offering to help find her child.  Eventually it dawns on her mother that she is talking to the man who took her daughter.  As she is paralyzed with fear, the killer laughs and walks off.  That scene broke me down.  Of all the things I saw him do over the course of this movie, that felt like one of the worst.  It felt like someone punching me in the gut.  The torture I can take.  But that?  That’s a bridge too far, fella.

But that wasn’t the worst.  Not really.  He did some, let’s call it “creative surgery,” that was horrifying.  Just horrifying.

Both his psychological and physical torture are next level sadistic.  If this man existed in real life and was anywhere close to my town, I would have picked up and moved a long time ago.  Maybe burned my house on my way out of town for good measure.

I feel like I’m really talking this movie up.  I liked it, but it wasn’t perfect.  There are some slow moments.  There are some scares that don’t really land.  But those are small moments and relatively easy to overlook.  Again, it’s a short movie, and those moments are in the minority.  For the most part, this is an extremely well-done movie.  It used the found footage genre to perfection.

If you’re looking for an unsettling serial killer movie, this is it.  It has had a troubled release history, so it’s not the easiest movie to track down, but you can find it if you search hard enough.  That aspect makes this a little creepier: it’s a movie about hours and hours of torture and murder, and it’s not easy to track down.  That aspect makes it feel a little more real.

Turn off the lights, check to make sure all your doors and windows are locked and throw this on.  You may find yourself staring at the screen as the credits roll, wondering what you have gotten yourself into.  Then checking all the closets in your house.  Just in cases, you know?

Rating: 5/5

Notable actors: Bobbi Sue Luther, a real serial killer (probably)

Wednesday, May 11, 2016


A deaf, mute female author lives alone in a fairly secluded house in the woods.  A man in a creepy mask shows up, kills her neighbor and terrorizes her.

My thoughts:
This seems like a pretty standard home invasion movie, but I gave it a shot because it was directed by Mike Flanagan.  I wasn’t overly fond of Absentia, but I loved Oculus so I was looking forward to what Flangan would bring to the table within the home invasion subgenre.  He did not disappoint.

Having a deaf, mute protagonist certainly allowed for a fresh take.  Some of the standard slasher moves went out the window here.  There is a scene where the killer takes his knife and scrapes it against the window.  That nails-on-chalkboard effect didn’t faze Maggie.  I like to think that the killer had a lot of other tricks up his sleeve that he wasn’t able to use here.  “I’ll start clanging some cans together outside…okay, okay.  Can’t use that.  What about knocking really loudly on the door…nope.  Nope nope nope.”

Maggie’s lack of hearing did put the killer at a bit of a disadvantage, although it’s really his own fault.  He saw a deaf woman living alone and assumed she would be an easy kill.  He toyed with her a little more than he should have.  In fact, at one point the killer is in the house with Maggie before she even knows he’s out there, and he doesn’t kill her.  He takes his opportunity to get into her head.  When he could have been using that opportunity to get into her head…WITH A KNIFE.  (I’m so sorry.)

Granted, we don’t really see his method outside of his approach with Maggie, so maybe this is just how he operates with people trapped in their houses, but I got the impression that he was so confident of being able to kill her easily that he wasn’t as careful as he usually would be.  “I can come in at any time,” he tells her early on.  But he doesn’t.  He taunts her.  He walks around the house, stalking her in plain sight.  He gives Maggie enough time to get over her initial shock and devise a plan.  Initially to stay secure and survive, then to escape, and ultimately to fight back.

This is a small movie.  If you count the brief FaceTime call with Maggie’s sister, there are only 5 people in the movie, but the majority of the movie involves Maggie and the killer.  At 81 minutes, it’s a short movie, but it’s such a small movie that it could easily have become boring in lesser hands.  On its face, this movie is simply, “Man walks around house while woman hides inside,” for roughly an hour.  But it never really dragged.  There were a number of tense moments, but it wasn’t always tense.  Even in those down moments, it was never boring.

By the way, the character of the killer is simply “Man” in the credits.  I love this.  It’s impossible to see things like that and not think of “?” (Frankenstein) or “The Shape” (Halloween).  There’s something about an unnamed character in a horror movie that makes me happy.
We also have no idea where the killer came from.  We don’t know how long he has been killing.  We don’t know why he chose to use a crossbow.  We don’t know anything about him, and I really don’t care.  I don’t need to know what led him to this point: all I need to know is that he wants to kill.

I had a few issues, but they’re nit-picky ones.  The killer wears a creepy mask in the beginning, but he gets rid of it 15 minutes in.  There’s a good reason for this, and the actor did a good job, but I wish we would have seen that mask for a little while longer.
During a call with her sister, Maggie says (well, signs) that she has “writer’s brain.”  Basically, when she writes, she looks at every situation and sees how it could possibly end.  Kind of like Choose Your Own Adventure.  Because of this, she has a hard time finishing her books, because she can’t stop writing alternate endings.  They play with this a bit towards the end of the movie, and it’s one of my favorite scenes.  I wish they would have done this a little more throughout the movie.  Perhaps more liberal use would lead to it not being as effective, but I would have liked to have seen this used a little more than it was.

In the end, those were minor issues that didn’t detract from the rest of the movie.  I really enjoyed it and I definitely see myself revisiting this one quite often. 

Rating: 4.5/5

Notable actors: Michael Trucco

Tuesday, May 3, 2016


Genetically modified super-wasps descend on a gathering of rich people.  If you get stung (STUNG, you guys.  I just got it) by one of these wasps, you will become a person-sized wasp.  So kind of like zombies, except with wings and a stinger.  But hey!  Maybe you can produce some delicious honey.  (Wasps cannot produce honey.)

I don't have a whole lot to say about this one.  It was a b-movie creature feature.  It was a decent amount of fun.  There were a couple twists and turns that were pretty easy to spot, but this movie wasn't about that.  This was a fun, dumb movie about wasp people attacking rich people and growing their wasp army.

I didn't buy the relationship between the two leads, but that's easy enough to overlook.
  I'm not watching a movie about genetically modified wasps to see a realistic portrayal of relationship dynamics in the workplace or in times of extreme duress.

I do have to bring up an issue with it, though.
  The relationship in question occurs between the two leads: Paul and Julia.  They are catering the fancy event and are caught up in the mayhem.  Paul is an irresponsible pot head who hits on the female guests.  Julia is a professional who is responsible and takes her job seriously.  She is essentially running the catering company by herself.So why, when the party starts going south, does Paul become the hero and Julia the damsel who desperately needs saving?  Why wouldn't that be the other way around?  I'll tell you this: if I were in this situation, I'd throw Paul to the wasps and count on Julia to be the level-headed thinker.  I would apologize to Paul, but he's already a wasp person out for revenge.
"Oh no. However will I defend myself without a pot head man-child?"
If you're looking for a dumb creature-feature movie with decent effects, you could do a lot worse than this one.  There are some legitimately fun moments.  This seems like a great movie to throw on with a group of friends and alcohol.However, if you're looking for anything more than that, just cross to the other side of the street and keep on walking.

Rating: 3/5

Notable actors: Lance Henricksen, Clifton Collins Jr.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016


At its core, this is a slasher movie about a girl who stays on campus over Thanksgiving break and finds herself stalked by 4 murdering psychopaths.  The psychopaths kill a couple security guards, and the only thing standing between our heroine and certain death are her own wits.

It's pretty standard slasher fare.  As far as standard slashers go, this was a pretty good one.  Yes, there were some pretty huge leaps in logic, but that's to be expected.  (People jump off tall buildings and are able to get up and run away all the time, right?)  There's also a fair about of slasher logic on display here, but it's a slasher.  I'm fine with it.

I believe that a slasher movie can really only be as good as its final girl, and we got a good one here.  Although the movie is called Kristy, our final girl is Justine (I'll get to that in a bit), and she's terrific, provided you don't really ask any questions about how she got the skills she shows off.  She's a likable character, but that kind of information takes a backseat to the real question: is she a fighter?  The answer is a resounding "yes."  She uses her knowledge of the campus to her advantage.  She turns the tables on her attackers.  When she's cornered, she doesn't panic.  Okay...she panics, but then she looks for a way out.

I liked all of that.  But there's another storyline running throughout the movie.  This group of murderers are part of a larger group.  This group has cells all over the country, and they all have one goal: "Kill Kristy."  They use Kristy as a code.  It basically stands for any rich white girl who appears to have a good life.  These groups stalk these "Kristys", kill them and carve a "K" into their faces.  They videotape the entire process and upload it to a central server.  All the videos of dead Kristys, all in one place.  They watch these videos on multiple TVs at the same time, like a moving murder quilt.

We see a lot of this before we even meet Justine.  The movie opens with the murder of a pretty girl in a field, then a whole lot of distorted dialogue across the network.  "Kill Kristy."  "Kristy is God.  Kill God."  Things like that.  

I didn't like any of that.  The idea that there was a larger group than these 4 killers wasn't bad, but the execution was terrible.  It was supposed to feel like this menacing presence, but it just annoyed me.  If they would have cut that stuff out of the beginning and had it as a big reveal at the end, I probably would have liked it better.  As it was, it was handled poorly in the beginning and I had a bad taste in my mouth for the first 20 minutes.

Also, all the killers wear masks made out of foil and do the whole, "tilt my head," move.  You know the one.

There it is
That's fine when it's Michael Myers or Jason Voorhees; after all, they're unstoppable killers who aren't even really human.  They tilt their heads because they truly don't understand what is going on, like a confused dog.  A regular person doing it doesn't really strike me as menacing, even with a mask.  It just comes off as forced.
Unless they're trying to emulate Myers and Voorhees.  In which case, you just look like you're trying too hard.  Get a new intimidation tactic, because this one isn't working.

As it stands, this is a perfectly decent slasher movie that reaches for heights it can't quite achieve.

Rating: 3/5

Notable actors: Haley Bennett (Hardcore Henry), Ashley Green (Twilight, The Apparition), Chris Coy (Banshee)

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse

Have you ever found yourself watching Superbad and thinking, "I wish there was a less well-written version of this with zombies and more annoying characters,"?  Then this movie is for you!

That sounds harsher than I mean it to.  I apologize to the scouts and their stripper friend.  Let's break it down.

Ben, Carter and Augie are sophomores in high school.  They are Boy Scouts.  Augie loves being a scout.  Ben and Carter are planning on quitting - because being a Boy Scout is super lame, you guys - but don't want to hurt Augie's feelings.  
The three of them are going on an overnight scout trip with Scout Leader Rodgers (a Dolly Parton-loving David Koechner) when Ben and Carter are invited to a super-secret high school party by Kendall's (Carter's hot sister, who Ben has a very obvious crush on) boyfriend.  But it's the same night as the camp-out!  What are these scouts going to do?

They're going to ditch Augie after he goes to sleep and go to the party, because that sounds like a plan that will go very well.  Somewhere along the line, they meet up with Denise, a former high school dropout who now works at a local strip club.

Pretty standard high school sex comedy stuff, really.  Until the zombies show up.
We see the outbreak at the beginning of the movie.  They are being studied at some local sciency place, which allows burnout janitors to just dance right into the zombie zone.  It seemed like they probably could have secured the area a little better, but that's just me being cautious, I guess.

At this point, Ben, Carter, Augie (who joins up with them after having some adventures by himself) and Denise are still trying to get to the party.  Not because they want to hook up with seniors (they do, though), but because they want to save everyone there from the zombies.  Also, the military is planning on wiping out the entire city to stop the zombie spread (as seen in Resident Evil: Apocalypse, The Crazies, Return of the Living Dead and many, many more). 

I just used a whole lot of words on a pretty simplistic plot.  I apologize.  I could have just said, "high school boys attempt to procure alcohol and bang girls way out of their league, also zombies."  Or, to kind of repeat myself from earlier, "Superbad: Rave To The Grave," complete with one of the characters (Carter) trying to be a skinny Jonah Hill in the worst way.  Anyway, let's get to some thoughts.

It was fine.  Carter's whole "Jonah Hill in Superbad," act got old really quick, and I didn't really care for bland Ben, but I really liked Augie and Denise.  I liked Augie because he wasn't ashamed of who he was (he also created the best weapon when it came to killin' time) and Denise because, underneath her gruff demeanor, was actually quite sweet.  Her and Ben formed a weird little friendship that I genuinely enjoyed watching.  She treated Carter like garbage, because he was a jackass and needed to be put in his place.  I liked that, because Carter deserves everything bad in this world.

Ultimately, we're talking about zombie comedy, so let's talk about the zombies.

It was unclear how they were going to play it.  The first zombies we see are typical Romero zombies.  We also see a zombie deer, so we know it can cross species.  

Also, cats.
Then we get to a scene early in the outbreak where our heroes are making a stand in a liquor store parking lot.  A horde of zombies are lurching towards them.  Suddenly, one of the zombies goes down on all fours and starts running at them like a flesh-eating ape.  Okay then.  We're dealing with Day of the Dead (remake) zombies.
We also find out that the zombies retain something of their pre-zombie memories, much like latter day Romero zombies (as first seen in the original Day of the Dead).  How do we find this out?  Why, the scouts sing "...Baby One More Time" to a zombie wearing a Britney Spears t-shirt, and the zombie attempts to sing along.  It's a highly scientific method.

"My loneliness is killing meeeeee..."
There is some decent gore, especially when the scouts "weapon up" and hit the party.  They created a bunch of zombie-killing weapons from random hardware store items, because apparently they had all earned their Weapon Making merit badges.  Lots of death, destruction, mayhem, etc.
If you like the image of someone using a zombie penis as a handle, only to tear that handle off and send it flying through the air, there is also a scene like that.  There is also a scene where someone takes a selfie with a pair of zombie boobs.  I did not care for those scenes.

I can't say I enjoyed this movie all the way through, but there were enough funny/bloody moments to keep me entertained.  There's something I had to keep in mind as I was watching this: I am 35 years old.  This movie was not really made with the "approaching middle-age man" in mind.  If I was in high school or college, I'm sure I would find this movie hilarious.  It's a bit of dumb fun with crude jokes, lots of gore and a little nudity.  It's fast-moving enough to make it easy to overlook its flaws.
Although, honestly, if you switch out Carter for a character who is less obnoxious, I'm sure I would have enjoyed this more than I did.  As it stands, this was a fun movie that I will probably never watch again.  If I do, it'll probably be on mute, in the background of a party.  

Who am I kidding?  I don't have parties.  I apologize for lying to you all.

Rating: 3/5

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

The Witch

For the third straight year a horror movie has made the festival rounds and has received rave reviews from self-proclaimed non-horror fans.  In 2014 it was The Babadook.  In 2015 it was It Follows.  In 2016 we have The Witch.  I consider myself lucky in that I was able to avoid trailers for any of these films (which I was shockingly able to accomplish without even trying too hard).  However, it was impossible to ignore the hype they all got.  Even with that hype, The Babadook and It Follows exceeded my expectations.  I went into The Witch hoping for the same experience.  Going in, the only thing I knew about it was that it was “terrifying.”

I feel like I should have a lot of smart things to say about this film.    It is set in 17th century New England and it uses a lot of authentic language and accents.  Some of the dialogue is actually taken directly from journals written during that time period.  It is a dark film, both figuratively and literally: many shots are only provided the light of a candle.  It sets a mood that is authentic to the time period, but it also allows for lots of dark corners for things to hide.  This is not the kind of film that has things jumping out from dark corners, but that doesn't mean something isn't there, silently peering from the darkness.

Perhaps that’s part of why I feel like I should have smart things to say.  Robert Eggers – the director – put a lot of research and care into this film.  Every shot is a work of art.  I was drawn in from the opening scene.  Watching this in the theater was a truly immersive experience, and the rest of my theater seemed to feel the same way, as I barely heard any noise throughout the entire film.  Or maybe they were asleep.  It was impossible to tell.

Now let’s get back to the one word review I kept hearing uttered in hushed tones: “terrifying.”  It was always spoken as if the person saying it had been hiding beneath a blanket for months, but felt the need to emerge to utter this declaration of warning.
Maybe it’s because I have seen a lot of horror movies, but I did not find this to be terrifying.  I did, however, find it to be deeply unsettling.  Long after the final image left the screen, I sat in my chair staring at the screen.  I walked to my car in a daze.  I wasn’t looking over my shoulder waiting for something to pop out at me, but I was looking out into the misty afternoon, wondering if something lurked in the fields beyond.  I didn’t lose any sleep over this movie, but I did find myself thinking about it constantly over the next week.  There was not a particular scene I found myself mulling over: it was the tone of the entire movie.  The feeling of dread I felt and carried with me out of that theater.  That’s what I kept coming back to.  It wasn’t the movie that stuck with me: it was that feeling.

I remember a similar feeling after watching the original Night of the Living Dead for the first time.  The movies don't share many similarities, but that feeling as I walked out of the theater was the same: like something dark was hanging over my head that was impossible to shake.

We see the titular witch early in the film, which is a fascinating decision.  As we watched a family grow more and more suspicious of each other, Eggers easily could have played on that and make the audience question whether there actually was a witch, or whether it was just religious hysteria gripping the family.  Instead, we knew from early on that there was an actual witch lurking in the woods.  The question as to whether someone in the family is actually in league with the witch (or Satan) is one that the audience is forced to ask over and over again, but we have definitive proof that there is, in fact, a witch.
Knowing that there is a dark presence in the forest does not forgive the religious fanaticism that threatens to tear the family apart, but it does cast it in another light.  The devil is real and we know that to be true.  What happens to the family is driven by this presence, but it does not force them to blame each other for everything that goes wrong.  The Puritanical oversimplification of religion - "all good comes from God, all bad comes from Satan" - is on full display here.  While I wish I could say that is simply the product of a bygone era, I know all too well that this kind of thinking still exists.  It's not that simple.  It has never been that simple. 

I don’t want to say too much more, as I don’t want to spoil the movie. 

The cast was perfect (Black Phillip included).  The movie was a bit slow at points, but I was so riveted by what I was seeing that I never felt bored or that the movie was dragging.
The soundtrack really helped propel this movie to another level.  Creepy atmospherics combined with a slowly bubbling cacophony that ended in massive eruptions.  It really upped the "creep factor."  There is nothing inherently creepy about looking at a bunch of trees, but this movie managed to do that multiple times, and the soundtrack was a huge part of that.

Thomasin waits for a bass drop that will never come
This was not a terrifying movie.  If you’re looking for jump scares, you will not find them here.  But if you want a slow burning, unnerving horror thriller with disturbing imagery, you owe it to yourself to watch this movie.  On a grey day, turn off the lights and spend some time with this movie.  Focus on it.  Let it transport you back to that specific time and place in history and feel what it was like.

Unlike The Babadook and It Follows, the hype hurts this movie.  It didn’t reach out and grab me.  But, after thinking about it for a couple weeks, I think I really love this movie.  The authentic language can be tough to understand sometimes, but that’s a small complaint.  In the end, it really helped pull me into that period.

Rating: 5/5

Sunday, February 14, 2016

The Final Girls

I’m a sucker for a typical horror movie told from a different perspective.  Scream, Cabin in the Woods and Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon are a few of the more popular movies in this genre, but The Final Girls tends to lean more towards Midnight Movie or Camp Daze (aka Camp Slaughter) than those other options.

Let’s set this up: Max’s mother (Amanda) had a small role in an 80s slasher movie called Camp Bloodbath (it was basically Friday the 13th, much like Midnight Movie’s movie-within-a-movie was basically Texas Chain Saw Massacre).  Twenty-to-thirty years later, she was still trying to make it as an actress, but was hamstrung by her appearance in this campy horror film.  On her way back from yet another audition she likely wouldn't get the part for, she and Max get in a car accident and Amanda dies.
Three years later, Max is still dealing with her mother’s death.  The school she is attending is showing Camp Bloodbath on the big screen and Max is pressured into making an appearance.  During the movie, a fire breaks out in the theater, and Max – along with a handful of her friends – find the only escape is by cutting through the screen and going through a door in the back.  By doing this, they somehow find themselves having been pulled into the movie.  When Max comes across her mother, she is not actually Amanda; she is Nancy, her character in Camp Bloodbath.  Duncan – the movie geek – proclaims that they shouldn’t mess with the events of the movie, but to let everything play out exactly like it’s supposed to.  “Don’t think of them as people,” he says.  “Think of them as animals in a nature preserve.”  Of course, they find that is not necessarily the case.  (Duncan naturally knows all the lines in the movie, so he gleefully quotes lines these characters are saying in front of him and gets giddy at the prospect of their impending death.)

Since our characters are inside the movie, there is a lot of playing around with movie conventions (my personal favorite is the flashback scene).  There are a lot of laughs, as people from the modern age are forced to interact with horror movie stereotypes from the 80s (the conversations between Chris and Kurt absolutely killed me). 

But what really drew me in was the surprisingly strong emotional core.  Throughout the film, we see how the death of Amanda has absolutely devastated Max.  Now, Max has another chance to spend time with her mother (even though Nancy is not technically her mother; rather she is the character that her mother played in Camp Bloodbath).  From the scenes we saw of Max and Amanda, it seems like Max was the responsible one in that relationship.  That carries over here, but we also get a chance to see Nancy play a bit of a motherly role for Max.  It's remarkably sweet and heartbreaking.  Taissa Farmiga and Malin Akerman played their roles perfectly.  It never felt forced or manipulative.  It felt real.

The writing was great and the entire cast was tremendous.  With the exception of a couple of the characters in Camp Bloodbath, all of the characters here felt real (and those characters only lacked depth because they were playing one-note stereotypes in an 80s slasher film).  There was a depth behind them that I wasn't expecting.  That helped some of the jokes to land, but it also helped me to feel more connected to them.  When they die - and most of the do die - I was sad.  We pulled back the curtain of slasher films and found that maybe we shouldn't root so hard for some of the unlikable characters to die; maybe they aren't as terrible as they appear to be at first blush.

I had a few issues with this, but all of those issues are minimal compared to what I loved about it.  This movie was smart, hysterical and more emotional than I would have thought.

Rating: 5/5

Notable actors: Malin Akerman, Taissa Farmiga, Nina Dobrev, Thomas Middleditch, Alia Shawkat, Adam DeVine