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What the &#$% is ZOMBIES & SHARKS?

Greetings, all. Ambush Bug here with another AICN HORROR: ZOMBIES & SHARKS column. A belated seasons greetings from AICN HORROR. This week, instead of a bag full of coal, Santa’s delivered some fun indie treasures. My apologies for being a bit late with this one, but here goes. Check out this week’s heaping serving of fringe, demented, or just downright weird flicks!

On with the horror reviews!

(Click title to go directly to the feature)

FANTASM (2013)
HI-8 (2014)
THE GUEST (2014)
Advance Review: STOMPING GROUND (2014)
Advance Review: THE DIVINE TRAGEDIES (2015)
And finally…Merry Christmas from Astron-6!

Retro-review: New on BluRay as part of THE VINCENT PRICE COLLECTION II from Shout Factory

THE RAVEN (1963)

Directed by Roger Corman
Written by Richard Matheson, from an Edgar Allan Poe (poem)
Starring Vincent Price, Peter Lorre, Boris Karloff, Hazel Court, Olive Sturgess, Jack Nicholson
Retro-reviewed by Ambush Bug

While I found COMEDY OPF TERRORS to be rather goofy and a bit off the mark in terms of being actually, you know, funny, THE RAVEN hit all the right chords in terms of humor for me. The film is pitch black in tone with all sorts of diabolical deeds done from one cast member to another, yet it does so in a manner that I couldn’t help but grow endeared to by the end of the film. And what an ending does this one have.

The story, which really has nothing to do with Edgar Allan Poe’s poem other than the fact that it has a raven in it, rotates around three magicians; the humble and pleasant Dr. Erasmus Craven (Vincent Price), the brazen and crude Dr. Adolphus Bedlo (Peter Lorre), and the pompous and conniving Dr. Scarabus (Boris Karloff). Craven recently lost his wife Lenore (played by Hazel Court and another nod to the Poe poem) and though his daughter Estelle (Olive Sturgess) tries to cheer him up, nothing seems to raise his spirits. That is, until a raven flies into his parlor and tries to tell him something. When Craven figures out the raven is actually another magician under a spell, he zaps the bird with some wizardry and up pops Bedlo (Lorre) with a tale of a mad magician (Karloff) who has a prisoner who looks a lot like Craven’s dead wife. Craven and Bedlo, with Craven’s daughter and Bedlo’s son Rexford (played by a super young Jack Nicholson in one of his first ever roles) in tow, head to Scarabus’ castle to get to the bottom of all of this. Upon arrival, Scarabus greets them with open arms, but soon Scarabus’ hand is revealed which leads to a wizards standoff to beat all wizards standoffs between Scarabus and Craven.

I revealed so much of the plot there because I needed to get to the final act to really get to the good stuff of THE RAVEN. Up until the third and final act, things are pretty broad and slapsticky. Price and Lorre are fun riffing off of one another and seeing Nicholson as a newb is neat, but the real meat of this movie happens when Karloff and Price square off as Scarabus and Craven.

Sure, Peter Jackson did a decent job with Sir Ian McKellan serving Christopher Lee in a wizard dance off, but even though it doesn’t have a billion dollars in CGI spells and sets, I kind of prefer the battle between Price and Karloff in THE RAVEN. The two actors don’t twirl their wizard’s staff’s about their heads like ninjas. Karloff and Price are too damn cool for that. They simply flick their wrists from two thrones facing one another and fire all sorts of spells at one another. From snakes to fireballs to knives to hatchets, the two wizards go at it in an animated, yet astounding battle of spells. What makes it all fun are the comical facial expressions of Price’s Craven set against the stone faced seriousness of Karloff’s Scarabus.

Corman captures both the wit and ferociousness of this battle, culminating in an all out lightshow of spells, enchantments, and illusions. The sheer spectacle of this battle makes for one of the most vivid and entertaining wizard battles ever put to film.

Richard Matheson wrote the hell out of this film and while it may not exactly be a translation of Poe’s poem, it is an entertaining film featuring Price, Karloff, and Lorre at their best. My only critique is that the film kind of feels like the film pitters out in the end with a clichéd burning castle ending (an ending which seems to be the go-to ending in countless Corman horror films, specifically with Price as the star). Ending it with the wizard battle would have been more satisfying, but I understand how there might be a need to wrap up the loose ends. If you’re looking for not only a rock solid performance from Price, but also an example of how he is generous enough to let creepy co-stars like Lorre and Karloff shine as well, THE RAVEN is the one to see. As usual in this VINCENT PRICE COLLECTION series, the film has an introduction by Price himself from a PBS series which featured a collection of his work. Seeing Price intro the film puts everything in context and shows how fantastic the actor was in and out of his roles.



New this week on DVD from Silver Spotlight Films!


Directed by Steve Rudzinski
Written by Steve Rudzinski
Starring Amie Wrenn, Seth Gontkovic, Shawn Shelpman, Steve Rudzinski
Find out more about this film here and on Facebook here
Reviewed by Ambush Bug

For some reason, I was thinking (and hoping) that the torture porn subgenre was kind of fading away as it seems found footage and zombie films began dominating the market for quite a while. And while shaky first person POV and undead walkers seem to continue to take up a lot of shelf space on the new releases rack (if such a thing exists anymore), it seems tying a person to a chair and torturing them isn’t something that’s going out of style, unfortunately.

That said, writer/director/actor Steve Rudzinski has made a torture porn-ish type tale with an interesting enough twist to keep my interest to through the hour long runtime. Tara is a serial killer who’s been murdering for a long time. So long, that she’s got all of the bases covered, it seems and now she’s filming a video diary in the off chance that she is caught or killed, letting folks know about her process, her private thoughts, and the method to her madness. The film takes the viewer via a video recorder through a typical murder from picking out the victim, to torturing and killing him, and then to disposing the body. But this particular involves something that Tara didn’t plan for and it might mean this is her last entry.

Surprisingly, I wasn’t annoyed by the overly perky and slightly deranged Tara (Amie Wrenn) and that’s a good thing as she is front and center for 90% of the film. Wrenn gives off a sort of plucky girl next door/lovable/Mindy Kaling vibe that makes her rather likable, even when she is slicing and dicing her victims. This proves to be the saving grace for the film, as it is basically one woman tying a man to a chair and torturing him for an hour.

RED CHRISTMAS is a breezy (only 60 minutes) little number which ends up being rather fun due to a likable lead and a wicked sense of gallows humor. Though it has much more bite to the torture itself, the glee with which the torturette takes in unleashing on her victims is more akin to that sadistic glimmer in Macaulay Culkin’s eye when he beats the shit out of the burglars in HOME ALONE rather than the pig faced murderers in HOSTEL. It’s still torture porn, mind you, but it approaches the material in a new way, so it feels a lot fresher than the usual tied-to-a-chair and cut-to-ribbons fare I have grown sick of.

Available now on DVD/digital download from the Asylum!


Directed by James Cullen Bressack
Written by Anna Rasmussen, Delondra Williams
Starring Shannen Doherty, Jason Brooks, Zack Ward, Christopher Lloyd, Ciara Hanna, Yar Koosha, Fred Stoller, Rachel True, Jeremy Wade, Susie Abromeit, Jody Barton, Nicholas Adam Clark, Mark Christopher Lawrence, Mike Jerome Putnam, Gerald Webb
Find out more about this film here
Reviewed by Ambush Bug

A new environmental officer in town, a crabby mayor, and an overabundance of killer lampreys make for a typical monster amok movie. I kind of chuckled when I saw that BLOOD LAKE was written by two people (Anna Rasmussen and Delondra Williams), as I would think copying the first two acts of JAWS beat for beat, erasing the word “shark” every time it appears and replacing it with the word “lamprey” would be a one person job. Still, while it feels like we all saw this particular film when it was called PIRANHA (itself a JAWS ripoff), indie filmmaker James Cullen Bressack does his best to keep things exciting and bloody.

Jason Brooks plays the guy frantically telling the mayor (played by a somewhat restrained Christphoer Lloyd) that the rise in the lamprey population is bound to be dangerous for the arriving vacationers in a small coastal town. Of course, the mayor won’t tell the press that because he doesn’t want to lose the revenue. Sounds familiar. So no one is alerted. The public goes a swimming and the lampreys begin latching on to folks, leaping out of the water, and crawling through the water works. While Brooks’ family (which includes former 90210 star Shannen Doherty) battle it out against the little monsters, Brooks and his deputy (Zack Ward) race all over the city doing the same.

So yeah, it’s not the most original story, but the thing is, Bressack knows how to make things entertaining as we tread along this very familiar storyline. Scenes of CG lampreys slithering across the ground after folks and bursting out of pipes and toilets are fun details added here and there to spice things up. I also was impressed at the sheer amount of blood and gore used. Sure it’s the CG type, most of the time, but there was a scene towards the beginning where swimmers are playing on the beach and end up frolicking in blood instead of surf that was especially well done.

So while BLOOD LAKE swims through very familiar territory, the added gore and lamprey mayhem was noted and appreciated. Plus seeing some B/C list actors either get eaten by or splatter these toothy eels is just brainless fun. Those expecting JAWS level drama and thrills will surely be disappointed, but compared to other ScyFy/Asylum monster flicks, this one is better than most.

Available for purchase from Dustin Mills Productions!


Directed by Dustin Mills
Written by Dustin Mills
Starring Allison Egan, Jackie McKown, Dustin Mills, Brandon Salkil
Find out more about this film here
Reviewed by Ambush Bug

This seems to be the week for torture porn from a female perspective, but while RED CHRISTMAS tries to take an almost charmingly comedic approach to torture, HER NAME WAS TORMENT is much more experimental, feeling more akin with THE BUNNY GAME than the fun and games akin to HOME ALONE.

One of my favorite indie filmmakers, Dustin Wade Mills (who directed such amazing films as SKINLESS, ZOMBIE A-HOLE, PUPPET MONSTER MASSACRE, NIGHT OF THE TENTACLES, and BATH SALT ZOMBIES) takes a much more serious approach to horror this time around with HER NAME WAS TORMENT, which tells the story of a seriously fucked up young woman who only identifies herself as Torment. While a camera captures her confession while being interviewed by a psychiatrist, the film flashes back and forth to one of her more recent victims; played by Mills’ go-to leading man Brandon Sakil. Experimental sounds, grindhouse worn film, and sharp cuts give this movie a snuff film sort of look which definitely succeeds in making this entire hour long film a grueling and uncomfortable experience.

This film feels dangerous, as if peeling back the layers of a seriously unwell mind. The mask Torment wears and the description of her self-inflicted plastic surgery makes everything feel all the more unusual and deadly. Top it off with the contrast between the blacks and whites of this monochromatic film and you have something that will definitely succeed in creeping you out.

I can’t say I was as entertained with HER NAME IS TORMENT as I have with other Dustin Wade Mills films, but I do feel like once again, the filmmaker has created something dark and disturbing. While it’s not as cartoony and over the top as his previous films, there’s a darkness in this film that cannot be denied and as with THE BUNNY GAME, which also made me utterly uncomfortable, I do consider this a very successful horror film in that it succeeds in taking me to a place that made me feel completely uncomfortable. Light on narrative, heavy on violence, torture, and gratuitous attempts to shock—HER NAME IS TORMENT is the type of unrelenting horror film for that particular type of horror freak that doesn’t mind venturing into the darkest recesses and coming out scarred from head to toe.

Her Name Was Torment - Trailer from Dustin Mills on Vimeo.

New on DVD from MVD Visual and on iTunes here!


Directed by Tara Anaïse
Written by Tamara Blaich and Tara Anaïse (story), Tara Anaïse (screenplay)
Starring Sage Howard, Andrew Simpson, Shelby Stehlin
Find out more about this film here and on Facebook here
Reviewed by Ambush Bug

A strong cast saves DARK MOUNTAIN from becoming lost among the million and one other found footagers out there.

DARK MOUNTAIN refers to a specific range in the Superstition Mountains in the Arizona desert where a Dutchman by the name of Jacob Waltz ferreted away a massive fortune in gold in a lost mine. The mine has been the focus of many a treasure hunter with new hunters showing up weekly to attempt to do what no one else has and find the gold. Of course, if the terrain was an easy and tame land, the mine would most likely be found already, but apart from the obvious desert environment dangers, the barren landscape in the Superstition Mountains is also rumored to be the site of unnatural phenomena. Everything from Native American ghosts to UFO’s have been reported to be seen in the land, but that doesn’t scare a fearless trio of explorers who love to film everything with their phones and hand held cams. So they set out to find the gold and end up getting much more than they bargained for.

From start to finish, DARK MOUNTAIN plays like BLAIR WITCH PROJECT in the desert. The trio of explorers is likable enough, but when they become lost in the rocky landscape, the film pretty much follows BWP beat for beat. The trio goes from a happy group of friends to bitter enemies as the pressure to get out alive builds and while there’s no witchcraft at play, the bizarre anomalies still keep them running in circles, hearing things in the night, and tearing away any humanity they have in them. Some of the scenes are creepy and different enough to differentiate this film from its distant witchy cousin, but from a broad strokes perspective, this one follows the story pretty closely. There’s even a up-snouted confessional with a woman confessing to a camera. I seriously don’t know why the film would have a scene like this as it is a scene made famous in BLAIR WITCH and also mocked for how obviously melodramatic the whole thing was.

But that’s not where the apes end. While I don’t want to ruin the ending, this film irked me so much I had to mention it as it ends with an exact duplicated ending first seen in REC and repeated too many times to count in much lesser films. Seeing this ending just made me mad. I was annoyed with the Blair Witch lift earlier, but seeing the REC drag-away ending just drove me off the deep end. I don’t hate found footage films, but if you’re going to make a found footager, at least try to watch other films of its kind. Do your research and if 8 out of 10 of those films have a up-nose confession or a last minute drag-away, don’t put those tired scenes in your film. Do something different. Any ape of what’s come before is just going to be scoffed at and make your film lesser for its unoriginality.

Now that I’ve gotten that off my chest, I will say that there are some solid scares going on in DARK MOUNTAIN. The film does a great job of immersing the viewer into the dangerous and rocky surroundings and the night scenes are especially effective in the way sound makes up for what we don’t see. The acting in DARK MOUNTAIN is top notch as well and I wouldn’t be surprised if I see the talented and good looking trio (Sage Howard, Andrew Simpson, Shelby Stehlin) again in bigger and better films. While there are a few other trappings the film falls into (the camera drops just at the right angle to catch an action, somehow the footage is edited together though the three are using three different cameras, and of course the presence of the invisible score that really does distract from the found footage motif), the biggest sin is relying on scenes we’ve seen before and trying to play them as genuine scares.

dark mountain trailer from tara anaïse on Vimeo.

New on DVD available on its website here!

FANTASM (2013)

Directed by Kyle Kuchta
Written by Kyle Kuchta
Starring Kyle Kuchta, Tom Atkins, Justin Beahm, Chris Behringer, Jack Bennett, Jake Boschen, Christopher Bricklemyer, Rob Dimension, Alex DiVincenzo, Fiona Duffy, Meg Duffy, Shawn Fairhurst, Bill Fulkerson, Kristy Jett, Richard Johnson, Sean Jordan, Lloyd Kaufman, Tuesday Knight, Heather Langenkamp, Jill Lix, Joe Lynch, Cathy Mackay, Ron Mackay, Asta Paredes, Michael Perez, Alex Rego, Jeff Rego, Benjamin Scrivens, Kristilyn Stevenson, Clay von Carlowitz, Amanda Wyss
Find out more about this film here and on Facebook here
Reviewed by Ambush Bug

Like most of the readers of AICN and more accurately, those who read this column, Kyle Kuchta is a horror fan. In the opening moments of this documentary, Kyle tells us a story that is probably similar to most of ours, about his first trip to a video store and being amazed as some kind of horror movie and how that horror film sparked an age-long interest in horror. For Kyle, it was CREATURE OF THE BLACK LAGOON and his fascination with the thrill he felt with this film lead to Kuchta’s making of this documentary which followed him through a number of horror conventions he attended through the last two years.

I don’t know if FANTASM is going to convert or educate any of us as we are already the converted and educated. We are already the converted and dedicated fans of the genre, but this hour long documentary is fun to watch if you’ve ever gone to a horror convention. A lot of the same people I’ve seen at Chicago’s Flashback Weekend every year at video and miscellaneous merch booths show up in this doc and it’s fun to see these familiar faces. And it is fun to see the various horror costumes and ghoulish paraphernalia and Kuchta’s camera captures it all as if you’re wandering the aisles of these conventions right with him.

That said, in terms of documentary standards, it does feel like Kuchta is preaching to the choir here. There’s little by way of contrarian points of view here. Sure there are some interviews that talk about how others perceive those who attend these cons, but there isn’t really any insight looking at this from an angle that isn’t already enmeshed in the subculture. I think it would have been great to see what those who had never been to a convention or better yet, those who don’t have such a love affair with the genre would think of these cons.

But while FANTASM is somewhat of an insular film, it still has a heart dripping with blood in support of both the genre and those who love it. If you’ve attended a horror con or are a horror fan, this is definitely going to be a fun little trip through familiar and comfortable territory. I just don’t know about how much FANTASM will work for those who aren’t already converted to the darker side of cinema.

New on DVD from Wild Eye Releasing!


Directed by Tim Ritter (“Switchblade Insane”), Brad Sykes (“The Scout”, wraparound sequence), Marcus Koch (“A Very Bad Situation”), Ron Bonk (“Gang Them Style”), Donald Farmer (“Thicker Than Water”), Todd Sheets (“The Request”), Chris Seaver, & Tony Masiello (“The Tape”)
Written by Tim Ritter (“Switchblade Insane”), Brad Sykes (“The Scout”, wraparaound sequence), Marcus Koch (“A Very Bad Situation”), Ron Bonk (“Gang Them Style”), Donald Farmer (“Thicker Than Water”), Todd Sheets (“The Request”), Chris Seaver, & Matt Hill (“The Tape”)
Find out more about this film here and on Facebook here
Reviewed by Ambush Bug

High cinema, this film is not. But that’s the point. HI-8 is a tribute to shot on video films of the 80’s that cluttered many a video store and entertained those looking for the simple things in cinema; blood, gore, boobs, and violence. Some of the best of the best in low budget directors have been gathered to pay homage to those old pointless gorefests of old we all remember renting. Multiple takes, lengthy schedules, adherence to the plot; they don’t belong in this dojo. But if you’re like me and grew up in the 80’s renting from mom and pop video stores and watching all sorts of horror at an age much younger than I should have, this is a film that will thrill you despite its low budget and rough edges. Eight shorts make up HI-8 and below, I go into a bit of detail about each of them.

The first short is one by Tim Ritter (TRUTH OR DARE? series) called “Switchblade Insane;” a fourth wall breaking story about a serial rapist and his wife who knows about his deviant lifestyle. The wife struggles with her love for her husband and versus the crimes he commits and goes to some uncomfortable areas once the cat is out of the bag. The twist is that his wife actually starts to understand and shares his fascination. It’s a turn that is a bit rushed, but this is a short film, so there’s not a lot of time for lengthy soul searching. Ritter is a low fi legend and able to get some nice visceral scenes and touch upon some deep psychosis in such a short space of time.

Short number two is called “A Very Bad Situation” by Marcus Koch (100 TEARS) which depicts a world overcome by aliens after a meteor shower hits the earth. Points go to this one taking a situation that most would require a multi-million dollar budget and setting it in a single locale to amp the tension. Decently acted and tensely paced, this one does a fantastic job with very little. Just a gory head, a monster hand puppet, and a garage is all this one needs, highlighting director Kock’s scrappy nature making a lot of impact with very little.

Tony Masiello’s “The Tape” from the director of SOV: THE TRUE INDEPENDENTS is next. This one has shades of V/H/S as it deals with the death of the video store and a particularly weird SOV (shot on video) tape one unlucky guy happens upon. The film within a film, “Bloodgasm” is pretty gory and realistic, as if it used real animal parts for realistic effect. Fascination turns into obsession as the man tries to track down the maker of the tape. This one’s got gore and boobs and caters to those who loved those plotless gorefests of old (which can be said about most of the shorts in this film).

Next we dive head first into the cheesy goodness that is “Gang Them Style” by Ron Bonk (THE VICIOUS SWEET) about a gruff-voiced man named Mongoose makes his way to a retirement home during a zombie apocalypse to rescue his mommy. “Gang Them Style” has a wicked sense of humor and harkens back to a time when all you needed was a bandanna to be cool. I laughed quite a bit at the sheer, joyous hokiness of this installment. Turns out trying to save a bunch of old people is very hard, especially when the van is ten feet away from the door. This one was great fun.

FILTHY MCNASTY’s Chris Seaver offers up a story about a peeping tom stalking a chubby girl as she goes about her day to day activities of cleaning the pool, running, sunbathing, and jumping on the trampoline in this voyeuristic one off called “Genre Bending.” This one tries to be creepy, but in the end is more goofy and tasteless than anything else, reminding me of the fetishistic, early Russ Meyer flicks like THE IMMORAL MR TEAS with some sleazy John Waters tones tossed in. Not that stalking and raping is a laughing matter, but this one tries to find the humor in it. Out of all of them, this one’s sure to offend someone.

Next is ZOMBIE BLOODBATH’s Todd Sheets directing “The Request” about a radio DJ who gets a bizarre call from a hauntingly familiar listener. This one has decent acting, fun pacing, and a strong sense of tension and suspense, making it a true standout among the rest of the more amateur entries in the film. For some reason, phone call stalkings always send a shiver up my spine and this one, despite its DIY aspects, did the trick as well.

“Thicker than Water” by Donald Farmer (SAVAGE VENGEANCE) is a twisted little entry that goes places that I didn’t really expect as it starts out with a boyfriend and girlfriend sitting and watching a horror film and ends up being a pitch black take on jealously and insecurity in relationships. Hinging this one on emotions that all of us have felt from time to time, this one says a lot and proves to pack every minute with power. Simple and sweet, Farmer gets under the skin with his warped look at a relationship taken to an extreme level.

Brad Sykes (CAMP BLOOD trilogy) does the final entry “The Scout” about a couple going to a remote locale in the desert to scout for a film shoot. This one really takes its time to soak in the creepy surroundings of decrepit buildings in the middle of a barren land. Sounds like the perfect time for the car to break down, right? Yes, it’s cliché, but this one relies on our familiarity with this type of film to cut corners to the good stuff. Foolishly deciding to walk home, the girl finds herself alone and vulnerable. Things get a bit meta and surreal in this final episode which is actually the best of the bunch in terms of premise and execution.

The wraparound piece tying the entire film together is also done by Brad Sykes who produced this entire anthology. It focuses on a three man (ok, two man and one woman crew) bare bones film crew making a low budgeter in a secluded area. While it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, it does pay homage to the do it yourself nature of the entire collection. The makeup effects in the final scenes are top notch and the final monster is surprisingly effective at inducing scares.

If you’re the type who feels big budget is the only way to get big thrills and scares, HI-8 is not the film for you. But fans of the video tape generation and low budget chillers are bound to find something to like among the eight shorts collected for this series. Anthologies seem to be on the rise these days thanks to the popularity of the V/H/S and ABC’S OF DEATH series. That’s what makes HI-8 all the more essential viewing as it remembers the day and age of horror done on the cheap and knows how to squeeze every drop of blood from every dollar spent while still being able to deliver the big scare.

Hi-8 teaser from Hi-8 on Vimeo.

New this week on DVD from After Dark Originals and Lionsgate Home Entertainment!


Directed by Brant Sersen
Written by Brant Sersen
Starring Ben Rodgers, Don Fanelli, Kate Riley, Megan Neuringer, Justin Purnell, DJ Hazard
Reviewed by Ambush Bug

I’m not sure if the Hillcrest Sanatorium used as the setting for this film’s Ghost Hunting style mock-doc show is the same haunted building that has been featured on many reality ghost hunting shows, but it sure looks like it was filmed there. And while this type of film has been made many times before from GRAVE ENCOUNTERS to Bernard Rose’s recent SXTAPE focusing on a reality show that actually captures something paranormal which is different from most of those shows which have people walking around in the dark and finding nothing, this one at least does a capable job of the material.

First and foremost, it feels like the filmmakers behind SANATORIUM have done their homework. The team assembled feels like an amalgamation of folks from GHOST HUNTERS (the kindler, gentler, and more sensitive sort with a genuine interest in being taken seriously) and the boneheads from GHOST ADVENTURES (who take to talking trash to the ghosts and are more interested in looking like a hardass and not being scared). Seeing these two types of ghosthunter exemplified here made me chuckle as the overly sensitive types feel genuine and the idiots who are obviously scared, but respond by overcompensation with faux bravado feel pretty much on the money with shows that actually try to pass as reality shows. So to see these types of realistic characters actually encountering ghosts makes it feel like the GHOST HUNTERS or GHOST ADVENTURES episode we’ve all been waiting for.

That said, there really isn’t anything in here that hasn’t been seen before in a million and one ghost hunting films of this type. Movement in the darkness, slamming doors, shadowy forms appear and disappear—it’s your typical haunted house film as the investigators get picked off one by one until the tape stops rolling. This is a rather patient film, though it has a short run time, it does the usual set up where we get a little back-story, a daytime tour, and then the lights go out for a night investigation. Again, it’s very typical for your average ghost hunting show, so anyone who has seen one of these shows could be fooled that this might be an actual special episode (maybe for a bit until the bodies start piling up).

This one gets a few extra points for being bloody and having a rather cruel streak towards one pregnant investigator. Don’t expect anything new or out of the norm and you just might be caught by surprise by SANATORIUM. The look and feel is genuine and if you are lucky enough to have never seen a ghost hunting show, you might just be taken in by this one. SANATORIUM is a capable film, adhering to the rules of the ghost hunting shows, but it’s just nothing new.

New this week in select theaters, iTunes, and On Demand from XLRator!


Directed by Greg Francis
Written by Greg Francis
Starring Beau Mirchoff, Ron Perlman, Giancarlo Esposito, Corey Large, Titus Welliver, Halston Sage, Ron Eldard, Michael Eklund, Kieran Large
Reviewed by Ambush Bug

Filled with a cast of fantastic character actors, POKER NIGHT suffers from never really having the story power to match its star power.

POKER NIGHT is a thriller of sorts with some specks of horror tossed in here and there making it ripe for review in a column such as this. The film focuses on a kidnapping case where a rookie cop (Beau Mirchoff) is abducted by a maniacal masked villain. In order for the cop to survive, he must remember the morals to a handful of tales a bunch of seasoned officers bragged about in a weekly poker game. If he is able to take a nugget of wisdom of each of the stories, he might just survive.

The main problem with POKER NIGHT is that the tales the cops wax on about at their card game really aren’t worth bragging about. It’s a compelling premise to hook a bunch of little vignettes to, but if the vignettes lack any type of punch, the sum of these impotent recollections doesn’t add up to much. So while the delivery might be decent (and coming from actors such as Giancarlo Esposito, Titus Welliver, Ron Edlard, and Ron Perlman, they are bound to be), the overall quality of the stories themselves are lacking every time a hand is dealt in this poker game. There’s got to be a million stories of undercover stings gone wrong, forced confessions, and rookie mistakes, but the ones described and reenacted in this film simply are pretty weak. Weak may not be completely accurate. More like uninteresting and unremarkable. As if these stories are the best stories these cops have to brag about, they’ve lead some pretty lame careers.

Still, it’s kind of fun seeing these actors riff off of each other, even though the story threading it all together lacks power. It feels as if these guys had a lot of fun doing this film, drinking and flipping cards and putdowns alike. Birchoff is ok as well as the rookie and one of my favorite actors working today, Michael Eklund delivers a fun and creepy performance. Still, this film suffers from not really knowing that it wants to be. It definitely seems like it wants to have the dialog acrobatics of a RESERVOIR DOGS. Then again, the masked villain seems like something right out of a BATMAN comic book and the way the crimes are set up seem as if it wants to be something like SE7EN or THE USUAL SUSPECTS. But while wanting to be like those films and kind of succeeding here and there, POKER NIGHT fails at having what SE7EN, THE USUAL SUSPECTS, and RESERVOIR DOGS (and even a well written BATMAN comic book, for that matter) all have—and that is a decent story.

There’s some flair to this film that cannot be denied. Using Birchoff’s rookie cop as the stand in for all of the stories is a creative decision, as is the highly stylized origin of the masked killer. But style definitely takes presence over substance here as the story just isn’t strong enough to support all of that dazzle. Late in the game twists and turns of impossibility make things even more cartoonish, but still I’d recommend POKER NIGHT for the cast alone. And even though it’s not the best story, you still get to see some great actors doing what they do best.

New on DVD/ BluRay and digital download from Universal Home Entertainment!

THE GUEST (2014)

Directed by Adam Wingard
Written by Simon Barrett
Starring Dan Stevens, Sheila Kelley, Maika Monroe, Sheila Kelley, Leland Orser, Lance Reddick, Tabatha Shaun, Chase Williamson, Joel David Moore, Alex Knight, Ethan Embry, AJ Bowen
Find out more about this film here and on Facebook here!
Reviewed by Ambush Bug

Warning; I’m going to use the word “cool” a million and one times in this review. And while I do own a thesaurus and try by hardest to use it as often as I can, there’s one word that I keep returning to when I think of THE GUEST and that’s “cool.”

To call THE GUEST a horror film would not really be accurate. While THE GUEST certainly has horrific elements and a sense of mystery, it really does feel more like a mission statement from (up to now) horror director Adam Wingard and (up to now) writer Simon Barrett to let everyone know that this is a writer/director team worth paying attention to. While I liked last year’s YOU’RE NEXT quite a bit, I feel like it was a fun sort of rollercoaster ride, but looking back on it, the film felt rather uneven—as if it didn’t know what kind of film it really wanted to be. THE GUEST is a much more confident film. It’s its own monster and comfortable being that, which makes it a much more entertaining film in the end.

The story begins with an enigmatic guest who calls himself David (played by DOWNTON ABBEY heartthrob Dan Stevens) arriving at the modest Peterson home. Identifying himself as serving with their deceased son in the war, the family invites the stranger into their home and while David is charming as all get out, soon we see that he’s not the peachy-keen nice guy he wants them to believe. I don’t want to reveal anything else other than the fact that this is a film that narratively snowballs to gargantuan proportions by the end of the movie, swelling to sizes and proportions I haven’t seen in a movie since the early days of Carpenter and Cameron; two directors that this film owes a lot to.

The highlight of the film is watching Dan Stevens charm his way in and out of every sticky situation he faces. In this movie, Stevens is the always the coolest guy in the room and while later in the film, cracks in the cool armor begin to show, he maintains that level of awesome that will make this film THE film people refer to when Stevens becomes a big star. Whether he is fighting in a bar, shooting someone in the face, or just carving a jack o’ lantern, Stevens commands every scene comfortably and confidently in this star-making role.

But it would be pretty boring if Stevens just sat there and did nothing but look cool for the duration of the movie. That’s where the unpredictable and downright brilliant story by Simon Barrett comes in. Unfolding like a typical action movie, Barrett channels films like THE TERMINATOR, LITTLE NIKITA, UNCLE BUCK, NOWHERE TO RUN, THE WRAITH, and tons of 80’s simple but awesome action films and funnels it through Adam Wingard’s eyeball (which as you all know from watching V/H/S/2 is a camera) who imbues it with John Carpenter-esque music beats and a heavy dose of the electro-magic that permeated another retro-cool film DRIVE.

By the end of this film, the action, dialog, and story has escalated to such a level of ridiculousness that I should have checked out of THE GUEST, but since everything leading up to it was so…cool, I didn’t give a shit. In the end, there are bullets, fire, kicks, mist, knives, blood, punches, music, and pulse-pounding action. All of it was stuff I’ve seen in other films before, but this particular amalgamation of it all felt so original that I couldn’t help but just sit back and quit trying to remember what movie this part reminded me of and just soak in the coolness. From it’s awesome electro-emo soundtrack to the fantastic performances by the entire cast (especially the fantastic Maika Monroe who is going to be overshadowed by Stevens here, but should garner equal praise in a fair and true world), THE GUEST is a film that will make you stand up and cheer by the end of it.

And while I don’t think a sequel explaining things going on leading up to this film and continuing after it is necessary, I’d love to see one. The ambiguity of THE GUEST, though, is part of its charm and I kind of hope this film just remains a little gem of a film and stays like that while everyone involved moves on to bigger things as a result of it. No explanation is necessary here. THE GUEST doesn’t try to explain itself. It simply is. And what it is—is cool!

Advance Review: Currently touring festivals!


Directed by Dan Riesser
Written by Andrew Genser, Dan Riesser
Starring John Bobek, Tarah DeSpain, Jeramy Blackford, Joseph Allen Cavin, Huntington Daly, Thad Bateman, Justin Giddings, Michael Lee Kimel, Theresa Tilly, Sarah Simmons Turner, Gabe Wood, and Kurt Carley as the Bigfoot!
Find out more about this film here and on Facebook here
Reviewed by Ambush Bug

STOMPING GROUND really waits until the final act to qualify itself as a horror film, but that doesn’t mean the trip there isn’t entertaining.

The story focuses on a common predicament among couples—that is, going to your significant other’s home town to meet family, friends, and really, find out what type of person your significant other was growing up. We often aren’t the same people we were after leaving home, experiencing new things and growing as people and while home stays the change, the old adage that you can’t go home again is often true. That’s the conflict new couple Ben (John Bobek) and Annie (Tarah DeSpain) find themselves in when Ben accompanies Annie back to her home town over a holiday break. Unfolding like a rom com, Ben finds out a few things about his girlfriend he didn’t know and Annie starts to think about things she hasn’t thought about since leaving. All of it leads to conflict which plays out in a secluded forest as Annie brings Ben along to take part in a pastime she used to take part in with her best friend/ex boyfriend Paul (Jeramy Blackford) and another childhood pal Jed (Justin Giddings); that pastime being Sasquatch hunting. When the group gets lost and the Squatch gets close, Ben and Annie come to a turning point in their relationship.

Now, I’m not one for rom coms, but writer/director Dan Riesser and writer Andrew Genser really did a great job of capturing the uncomfortable feeling one has when finding out that your significant other actually had a life before meeting you. Sure it’s a selfish thing, but when you’re dating a girl, you don’t want to know your girl was a heavy drinking wild child and you certainly don’t want to meet any of her exes. Sure, SCOTT PILGRIM made it all seem trendy and cool, but really, it just leads to discomfort. And this story, played out by these talented actors does a great job of making this feel real, but not forgetting to add the comedic elements. The comedy, though, doesn’t necessarily come from any sitcom antics, but from the familiarity of the situation and the brutal honesty the two leads convey to one another.

But I could see those attracted to this film for its rom-com-aliciousness be somewhat put off by the late in the game switcheroo to horror in the final act. Sure the threat of a Bigfoot is always there from pretty much the beginning, but while this film warmed my heart for most of the time, it startled me at how full on horror it gets. Personally, I liked this surprise turn of events, but I bet not everyone will.

For me, STOMPING GROUND is a highly successful relational drama with some Bigfoot horror sprinkled in for good measure. I must admit that it is a bit uneven as the switch to horror comes a bit late in the game, but the quality of the relationship stuff from writing to acting to directing made me stick with it all the way and it only built my investment in getting out of this Squatchy situation alive. Successful in warming the heart and chilling the bones, STOMPING GROUND was a whole lot of fun to watch.

Advance Review: Currently touring festivals!


Directed by Jose Prendes
Written by Jose Prendes
Starring Graham Denman, Jon Kondelik, Hannah Levien, Barbara Crampton, Ken Foree, Bailey Ryan, Sean Whalen, Shawn C. Phillips
Find out more about this film here and on Facebook here
Reviewed by Ambush Bug

THE DIVINE TRAGEDIES is a confident little bastard of a film, trusting that the characters and the story is going to be compelling enough for you to stick around long enough to figure out the ups and downs of the weird little universe the film lives in. And it turns out, the film delivers on that confident beginning and never really lets up until the ultra-powerful final beats.

Taking a page or two from NATURAL BORN KILLERS and maybe some nuances from a David Lynch film or two, THE DIVINE TRAGEDIES is still one of the most original and entertaining films I’ve seen in ages. The opening scene focuses on two brothers Charles (Graham Denman) and Thomas (Jon Kondelik), two evil bastards who are playing a game with a crackhead they used to go to school with as kids. As the scene progresses, the conversation bips and bops, riffs and raps a lot like a Tarantino joint. There are sidebars and diatribes, discourses and distracting conversations before the actual violence they’ve been talking about occurs. The way it plays out, surely we won’t be following around these two devious sons of bitches for the whole movie. Surely, these two guys are the ones who get wiped out in the first scene in order to establish the real heroes. That’s what writer/director Jose Prendes seems to want us to think. But turns out we have it all wrong and this is a film about these two evil fucks. Beginning in such an off kilter manner gives us a hint that all bets are off and by following these two nicely dressed monsters, we’re headed into dangerous territory.

But while Thomas and Charles talk a big game, they seem to have a softer side. They take care of their ailing and bed-ridden mother (Barbara Crampton) and are obviously living a very privileged life. All of this makes their plans to murder someone for the first time all the more shocking and deliciously evil. As it walks through the two brothers’ first kill, THE DIVINE TRAGEDIES turns out to be an unpredictable little number, never really going the expected route and proving to be full of surprises all the way until the end.

A lot of the power of this film comes from the bizarre portrayal of Thomas and Charles by Denman and Kondelik. Kondelik seems to be the eviler of the two, more verbal and confident, definitely the bully of the two. But it’s the Crispin Glover-esque performance by Graham Denman that really stands out here. Denman goes through such a transformation in this film. Both brothers do, really. And to see these two brothers metamorphose after blood is spilled is brilliant to see from these two up and coming actors.

DAWN OF THE DEAD’s Ken Foree appears as a cop with psychic powers and with Crampton, really adds some solid acting foundation for these two newcomer actors to play off of. But it is the performances by Denman and Kondelik and the words and twists from writer/director Jose Prendes that make this film one to remember. Though there is copious amounts of blood and violence, the real horror comes from how fucked up these two brothers really are and how it plays out with everyone unlucky enough to cross their path. The heavy reliance on dialog is definitely going to make or break this film depending on whether you like Tarantino-ian wordplay or Mamet-esque bullet-speak. But for my tastes, THE DIVINE TRAGEDIES is a dangerous and perfect little nightmare that needs to be seen.

And finally…from the madmen at Astron-6 (who unleashed FATHER’S DAY, MANBORG, and the upcoming THE EDITOR on us all) comes a trio of mini-messages from Santa himself…or is it!

Happy belated holidays, everyone!

See ya next week, folks!

Ambush Bug is Mark L. Miller, original @$$Hole/wordslinger/writer of wrongs/reviewer/interviewer/editor of AICN COMICS for over 13 years & AICN HORROR for 4. Follow Ambush Bug on the Twitters @Mark_L_Miller.

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