Welcome to the darker side of AICN! Mark L. Miller aka Ambush Bug here with another AICN HORROR: ZOMBIES & SHARKS column. I try not to rely too much on excuses as to why the column wasn’t posted Friday. Basically I’ve been dealing with a wicked case of “con cough” I managed to pick up from SDCC, which made me identify with our three “virus” films I’m looking at below. Still, no excuse not to deliver your weekly dose of reviews. Here’s hoping I get things back on track this week!
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TFAW carries everything from comics to toys and any kind of collectible in between. Show your support for AICN HORROR and TFAW and click the pic above. You just might find something you can’t live without such as Cullen Bunn’s excellent Southern Gothic Horror Tale from Dark Horse Comics!
On with the horror reviews!
(Click title to go directly to the feature)
Retro-review: INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS (1978)
Retro-review: BASKET CASE 2 (1990)
Retro-review: BASKET CASE 3 (1992)
BIG BAD (2016)
THE STRAY (2016)
THE PERFECT HUSBAND (2014)
THE SUFFERING (2016)
THE BINDING (2015)
IN THE DEEP (2016)
SUMMER CAMP (2015)
SUN CHOKE (2015)
THE MIND’S EYE (2015)
And finally…LIGHT’S OUT: ORGAN!
Retro-review: New this week on BluRay from The Shout Factory!
INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS (1978)Directed by Philip Kaufman
Written by Jack Finney (novel), W.D. Richter (screenplay)
Starring Donald Sutherland, Brooke Adams, Jeff Goldblum, Veronica Cartwright, Leonard Nimoy, Art Hindle, Lelia Goldoni, Kevin McCarthy, Don Siegel, Tom Luddy, Stan Ritchie, David Fisher, Tom Dahlgren, Garry Goodrow, Jerry Walter, Wood Moy, R. Wong, Joe Bellan, Al Nalbandian, Philip Kaufman, Robert Duvall
Retro-reviewed by Mark L. Miller aka Ambush Bug
While some folks go for EVIL DEAD or THE THING or ROSEMARY’S BABY as their favorite horror film, I think, in all honesty, one of my favorite all time horror films has got to be 1978’s INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS. Like THE THING and THE FLY, it takes a classic film and improves on it by both making it relevant to the time it takes place in as well as an out and out classic that is just as effective today as it was when it was released.
The story moves the setting from small town America to San Francisco and follows Matthew (Donald Sutherland) a restaurant food inspector whose co-worker Elizabeth (Brooke Adams) comes to when she believes her husband (Art Hindle) has been acting strangely. Soon, they run into others who feel their loved ones are somehow off and not the same as they were the night before. It seems, in their sleep, they are being replaced with people who look like those they love, but act without emotion or soul they once had. Along for the ride are new age mud-bath spa owners Jack and Nancy (Jeff Goldblum and Veronica Cartwright) and pop psychologist Dr. David Kibner (Leonard Nimoy) who wrestle with the notion that alien pods from another world are replacing the population one by one. Paranoias are confirmed and one by one those with free will are overcome by the hive mind thinking of the Body Snatchers!
Ripe with metaphor and allegory, INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS spoke to the rise of communism and consumerism in the world it was birthed in, as well as the loss of individual thought by group thinking. While communism went away, what makes INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS so interesting is that the same methodology could be applied to today’s addiction to electronics, polarized politics, and talking head dominated media. It works in any scenario when the individual is being threatened to be squelched by a higher power and because of this, it makes for some compelling viewing. INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS isn’t a film you watch and then wonder what to do next after viewing. It’s a film that requires discussion afterwards and will be terrifying for those trying to communicate any creative thought in this mass produced world that often goes against that type of thinking.
But on top of the metaphorical depth, this is a film made to make you feel paranoid. From the hand held camerawork placing you within conversations in a crowded room, to the voyeuristic way the world is viewed as these seemingly normal people are shown zoning out, simply getting from here to there on the street, in busses and cars in traffic, and along the sidewalks, in a manner that would suggest that they are ants moving in unison for some unknown purpose. Simple things like Robert Duvall’s cameo at the beginning as a priest on a swing or a close-up of a telephone cord retracting into a wall can be perceived as normal, but the focus on them makes them absolutely unnerving even before the pod-replacement begins. This feeling only intensified once the plot is revealed and anyone and everyone on the street is in on the conspiracy aside from our small group of survivors.
But the way director Philip Kaufman filmed INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS isn’t the most unnerving thing. Paired with the sound work of this film and it makes for one of the most paranoia induced experiences you’re bound to ever seen on screen. The ultra-sound heartbeats of the growing vines of the pods and the pig-squeal scream coming from those replicated are the stuff of pure nightmare. Even the dry cracking sound of the person collapsing once they have been replaced makes me cringe every time I hear it. This is a sound design man’s wet dream and the detail put to these effects highlight the otherworldly menace that permeates every second of this film.
This is a film that basically gets it all right, specifically amassing a cast of talented newcomers (at the time) who would go on to be absolute greats in the genre world. Donald Sutherland’s distant and aloof manner is highlighted here. He is extremely serious at his job. He’s the type of worker who some would call robotic in the rigidness of his ethics. He’s someone folks might even call a pod person, that is, until he is faced with a real pod person and the contrast is like night and day. Seeing Sutherland’s Matthew go from rigid worker and estranged lover of unrequited lover of Adams’ Elizabeth to someone professing his love to her in the middle of running for his life is an arc that is extremely nuanced and could only performed by someone of Sutherland’s caliber. Adams is the perfect counter point. She is gorgeous and obviously in love with her husband (Hindle) and perfectly fine with the flirtatious, but boundary respectful relationship she has with her “work-husband” Matthew. When those lines blur and her husband is taken out of the picture, she is still hesitant to give Matthew her love, but in what she believes is her final moments, she seems to realize this love and blurts it out to him. This romance is set in the middle of this paranoid nightmare and the power of these two actors make it feel natural and not forced in there to have a romantic element to the film.
Add a little of the quirkiness of Goldblum, the hysterics of Cartwright (who is a force all her own in the horror genre), and the otherworldly alien-ness of Nimoy, who is just a tad more human here as he was with Spock, and you have a film filled with stars that would be standouts in any movie. They just all happen to be crammed into this film and it makes every second of this film absolute gold.
The effects of INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS are as unnerving today as they were back then. I remember as a little boy being so freaked out by the man-faced dog. It’s a detail that occasionally pops up in my own comic book work still, as it is a juxtaposition of images that just shouldn’t be. The fantastic effects work continues with the pod transformation sequences, backwards photographing the movement of vines in flowers and across sleeping skin. The pod people themselves in mid transformation are horrifying as well, especially when the people they replicated are smashing them. All of these effects make this one of the more convincing horror masterpieces of all time and while THE THING always gets a lot of credit for it’s effects, I found INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS to be equally, if not more, effective.
You’re not going to find a more perfect horror film that INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS. From it’s iconic poster of the long shadows running along the street to the visceral sights and sounds to the splendid acting and directing going on; it’s all amazing. This BluRay has a whole pod-full of extras as well including a commentary by Phillip Kaufman and film historian Steve Haberman, a plethora of new featurettes focusing on the sound, the cinematography, the screenplay, the effects, Brooke Adams, Art Hindle, and interviews with the entire cast about remaking the classic film. It’s also got a fun episode of SCIENCE FICTION THEATRE, "Time Is Just A Place," based on Jack Finney's short story and directed By Jack Arnold which focuses on time travel. This is the perfect collector’s edition of this film and I highly recommend it to any horror lover out there.
New this week on BluRay from Synapse!
BASKET CASE 2 (1990)Directed by Frank Henenlotter
Written by Frank Henenlotter
Starring Kevin Van Hentenryck, Annie Ross, Heather Rattray, Judy Grafe
Retro-reviewed by Ambush Bug
Now, when this came out, I remember loving this film. I was very young and a huge fan of the grit and grime the old BASKET CASE (reviewed here) exuded. For fans at the time, it was just damn exciting to have another BASKET CASE film happening, with the same director, same actor playing the role, picking up the story right where it let off with Belial and Duane Bradley falling to their deaths from their hotel room in a horrid neighborhood in New York after Duane found his misshapen brother grinding his lump against his girlfriend. At the time, I thought it was damn cool the way ten years skidded by and the story of the film didn’t miss a beat.
Revisiting BASKET CASE 2 all these years later, I realize it’s not the sliced awesome I thought it was. Sure the film has it’s charm, but it fails to live up to the high stakes set by the original.
The main difference between the two films is that the grittiness that permeated the first film and made you feel like you needed to wash your hands after watching it is gone. Henenlotter’s camera is much more modern and therefore loses some of its grimy coolness. Whereas we saw the gutters of the streets of New York through the eyes of one boy and his basket monster, in BASKET CASE 2, we get a film that looks as if it was filmed on a soundstage (and most likely was). Even scenes which are supposed to take place in a seedy bar feel sterile and staged.
Though gallows humor was prevalent in the first film, the second film goes a much more cartoony route by introducing a whole new band of freaks, all with deformities so outlandish and chunkily made that it’s hard to take seriously. Now Belial was never an achievement in cinematic effects, but what worked in the first film was that Belial was offered in short doses. In BASKET CASE 2, the uniqueness of Belial is lessened by the appearance of the other freaks in almost every scene and an overabundance of scenes with Belial himself.
But don’t get me wrong. There are some great things about this film. Henenlotter continues to push the envelope of bad taste with an extended sex scene between Belial and a female lump just like him. Some of the more realistic looking freaks are effective and tragic, but for every one that inspires sympathy there are two like the frog and mouse headed dudes that were just kind of painfully corny. But the real thing that redeems BASKET CASE 2 is the ending. Without a doubt, it’s one of the all time coolest endings in horror as things go sideways and full circle fast for the Bradley twins. For all of the hokeyness of the freaks and blandness of settings, its all made up for in the closing moments of this film.
Definitely an imperfect film lacking the atmosphere and grit of the first film, BASKET CASE 2 continues Henenlotter’s theme of twisted body horror. I enjoyed rewatching it, but still have difficulty going back to a time when I thought it was the coolest of the cool.
New this week on BluRay from Synapse!
BASKET CASE 3: THE PROGENY (1992)Directed by Frank Henenlotter
Written by Frank Henenlotter & Robert Martin
Starring Kevin Van Hentenryck, Annie Ross, Gil Roper, Dan Biggers, Jim O'Doherty, & the Morrell Twins!
Retro-reviewed by Ambush Bug
Though my least favorite of the three BASKET CASE films, there are moments of charm in this third and final installment of the twisted story of Dwayne Bradley and his conjoined and separated twin brother Belial. Writer/director Henenlotter made a name for himself by focusing on body horror, but instead of going for the more subversive approach that David Cronenberg went, Henenlotter went a more obvious route. In the end, watching these three films in succession makes for an overall satisfying little trilogy despite the fact that Henenlotter kind of went off the deep end with this final installment.
In the above review, I commented on the switch in tone from grimy and gritty to cartoonish was a jarring one for the sequel, but I was willing to set all things aside for the fact that the ending of the sequel, which had Dwayne flipping his shit and sewing Belial back onto his side in the final moments, was so batshit crazy. Sadly, Henenlotter glosses over that shocking finale and instead focuses on the sex scene between Belial and Eve, another little lump of flesh that just so happens to be female. I feel this is a missed opportunity as it would have been interesting to see the brothers connected, on the run, and guided by an unhinged Dwayne, but what do I know. Instead, we flash forward nine months to find Dwayne coming out of his psychotic stupor to find Eve about to give birth to Belial’s lumpy offspring.
This story beat does lead to a truly gross birthing sequence as a dozen of the little lumplings are born connected by one umbilical cord. But Henelotter maintains that level of cartoon that made the first sequel so hard to swallow. The shift in tone from the original to the second was not subtle as the atmosphere and grime of New York was replaced by a clean and uninteresting sound stage. Part 3 resembles the sequel more than the first in tone and look, unfortunately. And while the story becomes another heist-like film where a few rogue cops decide to cash in on the reward for the Bradley brothers, it never goes to the emotional depths we saw in the original. Sure it’s fun to peek into Belial’s mind to find out most of the time he is thinking about sex in a rotating bed with twins with enormous fake breasts, but it misses the tactile unease we got when we saw Belial trying to have sex with Dwayne’s girlfriend in the original. The story has become more of a punch line as the cartoonish freaks from the sequel return. These freaks feel as if they’ve fallen off the set of a Sid and Marty Krofft joint than FREAKS.
The acting is pretty low tier here and the return to status quo was disappointing given the impact of the sequels ending that lead into this one, but there are a few inspired, yet comical kills at the hands of Belial, who seems to be able to twist and rend flash to animated levels. Having seen all three of these films, I can appreciate the fact that it plays out as one big story, with the ending of one tying directly into the next. You don’t see that type of dedication any more and I can definitely appreciate it. Still for my money, I’d rather revisit the original BASKET CASE than see it become more of a cartoon with another film. The trilogy comes full circle and has Dwayne reach a point of acceptance that seems to work, but personally, I was kind of wishing it would plunge into deeper depths of body horror.
In select theaters this week and available on DVD and On Demand next week from Indican Pictures!
BIG BAD (2016)Directed by Opie Cooper
Written by Opie Cooper, Daniel Dauphin, Beth Kander
Starring Ainsley Bailey, Cameron Deane Stewart, Madeline Thelton, Daniel Dauphin, Clint Carmichael, Hannah Bryan, Brad Bishop
Find out more about this film here
Reviewed by Mark L. Miller aka Ambush Bug
I’m not the intended audience for BIG BAD. The folks this film is gearing towards are the Disney Channel watchers who aren’t allowed to watch R rated movies yet are interested in GOOSEBUMP-like fare. So while most hardcore readers of this column might scoff at the vanilla-ness of this film, I at the very least can recognize BIG BAD as a sort of gateway drug to hopefully guide fresh young minds into the dark and much better made world of horror.
BIG BAD isn’t a bad movie exactly. It’s just one I might have scoffed at during any age after 13. Filled with Danny Elfman, oompa-oompa music, indicating wacky shit is going on when wacky shit is going on, BIG BAD attempts to have it both ways by being edgy, but in the most saccharine of ways. After a rather pointless opening fifteen minutes of a G-rated version of the pair from SUPERBAD who try to get some play at a local makeout hangout only to end up dinner for a monster in the woods, the story shifts to another trio of kids (all cartoonishly acted) who are asked to spend the night in a penitentiary where one man was hung after a massacre at the prison many years ago. Somehow this is tied to the hairy beast that is bounding through the woods and into the penitentiary after them.
Those looking for serious horror please look elsewhere. This one is cartoonishly acted, lamely unfunny though it tries hard to be a knee-slapper, and comprised as a story simply told. There really isn’t anything wrong with the film other than the fact that it simply is a G-rated film in so many ways, yet still tries to be edgy by saying “shit” and “piss” occasionally and having a very late in the game dismemberment that is entirely out of place in this otherwise child-friendly film. The final moments where someone is torn literally into two sections really does confuse me as it feels that, late in the filming of the movie, the filmmakers wanted to give this some kind of edge, but by then it’s just too late for such a thing.
The beast in this film is decent looking, though it barely is seen out of the shadows or obscured by obstacles. The teen actors are smug and quippy; pretty much the requirement for all Disney tween comedies. But while it seems to strive for some kind of edge, it just fails on all levels. If you’re kid is itching for horror, but you just don’t think they are ready for the hard stuff, send them to see BIG BAD. It’ll be a good indicator as to whether your little guy or gal is destined to be a horror fan or not. For you adult horror fans, steer clear of BIG BAD.
New for digital download from it’s website here!
THE STRAY (2016)Directed by Cam Clark
Written by Cam Clark, Michael Storch
Starring Joe Leatherman, Mark S. Esch, Matthew Finney, Rachael Klopfenstein, Richard Hackel, Nathaniel E. Barr, Cameron Carey, Ryan Woebbeking, Tony Schafer, Kelron Mixon, Christian Nash, Paul Noom, Matthew Rybicki, Simona Ciarlo, Delaney Hathaway, Tim Burkhart, Mark Larimer, Austin Gray, Caleb Novell
Find out more about this film here!
Reviewed by Mark L. Miller aka Ambush Bug
This low budget post-apocalyptic flick gets points in my book for two reasons; it approaches the apocalypse from a historical angle rather than a look into the future and it was made in Fort Wayne, Indiana, a town just a few miles from my own home town of Lima.
THE STRAY rewrites history and follows a young soldier named Tracey Arnold (Joe Leatherman) walking through a barren landscape decimated when Kennedy failed to negotiate the Cuban Missile Crisis and bombs were dropped across the planet. The few who have survived are either constantly fighting for their lives or among the walking radioactive dead. The titular stray is an undead soldier that happens to be Tracey’s brother who he refuses to kill despite the fact that he is getting more and more aggressive. Tracey struggles with his sanity and retells the story of the stray to the viewer; a harrowing tale that weighs on him greatly.
I like the fact that this is a film set in the past. There really isn’t anything indicating any kind of specific time in the film. The bleak winter landscape Tracey wanders around in could be taking place in any time. But still, this added detail reveals that this is a film that wants to do things a little differently than your typical zombie apocalypse film. I also like the struggle Tracey has with his brother who has been turned into a zombie. Reminiscent of THE LAST MAN ON EARTH/I AM LEGEND, there is a complex relationship formed between this living man and one of the undead that adds a level of emotional depth that I appreciated.
THE STRAY is a very, very low budget film. That means some rough acting, spotty sound, and some blips in the way the film is edited and directed, but again, as I notice in many films in the genre of horror, this film oozes that passion for the genre that I couldn’t help but find appealing. THE STRAY is not your typical zombie film, and if you’re willing to look past the rough indie, low fi edges, you just might enjoy it.
New this week on DVD/BluRay from Anchor Bay!
VIRAL (2016)Directed by Henry Joost, Ariel Schulman
Written by Christopher Landon, Barbara Marshall
Starring Sofia Black-D'Elia, Analeigh Tipton, Travis Tope, Michael Kelly, Machine Gun Kelly, John Cothran, Stoney Westmoreland, Linzie Gray, Judyann Elder, Brianne Howey
Reviewed by Mark L. Miller aka Ambush Bug
While there are some similarities between VIRAL and INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS, specifically how an alien invader takes the place of a loved one and the ramifications of your best friend becoming your worst enemy, but while INVASION relied on a heavy dose of paranoia to become a classic, VIRAL relies on decent performances, CG, and your typical zombie/infected scenario to be interesting, but forgettable.
It’s not really fair to compare this film with a classic, but having seen both films in the same week, it’s hard not to make that comparison. VIRAL takes place in a John Hughes world where parents don’t exist or are conveniently taken off the menu so kids can experience some horrible stuff on their own and are forced to learn a valuable lesson from it all. I don’t mean to be overly critical to this one, but apart from some solid performances from a pair of actresses that are infectiously watchable, there’s not much else to take from VIRAL.
The two actresses in question are Sofia Black-D’Elia (love that name by the way) and Analeigh Tipton. I don’t remember seeing Black-D’Elia before, but Tipton seems to be making a career for herself playing the quirky friend as she did in WARM BODIES. Here she plays the quirky, older sibling Stacy who is infected and is forced to be taken care of by her younger sister Emma (D’Elia). The pair have been quarantined to their home as the media-dubbed “Worm Virus” spreads across America. The CDC closes down the neighborhood they live in and they are forced to survive with what little the government send them and their wits alone to keep Stacy’s infection a secret from the authorities.
What transpires is a fun little moral conundrum as Emma has to decide whether to turn her sister in or hope for the best that her sister can beat this virus. This being a horror film, things go bad, and I have to admire the bold narrative choices this film takes concerning this relationship between the two siblings. That said, this is a story I have seen in many infection movies and boiled down to basics, this is 28 DAYS LATER set in America. While the CG and sound effects are pretty nice (the worm creatures burrow into the spines of its victims and feelers sprout out of their ears in order to sense their prey, since the infected are also blind, I struggled to find unique things going on with this film. It’s not bad, per se. The acting from the leading ladies is phenomenal and I know they’ll be big stars one day and there is a nice pace and tempo to the action and suspense scenes, but VIRAL is basically your typical infection film with teenagers.
New this week on BluRay from Artsploitation Films!
THE PERFECT HUSBAND (2014)aka WHAT LIES WITHIN
Directed by Lucas Pavetto
Written by Lucas Pavetto, Massimo Vavassori
Starring Gabriella Wright, Bret Roberts, Carl Wharton, Tania Bambaci, Daniel Vivian, Philippe Reinhardt
Find out more about this film on Facebook here
Retro-reviewed by Mark L. Miller aka Ambush Bug
THE PERFECT HUSBAND is an ambitious little mess of a film that has some shining moments which are overshadowed by some clunkier ones.
The film starts out with a married couple (Viola and Nicola—Gabriella Wright and Bret Roberts) enjoying time together as soon to be proud parents. We then flash forward to a time after that where Viola is no longer pregnant and while we aren’t told exactly how and why, the baby was lost and the marriage has become estranged because of it. In order to rectify things, Viola and Nicola take a weekend vacation to a cabin in the woods but find that the secluded locale only escalates the tensions between the two. What transpires is a topsy-turvy story which wants to be clever, but ends up shooting itself in the foot.
The acting is rough in this film all the way through. It feels like English is not the first language of either one of the main players which makes the acting feel all the more distant. The tension between the characters is supposed to be nuanced and building towards something, but because the actors are sort of stumbling through their lines, it failed to be convincing enough to grip me and convince me to go along for the twists and turns that occur in the final act. This twist, which I won’t reveal here, is sort of clever, playing with perceptions and expectations as well as a reality one sees compared to the “really real world” this film is trying to take us into. I admire THE PERFECT HUSBAND for trying something new, but it just isn’t convincing enough to allow me to buy it.
If you do take a chance with THE PERFECT HUSBAND and decide to look past the clunky acting, there is a solid thriller in there. It’s just that the overall packing didn’t bring me in close enough to care once the twists start twisting.
New this week On Demand, iTunes, Amazon Instant, Playstation, Vudu, Google Play, Xbox from Breaking Glass Films!
THE SUFFERING (2016)Directed by Robert Hamilton
Written by Robert Hamilton, Marco V. Scola
Starring Phil Amico, Nick Apostolides, Liz Christmas, Elizabeth Deo, Lee Hamilton, Chad Eric Smith, Carl Stevens, Chappy Gould, Timo Gould, Fahim Hussaaini
Find out more about this film here!
Reviewed by Mark L. Miller aka Ambush Bug
This spooky little number has a lot going for it; solid acting, intensely strong atmosphere, and a number of solid scares. It also tells a pretty straightforward ghost story and uses restraint you usually don’t see in this type of story by leaving the bombastic stuff at the door.
Nick Apostolides plays Henry Dawes, a property appraiser sent to a large property to record and document the worth of the land of Mr. Remiel (Phil Amico). Almost immediately, after given freedom to explore the various houses on the property, some of which haven’t been inhabited in years, Henry begins discovering a dark history of the plantation and seems to have unsettled some of the ghosts of the past.
Atmostphere. Atmosphere. Atmosphere. That’s what this film has going for it. Henry’s investigation takes us into dingy guest quarters, antique filled corridors, and secret rooms. Even without the spooky stuff, this film is filled with rich history and something dark rumbling around every corner. Due to the modest budget, I imagine much of this place was found and filmed as is as the scenery looks worn by time and not made by a production team. Because the atmosphere is so rich, I felt enveloped by this film and as unable to get out as Henry feels in the film itself.
THE SUFFERING has some solid scares; most of while are amplified by the worn-down look of the background, and a palpable sense of dread, and a solid, straightforward story that simply acts as a cautionary tale that tells us that the past is sometimes best left in the past. Henry’s journey into the unknown is a moody and frightening one and while this one didn’t have me jumping every two minutes, it still made for a rock solid good time. If you like simple, but effective ghost stories, THE SUFFERING is one to watch for.
New this week on BluRay/DVD from The Shout Factory!
THE BINDING (2015)Directed by Gus Krieger
Written by Gus Krieger
Starring Amy Gumenick, Josh Heisler, Leon Russom, Catherine Parker, Larry Cedar, Max Adler, Stuart Pankin, Kate Fuglei, Virginia Welch, Kevin Stidham
Find out more about this film on Facebook here
Reviewed by Ambush Bug
Not being a particularly religious person and having religion forced upon me at young age, any type of film revolving around the practices and beliefs of religion automatically gives me a creepy uneasy feeling. THE BINDING gave me that same feeling, though it starts out absolutely mundane. But with some solid acting and subtle turns of light and sound, this film delivers some very solid scares.
Amy Gumenick plays Sara, the wife of Bram (Josh Heisler) a devout priest at a small town church. The film opens with Sara waking from sleep to hear her newborn baby crying. When Sara goes to check on the baby, she is not in her crib and is nowhere to be found. Frantically she looks for the baby, but Sara cannot find her. It turns out this is a dream and this film revolves around dreams of the kind I believe seems somewhat normal with the parents of a newborn, who worry about everything hurting their precious baby. But it turns out, this dream is an omen, as her husband Bram has been hearing the voice of god telling him to sacrifice his child in the name of the Lord much like what is referred to as the Binding of Isaac in the Bible when God asked Isaac to kill his son. With a history of mental illness and addiction in Bram’s family and a natural maternal instinct to protect her baby, Sara finds herself in conflict with her beliefs and the one she loves.
What intrigued me about this film is that it doesn’t take the normal negative stance on religion we so often see in movies these days. If the church is portrayed, more often than not, it’s the voice of judgment and oppression. Instead, this film shows a family that is pretty devout; praying before meals and attending church with conviction. When Bram first gets the vision, Sara encourages him to pray with her and it doesn’t feel hokey or shown in a light as something weird. Even for me, as I don’t associate myself in any spiritual way with religion, was impressed by this unique and bold stance on the church as portrayed in this film. Later in the film, there is a lot of doubt in Sara, but this crisis of faith seems to be more inward than obviously presented as something negative about the church. Subtle things like Sara becoming friends with the gay couple across the street when at first she shunned their friendship read more as Sara doubting certain aspects of her religion rather than condemning the church for it. I liked that this film didn’t take the easy route and remained somewhat respectful of the church while still showing that it might not be the path Sara wants to take.
While there is very little in terms of effects or gore here, the real power in this film is the performances by Sara (Gumenick) and Bram (Heisler). Gumenick delivers a Farrow-esque ROSEMARY’S BABY style performance where she doubts everything about the world she has placed herself in and conveys this with a lot of grace and charm. You feel the fear and tension through Sara’s eyes the entire time and the actress capably carries this weight. On the flip side, Heisler’s performance could have easily been overly preachy during the sane moments and over the top during his possession/mental break moments, but they are not in either case. With some clever lighting and small but important details provided by the deft direction of Gus Krieger, scenes where Bram is not speaking in his own voice resonate and definitely were successful in sending chills.
The film is interspersed with terrifying dreams that encapsulate a mother’s fear, all made horrific by Krieger’s use of sound, light, and angle of camera, yet THE BINDING had me by the spine the whole way through. This is proof positive that a truly effective thriller can be made without loads of money, gore, and most importantly stupid jump scares. THE BINDING is a mature and potent film, tackling a crisis of faith coupled with dealing with addiction and mental illness in relation to religion. It asks tough but fair questions about how far one would go with their beliefs and if you’re comfortable with conversations about that, you’re bound to get your brain tickled and your spine tingled by THE BINDING.
New this week on DVD/BluRay from Anchor Bay!
IN THE DEEP (2016)aka 47 METERS DOWN
Directed by Johannes Roberts
Written by Johannes Roberts, Ernest Riera
Starring Matthew Modine, Mandy Moore, Claire Holt, Santiago Segura, Yani Gellman, Chris J. Johnson
Reviewed by Mark L. Miller aka Ambush Bug
Being terrified of sharks, the advancement of CG animation has only made shark films more frightening for me. Still, there has to be a good movie around it. This year, THE SHALLOWS (reviewed here) did a fantastic job of curling my toes and forcing me to watch through my shaking fingers. Just around the time I got over the thrills of THE SHALLOWS, I found out there would be another shark horror film released later in the summer called IN THE DEEP, pitting pop princess Mandy Moore against the world’s deadliest predator of the deep. Could 2016 be two for two in good shark movies? Read on to find the answer.
IN THE DEEP is a one locale film where most of the action takes place in an isolated location for pretty much the entire film. Like OPEN WATER and FROZEN, IN THE DEEP isolates the main characters in order to show what a big dangerous world we live in to those who are so caught up in themselves to notice it. Moore plays Lisa, a recently heartbroken gal who follows her best pal Kate (Claire Holt) to Mexico on a vacation and into a shark cage boating trip where they can experience first hand these deadly predators in their natural environment. Petrified of this idea, Lisa wants no part of it, but is convinced to face her fears as the wench to the cage they are in breaks and sends them plummeting to the bottom of the ocean with sharks circling them.
This is a petrifying situation that most audience members would never, ever do. Simply by immersing these two into this horrific situation and the events leading to their descent into the darkness of the ocean was enough to make me check to see if I needed a new pair of underoos a few times in this film. The premise itself is terrifying and this film does a decent job of not only showing the danger of the situation but also of the speed and deadliness of the sharks circling the cage.
The problem is that in order to spice up the action component of the film, these girls are forced to leave the cage over and over and over again to a point that stretches beyond most folks suspension of disbelief. OK, maybe the gals have to leave the cage once or twice in order to find the new pulley to lift them up or to get the new breathing equipment send down to help them survive. But the girls spend more time outside of the cage than they do in. And that’s the main problem of this film—they feel like they have to have action in order to keep the film interesting, but in doing so, things like character moments are glossed over. Sure one can establish character through action, but when the action is fucking stupid, like say, leaving a secure cage and swimming around in shark infested waters, then you don’t feel for the characters; you just think they’re stupid as fuck for doing what they are doing. I lost count of the amount of times Lisa and Kate left the cage in order to do something, when the natural survival instinct of anyone with a brain would be to sit tight in the safe space.
That said, the shark attacks are absolutely terrifying. As things get dire, air gets depleted, and yes, the gals continue to leave and return to the cage so many times you think it has a revolving door, the sharks (surprise, surprise) get wary of their caged prey and start attacking. Filmed in utter darkness with a simple flashlight, these attacks are the stuff of my absolute worst nightmare. Later in the film, as the possibility of rescue occurs, even more shark attacks made me cower in fear as the sharks launch themselves at our fearless girls as they try to get to the surface and to safety. The final moments of this film are filled with sheer terror and gave me some of the biggest jumps I’ve experienced since…THE SHALLOWS.
And then there’s a false ending that sort of trumps all of those scares…
Sigh…it’s a shame they didn’t stick with the action filled ending. The one they went with is interesting and TWILIGHT ZONE-y (though not supernatural), but definitely deflated the balloon for me. Instead of the edgy ending jagged with gnarly fear, IN THE DEEP ends with a more uplifting end that feels tacked on rather than thought all the way through. It all makes sense and does have a charm to it, but still, the final moments ended up frustrating me more than anything else and leaving me with a bad taste in my mouth rather than the feeling of satisfaction that a film successfully scared the crap out of me.
Moore and Holt are fine here in the leads, despite the script pointing them in bone-headed directions. Modine only has a slight cameo, but it’s good to see him working again. IN THE DEEP will make you jump is you have a deathly fear of sharks as I do, but the story itself is riddled with head-slapping decisions and an ending that felt toothless.
New this week on DVD/BluRay from Lionsgate Home Entertainment!
SUMMER CAMP (2015)Directed by Alberto Marini
Written by Alberto Marini, Danielle Schleif
Starring Diego Boneta, Jocelin Donahue, Maiara Walsh, Andrés Velencoso, Àlex Monner, Xavier Capdet, Rick Zingale
Reviewed by Mark L. Miller aka Ambush Bug
The biggest surprise of the week for me was discovering SUMMER CAMP from filmmakers Alberto Marini and Schleif. While the premise of having a group of camp counselors encountering a virus in the middle of the woods is something we have seen plenty of (specifically in the CABIN FEVER series and remake), the addition of a smart script and fantastic actors make this one of the most entertaining films of this kind I’ve seen in ages.
The film is set in Mexico, as a quartet of counselors are setting up a summer camp for underprivileged youth and learning to work with one another in the process. The small group of counselors are comprised of douchey opportunist Antonio (Andrés Velencoso), bespectacled good guy Will (SCREAM QUEENS’ Diego Boneta), spunky outdoorsy gal Michelle (THE VAMPIRE DIARIES’ Maiara Walsh), and princess out of her element Christy (HOUSE OF THE DEVIL’s Jocelin Donahue) who are stuck together on this trip and forced to learn to trust one another so that they can take care of the ornery kids. Activities are planned and the grounds are explored, but what the group didn’t account for were the locals who seem to want them to leave immediately and an outbreak that turns people into mindless cannibal monsters. The catch is that this only last for short periods of time, so while one of the counselors is infected and chasing two others, at any minute, the infected could return to normal and one of those running from the monsters could become one him or herself.
This is a film about trusting others and it’s a clever one at that. The film opens with the counselors playing a trust game in order to build teamwork. One person is blindfolded and the other is supposed to guide the person through the woods with audible cues. This is supposed to build a good working environment where one has to rely on teammates in order to achieve a goal. When people start getting infected, once again, a game of trust is played, it’s just that this time, the stakes are much, much direr. It’s this type of cleverness that sprouts up all through SUMMER CAMP, making the familiar unfamiliar and fun as these counselors rotate in who is the pursued and the pursuer as the virus is passed between them. It’s this game of tag that had me engrossed in this unconventional way of making the old “virus infected person on the loose” story feel fresh and new.
The cast here are absolutely lovable as all of them have a myriad of flaws and attributes. Standing out is Jocelin Donahue who once again offers up a great genre performance as Christy, who could be your typical vain bitch role, but the way she plays this role and the way she functions in the narrative is really strong. Maiara Walsh is also awesome as the more compassionate of the gals, and again, this role matters greatly in the way things work out. Using the behaviors shown in the beginning of the film during the trust games, the film smartly revisits later when the stakes are higher. This is a level of storytelling sophistication you don’t normally see enough of in horror and one I appreciated immensely.
I also loved the dark comedy at play throughout this film. In one scene, two uninfecteds are hiding in two different places. When one of their cell phones ring, it is thrown away in order not to alert their infected pursuer only to land inches away from the other hiding uninfected. This play on space and comedic timing are excellent here and makes for one of the more rambunctious and unpredictable rollercoasters I’ve experienced recently.
Just when you thought it was predictable to see a summer camp horror film, SUMMER CAMP comes along with tons of laughs, shocks, twists, and gore. It’s a film like many you’ve seen before but done in a way you haven’t. Highly recommended.
New On Demand, iTunes, and in Theaters from Lodger Films!
SUN CHOKE (2015)Directed by Ben Cresciman
Written by Ben Cresciman
Starring Sarah Hagan, Barbara Crampton, Sara Malakul Lane, Evan Jones, Joe Nieves, William Nicol, Annie Read
Reviewed by Ambush Bug
Last year, my favorite horror film of the year was PROXY, a complex tale of madness by inches from various points of view. So to say that SUN CHOKE reminded me of PROXY, to me, is the ultimate compliment for the film as it gave me the same feelings of dread, fascination, and complete unease that PROXY did one year ago.
FREAKS AND GEEKS nerd girl Sarah Hagan plays Janie, a sheltered and fragile young girl who, as we open the film, is undergoing one psychological test after another by what seems to be her mother Irma (RE-ANIMATOR’s Barbara Crampton). But the more time we spend with Janie and her “mother,” the more twisted things become as the tests and punishments Janie endures get more intense. We are made privy to a few snippets of why Irma is so focused on studying and testing Janie’s stability as we see Janie getting restrained by multiple people after being discovered covered in blood, but for the most part, all fingers point to Irma as the big bad of the film. Things get kind of complicated when Irma decides to let Janie out into public and do things on her own. It is at this point of the film when we see that Janie isn’t the timid victim she seems like in the first half of this film. Revealing anything more would not be fair to this nightmarish view into a very unwell mind.
When done well, psychological horror can hit you harder than a million gallons of blood and gore. This is the case with SUN CHOKE which from the beginning had me by the throat and never let go. Seeing Crampton’s Irma put an electrified dog collar on Janie and force her to do Yoga to calm her nerves is absolutely riveting. Janie’s thinly sliced sanity chipping away at the slightest breeze is entrancing as well. Crampton is electric here and proves that this beautiful actress may have some of her best performances in front of her—she certainly commands every scene she is in here.
But it’s Sarah Hagan that is the real surprise here. She has an alien beauty to her than makes it hard to look away from her, even when she is doing the most despicable things. It seems as if she hasn’t aged since her stint as Millie Ketner on FREAKS AND GEEKS with her plain long brown hair and even plainer face that seems like it’s never worn makeup in her life. Seeing this delicate wallflower suddenly sprout thorns is gloriously engrossing to witness.
Director/writer Ben Cresciman tells an intimate tale of madness here. The film is soft and fragile one minute—pointed and harsh the next. It’ a film that defies expectations and is as dangerous as it is beautiful. Unfolding like an origami flower made of sandpaper, SUN CHOKE pulls you in and squeezes relentlessly until the twisted ending that will leave creases in your brain that will be impossible to smooth out.
New this week in select theaters, On Demand, and iTunes from RLJ Entertainment!
THE MIND’S EYE (2015)Directed by Joe Begos
Written by Joe Begos
Starring Graham Skipper, Lauren Ashley Carter, John Speredakos, Larry Fessenden, Noah Segan, Matt Mercer, Michael A. LoCicero, Jeremy Gardner, Patrick M. Walsh, Brian Morvant, Josh Ethier, Susan T. Travers, Chuck Doherty, Jesse Dufault, Graham Reznick
Reviewed by Mark L. Miller aka Ambush Bug
Joe Begos burst onto the scene a short while ago with ALMOST HUMAN (reviewed here) an ode to John Carpenter which modernized Carpenter’s style, subject matter (specifically THE THING and maybe a bit of STARMAN), and even swiped the font for the title credits. Some felt this homage was a bit too on the nose, while others felt it was the emergence of a fresh new voice in horror. This year, Begos is making waves once again with another film that lifts quite a bit from films like David Cronenberg’s SCANNERS, Brian De Palma’s THE FURY, and maybe a bit of FIRESTARTER and THE DEAD ZONE tossed in there, but still offers up enough fun to make it much more than just parts from previous genre films.
The film follows the troubled life of Zach Connors (played by the almost-too-much-looking-like-Elijah-Wood-that-it’s-scary Graham Skipper—who starred in Begos last film) who is picked up by the police as he wanders through a small town, much like John Rambo in FIRST BLOOD. After a run-in with he cops where Zach displays telekinetic powers, Zach is put on the radar of Dr. Slovak (John Speredakos), who runs a clinic that specializes in treating people with psychic powers. In this clinic is Rachel (the always amazing and beautiful Lauren Ashley Carter from DARLING and POD), Zach’s missing girlfriend who also has powers of her own. Agreeing to return to the clinic with Slovak, Zach uncovers the doctor’s true intentions, which is stealing spinal fluid from the psychokinetic patients for selfish means. After a bold escape from the clinic, Zach and Rachel must face a psychokinetic-powered-up Slovak and his thuggish guards in order to regain their freedom.
Because there have been iconic horror movies made from this subject matter, comparisons are going to be many to those films I listed above in the first paragraph. And while they are valid comparisons, instead of accusing a lift, I feel Begos did a fantastic job of diluting what made those films about psychic phenomena so effective and was able to put together a really fun action and intrigue flick with a whole lot of gore and a ton of genre actors be sloshed with it. No horror fan should be disappointed as this film does a lot of the things SCANNERS did and while I give Cronenberg credit for the masterpiece that is SCANNERS, I found this film just as fun. Yes, there is a slo-mo exploding head, but man, does it come at a time in this film that fits perfectly with the intensity of the action going on. There’s a lot of really soppy, gooey gore in this film and I applaud Begos for going for broke with the wet stuff in this hard edged actioner. While the scope is pretty small, and most likely the budget was as well, money was spent on effects and they are definitely worth every penny.
The other appeal to this film is that it stars some of the most loved faces in indie horror at the moment. Lauren Ashley Carter doesn’t have as much to do here as she did in POD and DARLING, but what she does is great, providing the heart of the film with Rachel’s relationship with Zach. Graham Skipper is damn great here as the lead and John Speredakos fills the shoes of the villain comfortably with a lot of growling menace. But the smaller roles are filled out with folks of equal talent such as the Godfather of modern horror Larry Fessenden as Zach’s Dad, THE BATTERY’s Jeremy Gardner as a jittery guard, CONTRACTED’s Matt Mercer as a fellow patient in the clinic, THE DEAD GIRL and STARRY EYES’ Noah Segan as a guard with powers of his own, and I especially enjoyed the down to earth snark from ALMOST HUMAN’s Michael A. LoCicero as another guard at the facility. All of these familiar faces showing up in one movie makes this a genre fan’s treat.
THE MIND’S EYE also offers up a synth score and special sound effects that take this film to another level of cool. The sound effects used to exemplify when powers are being used is very cool as is the Carpenter-esque synth music played throughout, once again calling back to the 80’s. Sound is important here as most of the time, the camera is being focused on two guys grunting at one another as they try to fight each other with mind power. This could come off as goofy as hell, but with some finessed usage of sound effects, music, and editing, these scenes of mind battle come off as exciting rather than laughable.
One thing I noticed is that there’s an awful lot of spitting in THE MIND’S EYE. Unless Begos is going for a specific gimmick or inside joke, I’d advise the filmmaker to watch the amount of saliva being hacked forth from mostly all of his actors. Loogeys are spat in faces in defiance and down at fallen opponents by almost everyone in the cast and it got to be quite fun to predict who is spitting at who as this film proceeded. That said, THE MIND’S EYE is yet another example of how filmmaker Begos is able to make big time horror on a low budget. Someone give this guy more money. If ALMOST HUMAN and THE MIND’S EYE are any indication, Begos is bound for greatness in the world of horror.
And finally…howzabout another chilling episode of the LIGHT’S OUT Radio Plays? This one is called ORGAN! Enjoy!
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 15 years & AICN HORROR for 5. Follow Mark on the Twitters @Mark_L_Miller and on his new website collecting posts for AICN HORROR as well as all of the most recent updates on his various comic book projects on MLMillerWrites.com.
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