BARE BONES: THE STYLIST (2020)

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THE STYLIST (2020)

Claire (Najarra Townsend) is a lonely and emotionally troubled hairstylist who likes to live vicariously through the lives of her clients. She also murders those clients and scalps them, to wear later on when she is home pretending to be them. Maniac much, Claire? Her latest target of obsession is client Olivia (Brea Grant), who is about to be married and wants Claire to do her hair for the wedding. Will Olivia live happily ever after, or get the worst hairstyle ever on her big day?

Film is directed by Jill Gevargizian from her script along with Eric Stolze and Eric Havens. It’s a perfect example of a familiar story made fresh with an innovative and creative touch by a talented filmmaker. At it’s core, it’s a routine story about an emotionally troubled, demented and lonely individual, who forms an unhealthy and dangerous obsession/attachment to others. Sure, we’ve seen it before, but not quite like this. Gevargizian not only bathes the film in a lush visual style, with some very impressive shot composition, but gives it’s characters some nice depth, making Claire in particular sympathetic in her loneliness. Sure Claire is a demented young woman who murders those she obsesses with and keeps/wears their scalps, but we do feel sorry for her and she is almost likable, despite her homicidal activities. She is not a monster, but an incredibly damaged and sad human being. Olivia isn’t perfect either, despite being in the role of obsession/potential next victim, she can be a little selfish and self absorbed. When Olivia, at one point, rejects Claire, we do feel bad for her, even if we expect she’ll resort to violence and she does. The director and writers avoid the stereotypical character portrayals usually present in these types of tales. Gevargizian also climaxes her gory and tragic story with a gut punch ending. Even if it’s not beyond expectations, it still hits hard and shocks. It resonates as the credits role. The cast is very good, with a wonderfully demented and sad performance by Najarra Townsend (Contracted). It’s her show and she carries it beautifully. Great work from the actress in making Claire human and keeping her from simply being a monster. The cinematography by Robert Patrick Stern is absolutely amazing and there is a really great score by Nicholas Elert. Definitely worth watching.

Flick is currently showing exclusively for subscribers on ARROWPlayer.com, but should be available for VOD streaming elsewhere in June.

-MonsterZero NJ

3 star rating

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BARE BONES: LUCKY (2020)

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LUCKY (2020)

Writer May (an excellent Brea Grant) believes a man is stalking her. Each night he appears and breaks into her house and she has to fight him off. Her husband Ted (Dhruv Uday Singh) seems to be very glib when discussing it, to the point where he leaves May and goes to stay with his parents, when she confronts him about his cavalier attitude. Even the police don’t seem to be taking her very seriously. Feeling abandoned and alone, May decides to deal with it in her own way, as each day the mysterious stalker (Hunter C. Smith) returns. Is this all in May’s head?…or is someone really out to hurt her?

Film is directed by Natasha Kermani, who gave us the interesting Imitation Girl, from a script by star Brea Grant. The film is partially commentary on how female victims of sexual assault, or harassment, become the ones under scrutiny and who have to prove themselves amid disbelief. May constantly fights to be believed and finds herself having to defend herself to everyone around her. Lucky is also about living in constant fear after such a trauma and learning to confront those fears. With each encounter, May becomes stronger and more resilient, as the mysterious attacker gets bolder and more violent. The people around her also become more and more dismissive and are of no help, so she is on her own. If it seems like something is a bit off here, with so many people not believing and even patronizing May, you would be right. It’s a slasher film as a metaphor for trauma and it’s effects. If there is anything predictable about the unconventional Lucky, is that this obviously isn’t going to end like a typical slasher movie and everything is not what it outwardly seems. We also know from early on there is more beneath the surface than Kermani and Grant are telling us, or plan to tell us. There is no spoon feeding here, or revelatory reveal. It’s up to the viewer to fill in the blanks and the pieces are there if you want to put them together. The film may ultimately be unsatisfyingly ambiguous to some, but as someone who grew up in a household with an abusive parent, the film’s messages about alienation, trauma and living in fear are well received, as are those of learning to face those fears and fight back. Another bold and innovative film from Kermani and a strong, clever script by Brea Grant. Lucky is streaming on Shudder.

-MonsterZero NJ

3 star rating

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HORROR YOU MIGHT HAVE MISSED: THE VIGIL (2019)

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THE VIGIL (2019)

Supernatural horror steeped in Orthodox Jewish culture comes from Blumhouse Productions and is released by IFC Midnight. The story tells of Yakov (Dave Davis), an emotionally troubled young man, who has left his Orthodox Jewish background and is out of work, in therapy and on medication. He is offered much needed money to be a Shomer for the night, someone who, in Jewish tradition, watches over and prays for the recently deceased till dawn. As he watches the body of a man called Litvak, he starts to realize there may be something malevolent in the house with him.

Yes, this story does evoke the classic flick The Viy, but is most definitely it’s own thing. The film is written and directed by Keith Thomas and is a very impressive feature debut. Thomas creates tension from almost the first scene by first establishing Yakov’s emotional and financial duress, but also then the tension between he and the members of the Orthodox Jewish community that want him back. Once Yakov enters the house, he finds out the first Shomer left in fear and the widow, Mrs. Litvak (Lynn Cohen from Feast of the Seven Fishes), doesn’t want him there, either. As the spooky goings on in the house begin to escalate, Thomas lets us know that not only did Yakov witness the death of his little brother as a result of a hate crime, a death he feels responsible for, but that the recently deceased Mr. Litvak (Ronald Cohen) was obsessed with combating a demon called a Mazzik (Rob Tunstall). Thomas knows how to create an atmosphere of dread and knows how to generate chills simply with his camera. The combination of lighting, spooky sets and shot composition, go a long way in making this flick very spooky all in itself. There are some familiar tropes that come with these type of demonic haunting flicks, but Thomas knows how to use them very well and knows when to mix in some new twists, such as demonic manipulation of Yakov’s cellphone. The entity uses Yakov’s past trauma and the voices of those he trusts against him and it is scary stuff. Add to all that a really effective score by Michael Yezerski (The Devil’s Candy) and some very unsettling cinematography by Zach Kuperstein (The Eyes of My Mother) and you have a legitimately scary movie.

The small cast is also very good, with Dave Davis pulling out a very strong, emotional performance of a man already on the edge, being pushed by something unearthly. He makes Yakov sympathetic, so we connect with him and feel badly as the demonic presence really puts him through the ringer. We also are behind him when he digs deep into his abandoned faith to fight back. Solid work! Lynn Cohen can be very spooky as Mrs. Litvak, a woman suffering from loss and a touch of Alzheimer’s, but also somewhat likable as we get to know her. Menashe Lustig is also good as Reb Shulem, an Orthodox Jewish community leader who wants Yakov to return to them and gives him this job as a way of coercing him back. A very good cast.

Keith Thomas delivers what might be the first truly scary horror flick of 2021. Despite the flick playing festivals and internationally since 2019, it is only now being released here in the U.S by the awesome folks at IFC Midnight. It is simply a good, old fashioned, scary movie that uses atmosphere, tension and some super creepy camera work to scare you. Thomas builds a lot of tension before the scares even begin and gives us an emotionally troubled main character to get put through a truly hellish night. All his characters have some history and depth to them, that the telling of which is woven cleverly into his simple, but layered story. A very spooky, scary horror with some nice emotional depth behind the proceedings, a refreshingly different cultural perspective and some really effective use of the familiar tropes and trappings. Keith Thomas is definitely a filmmaker to keep an eye on. The Vigil is available to stream on Amazon Prime and other streaming outlets, while also in a limited theatrical release.

-MonsterZero NJ

Rated 3 and 1/2 (out of 4) candles.

 

 

 

 

 

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BARE BONES: MONSTER HUNTER (2020)

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MONSTER HUNTER (2020)

Video game based flick tells of parallel worlds, our own and one ruled by monsters. U.S. Army Captain Natalie Artemis (Milla Jovovich) and her squad of soldiers are on maneuvers in the desert, when a mysterious storm throws them into that other world. There, her team is quickly decimated by the monstrous inhabitants and she is left wounded and alone. To survive, Natalie must form a reluctant partnership with a local warrior (Tony Jaa) while trying to find out how to get home alive.

Adaptation is written and directed by Paul W. S. Anderson in his usual competent but by-the-numbers style. There really isn’t much of a story here, but when you go to see a movie called Monster Hunter, you don’t go looking for Shakespeare. There are plenty of interestingly designed monsters, their havoc and carnage is abundant and there are enough battles to keep one entertained during the 103 minute run time. The SPFX are well done, especially the CGI critters and Jovovich makes for a satisfactory heroine, as she learns to fight the local wild life. When all is said and done, not much is accomplished and the film has an annoyingly open ending, but there are enough fun monster skirmishes to pass the time and a nice variety of beasties to gawk at. The film is also visually engaging, with an effective production design and there is a cool score by Paul Haslinger. Fun, but forgettable. Also stars Ron Perlman in a small role as a warrior chieftain of this lost world.

-MonsterZero NJ

3 star rating

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BARE BONES: WILLY’S WONDERLAND (2021)

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WILLY’S WONDERLAND (2021)

When a tough loner (Nicolas Cage) gets his tires suspiciously blown out in the rural town of Hayesville, he’s coerced into paying off the repairs by spending the night cleaning up WIlly’s Wonderland, a shut down family restaurant looking to reopen. Once inside, the animatronic characters become lethally animated and “The Janitor” must fight for his life. He’s joined by a group of tough teens, led by the strong-willed Liv (Emily Tosta), who are looking to destroy the place once and for all. They inform him he has been tricked into being a human sacrifice to this now evil establishment founded by a Satan worshipping serial killer (Grant Cramer). Will any of them get out alive?

Flick is directed by Kevin Lewis from a script by G. O. Parsons and both script and director play this amusing premise straight and let the material provide the fun. It is a good time to see Cage as the silent loner…literally, he has no dialogue…who seems to be quite a match for the demonic animatronics. Our teens arrive to up the body count, though Liv is there to give exposition on how this place came to be a sacrificial killing ground and the town’s dark little secret. Emily Tosta actually makes a solid heroine as Liv and she keeps up with Cage quite nicely. It’s too bad she gets left out of the action in the last act, but it is Cage’s show. As for the veteran actor, he never goes too far over the top and the ambiguousness of his character works in the film’s favor. The flick makes no apologies, or excuses, for what it is…Nicolas Cage and a young hottie battling serial killer possessed animatronic puppets. It moves quickly at only 90 minutes and its fun and delightfully gory. It could have been a little more energetic, but is far better than the disappointing Banana Splits movie which was similar in story and tone. Also stars Beth Grant as the town’s sheriff and Ric Reitz as Willy’s current owner, Tex.

-MonsterZero NJ

3 star rating

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HORROR YOU MIGHT HAVE MISSED: IN SEARCH OF DARKNESS PART II (2020)

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IN SEARCH OF DARKNESS PART II (2020)

In Search of Darkness was a four hour documentary about 80s horror films from producer/creator Robin Block and writer/director David A. Weiner and you’d think after that lengthy runtime, they’d have said all there was to say about horror of that era…you’d be delightfully wrong. The 80s was a prolific time for horror and filmmaker David A. Weiner and his parade of interviewees are back for another four plus hours of in-depth coverage and this time, profiles some of the more obscure films, as well as, some of the classics that got left out in the last documentary.

Sequel documentary follows the format of the first one, covering each year of the decade and some of the films made during that that year. Weiner and his illustrious guests also cover sub-genres of 80s horror, such as nature run amok, Italian horror, Hong Kong horror, horror/comedy, kid centric horror and even acting techniques, while discussing another host of classics, cult classics and hilarious misfires, from the most prolific decade in horror. They even cover horror video games! Once again we get scenes from a vast number of films, including some of the more lesser known flicks like The Boogens, The Being, Alone in the Dark and even Don Dohler’s Nightbeast. A lot of the interview subjects return from the previous part, such as Robert Englund, Barbara Crampton, Kane Hodder and Fangoria Editor in Chief Phil Nobile Jr, but we also get some new perspectives like those of actors Robert Rusler, Gedde Watanabe, Clancy Brown, Nancy Allen, director Jackie Kong and rocker/wrestler Chris Jericho, for example. Actors, directors, FX legends, along with contemporary horror critics and bloggers, all provide their own point of view. As with the last installment, the mix of 80s personalities with some of the new generation horror fans, who have embraced the horror films of this decade, makes for a nice variety of perspectives. The stories from filmmakers and actors of the time are a lot of fun and informative, as are the tales of discovery and analysis from the new generation of horror lovers, such as Daily Dead’s Managing Editor Heather Wixson. The documentary even covers some more controversial subjects, such as the proliferation of gore and violence, nudity, sex and the extensive use of rape scenes as plot devices in numerous films. No tombstone goes uncovered. It’s a wonderful retrospective that really does not feel as long as it is and is delightfully uncensored in both scenes shown and commentary made by it’s multitude of guests.

As with the last In Search of Darkness, four and 1/2 hours sounds like a daunting sit to do all at once…not that you have to…but if you are a fan of these movies, or someone who is old enough to have been in a theater seat during this awesome decade of horror, then it is a great way to spend an afternoon or evening. This second chapter…and yes, we’d sit through a third!… is almost more interesting and involving, as it covers some of the more obscure titles and foreign films, so even the most hardcore horror fanatic might see footage, or hear of a title, for the first time. A must watch for horror fans of any age and a sequel that is an equal in some ways and surpasses it’s predecessor in others. As said before, bring on In Search of Darkness part III!

Both documentaries are available on Blu-ray for a brief time at https://80shorrordoc.com/ and the first documentary can be watched on Shudder.

MZNJ PERSONAL NOTE: Being old enough to have been in a theater for a lot of these flicks, not only did this documentary sequel, once again, take me back to my favorite era of movies, but actually brought to my attention a couple of flicks I missed. Bravo Robin Block and David A. Weiner!

-MonsterZero NJ

Rated 3 and 1/2 (out of 4) hockey masks.

 

 

 

 

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BARE BONES: THE EMPTY MAN (2020)

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THE EMPTY MAN (2020)

Flick opens in 1995 with a group of four friends (Aaron Poole, Jessica Matten, Virginia Kull and Evan Jonigkeit) backpacking in the Himalayas. After one has an encounter with a strange skeleton in a cave, the trip goes horribly wrong. The film then picks up twenty-five years later with an emotionally troubled detective (James Badge Dale) trying to find a missing girl. His investigation leads him to a cult who are trying to conjure a malevolent supernatural being they call The Empty Man.

Ridiculously long and generic horror is directed by David Prior from his own script, based on a comic series by Cullen Bunn and Vanesa R. Del Rey. It is basically yet another movie that has someone evoking some sort of boogeyman. A generic and routine boogeyman The Empty Man is at that. With a 137 minute runtime, this film is at least 40 minutes too long and is a tedious chore to sit through, as it is neither scary, nor involving. It’s definitely nothing new. Of course the opening scene…that could have simply been done as a flashback…links to what is going on in present day. No surprise there…or anywhere for that matter. Other than a cast that tries hard, flick is generic, routine and simply way too long, thus giving little to recommend. Boring waste o.

-MonsterZero NJ

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BARE BONES: THE FUNERAL HOME (2020)

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THE FUNERAL HOME aka LA FUNERARIA (2020)

It’s trouble enough for funeral home owner Bernardo (Luis Machín) to have a normal family life with having married abused widow Estela (Celeste Gerez) who has a rebellious daughter, Irina (Camila Vaccarini). It’s harder still, with the house being filled with the supernatural presences of those being given their final rest and having to appease them before they move on. A home filled with spirits is unsettling enough, but Bernardo and his new family now have to deal with a malevolent presence that has moved in with them. Who, or what, is it and why has it come here?

Argentine haunted house flick is chillingly written and directed by Mauro Iván Ojeda. It has loads of atmosphere and Ojeda fills his tale with some very spooky images and unnerving moments, as this already haunted family tries to find out why something darker has targeted them. There are some interesting reveals and the story evokes the recent horror tales from Indonesian filmmaker Joko Anwar, as it is filled with dark family secrets and occult activities, as a catalyst for the current supernatural hijinx. There are a lot of familiar elements and the basic story is nothing new, but Ojeda uses and presents them well and with his own slant. The film can also get a bit bloody, especially in the last act. Spooky flick is available to rent on Amazon Prime and also stars Susana Varela as Ramona, the family’s paranormal medium. Recommended!

-MonsterZero NJ

3 star rating

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BARE BONES: SAINT MAUD (2020)

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SAINT MAUD (2020)

Story finds emotionally troubled hospice nurse Katie (Morfydd Clark) strongly embracing a Christian faith in response to a traumatic experience and now referring to herself as Maud. She comes to care for ailing dancer Amanda (Jennifer Ehle) who is dying of cancer. “Maud” feels she needs to save Amanda’s soul before she passes away…at any cost.

Interesting and effective film is written and directed by Rose Glass. There are some disturbing scenes and imagery, as “Maud” comes to truly believe she is doing God’s work, despite a sometimes bitter and resentful Amanda. The story is a slow burn and it is a very dour and disturbing film, as we watch the troubled girl trying to force her saving on a woman whose life is slowly and painfully fading away. It’s not an easy watch, nor is Maud’s reaction to Amanda’s rejection of her efforts and eventual firing of her. It’s not a pleasant flick and even at only 83 minutes in length, is very methodically paced. It’s overall an effective movie, that is well directed by Glass and very well acted by it’s female leads, but not one that you wouldn’t want to visit again.

-MonsterZero NJ

3 star rating

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BARE BONES: A HAUNTING ON WASHINGTON AVENUE: THE TEMPLE THEATER (2014)

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A HAUNTING ON WASHINGTON AVENUE: THE TEMPLE THEATER (2014)

Paranormal documentary has the members of the Seekers paranormal investigation team investigating the Temple Theater in Saginaw, Michigan. The nearly 100 year-old theater is said to be haunted and there are numerous eyewitness accounts and stories to substantiate the claim.

Documentary is directed by Seekers team leader Steven ‘Prozak’ Shippy, who is from Saginaw. Ironically, Shippy’s first documentary, A Haunting on Hamilton Street, made it’s premiere at the Temple. The documentary gets off to a bit of a slow start, but does pick up somewhat in the second half. Still, none of what we see, or hear, is anything new, or anything that we haven’t seen, or heard before, on countless paranormal investigative shows. Truth be told, the documentary is fairly uneventful aside from some typical random object movements, orbs, a few shadow figures and EVP messages, which are routine for this kind of material and too spaced out to make this consistently creepy. The setting has atmosphere, with the century old theater and it’s maze of passageways and the system of tunnels built beneath it, once used for bootlegging. Sadly, Shippy and his team, though, can’t conjure up anything really intense or scary, despite trying hard. There are a couple of spooky clips towards the end, but at that point, it’s too little and too late to make this the scary treat fans of this stuff look for. Entertaining, but nothing we haven’t seen before.

Personal Note: While this documentary didn’t thrill me, I also caught Shippy’s A Haunting in Saginaw, Michigan. Did it bring the chills and scares I was looking for this time? Review forthcoming!

-MonsterZero NJ

2 and 1-2 star rating

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