MONSTERZERO NJ’S SATURDAY NIGHT DOUBLE FEATURE: THE THING 2011 and THE THING (1982)

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In celebration of snagging what appears to be the last Target exclusive NECA MacReady action figure on the shelves, I’ve decided to make a double feature out of Carpenter’s classic and it’s prequel…

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THE THING (2011)

John Carpenter’s The Thing is one of my all time favorite movies. It’s a classic and arguably Carpenter’s masterpiece. So, I tried to put the audacity aside that someone would attempt a prequel and went in trying to view this film on it’s own merits as much as possible. Ultimately, since it’s trying to be part of that film’s story, you kind of have to compare and my mind constantly made such comparisons all throughout. Overall, I wasn’t that impressed, but also didn’t hate it and over time, it has grown on me as a sort of amusing companion piece. Still, obviously far from a classic like it’s predecessor.

2011’s The Thing takes place in the Norwegian camp that is seen briefly in Carpenter’s film in smoldering ruins. It details their finding of the alien ship and it’s passenger in the ice and it’s subsequent escape and infiltration of the camp and assimilation of various members. The Norwegians are joined by some American’s including Mary Elizabeth Winstead as Paleontologist Kate Lloyd, Eric Christian Olsen as scientist Adam Finch and Joel Edgerton as helicopter pilot Sam. Aside from Ulrich Thompson as lead scientist Dr. Sander Halvorson, the rest are interchangeable and generic characters that serve mostly as body count. Only Winstead really tries to make Kate a more rounded character, but she isn’t given much to do but look concerned, or scared, or both, till the last act.

This is where The Thing fails to assimilate the 1982 perfectly as it’s title creature would. Director Matthijs van Heijningen Jr. fails to generate much suspense or create the kind of paranoia that fueled the 82 classic. He does create a bit of a sense of dread, but for the most part, he directs this “prequel” competently, but very by-the-numbers. There’s very little of the kind of tension Carpenter built during his film, even though the situation is basically the same. Even if he was trying to craft a film that was more it’s own “thing” he still doesn’t have the directing chops to really pull it off. The film has a nice visual style, there are some well done action sequences and they did do a good job of matching sets and events to link up with the film this is a prequel to, but it still doesn’t come close to Thing ’82.

Heijningen doesn’t get that much help out of his actors either. Other than Winstead and Edgerton, most of them pretty much perform on ‘paycheck’ levels and there are none of the memorable characters like Carpenter’s eclectic bunch. Well, at least there should be some cool monster stuff, right? Not quite. All this talk of practical effects during production was nonsense, as 90% of what we see is CGI, or enhanced with CGI, and it’s only a few levels about your average SYFY channel movie. So even the monster evokes no emotion, because it looks like what it is, phony. And to be honest, the designs lack the impact of Rob Bottin’s now legendary work. Even at their weakest moments, Bottin’s creature transformations generated awe or disgust. You’d think they’d take advantage of almost 30 years of technological advancement in movie effects, yet the creatures have little impact. And, speaking of our alien star, we are never given much more information about the creature than we already know from Thing ’82. They totally blow the opportunity to add to the creature’s mythos.

I’ll admit, there were a few scenes I liked, especially toward the end where the camp is thrown into all out combat with our computer generated invader and there are some clever bits like one involving tooth fillings. I also liked Winstead’s Kate as our lead. I think Winstead is capable of strong roles and it’s too bad she’s wasn’t given stronger stuff till the last act here. She makes a credible heroine. The end credits nod to the Carpenter flick is the best stuff in the movie. At least the lead-in stuff worked very well and the film ends on a spooky note as we know what comes next…a far superior movie.

In conclusion, I didn’t hate this flick, but would only recommend it as an amusing curiosity or a mindless popcorn monster flick as long as you forget about it even trying to stack up to the Kurt Russell classic. The Thing 2011 did have almost impossible shoes to fill and while it falls far short of the mark, it’s also not the complete disaster it’s made out to be. Best “thing” about the movie is that it is a lead-in to Carpenter’s flick, so you can always watch that afterwards.

-MonsterZero NJ

2 and 1/2 (out of 4) flame thrower wielding cuties!

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THE THING (1982)

Arguably John Carpenter’s best film and his masterpiece, The Thing  was a remake of Howard Hawks’ 1951 classic The Thing From Another World, which was itself based on John W. Campbell’s story Who Goes There? Instead of using the 1951 film’s walking, blood sucking alien vegetable, he went back to Campbell’s story which featured an alien creature capable of imitating whatever it fed on.

Carpenter’s film opens with an isolated American research station in Antarctica being buzzed by a Norwegian helicopter that seems to be trying to gun down a lone sled dog. The incident results in the helicopter being destroyed and both raving occupants being killed, one by the station commander Gary (Donald Moffat) in defense of his crew. Now the team including helicopter pilot MacReady (Kurt Russell) are stuck with a bizarre mystery and the surviving sled dog. When MacReady and Doctor Copper (Richard Dysart) investigate the Norwegian camp, they find it destroyed, it’s occupants dead and a huge hollowed out block of ice…not to mention a burned corpse of something barely human. The investigating of the evidence indicates the Norwegians found a strange ship in the ice and brought a specimen back to their camp that apparently was not dead when thawed out. The real nightmare is yet to come as the Norwegian dog reveals itself to be something quite unworldly and that an alien creature with the ability to absorb and become it’s prey may now be among them…or worse, may be one or more of them already. The paranoia and terror grows as the team try to discover who may be a creature in disguise and the creature feeds their paranoia and seeks to eliminate any of the men with the scientific knowhow to unmask it. Can those still human stop it and if they fail, what will happen to the rest of humanity?

The Thing is both a masterpiece of suspense and tension, as well as, of visceral horror. Carpenter, along with Bill Lancaster’s script, perfectly creates the paranoia of not knowing who around you is human and who is not. The setting of isolation is made all that apparent as Carpenter seals his characters in an ice and snow surrounded maze of hallways and dark rooms where the 12 men are trapped with something very inhuman and they can’t even trust each other, as it could be anyone. The team all suspect each other, but as is human nature, turn to those they like for support and turn on those they may have not liked or not gotten along with before. We have 12 men who are social outcasts thrust into a situation where no one is coming to their rescue and they are forced to not only try to save themselves, but literally save the planet, as their failure to stop this creature will unleash it upon an unsuspecting world. Just so we fully understand the enormity of this creature’s threat, we are treated, via make-up FX master Rob Bottin (and Stan Winston who created the dog kennel creature), to some of the most gruesome creature transformation sequences ever filmed. Bottin convinced Carpenter to not go with a standard true form for the creature design, but an organism that is constantly changing and different once revealed and is made up of parts of all the beings it has absorbed during it’s journey through space. The results are visually horrifying and still hold their full impact even today. All this is brilliantly filmed by cinematographer Dean Cundey and accented by a haunting score by Ennio Morricone…who later voiced disapproval of how Carpenter used it. It is said the prominent electronic bits were actually written by Carpenter, though a lot of Morricone’s music is still used.

As for the human players, obviously this is Kurt Russell’s show, as he plays a man who is reluctantly forced to try to save a world he seems intent on hiding from and does so, honorably and selflessly. With 12 characters not everyone is given a lot of attention, but the cast all handle their roles well in presenting a bunch of eclectic social misfits who would rather be in the antarctic than with the rest of the world. The standouts aside from Russell’s MacReady are Dysart’s Dr. Copper, Moffat’s Gary, who crumbles when he really needs to take charge, forcing MacReady to lead the rest, Keith David’s Childs and Brimley’s scientist Blair. Ironic, as Brimley has voiced his complete distain for the film. Maybe he should have read the script before signing on? Rounding out a solid cast are Richard Masur as Clark, David Clennon as stoner Palmer, Charles Hallahan as the meek Norris, Joel Polis as the quiet scientist Fuchs, T.K. Carter as the smart-ass cook Nauls, Thomas G. Waites as cowardly radioman Windows and Peter Maloney as complainer Bennings. Carpenter’s wife at the time, actress Adrienne Barbeau, also has a vocal cameo as the voice of MacReady’s chess computer.

The history of this film is as legendary as the film itself. The flick was critically panned for it’s gruesome gore FX and grim tone and audiences stayed away…not me, though, I saw it at least 3 times back in the day…and it has taken decades for it to finally be recognized as the masterpiece and classic it truly is. Simply a great horror/sci-fi film that has yet to be equaled.

-MonsterZero NJ

A classic 4 (out of 4) Things!

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MONSTERZERO NJ’S SATURDAY NIGHT DOUBLE FEATURE: GRIZZLY AND ALLIGATOR

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MONSTERZERO NJ’S SATURDAY NIGHT DOUBLE FEATURE: GRIZZLY AND ALLIGATOR

This installment of MonsterZero NJ’s Saturday Night Double Feature goes back to nature…nature run amok that is! Jaws inspired a number of animal on the rampage movies and along with Piranha, these two are among the best! Sure they are more B-movie level thrillers, but that’s all the more reason to love them, as mother nature strikes back with some of her most lethal critters!

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GRIZZLY (1976)

Grizzly is a 1976 Jaws rip-off that tells the horrifying tale of a massive 15 foot (the ads for the film say 18, but in the movie it is said to be 15) grizzly bear, who has wandered hungrily into a state park and begins snacking down on the campers and rangers alike. Chief Ranger Mike Kelly (Christopher George) has his hands full as he, Naturalist Arthur Scott (Richard Jaeckel) and war vet chopper pilot Don Stober (Andrew Prine) have to somehow stop the relentless carnivore.

Grizzly follows the template created by Spielberg’s thriller quite closely with our three leads being the Brody, Hooper and Quint characters who are hunting a vicious, yet seemingly very intelligent predator, while it racks up quite the body count of innocent victims. We get the greedy head of the park refusing to close the place down despite the deaths and bringing in a bunch of amateur yahoos to hunt the bear down. But despite the blatant similarities, Grizzly actually works on a B-movie level. As directed by William Girdler (Abby, The Manitou), Grizzly is actually an effective and surprisingly gory PG horror flick. While it never matches the tension of the movie it was clearly inspired by, it does entertain in more of a low budget slasher flick kind of way, with the rampaging bear filling in for Jason or Michael Myers. For a 2000 lb. animal, it sneaks up on people quite easily. There is never much attempt to explain why the animal is so big, or why it has come to this park to feed, except for a quick throw-away line suggesting it might be a throw-back to it’s prehistoric ancestors. But like with the shark in Jaws, the grizzly is effectively portrayed and it’s background is unimportant to the carnage it creates. A live bear was used in filming and the 11 foot “Teddy” is quite effective in the part along with a prop arm for up-close mauling. It is said that the crew coaxed the bear into it’s roaring stance by offering it marshmallows, adding the roar in post production. Works for me!

Sure there is some silly dialog and all the acting is not top notch, but the leads are veteran actors and give the material the respect it needs to work and their characters are all pretty likable. This, along with some effectively gory kills and a nice fast pace by director Girdler, turns this low budget rip-off into an entertaining B-movie that works well enough on it’s own. Made for a reported $750,000, Grizzly grossed almost $40 million. Not bad for a Jaws imitation that, when you add the 70s nostalgia factor, is actually a fun Saturday night B-movie horror thriller despite it’s rip-off roots.

-MonsterZero NJ

Rated 3 (out of 4) rampaging grizzly bears

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ALLIGATOR (1980)

(Remember, clicking the highlighted links brings you to other reviews and articles here at The Movie Madhouse!)

What happens when you combine a baby alligator flushed down the toilet and the corpses of dogs who have been experimented on with growth hormones and dumped into the sewers?…a 1980 horror flick/Jaws rip-off called Alligator. This fun monster on the loose flick takes place in Chicago with exactly that premise as Detective David Madison (the underrated Robert Forster) is trying to solve the mystery of body parts showing up at the sewer treatment plant and soon comes to discover…through the gruesome loss of a rookie partner…that there is a massive reptilian predator stalking the sewers of the windy city. Now with pretty herpetologist Marisa Kendall (a smoking hot Robin Riker) in tow, Madison must hunt the massive beast and expose the Slade Corporation whose illegal experiments have inadvertently created a monster…with an accelerated metabolism and appetite!

Directed by Lewis Teague (Cujo) and written with loads of wit by John Sayles (Piranha, The Howling) and Frank Ray Perilli, Alligator has just the right mix of seriousness and sly humor to tell it’s tale of a 36 foot predator in the sewers of one of America’s most famous cities. On the outset, the film is all business, but there are a lot of unobtrusive playful moments to let us know it’s all in fun…like the local merchants taking full advantage of the news frenzy of a gator on the loose in their city, or, Great White Hunter Col. Brock’s (a perfectly cast Henry Silva) choice of ‘guides’ to accompany him on his hunt through the city back streets. Very politically incorrect, but very funny. The film is unapologetically R-rated and we get some nice gore and carnage as our reptilian eating machine eludes capture, but not his dinner, and the creature itself is portrayed by a real gator on miniature sets or a fairly convincing mechanical mock-up. Teague creates some fun sequences, some solid and bloody action and some genuine suspense despite the goofy premise. He mixes the subtle humor and drama perfectly, while never overdosing on either. He also gets good work from his cast whose serious approach to the material helps us go along with the preposterousness of it all.

And while on the subject of that cast…the always strong Robert Forester gives us an every-man hero to identify with. He’s very likable and believable as a street-smart cop with some inner turmoil of his own, that adds depth to the character. And Forester gives it his all despite being basically in a giant alligator movie. Pretty Robin Riker is also solid as the pretty reptile geek Dr. Kendall and she is sexy and smart without ever becoming a helpless damsel. She and Forester have good on-screen chemistry and I loved the added irony that it is her alligator ‘Ramon’ flushed down the toilet 12 years earlier that she and Madison are now hunting. She’s never aware of this fact, but we are and it adds something to her character and the film overall. Henry Silva is hilarious as the arrogant big game hunter called in to track down and destroy the big guy and his eccentric Col. Brock is a hoot. Rounding out is Michael V. Gazzo, who is slightly over-the-top as Madison’s commanding officer and Dean Jagger who is perfectly arrogant and slimy as Slade, whose company has inadvertently created a monster. A solid cast that helps make this flick work.

I like this film. It’s another of the flicks scene at my beloved Oritani Theater and it is a fun monster movie made at a time where monsters where portrayed with charming in-camera prosthetics. John Sayles gives us another witty script that perfectly balances the fun with the more serious nature of this horror tale. The film never makes a joke out of it’s story, as guided by Teague, but never takes itself too seriously either, so we don’t forget to have a good time. It’s got a good cast and a reptilian predator who we almost root for. A really fun flick that has far more charm than the CGI overloaded SYFY beast run amok movies today’s audiences seem to think are so clever.

-MonsterZero NJ

Rated 3 (out of 4) alligators.

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MONSTERZERO NJ’S SATURDAY NIGHT DOUBLE FEATURE: EXTREMITY AND HAUNT

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MONSTERZERO NJ’S SATURDAY NIGHT DOUBLE FEATURE: EXTREMITY AND HAUNT

This installment of MonsterZero NJ’s Saturday Night Double Feature pairs two horror flicks, both set in extreme haunts. Aside from similar settings, both tales also present heroines who have emotional scars stemming from suffered abuses. Both films thus come with a more serious story to tell beneath the ones unfolding within the halls of these houses of horror!

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EXTREMITY (2018)

(Clicking the highlighted links brings you to corresponding reviews and articles here at The Movie Madhouse!)

It is the fate of glass to break-tattoo on the back of lead Allison’s neck

Latest film from Anthony DiBlasi (Last Shift, Most Likely To Die) finds emotionally troubled Allison (Dana Christina) wanting to free herself from her childhood traumas and face her fears. She turns to an extreme haunt called Perdition, to help her accomplish this. But will a trip through this hellish underground haunt free Allison of her demons…or unleash them?

DiBlasi directs from a script by David Bond which is based on works from Rebecca Swan. What we see unfold here is not only a story of childhood abuse and the long term effects it has on the victim, but a filmmaker taking what could have been a routine horror flick and give it some very solid emotional depth. As the film unfolds, we follow Allison and a young man named Zachary (Dylan Sloane) as they begin their journey of torment and terror at the hands of the Perdition crew, headed by their skull-masked leader (Chad Rook). We already know Allison is troubled and on medication, but as her cruel treatment commences, we are taken in gradual flashbacks to her past and the horribly abusive treatment by her alcoholic father. Her father’s treatment in the past often echoes her current treatment in the depth’s of the haunt. Bond’s script peals back the layers of our unstable heroine to portray a woman who has attempted suicide, has violent impulses and now attempts to purge her issues by facing everything she fears. Perdition, of course has it’s own plans for her and maybe pushing her too far may not be a good idea. We also get some surprising depth into the skull-masked leader, revealing a man with his own demons and giving us an interesting portrayal of someone who might run a haunt like this. It gives the film some weight, making it more than a parade of abusive treatment and brutal violence, especially when the last act gets bloody. Diblasi guides us through a tense and brutal ride, though one with a lot to say about the types of people who frequent these haunts and those who create them…and on a deeper level, about the effects of abuse and tragedy and how it shapes someone. As the Perdition crew continually up the ante on their abusive treatment of Allison, so does Anthony Diblasi keep showing us his versatility and depth as a filmmaker. It makes Extremity all the more effective, aside from Perdition being portrayed as a very scary place, with added emotional resonance beneath the intensity and bloodshed. As it heads toward it’s shocking and brutal climactic moments, we get some last minute reveals and surprises that are effectively shocking.

The cast are very effective. Dana Christina makes for an interesting heroine as the troubled Allison. She is both strong and fragile at the same time. She wants to handle her life long trauma on her own terms and she has chosen to face her fears dead on…and Perdition has a lot to fear in store for her. As the creator and operator of Perdition, Chad Rook portrays a man who enjoys the torment and fear of others on the outside, but is a three dimensional character on the inside with his own issues and tragic history. He’s not a true villain, but a man trying to deal with his own demons. In support Dylan Sloane is solid as the meek Zachary, there to face his own weaknesses. Ashley Smith is a fine femme fatale as bad girl, Nell, one of Perdition’s top “performers” and Ami Tomite adds a little bit of a break to the tension as an over ambitious Japanese reporter there to profile Perdition’s operation. A solid cast.

This is Anthony Diblasi’s most interesting film yet. He’s a filmmaker that has yet to disappoint and another director that people should be talking more about. Extremity tells an intense, cruel and sometimes brutal tale on the outside, while on the inside telling a bluntly honest story about abuse, tragedy and how they shape the recipients. A tough and intense film at times, but like it’s heroine, one that faces some serious subjects head on.

-MonsterZero NJ

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

 

 

 

 

 

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HAUNT (2019)

There have been a lot of horrors set in Halloween haunts as of late, from The Houses October Built to Hell Fest to Extremity, so, this Shudder produced flick needed to impress coming in with a concept that is already becoming familiar…and not only does it do that, it might be one of the best horrors this year.

Story finds pretty Harper (Katie Stevens) trying to part with abusive boyfriend Sam (Samuel Hunt) and heading out to party on Halloween night with friends Bailey (Lauryn Alisa McClain), Angela (Shazi Raja) and Mallory (Schuyler Helford). At a club, they run into a couple of guys, Nathan (Will Brittain) and Evan (Andrew Caldwell) and decide to leave with them to find a Halloween haunt, dragging a reluctant Harper along. They stumble upon one such haunt, in the middle of nowhere and soon find they may have picked the wrong haunt to haunt.

Flick is directed intensely by the A Quiet Place writing duo of Scott Beck and Bryan Woods, who also scripted here. It’s premise may not be novel at this point, but is carried out very effectively. It starts out tense with Harper putting on make-up over a bruise suffered from her alcoholic boyfriend and Bailey trying to convince her to finally break up with him. We find out in flashbacks that Harper’s father was also an abusive alcoholic and all this personal drama gives the character some emotional depth, much like Extremity‘s emotionally wounded Allison. We are thus sympathetic to Harper, and her friends, too, as they are all likable characters, especially when we start to realize those running this backwoods haunt are in it for some deadly thrills of their own. The pranks start out playful and then get mean spirited before becoming lethal. The violence is sparse, so it has impact when it occurs and there is some decent gore once things really start to get vicious…and Harper finally learns to stand up for herself and fight back. Beck and Woods build some good old-fashioned suspense and stage some nicely intense set pieces to put our likable leads through. Obviously, not all of them make it and killing off main characters makes us feel unsure about any of their safety. It adds to the suspense. The film looks cool and the sets are well rendered on what appears to be a modest budget. It has a Halloween feel and an atmosphere of foreboding throughout. The costumes for our haunt folk are creepy and they are equally spooky without their Halloween masks. We don’t get to know them very well, or their motives, but they come across as deranged and dangerous and that helps this work. Add to that a very cool score by Tomandandy, and you’ve got a very effective Halloween themed chiller that makes very good use of a now familiar setting. Any issues here are minor, such as the movie evoking some of the other haunt set flicks mentioned earlier and the addition of Harper’s jerk boyfriend Sam to the action in the last act, doesn’t really add anything to the proceedings. Otherwise this is a very solid horror.

The cast of fresh faces really helps this flick click. Katie Stevens is very impressive as Harper. She’s a girl with a painful past, dealing with her own issues and finally learning to fight for herself, when thrown into a nightmarish situation. The actress makes her likable and sympathetic and we’re totally with her when she goes on the offensive. Actress McClain is very likable as best pal Bailey. She’s a caring person and looking out for her friend makes her endearing to us. Will Brittain is a solid male lead and he is charming, handsome and his Nathan seems like the nice guy Harper really needs. This makes us like him and fear for him. Caldwell is fun as the obnoxious and bombastic Evan. This character could have been annoying, but script and actor avoid that by presenting his sarcastic humor in the right degrees. He is also brave when he needs to be. Raja and Helford get the least focus of the group, but the actresses make them extremely likable supporting characters with the scenes they have. The key to a horror flick’s success is feeling empathy for it’s main characters and here we do. It also needs effective villains and our masked haunters, Chaney Morrow as “Ghost”, Justin Marxen as “Clown”, Terri Partyka as “Witch”, Justin Rose as “Vampire”, Damian Maffei as “Devil” and Schuyler White as “Zombie” all give their characters a lethality from under their already effective costumes. Last but not least, Samuel Hunt makes the brutish Sam appropriately dislikable with what limited screen time the character has. A solid cast all the way around.

Overall, Haunt is a chilling and intense horror that overcomes the familiarity of a recent horror trend by simply being really good at what it does. It’s intense, scary, has some striking violence and gore and makes good use of it’s spooky setting. It gives us some very likable lead characters, including a three dimensional and sympathetic final girl, to root and fear for and some dastardly villains to be fearful of. Really solid horror and a very spooky surprise from Scott Beck, Bryan Woods, producer Eli Roth and those great folks at Shudder.

-MonsterZero NJ

3 and 1/2 (out of 4) creepy haunt hosts.

 

 

 

 

 

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MONSTERZERO NJ’S SATURDAY NIGHT DOUBLE FEATURE: THE DARK AND THE WICKED and THE VIGIL

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This installment of MonsterZero NJ’s Saturday Night Double Feature pairs two of the spookiest flicks to come out in recent months. Both features present persons who are either non-believers, or of lost faith, who are faced with a malevolent demonic presence. Both are extremely spooky and make for quite a scary MonsterZero NJ’s Saturday Night Double Feature!

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THE DARK AND THE WICKED (2020)

(Clicking the highlighted links brings you to corresponding reviews and articles here at The Movie Madhouse!)

Chilling horror finds siblings Louise (Marin Ireland) and Michael (Michael Abbott Jr.) returning home to their parent’s rural farmhouse, as their father (Michael Zagst) has taken gravely ill. Soon after, their mother (Julie Oliver-Touchstone) mysteriously commits suicide and upon reading her journals, the atheist brother and sister start to believe there is a dark and sinister force stalking their family.

Movie is written and directed by Bryan Bertino (The Strangers, The Monster) and is one creepy and unsettling film. The flick opens with some mood setting sequences that elude to the fact that there is something malevolent indeed stalking this house. As the siblings arrive and their mother’s suicide causes them to investigate what is going on, it becomes obvious that in her final days, their atheist mother began to believe something evil was after their ailing father’s soul. Bertino maintains a very unsettling atmosphere throughout the entire film and it really starts to get under your skin as the film progresses. It also makes it unnerving that these simple folk are atheists, yet come to believe something very sinister and supernatural is at work here. He turns up the tension and creep factor gradually, as farm animals are gruesomely harmed and visitors to the house, such as a very strange priest (Xander Berkeley), prove to not be what they seem. Some may not like that we never get a solid explanation as to who, what and why, but here it seems to serve the film’s dread-filled atmosphere to have the cause and exact nature of this malevolence remain somewhat ambiguous. The film has some shockingly violent moments and some really goose-bump inducing scenes and imagery. Bertino rarely uses jump scares, and crafts all of the scares we do get, which are frequent and very effective, with an expert hand. The flick rarely let’s you relax, much like the characters within it are constantly on edge.

As those characters, the small cast are very good. Lead Marin Ireland is very effective as the concerned and then very frightened Louise. The actress starts Louise out with a convincing performance as a woman conflicted and a little hurt by her mother’s demands that she stay away, but then someone who becomes very scared when it seems the things she doesn’t believe in may be all too real. Michael Abbott Jr. is also solid as her brother Michael. Unlike his sister, he has his own family to take care of and it’s no surprise the evil in the house uses that to it’s advantage, to separate and divide the brother and sister. Julie Oliver-Touchstone is quite spooky, as their haunted mother, in her brief screen time. Her performance helps set the tone for the film. Michael Zagst doesn’t do much as their comatose father, but he is an important character nonetheless and has some chilling scenes. Rounding out are a very creepy Xander Berkeley as a “priest” and Ella Ballentine (The Monster) is effective in what she has to do as farmhand Charlie’s (Tom Nowicki) granddaughter. A really good cast!

Overall, The Dark and the Wicked is definitely one of the best horror’s of the year and one of the most consistently creepy and unsettling horror movies in some time. Bryan Bertino keeps the unnerving atmosphere cranked up and gives us numerous sequences and events to chill and spook us. His frights are legitimate and he never resorts to cheap jump scare tactics to get a reaction out of us. Keeping his malevolent entity ambiguous only works in the film’s favor, as the director knows how to get under our skin and does so often. Even the cinematography by Tristan Nyby and the haunting score by Tom Schraeder is effective in giving us the creeps. Definitely one of the best horror films in a movie year where major new releases were few and far between and indie horror came to the forefront at drive-ins and on VOD. Now streaming on Shudder!

-MonsterZero NJ

Rated 3 and 1/2 (out of 4) ill-fated goats.

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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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MONSTERZERO NJ’S SATURDAY NIGHT DOUBLE FEATURE: PYEWACKET and THE WRETCHED

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This installment of MonsterZero NJ’s Saturday Night Double Feature pairs two flicks which tell spooky stories about troubled teens up against malevolent supernatural entities in rural settings. These two films were also lensed not too far apart from each other with Pyewacket in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, Canada and The Wretched about 115 miles across the border in Omena and Northport Village, Michigan! Grab some brews and enjoy this spooky double bill!

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PYEWACKET (2017)

Creepy supernatural thriller finds teen Leah (Nicole Muñoz) drawn into the occult after the death of her father. She and her mom (Laurie Holden) aren’t getting along, especially when her mother decides to sell the family house and move them out and away from Leah’s school and Goth friends. When at their new woods-set home, her mother lashes out at her during an argument and an angry Leah conducts an occult ritual evoking the dark spirit, Pyewacket, to kill her mom. Soon a regretful Leah learns the meaning of “be careful what you wish for” as something dark and evil has entered their home with malevolent intent.

This is a subtle and spooky as hell flick and certainly one of the best horrors of the year. Written and directed by Adam MacDonald (Backcountry) this is a chilling tale that shows that you don’t need jump scares or over-the-top gore to make an effective horror film. MacDonald bathes his film in atmosphere and uses his camera to evoke a pervading sense of dread, even in broad daylight. He creates an already tense situation as both Leah and her mom, are each handling the death of Leah’s dad in different ways and not very well. There is friction and while Leah turns to dark music and an interest in the occult, her mom wants to have a ‘fresh start’ away from anything connected to him. This leads to some harsh words in their remote new home and Leah to dabble in something she isn’t prepared to deal with. Soon there are dark shadows lurking about the house and a visit from Leah’s tough, Goth girlfriend, Janice (Hellion’s Chloe Rose) has the girl leaving the house a terrified mess. As creepy as it is thus far, MacDonald saves the best for last with a truly unnerving final act as Leah attempts to send back what she’s conjured and let’s just say the malevolent spirit has other plans. MacDonald doesn’t resort to hokey FX or overused tropes, he simply serves up some nerve wracking moments with simple skilled camera work and some wonderful emoting from leading lady Muñoz. MacDonald, as with Backcountry , also knows how to make woods look ominous which adds to the atmosphere. And while ultimately we know where this story is headed, it’s still a shocking and unsettling finale that perfectly punctuates a very creepy film.

The small cast is very effective. As stated, Nicole Muñoz is very good as the emotionally wounded Leah. She creates a likable yet, troubled young woman who tries to sate her grief with death related interests. The only person she should be able to turn to for support is the one she is having the most problems with. Once she performs the ritual and awakens something, she gives us a very scared young girl with nowhere to run. Laurie Holden (The Walking Dead) is excellent as her equally troubled mom. She lashes out at Leah one minute, for simply reminding her of her husband and tries to be there for her daughter the next. The two actresses work well together creating a very dysfunctional dynamic between the two that makes this flick work. Rounding out the small cast is Chloe Rose as her friend Janice who has a traumatic sleepover at Leah’s new home and Eric Osbourne as Aaron, a boy interested in Leah.

Adam MacDonald has gone back to basics and made a very spooky, unnerving, yet down to earth horror movie. He wisely makes his scares very grounded and the fact that they are not presented in a theatrical and over-the-top manner makes them more realistic and thus more frightening. His leading ladies work well together in creating a fractured and troubled relationship between the mother and daughter, based on two completely different methods of mourning. Add to that a young girl delving into dark forces she doesn’t completely understand and certainly can’t control and you have a supernatural bone chiller that is refreshingly driven on what really makes a true horror film work…fear. This one will be on my best of the year list for sure.

-MonsterZero NJ

Rated 3 and 1/2 (out of 4) balls of red yarn.

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THE WRETCHED (2020)

Latest horror from IFC Midnight opens 35 year in the past, where a babysitter (Sydne Mikelle) walks into something horrible, thus setting the mood for what is to come. The film then brings us to the present where teen Ben (John-Paul Howard from 14 Cameras and Snatchers) is going to live with his father Liam (Jamison Jones) in a remote lakeside town for the summer. His parents are separated and dad even has a new girlfriend, Sara (Azie Tesfai). His parent’s impending divorce is the least of his problems, though, as a witch has taken the form of the neighbor next door (Zarah Mahler) and she is not happy that she’s gotten Ben’s attention…but, who’ll believe him?

The Wretched is written and directed by The Pierce Brothers, Drew and Brett, and if it sounds like Fright Night meets The Witch, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. As with Charlie Brewster’s situation, we know from the start that there really is a witch, or Wretch (Madelynn Stuenkel) as she is listed in the credits, and a creepy wretch she is. Her true form is unsettling and much like her fairy tale counterparts, she likes to eat children and influences those around her to hide her creepy activities. Obviously, Ben is having a hard time convincing anyone his neighbor is a supernatural creature, even cute teen Mallory (Piper Curda), who has caught his eye, is highly skeptical. Ben’s behavior, as of late, hasn’t been exemplary and this is just seen as another bad reaction to his parents separation. There are some spooky moments, as The Wretch stalks her prey and closes in on Ben, and there is some very effective gore and make-up FX throughout. If there is anything on the downside here, it’s that the film never gets really scary or intense till the last act, when Ben is forced to confront his nemesis head on. It’s still a fun horror movie and not without some chills in the meantime. It also has a couple of nice twists, some unselling atmosphere and the Pierce’s have a great visual eye for horror aesthetics. We may have seen the twig and bone sculptures before, but they are still effective here. The occasional violence is equally effective, because it is used sparingly and has impact when it does occur. The film looks great. The Pierces are Michigan natives and utilize the Omena and Northport Village, Michigan locations very well to give the film a refreshing look as to it’s settings. The cinematography by Conor Murphy is excellent, especially in the supernatural scenes and the score by Devin Burrows suits the film very well.

The film is very well cast. John-Paul Howard is really good as our lead. He’s a likable teen and even if he is troubled and his parents separation is getting the best of him, we sympathize and still like him. A good performance, as Howard carries a lot of the film. Piper Curda is cute and spunky as Mallory. She’s sweet, but has a nice sarcastic sense of humor. Jamison Jones is solid as Ben’s dad. He’s trying to be understanding to Ben’s behavior, but at the same time, wants him to accept the way things are and adjust. Zarah Mahler is very good as hot mom next door turned witch Abbie. She’s sexy and and a little eccentric before The Wretch wears her skin, and can crank up the spooky once she does. Rounding out the main players, Azie Tesfai is good as the girlfriend caught in the middle of family drama, Sara, and one must mention Madelynn Stuenkel, who effectively performs under SPFX make-up as The Wretch in true form. The supporting cast including the kids are all good, here. A good cast.

This flick may not be quite as scary as we wanted and we have seen this story before, but there is still a lot to entertain here. It’s a fun horror, has some very spooky sequences and The Pierces know the tropes and aesthetics of this type of flick and use them well. The make-up and gore FX are very effective and the cast all perform their parts nicely. Add to that a spooky visual style and some great, fresh locations and The Wretched is a fun and recommended horror flick from directors to keep an eye on.

-MonsterZero NJ

Rated 3 (out of 4) candles, which no witch alter would be complete without.

 

 

 

 

 

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MONSTERZERO NJ’S SATURDAY NIGHT DOUBLE FEATURE: HAPPY DEATH DAY and HAPPY DEATH DAY 2U

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While talk of a third installment goes back and forth, the two current installments of Blumhouse’s comedy/horror franchise are a lot of fun when paired together. So, if you’re looking for something light and more fun, but don’t want to completely leave the horror genre, this is an entertining Saturday Night Double Feature…

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HAPPY DEATH DAY (2017)

(Clicking the highlighted links brings you to corresponding reviews and articles here at The Movie Madhouse!)

College student Theresa (Jessica Rothe) is having a really bad day…over and over again. She wakes up in the dorm of a strange guy, she’s mean to those around her, she’s sleeping with one of her professors, it’s a birthday she doesn’t want to face and someone is trying to kill her…and does. But Theresa keeps waking up at the moment of her death, starting the day all over again. She soon realizes that if she is to break the loop, she has to find out who this masked killer is and stop them. Easier said than done if there weren’t so many people who might want her dead.

Obviously, the Groundhog Day routine with reliving the same day over and over has been done to death, but here it’s literally. Director Christopher B. Landon knows we’ve seen it all before and takes the derivative ball and runs with it. Landon is helped by a fun script he co-wrote with Scott Lobdell and a sassy stick of dynamite leading lady in Rothe’s Theresa. As it starts out, Theresa is an unlikable mean girl…though her mean quips are very funny…but as she embarks on her journey of identifying her masked killer and ending this loop, it takes her from snotty sorority girl to sarcastic and feisty heroine. It’s a blast to watch Theresa as she meets each day head on and each time finds a new piece of the puzzle, all the while discovering things about herself. If it sounds corny, it is and Landon knows it and revels in it. He also delivers some solid suspense, some intense action and a few surprises on the road to Theresa’s final confrontation with the killer in her midst. It’s also kind of fun to watch the spunky girl die over and over again in different ways, only to have to do it all again with increasing frustration. The humor and suspense are perfectly mixed here, making it all the more enjoyable. This is a prime example of a filmmaker taking familiar elements and having a good time with them and not just re-using them in a by-the-numbers manner. The result is a fun slasher/thriller with a very hip sense of humor and a heroine to really endear to and root for.

As for our leading lady, Jessica Rothe is having an outright blast with the plot contrivances and owns this flick from start to finish. She introduces us to a mean, snarky, sorority princess and slowly transforms her into a smart, sarcastic and resilient final girl, who grows with each repeat of the ill-fated Monday the 18th. She is firecracker of a leading lady and really makes even the corniest elements of her transformation believable, such as her having the courage and tenacity to face a killer head on. It’s her show and she handles it like a boss. In support is a charming turn by Israel Broussard, as Carter, the boy she wakes up with and bonds with over her dilemma. The two have a nice chemistry on screen and their forming relationship works very well. The rest of the cast is also solid with Rachel Matthews as Theresa’s even meaner sorority sister Danielle, Ruby Modine as her sweet and verbally abused roommate Lori, Charles Aitken as her professor/lover and Rob Mello as a captured serial killer who may, or may not, be her masked murderer.

So, maybe this is not the most original film in terms of story, but it knows it and just runs with it. Christopher B. Landon…who wrote four successive Paranormal Activity sequels and also directed the Marked Ones spin-off…has really sharpened his craft by having a blast with he and Scott Lobdell’s clever slasher variation on the Bill Murray classic…which is playfully acknowledged in the film. It’s a fun movie that succeeds beyond it’s means thanks to a filmmaker who gets how to handle the material and a star-making performances by leading lady Jessica Rothe.

-MonsterZero NJ

Rated 3 and 1/2 (out of 4) baby-faced killers.

 

 

 

 

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HAPPY DEATH DAY 2U (2019)

(Clicking the highlighted links brings you to corresponding reviews and articles here at The Movie Madhouse!)

Sequel pics up right after the first flick with Tree (Jessica Rothe) cozying up with Carter (Israel Broussard) and all being well until roommate Ryan (Phi Vu) starts to relive his own murder over and over. Tree finds out her previous predicament and Ryan’s current one are as a result of Ryan and friends science experiment that effects time…just not in the way they planned. An effort to kill the loop sends Tree back to Monday the 18th again, only this time in an alternate universe.  She’s reliving her death all over again, only in this dimension Lori (Ruby Modine) is no longer the killer, Carter is dating Danielle (Rachel Matthews) and her mother is still alive. Can Tree get back to her normal dimension…and does she want to?

As you can guess by the plot description, Happy Death Day 2U sends the slasher elements to the background and focuses more on a Star Trek-ian/Back to the Future-esque tale of alternate timelines and other dimensions. It’s still fun, though shifting the focus also mutes some of the chills and thrills that made the first film such a treat. There is a lot of entertainment to be had and they have fun with the expanded concept, but this seems more like a cinematic episode of The Big Bang Theory with a slasher sub-plot. Christopher Landon again directs well, though this time from his own script and seems to want to play more with the whole alternate timeline thing and guide the story away from the slasher elements. A mid-credits scene hints that a part 3 will veer away even further. There was also a brief flirting with dopplegangers, but that disappears quickly, which is a shame as Tree being stalked by other alternate reality selves sounds like it would have been a hoot. If the film is missing anything, it’s the intensity the slasher elements brought to the table in the first film. The mix was more even in Happy Death Day and this sequel could have used a bit more.

Jessica Rothe is again a blast to watch though she shares the film’s focus with other characters and isn’t always the center of attention. The actress also proves again she is a leading lady with talent and can do drama, comedy and kick some ass, too. Israel Broussard is still charming and likable as Carter. The alternate reality version is pretty much the same guy, except for dating Rachel Matthews’ Danielle, who is a lot nicer in this other dimension. Matthews gets more screen time and gets to perform some slapstick comedy in one of the sillier sequences. Phi Vu gets a far more expanded role and is fun as Ryan and Suraj Sharma and Sara Yarkin play two of his nerdy lab partners/friends.

In conclusion, the sequel is not an equal, but not a disappointment either, unless you were expecting more of a horror film. There are some amusing sequences, some fun character interaction and even a little heart-tugging drama to go with the occasional dips back into slasher territory. On the downside it is slower paced, the killer was easy to guess and horror fans might not be happy with all the science geek quantum this and quantum that mumbo jumbo. Leading lady Jessica Rothe is still at least every bit the firecracker and if there is a three-quel, hopefully she is not pushed to the sidelines or lost in an ensemble piece. A fun movie thought maybe not what you might go in expecting. Stay through the credits for that mid-credits scene.

-MonsterZero NJ

Rated 3 (out of 4) baby-faced killers.

 

 

 

 

 

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MONSTERZERO NJ’S SATURDAY NIGHT DOUBLE FEATURE: LAID TO REST and CHROMESKULL: LAID TO REST 2

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The Laid To Rest flicks are contemporary slashers that have a bit of a following in the horror community. So what better choice for a MonsterZero NJ Saturday Night Double Feature than both of these gory slashers from director Robert Green Hall…

LAID TO REST (2009)

Flick opens with a pretty young woman (Bobbi Sue Luther) awakening inside a coffin. She has no memory and no idea how she got there. Before she has a chance to figure things out, she is attacked by a deranged killer (Nick Principe) with a chrome skull mask and a nasty serrated knife. She barely escapes with her life and is pursued into the night by this madman. She picks up a few allies along the way, in friendly local, Tucker (Kevin Gage) and nerdy, Steven (Sean Whalen), who try to help her escape him. The killer relentlessly pursues her and those trying to help her, murdering anyone that gets in his way. Who is he and why does he want her dead?

Gory slasher is written and directed by make-up FX man and musician Robert Green Hall and is a perfect showcase for his PostHuman FX special effects shop. First and foremost, this is a very gory flick and that gore is very well designed and rendered. Gore fans will enjoy the inventive and very realistic looking kills. It’s not an overly scary film, but there is some intensity in the attack and chase scenes. Chromeskull is an imposing villain and there are some likable characters to fear for, such as our final girl, dubbed “Princess” by Tucker, and Tucker himself, of course. The film moves fast, looks good on what is probably a very modest budget and there is plenty of action. To a degree it’s also a chase film, as we move from location to location with Chromeskull in hot pursuit. Princess is chased from one house to another, makes her way back to the funeral home and then finally to the blood-spattered conclusion at a gas station/convenience store. It’s an economical 90 minutes and delivers plenty of the blood and gore fans look for. If there is any flaw the film has that holds it back a bit, is going all out with the gore from moment one. By starting right off with the brutality and extreme bloodletting, by the time the third act rolls around, we are getting a little numb to it. Otherwise, this is a brutal, bloody and entertaining slasher flick from Robert Green Hall.

The cast are all fine here. Curvy and cute Bobbi Sue Luther makes a fine heroine as “Princess.” Her real identity is kept secret and she is a strong and resilient woman, once her situation sinks in and she decides to survive. Kevin Gage is good as local man Tucker. A likable man just wanting to help out a young girl in trouble. Whalen is also solid as the whiny, timid Steven. The recent death of his mother makes him especially sensitive to the death and murder going on around him. Nick Principe, who was the pig-masked killer in Madison County, is an imposing killer as Chromeskull. We don’t get too much background on him, but he is effective. There are some familiar faces playing killer fodder. Game of Thrones’ Lena Headey is Tucker’s ill-fated wife, legendary Richard Lynch is a funeral director in league with Chromeskull, A Nightmare on Elm Street 2010’s Thomas Dekker is Tommy, a convenience store customer and Johnathon Schaech is Tucker’s ill-fated brother in-law. A good cast.

Maybe not a classic, but Laid To Rest is a solid enough slasher that gets the job done. Its extremely gory and it’s inventive and graphic kills are exceptionally done. It may pull the trigger on it’s brutality and graphic demises a little too soon, though, where a build up would have been more effective. Otherwise, it has an effective killer, a likable cast and moves quickly, and at times, with intensity.

-MonsterZero NJ

Rated a gory 3 (out of 4) Chromeskulls.

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CHROMESKULL: LAID TO REST 2 (2011)

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Sequel finds that Chromeskull has a well financed and equally disturbed support team run by a man named Preston (Brian Austin Green) and a woman named Spann (Danielle Harris). They resuscitate the masked killer and have a team of surgeons restore him as best as possible. Preston tracks down and kills “Princess” (now Allison Kyle), while Chromeskull sets his sights on new girl Jessica (Mimi Michaels). Jessica is brought to his new lair and so is Tommy (Thomas Dekker), the only survivor left from the last movie. As Chromeskull prepares to play with his new toys, dissension between Spann and Preston threatens to tear this evil organization apart, while the police close in.

Flick is also directed by Robert Green Hall from his script with Kevin Bocarde. It’s a bit of a letdown after the first flick. The impressive gore and kills are still there in abundance, but putting Chromeskull in charge of a sinister James Bond meets Jason Voorhees organization, complete with minions, takes away a lot of the killer’s mystique. He’s a mystery in the last film, now we may find out a bit too much. The bickering between Spann and Preston isn’t interesting, as we know where that will lead, and having the flick set basically in the same location for 90% of the movie, also makes it very stagnant. The last flick was basically one long chase. Here, it’s basically a standstill with victims sitting around waiting for their teased demise…which, for some, doesn’t even come. There are some effective bits, but it never really feels like a slasher flick. That’s one thing the last film did well. 

The cast are fine. Nick Principe is effective again as Chromeskull, but it’s how he’s used and what he’s involved in that looses the character a lot of steam. Thomas Dekker gets a bigger role and is good as Tommy, now the hero of the flick. Mimi Michaels is really good as final girl Jessica. She’s pretty and sweet and unfortunately, isn’t given much to do but cry and look scared for most of the movie. The one setting keeps her put till the end and only gives her one scene where she shows some resilience. Green and Harris are going through the motions as Chromeskull’s feuding minions and Johnathon Schaech appears again, this time as an F.B.I. agent.

Second flick is sadly a disappointment from the fun and gory first flick. While the inventive and well-rendered kills remain, the setting and story not only keep the film grounded in one spot, but strip Chromeskull of a lot of his mystique by turning him into a James Bond villain, complete with pontificating minions. The rivalry between his first and second in-commands adds nothing and only succeeds in taking time away from the final girl, who basically sits around crying the whole movie. Despite the end setting up a an interesting possible third installment, Chromeskull has yet to return.

-MonsterZero NJ

Rated 2 and 1/2 (out of 4) Chromeskulls.

 

 

 

 

 

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-MonsterZero NJ

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MONSTERZERO NJ’S SATURDAY NIGHT DOUBLE FEATURE: EQUINOX and THE EVIL DEAD

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MonsterZero NJ’s Saturday Night Double Feature is back! For years horror fans have discussed the similarities between the 1970 low budget flick, Equinox and Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead. Was this flick an inspiration for Raimi’s classic, or was it all a coincidence? We may never know exactly, but we can watch both films together and decide for ourselves…

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EQUINOX (1970)

Four college students (Edward Connell, Barbara Hewitt, Frank Bonner and Robin Christopher) venture into the woods to meet a professor (Fritz Leiber) who, unknown to them, has discovered an ancient book of evil. They find the cabin destroyed and once acquiring the book from a creepy old man (Irving L. Lichtenstein), find the devil himself is after them to get it back.

While this does sound like the plot of an Evil Dead film, it is actually the plot of the low budget horror, Equinox which was released in 1970. Over a decade before Raimi’s classic, the film does share a lot of plot elements, such as the students being possessed, here by the park ranger disguised Satan, and even the book itself is quite similar to Raimi’s Necronomicon. It’s never been stated that the film was an influence on Raimi’s flick, but Evil Dead effects artist Tom Sullivan admits seeing the film and it inspiring him to make movies. Draw you own conclusions.

Equinox is campy by today’s standards and is slow paced, unlike Raimi’s roller coaster ride, but there is some fun to be had and some nice SPFX for such a low budget flick. Equinox started out as a low budget short film, put together by three future FX legends, Dennis Muren, Jim Danforth and Dave Allen in 1967. It was made for about $6,500, from a story by Mark Thomas McGee and directed by Muren. So there is some great FX work for the time and budget, including some very cool stop-motion animated creatures, representing the Devil’s minions and Old Scratch himself in winged demon form. Producer Jack H. Harris saw their film and hired writer/director Jack Woods to film some new footage and expand the 70 minute short film into feature length and re-edit it. The film was finally released in 1970 as Equinox, shortened from the original title of Equinox…A Journey Into The Supernatural. I saw this as a kid and must admit it creeped me out back then. I watch it now and it’s more campy fun than scary, but it’s no denying that it is a valiant low budget effort, despite some very amateurish acting from the cast, including director Jack Woods, who also appears as The Devil in park ranger form.

This film, like Raimi’s, is now considered a classic. Whether it inspired Evil Dead or not, both films represent the achievement that future filmmakers can make on a micro-budget, if their hearts and talent are in the right place. Evil Dead fans should check it out for the interesting similarities, even if we may never know if Raimi indeed saw and was influenced by it, or if the familiar elements are just coincidence. It’s been released in a wonderful restored edition by the Criterion Collection, which includes the original short film and effects work that didn’t make the final cut. A campy, fun horror that gave the world, Dennis Muren, Jim Danforth and the late, great David Allen…and maybe…just maybe, Evil Dead.

-MonsterZero NJ

Rated A campy fun 3 (out of 4) blue giants!

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The original Evil Dead is one of my all time favorite horror movies, if not the all time favorite. I was fortunate enough to see it in a theater when it was released in 1981 and it changed how I looked at horror movies. This one was furiously paced, wildly inventive and delivered buckets of blood and gore, all on a shoestring budget. It launched writer/director Sam Raimi’s career and made a cult legend out of star Bruce Campbell.

The film opens as Ash (Bruce Campbell) and girlfriend, Linda (Betsy Baker) are traveling to vacation in a remote cabin with another couple, Scott (Hal Delrich) and Shelly (Sarah York), along with Ash’s sister, Cheryl (Ellen Sandweiss). When they get to the rundown cabin they find an old book and a tape recording, in the creepy cellar, that claims it is the book of the dead and wrapped in human flesh. Thinking it’s all a joke, they play the recording, which includes someone reading from the book and find out the hard way that it’s all too real, as they unleash horror beyond their imaginations. The quiet Cheryl is the first to be possessed, as she is attacked and literally raped by the trees during one of the film’s most talked about scenes, As the panicked bunch lock her in the cellar, it is only the beginning as they are soon possessed one by one by an ancient evil that can only be stopped by total bodily dismemberment. Let the fun begin!

The first Evil Dead did not have the heavy comic elements of it’s two sequels or recent series and what follows is a gore soaked roller coaster ride, when Ash finds himself the last man standing against his demon possessed friends. Raimi uses some fantastically inventive camera work and low budget gore effects to bring us Ash’s battle to survive against the people he once loved, in all it’s gory glory. The film is fast paced and once it starts, it never stops, as this classic turns the screws on it’s viewing audience with a barrage of scares, jolts and suspense, all bathed in buckets of blood. This was the first of it’s kind to use such a relentless and merciless attack on it’s viewers where most films at the time, like John Carpenter’s Halloween, or the original Friday The 13th, used a bit of a slower burn and more of a methodical pace to present it’s suspense and scares. Raimi paces this like an action flick. Carpenter did crank things up in the last act of The Fog, a year earlier, but it was still nothing like Raimi’s final act, as the outnumbered Ash refuses to “join us”, as his demonic assailants constantly taunt.

Evil Dead revolutionized horror to a degree and inspired some of today’s best young horror directors. Without it, we may not have a Blair Witch, Dead Alive or Martyrs. While we still get the occasional slow burn horror like Paranormal Activity and the films of Ti West and Stevan Mena, which is just fine, Raimi opened the door for horror filmmakers to take a far more aggressive approach and showed us horror can be deliriously scary, delightfully gory and just plain fun. A true classic that placed Raimi amongst the likes of George Romero and John Carpenter!

-MonsterZero NJ

Check out our review of the remake!

A solid 4 (out of 4) Ash salute!

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ALSO…

If you’ve got time, add Evil Dead II as a third feature, which also shares some amusing similarities with Dennis Muren and Jack Woods’ 1970 cult classic!

-MonsterZero NJ

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MONSTERZERO NJ’S SATURDAY NIGHT DOUBLE FEATURE: THE PROWLER and FRIDAY THE 13th:THE FINAL CHAPTER

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NYC born Joseph Zito

MonsterZero NJ’s Saturday Night Double Feature is back! This time our double feature consists of two 80s slasher classics from director Joseph Zito. Zito made three horror films in his career, including the 1980 Bloodrage, before leaving the genre to make action movies with the likes of Chuck Norris and Dolph Lundgren. Shame, these two are among the best examples of the slasher genre of the late 70s and early 80s.

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THE PROWLER (1981)

This 1981 slasher opens up in 1945 as soldiers are coming home from the war and we hear a young woman reading a ‘dear John’ break-up letter, intended for a boyfriend away on duty. We cut to Avalon Bay which is having it’s annual college graduation dance and a young couple leave the dance for a romantic walk. Their romance is cut short by someone dressed as a combat-ready soldier, who promptly runs the embracing couple through with a pitch fork, leaving a rose in the female victim’s hand. We then pick our story up in 1980 where the Avalon Bay Graduation Dance is being revived after having been halted 35 years earlier by the father of the murdered girl, Major Chatham (Lawrence Tierney). Someone is reviving another activity from that night, as a killer dressed in military gear descends on the partying co-eds with bayonet and pitchfork and starts leaving a bloody trail of bodies and roses behind. Can sweet Pam (Vicky Dawson) and her deputy boyfriend Mark (Christopher Goutman) stop this deranged killer, or will they join his list of victims?

Directed by Joseph Zito, who is mostly known for directing the fourth Friday The 13th flick and two of Chuck Norris’ biggest hits Missing In Action and Invasion U.S.A., this bloody slasher follows the 80s slasher format very well. We get a bunch of nubile young intended victims being stalked by an unbalanced killer with a grudge, who is dispatching them in gruesome and versatile fashion. We also get a pretty young heroine to serve as our ‘final girl’ and the doomed slutty girls who’ll show us their boobs! Zito also manages to serve up some suspense and some tension, too. He’s not the most stylish director, but his directing here is far less by-the-numbers than his Norris action flicks. And there is some decent cinematography from frequent Zito D.O.P. João Fernandes. The horror genre seems to suit Zito better than his generic action movies. The film has some atmosphere, a touch of Scooby-Doo-ish mystery and it is an entertaining 90 minutes of horror that represents the era well. It’s not perfect, we really aren’t given enough suspects, or red herrings, to make it really interesting, though when we do get the big reveal, it is still kind of a surprise. We never really get to know the victims all that well, so most of their deaths have little impact other than Tom Savini’s still effective gore FX.

The cast are fine, even though we only really get to know Pam and Mark. Actors Dawson and Goutman make them likable enough. The rest are generic horny college kids, who are there to be victims and they serve that purpose well. Vet Tierney doesn’t get to have any lines, despite the film implying he’s a suspect, so not sure why they even hired a name actor for the part.

In conclusion, The Prowler is still one of the better slashers of this era. Maybe not in the same league as Halloween, or the original Friday The 13th, but it is a solid enough slasher and is a fun and nostalgic sample of the type of film made in the early 80s before films like Evil Dead, ScannersRe-Animator and A Nightmare On Elm Street took horror in new directions. A fun, gory example of what made 80s slashers fun. Extra credit for filming in my home stomping ground of New Jersey!

Rated a solid 3 (out of 4) pitchforks!

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WARNING: this trailer does show a lot of plot elements…

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FRIDAY THE 13th: THE FINAL CHAPTER (1984)

Friday The 13th: The Final Chapter is one of my favorites of the sequels and the one that comes closest to matching the original. The film saw not only a return to the more serious tone and atmosphere of the original film, but with the return of Tom Savini to the make-up FX duties, also brought back the more intense and graphic kills and gore.

This entry opens right where Part 3 left off with Jason (stuntman Ted White) and his victims carted off to the morgue from the Higgins place only to have Jason revive and escape, but not before gruesomely murdering two horny hospital employees. We then switch to two houses deep in the woods near Crystal Lake, one occupied by single mother Mrs. Jarvis (Joan Freeman) and her daughter Trish (Kimberly Beck) and young son Tommy (Corey Feldman), the other occupied by a group of partying youths on a make-out and drinking getaway. A certain someone has returned home to his stomping grounds and now has targeted both young partiers and innocent family alike. Will any of them survive his relentless rage?

This installment brought in The Prowler director Joseph Zito and he brings the suspense, atmosphere and intensity to the proceedings that made that 1981 slasher one of the more entertaining of the time period. He comes very close to providing an equal to the original Friday with what was supposed to be Jason’s final film. The kills are brutal, as well, and with Savini’s return, the make-up FX are quite inventive and gory. Zito leaves some of the lighter humor that appeared in Part 3 behind and it keeps the atmosphere taunt and foreboding, as it should be. The film also added an interesting plot element in the character of Rob (Erich Anderson), who at first seems like a hunter/camper, but turns out to be the vengeful brother of a girl murdered by Jason (Sandra played by Marta Kober from Part 2) and he is now stalking the lethal serial killer with the intent of ending his reign of terror. One of the film’s few faults is the confrontation between these two could have been a bit more epic. The character of young Tommy (Feldman) being a bit of a geek/make-up artist also adds a fun twist to the proceedings.

As for the rest of the characters, this bunch are a lot livelier then most of the generic victims and with the inclusion of Crispin Glover in one of his most ‘normal’ roles as a shy teen and 80s movie fixture Judy Aronson as a one of the babes, we get a nice group of likable, horny teens to fall under Jason’s varied weapons. It gives their deaths impact because we like them and the young cast give them life and personality. Also stars Hell Night’s Peter Barton as one of the party goers who meets Jason’s wrath and the score is one again by Harry Manfredini.

A really good entry in the series and by far the best of the sequels.

MONSTERZERO NJ EXTRA TRIVIA: There is a small mistake here in this installment. When driving past a graveyard, they spot Mrs. Voorhees’ tombstone which has her date of death being 1979. But, as we all know, she actually died on Friday June 13th, 1980 by having her head removed by final girl Alice in the original Friday The 13th.

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

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MONSTERZERO NJ’S SATURDAY NIGHT DOUBLE FEATURE: EX MACHINA and ANNIHILATION

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MonsterZero NJ’s Saturday Night Double Feature is back again, this time with the two feature films from writer/director Alex Garland. For those who like visually striking and thought-provoking science fiction, read on…

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EX MACHINA (2015)

(Remember, clicking the highlighted links brings you to other reviews and articles here at The Movie Madhouse!)

Ex Machina is a great little thought-provoking piece of Sci-Fi from Alex Garland, who wrote the cult favorite Dredd and the equally thought-provoking Sunshine. It’s his first directorial effort and as such, it shows he is as adept behind the camera as he is the keyboard.

The film opens with Caleb Smith (Domhnall Gleeson), an employee of the internet company Bluebook, being chosen to spend the week at the remote home of the company’s CEO Nathan Bateman (Oscar Isaac). Caleb arrives and finds this is not a social event, but he is there to assist in testing a Bateman created artificial intelligence housed inside a very life-like robot named Ava (Alicia Vikander). Though as Caleb begins his test to see if the A.I. is truly self-aware or just responding to programming, he starts to believe that Nathan may have a dark side and there may be far more to Ava than mere machine.

To describe the story anymore would be to ruin a really interesting and entertaining piece of Sci-Fi from British writer/director Garland. The film obviously takes us to places that we originally did not expect from our opening sequences and certainly more than one character, human and/or machine, may be more than they first appear. Garland brilliantly guides us into his set-up and gets us very interested and emotionally invested in what’s going on and then, slowly starts to pull the rug out from under us, gradually, so we at first don’t realize it. Does Bateman have a hidden agenda?…does Caleb?…or does Ava? It’s a subtle but intense journey to find out what is really going on in this remote home/research facility and one that leaves us thinking about where artificial intelligence ends and sentient life begins. It’s a subject also touched upon in last year’s equally intriguing The Machine, but Garland doesn’t bother going onto the broader implications of A.I. as weapons or something as equally cliché or grandiose, but goes deeper than that to a far more intimate and emotional arena. Just how human can these creations get…and what effect will that have on us? Where does programming end and legitimate emotions begin? Where is the line and when does it disappear?…and what if it does? Do we treat these ‘machines’ as such, or as humans? Garland definitely posses a lot of intriguing questions while skillfully entertaining us with a story that can be equal parts endearing and disturbing. On a technical level, this modestly budgeted thriller has a really interesting visual style with a stark contrast of the gorgeous Norway locations used for the exterior sequences and the colder and more sterile interior of Bateman’s home/lab. The interiors sometimes evoke Kubricks 2001: A Space Odyssey with it’s almost sterile and functional interior design that contrast it’s occupant with Bateman’s, casual, shoeless and unshaven appearance. Garland has a nice eye for shot framing and it is captured well by cinematographer Rob Hardy whose lighting adds a lot of mood and atmosphere. There is also a very moody electronic score by Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow and the special visual FX are excellently carried out in presenting Ava and some of the more fantastic elements. A very impressive production on a limited budget.

The cast is excellent! Domhnall Gleeson is perfect as the programmer whisked into the lair of his company CEO and shown wonders he never expected. He obviously starts to have feelings for Ava and the actor makes you believe these feelings are real…and you understand his actions based on them. Oscar Isaac creates an eccentric yet brilliant man with his Nathan Bateman. He is also a man that seems troubled and may have a very dark side and Isaac let’s that bubble just below the surface before our story really starts to show Bateman’s true nature and agenda. As Ava, Alicia Vikander is totally enchanting. We understand how Caleb can start to fall for her, despite her being a machine and Vikander makes her innocent, yet intelligent and gives her a charm and vulnerability which is very convincing…and distracting. Rounding out is Soyona Mizuno as Bateman’s personal assistant Kyoko, who doesn’t speak any English and Mizuno gives her a nice air of mystery that suits the story tone.

In conclusion I really loved this movie. It’s thought provoking, skillfully crafted and keeps one intrigued and guessing. It is intelligently written, but avoids pretension and it can be very very entertaining and a bit disturbing when it needs to be. Definitely made my list of best films of the year for 2015.

-MonsterZero NJ

  Rated 4 (out of 4) Avas.

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ANNIHILATION (2018)

Biologist and former soldier Lena (Natalie Portman) hasn’t seen or heard from her commando husband Kane (Oscar Isaac) for over a year. When he finally shows up at her door sick and disorientated, a black ops team abducts them both to a secret location designated Area X. There Lena finds out there is some sort of disruption called “The Shimmer” surrounding an area of land with a lighthouse being it’s point of origin. This “Shimmer” is slowly growing and everything and everyone sent into it has never returned…except for Kane. Now Lena volunteers to join a four women scientific team, Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh), Josie Radek (Tessa Thompson), geologist Sheppard, (Tuva Novotny) and Thorensen (Gina Rodriguez) to enter The Shimmer and find out what is going on inside. What they find is beyond belief and whatever it is, it’s changing the DNA of all lifeforms trapped inside it as it expands.

Another well directed sci-fi flick from writer/director Alex Garland (Ex Machina), this one from a book by Jeff Vandermeer. Not only is the film visually stunning, but thought-provoking, suspenseful and sometimes downright scary, too. Garland’s script only feeds us information a little at a time so we learn about The Shimmer and it’s effects on life, much as our four explorers do. The further they go into the anomaly, the more mutated the plant and animal life seems to get…and dangerously so. Along the way they visit an abandoned military base and an evacuated town where even more mysteries and abominations are presented to us. Add to this a group of women who are slowly coming apart at the seams and you have a sci-fi chiller that, at times, evokes the fear and paranoia of John Carpenter’s The Thing. We know it’s all coming down to a visit to that lighthouse at the center and what awaits us is chilling to the bone. On a production level, the film has some top notch visual FX and to add atmosphere to an already atmospheric film, is some wonderful cinematography from Rob Hardy and a fitting score by Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury, who did the same for Garland on Ex Machina.

The cast is top notch. Portman’s Lena is a somewhat emotionally complex character. She’s a woman who has had no word from her husband in a long time and even then there were complications in their relationship. Now he reappears and is in bad shape and needs her help. Add to that a woman already interested in biology and cellular activity and it creates a character with both scientific and personal reasons to go on what could be a suicide mission. Portman handles it very well. Leigh is strong as the group leader and another woman with her own personal reasons to enter The Shimmer. She’s tough and strong and can be hard on the others, but she never reaches villainous levels. Tessa Thompson is the emotionally weakest of the group and she is sweet and very likable and the first to bond with Lena. Rodriguez is the tough paramedic, Anya Thorenson. While she is a strong character, she is in over her head in terms of what her mind can accept of what she sees and the actress plays it well. Novotny’s Sheppard is a likable character as the team geologist and another character that bonds with Lena on this out of this world journey. Rounding out is Oscar Isaac who plays a lot of the role of Kane in a disoriented state, except for flashbacks when he is himself and does it well. A dependable actor.

There is very little to complain about here with a film that is a return to more thought-provoking science fiction. It is also a visually stunning ride, a suspenseful journey into a dangerous unknown and sometimes, a simply scary flick. We have a solid cast of strong female characters who each have their own reasons for going where only one has returned. It’s well-written, intensely directed and shows, like Ex Machina, that Alex Garland is a cinematic force to be reckoned with and a filmmaker who walks to the beat of his own drum.

-MonsterZero NJ

Rated 4 (out of 4) lighthouses.

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