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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HORROR YOU MIGHT HAVE MISSED: THE DARK AND THE WICKED (2020)

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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.

-MonsterZero NJ

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

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BARE BONES: THE STRANGERS: PREY AT NIGHT and HUNTING EMMA

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THE STRANGERS: PREY AT NIGHT (2018)

Sequel to the disturbing The Strangers, finds couple Cindy and Mike (Christina Hendricks and Martin Henderson) going with son Luke (Lewis Pullman) on a road trip to bring troublesome daughter Kinsey (Bailee Madison) to boarding school. They stop at an uncle’s trailer park for the night and soon find themselves hunted by three masked individuals.

Original film director Bryan Bertino steps aide and lets Johannes Roberts (47 Meters Down) take the helm, though he does write the script with Ben Ketai. The result is a more routine slasher flick, but one that does have some effective scenes, especially in the last act When Kinsey goes on the offensive. It’s entertaining enough and has some very violent moments, though is held back by characters doing some very dumb things…even for a horror flick. It’s also hard to believe that a character afraid to pull the trigger in one scene, would suddenly find the balls to stab someone repeatedly a scene later. In fact, why introduce the gun into the scenario at all when it’s never fired, lost quickly, and doesn’t become a factor? Roberts does direct competently and as slashers go, it gets the job done well enough, but is nothing memorable like the original home invasion flick.

-MonsterZero NJ

2 and 1-2 star rating

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HUNTING EMMA (2017)

South African thriller finds peace-loving, school teacher Emma (Leandie du Randt) heading across the Karoo to go visit her father (Tertius Meintjes). When her car breaks down in the middle of nowhere, she happens across the murder in progress of a police officer (Drikus Volschenk) by a gang of six vicious drug dealers. Now Emma finds herself pursued across the wilderness by the gang, who don’t realize that Emma’s father was a special forces soldier and he taught his daughter everything he knows.

Very similar to the recent Revenge, this flick is directed solidly by Bryon Davis, though from a weak script by Deon Meyer. The script has not once but twice, a male character having the advantage over Emma, but putting down his weapon to teach her a lesson either bare-fisted or by engaging in an old school, Western-style gunfight. It’s silly. At these points in the film, Emma’s proven she’s dangerous. Are these guys that in need of macho validation? Secondly, the script assumes we’re too dumb to get the point and after numerous flashbacks of Emma learning survival tactics from her dad, there is a painstakingly long exposition scene with her dad explaining this all to a friend (Albert Maritz) in explicit detail. We already got that she’s a bit of a Rambo in Daisy Dukes, it’s completely unnecessary and adds ten minutes to a film that would have benefited from a slightly tighter edit job. The bad guys are quite routine, though the film does entertain and leading lady du Randt is solid and likable as the wolf in sheep’s clothing, Emma. A tighter script that didn’t insult our intelligence would have made this a lot better as the action and violence is effective.

-MonsterZero NJ

2 and 1-2 star rating

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HORROR YOU MIGHT HAVE MISSED: THE MONSTER (2016)

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THE MONSTER (2016)

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

The Monster is the latest flick from writer/director Bryan Bertino who made the harrowing home invasion flick The Strangers and the more recent found footage horror Mockingbird. In his latest film, he tells the story of young Lizzy (Ella Ballentine) who is going on a road trip with her selfish, alcoholic mother, Kathy (Zoe Kazan), to visit her father…a trip her mom knows Lizzy is not planning to return from. The two have a tumultuous relationship at best and Kathy’s reliance on booze and jerk boyfriends isn’t helping. When traveling in the rain on a deserted backwoods road, they have an accident and help will take some time to arrive. The worst is yet to come, though, as there is something stalking the woods they are now stranded in and it is large, vicious and very hungry.

Bertino creates tension long before his mysterious creature arrives by giving a harsh view of what life is like for young Lizzy with her mom. Just from the opening scene we see how disappointed and angry the young girl is with her mother, who is just too wrapped up in her own life to make a better life for her daughter. As the two travel, we are treated to some grim flashbacks of Kathy’s drinking and the abusive nature of the type of men she brings home. Lizzy’s young life is not a pleasant one and Bertino doesn’t shy away from letting us know it. This works well in both creating tension before the monster shows up and adding weight to the bonding of mother and daughter against the vicious predator. Any help that comes to their rescue meets the beast as well, so, it’s up to Kathy and Lizzy to fend for themselves. This is where the film really clicked. The creature itself is just a catalyst for the mother and daughter to rediscover how much they mean to each other and Kathy especially to think beyond herself and to her daughter’s well being…and it works. The real monster here is a mother’s selfishness and the hurt and anger it has given her child and thus the story is about how extreme adversity finally opens both their eyes as to how much they care about…and need…each other. Not to say this is all drama, as there is plenty of monster action and there are some intense, suspenseful and bloody attack sequences throughout. There is also some decent gore and the creature is delightfully rendered with old fashioned prosthetics. Sure, there have been more realistic monsters on screen, but I’ll take a rubber suit over cheesy CGI any day and Bertino gives his creature presence and a bit of a mean streak. On a production level, the film seems modestly budgeted but looks good. There is also some atmospheric cinematography of the isolated backwoods setting by Julie Kirkwood and a fitting score by Tomandandy who also scored Girlhouse.

As for the cast, while there are some brief appearances by supporting characters, this is all Kazan and Ballentine’s show and both actresses bring it. Zoe Kazan gives a strong portrayal of a white trash mother who seems to legitimately love her daughter, but can’t get past her own indulgences to show her properly and be a good mom. She conveys the sadness that her daughter wants to leave her, yet also that selfish hesitation that keeps her from getting her act together to keep her. She succeeds in portraying a bad mom, but one that is not totally unlikable. We do feel a bit sorry for her. Fifteen year-old Ella Ballentine is a powerhouse as Lizzy. She is portraying a girl much younger and one that has had a harsh life with seeing her parents separate and then watching as her mother’s indulgences ruins both their lives. Some of the scenes she performs are harrowing…and that’s just the dramatic sequences that illustrate the sad nature of her relationship with her mom. When Lizzy goes one on one with our monster, she is pure dynamite! We sympathize and root for Lizzy completely. Great job by the young actress.

Despite some underwhelming advanced word, this film really clicked for me. Bryan Bertino gave it a strong dramatic backbone by creating two, three dimensional characters with a very intense, antagonistic and sad relationship between them. He then forces those characters to rediscover their need and importance to each other by putting them in a life and death struggle with a dangerous predator and in a situation where they have only each other to rely on. It may sound corny, but it worked completely. The director also gave us some intense and suspenseful monster sequences, for those who came here to see a monster movie and they were quite bloody. Add to that two very strong performances by it’s lead actresses and you have a movie that is powerful family drama and intense monster movie and very satisfying…and sometimes heartbreaking…as both.

-MonsterZero NJ

3 and 1/2 teddy bears that pick the worst time to sing.

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HORROR YOU MIGHT HAVE MISSED: MOCKINGBIRD (2014)

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MOCKINGBIRD (2014)

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

POV horror flick has three groups of people, a couple (Todd Stashwick and Audrey Marie Anderson), a college student (Alexandra Lydon) and a slacker (Barak Hardley) still living with his mom, getting cameras sent to them with the ominous message to keep filming or someone will die. More messages and packages are sent, as the couple and the student are threatened and tormented, while Leonard is told to put on a clown suit and go on various tasks…of which he is gleefully happy to do. Whoever this manipulator is, they are playing a dangerous game with an  ulterior agenda that will bring all three subjects together…and probably not in a good way.

Flick is written and directed by Bryan Bertino for Blumhouse and is fairly entertaining. It may not be anything new, but it does generate some chills, as our couple and student are being tormented by this mysterious person/persons and some laughs with the far too giddy to cooperate Leonard. They are trapped inside their homes with the threat of death looming and it is kind of creepy as they are manipulated slowly and gradually, till finally instructed to leave and head to a specific address on Mockingbird Drive. The cast members all do well in portraying their fright, or in Leonard’s case their delighted compliance and that helps make this stay fairly entertaining for most of the running time. The film only really falters at the end and in more than one way. First, this is exactly where we figured this flick was going as bringing the characters together in a devious manner was obvious from the start. Another point is that after just over 80 minutes we realize that there isn’t much of a story here, once it predictably ends. The third and biggest problem is once we find out who is instigating this sadistic plan, it becomes obvious that they would not have had the resources and mode of travel to accomplish all that they do. Those responsible would have needed to get from place to place very quickly and have considerable capital to pull this off. Once you meet them, you realize it’s highly implausible that they could have authored all this by themselves and they appear to be acting alone. It’s supposed to be creepy, but our villains inspired more questions than chills, once finally unveiled. We are also never given a reason for all this, or any backstory as to who these people are, or why the victims are chosen, other than a vague but effective opening scene. The film works until it’s reveal, then it looses it’s grip as the creditability is strained a bit too much…aside from leading exactly where we thought it would.

Overall, I had some fun with this and it did have some spooky moments, some chilling scenes and some legitimate laughs when we follow Leonard. It works for most of the movie until it’s last scene reveal. Once we find out what is going on, we have serious doubts that they would have been able to successfully pull it off. It also ends as we knew it would with our victims. Not a bad flick for a night on the couch, but one that needed to be a bit more clever to keep belief suspended beyond it’s final moments.

-MonsterZero NJ

2 and 1/2 gift boxes

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