REVIEW: SEARCHING (2018)

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SEARCHING (2018)

Mystery thriller finds widower David Kim (John Cho) frantically searching for his teenage daughter Margot (Michelle La) who has gone missing. The entire story takes place on his laptop and phone, as he desperately searches all her social media sites for clues to where she went or who might know where she is. More frightening to David, aside from her disappearance, is that he may not have known his daughter at all.

Flick is not the first movie to take place entirely on a computer, but is one of the better ones thanks to skillful direction from Aneesh Chaganty from his clever script co-written with Sev Ohanian. The film starts out introducing us to the Kims, quickly etching out a portrait of a loving family, that is devastated by the loss of wife and mother Pam (Sara Sohn). We then get a single father trying to do what’s best for his daughter when, out of nowhere, she vanishes. It now evolves into a tense and suspenseful mystery as David tries to track down his daughter through social media, as a police detective (Debra Messing) investigates. For a movie that takes place entirely digital, Chaganty finds some clever ways to let us find out information, while still keeping us as in the dark as David as to where Margot went. Did she run away?…or worse? There are a few red herrings and if the film has an Achilles Heel, it’s that after putting us…and David…through a lot to get to it’s conclusion, it gets a bit convoluted in order to give it a crowd pleasing ending. It gets a bit dark and then has to juggle a somewhat far-fetched late story development in order to end things with a less grim and more safe Hollywood finale. Otherwise, this is a very entertaining and involving thriller with strong work from it’s leading man.

The cast is very small with many characters only appearing in quick video clips or photos such as Margot herself and her mother. John Cho gives a very strong and heartfelt performance as a slightly overprotective dad frantically searching for his daughter. Cho is both sympathetic and tenacious as he tries to track down Margot, refusing to believe the police and public…once the case goes viral…that Margot is dead or run away. A strong performance by Cho. Debra Messing is also good as a women who is both detective and a mother herself and the character fits well into the framework of the story. The only other character that has a steady amount of screen time is Joseph Lee as David’s stoner brother Peter, with whom David frequently confides in.

Overall, this was a very entertaining thriller. It’s social media setting is no longer new, but Aneesh Chaganty uses it cleverly and directs his cast and story very well. It’s suspenseful and intense and if it lets it’s build-up down a bit, it’s in a last act turn away from the dark path it was headed, taking the film away from a more realistic and grim ending in order to play it safe. Otherwise this was a solid mystery thriller with strong work from John Cho.

-MonsterZero NJ

Rated 3 (out of 4) laptops.

 

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HORROR YOU MIGHT HAVE MISSED: CAM (2018)

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CAM (2018)

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

Cam is an interesting and sometimes unsettling thriller about pretty Alice (Madeline Brewer), who unbeknownst to her mother, works as a web cam model known as “Lola”. Alice is struggling to get her sexy/playful online show up in the ratings, and is just happy to break the top fifty. One morning she awakens to find that her account has been stolen and her web show is now being run by a woman who looks like her exact duplicate. Not only is having her identity and livelihood stolen away from her driving her crazy, but this new “Lola” is rising in the ratings faster than Alice ever could. Now the desperate young woman goes on a hunt to find out who…or what…has taken over her cyberspace.

Effectively directed by Daniel Goldhaber, from a script and story by he, Isa Mazzei and Isabelle Link-Levy, this is a movie that delves into a few cyber subjects while telling it’s tale of a woman whose alter-ego is stolen away from her. Aside from identity theft, it covers the world of sexy web shows and chat rooms, internet celebrities, the lengths folks go to become famous on the web, cyber relationships, as well as, cyber stalking turning into real stalking as one of “Lola’s” online followers “Tinker” finds her in real life. The film has a slightly playful nature at first, than gets a bit creepy as we watch Alice’s online world and identity taken away. She goes on a quest to find this impostor, but along the way we learn a lot about this online alternate reality and how it becomes the only reality for some. We also see the damage caused when the impostor’s antics out Alice to the real world and the negative impact it has on her and her family. It all leads to a cyber showdown with Alice trying to turn the tables on Lola V2, which is tense and unsettling. It’s an off-beat and clever little movie that can be quite disturbing at times and in more ways than one. Are we heading towards a fantasy world that exists totally online? Cam might give some cyber food for thought on that, as it’s conclusion is no surprise and that’s on purpose. It’s making a point and making us think. There may be some unanswered questions, too, by the time it’s over, but in this case, the cause is not the focus but the effect. Besides, if you pay attention to what some of the characters are saying and a few things that occur, you can probably fill in the blanks on your own.

As for the cast, this is Madeline Brewer’s show and she gives a lively and strong performance as Alice, her alter-ego Lola and the impostor Lola. She’s a perky and slightly eccentric young woman as Alice, playful and sexy as Lola and gives Lola V2 something a bit off as the impostor escalates the sexy hi-jinx, yet, we feel there is something not quite right about her. Very good work by an actress that has to carry pretty much the whole movie on her shoulders. In support there is Love Witch’s Samantha Robinson as an online rival, Patch Darragh, who is suitably creepy as Tinker and Michael Dempsy as another of Lola’s followers who…surprise!…also turns out to be a creep.

Cam isn’t the first time cyberspace and impostors have been the subject of a horror or thriller. Just recently, we saw sexual chatrooms and cam shows in Girlhouse, mysterious doppelgangers in Imitation Girl and +1, cyber stalking in Open Windows and other cyber horrors in the Unfriended movies. Still Cam has it’s own style and a strong leading lady to stand out from the pack in how it presents it’s tale and themes. It’s a fun thriller and a bit disturbing in it’s portrayal of a world that exists on the internet and how so very important it has become to some.

-MonsterZero NJ

3 very solid laptops.


unfriended rating

 

 

 

 

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HORROR YOU MIGHT HAVE MISSED: FRIEND REQUEST (2016)

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FRIEND REQUEST (2016)

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

German horror filmed in English has pretty college student Laura Woodson (Alycia Debnam-Carey, The Devil’s Hand and Fear The Walking Dead) feeling sorry for lonely, withdrawn Marina (Liesl Ahlers) at school and befriending her on her social media account (which we assume is Facebook although the name is never given). Laura soon finds out Marina is emotionally unbalanced as the young woman begins to become obsessed with her. She “unfriends” the strange girl which pushes Marina over the edge and thus, she commits suicide. This only makes things worse, as Marina now stalks Laura as some kind of malevolence presence and worse still, is one by one killing her friends and posting videos of their gruesome deaths to Laura’s social media page. As everyone she knows begins to grow fearful of her, Laura begins a quest to find out who this mysterious girl really was and why she has such dark power from beyond the grave…but will she find out in time?

Script by Matthew Ballen, Philip Koch and director Simon Verhoeven (no relation to Robocop’s Paul) offers nothing new especially in this age of cyber-themed horror and thrillers. Film’s story has elements of similar movies such as the recent Unfriended, Ratter and Dark Summer, but effective direction from Verhoeven actually makes it work better than you might expect. He does create atmosphere and there are some spooky moments, as well as, some disturbing ones, too. The deaths of Laura’s friends have impact and the jump scares are well done and not overused. There are also a few clever bits like maintaining a countdown of the friends Laura loses on social media as the spirit continues to manipulate her account and kill those close to her. The director also gets some decent work out of his cast with Alycia Debnam-Carey making a suitable and likable heroine and Ahlers making for a creepy goth girl in her brief scenes early on. The film can be a bit formula as haunting flicks go and the ending is exactly where you expect it to end up, but the ride getting there is entertaining enough to past the time without feeling like a waste of it.

Not a great movie, or even an original one, but it is well made enough to get by. It is routine as both cyber-horror and haunting flicks go, especially more recent ones, but has enough atmosphere and effective moments to make it worth a look if you find yourself sitting on the couch with nothing to watch. The attractive cash also includes Brit Morgan, Brooke Markham, Connor Paolo, Sean Marquette and William Moseley as Laura’s friends and love interest respectively.

-MonsterZero NJ

2 and 1/2 lap tops.

open windows rating

 

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HORROR YOU MIGHT HAVE MISSED: LET’S BE EVIL (2016)

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LET’S BE EVIL (2016)

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

Flick is centered around the use of virtual reality to teach highly intelligent children to better prepare to be the leaders of the future. Three youths, Jenny (Elizabeth Morris), Tiggs (Kara Tointon) and Darby (Elliot James Langridge) are hired to be the caretakers of one such group in an experimental program in a secure location. Strange things start to happen and soon perky Jenny starts to believe the children around them are not so innocent. What exactly are they teaching these kids here and have they learned too much?

Co-written by star Morris along with director Martin Owen, this Village Of The Damned for the virtual reality world has a distinct 80s vibe despite the advanced technology. It also starts out rather low key and then slowly builds tension as things start to get weird. It’s the last act that takes one by surprise, as the filmmakers suddenly crank things up with some intensity and a few vicious moments that you’re not expecting, since the rest of the film operated on a more moderate level. That’s what gave this thriller a little needed punch, as initially it just seemed like another routine cyber/bad seed thriller. Owen delivers some creepy and suspenseful moments as our three councilors realize they are trapped in this cyber prison with some very intelligent and sadistic kids. There are some surprisingly violent scenes to add to the effect and Owen does maintain some solid atmosphere once things get going after the misleading slow start. The are some flaws here, too. Problem with our villains is that we only really get to know one of them, an outcast named Cassandra (Isabelle Allen) who the sinister group seems to have rejected. This keeps them from having any sort of a personality other than a collective of evil presences out to get Jenny, Tiggs and Darby, we assume for their own amusement. Also, the last act reveal wasn’t really a surprise, you see it coming a mile away, but it still worked well enough to give chills. Otherwise, on a production level, the film looks like a modestly budgeted flick, which is fine and there is a very 80s-ish electronic score by Julian Scherle to add atmosphere.

The cast is small with pretty Elizabeth Morris being a solid girl-next-door heroine. She comes across as a sweet, caring girl and appears legitimately frightened when things start to go awry. We like her and therefor care when she is in danger. Morris gives her a nice personality. Kara Tointon is also likable as the spunky Tiggs and gives her character some feistiness and sexiness to contrast the more demure Jenny. Langridge plays Darby as the cynical slacker type. He is the group’s doubter when Jenny thinks something’s wrong and is effective enough in the part. Rounding out our leads, is young Isabelle Allen as Cassandra, who the cyber-brats seem to have cast out. She is good in the part and we sympathize with her as the frightened child, though we have seen enough movies to not completely trust her. There is also an artificial intelligence named Arial who is the group’s guide and is voiced by Natasha Moore with Jamie Bernadette representing her cyber-body.

Overall, this was an entertaining enough little cyber-horror. Sure we have seen computer themed flicks like this often as we have the evil children scenario, but the mash-up does work thanks to a very effective last act. The film starts out with a moderate tone and then catches us off-guard with a very intense and surprisingly violent last half hour. A decent thriller from director Owens and co-writer/star Morris.

-MonsterZero NJ

3 laptops, although there aren’t any in the movie. Sometimes you work with what you got.

unfriended rating

 

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HORROR YOU MIGHT HAVE MISSED: RATTER (2015)

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RATTER (2015)

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

“Ratter” is a term referring to an animal used to catch rats, like a cat or dog. It is also an urban slang term that has multiple meanings. It can be used to describe someone, usually female, who has had many sexual partners, a woman’s lady parts, someone that pisses you off, or according to this film’s trailer, “a hacker who hijacks a computer or device to watch unsuspecting victims.” Obviously the latter applies here, as the film focuses on the cyber-stalking of the very pretty, girl-next-door Emma (Ashley Benson). Emma has just moved to NYC from Wisconsin for college. Unknown to the young woman, an anonymous stalker has hacked into her communication devices and watches her every move from her cellphone or laptop. Soon Emma begins to realize someone is invading her privacy as the mysterious individual enters every aspect of her life…including her apartment.

While it is short on any big scares, writer/director Branden Kramer’s thriller does get under your skin with it’s depiction of a sweet young girl being watched continuously in her every private moment. It plays very much like Eric Nicholas’  2006 Alone With Her, which featured a similar story of a young woman being stalked, initially without her knowledge. In Ratter, Kramer decides to tell his tale completely from Emma’s phone and laptop, much like the equally chilling 2013 The Denwhich warned of what lurks in chatrooms. Here the warning is of how easily traceable people have become with not being able to go anywhere or do anything without their faithful cellphone nearby. We watch the drama unfold completely from the stalker’s point of view. At first Emma is totally unaware of her secret admirer, as he watches her in the bathroom and while she’s sleeping, even snapping pictures of her in private moments with her own cellphone. It is creepy and it should be. The tension builds as this person starts to make his presence known through inappropriate e-mails, silent phone calls and harassing her, all the while framing Mike (Matt McGorry), a young man from school whom she’s just started seeing. Things get even creepier as we watch him enter Emma’s apartment while she’s out and even while she’s there asleep. Her privacy is completely stripped away and is invaded when she is at her most vulnerable. It’s all the more unnerving as it seems random, as if it could happen to anyone. Kramer makes an unsettling film and while it could have been a bit more intense, the slow simmering burn does work and we are quite uncomfortable with watching this girl being observed from her own devices and then slowly falling apart when she finds out, she’s being stalked. It’s spooky, more so because it happens.

The flick is far from perfect. There are some instances that are a bit cliché…like Emma getting a cat whose fate we know is sealed from the moment we meet it…and a plot point about an important message the stalker deletes concerning a crucial meeting, is just forgotten about. It also ends a bit abruptly, but it’s climax is effective as this obviously was leading to some sort of confrontation. Not a nailbiting thriller, but a subtly unnerving little movie about the negative side-effects of having everything we own connect through cyberspace and how easily our privacy can be invaded by someone with a little computer savvy and a demented mind.

While we do have a couple of supporting characters, the flick is mostly all on Ashley Benson’s shoulders and she carries it well. Benson is very good at quickly creating a likable character, so we care what happens to her from early on. Emma is smart and sweet and very pretty and since we like her, we cringe when the creepy invader is snapping pictures of her feet while she shaves her legs or simply as she sleeps unaware…all with her own laptop and cellphone. Benson then ups the intensity when Emma discovers she’s being stalked and we get a girl who starts to come apart with paranoia and fear.  Again, the film could have been a bit more intense, but Miss Benson gets a lot out of what she has to work with. Matt McGorry is likable as Mike, the boy Emma starts to date and her stalker starts to hate and Rebecca Naomi Jones is spunky as Emma’s friend Nicole from school. A very small cast and they are all good.

Overall, I liked this flick as an entertaining evening on the couch. The cyber-stalking thing isn’t really new anymore, nor is watching the proceedings from our subjects’ devices. The thought of someone watching us while we are unaware, is still unsettling, as is the thought of someone in our homes while we slumber…and Branden Kramer does use these creepy tropes well. Add in a solid leading lady and it’s an unnerving enough 80 minutes though never truly as frightening as the premise would suggest or we’d hoped it would be.

-MonsterZero NJ

3 laptops.

unfriended rating

 

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HORROR YOU MIGHT HAVE MISSED: THE DEN (2013)

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THE DEN (2013)

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The Den is one of those pleasant little surprises that you watched out of moderate curiosity and enjoyed far more than expected. It also sets it’s horror story completely on the laptop of it’s lead character, a full year before Unfriended. The story tells of pretty Elizabeth Benton (Melanie Papalia from Extraterrestrial) who has received a grant to do a social study of people who populate internet chat sites. The site she chooses for her 24/7 study is “The Den.” She meets all sorts of strange people and, as can be expected in a horror flick like this, catches the attention of a deranged and dangerous individual. Soon she is being cyber-stalked, her computer hacked, her life invaded and her friends and loved ones start o fall victim to some masked assailant. Can Elizabeth escape this maniac?…or will she be their next victim?

Directed by Zachary Donohue and co-written by he and Lauren Thompson, this is actually a clever and effective little horror/thriller with some gruesome and disturbing moments. More than a year before Unfriended and even a few weeks before Open WindowsDonohue sets his entire thriller on Elizabeth’s laptop and phone so we see her POV of those she’s watching and the POV of those watching her. What unfolds is nothing new to the slasher sub-genre, with a young victim being chosen and stalked and those around her put in harm’s way, but, the stage it plays out on is novel…for when it was made…and there are some moments that use the POV format very well. Donohue keeps us involved and there is some suspense and it’s only in the last act when it takes a bit of a “Hostel” turn, that the familiarity really starts to sink in…though it still worked well enough and provided some action caught on the various cameras. While it’s ending was nothing new and a bit abrupt, it still added a chill, so, it worked.

Another real big factor in this working as well as it does, is leading lady Melanie Papalia. The entire movie rests on her shoulders and she carries it well. Elizabeth is a sweet, ambitious and likable girl who is thrust into a nightmarish situation. Papalia plays her terror well, but, adds a strength and resilience to her character that helps make her resourcefulness and toughness believable when she has to fight tooth and nail for her life. The Extraterrestrial actress makes an impressive and endearing heroine and hopefully, she gets to play final girl more often. Also stars David Schlachtenhaufen, Adam Shapiro, Katija Pevec and Anna Margaret Hollyman as Elizabeth’s friends and loved ones but, it is Papalia’s show all the way.

I liked The Den. It’s no classic and it’s far from perfect but, it is surprisingly more effective than one might expect from a little movie set entirely on a laptop. The slasher story is familiar, despite the novel cyber setting, but, Donohue makes it work well enough and his firecracker leading lady carries this internet horror on her pretty but, sturdy shoulders. It’s not going to revolutionize horror and you might forget about it six months from now, but, for 80+ minutes, it’s entertaining, has some effective and disturbing sequences and introduces us to a director and actress we’d like to see more of. I’d say check it out if you have the chance. Cool little flick.

-MonsterZero NJ

3 laptops.

unfriended rating

BE WARNED: Trailer is spoiler-ish…

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REVIEW: OPEN WINDOWS (2014)

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OPEN WINDOWS (2014)

Open Windows is an interesting and sometimes, effective thriller written and directed by Nacho Vigalondo who also wrote and directed the clever 2007 Timecrimes. The film opens with nerdy Nick Chambers (Elijah Wood) in his hotel room watching a convention event for the film Dark Sky: The Third Wave on his laptop. Nick runs a fan website for the film’s star, the beautiful Jill Goddard (ex-porn star Sasha Grey) and is there because he entered a contest and won a date with his obsession. Nick is suddenly contacted online by a person known only as Chord (Neil Maskell) who informs him that Miss Goddard has canceled the date and that he sympathizes with Nick and would like to let him have a little fun with the actress for his troubles. He begins to hack into all her personal feeds such as phone, e-mail, surveillance cameras, home computer and, at first, Nick is stunned but amused by this voyeuristic invasion of his dream girl’s privacy. Things take a malicious turn, though, and soon Nick finds himself in the middle of some twisted game that involves harassment, torment, kidnapping and possibly murder…and Chord has let all cyber trails lead to Nick as the one responsible.

The first half of this movie had me. It was disturbing and creepy and made me appropriately uncomfortable as we watch a woman’s privacy and life invaded unknowingly and then having her manipulated and tormented by some unseen individual, with an innocent set up to take the blame. Vigalondo cleverly tells his story of stalking, taken to a vicious level, through the various open windows on Nick’s laptop as Chord pulls him into his twisted game. Unfortunately, the writer/director gets a bit overindulgent and the story gets far too complicated for it’s own good with the last act just getting convoluted and silly. A simple plot of a man forced to watch his female fantasy stalked and tormented by some mysterious and malicious individual was working just fine but, then we get the inclusion of a trio of French hackers, who seem only to exist as a plot device, and a fourth master criminal/hacker named Nevada who only exists to set up some last act plot twists. The film was doing just fine as a intimate thriller and suddenly it becomes a cyber James Bond/Jason Bourne flick compete with car chases and explosions and multiple…and unnecessary…plot diversions. The last act is literally out of one of the lesser James Bond flicks with secret hideouts, damsels in distress and an overconfident, pontificating villain. It becomes a comic book spy movie all told from Nick’s laptop, of which the novelty has worn off. It’s just silly. Sometimes less is more and Vigalondo should have stuck with his simple premise and found a smaller and less overloaded way to play it out. Sometimes a director having his cake and eating it too is far too filling for his audience and it certainly is the case here as a good thriller is drowned in excess.

The somewhat small cast are pretty good, at least. Elijah Wood does good work establishing his nerdy, lovelorn Jill Goddard fan, Nick, who becomes terrified as to what he let himself get dragged into. Even when the plot starts to spin out of control, he presents an unlikely hero as he tries to outwit this mysterious Chord and come to Jill’s rescue. As Jill, Grey is fine. She ‘s a bit rough around the edges but, she gives us a starlet who is a bit of a bitch but, not enough that we don’t sympathize with her when she is becoming victimized. She’s a very pretty girl, does have some screen presence and she fits the part and with more experience could be a good actress. As Chord, Neil Maskell is creepy and threatening…especially since most of his performance is vocal…and, once we meet him, a bit pathetic. Though, I didn’t quite buy that such a clever creep was so easily fooled when some of the plot twists come. It’s an effective enough cast that keeps you far more invested in the goings on…especially after the story spirals into it’s overindulgent final act…than you should be.

In conclusion, I was entertained and the film didn’t completely loose me but, really neutered it’s effective first half by getting so overly complicated in it’s second. The use of computer windows and computer simulations to tell it’s story was very well done and clever but, it’s too bad Vigalondo got too giddy with adding complex twists, unnecessary characters, car chases, crashes and explosions. It becomes a completely different film in it’s second half and one not nearly as effective, even if it still is a little fun. Worth a look but, disappointing when it’s set-up and initial sequences were working so well.

-MonsterZero NJ

2 and 1/2 laptops.

open windows rating

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