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 VIGIL (2019)

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THE VIGIL (2019)

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

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

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

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

-MonsterZero NJ

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

 

 

 

 

 

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BARE BONES: MAY THE DEVIL TAKE YOU TOO (2020)

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MAY THE DEVIL TAKE YOU TOO (2020)

Indonesian horror sequel takes place two years after the events of the first film and finds Alfie (Chelsea Islan) still haunted by specters of the dead. She and her youngest step-sister Nara (Hadijah Shahab) are kidnaped by a group of orphans, who murdered their abusive foster father, Ayub (Tri Hariono). They believe the occult practicing Ayub is now haunting them from beyond the grave and is back to fulfill his original intent to sacrifice them all. They also feel that Alfie is their only hope to escape this cruel fate and thus she is once more thrust into a nightmare battle with the forces of darkness.

Film is again written and directed by Timo Tjahjanto. He again borrows heavily from Sam Raimi, and from Fede Álvarez’s remake. A perfect example being a very familiar looking “Black Bible” the orphans are now in possession of. This sequel, however, benefits from being a bit more it’s own thing than it’s predecessor and really cranking up the intensity and scares. As before, Tjahjanto does know how to use the familiar tropes and trappings well. Here he also shows not only more of his own ideas, but set pieces that are just as much his, as ones that are recycled Raimi. There is also none of the family drama that slowed down the first flick. This one moves. Chelsea Islan gets to play more of a hardened demon fighter, as these orphans turn to her experiences as their only way out of this supernatural mess, and she makes an impression doing so. The gore and make-up are again very effective, as is the visual style, and there are some chilling reveals along the way. Even if it is a bit overlong, like the first installment, it’s pretty relentless from almost the first scene and only occasionally gives us some quieter moments to take a breath. A sequel that improves upon the original. This second installment is streaming on Shudder.

-MonsterZero NJ

3 star rating

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BARE BONES: MAY THE DEVIL TAKE YOU (2018)

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MAY THE DEVIL TAKE YOU (2018)

Indonesian horror finds young Alfie (Chelsea Islan) traveling to her father’s old home, with her stepmother (Karina Suwandi) and step-siblings, after her dad, Lesmana (Ray Sahetapy) mysteriously takes ill. To her horror, she discovers that her dad made a deal with the Devil for his successes and now old scratch is coming to collect…and Alfie and the rest of her step-family are included in the price.

Film is written and directed by Timo Tjahjanto with a definite case of Sam Raimi envy at times. The film borrows elements not only from Raimi’s Evil Dead films, but also Drag Me to Hell. Sure, the story is different and Tjahjanto tries to do his own thing with them, but some of the set pieces, possessed family members and creepy cellar activity, echo Raimi’s works. Tjahjanto paid attention to his influences, though, as he uses what he borrows well and there are some very effective and impressive make-up and gore effects to portray his supernatural carnage. The film looks good with some effective cinematography by Batara Goempar and atmospheric art direction by Antonius Boedy. The location is quite spooky and actress Chelsea Islan makes a solid heroine as tough teen Alfie. On the downside, it is a bit too familiar, at times, to be consistently scary and at 111 minutes, it seems to drag on far too long with a climax that goes into extra innings before it ends. There is also some drama between Alfie and her step-family members that does slow the momentum down at points. It makes the pacing somewhat uneven. Overall, this Netflix streaming horror is still worth a look and is entertaining, but not quite the scare-fest we were hoping for. Timo Tjahjanto still shows strong potential with the mix of his own ideas and the well used elements he borrowed. Inspired a 2020 sequel, May The Devil Take You Too, that is oddly streaming over at Shudder.

-MonsterZero NJ

3 star rating

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BARE BONES: THE CLEANSING HOUR (2019)

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THE CLEANSING HOUR (2019)

Shudder Original has a shyster priest, Father Max (Ryan Guzman) staging phony exorcisms for his web show, The Cleansing Hour. During one of his staged performances, a real demonic entity decides to show up. Now the fraudulent Father Max has to not only battle the real thing, but has all his darkest secrets brought out to bear in front of his live audience.

Flick is well directed by Damien LeVeck despite being from a silly script from he and Aaron Horwitz. There is some very bad dialogue and some silly moments, but LeVeck directs the nonsense with a skilled hand and makes it far more effective than it should be. His demon puts Max through an emotional wringer, as the former priest is forced to bare his soul before his internet audience, which grows as the demonic hi-jinx accelerate. LeVeck has a good visual style and there are some very convincing gore and creature effects. He gets good work from his cast, especially Guzman as the troubled priest, Father Max and even sneaks in some biting commentary on the contemporary clergy. Director and cast take this all very seriously and this also helps make it far more effective than it should be, including a very disturbing climax. No classic, but worth a watch and signals LeVeck could turn out something really interesting with a stronger script. Also stars horror flick vet Kyle Gallner (Jennifer’s Body, A Nightmare on Elm Street 2010) as Max’s childhood friend and partner, Drew and Alix Angelis as Drew’s fiancée and the object of demonic possession, Lane.

-MonsterZero NJ

3 star rating

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BARE BONES: THE DEVIL’S DOORWAY (2018)

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THE DEVIL’S DOORWAY (2018)

Found footage flick takes place in 1960 and is supposed to be film footage shot by two priests, Father Thomas (Lalor Roddy) and Father John (Ciaran Flynn) as they investigate the reported bleeding eyes of a Virgin Mary statue. The statue stands in an Irish Magdalene laundry which were basically homes for wayward women cast out by society. Once the priests start to investigate, they find the statue is the least of their problems as there is true evil in this place both human and supernatural in origin.

Aside from it’s intriguing setting, there is nothing all that original in this flick, as either a found footage film or a demonic thriller. Director Aislinn Clarke makes atmospheric use of her locations, including some creepy rooms and catacombs beneath the building, but fails to set anything all that involving within them. Her script, that she wrote along with Martin Brennan and Micheal B. Jackson, drags out every cliché imaginable in the found footage and demonic possession genres from the shaky cams and conveniently failing lights to the laughter of spectral children and levitating young women in nightgowns. The last act down in the subterranean catacombs beneath the building were right out of As Above, So Below and the sticks used for demonic symbols, right out of Blair Witch. Roddy’s Father Thomas was an interesting character and there was a creepy twist involving his past and Helena Bereen‘s Mother Superior was spooky without the last act reveals. It’s just the film seems to be simply a mash-up of elements and scenes from other movies and not done interesting enough to freshen them up or give the filmmakers a break. There is some feminist commentary mixed in, but it doesn’t make up for all the under-cooked horror elements that we’ve seen so many times before. There is some spooky and disturbing stuff in the last act, but it’s too little, too late and too familiar to elevate the film, even with a brief 76 minutes run-time.

 

-MonsterZero NJ

2 and 1-2 star rating

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HORROR YOU MIGHT HAVE MISSED: VERÓNICA (2017)

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VERÓNICA (2017)

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

Spanish horror flick from [REC]‘s Paco Plaza takes place in 1991 and is based on a real police report. The story opens with a frantic 911 call and police arriving at an apartment to find something horrible has occured. We then go back a few days to find teen Verónica (Sandra Escacena) conducting a seance at school during a total eclipse to talk to her dead father. Something goes wrong and now a dark spirit follows her home and preys on her and her three siblings (Bruna González, Claudia Placer and Iván Chavero). Can Verónica protect her little brother and sisters from this malevolent entity and what did police find on that fateful night?

Directed by Plaza from a script by he and Fernando Navarro, there is nothing new here story-wise, even if based on a real-life incident. All the demonic haunting clichés are present, but it’s how Plaza uses them that still makes this an effective flick. The director takes some very familiar tropes and uses them to spooky effect as he tells this tale of a teen being stalked by a very vicious spirit will ill intent. He separates the kids from their widowed mom (Ana Torrent) having her working all day and night at the family owned business, thus leaving the children without guidance and protection, save for Verónica…who has no clue what to do. She turns to the creepy blind nun (Consuelo Trujillo) at school for help and while this character is also a cliché, she is a spooky sister and provides some ominous exposition to the terrified teen. Again, the tropes work. We get some some really effective use out of shadow figures, gross stains, nightmare sequences and moving objects and it’s a sign of a talented director that some very familiar stuff, still gives us the creeps. The climactic posting of the actual police report and events that followed also leaves us with a chill. Add to that a spooky score by Chucky Namanera and we have a creepy little flick despite having seen pretty much everything before.

The cast is good, especially lead Sandra Escacena as Verónica. She plays a teen interested in the occult and seeing it as a way to talk to the father she misses. She also portrays well the fear of a teen whose made a dire mistake and now must try to correct it and protect her family, even if no one believes her. Bruna González, Claudia Placer and little Iván Chavero are cute as her little siblings and each get to act in some spooky sequences and do so, well. Consuelo Trujillo is very creepy as the blind nun dubbed “Sister Death” by the Catholic school’s students and Ana Torrent is solid as the mother who works till exhaustion, though still cares about her kids. She’s the skeptic in the scenario and just thinks this is just a byproduct of Verónica spending too much time with her supernatural hobby. This isolates the teen emotionally, weakening her for the entity.

This was a completely unoriginal flick, even if supposedly based on fact, but also a good example of how a talented director can still make an effective chiller out of oft used material. The story has been done before, the tropes are nothing new, but this is still a spooky flick with a good cast to make the characters likable and sympathetic. As his resume shows, Plaza can do spooky and with this tale of a teen haunted by a demonic entity, he does just that. Recommended especially if you are a fan of supernatural chillers and like the familiar trappings.

-MonsterZero NJ

Rated 3 planchettes.

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