REVIEW: THE LAST SURVIVORS (2014)

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THE LAST SURVIVORS (2014)

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Formally titled The Well, this post-apocalyptic drama takes place in a world that hasn’t seen rain in ten years. Once lush farm lands are now barren and home to squatters who survive on remote farms with wells that are slowly drying up. If the threat of not having water isn’t great enough, there is the greedy Carson (Jon Gries), a man who seeks to control all the remaining water and will kill anyone on the surrounding lands he finds using the wells. Enter young Kendal (Haley Lu Richardson) and Dean (Booboo Stewart) who live hidden on the ruins of the Wallace Farm For Wayward Youth surviving on an underground well. They have plans to escape, if they can find the right part for the old Cessna on a nearby property. Time is running out, though, as the ill Dean’s kidney’s are failing and Carson is becoming more desperate to rid the land of ‘vagrants’. Soon teen Kendal must choose between leaving Dean and the farm behind, or fight superior odds to save what she holds dear.

Film is well directed by Tom Hammock from his script with Jacob Forman. This isn’t an action flick, per se, and the film is moderately paced, but it is still an engrossing story of survival featuring a very endearing and strong central character in the young Kendal. Despite the looming threat of both running out of water and running into Carson, Kendal moves with a singular focus and that is to get her, Dean and a young boy, Alby (Max Charles) hiding on a neighboring farm, on that plane and out of there. It’s watching this tenacious teenager fighting to keep those around her alive and at the same time, not lose her humanity, that is what drives the film and keeps us watching despite familiar elements for this type of flick. Sure, we have seen many a post-apocalyptic drama with noble survivors and greedy villains, fighting over/hoarding gas or water, but this is more character driven and gives us a strong leading lady to follow. The film does have it’s confrontations and there is some startling bloodshed in the last act, when Kendal’s fragile world starts to collapse and she is forced to go on the offensive. The movie looks good on a low budget with it’s minimal but effective desert setting and properly creates the purveying mood of desolation and gloom, but not without a glimmer of hope via the resilient Kendal.

Hammock hit a home run with the casting of young Haley Lu Richardson as our strong-willed fighter, Kendal. Richardson carries a presence that comes across as natural and delivers a nice range of emotions in an untraditional story and setting. You believe she cares for Dean and Alby and fully believe in the risks she takes to see them safe. In a somewhat similar role, she reminded me a bit of Jennifer Lawrence in Winter’s Bone. In the final confrontation with Carson and his thugs, we are rooting for her all the way. As Carson, the underrated Jon Gries creates a man who is so full of his own self-righteousness that he truly believes the water is his and murdering other survivors is actually an act of mercy. He makes an interesting villain and again proves himself a versatile character actor that doesn’t get the credit he deserves. Booboo Stewart is effective as the kind but ailing Dean. It’s easy to see why Kendal cares for him so much and why he is her emotional and moral anchor. Girlhouse‘s Nicole Fox plays Carson’s daughter, Brooke and she is actually far more vicious than her father and outright enjoys the acts of murdering the innocent, while her father makes excuses to justify it. We also get appearances from veterans such as Barbara Crampton, Michael Massee and Rena Owen, who was so good in the powerful New Zealand drama Once Were Warriors.

There are a lot of really familiar story elements that keeps this from completely impacting the viewer, but it’s leading lady keeps us far more interested than we should be with it’s oft told story. Haley Lu Richardson is a star in the making and gives us a character far more worldly and wise than her age would imply. The film is well directed by Tom Hammock and despite it’s intentionally slow burn, it does deliver some action and violence that comes with such a story of survival against overwhelming odds. An impressive starring role for Haley Lu Richardson and an impressive debut from director/writer Tom Hammock who was production designer on The Guest and All The Boys Love Mandy Lane.

-MonsterZero NJ

  3 samurai swords.

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REVIEW: FAULTS (2015)

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FAULTS (2015)

Faults is an intriguing and entertaining little movie from writer/director Riley Stearns. The story opens with cult expert Ansel Roth (Leland Orser) as his life is falling apart, his latest book has tanked and he owes some shady characters (Lance Reddick and Jon Gries) a lot of money. He sees hope in turning things around when a desperate couple (Beth Grant and Chris Ellis) come to him to for help to rescue their daughter Claire (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) from a cult oddly called “Faults”. For a price, Roth kidnaps the young woman and locks her in a hotel room to ‘deprogram’ her. While it seems to be going well at first, events begin to spiral out of control and the line between deprogrammer and subject blurs as does the one between deprogramming and brainwashing…but who is brainwashing who?

I enjoyed this movie. Not only do we get some offbeat characters that populate Roth’s world at the moment, but some interesting questions are posed and there are some nice twists and surprises. Claire appears content and happy when kidnapped by Roth and her parents seem a bit overbearing and controlling. It makes us question the validity of what is transpiring and if her parents have a right to force a full-grown, 28 year-old woman to adhere to their will against her own. We also question whether a man who has lost control over his own life is in any position to try to undo the effects of the cult’s influence, when he seems to be having his own issues. That’s also the fun of this film, which is played seriously, but has a darkly comic atmosphere to it. It gives us things to question, but just when we think we’ve got things figured out, it throws us some twists and curves. There are some nice surprises here and being in the hotel room with our characters in such an intimate setting, sometimes makes us too close to realize there are other things going on, until it’s too late…just like poor Ansel. Tables are turned and characters are not who they seem and Ansel is too focused on his own problems to see it…and it takes the audience awhile to realize it, too, though we do catch on long before our beleaguered ‘expert’. A clever and sometimes downright devious story that is intriguing to watch unfold and is well directed by Stearns.

This wouldn’t have worked as well without a good cast and that it has. Leland Orser really brings Roth to life as a man who is beaten-down and hitting rock bottom and who sees an opportunity to turn things around…so much so, he doesn’t see what’s really going on in front of him. Mary Elizabeth Winstead turns in another strong performance…she was so good in Smashed…that proves she is an underrated actress who really needs more recognition for her work. Her Claire is sweet and a little confused at first, but the more we get to know her, the more we realize she’s far more in control than she let’s on. It’s worth watching alone to see her slowly turn the tables on the man who is supposedly there to ‘fix’ her. Reddick and Gries are good as the oddball thugs Roth owes money to, for his self published failure of a book, and Grant and Ellis shine too, as Claire’s outwardly typical Middle American parents with their own hidden facets. A very good cast.

I definitely recommend this indie flick for those who like something offbeat and intriguing. The script is clever and the performances all strong. It’s an odd little movie for sure but, it’s involving and the story is refreshingly different. Definitely worth a look!

-MonsterZero NJ

3 kidnapped Claires (for her own good, of course!).

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TOMB OF NOSTALGIA: FRIGHT NIGHT PART 2 (1988)

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FRIGHT NIGHT PART 2 (1988)

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Fright Night Part II might be one of the most under-appreciated sequels…at least by it’s distributors, as it does have a cult following…of all-time, as the film got an under-the-radar limited release back in the day, despite the success of the original and even worse treatment with sub-par full-screen VHS and DVD releases. A proper release is still eagerly awaited.

The sequel takes place 3 years after the original Fright Night. Charley Brewster (William Ragsdale) is now in college and finishing up years of therapy that has him believing Jerry Dandrige (Chris Sarandon) was only a serial killer and the delusion of him being a vampire was all created in Charley’s head to cope with the horrible events. Charley also has a hot new girlfriend, Alex (80s flick cutie Tracy Lind) and hasn’t talked to Peter Vincent (Roddy McDowall) in years. As for the Great Vampire Killer, all the attention has gotten Vincent his Fright Night TV show hosting job back and all seems well when the two finally get together to bring closure to their horrible experience…until Charley sees large boxes being moved into Vincent’s very apartment building and gets a chilling feeling of familiarity. And his deja-vu is certainly warranted as Jerry Dandrige’s vampire sister Regine (a smoldering Julie Carmen) has come to exact revenge with her ghoulish entourage, the androgynous Belle (Russell Clark, who also choreographed Carmen’s performance art sequences), lupine shapeshifter Louie (Jon Gries, who also played the werewolf with nards in Monster Squad) and hulking, insect eating chauffeur Bozworth (genre favorite Brian Thompson). Regine’s plans are simple…turn Charley into one of the undead, murder those he loves and take over as host of Fright Night for good measure…then torture Charley for all eternity.

I have no idea why this sequel has been treated so badly over the years. It’s not quite as good as the first flick, but is actually a pretty solid follow-up and a good deal of fun. The film is directed by John Carpenter alumni Tommy Lee Wallace (Halloween III, Stephen King’s It) who co-wrote the script with Tim Metcalfe and Miguel Tejeda-Flores. Wallace delivers a good looking film, having learned a lot about shot framing from Carpenter, and while it’s not quite the fun-house that the original chiller is, it mixes horror with humor well and has a number of fun/spooky scenes with plenty of action. The plot also works in giving us a second installment that isn’t forced and provides us with enough elements from Fright Night to feel like a continuation, but also does it’s own thing. Regine is a known personality, recognized as a performance artist and she moves around out in the open, as when she takes over hosting duties on the Fright Night TV show. If the film falters a bit, it’s that it’s momentum slows down somewhat in the middle act as Regine continues to seduce Charley and Vincent is institutionalized for attacking Regine on the show’s set. The film does pick up for it’s final confrontation, though it is not as bombastic and fun as the first film’s. Overall, the movie seems to have a slightly lower budget and thus the action is a bit scaled down, but I think Wallace makes up for it with some very clever bits and by having some ghoulish fun with his premise and characters such as Regine’s thugs having a gruesome bowling night while she is off premiering on TV. The make-up FX can be a bit rubbery at times, but that adds some charm now and Brad Fiedel returns to score, so it feels like a Fright Night  film. Not sure why all the disrespect from it’s labels.

The cast are having a good time, too. Ragsdale and McDowall pick up right where they left off in the original, but with Charley being a slightly more mature character three years later and Vincent seems to have developed a bit more of a backbone since he last battled bloodsuckers. The two actors seem to really enjoy working together and their on-screen chemistry is infectious. Lind makes a welcome addition to the team as adorable and smart Alex. In a turn of events, it is she who comes to Charley’s rescue and proves herself a resourceful and spunky heroine in true 80s fashion. I liked her better than Amanda Bearse’s whiny Amy. Julie Carmen is smoldering-ly sexy and conveys a definite lethal quality as Regine. It is completely believable she can seduce Charley…and those scenes are hot…despite his dealings with her kind and it is a little disappointing the actress wasn’t given an opportunity to put up a bigger fight in the scaled-down climax. As her eccentric undead thugs, Clarke (whose character is mute), Gries and Thompson all seem to be having a good time, especially the nice touch of Thompson’s Bozworth reciting the Latin genus of his insect meals before consumption. Creepy fun! A good cast who all get the tone of the material and their individual characters.

So, in conclusion, I like this sequel a lot and will never understand the terrible treatment it continues to get. It is not as good as the first film, but is a worthy enough second go around and the cast is charming as always, as is the 80s nostalgia it now carries with it. It succeeds far more than it fails and despite a slow mid-section and a slightly less exciting ending, it is a solid sequel and left me wanting to see a third installment back when I first saw it and McDowall was still with us. This film is crying out for a Scream Factory special edition, but apparently the label who owns it (I believe it’s Lionsgate) won’t budge in allowing it (so I am told), or do anything with it on it’s own. With it’s cult following, I don’t see how a release wouldn’t do well. The film also stars Merritt Butrick (Kirk’s son in Wrath Of Khan and Search For Spock) in one of his last film appearances before his AIDS related death in 1989.

Rated 3 (out of 4) fangs.

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