HORROR YOU MIGHT HAVE MISSED: STAKE LAND II (2016)

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STAKE LAND II (2016)

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Sequel to the Jim Mickle’s 2010 vampire epic, Stake Land, takes place ten years later with Martin (a returning Connor Paolo) living in New Eden with Peggy (again Bonnie Dennison) and raising a young daughter. One night, The Brotherhood lays siege to this sanctuary lead by The Mother (Kristina Hughes), a vampire who commands an army of Berzerkers. The village is massacred with Peggy and their daughter brutally killed. Now the surviving Martin returns to the desolate wasteland of the United States to find Mister (Nick Damici reprising his role) to exact revenge…and that’s exactly what Mother is counting on.

Jim Mickle sits this sequel out for the most part, appearing only as a producer. His star and co-writer on the original, Nick Damici, returns to script and the directorial reigns are turned over to Dan Berk and Robert Olsen…sadly with mixed results. Damici’s story works fairly well in reuniting Mister and Martin with some interesting developments having transpired between films. With the human population devastated, the vampires have grown desperate for food and will now risk coming out in the sunlight to pursue a meal, even if it means burning up. Some of the humans have turned to barbarity and resort to cannibalism and staging gladiatorial battles between strangers…which is where Martin finds Mister. The character of Mother is also interesting, though a bit underused as Damici’s story focuses on Martin and Mister and the groups of humanity they encounter. We do find out a little about Mister’s background, a past he shares with Mother. On the downside, Berk and Olsen are a bit pedestrian in their direction and thus it lacks the first film’s intensity and atmosphere. The action and drama are all a bit by-the-numbers and this doesn’t help as the film needs a fresh touch, being the second time around for what was a different take on the traditional vampire tale in the original. It comes across as more of a TV movie which, having premiered on SYFY, it kinda is…and it shows.

At least the cast all do well, especially the returnees. Paolo gives us a far more mature and able Martin, now more of a grizzled warrior than the naive boy we met in the first installment. Damici is solid once again as Mister. He gives the vampire hunter a bit more inner pain accumulated over the last decade and the fact the character is sidelined with injury for part of the flick is disappointing, as it’s great to see him back. Damici reminds one of Charles Bronson, at times, with the grizzled tough guy roles he often plays. Hughes is creepy as Mother. She has a presence and it’s unfortunate she’s a bit underdeveloped. Rounding out is Laura Abramsen, who is fine as Mister’s mute, feral woman companion and A.C. Peterson and veteran actor Steven Williams are entertaining as two leaders of an armed outpost who join Mister in standing against Mother. Sadly Bonnie Dennison’s part is far too short to really count as more than a cameo.

Overall this is an OK sequel to, in my opinion, one of the best horror films of 2010. The returning characters were fun to see again and were well played by the returning stars. Actor/writer Nick Damici had a worthy enough story and some interesting developments, but the film lacked Jim Mickle’s touch behind the camera. The direction was by-the-numbers and while entertaining, the film lacked the intensity and atmosphere of it’s predecessor and appeared to be working with a smaller scale and budget. Worth a watch if you are a fan of the original film, but if you haven’t seen Stake Land, seek that out first.

-MonsterZero NJ

2 and 1/2 stakes.

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HORROR YOU MIGHT HAVE MISSED: DARK WAS THE NIGHT (2014)

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DARK WAS THE NIGHT (2014)

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I remember reading a supposedly true story when I was a little kid called The Devil Walked In Devon about the citizens of a snow covered English town in 1855 awaking to find a trail of cloven hoof footprints leading all through the village and neighboring towns, then stopping suddenly as if the maker vanished into thin air. As a kid, the story spooked me and stayed with me. I was delighted then to see that screenwriter Tyler Hisee cleverly incorporated that chilling tale in his story of a mysterious creature stalking a remote town.

As the film opens, we see the death of some logging crew members and then are taken 90 miles south to the remote town of Maiden Woods, whose population is well below 300. We are introduced to emotionally troubled sheriff, Paul Shields (Kevin Duran) who is suffering the effects of the accidental death of one of his young sons. He blames himself. His wife, Susan (Bianca Kajlich) has moved out and his other son, Adam (Ethan Khusidman) is caught in the middle. Soon, martial problems are the least of his worries as pets are disappearing and the usually abundant wildlife has all but fled the area. One morning, a trail of strange cloven footprints is found making it’s way through the entire town and paranoia begins to spread. Something is stalking the town of Maiden Woods, something vicious, strong and very hungry. Now it’s up to Shields and his transplanted New York deputy (Lukas Haas) to stop the mysterious creature before it begins to feed on the only source of food left…the citizens of Maiden Woods.

Directed by Jack Heller from Hisee’s script this is an atmospheric and spooky little movie that smartly keeps it’s mysterious monster in the dark for most of the film. It’s a slow burning horror/thriller in a time of rapid pace and the film benefits from it, as we get to know the characters and care about them as the threat looms and grows. Heller never lets us forget there is something formidable in the surrounding woods and we are constantly treated to spooky close calls with it, as well as, the effects of it’s nocturnal visits. He builds the tension slowly till we are treated to a tense final act with the desperate townsfolk huddled in a church during a snow storm with a creature lurking outside. If the film has any flaws, and it has a few, it’s that the ending could have been a bit more intense, with a little more cat and mouse inside the large church and when we finally see our fiend, the brief CGI is less than convincing. It’s a bit of a disappointment as we’ve been treated to shots of prosthetic limbs throughout, but the full creature is only moderately successful computer generation. It doesn’t drag the film down too bad as Heller has given his creature a formidable personality, it just didn’t have the impact it needed. Adding to the look and feel of the film are Ryan Samul’s atmospheric cinematography and Darren Morze’s moody score, which help us ease past those flaws a bit.

We get a solid cast here, too. Durand, usually known for supporting roles, is a fine and humanly flawed hero. His Paul has both a strength and an obvious sadness than makes him endearing and refreshingly vulnerable. Haas makes a likable Deputy Donny. He’s a bit of a fish out of water being a former NYC cop, who came to Maiden Woods to escape his own personal pains and he is a loyal partner for Shields. Bianca Kajlich is also fine as the wife who has lost a child and is maybe running away from the fact that she is loosing her husband too, to grief. She and Durand have a nice chemistry onscreen so we believe the emotions of their strained relationship. We also get some solid support from indie horror fixture Nick Damici (Stake Land, Late Phases) and Skateland‘s Heath Freeman as town locals.

This was an enjoyable monster flick with some nice atmosphere and chills from director Jack Heller. The script from Tyler Hisee cleverly incorporates a real life spooky folk tale in it’s story which helps build the sense of foreboding. The climax could have used a bit more intensity and the creature’s final unveiling could have had more impact but, it’s a little horror flick with it’s heart and chills in the right place. A fun and spooky movie.

-MonsterZero NJ

3 deer…though you’d be hard-pressed to find that many in Maiden Woods.
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HORROR YOU MIGHT HAVE MISSED: LATE PHASES (2014)

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LATE PHASES (2014)

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“People don’t come to places like this to live, they come here to die.”

Late Phases is the first English language film from Here Comes The Devil director Adrián García Bogliano. The film tells the story of Ambrose McKinley (Nick Damici), an armed services/Viet Nam veteran now blind and put into the Crescent Bay retirement community by his son, Will (Ethan Embry). The first night there, a full moon, his neighbor Dolores (Karen Lynn Gorney) is killed and Ambrose is viciously attacked by a savage wolf-like beast. His seeing-eye dog, Shadow, is mortally wounded fighting it off, saving the man’s life. The defiant Ambrose is determined to get answers and soon finds out these attacks occur once a month and the police pass it off as some animal that lives in the nearby woods. They also don’t seem too concerned about the seniors that are it’s victims. But Ambrose begins to put the hard to believe pieces together and realizes he has one month to find out who this shape-shifter is and a means to stop it, by the next full moon. However, his lycanthropic opponent knows he’s coming and is preparing, too…to make sure it’s a war Ambrose won’t win.

I really liked this flick! Not only was it a solid and refreshing take on a werewolf story, but a well made tale of a tough old man who won’t give up. Director Adrián García Bogliano, from Eric Stolze’s tight and clever script, quickly establishes McKinley’s stubborn character, his closeness to Shadow and the mundane life of Crescent Bay, so when the vicious attack comes in the first act, we get it’s full impact. We are then taken along for the smoldering ride as the blind veteran begins to investigate the identity of his lupine invader and make his plans to stop it on the next full moon. The suspense is turned up as we get our reveal a bit early and the cursed individual begins to prepare his counterattack. All this builds up to a very tense and bloody third act showdown between the blind ex-soldier and his lycanthropic enemy. It all works so well, because Bogliano takes his story seriously, generates the proper intensity and we like McKinley and are rooting for the stubborn vet to do what others don’t seem concerned enough to do. There are some minor flaws. McKinley comes to the werewolf conclusion rather quickly, an obnoxious cop character’s dialog is a little too obvious in it’s intent to convey the lack of concern for the seniors here and the climax could have actually played out a bit longer, but otherwise I liked what they accomplished here. It’s suspenseful, intense and has some vicious and very gory action. Technically, the low budget movie is sound, too. There is nice cinematography from Ernesto Herra who shot Here Comes The Devil and a very atmospheric score by Wojciech Golczewski. The werewolf suits and transformations use charming prosthetics and are very effective. There also is some really good and plentiful gore, as well as, a convincing job aging star Dimici about 20 years.

And as for Dimici… he is another reason this works so well. There is a really strong performance here by the Stake Land writer/actor. Damici creates a man who is handicapped by the horror of war and accepts it as punishment for deeds he committed in battle. He is stubborn, difficult but also strong and determined. He makes the crotchety old man very likable and gives him a lot of depth and we go right along with his quest to see this creature brought down. We totally believe that he would give his life to see this fiend stopped, if necessary. We also get nice work from Ethan Embry as his son. The dynamic between the two really works and we get Will’s frustration at how difficult Ambrose is, but yet he still wants to take care of him. The two have good chemistry and make this film really gel with their relationship dynamic. In support, and all doing good work, are familiar faces like Lance Guest (The Last Starfighter), House of the Devil’s Tom Noonan, the legendary Tina Louise as a catty housewife and a small role from the incomparable Larry Fessenden. A good cast that makes this film come together almost perfectly.

I really liked this flick a lot. It’s very well directed. It’s suspenseful, intense, the last act provides some really gory action and it has some nice emotional depth. It’s a refreshing take on the oft-told werewolf tale and it is a well balanced mix of horror, mystery and character drama. The FX are charmingly old-fashioned prosthetics and it’s briskly paced despite the middle act being an intentional slow burn. Highly recommended for something a little different and a horror made for adults at a time when PG-13 teen-centric fright flicks are making up most of what the genre is offering.

-MonsterZero NJ

3 and 1/2 silver bullets.

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HORROR YOU MIGHT HAVE MISSED: MULBERRY STREET (2006)

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MULBERRY STREET (2006)

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

Mulberry Street is the first feature film collaboration from the Stake Land writing team of director Jim Mickle and Nick Damici, who also plays the lead role of ex-boxer ‘Clutch’ (and Stake Land’s ‘Mister’). Mulberry Street is a horror flick that takes place in a NYC tenement on the eve of it’s tenants losing their homes to eminent domain. As Clutch receives a visit from his soldier daughter (Kim Blair), returning from service in Iraq, a bizarre outbreak hits the neighborhood and Clutch, his daughter and their neighbors, become trapped in their apartments as people around them are being transformed into vicious killers with rat-like features. Can they survive the night as this bizarre outbreak spreads through the apartment building and the rest of the city as well?

The story might sound silly to some, but Mickle takes his tale of a zombie outbreak with a vermin twist completely serious and makes one creepy and effective horror flick out of it. Mickle maintains an atmosphere of dread throughout and offers some tense and suspenseful scenes, as our apartment dwellers become the target of their vicious and hungry former neighbors. The almost documentary like style draws us in and Mickle gives us some very ‘real people’ characters to care about and root for. He gets good performances out of his cast and presents some simple but very effective FX to portray his protagonists and their carnage. Mulberry Street may not appeal to the casual or mainstream horror fan, but to those who enjoy something offbeat, inventive and a little different, then a trip down Mulberry St. is a creepy trip worth taking and a very effective little horror on a micro budget.

Obviously, I like this movie a lot and it shows the potential Jim Mickle has lived up to with his following films Stake LandWe Are What We Are and Cold In July. It’s a fun and very creepy twist on the standard zombie format and uses what could have been a silly premise very effectively. It’s spooky, atmospheric and accomplishes a lot on a very small budget. Definitely recommended to those who love some variety and originality in their horror.

A solid 3 vermin.

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REVIEW: COLD IN JULY (2014)

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COLD IN JULY (2014)

As a big fan of writer/director Jim Mickle (Stake Land/We Are What We Are 2013) I was eagerly awaiting his next flick especially when I heard it would be a thriller and star Dexter’s Michael C. Hall. And while I feel the film left a few questions unanswered, I did like it’s bold changes of direction and Mickle’s very John Carpenter-ish style… including a dead-on Carpenter-esque score by Jeff Grace and a character named ‘Jack Crow’ (Lanny Flaherty) as from Carpenter’s Vampires. And I can only believe it was all deliberate.

The film is based on a book by Joe R. Lansdale and takes place in 1989 Texas. Small-town picture-framer Richard Dane (Michael C. Hall) wakes up in the middle of the night to find an intruder in his house. In fear for the lives of his son, wife and self, he reluctantly confronts the man with his gun and shoots him dead after being startled. The unarmed man is identified by police chief Ray Price (Nick Damici, who co-scripted) as Freddy Russell (Wyatt Russell) a wanted man and known felon. Richard is stricken by guilt but, that is the least of his troubles as Freddy’s dad Ben (Sam Shepard), also a felon, has just been paroled and begins stalking Richard’s family, with apparent harmful intent for his little boy. But, as the police pursue the revenge minded Ben, the situation takes a bizarre turn as a twist of fate leads Richard to believe the man he shot was not Freddy Russell. Now to uncover the mystery of who was actually killed in his house and why the police are lying, leads Richard to the one person least likely to want to help him… Ben Russell.

I enjoyed this movie. It was a tense thriller and Mickle creates some great atmosphere and tension while also taking things suddenly in directions one does not expect… more than once. He and Nick Damici’s script takes us on some unexpected turns and ultimately delivers a blood soaked thriller far different than we expected going in. The style of the film reminded me very much of early John Carpenter and I doubt that is a coincidence as Jeff Grace’s accompanying score sounds as if it was lifted directly out of an 80s Carpenter film and Ryan Samul’s cinematography echoes that of a Carpenter flick. Mickle again shows he is a filmmaker to watch and he has a nice versatility in the tone of his projects. There is also a nice undercurrent of humor in the script, especially when Don Johnson is on-screen as delightfully cliche’d Texas private investigator Jim Bob Luke. The character is far too stereotypical to not be deliberate and it adds to the film’s atmosphere and flavor, lightening the very dour tone a bit to keep the atmosphere from being oppressive. There are some flaws. Changing narrative direction does leave some questions unanswered and I certainly question whether the fairly meek Richard would have voluntarily seen this thing through, like he does, once it appeared things would get bloody. There are a few things I can certainly figure out on my own, but, the film does still leave us with quandaries and the change in narrative does leave characters behind who we’d like a bit of closure with. But, I still enjoyed the film as it is and the last act bloodbath was quite effective. And another factor that helps overcome some of it’s flaws, aside from Mickle’s skilled direction, is a dynamite cast…

Michael C. Hall is very effective as a demure small-town business and family man who is dropped into a violent situation that turns into a mystery and gets even more violent. He seems like a good man who truly wants answers to satisfy his conscience for not only killing an unarmed intruder but, why he was lied to about his identity. I’m not sure Richard would have pursued things to it’s bloody end when given a chance to walk away, but, Hall is still good in the part, nonetheless. Sam Shepard is absolutely gripping as Ben Russell. At first he comes across as a violent and vengeful man with harmful intent toward Dane and his family but, as the mystery unfolds, he becomes a different person altogether and one who might actually have a sense of honor underneath the convicted felon. Shepard is a gifted actor that really makes a simple criminal into a complex three dimensional character. Don Johnson also shines as good-ole-boy private detective and pig farmer Jim Bob Luke. He has a good time with a man who is both charmingly Americana yet, larger than life and Johnson also imbues a stereotype character with some layers and dimensionality as we get to know him. Johnson’s last few roles has shown us an actor who has matured gracefully and only gotten better with age. Nick Damici also proves he has become a good actor aside from Mickle’s co-writer, on all his previous projects, and his Ray Price is an interesting character with interesting motives and it’s too bad the story leaves him behind at a fairly early point. The rest of the supporting cast are just fine and the acting helps make this flick work as well as it does.

So, despite a few unanswered questions and some changes in story direction that may throw some viewers off… but, I liked them… this is a taunt and sometimes very violent thriller from a director who continues to grow and surprise. I loved tha the film evoked John Carpenter in his prime and what it might have been like had the master director done a down and dirty thriller like this. I also loved Jeff Grace’s very Carpenter-ish score and the addition of a character named ‘Jack Crow’ leads me to believe that the Carpenter style and score was not a co-incidence. An atmospheric thriller not afraid to change gears and take us in unexpected and sometimes blood-soaked directions, guided by a director who can deliver the goods and win us over despite the film’s flaws.

3 bullets.

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HORROR YOU MIGHT HAVE MISSED: WE ARE WHAT WE ARE (2013)

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WE ARE WHAT WE ARE (2013)

We Are What We Are is Jim Mickle’s (Stake Land, Mulberry Street) remake of the 2010 Mexican horror of the same name by Jorge Michel Grau. And while I am not a fan of the original film… I found the premise intriguing but, the film boring and the characters very uninteresting… I am a fan of Jim Mickle so, I was curious to see what he did with Grau’s story. And having finally caught up with this film, I can honestly say I really like Mickle’s version much better. He has taken the basic story and made his own movie. And since this is the type of story that is best enjoyed knowing as little as possible going in, my plot description will be brief. The film takes place in a small rural town where not only a massive storm and flood hits but, the Parker family tragically loses their matriarch. The family is in an obvious emotional tailspin over her death but, things are about to get worse. For the Parkers are a family with a dark secret that has been hidden for generations but, this dark secret may soon be brought into the light as receding flood waters may bring things to the surface that the Parkers would like to have remained hidden.

Mickle once again scripts with writer/actor Nick Damici who also appears as Sheriff Meeks. Where I felt that Grau’s film concentrated more on the drama between thinly written family members, Mickle center’s his film on the more interesting part, which is the the dark secret that the Parkers are harboring and the slow burn as it appears it’s about to unravel. The family elements are addressed here and Mickle does give us more interesting characters but, the film concentrates more on the act of fate that begins to bring unwanted attention to the family and the gruesome possibility that their home is a house of horrors and one about to be discovered. Something this recently wounded family is not ready to deal with. This gives Mickle’s version a slow building tension the other film lacked and Mickle is very good at building that subtle tension and giving the film a pervading atmosphere that something is not quite right. He accents this with his distinct visual style which is refreshingly subtle when compared to a lot of today’s editing FX happy filmmakers. The film is not about big scares and gory horror… though there are moments when the film gets gruesome but, most of all it’s about keeping the viewer very unsettled until it’s time to outright disturb or shock us. So, overall the film is a slow burn but, one that keeps you interested and edgy until it’s time to crank things up. The only real flaw here is more from the fact that it is a remake so, some of the impact of what occurs is lost when it adheres to the original story. If you haven’t seen the original then this should not be an issue. For me it did lessen the effect of some of the scenes I was familiar with. But, Mickle does make up for a lot of it with a good cast and he gets good work out of his actors. We have Bill Sage who’s solid as the family father Frank who seems a little off even before we know what is going on. Ambyr Childers and Julia Garner are very effective as teen daughters Iris and Rose as they now must handle the ‘duties’ the death of their mother left in their charge. Michael Parks is very good, as always, as Doc Barrows, the man who starts to feel there is something very wrong going on in the Parker house and that something might be connected to the disappearance of his daughter. Rounding out the cast is veteran actress Kelly McGillis as neighbor Marge, Wyatt Russell as Deputy Anders and young Jack Gore as the youngest Parker, Rory.

While I may still prefer Mickle’s previous two films, this is still strong work from a director who I have felt since first watching Mulberry Street, was one worth keeping an eye on. He and collaborator Nick Damici continue to make interesting movies in their own style and it’s a very back to basics style in an era of CGI and computer editing software FX. And to me I find the old school approach very refreshing. A tense, disturbing chiller from a man who continues to impress on the independent horror scene and for once a remake that improves upon it’s source material.

3 solid bones!

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HORROR YOU MIGHT HAVE MISSED: STAKE LAND (2010)

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STAKE LAND (2010)

Another interesting horror from Jim Mickle, director of the cool indie chiller Mulberry St. Stake Land is a bloody horror tale set in a world that has been overrun by vicious and bloodthirsty vampires, not the glittering, poetry reading fops that populate contemporary stories to woo teenage girls, but murderous, savage, blood drinking monsters. The film follows a hardened vampire fighter simply know as “Mister” (co-writer Nick Damici) and a boy coming of age, Martin (Connor Paolo) as they travel across the desolate vampire infested wasteland. Sometimes the pockets of survivors they meet during the day, like the religious “Brotherhood” who feel the vampires are doing God’s work, are worse than the monsters that stalk the night. Along the way they pick up some stragglers like the pretty pregnant, Belle (Danielle Harris), ex-Marine, Willie (Sean Nelson) and nun, “Sister” (Kelly McGillis). They are all headed to New Eden, an area of Canada rumored be vampire free. The odds and fangs are stacked against them and they may not survive the trip to a place that may not even exist.

Stake Land is very bleak and sometimes very vicious and gory, but there is some innovative stuff along with the familiar vampire/apocalyptic trappings and some powerful scenes. Like with Mulberry St., Mickle knows how to add fresh twists to old favorites and create likable characters to populate his horror stories. He also creates some tense atmosphere, some nice scares and gets good performances from his cast. Despite the dark tone, Mickle still manages to give his tale a glimmer of hope that keeps us emotionally invested. The film also an effective visual style, it’s simple, but Mickle creates a lot of atmosphere with what he has to work with on a low budget.

A really good horror from an underrated filmmaker who I hope someday gets the attention he deserves. One of my top horrors from 2011 (It had a limited release in 2010, but I was not able to catch it until 2011 on DVD).

Rated 3 and 1/2 (out of 4) stakes

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