REVIEW: IN A VALLEY OF VIOLENCE (2016)

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IN A VALLEY OF VIOLENCE (2016)

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Western homage is written and directed by Ti West who is known for horror films like The House Of The Devil and the recent The Sacrament. This is a departure for West and shows he can do more than just horror with this tale of revenge. Flick has ex-soldier Paul (Ethan Hawke) wandering into the small town of Denton, New Mexico. He is just passing through, but in true western fashion, has an altercation with the town bully/deputy, Gilly (James Ransone). Paul is commanded to leave town by Gilly’s sheriff father (John Travolta), but is pursued into the desert by Gilly and his thugs. Upon being ambushed, his beloved dog, Abbie is murdered and Paul himself left for dead. Surviving Gilly’s attempt at payback, the lone drifter heads back to Denton with death and revenge on his mind.

In A Valley Of Violence may not be perfect, but it is a fun homage to both spaghetti and American westerns. Ti West creates a classic drifter in Paul, a man who grew tired of killing Native Americans senselessly and left the army behind, too ashamed to return home to his own family. He wants no more to do with death, but is forced by the slimy Gilly and his father into picking up gun and knife once more. We also get the classic love interest in young Mary-Anne (Taissa Farmiga) who happens to be the sister of Gilly’s fiancé, Ellen (Karen Gillan) and takes a shine to the handsome drifter. In telling this classic story, West’s horror background does come through. Paul uses an assortment of weapons to gain revenge, including gun, straight razor and bludgeoning a man with his own boot heel. The flashback to the Native American massacre the broke him down is also very reminiscent of his set up for the sacrifice scene in The House Of The Devil. This western is also a bloody one, thought he does not go overboard with it. If West stumbles a bit, it’s with the film’s odd sense of humor. It is a bit intrusive in a few spots such as during the climactic scenes with Paul stalking Sheriff Martin and his posse throughout the town. There are a couple of moments where some humorous dialogue interrupts the tension that West has built, such as after witnessing a cohort gunned down, one of Martin’s thugs (Tommy Nohilly) declares, in a rant, that he no longer wants to be called “Tubby”. The humor is blended fine most of the time, but here it seems to slow the momentum a bit and break the suspense. It doesn’t damage the film, but the climactic showdown could have been tighter and more tense. On a technical level the film looks good. Cinematographer Eric Robbins makes good use of the New Mexico locations and Jeff Grace gives it a homage filled western score that evokes Morricone at times.

West also gets good work out of an impressive cast. Hawke may be no Clint Eastwood, but he plays the tortured drifter very well. Paul is a man who has come to abhor violence, but is forced back into it, reluctantly, by the bully Gilly. His dog Abbie is the rock that what humanity he has left clings to and when she is taken, the killer is unleashed again. Hawke makes Paul likable, yet a bit distant and we do believe he is lethal when the time comes. Travolta is very good as Sheriff Martin. He plays him as not quite a bad guy, but obviously someone who lets his son and thugs have their way around town. He knows enough to not mess with the ex-soldier Paul, but sadly is not convincing enough to his son. As Gilly, James Ransone is appropriately slimy and full of himself. Gilly is a bit too much of a jerk to really be completely menacing and Ransone plays him as someone a bit too over confident to know when to quit. Taissa Farmiga is sweet and spirited as Mary-Anne, the lonely impressionable young girl who falls for Paul and Karen Gillan is also entertaining as her snooty sister Ellen, who is engaged to the bully Gilly. Indie flick icon Larry Fesenden also appears as one of Gilly’s three thugs along with Toby Huss and Tommy Nohilly.

Overall, I liked this odd little western homage and was entertained. The story is common to the genre as are the stereotypical characters, but that is completely on purpose. This is some nice tension and suspense to go with the bloody action and the cast all perform their parts well. If the film falters somewhat, it is in that sometimes it’s quirky humor comes at the wrong moments when things should stay tense. Otherwise this is a fun western from a man who has already impressed with his horror flicks and Blumhouse who continues to support indie filmmakers. Also stars Burn Gorman as a less than typical priest.

-MonsterZero NJ

3 six-shooters.

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HORROR YOU MIGHT HAVE MISSED: THE SACRAMENT (2013)

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THE SACRAMENT (2013)

From the director of House Of The Devil and The Innkeepers comes this faux documentary chiller about a supposedly idyllic commune that echoes the real-life Jonestown incident of 1978. The story finds fashion photographer Patrick (Kentucker Audley) traveling to a remote South American jungle with his friends Jake (Joe Swanberg) and Sam (AJ Bowen) when he gets a letter from his sister Caroline (Amy Seimetz) about her new life in a religious commune. As the three all work for a New York based multimedia company named Vice, they decide to make a documentary about the commune as part of their visit. And while, at first, the place seems like the peaceful haven it appears, that starts to change upon meeting it’s charismatic founder “Father” (a haunting Gene Jones), a man who might be more about playing God then serving him. Now, the longer they stay, the more they realize something is terribly wrong here and they may not live to present the world the story of Eden Parish.

I have been a big fan of director/writer Ti West since first seeing his low budget horror The Roost and he hasn’t disappointed me yet. The Sacrament is a chilling story of desperate people who fall under the control of a manipulative megalomaniac whose promise of freedom is only made so he can imprison and control them. West does a good job of first making us think that maybe Eden Parish isn’t such a bad place as our media crew interview some very happy and satisfied settlers. But, once Father appears and they interview him, West slowly starts to build tension and chills as there is a malicious underlying meaning to some of his answers. As the night goes on, the tension and chills mount as the 3 men realize that this is not a haven and they may not be allowed to leave. The film legitimately disturbs as our crew become increasing afraid and realize they may be trapped in a serpent’s nest and Ti West’s use of the documentary format helps get the viewer in close. If there is any Achilles’ Heel to this film, it is that it follows history a little too closely and anyone with knowledge of Jim Jones and the Jonestown Massacre, know what’s coming. Sure, it’s unsettling to watch unfold but, it doesn’t quite have the shock it needed to really punctuate the rest of the film and give it the powerful climax it needs. It is effective, don’t get me wrong but, as someone who was a teen in 1978 when the incident this is based on occurred… the familiarity did lessen the event’s impact. Overall the film is disturbing, especially when you add in Eric Robbins’ cinematography and Tyler Bates effectively chilling score but, as this event played out in real-life and is historically renown, it does take away the core shock of what transpires.

But in the director’s favor, West also gets good work out of his cast and this helps with the film’s effect. Swanberg, Audley and Bowen all present realistic characters that definitely give the vibe of metro filmmakers, who, especially in the case of Bowen’s Sam, give the impression of being equal parts idealistic and naive. They wade into their documentary full steam ahead realizing only too late they are in shark infested waters. Their fear appears quite genuine. Amy Seimetz is especially convincing as a woman who seems very happy on the outside but, is brainwashed to the point of committing horrible acts to preserve that ‘happiness’ as her leader commands. But, the real star of this show is a truly mesmerizing Gene Jones as Father. Jones presents a man who truly believes what he says and who uses the word of God and the promise of a peaceful life to control and manipulate those around him. He also is not above bending or breaking the very laws of God that he claims to uphold, if it suits his purpose and maintains his control over his subjects. He comes across as that friendly uncle who always greets you with a warm hug but, this time has a knife hidden behind his back. A really noteworthy performance.

In conclusion, I liked Ti West’s The Sacrament. It is chilling and disturbing and the found footage format puts us in the compound with our beleaguered film crew and adds to the tension. The only real flaw the film has, is that it follows a tragic historical event a bit too closely and anyone with knowledge of that incident knows where this is heading. The last act of the film is less shocking because of it but, is still unsettling to watch unfold under the skilled lens of Ti West and the very chilling performance of Gene Jones. Still very recommended.

3 jugs of Kool Aid.

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NEW RED BAND TRAILER FOR TI WEST’S ‘THE SACRAMENT’

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I am a huge fan of indie filmmaker Ti West (House Of The Devil, The Innkeepers) and am certainly looking forward to his newest flick the Jonestown-ish thriller The Sacrament which premiers on VOD on 5/1/14. Till then we have this chilling new red band trailer of the Eli Roth produced flick…

Source:Youtube/ IGN

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REVIEW: BENEATH (2013)

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BENEATH (2013)

Larry Fessenden is one of the busiest people on the indie film scene especially when it comes to indie horror. If he’s not writing and directing one of his own features, he’s acting, producing, or both, for features made by other indie filmmakers such as Ti West and Jim Mickle. Having just seen him as the backwoods father in Jug Face, I now got to see his latest directorial effort Beneath.

The title in this horror flick, written by Tony Daniel and Brian D. Smith, refers to not only the giant carnivorous fish hiding in the waters of a remote mountain lake, but also the dark sides and secrets that lie hidden within the six youths who it’s chosen as it’s prey. Secrets that surface along with the vicious predator as they fight to survive. And that’s what I liked about this low budget thriller, is that it takes what could have been a typical monster on the loose scenario and uses it as a study of how relationships quickly deteriorate and a group of close friends turn on each other when faced with a fight for their lives.

The story is simple. High school is over and six friends decide to go for a camping/partying trip in the woods across a large remote mountain lake. There have been legends about there being something in Black Lake, but none of them, except for moody Johnny (Daniel Zovatto seen recently in It Follows), pay them any heed. So they head out into the lake in a rowboat and despite Johnny’s warnings to stay out of the water, they go swimming. Soon they realize that the stories are true and they are attacked by a large and very vicious fish that proceeds to kill one of their number, damage the boat and one by one relive them of their oars. The teens find themselves trapped in the middle of the lake with the boat slowly sinking and the fish patiently circling it’s prey. But even more dangerous then the aquatic predator is the threat they pose to each other, as they start to turn on each other and see their compatriots no longer as friends, but as meaty distractions to lure the fish away, while they try to escape. The dark secrets and hidden emotions rise up as they try to decide who stays and who is going over the side. As the day lengthens and their situation grows more dire, they may find themselves in more danger from each other than the creature lurking just outside their boat.

That’s what I liked most about this little flick, is that it really focuses on the breakdown of friendships, civility and morality when the instincts to survive kick in. Fessenden does create a very tense situation in this sinking boat while keeping us reminded of the constant threat outside in the water. The creature is almost always present lurking nearby keeping constant pressure on the youths inside the boat. It’s this pressure that quickly breaks them down and sets them at each others throats just as quickly as the monster waiting outside the boat sets upon those unfortunate enough to find themselves in the murky lake waters.

Helping the director achieve his effectiveness are fairly sturdy performances from his cast including the before mentioned Zovatto as Johnny, Bonnie Dennison as Kitty who is Johnny’s ex and is now dating jock Matt (Chris Conroy), Jonny Orsini as Matt’s brother Simon, Griffin Newman as would be filmmaker Zeke and Mackenzie Rosman as sassy Deb. Rounding out the cast is Mark Margolis as Mr. Parks, an odd neighbor who gives the teens the traditional ominous warnings. None of the cast are perfect, but considering the material’s intensity, they handle it effectively enough.

As for the effects, there is plentiful and well orchestrated gore and Fessenden wisesly chooses to go with a animatronic fish over CGI and while it isn’t the most realistic looking critter ever on film, it is effective enough in appearance and movement and has far more personality and threat then something created digitally. Being that the creature is more of a catalyst for the horrors going on inside the boat, it is more then efficient for it’s purpose.

The film is not perfect. There is some weak dialog that sticks out here and there. The teens turn on each other and come to the conclusion that sacrificing one of their own is a good idea far too quickly, but I can understand for the sake of keeping the story moving as to why the breakdown occurs quicker then you might expect. There are some time lapse shots to indicate that they have been there much longer then the 90 minute running time, but the events still take place over a matter of only a few hours and things do disintegrate rather rapidly, especially considering they have been long-time friends. There is also one character’s fate that I’m not sure totally worked except to move certain story elements along, but for the sake of not ruining anything, I won’t mention details.

Flaws aside, this is an interesting and effective horror that has some intense and disturbing moments and some good old fashion bloodletting, too. I give it a lot of credit for taking what could have been a routine monster movie and turning into a character study of how fear and survival can break down moral barriers even among friends. So I would recommend this to those who like indie horrors and something a little offbeat and outside the box, but to be honest, even if you like your horror a bit more traditional, there is enough of the monster movie elements to make it certainly worth a look. An entertaining and offbeat little horror from a man who has made quite a mark on the indie horror scene.

3 toothy and hungry lake predators!

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HORROR YOU MIGHT HAVE MISSED: THE HOUSE OF THE DEVIL (2009)

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THE HOUSE OF THE DEVIL (2009)

I am a big fan of director Ti West and of 70s and 80s horror, so that’s already two in the win column for me in regards to West’s homage to late 70s/early 80s occult themed horror flicks. This story, also written by West and set in the early 80s, has financially struggling college student Samantha (Jocelin Donahue) renting an apartment and now trying to figure out how she is going to pay for it. When a babysitting job at a remote house on the edge of town comes up, Samantha takes it despite warnings from her friend Megan (Greta Gerwig) that something isn’t right. When she arrives, Samantha finds a spooky old couple (Tom Noonan and Mary Woronov) and learns she is actually there to keep an eye on their elderly mother and not a child. She decides to decline, but an offer of significantly more money coerces her to stay. As this is a horror film, it’s no secret that this night is not going to proceed quietly for Samantha.

Ti West perfectly recreates one of the horror flicks of this bygone era in every detail from the grainy photography and the camera angles to the hairstyles and fashions. But is it a good horror movie? Yes, it most certainly is. Today’s impatient audiences may not appreciate the slow burn, but West keeps the atmosphere creepy and full of foreboding till the suspenseful and blood-soaked finale act. It’s paced much like a fright flick from that time and it worked perfectly for me. It’s set on the night of a lunar eclipse which sets off our primal fears of something supernatural being afoot and Megan’s warnings make us doubt Sam is making the right decision. All adding to the mood and uneasiness. One of the things I like about West, is that he knows how to create tension with his camera and the composition of his shots, much like vintage John Carpenter. With Samantha being alone in the creepy house by herself, there isn’t a lot of dialogue or exposition, so he keeps things tense by giving the house a constant feeling of dread with his lens. He and cinematographer Eliot Rocket film the big old house with lots of shadows where evil may lurk and there are plenty of rooms with closed doors where who-knows-what may reside. It’s like the house itself is a character and one we know is up to no good.

He also gets good performances from his cast. Donahue, who was seen recently playing Barbara Hershey’s younger self in Insidious: Chapter 2, makes a strong heroine. She’s smart, but her need for cash makes her a bit desperate and thus vulnerable. When the blood hits the fan, she’s a fighter we root for. Veterans Noonan and Woronov play The Ulman’s as a bit eccentric and while they appear harmless, there is something off about them that keep us wary about the two, just as Sam is. Gerwig is a spunky and likable friend and there is a nice cameo by horror icon Dee Wallace as Sam’s landlord.

Like the films it pays homage to, it keeps things unsettling but subtle till West is ready to unleash his horrors and then we are in for a bloody and intense final act where a babysitter’s worst nightmare comes true. Even the climax is right out of a horror flick of that era, subtle and spooky. As a nostalgic trip back to a type of horror they don’t make anymore or for a spooky Halloween treat, I definitely recommend it. A really good old school horror flick.

To check out my review of West’s follow up flick The Innkeepers click here!

3 and 1/2 creepy houses that no one in their right mind would want to babysit in.

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REVIEW: YOU’RE NEXT (2013)

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YOU’RE NEXT (2013)

It amazes me how such a dull and predictable thriller such as You’re Next can arrive with such positive hype. It boggles the mind that so many positive adjectives are thrown at something that was so tedious to sit through and so unoriginal. You’re Next tells the story of a group of snooty rich people that gather for a family dinner at a remote mansion in the woods. But, all is not what it seems as soon they are besieged by a group of masked and well-armed killers and predictably, all inside the house are not what they seem either so it’s no surprise the killers are not in for an easy night. What follows is over an hour of annoying shaky cam, annoying characters, plot holes, brutal, numbing violence, plot twists seen from a mile away and a few well placed jump scares but, very little suspense or frights. First problem is the folks at the house are cardboard pretentious rich folks and not very interesting so, we have a hard time really giving a hoot as they become prey to the masked killers. The deaths on both sides are telegraphed long before they happen so, there is little suspense to go with the gore. We know ‘who’s next’ immediately by the unimaginative scene set ups that we’ve seen countless times before. Characters recuperative powers defy logic as they are gravely injured in one scene and appear fine the next. Running up the stairs with a crossbow bolt in your back? Sure! Characters also do really stupid things to set themselves up as victims on both sides and as for the ‘surprise plot twists’ they are obvious the minute the characters arrive as to who we should keep an eye on. There are a few effective scenes but, far too few to make this tolerable and it’s not inventive or clever enough to forgive that it’s really a routine home invasion flick with some predictable plot turns that are no surprise once revealed. We suspect this is what’s up from early on and are proven right by Simon Barrett’s weak script. Director Adam Wingard is too busy shaking his camera and spattering blood to do anything interesting with the simple concept nor distract us from seeing where this tedious flick is going long before it get’s there. The violence gets tiresome long before the final showdown… thought that scene does contain one of the film’s best bits. The cast too are pretty bland with Sharni Vinson showing a bit of spunk as the resourceful Erin but, even Re-Animator’s Barbara Crampton can’t give these two dimensional characters much life especially with spurts of some truly awful dialog. A character’s confession in the last act was literally making me wince. Worst yet, aside from knowing how it’s going to end, the film’s last shot ‘joke’ is also glaringly obvious, we know it’s coming and it offers no surprise or fun. A predictable and ineffective shock ending for a predictable and ineffective horror thriller. Also stars director Ti West in a brief role and TI West regulars AJ Bowen and Larry Fessenden. Very little to recommend unless you like violence for violence sake. A major disappointment.

2 blenders!

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HORROR YOU MIGHT HAVE MISSED: THE INNKEEPERS (2011)

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THE INNKEEPERS (2011)

Ti West’s follow up to his spooky 80s throwback House of the Devil is a return to a more basic and CGI-less haunted house story and is all the more refreshing for it. Tale of the final days of a supposedly haunted New England hotel is a fun and sometimes downright scary horror chiller that will please those horror fans that can still appreciate the days when effects were done live and scares were generated by the director and his camera, not digital FX artists. West once again takes his time to slowly build the atmosphere as he presents us with the story of the remaining employees of the old Yankee Pedlar Hotel, Claire and Luke (Sara Paxton and Pat Healy) as they decide to do a little paranormal investigating to gain evidence of the hotel’s haunting before it closes. It gives nothing away to say that they may not like what they find.

Ti West starts the film out with a light tone as we get to know these two slackers with an interest in the paranormal and as the story progresses, the tone slowly gets darker until, as with House Of The Devil, West unleashes his supernatural horrors during the intense final act. Some of today’s impatient horror fans might not appreciate the slow burn, but it worked in House of the Devil as it does with Innkeepers because, when we finally get to the good stuff, it is all the more effective since we haven’t been bludgeoned with it from the start. West gives us a few red herrings and some spooky stuff along the way to wet the appetite and thus we are primed and ready when the real scares start. It also doesn’t hurt that we like Claire and Luke and obviously are afraid for them when they fail to heed a psychic guest’s (Kelly McGillis) warnings about leaving well enough alone.

A really fun, spooky ghost flick that proves once again that Ti West is a legitimate filmmaking talent who’s work deserves to be noticed.

3 and 1/2 adorable amateur spook hunters

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