HORROR YOU MIGHT HAVE MISSED: HAUNT (2019)

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HAUNT (2019)

There have been a lot of horrors set in Halloween haunts as of late, from The Houses October Built to Hell Fest to Extremity, so, this Shudder* produced flick needed to impress coming in with a concept that is already becoming familiar…and not only does it do that, it might be one of the best horrors this year.

Story finds pretty Harper (Katie Stevens) trying to part with abusive boyfriend Sam (Samuel Hunt) and heading out to party on Halloween night with friends Bailey (Lauryn Alisa McClain), Angela (Shazi Raja) and Mallory (Schuyler Helford). At a club, they run into a couple of guys, Nathan (Will Brittain) and Evan (Andrew Caldwell) and decide to leave with them to find a Halloween haunt, dragging a reluctant Harper along. They stumble upon one such haunt, in the middle of nowhere and soon find they may have picked the wrong haunt to haunt.

Flick is directed intensely by the A Quiet Place writing duo of Scott Beck and Bryan Woods, who also scripted here. It’s premise may not be novel at this point, but is carried out very effectively. It starts out tense with Harper putting on make-up over a bruise suffered from her alcoholic boyfriend and Bailey trying to convince her to finally break up with him. We find out in flashbacks that Harper’s father was also an abusive alcoholic and all this personal drama gives the character some emotional depth, much like Extremity‘s emotionally wounded Allison. We are thus sympathetic to Harper, and her friends, too, as they are all likable characters, especially when we start to realize those running this backwoods haunt are in it for some deadly thrills of their own. The pranks start out playful and then get mean spirited before becoming lethal. The violence is sparse, so it has impact when it occurs and there is some decent gore once things really start to get vicious…and Harper finally learns to stand up for herself and fight back. Beck and Woods build some good old-fashioned suspense and stage some nicely intense set pieces to put our likable leads through. Obviously, not all of them make it and killing off main characters makes us feel unsure about any of their safety. It adds to the suspense. The film looks cool and the sets are well rendered on what appears to be a modest budget. It has a Halloween feel and an atmosphere of foreboding throughout. The costumes for our haunt folk are creepy and they are equally spooky without their Halloween masks. We don’t get to know them very well, or their motives, but they come across as deranged and dangerous and that helps this work. Add to that a very cool score by tomandandy, and you’ve got a very effective Halloween themed chiller that makes very good use of a now familiar setting. Any issues here are minor, such as the movie evoking some of the other haunt set flicks mentioned earlier and the addition of Harper’s jerk boyfriend Sam to the action in the last act, doesn’t really add anything to the proceedings. Otherwise this is a very solid horror.

The cast of fresh faces really helps this flick click. Katie Stevens is very impressive as Harper. She’s a girl with a painful past, dealing with her own issues and finally learning to fight for herself, when thrown into a nightmarish situation. The actress makes her likable and sympathetic and we’re totally with her when she goes on the offensive. Actress McClain is very likable as best pal Bailey. She’s a caring person and looking out for her friend makes her endearing to us. Will Brittain is a solid male lead and he is charming, handsome and his Nathan seems like the nice guy Harper really needs. This makes us like him and fear for him. Caldwell is fun as the obnoxious and bombastic Evan. This character could have been annoying, but script and actor avoid that by presenting his sarcastic humor in the right degrees. He is also brave when he needs to be. Raja and Helford get the least focus of the group, but the actresses make them extremely likable supporting characters with the scenes they have. The key to a horror flick’s success is feeling empathy for it’s main characters and here we do. It also needs effective villains and our masked haunters, Chaney Morrow as “Ghost”, Justin Marxen as “Clown”, Terri Partyka as “Witch”, Justin Rose as “Vampire”, Damian Maffei as “Devil” and Schuyler White as “Zombie” all give their characters a lethality from under their already effective costumes. Last but not least, Samuel Hunt makes the brutish Sam appropriately dislikable with what limited screen time the character has. A solid cast all the way around.

Overall, Haunt is a chilling and intense horror that overcomes the familiarity of a recent horror trend by simply being really good at what it does. It’s intense, scary, has some striking violence and gore and makes good use of it’s spooky setting. It gives us some very likable lead characters, including a three dimensional and sympathetic final girl, to root and fear for and some dastardly villains to be fearful of. Really solid horror and a very spooky surprise from Scott Beck, Bryan Woods, producer Eli Roth and those great folks at Shudder.

*Just to be clear…Flick was produced by Shudder, but won’t be hitting their streaming network until next month. It is currently available on most Pay Per View outlets such as Verizon, Vudu and iTunes. Sorry if there was any confusion caused by my initial referral to it as a Shudder “Exclusive”. -MZNJ

-MonsterZero NJ

3 and 1/2 (out of 4) creepy haunt hosts.

 

 

 

 

 

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HORROR YOU MIGHT HAVE MISSED: THE MONSTER (2016)

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THE MONSTER (2016)

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

The Monster is the latest flick from writer/director Bryan Bertino who made the harrowing home invasion flick The Strangers and the more recent found footage horror Mockingbird. In his latest film, he tells the story of young Lizzy (Ella Ballentine) who is going on a road trip with her selfish, alcoholic mother, Kathy (Zoe Kazan), to visit her father…a trip her mom knows Lizzy is not planning to return from. The two have a tumultuous relationship at best and Kathy’s reliance on booze and jerk boyfriends isn’t helping. When traveling in the rain on a deserted backwoods road, they have an accident and help will take some time to arrive. The worst is yet to come, though, as there is something stalking the woods they are now stranded in and it is large, vicious and very hungry.

Bertino creates tension long before his mysterious creature arrives by giving a harsh view of what life is like for young Lizzy with her mom. Just from the opening scene we see how disappointed and angry the young girl is with her mother, who is just too wrapped up in her own life to make a better life for her daughter. As the two travel, we are treated to some grim flashbacks of Kathy’s drinking and the abusive nature of the type of men she brings home. Lizzy’s young life is not a pleasant one and Bertino doesn’t shy away from letting us know it. This works well in both creating tension before the monster shows up and adding weight to the bonding of mother and daughter against the vicious predator. Any help that comes to their rescue meets the beast as well, so, it’s up to Kathy and Lizzy to fend for themselves. This is where the film really clicked. The creature itself is just a catalyst for the mother and daughter to rediscover how much they mean to each other and Kathy especially to think beyond herself and to her daughter’s well being…and it works. The real monster here is a mother’s selfishness and the hurt and anger it has given her child and thus the story is about how extreme adversity finally opens both their eyes as to how much they care about…and need…each other. Not to say this is all drama, as there is plenty of monster action and there are some intense, suspenseful and bloody attack sequences throughout. There is also some decent gore and the creature is delightfully rendered with old fashioned prosthetics. Sure, there have been more realistic monsters on screen, but I’ll take a rubber suit over cheesy CGI any day and Bertino gives his creature presence and a bit of a mean streak. On a production level, the film seems modestly budgeted but looks good. There is also some atmospheric cinematography of the isolated backwoods setting by Julie Kirkwood and a fitting score by Tomandandy who also scored Girlhouse.

As for the cast, while there are some brief appearances by supporting characters, this is all Kazan and Ballentine’s show and both actresses bring it. Zoe Kazan gives a strong portrayal of a white trash mother who seems to legitimately love her daughter, but can’t get past her own indulgences to show her properly and be a good mom. She conveys the sadness that her daughter wants to leave her, yet also that selfish hesitation that keeps her from getting her act together to keep her. She succeeds in portraying a bad mom, but one that is not totally unlikable. We do feel a bit sorry for her. Fifteen year-old Ella Ballentine is a powerhouse as Lizzy. She is portraying a girl much younger and one that has had a harsh life with seeing her parents separate and then watching as her mother’s indulgences ruins both their lives. Some of the scenes she performs are harrowing…and that’s just the dramatic sequences that illustrate the sad nature of her relationship with her mom. When Lizzy goes one on one with our monster, she is pure dynamite! We sympathize and root for Lizzy completely. Great job by the young actress.

Despite some underwhelming advanced word, this film really clicked for me. Bryan Bertino gave it a strong dramatic backbone by creating two, three dimensional characters with a very intense, antagonistic and sad relationship between them. He then forces those characters to rediscover their need and importance to each other by putting them in a life and death struggle with a dangerous predator and in a situation where they have only each other to rely on. It may sound corny, but it worked completely. The director also gave us some intense and suspenseful monster sequences, for those who came here to see a monster movie and they were quite bloody. Add to that two very strong performances by it’s lead actresses and you have a movie that is powerful family drama and intense monster movie and very satisfying…and sometimes heartbreaking…as both.

-MonsterZero NJ

3 and 1/2 teddy bears that pick the worst time to sing.

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HORROR YOU MIGHT HAVE MISSED: GIRLHOUSE (2014)

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GIRLHOUSE (2014)

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

Girlhouse is simply one of the best old school style slashers that I have seen in years. Yes, it has some modern touches, but at heart, it’s right out of the 80s slasher era.

The story opens in 1988 with a chubby and shy boy (Issac Faulkner) being teased and humiliated by two mean girls (Camren Bicondova and Baylee Wall)…and a bit later, his vicious revenge. We then cut to modern times where pretty, down-on-her-luck college student, Kylie (Ali Cobrin) has accepted an invitation to join Girlhouse, a secluded and hidden mansion where a group of nubile young woman live and are filmed on webcams, non-stop, for broadcast on the Girlhouse site. Members pay to watch and chat with the girls who are free to get as sexual as they want with their viewers. It’s up to them how far they go for their internet voyuers and Kylie needs the cash the site pays for her tuition at school. She gives it a go with some playful striptease, and her girl-next-door beauty is an overnight hit. Kylie also attracts the attention of Girlhouse regular Loverboy (Slaine) who is a somewhat chubby, reclusive and disturbed computer tech. When a mean prank by one of the other girls sets him off, Loverboy blames Kylie and uses his skills to track down the location of Girlhouse and take out his revenge…online for all the members to witness.

Written by Nick Gordon and directed by Trevor Matthews and Jon Knautz, this is both old-fashioned slasher flick and a cleverly contemporary one, with it’s use of webcams and it’s reality TV/Cyber Sex set-up. Sure, there are a lot of films that use laptops and cameras to convey action nowadays, but this is not found footage and only uses the format occasionally to successfully generate suspense. Strip away the modern tech and approach and you still get the classic slasher formula of a deranged individual stalking a girl-next-door type to avenge a prank or humiliation. The film establishes immediately that Loverboy is the chubby kid in the prologue, all grown up and all the more twisted. It gives him personality and establishes him as an unnerving threat long before he puts on his equally disturbing mask and enters Girlhouse to exact his cruel and vicious revenge. The girls are all given enough time to let their personalities sink in before the killing starts and thus we are sympathetic and if that’s not enough, the kills are quite brutal and graphic and it’s hard to not feel bad for even the least likable of the women. Kylie is obviously our final girl and is smart, resourceful and fills the classic shoes very well, especially in the chilling and suspenseful last act. Matthews and Knautz know and use the formula well. They generate some nice chills and suspense and the brutal opening sequence establishes the atmosphere almost immediately. Even when the film is introducing our characters, the audience knows that something bad is coming…and when it does, the filmmakers orchestrate the night of terror in classic form. There is a very effective score by Tomandandy and some stylish cinematography by Chris Norr to support the filmmakers vision.

As for the players in this slasher, Ali Corbin makes a hell of a good final girl. She’s sweet, yet sexy and when her lethal admirer comes knocking, Corbin gives us a clever and resourceful fighter in her Kylie. A classic and yet, quite modern final girl. Actor Slaine makes for a very disturbing Loverboy. He oozes creepiness and there is a lot of smoldering anger and frustration behind his blank stare. His character gets established early, so when he puts on his bizarre mask we don’t need to see his eyes or facial expressions to know what is going on under there. Slaine is also a large man and he has enough physical presence to make quite a satisfactory killer. The mostly female supporting cast are all effective in being varied types that avoid being too stereotypical. Adam Dimarco makes a charming romantic interest for Kylie and James Thomas makes Girlhouse entrepreneur Gary Preston a fairly likable person when a role like this is usually reserved for a generic sleazy creep. A good and functional cast that serve the film’s purposes well.

Overall, I really liked this flick a lot. As a fan of the 80s slasher movies I really enjoyed how this film used the formula loyally and updated it at the same time. It reminded me of some of the better flicks of the 80s slasher era and yet had it’s own style and remained contemporary. Matthews and Knautz have some definite potential and know their material. They gave the film atmosphere, style, suspense and some brutally shocking moments. They used the modern technology angles well…and cleverly…and were equally successful in presenting the time-honored trappings of an effective killer and a endearing final girl. A damn good slasher and a fun/scary horror flick.

-MonsterZero NJ

3 and 1/2 Loverboys.

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