Archive for October, 2014

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Let’s not mince words —Alzheimer’s is an absolute motherfucker, and if you or someone you know and/or love has come down with it, you don’t need me to say much more about it than that. On the off chance that it doesn’t scare the living shit out of you, though, let me just get up on my high horse for a minute and say that it sure as hell should. This disease eats away your cognitive functioning until there’s pretty much nothing left of you but   a withered,  hollow shell, and then — after first stripping away your memories, your personality, your reasoning ability, and more or less all of your consciousness in a slow, sadistic, painful fashion — it finally heaps its last indignity upon you by not letting you remember to swallow or breathe.

I wouldn’t wish this dread disease on anyone — shit, I even felt sorry for Reagan when I heard he had it — and yet there’s nothing you can do about it : if you’re gonna get it, you’re gonna get it. End of story. Sound grim? Of course it does. That’s because it is.

A realistic Alzheimer’s documentary is far scarier than any horror flick probably ever could be, but given how terrifying an illness it is in and of itself, it’s kind of amazing that no budding young horror auteur has thought to focus his or her film on someone suffering from it. That is, until this year, when director and co-writer (along with Gavin Heffernan) Adam Robitel let loose upon the world The Taking Of Deborah Logan (currently available on DVD and Blu-Ray as well as Netflix instant streaming, which is how I caught it), and I gotta say, of all the films I’ve watched this month to “put me in the mood” for Halloween, this was far and away the best of the bunch.

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Released under the auspices of Bryan Singer’s Bad Hat Harry Productions (with Singer himself serving as one of the film’s producers), Robitel’s modestly-budgeted little opus is, yes, another “found footage” flick, but one that stands head and shoulders above most of its brethren due to strong performances, a compelling story, some very slick plot twists, high-grade production values, and some spine-tingling special effects. It’s not too often I make a pronouncement this unequivocal, but — if you like horror movies, you’re gonna like this. A lot.

On we go with the set-up : film (or maybe it’s medical, it’s hard to tell) student Mia Medina (Michelle Ang) has descended upon a small Virginia town with her two-person crew (played by  Brett Gentile and Jeremy DeCarlos) to film the deteriorating condition of the titular Deborah Logan (Jill Larson) for a documentary project. Ms. Logan, a prim and proper southern lady,  and her care-taker daughter, Sarah (Anne Ramsay) are at first leery about participating, but eventually consent because they “need the money” (uhhhmmm — I wasn’t aware that college kids usually had any to offer) to keep their home. It soon becomes apparent, however,  that there’s a lot more to Deborah’s condition than “just” Alzheimer’s, though, and that somehow her former job as a telephone switchboard operator, the overbearing presence of way-too-concerned next door neighbor Harris (Ryan Cutrona),  and the disappearance of a notorious local serial killer years ago all tie into whatever is afflicting our hapless title character now. I won’t give anything more away than that, sorry, because you really should just see this flick for yourself.

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The unquestioned star of the show here is Larson, who absolutely deserves strong Oscar consideration (hell, give her Best Actress right now, I say), for her turn as Deborah. The mental and physical changes she undergoes are both amazing and harrowing to witness, and while I’m ready to give her make-up people plenty of credit for their part in that,  as well, the simple fact is that you can’t just look 10, 20, even 30 years older as the film progresses in order for a role this challenging to be effective — you have to act it, too, and boy does she ever. My hat is absolutely off to her — with loads of admiration — for the work she’s done here.

The other performances are all uniformly solid, as well, and if it wasn’t for the ever-present genre tropes of off-screen narration, night-vision camera work, and the like, you could be forgiven for forgetting that you were watching a “mockumentary” -style horror at all, so polished and professional is the overall effort here — and  it’s all done in service of a crackerjack script that pretty much knows exactly when, where, and how to keep upping the ante at all times.

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There are a few nagging little details sprinkled throughout that prevent me from flatly declaring The Taking Of Deborah Logan to be a modern horror masterpiece (it gives away its hand a bit bit early in terms of some of its “shock revelations,” for instance, and plays up a bog-standard “demonic possession” angle for awhile before, thankfully, proving to be something kinda related, but much more frightening), but it sure comes close. Alzheimer’s is scary enough on its own — but I’ll have to be pretty  damn far into its final stages before I forget about this amazingly effective, bone-chilling film.

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Whatever happened to Renny Harlin, anyway? Back in the late ’80s/early ’90s he was slated to be the “next big thing” and helmed both blockbuster fare like Die Hard 2 and supposed-to-be-blockbuster fare like The Adventures Of Ford Fairline, but the colossal tanking the latter took at the box office not only torpedoed the career of its nominal “star,” Andrew Dice Clay (thankfully — unless you think “jokes” like “Hickory Dickory Dock, suck my dick!” are funny),  but also tarnished Harlin’s reputation as Hollywood’s next wunderkind, as well. Before you know it, he’s reduced to the likes of The Exorcist : The Beginning  and Mindhunters, I guess he’s finally bottomed out and returned to his low-budget horror roots (if you’ll recall, his “breakthrough” feature was A Nightmare On Elm Street Part Four), and everything’s sorta come full circle. But did he learn anything from his meteoric rise and even more meteoric (albeit much longer, given that it’s well into its third decade now) fall?

Actually, it’s hard to say. His latest — 2013’s Devil’s Pass (available, as per our theme for this month, via Netflix instant streaming) is certainly better than a lot of other “found footage” horror flicks out there, but ya know what? It’s worse than a lot of other examples of the genre, as well, and I oughtta know because I’ve found myself watching literally dozens of ’em lately.

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What it has going for it is a pretty nifty premise, as four college kids from the University of Oregon (all somewhat stereotypical “granola” types that, let’s be honest, aren’t too hard to find out in Eugene) score themselves a grant to re-visit the site of the infamous Dyatlov Pass Incident (which is,  perhaps not so surprisingly, the title this flick was released under overseas),  a mysterious chapter in Russian history that saw a group of nine hikers meet a bizarre and grisly end in the Ural Mountains in 1959. There were numerous signs indicating that something truly inexplicable took place, but the Soviet government — not exactly known for being all that forthcoming in those days — quickly deemed that they’d all died of natural causes, and put  a tight clamp on any further flow of information.

Needless to say, this has resulted in all kinds of conspiracy theorizing over the years, with every possible explanation you can think of from an avalanche to a yeti to sudden mass hysteria/insanity to aliens being mentioned by folks who have studied the case. Psychology student Holly (played by Holly Goss) seems downright obsessed with finding out what happened, and has enlisted her camera operator/ tin-foil-hat-wearing pal Jensen (Matt Stokoe), experienced hiker/annoying bundle of testosterone Andy (Ryan Hawley), rich kid /pseudo-intellectual trail guide JP (Luke Albright) and hottie-with-a-tomboy-streak audio engineer Denise (Gemma Atkinson) to come on along on her crazy  adventure.

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Harlin keeps the “shaky-cam” nonsense to a minimum here, and things have a pretty professional appearance — helped in no small measure by the breathtaking authentic Russian filming locations. And the story is paced out pretty nicely and manages to keep you reasonably interested, if not exactly enthralled. But the performances are a real uneven mix, with only Albright really turning in compelling work, while Goss,who’s asked to carry most of the load here, obviously could use some more acting lessons. It probably doesn’t help much that all the characters are one-dimensional ciphers, but shit — we’ve seen that in a number of “mockumentary”-style horrors, and it’s not always such a bad thing. Here, no one really manages to rise above the “entitled hippie college kid you wouldn’t mind seeing die” level.

Still, Harlin and screenwrtiter Vikrama Weet have a few neat tricks up their sleeve, such as tying the disappearance of the Dyaltlov party in with — bizarre as it sounds — the US Navy’s infamous “Philadelphia Experiment,” having their hapless cast find a bunker buried in the side of the mountain, and — right near the very end — treating us to some crazy-ass cool creature effects. The plot ends up moving in a direction you sure can’t predict going in , and while it’s not all that logical (or even smartly handled), it’s at least surprising. That in itself is worthy of —- well, shit, not exactly praise, I guess, but at least a mention. So I’m mentioning it.

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I’ll give Harlin “props” for managing to wrangle a few last-minute scares out of his movie just before it ends, too, but if you’ve had it up to here with watching pseudo-film students get in over their heads in spooky situations, then it may be a case of “too little, too late” for you by then. If you still, against all odds, are able to find this sort of thing reasonably compelling at times, then you’ll be glad you stuck with it for the payoff.

Come to think of it, maybe that’s  the best way to look at Devil’s Pass as a whole — if you’re sick to death of these “found footage” movies, you’re not going to find much to re-invigorate your lost (assuming you ever had any) enthusiasm for them here, despite the the fact that  Harlin shows quite a few flashes of still being able to competently construct things on a visual level. But if you continue to  have at least a small amount of patience for/and or interest in this often-maligned (sometimes fairly, sometimes not) subgenre, then this offers decent amount of evidence that it may still have at least a little bit of mileage left in it yet.

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About a month or so ago now, I was passed along a free screener copy of 2013’s  The Paranormal Diaries : Clophill on DVD by former Daily Grindhouse head honcho Paul, and I promised to review it but,  alas, never did. And when I say “never” I don’t actually mean, ya know, never — I mean “never until now.” I got a bit wrapped up in my ongoing “Netflix Halloween” series, and just didn’t set aside the 90 minutes or so it takes to watch this thing until last night, which is kind of a shame — not because this is a completely awesome freaking movie or anything, but because I wasted my time on far worse efforts than  (and, okay, admittedly a few better ones, as well) while this sat on the back burner.

Still, all things come to an end  (even procrastination) and I gotta say this one wasn’t too bad, even if it’s a complete rehash of things we’ve been through many times —unless, of course,  any of this sounds at all new to you : a couple of supposed “documentary” filmmakers (Michael Bartlett and Kevin Gates of The Zombie Diaries and Zombie Diaries 2 “fame”) assemble a paranormal investigation team (consisting of actors Craig Stovin, Criselda Cabitac, Mark Jeavons, and Rob Whitaker, among others — all playing “themselves, of course) to spend the night in the supposedly haunted ruins of  the Clphill church in Befordshire, UK, where weird shit has supposedly been going down ever since a coven of witches performed a “Black Mass” there back in 1963.

Items to check off your list of standard “found footage” horror movie tropes : empty tombs, animal sacrifices, bones laid out in ritualistic fashion, cattle mutilations in nearby fields, strange noises, and things that go bump in the night. Yup, you really have seen this all  before.

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On the plus side, though, it’s not too often these days that we see them done this well. There really is nothing new under the sun (or , in this case, the moon) as far as “mockumentary” horrors go, but if you’re looking for absolute originality, how likely are you to even be watching this in the first place? If you’re like me, though, all you really want at this point from this sort of thing is reasonably competent execution, and at least we get that much here.

Admittedly, the scares take awhile to get going here, as Bartlett and Gates play things very close to the vest and adhere quite strictly to the formula laid down by all those Ghost Hunters-type TV shows , but when they begin interspersing their numerous staged “interviews” with purportedly “real” footage from their Clophill excursion, they do manage to snare your interest back just when they seem most in danger of losing it — and the lengthy, detlailed set-up manages to pay off later by providing some actual context for the freaky shit that goes down once it does, in fact, start to go down, and context  is something that’s sorely lacking in a lot of films in this obviously-never-gonna-die subgenre.

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Even so, a word of warning is probably in order here : if you judge The Paranormal Diaries : Clophill by the same standards you hold an actual film to (not an entirely unreasonably proposition given that this is, after all, a movie) you’ll probably find that it comes up lacking in many key respects : the characterization is minimal, the premise is old news, the performances are uneven, and the direction is fairly straight -forward. It all might have seemed terribly original, say, 20 years ago, but obviously not today.

How best to gauge its merits, then? I humbly suggest looking at it as what it’s trying to pretend to be — one of those dime-a-dozen paranormal “reality” shows, only in this one, thankfully,  some genuinely spooky stuff finally does happen. Looked at that way, this flick is a blockbuster success.

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A more unquestionable success any way you choose to view it is Image Entertainment/RLJ Entertainment’s DVD, which features not only superb picture quality and 5.1 sound, but a well-done short composed of deleted scenes called Tales From The Graveyard : The Clophill Archives, which lends a bit more credence to the “hey, this is all actually real!” scenario the filmmakers are trying so hard to convey, and a full-length commentary track with the cast and directors that, believe it or not,  manages to keep the average viewer engaged all the way to the end. All told, it’s a nice package for a film that probably won’t knock your socks off, but that you’ll more than likely find outshines most of its similar contemporaries.

I bring the “Netflix Halloween” series over to Through The Shattered Lens to take a look at 2011’s “You’re Next.”

Through the Shattered Lens

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Okay, so here’s the deal : over at my “main” site — https://trashfilmguru.wordpress.com , for those up you not aware — I’m spending the month of October looking at various horror flicks currently available in Netflix’s instant streaming queue. So far there have been some semi-winners, some semi-losers, and some real clunkers, but I promised myself that if I ever found one that was an absolute home run, I’d write about here on TTSL and thereby hopefully spread the word about it a bit father and wider than a post on my blog alone would accomplish. I’m pleased to say I’ve found just such a film.

I’m not sure why or how I missed “splat back”/”mumblegore” director Adam Wingard’s 2011 offering, You’re Next, when it hit theaters — I certainly found the ads for it intriguing and meant to go check it out, but I never did. My loss…

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I was warned — in fact, I was warmed by more than one person.

After posting a generally positive review of 2011’s Grave Encounters the other day, a few folks whose film opinions I generally respect cautioned me via facebook and twitter to avoid the 2012 sequel like the plague, and I sincerely thank then for doing so — even if, as you’ve no doubt already figured out, I didn’t listen.

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Should I have? Well, that’s a question I’m still trying to answer, so I’ll give a rather noncommittal “yes and no” response at this point. Yes because there’s no doubt that Grave Encounters 2 just isn’t a very good movie. No because, as a case study in how to completely fuck up a nifty premise, it’s actually rather interesting.

I guess a statement like that deserves an explanation of some sort, so here goes — ripping a page from Tox Six’s playbook for his Human Centipede sequel, The Vicious Brothers (nee Stuart Ortiz and Colin Minihan, who wrote the screenplay this time out but passed the directorial reins over to John Poliquin) have opted for the “metafilm” angle here, starting the flick out with actual snippets of YouTube reviews for the first Grave Encounters before introducing us to the fictitious Alex Wright (Richard Harmon), both a wannabe- critic and wannabe-filmmaker who didn’t care for Ortiz and Minihan’s “found footage” horror number too much but has become strangely obsessed with it regardless.

I kinda feel bad for Harmon since, within the first five minutes of “meeting” his character we see him jerking off, dressing in drag, and puking — but hey, college kids are crazy, right? In any case, thanks to some rather dubious”research,” he’s become convinced that Grave Encounters was the real deal, and flies cross-country to Tinseltown to meet the show/movie’s producer, Jerry Hartfield (Ben Wilkinson), who spills the beans that, hey, the junior sleuth is probably onto something. A visit with the supposed mother of the film’s lead actor, Sean Rogerson, only confirms his suspicions, and in fairly short order he’s off to Vancouver with his girlfriend, Jennifer Parker (Leanne Lapp) and fellow film students Trevor Thompson (Dylan Playfair) , Tessa Hammill (Stephanie Bennett), and Jared Lee (Howie Lai) to investigate the unnamed facility that doubled as the haunted Collingwood Psychiatric Institute the first time around (“off to” being a relative term here given that Playfair’s thick Canadian accent is a dead giveaway that this entire production was made in the Great White North).

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That’s when things get both boring and, soon enough, stupid. We’re given a fairly steady dose of the exact same shit that happened in the first film for some time before being hit with the major revelation that somebody we thought was dead is actually alive and still trapped in the joynt, which is actually a kind of mystical netherworld that co-exists in both the material and spiritual planes at the same time. This development not only cheapens the impact the first flick had, but also saddles down the second with a horrifically OTT performance by someone who did fairly solid work last time while simultaneously undercutting the “found footage” element because Poliquin has to resort to standard filming techniques in order to make this individual’s presence fit in with the story. Or maybe he just gets lazy and doesn’t figure you’re paying all that much attention by this point, anyway.

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The end result is a total mess that can’t decide what it wants to be — standard “mockumentary” fare, limp horror/comedy hybrid, or homage to other (and better) flicks — notice, for instance,  that the photo above is a direct thieving from both REC and its Americanized remake, Quarantine. This movie simply ran out of ideas at about the 30 minute mark, but kept going for 90-plus, anyway.

Still, I can’t say I shouldn’t have seen it — even if , by any rational standard, I shouldn’t have. Why?  Because Grave Encounters 2 is the definitive textbook example of how to make not just a lame sequel, but one so bad that it causes the original to lose a fair amount of its luster, as well. That’s definitely an accomplishment — just not a good one.

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Maybe I’m an eternal optimist, or maybe I’m just stubborn, but the idea of a “found footage” horror flick set in abandoned mental hospital that was notorious for its brutal methods of “therapy” is something I found too —- what’s the word I’m looking for here, appealing? — for me to just give up on no matter how badly Sean Stone’s Greystone Park (which we reviewed here the other day as part of our “Netflix Halloween” series) sucked. And frankly, it sucked in more ways than I can count. It sucked so bad, in fact, that I probably shouldn’t have bothered when I noticed that elsewhere in the Netflix instant streaming queue right now is a little indie number from 2011 called Grave Encounters that has more or less exactly the same premise, and it seems reasonable enough to assume that  I could could especially be forgiven for giving this one a pass given that it was written and directed by a pseudonymous gestalt entity that goes by the ultra-lame handle of The Vicious Brothers (in reality Stuart Ortiz and Colin Minihan). Still,  I think you know where I’m headed here —

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Yup, I watched it anyway. Why? Well, as I said, I find the basic premise to be at the very least intriguing, and hey, this one came out first, beating Greystone Park to the punch by a full year. A quick glance at the IMDB also showed it to have received at least a handful of good reviews by armchair critics/contributors to that site who I generally find myself in agreement with, so — what the hell, right? Why not give it a go?

Right off the bat, Grave Encounters has a bit more personality than Stone’s celluloid abortion, as we’re introduced to “reality” TV mogul Jerry Hartfield (Ben Wilkinson), who informs us that the film we’re about to see is “assembled from  raw footage” captured on camera by the crew of a supposedly-ahead-of-its-time paranormal “ghost hunter” show called — you guessed it — Grave Encounters , and that said individuals have  dropped off the face of the Earth after paying a visit to the sprawling grounds of a multi-building facility formerly known as the Collingwood Psychiatric Hospital. Cliched, sure, but a decent enough introduction to the proceedings.

Next up we meet the principal players themselves, host Lance Preston (Sean Rogerson), camera operators T.C. Gibson (Merwin Mondesir) and Sasha Parker (Ashleigh Gryzko), tech and sound guy Matt White (Juan Riedinger) and, a short while later, “famed psychic” Houston Gray (Mackenzie Gray). The Vicious Brothers waste little time in exposing the fact that the show is — as all of things are, sorry to burst your bubble — a complete fraud, with Preston and Gray, especially, being nothing but jive Hollywood phonies, but  tonight is the night when — after locking themselves into the facility — all that paranormal shit they’re supposedly going after but never actually find comes back to bite them all in the asses with a vengeance. Their show may not be real, but shit’s about to get real anyway.

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What follows isn’t necessarily the greatest horror movie you’ve ever seen — or even the greatest “found footage” horror movie you’ve ever seen — but Ortiz and Minihan go about their task with a clearly visible degree of style and know-how, and are helped along the way by reasonably strong performances from their cast, a genuinely creepy location, and a solid script that keeps upping the ante as things progress. No, it’s nothing super extraordinary by any means, but it’s at least competent, and provides a few genuine chills along the way as we venture fairly firmly into Twilight Zone territory with time getting screwed up, corridors that lead nowhere, walled-off exits, etc. Oh, yeah — there are ghosts, too, and they’re plenty vicious and actually even kinda scary.

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So, hey, guess I was right after all — the idea of a horror “mockumentary” set in an old lunatic asylum isn’t such a bad one, if the right people are both behind and in front of the camera, and I’m obviously not alone in that opinion given that Grave Encounters spawned a sequel just over a year later that is — surprise! — also available on Netflx, as well, so ya know what? I think I’ll give that one a whirl this evening, and  unless it’s a complete cluster-fuck disaster — or maybe even if it is —ten to one you already know what the next movie I’ll be reviewing here is going to be.

Before we get into the “meat” of discussing one of the most provocative micro-budgeters I’ve seen in some time, let’s take care of a little bit of housekeeping first : thanks to the fine folks over at  The Movie And Music Network , you, dear reader, are now able to watch any flick I review from their  site either completely free (with commercials), or at an extremely low cost (if you choose to watch it without commercials). Plus, the deal’s retroactive, so even though I already reviewed Hate Crime , which is available via their “terror channel” , a couple of weeks back, they still hooked me up with a link whereby you can check it out —  so, should you so desire, the link for that one is available right underneath the poster art reproduced above. . All in all not a bad deal, huh? These guys n’ gals are proving to be very “good peeps” to work with, indeed, so I humbly suggest you check out what they’ve got going on as they continue to build their online library.

And speaking of The Movie And Music Network, that’s where I came by today’s admittedly ugly, but also admittedly gripping, little number , director Michael Fredianelli’s 2009 shot-in-California-and-Arizona-but-supposedly-taking-place-in-Texas “modern exploitationer,” Blackface Killer — which, in true drive-in style, was also released under the alternate handle of The Minstrel Killer. I admit to not being terribly familiar with Fredianelli’s other work, but he’s obviously concocted a true labor of love (albeit a hateful one) here, as he basically hits every note in the exploitation playbook seamlessly and remorselessly, and furthermore manages to do so in a comfortable stride that never seems forced or phony. In short, this flick is the real deal — andapparently made for under $100,000, to boot.

Not that it’s for everyone, mind you : to call the subject matter “tasteless” would be an understatement in the extreme, given that our story here revolves around a racist cop named Tex Holland (played by the director himself, who also co-wrote the screenplay with David Brashear — is there anything this guy doesn’t do?) who’s struggling to come to terms with the fact that his wife, Carol (Vanessa Celso) cheated on him with a black guy at the very same time than he and “local yokel” sheriff Pike McGraw (Eric Andersen) have been tasked with finding a killer ( Michael Nose, listed in the credits only as “The Shape,” which is very plainly a nod to John Carpenter) who goes around in blackface, or “minstrel,” make-up,  and is, for reasons unknown, meting out  various forms of torture upon his seemingly random victims  that were,  sadly, fairly  commonplace back in the days of slavery .

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If you’re looking for reasons as to exactly why he’s doing this — or even hope to eventually find out who this sick (and sickening) character is — well, you’re watching the wrong movie. Adhering strictly to the ethos of the grindhouse, things aren’t very well thought-through here, and the main goal is just to shock and appall in the most crass and efficient manner possible — which, of course, this movie does, and when the idea of a killer in blackface starts to lose some of its nauseating power, Fredianelli isn’t afraid to stir the pot by mixing in overtly un-PC discussions of racial issues, or to throw a spanner into the works by assigning Holland (okay, himself) a new partner, Tyrell Jones (Anthony Spears) who’s not only black, but also clearly the only semi-competent cop working the case, or even change to change things up altogether , as when,  in a lengthy digression,  Holland (again, say it with me, himself) ends up  at the mercy of a clan of inbred hillbilly cannibals.

Whew! That covers pretty much the entire checklist of items commonly found in sleazy regionally-lensed-and-distributed “B”-movies of years gone by, does it not? And that’s precisely  what Blackface Killer is aiming to do — throw everything plus the kitchen sink at you, and dare you to keep on watching. I can’t blame you if you choose to opt out somewhere along the way, but if you stick it out, you’ll be offered one less-than-healthy reminder after another of exactly why you love these types of films — and why you hate yourself for doing so.

Obviously, I’d have to be downright certifiable to give this flick anything other than an extremely guarded recommendation — but if, like me, you enjoy pushing the limits of how much you can stand to see, and are able to appreciate heart-felt homages to a style of movie-making that’s long since gone by the wayside, then  you can’t do much better than this. Also available on DVD (not that I can comment on the specifics of said release since I didn’t see it that way), Blackface Killer has beeen made freely available to readers of this site via our friends at The Movie And Music Network by following the link underneath the photo above, so please give it a go if you’re interested.. Which you certainly should be. Even if you shouldn’t be. And on that note, I’ll cut this off now before I  stop making sense altogether — or is it already too late for that?

 

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At first glance — and second, and third, and fourth — it’s tempting to simply dismiss director/writer Michael A. Nickles’ 2012 indie horror Playback (now available, as per our rules for this month, on Netflix instant streaming) as another RinguThe Ring knock-off because — well, it is. That’s undeniable. But at least it has the fact that it’s an ambitious knock-off going for it, and that’s worth more than a little something around these parts.

Which isn’t to say that it’s necessarily a good one, mind you — but hey,  at least its chief flaw is in wanting to do more than it realistically can or should rather than in resting on its laurels and being satisfied with doing too little. Confused yet?  Fear not — so’s the movie.

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Here’s what you need to know, summed up in the most succinct terms : a high school kid named Julian (Johnny Pacar) is doing a report for his journalism class, together with his girlfriend Riley (Ambyr Childers),  on an infamous family massacre in his hometown that saw an adopted son kill his parents and sister, but all is not as cut-and-dried as it appears : it turns out, you see, that the unhappy adoptee was, in reality, a direct descendant of the guy who made the very first motion picture (yes, even before Edison), and that great-grandpa believed he could capture a person’s soul with his magical new invention, the movie camera. There’s  a string of suspicious deaths involving the  people attached to his film that seems to bear this at-first-glance-outlandish view out, as well as some scuttlebutt about a curse in the family being passed down from generation to generation. Julian seems strangely immersed in the project, and has even taken to spending a fair amount of time out at the farmhouse where the crime took place — but if you think he’s taking too personal an interest in the matter, wait until you meet his buddy, Quinn (Toby Hemingway), who seems downright possessed by the old film and, frankly, ins’t looking so healthy these days.

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Of course, that may have something to do with the fact that Quinn spends a bit too much time in front of screens in general. He works at a local TV station as a video archiver of some sort, and has a semi-lucrative side gig going hustling off hidden-camera footage he gets from teenage girls’ bedrooms, showers, locker rooms, etc. to a perverted middle-aged sheriff’s deputy (played by Christian Slater — who probably would have been a legend if he’d just had the decency to die young like James Dean and River Phoenix, but now finds himself stuck in second-fiddle roles like this one). To further complicate matters, our dirty-in-more-ways-than-one cop’s lieutenant (funny, I want aware that sheriff’s departments had lieutenants as a general rule — but then, I do try to keep my dealings with any and all law enforcement personnel to a minimum) just so happens to be Julian’s mom — and she’s been keeping one heck of a big secret about something else that happened when she was called to the scene of that family slaughter all those years ago.

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Throw in the fact that said slaughter was also committed to film, and that watching it seems to have a strange effect on viewers, and yeah — like I said, there’s a lot going on here. It’s all reasonably interesting in and of itself, but when combined into one story, it really does seem like a thick stew with maybe a few too many ingredients. The various individual storylines are each fairly compelling, the acting is fairly solid all the way around for a low-budget flick of this nature, and unlike (too) many of the films we’ve looked at so far in this little “Netflix Halloween” round-up there’s a nice amount of blood and guts in this one and it’s uniformly well-realized, but Playback allows itself to be pulled in too many different directions without firmly committing itself to any of them. It’s far from dull and hey, that’s a good thing, but shedding a couple of extraneous sub-plots would’ve resulted in a tighter, more focused movie.

I applaud director Nickles for giving it his all — but he should’ve stopped there, rather than going for too much.

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Four years may not seem a tremendous amount of time to you or I — unless you’re stuck in line at the DMV or something for that long — but it can be an eternity in Hollywood.

Think about it : if M. Night Shyamalan came to Universal Studios with a pitch to essentially franchise his name for a horror anthology series today, he’d get laughed out of the room. And while he had a pretty steady string of celluloid critical and commercial disasters under his belt already in 2010, when The Night Chronicles made its debut (and, to date, only) appearance with Devil, he was still considered to be at least something of a bankable commodity prior to the Ishtar-like debacle that was After Earth.

Yeah, okay, even by then it had been over a decade since The Sixth Sense took the movie-going public by storm — to the point where Time  magazine proclaimed, on its cover no less, Shyamalan to be “the next Spielberg” — but shit, that afterglow lasted a good long while.

These days, the bloom is definitely off the rose, and methinks the second installment of The Night Chronicles is probably never gonna happen.

Which is sort of a drag (but only sort of) because, for a modestly-budgeted PG-13 horror, Devil (which I’d been studiously avoiding for a long time but finally watched on a lark last night when I noticed it was streaming on Netflix) really isn’t all that bad.

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You’ll notice I didn’t say it was great or anything — because it’s most certainly not — but it was better than I’d been expecting for a flick that rests upon a belief in Satan/Beelzebub/Lucifer/whatever in order to be considered even remotely scary, and the idea of one great cosmic “good guy” and one great cosmic “bad guy” is something I put absolutely zero stock in. Shit, Hollywood would laugh at a script idea as lame as that, and yet one of the world’s major religions is founded on that very notion. But I guess I’ve gone “off the reservation” a bit (hey, it’s my blog, I get to do that once in awhile, don’t I?) with all this open mocking of Christianity (much as it richly deserves it), so let’s get back to the business at hand, shall we?

Maybe the reason Devil doesn’t actively suck all that much is because Shyamalan’s influence on it is minimal at best, only being credited with its “story” rather than its actual screenplay, and hogging a “producer” credit that probably doesn’t amount to a hill of beans, while the film itself is directed by my fellow Minnesota native (and, it should be pointed out, Catholic school graduate) John Erick Dowdle, who’s best known for his “found footage” efforts done in collaboration with his brother, Drew, like The Poughkeepsie TapesQuarantine, and the recently-released As Above, So Below. No Drew this time, and no shaky, hand-held cam antics, either. Maybe you can’t have one without the other, I dunno.

In any case, Devil plays is pretty straight, telling the tale of five strangers (played by Logan Marshall-Green, Jenny O’Hara, Bojana Novakovic, Bokeem Woodbine, and Geoffrey Arend) trapped in a stalled-out elevator halfway up a downtown Philadelphia skyscraper who all have mysterious pasts, tenuous-at-best presents, and highly uncertain futures, and as their nerves start fraying, it’s up to troubled police detective Bowden (Chris Messina) to keep them all from killing each other from the safety of the building’s security HQ. He’s not doing a very good job of it, truth be told, given that they one-by-one start dropping like flies, but never fear, offensively stereotypical superstitious rent-a-cop Ramirez (Jacob Vargas) might have the answer as to what’s really going on : he doesn’t need no fancy book-learnin’, just his humble, good-hearted, Mexican, Catholic upbringing to know that one of the passengers is — you guessed it — the devil.

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I keep on bad-mouthing the inane religious underpinnings of this film, which are admittedly an easy target, but honestly, until we get blasted with a heavy dose of of the Roman catechism at the end, this is a fairly involving, at times even gripping, little movie. The character revelations come fast and furious without ever feeling terribly forced, the claustrophobic setting really works, the performances are, by and large, pretty solid,  and plenty of different, and entirely plausible, “whodunnit?” possibilities are laid out to keep us on our toes at all times. I even found myself not wanting at least one of the characters to die, and that’s a better batting average that plenty of other contemporary horrors are able to muster up. All in all, I was digging it — right up to the final act.

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I won’t dwell on that too much (okay, too much more), except to say that if you don’t buy into Catholic teachings on the existence of Satan and how he fucks with people just essentially out of boredom, it will leave you feeling pretty flat. And even if you do buy into Catholic teachings on the power of forgiveness,  the way it comes into play in the story, with a totally out-of-left-field (damn, what’s with the baseball analogies tonight?) crash-landing, will seem sudden and forced because — well, it just is.

Still, all that aside, I enjoyed the first 70 or so of Devil‘s brisk,  scant 80 minutes a lot more than I figured I would going in, and I’d give this one a qualified recommendation. It at least takes the time to build a reasonably solid foundation before hammering us over the head with  its dull message of religious conservatism, and  I kinda doubt that, for instance, the new Left Behind flick (or the old one, for that matter) bothers with doing that much, as it more than likely just starts pummeling its warped ideology into your head right from the outset.

Not that I’ve seen it — or intend to. But, yeah, I did finally watch Devil, after swearing it off ever since it came out, and I’m not nearly as pissed off any myself for doing so as I assumed I would be.

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Ah, good old Hollywood nepotism. It landed Sean Stone, Oliver’s boy, a gig as part of the “investigative team” on Jesse Ventura’s since-cancelled “reality”  TV show Conspiracy Theory, and when that didn’t pan out, it got him a job directing the atrociously lame 2012 “found footage” horror flick we’re here to take a look at today, Greystone Park (now playing on Netflix instant streaming, as per my self-imposed — and already broken once or twice, sorry — rules for this month).

Certainly the younger Stone’s ostensible “talent” alone didn’t win him this less-than-plum assignment, as none seems to be in evidence, but the premise — a film crew decides to spend a night in an abandoned mental institution (the titular Greystone Park) known for its radical — and radically inhumane — treatments like electroshock “therapy,” lobotomy, sensory deprivation, all that jazz, is at least mildly promising. These days the place is, of course, rumored to be haunted.

Surprise! Those rumors prove to be fact, and as  faux-shaky hand-held camerawork documents this entire series of purportedly “true” events, you won’t jump or squirm or shudder even once, because you’ve seen all this stuff before.

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Speaking of been there and done that, in tried and true “mocukmentary”  fashion our intrepid cast consists of Pete Antico as Pete, Zana Markelson as Zana, John Schramm as John, Monique Zordan as Monique, Monique van Vooren as another Monique, Coralie Charrriol Paul as Coralie, Antonella Lentini as Antonella, Stone and his co-writer, Alex Wraith, as Sean and Alex, respectively, and even daddy Oliver stops in for a turn as, you guessed it, Oliver. Gosh, it all seems so real, doesn’t it?

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Anyway, into the old asylum (this flick has also been released under the alternate title of The Asylum Tapes overseas, but it doesn’t really matter what you call it — shit is shit, after all) they all (well, okay, most, since not everyone hung around for the entire shoot, and who could blame them?) go , and the standard questions begin swirling,  most notably who will live?, who will die?  — you get the picture.

The best question of all, though, is who will care ? Certainly not you, if you have any sense.

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If it sounds like I’m being pretty hard on,  or even outright dismissive of,  Greystone Park, well — guilty as charged. This is a movie with absolutely nothing going for it, and while a fair number of flicks we’ve reviewed around these parts lately — Willow CreekThe DenAbsenceThe Conspiracy — ably demonstrate that “found footage” horror hasn’t completely shot its wad yet, this is one that makes you think that all the naysayers ought to bury this particular subgenre might be right after all.

Rancid, boring, predictable, and tedious, if this is the best Sean Stone can do, it’s well past time for him to consider selling power tools or digging ditches for a living. I’m sure a phone call from dad will be more than enough to get him hired at any hardware store or assigned to any manual labor crew. There’s nothing more for you behind a camera, pal —  go on out there and hustle up an honest living.