Archive for October, 2015

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Okay, so tomorrow’s the big day, and despite being massively “under the gun” time-wise, I thought I’d take a few minutes to talk about The Steam Man #1 from Dark Horse Comics just in case there are a few (or, heck, even one) of you out there looking for a good new horror comic to pick up at your LCS in honor of Halloween.

Although, in all honesty, it may not be fair to label this as purely a horror series since there are so many sci-fi influences added into the mix, particularly and most obviously of the “steampunk” variety. After all, the premise here is that an intrepid crew of five are “piloting” a gigantic steam-powered robot through the (unpaved) highways and byways of the Old West looking for trouble, so it’s more than fair to say that what we’ve got on our hands here is something of a genre mash-up.

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If that sounds appealing to you — as well it should — then name-dropping the creators involved in this five-issue series should only whet your appetite even further. Joe R, Lansdale has made a career out of the “horror western” in both novels and comics (who can forget his classic Jonah Hex stories with Timothy Truman and Sam Glanzman published under the Vertigo imprint?) and he gets credit for coming up with the story here (what we used to call “plotting” back in the day), while scripting and dialogue are handled by consummate pro Mark Alan Miller (whose name you’ve probably seen attached to any number of Boom! Studios’ Clive Barker adaptations and spin-offs), and the pencils and inks are the domain of the singularly talented Piotr Kowalski, who’s best known for his work on Image Comics’ Sex with Joe Casey but has also lent his detailed and unique abilities to last year’s Marvel Knights : Hulk and Dynamite’s Peter Milligan-scripted Terminal Hero, among other noteworthy recent endeavors. This guy gets a lot of work, and as the art samples included with this review ably demonstrate, it’s very easy to see why : he just plain brings it. Colorist-on-the-rise Kelly Fitzpatrick, who’s been popping up in all the right places lately (such as Dark Horse’s awesome reality-warping Neverboy and Dark Circle’s gritty new urbanized take on The Black Hood) rounds out the “A-list” of talent attached to this project, and if all these folks working on the same comic isn’t enough to get your “must buy this now!” juices flowing, well — you must be one tough person to please.

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Classic sci-fi elements make their presence felt in the proceedings here, as well, with the Steam Man itself originally having been created to fend off  H.G. Wells’ invasion from Mars, but when bacteria took care of that problem, it was quickly re-purposed for battle against marauding albino apes — another premise that I’m betting sounds pretty familiar to most readers out there. With those high-profile missions out of the way, though our monster-hunting crew are going about the business of taking their gigantic toy out into the wilds to tussle with a bad-ass uber-vampire who has designs on ushering in the apocalypse. Sounds like fun!

The characterization in this book is incredibly solid, with each member of the cast coming across as utterly unique individuals in the space of a few sentences of dialogue; the plot is meticulously well-constructed and incremental; and the art — well, I’ve gushed plenty about that already, but there’s no harm in doing so again since Kowalski’s renderings really are a feast for the eyes. Just look, dammit!

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So, hey, there you have it — The Steam Man #1 hit comic shop shelves last week, so if you’re looking for something both familiar and different to scratch your horror comics itch this Halloween, pick this up and get in on what promises to be a fun, creepy, wild ride that we’re being guided along by a collection of undeniable masters of the medium.

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For our final pre-Halloween foray into the Netflix instant streaming horror queue (your hint that I’m going to be too busy over the next couple days to do any more reviews prior to the holiday itself, but who knows — I’ve indulged in a “Halloween hangover” series in Novembers past and may just do so again, we’ll see), I couldn’t resist putting my gag reflex (not to mention my conscience) to the test one more time by checking out the long-delayed third (and last) installment of writer/director Tom Six’s notorious-for-good-reason Human Centipede series, this one entitled, as you’d no doubt expect, The Human Centipede 3 (Final Sequence). The question as to whether or not that makes me  a brave explorer of the farthest reaches of the cinematic jungle or merely a glutton for punishment in one that I leave for you, dear reader, to decide.

One thing that’s become abundantly clear as this trilogy has progressed, however, is that these flicks have increasingly become an act of celluloid masturbation on Six’s part and that he’s pretty much just daring you to stick with them as he slowly whittles his so-called “target audience” down to one person — himself. In much the same way that Peter Sotos has done in the world of literature, Six has become adept at mining the depths of his own personal obsessions to such an extent that it’s almost impossible for anyone else to “enjoy” his subject matter, even if one finds it both morbidly alluring and even more morbidly compelling. Unlike Sotos, however, Six’s (hopefully) singular peccadilloes are so far removed from the realm of the possible that his friends and neighbors needn’t worry about what he’s getting up to in his spare time.

Or, at least, they probably needn’t worry. Who can say for certain?

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The “meta” themes that charged their way into Six’s narrative with a vengeance in The Human Centipede 2 (Full Sequence) are once more at the fore in this latest effort, with the requisite ante-upping that Six has fast made his stock in trade : not only is the star of the first film, Dieter Laser, present and accounted for here in an entirely new role as sadistic Texas (I’m assuming) prison warden Bill Boss, but so is the star of the second installment, the perpetually creepy Laurence R. Harvey, who’s on hand as Boss’ equally-unhinged henchman/sidekick, Dwight Butler. Add to this the fact that our auteur of the grotesque even puts in an appearance as a fictionalized version of, you guessed it, himself, and that the plot centers around our two principal sick fucks emulating the “medical experimentation” of parts one and two as a means of controlling their unruly inmates (after more “subdued” methods like castration and Chinese water torture fail to do the trick), and you can see for yourself how far the whole self-referential meme/shtick has been carried in Six’s ouroboros loop.

The problem here, though, is the same as it always is whenever “more of what we did last time — only bigger!” becomes a filmmaker’s modus operandi — a grander spectacle is only that, a grander spectacle, and no matter how large the centipede grows (in this case 500 unlucky souls are plucked for the “honor”), the law of diminishing returns still applies. What shocked us the first time out and made us feel physically ill the second is, by now, just old hat. Everything else — from the testicle-eating to the kidney-fucking (yes, you read that right) to the graphic sexual assaults (poor former porn actress Bree Olsen really gets an unwelcome-mat rolled out for her in her first foray into “mainstream” cinema as Boss’ secretary, Daisy) — is really just window dressing at this point. Twisted, depraved, gut-wrenching window dressing, to be sure — but window dressing all the same.

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That being said, it’s not like The Human Centipede 3 (Final Sequence) doesn’t have its moments. Eric Roberts is at his sleaze-dripping best as Governor Hughes, the state’s thoroughly degenerate chief executive who seems to want to push Boss to inhumane extremes and see him fail at the same time, and a handful of the inmates come close to transcending the inherent two-dimensionality of their roles, but between Laser’s incessant rabid barking and Havey’s “Igor on crack” routine, it has to be said that most of the performances on offer here, like the film itself, are merely an exercise in excess for its own sake. And keep in mind this criticism is coming to you from a guy who numbers Cannibal Holocaust and Salo among his all-time favorite films.

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Here’s the crucial (at least as I see it — and hey, it’s my damn blog) difference, though : as deeply troubling, misanthropic, and eyeball-searing as those movies were, at least they had a point. It may not necessarily be one that you agree with depending on your sensitivity level, and the whole “treat your audience like an enemy” approach taken by Deodato and Passolini may not have been your preferred method of getting it across (although I confess to thinking it was effective), but there’s certainly no doubt that it was there and that the directors, love ’em or hate ’em, not only had something to say, but a burning need  to say it.

Tom Six seems to have the latter half of that equation covered, but not the former. He relishes the opportunity to violently and viscerally confront you and to leave you feeling unclean, completely drained, and a hollowed-out husk of your former self. But he can’t tell you why, and until he gets that part figured out, his films won’t pack nearly the unforgettable gut-punch that he’s so obviously aiming for, no matter how hard he tries.

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When the going gets tough, the tough go to Abu Dhabi.

Look, don’t get me wrong — I still like Tobe Hooper, but he’s kinda fallen off the “A-list” of American horror directors, hasn’t he? The guy who gave us such timeless classics as The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and Poltergeist has hit sort of his a “dry spell” in his career of late, so when some upstart producers from the United Arab Emirates threw some money his way to come and help get a film “scene” going in their country’s capital city, he quite understandably took them up on the offer and packed his bags for sunnier (and drier, and hotter) climes. The end result? 2013’s Djinn, a semi-claustrophobic, semi-atmospheric ghost-story-with-a-twist steeped in local legend and folklore.

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Having recently lost their infant son, upwardly-mobile couple Khalid (played by Khalid Laith) and Salama (Razan Jammal) decide to attempt to “rebound” from the tragedy by relocating from the US to their hometown on Abu Dhabi, where Khalid has been offered a big-time job of some sort. They grab an expensive high-rise apartment for themselves in a prestigious, sprawling complex, but right away things start to go bad : the grounds are covered in a thick fog most of the time and the palatial spread is not just vacuous, but often empty as a tomb. You would think  that you’d notice all of this weirdness before you move in, of course, but these trans-continental migrations can often leave you feeling a bit frazzled, from what I understand, and sometimes basic details just pass right by you.

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Anyway, yup, the joynt’s haunted as shit, as I’m sure you’ve already picked up on, because centuries ago, a spirit-entity known as a djinn had her child taken from her on that very same spot and she’s been ceaselessly trying to get it back ever since. And you thought your mother had a tough time cutting the apron strings —

To make a long story short, the spirit of that dearly-departed infant has re-manifested itself in one of our protagonists (I won’t say which), while the djinn herself is inhabiting the form of their neighbor, Sarah (Aiysha Hart), a strikingly beautiful woman who, once in awhile and seemingly out of nowhere, loses all strength in her legs and has to resort to crawling on the floor. From there, well — shit just gets weird.

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Don’t get me wrong — we like weird around these parts and a lot of what Hooper does with the script he’s given here is reasonably effective. Djinn is atmospheric, moody, insular, and the director has a nice way of making big, empty hallways and lobbies feel like they’re closing in on you. The lead actors all do a very nice job indeed (although some of the supporting cast obviously struggle), and there’s a palpable sense of dread hanging over the proceedings that makes for a thoroughly engaging time spent sitting on your ass staring at a screen. I’m not in any way, shape, or form suggesting that you shouldn’t watch this movie (which, like everything else under review this month, is currently available on Netflix), so please don’t think that for a second.

But — and you knew this was coming — there’s a major flaw here. Screenwriter David Tully commits a cardinal sin of horror that so many of his brethren do in that he makes sure that we know more about what’s going on from the outset than his characters do. Sometimes that’s necessary for the ensuing storyline to even make any sort of sense, sure, but sometimes — and this is one of those times — it really hamstrings the rest of the flick. And I’m not talking about tantalizing and semi-informative glimpses here and there to wet our appetites for more knowledge; no, I’m talking about an opening sequence set in the distant past that pretty much gives away the whole game.  It’s not a fatal flaw, by any means, but it definitely comes pretty close, and it certainly lessens a much of the dramatic impact of the subsequet “revelations” interspersed throughout, so — far warning.

On the whole, though, I still liked Djinn. There are certain scenes that I even liked a lot. But I could very easily have loved it if it just hadn’t played its trump card quite so early.

 

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Having been somewhat impressed by the Grave Encounters films (considerably moreso with the first than the second) that were the brainchild of the so-called Vicious Brothers (co-writer Stuart Ortiz and co-writer /director Colin Minihan), I was reasonably stoked to give their latest effort, 2014’s Extraterrestrial, a go when I saw it in the Netflix streaming queue, and while the bog-standard premise of five teens in a remote cabin set upon by evil (or at least amoral and pathologically curious) aliens seemed more than a tad on the unimaginative side, the fact of the matter is that there’s nothing terribly original about the “found footage” paranormal investigation trope, either, and yet our intrepid pair of not-really-siblings had managed to do something pretty good with that. Why not err on the side of optimism, then, when going into this one?

I guess I’ve more or less given away the basic plot schematics already, and in truth there really isn’t much more to it than the less-than-a-sentence-long summation already provided, but for those who need a bit more of a precise run-down, an annoying group of late-teens (or maybe they’re early-twentysomethings, it’s kinda hard to tell) are headed to the back country hills to scope out the remnants of the place where one of them used to spend their summers when their typically boorish and asinine behavior attracts the much-deserved attention of local sheriff Murphy (played by Gill Bellows, veteran of the most annoying and offensive television series in history, Ally McBeal). They’re let off with a warning, get to the ramshackle old hovel, and in due course quickly find out that their nearest “neighbor,” Travis (the always-great Michael Ironside) is an anti-government, conspiracy-obsessed crackpot who just so happens to be the local pot king. The kids score some of his wares, return to the cabin, get fucked up, and then a flying saucer crashes. They check it out, return from the scene reasonably unscathed, and then find themselves assaulted by the usual array of bright lights, loud noises no one else (man or animal) in the forest can hear, shaking walls and floors — you get the idea. Eventually, Scotty beams ’em up and they’re all pretty well doomed. Cue skinny little grey-skinned freaks with big black bugged-out eyes that don’t close, slimy cocoon enclosures and, of course, the requisite anal probes (what is it with aliens and buttholes, anyway?).

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We’ve already established that one knows going in that this is all destined to be fairly standard stuff, but just how standard only becomes depressingly clear as events progress. At some point our attention and supposed sympathies are directed towards April (Brittany Allen) and Kyle (Freddie Stroma) as the ostensible “heroes” of the story because, hey, they’re good kids who really do, apparently, love each other, and wouldn’t ya just know that in the end, that love is what saves them from the same grisly fate as their shit-head friends, as the aliens decide to drop ’em back off on solid ground and head back to Zeta Reticuli or wherever. Love really does conquer all, it would seem — even when there’s no real reason (earthly or otherwise) for it to do so.

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As you’ve no doubt surmised by now, there’s all kinds of shit wrong with this movie (and we haven’t even gotten into the gaping plot holes since that would just feel like “piling on”), but chief among them is how listlessly formulaic the entire script is. That didn’t hurt the Grave Encounters “franchise” any, true, but here Los Bros. Vicious can’t seem to find any interesting new wrinkle in their premise and/or the vision to tackle the “same old, same old” with enough panache to elevate the material above its own well-worn genre trappings as they did there. In short, they just don’t seem as “into” their jobs as they had been previously, and while I’m certainly no believer in the “trickle-down” theory when it comes to economics, their thoroughly uninspired approach seems to have infected most of the cast here, as well (with the notable exception of Ironside, as you’d expect), who all seem to be just barely going through the motions on the way to collecting their no-doubt-small paychecks.

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Maybe Minihan and Ortiz should just stick with “found footage,” since they seem to have much more of an affinity with it — in fact, one of the chief stylistic flaws with Extraterrestrial is that is desperately feels like it should be shot on a hand-held “shaky cam,” but was lensed conventionally simply because the low-budget auteurs behind it wanted to prove they weren’t one-trick ponies. Here’s the thing, though — when you have a balsam-wood-thin script and shit actors, the whole “mockumentary” shtick can go a long way towards obfuscating those problems, and sometimes even succeeds in covering them up entirely. When you play it straight, well — no such luck, I’m afraid.

The Vicious Brothers have succeeded in the past by making films that were considerably better than they probably had any right to be. Unfortunately, Extraterrestrial bucks that trend and is, if anything, even worse than I’ve made it out to be. I’m thinking the aliens just split because they really couldn’t find any intelligent life down here.

 

 

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In 2010, a group of amateur paranormal investigators went to the scene of Richard Speck’s notorious killing spree in an ill-advised attempt to capture footage of his ghost, which purportedly haunts to the place. They never made it out. Now, the victims’  families have finally consented to release the video footage of their loved ones’ final hours to the public.

If this sounds to you like yet another of the cheap-as-shit “found footage” horror movies cobbled together in a few days (and at the cost of a very few dollars) by the shoestring operators of The Asylum, pat yourself on the back for a job well done, because that’s exactly what 2012’s 100 Ghost Street : The Return Of Richard Speck is. And yes, it’s as lousy as any and/or all of the others — and I’m sure you had that much figured out already, as well.

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To be perfectly honest, I’d be damn surprised if the Illinois student nurses’  dormitory where Speck is supposed to have carried out his gruesome and head-scratchingly improbably one-at-a-time rape and murder free-for-all is even still standing, but no matter : this is The Asylum, and any big house in the LA environs will do for exterior shots, while any sound stage will work just fine for the shaky-cam-lensed interiors. Any actors needing work will suffice, as well, so unless you’re related to,  or went to high school with,  the likes of Steve Bencic, Tony Besson, or Hayley “there’s no way this is the name on her birth certificate” Derryberry, you’re not gonna care who’s in this movie any more than you’ll care that some guy named Martin Wichmann directed it. They all go uncredited anyway, so what does it matter?

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If you’re concerned about whether or not there are highly improbable scenarios devised to get the female cast members’ shirts off, rest assured that base is covered. If you’re wondering whether or not anyone gets out alive, fear not — you know the answer to that one going in, too. And if you think anyone is stupid enough to believe these events are “real,” well, shit — not even the powers that be at The Asylum think that, but that’s not even the point of these things anymore. The point is merely to go through the motions, get their movies out on DVD, Netflix (which, of course, is how I caught this one) and other “home viewing platforms,” and sit back and hope to rake in a few thousand bucks in profit by the time all is said and done. On that score, I’m sure 1oo Ghost Street : The Return Of Richard Speck — or Paranormal Entity 4 : The Awakening, as it’s also called — can be considered a “success.”

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By any and all other measures, though, it is, of course, a complete failure and even more complete waste of time. It’s boring, it’s stupid, it’s pointless, and I’m an idiot for watching it (especially since I just sat through — and reviewed — The Bell Witch Haunting last week).  I offer no excuses. I knew exactly what I was getting into. And yet — masochistic asshole that I am — I went for it anyway.

I sincerely wish I could tell you why, but I can’t. Maybe I just needed to see yet another horror flick where discorporate entities of some sort drag some doomed,  hapless schmuck down a hallway, into darkness, never to be seen again? Sure, what the hell — I’ll go with that excuse until I can think of a better one.

 

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Next up on our little field trip trough the wilds of Netflix’s current horror offerings we come to 2014’s Preservation, a movie that I’d heard decidedly mixed things about,  but that I decided to take a flier on anyway simply because I figured “hey, it played the Tribeca film festival, so how bad can it be, right?”

Cue the one answer to that question you can see coming from a mile off : “pretty goddamn bad, as it turns out.”

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Filmed just outside Los Angeles on a budget reported to be “low,” writer/director Christopher Denham’s thoroughly predictable “city slickers can’t cut it in the wilderness” non-thriller serves up three immediately unlikable characters in the form of secretly pregnant anesthesiologist Wit (played by Wrenn Schmidt), her workaholic, high-finance hot-shot husband, Mike (Aaron Stanton), and his PTSD-afflicted Afghan war vet older brother, Sean (Pablo Schreiber), who are headed out for a purportedly relaxing weekend in the sticks but wake up after their first morning of “roughing it” to find big black Xs painted on their foreheads and all of their shit gone. Seriously, the mysterious interlopers even made off with Sean’s German Shepherd.

What follows next is possibly the least interesting take on hunting “the world’s most dangerous game” ever devised, as the hopelessly incompetent and overmatched suburbanites (or maybe they’re urbanites, who knows and who cares?) find their non-existent survival skills put to the test by a trio of masked teenagers (portrayed by Cody “don’t ask me how the fuck you pronounce his last name” Saintgnue, Micheal Chacon, and Nick Saso) who, in true “mountain man” fashion, communicate with each other solely by text message. Our triumvirate of leads, all of whom have reasonably extensive backgrounds in television, do their best with some decidedly weak material, but honestly, there’s only so much any performer can do to elevate lines like “you killed my dog, now I’m going to kill you.”

Whoops. Just “spoiled” about the only tiny item of suspense the movie has to offer right there.  Sorry about that.

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I appreciate the fact that Denham is trying his level best to be at least semi-topical here in tackling issues related to the readjustment struggles of soldiers returning from the Middle East and the rudderless, amoral nature of children left to raise themselves in our hyper-capitalist, increasingly atomized society, but the sad truth is that his “level best” is just nowhere near good enough. Givin’ it the old college try is admirable and all that, but when you come up as short of the mark as Preservation does, there’s no such thing as an ” A for effort” — or even a C. This is, simply put, a bad movie any way you slice it.

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And yet — it’s not bad enough to earn the distinction of “so bad it’s good,” either. Denham thinks he’s making a real horror film here and that’s probably his biggest mistake. Once we learn that our mystery assailants are a bunch of snot-nosed youths, the opportunity was there to play this whole thing for the laughs it so richly deserves, but our resident auteur has neither the vision nor the guts to go in that direction, so what we’re left with instead is a depressingly by-the-numbers affair that seems to know which points it needs to hit at every step along the way, but manages to miss them all just the same.

There are no doubt many worse horror films than Preservation cluttering up the paper-thin horror selection on Netflix right now, but  I doubt there are any less inspired and less involving. This is rote, formulaic movie-making at its most cynical and least imaginative. Definitely one to avoid at all costs.

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If only I’d known something about this flick back when it first came out (on home video — it never screened in theaters as far as I know) in 2012, I’d have been cheerleading for it a lot sooner.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that director Derek Cole’s An American Ghost Story (also released under the title of Revenant) is necessarily all that great, but damn if it isn’t plenty good, and it gets a lot more from its $10,000 budget (yes, you read that right) than most Hollywood “efforts” with ten times, one hundred times, or even one thousand times the money to burn. Any movie that packs a punch this far above its weight class is one worth crowing about, so let me take a few minutes, in the spirit of “better late than never,” to do just that.

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Struggling-and-broke writer Paul Anderson (played by Stephen Twardokus, who also wrote the screenplay and consented to allow his own house to serve as the film’s primary shooting location) is hoping to get the creative juices flowing for his first novel, which he plans to base on some actual paranormal experiences, and manages to hoodwink his girlfriend, Stella (Liesel Kopp) to move with him into a house that he damn well knows is rumored to be haunted. Those rumors — bet you didn’t see this coming — turn out to be true, and it soon becomes painfully obvious that in his quest to become the next Stephen King, Paul has put both he and his lady love’s lives in imminent danger.

Of course it all sounds familiar. It sounds especially familiar if you’ve seen Sinister. But please keep in mind that An American Ghost Story actually predates that much-more-ballyhoo’ed horror blockbuster. Now ask yourself who’s copying who here.

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The acting in this one has its flaws, sure, but by and large it’s far better than you’d be inclined to expect given Cole and Twardokus’ insane budgetary limitations, and while the idea of transforming a modest, and fairly modern, L.A. home into a house of horrors might sound absurd on paper, the truth of the matter is that An American Ghost Story actually makes it work. There are a few actual, legitimate scares to be had here, and while they don’t come at you at anything like a breakneck pace, they’re smartly timed to maintain your involvement throughout the course of the film’s 95 minutes. Does that mean this is a terrific story terrifically told? By all means, no. But it’s a good story well told and that fact alone makes it better than about 90% of the other horror movies available on Netflix (that’s our theme, remember?) right now, so it’s absolutely worth a look.

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I tip my cap to Cole and Twardokus for doing way more with way less than the big studios could ever dream of, and for constructing a film that, hopelessly bland title aside, actually has a lot to recommend in its favor. If you’ve blown right by this one without giving it a second thought as surely as I did myself on many occasions, now is a good time to give it a go and find out for yourself why, again like yours truly, you should have given it a shot a long time ago.