Archive for the ‘movies’ Category

When “off the beaten path” is your norm, then what are you supposed to do when you want to go “off the beaten path” yourself? You watch something normal, I guess.

I admit that espionage “thrillers” are not high on my own personal “to-watch” list very often, but the other night, browsing through the films available on our local cable system’s streaming service, I decided to give director Billy Ray’s well-reviewed 2007 offering Breach a shot, simply because I was in the mood for something it would never occur to me to even watch, much less write about. I duly watched it — and now I’m writing about it.

Based on the investigation into, and subsequent arrest of, notorious FBI “mole” Robert Hanssen, a guy who was selling us out to the Russians long before the current president made such things fashionable, Breach is no doubt somewhat over-dramatized, but it appears not by much : Ray’s production is a classy one, with the more salacious aspects of Hanssen’s bizarre personal life dialed down, his nauseating religiosity (he;s some kind of hard-core traditionalist Catholic) dialed up, and plenty of less-than-glamorous “nuts and bolts” investigative work at the fore of the story. Mainly, though, what we’ve got here is a veritable acting clinic put on by some of the best in the business, many of whom never get nearly enough credit for consistently delivering the goods.

Chris Cooper stars as Hanssen, and he’s downright spectacular, literally inhabiting his petty, jealous, sanctimonious, thoroughly duplicitous character with gusto, verve, and disturbing veracity, and how he didn’t walk away with an Oscar for this one is a straight-up mystery to me. Maybe because wasn’t counted on to carry the whole thing himself, but was rather part of a talented ensemble? I dunno, but I do know that everyone else more than pulls their weight : Ryan Phillippe is controlled and conflicted in equal measure as newbie agent Eric O’Neill, the guy who lands the unenviable task of having to bring down Hanssen from the inside, Laura Linney is the epitome of someone who’s devoted her whole life to duty as agent Kate Burrows, O’Neill’s “handler,” and Caroline Dhavernas and Kathleen Quinlan both stand out as O’Neill and Hansen’s wives, respectively, both of whom do a bang-up job of communicating the unique stresses inherent in their unbearably tense (albeit for entirely different reasons) home lives.

It’s not just the principal stars who being home the bacon here, though, as veteran character actors like Gary Cole, Dennis Haysbert, and Bruce Davison all make the most of limited screen time and breathe extra life into thinly-written roles. High-wire tension is largely the order of the day in this one, as you’d expect (or at least hope, and in this case that hope isn’t in vain), but the extra depth these supporting players bring to the table goes a long way toward fleshing out what is, frankly, a fairly “A-to-B” story that we all know the ending of before the film even starts.

And, ya know, that bears thinking about for a minute : there’s never any doubt about how the events in Breach (which is also, I would assume, available on DVD and Blu-ray if such is your preference) are going to play out, but damn if Ray and his superb cast don’t manage to keep you on the edge of your seat every step of the way.  That might be the highest thing a flick this “boxed in” by its own necessary parameters can aspire to, and to say “mission accomplished” in this case is to sell too short the level of flat-out cinematic excellence achieved here. I was absolutely floored by how enthralling this film was, and I’m more than willing to bet that if you give it a shot, you will be, as well.

I admit, I’d blissfully forgotten about director Stewart Raffill’s godawful 1988 E.T. rip-off Mac And Me until it turned up as the first “episode” of the new “season” of Netflix’s Mystery Science Theater 3000 revival. I mean, I saw it as a kid, but I remember being fundamentally unimpressed by it even then — and now I remember why : it’s basically a 90-ish minute McDonald’s (and Coke, and Skittles — but mainly Mickey D’s) commercial strung out over the barest skeleton of a script.

If you think that’s too harsh an assessment, I assure you it’s not, and offer this mercifully brief “plot” synopsis as proof : wheelchair-bound youth Eric Cruise (played with an annoying level of over-sincerity, but no discernible talent, by Jade Calegory), his older brother, Michael (Jonathan Ward), and their mom, Janet (Christine Ebersole) are in the midst of a cross-country move from Chicago to California when an alien who was literally vacuumed aboard a NASA planetary lander along with his the family he’s now separated from stows away in the back of their mini-van after escaping government custody. Once set up in their new digs, the Cruise clan is subject to a series of weird “alien interventions,” such as when the little guy inexplicably decides to replicate the wooded area outside — in the living room of their house. The feds are hot on the tail of this extraterrestrial varmint, whom Eric has nicknamed “Mac” (for “Mysterious Alien Creature”), but fear not, as these bungling buffoons are no match for a gang of plucky teenagers led by our protagonist brothers and the literal girls next door, Debbie (Lauren Stanley) and senior sis Courtney (Katrina Caspary), who works at — McDonald’s. The kids (and several of their ostensible “friends”) are all having fun dancing and running around (keep your eyes peeled for a youthful Jennifer Aniston and Nikki Cox in the crowd of merry-makers) at a birthday party at — McDonald’s when the G-Men make their move, but by cleverly disguising “Mac” in a full-body teddy bear costume they manage to give ’em the slip and get him to his family (no need for these folks to “phone home” since they have some sort of psychic communication “wavelength” they conjure up by means of — their hands?) that’s hiding in a cave. The Earth’s atmosphere is making our visitors sick, but fortunately Coke restores them to full health, and Skittles fill their bellies with happy butterflies, and then it’s time for them to head back to their home planet after saying some less-than-tearful (for us, at any rate) farewells.

Plot holes abound in this cinematic abomination, the most noticeable probably being when Eric first gets the idea to capture “Mac” with a vacuum cleaner even though he has no reason to believe that’s gonna work because he wasn’t on the alien planet when it happened before, but that’s immaterial : something tells me that Raffill and his co-screenwriter, Steve Feke, didn’t cobble their script together to make sense, but to sell product. “Mac” is literally always drinking Coke, for instance, and Courtney has a habit of wearing her McDonald’s work uniform around even when she’s off the clock. Product placement is one thing, but Mac And Me makes all of its sponsors central to the proceedings, dispensing with the notion of “incidental” brand identification completely. It’s entirely blatant, entirely annoying, and frankly entirely cynical.

But hey, you can’t say these corporations didn’t get their money’s worth : as it turns out, producer R.J. Louis (fresh off a massive hit with The Karate Kid) actually got McDonald’s to more or less finance the entire film from top to bottom, with Coke and Skittles kicking in just enough to get in on the action, as well. So this thing doesn’t just look or feel like an extended promo spot — that’s exactly what it is. Say what you will for the Reese’s Pieces inclusion in E.T., but at least Steven Spielberg worked it into the movie rather than going the Raffill/Louis route of working a cutesy “family-friendly” science fiction yarn into their ad.

I guess the production values aren’t too bad — the alien “family” is competently-realized and the vacuuming scenes are a rather impressive example of pre-CGI effects, but that’s all I can really say in this flick’s favor : the acting is uniformly lousy, the plot is derivative and predictable, the characters are wooden in the extreme, the laughs (hell, even chuckles) are non-existent, and there is never any sense of threat or menace from the NASA (or FBI, or whatever) cops. It doesn’t even feel like anybody’s trying.

Fortunately, this crass slab of celluloid commercialization met the fate it deserved at the box office, disappearing after two weeks and a six-million-dollar gross, and while it’s available on both DVD and Blu-ray, it’s not like it’s some cult favorite that sells in steady and respectable numbers. I dare say I’m far from the only person who forgot about it altogether until the “riffed” MST3K version became available for streaming, and while it’s far from one of the series’ classic installments, if you’re gonna subject yourself to this dreck, watching Jonah, Crow, and Tom Servo rip it to shreds is the only way of making the experience bearable.

If at first you at least partially succeed — then keep going! That seems to be the modus operandi of micro-budget horror filmmakers from Nigel Bach to Ryan Callaway to — shit, everyone in the game, right? You don’t have that much money you need to earn back from these things because they didn’t cost that much to make, obviously, but if you get a few months’ rent or mortgage payments in the can every time you put one out, then why not keep on keeping on?

Turner Clay is no exception, and since he probably recouped whatever “investment” of time and money that went into 2017’s The Blackwell Ghost, plus a little something extra for the effort, there was literally no reason for him not to go back to the well in 2018 and crank out The Blackwell Ghost 2. Amazon Prime picked up the first one, so why couldn’t they be counted on to do the same again? Such a presumption is right, of course — but none of that answers the one question that you, dear reader, are presumably here to find out about, namely : is this movie any good?

As is the case with its progenitor, the answer to that isn’t so much an unqualified “yes” as it is a “sure, what the hell?,” chiefly because it does the same things all over again and gets right what the first flick got right while also getting wrong what the first flick got wrong. It’s nominally more ambitious, which is both welcome and, frankly, to be expected, but it treads decidedly familiar ground : Clay went and made another one of his horror cheapies (a real movie, as it turns out, titled Raccoon Valley) after “surviving” his time in the Blackwell house, but he hasn’t been able to get the “experience” out of his head, so when he receives a mysterious package containing an old record and a photo of Ruth Blackwell with a young girl, he’s eager to meet the sender, who turns out to be — drumroll, please — the little girl in the picture all done growed up, who in due course allows him access to a storage facility filled with other Blackwell paraphernalia, the most intriguing item of which is a schematic of the house marked with a purportedly ominous “X” that Clay believes to be an indication of where something — or maybe even someone — is buried. Time to grab wife Terri (once again played by Terri Czapleski) and go back up to Pennsylvania even though they never leave Louisville!

Things aren’t as easy for our “mockumentarians” this time out given that the owner of the property, with whom they have a friendly rapport, is selling the place (good luck with that), but he’s willing to give Clay the keys to the joynt for three nights, and during that time another series of vaguely creepy events takes place that convinces our man and his lady love that, yeah, this house really is haunted, but aside from a bunch of conspicuous plugs for Raccoon Valley, it’s largely just more furniture moving on its own, record players turning on by themselves, footsteps in the dark, etc. The pacin’,s better, though, with events actually moving along at a fairly nice clip once they get to the house, and Clay himself is as charismatic and likable and self-deprecating as ever, so watching a slightly-amped-up version of what we’ve already seen before is certainly no chore, and often even quite fun. In other words, he’s getting better at making these things as he goes, and that’s something he should, and hopefully does, take a reasonable amount of pride in.

That being said, actual scares are still conspicuous by their absence in this second film, the run-time still feels padded (and it is just a bit longer than the first), and originality is still an item nowhere to be found on the menu. This is an agreeable enough “found footage” paranormal yarn, but it’s certainly miles away from being essential viewing and I can’t really see how it would hold much, if any, appeal to someone not already well-versed in, maybe even reasonably committed to, this particular sub-genre of homemade cinema.

And yet — for those of us (like myself), who do fit into that particular (and, yeah, particularly narrow) “fan classification,” this is a darn good time. The Blackwell Ghost 2 may be more a refined extension of the previous entry in this “franchise” than it is a “sequel” per se, but that’s okay, and Clay’s continuing development as a writer/director, as well as his genuinely engaging on-screen persona as an actor, means that there’s reason enough to not only give this flick a shot, but to look forward to The Blackwell Ghost 3 if (okay, fair enough, when) such a thing happens, as well. I’ll certainly be ready and waiting to watch, and subsequently review, it when it does.

In another lifetime — okay, in this lifetime, and right up through last year, at that — I positively drowned myself, and readers of this humble site, in horror film reviews during the month of October. That was before a little thing called Four Color Apocalypse took off like a shot and started greedily consuming every spare moment I had for writing, and before those moments became even more spare thanks to a frankly pretty goddamn grueling work schedule, but hey : it’s still “Halloween season,” is it not? And that means I’ve gotta make at least some time to watch a so-called “scary movie” or two, and to talk about ’em here. For the sake of persistent tradition, if nothing else, but also to make sure no one’s made off with the good china and silver I keep in a cabinet around these parts.

Amazon Prime is my go-to choice for micro-budget horror these days, and has been for some time, but I prefer not to “fly blind” on there whenever possible, so when I heard that the estimable Turner Clay — the backyard auteur latterly revealed to be the “brains” behind the much-speculated-upon The Phoenix Tapes ’97 (probably the last “found footage” flick that actually managed to fool wishful thinkers into believing it was “the real deal”) had jumped back behind, and in front, of the camera for not one, but two “paranormal investigator”-themed flicks in the space of the past year, I was all in to give ’em a go. First up, then : 2017’s The Blackwell Ghost.

Borrowing the same credit-omission trope as his first flick (hey, it set the “chattering class” to — well — chattering, didn’t it?) in order to imbue the proceedings with at least a thin veneer of “authenticity,” Clay introduces himself as a frustrated zombie filmmaker who wants to find some real scares, but his initial foray into ghost-hunting for the camera ends up scuttled for reasons left bizarrely oblique (truth be told, I honestly wonder why footage of this purportedly-abandoned “haunted hotel” project was even included here, the end result being that a film that only runs 59 minutes in length anyway actually feels padded), but fear not : just when it looks like our man is gonna have to go back to filming shambling corpses for the DTV crowd, a correspondent provides him with some mildly disturbing footage of the goings-on at a reputedly haunted house in Pennsylvania (whatever — this movie was actually shot in Lexington, Kentucky), and before you can say “boo!,” Clay and his wife, Terri (played by Terri Czapleski) are on a plane and headed straight for, I guess, danger.

Look, let’s not kid ourselves : when it comes to these “mockumentaries,” they often tend to rise or fall based on the sheer likability of their narrators/protagonists, given that gore, special effects, and complex technical set-pieces are usually well outside both the budget and the ability of the filmmaker, and this one is no exception. Clay’s pulling triple duty as writer, director, and nominal “star” of this flick, but surprisingly, he doesn’t appear to have spread himself too thin — he’s an engaging and relatable central figure with just enough of a sense of humor about what he’s doing to keep the tone agreeably light until things start going bump in the night. There’s very little by way of tension in this hour-long flick, it’s true, and the “big finale” revolves around water faucets turning on of their own volition, but don’t let that prejudice your view before seeing it, simply because nothing here is quite as lame as it sounds, thanks in large part to Clay’s more-than-competent acting and a pleasingly well-developed backstory that makes this particular low-rent haunting seem pretty darn plausible. Yeah, the pacing here is lackadaisical and we’ve seen all this “security camera” and “night vision” stuff a million times before, but it’s all assembled in a coherent manner and the guy tasked with being our “eyes and ears” is, refreshingly, at least not someone you feel like punching in the face.

Now, if you’re on the lookout for originality, clearly you need to be looking elsewhere, but if you can extract a reasonably good time from a tired premise — and I freely admit that I can — then you could do a hell of a lot worse than this movie. It’s predictable in the extreme, it’s true, but it never insults your intelligence, never pretends to be anything other than what it is, and even has a little bit of fun pointing out its own shortcomings. Some might consider that to be damning with faint praise, and maybe it is, but it was good enough to keep my attention and, crucially, doesn’t outstay its welcome. 90 minutes of this might be a little much but, to his credit, Clay knows that, and once we get into the “main” story, he never veers in getting to point B from point A. You’d have to be really damn gullible to think anything happening here is “real,” but I honestly don’t think that’s a big concern. It has a reasonably authentic look and feel to it — which may just be a nice way of saying that it’s smart enough to make its “warts and all” approach work for it — and, combined with its audience-friendly tone, that’s enough to make me feel like I haven’t wasted my time.

Honestly, if you’ve made it this far you should have a pretty clear idea of whether or not The Blackwell Ghost sounds like the sort of thing that you’d enjoy. If not, fair enough — I really can’t hold it against anyone for having had more than enough of the whole “found footage” sub-genre as a whole — but if you’re happy to play along with a well-established set of rules and don’t expect any sort of reinvention of the wheel or anything, then I think it’s a solid bet that you’ll have a fairly good time with this one. I know that I certainly did. So, what the hell — bring on The Blackwell Ghost 2!

The Lord giveth, and the Lord taketh away : in this case of director Faith R. Johnson’s 2017 “found footage” direct-to-video horror, The Faith Community, he (or she) appears to do a bit of both.

On the “giveth” side of the ledger, we’re not saddled with anything too extraneous here, plot-wise, in Johnson and co-writer Robert A. Trezza’s script : college-age students Hannah (played by Janessa Floyd) and Andrew (Aidan Hart) are devout Christians determined to win over their skeptic friend (and wannabe-filmmaker, he’s the guy “documenting” the proceedings) Colin (Jeffrey Brabent) and, to that end, they’re taking him to a much-talked-about “Bible camp” in the woods to experience the wonder of “God’s Green Earth” or something. It’s a simple, punchy premise that does the job quickly and succinctly, and once they arrive, shit gets pretty interesting — at first.

A rather graphic, even brutal, stage-play rendition of the story of Adam and Eve is the “entertainment” on offer for our protagonists’ first evening at Camp Nazareth, but it’s not the amateur theatrics that the trio is particularly interested in : they’re hot to meet the group’s leader, a charismatic figure known only as “The Messenger” (Jeremy Harris). Their “mockumentary” interviews with said Messenger, his right-hand man/cousin Michael (Oliver Palmer), and the various “happy campers” are uniformly gripping and smartly-written, with Harris’ performance going some way toward making even making them fun, as he’s clearly relishing his chance to play cult guru, and our principal characters are also fleshed out nicely both during these sequences and those surrounding them in the early going, just enough information being provided about their pasts in order to explain their views toward religion and make their various “arcs” seem quite believable, the two “true believers” becoming quick devotees of The Messenger’s — errrmmm — message of impending Apocalypse/Rapture, and the atheist “odd man out” feeling even more odd as his friends succumb to the sway of the camp’s insular “hive-mind” thinking.

Giving away any more of the story would probably be saying too much, but there are some aspects that strain credulity, such as Michael’s belief that he’s the so-called “Angel Of Death,” and I guess that’s as good a segue as any into the “taketh away” half of the equation : Johnson’s clearly trying here, but the overall tone of her direction is so flat and dispassionate that it makes it tough for audiences to invest themselves emotionally in what’s happening. This is a common (and in no way always accurate) knock on the “found footage” sub-genre in general, but it’s especially pronounced here and even begins to grate after awhile. The Xs and Os of the story are interesting enough that you want to buy into what Johnson is selling here, but then she does her level best, clearly more by accident than design, to say “thanks for watching, but there’s no need for you to care about this too much.”

The acting’s pretty good on the whole among the principal players, but that only goes so far, and while the single-camera trope makes sense from both a stylistic and budgetary perspective, it stops effectively covering up the absolute amateurism of many of the shots about halfway through and worse, as events spiral out of control in the pivotal “third act,” they end up coming off as more ridiculous than threatening. One of the characters — and I won’t say who, other than it’s not who you’d necessarily expect — even delivers a long, rambling monologue for the camera that’s just plain embarrassing but is meant to come off as ominous in the extreme. Points for trying, I guess, sure — but not much more than that.

And while we’re on the subject of “not much more,” this one isn’t worth much more of my time to write about, or yours to read about. It’s streaming for free on Amazon Prime right now if you feel like checking it out (and is most likely also available on DVD, although I didn’t bother to confirm that), but seriously — for sheer entertainment value, not to mention horror quotient, you’re probably better off reading the Bible. That’s always good for laughs and chills in equal measure, while The Faith Community ends up delivering the former inadvertently, and the latter not at all.

It’s always a little bit tricky doing an advance review of a film that hasn’t been released yet — yeah, okay, this isn’t my first time doing it, but it’s been awhile — but when a quick Google search lets you know that your appraisal will be the first posted anywhere? Then you’re playing with fire, at least to a certain extent. I mean, a lot’s going to hinge on what you have to say — hell, in a very real sense, the success or failure of the flick in question rests at least partially on your shoulders.

You’ve got some real freedom, though, too — no one can say other opinions influenced yours, no one can accuse you of being part of an “echo chamber,” no one can point out similarities between what you’ve written and what someone else has. Not that anyone’s ever said that about my stuff, mind you —

Okay, that’s a bit more preamble than you normally might be expecting, granted, but I think a certain amount of context here is important because now’s when we get into the “full disclosure” part of the proceedings : old friend of this site, New Jersey micro-budget maestro Ryan Callaway, reached out to me looking for a review for his latest, Let’s Not Meet, sent me a (somewhat unfinished, but pretty close) “screener,” and asked if I could have it ready in advance of its Amazon Prime VOD “street date” of September 30th (well, its free “street date” — I believe it’s available on Amazon for purchase already, it’s out on DVD, and it screened in some East Coast theaters back on August 31st). I told him sure, but not simply because I think Callaway’s a cool guy — more because he’s a fair one. I haven’t been entirely kind to some of his earlier productions, but it’s not like I told him to give up on the whole “movie thing” and see if his local Wal-Mart is hiring. I’ve pointed out what he’s done well, what he’s done less than well, where I think his lack of resources hindered him, and where the “low-fi” aesthetic he’s necessarily forced to adhere to has actually been beneficial. He’s been magnanimous about accepting every piece of constructive criticism, and (if I may be so bold) it even appears that he’s even taken some of my suggestions to heart, all of which is to say —

Let’s Not Meet is probably his best film to date. It’s not perfect — circumstances almost flat-out dictate that it can’t be — but it’s pretty damn good, it’s well worth your time, and now comes the part where I tell you why —

As is the case with most of Callaway’s Shady Dawn Productions features (this time Callaway is in his usual role of writer/director, while his producers are wife Amy and Sabine Davids), this one has a sprawling, ensemble cast, but the focus starts out tight and moves outward from there  : pizza delivery woman Aya Becker (played with considerable aplomb by Breanna Engle) is making her final stop of the night when she wises up to the fact that whoever owns the house she’s just entered (don’t worry, there’s a note by the doorbell, no “B and E” going on here) is attempting to lure her into some sort of trap. She’s nothing if not resourceful and quick on her feet, though, so making her escape isn’t too big a problem — but once she skedaddles, that’s when the real intrigue begins, as she encounters a group of campers who are in the midst of a terrifying and rather mysterious ordeal of their own. How are these events connected? Who, exactly, is everyone fleeing from? How are they going to make it out alive? And what’s all this got to do with a dead Satanic cult leader? As this is, again, an advance review (okay, of sorts), I’m going to studiously avoid anything that even steps the tiniest of toes into “spoiler” territory, but that doesn’t prevent me from opining in a general sense, does it? Not in the least —

As I said, the cast eventually expands out to more traditional “Callaway size,” but his actors are generally all bringing their “A” game for this one, whether we’re talking about Shady Dawn veterans like Hiram Ortiz, Ken Llamas, Tiffany Browne-Ortiz, and Carmine Giordano, or first-timers such as Georgette Vaillancourt, Kate Kenney, Millie Ortiz, or the aforementioned Engle. Not everyone is a professional, that much is obvious, but everybody punches above their weight class, and certainly no one comes off as “cardboard,” much less cringe-worthy. Those of us who know the micro-budget world pretty well know just how rare that is — especially when there are this many performers on hand.

If you believe as I do that representation matters, especially in the formerly all-white world of genre cinema, Callaway is a welcome breath of fresh air in that he always puts together diverse ensembles of actors, and women are usally the primary movers-and-shakers in his scripts, all of which is true here, but he’s thankfully toned down his author’s urge to give them all hyper-detailed backstories and instead puts just enough “meat” on their narrative “bones” to make their motivations seem sincere and their actions “in character.” He goes a bit overboard here and there on the extended dialogue scenes, and as a result the film is a little bit longer than it needs to be, but it’s not padded out by 30 or 40 wholly unnecessary minutes, as some of his past productions have been. In other words — he’s learning what works and what doesn’t as he goes along, and his increasing confidence as a filmmaker is showing in other ways, as well, with more strong shot compositions, better timing of key story “beats,” etc.

Best of all, though, this flick is just plain fun. It’s reasonably suspenseful, sure, but it doesn’t take itself too terribly seriously all the time, it doesn’t push against the boundaries of its limitations, and it never tries to pretend it’s something other, or greater, than it is. All of which is to say, Callaway and his cohorts clearly set out to make a solidly-executed little tongue-in-cheek horror/ thriller amalgamation here  — and that’s exactly what Let’s Not Meet is.

 

 

 

Call me a glutton for punishment if you must, but the rather “blah” feeling that the latest installment in Nigel Bach’s Bad Ben series left me with got the wheels in what passes for my “mind” spinning — “these one-man ‘found footage’ horrors, they’re a tricky thing to pull off,” I thought to myself, “and Bach, who’s had what passes for ‘success’ with this sort of thing, well, he must have spawned some imitators, right? I mean, theoretically at least, anybody with a camera of any sort, even just an iPhone, can do what he’s done (not that they should, mind you), but has anyone else actually given it a shot? I guess if there’s one place I could find similar productions, it would have to be Amazon Prime, would it not? So — do they have anything remotely similar?”

Okay, so my thoughts weren’t that well-organized or succinctly-stated, nevertheless — I got that proverbial “wild hair” to find the closest thing to a non-Bach-made Bad Ben that I could, and what did I come up with? Well — nothing too terribly similar, as it turns out.

Mind you, it was late at night and I wasn’t feeling that ambitious, so I simply followed Amazon’s “People Who Watched This Also Watched —” suggestions, and where they led me was to British writer/director/producer’s 2018 “mockumentary” opus The House On Mansfield Street. Yeah, I figure I know where he got the name for his fictitious street, too, but the name Richard Mansfield, it rang a bell — and sure enough, I had seen (and reviewed) one of his 2017 flicks (I say “one of” because he made a few, actually), The Demonic Tapes. It didn’t do much for me, truth be told, but what the hell? I figured I’d see if his filmmaking skills have improved, and when I read on IMDB that this one was made for just 300 pounds (current exchange rates put that right around $394 in US currency), I was more than curious to do what I do so often, namely : seeing how much an enterprising auteur can do with so little.

Not to give away too much too early on (whoops), but as you’d probably expect with resources this limited (it was primarily shot in one house, apart from an opening sequence in a car), results are mixed : Mansfield’s ostensible “star,” amateur filmmaker Nick Greene (more-than-competently portrayed by Matthew Hunt) is documenting his move from London to an unnamed smaller town, but things go wonky in his new spread pretty much right off the bat, the stereotypical inexplicable noises graduating to the stereotypical moving objects graduating to — the stereotypical bigger, more serious shit. If this sounds more Paranormal Activity than it does Bad Ben, you’re not too far off the mark, and the constant “night-vision” camera work certainly reinforces that notion. Mansfield’s cinematography is more accomplished than usual for productions of this sort, though, so even though this flick’s pacing is slow bordering on the glacial, it generally remains at least watchable throughout, thanks mainly to its solid technical execution and the likability of its protagonist.

Another big difference between this and at least two of the Bad Ben movies : this isn’t strictly a “solo venture,” at least in front of the camera. Actors Daniel Mansfield (who I assume to be Richard’s brother) and Kathryn Redwood have small but semi-significant parts as Jon and Emma, respectively, and each manage to make the most of limited screen time. Hunt is definitely a one-man act for 90-plus percent of the film, but he’s not, strictly speaking, the only presence on screen from start to finish.  To say nothing of the apparitions and all that, of course.

And speaking of “all that,” despite my rather curt dismissal of many of the shopworn “scare” elements on offer here, a good chunk of Mansfield’s screenplay actually leads audiences to believe that there is something entirely different going on in this house than the usual paranormal flick revolves around — really up until the very end, in fact, when things whiplash back to “bog standard” status seemingly out of nowhere. It’s a bit of a disappointing way to wrap up a story that had been flirting with something not wholly original, by any means, but at least unexpected, and the first nine-tenths of the film probably deserves better than what the final tenth gives it, but even still — The House On Mansfield Street is a more effective use of $394 than most of us (myself included) could manage, and Richard Mansfield has plenty to be proud of here. I’ll definitely be on the lookout for whatever he does next.