A thorough appraisal of the micro-budget horror offerings available for streaming on Amazon Prime would’t be complete if we didn’t check out at least one rip-off of The Exorcist (there are literally dozens to choose from), and so I rolled the dice on writer/director David Spaltro’s 2015 effort, Dark Exorcism (originally released under the title In The Dark, not sure when or why the name-change happened), which manages to stand out from the pack in that it features four female leads — but apart from that, I’ll give the game away right at the outset (never an advisable thing to do in the review game, I know, but what the fuck) and just state plainly that this is “been there, done that” stuff all the way.

If you’re still reading, then, here are the particulars : art student Bethany Mills (played by Grace Folsom) has recently survived a horrific accident that claimed the life of her father, and subsequently moved back in with her mother, Joan (Catherine Cobb Ryan), who is becoming increasingly disturbed by both her daughter’s borderline-unhinged behavior, as well as a series of paintings she’s undertaken that features decidedly morbid themes and iconography. Time to call in the professionals!

The “professionals,” in this case, are parapsychologist Lois Kearne (Fiona Horrigan), and skeptical grad student Veronica Carpenter (Lynn Justinger), who’s doing her thesis on on the paranormal and is along for the ride basically to function in the “audience’s eyes and ears” role, the idea being that we’re supposed to drop our resistance to the whole notion of demonic possession along with her as events spiral increasingly out of control. Kearne herself admits that the vast majority of cases she’s investigated over the years either ended up having perfectly rational explanations or were outright hoaxes, but she insists that a small handful really were genuinely inexplicable, and while she’s not sold on this one falling into that category immediately, she lets it be known that it has all the hallmarks of something that might be a “legit” possession, while Veronica, for her part, remains unconvinced — and remains unconvinced — and remains unconvinced —

Right up to the point where it pretty much can’t be denied anymore no matter how stubborn you are. Finally! But by then, trust me, your interest in the proceedings has already worn pretty thin.

On the plus side, the production values of this flick are fairly competent across the board. The acting is uniformly solid if unremarkable, the effects are reasonably impressive, the music’s pretty decent, and the sets, cinematography, and lighting are all effective enough as far as these things go. No one involved with the production either in front of or behind the camera need hang their head in shame. And yet —

There’s really nothing that stands out, either. This is a road very well-traveled, and surprises are nowhere to be found. Spaltro seems to be playing at something of a “faith-based” angle here, too, which results in a whole bunch of boring and hackneyed metaphysical monologues apparently designed to scare us all back into the pews on Sunday mornings. That kind of heavy-handed lecturing is, of course, something we can all do without — and, at the end of the day, the same can be said of Dark Exorcism in general.

At this point, you have to wonder where and when this whole “ghost hunting” thing will end.

“Reality” TV is full of this kind of crap, of course, as is the “micro-budget” horror scene, and on a purely practical level it certainly makes sense : you don’t need much money, after all, to make a film where amateur acting, equally amateur cinematography (usually of the “shaky-cam” variety), and “hinted at but not really seen” effects work are built right into the story itself. In short, where unprofessionalism is not only countenanced, but expected. With all that in mind, then, it would probably be terribly naive to expect this burgeoning sub-genre of “found footage” horror (a sub-genre in and of itself) to go away anytime soon — but goddamn, sometimes I wish it would.

Case in point : 2015’s Ghostfinders, a zero-budget effort that comes our way courtesy of writer/director/producer/nominal “star” Luke Hill (and his one-off — and one-man — production outfit, Amalgam Movieworks), who, along two paranormal-hunter cohorts (played by Mallory Culbert and Quincy Kuykendall), decides to check out a house so fucking haunted that its most recent owners split after just one night in the place — not that it being a potential deathrap has prevented them from trying to rent it out to unsuspecting suckers ever since, mind you. But none of the tenants have hung around for very long, either.

The litany of complaints about the house amounts to “we’ve heard this all before” stuff — strange noises, apparitions appearing and disappearing, that sort of thing. In other words, there’s no attempt at anything resembling originality here — which is hardly an unforgivable sin in my book provided all the bog-standard shit on offer is well-executed or presented in a fashion that at least threatens to be somewhat interesting. Care to place a wager on whether or not Hill and Co. manage to pull that off?

The acting in this flick is lousy, the dialogue is dull, the hand-held camerawork is sloppy and unimaginative, the story is rote and predictable, the “scares” are non-existent, the effects are lifeless — there isn’t anything here you haven’t seen before, haven’t seen done better, and haven’t fallen asleep watching. And good effing luck staying awake here, too. I did — just barely, but I honestly wish I hadn’t. Sleep, after all, is a precious commodity in this life, while “found footage” ghost-hunter movies are anything but.

I could strain my brain for fucking days trying to dream up even one reason for you to spend your valuable time on Ghostfinders, and I’d still come up empty. There’s just nothing here — or, more specifically, there’s nothing worth seeing. Or at least nothing worth seeing again. Luke Hill clearly knew all the boxes he had to check off the list that people who make films of this sort apparently keep handy and, having placed a big red “X” in all of them, he figured that his job was done. And having warned you off this one in the strongest possible terms, guess what? So is mine.

 

Hard is it may be to believe in this day and age, there once was a time when the tag-line “Based On A True Story” was used to sell a film. It was a simpler and more naive era, I suppose — but as the years progressed, most audiences wised up to the fact that even these purportedly “true” stories were heavily fictionalized, if not outright fabrications, and so movie-makers started giving themselves a little bit of breathing room (not to mention legal protection) by claiming that their productions were merely “inspired by true stories” or, to push the degrees of separation out a bit even further, “inspired by true events.” These days, though, who are we kidding? Even these tepid labels impress precisely no one — but apparently Connecticut-based producer/director/actor BuAli Shah didn’t get the message, because he was still trying to gin up interest in his 2014 straight-to-streaming number, They Exist, by claiming that it was — you guessed it — “inspired by true stories.”

And so it probably is — if we take the term “stories” literally, as in, stories that people tell. Which are often, of course, complete bullshit.

And speaking of complete bullshit — that’s basically what They Exist amounts to. Shah stars as A.L., a (here’s a stretch) amateur filmmaker who, at the behest of a friend/rival, decides to undertake a documentary project chronicling people’s “real-life” ghost stories (or, if you prefer, “paranormal experiences”), but ends up in over his head — and even charged with murder — when one of his subjects, a young woman named Stacy (played by Heli Vaher) turns out to be haunted/possessed herself. Furthermore, her secret dovetails with one from her chronicler’s own past, and so maybe it’s not exactly a coincidence that the two of them have found themselves bound together by, ya know, ancient forces of evil and all that. If only the two of them were bound together by something more practical, like attending the same acting class —

Which isn’t to say that all the acting in this flick is lousy : supporting characters Joe (John Stagmaier) and Karen (Catalina Ceballos) at least come off as nominally interesting, but they probably should have been cast in the lead roles, to be brutally honest. Other parts are filled by members of the production team (screenwriter Ibne Naqvi plays a character named Maddy) and their siblings (Naqvi’s brother Zar turns up as a guy named Sam) or friends, which is hardly unexpected in a film with a budget this low, but it is helpful if they’re competent — and most of these folks simply aren’t.

That being said, at least a fair amount of the effects work on display here is. Stacy’s transformation in particular is well-executed, and some of the more minor make-up and practical FX really do look pretty good, as does most of the cinematography, which is often quite moody and effective. So at least the film looks good, and I’d even go so far as to say that Shah might have a real future behind the camera. He should just forget about getting back in front of it for the foreseeable future.

It wouldn’t be entirely fair, then, to say that They Exist is a completely lost cause — the story is certainly lame and predictable, and the leads struggle with their roles, but there’s some ability on display on the technical side. It’s nowhere near enough to recommend the film, that’s for sure, but who knows? Shah has made some noise on the movie’s official facebook page about a potential sequel (to be filmed in Pakistan, go figure) and maybe — just maybe — that could prove to be worth checking out, if and when it ever actually comes to pass.

And so, we’ve come to the end of the line for what I assume to be the first iPhone-shot trilogy in movie history. Goodbye, Egg Harbor Township, New Jersey. Goodbye, house on Steelmanville Road. Goodbye, Nigel Bach.

Although probably not for long on that last one : Bach’s clearly caught the filmmaking bug, and given that he got all three of his zero-budgeters onto Amazon Prime’s streaming service, there’s literally no reason for him not to keep on keeping on. What he’ll do next is anyone’s guess, but I feel safe in making at least one educated guess — it won’t have much (if any) budget.

Which is no bad thing, mind you, as long as the end result is worth watching. The original Bad Ben certainly was. Steelmanville Road : A Bad Ben Prequel just as certainly wasn’t. And Badder Ben : The Final Chapter ends things on a pretty high note and is well worth your time once again. Two out of three? That’s not bad for a trio of homemade flicks cranked out in a space of under two years. So that’s the short version. You want more? Okay, we’ll keep going —

Badder Ben : The Final Chapter, which literally just came out, succeeds where the second installment failed by injecting a significant amount of humor into the proceedings, a move that is probably well overdue, and the results, while not exactly astounding or anything, are nevertheless positive — a film of this nature and with this few resources at its disposal probably has no business taking itself too seriously, and while Bach himself clearly has an earnest attitude toward his job as writer/director/producer/star (as evidenced by the bizarrely passive-aggressive comment he left in response to my negative review of Steelmanville Road), here he manages to keep his more sober-minded (not to mention overly-defensive) impulses well in check in service of simply having — and giving audiences — a good time. It proves to be a very smart decision.

We’re back in the present day this time out, as a paranormal investigation team sets up shop in the Steelmanville Road house in order to suss out just what the fuck has been going on there. Problem is, they find more than they were bargaining for when original series protagonist Tom Riley (played by Bach himself) turns out to be very much alive and perhaps on something of a mission himself. But is he on their side, in their way, or a little bit of both?

The cast is the single-greatest positive difference here, with the ghost-hunters themselves coming off best : Jacquie Baker (as Jacquie, go figure) and Matthew Schmid (as Schmiddy) have a fun and engaging “double-act” chemistry going between them, each being something of a counterpoint or “foil” to the other, and David Greenberg’s “third wheel” character not only doesn’t manage to trip his counterparts up, he often accentuates their snappy interaction. Bach, for his part, is obviously enjoying being back in front of his own camera, and it shows — he’s not actively out to “upstage” his more talented performers, but he’s nevertheless happy to get in on the act and relishes his screen time with something approaching understated joy. Everyone, to a person, is fun to watch here.

Scares aren’t terribly plentiful in this film, it has to be said — nor are the few that are on offer terribly effective — but that’s not too terribly upsetting, since in this self-declared “final chapter” they’re more employed as a means to propel the narrative forward rather than uncomfortably forced into a “centerpiece” role. As “sizzle,” then, they work just fine — as “steak,” they’d probably leave you feeling hungry. Bach wisely opts to have his characters be the main course instead. Which, I guess, sounds vaguely cannibalistic, but whatever. It’s late, I’m tired, so I’m going with it.

And you should go with Badder Ben : The Final Chapter. To the extent that this makeshift “franchise” can be said to have “fans,” chances are that the vastly different tone of this concluding segment may not please all of them, but for my part I can’t think of a better way to put the series to bed than by finally allowing it to be what it probably should have been all along.

To quote this film’s own tagline : “What Happens When Four Crazy Men Kidnap One Crazy Girl?” And to take it one step further : “What Happens When You Only Have $10,000 To Tell The Story?”

You know we love ’em cheap and homemade around these parts, and it doesn’t come much cheaper or much more homemade than director/co-producer/co-writer James D. Froio’s early- 2017 effort, The Girl With No Name, a quickie out of Syracuse, New York, that has a pretty cool premise and has fun turning the tables on various “redneck horror” tropes. We’re all used to inbred country bumpkins kidnapping and torturing nubile young damsels in “Z-Grade” productions, sure, but this time out when Papa Lester (played with sneering OTT relish by G. Van Mills) and his boys Lloyd (Brandon Ferraro), Troy (Brandin Fennessy), and Markus (Issaiah Vergara) set their moonshine-blurred sights on an unnamed (but I guess you already knew that much) girl (Ashley Williams), they find they got more than they bargained for since it turns out she’s even crazier than they are. The hunters have become the hunted, indeed.

Williams scripted the film along with director Froio and co-producer Fatih Salim, so it’s no surprise that she’s given herself a fairly juicy and substantial role, and for an amateur actress she acquits herself pretty nicely, especially when it’s time to dial up the psychosis. You’ve probably gathered already that this flick’s tone is clearly tongue-in-cheek, and it’s just as well that it is given that when you’ve got low-grade production values and inexperienced performers, taking yourself too damn seriously is often a fatal flaw. Williams and her quartet of would-be pursuers certainly couldn’t be counted on to carry a heavy and somber narrative, but something like this? Well, shit — this they can, and do, sink their teeth into with obvious glee.

Which isn’t to say that the whole thing looks like shit, or anything of the sort — Froio has a pretty decent eye for composition and there are some shots that borderline on the artistic, with the overall look being, at the very least, competent. There are some minor sound quality problems, but nothing seasoned micro-budget viewers can’t overlook, and the score by one Sergio Valente is reasonably effective, as well, helping to mark and accentuate the story’s tonal shifts while only occasionally making a spectacle of itself and overpowering the proceedings. Again, if you’re the kind of person that’s a fan of the bottom of the movie barrel, trust me when I say you’ve endured far worse, and may even find yourself more than pleasantly surprised.

When it’s time for the red stuff to start gushing, this film’s practical FX work gets the job done, as well. Granted, it’s best viewed at a distance although not always shot at same, but shit — even up close, it doesn’t look too terribly unrealistic. Froio and co. have clearly been doing their homework and are probably old-school gorehounds, so what they lack in funds they make up for in sheer love of craft. That enthusiasm translates into all aspects of their budget-minded backwoods opus, and it’s more than a bit infectious. Of course this isn’t a great movie — but it’s damn sure a fun one, and what more can you really ask for from something like this than that?

So, yeah — next time you’re browsing through Amazon Prime’s streaming horror offerings, you could do a hell of a lot worse than The Girl With No Name. Its flaws are numerous but far from fatal, and pretty much everyone gets a well-deserved “A for effort.” It would be a big stretch to say that this flick blew me away, but it impressed me enough to give it a qualified (after all, it is what it is — and it can only be so much) recommendation.

Well, shit — if the title of writer/director Faisal Saif’s early-2017 Indian horror Islamic Exorcist isn’t enough to grab you, then I don’t know what more it takes. But is there anything more to this film beyond an arresting name? Thanks to Amazon Prime’s streaming service, I’m pleased to report that I’m able to answer that question —

Before we get to all that, though, the basics : intrepid journalist Natasha Choudhary (played by an actress who goes only by the name of Meera) has taken a keen interest in a local family tragedy, that of Ayesha Khan (Kavita Radheshyam) and her husband, Sameer (Nirab Hossain), who adopted an infant child named Anna after Ayesha’s sole pregnancy ended in a miscarriage. The couple had plenty of love to give, and seemed to be getting ahead financially, so it looked like many fulfilling years were in store for one and all — and who knows? Maybe there were some good times — but lo and behold,  Sameer ended up claiming that Anna was possessed by a demon and shooting her through the head.

There’s at least some money behind this production, and it shows : a nicely creepy incidental music score, appropriately gloomy and  borderline-unearthly lighting,  artistically-composed shots, and fairly competent practical and CGI effects that enhance the film rather than serving as its backbone are all welcome and appreciated feathers in Saif’s cap, but it’s his strong script and uniformly good cast that really make the difference here.

Admittedly, this is a slow-moving story, but it’s quite expertly constructed, with Saif alternating between his present-day investigation and flashbacks that “fill in” the many intriguing “blanks” that worm their way into the backs of our minds from the outset. Characters are fully fleshed-out and all evince a reasonable amount of complexity (with one major exception, which I’ll get to momentarily), the progression of events unfolds with an admirable amount of tension, and everything holds together on both logical and emotional levels as things more lurch than careen toward inevitable disaster. Incredibly solid performances, especially from Radheshyam, anchor the whole tragic affair, and for a movie that telegraphs its ending more or less right out of the gate, there are even a number of genuine — and genuinely shocking — surprises to be found along the way.

One rather large flaw, though, is the two-dimensional nature of Anna’s characterization. The little girl who plays her is, as near as I can determine, uncredited, and she’s really not given much to sink her teeth into, even for a child actor : she’s essentially relegated to the job of going from damn bad to even worse, with not much by way of a “normal” existence prior to her possession being shown. Making her somebody we can relate to on at least some level would have made for a much stronger overall story, but unfortunately, she’s not afforded anything like the nicely-realized treatment that anyone else is. A curious decision on Saif’s part, to say the least.

Obviously, I can’t even pretend to be able to speak to the film’s authenticity as far as how the Islamic faith deals with suspected cases of possession, but given that it only took about a minute and a half on Google to learn that Saif is himself a practicing Muslim, I’m gonna give him the benefit of the doubt and assume he’s done his homework on the subject. Even if he’s faking it all, though, it honestly doesn’t matter : Islamic Exorcist is constructed well enough, on levels both artistic and purely technical, that you’ll find yourself more than willing to go with its flow — heck, I daresay you may even find yourself more than a little bit haunted by it afterwards.

Here’s one I’m predisposed to like right off the bat : writer/director Paul Foster’s 2017 indie horror Unwanted, a well and truly “homemade” effort shot in Pittsbug (no “h”), Texas, earlier this very year for a whopping $8,900. My love for “micro-budget” filmmaking is well known around these parts, of course, but East Texas has held a special fascination for me for the past couple of decades ever since reading cartoonist Michael Dougan’s outstanding books I Can’t Tell You Anything and East Texas : Tales From Behind The Pine Curtain, both of which made this uniquely off-beat part of the country seem something of a world all its own. Surely, then, this one must have at least  something to recommend in its favor almost by default, right?

Still — there’s no point getting ahead of ourselves, is there? I mean, plenty of films with more going for them “on paper” have failed to live up to expectations, and given that the cast of this one was made up entirely of inexperienced actors, and that Foster himself had never made a movie before, well — there’s really no reason to bank on anything special going on here, am I right? So let’s just say I went into this hoping for the best, but not especially expecting anything.

Given all that, then, the fact that Unwanted is a decidedly mixed bag should not only come as no surprise, but might even be considered something of a “win” for Foster, his cast, and his crew. The premise is about as basic as it gets — young couple Ryan (played by Ryan Miller) and Shannon (Christa Watson), who are searching for their dream house, stumble upon one that’s available for a song and has been on the market for a looonnng time. Too good to be true, right? Well, when a deal this good lands in your lap you generally don’t question it, and so our lovebirds scrape together everything they’ve got and take the plunge.

Big mistake — of course.

Look, Foster does what he can with what he’s got, and it’s not his fault that “what he’s got” isn’t very much. I guess he hustled up what little financing he could by means of Indiegogo, and it’s a good bet that most of it went to securing rights to shoot in the Holman House, a local historical landmark. Certainly not much was spent on the cast, as both leads clearly have a lot of learning about their craft yet to do (in fact, some of the supporting players, particularly Deborah Johnston who plays a character called Carolyn, seem to have a bit more in terms of natural acting ability), but I give them credit for coming up trumps during the film’s more tense scenes — when said “tense scenes” actually happen, mind you.

Which brings us to the biggest “knock” that Unwanted has going against it, namely : this isn’t a “slow burn,” its pacing is downright glacial. When you’ve got no money for effects and are basically entirely dependent on things going bump in the night, you’d damn well better have some tricks up your sleeve to keep audiences interested, and Foster can’t compensate for his financially-dictated “minuses” with any particular “pluses.” Sure, he stumbles his way into some genuinely effective shots and generally speaking his camerawork is never what you’d call incompetent by any stretch, but when you’re doing a “creaky old haunted house” flick, you’d best make certain that every creak comes across loud and clear, and this film’s sound quality is so uneven and haphazard that it really undercuts everything our nine-thousand-dollar auteur is trying to achieve. His heart’s in the right place, to be sure, and I’ll give him an “A” for effort, but in terms of execution, shit — I hate to say it, but he’s firmly in, oh, I dunno, let’s call it “C-minus” territory.

Still, far be it from me to say that his film was a complete waste of everyone’s time to make — although it may be a waste of your time to watch. Foster at least seems to have a grasp on what he wants to do, and given the resources to do it, he may just come up with something reasonably good. Ditto for the most of the actors, who could rise to the level of “passable” with some more lessons under their belts. This isn’t an especially good flick by any stretch, but it doesn’t scream “seriously, people, don’t quit your day jobs,” either — which is just as well, I suppose, because I can’t imagine that any of them actually have.

I’ve certainly seen people with less do more than Foster is able to achieve with Unwanted, it’s true, but what the hell — I’ve seen people with more do a lot less, too. No one involved with this production should feel either ashamed or embarrassed, but the flick is nothing to necessarily be proud of, either. It just kinda — is. And what it “is” happens to be slow, plodding, and generally uninspired — but not without its moments. I just wish there were a lot more of ’em, and that they started in a lot sooner.