Review: Headless (2015, Forbidden Films)

“WITHOUT FACES WE ARE FREE.”

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Category: Retro, Slasher, Splatter/Gore
Directed by:
Arthur Cullipher

Written by: Nathan Erdel

Starring: Shane Beasley, Kelsey Carlisle, Ellie Church

Music: Mike Anderson, Arthur Cullipher, James Nash
Cinematography: Leya Taylor

The 2012 horror film Found was a big hit in the indie horror community, and the lost 70’s film within the film that one of the characters was obsessed with became a focus of interest amongst fans. Everyone was eager to see Headless as a feature length film, so when the special effects supervisor Arthur Cullipher of Found started a kickstarter campaign for the cause it was a huge success. I wasn’t a fan of Found nor was I very curious about the snippets of this film within it, but I caught a screening of it at the Slaughter in Syracuse Underground Film Festival and was pleasantly surprised and entertained by the finished product.

This obscure slasher from 1978 follows a serial killer (Beasley) who targets women and murders and rapes them, well parts of them, in that order. He then sets his sights on innocent roller rink waitress Jess Hardy, killing anyone that gets in his way. Throughout the film, we also get an insight into his abusive childhood via flashbacks.

Cullipher & Co. do an incredible job of retaining that vintage late 70’s feel; that grainy 35mm look, dirt lines on the film, a few erratic cuts here and there, even the copyright says 78′. I especially loved the faux trailer in the beginning. Retro style horror films have been very popular lately, most of which go the way of grindhouse/exploitation type features and generic slashers. Headless goes a bit more outside the box, striving to be one of those oddball video nasties that got buried under the sea of VHS tapes once the home video boom took off in the early 80’s. Those films directed by someone who used the slasher genre as a starting point to film something gruesome and shocking that could avoid the censorship associated with theatrical releases. One of those gems that would be released decades later by a company like Vinegar Syndrome or Synapse. Well I’d say that they succeeded.

The film feels a bit divisive, the story arc focusing on our unnamed killer and the flashbacks of his youth are gritty, bleak and strange. The acting on Beasley’s part, while mostly mute, is quite good. His mother, sister and his younger selfs feature some decent acting as well, at least in the context of this film. Also worth noting is the embodiment of The Killer’s self-conscious; a young boy in a skull mask. While not doing much other than silently influencing him, it’s effective and creepy. Then you have Jess’ storyline that takes the more cheesy route. Plenty of archetypes fill up the roller rink group’s character roster: the sweet and innocent final girl, her deadbeat boyfriend, her sleazy boss Slick Vic, the slutty coworker that sleeps with him. The dialogue is purposely awful and the acting is pretty bad. I’d say one the highlights of the film is the excessive amounts of authentic, handmade gore. Decapitations, post-mortem skull fuckings, pre-mortem knife fuckings, cannibalism, severed limbs, all sorty of bloody fun. The special effects team did an excellent job at creating some awesome splatter scenes. Also the design on the mannequin woman in the trippy, dreamlike sequences is pretty eerie.

Other than the tonal conflict, my main gripe with the film is that it gets a bit repetitive at times and also drags here and there. Even with a runtime under the standard 90 minutes, this film would benefit greatly from some tighter editing. After awhile, this flick feels like a joke that’s run it’s course. A lot of scenes feel like they run a little too long, and the head fucking scenes get to feel overdone after a while. The Killer goes into a strange hallucinatory state when he copulates with heads of his victims, and although this is used as a way to segue into the flashbacks into his childhood the scenes shouldn’t have to play out so long. Once the finale came I thought the film was going to end at probably five different points but it just kept going on. The thing with retro horror films is that any criticism can be defended by the fact that anything poorly done can, for the most part, be attributed to it being an intentional attempt at making the film seem authentic. A lot of those weird gory 70’s underground movies were made my amateur filmmakers who didn’t have a good sense of timing, or edited their own films out of necessity which left the viewer with scenes that awkwardly lingered for too long. So if everything I just complained about was done intentionally, then the crew behind this really does have a good eye for detail.

I found Headless to be an entertaining authentic throwback film, much more convincingly done than most others of its ilk. While a totally different feature, I believe it far surpassed the movie it spawned from. I still think some trimming here and there would do it some good though, but not too much as a short film version of this certainly wouldn’t be satisfying enough. I highly recommend this to those avid horror film collectors searching for the most fucked up, gruesome gems out there.

7/10

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Review: We Are Still Here (2015, Dark Sky Films)

“THIS HOUSE NEEDS A FAMILY.”

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Category: Paranormal/Supernatural
Directed by:
Ted Geoghegan

Written by: Ted Geoghegan
Starring: Barbara Crampton, Andrew Sensenig, Larry Fessenden, Lisa Maria, Monte Markham
Music: Wojciech Golczewski
Cinematography: Karim Hussain

Set in 1979, Anne (Crampton, Re-Animator) is recovering from the recent death of her son Bobby. She and her husband Paul (Sensenig, Upstream Color) move from the city into a house in New England hoping for a fresh start. After witnessing some strange phenomena, Anne feels that Bobby’s spirit is with them and her self-proclaimed psychic friends join to attempt to contact him. As things get stranger, they begin to unravel the dark history of their new home and town.

I’m a big fan of ghost stories and haunted house tales; they’re really the only sub-genres that I find actually creepy anymore, although only a select few are done right. We Are Still Here started out very promising, emphasizing atmosphere and slowly built up tension. There were some genuinely eerie moments early on; brief glimpses of movement, sounds of footsteps, those shots of characters being totally unaware of the silhouette in the background while they perform something menial. Those types of horror tropes always unnerved me. I thought I was in store for a 70’s style ghost movie, unfortunately the story quickly changed pace.

What started out as a simple haunted house film soon begins to become convoluted by a poorly handled expansion of the plot. I’m all for ambiguity, I find the unknown far more terrifying, but there’s a difference between a story being mysterious and having a slew of plot holes. <>A bit of a spoiler here, but there’s another entity in the house. It’s relationship with the ghosts and town’s people doesn’t really make sense, and neither do the actions of either of them. I feel the like filmmakers couldn’t really think of a logical way to give purpose to all of the violence that ensues, so they just don’t bother explaining anything<>.

As the spirits get more screen time and blood gets shed, the film abandons all the creepiness and atmosphere it built in the beginning and sacrifices subtly for guts and gore. In regards to acting, it seemed a bit stiff at times, especially Sensenig, and some of the characters slipped into stock status. Karim Hussain (Hobo With a Shotgun, Antiviral)’s cinematography is as usual gorgeous. Even with the film becoming more fast paced at end he’s still a master at setting tone. I really loved the extended still shots of the house and exteriors, they totally capture the New England rural character. Regardless of the fact that I felt this movie would’ve worked better with a more minimalistic approach, the gore was spectacular. Loads of ultra-bloody practical effects.

If only the film continued with the tone it set at the beginning and didn’t try to complicate things or slaughter people in a gruesome manner. While I must say it is entertaining and beautifully shot, it wasn’t at all frightening after the twenty minutes mark. And once you start to put together the mythos behind the house and the town, you realize that none of it really makes sense.

6/10

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Review: Honeymoon (2014, Magnet Releasing)

“AFTER THE CEREMONY COMES THE RITUAL.”

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Category: Sci-Fi, Viral
Directed by:
Leigh Janiak

Written by: Leigh Janiak, Phil Graziadei
Starring: Rose Leslie, Harry Treadaway
Music: Heather McIntosh
Cinematography: Kyle Klutz

Newlyweds Paul (Treadaway) and Bea (Leslie) head to her family’s cabin for their honeymoon. Other than a strange encounter with Bea’s childhood friend, all is well until Paul finds his wife in the middle of the woods, naked and confused, after apparently sleepwalking. Bea’s behavior becomes increasingly strange as Paul struggles to wrap his head around what is happening.

Janiak’s movie takes a slow burning, intimate approach; a majority of the focus is on the two leads, they’re relationship and the tension that builds between them as the film progresses. They start out as a repulsively loving couple, and then Bea begins slowly withdrawing from Paul after her sleepwalking bout. I almost prefer the latter, they are too corny for me. Despite this, and Treadaway’s less-than-convincing American accent, they’re chemistry seems fluid and Janiak does a great job of slowly building up suspense and confusion. The film moves in a listless manner throughout, never quite picking up pace, even in the end; relying more on atmosphere than anything else. Honeymoon could be lumped in the venereal horror sub-genre that seems to be popping up as of late, with films like Thanatamorphose, Contracted, and Starry Eyes, although this feature is less of an allegory for STIs than dealing with a certain area of the body. The special effects are used conservatively and effectively. While not a gore-fest, the bloody scenes will surely make some cringe, especially the female demographic.

I wasn’t a huge fan of the ending. It was somewhat ambiguous, but what I did gather from it wasn’t what I was expecting and I felt went against the subtly of the rest of the film. While not a bad movie, nothing about it stands above the rest of the numerous features in the indie film industry. It’s certainly an interesting watch for fans of slow brooding, subdued horror.

6/10

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Review: Scream Park (2013, WildEye Releasing)

“DEATH IS THE NEW ATTRACTION.”

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Category: Slasher
Directed by:
Cary Hill

Written by: Cary Hill
Starring: Nicole Beattie, Steve Rudzinski, Nivek Ogre, Ian Lemmon, Doug Bradley
Music: Christian Kriegeskotte, Scott Lewis
Cinematography: Nathan W. Fullerton

It’s amusement park Fright Night’s last day of operation and the crew decides to end it with some underage drinking and by bumping uglies. Unbeknownst to them, the park’s owner Mr. Hyde (Hellraiser‘s Doug Bradley) has hired some backwoods bumpkins to shed some blood in hopes of creating a stir and finding an audience for his failing attraction. Hill’s low budget, crowdfunded project is an attempt to create an 80’s inspired slasher but is ultimately far too derivative and fails to stand out amongst the sea of indie murder movies.

Scream Park is full of cliché moments and stock characters that horror fans have seen hundreds of times over. I’m not sure if the stereotypical characters are either an homage or an attempt at meta-horror humor but either way it just wasn’t funny enough to avoid being tiresome. Nicole Beattie, who played the final girl Missi, was a decent actress, Doug Bradley is of course great with the minimal screen time he has, and the killers don’t really have to rely on their acting skills. Other than that all of the rest of the performances were pretty terrible. The acting was unnatural and the script they all had to work with wasn’t much better.

The killers were fun, they had a great to look them. I’m a pretty die-hard Skinny Puppy fan, they were my jam when I was super into industrial/goth rock back in middle school. Since then my musical taste has greatly broadened but I still like their music and respect their frontman Kevin Ogilvie (known by his stage name Ogre), his inclusion in this film was what initially caught my attention. He plays Iggy, the killer with the plague doctor mask, who seems to be the “brains” of the duo. The other killer is the silent brute dubbed Ogre (Ian Lemmon), an obvious reference to Ogilvie, who wear’s the burlap sack over his head and appears on a lot of the promotional material. He very may be a reference to Jason Voorhees’ appearance in F13 Part 2, but that’s merely my speculation. Another reference to Ogilvie is the goth chick reading the novel Go Ask Ogre in the bathroom early in the film. They do what every slasher villain does, they kill people and they are the main attraction for the film. They are entertaining to a certain degree but there’s not enough gore or inventive enough kills to distract me from the banality of the film.

While I can’t knock the director for trying to put out a film on such a low budget, it just didn’t strike a chord with me. While the premise and setting were a good concept and the killers were cool; the bad acting, weak script, and the overused trappings of every other slasher just kept me from keeping interest throughout the film.

3/10

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Review: Late Phases (2014, Glass Eye Pix)

“THE HUNT IS ON.”

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Category: Werewolf
Directed by:
Adrian Garcia Bogliano
Written by: Eric Stolze
Starring: Nick Damici, Ethan Embry, Tom Noonan, Lance Guest
Music: Wojciech Golczewski
Cinematography: Ernesto Herrera

Crescent Bay Retirement Community’s newest tenant, blind Vietnam War vet Ambrose (Damici, Stake Land), survives a vicious attack his first night at his new home. Although it appears that attacks like this that have led to the death of various pets and the occasionally resident, supposedly caused by wild animals, aren’t out of the ordinary; Ambrose is weary. Instinct leading him to believe a werewolf is behind the attacks, he prepares himself for the next full moon.

Late Phases really hit all the right notes in my opinion, perfectly balancing suspense, humor and action with a superb cast and some excellent cinematography. Nick Damici doesn’t even come to mind when Ambrose is on screen, he became a whole different person with that role. Not only is he believable appearing blind, he also pulls off being quite a few years his senior. Aside from his acting, the make up work is incredible. There’s no second guessing that he’s a blind, old curmudgeon. Bonus points for dolling him up to look like a weathered Charles Bronson.

Stolze’s script keeps the film moving at a smooth pace, and offers an ample amount of humor relied on Ambrose’s no-bullshit, brash persona. Despite being a bit of a prick, Ambrose is a very likable character and easy to stand behind. His shaky relationship with his son Will (Ethan Embry, Cheap Thrills) plays a strong role in the film which helps to flesh out Damici’s character without adding any dragged out, sappy moments. There’s some great dialogue between Ambrose and Father Roger (Tom Noonan, Manhunt) , one of the few people in the community with a level head who can uphold a somewhat amicable relationship with Ambrose. The rest of the supporting cast for the most part consists of various other members of the community who aren’t so keen on the former solider’s antisocial behavior. There’s also some cameo appearances from Twin Peaks alumni Dana Ashbrook and Glass Eye Pix owner/indie horror stalwart Larry Fessenden.

Most genre fans will be happy to know that most of the effects are old fashion, practical FX work. The werewolves look a bit schlocky, but there’s nothing like someone in a suit to portray a monster. The transformation featured some great special effects work, but the scene also held one my few gripes with this film; the tired cliche of a character watching this happen in awe rather than run away. Seeing a werewolf in the flesh would be sweet but I think most anyone would haul ass out of there. Another thing that irked me was the fact that these wildly gory “animal attacks” were happening quite regularly without really drawing much attention or concern. This may have been an attempt at humor but it didn’t really fit the tone, were as a film like Bad Milo!, with it’s over the top cartoony humor and blatantly ignorant characters, featured a similar running gag that fit more comfortably within the context of the story.

Regardless of it’s few very downfalls, this indie flick was definitely one of my favorite selections from 2014 and a staple in the werewolf sub genre. Highly recommended: it’s great story, wry humor, and tense moments will be sure to even entertain those outside of horror fandom. How can a movie about a cranky, blind vet facing off against werewolves not intrigue you?

8/10

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Review: The Babadook (2014, Causeway Films)

“YOU CAN’T GET RID OF THE BABADOOK.”

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Category: Dark Fantasy, Psychological
Directed by:
Jennifer Kent

Written by: Jennifer Kent
Starring: Essie Davis, Noah Wiseman
Music: Jed Kurzel
Cinematography: Radek Ladczuk

The Babadook is an Australian horror film about widowed Amelia who struggles to deal with her son Samuel’s erratic behavior and obsession with an imaginary boogeyman. Soon the line between reality and fable is blurred as strange occurrences begin to plague Amelia. The Babadook has met acclaim throughout it’s festival run from critics and viewers alike, and I must say the film lives up to the hype.

Lead Essie Davis does a fantastic job portraying a beaten down mother who’s carrying far too much emotional baggage, it’s real easy to feel for her considering how wacked her child is. Samuel drove me nuts in the first third of the movie, but young Noah Wiseman’s acting chops come through as the movie goes on, his character gaining sympathy after showing honest concern for his mother once things start getting weird. These two really steal show as most of the events of the film unfold in their household, the whole story weighing on the mother-son dynamic.

Kent creates an excellent dark atmosphere throughout her film, I’m a sucker for movies that blend horror with fable/urban myth themes. While I was a little underwhelmed with how the Babadook itself looked, but it was still a creepy flick with it’s well executed less-is-more approach complimented by a minimalistic, eerie score. That pop-up was fucking sweet too, even if for some reason you didn’t like the movie, you gotta admit that book was tits. Which is exactly why I ordered one. The film hits some pretty dark territory at certain points, the themes of mental illness and loss of control often being more haunting than the actions of a boogeyman. In the end you can choose the view the story as an allegory or as a literal horror story, or however way you wish to think of it. I like when there’s some loose ends after a movie is over, it’s good food for thought.

Overall, a great fantasy/psychological horror film rife with flawless acting and atmosphere that will surely suck you into it’s enticing story. All you have to do is get over Sam’s obnoxious and dreadful outbursts in the beginning of the film. If William Friedkin, director of  The Exorcist, calls this the scariest film ever made; It’s got to have some merit.

9/10

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Review: Stage Fright (2014, Magnet Releasing)

“SING YOUR HEART OUT.”

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Category: Musical, Slasher
Directed by:
Jerome Sable

Written by: Jerome Sable
Starring: Allie MacDonald, Douglas Smith, Minnie Driver, Meat Loaf
Music: Eli Batalion, Jerome Sable
Cinematography: Bruce Chun

First of all I should say that I hate musicals. There has never been a situation in my life where the need to break out into choreographed song and dance has ever felt even remotely necessary. They’re ridiculous, over dramatic, and just plain annoying. Crybaby is the only musical I’ll watch purely because John Waters is the man. With that being said, I’ll check out anything that Magnet throws at me, and the trailer looked intriguing. Basically the story is that Camilla (MacDonald), daughter of a Broadway star (Driver) who was killed by the Opera Ghost, aspires to take over her mother’s role in the upcoming play at the theater camp where she works. The masked assailant returns to spill some blood. Despite my hatred of musicals, I’ll try to be fair with this one.

The acting is great across the board. MacDonald portrays the very sweet, and likeable Camilla flawlessly with Douglas Smith doing just as good a job playing her protective brother. As an added bonus Meat Loaf plays the shifty camp producer Roger McCall. Then there’s the Opera Ghost who is really annoying, especially when he sings. The dude has a terrible voice. Plus shitty metal music that sounds like it was recorded with MIDI plays every time he breaks out into (a luckily brief) song. He looks pretty cool though, and kills people in a gory fashion. Every other character is pretty much every theater geek you loved to pick on, which is what you get when you have a really shitty hobby. Oh, and there’s a creepy janitor guy of course. He’s not as cool as Malvert though.

The music is pretty typical of a musical, dramatic and whimsical. Luckily there aren’t a ton of musical numbers outside the context of the play within the film. They try to throw some humor into some of the songs, but it still doesn’t change the fact that it’s a musical number. There are a few funny moments throughout the film, but not enough to classify this as a horror comedy. The gore is probably one of the better aspects here, as well as the story which I found pretty engaging. Other than a couple weak lines, the script is pretty tight too. The look of the film is excellent; great cinematography, costume design and lighting throughout. It seems like a lot of Magnet movies share a similar look and feel to them. I don’t know if it’s just a coincidence but there’s often vibrant color palettes along with contrasts in dark scenes, quirky humor and plenty of violence. One of my biggest issues was that there should’ve been more theater kids hacked up. So if there was less singing and more killing then this would be a way better movie.

So this was actually a pretty solid feature if you can sit through a musical type slasher flick. There’s really not that many song and dance numbers though so if I were to watch it again I would just skip the first quarter of the movie. And mute it when the Opera Ghost opens his mouth. If you have any other musical-horror flicks you can think of you can keep them to yourself because I don’t want to watch them, I’ve reached my yearly quota for that crap.

6/10

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