Red State (2011)

Kevin Smith

Michael Parks - Pastor Abin Cooper
John Goodman - ATF Special Agent Keenan
Melissa Leo - Sarah Cooper
Kyle Gallner - Jarod
Kerry Bishe - Cheyenne
Michael Angarano - Travis
Nicholas Braun - Billy Ray
Stephen Root - Sheriff Wynan
Kevin Pollak - ATF Special Agent Brooks
Kevin Alejandro - Tactical Agent Henry

Genre - Horror/Drama/Thriller/Cults

Running Time - 88 Minutes

Set in Middle America, a group of teens receive an online invitation for sex, though they soon encounter Christian fundamentalists with a much more sinister agenda.

Even though I’ve been a big fan of his Askewniverse films [still love me some CHASING AMY], I haven’t watched anything that Kevin Smith has directed since 2011’s COP OUT - which was an abysmal failure on all levels for the filmmaker. Because of that, I haven’t watched any of Smith’s films since, even though I’ve been very curious on how his horror input has been. It took me eight years, but I finally sat down and watched 2011’s RED STATE. Scary enough, the topics and themes of the film are still as relevant today as they were years ago, with the West Baptist Church still trying to push their influence on people, while the rise of gun violence in America has become a major concern. With Smith tackling the subject of religion in 1999’s DOGMA and doing it really well, I expected RED STATE to be a good continuation of that line of commentary in a more serious way.

Unfortunately, RED STATE continues the losing streak that Smith started with COP OUT. I will say its heart is in the right place and the concept of the film is definitely one worth exploring. But Smith seems to have lost all focus when it comes to writing and directing this film, creating a film that feels seriously bi-polar in terms of genre, tone, and even narrative structure. I had believed this film to be a horror film, but it’s anything but in the traditional sense. I would have been more than okay with that if RED STATE knew exactly what film it actually wanted to be. I finished the film more confused than normal, not sure what I was supposed to think about it.

Let me just get the good stuff out of the way. I thought the acting was really great, as it saves the film from being a total disaster and one you must avoid. In particular, the late Michael Parks [a favorite of Quentin Tarantino] is incredibly compelling in the lead villain role as Pastor Abin Cooper. Parks plays that common fear of a man of religious power spouting hate and twisting the words of the Bible to brainwash others in believing his rhetoric. Using the church as a dungeon to torture those he believes are an abomination to society - mainly homosexuals - Cooper and his family and friends believe what they’re doing is right because they want to save the world from what they consider “evil”, even though they do bad things like kill innocent people and steal firearms in order to display the power they believe they inherited from God. Parks plays the role to perfection as a man who doesn’t fear the consequences of his actions, feeling that he’ll end up in paradise with God in the afterlife for “cleansing the sins of immoral people”. Humanity is freaking scary, and Parks portrays that convincingly.

I also thought John Goodman did really well in his role as ATF Special Agent Keenan, the opposite side of Cooper’s coin. Goodman is fantastic in anything he’s in, regardless of the quality of the film he’s involved with. RED STATE is no exception. Keenan also believes in the good of society and wants this Church taken down because they’re terrorizing this small town. When he’s given orders from superiors that he doesn’t agree with, Keenan struggles with that decision, leading to violent consequences he wanted to avoid. Goodman plays this resignation and struggle believably, making Keenan the only real character you sort of care about.

The other actors also do well, especially Melissa Leo as Cooper’s daughter, and Kevin Alejandro as a tactical agent who struggles with Keenan. The younger actors, especially Kyle Gallner and Kerry Bishe, put on capable performances that border on sympathy at times. The actors did their damndest to make this script seem better than it actually is. For that, much respect to all of them to keeping RED STATE somewhat watchable.

And while it’s not his strongest visual presentation, I thought Kevin Smith did alright as a director here. Using more of a handheld, shaky cam feel rather than a static focus, Smith shoots the film well and tries to add some style. In a lot of ways, I feel like Smith was inspired by other directors here, especially Tarantino and Rob Zombie at times, aping their visual flourishes to tell a compelling narrative - at least in his mind anyway. It had a more realistic and gritty feel than his previous works, so I applaud Smith for doing something out of his comfort zone. Even if RED STATE wasn’t a total success, Smith gets points for experimenting and trying out something new. There’s nothing wrong with that if you can learn from your mistakes.

The rest of the film is a disappointment though. The screenplay is all over the place, making it a tough film to really get into. It’s a shame because the commentary is easy to understand and relate with on some levels, as terrorism based on religion and massive gun violence are topics many people face each and every day. These are topics that gain a ton of media coverage. And if you follow him on Twitter, Kevin Smith is very passionate and opinionated on these social issues. But that’s what the script for RED STATE reads like - a bunch of Twitter rants from Smith, but taped and glued together to make a 90-minute movie. There’s no subtlety in this film, as Smith hammers you in the head over and over again on his views of the matter at hand. There’s this great 11-minute monologue by Michael Parks, preaching to his followers about the evils of society and how they’re doing God’s work by taking care of these so-called “sinners” themselves. This one monologue tells you everything you need to know about Parks’ character, the situation at hand and what the film is trying to tell you. But it keeps going with other characters, punching you in the face about the commentary on both sides of the issue. There’s even commentary on how officers and the government would rather shoot and ask questions later, as if to say that they’re only in it to protect themselves rather than the people they’re ordered to protect. It’s not rocket science. Audiences can figure these things out on their own. It just felt heavy-handed, which is sad because these are issues that deserve to be address in many media forms.

The development of the characters is no better. We have three teen victims who are kidnapped and taken as hostages by this Church because they’re seen as homosexuals for wanting to have an orgy with a woman they met on Craigslist [which happened to be a trap by the Church]. This is a good set-up… if the teen characters were any bit sympathetic or likable. Being excited over a sexual conquest is realistic, but the way they behave about it is a bit of a turn off. Why would I care what happens to them? It’s made even worse when the main focus of the film is on the villains, who are despicable people doing terrible things because they twisted the words in a book to justify their actions. They lose people and they grieve. One character wants out to save the younger members of the Church. Others feel that they don’t care about life or death, believing that God will gladly take them in with open arms. These fanatics are awful people and all deserve swift justice for what they’ve done. But it feels like Smith wants to do his own THE DEVIL’S REJECTS in a way with these characters when it isn’t earned. The Firefly Family, regardless of their heinous actions, are likable characters and have a bit of a moral code when it comes to each other. These Church characters don’t because they only care about themselves. It’s jarring and it feels like Smith is showcasing the people he despises rather than criticizing them.

Even our “heroes”, the special agents trying to save the hostages and stop the Church, aren’t much better either. Only Goodman’s character, Keenan, seems like a fleshed out human being who struggles between doing the right thing and keeping his job to provide for his family. He’s in a position where morality doesn’t really fit into, causing him to second guess certain things before doing what he feels is right. Even at the end, he resigns to his position with almost an ounce of regret on his face. The rest of the agents and local officers don’t have any depth at all. The town sheriff is a closeted gay man who is too scared to stop the Church, fearing they’ll out him to his wife. He even shoots innocent people out of fear, just wanting the situation to end as long as his secret is safe. Others joke about the terrorist situation [the addition of comedy in this film is mind boggling and out of place], while another character just turns on a dime and kills people after criticizing Keenan about thinking to do the exact same thing. Who am I suppose to root for here? Does Kevin Smith even know?

And then there’s the ending. I don’t even know where to begin with it. Apparently, there was an idea for a different ending where we would find out that this whole film is taking place during the Rapture, almost proving that the beliefs of the Church was correct all along. I think that would have been a controversial, but interesting conclusion within the context of the film’s story. It also would have improved my feelings on RED STATE by miles. Instead, we’re given this flat ending that doesn’t do much for anyone. I’m still not sure what to make of it and why Smith felt this was a the next logical conclusion to his story. I won’t spoil it if you haven’t seen RED STATE yet, but I think you’ll be as hugely disappointed as I was over it. What a letdown.

And the last negative thing I’ll say - the mixing of genres did not work here. The film starts off as Smith’s version of HOSTEL in a way, eventually turning into a horror drama involving a cult, finishing off as an episode of CBS’ Criminal Minds. It’s cool that Kevin Smith wants to stretch his filmmaking style and try different things as a director. But stick to one genre and make it work. This would have been great as a full-on horror film, a full-on drama, or a full-on action-thriller. It bombs as all three-in-one.

It took me quite a while to sit down and watch RED STATE, Kevin Smith’s first foray into directing a somewhat-horror film, hoping it would be worth the wait. Unfortunately, I came away extremely disappointed with this film, wondering what exactly I was supposed to get out of it. The acting, especially by the late Michael Parks and John Goodman, is the saving grace of this film. And while not a home run, I respect Kevin Smith writing and directing something other than a comedy. That being said, the narrative is a huge miss for me. The protagonists, besides Goodman’s character, are unlikable, while more depth is given to despicable villains that I’m not sure I’m supposed to empathize with or not - considering Smith’s not-subtle commentary against the Westboro Baptist Church, gun violence and government officials. The mixing of genres is jarring, as it goes from HOSTEL to an episode of Criminal Minds in minutes. And the ending used is really poor and fails as a satisfying conclusion. I really wanted to like RED STATE, but it just left me feeling blue by the end.

1.5 Howls Outta 4


Absurd (1981)

Joe D’Amato

George Eastman - Niko Tanopoulos
Annie Belle - Emily
Charles Borromel - Sergeant Ben Engleman
Edmund Purdom - Priest
Katya Berger - Katya Bennett
Kasimir Berger - Willy Bennett
Ted Rusoff - Doctor Kramer

Genre - Horror/Slasher

Running Time - 96 Minutes

A man (George Eastman) has been driven insane by church-sanctioned scientific experimentation which also causes him to be nearly impossible to kill. He is pursued to America by a priest (Edmund Purdom) where he embarks upon a killing spree while the priest tries to hunt him down and kill him.

By the year 1981, the horror genre was within the Golden era of the popular slasher film. Due to the massive success of 1978’s HALLOWEEN and later 1980’s FRIDAY THE 13TH, countless producers and studios attempted to capitalize on the slasher craze to varied success. Even though Italy had a similar craze going with the popular giallo, the country as well wanted to create their own version of the slasher film. Having success with the infamous “Video Nasty” ANTHROPOPHAGOUS in 1980, Joe D’Amato and George Eastman decided to film what many consider a pseudo-sequel, 1981’s ABSURD [aka MONSTER HUNTER, aka ROSSO SANGRE, aka ANTHROPOPHAGOUS 2]. Taking some “influence” from a certain American slasher film, ABSURD joined ANTHROPOPHAGOUS on the “Video Nasty” list for its gory sequences. And while the violence isn’t as intense as it is in ANTHROPOPHAGOUS to make it as memorable or notorious, ABSURD manages to do certain things better than its predecessor to make it more worthwhile to a mainstream audience.

Watching ABSURD, it’s obvious that both D’Amato and Eastman were huge fans of John Carpenter’s HALLOWEEN to the point where certain storytelling aspects were inspired by it. And by inspired, I mean both men ripped it off to create their own version of the same story. You get a silent killer who can’t seem to get hurt or die. You have a man, who knows what the killer’s deal is, chasing him in order to stop him from killing. You have babysitters in a suburban town accidentally targeted by this killer. You have police officers willing to believe the word of the monster hunter. You even have people watching television while all this is going on! Hell, you even have a hospital setting in the first act of the film that’s reminiscent of HALLOWEEN II of the same year - which is most likely a coincidence since both films were probably made around the same time. You even have an annoying little boy worried that the Boogeyman is out to get him for being bad. It’s not subtle and it’s definitely not as good as its inspiration, even if all the elements are there.

For example, the killer in the film [Nikos] is not a psychotic person who murdered people when he was a child and grows up to be this embodiment of evil as an adult once he escapes the insane asylum. He’s basically a science experiment gone terribly wrong, where he has this uncanny ability to regenerate any serious wounds and not die unless he was basically decapitated like HIGHLANDER. The man chasing him, a priest, seems to be responsible for this mess and is trying to stop Nikos from hurting other people after the experiment drove him insane. The town Nikos terrorizes is not his hometown in Greece, but a random spot in America  [which might make it more terrifying for some]. The priest has dialogue that resembles a certain Dr. Loomis, but isn’t as meaningful or creepy. The babysitter is a mix of Annie and Lynda from HALLOWEEN - a hot blonde who has a sassy and/or bitchy attitude towards taking care of an annoying kid and his disabled sister. The Laurie Strode character is actually a nurse with no relation to the killer other than that she helped save his life in a hospital earlier. It’s actually quite fascinating to watch your favorite film rearranged in a different way that it becomes a new film called ABSURD, regardless if the quality isn’t up to par.

The only real differences from the original HALLOWEEN are that the children’s parents have more of a role here, especially the father who had ran over Nikos earlier in the film, which causes Nikos to recognize the car and terrorize the family living inside the house its parked at. It’s actually a clever way for the killer to target his main victims out of some sort of revenge, giving him a reason to do his thing in the last half of the film. It also separates Nikos from The Shape, giving him a more human reaction to wanting to hurt people he feels done him wrong in some way. There’s also a disabled character in the film, strapped to a bed due to some spinal accident. You start to wonder why this girl is in the film, other to give the audience the fear that the killer will target a helpless victim. But this character ends up being a big part of the final act, helping create a very memorable last image that probably helped put ABSURD on the Video Nasty list. There are also unintentionally funny moments that involve a group of grown up wearing fancy suits watching the Super Bowl on television while eating pasta and drinking champagne. ABSURD tries so hard to make the audience believe that this is all taking place in Midtown, U.S.A. that it ends up being really funny watching these people watch American football in a way Americans don’t. I also never realized that football games took place in slow motion either. I guess it’s the Italian television frequencies. 

I will say that ABSURD improves upon ANTHROPOPHAGOUS when it comes to its storytelling. While the mystery isn’t as strong, at least things constantly happen in ABSURD that won’t bore the hell out of you. The murders are more frequent, even if they are pretty standard in terms of slasher films. The characters are a bit more fleshed out, playing up to their horror archetypes pretty well, because they’re given more to do here. I will say that the Priest and the Police Officers should have been in the film more, as they seemed to be forgotten for most of the middle portion of the film. And less of that damn annoying kid would have been great [he’s part of the reason horror fans dislike children in horror films most of the time]. Other than that, things just flow a whole lot better in ABSURD that I appreciated the different pace compared to the previous film. I’ve seen some bad rip-offs and this is one of the better ones because its heart is in the right place.

Speaking of pacing, Joe D’Amato definitely improved on giving his audience some more action and less talking compared to ANTHROPOPHAGOUS. The film feels shorter than its 96 minute run-time and the death sequences are actually placed within the story well and frequently. I will say that D’Amato doesn’t bring enough tension, suspense, or scares in ABSURD that HALLOWEEN and other slashers have in spades. There are certain moments that could have had more atmosphere and a certain tone to make them stand out more. I will say that the final act is actually well directed, with genuine moments of tension involving the killer and that annoying brat that led to bad things happening to characters around them. I especially liked one particular shot where the kid is looking out of a window, not realizing the killer is hiding in a corner looking right at him from behind. And there are other moments where the framing helps create some decent jump scares as Nikos pops out of nowhere to spring upon his victims. There’s nothing special about the look or style of ABSURD and I actually think ANTHROPOPHAGOUS is a more interesting film visually and atmospherically. But the direction is simpler here and follows a slasher template that I can respect somewhat.

As for the gore, it’s not as visceral or disturbing as the ones in ANTHROPOPHAGOUS. But I can easily understand why censors placed this one on the Video Nasty list. Nikos has a lot of fun murdering his victims in different ways to entertain himself and the audience watching. A certain nurse gets drilled from one side of her skull through the other. We get a drill saw slicing a head in half. There’s also an axe through the skull. We also have a death involving a head being forced inside an oven, scalding the person’s skin. And probably the most infamous moment of the film involves a decapitated head via an axe. Nothing here tops any of the effects that were in ANTHROPOPHAGOUS, but these moments more than work in a slasher film format and I’m sure will add to the watchability for many horror fans.

The acting is more than competent. George Eastman is very good as Nikos the killer, using his crazy looking eyes and massive height to intimidate the other characters and some of the audience as well. His look isn’t as memorable as it is in ANTHROPOPHAGOUS, but his presence is just as strong. Edmund Purdom, English actor best known to horror fans for his roles in both 1982’s PIECES and 1984’s DON’T OPEN TILL CHRISTMAS, does as much as he can with the role as the Priest chasing after Nikos. While he can’t deliver lines as powerfully as Donald Pleasance, he does manage to bring some gravitas to an otherwise silly film whenever he appears. I wish he had been in the film more to create more of a dynamic with Eastman though. The other actors are fine, like Annie Belle and especially Katya Berger - both providing memorable moments in the last part of the film. There’s also a small role for future Italian horror director Michele Soavi as an unfortunate biker. Joe D’Amato would later return the favor by producing Soavi’s first directorial film, 1987’s STAGEFRIGHT. The only actor I didn’t care for was Kasimir Berger as Willy, the annoying little kid. I don’t know if it was the dubbing or just the acting in general, but I kept hoping this child would make an exit sooner than later. No wonder his father in the film was hitting and running down people on the road.

While not as notorious and as memorable as 1980’s ANTHROPOPHAGOUS, 1981’s Joe D’Amato & George Eastman follow-up ABSURD is my preference of the two films. Obviously inspired by John Carpenter’s HALLOWEEN, with the film following many of the same beats, ABSURD has a lot more going on narrative wise than the previous D’Amato and Eastman collaboration. The direction is quicker paced, with some unintentionally funny moments where this Italian film tries to pass off as American. The acting is pretty solid, especially by slasher killer Eastman and Edmund Purdom as the Dr. Loomis character in priest form. The gore isn’t as strong as it is in ANTHROPOPHAGOUS, but slasher film fans will get a kick out of drills, axes, and other sharp objects taking out helpless victims. However, there’s a lack of atmosphere, tension and suspense besides the final act, as well as an annoying child character that’ll make you pull your hair out. If you want to see D’Amato and Eastman’s version of a slasher classic, ABSURD isn’t a bad film to check out if you crave an Italian Boogeyman fix.

3 Howls Outta 4


Anthropophagous (1980)

Joe D’Amato

Tisa Farrow - Julie
George Eastman - Klaus
Saverio Vallone - Andy
Serena Grandi - Maggie
Zora Kerova - Carol
Margaret Mazzantini - Henriette
Mark Bodin - Daniel
Bob Larson - Arnold
Rubina Rey - Ruth

Genre - Horror/Slasher/Thriller/Cannibalism

Running Time - 90 Minutes

PLOT (from IMDB)
A group of tourists become stranded on an uninhabited island where they are stalked by an insane, violent and grotesque killer (George Eastman) that slaughtered the town’s former residents.

When it comes to the term “Video Nasty”, one of the first films that will quickly come to mind for those familiar with Video Nasties is 1980’s Joe D’Amato’s cult classic, ANTHROPOPHAGOUS. The word anthropophagous [of Greek origin] refers to someone who enjoys eating human flesh, which pretty much sums up the killer in this somewhat-slasher film that’s really a piece of Eurotrash on film that will divide horror audiences according to their tastes. While certain scenes in the film truly earn its inclusion in UK’s Video Nasty list of the 1980s, its reputation probably make the film better than it actually is. ANTHROPOPHAGOUS definitely has its moments, but it is sure a drag to get to them unfortunately.

Let’s get the good stuff out of the way first. ANTHROPOPHAGOUS is known for its gory sequences of murder and cannibalism. If you are into that sort of thing, this film is right up your alley! While I wish the film had a lot more of this stuff [believe me, the film really needed it], what we do get is memorable enough for many horror fans to still discuss it almost 40 years later, whether they’ve seen the entire film or not. I could only imagine what the film censors in both the United Kingdom and United States thought of those very scenes at the time of its release. They must have freaked watching a grown man in grotesque make-up ripping a womb out of a pregnant woman just to take a bite out of it in front of the father of that said baby inside of the womb. While the scene could have been more graphic if D’Amato and writer-actor George Eastman had wanted it to, just the very thought of seeing just a taste of it is disturbing enough. We also get a scene later at the end where the killer is cut open, to which he pulls out his own intestines and munches on them in front of the film’s surviving protagonists. In fact, the scene is made more notorious for being the actual film’s poster art! The rest of the gore is pretty standard in terms of slasher films and Italian giallo films in general. You get the typical stabbings. One person hangs themselves. And we get some nice throat chewing that look pretty realistic at the time. There are a lot of sick visuals in the film that will turn off some that don’t appreciate Italian horror, but the gore is without a doubt the best part of ANTHROPOPHAGOUS.

The acting isn’t the worst either, but nothing that really stands out. That being said, I watched the U.S. dubbed version and the voices range from good to laughingly bad. But out of everyone, George Eastman as our killer is really great whenever he appears. Eastman has a great presence in ANTHROPOPHAGOUS, as he’s super tall, wears gross make-up, and provides this creepy stare with his eyes that sort of gives you chills. He only has a few lines during a flashback, but he’s just silent otherwise. I have a feeling Eastman was somewhat inspired by HALLOWEEN’s Michael Myers in just the way he walks, moves and his portrayal as a force rather than a person. It’s a shame the killer only has a major role in the film’s final act, because having him do more throughout the film would have made ANTHROPOPHAGOUS less of a chore to watch. The only other actor of note is Tisa Farrow [Mia’s sister who appeared in 1979’s ZOMBIE]. For a main star, she unfortunately doesn’t really do a whole lot that’s memorable. This is Eastman’s show all the way.

The music score is good or bad, depending on which version of the film you watch. The original Italian version has music that’s so off-putting, it takes away from the visuals. It either sounds like it should belong in a circus, or is so bland that it adds nothing positive to the film to make it a stronger viewing experience. The US dubbed version may steal cues from TV episodes and the awesome KINGDOM OF THE SPIDERS, but at least the musical score fits in better with what’s going on the screen. The stalk scenes has musical cues that bring some tension to them, while the quieter moments has a nice score that tries to elevate these pedestrian scenes. If you cherish sound design, the U.S. version is definitely the way to go.

The direction by Joe D’Amato will probably only be appreciated by those who are familiar with his work. He doesn’t have a very stylish eye, directing scenes pretty standardly and without much flash or pizazz that could elevate the film’s storytelling. But he does manage to add a lot of atmosphere with the beautiful Grecian location and the great use of using Italy-as-Greece as the backdrop. The stalk-and-kill scenes, some with first person point-of-view, create mystery, suspense, and tension. And the gore effects are shot really well, as D’Amato never really overdoes it and just gives us enough of a taste to be disturbed and grossed out by a man eating a womb or his own guts. The pacing could be a lot better, but that final act is directed as well as one would expect out of an Italian horror film of its time. It’s not his best work as a director, but the visuals aren’t what bring this film down for me.

That problem lies within the script, which has some great elements sprinkled throughout but never cohesively works well enough to be interesting. The film starts off with a creepy moment of a vacationing couple getting murdered by our unseen killer. But then the film grinds to a halt as we meet our main characters, who honestly aren’t all that interesting or likable enough of anyone to really give a damn about them. They end up just talking and walking around for about 50 minutes, complaining about curses, dealing with one-sided love triangles and spouting expository dialogue that you’ll forget by the time the film ends. It’s not until the characters meet a blind girl who can sense the killer via smell of blood that the film starts to pick up. If this was a 40 minute film, ANTHROPOPHAGOUS would be awesome from beginning to end. The final act alone is worth watching this film, as it feels like a mean-spirited slasher film that’ll keep you engaged. But the first two-thirds of the film will test audiences not used to watching these kind of horror films, or want something with quick-paced action. They’ll probably give up halfway into the movie. It’s a shame because more kills in the middle, or just some well-written dialogue and eventful moments throughout the film would have added a great deal here. Instead, most people who haven’t seen this film will probably just watch the best parts of YouTube and forget about the rest. When the most interesting character in your film is the killer and he’s barely even in the film, you got yourself a problem.

It’s easy to see why ANTHROPOPHAGOUS was listed as a “Video Nasty” almost four decades ago. The gore is pretty intense for the time, as watching a human being eat a womb out of a pregnant woman and then chew on his own intestines was probably more than some were ready to handle back in the day. It’s a shame the rest of the film is a mixed bag. While George Eastman’s performance as the killer is great and the final act is well directed by Joe D’Amato, it’s a struggle to get through the rest of the film with its slow, boring pace and forgettable characters who you won’t care whether they survive or not. ANTHROPOPHAGOUS is a film that ought to be better than it is due to its notoriety, but it’s kind of a chore to sit through for the most part. If you love Italian horror, early slasher films or films by Joe D’Amato, check it out if you haven’t already. If not, just find the bits of gore on YouTube to see what all the fuss is about.

2 Howls Outta 4


Scary Stories to Tell In the Dark (2019)

Andre Øvredal

Zoe Margaret Colletti - Stella Nicholls
Michael Garza - Ramon Morales
Gabriel Rush - Auggie Hilderbrandt
Austin Abrams - Tommy
Dean Norris - Roy Nicholls
Gil Bellows - Chef Turner
Lorraine Toussaint - Lou Lou
Austin Zajur - Chuck Steinberg
Natalie Ganzhorn - Ruth Steinberg

Genre - Horror/Fantasy

Running Time - 111 Minutes

PLOT (from IMDB)
The shadow of the Bellows family has loomed large in the small town of Mill Valley for generations. It’s in a mansion that young Sarah Bellows turns her tortured life and horrible secrets into a series of scary stories. These terrifying tales soon have a way of becoming all too real for a group of unsuspecting teens who stumble upon Sarah’s spooky home.

SCARY STORIES TO TELL IN THE DARK is based on a series of books that I was a huge fan of when I was younger. Each book had many different stories and urban legends play out in anthology form, told as almost campfire tales to creep one out. With the success of GOOSEBUMPS having been adapted to the big screen to critical and commercial acclaim, it was a no brainer that SCARY STORIES would get the film treatment. Produced by Guillermo del Toro and directed by Andre Øvredal [of TROLL HUNTER and THE AUTOPSY OF JANE DOE acclaim], the film had a lot of buzz going into its theatrical release. To be honest with you, I wasn’t all that impressed by the trailers for the film. Yet, I was still curious and knew I’d be supporting the project opening weekend. I’m glad I did because I really liked SCARY STORIES TO TELL IN THE DARK, even though I had issues with how the story was presented at times. 

Let’s get the positive things out of the way first. I think what I enjoyed most about SCARY STORIES TO TELL IN THE DARK is the film’s atmosphere. The film takes place in 1968 and it never forgets to remind you of that, which I appreciated. We get some great 60s music and pop culture elements of the time, like NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD at a drive-in and classic Universal Monsters being talked about and appreciated. There are also many news reels and discussions amongst characters about the 1968 Presidential Election, which Richard Nixon won despite a lot of these characters not liking the guy. This is obviously an allusion to our current political and social climate, with both Øvredal and del Toro pretty much saying that history has repeated itself - especially if you see how the one Latino character is treated by a police officer and certain members of the community is any example. The best thing is the film never hammers it to a point where its distracting like some other films would in this day and age, so that was much appreciated. And considering the film occurs on Halloween and a few days after, SCARY STORIES captures the Halloween and fall vibe really well. I also liked the haunted house elements added as well, capturing a level of innocence and naivety that probably doesn’t exist in a modern and cynical world. It was really well done.

I also thought the actors were very good, as well as the characters written for them. The highlights were Zoe Coletti as main character Stella, Michael Garza as new guy Ramon and both Gabriel Rush and Austin Zajur as comic reliefs Auggie and Chuck respectively. The young actors had great rapport with each other and I bought them as genuine friends who would natural come together to solve this mystery and save themselves. Could their characters have had more development? Sure. But the actors stood out and made the cliched characters their own for the most part.

And while the CGI effects weren’t the most realistic, I thought the monster designs were pretty spot on to their book counterparts. It was cool seeing some of the monsters in live-action, even though I wish there was more of them [I’ll get to that in a bit]. But when they do appear, the tension definitely spikes and some of the jump scares provided even works. I hadn’t read any of the books in a long time, but I definitely remembered whenever a creature would terrorize someone. I’m not sure if it will affect younger audiences the same way it did me, but nostalgia hit hard with this one.

And while the film is well made and well structured, I just feel like the whole “group of pop culture savvy kids solving mysteries together” trope is getting way played out at this point. And that’s where SCARY STORIES TO TELL IN THE DARK failed for me. It’s generic and predictable, with nothing new added that I haven’t seen in films like THE GOONIES, THE MONSTER SQUAD, both versions of IT and even Stranger Things on Netflix. Yes, this type of storytelling works immensely and provides a lot of fun for audiences to watch these characters grow into themselves and as a group of heroes saving the day from supernatural danger. But I felt the film focused too much on this aspect, only using the tales from the book as a plot device whenever a character needed to disappear for a while. The monsters and the stories themselves honestly should have been the main attraction here, possibly done in an anthology type flick that would have used these popular tales to their fullest potential. Hell, there’s so many of them that you could easily create a franchise. But instead, we get the monsters in the background to the human drama that isn’t all that interesting because it’s been done to death. I’m not saying that the screenplay is terribly written, because it’s far from that. In fact, I liked the whole FINAL DESTINATION element of the stories being used to target a certain character and use their fear against them. But the film is called SCARY STORIES TO TELL IN THE DARK and it doesn’t really live up to its title other than the antagonists being used. I enjoyed myself watching it all play out and never felt insulted by anything on screen. But I think it was a missed opportunity to really go all out with the use of its source material. I felt that the film played it a bit too safe.

SCARY STORIES TO TELL IN THE DARK is a film that will definitely appeal to children and adolescents who are starting to build their horror film watch history without frightening them too much or turning them off in any way. For diehard horror fans who grew up on the books and may be expecting a close enough adaptation might come away from it feeling something was lacking. It’s a fun movie, without a doubt, as it breezes by with a great Halloween and Autumn atmosphere, solid young actors who are very likable, and a very good live-action CGI showcase of some of the book’s supernatural characters. However, the human story was a bit generic, cliche and safe, while the source material was a bit underutilized. I felt there were a lot of missed opportunities in this film and I was expecting a bit more out of it. Still, SCARY STORIES is definitely worth your time if you’re familiar with the books the film is based on, or if you just enjoy PG-13 horror that does more right than wrong. 

3 Howls Outta 4


Lunar Cycle - July 2019

Since I don’t have as much time to write longer reviews than I used to, I figured I would just post shorter reviews for horror/cult films that I feel deserve your attention. Expect these Lunar Cycle posts once per month.

BROTHERHOOD OF THE WOLF (2001) - *** out of ****

Director: Christophe Gans

Starring: Samuel Le Bihan, Vincent Cassel, Emilie Dequenne, Monica Bellucci, Jeremie Renier, Mark Dacascos, Jean Yanne

Genre: Adventure/History/Action/Horror

Running Time: 137 Minutes

Plot: In 18th century France, the Chevalier de Fronsac (Samuel Le Bihan) and his native American friend Mani (Mark Dacascos) are sent by the King to the Gevaudan province to investigate the killings of hundreds by a mysterious beast.

Review: An ambitious hybrid of many different genres, BROTHERHOOD OF THE WOLF is a bi-polar film that shouldn't work - but somehow mostly does. While containing horror elements involving a beast that's terrorizing a province in France, the film is mainly a period piece action B-movie with as big of a budget as its long running time. The characters are all interesting, all looking like suspects or accessories to these animal attacks through a captivating detective arc that makes you question who or what the beast really is. It truly takes a turn by the end, as things are never what they seem to be.

The direction by Christophe Gans is extremely stylish, fitting in well with other action films of the 2000s. It's expertly shot, with beautiful pans and tilts to showcase the scenery and capture the Victorian setting of France. The cinematography pops, as the film is very colorful and beautiful. The action scenes are well choreographed, with a nice use of martial arts and swashbuckling that will keep on entertained. And the horror aspect is well used, as the stuff with the beast is pretty gruesome. And the fight scenes are bloody as well.

The acting is solid across the board. This is especially the case for male lead Samuel Le Behan (played a great hero), Vincent Cassel (playing a weirdo as usual), badass Mark Dacascos, and the beautiful Monica Bellucci who almost steals every scene she's a part of.

If I had any issues, the film is a big too long for its own good. It drags at certain parts and could take audiences out of the movie. I also thought the use of slow motion got grating. I usually don't have an issue with "bullet time", but a film as good as this didn't need an overabundance of it. The beast's CGI isn't the most convincing either. And what was up with the love story that doesn't add much to the story at all? Meh.

But overall, BROTHERHOOD OF THE WOLF has to be respected for its ambition and mostly successful balance of multiple genres to tell a pretty enthralling story. If you can get over its obvious flaws, the film is a fun time and a mystery worth investing in.

MIDSOMMAR (2019) - ***1/2 out of ****

Director: Ari Aster

Starring: Florence Pugh, Jack Reynor, William Jackson Harper, Vilhelm Blomgren, Will Poulter

Genre: Horror/Mystery/Drama/Comedy

Running Time: 147 Minutes

Plot: A young couple (Florence Pugh & Jack Reynor) and their friends travel to Sweden to visit a friend’s rural hometown and attend its mid-summer festival. What begins as an idyllic retreat quickly descends into an increasingly violent and bizarre competition at the hands of a pagan cult.

Review: Ari Aster’s second feature film within the last two years, MIDSOMMAR is another horror film that will divide the community like last year’s HEREDITARY [also by Aster] did. On the surface, the film is obviously inspired by folk horror - more specifically THE WICKER MAN - where a group of mostly ignorant Americans go to a foreign country and end up being part of a sinister celebration that not all of them will survive. Even when bad things happen in front of them, they’re so wrapped up in themselves that they fail to see why they’re really there and what’s really going on around them. It’s a trope that we’ve seen used many times in horror films, yet it still works really well in MIDSOMMAR. It increases the suspense, tension and sometimes unintentional humor as we wait for these characters to be “part of the celebration” in Sweden, knowing it’s going to be weird, disturbing and all-around captivating.

If you look deeper into MIDSOMMAR though, the film is really a story about loss, grief, and finding true happiness by cutting ties with those who either hold you down or don’t seem to care to comfort during one’s time of need. The story centers around Dani and Christian - a long-term young couple who have been together for four years [a fact that Christian doesn’t even remember] out of convenience rather than because they genuinely want to be boyfriend and girlfriend. Dani comes off as needy and a bit erratic at times, something that seems to push Christian away and make his friends dislike her. But Dani genuinely has bad things happening in her life and just wants to be loved and comforted by her boyfriend, who seems to do that out of guilt and fear rather than genuine concern. As they go on their trip and things happen along the way [I won’t spoil anything major], their relationship starts to fall apart to the point where one of them realizes that the only way to feel happy again is by cutting ties. While I felt that the family tragedies that occur in HEREDITARY hit me harder on a personal level, the relationship angle works well as we sort of see both Dani’s and Christian’s reasonings for wanting to stay together and understanding why it’s just making them bitter, angry and miserable in the long run. Obviously, you’ll feel more sympathetic towards one party over the other by the end of the film, but I liked how real the relationship felt and sort of understood where all the characters stood with it, even if most of them ended up being jerks for the most part. By the resolution, you feel sort of relieved their misery is over - even if the way it occurs isn’t the cleanest.

The direction by Aster is an improvement over HEREDITARY however, as MIDSOMMAR is a gorgeous looking movie with great angle shots, amazing looking scenery and a surprisingly great pace for such a long film. The first hour is a slow burn set up for the rest of the craziness that occurs later, but I never once felt bored or that the film dragged. That’s the testament to a well made movie that knows exactly what it wants to tell and how to execute it. And the gore and deaths in the film are pretty shocking and at times disturbing. There’s one scene involving lungs that made my eyes go wide. Just incredible stuff.

The acting is also solid, particularly by lead Florence Pugh. She was a highlight earlier in the year in the wrestling themed FIGHTING WITH MY FAMILY and continues to wow. I felt her anguish. I felt her confusion. I felt her fear. And I also understood her when her story arc came to an end. Pugh pulled it off convincingly and look forward to seeing her in more roles. I thought Jack Reynor was great as Christian, playing a boyfriend who was torn between being there for his girlfriend and just wanting to move on from a situation that was just bringing him down. Will Poulter was solid as the comic relief. And I thought the Swedish actors all played their roles perfectly mysterious. 

Overall, MIDSOMMAR is a bizarre film that’s definitely not for everyone. It’s a slow burn thriller that may feel pretentious to some due to its artsy storytelling and visual presentation. But if you really sit back and realize what the film is really about beyond the scary cult stuff, you’ll enjoy the ride as you watch relationships fall apart while others start being formed in the most disturbing of ways. MIDSOMMAR isn’t a film I could see myself watching a whole lot in my lifetime, but I’m glad I did because it was definitely a two-hour-plus experience that will sit with me for a while.

By the way, I’m crossing a trip to Sweden off of my bucket list. The meatballs aren’t that good.

2020 TEXAS GLADIATORS (1983) - ** out of ****

Director: Joe D’Amato

Starring: Al Cliver, Harrison Mueller Jr., Daniel Stephen, Peter Hooten, Haruhiko Yamanouchi, Sabrina Siani, Isabella Rocchietta, Geretta Geretta, Donald O’Brien

Genre: Action/Science Fiction/Dystopian Futures

Running Time: 91 Minutes

Plot: In a post-apocalyptic Texas, a band of warriors fight against a fascist regime that is trying to control of all surviving population.

Review: One of many Italian rip-offs of popular films, 2020 TEXAS GLADIATORS is a mixed bag of a film that wants to be as cool as the films it was inspired by, but only made me want to watch each of those films instead. Co-written by George Eastman [of ANTROPOPHAGUS fame] and directed by cult filmmaker Joe D’Amato, 2020 TEXAS GLADIATORS wants to be the Italian hybrid of THE ROAD WARRIOR and ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK, but never coming close to matching the quality of either one. Add in a Russian Roulette scene obviously inspired by THE DEER HUNTER and you have a film that wants to be a lot of things all at once.

Unfortunately, putting ideas from random films together in one movie doesn’t mean you’ll have a good story. The characters are pretty much cardboard and don’t have much depth besides “good” and “evil” and the premise is your standard “overthrow the oppressors” type of plot. The dialogue is pretty hilarious and most of the characters seem like caricatures rather than actual people.

However, the film does have memorable moments going for it. D’Amato and Eastman did manage to add in some wacky stuff like nuns getting raped and priests getting crucified in the first five minutes of the film [our heroes actually watch and let this happen before stepping in, which is…something]. We also have a lot of motorcycle and horse riding action involving lots of arrows, guns, fire, hatchets, and other different weapons to give the film some energy. We even have a disturbing moment of guy-on-guy rape, as well as the Russian Roulette scene I previously mentioned. Some will get a kick out of the exploitation vibe of the film, even if these scenes are for shock value rather than to move the story forward.

D’Amato shoots 2020 TEXAS GLADIATORS almost as a Western of sorts, trying to pass off Italy for a dystopian Texas. I’m guessing the educational system goes to crap a year from now, since explosives is spelled “EXSPLOSIVES” at one point. The film isn’t all that stylish, but it does manage to maintain a decent flow and use its setting for all that it’s worth. I particularly keep going back to the Russian Roulette scene since it was shot very well and took place in a saloon type place, building tension and shooting nice fight choreography that Western fans would be able to appreciate. D’Amato did admit that Eastman directed the dialogue heavy scenes, which I felt were the weakest of the film. The silly action and over-the-top shock moments were the things that kept my attention. D’Amato has directed better work than 2020 TEXAS GLADIATORS, but at least you can tell he’s trying to make a decent film for an American audience.

It’s hard to judge the acting because I watched the cheesy dubbed version. But I’ll probably anything Al Cliver is in because that dude is likable as hell. The actors also handled the action stuff very well and seemed to be having fun making the movie.

Overall, 2020 TEXAS GLADIATORS is not my favorite post-apocalyptic cheesefest. 1990: THE BRONX WARRIORS and THE NEW BARBARIANS are more my cup of tea. But what 2020 TEXAS GLADIATORS lacks in an interesting story or characters make up for it in memorable moments that will make you so shocked you’ll want to see what’s next. You’re better off watching the films this movie ripped off, but it’s a decent Joe D’Amato film that deserves your attention if you’re fan of the man’s work.

LIFE (2017) - **1/2 out of ****

Director: Daniel Espinosa

Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Rebecca Ferguson, Ryan Reynolds, Hiroyuki Nguyen, Ariyon Bukare, Olga Dihovichnaya

Genre: Science Fiction/Horror/Thriller

Running Time: 103 Minutes

Plot: The six-member crew of the International Space Station is tasked with studying a sample from Mars that may be the first proof of extra-terrestrial life, which proves more intelligent than ever expected.

Review: Part ALIEN, part GRAVITY with a sprinkle of THE THING
and 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, 2017’s sci-fi/horror flick LIFE tries to be as good as any of those films, but not surprisingly coming up short in every instance. LIFE’s downfall is really its screenplay, as it’s commendable for trying to take the best parts of previous sci-fi/horror films and placing them together like a puzzle to create a watchable film. But on the negative side, it also sacrifices character development, as we barely know anything about these characters - at least enough to care whether they live or die. Say what you want about previous B-movie schlock like GALAXY OF TERROR or INSEMINOID. But at least those films had likable characters with personality, making us latch on to them while knowing they’ll most likely be victims to the film’s alien villain. The only character in the film that has a sense of urgency or fun is Rory, but that’s because Ryan Reynolds is given a character close to his real-life persona, instantly making us like him. As an international cast of characters, they all seem to have interesting backstories and depth dying to come out. But the film would rather focus on the alien terror haunting them, making them nothing but fodder. That’s fine when you’ve given the audience one or two people to at least gain our sympathy. Plus, most of them do really stupid things that end up getting themselves and others killed. Some say it’s human nature, but I say it’s just bad writing. It’s a shame too because you have a great cast, especially in Reynolds, Jake Gyllenhaal and Rebecca Ferguson, and the script really gives them nothing to do other than play stereotypes we’ve seen done better.

Not all of LIFE is negative though. The film does look absolutely stunning, with beautiful cinematography and a great use of special effects that make you believe we are watching people in space. Daniel Espinosa maintains a decent flow, never making the 103 minute run time feel like it drags. And while the alien creation isn’t the most novel, the CGI for it as it evolves into something deadlier is done nicely and probably would have been made more memorable had LIFE been a better film. I also thought Espinosa managed to build some decent tension and suspense at times, slowly building to the moments where the alien [called Calvin] stalks its prey and feeds on the astronauts. I also appreciated the nihilistic ending, obviously to set up a potential sequel [that probably won’t happen], but it leaves the audience with a sense of dread and shake-your-head syndrome at what’s obviously to happen in the aftermath. And while the actors didn’t have great material to work with, I thought they did enough of a fine job to keep me engaged in what was going on. I felt Gyllenhaal was the strongest actor, as that dude is great in anything he’s in. Reynolds played himself, which is more than fine. Ferguson was a bit bland at times, but she got better as the film went on.

Overall, LIFE is a clone of much better films spliced together. The screenplay is its weakest part, which is a big chunk of the overall enjoyment of this movie. But the acting is solid for the material given, the visual presentation is stunning with some nice CGI, and it has some tense horror moments that more people probably would have talked about if the film was better in its execution. It’s a decent B-movie with an A-list production. Worth your time, at least once, if you like sci-fi/horror in space films.

ANNIHILATION (2018) - *** out of ****

Director: Alex Garland

Starring: Natalie Portman, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Gina Rodriguez, Tessa Thompson, Tuva Novotny, Oscar Isaac, Benedict Wong

Genre: Science Fiction/Horror

Running Time: 115 Minutes

Plot: A biologist (Natalie Portman) signs up for a dangerous, secret expedition into a mysterious zone where the laws of nature don’t apply.

Review: Alex Garland’s second directorial feature, ANNIHILATION, is a divisive film that audiences will either embrace for its intelligence or dismiss for its pretentiousness. I, personally, liked ANNIHILATION for the most part for its ambition to convey the many underlying messages the film wants to express. But compared to Garland’s first feature, 2014’s EX MACHINA, ANNIHILATION requires more patience and thought to really get what’s going on. And even when you get answers, new questions pop up. It’s that kind of film and it’s definitely not for everyone.

I won’t spoil the story, as it’s better to go into it not knowing much since everyone will get something different out of it. But ANNIHILATION is based on a novel by Jeff VanderMeer, where a group of female scientists enter this temporal and chemical flux dubbed “The Shimmer” - a place where all cells and DNA become refracted enough to change the living things that enter it. The film plays homage to other science fiction films, like 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, THE PREDATOR and THE THING along the way, leading towards an ending that I’m still trying to wrap my head around. The characters all have sad backstories that influence their behaviors throughout the film, making them feel somewhat human even if they aren’t completely fleshed out. And the events that take place within the Shimmer are pretty memorable if you’re willing to get through a slow burn first half. It’s a film that will make you think about what you just watched once it’s over. Whether that’s a good or bad thing depends on the viewer.

The direction, though, is spectacularly done in ANNIHILATION. Garland and cinematographer Rob Hardy [same team as EX MACHINA] really capture a beautiful movie with vivid colors and interesting shots of things that occur within the Shimmer. The special effects are more good than bad. Simple things, like plants growing into the shape of human beings, are quite lovely. Then you have some things in the final act which looked kind of video gamey and stood out not in a good way. And while people have claimed ANNIHILATION is a sci-fi and horror film, the horror aspect doesn’t have much of a focus here. Yet, there are moments involving this bear that I won’t give away. The film becomes a bit gory and tense during these scenes, giving us nice action that nicely breaks into the more dramatic moments. I think the simple work in EX MACHINA worked better for Garland and Hardy, but I admire their ambition for trying to stretch the limits of their imagination and capture what the novel was probably trying to express through words.

The acting is also very good. I thought all the ladies provided something different within the story. Natalie Portman continues very good acting work in a film that gives her a lot to do and play around with. Gina Rodriguez was very strong in her role as the sassy scientist whose attitude changed quite quickly within the Shimmer. It’s always great to see Jennifer Jason Leigh in anything. Tessa Thompson and Tuva Novotny don’t get to do much, but are fine. And while a shorter than expected role. Oscar Isaac sure made it memorable. Solid cast in my opinion.

Overall, ANNIHILATION isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but I liked it for the most part. The film didn’t wow me like EX MACHINA did, but I hardly call this a sophomore slump. It has interesting ideas that get answered while asking new questions about them. The direction and cinematography are spectacular. And the acting is more than solid here. A lot of people put ANNIHILATION in their Top 10 Best lists for 2018 and I’m not quite sure it would have made mine. But I can see why people would as it’s an interesting film that has something to say. If you’re into slow burn sophisticated science fiction “horror”, then this is the film for you.

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