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.
Annabelle Wallis - Madison Lake-Mitchell
Maddie Hasson - Sydney Lake
George Young - Det. Kekoa Shaw
Michole Briana White - Det. Regina Moss
Genre - Horror/Slasher/Supernatural
Running Time - 111 Minutes
SCORE - 3.5 Howls Outta 4 (9 out of 10)
Madison (Annabelle Wallis) is paralyzed by shocking visions of grisly murders, and her torment worsens as she discovers that these waking dreams are in fact terrifying realities.
James Wan’s newest horror film premiered in theaters and HBO Max earlier this month, and I sat on this review for like a week because how do you really talk about a film like MALIGNANT without spoiling it for those who haven’t watched [which seems like many of you]? This film is so bonkers with many twists and turns, it’s tough to figure out how to go about it without revealing anything that would increase enjoyment if you go in blind. MALIGNANT is one of those films where the marketing didn’t reveal enough honestly, leading many to be indifferent to it and pretty much ruining any sort of box office success. I thought I was getting a certain type of movie going in, not realizing how wrong I was once the end credits rolled.
Since I won’t go into the story since I’d probably reveal too much, I’ll just say that James Wan was obviously inspired by campy horror films from the late 1970s and early 1980s - which made me enjoy MALIGNANT even more than I had anticipated. You remember 1978’s cult classic THE MANITOU? You’ll probably want to check it out after watching this. You like films by Frank Henenlotter? So does James Wan. You’ve been missing body horror like those David Cronenberg movies? You’ll get that here also. Let’s not forget the Mario Bava and Dario Argento influences both visually and musically. Wan mixes all these elements into one crazy movie that really could have gone off the rails narrative wise. And while the film does have plot holes and characters follow certain horror tropes to figure out what’s really going on, I think the story is kept together better than it ought to be, just building and building to a crazy final act that most mainstream directors wouldn’t bother trying, knowing the risks that comes with it.
The characters, without spoiling things, are well written archetypes that you can connect with. You sympathize with Madison’s haunted state, terrified by a past foe who may be targeting her as some sort of revenge. You grow to like Madison’s sister Sydney, who is there for her troubled older sister no matter what, even when things go really badly for Madison. The two detectives, Kekoa and Regina, bring nice levity to the story. Kekoa is the younger, more understanding detective who doesn’t think what’s going on is so black or white. Regina, however, is the female version of Murtaugh who probably believes she’s too old for this shit. And then there’s Gabriel. The less you know about the film’s villain, the better. He’s creepy, smart and brutal - I’m sure he’ll become a cult horror favorite for years to come once the appreciation for MALIGNANT grows.
James Wan’s direction is that of a filmmaker who was dying to make something really crazy after years of creating more mainstream and favorable-to-studio movies since 2003’s SAW. Considering the success he has brought to Warner Bros. as both a director and producer, it was probably freeing knowing he could make a weird ass movie without worrying about job security anytime soon. And Wan does not hold back with MALIGNANT, risking the balance between the fantastical and reality a lot of the time. And while he almost loses that balance more than once, as the suspension of disbelief almost gets stretched too thin, Wan still manages to create a tense filled, fun film that you won’t forget any time soon.
Wan presents a ton of atmosphere, as well as visual style that feels like a homage to Italian horror cinema at times with the flooding of strong colors and wild overhead shots that you don’t see too often in movies anymore. There’s also a bit of a Sam Raimi kinetic shot that I appreciated. MALIGNANT is also brutal and does not shy away from violence or gore. This is Wan’s bloodiest film in a very long time, showing people getting mutilated or murdered in vicious ways. A police station scene in the final act is one of the visual brutal sequences I’ve seen Wan direct, but it’s handled with a lot of cool style and flourish that even haters of this film will probably appreciate. And the special effects are both creepy and bizarre, showing Wan’s imagination going wild without any studio strings attached. Definitely one of Wan’s best works as a director because I would have never believed he could present something like MALIGNANT.
The actors are also very good, considering MALIGNANT a bigger budget B-movie at heart. Annabelle Wallis carries this film extremely well, playing a very challenging role that could have flopped in the wrong hands. Wallis is gung ho for everything, as she probably had a blast playing a woman both confused and angry over the mysteries that have haunted her life. Wallis never plays her role as a cartoon, but treats Madison as a real person dealing with some supernatural stuff. I also enjoyed Maddie Hasson as Sydney, coming across as super likable and smart throughout. George Young and Michole Briana White nicely give two different perspectives as the lead detectives, creating conflict and a bit of comic relief as they live through all the bizarre things that happen in the film.
Overall, MALIGNANT wasn’t one of my most anticipated films of 2021, despite being a fan of James Wan. But man, this film surprised the hell out of me with its ambition, imagination, and bizarre storytelling that was inspired by many great horror films of the past. It’s a supernatural movie. It’s a giallo movie. It’s a body horror movie. It’s a modern Grindhouse flick. It’s James Wan unleashed and he takes you for a ride that you’ll either love or hate. Personally, I had a blast with the twists, turns and just the craziness of the story. Wan’s stylish direction created atmosphere, tension and just great looking set pieces that were added by brutal violence and gore. The actors were all game for Wan’s vision, portraying likable characters and a memorable villain that anyone can be engaged by. It’s a weird, non-mainstream horror film that would have gained a cult audience 40 years ago. And I couldn’t be happier that it exists. MALIGNANT surprised me by being one of my favorite movies of the year. I hope those who didn’t like it as much as I do will eventually embrace it. And I hope more people are willing to give it a chance because we definitely need more horror films that refuse to play it safe.
HARD TO DIE (1990)
Robyn Harris - Linda Dawn Grant
Lindsay Taylor - Diana
Debra Dare - Jackie Cassidy
Melissa Moore - Jessica ‘Tess’
Bridget Carney - Candy Shayne
Karen Chorak - Sergeant Phyllis Shawlee
Jurgen Baum - Lieutenant Mike Block
Peter Spellos - Orville Ketchum
Genre - Horror/Action/Slasher/Supernatural/Demons
Running Time - 77 Minutes
SCORE - 3 Howls Outta 4 (7 out of 10)
While doing the inventory for a lingerie outlet in a high rise office building, five attractive women (Robyn Harris, Lindsay Taylor, Debra Dare, Melissa Moore and Bridge Carney) are terrorized by a series of bizarre killings. They suspect that the strange janitor (Peter Spellos), who witnessed another series of killings years back, is at the bottom of the whole thing. Little do they know the real horror that they face in the end.
Also known as TOWER OF TERROR or SORORITY HOUSE MASSACRE III, 1990’s HARD TO DIE is pretty much a remake of Jim Wynorski’s [who also directed this film] SORORITY HOUSE MASSACRE II from the same year. But while this film features a similar storyline and many of the familiar actresses from the previous film, HARD TO DIE takes place in a skyscraper - which the marketing team used to its advantage to make the film sound similar to the extremely popular 1988 film DIE HARD. And really that’s the only thing the film has in common with the Bruce Willis action film, unless you count a final act where machine guns steal the show. HARD TO DIE also isn’t a critical darling at all, but it’s awfulness makes the viewing experience super entertaining.
There isn’t much of a story to dissect here. A bunch of hot women in lingerie are doing inventory in a high rise building, unknowingly release a demon from a mysterious package sent to the building and must fend off this demon while a janitor is also trying to kill them, thinking the girls are all possessed. If you’re expecting character development beyond the characters’ archetypes, this film isn’t for you. If you’re expecting why this demon popped in all of a sudden to possess people and murder people with a machine gun, this film isn’t for you. If you’re expecting a good horror movie mixed with hot girl action, this film isn’t for you.
But despite the dumb script, silly narrative and storytelling that’s more focused on over-the-top action and a big focus on the girls’ bodies [especially in the shower], HARD TO DIE manages to be a really entertaining time unintentionally. It plays out exactly like a B-Movie should, with a massive amount of cheese, questionable acting and ridiculous action and horror that would amuse anyone who just wants to sit back with their friends while munching on popcorn and drinking soda or beer. HARD TO DIE doesn’t make a lick of sense most of the time and I’m perfectly fine with that because the film embraces it.
I think if there’s any real issue with HARD TO DIE, besides not being a “good” movie that many people will appreciate, it is the marketing. Look, I get it. DIE HARD was a huge hit in 1988 and who wouldn’t want to see a female version of that? I mean, look at that cover! They really wanted people to believe that whoever that woman is on the cover would be a female John McClane and blast her way through a high rise to save the people inside from someone or something dangerous. But besides the last ten to fifteen minutes of the film, no one is shooting any guns or even travelling much through the building. Even then, it’s less DIE HARD and more trying hard to convince you that the marketing was on the level. It’s pretty shameless, but what do you expect from a Jim Wynorski joint?
Speaking of Mr. Wynorski, he does what he does best - make silly B-movies with cheesy special effects and focuses on beautiful women showcasing their bodies either clothed or nude. I personally felt the second half of HARD TO DIE was stronger than the first, but the first half had some decent moments - especially the much needed flashback to 1982’s THE SLUMBER PARTY MASSACRE.
Anyway, Wynorski is a master of using small sets well, milking those locations to maintain that limited budget. And having all the actresses shower in their boss’ office [what a pervert] will definitely provide some nice eye candy that’ll make you forget there’s not much of a premise to this film. I thought the death scenes were alright, as most were done offscreen and through shadows on the wall. The gun action was actually well done and super entertaining, as the weapons seemed to have infinite bullets with no one bothering to reload. This sequence lasted almost ten minutes and just got more and more insane as it went, making me laugh more and more towards the end. And there’s this running gag with the janitor, who keeps getting brutally attacked by the female characters repeatedly in different ways. I actually found it amusing because it felt like slapstick in a way. I felt that Wynorski did his job here, which was to entertain using the lowest denominators possible.
I won’t even bother with the acting. All the actors involved are terrible, which only added to the entertainment value of the film. Some of the actresses even had weird accents, making me wonder where this film was taking place. They all seemed to be having fun though.
Overall, HARD TO DIE isn’t a good movie. Not even close. But it’s bad enough to be an entertaining one for all the wrong reasons. Pretty much a remake of SORORITY HOUSE MASSACRE II except that it’s in a high rise, it destroys all continuity by showing the audience flashbacks of 1982’s SLUMBER PARTY MASSACRE. But who needs continuity when your film has no real narrative, no character depth, cheesy special effects and nude women randomly showering just because? Honestly, HARD TO DIE is less like DIE HARD [which its marketing would lead you to believe] and more of an imperfectly hilarious B-movie that provides enough action, cheese and boobs to make you forget about life’s problems for 80 minutes. Hot women? Check. Silly special effects and murder sequences? Check. Jim Wynorski making a cameo in his own movie directing a softcore porn film? Check. A character getting attacked by the main characters every three minutes for some slapstick comedy? Check. Infinite ammo battle for ten straight minutes? Double check. This is the epitome of a popcorn and beer flick where you just want to enjoy the nonsense ride from beginning to end.
Greg Dawson - Josh Winter
Joseph Alan Johnson - Mike Stone
Rodney Montague - Larry Fishman
Valerie Sheldon - Kathy
Shannon Engemann - Kristi
Beth Toussaint - Shelly
Mike Riley - Berserker
John F. Goff - Officer Walt Hill
George "Buck" Flower - Pappy Nyquist
Genre - Horror/Slasher
Running Time - 85 Minutes
SCORE - 1 Howl Outta 4 (3/10)
Six young adults (Greg Dawson, Joseph Alan Johnson, Rodney Montague, Valerie Sheldon, Shannon Engemann and Beth Toussaint) in the woods run afoul of a berserker (Mike Riley), a viking warrior who dons the fur and snout of a bear, and are slain in turn by him.
1987’s BERSERKER is a slasher film I had never heard of until recently. But look at that premise - a freakin’ viking warrior [dressed like a bear] is killing people in the woods for whatever reason. Not only does it sound kind of original, but it also sounds pretty awesome. What could possibly go wrong??
WHAT THE F----???
A film that sounds cool on paper ends up being a huge disappointment. I was expecting a viking murdering people on his land. Instead, we get a bunch of annoying forty-somethings [claiming to be in their twenties] acting stupid and having long walks while a bear or a viking is hurting and killing them. Seriously, BERSERKER felt like a film someone sold based on the concept, not realizing they also had to execute it on film. I can’t believe an exciting concept could bore me for 85 minutes.
The story and characters are nothing worth writing home about. BERSERKER is your standard killer-in-the-woods slasher, with characters too focused on having fun that they ignore all sorts of warnings and pay no mind to the legendary story [and killer] that has made the location famous enough to be written about in books. You’re probably better off watching one of the EVIL DEAD films, MADMAN, or even CABIN IN THE WOODS if you like this type of horror. At least you’re getting something out of the whole thing, where in BERSERKER, I still feel like the film owes me the time it took to watch it from start to finish.
The characters aren’t great but at least they all feel kind of different from the other. Well, at least the male characters do. Josh, the ringleader of this whole trip, is a memorable jerk that makes one wonder how he even has friends to begin with. He has anger issues stemming from his father abandoning him, feeling as if going back to this familiar area will bring back better memories. Unfortunately, it does the opposite since he litters while drinking and driving, goes to the cabin from his childhood without permission from the owner, gets drunk and cockblocks his friends any time they want to make love. The man is the epitome of entitlement and is so unlikable that it’s disappointing he doesn’t succumb to a worse fate. Josh is the nice guy of the group, keeping everyone from fighting and tries to make sure the right thing is always going down. He’s also one of the few characters who seems to care about the others to the point that he quickly gets help when things go down. Larry is the token smart one who informs everyone about the area’s Viking legend and tries to get help when things go down as well. As for the female characters, they’re all interchangeable unfortunately. One of them gets naked, which makes her stand out. But other than that, I couldn’t tell them apart.
You also have the town sheriff, who is the Crazy Ralph of the film, by warning the characters to stay away. And then there’s Pappy, who runs the cabins on the property. He also seems leery of the characters for reasons we’ll soon find out about. Plus, there’s this older couple in the beginning of the film who seem sweet until they’re killed to set up the story. Not really much here in terms of characters to care about.
As for the Viking, I’m not sure what the deal with him is. While he looks kind of cool, I’m not sure if he’s the one killing everyone. I mean, there’s a random bear roaming around anytime the murders happen. Is it the Viking? Is it the bear? Is it the Viking, as the bear, killing everyone? I mean, the Viking and the bear end up battling each other in a cool, but short, moment. And were Vikings really living in Utah many centuries ago?? I’m just confused.
The direction by Jefferson Richard is nothing great. It’s not a stylish film and looks like your standard B-movie slasher flick of the late 1980s. I will say that the picture quality of BERSERKER is quite lovely though, with the remaster looking better than this film ought to. The film mainly takes place at night and it looks pretty damn good. The use of fog and the woods setting does give the film a bit of atmosphere, even if the apparent attempt at suspense and tension is non-existent. The death scenes are pretty lame though, as they’re edited to hide how cheaply they’re being presented. And for a lot of the film, the characters are just bantering and/or walking around the woods looking for others. The pacing and editing is all over the place here. If it wasn’t for how nice this movie looks, there would be nothing to discuss here visually.
The acting is also just there. I guess of the standouts, Joseph Alan Johnson is memorable as the a-hole Josh. He gets the best lines and gets the most to do in terms of emotional beats. He’s also the best actor in terms of the “younger” actors, as he has horror experience from 1982’s SLUMBER PARTY MASSACRE and later on in 1988’s ICED [which he also wrote!]. And even though his Scandinavian accent was... interesting, it’s always great to see George “Buck” Flower in any movie. He has an unintentionally funny moment at the end.
And while I wouldn’t recommend this film as a whole, BERSERKER does have one of the greatest scenes in 80s slasher history with its “Cool Dude” montage. It’s one of the most amusing and homoerotic moments in 80s horror that has to be seen to be appreciated. This montage is worth half-a-howl alone.