Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Truth or Dare

Truth or Dare 

Truth or Dare is about six friends known as the Truth or Daredevils who achieve internet stardom by posting “Truth or Dare” YouTube videos with violent twists. But when their number one fan hijacks a show and decides to play by his own rules, the fun and games come to an end as secrets are revealed and a lot of blood is spilled. A LOT of blood.
The film largely takes place in a single room and I quickly noticed the wonderful mix of dark and bright color palettes on the walls. I found this to be a nice emphasis of the coexistence of good and evil happening inside the room with the presumably innocent 6 friends taken hostage by a deranged fan named Derik, energetically played by Ryan Kiser. The contrasting colors also echo the same sentiment that exists in the minds of men: the blurring of secrets and truths that we all carry within us. The hiding of secrets is demonstrated in full on cringe inducing, hard to watch, gory fashion as Truth or Dare unfolds and the 6 friends are opened up (in more ways than one) for everyone to see.
The performances are solid all around as the actors have to portray endless expressions of disbelief and excruciating pain. Ryan Kiser puts on a show that sometimes teeters on the brink of being over the top but he has just enough vulnerability on display to reel him in and he is overall very effective in the role. Heather Dorff is the standout amongst the YouTube group as she withers in pain and expertly displays pure raw emotion in her eyes to match the expressions on her face.
The film makes a strong statement about what's accepted as reality on the internet. Director Jessica Cameron puts the themes of Truth or Dare on full, gory display as she dismantles common beliefs and ideas and turns them inside out. The unknown lives that are discovered amongst the group of friends who thought they knew each other combined with Derik's thinking the carnage is all part of the game says that perception is not reality but, instead, reality is perception. The film says reality is decided by the individual and how they choose to see it. And when reality has several different interpretations, you're left with a fucked up mess that exists outside the realm of known reality. And this is where the more over the top sequences in the film are forgiven, because they lay outside of a known reality; a place created by the fragility of the human mind, it's instinct to protect itself, and it's dangerous ability to escalate chaos.
That may seem a little deep for a gory film about a bunch of YouTubers, but the script is very smart and Cameron's direction shows that an unthinkable situation requires unthinkable acts to happen within it. Even Kiser's Derik character exclaims, “I didn't think that would work!” or acts surprised by a few of the gory things that happen because of his doing. It's not the reality any of them are used to. When all the truths have been told and all the lies exposed, the mind goes to an unknown and dark place, escalating the chaos as it tries to protect itself. And that's Truth or Dare: an experiment in escalating chaos.

Bravo, Jessica Cameron.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Parasites

Parasites

Parasites is about a group of 3 friends who take a wrong turn in a seedy section of Los Angeles and encounter an angry and violent gang of homeless vagrants. It becomes a bloody and gritty fight for survival as one of the friends escapes and attempts to outrun the roving gang and their leader.
Parasites starts out strong and strikes a familiar chord as it feels like a cross between Wrong Turn and Escape From New York, minus the hillbillies and futuristic world and swapping the backwoods for the concrete jungle. The filmmakers did an excellent job of making the worst parts of a modern city look like a lawless nightmare and backing it with a Carpenter-esque score that gave it an extra flare of credibility with this horror fan.
The violent, rag tag group of filthy street dwellers with chains and shovels and rusty knives for weapons are dressed in shoddy clothing and have a group-think mentality like a group of blood thirsty zombies. They have their lifestyle and their inner group rankings and seek out the escaped trespasser with a crazed dedication. It's a well realized vision for the group that injects extra grit and fear into the story.
Robert Miano as Wilco, the leader of the gang, plays his role with the perfect mix of subtle craziness and unhinged anger. The character could have easily been cartoonish and laughable but Miano owns the role with an assured mad glint in his eye and complete believibility.
Sean Samuels is also very strong in his role as Marshall Colter, the lone friend on the run from the homeless gang. Some interesting and unique characters pop up throughout the film, most notably is Silvia Spross as Mona, a prostitute living on the streets.
The film is visually impressive and we'll acted with an intriguing yet simple set up. The biggest issue with Parasites is that it didn't have enough going on to make it exciting or to hold my attention thoroughly throughout the film. There's a lot of running and chasing and wandering as music plays that serves as the bulk of the action, but it's just not very compelling. It feels like a short film puffed up and filled out to feature length. And I'm not saying Parasites is a bad film, there just isn't a lot of meat on the bone here.
And I just have to say, screenwriters have got to come up with something better than, "I have no signal" when addressing why a character can't just call for help with their cell phone. In the middle of the mountains or woods? Ok, I'll buy that. But when you're a few miles away from downtown Los Angeles it just doesn't fly.
Parasites is gritty and dirty and mean. It created a nightmare landscape that is hidden in the darkest parts of our big cities and the film shows a lot of promise for writer and director Chad Ferrin. I just wish it had more to it to justify its run time because although Parasites had some killer, it was mostly filler. 

The Blackburn Asylum

The Blackburn Asylum

The Blackburn Asylum (simply titled Blackburn in Canada) is about a group of five college friends who get caught between a rock and a hard place while on a camping trip when a rock slide and a fire close the road at separate places with the group caught in between.
The opening scene of The Blackburn Asylum immediately raises some red flags when a family enters an old, abandoned mine with a new born baby. Why did they enter the mine? To see where the father would be working and he was going to get some work done while they were there. Why anyone would bring a baby into such a dusty and dangerous environment was beyond my comprehension and had me almost turning off the film. It's a blatant plot device that obviously serves a purpose later in the film, but it's a tough pill to swallow.
As far as the cast goes, Emilie Ullerup is perfect as the self centered Chelsea and I was pleasantly surprised to find the banter among the friends in the beginning to be pretty realistic and natural sounding. And I'll always appreciate a good Single White Female reference. It's downhill from there as far as the characters are concerned.
"We're not hunters, we're college students." This pretty much sums up the bratty, privileged group in a nutshell as this line is delivered in a better than thou tone. It's almost embarrassing to watch them wander around the backwoods and abandoned mine engaging in soap opera like antics and constantly whining about their phones dying. These are not the happy go lucky super horny teens from the tried and true slasher formula a la Friday the 13th. No, this bunch is a group of spoiled know nothings who think they know everything because they're "college students". So seeing them suffer and die was actually a relief, and if that was the intention then mission accomplished. But damn was it difficult to sit through and watch these unlikable American Eagle draped brats. Having absolutely no one to root for certainly left The Blackburn Asylum void of any tension whatsoever.
Also, as a rule of thumb, if anyone in a group ever says, "we should split up," while in an abandoned mine, they should probably be forced to go out on their own while the rest of the group stays together.
The film does have it's redeeming qualities. For example, the set design is pretty damn good and expertly sets a dirty and dread filled tone with foggy landscapes, shadow filled mines, and cluttered, run down gas stations off a dark and desolate road. The crazed killers lurking in the shadows of the mine are effectively creepy, and when it's called for the filmmakers do not shy away from the red stuff.
Some of the circumstances that arise as the story unfolds are a bit hard to buy into, but The Blackburn Asylum definitely improves as it progresses. The last third of the film is nothing short of a living nightmare with some horrific happenings and much needed raised stakes for one of the characters. It's just a shame the first hour of the film is so forgettable.
The Blackburn Asylum is an overall bland but harmless film that is slightly redeemed by a fun, haunted house/hayride like atmosphere and some decent acting from Sarah Lind. If you like dirty inbred killers wreaking havoc on pretty people than The Blackburn Asylum is worth a watch. Just don't have hopes for anything more than a mediocre film at best. 

Monday, January 2, 2017

Beyond the Gates

Beyond the Gates

When two brothers reunite to clean out their father's video store several months after he goes missing, they discover a VCR board game called 'Beyond the Gates'. When the brothers decide to play it they discover a sinister host who may hold the key to their father's disappearance with potentially deadly consequences.
Beyond the Gates starts with a wonderful and loving opening sequence that shows the inner workings of VHS player technology while a time appropriate synth pop score plays over the credits. This detailed opening sets the tone for what's to come: a nostalgic tribute to a bygone era that plays as smooth as a brand new VHS tape. After the tracking adjusts, of course.
When John, (one of the brothers played by Chase Williamson), says of the video store in the beginning, “I don't remember this place feeling so big,” I found the line to be absolutely wonderful. People usually say the opposite as they grow older, that places from their childhood seem smaller. The line made me reflect on the magic that was the Video Store and how it felt being surrounded by seemingly endless movie titles. Standing among all those shelves and rows of video tapes must feel pretty daunting as compared to the digital browsing of titles we do today on our Smart TVs.
Graham Skipper and Chase Williamson as the two brothers are fantastic in this. The characters they play are very opposite of each other but there is enough in the writing and portrayals to see that they also have a lot in common. Skipper and Williamson have a great chemistry together and it was easy for me to believe that they had a history as brothers and had that family bond between them.
Barbara Crampton is simply stunning as the sinister host of the board game. I loved the scenes where she was waiting for the players of the game to follow her instructions; it's an eerie feeling of her watching them as opposed to the other way around and an early sign that something isn't quite right with this board game, Beyond the Gates. Crampton's unblinking gaze and measured, chilly vocals create a phenomenal character and she hands down steals the show. Her performance and ability coupled with Stephen Scarlata and director Jackson Stewart's script is yet more proof that the horror genre provides women with strong roles and interesting characters. I also need to mention that Brea Grant and Jesse Merlin also give great performances.
A surprising theme I noticed was the lost feeling that runs throughout Beyond the Gates, a sense of time passed. The lost era of VHS stores, the seemingly lost feeling in the lives of the brothers, the vanishing of the father, a case of sleepwalking, vintage/antique shops, and the snowy static of a TV screen with no analog signal. Even the deep and dark and steely eyes of Barbara Crampton made me feel lost as the viewer and brought me into the world of the film.
This sense of loss holds the entire film together and is a brilliant technique that raises the stakes and puts constant awareness and intrigue on the VCR game that shares the title of the film. As the characters play the game and the story unfolds, a parallel narrative is told and it is the idea that all is not lost and that you just have to listen to the clues and know where to look. With a brilliant script and spot on direction, Beyond the Gates is damn near perfect.
Roll the dice and play Beyond the Gates, it's a fun thriller filled with horror and adventure and it's one of my favorite films of the year.  

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Party Night

Party Night 

After deciding to ditch their after prom party, six high school friends find themselves prey to a sadistic killer when they have their own party at a secluded lake house in the woods.
Party Night doesn't set out to reinvent the slasher film or break new ground in a sub genre that has played by the rules it created for itself over 35 years ago. It instead is a loving tribute to all those teenage kill fests with a homicidal maniac on the loose that featured eye catching VHS art that we all couldn't stop glancing at during those trips to the video store as kids (or adults) back in the day. Writer and director Troy Escamilla demonstrates in Party Night that he is clearly well acquainted with these films.
First and foremost I have to give major recognition to the cast. All 6 of the high school friends have that all American boys and girls feel participating in an all American tradition: the high school prom. I loved watching this group onscreen, the chemistry between them was spot on and they all demonstrated impressive acting ability. Laurel Toupal as Amy and Drew Shotwell as Nelson are stand outs and have a real natural ability. But the real star is Laurel Toupal. Her performance is a remarkable mix of Jamie Lee Curtis and Amy Steel. She's simply incredible in this and is an absolute star in the making. Keep an eye on her.
There's a scene early on that shows the 3 girls walking down the street after school and it has a fantastic Halloween vibe to it. This scene is an example of how the rest of the film plays out as the group of 6 doomed high schoolers head to the lake house after prom. It's an entertaining and fun time that successfully captures the feel of those old “cheesy” slasher flicks, as one of the characters playfully refers to them.
There's lots of spilled blood and wonderfully done makeup effects by Heather Benson. Her effects and talent are on full display in Party Night and she does a fantastic job as all the kills look high quality and impressive. The picture looks timeless and slightly soft and faded to resemble the heyday of the slasher genre and the music is a wonderful fit for the youthful energy and carnage that mixes onscreen.
The one disappointment I had with the film was the look of the killer. I found the light jacket he wore to be a bit anticlimactic. The white and blue two tone of it seemed to be an odd choice and didn't quite mesh well with his actions. Perhaps it's a picky observation, but it's one that distracted me enough to mention it.
Kudos to first time writer and director Troy Escamilla for crafting a fun and bloody homage to the slasher flicks of the 1980's and assembling a great technical cast and group of actors. Party Night is good old fashioned horror fun and introduces fans to a number of new potential stars and filmmaker. Grab some beers at midnight and check out Party Night, it's a good time and a lot of fun. Just like those old cheesy VHS slasher flicks from the 80's.

The Monster

The Monster

The Monster tells the story about a mother and her young daughter who must confront a terrifying monster when they break down on a deserted road.
That's the basic set up for The Monster and it's incredible what an impactful and layered story comes out of that simple premise. The Monster is scary on multiple levels both human and unexplainable in nature. The story hinges on fear of things unknown and known and combines life and death in an emotionally startling way that puts the human condition front and center. All of this with a monster on the lose on a dark and stormy night.
The two lead actresses, Zoe Kazan and Ella Ballentine, are nothing short of phenomenal. The relationship between the two is critical to the overall impact of the film and I was blown away by the talent that these two actresses displayed. The result is touching and powerful and the performance of Ella Ballentine as the daughter is a small miracle that deserves recognition. Her performance is as eye opening and star making as Danielle Harris in Halloween 4. Zoe Kazan turns in an absolutely heartbreaking character who both angers us and earns our sympathy as the desperate mother battling alcoholism. The horror genre consistently provides women with strong roles and opportunities to show their skills and it's time the Academy and other award entities pay attention.
In addition to the top notch acting, The Monster offers a wonderful script and solid direction to present it with. Woven into the scenes of their struggle to survive the monster are flashbacks showing the troubled relationship between the mother and daughter. Most of the scenes are troubling, some are touching, and all demonstrate the fractured love between the two. You can see that the mother deeply loves her daughter and the daughter is desperate to feel that love from her mother.
The alcoholism of the mother is the other monster in this film and it's just as deadly as the beast that is hunting them on that dark and desolate road. The film tells us that monsters are real and they come in many different forms; some come after you in the woods or the dark and others reside within us all and it's up to us to fight them and protect the ones we love. This is beautifully shown as the instinct to fight for survival may be the first time in the mother's life where she cherishes being alive and this realization is passed on to her daughter and there is hope that she can fulfill her own potential in life as well as her mother's lost promise. It really is a beautiful horror story.
The Monster is a smart, layered, and emotionally engaging story that should be seen by not only horror fans but fans of film in general. The film has just as much heart as it does scares and contains two of the best performances I've seen all year. The Monster is of those films that proves the horror genre should be taken seriously and deserves more recognition for what it can accomplish.    

House of Purgatory

House of Purgatory

House of Purgatory is from first time writer/director Tyler Christensen and revolves around four teenagers who go looking for a fabled haunted house on Halloween night. Once found, they slowly realize that the house knows each of their deepest secrets. One-by-one the house uses these secrets against the terrified teens that find themselves in a battle to save not only their lives, but also their very souls.
House of Purgatory is another fun and very entertaining film to add to your Halloween season rotation. It has a distinct and spot on 1990's feel as rock/pop music plays over early scenes of high school football games and hallway interactions between the characters. It's a movie that sets up the cocky/know it all yet oblivious and care-free existence of life in high school. This first act of setting up the characters this way makes the events to come that much more effective. Because House of Purgatory is set up like a cruel Halloween trick: bite into the sweetness of this apple and you're going to hit a razor blade.
Once the four teens leave a Halloween party to track down this haunted house with urban legend status, the tone of the film shifts gears into a masterful blend of 1950's haunted house spookfests fused with an 80's vibe and 90's look. It's frightful fun as they discover the haunted attraction and begin to walk through it.
But Halloween fun turns into a living nightmare as deep secrets of the characters work their way into the displays they encounter and it's clear that this is not a regular haunted house. Some scenes become blurred and washed out, confusing reality with nightmares to the point where the two realms become indecipherable. House of Purgatory becomes a scary story beyond simple ghosts and goblins as the story line progresses.
It was refreshing that the characters felt normal and act normal. Anne Leighton as Melanie should be a star, she's wonderful on screen and she was nominated for Best Actress in a feature at the Fear Fete Horror Film Festival for good reason. Aaron Galvin as Nate also puts in a solid performance. The strong acting all around really benefited the film as the characters became more and more distraught and scared as scenarios became more hellish.
Fears, guilt, and secrets terrorize the characters as a really smart script connects scenarios from each character in intelligent ways. It's a psychological thriller, a drama, and a horror story all in one. House of Purgatory makes two things clear: haunted attraction films are the new haunted house movies and people are their own haunted houses filled with ghosts they've created.
Check out House of Purgatory if you're looking for a new Halloween movie to watch, it's tailor made for this time of year and it hits the nail on the head. With solid acting, good looking Halloween set pieces, and a clever script that seamlessly shifts in tone from fun to scary, the film is a great midnight watch in the dark. And if you have surround sound all the better, it'll sound great!