Dark Forest (2015)

dark-forest“Are you ready for this? I’ve got a concept that’s going to blow your fucking minds! A bunch of attractive college kids go camping in the woods and then….get this….are killed by a deranged murderer! What’s that? It’s been done!? Impossible! What……how many times? Too many to count!? Well…..fuck it, let’s roll anyway!”

That’s how I like to imagine the conversation went down at Zell-Koj Studio when they decided to roll out the most well-worn concept in horror filmmaking as their debut feature. Okay, so obviously that’s not how it was but any time I hear that plot line being dusted off again it fills me with the same skepticism as when I hear someone is making another zombie film. But to be fair, there is a lot room within those basic structures to incorporate some very interesting and unique ideas. Films like Wyrmwood and You’re Next are a testament to that. So, does Dark Forest flex it’s creative muscles to bring us a fresh and interesting take on a tired subgenre or does it sink into a sea of mediocrity along with countless other forgotten slashers? Well, let’s discuss.

The story follows Emily (Laurel McArthur) who goes on a camping trip with her three friends to relax, reconnect and to temporarily escape from her abusive boyfriend Peter (Dennis Scullard). When Peter learns that she has gone away without him for an entire weekend he flies into a murderous rage and quickly heads off to the woods to exact his horrible revenge on Emily and her friends.

According to Zell-Koj Studio’s own press release, this was made as an 80’s inspired slasher but I take issue with low-budget horror films that simply try to co-opt that identity in order to justify campy acting and low production values. Even though the film employs the same plot devices that have been in use since Friday the 13th, the rap/techno soundtrack, prevalence of smartphones and a music video style bikini montage give it a distinctly modern feel. Stranger Things this is not.

For the most part though, the acting is serviceable for what it is and Scullard’s portrayal of the psychotic Peter does stand out as a highlight even though he isn’t given much to work with from a character standpoint. I am certainly willing to overlook a lot when it comes to the practical shortcomings of a micro-budget film but what is particularly aggravating in this case is that the film doesn’t even aspire to be anything more than a generic Hollywood slasher with a fraction of the budget. Nothing about the film even hints at attempting to be original and even a best case scenario version of this would have been nothing more than soulless entertainment.

Speaking of entertainment value, most of the kills are solid and appropriately bloody, even if the blood itself looks distractingly fake in some scenes. Unfortunately, they are presented without any suspense or tension as Peter seems to teleport around as required to kill off the expendable characters. Now, to it’s credit, the film is competently shot but then again so is Hollywood garbage like Transformers and Big Momma’s House. Competently shot should not be the single bar that a film aspires to clear.

My hope is that Zell-Koj will branch out into more innovative directions with future projects that at least attempt to break some kind of new ground. At a time when we have a virtually endless supply of genre films to watch, filmmakers need to bring something new to the table instead of just showing up with a pale version of something we are already tired of seeing.


964 Pinocchio (1991)

964-pinocchioWatch out, people, there’s a lobotomized sex-cyborg on the loose! Yes, the insane premise of 964 Pinocchio (a.k.a Screams of Blasphemy) does certainly hold a lot of potential for a Tetsuo-style journey into another gloriously bizarre living nightmare. But the real question becomes “can it actually deliver on the same level as that mind-fuck masterpiece?” Well, let’s discuss.

Obviously, when a cyborg sex-slave that suffered a memory-wiping lobotomy (otherwise known as a Pinocchio) isn’t able to perform to the client’s satisfaction it runs the risk of incurring their wrath. Such is the fate of #964, (Haji Suzuki) a Pinocchio who is tossed out onto the street by a female client when he fails to maintain an erection during a threesome. However, it’s not long before he is taken under the wing of a homeless amnesiac named Himiko (Onn-chan) after literally falling into her lap. When 964’s owner/pimp learns he is missing he quickly sends his men looking for him, terrified that his underground cyborg sex ring will be discovered. Can 964 regain his memory and uncover the real truth about who (or what) he really is before he is found?

While this all may sound delightfully nuts, my chief complaint about 964 Pinocchio would actually have to be that it’s not weird enough. In fact the first thirty minutes play out a bit more like an offbeat love story than a Japanese splatter film. To be fair, after that the film does take a sharp descent into creative madness with bizarre imagery that ranges from the stomach-churning to the sublimely bizarre, all of which really has to be seen to be believed.

Even so, the strange and interesting scenes the film creates are frequently undermined by slow pacing and repetition causing them to become more of a source of fatigue than fascination. This is a shame because the final third incorporates much more of the fast-paced, gleeful insanity that was in short supply in the previous sections. While it does build to a satisfyingly deranged climax, there is still an overwhelming feeling of “too little too late”. Even at ninety-seven minutes it feels long and would have been more successful as a tightly-paced short rather than a feature.

Ultimately, this film tried to have it both ways, attempting to provide an experience that was both a Splatter Cinema mind-trip and a character-driven story. It would have been better to commit fully to one direction or the other because the unexplained random madness occurs too frequently for a drama and too infrequently for a wild ride in the vein of Tetsuo. Certainly an interesting (and Alternative-as-fuck) film and one that should be seen by anyone interested in Japan’s most bizarre cinematic experiences. However, if you are expecting a trip on the level of the aforementioned metal-morphing classic, or even the more recent examples of unbridled insanity like Helldriver and Tokyo Gore Police, this is sure to come up wanting.



The Laughing Mask (2014)

laughing-maskLet me start by saying that The Laughing Mask is actually not a horror movie in the traditional sense, more of a dark thriller with horror elements. That being said, it is certainly an alternative, indie film that remains relatively obscure, like so many other micro-budget titles. So, the question is “Is this film a hidden gem that deserves to be uncovered or just another run-of-the-mill low budget flick drowning in a sea of it’s peers?” Well, let’s discuss.

The plot centers around the exploits of a mysterious vigilante killer known as “The Laughing Mask”. Jake Johnson (John Hardy) is a writer who’s wife was murdered and daughter abducted by said vigilante and has now written an inflammatory book on the subject in hopes of drawing him out into the open. Homicide detective Katherine O’Malley (Sheyenne Rivers) is also relentlessly pursuing the Mask in hopes of stopping his onslaught of murders as well as figuring out the deeper connection between them.

There are certainly a lot of things to like about this film. The Laughing Mask himself is an interesting character, a well-dressed psychopath with a creepy mask and a penchant for depression-era music. I also enjoyed his lair where he doled out his own brand of vigilante justice to guilty people who have skirted legal ramifications, via elaborate punishments based on their crimes. In addition, the use of creepy, old timey cartoons intercut into a few scenes actually works quite well as does the early twentieth century music that plays throughout. The film also doesn’t shy away from brutality and features numerous bloody kills.

Unfortunately, these positive elements are overshadowed by large, fundamental problems with the film itself. The most glaring issue here is the acting. Hardy actually stands out as the only one from the principal cast able to really deliver a believable performance. Most of the other actors sound like they are doing their first ever table read of a script and their stilted performances destroy any chance for the audience to suspend disbelief. This problem is only made worse by scenes where writer/director Michael Aguiar attempts to inject humor or snappy dialogue into the script, which inevitably fall flat. I also had some big issues with the flawed ending but going into further detail would require revealing major spoilers.

There is definitely some fun to be had with this film but ultimately with pacing that drags far more than it should and a lack of realistic characters to engage with, this film falls far short of what it might have been. With some more attention given to the script, as well as the casting, a very different outcome could have been produced. As it is, I don’t see The Laughing Mask breaking out of it’s obscurity to become a cult hit any time soon.