The Dinner Party (2020)

unnamed (3)Sometimes just the fact that a film is in the horror genre tips you off that the plot is going to go in a certain direction. I mean, if a movie called The Dinner Party had everything go completely well for the characters the entire time you’d probably end up with a drama (and a damn boring one at that). So, while there is a certain amount of predictability and expectation within the basic structure itself, the real test of artistry is found in how well the filmmakers can finesse the details and create something original. Sometimes this means artists will take big swings with unusual concepts and plot twists, the end result of which is invariably a brilliant hit….or a spectacular miss.

Small-time playwright Jeff (Mike Mayhall) seems to have gotten the opportunity of a lifetime when he is invited to a secret dinner party by a group of wealthy elites with enough pull to get his work onto Broadway. His wife Haley (Alli Hart) gets dragged along for the ride and before long the couple is bearing witness to the increasingly strange behavior of their wealthy hosts.

I always appreciate it when independent filmmakers are able to work well within their financial limitations and play to their strengths. Co-writer/director Miles Doleac (who also plays Vincent in the film) clearly understands this concept as he wisely keeps the action limited to one central location and utilizes a talented cast to bring life to the characters. Sawandi Wilson especially deserves to be recognized for his portrayal of the flamboyant and unhinged Sebastian which he imbues with a significant amount of subtly and depth.R4_1.61.1

The most welcome surprise for me however was just how depraved the film got at times, diving headlong into dark territory with cannibalism, necrophilia, and some scenes of gruesome violence. Doleac does an excellent job lulling the viewer into a false sense of security with warm, comfortable lighting and high-brow conversation right before violently yanking the rug out from under them. It’s a clever and subtle touch that mirrors the experience the characters are having and the solid acting across the board sells it perfectly.

A less successful gamble comes in the form of a third act twist (the details of which I won’t spoil) that severely erodes much of the good will the film had earned up until that point. It’s really unfortunate too because up until then I had really been enjoying the film. I mean sure there were lengthy discussions about opera that were as gratuitous as they were pretentious but this was still right on track for a four star rating. Not so once the “big revelation” slaps the audience across the face with a ridiculous concept that would be utterly eye-rolling in any film and feels exceptionally out of place here. You won’t have much time to dwell on it though because after that the film barrels toward the end credits, leaving in its wake a series of carelessly unanswered questions that put a nonsensical bow on an otherwise well made film.

Had this film simply carried along on the track it was already on for most of the runtime it would have ended up being a very solid horror experience punctuated with some great details and wry social commentary. Unfortunately, in its attempt to be entirely too clever for its own good, a mostly satisfying experience ultimately left me with a bad taste in my mouth.

3-stars-red

M.O.M. Mother of Monsters (2020)

M.O.MEver since The Blair Witch Project exploded onto the horror scene in 1999 and crushed the box office to the tune of a quarter billion dollars, countless filmmakers have tried their hand at tapping into that low cost Cinéma vérité style magic. Now that it’s 21 years later any filmmaker looking to utilize that format needs to bring something more to the table than abandoned footage found in the woods. Fortunately, M.O.M (Mother of Monsters) does bring an innovative twist to the standard formula as all the footage comes directly from cameras that characters use within the world of the film.

This approach alone isn’t unique but the justification and execution make it work better than most. Old home movie footage is spliced with straight to camera testimonials and consumer grade home surveillance as Abbey (Melinda Page Hamilton) obsessively documents the actions of her teenage son Jacob (Bailey Edwards). The more we see, the more it seems that this strung out single mother has good cause to worry as Jacob kills animals, has violent outbursts, and makes troubling maps of his school. Is Abbey uncovering the genesis of a dangerous criminal in the making…or is something else entirely going on?

Since the film devotes so much run-time to trying to make the viewer wonder about Jacob’s true motivations, it’s unfortunate that an early scene on an overpass heavily tips the scales, clearly showing which character is capable of committing unrepentant acts of violence. While the scene itself is well done, the film would be far stronger without it and would allow for some actual ambiguity throughout the story. It’s a shame too since the novel approach actually does effectively make use of the found footage conceit in a way that is modern, innovative and justified (mostly) within the world of the film. It also maintains a storyline that does drag a bit in places but overall manages to be engaging and at times all too real.

M.O.M’s true strength however is with its actors, which is fortunate as this is pretty much a two-hander between mother and son. The acting (and I cannot overstate this) is fucking incredible! Hamilton and Edwards truly live inside their characters and their pitch-perfect depiction is what makes the film work. The nuance and subtlety that they bring to their roles make this prescient story about a young man potentially going down a violent path feel even more dangerous and real. In a world where senseless acts of violence are commonplace, a film that reflects the anxiety that the true monsters can be found within the people we are closest to is a very scary concept indeed.

3-5-stars-red

Short Film Review: Duérmete Niño (2019) Duration 9 min 38 sec

DNShortifilm_PosterClocking in at under ten minutes total (only about seven of which is the actual film) Duérmete Niño (Rock-a-bye Baby) is an interesting little slice of horror. Inspired by a real, sleep deprived nightmare that director Freddy Chávez experienced after the birth of his daughter, this short captures the horror and anxiety of being a new parent in a very creative and unusual way.

In the film Piercey Dalton plays a single mother of twins (a terrifying enough prospect in and of itself) who begins to hear strange noises through the baby monitor that connects to her children’s room. Text in the beginning lets us know that the use of baby monitors can actually be traced back to 1937, an interesting fact that also properly justifies the 1940’s setting. The retro feel adds an extra layer of creepiness to the film as technology from that era was so inherently clunky and prone to dangerous malfunctions. It also allows for the inclusion of an animated faux commercial for the monitor that serves as a fun bonus during the credits.

When viewing this film it is clear that a lot of care and effort went into crafting not just the atmospheric setting but also the tense, well paced story that leads to a horrific and immensely satisfying conclusion. Dalton is essentially a one woman show and does an excellent job in conveying real pathos and emotion through a dialogue-free performance. The skillful use of special effects really seals the deal and makes this one short that is well worth your modest time investment. A must-see film that was inspired by nightmares and will certainly go on to inspire quite a few more.

4-5-stars-red

Empathy Inc (2019)

Empathy1As new forms of media consumption are released so too are new cultural anxieties born, along with the films that reflect them. Whether it’s VHS in Videodrome or cell phones in One Missed Call, films have always been a way of expressing the inherent discomfort that is an inevitable part of adjusting to ever more rapidly changing technology. With VR becoming an increasingly prevalent part of our society, it’s only natural that films like Empathy Inc would come about to explore the darker side of the technology. Of course, the idea itself is nothing new and classic films from Total Recall to The Matrix and many in between have delved into the potential consequences of experiencing a virtual world that is indistinguishable from our own. However, while this was an abstract concept in the ‘90s, ever advancing technology is bringing us closer to this becoming a reality, making the subject far more prescient today.

The story centers around Joel (Zack Robidas) who has to move with his wife Jessica (Kathy Searle) from Silicon Valley to her parent’s house on the east coast following a public scandal and the closure of his company. When an opportunity comes along to get in on the ground floor of a new company that promises a unique VR experience, Joel sees it as his way to get back in the game and convinces his father-in-law (Fenton Lawless) to invest his family’s entire nest egg in the venture. As you can imagine, it’s not long before things start to go horribly wrong.

Of all the VR themed films, Empathy Inc draws the most influence from Strange Days as its invented technology also allows users to enter a fully immersive world where they can live out experiences that are completely foreign to their own in a supposedly consequence-free environment. It does put its own unique spin on the concept (which I won’t spoil here) that makes it feel like a fresh take on the subject rather than a rehash. Unfortunately, this unique take also brings up some important questions that are not resolved like “given all that’s involved, would people really pay for this experience?” Even if they would, the logistics of actually pulling it off seem highly impractical and regardless of how far out your concept is, it needs to be grounded within the logic of the world it creates.

Empathy pic

Despite some glaring inconsistencies with how it’s used, the technology itself is actually an easier sell than some minor but significant plot points that could have been easily addressed in a rewrite. I mean, I’m more than willing to suspend disbelief for the idea of world where fully immersive VR is possible but a world where you can easily sneak a gun onto a cross-country flight (twice) is just far too ridiculous to accept. This is also apparently the same world where you can wander around a city and accidentally run into the exact person you are looking for by pure coincidence.

It’s really a shame that these entirely script-based issues exist because they take away from a film that is otherwise executed incredibly well. The camerawork is beautiful and the black and white aesthetic works very well, especially for the high-contrast shots. Director Yedidya Gorsetman also wisely chooses to keep the effects simple and execute them well which adds much more production value than attempting to overreach far beyond what the budget allows. I would also be remiss if I didn’t mention the acting which is simply flawless across the board and especially impressive given the events of the third act.

All in all Empathy Inc is an interesting film with a unique perspective that is worth the watch but certainly won’t be supplanting VR classics like eXistenZ or Strange Days anytime soon.

 

2-5-stars-red

The Cannibal Club (2019)

CannibalClub_Key ArtCannibalism in film is generally depicted in one of two ways; either it’s being perpetrated by savage maniacs who messily devour human flesh or savored by members of high society as an indulgent and sophisticated ritual. As is immediately evident by the cover art, The Cannibal Club clearly falls into the latter category. These sorts of depictions tend to have an undercurrent of social commentary, as the rich literally devour the lower classes for their own pleasure and this film is no different in that regard. However, that is far from all that TCC has to offer as this delectable treat gives viewers a lot more to chew on.

Wealthy social elites Otavio (Tavinho Teixeira) and Gilda (Ana Luiza Rios) are a Brazilian power couple who enjoy indulging in the flesh of their workers, in every sense of the word. Their life of leisure and twisted pleasures soon becomes threatened when Gilda accidentally uncovers the truth about a prominent member of the secret society that Otavio is part of.Cannibal Club - Still 2

There is a lot to like about this film, from the flawless acting, to the beautiful camerawork and of course the graphic gore effects, which are utterly sublime. What’s most interesting though is the unconventional and unpredictable script that subverts the expectations of what a film like this can be. I imagine that had this been made in Hollywood (or when the inevitable, ill conceived remake is greenlit) the plot would have the couple portrayed as the antagonists or softened their characters with a significant amount of remorse. Instead TCC leans into the twisted nature of its protagonists while still portraying them as fully fleshed out people in an imperfect and realistic relationship.

The only thing that I found lacking here (and frankly a bit surprising) was that a film with such graphic sexuality and violence would occasionally shy away from the good stuff and have it take place off screen. Perhaps writer/director Guto Parente was going for a “less is more” approach with these scenes and while they are still effective, I couldn’t help but feel a little cheated out of some great gore that I thought was coming.

cc2Fear not though gore hounds because there is still plenty of violence on display, especially as the film works up to its climactic ending. I also want to give credit to the fact that the social commentary is woven subtly and expertly into the story which gives the message a lot more resonance, especially in this day and age. So, if you are looking for an exotic and satisfying treat to satiate your darker appetites, you’ll definitely want to put this one on the menu.

 

4-stars-red

Short Film Review: Lion (2017) Duration 11 min 49 sec

LionWhen working within the medium of short film it’s essential to communicate a lot of information in a small amount of time. Making the audience feel for the characters and telling a worthwhile story from beginning to end in just a few minutes is a very challenging task but Davide Melini’s Lion does all that and more within its concise runtime. Located entirely within the confines of an isolated family home somewhere in the snowy wilderness, Lion tells the story of an abused little boy who wishes his favorite animal could come and protect him from his own family.

Lion has a very professional feel to it, especially for a short, and has the rare distinction of actually using CGI properly. Not only is the CGI that is on display of excellent quality, but Melini also shows great restraint with a less-is-more approach that makes the scenes that contain it incredibly effective. The film is well edited, delightfully bloody, and centers around the very real and very horrible problem of violence against children. I do think that the character of the father could have been dialed back just a little to be even more effective but that’s a small note within this nearly perfect film that is well deserving of the numerous accolades it has already received.

4-5-stars-red

The 6th Friend (2016)

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The concept of feminism as it pertains to horror is a conversation unto itself but suffice it to say some subgenres lend themselves to it more naturally than others. For instance rape/revenge films (when done properly) can convey a powerful message about reclaiming power and seeking justice against the assailants. The slasher subgenre is a little more ambiguous on this subject because yes, the typical Final Girl getting the best of the villain can be seen as empowering but much of the runtime of your standard slasher features a male character gruesomely murdering a mostly female cast. All this to say that when a slasher comes out that is unequivocally feminist it is an occasion to take notice and that’s exactly what we get in The 6th Friend.

The film opens with a small group of friends enjoying a typical night of partying that soon turns into a traumatic event that they endure together. Some time later Melissa (Chantelle Albers) tries to stitch the group back together with a retreat to a remote cabin in the woods. Joey (Jamie Bernadette, who also co-wrote) has been the most affected by the experience and comes along very reluctantly, not wanting anything that will remind her of that traumatic night. But of course the past has a way of finding you and soon the women are in a fight for their lives against the very thing they were trying to forget.

In an age when every other slasher seems to take place in the woods, it’s nice to see a film6th-friend-knife-e1547402796837.jpeg that makes an effort to establish the characters as real people and not just derivative stereotypes, thereby elevating the story above its basic setting. The feminist theme and social commentary also helps to set it apart and factors heavily into some major plot points (which I won’t spoil here) as well as dialogue that feels especially prescient today. It’s also nice that the characters (mostly) make logical decisions in service of their own survival although it does make it more noticeable the few times that they don’t. The twist nicely ties into the story thematically but it does make some of the earlier scenes feel like a bit of a reach as a result.

Originally released to home media in 2016, the film is finally getting a long overdue theatrical release as of January 11th 2019. It’s great to see this film getting the big screen treatment because in an industry crammed full of remakes and cheap cash-ins, a fresh perspective is always a welcome change. Definitely a trip into the woods that’s well worth taking.

3-5-stars-red

Bloody Ballet (2018)

unnamedBloody Ballet (aka Fantasma) certainly starts off promisingly enough. Snow falls heavily in the night sky as approaching police cars begin to illuminate the solitary figure of a young girl standing still, unmoved by the cold and completely unresponsive. The haunting score swells as the slow motion scene unfolds to reveal the bodies of her brutally murdered parents and I am officially hooked. Of course, it’s one thing to get the audience’s attention and quite another to actually hold it.

After the opening scene the movie flashes forward to follow a professional ballerina named Adriana (Kendra Carelli) who we soon learn is the girl from the beginning. Adriana’s initial excitement at being cast as the lead in the Nutcracker is quickly tempered by the fact that her fellow ballerinas startgetting murdered all around her and worst of all, the killer has the same eye-gouging m.o as whoever killed her parents.

Bloody Ballet was initially released in 2017 under the title Fantasma and the cynical part of me can’t help but notice that the new VOD re-release (under a more audience-friendly title) happens to coincide pretty closely with the theatrical release of the Suspiria remake. Of course, if there was ever a film to try and ride the coattails of into the spotlight that would be it because Bloody Ballet is more than just a little Giallo inspired.

As the masked, black-gloved killer slashes his way through synth-scored scenes drenched in red and blue light it’s clear that this film is wearing its Argento influence firmly on its sleeve. That’s actually not a bad thing in this case though because while it’s clearly not a high budget film, the production design (particularly in the more stylized scenes) is a highlight of the movie. The real star of the show however are the kills which are stylish, surprisingly brutal, and feature a significant amount of ocular trauma.

It’s always nice to see solid kills in a horror movie but in this case they are interspersed between a series of scenes featuring unconvincing acting and a plot that starts out wobbly and nose-dives into terrible toward the end of the film. The general concept is good but it doesn’t help that the character of the journalist feels completely superfluous and the supernatural elements of the story are awkwardly and clumsily shoehorned in. I’d be more willing to forgive these issues were they not coupled with the most egregious of filmmaking sins, the blatant and utterly gratuitous use of voice-over exposition.

Having the characters waste dialogue on multiple occasions explaining motivation and plot points that are already glaringly obvious is bad enough, but when the V.O kicks on at the end just to make sure it’s really, really clear I felt an overwhelming urge to throw my remote at the TV. Apparently, writer/director Brett Mullen hasn’t had the concept of “show, don’t tell” explained to him and I was somewhat surprised that he didn’t simply cut to a scene of himself reading the script out loud to the audience before climbing out of the TV to literally beat us over the head with it.

It’s really a shame that the quality visuals of this film have to be tainted by these ill-conceived and avoidable missteps, but this is definitely a case where an aggressive re-cut could greatly improve the end result. If Mullen simply removed all traces of V.O and trimmed off the scenes that didn’t move the central plot forwarded there would be a very decent film here, assuming there was enough footage left to still qualify as a feature.

2-5-stars-red

Luciferina (2018)

LuciferinaThe demonic possession sub-genre of horror is one that ebbs and flows in popular consciousness but never truly disappears. Perhaps this is because the idea of losing control to a powerful unseen force is something that can have the ability to instill a profound sense of dread within us, at least when it’s executed properly. Whether or not it factors in a heavy dose of religious anxiety, as they usually do, the general concept of demonic possession is a well that’s been dipped into many times and with the success of recent films like Hereditary, you can expect that trend to be on an upward swing. This means that for films on this topic to stand out, there needs to be more to their plot than a by-the-numbers rehashing of The Exorcist and today we’ll see if Luciferina has what it takes to stand out from the crowd.

The film centers around a young nun named Natalia (Sofía Del Tuffo) who must return home after a sudden “accident” leaves her mother dead and her father catatonic. Once home she is reunited with her troubled sister Angela (Malena Sánchez) who insists she join her and her friends on a trip to an isolated island where a shaman is going to perform an Ayahuasca based cleansing rite on them. Concerned about Angela’s safety in the presence of her abusive boyfriend, Natalia agrees to join them on the trip and, this being a horror film, it’s no surprise that things quickly take a turn for the worse.

At the heart of any film are the characters themselves and the fact that Luciferina really takes its time to effectively develop them into real people rather than stereotypes pays off, as it makes the story significantly more engaging. I wasn’t even thinking about the fact that the plot could essentially be described as a group of young, attractive people being terrorized in an isolated location the woods because it feels worlds away from schlock like Dark Forest and the myriad of others more typically associated with that general plotline.

Of course developed characters are only one piece of the puzzle but thankfully Luciferina is also able to deliver superb, realistic performances and some great, bloody, practical effects. The story is also unconventional and interesting and boasts some genuinely chilling moments and unpredictable turns. Still, there are some points where the story line itself can feel a little muddled and a few scenes that would have benefited from a bit more clarity, but not enough to significantly detract from the overall experience. As long as films of this kind are bringing this level of quality to the sub-genre, then demonic possession will remain a horror staple for years to come.

3-5-stars-red

 

Short Film Review: Not in My Mouth (2018) Duration: 4 min 54 sec

poison 5 jpgWhen you have a total runtime of under five minutes you have to pack a lot of content in to create a memorable experience. Fortunately Not in My Mouth does just that and is able to do a lot with it’s micro story in just a few short minutes. Set against a delightfully discordant and aggressive score by White Gardenia and Geimhreadh, the film is directed by (and stars) Poison Rouge, director of the newest American Guinea Pig film, Sacrifice.

It’s hard to talk much about the short plot without giving it all away but let’s just say it involves a bath, some torture, and even packs in a nice reveal at the end. The rest you’ll have to see for yourself and see it you should because NiMM is brutal, sexy, and just a great way to spend a few minutes. The gore is well done and the reverse shots from inside the mouth of the torture victim are especially innovative and fun. Really delivers everything you could want in a what’s essentially a music video and a bloody good one at that.

4-stars-red