Ouija Japan (2021)

It’s staggering to think about how many movies come out every single year, especially when you factor in the numerous straight-to-VOD releases that are being pumped into the home media system like so much sludge into a feeding trough. Yes, this can be a way for upstart artists to get their personal and groundbreaking work out to a larger audience but for every one of those films there’s at least a dozen more that are cynical cash-grabs whose only purpose is to make some money with as little financial (and creative) investment as possible. So the question here becomes ‘is Ouija Japan one of those rare exceptions of groundbreaking art made by an earnest and passionate filmmaker, or is it indistinguishable from the rest of the muck clogging up our on-demand queues?’

Ouija Japan tells the story of Karen (Ariel Sekiya) an American transplant living in Japan who has only been in the country with her husband for the last six months and is still struggling to fit in. When an interpretation misunderstanding results in her agreeing to join a group of her co-workers on a weekend getaway to a remote village she sees it as an opportunity to strengthen her connection to them and hopefully start to fit in. When the group decides to use a game of Kokkuri-san (essentially Japanese Ouija) to disrespect the fox deity that is worshiped in the village, they soon find themselves unwitting participants in a deadly game which can have only one winner.

Now, I know that movies take an incredible amount of work to make and I have no doubt that everyone involved is really trying but when the end result looks like a bunch of teenagers tried to remake Battle Royale on an iPhone it’s time to put away the participation trophy. To its credit, the fact that players in the survival game need to use their smartphones to fully participate and unlock real-world power-ups is a novel idea that modernizes the concept a bit but is nowhere near enough to counterbalance the flaws, of which there are many. Sure, the lighting is flat, the script is pedestrian, and every aspect of the film has an inherent cheapness to it, but nothing quite compares to the voice work on display here.

In what seems like a last-minute attempt to ingratiate the film with Western audiences the Japanese actors speak about half their lines in English. This would have been perfectly fine had they been fluent in both but their tenuous grasp on the language makes the stilted acting go from awkward to downright painful. While the dual languages do factor into the story, the filmmakers would have been far better served finding a script work-around instead and sparing the actors (and the audience) this unnecessary struggle. Additionally, some actors appear to have their dialogue fully recorded in ADR which is no better as it creates an almost cartoonish disconnect between the characters and the lines themselves.

At the end of the day, what it really comes down to is that modern viewers have a plethora of options for entertainment. For a horror title to stand out amongst the literally hundreds of other choices that are packed in with any given streaming service at no extra charge there really has to be something there that makes it worth the investment of our precious time. In the case of Ouija Japan it’s not even a question of a lack of resources since I have seen better filmmakers do far more with significantly less. Amateurish production values can be overlooked if there is a compelling soul to the film and brilliance from at least one aspect shining through. Here there is just a fundamental lack of creativity, originality, and technical ability but then again that does exemplify the difference between art and a product, between the gems…..and the muck.

Availability: Upcoming Release

Film will release on Blu-ray and Amazon Prime on 10/19/21.

Demigod (2021)

Imagine just how many lives could have been spared in horror movies had outsiders simply heeded the warnings of the Crazy Ralphs of the world and stayed the hell out of cursed areas. Although, that would be significantly less fun for the audience who has signed up for the twisted pleasure of watching at least most of the stubbornly disbelieving travelers be eviscerated in gruesome and (hopefully) creative ways. It really doesn’t need to be a case of either/or, though. I would like to see more characters take the threat seriously but still be unable to escape so that the inciting incident can occur and the fun can begin. Demigod opts to tread down the more well-worn trail to set up the conflict but we’ll see if it can rise above its conventional structure to bring a compelling and original story to light.

Upon receiving news of her estranged grandfather Karl’s passing, Robin (Rachel Nichols) heads to his now vacant home in the Black Forest of Germany to tend to his affairs, bringing her husband Leo (Yohance Myles) along for the ride. Once there, they encounter Arthur (director/co-writer Miles Doleac), an eccentric hunter and former friend of Karl’s who warns them about the supernatural presence that resides in the woods. Before long the three find themselves (along with several other unfortunate locals) embroiled in a desperate fight for survival against an ancient evil that lurks within the woods and the coven of witches that summoned him.

The lesson would seem to be “trust the locals and get the hell out while you can” but since Arthur finds himself in the exact same predicament as the outsider couple despite having intimate knowledge of the dangers that lurk in the woods, it turns out that it doesn’t matter after all. This feels less like an intentional choice by Doleac and more of an oversight, especially as it is far from the only inconsistency we witness in the film. That’s not to say that there isn’t still a lot to like about this movie and, despite the predictable set-up, there is a lot of tension to be had and a story that is compelling enough to grab your attention.

The experience of watching it is pretty much the definition of a mixed bag as the film will hit high points that are undone by low points which repeat the cycle to ultimately land somewhere in the middle. The visual style of the film itself is a good example of this as the overall quality falls within the flat look we’ve come to expect from low-budget digital only to be broken up by a strikingly creative shot or a very well executed special effect. The end result settles in the area of “good” but a more aggressively abstract filmmaking style, acting that is brilliant rather than fine, and a storyline whose tension didn’t peter out towards the end due to some unnecessarily long-winded speeches could have bumped it to the category of “great”.

The part that sticks out more than any other however is the look of the demigod himself. It’s hard to have a convincingly scary monster on an independent budget and Doleac wisely opts to shoot around the creature throughout most of the film offering glimpses rather than full-on shots. Unfortunately, he chooses to abandon this practice towards the end of the film letting the audience come face-to-face with the sheer terror of a sensibly-priced Halloween mask (and yes the red, laser eyes hurt more than they help). Still, the end result is a film with some effectively bloody kills and a few solid stretches of genuine tension so, while it may not be a masterpiece, it’s a decent enough way to spend an hour and a half.

Availability: Upcoming Release

Film is being released in select theaters and on VOD on 10/15/21.

Nightmare Symphony (2021)

It’s interesting that the review for Nightmare Symphony would come directly after my review of Undergods since both films play with ambiguity and surreal imagery but achieve nearly opposite results. In this case, the Giallo-inspired film takes a big swing at meta commentary and the nature of reality with its story of an American director Frank (Frank LaLoggia) who goes to Italy to finish the edit of his film. Before long people all around him seem to be dying at the hands of a mysterious killer in a bird mask, who leaves no trace behind other than a peacock feather as their calling card.

Clearly this film is a love letter to Giallo itself, which is apparent long before the dedication to Lucio Fulci during the closing credits. On this front it succeeds wonderfully and the color-saturated scenes where the bird masked killer slashes up their victims with a straight razor to a pulsating synth score are a thing of beauty. In fact, I want to especially shout out all the FX work on this film because it is far and away the best part of the entire experience and every gory scene that features it is a work of brutal, bloody art.

What’s less successful is the story itself, as well as LaLoggia’s lackluster performance which never quite rings true, especially when paired with some of the actors in minor roles that are really bringing their A-game. It’s frustrating because I can see what writer Antonio Tentori (Cat in the Brain, Demonia) is trying to do but it simply does not come together. The ending (which I won’t reveal here) attempts to be very clever with a big meta reveal but falls utterly flat due to the fact that the preceding story in no way supports it.

Ambiguity in films can be a great thing, but a story that actively contradicts itself and feels like there are key scenes missing isn’t the same as not understanding a surreal film that’s filled with metaphor and symbolism. If you are going to play with the concept of reality itself in a film then you need to clearly establish what the reality of the world is and really understand when and how you are breaking with those conventions.

In this case Nightmare Symphony feels as confused as the viewer but attempts to cover its plot holes with stylized theatrics that it hopes will somehow congeal into meaning. Still, the film has a lot of style and a few carefully crafted re-shoots might be all it takes to fill in the missing pieces and tie the ending to the film that preceded it.

Undergods (2021)

Is it necessary to fully understand a film to enjoy and appreciate it? I would argue that it is not, for if that were the case surrealist masters like Jodorowsky and Lynch would never have ascended to their exalted levels within the film world. We still watch, discuss and are sometimes confounded by films like Holy Mountain and Eraserhead more than four decades later because there is far more beneath the strange visuals that bares fruit if we are patient enough to peel back the layers. Surreal films benefit from re-watching and further examination, the trick is to make your films good enough that its worth an audience’s time to do so.

Writer/director Chino Moya’s first feature is certainly a film that requires additional scrutiny to fully comprehend. While it’s not as overtly surreal as the previously mentioned films the slippery narrative thread and dream-like quality give it a viewing experience akin to Holy Motors with a healthy dose of High Rise mixed in. There aren’t exactly main characters nor is there a clear narrative through-line as segments seem to flow into each other, sometimes in the guise of stories told between characters, and occasionally intersect.

The structure in fact is more on par with a collection of short films taking place in a shared universe where the edges are muddied enough for them to meld into each other rather than all serving a common storyline. We see body collectors nonchalantly tossing corpses into their truck like they are common trash, a middle aged couple who’s frosty relationship threatens to become upended by an unexpected guest, a father telling his daughter a bedtime story of an unscrupulous merchant, a post-apocalyptic prison and an ordinary business man whose life becomes incalculably more complicated with the arrival of someone from the past.

Some of these segments flow very cleanly into each other, whereas at other times the connection is a bit more abstract. Regardless of their storyline similarities it’s really the emotional thread of dysfunctional relationships in a bleak and hopeless world that connects and links the stories. More importantly, the purpose of this film is not to provide a by-the-numbers plotline but to create an evocative experience where well-realized characters flow into each other’s worlds with a dream-like quality and in that regard it is better served by the unconventional structure. The result makes for an incredibly engaging experience whose shifting narrative works well to simulate the feeling of watching an unnerving dream (or more aptly a nightmare) unfold and giving the audience plenty to mull over between viewings.

Fortunately the beautifully bleak cinematography that deftly captures the quiet horror of a ruined city and the across the boards flawless acting make this a trip that’s worth taking multiple times. If you are looking for a straightforward, easily digestible story that neatly resolves then this is not going to be for you. On the other hand, those interested in taking on a cinematic experience that provides depth and layers of meaning to be gradually unraveled would do well to give this a try.

A Record of Sweet Murder (2019)

When The Blair Witch Project exploded onto the scene in 1999 it forever changed the world of horror cinema. In its wake, the once novel concept of a “found footage” film established by Cannibal Holocaust in 1980 quickly became ubiquitous within the market to the point of oversaturation. In the intervening years many filmmakers have used the audience’s willingness to embrace the rougher, naturalistic aesthetic of the style as an excuse for low production value as they churn out countless versions of the same basic story.

Thankfully, innovative filmmakers have also made their mark on the subgenre and films like Rec, Creep, and more recently Host (to name just a few) have elevated the style by taking it in new and creative directions. Innovation within the subgenre is rare enough but A Record of Sweet Murder is wholly unique as it dares to combine the found footage aesthetic with the rarest of cinema tropes, the single take film. By all conventional wisdom, an idea this ambitious could never work, but writer/director Kôji Shiraishi (Grotesque) pulls it off with results that are nothing short of mind-blowing!

The story centers around investigative reporter Kim Soyeon (Kim Kkobbi) who receives a call from Park Sangjoon (Je-wook Yeon), an escaped fugitive wanted for numerous murders. Park offers her an exclusive interview if she will meet him in a secluded location and bring along a Japanese cameraman. Since Kim and Park share a childhood connection, she believes that they will not be in any danger, but once they arrive it becomes clear that Park has a much larger plan in which they are to play an integral role.

To be clear, this film isn’t a true one-shot film like Russian Ark, but since everything but a few quick scenes at the end was done in a single take it’s still an incredible feat of filmmaking. It isn’t just the fact of doing it in a single take that is impressive, it’s what they are able to accomplish within the massive shot that is truly mind-blowing. Brutal fight scenes, multiple locations, numerous characters, realistic special effects, and an engaging storyline all work in concert to produce a thoroughly unique, mesmerizing experience. Even without the novelty of the single take this would be an incredible, well acted, and engaging film but the fact that Shiraishi goes the extra mile with a ground-breaking concept really puts it over the top.

It’s truly a cinematic travesty that such an innovative, brilliant film has gotten such little attention since its release yet Hitchcock’s faux one-shot film Rope is still talked about with such reverence after more than seven decades. I know that the cameras of the time limited the production to shooting it in a series of ten minute takes but Hitchcock’s blatant cutaways do absolutely nothing to preserve the illusion of an unbroken shot in that overrated “classic”. Despite this (and the fact that it felt more like watching a one-act play than a one-shot film) Rope was still innovative for its time and innovation should always be appreciated. To that end I’m hard pressed to think of many films in recent memory that have innovated more than ARoSM and here’s hoping that someday its style-blending brilliance will be appreciated for the unique achievement that it is.

Climate of the Hunter (2021)

The great thing about the vampire mythos is that it’s malleable and as such we get to have numerous artistic interpretations of it. As one of the most popular mythic creatures, vampires have been represented in a wide variety of ways from a subtle and abstract metaphor for addiction in Ganja & Hess to the bloodthirsty monsters in 30 Days of Night and countless other creative iterations. Because of this there really is no wrong way to represent a vampire (except when they sparkle in the fucking sunlight) so director Mickey Reece’s highly unconventional take on the classic bloodsuckers is just as valid as any other interpretation, even if the end result is a bit of a mixed bag.

Climate of the Hunter tells the story of Wesley (Ben Hall), a writer who returns to the states after a 20 year absence abroad due to a significant deterioration in his wife’s mental health that requires her to be institutionalized. While staying in the nearby vacation town in the quiet off season he reconnects with a pair of sisters Alma (Ginger Gilmartin) and Elizabeth (Mary Buss) whom he had known years earlier. As Wesley’s wife sits catatonic in a mental hospital he spends a significant amount of his time flirting with both sisters, causing tension and jealousies to rise between the ladies. Alma’s own mental health also comes into question, especially as her suspicions mount that not only is Wesley no longer the man she once knew but has in fact turned into a malevolent supernatural creature.

Once you start this film it doesn’t take long to realize that the story Reece is telling is far from a conventional vampire tale. Instead CotH is a slow-burn and increasingly surreal journey that is intended to make the audience question the reality of what they see unfolding. The aesthetic here plays a big part in that and the authentically degraded footage makes it feel like a found relic that was actually filmed in 1977 rather than just taking place during that time. The surreal tone is further bolstered by the fact that the numerous vintage meals that are featured in the film always start with an insert shot of the food and an unknown female narrator’s introduction.

From start to finish the film feels strange, off kilter (and dare I say, even Lynchian) with the subtly surreal world that is brought to life by the exceptional performances of the cast. This aspect works incredibly well and made me want to spend more time in the weird world Reece created. The fundamental problem here is that the world isn’t quite weird enough and I was quite disappointed to see that so much of the beautifully strange footage from the trailer was relegated to dream sequences rather than being incorporated into the story in a more meaningful way.

Since Alma’s sanity is in question from the start, Reece’s intention is clearly to create an ambiguous reality that will keep the audience guessing whether what they are seeing is real or simply part of her delusions. If he had more successfully blurred the lines of reality and incorporated a more palpable sense of menace and dread the end result would have been something truly exquisite. As it is, the series of odd meals the characters share start to feel stagnant and repetitive as Wesley once again waxes poetic while the women cut each other down with barbs and snide comments. Ultimately this results in an interesting and unusual film that’s good but remains frustratingly close to actually being great.

Blind (2020)

Horror films like to play with our sense of vulnerability by showing characters in a weakened or disadvantaged state, whether it’s due to being trapped somewhere out of their element, trying to fight off supernaturally strong enemies, etc. When a character has a disability that already puts them at a physical disadvantage, it can be an opportunity to crank the tension up even further as their fight for survival becomes even more difficult. We saw this concept play out to great effect in 2016’s Hush, so I was curious if this version of the single-disabled-woman-being-terrorized-in-her-own-home-by-a-sadistic-killer story would work as well in Blind.

At the start of the film we see Faye (Sarah French), a Hollywood actress still trying to adjust to her new life a year after a botched Lasik procedure caused her to lose her sight and her career along with it. As difficult as her life has become, things get considerably worse for her when a deranged killer in a Ken doll mask begins terrorizing her and murdering her friends.

First of all, I’d like to point out that to date there has never been a reported case of a patient losing their sight as a direct result of a Lasik procedure, so that pretty much deflates the central concept right from the start. Regardless, I was more than willing to move past that as I watched the beautifully shot scenes unfold and waited for the horror to kick in. Turns out I would be waiting for what felt like an eternity as the first third of this film is almost entirely devoted to watching Faye wallow in depression, attend group therapy, and start up an awkward will-they-won’t-they relationship with her mute friend Luke (Tyler Gallant).

Any well-made film should be able to establish an empathetic protagonist in a short amount of time and if you need to spend thirty minutes just trying to make the audience care about your characters while the central conflict remains jammed in neutral, then you’ve already lost them. There are some decent kills to be had once things get rolling but the film lacks any kind of real tension which makes the majority of it feel boring rather than engaging.

Part of the issue may be that Faye spends so much time being completely oblivious to the killer lurking around her house that he no longer feels threatening. It just kept bringing Hush to mind for me since that film had such a similar concept yet was able to keep things tense and exciting the whole time. I also cared a lot more about those characters with far less time devoted to trying to force me to do so and none of the melodramatic love story crammed in.

The strangest thing about Blind is that it has all the ingredients of a film that should work, they just fail to come together. The acting is solid all around, there’s great sound design, and there is no question that the film is beautifully shot. I like the look of the killer “Pretty Boy” and there is one scene in particular where he is sitting there in his doll mask and blood-soaked white tux that is truly iconic. Director Marcel Walz is clearing aping Nicolas Winding Refn’s style a bit with his use of red and blue saturation and dreamy 80s style synth but has nevertheless created a piece that is very visually appealing. I’m sure that with a tighter, more horror focused script he could create something that is truly great.

A Night of Horror: Nightmare Radio (2019)

Nightmare RadioI love horror anthology films and while we may not be getting as many these days as we did during the resurgence of their popularity in the early to mid 2010s, it’s good to see that they are still popping up occasionally. Typically these films will feature the collaboration of multiple directors and are a great way to showcase various talents within a single project. The structure allows the audience to be a little more forgiving of the overall film as stronger entries can sometimes redeem the goodwill lost by weaker ones. Ultimately though, the finished film is still a sum of its parts and today we’ll see if A Night of Horror: Nightmare Radio serves as a suitable distraction during these troubled times.

Every good anthology film needs a solid framing device to tie things together and in this case it comes in the form of a radio DJ named Rod (James Wright) telling scary stories during his show. There’s a good variety within the stories themselves as Rod spins tales of murder, revenge, and the supernatural. The cold open of the film shows a story of a vengeful ghost while the next deals with the very real and very creepy Victorian era practice of photographing the dead. Subsequent stories involve a sinister stylist, cruel and unusual prison punishment, a Spanish dancer with strange stomach pains, and a child who makes a frightening discovery in the kitchen. The final two stories involve a hunter with very unusual prey and a woman hearing odd noises while she is home alone. Rod’s story also follows its own arc and builds towards a satisfying and interesting twist that nicely caps off the preceding tales.

Nightmare Radio Pic

Fortunately there aren’t any entries that are simply bad but there are definitely some that are more successful than others. One of the standouts was the entry about the prisoner which managed to be morally complex and the degree to which viewers find it cathartic or disturbing is sure to vary depending on the person. Another highlight was the postmortem photography entry which had excellent structure and pacing, delivering a very complete, concise, and chilling story in just a few short minutes. I also want to give credit to the final story (and arguably scariest entry in the anthology) which does an incredible job expanding upon the unnerving sense of foreboding one can get while alone in their own house at night.

The only parts that don’t work here are a couple of times where the story didn’t quite come together as well as it should have. Unfortunately, the opening vignette suffers from this the most as the engaging visuals are undercut by a muddled story that fails to make any fucking sense whatsoever and seems more like a disparate collection of ideas than an actual narrative. Similarly, the hunter segment works well on its own but its introduction throws an unnecessary layer of confusion into the character motivations and inherent logic within the story itself.

These are ultimately minor quibbles though, because as a whole, Nightmare Radio is incredibly successful and every segment is exquisitely shot, well acted, and showcases brilliant special effects. This is definitely one to keep an eye out for and something that fans of horror anthologies will certainly want to tune into.

4-stars-red

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