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

The 6th Friend (2016)

unnamed

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

 

Beloved Beast (2018)

Beloved BeastWriter/director Jonathan Holbrook’s new film Beloved Beast is his latest example of what has come to be known as ‘Holbrookian Horror’ following his excellent 2016 feature Tall Men. The term is apt because much like that film, Beloved Beast is imbued with the director’s signature style, one that successfully channels the surreal Americana of David Lynch, while maintaining it’s own unique flavor. In both cases, the viewer gets the feeling of slipping into a cozy nightmare, one that you want to envelop you as you willingly slide into the depths of its subtly surreal world.

After young Nina (Sanae Loutsis) is involved in a car accident that claims the lives of her parents, she is put into the care of her estranged ne’er-do-well aunt, Erma (Joy Yaholkovsky). At the same time a dangerous escaped mental patient named Milton (played by Holbrook) is carving a bloody swath through Slough Town, where Nina lives. Through a series of unusual circumstances, Nina befriends Milton who (after donning his signature rabbit mask and wooden mallet) becomes known by his new identity, Harvey, Nina’s violent and unstable protector.

Beloved Beast is presented in the style of a dark, gruesome fairy tale and absolutely captures that aesthetic. The characters themselves are grounded in enough realism to make the viewer invested, while at the same time the world itself is awash in a subtle dreamlike quality. The story is very engaging and I was thoroughly invested in seeing what would happen next as it dove deeper into the dark world hidden beneath the veneer of small town civility. While the actual style is a bit more of a horror-drama hybrid that defies easy categorization, it certainly has enough blood and menace to keep horror fans satiated as it twists and turns through it’s unpredictable plot.

In this case it is very fortunate that the story is so interesting because with a runtime that’s just shy of three hours (!) it really puts the goodwill of the audience to the test. In fact, my only real criticism of the film is that there is just a bit too much of it, and it would greatly benefit from an aggressive recut. While I did enjoy every scene I watched, I would have preferred if several of them had been relegated to a ‘deleted scenes’ section on the Blu-ray because the cumulative effect drags down the pacing a bit. With about forty-five or so minutes trimmed off, this could become a sleeker and more horror focused film with a greater amount of tension and suspense.

Still, even in it’s current form, it is an incredibly interesting and delightfully twisted film that’s well worth your time. The myriad of strange and off-kilter characters make the journey a unique experience you won’t soon forget. Hell, I would love to see a spin-off that focuses entirely on The Belgian and the dark underworld that he inhabits. So, do yourself a favor and block off an evening for this grim fairy tale with a style all it’s own.

3-5-stars-red

Unlisted Owner (2013)

Unlisted OwnerAhhh, the found footage sub-genre, staple of the independent filmmaker. Some entries are notable and utilize that technique for innovative storytelling, but many others are simply trying to cover up low production values and a lack of budget. Ever since The Blair Witch Project exploded onto the horror scene in 1999, and raked in a quarter of a billion dollars on a $60,000 budget, filmmakers have been trying to capture a piece of that low-cost, high-profit magic.

With Unlisted Owner writer/director Jed Brian puts a slight spin on the well-worn formula by revealing through on-screen text at the start of the film that the following footage was gathered from five separate cameras and edited together by the police. The footage itself reveals the series of events that took a group of friends from an ordinary camping trip to a harrowing fight for survival inside the house of a recently murdered family.

Initially, I thought that the concept of stating that the footage had been edited together by the cops was a novel way of justifying the fact that there was intercut footage that couldn’t possibly have come from one camera. However, this device creates as many problems as it solves since it leaves the viewer wondering why the police would re-cut evidence in a murder investigation in such a titillating and dramatic fashion. Also, I’m pretty sure that editing down raw footage of a crime into a feature length video isn’t a service that the police provide.

Ultimately, that’s a minor quibble though, because it’s really what’s on the footage that counts. To that end, I did appreciate that Brian made the characters feel as real as possible and realistically captured the shit talking and ball busting that occurs when guys hang out. I also liked that an effort was made to make the characters feel like a group of real people rather than having each of them embody a single cliched character trait.

I always appreciate it when indie directors know their own limitations and play to their strengths rather than trying to recreate a high concept Hollywood production on a fraction of the budget. In this case, Brian wisely sticks to minimal locations and uses tension and practical effects to pull off some solid, bloody kills toward the climax of the film. Once the blood starts being spilled it becomes quite entertaining but the lack of immediate danger throughout most of the lead up makes the pacing suffer a bit.

This brings me to the central issue with the film which is despite a seventy-four minute runtime, the lack of imminent threat to the central characters for much of the movie results in it feeling overly long at times. This is not helped by scenes where characters repeat exposition we’ve just heard, and makes a strong case that, ideally, this could be cut down to a tight thirty minute short. But regardless of the pacing issues, the final result manages to be an entertaining enough way to spend seventy-four minutes.

2-5-stars-red

Bus Party to Hell (2017)

BPtHWhen a movie is titled Bus Party to Hell and features a masterclass thespian such as Sharknado alum Tara Reid, you have a pretty good idea what you’re in for. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with an over-the-top film that doesn’t take itself too seriously, provided it’s actually enjoyable to watch. There’s a surprisingly thin line between outrageously fun and irritatingly stupid and today we’ll see if BPtH falls more along the lines of the campy, gory fun of Father’s Day or the interminable slog that is Kudzu Zombie.

The film stars Tara Reid and by stars I mean she is in it for literally ten minutes before it shifts focus to follow a group of cliched caricatures of party-goers on a bus that’s en route to Burning Man. When the bus breaks down and the driver (Sadie Katz, whose raspy voice makes Tara Reid sound like a velvety seductress by comparison) is nowhere to be found, things quickly go bad for the passengers as their bus is descended upon by a group of cannibalistic maniacs.

When a film plays out like a softcore porn rip-off of The Hills Have Eyes, the one thing I would hope is that it’s at least fun. Unfortunately, what we have here is a series of tiresome scenes that serve no purpose other than to get you to the next cheap kill or an excuse to strip down the actresses. The script itself is treated with about as much respect as the female characters as the actors spew out cringe-inducing attempts at humor, regardless of the peril they are in. Given that each character’s entire personality can already be summed up by a single word (nerd, virgin, rich) it makes actually caring about anything that happens utterly impossible.

I’m not really sure who this is for, but my guess would be it’s aimed at 13-year-olds who want to see tits and haven’t realized that PornHub is a thing. Despite its desperate attempts to seem edgy by shoehorning in nudity and blood, the end result actually makes the film feel dated and irrelevant. The experience reminded me of watching cheap pay-per-view T&A flicks like The Bare Wench Project back in the dial-up internet days when porn was actually hard to come by.

The biggest problem here is that if you are going to eschew plot and story in service of showcasing sex and violence, then you need to bring it when it comes to those areas. This is why the American Guinea Pig films and Portraits of Andrea Palmer work so well despite having very little plot, they are willing to lean into the edgy content instead of just paying lip service to it.

Despite all this, the film is not without some positive attributes. The gorgeous establishing shots of the desert remind us that, had the filmmakers cared enough to include interesting and even somewhat grounded characters, they could have easily made a very watchable movie. In addition, even though many of the blood gags look generic or just plain silly, the scene where they cut a woman open and pull a live snake out of her belly actually worked quite well. Still, the end result feels like something that was conceived of and shot at Burning Man over a weekend and was (hopefully) a lot more fun to make than to it was to watch. This is certainly one bus ride that you are better off letting pass you by.

1-star-red

The God Inside My Ear (2017)

TGIMECreating a surreal film that really works is an incredibly difficult feat. In the hands of masters like Lynch and Jodorowsky the final product can be a multilayered work of art with symbolism and subtext that will have people in spirited debate for decades. On the other end of the spectrum are the myriad of films that bombard the viewer with “weird for the sake of weird” imagery, with no inherent meaning or intent, and no subtle clues to decipher what’s going on until we are simply told. Any surreal film is bound to fall somewhere along this line and today we’re going to see how close to the top (or bottom) The God Inside My Ear ends up.

The film opens with a montage of strange, seemingly unconnected images, underscored by sinister music that culminates in two people in hazmat suits working on a dusty control panel in an abandoned looking room. After this, the movie is segmented into chapters and follows the story of Elizia (Linnea Gregg) who’s life begins to become more unhinged and surreal after she is suddenly dumped by her boyfriend.

The opening minutes of a film can reveal a lot about what you’re in for and one thing that stands out immediately about TGIME is how incredibly well shot it is. The image quality is rich and beautiful, the shots are well framed and artistic, and the use of disorienting video effects and colored lighting does an excellent job in creating a surreal, unstable feeling when needed. Writer/director Joe Badon certainly has a keen visual sense and there’s no question that the cinematography of this film is beyond reproach.

Of course, the look of a film is only one piece of the puzzle, as we also have to take into account the quality of acting and the backbone of the movie itself, the script. The results for the former are a bit varied as some actors deliver solid performances and others belie the professionalism of the footage quality with stilted, unnatural delivery. Although, to be fair, at timesit can be hard to tell how much responsibility can be attributed to the actors when so much of the dialogue is awkwardly constructed and full of attempts at comedy that fall completely flat.

TGIME starts to become a bit more interesting as it progresses, shifting tone from awkward “comedy” into surreal, light-horror. The main problem here is that the first act, which was supposed to create a baseline for the characters and their reality, is instead spent doing tired shtick that ultimately made me less invested in the outcome. Even so, TGIME does become more watchable as Elizia’s reality becomes more warped and viewers can expect to be treated to some well-constructed and delightfully bizarre imagery.

It should also be noted that this film does in fact have underlying meaning to the images and the reveal at the end sheds light on the story that preceded it, as well as make you think about the clues that were given along the way. However, while the reveal does serve to better explain what was happening, it also raises some very important practical questions that it leaves unanswered, which I can’t go into further detail about without spoiling the twist. What this all adds up to is a visually stunning film with an interesting (although not wholly original) concept and a script that could have been compelling with another rewrite, or three.

 

2-5-stars-red

Darkness Comes (2018)

Darkness ComesThe incredible advances in digital technology over the last few decades have made it more possible than ever for aspiring and indie filmmakers to make their vision a reality, or at least attempt to. Freed from the burdens and excessive cost that goes along with shooting on film stock, many indie directors will attempt to replicate the lavish production values of multi-million dollar films with elaborate DIY sets and numerous on-screen characters. This almost always results in a disastrous final product but is still a far more common practice than the more sensible approach of using a small cast and a primary central location.

There are, of course, plenty of indies that do understand the importance of a more contained, focused approach and with only three characters and one main location, Darkness Comes is certainly one of them. However, a more intimate approach also amplifies the importance of the acting and storyline, so let’s see if this method ended up proving successful in this case.

The film starts with a young, attractive couple Eddie (Owen Whitelaw) and Suze (Kelly Wenham) well on their way to hooking up in a strange, abandoned looking room. However, things quickly take a turn and it becomes apparent that Eddie is in for a very different night than he had been hoping for.

When I first noticed that this film only had a runtime of 67 minutes (!) it did make me skeptical about what exactly was in store for me with a story that was going to fall awkwardly between the lengths of what can be considered a short and a feature. In this age of digital streaming though, films no longer need to adhere to the same kind of strict parameters that they once did and upon completion I realized that this was the perfect length for the story that was being told.

In fact, if it had been padded with another 20 or 30 minutes to simply achieve feature length, it would have spoiled the tight pacing and engaging plot of what turned out to be a very interesting movie. But it’s not just the pacing that makes this successful, the excellent acting, beautiful camerawork and simple yet brilliant special effects makes this a film that really fires on all cylinders. Director David Newbigging also makes excellent use of the single location and keeps the story feeling fresh and engaging within the confined space.

That’s not to say there aren’t still a few blemishes to be found. Between the thick accents of the cast and a background audio mix that threatens to drown out the dialogue at times, it may be a good idea to turn the subtitles on for this one. There were also some minor instances of inconsistent character motivation but neither of these issues loomed large enough to really take away from the overall experience.

It’s always refreshing to see a film that really knows how to play to its strengths and understands its limitations. Newbigging also uses the concept of an ominous, unseen horror to great effect and the FX that are used are simple and well executed. The film itself may be a bit more on the abstract side for those seeking a mainstream horror experience but for viewers want to indulge in an unusual and exceptionally well crafted film, this is an indie movie that gets it right.

4-stars-red