Short Film Review: Filtered (2021) Duration 5 min 39 sec

As we rely more and more on technology to make connections (especially as the ever present quarantine isolation marches on) it makes sense that tech based horror would become more prevalent in the genre in new and interesting ways. Just as Host did last year, Filtered is able to effectively communicate horror and anxiety in the simple yet brilliant format of video chat. With a runtime of less than six minutes, writer/ director Vincenzo Nappi doesn’t have a lot of time to establish characters or backstory, yet is able to make both Jasmine (Jasmine Winter) and Marco (Marco Carreiro) immediately feel genuine and real with the sparse information provided. This goes a long way to making their initially mundane conversation all the more familiar at the start and therefore more frightening by the climax. With simple yet effective imagery that recalls the classic David Lynch shortThe Alphabet at times, this is an amazing piece of bite-sized horror that feels very apropos to the moment.

Short Film Review: Forced Entry (2021) Duration 24 min 24 sec

Typically in short films it’s best to dive right into the action and Forced Entry does just that as it plunges you into the world of psychotic drifter duo Arthur Maddox (Tom Lodewyck) and Donovan Hatche (James Bett Jr). The film follows the pair on a brutal killing spree over the course of a couple of days and was inspired by real life murderers Lawrence Bittaker and Roy Norris who raped and killed five young women in 1979. Even though brief footage of the real killers is shown at the end, the connection they have to the film probably wouldn’t have been clear to anyone who didn’t have the luxury of reading the highly detailed press kit. Even so, the shots do still serve to illustrate the point that our real world is filled with brutal, sadistic violence that usually occurs without much motive or rational explanation.

The story here is definitely pretty bare bones as most of the twenty-four minute runtime is taken up with extended scenes of mean-spirited violence. That’s not at all a bad thing in this case though, because even without a more robust narrative, the film still manages to be highly compelling with some truly impressive practical gore effects and excellent performances from the victims. It also makes sense given the fact that K.M. Jamison (who co-wrote/co-directed with James Bett Jr) said in a statement that the film is intended to function as a kind of showcase for what will hopefully be turned into a feature someday. In that regard it’s highly successful and I’m very on-board to see this nasty little story get fully fleshed-out in all its blood-soaked glory.

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 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

Audition (1999)

audition-cover-11If you’ve only seen one film by the brilliant Japanese auteur Takashi Miike, then it was probably Audition. Not only is it Miike’s most well known film outside of Japan but it is also his most accessible. That’s not to say of course that it’s something that’s easily digested by the mindless masses, it is still a Miike film after all, and if it didn’t have some incredibly violent, disturbing scenes I wouldn’t be reviewing it here. Although, it’s not the violence alone that makes this film interesting, what really sets it apart is the brutal sucker-punch it gives the audience.

After his wife dies of an illness, Shigeharu Aoyama (Ryo Ishibashi) must raise his son Shigehiko (Tetsu Sawaki) on his own. When Shigehiko becomes a teenager he begins to encourage his father to find a new wife and Shigeharu takes his advice to heart, in a rather unconventional way. By staging sham auditions for a movie that won’t be made, he is able to screen potential mates and quickly falls for one of the beautiful applicants, Asami (Eihi Shiina). But despite her sweet, meek demeanor, Asami is holding a very dark secret that threatens to unravel Shigeharu’s entire life.

Typically, when a film has a significant tonal shift, the end result is a story that feels unbalanced and poorly crafted. However, in this case, Miike uses that very concept to deliberately lull the viewer into a false sense of security before violently pulling the rug out from under them. The entire first half plays out as a well-acted relationship drama with no indication of the horrors that are in store. I can only hope that there are people out there who actually watched this expecting a drama and were scarred for life by what they witnessed in the final thirty minutes.

Audition sittingWhat really makes Audition work is that even with the tonal shift, the two halves of the film never feel like disparate ideas awkwardly stitched together but instead function as one cohesive story that is purposefully and methodically laid out. The dramatic, character-focused beginning fleshes out who these people are and makes the viewer truly invested in their fate. The fact that the violence is intense but used sparingly also gives it a far greater impact when it’s shown.

For the most part, the narrative of this film is quite straightforward and only really veers into surreal territory during a particular montage where a character seems to be aware of details he couldn’t have known without some kind of supernatural ability. It’s possible this may have been a slight oversight in terms of the perspective of the scene but it’s also possible that it was intended to be ambiguous and represent the character’s fears of what the potential truth might be. Either way, the scene plays out incredibly well with some gloriously grotesque imagery that will stick with you long after the credits roll.

As far as Miike films go, this one represents an essential entry into his canon and makes a great stepping stone for viewers into his more unhinged masterpieces such as Ichi the Killer and Visitor Q. It also serves as a cautionary tale that when relationships seem too good to be true, they usually are.

4-stars-red

Murder-Set-Pieces (2004)

msp coverTo anyone who has taken so much as a cursory glance at my reviews it should be abundantly clear that I am an incredibly strong supporter of free speech. I’ve made it my mission to track down and review the darkest and most fucked up films ever made and I revel in witnessing cinema’s most disturbing creations. This is all to say that it’s extremely rare that I come across a film with parts that even I find problematic, but it does happen. A classic example would be the unsimulated animal killing in Cannibal Holocaust whose artistic value is superseded by the real world suffering caused by their creation. It had been a long time since I’d seen Murder Set Pieces, so I was surprised to find a similar moral predicament as I wondered to myself “Wait, is this a fucking pro-Nazi film?” More on that in a minute.

The film itself is very light on actual plot and essentially just follows around an unnamed professional photographer (Sven Garrett) as he brutally murders women in Las Vegas. Despite the fact that he’s racking up a substantial body count, the only person who is even remotely suspicious of this obvious sociopath is his girlfriend’s little sister, who is determined to find out what is really going on. MSP 3

Now, if you are going to have a villainous, evil character, a Nazi or Nazi sympathizer is certainly a good choice and as such have been used effectively in many other films. In the case of MSP though it feels very…..different and not just because the protagonist is openly supportive of Nazis and screams in German while he kills people. By themselves these traits could be passed off as simply being used to enhance the evil nature of the character, but when you also start your film with a strange quote about “the Jews” and use a production company named Third Reich Ventures (!) shit starts to add up.

To be fair, this film was made in a different time, years before a peaceful frog was co-opted into an official symbol of hate speech by armies of trolls seeking to make racism “great” again. If I was to play devil’s advocate I could say that it is possible that writer/director Nick Palumbo was perhaps using the imagery more in service of shock value than promoting an ideology. MSP 5However, this more generous read of the subject matter is a tough sell considering how the entire film feels like little more than a vicarious indulgence of Palumbo’s darkest fantasies.

In scene after scene the strong, good looking protagonist is able to effortlessly pick up beautiful women and viciously fuck and murder them in a seemingly consequence-free environment. In addition to this, this unnamed photographer uses nearly all his non-German dialogue on misogynistic rants or fawning praise for Nazis. This is of course when he isn’t busy working out while Triumph of the Will plays in the background. It’s really unfortunate that these things had to be so pervasive within the film because despite the numerous problematic elements there is actually a lot that MSP does very well.

MSP 6

From a visual standpoint this film is absolutely stunning and Palumbo makes excellent use of his two million dollar budget to create mesmerizing visuals on 35mm film stock. Side note, this film also has the bizarre distinction of allegedly containing the only known 35mm footage of the WTC towers going down on 9/11, for whatever that’s worth. Anyway, horror fans don’t just come for the pretty pictures though, we come for the gore and on that front MSP delivers incredibly well. So well in fact that the film was thrown out of three labs before finally being processed.

Thankfully, it was eventually processed because the director’s cut of this film has some of the most gorgeous and gruesome gore effects ever put to celluloid. Each murder scene is exquisitely crafted to showcase the raw, visceral bloodshed in all it’s glory. MSP 1The chainsaw to the head scene stands out as a particular highlight but whether it’s a brutal throat slitting, bathtub drowning or vicious beating each violent scene is filled with a raw, vicious energy that makes the kills much more realistic and disturbing. Throw in some corpse eating, severed head fucking and a brutal on-screen child murder (!) and what you get is a truly unfiltered example of Extreme Cinema that goes well beyond where conventional horror films dare to venture.

The glorious gore effects were courtesy of Fred Vogel’s Toetag Pictures production studio and Vogel himself even cameos in the film. He is also joined by horror legends Gunnar Hansen and Tony Todd, who’s disgruntled porn store clerk character is a highlight of the film. MSP 2So, in the end there is a lot to like about MSP and if it hadn’t been infested with Nazi propaganda it would be an easy film to recommend to fans of hardcore cinema. Overall I’m left feeling conflicted because as much of a fan as I am of the gorgeous, unhinged violence I just can’t fully endorse a film that seems like it would be a top pick for a neo-Nazi movie night.

2-stars-red

Parallel (2016)

Parallel alternativeThe idea that alternate realities could simultaneously exist in the universe is certainly an interesting one and a concept that has become ever more pervasive in the popular consciousness of late.

However, much like the concept of time travel, it can also become somewhat of a quagmire for writers seeking to apply logical explanations to a concept that defies conventional logic. Regardless of it’s setting though, good storytelling is always king and the films that maintain a compelling, character-driven core while exploring unusual concepts are the ones that are really worth your time. Conversely, films that don’t, will simply collapse under the weight of their facile ideas and today we’ll see where Parallel falls on that spectrum.

After formally meeting at a party, co-workers Heather (Faye Sewell) and Neil (David Magowan, also the screenwriter) begin their seemingly perfect relationship. After a chance meeting with a self-proclaimed psychic named Machlis (Brian Carter) the couple soon finds themselves voyeuristically peering into a parallel version of their lives, to see what much darker versions of themselves are up to.

The very concept of this film is based upon the idea of there being “light and dark” versions of each of our lives playing out in simultaneous timelines, which is exactly the kind of intellectual quagmire I was referring to earlier. The very idea that there could be a “good” reality and a “bad” one is the kind of thing that sounds cool at first and then completely unravels as soon as you start to think about it. Sure, you can show a few isolated characters with alternate versions of themselves engaging in more morally questionable behavior, but what about the world at large? The implication seems to be that the protagonists exist within our normal reality, not some kind Utopian version, so are we supposed to swallow the idea that we live in the good version!? At this point I would like to introduce Magowan to a little thing called the news….

Despite all the real world horrors that plague our planet, it makes just as little sense to say we are collectively an amalgamation of all the worst versions of all the people who have ever lived. The concept of infinitely branching parallel universes is interesting but the idea that they could be distilled down to two oversimplified versions is just ridiculous. Frankly, it takes a very privileged perspective to look around at the world we have and think “wow, what if there was a bad version of this….”

Now, concept is a big factor but so is execution and in the case of this film the results are varied. Overall, the most positive aspect of the production is the acting. Carter especially shines as the somewhat put-upon psychic who may have more up his sleeve than he initially reveals. Sewell also does a very solid job with the material she is given and handles her character’s emotional range skillfully. From a technical standpoint, the film is decently shot but does run into some the classic pitfalls that plague inexperienced filmmakers such as occasionally clumsy edits and some noticeably bad instances of sound design.

Those issues aside, the film as a whole does a decent job of holding your attention, especially as the more debaucherous elements start to come into play. It’s a creative concept with a decent execution that simply suffered from a series of rough edges through all aspects of production. A few tweaks to the central concept, some more natural dialogue, and a smoother edit and this could have been a very interesting film indeed. Too bad we don’t have that cut of the movie, maybe it exists on a separate timeline.

2-5-stars-red