Call me old-school but the idea of an A.I servant sitting idle and listening to your every word never sat well with me and I won’t have Alexa, Google Nest, or any of that weird, Big Brother shit in my house. While that no doubt sounds ridiculous to some, I’m clearly not the only one who has felt disquieted by the ubiquitous self-imposed surveillance of our modern world as films like L.U.N.A. deal with this very specific technological anxiety.
In the world of the film, the Alexa surrogate is called L.U.N.A and is a pyramid shaped device that technicians like Lilian (Fernanda Romero) spend a lot of time making house calls to repair. When she is summoned to the creepy old mansion that young couple Jamie and Sarah Cambell (Lauren Bair and Lauren Deshane) recently moved into she soon finds that this is far from an ordinary call.
Even more than the horror elements of this story the strangest thing about this reality is the reliability of the devices themselves. Apparently (according to the film) they break down so frequently and in such great quantity that technicians such as Lillian have to work from 6 in the morning till well after dark just to try and keep up with what must be an unfathomable amount of malfunctioning units. Given that the repair call itself seems to take less than five minutes, the surrounding community must be absolutely lousy with broken L.U.N.As that must be serviced in-person at all hours, from the break of dawn to the dead of night.
It’s just strange that a film that is so careful to logically justify so many aspects of the world would leave such an odd detail hanging. If the L.U.N.As themselves were built into the house or at least larger than a decorative paperweight, then there would have been more justification for Lillian’s job. Despite how much time I’m spending focusing on this particular aspect of the story, what’s most important is how well the overall components of the production work.
To that end, it’s an incredibly well-realized vision that wears its Giallo influences proudly on it’s sleeve (or in Sarah’s case, directly on her Inferno shirt). The creative camerawork, bold stylistic choices, pulsating synth score, and genuine tension all work in concert to deliver a very polished experience. In the end I was left wanting more, which was partly to the credit of the engaging story and partly because the abrupt ending was slightly unsatisfying. While the story did build effectively to its conclusion, it felt a bit more like the opening scene of a feature than a stand-alone short. Regardless, it’s a very well-made and entertaining piece of cinema and if it was to be expanded to a feature length production I’d happily line up to see it.
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.
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.
Coming in at a scant six minutes and forty seconds, The Visitor packs a lot into its short runtime. The story follows an unnamed writer who leaves behind his wife for the weekend to go to their country house and finish his book but encounters something very strange upon his arrival. One thing that immediately pops out about this film is director Mark Palgy’s choice to overlay a pulsating score over the entire runtime in place of any sound effects or audible dialogue. It’s a bold choice, especially since there is a significant amount of dialogue in the film which is instead conveyed through subtitles. This unconventional decision could have easily gone south, but in this case it works wonderfully and imbues the short with a life and energy that complements the visuals.
The 70s-style grain works well to contribute to the subtly surreal quality of the film which sometimes gives way to fully psychedelic imagery and bold color palettes reminiscent of Panos Cosmatos’ Mandy. The only minor gripe I have is that it briefly plays into a convention I see entirely too much where a character experiences something that would be utterly mind-shattering but regards it with little more than a mild incredulity. Still, this is an excellent film with high production values in every aspect from the aerial shots and the production company logos to the special effects and the camera work. It very much succeeds as a stand-alone short but could also definitely be expanded into a feature that brings the simple yet chilling story to a global scale.
Mai-chan’s Daily Life brings to mind questions I never thought I’d ask such as “what if instead of being a badass superhero Wolverine was a tortured sex slave?” That’s essentially the central plot of this film, where a maid with infinitely regenerative powers (who can still feel pain) is used by her sadistic “master” to fulfill his violent, brutal fantasies. Loosely based upon the 2003 Manga Mai-chan no nichijô by Waita Uziga the film was adapted and directed by Sade Satô in 2014. While the story may deviate quite a bit from the source material, it maintains the same spirit of gleeful brutality thanks in large part to direct supervision of the process by Uziga himself.
The storyline in this adaptation centers around a new character created for the film named Miyako (Miyako Akane) who starts work as a maid at the remote house where Mai-chan (An Koshi) already works. Once Miyako dons her short, fetishistic maid outfit, Mai-chan starts showing her the ropes. This includes how to dust the jars filled with dead puppies, as well as how to be appropriately subservient to their wheelchair-bound employer known only as “Master” (Shôgo Maruyamawho) and the cruel head maid Kaede (Soako Roman). After witnessing the brutal punishment Mai-chan receives for daring to spill the milk that she was forced to lap up from a bowl on the floor, Miyako becomes aware of Mai-chan’s special ability. Rather than horrifying her, this seems to awaken something in Miyako who becomes obsessed with the idea of “devouring” Mai-chan.
Despite its incredibly brutal violence, the film actually feels toned-down from the Manga as it contains none of the graphic sex or (thankfully) pedophilia of the source material. I can’t say that there is really a lot beneath the surface here, as both the film and the Manga seem primarily created to indulge the Torture Porn fantasies of the audience and the lingering shots of bent-over maids and sadistic violence certainly work to support that idea. Don’t get me wrong though, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that and it’s great when a film knows what it is and owns it. Despite all the violence, the film has a lightness to it and doesn’t take itself too seriously. There’s something about Mai-chan that just makes it so damn engaging (dare I say fun) and the experience is reminiscent of the similarly graphic yet lighthearted Guinea Pig 3: He Never Dies.
It helps that the acting and special effects are both excellent which serves to keep you immersed in this strange, twisted story. The film does (for some reason) alternate between black & white and color at seemingly random intervals which may have been an homage to the B&W source material, but I found to be a needless distraction. Even though it originally came out in 2014 the film is getting a proper re-release courtesy of Tetro Video in July of 2021, which is great news for fans who can no longer get a hold of the OOP edition that Redemption Films put out in 2016. Connoisseurs of twisted, splatter cinema would do well to check this one out because at just over an hour, it goes down real easy and has a great rewatchability factor. It may not be the most complex thing on the menu but it’s a satisfying treat that Extreme Cinema fans will want to devour over and over again.
A successful story is one that develops as it progresses, bringing new twists and revelations as it builds upon itself. When the story in question is a short, then it’s important that the movement occurs quickly and meaningfully. Director/co-writer Chris Guzzo finds that balance with Family Bond which starts out on a tense but innocuous domestic scene and develops into something far more menacing before long. Its difficult to really talk about the short’s plot without giving spoilers but there are other things to discuss. The acting for one is good, it’s not the best I’ve ever seen but it still manages to bring the characters to life and gets the job done. Within its brief run time the film is able to throw in some major twists and surprising revelations which is difficult to do within such a limited space. Those twists however do rely heavily on the acceptance of a certain fact that, while possible, is unlikely enough to remain dangerously close to implausible. Still, an overall interesting story that efficiently sets up the characters and the world and will take you on an engaging ride that builds to a fittingly dark climax.
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.
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.
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.
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.