It’s a lot more than ‘hell in a cell’ with ‘Vendetta’

Paul "Big Show" Wight as Victor and Dean Cain as Danvers are mortal enemies in "Vendetta."

Paul “Big Show” Wight as Victor and Dean Cain as Danvers are mortal enemies in “Vendetta.”

For those who like their action movies bloody and uncompromisingly brutal, “Vendetta” is worth every minute of their time.

In limited theatrical release but readily available on video on demand, “Vendetta” plays out superbly as a good guy vs. bad guy story, with a hero steadfast in determination and willing to take a beating to achieve his goals, against an imposing villain, often who has allies and all kinds of advantages.

Dean Cain, an actor with a wide array of roles but mostly known for playing Clark Kent/Superman in the TV series “Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman” (1993-97), is Mason Danvers, a tough police detective, who as “Vendetta” opens, arrests — with a lot of help — two brothers, Griffin Abbott (Aleks Paunovic) and Victor Abbott (Paul “Big Show” Wight), two hoods with an extensive record of crimes. Battered from a nasty fight with Victor, Danvers goes home to be nursed by his wife, Jocelyn (Kyra Zagorsky).

Three months later, Danvers is given the stunning news that because a key witness has “disappeared” in the Abbott case, both brothers have been set free.Victor, taking his arrest at the hands of Danvers personally, pays a visit to Jocelyn, and the result is an absolutely gut-wrenching attack. But in the process Victor is arrested again and sent to prison.

In the wake of this tragedy, Danvers is driven to a point he no longer will play it by the book. He commits a deadly crime, setting it up so that he is arrested and convicted. He is sent to Stonewall prison, where, of course, Victor is incarcerated.

The screenplay by Justin Shady presents prison life with all the dynamics seen in earlier movies about life in such institutions, complete with a warden, Snyder (Michael Eklund) with questionable and possibly corrupt ties, along with decent and hard-working prison guards and the crooked, sadistic prison personnel, and the ever-present prisoner hierarchy of one inmate at the top of the food chain, surrounded by loyal, nasty lieutenants (or hard-ass toadies).

Once in prison, Danvers learns quickly the top dog is Victor, who sends of couple of his goons to give Danvers a body-busting orientation on what life will be like in Stonewall.

The performances in “Vendetta” are marvelous. Cain’s Danvers can be a frustratingly impulsive character, throwing himself carelessly into the line of fire without thinking of the consequences yet can summon enough resourcefulness to do the things necessary to stay alive.

Wight is perfectly cast as Victor. A superstar in World Wrestling Entertainment, his is an imposing presence at seven feet tall and more than 400 pounds. Over the years he has performed in the wrestling ring mostly as a heel (bad guy) and has a sneer that can wilt any foe. Besides his physical intimidation, Wight also displays an adept ability to show exasperation as his lieutenants become antsy when Danvers starts gaining some ground.

Eklund is deliciously slimy and manipulative as Warden Snyder, putting a nice spin on the corrupt prison official. Also of note in the cast are Adrian Holmes (Drexel), Juan Riedinger (Booker), Lee Rano (R.B.) and Garfield Wilson (Dee) as Victor’s increasingly shrinking corps of enforcers; as well as Matthew MacCaull (Ben) as the sympathetic prison guard and Jonathan Walker as Lester and Dee Jay Jackson as Will, the guards with questionable work ethics.

The violence in “Vendetta” definitely deserves an R rating, and the cast really earned combat pay with all the vicious physical encounters.

All this spectacularly choreographed mayhem was directed under the firm leadership of Jen and Sylvia Soska. In this, only their fourth full-length movie as directors, the Soskas, also know as The Twisted Twins, expand their territory from horror to flat-out action. The twins, who recently directed another WWE star, Kane (Glenn Jacobs), in “See No Evil 2,” have a growing base of fans that appreciates the creativity and talent they have presented as directors and screenwriters in “Dead Hooker in a Trunk” and notably “American Mary,” the latter of which has seen enormous growth in popularity and recognition as a groundbreaking horror movie and likely could become a classic of the genre.

Being billed as “hell in a cell,” “Vendetta” actually takes its action all over Stonewall, from the dining hall to the laundry room, and of course to the exercise yard, where all hell really breaks loose. In the end, it meets all the demands of the discriminating hard core action movie aficionado.


‘Insidious: Chapter 3’ takes a step back and focuses on Elise

When “Insidious: Chapter 2” (2013) wound down with the seeming resolution of the terrifying haunting problems of the Lambert family brought on by the ability of father Josh and son Dalton to astral-project in their sleep, there was an ominous epilogue that hinted of yet more trouble as a collateral effect of the Lambert case. Naturally, the assumption was that the next chapter in this series would address this.

Well, leave it to the writing-directing team of Leigh Whannell and James Wan to stray from the norm.

Instead of a continuation of the story, “Insidious: Chapter 3” is a prequel, focusing on the personal issues that haunted the gifted psychic Elise Rainier (Lin Shaye) in the years before she had to revisit the Lambert case.

The Whannell/Wan collaboration shifts gears here, with Whannell not only writing but directing as well — this being his directorial debut — while Wan serves as producer.

“Chapter 3” takes place a few years before the Lambert case, but it cannot be too far in the past, as laptop computers, Skype and mobile devices are very much a part of the culture in this story.

It begins when teenager Quinn Brenner (Stefanie Scott), on the verge of graduating from high school and setting sights on pursuing an acting career, goes to Elise’s house, seeking the woman’s help. Quinn’s mother has recently died of cancer and Quinn believes her mother is trying to communicate with her from the beyond.

Initially, Elise declines to help, saying she is no longer in the business of breaking through to the other side. But eventually she gives in, and to her horror she discovers it is not Quinn’s mother, but something more sinister at work, and strongly advises Quinn to just move on with her life.

Unfortunately, it is too late. Quinn, her father Sean (Dermot Mulroney) and younger brother Alex (Tate Berney), live in an apartment building that is the archetype structure where eerie spiritual shenanigans are cultivated. The floors creak, every door squeaks, the elevator is vintage slow.

Quinn is injured in an accident, making her predicament even worse, as she has no mobility. As creepy things begin to escalate, Quinn is at least lucky that Sean does not linger long with the skeptical parent stance often seen in these kinds of movies (“You were just having a dream,” “The noises are just the house settling,” etc.), and soon he is paying a visit to Elise. But once again Elise is reluctant to help. She is dealing with her own personal tragedy and a malevolent force that has hooked onto to her from a previous case. She does agree to visit Quinn and decides to conduct a seance that only solidifies her resolve to stop venturing into the spiritual world.

Desperate to find some help, Sean  heeds Alex’s suggestion they bring in Tucker and Specs (Angus Sampson and Whannell), two paranormal investigators who have become stars on the Internet.

But the technology they have at hand does not negate the fact they are not gifted like Elise.

Meanwhile, Elise meets with fellow spiritual expert Carl (Steve Coulter), who gives her a pep talk, and Elise realizes that if she is not willing to help people by using her gift, she really has nothing else to offer.

Just like all stories of the supernatural, the scary moments are designed to make the viewer jump, and there are teaser moments when a jolt is expected but does not occur. The only real hook is discovering what is behind the scary happenings. So once Elise resolves to help Quinn and break through to The Further, it is a matter of her finding out what is going on and how to combat it.

There really are no twists in the story, but watching Shaye as Elise is always a pleasure, especially when she shifts into overdrive and puts the smackdown on all these evil entities. Plus, we get to see the origination of the association between Elise and Tucker and Specs.

Whether or not the “Insidious” series will continue remains to be seen. Whannell has said in an interview for Rue Morgue magazine that nothing is in the works for a fourth chapter yet. For sure, however, Whannell and Wan have left the fans of this series with some teasers that will guarantee a captive audience should there be more “Insidious”creepiness.

An old house, a town with secrets and more supernatural chills in “We Are Still Here”

Another offering for horror fans that has recently been released and is available via video on demand is “We Are Still Here,” a movie with the familiar premise of people moving into a house that has a mysterious and deadly past.

Written and directed by Ted  Geoghegan, based on a concept by Richard Griffin, “We Are Still Here,” opens with a middle-aged couple, Anne (Barbara Crampton from “Re-Animator” and “You’re Next”) and Paul Sacchetti (Andrew Sensenig) moving into a secluded house in the New England area as they try to regroup upon the death of their college-age son in an auto accident.

Despite setting up a new household, Anne is convinced of the spiritual presence of their son — a notion Paul dismisses.

The house is old and problems exist, including a strangely overheated basement. A few weeks into their residency, the Sacchettis are paid a visit by neighbors Dave and Cat McCabe (Monte Markham and Connie Neer), and soon Dave is telling them about the origination of the home, that it was built to be a mortuary and when it was discovered that the family running the mortuary was violating the trust of the community, they were driven away.

This is not an uplifting story and Dave soon apologizes for revealing it. Meanwhile, Cat seems spooked and submissive, but does manage to slip a note to the Sacchettis, urging them to leave.

Anne, still sensing the presence of her son, invites her friend May Lewis (Lisa Marie) and her drug-dabbling husband Jacob (Larry Fassenden) out to stay a weekend. May has done some seances and Anne hopes she might be able to summon the spirit of their son.

When the Lewises arrive, the two couples decide to go into the small nearby town for dinner and encounter a bar-restaurant full of suspicious people along with an undertone of hostility.

Meanwhile, the Lewis’ son Harry (Michael Patrick Nicholson) and his girlfriend Daniella (Kelsea Dakota) arrive at the house and rather than go into town they decide to wait at the house and engage in some intimate activity, which always riles up mischievous spirits and serial slashers.

By the time the couples return to the house, wondering what is it with the enigmatic townspeople, some bad things have occurred and are about to escalate.

“We Are Still Here” starts slow as Geoghegan establishes an ominous mood with several long shots of the snow-drenched and eerily silent outdoors around the house, complete with creepy looking trees barren of leaves. After a while these scenes, while effective, interrupt the rhythm of the storytelling.

The final 30 minutes or so of the movie really pick up the pace and enable the characters, particularly Anne and Paul, to elevate themselves above the grief stalking their lives. It is a refreshing jump-start to what had been bland characters. Up to that point only Jacob is a standout with his lingering hippy persona.

“We Are Still Here” requires patience but once the action picks up there are some terrifying and surprising moments that push all the right buttons and help make this movie an effective thriller.



Mother Nature rips loose in ‘San Andreas’ and even The Rock cannot stop it

Forty years ago, “Earthquake” hit theaters with its new gimmick called Sensurround, which were just huge speakers placed strategically in the movie houses to boom out the rumbling of a massive temblor. This accompanied scenes of what obviously were models of buildings collapsing and roads buckling and crumbling. In addition, there were silly side stories about the characters who then had to set aside personal issues and get down to the business of basic survival as Los Angeles came tumbling down.

Thankfully, special effects have come a long way since then, and because of advancements in CGI, panoramic views of death and destruction on a massive scale can be choreographed in spectacular ways, as have been seen in recent end-of-the-world movies like “The Day After Tomorrow” in 2004 and “2012” in 2009.

With that kind of technology at hand, why not revisit the earthquake theme, but not have it confined just to the L.A. or San Francisco area? Let’s include the whole state. So we are presented with “San Andreas,” named for the long fault line that cuts through California and is one all the experts say is capable of, and likely to unleash a massive quake registering 8-plus on the Richter scale.

Since the earthquake itself is the backbone of “San Andreas,” there is no need to spend extensive time developing the main characters. The script by Carlton Cuse, who has penned some episodes of “Bates Motel,” does have some groan-inducing lame dialog, but otherwise it jumps right into the action, featuring Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson as Ray, a member of an L.A. fire department helicopter rescue unit.

In the opening minutes, Ray and his team conduct an adrenaline-rush rescue of a young woman from her car after an accident that puts her in a potentially fatal situation.

Then the movie segues over to the scientific part of the story. Paul Giamatti plays Lawrence, a professor at Cal Tech, who with colleague Kim Park (Will Yun Lee) believe they have discovered a way to accurately predict quakes. They go to Hoover Dam in Nevada, where some activity might indicate a pending temblor. The quake does occur but with drastically more intensity than they expected.

There is a pause in the action for obligatory exploration of Ray, the flawed hero, and here, Cuse employs familiar character backgrounds. The hero is forced into part-time parenthood via a broken marriage or too much dedication to work (such as Tommy Lee Jones’ Mike Roarke in “Volcano,” Dennis Quaid’s Jack Hall in “The Day After Tomorrow,” and more notably Liam Neeson’s Bryan Mills in the “Taken” series). Ray is estranged from his wife Emma (Carla Gugino), and like Jo Harding (Helen Hunt) in “Twister,”  Mills in “Taken” and David Levinson (Jeff Goldblum) in “Independence Day,” he has not yet emotionally processed the idea that his ex has moved on to another relationship.

The call of duty forces Ray to cancel plans to drive his daughter Blake (Alexandra Daddario) up to San Francisco, where she is about to start college. She instead hitches a ride with her mother’s new boyfriend Daniel Riddick (Iaon Gruffud), the kind of guy who looks like he’ll wither when to going gets tough.

Meanwhile, a shaken Lawrence returns to Cal Tech and learns that the same data that were a precursor to the Hoover Dam shaker are now popping up on sensors all the way along the San Andreas fault line. He soon deduces that an event of never before experienced magnitude is about to occur in California.

In a nice piece of timing one can only see in movies, Ray is talking on his cell to Emma when the first big jolt hits in L.A., and she is on the top floor of a high rise in the downtown area. Ray dispenses with his professional duty and zips over in his chopper to rescue Emma.

Soon, the shaking has made its way up to San Francisco. Blake, who meets a young man from England, Ben (Hugo Johnstone-Burt) and his kid brother Ollie (Art Parkinson) while Daniel is conducting some business, finds herself with these two people in the aftermath of the quake in the northern part of the state. She manages to call Ray and let him know what happened and they set up a rendezvous point in the Bay area.

The story now bounces between the efforts of Ray and Emma to get up north, to Blake and her two friends as they encounter more hazards in Frisco, and to Lawrence and his colleagues at Cal Tech, who are now getting more readings to indicate the worst is yet to come and need to devise ways to get the word out even as the power grid collapses.

The script is excellent in presenting numerous ways people can face life-threatening situations and seemingly overwhelming odds even after the temblors end.

Director Brad Peyton (“Cats & Dogs: The Revenge of Kitty Galore”) keeps the action lively, with a few pauses here and there, mostly as Ray and Emma engage in some marriage counseling in between cheating death.

While Johnson is, well, The Rock, stoic and almost indestructible, both Gugino and Daddario portray Emma and Blake as tough, resourceful ladies, determined to survive.

“San Andreas” is what one would expect for a summer popcorn movie. The visuals are stunning and scary. And for those of us living in California, “San Andreas” carries special foreboding, because, unlike Godzilla, earthquakes are real.