A chilling chapter in American murder is revisited in “House of Manson”

The summer of 1969 presented the best and worst of the so-called hippy era. In New York, a few hundred thousand young people gathered in peace and harmony for a three-day concert featuring some icons of rock music. It was called Woodstock, and a surprised nation marveled at how this came off with such positive vibes.

But then on the other side of the country, what seemed like another communal gathering of peace and love in Southern California soon degenerated into a perverse, murderous attempt to spark an Armageddon-like race war. This became known as the Tate-LaBianca killings, orchestrated my a charismatic but evilly manipulative misfit named Charles Manson.

The Tate-LaBianca murders, which also became known as Helter Skelter, stunned the nation, not only because one of the victims, Sharon Tate, was an actress and very pregnant wife of director Roman Polanski, but also because of their brutality and the later discovery that the murders mostly were committed by young women.

The late Vincent Bugliosi, who was the chief prosecutor in Los Angeles in the criminal case against Manson and his followers, chronicled the chilling story of these horrendous murders in his now classic “Helter Skelter,” and in 1976, a two-part made-for-television movie featured Steve Railsback in a chilling portrayal of Manson.

Other projects have explored the murders that Manson ordered, and the latest effort is “House of Manson,” currently available on DVD in the United Kingdom — but being shipped to those who order it in the United States. The movie also is set for screenings at horror conventions and film festivals.

Written and directed by Brandon Slagle, “House of Manson” focuses primarily on Manson, played by Ryan Kiser, and how this person, an illegitimate child of a disinterested mother, managed to become a Messiah-like figure to young, impressionable and disenfranchised people.

The movie begins with police rounding up Manson and his “family” about two months after the August 1969 Tate-LaBianca murders, and with Manson now in jail, he is interviewed by a potential defense attorney, Ronald Hughes (Chriss Anglin). Through flashbacks, Manson’s story is detailed. While being raised in an unloving home, he is told one day by his uncle that he is a rebel, and not to forget that.

By the time he is an adult, Manson already has spent a lot of time in jail or reform school. He meets a woman, gets married and has a son. But his only job skill seems to be strong-arm robbery, which naturally lands him in jail. While Manson is serving time, his wife moves away, taking the son with her.

When Manson is released from prison, he is immediately taken by a change in the tone in America — a rebellious population of young people thumbing their noses at traditions, living for the moment. This is Charlie’s niche.

Manson fancies himself as a singer-songwriter and in his wanderings soon hooks up with other free spirits.

It is apparent that Manson has leadership qualities, but his ability to mesmerize and exert influence goes astray and he begins offering his twisted version of biblical philosophy along with a scary prediction of a vast race war that will devastate mankind. But only he and his followers will be wise enough to foresee what is coming and prepare for it and survive — likely to become the ruling class.

This all seem harmless enough — musings that are enhanced by the drugs and alcohol consumption that supposedly opens the mind to a new awareness. But this all takes a sinister turn when Manson starts soliciting vows from his followers that they be willing to die for him.

When Manson feels he has been betrayed by record producer Terry Melcher (Jason McNeil), this seems to serve as a trigger that unleashes an urgency in the man and a need to hasten his Helter Skelter prophecy that leads to the killings.

The most disturbing aspect of the “Helter Skelter” TV movie was showing how the young women — Susan Atkins, Leslie Van Houten and Patricia Krenwinkel — along with Tex Watson — not only willingly carried out these brutal murders, but in the case of Atkins and Van Houten, remained unrepentant after being captured and put on trial.

One of the disquieting parts of “Helter Skelter” was Atkins, portrayed by Nancy Wolfe, serenely and matter-of-factly giving her testimony to a grand jury, presenting the gruesome details of the crimes.

While “House of Manson” does a good job of putting the spotlight on Charles Manson — Kiser is at his best during his preaching to his followers, displaying a man who might have been brilliant and productive had those gifts been properly nurtured — the movie would have benefited from additional footage showcasing the actual murderers.

Devanny Pinn stands out as Atkins, first seen as a person who seems finally to have found a place where she can fit in — content and loving — who soon becomes an ardent follower of Manson and giggles at the prospect of killing people. Her blissful, smiling confession to police of the murders is chilling. It is an unsettling scene that etches itself indelibly into the viewer’s mind.

That Atkins revels in her actions is terrifying, given the abhorrent nature of the killing, unflinchingly presented in the movie. Particularly horrific is the repeated stabbings of Abigail Folger, played by Tristan Risk — who was riveting as the disturbed woman in Jessica Cameron’s “Mania” and delivered a stunning performance as Beatress, the Betty Boop-like stripper in the Soska Sisters’ “American Mary.” Bolger, mortally wounded, begs her killer to stop. “I’m already dead,” she chokes out. But the stabbing continues.

Kiser’s Manson is so lacking in conscience that he will say and do anything to achieve his goals. When he is able to surround himself with people willing to blindly accept every word he says and eagerly do his bidding, he becomes a menace.

Watson (Reid Warner) becomes an able lieutenant to Manson, directing and participating in the attacks on the victims, finding Atkins and Van Houten (Julie Rose) particularly motivated to kill in adrenalin-fueled fury.

Erin Marie Hogan portrays Manson family member Linda Kasabian as a person caught up in the pseudo wisdom of Manson but clueless as to what is going to happen when she is sent with the others to carry out Manson’s directives. Horrified by the murders she sees, she eventually would become a key witness for the prosecution.

“House of Manson” is a riveting retelling of a bloody chapter in American crime. Slagle’s script, ably played out by Kiser, Pinn, Hogan and others, captures the viewer’s attention, and even though you know what is going to happen, you cannot help but watch with fascination as it it unfolds.

‘The Boy’ offers another take on the creepy doll story

No doubt, when a lot of people saw the previews for “The Boy,” they rolled their eyes and thought, not another creepy doll movie.

But this one did offer an interesting twist — the doll in the story is life-size and is being used by an aging couple as a substitute for their child who died years earlier, caring for it as if it were a real person. This does present a sad, and yes creepy, story of two potentially very unstable people unable to accept reality and move on with their lives.

And then there are the paranormal possibilities.

The screenplay was written by Stacey Menear, this being his first script to be made into a movie. The director, William Brent Bell, has only four other movies under his belt.

The filmmakers put together an admirable effort. There will be those who will shake their heads after seeing “The Boy,” and declare it lame. Others will appreciate that the movie can grab the viewer because it doesn’t telegraph where it is going.

Scoring Lauren Cohan in the starring role is a big plus, as she is high profile right now with legions of fans who love her character Maggie Greene in “The Walking Dead.”

Cohan plays Greta Evans, an American woman who travels to England to serve as a nanny to a boy named Brahms. The boy lives with his parents in one of those old castle-like, secluded residents that have a “bad things happen here” vibe.

Naturally, Greta arrives carrying some emotional baggage, indicating this is not only a job she is accepting but also an escape.

When Greta meets the parents of Brahms, it already looks fishy. Mr. and and Mrs. Heelshire (Jim Norton and Diana Hardcastle) seem way too old to have a child that needs a nanny. Interestingly, this does not seem to register with Greta until she is introduced to Brahms, who happens to be a life-size doll. Greta’s “is this a joke” abashed laugh is met with solemn stares from the Heelshires.

During an orientation on the house and what her duties will be, Greta likely concludes that Mrs. Heelshire has clearly gone over the edge while Mr. Heelshire just plays along because he loves and supports his wife.

Fortunately for Greta, there is a voice of sanity in the form of Malcolm (Rupert Evans from “The Man in the High Castle” series), a young man who brings weekly food deliveries to the Heelshire house. Once the Heelshires depart for a long-awaited vacation, Malcolm clues in Greta on the story: Brahms died in a  fire in this house on his eighth birthday in 1991. Malcolm takes Greta to Brahms’ grave on the property. Malcolm’s attitude is, yeah, it’s weird and sad, but just play along.

Greta has been left with a list of a daily routine involving Brahms that clearly indicates Brahms was a very pampered and likely sensitive and possibly socially isolated child.

Of course, now alone in the house, Greta has no intention of carrying on this charade of feeding, dressing, reading to and putting to bed an inanimate object. Besides, she has her own distractions, as her past simply will not go away.

Then the strange things start happening. The huge house is the archetypal setting for spooky occurrences: thumps, distant voices, things disappearing and an attic with an access way that has a mind of its own.

The script injects a couple of “it’s only a dream” moments but it is clearly evident that someone or something is not happy about Greta shirking her duties.

It is a credit to the filmmakers that “The Boy” manages to capture the attention of the audience, not only by drawing viewers into Greta’s life but also throwing in Malcolm who might be a love interest for the woman while also being someone who might know more than he is saying.

Cohan deserves kudos for being able to play opposite a doll in a way that does not induce giggling. And when things get intense, Greta steps up — this being something “The Walking Dead” fans would expect from Cohan, whose Maggie Greene has been a tough survivor in that zombie apocalypse.

For “The Boy” to work, Cohan had to convincingly portray Greta as evolving from a person who approaches the job with skepticism to someone who sincerely embraces the possibility something paranormal is going on, and thus develops a relationship with the doll. She pulls this off, and then proves resourceful when confronting a dangerous situation.

“The Boy” takes a risky turn that might have some feeling betrayed while others will see it as the best logical conclusion. Either way, “The Boy,” is an effective little chiller and a nice showcase for Cohan, who effectively steps from an ensemble effort in “The Walking Dead” into a starring role.

 

 

Promising premise in ‘The Forest’ slips away

A person or persons come up with a basic idea for a horror thriller and expand an outline to a full-blown screenplay that is made into a movie. And it comes so close to realizing its potential. However …

This is  what drags down “The Forest,” a promising movie that, just as it seems to be building up in intensity and complexity, suddenly cuts short, as if it were under a deadline and was forced to be concluded before the all the details could be wrapped up.

“The Forest” has some strong points, starting with its star, Natalie Dormer (“Game of Thrones,” “The Tudors” and “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay” films), along with a decent story line and a setting that can be overwhelming and creepy. That it falls short likely can be attributed to inexperience. The three screenwriters, Nick Antosca, Sarah Cornwell and Ben Ketai, had never written a full-length movie script. Antosca and Ketai mostly have some television credits, and for Cornwell, this was her first screenplay ever.

Director Jason Zada was directing his first feature-length movie here.

Dormer plays Sara Price, a woman with what appears to be a stable life and marriage, who learns that her twin sister, Jess, a teacher in Japan, has disappeared, last seen entering the Aokigahara Forest below the majestic Mt. Fuji.

The forest already has a grim history, the place being where, during wars and famine, the sick and elderly were taken and left abandoned to die. Now in modern times, the Aokigahara Forest is a destination for those who want to commit suicide.

While the Japan authorities assume Jess is dead, Sara, who like many twins shares a spiritual link with her sister, is convinced Jess is alive, just lost in the forest.

Sara flies to Japan, intent on going into the forest herself and finding Jess.

As she settles into lodgings near the forest, she meets Aiden (Taylor Kinney), a travel writer for an Australian magazine who has made arrangements to go into the forest, accompanied by a ranger, Michi (Yukiyoshi Ozawa). Sara talks Aiden into letting her join in on the trek, under an agreement that Aiden can write a story about Sara and her quest to locate her sister.

Unfortunately, the movie is nearly half over before the three people actually enter the forest. Granted there needs to be some set-up dialogue, as Michi, not really enthused about leading Sara into the forest, issues warnings about the bad vibes in this vast wilderness, claiming that any horrible things they might encounter — other than possible bodies of suicide victims — will only be in their imagination, that the forest can sense when a person entering the forest is sad and exploit this.

Otherwise, a lot of footage is wasted, showing Sara traipsing along, pulling her luggage, or riding a train, along with a totally unnecessary scare scene that takes place before she goes into the forest.

There are some flashback scenes that help reveal the relationship between Sara and Jess and offer an explanation as to why Sara is grounded and Jess is the more unstable one.

Once the title character, the forest, is on screen, the movie finally triggers uneasiness. After all, a wilderness of this vast size can be intimidating, just with the idea one could get lost and never be found. Add to that the fact that so many people died there, willingly or not, and you have an environment that is eerie and unsettling.

Just as Michi insists they have to turn around and go back, and return to continue the search the next day because you don’t want to be in the forest after dark, they come across Jess’ tent and her belongings. Sara stubbornly decides to stay there despite the approaching darkness and wait for Jess to come back to her camp. Aiden also decides to stay. Michi reluctantly leaves but insists that they stay put in the camp area until he returns the next day.

When darkness hits, the creepiness escalates and this is where “The Forest” is at its best. Particularly effective is the appearance of a young Japanese schoolgirl, Mei (Ibuki Kineda), who may have been a student of Jess and claims to know where Jess is — but she also just might be a figment of Sara’s imagination.

Now, if “The Forest” had been better paced and not wasted so much earlier footage, there might have been another 20-30 minutes to explore what Sara and Aiden encounter, along with more clues as to whether the forest had succeeded in messing with Sara’s mind, blurring the distinction between reality and hallucination.

Instead, there is a climax that looks rushed, leaving a lot of issues unresolved. We do learn the reason Jess might be more unstable than Sara. But other issues are just left standing. This might have been the intent of the movie makers, but some of it is so blatantly set aside it almost seems like massive holes in the story either were never written or filmed but chopped out.

The overall effect is that the viewer may feel cheated, as if the filmmakers were saying: this is a long tease — to get the rest you have buy the director’s cut version on DVD/Blu-Ray. The ending was handled in a way that does lead to discussion, but  there just was too much that got glossed over.

 

 

‘Krampus’ finally getting a chance to show his nastiness

All these decades we were warned that Santa Claus “knows if you’ve been bad or good, so be good for goodness’ sake.” Or what? You would not get anything for Christmas? Or maybe a stocking full of coal?

Meanwhile in Europe, most likely in Germany, there originated the story of Krampus, sort of an Anti-Claus, who instead of gift deprivation, dished out punishment to naughty children. Rather than being a jolly fat fellow with a white beard who wears a red outfit, Krampus had curled horns, cloven hooves, a slimy curled tongue, and he enhanced this menacing presence by carrying around a chain.

To this day Germanic and Alpine countries put together Krampusnacht celebrations in early December. But in North America it has only been in the last few years that Krampus has gained attention. Artwork, T-shirts and collectibles of this dark entity are becoming more frequent, as are small celebrations, such as Krampus walks in cities like Portland and New York.

Krampus also has popped up in North American entertainment, making a guest appearance in a season 10 episode of “American Dad!” titled “Minstrel Krampus.” He was even a subject of live-action episodes in TV series “Supernatural” and “Grimm.”

So with all this going on, it is a surprise that Krampus has barely been touched upon in the mini-industry of Christmas-themed horror movies.

Well, thanks to writer-director Michael Dougherty, that no longer is the case. Although “Krampus” is only Dougherty’s second feature-length film as a director, he has built some muscle in the industry as the screenwriter for “X-Men 2” and “Superman Returns,” enabling him to get the backing needed to make a high-profile movie.

Dougherty, an admitted Halloween fanatic, earned his chops in the business, having to deal with a skittish Warner Bros. studio that mishandled his 2007 Halloween anthology “Trick ‘r Treat.” Although it was shuttled off to the direct-to-DVD market, it built a following that is still growing. His monster trick-or-treater Sam has become a popular Halloween mask.

In interviews with Horrorhound and Rue Morgue magazines, Dougherty said that while he likes Christmas too he always believed it lacked the mischief and debauchery of Halloween, and he did some research on Christmas observances of the past. He found a darker side to the celebrations in the old Pagan traditions that were devoted to the acknowledging the arrival of winter solstice. Looking more into the Pagan roots of the holiday, he soon learned about Krampus.

Teaming up with co-writers Todd Casey and Zach Fields, Dougherty has crafted a film in “Krampus” that could become a favorite among fans of Christmas horror movies.

“Krampus” can be seen as an homage to the family-horror, fantasy films of the 1980s such as “Gremlins,” “Critters,” “Poltergeist” and “E.T.,” movies that made an impression on Dougherty when he was growing up.

In “Krampus” there are similarities between the families besieged by this horrible holiday spirit and the Griswolds and their relatives of the classic “Vacation” film series. You might call this main family the less goofy Griswolds since Dougherty and his co-writers declined to give them a last name.

Tom (Adam Scott) and Sarah (Toni Collette) are a middle-class couple with a teen daughter Beth (Stefania LaVie Owen) and son Max (Emjay Anthony), who is still young enough to believe in Santa Claus. Also residing in the home is Tom’s mother from the old country, Omi (Krista Stadler), who by Tom’s own admission, “gets a little weird around Christmas.”

During the opening credits, Dougherty and team take a potshot at the commercialization of Christmas with darkly humorous scenes of holiday shopping chaos and trauma.

Tom and Sarah are going to host a Christmas gathering, as Sarah’s sister Linda (Allison Tolman from FX’s “Fargo”), her husband Howard (David Koechner, most recently seen as the scoutmaster-turned-walking-dead in “Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse”) and their brood of creepy kids are visiting for the holidays.

This is not a Norman Rockwell Christmas. This is a dysfunctional group. Adding to the volatile family gathering is the usual peripheral relative (remember Aunt Edna in “Vacation”?), this time in the form of Aunt Dorothy (Conchata Ferrell), the surprise guest who arrives lugging the baggage of bad vibes and overly candid comments.

Sarah is stressed, Tom is trying to keep things calm, Beth is barely engaged in all the hubbub and Max is the one who despite his young age longs for the more joyful Christmases of the past. Typically, things come unglued at the first family dinner, and it’s still only Dec. 23. Max, humiliated by his cousins for still believing in Santa Claus, tears up his letter to Santa and flings the scraps out the window. But instead of floating to the ground, they are sucked up by some power and disappear into the sky.

Soon the weather turns bad with a blizzard moving in. The power is knocked out. That is only the beginning. Max, in his despair, accidentally has summoned the terrifying power of Krampus. In other words, don’t count on Santa and his sleigh to show up this particular Christmas.

Dougherty uses the effective strategy, like that of “Jaws,” of not showing the beast until well into the terror. But there are plenty of other scares along the way. While toys coming to life can be fun and magical in other Christmas tales, in “Krampus” they just become horrifying and deadly. Naturally, the potentially creepiest of toys — clowns and jack-in-the-boxes — are on hand. And after seeing “Krampus,” viewers will never look at gingerbread cookies the same way again.

As the two families are forced to set aside simmering issues while they fight to survive, there comes with this the usual necessity of building trust and learning respect.

Eventually it is Omi who finally enlightens the family as to what is going on, revealing why she gets so weird around Christmas, and leaving poor Max to realize what he unwittingly did.

When Krampus does appear on screen —  mostly he is only shown in shadow silhouettes — he is a terrifying presence, surrounded by elves that are the antithesis of those little people happily residing at the North Pole. The Krampus beast was designed and put together by the Weta Workshop, a mostly practical special effects project wherein CGI was only used to erase any controlling wires and poles.

This Krampus goes beyond his job description. It is not just children he goes after. Everybody is on the naughty list here.

Dougherty effectively uses fearful anticipation to stir maximum dread, and the actual on-screen violence is minimal. The most graphic kills are reserved for the suddenly animated objects.

“Krampus” is capped off with an unsettling ending that requires viewers to guess what is going on. Thus, over the holiday meal, people who have seen the movie can discuss whether or not Krampus is done with his work on these two families.

 

Charlie Brown, friends make charming return to big screen in ‘The Peanuts Movie’

Fifty years after Charles Schulz’s Peanuts gang leaped from the printed comics page to animation in “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” the kids — along with a dog and a bird — are back with their first feature-length presentation since 1980, now sporting the magic of computer-generated imagery.

“The Peanuts Movie” definitely adds a visual fluidity common within the current crop of animated features. When the first trailers for “The Peanuts Movie” came out, many people lamented the modern look of the film, saying the simplistic artistry of the many Peanuts television specials and the four previous movies was what enhanced the charm of these efforts. And now, in addition to the computer graphics, a 3-D version is offered.

The animation for “The Peanuts Movie” did make provisions to emulate those familiar visuals of the earlier Peanuts adventures. The trees and other foliage in the background do not sway or billow in the breeze. The characters themselves at times look jagged.

Of course, as cute as the characters may be on screen, they have to resonate as the young kids in the strip that enchanted readers in the 50 years the strip ran.

That means Charlie Brown is the emotional core — the likable loser, the boy was endures setback after setback but sets aside his disillusionment and keeps on trying. Countering Charlie Brown is his dog Snoopy, the ultimate dreamer who despite an elaborate fantasy world really does have a grip on reality and always seems to land on his feet.

So naturally, the main story lines in “The Peanuts Movie” surround these two characters. It is winter and with the baseball season over — the ball field and pitchers mound are covered with snow — Charlie Brown turns to another activity to which his record of failures continues to mount — kite flying.

Then a shakeup in the neighborhood. A new family moves in and immediately Charlie Brown, the eternal optimist, sees an opportunity to make a fresh start with any kids in this new family — a friend who will not see Charlie Brown the failure.

It gets complicated, however, as the new child turns out to be a girl, the Little Red-Haired Girl that faithful readers of the strip rooted for Charlie Brown to win over — with no luck.

Frozen by his insecurities, Charlie Brown (voice of Noah Schnapp) nevertheless is thrown into situations in which he might make an impression on the girl — while also being faced with the prospect of unrelenting mortification if he screws up in front of her.

A big advantage of “The Peanuts Movie” is that the screenplay was written by Charles Schulz’s son Craig and grandson Bryan, who honor the characterizations that took hold over the 50 years of the strip.

While Charlie Brown tries avoid a train wreck in his objective to win the heart of The Little Red-Haired Girl, Snoopy, between lending moral support to his owner, builds his own fantasy, inspired by Charlie Brown’s efforts. He assumes his most famous alter ego — the World War I Flying Ace — whose pursuits in shooting down The Red Baron take on heroic twists as the ace, along with his ground crew of Woodstock and other bird buddies, must rescue the adorable lady beagle Fifi (Kristin Chenoweth), who has been taking prisoner by the Germans. By the way, the voice characterizations of Snoopy and Woodstock are recycled sound bites of the late Bill Melendez (1916-2008) that were used in the TV shows and movies.

As always, amid his almost always disastrous adventures, Charlie Brown is surrounded by a cast of characters so familiar to everybody who has ever read Peanuts or seen the animated productions. There is Lucy, perpetual antagonist to Charlie Brown, the big sister from hell, the undaunted pursuer of Schroeder’s love. There is Linus, the blanket-toting, philosophically sound brother of Lucy, a bedrock of common sense yet who is irrational in his need for security via a blanket and his undying belief in The Great Pumpkin. There is Sally, Charlie Brown’s sister whose respect for her big brother fluctuates wildly and who has her own continual frustration of unrequited love — Linus’ (“I am NOT your Sweet Babboo!”). There is Peppermint Patty, superb athlete and hopeless student, along with her friend, the bespectacled Marcie, whose grip on reality, like Linus, is pretty rooted except for one flaw — an inability to stop calling Peppermint Patty “sir.”

Other characters who were relegated to supporting cast roles in the strip are here also: Patty and Shermy, two of the original characters who pretty much disappeared in the latter years of the strip, as well as Violet, who was introduced into the strip a few months into its run; Frieda, the girl with naturally curly hair; the perpetually grimy Pig Pen; Schroeder, the pianist extraordinaire and fan of Beethoven; and Franklin, a boy who in the strip met Charlie Brown during a beach outing.

One character notably missing is Rerun, younger brother of Lucy and Linus, who became a major character in the last years of the strip, which ended in 2000. His omission actually is consistent with the timeline of the strip, as The Little Red-Haired Girl moved away from the neighborhood, leaving a brokenhearted Charlie Brown, about a year before Rerun was born.

The script does stray from some of the characters’ situations in the strips. In “The Peanuts Movie,” Peppermint Patty, Marcie and Franklin are classmates of Charlie Brown, Lucy, and others, while in the strips, these three lived in another town and attended a different school.

The story is sweet and funny, driven by situations in which all of us can relate to — who hasn’t identified with one or more of the Peanuts characters at one time or another? These kids can be incredibly cruel to one another while at other times offer keen insight and compassion.

While different composers have been employed over the years to score the animated Peanuts productions — in “The Peanuts Movie,” Christophe Beck wrote the score — the enduring music of Peanuts has always been the now classic jazzy songs written by Vince Guaraldi (1928-1976) that debuted in “A Charlie Brown Christmas.” In a salute to Guaraldi’s work, two very familiar songs, “Linus and Lucy” and “Skating,” have been included in the soundtrack.

Also, interspersed in the feature are the comic strip sketches by Charles Schulz himself, serving as a reminder that it was the strip, after all, that introduced us to the Peanuts gang and made these characters a part of the daily lives of readers for nearly 18,000 strips.

 

Young Americans are on the menu in ‘The Green Inferno’

Here is a gruesome question that can be asked in the spirit of the Halloween season:

Would you rather be consumed by zombies or cannibals?

Since the end result really isn’t all the desirable for the victim, the answer obviously would be: neither. However, if a person is up for offering an either/or answer, the better option might be the cannibals. After all, zombies just unceremoniously rip apart and devour victims raw — no thought put in at all for a zesty table presentation. Cannibals, or at least the ones featured in “The Green Inferno,” do take time to prepare their entrees so that the victim can go out with style and taste.

Zombies have overshadowed cannibals in recent years, although cannibalism became elegant and cerebral in the hands (and mouth) of Dr. Hannibal Lecter. Still, good old gory cannibal movies seemed to have lost their way.

Well, leave it Eli Roth to set them on the right path again.

Roth, an actor, writer and director, has built a reputation through his “Cabin Fever” and “Hostel” for for not holding back in his explicit depictions of horrendous violence. While some have claimed his “The Green Inferno” may not be as horrifying as Ruggero Deodato’s “Cannibal Holocaust” (1980), it is definitely an homage to the genre and delivers on the blood and guts that hard core horror fans demand.

It takes a while before “The Green Inferno” gets into the crunch time (sorry), as the first half of the film is devoted to building the story and developing the characters.

The featured character is Justine (Lorenza Izzo, who despite all that director Roth put her through in this movie married him anyway last November), a college freshman who finds herself drawn into the campus activism. She is particularly attracted to Alejandro (Ariel Levy), a charismatic activist, and joins his group as it plans a risky protest in Peru.

The group is targeting developers who are bulldozing through the rain forest in the Amazon, not only killing vegetation but also threatening to exterminate a tribe that has been living in the forest for thousands of years. The activists have no weapons but are armed with mobile devices to record any possible violence and make sure any ugly incidents go viral.

So there is the usual build-up to this, along with an opportunity to inject some personality into the characters.

During the protest, Justine learns that the romanticism of activism can be easily crushed by brutal reality, not to mention cynicism by the people pulling the strings. But her troubles — along with everyone else’s — are just beginning.

Flying out of the Amazon after the protest that ends with them all of being rounded up and put back on their plane, the rickety aircraft crashes, and one can immediately sense that those who died in the crash were the lucky ones.

Traumatized by the crash, the survivors soon find themselves surrounded by members of a primitive tribe in which all but the top two leaders are wearing a red body paint. Tied up and taken to the village, where they are caged, the activists soon get an explicit preview of what is in for them.

Those familiar with Roth’s style will not be surprised at the brutal scene in which the first activist is prepared as a meal. It is cringe-inducing.

Roth does not pour it on with showing other victims as they are sliced and diced and set to be oven-baked. Instead he focuses on the dehumanization of the activists, whose interaction among themselves reveal the serious flaws in character.

The unnerving aspect of “The Green Inferno” is that the tribe members are not really evil. They simply are a product of their culture. They go about their bloody business with a serene sense of community. Ultimately, Justine is the only one of the prisoners able to make any connection with some of the villagers.

A wonderful aspect of Roth’s movies is that you cannot be assured there will be a happy ending or a chance at redemption. Justine appears to be The Final Girl, but given what Roth likes to do in his films, there is no guarantee of her survival.

An Eli Roth movie is not one for the mass audience. Even fans of horror movies have to really be engaged in viewing brutal and terrifying violence. Roth dares you to watch and and not squirm in your seat. One wonders, however, if Roth is deliberately slow in getting to the gore in his movies in order to allow people in the audience a chance to finish eating their popcorn before the blood and guts become the main attraction.

Advice to the makers of “Sinister 2”: Please stop

There is a scene in the opening moments of “Sinister 2” in which a survivor of “Sinister,” Deputy (James Ransone), now known ex Ex-Deputy So & So, consults with a priest, Father Rodriguez (James Beasley), on how to prevail over the evil he witnessed in the original movie. The priest responds that you cannot defeat evil, You can only protect yourself from it.

This sage statement can also apply to movie sequels. You cannot stop them from being churned out but you can protect yourself from them. Which is not to say sequels cannot be effective, especially with horror movies. The vital requirement is that the follow-up movies bring something new to the table.

Even back in the heyday of the Universal monster movies, all it took was a little creativity that enabled stories, particularly that of Frankenstein and the Wolfman, to entertain viewers through several films. In recent years the “Paranormal Activity” series, though repetitious with its found-footage gimmick, at least provides more tidbits as to why sweet Katie and her sister are targets of such a malevolent ghostly force. On the other hand, there was the abysmal attempt to cash in with another look at the Blair Witch Project.

“Sinister 2” is not a total failure, but it ends up just a rehash of the original, only with a different family as the victim. What was revealed in “Sinister” was that when these families were killed. one of the children ended up missing, and it turns out this missing child actually is the killer, filming the hideous murders. All of this apparently was at the bidding pf some pagan entity named Bughuul, who makes shadowy appearances in these snuff films.

The chain of murders continues because new families move into the homes where the previous murders took place.

So, as “Sinister 2” begins, Ex-Deputy So & So, who now is a private investigator — we’ll call him PI from now on — after not receiving any real useful advice from Father Rodriguez, has taken it upon himself to go and burn down the church and neighboring house where the last murders took place, hoping to end this string of horrific slaughters.

PI arrives at the supposedly uninhabited house with plans to burn it and the church down and discovers it has become a sanctuary for a woman and her two adolescent twin sons. The woman, Courtney Collins (Shannyn Sossamon, who plays Pandora in the series “Sleepy Hollow”), is trying to elude her abusive estranged husband, a well-to-do sleazebag who wants to regain custody of the boys.

Meanwhile, one of the twins, Dylan (Robert Daniel Sloan), suffers horrific nightmares and is visited each night by a ghost boy named Milo (Lucas Jade Zumann), who urges Dylan to go down to the basement with him and watch home movies, promising that if he does, the nightmares will end. Meanwhile, twin brother Zach (Dartanian Sloan, who along with sister Anastasia and Robert are triplets), is a bit peeved and jealous that Milo is dealing with Dylan and not him.

His arson plans thwarted, PI nevertheless sticks around, doing some more investigating, which of course provides an opportunity to have him poking around inside the church and experiencing some scary moments that turn out to be anything but deadly.

PI is not eager to stay at the house overnight, so seeks Courtney’s permission to come back the next day, which she grants. That turns out to be a blessing, as Courtney’s ex, Clint (Lea Coco), shows up with some cops but no real legal grounds to reclaim his sons. PI is able to call the bluff.

Meanwhile, Dylan reluctantly ventures down to the basement each night with Milo, where other ghostly children appear. They each have their own home movie, and these scenes in which the home movies are shown provide the creepiest and most effective moments in “Sinister 2.” Just like the original, these home movies initially show blissful family activities such as Christmas morning, renovating a kitchen, a church service, but then cut to scenes where hideous killings of the families are put to film for ghastly posterity. Never have scenes of the joy of opening gifts on Christmas morning been more foreboding.

The screenplay was written by Scott Derrickson and C. Robert Cargill, who collaborated on the original “Sinister,” and unfortunately they do not add anything more to the story, other than PI getting a call from a Dr. Stromberg (Tate Ellington), who informs PI that mysterious old CB transmissions emanating from Norway pretty much reveal what is already known about Bughuul and his soul-stealing shenanigans.

By the time PI makes it back to Courtney, she already has been served new documents by Clint, forcing her and the boys to move back into his house, thus lining them up for the next family slaughter.

The final scenes offer some genuine scares, as creepy ghost kids help track down the surviving family members inside the Collins house.

But in the end, when everything seems to calm down, the words of Father Rodriguez echo in the minds of us all: You cannot defeat evil, especially if there is a possibility of a “Sinister 3.”

“The Vatican Tapes,” or, “Haven’t We Done This Before?”

Yes, we know. When it comes to some of the sub-genres of horror movies — the slashers, the paranormal/supernatural, vampires, science gone awry — the stories are basically the same. The elements needed to make each film distinctive include motivations, characterizations, locales and any other plot twist that needs to be plausible.

The demonic possession / exorcism movie is at a disadvantage because it is weighted down by a simple structure. Some poor soul is invaded by a satanic force — and the motivation for this is obvious and not complex — and it needs to be purged.

Another problem is that 41 years ago, “The Exorcist” covered this with such brilliance and terror nothing that followed could even remotely approach this film’s standing as one of the scariest horror pictures of all time.

Filmmakers continue to delve into this subject, however.

Mark Neveldine, who directed the two Jason Statham “Crank” movies under the name Neveldine, has helmed “The Vatican Tapes,” a film whose title seems to imply this is the ultimate demonic possession exploration.

It isn’t.

Co-written by Chris Morgan and Christopher Borrelli, based on a story by Borrelli and Michael C. Martin, “The Vatican Tapes” is another pale “Exorcist” wannabe with some of “The Omen” mixed in.

Somewhere it must be written that in all demonic possession films, the victim must be a young girl or woman — this perhaps motivated by a notion that an innocent looking person can really be terrifying when under the influence of a malevolent entity.

In “The Vatican Tapes,” the target of the soul-consumption project is a woman named Angela Holmes (Olivia Taylor Dudley from “Chernobyl Diaries”). She is a patient at a Catholic mental hospital in the United States, and a video of one of her therapy sessions gains the concerned attention of Vicar Imani (Djimon Hounsou) in Vatican City. He shows the video to Cardinal Bruun (Peter Andersson), specifically focusing on one point on the stream in which there is the usual visual static and distortion that when freeze-framed shows some scary shadow image that looks pretty intimidating.

The movie flashes back five months to when Angela was a happy young woman, living with her boyfriend Pete (John Patrick Amedori) and dealing with her military father, Col. Roger Holmes (Dougray Scott, the villain Sean Ambrose in “Mission Impossible II), who naturally thinks Pete is not good enough for his daughter.

Angela’s 24th birthday party is marred when she badly slices her finger while cutting the cake. She reluctantly goes to a nearby Catholic  hospital with Pete and her father, where they have a brief encounter with the hospital chaplain, Father Lozano (Michael Peña). The wound is tended to and Angela is given some medication to take upon being sent home.

But she soon is drinking a lot of water, claiming a dry throat, and one day has a frightening encounter with a raven that bites her. Soon her behavior becomes erratic and leads to an accident that puts her into a coma. After several weeks in which Angela shows no brain activity, Roger agrees to take her off life support. She goes into full arrest but a moment later comes back to life.

However, now Angela is even more unpredictable, which leads to her being admitted to the mental hospital. By now Father Lozano has taken an interest in her case and begins to witness incidents that cannot be attributed to any mental disorder.

This brings us back where the movie opened, with Cardinal Bruun, sharing Vicar Imani’s concerns, deciding to go to the United States to perform the exorcism. By that time, Angela has caused so much commotion at the mental hospital that she is being released to the care of her father.

The effectiveness of “The Exorcist” was largely attributed to the young innocence of Regan, played by Linda Blair, and as she became horribly disfigured and growled and played mind games and spewed vile words and green vomit, it was horrifying to witness such a ghastly transition.

Weighing down “The Vatican Tapes” is the bland characterization of Angela. Little time is devoted to fleshing out Angela pre-possession, and as close as she is supposed to be to her father (she never knew her mother), that relationship is never believably realized.

Dudley as Angela does execute some creepy scenes well, using an ominous and menacing expression, and her whispered recitations, delivered in some unknown language that have a chaotic effect on others, do induce chills.

The exorcism scenes are superbly staged, with Cardinal Bruun’s confidence diminishing by the minute and Father Lozano realizing they are seriously outmatched.

“The Vatican Tapes” tries to be an overpowering possession movie, but there are no distinguishing moments. It all has been put on film before, with much more chilling punch.

The downfall of “Creep” is that it reveals too much

Recently added to the Netflix lineup, “Creep” is a two-man project, a small film that has dark humor along with cringe-inducing and unnerving moments.

Written by Mark Duplass (most recently seen in “The Lazarus Effect”) and Patrick Brice and directed by Brice, “Creep” also stars just these two men under a point-of-view format.

Brice plays Aaron, a videographer who answers an online ad for a one-day job at a cabin in Crestline, a mountain town northeast of Los Angeles.

Upon arriving, it seems like nobody is in the cabin, but then Josef (Duplass) suddenly appears. Once inside, Josef tells Aaron what his job will be. Josef says that he is married and his wife is expecting a baby boy in a few months. However, Josef says he has an inoperable and terminal brain tumor and likely will die either before or shortly after his son is born. So he wants Aaron to videotape him all day in an effort to present a record Josef can leave to his son to let the boy know who his father was.

It seems a simple enough, if sad, assignment, although Aaron stupidly expresses no curiosity as to why Josef’s wife is not around.

Soon things start to get a little uncomfortable. Immediately, Josef wants Aaron to videotape him while he takes a bath with an imaginary baby, playing a “rub-a-dub” game that Josef says his father did with him when he was young.

It gets worse. Josef is fond of disappearing and then leaping out to scare Aaron. Josef also has a wolf mask he has named Peach Fuzz. Josef’s behavior swings from being bizarre to genuinely reflective and sad. As the day progresses, Aaron becomes more leery of Josef, suspecting other motives — possibly even intimate overtones — that has the videographer eager to leave later in the evening. But his car keys have disappeared.

Some cat-and-mouse games ensue between the two men and eventually Aaron manages to get away. But soon he realizes that Josef is nowhere near being done with him.

A problem with “Creep” is that Aaron ends up being the typical easy prey, lacking any common sense, making him a ripe target for Josef’s manipulations.

On the plus side, Duplass is captivating as Josef, in a creepy way. His actions are unpredictable yet at times seem to be brilliantly calculated.

Unfortunately, “Creep” unravels in the final moments as it reveals too much. The Brice/Duplass team had a small gem here in keeping things murky. Had they followed that plan and maintained some element of mystery, “Creep” would have had a lasting effect of a psychological thriller wherein the lack of resolution leaves a residue of uneasiness.

More young people stumble into trouble in “The Gallows”

The found-footage/POV sub-genre of horror films, like the teen slasher movies of the 1970s-80s, will not fade away quietly. The “Paranormal Activity” franchise, which has sustained the strongest run in this structure of scary movies, has at least one more round to go. And while the found-footage/POV type of coverage has been used to explore spooky wooded areas (“The Blair Witch Project”), the crumbling of security in homes of middle-class families (“Paranormal Activity” series) and even witnessing the destruction of New York (“Cloverfield”), there seem to be other places it can crop up.

For its nerve-wracking story, “The Gallows” takes place in a venue that for some people was horrifying in real life — high school.

Co-written and co-directed by Travis Cluff and Chris Lofing, “The Gallows” also revisits a site that has been used before to spark jitters — an empty theater auditorium.

In 1993, a prop malfunction during a small-town high school’s stage production of a play titled “The Gallows” results in the tragic death of a student, Charlie, playing one of the lead roles. Now two decades later, as part of a tribute to the boy, the high school is about to stage that same play again.

The first 30 minutes of the movie are devoted to introducing and developing the main characters. Naturally the key person needs to be the one who constantly has to visually record everything, and fulfilling that role is Reese (Reese Mishler), by far the most obnoxious videographer ever depicted in this type of movie. His school work seems to be secondary to his obsessive need to have a his camera recording everything. He disrespects the drama department’s efforts at putting on the play, and he bullies the nerdy Stage Boy (Price T. Morgan).

Reese particularly channels his disdain toward Ryan (Ryan Shoos), picked to play the lead role that the doomed Charlie took on in 1993. Ryan has quit the football team to devote his energies toward “The Gallows,” but in rehearsals he is atrocious. Reese suspects that Ryan is only participating in the play to win the affections of Pfeifer (Pfeifer Brown), the student playing the lead female role and the person who has been the driving force behind getting this play on stage.

Also on the periphery of all this is Reese’s gilrfriend Cassidy (Cassidy Gifford), one of the cheerleaders.

When Reese discovers that one of the back doors to the theater building is broken and cannot be locked, he hatches a plan he sees as a way of preventing Ryan from humiliating himself in the play. Reese proposes that they break into the theater later that night and destroy the props on the stage, thus forcing the play to be cancelled. He manages to talk the reluctant Ryan into going through with this by suggesting that Ryan could then comfort a distressed Pfeifer when she learns the play has been grounded.

The Cluff/Lofing writing team deserves kudos for coming up with this premise. It provides a plausible reason for these young people to sneak into the theater other than nonsensical mischief.

When the students finally arrive at the school at night, the tension level ratchets up. What makes or breaks movies of this type is how effectively the scary moments are delivered, along with the revelation of what is behind all of this terror.

Unfortunately, “The Gallows” at this point could be any other found-footage movie with its almost nausea-inducing shaky camera work that adds nothing new when it comes to the frightening moments. The standards are there: doors slamming and now locked, mysterious sounds of footsteps, shadows lurking, items suddenly disappearing, and dark, creepy rooms filled with clutter that produce scream-inducing imagery.

Much like “The Blair Witch Project,” the filmmakers present an ending that leaves the audience guessing as to what is really going on. This is a plus for “The Gallows” after the usual tiresome exercise of young people running around finding there is no escape.

“The Gallows” employs the gimmick of using the actors’ real names as their character names. This was done initially in “The Blair Witch Project’ as the marketing strategy of pretending Heather (Donohue), Josh (Leonard) and Michael (Williams) were not actors but real people who actually disappeared. Now, 16 years later, this is a device that is laughable.

Aside from the irritating behavior of Reese, so grating you might actually root for his demise, the rest of the characters, especially the young ladies, are barely memorable. This movie desperately needs some quiet moments like the dialogue of the three characters in “Blair Witch Project” that made viewers, if not totally liking them, at least identifying with them in certain situations.

 

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.