What you CAN see can hurt you in “Lights Out”

You know how it is when you are in a darkened environment. Your eyes play tricks on you. What you think you see really is not there. Right? Right?

This unnerving concept was explored in a film short in 2013 of 2 minutes, 41 seconds titled “Lights Out” by David Sandberg. It was posted on YouTube and has had almost 1.3 million views and an overwhelming thumbs-up vs. thumbs-down tally — 6446 to 346.

Given a green light to turn this short into a full-length film, Sandberg enlisted the writing help of Eric Heisserer (“Final Desitnation 5”) to expand the story. The result is a well-crafted chiller of a movie.

Running a spare 81 minutes, “Lights Out” uses the time economy to get the story told and does not insult the viewer with cheap, fake scares.

“Lights Out” centers around a young woman, Rebecca (Teresa Palmer from “Grudge 2” and the remake of “Point Break”), who is drawn back into a unsettling situation of an unstable mother when she learns her half-brother Martin (Gabriel Bateman) is experiencing the same night terrors that haunted her as a child. These chilling visions seem to be linked to a sort of “invisible” friend of their mother Sophie (Maria Bello), a woman struggling with depression.

Dealing with the guilt that she abandoned her emotionally fragile mother, Rebecca is obligated to come to Martin’s aid and provide comfort. But soon she discovers that the hauntings she and Martin endured are more than just a manifestation of some possible inherited psychological disorder.

There indeed is a real entity that has somehow attached itself to Sophie’s shaky existence, but it only can thrive when the lights are out.

Aided by her boyfriend wannabe Bret (Alexander DiPersia), the kind of guy one suspects might be a choke artist when the going gets nasty, Rebecca uncovers the real story, only to have Sophie deeply entrenched in denial.

“Lights Out” taps into the natural fears of what is going on in the dark, the vulnerabilities that come with limited visual stimulation and how the mind can go into overdrive with worst-case scenarios. The movie lets the darkness do its job. No need for excessive bumps and creaking. No cats leaping out from nowhere.

Palmer is the key character here, presenting Rebecca as a woman who discovers an inner strength that had been dormant as she sought ways to avoid unpleasantness. Bateman’s Martin is basically a good kid, low-key and despite his mother’s failings, totally devoted to her. He also manages to keeps his wits about him despite the dangers.

DiPersia’s Bret turns out to be a bit of a surprise, a seemingly one-dimensional character who very easily could have been a liability amid the terror.

Lotta Losten, who was the lone character in the short film (which still can been viewed on YouTube), sort of reprises her role in the longer version as the light-switcher, shaken up by what she sees when indeed the lights are out.


“The Girl in the Photographs” has a significant place in the history of horror movies. It was the last film the late Wes Craven was involved with, serving as executive producer, before his death on Aug. 30, 2015 of brain cancer.

Also of note is that one of the co-writers of the script, along with Robert Norast and Nick Simon, is Osgood Perkins, son of Anthony Perkins and Berry Berenson. And veteran cinematographer Dean Cundey provided his skills.

Sadly, “The Girl in the Photographs,” despite an interesting premise, is ultimately disappointing. Too bad because the main character, Colleen (Claudia Lee), had the potential to be great Final Girl.

The problem is that the movie veers off course with too much attention to another character, a famous photographer named Peter Hemmings (Kal Penn), whose narcissism and sarcasm, while initially are amusing, grow old. Yeah, we get it. He is a self-absorbed jerk with a smart mouth. Let’s move on.

Colleen is a bored young woman, working in a store in the sleepy town of Spearfish (population 10, 494) whose otherwise mundane existence is marred by someone who targets her as the recipient of grisly photographs of murdered women. Trouble is, they’re only photographs and could be fake killings, given the advancement of practical special effects that can make brutal violence look very real.

But the victims are real. Katharine Isabelle (“Ginger Snaps,” “American Mary” and TV’s “Hannibal”) as Janet is one of them.

Colleen’s dealings with Sheriff Porter (Mitch Pileggi) as she reports these photos prove frustrating because there are no bodies — the script conveniently does not address the issue of maybe somebody reporting that Janet (and others) is missing.

Another failing is that the killers are revealed early in the movie. They are two guys who seem to have no job but drive around town in a blood-red pickup with bull horns as a hood ornament. Tom is the brains of the operation while his cohort is a growling neanderthal with a shaved head. Tom (Luke Baines) is a thin, pale guy who could be a poster boy for the low-key, socially inept person who focuses his energy on working out his rage in brutal ways.

And so, with the baddies known, it would have been nice to explore a little more what makes these guys tick.

Colleen catches the eye of Hemmings, who wants to sign her up to model for his photos, but before she and Hemmings’ entourage can pick up and leave Spearfish, they are are holed up in a house — another convenient plot device — where the killers can do their work.

Then, as the Final Girl, Colleen severely disappoints.

The movie feels like it was meant just to be the first in a series of movies, with Tom becoming yet another icon of mayhem. Trouble is, by the time “The Girl in the Photographs” snaps its last picture, it’s hard to care about any of it.

So, let’s just forget that this was a swan song for Craven. Thankfully, his treasure of classic horror films makes it easy to dismiss he was involved in this misfire.



Under shark attack in “The Shallows” and no Quint, Brody or Hooper around

Just in time for Shark Week on the Discovery Channel, “The Shallows” has hit the theaters and presents another ravenous Great White shark turning fun times into a nightmare.

Those sharks — they have been lurking in our collective fears ever since Chrissie Watkins took that fatal plunge into the ocean in the beginning of “Jaws” in 1975. That movie and its sequels paved  the way for seemingly hundreds of mostly cheesy ripoffs and eventually to the deliberately goofy “Sharknado” franchise. Luckily, the numerous documentaries on the mysteries of these magnificent fish help us to appreciate their beauty. Yeah, they, as Hooper said, “eat, swim and make little sharks, and that’s all.” But it’s Quint’s description of what they do when the dinner bell rings that is burned into our memory: “Swallow you whole. A little shakin;, a little tenderizin’, down you go.”

“The Shallows” has a lot going for it, including its stunning cinematography by Flavio Martinez Labiano — featuring some mind-blowing surfing scenes — a spare but tense screenplay by Anthony Jaswinski, excellent direction by Jaume Collet-Serra, and of course a grueling but winning performance by Blake Lively.

Collet-Serra directed the creepy “Orphan” (2009) and two Liam Neeson action films, “Non-Stop” (2014) and “Run All Night” (2015). So he knows how to keep things riveting.

But all the skills in the world can be wasted unless the person in front of the camera generates some interest. And that’s where Lively comes in.

As Nancy Adams, Lively (who is married to Ryan “Deadpool” Reynolds) presents a character who is likable from the start — smart and engaging. Nancy is a med student who is at a crossroads. In the wake of the death of her mother, Nancy is haunted by the futility of it all — for all the advances in medicine, her mother could not be saved. She is now considering terminating her medical studies.

In order to clear her head, Nancy takes a trip to a remote beach in Mexico, a place her mother visited a couple of decades earlier when she learned she was pregnant with Nancy. When her traveling companion flakes out of going to the beach after a night of heavy-duty parting, Nancy elects to go to the beach alone. Having earned her surfing chops riding the waves off the beaches of Galveston, Texas, Nancy easily can entertain herself.

Given a ride to the beach by a friendly local, Carlos (Oscar Jaenada), Nancy finds the beach to be a real paradise, far more stunning than the old photos she has stored in her mobile device can depict.

Eventually she hits the water to catch some waves. There are two other surfers there, and they turn out to be a couple of cool dudes. By late afternoon, the two guys decide it is time to head in, but Nancy opts to ride one more wave before calling it a day.

Before she can challenge the next wave, she spots something floating nearby. Closing in to investigate, she discovers in horror it is a mortally wounded whale. Even before she can hightail it away, a Great White attacks her, gashing her left leg.

Nancy initially manages to climb upon the nearly dead whale, but that is no safe place to be. She manages to make it to a small rock formation that can provide some refuge until the tide rises.

Once on the rock, Nancy’s medical expertise helps her deal with the nasty wound on her leg. In a wince-inducing scene, she uses whatever is at hand to close the wound.

Nancy is unable to wave down the two surfers as they drive away. Her only company, other than the food-obsessed menace circling around the premise, is an injured seagull she names Steven, of course.

Now it becomes a matter of survival. Nancy does not know if anyone else will show up on the beach. She only knows the shark seems to have staked a claim, and why not, with a helpless whale nearby to snack on.

Jaswinski’s script adeptly keeps the tension high, as well as taking the viewers on the wild emotional Nancy endures as her hopes rise, only to be dashed.

But the biggest asset of “The Shallows” is Nancy’s resilience. She refuses to curl up on the rock. She observes, analyzes and plots. All while dealing with excruciating pain and the possible onset of gangrene.

The human-versus-beast adventure can always be a thriller and a chiller, and “The Shallows” never lets up. And thanks to a tough yet sensitive performance by Lively, this movie is a nicely packaged horror story.



The Warrens are drawn back into spirit wars for “The Conjuring 2”

As small businesses go, the one offered by Ed and Lorraine Warren was not structured around inventories and bookkeeping details like assets and liabilities / debits and credits. And face it, unlike a mom-and-pop business, their work as paranormal investigators was fraught with very scary things and even mortal danger.

We first met Ed (Patrick Wilson) and Lorraine (Vera Farmiga) in 2013 with “The Conjuring.” With their ability to break into the paranormal realm, this real-life couple portrayed by Wilson and Farmiga offered a valuable service to those whose lives were besieged by by restless or downright nasty spiritual elements.

In “The Conjuring,” the Warrens took their lumps but apparently emerged victorious over the evil post-death entity of Bathsheba, an accused witch who picked on the Perron family in Rhode Island in the early 1970s, hoping for some child sacrifices.

As “The Conjuring 2” begins, the Warrens are doing their own investigation of the famed Amityville haunting, and while they got nothing conclusive, Lorraine did experience a terrifying vision and premonition, frightening enough that Lorraine tells Ed they should dial back their efforts to confront and dispatch these ghostly entities.

But the Warrens are pressed back into action in 1977 when the Hodgson family living in an older house north of London begins experiencing unnerving things. Peggy Hodgson (Frances O’Connor) already has enough problems, with her husband leaving her and the four Hodgson children for another woman in the neighborhood.

Soon the usual haunted house incidents start occurring: loud thumps, furniture moving, battery-operated toys turning on by themselves. Before long, the second-oldest daughter, Janet (Madison Wolfe) becomes the victim of strange things, including finding herself awake in the middle of the night but not in her bed.

Meanwhile, back in the states, Lorraine finds Ed doing a sketching of a creepy looking nun, saying he’s been seeing this vision. Well, that startles Lorraine since she has seen the same deathly-enhanced nun in her visions.

The Warrens are asked to go to London to check out the Hodgson case — going there only to observe and make recommendations but otherwise no get too involved.

Their investigation points to a haunting by a former resident, an old man who died in the house. But there also is evidence that it all might be a hoax engineered by Janet. Even Lorraine admits she can feel nothing within her senses to indicate a true haunting or possession. Ed is frustrated, and still believes there might be some legitimate paranormal activity, although there is overwhelming documented evidence Janet is indeed making thing whole thing up. The Warrens have no choice but to go home.

Luckily, before they can do that, Ed realizes he has some hard documentation of a true haunting and/or possession. By the time the Warrens get back to the Hodgson residence, things have escalated and they learn that this is more than just some old man, embittered about dying alone, trying to scare the current residents.

“The Conjuring 2” is packed with jolts and scares, and enhanced by truly sympathetic characters. O’Connor is exceptional as Peggy, a loving, harassed single mother of four having to keep it together under circumstances she never could have imagined. Wolfe presents a restless innocence and vulnerability that makes her experiences staggeringly and unrelentingly horrifying.

Wilson and Farmiga do share a chemistry, conveying a unique bonding of two people with rare gifts and a formidable and unified force based on a solid foundation of love.

The real-life Lorraine Warren has said this case has haunted her more than any others, And in recalling this terrifying episode, director James Wan, working from a script on which he collaborated with David Leslie Johnson and Carey Hayes and Chad Hayes, continues to prove his mastery in the horror element, adding the “Conjuring” movies to his already established efforts with “Insidious” and “Saw.”

Women directors’ works showcased at Etheria Film Night

For those of us who appreciate the extensive effort it takes to make a feature-length movie, we also give a special nod to those talented and resourceful filmmakers who are not blessed with massive budgets yet through their creativity, diligence and often incredible support from friends and colleagues produce quality entertainment.

Most of these filmmakers do not allow a lack of resources to stand in their way. If the funds are not available for a full-length movie, they just make a shorter film. And sometimes these movie shorts are just the stepping stone to bigger projects.

On a festive Saturday night at the Aero Theatre in Santa Monica, nine movie shorts, all directed by women, were showcased at Etheria Film Night, an annual program specifically designed to provide women with a chance to screen their movies for an audience that can include producers, managers, show runners and distributors. But if you simply are a fan of films, well, you’re invited too.

Etheria specializes in science-fiction, horror and fantasy projects submitted by the directors, and it can add up to a fun night for fans of these genres.

The festival actually opened with a full-length feature, “The Love Witch,” directed by Anna Biller. A nod to the pulp novels and films of the 1960s, it features Samantha Robinson as Elaine, a modern-day witch who uses spells and potions in attempts, often with fatal results, to get men to fall in love with her. Beautifully photographed, it hit all the right marks with humor (sometimes guiltily silly) and horror. Audience reaction was enthusiastic.

Following an intermission, the short films part of the program commenced. But not before the Inspiration Award was presented to Jackie Kong, a writer, director and producer known for her irreverent comedy movies and horrifyingly funny horror films. She directed Martin Landau and Jose Ferrer in “The Being,” and followed up with “Night Patrol” featuring Linda Blair. But she is best remembered for the wicked comedy gore-fest, “Blood Diner.”

Kong has another comedy in the works, “Lost in Vietnam,” and also is in the planning stages for a TV series “City of Demons” to be based on the “Twilight Zone” format and in which she plans to hire women directors.

After honoring Kong, the program commenced with the screening of the following movie shorts:

“Genghis Khan Conquers the Moon”: Yeah, the title seems reminiscent of those old low-budget 1950s movies. But in this one contains the theme of “be careful for what you wish for.” Co-written with Steve Emmons and directed by Kerry Yang, the short focuses on Genghis Khan (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa) in his final days. He has an encounter with a wizard (James Hong, yes THAT James Hong), who introduces him to the then seemingly magical device that is a telescope, enhancing a view of the moon, and old Genghis becomes obsessed with conquering the Sea of Tranquility on the lunar surface. Oh, he gets what he wants, but there is some fine print in the final deal.

“Bionic Girl”: Written and directed by Stephanie Cabdevila, this off-beat little film is something of an operatic musical about a scientist (Clementine Poidatz), who, afraid to face the outside world, creates her own android clone replacement (Laurianne Mortureux) with an enlarged head that looks like a 3-D puzzle. As expected, the result of the scientist’s effort does not turn out quite like she expected, although she does achieve a bit of self-awareness. This film is French, thus has subtitles.

“Hoss”: Pretty much a one-set shot, this film, written and directed by Christine Boylan, stars Lyndsay Fonseca as Samantha Burke, a cowgirl roaming the hills of Malibu, California, after a tsunami destroys the west coast. She is on a quest and it literally rides into her life while she is enjoying a drink in a rundown bar, likely one of the few places still in business. This is a film that definitely has the potential to be expanded into a full-length movie.

“Restart”: A clever film from Spain, written and directed by Olga Osorio, is about a woman, Andrea (Marta Larralde), a kidnap victim trapped in a temporal loop and her efforts to break from it. This film is unnerving in its stark look and being caught in some inexplicable circumstances and the mounting frustrations and terror that no matter what you do, nothing changes.

“Boxer”: Toy Lei wrote, directed and stars in this thriller about a contract killer with a curious and loving son and how she tries to reconcile her violent life — in which she tells her son she is a boxer — with being a mother. Trouble is, the son wants to be a boxer also. How long can the woman keep up the facade?

“The Stylist”: Directed by Jill Gevargizian and co-written by her and Eric Havens, this film stars Najerra Townsend (“Contracted”) as Claire, a lonely hair stylist with what becomes a creepy way to escape her mundane reality. When her final customer of the day, Mandy (Jennifer Plas), comes in with a request to “look perfect,” Claire goes to work in a chilling way to turn this request to her own advantage. This film may do for hair styling what “Jaws” did for beach-going.

“Hard Broads”: This is a deliciously  funny and macabre story about three women, Mags (director and writer Mindy Bledsoe), Remy (Sylvia Grace Crim) and Brenda (Rachael Lee Magill) who have to transport the body of a celebrity, Constance Clementine (Susan Kirton, doing a corpse performance that rivals Terry Kiser’s in “Weekend at Bernie’s” and Richard Mulligan’s in “S.O.B.”) to her home, where by the way, there might be a lot of cash stashed for the ladies. Wacky and wild, this one was a fun ride.

“The Puppet Man”: Another look at the dangers of excessive partying. Written and directed by Jacqueline Castel and based on a character by Johnny Scuoto, it follows a group of young people who hit a seedy bar at closing time and talk the creepy bartender (Bradley Bailey) into keeping the bar open. But there is another presence in the bar, the Puppet Man (Scuoto), who is not exactly a cordial host. A nice throwback to the slashers films of the 1970s, enhanced by a cameo by, who else, John Carpenter.

“Nasty”: Is aptly titled. Co-written with Anthony Fletcher and directed by Prano Bailey-Bond, this story is about a 12-year-old boy, Doug (Albie Marber) who in 1982 has become obsessed with viewing horror movies on VHS as he tries to unravel the mysterious disappearance of his father. One cannot watch this without being reminded of “VHS” and “The Ring,” delving into the dark side of watching video tapes.

Following a Q&A featuring six of the directors — Boylan, Castel, Gevargizian, Yang, Bledsoe and Lei — and moderated by Rebekah McKendry, a producer and director who also served as director of marketing for Fangoria magazine, award presentations were made.

While the Q&A was taking place, the audience was asked to vote for their favorite film short of the night and those votes were tabulated.

Osorio’s “Restart” was presented the ISA Story Award for best narrative.

Lei was the recipient of the Artemis Award for Best Action, presented by Melanie Wise of Artemis Motion Pictures.

Then came the big prize — the Jury Award. In the audience were the Twisted Twins, Jen and Sylvia Soska, and they insisted that as directors themselves (“American Mary,” “See No Evil 2” among others and co-hosts of “Hellevator” on the Game Show Network), they should present the award.

And the Jury Award went to Gevargizian’s “The Stylist.”

Finishing second in the Jury Award voting was “Hard Broads.”

Finally, the Audience Award went to “The Stylist,” making it a big night for Gevargizian and the people who helped her bring this film to fruition.

Etheria Film Night was an entertaining and inspiring evening and once again a superb opportunity for women to show they are more than able to produce funny, gory, creepy and thought-provoking films.


Nasty spirits are awakened in “The Darkness” but yawns outweigh the scares

Fans of horror movies need to be grateful for Blumhouse, the production company that has the muscle to put some scary movies into wide distribution. This firm has been behind the “Paranormal Activity” series as well as “Sinister” and “Oculus,” along with the second and third “Purge” movies. Unfortunately, sometimes some disappointments manage to get out there, such as “The Lazarus Effect” and most recently “The Darkness.”

Red flags should have gone up before the production of “The Darkness” when it was evident that the screenplay was yet another story about a modern family whose house is besieged by restless or sinister spirits. “Poltergeist” and “Paranormal Activity” territory.

It is particularly a letdown in that “The Darkness” features Kevin Bacon and Radha Mitchell in lead roles. Bacon has had his hand in superb horror classics. He was one of those who helped establish the slasher movie maxim that if you are a sexually active young person, you are destined to be sliced and diced by a serial killer. His character Jack certainly and literally got that point in “Friday the 13th.” Bacon also is well remembered for being the reluctant hero Valentine McKee in the cult classic “Tremors” and starred in the haunting “Stir of Echoes.”

Mitchell, meanwhile, played the determined Rose Da Silva in the intense and bloody “Silent Hill.”

In “The Darkness,” Bacon and Mitchell play Peter and Bronny Taylor, a couple with a teen daughter Stephanie (Lucy Fry) and pre-teen son Michael (David Mazouz) who is autistic.

During a camping trip in the Grand Canyon, Michael falls into a cave when the ground gives away. He is not hurt but finds himself in a place where spooky drawings are on the wall, and he discovers five stones with etchings on them. Naturally he collects the stones and takes them home with him.

Soon after the Taylors return home, Michael reveals he has a new invisible friend. So here we have a familiar development in this horror sub-genre: The youngest child in the family, like Carol Ann in “Poltergeist” and Kristi in the “Paranormal Activity” films, are the only ones who can interact with these entities.

Also in retread mode are the usual bumps in the night to indicate some uninvited spiritual guests are romping around, as well as initially harmless pranks like water faucets turning on by themselves.

The Taylors are not as enjoyable to watch in their home environment as the Freelings were in “Poltergeist.” There is underlying tension between Peter and Bronny. Stephanie has her own psychological problems. And Michael, well, he sits around a lot and stares at the wall. He does some things that are beginning to spook Peter.

Once Bronny convinces Peter there is something strange going on in the house beside Michael’s antics, the movie segues into the now traditional computer-era scenes of people Googling things on the Internet in an effort to unravel what is going on.

And what is going in such house hauntings as these usually is either a terrible incident years earlier in the house from which the victims’ spirits are still stirred up because of no closure yet; or something has disturbed or irritated dormant entities (like: if you build a housing tract over a cemetery, it is wise to move the bodies as well as the grave markers when you relocate the burial grounds). In “The Darkness,” Michael’s innocent collecting of the five stones has set in motion a terrifying prophecy from Native American lore.

We could go into the whole story of the ancient Native American civilization known as the Anasazi and their tie-in with the stones, along with their mysterious disappearance, and what the etchings on the stones represent, but does it really matter?

Things do escalate in the Taylor home, but there just are not enough scares, even when an expert is brought in to purge these evil beings.

The screenplay, co-written by director Greg McLean along with Shayne Armstrong and Shane Krause, lacks any sense of dread or even peril. Injecting the family tensions of the Taylors obviously is a device to set up a chance at redemption for the family. Peter is emotionally detached from Michael, so that has to be fixed as a byproduct of ending the threat.

“The Darkness” is another house haunting feature that offers nothing new and in fact might have the audience stifling yawns. It is a shame, especially given the participation by Mitchell and Bacon.

Monsterpalooza, Texas Frightmare Weekend showcase scary movies

Some thoughts on screenings offered at Monsterpalooza in Pasadena and Texas Frightmare Weekend in Dallas during April (and creeping into May):

While not screened at Texas Frightmare Weekend (TFW), a creepy short titled “Oct. 23rd” and featuring Amanda Wyss (“A Nightmare on Elm Street”) went live via Vimeo over the TFW weekend. Just under 10 minutes, “Oct. 23rd” is based on a true story featuring Wyss as Karen Fernhill, who one stormy night is summoned by her friend Paige (Amanda Parsons). Paige is spooked and smoking a cigarette much to the surprise of Karen. Paige then starts talking about her young daughter Chelsea, making some unnerving suggestions about the girl’s strange behavior in the aftermath of seeing her father killed.

To Karen it seems Paige has come unhinged, and she tries to be the voice of reason. This all becomes slippery when Karen goes upstairs and talks to Chelsea (Georgia McCorkle), who offers a different slant on what’s going on.

Written and directed by Paul Santana, “Oct. 23rd” is dark and chilling and things accelerate as Karen learns too late that Paige and Chelsea are not just experiencing some sort of emotional meltdown.

Wyss, a featured guest at TFW, was saying she saw “Oct. 23rd” as having the potential to be expanded into a full-length movie. She may be right.

“Oct 23rd” can be accessed at www.vimeo.com/164745807. You might need to see it more than once to catch everything

Two movies that were screened at TFW included “Getting Schooled” and “Last Girl Standing.”

“Getting Schooled” is co-written and directed by Chuck Norfolk, who penned 2013’s “Conjoined” that earned him a FANtastic Award, along with his brother Tim, for Best Original Story / Script. “Conjoined” is a horror/comedy about a lonely man who through an Internet romance meets the girl of his dreams. Problem is, she has a conjoined twin who is a serial killer. As expected with this premise, “Conjoined” was a madcap and macabre little movie.

Now, with “Getting Schooled,” in which Chuck Norfolk collaborated on the screenplay with Tim and another brother, Steven, he delivers a send-up of the classic teen comedy “The Breakfast Club.”

Except with “Getting Schooled,” these high school students on a Saturday detention in the early 1980s have their teen angst sessions interrupted by a bloody battle to survive.

The roster of typical students is here: the outcast girl Julie (Mayra Leal), the jock Mike (Jake Byrd), the cheerleader Hillary (Morgan Tyler), the geek A student Shelly (Susan Ly) and the rebellious “criminal” Rusty (Roland Ruiz).

As if this is not an already volatile mix, the teacher overseeing the detention is a wheelchair-bound, embittered man, Mr. Roker (Tom Long), who is a cross between Lt. Dan in “Forrest Gump” and Ron Kovic in “Born on the Fourth of July.” Except that, besides holding students in contempt, Mr. Roker has completely veered off the rails. What starts out as an encounter between a teacher who hates the students as much they hate him escalates into a fatal game of cat and mouse with Mr. Roker hallucinating that he is back in Vietnam.

The dialog is silly and the students are deeply immersed in stereotypical behavior and temperament. But it is all a wink to the audience. The kills are gruesome but also macabre and comical.

Although some people walked out of the screening, those who stayed until the end reacted with applause. They got it. Sit back and enjoy a horror movie that has you guiltily giggling throughout.

“Last Girl Standing,” on the other hand, is not looking for laughs. It is instead an exploration of what happens to The Final Girl after she survives the traumatic experience of being pursued by a crazed killer.

In this movie, written and directed by Benjamin R. Moody, Akasha Villalobos plays Camryn, a young woman who manages to finally kill a man wearing a lycanthropic mask after he slaughters all of her friends during a camping trip.

Now several years later, Camryn, employed at a dry cleaner, is living a bland life except for the constant recurring nightmares. When a young man named Nick (Brian Villalobis) is hired at the dry cleaner, it opens the possibility of Camryn finally having a social life.

Unfortunately, Camryn starts experiencing hallucinations, seeing and truly believing the costumed killer somehow survived and has come back to kill her. It is one of Nick’s inner circle friends Danielle (Danielle Evon Ploeger) who reaches out to Camryn and tries to convince the woman that she has nothing to fear.

Two problems plague “Last Girl Standing.” First, Camryn is a very bland character and it is hard to develop any empathy for her. Second, it is pretty easy to see where this movie is going. The supposed plot surprise really is not that at all.

Despite that, “Last Girl Standing” is a decent effort to delve into what happens when The Final Girl, who manages to overcome overwhelming odds, still really dies in the end.

A screening at Monsterpalooza featured “The Green Fairy,” an earnest study covering almost 200 years in the history of absinthe, a cheap but vert dangerous drink. Directed by Dan Frank and written by Daniel Celestina and Caroline Posada, “The Green Fairy” transitions between interviews with historians and acted vignettes that demonstrate the horrors of absinthe when consumed. The Green Fairy in the title (played by Mindy Robison) is one of a trio of seductive apparitions (joining the fairy are the Green Goddess and the Green Demon) that are the equivalent of the pink elephants seen by drunks in the stereotypical portrayal of those who imbibe to the extreme.

These three pop up in the vignettes that dramatically show absinthe’s role in driving people like Vincent Van Gogh (Trevor Snarr) and Oscar Wilde (the late Roddy Piper in what had to be one of his last roles) to madness. Linda Blair (“The Exorcist”) also is featured in the story of her character, Mrs Lanfrey, who is murdered by her husband Jean (Casey T. Evans) after his bender with the bright green liquid that resembles Mountain Dew, and his subsequent encounter with a green beauty that plants all kinds of nasty ideas in his head.

While the vignettes are well done — Piper is especially good and tragic as a brilliant man who becomes a babbling wreck — “The Green Fairy” is dragged down by the interview sequences. These men tell stories but being Swiss, their accents make them hard to understand and they become repetitious. Tighter editing needs to be done there.

Part documentary and part drama, “The Green Fairy” seemed out of place at Monsterpalooza. People expecting to see a horror movie were instead treated to a film with little onscreen violence. While the subject was well covered, it did not succeed in holding the audience’s attention. Only a few people still were in attendance by the end of movie, and the feeling was they only stuck around to see Blair’s appearance, which occurs late in the film.


“Hush”: What do you do when you CAN’T scream?

Now available on Netflix, “Hush” is a chiller of a movie that can be particularly unsettling to anyone who lives alone. It taps into the horror of discovering your home is not as secure as you would expect.

Maddie is a young woman who writes novels and is a deaf mute as a result of an affliction suffered years earlier. She lives by herself in an area that is fairly secluded. She does have one neighbor, but this is not a bustling part of the suburbs.

One evening her sublime life, in which her main issue is trying to decide one of seven different endings for her latest book, becomes a nightmare when she discovers a man lurking outside. The man makes himself known in a way that shatters all illusions of security, letting Maddie realize she has been cut off from the world.

Maddie is played by Kate Siegel, who co-wrote the screenplay with director Mike Flanagan (“Oculus” in which Siegel also appeared). At first Maddie can only guess what this man, played by John Gallagher Jr., is up to, but he soon lets her know his intentions are deadly.

The man is the worst kind of predator. Armed with a crossbow, he is content to just toy with Maddie, vowing that when he wants to he will come in and kill her. It soon becomes apparent this man is a total psycho with nothing else to do but terrorize Maddie.

Clearly, he enjoys having a serious advantage over Maddie. She is unarmed, and she is deaf, meaning as long as she cannot see him, he is a deadly threat. Also, she cannot scream and gain the attention of potential help. And she cannot tell how much noise she is making as she tries to move around stealthily.

The man is very resourceful and adaptable, which is displayed during an ominous encounter with one of Maddie’s neighbors.

As written by Flanagan and Siegel, the man is just pure and brilliant evil — his motives and background are never known.

In a clever segment, Maddie uses her analytical, story-creating mind to come up with her only option. The survival instinct kicks in and she’s ready to do battle.

“Hush” is beautifully shot and effectively unfolds as a predator-vs.-victim deadly game of wits. Maddie cannot scream so the viewer feels compelled to scream for her.



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.