‘It Comes at Night’ is not what you think it is

The poster for the movie “It Comes at Night” might be dark and foreboding, perhaps with a pair of sinister, glowering eyes of a murderous beast staring at you — an effective illustration for a monster/ghost-type of horror film.

But it doesn’t because it isn’t.

Writer-director Trey Edward Shults apparently attached this title to his film as a means of poking fun at the seemingly endless stream of jump-scare movies that, like it or not, have a solid base of fans, hence continue to be produced over the years with no end in sight.

Shults also challenges the audience to decide for itself what the “it” is in his movie, which by the way would be more accurately categorized as a psychological thriller.

The less said about the plot to “It Comes at Night,” the better it can be for the viewer. This is an example of a movie that is best digested by going in without having any idea what it is about, because this would intensify the mysteries involved and keep one guessing as to where it is going.

What can be said is this: “It Comes at Night” centers around six people —  Paul (Joel Edgerton, who also served as executive producer), his wife Sarah (Carmen Ejogo), their teenage son Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr), Will (Christopher Abbott), his wife Kim (Riley Keough) and toddler son Andrew (Griffin Robert Faulkner). Also a dog, Stanley.

These people are in a situation wherein death lurks everywhere and the keys to survival include being prepared, being very careful and if necessary, very ruthless and unemotional.

Ah, but what about trust? That is the underlying and haunting fear that prevails in this movie. Every interaction between Paul and his family and Will and his family is magnified by each word, movement and even body language that can be tragically misinterpreted.

While Paul, firmly logical and focused on what is necessary to keep everyone safe, is solidly in charge, the emotional core here is Travis. At a time in his life when he could be immersed in social media, budding love and athletics, he instead is stuck in an existence bereft of friends and fun. Yet he is not a brooding teen. He is a good kid, respectful of his parents and devoted to the care of his dog Stanley. But the poor kid suffers some terrifying nightmares that make him an insomniac and particularly keen at sensing potential danger.

Shults’ script succeeds at keeping the viewer on edge. Even as things seem to settle into a mundane and safe routine, there is a sense of foreboding, a tenuous relationship that is threatened not only by outside circumstances that led these six individuals to their risk-laden existence, but also the constant reminder that other people of whom they are sharing space are essentially strangers and may be harboring a secret and possibly deadly agenda.

Running at a brisk 91 minutes, the movie, as directed by Shults in what is only his second full-length feature, maintains an aura of uneasiness. Whatever dangers these six people face from the outside, they are constantly stalked by the unnerving reality that even within a small fortress they have built, the fragile set-up they have established could go horribly wrong at the slightest provocation. Shults then leaves the ending up in the air, and the viewers must ponder what happens next.

Totaling a modest $6 million during its opening week in release, “It Comes at Night” is not likely to be booked in theaters for long. But this is a movie well worth checking out when it moves to other platforms.

Wyss presents a tragic existence in “The ID”

In the beginning of “The ID,” a movie available on Blu-ray, a voice-over states that if a person purely loves someone, they certainly also can destroy that person.

This segues into a scene in which a woman in her 40s stands before a mirror, humming as she applies lipstick. It is a view of contentment and optimism. Wherever this woman is going, she appears poised to light up the room.

And then, from another room comes the bellowing summons: “Meridith!” The expression on the woman’s melts turns to despair. The caller is Meridith’s elderly and sickly father for whom she is a fulltime caretaker. And he is quite the patient from Hell.

Welcome to Meridith Lane’s life. The sanctuary offered by the vanity table in her room is no match for the grim reality of what she faces every day.

In “The ID,” Amanda Wyss (“A Nightmare on Elm Street”) delivers a wrenching performance as Meridith in an emotionally harrowing story of a woman trapped by circumstances in which she is doing well by simply coping and fending off a demanding and foul-mouthed father who vents the frustrations of his own depressing existence by putting her down and keeping her on the defensive.

Directed by Thommy Hutson and based on a script by Sean  H. Stewart, “The ID” is a horror story in that it depicts a terrifying situation in which two people are trapped in a 24/7 nightmare in from which they both seemingly would love to escape, yet each day do whatever is necessary to maintain this dreary status quo because they believe there is no alternative.

The relationship between Meridith and her father is both dysfunctional and needy. These are two people whose lives have taken a tragically wrong turn. There is no room for optimism. It is a day-by-day, hour-by-hour, minute-by-minute existence. And the truly unsettling aspect is the realization that this dismal arrangement likely has been going on for years.

Confined to their home, Meridith and Father (Patrick Peduto) have no contact with the outside world except for Tricia (Jamye Meri Grant), a bubbly young woman who delivers food to the household. Tricia is a vibrant and caring person who would like to invest more in reaching out to Meridith and Father than just dropping off food every day. But her efforts are impeded by Meridith, who in her skewed perceptions sees Tricia as an intruder and someone who threatens the one thing Meridith can control: making sure that she and she alone takes care of her father.

How did Meridith fall into this depressing life? Well, Father likes to insert the needle here, accusing of her taking the easy way out in everything she ever did. He insinuates that it was disappointment over Meridith that drove away his wife, whereas Meridith in the few times she pushes back, suggests it was his behavior that drove away her mother.

This relationship simmers with the potential of an explosion that both people likely fear and do what they can to veer away from such a fate. It only takes one little nudge to upset this sad, fragile balance.

It comes in the form of a phone call Meridith receives from Ted, her high school sweetheart. After 20-plus years of no contact, Ted calls to say he will be town and would love to see Meridith again. At first, Meridith sees this as impossible, but the abuse heaped upon her by Father begins to embolden her. Naturally, when she agrees to see Ted and informs her father of this, a standoff occurs. They remind each other that neither one is capable of change at this point, so Ted could well be inconsequential.

However, Meridith indulges in recalling fond memories of a time in her life that was energized by youthful love and ambition. This leads to the breaking point that sends Meridith spiraling into the inevitable madness that has stalked her for years, maybe even decades.

Wyss and Peduto give courageous performances that are both emotionally and physically raw. Except for rare instances, Wyss looks haggard as Meridith, barren of makeup, a face of endless exhaustion. Peduto presents an unappealing picture of a man well past his prime. His hairline has receded and what is left there is long and unkempt. Despite being bathed by Meridith he exudes an aura of neglected hygiene. Physically he seems as foul as his language and demeanor.

“The ID” is scary because it explicitly depicts a frightening relationship that can and does exist in reality. Shot within the confines of the home in which Meridith and Father reside, it also is claustrophobic. In any other situation, the home would be pristine and a fertile environment for a content household. But with the residents being Meridith and her father, the walls seem impenetrable, fortified by the hopelessness of two people smothered by an endless love-hate relationship.


In ‘Prevenge,’ voices within can be deadly

A delightfully wicked dark comedy, “Prevenge,” now available on shudder.com, proves, among other things, that appearances can be deceiving.

Written and directed by Alice Lowe, she also stars as Ruth, a young woman late in a pregnancy who looks sweet and vulnerable, as functioning that near to child birth certainly is much more difficult.

But by the way, she kills people. This is not a spoiler. The title, “Prevenge” pretty much reveals that something dreadful is about to happen.

“Prevenge” is yet another movie that proves a low budget and tight shooting schedule can be overcome and a nice-looking, well-crafted film can be created. Shot in only 11 days, “Prevenge” also had an astoundingly short pre-production life. The concept behind the movie was thought up by Lowe shortly after she learned she was pregnant in real life. Within two months the script was ready for shooting, and despite being seven and a half months along in her  pregnancy, Lowe took on the lead role.

“Prevenge” begins sublimely with Ruth in a pet store, saying to the store’s owner she is seeking a reptilian pet for her son. The store owner seems borderline sleazy and good at injecting sexual innuendo, but the subsequent sudden and jarring violence seems a bit overkill of the victim. What is the motivation for this brutal murder?

Well, whatever is driving Ruth to her shocking actions is revealed as the film progresses. The father of her baby was killed in a climbing accident, and Ruth seeks out others in the climbing party, particularly the leader, Tom (Kayvan Novak), on who she pins most of the blame for the death.

But there is something else. Ruth is hearing the voice of her yet-unborn baby, who urges her to do the killing. Also, in some funny examination scenes, Ruth’s midwife (Jo Hartley) tells Ruth that the baby in her womb is conducting a “hostile takeover.”

“Just so you know, you have absolutely no control over your mind or your body any more,” the midwife informs Ruth, only adding to her psychosis.

Lowe’s performance is both chilling and comical, as she appears to be befuddled, clearly in over her head — at one point she tries surveillance on Tom that is so inept he easily knows she is tracking him. Yet there is a calculated manipulation to Ruth’s madness.

Not that everything comes off flawlessly. One of Ruth’s potential victims, Len (Gemma Whalen), manages to break away and disappear momentarily, only to reappear wearing boxing gloves. Ruth is like, are you serious?

“Prevenge” is the kind of weird movie that will have its loyal fans. Lowe’s study of Ruth is both intelligent and quirky. She is worthy of sympathy via her mourning and misfiring mind functions, yet she is offing people who are guilty of nothing more than being held accountable for a death that probably was an unfortunate incident of which nothing is to blame but bad luck.


The opening scene of “Life,” under the direction of Daniel Espinosa (“Safe House”), is breathtaking, a single-tracking shot within the confines of a space station, as a crew of six people work to capture an incoming space craft that contains some soil samples from Mars.

After that, “Life” becomes “Alien-lite,” a rehash of that classic horror movie’s story of a hostile alien being with no conscience and only driven to survive bringing terror to a crew that cannot exactly abandon ship easily.

The cast is stellar: Rebecca Ferguson, Jake Gyllenhaal, Ryan Reynolds, Hiroyuki Sanada, Ariyon Bakare and Olga Dihovichnaya. But when the most colorful character is the first to die, the film flatlines as far as human interest is concerned. Of course by then it is a matter of the humans trying to outsmart an increasingly resourceful and menacing being.

Viewing that opening scene on a big screen is almost worth the price of admission, but only if you go to the cheapest matinee.

Bad at-work craziness in ‘The Belko Experiment’

There is something unsettling about the building that houses the Belko company. Located near Bogota, Colombia, it pokes out of the ground like a shrine of unrealized dreams; a structure that seemingly was the first phase of what was going to be a burgeoning business community. Instead it is surrounded by, well, mostly nothing. Lot of grassland, some wild dogs and not much else.

Yet each day several dozen people, many relocated U.S. citizens, converge upon this building for their daily dose of mundane tasks. Do the work, collect the paycheck, go home. The company’s purpose, vaguely, is to help place American workers with corporations throughout the world.

Then one day there are deviations from the norm. Intense security checks at the entrance to the parking lot. A military presence. Workers native to Colombia told to go home. After that the day pushes on. Until the announcement comes.

Writer James Gunn (“Guardians of the Galaxy”) has said in interviews he literally dreamed the concept of “The Belko Experiment.” It is a mix of cold corporate manipulations and perverse social tinkering with the ultimate question being: How far would you go to survive?

The announcement, piped in via an in-office PA system nobody seemed to know existed, delivers a chilling directive by The Voice: kill a few of your fellow workers, or more of you will die. Initially this is dismissed as a sick joke. But when metal shutters slam over the windows and escape is no longer an option, a shocking and bloody emphasis is added; meaning this is not a joke and whoever has hands on the levers definitely is in control.

Tony Goldwyn plays Barry Norris, the boss of this facility, and his stance of maintaining composure and keeping everybody on one path of calm and rational behavior is easily doomed to failure. While most of the employees cower and shudder on the border of panic, others break up into factions. Mike Milch (John Gallagher Jr. from “10 Cloverfield Lane”) and his co-worker and girlfriend Leandra (Adria Arjona) go on a mission to see if they can summon some outside help. Milch logically believes that if the employees bow to this experiment they are all doomed anyway.

Norris is joined by the office creep Wendell Dukes (John C. McGinley) and a couple of others who in their calculated reasoning assume it is best to be armed. This foresight can come in handy when things really get to the down and dirty final chapter of who will be the last ones standing.

Melanie Diaz plays Dany Wilkens, the new employee who is finding that this first day on the job is more hellish than she ever could have imagined. James Gunn’s brother Sean is Marty, a drug-addled employee whose paranoia offers some moments of levity and silliness.

Then there is Michael Rooker as Bud, one of a two-man maintenance staff who unfortunately provides little impact on the bloody proceedings.

The Big Brother element is most chilling. It seems any strategy the workers resort to is detected by the ubiquitous camera coverage in the building, and The Voice, seeing all, coolly advises that these efforts will only lead to more death. Ominously the only ones who seem to be getting free reign over their plans are Norris and his increasingly dangerous and hell-bent-on-surviving group that has all the artillery.

This all is leading to the inevitable fest of spurting blood and a body count that mushrooms. Who lives and who dies offers only a part of this study of human nature. What Gunn also explores is who can maintain any compassion under such dire circumstances.

Adeptly paced under the direction of Greg McLean, “The Belko Experiment” is effective horror, as it taps into a common supposition held by employees that they are seen only as evil and costly necessities by employers who are always seeking ways to find them expendable. Then it takes an uncompromising look at human behavior when it is reduced to its lowest denominator: survival at all costs.

Meeting the parents gets creepy and deeply dangerous in “Get Out”

Jordan Peele may be more known as a comedic personality, being a MADtv alumnus and one-half (with Keegan-Michael Key) of the Key & Peele comedy team, but he has adeptly stepped into the horror realm with his directorial debut, “Get Out.”

Peele has taken an already frightening prospect — a young man meeting his girlfriend’s parents — and injected racial tension and some horrifying ulterior motives into the mix and come up with a very smart and creepy thriller in “Get Out.”

Peele said in an interview he has been a fan of horror since childhood, when he would watch scary movies in the middle of the night while his mother slept. Around 2009 he began formulating the idea that would lead to “Get Out,” speculating on what a thriller version of “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” would be like. This classic and award-winning 1967 movie is about how a liberal white couple (Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn) react when their daughter introduces them to her fiance, an African American (Sidney Portier). Rather than doing a rehash of this, Peele wanted to inject the fear of being an outsider in any situation and a feeling that something sinister might be going on.

So: Chris Washington (Daniel Kaluuya), a young black man who’s been in a relationship with a white woman, Rose Armitage (Allison Williams from “Girls”), for four months, agrees to spend a weekend at her folks’ house. She brushes off his concerns that she has not informed her parents Chris is black, assuring him that they are not racist.

Meanwhile, Chris’ best friend Rod Williams (a scene-stealing LilRel Howery), a TSA employee, warns him this visiting-the-parents thing could  lead to trouble.

When they arrive at the house, the young people are greeted by the parents, Dean (Bradley Whitford) and Missy (Catherine Keener), who show no signs of being shocked that Chris is black. Indeed they embrace him, although Missy expresses her disapproval of his smoking habit. A psychiatrist, Missy insists she can cure Chris of his smoking habit via hypnosis, an offer he respectfully declines.

With Dean being a doctor, the Armitage household is definitely an upper-tier display of being comfortably well off. It is also pretty secluded, which of course is a red flag in the horror genre.

The Armitages also have two black people working for them, a gardener named Walter (Marcus Henderson) and a housekeeper, Georgina (Betty Gabriel). Dean tells Chris this is not what it looks like — Walter and Georgina had been hired to care after Dean’s aged parents and after the elderly people died, Dean just did not have the heart to let them go, thus kept them on.

Chris seems to accept this, but he finds himself being increasingly disturbed by the behavior of Georgina and Walter. Peele admitted he injected some “Stepford Wives” sentiment into “Get Out,” and the two employees of the Armitages do seem a little too blissfully content and robotic, as if brainwashes or programmed. When Chris broaches to Georgina the subject of being stuck  into a subservient situation, her reaction is one of reproach.

Unable to sleep that first night, Chris steps outside, but upon returning inside he encounters Missy, who invites him to sit and chat. She starts asking probing questions, tapping into memories he does not want to bring up.  It is all a ploy on Missy’s part.

Haunted by his chat with Missy, Chris has another issue to deal with — the Armitage’s are having what is an annual event, inviting friends for a day-long soiree. Once these people arrive, Chris is subjected to pandering, which he can absorb politely, but then he has an unnerving encounter with one of the guests, the only other black person in attendance.

Chris has phone conversations with Rod, who grows increasingly concerned as Chris relates the strange things occurring at the Armitage home. This motivates Rod to do some investigating.

Peele’s script unfolds in a way that offers hints as to what is going on, and succeeds at a revelation that packs a wallop. One can only hope that Chris can summon of that Final Girl resourcefulness necessary for his survival.

Kaluuya delivers a stellar performance as a man who is accustomed to dealing with racism but soon grows baffled and increasingly alarmed at creepy incidents unfolding around him. As Rod, Howery provides the humor but steps up in the clutch when things seem to be going bad for his buddy.

It is Gabriel as Georgina who really ratchets up the creepy factor. Even though she putters around dispassionately with quiet efficiency (for the most part), something about her just screams: I am not right and the scariest aspect is that I don’t care I’m not right.

“Get Out” is one of those movies that does not hammer the viewers with scares. It simply and quietly taps into paranoia and foreboding. It is quite effective and unsettling, the way a horror movie should be.

Internet stardom goes horribly awry in “Truth or Dare”

Naturally, with a film titled “Truth or Dare” there comes the challenge: I DARE you to watch it. That should serve as ample warning that this little film is not for those who tend to react squeamishly to onscreen violence.

There’s horror, and there’s HORROR. “Truth or Dare” is HORROR.

These are exciting times in the world of scary movies in that women are making their mark in the genre as writers, producers and directors of horror films. Among them is Jessica Cameron, who co-wrote, with Jonathan Scott Higgins, and directed “Truth or Dare” and took it on a successful worldwide tour of festivals in which the movie garnered 19 awards. Among the prizes were the Best Horror Feature at the Arizona Underground Film Festival, Best Feature at the Calgary Horror Con, the Jury Award at the Macabre Faire Film Festival, and three awards at the Shockfest Film Festival: Best Actor to Ryan Kiser and Best Director and Best Actress to Cameron.

Following this kudos-laden global exposure, the film took awhile to get distribution into other platforms (it was made in 2013). Offers to release it in DVD would come with the compromise of cutting its more brutal scenes. But Cameron held firm and finally it has been released on DVD in its raw, uncut form.

For those who waited anxiously for this, the patience has paid off. In a wonderfully gruesome way.

It is an understatement to call “Truth or Dare” a cautionary tale, presenting a terrifying story of the dark, vicious underbelly of fame delivered at the hands of social media. Those who covet accelerated online traffic may have to deal with not only the relatively sane fans, but the downright demented ones as well.

Six college students — three couples actually — have hit the jackpot with their “Truth or Dare” video streams that offer a violent twist. They especially draw attention when one of them, Tony (Brandon Van Vliet) may have been fatally shot by fellow Truth or Daredevil Jennifer (Cameron). The group subsequently appears on a talk show and brings out Tony to show he really was not killed.

In the audience at the talk show is a self-professed No. 1 fan of the “Truth or Dare” videos, Derik (Kiser, who also stars as Charles Manson in “House of Manson”). When he makes a scene in trying to be recruited into the group, he is banished from the building.

Later, the group reconvenes at a secluded home purchased by John (Jesse Wilson), who has set up a studio in which to video the next episodes of their show. Aside from John, Jennifer and Tony, the group includes John’s girlfriend Courtney (Devanny Pinn, so chilling  as Susan Atkins in “House of Manson”), Tony’s girlfriend Michelle (Heather Dorff) and Jennifer’s boyfriend Ray (Shelby Stehlin).

Just as the Truth or Daredevils begin to work on their next show, who should crash in on them but their No. 1 fan, Derik. Armed and certainly dangerous, Derik gets the upper hand and demands that they continue their “Truth or Dare” game, but under his rules.

With one member of the group already “out of the game” (in other words, no longer breathing), the group has no choice but to concede to Derik’s decrees.

Unfortunately, in Derik’s opinion, the show lacks structure and realism and he believes this cheats the fans.So he is here to fix things.

In the first round of the game, the five remaining Truth or Daredevils opt for truth rather than dares. But this turns ugly.

As in other horror movies in which viewers have to dispense with disbelief and accept that killers like Michael Myers, Jason Voorhees and Freddy Krueger never die despite all the weapons and artillery used on them, “Truth or Dare” at this point forces the viewer to believe that Derik has managed to dig up deep secrets the Truth or Daredevils have been keeping from each other (even their lovers). But this is a risk that is brought up —  suggesting the real dangers of too much personal information being accessible to people who are savvy enough to find and exploit it.

Of course, some of these secrets revealed are pretty bad and it leads to, well, discord among the group members. So naturally in the ensuing rounds they opt for dares rather than truths.

And that’s when it gets really brutal.

You can develop a grudging admiration for Derik’s madness. This guy is focused on his mission. As he says, “Truth or Dare” “belongs to the fans” and it is the obligation of the Truth or Daredevils to give them a bloody good show. Derik’s investment in the show — “You’re not just videos,” he declares, “you’re an inspiration, at least to me” — along with his sick creativity help achieve this goal. Each round gets more brutal. And even if these people survive the dares they are irreparably damaged.

Of the group, Jennifer and Michelle are the gutsiest. Indeed, when Jennifer completes a dare without batting an eye, it seems she might be momentarily getting into the gory spirit of the proceedings. Later Jennifer and Michelle are the only ones to actually attempt to physically derail Derik’s efforts.

Kiser’s Derik is a bundle of nervous, misguided and psychotic energy. He is a tragic figure, wrapping his life around something so trivial as people videotaping fake violence to garner hits on the internet.

The rest of the cast is put through such cringe-worthy punishment, and for all that is revealed about them, the fact that they do not deserve the horror they endure makes “Truth or Dare” an effective and terrifying film. Cameron did a superb job of recruiting dedicated people, beyond the cast, who helped her create this film on a small budget. Credit goes out to Carrie Mercado, the makeup artist and special effects makeup artist, as well as the visual effects team of Aaron M. Lane and Adam Lima. Cameron, outspoken in her disdain for CGI effects, brought on board people who share her enthusiasm for practical special effects.

“Truth or Dare” comes with a warning. This is uncompromising violence and not for the casual horror fans who enjoy films that simply make them jump or feel uneasy. This movie does flat out dare you to watch, and even the most hardcore fans of this genre will find themselves of accelerated heart rates, possibly sweating and shaking, at the conclusion of the film. But then dare yourself NOT to watch it again. You might lose that dare.


McConaughey goes slob in ‘Gold’

Matthew McConaughey lately has been sacrificing his body for his art. He dropped a lot of weight for his Academy Award-winning performance in “Dallas Buyers Club” in 2013, and now has gone the opposite direction, putting on about 40 pounds for his role as Kenny Wells in “Gold.”

He also shaved his head so he could appear to have a receding hairline, and used false teeth to simulate a bad set of choppers. The end result is a guy with a pot belly, lousy taste in clothing and a general screw-up ambience.

“Gold” is inspired by true events that took place in the 1980s when investors lost a lot of money in a gold mine venture that turned out to be nothing. It’s a story that has been told before about people who go from rags to riches only to be doomed, usually by their own greedy extravagances, bad luck or bad decisions, to fall back into the swamp of financial ruin.

McConaughey’s Wells is a third-generation gold prospector, wherein he has cashed in his pack mule for an office full of salespeople seeking investors. Taking over the business after his father, also named Kenny Wells (Craig T. Nelson), dies, the younger Wells now runs his business from a bar where his girlfriend Kay (Bryce Dallas Howard) works.

But things are not going well and when he is turned down in a bid to bring in a heavy-duty financier, Wells is about to lose it all.

He has a dream, however, about hitting a gold mother lode in Indonesia and follows up by convincing a geologist, Michael Acosta (Edgar Ramirez) to join him in the search for this potential gold mine.

After running out of the initial money raised for the venture, and with Wells nearly dying of malaria, Acosta finally claims there is indeed gold in them there hills.

Well, once you make money, a lot of light shines on you, and soon Wells and Acosta are being courted by people with deep pockets. But these people see Wells for what he is — kind of a goof-up who never seems to be more than two feet away from a pack of cigarettes and a bottle of booze — and they use their financial clout and connections with the Indonesian government to leverage Wells out of the way. But Wells and Acosta are able to make their own deal and regain control.

Then, inevitably, everything collapses.

“Gold” is one of those movies that might be worth sitting through if these kind of business horror stories tickle your fancy. Otherwise, it is also a chance to see McConaughey continue to expand his repertoire of performances. Here he is deeply flawed yet admirable in his desire to be his own man and to pursue his dreams. He’s not the sharpest tool in the shed but he never gives up.

Bryce Dallas Howard has some moments as Kay, a woman who sometimes has serious doubts about Wells, but dang-it, she just cannot help but love the lunkhead.


A decent premise for a horror movie falls way short here.

Three college students — Elliott (Douglas Smith), he girlfriend Sasha (Cressida Bonas) and John (Lucien Laviscount) — who obviously have not kept up with their reading of horror movie primers, decide to rent a creeky old house off campus. And before you can say “I have a bad feeling about this,” bad things start happening.

The three young people unwittingly unleash an evil entity known as the Bye Bye Man (Doug Jones). This guy has a pretty good gig going on. If you say his name, or if you only THINK his name, he is able to wreak all kinds of horrible things.

“The Bye Bye Man” was directed by Stacy Title, whose last directorial effort was the TV movie “The Greatest Show Ever” 10 years ago. So her effort here is a bit rusty. There are some scenes that really needed to be reshot because of seriously bad acting. And the scares tend to be the cheap jump-in-your-seat variety.

Another problem is that the screenplay by Jonathan Penner, based on “The Bridge to Body Island” by Robert Damon Schneck, offers no back story on the Bye Bye Man. Who he is, how he got to be who he is and why he gets his jollies fooling with people’s minds and turning them into killers never is explored.

Thus he really does not present much of a scary presence. Oh, some of the things people do under his influence are pretty terrifying, but the only unnerving aspect at the end of the movie is who might be the next person to carry out Bye Bye Man’s evil deeds.

Find out how it all began with “Ouija: Origin of Evil”

When “Ouija” hit the theaters in 2014, it did not exactly earn glowing reviews. Its Rotten Tomatoes Tomatometer was a dreadful 7% (that’s what percentage of reviews were favorable) and the audience rating was a little better but still a feeble 24%. And its IMDB rating sits at 4.4.

So it really looked like any followup movies were highly unlikely.

That is, until writer-director Mike Flanagan decided to take a shot at it. Flanagan generates a lot of excitement in the realm of horror movies, having entertained genre fans with “Oculus,” “Hush” and “Before I Wake.”

Rather than continuing to explore the fates of the sisters Laine (Olivia Cooke) and Sarah (Ana Coto) following their horrifying experiences with the Zander girls that were unleashed by the use of a Ouija board, Flanagan opted to backtrack and focus on what led to Doris Zander having her mouth sewn up and why Doris’ sister Paulina now as a middle-aged adult is in an institution.

The result is a prequel, “Ouija: Origin of Evil” that far surpasses the original movie.

The film takes us back in time to 1967. Alice Zander (Elizabeth Reaser) is a widowed mother of two daughters, Lina (Annalise Basso), a sophomore in high school, and Doris (Lulu Wilson), a nine-year-old who does not mix well socially. The death of her husband has left Alice in a precarious financial situation. She tries to make ends meet by offering seances to help people contact loved ones now passed on. It’s a scam, really, with Alice enlisting the help of her daughters to pull off the trickery. Though it all is fake, Alice is unapologetic, believing she is really is offering a service of closure.

In order to help prop her struggling business, Alice purchases an Ouija board. While Lina, who is not entirely invested in this seance scene, is not enthusiastic about this acquisition, Doris takes to it right away, claiming she can now contact her late father via the board. But Doris also is having some interaction with a spirit named Marcus she claims is a friend.

But soon it is apparent that Doris, who is a little strange anyway, has a gift of channeling restless spirits. Doris writes several pages of text in cursive style she has not been taught yet at the Catholic where she and Lina are enrolled, and this catches the attention of the school’s principal, Father Tom (ET’s buddy Henry Thomas). Meanwhile, Lina is having some terrifying dreams while also trying to cultivate a budding relationship with a senior boy, Mikey (Parker Mack).

Alice initially finds Doris’ gifts exciting. But then Lina catches Doris energetically scribbling more text, that ends up being in Polish. She takes the writings to Father Tom, who has them translated by a nun who is from Poland. The texts reveal that the house in which  the Zanders reside has a sinister past. And things are not so friendly any more in the spirit world swirling about in the home.

The casting is superb. Reaser is both tragic but strong as a mother struggling with the death of her husband and trying to maintain some stability for her daughters. And with Doris providing a channel to what lies beyond, Alice sees her own beliefs shaken at the same time unnerving things are unfolding.

Wilson is a true find as Doris, looking innocent and vulnerable but capable of projecting a creepiness when under the influence of the nasty entities. Her monologue, when she describes to Mikey what it is like to being choked to death, is chilling to the core.

Basso also holds her own as Lina, being tugged in different directions as she deals with teenage issues, serving as a big sister and struggling as a daughter trying to cope with the loss of a father while being supportive of her mother.

“Ouija” effectively taps into the unsettling prospects of one’s home becoming a conduit to evil and how innocent people just trying to survive are thrown into horrible situations.

In the end, Flanagan, and script co-writer Jeff Howard (who collaborated with Flanagan on “Oculus” and “Before I Wake”) present a scary story, nicely setting things up to help the original “Ouija” make a little more sense.


You get what you expect with a Rob Zombie movie in ’31’

Rob Zombie is the first to point out his movies are not for everybody, nor do they necessarily have any redeeming social value. They are what hard core fans of horror demand: uncompromising brutality in their depiction of violence and terror.

Zombie set the tone with his first two movies, “House of 1,000 Corpses” (2003) and its followup, “The Devil’s Rejects” (2005). Then he applied that same vision in his remakes of “Halloween” and “Halloween 2.” He expects and accepts the various responses to his movies: some love them, others are ambivalent, and still others are appalled.

In “31,” Zombie’s first film since “The Lords of Salem” (2012), is yet another exploration of the dark underbelly of the human psyche — an ability to have so little regard for others’ lives and subject people to cruelty, terror and death.

As usual, Sheri Moon Zombie, Rob’s wife, has a pivotal starring role in “31,” playing Charly, one of a group of carnival workers on the road in their colorfully designed but beat up van. It is Halloween 1976 and as darkness sets, their progress on a remote rural road is impeded by what look like scarecrows. Upon investigating, they are attacked. Two of them are killed and the remaining five are kidnapped and taken to an abandoned warehouse.

There they encounter three people, adorned in powdered wigs and looking like they came right out of the aristocratic 1600s. These three — Father Murder (Malcolm McDowell), Sister Dragon (Judy Geeson) and Sister Serpent (Jane Carr) — inform the five what they are about to endure. For the next 12 hours, they will be pursued by various killer clowns. Each one is given odds on surviving, and they are not promising.

The five are  then separated, forcing them to try to get back together if they want to pool their resources (they are each given a weapon) in a battle to survive. The only other woman in the group is Venus Virgo (Meg Foster) while the men consist of Roscoe (Jeff Daniel Phillips), Panda (Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs) and Levon (Kevin Jackson).

A signature of Zombie movies is that the villains/killers often are more colorful than the victims. This certainly is the case with the stalker/killers in “31.” Standing out is the first predator, Sick Head (Pancho Moler) a portable pack of lethal power with a swastika tattooed on his chest and a chillingly gleeful mocking style.

So the game begins and it is now a matter of who, if anyone, will survive, and the only guarantee is that the audience will get an unblinking view of the carnage.

Zombie saves the best for last when Father Murder summons Doom Head, the baddest of the bad. The viewers already have seen Doom Head (Richard Brake) in a pre-credits scene in which he torments his victim with a monologue of dire philosophical gems before committing the murder. Included in these sayings is the chuckle-inducing “In Hell, everybody loves popcorn.”

While “31” is not on par with his first two movies, now  considered classics of the ultra-explicit genre of horror movies, familiar elements of Zombie films, including almost artfully choreographed mayhem, are in place. They are not for the squeamish, nor are they for people who like happy endings.

“All Through the House” has successful festival run before its release on various platforms

Some of us enjoy accentuating the joyful holiday season by digesting Christmas-themed horror movies. “Silent Night Deadly Night” (1984) certainly was a pacesetter in making this possible, and excitement has to be running high, not only with “Krampus” now available on home-viewing platforms, but with “All Through the House” following up its award-winning journey on the festival circuit with an Oct. 4 release.

“All Through the House,” written and directed by Todd Nunes, is a throwback to the 1980s slasher movies and has proven it meets all the objectives of this genre, having netted the Best Slasher award while also being voted the Audience Choice Award at the R.I.P. horror film festival.

The movie starts out with a simple premise. During a holiday season in Napa, Calif., a crazed person decked out in a Santa Claus outfit and wearing a hideous mask, is moving house to house and using a pair of hedge shears to slaughter victims who, naturally, are primed to enjoy some yuletide sex. As we all know, in films such as these, frisky people are doomed.

Returning to her hometown of Napa while on a holiday break from college is Rachel Kimmel (Ashley Mary Nunes, Todd’s sister). Although her only family here is her wheelchair-bound grandmother Abby (Cathy Garrett), Rachel has made plans to meet up with friends Gia (Natalie Montera) and Sarah (Danica Riner) and go Christmas shopping.

Meanwhile, a neighbor is Mrs Garrett (Melynda Kiring), an ultimate tragic figure. Now living alone, Mrs Garrett has been dealing for 15 years with the mysterious disappearance of her daughter Jamie, reportedly snatched from her bedroom one night. As if this is not enough to merit her great sympathy, she seems a little off her rocker. She has several mannequins inside her home, all dressed up, and uses a couple of them as stand-ins for what used to be her family. Plus, she reenacts a dinner scene with one mannequin posing as her daughter and another as her husband. The scenario she concocts is anything but domestic bliss as she somehow feels compelled to re-experience some dark and rocky moments of her life.

The question that naturally comes to mind is whether there is a link between the sad Mrs. Garrett and the brutal Santa-costumed killer roaming the neighborhood.

Mrs. Garrett had sent Rachel a letter, asking the young woman to stop by and help her finish decorating her house for the holidays. Rachel, too nice to blow this off, decides to recruit Gia and Sarah to help her assist Mrs. Garrett.

Thus all the pieces are aligned for the inevitable violence that will explode upon Rachel and her pals. Meanwhile, bits and pieces of information are revealed, adding a few twists as Rachel is thrust into the Final Girl mode.

The Best Slasher nod given to “All Through the House” is well earned. The blood and gore are ample as well as particular acts of horror that will have viewers squirming.

Ashley Mary Nunes delivers in the pivotal role as Rachel, the all-around sweet young woman thrown into dire situations. And Kiring nicely paces her performance, building up to a nuttiness that fortifies an already natural inclination to be wary of eccentric but seemingly harmless older ladies living alone.

“Morgan” takes a look at science gone awry

While Dr. Frankenstein learned the hard way about the pitfalls of trying to create human life without using the natural reproductive processes, science still seems to want to pursue this. Advancements in genetics make it seem all too real that soon, humans will be manufactured, and fine-tuned, rather than conceived.

This has provided fodder for cautionary science-fiction / horror films for years. On the heels of the fine “Ex Machina” is “Morgan,” another story about a scientific effort to create the perfect being.

In a lab fortressed on a remote property, a group of scientists seemingly have made a breakthrough in creating a female humanoid they have named Morgan (Anya Taylor-Joy) whose physical, and more importantly, intelligent development have been rapid and promising. But an unexpected and terrifying attack on one of the staffers, Dr. Kathy Grieff (Jennifer Jason Leigh), by Morgan leads the vast corporation financing this project to send out a risk-management consultant, Lee Weathers (Kate Mara), to assess the incident and determine whether or not to terminate Morgan and the project.

Naturally, the scientists on location, led by Dr. Simon Ziegler (Toby Jones) and Dr. Lui Cheng (Michelle Yeoh), greet Weathers guardedly. It does not help that Weathers presents the stereotypical expectations of a corporate drone: cold, efficient, bottom-line orientated, stoic.

A gruff psychological analyst, Dr. Alan Shapiro (Paul Giamatti), also is brought in to interview Morgan. When that turns out to be disastrous, Dr. Cheng concedes with Weathers’ conclusion that Morgan be terminated.

There is a problem, however. All the staffers have grown fond of Morgan, who in her quieter moments really is a sweet and smart girl. But another problem is that during his brutal questioning of Morgan, Dr. Shapiro planted some ideas in Morgan’s mind that puts everybody in peril except for the behavioral scientist, Dr. Amy Menser (Rose Leslie from “Game of Thrones” and “Downton Abbey”), with whom Morgan has developed an emotional bonding.

This all leads to bloody confrontations and a twist that may surprise some viewers, but not all.

“Morgan” was directed by Luke Scott, son of Ridley Scott, and he appears to have inherited some of his father’s keen abilities to inject humanity into the characters and then hold just a little bit back so the viewer is riveted to the end.

Particularly effective are Mara, almost chilling in her relentless determination to get the job done, regardless of the emotional repercussions; and Taylor-Joy, whose Morgan can be wide-eyed and brimming with innocence and a desire to take in the world, yet can turn lethal at a second’s notice. These two characters form the core of the movie and they succeed and getting the viewer drawn in.


A new twist on the home invasion terror propels ‘Don’t Breathe’

What if you were viewing a horror movie and you found your allegiances challenged, and suddenly you did not know who to root for to survive?

Well, welcome to “Don’t Breathe.”

Writer-director Fede Alvarez offers an initial premise in which three young people, dead-ended in a dying Detroit who go around breaking into houses and stealing things, plot to burglarize the home of a blind older man (Stephen Lang) who reputedly has a stash of cash numbering in six figures. Of course, the blind man turns out to be anything but an easy victim and it will be a delight to see the three criminals getting what they deserve.

Ah, but there is more to the story than this.

Granted, the leader of the young thieves, Money (Daniel Zovatto), is pretty much a creep, focusing his energy on obtaining things he did  not earn. But his cohorts offer a different picture. Rocky (Jane Levy from “Evil Dead,” which also was directed by Alvarez), Money’s girlfriend,  at first seems like the rebellious, ungrateful young person, desiring to get away from her home. But rather than being spoiled and entitled we see that Rocky is trapped in a family situation that is pretty bad – a mother who has become a drunken mess since her husband left, soaking up the booze with some sleazy-looking boyfriend. Also in the picture is an innocent kid sister, Diddy (Emma Bercovici), Rocky wants to rescue from this unhealthy domestic arrangement.

The third member of the group, pretty much the technical brains behind the burglaries, is Alex (Dylan Minnette), drawn into this trio of lawbreakers because he pines for Rocky’s affections, a goal he constantly is reminded by Money, that never will be achieved.

Upon casing the blind man’s house, it appears to be an easy score; the man is the only resident  in an otherwise abandoned neighborhood. The only obstacle, other than disabling the home security system, is a vicious, drooling watch dog the blind man owns.

Alex is at first reluctant to pull off the burglary, fearing such a heavy heist could trigger more intense police response, but Rocky’s enticement that this big score could finance their ticket out of this grim situation motivates him to change his mind.

While they are able to neutralize the dog without violence, the three soon discover the blind man is not nearly as helpless as they figured he would be. As things grow from bad to worse, to potentially deadly, there is a bit of a conflict of emotions. Sure, Rocky and Alex are willing participants in a crime plotted by Money, but they certainly do not deserve whatever punishment the blind man may deliver. Meanwhile, the blind man certainly merits sympathy – he was a war vet blinded while serving in Iraq; and the stash of money he has was the result of a settlement after a devastating family tragedy.

Then Alvarez and co-writer Rodo Sayagues present a bombshell of a revelation that changes the dynamics of who really is the evil one here. Yet it is a gray area morally and emotionally.

Alvarez keeps the tension and terror at full acceleration throughout. The title says it well — breathing is a good way to find yourself in the line of fire of a person, who robbed of  his ability to see, has sharpened his other senses, like hearing, and even smell.

The casting of Lang as the blind man was a stroke of genius. Bulked up despite his age, with a weathered face, he is an intimidating figure who will not hesitate to do whatever is necessary to defend himself and his home.  No matter who the viewer is favoring in this deadly cat-and-mouse pursuit, “Don’t Breathe” is guided by a smart script that leads to exhilaration as well as despair. Levy’s Rocky turns out to be a tough one, driven by a need to find the means of giving herself and Diddy a better life.

“Don’t Breathe” proves that horror can be multilayered, going beyond the violence and terror and tapping into the emotional dilemmas of deadly confrontations.

Statham is back as Bishop

For those in the mood for some basic escapist adventure, the Jason Statham-starrer “Mechanic: Resurrection” delivers on all counts.

Statham reprises his role as Arthur Bishop, first played by Charles Bronson the the 1972 original “The Mechanic,” a professional killer who wants to retire but gets drawn back into the world of deadly hits. The 2011 remake of the Bronson movie featured Statham in a plot similar to the original in which Bishop takes on an apprentice bent on avenging his father’s death, murdered by Bishop.

In “Mechanic: Resurrection,” as the title suggests, Bishop, thought to be dead, is alive and well, living incognito on a boat in Rio de Janeiro. But one morning, while enjoying a brew at his favorite local watering hole, Bishop is visited by a woman who knows who he really is and says she represents a client who wants him to sanction three people. Since the woman is backed up by some serious muscle, Bishop concludes she will not take no for an answer. So a couple of minutes of vintage Statham chaos ensues, leading to broken bodies and a death-defying escape by Bishop.

He then relocates to a little resort island off of Thailand, run by a friend, Mei (the always wonderful Michelle Yeoh), where he has a hut on the beach. Unfortunately, he is reluctantly drawn into helping a woman named Gina (Jessica Alba), who appears to be a victim of domestic abuse. Bishop dispatches the creep abuser but discovers that Gina has his picture in her mobile device. It turns out Gina is being used as bait to get Bishop to accept the contract to eliminate those three targets. The contractor, Crain (Sam Hazeldine) and Bishop have a past that has not gone well and Bishop sees this a some sort of revenge Crain is perpetrating.

Although Gina is alluring, Bishop at first is not falling for her. However, it is her plight that lures him back into his deadly profession. Gina is running an orphanage in Cambodia that Crain has threatened to destroy if she cannot get Bishop to accept the sanctions.

Of course, the kills will not be easy. The three targets are surrounded by heavy security both in manpower and formidable, technically complex fortifications. Bishop is under tight deadlines to carry out the killings, and they all must look like accidents.

From here, the script by Philip Selby and Tony Moser, based on a story by Selby, Rachel Long and Brian Pittman, offers a fascinating look at how Bishop cases the locations and plans his attack, using all kinds of gadgetry that would have had Bronson’s Bishop salivating.

Bishop is methodical and cold and he carries out the work while racking up an astounding body count. Pressed into having to work fast, it takes awhile before Bishop realizes the motivation behind Crain’s need to have these three men eliminated. This leads to an abrupt change in strategy in dealing with the final target, a weapons dealer named Max Adams (Tommy Lee Jones, collecting an easy paycheck and having a lot of fun in the process).

“Mechanic: Resurrection” is a high-energy romp as only a Statham movie can carry out. And in a nice turn, Alba’s Gina proves to be tough when she needs to be.

A smart cops and robbers spin in “Hell or High Water”

Jeff Bridges has fit comfortably into a niche of playing grizzled, often slovenly and somewhat flawed characters, well past their prime but with some wisdom still to offer.

He is at his best playing Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton in “Hell or High Water,” a well-written and extremely entertaining little film that deserves more than the limited release it has received.

Even better, Bridges is surrounded by an able cast, even down to the smallest of roles in this story about an aged lawman rolling quickly toward retirement but hoping to solve one final case of two robbers hitting various branches of a major bank in west Texas.

The robbers themselves are Toby Howard (Chris Pine in a nice departure from his Capt Kirk role in the “Star Trek” reboot), and his brother Tanner (Ben Foster) an ex-con and loose cannon. Toby, divorced and father of two sons, has just finished being caretaker for his gravely ill mother. Upon her death he has inherited a small ranch that is in danger of being foreclosed. To prevent this, he enlists Tanner in helping him commit robberies, taking only small, untraceable bills, in hopes of eventually amassing enough funds that they take to casinos and win nice pots — all this to save the ranch, which he wants to pass on to his sons.

In this collaboration, Toby only wants to take money, not hurt anyone, a decree Tanner cannot seem to abide by. Donning ski masks and in possession of a several stolen cars they can ditch after awhile, their robberies are slowly but surely netting more cash and vexing local law enforcement.

Enter Hamilton, who is wrapping up his Ranger career and is known for his keen intuition.

The superb script is the work of Taylor Sheridan, an actor whose credits include Deputy Chief David Hale in “Sons of Anarchy” and Danny Boyd in “Veronica Mars.” He also scripted the recent “Sicaro.” It is no surprise that Sheridan grew up in Texas. His screenplay appears to capture all the nuances of the life of Texas citizens. He also personally witnessed the heartbreak of people losing their properties and how lenders could exploit desperate people. These are themes he addresses in “Hell or High Water” that he insisted in an interview are social rather than political issues.

Hence, Toby garners sympathy as a man driven to crime to save the only thing that may help keep his fractured family from completely falling apart.

The modus operandi of the of the brothers earns the grudging respect of Hamilton, who can appreciate that at least the two bank robbers are not leaving a growing body count in their wake. But Hamilton is a sworn Ranger who cannot abide in allowing these men to continue to break the law, whatever their motivation.

Aside from the story line that is leading to an inevitable confrontation between the lawmen and the robbers, “Hell or High Water” is laced with gritty, realistic dialog and wit, although some of the humor is not politically correct.

Hamilton does not hold back in making cracks about the heritage of his partner, Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham), mix of Native American and Mexican. Parker shows an immense patience with the continual taunting by Hamilton. But underneath it all, the sense is that Hamilton would take a bullet to save his partner’s life.

Parker does wonder if Hamilton has lost his touch in sniffing out what the robbers will do next, and of course Hamilton does not hold back in gloating when he is proven correct.

Sadly and inevitably, the situation evolves violently as the Rangers close in on the brothers. In the end, Bridges and Pine only share a few minutes of screen time together that initially seems disappointing. But Sheridan, along with director David Mackenzie, made the right call in keeping it low key and minimal. It almost seems like the passing of the baton. Bridges, whose career has spanned six decades and who himself played characters that broke the law (“Thunderbolt and Lightfoot,” which earned him the second of his six Academy Award nominations), steps aside with his dignity intact and allows Pine a shot at building a rich career.

“Hell or High Water,” despite some decent per-screen box office tallies, likely will not be in theaters long. But it is well worth checking out once it hits the rental market along with online platforms.