The Children, Curtains, and Hannibal Rising

The Children1980, US, 93m. Director: Max Kalmanowicz. Streaming: Peacock, Prime, Tubi

Curtains1983, Canada, 89m. Director: Jonathan Stryker (Richard Ciupka). Streaming: Peacock, Roku

Hannibal Rising2007, Czech Republic/Italy/UK/US, 121m. Director: Peter Webber. Streaming: Tubi

THE CHILDREN (1980) A cloud of toxic pollution emanating from a nuclear power plant transforms a busload of kids into zombified killers. One of the the parents is hugged by her nuclear-powered son and microwaved into a pile of charred, bloody pulp. The local sheriff (Gil Rogers) deputizes a couple of nogoodniks to be stationed at a roadblock, which proves fruitless as the children continue to cook their way through the small town’s populace. Much like the zombies in a George Romero film—which The Children resembles quite often—the youngsters cannot be stopped by simple gunfire, but one of the survivors realizes cutting off their hands seems to put them down for good. Its nonsensical plot does little to dissuade one from viewing The Children as nothing more than silly entertainment, made by a handful of crew members who would later work on Friday the 13th, including cinematographer Barry Abrams and composer Harry Manfredini. B

CURTAINS (1983) In order to prepare for an upcoming role, renowned actress Samantha Sherwood (Samantha Eggar) voluntarily checks herself into a mental hospital. Weeks of enduring the asylum don’t pay off when Samantha is stabbed in the back by her filmmaker lover, Jonathan Stryker (John Vernon), who leaves her in the nuthouse and holds a casting session at his country estate for more youthful actresses. Stryker’s plans are foiled when Samantha escapes from the hospital and does a bit of impromptu backstabbing herself—literally. Or so the viewer is led to believe when someone in a hag mask begins cutting down the competition with a razor-sharp scythe. Eggars is good but her character is too obtuse to care about. Most of the auditioning actresses are nondescript; that includes the real actors portraying them. The sole exception is Lynne Griffin (Black Christmas), whose bubbly comedian, Patti O’Connor, failing to be taken seriously as a dramatic actress by her peers is the only character trait that rings true in the film. Robert Guza, Jr. was a prevalent soap opera writer and his experience in that medium shows within Curtain‘s flashy theatrics, which for most of its running time are ridiculously contrived—but undeniably enjoyable. B

HANNIBAL RISING (2007) The laborious and often needless origin story assigned to so many popular fictional figures is here given to everybody’s favorite cinematic serial killer—Hannibal “the Cannibal” Lecter. In war-torn Lithuania, 1944, young Hannibal witnesses the massacre of his parents at the hands of Nazis. Hannibal and his younger sister, Mischa, are held captive by local SS soldiers, including the wild-eyed psychopath, Grutas (Rhys Ifans, not dialing it down), who after ripping into the carcass of a pheasant with his teeth uses Mischa as a food source for his hungry comrades. The traumatic event turns Hannibal (the late Gaspard Ulliel) into a mild-mannered young man who harbors violent aggression towards his fellow rude humans. Hannibal applies his newfound psychosis to his martial arts training, orchestrated by his wealthy aunt (Gong Li)—and conveniently, Auntie’s in-house chef teaches Lecter about the importance of fine dining etiquette. After years of medical training in Paris, Hannibal plots his revenge against the men who slaughtered his sister, including Grutas, who in the decade following the war has become a sex trafficker—one of many hilariously overwrought moments found throughout this despairingly awful film. The most shocking aspect—and ultimately most disappointing—of Hannibal Rising is the fact that Hannibal creator, Thomas Harris, wrote the screenplay. D

Attack of the Lederhosen Zombies, Dead Snow, and Dead Snow 2

Attack of the Lederhosen Zombies2016, Austria, 78m. Director: Dominik Hartl. Streaming: Tubi

Dead Snow 2009, Norway, 91m. Director: Tommy Wirkola. Streaming: Tubi

Dead Snow 2: Red vs. Dead2014, Norway, 100m. Director: Tommy Wirkola. Streaming: Peacock

ATTACK OF THE LEDERHOSEN ZOMBIES (2016) To compensate for the lack of snow due to climate change, the owner of a ski resort in the Alps concocts a chemical that seamlessly produces the white powder. Unfortunately, when consumed, the chemical transforms people and animals into drooling, pock-faced zombies. Soon the quaint Bavarian village is overrun with the walking dead, trapping a group of snowboarders on the mountain. The survivors arm themselves with whatever weapons they can find, which includes ski poles (used by a barmaid to take out the eyes of a zombie), and, naturally, snowboards in the climax’s snowboarding-cum-zombie massacre—accompanied by Johann Strauss’s “The Blue Danube.” It might lack the energy of Shaun of the Dead—the obvious inspiration—as well as any actual lederhosen-wearing zombies, but it’s difficult not to enjoy this spirited romp as nothing more than stupid escapism. The practical makeup effects are excellent. B

DEAD SNOW (2009) Norwegian friends on vacation at a remote mountain cabin spend their time snow tubing, discussing horror movies, and drinking a lot of pilsner. Their play time is interrupted by the arrival of an old fart who tells the friends of the place’s unsavory history involving the torture and murder of the locals at the hands of Nazis during World War II. The civilians had enough and slaughtered most of the Germans in retaliation, with many escaping into the mountains but leaving their stolen loot behind. Much like the gut-munching Nazi zombies of Jess Franco’s Oasis of the Zombies, the SS soldiers in Dead Snow return as the rotten undead and go to any lengths to protect their cherished Nazi gold. Naturally, this includes ripping the vacationers to pieces, all of which is executed via some truly impressive makeup FX—one guy wearing a t-shirt of Peter Jackson’s Braindead has his face split in two. As with Jackson’s splatter classic, Dead Snow is an energetic homage to the gory delights of films like The Evil Dead, complete with deadpan humor intermixed with moments of outrageous bloodshed. A must-see for the splattery zombie aficionado. B+

DEAD SNOW 2: RED VS. DEAD (2014) In the spirit of the Evil Dead films, Dead Snow 2, like Evil Dead 2, is a slicker, more polished production. It’s also breathlessly paced and filled with wall-to-wall splatter. Martin (Geir Vegar Hoel), the sole survivor of the zombie massacre from Part 1, narrowly escapes the undead Nazi army. Standartenführer Herzog (Ørjan Gamst), the leader of the Nazi zombie squad, begins recruiting soldiers by killing a group of tourists and turning them into the walking dead. Martin discovers that the severed arm of Herzog—which was cut off at the beginning of the film—can bring the dead back to life. With the help of an American zombie expert (Martin Starr of Freaks and Geeks) Martin starts his own army by resurrecting Russian soldiers Herzog himself wiped out in 1944. Perhaps the funniest bit is during the climax where a Nazi zombie doctor sets up a makeshift battlefield triage and uses hay to “fill in” the literal gaps in the zombies’ dismembered bodies. If Red vs. Dead achieves anything it’s the reminder that sequels can sometimes be just as good (or better) than their predecessor. B+

💔 My Bloody Valentine 💔

My Bloody Valentine1981, Canada, 90m, 93m (unrated version). Director: George Milhalka. Streaming: MGM+ via Roku, Pluto TV

My Bloody Valentine 2009, Canada/US, 101m. Director: Patrick Lussier. Streaming: Tubi

MY BLOODY VALENTINE (1981) The small mining town of Valentine Bluffs is putting together a grand February 14 celebration, the first in twenty years. The annual Valentine’s Day dance was permanently axed after 1960, when an explosion trapped five miners underground—one of whom, Harry Warden, went completely berserk and killed and ate his fellow survivors. Warden was sent to an asylum but escaped and—with pick ax in hand—butchered the town’s fat cats, who were too busy enjoying themselves at the Valentine’s party to assemble a rescue team for the buried miners. The present day resurrection of the town’s Valentine’s activities sparks a new series of murders, forcing the sheriff to cancel the big romantic event. That doesn’t stop a group of miners and their girlfriends from doing a bit of partying in the mine tunnels, the perfect location for a Valentine’s Day massacre when Harry Warden apparently returns to the scene of the crime. My Bloody Valentine is a compendium of the slasher sub-genre’s tried-and-true formulas, right down to the final battle pitting the remaining teens against the masked killer. And it all works, with a lot of the credit going to director George Mihalka’s eye for likable characters and suspenseful set pieces, including the climactic underground cat-and-mouse chase. Juicy kills and some actual scares help to make My Bloody Valentine a winner. B+

MY BLOODY VALENTINE (2009) After surviving a tunnel collapse, miner Harry Warden goes bananas and whacks his fellow survivors on the noggin with a pick ax. Warden escapes custody and goes on a mass killing spree—with a body count slightly less than the Iraq War—before being shot by police and running off into the night. The victims who eluded Harry’s wrath have been trying to live normal lives in the years following the massacre, but the upcoming sale of the town’s mine by the owner’s son (Jensen Ackles) ignites a new bloodbath in the form of the apparently still alive Harry Warden. The violence quota is definitely higher in this remake, with plenty of people ending up with their chest cavities opened and their hearts missing. The characters aren’t as memorable as in the 1981 film, but the gimmick here is the use of 3D cameras and the (literally) eye-popping make-up FX that shoot off the screen—and presumably into the audience’s laps. In that regard, My Blood Valentine ’09 delivers the goods in bucketloads of splatter. It overstays its welcome and gets a little too busy with a needless subplot, but hardcore slasher (and remake) fans shouldn’t find that a deterrent. B

Please listen to The Video Verdict’s episode on My Bloody Valentine! You can find it on Spotify!

Dead of Winter, The Lodge, and Mary Reilly

Dead of Winter1987, US, 100m. Director: Arthur Penn. Streaming: Prime, Tubi

The Lodge 2019, UK/US, 108m. Director: Severin Fiala, Veronika Franz. Streaming: Max

Mary Reilly 1996, UK/US, 107m. Director: Stephen Frears. Streaming: Tubi

DEAD OF WINTER (1987) Struggling actress Katie McGovern (Mary Steenburgen) believes she’s struck some luck when asked to take over the lead in an unfinished thriller being shot in upstate New York. Given a makeover, Katie takes over the identity of Julie Rose, the actress who left the film, and readies herself to audition for the director via videotape. The production is orchestrated by the mysterious Dr. Lewis (Jan Rubeš), a wheelchair-bound non-practicing psychiatrist who sets Katie up in his country estate. Katie eventually realizes there’s no movie and is being used as a pawn in a blackmail scheme, which resulted in the real Julie Rose’s murder. Katie’s discovery of the plot is threatened with sedation and psychological torture by Dr. Lewis and his assistant (Roddy McDowell), until she turns the tables on her captors. Steenburgen is likable, Rubeš is villainous, and the climax suspenseful. A modest, if imperfect, little chiller. Fun fact: Rubeš played Santa Claus in the family film One Magic Christmas, also starring Steenburgen. B

THE LODGE (2019) An unhappy family experiences unhappy things in this unhappy film from the makers of the equally unhappy Goodnight Mommy. After their mother commits suicide, brother and sister Aiden (Jaeden Martell) and Mia (Lia McHugh) are thrust into a new life with their father (Richard Armitage) and his fiancée, Grace (Riley Keough), a former psychiatric patient who as a child was the sole survivor of a doomsday cult massacre. The four shack up in an isolated lake house over the Christmas holiday, but the family bonding turns sour when Dad is called away to work, leaving Grace alone with Aiden and Mia. Tensions between fragile Grace and the snot-nosed siblings worsen when items around the house begin disappearing—including Grace’s medication—and the power is mysteriously cut off. Is Grace’s traumatic past coming back to haunt her, or are her soon-to-be stepchildren out to drive her back to the asylum? A sense of impending doom lends the movie a genuinely chilly vibe, which is ironically the story’s downfall—much like the snowy landscapes that surround the lodge, the characters are wooden and cold, leaving very little for the viewer to sympathize with. C

MARY REILLY (1996) The renowned Dr. Jekyll (John Malkovich) startles his house staff by informing them that his new assistant, Mr. Hyde, will be using his laboratory at night. The arrival of this mysterious figure intrigues housemaid Mary Reilly (Julia Roberts), whose cordial relationship with Dr. Jekyll is cemented in Jekyll’s understanding that as a child Mary was physically abused by her father who turned monstrous from alcohol. Those who know the Robert Louis Stevenson story will undoubtedly see the metaphors dripping from the Mary Reilly screenplay, which itself is adapted from a novel by Valerie Martin. Mary’s involvement with Jekyll becomes distressed when she’s asked to help conceal the bloody aftermath of Hyde’s activities at a nearby brothel. The romantic gothic overtones saturate a lot of the gruesomeness of the Jekyll/Hyde plot, but Stephen Frears (The Queen) directs much of the film as psychological horror, including a scene where the greedy Mrs. Faraday (Glenn Close) unwisely tries to bamboozle Jekyll/Hyde and ends up donating her head to science. Despite its good cast and lush production values, Mary Reilly struggles to find its core and is reduced to being yet another “doomed romance” period piece, so popular at the time. C+

Please make sure you listen to the latest episode of The Video Verdict, a movie podcast available on Spotify I cohost with Frank Pittarese!

Splatter University Part II: More ’80s Campus Slashers

Fatal Pulse1988, US, 87m. Director: Anthony J. Christopher. Streaming: YouTube

Hell High1987, US, 84m. Director: Douglas Grossman. Streaming: Arrow

The Initiation 1984, US, 97m. Director: Larry Stewart, Peter Crane. Streaming: Arrow, Tubi

Return to Horror High 1987, US, 95m. Director: Bill Froehlich. Streaming: Tubi

FATAL PULSE (1988) When a sorority babe from AOK House (no, seriously) is strangled with her own lingerie by a psycho in black gloves, all the students finger the victim’s dimwitted boyfriend, Jeff (Ken Roberts). Jeff is too busy trying to rekindle a relationship with his ex to notice police swarming the sorority house and is told by his friend (Steven Henry) of the murder. Fellow AOK housemate, Cassie (Cindra Skotzko), mourns for her fallen sister while her friends ignore the murder and go on with their jazzercising and partying. But it’s too late, as a second sorority student has her throat slashed. Jeff tries to be the hero and sets up a trap for Ernie (Joe Estevez, Martin Sheen’s bro), the house handyman and obvious red herring. The plan fails and Jeff once again becomes the prime suspect. Why nobody seems suspicious about moody Prof. Cauldwell (Alex Courtney), who practically has “mad slasher” stamped on his forehead, is a testament to the writer’s lack of understanding the basic principles of suspenseful storytelling. Two more sorority sisters are butchered before the predictable ending reveals the killer’s identity and the incurable disease that triggered the massacre. The title is ironic as Fatal Pulse is about as lifeless as a slasher movie can get—the viewer can’t even rely on the subgenre’s tried-and-true splatter for a little excitement. The only thing audiences can expect from Fatal Pulse is a quick way to fall asleep. D

HELL HIGH (1987) (AKA: Real Trouble) A high-strung little girl playing with dolls in some backwoods swamp spies on a couple of teens inside a makeshift passion pit. When the woman rejects the man’s advances he breaks one of the little girl’s dolls in frustration. In retaliation, the kid tosses a bucket of mud at the man while he’s driving away and crashes his motorcycle, impaling him and his girlfriend on a bed of spikes. Eighteen years later, that girl is now high-strung high school teacher, Miss Storm (Maureen Mooney), who after berating one of her students in front of the class becomes a target for a group of troublemakers. The teens pull a Carrie-like prank on Miss Storm, but instead of pig’s blood they douse her in mud—the sight of which sends Miss Storm into a frenzy until she completely snaps and enacts bloody revenge. It might feature typical slasher movie tropes, but Hell High feels more like a demented version of a John Hughes film—I Spit on Your Breakfast Club? The characters are more fleshed out than you’d find in a splatter flick, and the actors are good and feel like actual high schoolers. The film gets points for going to dark places most teen body count movies don’t—especially in the eighties—and builds to a bleak but genuine ending. One of Joe Bob Brigg’s favorites; worthy of discovery. B

THE INITIATION (1984) Sorority pledge Kelly Fairchild (Daphne Zuniga) suffers from a recurring nightmare in which—after she sees her parents having sex as a child—she stabs her father before he’s attacked by a strange man. Do I sense a little Freudism here? Kelly also agonizes from a form of amnesia, which coincidentally began around the age Kelly is in her nightmare. Her overprotective mother (Vera Miles) tells Kelly her illness is the result of a fall from a tree when she was nine. But it doesn’t take Freud to sense a disturbing family secret lingering in the screenplay. Does it have anything to do with the escaped killer from the local sanitarium who’s targeted Kelly and her pledge sisters? The Initiation is a well-produced slasher that’s saddled with a needless amount of melodrama—it doesn’t come to a surprise to learn the film was written by Charlies Pratt, Jr, who at the time was a staff writer on General Hospital. The movie’s “soap opera” tactics often overshadow the production, giving the film a ludicrously overblown feel that doesn’t gel with the rest of the story. But once The Initiation settles into its basic stalk-n-slash plot it delivers plenty of sanguinary action, including the decapitation of genre favorite, Clu Gulager. B

RETURN TO HORROR HIGH (1987) The flaky production crew of a cheap horror movie (life imitating art?) making a film about the “real-life” exploits of the Crippen High slasher run into more than just financial woes when the escaped killer returns to the scene of the crime. Setting up shop in the abandoned school’s gymnasium, the crew is bossed around by their sleazoid producer (Alex Rocco) while the actors make life hell for their young director (Scott Jacoby), including the movie’s lead who quits after landing a role on a television series—this is ironic since the actor is played by George Clooney. Bodies start dropping (or, in some cases, bouncing) as the masked maniac whittles down the cast and crew. This is intermixed with flashbacks of the original murders, which are woven into the film-within-the-film’s “making-of” structure. Return to Horror High is first and foremost a parody of eighties slasher flicks, which ends up being its downfall since the movie is never very funny. Ultimately, it’s really just a mediocre slasher that never lives up to its own inspirations. The Brady Bunch‘s Maureen McCormick gets a few laughs as a police officer turned on by blood. C

Splatter University: A Short Guide to ’80s Campus Slashers

The Dorm That Dripped Blood1982, US, 88m. Director: Stephen Carpenter, Jeffrey Obrow. Streaming: N/A

The House on Sorority Row1982, US, 91m. Director: Mark Rosman. Streaming: AMC/Prime, Shudder, Tubi

Sorority House Massacre1986, US, 74m. Director: Carol Frank. Streaming: Tubi

Splatter University1984, US, 78m. Director: Richard W. Haines. Streaming: N/A

THE DORM THAT DRIPPED BLOOD (1982) (AKA: Death Dorm, Pranks) Several members of a student co-op stay behind during the Christmas break to ready the building for demolition. A hooded killer sees this as the perfect opportunity to bump off the teens, one by one, in particularly brutal fashion. An unsuspecting passerby gets his brains bashed in with a nail-embedded baseball bat, while another has a hole put into the back of his skull with a power drill. The prime suspect is a mysterious transient who’s been seen roaming the campus, but any savvy viewer will spot the slasher movie “red herring” motif. Friday the 13th was the obvious inspiration for this low-budget splatter flick, as its characters, isolated setting, and Savini-like gore FX are all very reminiscent of that classic, which isn’t a bad thing. The teens are likable enough, the pacing is adequate, and the murders are juicy. In the end, the movie can’t distinguish itself from the rest of the campus-themed slashers of the time, but if you like your feathered-haired student body extra-bloodied, you’ll enjoy The Dorm That Dripped Blood. Originally released in the UK as Pranks, where it was selected as one of the notorious “video nasties”—a sign of quality for many a gorehound. B

THE HOUSE ON SORORITY ROW (1982) A group of sorority pals are denied a graduation party by mean old house mother, Mrs. Slater (Lois Kelso Hunt). That’s because the party is planned for June 19—a date revealed to the viewer, via prologue, as that of Mrs. Slater’s 1961 delivery of a stillborn baby. In retaliation, the sorority women pull a prank which results in Mrs. Slater’s accidental death. They quickly dispose of the body and continue on with their party. The bad news is that someone creeping around the sorority attic was witness to the crime and subsequently commits a series of revenge killings. Could all of this slaughter have something to do with the supposedly dead child from twenty years earlier? A textbook example of an early eighties slasher, highlighted by colorful characters, energetic actors, and a Pino Donaggio-esque score by Charles Band. A slick production that for most of its runtime engages the viewer—until its tried-and-true cat-and-mouse finale, pitting virginal Final Girl Kate McNeil against the slasher, here decked out in a creepy clown costume. A somewhat lackluster conclusion kills some of the buzz, but not much. B

SORORITY HOUSE MASSACRE (1986) The death of Beth’s aunt triggers a series of strange dreams and hallucinations—visions that include the figure of a man with a knife. Meanwhile, over at the local mental asylum, a patient named Bobby (John C. Russell) becomes violently agitated, escapes, and, knife in hand, heads to the UCLA sorority house where Beth (Angela O’Neill) and her classmates are staying over spring break. The plot parallels Halloween in more ways than one, but Sorority House Massacre deserves more credit than being labeled just another rip-off. The writers obviously put time and care into the structure of the screenplay and have created a thoughtful story that’s more concerned with intelligent, sympathetic characters than with mindless splatter. That said, the movie does have its share of gory kills, which are skillfully intermixed with moments of actual suspense. Only one of those silly it’s-only-a-dream surprise endings stains an otherwise good little movie. B

SPLATTER UNIVERSITY (1984) A schizophrenic psychopath named Grayham is locked up in the city mental hospital. After knifing his doctor in the crotch and slitting his throat, Grayham steals the doc’s clothes and escapes. Three years later, a young teacher at St. Trinian’s College is fatally stabbed by an unseen assailant. Grad student Julie (Francine Forbes) takes over the position, but it’s not her class subject—Marx’s Aspects of Alienation—that makes the student body gradually dwindle. It’s the killer, who strikes again and again. Julie’s new beau (and fellow teacher) becomes Prime Suspect No. 1—especially after Julie and her friend do a little Scooby-Doo snooping and discover newspaper clippings of the recent slashings in his house. But viewers will most likely be eyeing the obvious culprit: the wheelchair-bound dean (Dick Biel) who’s actually—surprise, surprise!—Grayham. Although released in 1984, Splatter University was obviously filmed years earlier (maybe the week after Friday the 13th opened). The make-up effects are chintzy but convincing—a bathroom stall disemboweling is quite gruesome—and the script lacks the slightest shred of mystery and suspense. If you like your slashers fast, cheap, and bloody, believe me—you can do a lot worse. C+

To be continued…

Chopping Mall, Damned River, and One Dark Night

Chopping Mall – 1986, US, 77m. Director: Jim Wynorski. Streaming: Peacock, Tubi

Damned River – 1989, US, 95m. Director: Michael Schroeder. Streaming: Prime

One Dark Night – 1982, US, 89m. Director: Tom McLoughlin. Streaming: Freevee, Tubi

CHOPPING MALL (1986) (AKA: Kill Bots) A prestigious indoor shopping mall is retrofitted with three technologically advanced security robots designed to “neutralize” criminals in the act of thievery. Unfortunately for a group of teen employees using the mall for some after hours partying, the bots are turned into kill machines when the mainframe short circuits from a lightening strike. The robots go around neutralizing the teens to death, a favorite method being laser beams which shoot out of the bots’ eyes, vaporizing anything in their path, including human heads. All of this is done tongue-in-cheek with a satirical play on consumerism and the false security of A.I.—Chopping Mall‘s themes, and an in-movie infomercial, predates RoboCop by a year, lending the film a bit more credibility. The characters are disposable airheads (the exception is Kelli Maroney’s brainy Final Girl), but the special FX set pieces are fairly impressive given the movie’s somewhat chintzy vibe. A brisk pace and knowledge of pop culture—in reference to the iconic filmmaker, the mall’s gun store is called Peckinpah’s—helps Chopping Mall grow into a decent little flick. B

DAMNED RIVER (1989) Stephen Shellen, who so gleefully danced in his skivvies in the teen sex romp Gimme an F, here seems out of his element as a psychopathic killer. Shellen is Ray, an expat working as a guide in Africa and hired by four stereotypically dumb American twenty-somethings—we know one of them is “intelligent” because he keeps quoting Byron—to aid them down some whitewater rapids. The seemingly normal Ray starts to show his true colors when his loudmouth clients begin to wear down his polite exterior. With an AK-47 in hand, Ray whittles down the threats, which is anyone who stands between him and his twisted views on freedom, justice, and the demented wildman way of life, which includes rape and decapitation. There are a few intense moments delivered in between Shellen screaming his lines and waving a gun in the air, but in the end it’s difficult to muster much emotion for characters who’re massively unsympathetic. Shellen’s performance is uneven and damages a lot of potential impact, something Kevin Bacon handled much better in the similarly themed The River Wild. In keeping up with the awfulness of the writing, after smacking Ray in the face with an oar and watching his body carried off by the river, a character mutters, “Now we’re just like you.” Damned drivel. D

ONE DARK NIGHT (1982) The dead bodies of six young women are found in the apartment of a Russian occult practitioner called Raymar. Known as a “psychic vampire,” Raymar is himself also found deceased, his body eventually entombed in a grand mausoleum. But the parapsychic killer isn’t exactly dead, a fact sorority pledge hopeful Julie (Meg Tilly) comes to realize after she accepts the challenge of spending the night alone inside the mausoleum. Raymar awakens and lets loose his telekinetic powers, which brings several of his dead neighbors back from the underworld. A large imagination and splashes of inventive special make-up FX help to lift One Dark Night above its sometimes slack pacing. The film also benefits from well-rounded characters and a sympathetic turn from eventual Oscar-nominee Tilly in one of her earliest roles. Good direction from future Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives helmer, Tom McLoughlin. B

Existential Slashers: Disconnected, Last House on Dead End Street, and More

Dark Sanity1982, US, 85m. Director: Martin Green. Streaming: FilmRise, YouTube

Disconnected – 1984, US, 84m. Director: Gorman Bechard. Streaming: Tubi

The Last House on Dead End Street1973, US, 78m. Director: Roger Watkins. Streaming: Tubi

The Slayer1982, US, 89m. Director: J.S. Cardone. Streaming: Tubi

DARK SANITY (1982) (AKA: Straight Jacket) One-time Hollywood golden boy Aldo Ray slums it in this goes-nowhere “thriller.” Married couple Al and Karen move into a new house in Southern California, where Karen (Kory Clark) immediately senses danger. Al (Chuck Jamison) dismisses his wife’s jitters and reminds her of her unsavory past as an alcoholic—this hilariously overwrought moment of melodrama is followed by Al stepping out for a beer. Whatta husband! Soon after, Karen begins having vivid premonitions of a decapitation murder in the house. Being the jerk he is, Al berates Karen about her visions and believes she’s back on the sauce. Karen (who’s not exactly the warmest character) later bumps into an ex-cop (Ray) who years earlier had similar visions while investigating a decapitation killing in the same house—the head of that victim was never found. There’s also a dimwitted gardener running around with an extra large pair of shears. In the end, Karen ends up being about as sympathetic as the sofa you stub your toe on in the middle of the night. The premonition subplot never amounts to anything except a cheap form of exposition, the drama having about as much of an impact as a kindergarten production of Lucy Goosey. The acting is on the same level as an Ed Wood flick; Ray stumbles over his lines—and the musical score sounds like it was taken from a 1950s western. For the bad movie connoisseur, Dark Sanity is a must-see. For everybody else it’s a must-not. D, or B, depending on your preference.

DISCONNECTED (1984) Connecticut’s own one-man show, Gorman Bechard, wrote, directed, edited, and shot this interesting slasher as his first feature—and while the results aren’t anything to write home about, the film is a showcase for Bechard as a talented independent filmmaker. Video store owner Alicia (Frances Sherman) starts receiving disturbing phone calls. At first she brushes them off as the work of a heavy-breather, but Alicia’s sanity soon begins to slip when she has vivid nightmares of her bitchy twin sister (also Sherman) and ex-boyfriend trying to kill her. Fortunately for Alicia, the handsome Franklin (Mark Walker) helps take her mind off the recent troubles—unfortunately, Franklin is a psychopathic necrophiliac responsible for a string of murders in the area. In the end, Alicia escapes death but becomes disconnected from the world, slowly descending into Catherine Deneuve territory, á la Repulsion. The viewer also can’t help feel disconnected from the story and the uneven structure of blurred reality vs. splatter flick. Sherman is likable, and at least two-thirds of Disconnected are engaging, but it’s not enough to recommend to non-Gorman fans. A warm-up to Bechard’s video semi-classic, Psychos in Love. C+

THE LAST HOUSE ON DEAD END STREET (1973) (AKA: The Fun House) Greasy ex-con Terry (director Roger Watkins) becomes disillusioned with society and forms a group of equally scuzzy losers to make cheap porn movies aimed at the bourgeoisie. The problem is sex is no longer a selling point, leading Terry and his merry band of Susan Atkins-like followers to commit atrocious acts of violence and murder on film. An ugly, nihilistic movie that’s not the brainless gore job you’d think, but a semi-intelligent view of humanity at its worst. According to Watkins, Last House on Dead End Street was partially inspired by the Manson family and Watkins’s overall bafflement with the political and economical situations of the time. Brutal and unpleasant, but not without its merits. Recommended only for the adventurous viewer. Unreleased commercially until 1977. B

THE SLAYER (1982) Moody artist Kay (Sarah Kendall) is having nightmares—not just random nightmares, but ones featuring a snarling beast with sharp claws. Kay’s husband (who’s a complete dolt) and her friends help her forget her woes by spiriting Kay off to an isolated island for a week of relaxation. Once they arrive, the always-miserable Kay immediately begins pouting, while her husband (Alan McRae) ignores her scowling, and Kay’s best friend (Carol Kottenbrook) complains. Kay later believes a nearby rundown theater house is the same building she’s been painting back home. Her ever-supportive husband dismisses her, but the wiser viewer will know this is some heavy-duty foreshadowing. Kay continues to mope and have more nightmares, while a local fisherman’s brains are bashed in by a mystery killer. The killer then sets their eyes on Kay and her friends, who are whittled down (not quickly enough) with an assortment of sharp objects. Could the slasher be Kay’s dream demon? It doesn’t take a Rhodes scholar to figure it out—which raises the question of why the filmmakers decided to try creating a mystery in the transparent screenplay. The characters are too obtuse to care about, the pacing slow, and the gore effects cheap and unconvincing. There’s an elaborate impalement by pitchfork, but by that point in the film you’ll be far from impressed. Director J.S. Cardone would go on to helm the much more entertaining Shadowzone. C

End of the Year

SAW X Halloween III. Friday the 13th Part 5. Spiral. What those three sequels have in common is the absence of their franchise’s key players: the killers fans have come to love watching butcher innocent victims. Halloween had Michael Myers; Friday the 13th had Jason; Saw had Jigsaw, but when you take them away it can render the film—no matter how enjoyable it may be—moot. As well-intended as the Jigsaw-less Spiral was, there was obviously something…missing. Despite Jigsaw’s (AKA John Kramer) removal from the series after his demise in Saw III, the later sequels managed to work around that void by maintaining the tone of the earlier movies—and subsequent flashbacks occasionally brought Kramer back into action. With Saw X, the filmmakers solved the problem of a deceased lead character by going back to the beginning (circa 2005) and offering a story of what serial killer John Kramer (Tobin Bell) was doing in between the events of Saw and Saw II. And the results are cheerfully gruesome. Returning to the series after performing directorial double-duty for Saw VI (one of the better in the series) and Saw 3-D (not one of the better), Kevin Greutert and the writers pump Saw X with enough energy and character development to please both hardcore fans and newcomers, including one of the nastiest kills in the entire Saw franchise. While the story is set far back in the Saw timeline, Saw X is a thoroughly satisfying way to cap the John Kramer saga. At least until they make another one. Yikes. B+

EVIL DEAD RISE Another Evil Dead reboot to emerge after the 2013 remake failed to reignite the franchise, this appropriately gnarly reimagining of the original 1981 horror classic moves the action to Los Angeles, where the teens of a single-parent family discover the dreaded Book of the Dead in a hidden vault under their apartment complex. It isn’t long until Deadites are possessing the inhabits of the building and turning the place into a blood-covered hellhole, à la Demons 2. The first movie in the series to abandon the cabin-in-the-woods scenario since Army of Darkness, Evil Dead Rise works surprisingly well, especially in the third act when things go completely batshit crazy—but it wouldn’t be an Evil Dead movie any other way. You won’t feel a thing for the lifeless characters—who spend most of the film looking as if their Deadite Mommy just returned home with a bad haircut—but this is a fun and cheerfully gruesome return to form for the long-running series. Burning question: Why is there an industrial-size woodchipper in the basement of an L.A. apartment building? B

V/H/S/85 The popular low-fi found footage anthology series pumps out its sixth, and most ambitious, installment with an 80’s aesthetic. As with the majority of the V/H/S films, the five tales in V/H/S/85 are intertwined with a wraparound story, which here features a small group of scientists experimenting on an otherworldly being nicknamed “Rory” in a university lab. The kicker is that Rory has the ability to mimic anyone, or anything, it comes into contact with. This story, called “Total Copy,” grows increasingly weird and eerie, eventually building to a gruesome and comical conclusion. In between “Total Copy” segments we get the typical mix of good—and not so good—entries. The first, “No Wake,” opens the movie with a bang and later reveals a twist that you won’t see coming. And while the earthquake-opening-the-pits-of-another-dimension, Mexico City-set “God of Death” underwhelms with its chintzy FX and flat climax, the final story (“Dreamkill”) shines bright, as a homicide detective races against the clock to uncover the truth behind a series of dream-related murders. Directed by The Black Phone‘s Scott Derrickson, “Dreamkill” is pure energy. It might not be the best the franchise has to offer (my money is on V/H/S/2), but V/H/S/85 is worthy of rewinding. B

THE POPE’S EXORCIST Taking a stab at the “based on real case files” scenario The Conjuring made popular ten years earlier, The Pope’s Exorcist delivers a “true” chapter out of Father Gabriel Amorth’s (Russell Crowe) book of paranormal activity. The only official head exorcist to the Vatican, Father Amorth tries to help a small American family whose young son (Peter DeSouza-Feighoney) becomes possessed by a demonic force after they relocate to an inherited piece of property in Spain, 1987. Upon investigation of the site—a decaying abbey—Amorth, along with a local priest (Daniel Zovatto), discovers the place harbors an evil secret that connects back to the Catholic Church. While the possession plot takes center stage, the film feels more like an epic haunted house movie, complete with dark corridors, mysterious knockings at night, and a grandiose finale taking place in a corpse-laden cellar. It’s familiar territory, but director Julius Avery (Overlord) infuses the movie with energy, humor, and a lightening-quick pace. Crowe has obvious fun in a role that practically begs for its own Netflix series. B

THE EXORCIST: BELIEVER In order to contact a deceased relative, two junior high friends perform a backwoods seance. Three days later, the girls are found at a farm miles away from their homes with no memory of what happened or how they arrived at the strange location. After returning to their families, the kids begin speaking in grainy voices and manifesting hideous scars on their faces. Puberty it ain’t, as the pair (Lidya Jewett and Olivia O’Neill) enter Linda Blairsville and become the victims of demonic possession. In a desperate attempt to help his daughter, single father Victor (Leslie Odom Jr.) reaches out to Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn), who wrote a Deepak Chopra-esque self-healing guide for those suffering from demonic possession—an act that made Regan flee into hiding. Like the majority of recent decades-later sequels, The Exorcist: Believer was bound to disappoint. Granted, the film’s thin screenplay never grabs the viewer and pulls them in as the 1973 original did (and to lesser extend, the under-appreciated The Exorcist III). However, Believer present a modest tale of domestic horror that works for the most part. The good cast adds flavor to an often aimless plot, especially young Jewett and O’Neill, both of whom deliver exceptionally creepy performances. It might not be the best Exorcist sequel out there, but Believer is most certainly not the worst. B

HELL HOUSE LLC ORIGINS: THE CARMICHAEL MANOR Stop me if you’ve heard this one… Friends investigating a dark part of unexplained history go missing, and all that remains is the footage they filmed in the days leading up to their disappearance. This is the beginning sentence of every other found footage horror story since The Blair Witch Project exploded onto the scene twenty-four years earlier—or forty-three years, if you wanna get technical, with Cannibal Holocaust. The reason this theme is ever so popular among POV horror filmmakers is because it’s a helluva pitch, igniting within the viewer’s brain all manner of imagined terrors that might unfold as they sit down to watch. When done correctly, the simple premise can turn into a truly scary experience. This was the case with 2015’s Hell House LLC, a micro-budgeted curiosity that actually managed to be inventive and very scary. The movie was a word-of-mouth sleeper and was quickly followed by two mediocre sequels. The Carmichael Manor returns to the creepy minimalism of the first Hell House. The plot tells of how the evil from the dreaded Abaddon Hotel infiltrated the country home of a prominent local family—and it’s mostly successful. The film manages to get under your skin on several occasions, and the old “don’t-go-down-the-dark-corridor” standby works surprisingly well. Ultimately, the movie overstays its welcome, something a tighter screenplay and slicker pacing could have helped with in post-production. As it is, Hell House LLC Origins is spooky fun, and best if watched at night. B

THE NUN II Valak, the demonic entity introduced in The Conjuring 2, is back in this handsome but empty sequel. Several years after sending Valak to Hell (or so she believes) at the end of The Nun, Sister Irene (Taissa Farmiga) is roped back into the Vatican’s super-secret society of ghostbusting when the immolation of a priest triggers a series of murders in France, 1956. With the help of a young sidekick (Storm Reid), Sister Irene connects the dots and comes to the realization that Valak has possessed a young man named Maurice (Jonas Bloquet) into doing its evil bidding; the demon is using Maurice’s body to uncover the hiding spot of an ancient religious relic known as the eyes of Saint Lucy. None of that is terribly important because it’s the scares that really matter in a movie like this, and The Nun II mostly delivers. Credit should be given to Conjuring Universe regular, Michael Chaves, for creating some effectively creepy moments, including a devil-like goat creature that manifests from a stained glass window and terrorizes an all-girls’ school. By the end, the film emerges as a slick, forgettable byproduct that despite its goes-nowhere screenplay still manages to keep the viewer entertained. B

SCREAM VI It’s not out of the ordinary for long-running horror franchises to eventually wind up in either (1) space or (2) Manhattan. Going the New York City route, Ghostface targets the bustling avenues of the Big Apple in the latest installment of the Scream series. Picking up a few years after the the events of the last Woodsboro slashings, sisters Sam (Melissa Barrera) and Tara (Jenna Ortega), along with the remainder of their still-breathing friends, leave home for campus life in the big city, only to have their studies interrupted by a new series of Ghostface killings. A step in the right direction after last year’s misguided reboot, Scream VI helps the series feel fresh again—removing the plot (and characters) from Woodsboro is a risk that pays off for most of the runtime. Directors Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett offer some terrific suspense set pieces—the makeshift catwalk escape sequence is a highlight—and the gore runs thick and fast. The script, unfortunately, spends too much time on the newer, duller characters and doesn’t give the legacy survivors from past Screams enough screen time; fan-favorite Kirby (Hayden Panettiere) from Scream 4 feels wasted in nothing more than a bit part. By now you’d think the makers of these movies would realize you don’t need that many red herrings! C+

TALK TO ME Mia has problems. Not only is the poor high school student trying to recuperate after the untimely (and mysterious) death of her mother, but she has to deal with the fact her ex-boyfriend, whom she still has romantic feelings for, is now playing Double Tap with Mia’s best friend (Alexandra Jensen). The arrival of an evil specter, which attaches to Mia during a Let’s Get Possessed and Live Stream It party, doesn’t help matters—especially after it claims to be the spirit of Mia’s mom. Played by Sophie Wilde, Mia exudes such a healthy amount of energy and brains within the first act of Talk to Me that it becomes all the more disappointing when she transforms into a complete idiot. That cliched character audiences scream at to not go into the basement? Mia goes into the basement. The same can be said for the film itself. After a good start, the script stumbles and turns into a hodgepodge of murky character motivations and predictability, including an ending you can smell coming a mile away. It often feels, with some of these films, the writers lose interest halfway through working on the script—you know, one of those good concept/poor execution deals. This is all the more disheartening given the overwhelming amount of praise Talk to Me received from critics dubbing it the next great horror flick. It’s not. C

HUESERA: THE BONE WOMAN Not scary, non-horror horror seems to be all the rage with indie filmmakers these days. Much like last year’s equally meandering twosome Nanny and She Will, Huesera: The Bone Woman uses horror as a metaphor to tell a story wrapped so tightly in its cultural beliefs that it forgets to entertain and ends up becoming nothing more than an uninteresting lesson in societal inequality. Valeria (Natalia Solián) is a seemingly happily married young woman expecting her firstborn. She soon begins experiencing bizarre incidents involving a supernatural figure known as the Bone Woman, a Mexican legend that collects the bones of forgotten individuals. In the film, the ghostly manifestation is an obvious allegory of the lack of women’s rights in Mexican culture outside of marriage and motherhood—although this story could be applied to any locale within today’s political climate. It’s an interesting topic that never transcends the horror genre, but instead wallows in its metaphorical hum-drums. C

M3GAN Beware the 90-minute movie which has become culturally defined by a meaningless five-second dance number. A hollow rip-off of Child’s Play (and every other killer doll movie ever made), M3GAN was the first horror film released in 2023, and it was not a great start. After her parents are killed in a car accident, young Cady (Violet McGraw) is sent to live with her emotionless Aunt Gemma (Allison Williams), who just happens to work for a massive toy company and is the creator of a cutting-edge, experimental, life-sized animatronic doll called M3GAN (Model 3 Generative Android). When Gemma brings the doll home to test out with Cady, M3GAN begins to act aggressive towards anyone, or anything, that shows any kind of animosity towards the girl. Guess what happens? Unlike Andy and mom Karen in Child’s Play, M3GAN features no sympathetic characters, and that includes kid protagonist Cady, who comes off as just bratty and irrational. Not scary, occasionally funny, and super-predictable, M3GAN is so devoid of original ideas and personality that it creates a vacuum of dry storytelling. It’s the Pumpkin Spice Latte of killer doll movies: it’s basic AF. C

THE LAST VOYAGE OF THE DEMETER In what is the umpteenth retelling of Dracula, The Last Voyage of the Demeter separates itself from the pack by expanding on a single passage from Bram Stoker’s novel, in which the Count sails from his crumbling castle in the Carpathian Mountains to the lush English countryside. An interesting take on the story, considering most adaptations of Dracula—including the two most famous, Nosferatu (1922) and Dracula (1931)—wisely bypassed the Demeter subplot, mainly because the passage is entirely incidental to the rest of the tale. Last Voyage takes the Demeter section at face value, and in doing so, the movie ends up becoming a failed experiment in mundane storytelling. Despite flagrantly stating the film is based on the Stoker novel in its opening credits, the majority of Last Voyage is a creation of the filmmakers, the plot following a struggling medical doctor (Corey Hawkins) who boards the doomed vessel where he and a handful of halfwit characters must fight off the blood-drinking menace of Dracula (Javier Bolet). Unless you’re a complete novice when it comes to the Dracula legend, Last Voyage of the Demeter offers nothing new to the viewer, except a whole lotta “Who Shot John?” explanations as to why it takes nearly two hours to tell a story that barely has enough material to cover 80 minutes. Adding insult to injury, the movie throws integrity out the window by turning the survivor of the Demeter into a Van Helsingesque caricature for the sole purpose of a sequel. A tale best left to sleep with the fishes. D+

KNOCK AT THE CABIN Not-really-horror horror from the increasingly unreliable M. Night Shyamalan, which promises spectacular, apocalyptic destruction but, sadly, never delivers the goods. While on a woodsy vacation, a small family is taken hostage by a quartet of armed people who all claim to share the same vision of the end of the world, which only a sacrifice can stop. Guess who has to make the sacrifice? Plodding and uninvolving, Knock at the Cabin relies so heavily on its “What If?” scenario that it forgets to have any fun with the material. Instead of sympathetic, well-written characters trapped in a doomsday plot (as with Shyamalan’s Signs), the characters in Knock feel like manufactured caricatures written for the purpose of creating inauthentic drama, without the slightest possibility of a genuine outcome. D

DREAM SCENARIO Prof. Matthews (Nicolas Cage), a bald, middle-aged professor who everyone, including his family, treats like a loser for no particular reason, begins to enter the nightmares of those he comes into contact with. Matthews’ nocturnal adventures brings the teacher newfound celebrity, which he exploits in an attempt to gain much-desired admiration within academia. But when his hopes and dreams (so to speak) don’t come to fruition, Matthews’ anger rises, transforming his dream-self into a psychopathic killer. It doesn’t take Einstein—you know, Albert—to understand the heavy-handed symbolism and transparent psychoanalytical subtext in this pseudo-intellectual horror fable. Much like the character of Matthews, the film itself is a black hole of disillusionment, a wannabe satire presented as an insipid political allegory (namely cancel culture). The writers don’t even have fun with the idea of Cage as a modern day Krueger—you know, Freddy—instead placing all of the focus on the satirical elements that feel tired. Like the inevitable erasure of the character of Matthews from society, Dream Scenario is a film best forgotten. D

Dracula’s Widow, Iced, and Lady Frankenstein

Dracula’s Widow1988, US, 86m. Director: Christopher Coppola. Streaming: Tubi

Iced1989, US, 86m. Director: Jeff Kwitny. Streaming: YouTube

Lady Frankenstein 1971, Italy, 99m. Director: Mel Welles. Streaming: ScreamBox, Tubi

DRACULA’S WIDOW (1988) Artifacts from Dracula’s castle (including a crate containing the undead body of Dracula’s widow) arrive at a Hollywood wax museum operated by a man who spends his nights in silk pajamas watching a 16mm print of Murnau’s Nosferatu. After Mrs. Dracula, AKA Vanessa (Sylvia Kristel), takes a bite out of the museum owner (Lenny von Dohlen) and turns him into her servant, she immediately goes about Tinseltown sucking the blood out of nearby drunks and sleazoid pick-up artists. A homicide detective (Josef Sommer, fresh off Witness) investigates the bloody trail of mangled victims left by Vanessa while she infiltrates and single-handedly slaughters a cult of muscle-bound devil worshippers. If you’re wondering if any of this is supposed to be taken seriously, rest assured as Dracula’s Widow is done tongue-in-cheek. Most of the cast plays the film with a smirk, including Stefan Schnabel, whose modern day Van Helsing takes delight in staking vampires as they lay unconscious in the morgue. But the entire movie rests on the padded shoulders of Kristel, whose acting choice is to play the role more like an extraterrestrial who just landed on Earth than a centuries-old vampire. Moments of colorful visual flair by director Christopher Coppola (Nicolas Cage’s brother) and a sense of love for old monster movies aren’t enough to lift Dracula’s Widow out from mediocrity. C

ICED (1989) A group of personality-free friends—much like the Power Rangers, the only way to tell them apart is by the different colors they wear—invited to the grand opening of new ski resort, Snow Peak, are stalked and massacred by a killer in a ski suit and goggles. The airheads are dispatched in the usual slasher movie fashion, i.e. eye-gougings, electrocutions, and one guy who gets shredded by a snow plow (the only flash of originality in the movie). Does all of this mayhem have something to do with the death of a scorned lover four years earlier during a similar ski weekend? The specifically-placed newspaper clipping of the four-year-old accident in one character’s bedroom says “yes.” Most of these dolts don’t make the connection between their traumatic past and the murders until it’s too late—for the characters and the viewer. Iced is too bloodless to appeal to splatter fans, and too dull to appeal to, well, anyone, making its 86 minutes feel interminable. For the bad movie lover, however, Iced is passable garbage. Great title. C

LADY FRANKENSTEIN (1971) Baron Frankenstein (Joseph Cotton) successfully creates life in the form of a murderous monster, and in consequence is crushed to death by his creation. Believing she can tame the psychopathic creature, the Baron’s daughter, Tania (Rosalba Neri), with the help of her husband (Paul Muller), takes over her father’s work. Meanwhile, the creature (Riccardo Pizzuti) roams the countryside and, in what could possibly be a perverse homage to James Whale’s Frankenstein, comes across a couple having sex and subsequently tosses the naked woman into a river where she drowns. After a lot of chit-chat, numerous bared breasts, and a needless police investigation storyline that reeks of plot padding, Lady Frankenstein tires of her husband’s nay-saying, kills him, and implants his brain into the body of a young stableboy—do I sense an anti-feminist message here? One of several Frankenstein bloodbaths made in Italy in the seventies, Lady Frankenstein has all the hallmarks of a Hammer film—lavish sets, bodacious women, beautiful locations—but drowns in overblown performances, slack pacing, and some truly terrible makeup FX. It’s also overlong and lacks a single sympathetic character. At least Frankenstein ’80 was bad in an enjoyable kinda way. D