Review: Antebellum, plus Shudder Original Spiral

Two new films drop this week, both featuring relevant political subtext. Antebellum, the Deep South chiller starring Janelle Monáe, and Spiral, a psycho-thriller dealing with LGBTQ issues in ’90s America. Are both worthy of checking out? Read on and find out!

In Antebellum, Monáe stars as successful author Veronica Henley whose life seems perfect in every way. That is until one day she seemingly wakes up in the Antebellum South as a slave. Has Veronica slipped into a time vortex, or is it all some sort of elaborate dream she can’t wake up from?

I’m going to be very brief with my review of Antebellum: it’s a tricky film not to spoil. But I can say that as a film that delivers a political message it does so quite well, especially during the current political landscape. As a horror movie, it’s mostly effective. Of course, the movie is more in line with a psychological thriller, although its broad marketing tag, “From the makers of Get Out and Us,” is really pushing towards the horror fam community.

The screenplay, by directors Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz, is clever and never totally predictable, and even builds some decent suspense during the climax. Monáe gives an intriguing performance in what is essentially dual roles, and Jenna Malone, as a mysterious woman who may hold the key to the puzzle, is deliciously nasty. American Horror Story regular Gabourey Sidibe is disappointingly wasted in a small role.

One of the cinematic victims of the COVID pandemic, Antebellum was originally to be released last April but is now getting a VOD release. It’s definitely worth checking out on one of these quiet, quarantine nights.

Queer horror Spiral offers up Roman Polanski-esque paranoia. Set in the mid-1990s, the film features same-sex couple Malik (Jeffrey Bowyer-Chapman) and Aaron (Ari Cohen) who move out of the city and into a quiet, suburban neighborhood in order to raise their annoying teen daughter, Kayla (Jennifer Laporte). Things seem serene at first, but after a series of cold brush-offs from the neighbors and a hate slur is spray-painted inside their house, Malik starts questioning their choice in destination. Are the locals conspiring against Malik and his family, or is it all paranoid fear drummed up from a violent hate crime from Malik’s past that left someone dead?

Written by Colin Minihan (who wrote the fun cult fave Grave Encounters) and John Poliquin, Spiral gets points for trying to bring more to the table than just meat and potatoes. Its presentation of being true to yourself, sexual identity in ’90s America, and the strain such politics can have on the psyche is a refreshing change of pace, even if the approach at exploring such psychology is presented as rather ham-fisted.

Unfortunately, Spiral is way too scattered and unfocused to be an effective suspense mystery. Elements from everything from Rosemary’s Baby to Get Out overrun the already overly complicated plot, and by the time we get to the over-the-top ending the overall effect is rendered moot.

Antebellum is available to watch through Lions Gate VOD on September 18. Spiral is currently streaming on Shudder.

Found Footage Goodies Currently on Amazon Prime

There’s plenty of fish in the sea, at least when it comes to found footage horror flicks on Amazon Prime. If you’re a FF fanatic like myself you’ll want to check out these currently streaming POV chillers.

Released just this year, Finding Randy is a mostly clever mystery chiller about a group of friends celebrating the return home of their buddy, Randy (Sam Meder). Things turn from fun to worrisome when Randy seemingly vanishes during an excursion into the woods, a mystery that intensifies when several of his friends start receiving cryptic text messages and photos from Randy’s phone.

Energetically directed by Greg McNichol, FR is a nice change in pace in the FF universe: instead of friends investigating a haunted house the film offers a smart group of people pulling a sorta Scooby-Doo act in order to find out why their friend disappeared. And for a lot of its running time FR manages to pull you in and envelope you in its puzzle.

Butterfly Kisses (2018) is one of the more ambitious FF flicks I’ve seen in a while. Struggling filmmaker Gavin (Seth Adam Kallick) discovers a mysterious box of videotape in his in-laws’ basement. The footage appears to be an unfinished student film about an urban legend known as the Peeping Tom. Thinking this could be the break he needs, Gavin sets out to find out if the creepy footage is real evidence of supernatural activity, or simply a prank.

BK creates a thoroughly sinister atmosphere and some genuinely chilling moments. The only weak point is Gavin who comes off as way too aggressively unlikeable. That aside, this is a worthy entry in the FF subgenre and definitely worth a look.

They’re Watching (2016) presents one of the cleverest ideas for a FF movie I’ve heard in years: what would happen if House Hunters International filmed an episode at a house once occupied by a witch? The small crew of such a reality show finds out when they fly to a small eastern European country to renovate a centuries old house. Things don’t go quite as planned when superstitious locals start getting in the way.

TW is a fun crowd-pleaser that never takes itself seriously and builds to a bat-shit crazy ending. An uninteresting subplot involving one of the characters gets in the way but that’s a small price to pay for a massively entertaining flick.

A burnt out filmmaker (Turner Clay) switches career paths and decides to venture into the world of paranormal investigation in The Blackwell Ghost (2017), a conservative Paranormal Activity-type of creepfest. His first foray into the supernatural takes him to suburban Pennsylvanian house supposedly haunted by the ghost of a child killer from the 1930s.

An enjoyable low-key slow burn, BG is fueled by the energy and likability of Clay’s character and a genuinely chilling atmosphere. It’s also nice to see a film of this kind treating the subject matter with respect and sincere interest rather than a standard cheesy, exploitative rip-off like many of the ilk.

Frazier Park Recut (2017) is the jewel in this crown. Being both a semi-parody of the FF subgenre and an authentically suspenseful tale, the film features aspiring moviemakers Tyler (Tyler Schnabel) and Sam (Sam Hanover) in their endeavor to shoot a low-budget FF film at an isolated woodsy cabin. Along for the ride is peculiar actor, Tom (David Lee Hess), cast as the film-within-the-film’s killer. Things slowly go downhill when Tayler’s and Sam’s ideas clash and Tom subtly, and actively, sabotages the production. Does Tom have other plans for the two filmmakers?

If Creep was your kind of movie then you’ll definitely get a kick out of FPR. It’s smart, funny, and memorable, especially Hess who comes off as both demented and weirdly likable.

All of these fun flicks are available on Amazon Prime and definitely worth checking out. Please watch my video review below for more details on the above films!

Shudder Exclusives & Originals

If you’ve got access to the horror streaming platform Shudder then here’s some original and exclusive content you might want to check out, or avoid!

Import The Furies (2019) offers old school blood and guts in the bright Australian desert. After waking up inside a mysterious box in the middle of the woods, Kayla (Airlie Dodds) finds herself and several other women being seemingly hunted by a pack of masked killers. Kayla and the others realize they are part of a staged killing floor created by forces unseen and the only way out is to fight to the death, not just with the killers but with each other.

Sort of a poor man’s Battle Royale, TF feels like it was an idea designed around a series of spectacular splatter effects. That’s to say it doesn’t feel like a cohesive film; underwritten characters and a shortsighted story dull the effect a better-made film may have. But, oh, those f/x! 

The worst of the bunch is easily 30 Miles from Nowhere (2018), a rambling void of idiotic characters and uninteresting situations. Carrie Preston (Arlene on True Blood) is the saving grace of the movie but even her presence doesn’t help this mess. A group of ex-college chums back together to attend the funeral of a friend gather at Sylvia’s (Preston) guest house for a few days. Personalities clash and things get heated when strange things start happening around the house, including bloody tap water and an insect swarm.

I don’t want to spoil anything but essentially the film boils down to a psych/fear experiment melodrama that doesn’t work. It’s super anticlimactic and never fully explains itself or has a satisfying justification for the events that happen.

The Shed (2019) is an energetic vampire yarn in the vein of Stephen King. Dealing with bullies at school and a verbally abusive grandfather at home, outcast Stan (Jay Jay Warren) gets even more bad news when he discovers a vampire (Frank Whaley) hiding in his backyard tool shed. Fearing for his life, Stan plans to kill the monster but best friend Dommer (Cody Kostro) sees this as an opportunity to eliminate schoolyard Public Enemy No. 1 (Chris Petrovski).  

A sense of humor helps a great deal and it’s nice to see the filmmakers (writer/director Frank Sabatella and co-writer Jason Rice) having fun with the material. But TS isn’t perfect; Stan is rather dull (the more interesting Dommer should have been the focal point), and the film relies too heavily on dream sequences as filler. But that said this is an enjoyable romp worthy of discovery.   

A grief-stricken mother (Keegan Conner Tracy) becomes suspicious of her son’s imaginary friend in Z (2019), an amusing, creative potboiler. Things seem normal at first but after a series of disturbing events Mom taker Son to a psychiatrist (Stephen McHattie) who has even more unsettling news about the mysterious Z.

The film smartly avoids trying to explain itself with too much psycho-babble and the less it takes itself seriously the more entertaining it becomes, including a bonkers creepy scene that might make you think twice about sitting in a bathtub again. Tracy (Final Destination 2) is personable and gives a nicely understated performance. Unfortunately a pesky inconclusive ending mars an otherwise good little flick.

Random Acts of Violence (2019) is the latest release from Shudder Originals. Directed by Jay Baruchel and written by Baruchel and Jesse Chabot (based on a comic book by Justin Gray and Jimmy Palmiotti), the film centers on comic book writer Todd (Jesse Williams) whose series of comics called Slasherman has fired up controversy of the books’ hyper violence. Things get even worse when, while on a promotional road trip, Todd, his girlfriend (Jordana Brewster), and co-creator (Baruchel), are terrorized by a series of copycat murders.

RAOV has gotten criticism for its somewhat contradictory message about violence in the media, and I have to agree. We get characters grilling Todd over his books’ gory content and then a few minutes later are presented with scenes of excessive brutality. Characters are also massively under-written, especially Brewster’s Kathy who is writing a book on the actual serial killer Slasherman is based on yet only has a problem with Todd’s work when it’s convenient to the plot for her to pontificate about the dangers of media violence. Oh, also, the film makes zero sense.

The best of the pack is undeniably Host (2020), a clever, funny, and surprisingly scary found footage, or, what I call desktop horror, much in the same vein as the Unfriended movies. Filmed during the recent pandemic quarantine, Host features six friends who decide to have a Zoom meeting with a spiritualist. But things don’t go as planned when the group accidentally conjures a malevolent presence that slowly wrecks havoc in their individual homes.

What makes Host so much fun is its sense of enjoyment: this is a film that seems to have been made by people who actually enjoy horror movies, something unfortunately missing these days. The screenplay (written by Gemma Hurley, Jed Shepherd, and director Rob Savage) is also smart enough in creating likable characters whom seem real and that you might be friends with, making the horror of their situations even more suspenseful.