Citadel, Phantoms, The Possession of Joel Delaney, and Strange Invaders

CITADEL (2012) Months after his wife was fatally attacked by a group of mysterious children, Tommy (Aneurin Barnard) realizes the same kids have come back to terrorize him and his daughter. While his mental health deteriorates, Tommy receives help from a disgraced priest (James Cosmo) who informs him the children are inhuman creatures that feed off fear. As with director Ciarán Foy’s other films (Eli, Sinister 2), Citadel is a good concept not fully realized. Yet, for most of the short 84-minute runtime the film works quite well, with Foy building a genuinely suspenseful and claustrophobic environment for Tommy to grapple with – not to mention some creepy, Cronenberg-esque kids. A lackluster conclusion slightly stains the overall impact the rest of the movie has, with one wondering what a few more rewrites of the screenplay might have achieved. B

PHANTOMS (1998) A small Colorado town is overtaken by a mysterious, shapeshifting black ooze (not unlike The X-Files) emanating from below the ground in this entertaining but slight adaptation of the popular Dean Koontz book. When the town’s new doctor (Joanna Going) and her sister (Rose McGowan) arrive to discover most of the inhabitants dead or missing, they, along with the sheriff (Ben Affleck), try to figure out how to escape alive, and possibly save the rest of humanity. A good first half that builds intriguing mystery is muted with the introduction of too many uninteresting characters and a lengthy sequence inside a military vehicle where said characters sit around and hypothesize the creature’s origins. The special FX are good and the action robust, just don’t expect too much meat on these bones. C+

THE POSSESSION OF JOEL DELANEY (1972) Wealthy New York socialite Norah (Shirley MacLaine) becomes suspicious of brother, Joel’s (Perry King), change in behavior when he starts acting aggressive and speaking in a language he doesn’t know. When Joel’s girlfriend is found murdered, Norah believes the spirit of Joel’s deceased Puerto Rican friend (and serial killer) has invaded her brother’s body. An intriguing and suspenseful film that plays out more like a mystery than your typical possession movie, although it has its share of shocking moments. MacLaine is excellent and the mood bleak. The screenplay falls apart during the last several, hectic minutes, but the downbeat ending rings true. B

STRANGE INVADERS (1983) A love letter to ’50s sci-fi flicks, this has college professor, Dr. Bigelow (Paul LeMat), looking for his ex-wife (Diana Scarwid) in a small town and inadvertently stumbling onto a secret alien takeover that’s been going on for 25 years. With the help of a tabloid newspaper writer (Nancy Allen), Bigelow tries to uncover the alien plot, only to end up getting his daughter kidnapped and the government involved. Sort of a companion piece to director Michael Laughlin’s Strange Behavior, Invaders is both odd and charming, utilizing its kitschy premise by playing up the nostalgic vibe of movies like Invaders from Mars and Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and downplaying the seriousness of those films at the same time. Allen and Fiona Lewis (in a small role) are both delightful, but LeMat is wooden and unsympathetic. It’s not perfect, but there’s a lot to like here, and given the small budget, the practical FX are terrific. B

Haunting of Julia, Orphan: First Kill, and Sinister 2

THE HAUNTING OF JULIA (1977) This moody ghost tale stars the always good Mia Farrow as a woman who, months after the death of her young daughter, moves into a house off London’s Holland Park to try and put her life back together. She soon suspects the house may be haunted by the spirit of a murdered child, and investigates the place’s dark past. Adapted from Peter Straub’s novel, Haunting of Julia is an effective, character-driven supernatural chiller. Hardcore horror buffs might be put off by the film’s slow pace and deliberately ambiguous tone, but the patient viewer will by rewarded with a creepy, dark story, and a truly unsettling ending. B+

ORPHAN: FIRST KILL (2022) A surprisingly good prequel to the 2009 cult favorite that delivers a sort-of-origin story of psychopath Leena (Isabelle Fuhrman), a.k.a. Esther. After killing several people and escaping a secured institution in Estonia, 31-year-old Leena disguises herself as Esther, the missing child of a wealthy American family. Once in America, Esther tries, and mostly fails, to assimilate into her new home. When her spoiled “brother” (Matthew Finlan) becomes suspicious of her bizarre mannerisms, Esther quickly unravels. Things get worse when a nosy investigator (Hiro Kanagawa), hired by the family four years earlier, looks into Esther’s alleged reappearance. What starts off as more or less a repeat of the first movie roars to life when a midpoint twist turns the tables on not only the viewers but Esther; once seen as the villain, Esther/Leena suddenly becomes an antihero, and one worth rooting for. Only a somewhat lackluster ending gets in the way of a super-fun flick. B

SINISTER 2 (2015) An uneven sequel to Scott Derrickson’s terrific original features the now-ex Deputy (James Ransone) from Part 1 doing some DIY investigations into murders and child disappearances which mirror the events of the first film. Connecting these events to a massacre that took place at a remote farmhouse introduces him to its new owner, Courtney (Shannyn Sossmon), and her two young sons (real life brothers Robert Daniel Sloan and Dartanian Sloan). Unknown to the adults, the youngest of the boys is being tormented not just by his abusive father, but by the spirits of the kids who serve the demon, Bughuul. It’s interesting to see the action unfold this time through the viewpoint of the children, but the violent, disturbing atmosphere of the original is replaced here with a more conventional ghost story narrative that, at times, feels stale. Considering the horror happening to him, Robert Sloan’s Dylan is too emotionless and nonchalant to register much sympathy for, while Lea Coco, as Dylan’s father, is so hammy and over the top he comes off as cartoonish. C

Collingswood Story, Deadly Spawn, and She Will

THE COLLINGSWOOD STORY (2002) The first of the webcam horror films that emerged in the wake of The Blair Witch Project, this simplistic film has a college student (Stephanie Dees) moving away from home and using webcams to communicate with her boyfriend (Johnny Burton). Unbeknownst to them, her new house was once the site of a mass murder associated with a satanic cult, bringing upon her a series of supernatural occurrences. It’s obvious the subgenre hadn’t yet found its footing, as this is much talkier and humorless than similar movies of its kind. The film has a genuinely unsettling atmosphere, but its slow pace and heavy reliance on exposition to build suspense hurts the impact the story could have had with a tighter, more focused screenplay. C+   

THE DEADLY SPAWN (1983) An enjoyable, low, low budget romp in the tradition of The Evil Dead, this pits a houseful of people against a multi-headed alien beastie with sharp teeth and a large appetite for human flesh. When the house’s monster-loving kid (Charles George Hilderbandt) becomes wise to the creature’s heightened sense of hearing, he uses it to his advantage to try and save his family from becoming next on the alien’s dinner plate. A fast pace and genuine excitement help lift this above its obvious budgetary restraints and somewhat dull characters. The OTT gore FX also add some spice to the paper-thin story, all leading up to a wonderful twist ending that would give Little Shop of Horrors a run for its money. B

SHE WILL (2022) Yet another “intellectual” non-horror “horror” movie that seems to have been made just for the pretentious film festival circuit. After aging movie star, Veronica Ghent (Alice Krige), undergoes a double mastectomy, she travels to a woodsy retreat to convalesce, only to find out the place was once the site of mass witch burnings. When Veronica begins seeing visions of said witches, she undergoes a physical and mental transformation, and uses her newfound powers to enact revenge against her male oppressors. Both obvious in its metaphors and mundane in its execution, She Will is a dumb movie that thinks it’s smart; the script never allows its characters to feel authentic or, most importantly, sympathetic. We’re automatically expected to side with Ghent because of a hinted past traumatic event that turned her into the chilly character presented in the film, but the movie itself is too cold and disjointed to allow the audience to make up its own mind. If you’re the type who likes to watch stock footage of snails having sex, this is the movie for you. D

Random Reviews

HIDDEN (2016) In the aftermath of a devastating viral outbreak that has created “Breathers,” a father (Alexander Skarsgård), mother (Andrea Risenborough), and their 9-year-old daughter (Emily Alyn Lind) try to survive in an underground bomb shelter. When the “Breathers” discover their hiding place, the family must give up their new comforts and fight to the death. Despite its dense atmosphere, the film fails to muster any suspense. The characters are too dimwitted to be sympathetic, and certain situations feel so fake and forced that any sense of reality and tension is thrown out the window. The screenplay (written by Stranger Things‘s Matt and Ross Duffer) wastes the first 30 minutes repeatedly reminding its audience of the rules the protagonists need to follow in order to evade the “Breathers,” yet said rules are ignored whenever it’s convenient to the plot. A lifeless, predictable doomsday tale that feels like the diet soda version of The Road. D

THE NEW KIDS (1985) After their military parents are killed in a car crash, teen siblings Loren (Shannon Presby) and Abby (Lori Loughlin) move to Florida and are immediately beset by a gang of psychopathic bullies. After Abby repeatedly ignores the romantic advances of the pack’s leader (James Spader), he and his friends decide to make her and her brother’s life hell, that is until Abby and Loren fight back. Friday the 13th‘s Sean S. Cunningham directs this slick thriller that works, mostly, thanks to a good cast and some genuine suspense. It gets a bit too melodramatic here and there, but at just 89 minutes it gets by on pure 80’s charm. B

THE REEF: STALKED (2022) An in-name only sequel to the terrific 2010 original, Stalked follows four friends who are terrorized by a large shark while kayaking off the coast of Australia. Director Andrew Traucki does a good job of building suspense, especially during the first hour, with an emphasis on less is more. The film loses momentum thanks to transparent characters and an uninteresting backstory that keeps resurfacing and getting in the way of the main attraction. Add to that a rather lackluster climax and you have an enjoyable but forgettable shark chiller. C+