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

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