Deadwax – Season 1

By Jason Sawyer – Feb. 16, 2019

STREAMING BANNER 2
SHUDDER
Released Nov. 15, 2018
8 episodes
Created by Graham Reznick
Starring Hannah Gross, Evan Gamble, Ted Raimi, Tracy Perez, Dohn Norwood


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Etta Pryce (Gross) is a go-to tracker and dealer in the fanatical world of rare vinyl collecting, where wealthy individuals will pay top dollar for one-of-a-kind albums and she’s not above committing a few felonies to get her hands on a desired copy. A client puts her on the trail of the fabled ‘Lytton Lacquer’, an album that can reputedly drive a listener to madness, if it doesn’t outright kill them. Her search crosses paths with Len (Gamble), a police detective and her ex-bf, who has encountered the cursed record while investigating a mysterious death, and having heard a small portion of it, may be living on borrowed time. Joining forces, they attempt to hunt down the violent vinyl, uncovering a sinister underworld that surrounds the legendary lacquer.


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Deadwax is a neo-noir cursed-object detective mystery, not unlike Roman Polanski’s The Ninth Gate or John Carpenter’s Cigarette Burns, with some grisly horror and fringe science elements thrown in for good measure. The series itself is short-form, with a couple episodes clocking in at as little as ten minutes long – in actuality, the show is a 90-100 minute long feature film cut into seven parts with a 15-minute backstory featurette in the middle (Part 4). It’s a quick watch.


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Narrative: This is probably where Deadwax shines the brightest. A successful mystery needs a compelling plot, and this delivers that well. The story beats occur right where you would want them, and that keeps everything moving along at a brisk pace. Good thing too, because obsessive vinyl collecting is both a pretty dry subject and a rather niche world, so the propensity for a boring presentation was quite high. Instead, despite the presence of some extremely unlikely coincidences – the upmost being that the record tracker and the detective are a former couple both put on the album’s path at the exact same time by totally different circumstances – my interest was grabbed and held throughout. Also, without spoilers, the ending warrants some discussion. It’s neither open-ended nor conclusive – instead opting for a hybrid finale, presumably so that the series could exist as either a one-and-done or could return for a second season. Considering that’s a difficult approach to execute, it’s pulled off in a satisfactory way – a couple plot threads are left dangling, but the main story is wrapped up enough for proper closure. Honestly, that’s preferable with these streaming binge-watch shows that can be consumed in a single evening with subsequent seasons sometimes taking up to two years or so to transpire.


DEADWAX INNER 1

A gruesome studio mishap claims yet another drummer in one of Pearl Jam’s early recording sessions.



Acting: It’s pretty flat. These aren’t, by any means, very complicated characters with sprawling ranges. In the noir style, everyone is pretty muted and low-key most all the time, which occasionally clashes with the extraordinary elements of the premise – there’s a couple of immediate acceptances of some fairly far-out occurrences that don’t exactly contribute to a feeling of authenticity, but everything gets back on track with little difficulty. In other words, the cast does a fine enough job at pushing the story of Deadwax forward even if they aren’t particularly challenged along the way. The standout performance would have to be Chester Rushing, who really carries Part 4 – the backstory episode – in a mostly solo effort as a radio DJ whose discussion of the killer album on air lands him some unfortunate attention and a regrettable offer. Disc jockeys are difficult screen roles, as they literally do nothing but talk while seated, yet he manages to keep things interesting.

Direction: As with the acting, the emphasis here seems to be on keeping the story moving along at an engaging pace, so writer/director/producer/showrunner Graham Reznick favors a substance-over-style approach with the presentation. There are moments when the framing, panning, or the use of color or close-up is notable, and they make for nice touches when they occur. It’s probably safe to assume that the budget for Deadwax was not on the high end of the spectrum, and for that, everything looks really good, and that would speak for a talented and capable crew behind the scenes. So, everything here is solid.


DEADWAX INNER 2

“Hey! It’s a pretty lady! I’m in a band! Listen to our demo! We cut a special vinyl printing – it was a limited run, of course. Something special for the fans. Hey! Where are you going! You haven’t even listened to it! Come back! Please!”



Horror Elements: It needs to be said that mystery is at the forefront here genre-wise, with horror blended into the mix along with some light sci-fi flourishes. Most all the violence, of which there isn’t much, occurs offscreen with the gruesome aftermath on display and there’s not much in the way of straight-up scares either. Instead, the horror in Deadwax is built around sinister atmosphere as the narrative moves the characters closer to the cursed object they seek, the mythos that is developed around that object, and the possibility for terrible consequences along the way. It has something of an X-Files vibe going on.

Music: With a premise built around rare vinyl albums, there’s an expectation to hear some of them, and when you do, it sounds like either early electronica or vintage garage rock, which seems pretty authentic to me. The score itself is on the subtle side – mostly a standard collection of deep ominous synth swells. It’s well done, but neither obtrusive nor particularly memorable.

TL;DR: As far as TV shows go, Deadwax has an intriguing premise and is a rather short commitment, and it does well on both counts with a fast-paced mystery that makes good use of its punctuated runtime. It’s not without some scratches on its surface, but they’re not deep or numerous enough to compromise what is a solid viewing experience. I would definitely be up for seeing the saga of the deadly record continued in a second season, and if that doesn’t happen, it’s still a positive indicator of what to expect from Shudder’s fledgling lineup of original shows.

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Suspiria (2018)

By Jason Sawyer – Jan. 29, 2009

*AVAILABLE ON VOD/BLU-RAY/DVD*
Released Oct. 26, 2018
Rated R – 2hr 32min
Directed by Luca Guadagnino
Starring Dakota Johnson, Tilda Swinton, Mia Goth, Chloë Grace Moretz


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Berlin 1977, and the city is in the throes of political strife, eventfully known as ‘The German Autumn’. It is in this heated moment that bright-eyed American Suzy Bannion (Johnson) arrives to join the renowned Markos Dance Company, under the instruction of famous instructor Madame Blanc (Swinton). Meanwhile, star pupil Patricia (Moretz) has gone missing, but not before informing her therapist Dr. Klemperer (also Swinton) that she suspects the dance troupe is a front for a coven of witches. As his suspicions lead him further into harm’s way, it would seem the women of Markos Co. may be interested in Suzy for more than her preternatural talent.


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I wish I could clearly say, but I’ll try my best. Suspiria certainly does not lack for ambition – its epic runtime, unorthodox story structure, elaborate dance sequences, hallucinatory visuals, multi-faceted intertwining allegorical narrative – easily surpasses, among similar films, Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan in its challenging difficulty to decipher. It is not an easy watch, nor does it have any intention to be.


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Narrative: Uhhhh…….Ok. Ok – gotta figure something out here. Alright, here it goes: Suspiria begins with a mock playbill card informing the audience that the story will be presented in six acts and an epilogue, and if that strikes you as an odd way to begin a film, then buckle up – it only gets weirder from here. There’s a lot of story to unpack, and some of it is presented without context only to supply something of an explanation later, provided the viewer can keep it all in mind as the movie rolls on – I felt as if I should have taken a primer class before diving into this. However, despite its sometimes disorienting subplots and bewildering structure, the story at the heart of the matter isn’t all that complicated and is what could have been initially expected – an expansion upon the plot of Dario Argento’s 1977 original. There’s more characters and more plot points, all with greater depth and detail than the source material, and when focused, illustrates a great untapped potential to the mythos of Argento & writing partner Daria Nicoldi’s Three Mothers series of ancient malevolent witches installed in high places across Western civilization. There’s a lot of superfluous and indulgent stuff here though – it may supply greater rewatch value or it may be really extra; time will ultimately sort that one out. Also, it’s a ‘big twist’ film, but as you watch it, it becomes obvious that there’s going to be one, or everything would just play out as intended, and that’s rarely how stories work. Whether that big twist sticks the landing is debatable, but it’s revealed during one of the most bizarre climactic sequences I can recall, so I’ll be damned if I know for sure.

Acting: If I had gripes about the narrative, I have none here. Firstly, Tilda Swinton is amazing in this. She’s one of those with a reputation for generally elevating anything she’s in, as she does with her more orthodox role as instructor Madame Blanc, but it’s her part as octogenarian male psychologist and WWII survivor Dr. Klemperer that’s a showstopper. Unrecognizable and fully immersed, she becomes a frail and guilt-ridden old man who believes he has enough fight left in him for a bid at personal redemption from the ghosts of the past, but grossly underestimates the nature of what he’s up against. That’s not to undersell Dakota Johnson though. Unfairly maligned from her involvement in the Fifty Shades trilogy, which I intentionally have not seen, she puts forth a physically demanding performance both bold and nuanced that should rightly erase any doubt anyone may have had in her abilities. The rest of the supporting cast, led largely by Mia Goth, all do a fine job as well. That’s a good thing too, because Suspiria – with its lofty aspirations – would have been doomed on arrival with any weak links in the acting chain.


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Before this, I would have scoffed at the idea of a scene with someone being danced to death. Not now though.


Direction: Here is where the comparison between this version and Argento’s original must be made. Argento’s was visually stunning – a colorful and dreamy atmosphere periodically shattered by sudden outbreaks of horriffic violence. That creation of discomfort through the juxtaposition of beauty and atrocity is a hallmark of Italian horror cinema of its age, as defined by Argento, Mario Bava, Lucio Fulci, and others. Luca Guadagnino’s Suspiria, on the other hand, exists in an ugly and brutish world of stark and largely drab colors, and seems generally more interested in ferocity than beauty. In fact, the difference between the two films is so great that they barely have anything in common beyond the shared premise and, I never thought I’d use this phrase, but Dario Argento made the more coherent version. That’s not a failure on Guadagnino’s part though, because it’s extremely obvious that his was made to be difficult to consume and digest. And despite the bleak color palette, there are a great many standout sequences within – often using dance and contortion to create hypnotic and cryptic imagery – but perhaps none more so than the mind-melting climax. It’s even difficult to find words to explain – perhaps if Andy Warhol and Ken Russell collaborated on hosting a bloody nudist Grand Guignol sativa-soaked rave in a cobblestone crypt? It’s baffling.

Horror Elements: While there’s little in the way of tension or suspense throughout Suspiria – opting instead for anxiety and contemplative unease – there’s certainly some top-notch gore FX. One sequence in particular – outside of its splatter-filled sixth act – involves an unfortunate dissident in the dance troupe being literally broken every which way through a spell cast via ritualistic dance that is absolutely brutal to watch. It’s among the worst beatings ever adminstered in the history of film – no joke. It’s representative of the way that the movie is not here to play around. There’s also some pretty notable makeup work down the final stretch – the demonic servant of the lead witch, in particular.


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Mother Susperiorum’s little helper.


Music: One of the best-known attributes of Suspiria is that it is scored by legendary Radiohead frontman Thom Yorke, and that fact is apparent far more than expected throughout the film. There are multiple scenes where actual songs with lyrics play out as opposed to the typical musical accompaniment, and the effect can be rather jarring, as Yorke’s vocals compete for attention with the action and dialogue on screen. While I assume Yorke merely delivered exactly what was requested from him, it’s especially distracting during the movie’s bonkers finale, although this is totally the type of flick where the lyrics are likely carrying some kind of additional subtext on top of everything else going on because it has no qualms with being excessive.

TL;DR: Luca Guadagnino’s Suspiria is assuredly not for everyone, horror fans or otherwise. While the story is straightforward enough, it is rife with details that are difficult to follow or decipher. The ambition is admirable though, and if you have any interest in it at all, you should see it, even if you ultimately hate it. It’s ironic that a remake would deliver something so unquestionably unique, even if it makes for a difficult watch.

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Pledge

By Jason Sawyer – Jan. 12, 2019

*IN SELECT THEATERS AND ON MAJOR VOD OUTLETS*
Released Jan. 11, 2019
Unrated (equal to rated R for violence, torture, sadism, thematic elements, and language) – 1hr 17min
Directed by Daniel Robbins
Starring Zachery Byrd, Phillip Andre Botello, Aaron Dalla Villa, Zack Weiner


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College freshmen and social outcasts Justin (Byrd), Ethan (Botello), and David (Weiner) are having no luck in their attempt to rush a fraternity – that is until they are invited to an exclusive gathering off-campus. There, they enjoy a wild and raucous party, courtesy of the charismatic Max (Dalla Villa) and his accommodating bros. The trio are invited back to pledge for membership the next evening, but when they arrive, they find the group to not be so accommodating anymore. How much will these young men endure to prove they belong?


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Pledge is a fast and nasty thriller that wastes virtually nothing in its spartan 77-minute runtime. Both stomach-churning and thought-provoking, it deftly poses a host of uncomfortable questions about numerous social matters, all while moving at a sprint.


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Narrative: In a word, Pledge is economic. The story makes the most of each scene, be it setting up its premise, building its characters, establishing its setting, or putting everything into motion with an agonizing gauntlet of atrocities. It’s not mere voyeurism though – it has a lot to say about the dynamics of social elitism, masculinity, peer pressure, and conformity. It’s telling that the fictional frat’s mascot is the rat – when it sees what it wants, it will pursue that thing with a voracious tenacity, stopping at nothing and plowing through anything to get it. That’s an example of the economy employed in the script – much is conveyed when that is the core value of the university’s most elite social group. Now, there’s not a wealth of surprises to be had throughout – a twist here and a turn there that aren’t exactly mind-blowing – but the ending is a gem. The proceedings are wrapped up in such a way that the movie manages to gnaw its way into the brain and make a nest there.


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Circumstances certainly go from bad to worse here.


Acting: Everybody involved does what they need to when they need to do it. In a movie with nine principal characters and no solo moments to be had, no one steals the proverbial show, and that’s to the benefit of Pledge. It allows for the emergence of a convincing us-vs-them ensemble that succeeds to be compelling. Again, going back to being economical, each member of the cast communicates a lot of context with single lines of dialogue or individual facial expressions and body language. The early scenes of the protagonists are cringe-inducingly awkward. Their despair, once they are hapless pledges, comes across as genuinely uncertain, which motivates their compliance, as does the authentic Jekyll-and-Hyde mannerisms of the frat bros. In short, the actors give the film a sickly realism that allows its themes to thrive.

Direction: While certainly helped by an efficient script from co-star Zack Weiner, it’s uncommon to see a film that moves as fast as Pledge while remaining fully cohesive. Director David Robbins pulls the effort together with style too. The opening shot is especially commendable – presumably filmed with a drone, it brings the camera in from VERY far down into the middle of an obviously unfortunate situation already in progress. It’s an effective introduction. Later, when the going gets rough, Robbins utilizes techniques that successfully invoke a claustrophobic feel – while the setting itself is not especially confined, it captures the vibe of the vicious confinement that the pledges have willingly volunteered themselves for and the distinct social pressures that keep them compliant. He also possesses a keen instinct as to when to shift perspective, uncomfortably cycling the audience through the roles of fellow victim, co-conspirator, and complicit witness. Later, as things become more desperate and frantic, he adeptly delivers the action in a tense and satisfying manner. It’s a seriously impressive effort.


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Please see the previous caption for reference.


Horror Elements: Those looking to Pledge for outrageously gruesome torture and kills are going to leave disappointed. The movie keeps its feet firmly planted in a utilitarian realism – which benefits an immersive atmosphere – favoring a simpler brutality over wildly elaborate gore-tacular scenarios. It does have a couple standout moments though, particularly at the point of no return, but those scenes are still played very straight, forsaking any over-the-top splatter. Given the other components of the film, it’s the right approach here. Further, there’s nothing secretly supernatural here or any reliance on jump scares – the emphasis is strongly, if not exclusively, on disturbing discomfort.

Sound: The retro synth score is very much back in favor right now, and Pledge has one too. I’m not complaining though – I happen to love that style and composer Jon Natchez provides a fittingly tense effort.

TL;DR: This will likely prove to be a love-or-hate experience for viewers. Those who aren’t turned off by the gut-wrenching content or problematic themes on the one hand might be rashly irritated by the existence of another socially woke horror movie. If that doesn’t sound like you, then watch it now. It’s incredibly solid from start to finish and an exceptionally grueling horror experience. 2019 is still very young, but it’s going to be difficult to remove Pledge from our year-end Top 10.

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Would You Rather

By Jason Sawyer – Jan. 10, 2019

STREAMING BANNER 2
NETFLIX
Released Feb. 8, 2013
Unrated (equal to rated R for violence, sadism, thematic elements, and language) – 1hr 33min
Directed by David Guy Levy
Starring Brittany Snow, Jeffery Combs, Sasha Grey, John Heard


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Iris (Snow), struggling financially and desperate to help her very sickly brother, accepts an invitation to a dinner party from wealthy tycoon Shepard Lambrick (Combs) to discuss the possibility of becoming a beneficiary of his charitable foundation. What she doesn’t know is that she will be fighting for her life with 7 others in a deadly game of ‘Would You Rather’, conducted annually for the rich man’s entertainment.


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Would You Rather is a tense and grueling examination of the depths of desperation. While not necessarily gory, it is a fairly vicious movie that doesn’t hold back on the consequences of the characters’ decisions or the dark contempt that the host holds for those he views as his lessers.


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Narrative: If Would You Rather played Would You Rather, the question might be, ‘Would you rather be a splatterfest with characters being ironically punished for their perceived sins in spectacularly gory ways or be a strait-laced social commentary about American class warfare with an emphasis on uncomfortable realism?’ The movie picks the second choice, and as such, manages to carve out a unique identity for itself, despite being initially dismissed as yet another torture porn piece that, by 2013, was too late to the party. While it would qualify as part of the New Extremity movement that dominated global horror cinema throughout the ’00s, the film favors a simplicity in premise over the elaborate murder machines or often convoluted scenarios found throughout the sprawling Saw franchise and the legion of clones it inspired. There’s eight people desperate for money, four ghastly choices, and one winner – all orchestrated with a showman’s zeal by a wealthy, charismatic, enthusiastic sociopath. While it could have benefited from taking more time to develop supporting characters, thereby becoming somewhat less predictable, there are still enough twists and turns throughout to be thoroughly engrossing, complimenting what is a very solid story, if not particularly successful ending.


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“Welcome to my dinner party, everyone! I totally promise there will be absolutely no abhorrent acts of self-harm or bloodshed here at this table tonight and that’s probably a pretty off-putting introduction so, moving along…who wants to play a game?”


Acting: This is Jeffery Combs’ movie – full stop. While already a genre icon from his roles in the Re-Animator trilogy, The Frighteners, From Beyond and more, his performance in Would You Rather is worth seeing by itself. His character, Shepard Lambrick, is a smooth-talking and congenial man of wealth whose blood can turn ice cold without warning. He revels in his secret tradition – this game which he frames as a philosophical examination of the human condition, a proving ground of the most worthy of his resources, and a lark for his cynical amusement. Combs manages to project all these things together in a complex person that seems real, and therefore, effectively chilling. Lead star and co-producer Brittany Snow makes for a sympathetic and convincing protagonist, yet she, like the rest of the cast, is mostly left to emote and react to Combs’ puppet master. However, she, and the rest of the cast, do so sufficiently, but her and Combs are the only with much actual depth (although late veteran actor John Heard has a small yet memorable role too).

Direction: The presentation is not particularly stylish visually. Director David Guy Levy does have a distinct approach to distance – using close-ups on reactions and relevant objects while opting to frame the violence from across the table or room, shifting the emphasis from the visceral to the dramatic. The pacing in Would You Rather is exceptional though – flying through its runtime at a fast clip.


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“Maybe if I look at the guy next to me like this, she’ll think he farted instead…”


Horror Elements: Based upon its premise and promo art, it would be fair to believe that this film would be packed full of deliriously gory sequences, and that is simply not the case. While doubtlessly violent, it’s delivered in a very matter-of-fact manner that even backs up or cuts away entirely from the couple of nastier fates that are doled out. It could have perhaps used an all-out squirm-inducing moment to put it over the top, but with a thick and tense atmosphere and fast pace, it’s difficult to complain too much.

Sound: While the score takes a back seat throughout, the opening and closing themes are really enjoyable. Daniel Hunt and Bardi Johannsson deliver a neat ’70s-synth style with rock drums that captures the proper aesthetic – ominous but playful, even slightly evoking a game-show-music vibe in the mix.

TL;DR: Would You Rather is a compelling suspense thriller heavy on timely social commentary yet lighter on horror than one might think at a glance. Given its reliance on more dramatic elements, it could have gone deeper on developing its characters and it has an ending that leaves something to be desired, but still is very much worth watching.

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Beyond the Gates

By Jason Sawyer – Jan. 9, 2019

STREAMING BANNER 2
NETFLIX
Released Dec. 9, 2016
Unrated (equal to rated R for graphic violence, gore, and language) – 1hr 24min
Directed by Jackson Stewart
Starring Graham Skipper, Chase Williamson, Brea Grant, Barbara Crampton


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Months after their father has gone missing and is presumed dead, estranged brothers Gordon (Skipper) and John (Williamson) must work together to settle their dad’s estate, which includes his video rental store. There, they – along with Gordon’s girlfriend Margot (Grant) – find a mysterious VCR board game, hosted by an ominous enchantress (Crampton) that may hold the key to their father’s disappearance.


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From the central plot device to the musical score to the creature design, Beyond the Gates is obviously a lovingly nostalgic throwback to the 1980’s. However, that’s not without a considerable serving of character drama first.


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Narrative: The core of Beyond the Gates is very entertaining, as long as it’s involving itself with the namesake game and its various elements. However, the plot pushes that back to the latter half, choosing instead to focus on exposition of the brothers, Gordon in particular. It doesn’t make great use of that time, and we don’t really learn more than we otherwise could have in just several minutes – instead, we get a series of scenes that are on the duller side of things. As a result, the mechanics of the game come across as exceedingly simple and rushed, which is a shame because that’s where the lifeblood of the movie resides.

Acting: The three leads all turn in solid performances. In fact, the interplay between them was suitable enough to provide the dramatic subtext without devoting so much runtime to exploring it at length. In short, they each do a lot with characters that, despite the script’s efforts to deepen them, remain fairly shallow. Regardless, the film springs to life whenever Barbara Crampton appears, camping it up as the mysteriously prescient game host Evelyn. Again, the game really shines as the film’s backbone and Crampton brings it all together as the personification of it. Somehow, someway, the movie needed her in it more.


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To aspiring filmmakers: your horror movie will always score bonus points if you cast Barbara Crampton in it.


Direction: It’s a no-brainer that writer/director Jackson Stewart has something of a soft spot for the 1980’s with his debut feature. The opening credits bring a new definition to ‘VHS porn’, as the sequence plays over intricate close-ups of the mechanical components of a functioning VCR – a montage of spinning wheels, flipping switches, and moving levers that lovingly elevates the obsolete piece of entertainment hardware to industrial marvel. So obviously, there’s numerous callbacks to ’80s horror throughout – specifically of the demon/ghoul variety with an emphasis on splattery gore. Also, it needs to be noted that the movie is something of a triumph considering its $300K budget; it looks great at a bargain, yet that may explain the slow first half.

Horror Elements: When Beyond the Gates gets to them, it gets to them with enthusiasm. A disemboweling, an exploding head, a ripped-out heart – the gory moments are fleeting, but they do serve as a proper calling card to the type of movie experience to which it is paying homage. The look of the ghoul makeup also conjures up that same ’80s aesthetic. Again though, it could have really used more of these things.


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Derek always took Trivial Pursuit a little too seriously, but this was still rather unexpected.


Sound: Here, there’s no complaints to be had. Wojciech Golczewski’s score is really good and does exactly what was needed from it – to thoroughly establish a retro vibe while being inspired enough to not come across as generic. It’s a standout effort.

TL;DR: Beyond the Gates could have really used more Beyond the Gates in it. When that key premise isn’t there, it’s a rather bland and listless character drama about two brothers who don’t much like each other, yet for reasons never adequately explored despite the time dedicated for it. When the film is focused on its giddy nostalgia, it’s quite fun, but those proceedings feel rushed. In all, it’s solid but underdone.

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Mara

By Jason Sawyer – Jan. 7, 2019

STREAMING BANNER 2
NETFLIX
Released Sep. 7, 2018
Rated R – 1hr 38min
Directed by Clive Tonge
Starring Olga Kurylenko, Craig Conway, Javier Botet, Rosie Fellner


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When criminal psychologist Kate Fuller (Kurylenko) is brought on to investigate an alleged murder, she’ll find herself in the path of ancient demon Mara (Botet), who strickens her victims with sleep paralysis before marking them for death.


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Mara tries its best to be a supernatural chiller of the Blumhouse variety with strong Asian horror overtones, but it might succeed in delivering more unintentional laughs than legitimate scares.


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Narrative: This is where Mara goes all kinds of wrong. Whether it was from a lazily written script or one that was hacked into bits of garbage after the fact, the film trudges along at a laborious pace, ticking off boxes on the ghost curse checklist until it’s time to go home. It occasionally twitches with the promise that it will be something more than simply asleep at the switch, but then, it quickly fades back to its ponderous slog. Despite being frustratingly predictable, I do need to put a point back in the till for the motivation behind the titular antagonist – it’s a fairly clever concept (at least initially – until it has something to do with bad fish. I’m not joking.) It’s telegraphed in a manner that allows the viewer to reach the conclusion before our hero does (except for the fish, which is definitely a curveball), but it’s a good idea all the same.

Acting: Mara seems like it was an absolute chore to make for everyone behind the camera, but the ones in front of it at least put forth an attempt to salvage the effort, even when they’re given hilariously clunky dialogue to work with. The film keeps trying to insert emotionally wrought material, generally with weepy monologues that are earnestly delivered, yet the tone and atmosphere don’t accomodate these moments – they’re just shoehorned in wherever. In one, Kurylenko’s character is visiting the woman who she has had committed for her husband’s murder (wrongfully) and, when the woman wants nothing to do with her, she decides this is the best time to share her tragic backstory. I understand that this is for the benefit of the audience and not the falsely accused woman, but it certainly doesn’t feel like an authentic scenario. Yet, when this dramatically charged scene ends with the woman shouting “I TOLD YOU!!! MY HUSBAND WAS KILLED BY A SLEEP DEMON!!!”, I was howling with laughter. This isn’t the only scene derailed in such a manner, and as such, I refuse to hold the cast accountable for this mess. They earned their paychecks.


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I know what you mean, Olga. This hasn’t been easy for me either.


Direction: This is Clive Tonge’s feature debut, and if I were to wager a bet, his uninspired paint-by-numbers work here has something to do with the stable of 14 producers holding the reins. It’s competently made, if not totally lacking in a singular definitive flash of personal style. Mara could have been directed by an AI uploaded with every similar movie ever committed to film, yet its finished product may have been more daring.

Horror Elements: To cast famed creature actor Javier Botet as the ghoulish villain and waste him is representative of the squandered opportunities throughout. Presented with little flair, the demon Mara just isn’t scary. The lights go low and in she shuffles, wheezing and rolling her wrists, presumably as warm-up exercises for some high-impact strangling. That, or she’s silhouetted behind a sheet, as curse ghosts are prone to do. Appearance-wise, she’s a mere echo of some of Botet’s other well-known monsters, like Mama or ‘Patient Zero’ from [Rec]. It’s like Samara from The Ring was put through the taffy puller from Willy Wonka, given emphysema, and set in super slo-mo. Elsewhere, aside from a couple more notable moments, the rest is corpses with bloodshot eyes and hysterical screaming. There was what could have been a really squeamish scene, where a character lops off one of their own eyelids, but the punch is pulled – the movie plays it safe at pretty much every opportunity.


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Actual line of dialogue from the movie: “I’m a scientist. I deal with facts and logic – not this.”


Sound: For the score, the spooky bits are your very standard spooky bits, which should come as no surprise at this point. However, at the moments that are intended to be emotionally heavy, the music kicks into overdrive, drenching the scene in swelling strings and an operatic choir, as if we’re watching a classical tragedy. It’s too much. Also, the demon Mara is very crunchy when she walks – another common affliction of curse ghosts.

TL;DR: Mara brought together all the components necessary to make a solid supernatural horror movie and then did nothing interesting with them, even dipping its toe in unintentional comedy territory. It had a budget, so it can’t play the ‘scrappy indie production’ card, nor was it intended to be bad, like anything from the last 5 years with the word ‘Shark’ in the title. It’s a pure misfire, but it’s still a coherent movie with glimpses of a higher quality within it. There’s way worse out there, but this is still firmly mediocre in relation.

not recommended icon

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Man Vs.

By Jason Sawyer – Jan. 6, 2019

STREAMING BANNER 2
NETFLIX
Released Nov. 13, 2015
Unrated (equal to rated R for violence, imagery, language, and brief nudity) – 1hr 27min
Directed by Adam Massey
Starring Chris Diamantopoulos, Chloe Bradt, Michael Cram


what_it_is_review_header
Doug Woods (Diamantopolous) is the host of a wilderness survival TV show that has just been picked up by a major network. His crew drops him off in the middle of Canada’s sprawling forestlands with camera gear and meager supplies to film a 5-day trek to demonstrate survival techniques in a real setting. Things start off well enough, but after being woken by a loud crash on his first night, Doug will find that he has more than the elements to endure in order to get out alive.


what_it_does_review_header
Survivorman Vs. PredatorMan Vs. is an elegantly simple concept. While portions of it can be qualified as found footage, as it is in the fashion of the survival reality TV shows that were quite popular about 10 years ago, most of it is in a standard presentation.


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Narrative: As the premise might suggest, much of Man Vs. is a one-man show. After a swift first act gets the protagonist to his isolated location and he establishes his camp, the tension rises in a steady arc toward a harrowing climactic confrontation. There is some secondary conflict introduced throughout the introduction that doesn’t really go anywhere, but the film doesn’t dwell on it much, so nothing is lost by it either. If you were a fan of the shows that the movie mimics, like me, you’ll find a lot of elements from them expertly duplicated and cleverly subverted to create a particularly immersive story.

Acting: Again, it’s mostly a one-man show, so Man Vs. is positioned to live or die on the strength of the lead performance. Fortunately, Chris Diamantopoulos is fantastic here as the survival expert host who finds a lot more to survive than he signed up for. Having seen a lot of Survivorman myself, I’d say that he consciously modeled the character specifically off Les Stroud, as many of his mannerisms, deliveries, and even specific techniques evoke, if not mirror, the famous Discovery Channel personality. Diamantopoulos makes for a charismatic and relatable protagonist who begrudgingly transforms into an impromptu action hero once the situation calls for it.


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“This is gonna hurt you a lot more than it hurts me.”


Appearance: With Man Vs., director/co-writer Adam Massey has three primary jobs lined up for himself. On the first – putting forth a convincing mock-up of a survival TV show – he nails it. It definitely captures the vibe of that genre, and so, the foundation for the film is as solid as can be. Second, it needs to convey a sense of utter isolation to properly develop suspense, and he does this too, with a lot of great shots of the wild sylvan setting that truly establishes a sense of place for our hero. Third, when the action gets thick and the movie needs to shift gears, the action sequences need to get the adrenaline rushing with edge-of-seat suspense, and…it’s not so glowing there. It kicks off with a pretty amazing shot, but it also becomes a lot of chaotic running through the forest. There’s still some memorable bits though, but can no longer avoid the proverbial elephant in the room. The antagonist is a CGI manifestation and, frankly, looks pretty ugly. Not the good kind of ugly either. It’s not laughably terrible, but it’s something of a mood killer. I appreciate the limited budget here, but something practical and obscured may have been preferable to this creature that stumbled out of a SyFy original movie.

Horror Elements: Pretty damn solid. There’s a lot of tension and suspense throughout, and when things get nasty, they’re convincingly nasty. It’s a shame about the creature design though. It’s important to stress that it isn’t a total deal-breaker – at least not for most. For some, it’s going to be an insurmountable obstacle.

Sound: Staying in character with its premise, much of the score of Man Vs., when present, is a dark variation of the kind of music heard in survival TV shows – like a desolate outdoors-y instrumental folk thing. In the third act, it trades that in for a generic action-time vibe.

TL;DR: Man Vs. is a riveting action/horror film that moves along at a quick pace. It’s of particular interest to fans of wilderness survival television, as it maintains an unusually authentic dedication to recreating the experience of those shows. It doesn’t fully realize all its potential in the end, likely due to an ambitious premise that over-stretched a meager budget and a plot that unwisely decided to only increase its scope and scale as the climax went on, but this is still a very solid movie that deserves more attention than it has received.

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Are We Not Cats

By Jason Sawyer – Jan. 5, 2019

STREAMING BANNER 2
Amazon-Instant-VideoSHUDDERHOOPLA
Released Feb. 23, 2018
Unrated (equal to rated R for language, imagery, thematic elements, brief gore, and potentially upsetting depictions of aberrant behavior) – 1hr 17min
Directed by Xander Robin
Starring Michael Patrick Nicholson, Chelsea Lopez, Michael Godere


what_it_is_review_header
Hard luck Eli (Nicholson) loses his girlfriend, his job, and his home all in a matter of hours. With only a beat-up box truck left in his life, he takes on a job as a freelance hauler, and when he meets Anya – the girlfriend of one of his clients – they bond over a shared impulsive fetish of eating hair. Maybe Eli’s luck has finally changed? Maybe it hasn’t.


what_it_does_review_header
Are We Not Cats is a relentlessly quirky romantic dramedy with some gross ingredients in the mix. It’s as if Frank Henenlotter of Basket Case and Frankenhooker fame (or infamy) collaborated with Zach Braff of Scrubs and Garden State fame (or infamy) to make a love story that couldn’t decide if it wanted to be unconventionally endearing or thoroughly uncomfortable. Alternately, it’s also like Charlie from It’s Always Sunny… were a real-life person and wrote a romantic screenplay. If there were a name for the subgenre this film belonged to, it might be ‘hipster-squirm’.


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Narrative: For a solid half-hour or so, I didn’t even know what the movie was about, other than a chronology of a low point in the life of America’s most downtrodden millennial. Even once Anya is introduced, the story has a difficult time settling into a groove, and the pacing suffers for it. Not until the final 15 minutes did it even become apparent that Are We Not Cats had an actual story that it wanted to tell and not just be a collection of off-kilter and vaguely unsettling incidents that happen to surround a particular character. It does have a definite ending though that ties together much of the story, but there are still moments of non-sequitir excess.

Acting: With the narrative thread as thin as a strand of hair, a lot of weight is put on the shoulders of the two leads – Nicholson & Lopez – to keep things compelling, and they do their best. These are strange and guarded characters, so there’s some payoff there when they discover that they can be themselves around each other. The rest of the cast is an assorted lot of oddballs, loonies, and scumbags – there does not appear to be a single person in this fictional universe who is both stable and decent.

Appearance: Writer/director Xander Robin infuses Are We Not Cats with a lot of visual flair for such a microbudget effort. A lot of thought and vision went into the framing of many shots and a distinctive style emerges that could be described as ‘thrift-shop’ or ‘junk-art’. Although shot on digital, it doesn’t have that overgloss look that many low-budget non-film productions have, instead resembling the washed-out appearance of retro ’90s indies.

Horror Elements: Are We Not Cats is something of a body horror movie that exists entirely in the realm of the mundane – there’s nothing otherworldly about eating the hair off someone’s head or the mess of rashy sores that lines Eli’s back. Yet, while the film is working toward a big gross finale, these details are not particularly prevalent. What is perhaps more unsettling though is the uncanny world that Eli & Anya occupy – it’s as if society is populated by junkies that don’t do drugs. It makes for an odd atmosphere of discomfort, but it may well be interpretive; Eli, as the focal character, doesn’t understand or relate to others in a typical manner, and we get to see that translated into behavior that seems bizarre, sketchy, or inexplicable. Perhaps.

Sound: The soundtrack of Are We Not Cats is some kind of indie jazz rock fusion that you would find on a Spotify playlist of that one friend of yours who is always on the bleeding edge of music.

TL;DR: This movie is certainly not for all tastes, nor was it really for mine. I am liking it more (or disliking it less) the more I think about it, as it does succeed in leaving a lasting impression. Although it’s classified as a horror movie, at least to some degree, that’s more by nature of its oddity and penchant for squeamishness than anything purely horrific. Are We Not Cats is well-made and well-acted though, regardless of other considerations outside its story with a tendency to wander. It’s likely to be warmly embraced within its niche of indie aficionados, but it doesn’t transcend beyond that clique.

sorta recommend

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Blood and Black Lace

By Jason Sawyer – Jan. 4, 2019

STREAMING BANNER 2
SHUDDER
Released Mar. 14, 1964
Language: Italian
Unrated (equal to rated R for violence and thematic elements) – 1hr 28min
Directed by Mario Bava
Starring Cameron Mitchell, Eva Bartok, Thomas Reiner, Arianna Gorini


what_it_is_review_header
It was a dark and stormy night, and young model Isabella is killed on the grounds of the esteemed Rome fashion house at which she’s employed. While the discovery of her body sets off a fervor, it’s the discovery of her secret diary that sets in motion a campaign of brutal murder by a masked assassin who is terrified of something the woman had learned. However, Isabella had dirt on everybody.


what_it_does_review_header
Blood and Black Lace is among the more influential yet lesser seen of the proto-modern horror classics. While its structure is not unlike a ‘whodunnit’ murder mystery, many contributions to the evolution of the horror film can be found here.


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Narrative: It’s more of an engaging story of duplicitous and ruthless people than a satisfying mystery, and that’s likely more a matter of its age. The ‘whodunnit’ is not as interesting as the ‘why’, and it makes for a surprising third act.


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Acting: Nothing special here. The classical theater-style acting was starting to phase out during this era, but the performances in Blood and Black Lace fall more on the classical side of the line. As such, some may find the characters to be unnaturally wooden or rehearsed

Appearance: Here’s where the movie really shines – it’s got style to spare. Bold and vivid colors are contrasted by the void of concealing shadows, creating a disorienting cacophony of reactions in the viewer. Set design is often used to frame shots in visually pleasing or claustrophobic ways. Long tracking shots are implemented to generate mood, atmosphere, and suspense. The visual influence on later films is apparent throughout.

Horror Elements: Again, the impact that Blood and Black Lace would have upon the genre was substantial. Unlike other similar murder mysteries of the time, director Mario Bava opted here to focus on the killings as opposed to the cycle of accusation and defense. It was a daring and rarely-taken route at that point, and not altogether well-received at release. Refusing to cut away for the sake of sparing the audience greater discomfort, leaving them helpless and in anticipatory dread of the worst possible outcome, was initially loathed. Yet, in a relatively short time, it would become a horror standard – further popularized by Dario Argento (along with the visual style) and other European filmmakers before crossing over to America as the slasher film. Furthermore, Blood and Black Lace may be the first film to prominently feature the stalking masked killer, making its concealed antagonist a direct predecessor to the likes of Michael Myers and Jason Voorhees. However, it’s not particularly gory – that likely would have been yet another bridge too far – but the physicality of the violence, at times, is still quite shocking.


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Misc.: Good luck getting the theme out of your head. It’s 100% Euro-’60s, but it’s very effective here. It is overused though, as virtually the entire score is centered around it.

TL;DR: Blood and Black Lace – with its artistic visuals, macabre themes, and relatively grotesque imagery – is an often overlooked landmark horror film that is a must-see for anyone curious as to how the genre has developed over time. It does have its dated qualities – both in presentation and in social politics – so it might be of considerably lesser value to anyone predisposed to disliking ‘old stuff’.

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The Autopsy of Jane Doe

By Jason Sawyer – Jan. 2, 2019

STREAMING BANNER 2
NETFLIX
Released Dec. 21, 2016
Rated R – 1hr 26min
Directed by André Øvredal
Starring Emile Hirsch, Brian Cox, Ophelia Lovibond, Olwen Catherine Kelly


what_it_is_review_header
A coroner (Cox) and his assistant son (Hirsch) are urged by the local sheriff to perform an emergency autopsy upon a mysterious corpse (Kelly) who has no apparent cause of death, signs of physical trauma, or connection to a brutal crime scene. As the night progresses and a vicious storm rolls in, they’ll learn that some secrets are best left undiscovered.


what_it_does_review_header
The Autopsy of Jane Doe is an unorthodox paranormal tale with loads of clinically graphic content. While there’s little violence and nothing sexual, the realistic depiction of autopsy procedures may leave some viewers reeling. Aside from that, the focus is on eerie atmosphere, well-orchestrated jump scares, and the progression of a mind-bending mystery.


how_it_does_review_header
It’s an attempt at a mind-bending mystery anyway, but I’ll get to that more in a bit. The Autopsy of Jane Doe strives to be a claustrophobic creeper that puts the spotlight on the most overworked yet rarely seen characters in horror – the coroners. They generally toil away in the hidden subtext of a story, overwhelmed with a grisly influx of some psychotic or supernatural carnage, and when they are featured, they’re usually killed off quickly to set up or establish a sequel or they have a couple of speaking lines in between bites of that sandwich that movie morgue workers are always eating. Here, they get an entire feature and story of their own, and, for the most part, it’s a riveting success.

It’s actually a novel concept for a number of reasons. The Autopsy of Jane Doe holds back little in its portrayal of an actual autopsy procedure, and that gory authenticity forms a squeamish foundation upon which more traditional scare sequences are executed with greater effectiveness. This is kicked off early with an introduction to the main characters as they wrap up work on a grotesquely roasted burn victim, and its unsettling effects linger on even after he’s been drawered up and the emphasis shifts to more mundane exposition. Even throughout the more ordinary formalities of the first act, many elements are introduced that are exploited later on with chilling results. The horror craft on display in this film leads to numerous well-earned moments as the story continues on.


THE AUTOPSY OF JANE DOE INNER 1

I’m not a doctor or anything, but I’m pretty certain this is not a typical autopsy.


It’s also intriguing how the autopsy itself is transformed into the central narrative device, and rightly so, given the title. As senior coroner Tommy Tilden, yet another reliably solid performance from Brian Cox, explains for the sake of their video documentation that the autopsy will be performed in four stages, it is through each of those segments that the plot moves forward, the stakes are raised, and some new disturbing revelation is made – it’s great fundamental storytelling. Further, Jane Doe herself grows ever more compelling as events unfold. Mute, motionless, and naked as a jaybird, it’s rather amazing how much personality she ultimately projects, and speaks to both a fantastic character performance by Olwen Catherine Kelly and the movie’s adept structuring to help her out. She is a corpse on a table, after all – what could she really do?…

Director André Øvredal really impresses with this effort. Whereas he displayed a great talent with large-scale in 2010 must-see Trollhunter – which is fantasy-horror as a fun adventurous romp among dangerous giants – he shows amazing finesse in the fine elements of the genre with The Autopsy of Jane Doe. He demonstrates extensive attention to detail, excellent pacing, and an ability to generate an ever-thickening atmosphere of oppressive dread. He’s at the helm for the upcoming Guillermo del Toro-produced adaptation of classic ’80s youth horror anthology Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, and he may very well bring some genuine terror to what will almost certainly be a PG-13 rated outing.

Now, I started off by stating that this movie was an attempt at mind-bending mystery, and it’s with that we come to its greatest flaw. At the moment of the big answer to the sinister puzzle driving the entire story, the film trips, hits its head on a table, and collapses to the floor with a clumsy thump. The leap that needs to be taken to arrive at the conclusion begs disbelief, as does the conclusion itself. However, it gets back up and stumbles onward to the finish line, somewhat worse for the wear, but it’s a testament to the quality of the rest of the film that it’s not a deal-breaker. This is still an exceptional feature and certainly among the better offerings from 2016.

The Autopsy of Jane Doe gets a rating of
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