Bird Box

By Jason Sawyer – Dec. 28, 2018

Released Dec. 21, 2018
Rated R – 2hr 4min
Directed by Susanne Bier
Starring Sandra Bullock, Trevante Rhodes, John Malkovich, Sarah Paulson

Pregnant Malorie (Bullock) and her sister Jessica (Paulson) are at the hospital for Malorie’s doctor appointment when chaos breaks out – a mysterious entity begins attacking people that, if seen, causes instant and often suicidal psychosis. Malorie, after losing Jessica to the malevolent force, finds refuge in a house with other survivors, including war veteran Tom (Rhodes) and cantankerous lawyer Douglas (Malkovich). Flash forward five years and Malorie and her two children, Boy and Girl, are making a treacherous and virtually impossible journey to possible sanctuary 20 miles down a river blindfolded.

Bird Box is a timeline-jumping post-apocalyptic survival horror-drama. It jumps frequently between its present narrative on the river and its flashback narrative as to how the main protagonist and her children wound up on this journey. The focus is largely on story and characters above all else.

When I say it jumps frequently, I mean that it jumps so often that Bird Box seems more like a collection of related short films than it does a fully cohesive movie. While all of its components are of a top-shelf theatrical quality, its distinctly episodic nature is an odd choice of presentation. This was developed and produced specifically for Netflix, as opposed to being an acquisition, and it’s another one of their big swings for the fences in their bid to compete with traditional distribution models. It leads me to wonder if the company hasn’t developed their own unique formula for how a film should be structured based upon their perception of what their subscribers enjoy – and what many subscribers enjoy is binge watching television. That’s what Bird Box is – a binge watch in fast-motion.


I know that new Robin Hood movie was bad, but I don’t know if it was necessarily soul-shattering.

There’s something like 15 principal roles in this film and Sandra Bullock is in about 95% of the scenes, so that’s a lot of people to put in orbit around the lead in a two-hour runtime. I even lost track of one character, so it was somewhat jarring when they suddenly re-appeared and did a thing. In fact, the constant ping-ponging back and forth between two different narratives – each with drastically different settings and dramatic stakes along with their own sets of supporting characters – couldn’t have been anything but jarring with such a high-concept story in play. It’s exceedingly easy throughout to forget that this is, essentially, a horror movie because the constant shifts and toggles allow for no atmosphere or tension to develop. That is, outside of the opening 20 minutes which had me mentally clearing a spot on my Top 10 of ’18 List for Bird Box – the mess hits in the fan in rather spectacular fashion, so the mysterious antagonists are well-established here. There’s no doubts as to the danger they pose.


Wonder why it’s called Bird Box like I did? That’s because there is a literal box of birds in it. These are the birds that will eventually be shoved inside of it.

So, over-stuffed story and off-putting presentation aside, the film is interesting. Much has been made of its conceptual similarities to A Quiet Place, but apart from being based around apocalypses caused by enigmatic creatures that have a sensory mode of attack and having some underlying theme about parental responsibility, they are two very different movies. Even if the correlation seems too much, Bird Box is based on a 5-year-old novel, so it wins the ‘First!’ game anyway. That aside, with a cast like this, an expectation for strong performances is the default, and Bullock & Co. do not disappoint. She and Malkovich, in particular, exhibit effortless command of the screen at this point in their careers and Trevante Rhodes is quickly rising in that regard as well. Along with Sarah Paulson, the movie shines when Bullock is sharing scenes with one of them, but it also expedites the speed at which many other supporting characters vanish into the scenery. It again raises the question as to why so much energy was expended on such a sprawling cast and their development, so even in praise, the lack of narrative focus rises to the surface.

Complaints aside, Bird Box is certainly worth watching, even if its horror elements take a far back seat to many other elements. It plays like a much-better realized attempt at M. Night Shymalan’s misfire The Happening, and that’s actually not a bad thing to be. It is, however, one of those ‘not the sum of its parts’ efforts, where all of its quality components are not put together in a way that capitalizes on their full value. (And seriously – the kids’ names are Boy and Girl? I get the lack of attachment vibe being attempted, but it’s exactly as silly as it sounds when she’s shouting for them on the river. It’s needlessly ridiculous.)

Bird Box gets a rating of


Some more stuff to read if you want:

Created with GIMPCreated with GIMP


A Quiet Place

By Jason Sawyer – Dec. 27, 2018

2018 – YEAR IN RETROSPECT review
Rated PG-13 – 1hr 30min
Languages: American Sign Language Directed by John Krasinski
Starring Emily Blunt, John Krasinski, Millicent Simmonds, Noah Jupe

It’s been nearly 15 months since the appearance of mysterious super-predatory creatures with hyper-sensitive hearing and human civilization has been reduced to the fringes of existence. It’s in this grim world that the Abbott family cling to survival in their isolated farmhouse, growing and scavenging what they can while remaining as silent as possible. All is not well, however, as mother Evelyn (Blunt) is very pregnant and expecting, father Lee (Krasinski) is distracted by the past, and teenage daughter Regan (Simmonds) is growing increasingly resentful over her fractured relationship with her dad. Throughout one fateful day, the family will learn how the best laid plans often go awry.

A Quiet Place is a relentlessly suspenseful monster movie that makes inventive use of noise and silence to develop tension and invoke a sense of dread regarding its always-listening antagonists. The premise is furthered by the extensive use of subtitled sign language in place of spoken dialogue in most scenes, amplifying the authenticity of the threat faced by the characters.

I highly doubt I was the only one who never suspected that Jim from The Office was a horror auteur in disguise. I looked through John Krasinski’s entire filmography and didn’t find a single thing that would indicate an interest in horror, let alone any talent involving it. I have no idea if he likes the genre or studied it or how he managed to pull this off, but A Quiet Place is a masterwork when it comes to generating suspense and nervous anticipation. Likewise, it’s also an expert demonstration in world-building – there’s great attention to detail throughout, from the prevalent use of sign language to the walking paths that require sanding to absorb the sound of footfalls to the use of lettuce leaves in place of plates to avoid any dangerous clinking noises.


The studio vetoed the original working title – STFU, Kid

Those are just a few examples as to how much care has gone into cultivating the atmosphere that permeates A Quiet Place. One of the key questions with which I approach a horror film is ‘How good is it at being the kind of movie that it seemingly wants to be?’ This film’s answer to that line of inquiry places it quite easily as one of the best of the decade. Throw in some top-notch performances from the principal cast (I can’t recall Emily Blunt ever being mediocre in anything – she instantly elevates anything she’s involved in) and the movie only gets better. Ironically, the award-nominated musical score from composer and longtime Wes Craven collaborator Marco Beltrami acts as another element that is deftly used to emphasize the value of silence.

With all this praise, it would be fair to assume that I’m dropping the ‘Best of 2018’ accolade at the proverbial feet of A Quiet Place without any more debate, but let’s not be too hasty. It is, virtually without competition, the purest horror film of the year. When it comes to generating suspense and apprehension, the Argentine offering Terrified is probably the only one that can even hang with it. There is, however, more to horror than these most basic classical elements – there’s more advanced components like dread, devastation, disgust, and subversion to be considered. There’s also traditional narrative quality and thematic depth to be appreciated as well.


“Seriously though, kid. STFU.”

It’s in those things that A Quiet Place doesn’t stand as tall. It pulls its punches – cutting away or flashing forward whenever matters promise to get too uncomfortable, but it never has any designs on being that kind of movie in the first place. Films that do and succeed tend to be more memorable for having done so – let’s not overlook the sheer audacity of The Exorcist having been released for Christmas 45 years ago, and it’s still being discussed prominently today. So, while A Quiet Place thrills in the moment, and has some touching and heart-warming things to say about family and parenthood along the way, it doesn’t leave the deepest impression once it’s over. There’s not much to think about afterward and the whole experience quickly begins to fade. Factor in the creature design and FX – which aren’t terrible, but aren’t great either – and the film is brought somewhat back down to earth.

While I can now confirm that A Quiet Place is one of the best of the year and very likely has a spot reserved in the decade’s top 25 by the grace of its amazing craftwork, it’s also an experience not unlike a great sugar rush. It’s terrific while it lasts, but doesn’t leave that much once it’s finished.

A Quiet Place gets a rating of



By Jason Sawyer – Dec. 26, 2018

2018 – YEAR IN RETROSPECT review
Released May 18, 2018
Unrated (equal to rated R for zombie violence, thematic elements, and language) – 1hr 45min
Directed by Ben Howling & Yolanda Ramke
Starring Martin Freeman, Simone Landers, Anthony Hayes, Susie Porter

Months into the zombie apocalypse, Andy (Freeman) has 48 hours to live after being infected with the undead virus. Desperately racing against the clock, he must traverse a hostile landscape in search of a new caretaker for his baby daughter.

Cargo is a definitively Australian iteration of the very familiar Z-poc scenario – with its distinctive Outback setting, a musical score that invokes the unique style and tones of the sprawling continent-nation, and, most notably, a reflection upon the relationship and history between the land’s aboriginal inhabitants and the descendants of its European colonists. Between that and its ruminations on parental bonds and responsibilities, it is more assuredly a slowburn drama with horror elements than a capital ‘Z’ Zombie movie.

And oh, how slow it burns. Cargo is a film that really takes its time in establishing its stride. Much, if not virtually all, of the film’s first hour is a pain-staking setup of Andy’s precarious situation. While I would expect nothing less than a solid performance from Martin Freeman at this point – and he does deliver – the character himself is not a particularly compelling protagonist beyond his sympathetic quest. It’s through a rather bumbling sequence of bad decision-making and poor communication that he finds himself in such dire straits, so the movie is not well benefited by such a lengthy examination of these events. Andy does encounter some other people along his way, but they have little to offer in terms of generating interest. By and large, they are your typical stock survivors – the paranoid one, the optimist, the ruthless pragmatist – so ultimately, much of the runtime of the first two acts plays like an uninspired pilot episode of The Walking Dead: Australia, except the hero is carrying a baby on his back and is very close to impending doom.


“Gootchie-goo! Who’s baby’s blood-stained daddy? That’s right! I’m your blood-stained daddy! Gootchie-gootchie-goo!”

It’s a frustrating endeavor, because there did appear a way to circumvent this rather lagging pace. Occasionally, and very briefly, Cargo cuts away to follow a young aboriginal girl Thoomi, played by Simone Landers, doing various things without either dialogue or context before returning to Andy’s story. These interludes are quick and contribute little to the proceedings beyond interrupting the momentum of Andy’s lackluster travails. However, they suggest the existence of coinciding events that could have been expanded upon to develop an equal half, reducing the need to pad Andy’s narrative so heavily. The paths of these two protagonists do eventually cross, and when that happens, the film finally realizes its potential with a far superior third act. Had Thoomi’s story and circumstances been explored to a similar extent as Andy’s, many of the movie’s climactic moments may have landed with even greater impact while making it less of a trudge to get there.

Cargo does really come together well though. The film’s final stretch is a worthwhile payoff for that which preceded it – perhaps not enough to erase all its foibles, but certainly enough to warrant sitting through them. While I haven’t been terribly kind to the structure and characterizations in her script, writer/director Yolanda Ramke and co-director Ben Howling have collaborated upon a visually striking movie. Aesthetically, they counter-balance desolation and beauty in such a way that it allows the story’s deeper themes to flourish and truly be appreciated, and veteran cinematographer Geoffrey Simpson deserves a nod in that regard as well. Freeman and Landers, once finally brought together, forge a fascinating odd-couple dynamic built upon a shared need to trust the other, but without much cause for that mutual trust. Their converged story and the eventual conclusion make for a difficult but hopeful introspection on the history and status of race relations in Australia and the enduring legacy of indignities suffered by the aboriginal peoples inflicted by European colonialism. In that sense, Cargo carries forward the spirit of the George A. Romero zombie movie, using the now-classic archetype to explore complex social and cultural issues with an undead allegory.


This image is representative of Cargo at its highest moments – when it’s an examination of two people from very different backgrounds overcoming differences in a shared struggle for survival against difficult odds.

In all, Cargo is a film with issues of both the profound and troublesome varieties. When it’s at its best, in the last 30-40 minutes, it’s exceptionally well-made and presented, succeeding in drama, suspense, and spectacle. When it’s at its worst, it’s a dull shamble through the desert, making it a greater chore than necessary to get somewhere .

Cargo gets a rating of



The Predator

By Jason Sawyer – Dec. 24, 2018

2018 – YEAR IN RETROSPECT review
Released Sep. 14, 2018
Rated R – 1hr 47min
Directed by Shane Black
Starring Boyd Holbrook, Olivia Munn, Trevante Rhodes, Thomas Jane, Keegan-Michael Key

The third official sequel to the 1987 classic Predator – when a US special forces sniper (Holbrook) on assignment in Mexico encounters a downed alien spacecraft, he sets into motion a sequence of events that will see him placed into martial custody and the infamous space-faring hunter-killers descend upon his hometown in pursuit of his son. He will team up with a ragtag band of military misfits (Jane, Key, & others) and a rogue government biologist (Munn) to save the young boy and secure crucial technology from the predators that may decide the fate of the human race.

The Predator is both a rip-roaring callback to over-the-top ’80s action and a surprisingly irreverent satire of both the genre and the series. While it may polarize audiences with its somewhat parodic tone, its sights are set on offering up a fun thrill-ride experience.

When I say that it may polarize audiences, I mean that it absolutely has. While its core fanbase may be somewhat smaller in scale, the scope of the backlash against The Predator can be considered on par with Star Wars: The Last Jedi or the 2016 Ghostbusters reboot (although the dynamics here appear much different). The top 50 user reviews on popular movie site IMDb range from moderately negative to cataclysmic rants of pure acidic hatred. You could distill the bile flying from the mouths of lifelong Predator fans and manufacture car batteries with it – that’s how bad the reaction is. This site – Terror Spective – launched during the film’s opening weekend, and given the putrid feedback from its fan community, I opted to skip it in favor of covering a different new release, Mandy. Now, having seen this, I don’t regret that decision.


Do you fear the villains in your sci-fi franchise might be getting a little stale? When in doubt, add a bigger one.

Now, that isn’t to say that The Predator is a terrible movie. The story is certainly a hot mess that doesn’t much hold up to scrutiny and makes a good argument as to how simpler can be better. A lot of things happen throughout the course of the narrative, and many of those things hinge on choices that are ill-advised, at the absolute best. The catalytic decision that sets off the ridiculous chain reaction to follow involves our not-particularly-sympathetic hero, Capt. Quinn McKenna, absconding some Predator technology from the crash site and having it packaged and mailed to himself where, through a lack of forethought, it winds up in the hands of his young autistic son. This just doesn’t hold up to the later revelation that our chief protagonist is a many-times decorated and highly respected soldier, but it is somewhat consistent with the additional reveal that he is a generally careless father – it’s a rather baffling and overly complicated setup for an action epic.

Ok – maybe it is, technically speaking, a terrible movie. Once McKenna and his band of military psychiatric patients roll into his hometown, they are able to procure weapons, vehicles, and even a helicopter – all without attention or confrontation with law enforcement as they blast their way from location to location on Halloween night. That’s just a representation of one of many grand suspensions of disbelief or gaping plot inconsistencies that exist within The Predator. I totally get that this is both an homage and send-up of the uproariously impossible action set pieces of the 1980’s, but many of the classics from that lot kept their stories simple. This movie, in relation, has a narrative that is akin to rolling down a hill in a barrel. There’s more concerns to be had as well, including lines of dialogue that fall like lead weights, some flimsy-looking CGI, and characters that don’t particularly contribute much to the final outcome. Those last two points might be, or likely are, the result of a third act that was quickly thrown together and re-shot shortly before release as both studio executives and test audiences apparently loathed the original climax.

CREATOR: gd-jpeg v1.0 (using IJG JPEG v62), quality = 82

The film that dares to answer the question “Do the Predators have doggos, and if so, are they good boys?” The answer would be ‘Yes’ to both.

That’s a lot of baggage for one movie to overcome – especially a high-profile sequel eight years in the waiting – but it’s not a total loss. The Predator makes for a fantastic pizza-and-beer flick to be watched with friends, where no one’s full attention is being demanded and everybody can just revel in the absurdity of it all. There are some genuinely fun action sequences to be enjoyed and intentional humor to be laughed at throughout, and I admit that it was at least fun to watch – there just wasn’t much pleasure to be had in thinking about it afterward.

So, the fan community went up in arms over this iteration of the Predator mythos, and for the most part, I understand it. It’s hardly ‘the worst movie ever’, a pejorative that’s thrown around with such frequency that it doesn’t mean anything anymore, but it’s in the running for being the least of the franchise. I’m including the 2 Alien Vs. Predator films in that assessment, because without them, there would be no debate. I don’t regret watching it or shelling out the money for a mere rental, but would not have felt the same way about paying for IMAX after months of eagerly anticipating the new entry of one of my favorite series. Now, after disappointing at the box office too, it will likely be years more before the fearsome extraterrestrial stalkers return to the screen.

The Predator gets a rating of



Red Christmas

By Jason Sawyer – Dec. 21, 2018

Released Oct. 17, 2017
Unrated (equal to rated NC-17 for graphic violence & gore, strong thematic content, language, and brief nudity) – 1hr 22min
Directed by Craig Anderson
Starring Dee Wallace, Geoff Morrell, Janis McGavin, Gerard O’Dwyer

Diane (Wallace) has gathered her bickering and quarrelsome family together for Christmas when an unexpected and previously unknown relative arrives at the front door. Disbelieved, rejected, and literally thrown out the front door, the spurned man opts to seek revenge, besieging the home in a blood-soaked night of terror.

Red Christmas is a cold sober serious Grand Guignol drama that tackles extremely heavy themes and uncomfortable subjects while also being a schlocky splatter fest that approaches its chosen material with tongue planted firmly in cheek. Yes, those are indeed two opposite things.

The opening line of Red Christmas is ‘Abortion is a huge issue on both sides.’ The film then proceeds to depict the bombing of an abortion clinic, with the culprit successfully escaping, but not before rescuing a still-living fetus in a biohazard bucket from a procedure interrupted by his deed. The opening credits then show in montage the surviving child enduring a physically abusive and religiously pious upbringing by his savior, the theocratic terrorist. If the movie has said anything loudly and clearly at this point, it’s that it isn’t here to mess around.

That’s why it’s so baffling when Red Christmas does, in fact, choose to mess around. For starters, the name of the tragic antagonist of the film is Cletus. Cletus the Fetus. As a joke, it’s about as subtle as a brick to the head. In appearance, he shambles around in an almost comical fashion, adorned in a black cloak and hastily wrapped bandages that makes one wonder how he’s even able to see, let alone be capable of stealthy attack – honestly, he seems much better suited as a character conceived for an edgy sketch show that traffics in tasteless humor. As a crescendo to the utter ridiculousness surrounding this villain, his big reveal has him resembling a certain cartoon chihuahua from a popular ’90s Nickelodeon show. Cletus would be a perfect match for the unapologetic take-no-prisoners irreverence of the Troma catalogue – that is, if it wasn’t for the rest of the film surrounding him.



There’s a vastly different and diametrically opposed set of dynamics at play throughout Red Christmas whereupon Cletus once more becomes a clumsy intruder. Before his arrival, it is a very straight-laced, if maybe somewhat quirky, portrayal of a dysfunctional family struggling to come to grips with the widowed mother’s decision to sell the home that the now-adult children grew up in. Afterward, when dealing with the aftermath of each murderous attack, it is a high-caliber tragedy, highlighting the trauma of each progressive death while posing troubling and thought-provoking questions about abortion, religion, mental disability, personal responsibility, and parenthood and not pretending as if any of them have clean and simple answers. Make no mistake – at the times when this film hits its stride, it’s uncomfortably powerful and powerfully uncomfortable – that is, until Cletus comes bumbling back into the picture, which generally serves to suck the life out of the room (oh shit – did I just make a pun?)


Maybe if you lie down and prop your feet up on something, that’ll help stop the bleeding. Trust me – I earned a first aid merit badge when I was a kid.

Like many low budget efforts, the acting tends to be uneven, but it needs to be said that Dee Wallace straight up delivers a tour de force here that frankly deserved a better – or at least, more consistent – movie in which to shine. She provides Diane with a fascinating complexity – a woman who truly has given much for her family, only to be second-guessed, guilted, and then ultimately subjected to the cruelest of emotional gauntlets, all for decisions that dare to take her needs into consideration for once. She portrays a true mom – a sweet and nurturing soul who hides a fierce warrior just beneath the surface who’s frankly had enough bullshit for one lifetime. She undergoes a metamorphosis each time one of her children are taken by the one she never wanted, ranging from shock, inner strength, despair, and ultimately, pure animalistic rage. Honestly, it’s a pretty amazing performance and I must admit that I forgot what she was capable of.

She’s not alone in this regard either. Gerard O’Dwyer as Jerry is something of a revelation. Early in the proceedings, as the adult son with Down syndrome – whereas O’Dwyer likewise has the condition – Jerry enjoys reciting Shakespeare and has to intervene as mediator into his sisters Ginny and Suzy’s bitterly nasty arguments. Later, however, once the bloody chaos has begun, he is thrust into an existential crisis by some upsetting information that causes him to question everything he has known, and O’Dwyer brings such charm and gravitas to the role, his scenes tend to pack the most dramatic punch. Again, like with Wallace, his is a performance that deserved a more esteemed platform – one where absurd wackiness didn’t keep obliterating the atmosphere.


This is hardly the only questionable decision made throughout Red Christmas.

Now, despite all my slams against the peanut-butter-and-tuna-fish-sandwich tone that permeates Red Christmas, that is not to call writer/director Craig Anderson’s debut effort a failure. His first feature does include some inspired performances, stylish vision, and undoubtedly bold storytelling. I particularly enjoyed the use of Christmas lighting to produce an Argento-esque ambiance to many of the later scenes. It also occurred to me that many of the uproariously gory death sequences in his film carry with them a grueling subtext, in that they resemble numerous different abortion techniques. Now, it’s a whole other discussion as to how prevalent any of these more distressingly gruesome practices actually are – or whether they are still in use, or what context in which they are used, or to what extent the entire subject might be distorted by propaganda – but the sheer audacity on display in presenting a film where a man who survived an attempted abortion kills his mother’s family, one by one, incidentally using the very techniques of the procedure he improbably survived is absolutely jawdropping, or at least it would be if played straight.

To think of the movie that could have been if only the role of the antagonist had been approached with more grounded dignity as opposed to so much cartoonish goofiness – it speaks to a profound amount of potential that Anderson has as both a horror director and screenwriter. I hope he follows this up with something that is equally provocative, but does not offer any easy outs by allowing the audience to chuckle away the discomfort and tension so readily. This could have been an acutely powerful horror film that, without equivocation, confronted both sides of an extremely divisive social debate. Instead, it’s a hot mess that still succeeds in being challenging and outrageous, if not always in the manner that it seems to intend.

Red Christmas gets a rating of




By Jason Sawyer – Dec. 19, 2018

Released Dec. 7, 2018
TV-MA – 1hr 23min
Directed by Nacho Vigalondo
Starring Nyasha Hatendi, Latarsha Rose, Jon Daly, Dale Dickey

Struggling actor Wilson (Hatendi) takes a job as the corporate mascot for the year’s most wanted Christmas toy – Pooka. As the holiday season stretches on, he begins to lose himself in the role, until it becomes difficult to tell whether he is Pooka…or Pooka is him.

Pooka! is a clever and atmospheric reality-bender that details a man’s descent into madness as he loses control over his life while his worst tendencies are poured into the toy character he portrays. By design, it grows increasingly difficult to tell when things occurred or if they even happened, yet all the disjointed elements begin to converge neatly upon its conclusion.

Pooka! is not actually a standalone film, but the third monthly episode of Hulu & Blumhouse’s ongoing anthology series Into the Dark, which is a collection of unrelated feature-length films…? I understand that The Twilight Zone, Tales from the Crypt, and Masters of Horror – among similar anthology shows – also had unconnected episodes, but none of them could have existed independently in their finished forms as full movies like these installments could. Into the Dark is bound together though by the thinnest of premises, in that each film is released at the time of year to which its plot coincides, but that now means that each one will likely be compared to the proceeding chapters, no matter how irrelevant the connection. I prefer to judge this on its own merits, so from here on, I’m going to act as if the series concept doesn’t even exist.


“Yeah, sure – we can sell these to kids. Those little idiots buy whatever – it doesn’t matter. Lunch?”

With that out of the way, it’s time to talk Pooka! It can be quite difficult to manufacture an iconic character, and that endeavor might be the common thread between horror creators and toymakers. It takes the right blend of appearance, presence, presentation, and premise to make something that’s both instantly attention-grabbing and truly memorable. Would Freddy Kruger be so noteworthy without Robert Englund’s performance or his bladed glove? Jason Voorhees didn’t really hit his stride until stumbling upon his trademark hockey mask in his franchise’s third entry. So, does Pooka capture that kind of magic? For the most part, yes.

Like a toy at the center of a horror story should, Pooka possesses that prime middle ground between adorable and grotesque – cute and cuddly, but with big dead headlamp eyes. In miniature, it resembles the unintentionally creepy Furby, with its soul-piercing stare and illusion of sentience, but blown up to mascot-size, it acquires the looming menace of something like Freddy Fazbear from the Five Nights at Freddy’s games. You could guess at a glance that this uncanny monstrosity would be primed to steal the show, and while it does fill the antagonist role nicely, all the other elements of Pooka! round out the movie into an experience beyond a simple killer toy.

Director Nacho Vigalondo doesn’t have the deepest filmography – Colossal, Timecrimes, Open Windows, and his Oscar-nominated short film 7:35 in the Morning are the standouts in a 20-year career short on feature-length efforts – but he has developed a reputation for playing with the narrative constructs of time and place in a satisfyingly bewildering manner that he only builds upon with Pooka! Protagonist Wilson often finds himself disjointed out of sequence between what he’s doing and where he is versus the things he does while inhabiting the increasingly malevolent being of Pooka, to the extent that he begins to have actual confrontations with the destructive beast, until they are finally no longer one and the same. It’s an enthralling thing to watch, and Vigalondo elevates the material through his craft. Working on a limited budget, he conveys all this mind-bending and reality-warping through classical techniques of unnatural lighting, creative framing, and use of non-Euclidian geometry, and it makes for a stylishly standout film.


*rolls up newspaper* Now that’s a bad Pooka! Bad! *hits with newspaper, loses arm*

That would count for far less if not for the acting, and Nyasha Hatendi really nails it as a man coming unglued just as his life is coming together. Even in his calm moments, there’s a maelstrom of volatile and potentially destructive emotions that exist just beneath the veneer of Wilson, and Hatendi balances these elements just right to keep him sympathetic yet unnerving throughout. There’s just no telling what he might be capable of as he spills more of his dark side into the looming body of Pooka, and that generates the suspense that carries the film. The supporting roles are not to be overlooked either, as they convincingly form the rest of the narrative world that Wilson seems positioned to shatter – Latarsha Rose standing out as the woman unfortunate enough to catch Wilson’s eye just before his head-first plummet into madness.

If anything disappoints, Pooka! could have used more money to truly refine the movie further. At times, it looks like it was shot for the small screen when it had numerous big screen moments to share. Whether it could have made any money as a theatrical release, I couldn’t say with certainty – it would have definitely been a risk – but it might have been a risk worth taking. With more budget, a longer shooting schedule, and better filming equipment, Pooka would have only gotten better. As it stands, it feels more like a modern, feature-length, classic episode of Tales from the Darkside, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

Pooka! gets a rating of




By Jason Sawyer – Dec. 17, 2018

Released Dec. 18, 2011
Language: Dutch
Unrated (equal to rated R for graphic violence, language, and brief nudity) – 1hr 25min
Directed by Dick Maas
Starring Egbert Jan Weeber, Caro Lenssen, Bert Luppes

Saint Nicholas was actually an evil guy, and was finally taken down by angry villagers who had enough of him and his gang’s rampaging. So, every time a full moon falls on the eve of the feast of St. Nicholas – December 5th – he and his murderous ruffians, the Black Peters, return from the grave to go on a killing frenzy.

While it’s not quite splatterstick – the distinct brand of deliriously sick displays of absurd violence best represented by Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead 2 and Peter Jackson’s Braindead (Dead Alive), Saint is not far off. It balances its goofy charm with an alternately serious approach that generally works. Yet, it’s important to note that this is an unmistakably Dutch creation.

Saint was one of two European evil Santa movies released in 2010, but the American release was delayed a year, presumably not to compete for a limited market with Finland’s Rare Exports, which is almost inarguably the superior of the two movies. At a glance though, the Dutch iteration does appear the more interesting of the two, promising a blood-soaked high-energy experience with a supernatural zombie Santa cutting a swath of destruction through the streets of Amsterdam compared to the more desolate and brooding atmosphere of the Finnish film. However, that’s not entirely how it plays out.


The mall Santa took some questionable liberties with his costume this year.

When Saint does set its sickle upon action, that’s when it shines brightest. The main protagonist’s first meeting with St. Nick and his band of Yuletide slayers, who dispatch his buddies in brutal fashion before he makes a narrow escape, is a particularly stand-out scene. The highlight of the movie, which honestly makes any of its shortcomings forgivable, is a police chase of Zombie Santa as he navigates his horse (he rides horseback in Dutch tradition) along the rooftops of a city neighborhood that ends in a spectacularly unlikely manner – it truly is as awesome as it sounds. There’s several more neat moments like this throughout, and they’re satisfying when they arrive, but what’s in between leaves a lot to be desired.

First, despite nailing the look, the titular villain falls somewhat flat in screen presence. That key moment needed to really infuse his character’s moments with dread just never arrives. It could be because Saint is tonally all over the place – not comedic enough for proper parody or scary enough for effective horror, its elements only partially blend together and it’s noticeable. The pace is likewise up-and-down, as every time St. Nick and the Black Peters (which is probably the name of a rock band that played Glasgow nightclubs in the ’80s) made their escape, the movie slowed to a crawl.


“Look, I’m just the guy’s ghost horse. I consider myself blameless in all this.”

That leaves us with a bevy of underdeveloped characters – the grizzled police detective that survived Killer Santa as a child and no one believes, the handsome young bloke wrongfully arrested for the murders so that he can be in the right place at the right time to become an accidental hero, his pretty girlfriend who is pretty and his girlfriend, grizzled police detective #2, etc. – and their uninteresting goings-on. It can be a slog watching the protagonists piece together a mystery that the audience already knows in its absolute entirety, and it feels like the runtime padding that it is. One last point of contention, however, is not to be held against the movie, but could concern a prospective viewer all the same – this movie is very Dutch. Never mind that the premise itself centers upon specifically Dutch holiday traditions, there is a number of presumed jokes involving Dutch cultural references that flew so far over my head, they might qualify as being in orbit. Again, that’s not a critique of the film – American movies do this often with no consideration for international audiences, especially with comedy – but it is a component that is lost for those of us on the opposite side of the Atlantic, and likely most outside of The Netherlands in general.

In all, Saint is a fitfully fun but rather unmemorable Christmas horror flick. It’s worth a watch for anyone looking to break up the more sugary holiday offerings with some zany bloodshed, but it’s not much of a prime candidate for annual revisits. Except the rooftop chase scene – that was exceedingly cool.

Saint gets a rating of



Better Watch Out

By Jason Sawyer – Dec. 16, 2018

Released Oct. 6, 2017
Rated R – 1hr 29min
Directed by Chris Peckover
Starring Olivia DeJonge, Levi Miller, Ed Oxenbould, Virginia Madsen, Patrick Warburton

Bickering, over-protective parents Robert and Deandra (Warburton & Madsen) leave their 12-year-old son Luke (Miller) in the care of his longtime babysitter Ashley (DeJonge) as they head off to a Christmas party. The maturing lad has developed romantic feelings for the young woman, but as he awkwardly attempts to make a move, an unexpected guest makes a move of their own.

Better Watch Out is a home invasion psychological thriller with big twists to the classic formula that is, in turns, darkly comic and relentlessly sadistic. It also happens to take place during the Christmas season.

It’s now easy to see why Better Watch Out – with its high production value, novel concept, and cast of both up-and-comers and established names – would get such a low-profile release around…Halloween? Ok – that part I don’t get, but the rest of it became quite obvious. This would be an impossible movie to market. The less you know about it, the better, and it’s obviously difficult to put butts in theater seats without letting the people those butts belong to know exactly what they’re in for. Instead, it’s something meant to be stumbled upon – to be approached blindly, and as such, that also makes it difficult to present a spoiler-free review, but here it goes.

CREATOR: gd-jpeg v1.0 (using IJG JPEG v62), quality = 75

In an effort to be as spoiler-less as possible, what would have been an image from the film has been replaced by a doubtlessly miserable cat in a Santa hat.

Better Watch Out is a movie that delights in its twists, each one with darker implications than the one proceeding it, and like the earlier works of M. Night Shymalan, each one threatens to lose the viewer if they’re not willing to accept it (interesting note: this film reunites Olivia DeJonge & Ed Oxenbould, the two young leads of Shymalan’s The Visit). Whether it be from a logical bridge too far or from sheer disgust at the unexpectedly and increasingly sadistic offerings, it’s guaranteed to polarize and alienate. It’s not even particularly gory – what violence there is generally occurs off-camera or from obscured angles and aftermaths shown in the background – nor does it fixate on physical torture, with the bloodshed occurring in quick and sudden bursts. Instead, the focus is upon the mechanizations of a psychopath, who prefers to toy with minds and manipulate emotions before launching into the next insidious phase of their cruel campaign. While that particular story has been told numerous times before, there’s still plenty of surprises to be had throughout this one.


You can’t eat a Christmas tree, you adorable little idiot.

Director-cowriter Chris Peckover orchestrates all of this holiday havoc with a sure and confident approach. While not ambitiously stylish, the framing and camerawork are used creatively to capture the escalating descent into mayhem. Along with his only other feature, 2011’s Undocumented – a politically-charged ‘torture porn’ effort – it’s apparent that he specializes in highlighting realistic motivations for displays of human depravity. While the scope of Better Watch Out is the smaller of the two, it does allow for a greater examination into a dangerously troubled mind. We also get compelling performances from all the young leads, as they convincingly convey new dynamics in their characters with each progressive narrative leap.

This is, however, a Christmas movie only on a surface level. There’s lots of imagery and music therein to remind us that it is, in fact, very much Christmastime, but that fact has only the most incidental of effects on the plot. I am a member of the ‘Yes, Die Hard is a Christmas movie’ club though, so I must rule in favor of this movie’s holiday credentials. So, if you’re in the mood for a maniac movie this Yuletide season that places psychological menace over gruesome visuals and doesn’t feature a killer Santa, then this might be just what you’re looking for, provided you’re willing to go along with it. I can’t stress enough that it’s best to know as little as possible beforehand, so avoid the trailer, stay off the IMDb page, and you’ll be set.

More often than usual, results will vary wildly depending on preferences and expectations, but from me, Better Watch Out gets a rating of



Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale

By Jason Sawyer – Dec. 15, 2018

Released Dec. 3, 2010
Languages: Finnish & English
Rated R – 1hr 24min
Directed by Jalmari Helander
Starring Jorma Tommila, Onni Tommila, Peeter Jakobi

Blasting from an archaeological dig on a nearby mountain wreaks havoc on a rural village, but that’s nothing compared to the terror that has been unearthed – the real Santa Claus.

Rare Exports is a tense and creepy yet still playful subversion of folklore and Christmas tradition. This is not a satire or parody though – this is a straight-faced and legitimate depiction of Evil Santa.

Rare Exports may seem, at a glance, like just one of what are actually many ‘killer Santa’ flicks. Most are of the costumed maniac variety, originating from the ‘And All Through the House’ segment of the 1972 theatrical anthology Tales from the Crypt (which was remade as the pilot episode of the famous HBO series of the same name) and popularized by the controversial 1984 slasher Silent Night Deadly Night. A few attempts have been taken at making a horror villain of jolly ol’ Kris Kringle himself, but have generally been of the shlocky type, like 2005’s Santa’s Slay (with WWE wrestler Goldberg donning the red suit) or Dutch film Saint, also from 2010. This movie takes an ambitiously atmospheric approach to its portrayal of the pseudo-immortal omnipresent judgmental voyeur, who always sees when you’re sleeping and knows when you’re awake, and succeeds in its re-imagination of him as forboding antagonist.


The typical killer Santa. (from the HBO Tales from the Crypt episode ‘And All Through the House’)

The film plays out in three tonally distinct parts while still remaining consistent and coherent, which can be a tough presentation to execute. The first act puts the premise out there front and center, wisely avoiding any wasted effort to shoehorn mystery into the proceedings – we’re know we’re here for Evil Santa, so why mess around? We see the cold and tough existence of our protagonists – residents of a tundra village on the Finnish-Russian border that ekes out a living by culling and processing reindeer. While they’re the rugged survivalist types, they still find time to string up Christmas lights and bake gingerbreads, albeit quite joylessly. The tone takes a darker shift in the second act, as Santa Claus comes to town, portrayed with mute animalistic menace by Peeter Jakobi. Yet, Rare Exports can’t keep a straight face all the way through, but instead of descending into farce, it cooks up an absolutely bonkers action-movie climax, as it’s revealed that things aren’t really what they seem – they’re far worse.


All he wants for Christmas is your two front teeth. And the rest of your face too. And likely, the meat off your bones.

It can be a challenge to effectively present something so obviously ridiculous in a conceivably matter-of-fact way, and much of the credit goes to writer/director Jalmari Helander for a creative script and adeptly managing the absurd elements of the story into a satisfying narrative that never plays its proverbial hand too soon. It’s helped along by the father-son duo at the center of the film, real-life father and son Jorma and Onni Tommila. Their genuine connection and natural interaction provides a lot of what keeps the movie grounded, until it’s free to fly gloriously off the rails in a fun and enjoyable way.

Rare Exports has already earned a special place in the very niche and somewhat crowded subgenre of Christmas horror, set apart by both its more realistic tone and rather spectacular WTF finale. Yet, it’s still somewhat overlooked and underrated. It’s not a particularly dialogue-heavy film, so no need to be too put off by the subtitles – this deserves to be a perennial holiday favorite of horror fans everywhere.

On account of that Christmas-themed things have a tendency to become tradition, Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale gets a rating of




2018 – YEAR IN RETROSPECT review
Released Feb. 23, 2018
Rated R – 1hr 55min
Directed by Alex Garland
Starring Natalie Portman, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tessa Thompson, Oscar Issac

Lena (Portman) is a renowned cellular biologist who volunteers for a dangerous expedition into an anomalous region known as ‘The Shimmer’, a place that no longer abides by the understood laws of nature for reasons unknown.

Annihilation is a very brainy, somewhat abstract, and generally slowburn effort for what is commonly a setup for slam-bang sci-fi/action. While not a rip-roaring ride, by any means, the focus on the characters and how they relate to the premise does allow for moments of genuine horror to shine through, where they may have otherwise been muted.

With its A-list cast, $50M+ budget, and a concept suited for a high-octane experience, it comes then as a profound surprise just how strange, deep, and dark Annihilation actually is. Not satisfied with presenting much, if anything, at face value, the film builds a bewildering labyrinth of themes, questions, and ideas – all with little interest in offering a hand to the audience to help guide them through it. These types of experiences emerge rather frequently from the indie world, but to get it from a Hollywood endeavor is honestly shocking.


“Well, this is a very unique piece. I wonder what the artist was trying to say with the…oh, this was a person.”

That’s probably for good reason though, as Annihilation has proven to alienate numerous fans of both sci-fi and horror with its intellectual ambitions, dreamlike narrative, and challenging plot. This is the kind of expensive auteur effort that gives studio executives cold sweats and nightmares, with visions of red ink plaguing their sleep. Perhaps that’s not irrational, as the film likely lost a decent bundle of money in its theatrical run, but that’s hardly the same as being a bad movie.

CREATOR: gd-jpeg v1.0 (using IJG JPEG v80), quality = 80

This does not appear to be the sort of bear that will be appeased with a mere picnic basket.

That’s because Annihilation is exceptionally well-made. The cinematography and use of SFX make for visuals that are stunning, haunting, or horrific – depending on what the situation demands – that give The Shimmer a true sense of place, which is vital for a story such as this, where the setting is essentially its own character. The actual characters themselves are quite dour and mostly business-like regarding their quest into the mysterious zone, but each have complex reasons for taking upon a veritable suicide mission, and those reasons are far deeper than mere scientific curiosity. It gives much of the film a mournful tone akin to a funeral march – not necessarily fun, but certainly fascinating to watch. These intricate characters are given solid portrayals throughout, as should be expected from a cast of this caliber. At this point, Natalie Portman can effortlessly carry a movie on her shoulders, giving supporting roles more room to breathe and develop. All of this provides an atmosphere where, when the horror elements do appear, they hit with rightful impact.


Annihilation is very likely the most visually spell-binding horror film of the year (rivaled only by Mandy).

That isn’t to say, however, that Annihilation is an enjoyable ride. If the movie were a person walking down a hallway, it would open the door to every room it passed, barely glancing inside before moving on to the next. It’s important to know before watching that it’s a thoroughly cerebral experience with occasional outbreaks of excitement and expectations should be tempered accordingly. It does maintain a sense of tension and growing dread as it proceeds, so that’s not to say that it’s dull. Writer/director Alex Garland, with his second effort behind the camera after modern sci-fi classic Ex Machina, has crafted a film that is unquestionably memorable and mesmerizing. I wouldn’t consider it fulfilling though, but that doesn’t appear to have been one of its objectives.

Annihilation gets a rating of