High Tension [2003]

This one was quite the roller coaster ride, for reasons both good and bad.

I remember hearing mostly good things about Alexandre Aja’s French thriller/horror movie High Tension when it was released in the US in 2005. I didn’t know much about it, but the title and the image on the poster of a young woman with a power saw always stuck in my brain, so when I stumbled across it on Amazon Prime, I decided to jump in.

The movie starts innocently enough, as almost all slasher type movies do, with a pair of friends, Alex and Marie, driving to the French countryside to visit Alex’s family for a long weekend. Once they’re almost to their destination, we’re introduced to the film’s antagonist. We can tell he’s a bad guy because we see him fellating himself with a severed head, which he disposes of when he’s finished by tossing out the window of his dilapidated truck. Still with me? If you are, there’s a good chance you’ll enjoy at least 90% of this movie.

As the title suggests, there is plenty of tension to go around, with nail-biting scene after scene. The bad man follows the girls to Alex’s house and kills her parents and little brother, and kidnaps Alex. Marie avoids detection, but ends up in the killer’s truck with Marie, determined to save her. I enjoyed this part of the movie thoroughly, until…the twist ending ruined it.

Doing a little research before writing this, I found out that High Tension largely plagiarizes the Dean Koontz novel (which was also adapted into a TV movie) Intensity—a point director Aja practically admitted in an interview around the time of the film’s release. For Koontz’s part, he put out a statement advising he was aware of the comparison but would not sue “because he found the film so puerile, so disgusting, and so intellectually bankrupt that he didn’t want the association with it that would inevitably come if he pursued an action against the filmmaker.”

As you can tell from the above quote, the level of violence (and graphic violence at that) is quite high. I would assume most people would not be phased by that if they’re wanting to watch a slasher-style movie, but just in case, take that info and do with it what you will.

Now, back to that twist ending. Jesus, what a way to crap all over the largely good film you’ve put down up to that point. In reading on the internet, I did encounter a few people who actually liked and appreciated the twist, but I (and the majority of people, apparently) found it utterly ridiculous. It was completely unnecessary, and part of me wonders if they did it just to avoid having the film be even more similar to Koontz’s novel.

Is it so bad that it makes the movie not worth watching? That depends on you. If you’re a slasher fan, I would probably still recommend checking it out, if you don’t mind a bit of a let down at the end. Still, with some of the duds I’ve watched so far this month, this is in the top two or three, although I suppose that’s not really saying much.

Await Further Instructions [2018]

While I’ve never claimed to be a huge fan of Sci-Fi, there are always exceptions, especially when it crosses genres and blends with one of my favorites, horror.

I knew virtually nothing about Await Further Instructions when I stumbled across it on Netflix. The description seemed vaguely ominous—it sounded like some sort of low budget take on the Saw franchise. It turned out to be something much different altogether. As with all movies (and horror movies in particular), your mileage may vary, so once you’ve read my write up be sure to set your standards accordingly.

Await Further Instructions begins with British Nick and his Indian girlfriend Annji coming to Nick’s family home to visit over the Christmas holiday. We get to meet, in quick succession, Nick’s somewhat racist and quite pregnant sister Kate and her doofus baby daddy Scott, his downright batty mother Beth, lifelong military man and ultra-authoritarian dad Tony, and not-as-senile-as-he-appears, very racist grandpa.

None of the characters are fully developed—they seem more like caricatures than actual characters. Luckily, the plot moves along quickly enough that we don’t spend too much time on their thinly veiled racist comments to Annji, or the bad blood between Tony and Nick that led to Nick not coming home to visit for a few years. Soon enough, we are treated to the meat of the story, which to my surprise turned out to be more Twilight Zone (or, perhaps more accurately, weak Black Mirror) than Saw.

Nick and Annji decide to go back home early one morning, and discover they can’t. The front door—and as they soon discover, the entire house—is covered with…well, something, that is blocking anyone from getting into or out of the house. Not long after their discovery, the television goes black and displays the following message:

This is where the fun, and best part of the movie, begins. The family argue and hypothesize about who could be sending the message, then argue more as the messages change and become more and more outlandish as time goes on. The pacing is good, keeping things moving before it gets too redundant, and despite the lack of depth of the characters, some of the scenarios that play out seem painfully realistic.

That is, until, the final act.

I won’t spoil anything, other than to say the climax is when things go full bore Sci-Fi, and the actual premise behind it is not bad—the real problem is that the ideas behind it exceed the movie’s apparent special effects budget. What could’ve worked with a bigger budget instead comes off as cartoony and lame. The climax isn’t totally ruined, and I kind of liked the closing shots, but my enjoyment definitely dipped during the film’s last 15-20 minutes.

Like some of my other picks so far this month, you could do worse than Await Further Instructions, but you could also do better.

The Basement [2018]

‘A serial killer with multiple personalities kidnaps and tortures a poor hapless soul’ sounds like a decent premise for a horror movie, doesn’t it? You’d think so, if you haven’t seen The Basement, now on Netflix.

This poster and all the promotional material is misleading. Mischa Barton is not one of the leads in this movie.

The less said about this one the better, honestly. I finished it without skipping ahead, which is more than I can say for In the Tall Grass, but that’s not a very high bar.

The story is derivative, the acting is weak, the plot twist at the end is kind of lame, and the writing is borderline awful. Most of the serial killer/victim interactions feel like a second rate episode of Criminal Minds.

There are a couple scenes of cringey gore if you’re into that, and the actor who plays The Gemini Killer gives a decent performance(s), considering how ridiculous some of the scenarios are. My guess is that this movie may have gotten made solely because they landed a name actress (Mischa Barton) for one of the roles.

You could do worse than The Basement, but lord knows you could do better. This will be the last horror movie I watch for a few days, here’s hoping my picks for next week fare a little better.

In the Tall Grass [Netflix, 2019]

Unless you happen to be stumbling across this blog for the first time (and if you are, welcome!), you know how I revere Stephen King. I’ve written before about how much of his earlier work shaped me into the rather odd duck I am today. To this day I regret not going to the reading he did here in Wichita a few years ago. He is one of the only people I can think of that would leave me utterly starstruck.

Still, he’s not perfect. Any prolific artist is bound to have some misfires—he’s cranked out some notoriously bad books in his career. There’s also been a longstanding problem with filmmakers adapting his work in a way that works. Many directors can’t seem to figure out how to make a King story translate from the page to the screen (Frank Darabont and Mike Flanagan being the notable exceptions). So, with that said, and as someone who hasn’t read the Stephen King/Joe Hill co-written novella upon which it’s based, it’s hard to know why Netflix’s new film adaptation of In the Tall Grass doesn’t work—whether it’s merely another poor adaptation of the master’s work or it was based on subpar source material and therefore doomed from the start. One thing is for sure, though: In the Tall Grass doesn’t work.

The premise sounds silly on its face: a horror story about some sort of malevolent grass that traps people with no hope for escape. Throw in some bizarre time travel aspects and an all-knowing, all-seeing rock, and it all sounds absolutely ludicrous. But here’s the funny part—for the first thirty minutes or so, it’s actually pretty compelling.

I was completely on board as siblings Cal and Becky stopped on their trek to San Diego so the expecting Becky could puke on the side of the road. Soon after, they hear a boy in the roadside field of tall grass calling for help. He tells them he’s lost and asks if they can help him. The pair decide to help, and enter the grass to their (obvious to us) peril. Things quickly grow confusing as the pair get separated and can’t seem to find each other no matter what they do. The confusion grows as the boy’s mother is heard yelling at him to stop asking for help, and dead animals are found among the grass. Becky ends up encountering the boy’s father, then things begin to go a little sideways.

I won’t spoil anything in case anyone wants to actually give the movie a shot, but In the Tall Grass goes from sixty to zero alarmingly fast. In the span of maybe 20 minutes, I went from fully engaged to completely uninterested. I started checking my phone, leaving the room without pausing it, and then I did something I almost never do: with about 25 minutes left in the movie, I started fast-forwarding to just get the godforsaken movie over with. I was invested enough to want to know how it ended, but not invested enough to actually watch it to find out.

The highlight of the movie is Patrick Wilson’s (The Conjuring) performance as Ross, the father who may or may not be who he seems. He gives it his all, but he can’t save this dud. If you’ve read the book and are genuinely curious I can understand wanting to check it out, but there are far better scary movies out there to be checking out this October, so my advice is to skip it and don’t waste your precious time.

Hell House LLC. [2015]

As I did last October, I’m trying to immerse myself in as many horror movies as humanly possible before Halloween. Last year, I condensed all my mini-reviews into one post around the 31st, but that seemed counter intuitive since it would leave less time for anyone wanting to check the movies out before All Hallow’s Eve to actually see them. So now, I’m going to shoot out an individual review for each movie I watch—that way if I gush about something or you’re curious about one, you can check it out with plenty of time to get in the spooky spirit!

Kicking things off for me this month is Hell House LLC, currently on Amazon Prime.

To say I was skeptical about this one is putting it mildly, because a) it’s a ‘found footage’ horror movie in the spirit of The Blair Witch Project, and b) that cornball title. Luckily, this turned out to be a pleasant surprise.

A group of (mostly) friends who have been running a haunted house for the past few years move locations, finding an abandoned hotel for the new year. Of course, the hotel has some secrets…

As the friends go about setting up the haunted house, odd things start to happen—things being moved, strange noises, etc. The friends begin blaming each other, one goes missing, one refuses to call it all off, and on opening night disaster ensues.

The story is told as a documentary after the fact. A film crew goes through YouTube videos and interviews people who were there the night of the disaster, trying to figure out exactly what happened. Then, as luck would have it, a member of the crew shows up and provides them with film that had been hidden so as not to be confiscated by police.

The film does an excellent job of getting creative to provide scares and a big creep factor despite it’s obviously low budget. They use pretty much the standard haunted house fare (masks, creepy clowns and the like) to escalate the tension, and the acting, while not great, is just good enough to sell it.

While definitely not a masterpiece, Hell House LLC is way better than I expected, and better than it really has any right to be. A perfect movie to get you in the mood for Halloween.

The Legend of Cocaine Island (Netflix, 2019)

“If you knew where two million dollars was buried in the ground, would you dig the shit up? Fuck yeah I would, I did it one time.”

So begins the Netflix documentary The Legend of Cocaine Island, a wild, screwball tale of desperation, greed, and foolishness that’s almost too outlandish to believe.

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It all begins with a barefoot hippie named Julian and some sea turtles in Puerto Rico. Walking the beach one day looking for signs of the turtles he was helping his wife research, Julian found a waterproof rubber case drifting toward the beach. Hoping it was full of weed, Julian hid it and came back to it later, taking it home and throwing the case open to reveal something a bit stronger: about 18 bales of cocaine, nicely wrapped and organized, clearly lost on its way to a major drug deal. Paranoid and unsure what to do with the stuff (turning it over to the corrupt police of Puerto Rico seemed out of the question), Julian ended up burying the case out by the trailer where he was living off the coast, where it still sat to that day, just waiting for someone to come dig it up and become an instant millionaire.

Or, at least that was the story he told, over and over again, more than a decade later, to his friends and neighbors when they would convene around a campfire and consume large amounts of alcohol. It was a great story, and for the longest time that’s all it ever was—a great story to tell around a fire.

Enter Rodney Hyden.

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Initially a very successful contractor with eighty employees, the 2008 recession hit Rodney and his company hard, to the point of having to liquidate many of his assets to get by, and moving from his large home to a trailer park in the middle of nowhere—coincidentally into the same trailer park where a friendly old hippie named Julian lived.

Rodney enjoyed hearing Julian’s well-rehearsed tale of the buried cocaine, and never thought of it as anything but a story, until the friend of an employee approached Rodney with an offer to help him retrieve the cocaine.

Still down on his luck and unsure when his business would get back on its feet, Rodney found himself over time actually considering the notion of trying to find the buried treasure and providing for his family. Finally he decides to see it through, and—well, that’s where things go off the rails.

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Without giving too much away, the story involves a really quirky cast of characters, and development after development that leave you scratching your head, wondering how on earth people could be so naive.

Make no mistake, as a pure documentary, it’s not exactly award-winning filmmaking. There are cheesy re-enactments with over the top facial expressions, and music that helps reinforce just how absurd the whole thing is. Still, it’s a nice break from the rest of the true crime docs on Netflix (most of which revolve around murder and serial killers), and the 85 minute runtime goes by quickly. As for Rodney Hyden, he ended up with a whopper story of his own that will out do Julian’s any day, one that he’ll probably tell for years to come with his neighbors around the campfire.

October Horror Roundup

Some years it seems October passes me by before I realize it, and I find myself staring November 1st in the face with the startling realization that I neglected to watch any horror to get myself into the Halloween spirit. Granted, horror can (and should) be enjoyed all year long, but taking in some spooky stuff while the decorations are out is extra special.

This year I made it a point to not let one of my favorite holidays (shout out to Christmas) pass me by. I’ve been able to check out a handful of horror I hadn’t seen before, and it’s been wonderful. I tried to cover as much of the horror spectrum as I could, from over-the-top-bonkers gore spectaculars to more traditional creepfests. I lucked out in that none of it was especially bad, and some of it was incredibly good. So if you need a kick in the pants to rev up your Halloween spirit or want something scary to watch in the dark on All Hallow’s Eve, here’s a quick roundup of what I’ve seen so far this month. (All available on Netflix)

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Terrifier (2017) 

Terrifier is all about expectations. If you’re looking for subtle, nuanced fright, look elsewhere—subtlety is not to be found in this throwback to 80’s slasher flicks. Some have criticized the film for its derivative, paper-thin plot, but honestly, this film lets you know what you’re in for within the first five minutes. When you see a character’s eyeballs popped in their sockets, you should adjust your expectations accordingly.

Featuring a sadistic killer clown out on the town for a maniacal killing spree, the kills in Terrifier are straight up gnarly: decapitations, dismemberments, and one scene so shocking (featuring the world’s sharpest hacksaw) that it even got raised eyebrows from this gourmet of gore. There’s a degree of detachment to most of the violence thanks to its less-than-realistic effects work, which only serves to add to the campiness and pitch black comedy.

Bottom Line: If you’re into crazy, over the top gore and not looking to set the bar too high, this will be right up your alley.

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The Ritual (2017)

Based on the novel by Adam Nevill, The Ritual is very Blair Witch-esque, featuring some lost hikers in the hills of Scandinavia and a (seemingly) supernatural entity haunting them at their every turn. The film does a great job of mixing physical scares with psychological terror, and there’s a nice element of surrealism to keep you wondering exactly what the hell you’re watching.

Without getting into spoilers, once the men see the thing in the forest they have been running from, it’s one of the best reveals I can remember in a long time. A truly WTF climax, with about as satisfying an ending as a movie of this type can deliver. This one definitely surpassed my expectations.

Bottom Line: A nice take on a familiar story, well written and well executed.

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The Haunting of Hill House (2018) 

There’s not a lot about this 10-part series that hasn’t already been said. It’s probably the most buzzed-about thing Netflix has had since diving into original programming, and if you haven’t already seen it you might be wondering how something so critically lauded can possibly live up to the hype. All I can tell you is that it does, in spades.

Nearly every frame of Hill House’s ten hours is filled with a palpable sense of dread. You never know what’s going to happen at any given moment, and just when you think you’re safe something will catch you off guard. All of this done with very few jump scares (and excellent timing of the ones they do use), and practically no blood or gore.

The ending has been roundly criticized, but that is truly a nit being picked by people who should appreciate being given a piece of work this exceptional. When the worst thing people can say about a ten-part saga is that it’s not absolutely perfect, you know you’ve got something special.

Bottom Line: Believe the hype. A definite must watch.

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Oculus (2014)

In what turned out to be a double shot from director Mike Flanagan, Oculus has a few things in common with The Haunting of Hill House—namely how ghosts haunt and ultimately screw up an otherwise happy family, and some reverse storytelling to gradually reveal what really unfolded. Initially revealing a young boy killing his father after a dastardly bout of domestic violence, the film makes use of flashbacks to fill in the missing details, and show us how the adults were manipulated by a haunted mirror that had come into the family’s possession. (That sounds corny as I type it out, but it actually works in the movie, trust me.)

Now grown, the children are determined to document exactly what powers the mirror possesses before ultimately destroying it—but of course the mirror won’t go down that easily. The ending is quite satisfying, although a major part of the climax will be obvious to anyone who’s got even a basic knack for spotting foreshadowing.

Bottom Line: Not great but by no means bad, Oculus proves Hill House was no fluke for Flanagan.

***NOTE: Oculus is only available on Netflix until Nov. 1st, hurry if you want to see it.

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Tales of Halloween (2015)

In the mood for a string of campy mini B movies with gore galore and enough cheese to make fondue? Friend, meet Tales of Halloween. Made up of ten horror comedy shorts from various writers and directors, Adrienne Barbeau of Creepshow fame plays a local DJ who serves to string the tales together in a style reminiscent of old HBO favorite Tales From the Crypt.

The shorts run the gamut from amusing to decent to bad; a couple of them border on good, and some stink outright. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter—the stories are so short that the next one is on before you can complain about the last one. Gallows humor and corny comedic violence abound, making the fact that the content is not exactly top notch easier to swallow. Another reason to sit through it is the plethora of cameos, including horror directors John Landis and Mick Garris, The Rocky Horror Picture Show’s Barry Bostwick, Greg Grunberg of TV’s Alias and Heroes fame, and one of my all-time favorite comedians (and former writer on The Simpsons), Dana Gould.

Bottom Line: Worth watching if you are in the mood for total silliness but still want gore and violence. Willing to bet it would be 100% better with alcohol.

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Apostle (2018)

Quite different than the other ones I’ve mentioned, Apostle is a period piece set on a remote Welsh island in 1905. Our protagonist Thomas Richardson’s sister has been kidnapped by a religious cult, and is demanding ransom for her release. Traveling to the island amid followers and infiltrating the cult, Thomas sets out to find his sister and rescue her from the clutches of the madman ‘prophet’ and his disciples. Of course, there is much more to the story which it’s better not to know going in. Suffice to say, belonging to the cult involves bloodletting, and there’s a wicked bit of medieval torture involving a device called The Heathen’s Stand.

Apostle is a slow burn compared to much of the contemporary horror put out nowadays—it’s almost like a mashup of The Wicker Man and The VVitch. The dialogue and many of the finer points of the script are a bit slow, but the chills and violence more than make up for it.

Bottom Line: Could be better, could’ve been a lot worse. It’s easily good enough to stick with it until the very cool ending.

Well, there you have it! Let me know f you end up watching something I mentioned above, and don’t hesitate to let me know of any good horror you’ve seen recently that you’d recommend to close out October!

Happy Halloween, people!