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.

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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.

Movie Review: Brawl in Cell Block 99 [2017]

I’ve long contended that many comedians (or at least comic actors, if not stand ups) have the potential to be outstanding dramatic actors. Once seen as an unusual casting choice, comic actors have repeatedly proven their chops in dramatic roles, from Robin Williams and Will Smith to Will Ferrell and even Adam Sandler. I still stand by my theory that Dave Chappelle has at least one (possibly mutltiple) award-winning dramatic performance in him—that is, if he wants to do it, or if the right director can convince him to step up to the plate.

The latest actor stepping out of his comedic comfort zone is Vince Vaughn. Since his breakout role in 1996’s Swingers, Vaughan has found success almost exclusively with parts in comedies like Old School, Starsky and Hutch, Wedding Crashers, and Dodgeball. He’s shown a yearning to “go legit” in dramas for years, most notably starring as Norman Bates in Gus Van Sant’s 1999 remake of the Alfred Hitchcock classic Psycho, but has now gone on a run of dramatic performances that has gotten him some attention: a lukewarm turn as Frank Semyon, the heavy in the critically-panned second season of HBO’s True Detective; hardass (but still slightly funny) Sgt. Howell in Mel Gibson’s acclaimed World War II drama Hacksaw Ridge; and what may be, depending on your tastes, either his best or worst dramatic performance to date—as an ex-boxer stuck between a rock and a hard place in S. Craig Zahler’s homage to 70’s revenge exploitation flicks, Brawl in Cell Block 99.

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Brawl features Vaughn as Bradley Thomas, a man in the unique position of being a good man with a strong moral compass, while also being the ultimate badass. Working at a service station at the start of the film, Bradley is promptly laid off—only to drive home early and discover that his wife is seeing someone else. After a tantrum in which he destroys/disassembles his wife’s vehicle by hand (a glimpse of the violence he’s capable of), Bradley and his wife Lauren (played by Dexter’s Jennifer Carpenter) admit their relationship hasn’t been the same since the miscarriage that rocked them to their core. They decide to recommit to each other and try for another baby, and Bradley decides to go back to running drugs for his dealer friend Gil, to which Lauren reluctantly agrees.

Fast forward 18 months and Bradley is driving a much nicer car to a much larger home after a day of making deliveries for Gil. We learn that Lauren is expecting again, and the loving couple couldn’t be happier—although we all know that can’t last.

Bradley accepts an offer he can’t refuse from Gil, who has partnered with a Mexican drug lord. The job goes south, and Bradley’s partners in the job end up in a shootout with police. Rather than escape scot-free, Bradley kills one partner and injures another, ending the shootout and saving police lives, before being arrested without further incident.

After being sentenced to 7 years in a medium-security prison, Bradley is visited by a henchman of the Mexican drug lord, who tells Bradley he is now indebted to the man to the tune of 3.2 million dollars to make up for drugs lost in the failed job. He can erase that debt, however, if he takes out a prisoner the drug lord wants dead. And if he doesn’t…terrible things will be done to his wife and unborn baby. The catch? The prisoner Bradley is to take out is in a different, maximum-security prison. Bradley must figure out a way to get himself transferred there, and his plan to do so is ultra violent.

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S. Craig Zahler’s first film, 2015’s Bone Tomahawk, was a fantastic debut—an original concept (a mashup of western and horror) made even better with stunning cinematography, vivid characters, and exceptional dialogue. While these elements are also present in Brawl in Cell Block 99, they are there in smaller doses, and don’t quite match the brilliance that made Bone Tomahawk so great. That’s not to say Brawl isn’t good—it just has different ambitions, calling to mind the films of Clint Eastwood or Charles Bronson.

The biggest quality this film shares with Zahler’s previous effort is the deliberate pacing and slow build to a savage, intense climax. The director spends quite a while detailing how Bradley has everything of value taken from him until, despite the fact he was not the most likable character at the start of the film, you end up rooting for him to get some sort of justice against those who have put his back against the wall. Time passes quickly despite the film’s 2 hour and 12 minute running time, a testament to Zahler’s ability to grab the viewer’s attention and not let go. His next film is Dragged Across Concrete, re-teaming him with Vaughn and co-starring Mel Gibson, a film about police brutality and cops caught up in a violent underworld. I, for one, can hardly wait.

What will make or break this film for you is the incredibly graphic displays of violence Bradley uses to get transferred to Red Leaf, the maximum-security hellhole that houses the man he is to kill, and the subsequent acts he performs once he gets there. To call it unflinching is an understatement—a couple of scenes are absolutely jaw-dropping in terms of what they show you, on the level with some of the most over the top horror movies out there. And Brawl in Cell Block 99 is nothing if not over the top.

As a matter of fact, it requires a pretty hefty suspension of disbelief to make this movie fly (why did he shoot his partners rather than escape? How is it this “ex-boxer” has a fighting style closer to Krav Maga? How in the hell does he have the stomping power of a hydraulic press?), but if you’re able to do so (and have the stomach for it)…you’re in for a wild ride.

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