A freaky and fun little creature feature with a modern twist.

United States. Directed by Mickey Keating, 2015. Starring Lauren Ashley Carter, Dean Cates, Brian Morvant, Larry Fessenden, John Weselcouch. 76 minutes. 6/10

At last year’s Fantastic Fest, I saw Darling, the second of two feature films Mickey Keating made in 2015; the first was Pod, a tale of family dysfunction, madness, and military secrets. Brian Morvant stars as Martin Matheson, an Army veteran going not-so-quietly insane in rural Maine. His erratic behavior worries his brother Ed (Dean Cates), who collects their sister Lyla (Lauren Ashley Carter), intending to stage an intervention. In response, Martin spins a wild tale of what he calls the “Pod,” a…thing…the Army attempted to harness, but which killed most of Martin’s fellow soldiers instead. And now, Martin’s convinced that the Pod has come for him.

Pod is a solidly middle-of-the-road horror effort featuring some light social commentary, its effect coming through suspense and SFX rather than psychological examination or existential dread. If Keating ever means for the audience to seriously believe the Pod might not be real, it wasn’t evident to me (and Netflix promoting the film with a huge picture of the monster didn’t help).

At a scant 75 minutes, Pod has little time for deep characterization or backstory, but the screenplay uses brief, deft strokes to fill in the necessary blanks: the film delineates almost everything you need to know about the Matheson’s troubled dynamic in its first five or ten minutes. We’re all familiar with the “murderous military bioweapon” trope by now, and Keating makes thin use of it, although Martin’s instability compensates for that. Sure, he’s right about the Pod, but that doesn’t actually make him sane.

Pod’s chief strengths are in its production values and its performances. Its visual style betrays its presumably small budget, but once Ed and Lyla get to Maine, Keating effectively conveys both the remoteness and isolation of the locale and the cramped claustrophobia of Martin’s cabin. He compresses violent sequences into tighly-packed bundles, and the Pod’s design, while not entirely “convincing” or “realistic” is certainly aesthetically impressive. Carter and Cates both impress in their roles; Morvant occasionally goes a little over-the-top but not unforgivably so. Larry Fessenden (who also worked with Keating and Carter in Darling) turns in a particularly memorable if brief performance late in the film.

Pod is a freaky little creature feature with a modern twist; a fun watch, although it’s not likely to give anyone lasting nightmares.

POD poster

The Conspiracy

Not likely to surprise the average viewer, but plenty entertaining on its own terms.

Canada. 84 minutes. Directed by Christopher MacBride, 2012. Starring Aaron Poole, James Gilbert, Alan Peterson.

Has conspiracy theory gone mainstream? Perhaps yes, perhaps no, but its popularity certainly seems to be on the rise, having gone beyond speculating who really might have killed JFK. These days, everyone seems to have a friend who believes the 9/11 attacks were an inside job or a relative convinced the Sandy Hook shootings were a “false flag” operation. The chairman of the Senate Environment Committee believes that global climate change is a hoax, or at least he did in 2003, and he gives very little reason to believe he’s changed his mind since then. The time is ripe for a movie like The Conspiracy.

Actors Aaron Poole and Jim Gilbert play fictional documentarians Aaron Poole and Jim Gilbert, whose latest subject is Terrance (Alan Peterson), who wanders Toronto with a bullhorn and a big chart, ranting about the New World Order and referring to passers-by as “sheeple.” When Terrance mysteriously disappears, Aaron finds himself picking up where Terrance left off, with the reluctant Jim in tow. All the signs point to the mysterious Tarsus Club as the center of the global conspiracy, but what secret is it hiding?

Anyone familiar with conspiracy literature–whether it be obstensibly “real” or unabashedly fictional–will find The Conspiracy‘s structure and use of tropes to be very familiar. Everything unfolds exactly how the audience expects it to. Writer/director Christopher MacBride doesn’t seem particularly concerned with examining his themes in any depth, and the ultimate “moral”–that “conspiracies” can and always will exist because it’s natural for any individual or group who gains power to collude with others to protect that power–doesn’t come into play until very late in the film.

The pseudo-documentary format serves the film well; although it unravels a bit at the end, MacBride consistently maintains the overall sense of “realism” that can convince the viewer that he or she is watching an actual documentary. MacBride makes an interesting stylistic choice to blur many of the actors’ faces and distort their voices. Not only does this add to the verisimilitude, it also prevents the viewer from identifying some of the more recognizable cast members, such as Julian Richings.

The plot and story of The Conspiracy isn’t likely to surprise the average viewer, but it’s plenty entertaining on its own terms. If you’re looking for a lighter horror offering to pass the time, this just might fit the bill.

The Conspiracy poster


Banshee Chapter

Clandestine medical experiments, government mind-control projects, extradimensional entities, numbers stations and the works of H.P. Lovecraft come together in this fine example of “existential horror.”

United States. Directed by Blair Erickson, 2013. Starring Katia Winter, Ted Levine, Michael McMillan. 87 minutes.

Clandestine medical experiments, government mind-control projects, extradimensional entities and the works of H.P. Lovecraft: what do they all have in common? Banshee Chapter, that’s what. Plus, numbers stations! I’m the sort of freak who cues up The Conet Project as casual listening, so when I heard about this (thanks Adrian!) I knew I would be there, with bells on.

Katia Winter (Sleepy Hollow) stars as Anne Roland, a web journalist researching her college friend James’s disappearance. James, a struggling writer working on a book about the U.S. government’s mind-control projects, vanished after taking a drug the CIA reputedly used in its MKULTRA experiments. Central to the case is the fact that many of the MKULTRA subjects reported terrifying encounters with…”entities”…while under the influence of the drug. Anne’s research brings her to the doorstep of Thomas Blackburn (Ted Levine), an eccentric, reclusive, burned-out novelist with a head full of wild theories and wilder revelations. What did James get himself involved in, and who–or what–is responsible for his disappearance?

Banshee Chapter’s story (inspired by H.P. Lovecraft’s weird-fiction classic “From Beyond”) has a distinct retro vibe; sometimes it feels like the sort of thing that would have been made in the wake of The X-Files’ popularity in the mid-to-late-’90s, and at other times it resembles an alternate-universe version of the third-season Fringe episode “6955 kHz” (which uses a lot of the same elements). While the plot occasionally gets a bit creaky–very few of the twists and turns genuinely surprise–the script makes up for with fascinating characterization–particularly Blackburn, whom it pitches as a sort of demented love child of Hunter S. Thompson and Thomas Pynchon.

Levine–probably still, after all these years, most familiar as Jame “Buffalo Bill” Gumb in The Silence of the Lambs, digs into the character with gusto, stealing all his scenes with an infectious gonzo energy. (My favorite moment: Blackburn describes scientists strapping down test victims–er, subjects–before administering the drug, and concludes his anecdote with a casual, “That’s entertainment.”) As memorable as he is, he usually leaves room for Winter to do her job–an altogether more restrained performance–and the two play off each other rather nicely.

The direction, by first-timer Blair Erickson, is quite effective: very moody and suspenseful, with a heavy sense of existential dread gradually building throughout the course of the film. Erickson tastefully deploys handheld camera techniques and a faux-documentary structure, occasionally blurring the lines between “subjective” and “objective” (for lack of a better term) footage, something that annoyed me in The Taking of Deborah Logan, but works much better here. He also has a tendency to rely a bit too heavily on jump-scares, but many of them actually work.

The effects work, particularly the CGI, is qualitatively on-par with what you might expect from a production with this budget, but I was quite impressed with the creature design, and Erickson wisely confines the ickiness to quick cuts or shadows. One particular shot of a “monster,” towards the end of the picture…that thing’s gonna give me more than a couple sleepless nights, I think. (Sadly, whoever the damn fool is who designed the U.S. poster decided to incorporate a slew of visual spoilers. Sigh.)

While not as strong an example of “existential horror” as other recent efforts such as Black Mountain Side or The CorridorBanshee Chapter will remain lodged in your head long after lesser contemporary shock-fests have been relegated to your mental recycling bin.

Banshee Chapter