Cinepocalypse 2018: Part One

The Ranger, The Devil’s Doorway, Hover, Await Further Instructions, and What Keeps You Alive.

The Ranger

The Ranger

Director/co-writer Jenn Wexler pits a pack of post-adolescent punk rockers (led by Chloe Levine) against a deranged park ranger (Jeremy Holm, who’s recently done turns on House of Cards and Mr. Robot) in her feature début. Wexler shifts between two different approaches here: the first posits the titular Ranger as a campy slasher who quotes Park Service regulations at his victims; the second explores the twisted psychological relationship between the Final Girl and her nemesis. Sadly, Wexler never balances the two approaches so that they feel like they belong in the same movie. On the plus side, Levine delivers a bravura performance, Holm both amuses and menaces, and I liked the effects work, so it’s not an entire wash.

Larry Fessenden appears in flashbacks as Levine’s uncle, kicking off my traditional genre festival Larry Fessenden Watch. My very first film brings Cinepocalypse 2018’s Fessenden Count to 1.

United States. Directed by Jenn Wexler.

The Devil's Doorway

The Devil’s Doorway

The found-footage trend has (mercifully) passed, but you can still find the occasional movie made in the format. Writer-director Aislinn Clarke sets her stab at it in Sixties Ireland, putting the camera—stocked with actual film, natch—in the hands of a pair of priests investigating an apparent miracle at a “Magdalene house” (a church-run workhouse for unwed mothers and promiscuous young woman—think Philomena). The story itself is a factory-standard demonic-possession narrative featuring two priests (one old, one young; one a true believer, one a skeptic), steely, cruel nuns, an innocent victim suffering the tortures of the damned, and enough secrets to fill an abbey. But Clarke makes The Devil’s Doorway worth watching by emphasizing the thick Irish-gothic atmosphere.

Ireland. Directed by Aislinn Clarke.

Hover

Hover

Set in an ominous near-future world of assisted suicide machines, AI-driven security drones, and slabs of thick plastic doubling as tablet computers, Hover practically begs comparisons to Black Mirror. Unfortunately for director Matt Osterman and writer/star Cleopatra Coleman, that comparison wouldn’t be a favorable one. The premise is sound, but the execution is faulty; the world-building is weak, the characters thinly-drawn and forgettable. (Even the script forgets about the protagonist’s incompetent trainee, abandoning her mid-film until the story requires a shock reveal at the climax.) You can pretty much guess every twist before it happens, most of the performances are lackluster, and even the effects are shitty. And there’s gotta be a more efficient way of killing vermin than exploding their heads with microwaves. It’s probably possible to make a good movie with this premise; but Hover sure ain’t it.

United States. Directed by Matt Osterman.

Await Further Instructions

Await Further Instructions

If you’ve recently found yourself thinking, “Gee, we sure could use a Videodrome for the Trump/Brexit/Fox News era,” director Johnny Kevorkian and writer Gavin Williams have the answer to your prayers. Await Further Instructions seals the fractious Milgram family (if you know get that reference, that’s your first clue) in its home at Christmas, their only contact with the outside world a series of increasingly bizarre instructions delivered by some unknown force through the television. Long-simmering familial resentments boil over in the form of a vicious power struggle as the paranoia and the craziness escalate, and everything culminates in a climax I could not have seen coming in a million years. Add brilliant performances (especially from Grant Masters and living legend David Bradley, aka Argus Filch, Walder Frey, the creepy guy from the first series of Broadchurch, and the third First Doctor Who), a light touch of throwback (note how all the TVs are CRTs), and some brilliantly original effects sequences, and you get something really special.

United Kingdom. Directed by Johnny Kevorkian.

What Keeps You Alive

What Keeps You Alive

Canadian writer/director Colin Minihan—one-half of the Vicious Brothers team responsible for the Grave Encounters series, Extraterrestrial, and It Stains the Sands Red—strips human conflict down to basics in this survival-horror exercise. Hannah Emily Anderson and Brittany Allen star as a married couple celebrating their first anniversary at a remote lake house, but a chance encounter triggers a series of events, culminating in a devastating betrayal. Minihan doesn’t develop the narrative as thoroughly as I would have liked—took me far too long to suss out a couple of major clues, so maybe it’s just me—but he makes the most of his beautiful remote locations, and Anderson and Allen both deliver strong performances. You like your horror intense? Here’s your movie.

Canada. Directed by Colin Minihan.

In a Valley of Violence

Ti West’s latest is an entertaining, if shallow, Western homage

Ethan Hawke stars in IN A VALLEY OF VIOLENCE

United States. Directed by Ti West, 2016. Starting Ethan Hawke, John Travolta, Taissa Farmiga, James Ransone, Karen Gillan. 104 minutes.

As cinematic genres, the modern horror film and the Western are intertwined. The generation of horror auteurs born between, say, 1935 and 1950 came of age in an era when Hollywood churned out oaters a dozen at a time. A great many of the films young Johnny Carpenter would have seen in his youth were horse operas, and that’s why so many entries in his filmography—Assault on Precinct 13Escape from New York, Vampires—make more sense if you consider them as Westerns. And now that “throwback horror” is a thing, Carpenter and his contemporaries having influenced a younger generation of genre filmmakers, the news that professional ’70s/’80s pasticheur Ti West has thrown his hat into the Western ring should not surprise us.

Indeed, with In a Valley of Violence West delivers a classic-formula Western of the kind Sergio Leone used to make, complete with a strong streak of gallows humor (the film almost qualifies as a comedy), morally-ambiguous protagonists, and expansive wide shots of desert wasteland. Even the opening titles crib from The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, and the score—courtesy Jeff Grace, West’s standard musical collaborator—puts in an admirable impersonation of Ennio Morricone.

The film’s plot progresses slowly and simply, as a man-with-no-name (actually he does have a name, but it’s not even mentioned until at least thirty minutes in, so we’ll just call him Ethan Hawke) arrives in Denton, known to the few locals as the Valley of Violence, a dying town of maybe a dozen residents, most of them corrupt bullies whom Hawke runs afoul of almost immediately. Valley of Violence possesses a lack of plot sophistication and thematic depth that won’t surprise those familiar with West. The characters get more definition than the story, but the genre’s icons and tropes quite obviously guide West’s hand, and he relies on the ensemble—which includes John Travolta and James Ransone as the primary antagonists, along with Taissa Farmiga (American Horror Story), Karen Gillan (Doctor Who), Burn Gorman (Pacific Rim), and the always reliable Larry Fessenden (please tell me I don’t need to explain Larry Fessenden to you)—to perform most of the heavy lifting.

This isn’t necessarily a strike against the film; even in his best work, such as The House of the Devil, West has always emphasized style over substance. But he brings something of a half-baked modern sensibility t0 the film; this doesn’t always detract, and indeed many of the funniest and most memorable moments come from it. But I can’t shake the feeling that the film would have felt more even had West committed to that sensibility more fully. He never quite reconciles the film’s nominal theme, the idea that violence begets nothing but more violence, with the vicarious thrill of watching Hawke hunt down and kill the bad guys. And while the sexual tension between Hawke (age 45 in real life) and Farmiga (22, and playing a 16-year-old to boot) might not have raised an eyebrow in the real Old West, it’s massively creepy by modern standards. It’s nice that West makes a token comment about that, but it would have been nicer if that comment wasn’t merely token.

Despite my criticisms, I thoroughly enjoyed In a Valley of Violence. I wouldn’t consider it an acceptable substitute for The Hateful Eight or even Bone Tomahawk, but as an entertaining genre exercise it squarely hits its target.

In a Valley of Violence poster

Pod

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

We Are Still Here

An atmospheric, gory tribute to Fulci that manages to improve on the Godfather of Gore in every way.

United States. Directed by Ted Geoghegan, 2015. Starring Barbara Crampton, Andrew Sensenig, Larry Fessenden, Lisa Marie, Monte Markham. 84 minutes.

I’ve always had a complex relationship with Lucio Fulci’s films. In theory, I should consider his œvure some of the best horror films ever made, featuring as they do beautiful imagery, existential themes, and strikingly-designed, well-executed gore sequences guaranteed to make the stomach churn. In practice, however, his screenplays tend to lack coherency, which irritates me because I’m mostly a story person. For me, the archetypal example of this is 1981’s House by the Cemetery, in which several minor characters insist the protagonist has a daughter he denies exists (and whose subplot disappears early in the film with no explanation), amongst other bizarre story elements and plot developments.

That being said, let’s turn our eye to Ted Geoghegan’s We Are Still Here. Barbara Crampton and Andrew Sensenig star as Anne and Paul Sacchetti, who move into a rambling old house in the wake of the tragic death of their son Bobby. Almost immediately, Anne becomes convinced that Bobby’s spiritual presence has joined them in the new house; not too long after, they learn the nasty history of the house and its first residents, the Dagmar family. They invite their spiritualist friends Jacob and May McCabe to help them sort out the strange phenomena.

Now, if you’ve seen The House by the Cemetery, you’ll understand why I brought it up. For the uninitiated, the most obvious similarity comes with the character names, many of which Geoghegan borrowed from Cemetery’s characters, cast, and crew. The references don’t stop there: both We Are Still Here and Cemetery’s predecessor The Beyond feature a tradesman named Joe who suffers a traumatic experience in a basement. Indeed, Geoghegan’s film shares many thematic elements that link Fulci’s loose “Gates of Hell Trilogy” (which includes City of the Living Dead along with The Beyond and Cemetery).

Now, I’ve spent so much time pointing out the ways in which We Are Still Here obviously cribs from Fulci’s work that I’d forgive you for thinking I was going to turn in an unfavorable review. On the contrary, the film encapsulates the things I like about Fulci’s films while improving on (what I perceive as being) their shortcomings in every way.

The plot, by and large, makes sense, and when it doesn’t, it’s not impossible to see an internal logic at play. The characters are genuine characters, and not thinly-drawn effigies who only exist in the plot to suffer from disgustingly gory demises. The performances are very strong for the most part, particularly Crampton, Sensenig, and a scene-stealing Monte Markham as a creepy local old-timer who clearly knows a lot more about what’s going on than he’s saying. I do have to admit that Larry Fessenden and Lisa Marie go a bit over the top as Jacob and May, but, hey, it helps give a bit of variance to an otherwise solidly somber-toned film so it’s not unforgivable.

The cherry on top is Geoghegan’s superb direction, understated and lyrical for much of the running time, then suddenly shifting into overdrive for the film’s blood-soaked climax, an effects-driven set-piece defined by some sickeningly memorable death scenes and a lot of icky, gooey gore.

Best of all, We Are Still Here is that rarest treat of the horror pastiche-slash-homage: the one that stands entirely on its own and doesn’t require the audience to know jack-all about the source material to enjoy it. Sure, it helps to be familiar with Fulci’s work to get the references and in-jokes, but it’s not necessary. This excellent film has plenty to delight fans of both atmospheric and gruesome horror regardless.

WE ARE STILL HERE poster

Jug Face

Develops its backwoods community beyond the level of “religious zealots with Hee Haw accents”

United States. Directed by Chad Crawford Kinkle, 2013. Starring Lauren Ashley Carter, Sean Bridgers, Sean Young. 81 minutes. 6/10

The pact the backwoods community have with the pit has been in place for generations.

Every so often, the pit demands a sacrifice. The simple-minded Dawai (Sean Bridgers) enters a trance; the pit shows him a face of a member of the community. He crafts a jug bearing that person’s face, remembering nothing afterwards. Then he takes the jug to the elders. The elders take the sacrifice to the pit and slit his throat, his blood flowing into the pit. In return for sacrifices, the pit heals injury and sickness.

One day Ada (Lauren Ashley Carter) discovers Dawai’s latest jug. It bears her face.

That’s enough to scare any young woman, but Ada harbors a dark secret–she’s pregnant. Two additional factors complicate things. First, the father of her child is her brother Jessaby (Daniel Manche). Second, her parents Sustin and Loriss (Larry Fessenden and Sean Young, respectively) have arranged for her to be “joined”–married–to a boy from another family.

So she steals the “jug face” and hides it. Understandable, perhaps–but she doesn’t know what happened the last time the pit didn’t get the sacrifice it asked for. She doesn’t just put her own life, and her unborn chil at risk. Her family, her friends and her neighbors will all pay the price for what she does.

A terrible force has been unleashed in this small rural community…and it will not stop until its desire has been sated.

As a rule of thumb, the more obvious a horror trope seems, the harder it is to get right. All too often, creators depend on the tropes themselves to provide the scares instead of actually investing them with anything the audience might care about. “Put a clown in it,” they think, and that’s all they need to do, because everybody’s scared of clowns! By this principle, “hillbilly horror” is one of the trickiest subgenres to pull off. (Or at least I think it is; whoever it is that keeps greenlighting Texas Chain Saw Massacre reboots/remakes/sequels/prequels clearly disagrees.) And let’s be honest, the entertainment industry’s characteristic contempt of any place that isn’t New York or California doesn’t help.

Thankfully, writer/director Chad Crawford Kinkle actually bothers to develop his backwoods community beyond the level of “religious zealots with Hee Haw accents.” The characters have more to them than typical yokel ignorance, and even less sympathetic characters such as Loriss operate on understandable, relatable motivations. Kinkle wisely avoids making the community’s pit-worship an obvious Christian allegory, allowing their religion to stand in for any unquestioned received wisdom.

I also enjoyed the characterization, for the most part. Most of the parts are written well (we’ll cover the exception in a bit), and characters who easily could have been comedy yokels instead have genuine personalities.

I appreciated how the film portrays the incestuous relationship between Ada and Jessaby with sensitivity, not sensationalism. The story places Loriss, not Sustin, in the obligatory abusive-parent role without letting Sustin off the hook for his actions. Not only is this a refreshing twist on the usual dysfunctional-family dynamic, it also strengthens the social commentary (conscious or otherwise) by detailing how both male and female roles perpetuate unjust social systems.

That’s pretty heavy stuff for a low-budget horror flick, but Jug Face delivers plenty of entertainment value in the form of solid plotting, creepy middle-of-nowhere atmosphere, and what the MPAA describes as “bloody violence, language and brief sexuality.”

It’s clear that Kinkle has ambitions beyond making a run-of-the-mill hillbilly horror picture, and he mostly succeeds, but a couple elements of the production stymie his vision somewhat. The direction and cinematography are competent and occasionally impressive, but occasionally fall prey to editing and effects that make it look like SyFy schedule spackle.

Relative newcomer Lauren Ashley Carter and onetime child star Daniel Manche have the wrong kind of chemistry with each other. This is a huge problem as Ada is apparently supposed to be in love with Jessaby. From the actors’ dynamic, I’d assumed what little consent she granted in the incestuous relationship was grudging at best. Sean Bridgers, hewing more closely to Deadwood’s Johnny Burns than The Woman’s Chris Cleek, also seems a little off.

The exception, and the cast’s weak link, is Sean Young. I feel for her somewhat because Loriss is the least developed of the main characters. But it can’t be denied that she plays Loriss exactly as the the shrill and unsympathetic caricature that was written.

None of these performances are bad, not even Young’s, but they’re just not entirely convincing.

Jug Face is an enjoyable horror flick that at least tries to do a little something different. Kinkle swings for the fences and though he doesn’t hit a home run, I appreciate the effort.

Jug Face poster