Contracted: Phase 2

Considering it largely disregards the ideas that made its predecessor so interesting, Contracted: Phase 2 works much better than expected.

A scene from CONTRACTED: PHASE 2.
United States. Directed by Josh Forbes, 2015. Starring Matt Mercer, Marianna Palka, Morgan Peter Brown, Anna Lore, Laurel Vail, Peter Cilella. 78 minutes. 5/10

Towards the end of Eric England’s 2013 film Contracted, protagonist Samantha, her transformation into a zombie via a contagion contracted (geddit?) during a date-rape, grudge-fucks her “nice guy” friend Riley (Matt Mercer)…who then becomes the focus of the sequel, written by Craig Walendziak and directed by Josh Forbes. Phase 2 details Riley’s gradual decay and devolution, while also following subplots involving the spread of the disease beyond Sam’s group of friends, and the authorities’ search for “B.J.” (Morgan Peter Brown, taking over from the original’s Simon Barrett), Sam’s rapist and the infection’s apparent “Patient Zero.”

The differences between Contracted: Phase 2 and its predecessor stretch beyond the obvious gender-reversing of the protagonists. My reading of the original’s subtext was that it was a metaphor for how people use sex to hurt each other, an element almost entirely missing from Phase 2. Instead, the infection spreads through more conventional vectors such as bites and other involuntary exposures to bodily fluids (one unfortunate supporting player catches the plague through infected blood in nacho cheese dip).

The filmmakers wryly probe their apparent theme: entire subcultures of people so self-absorbed they fail to see what’s really going on around them. Riley’s sister Brenda (Laurel Vail) opportunistically exploits the death of a dear friend (actually one of Sam’s victims, as seen in Phase 1) to promote her latest self-help tome, and doesn’t notice her brother has developed a habit of inconveniently spraying gouts of blood from his nose and mouth. Even Riley himself isn’t about to let the discovery of nests of maggots under his skin get in the way of getting it on with Harper (Anna Lore), his grandmother’s adorable nurse.

Phase 2’s winning cast (which includes several hangers-on from the predecessor; not just Mercer, but also Najarra Townsend, Reuben Pla, and Community’s Charley Koontz as the hilarious black-marketeer Zain), wry humor, and well-constructed gross-out sequences detract from its biggest failing. By relegating the sexual transmission vector to the background, Forbes and Walendziak rob the film of what could have been its distinguishing element. STD zombies might not seem quite as novel now as they did two years ago (thanks to the original Contracted and Thanatomorphose emerging at the same time, and a possible resurgence in “venereal horror” led by the success of It Follows), but the filmmakers don’t have any fresh takes on the ghoul trope to replace them with, to make it stand apart from the rest of the pack of zombie movies. B.J.’s subplots turn out to be a particular disappointment, a limp combination of doomsday-cult conspiracy and bog-standard police-procedural that take up far too much of the film’s comparatively scant running-time.

Contracted: Phase 2 works fairly well for a sequel that largely disregards what made the original so interesting, but I doubt it’s likely to find much of an audience beyond subgenre diehards and fans of the original.

CONTRACTED: PHASE 2 poster.

Unfriended

A fun slasher with a neat gimmick that keeps the audience engaged when the story sags.

United States. Directed by Leo Gabriadze, 2014. Starring Shelley Hennig, Moses Jacob Storm, Renee Olstead. 83 minutes.

If there’s a horror story hoarier than the tale of the wronged teenager taking revenge on his or her tormentors, then I haven’t heard of it. But at least screenwriter Nelson Greaves and director Leo Gabriadze found a new way to tell it: they present the film as screen-capture footage of a MacBook desktop and Skype sessions.

Of course, that’s not to say that they’ve managed to find a twist on the story or character types, the latter of which includes seeming “good-girl” protagonist Blaire (Shelley Hennig), her beefcake boyfriend Mitch (Moses Storm), Mitch’s bro-ish bestie Adam (Will Peltz), promiscuous blonde Jess (Renee Olstead), chubby hacker nerd Ken (Jacob Wysocki) and brash, obnoxious Val (Courtney Halverson). They’re very tight, considering they don’t seem to like each other all that much.

One evening, they’re all Skyping when they start receiving mysterious Facebook messages from Laura (Heather Sossaman), the seventh member of their posse. The catch? Tonight is the first anniversary of her death. She committed suicide after an unknown individual posted a video to YouTube of her making a drunken ass of herself at a party. Maybe it’s Laura’s ghost or just some sick fuck pretending to be her, but whoever it is, you just know they’re eventually going to pick off the characters one by one.

While the filmmakers occasionally subvert teen-horror expectations (pay very close attention to who reacts to what during the extended game of Never Have I Ever that takes up the latter half of the film), the story is familiar and so is the structure. Very little here will surprise you. What makes Unfriended worth watching is the presentation.

The filmmakers use the format in ingenious ways, to build attention, to dole out backstory. When communicating in chat windows, the messages Blaire chooses not to send–typing out and deleting–tell us more than the messages she actually sends. Gabriadze keeps the pace taut, lean, and highly effective. While I wouldn’t necessarily call the film scary–I couldn’t take the kill scenes seriously, they were too cartoony–it is reasonably tense. Everyone puts in a good performance, especially Hennig and Storm. And I appreciated the film’s ultimate moral about the evils of cyber-bullying.

None of this takes away from the fact that, once again, it’s time to sit back and watch some unpleasant teenage assholes scream at each other and get it in the neck. And believe me, these jerks go out of their way to make sure you loathe them. Every question the film poses at its beginning turns out to have the most obvious answer imaginable.

Overall, Unfriended is a fun slasher with a neat gimmick that keeps the audience engaged when the story sags. I doubt it will wow anyone the way Behind the Mask or Hatchet did, but I suspect it will have some rewatch value and find a decent following in the future.

It is, however, a bit of a one-trick pony…which means I’m not particularly looking forward to the inevitable sequel.

Unfriended poster

Starry Eyes

Show-biz satire gets a twist that’s part Satanic and part venereal body-horror.

United States. Directed by Kevin Kolsch & Dennis Widmyer, 2014. Starring Alexandra Essoe, Amanda Fuller, Noah Segan. 95 minutes.

Hollywood is the ultimate horror-movie town. It’s got a sinister history, is populated with low-lifes, creeps and weirdoes of every stripe, and is full to overflowing with metaphor. Already this year we’ve seen David Cronenberg’s Maps to the Stars, which envisioned Hollywood as a ghost town. But there’s more than one way to skin a starlet, and Cronenberg’s influence is evident in Starry Eyes, which marries a classic tale of greed and ambition with the new “vaginal” style of body-horror à la Contracted and Thanatomorphose.

Alexandra Essoe stars as Sarah, who waits tables at a fictional Hooters-style T&A diner while plugging away at auditions and casting-calls. Opportunity comes calling in the form of a once-moribund horror studio who wants her to star in their latest project, Silver Scream. The catch is, she might have to suck the gnarly cock of Satan to get the role–and for once, that’s not a metaphor.

Written and directed by the team of Kevin Kolsh and Dennis Widmyer, Starry Eyes possesses a delightfully biting satirical sensibility. They haven’t got any particularly fresh ideas about how Hollywood chews up and spits out its promising young talent, but they couch what they do have in sharp wit and observation. While their sympathies clearly lie with Sarah’s peer group, a gaggle of indie hipster filmmakers (one of whom literally lives out of his car), nobody escapes the filmmakers’ rapier wit.

As such, Starry Eyes is more of an actor’s showcase than other films of such ilk, and it boasts numerous memorable performances. The character of Sarah is a bit on the bland side, but that goes with the territory, and Essoe’s fresh-faced, girl-next-door beauty makes up for it. But the supporting roles are where it’s at: Noah Segan (DeadgirlBrick) as Danny, an indie auteur who wants Sarah for her passion project; Pat Healy (ComplianceCheap Thrills) as Sarah’s boss at the diner; and Louis Dezseran, who steals the show with his clipped, genteel delivery as the sinister producer of Silver Scream.

Things go off the rails a bit in the film’s third act, where the film’s satire turns to horror and its moral dilemma becomes visceral. The metaphor becomes a bit too pointed, and Sarah undergoes a transformation that Essoe can’t quite pull off. The graphic violence, while well-done, seems a bit too gratuitous considering the overall context of the production. I’m not entirely sure how events follow each other in a couple of scenes. However, Kolsch and Widmyer’s self-consciously “retro” visual sense serves the film best during these late phases; my favorite scene, a procession of demon-worshipers performing a dark ritual in the Hollywood hills, generates both humor and unease in the best tradition of Rosemary’s Baby.

Bottom line, Starry Eyes is an entertaining Satanic show-biz satire marked by a pointed script, fine performances and memorable (if incongruous) gore.

Starry Eyes poster

It Follows

Despite a willingness to poke at and dissect the occasional trope here or there, It Follows bears very little resemblance to its assumed slasher/teen-screamer forebears.

United States. Directed by Robert David Mitchell, 2014. Starring Maika Monroe, Lili Sepe, Jake Weary. 100 minutes.

It’s hard to believe, at first glance, that there might be anything particularly special about It Follows. Suburban teenager Jay (Maika Monroe) finds herself stalked by a malicious supernatural entity after having sex with her boyfriend (Jake Weary). Chuck in the pulsing, throbbing synth score, and you get nothing you haven’t already seen a thousand times, right?

Wrong. Despite a willingness to poke at and dissect the occasional trope here or there, writer/director David Robert Mitchell’s sophomore effort bears very little resemblance to its assumed slasher/teen-screamer forebears. What he aims for–and, for the most part achieves–is something a bit more thoughtful and less self-consciously clever.

From my point of view, the key to understanding what differentiates It Follows from its forebears is its take on the characters’ relationships, romantic, sexual and otherwise. You’re probably familiar with what I call the “Breakfast Club model” of how teens relate to each other, with each such character slotting comfortably into archetypes–jocks and cheerleaders, nerds, burnouts, snobby rich kids, prudish “good girls”–with the types largely defining the dynamics. The model works great in the teen-angst classics (the point of The Breakfast Club is that these types, while handy, fail to encompass the totality of the teen experience), but since the ’80s, numerous works have substituted these types for actual characterization.

As a result, we’ve reached the point where this model is the default for any film whose protagonists are of high-school or college age. Indeed, it’s a familiar enough element of the teen-scream formula that meta-deconstructive works such as The Cabin in the Woods and Thankskilling feel the need to directly comment on it.

To get back to It Follows, Mitchell isn’t interested in adopting this model to his characters. Jay and her friends don’t “comfortably” fit into stereotypes or cliques or…anything, really. At the risk of sounding cliché, they exist in that nebulous grey zone where they’re no longer “teenagers” in the strictest sense but don’t really qualify as “adults” either. Parents exist on the fringes of the story or are entirely absent, and the nostalgic, simplified existence of childhood is a consistent theme.

This is a more “realistic” take on characterization than is common for teen-screamers and this more relatable set of dramatis personae allows It Follows the chance to frighten the audience more extensively than the audience might expect, and the cast rises to the challenge, led by Monroe, who impressed me in The Guest and puts in an even better performance here.

Mitchell gives the titular “It” a Freudian dimension that really unsettles the bowels if you notice the subtle implications, but the scares work on an impulsive visual level as well–in particular, Mitchell largely eschews “jump scares” in favor of slow burns. I never thought a lone figure walking deliberately towards the camera could fuel so many nightmares. His deliberately retro visual sense–combining compact-shaped e-readers with ’70s and ’80s cars and typewriters–creates a “timeless” vibe. The awesome score by Rich “Disasterpeace” Vreeland, all Carpenteresque analog synths, feeds into the mood.

It Follows has been on the receiving end of a lot of praise and hype, all of which it well earned. It’s not perfect–I think the story comes apart a bit in the last ten minutes, and I’m not sure of the logic of everything that happens at the pool–but it is damn good. I hope it’s an omen of great things for the genre in 2015.

It Follows movie poster

Beneath

The Thing and The Descent: two great tastes that go great together? Not really.

United States. Directed by Ben Ketai, 2013. Starring Kelly Noonan, Jeff Fahey, Joey Kern. 89 minutes.

The who-can-you-trust paranoiac terror of John Carpenter’s take on The Thing. The claustrophobic, dimly lit underground horror of The Descent. Both are great on their own, so why not combine them? In theory, you should get the cinematic equivalent of a Reese’s peanut butter cup, right?

Yet Beneath wastes no time in whipping out the clichés. The setup is this: legendary coal miner George Marsh (Jeff Fahey) has one more day of work before retirement. His daughter Sam (Kelly Noonan) decides to join him in the pit for his last day–because dad’s hard work paid for her to go to college, only she decided to give him the proverbial finger and study environmental law, so she’s got something to prove or something like that. Anyway, I probably don’t need to tell you that “last day on the job” plus “bring your semi-estranged twentysomething daughter to work day” equals “bad shit’s gonna happen, hoss.”

Of course, clichés aren’t intrinsically bad things. In this case, I could forgive them if they were a bit deeper, or if they led somewhere interesting. The problem is, they aren’t and they don’t. Despite some nice touches in the first act–the brief love notes George leaves his wife every morning before heading to work, for example, or the implied crush George’s right-hand man Randy (Joey Kern) has on Sam–things quickly devolve into by-rote survival-horror once the roof caves in and everything starts going to crap.

Give Ben Ketai his due: he directs Beneath as if it were a master-class in how to create a low-light, claustrophobic cinematic environment. If you’ve ever wanted to know what it would be liked to be trapped in a collapsed coal mine with an implied supernatural force that may or may not be gradually driving you and your compadres insane, then watch this movie. It’s practically a documentary, and that verisimilitude goes a long way.

Unfortunately, neither script nor cast favor quite so well. The characterization is so thin and basic that it’s hard to tell them apart, and that’s before the actors even show up. The performances are acceptable when taken out of context, but nobody has any chemistry with each other, as if each actor recorded his scenes in isolation and Ketai assembled them digitally in post. George and Sam have a strained relationship, but Fahey and Noonan can’t convince the audience they even met before rehearsals began. Kern hits all the notes of nursing a long-term infatuation but gets none of the feeling.

I can’t say much more for the plot, which never seems to know where it’s going. The legend of the 19 miners trapped in a Depression-era collapse is a neat development, but the script never does anything with it. I can see a benefit from a certain amount of ambiguity here, but this doesn’t seem to be ambiguity to make a point or ambiguity to unsettle the audience. It has the unmistakable smell of ambiguity because the screenwriters simply can’t be bothered to develop their narrative in a coherent manner.

Which is a shame, because Beneath has some positives that really deserve to be showcased in a film much, much better than this.

Beneath poster

Honeymoon

Honeymoon is kind of like the Little Horror Movie that Could. Well…maybe it’s more like the Little Horror Movie that Tried.

United States. Directed by Leigh Janiak, 2014. Starring Rose Leslie, Harry Treadaway. 87 minutes.

Honeymoon stars Rose Leslie (of Game of Thrones) and Harry Treadaway (Control) as Bea and Paul, a young newlywed couple honeymooning in a remote Canadian lakeside village where Bea apparently spent some time as a child. Weird shit starts happening almost immediately. It’s not long before Bea has an uncharacteristic sleepwalking episode and Paul finds her in the middle of the nearby woods, stark naked. After that, she behaves coldly and distantly, all the while insisting nothing’s wrong. What happened to Bea that night? What does it have to do with the strange lights that appear in the windows at night, and how is Bea’s apparently troubled childhood friend Will involved?

Director and co-writer Leigh Janiak’s goal seems to be to create a picture whose emphasis is on mood and atmosphere, not on wild effects or flamboyant jump-scares. That’s a laudable aim, and it works well in the film’s first act, which primarily sets up the mystery, and the final act, which contains the appropriately shocking reveals. It falls flat in the middle, however, largely due to a lack of incident. It’s probably a bit unfair to describe the central stretch of half an hour as Treadaway constantly screaming “WHAT HAPPENED IN THE WOODS???” and Leslie constantly screaming “NOTHING HAPPENED!!! YOU’RE CRAZY!!!” but, wow, it certainly felt like it. It also messes up the pacing something fierce; the film’s running time, less than an hour and a half, surprised me. It felt at least twenty minutes longer.

The problems with the second act don’t stop with the plotting. The story’s focus on Bea and Paul is so tight that the film effectively qualifies as a two-hander; there’s only two other characters–Will and his wife–neither of whom appear in more than a scene or two. Unfortunately, despite a prologue which info-dumps a buttload of exposition regarding the early days of the couple’s relationship, the two characters seem maddeningly generic and ill-defined. Janiak’s script knows where Bea grew up and what her favorite color is, but it doesn’t know much about the sort of woman she actually is. Which really hurts the film’s central themes.

Even so, this chunk of the film almost gets a pass on the strength of the chemistry between Leslie and Treadaway, which is the production’s secret weapon. They’re not a classic screen couple on the level of Bogart and Bergman or anything like that, but in terms of convincing the audience they’re really a young couple in love…yeah, it works well. It would work better if the pair, who are both British, could maintain consistent accents. At the beginning, Paul’s accent seems Bostonian and Bea’s, Southern (even though both characters are ostensibly from Brooklyn) but over the course of the film they both seem to give up and resort to generic fake American.

The other aspects of the picture work quite well. Janiak’s direction is quiet and understated, her use of SFX spare and, well, effective. She knows how to stretch a dollar: the short cast list and limited number of locations are the only signs of a low budget. Heather McIntosh’s unnerving, dissonant score. The action leading up to the climax is quite disturbing and unsettling, and will stay with me for quite some time afterward.

Honeymoon is kind of like the Little Horror Movie that Could. Well…maybe it’s more like the Little Horror Movie that Tried. It works so damned hard to turn its limitations into benefits that you can’t help admiring it in spite of its flaws. It has spirit.

Honeymoon poster

At the Devil’s Door

I’ll give At the Devil’s Door some credit: at least it takes the hoary and overused and tries to employ it in a slightly different way. But story development ends up being a huge problem.

United States. Directed by Nicholas McCarthy, 2014. Starring Catalina Sandino Moreno, Naya Rivera, Ashley Rickards. 91 minutes.

Writer/director Nicholas McCarthy builds At the Devil’s Door with a venerable old trope. He starts with a teenaged girl named Heather (Ashley Rickards) selling her soul to the devil for $500.

I’ll give McCarthy some credit: at least he’s taking the hoary and overused and trying to employ it in a slightly different way, as he did with his earlier film, The Pact. A single shell game in 1987 ends up butterfly-affecting lives decades down the road. Real-estate agent Leigh (Catalina Sandino Moreno) ends up hired to sell the house Heather character grew up in, and finds herself at the mercy of an evil force; and Leigh’s involvement draws in her free-spirited artist sister Vera (Naya Rivera). Okay, the setup has some promise.

As with The Pact, the problem is story development. My biggest issue is that the film doesn’t seem to have a protagonist, but it doesn’t feel like an ensemble piece, either. The film’s pacing is like driving an old car with a bad transmission: it rarely picks up enough speed to carry the audience along, and even when it does, it’ll soon start coughing and sputtering and slowing down. A good rule of thumb to keep in mind is that whenever something interesting starts happening, you’ve only got a couple of minutes before the story’s focus shifts to something entirely different that’s less compelling, usually something from earlier in the film that you forgot about.

A lot of this comes from the characterization. I have no doubt that McCarthy thinks he’s writing strong female characters, but he’s really not. He’s writing watered-down, cliché-ridden carbon-copies of strong female characters and relying on the actresses to do the heavy lifting. (Again, he did this with The Pact, and I promise that’s the last time I’ll make the comparison.) I spent much of Rickards’s scenes wondering if she was going to have more than one facial expression. Eventually I realized that the problem was that Heather isn’t the sort of girl who has more than one facial expression, and that Rickards was coping as best she could. In retrospect, she’s the most memorable thing about the film, although that probably doesn’t say much since one of my “types” is apparently angry brunettes with ’80s hair.

It’s up to Sandino Moreno and Rivera to carry the film, and they have their work cut out for them. Vera’s character is so cookie-cutter that you can figure out what conversations she’s going to have before she even has them. (When her latest one-night stand approaches her at a showing, I thought, “This is the point where he asks if he can see her again; she says no, and doesn’t even bother to let him down gently.” Which is exactly what happened.) When she says she’s never going to get married and have kids, even though her tone says she doesn’t really want a family, you know she really does because this is just not the kind of movie that would allow her to not secretly crave a husband and rugrats. And she gets off easy compared to Sandino Moreno: the sum total of Leigh’s characterization appears to be “Latina, accent, real estate agent, wants sister to have family.”

And it’s a shame, because Sandino Moreno, Rivera and Rickards deserve a lot better than this. They’re not the sole reason I didn’t walk away from the film in disgust: there are some great visuals and two or three scenes that are genuinely freaky. But it’s hard to not be disappointed with At the Devil’s Door on the whole.

At the Devil's Door poster

Come Back to Me

Crappy performances, overused shock tactics and poorly-developed characters result in a film impossible to take seriously.

A scene from COME BACK TO MEIt’s a trope so heavily ingrained in the grammar of the modern suspense thriller that we take it for granted these days. It’s late at night, but the protagonist is still awake, performing some innocuous task or other. Spooky music begins to dominate the score. Then something weird happens, something weird and scary and frightening! The protagonist barely has enough time to process her experience before–dramatic sting on the soundtrack!–she opens her eyes. It’s daytime, and she’s lying in bed. It was all a dream. Or was it?

Continue reading “Come Back to Me”

The Babadook

The Babadook knows what the monster under the bed really means.

Australia. Directed by Jennifer Kent, 2014. Starring Essie Davis, Noah Wiseman, Hayley McElhinney. 93 minutes.

It’s a thick “pop-up book” of the type we all read when we were kids, bound in red cloth, with the silhouette of a strange humanoid figure wearing a hat embossed on the cover. Above that, the title: MISTER BABADOOK. The book tells, in rhyme, the tale of the titular monster. Once you discover his existence, he enters your body through your mouth, forcing you to do naughty things, and never, ever leaving. “If it’s in a word or it’s in a book,” reads the opening couplet, “you can’t get rid of the Babadook.”

Single mother Amelia (Essie Davis) tries to be a good mum, but she’s still haunted by the death of her husband Oscar, who died in an auto accident while driving her to hospital the night of her son Samuel’s birth. Samuel (Noah Wiseman), now six, tries to be a good boy, but he’s impulsive, stubborn, eccentric and more than a little wild. Their relationship has been fraying for years. One night, Amelia finds a copy of Mister Babadook on Samuel’s bookshelf, and reads it to him before bedtime, inviting the Babadook into their home, and their lives.

Who–or what–is Mr. Babadook, exactly? He’s a metaphor, of course, for the scars we leave when we speak cruelly or thoughtlessly. Horror can be highly effective when it operates on that allegorical level, and The Babadook is as effective a monster movie as it is a dysfunctional family drama–a horror story that knows what the monster under the bed really means. Writer/director Jennifer Kent grounds the story with a keen sense of human nature, reminiscent of Stephen King’s best work (more than once the film reminded me of The Shining). All of us know families that treated each other like this, and some of us have been part of those families. That grounding allows the film’s fantastical elements to take flight.

The Babadook is a starkly and grimly beautiful film in both cinematography and design, evoking the feel of gothic picture-books filled with gallows humor by artists such as Mervyn Peake and Edward Gorey. Mr. Babadook himself is a triumph of design, one of the most memorable movie monsters of recent years. The film’s atmosphere is as thick as petroleum jelly, but Kent proves as adept at shocking the audience as she does creeping it out.

However, as good as Kent’s story and direction are, the film requires crackerjack lead performances to truly succeed. Essie Davis truly knocks it out of the park (actually, this being an Australian movie, I guess she should do whatever cricket’s equivalent of “knocking it out of the park” is), ensuring Amelia’s sympathy and believability even when she’s not exactly at her best. I was highly impressed with Wiseman given his age, and although I occasionally found him grating or annoying, so is the character. (Also, I’m not always very good with kids.) Kent has also assembled an impressive supporting cast, including Hayley McElhinney as Amelia’s self-absorbed sister and Barbara West as a kindly neighbor.

In my review of The Taking of Deborah Logan I said that some of the best supernatural horror operates by helping the audience work through, and come to grips with, the terrors of real life, and The Babadook is exactly the sort of thing I had in mind: a story that works on multiple levels of terror. It’s a modern classic, and I’d not be surprised if in the near future it’s regarded as one of the seminal horror films of this era. An absolute must-see.

The Babadook

Animosity

A specimen of insidious, creeping terror that burrows its way into your brain and haunts your nightmares for weeks.

United States. Directed by Brendan Steere, 2013. Starring Tracy Willet, Marcin Paluch, Tom Martin. 103 minutes.

It’s a story we all know too well: a young couple takes up residence in an isolated house in the woods (presumably having bought it with a bag of big-city money)…only to find their lives, their very souls, threatened by horrors unimaginable. That’s what we expect will happen to composer Carrie Bonner (Tracey Willet) and her husband Mike (Marcin Paluch) in Animosity. And sure enough, Carrie soon has several bizarre encounters with her eccentric–and violent–new neighbor Tom (Stephan Goldbach). But what is Carrie to do when it turns out that the horror behind Tom’s behavior wears a very familiar face?

The horror of Animosity comes from examination of the film’s main premise and its effect on the main characters. This is one of the archetypal myths of the genre: characters seek to transcend the laws of nature to claim their greatest desire, only to find the price is too high. It doesn’t matter that their motivation is initially well-meaning if not exactly altruistic–this isn’t a goal one can achieve without discarding morality and courting madness. Writer/director Brendan Steere relies on the the fall from grace to drive the plot, and the film’s scariness is largely conceptual. There are a couple of scenes of graphic violence, and no jump-scares; this is an altogether more thoughtful breed of horror.

Steere doesn’t develop the storyline as coherently as he might have, and the ending, while not exactly weak or anticlimactic, isn’t quite as powerful as I’d have liked. The plotting, however, is solid and suspenseful, and the characterization engaging. As a director, Steere milks his location for everything it’s got: the Bonner homestead certainly seems like it’s in the middle of nowhere. When Carrie says, “I didn’t even know we had neighbors” you can readily believe her. The film’s tone is dark, but not oppressively so; the clips from the Hammer-esque zombie movie Carrie provides the score to is a ready source of comic relief.

Carrie Bonner is a fantastic role, the sort that should come instantly to mind whenever the words “strong female lead” are used and Willet is more than equal to the task of bringing her to life; her exceptional performance, reminiscent of Angela Bettis’s best work, helps carry the film. Palette’s performance is similarly strong. Goldbach overdoes Tom’s craziness a tad, but for the most part it works. Other impressive cast members are Tom Martin as Mike’s suspicious and secretive boss and Rob O’Rourke as a frightened young man with a strange connection to Tom.

Animosity is an excellent and effective exercise in horror–not the temporary fright that comes from sudden shocks, but the insidious, creeping terror that burrows its way into your brain and haunts your nightmares for weeks. From here, its reputation will do nothing but grow.

Animosity poster