Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Magazine Review: Shock Totem Issue 2

Finally, after a year Shock Totem is back with its second issue and I couldn’t be more thrilled! I was again impressed by the glossy cover of the magazine, which looks more of like a slim book rather than a magazine. The cover design by Hicham Haddaji is eye-catching and I couldn’t wait to dive into the contents!

The editorial by K. Allen Wood is an informative read on publishing the second issue and explanations of the delays the Shock Totem team encountered. The basic reason the second issue was delayed was quality…the people hard at work on the magazine wanted to make sure they had high quality as well as variety for their future issues. I can’t argue with that…if waiting meant a higher quality mag than I can be patient!

And, wow, what an astounding collection of short stories the second issue contains! Like issue one, I was immensely impressed by both the variety of content and its high quality. All of the short stories contained in the magazine are worthy of a read, but I did have a few favorites!

Kicking things off was “The Rat Burner” by Ricardo Bare. The story tells of the Jacob, known to others as “The Guide”, who takes paying customers to a mysterious door that seems to grant wishes…with dire consequences. The characters were so well developed in this story, as was the setting of the ghetto. You could almost smell the trash, rat droppings and general decay of the neighborhood where Jacob lives and conducts business. “The Rat Burner” was a fantastic story to kick off this collection.

I also enjoyed Vincent Pendersgast’s “The Rainbow Serpent”, based on the Aboriginal myth. It tells the tale of Gavin, out for revenge against his ex. However, his bus ride turns quite surreal as the Rainbow Serpent seeks to punish this law-breaker. I haven’t had much exposure to myths from Australia, so this story was very interesting and unique. I also loved its nightmarish visuals and tone; the story really felt like one of those nightmares you just can’t wake up from (I mean that in the best way possible!).

Another favorite (probably my favorite of the collection) was “Pretty Little Ghouls” by Cate Gardner. It’s about a little girl facing the death sentence in prison…but turns out she is no ordinary child. This was only one page long, but it was just so haunting and creepy with plenty of surprising elements that is was amazingly effective. And I absolutely loved its unsettling story!

Lastly, I loved both “Messages from Valerie Polichar” (Gra Linnaea and Sarah Dunn) and “Leave Me the Way I was Found” (Christian A. Dumais). They both deal with modern technology and how connected we all are through the internet.  “Messages” deals with Facebook and “Leave Me” deals with YouTube and viral videos.  Both are extremely timely and I love how they both made technology so creepy!

Those are my favorites, but, honestly, it was tough just to choose a few to feature because all of the stories in Shock Totem were taut, tense and full of suspense! There is even a nifty section at the end of the book where each of the authors explain their inspiration for the stories featured in the magazine. I absolutely loved how they discussed their influences for their stories!

The second issue of Shock Totem is another wonderful collection of short stories that is very much worth picking up. It also contains an interview with author James Newman and reviews of films, books, music and video games. Those who put together Shock Totem haven’t had an easy time putting together this wonderful magazine for all of us to enjoy, but despite their hardships they’ve put together a stunning second issue that I highly recommend!

Support independent publishers and order your copy of Shock Totem today!

Available through Amazon!

Visit Shock Totem’s Official Site!

Monday, August 30, 2010

Book Review: Oddities of West Blankshire by Dan Holst Soelberg

When I received Dan Holst Soelberg’s illustrated book, Odditites of West Blankshire: A Book of Odens Grebal, it immediately put a huge smile on my face. You see, the book contains short, witty and often morbidly funny two-line poems accompanied by beautiful black and white illustrations. For an Edward Gorey/Charles Addams fan such as myself, Oddities and its Victorian characters coupled with its dark humor was exactly my cup of tea!

However, I’ve had this book sitting on my desk for quite some time, so I must apologize to author Soelberg as well as to you, dear readers. It’s a shame I waited so long to review this absolutely enjoyable collection that depicts the eerily odd children of West Blankshire (hence the title). Now that I’ve taken the time to review the book, it shall still remain on my desk because I just love looking at it every once in a while, especially when I need a good giggle!

If I had a home big enough, I would frame every single page in the book and display them! The artwork is that spectacular and unique! I love the Victorian characters and how they are often paired with such unexpected and morbid fates.

Here is a little taste of one of the poems (for full effect it’s best viewed with Soelberg’s illustration):

Consumed by his unceasing feline perversion
Van surgically fused himself with his Persian

If you are a fan of dark humor and memorably strange characters, do yourself a favor and check out Dan Holst Soelberg’s astounding and amazing Oddities of West Blankshire!

The book is a limited edition, so hurry to get your copy today!!

Buy it on Amazon!

Burning Bright (2010)

Tyger! Tyger! burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

-from William Blake’s “The Tyger”

The above is an excerpt from one of my favorite poems of all time, so when I heard they were making a film called Burning Bright a few years ago, I was pretty stoked. As time passed and I learned more about the project, things got…interesting. For one, the synopsis had me a little worried; it was basically about a young girl and her younger brother trapped inside a house with a killer tiger during the middle of a hurricane. Pretty silly-sounding, no? Secondly, it never got a proper theatrical release and was unceremoniously dumped on DVD a few weeks back. Another bad sign. However, I decided to give it the old college try anyway. I love tigers, I love Blake’s poem, I love nature-run-amuck films…how bad could it be? Well, while it certainly wasn’t terrible, it also wasn’t grrrrrrreat!

Teenager Kelly (Briana Evigan) is looking forward to attending college and healing from her mother’s recent suicide, but before she goes she must check her autistic younger brother Tom (Charlie Tahan) into a special home where he will be taken care of while she is away at school. One problem…her irresponsible stepfather (Garret Dillahunt) has squandered her savings meant for Tom’s medical care on purchasing a tiger for his planned “Safari Farm”. Kelly is forced to return home with Tom as a hurricane bears down upon their home. The despicable stepfather has other plans on top of spending all her dough, though.  During the night, with the house safely boarded up against the hurricane, he releases the tiger into the house with Kelly and Tom fast asleep upstairs. When Kelly awakens, she finds herself and Tom trapped in the house with a hungry, hungry tiger that hasn’t eaten in two weeks.

Ok, so besides the ludicrous sounding synopsis I was nonetheless intrigued. I mean, at least it wasn’t another remake and was actually trying something new. So starting off I was pretty interested in the film and willing to give it a fair shot. Now, the film had plenty of positives going for it, but I found myself quibbling over  illogical plot points more often than I found myself actually enjoying the action on screen. First, though, let’s get into the positives…

For one, I thought the characters were very well-done. They are developed just enough so that you hate the skeezy stepfather and feel empathy for Kelly and understand her frustration with having to care for tantrum-throwing Tom (“no touch!!”), who is both a burden and a responsibility. The tiger even takes on a personality all its own…though I mostly sympathized with the tiger and thought it was only doing what came naturally since its a-hole of an “owner” didn’t feed it for two weeks.

Speaking of the tiger, yes, a real one (actually, three separate trained tigers) is used…no CGI tigers here. There are a few scenes where the tiger is super-imposed on the background that look fake, but looking fake is definitely better than having a real tiger get hurt crashing through a glass door.

Since this is more of a “cat and mouse” suspense film, there isn’t much blood and no gore, but this film doesn’t need it. Director Carlos Brooks does quite a good job creating tension without needing to use flashy effects or grue.

However, there were so many unbelievable events occurring that I found myself questioning the logic of the script too many times. Perhaps it was a matter of too many cooks in the kitchen, as there were three writers on the film, but the plot holes were annoying no matter what the reason! Now, I’ve seen a ton of positive reviews for Burning Bright, so maybe it’s just me or maybe I was missing something, I just know that I was rolling my eyes way too many times during the film. And it bugs me that I was annoyed so many times because most of the time it was small stuff…but nonetheless these small instances added up fast and affected my overall enjoyment of the film, so I felt they should be noted. For one, Kelly was wandering around the house before she became aware of the tiger. Seriously, if the tiger was hungry it totally could have nabbed her then. Plus, you think the tiger would have heard/smelled Kelly and Tom upstairs while they were sleeping and busted into their rooms then. Later on, Tom is caterwauling as they are trying to hide – why didn’t the tiger go after them then? He could obviously hear them! All the while this was occurring in the early morning hours back at the house, the stepfather was sitting at a bar drinking beer. I don’t know what state the film is set in, but do bars usually open that early? Gah, I’m annoyed that this film makes me seem like a major nitpicker, but seriously all these (and more) nagging questions kept irking me!

If you can ignore the small stuff, Burning Bright is a pretty competently done film. It never really scared me, but it had its tense moments (especially when Kelly is hiding in the laundry chute). While it definitely doesn’t burn as bright as I would have liked it to,  I still think it at least deserves a rental.

Available on Amazon!

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Book Review: Pretty When She Dies by Rhiannon Frater

Amaliya is just another college student until the night she is killed…and then turned into a vampire. Confused and filled with bloodlust, she seeks answers but her cruel creator abandons her to see how long she will survive. As she struggles with her new nature, she leaves a string of bodies across Texas before deciding to seek out others like herself for answers. She is picked up by Cian, the vampire ruler of Austin who shares the same creator she does. Vowing not to abandon her, Cian teaches Amaliya about her new dark nature and how to survive without detection. The two vampires share an undeniable attraction, yet Cian is engaged to be married to a perky human, one who is not too happy with Amaliya’s appearance.

Meanwhile, Amaliya is being watched by her creator, who is a powerful ancient necromancer that can command the dead. His new creation is but a plaything for him, and having his other child, Cian, involved only ups the ante for the cruel master.

Can Amaliya and Cian resist each other’s temptation? More importantly, can they finally defeat their elder creator?

I have to admit, when I received Pretty When She Dies I was expecting just another run-of-the-mill vampire novel. In a genre inundated with vampire stories, I wasn’t expecting much from Rhiannon Frater’s book. However, as soon as I began reading I just couldn’t put the book down!! Luckily, I was on vacation when I started reading and had plenty of leisure time to devote to Pretty When She Dies. I’m glad I did, because I did not want to stop reading the novel once I started! At the same time, the story was so delightfully dark and passionate I didn’t want it to end! Either way, I finished the novel in two days because it was so addicting.

I really don’t have anything bad to say about the book, just good things! First, I loved the character of Amaliya. She’s a mix of goth, punk and metal and from the very beginning I could empathize with her. She is very well-developed, and through her transformation you get to see the interaction with her family (her father is a prick, but her Grandmamma and cousin are very supportive). She is both vulnerable and tough, a combination that makes her that much more likable. And with her new vampire persona comes some neat-o powers. Seems that her creator passed on some of his necromancy skills to her, making things frightfully exciting! I also loved the other characters in the novel, from her wicked creator to the charming yet gruff Cian. Even Cian’s servant and his fiancĂ© were well-developed and added more intrigue to the proceedings. Later in the novel, a vampire hunter becomes involved but ends up on a surprising side.

The book was chock full of tension and suspense. Amaliya’s violent and oftentimes messy adjustment to vampire life kept me on the edge of my seat. Her early kills seemed like they would be discovered by the police, but luckily they placed the blame on Satanists instead. And when she meets Cian the heat really gets turned up! This isn’t some cheesy and unbelievable Twatlight romance, but Amaliya and Cian’s attraction is raw and rough, exactly how it should be! I also enjoyed the interactions Amaliya had with other vampires, including a particularly sadistic fellow in San Antonio that didn’t like other vampires on his turf.

One small problem was that there were numerous typos in the book. The book is self-published (and otherwise looks great), but an editor could have done wonders. However, everything else that really matters (characters and story) were entirely enjoyable and thus the typos didn’t really detract too much from my adoration of Pretty When She Dies.

I could go on and on praising Pretty When She Dies, but honestly that would fill pages and pages and I don’t think you’d want to read all that. So, I will leave you with this: Pretty When She Dies is a bloody good time filled with violence, vampires, passion, Texans AND zombies…really, what else can you ask for?? Rhiannon Frater has crafted an engaging and addicting novel that I HIGHLY recommend! Word is that she has a sequel in the works, called Pretty When She Kills, and after her first vampire novel I am eagerly anticipating it!

Available on Amazon!

Friday, August 13, 2010

Book Review: Sick Things - An Anthology of Extreme Creature Horror

As a follow-up to their Vile Things: Extreme Deviations of Horror anthology, Comet Press has released Sick Things: An Anthology of Extreme Creature Horror, edited by Cheryl Mullenax. Does it live up to its “extreme” tag and the high-quality of Comet’s past releases? Read on to find out!

From the back cover:

Over-endowed aliens invade earth with one purpose: to mate with human females. A filmmaker documents a devil-worshipping blood cult – and becomes the main subject. A farmer with an unnatural affection for his livestock gets a special gift when his wife is bitten by a werewolf. An employee finds his new boss sexy and attractive – and so do the flys. Pissed off, flesh-eating cows take over a dairy farm. A musician returns from the dead to avenge his wife’s murder, with the help of a mysterious black possum. The Allies find a secret weapon, a monstrous blob with an insatiable appetite for dead human flesh. A chef creates his ultimate dish: an anatomically correct golem made out of leftovers. A mythical demon preys on unsuspecting college girls. And many more…

Wow, Sick Things is definitely one deviant, extreme collection of stories! I made the mistake of reading this during my lunch break and it was definitely a challenge to keep my food down! If you can think of the most vile, disgusting thing imaginable, it’s probably in one of the tales of this collection.

While all of the stories are effective, one stood out as my personal favorite. The Hansel and Gretel-themed Evil, Bent and Candy-Sweet by Tim Curran is a grotesquely beautiful short story with imagery so strong you can almost smell it. I loved the author’s descriptions (“The sky had been slit open, oozing tangles of red blood and seams of yellow fat at the horizon.”) as well as his characters, including Brother, Sister and of course the evil witch. There is just something so malignantly magnificent about this story, weaving its dark, twisted perspective into the fairy tale imagery. The collection is worth buying just for this story alone!

Other favorites of mine included Heat by Daniel I. Russell, about a farmer who is into bestiality that gets more than he bargained for when his wife turns into a werewolf, Jimmy Sticks and the Outlaw Critter of Doom by Michael Boatman, about a murdered man that comes back as a zombie to extract revenge on his and his wife’s killers, and The Special Son by Jeffrey Hale, about a special needs boy who discovers just why he is so special when his semen mixes with spider eggs to produce a whole new ghastly creature.

While the four stories above were my personal favorites, all of the seventeen stories in Sick Things are worth checking out. All of them have a high gross-out factor and gorehounds will be delighted by the visceral scenes contained in each tale.

If you are an extreme fan of horror looking for the ultimate in disgusting, vile and disturbing fiction, Sick Things: An Anthology of Extreme Creature Horror is a must-read…just make sure you have your barf bag handy!

Buy it on Amazon!

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Berdella (2009)

This low-budget film is based on the relatively unknown 1980’s Kansas City serial killer Bob Berdella who raped, tortured and killed at least six men before he was apprehended. Not much attention has been given to Berdella, perhaps because he looks like David Cross playing Tobias Funke in Arrested Development (just LOOK at that mustache in the poster!) or maybe homosexual killers from the ‘80s just aren’t in style anymore. Whatever the case, I wish filmmakers Bill Taft and Paul South had left Bob Berdella in the closet, because their film on him is one big bore.

The film follows the odd Berdella, who acts more of like a socially maladjusted Dungeons and Dragons geek rather than a serial killer. We see him hocking his wares at his flea market stall “Bob’s Bazaar Bizarre”, hanging out in gay clubs, scoring drugs for the local junkies, stringing up victims in his basement, beating them and then beating off, extolling the virtues of sandwiches and on and on…

Yup, this film drags on and on, showing more of Berdella’s “normal life” rather than showing his disturbing perversions of raping and killing. In fact, most of the torture and death occurs off-screen and on the whole the film isn’t all that gory. Where gore is shown (we see the aftermath of a dude’s eyes that have been gouged out) it is so amateur that it doesn’t have a strong effect on the viewer. The film’s promise of “shocking and bizarre” certainly doesn’t apply to the actual film.

And then there’s the acting…goodness, how the actors are either over-the-top ridiculous or otherwise stiffer than a board! Perhaps it’s the stupid dialogue they are forced to speak or just their delivery of it, but the acting here, while certainly not the worst, is still pretty bad.

With so many other better serial killer movies out there, I find it hard to recommend anything about Berdella. The only neat-o thing they have going for them is some cool looking promo materials (stickers that read “Bobey,” a parody of the “Obey” street art campaign), but the actual film is a big, boring let-down. I thought that at least it would be a good examination of the psychology of a gay serial killer, but they didn’t really delve all that much into the psychology of Berdella, instead giving us a rather static view of his everyday life. Zzzzzzzzz…

Sorry kids, but this serial killer is a real snooze.

Available from Amazon!

Brainjacked (2010)

A runaway named Tristan is lured by the charming Laney to a secret underworld run by a neurosurgeon that takes in teenagers with no place left to go. However, he prescribes each and every one of them trepanation, the practice of drilling holes into a person’s skull to alleviate mental anguish and psychological issues. Tristan submits to the operation to stop his head-grinding migraines, but the doctor has a nefarious ulterior motive for the operations…he turns these teenagers into mindless slaves that do his bidding!

Brainjacked promised a pretty cool plot, so I was ready for something that combined sci-fi thrills with some good old fashioned gore and plenty of laughs…but I ended up laughing for all the wrong reasons. I mean, how are you supposed to take seriously a film that features a doctor with a drill in place of a hand?? You’d think the writers would capitalize on this silliness and make the film light-hearted with plenty of laughs, but unfortunately Brainjacked is played straight as an arrow.

And, you know, if it had any comedy (intentional, that is) at all it might have actually been a decent movie! Disappointingly, it’s actually pretty dull and doesn’t capitalize on the fun of a “mad doctor”. Not even the gory “drill” effects could save this picture from the doldrums. Plus, all the drilling gets old pretty fast.

The film could have also benefitted by a more experienced director and editor. Some scenes are way too jumpy (like the confusing and frenetic opening scenes) while others just drag and drag. Also, the narrative structure of the story definitely needs some work. I really didn’t care for the opening scenes and how Tristan is introduced to the audience. I also thought it was odd how Laney just happened upon Tristan that night and decided to bring him back to the doctor. A bit too convenient for my taste…

Though Brainjacked had an interesting premise, in execution it just failed to delivery anything but boredom. It takes itself too seriously when it really should have had fun with its plot. I mean trepanation, crazy doctors, teenage sex slaves and teenagers programmed to kill?? It sounds like it could have made a great B-movie had it lightened up a little. Oh well…when this film comes out at the end of August, I’d avoid it unless you have a trepanation fetish!

Available from Amazon!

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Book Review: Day by Day Armageddon - Beyond Exile by J.L. Bourne

Following up his novel Day by Day Armageddon (disclaimer: which I’ve never read), author J.L. Bourne gives us Beyond Exile, the next chapter in a military soldier’s attempt at surviving and documenting the zombie apocalypse.

I’ll be honest (as I always am) – I really wasn’t into this book when I first started reading. Perhaps it was because I hadn’t read the original, but I just couldn’t get into the short, direct journal entries filled with military jargon. However, after about 100 pages in the story really started making pace and I started enjoying it more and more!

Though I hadn’t read the original, I had no problem understanding what was going on. The film picks up with the narrator and a group of survivors holed up against the zombies in some underground military bunker. They eventually make contact with the military (or what’s left of it), but when our narrator goes on a recon mission for supplies his plane crashes, leaving him hundreds of miles from “home”. Can he make it through the zombie hordes and the dangerous radiation of major cities to return to the one home he has come to know?

There is lots of action in Beyond Exile, from swarming zombies (both of the fast and slow variety) to the threat of roving bands of bandits to rogue military units and so on. As our narrator traverses a rough landscape, dodging zombies and battling loneliness, I was left on the edge of my seat, rooting for him to make the long trek home unscathed.

Though some of the jargon left me baffled, lots of people familiar with the military, weapons and so on will be thrilled by the detail here. Author J.L. Bourne is a Naval man himself, and his military experience is evident in Beyond Exile. Though I might not have known what all the technical terms were, I think I got the general gist and besides, the jargon gave the story that much more credence.

Day by Day Armageddon: Beyond Exile is an entertaining, fast-paced book. Though a reading of Bourne’s first book in the series, Day by Day Armageddon might be beneficial to start, it’s definitely not necessary to enjoy its sequel. It took me a little while to get into the flow and style of the novel, but once I did I couldn’t put it down!

Buy it on Amazon!

The Hound of the Baskervilles (1959)

This 1959 film is Hammer Studios’ treatment of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes story. With a wonderful cast, including Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, and an atmospheric setting of a castle on the foggy English moors, this is a classic that pairs well with a dimmed room and plenty of popcorn.

The story begins with a cruel aristocrat, Sir Hugo Baskerville, tormenting and exploiting his servants. After offering up a maid to his slovenly guests during a party, Sir Hugo discovers she has escaped and he gives chase. He catches up to the girl near some crumbling ruins on the moor and stabs her to death. However, immediately after he is killed by a “hound of hell”. Many years later the curse of the “hound of the Baskervilles” persists. Sherlock Holmes (Peter Cushing) and Watson (Andre Morell) are hired to investigate the most recent death of a Baskerville and to make sure the last remaining heir, Sir Henry (Christopher Lee) doesn’t succumb to the “curse”. Can Holmes solve the case before it’s too late?

I love old mystery movies like this! However, The Hound of the Baskervilles is really the cream of the crop! Its well-constructed plot, creepy setting and enjoyable characters all kept my attention for its entire running time. I was even trying to figure out “whodunit” half-way through, but I must admit Sherlock Holmes had me beat on this mystery!

First off, the setting is just gothically gorgeous…crumbling ruins in the moonlight, misty moors, old creaky castles, howling hounds, flickering candlelight…I could gush on and on, but you probably get the idea! I absolutely love the gothic aesthetic, especially when it’s pulled off in film correctly. I really wasn’t expecting a Sherlock Holmes tale to have such a creepy and romantic atmosphere, but Hound certainly did and pulled it off as well! Director Terence Fisher, no stranger to gothic horror, certainly shows off his skill in this film!

Secondly, the story was just fantastic. It is based on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s tale, so I really shouldn’t be surprised! The film sticks pretty close to the original story as well, though a few liberties and changes were made. I’ve heard people b*tch and moan that they changed too much, but I don’t think that’s the case. The film’s ending feels a bit more realistic instead of the romantic ending Doyle imagined in his book and the other liberties are small enough to not really affect the whole of the story. Kudos to screenwriter Peter Bryan for sticking close to the original story while making it his own as well!

Lastly, the characters and the acting were excellent! I especially liked the cocksure and arrogant Sherlock Holmes that Peter Cushing played! Andre Morell was equally good as the competent Watson, whom we spend most of the first part of the film with. And who can forget Christopher Lee? Ladies and gentlemen, he is absolutely scrumptious here!! I mean, can I please just swoon in his arms? Anywho, Lee is great as the befuddled Sir Henry, who is not sure whether to believe his family’s curse or not. All of the other players in the film did a fine job, too.

The film didn’t need that many special effects, so there’s not much to talk about in that respect. A bloody knife and a mine that caves in on Holmes offer the most shocks in the film, besides the exciting ending, but that doesn’t mean the rest of the film is boring! Far from it, it’s amazing what director Fisher does with atmosphere and great actors! The cave-in and a nighttime chase through the moors were the most exciting scenes for me to watch, but the ending is also quite good and comes as a bit of a shock!

If you haven’t had the pleasure of watching Hammer’s Hound of the Baskervilles, do yourself a favor and get it now! It’s simply elementary, my dear readers!

Available on Amazon!

Monday, August 9, 2010

A Whisper in the Dark (1976)

I gotta tell you, I love slow-burning, mysterious ghost stories. The psychological impact of such films leave me wanting more, so I eagerly seek out titles I’m unfamiliar with. Such was the case with A Whisper in the Dark (aka Un Sussurro nel Buio), a 1976 production from Italy.

In this film, a wealthy family is vexed by the existence of Luca, the imaginary friend of their 12-year-old son Martino. Mother Camilla is affected the most, so much that her nerves are shot. It doesn’t help that she has two bratty daughters, or that her mother, The Countess, is visiting the mansion and her husband is a philandering fool. However, everyone soon begins to fear Martino and his imaginary friend Luca.

Why you ask? Well, it seems that anyone who has anything bad to say about Luca or Martino has something bad befall them. For example, when his sisters play a trick on him, Martino tells them Luca will get back at them. That afternoon, the sisters are to attend a party but it starts pouring rain. Even when they try to attend, their car gets a flat tire. In another instance, Martino discovers his father is having an affair and the adulteress is scared away by a toad placed in her bath.

Pretty tame stuff, but it spooks the family enough that they bring in an “expert” to analyze Martino. When the professor threatens to take Martino away he mysteriously dies. Are all these instances mere coincidence or does Luca really exist?

A Whisper in the Dark starts off very strong. It has the creepy atmosphere of the surrounding countryside and forest, plus the foreboding mansion that lend it much gothic beauty. Then there are some spooky scenes, including Martino “interacting” with Luca, an artful shot of a lone red balloon floating through the gardens, the light sound of a child laughing, a swing swinging on its own, a weirdly unsettling kid’s costume party and a very effective scene where Camilla is kissed by invisible lips.

There is no doubt that the film is beautiful, lushly shot by director Marcello Aliprandi and cinematographer Claudio Cirillo (who actually plays a detective in the film and also does a cute intro before the film!). However, the film never really goes anywhere and the creepy scenes are far and in-between. Mostly we see the family interacting (dear lord those sisters are grating! If I was Luca I would have gotten rid of them long ago) instead of any real ghostly activity. And the fact that there is only one death was pretty disheartening. Of course, since the film is so ambiguous this is supposed to make us question if Luca really exists or if everything is just unhappy circumstance, but for me this wasn’t enough.

While I enjoyed the psychological games the film played with the audience, I just wish a little bit more had been done to scare the audience instead of puzzle them. The ending gives no resolution, but repeats a similar pattern of Martino telling everyone that Luca prefers peach jam on his toast, not plum (yes, a table setting and food is laid out for the invisible Luca). Previous to this scene is a bizarre dream-like sequence where Camilla decides to take care of Luca’s ghost (since he may be her own miscarried child) for herself and through fog and snow leads him out of the mansion’s gates. The next morning she wakes up on the muddy ground (sans snow or fog) and finds Luca back to his old tricks at the breakfast table. So much for resolution…

A Whisper in the Dark is a film I desperately wanted to love. Ghost stories are my absolute fave and the right ones send a delightful shiver down my back, but this film only left me mildly interested. While it is a beautiful film and has its unsettling moments, more should have been done with it. If you are like me and like subtle, atmospheric horror it does deserve at least a look, though!

Available from Amazon!

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Alligator (1980)

Remember the urban legend about alligators running loose in the sewers? The legend goes that gators were taken home by overeager kids wanted them as pets, only to be flushed down the toilet when they became problematic. The gators ended up in the sewers, eating stray pets, bums and the occasional kid and causing general hysteria.

The 1980 film Alligator follows this same premise, but also throws in some nefarious corporation illegally doing cruel experiments on animals and dumping their growth-hormone packed corpses into the sewers. Well, this is all well and good for Mr. Gator (whose real name is Ramon) since he has a steady diet of pumped up puppies that cause him to reach 30 – 40 feet in length! Still, the hormones cause him to have an insatiable appetite, so soon he is roaming the streets of Chicago, looking for his next bite! Who is gonna stop him? How ‘bout a misogynistic cop with a receding hair line (Robert Forster) and a gator scientist (Robin Riker) who happens to be the same kid whose daddy ended up flushing the alligator all those years ago!

This entry into the “animals attack” subgenre is pretty entertaining, but it has some awful characters…they are so bad, in fact, that I was rooting for the alligator the whole time! First, it appears that EVERYONE in the film is misogynistic…NO ONE believes a woman can be…GASP!…SMART or a SCIENTIST! Every male character talks down to the lone female character (the alligator scientist) and she pretty much just takes it. The receding-hairline cop even tells her he isn’t gonna take her to dinner unless it’s guaranteed that she is gonna bone him…and when they finally gets to dinner he is a major ass (as if he wasn’t enough of one to begin with). The misogyny in this film is so annoying it pretty much becomes amusing after a while…and it’s just begging to have a drinking game created for every offensive remark made!

On the plus side, the film has an interesting anti-animal cruelty/anti-animal testing perspective. The corporation, CEO and flunky “scientist” that are abusing and killing animals in lab tests are looked upon as the villains (as they should be). I found it interesting that the film had such a strong animal rights message considering that the alligator is blown to smithereens at the end. However, I’ll take animal welfare messages where I can get them, and it appears that Alligator at least has some good points about the cruelty of animal testing as well as showing how unnecessary it is in most cases (in most cases, I’m not saying all, as this is a very sticky subject).

Also, I found it interesting that I was cheering for the alligator the whole way through. “Ramon” kinda became like a superhero during the film as he took down the bad guys (most satisfying scene: seeing the CEO of the corporation get smooshed!). I didn’t care about our supposed “hero”, the cop, or even the woman gator scientist. No, I just wanted to see Ramon slither away and live another day to take a bite out of crime! Sadly, he doesn’t survive…

For an “animals attack” film, I sure don’t recall that much blood…there’s one memorable scene at the beginning where an alligator wrangler (you know, those guys in the swamp who put on shows for crowds, opening gators’ mouths, wrestling them, etc.) gets his leg bitten off, but from there the gator manglings all kinda blur together. Even the satisfying scene where the CEO gets his due isn’t all that bloody. However, I will say that the alligator looks great! Or maybe I was too distracted by the misogynistic cracks to notice…Anywho, director Lewis Teague used both an animatronic, mechanical alligator (which often malfunctioned) as well as a regular sized alligator in miniature sets. Though sometimes it was obvious, I think it still looked great nonetheless!

Alligator is a pretty decent “animals attack” horror film. If you can get past the annoying characters, misogyny and lack of gore, definitely check it out. If you don’t think you’ll like it, check it out anyway and just make a drinking game out of all the misogyny that occurs!


Available from Amazon!

Babysitter Wanted (2008)

I’ve been waiting (and waiting) to check out Babysitter Wanted for quite some time. Its official release happened in 2008, but it hadn’t hit DVD until this past July. By that point this flick had kinda fallen off my radar and it wasn’t until a friend asked what I thought of it that I remembered this film and eagerly checked it out.

From the cover art you’d assume this is a typical slasher, but remember what your mom told you about judging a book from its cover? I made the same mistake, but was pleasantly surprised by the turn of events in Babysitter Wanted.

Starting off much like the awesome House of the Devil (review), Babysitter Wanted finds the sweet Angie (Sarah Thompson) arriving to her new community college campus to study art history. Her brand new roomie doesn’t have a bed for her, so our dear Angie is in need of some cash…and fast. While poking around the sparse campus, Angie befriends a cute boy, notices some “missing person” posters, and appears to find the perfect babysitting gig. That Friday night she sets out for the isolated farm of the Stanton’s (Bruce Thomas and Kristen Dalton), where she’ll be babysitting their young son Sam (Kai Caster). All seems well until Sam wakes up and eats some unusual food for a little kid…and then the weird phone calls commence and strange noises outside convince Angie that someone is trying to get in. Police Chief Dinneli (Bill Moseley) isn’t much help, but promises to come around to check on Angie. Meanwhile, Angie discovers something unsettling about Sam, the intruder outside and the Stanton’s…will she survive the night?

Ok, I will try not to give anything away in this review because this film is best seen cold, without knowing much about it. I believe the surprise factor of its twists and turns really heightened my enjoyment of it! Be warned, though, spoilers may be present, so proceed with caution!

The film may start off like a slasher, complete with Angie feeling like someone is stalking her. Then when she is babysitting the weird phone calls start…heavy breathing on the other end, but no speaking. Of course, I thought the film was heading into familiar territory, especially when someone started rattling the door and eventually forced themselves into the house and Angie was forced to hide. However, it then took a completely sinister turn that really knocked me off my rocker! The rest of the film was peppered with the occult, torture and black humor. And I don’t wanna say any more because it would give too much away…

For an independent film, Babysitter Wanted looks great…it’s spookily lit, competently shot and features great direction from co-directors Jonas Barnes (who also wrote the film) and Michael Manasseri.

Also excellent is the acting. Sarah Thompson really shines as the innocent Angie who later gets tough as she battles the bad guy(s). Despite her “pure” nature, she’s not annoying and you come to care for her through her sweet and vulnerable nature. As things progress, she forces herself to toughen up and her transformation from innocent to kick-ass comes naturally! I also enjoyed Kai Caster’s performance as the creepy Sam, as well as Kristen Dalton and Bruce Thomas as the parents. Even genre-fave Bill Moseley turned out a good performance, this time as a good guy!

My complaints with the film are few, but I felt the pacing towards the beginning was a bit slow. Also several plot holes bothered me…the roommate angle was dropped pretty quick, so why show it at all? It’s like she was just used for convenience in explaining the disappearances around campus and disappeared herself after that. Also, what ever happened to Angie’s boy toy? He pretty much disappeared until the end and it was never really explained why (unless I missed something?).

Despite these annoyances, I thoroughly enjoyed Babysitter Wanted. It certainly threw me for a loop and uses many different tropes from the horror genre to create surprise and suspense. Despite the many different aspects it uses, it still manages to remain grounded and is a hell of an entertaining good time!

Available on Amazon!

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Meadowoods (2010)

You all know that faux documentaries are nothing new in the horror genre. “Found footage” flicks have been popular from Cannibal Holocaust to Paranormal Activity and are now more common than ever thanks to the heightened scare factor, immediacy and realism of faux docs. Plus, they can be relatively cheap to make for filmmakers on a budget! However, they are so “dime-a-dozen” nowadays that sometimes they are more a chore to sit through than a pleasure.

So, I didn’t really have high hopes for Meadowoods, where three college students decide to film themselves planning and executing a murder.

The three disenfranchised college kids are Stephanie (Michelle Roe), a bitter young woman who has lost all faith in humanity, Travis (Connor Thorp), the seemingly happy-go-lucky leader of the group but who hides a sinister, sociopathic nature and the brooding cameraman Ryan (Michael Downey). The three are fed up with being neglected by their parents and living in a small podunk town, so to go down in history they decide to kidnap and kill a random person, filming everything. However, once their plan starts to become a reality, Ryan starts having second thoughts, especially after he gets close to their intended victim.

I wasn’t expecting too much out of Meadowoods and figured it would just be another throw-away serial killer flick with lots of violence and brutality. Lucky me, I actually got a rather chilling story about the ambivalence and indifference of seemingly ordinary people. The scare factor in Meadowlands isn’t in the final scenes where the kids’ quarry is trapped and tortured, but rather in the scenes where each of the kids are interviewed, stating their reasons for wanting to kill someone, their views on death and the afterlife and so on. Their coldness and flippancy towards killing another is absolutely chilling and portraying this is where this film succeeds!

Of course, none of this would have worked without competent and convincing actors and surprisingly for an indie film the acting here is top-notch across the board. Connor Thorp, Michelle Roe and Michael Downey all do a stunning job playing the trio of friends. They were all entirely convincing as bored college kids looking for a sick thrill. Very spooky performances! And Ila Schactler gave another believable performance as their intended victim. She was likable and perfect as the girl next door!

I also want to give kudos to writers Stuart Ball, Scott Phillips (who also directed) and Anna Siri for creating such realistic characters and such a chilling story. I appreciated that the characters weren’t your stereotypical stupid teens and that the script offered more than just violence.

My only problem with Meadowlands was the ending, which dragged a bit too much in my opinion. It was almost like they used most of it as padding since it got so repetitive. The taunting and torturing of the victim was fine, but did we really need to see her sit there and scream for what seemed like 20 minutes straight? I think the ending killed the unsettling feel of the rest of the film, which is unfortunate since I enjoyed the first part of the film so much.

However, I would still recommend you check out Meadowlands. It isn’t your typical “found footage” horror film and really takes the time to frighten us psychologically through its portrait of today’s bored youth.

Available from Amazon!
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