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April 17, 2014

FMWL Indie Spotlight - The Lashman

(2014, Dir. by Cameron McCasland.)

Review by The Mike.

One of my most common complaints with "retro" genre films - films like Grindhouse and Machete and dozens of low budget imitators - is that the pace is updated for modern audiences. Of course, there's an audience for fast-paced splatterfests out there, but I'm always appreciative of the filmmakers who pay homage to the past without forgetting that most genre films from the '70s and '80s didn't move at breakneck speeds.

One example of this is The Lashman, Cameron McCasland's debut slasher throwback in which some friends head off for a weekend at a cabin only to find that the angry spirit of a lash-wielding fella from the 1800s is at work in the woods. It's a simple kind of horror film - five friends, no civilization, a deadly legend come to life - but it's also an authentic reminder of the things we love about this kind of film.

(Now that I think about it, should I be dropping the s and just calling this a "lasher film"? I do love being accurate, and it would probably be a great poster quote if I said it's "The first great Lasher film!", but that's just too confusing for me. Excuse me if I continue to say "slasher" despite the film's lashing nature.)

The first thing you'll notice about McCasland's film is probably that it looks like something you'd find on a VHS tape in the 1980s. For the most part, the clothes, cars and settings look like something out of Just Before Dawn or The Burning. The film's sound design is also intentionally low-tech, and younger viewers might not understand that this is how some movies used to sound when they were made on the cheap. It's obviously a zero budget film, but the attention to detail in making the film feel dated is one of the things that made me interested in The Lashman from the opening scenes.

The characters are not original for a slasher movie - sensitive guy (David Vaughn), nice girl (Stacey Dixon), lustful couple who make immoral decisions (Jeremy Jones & Kaylee Williams), nice girl's brother who doesn't fit in (Shawn C. Phillips)- but the actors all seem to know what their place is in the script and fit it well. Jones is especially effective as the aggressive member of the group who drinks too much and thinks with the wrong head, while Vaughn, Phillips, and Dixon have no problems fitting into the film. Williams' character is probably the most interesting of the bunch because she's written as something of a wild-card who brings sexual tension to the group. The character is a nice addition to the otherwise paint-by-numbers set up, but none of the actors or characters is bound to be the most memorable thing about the film.

I worry that many people may find The Lashman's pace to be concerning - after the opening sequence establishes the villain it's a long stretch of time before blood flies again - but the slow build to madness is what won me over about this film. Patience pays off for McCasland, because the focus on these characters, the story of the Lashman, and the building tension in both their relationships and the setting is what makes The Lashman feel more like those early '80s slasher films that many of us love despite their flaws. Have you seen these tricks before? Probably. Do they still make for a great party horror flick? Absolutely.

Some of the film's charm is lost in the final act, as the showdown between the killer and his victims is brief and builds to an abrupt finale. There might have been some benefit to spreading out the kills a little more in the short film - which runs only 81 minutes with end credits - but the action is still entertaining and the film ends at a natural stopping point - which, of course, leaves the possibility of a sequel.

The Lashman probably isn't for everyone, but horror lovers who remember the VHS era fondly will surely admire it for what it is. Sure, none of the actors are going to win major awards and the script is simple and it's not the bloodiest thing you'll find and it's just simply not perfect. But I haven't seen a tribute to slasher cinema that feels as genuine as The Lashman does, and that alone should make it worth a viewing.

The Lashman will premiere this Saturday night at 7:00 pm at the Full Moon Horror Film Festival in Nashville, and if you're interested in keeping up with it you can check out the film's Facebook and Twitter pages to see when it'll be playing in your neck of the woods. Until then, enjoy the trailer below.

March 25, 2014

Book Review - Joyland

Review by The Mike.

I hope that someday, when I get old, I'll be able to look back at my life with the wisdom shown by a Stephen King narrator. King has often been able to tell a story from the viewpoint of a grown man looking back on his tumultuous youth - for us movie fans the easy example is when Richard Dreyfus told the story of Stand By Me, though my favorite might be the lead character from his more recent tale Riding the Bullet - and he does it again in Joyland, a 2013 novel that offers just enough of the supernatural and the homicidal to suck a horror fan like me into this fantastic coming-of-age story.

At the center of the book, telling his tale from an older and wiser future, is a man named Devin Jones who went by Dev or Jonesy when he was a 21 year old amusement park employee in the summer of 1973. Jonesy, as I'd like to call him, is an altruistic English student, a virgin who spends his summer pining for the girl he lost while listening to The Doors and reading The Lord of the Rings when he's not working, and someone who just seems to bring out the best in the people around him. Maybe that's because he's the one telling us the story - our narrator does point out that everyone makes their past sound a little more exciting than it really was - but when we like the guy so much we're willing to go along with their version of events.

Jonesy's dramatic tale features plenty of interesting characters - carnies and college kids and a librarian and a sick kid and more - and all of them seem to orbit around his place of employment, the fictional North Carolina amusement park which shares its name with the novel. Joyland isn't a big deal of a place and Jonesy never paints the most glamorous picture of it, but he and King certainly paint it as an environment that would inspire someone to mutter that the place "has character."  King is more than willing to pull back some curtains in the entertainment business, providing Jonesy and his co-workers with their own lingo that he dubs "the Talk,"  but most of the seedy prejudices you might have about carnival workers are absent from this book. King doesn't want us to think of Joyland as a bad place, despite some of the terrible things he creates there.

Those who know Stephen King's work (at this point in his career, is there anyone who doesn't?) might be surprised at how much of the book (which runs a meager 280ish pages in total) is about the carnival life and our lead's self-discovery during his time away from school. King does everything in his power to make Jonesy seem like a good kid - thanks to his narration from thirty years later things like suicidal tendencies and masturbation are brushed off as dumb kid stuff - but it never seems too forced. It's essential to Joyland that the reader truly likes Jonesy, and after finishing the book I don't see how anyone couldn't. He's a sweet character who is slightly one note, but he's never too simple or cliche.

This is a Stephen King book, and you're right to expect something sinister, but it's one of his most restrained supernatural tales. There are hints that some characters possess what his other books might call "a shine" and there's a ghost and there's talk about a few brutal (but not so brutal that you wouldn't see them on a prime time network drama) murders inside the story. Joyland left me wanting a little more in these areas - there are lots of explanations of experiences had by others but not enough direct reader-meets-evil moments to keep a more cynical horror fan's attention - but it's also a bit poetic how King manages to tell a story of a killing and a haunting without losing the book's more life-affirming message.

Joyland worked for me because it's written like so many other great King stories of redemption and growth and hope - themes that often get forgotten when people want to talk about Pennywise the Clown or Randall Flagg or Jack Torrance and his axe - and because it manages to keep a positive twist on death and the macabre. The book is full of death and sadness, but its structure - especially all the asides from the older Jonesy that key us in to some twists down the road - provides plenty of levity that keeps us from sinking too far into the darker details of the story. It feels like this was all so simple to King - this is one the slightest books I've ever read from him - but I couldn't help being impressed when I realized how invested I was in this character and the events that made his time at Joyland so unforgettable. Joyland isn't an epic of terror like some of his more renowned classics, but it's a reminder that the author can still grab our focus and hold it for as long as he likes.

January 9, 2014

The Mike's Top 11 Horror Films of 2013

I said it last year and I'll say it again - going to 11 never gets old.
I realize things have been a little bit slow here of late, and even the Midnight Movie of the Week is on vacation. But I'm not gonna miss my chance for a good year-end wrap up. Moreover, there have been too many horror movies I didn't have the chance to cover in 2013, so this is my way of making up time for all y'all out there who might not know how good 2013 was in the horror 'verse.

Before we get to the top eleven, some honorable mentions are in order, and some ground rules must be set. The most important of these ground rules is that not all of these films are strictly 2013 releases. Like previous years (here's 2012, here's 2011, and here's 2010), I'm considering films that a) were widely released in 2013, b) were provided to me for review in 2013, or c) were never widely released until their home video release in 2013.  So, there will be a couple of outliers but I assure you they are damn fine horror films and if you're that broken up about them being here then you're clearly being silly. OK?

Honorable Mention: 
(listed in alphabetical order)
American Mary - This might be #12 on the list, and it was a hard cut. I dig the Soska sisters' bold approach to filmmaking, and Katherine Isabelle owns the lead role. It's haunting in a gross kind of way.

Byzantium - I feel like I might be undervaluing this one, which is probably the biggest and most romantic vampire story in ages. Vampires have been a tool for lesser filmmakers of late, but Neil Jordan and company seem like they respect what they're doing here. That made the film stick with me longer than I expected.

Cockneys vs. Zombies - I feel like I've been fed up with zombies for years, but there's always a movie each year that surprises me. This year that movie was Cockneys vs. Zombies, which sounds like the worst idea but is actually a really funny and really exciting action comedy. 

The Conjuring - I don't get the love many have for this one, but I sure did have fun in the theater watching it. That counts for something.

Dark Skies - For my money, this is the most underappreaciated horror film of the year. I went to see it just because I wanted to make fun of it (and because I had to see the school counselor when I thought I saw a UFO as a kid), but it ended up keeping me entertained. Well written and intense; it feels more genuine than most jump scare horror films we've seen lately.

Frankenstein's Army - This one's here mostly because it's just so cool looking. It feels like a low budget twist on a Guillermo Del Toro film, with a nice tie in to World War II and some jolting surprises. Director Richard Raaphorst is one to watch.

Jug Face - A unique backwoods horror with excellent work from Lauren Ashley Carter in the lead. Possibly the most original horror film I saw this year, and I think it might grow on me as time goes on.

Manborg - Not sure I saw anything this year that was more ridiculously fun than this.

V/H/S 2 - A huge step up from the first film - which I liked a lot, too - and the much loved third segment in this one is probably as good as most people say it is. The whole thing still feels a little rushed to me, but I love the concept and wouldn't mind more of this series.

World War Z - It's mostly here because it was so much more exciting than I thought it would be and wasn't a total train wreck. Brad Pitt will do that for your movie.

(In the interest of full disclosure, here's a few limited release 2013 flicks I really want to see but didn't have a chance to get to before writing this. Maybe you'll see them on the 2014 list.
Berberian Sound Studio, Big Bad Wolves, Contracted, A Field in England, Haunter, Magic Magic, Only Lovers Left Alive, Resolution, We Are What We Are, Willow Creek, Witching & Bitching, WNUF Halloween Special, Would You Rather.)

Now, list time!
Number 11 - The Lords of Salem
(Directed by Rob Zombie.)

I'm surprised that I'm listing this here too. Rob Zombie has never been my favorite cup of tea, but I've always respected something about his films, even when he was ruining everything I love about the first two Halloween movies. (Oh, did I bring that up again? My bad. Still bitter.)

The Lords of Salem has a lot of the same problems Zombie's other films have - it's 100% style-over-substance, for example - but it's also the first time that his wife, Sheri Moon Zombie, has been a capable actress - and she actually carries the whole darn film. There's a lot of beauty in this grimy film, and Zombie manages to create something that bizarre and memorable visually. The ending falls apart, but I still feel like the whole thing works. Well done, Mr. Zombie. You have my attention in a good way for once.

Number 10 - Grabbers
(Directed by Jon Wright.)

Lots and lots of tentacles combine with a great comedic energy in this Irish monster flick, where likeable actors and a smart script reign. Richard Coyle and Ruth Bradley really work well together as the mismatched cops on the monster's trail, and the film ends up feeling like Shaun of the Dead than Tremors - two movies that any horror comedy should strive to replicate.

(By the way, this would be a heckuva double feature with Cockneys vs. Zombies, which you just read about in the Honorable Mentions section. Why do those UK folks get horror comedy so well when us Americans are making Scary Movies and A Haunted Houses? Poor America.)

Number 9 - Here Comes The Devil
(Directed by Adrian Garcia Bogliano.)

A Mexican homage to films like Rosemary's Baby, Here Comes The Devil is one of the creepiest horror films I've seen in a long time. The plot balances between human and supernatural horror very well as we learn about the evil at work in this family's life, and great performances by the young co-stars only make the film that much more effective. At the center of everything is a fantastic performance by Laura Caro and one of the best reveals we've seen in a long time. This one left me thinking and feels like a script from the 1970s that's been updated perfectly to modern times.

Number 8 - John Dies At The End
(Directed by Don Coscarelli.)

It's about time that I start talking about Don Coscarelli as one of the greatest horror filmmakers, at least when it comes to being bizarre and unique. The man who created Phantasm and Bubba Ho-Tep did it again with the clinically insane John Dies At The End, a dimension-crossing, drug-induced fever dream with all sorts of entertaining stuff. Like meat monsters. And killer mustaches. See what I mean?

John Dies At the End (or, J-DATE, as I like to call it) doesn't work as well as Bubba Ho-Tep did in the pathos department - heck, very few horror movies are as emotionally involving as that one - but Chase Williamson and Rob Mayes are perfectly adaptable to the randomness of the film as the leads. J-DATE also features top notch special effects throughout, and it's the rare film that I can truly say never suffers a dull moment.

Number 7 - Kiss of the Damned
(Directed by Xan Cassevetes.)

Style definitely won out over substance in many horror films this year, and Xan Cassavetes - the daughter of legendary director/Rosemary's Baby co-star John Casssavetes - provided one more example of that with Kiss of the Damned. This is another throwback vampire whose sexually charged roots spread into both Hammer Films' heyday and Italian vampire films of the '70s like Daughters of Darkness.

Shoddy acting aside - there's some language barrier issues at work here, even with English speaking Milo Ventamiglia - Kiss of the Damned is a captivating modern addition to the vampire subgenre, and - alongside the previously mentioned Byzantium - a nice reminder that some filmmakers are still willing to take vampires seriously when Hollywood doesn't.

Number 6 - The Last Will And Testament Of Rosalind Leigh
(Directed by Rodrgio Gudino.)

This is one of the few films this year that made my skin crawl. A son inherits his late mother's home, and soon realizes the religious artifacts around the house are related to some cult stuff and suddenly everything gets creepy. It seems like a standard plot, but the approach to the film by director Rodrigo Gudino really plays up the relationship between mother and son that ended badly.

Many horror films deal with unfinished family business, but here we get terrifying work from the great Vanessa Redgrave, a whole lot of commentary on religion and Heaven and Hell, and in the end everything just feels so incredibly tense that it's impossible not to be affected by The Last Will and Testament of Rosalind Leigh.

Number 5 - Maniac
(Directed by Franck Khalfoun.)

This seemed like a bad remake of a film that didn't need to be remade when it was announced, and the casting of Elijah Wood in the lead didn't inspire much confidence in this horror fan - who is now pleased to admit he was totally wrong.  Director Franck Khalfoun nails the sleazy tone of the original film and presents one of the most interesting portrayals of a mentally disturbed serial killer that I've ever seen on screen.

Khalfoun does a De Palma-esque job by keeping the camera inside the killer's eyes for much of the film, which creates a voyeuristic feeling that had me hooked on this film. Aided by a beautiful cast of potential victims (SIDE NOTE: That redheaded actress Megan Duffy who appears early in the film is literally the cutest thing. I just have to say that.) and a shockingly sinister Frodo, Maniac works. And it works really darn well.

Number 4 - Sleep Tight
(Directed by Jaume Balaguero.)

It's been about 11 months since I watched Sleep Tight, and just the thought of it makes me smile a sinister smile. One half of the duo behind the first two [REC] films provides this marvelous thriller in which a demented doorman (Luis Tosar, giving what is probably my favorite performance in recent memory) pines for a beautiful woman and then begins to do nasty things in the name of love.

My favorite thing about Sleep Tight is Tosar's performance, as he makes Cesar the doorman into the most Norman Bates-ish horror villain since...well, Norman Bates, probably.  I struggled with wanting to root for this guy, even though he was doing awful terrible things to this woman, because Tosar does such a good job of seeming lost in his love. It's probably kind of the same way we dudes always root for John Cusack when he stalks women, and I'm sure some feminists might say I'm evil for admitting what I just said - but the point I'm trying to make is that Sleep Tight is too good at getting the viewer involved and being creepy on a human level. And that's great horror.

Number 3 - Stoker
(Directed by Park Chan-Wook.)

The English language debut of the South Korean director behind the rightfully Vengeance trilogy, Stoker - like Sleep Tight - draws on the influence of Hitchcock and manages to be incredibly unsettling while entering into the characters' home life.

Mia Wasikowska and Nicole Kidman both shine as the women of the film who are dealing with death, but it's the consistently undervalued Matthew Goode who steals the show as the bizarre uncle at the center of the script (which was written, oddly, by television star Wentworth Miller).  Goode is perfectly stilted (it's eerily reminscent of this his turn as Ozymandias is Watchmen, only he's in a rich country home instead of a skyscraper) and his posturing throughout the film makes the character uncomfortable to watch. Park Chan-Wook plays on the same tensions between sex and violence that filled films like Oldboy, and with help from his cast leaves us with the most engrossing horror story of the year.

Number 2 - You're Next
(Directed by Adam Wingard.)

I saw this thing three times while it was in the theater and if it was in the theater right now I would watch it again. (It's not, but it is out on blu-ray next Tuesday and I will be watching it then.)  You're Next is kind of the ultimate junction between exploitation horror and slasher horror and torture horror and home invasion horror, and I'm still kind of in awe of it living up to the hype that had built around it over the last few years.  Even more so than last year's The Cabin in the Woods - which ran away from the pack as my favorite horror movie of that year - this is a perfect party horror movie to enjoy with a group of blood-loving film fans.

But aside from just being a gory spectacle, You're Next has some of the more intriguing characters who have been brought to life in years, and several performances that pop off the screen. Sharni Vinson takes the "final girl" role to the next level, while AJ Bowen, Nicholas Tucci, and Joe Swanberg all shine as the competing brothers in this dysfunctional family of victims. And, to top everything off, one of my all-time favorites, Barbara Crampton, gets to scream in fear one more time. There are about 470 reasons this movie makes me smile (Larry Fessenden's in it too, you guys!), and I imagine it'll hold a place in the heart of horror fans for a long, long time.

Number 1 - Evil Dead
(Directed by Fede Alvarez.)

I don't understand why horror fans aren't all in love with this movie like I am. I mean, I do understand - it's called Evil Dead but it's not The Evil Dead and horror fans are more defensive of their territory than a pack of opossums - but most of the criticisms I've seen lobbed at this movie make absolutely no sense in my mind. (P.S. - Even though I think you're taking crazy pills - I still love you, horror fans.)

Instead of talking about what other people think, I should probably tell y'all why I love Evil Dead so much, shouldn't I?  For starters, I should also point out that I love all the other Evil Dead films as much as anyone, and I wouldn't say this one improves on those films in any way. The biggest treat for me as I look at the four films that now inhabit this franchise is that each one has a different tone and feeling for the viewer than any of the rest. While this Evil Dead mimics some of the details of its predecessors and offers more than a few winks and nods at the series, it also makes enough changes along the way to feel unique and different.

I also love the lead character created for the film. Mia, realized wonderfully by Jane Levy, is not Ash - and she also doesn't need to be Ash for the film to work. Alvarez and co-writer Rodo Sayagues made a brilliant choice by introducing drug addiction to the series and Mia's arc through the story provides for maximum drama as the film unfolds. Some have decreed that this is not a "strong" female character, but this portrayal of a young woman who is dealing with addiction - a portrayal that spotlights the trials of her addiction - allows her to grow while fighting herself and the forces at work in the woods. Maybe she's not Sigourney Weaver in Aliens, but I think this kind of strong female presence is more real and accessible than it would be if the film had just made Mia a regular old-fashioned butt-kicker.

Most importantly, the film crescendos perfectly to a final confrontation that I think is as good as anything horror has produced in a long time. It's a literal bloodbath that is perhaps the goriest thing that's ever been sent to multiplex screens. It gives me goosebumps just thinking about it. For my money it might be the most beautiful horror sequence since Suspiria, and I don't feel like I'm being too hyperbolic when I say that.

Evil Dead has provided to be a divisive entry to the horror canon, and I am trying to understand when people voice their complaints about it. (Although, I generally feel like any complaint people have about this one is also a complaint that could be made about the original The Evil Dead - but that's a different story for a different day.)  I think the new Evil Dead is a welcome companion to the original trilogy that I love so dearly. It's one of the most exciting, thrilling, disgusting, and memorable horror films of this generation.

Have your own favorites that I missed? Love these movies too? Think I'm being ridiculous and bat-shit crazy? The comment section below is open. Here's to another great year of horror in 2014, and I can't wait to make another list and have these conversations again next January.  To paraphrase my hero Joe Bob Briggs and his thoughts on the drive-in, 2013 is a great example of why horror will never die.

(Any excuse to add Joe Bob to a post is an excuse I LOVE.)