Tag Archives: Independent

THE LAST KNOCK presents: THE POUGHKEEPSIE TAPES (2007)

The Last Knock

John Erick Dowdle’s The Poughkeepsie Tapes is one of horror filmdom’s “Unholy Grails” and a snipe hunt rolled into one. On its ten-year anniversary, we take a look at the film that came with a trailer but an ultra-limited release before being pulled from theaters. The only way to get feature is as a bootleg. So what’s this mockumentary about, and is it worth purchasing illegally until the Dowdle brothers give us a legitimate release? We’ll have some answers – and we invite John and Drew to come on the show and tell us why in Hell The Poughkeepsie Tapes is in distribution purgatory.

This episode’s SCREAM OUTS from Twitter: 

@unclerayscrazy @MelanieMcCurdie @dvdinfatuation @SusanontheLedge @HershelGreene1 @GuyRicketts @JessicaCameron_ @AFiendOnFilm @IamMelanieWise ‪@ArtemisPics ‪@Artemis_FF @RealJillyG @RonGizmo @FANGORIA @dixiefairy @ScreamHorrorMag @Israel_Finn @SlaughteredBird @CrypticPictures @dkarner @TheFearMerchant @SpookyMovies @d_m_elms @RSBrzoska @jedowdle @DrewDowdle @Rodney_Ascher @TheNightmareDoc @LanceWeiler @TheTunnelMovie @allorange @TMZ @Scream_Factory @ArrowFilmsVideo @blunderground @JodorowskysDune @CANAL_Factory and Paul J. Williams

Sinners in the Hands of an Indifferent God – CARNAGE PARK (2016) by Jonny Numb

(Author’s Note: this article is not intended as an endorsement or condemnation of Christian belief. Mentions of God and Christ will defer to the pronoun “he.”)

This review contains SPOILERS.

“The coin don’t have no say.” – Carla Jean (Kelly Macdonald), No Country for Old Men

There’s a scene following a bank heist that’s ripped straight out of Reservoir Dogs.

There’s opening narration by loony loner Wyatt (Pat Healy) that waxes moral and existential, not unlike the opening narration by Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) in No Country for Old Men.

There’s an attention to production design and gritty staging that winks at the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Hills Have Eyes (the gore also shows a flair for traditional, in-camera FX over CGI).

With Carnage Park, Mickey Keating is going for his Tarantino homage (or, maybe more accurately, the films that Tarantino homages). Granted, the indie-movie landscape never really stopped being littered with posers trying – and almost always failing – to craft their own unique Reservoir Dogs (Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead, anyone?). So to pay tribute to a film that’s a cornerstone of savvy-cool-ironic-iconic was bound to struggle against a wave of preexisting imitators and the challenge of extracting something unique from a well-worn premise.

For what it’s worth – and to give Carnage’s critics some credit – the film doesn’t touch its influences. It’s also a fair distance from the aesthetic and narrative complexity of Darling, Keating’s previous film.

That being said, it’s still a worthwhile ride…but not for the (visceral) reasons genre fans will expect.

The originality that emerges from all of Carnage’s borrowed parts is curiously existential (in the Cormac McCarthy, No Country vein): if there is an omniscient “God” monitoring creation, where and when is his role in intervention? Does he owe humankind anything? And how can he ignore a world in which awful things happen with disturbing regularity?

Keating is too tasteful a filmmaker to allow his concept to unravel into glorified sadism (see Rob Zombie’s similarly-themed 31), and there is a bizarre innocence at the heart of Carnage: when financially desperate farm girl Vivian (Ashley Bell – The Last Exorcism) is abducted by Scorpion Joe (James Landry Hebert – Gangster Squad) following a botched bank robbery, we are given the immediate impression that both characters are in over their heads. Vivian is resourceful and assertive, while Joe is all violent swagger; both are oblivious to their roles in the world outside of their immediate circumstances, which is perhaps why, once the violence of the situation relents, they are able to share in an eerily even-toned dialog.

From the initial panoramic montage of open hills and sky, Keating establishes a sense of the existential: yet for all the open space, Carnage Park never seems to wander beyond its tight, character-based intimacy. (Given the grandiose title, perhaps the biggest surprise is that the violence is doled out with erratically-paced deliberation.) Does this require a suspension of disbelief in that Wyatt could preside over miles and miles of desolate terrain? Sure. But it also brings some intriguing observations to the surface.

The skyline – seen mostly from a “puny mortal staring upward” POV – is punctuated by bright light pressing through clusters of clouds. Characters’ pleas for rescue fall on deaf ears, suggesting an omniscient sadism that correlates to the homicidal mischief perpetrated by Wyatt (who intones, right at the beginning: “Out here, God don’t play favorites”). One early scene in particular – of Vivian tumbling out of a car, handcuffed to a very dead Scorpion Joe – glares from an overhead POV as she cries for help (to no avail). Vivian is our conduit for empathy, but her efforts to assist random victims (played by Darby Stanchfield and Larry Fessenden) are either thwarted by an off-screen Wyatt, or left behind and forgotten in the name of her own survival. She can’t save the family farm, or anybody else; she’s in a no-win situation where self-preservation takes precedence over altruism.

Complementing the Alice in Wonderland tone Keating establishes early on, the film’s idiosyncrasies possess a randomness that still feels reflective of the real world. Instead of devolving into a Saw-styled funhouse of torture devices, the landscape of Carnage Park is a string of mournful monuments to death and decay (including a nod to Christ’s crucifixion). This is reflective of Wyatt’s opening narration about the government closing mental institutions and leaving veterans damaged from war (mentally and otherwise) to wither on the vine. As a “fuck you” to the bureaucracy, his dried-up chunk of the American Dream being used as the equivalent of General Zaroff’s playground isn’t off base.

Even the spray-painted “God’s Country” sign on the gate of Wyatt’s property is presented without irony, and establishes him as judge, jury, and executioner of this contained world. The fact that his sheriff brother, John (Alan Ruck – Ferris Bueller’s Day Off), is not only complicit in covering up his crimes, but also intimidated and emasculated in his homicidal brother’s presence, is a testament to their shared psychosis.

At the bridge between the second and third act, Vivian finds herself in a shack (adorned with macabre, homemade wind chimes and lawn ornaments – another Texas Chainsaw echo) that, for all intents and purposes, is Wyatt’s command center. She’s taunted via CB radio, and when she asks, “Who are you?” the straightness with which Wyatt answers, “Me? I’m nobody” delivers a chill on par with the everywhere-at-all-times presence he’s exhibited up to that point. Perhaps it’s a reach, but if Christ or Satan visited planet Earth today (in the most literal sense), it makes a certain amount of sense that they would walk among humanity incognito, rather than drawing excessive attention to themselves.

I’m not sure I can rationalize Wyatt as an analogue for Christ or Satan – Keating’s treatment of the character and Healy’s performance renders him almost innocuous –  but he judges his fellow humans based on his own perception (the film is light on explicit psychological insight). Does Scorpion Joe, with all his macho bluster, get a bullet to the head because of his lack of humility in the presence of someone – or something – greater than him? What of Wyatt’s absurd kindness (“HOW YA DOIN’?”) when he first meets Vivian? And what, especially, of Vivian getting the drop on Wyatt midway through, only for him to seemingly rise from the dead? “God’s Country,” indeed…

In an interesting aesthetic choice, Keating chooses to obscure Wyatt with a gasmask during the last half of the film, which raises the question: if John was covering up his actions, then who is to say that Wyatt also didn’t have other men prowling the hills? It seems unlikely that a solo sniper could orchestrate all of the sinister tableaus on display (including a camouflaged vehicle dumping-ground), given the area that would need to be covered. Also noteworthy: outside of the scene at the gate, there’s no definitive indicator as to where Wyatt’s land begins or ends; another subtle allusion to nature’s arbitrary boundaries, as well as the intangible, subjective spiritual boundaries that distance God from humankind.

An explanation that dances around the edges of Carnage Park is the possibility that Vivian, not unlike Sally Hardesty in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, has been so driven to madness that her POV is unreliable by the end. Unfortunately, this doesn’t hold much weight, as the film is initiated by Wyatt’s narration (and his murder of an unrelated victim). Nonetheless, I love Keating’s approach to the ending, which excises the deus ex machina of the Black Marina savior from Texas Chainsaw in favor of something as simple as a literal light at the end of a tunnel. While this may fluster some viewers, I found it perfect – in a place where God doesn’t play favorites, it’s up to us to find our way out of dire situations, whether self-imposed or foisted upon us.

Crash Analysis Support Team:

unknownJonny Numb (aka Jonathan Weidler) only plays favorites when it comes to review sites like Crash Palace Productions and loudgreenbird.com.  He co-hosts THE LAST KNOCK horror podcast on iTunes, and can also be found on Twitter and Letterboxd.

(Carnage Park photo from AV Club.)

I AM NOT A SERIAL KILLER (2016) by Dee Emm Elms

[104 minutes. Not rated. Ireland/UK. Director: Billy O’Brien]

Understanding other people doesn’t just take skill. It takes effort. I should know: as an autistic person, I struggle mightily to understand other people. I can’t tell what someone is feeling from reading facial expressions or body language, the way most people can. But, at the same time, this puts me in a unique position to see what people do from an outsider’s perspective.

And I think that’s a part of why the film I Am Not A Serial Killer had such a profound impact on me.

Of course, we all bring elements from ourselves into the media we consume. But in this case, there’s more going on than that. The comparisons of what we are and what we consume and how the two things are linked together is a central theme in the movie.

I Am Not A Serial Killer centers primarily around telling us the story of a young man named John Wayne Cleaver (Max Records). The surname Cleaver immediately evokes the squeaky-clean white Americana of Beaver Cleaver, the central character of TV’s “Leave it to Beaver.” But it also evokes John Wayne Gacy, a real-life killer notorious for having been a would-be performing clown. But there’s less of a paradox at work than you might think because that contrast is central to who John Wayne Cleaver is: a young man who may be a sociopath – who not only recognizes that he has within him the capacity to be a serial killer, but is actively working not to be one.

That’s not a new premise. We’ve seen it in media for decades, up to and including recent television shows like “Dexter” and “Hannibal.” But these shows tend to treat serial murder like a drug-addiction, where a character’s thoughts tend to dwell on violent fantasies or the act of trying to resist giving in to what these stories present as some intensely-pleasurable urge the hero must keep secret. And it makes an unpleasant kind of sense for the writers to do this; it allows them the chance to engage in all the most lurid elements and excesses while still proclaiming that their heroes have a moral compass.

I Am Not A Serial Killer isn’t like that in a number of ways.

Even though the book (written by Dan Wells) on which the film is based is told in the first-person, film director Billy O’Brien wisely pulls back from hovering over Max’s shoulder in terms of storytelling. He instead gives us the broader perspective of an observer. Yes, we focus mostly on John, but we don’t get to hear what’s going on in John’s head. We don’t get the lurid details of John’s struggle. We must instead rely on the performances, and Max Records fulfills this with a blend of subdued delivery and sometimes-surprising non-verbal choices. There’s a deliberate nature to Max’s work as John that shows us just the faintest glimpses of the fight Max is waging to keep his good-natured heart.

But it isn’t just Max who carries the film. Karl Geary, as John’s therapist, Dr. Neblin, provides a welcome change from the inspirational advisor such a role usually entails. Geary smartly depicts Neblin as a thoughtful man trying to help his young patient figure out a path to success, but also as a man who isn’t afraid to confront the fact they’re learning and guessing and failing as they go along, together. Likewise, Laura Fraser’s portrayal of John’s mother, April, plays perfectly off of Max’s acting choices as we struggle to see into her conflict as her already-fragile faith in John’s willpower is put to the test. And Christopher Lloyd displays an agile balance between a wide variety of deep but subdued emotional states as John’s neighbor Crowley; Christopher and Max don’t actually share a great deal of screen-time together throughout the film’s runtime, but the moments when they are in the same place resonate with the skill of two actors who know how to hold back and still provide information to the audience. It’s these moments, when both of them are together that the film is at it’s most intense and impactful.

And what is that theme, exactly? Well, I contend that what the movie’s story tells us is that we sometimes need someone from the outside to tell us when things aren’t what they appear to be. That we need unusual perspectives to keep the world together. To keep us safe. To keep us alive.

We need someone who can recognize that there can be menace behind a smile. That sometimes love can look ferocious or angry or desperate. That a killer can be the man at the back of the church ceremony. That love can lead us to do terrible things, just as much as the supposed absence of love. That just because our own feelings don’t match what other people tell us those feelings are supposed to be like doesn’t mean that what we’re feeling is wrong or irrelevant. But most of all, sometimes the people who seem to act in strange or peculiar ways are the good guys, and sometimes the most pleasant people are the bad guys … while also simultaneously telling us that it’s not so easy as good guys and bad guys.

The theme of complicated heroism and villainy isn’t new either – but making it sincere and emotional is very uncommon. Usually, stories that depict “shades of grey” come off as cynical or hamfisted. Worse, they often paint the world as a place where caring or decency are “old-fashioned” ideals. That it’s somehow unevolved of us as human beings to believe in idealism.

I Am Not A Serial Killer isn’t like that.

Instead, it takes an oddly old-fashioned approach to its morality. It says that there are good people, and monsters, and that there’s a difference. The victories and defeats it depicts are rooted in the idea of people making moral choices – in a way that earns the last name Cleaver as more than a horror-movie/sitcom mash-up pun. This is a film that isn’t afraid to teach moral lessons in an up-front out-loud way. And I love it for being more than, say, the cynically-hateful moral flatline of works like Mark Millar’s Wanted or Kick-Ass – examples of films that deal with similar issues but come to “whatever, it’s all on you” non-conclusions.

I Am Not A Serial Killer makes statements about looking deeply into other people to find what matters in them.  And no matter who we are or how we think, that’s something we all need to do a lot more of in life.

Crash Analysis Support Team:

Dee Emm Elms was born in 1972 in Glens Falls, New York. Dee writes about many subjects ranging from social justice issues to Lost In Space, and often mixes them together. Her favorite topic is horror, and horror movies in particular. Her novel Sidlings may be read at sidlings.com, and she would be pleased for you to check it out.  Dee may be contacted at her email sidlingsnovel@gmail.com, or her Twitter: @d_m_elms.

(Movie still from Uncrate. Dee Emm Elms photo via Dee Emm Elms.)

Before You Buy the DVD: BLAIR WITCH (2016) by Jonny Numb

[89 minutes. R. Director: Adam Wingard]

Summer, 2016. I took my seat in the theater and furrowed my brow at a trailer that seemed familiar. Kids in the woods. Handheld POV. Oops, someone dropped the camera! Blurbs from high-profile horror sites superimposed over panoramic aerial views of dense forests. Ominous, droning music.

The title? The Woods. Hmmm.

The connection to The Blair Witch Project was so transparent that part of me wouldn’t have been surprised had it been the type of De Palma-style homage that’s been all the rage with the horror kids these days. When it turned out to be a “surprise” sequel to Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez’s 1999 original (under the more succinct Blair Witch), it somehow lacked the cleverness of the grassroots campaign those filmmakers committed themselves to in the early days of the Internet, fooling a good chunk of the public in the process.

So, is Blair Witch an actual sequel? As handled by director Adam Wingard and writer Simon Barrett (whose erratic genre track record consists of A Horrible Way to Die, You’re Next, and The Guest), the seeds are there, but the setup is merely an excuse to poorly reconstruct the beats of the original.

But hey: at least the technology’s been upgraded (and will look outdated in 5 years)! And there’s plenty of unnatural-seeming shaky-cam! So, yay! By the way…bitchin’ drone, man!

I’ve said it before, but 2016 has been a year of films pushing the horror genre forward. Granted, even the best efforts have borrowed parts, but are smart in how they reconfigure them into fluid fear generators. Go figure that the critically adored Wingard and the reliable Rob Zombie have delivered two of the biggest disappointments of the year, for the express reason that they so cynically fall back on “what worked before” in the very wrongheaded assumption that horror fans won’t care.

Oh, we care. And we also hope your bid for mainstream success has a Plan B, since based on the evidence here, I would say fans of Asian cinema have valid reason to fear for your remakes of I Saw the Devil and Death Note.

So let’s go there: Blair Witch is the most blatantly cynical remake since that retread of The Omen (which seemed to exist solely for its stupid 6-6-06 release date). It truly is one of those films that does nothing but update technology and make explicit things that were scarier when implied, with predictably underwhelming results. There is nothing contained within its 89 taxing, all-too-familiar minutes that justifies its existence in the slightest.

Gone is the naturalistic feel of the 1999 film. Everything in this new version is calculated and staged within an inch of its life, and our unlikable campers – even the trailer-park yokels (one of whom you’ll recognize from TV’s The Following) – look like they’d rather be modeling underwear. Are they worth mentioning by name? As Wingard and Barrett give us no reason to care, the answer is a resounding NO.

The plot is a lot of “just because” nonsense. James (James Allen McCune), little brother to The Blair Witch Project’s Heather Donahue, decides to follow in his sister’s footsteps and make a film documenting his attempt to find her in the woods of Burkittsville. His friends go along because, duh, they’re his friends. As well as Lisa (Callie Hernandez), a cinematographer/producer/I-don’t-know whose primary function seems to be keeping people sane by acting as ineffectual as possible. There is potential here: what if Heather, had she survived, reverted to a feral state in the woods, and established an alternative, primitive existence for herself – or, maybe better, reappeared as a conduit for the witch? Such development would’ve increased the emotional stakes, strengthened the character arcs, and given Blair Witch a desperately needed sense of purpose.

But that would suggest a film interested in matters of innovation and artistic integrity. (Just because it’s a remake or sequel doesn’t mean it has to be shit, but that is of no concern to Wingard and Barrett.)

The duo’s worst film, A Horrible Way to Die, ironically shows the most interest in character and setup, because it’s a perpetual wind-up device in service to a disappointing climactic payoff. In You’re Next and The Guest, the characters are hastily introduced and given flimsy pretexts for their actions, ignoring logic and reason. (We’re expected to follow along for no reason other than the promise of something “badass” occurring later down the line.) Wingard and Barrett are enemies of subtlety, and outside of some throwaway moments, nobody stops to question James’s thinking, or the legitimacy of the yokels who guide them into the woods. Characters wander off alone and are separated and inexplicably reappear and eventually die; there is nothing new here.

But remember to get some footage as you’re walking away from the vehicles, because that might foreshadow something.

On the technical side, Blair Witch is a mess. Cameras shake and fall; cutting is abrupt during action scenes; and sound effects are amplified in the name of desperate jump-scares. In other words, it reverts to the same lame tricks most mainstream horror films utilize to make lots of money these days. What’s it saying that the original still holds up – despite the countless imitators produced in its wake – and Blair Witch feels like the type of processed, shat-out imitation that most will see right through? By the time we reach a familiar (Blum)house at the climax, it’s a CGI affair punctuated by a perfectly-timed rainstorm, complete with lightning flashing through windows.

Seriously?

There were a few things I appreciated in Blair Witch: first is a unique death that, while lacking any sort of narrative logic, provides an unexpected jolt. Second is a sequence wherein a character finds herself in a tunnel beneath the house, pushing her way through an increasingly narrow space; this thrives off a sense of claustrophobia and the terror of something unknown waiting on the other side, and the minimal lighting – reminiscent of The Descent – adds to the dread. And when the aforementioned drone initially takes flight, it’s a genuinely vertiginous, majestic moment; too bad the filmmakers felt the need to repeat it two more times.

But if the worthwhile moments total under 5 minutes, you’ve failed pretty badly. To the horror sites that kept the (rather lame) “secret” of the new Blair Witch while praising all the good it would do for the genre, I hope the bump in traffic helped compensate for that weak sauce you so willingly sucked down.

1 out of 5 stars

(Deaditor’s Note: Blair Witch release date from Lionsgate is January 3, 2017.)

Crash Analysis Support Team:

unknownJonny Numb (aka Jonathan Weidler) talks about horror movies at New Year’s parties and misses the countdown. His reviews also appear at loudgreenbird.com, and he judges other things via antisocial media @JonnyNumb (Twitter and Letterboxd), and co-hosts THE LAST KNOCK horror podcast with @crashpalace.

(Blair Witch photo from IndieWire.)

HOLIDAYS (2016) – Seasonal Anthology Affective Disorder by Jonny Numb

[105 minutes. Unrated. Director: Various.]

Today’s horror anthologies have an enthusiasm in approach, but a laziness in execution. A common notion among fiction-writers is that short stories are more difficult than novels because of the compressed format. The same applies to short films; the fact that expectations are tempered to 10 – 15 minutes requires the beats of character, story, and impact to be achieved not only in a shorter timeframe, but with as few tonal and narrative missteps as possible.

Watching something like The ABCs of Death, with 26 different directors given 26 opportunities for greatness, is an exercise in frustration, with few consecutive segments maintaining the same quality standard, leading to a schizophrenic experience as frustrating as watching an uneven narrative film.

Holidays follows the same format as ABCs: a collection of tales highlighting various celebratory times of year (or, at the very least, excuses for Hallmark to bleed a few bucks from the American consumer). With no wraparound story, it lives and dies on the strength of its individual parts, which are not created equal.

Outside of blatantly paying homage to some iconic images, I was hard-pressed to derive any sort of point from the Excision– and Carrie-lite “Give Me Your Heart” (directed by Kevin Kolsch and Dennis Widmyer, the duo behind for Starry Eyes). With exposition-laden dialog and a lack of continuity (Creepy Girl doesn’t want to jump into pool; has daydream about gym coach; all of a sudden, Pretty Girl is shoving her off the diving board…huh?!), this recalls the aforementioned teen-angst films, only the payoff is flat and predictable.

Elsewhere, the goofy Ben Wheatley wannabe “St. Patrick’s Day” (written and directed by Gary Shore) blends comedy, irony, pregnancy, and cults so badly it’s like the Wicker Man remake without the laughs. It tosses out flip nods to Rosemary’s Baby and even The Beyond (impish little red-haired girl) but has no idea how to synthesize them into something beyond a lame visual punchline of cultists carrying a ginormous snake around the countryside.

I will give “Easter” credit for distilling the holiday lore into an odd hybrid: writer-director Nicholas McCarthy seems properly baffled at how an anthropomorphic rabbit and Jesus correlate. Despite clunky opening dialogue between a mother and her inquisitive daughter, which muddies the seas of confusion, and an ending that’s disappointingly anticlimactic, the midsection delivers some intriguing, Clive Barker-esque imagery and some existential food for thought.

Holidays gains momentum once it delves into the days that recognize parents and their influence, with “Mother’s Day” (written and directed by Sarah Adina Smith) an appropriately female-centric take on one young woman’s desperate attempt to cease her overt fertility (“I get pregnant every time I have sex”), though her decision to seek help via a New Age cult proves questionable. Smith creates an uneasy atmosphere, and a sense of isolation pervades, even if the ending is a disappointing bundle of “what the fuck.” Anthony Scott Brown’s “Father’s Day” is the highlight of the film, generating drama and suspense through a simple premise: a woman (House of the Devil’s Jocelin Donahue), transitioning to a new locale, finds a tape player and cassette in a box of paternal mementoes; the contents of the recording – a message from her estranged father (voiced by Michael Gross) – leads her on an unpredictable (and unexpectedly moving) pathway to reunion. Working better as a drama told in pale shades of gray and green, the segment is anchored by Donahue’s performance, which exudes skepticism and vulnerability; while the final reveal may be something of a letdown, the minimalist power of this tale (including clever attention to how a grownup’s words can take on a different meaning when a child listens to them many years later) makes it especially insightful and mature amid Holidays’ more underwhelming offerings.

At this juncture, what can be said of Kevin Smith? The most well-known directorial inclusion in Holidays may have shifted genre gears when he swapped endearingly vulgar rom-coms for the provocative protest of Red State and the creature-feature horror of Tusk. His segment, “Halloween,” would seem a continuation of these thematic sensibilities, and it crackles with his nattering, hypercaffeinated dialog. It’s a low-rent affair, wherein a trio of Internet cam-girls turn the tables on their abusive boss. While a supernatural element is floated, “Halloween” is essentially Smith’s entry into the torture-porn ring, replete with dark humor and an over-the-top feminist slant (though one might argue that the women come across just as unfavorably as the men here). As with Tusk, the filmmaker dashes the potential impact of his premise with a frustrating, cheap-joke ending.

Of all the segments, Scott Stewart’s “Christmas” comes closest to the darkly jovial tone that informed the more lighthearted episodes of “The Twilight Zone” (unfortunately, it isn’t polished enough to approach their quality). After a faux promotion for a Strange Days-styled headset (“your imagination come to life!” the ad proclaims), it settles into the story of an emasculated father (Seth Green) who gets the high-tech toy for his kid…under unscrupulous circumstances. Its clichés are legion (the unsympathetic bitch of a wife; on-the-nose S&M fantasies), and the conclusion is an unfortunate muddle. Green, however, uses all of his comedic strength to make it at least watchable.

In a weird sort of ellipsis, “New Year’s” returns to the predictability of “Give Me Your Heart,” with a serial killer (Andrew Bowen) desperately trying to connect with someone via online dating. He seems to have found his match in Jean (Lorenza Izzo), but she has other ideas. While this segment (directed by Some Kind of Hate’s Adam Egypt Mortimer, and written by the Starry Eyes guys) breaks no new ground in terms of premise, the attention to character detail is good, and the use of the ten-second countdown to frame the climax is moderately exciting.

Overall, though, Holidays does little to raise the profile of the millennial horror anthology. With few exceptions (especially “Father’s Day”), it is only slightly better overall than the subgenre’s most underwhelming offerings (The ABCs of Death 2; V/H/S). Maybe the biggest flaw is the premise itself: while using holidays as backdrops for tales of terror could open this film up to franchise potential, most of these already have pretty definitive feature-length counterparts – My Bloody Valentine (1981; 2009); Mother’s Day (1980; 2010); Astron-6’s Father’s Day (2011); New Year’s Evil (1980); and any number of Christmas-set horrors.

 

Segment Ratings

“Give Me Your Heart”: 1.5 out of 5 stars

“St. Patrick’s Day”: 1 out of 5 stars

“Happy Easter”: 2.5 out of 5 stars

“Mother’s Day”: 2.5 out of 5 stars

“Father’s Day”: 3.5 out of 5 stars

“Halloween”: 2.5 out of 5 stars

“Christmas”: 2 out of 5 stars

“New Year’s”: 2.5 out of 5 stars

 

Overall Rating

2 out of 5 stars

 

Crash Analysis Support Team:

unknownJonny Numb (aka Jonathan Weidler) is a cheap bastard, which is why he gives the gift of movie reviews instead of physical items. Ho, ho, ho! His reviews also appear at loudgreenbird.com. He judges other things via antisocial media @JonnyNumb (Twitter and Letterboxd), and co-hosts THE LAST KNOCK horror podcast with @crashpalace.

(Holidays photo from Horror Freak News.)

THE LAST KNOCK presents: 2016’s Best Horror Films

The Last Knock

2016 was a pretty damn good year for horror – the movie variety, of course – and we’re happy to take a look at all those films that made the genre great. In fact, we’ll give you a reverse order countdown to the very best after we look at honorable mentions. Sure, we can wail about neon-colored witches hiding in rundown bars or something, but we won’t.

Is your favorite on the list?

This episodes SCREAM OUTS from Twitter:

@RealJillyG @ThisIsHorror @dixiefairy @awholelottabern @KissedByFate2 @Tammysdragonfly @DarkCorners3 @LianeMoonRaven @aus_warrior @actorMartinez @DeadExitComic @GreyaABC @Brooklyn99FOX @CSINY_CBS @GrindhouseDave @d_m_elms @smburkett @DFITWmovie @RomanJossart @jessicaalba @ThomasJane @ponysmasher @LightsOutMovie @maria_bello @teresapalmer @jenamalone @10CloverfieldLn @TheWitchMovie @anyataylorjoy @NicolasWR @canevrenol @SouthboundMovie @mariaolsen66 @sunchokefilm @SarahHagan4Real @BenCresciman @barbaracrampton @mickeykeating @laurenashleycar @saulnier_jeremy @GreenRoomMovie @GreenRoomFilm @SirPatStew @MaconBlair @BlueRuinMovie @murderpartyfilm

Don’t forget to weigh in with your comments, Billy and Jonny love to respond because they don’t get out much – unless it’s keeping the zombie hordes at bay…

THE LAST KNOCK presents: Macabre Milestone: The Blair Witch Project

The Last Knock

Many dark moons ago, in 1999, a phenomenal word-of-mouth campaign brought moviegoers to the theatre to indulge in The Blair Witch Project. We take a look at the original film’s success, the subsequent sequel, and the latest movie many seemed to think was a remake. We’ll also see where the filmmakers and stars of the original are today, and how the first film changed independent filmmaking, and made found footage a legitimate horror sub-genre.

This episodes SCREAM OUTS from Twitter:

@inthenightdoc @isaacrthorne @MelanieMcCurdie @Tammysdragonfly @RonGizmo @RealJillyG @THENAMNATION @BleedingCritic @LianeMoonRaven @VicsMovieDen @PromoteHorror @AnnThraxx @Scream_Factory @AmandaBergloff @SiaraTyr @machinemeannow @Israel_Finn @DrewFromTV @GTGMcast @CrypticPictures @Sanchezonthemic @joshualeonard1 @sundancefest @deepfocusllc @corybrin @RSBrzoska @d_m_elms

THE LAST KNOCK presents: The Neon Demon and The Wailing

The Last KnockThe Neon Demon and The Wailing, two of 2016’s most talked about horror films, would make for one bizarre double feature. Nicolas Winding Refn delivers an odd, off-kilter tale of modeling, jealousy, and abuse, while Hong-jin Na brings audiences an epic mystery. But do they work and will horror fans embrace them?

We take an in depth look at both works, from story to plot, and from music to cinematography. Join us – because we’re falling apart…

This episodes SCREAM OUTS from Twitter:

@UKHorrorScene @NicolasWR @SamesCarolyn @Barry_Cinematic @d_m_elms @isaacrthorne @MelanieMcurdie @jerryWalach @AnnThraxx @TyroneCousin @Tammysdragonfly @RiverCityOtter @WritingReader @GuyRicketts @KeyzKeyzworth @IvonnaCadaver @AndyDeen666

THE LAST KNOCK presents: Veteran’s Day Special: Deathdream

The Last KnockWe team up with veteran, author, and blogmaster Thomas S. Flowers of Machinemeannow for our special Veteran’s Day episode. We focus on Bob Clark’s Deathdream (aka Dead of Night), from the Alan Ormsby screenplay. Beyond the film, we discuss PTSD, combat, and what happens when one experiences the horrors of combat and comes home.

THE LAST KNOCK and Crash Palace Productions thanks veterans for their service!

Ouija: It’s Only A Game by Dee Emm Elms

 

ouija_07-1024x575Perception isn’t reality.

I know that. You know that. Everyone knows that.

And, yet, we give in to treating our perceptions like reality all the time. It’s almost like it’s a self-indulgent game the vast majority of people play near-constantly with the Universe.

It’s so pervasive, in fact, that some people make careers that depend on making particular perceptions seem like a specific reality. We even ask them to do it! Examples: actors, singers, magicians, “spiritual mediums” … and writers. These are people who rely on convincing the rest of us to look over there and not over here. Talented performers in those fields play that game with other people’s perceptions. They convince the entire world to watch the jangling keys, that the hands behind their backs aren’t up to anything, and that what’s happening in front of our eyes is real – or feels real, at least – even if it’s obviously impossible.

And, a lot of the time, we go along with this. Happily, in fact. We’re willing to play along and take part in the game because these are pleasant fictions. We enjoy them – even when we play games pretending to talk to the dead, to use the example of spirit-mediums. Take the Ouija board. We put our hands on its planchette, and we play at talking to the dead despite all that this could entail. Despite the amazing possibilities of what it might really mean to commune with the dead. Do we think of talking to the great minds lost to time? No. We ask about ourselves. We let the lie of magical thinking overtake us and we play along, and we insist “it’s only a game.”  We’re not going to admit that we’re the ones moving the planchette. It’s that person over there, across from us.

But what if it was real? Who wants to entertain that thought? Almost no one. If it were real, there might be implications. Consequences. We want the real world to be magical, but we don’t want to admit how terrifying a magical world would actually be.

Terror can be giddy, and magic is fun. There’s an immediate motivational reward in playing along – and rewards can be that pervasive. We wave our hands. We specifically dismiss our doubts in order to get the reward. We want to be entertained. We want good movies, or a memorable show, or a sense of calm that our long-lost aunt is tending to her begonias in a benevolent afterlife, instead of rotting in the ground in a nullified state.

Over a lifetime, we train ourselves to indulge these pleasant fictions, and to seek out those rewards to the point that we learn it’s easier to get that reward if we don’t care about looking behind the curtain.

But that’s the precise moment when things really start to get dangerous.

Because you know who else relies on making perception seem like reality? Politicians. Con artists. Murderers. And when they succeed at pulling off their big tricks, it’s far from harmless. It ends up with folks manipulated, bankrupted, or dead.

And, yet, our desire to be entertained pushes through our common sense even then. We keep voting for the same kinds of politicians. We turn con artists into celebrities – once they’ve retired, of course, so we know they won’t get us. And we turn murderers into folk heroes.

That’s how much we want to be entertained. We can put up with anything if you give it a soundtrack and some flashy lights. And that scares me. A lot. Because there are smart people out there, right now, relying on our lack of critical thinking skills to do the world a lot of damage.

Everyone should know that. You should know that. I should know that.

Which is why it’s important for stories to have a point that connects to reality in some way. That stories should never exist in the vacuum of being “just stories.” Stories have to tie in to something real for us to enjoy them, even if it’s on a rudimentary level. Even if it’s basic and fundamental. Because that’s the tether that links us back to the real world, no matter how entertained we are.

Some people dismiss this kind of storytelling as “having an agenda.” But my favorite stories always have agendas.

Oliver Twist is a classically entertaining period novel, but it also exposes the horrors of child labor and the toll of bureaucracy on young lives. And To Kill a Mockingbird isn’t just a gripping courtroom thriller; it has much to say about society and the divisions we force upon each other.

And then there’s Cujo, my favorite book of all time.

Cujo is about a woman and a child trying to survive a series of terrifying attacks on them by a diseased dog. But that’s just a metaphor. When I first read Cujo, I got about a third of the way in … and then, suddenly, I realized something important: the story in front of me wasn’t the whole story. Sure, the reader gets the usual Stephen King creep-and-crawl hijinks. But when I looked deeper and really thought about it, I found a much bigger and much more intimate story beneath that surface: A family breaking down and disintegrating. And the theme to that disintegration was vicious, unrelenting abuse. The woman and child weren’t just incidentally “woman” and “child” here; they represented the man-woman-child dynamic of a “typical American family.” The woman and child were being victimized by the enormous, muscled, sick, and vengeful Cujo as a symbol of someone who is part of the family getting sick – outright diseased – and turning on people American culture symbolically identifies as unable to defend themselves. Almost everything in Cujo can be seen as some kind of metaphor. Conflating Tad’s fear of the dark with his anxiety over his often-absent parents; the anti-monster incantation is an IOU as much as anything else. Consider, too, that no matter how hard Donna fights, Tad is dying in that car anyway – because she’s fighting an abstract battle beyond the literal one on the page. Cujo isn’t really the enemy. Time and heat and dehydration are. it’s destruction in slow-motion, by degrees. And consider, too, how the book is obsessed with blending elements of horror and the banal: children’s breakfast cereals that wind up terrifying parents, the monstrous eyes in Tad’s closet that foreshadow his dark fate. They all tie back to undercurrents of evil lurking beneath a placid and pastoral exterior, an American way of life that’s dying in King’s book and our real world as well. It isn’t a rabid dog that’s poisoning the world of the story. It’s us. It’s the way we don’t deal with the fears and anxieties these metaphors represent.

And horror, especially, always needs these metaphors. Because horror, whether as a craft or as an art form, absolutely requires a core of real emotion to work since it’s rooted in real human emotions: dread, unease, and fear. Sure, you can force someone’s instincts to kick in with a loud noise or a transient visual surprise, but that isn’t horror. If it were, we’d call it horror whenever someone dropped a plate at your favorite restaurant. I mean – you jumped, right? But that’s just electricity in your brain. We know that there’s more to horror than just the surprise of unexpected data.

Metaphors are the difference.

Horror uses the most primal symbols of our subconscious language to get at places we don’t visit in conscious awareness. Those plates dropping – that’s the surface.  Adrenaline – that’s just a chemical reaction. The thing we call horror, the thing we love, is so much more than these elements.

Horror as a genre is about our real-life concerns and anxieties, pulled from our own collective subconscious and made manifest by artisans and craftspeople for all to see and to cope with. And that’s key. Horror isn’t just about the unknown being there, or horror would be a dark room and nothing more. Horror is about creating representations of ourselves as we venture into that dark room, and find or lose the courage to turn on the light and see what’s actually in there. It’s about exploring. Coming out on the other side and being okay.

That’s also why my favorite medium in which to experience horror is through film, because that journey can be actively shared by so many people at the same time.

There is nothing like going into a dark theater with other people – a packed house, ideally – and seeing a new horror movie. Not a jaded legion of critics, but an audience who’s there to really experience the horror. To explore those anxieties together in a safe environment. Horror movies are at heart participatory experiences. In most good films, the audience is often relatively quiet. In a good horror movie, in those moments right before the big reveal of what’s lurking on the other side of the curtain, the audience is silent.

But then comes screaming, or laughing, or both. Gasps. Exhalations. And, at the movies, we do it together – and we come out fine on the other side. This is essential to horror because the genre is self-reflective even as it most often addresses the unseen.

Go back to the Ouija board and consider the tropes. Despite the aunt with the begonias, that’s not really what most people are asking Ouija boards. They’re asking about themselves. They’re asking for secrets and truths. “Where’s the family money hidden?” or “Did you love me?” or “Was I responsible for your death?” We care about ourselves more than the dead. We use the board to wake the dead, and check up on them or to ask them for clarity. Consider that. If the Ouija board were real, it would be a tool with which we would ostensibly be using to draw the dead from the commonly-presumed peace of some afterlife to answer questions as we demand that the spirit move a little planchette across a game board.

Now, reverse the pleasant fiction and really consider this from the other side. Could any good come from that? Would we really want to bother people we care about if the board and planchette really had that power? If the pleasant fiction were actually real?

It is this conflict between the pleasant fiction and the horrifying implications of that fiction that’s at the heart of one of my favorite horror movies: Ouija. It takes the paradoxical nature of talking to the dead with a children’s board game, and tells a story that plays out the conflict inherent in those disparate elements by using metaphor in ways that lets the audience question human nature.

Ouija was written by husband-and-wife duo Juliet Snowden and Stiles White, with the latter directing. It tells the story of Laine Morris (Olivia Cooke), a young woman who suffers a terrible loss that drives her to use a Ouija board. Part of what I love about Ouija is that you have to pay attention to really see into the lives of the characters, and I don’t want to take all that away from anyone who hasn’t seen the movie. It’s not about twists and turns and shocks. It’s about the way events impact the characters and the audience, too. There are surprises, but sharing the learning experience with the characters as they delve deeper into the film’s mysteries is more important.

So don’t expect this film to reinvent the wheel. In fact, the film was sharply criticized for being derivative and unoriginal. But many of those critics missed vital material of Ouija that not only make it unique, but something to celebrate in the horror genre.

It’s worth noting that Ouija made $100 million dollars. Now, popularity isn’t an indicator of quality, but there’s something else going on with the movie that helps explain the disconnect between critic and audience, and what many critics missed or didn’t bother to investigate, which contributed to the film’s success, while also tying into the shared experience of horror.

Ouija is principally about observation. About seeing the surface versus seeing the truth. It’s about the fight we all struggle with about accepting those easy answers versus being critical, aware, and attentive in the moment. It’s about the way, when someone kills themselves, we tsk and say, “But she seemed so happy.” It’s about the way we judge by appearance: where beautiful means nice and ugly means horrible. It’s about how we view innocence versus guilt. It’s about where and how we assign blame. It’s about loss and grief.

Grief, especially, factors in as a big part of the story of Ouija in ways we don’t typically see in horror.

Example: in the Nightmare on Elm Street series we see funerals for characters who have died at the hands of Freddy Krueger. These are usually brief vignettes, often serving the purpose of finding the hero character struggling to explain what caused that character’s death so that the adult contingent of the story can express exasperated disbelief.

In Ouija, virtually the entire first half of the film deals with Laine’s grief. And that grief comes back, again and again, and we still experience this through Laine by the time the movie has ended. That’s not just unusual for a horror movie – it’s virtually unheard-of, save The Sixth Sense, Paperhouse, The Orphanage, and The Reflecting Skin.

But that’s not the norm. In horror movies, people die, and the story moves on. As with the aforementioned Nightmare on Elm Street series, you might get a few scenes of tears, but for the most part you just don’t get to follow characters along as they come to grips with loss. And if you do, there’s usually some gut-wrenching twist where we find out the protagonist caused the loss or was the killer all along or some other such out-of-left-field nonsense.

After all, grief is a difficult emotion. It’s tough to experience, and can be almost as tough to write – let alone write well. But it’s the emotional core of Ouija, the idea of how we cope with loss, and the lengths we’ll go when we want – need – the pain of grief to stop, even if just for a little while.

Since Ouija was written to have this powerful emotional core at the heart of the story, that is why so many critics missed the point of the film. The emotions at play flew past them.

And a big reason for this is that the vast majority of critics are men.

Because here’s the other amazing thing about Ouija – it’s about women.

And I mean ALL about women. Women talking to women. Women engaging with other women. Women fighting other women. This movie owns the Bechdel Test and the Sexy Lamp Test and owns them both well.

There are men in Ouija, yes, but they are not at the core or heart of the film. It’s not their story.  It’s Laine’s and Debbie’s and Liz’s and Sarah’s and Doris’ and Paulina’s – and that’s a big deal. Heck, even Laine’s absent mother, who isn’t even in the movie, figures significantly into the overall meaning of the story.

And, yes, women have been an important part of the horror genre for a long time, which has been written about extensively. In fact, if you’re unfamiliar with this topic, I urge you to Google “horror and feminism” and read all about it.

Ouija isn’t alone in its focus on women, but it is unique in just how strong and important that focus is to the story, with Laine at the center. I praise the cast across the board, but I do want to emphasize that Olivia Cooke gives a reserved performance that never fails to make clear Laine’s feelings for the different women in her life.

I love Ouija for taking the time to do that as well, and that we get to see the film explore concepts of sisterhood, motherhood, women’s friendships, and more. We get to see a wide variety of relationships, from connections to conflicts, between this small cast of characters that matter to women.

But Ouija was scoffed at by critics, like Brian Viner who called the film “… like High School Musical, only with screaming”. Jonathan Romney remarked that “The bumps and thumps are mechanical, the young stars insipid and the otherworldly entity the kids contact is called Doris.” And finally, Alonso Duralde said it was “a bloodless kiddie horror show.”

These critics miss the point. They watched Ouija, but they only saw the surface and it didn’t compute because they didn’t look through their metaphorical planchette. Instead, they saw ghosts, but they didn’t see what the ghosts meant. They saw simple scares, but didn’t think about the emotions behind them. In other words, they only saw the creep-and-crawl. They saw the building blocks, but missed the art and craft of what the blocks had built.

And I think it’s because the movie centers on women. We’re increasingly seeing male critics attack movies centered on women simply because of that fact, and often before the films even come out. Like when a noted Men’s Rights advocate demanded a boycott of Mad Max: Fury Road because he felt the film was “feminist propaganda.” Or the innumerable critics who attacked the new Ghostbusters without having seen it simply because women made up the lead roles.

But stories with agendas will keep being made because social commentary is part of storytelling and always has been. It’s why fictional stories get told in the first place. And if you don’t watch horror movies like Ouija with attentive eyes, you’re going to miss out like the critics when they didn’t notice what’s right in front of them.

It’s a shame when you miss out like this because that’s the point of horror: to dare to explore things more deeply than those surface elements. To hold the planchette up to your eye and see what you’re told can’t be seen.

Go ahead. Take a look. What are you afraid of?

It’s only a game – isn’t it?

Crash Analysis Support Team:

Dee Emm Elms was born in 1972 in Glens Falls, New York. Dee writes about many subjects ranging from social justice issues to Lost In Space, and often mixes them together. Her favorite topic is horror, and horror movies in particular. Her novel Sidlings may be read at sidlings.com, and she would be pleased for you to check it out.  Dee may be contacted at her email sidlingsnovel@gmail.com, or her Twitter: @d_m_elms.

(Movie still from Movie Pinas.)