Tuesday, November 19, 2019

Bluray Tuesday Featuring: The Fare, Suspiria (1977) & The Fan

November 19th 2019

Bluray Tuesday creeps up on us once again. First up this week from Epic Pictures Group and Dread Presents is The Fare. This one looks pretty interesting and I'm looking forward to checking out this week. Scream Factory this week releases for the first time on Bluray, The Fan. I've never seen this one but it's another on my list I'd love to check out in the near future. Dario Argento's Suspiria hits 4k Bluray with a cool slip cover in this new collectors edition with reversible cover art as well. Jawbreaker turns 20 this years and today marks it's 20th anniversary bluray re release with new bonus material and scan. It's a lighter week on releases this week perfect for saving for Black Friday sales that are just around the corner. Rounding out the week is The Handmaids Tale season 3, The Divine Fury and Dora The Explorer live action film, Dora and The Lost City of Gold. So what will you buy, rent or skip this week? Let is know in the comments. until next week!

The Fare (Blu-ray) 

The Fare: Epic Pictures Group - $14.99

When a charming fare named Penny climbs into his taxi cab, Harris, her world-weary driver, finds himself engaged in the only kind of courtship he can have with a passenger -- one that lasts as long as her trip. That is, right up until she disappears from the back seat without a trace. When confusion gives way to reality, he resets his meter and is instantaneously transported back to the moment when she climbed into his cab.
The Fan (Blu-ray) 

The Fan: Amazon - $26.99

Lauren Bacall returns to the screen in her most exciting, suspenseful role as glamorous celebrity and renowned Broadway actress Sally Ross. She is the object of adoration of countless fans - especially one young man. His impassioned letters are a source of pleasure and amusement, then annoyance, and finally terror, as he tries to realize his ultimate fantasy. When he feels Sally has rejected him, there is no one left to protect her from the fan's twisted adulation, resulting in an edge-of-the-seat thriller.

Suspiria 4K (Blu-ray) 

Suspiria (1977) (4K): Amazon - $36.99

Suzy (Jessica Harper) travels to Germany to attend ballet school. When she arrives, late on a stormy night, no one lets her in, and she sees Pat (Eva Axén), another student, fleeing from the school. When Pat reaches her apartment, she is murdered. The next day, Suzy is admitted to her new school, but has a difficult time settling in. She hears noises, and often feels ill. As more people die, Suzy uncovers the terrifying secret history of the place.

Dora and the Lost City of Gold (Blu-ray)
Temporary cover art 

Dora and the Lost City of Gold: Amazon - $19.99

Having spent most of her life exploring the jungle, nothing could prepare Dora for her most dangerous adventure yet -- high school. Accompanied by a ragtag group of teens and Boots the monkey, Dora embarks on a quest to save her parents while trying to solve the seemingly impossible mystery behind a lost Incan civilization.   

Hitch Hike to Hell (Blu-ray) 

Hitch Hike to Hell: Amazon - $22.99

Howard is a mild-mannered young man who drives a truck for a commercial laundry. He's also a mother-obsessed psycho who picks up young female hitchhikers, rapes them and kills them. As the bodies start piling up, the police finally begin to investigate.

Charlie's Angels: The Complete Series (Blu-ray) 

Charlie's Angels (Complete Series): Amazon - $89.99

Charlie's Angels is an American crime drama television series about three women who work for a private investigation agency, and is one of the first shows to showcase women in roles traditionally reserved for men.

Blinded by the Light (Blu-ray) 

Blinded By The Light: Amazon - $19.99

In 1987 during the austere days of Thatcher's Britain, a teenager learns to live life, understand his family and find his own voice through the music of Bruce Springsteen.

Jawbreaker (Blu-ray)
Temporary cover art 

Jawbreaker: Amazon - $22.99

The most powerful clique at Reagan High. Courtney Shane, Julie Freeman, Marcie Fox and Lizz Purr are all best friends. Or, to be more precise, they are drawn together by their appreciation for each other as the most popular and the most beautiful girls at Reagan. They are at the height of their popularity when an innocent birthday prank results in tragedy. The class nerd, Fern Mayo, stumbles on the girls' panicked attempts to cover up their involvement, and the result is a darkly comical tale of corruption, redemption and makeover madness.

The Divine Fury (Blu-ray) 

The Divine Fury: Amazon - $14.99

After losing his father at a young age in a terrible accident, Yong-hu (Park) abandons his Christian faith and chooses to only believe in himself. Now as an adult, Yong-hu is a champion fighter and has everything he has ever wanted, that is until mysterious wounds appear in the palms of his hands. He solicits help from a local priest Father Ahn (Ahn), hoping the priest can help relieve him of the painful markings only to find himself in the middle of a dangerous fight against otherworldly evil forces seeking to wreak havoc on the human world.

The Handmaid's Tale: Season Three (Blu-ray) 

The Handmaid's Tale (Season 3): Amazon - $19.99

Based on the best-selling novel by Margaret Atwood, this series is set in Gilead, a totalitarian society in what used to be part of the United States. Gilead is ruled by a fundamentalist regime that treats women as property of the state, and is faced with environmental disasters and a plummeting birth rate. In a desperate attempt to repopulate a devastated world, the few remaining fertile women are forced into sexual servitude. One of these women, Offred, is determined to survive the terrifying world she lives in, and find the daughter that was taken from her.

Parched (Blu-ray) 

Parched: Amazon - $14.99

A quintet of college kids take a road trip to an abandoned house and unintentionally drink infected water that turns them slowly insane and murderous - but this is no accident.

Pretty Little Stalker (Blu-ray) 

Pretty Little Stalker: Amazon - $12.99

A self help writer and her family become the target of a troubled girl.

-The Impostor

Friday, November 15, 2019

The Overlook Theatre Reviews: The Shed

A teen and his best friend endure nonstop torment from bullies at school, but that soon changes when one discovers a bloodthirsty creature that resides in a country shed.

6 of 9 viewers "Liked" "The Shed" (2019, USA)
Creature reviews have been minimally altered in an attempt to maintain their voice:

Lord Battle - "Shocking kills and excessive gore used to be all I needed in a film. The Shed delivers on both and despite a confusing collateral damage kill, it's awesome! I would pitch this film to fans of Dream Warriors or The Lost Boys but the narrative feels more like nostalgic virtue signaling than homage. Honestly Fright Night might be the best comparison to make, yet I can't bring myself to do it. Tom Holland's 80's vampire adventure was loved by a young Lord Battle because of its clear acceptance of televisions rules for vampires. The Shed seems to pick and chose rules carefully surrounding convenience and ultimately excluding religion. As someone who praised Insidious for removing religion from a haunted house and making it work, I find it lazily ignored here. Kinda like they chose to ignore the invitation rule because it would require a conversation with the antagonist where motivation or backstory may be needed... Again, the gore is great! - 2.5 Stars

KillDozer - "13 year old me would have enjoyed this based off the blood and Salem's Lot style vampire alone. 39 year old me needs more. So rent this for the kids, pop some corn, and have fun!" - 2.5 Stars

The Berkeley Blazer - "There's a lot of fun to be had in this movie, it's not smart but it does have many moments where it successfully subverts expectations mainly in terms of how it controls jump scares. Characters start out with potential but fizzle into the random plot points that spiral out of control. Entertaining but forgettable and had some impressive effects work. It's also impressive how much tension and suspense is built using the shed as a horror fun box." - 3 Stars

Math Mage - "It's a vampire. There's a vampire in the shed. That's not a spoiler 'cause it's directly shown in the first 4 minutes. However, they can't say vampire for some reason, except indirectly through a movie in a movie in a dream sequence. In most movies with a fake out dream sequence, they only do it once (unless it's about dreams) but this one has several so they get more out of it. Unfortunately, that's the only interesting thing in the film." - 2.5 Stars

Wondering Panda - "Combine a trouble teen, war vet uncle, recently turned vampire who hates sun, a shed, an asshole best friend, a love interest, and a werewolf looking not a werewolf bully and you have The Shed!! This film has a lot of problems but I can honestly admit I had a good time. Its tone is all over the place where it flip flops between genres and never takes itself seriously and I believe it works for the film. The Shed is a fun, just throw it on and let it play." - 4 Stars

Huntress - "I was already rooting for The Shed solely based on the name, premise and half of the trailer. After a tense and bloody opening scene, I was sold. But the more I realized that this was not a movie about a monster in a shed, the more my enthusiasm quieted. There are a lot of great elements to this movie, and I loved the ominous portrayal of the dark little shed. But this movie doesn't know what it wants to be, and I'm not thinking that hard about it." - 3.5 Stars

Jiggly Bits - "The story was predictable but managed to hold my attention throughout. The shed was a nice touch because it created an element that anyone who has ever had to pick something up from their shed or basement could relate to. The shed, basement, small bathroom, and attic all utilize the space or lack thereof to contribute to the overall tension of the scene. This cinematic feature that has been used in many horror genre films in the past continues to be a source of fun in this film. Staging and use of light and sound were also effective cinematic features utilized in the film to enhance the tension of the scenes in which it appears. Overall, the combined use of genre specific elements created a solid genre horror film, but was lacking in that there was nothing in the film that deviated strongly from that formula." - 3 Stars

The Impostor - "The Shed's poster really intrigued me with its simplistic and mysterious nature. I had no idea what it was about but went in excited, looking for something entertaining and fun. The main characters grew on me as the story unfolded but lost me as the final act approached. A few jump scares for me were effective even when I saw them coming. Overall solid film, it's not perfect but kept me entertained with some unexpected moments and cool gore thrown in. I'd recommend it as a Friday night popcorn film with friends." - 3 Stars

Dr. Gonzo - "Giving this a 3 for entertainment value. A very simple vampire tale. It starts off with a man trying to escape a vampire, vampire bites man, man runs to a shed, man turns into vampire in the shed. A troubled teenager finds a vampire in the shed and tries to keep it a secret. the hero girl we have the asshole friend and the asshole bully, and that mean ass grandpa. It's a new age film with an 80's setting. The kills were fun, but it was too predictable. Watching this once was good enough for me." - 3 Stars

The Overlook Theatre Final Rating*
(Below is for after you've seen the film)

In a Hitchcockian fashion, The Shed shows us a monster in the first few minutes of its runtime. The beast is quickly trapped in the titular shed where it transforms into a living metaphor.

The Shed played second on its review night, following a film that had a... deliberate pace and all of the creatures in attendance were eager to watch something a little more upbeat and fun. Although The Shed turned out to contain both of these things no one was ready for what the film was actually about.

The Shed is superficially a story about a teen and his pet monster, ala The Pit, and audiences who expect this will be extremely disappointed. The true monster in The Shed is a teenage boy's anger, which is represented by a vampire stranded in a small shadow in a large sunny field. Tonally the film feels confusing as we jump back and forth from a story that could easily end in a school shooting to a PG-13 genre film from the 80's.

When the film came to a close it seemed like the audience was split when talking about which parts of the film they enjoyed. Some creatures thought the impressive gore effects distracted from the real horror in the story, while others thought even attempting a serious narrative was a mistake. Everyone seemed to agree that a less seasoned audience may really enjoy the film. And as pretentious as that sounds, the message is really saying show this your friends.

-Lord Battle

The Overlook Theatre materialized in a Residence for a screening on 11/7/2019
*Based on the star ratings turned in by character reviewers, others viewed and got to "Dislike" or "Like" but that does not affect the rating.

Saturday, November 2, 2019

Listener Sam Reviews: Wounds, The Visible Filth

Babak Anvari’s Wounds is, without a doubt, my most anticipated horror movie of 2019. It’s also a film that has been tantalizing me all year, like a carrot dangled from a string -- seemingly close but constantly moving further away. It premiered at Sundance on January 26, 2019 (my birthday, no less) and was slated to release to Netflix on March 29th.

I tuned in on the 29th thrilled to watch it, but it never showed up. It took a few days to learn that it was shelved, but there was little-to-no other explanation. Now, after a six-month wait, it’s somehow managed to slink over to Hulu, where it’s being released on October 18th. I’m not quite sure what chain of events led to this, but I’m thrilled to finally have had a chance to see this.

Wounds is the film adaptation of Nathan Ballingrud’s “The Visible Filth,” A 73-or-so page novella that is one of the best pieces of horror literature I’ve ever read. If you’re unfamiliar with Ballingrud, now’s a great time to begin catching up on his back catalog.

Ballingrud currently has two published short story collections. “North American Lake Monsters: Stories,” is his debut collection, published in 2013. He followed it up with “Wounds: Six Stories From the Borders of Hell” just this year. “The Visible Filth” also received its own standalone printing in 2015, but it’s also included in Wounds, and the collection is worth it for the other stories. The Butcher’s Table, in particular, is a unique piece of pirate-horror and is an absolute triumph. It deftly manages an ensemble cast, creates an amazing sense of dread, builds incredible mythology, and crafts a wholly unique and alien vision of hell.

In addition to his books, and Wounds (the film), his first collection has been picked up by Hulu and is being made into an 8-episode series. I don’t think it’s an understatement to say that Ballingrud is a new horror master, and I’ll read anything he writes without a second thought.

Before I go on, I want to mention that I’m writing this article in two parts. The first half is on “The Visible Filth” and is being written before seeing Wounds. The second half will inevitably be about the film, analysis, my thoughts, and comparisons to the book.

Ballingrud’s stories explore humanity at its worst, and while the supernatural elements are terrifying in their own right, much of the horror comes from the human-ness of the characters, their broken lives, and their awful, desperate, and pathetic actions and inactions.

The stories in his collection, "North American Lake Monsters" often delve into the fragility of the working-class. While he’s by no means a feminist author, his stories often portray the absolute worst elements of masculinity, and his protagonists are often as pathetic as they are testosterone-driven.

“Wild Acre” is about the aftermath of a man’s failure to stop a werewolf from killing his friends. “SS” hauntingly follows the initiation of a lonely teenage boy into a white supremacist group. “The Good Husband” tracks the fallout after a man fails to stop his wife’s suicide attempt. All his stories feel dangerous and transgressive. They fill the reader with a sense that they are experiencing something forbidden, and they evoke a variety of primal fears. Fear of loss. Fear of rejection. Fear of responsibility.

The Visible Filth is no exception.
The story centers on Will, an affable deadbeat who tends a bar at a filthy New Orleans dive. One night, some underage kids stumble in, and Will serves them regardless. Not long after, a regular, Eric, gets into a fight where he takes a broken bottle to the face. He wins the fight, thoroughly pummeling his assailant, but his face gets mangled.
Throughout this, Will does nothing but mop up the blood. While doing so, he finds one of the kids’ cellphones and takes it home with him.
The fight eventually gets broken up, no thanks to Will. The kids flee. Eric’s attacker flees. Eric refuses treatment -- he can’t afford the bill -- instead, he drags his ruined face out of the bar and to his apartment on the building’s second story.

Horror tropes lead us to expect that these teens are future hapless fodder for whatever horror lurks in the stories pages. “The Visible Filth” subverts that. Instead, Will begins receiving text messages on the phone from someone named Garret, who begs him for help. Will chooses to do nothing. He silences the phone and goes to sleep. He awakens to find more pleading texts, followed by a picture of a pile of bloody teeth.

That’s where Will’s strange journey begins.

While the novella includes disquieting depictions of violence and trauma, it’s Will’s actions that seem most despicable. Though relatively charming at face value, he’s so listless that while he may not be the arbiter of the awful things that come to pass, his constant, pathological inaction either leads to the story’s horrors or exacerbates them. Even the few times he takes action, it’s wrongheaded and narcissistic. Yet, even though he’s inarguably a bad person, Ballingrud crafts such a compelling story around him that it’s impossible to turn away. 

Ballingrud excels at making degenerates compelling, and we sympathize with Will as his situation becomes increasingly worse. Because of his charisma and charm, and because his situation isn’t quite his own fault, we feel for him as a protagonist. We want things to turn out alright for him in spite of himself. We want him to take control of his life, rather than following the stories tumultuous currents like flotsam in a hurricane.

Ballingrud doesn’t just excel at plot or character. The man writes horror stories that at times feel as gritty as a Jim Thompson novel and leave you feeling outright filthy while maintaining compelling and unique prose. At times, his words are downright beautiful. “The Visible Filth,” for example, begins by describing cockroach mating season at a seedy New Orleans bar:

“The roaches were in high spirits. There were half a dozen of them, caught in the teeth of love. They capered across the liquor bottles, perched atop pour spouts like wooden ladies on the prows of sailing ships. They lifted their wings and delicately fluttered. They swung their antennae with a ripe sexual urgency, tracing love sonnets in the air.” (p.1)

The prose remains fantastic throughout, using unique examples of simile and metaphor that are surprising but still manage to come off naturally. The effect is at its best, perhaps, when describing violence and the stories (almost titular) wounds.

“The right side of Eric’s face was a Technicolor nightmare of scabbed and torn flesh.” (p. 20)

This prose among the many reasons I’m so excited for the film. While a face full of scabbed and torn flesh is easy to imagine, I’m excited to see how Babak Anvari decides to depict the “Technicolor” part. This segment alone isn’t the only bit of surreality in Ballingrud’s depictions. Much of the imagery depicts surreal and impossible events, and while I’ll let you discover the true horrors of “The Visible Filth” as a reader, the central terror that Will discovers is nightmarish, and I’m thrilled to see it depicted on screen. 

I’m not too concerned with the presentation. Babak Anvari’s previous film, Under the Shadow, demonstrates some serious horror talent. While the subject matter is significantly different, Under the Shadow is beautiful, and delivers excellent scares and tension. It also contains some amazing production design and does a fantastic job with its limited setup.

With Under the Shadow, Anvari also shows an excellent attunement for the weird. The previous film delivers scares through clever unsettling imagery, without relying on too many special effects. Sheets floating through the air, a naked man lurking in a doorway, a girls face becoming one gigantic mouth, it’s an aesthetic that could lend itself particularly well to “The Visible Filth,” which shares a similar weirdness.
I have a lot of confidence in Anvari, and it helps that the trailer looks gnarly in the best possible way. The cockroaches are present in droves, and the wounds look downright nasty, and it shows things that aren’t explicitly in the book, but seem to be a perfect fit in the world and ideas laid down by The Visible Filth.

Seriously, just go read this story. It shouldn’t take more than an hour, and I suspect you’ll be compelled to read more of Ballingrud’s work. If you do like it, a few stories that I’d recommend most highly are: “The Butcher’s Table” and “The Atlas of Hell” from Wounds and “Wild Acre,” “North American Lake Monsters,” and “The Good Husband” from North American Lake Monsters. If you’re interested in sampling, he has a few stories published online:

And now, our feature presentation.

I watched Wounds the night of its release to Hulu, brimming with excitement. I’d spent the last two weeks poring over the source material and couldn’t wait to see it on screen. I watched Babak Anvari’s previous film the night before in anticipation. I’d been trying to avoid them, but I’d seen that Wounds had been getting some mixed reviews, but that didn’t bother me. I was ready.

Around 9:00 pm, I hit play.

And I watched it.

I wish I could say it lived up to my expectations.

It did not.

It’s plain to see that Anvari is a technically impressive filmmaker. He understands the craft and directs admirably. With Wounds, he delivers a smoldering slow burn that tracks us down the path of Will’s plunge into narcissism, obsession, and madness. 

Wounds is a technically well-made film. The cinematography and set design are both great, particularly the homes of Will and Eric, which both feel lived in and sufficiently right for the characters. Rosie’s bar feels a little too nice at times but is mostly satisfying as the dive it’s supposed to be.

The casting was excellent. Armie Hammer and Zazie Beetz are great, and I particularly loved Brad Henke as Eric and Karl Glusman as Jeffery. The melange of college kids were fantastic and scummy in a way that matched the books. The only let down was Dakota Johnson whose performance as Carrie felt flat and ineffective, but I’ve felt that about her in other roles, and I can accept that that’s her acting style

This film has a lot of cockroaches, and while I suspect that many of them were CG, there were definitely a number of real ones (evidenced by the presence of a roach wrangler, Karen Milliken, in the credits), and they all looked fantastic. 

The other CG and the makeup effects were similarly great. There’s an image of a ragged eyeball that pops up that’s particularly impressive, and when we see it, Eric’s “Technicolor nightmare of scabbed and torn flesh” is impressive made up in grotesque red, black, and yellow. Other, more spoilery imagery looks incredible as well. To that end, I’m inclined to say that the film is worth watching for these few sequences alone. To they extent that they’re included, they provide nice payoffs to the graphic horror sequences in the book.

I wish I could say that all of these things coalesce into a great film, but they don’t. When it comes to telling a good story, Wounds simply falls apart. 

I may have buried the lede when talking about “The Visible Filth.” While the novella has incredibly described imagery, the sequences are few and far between, and much of the story’s horror and intrigue are internal. It’s what Will is thinking and feeling and how he’s reacting to those emotions that unsettle the reader, and the gruesome images help serve to gild the story’s true horror.

Wounds fails as a feature film because it’s too faithful an adaptation. It follows the story almost exactly, to the point where next-to-no new dialogue has been added, and I could count the scenes that don’t appear in the novella on one hand. 

While that may sound great to a purist, it’s important to remember that film is a visual medium. “The Visible Filth” is a 73-page novella that spends much of its time in a character’s head. There’s just not a lot to put onto film. What we get instead are shots that simmer and brood for too long, filling space that would be better served by being trimmed or reconfigured to tell the story through an audiovisual medium.

It’s also important to realize that novellas, short stories, and short films allow for different story-telling structures than full-length novels and feature films. As a society, we’re conditioned to expect certain things in a feature film. We anticipate a beginning, middle, and an end where a character experiences some kind of emotional arc where they experience a fundamental change. 

Short-form media, on the other hand, rarely meets these expectations, and to a degree, we expect that too. Short media delivers a story more like one would deliver a joke -- through setup and payoff. “The Visible Filth” is an example of this. Across its 73 pages, Will remains unchanged as a character. In fact, Will’s resistance to change is central to the novella. 

Without giving too much away, if you were to look at “The Visible Filth” as part of a full-length novel, it would end somewhere in the mid-to-late second act, as Will realizes that he’s broken as a human being and needs to somehow be made whole. Instead, this conclusion serves as the punchline to the joke that is Will’s pathetic life, and in the short story format, it’s excellent and affecting and moving.

There’s also an expectation that in a short story or novella characters may not be as fleshed-out as in a longer piece. This really shows in Wounds. While Will seems like a relatively complete character, neither Alisha nor Carrie has been developed into anything more than a pastiche of a human being, there to serve the plot and nothing else. This works fine in the novella’s 73-pages but leaves us wanting in a feature-length film.

While Babak Anvari remains an impressive director, after seeing Wounds, I’m less convinced of his prowess as a writer, or at least as a writer adapting other media. I understand respecting the source material, but I’m legitimately curious how he managed to turn a 73-page novella into a ~95-page screenplay while changing as little as he did.

The good news is that this film isn’t tanking anyone’s career. I still have high hopes for whatever Anvari follows-up with, and shooting just started on the Hulu series adaptation of Ballingrud’s North American Lake Monsters. I’m inclined to stay positive, but I’ll certainly temper my expectations next time.

...No excuse me while I reread “The Visible Filth” again.

-Listener Sam

Friday, October 25, 2019

The Overlook Theatre Reviews: Portals

A sci-fi anthology from four iconic horror directors, tied together by a single event-the appearance of cosmic portals around the world. While many flee from them, the real terror sets in when others are drawn into these mysterious voids.

3 of 8 viewers "Liked" "Portals" (2019, USA)
Creature reviews have been minimally altered in an attempt to maintain their voice:

Greyranger - "It took multiple filmmakers to take 2001: A Space Odyssey into the dullest and muddled anthology horror movie in recent memory. It is both too vague and too explicit, dulling the enigma at its heart and giving us no reason to care about any of it. The movie assumes we'll be as awed by the monoliths in this movie as the ones in 2001, which is pompous and lazy. Besides, they look like fucking plasma screens. It's not smart enough to deliver on the hard science, not imaginative enough to deliver on the enigma." - 1.5 Stars

Huntress - "Portals is a good looking movie but it left me wanting more. The segments felt like they were taken out of something bigger, or like they were intended to be episodes of a series. And towards the end, the mythology behind the portals got too muddled and chaotic for me to follow. There were elements I really liked; interesting settings, a mad scientist and some good body horror, but those well crafted horror moments were interspliced with a lot of confusion." - 2.5 Stars

The Impostor - "Horror anthologies are a favorite of mine. Portals is a film I've heard nothing about and if I saw the cover I'd probably skip it, but hearing it was an anthology piqued my interest. Overall, this sci-fi horror anthology isn't one I'd recommend. "The Call Center" story started off interesting and fell flat. "Sarah" was a great short that I'd want to see more of and definitely raised a point on the star status. With a wrap around, around another wrap around, things got confusing and I thought there were too many endings. This is a Portal I would go through to avoid seeing it again but I'll most likely forget this film in a few days." - 2 Stars

Lord Battle - "An army of Monoliths have appeared all over Earth! In Portals we are given different perspectives from 4 locations all of the planet and time-space! 😱 I love watching all walks of anthologies. What I find most important when delivering a good anthology, is a solid wrap around. Portals gives us two often confusing wrap arounds... Quantity over quality is really the theme of this film as the Monolith army quickly becomes uninteresting kinda like the way a slasher or ghost can become boring when they have to much screen time. I mean these damn Monoliths are everywhere! The worst part is that people react in the lamest ways to this phenomenon. There are some really cool things hidden within the... "Portals" (😉), like some surprisingly effective gore, a couple interesting ideas, and a solid short that takes place within a parking garage. I also love when an anthology has strong connective tissue like a theme or just shorts written for the feature. Would I recommend Portals? Nope, but I do think Portals would play well as a random watch on Amazon Prime." - 3 Stars

Listener Sam - "I'm giving this a 2 primarily because it has two wrap-arounds. That was wild. It's not normal for any film to roll credits before it's over, and it rarely works. Gaspar Noe can pull it off. Portals can't. But it fails amusingly. So Portals is a 3-4 part anthology where portals show up and people react to them. Sometimes they go crazy, sometimes they become zombies. Other Stuff happens... The highlight was "Sarah" which was essentially a zombie short, but was well shot and had what may have been the film's only scare. I guess it's also ambitious, which was at least respectable. The CGI is fair. There's a creepy eye. A head explodes. There's just nothing that stands out. It puts the poor in Portals." - 2 Stars

Wondering Panda - "A movie that bends time, space, and travel. Sounds like a fun sci-fi movie, right? Well it's okay. I have no problems with this film, it's shot okay, the sound and lighting are okay. A little over-dubbing post edit. This movie is mediocre at best, it doesn't really excel at anything. Plus it's kinda dense where there's a lot going on, but not really. Portals makes me wish it was real so I can hop in one and disintegrate away to a better reality." - 3 Stars

Math Mage - "I recall The Triangle and how the fear came from the unknown (Where are we going? Is this a good thing?) and now I realize that it would have been less scary if the dinosaur talked. I kept feeling like they were due for a "Beyond Good and Evil" speech but they never did. I should have felt relieved (I hate these) but no, they're just evil. We're even spared the mystery of whether they are portals at all. I mean for all we know, crazy call center guy could just have been crazy and the "doors" were just disintegrating people. But no, they're evil doors that send people to another dimension and turn people into zombies for no reason. And the No Reason wouldn't bother me normally but the doors won't shut up!" - 2.5 Stars

Theatre Ghost - Positives: Nice creative group project, interesting concepts. Favorite of 3 is “Call Center”
         Negative: Overall poor combination of Us and Bird Box. I feel “The Other Side” only accomplished gore fx. Lack of continuity (ear plugs missing and reappearing, multiple lines of reasoning behind “The Door”, etc.) took me out of the story. Good character development with the father and daughter.
         “Call Center” was my favorite but a simple take on current social issues of mental health, workplace/gun violence, ineffective public safety and media. Nothing new learned or any new perspective. Also, if the blonde lady can’t find her daughter, why does she keep showing up on the phone?
          “Sarah” was a zombie rip off that couldn’t decide if it was from radiation, visual effects, or crying dead babies. This had the worst continuity. I understand their choice in disorienting camera but feel they did not use its full potential. Good casting, poor script.
           “Liverpool” was a scientific documentary attempting to connect the three storylines but became a half made forth story. It did nothing to further the plot, only to meet full feature time requirements.
I liked the effects used for the doors/portals. I feel like the documentary or/and other side would be better as independent full length features." - 3 Stars

The Overlook Theatre Final Rating*
(Below is for after you've seen the film)

Portals didn't really work for the Overlook's fickle creatures. Everyone seemed to have questions when the credits rolled. Luckily, one of the film's directors, Liam O'Donnell, was gracious enough to address a couple of them. 

Why the double wrap-around?

We originally just had a couple of opening title card of the black hole forming but once we finished the film it just felt like we needed a little more setup and a little more scope. I had gotten to know a really talented British science fiction director Haz Dulull over the years and thought he'd be perfect to bring in for that. So we started talking about what that could be and it just evolved into a slightly bigger sequence with a fun mid credit scene to tease what could come next.

Was this ever conceived as a found footage movie?

Not that I know of. When I came aboard Call Center and Sarah had already been shot. So that was never really a discussion.

In making an anthology with a central connecting theme, how much time did you spend laying out ground-rules. Did you go into the segments with certain things that the portals can and can't do, or were you just given the idea and told to go ahead?

When I came aboard I spent a lot of time talking with creator/producer Chris White about the Portals, about the rules, the origins, how much to explain, how little. But it was all very flexible and malleable to what worked best for each individual story. I definitely had the benefit of seeing the other segments cut together so I knew what I was matching to and building around which was a huge help and inspiration. I loved that each one was sort of genre mash in its own right. Call Center was a sci-fi hostage situation. Sarah was a sci-fi zombie apocalypse. The Other Side took its cues from Misery at first that sort of devolves into a John Carpenter inspired Prince of Darkness fever dream.

Did you find any differences in working on an anthology film as opposed to a full feature?

 There's a lot of big differences of course, in scale and time - it was incredibly refreshing to make something and have it come out a few months later as opposed to something like the Skyline films that take around 2 years all in. I think the biggest difference from a writing stand point is that audiences are much more up for nasty endings in short stories/segments. We actually originally had a more happy ending for The Other Side but it felt a little too nice! We needed to see something more sinister at the end which really helped bring things full circle.

How much was cut out of the segment you worked on?

Not much, almost everything we shot made it in. We had a very aggressive shooting schedule so we really tried to trim as much fat as possible before filming. The interrogation scene where Adam faces off with his reflection was a little longer though with a few of the more mysterious questions asked and contemplated but it felt like we were maybe giving a little too much away and it slowed things down too much so we trimmed some there.

You can rent Portals on iTunes and Amazon Prime today to experience it for yourself 


Wednesday, October 23, 2019

Digging Up The Dirt with KillDozer and Michael Ballif (The Witching Season, They Live Inside Us)

From time to time we all get lost in the "streaming maze" where every title just starts to melt together in a never ending loop of "what should I watch?!". One night in early October I was trapped in such a maze until one title complete with amazing poster art work stuck out and screamed WATCH ME!!!! I am  happy to say that I did. That title The Witching Season on Amazon Prime. A horror anthology show that was so fun and made with so much love that I had to dig up the dirt on how it came to be. 

KillDozer: What inspired you to bring The Witching Season to life? 

Michael Ballif: It really spawned from my love of anthology shows like Are You Afraid of the Dark? and Goosebumps. Those were my first real introduction to the horror genre when I was a kid and they always stuck with me. I loved the idea of making my own version of something in a similar realm, though targeted more towards adults who grew up with those shows. I also felt like creating a series would be a great opportunity to work with new people. I've been lucky to have made some lasting relationships from it.

KD: The Witching Season is obviously a labor of love. What did it take to get funding and bring it to the screen?

Michael: What little we had to work with was all self-financed, but it was practically a zero budget production. Most everyone who worked on the project did so for the experience, I think. And although the budget was small, we wanted to make sure we didn't cut any corners and made this thing look as good as it possibly could. The series' existence is a testament to the passion and love everyone involved dedicated to make it happen. 

KD: Did you have all the episodes written before you started production? Was this always meant to be a series?

Michael: It was always intended to be a series but I only had the first episode written and ready to go initially. I knew I wanted it to be a variety show of horror, sprawling various sub-genres from one episode to another. I felt like a slasher film would be a good way to start things off, because traditionally they are somewhat straight forward in terms of story and suspense. Of course, "Killer on the Loose" has its own unique Witching Season twist, which we tried to create for every episode. It ended up being a great template to set the tone of what future episodes should look and feel like. 

KD: Was it an obvious choice to place the series during Halloween or did you ever question how you would set the stage for The Witching Season?

Michael: It was the other half the equation, really. When I decided on doing an anthology I knew there needed to be something unique about it. I fell in love with the idea of capturing stories that happen during the "Witching Season", similar to how Tales From The Darkside would tell stories about the darker side of life. I am also fascinated by the Halloween season and (attempting) to capture the aesthetic that comes along with it. 

KD: I've seen the series described as "fueled by nostalgia", do you think this is a fair description? 

Michael: It's definitely intended to be a bit of a "throwback" style series. Something you might have found on TV in the 80's or 90's. Of course that's all the rage now with shows like Stranger Things, but at the time we started making TWS it felt pretty unique. Not that I'm complaining; I love Stranger Things, and I think it's cool that more and more stuff like this is getting made. 

KD: How did you go about choosing writers for the series? Was there anyone you reached out to that was unable to work on The Witching Season?

Michael: Originally my plan was to write and direct every episode. But as post production on the pilot began taking much longer than I had anticipated, I asked James Morris (who plays the "masked killer" character in the first episode) if he would be interested in writing the script for episode two. That way he could be writing while I was finishing up the edit. He took a short story I had written about a killer rabbit and adapted it into a screenplay. When I read the script I genuinely loved it but was so clearly in James' voice that I felt like it made the most sense for him to direct it himself. Fortunately he agreed and ended up writing the screenplay for and directing episodes three and five after that, and I took on the rest. 

KD: Do you have any personal favorites amongst the episodes?

Michael: I ended up doing the cinematography for the entire series, but "Princess" was the first episode that I shot and didn't direct myself. It was also the first project of this scale that I had ever worked on in this way, and I think for that reason it stands out the most. As filmmakers, we tend to get so close to the things we make that we can't really see them the way an audience does anymore. It's the one episode I can look at the most objectively, so I enjoy watching it. Plus I think it came together really well. James and the cast did an excellent job. 

KD: What is casting like on an independent project like this? 

Michael: We shot in our home state of Utah and utilized a number of local Facebook groups to set up auditions. That was one of the best ways to find new people. But we also worked with actors who we had either connected with or worked with in the past. We even had actors reach out to us because they heard about the project and wanted to be a part of what we were doing. There are a lot of talented people in the area that we've been fortunate enough to work with.

KD: As far as special effects go, did you know what you wanted to go with in terms of digital vs. practical? Were you held back by your budget or does a small budget inspire creativity? 

Michael: I think you're absolutely right about that. I find that having a smaller box to work within forces you to be more creative. I tend to think that if you can do an effect practically, in camera, that's usually the best way to go. But sometimes pairing a practical effect with some digital enhancement can yield some fantastic results too. The best example of this is in "Not Alone" where the alien creature appears in the corner of the room. For that effect we simply had our actor wearing a pure black spandex suite. He also wore long paper fingers. You know the kind you'd fold up in elementary school? Like that. But we spray painted them black. The effect of the creature only worked when I went into After Effects and darkened the corner of the room so you could barely see what it was in the corner. If you were to look at the raw footage you would laugh at how ridiculous it looked. 

KD: Has the series opened up the door for future projects? 

Michael: It definitely has. It allowed us to build up a small following of friends, fans, and family who ultimately helped us finance our first low budget feature film, which is in production right now. Just about everyone involved in The Witching Season is creatively involved in the making of the film in some way.

KD: What has been your experience with genre fans watching the show? Have you ever screened anything from The Witching Season in front of a theatre crowd?

Michael: From what I've seen, it seems like most die-hard horror fans understand what we were trying to do with it. It's been really cool to see people react to a project that felt so weirdly personal to me. I honestly didn't know if people would be into it or not, especially the Halloween element. But people seem to enjoy it. 

We submitted every episode to a number of different film festivals around the world and have been fortunate enough to attend a few of those screenings. One of the most notable was the Utah Film Festival in 2018 where "They Live Inside Us" screened for a packed crowd. It was awarded "Best Utah Made Film" at the festival, going up against even some big budget feature films. That was a big moment for me. 

KD:  How were you able to get The Witching Season on Amazon? Are you happy with that decision?

Michael: Amazon launched their Video Direct feature a while back, which allows independent filmmakers to release content to the site directly. It's a pretty amazing resource to have. I compare it to a filmmaker in the 90's having the ability to walk into a video store and place their film on the shelf to be rented to the public. It's pretty unheard of and offers the ability to tap into a huge marketplace filmmakers otherwise would need to jump through many, many hoops to get into. It's been great and has really helped us get the series seen by as many eyeballs as possible. 

KD: What can fans expect next? Where can we go to follow your work and stay up to date?

Michael: I'm wrapping up production on my first feature-film right now, which is called They Live Inside Us. It is an adaptation of the fourth episode of The Witching Season taking the same concept of the short -- about a writer who goes to a notoriously haunted house to find inspiration for his next project -- but expands upon many of the ideas. It takes everything I love about horror and Halloween and compiles it into a movie that I think genre fans are going to love. I am hoping for the film to be released at some point towards the end of the year. I am also planning to do a second season of TWS at some point in the near future, once this feature is complete.

You can stay up to date with progress on that and other projects through my production company Witching Season Films.

KD: If you could combine The Witching Season universe with any other film universe what would it be and why?

Michael: I'd love to make a Goosebumps film set around Halloween time, but for adults. Any takers?

KD: If you could erase any of the recent horror remakes from history which would it be?

Michael: I don't like to hate on remakes, but I wish the recent IT remake was scarier than it was. I enjoyed many parts about it, but it just wasn't scary and the opportunity was there. 

KD: What films have you seen in the last 2 years that have inspired you?

Michael: Hereditary has been majorly inspiring to me. I love that movie. Also, Justin Seaman's The Barn is amazing.

KD: What is your favorite piece of film memorabilia?  

Michael: I wish I had some cool film memorabilia but I really don't. The holy grail would be to own an original screen-used Haunted Mask from the 90's Goosebumps TV series. That'd be rad.

Check out The Witching Season streaming on Amazon today!


Friday, October 18, 2019

Listener Sam Reviews: Eli

Before I watched Eli, I went through the cast and crew, and its director, Ciarán Foy, stood out. He has a unique name, but I couldn’t recall quite where I’d seen it. It turns out, he directed a film from 2012 called Citadel that really stuck with me. It’s about a man whose family is repeatedly brutalized by a pack of feral children. It’s an excellent and oft-overlooked film that at its best feels like a feature-film version of Chris Cunningham’s "Come To Daddy" music video, in the best, most terrifying way.

Foy is also responsible for a made-for-TV flick called The Wilding (which I haven’t seen), and 2015’s Sinister 2, which is a lousy follow-up, but not necessarily poorly directed. Both films heavily feature child-based horror. Seeing that Foy had a track record for making films about creepy kids, and knowing the quality job he did on Citadel, I was excited to see what he could do with Eli

Eli revolves around the titular character, a kid who’s allergic to everything -- a bubble boy -- who when inside, is relegated to a plastic enclosure, and who has to wear a hazmat suit when outside. His parents take him to a special care facility that promises to cure his illness. While there, he’s haunted by ghosts.

From the get-go, Eli presents itself a strange genre mash-up. It has elements of medical, supernatural, haunted house, and creepy-kid horror combined in a way that made me immediately nervous. “How the hell are they going to make this work?” I thought as I passed through the first act. They introduced so much that it seemed impossible to do so and still make a coherent film. Fortunately, Eli is largely successful in this venture, and while the multifarious plot threads are still messy, it ties them up in a satisfying, if campy, way.

The film, in essence, is a mystery. It presents us and Eli (Charlie Shotwell), the titular protagonist, with the task of unraveling just what his illness is. In doing so, the film presents a number of possibilities, clues, and suspects. 

Eli’s father (Max Martini) seems to have anger issues and frequently low-key accuses his wife (Kelly Reilly) of infidelity. The wife and mother, on the other hand, also seems profoundly off, and leads us to think that Eli could be a victim of Munchausen-by-proxy. The doctor they take him to (Lili Taylor) is almost a caricature of a sadistic doctor. He makes a creepy friend at the facility, who might be up to no good. It’s even ambiguous as to whether the ghosts are trying to help or hurt him…

...And we get that all in the first fifteen-or-so minutes. 

Like I said, it’s a lot.

And yet somehow, they manage to pull it off. I’m inclined to credit the writers for this success. Eli is written by Ian Goldberg & Richard Naing, the writing team behind The Autopsy of Jane Doe, and David Chirchirillo, probably best known for 2013’s Cheap Thrills. They manage to somehow cram a ton of different ideas into a singular vision, which ties up in a clever (and yes, maybe a little ridiculous) way that filled me with horror-lover glee.

Within this plot, we get an interesting take on horror. Eli primarily delivers its scares in the form of brutal medical procedures inflicted on a child. Eli has his bones and brain drilled while fully awake and minimally anesthetized, and these sequences are harrowing and uncomfortable. They reminded me of a joke that an old bitter doctor once told me:

At the procedure’s inception, bone-marrow transplants had an extremely high mortality rate and were extremely painful for the patient. -- The joke: Three patients have leukemia and will die without a bone marrow transplant.

The first patient takes their chances and accepts the procedure but dies in agony as the doctors drill into his bones to extract the marrow.

The second patient, still thinking they have a chance, also opts for a bone marrow transplant. They survive the procedure but die in agony due to complications.

The final patient, having seen how the other patients suffered, opts to die instead.

His doctor said, “Excellent. You’ll die, but first, let’s give you a bone marrow transplant!”

I’m not sure it’s actually funny.

Nevertheless, some of the most affecting moments are when the doctors drill into Eli’s femur to inject him directly in the bone marrow. I found myself gritting my teeth and cringing for the entirety of the sequence. The fact that it was inflicted on a child only helped serve its grotesque purpose.

Unfortunately, there aren’t many other scares. The ghost sequences attempt jump scares, but none of them landed for me, and they never seemed to build enough tension to get a great release. I may have winced once or twice, but I never found myself particularly scared, just momentarily startled. This, however, might be a problem with the medium more than the film itself. Being a direct-to Netflix release, I watched this on my home theater, and though I was watching in the dark on a decently large screen with an adequate sound system, I feel like scares just don’t land as well at home as they would have in a theater.

Anyway, beyond the cleverly crafted plot and the medical trauma, the element of Eli that most impressed me was the overall production design. The facility where the film is set is half haunted mansion and half medical facility. The production design and set decoration make it feel simultaneously sterile and barren, and decrepit and dusty. 

Certain elements, such as the airlock that the characters must use to enter and exit the facility, feel like sci-fi set pieces, and have unique designs that tie cleverly into the film's twisty plot. Other sets, like the dining room and bedrooms, are almost surreal in their sparseness. A table and chairs or a bed, nightstand, and cabinet, with virtually nothing else to accompany them. 

The choices are bold, unique, and help immerse us in the world of Eli. This feels particularly important because the setup, at times, feels downright ridiculous. Even though severe combined immunodeficiency (SCID) is a real thing that, once-upon-a-time, created a real need for children to live in a bubble, the idea still seems absurd on screen. Because of this, it would be easy for the film to fall into absurdity and surrealism, and at times it skirts the edges but ultimately manages to stay the course.

The final touch that helps solidify Eli’s tight production design is the slick, interesting palette. The house and medical staff therein are drenched in teal, blue, indigo, and violet. Throughout most of the films, this palette is extremely cohesive, and we see little more than highlights in other colors. This helps gloss over some questionable CGI that at times is noticeable, but never really took me out of the film. In fact, there are some computer-generated crane flies that looked great when they showed up.

With regard to the visuals, I also loved the exteriors at the beginning of the film. It features beautiful drone shots of Louisiana. Lush wastelands of overgrown swamps, untended and barren fields, and marshy wetlands, all devoid of humanity, save for our lead family’s car. There’s even a scene at a grimy motel that, while not particularly plot-relevant, gives us a gorgeous sense of the suburban decay that the characters live in.

Finally, the film has some really unique effects work when dealing with the ghosts. They spend a lot of time communicating via fogged/steamed-over glass and mirrors, and the filmmakers use this to deliver some unique scares. In one scene that really stood out, Eli sees a ghost in the fogged section of a mirror, wipes it, and the ghost vanishes. I also liked how the ghosts move at times, vanishing and appearing extremely suddenly and unpredictably. 

Eli is not without its flaws, however, and the performances in particular really fall flat. Maybe I’m being too harsh a critic, but Hereditary really set a new bar for parental grief performances, and the parents in Eli don’t quite surpass it. A lot of the emotion is flatly delivered, and even though it helps serve the film’s many mysteries, it’s too rigid to feel anything other than surreal. 

The best performance by far comes from Charlie Shotwell as Eli, who shows an impressive range of acting skills, and does an especially convincing job at being furious when no one believes that he’s seeing ghosts. Sadie Sink also does a commendable job as Haley, though her role is small. Combined with her performance in seasons 2 and 3 of Stranger Things, she is proving to be an impressive young actress.

I also alluded to some questionable CG. In particular, the exteriors of the house are downright bad. Most of them are unnecessary and only serve to remind us that the film was probably shot on a sound stage on pre-constructed sets. Now, I could be wrong, and these shots may not be CG, but if I'm right, it’s almost worse and would imply some pretty poor choices as to how the shots were used and color-corrected. 

I don’t want to linger on the ending too much, though I think it bears a bit more mention. It just tickled me pink how bonkers it was, and it manages to tie up a ton of loose ends. There’s almost undoubtedly a few plot holes leftover, but I just don’t care. I watch movies to have fun, and I got some genuine goddamn fun from Eli’s finale. You’ll understand when you see it.

Netflix’s horror line up has had its share of ups and downs. They did a great job with Gerald’s Game, The Ritual, and Apostle, but other films like The Perfection, Velvet Buzzsaw, and The Silence have really fallen short. While not the best they’ve released, Eli falls into the better half of Netflix’s horror releases and is a great addition to this year’s slate of Halloween releases.

Eli is available on Netflix as of October 18th, 2019

-Listener Sam