Greetings, all. Ambush Bug here with another AICN HORROR: ZOMBIES & SHARKS column. My apologies for posting this column a day late. Catching up on TADFF, the countdown, and the Chicago International Film Festival is a lot to manage. Nevertheless, here’s the first half of this week’s column with the other half on it’s way to you all Monday! On with the horror reviews!
(Click title to go directly to the feature)
Book Report: THE HOLE (2013)
Retro-review: THE HOUSE ON STRAW HILL (1976)
TO JENNIFER (2013)
Advance Review: THE LEGEND OF THE RED REAPER (2013)
And finally…Wicked Bird Media’s M IS FOR MUNDANE!
AICN HORROR Book Report!
THE HOLE Novel (2013)Written by William Meikle Published by Darkfuse
Reviewed by BottleImp
It begins with a strange humming noise…a vibration that comes up through the ground. Then the nosebleeds and headaches start to appear. A sinkhole opens up, a deep pit in the earth that rapidly grows in size. Other holes soon spring up all around the small town, engulfing houses, cars and the townspeople. But it’s the things that emerge from these pits that are the real danger.
That, in a nutshell, is the essence of THE HOLE, an effective page-turner by horror and science fiction author William Meikle. Meikle’s story of a tiny rural town’s struggle to escape the horrors released from beneath the earth is a blend of Stephen King and Dean R. Koontz, with a dash of H.P. Lovecraft thrown in for good measure. Like many of King’s stories, THE HOLE centers around a small, determined band of everyday people who are thrown together by extraordinary circumstances. The fast pace of the writing and some of the plot elements echo Koontz’s PHANTOMS, while Meikle gives a nod to the cosmic horrors that are the essence of Lovecraft’s work. The end result is a book that doesn’t quite achieve the sum of its parts, but is entertaining nonetheless.<br.
The triumphs and the shortcomings of THE HOLE are rooted in a single aspect of the story: the pacing. As I said, this book is one hell of a page turner; one of Meikle’s strengths as a writer is his ability to compel the reader to turn to the next chapter (a quality that Stephen King described as the “I gotta” factor, as in “I know it’s midnight and I have to get up at six tomorrow, but I gotta see what happens next”). In keeping the pacing tight and the word count low, Meikle eliminates needless embellishments from distracting from the plot, but he also misses out on the opportunity to give his characters the roundedness that they sorely miss. What the reader is left with as protagonists is an assortment of character types rather than fully-formed people. We have the stalwart sheriff, the intelligent doctor, the town drunk looking for redemption, the kid on the wrong side of the tracks with a heart of gold—and that’s pretty much where they start and end. I wish that Miekle had spent a little more time giving these templates more unique personalities; this would have given the reader a way to become more invested in their survival against the Hole and its inhabitants.
Another admittedly small but crucial detail that keeps this book from reaching its full potential lies in the language used. THE HOLE is set in a small rural community in the United States—the exact location is never given, but some details seem to indicate that we’re in the Northeast. William Meikle is not an American—he is Scottish by birth and a current resident of Canada, according to his author’s profile. The fact of his nationalities is made apparent by some of the word choices that jumped off the pages as I read. Meikle uses “windscreen” instead of “windshield.” A character makes a reference to the “lorries” on the road, and another character’s dialogue is peppered with the word “summat”—a colloquial regional pronunciation of the word “something” that I’ve never heard from the mouth of any American, but have previously seen most often in dialogue spoken by Hagrid in the “Harry Potter” books. We could chalk this up to editorial oversight, as I feel a good editor would be able to pick up on these inconsistencies between wording and locale, but no matter who’s to blame these British invasions are an unfortunately jarring detail.
Despite these detriments, THE HOLE is a tight novel that doles out some nice helpings of action and pulpy horror. And hey, it kept my interest up and kept me guessing right up until the end—and isn’t that really what a good book is all about?
When released from his bottle, the Imp transforms into Stephen Andrade, an artist/illustrator/pirate monkey painter from New England. He's currently hard at work interpreting fellow @$$Hole Optimous Douche's brainwaves and transforming them into pretty pictures on AVERAGE JOE, an original graphic novel to be published by Com.x. You can see some of his artwork here.
Retro-review: New on BluRay from Severin!
THE HOUSE ON STRAW HILL (1976)aka EXPOSE, TRAUMA
Directed by James Kenelm Clarke
Written by James Kenelm Clarke
Starring Udo Kier, Fiona Richmond, Linda Hayden, Patsy Smart, Karl Howman, Vic Armstrong
Retro-reviewed by Ambush Bug
Having watched THE HOUSE ON STRAW HILL and another film covered this week called STALKED, if it wasn’t told to you, one would never know that STALKED is a remake as the two films are very different than one another, yet still share some basic similarities.
THE HOUSE ON STRAW HILL is much more of an erotic thriller than its modern counterpart. The film is very much about the sex as there are multiple scenes of sex between a dashing young Udo Kier and his secretary Linda Hayden, Udo and his onscreen lover Fiona Richmond, and multiple scenes of Hayden masturbating. The women in this film spend most of the time undressed or having sex or both, so unlike the taut thriller that Martin Kemp’s STALKED is, James Kenelm Clarke’s attention seemed to be more about the bumpin’ and grindin’. Not that this is a bad thing, but that is the most evident different between the two films.
Udo plays Paul Martin (his voice is dubbed in the version I saw, most likely due to Kier’s thick accent) a successful writer who is having difficulty with his latest novel, so he is sent out to the countryside and assigned a secretary named Linda (Hayden) to aid him in anything he needs. Turns out Linda’s a bit of a freak as evidenced by her increased clingy behavior around Paul and her tendency to masturbate to a picture of Paul whenever she is not in his presence. After a very weird rape scene as two locals happen upon her masturbating in the middle of a field and then molest her at gunpoint, Linda cracks and begins offing everyone who isn’t Paul in order to keep him from being distracted from his work.
THE HOUSE ON STRAW HILL is a bizarre little film, relying on some graphic sexuality to really amp this one to a level of perversity that makes one feel creepy rather than experience titillation. Linda is portrayed as a sexual contradiction; both distracting Paul from his work and offing anyone who distracts him from it as well. When things get violent, it’s got that 70’s grimy grindhouse feel that few modern films can replicate and though there is copious amounts of sex, the dark tone makes this a much more effective thriller than soft core porn.
I love films which focus on the metaphorical hurdles that he must endure in order to complete his project. This one exemplifies that notion expertly, though with lots and lots of 70’s sex. Again, not necessarily a bad thing. It’s just that THE HOSUE ON STRAW HILL is overflowing with it.
New this week on DVD from MVD Home Video!
TO JENNIFER (2013)Directed by James Cullen Bressack
Written by James Cullen Bressack, Chuck Pappas
Starring Chuck Pappas, Jessica Cameron, James Cullen Bressack, Jody Barton
Find out more about this film on Facebook here
Reviewed by Ambush Bug
TO JENNIFER is not a comfortable film to sit though. That doesn’t mean it’s not good. In fact, it might be to too effective in terms of how obsession can easily get the upper hand in relationships, especially when they go sour. James Cullen Bressack seems to be making a career of delving into the theater of discomfort. His previous films MY PURE JOY (which followed the exploits of a teenage serial killer – full review here) and especially HATE CRIME (which is a brutal and unflinching take on home invasion that feels a little too real – full review here) succeeded in mortifying and chilling my core and his latest did the same.
The film starts out simply as Joey (Chuck Pappas), an angry twentysomething, gets a random text from his girlfriend saying that she wants him to come over and finish what was started the night before. The problem is that Joey lives miles away and hasn’t seen his girlfriend in weeks. Beside himself, he recruits his cousin Steven (writer/director James Cullen Bressack) to travel across the state to confront Jennifer about this. Steven decides to document the event, which seems to be destined for failure from the get go as their flight is cancelled due to Joey’s nervous breakdown due to his fear of flying, and the road trip they decide to take is interrupted by Steven’s party-going friend Martin (played by MY PURE JOY’s Jody Barton).
As we follow Joey on this journey, it’s apparent that something is off with him. His mother has never met his girlfriend. She asks him why he is calling her when he is taped doing so. Yet Joey’s frustration only culminates to a boiling point by the time she gets to Jennifer’s place and sees him with another guy. The rest is the stuff of every young woman’s nightmare.
TO JENNIFER’s found footage motif is going to cause those tired of the format to roll their eyes, but this one is actually done well. Joey is a fascinating psycho to follow and though a lot of the revelations are telegraphed early, it is still fun to see play out. The final moments are extremely uncomfortable to sit through as this feels like a horror that can and often does happen, most likely with more frequency than we all know.
There are moments where the script and plot require acting that is met by the cast and there’s an awful lot of screaming and arguing in the latter half that I began to get tired of. Still, this one is pure horror in the most realistic sense, making TO JENNIFER all the more scary.
New this week on DVD from Screen Media Films!
STALKER (2010)aka EXPOSE
Directed by Martin Kemp
Written by Martin Kemp, Jonathan Sothcott, Phillip Barron, James Kenelm Clarke
Starring Anna Brecon, Jane March, Jennifer Matter, Danny Young, Billy Murray, Colin Salmon, Triana Terry
Find out more about this film on Facebook here
Reviewed by Ambush Bug
Maybe best known for his portrayal as one of the twin gangsters in THE KRAYS, Martin Kemp offers up a rock solid suspense yarn and a remake of another film that showed up coincidentally in this week’s column, THE HOUSE ON STRAW HILL. Though the film deviates from the original quite significantly, it does pack a powerful wallop in terms of suspense and acting.
Anna Brecon plays Paula, a writer who suffered a nervous breakdown and is only beginning to get back to her laptop again. Pressured by her publisher to get her latest novel out, Paula holes up in a country home to get the book out of her and onto the page. When a writing assistant named Linda (Jane March) shows up at the home, Paula is at first thrilled, then wary of her. But soon a struggle between Paula and Linda brews, as Paula catches Linda retyping some of her work without her consent and Linda becomes more and more controlling of Paula’s life. And what of the increasingly disturbing dreams of blood and sex Paula seems to be experiencing at night, and of the ghostly apparitions she is seeing in the periphery during the waking hours? All of it shapes up to a nice little thriller.
Though a lot of the twists and turns become apparent in the second half of the film, I had a good time getting to know this fractured writer and her struggle to regain the ability to write again. Kemp, who co-wrote and directed this film does a great job of filling up that first hour with enough dreams and weirdness that it will keep you guessing as to who is to be trusted and who isn’t, but when the cards are revealed in the latter portion of the film, I have to say it does become rather predictable.
It’s great to see Jane March again, who I haven’t seen since her laughably gratuitous lovemaking scene with Bruce Willis in COLOR OF NIGHT. The actress has aged well and has a menace and posture about her that really makes her a great villainess to watch. Though I hadn’t seen her before, Anna Brecon is also very good as the tormented writer, her moments of desperation conveyed in her sunken face and meek demeanor. Billy Murray (not Bill Murray) does a quality job as a seedy reporter as well.
Martin Kemp does a great job of introducing a haunted character and then twisting and turning her in front of our eyes very subtly through this film. Many of the scenes involve reflective surfaces such as mirrors and countertops, which feeds into this tale of conflicting personalities and haunted pasts. STALKER is not a rollercoaster ride of a film, but it is a tense thriller which sneaks up on you and scares effectively.
New this week on BluRay from IFC Midnight!
MANIAC (2012)Directed by Franck Khalfoun
Written by Alexandre Aja, Grégory Levasseur, C.A. Rosenberg (screenplay), Joe Spinell (original screenplay)
Starring Elijah Wood, Liane Balaban, America Olivo, Nora Arnezeder, Morgane Slemp, Genevieve Alexandra, Sammi Rotibi, Megan Duffy, Jan Broberg, Steffinnie Phrommany
Reviewed by Ambush Bug
WARNING: IF YOU’VE SEEN THE ORIGINAL MANIAC, THERE MIGHT BE A SPOILER OR TWO IN THIS REVIEW. IF NOT, PROCEED.
Though I am not a fan of all of these remakes these days, when one is good, I feel the need to commend it, even if it means a bunch more shitty remakes are down the pike. I’ve always treasured the original MANIAC as a perfect little shot of sleaze with its focus on greasy, sweaty, overweight Joe Spinell, who one would believe to be a homicidal maniac. When I heard Elijah Wood was cast in the remake, at first I was angry: another film miscast with a Hollywood pretty boy in hopes of attracting a demographic. Then I remembered that Wood is anything but your typical Hollywood actor. Just look at his unconventional role in the TV series “Wilfred” or, more importantly, his role as Kevin the emotionless maniac in SIN CITY, and you can see why he was chosen for the role.
Wood plays Frank Zito, the owner and sole employee of a mannequin restoration shop and yes, that job is as creepy as it sounds. Frank spends most of his days reworking mannequins and talking with them. At night, Frank has creepier activities as he stalks and murders beautiful women, saving their scalps to be stapled to a special set of mannequins he has in the back room of his shop where he lives. When Frank meets Anna (Nora Arnezeder), a photographer with an interest in using Frank’s mannequins, he tries hard to keep his psychotic tendencies at bay.
Compared to the original, which isn’t really fair, but inevitable, this new MANIAC keeps a lot of the details the same and adds quite a few which really add to the story rather than detract from it. The main deviation is the fact that 90% of this film is shot through Wood’s POV, with Frank only appearing in reflection and during some of the key kills where Frank seemingly leaves his body while doing the evil deeds. This makes for a pretty unnerving and otherworldly experience that some might feel uncomfortable with. We literally sit in the seat of the killer in this film, stalking victims and even killing them. As if they were our own eyes, we see Frank stalk, scalp, and kill these people, an effect that has been done in plenty of films before, but never at this level of intimacy.
The other thing that impressed me was Wood’s convincing performance. As I said above, I knew he could play a psycho, but looking at his big Frodo eyes, one can’t help but be brought back to the Shire, making these evil deeds all the more shocking to see. It’s the baggage the actor is carrying with him that that adds to, not detracts from, this performance and makes it all the more effective.
One thing that most fans of the original MANIAC were concerned about was the fact that there would be no way a modern filmmaker would go down the gory avenues the original did. Well, turns out director Franck Khalfoun didn’t get that memo as this is one of the goriest major film releases I’ve seen in years as scalps are sliced off, stabbings are doled out in the dozens, and the final scene, which I won’t reveal here, is as gory as the original, albeit slightly different. Though a lot of the gore is digital, most of it is top notch and seamless. I’d be curious what Tom Savini has to say about this, because this serves as an excellent homage to his work on the original slasher opus (minus the shotgun scene, which was a bit over the top in the original, and I’m glad they left it out here).
Those leery of remakes can rejoice that this is definitely a good one. There’s a beat in the final scenes that moves a bit quickly for my tastes, but it is necessary in order to keep the film moving along. I guess it says something about me that I was both disgusted and intrigued by slipping into the shoes of Wood’s Frank Zito. Wood is amazing here and pulls no punches. His Frank Zito is as much his own as Joe Spinell’s was in the first MANIAC. Though it may be a tough pill to swallow for the queasy among you, MANIAC is an excellent film which takes the original seriously and respectfully.
In select theaters and on Video On Demand!
CASSADAGA (2011)Directed by Anthony DiBlasi
Written by Bruce Wood, Scott Poiley
Starring Kelen Coleman, Kevin Alejandro, Louise Fletcher, Rus Blackwell, Lucas Beck, Lucius Baston, Amy LoCicero, Sarah Sculco, Rachel Durose, Avis-Marie Barnes, Hank Stone, Christina Bach, Carlos Navarro
Find out more about this film here and on Facebook here
Reviewed by Ambush Bug
Smelting together a ghost story with a slasher yarn is not always the most seamless of mergers, but CASSADAGA does a decent job at it by making both the ghost and serial killer aspects interesting and equally dire for the main protagonist, but also seems to fall into the realm of convention by the end.
CASSADAGA is the name of a town where all of the action of this story takes place. Kelen Coleman (who plays Allison Pill’s roommate in HBO’s THE NEWSROOM) tries on the final girl outfit in this horror tale and she fills the bill nicely as a spunky deaf girl who you can’t help but root for. While the filmmakers go out of their way to let you know Coleman’s character is deaf, I’m not sure exactly how it all fits into the story other than giving her another hurdle to leap over, as if the ghosts and the serial killer wasn’t enough. Still, this character is a bit stronger than the usual damsel in distress, more likely to chug forward with her chin in the air than cower in the corner and that’s refreshing to see. The young actress is beautiful and though she may be overshadowed with the three dollar words and fast-speak on THE NEWSROOM, she is given room to show some real star power and carries the film nicely.
The other aspect I really liked about this film was the creativity and perversity that was put into the serial killer. The haunting opening moments depicts a young boy caught playing with dolls and wearing a dress and is immediately chastised by his mother ends in a gory and uncomfortable mess setting the tone for the disturbing film to follow. All grown up, the killer man-child’s behavior has only gotten worse as he saws the limbs off of his victims and replaces them with hinges and ties them to a large marionette cross, dancing them around his underground pit of horror. Sure it’s a bit over the top, but it makes for some imagery that’s tough to shake.
The problem with CASSADAGA is that it doesn’t really know when to quit. The creepy killer is enough to build an effective and horrifying slasher film around, but this film goes even further and adds the supernatural to the mix, which feels somewhat shoehorned in and much less developed than the other serial killer stuff. If there’s a weak link in CASSADAGA it’s the fact that while the killer is pretty unique, the ghosts are mundane and clichéd. Had this film gone full force with one or the other, I think it would have been more of a successful effort.
Advance Review: Premiering at Stan Lee’s Comikaze Expo in LA on Nov. 3rd!
THE LEGEND OF THE RED REAPER (2013)Directed by Tara Cardinal
Written by Tara Cardinal
Starring Tara Cardinal, David Mackey, Ray Eddy, Eliza Swenson, Christian Boeving, Tom Nowicki, Shayne Leighton, Barry Ratcliffe
Find out more about this film here and on Facebook here
Reviewed by Ambush Bug
THE LEGEND OF THE RED REAPER reminded me of the low fi sword and sorcery films of the 80’s like HAWK THE SLAYER, DEATHSTALKER, & THE BEASTMASTER--films that most likely were filmed on the budgetary low, but the love for the genre and the grit in the teeth of the actors and all involved is evident the entire way through. THE LEGEND OF THE RED REAPER has that love and that grit, most of which comes from its star/writer/director, Tara Cardinal.
The story follows the daughter of a demon and a sorceress (Cardinal) who grows up to become the Red Reaper. She has trained hard and is tough as nails, but has a softer side when it comes to young prince Eris (David Mackey), who she has pledged eternal love to. Of course, the prince is to be wed to someone else, causing much heartache for our heroine, but she can’t cry for too long as she is destined to do battle with the demons who sired her and her Reaper brethren. As most of the Reapers fall in battle, it’s up to Red to battle the demons herself and possibly win back the hand of her lost prince.
The story is something out of a Disney movie of sorts, with a stubborn underdog female star facing incredible odds to find love, purpose, and peace. One could see this story set to music with some kind of talking parrot or donkey along for comic relief. But THE LEGEND OF THE RED REAPER spits in the eye of all of that happyland bullshit. Cardinal plays Red as a no nonsense ass-kicker and the world around her is unforgiving and brutal. There are some pretty great fight scenes throughout this one that pull no punches and hit some great emotional beats to make them not seem like pointless swordplay.
The highlight of the film is Cardinal herself. It’s been a long time since there’s been a female ass-kicker of her level of badassery in films, and I hope the actress/writer/director gets to show her fighting prowess in bigger budget films. Here she offers some well choreographed fight scenes, but is also able to shift from curb-stomping she-devil with a sword to soft and delicate, sometimes in the same scene. Cardinal plays Red as a conflicted character: one who wants to love, but has been honed into a weapon and has love go against her very nature. It makes Cardinal all the more watchable as she’s as beautiful covered in blood and dirt as she is without. If only Cardinal were around in 1985 when RED SONJA was being made--she’d be perfect in a big budget remake of the film as Red Sonja’s character isn’t a lot different than the Red Reaper’s.
There’s a lot of fun to be had with THE LEGEND OF THE RED REAPER. Though the budget limitations are prevalent, the film has a fun XENA: WARRIOR PRINCESS vibe that makes it so you can’t help but have fun. Full of swordy and sorcery-y goodness, THE LEGEND OF THE RED REAPER is one of those guilty pleasures fans of the genre know and love.
And finally…I have another contestant for the M slot in the new ABC’S OF DEATH 2. This one is from Andrea Wolanin, Stacy Buchanan & Jessica Barnthouse of Wicked Bird Media called M IS FOR MUNDANE. Enjoy!
Ambush Bug is Mark L. Miller, original @$$Hole/wordslinger/writer of wrongs/reviewer/interviewer/editor of AICN COMICS for over 12 years & AICN HORROR for 4. Mark’s written comics such as THE TINGLERS & WITCHFINDER GENERAL, DEATHSPORT GAMES, NANNY & HANK (soon to be a feature film from Uptown 6 Films), Zenescope’sGRIMM FAIRY TALES Vol.13 & UNLEASHED: WEREWOLVES – THE HUNGER and a chapter in Black Mask Studios’OCCUPY COMICS. FAMOUS MONSTERS’ LUNA: ORDER OF THE WEREWOLF (co-written with Martin Fisher) will be available soon in trade. Mark also wrote the critically acclaimed GRIMM FAIRY TALES PRESENTS THE JUNGLE BOOK and its follow up THE JUNGLE BOOK: LAST OF THE SPECIES! Follow Ambush Bug on the Twitters @Mark_L_Miller.
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