Hey Comicon-ers! ML Miller here. Get ready for another “Zombies & Sharks” focusing on all things horror! Every week, I’ll offer up in-depth views on the good, the bad, and the futt-bugly in horror from the past, present, and future, high to low to no budget, and from domestic to international and beyond. If it’s horror, I’ll check it out and report back to you about it right here!
So sit back, pull the covers up to your nose, ignore that strange noise coming from the closet, and enjoy the fresh batch of horror I have on tap for you today!
Click title to go directly to the review!
CRUCIBLE OF THE VAMPIRE (2019)
MRS. CLAUS (2018)
MANDAO OF THE DEAD (2018)
HELLIER Season One (2019)
Advance Review: THE DRONE (2019)
And finally…James Whitcomb Riley’s ”Little Orphant Annie”!
Directed by Evan Cecil
Written by Roberto Marinas
Starring Sean Patrick Flanery, Lindsey Morgan, Andrew Jacobs, Benedita Pereira, Karen Grassle, Steven Anthony Jones, Molly Goode, Monique Bricca, Don Demico, Tony Vella, Zoe Swenson Graham, Joe Sobalo Jr., Thomas Cokenias, Travis Andre Ross, Halliny Ferreira, Todd Myers, Skyler Cooper, Sándor Helderman, Heather Mignon, Amber Myers, Chrysta Bell, Michael Gomes, Tim Lajcik, Morgan Benoit, Melissa Tracy, Adam Gomez, Luke Kearney, Frank Trigg
Find out more about this film here
A high bodycount and a few decent kills are not the only ingredients that should go into a horror movie. A story and characters help, but you won’t find a lot of that in LASSO, a bare bones budgeted, rodeo slasher lacking in a point or purpose.
A group of active old folks show up to a rodeo ren fair of sorts to take in the sights and sounds. Accompanying them is the plucky group leader (Lindsey Morgan) and an inexperienced doofus (Andrew Jacobs). What the group doesn’t know is that this fair is full of killers looking to do away with all of the visitors utilizing various cowpoke and rodeo tools like hot branding irons, whips, mallets, and of course, lassos.
LASSO seems like it was made by a bunch of people sitting in a room and saying “Wouldn’t it be cool if…” back and forth to one another. Wouldn’t it be cool if a rodeo clown was a killer? Wouldn’t it be cool if there was a dark cowboy with a lasso who pops in and out of nowhere? Wouldn’t it be cool if someone used a branding iron as a weapon? Wouldn’t it be cool if someone were drawn and quartered? Sure, a lot of films start with scattered ideas like that, but usually that is the starting point for a script. With LASSO, that seems to be all there is to the story—just a series of scenes of bland people being killed in rather bland ways by other rather bland characters. There are no real glimpses as to why and how this rodeo of horrors goes from town to town killing folks unnoticed. There’s no real motivation as to why all of these old folks are interested in going to a rodeo? There are no real characters to root for or against. Characters are introduced simply to kill or be killed. We never really get to know anyone, save for maybe Sean Patrick Flannery’s one armed cowboy and we really don’t get to know why he is paired up in this rodeo in the first place or why he has a change of heart to rescue the oldsters from their clutches later in the film.
LASSO has some decent kills and some fun effects. That’s about all I can say positively about this one. It’s just bereft of anyone one needs in order to get involved with a film. It’s kills for kills sake in a movie that doesn’t even try to make sense or give anyone purpose. I certainly didn’t get along with this doggie of a movie and I doubt you will either.
CRUCIBLE OF THE VAMPIRE (2019)
Directed by Iain Ross-McNamee
Written by Darren Lake, Iain Ross-McNamee, John Wolskel
Starring Katie Goldfinch, Babette Barat, Neil Morrissey, Brian Croucher, Charles O’Neill, Aaron Jeffcoate, Larry Rew, Lisa Martin, Angela Carter, Florence Cady, Phil Hemming, John Stirling, Michael Molcher
Find out more about this film here
CRUCIBLE OF THE VAMPIRE is a well produced, well acted vampire tale. The only problem is that, for the most part, it forgets to add stuff like scares and gore. I think it would have helped here had the filmmakers paid more attention to chills and thrills, or at least some of the sloppy stuff. But what we get is an expertly crafted, albeit safe horror film.
Katie Goldfinch plays Isabelle, a junior antiquities director working for a museum in England. She is assigned to investigate the discovery of a cauldron in the basement of a castle in the countryside that may date back to witch-hunting times. Upon arriving at the gothic estate, Isabelle meets the creepy caretaker (Larry Rew), his accomodating wife (Babbette Barat), and their odd daughter Lydia (Lisa Martin). With the project taking a few days to properly excavate, Isabelle is shown a room and the nighttime hauntings and nightmares begin, suggesting that this isn’t simply some kind of relic, but a key to the resurrection of an ancient evil.
All of the actors involved are quite good. Katie Goldfinch is likable and talented as the damsel in distress, plucky enough to fight back, but sympathetic enough to root for. Rew, Barat, and especially Martin are fun as the scene chewing, creepy family. They are, of course, welcoming to Isabelle, but their devious intentions are quite obvious from the get go (noticeable to everyone, save Isabelle, of course). The conflict is setup quite well, though there is little by way of surprises as it is quite obvious that there is something fishy going on and the direction of the piece, while rather soap operatic, captures the decadence and elegance of the castle setting much like a PBS show like DOWNTON ABBEY or some other MASTERPIECE THEATRE show does. There is a coldness to the way everything looks. As if everything is filmed through a smoky or glossy lens.
But while everything is capably done, the film really just isn’t that scary. Maybe it’s the rather flat and level staging of the camera or the slowly paced editing, but there’s a lack of hesitancy to the entire film. Scenes supposed to be dark and tense just don’t resonate as such. Some scenes are bloodless, such as the neck biting scene, which should at least feature a drop or two. Then there’s this odd scene sandwiched into the climax with a naked woman being doused in blood that feels as if it were tossed in after the filming when they realized that there needs to be something to spice things up. This clip is completely out of place with the rest of the film.
The climax of CRUCIBLE OF THE VAMPIRE is done rather well. Again, the decadent and safe way things are filmed occasionally lose their impact, but there’s some decent action going on in the end (including an surprising man on fire sequence that works really well given the small budget). In the end, CRICUBLE OF THE VAMPIRE is a safe vamp flick that feels more like the proper Hammer films of old. It’s a fun throwback before the gore and jump scares took precedence, though some will find it too tame to work for them.
MRS. CLAUS (2018)
Directed by Troy Escamilla
Written by Troy Escamilla
Starring Helene Udy, Brinke Stevens, Kaylee Williams, Mel Heflin, Daiane Azura, Ryan Poole, Billy Brannigan, Jantel Hope, Hailey Strader, Brandy Specks, Heather Bounds, Jace Greenwood, Ronni Lea, Drew Shotwell, Minela Sljoka, Lawrence McKinney, Brooke Dwyer
MRS. CLAUS is a by-the-book, zero budget slasher film. But believe it or not, there are fans of this type of no frills, genre filmmaking. It’s not going to be for everyone, but for those who simple have to see every slasher that sharpens their blades, it’s going to check all of the boxes.
When a sorority pledge prank goes too far, the pledgee loses her mind and kills her sorority sister before killing herself. Ten years later, the sister of the bully is part of the same sorority and as the holiday approaches and a big holiday party is planned, a killer dressed as Mrs. Claus begins offing frat boys and sorority girls around the house with festive fatal-ware.
As with most films of this sort, the emphasis here is on the inventive kills and the ensuing gore that follows. And the gore is good as blood splatters, oozes, trickles, and spatters all over the place (though it is inexplicably not noticed by any of those who don’t know there is a killer on the loose). This leaves very little energy, time, money, or talent left for strong direction or thespian skills. Don’t expect the best line delivery or much by way of creative cinematography here. I will say that the film takes pages from classic slashers such as PROM NIGHT and of course, the king of yuletide slashers, BLACK CHRISTMAS. There are some scenes that even evoke some of Bob Clark’s in-your-face shots that punctuated some of BLACK CHRISTMAS’ most effective scenes. Still, there are some really awkwardly constructed scenes and flat shots that highlight that the filmmakers need some practice behind the camera.
That said, other than the gore, the story is rather well thought out and nuanced. The delivery and acting don’t do it many favors, but the film does a decent job of giving everyone a personality, a conflict, an arc, and a decent demise. It’s much more than some better produced slashers films are able to do. Still, this is going to be the type of film for low budget film lovers only. I know there are a lot out there. MRS. CLAUS tries hard to do what it can with what it has and it’s plusses definitely outnumber its faults, making it shine a bit brighter than most in its level of low fi horror.
MANDAO OF THE DEAD (2018)
Directed by Scott Dunn
Written by Scott Dunn
Starring Alexandre Chen, Sean McBride, Marisa Hood, Scott Dunn, David Gallegos, Erin Leigh Neumeyer, Sean Liang, Linda Loysen, Gina Gomez, Samara Kohne, Tenoch Gomez, Max Moreno, Rosa Ledesma
Find out more about this film here
Putting the emphasis on character and fun rather than true chills is the paranormal comedy MANDAO OF THE DEAD. You’re not going to know any of these actors and the budget is pretty low tier, but I found this film to be endearing and well intentioned.
A bumbling couch-surfer named Jackson (Sean McBride) attempts to get the most out of life by leeching off of his uncle Jay (Scott Dunn) and trying his damnedest to win back his ex girlfriend Maeve (Marisa Hood). Jay is the heir to a cereal fortune, made possible by a cereal called Mandao. Jay also finds out that he has the power of astral projection and finds out that this is a useful power as things are about to get very weird. Turns out Jackson’s girlfriend Maeve might be a murderer with a taste for blood. With the hapless and hopeless Jackson in danger, Jay reluctantly must use his power to travel through space and time to save him and the future of the Mandao cereal biz.
While the premise is goofy, I have to give props to this film for originality. I can’t think of another comedy that dares venture into the realm of astral projection and while the effects are pretty low fi, the comedy is pretty charming and smart all the way through. I didn’t fall out of my chair laughing, but I found MANDAO OF THE DEAD’s insurmountable charm quite endearing and chuckled along with these likable characters all the way through.
The film is oddly structured, as it splits the conflict into two parts; following both Jackson and Jay on their quest for purpose in their lives. But these conflicts only intersect occasionally and while Jackson’s love woes is the more interesting and relatable conflict of the story, Jay is the one who is the hero and is given the biggest responsibility to master (the astral projection) in order to save the day. I think the story might have been stronger to combine the Jay and Jackson characters, but as is, the story is still pretty nuanced for a low budgeter. Don’t expect any scares. While there is a blood drinking murderer on the loose and astral spirits flying around, the entertainment here comes from the laughs, not the scares. Still, I commend MANDAO OF THE DEAD for it’s original premise, likable characters, and inventive storytelling. It’s a true oddity of a movie for those who enjoy the cinema of the weird.
Directed by Brian Cunningham
Written by Brian Cunningham
Starring Megan Massie, Spencer Korcz, Riker Hill, Savannah Marie, Chris Wilson as the Wendigo!
Find out more about this film here
WRETCH is a moody character piece, slow to get started, but filled with wonderful performances, creepy imagery, and an ethereal threats from all directions.
WRETCH focuses on a love triangle between a cheating boyfriend Caleb (Spencer Korcz), his best friend Riker (Riker Hill), and Caleb’s girlfriend Abby (Megan Massie). Caleb loves Abby, but can’t help his urges to cheat on her. Riker loves Abby, but has a love/hate relationship with Caleb who has been his friend since childhood. Abby is simply confused, suspicious of Caleb, but unwilling to accept that he is a completely bad person. The three go into the woods to camp out and do some drugs, resulting in a night of hallucinations and nightmares, where none of them clearly remember what was going on. The fact is, though, that none of them returns from the trip the same and something from deep in the woods seems to have followed them home.
The slow pace of WRETCH is going to be hard for modern moviegoers to stomach. The first fifty minutes is a character piece where we get to know the different dichotomies going on between the three leads. We are given a snippet of horror at the beginning of the film, but WRETCH quickly shuffles back a few days before for the relational stuff and the odd stuff doesn’t happen again until late in the game. But if the viewer is patient, I think they are going to find that the getting-to-know-you portion of this film makes for a much more impactful last half hour than one would expect.
Once the film gets going, though, it gets quite scary. While this isn’t a typical found footage film, it does often switch to footage taken from handheld cameras and computers that exist within the film. It basically switches to these modes of capturing the image when it suits the scary mood, which it kind of a cheat, but nevertheless makes for some tense scenes. It helps get around those annoying questions that come up in found footage horror films like “why are they still filming” and “how is the battery still powered up.” The climax gets bloody and creepy, with a monster that is something that is often difficult to capture in cinema. Delving into the myth of the wendigo, the story really does feel new and original. Obscured in the background most of the time, the monster is well crafted and filmed in a way to induce some truly terrifying sequences.
Megan Massie is the true standout in this film, offering up a spunky and brave performance as the overwhelmed object of everyone’s desire. She is definitely an actor to look out for, offering up a sympathetic and complex character. The rest of the acting is decent, enough to carry the weight of the relational themes of the film and the tenser moments. And the scares really are a plenty in the latter portion of WRETCH making the wait for the horror well worth it. Anyone who dug Larry Fessenden’s WENDIGO or THE LAST WINTER will definitely want to give this one a look see. WRETCH is a surprisingly effective horror film that deserves an audience, but it will have to be a patient one.
Produced by and starring Dana Matthews, Greg Newkirk, Karl Pfeiffer, Connor Randall, Micah Hanks, Steve Hart, Tyler Strand, John E.L. Tenney
Find out more about this film here
“I was promised goblins.” That’s what I kept repeating to myself after watching the five 1-hour episodes of the HELLIER paranormal documentary series. Did I get goblins? No. But that doesn’t mean that the entire experience was a bust.
HELLIER is a paranormal investigator series presented on Youtube in its entirety. And it’s absolutely FREE to watch. The impetus of the investigation is a tale of small creatures besieging a farm in Kentucky in the 1950’s and the owners fending off these little critters with guns and gumption. The attackers were described as small, goblin-like creatures. Paranormal investigators Greg Newkirk and Dana Matthews receive an email in 2012 detailing a similar incident where small creatures were tormenting a family in the coal-mining town of Hellier, Kentucky. The email also had blurry pictures of little creatures and bizarre three-toed footprints attached. Teaming up with Karl Pfeiffer, Connor Randall, and cameraman Micah Hanks, three fellow investigators, Greg and Dana schedule a trip into the heavily forested coal-mining country in the middle of Kentucky to investigate just what is going on.
Like the poster says, “I want to believe.” I really do. I watch an unhealthy amount of paranormal, cryptid, and conspiracy shows and while I don’t necessarily go out into the field, I do my own investigations for the truth by clicking on as many links on Youtube and watching as many shows as I can. The problem with most of these shows is that it provides just enough evidence to entice and push the mystery along, but never comes to a concrete conclusion about anything. And that’s the main problem with HELLIER.
HELLIER is, at best, a three-episode series stretched into five. There are extremely long scenes of debate, investigation, and analysis that are pushed past the realm of compelling and into the halls of tedium. I get that the investigators are trying to show as much of the process as possible, uncut and uncensored, but much of HELLIER feels like filler to get five episodes out of the material. Had some of these lengthy discussions and examinations been edited, I think my opinions about it would be more positive.
Another strike against HELLIER is that there is way too much emphasis on coincidence, synchronicity, and making something out of very little or next to nothing. I understand that much of investigation into the realm of the unknown is uncategorizable or immeasurable. Much has to do with feeling, nuance, and gut instinct. But somewhere along the line there has to be some kind of concrete proof. Throughout the story the investigators have this kind of moral struggle, searching for some kind of reason compelling them to be at this place at this time. But the heft of their reasons for continuing are heaped upon random evidence provided by inconclusive spirit box sessions, EVP radio transmission readings, hearsay from the locals, and the reliance on coincidence, fate, and large assumptive leaps. Now, this isn’t much different than most paranormal investigation shows, but for some reason, given the hype provided by the investigators in the interviews in the first episodes, I was expecting more than that. I understand why so much emphasis is based on synchronicities, as feelings of déjà vu, coincidence, and being in synch with a person, place, or thing can be extremely powerful. I also know that sometimes, especially when we immerse ourselves into something specific, people tend to leap to conclusions and assign meaning to things that don’t exist. It’s a natural human tendency, but one I feel is left unchecked by the investigators throughout this documentary.
Again, I don’t want to disparage the work these guys have done. They try numerous techniques to get to the bottom of this mystery. The problem is that there is too much discussion, examination, and justification of the methods used and not a lot to speak for by the end. The investigators are likable. Given a strong edit, this would make for an interesting sort of ongoing investigative series as they have interesting takes on the paranormal and unique specialties in the investigative field. The first few episodes were edited and told in a way that really did hook me in, despite the long over-analysis of the subject matter. The initial story is a strong one, but the deeper we got into the mystery, the broader the scope becomes for HELLIER, which is contrary to what a good mystery should do. While this is a real life mystery and often concrete answers don’t always appear, there has to be a throughway storyline in order to make even the truest documentary an interesting watch. Relying on gut instinct, coincidence, feelings, and synchronicity is a great starting point, but if that’s still all you have by the end, it makes the whole journey feel somewhat pointless. HELLIER has some great moments of suspense, a great hook of a spooky inciting incident, some solid direction and camerawork, and is a nice cross section of different investigative techniques.
But I was promised goblins and by the end, I just didn’t get enough from HELLIER. Maybe I’m jaded and you’ll get more out of it. See if you get hooked in with the first episode below!
Advance Review: Premiering this weekend at Slamdance, in Park City, Utah!
THE DRONE (2019)
Directed by Jordan Rubin
Written by Al Kaplan, Jon Kaplan, Jordan Rubin
Starring Alex Essoe, John Brotherton, Rex Linn, Anita Briem, Edgar Blackmon, Christopher Matthew Cook, Simon Rex, Sam Adegoke, Gonzalo Menendez, Harvey B. Jackson, Travis Geske, Roger Berard, & Neil Sandilands as the Violator!
From the masterminds behind ZOMBEAVERS comes another comedic slice of horror, THE DRONE. With horror often being a cautionary sort of genre, it was just a matter of time before the newest techy trend would get the terror treatment. This film borders on the ludicrous at times, but still manages to make the funny on a consistent basis while covering everything in a dark and gory undercoat.
A serial killer dubbed the Violator uses a drone to track down, photograph, stalk and then kill women. In the opening moments, his apartment is raided by the police and he is electrocuted by a random bolt of lightning while holding his drone. Of course, the Violator’s consciousness is transferred into the drone. This wouldn’t be a proper horror movie without a random bolt of lightning, would it? Meanwhile, Chris (John Brotherton) and Rachel (STARRY EYES’ Alex Essoe) are a loving couple, newly married and moving into a new home. Chris is a tech head and is intrigued when he happens upon a drone in his back yard. Due to a heinous incident from her past involving a remote control toy truck, Rachel hates technology, but she allows Chris to keep the drone. Soon, weird things begin happening and it becomes pretty apparent that the drone is possessed by the mind of a killer.
OK, THE DRONE has a ludicrous plot, I know. It’s damn ridiculous. But so is a movie about rabid, undead beavers besieging a summer home and ZOMBEAVERS turned out to be one hell of a good time. Turns out Jordan Rubin and his co-filmmakers Al and John Kaplan weren’t one hit wonders. THE DRONE is another irreverent and wild horror parody of the best kind. Like any good horror comedy, the actors involved don’t know they are in a comedy. The terror of psychotic floating machinery is very real to Chris and Rachel, even though everything plays off as so damn goofy. Alex Esso, who is no stranger to the horror genre, plays her character as if this is a dead serious threat. John Brotherton is strong here as her wise-cracking, but well intentioned husband Chris. That’s what makes this film so damn enjoyable to watch. The actors are so good in their roles that it doesn’t matter that the threat is doofy. You are rooting for this couple to make it through, making the stakes higher than one would expect in a horror comedy.
But there is horror to behold here too. Rubin offers up some fantastic moments squeezing horror out of the most head-slappingly irreverent bits of danger. The climax is over the top, but so much fun. I found myself in awe of the truly gutsy way this one wraps up. THE DRONE is a twisted good time, mixing laughs and horror in surprising ways. You won’t know whether to laugh or gasp at times, but I guarantee you do both while watching this one.
And finally…speaking of ghosts and goblins, I vividly remember a rhyme from my youth called “The Goblins Will Get You If You Don’t Watch Out!” Scared the hell out of me as a child, though I loved when my parents would read me the story before bedtime. A little digging and I found it on Youtube and it’s called “Little Orphant Annie” (note: that’s not a misspelling). Hope it unearths some nightmares from your youth or, if you haven’t heard it before, makes some new ones to torment you before shut-eye. Enjoy, “Little Orphant Annie” by James Whitcomb Riley and narrated superbly by Otis Jiry!
Well, that’s it for this week’s Zombies & Sharks. There’s a lot to seek out and some to steer clear from. Be sure to let me know what you think below in the comments and please share the love across the internets.
M. L. Miller does not profess to be an expert in horror, but he has seen a ton of horror films in his time. You can check out an archive of his horror reviews as well as news about his various comic book projects such as Black Mask’s GRAVETRANCERS and PIROUETTE on his website, MLMILLERWRITES.com. Follow him on the Twitters @Mark_L_Miller.