Review: ‘Antebellum,’ starring Janelle Monáe

September 18, 2020

by Carla Hay

Janelle Monáe in “Antebellum” (Photo by Matt Kennedy/Lionsgate)

“Antebellum”

Directed by Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz

Culture Representation: Taking place in various other parts of the American South, the horror film “Antebellum” has a cast of African American and white people representing the middle-class and working-class.

Culture Clash: The world of a successful, modern-day African American woman is somehow linked to a Southern plantation where she and other African Americans are mistreated and abused as slaves.

Culture Audience: “Antebellum” will appeal primarily to people who might think that a horror movie about the brutality of slavery would have some insightful social commentary, but the horrific abuse in the film is mostly exploitation.

Gabourey Sidibe, Janelle Monáe and Lily Cowles in “Antebellum” (Photo by Matt Kennedy/Lionsgate)

You can almost hear the gimmick pitch that got “Antebellum” made into a movie: “Let’s make a horror film that’s like ’12 Years a Slave’ meets ‘Get Out.'” Unfortunately, “Antebellum” is nowhere near the quality or merit of the Oscar-winning “12 Years a Slave” and “Get Out,” even though QC Entertainment (one of the production companies behind “Get Out”) is a production company for “Antebellum.”

The sad reality is that “Antebellum” just seems like an exploitative cash grab to attract Black Lives Matter supporters, but the movie is really a “bait and switch,” because there’s almost no social consciousness in the movie and nothing to be learned from the story. “Antebellum” is actually a very soulless and nonsensical horror flick that uses slavery as a way to just have repetitive scenes of African Americans being sadistically beaten, strangled and raped.

Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz, who have a background in directing commercials, co-wrote and co-directed “Antebellum,” which is their feature-film debut. Normally, it’s not necessary to mention the race of a filmmaker when reviewing a movie. But because “Antebellum” is about the triggering and controversial topics of racism, slavery and the exploitation of African Americans, it should be noted that Bush is African American and Renz is white.

Just because an African American co-wrote and co-directed this movie doesn’t excuse the problematic way that racist violence against African Americans is depicted in the movie. “Antebellum” has this racist violence for violence’s sake, with little regard to making any of the slaves, except for the movie’s main character, have any real substance. It’s the equivalent of a mindless slasher film that doesn’t care about having a good plot or well-rounded characters but just takes perverse pleasure in seeing how the victims get attacked, tortured and possibly killed.

The movie doesn’t waste any time showing this cruel violence, since the opening scene is of a male slave named Eli (played by Tongayi Chirisa) being separated from his love partner/wife named Amara (played by Achok Majak) by a group of plantation supervisors in Confederate military uniforms. The group is led by the evil racist Captain Jasper (played by Jack Huston), who takes pleasure in torturing Amara, who is lassoed with a rope around the neck when she tries to run away in the cotton field. You can easily guess what happens next.

People who’ve seen any “Antebellum” trailers or clips might wonder why the movie’s protagonist (played by Janelle Monáe) seems to be in two different worlds: In one world, she’s a slave on a plantation during the Civil War era. In another world, she’s a present-day, happily married mother of a young daughter.

To explain why she exists in these two worlds would be a major spoiler for the movie. But it’s enough to say that the explanation comes about halfway through the film, and it creates questions that are never really answered by the end of the movie. “Antebellum” is supposed to take place in different unnamed cities in the South. The movie was actually filmed in New Orleans.

In the plantation world, Monáe is a quietly defiant slave who is secretly planning to escape with some other slaves. She has been named Eden by the plantation’s sadistic owner who goes by the name “Him” (played by Eric Lange), who assaults her and burns her with a hot branding iron until she agrees that her name is Eden. Later, he rapes her. The real name of “Him” is revealed later in the movie.

We don’t see Eden do much plotting to escape in the movie, mainly because the slaves have been ordered not to talk to each other or else they will be punished. It’s implied that Eden is the self-appointed leader of this escape plan because another slave named Julia (played by Kiersey Clemons) arrives at the plantation and expects Eden to fill her in on the escape details.

Julia, who is pregnant, tells Eden that she heard that Eden is from Virginia. Julia says that she’s from North Carolina. Eden replies, “Wherever you came from before here, you need to forget North Carolina.” Julia says, “That’s not possible for me. What are we doing? What’s the plan?” Eden responds, “We must choose are own wisely. But until then, we must keep our heads down and our mouths shut.”

Later, when Julia becomes frustrated by what she thinks is Eden stalling or not doing anything to implement the escape plan, she angrily says to Eden: “You ain’t no leader. You’re just a talker.” And since Julia is pregnant, you can bet her pregnancy will be used as a reason to make any violence against her more heinous.

Meanwhile, Captain Jasper has an equally racist wife named Elizabeth (played by Jena Malone), who is as ice-cold as her husband is quick-tempered. It’s implied, but not said outright, that she knows he rapes the female slaves. In an early scene in the movie, Elizabeth recoils when Jasper leans in to kiss her. She sniffs, as if to smell him, and says with a slightly disgusted tone, “Hmm. You started early.”

Meanwhile, the modern-day character played by Monáe is a sociologist and best-selling author named Veronica Henley, whose specialty is in social justice issues related to race. And in this story, she’s promoting her book “Shedding the Coping Persona,” which is about marginalized people learning to be their authentic selves instead of pretending to be something they’re not to please their oppressors. Veronica is well-educated (she has a Ph. D. and is a graduate of Spelman College and Columbia University) and she’s happily married. She’s prominent enough to have debates on national TV about topics such as racism and African American empowerment.

Veronica and her husband Nick (played by Marque Richardson) have an adorable daughter who’s about 5 or 6 years old named Kennedi (played by London Boyce), who’s very inquisitive and perceptive. After the family watches a debate-styled interview that Veronica did on TV with a conservative white male pundit (whose profession is listed “eugenics expert/professor”), Kennedi asks Veronica why the man was so angry. Veronica replies, “Sometimes what looks like anger is really just fear.”

Nick is the type of doting husband and father who will make breakfast for Veronica and Kennedi. Meanwhile, Veronica confides in her sassy single friend Dawn (played by Gabourey Sidibe) that she often feels guilty about being away from home when she has to work. Dawn reassure Veronica that she’s a great wife and mother and tells Veronica not to be too hard on herself. (Dawn, who is assertive and outspoken, has some of the best and funniest lines in the movie.)

Veronica has to go out of town to attend a African American-oriented conference called VETA, where she is a guest speaker. Dawn lives in the area, so they make plans to have dinner with Dawn’s friend Sarah (played by Lily Cowles), who is also single and available. Before Veronica meets up with them, she gets a bouquet of flowers delivered to her at her hotel. The flowers have a note that says, “Look forward to your homecoming.”

Veronica assumes that the gift is from Nick. But since this is a horror movie, viewers can easily figure out that Nick did not send those flowers. Some other strange things happen in the hotel room when Veronica isn’t there. And then, something happens after that dinner that explains how the plantation world and the modern world are connected.

Monáe does an adequate job in the role that she’s been given. And the movie’s cinematography, production design and costume design are actually very good. The actors who play the racists predictably portray them as caricatures of evil. The insidiousness of a lot of racists is that they hide their hate with fake smiles and polite mannerisms to the people they hate, but there’s no such subtlety in this story, since all of the villains are revealed early on in the story.

The biggest problem with “Antebellum” is the screenplay. The ending of the movie is absolutely ludicrous and it actually makes the African Americans in the story look dumb for not taking certain actions that could have been taken earlier. Therefore, “Antebellum” isn’t as uplifting to African Americans as it likes to think it is.

The tone of the movie is also uneven, because the slavery scenes are absolutely dark and brutal. But then the scenes with Sidibe and her sitcom-ish character are very out of place and dilute the intended horror of the movie. Sidibe is very good in the role, but the Dawn character was written as too comedic for this type of movie. And huge stretches of “Antebellum” are just plain boring, with no real suspense.

However, the main ridiculousness of “Antebellum” goes back to that plantation and the secret that’s revealed at the end of the movie. If people want to see the horrors of slavery depicted in an Oscar-worthy narrative film, then watch “12 Years a Slave.” Don’t watch “Antebellum,” which uses slavery as an exploitative gimmick as the basis for this moronic and not-very-scary horror movie.

Lionsgate released “Antebellum” on VOD on September 18, 2020.

2020 Fantastic Fest: programming slate announced

September 10, 2020

“The Boy Behind the Door” (Photo courtesy of Fantastic Fest)

The following is a press release from Fantastic Fest:

Fantastic Fest has gone virtual for a celebration of everything we love about the annual event: live online versions of classics like “Fantastic Feud” and “100 Best Kills,” badass repertory rediscoveries, and world premieres of the finest genre cinema 2020 has to offer. To make the party accessible to loyal fans and newbies alike, all new features and live events will be available FREE to view on the Alamo On Demand platform for anyone in the United States.

“Despite the many hardships 2020 has thrown our way, the Fantastic Fest team knew we needed to stick to our mission of celebrating and championing genre films from bold, diverse voices – new filmmakers and treasured alumni alike.” says Fantastic Fest programmer Logan Taylor. “While we have a much smaller selection than in previous years, we’re delighted to showcase 15 films that express our brand loudly and proudly.”
The festival will be bookended by unique spins on the werewolf film: opening with the charming and irreverent TEDDY by France’s Boukherma brothers and closing with Amelia Moses’s haunting thriller BLOODTHIRSTY (on the night of the full moon, no less)! If you’re still hungry for more werewolves after that one-two punch, join us for the Texas Premiere of Jim Cummings’ newest, THE WOLF OF SNOW HOLLOW, on October 8th at Alamo Drafthouse Slaughter Lane!

While this year’s slate may be more modest in scope, every film captures the spirit of Fantastic Fest in its own unique way. Featuring 5 world premieres (with an additional 2 world premiere restorations) and 4 shorts blocks featuring 36 short films, the lineup amplifies talented female, queer, and racially diverse creatives from all over the globe. We might all be stuck on the couch, but we are still excited to bring a sampling of world-class films you’ve come to expect from Fantastic Fest directly to your home.

Quite fittingly and presciently, a theme of isolation and its transformational effects plays heavily throughout the lineup. So, in the spirit of Fantastic Fest and this theme, let’s make the most of the strange world we’re living in, come together through a virtual celebration, and enjoy some damn fine cinema!

All new features will be available FREE on our Alamo On Demand Platform for fans in the United States. Repertory titles will be available at special rates throughout the week-long celebration. We will also be presenting two exclusive in-theater-only screenings, Brandon Cronenberg’s highly anticipated POSSESSOR on September 23rd and Jim Cummings’ THE WOLF OF SNOW HOLLOW on October 8th. The festival is also excited to welcome back Fantastic Fest alum Mickey Reece with a new documentary short MICKEY REECE’S BELLE ÎSLE screening in the the SHORTS WITH LEGS short film sidebar – stay tuned for an upcoming Alamo On Demand announcement following the premiere of the short about a collection of his films to be made available for the first time.

The Celebration of Fantastic Fest will be offering a number of interactive virtual film screenings with Scener, a watch party platform that enables millions of participants to simultaneously enjoy films together over immersive live video chat. This integration is built into the Alamo On Demand platform that will go live at Fantastic Fest and remain in partnership with AOD, providing public or private co-watching parties that are synchronized in real-time and paired with video, audio and text chat. Fantastic Fest interactive screenings will be taking viewers from preshow to a hosted intro, through the film, and all the way to the Q&A for a fully synced and effortless experience participants.

FEATURE FILMS

Secret Screening

World Premiere of the 4K Restoration

A special re-discovery of an explosive, death-defying, bullet-riddled, grenade-launching, flame-broiled, anti-human megattack. Free to view during the live secret screening and available for Virtual Cinema rental on Alamo On Demand afterwards.

Bloodthirsty

Canada, 2020

World Premiere, 82 min

Director: Amelia Moses

When indie singer Grey struggles to write her sophomore album, she teams up with a mysterious producer at his secluded cabin. Though their bond strengthens her music, it also starts to irreparably alter Grey’s body and mind.

The Boy Behind the Door

USA, 2020

World Premiere, 88 min

Directors: David Charbonier and Justin Powell

After Bobby and his best friend Kevin are kidnapped and taken to a strange house in the middle of nowhere, Bobby manages to escape. But as he starts to make a break for it, he hears Kevin’s screams for help and realizes he can’t leave his friend behind.

Cyst

USA, 2020

World Premiere, 69 min

Director: Tyler Russell

George Hardy (TROLL 2) stars as an overly-ambitious and just-a-little-crazy doctor who accidentally unleashes a giant, man-eating cyst that terrorizes the office in this horrifically funny deluge of gooey special effects.

Daughters of Darkness

Belgium/France/West Germany, 1971

World Premiere of the 4K Restoration from Blue Underground, 87 min

Director: Harry Kümel

The classic lesbian vampire tale reignites the screen as the lives of a young newlywed couple take a dramatically sexy turn after their paths cross with Elizabeth Báthory in a deserted Belgian hotel.Special Event: An interview with director Harry Kümel, moderated by Kat Ellinger.

Girl

USA, 2020

US Premiere, 92 min

Director: Chad Faust

When Girl (Bella Thorne) sets out to a no-name small town to track down her deadbeat father, she finds herself wrapped up in a situation far more dangerous and twisted than she expected.


How to Deter a Robber

USA, 2020

World Premiere, 81 min

Director: Maria Bissell

Two teens playing amateur detectives get more than they bargained for when they investigate the wrong cabin in this darkly comedic romp.


Laughter

Canada, 2020

International Premiere, 124 min

Director: Martin Laroche

Léane Labrèche-Dor gives an unforgettable performance as a woman who struggles with survivor guilt following a civil war in Quebec.

The Old Man Movie

Estonia, 2019

US Premiere, 87 min

Directors: Mikk Mägi & Oskar Lehemaa

Three children must aid their deranged grandfather in recovering his prized cow to prevent a rural cataclysm in this surreal and hysterically scatalogical stop-motion comedy.

Possessor

UK, Canada 2020

Texas Premiere, 103 min

Director: Brandon Cronenberg

In Brandon Cronenberg’s latest gore soaked sci-fi thriller, identity theft takes on a new meaning as corporate assassins can virtually take over other people to carry out their kills. Special Event: Join us before our official celebration for a special in-theater premiere September 23rd


The Queen of Black Magic

Indonesia, 2019

North American Premiere, 99 min

Director: Kimo Stamboel

Childhood friends Hanif, Jefri, and Anton take their families on a trip to the orphanage where they grew up to pay their final respects to the man who raised them. But they’ll soon discover that the secrets from their past refuse to stay buried.


The Stylist

USA, 2020

World Premiere, 105 min

Director: Jill Gevargizian

Few things in life hold more promise than a new hairstyle. But the women who visit stylist Claire’s chair get more than they bargained for, bringing a whole new meaning to the phrase “extreme makeover” in Jill Gevargizian’s first feature film, based on her acclaimed 2016 short.

Teddy

France, 2020

International Premiere, 88 min

Directors: Ludovic Boukherma & Zoran Boukherma

In a rural French town, twenty-something Teddy is scratched by an unknown beast and slowly undergoes frightening changes

AGFA presents Triple Fisher: The Lethal Lolitas of Long Island

USA, 2012

Austin Premiere of HD Restoration

Director: Dan Kapelovitz

Drew Barrymore, Alyssa Milano, and Noelle Parker are Amy Fisher in this meta-melodramatic mashup of three TV movies that would make Brian De Palma proud.

The Wolf of Snow Hollow

USA, 2020

Texas Premiere, 84 min

Director: Jim Cummings

A small mountain town full of quirky characters is thrown into chaos when dead bodies start piling up after every full moon in Jim Cummings’ supremely fun foray into horror.

Special Event: Join us after our official celebration for a special in-theater premiere, October 8th at Alamo Drafthouse Slaughter Lane.

SHORT FILMS

FANTASTIC SHORTS

A celebration of some of the year’s most fantastic short film offerings, spanning a myriad of genres and sensibilities.

Blocks 

Dir. Bridget Moloney, USA

Forbidden to See Us Scream in Tehran 

Dir. Farbod Ardebili, Iran/USA, World Premiere

I Love Your Guts 

Dir. David Janove, USA, Texas Premiere

Jack and Jo Don’t Want Die 

Dir. Kantú Lentz, USA, Texas Premiere

Please Hold

 Dir. KD Davila, USA, World Premiere

Solution For Sadness 

Dir. Marc Martínez Jordán & Tuixén Benet Cosculluela, Spain, World Premiere

(You’ll Make It In) Florida 

Dir. Phil Chemyak, USA, Texas Premiere


SHORT FUSE

A parade of short-form horror in all its permutations, from “Boo!” to “Eww!”

Abracitos 

Dir. Tony Morales, Spain, US Premiere

Blitzkrieg 

Dir. Alexander Lemus Gadea, Spain, World Premiere

Fish Whiskers 

Dir. Roney, Canada, World Premiere

Great Choice 

Dir. Robin Comisar, USA

Heat 

Dir. Thessa Meijer, The Netherlands, Texas Premiere

Milk Teeth 

Dir. Felipe Vargas, USA, Texas Premiere

Mime 

Dir. Ruwan Heggelman, The Netherlands, Austin Premiere

Mourn 

Dir. Joanna Tsanis, Canada, World Premiere

Otttie Dir. Paola Ossa, USA, Texas Premiere

Stuck Dir. David Mikalson, USA, World Premiere

The Three Men You Meet at Night 

Dir. Beck Kitsis, USA, Texas Premiere

SHORTS WITH LEGS

The experimental and the esoteric; shorts that upset conventions and defy expectations.

Düsseldorf 

Dir. Mike Lars White, USA, Texas Premiere

Emergency Action Plan 

Dir. Dylan Redford, USA, Texas Premiere

Hipolita Dir. Everardo Felipe, Mexico, World Premiere

How to Re-Caulk Your Tub 

Dir. Sean Pierce, USA, Austin Premiere

Lusty Crest Dir. Kati Skelton, USA

Mickey Reece’s Belle Île 

Dir. Mickey Reece, USA, World Premiere

They Salivate Dir. Arianne Boukerche, France, Austin Premiere

Unfinished Business 

Dir. Mary Dauterman, USA, Texas Premiere

DRAWN AND QUARTERED

After a 6-year hiatus, Fantastic Fest’s animation showcase returns!

Ghost Dogs 

Dir. Joe Cappa, USA, US Premiere

Homo ErecTattoos 

Dir. Tae-woo KIM, South Korea, US Premiere

Jimi 

Dir. Joren Cull, Canada, World Premiere

A Night in Camp Heebie Jeebie 

Dir. Dylan Chase, USA, Texas Premiere

Pilar 

Dir. Yngwie Boley, J.J. Epping & Diana van Houten, The Netherlands/Belgium, US Premiere

Routine: The Prohibition 

Dir. Sam Orti, Spain, US Premiere

The Shawl 

Dir. Sara Kiener, USA

Star Crossed 

Dir. Jon Frier, USA, Texas Premiere

Thin Blue Variety Show 

Dir. Gretta Wilson, USA, Texas Premiere

Tomorrow I Will Be Dirt: Scenes From the Afterlife of Lothar Schramm 

Dir. Robert Morgan, UK, North American Premiere

PARTIES AND EVENTS

“Fantastic Fest’s special events, parties and amiable mayhem are among the things that set it apart from any other festival,” says Zack Carlson, Creative Producer. “Any celebration of FF absolutely needs to include those traditions, and though the cold fist of 2020 may prohibit us from having a food fight or demolition derby, we’re still here to bring the good-natured chaos.”

Master Pancake: Invasion of the Bee Girls

USA, 1973

Director: Denis Sanders

To celebrate the 20th anniversary of Master Pancake, John Erler, Owen Egerton and friends are revising one of the very first films they ever roasted back in the year 2000.

100 Best Kills: Decapattack!

FF’s life-defying clip show returns from the grave with a dazzling onslaughter of the 100 finest decapitations in the nation!

Fantastic Fest Triviadome

The Drafthouse’s beloved movie trivia night returns just for Fantastic Fest! Start coming up with your clever team name now and study up! Featuring a round in honor of Fantastic Fest tradition Nerd Rap, written and performed by superstars of years past.

Fantastic Feud

Filmmakers, journalists and various other movie megamasters collide in this no-holds-barred deathride of useless cinematic information and on-screen in(s)anity, all masterminded by Triviadome’s teeny-tiny host Maxim Pozderac.

King of Movies: The Leonard Maltin Game Challenge

Beat the Hollywood screenwriters and win glory and an exclusive Mondo Prize Pack! Enter to play against a trio of Fantastic Fest Favorite writers in Mondo’s brand new game KING OF MOVIES.

For 51 years, Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide served as the film geek’s Holy Bible, an annually updated softcover brick of a reference book, packed with thoughtful, witty, and occasionally weird capsule reviews of thousands of films. Those synopses are at the heart of King of Movies: The Leonard Maltin Game, a tabletop casual party game of creative invention and hilarious deception.

In King of Movies, it doesn’t matter if you’ve seen every film ever made or if you’ve never seen a movie in your life. The fun is in the fibbing. One player reads a movie title and the other players invent a short synopsis in Leonard Maltin’s unique style, with the goal being to trick the other players into thinking theirs is the real Maltin review. If you choose the real Maltin or you fool another player, you score.

IMMERSIVE SHOWCASE

Harkening back to the Satanic Panic Escape Room, VR debuts and Mondo Games First Looks of years past, this year features hand-picked selections of the best virtual escape rooms from around the world, curated by Cara Mandel (Story Experience Producer, Meow Wolf and Co-founder/CEO, Interwoven Immersive, Inc.) and Rachel Walker (Head of Programming & Creative, Drafthouse LA).

“As someone who was on track to completing 120 physical escape rooms, I was initially skeptical of how this beloved artform could be adapted to virtual play.” Says Mandel, “but I can now confidently say that these remote escape rooms are emerging as an exciting new artform unto itself. It has opened up this world to players internationally and is proving that innovative creators will thrive in any format. I’m so excited to be able to shine a spotlight on just a handful of the many wonderful online experiences available right now.”

Adds Walker, “The five selected experiences represent how escapes have adapted to the virtual space, in many cases providing an experience that simply could not be replicated in a physical room alone. It’s a thrill to be able to highlight them and support an industry going so outside of the box with narrative storytelling.”

All rooms will be keeping Fantastic Fest only scoreboards, with top times announced each day.                        

How to book: At 10:00 AM PST on Sept 11th, anyone who purchased a 2020 Fantastic Fest Badge prior to cancellation of our badged event will be sent an email with instructions on how to book the rooms at a discounted rate and have 72 hours to book. After 72 hours, instructions will be posted on FantasticFest.com and on Fantastic Fest socials. After another 48 hours, the Fantastic Fest holds on those slots will be opened up to the general public. Tickets will be booked directly through the rooms’ individual ticketing sites, so 100% of the ticket price will be going straight to the creators.

EVIL DEAD 2 REMOTE ESCAPE ROOM

Created by Hourglass Escapes (Washington)

Synopsis: You get a strange email from your paranormal investigation group “Gnostic Research of the Occult, Omens, Vampires, and Yetis” aka G.R.O.O.V.Y. Seems your leader decided to break into the old Knowby cabin and can’t escape…You and your team must guide him via his ghost gear technology through this misadventure so he can escape and find a way return the evil dead to their realm and escape before the cabin is sucked into the time-space vortex forever.                                                                                   

THE TRUTH ABOUT EDITH                                                      

Created by Mad Genius Escape Rooms (Oregon)

Synopsis: ​You may recognize Edith Humphreys, your sweet neighbor with 24 cats. You may have even helped her out, snooped around her apartment. But there’s something about Edith that doesn’t quite add up… she looks way younger than she is, she says she was born in 1902 but that she’s 97 years young… and she lives at a business called Mad Genius Escapes?! What is going on here…The Truth About Edith is an hour-long, cooperative, timed adventure sprinkled with interactive theater and a good dose of humor! This game is an eccentric mix of a video game, an escape room, and a great who-done-it story.         

EXORCIST ONLINE

Created by: Emergency Exits (Manchester, UK)

Synopsis: Exorcist Online will take you deep into the history of Crowley manor which was last owned by the infamous Aleister Crowley. You will join your tour guide via remote feed and control them on this haunted adventure. The real excitement is the history of Crowley’s mysteries and puzzles. This house has been famous throughout history as there have been many disappearances over the years. It is said that Aleister Crowley is still trying to trick and trap his victims from beyond the Grave. Enjoy the tour but DO NOT out-stay your welcome.

PROJECT AVATAR

Created by Legendary Quest (Ukraine)

Synopsis: Avatar is a traveler of worlds, whose vocation is to maintain a balance of good and evil on earth. Having traveled into a parallel realm, Avatar needs help from the support team (you!) to complete the mission and survive! This fascinating interactive live- action race against the clock is stylized as a video game, complete with cut scenes and a HUD, reminiscent of titles like Duke Nukem, Half Life and Tomb Raider. Players use voice commands to navigate the hero across a 2000 square foot warehouse, and complete tasks that appear along the way. Non-linear gameplay allows for over 100 different variations of adventure.

PURSUIT OF THE ARTIST ASSASSIN

Created by: Omescape (California)

Synopsis: In Pursuit of the Assassin Artist, you will be teaming up with a secret agent to discover the secrets of the world-famous modern artist. A live-action room created just for the virtual space, Pursuit employs a unique function of your character being able to die and come back to life with all the knowledge acquired previously. This allows for unpredictable gameplay, keeping both your team and the live actors on their toes. Filled with innovative puzzles and easter eggs that win you achievements, this brand new room is a shining example of how to create a truly immersive experience for a virtual audience.                         

THE BEST OF FANTASTIC FEST SIX PACK ON ALAMO ON DEMAND

We have curated a collection of over 120 (and growing) of our favorite Fantastic Fest films on Alamo on Demand. The programming team has curated six of our favorite films from this collection and for the duration of September, we are offering this “Best of Fantastic Fest Six Pack” for 25% off purchase or rental. Check out the six pack and the complete collection here.
 

ATTEND: This year’s Celebration of Fantastic Fest is open to anyone within the United States, no badge necessary. The majority of films and events are FREE to access, though some have limited capacity and will require an RSVP in advance. Instructions for accessing these films and events will be provided closer to the event.

For a complete listing of films, events, and pricing details when applicable, simply visit www.fantasticfest.com and click on the film or event link.

For the latest developments, visit the Fantastic Fest official site www.fantasticfest.com and follow the festival on Facebook &Twitter.

Review: ‘La Llorona,’ starring María Mercedes Coroy, Sabrina De La Hoz, Margarita Kenétic, Julio Díaz and María Telón

August 15, 2020

by Carla Hay

María Mercedes Coroy and María Telón in “La Llorona” (Photo courtesy of Shudder)

“La Llorona” 

Directed by Jayro Bustamante

Spanish and Kaqchikel with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in Guatemala, the horror film “La Llorona” has an all-Latino cast representing the wealthy and the working-class.

Culture Clash: A convicted war criminal and his family are haunted by the sins from his past.

Culture Audience: “La Llorona” will appeal to people who like horror films that have social commentary beyond the usual scares.

Sabrina De La Hoz in “La Llorana” (Photo courtesy of Shudder)

“La Llorona” (written and directed by Jayro Bustamante) goes where few horror movies have gone before, by taking a well-known folk story and giving it a new spin that’s a scathing commentary on human-rights violations committed during war. The movie should not be confused with the vastly inferior 2019 horror flick “The Curse of La Llorona,” a not-very-scary movie that got a lot of criticism for being a “whitewashed” Hollywood version of Hispanic folklore. Instead, “La Llorona” is much better than the average horror flick because it makes a bold statement about the aftermath of war and how the pain doesn’t end after the war is over.

The movie begins with a striking scene of several women gathered in a circle, with lit candles all around, and praying in a chanting manner asking an unknown entity: “Come back to us.” The next scene is of a group of men who are being told, “Remember, you are heroes, not victims.” They are also told that they should wear dark suits, as long as they’re not black suits, and they must never lower their heads.

What do these two groups of people have in common? It’s made clear later in the story, but most of the activity in the movie takes place in a wealthy family’s mansion that is experiencing a lot of emotional turmoil. The family patriarch is Enrique Monteverde (played by Julio Díaz), a former government army general in Guatemala’s civil war in the early 1980s, when General Efraín Ríos Montt’s totalitarian regime fought against insurgent armies (many of whom consisted of indigenous people) that wanted a more democratic rule.

Guatemala eventually made a new constitution allowing free and democratic elections in 1986. But the civil unrest in Guatemala resulted in thousands of people being tortured and killed, with indigenous people as the target of much of the government’s genocide. And decades later, Enrique is on trial for these war crimes that he is accused of committing in 1982 and 1983. 

While he is awaiting trial, Enrique and his family have been living a semi-sequestered life in the mansion. His family members in the household are his wife Carmen (played by Margarita Kenétic); their daughter Natalia (played by Sabrina De La Hoz); and Natalia’s daughter Sara (played by Ayla-Elea Hurtado), who’s about 9 or 10 years old. Sara is aware that her grandfather Enrique is a controversial public figure, because she asks her mother Natalia, “Why do people say bad things about my grandpa?” When Natalia asks Sara where she heard these things, Sara tells her that it’s been mostly on the Internet.

One night, Enrique wakes up to the sound of someone taking a shower and breathing heavily in a nearby bathroom. When he goes in the bathroom to investigate, no one is there. The movie has many symbolic and literal references to water and drowning, in a nod to the La Llorona folklore, which is about a ghost woman who’s tormented by the memory of drowning her two young sons.

Is Enrique delusional or was he just dreaming? It’s clear that he has some mental anguish because he’s so freaked out by what he hears in the bathroom that he takes his gun with him. And when his wife Carmen (played by Margarita Kenétic) checks up on him in the bathroom to see what’s going on, he thinks she’s an intruder and he shoots at her and barely misses. The bullet instead hits the bathroom door frame.

The family’s chief maid Valeriana (played by María Telón) has also gone to see what all the ruckus is about. But Enrique, in a state of panic, grabs Valeriana and holds her as if she’s a hostage. During the chaos, Enrique and Carmen’s daughter Valeriana runs into the room and sees what’s going on and calls out for the family’s trusted security employee Letona (played by Juan Pablo Olyslager), who manages to get the gun away from Enrique and calm things down.

This disturbing incident was witnessed by several of the live-in servants, who are all indigenous people. The next day, they band together with Valeriana to tell Carmen and Natalia that they want to quit. But Carmen and Natalia convince the servants to stay, by telling them that no other employers will treat them as well as they’ve been treated by the Monteverde family. This scene can be considered symbolic of Spanish colonialism in Guatemala, where indigenous people were kept subservient by Spanish invaders, who believed that they knew what was best for the native people.

It’s also the first real sign of the condescending attitude that Carmen and Natalia have toward people whom they considered “inferior” to them, especially if they are working-class and indigenous people. And it’s also the first indication of how Carmen and Natalia deny and enable Enrique’s bad behavior. Later in the story, it becomes apparent that Carmen is a lot worse than Natalia when it comes to the snobbery toward indigenous people and the covering up of Enrique’s crimes.

And the reason why Carmen has particular disdain for indigenous women is also revealed. (The reason why isn’t so surprising.) Carmen’s willingness to stay silent and cover up for her husband, in order to maintain her outwardly privileged lifestyle, is an attitude that is very common with the spouses of powerful men who are corrupt. 

During the trial, people testify about the Guatemalan government army’s vicious torture and killings during the civil war in the early 1980s. One of the witnesses is a woman who testifies to being raped by government soldiers, who then murdered her family. Enrique’s attorney argues that Enrique never ordered the Guatemalan army to kill a specific race or religion. Enrique testifies that any actions he took were to help better establish a national identity.

Enrique is found guilty, and the verdict causes an eruption of chaos in and outside the courtroom. Enrique looks like he’s about to have a heart attack, so he is rushed to a hospital. A huge crowd outside celebrates the verdict. It’s a mob scene of protestors and media that follow the family back to their home. Letona advises that the family stay fully sequestered in their home until the situation dies down.

While Enrique is recuperating in a hospital, Natalia and Carmen have a private conversation at their home. Natalia starts to question Enrique’s mental stability and wonders if they should get him psychiatric help and possibly put him in a psychiatric institution, but Carmen is against the idea. Natalia is also disturbed by the testimony of the prosecution’s witnesses, because she believes them, and she wonders if her father participated in the atrocities that he was accused of ordering.

Carmen’s response is to tell Natalia that many of the women who claimed that they were raped were “whores” who offered themselves to the soldiers, and those who were raped were violated by lower-level soldiers. Carmen says that although Enrique was never a faithful husband, she implies that his military ranking was too high to be a common soldier raping people. Carmen then questions Natalia’s family loyalty by asking, “Which side are you on?” She also asks Natalia if she’s turning into a leftie Communist.

And when Enrique is released from the hospital, it’s another chaotic event with a large crowd of angry protestors surrounding the ambulance that takes Enrique home. It’s revealed later in the story that Enrique’s guilty verdict was overturned. Although he won’t be incarcerated for his crimes, his home has turned into another type of prison.

As the protestors are gathered outside the mansion, they shout angry statements during all hours of the day, but Carmen and Natalia appear to be stoic about all the mayhem. There’s a scene of them sunning themselves outside in their backyard (Natalia is meditating), as if they want to tune out all the uproar surrounding them. But things become dangerous, as the protests start to become violent, with objects being thrown at the house and through windows.

During all of this uproar, a young woman with big, haunting eyes suddenly appears in the crowd. She is let into the house by Valeriana. Her name is Alma (played by María Mercedes Coroy), who has come to work as a live-in maid for the Monteverde family. It isn’t explained why she is in now in the family’s life, but she knows Valeriana very well, so it’s implied that Valeriana is the one who helped get Alma the job.

Alma immediately develops a bond with Sara, who wants Alma to teach her how to hold her breath underwater. It’s soon revealed that Alma has had a tragic life: Her two children (a son and a daughter) have died, and her husband has disappeared. Natalia’s husband (Sara’s father) has also been missing for the last few years, with no signs of foul play. Enrique is convinced that Natalia’s husband abandoned her because her husband doesn’t love her anymore, which is a theory that he cruelly brings up to Natalie when she talks to Enrique about her missing spouse.

After Alma arrives in the household, more strange things starts happening. Carmen begins having nightmares. Enrique does something very creepy, which makes it obvious that he hasn’t changed his ways. And there’s a pet frog that Sara has grown attached to that ends up being the basis for a startling scene in the movie.

“La Llorona” is not the type of horror movie where someone gets attacked or killed every 15 minutes. Instead, the seeping and growing terror is more psychological, although there’s still some disturbing violence in the movie. Alma is the catalyst for many of the things that happen later in the story, but the movie’s emotional center is really Natalia, who becomes increasingly conflicted as she starts to find out that the man she thought her father was directly contradicts with who he actually is.

Writer/director Bustamante has impressively crafted a story not just about revenge for human atrocities but also family betrayal. “La Llorona” has many scenes that are visually striking, beginning with the opening scene, that will send chills up the spines of people watching the movie. And unlike a lot of horror movies, “La Llorona” will make people think about the social issues raised in the film. The movie vividly juxtaposes the brutalities of war with the torment caused by the aftermath of war—and the film makes people wonder which is worse.

Shudder premiered “La Llorona” on August 6, 2020.

Review: ‘Skin Walker,’ starring Amber Anderson, Udo Kier and Jefferson Hall

August 10, 2020

by Carla Hay

Amber Anderson in “Skin Walker” (Photo courtesy of Cleopatra Entertainment)

“Skin Walker” 

Directed by Christian Neuman

Culture Representation: Taking place in Europe, the horror film “Skin Walker” features an all-white cast representing the wealthy and the middle-class.

Culture Clash: A woman goes back to her family home to confront dark secrets in her family’s past.

Culture Audience: “Skin Walker” will appeal primarily to people who like convoluted but stylish-looking horror films.

Udo Kier in “Skin Walker” (Photo courtesy of Cleopatra Entertainment)

The horror film “Skin Walker” (written and directed by Christian Neuman) is best enjoyed if people know up front that it’s the type of movie where a scene that looks like reality could be a delusion of one of the characters. The truth is revealed at the end of the movie, but “Skin Walker” deliberately confuses and plays guessing games with viewers as part of the overall psychological horror that the film intends to convey.

The story, which takes place in an unnamed European country, is told from the perspective of Regine Kirk (played Amber Anderson), who’s in her late 20s and living in a big city. Regine is a semi-Goth-looking woman whose somber aura indicates that she’s not very happy with her life. The beginning of the movie shows her at a nightclub with other young people wearing a lot of black and dancing to industrial music. She spends the night with the guy that she was dancing with at the club, and he drops her off at home the next day. Is he her boyfriend or is he just a fling?

The next day, Regine goes to work in a factory, wearing the same drab uniform as her other co-workers. One day, when she goes home, the guy from the nightclub is there, which gives viewers the impression that he and Regine live together. His name is Jacob (played by Nicolas Godart), and he informs Regine that someone is there to visit her.

The unexpected visitor is a mysterious bearded man, who looks like he’s in his late 30s or early 40s His name is later revealed as Robert (played by Jefferson Hall), and he’s there to tell Regine some unsettling news: Her younger brother Isaac, who was believed to be dead, is really alive.

Regine emphatically tells Isaac that her brother is dead, while Robert tells Regine, “You look just like your mother.” Regine angrily asks Robert, “How do you know my mum? I’ve never seen you before in my life.” As proof that he knows Regine, he shows her a photo from the summer of 1998, when she was about 6 or 7 years old, that shows Regine, her mother and Robert together outside having a picnic on the grass.

Robert then drops another bombshell: He tells Regine that Isaac is his son. “He killed your grandmother,” Robert tells Regine. “They lied to you. He’ll start looking for you. You need to come home.” At this point, Regine is so upset that she wants Robert to leave, so Jacob throws Robert out of the apartment.

What Robert has told Regine has disturbed her so much that she decides to go back to her large family estate in the countryside to find out what really happened to Isaac, who was born when Regine was about 7 or 8 years old. Before she makes the trip, Regine visits her mother Rose (played by Sophie Mousel), who is living in a psychiatric institution, and tells her mother that she’s going home. Regine’s parents divorced years ago, when Rose left her husband for another man.

Regine goes home to the type of isolated mansion that is often seen in horror movies. It looks “normal” on the outside, but the inside is cold, dark and foreboding. Her father Claus (played by Udo Kier) is mourning the death of his mother (played by Marja-Leena Junker), who does not have a name in the movie. Robert has said that Regine’s grandmother was murdered by Isaac, but Claus denies it when Regine confronts him with this information.

It’s shown in the movie’s many flashbacks that Claus had a love/hate relationship with his domineering mother. Regine was an only child until Isaac was born. (Juliette Gillis plays Regine as a child in these flashbacks.) And there are lingering resentments over Rose’s infidelity, which essentially broke up the family.

Claus isn’t very happy to see his estranged daughter Regine, whose other reason for coming back home is to attend her grandmother’s funeral. Claus coldly tells Regine, “I’d never imagine that you’d set foot here again. I want you to leave after the funeral. You shouldn’t be here.”

Meanwhile, Robert is seen at a local bar getting drunk and babbling about his “lost son” Isaac and how he has to find him. Robert believes that Regine’s family secretly sent Isaac to live in an orphanage and that Isaac is now out to get revenge on the family. Robert is also seen showing up unannounced at the family home and asking Claus if anyone knows about their arrangement. Claus says no.

What exactly is this secret arrangement? And what was it about Isaac that caused the family to possibly reject him? It’s shown in flashbacks that Isaac was born with a severe deformity. When Robert sees Regine has come back to the area, they have another confrontation where she tells him, “Isaac died a few days after birth. I saw him. He was deformed and incapable of living.”

But is Isaac alive? And if he’s dead, what really happened to him? Those questions are answered by the end of the movie, which also has a strange character named Dr. Mantell (played by Luc Feit), who’s supposed to be Rose’s psychiatrist, but somehow he’s followed Regine to the countryside. Dr. Mantell begins stalking Regine, and he starts inflicting some terror on her.

“Skin Walker” is the feature-film debut of writer/director Neuman, who has a lot of talent in creating the right imagery for this Gothic-inspired horror film. There are many scenes that are very stylishly filmed by cinematographer Amandine Klee in ways that seem to be inspired by classic Dario Argento movies that have a rich color palette but dark overtones to never let viewers forget that they’ve stepped into an atmosphere of menace and treachery. And although many of the scenes take place outdoors or in the spacious mansion, the movie conveys a type of emotional claustrophobia that adds to the horror.

As Regine’s creepy father Claus, Kier is effective in his role, but he’s played these types of enigmatic and weird characters before, so there isn’t really too much of a surprise in his acting. The movie is really about Regine. Anderson gives a very chilling performance as a troubled woman whose inner turmoil unfolds like layers in the story, which takes viewers down a proverbial rabbit hole with her.

Because the movie plays tricks on viewers about what is real and what isn’t real in the story, “Skin Walker” might frustrate people who are expecting a more straightforward narrative in this horror film. It’s the type of movie that will grow on people if they think back to scenes where there were clues that something was off-kilter. Remembering the story in hindsight might compel people to watch the movie again to see how those clues were hiding in plain sight and how the confusing messiness of the narrative is actually just like a tangled web that makes more sense if you see how the points connect with each other.

Cleopatra Entertainment released “Skin Walker” on VOD on August 4, 2020.

Review: ‘A Deadly Legend,’ starring Corbin Bernsen, Judd Hirsch, Lori Petty, Kristen Anne Ferraro, Dwayne Thomas, Summer Crockett Moore and Tatiana Szpur

August 3, 2020

by Carla Hay

Kristen Anne Ferraro in “A Deadly Legend” (Photo courtesy of Gravitas Ventures)

“A Deadly Legend” 

Directed by Pamela Moriarty

Culture Representation: Taking place in the fictional Pilgrim County somewhere in the United States, the horror flick “A Deadly Legend” has a predominantly white cast (with a few African Americans and Asians and one Latino) representing the middle-class.

Culture Clash: A group of people encounter a curse that’s lasted for centuries and involves a vengeful witch.

Culture Audience: “A Deadly Legend” will appeal primarily to people who like low-budget horror films that are so bad that they’re almost hilarious.

Summer Crockett Moore and Daniella DeCaro in “A Deadly Legend” (Photo courtesy of Gravitas Ventures)

The horror film “A Deadly Legend” is so amateurly made that it looks like something that people from a community theater decided to do in order to get a feature film credit on their résumés. “A Deadly Legend” is the first feature film directed by Pamela Moriarty and written by Eric Wolf—and that lack of experience shows in every single minute of this sloppily made film. Kristen Anne Ferraro, who produced “A Deadly Legend,” also stars as the movie’s main protagonist, which explains why she has the lead role. It’s a lot easier to cast yourself as the star of a movie when you’re paying for the film.

And it seems like much of the budget was spent in hiring the cast’s veteran actors who have name recognition: Corbin Bernsen (of “L.A. Law” fame), Judd Hirsch (of “Taxi” fame) and Lori Petty (of “Tank Girl” and “A League of Their Own” fame), whose best career days are behind them if they’re now taking supporting roles in this type of bottom-of-the-barrel movie. Their level of experience is even more noticeable in “A Deadly Legend,” where they’re surrounded by people whose acting is so horrible, it makes Kim Kardashian in a movie look like the next Meryl Streep.

“A Deadly Legend” is a little overstuffed with characters, but the plot is fairly simple because it’s so derivative of dozens of other horror movies that have come before it: Some people uncover a longtime curse that involves a witch who’s out for revenge. And, of course, most of the horror happens when people are gathered in an isolated house. (The movie, which takes place in an unnamed state in the U.S., was actually filmed in New York state.)

The story takes place in the fictional Pilgrim County, where construction company owner Joan Huntar (played by Ferraro) and her lawyer Raj (played by Shravan Amin) are about to head into an important town council meeting. Joan and Raj want the town council to approve a major project for Huntar Construction: It’s the Pilgrim Lake Luxury Homes Project, where they plan to build homes in an undeveloped rural area. Joan and Raj are desperate for the town council’s approval for this project, since Huntar Construction is in dire financial straits and needs this project to stay in business.

At the town council meeting, one citizen is extremely vocal in expressing his disapproval of the project: Carl Turner (played by Hirsch), who owns an antiques store in town. Carl warns everyone at the meeting what will happen if construction breaks ground in the planned project area: “You’ll unleash what’s been buried for centuries!” Also at the meeting is longtime Pilgrim Lake resident Matthias Leary (played by Bernsen), who owns a crystal mineral shop in town. Despite Carl’s protest, the town council approves the project.

Joan is a widow with two teenage children: Krissy (played by Andee Buccheri) and her older brother Connor (played by John Pope). They are still grieving over the loss of Joan’s husband Bob (played by Jeffrey Doornbus), who died in a car accident. The car crash, which happened one night on a deserted road, is shown in the beginning of the movie to establish that something evil is lurking is Pilgrim County.

Bob was driving the car, and the passengers were Joan, Krissy and Krissy’s teenage cousin Amy Jones (played by Daniella DeCaro), when a young red-haired woman dressed in a white flowing dress suddenly appeared in the road. The car crashed when Bob tried to avoid hitting this mystery woman. It should come as no surprise to the audience that this woman is the ghost of a witch. The witch calls herself Luci (played by Tatiana Szpur), and she shows up again many times for the rest of the movie. (The movie reveals Luci’s backstory in a flashback scene that takes place in 1720.)

Ultimately, most of the movie’s characters end up in a remote lodge near the construction site, as construction begins for the Pilgrim Lake Luxury Homes Project. Because this is a low-budget film, the “construction” consists of one man operating a bulldozer. The lone construction worker on the site is a beer-guzzling roughneck named Mike Renfield (played by Eric Wolf), who is kept company by his kooky platonic female friend Wanda (played by Petty). Wanda brings some comic relief to the story, because it’s a running joke in the movie that Wanda keeps asking people if they have any beer.

Of course, the body count starts to pile up in this group of people who are at the lodge. In addition to Joan, Krissy, Connor and Amy, the other family members at the lodge are Bob’s sister/Joan’s sister-in-law Tina Jones (played by Summer Crockett Moore) and her husband Sam Jones (played by Dwayne A. Thomas), who are Amy’s parents. Sam works for Huntar Construction and is Mike’s no-nonsense immediate supervisor. Tina fancies herself to be a psychic—she holds a candlelit séance with the teenagers while wearing a T-shirt that says “I’m Not Weird. I’m Paranormal.”

Two other teenagers are also on the premises: quiet and mysterious Eli Leary (who is described as Matthias Leary’s grandson) and the outgoing and athletic Derek Rodriguez (played by Alan Pontes), who is Krissy’s love interest. Also at the lodge are attorney Raj and his divorced girlfriend Eva Chan (played by Jean Tree), who confides in Joan during a “girls talk” that Raj “saved” her from an abusive husband.

The pacing of “A Deadly Legend” sometimes drags, the dialogue is mostly forgettable, and the acting by most of this movie’s cast is so “train wreck” bad that it really is comical at times. Luci the witch is supposed to be terrifying, but Szpur’s sluggish portrayal makes Luci look like a Victorian Goth girl who’s taken too many opioid pills.

At least Petty brings some laughs as the somewhat unnecessary character of Wanda, because Wanda is so goofy that her personality is a welcome distraction from this often-boring film. But most of the other intentional humor in the movie falls very flat.

At one point in the story, Mike the construction worker is suspected of being up to no good, so his supervisor Sam goes to confront him. When some of the other people warn Sam that Mike could be dangerous, Sam replies, “I’m his boss. If he hasn’t killed me by now, he never will.” That’s what supposed to pass for humor in this awful movie.

And the visual effects are so messy and cheap-looking that they make the intended horror look very unconvincing. “A Deadly Legend” also makes a bizarre attempt to look “edgy” in a scene where someone has a nightmarish vision that shows an incestuous kiss between Joan and her son Connor, who exchange a large squid-like creature in their mouths during the kiss. It looks like a dumb stunt placed in the movie for “shock” effect. Ultimately, “A Deadly Legend” commits the worst sin of all for a horror movie: There is absolutely nothing scary about this terrible film.

Gravitas Ventures released “A Deadly Legend” on digital and VOD on July 24, 2020.

Review: ‘Amulet,’ starring Alec Secareanu, Carla Juri and Imelda Staunton

July 24, 2020

by Carla Hay

Alec Secareanu and Carla Juri in “Amulet” (Photo by Rob Baker Ashton/Magnet Releasing)

“Amulet” 

Directed by Romola Garai

Culture Representation: Taking place in England and unnamed European countries in unspecified modern time periods, the horror film “Amulet” has an almost all-white cast of characters representing the middle-class.

Culture Clash:  A former soldier-turned-Ph.D. philosophy student takes a job in London as a live-in handyman in a creepy house that’s occupied by a young woman and her mysterious mother, who lives as a recluse in the house’s attic.

Culture Audience: “Amulet” will appeal primarily to people who like horror movies that excel in creating a foreboding atmosphere, but makes viewers watch a lot of extremely slow-paced scenes to get to the movie’s underlying messages and plot twists.

Imelda Staunton in “Amulet” (Photo by Rob Baker Ashton/Magnet Releasing)

The horror film “Amulet” (written and directed by Romola Garai) makes a bold effort to flip a lot of tropes and shatter a lot of stereotypes that are seen all too often in psychological thrillers. But in doing so, the movie’s execution falls short of being completely engaging, since it’s bogged down by extremely slow pacing. And making matters worse, several parts of the movie have dialogue and reactions that are so simple-minded, it makes you question the intelligence of the Ph. D. student who’s one of the movie’s main characters.

People who hate movies that have flashbacks that might be confusing, be warned: “Amulet” is full of these types of flashbacks. The gist of the story is that there’s a former war soldier from an unnamed continental European country who has ended up in a haunted house in London. The movie never states what war he was in, but he keeps having nightmare flashbacks to that war, where he worked for a time as a lone soldier manning a checkpoint booth on a very deserted road in a wooded area.

The former soldier’s name is Tomaz (played by Alec Secareanu), and somehow he’s ended up in England, where he’s enrolled in a doctorate program for philosophy. Tomaz (who has a beard in the present day) keeps having nightmares about his time as a soldier, when he didn’t have a beard. (It’s one of the ways that the movie distinguishes between the past and the present.)

Tomaz’s nightmares are shown as flashbacks in non-chronological order, so viewers have to piece together the puzzle of this story. It might be a challenge for viewers who have short attention spans or who are watching this often-dull movie with other distractions.

The most important things to know about the flashbacks are that while Tomaz was a soldier, he found an amulet buried in the woods, and he got to know a woman in distress whom he met when she ran to the checkpoint and collapsed in front of him. The checkpoint is located in the same wooded area where Tomaz found the amulet.

The woman’s name is Miriam (played by Angeliki Papoulia), and when Tomaz first saw her running toward the checkpoint, he yelled at her to stop and that if she didn’t stop, he was going to shoot. Just as Tomaz raised his gun to shoot her, she collapsed in front of him. It’s shown in flashbacks that after Miriam regained consciousness with Tomaz’s help, they began having conversations and he became her protector, since she apparently needed food and shelter.

Flash forward to the present day. While Tomaz has been working on his dissertation in London, he’s ended up living with some homeless people in an abandoned church. A fire breaks out at the church, so the homeless people scatter.

The next thing you know, a bloodied Tomaz is being treated at a hospital. A nurse asks him, “Who tied you up?” He replies, “Friends. It was a joke.” Tomaz then mentions that he had a bag with him but it’s now missing.

The nurse tells him that Tomaz needs to speak to the orderly, who has the bag and a message for him. While on his way to retrieve his bag, Tomas passes by a room where he sees a pregnant woman sitting on a floor, and she’s crying out in pain because she’s in labor. The only purpose of this deliberately confusing scene is to set the tone for themes of some very female-centric pain that’s shown later in the story.

Why is Tomaz homeless? The movie might answer that question, but in the meantime, Tomaz finds a new place to live when a nun from the local diocese, who knows that Tomaz was one of the squatters in the burned church, tells him about a house that needs a live-in handyman.

The nun’s name is Sister Claire (played by Imelda Staunton), and she tells Tomaz that the people in the house are offering free room and board in exchange for him doing repairs and renovations. And because this is a horror movie, you can bet that some very bad things are going to happen in this house.

The cottage-styled house looks quaint and charming on the outside, but on the inside there’s a lot of emotional rot and turmoil. There are two people who live in the house: Magda (played by Carla Juri), a woman in her 20s and her unnamed mother (played by Anah Ruddin), who lives as an ailing recluse upstairs in the attic. The mother can often be heard moaning in pain, and Tomaz tries to avoid being in contact with her as much as possible.

As Tomaz gets to know Magda, he begins to see that she is a very naïve, sheltered and passive woman. She says she hasn’t traveled outside of the city, nor does she show an interest in traveling or going outside her comfort zone. And there are signs that she doesn’t have much experience with romance or dating.

But what disturbs Tomaz the most is that Magda’s mother appears to be physically abusing Magda. (He sees Magda secretly covering her bruises and possible bite marks with bandages.) And Tomaz is also starting to get creeped out by strange things that are happening in the house.

He finds a mysterious white bat-like creature in the bathroom toilet, which is filled with a disgusting dark liquid. Tomaz kills the creature by stomping on it. Magda is there too, but she oddly doesn’t seem as frightened by this bat-like creature in the same way as Tomaz.

And when Tomaz does some ceiling repairs, he sees (or is it hallucinates?) that the ceiling has engravings that look a lot like the engravings on the amulet he found in the woods. It startles him so much that falls off a ladder while he’s looking at the ceiling. Tomaz believes that the engravings are to ward off evil spirits.

Magda doesn’t see a lot of the same things in the house that Tomaz does, so he begins to wonder if he’s going crazy. Tomaz has also seen what Magda’s mother looks like, and she’s decrepit-looking old woman who would be a stereotypical example of what a witch is supposed to look like. Is it any wonder that Tomaz thinks that maybe Magda’s mother is behind some of the eerie things that he’s experiencing in the house?

Tomaz tells his suspicions to Sister Claire and says that he thinks Magda’s mother doesn’t want him in the house. The nun replies: “What we want isn’t always what we need.” At least once during the story, Tomaz threatens to quit.

Meanwhile, the relationship between Tomaz and Magda starts to become more emotionally intimate. It’s obvious that she wants something sexual to happen between them. However, Tomaz is very resistant and tries to let Magda down easy without insulting her. (After all, she’s technically one of his bosses.)

Unfortunately, the Magda character is written in such a simple-minded way, that the conversations she has with Tomaz are excruciating to watch. Magda says things like this to Tomaz about his soldier past: “Did you kill people? It’s a sin to waste your life.” And when the emotionally stunted Magda starts to show a romantic interest in Tomaz, it’s like watching an adolescent girl trying to be sexually attractive to a grown man. Very cringeworthy.

Sister Claire is an interesting character (and Staunton is by far the best actor in this cast), but she isn’t in the movie enough to bring more energy to this often-listless story. Because “Amulet” is told from Tomaz’s perspective, he spends most of the movie being confused about what’s going on in the house while dealing with his nightmare flashbacks that appear to seep into his current life. Therefore, viewers have to figure out what might be “real” and what might be a “delusion.”

“Amulet” is the first feature film for Garai as a writer/director. She is also known as an actress who’s appeared in British TV series such as “The Hour” and the 2009 miniseries adaptation of Jane Austen’s “Emma,” which starred Garai in the title role. Most of the actors in “Amulet” are well-cast in this movie, except for Juri, who gives a very annoying performance.

Although the production design, cinematography, visual effects and cinematography suit this horror film very well, the weak links are the movie’s screenplay, editing and overall direction. The characters often speak with long pauses, which might work for a play on stage. But this is a horror movie, and lethargic dialogue and sluggish pacing are antidotes to the type of suspense that’s crucial for any good horror flick.

“Amulet” certainly deserves a lot of credit for having some twist-filled elements that add intrigue to the story. It’s too bad that these plot twists arrive so late in the film, that a lot of bored viewers might stop watching the movie before getting to the film’s shock-intended conclusion.

Magnolia Pictures’ Magnet Releasing released “Amulet” in select U.S. cinemas, on digital and on VOD on July 24, 2020.

Review: ‘The Rental’ (2020), starring Dan Stevens, Alison Brie, Sheila Vand and Jeremy Allen White

July 24, 2020

by Carla Hay

Dan Stevens, Sheila Vand and Jeremy Allen White in “The Rental” (Photo courtesy of IFC Films)

“The Rental”  (2020)

Directed by Dave Franco

Culture Representation: Taking place in Oregon and in California, the horror flick “The Rental” features a predominantly white cast (with one character of Middle Eastern heritage) representing the middle-class.

Culture Clash:  Two couples rent a cliffside vacation home for a weekend and find themselves spied on and stalked by a mysterious stranger.

Culture Audience: “The Rental” will appeal primarily to people who like suspenseful yet formulaic slasher flicks that have better-than-average acting.

Alison Brie in “The Rental” (Photo courtesy of IFC Films)

It might not be a widely known fact, but the 2020 horror film “The Rental” (directed by Dave Franco) has a coincidentally similar plot to the 2019 horror film “The Rental,” directed by Tim Connolly. Both movies are about two men and two women who rent a house for a weekend, only to become targets of a deranged killer. (In Connolly’s “The Rental,” the house is in the mountains, while in Franco’s “The Rental,” the house is perched on a treacherous oceanside cliff.)

Franco’s “The Rental” has gotten more attention than Connolly’s “The Rental” because it’s Franco’s feature-film directorial debut, after he’s spent years as an actor best known for co-starring in movies such as “Neighbors,” “21 Jump Street” and “The Disaster Artist.” Franco isn’t an actor in “The Rental,” but he’s one of the producers, and he co-wrote the screenplay with independent film veteran Joe Swanberg.

“The Rental” doesn’t have an original concept—there have been numerous horror movies about a killer who goes after people in an isolated house—but the movie does have above-average acting talent in its very sparsely populated cast. The actors make the best out of their roles in a movie that starts out as a psychological drama and then ends up being a formulaic horror film.

In Franco’s “The Rental,” a sleek but isolated cliffside home in an unnamed Oregon city has been rented for a weekend so that two couples can celebrate a recent milestone. Ambitious alpha male Charlie (played by Dan Stevens) and his intelligent business partner Mina Mohamnadi (played by Sheila Vand) have just received a great deal of investor money (the movie doesn’t say how much) to fund their start-up company in northern California. (The movie also doesn’t say what is the company’s industry.)

Mina is dating Charlie’s troubled younger brother Josh (played by Jeremy Allen White), while Charlie is married to loving and supportive Michelle (played by Alison Brie, who is married to Franco in real life). They all live far-enough away in California from the rental house in Oregon, that their road trip takes several hours to get there.

The dynamics between these two couples are established early on in the story, so viewers know about the underlying tensions in the relationships. Before they go on their road trip, Charlie and Michelle discuss Mina and Josh’s fairly new romance. It’s not stated in the movie exactly how long Charlie and Michelle have been married, but they’ve been together for about five to eight years, based on conversations that happen later in the film.

In a private conversation in their bedroom, Michelle remarks to Charlie that she can’t believe she’s going on a vacation with Josh. Charlie makes a cynical remark that the relationship between Mina and Josh probably won’t last because Charlie thinks Josh and Mina are a mismatched couple. Michelle is more optimistic and says that Josh seems “motivated” now that he’s been dating Mina, whom she calls “the total package.”

Why is there all of this negativity about Josh? It’s because he’s been struggling to get his life together after being an aimless troublemaker. He got expelled from college for nearly beating a guy to death in front of a frat house, and Josh spent time in prison for this assault. Josh is currently working as a part-time Lyft driver while taking some night classes.

Michelle comments on how Josh’s romance with Mina seems to have changed him for the better: “I’ve never seen him like this. He really loves her. I think it’s sweet.” Charlie replies, “Of course he loves her. He hit the fucking jackpot.” And why does Charlie think Mina is such a great catch?

The opening scene of the film shows Charlie and Mina (who is the CEO of her and Charlie’s start-up company) in their office, looking at house rentals on the same computer. They are on a website that is not named, but it’s clearly a website that is like Airbnb, the popular online company that allows home owners to be their own real-estate agents in deciding which of the website’s registered members will get to rent out their homes. The cliffside house, which is Charlie and Mina’s first choice, is a little of out their price range, but Charlie and Mina decide to reward themselves by splurging on the rental.

Based on their comfortable body language with each other (they’re leaning in to look at the computer closely together) and based on how they’re talking, it would be easy to assume that Charlie and Mina are a couple. Does this mean there’s some sexual tension between Charlie and Mina? Of course there is. And maybe that’s why Charlie thinks Mina is too good for his younger brother Josh, who has a history of being an ill-tempered screw-up.

It seems that Josh is still a bit of a rebel who likes to break rules. When Charlie and Michelle go to pick up Mina and Josh for their road trip, they see that Josh has brought his French bulldog Reggie along for the trip, even though Josh knows that the house’s rental policy clearly states that pets aren’t allowed in the house. Charlie (who’s doing the driving, of course) immediately objects to the dog going on the trip.

However, Josh insists that the dog go with them, and he says that they can hide the dog until after the person handing them the house keys will leave. Because Charlie doesn’t want to waste time arguing about it, he lets Josh have his way, and the dog goes with them on the trip.

During the drive to the rental house, Mina comments that her application to rent the house was rejected, even though she has practically the same qualifications as Charlie, whose application was accepted immediately. She thinks that her Middle Eastern name had something to do with the rejection, but Charlie dismisses the idea.

“The Rental” has some obvious messages about racism, sexism and “white privilege” by showing viewers how Mina and Charlie have very two different perspectives on how they navigate through life, based on how people treat them. Mina is very aware that being a woman of Middle Eastern descent means that bigots will exclude her from opportunities and make negative assumptions about her, while Charlie is more likely to be given opportunities and a positive benefit of the doubt because he’s a white man.

The movie makes it clear that Charlie is someone who doesn’t like to acknowledge that “white privilege” exists, because that would mean admitting that he has an unfair advantage over people of color in many situations where he benefits from people who believe in white supremacy. Someone like Charlie gets uncomfortable thinking that opportunities and accomplishments might have come his way a lot easier than for people of color who are equally or more qualified than he is.

Therefore, when Mina brings up the likelihood that she was discriminated against, Charlie doesn’t really want to hear it. Mina tells everyone in the car that she was rejected for other rental applications too, whereas Charlie was not rejected. Charlie says to Mina that there were probably other reasons why she was rejected.

Mina’s suspicions about the discrimination grow even more when the two couples arrive at the house and meet the caretaker who will hand them the house keys. The caretaker’s name is Taylor (played by Toby Huss), a scruffy, middle-aged guy who mentions that his brother is the house owner who never lives there, but Taylor is the one who looks after the house and oversees the rentals.

When Charlie introduces everyone to Taylor and mentions that Mina is his business partner and is Josh’s girlfriend, the caretaker rudely comments to Mina, “How’d you get mixed up in this family?” When Mina asks Taylor what he means by that, he denies that he meant anything by it.

Mina is bothered by the subtle racism that she seems to have gotten from Taylor, so she tells Josh in a private conversation outside that she doesn’t feel comfortable giving their money to a racist. Josh convinces her that they might as well stay to enjoy their vacation as much as possible, since the rental was paid for already and they already made a long road trip to get there.

Later, Mina confronts Taylor in front of everyone, by asking him why her application was rejected and Charlie’s application was immediately accepted. Taylor looks uncomfortable and says he doesn’t remember her application. Mina then reminds Taylor of her full name, while he looks increasingly uncomfortable. Charlie is starting to look embarrassed, and he tries to diffuse the tension by indicating that he wants Mina to stop this line of questioning.

Mina then tells Taylor that she and Charlie have nearly identical qualifications, but the application from a white man (Charlie) was accepted, and her application was rejected. Taylor still won’t answer the question. Instead, he turns the conversation around and tells Mina that if she has a problem, she can cancel the rental. 

Taylor’s deflection is shady and manipulative, because Taylor knows that the rental is in Charlie’s name, and it’s pretty obvious that Charlie doesn’t want to cancel the rental agreement or cause any arguments with Taylor. Mina also knows that the other people in the group don’t want to cancel the rental agreement, so she has no choice but to let the matter go.

This heated conversation between Mina and Taylor is meant to exemplify how people who try to confront issues of discrimination are often “shut down” and labeled as “difficult” by people trying to divert attention away from the real issues. Meanwhile, people who aren’t directly affected by discrimination, but know about it, often won’t speak up and will act like they want the issue to just go away—as exemplified by how Charlie, Josh and Michelle do nothing to come to Mina’s defense.

Before he leaves the two couples to have the house to themselves, Taylor shows that he’s not only a racist but he’s also a creep when he mentions that there’s a telescope they can use in the house, in case anyone wants to be a Peeping Tom. Taylor says it in a joking manner, but his tone of voice indicates that he’s only half-joking.

After getting settled in, the two couples go for an evening walk on the beach. When they come back to the house that night, they see that someone (presumably Taylor) set up the telescope in the living room while the two couples were away.

Mina immediately expresses discomfort that Taylor can come and goes as he pleases while they’re staying at the house. But the other people in the group act as if she’s being a little too paranoid and “difficult,” so Mina is made to feel once again that she’s in the minority.

“The Rental” is written in such a way that the entire movie can be viewed as a social commentary about peer pressure and how failing to speak up and report problems—for the sake of pretending that everything is okay and going along with a group mentality—can ultimately be dangerous to someone’s well-being. There’s also social commentary about power dynamics and rivalries between men, women and siblings and why people keep certain secrets.

In one scene, Michelle and Josh are having a private conversation while they’re hiking in the woods. It’s revealed in this conversation that Michelle is a lot more insecure about Charlie and Mina’s relationship than she would like to publicly admit. Charlie clearly admires Mina’s intellect and ambition, but Michelle doesn’t have those same qualities, so Michelle feels that Mina is giving Charlie a type of emotional fulfilment that Michelle, as his wife, can’t give.

It’s never stated in the movie if Michelle works outside of her home or not, but it is made clear that she has nothing to do with Charlie’s start-up business and doesn’t help him make any decisions about the company. Michelle’s insecurities are fueled when Josh divulges some information about two of Charlie’s former girlfriends whom Charlie dated before Charlie met Michelle.

The movie also has a not-so-subtle message about invasion of privacy and the type of trust that people willingly hand over to strangers in a house-rental situation that was arranged online. The trust issues go both ways for the renters and the house owners. And when these transactions are done online, where people can write relatively anonymous reviews about their rental experience, there might be a false sense of security that things will be completely safe.

Not long after getting settled in at the rental house, Mina and Josh find a guest house, which has a locked door on a lower-deck level. The door has a key-code lock. What’s behind the door? It’s revealed in the movie whether or not what’s behind the door is relevant to the story.

Meanwhile, some Ecstasy-fueled partying in the house and some hidden surveillance result in a chain of events that bring on the horror. It’s enough to say that the couples in the house are being stalked and spied on, and there is some bloody mayhem that ensues.

“The Rental,” which has a lot of scenes that take place at night, certainly brings the right atmosphere to the movie, as things get more sinister as the story unfolds. The abundance of fog can be explained by the fact that this story takes place mostly in a cliffside house near a treacherous ocean. And the film’s musical score by Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans is a definite asset in the movie’s most effective thrilling scenes.

However, a lot of horror fans might not like that it takes so long (about two-thirds of the movie) for “The Rental” to get to any suspenseful action. Most of the film is really a character study of the increasingly tense relationships between Charlie, Michelle, Mina and Josh. Because the dialogue is realistic, the actors are well-cast, and the acting is better than what’s in an average horror movie, it’s worth the wait to get to the scenes in the movie where the characters are in real danger.

“The Rental” director Franco shows promising talent for telling a good story, but in the end, not much of it is very original. In fact, the least original part of “The Rental” is the murder spree, which has been seen and done in many other horror movies. Although “The Rental’s” characters are engaging and believable (Vand and Brie give the best performances), the action scenes are very formulaic.

People who expect a slasher flick to have the first killing happen within the first 15 minutes of the movie will probably be bored or disappointed by “The Rental.” Anyone who sees this movie has to be willing to sit through a lot of realistic relationship drama before getting to the over-the-top and predictable horror violence.

IFC Films released “The Rental” in select U.S. cinemas, digital and VOD on July 24, 2020.

Review: ‘Game of Death,’ starring Sam Earle, Victoria Diamond, Emelia Hellman, Erniel Baez Duenas, Thomas Vallieres and Catherine Saindon

July 15, 2020

by Carla Hay

Erniel Baez Duenas, Sam Earle, Emelia Hellman and Victoria Diamond in “Game of Death” (Photo courtesy of Cleopatra Entertainment)

“Game of Death” (2020)

Directed by Sebastien Landry and Laurence Baz Morais

Culture Representation: Taking place in an unnamed Canadian area, the horror flick “Game of Death” has an almost all-white cast (with one Latino) representing the middle-class.

Culture Clash: During a house party, seven teenagers find a sinister portable electronic game that will make their heads explode unless they kill people.

Culture Audience: “Game of Death” will appeal primarily to people who want the lowest-common denominator type of horror film that places more emphasis on gross-out bloody scenes than having a coherent plot.

Thomas Vallieres, Catherine Saindon and Nick Serino in “Game of Death” (Photo courtesy of Cleopatra Entertainment)

If the sight of blood makes you squeamish, then you probably won’t be able to watch the “Game of Death,” which is essentially a repetitive, mindless bloodbath. The movie is only 73 minutes long, but it feels longer since the acting is so bad and the moronic story is even worse. Directed by Sebastien Landry and Laurence Baz Morais, who both wrote the screenplay with Edouard Bond, “Game of Death” makes a feeble attempt at being a dark comedy. But that angle to the story is essentially blown to bits, just like the exploding heads of some people in this movie.

There’s not much that can be said about “Game of Death,” because there really isn’t much of a plot. The movie, which takes place in an unidentified area of Canada, starts off at a house party attended by seven teenagers. They’re all various degrees of drunk, stoned and/or horny.

Ashley (played by Emelia Hellman) is a sarcastic “mean girl” type. Ashley’s boyfriend Matthew (played by Thomas Vallieres) is her male counterpart, because he’s equally obnoxious and cruel to others. How mean-spirited is Matthew? As a prank, he gives a drink to nerdy party guest Kenny (played by Nick Serino)—and the drink turns out to be Matthew’s urine.

Everyone at the party seems to know each other pretty well. Beth (played by Victoria Diamond) is a blonde Barbie doll type. Mary-Ann (played by Catherine Saindon) is the “nice girl” of the group. Tom (played by Sam Earle) seems like a regular guy until his true nature comes out later in the movie. And then there’s Tyler (played by Erniel Baez Duenas), a pizza delivery guy who’s a paranoid conspiracy theorist.

There are no adults in the house during the party, so the teens have free reign to do what they want. The movie has predictable scenes involving sex and drugs, but these scenes are filmed in such an amateurish way that it looks like a movie made by teenagers. And that doesn’t include the phone footage that’s supposed to represent what these partiers are filming for their social media.

After playing spin the bottle, the teens move on to another game. They gather around an octagon-shaped electronic toy called Game of Death that has a display window in the middle. It’s never explained how they got this mysterious toy, but an instruction card tells them the game’s numerical display shows how many people have to die for the game to end. If someone isn’t killed by a certain period of time (the movie doesn’t say for how long), then a game player’s head will explode. The card also warns that once the game starts, anyone playing the game can’t stop it until the required number of people are dead.

The teens think that all of this is too far-fetched to really happen, so they start playing the game. They place their fingers on the game’s finger slots. As soon as their fingers touch the game, they get an electrical shock that draws blood from their fingers. The blood dripping onto the device apparently activates the game to start.

Tyler freaks out and shouts, “That’s not even a a game! It’s an STD dispenser!” His pals tease him because they think he’s over-reacting. When one of them suggests that Tyler go to the hospital if he thinks his injury is so bad, he immediately rejects the idea because he says that the people at the hospital will experiment on him.

It isn’t long after that when someone’s head explodes, just like the game’s instruction card had warned. The numerical display shows that by the end of the game, 25 people have to die. Every time someone dies, an evil electronic voice from the game says, “One down,” and then gives a sinister chuckle. The rest of the story is basically a series of people’s heads exploding or people getting murdered. All of these death scenes are extremely bloody.

The visual effects are hit-and-miss in this film. The head-exploding scenes are fairly realistic-looking. However, a scene that looks dumb and very fake is when someone gets deliberately run over by a car, and the dead body’s splattered intestines look like elongated spaghetti covered with red paste instead of bloody human guts. To make matters worse, the dialogue throughout the film is just terrible.

While this deadly game is happening, the teens argue with each other about what they should do. Some don’t want to kill anyone. Some want to kill only “bad” people. Others in the group don’t care who they kill. The game unleashes a blood lust from two people in particular, who go on a murder spree that was clearly inspired by “Natural Born Killers.”

During all of this bloody mayhem, there are some bizarre moments that are meant to be funny but they just come across as very silly. After the first head explosion, the rest of the teens are covered in blood for the rest of the movie and don’t bother to clean themselves up, even when they eventually leave the house and do what they end up doing.

While driving Tyler’s Pizza Hawt car on a fairly deserted road, they’re stopped by a police trooper named Marilyn (played by Jane Hackett), who starts singing the Pizza Hawt theme for an interminable minute that seems like longer. When she asks the teens why they’re covered in blood, they tell her that they accidentally hit an animal with their car. It’s an obvious lie that this dimwitted cop easily accepts.

And then there’s a scene where there’s a gun showdown in a hospital hallway with a young girl hooked up to an IV pack and walking in the middle of this shootout. The problem with this scene is it’s filmed almost as if it’s a dream sequence: The hospital suddenly becomes deserted and the hallway gets that foggy look that indicates that it might be a dream.

But it’s not a dream. This gun showdown is also one of those unrealistic battle scenes where people point guns at each other, but then stand around and talk too much instead of blowing the opponent away. And one of the characters also gives a very pretentious, preachy speech about life and death.

“Game of Death” might have been intended as a dark comedy, but that only works when there’s anything that’s actually funny in the movie. When a movie is this bloody, it should either be very scary or very funny or both. “Game of Death” is neither. The only heads that might explode for “Game of Death” are when viewers get bored or frustrated with this bottom-of-the-barrel horror flick.

Cleopatra Entertainment released “Game of Death” in the U.S. on digital and VOD on July 14, 2020. The movie was released in France and the United Kingdom in 2017.

Review: ‘Relic,’ starring Emily Mortimer, Bella Heathcote and Robyn Nevin

July 10, 2020

by Carla Hay

Robyn Nevin in “Relic” (Photo courtesy of IFC Films/IFC Midnight)

“Relic”

Directed by Natalie Erika James

Culture Representation: Taking place in Australia, the horror film “The Relic” has an all-white cast representing the middle-class.

Culture Clash: An elderly woman, who shows signs of dementia, is convinced that something evil is out to get her, while her daughter and granddaughter who come to visit have very different reactions to her distress.

Culture Audience: “Relic” will appeal primarily to people who don’t mind slow-paced, “slow burn” horror films, because most of the action doesn’t happen until the last 20 minutes of the film.

Emily Mortimer in “Relic” (Photo courtesy of IFC Films/IFC Midnight)

Is “Relic” a haunted house film or a psychological horror film? The movie can be considered both, but it’s really more of the latter. “Relic” (the feature-film debut of director Natalie Erika James) is not the kind of movie for people who like fast-paced action throughout most of the film. Nor will it satisfy people who expect a full explanation for all the horror that goes on in the story. Instead, “Relic” is the type of movie that creeps up on viewers in the type of slowly rotting way that’s similar to the mysterious dark mold that malignantly spreads throughout the haunted house in this movie.

“Relic” begins with an eerie scene of an upstairs bathtub overrunning with water in a dark and creepy two-story house, with the water eventually flowing down the stairs. Meanwhile, a naked elderly woman with long, flowing white hair is standing in a daze downstairs, looking at a lit Christmas tree’s lights that are blinking. The woman is alone in the house, which is filled with lit candles. Is this a witch?

Not exactly. It turns out the woman is a widow named Edna (played by Robyn Nevin) who lives alone on the house, which is in a remote wooded area of Australia. (Melbourne is the closest big city.) The next thing that viewers find out about her is that she has disappeared. Edna’s no-nonsense daughter Kay (played by Emily Mortimer) and Kay’s aimless daughter Sam (played by Bella Heathcote) have driven from Melbourne to Edna’s house, after finding out from a neighbor that Edna has gone missing.

When Kay and Sam arrive, they see that Edna’s bed is unmade and her possessions are still in the house. Sam also notices that there are strange mold-like stains and marks in Edna’s bedroom closet. It’s been a few weeks since Kay last spoke to her mother, while Edna’s middle-aged neighbor Alex (played by Jeremy Stanford) says that he hasn’t seen Edna for a few days.

Kay files a missing person’s report with the local police, while Kay and Sam also join the search party in the woods. Kay has told the police that Edna has flooded the bathtub before, by forgetting to turn off the faucet. The implication is clear that Edna’s forgetful ways and mysterious disappearance might be signs of Edna having dementia.

Kay and Sam have a tense relationship because Kay is frustrated that Sam hasn’t quite figured out what to do with her life. Sam tells Kay that she recently quit her job at a gallery and that she’s gone back to working in a bar. When Kay asks Sam if Sam plans to go back to college, Sam says that she doesn’t know what her future plans will be. An exasperated Kay tells Sam that she can’t work in a bar for her whole life, but Sam just tries to shrug off her mother’s concerns.

One night, while Edna is still missing, Sam is smoking a joint out on the house’s front porch, when she sees a neighbor named Jamie (played by Chris Brunton) coming over to the house and greets him in a friendly manner. Jamie, who is Alex’s son, is an 18-year-old with Down syndrome whom Sam has met before but she hasn’t seen in in several years. Sam comments to Jamie on how much he’s grown up, and she lets him have a hit off of her joint when he asks her. It’s revealed later in the story that Alex and Jamie have been keeping their distance from Edna because of a disturbing incident that happened with Edna not too long ago.

While the search continues for Edna, there’s some information about Edna that Kay didn’t tell the police but she tells Sam in a private conversation that they have at the house. A few weeks prior, Edna called Kay and told Kay that Edna suspected that an intruder was coming into the house, because doors were left open and furniture was rearranged.  While Sam believes that Edna could be in real danger, Kay dismisses that notion by saying that Edna probably caused those changes in the house herself and forgot about it.

Meanwhile, some more strange things occur. One day, while Sam is wearing one of Edna’s long sweaters, she finds a note in the pocket that says, “Don’t Follow It.” And she also notices that a large mold-like stain is on a living room wall when the stain apparently wasn’t there when Sam and Kay first arrived at the house.

After disappearing for three days, Edna suddenly comes back to the house. Kay is startled to see Edna calmly cutting up food in the kitchen sink and acting very unaware that several people had been looking for her. Kay’s exasperation with Edna increases when Edna refuses to say where she was and what she was doing when she disappeared, even though Kay later finds blood on Edna’s nightgown.

Edna is given a wellness exam at her home to determine her mental and physical health. It’s determined that Edna is healthy, but she’s cautioned not to wander outside. Kay has her doubts about how well Edna is, while Sam is more inclined to think that things can go back to normal.

The intergenerational dynamics between these three women show that Edna and Sam don’t get along particularly well with Kay. Therefore, Edna and Sam have moments of bonding together, such as when Edna gives her wedding ring to Sam, who is surprised by this unsolicited gift.

Edna insists that Sam keep the wedding ring and tells Sam: “You might need it one day. Your mother’s already had a go.” Sam’s father is not seen nor mentioned in the movie, but this comment suggests that Kay is divorced from Sam’s father.

As for Kay’s relationship with Edna, she hints that the tensions between them have been there since Kay’s childhood. In an old book of illustrations that Kay and Sam have found in the house, there’s a drawing of a cabin that used to be in the woods nearby. Kay mentions that her great-grandfather, who went crazy, used to live in the cabin, which was a place where Edna used to threaten to send Kay as a child when Kay misbehaved.

The cabin was torn down years ago, after Kay grew up, but the ominous aura of the cabin still haunts Kay, who has noticed that a stained-glass window from the cabin is now part of Edna’s house. It’s clear that this family background was mentioned in this scene for two reasons: (1) to establish that this family has a history of mental illness and (2) to make it clear that there might have been something sinister about the cabin that is now part of Edna’s house.

After Edna comes back from her unexplained disappearance, things get even weirder. She acts as if someone or something is out to get her. One night, while Edna is in bed, she appears spooked by something. She asks Kay to look under the bed. “It’s here, under the bed,” Edna tells Kay.

A skeptical Kay barely looks under the bed and tells Edna that she doesn’t see anything. Edna tells Kay to look again, but more closely. When Kay looks underneath the bed again, she sees something moving, and is so startled that she hits her head on the bed frame. Kay thinks Edna is playing a cruel joke on her and blames Edna for her causing the accidental head bump.

It comes as no surprise when Kay tells Sam that she wants to put Edna in a nursing home and starts the process by visiting a nursing facility in Melbourne. However, Sam is very much against the idea and thinks that someone in the family should take care of Edna, but Kay doesn’t want to do it.

In a private conversation between Sam and Edna, an offer is made to Edna: Sam says she will move in with Edna and take care of her, presumably for free room and board. Edna isn’t keen on the idea, but when she finds out that Kay wants to put Edna in a nursing home, she lets Kay know that Sam is going to move in and be Edna’s caretaker.

Before that happens though, Edna’s behavior becomes more erratic. Kay and Sam witness Edna talking to herself on different occasions. And one day, Kay finds Edna in the woods doing something bizarre: Edna is eating some old photos, which Kay stops her from doing.

Edna is also trying to bury a photo album in a hole that Edna dug. Edna tells a horrified Kay: “There’s a coldness in the house … I wish we could bury my soul so it can’t get at me.” What exactly is “it”?

“Relic” does a very good job at conveying a dark and foreboding atmosphere throughout the film, thanks in large part to production designer Steven Jones-Evans and cinematographer Charlie Sarroff. But the main reason why the horror elements work best in the film is because of Nevin’s performance as the deranged and disturbed Edna.

Some of the evil-eyed stares that Edna gives Kay (particularly in a scene around a dining room table) are more chilling than a murder scene in a typical slasher movie. Mortimer and Heathcote are very believable as mother and daughter, but without Nevin’s unsettling performance, this would be a very forgettable horror movie. “Relic” also uses some of the same predictable tropes of other “haunted house” movies, such as someone walking around the house with a flashlight (because apparently turning on a light switch isn’t possible) and someone mysteriously getting trapped in a room.

The “Relic” screenplay (which James co-wrote with Christian White) doesn’t have any plot holes, but it does bring up a lot of questions that remain unanswered by the end of the film. The visual imagery of “Relic” (including some genuinely gruesome scenes involving rotting skin) goes a long way in telling this horror story, but there’s not enough context or background information about these characters to explain what happens in the last 10 minutes of the film. Many viewers will think that “Relic” doesn’t reveal enough about the movie’s three main characters to really root for any of them.

And the slow pacing for most of the movie will definitely turn off some people. These are valid flaws that make “Relic” disappointing on those levels. But if people have the patience to watch until the last 20 minutes of this 89-minute movie, there’s an underlying message about grief, mortality and how old age can bring personality changes to a loved one that can be harder to deal with than death.

IFC Films/IFC Midnight released “Relic” in select U.S. cinemas, on digital and on VOD on July 10, 2020.

Review: ‘Devil’s Night: Dawn of the Nain Rouge,’ starring Jesi Jensen, Nathan Kane Mathers, Sam Logan Khaleghi and Jerry Narsh

June 26, 2020

by Carla Hay

Jesse Dean and Jesi Jensen in “Devil’s Night: Dawn of the Nain Rouge” (Photo courtesy of Cinedigm)

“Devil’s Night: Dawn of the Nain Rouge”

Directed by Sam Logan Khaleghi

Culture Representation: Taking place primarily in Lake Orion, Michigan, the horror flick “Devil’s Night: Dawn of the Nain Rouge” features a racially diverse cast (white, African American and Asian) representing the middle-class.

Culture Clash: A demon goes on a bloody killing spree in Lake Orion.

Culture Audience: “Devil’s Night: Dawn of the Nain Rouge” will appeal primarily to people who like tacky low-budget horror films.

Grover McCants in “Devil’s Night: Dawn of the Nain Rouge” (Photo courtesy of Cinedigm)

There are two kinds of cheesy horror movies in this world: Movies that are so bad that they’re funny and movies that are so bad that they’re boring. Unfortunately, the moronic “Devil’s Night: Dawn of the Nain Rouge” falls into the latter category, as the characters in the movie don’t do very much but show up around different parts of the city and occasionally react when the movie’s “demon on the loose” goes after another victim. You know it’s bad when the demon, which is supposed to be the scariest thing about this film, looks like someone in a very cheap Halloween costume.

“Devil’s Night: Dawn of the Nain Rouge” (directed by Sam Logan Khaleghi and written by Aaron Russman) begins with the demon attacking two casual acquaintances who are hanging out together at night in a graveyard in Lake Orion, Michigan. (The city is depicted in this movie as an industrial wasteland suburb of Detroit.) The two graveyard victims are Rochelle Winston (played Angelina Ebegbuzie) and Raj Dilal (played by Rish Mitra). Rochelle is savagely murdered, while Raj manages to escape.

It should be noted that apparently this demon likes to shop at Adidas, because the red demon is decked out head to toe (or maybe head to hoof) in black-colored streetwear, including a hoodie sweatshirt and athletic shoes. Yes, it’s that kind of movie.

Raj is the main suspect in Rochelle’s murder, since he was the last known person to have seen her alive. Raj is brought into the Lake Orion Police Department (LOPD) for questioning. He’s interrogated by Detective Liam O’Connor (played by Nathan Kane Mathers) and Detective Sammie Alayoubi (played by Amma Nemo), who think that Raj is guilty, especially when Raj starts rambling about how he saw a devil in the graveyard, and Raj insists that this devil is responsible for the murder.

Also on the LOPD staff are Chief Romano (played by Jerry Narsh) and Staff Sergeant Billie Jean Finnick (played by Jesi Jensen), who is the main field investigator in what will turn out to be the demon’s killing spree. Finnick is no pushover cop (she threatens to punch Alayoubi when he makes a sexist comment to her), but she’s open to the possibility that there might be supernatural forces involved in the murder.

Finnick (which is what most people in the movie call her) is also a military veteran with a tragic backstory of having her best friend Alice die in her arms while on a mission in Eastern Europe. (The death is shown in a flashback.) Alice’s father Cal (played Andrew Dawe-Collins) is a mean and bitter drunk who blames Finnick for his daughter’s death, which adds to Finnick’s feelings of guilt.

The purpose of the Cal character in the movie seems to be to occasionally show up and insult Finnick, whether it’s at the graveyard when he’s visiting Alice’s grave (it’s the same graveyard where Rochelle was murdered), or when he comes home and is enraged to find out that his son Ellis (played by Robert Laenen), who still lives with Cal, has taken a romantic interest in Finnick. Why is Ellis still living with his father? Ellis is an aspiring bronze/metal sculptor who’s trying to get his life back on track since he’s a recovering drug addict.

The murdered body count starts to pile up in Lake Orion. Finnick is called to a crime scene inside an abandoned temple, where another massacred body is found, and she sees the demon for herself, but it eludes capture. It isn’t long before Finnick decides she needs help outside of her jurisdiction.

She places a call to someone and says (try to not to laugh at this cheesy line): “I’ve got big trouble in a small town, sir.” The next thing you know, foul-mouthed Detective Nightingale (played by Grover McCants) from the Detroit Police Department shows up. He’s on special assignment to help Finnick and the rest of the LOPD to solve the mystery of this killing spree.

The Nightingale character is the best thing about this bad movie because the flippant lines he throws out show that he’s not easily impressed and he doesn’t really care what people think about him. His presence also brings some much-needed humor to this dreadfully dull movie.

Detective Nightingale takes Finnick to meet with Dr. Khadir (played by Nepoleon Duraisamy), who works at a nearby museum. Khadir tells them that an ancient Ottawa Indian tribe knife was stolen from the museum. Legend has it that whoever owns the knife can summon a “ruthless guardian angel,” but only if the owner of the knife doesn’t become greedy. French settlers in 1700s Detroit didn’t heed the warning, so death and destruction followed.

Khadir says that whoever stole the knife from the museum probably summoned the demon, which is called Le Nain Rouge, which is French for The Red Dwarf. However, this movie’s red demon (played by Jesse Dean) is definitely not dwarf-sized. “We have to find that knife!” says Nightingale.

While Finnick and Nightingale try to get to the bottom of the mystery, “Devil’s Night: Dawn of the Nain Rouge” features some other people who might or might not cross paths with the demon. Marcellus (played by the movie’s director Khaleghi) is a well-connected hoodlum who’s been able to avoid serious prison time because his godfather is Mayor Flynn of Detroit (played by rapper Swifty McVay), who is very corrupt and growing increasingly annoyed with covering up the crimes of Marcellus.

Pastor Wilhem (played by John C. Forman) is a Lake Orion clergyman who’s become increasingly concerned about the crime rate in the area. Anna Lee (played by Judy Stepanian) is a middle-aged spinster who does work at the pastor’s church and is convinced that a demon is on the loose. Ike Bruce (played by Dennis Marin) is a drug addict who operates a meth lab.

And by the time Lake Orion Mayor Marion DeVaux (played by Amy Andrews) shows up in the movie, she’s giving a press conference to announce that the city will have an 8 p.m. to 6 a.m. curfew because there have been 17 deaths in a week. Of course, if that type of murder rate in happened in real life in this city, the local police would ask the FBI for help, but why let those pesky realistic details get in the way of this bad movie?

“Devil’s Night: Dawn of the Nain Rouge” was shot entirely in Michigan, so the movie has some local Detroit-area notables in the cast. Narsh, who plays Chief Romano, was the real-life police chief of Lake Orion, until he retired in 2019, after 38 years with the LOPD. Andrews, who plays Mayor Marion DeVaux, is in real life a news anchor at KTVI-TV, the Fox affiliate in Detroit.

And two of the cast members have a connection to Detroit native/rap superstar Eminem. Mathers, who plays Detective O’Connor, is Eminem’s brother. McVay, who plays Mayor Flynn of Detroit, is a member of Eminem’s former rap group D-12. But this movie is not going to be a Detroit classic, like “8 Mile,” the 2002 drama that was Eminem’s film debut. The closest that “Devil’s Night” comes to “8 Mile” is that the demon is clad in streetwear that looks like what Eminem would’ve worn in “8 Mile.”

Speaking of the demon, the visual effects in “Devil’s Night: Dawn of the Nain Rouge” are very amateurish, since the demon’s tail and long tongue don’t look realistic and are obviously digital visual effects. There’s also a very fake-looking explosion in the movie. And although the best technical aspect about “Devil’s Night” is the appropriate foreboding musical score, the film editing is terrible (the jump cuts would get a failing grade in film school) and the acting in the movie is even worse.

Most of the actors sound like they’re just reciting their lines instead of having realistic dialogue. And in some of the terror scenes, there’s some seriously awful over-acting. At one point in the movie during an action scene, a character shouts, “Don’t get any bright ideas!” while another character replies, “I used up all my bright ideas!” What a perfect way to describe this derivative and disappointing movie.

Kyyba Films and Cinedigm released “Devil’s Night: Dawn of the Nain Rouge” on digital and VOD on June 23, 2020.