Review: ‘Dear David’ (2023), starring Augustus Prew, Andrea Bang, René Escobar Jr., Cameron Nicoll and Justin Long

November 20, 2023

by Carla Hay

Augustus Prew and Cameron Nicoll in “Dear David” (Photo by Stephanie Montani/Lionsgate)

“Dear David” (2023)

Directed by John McPhail

Culture Representation: Taking place in New York City in 2017 (and briefly in 1996), the horror film “Dear David” (based on a real Internet story that went viral) features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few African Americans, Latin people, and Asians) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A comic artist who works for BuzzFeed believes that he is being haunted by a ghost named David, and he chronicles his experiences in messages on Twitter. 

Culture Audience: “Dear David” will appeal primarily to people who don’t mind watching mindless and incoherent horror movies with annoying characters.

Jarrett Siddall in “Dear David” (Photo courtesy of Lionsgate)

“Dear David” is what happens when misguided filmmakers think a social media fad story can be made into a movie that a lot of people weren’t asking for in the first place. This pointless horror flick is boring, jumbled, and a complete waste of time. “Dear David” is based on true events from 2017, when a BuzzFeed comic artist named Adam Ellis went on Twitter to detail his supposed encounters with a murderous ghost named David. BuzzFeed Studios is one of the production companies behind this forgettable flop movie.

Directed by John McPhail and written by Mike Van Waes, “Dear David” is the first feature film for Van Waes. The “Dear David” screenplay is the weakest link in this terrible movie, but it’s certainly not the only reason why “Dear David” is a complete failure on every level. What viewers will see are monotonous and repetitive scenes of protagonist Adam Ellis (played by Augustus Prew) having nightmarish visions that he’s not sure are real or part of his imagination.

The beginning of this movie shows this introductory statement: “In 2017, Adam Ellis began documenting a series of strange encounters that were happening in his apartment, He posted them on Twitter, and these ‘Dear David’ posts became a viral sensation. The following is based on those true events.”

If you believe that “on Twitter” and “true events” are automatically synonymous, then perhaps you’d like to think that Twitter owner Elon Musk can buy the Brooklyn Bridge too. Hauntings that were fabricated to make people famous have been around much longer than social media existed. You only need to look at the proliferation of paranormal-themed TV shows and Web series to see that plenty of people are trying find fame and fortune from “investigating” hauntings.

And so, the motives of Adam Ellis are obviously suspect from the start. In real life, Ellis has been open about his mental health issues, which might or might not have played a role in his ghostly sightings. The fact that BuzzFeed cashed in on an employee’s admittedly shaky mental health by making this awful movie makes “Dear David” even more repulsive.

“Dear David” begins in New York City in 1996, a year when the Internet was fairly new to the world. A reclusive loner boy named David Johnson (played by Cameron Nicoll), who’s 10 years old, spends a lot of time using the Internet on a computer in the basement of his family home. David’s mother is worried about his Internet activities. David’s father has the opposite opinion: He thinks that the Internet is a sensation that will take over the world.

An early scene in the movie shows David getting cyberbullied in a chat room by an anonymous person, who sends David a message calling David a “loser.” David writes back, “Why are you so mean?” The harasser answers, “Why don’t you kill yourself?”

The movie then fast-forwards to 2017. At BuzzFeed headquarters in New York City, Adam is a comic artist who’s not doing very well on the job. He’s distracted by Internet harassers who insult his work. Adam’s annoying boss Bryce (played by Justin Long, in a quick cameo) hints that Adam could be fired if Adam doesn’t get a larger audience for Adam’s work. Bryce says that Adam has “relatable” content, but Adam’s audience reach is “kind of lame.”

Adam has two writer co-workers whose desks are right next to his. Evelyn (played by Andrea Bang) is Adam’s closest friend at work and one of the few people he trusts will be supportive of him when things in his life get weird. Norris (played by Tricia Black) is phony and very competitive. Norris the type of person who tries too hard to impress the boss while making passive-aggressive digs at her co-workers.

“Dear David” spends quite a bit of time on Adam’s relationship with his boyfriend Kyle Sanchez (played by René Escobar Jr.), who is loving and loyal but getting impatient and feels somewhat hurt that Adam is not ready to introduce Kyle to Adam’s mother. (The movie never says what happened to Adam’s father.) There’s also some other drama about how Adam hasn’t come out as gay to everyone in his life.

Who is the ghost that’s causing the terror in the movie? Two unlucky teens named Kevin (played by Seth Murchison) and James (played by Ethan Hwang) find out when they go the Internet to play pranks on people under false identities. An example of the pranks is Kevin and James pretending to be attractive young women looking for dates with men, and when they get men to be interested, Kevin and James reveal that they are really underage boys and shame the men for being perverts.

One day, someone on the Internet named David falls for one of their pranks. David doesn’t think it’s funny and tells Kevin and James that they are both going to die. During their contentious online conversation, David warns Kevin and James that when people first talk to David online, they can only ask David two questions.

It should come as no surprise that one of the teens breaks this rule and asks more than two questions. One of the questions Kevin asks is: “How am I going to die?” David answers, “Alone, afraid, and wetting your bed.” You can easily guess what happens to Kevin in this dreadfully predictable movie.

Adam also encounters David online, but David torments Adam much longer than David’s usual victims. After doing some research, Adam is convinced that the David who’s been contacting him on the Internet and who’s attacking him in these haunting visions is the ghost of a boy named David, who had a tragic story. Take a wild guess which David that is. The ghost who is haunting Adam appears to be an adult version of David (played by Jarrett Siddall), who doesn’t look very menacing and looks more like psychiatric facility patient who needs to brush his teeth.

“Dear David” could’ve had so many interesting things to say about cyberbullying and ghost hauntings, but the movie doesn’t know what to do with these narratives and just makes everything a mess. The acting performances are subpar for the movie’s characters, who are hollow, irritating or both. The overall direction for “Dear David” is sloppy and unfocused. Because the foundation of “Dear David” is a weak and gimmicky Internet story that briefly went viral, that foundation sinks quickly into a cesspool of cinematic muck where stupid horror movies are quickly forgotten.

Lionsgate released “Dear David” in select U.S. cinemas, on digital and VOD on October 13, 2023.

Review: ‘Thanksgiving’ (2023), starring Patrick Dempsey, Addison Rae, Milo Manheim, Jalen Thomas Brooks, Nell Verlaque, Rick Hoffman and Gina Gershon

November 15, 2023

by Carla Hay

Nell Verlaque in “Thanksgiving” (Photo courtesy of TriStar Pictures)

“Thanksgiving” (2023)

Directed by Eli Roth

Culture Representation: Taking place from 2022 to 2023, in Plymouth, Massachusetts, the horror film “Thanksgiving” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few African Americans, Latin people and Asians) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: A mysterious serial killer, who’s disguised as Plymouth pilgrim John Carver, gets revenge on people who directly or indirectly caused the deaths of people during a Black Friday riot at a Walmart-type store. 

Culture Audience: “Thanksgiving” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of filmmaker Eli Roth and slasher horror movies that skillfully mix comedy with suspenseful mystery.

Gina Gershon and Patrick Dempsey in “Thanksgiving” (Photo courtesy of TriStar Pictures)

“Thanksgiving” offers a satisfying menu of unique terror scenes, whodunit suspense and laugh-out-loud comedic moments. It’s an instant classic for holiday-themed horror movies. This movie is not for people who get easily squeamish by violent gore.

Directed by Eli Roth and written by Jeff Rendell, “Thanksgiving” takes place in Plymouth, Massachusetts, a municipality famous for being the site where the Mayflower Pilgrims colony was founded in 1620. The Mayflower Pilgrims were among the first to celebrate Thanksgiving (a day to give thanks for good fortunes and blessings), which became a national holiday in the United States. Thanksgiving is celebrated in other countries too, but the Mayflower Pilgrims story is part of U.S. history.

It’s no wonder that Thanksgiving has a special meaning for Plymouth. But in the “Thanksgiving” movie, Plymouth will be the target of terror by a serial killer dressed as a Thanksgiving pilgrim. (“Thanksgiving” was actually filmed in the Canadian cities of Hamilton and Port Perry, Ontario.) The movie takes place during the Thanksgiving holiday season within a two-year period.

“Thanksgiving” opens with a seemingly harmless sequence of two very different households celebrating Thanksgiving Day in 2022, with traditional gatherings for Thanksgiving dinner. The Collins family has a middle-class household consisting of spouses Amanda Collins (played by Gina Gershon) and Mitch Collins (played by Ty Olsson), who works as a manager at a general discount store called Right Mart. (It’s very similar to Walmart.) Mitch has to work that night to prepare for the midnight opening of Right Mart for the Black Friday sales. Family friend Sheriff Eric Newlon (played by Patrick Dempsey) is a bachelor who has been invited to this Thanksgiving dinner, which includes a few other relatives in the Collins family.

The other household is that of the wealthy Wright family, whose patriarch Thomas Wright (played by Rick Hoffman) owns the retail chain called Right Mart, which is very popular in Plymouth. Right Mart is so popular in Plymouth, a crowd of about 100 people have gathered on Thanksgiving night in the parking lot of Right Mart, so that they can be the first people let into the store at midnight, when Right Mart will open to have a massive Black Friday sale.

The Collins household is festive and upbeat for Thanksgiving. By contrast, the Wright household has a lot of tension. That’s because Thomas’ teenage daughter (and only child) Jessica, nicknamed Jess (played by Nell Verlaque), disapproves of Thomas’ wife Kathleen (played by Karen Cliche), because Jessica thinks Kathleen is an opportunistic gold digger. It’s mentioned in conversations that Jess’ mother is deceased. Thomas and Kathleen had a quick courtship and engagement. Jessica is about 16 or 17 years old in the beginning of the movie.

“Thanksgiving” introduces a few too many characters in the beginning of the film, particularly when it comes to Jessica’s social circle of friends at her high school. Jessica’s boyfriend Bobby DiStasi (played by Jalen Thomas Brooks) is a star pitcher on the school’s baseball team. He has the nickname Golden Arm because of his pitching talent. Other people who hang out with Jessica are two couples who attend the same school: rebellious prankster Evan Fletcher (played by Tomaso Sanelli); Evan’s fun-loving girlfriend Gabby (played by Addison Rae); friendly athlete Conrad Scuba, nicknamed Scuba (played by Gabriel Davenport); and Scuba’s cheerleader girlfriend Yulia (played by Jenna Warren), who also comes from a wealthy family.

On the fringes of this clique is McCarty (played by Joe Delfin), a scummy guy in his 20s who sells drugs and guns, often to teenagers. McCarty is somewhat known in the area for having a big annual party (called the McCarty Party), on a night close to the Thanksgiving holiday. Another prominent character in the movie is Ryan (played by Milo Manheim), an academically talented student who has a crush on Jessica and tries to get to know her better, even though Ryan knows that Bobby is her boyfriend.

What happens at the Right Mart in Plymouth will become a violent tragedy. Tensions are running high in the crowd of people who are anxious for the store to open. There’s a barricade separating the crowd from the store, but there is no orderly line for this crowd, which is one of the first signs that things might go wrong. Some people standing close to each other start to have petty arguments when they think someone else is trying invade their personal space. One of these argumentative people is a loudmouth named Lizzie (played by Amanda Barker), who is one of the more aggressive people in the crowd.

Somehow, Jessica’s friends convince her to take advantage of the fact that her father owns Right Mart, because Jessica has access to the master key to the store. Evan is the one who comes up with the idea to go into the store before the crowd can be let in for the Black Friday sales. The people outside can see what’s going on inside store through the long glass windows at the front of the store. Jessica and her pals go in the store, where Evan and a few of the others taunt the bystanders outside by appearing to be shopping inside.

This sight enrages many people in the crowd. One of the bystanders grabs a megaphone from a security guard and shouts that the store is now open. And that’s when all hell breaks loose. People rush through the barricade and crash through the front doors, with many people trampling one of the only two security guards who was in front of the store. This unlucky security guard’s name is Doug (played by Chris Sandiford), and he will be talked about several times later in the movie.

The customers in this mob scene start to act like violent looters. An unexpected arrival at the store is Amanda, who is at Right Mart to surprise Mitch with some leftover Thanksgiving food. Amanda is one of the people who gets physically injured during this chaos. The mayhem becomes such an emergency, Sherrif Newlon is called to the scene. He becomes the lead investigator in the case. At least two people die in the pandemonium. It’s a very gripping way to begin the movie.

“Thanksgiving” then fast-forwards to a year later. Right Mart’s video security footage from the Black Friday tragedy has mysterously gone missing. And so, videos that people took on their phones are what most people see of what happened in the store on that fateful night. The video that Evan took is one of the biggest viral videos out of all the videos from that night that got attention from the media and the public.

TV news reports show that there is controversy in Plymouth because Right Mart owner Thomas wants to do the same Black Friday promotion as the previous year. This decision has gotten criticism from many people who think Right Mart should be closed on Black Friday, out of respect for the people who were hurt or died in the chaos in the previous year. One of the protestors is Mitch, who no longer works for Right Mart. Thomas remains unmoved by the protests, and he refuses to change his decision.

A TV news report on the one-year anniversary of the tragedy mentions that Bobby’s injuries in the melee ended his promising baseball career. Bobby left Plymouth shortly after the Right Mart tragedy and disappeared. However, Bobby suddenly shows up in Plymouth again, close to the one-year anniversary of Right Mart’s deadly Black Friday fiasco. Bobby is apologetic to Jessica for leaving and cutting off all communication with her.

Jessica forgives Bobby, but she has a new boyfriend: Ryan, who isn’t happy to see that Bobby has come back to Plymouth. Ryan and Bobby dislike each other immensely. Their rivalry over Jessica becomes a subplot in the movie.

It’s a Wright family tradition to film themselves for a Right Mart TV commercial. This year, they will be filming the commercial at a local landmark called the John Carver House, which is named after the first governor of the Plymouth Colony. When the Wright family arrives at the house, they see that it has been vandalized. Thomas notices that an ax that had been hanging on the wall is missing.

And you know what that means. Shortly after this theft and vandalism, Jessica and her friends start getting bizarre text mesages from someone who is using the name The John Carver. The messages have photos attached that show a dining table with Thanksgiving decorations. “The table is set,” the first message reads.

The rest of “Thanksgiving” is a wild ride of scares and some laughs. It should come as no surprise that the killer (who is disguised as John Carver during the murder spree) is seeking revenge against people whom the killer blames for the Black Friday tragedy that happened at Right Mart. Some of the movie’s murder scenes are inventive and very gruesome. Hint: You might never look at trampolines the same way again after seeing “Thanksgiving.”

The performances in the movie get the job done well enough for a horror flick. Even in this fairly big ensemble cast, Verlaque naturally stands out, because the story is told mostly from the perspective of Jessica. Delfin also gives a memorable performance as the sleazy McCarty, who is supposed to be some of the movie’s comic relief.

“Thanksgiving” will keep viewers guessing on who’s behind all these murders and the details of the revenge motive. The identity of the killer is a lot easier to guess than the motive. (An end-credits scene looks like a comedic outtake from the movie.) There’s an obvious hint of a sequel, which will no doubt be expected, since “Thanksgiving” is the type of movie that will quickly win over horror fans who want to see this story continue.

TriStar Pictures will release “Thanksgiving” on November 17, 2023.

Review: ‘The Bell Keeper,’ starring Randy Couture, Kathleen Kenny, Reid Miller, Cathy Marks, Mike Manning, Bonnie Aarons, Daniel Dasent and Chaz Bono

November 3, 2023

by Carla Hay

Reid Miller and Kathleen Kenny in “The Bell Keeper” (Photo courtesy of Screen Media Films)

“The Bell Keeper”

Directed by Colton Tran

Culture Representation: Taking place in Southern California, the horror film “The Bell Keeper” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with one African American and one Latina) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: Several young people travel to a remote camping area that is believed to be the hunting ground for a serial killer who appears after a mysterious bell is rung in the woods. 

Culture Audience: “The Bell Keeper” will appeal primarily to people who don’t mind watching terrible horror films.

Randy Couture in “The Bell Keeper” (Photo courtesy of Screen Media Films)

“The Bell Keeper” is about terror that is unleashed after anyone rings a mysterious bell that’s in a remote wooded area. A serial killer keeps vigil over the bell. Someone needs to sound the alarm that “The Bell Keeper” is pure dreck in horror filmmaking.

Directed by Colton Tran, “The Bell Keeper” tries very hard to be the type of horror film that drops in sarcastic jokes to lighten the mood. The problem is that this comedy in “The Bell Keeper” is cringeworthy, outdated, and just not funny at all. Joe Davison and Luke Genton co-wrote the awful screenplay for “The Bell Keeper.”

As bad as the movie’s screenplay is, the acting in “The Bell Keeper” is worse and makes everything much harder to watch until the movie’s idiotic ending. There are some tacky horror movies that are entertaining to watch because they are very self-aware of their low-quality filmmaking and have fun with it. “The Bell Keeper” is not that type of tacky horror movie.

“The Bell Keeper” takes place in an unnamed city in Southern California. The movie was filmed on location in Los Angeles, Santa Clarita, and Ventura County. The opening scene takes place at night and shows two gory murders in a (cliché alert) secluded wooded area that has the fictional name Bell Lake in the movie.

The first person murdered in the movie is a man in his late 20s named Gary Beaumont (played by Nick Theurer), who is beheaded by a muscular man carrying an ax. After killing Gary, the murderer takes Gary’s driver’s license because the killer collects the driver’s licenses of his victims and hangs these licenses on a wall in his home. Gary’s girlfriend Nadine (played by Bailey Castle) is tied to a chair in a shed-like building. The murderer then kills Nadine in the same way that he killed Gary.

Viewers soon find out that this killer’s name is Hank (played by Randy Couture), who has become a local legend (not in a good way), because he’s suspected of being a serial killer but has remained elusive. Hank is believed to be a recluse who lives somewhere in the woods, where there is a mysterious bell located outdoors. According to stories in the area, every time someone rings the bell, Hank appears to hunt down and kill whoever rang the bell and any willing accomplices.

After Gary and Nadine are murdered, a group of five young people take a trip to Bell Lake to make a documentary about urban legends. They arrive by a recreational vehicle camper that’s co-owned by the two brothers who are on the trip. Younger brother Liam (played by Reid Miller), who’s in his late teens, has been living in the camper after secretly dropping out of college. Liam, who loves smoking marijuana, has been making money by selling marijuana that he is growing in the camper.

Older brother Matthew, nicknamed Matt (played by Mike Manning), is in his mid-20s and is the opposite of Liam in many ways. Matt is arrogant, vain, and knows what he wants to do with his life. Liam and Matt have had a tense relationship because Matt has a long history of bullying and insulting Liam.

Although Matt and Liam both own the camper, Matt has to ask Liam’s permission to use the camper for the trip because Liam is the one who’s been paying for the upkeep of the camper, which is actually a grungy mess. Liam is tasked with being the driver for this trip. Matt is the cinematographer for this documentary crew.

Also on this trip is Matt’s confident and friendly girlfriend Holly (played by Cathy Marks), who is directing this amateur documentary. Holly has been trying to mend the fractured relationship between Matt and Liam. She’s hoping that this documentary will be the definitive documentary that will solve the mystery of Bell Lake. (In other words, you just know if Holly finds the notorious bell, she’ll want to ring it on camera and film what happens next.)

The other two people on the trip are sound technician Gabriel (played by Capri-Antoine Vaillancourt) and documentary host Megan (played by Alexis B. Santiago), who are hooking up with each other in a “friends with benefits” situation. Gabriel and Megan are both dimwitted and shallow. Megan is a diva who has some of the worst jokes in the movie.

On their way to Bell Lake, the five travel companions stop at a gas station in this remote area. Matt and Gabriel go in the gas station’s convenience store and meet a buffoonish park ranger named Eugene Carlson (played by Chaz Bono) and a menacing-looking cashier named Jodie (played by Bonnie Aarons), who both warn Matt and Gabriel not to go to Deer Lake when they find out that’s where these travelers are going.

Jodie shouts, “It’s not a joke!” She grabs Gabriel and yells at him: “Hank is ruthless!” Aarons gives a very over-the-top performance in “The Bell Keeper.” Even though Aarons shares top billing for “The Bell Keeper,” she’s only in this one scene in the movie. Her screen time is less than five minutes, but her performance is so extreme, it will probably make viewers laugh instead of feel terrified.

Meanwhile, outside the gas station, a woman in her early 20s is handing out copies of a missing person flyer. Her name is Brittany (played by Kathleen Kenny), and she’s the younger sister of Gary, the man who was slaughtered in the beginning of the movie. At this point in the story, no one except for the killer knows that Gary is dead. Brittany hands a flyer to Liam, who says he hasn’t seen Gary.

Liam is instantly smitten with Brittany, who says she’s headed to Bell Lake too, because that was the last-known place where Gary was seen with Nadine. Liam nervously tries to flirt with Brittany to let her know that he might want to date her. However, Brittany tells Liam that he has no chance with her because she’s a lesbian. Liam still wants to get to know Brittany better, so he invites her to set up her tent close to where the RV camper will be parked at Bell Lake.

The rest of “The Bell Keeper” alternates between boring scenes of people talking and poorly staged action scenes. Of course, the bell is found and rung. Hank comes out of the shadows and goes on a killing spree. The chase scenes are sloppily edited and don’t look believable at all.

As shown in the movie’s trailer, ringing the bell also causes those responsible to turn into demon-possessed creatures. It’s supposed to make “The Bell Keeper” viewers wonder: “Who’s the real menace here?” But it just makes it easier to predict who will live and who will die.

There’s also a part of the movie involving a devil worshipper named Jackson (played by Daniel Dasent), in a terribly conceived part of the story that just makes the plot more of a jumbled mess. “The Bell Keeper” filmmakers made an effort to not have the answers to the movie’s mystery be too obvious. But in doing so, there’s a revelation that just creates more plot holes.

“The Bell Keeper” has some watchable moments when it comes to the friendship that develops between Liam and Brittany. But the acting in this movie is so relentlessly terrible, it takes you out of the intended horror, and it ruins the movie. The worst acting in “The Bell Keeper” is from Couture, who recites his lines as if he’s reading a dictionary that he has a hard time understanding. “The Bell Keeper” is simply one in a seemingly endless stream of trashy horror movies that aren’t very fun to watch and are quickly forgetton.

Screen Media Films released “The Bell Keeper” in select U.S. cinemas, on digital and VOD on October 13, 2023. The movie will be released on Blu-ray and DVD on December 5, 2023.

Review: ‘Slotherhouse,’ starring Lisa Ambalavanar, Sydney Craven, Olivia Rouyre, Bianca Beckles-Rose, Tiff Stevenson and Stefan Kapičić

October 30, 2023

by Carla Hay

Andrew Horton, Alpha and Olivia Rouyre in “Slotherhouse” (Photo courtesy of Gravitas Ventures)


Directed by Matthew Goodhue

Culture Representation: Taking place in an unnamed U.S. city and briefly in Panama, the horror film “Slotherhouse” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few Latin people, African Americans and Asians) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A college student adopts a female sloth to be a cute mascot for her sorority, but the sloth is really a serial killer that goes on a rampage. 

Culture Audience: “Slotherhouse” will appeal primarily to people who don’t mind watching low-quality horror movies, no matter how bad these movies are.

Grace Patterson, Sydney Craven, Annamaria Serda, Sutter Nolan, Milica Vrzić, and Tiana Upcheva in “Slotherhouse” (Photo courtesy of Gravitas Ventures)

“Slotherhouse” is an intentionally campy slasher flick whose one-joke premise about a serial-killing sloth becomes tiresome after the first 30 minutes. A lot of the manic energy is drained by the end, and the subpar acting performances become irritating. The movie (which is 93 minutes long) is also overstuffed with forgettable characters.

Directed by Matthew Goodhue and written by Bradley Fowler, “Slotherhouse” starts off with the right idea to have a comedic horror movie about a killer sloth. Unfortunately, that idea is constantly fumbled with scenes that aren’t as funny or horrific as they should have been. It just becomes a mishmash of a sorority soap opera and a cutesy animal comedy, with occasional murder scenes that are very tame.

The movie uses an obvious puppet to portray the female sloth. And that’s understandable when it’s a low-budget movie that can’t afford fancy visual effects. But after a while, it starts to look like a puppet show, which diminishes the intended effect for this sloth to be a credibly menacing terror.

The origin of this sloth is shown in the movie’s opening scene, which takes place in a swampy jungle in Panama. The slot has just killed an alligator, which is belly-up, with the sloth’s claw marks on the alligator’s stomach. A poacher named Oliver (played by Stefan Kapičić), who goes by the name OExotic on social media, captures the slot and takes the animal to the United States.

The movie then fast-forwards to a shopping mall in an unnamed U.S. city. Two female best friends in their early 20s are walking through the mall and talking about social media. Emily Young (played by Lisa Ambalavanar), who is in her last year of college, is getting a pep talk from Madison, nicknamed Maddie (played by Olivia Rouyre), who tells Emily not to worry so much about how many followers that Emily has on social media. (Whenever a new character in the movie first appears on screen, “Slotherhouse” shows a social media screen grab that lists the number of social media followers the person has.)

Inside the mall, there’s a Yorkshire Terrier that accidentally got separated from its owner. Emily catches and returns the dog to its grateful owner. In the mall’s food court area, someone has noticed this encounter and quickly deduces that Emily is fond of animals. This observant stranger is Oliver the sloth poacher, who introduces himself to Emily and Madison as someone who sells exotic pets. Oliver shows them a photo he has of his pet sloth, he gives Emily his business card, and her tells her to call him if she ever wants to buy a pet sloth from him.

Emily is a member of the Sigma Lambda Theta (SLT) sorority that has a house on campus. (Observant viewers willl notices that SLT are also three of the letters in the word “sloth.”) Elections are coming up to choose the president of this sorority chapter. The sorority “queen bee” is Brianna Khinny (played by Sydney Craven), who is spoiled, rude and arrogant. Brianna wants to be re-elected president of the sorority, and she assumes that she will have no competition.

Meanwhile, Emily decides she want to get a pet sloth, so she contacts Oliver and makes an appointment for this purchase. Little does Emily know that the sloth has gotten tired of Oliver controlling her, so the sloth kills Oliver before Emily arrives. Emily doesn’t see Oliver’s body when she enters the house, but she sees the sloth and takes her back to the sorority house.

Emily announces that this sloth will be the sorority’s mascot. She names the sloth Alpha. (Never mind that in real life, most college campuses don’t allow students to have pets living with students in campus housing.) Emily and Alpha have an instant bond that makes them the center of the attention in the sorority. Predictably, Brianna gets jealous and tries to bully Emily, who then decides that she’s going be Brianna’s opponent in the sorority’s upcoming presidential election.

The rest of “Slotherhouse” gets to be a bit mind-numbing, as Alpha secretly starts killing people (mostly women in the sorority) while pretending to be a sweet and innocent animal. Alpha doesn’t doesn’t just use her claws to kill people; the sloth can also pick up weapons like a human and use them on her murder victims. The other things that Alpha does veer into the ridiculous, such as using computers (to snoop on her victims) and taking selfie photos. Very rarely does this comedy work effectively, because the set-up and execution of these jokes are so dull.

As for the other characters in the movie, Emily has a bland boyfriend named Tyler (played by Andrew Horton), who always seems to show up too late when he’s needed. An androgynous lesbian named Zenny (played by Bianca Beckles-Rose) is a quirky misfit in this sorority, which consists mostly of snobs who don’t like Zenny. (It makes you wonder how Zenny got enough votes to be accepted into this sorority in the first place.) Emily is one of the few people in the sorority who treats Zenny (who is the obvious comic relief character) with some respect. A sorority sister named Dakota (played by Annamaria Serda) is another target of Brianna’s wrath.

In the sorority, Brianna predictably has a clique of followers who seem to go along with her, not because they like Brianna but because they fear her. These weak-willed sorority sisters are Sarah (played by Sutter Nolan), Alissa (played by Tiana Upcheva), Morgan (played by Olivia Rouyre), Gabby (played by Milica Vrzić), and Chloe (played by Cady Lanigan), who are all utterly generic. The sorority also has a slightly goofy house mother named Ms. Mayflower (played by Tiff Stevenson), who isn’t in the movie nearly enough for someone who’s supposed to be supervising the house.

“Slotherhouse” goes off on a few weird and unnecessary tangents that don’t fit very well in the story. For example, there’s a segment that lasts too long about the sorority members going through a cult-like ritual. This ritual, where the sorority members wear red satin hooded robes and hold lighted candles, looks like a teenager’s idea of an occult party sponsored by Hot Topic.

The character of Alpha can be somewhat amusing, but this sloth’s personality and motives are too vague for viewers to really care. At first, Alpha looks like she wants her freedom to live like a wild animal, but then she inexplicably tries to stay in the sorority house, where she knows that Brianna and others are trying to get rid of her. There are too many story flaws and not enough laughs or suspense for “Slotherhouse” to be anything other than a hollow and gimmicky horror movie.

Gravitas Ventures released “Slotherhouse” in select U.S. cinemas on August 30, 2023. The movie was released on digital and VOD on September 19, 2023. Hulu premiered the movie on October 15, 2023.

Review: ‘Cobweb’ (2023), starring Lizzy Caplan, Woody Norman, Cleopatra Coleman and Antony Starr

October 29, 2023

by Carla Hay

Woody Norman in “Cobweb” (Photo by Vlad Cioplea/Lionsgate)

“Cobweb” (2023)

Directed by Samuel Bodin

Culture Representation: Taking place in an unnamed city in Pennsylvania, the horror film “Cobweb” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few black people) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: An 8-year-old boy thinks that a mysterious girl is living inside the walls of his house, while his parents try to convince him that he’s imagining things. 

Culture Audience: “Cobweb” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of stars Lizzy Caplan and Antony Starr or slow-moving horror movies that aren’t very imaginative.

Lizzy Caplan in “Cobweb” (Photo by Vlad Cioplea/Lionsgate)

“Cobweb” struggles to be a creepy horror film, and it falls very short of being terrifying or suspenseful. There are too many monotonous stretches of this sluggishly paced movie. The mediocre acting performances and poorly conceived ending don’t help.

Directed by Samuel Bodin and written by Chris Thomas Devlin, “Cobweb” certainly had the potential to be a much better horror movie. The problem is that “Cobweb” has too much stagnant repetition that doesn’t do much to move the story forward. Even some of the principal cast members look bored during crucial parts of the film, which is filled with a lot of weak jump scares that don’t really go anywhere. The essential plot of “Cobweb” gets run into the ground very early.

Taking place in an unnamed city in Pennsylvania, “Cobweb” focuses on the Hall family and what appears to be the family’s haunted house. (“Cobweb” was actually filmed in Bulgaria.) Carol Hall (played by Lizzy Caplan) and Mark Hall (played by Antony Starr) are parents to 8-year-old Peter Hall (played by Woody Norman), who is alarmed because he keeps hearing things inside the walls of their house. The movie’s opening scene shows a frightened Peter waking up his parents at night because he heard noises coming from inside a wall.

Carol knocks on the wall and says she doesn’t hear anything. She tells Peter: “This is an old house. There’s bound to be bumps in the night.” As Carol tucks Peter into his bed, she adds, “You have a great, beautiful imagination.” The family house is predictably dark inside and somewhat shabby. Apparently, the Hall family doesn’t know the meaning of having lightbulbs with regular wattage.

Peter is a student at Holdenfield Elementary School, where he is bullied by a fellow student named Brian (played by Luke Busey), who is a stereotypical brat in a movie. A substitute teacher named Miss Devine (played by Cleopatra Coleman) notices that artistically talented Peter is withdrawn and troubled because he’s too frightened to go outside for recess. Miss Devine takes an interest in Peter’s well-being.

One evening, when the Hall family members are having dinner together, Mark tells Peter that a girl named Rebecca Holbrook, who lived on the same street, disappeared from the neighborhood on Halloween a few years ago. Rebecca still has not been found. The house where Rebecca lived is now abandoned and boarded up.

Carol says to Peter about Rebecca’s disappearance: “It was a very traumatic event for everyone in the neighborhood—and I personally don’t like remembering it.” Peter nervously asks Carol, “Am I going to disappear?” Carol assures him: “Peter, of course not. No. We would never let that happen to you.”

But then, it should comes as no surprise in a predictable horror flick like “Cobweb,” Peter starts to hear a girl’s voice talking to him from the walls in the house. She won’t say what her name is when Peter asks her. It’s an obvious way that the movie wants viewers to think: “Is the girl trapped in the walls the ghost of Rebecca Holbrook?”

“Cobweb” is yet another horror movie where a child makes disturbing drawings that are noticed by adults. Peter’s illustrations are seen by Miss Devine, who thinks that Peter might be getting abused at his home. And you know what that means: Miss Devine is going to show up at the Hall house unannounced to ask the types of questions where she’s acting more like social services worker than a substitute teacher.

Carol, who is a former teacher, is offended that anyone would question the parenting skills of Carol and Mark. There’s also a long stretch of the movie about the bullying that Brian inflicts on Peter, what the adults and Peter do about it, and how the violent bullying escalates. Throughout the film, Mark is portrayed as mysterious and a little weird. Carol is overprotective of Peter and very neurotic about not letting him get too close to the other students at school.

At least half of “Cobweb” rehashes the same things in a very bland manner: Peter hears sounds, such as a girl’s voice, in the walls. His parents tell him that he’s imagining these things. At school, Peter is bullied by Brian. Meanwhile, Miss Devine becomes convinced that something very wrong is going on in the Hall household.

Norman’s performance as Peter is adequate but not very interesting compared to child performances in other movies about kids who experience horror that is not believed by adults. Caplan portrays Carol as the type of Stepford-like housewife whose smile looks forced and whose mannerisms suggest that she’s hiding a lot of secrets. Starr’s performance as Mark is particularly stiff and flat. Coleman gives an average portrayal of Miss Devine, who is written as a generic character.

Of course, the reason for the noises in the wall is eventually revealed. That revelation doesn’t come until the last 20 minutes of the film, which is ruined by a ludicrous showdown that is just stupid, not scary. The big reveal just brings up questions that the movie never bothers to answer. The end of “Cobweb” hints that there’s potential for a sequel, but considering there’s very little about this tedious dreck that is crowd-pleasing, this “Cobweb” is a mess that is better off being swept aside and forgotten.

Lionsgate released “Cobweb” in U.S. cinemas on July 21, 2023. The movie was released on digital and VOD on August 11, 2023, and on Blu-ray and DVD and September 12, 2023.

Review: ‘Five Nights at Freddy’s,’ starring Josh Hutcherson, Elizabeth Lail, Piper Rubio, Mary Stuart Masterson and Matthew Lillard

October 26, 2023

by Carla Hay

Foxy, Chica, Freddy Fazbear and Bonnie in “Five Nights at Freddy’s” (Photo by Patti Perret/Universal Pictures)

“Five Nights at Freddy’s”

Directed by Emma Tammi

Culture Representation: Taking place in an unnamed U.S. city, the horror film “Five Nights at Freddy’s” (based on the video game series) features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few African Americans) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A down-on-his-luck man, who is in a custody battle with his aunt over his underage sister, takes a job as a security guard at an abandoned pizza place that has some sinister animatronic robots. 

Culture Audience: “Five Nights at Freddy’s” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of the video game series, but it’s another movie in a long list of movies based on video games that fail to be inventive or interesting.

Josh Hutcherson and Piper Rubio in “Five Nights at Freddy’s” (Photo by Patti Perret/Universal Pictures)

“Five Nights at Freddy’s” is a horror movie that’s nearly two hours of boredom, odd pacing and weak jokes. The shallow animatronic robots in this dreadful dud have more personality than most of the human characters. “Five Nights at Freddy’s” is based on a popular video game series of the same name, but the video games offer much more entertainment than this terrible and disappointing movie adaptation.

Directed by Emma Tammi, “Five Nights at Freddy’s” (which takes place in an unnamed U.S. city) has some occasionally eerie scenes, but nothing is truly terrifying in this movie, which is really just about a showdown with animatronic robots that look like human-sized stuffed animals. The movie builds up suspense then grinds it to a halt with dull scenes that go nowhere, and then repeats this pattern until there’s no hope that the movie will get any better. All of the characters speak and act unrealistically. Tammi co-wrote the terrible “Five Nights at Freddy’s” screenplay with Scott Cawthon (who created the “Five Nights at Freddy’s” video games) and Seth Cuddeback.

In the movie “Five Nights at Freddy’s,” Mike Schmidt (played by Josh Hutcherson) is a man in his 30s who has custody of his 10-year-old orphaned sister Abby (played by Piper Rubio), who has a tense relationship with him because Abby would rather draw pictures than talk to Mike. In the beginning of “Five Nights at Freddy’s,” Mike is financially broke and has been recently fired from his job, which is something that has happened to him many times in his erratic employment history. Mike is in danger of losing custody of Abby to his mean-spirited aunt Jane (played by Mary Stuart Masterson), who (according to Mike) doesn’t really care about Abby but only wants the government payments that Jane would get for having custody of this orphaned child.

Mike meets with a callous career counselor named Steve Ragland (played by Matthew Lillard) at an employment agency. Steve tells Mike about a less-than-ideal job offer: being a low-paid, night security guard at the abandoned and run-down Freddy Fazbear’s Pizza Place, which used to be a popular family-oriented restaurant in the 1980s. Steve explains to Mike that the owner of this dilapidated pizzeria has a hard time letting go of the building and refuses to demolish it or renovate it. Mike is wary of taking this job, but he changes his mind and accepts the offer because he’s desperate for money. When Mike is at work, Abby is looked after by a babysitter named Max (played by Kat Conner Sterling), who hasn’t been paid by Mike in a while.

It should come as no surprise that Freddy Fazbear’s Pizza Place mascot robots (which have names like Freddy Fazbear, Foxy, Chica, and Bonnie) come to life and cause terror. That’s in between Mike falling asleep on the job and having guilty nightmares about the time when he was 12 years old and his younger brother Garrett was kidnapped during a family camping trip while Mike was supposed to be looking after Garrett. The kidnapper and Garrett were never found.

Five children who disappeared from Freddy Fazbear’s Pizza Place (the reason why the business closed) appear to Mike in these dreams. These kids don’t have names in the movie, and are portrayed by Grant Feely, Asher Colton Spence, David Huston Doty, Liam Hendrix and Jophielle Love. Only one of these children (played by Feely) actually talks to Mike. The scenes with the kids staring at Mike and sometime moving in unison are creepy but not very scary.

Mike’s nightmares look like they could be an intriguing clues to a mystery, but they end up being mostly time-wasting scenes that don’t go anywhere. When Mike gets wounded in these nightmares (such when he falls down or when one of the kids slashes him with a hook), Mike wakes up with the same wounds. In these dream sequences, Wyatt Parker has the role of 12-year-old Mike, Lucas Grant has the role of Garrett, and Jessica Blackmore and Garrett Hines have the roles of Mike’s unnamed parents.

When Mike and Abby find out that these robots have a life of their own, their human reactions are ludicrous. Abby discovers these robots when she accompanies Mike to Freddy Fazbear’s Pizza Place, after babysitter Max stops returning Mike’s phone calls, and he can’t find another babysitter in time. Mike befriends a police officer named Vanessa (played by Elizabeth Lail), who apparently has nothing better to do but show up alone and hang out with Mike at this desolate pizzeria. It all goes downhill from there and makes this stinker of a movie a complete waste of time for anyone expecting an entertaining horror flick.

Universal Pictures will release “Five Nights at Freddy’s” in U.S. cinemas on October 27, 2023, the same date that the movie will premiere on Peacock.

Review: ‘The Exorcist: Believer,’ starring Leslie Odom Jr., Lidya Jewett, Olivia O’Neill, Jennifer Nettles, Norbert Leo Butz, Ann Dowd and Ellen Burstyn

October 4, 2023

by Carla Hay

Lidya Jewett and Olivia O’Neill in “The Exorcist: Believer” (Photo courtesy of Universal Pictures)

“The Exorcist: Believer”

Directed by David Gordon Green

Culture Representation: Taking place in an unnamed U.S. city, the horror film “The Exorcist: Believer” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with some African Americans) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: Two 13-year-old girls, who are best friends, go missing for three days, return home, and are later found to be possessed by evil spirits. 

Culture Audience: “The Exorcist: Believer” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of “The Exorcist” franchise, but it’s another disappointing sequel in the series.

Leslie Odom Jr. and Ellen Burstyn in “The Exorcist: Believer” (Photo by Eli Joshua Adé/ Universal Pictures)

“The Exorcist: Believer” will make you lose faith that there can ever be a movie in this series as outstanding as 1973’s Oscar-winning “The Exorcist.” This sad excuse for a sequel is a mishmash of exorcism clichés, disjointed scenes and underdeveloped characters. It’s not a good sign when the best part of the movie is the ending, which has a not-very-surprising but still welcome cameo from a familiar character.

Directed by David Gordon Green, “The Exorcist: Believer” (co-written by Green and Peter Sattler) begins with showing how two 13-year-old girls who are best friends—Angela Fielding (played by Lidya Jewett) and Katherine West (played by Olivia O’Neill, also known as Olivia Marcum)—go missing for three days. When they are found together—dazed and confused in someone’s barn—Angela and Katherine are returned home to their worried but relieved parents, who then find out something even more disturbing than Angela and Katherine not knowing why they disappeared for three days: Angela and Katherine have been possessed by evil spirits.

Angela’s widower father Victor Fielding (played by Leslie Odom Jr.) has lost his faith in religion, ever since his wife died while giving birth to Angela in 2010, during the massive earthquake that hit Haiti. By contrast, Katherine’s parents Miranda West (played by Jennifer Nettles) and Tony West (played by Norbert Leo Butz) are very religious Christians who go to church on a regular basis. Victor has a nosy neighbor named Ann Brooks (played by Ann Dowd), who happens to be a hospital nurse and an amateur exorcist.

What does all of this really mean? It’s just an excuse for repetitive scenes of Victor resisting any spiritual explanation for what’s wrong with Angela, until he eventually gives in and contacts exorcism expert/author Chris MacNeil (played by Ellen Burstyn), the mother of the possessed adolescent in the first “Exorcist” movie. Chris is now estranged from her daughter Regan, who was 12 years old when Regan underwent an exorcism. Chris mentions in “The Exorcist: Believer” that she doesn’t even know where Regan lives.

“The Exorcist: Believer” is Burstyn’s first appearance in an “Exorcist” movie since “The Exorcist.” Whatever salary Burstyn was paid, it doesn’t compensate for the creatively bankrupt “The Exorcist: Believer,” which doesn’t give her much to do as Chris MacNeil but stand around or talk about what she knows about exorcism. There’s a violent scene involving Chris that will upset some fans of the first “Exorcist” movie because of what happens to Chris in this scene.

Green also convinced Jamie Lee Curtis (star of the original 1978 “Halloween” movie) to do a trio of “Halloween” sequels that he directed and co-wrote: 2018’s “Halloween” (very good), 2021’s “Halloween Kills” (awful) and 2022’s “Halloween Ends” (even worse). With “The Exorcist Believer,” Green has now tarnished Burstyn’s legacy for this franchise. Chris should have had at least as much screen time as Victor, who has only a few scenes where he gets to show some emotional range. For the most part, Victor is a one-note character.

And forget about having any memorable clergy characters in “The Exorcist: Believer.” All of the clergy in this shallow movie are generic as generic can be. The priest who gets the most screen time is Father Maddox (played by E.J. Bonilla), who is very wishy-washy about getting involved in this exorcism. At first, he’s dead-set against it, but then he changes his mind in a very poorly explained part of the movie. Two other clergymen are in the mix—Pentecostal preacher Stuart (played by Danny McCarthy) and Baptist pastor Don Revans (played by Raphael Sbarge)—but they are mostly useless characters, since they are not spiritually ordained, such as a priest, minister or rabbi.

Another vaguely written character is Dr. Beehibe (played by Okwui Okpokwasili), a root doctor, who gets involved in the exorcism. Ann and Dr. Beehibe know each other, which is how Dr. Beehibe is introduced to the parents of the demon-possessed Angela and Katherine, who do the usual hissing, scowling, and talking in deep-toned voices that are not their own. Dr. Beehibe does things in time-wasting scenes, such as draw occult-like circles, talk about herbs, and chant in forgettable rituals. She becomes the leader of the exorcism, but the movie does a terrible job of explaining why Dr. Beehibe is supposed to be more capable than spiritually ordained clergy to cast out demons.

In “The Exorcist: Believer,” the jump scares and exorcism scenes are dull and stereotypical. All of the cast members give mediocre performances that are slightly better than the lackluster screenplay and haphazard direction. The last scene (with the not-so-surprise appearance) in “The Exorcist: Believer” is the best scene, which will leave viewers thinking that the last scene would have made a much better movie than the rest of “The Exorcist: Believer.”

Universal Pictures will release “The Exorcist: Believer” in U.S. cinemas on October 6, 2023.

Review: ‘Saw X,’ starring Tobin Bell, Shawnee Smith, Synnøve Macody Lund, Steven Brand, Renata Vaca and Michael Beach

September 28, 2023

by Carla Hay

Tobin Bell in “Saw X” (Phtoto courtesy of Lionsgate)

“Saw X”

Directed by Kevin Greutert

Culture Representation: Taking place in 2005, partially in New Jersey and mostly in Mexico, the horror film “Saw X” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with some Latinos and a few African Americans) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: After being diagnosed with terminal brain cancer, vigilante serial killer John Kramer (also known as Jigsaw) goes to Mexico, to undergo radical medical treatment, which he finds out is a scam, and he gets revenge on the scammers. 

Culture Audience: “Saw X” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of the very gory and violent “Saw” franchise, but “Saw X” has a better screenplay than the average “Saw” movie.

Paulette Hernandez in “Saw X” (Photo by Alexandro Bolaños Escamilla/Lionsgate)

“Saw X,” the 10th movie in the “Saw” horror film series, is the first movie in the series to be centered on the personal life of the mysterious and elusive vigilante serial killer with the nickname Jigsaw. It’s a little slow-moving in some areas, but this deep dive into John Kramer/Jigsaw’s cancer journey makes it one of the better entries in the “Saw” franchise. As is the case with every “Saw” movie, some of the bloody torture scenes can be unrealistic.

Directed by Kevin Greutert, “Saw X” (written by Pete Goldfinger and Josh Stolberg) has events that take place in between 2004’s “Saw” and 2005’s “Saw II.” The first “Saw” movie took place in New Jersey, where many subsequent “Saw” films also took place. “Saw” (still the best movie in the series) laid the groundwork of the horror concept of all the “Saw” movies: People who commit very immoral acts or serious crimes are held captive by Jigsaw in some kind of torture room. Each captured person is forced to complete a physical challenge in which the captured person has to cause severe self-injuries (such as dismemberment) in order to complete the challenge during a limited period of time—usually under 15 minutes.

Jigsaw leaves instructions on what to do on cassette tapes that are operated by remote control in the room or played by someone in the room. Those who survive are set free but must live with their physical injuries for the rest of their lives, as a reminder of their sins. Most of the captive people die by murder when their time runs out. A creepy, remote-controlled bike-riding doll named Billy, with an unsettling laugh, is part of the torture, like an evil court jester.

“Saw” revealed that Jigsaw was the mastermind behind these kidnappings, tortures and murders. In “Saw II,” it was revealed that Jigsaw/John Kramer has brain cancer, and his warped challenges were intended to make his victims have a newfound appreciation of life, if they survived. “Saw II” also revealed (mild spoiler alert) that one of Jigsaw’s former torture victims named Amanda Young (played by Shawnee Smith), who escaped from being killed in “Saw,” is now Jigsaw’s willing accomplice.

“Saw X” begins with John waking up in a medical chamber and then attending a support group with other cancer patients. During a visit to his doctor (played by David Alfano), John is told that he only has months to live. The doctor advises John to accept the diagnosis. John replies bitterly, “So, your advice to me is to die easy.”

As Jigsaw, John is still on a killing spree. He has captured and tortured a hospital custodian (played by Isan Beomhyun Lee), who has been stealing from patients. For his crimes, this thief has been strapped to a chair and is forced to wear goggles with long suction tubes attached to his eyes. You can imagine what happens next.

One of the people in John’s cancer support group is named Henry Kessler (played by Michael Beach), who tells John about how Henry had Stage 4 pancreatic cancer, which is now in remission, thanks to radical cancer treatment that has not been approved by the U.S. government. Henry explains that the treatment, invented by the now-deceased Dr. Finn Pederson (Donagh Gordon, seen in flashbacks or news footage), is a groundbreaking drug cocktail combined with surgery that “tells the cancer cells to switch off.”

Because Finn’s clinical trials were shut down by the U.S. government, he took his medical operations to a remote facility (which used to be a chemical factory) near Mexico City, Mexico. (“Saw X” was filmed on location in Mexico City.) Finn’s daughter Dr. Cecilia Pederson (played by Synnøve Macody Lund) is carrying on his legacy.

With nothing left to lose, John decides to go to Mexico City to undergo this high-priced medical treatment. Unfortunately, the trailer for “Saw” already reveals something that isn’t shown until about halfway through the movie: The entire treatment is a scam, so John and his accomplice Amanda capture and torture the scammers.

Besides corrupt doctor Cecilia, the other people who are in on the scam are Diego (played by Joshua Okamoto), who drives John to the facility; anesthesiologist Mateo (played by Octavio Hinojosa), who is posing as a medical doctor with the name Dr. Ramon Cortez; a nurse named Valentina (played by Paulette Hernández); hacienda hostess Gabriela (played by Renata Vaca); and Parker Sears (played by Steven Brand), another patient undergoing treatment. Gabriela is a pill-popping drug addict, while Valentina as a secret life as a sex worker.

In the lead-up to the biggest torture scenes, viewers will see a side of John/Jigsaw that has never really been shown before: completely vulnerable and desperately hoping that this cancer treatment will work. The slow-moving parts of “Saw X” will make some viewers wonder when more action will take place. However, these are mostly mediative-type scenes that show John contemplating his future, thereby giving viewers a window into his complicated soul.

While undergoing the treatment that he thinks will work, John meets and becomes acquainted with a 9-year-old boy named Carlos (played by Jorge Briseño), who plays a significant role in the latter half of “Saw X.” As the central character in “Saw,” Bell gives a solid performance that shows more depth than the peripheral but still menacing role that Jigsaw has in almost all the other “Saw” movies, where Jigsaw’s screen time is limited.

There are touches of wry comedy, such as a scene where John is drawing some torture methods on a sketch pad, as if he’s doing some harmless doodling. And in another scene, when Cecilia asks John what he does for a living, he says that helps people “making positive changes in their lives.” Christine says, “Like a life coach.” He replies, “Something like that.”

Some of the torture scenes are absolutely the bloodiest and most sickening ever seen in a “Saw” movie. One scene involves someone literally doing self-brain surgery, which is the most unrealistic scene in the film, since anyone who inflicts this type of self-torture would probably be rendered unconscious. Some of the dismemberment scenes also defy reality, since people in real life would go into medical shock and pass out long before what’s shown in the movie.

However, “Saw” movies are not meant to be completely realistic. An end-credits scene shows the return of a character who first made an appearance in 2006’s “Saw III,” while another character first seen in “Saw X” is revealed to have been part of the medical scam. The quality of “Saw” movies will vary, but people keep coming back for more of these “Saw” movies to see who will be tortured next and why and how. It’s not exactly a film franchise that preaches morality, but there’s a sense that a warped type of justice is being served for very morally dubious reasons.

Lionsgate will release “Saw X” in U.S. cinemas on September 29, 2023.

Review: ‘A Haunting in Venice,’ starring Kenneth Branagh, Camille Cottin, Jamie Dornan, Tina Fey, Jude Hill, Kelly Reilly and Michelle Yeoh

September 9, 2023

by Carla Hay

Tina Fey, Michelle Yeoh and Kenneth Branagh in “A Haunting in Venice” (Photo by Rob Youngson/20th Century Studios)

“A Haunting in Venice”

Directed by Kenneth Branagh

Some language in Italian and Latin with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in 1947, in Venice, Italy, the horror film “A Haunting in Venice” (based on Agatha Christie’s novel “Hallowe’en Party”) features a nearly all-white cast of characters (with one Asian) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: Famous and super-intelligent Belgian detective Hercule Poirot comes out of retirement to solve the murder of someone who died a gruesome death during a Halloween party séance. 

Culture Audience: “A Haunting in Venice” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of Agatha Christie novels, the movie’s headliners, and competently told murder mysteries with supernatural elements.

Rowan Robinson and Kelly Reilly in in “A Haunting in Venice” (Photo courtesy of 20th Century Studios)

“A Haunting in Venice” is another efficient but not exceptional offering in director/star Kenneth Branagh’s star-studded series of murder mystery films based on Agatha Christie novels. This horror movie delivers enough intrigue to outweigh some motonony. The other Branagh-directed movies adapted from Christie novels were dramas with no supernatural elements to the stories. “A Haunting in Venice” is a ghost story that makes famed Belgian detective Hercule Poirot (played by Branagh) question his belief that ghosts don’t exist.

As the third film in a series of Hercule Poirot movies directed by Branagh, “A Haunting in Venice” is the one that is literally the darkest, not just in terms of the cinematography but also in its emotional tone. The previous two Branagh-directed Hercule Poirot movies—2017’s “Murder on the Orient Express” and 2022’s “Death on the Nile”—contrasted their glamorous locations with the ugly realities of murder among rich and beautiful people. In “A Haunting in Venice,” Detective Poirot and his group of potential suspects not only have to deal with the murder investigation but also the possibility that a ghost might be in their midst, in a gloomy palazzo that has lost a lot of its former attractiveness.

Michael Green adapted the screenplay for “A Haunting in Venice” from Christie’s 1969 novel “Hallowe’en Party.” The movie (which takes place in 1947 and was filmed on location in Venice, Italy) has some touches of comedic riffs between a few of the characters. But for the most part, it’s a pure horror story, with multiple scenes of possible spirits possessing and terrifying living human beings. The ever-logical and fact-finding Hercule remains deeply skeptical about the existence of ghosts, until he starts to wonder if he might be wrong.

In the beginning of “Haunting in Venice,” Hercule is enjoying his retirement asa resident of Venice, a city surrounded by water and where boats, not trains or buses, are the main form of group transportation. Hercule meets up with his sarcastic American friend Ariadne Oliver (played by Tina Fey), an author of mystery novels whose career has been fading because of her most recent books have flopped. It’s established early on that Ariadne is desperate for a comeback, even though she doesn’t really want to admit it to everyone.

The friendship between Ariadne and Hercule goes back to the 1930s. And it hasn’t been an entirely smooth relationship. Ariadne became a popular author because she based her main detective character on Hercule, without asking his permission. It’s caused some tension between Ariadne and Hercule.

Ariadne has a plan to make a comeback by writing a book with a new angle: Ariadne wants the main plot of her next book to be based on a real-life person who can leave Hercule confounded during a murder investigation. She has already decided that the person who can outwit Hercule is someone who has been making a living as a renowned psychic: Joyce Reynolds (played by Michelle Yeoh), who claims to have the ability to speak to the spirits of dead people.

Ariadne tells Hercule about a lavish nighttime Halloween party that retired British opera singer Rowena Drake (played by Kelly Reilly) is hosting for local orphaned children at Rowena’s palazzo, which used to be an orphanage where children were mistreated. The palazzo isn’t entirely run-down, but it’s not exactly in the best of shape. In fact, it has a reputation for possibly being haunted by children who died at this location.

Ariadne has been invited to this party and wants to bring Hercule as her guest. Ariadne is up front with Hercule in saying that she’s not going to the party because of the orphans. Ariadne wants to go to the party because Rowena will be having a séance where single mother Rowena hopes to contact the spirit of her young adult daughter Alicia Drake (played by Rowan Robinson, shown in flashbacks), who died one year ago, after falling from a balcony at the palazzo. The fall is widely believed to have been a suicide, since Alicia had been depressed and dealing with other mental health issues after a breakup from her fiancé.

Joyce has been hired to be the psychic who will lead the séance. Ariadne wants to use what happens at the séance as the basis for Ariadne’s next book. Hercule doesn’t believe in the afterlife. He thinks it’s utter nonsense to believe that ghosts exist. Ariadne is very superstitious and thinks ghosts can exist. Part of Ariadne’s agenda is to get Hercule to change his mind.

Needless to say, someone ends up being murdered at the party, and Hercule ends his retirement to investigate the murder. The death happens when this murder victim is thrown from a stairwell onto a statue that impales the person. As shown in the trailer for “A Haunting in Venice,” Hercule almost gets murdered himself, when someone tries to drown him by forcing his head underwater in a bucket meant for bobbing for apples. And viewers will not be surprised if more than one person ends up dead by the end of “A Haunting in Venice.”

Some viewers might ask themselves while watching the movie: “What kind of person throws a séance during a party for children?” It’s explained that Rowena has been distraught with grief, ever since the death of her only child, Alicia. Rowena’s relationship with Alicia is described as more like sisters rather than mother/daughter. She was also very protective of Alicia.

The children are in another part of the palazzo during the séance, but things start to get dangerous when a huge chandelier falls down in the middle of a room where some of the children are. Luckily, no one is hurt. The party for the orphans essentially ends, but the séance continues, with one child in attendance who is not an orphan: Leopold Ferrier (played by Jude Hill) is the precocious 10-year-old son of widower Dr. Leslie Ferrier (played by Jamie Dornan), who is the Drake family’s personal physician. (Dornan and Hill also played a father and a son in director Branagh’s autobiographical Oscar-winning 2021 film “Belfast.”)

Dr. Ferrier is also a World War II veteran who has post-traumatic stress disorder, which has damaged his career and negatively affected his relationship with his son. Leopold and his father are both British. Multiple times in the movie, it’s mentioned that Dr. Ferrier was very fond of Alicia. The implication is that he was in love with her, but he did not cross the line and kept a professional relationship that a doctor has to have with a patient.

Leopold is the only child who is allowed to be at the séance. Why? The movie shows that Leopold’s father has been so wrapped up in his own problems, Leopold often doesn’t have much adult supervision. Leopold is not afraid to tell adults how he thinks he knows more than they do. At one point he says to psychic Louisa: “I talk to ghosts all the time. They say you’re fake.” In other words, Ariadne isn’t the only one in this group with a sassy attitude.

Louisa is also a diva, but she’s much more of a control freak than Ariadne. It should come as no surprise that she clashes with Hercule, who thinks people who make money as psychics are really con artists. However, Louisa (who used to be a war nurse) and Hercule have something in common: They both experienced trauma by witnessing the horrors of war during World War I. Flashback scenes in “Death on the Nile” showed glimpses into Hercule’s war experiences.

It wouldn’t be a movie based on a Christie novel without several murder suspects. After the first murder happens, Hercule orders everyone to stay in the mansion until he solves the murder mystery. One of the people confined to the house is Olga Seminoff (played by Camille Cottin), the Drake family’s devoted housekeeper. Olga is a very religious widow who used to be a nun, but she left her nun life behind when she fell in love with her future husband. Olga, who often speaks in Latin, is very open about her feelings that the séance is religiously wrong, because it’s meant to conjure up the spirit of a dead person.

Other suspects include Joyce’s two assistants: Nicholas Holland (played by Ali Khan) and his sister Desdemona Holland (played by Emma Laird), who are two orphaned young adults from Eastern Europe. Nicholas and Desdemona don’t say a lot and often seem to fade into the background, but their personal history is eventually revealed. Hercule already thinks that Louisa is a fraud as a clairvoyant, so he suspects that Nicholas and Desdemona are at least guilty of being Louisa’s accomplices in a con game.

A surprise and unwelcome guest at this séance is Alicia’s former fiancé Maxime Gerard (played by Kyle Allen), a cocky American chef from New York City. Even before Alicia’s death, Rowena intensely disliked Maxime, because she felt that Maxime was a gold digger who was after the Drake family fortune. Rowena blames Maxime for breaking Alicia’s heart and indirectly causing Alicia’s death. Maxime, who claims his love for Alicia was real, announces during this gathering that he’s going to be rich because he’s got his own restaurant in New York City.

No one is immune to being a suspect, not even Vitale Portfoglio (played by Richard Scamarcio), a retired policeman who is now Hercule’s bodyguard. A police officer who becomes part of the investigation is Vincenzo Di Stefano (played by Fernando Piloni), who was also on the scene after Alicia died. Hercule becomes convinced that Alicia’s death is somehow related to the murder that happened during this party.

“A Haunting in Venice” has lot of the traditional “jump scares” found in movies where a séance takes place in a mansion with a reputation for being haunted. What’s more interesting is to see the psychological effect that these “ghost sightings” have on Hercule, who is the biggest ghost skeptic in the group. He starts to wonder if he’s hallucinating, which shakes his confidence about his mental capacity to logically solve the crimes that have occurred during this gathering.

Branagh has a comfortable handle on this beloved and quirky detective character, so watching “A Haunting in Venice” is interesting to see this new side to Hercule. Yeoh has a very commanding and impressive presence as Joyce, who thinks she’s the best psychic in the world. Reilly’s performance as the emotionally fragile Rowena remains compelling throughout the film.

Fey puts her comedic talent to good use in her performance as Ariadne, who isn’t as sour and annoying as this author character could have been, because of the way that Fey delivers the lines. Hill is a scene stealer as Leopold, while Allen’s depiction of Maxime and Dornan’s portrayal of Leslie show different versions of emotionally wounded men. The rest of the characters in the movie are fairly two-dimensional and don’t have much depth.

The cinematography of “A Haunting in Venice” (which takes place mostly at night) is bathed in a lot dark gold and brown for interior scenes and dark blue for the nighttime exterior scenes. Because most of the movie takes place inside a house, viewers won’t get to see much of Venice’s outdoor beauty, but when it’s shown, it looks gorgeous. The production design is top-notch. Branagh’s overall direction is quite stylish but occasionally stodgy.

As for the mystery itself, there comes a point in the movie where it might be easy for some viewers to figure out who’s guilty of the crimes. People who know enough about murder mystery stories know that the best ones have surprising elements, even when there are clues that point to the guilty party. Whether or not viewers solve the mystery before the movie ends, “A Haunting in Venice” remains an entertaining journey along the way and should satisfy people who are fans of Christie’s classic novels.

20th Century Studios will release “A Haunting in Venice” in U.S. cinemas on September 15, 2023.

Review: ‘The Last Voyage of the Demeter,’ starring Corey Hawkins, Aisling Franciosi, Liam Cunningham and David Dastmalchian

August 10, 2023

by Carla Hay

Corey Hawkins and Aisling Franciosi in “The Last Voyage of the Demeter” (Photo by Rainer Bajo/Universal Pictures and Amblin Entertainment)

“The Last Voyage of the Demeter”

Directed by André Øvredal

Culture Representation: Taking place in 1897, mostly on a ship sailing from the Carpathian mountain range in continental Europe to London, the horror film “The Last Voyage of the Demeter” (based on a chapter in Bram Stoker’s “Dracula” novel) features a predominantly white cast of characters (with one black person and one Asian person) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: The people on a ship that’s carrying livestock for a sales transaction find out too late that a vampire named Dracula is on the ship. 

Culture Audience: “The Last Voyage of Demeter” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of stories about Dracula or other vampires, but this violent flick drags on with underdeveloped characters and lot of boring repetition.

Martin Furulund and Javier Botet in “The Last Voyage of the Demeter” (Photo courtesy of Universal Pictures and Amblin Entertainment)

Considering the large number of vampire movies that exist, “The Last Voyage of the Demeter” is as creatively comatose as a vampire victim drained of blood. It takes entirely too long to get to any real action in this story, which is a dull mess of clichés. The movie has a talented cast, but they can’t save this disappointing movie that’s the equivalent of a sinking ship.

Directed by André Øvredal and written by Bragi F. Schut and Zak Olkewicz, “The Last Voyage of the Demeter” is based on the chapter “Captain’s Log” in Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel “Dracula.” Making an entire movie based on only a book chapter can either limit the movie when mishandled or open up a lot of innovative possibilities from filmmakers with enough imagination. Unfortunately, “The Last Voyage of the Demeter” is hampered by a limp plot that’s essentially just a checklist of people on a ship getting attacked by the evil vampire Dracula on the ship. This vampire (played by Javier Botet) looks more like the alien-like Nosferatu as it was orginally conceived, rather than the elegant Count Dracula.

The movie begins in Whitby, England, on August 7, 1897. On a stormy night, two coast guard men in raincoats find a deserted schooner, with a dead man tied to its wheel. The man has a crucifix in his hand. In his pocket is a bottle, with a rolled-up piece of paper inside. It’s a journal entry log that warns of danger. Suddenly, an unseen force attacks the two coast guard men.

The movie then does a flashback to July 1897. A cargo ship called The Demeter is about to set sail from the Carpathian mountain range (which spans from Bulgaria to the north and Romania to the south), with the final destination to London. The cargo consists of several livestock animals, such as goats, pigs and chickens. Viewers soon find out that the schooner with the dead man originally came from The Demeter.

Right before The Demeter is about to set sail, several men who were hired to be crew members on the ship end up quitting when they hear that the ship will be leaving after the sun sets. The leader of this superstitious group says that the group will only leave if the ship sails before sunset. The ship’s first mate Wojchek (played by David Dastmalchian), a Polish immigrant who grew up as an orphan, tries to convince the men to change their minds, but they stand firm and then leave the harbor.

The Demeter then leaves with a very understaffed crew, which will soon find out how dangerous this voyage will be. The evil vampire Dracula starts attacking people on the ship, one by one. Everything that you think will happen in this movie does happen, because it’s a rote rehash of other vampire flicks, except it takes place on a ship in 1897. And if there’s a lone survivor in the story, you can easily predict who it will be.

In addition to first mate Wojcheck, the other people on this fatal voyage of The Demeter are intelligent British physician Clemons (played by Corey Hawkins), level-headed Captain Eliot (played by Liam Cunningham), Captain Eliot’s curious 8-year-old grandson Toby (played by Woody Norman) and a mysterious stowaway named Anna (played by Aisling Franciosi), who is found in a comatose state with bloody welts and bites all over her body. Clemons has to give her blood transfusions to keep her alive.

Other people on the ship are four crew members: a dependable Romanian named Olgaren (played by Stefan Kapicic); reliable second mate Larsen (played by Martin Furulund); loudmouth Petrofsky (played by Nikolai Nikolaeff); and youngest crew member Abrams (played by Chris Walley), who has a special bond with Larsen. All four of these crew members don’t say much that’s worth remembering after watching the movie. During a meal around a dining table the men talk about going to a brothel, and they have a laugh when Toby tells them that a brothel is where women take off their knickers.

Also on the Demeter is the ship’s ultra-religious cook Joseph (played by Jon Jon Briones), who is originally from the Philippines. Joseph gets very offended when he hears people curse, because he thinks cursing is a serious sin. Someone should’ve told Joseph that he picked the wrong job, working with a bunch of sailors. He is also highly superstitious.

Not much happens for the first 20 minutes of the movie. Viewers find out that Toby is in charge of looking after the animals. This voyage is going to be Captain Eliot’s last voyage before he retires. Soon after The Demeter sets sail, Captain Eliot tells Vojchek that he wants Vojchek to be his successor. Vojchek, who sees Captain Eliot almost like a father figure, is flattered by this decision.

Captain Eliot keeps the ship’s log. His written entries are occasionally read aloud as voiceovers in the movie. These entries start off as very routine, but then the entries become more alarming as more disturbing things happen on the ship. It’s all so formulaic.

It’s explained early on in the movie that Clemons, who is a graduate of the University of Cambridge, is on the ship because he had been hired for a physician job in Eastern Europe. But once the employers saw Clemons in person (he’s black), they withdrew the job offer. Clemons decided to go back to England and needed a ride, which is how he ended up on this ship of strangers. Other than this backstory, Clemons mostly has a blank slate of a personality.

The issue of racism is briefly mentioned, in relation to Clemons getting a job taken away from him because of his race and a few other racist incidents that he’s experienced outside of this ship. No one on the ship treats Clemons with overt racism. However, he sometimes has to remind some of the crew members of his education to convince them that he’s capable of making certain medical decisions.

There could have been so much more done with the Clemons character, in terms of his character and his life experiences, but “The Last Voyage of the Demeter” filmmakers gave Clemons a cardboard cutout type of character: He’s there, and he’s noticeable, but he doesn’t have much depth. By the end of the movie, viewers will literally not know much about Clemons except that he’s a compassionate doctor who experiences racism.

Likewise, the Anna character and her life story also remains largely unknown. When Anna emerges from her coma and warns that Dracula is on the ship, the crew barely asks her any questions about who she is and what she knows about Dracula. Part of this lack of curiosity is because, at first, most of the crew members think that Anna is hallucinating from her medical injuries. “The Last Voyage of Demeter” has a lot of gore, but it avoids the messy and realistic issue of what it means to be a physically vulnerable woman who’s the only female on board a ship with some coarse sailors.

One of the more idiotic scenes in the movie is when Joseph finds out that something on board is killing the crew, he doesn’t leave during the day when he as a chance—in other words, when things on the water will be much easier to see. Instead, Joseph waits to leave by himself on a rowboat on a very foggy night. Although nothing is wrong with the cast members’ acting in “The Last Voyage of Demeter, ” none of it is special either, because the screenwriting makes all the characters fairly hollow.

Visually, “The Last Voyage of Demeter” is just a dump of mediocrity. This movie is bloody, but it’s not very scary. The best Dracula movies show the glimmers of humanity in Dracula. “The Voyage of the Demeter” just makes Dracula a drab monster who’s on the loose, with no concern in telling anything interesting about Dracula. For a movie about a vampire icon, “The Last Voyage of the Demeter” is bloodless and toothless when it comes to telling a good story.

Universal Pictures/DreamWorks Pictures will release “The Last Voyage of the Demeter” in U.S. cinemas on August 11, 2023.

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