Review: ‘The Strangers: Chapter 1,’ starring Madelaine Petsch and Froy Gutierrez

May 17, 2024

by Carla Hay

Olivia Kreutzova and Matus Lajcak in a scene from “The Strangers: Chapter 1” (Photo by John Armour/Lionsgate)

“The Strangers: Chapter 1”

Directed by Renny Harlin

Culture Representation: Taking place in 2008, in the fictional town of Venus, Oregon, the horror film “The Strangers: Chapter 1” (a direct sequel to 2008’s “The Strangers”) features a predominantly white cast of characters (with one Latin person) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A dating couple, who are on a cross-country road trip from New York to Oregon, experience deadly terror when they are targeted by three masked strangers at a remote house in the woods. 

Culture Audience: “The Strangers: Chapter 1” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of the movie’s headliners and the 2008 “The Strangers” movie, but this dull sequel is a pathetic imitation of the original “The Strangers” movie.

Froy Gutierrez and Madelaine Petsch in “The Strangers: Chapter 1” (Photo by John Armour/Lionsgate)

“The Strangers: Chapter 1” should be called “The Strangers: 1 More Cash Grab.” This sequel is nothing but a stale, boring and inferior retread of the original 2008 horror movie “The Strangers.” “The Strangers: Chapter 1” is supposed to be the first movie in a trilogy that happens directly after the events of 2008’s “The Strangers,” which wasn’t a very original movie in the first place, since it’s about killers targeting victims at an isolated place in the woods. But at least 2008’s “The Strangers” movie (starring Liv Tyler and Scott Speedman; written and directed by Bryan Bertino) was very effective in its creepiness and suspense.

Directed by Renny Harlin, “The Strangers: Chapter 1” was written by Alan R. Cohen and Alan Freedland. The movie is a complete insult to anyone who believed the lie that “The Strangers: Chapter 1” filmmakers said when they hyped “The Strangers: Chapter 1” as a movie that would explain more about the three mysterious, masked and unnamed murderers (one man and two women) who caused the terror in 2008’s “The Strangers” movie. “The Strangers: Chapter 1” is supposed to take place the day after the end of “The Strangers.” Viewers of “The Strangers: Chapter 1” will in fact learn nothing new about the three serial killers in this awful movie.

In “The Strangers: Chapter 1,” the three killers are described in the movie’s end credits by the types of masks they wear. The male killer wears a scarecrow hooded mask, so he can be called Scarecrow (played by Matus Lajcak), and he likes to use an axe in his murders. The younger female killer wears a doll mask, so she can be called Dollface (Olivia Kreutzova), who is the only one of the three killers whose speaking voice is heard the most. The older female killer, who wears a Betty Boop-styled mask and can be called Pin-Up (played by Letizia Fabbri), proves to be more unhinged than Dollface. The women are more likely to use knives, but all three killers can also use whatever weapon is at their disposal.

An example of the filmmaker lies about this movie is in a director’s statement in “The Strangers: Chapter 1” production notes. Harlin says: “This was not a remake, nor a prequel or sequel, of the original. This was an incredible opportunity to do something completely groundbreaking. This was one huge horror saga, divided into three chapters. The producers wanted to focus on what happened basically the next day, as the original 2008 film ended.”

What Harlin says about “The Strangers: Chapter 1” not being a sequel is completely false. A movie is a sequel if it shows what three of the main characters did the day after the events of a previous movie. Whoever the masked killers are in “The Strangers: Chapter 1,” they are wearing the same types of masks and target their victims in the same ways as the killers in 2008’s “The Strangers” And there is nothing groundbreaking about a sequel that essentially copies (with no surprises) many of the same things that a previous movie did.

“The Strangers: Chapter 1” rips off the exact same concept as 2008’s “The Strangers”: The three killers target a young couple staying at a house in an isolated wooded area. The unmarried couple even has the same relationship issue in both movies: Someone in the relationship wants more of a commitment (in other words, marriage) than the other person is willing to give. In 2008’s “The Strangers,” the woman in the relationship turned down the man’s marriage proposal (in a rejection that is not shown in the movie) before they take their trip to the woods. In “The Strangers: Chapter 1,” the woman in the relationship wants the man to propose marriage, but he doesn’t really seem interested in taking their relationship to the level of marriage.

The couple at the center of “The Strangers: Chapter 1” (which takes place in 2008) are Ryan (played by Froy Gutierrez) and Maya (played by Madelaine Petsch, one of the executive producers of the movie), who are on a cross-country road trip from New York to Oregon, because Maya has a job interview in Portland, Oregon. (“The Strangers: Chapter 1” was actually filmed in Bratislava, Slovakia.) Ryan is driving for this trip. The movie never reveals anything else that’s meaningful about this couple except that the story takes place on the fifth anniversary that they started dating each other.

The opening scene of “The Strangers: Chapter 1” takes place in the daytime and shows a man in his late 20s or early 30s running frantically through a wooded area, as if he’s being chased. And sure enough, Scarecrow and Pin-Up come out of the shadows and corner him. Scarecrow takes his axe and beheads the man. Viewers later find out that this murder victim’s name is Jeff Morell (played by Ryan Bown), because his photo and name are seen on a missing person flyer at a diner in the rural Venus, Oregon, where Ryan and Maya stop to get something to eat. Don’t expect to find out anything else about Jeff in this mindless movie.

Predictably, most of the local people at the diner stare at Ryan and Maya with stereotypical “you’re not from around these parts” suspicion. A hostile-looking and intrusive waitress named Carol (played by Janis Ahern) overhears that Ryan and Maya have been dating for five years and scolds Ryan for “not putting a ring on it” yet. Don’t expect to find out anything substantial about any other people in this small town.

One of the few people at the diner who is openly friendly to Ryan and Maya is a waitress named Shelly (played by Ema Horvath), who helps the couple when Ryan and Maya need a place to stay for the night. Is Shelly really being helpful or is she setting up Ryan and Maya for something dangerous? Don’t expect the movie to answer that question either.

Ryan and Maya need a place to stay in Venus that night because when they leave the diner, they find out that their car won’t start. A mechanic named Rudy (played by Ben Cartwright) says he owns a car repair shop and offers to tow the car to the shop with his assistant Dougie (played by Stevee Davies) helping out. Rudy and Dougie were loitering outside the diner when Ryan and Maya arrived. Rudy tells Ryan and Maya that they have to wait until the next day to order any car parts that are needed to fix the car.

Ryan immediately thinks this is a scam; he suspects that someone tampered with the car so that Rudy could get some money to fix the car. Maya is more trusting and reminds Ryan that they almost crashed into another car when they were on the road because Ryan was distracted while driving. Maya thinks this near-accident could have something to do with the car’s malfunction.

Shelly tells Ryan and Maya that there’s an Airbnb cabin available in the woods. Shelly offers to drive them there after arrangements are made for Ryan and Maya to stay at the cabin. And you know where the rest of the movie is going if you know anything about “The Strangers” movie series, which also includes 2018’s “The Strangers: Prey at Night.”

Dollface is the killer who knocks on the house’s front door multiple times at night. And when someone answers the door, Dollface asks for someone whom she knows isn’t there. She has a monotone voice and is in the shadows, so whoever answers the door can’t really get a good look at her. Scarecrow does the most brutal kills, while Pin-Up often follows his lead. Pin-Up and Scarecrow appear to be a couple, based on their body language.

In “The Strangers: Chapter 1,” Ryan and Maya do all the nonsensical things that people in stupid horror movies do. One of the most idiotic decisions is during a scene when Ryan and Maya know that the home has been invaded. One of them finds Ryan’s cell phone inside the house but doesn’t use it to call for help and just plops the phone down on a table. In another scene, Ryan (who has asthma) loses his inhaler while trying to escape, but his asthma never becomes an issue and seems to magically disappear when he is running for his life or is frantically trying to free himself when he’s stuck somewhere in an enclosed space with the killers about to attack.

The performances by the movie’s cast members are nothing special. The screenplay is so lazy and formulaic, there is no real suspense. The last 15 minutes of the film are so bad, they’re almost laughable, although many viewers won’t be laughing if they waste time and money on this dreadfully weak horror flick. There’s an end-credits scene that looks absolutely ridiculous and will not create excitement for the next chapter in this limp story.

In the production notes for “The Strangers: Chapter 1,” director Harlin says of the movie’s three killers: “These are not robotic, masked madmen or madwomen. These are complex characters whose every move, expression, and act reflect the deeper threads and themes of the three movies.” Actually, the three masked killers in this movie are robotic and are not complex at all. (The man in this homicidal trio doesn’t even talk at all in the movie.) Speaking of masks, “The Strangers: Chapter 1” is nothing but a masquerade, pretending to be a terrifying horror story, when it’s just as hollow and soulless as the killers in the movie.

Lionsgate released “The Strangers: Chapter 1” in U.S. cinemas on May 17, 2024.

Review: ‘Tarot’ (2024), starring Harriet Slater, Adain Bradley, Avantika, Wolfgang Novogratz, Humberly González, Larsen Thompson and Jacob Batalon

May 9, 2024

by Carla Hay

Larsen Thompson in “Tarot” (Photo courtesy of Screen Gems)

“Tarot” (2024)

Directed by Spenser Cohen and Anna Halberg

Culture Representation: Taking place in New York state, the horror film “Tarot” (based on Nicholas Adams’ “Horrorscope” novel) features a predominantly white cast of characters (with one Asian, one African American and on Latina) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: Seven college students experience deadly terror after using a mysterious set of tarot cards that don’t belong to them. 

Culture Audience: “Tarot” will appeal primarily to people who don’t mind watching boring and badly made horror films.

A scene from “Tarot” (Photo courtesy of Screen Gems)

Dull and unimaginative, “Tarot” is nothing but a putrid sinkhole of idiotic horror movie clichés involving young people and supernatural serial killings. The ending of this time-wasting junk is absolutely abysmal. “Tarot” doesn’t even have an original title, since there are at least five other movies with the same title.

Written and directed by Spenser Cohen and Anna Halberg, “Tarot” is based on Nicholas Adams’ 1992 “Horrorscope” novel, which is about a serial killer who murders young people, based on horoscopes. “Tarot” actually has more in common with the “Final Destination” movies, which are about cursed young people who know they are going to die a certain way but they try to escape their fates.

“Tarot” (which takes place in New York state) begins by showing seven college students at a rented house in a remote area of the Catskill Mountains. The seven students are all friends and have gathered to celebrate the birthday of one of the friends. The seven pals in this group are:

  • Haley (played by Harriet Slater), the unofficial leader of the group who is also supposed to be the smartest one in this very stupid movie.
  • Grant (played by Adain Bradley), Haley’s love interest who is a generically dependable “good guy.”
  • Elise (played by Larsen Thompson), a “spoiled diva” type whose birthday is being celebrated.
  • Paige (played by Avantika), a not-very-smart ditz, who’s obsessed with social media.
  • Madeline (played by Humberly González), a bland sidekick who is very close to Paige.
  • Lucas (played by Wolfgang Novogratz), a good-looking “bad boy” who seems to be attracted to Madeline.
  • Paxton (played by Jacob Batalon), a talkative wisecracker who tells a lot of cringeworthy jokes.

During this getaway trip at this rented house, Lucas breaks into a locked room that has a sign on the front that says “Private – Keep Out.” The room leads to a dusty basement (of course it does) filled with numerous mementos related to astrology. Inside the basement room, the students find a box with a Zodiac queen illustration on the front of the box and a set of tarot cards inside the box.

Haley is the one in the group who knows the most about tarot cards, since she has been using tarot cards for years. Even though Haley says that it’s bad luck for someone to use tarot cards that belong to someone else, the some of the pals urge her to use the tarot cards anyway. Haley gives tarot readings to everyone in the group, based on their astrology signs and what tarot cards are dealt.

Not everyone in the group wants to get a tarot reading. Grant is the most reluctant and is the most skeptical one in the group. Haley and Grant (who were perceived as the “perfect couple” by their friends) reveal soon after these tarot card readings that they have broken up. Their friends are shocked by this breakup news, but they soon will have life and death matters to deal with whenthey find out they are being targeted by an evil force.

As already revealed in the “Tarot” trailer, the tarot readings have placed a curse on these seven people. Their tarot readings predicted how they would die, while the astrology signs of each person predict how they would each react to these deadly situations. A character from each of the tarot cards comes to life, based on the last tarot card that each person was dealt during Haley’s tarot card reading. The death scenes are not scary and are very sloppily edited.

At one point in the story, it’s discovered that the tarot cards belonged to a high priestess (played by Lucy Ridley), who was persecuted for being a witch in Hungary in 1798. The surviving students enlist the help of a disgraced astrologer named Alma (played by Olwen Fouéré), a stereotypical elderly sage who acts as a guide to less-informed characters in horror movies. “Tarot” is just a mush of poorly staged death scenes, bad dialogue and unimpressive acting until the movie’s ludicrous and moronic ending.

Screen Gems released “Tarot” in U.S. cinemas on May 3, 2024.

Review: ‘Dancing Village: The Curse Begins,’ starring Aulia Sarah, Maudy Effrosina, Jourdy Pranata, Moh. Iqbal Sulaiman, Ardit Erwandha, Claresta Taufan, Diding Boneng and Aming Sugandhi

May 7, 2024

by Carla Hay

Claresta Taufan, Aulia Sarah and Maudy Effrosina in “Dancing Village: The Curse Begins” (Photo courtesy of Lionsgate)

“Dancing Village: The Curse Begins”

Directed by Kimo Stamboel

Indonesian with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in Indonesia in 1980 (with some flashbacks to 1955), the horror film “Dancing Village: The Curse Begins” (based on the novel “KKN di Desa Penari” features an all-Asian cast of characters representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A young woman goes with three male companions to a village, in order to return a mysterious bangle and break an apparent curse on her mother, and they encounter an evil witch who uses dancing as part of her rituals. 

Culture Audience: “Dancing Village: The Curse Begins” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in watching supernatural horror movies that have many effective jump scares and some unsettling images.

Moh. Iqbal Sulaiman, Jourdy Pranata, Maudy Effrosina and Ardit Erwandha in “Dancing Village: The Curse Begins” (Photo courtesy of Lionsgate)

With artful cinematography and a foreboding music score, the horror movie “Dancing Village: The Curse Begins” excels in immersing viewers in a sinister forest atmosphere where the terror takes place. It’s a memorable story about an evil ghost witch and generational curses. Although it’s a well-worn concept for a horror movie to be about a witch who curses people, “Dancing Village: The Curse Begins” has some truly striking visuals and unique scenes that make this film slightly better than the average horror movie.

Directed by Kimo Stamboel and written by Lele Laila, “Dancing Village: The Curse Begins” is based on the SimpleMan’s 2019 novel “KKN di Desa Penari,” which was made into director Awi Suryadi’s 2022 movie of the same name. “Dancing Village: The Curse Begins” is a prequel to the movie “KKN di Desa Penari.” The movie takes place mostly in a remote area of East Java, Indonesia, in 1980, with some flashbacks to 1955.

The opening scene of “Dancing Village: The Curse Begins” takes place in 1955, in the easternmost point of East Java. In a forest area, where a mysterious community called Dancing Village is located, there are several women dancers who are gathered in traditional sarongs. A woman is seen chanting, “To the ruler of the forest, to the ruler of this place, I present dancers for you to choose.”

A young woman, whose name is later revealed as Inggri (played by Princeza Leticia), is given a box containing an arm bangle that is the shape of a snake. The bangle, which is called Kawaturih, is supposed to be a gift for a witch ghost named Badarawuhi (played by Aulia Sarah), who has seductive mannerisms that she uses to enchant people. Badarawuhi forces the Dancing Village to go through a ritual where she chooses which of the dancers will be demonically possessed and sacrificed.

Badarawuhi also expects gifts from the villagers. The Kawaturih bangle is supposed to have special powers for Badarawuhi. Things don’t go according to Badarawuhi’s plans. Inggri’s mother tells Inggri to take the Kawaturih bangle in the box and run far away. A terrified Inggri runs through the forest, with several of the possessed villagers giving chase. What happens to Inggri is revealed later in the movie.

“Dancing Village: The Curse Begins” then fast-forwards to 1980. An introverted young woman named Mila (played by Maudy Effrosina) is distraught because her ailing, single mother Inggri (played by Maryam Supraba) appears to be dying. Inggri appears to be nearly comatose with a “possssed” look in her eyes. Mali and Inggri She consults with a local shaman and shows him a box with the snake bangle.

Also inside the box is an illustration that shows the entrance to Dancing Village. The shaman becomes very alarmed and tells Mila that she must go to Dancing Village to return the bangle because the bangle is considered stolen, and Inggri has been cursed. The shaman explains that returning the bangle to its rightful owner is the only chance that Inggri can have the curse lifted and physically recover from her mysterious illness.

Mali travels to the village with three male companions: her cousin Yuda (played by Jourdy Pranata), who thinks he’s the “alpha male” of the group; mild-mannered Arya (played by Ardit Erwandha); and goofy Jito (played by Moh. Iqbal Sulaiman, also known as M. Iqbal Sulaiman), who is sometimes the movie’s comic relief. Jito has a car that they use for the trip, but the car breaks down, and the four travelers have to walk the rest of the way.

It’s also a convenient plot device for this horror movie because no one in this rural village has a car. Therefore, Mali, Yuda, Arya and Jito are stuck in the forest with no means of transportation. The only way they can leave is by walking a very long distance. And this story takes place during a time mobile phone usage in this part of Indonesia did not exist.

Upon arriving in the nearest village, the four travelers ask about Dancing Village, which is considered a very secretive community deep in the forest. There are no hotels or motels in this village where the four travelers stay, so Yuda, Arya and Jito sleep at a carport. A local young woman named Ratih (played by Claresta Taufan Kusumarina, also known as Claresta Taufan) generously gives Mali a place to temporarily stay during the visit.

When the four companions arrive at the village, they find out that the village’s leader Putri has recently died. A shaman named Mbah Buyut , also known as Buyut (played by Diding Boneng) is the interim leader of the village. Buyut is away for a few days when the four travelers arrive at the village, but when Buyut returns to the village, he has a lot of valuable information to share.

While Mali stays at Ratih’s place, Mali finds out that Ratih also lives with a single mother, who seems to have the exact same ailment as Mali’s mother Inggri. Ratih’s mother Jiyanti (played by Dinda Kanyadewi) is bedridden and looks “possessed,” just like Inggri. Almost as soon as Mali begins staying Rathi’s home, Mali begin seeing strange things. In one incident, Mali is in a swimming pool when it’s suddenly filled with snakes, and Mali is plunged underwater by a mysterious force.

Mali also begins to see visions of Badarawuhi, who speaks to her. However, Yuda, Arya and Jito are skeptical that all of this is really happening to Mali. A teenage boy in the village named Prabu (played by Bimasena) tells them that Buyut can turn into a dog. Yuda is especially skeptical about these supernatural tales.

“Dancing Village: The Curse Begins” is not a horror movie with non-stop action. The jump scares are effective but don’t happen frequently. Instead, the scenes of the rituals, including the tribal dancing, are bone-chilling and sometimes macabre. In addition to the cinematography by Patrick Tashadian and music score by Ricky Lionardi, the movie’s sound design is top-notch in delivering moments that increase the tension and suspense.

As expected, secrets are revealed that answer a lot of questions in the story. Perhaps the weakest part of “Dancing Village: The Curse Begins” is that a lot of the acting is mediocre, although Effrosina and Sarah stand out from the rest of the cast because of their roles as “chief protagonist” and “chief antagonist.” The origins of Badarawuhi could have used better explanation in the movie. Even with these flaws, “Dancing Village: The Curse Begins” is worth watching for people who want to see an intriguing horror film that leaves a lasting impression.

Lionsgate released “Dancing Village: The Curse Begins” on April 26, 2024.

Review: ‘Amelia’s Children,’ starring Brigette Lundy-Paine, Carloto Cotta, Anabela Moreira, Alba Baptista and Rita Blanco

May 6, 2024

by Carla Hay

Brigette Lundy-Paine and Anabela Moreira in “Amelia’s Children” (Photo courtesy of Magnet Releasing)

“Amelia’s Children”

Directed by Gabriel Abrantes

Some language in Portuguese with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in Portugal and briefly in New York City, the horror film “Amelia’s Children” features a cast of white and Hispanic characters (with one Asian person) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: An American woman and her boyfriend visit his long-lost family in Portugal, where they find out dark secrets about his family. 

Culture Audience: “Amelia’s Children” will appeal primarily to people who don’t mind watching boring horror movies that bungle what are supposed to be shocking plot twists.

Carloto Cotta and Brigette Lundy-Paine in “Amelia’s Children” (Photo courtesy of Magnet Releasing)

“Amelia’s Children” is a tedious horror movie with mostly wooden acting in a story that has more insipid moping than any real scares. The characters react to twisted family secrets in ways that are hard to believe. The movie’s ending is atrocious.

Written and directed by Gabriel Abrantes, “Amelia’s Children” begins with a darkly lit and muddled scene of a woman (played by Alba Baptista) putting drops of an unnamed liquid in her baby’s milk. The woman lives in a mansion in an isolated area. Her name is not revealed until later in the film.

However, it’s easy to figure out who she is about 20 minutes into the movie when the mansion is revealed to be a certain mansion in Portugal. The baby is abducted at night from the house by a young woman (played by Beatriz Maia) and a man, whose identities are also revealed later in the movie. It’s enough to say that these opening scenes at the mansion are flashback scenes.

In present-day New York City, a man named Edward Eifus (played by Carloto Cotta) has been trying to find out who his biological family members are. He gets a phone call from a Woodland Foster Homes employee, who tells Edward that information is unknown about Edward’s biological parents. Soon after getting this disappointing news, Edward’s live-in girlfriend Riley (played by Brigette Lundy-Paine) gives Edward an Ancestry DNA kit for his 31st birthday.

Not long after setting up a profile with the DNA kit, Edward is contacted by a man named Manuel Castro (also played by Cotta), who says they are both a sibling match. Manuel lives with his mother Amelia (played by Anabela Moreira) in Portugal. Manuel tells Edward that Manuel had an identical twin who was kidnapped as an infant. Manuel and Edward both deduce that they are long-lost twins.

Manuel invites Edward and Riley to visit Manuel and Amelia at their mansion in Portugal. It’s the same mansion that was shown in the beginning of the movie. Edward and Riley rent a car in Portugal to drive to the mansion.

When they get lost on a fairly remote road, Riley and Edward stop and ask for directions from an elderly woman named Señora Vieira (played by Rita Blanco) and her male companion (played by Valdemar Santos), who are street vendors. Señora Vieira and her friend both react with disgust and fear when they find out that Edward and Riley are going to Amelia’s mansion. Señora Vieira later shares some valuable information with Riley.

Now that it’s been established that Edward was the kidnapped twin, and the mansion has a sinister history, most of “Amelia’s Children” is a monotonous, drawn-out tease in revealing why Edward was kidnapped and what’s so horrible about his long-lost family home. Viewers can tell the difference between Manuel and Edward because Manuel has long hair, and Edward has short hair.

From the beginning, it’s obvious that there’s something very weird about Amelia and Manuel, who both sleep in a snuggly way in the same bed, even though the house is big enough for Manuel to have his own bedroom. Amelia (who looks like she’s had botched plastic surgery) later introduces Edward to her two financial managers (played by Sónia Balacó and Ana Tang), by saying: “This is my new boyfriend. Isn’t he handsome?”

Amelia is also touchy-feely flirty with Edward and Manuel, who both act as if it’s all perfectly normal. And here’s an example of the movie’s awful dialogue: Amelia tells Riley soon after they meet: “Time is a whore. Time eats us like potatoes. … You have very sensual lips.” Amelia also seems obsessed with looking as young as possible.

And how does Riley feel about the creepy and incestuous tone of this family? When Riley tells Edward that she saw Amelia and Manuel sleeping in an inappropriate way in the same bed, Edward barely reacts. When Riley has had enough of this bizarre family, and she wants to leave, Edward responds by saying that Riley is overreacting and insists that Riley stay. Amelia is worth €65 million, but since this is a horror movie, you just know that Amelia’s fortune isn’t the real reason why Edward wants to stay.

When a horror movie reveals early on who the chief villain is, it’s up to the filmmakers to make sure there’s still a certain level of suspense in what will happen next. Unfortunately, everything is fairly easy to figure out in “Amelia’s Children” once it’s obvious that Amelia is up to no good. Lundy-Paine does an adequate job in her performance, but the other cast members give performances that are forgettable or substandard. Cotta is especially stiff with his acting.

“Amelia’s Children” certainly has some effective locations for its production design. The movie also has serviceable cinematography. But the story is too flawed to be covered up by visual aesthetics alone. The movie dilutes its terror with an ending that is more “hokey” than “shocking.” This idiotic ending leaves open the possibility of a sequel to “Amelia’s Children,” but a sequel is highly unlikely, since most viewers of “Amelia’s Children” won’t like the movie enough to want this flimsy and disappointing story to continue.

Magnet Releasing released “Amelia’s Children” in select U.S. cinemas, on digital and VOD on March 1, 2024. The movie was released in Portugal on January 18, 2024.

Review: ‘Abigail’ (2024), starring Melissa Barrera, Dan Stevens, Kathryn Newton, Will Catlett, Kevin Durand, Angus Cloud, Alisha Weir and Giancarlo Esposito

April 18, 2024

by Carla Hay

Alisha Weir and Kathryn Newton in “Abigail” (Photo by Bernard Walsh/Universal Pictures)

“Abigail” (2024)

Directed by Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett

Culture Representation: Taking place in an unnamed U.S. state, the horror film “Abigail” (a reboot of the 1936 film “Dracula’s Daughter”) features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few African Americans and one Latina) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: Six kidnappers take a 13-year-old rich girl for ransom, only to find out that she is a vampire, and they are trapped in the mansion where they are holding her captive. 

Culture Audience: “Abigail” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of the movie’s headliners and gory horror movies that skillfully blend scares with comedy.

Angus Cloud, Kathryn Newton, Alisha Weir (back to camera), Kevin Durand, Dan Stevens (background), Melissa Barrera and Will Catlett in “Abigail” (Photo by Bernard Walsh/Universal Pictures)

The vampire kidnapping flick “Abigail” is a wickedly funny horror romp that is best enjoyed by people who have a high tolerance for bloody gore on screen. The movie builds suspense on which alliances will survive and which will fall apart. It’s a movie that doesn’t take itself too seriously, but there are some poignant moments that bring a certain level of gravitas to a movie that delivers laughs along with the scares.

Written and directed by Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett, “Abigail” is a reboot of sorts of the 1936 horror movie “Dracula’s Daughter.” Bettinelli-Olpin and Gillett (who are members of the filmmaking collective nicknamed Radio Silence) continue their pattern of making horror films that are filled with sarcastic jokes and have some characters who aren’t what they initially appear to be. Bettinelli-Olpin’s and Gillett’s previous films include 2022’s “Scream” and 2023’s “Scream VI.”

In “Abigail,” the title character is a girl who appears to be 12 years old, but she’s really a vampire who is hundreds of years old. This isn’t spoiler information because Abigail being a vampire was already revealed in the movie’s trailers. Abigail (played by Alisha Weir) is a master manipulator who puts her wits and superhuman powers to use when she is kidnapped by a motley crew of criminals who demand a ransom of $50 million.

In the beginning of “Abigail,” she is shown dancing on stage in a ballerina costume to “Swan Lake” in an empty auditorium. (“Abilgail” takes place in an unnamed U.S. state but was actually filmed in Ireland.) After this rehearsal is over, Abigail goes into a chauffeur-driven car. Unbeknownst to the driver, the car has a tracking device placed on it by six criminals, who have been lying in wait to kidnap Abigail in a van that is labeled as a Flush Force plumbing company van.

The abductors follow the car to Abigail’s mansion, where she is home alone. Abigail is quickly abducted: She’s drugged using a hypodermic needle, blindfolded, and put in a body bag. The kidnappers make their getaway within a minute after some people arrive at the home and see that there’s been a break-in and Abigail is missing. The kidnappers then drive to another mansion in a remote area, where they meet with their no-nonsense supervisor named Lambert (played by Giancarlo Esposito), who praises them for completing their mission. Lambert then says he’s leaving them to look after Abigail until they get the ransom money.

Conversations in the movie reveal that Lambert assembled this kidnapping crew and deliberately selected people who are strangers to each other. They are under strict orders to not tell each other their real names or any personal information about themselves. Lambert assigns aliases to all of the kidnappers and takes their cell phones before he leaves. The kidnappers are also under orders to wear masks at all times when they are around Abigail, who is not always blindfolded. Lambert tells the kidnappers that they are better off not knowing who Abigail’s family is.

The six kidnappers who are in the mansion with Abigail are:

  • Frank (played by Dan Stevens), a bossy and arrogant know-it-all, who appoints himself the leader of the six kidnappers who are left behind in the mansion.
  • Joey (played by Melissa Barrera), a street-smart go-getter, who has been tasked with being the one to interact with Abigail in the room where Abigail is handcuffed. It’s later revealed that Joey has a young son, which is why she was assigned caregiver duties for Abigail. (Joey having a son is information that is also in the movie’s trailers.)
  • Rickles (played by Will Catlett), an expert sniper who has a mutual attraction to Joey.
  • Sammy (played by Kathryn Newton), a skilled computer hacker who looks like a party girl but who can strongly defend herself when necessary.
  • Dean (played by Angus Cloud), a stoner who tries and fails to get Sammy to be romantically interested in him.
  • Peter (played by Kevin Durand), a dimwitted muscle man who has the most physical strength in the group.

Joey is very good at reading people and quickly tells the other members of the group that she has figured out certain things about them, which they do not deny. Joey deduces that Frank used to be a police detective. Rickles was in the U.S. military, most likely the U.S. Marines. Sammy is a spoiled rich kid who commits crimes for the thrills.

Dean is a “sociopath,” according to Joey. Peter used to be bullied as a kid and built his muscular physique as a way to intimidate people and to defend himself from being physically bullied. As for Joey, Frank quickly figures out that she is a needle-using drug addict who appears to be in recovery.

The six kidnappers have been promised $7 million each as their cut of the ransom. They assume that Lambert will get the remaining $8 million, since he’s the supervisor who brought them together and told them what to do. Despite being told that they aren’t supposed to know who Abigail’s family is, the kidnappers get curious.

The only thing that Lambert has told the kidnappers about Abgail’s family is that Abigail has a very wealthy father who is expected to pay the ransom. There is no mention of Abigail’s mother. Eventually, the kidnappers find out that Abigail’s father is Kristof Lazar (played by Matthew Goode, in a very small role), who has a certain sinister reputation that is detailed in the movie.

A series of events reveal Abigail to be a vampire, and the kidnappers are locked and trapped inside the mansion. That’s when the movie kicks into high-gear horror, as it turns into an all-out war between Abigail and the kidnappers. However, this war is not as simple as it seems, because Joey made a promise to never hurt Abigail before Joey knew that Abigail was a vampire. Will Joey keep this promise? Who will die and who will survive?

As the wily vampire Abigail, Weir gives a very talented performance as a child who shows vulnerability and viciousness. There’s more than a ring of truth when Abigail confides in Joey that Abigail feels lonely and neglected because her father thought he wanted a child but has apparently changed his mind. This backstory for Abigail makes her a little more complex than the typical horror movie villain.

Even though egotistical Frank would like to think he’s the leader of this doomed group, Joey is really the one who comes up with the best ideas. Barrera (who previously worked with Bettinelli-Olpin and Gillett in “Scream” and “Scream VI”) does a capably effective performance as Joey, who has plenty of secrets. It’s eventually revealed that these kidnappers have more in common that just abducting Abigail.

All of the other cast members play their roles well with the right touches of comedy. (The movie’s closing credits have a tribute to Cloud, who died of a drug overdose in 2023. He was 25.) Cloud’s befuddled Dean character is intentionally the movie’s biggest comic relief.

There are a few twists and turns in the movie’s plot. Just when it looks like “Abigail” is going to end, something happens that continues the story. Some viewers might not like how the movie prolongs the story with this twist, while others will enjoy this unexpected turn of events. A horror movie about a killer kid could have turned out wrong in so many ways, but “Abigail” is like a bloodier, longer and more gruesome version of an entertaining horror ride at an amusement park.

Universal Pictures will release “Abigail” in U.S. cinemas on April 19, 2024.

Review: ‘Late Night With the Devil,’ starring David Dastmalchian, Laura Gordon, Ian Bliss, Fayssal Bazzi, Ingrid Torelli, Rhys Auteri, Georgina Haig and Josh Quong Tart

April 17, 2024

by Carla Hay

A scene from “Late Night With the Devil.” Pictured in front, from left to right: Ingrid Torelli, David Dastmalchian and Laura Gordon. Pictured in back, from left to right: Rhys Auteri and Ian Bliss. (Photo courtesy of IFC Films)

“Late Night With the Devil”

Directed by Cameron Cairnes and Colin Cairnes

Culture Representation: Taking place primarily during a “found footage” tape made in New York City, on October 31, 1977, the horror film “Late Night With the Devil” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few black people) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: A late-night talk show host, who is desperate to boost his ratings, does a live seance on his show to summon the devil that reportedly possesses a 13-year-old girl. 

Culture Audience: “Late Night With the Devil” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of star David Dastmalchian and well-made supernatural horror movies taking place in the 1970s.

Laura Gordon, Ingrid Torelli, David Dastmalchian and Ian Bliss in “Late Night With the Devil” (Photo courtesy of IFC Films)

“Late Night With the Devil” hooks the senses with sinister suspense that might give nightmares to some viewers. This “found footage” horror flick taking place in 1977 shows parallels between devil possession and ruthless ambition. It’s an impressively made original horror movie that is an instant classic.

Written and directed by Australian brothers Cameron Cairnes and Colin Cairnes, “Late Night With the Devil” takes place in New York City, but was actually filmed in Melbourne, Australia. The movie had its world premiere at the 2023 SXSW Film and TV Festival. “Late Night With the Devil” does a superb job of recreating the late 1970s in every way, such as the production design, cinematography, costume design, makeup and hairstyling.

“Late Night With the Devil” begins with a voiceover narrator (Michael Ironside) with a fairly extensive backstory (shown in a montage) about the late-night talk/variety show host at the center of the movie. Jack Delroy (played by David Dastmalchian) was a popular radio host in Chicago when he was chosen to host and produce a national TV talk show called “Night Owls With Jack Delroy” (based in New York City) on the fictional UBC network. The first episode of “Night Owls With Jack Delroy” was on April 4, 1971.

Over the years, “Night Owls With Jack Delroy” had mediocre success, with the show always coming in second place to “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson.” Johnny Carson had A-list celebrity guests. The guests on “Night Owls With Jack Delroy” were considered less than A-list, often with tabloid-like fame. Still, Jack earned enough respect in the industry to get an Emmy nomination for the show.

Jack is a member of all-male private club called The Grove, whose members are influential and powerful. The Grove’s secretive activities have been the subject of a lot of speculation. In November 1972, UBC owner Walter Bedford (played by John O’May) signed Jack to a five-year deal for Jack to continue to host and produce “Night Owls With Jack Delroy,” a show that is filmed before a live studio audience.

Jack’s personal life was also going fairly well: He married an actress named Madeleine Piper (played by Georgina Haig), who is described as Jack’s “muse and confidante.” Jack and Madeleine became known as a well-liked “power couple.” However, tragedy struck when Madeleine (a non-smoker) was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. In October 1976, she did an emotional interview on “Night Owls With Jack Delroy.” It was the highest-rated episode in the show’s history. Madeleine died soon after filming this episode.

After Madeleine died, Jack took a hiatus and “disappeared” for about a month. He returned to doing the show in December 1976. However, the show’s ratings went on a downward spiral. By the time “Night Owls With Jack Delroy” did its Halloween episode on October 31, 1977, Jack’s contract was up for renewal (or cancellation), and he was feeling enormous pressure. Jack and his fast-talking and ambitious producer Leo Fiske (played by Josh Quong Tart) were desperate to boost the show’s ratings, so they planned a Halloween episode that they wanted to get a lot of publicity.

Things went horribly wrong, of course. The rest of “Late Night With the Devil” shows the master tape from this episode, as well as previously unreleased footage. The show’s guests on this fateful episode were a famous self-proclaimed psychic named Christou (played by Fayssal Bazzi); Carmichael Haig (played by Ian Bliss), a former magician who became world-renowned skeptic of all things supernatural; “Conversations With the Devil” non-fiction book author Dr. June Ross-Mitchell (played by Laura Gordon); the book’s subject, a 13-year-old girl named Lilly (played by Ingrid Torelli), who was said to be possessed by the devil; and jazz singer Cleo James (played by Nicole Chapman), who actually never performed in the episode, due to all the chaos that ensued.

in the production notes for “Late Night With the Devil,” Cameron Cairnes and Colin Cairnes both say that Australia’s “The Don Lane Show” (which was on the air from 1975 to 1983) was a big inspiration for the concept of this movie. The character of Carmichael was inspired by the real-life James Randi, whose magician name was the Amazing Randi. And the character Lilly could be seen as inspired by Linda Blair’s Regan MacNeil character in the 1973 Oscar-winning horror classic “The Exorcist.” In “Late Night With the Devil,” Lilly is the only survivor of a cult that was ordered by cult leader Szandor D’Abo (played by Steve Mouzakis) to set themselves on fire.

Cameron Cairnes and Colin Cairnes also had experience working in TV studios and saw firsthand the intense stress that workers can experience when filming episodes. That’s why the “Late Night With the Devil” scenes (especially those take place during commercial breaks) are convincing and why the movie is so effective in showing an increasingly tension-filled environment.

After Madeleine died, Jack took a hiatus and “disappeared” for about a month. He returned to doing the show in December 1976. However, the show’s ratings went on a downward spiral. By the time “Night Owls With Jack Delroy” did its Halloween episode on October 31, 1977, Jack’s contract was up for renewal (or cancellation), and he was feeling enormous pressure. Jack and his fast-talking and ambitious producer Leo Fiske (played by Josh Quong Tart) were desperate to boost the show’s ratings, so they planned a Halloween episode that they wanted to get a lot of publicity.

“Night Owls With Jack Delroy” has an amiable band leader named Gus McConnell (played by Rhys Auteri), who is like many band leaders on late-night talk shows: He’s there to be a sidekick who laughs at the host’s jokes. As things spiral out of control, Gus’ conscience starts to bother him about decisions that are made to increase the show’s TV audience. When Gus expresses his concerns, the response he gets is entirely realistic in the cutthroat world of television. Subordinates are often told that if they don’t do what they’re told, they’ll be fired, and there are plenty of people who are ready to replace them.

The screenplay and direction for “Late Night With the Devil” expertly build the ominous tension throughout the story. The movie stumbles during one particular gruesome scene where the in-studio audience members stay, despite the horror they just witnessed. In real life, most people in this type of audience would leave the studio in fear or disgust. It’s a minor but noticeable flaw in the otherwise realistic-looking way that the audience is portrayed in the movie. And to be clear: “Late Night With the Devil” gets very graphic and does not leave a lot of the horror up to the imagination.

Dastmalchian and Torelli give the movie’s standout performances. As Jack, Dastmalchian has an uneasy desperation that becomes increasingly dangerous as he pushes the boundaries of what’s acceptable to put on television. Torelli does an excellent job of balancing the “innocent-looking” and “demonic” sides to Lilly, the mysterious girl who never seems entirely “normal.” Thanks to horrific scenarios and a knockout ending, “Late Night With the Devil” is a memorably disturbing scary movie. Some viewers might never look at TV talk shows in the same way again.

IFC Films released “Late Night With the Devil” in U.S. cinemas on March 22, 2024. Shudder will premiere the movie on April 19, 2024.

Review: ‘The First Omen,’ starring Nell Tiger Free, Tawfeek Barhom, Sonia Braga, Ralph Ineson and Bill Nighy

April 4, 2024

by Carla Hay

Nell Tiger Free and Nicole Sorace in “The First Omen” (Photo courtesy of 20th Century Studios)

“The First Omen”

Directed by Arkasha Stevenson

Some language in Italian with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in Rome, in 1971, the horror film “The First Omen” (a prequel to “The Omen” movie series) features an all-white cast of characters representing the working-class and the middle-class.

Culture Clash: A young American nun arrives at a convent in Rome to take her final vows and finds out sinister things are happening at the convent. 

Culture Audience: “The First Omen” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of “The Omen” movie series and horror movies that blend religious teachings with body horror.

Ralph Ineson in “The First Omen” (Photo courtesy of 20th Century Studios)

Creepy, gruesome and suspenseful, “The First Omen” has as much to say about demonic possession as it does about institutional control of female bodies. Impressive acting and some unpredictability make this horror movie one of the better “Omen” films. The end of “The First Omen” makes it clear that there’s a lot of potential for more storylines for multiple characters who are introduced in “The First Omen.”

Directed by Arkasha Stevenson, “The First Omen” is her feature-film directorial debut. Stevenson, Tim Smith and Keith Thomas wrote “The First Omen” screenplay. “The Omen” franchise started with the 1976 movie “The Omen,” which spawned sequels, TV series and a 2006 movie remake. In 1976’s “The Omen” (directed by Richard Donner and written by Davd Seltzer), a U.S. ambassador to Italy named Robert Thorn (played by Gregory Peck) and his wife Katherine Thorn (played by Lee Remick) adopted a son named Damien (played by Harvey Spencer Stephens), and the parents are horrified to discover that Damien is a child of the devil. “The First Omen” shows how Damien was born and there is more to the story than what many viewers might assume.

“The First Omen” (which takes place in 1971) begins with a slow-burn harrowing scene of two Catholic priests having a confessional conversation at a church in an unnamed location, as one of the priests talks about a woman who “volunteered” to be impregnated. But what really happened is shown on screen: A masked woman is strapped to a table and looking like a very unwilling volunteer. An elderly British priest named Father Harris (played by Charles Dance) is telling this story to a middle-aged Irish priest named Father Brennan (played by Ralph Ineson), who listens as Father Harris says about the impregnated woman: “She wasn’t conceived naturally.”

Father Harris, who claims to be one of the people involved in getting this mystery woman pregnant, adds this information about how the woman was impregnated: “What I can tell you is that the pregnancy happened quickly.” Father Brennan thinks that Father Harris has told him this story to ask for forgiveness. Father Harris says with an eerie smirk: “You think I want to be forgiven? It’ll be all over. You’ll understand soon enough.”

Father Harris then steps outside and something bizarre happens: Shards of stained glass come plummeting down on his head. Father Harris seems to be uninjured, until the back of his head shows a large, gaping wound that he cannot survive. Before he dies, Father Harris gives a disturbing smile that shows his teeth are bloody.

This scene sets the tone for the rest of “The First Omen,” which has some uniquely effective horror images and scenarios, along with some horror clichés. Although “The First Omen” takes place in 1971, many of the movie’s themes are timeless. It’s not a preachy movie, but there are some very obvious messages about discontent with government, as well as how much religion can or should have control in people’s lives.

Because it’s not a secret that “The First Omen” is about how the anti-Christ known as Damien was born, much of the mystery in the movie is about who will give birth to Damien. Observant viewers will figure out the answer to the mystery when the birthdate of a certain character is shown. The movie is not as simple and straightforward as it first appears to be.

After the scene showing Father Harris’ death, “The First Omen” then takes place in Rome (where the movie was filmed) and shows the arrival of a young American nun in her early 20s named Margaret (played by Nell Tiger Free), nicknamed Maggie. She is warmly greeted by a British clergyman named Cardinal Lawrence (played by Bill Nighy), who meets her at the train station. Margaret has arrived to live at a convent, where she will be taking her final vows.

Cardinal Lawrence, who invited Margaret to Rome, is the one who will officiate the vow ceremony. As she and Cardinal Lawrence drive through the streets of Rome, they see crowds of activists (mostly young adults) holding protest marches in the streets and sometimes blocking traffic. Cardinal Lawrence explains to Margaret that the activists are protesting unfair wages. He laments to Margaret that the younger generation is turning against religious institutions and “no longer looks to us for guidance. Perhaps you’ll win back their trust.”

It’s later revealed through conversations that Margaret grew up as an orphan in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. Margaret has lived a very sheltered existence and is a virgin who has no experience with dating. The thought of doing something such as going to a nightclub terrifies her, because she thinks it’s sinful activity. Margaret is devoutly religious and does a lot of fervent praying every time she thinks she commits a sin, no matter how minor the sin might be.

Margaret will soon have her boundaries tested when she meets her free-spirited Italian roommate named Luz Valez (played by Maria Caballero), a novitiate who is also in her 20s and is about to take her final vows. The first time that Margaret and Luz meet, Luz has just arrived in their room after a night of partying. Luz is dressed in a black leather miniskirt and is wearing fishnet stockings.

Luz tells a shocked Margaret that there’s nothing wrong with having fun and showing off their bodies before they take their final vows, since the nun outfits they have to wear will cover up ther bodies. Luz convinces a reluctant Margaret to dress in a sexy outfit, put on makeup, and go with Luz to a nightclub. At the club, Margaret and Luz immediately attract the attention of two young men named Paolo (played by Andrea Arcangeli) and Alfonzo (played by Guido Quaglione), who offer to buy Margaret and Luz some drinks.

Eventually they pair off: Luz and Alfonzo end up dancing together, while Margaret and Paolo start off with an awkward conversation but loosen up with each other when they both find out that they are fans of Barbra Streisand. Margaret eventually begins drinking some alcohol too and begins dancing seductively with Paolo. Based on the way Margaret acts, this is the first time she has had these type of experiences.

The convent operates Vizzardeli Orphanage, which is the home of 62 girls, mostly in the age range of 6 to 11 years old. Margaret is one of the nuns who teach the orphans. Margaret strikes up a friendly acquaintance with a young priest named Father Gabriel (played by Tawfeek Barhom), who often visits the convent and who seems to know more than he is telling. Someone who isn’t very friendly to Margaret is Sister Anjelica (played by Ishtar-Currie Wilson), who has a very cold attitude to Margaret and who appears to be mentally ill.

Margaret soon begins to notice strange things are happening at the convent, which is ruled by an abbess named Sister Silva (played by Sonia Braga), a stereotypically stern nun. Not only does Margaret have nightmares, she also sees some terrifying things happening in real life. A few of those things have to do with what Margaret witnesses in the maternity ward’s delivery room.

One of the orphans is slightly older than the rest. Her name is Carlita Skianna (played by Nicole Sorace), who is about 14 or 15 years old. Carlita is quiet and appears to be a troubled child. Margaret slowly beings to get Carlita to communicate with her, but Margaret sees that Carlita is being secretly punished on orders of Sister Silva. Carlita frequently draws illustrations with some unsettling images. Based on one of the illustrations, Margaret begins to suspect that Carlita might be pregnant.

The release of “The First Omen” happened just two weeks after the release of “Immaculate,” another horror movie about a young American virgin nun arriving at a Catholic convent in Italy to take her final vows and then finding out about a very unholy pregnancy. Both movies also have issues about women losing control of their bodies when powerful forces want to dictate what can be done with their bodies. However, “The First Omen” is a genuinely scarier horror film than the somewhat campy “Immaculate.”

“The First Omen” starts of a bit slow and repetitive, but the second half of the movie is much better than the first half. “The First Omen” benefits greatly from Free’s riveting and believable performance as Margaret, who transforms from vulnerable and naïve to someone whose innocence is lost as she has to learn to defend herself against forces of evil. There’s an intense scene toward the end of the movie that is absolutely stunning in the physical and emotional acting involved to make the scene as effective as it is.

“The First Omen” (which has gorgeously Gothic-inspired cinematography by Aaron Morton) also explains why Damian was conceived in the first place. This explanation might be controversial with some religious conservatives. What makes “The First Omen” intriguing is how this movie opens up the possibility of spinoffs or sequels for characters whose stories need to be told. “The First Omen” succeeds not only as a prequel but as a gateway for another potentially fascinating world in “The Omen” franchise.

20th Century Studios will release “The First Omen” in U.S. cinemas on April 5, 2024.

Review: ‘Winnie-the-Pooh: Blood and Honey 2,’ starring Scott Chambers, Tallulah Evans, Ryan Oliva, Teresa Banham, Peter DeSouza-Feighoney, Alec Newman and Simon Callow

March 29, 2024

by Carla Hay

Ryan Oliva in “Winnie-the-Pooh: Blood and Honey 2” (Photo courtesy of Fathom Events)

“Winnie-the-Pooh: Blood and Honey 2”

Directed by Rhys Frake-Waterfield

Culture Representation: Taking place in England, the horror film “Winnie-the-Pooh: Blood and Honey 2” (which has warped versions of characters in A.A. Milne’s “Winnie the Pooh” book) features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few black people and Asians) representing the working-class and the middle-class.

Culture Clash: Serial-killing mutant bear Winnie-the-Pooh and his murderous animal allies continue to hunt down Christopher Robin out of revenge for the broken childhood friendship between Winnie-the-Pooh and Christopher. 

Culture Audience: “Winnie-the-Pooh: Blood and Honey 2” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of “Winnie-the-Pooh: Blood and Honey” and other stupid horror movies.

Lewis Santer in “Winnie-the-Pooh: Blood and Honey 2” (Photo courtesy of Fathom Events)

“Winnie-the-Pooh: Blood and Honey” was one of the most atrocious movies of 2023. “Winnie-the-Pooh: Blood and Honey 2” has noticeable improvements. However, a larger budget, a new cast, and a more detailed screenplay do not turn this sequel into a well-made or coherent horror movie. The plot twists are idiotic, and the kills are still very misogynistic. For all of the effort put into giving backstories to the main characters, “Winnie-the-Pooh: Blood and Honey 2” just devolves into a mindless slasher flick where women get the most sadistic murders.

Rhys Frake-Waterfield directed “Winnie-the-Pooh: Blood and Honey” and “Winnie-the-Pooh: Blood and Honey 2,” featuring characters from A.A. Milne’s 1926 “Winnie the Pooh” book. Jagged Edge Productions, the company behind these tacky horror movies, has announced plans for a Twisted Childhood Universe movie franchise, including a “Poohniverse: Monsters Assemble” movie due out in 2025, as well as “Bambi: The Reckoning,” “Peter Pan’s Neverland Nightmare” and “Pinocchio Unstrung.” These characters are now in the public domain, which is why anyone can take these characters and make terrible movies about them. There’s nothing imaginative about having actors dress up as horror-movie versions of these children’s book characters and putting them in a movie where all they do is kill people.

Frake-Waterfield wrote “Winnie-the-Pooh: Blood and Honey” but handed over screenwriting duties for “Winnie-the-Pooh: Blood and Honey 2” to Matt Leslie. This sequel’s screenplay has development of the movie’s characters, but the second half of the movie gets lazy and just becomes a muddled mess. “Winnie-the-Pooh: Blood and Honey 2” also has entirely different cast members—most of whom give slightly better performances than the dreadful performances in “Winnie-the-Pooh: Blood and Honey.”

And it’s obvious the filmmakers of “Winnie-the-Pooh: Blood and Honey 2” had more production money to spend on this sequel. The number of people in the cast is much larger in this sequel. The movie’s production design and monster imaging are better than in “Winnie-the-Pooh: Blood and Honey.” The cheap monster masks have been replaced by makeup and other prosthetics that actually look professionally done.

But all of these improvements ultimately can’t erase the biggest problems in “Winnie-the-Pooh: Blood and Honey 2” that stink up the movie: It’s still a poorly made film with a weak and incoherent story. In “Winnie-the-Pooh: Blood and Honey 2,” mutant bear Winnie-the-Pooh (also known as Pooh) still wants to get revenge on his former childhood friend Christopher Robin, because Pooh thinks that Chistopher abandoned Winnie-the-Pooh when Christopher moved away. When they were children, Winnie-the-Pooh and Christopher would spend time in Hundred Acre Wood, a remote wooded area in Ashdown, England.

In “Winnie-the-Pooh: Blood and Honey,” Christopher (who is in his 20s) was barely in the movie when Pooh and his friend Piglet went on a murderous rampage, mostly against some young women who were staying at a guest house at Hundred Acre Wood. In “Winnie-the-Pooh: Blood and Honey 2,” voiceover narration and an animated sequence explain in the beginning of the film that Christopher Robin (played as an adult by Scott Chambers) has been suspected by many people in Ashdown of causing the massacre that happened in “Winnie-the-Pooh: Blood and Honey.” They think Christopher had something do with the murders because he is the only known survivor. Some people don’t believe Christopher’s witness statements about who committed the murders, so he has become an outcast in Ashdown.

Viewers soon find out that Winnie-the-Pooh (played by Ryan Oliva) and Piglet (played by Eddie MacKenzie) have been joined by two other killers on this vendetta: Owl (played by Marcus Massey) and Tigger (played by Lewis Santer), who do the most talking out of all of four of these serial killers. Winnie-the-Pooh was mute in “Winnie-the-Pooh: Blood and Honey,” but he occasionally utters some forgettable menacing words in “Winnie-the-Pooh: Blood and Honey 2.”

Christopher is a pariah to many people in Ashdown, but he has complete and unwavering support from his girlfriend Lexy (played by Tallulah Evans) and his family members: father Alan Robin (played by Alec Newman), mother Daphne Robin (played by Nicola Wright) and sister Helen “Bunny” Robin (played by Thea Evans), who’s about 5 or 6 years old. Whenever a stereotypical horror movie has a protagonist who’s the target of a serial killer, and the protagonist has family member who’s a child, you can almost do a countdown in the movie to when the child is kidnapped by the killer.

Some other people who believe Christopher are residents of Ashdown who want to find the real killers. Some of these people have become vigilantes who go into the woods with guns because they think the local police are incompetent. These vigilantes will soon have another reason to go hunting for the murderers when the killers strike again.

Near the beginning of the movie, three young women named Mia (played by Kelly Rian Sanson), Jamie (played by Lila Lasso) and Alice (played by Tosin Thompson) are camping at Hundred Acre Wood and doing a seance in their camper vehicle. And you know what that means: Winnie-the-Pooh, Piglet and Owl emerge from their lair and brutally murder all three of the women. Owl snarls at one of the victims: “Who’s the abomination now?”

Christopher has completed his medical training, so he has gotten a job as a medical doctor at a hospital. However, the recent murders have placed him under more of a cloud of suspicion. He gets fired because several people in the community don’t want him working at the hospital. It’s one of many reasons why Christopher decides to get revenge on Winnie-the-Pooh and Pooh’s cronies.

Meanwhile, there are some unimaginative scenes involving Lexy babysitting a bratty kid named Freddie (played by Flynn Gray), who has a fascination with movie serial killers. Freddie wears a hockey mask like Jason Voorhees in the “Friday the 13th” series and a sweater that’s identical to the sweater worn by Freddy Krueger in the “Nightmare on Elm Street” series. The scenes with Lexy and Freddie are essentially ripoffs of what’s in the first “Halloween” movie.

There’s a bit of meta-referencing when it’s mentioned that the massacre has been made into a movie. When the movie about the massacre is shown on TV while Lexy is babysitting Freddie, what’s shown on the TV screen is a scene from “Winnie-the-Pooh: Blood and Honey.” Freddie asks Lexy while the movie plays on TV: “Isn’t that your boyfriend?” Lexy looks annoyed and disgusted and says no. It might be this sequel’s way of poking fun at its predecessor, but it will just remind viewers who saw “Winnie-the-Pooh: Blood and Honey” how abysmal it is.

And because “Winnie-the-Pooh: Blood and Honey 2” keeps regurgitating clichés, there’s a large section of the movie where a lot of young people are gathered in one place, which will make them easy targets for a massacre. Christopher has been invited to a Halloween party for young adults, with the party taking place at a warehouse. Guess who else is going to show up at the party?

Various characters go in and out of the story and are only in the movie for exactly the reason why certain characters are in slasher flicks. Mary Darling (played by Teresa Banham) is Christopher’s therapist, who puts him through hypnotherapy to recover his childhood memories. Christopher’s friend Finn (played by Flynn Matthews) is one of the people at the Halloween party. Cara (played by Nichaela Farrell) is the host of the Halloween party.

When Christopher isn’t moping around, he tries to find out why Winnie-the-Pooh became a monster. He does an Internet search and finds out about a scientist named Dr. Arthur Gallup (played by Toby Wynn-Davies, who is also the movie’s voiceover narrator), which then leads to a meeting with a creepy elderly man named Cavendish (played by Simon Callow), who provides a lot of answers about Winnie-the-Pooh’s monstrous origins. Cavendish’s story isn’t too surprising, especially when “regeneration abilities” are mentioned. In other words, don’t expect any villains’ deaths in the movie to be final. A mid-credits scene in “Winnie-the-Pooh: Blood and Honey 2” confirms that these villains can’t really be killed.

In addition to having ridiculous action scenes (characters suddenly show up out of nowhere and are instantly able to find people in the dark woods), “Winnie-the-Pooh: Blood and Honey 2” has a very sloppily conceived “reveal” toward the end of the film. This “reveal” tries to be shocking, but it actually contradicts the original story presented about Christopher and Winnie-the-Pooh in “Winnie-the-Pooh: Blood and Honey.” There are flashbacks to an underage Christopher (played by Mason Gold) and an underage Winnie-the-Pooh (played by Peter DeSouza-Feighoney) that raise questions that the movie either doesn’t answer or deliberately bungles by throwing in this “reveal.”

And the movie can’t answer the most basic question of all: Christopher isn’t that hard to find, so why does it take so long for the villains to go after him? There would be no “Winnie-the-Pooh: Blood and Honey” movies if that question was answered, because the vast majority of “Winnie-the-Pooh: Blood and Honey” movies are insipid filler scenes.

There is no clever irony or entertaining campiness to “Winnie-the-Pooh: Blood and Honey 2,” which has villains that are shallow and uninteresting. Even if a horror movie skimps on background information for the main characters, the movie fails if the villains of the story are just hollow and boring characters. And in that respect, “Winnie-the-Pooh: Blood and Honey 2,” just like its predecessor, is a dismal failure as a horror movie.

Fathom Events released “Winnie-the-Pooh: Blood and Honey 2” in U.S. cinemas for a limited engagement on March 26, March 27, and March 28, 2024.

Review: ‘Sting’ (2024), starring Ryan Corr, Alyla Browne, Penelope Mitchell, Robyn Nevin, Noni Hazlehurst, Silvia Colloca, Danny Kim, Jermaine Fowler

March 26, 2024

by Carla Hay

Alyla Browne in “Sting” (Photo courtesy of Well Go USA)

“Sting” (2024)

Directed by Kiah Roache-Turner

Culture Representation: Taking place in New York City, the horror film “Sting” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few African Americans, one Asian and one Latina) representing the working-class and the middle-class.

Culture Clash: After a mysterious spider’s egg drops into the apartment where a 12-year-old girl lives, she takes care of the spider that hatched from the egg, and the spider turns into a large, deadly monster. 

Culture Audience: “Sting” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in “creature feature” horror movies that don’t take themselves too seriously.

Alyla Browne and Ryan Corr in “Sting” (Photo courtesy of Well Go USA)

“Sting” is an intentionally campy horror film about a spider monster and the 12-year-old girl who unwittingly unleashes this terror and tries to stop it. The movie is a mostly skillful blend of gruesome and comical. “Sting” has some continuity issues between scenes, and don’t expect a lot of witty dialogue, but these flaws are overshadowed by a movie that is entertaining to watch for people who are inclined to like horror movies.

Written and directed by Kiah Roache-Turner, “Sting” takes place almost entirely inside a shabby apartment building in New York City’s Brooklyn borough. (The movie was actually filmed in New South Wales, Australia.) The movie has some flashbacks but shows that the terror began when an egg fell from the sky and crashed through a window of the apartment of a family where 12-year-old Charlotte Krouse (played by Alyla Browne) found the egg and secretly kept it. A regular-sized female spider hatches from the egg. Charlotte calls the spider Sting.

Charlotte lives in the apartment with her mother Heather (played by Penelope Mitchell); Carlotte’s stepfather Ethan Miller (played by Ryan Corr); Heather’s mother Helga (played by Noni Hazlehurst), who apparently has dementia; Helga’s stern sister Gunter (played by Robyn Nevin); and Charlotte’s half-brother Liam (played by Jett Berry and Kade Berry), who is 6 months old. Charlotte’s biological father, who is only called “The Professor” in the movie, abandoned Charlotte and Heather several years ago.

Charlotte still admires her father and has had trouble accepting Ethan (who is the father of Liam) as part of her family. Charlotte is also somewhat resentful of Liam, who is taking up a lot of her mother’s attention. Charlotte still has a lot of her worship of her father—so much so, that she has created a professor character modeled after her father for a comic book series that she writes called Fang Girl. Ethan is the illustrator of the comic book series, which is a hit. “Sting” doesn’t really give an adequate backstory for this unusual collaboration, but there’s a scene where Charlotte is very nitpicky with Ethan about how he is illustrating the professor character in the most recent comic book that they are working on together.

Also in the building are two neighbors who are featured in this movie: a widowed mother named Maria (played by Silvia Colloca) and a nerdy scientist named Erik (played by Danny Kim), who has an aquarium so that he can study fishes’ ability to recreate pancreatic cells. There’s also a talkative exterminator named Frank (played by Jermaine Fowler), who is repeatedly called to the building.

The trailer for “Sting” gives away a lot of what happens in the movie. Sting grows into an enormous deadly spider. Charlotte also finds out that Sting has the ability to expertly mimic sounds. Because this is a horror movie, not everyone is going to make it out alive. A running joke in “Sting” is Helga calling for an exterminator (usually Frank), every time she hears noises in the walls. Helga seems to be unaware that these noises could be people getting killed.

“Sting” does exactly what you think it will do in a movie about a killer spider on the loose in an apartment building. The cast members’ performances aren’t outstanding, but there is good comedic timing in the right places. Fowler (who seems to want to be a younger version of Chris Tucker) has some of the funniest lines in the movie. The gore in “Sting” isn’t over-the-top bloody, but a lot of it will make some viewers squirm. “Sting” serves up enough jump scares and laughs to make it a solid option for mature viewers who want to see a horror flick that isn’t too disturbing or nauseating.

Well Go USA will release “Sting” in U.S. cinemas on April 12, 2024. A sneak preview of the movie was shown in select U.S. cinemas on March 25, 2024.

Review: ‘Shaitaan’ (2024), starring Ajay Devgn, R. Madhavan, Janki Bodiwala, Jyothika and Anngad Raaj

March 22, 2024

by Carla Hay

R. Madhavan in “Shaitaan” (Photo courtesy of FunAsia Films)

“Shaitaan” (2024)

Directed by Vikas Bahl

Hindi with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in Dehradun, India, the horror film “Shaitaan” (a remake of the 2023 horror film “Vash”) features an all-Indian cast of characters representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: A family of four people are the targets of a demonic stranger, who casts a spell on the family’s teenage girl to do whatever he tells her to do. 

Culture Audience: “Shaitaan” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of the movie’s headliners and horror movies that have overly long and repetitive scenes that can’t hide plot holes.

Janki Bodiwala, Jyothika and Ajay Devgn in “Shaitaan” (Photo courtesy of FunAsia Films)

“Shaitaan” is a bloated and bombastic horror movie that becomes increasingly ridiculous as the plot careens into a pathetic pit of stupidity. The movie’s villain wants to take over the world, but there’s no logic in how he goes about it in this lousy story. Horror movies generally aren’t known for being logical, but as soon as viewers find out what the villain wants to do, it becomes clear that at least 85% of what’s in the movie did not need to exist.

Directed by Vikas Bahl and written by Aamil Keeyan Khan, “Shaitaan” is a Hindi-language remake of director Krishnadev Yagnik’s 2023 horror movie “Vash,” a Gujarati-language film. Both movies are about a family of four people who go on vacation and become targets of a mysterious villain, who places the teenage girl in the family under his spell to do whatever he tells her to do. “Shaitaan” (which means “devil” in Hindi) shows that the stranger has demonic powers, but the movie never bothers to show or tell the stranger’s origin story.

In “Shaitaan,” Kabir Rishi (played by Vikas Bahl) is an accountant who lives with his wife Jyoti Rishi (played by Jyothika) and their two children in Dehradun, India. The couple’s daughter Janvi (played by Janki Bodiwala), who is about 17 or 18 years old, is outspoken and wants more independence from her parents. The couple’s son Dhruv (played by Anngad Raaj), who is about 12 or 13 years old, is a friendly and obedient child.

An early scene in the movie shows Kabir and Dhruv in a car parked outside of Janvi’s high school. Kabir is there to give Janvi a car ride home from school. Kabir is curious and concerned when he sees Janvi canoodling with a male student whom Kabir does not know. It bothers Kabir that Janvi has not told him anything about this apparent boyfriend. Kabir asks Dhruv if he knows who Janvi’s male companion is, but Dhruv doesn’t know either.

Janvi wants to go on an unchaperoned vacation trip with 10 friends. She thinks she’s old enough for this trip without any parental supervision, but she gets some resistance from her protective parents. After some arguing and negotiation, Janvi’s parents agree to let her go on the trip, as long as they can keep track of her location via a phone app.

These early scenes of Janvi trying to assert her independence, in order to prove that she has a mind of her own, are supposed to contrast with how Janvi is for most of the movie, when she has lost her mind to a demonic sorcerer who casts a “black magic” spell on her. These “possession” scenes become extremely long-winded and repetitive. After a while, they don’t advance the story but just make the story drag, like a car spinning its wheels while stuck in a ditch.

With the family conflict resolved over Janvi’s trip, the Rishi family decides to go on a short weekend vacation trip to what they call their “farmhouse,” but it’s really a mansion in a (horror movie cliché alert) remote wooded area. On the road trip to their vacation home, the family stops to have lunch at a cafe. A stranger approaches the Rishis and gives them some chai tea that he has bought for them.

The stranger introduces himself as Vanraj (played by R. Madhavan) and says that they look like they are visiting travelers, so he offers to help if they need directions. To put them at ease, Vanraj shows a photo of someone he says is his teenage daughter. Kabir thanks Vanraj for the tea and says they don’t need directions because they are going to their vacation house. Kabir invites Vanraj to join them at the table for the family meal.

Janvi says she doesn’t drink this type of tea, but Jyoti scolds Janvi and tells her not to be rude. As soon as Janvi drinks the tea, the movie’s soundtrack starts playing very ominous music, as Janvi stares strangely at Vanraj. Meanwhile, Vanraj smirks at Janvi, as if he knows exactly what’s going to happen. After the meal ends and the family is about drive off, Vanraj gives Janvi a packet of biscuits and tells her to eat the biscuits when she gets to the house.

At the house, Janvi eats the biscuits. And it isn’t long before Jyoti notices that Vanraj is lurking outside the house’s front gates. An alarmed Jyoti immediately tells Kabir, who goes outside and asks what Vanraj is doing there. Jyoti is frightened and angry because no one in the family told Vanraj the address of the house, so she thinks that Vanraj is stalking the family. Kabir is willing to give Vanraj the benefit of the doubt.

Vanraj doesn’t explain how he found the house, but he says he needs to come inside to charge his phone battery. Kabir lets him inside. And that’s when the terror starts. It doesn’t take long for Vanraj to reveal that he has put Janvi under his spell and she will do anything he tells her to do.

At first, her parents don’t believe it. But then, Vanraj makes Janvi do several violent and disturbing things under his orders, such as slap herself in the face repeatedly and bash Dhruv’s head onto a staircase newel. Dhruv gets more than one serious head injury during the movie, which shows if he lives or dies.

Kabir and Jyoti try to get rid of Vanraj, of course. However, Vanraj’s spell has made Janvi his ruthless enforcer/bodyguard. One of the first things that he has Janvi do is destroy all the cell phones, phone lines and Internet connections that can be found in the house. Something happened soon after the family arrived at the house that’s a big clue that not all communication in the house is going to be cut off from the outside world.

“Shaitaan” becomes an elongated series of torture scenes during this home invasion. And it’s not just the Rishi family being tortured. Viewers watching this dreck will feel some kind of torture in how the movie drags on without an explanation for why all of this is happening to the Rishi family. Of course, patriarchal Kabir wants to rescue his family. But how?

In one of the movie’s many plot holes and gaps in logic, Vanraj foolishly forgot to make sure that the Rishi parents couldn’t use the car they drove to the house. Observant viewers will notice this plot hole immediately, but it takes more than half of the movie before this plot hole is glaringly obvious. “Shaitaan” has even more mindless things that won’t be revealed in this review.

A trailer for “Shaitaan” already reveals that in this wooded area, Vanraj has hidden numerous teenage girls and young women, who are all under his spell. About two-thirds of the way into the movie, Vanraj yells that he wants to take over the world. But he has an odd and idiotic way of doing it. If he has mind control over Janvi, why not just tell her to secretly go to the hideaway place, instead of wasting time torturing her family members, who are potential witnesses?

It also doesn’t make sense that Vanraj only puts powerless teenage girls and young women under his spell. Why doesn’t he put powerful leaders under his spell, if he wants to take over the world? And why weren’t all of the Rishi family members put under Vanraj’s spell if Vanraj thought the family would get in the way? Do the filmmakers of “Shaitaan” honestly expect viewers to believe all the garbage being shoveled in this cinematic trash heap? Apparently so.

All of the performances in “Shaitaan” are mediocre, except for Madhavan’s awfully hammy villain performance, which because increasingly tacky and laughable. A plot twist at the very end of the movie just raises more questions that “Shaitaan” never bothers to answer. One of those questions is: “When will filmmakers learn that inferior and unnecessary movie remakes are a turnoff?”

FunAsia Films released “Shaitaan” in select U.S. cinemas on March 8, 2024, the same date the movie was released in India.

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