Review: ‘Don’t Look Back’ (2020), starring Kourtney Bell, Skyler Hart, Will Stout, Jeremy Holm, Jaqueline Fleming, Damon Lipari and Dean J. West

October 29, 2020

by Carla Hay

Kourtney Bell in “Don’t Look Back” (Photo courtesy of Kamikaze Dogfight/Gravitas Ventures)

“Don’t Look Back” (2020)

Directed by Jeffrey Reddick

Culture Representation: Taking place in an unnamed U.S. city, the horror film “Don’t Look Back” features a predominantly white cast (with some African Americans, Latinos and Asians) representing the middle-class.

Culture Clash: Six witnesses to a homicide seem to be targeted by a vengeful killer because the witnesses stood by and didn’t do anything sooner to help the homicide victim.

Culture Audience: “Don’t Look Back” will appeal primarily to people who don’t mind watching low-budget horror flicks with an unimaginative story, big plot holes and mediocre acting.

Dean J. West in “Don’t Look Back” (Photo courtesy of Kamikaze Dogfight/Gravitas Ventures)

The horror movie “Don’t Look Back” was written and directed by Jeffrey Reddick, the writer/creator of the “Final Destination” horror-movie series, which featured survivors of various traumas who are haunted and killed off, one by one, by mysterious forces. (Each “Final Destination” movie had a deadly trauma, including a plane crash, a multi-car accident, a building collapse, and a roller-coaster derailment.) Reddick brings a similar premise to the subpar “Don’t Look Back,” a story about witnesses to a murder who become the targets of supernatural terror and serial killings. Unfortunately, “Don’t Look Back” (formerly titled “Good Samaritan”) has too many predictable clichés and too many shoddily written scenes for it to be considered “so bad it’s good.” It’s just plain bad.

“Don’t Look Back” has this over-used horror stereotype: the protagonist is a young female with a “good girl” image. However, the “Don’t Look Back” filmmakers at least defied racial stereotypes in horror movies, by casting the lead character Caitlin Kramer (played by Kourtney Bell) as an African American woman. Usually in horror movies, when an African American woman is the lead character, the rest of the cast is predominantly African American too. (One of the few exceptions is 2019’s “Ma,” starring Octavia Spencer.)

Caitlin’s race is never mentioned in the movie, because it doesn’t need to be. Even though “Don’t Look Back” is not a typical horror movie in its racial casting for the main protagonist, it still doesn’t erase the movie’s biggest flaw: the very hackneyed screenplay. People who’ve seen enough horror movies will be able to easily predict exactly how this story is going to go. But the movie’s ending still manages to disappoint because it comes across as a bad parody instead of something that should be terrifying.

“Don’t Look Back,” which takes place in an unnamed city, begins on Caitlin’s birthday, which is on August 27. The number 27 is repeatedly brought up in the movie as a symbolic number. But ultimately, it’s an element of the plot that’s not very important in figuring out who’s going to be next target of the murderous rampage in the story.

Caitlin (who appears to be in her mid-20s) is spending a quiet birthday with her widowed father (played by Orlando Eric Street) at their house. It’s morning, and he’s just made her some birthday pancakes, when the doorbell rings. Caitlin answers the door, and two masked intruders with guns burst in the home, while one of the home invaders asks Caitlin’s father: “Where’s the money?”

Caitlin and her father barely have time to react before they’re both shot. Caitlin survives, but her father doesn’t. Caitlin’s hospitalization is never seen in the movie, but she mentions later in the story that she was “dead” for three minutes. And she starts to believe that her near-death experience has given her psychic abilities or at least the ability to see dead people.

After the home invasion, the movie flashes forward to an unspecified time, but it can be assumed that it’s at least a year later. Caitlin is in therapy. She’s feeling survivor’s guilt and she’s also experiencing nightmares. She’s still living in the same house where the murder happened. But this time, she has a loving and supporting live-in boyfriend named Josh Bowman (played by Skyler Hart), who suggests that they move to a new home. However, Caitlin is reluctant to move because the house has too many memories of her father that Caitlin doesn’t want to leave behind.

Caitlin is trying to get her life back on track, because in one of the movie’s early scenes, she mentions to Josh that she “asked the school for my job back,” which is an indication that she stopped working during her recovery. There isn’t much context to these movie’s characters. For example, it’s never explained how long Caitlin and Josh have been together or how they met, but it’s briefly mentioned that Josh is a rising star at his unnamed corporate business job.

One day, while Caitlin is jogging in a public leisure area called Bristol Park, she accidentally drops her thermos. A stranger walking near her kindly returns the thermos to her. They introduce themselves to each other—he says his name is Douglas (played by Dean J. West)—and Caitlin thanks him and is about to continue on her way. But within seconds, she sees another man (played by Eric Stratemeier) run up to Douglas and start viciously attacking and beating up Douglas.

Caitlin and other people who are witnessing this assault stand by in shock. One of the bystanders takes out his phone and begins video recording the attack. Before Douglas collapses, he manages to gasp out, “Help me.” Caitlin snaps out of her shock and grabs the bystander’s phone and calls 911 for help.

However, several hours later, it’s reported in the news that Douglas died from his injuries, and his murderer is still on the loose. The murder victim was Douglas Helton, a local philanthropist who was well-respected in the community. One of Douglas’ ongoing charity endeavors was building shelters for victims of domestic violence.

The murder becomes a high-profile story in the news, and the people who were the bystanders to Douglas’ murder get a lot of criticism from the media and the general public. Rainn Wilson has a cameo in the movie as a TV news host named George Reed, who verbally blasts these bystanders and tries to portray them as complicit in the murder of Douglas. Some people in the general public think that the bystanders should be arrested, even though technically the bystanders didn’t do anything illegal during this murder.

At first, the public only knows the identity of one of the bystanders: computer programmer Nathan Rome (played by Stephen Twardokus), the man who recorded the murder on his phone in a video that has gone viral. Nathan is interviewed on George’s news program to defend his actions of video recording the assault instead of calling for help. Nathan explains that he didn’t call for help because he didn’t know if he would be attacked too. It’s an excuse that doesn’t help Nathan look more sympathetic, and there’s further backlash from the public.

In addition to Caitlin and Nathan, the other bystanders (who are mostly in their mid-to-late 30s) are single mother Althea Minnis (played by Jaqueline Fleming); Tony Cusumano (played by Han Soto); Curt Miley (played by Damon Lipari); and hair stylist Maria Sanchez (played by Amanda Grace Benitez), who appears to be in her late 20s. The lead police investigator on the case is Detective Boyd (played by Jeremy Holm), who is written as a somewhat generic homicide cop.

Caitlin attends a candlelight vigil for murder victim Douglas. The vigil, which takes place at the site where the murder happened, was organized by Douglas’ brother Lucas (played by Will Stout), who is handing out flyers at the vigil for an upcoming memorial tribute to Douglas. Caitlin and Althea see each other at the vigil. They introduce themselves to each other and talk about how they’re dealing with the trauma of witnessing the murder and how the public is judging them for being bystanders.

As the two women are talking, Lucas happens to walk up to them to give them memorial flyers, and he asks Caitlin and Althea how they knew Douglas. The two women lie and tell Lucas that they used to work with Douglas. A guilt-ridden Caitlin and Althea go their separate ways and don’t show any interest in keeping in touch with each other.

But then, while Caitlin is looking mournfully at the scene of the crime, which is decorated with flowers and candles, she whispers, “Please forgive me.” And all the candles are suddenly extinguished. Cue the spooky music.

The rest of the movie shows Caitlin experiencing visions of a bloodied and menacing Douglas appearing to her at random times, either in her dreams or when she’s awake. Caitlin then takes it upon herself to play private investigator when some of the other bystanders start to die from gruesome deaths. Caitlin doesn’t think that these deaths are a coincidence. And every time something bad is about to happen, a crow appears nearby.

The first bystander to die is Nathan. And it’s one of the more ludicrous scenes in the movie. After Douglas has died, Caitlin and Josh are having a nighttime meal outside of a bistro. At a nearby table, two gay boyfriends are looking at Nathan’s bystander video on their phone and commenting out loud about the brutality of the attack video. One of the men mentions the coincidence that Nathan happens to live in an apartment that’s located right above the bistro.

Caitlin notices a crow standing on a nearby garbage can. Seconds later, Nathan falls out of an open window, right in front of Caitlin and Josh. This body plunge causes instant death to Nathan. Caitlin quickly looks up and briefly sees a shadowy figure in the apartment window from where Nathan fell. Even though the police later found a suicide note in the apartment, Caitlin is pretty sure that Nathan’s death was a murder, not a suicide.

She takes her suspicions to a skeptical Detective Boyd, who calls in Caitlin and the other bystanders to Douglas’ murder to meet at the police station for further questioning. While these witnesses are all waiting in a police conference room, Lucas happens to be at the police station too. When Lucas passes by the conference room (another “coincidence” that’s too convenient), he figures out that all the people in the room are the bystanders who witnessed Douglas’ murder. Lucas has a very angry response when he confronts them in the room, and he’s particularly incensed that Caitlin and Althea lied to him about who they really are.

Not long after that confrontation, Lucas holds a press conference, where he names and shames the bystanders. As a result, the bystanders get even more public scorn and backlash. For example, Althea, who’s a single mother to a teenage son, gets spit at in the face by a random woman while Althea and her son are walking down the street. Maria loses customers at the hair salon where she works. It’s eventually revealed in the movie that Maria is Curt’s mistress, and she was on a date with Curt on that fateful day in the park, so Curt’s wife finds out and leaves him. Predictably gory deaths soon follow.

There’s a minor subplot about how Caitlin and Josh are very different when it comes to spiritual issues. Caitlin is a religious Christian who goes to church on a regular basis. Josh is an atheist or non-religious. And on the rare occasion that Josh goes to church with Caitlin, it’s only because he wants to be polite and show her support. “Mad Men” alum Bryan Batt has a brief and inconsequential cameo as Reverend Farmer, the pastor for Caitlin’s church.

The differences between Caitlin and Josh when it comes to spiritual beliefs are in the movie to make sure that Josh, the person closest to Caitlin, is skeptical of her ghostly visions of Douglas. Caitlin becomes increasingly suspicious that an evil spirit is targeting her and the rest of the bystanders. But some people in the story start to think she’s becoming mentally unstable.

It doesn’t help that Caitlin happens to be at the crime scene every time one of her fellow bystanders dies. Guess who becomes a “person of interest” in these mysterious deaths? And when the murdered body count starts to pile up in a short period of time, it leads to a very formulaic showdown, because we all know which of the bystanders will be the last one standing. There are two surprise “twists” toward the end of film that are easily predicted and not very surprising at all. And because the crow is over-used in the movie to signal when something bad is going to happen, that obvious foreshadowing leaves no room for suspense whatsoever.

“Don’t Look Back” could have been a better film if it didn’t rip off other movies that have had similar concepts. Overall, Bell (as beleaguered heroine Caitlin) does an adequate performance, as do the most of the film’s other actors, but there’s not much more that can be elevated when the screenplay is of such low quality. “Don’t Look Back” is also directed in a substandard way that is not very terrifying. There are many other horror films that have set the bar very high for true originality and creativity, but “Don’t Look Back” prefers to stay in the low depths of horror clichés that are the equivalent of recycled garbage.

Kamikaze Dogfight and Gravitas Ventures released “Don’t Look Back” in select U.S. cinemas, digital and VOD on October 16, 2020.

Review: ‘Still Here’ (2020), starring Johnny Whitworth, Maurice McRae and Zazie Beetz

September 2, 2020

by Carla Hay

Maurice McRae in “Still Here” (Photo courtesy of Blue Fox Entertainment)

“Still Here” (2020)

Directed by Vlad Feier

Culture Representation: Taking place in New York City, the dramatic film “Still Here” has a racially diverse cast (African American and white) representing the middle-class and working-class.

Culture Clash: A journalist takes it upon himself to investigate the case of a missing 10-year-old girl because he thinks the police aren’t doing enough in the investigation.

Culture Audience: “Still Here” will appeal mostly to people who don’t mind watching predictable B-movies with mediocre acting and a lot of badly written scenes.

Johnny Whitworth and Leopold Manswell in “Still Here” (Photo courtesy of Blue Fox Entertainment)

The dramatic film “Still Here” desperately tries to look like it’s got a higher social conscience than the average B-movie, but the results are phony, awkward and downright dumb. “Still Here” also wants to have its cake and eat it too: It portrays the New York Police Department as racist and corrupt, but the movie’s entire concept is based on the over-used, racially condescending trope that black people are helpless until a “white savior” comes along to solve their problems.

Directed by Vlad Feier (who co-wrote the screenplay with Peter Gutter), the entire movie reeks of being made by filmmakers who don’t know how to accurately depict contemporary New York City and the African Americans who live there. It looks like the filmmakers of “Still Here” have mostly gotten their stereotypical ideas from what they’ve seen in movies and TV shows. And this inaccuracy is what often happens when people from certain communities are written and directed in a problematic way by people who don’t come from those communities.

The movie’s basic plot is that a working-class African American family is reeling from the mysterious disappearance of a 10-year-old girl in the family. The police don’t seem to care, but a crusading white journalist decides to do his own investigation, and he’s the only one who can get things done and save the day. It’s as simple-minded and formulaic as it sounds.

“Still Here” begins with distraught father Michael Watson (played by Maurice McRae) putting up missing-person flyers about his 10-year-old daughter Monique (played by Zariah Singletary) in the New York City neighborhood where they live. At this point in the story, Monique has been missing for eight days, and Michael is getting increasingly stressed-out because the police haven’t made any progress in the investigation.

Michael, who works as a mechanic, is also seen in a support group for parents of missing children. There’s a scene of him in a group meeting, where he’s clearly agitated. The movie has Michael’s voiceovers during the meeting, so people can hear his inner thoughts, such as “What am I doing here?” As some members of the support group drone on about their depressing situations, Michael can’t take it any more. He abruptly gets up in the middle of the meeting and announces, “This ain’t right,” before storming out.

While Michael is canvassing the neighborhood, looking for Monique and distributing the missing-person flyers, Michael’s wife Tiffany (played by Afton Williamson) has had an opposite but equally distressed reaction: She’s become so depressed that she can barely leave the apartment where she and Michael live with their teenage son Andre (played by Jared Kemp), who has stopped going to school because Monique’s disappearance has caused Andre to have panic attacks. Tiffany doesn’t do much in this movie, except cry near a candle-lit, living-room shrine that’s dedicated to Monique and plead with Michael not to lose his temper when he gets angry over how the investigation is being handled by authorities.

Because “Still Here” lazily throws in as many negative African American clichés as possible in the movie, the Watson family lives in public housing. Whether you want to call it “the projects” or “the ‘hood,” it’s still a ghetto stereotype. “Still Here” repeatedly uses the Watson family’s social class as a way to make these African Americans look as pitiful as possible, so that when the “savior” comes along, he can look even more like a noble do-gooder.

And who is the “hero” of the story who thinks he can solve this missing person’s case all by himself? It’s Christian Baker (played by Johnny Whitworth), a somewhat cocky journalist who works for the fictional New York City daily newspaper The Chronicle. When viewers first see Christian, he tells his editor boss Jerry Hoffman (played by Larry Pine) that he doesn’t want to cover a charity event because it’s not hard news.

Christian obviously thinks that easy puff pieces are beneath him and he’s bored with the assignments that he’s been getting lately. Jerry tells Christian: “You haven’t been delivering for too long. You’re walking a thin line here, sport.” But lo and behold, Jerry has an idea for an assignment that Christian would be willing to do.

Jerry tells Christian about the disappearance of Monique Watson: “The cops aren’t pursuing it. You know how it is: Poor black family in a poor black neighborhood … Cops aren’t interested. They don’t give a fuck. And why should they? They don’t get medals for that.”

Christian eagerly takes the assignment. And this is where “Still Here” really goes downhill, because the movie wants people think that even though Christian makes a lot of stupid mistakes, he’s still a fantastic investigator. In the real world, he would be considered grossly incompetent and lacking in basic common sense. It should also be noted that Christian, who likes to wear scarves and designer coats, is always dressed as if he’s about to have drinks at a trendy cocktail lounge, instead of going to some of the run-down seedy areas where he has to go during the course of his “investigation.”

There are so many things wrong with how the movie shows Christian doing his “investigating.” For starters, Christian wants to go to the Watson family home unannounced to talk to Monique’s parents, but he doesn’t know where they live. Instead of researching this information, like any good journalist would do (and the information would be very easy to find by using The Chronicle’s address-finding resources), he decides to go to the neighborhood where the Watson family lives, with the hope that someone can tell him which building is the one where the family resides. Christian walks around a cluster of housing projects, and then asks a group of four young African American men hanging around outside the buildings if they know where the Watson family lives.

The guy who appears to be the leader of the group is named Reggie Green (played by Leopold Manswell), and he can immediately tell that Christian isn’t street-smart at all and takes full advantage of Christian’s ignorance. Reggie basically tells Christian that the only way that he’ll tell Christian where the Watson family lives is if Christian pays him. Christian gives $100 to Reggie, just so Reggie can point to the building where the Watson family lives.

Christian goes to the building and looks at the mailboxes to find out which one is for the Watsons’ apartment. And because this is an apartment in “the ghetto,” of course the elevators don’t work, so Christian has to walk up to the fourth-floor apartment by using the stairs. His unannounced visit is a disaster.

Michael answers the door. Christian introduces himself and tells Michael that he’s from The Chronicle and wants to help with the investigation into Monique’s disappearance. (Christian doesn’t show any identification, by the way.) Michael gives this reply before slamming the door in Christian’s face: “You want to help? Then get the fuck out of here!”

After Christian gets this rude awakening that being a white journalist doesn’t automatically mean that he’ll be welcomed with open arms in certain neighborhoods, he goes back outside and tries to get some more information from Reggie, who’s hanging out in the same place with his friends. Reggie has noticed that Christian is wearing an expensive watch, so it’s no surprise that Reggie tells Christian that he won’t reveal any more information until Christian gives Reggie the watch, which Christian reluctantly and foolishly does.

Reggie then tells Christian something that’s pure gossip and speculation: He says that a taxi driver who lives in the same cluster of buildings used to park in a certain area every day at a certain time of day, but the taxi driver wasn’t parked there on the day that Monique disappeared and the taxi driver hasn’t been seen since. Reggie says that he doesn’t think it’s a coincidence.

And what does Christian do with this speculation? He finds out the name of the taxi driver and tells his editor boss Jerry that this taxi driver is probably the “suspect” that the police have overlooked. It’s one of the movie’s many unrealistic moments, because the taxi driver isn’t a “suspect.” He’s not even a “person of interest,” because there’s no proof that this taxi driver had any contact with Monique.

Christian thinks that the only way for the police to jumpstart the investigation into Monique’s disappearance is if the police are shamed into it by a news report that says that the police overlooked a “suspect.” His irresponsible boss Jerry agrees. And so, the next day, The Chronicle runs a front-page article, written by Christian, with the headline “Taxi Driver, Yann Abellard, Overlooked by Investigators in Monique Watson’s Disappearance.” Christian is both smug and excited about this article.

This inflammatory and very unethical article, which could ruin an innocent man’s reputation, sets off a chain of events, during which “Still Here” tries to hammer over viewers’ heads the ideas that all New York City police officers are corrupt and/or racist and that Christian is the only journalist who can find out what happened to Monique. One of the movie’s disturbing scenes is when taxi driver Yann Abellard (played by Baboucarr Camara) is brought in for brutal questioning by the NYPD. He’s an African immigrant who’s scared out of his mind, and he vehemently proclaims that he’s innocent.

Although the interrogation methods are over-the-top, it’s one of the few times in the movie where there is some realism. The scene shows what can happen when someone is brought in for questioning by police and that person doesn’t know enough about their rights to ask for a lawyer, which (by American law) would put a stop to the questioning. At various times in the movie, there are other people who fall under suspicion about Monique’s disappearance, including her brother Andre and a neighbor in his 20s named Marcus Mitchell (played by Justin A. Davis), who lives on the same floor as the Watson family.

Michael is highly suspicious of Christian’s motives for getting involved in the investigation, because he thinks that Christian just wants to exploit the family’s pain and not help them. However, Michael’s wife Tiffany is more willing to listen to what Christian has to say. Christian eventually wins over the family’s trust when he tells them that he doesn’t like how the NYPD has been handling the case and he can do a better job than the police have been doing in investigating Monique’s disappearance.

As for the corrupt and racist NYPD cops, there’s a scene where the case’s chief investigator Captain Hardwick (played by Steven Hauck) tells a white subordinate cop what he thinks about the media attention over the case: “I’m not losing my job because some black little bitch got lost on the way home.” Captain Hardwick essentially tells his underlings to find and arrest a suspect, even if there’s no real evidence against that person.

The two subordinates who’ve been tasked with most of the investigation are black cop Anthony Evans (played by Danny Johnson) and white cop Greg Spaulding (played by Jeremy Holm), who have very different views on how they should handle the case. Anthony has no problems carrying out their boss’ orders to find and arrest a suspect, regardless if there’s no evidence. Greg is more reluctant, and he feels guilty about possibly targeting someone who might be innocent.

It’s implied that Anthony is willing to go as far as frame someone for the crime. And the fact that it will probably be a fellow African American doesn’t seem to bother him in the least. “Ain’t no shame in the game,” Anthony tells Greg, in one of the movie’s many cringeworthy lines. It speaks volumes that the filmmakers wanted to make the African American cop a bigger villain than his white colleague.

Zazie Beetz shares top billing in this movie, probably because she has a red-hot career right now, but her headlining status for this movie is misleading. Her fans and other viewers should be warned that Beetz only has one scene in “Still Here,” which has her on screen for about five minutes. She plays Keysha, an ex-girlfriend of Marcus. This movie can’t get enough of pointing out the cultural differences that Christian experiences as a white “fish out of water” in a predominantly African American “ghetto.” There’s a scene where Reggie tells Christian that Keysha might have some information, and Christian has trouble pronouncing her name.

The actors in this movie don’t do anything particularly outstanding. McCrae is given a few scenes where he convincingly expresses anguish as the father of a missing child whom the police don’t seem to care about, while Wentworth doesn’t seem to have a lot emotionally invested in his drab role as Christian. The movie shows almost nothing about what kind of person Christian is when he’s not working, except a random scene of him dancing suggestively with a woman at a nightclub. This nightclub scene’s only purpose is to establish that Christian is sexually interested in women, so that viewers know that Christian is the prototypical good-looking, straight white male who usually gets to be the hero in movies like this one.

“Still Here” is not the worst movie you could ever see. It’s just an incredibly lazy and culturally tone-deaf film that offers nothing that’s impressively creative. In the real world of New York City newspaper journalism, a dolt like Christian wouldn’t last on a crime beat, let alone be given front-page assignments, because he’s just so bungling and willfully ignorant of how crime investigations work. The next time that “Still Here” director Feier makes a movie, let’s hope he makes an attempt to tell the story in a more authentic way.

Blue Fox Entertainment released “Still Here” in select U.S. cinemas on August 28, 2020, and on digital and VOD on September 1, 2020.