Anguish (1987) This unique movie within a movie from writer/director Bigas Luna stars Michael Lerner as John, a middle-aged man stuck in a stage of arrested development. He works as an orderly in a hospital clinic that specializes in eye disorders, and lives with his domineering mother (Zelda Rubenstein). She compels him to kill, collecting his victims’ eyes as trophies. Nothing in the film, however, is quite as it seems, as the story shifts from fantasy to reality (at least the cinematic reality established here) as we watch an audience watching a movie. Some of the supporting performances are uneven, but Lerner and Rubenstein captivate. Anguish is gory, playful and inventive, and will keep you guessing until the final scene.
Rating: ***½. Available on DVD and Amazon Video
The Loved Ones (2009) Writer/director Sean Byrne’s film rises above the usual slasher film trappings, with its themes of loneliness, grief and belonging. Months after losing his father in a car accident, high-schooler Brent (Xavier Samuel) is picking up the pieces of his life. Things turn from bad to worse, however, after he rejects Lola (Robin McLeavy) for the upcoming prom. With the help of her father (John Brumpton), Lola kidnaps Brent, and brings him home to a little celebration of her own. What follows is an unnerving game of cat and mouse, as she employs some rather unconventional methods (including a power drill) to persuade him to see things her way. The Loved Ones also takes the unusual step of fleshing out its secondary characters, an awkward would-be lothario and his aloof goth-girl date. What binds many of the characters together thematically, is a sort of desperation, as the film explores what it means to be an outsider.
Rating: ***½. Available on Blu-ray, DVD and Hulu
The People Under the Stairs (1991) Wes Craven’s sly commentary on haves and have-nots has aged a little too well in our increasingly fractious society. Fool (Brandon Quintin Adams) and his family are facing eviction from their dilapidated tenement building, where they live hand to mouth. Meanwhile, their pious, reclusive slumlords hide their wealth and dirty secrets behind barred windows (including a basement dungeon and a house full of booby traps). It’s an odd mix of Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Addams Family that works, thanks to a tongue-in-cheek approach. Adams is great as Fool who’s anything but – okay, he’s more of a fool in the Shakespearean sense, seeing the truth that hides just out of sight. Wendy Robie and Everett McGill are also inspired as the demented couple who run their own house of horrors. Scenes with McGill running around in a gimp suit and a shotgun are nothing short of sublime.
Rating: ***½. Available on Blu-ray and DVD
The Return of the Vampire (1944) Bela Lugosi stars as the centuries-old vampire Armand Tesla (no relation to Nikola Tesla, I gather). Columbia didn’t have the rights to use the Dracula name, but we all know what character Lugosi channeled for this movie. Instead of Renfield, he’s joined by a werewolf assistant Andreas (Matt Willis). As far as werewolves go, Andreas lacks bite (don’t hurt me), but he’ll probably go down in film history as one of the most articulate lycanthropes. There are no big surprises about this rather pedestrian vampire story, but the setting in World War II England, along with the real-life horrors of the blitzkrieg, adds another dimension to the film. Worth a look for Lugosi fans and those who prefer their werewolves on the cuddlier side.
Rating: ***. Available on DVD
Burial Ground (aka: Le Notti del Terrore) (1981) What begins as a fairly standard zombie flick becomes something special, thanks to extra layers of sleaze and ineptitude. A group of overprivileged twerps embark on a weekend retreat in a medieval European castle, and soon must tangle with the undead. Burial Ground, has its share of WTF moments to keep you entertained, many due to an adult little person's (Peter Bark) head-scratching portrayal of a 12-year-old boy. The movie features terrible dialogue, terrible makeup, endless scenes with people making stupid choices, and a child who’s a little too attached to his mother. It’s an oddly entertaining, albeit tasteless mix, so anyone seeking quality should look elsewhere.
Rating: **½. Available on Blu-ray and DVD
Wendigo (2001) On the way to their vacation home, a yuppie family (Patricia Clarkson, Jake Weber and Erik Per Sullivan) traveling in upstate New York hit a deer. This proves to be only the beginning of their troubles, as they evoke the scorn of some hunters, and suspicion by the townspeople. Wendigo shares similarities to Deliverance and Let’s Scare Jessica to Death, with city dwellers that are way out of their element. Writer/director Larry Fessenden adds a supernatural spin to this fish out of water theme. A malevolent force, in the form of an ancient, shape-shifting Native American spirit, may be lurking about the woods. There are some fine performances, but the pacing is sluggish, it’s not very scary, and ultimately the film can’t decide what it wants to be. When the creature finally makes an appearance (in two different forms), it looks unconvincing. There’s a lot of potential with the wendigo myth, but my advice for future filmmakers is not to make the title creature a minor character.
Rating: **½. Available on DVD and Amazon Video
Son of Ingagi (1940) Here’s a true oddity: one of the first horror films with an all African American cast. Newlyweds Robert and Eleanor Lindsay (Alfred Grant and Daisy Bufford) inherit an old mansion and fortune from a reclusive scientist played by Laura Bowman. The scientist was on the verge of a scientific breakthrough (All we see is her pouring one test tube into another – you know, science!) when she’s killed by the ape man (Zack Williams) she keeps in her basement laboratory (who doesn’t?). Exactly what sort of breakthrough for humanity she was working on (She laments, “What has humanity ever done for me?”), or how she got a murderous apelike creature through customs, is never explained. In fact, it’s best if you don’t question much about what you see in Son of Ingagi, but the leads are amiable enough, and it’s only 70 minutes. If nothing else, it’s worth a look for the historical value.
Rating: **½. Available on DVD and Amazon Video
Society (1989) Bill Whitney (Billy Warlock) attends exclusive Beverly Hills High School, where he seems to have all the breaks. He’s one of the most popular kids in school, with a glamorous girlfriend and a nice car, but suspects something isn’t quite right. He senses everyone plotting something under his nose, and feels as if he doesn’t belong in his family. Director Brian Yuzna aims high with social satire, but doesn’t quite hit the mark. It starts strong, as a light ‘80s high school comedy that suddenly takes an intriguing dark turn, but falls apart by the end, with an ending that seems rushed. The premise that the upper crust live as a different species was handled much better by John Carpenter in They Live, from the preceding year. But while Carpenter’s film has only become timelier, Society, by comparison, seems dated.
Rating: **½. Available on Blu-ray, DVD and Amazon Video
Body Melt (1993) A revolutionary new weight-loss drug is tested on some Melbourne suburbanites, and bad things happen as the test subjects dissolve from the inside out. The film starts with an interesting premise, but it’s poorly executed, with ill-defined characters, and the weak plot meanders. It has all the trappings of a cult film, but it’s undermined by an inconsistent tone that doesn’t work as straight horror, satire, or horror/comedy. In the end, it’s not funny enough or unusual enough to merit a fan base.
Rating: **. Available on DVD and Amazon Video