DEAD SHACK (Canada, dir. Peter Ricq)
Teenagers Summer (Lizzie Boys) and Colin (Gabriel LaBelle) are roped into hanging out at a remote cabin with their wildly irresponsible dad Roger (Donavon Stinson) and his drunk girlfriend Lisa (Valerie Tian). At least Colin managed to convince his friend Jason (Matthew Nelson-Mahood) to come along so he’ll have someone to hang out with when Roger and Lisa get too tanked to play cards. The teenagers go for a walk in the forest and happen upon the home of a mysterious woman (Lauren Holly) who has lured a pair of young men to her remote house. Colin is compelled to peep, but gets more than he bargained for when instead of seeing them having sex, he sees the woman feeding the guys to a room full of zombies. They rush back to the cabin for help, but it’s too late: Roger and Lisa are already super, super drunk. It’s up to Summer, Colin, and Jason to save everyone and escape from their neighbor’s evil scheme. Who will survive, and how bad will their hangover be? DEAD SHACK is a gory, unpretentious horror/comedy with a very likable cast and personality to spare. Donavon Stinson steals the show as goofy drunk Roger, and Lauren Holly gives her character some emotional weight despite having only a few lines. Not all the jokes land, of course, but the hit-to-miss ratio is better than most indie horror films at this level. It’s also virtually miraculous that debut fiction feature director Peter Ricq and his co-writers Phil Ivanusic and Davila LeBlanc managed to find an interesting angle on the zombie movie, a subgenre that seems totally exhausted save for those exceedingly rare bright spots like this. DEAD SHACK is a charming, gruesome blast.
VERONICA (Spain, dir. Paco Plaza)
In the Summer of 1991, Madrid police answer a desperate emergency phone call placed by teenager Veronica (Sandra Escacena). When they arrive, her mother and two little sisters are in front of the building clutching each other in terror, while Veronica and her little brother Antoñito (Iván Chavero) are still in the apartment. The action then jumps a few months back to the day of a full solar eclipse, when Veronica and two of her friends decide to try to contact the other side with a Ouija board. Veronica, exhausted from caring for Antoñito, Lucía (Bruna González), and Irene (Claudia Placer) while her mother constantly works, just wants to talk to her late father. They make contact with someone or something, but soon thereafter Veronica begins to suffer ominous hallucinations. But what if they’re not just hallucinations? And what do they want with Veronica and her siblings? VERONICA is based on the real-life case of Estefanía Gutiérrez Lázaro, the only case in Spain’s history in which supernatural events are officially on file. Veteran horror director Paco Plaza expertly stages a series of increasingly hair-raising set pieces, mostly in the family’s apartment. In addition to his well-crafted scares, the film is absolutely sold with a slate of fantastic performances by first-time film actress(!) Sandra Escacena in the lead and the kids who play her brother and sisters. They’re all excellent and natural, giving the film a current of humor when it threatens to become overwhelmingly dark. Possession and exorcism movies are all too common these days, but VERONICA brings a level of artistry and a new wrinkle to the formula, resulting in an exemplary horror film well worth seeking out.
TRENCH 11 (Canada, dir. Leo Scherman)
World War I is nearly over when British intelligence learns of a secret underground complex built by the Germans. A team is hastily assembled to “observe and report” with two British officers, three American soldiers, and traumatized Canadian Berton (Rossif Sutherland), who just months before managed to survive nearly two weeks underground when a tunnel collapsed on him. Meanwhile, the Germans know that if the horrific research in Trench 11 is discovered by the British, the consequences will be dire. They send a team in led by the former head of research Reiner (Robert Stadlober), who is less interested in destroying evidence than recovering his work. At least Reiner knows what to expect; the British team learns too late why Trench 11 was sealed up and abandoned, and soon everyone is fighting for their lives against an insidious monster that can infect and take over anyone. TRENCH 11 is a solid, tense creature feature that feels a bit like David Cronenberg’s SHIVERS transplanted into early 20th century Europe (and underground). It has plenty of effectively gruesome and creepy practical effects that bring its monsters to queasily convincing life, and its tight, dark spaces give the whole film an unsettlingly claustrophobic edge. Director and co-writer Leo Scherman has a ton of TV credits to his name including directing episodes of PANIC BUTTON and SCARE TACTICS, and that background seems to have prepared him thoroughly for the particular requirements of this film. The end feels rather abrupt, coming as it does at a point where the film feels like it probably has a good 15 minutes or more left, but that’s a fairly minor point against what is otherwise a great, fun, and unique independent horror movie.
MOHAWK (USA, dir. Ted Geoghegan)
1814: The young United States has been at war for two years, but the Mohawk tribe steadfastly refuses to engage in the conflict. Calvin Two Rivers (Justin Rain) is itching to join the fight against the colonialists to protect his people, his partner Oak (Kaniehtiio Horn), and both the personal relationship he and Oak share with Briton Joshua Pinsmail (Eamon Farren) and the trade relationship with Britain he has established with the Mohawk. Acting impulsively, Calvin slaughters every soldier in a remote fort and brings down the wrath of Hezekiah Holt (Ezra Buzzington). Holt enlists a small team to track down Calvin and wipe out the Mohawk people, who have taken flight North. Despite the help of professional tracker Sherwood Beal (Robert Longstreet), Holt’s crew is unprepared for just how tough a job it is to find someone in a vast forest in which they do not want to be found. But what they lack in knowledge of the terrain they make up for in sheer bloodlust, and before this is over both sides will suffer devastating losses. Ted Geoghegan’s directorial debut was WE ARE STILL HERE, a gruesome haunted house film that garnered acclaim on the genre film fest circuit a few years ago. MOHAWK is his follow-up, and it could hardly be more different: shot almost entirely in the outdoors using natural light and based in historical fact (Geoghegan’s co-writer, novelist Grady Hendrix, is a serious student of American history), this film strikes a bold path away from typical genre cinema in a totally unexpected direction. It’s bleak and violent, but it’s also surprisingly entertaining. As unpleasant as it can be, Geoghegan keeps the action moving at a brisk pace and stages some effectively tense sequences throughout. During the post-screening Q&A, he explained that star Kaniehtiio Horn is Mohawk herself, and the film was shot in the country where the Mohawk lived during the period in which the film takes place. His respect for history and Native American culture shows in the movie, which uses spare period detail (mostly in its costuming) to set the stage for its action. MOHAWK is a hell of a second feature, and whatever Geoghegan has up next will definitely be worth looking out for.
APPLECART (USA, dir. Brad Baruh)
Casey and James Pollack (Brea Grant and AJ Bowen) are heading to a cabin in the woods for a snowy weekend getaway with their teenage kids Jessica (Sophie Dalah) and Jason (Joshua Hoffman) and Jessica’s friend Becky (Elise Luthman). While everything seems fine, the audience knows something is about to go very wrong when we are shown the opening sequence of an episode of the TV series INSIDE CRIME about the murder of the Pollack family at the hands of Casey. When we return to the Pollacks, James finds a woman unconscious in the woods and brings her back to the cabin–when she wakes, she introduces herself as Leslie Bison (Barbara Crampton) and immediately makes everyone very uncomfortable with some inappropriate behavior. APPLECART continues on these parallel tracks, cutting back and forth from the story as it unfolds and the 100% pitch-perfect replica of an Investigation Discovery-style “true crime” TV show. The whole cast is great, but Barbara Crampton is incredibly funny and menacing in a career-best performance, much different from the typical roles we’ve grown used to seeing her in lately. It would be worth watching APPLECART for her even if it didn’t have some impressively gruesome and imaginative practical effects that help make up for its narrative problems.
The version of APPLECART screened at Cinepocalypse was a new edit from the world premiere that screened at Fantastic Fest back in September. While it retained some basic structural issues, it did feel considerably tighter. Cutting back on the true crime show sequences and giving more time to the family members (and one particularly memorable addition for Crampton’s character) made the film feel much more cohesive and eased some of the tonal whiplash between the horror film narrative and the humor in the show segments. Overall the new edit is a notable improvement, making APPLECART easier to recommend as a fun and unique take on the old “cabin in the woods” style of horror story.
RENDEL (Finland, dir. Jesse Haaja)
While pharmaceutical conglomerate VALA ramps up production on a vaccine to send to suffering African countries, a mysterious figure is making trouble for their less humanitarian interests. VALA, as it happens, is a front for a vast criminal organization with its hands in large-scale drug running. When a group of the thugs who work for Rotikka (Rami Rusinen), unstable son of VALA’s president, turn up dead with the word “RENDEL” carved into their backs, it’s up to Rotikka to find the vigilante and kill him before the biggest deal in VALA history is ruined. Is the group of top-tier assassins run by the dangerously unpredictable Radek (Johnny Vivash) up to the job? And just who is this masked man? RENDEL is a dark superhero origin film for a character that shares many similarities with Marvel’s The Punisher, although with some noteworthy and somewhat inexplicable differences. When Rendel’s identity is eventually unveiled, it raises a lot of questions that are difficult to overlook. Still, the film at least has a somewhat goofy streak of humor, so it’s tough to argue that it takes itself too seriously. The tonal mismatch between the dark and gritty look of the film and its occasional punch lines makes it tough to get a handle on just what RENDEL wants to be. It’s not a great superhero movie, and it completely falls apart if you spend any time thinking about it, but moment to moment there’s plenty of fun to be had here.
BEYOND SKYLINE (Singapore, dir. Liam O’Donnell)
Alcoholic cop Mark (Frank Grillo) picks up his son Trent (Jonny Weston) from the police station after he’s gotten into another public altercation, but Mark’s too drunk to drive home. While they’re on a commuter train underground, an alien invasion begins and the two men are forced to team up with train conductor Audrey (Bojana Novakovic) and a ragtag group of fellow passengers, homeless veteran Sarge (Antonio Fargas), and a couple of Mark’s cop friends to face the threat. Through some derring-do and unbelievable luck, they end up in an alien ship that crash-lands in Singapore, where resistance fighter Sua (Iko Uwais) and a group of rebels fight the police force that has gone wild since the invasion began. Mark made some discoveries in the alien ship that give him hope the aliens can be defeated, but it’ll take nothing short of a miracle–and plenty of badass hand-to-hand combat with towering alien foot soldiers backed up by kaiju-sized tank monsters–to save humanity. Just about anybody would probably put SKYLINE near the bottom of a list of films one would expect to get a sequel, but here we are. Thankfully, BEYOND SKYLINE is a massive improvement on the first film in every conceivable way. It’s hugely ambitious, with fantastic effects that seamlessly meld practical and CG approaches. This is a world away from the housebound action of the first film, which took place largely in one apartment. Grillo delivers a typically solid lead performance, and Iko Uwais and co-star Yayan Ruhian must have had a blast choreographing fights with the alien soldiers. The end of the film sets the stage for an even bigger, wilder third entry in the series before jumping immediately into a fun and hilarious blooper reel that runs under the first section of the end credits. It’s big, loud, slick fun that doesn’t take itself too seriously and doesn’t require a viewing of the first film to make sense. If that’s not a damn near perfect sequel to SKYLINE (or any other middling indie sci-fi movie), what possibly could be?
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Tags: AJ Bowen, Antonio Fargas, Applecart, Barbara Crampton, Beyond Skyline, Bojana Novakovic, Brad Baruh, Brea Grant, Bruna Gonzalez, Chicago, Cinepocalypse, Claudia Placer, David Cronenberg, Davila LeBlanc, Dead Shack, Donavan Stinson, Eamon Farren, Elise Luthman, Estafania Gutierrez Lazaro, Ezra Buzzington, Film Festivals, Frank Grillo, Gabriel LaBelle, Grady Hendrix, iko uwais, Ivan Chavero, Jesse Haaja, Johnny Vivash, Jonny Weston, Joshua Hoffman, Justin Rain, Kaniehtiio Horn, Lauren Holly, Leo Scherman, Liam O'Donnell, Lizzie Boys, Matthew Nelson-Mahood, Mohawk, Music Box Theatre, Paco Plaza, Panic Button, Peter Ricq, Phil Ivanusic, Rami Rusinen, Rendel, Robert Longstreet, Robert Stadlober, Rossif Sutherland, Sandra Escacena, Scare Tactics, Shivers, Skyline, Sophie Dalah, Ted Geoghegan, Trench 11, Valerie Tian, Veronica, We Are Still Here, Yayan Ruhian