Here's the latest round-up of recent horror movies I've been streaming on Shudder and other services. But mostly Shudder. I don't know how we ever lived without a service the pumps a new horror movie right to our televisions on a weekly basis.
Anything For Jackson (2020)
I was very relieved that this movie is a little bit more offbeat than you might expect. As the parent of a 3-year-old whose middle name is Jackson, I probably couldn't handle a depressing, grief-soaked take on two grandparents trying to bring their grandson back to life. Mercifully, Anything for Jackson has an impish streak to it: it flirts with dark humor because it's obvious these grandparents are in over their heads and are messing with dark forces beyond their control, so it's amusing to watch them sweat it out when things go sour. I'm sure there's a somber version of this premise that would be more thoughtful and make these two more sympathetic, but, thankfully, this ain't it. It's more Evil Dead than it is Pet Sematary in that respect, and the humor is subtly balanced with all of the horrific imagery (and, oh man, the image of the grotesque nightmare woman violently flossing her teeth to the floor will haunt you).
The Satanism stuff is especially wry: the sight of these two milquetoast grandparents convening in a hotel conference room with their fellow weekend Satanist enthusiasts is funny. And if you're not sure you're supposed to laugh at it, the over-the-top cliché true believer among them (Josh Cruddas) leaves no doubt: he's a basement dwelling geek who listens to death metal and goes off on his mom when she insists on serving him dinner. The emphasis on such ineffectual, ridiculous characters getting their just desserts for hatching a harebrained plot is vaguely reminiscent of something out of a Coen brothers movie, right down to someone being ground up in machinery.
Body at Brighton Rock (2019)
After producing and directing segments of various anthology films, Roxanne Benjamin makes her feature debut with this sharp survival story that’s about as elemental as it gets: when novice, part-time state park employee Wendy (Karina Fontes) wanders off the trail just before sunset, her situation seems perilous enough. But after she discovers a dead body, her supervisors insist that she must stay overnight and secure what could be a crime scene, forcing her to wonder if she has the fortitude to survive the ordeal. Benjamin’s crafty filmmaking carves a compelling story from such a thin premise (you can easily imagine this just being another anthology segment), as Wendy encounters a mysterious hiker, battles her paranoia, and even fends off mother nature itself to survive the night.
Body at Brighton Rock thrives on Benjamin’s light touch: from the retro opening credits to Wendy blissfully bouncing along to an Oingo Boingo tune, it’s clear that it’s meant to evoke the stuff of fun survival thrillers—which is not to say it’s absolutely harmless. On the contrary, Fontes is so convincing as the in-over-her-head Wendy that her vulnerability (and frequent screw-ups) often create more tension than the external forces. You feel so awful for this poor girl that even the slightest snap of a twig in the woods creates suspense. The script leaning on one too many cheap fake-outs down the stretch aside, I enjoyed this sharp, stylish little thriller, all the way down to an out-of-nowhere twist that really only feels random if you ignored those ethereal opening credits, where the otherworldly harpsichord signals that you’re encroaching on Eurohorror territory and all of the illogic that often entails. I can’t wait to see what Benjamin does with Night of the Comet.
The Queen of Black Magic (2019)
An update-in-name-only of the infamous 1981 brain-sizzler, Kimo Stamboel and Joko Anwar transplant the titular sorceress into the center of a bewitching mystery. When a group of men and their families return to their childhood orphanage, they begin to learn that the grisly lore swapped by its current lodgers has roots in their own traumatic childhood experiences. What’s more, it’s not just harmless campfire tales: something malicious and unseen haunts the site, its presence growing increasingly potent as it leaves a trail of corpses in its wake. This Queen of Black Magic is a different beast from its predecessor: it’s a little bit more of a slow, suffocating burn than a complete, unhinged freakout. This is not to say it doesn’t have its moments as it weaves squeamish shocks with harrowing suspense in subjecting its characters to a brutal, unrelenting revenge plot hatched from beyond the grave. It does miss the tactile nastiness of the original’s effects work, often opting instead for weightless CGI, but make no mistake: it goes for broke, right down to putting its own spin on the original’s infamous decapitation scene.
Spiral takes a familiar conceit—a man begins to suspect his neighbors might be up to something nefarious—and twists it into an exploration of how power and privilege conspire to prey upon the weak and the vulnerable. When Malik (Jeffrey Bowyer-Chapman) and Aaron (Ari Cohen) move to a small town with their daughter (Jennifer Laporte), they think they’ve escaped the persecution that’s followed them their entire adult lives. Malik especially longs for escape, having watched bigots brutally murder his boyfriend years ago during a traumatic episode that continues to haunt him. The community is welcoming, almost suspiciously so, and Malik begins to assume it’s too good to be true. A ranting neighbor arrives on his lawn late at night with a cryptic warning, and, sure enough, Malik starts to glimpse strange behavior in the house across the street, where Marshall (Lochlyn Munro) and Tiffany (Chandra West) host strange ceremonies. Their house is also full of weird artifacts, and Marshall’s distant relative in an old portrait looks just like him. Even though Spiral feigns at some ambiguity in its suggestion that all of this might just be in Malik’s head, it’s obvious that something is off, and the screenplay cleverly withholds its secrets until the very end. It’s fair to say that it becomes a little obvious, if not downright allegorical at this point (when the coda flashes ahead from the 90s setting to 2002, you know exactly where it’s going), but Spiral is a sturdily crafted paranoiac thriller nonetheless. Also, hats off to Freddy vs. Jason alum Munro for delivering a subtly sinister performance that captures the unsettling, “can I speak to the manager?” toxicity of suburban, middle-aged white guys.
Sweet, Sweet Lonely Girl (2016)
This is of those wispy, impressionistic horror movies where the atmosphere and mood linger with deliberate pacing, meticulous camerawork, an affected period setting, and a sparse script. Put more directly: one of those movies where not a lot happens but it looks and feels like the purgatory between a nightmare and a daydream as the titular lonely girl (Erin Wilhelmi) finds herself in exile of sorts, caring for an agoraphobic aunt who remains hidden away in her room all day. A budding friendship with the impossibly cool girl in town (Quinn Shephard) sends her life spiraling towards a sexual awakening with dark implications. Sweet, Sweet Lonely Girl grows more abstract as it unfolds but captures the despair of a young woman at a crossroads in her life, where she’s worried she may be forever haunted by her family. Or, worse yet, herself. We've seen plenty of this in recent years (though this one seems to be invoking the spirit of Let's Scare Jessica to Death), but I'd be lying if I didn't say this one will likely to rattle around in my brain for a while. Some people just have a type, and this is the kind of thing I dig.
Vampires vs. The Bronx (2020)
Here’s a sweet little movie that kind of came and went after it debuted on Netflix back in October. It’s exactly what the title suggests: when vampires descend upon the Bronx, a trio of neighborhood kids resist the invasion, even though nobody believes them. The Lost Boys by way of Attack the Block, Vampires vs. the Bronx has one of those clever hooks you can’t believe hasn’t been explored before: the bloodsuckers here become the face of gentrification. Some might call it too obvious, but I find it to be perfectly timely, and director Oz Rodriguez strikes a good balance between shouting out the message for the people in the back and maintaining a light touch. Don’t get it twisted: Vampires vs. the Bronx might have a heady message, but it’s totally a nice, fun gateway horror that thrives on the performances of its charming lead characters, a trio of long-time friends now at a crossroads as they enter their teen years.
Each has their own anxieties: Miguel (Jaden Michael) hasn’t quite grown up yet and is still awkward around girls, Bobby (Gerald W. Jones) is already being recruited by street gangs, and Luis (Gregory Diaz IV) actually just moved out of the neighborhood to live with his grandparents. And if this weren’t enough, the bodega where they grew up is in dire straits, so their battle with the undead becomes one last gasp at holding onto their childhood, too. But I love that the movie never feels particularly burdened by all of this: it maintains the easygoing breeziness of childhood fantasy, mixing humor and heart as a neighborhood fights to maintain its heritage, led by a bunch of kids who think they know everything about fighting vampires after watching Blade on DVD. Don’t sleep on this one just because it looks like kids’ stuff.
The Void (2016)
Astron-6 vets Steven Kostanski and Jeremy Gillespie struck out on their own for The Void, a supernatural splatter show that takes a similar approach to the duo’s previous work. Like The Editor, Father’s Day, and Manborg, it’s a kit-bashed homage, this time a melding of various John Carpenter movies, Clive Barker fiction, and David Cronenberg’s graphic body horror, all of it coiled together by vaguely Lovecraftian tentacles. The big difference here, though, is that it’s played completely straight, as Kostanski and Gillespie eschew their usual flippancy in favor of a ruthless descent into visceral and existential horror. When a mysterious force begins driving the residents of a small town mad, it’s not clear what exactly is responsible: extraterrestrials, cults, or just good old-fashioned mad science? The Void sifts through the possibilities with gory aplomb, transforming a desolate hospital into a hellish funhouse of mangled flesh. Forged with the same handcrafted practicality as Astron-6’s previous work, The Void is a low-budget effects marvel. If this duo’s previous outings found fun in poking irreverent holes in the formula, then this one is a reminder that riffing on a well-worn theme can also be just as satisfying—especially when it involves monsters, mutants, and melted faces.
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