Evil Dead Rise (2023)

I’m not the type to look a gore strewn gift horse in the mouth and I eventually got on the same blood splattered page as EVIL DEAD RISE but it sure took a while. Maybe I was in a persnickety mood but I sure took my time buying what writer/director Lee Cronin was selling. Ya see, there’s this dilapidated apartment building that used to be a bank and one day an earthquake creates a hole in the parking lot/basement that leads to a forgotten vault. Foolishly a curious kid crawls through the opening and fortuitously comes across not only a cursed book of the dead but some jinxed vinyl recordings to boot. I guess that’s believable enough but the teens involved were also on a pizza run (to Henrietta’s Pizza Parlor, wink-wink) and they drop their pies on the ground during the quake and immediately declare them unsalvageable. Who does that? I don’t care how much a pizza is squashed, unless it’s covered in broken glass and gravel, you can still eat it! No soldier left behind! Even more awkward is that when the kids tell their mom that the pizza was destroyed during the devastating act of nature, she comforts them by telling them that they’re more important than pizza (which is not much of a compliment and somewhat debatable).

Yet, I’m willing to look past this film’s problematic view on pizza and it’s cringey use of an obligatory drone in the opening scene to establish how modern and contemporary it is. Turns out all I needed to get on board with this new take on THE EVIL DEAD was for the mother character to get possessed and literally shake me into submission. Alyssa Sutherland plays Ellie, a single mom of three (two teens and a moppet) who is the first to succumb to the diabolical evil and with her Jack o’-lantern smile (an unholy cross between The Joker and NEWHART’s Mary Frann) and eyes that could stare rust onto a can, she graciously takes command of the entire movie. Happily the monstrous mother has a worthy foe in her reluctantly heroic sibling Beth (Lily Sullivan) who smoothly grab’s Ash’s chainsaw baton and fittingly ends up redder than the devil on an Underwood ham can.

Is this the type of sequel I, an oldster, would personally envision for the beloved EVIL DEAD franchise? Nah, but that’s OK, I feel like the ASH VS EVIL DEAD series fulfilled me in that regard. I think it’s actually honorably bold to shoot off into semi- uncharted territory even if the end result seems more like a remake of DEMONS 2 (’86) than anything else. I’m a little disappointed that the infestation we endure here is limited to one single floor of the building but it does add a certain element of claustrophobia that might not exist otherwise (plus, I understand if it was simply more budget friendly). It’s possible the unhealthy family dynamics were not mined as deeply as they could have been but I have a feeling they’ll ampliphy upon repeat viewings. The important thing here is the refreshing, almost exhilarating level of gore and the two mesmerizing central performances. I do miss the utterly woebegone vibe of 2013’s installment but this newbie may delivers a more satisfying final boss battle in the end. Quibbles aside, it’s a satisfying excursion that’s sure to keep audiences floating on their toes.


When I was little, me and my younger brother would play a game where we'd stare at each other's faces in the dark until we transformed into hideous monsters. The darkness, combined with our imaginations, would produce horrific hallucinatory results and we'd usually end up tapping out amidst screams while scrambling toward the light switch. Writer/director Kyle Edward Ball's experimental feature debut SKINAMARINK is just such a mind screw and viewer satisfaction with it will likely rely on whatever personal bugaboos they bring to the table. I've written before (HERE) about my traumatic experience of being "accidentally" abandoned at a beach house when I was a mere four years old so Ball's film felt uncomfortably tailor-made for exhuming my core neuorosis. The nightmare tale involves two young siblings who wake up in the middle of the night only to find their familiar home has turned into a HOUSE OF LEAVES-style ambiguous maze complete with disappearing windows and doors, Lego minefields,public domain cartoons and finally, a plastic telephone with a goofy smile that suggests it's somehow responsible. 

SKINAMARINK was not playing nearby so I had to go far outside my comfort zone to see it on a rainy night in a funky theater that seemed to have closed decades ago. It was quite the memorable experience, but I would probably decline undergoing it again. This is a film that feels more like a spell than anything else; it's esoteric as all get out and cryptic on a level that seems more at home in an art gallery than a multiplex. I'm going to assume that many viewers will find this sneaky jaunt excruciatingly boring as the lion's share of the flick consists of vague, off-kilter shots of the ceiling and long dives into a squirmy, grainy amorphous darkness. It's quite like being hypnotized into a trance-like state and then being periodically slapped into sobriety by cymbal crashes. Again, it's most definitely not for everyone and even though it certainly had my number, I'm not sure it was even for me. On the other hand, there are a couple of moments that rattled my psyche in ways that a more conventional horror film could never dream of and I can't have anything but respect for that. Ultimately, SKINAMARINK is an original, singular horror experience but whether that experience is fascinating and frightening or absolutely aggravating may depend entirely on the beholder. I personally rather dug it as a challenging and uncomfortable walk down creepy memory lane.


Ya gotta feel bad for poor little Cady (Violet McGraw) who was involved in a deadly snowplow incident that snatched the lives of both of her parents. Mourning her inconceivable loss she is sent to live with her Aunt Gemma (Allison Williams) who means well but is so preoccupied with work she is anything but maternal. Dear Aunt Gemma is not only smart enough to create incredible robotic toys, she's also wise enough to realize she sucks at parenting. In a thinly veiled attempt to skirt her responsibilities as a guardian, Aunt Gemma introduces Cady to M3GAN, a lifelike doll that can be programmed to sing off-putting songs and appear to care for her. The bonding scenes between Cady and her new friend are actually quite touching. Unfortunately, although technology often provides a wonderful escape from the messiness of human interaction, the time inevitably comes when the mechanical piper must be paid. In other words, M3GAN goes haywire, and many a (mostly deserving) head happily rolls.

Even though she's the fresh-faced new kid on the block slyly dispensing dance moves calculated to go viral on TikTok, there's something warmly familiar about M3GAN. Maybe it's because she's assembled from pieces of flicks like CHILD'S PLAY ('88), DOLLY DEAREST ('91), and MAN'S BEST FRIEND ('93) (and of course, she owes THE TWILIGHT ZONE's "Talky Tina" a hug) or maybe it's because she shrugs off her innate ridiculousness like a straight-to-video nineties camp fest (think PINOCCHIO'S REVENGE ('96) or RUMPELSTILTSKIN ('95)) but the end result is that she feels like a friend we all grew up with but accidentally lost contact with over the years. There are few surprises up M3GAN's sleeve (and even fewer if you've watched the loose-lipped trailer) but who cares when you're being reminded at every turn just how fun and crowd-pleasing a horror film can be when it doesn't take itself too seriously. Then again, as goofy as this movie unabashedly is, director Gerard Johnstone (HOUSEBOUND) provides several lovely moments of pure uncanny creepiness that can't be denied. There's a twinkle in M3GAN's eye and a just-so-smirk upon her face that can impressively unnerve. M3GAN the robot doll may have some technical difficulties but M3GAN the movie was built to last.

Violent Night (2022)

It's that time of year when we celebrate peace on Earth and goodwill to our fellow man so why am I chuckling at Santa Claus (STRANGER THING's David Harbour) shoving a hand grenade down someone's pants? Oh boy, am I a sucker for slapstick. It's probably because I'm very wimpy and abhor confrontation in real life that cinematic violence hits me right in my funny bone and allows me to gleefully release all my repressed rage. VIOLENT NIGHT is a symphony of brutal bashings set to holiday music and remarkably, it also allows plenty of space for warm-hearted holiday sentiment. A movie that features EVIL DEAD-level carnage yet still gets me misty-eyed is exactly my cup of spiked cocoa. It's a no-brainer that I'll probably watch this flick every December until the day I die.

It's Christmas Eve and the highly dysfunctional and partially estranged Lightstone family gathers together to lock horns and bicker about money with malicious matriarch Gertrude (a perfectly cast Beverly D'Angelo). Little do they know that the help they hired to serve them for the evening are masquerading mercenaries led by one "Mr. Scrooge" (Jon Leguizamo). Luckily for the Lightstones, everybody's favorite home invader, Santa Claus is also in the house and plans to protect good-hearted daughter Trudy (Leah Brady) at all costs. It would be cruel to give away the plethora of ITCHY & SCRATCHY meets HOME ALONE booby-traps Scrooge's hapless henchman are forced to endure and folly for me to attempt to estimate the impressive body count. Instead, I'll simply say that VIOLENT NIGHT delivers over and over again just like Santa's infinite bag of toys and if you've been good this year, you deserve to see it.

Halloween Ends

Even though I could have easily watched HALLOWEEN ENDS at home on TV (cuz we got that Peacock channel), I ventured out into the rain to see it at my closest theater. I required the full experience. I wanted to walk through falling leaves past Halloween decorations on my way there and I wanted to absorb the film alongside fellow horror fans and possibly dangerous strangers. Hey, I've seen every single movie in the Halloween franchise in the theater on opening day since I was old enough to in 1982 (we're talking HALLOWEEN 3: SOTW) and I wasn't about to break with tradition now. The Halloween series is what kickstarted my obsessive horror fandom (when I viewed it on TV while babysitting no less). It holds a very special place in my heart and it has loyally offered me a place to escape and recharge whenever I've needed it over the years (which is often). Luck was not on my side this time though as halfway through the movie, the lights came on and there was an emergency evacuation of the theater. It turned out to be nothing (a bomb threat is nothing?) but of course, it felt like the last moments of my life anyway. I guess if I was going to kick the bucket it might as well be doing what I love.

So I walked home. I'd just have to watch the second half of the movie on television. Wait, did this mean I'd have to watch the first part again? Why did that concept exasperate me? Why did that idea produce an audible exhausted exhale? I had to admit it, I wasn't loving HALLOWEEN ENDS. There was still a chance it could turn itself around and deliver a bang-up finale but the fact remained that I was a bit frustrated about what I'd seen and what the filmmakers were focusing on thus far. Worse still, I wasn't buying a lot of what was going down. There was an air of hokey corniness wafting through the proceedings that I hadn't smelt since CURSE or RESURRECTION. My inner Annie Wilkes was taking notes (Did they really expect me to swallow marching band bullies, evil-inducing eyeballs, and super conspicuous sewer hideouts?). I can't say the counter-intuitive direction it was leaning wasn't interesting, it just didn't seem the right time for any of it. I felt like I was trying to read a recipe online but had to scroll through the author's life story first (or that horrible feeling when you go see a concert for a nostalgia fix and the band says "Now, here's a song from our new album". Good ol' Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) was present and accounted for so I didn't feel completely abandoned but oh how the avalanche of missed opportunities hurt my head.

I ended up watching it three times hoping it would click with me but it never quite did (and I loved both previous installments from David Gordon Green and his cohorts). The new characters and actors did fine (Rohan Campbell particularly) but I'd much rather they were given their own film to play around in rather than this one. I'm getting the feeling I'm meant to decide definitively whether I love it or hate it but I don't think I could ever really hate a HALLOWEEN film. I'm so grateful to get to hang out with my pal Laurie Strode again and listen to John Carpenter's incredible score that I'll quite honestly (and perhaps sadly) take whatever scraps I'm thrown. I enjoy simply being in Haddonfield and that will likely always be the case. There are fragments of this film that I'll always appreciate (even if it's just a chance encounter in a grocery store) but the catharsis I craved eluded me. I'm not mad, I'm too busy mourning what could so easily have been (the vision of Laurie, Lindsey, and Allyson taking turns pummeling Michael will just have to live on forever in my head). Oh, Haddonfield, so much to answer for; I admire your audacity but sometimes less is more.

Smile (2022)

Writer/director Parker Finn's SMILE had my number from the get-go and appears to have been reading my diary. My very first kindertrauma involved haunting smiles (SATAN'S TRIANGLE (‘75)) and multiple freaky grimaces have haunted my psyche ever since (the ending of TV-movie DON'T GO TO SLEEP (‘82) is particularly culpable). Everything about SMILE from its sterile psychiatric setting, rampant paranoia, discombobulated protagonist (a flawless Sosie Bacon), aversion toward the familial, and trauma-fueled denouement was singing my name (albeit through clenched teeth). Remarkably though, SMILE went and pushed me even further than I was prepared to go. This is a horror movie that is not afraid to take the gloves (braces?) off, shelve subtlety, and roar directly in your face. I would never give away the multitude of surprises this flick has rolled up its sleeve but suffice to say, my jaw hit the popcorn-covered floor on more than a few occasions.

Well meaning psychiatrist Rose Cotter (Bacon) attempts to help a student who recently witnessed her professor beat himself to death with a hammer. Since the incident, the poor girl claims to have been haunted by a free-floating malignant entity that threatens to kill her and reveals itself by somehow entering random people and creepily smiling.  Rose is of course skeptical until the student freaks out and commits suicide in front of her, basically announcing, "Tag! You're it!" Now Rose is seeing super shady smiling people everywhere, receiving phone calls from beyond, and destroying all her professional and romantic relationships by acting like an absolute lunatic. It's clear she has to find a way to break the curse she's under soon or she will be the next person to die horribly and pass the supernatural cootie on. All this may sound familiar to fans of THE RING and IT FOLLOWS but SMILE offers a disquieting downward spiral all its own. Once Rose's life is upended by the unknown force, the whole world seems to change around her and the alienation and profound paranoia she feels is palpable.

SMILE is beautifully done. Finn's direction is superb and there's always something going on visually to back up Rose's sudden estrangement with her once familiar world (I was reminded of Philip Kaufman's INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS (‘78) on several occasions). The score by Cristobal Tapia de Veer is like nothing you've ever heard before and does wonders enhancing the film's off-kilter atmosphere. The acting too is spot on; Sosie Bacon makes you believe the impossible and fearlessly disassembles herself piece by piece on screen. Scary, thrilling, and with a moving undercurrent that urges you to let go of guilt from the past, SMILE is everything I hoped it would be and substantially more.

Pearl (2022)

It seems like just yesterday I was singing the praises of Ti West's "X" and now here comes PEARL, the prequel that reveals the foundation of horror that film is built on. PEARL is a truly singular experience and quite a sight to behold. It openly borrows from many a classic film before it (everything from THE WIZARD OF OZ ('39) to MULHOLLAND DRIVE (2001)) and yet feels just about as fresh and forward-bound as a film can be. Freakishly effervescent Mia Goth portrays the title character Pearl, a young girl with big dreams who is trapped on a farm taking care of her scowling deadweight parents, some standard livestock, and a friendly alligator with a big appetite. Feel free to place this lunatic character study right up there with the all-time greats (Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) Willard Stiles (Bruce Davidson & Crispin Glover) May (Angela Bettis), and maybe Iif I may be so bold) that crazy kid Jamie (Sammy Snyders) from THE PIT ('81) to name a mere few). West has never been more confident on a visual level (especially when it comes time to whip out the red hues) and there are more than a few scenes that I just can't seem to shake from my head, try as I might.

On my way to see PEARL I got some worrisome news (it's a long story, but suffice to say everything turned out as wretchedly as possible and my attempts to fix the troublesome situation failed miserably) and I have to say it really affected my viewing experience though I'm not sure for the better or worse. I do know that from the trailer of PEARL I was really expecting a hilariously morbid quirky romp but I ended up with so much more than I anticipated. Turns out PEARL is just so damn tragic that it began to actually pain me to watch it. Goth gives an incredible, for the ages lengthy monologue (while seemingly channeling the entire cast of THE SHINING ('81)) explaining her morose feelings, motivations, insecurities, and general psychotic history and it's legit glorious but it's also gut-wrenching to visit the depths of her delusions and self-hatred. I'm sure I was a bit over-sensitive at the time of my viewing but geez, I almost felt the urge to tap out before I too joined in her woeful sobs (seriously, it makes my depressing boo THE ATTIC ('80) look like XANADU ('80)). I loved it; Goth & West make an incredible team but ouch! I may have to watch GREASE 2 ('82) to recover my equilibrium.

Barbarian (2022)

Late one night during a raging storm, Tess Marshall (a relatable Georgina Campbell) arrives at the small house she rented for the weekend only to find the key missing from the lock box outside. She sees light and a figure inside so understandably exasperated; she bangs on the door, which is answered by an odd man named Keith (Bill Skarsgard, inadvertently carrying the baggage of previously portraying a psychotic killer clown). It turns out the domicile was accidentally rented to two parties for the same weekend! Since it's raining cats and dogs and they just happen to be in the most dilapidated and depressing area of Detroit, the two form an awkward alliance and agree to share the place together. What could go wrong? Everything could go wrong. Everything you could imagine and a dozen things your mind could never comprehend can go wrong.

I'm not going to be the one to spoil this film's surprises. Nope, I knew nothing about it going in and I'm a hundred percent sure that's the best way to see it. (Now whispering) I will say, writer/director Zach Cregger's BARBARIAN absolutely feels like being trapped in a nightmare that you can't wake up from. There's this horrible force that keeps pushing you forward against your better judgment as you go deeper and deeper and sense that where you came from is disintegrating behind you. There is nobody to help, in fact, your every plea for assistance is misconstrued and digs your grave deeper. Every choice you make to fix the situation backfires and makes things worse. You witness the darkest heartlessness of humanity and the unfathomable pain and despair that it fosters. There are no happy endings here, just inevitable decay and rot. It's all so outlandish it can't possibly be real but it's happening all the same. You have a few glimmers of light, a few hopes for escape but you squander them trying to do that right thing for people you have no idea don't deserve it. Something primal makes you want to cry out for your mother and that may be the biggest mistake of all. BARBARIAN is an ordeal. It can be furiously frustrating at times when the most backward choices are made but I think that just adds to the anxiety and the feeling of hopelessness. It's a bad dream of a movie and like many bad dreams, it can't help being as fascinating as it is thrilling.

American Horror Stories: Bloody Mary

Lately, I'm super behind on my horror television viewing but recently I got a heads up that the latest episode of the stand-alone horror anthology series AMERICAN HORROR STORIES revolves around the legend of Bloody Mary so I could not resist checking it out. Bloody Mary was one of the many mental phantoms that haunted my young brain and seemed to follow me from home to summer camp and to every sleepover I ever attended. I was never brave enough to say her name three times into a mirror but I can tell you that just looking at my own reflection seemingly mutate while staring at it in the dark was freaky enough to force me to turn the lights back on in a frenzied panic.

This particular re-telling of Bloody Mary involves a "Monkey's Paw" wish-granting twist to the familiar folk legend. Four teen girls, sisters Elise and Bianca (Raven Scott and ANNIE (2014)'s Quvenzhané Wallis) and pals Lena (Kyanna Simone) & Maggie (Kyla-Drew) seek out Bloody Mary (Dominique Jackson) believing that she might improve their less than ideal living situations. Mary is happy to oblige with the caveat that the gals must commit heinous immoral acts (paralyze a competitor, leak nude photos of a classmate, accuse a teacher of rape) to have their dreams come true. Declining to fulfill Mary's request is an option as well but then she gets to fatally rip your eyes out. This moral dilemma adds a sharp new edge to Mary's usual mirror-bound modus operandi.

Directed by SJ Main Muñoz, Bloody Mary is a fresh and twisty take on the ubiquitous campfire story. It's got many unique curveballs to deliver while also charmingly stoking nostalgia for ‘80s/'90s supernatural slashers like the ELM STREET series and CANDYMAN ('92). There's a fun, past-curfew vibe to the entire affair and the likable characters feel like more than cannon fodder when their numbers eventually dwindle. Our antagonist's harrowing backstory is equally compelling and a fine job is done adding flourishes to the malleable tale many of us grew up with. Thanks to high production values, quality writing, and impressive direction this stand-alone, hour-long tale feels like it could have easily been a feature film if it was so inclined. Even if you've missed previous entries in this series, check out Bloody Mary, it's exactly the kind of spooky fun the approaching Halloween season calls for.