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Horror Movies Reviews

Silent Sequel to 2015 “Found Footage” Gem is One of the Year’s Best Horror Films

Hell House LLC II: The Abaddon Hotel
Rated: NR
Runtime: 1 hour 29 minutes
Director: Stephen Cognetti
Starring: Vasile Flutur, Jillian Geurts, Joy Shatz, Dustin Austen, and Kyle Ingleman


I’ve known about Shudder for a couple years now, but not until a month ago has exploring the service’s impressive cave of horror gems become my favorite, new pastime. To anyone not familiar with the name, Shudder is a premium horror streaming service owned and operated by AMC Networks, producers of shows Breaking Bad and The Walking Dead. The niche site/app houses a spooky catalog of films, TV series, and other original/exclusive content that all have a thematic foot in the realm of horror in some way, shape, or form. For instance, you could find dramas like Take Shelter (2011) next to infamous, extreme cinema like Cannibal Holocaust (1980). Anyways, while on my exploration of what the app had to offer, I came across a fairly recent horror film, Hell House LLC (2015). I had vaguely remembered hearing something about it around the time of its festival run, but I couldn’t retain exactly what I had seen. After taking a quick glance at the incredibly encouraging user reviews (a cool Shudder feature), I committed to give it a go; 90 minutes later, I understood all the hype.

Hell House LLC follows a documentary crew as they seek answers into the mysterious circumstances of a haunted house “malfunction” that left 15 people killed. Within the narrative frame of a documentary, we are presented a collection of “found footage” clips, each giving us a deeper look into the event leading up to the Hell House Halloween tour tragedy. What impressed me the most about Hell House LLC was its unsettling wheelhouse of horror tricks. It’s very rare that I can find a movie that can scare me, so I was beyond excited to learn that a sequel to the 2015 film would be releasing (exclusively) on Shudder only weeks after my initial viewing. The release of Hell House II has since come and gone, and so I can confirm that the sequel is in fact a worthy successor to the original (at least where it counts) and is one of the year’s best horror films.

HELL HOUSE LLC II_ THE ABADDON HOTEL - Official Trailer 2-9 screenshot
The horror sequences in Hell House II work so well as to, at times, emulate the very sensation of walking through a maze attraction at your local Halloween haunt

Hell House LLC II: The Abaddon Hotel is a sequel to 2015’s Hell House LLC, picking up 3 years after the first film. With the same faux-documentary style of the first one, we again open the film with testimonials from people who have suffered from encounters with the haunted Abaddon Hotel, where the 2009 Hell House haunted house tour tragedy occurred and where the head documentarian, Diane, from the first film was last seen on camera. Mitchell (Vasile Flutur), the lone survivor of the Hell House documentary, has since been in legal battle with the small town of Abaddon, New York and is haunted by the events he witnessed those years ago. While speaking with a panel on a local, public access “ghost watch” program, Jessica Fox (Jillian Geurts), an especially ambitious guerilla investigator, boldly reaches out to him with the promise of answers as to what the cause of all paranormal activity at the deadly hotel is. Jessica believes Mitchell to be the only person capable of safely escorting her and her crew through the dangerous hotel, since he has spent the most time with the Hell House footage. After an initial, reluctant meeting and some condensed bonding, Mitchell, Jessica, and her crew of two take their shot at breaking into the haunted local and retrieve the evidence of the hotel’s unsettling past.

I think it’s fair to say that the production value of the Hell House films isn’t as pronounced or polished as say a Conjuring film, but what director Stephen Cognetti and company are capable of is impressive in a much creepier way, and I hate using that word “creepy.” So while the green screen or other on-screen graphics during the expository clips peppered throughout the film have an inescapable feel of cheapness to them, the content of the film (the scares) lands notably better than that of typical studio horror. Perhaps as a rare fan of the “found footage” trend that dominated the early 2010’s, I’m still a bit biased, but Hell House II, and its predecessor, capitalizes on its first-person perspective as well as, if not better than, the best that the sub-genre has to offer – i.e. REC (2007), Paranormal Activity (2009), and Grave Encounters (2011). An early scene in the film shows an urban exploration YouTuber breaking into the Abaddon Hotel. Almost immediately upon approaching a doorway inside, the demonic or malevolent force makes itself known, opening the door for the curious explorer, which is isn’t especially scary in and of itself. How the hotel finishes off our brief protagonist though, legitimately got under my skin. Later on in the film, there’s a number of sequences where Mitchell, Jessica, and crew are rushing through the narrow hallways of the hotel to find a way to an exit before one of the many deadly apparitions can close in on them. The actors stick to and lead each-other as they (and we the audience) anxiously scan for shadowy ghouls in the background. The authenticity from the actors mixed with the effectively creepy staging by Cognetti, not to mention the literal haunted house props still left-over from the night of the original Hell House tragedy, evokes that same rush you feel when you’re trying to haste your way through a maze at your local Halloween haunt. The end of the film may be a bit too topical in comparison to the rest of the film for most, but I think the film’s centerpiece scares work well enough that you’ll be well satisfied with the journey.

HELL HOUSE LLC II_ THE ABADDON HOTEL - Official Trailer 1-45 screenshot

The thing I love the most about Shudder is the way it is showcases horror from all corners of the technical spectrum. Historically, the horror genre has been the natural home for cinema’s most daring, experimental content, content seldom explored in mainstream Hollywood productions. Whereas advancements in filmmaking technology have seen the proliferation of independent film across all genres, horror and sci-fi are still stigmatized by establishment groups (i.e. The Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences for consistent award consideration) and theatrical distributers. As a result, those genres are typically dismissed, sometimes rightfully so, by the general public unless lots of money is thrown behind it, which means the majority of the contributions to the genres aren’t able to be as polished as the typical studio production. Hell House II is one such film that doesn’t have the most convincing acting at parts, nor does it have especially seamless CGI, but its moments of horror are degrees of magnitude scarier, and more consistent, than the those of most theatrical releases this year.

6.5/10
Horror Scale: 8.2/10

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Horror Movies Reviews

Nicholas Cage’s Latest Hard Genre Flick is the Best ‘Ghost Rider’ Movie We Never Had

Mandy
Rated: NR
Runtime: 2 hours 1 minute
Director: Panos Cosmatos
Starring: Nicolas Cage, Andrea Riseborough, Linus Roache, Ned Dennehy, and Olwen Fouéré


Nicholas Cage has been the subject of much ridicule in the film-o-sphere over the past decade or so. While the eccentric actor has never shied away from his unique strangeness, evident in his early work such as Raising Arizona (1987) and Vampire’s Kiss (1988) , he has suffered from a bit of a dry spell in terms of having noteworthy starring vehicles. Not since 2013’s Joe has Cage been in anything of critical merit, so it comes to great refreshment that his newest crazy-bananas flick houses another essential Cage performance, with mind-melting visuals and artistic flare to boot.

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The Lovecraftian, Metal world of Mandy is the perfect venue for Cage’s signature hyper-acting

Mandy comes from genre-filmmaker Panos Cosmatos and tells the story of Red Miller (Nicholas Cage) and his descent into madness after his wife, Mandy (Andrea Riseborough) is murdered by a religious cult led by Jeremiah Sand (Linus Roache). If that wasn’t bad enough, Red must also battle a gang of psychotic demon bikers if he is to exact his revenge on the “crazy evil” that has devastated his peaceful life. That’s really all there is in terms of plot, but what more do you need in a movie this wild? Mandy oozes mystical, Metal iconography and psychedelic vibes; 2011’s Hobo With a Shotgun comes to mind when describing Mandy‘s stylistic temperament, but I would hesitate to call it a pure exploitation flick like the former. While Mandy‘s barebones plot is totally in the vain of the exploitation genre, the pervasively surreal, psychedelic imagery and Lovecraftian themes gives Mandy an almost Kubrickian quality.

Nicholas Cage has been the main talking point around Mandy, and having now seen the film, I can attest to the validity of all the buzz and may even consider this my favorite performance from him. However as I mentioned the film’s “Kubrickian quality” earlier, Cage does not actually become the focus of the film until almost an hour into the runtime; but that isn’t to say the film isn’t engaging in that hour prologue. Andrea Riseborough plays the titular character and is the narrative protagonist up until her death at the hands of the villainous religious cult. Her segment is just as trippy has the latter portion of the film, but while the second half leans more into action horror,  the first half has these beautifully surreal sequences of color and music. The stark contrast between the serenity of the first half and the hyper-violence of the second effectively invigorates both. Linus Roache plays the charismatic cult leader Jeremiah Sand who incites the rage and violence in the film, and he does so with lots of ham, but boy is it fun to watch. I even felt that the film’s more provocative content come out of Roache’s all-in performance. After we’ve spent ample time with Mandy and Jeremiah, the film finally pivots to Cage’s character, where we are treated with one of the most explosive scenes of 2018, rivaling only Toni Collette’s Hereditary dinner monologue earlier in the summer.

mandy-image-1

I watched Mandy at a local theater with my girlfriend and after one of Cage’s manic episodes during the later half of the film, she leaned over and told me how much he was reminded her of his role in Ghost Rider (and its sequel Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance). Instantly, I perked up and fantasized a world with a Nicholas Cage Ghost Rider movie as passionately acted, painstakingly curated, and fearlessly weird as Mandy. But the fact that in this world, such a film would never see the light of day. Even this film wouldn’t have even seen the light of day if it weren’t for the first ever fan-owned movie studio, Legion M, who produced it. It’s exciting to see that films like Mandy can still get made in a market comprised almost completely of artistically conventional content, even if it through novel avenues.

It goes without saying that Mandy will not be everyone’s cup of tea, but that’s what makes its success all the more important. If you can weather the stretches of stillness and inaction and stomach the blood and gore, I highly encourage giving Mandy your two hours. And hell, maybe if enough people see it, that balls-to-the-wall Ghost Rider movie could one day become a possibility.

8.6/10
Horror Scale: 7.8/10

See it in select theaters or on digital platforms (Amazon Prime Video, YouTube, Google Play)

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Movies Reviews

‘Searching’ Plays it a Bit Too Safe, but is Nonetheless a Fine Modern Thriller Through and Through

Searching
Rated: PG-13
Runtime: 1 hour 42 minutes
Director: Aneesh Chaganty
Starring: John Cho, Debra Messing, Joseph Lee, Michelle La, and Sara Sohn


Coming out of Searching, I knew for sure that definitely I enjoyed the movie, but at the same time felt somewhat disappointed with the final picture. I recalled a similar feeling I had with A Quiet Place earlier this year, and my sole grievance with that film. The unfortunate truth of modern storytelling is that virtually every story that is being told or will ever be told has been told before in some way, shape, or form. Yet despite this creative limitation, new storytellers (filmmakers) continue to tell the same familiar stories over and over again, with their own creative spin manifesting in the cosmetic, and sometime thematic, attributes around the conventional narrative: different and distinct directing styles, experimental acting methods, musical scores, et cetera. A Quiet Place is a very conventional survival narrative with few risks deemed “original” because of its novel use of sound design as a gimmick, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Searching is another such film that tells a familiar genre story in an original way via literal computer screens. And just like A Quiet Place, it is very good at telling that story.

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‘Searching’ adopts the same computer screen gimmick from the ‘Unfriended’ films

Directed by former Google Creative Lab employee Aneesh Chaganty, Searching follows a grieving Asian-American family consisting of David Kim (John Cho) and his 16-year-old daughter Margot (Michelle Le) after the untimely passing of the family’s cancer striken mother (Sara Sohn). One day, Margot suddenly disappears without a trace, but when a panicked David starts to contemplate the worst, he begins to backtrack his daughter’s online activities leading up to her disappearance. David is quickly tasked by Detective Vick to assist in the police investigation to find his daughter by reaching out to the people who interact with Margot, where he soon finds out that his daughter was indeed not who he thought she was.

As stated earlier, Searching is not like your typical mystery thriller. If you’ve seen the Unfriended horror films, or are aware of their existence, then you’ll recognize the total computer screen presentation. I happen to really enjoy the first Unfriended (2014) – more than most probably – and somewhat liked it’s unexpected sequel which released not too long ago, Unfriended: Dark Web (2018), particularly finding the neo-found-footage style quite effective in creating a realistically creepy atmosphere. Likewise with the horror franchise, Searching‘s peculiar cinematography adds an unsettling realism to the underlying narrative, which Chaganty executes expertly. The film does an excellent job of anticipating the viewers intuition with the investigative sequences. It’s fun to follow David as he parses through galleries of photos and documents and latch on to the same quick detail that David too spots. Unfortunately, once the culprit is revealed, the intrigue that the film had going for it mellows out to its expected conclusion; but that’s not to say everything leading up to it wasn’t worth the time spent. I doubt most people will hate the ending or anything like that, but anyone expecting a genuinely surprisingly, provocative conclusion will be sadly (or happily) disappointed.

Searching isn’t entirely the bold cyber-thriller that its trailers hinted at it being, but what it lacks in narrative risks is more than made up for with a masterfully confident, experimental form, and an especially compelling performance from John Cho, of Harold and Kumar and Star Trek fame. If you’re not sure what to catch in theaters this weekend (assuming Mandy isn’t playing near you), definitely consider giving this one a go.

7.9/10

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Movies Reviews

The Latest Spike Lee Joint Is an Entertaining, but Dour Foreboding Made All the More Urgent by the Extravagant Deterioration of Rational Discourse in Modern America

BlacKkKlansman
Rated: R
Runtime: 2 hours 15 minutes
Director: Spike Lee
Starring: John David Washington, Adam Driver, Robert John Burke, Ken Garito, and Topher Grace


The aggressively renewed racial tensions in America brought on by the rise of national populism and the proliferation of open white supremacy has sparked a uniquely contemporary wave of dramas that depict seldom-acknowledged historical altercations that have been rendered culturally relevant by those current realities. Kathryn Bigelow’s Detroit from 2017 is one such film, which re-tells a horrific event that took place during the 1967 Detroit riots, but instead of imposing her morality on the historical recount, Bigelow lets the facts speak for themselves; or rather, she forces the viewer to invoke their own morality. Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman is another such film to Detroit, albeit with an underlying self-awareness that manifests itself through the film’s comedic underbelly.

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The split-screen conversations between Ron Stallworth (left) and David Duke (right) are one of many highlights in BlacKkKlansman

BlacKkKlansman is Spike Lee’s 26th feature length film and tells the story of Ron Stallworth (John David Washington), the first black detective in the Colorado Springs, Colorado police department in 1979, and his peculiar first case that required him to impersonate a white supremacist with the help of fellow Jewish detective Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) in order to infiltrate the Ku Klux Klan and stop an impending attack. Stallworth engages in conversation with the Klan on the phone but when he needs to meet the Klan in person, Zimmerman continues to play the made-up character. At the same time, Ron is tasked with maintaining a cover with the local black civil rights group headed by Patrice Dumas (Laura Harrier), which naturally leads to a romantic relationship between the two. But the centerpiece of the film is the disturbingly cordial correspondence between Stallworth and at-the-time Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard David Duke (Topher Grace), where the film’s foreboding outlook becomes paralyzingly visceral.

BlacKkKlansman is an interesting film in that it isn’t strictly a historical recount of a unique happening, but rather a kind of figurative, socio-historical case study with real-world implications. The film’s topical opening diatribe presented by a racist Alec Baldwin primes us to take the film in as being a figuratively purposed expose of post-civil rights white supremacy: a cosmetic evolution from the more familiar, outspoken racism that has characterized much of America’s past. Once the film gets to Stallworth and his exploits, the narrative more or less falls into a conventional mold, but in that mold Lee brilliantly utilizes the artistic liberties at his disposal to retell these events in a viscerally provocative way; the most notable of which being the use of the “white voice” (last seen in this year’s Sorry to Bother You) when Stallworth engages with the Klan over the phone. Whereas Boot Riley’s film uses the notion of the “white voice” for an absurdist commentary, Lee deploys it with a more pragmatic purpose. Stallworth’s over-the-top racist phone rants and their effectiveness in duping the Klan members serves to illustrate how today, racism has in a lot of ways become obscured into a joke. We laugh about racism and the racist things people say because of how morally ridiculous they are, and it happens to also be a source of a lot of the film’s comedy. To Stallworth, his “white voice” is a kind of comedic act; it’s his belittling way of condemning the white supremacist rationale, which is also how modern society typically decides to downplay such ideas. As a result, racist convictions have been obscured in the social consciousness as being “jokes,” but as ridiculous as racism is, we can not afford to turn a blind eye to people who don’t think it’s a joke: people who passionately hold such beliefs and are committed to act on those convictions.

Ron-Stallworth-and-Patrice-in-BlacKkKlansman
Patrice Dumas (left) and Ron Stallworth vigilantly approach a distant threat

Detective Flip Zimmerman, played by Adam Driver, is the other half of Ron Stallworth’s plot: the face to the voice. While Zimmerman isn’t characterized as antagonistically racist, he is consistently shown as a complicit participant in the institutionally questionable attitudes the police hold on the topic. Stallworth is harassed by one cop in particular, who even in the presence of Zimmerman and their mostly supportive police chief, is free to provoke away without resistance; instead it’s Stallworth who is told that he must endure the harassment without incident, or he will be punished. That empathy isn’t intuitive for Zimmerman despite his good-naturedness. However, when he’s undercover amongst the Klan members, one of the other especially passionate members constantly suspects Zimmerman of being a Jew, which is just as bad if not worse as being black in the eyes of the Klan. And so it takes that constant scrutiny over his ethnicity for him to finally process the fact that he does in fact have “skin in the game,” as Stallworth puts it.

Spike Lee has always made a point to inspire critical thought with his movies. His trademark mantra, to “wake up,” is loud and clear in BlacKkKlansman. Ron Stallworth wrestles with the moral complexities of being a police officer in a time where police actively persecute his people, and so Patrice, Harrier’s character, calls him out on his need to “wake up.” Flip Zimmerman begins to acknowledge the ideological value of his Jewish heritage even if he doesn’t openly embrace it, and so he is forced to “wake up” to the fact that he isn’t exempt from the dangers of racism, let them be physical, existential, or moral. Lastly, we the audience are challenged to “wake up” to the realities of our world; and in that reality, ideological normalization and social complacency has given birth to a new generation of white supremacists who, like David Duke in the film, purposely refrain from using traditionally racist rhetoric in favor of more euphemistic language with the intent of tricking neutral citizens into letting them to run for office, get elected, and work towards making their white ethnostate a reality. The film ends on an unexpectedly figurative note – showing footage of the real David Duke speaking to a group of anti-Semites in modern day, the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, VA where Heather Heyer was murdered by a white supremacist, and Donald Trump attempting to gaslight the nation into believing fighting racism is as morally corrupt as propping it.

BlacKkKlansman is easily Spike Lee’s best modern work and an essential, nuanced contemplation of race during the Trump presidency. With a stellar ensemble cast mixed with an inherently compelling premise, BlacKkKlansman is immensely entertaining necessary viewing that will likely be a hopeful contender come awards season.

9.4/10