“Curse of the Witch’s Doll” – (Movie Review)

By Andrew Buckner

Rating: **** out of *****.

Curse of the Witch’s Doll (2018), the debut feature from writer-director Lawrence Fowler, is an ambitious and frequently surprising 98-minute horror film. It is one which largely defies the stalk-and-slash expectations of the killer toy sub-genre. Still, what is just as noteworthy is how often Fowler changes the setting and categorization of the piece. For instance, the presentation commences with a quick, but gripping, bit that takes place in 1660. Afterwards, Fowler fast-forwards to the year where the bulk of the action in Fowler’s endeavor resides: 1942. The early sequences in this time frame beautifully flesh-out the bond between our heroine, Adeline Gray (in an always compelling turn from Helen Crevel), and her daughter, Chloe (in a mesmerizing enactment from Layla Watts). They are attempting to escape the bombing in their home town. This discharge leads them to an ominous mansion in the woods. Taking refuge in the domicile, the movie effectively plays like a gothic haunted house work for the first half of the presentation. Paired along with this strong element is the air of a missing person narrative. Such occurs as Chloe suddenly vanishes near the 20-minute mark. Eventually, the grief-stricken Adeline comes to believe that this disappearance was caused by the creepy title object.

Fowler handles this initial portion of the affair aptly. There is an atmosphere of mystery to the manner the proceedings found in this segment unfold that is both tense and interesting. Such an approach makes the alluring plot of the production evermore captivating. But, the exercise loses some momentum when the location of the action shifts after this stage. From herein, the new position for the chronicle becomes a time-honored cliché. This is disheartening after the earlier arrangement. Despite this previously stated disappointment, and the fact that some of the sequences in this latter phase can be a bit too dialogue-heavy, the undertaking still endures as focused and absorbing. Strengthening this aspect is that the project ends with a satisfying nod to the found footage technique. It is rooted in the present day.

What is just as enjoyable in Fowler’s presentation is the minimal use of its skillful effects. Such a decision adds a classic demeanor to the entirety. It is one that splendidly compliments the chill-inducing tone of the exertion. Helping matters is co-producer Geoff Fowler’s stunning doll design. Liz Fowler’s costume work is similarly stellar. The same can also be said of Lawrence Fowler’s seamless editing. His writing is sharp, character-driven and smartly paced. Likewise, his guidance of the project is claustrophobic, stylish and superb. The cinematography, make-up and sound contributions are masterful. Furthermore, Claire Carreno is excellent as The Witch. Philip Ridout’s depiction of Arthur Harper is brilliant. Neil Hobbs’ representation of Detective Nolan is terrific.

Spanning over 450 years, Curse of the Witch’s Doll is a success. Though it suffers at times in its later phases, the High Octane Pictures release remains admirable. This is especially true when considering the variety instilled in how Fowler tells his tale. There is a finely tuned sense of menace throughout that is addictive. Furthermore, the on-screen personas are relatable. Fowler’s stalwart concentration on Adeline’s plight heightens both the dramatic sensibilities and the underlying suspense of the project. Audiences are with Fowler’s lead through every painful step in her journey. Because of this, the Northampton, England recorded exertion fluently balances both emotional and physical terrors. The result of these high-functioning qualities is a well-crafted cinematic excursion. It is one that is unafraid to take risks and proudly surpasses presumptions. I highly recommend seeking out Fowler’s latest arrangement. It will arrive on VOD on February 2nd and on DVD March 6th, 2018.

(Unrated). Contains violence and adult themes.

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“Flay” – (Movie Review)

By Andrew Buckner

Rating: ****1/2 out of *****.

Flay (2017), from screenwriter Matthew Daley and director Eric Pham, is an inventive, well-mounted and visually stunning exercise in paranormal fear. A dazzling sequence near the half-hour mark, which showcases a small geyser of blood slowly spiraling upwards towards a lone ceiling light bulb, splendidly backs up the effectiveness of the latter term. Yet, there is a dramatic undercurrent to the proceedings. It is one which is rigorously rooted in the familial bond. Such makes Daley and Pham’s credibly etched on-screen personas richer. This can also be said of the naturally intriguing story. It also makes the proceedings evermore plausible. These fundamentals enhance the dimension and scope of the ambitious 93-minute picture. There is also a plethora of beautifully honed, time-honored frights. Even if the exertion is a bit too reliant on the evil figure lurking in the background trope, this article helps make for an endeavor that is nail-biting fun. It is also an exceptional display of cinematic craftsmanship. From the chilling opening narration to the rousing finale, Pham imprints these assets proudly on every frame of the film.

Pham’s masterful opus chronicles the heroine of the tale, Moon Crane (in a commanding and layered portrayal from Elle LaMont) returning to her home after the sudden death of her mother, Patricia (Peggy Schott). Having alienated herself from her family for an extended period, Moon uncovers turbulence in her relationship with her younger brother, River (in an excellent turn from Dalton E. Gray). It is also reflected in her own personal dealings. Soon Moon begins having horrific visions. After a cursed object belonging to Patricia is stolen, Moon finds herself trying to stop the slaughter of the faceless title fiend (in an undeniably menacing depiction from Jordan LeuVoy). This is with the assistance of her ex-boyfriend and police officer, Tyler Foreman (in a gripping depiction by Johnny Walter).

There is a tense sense of mystery to the events that unfold in Pham’s production. This is a constant source of exhilaration. Though Daley’s confidently paced script utilizes some formulaic elements in its construction, this former stated attribute helps elevate the movie far beyond the general expectations of the genre. Such a strength is a courtesy of Pham’s claustrophobic and assuredly skillful guidance of the project. There is a grand artistry to how a great number of the scenes are shot. It heightens the buildup. Moreover, this quality often gives the proceedings a highly admirable Dario Argento-like veneer. Gary Tachell’s immersive cinematography, Adam Ketcham’s sharp editing and Akihiko Matsumoto’s music make these bits increasingly hypnotic. This can also be said of the respective contributions from the make-up, effects and sound department. All of whom offer superb work. Alessandro Sereni’s set decoration is excellent. Correspondingly, Violett Beane is riveting as Bethany. A. Michael Baldwin is terrific as Billy Salcedo. Additionally, the continually ominous tone of the piece adds to the overall enjoyment.

In turn, Pham has erected an envy-inducing effort. It is one that is punctuated by solid dialogue, challenging themes and satisfying character arcs. The scares are handled in an always welcome and refreshingly subtle way. Partially inspired by the Japanese legend of the Noppera-bo, Pham’s flick calls to mind the American remakes The Grudge (2004) and The Ring (2002). Regardless, this approach is far more successful in this more recent exertion than it was in these prior examples. Also, the post-credits scene in Pham’s feature is certainly captivating.

Pham has incredible talent. Flay, which is scheduled to be released on digital March 6th, 2018, is full-bodied proof of this statement. I look forward to seeing what future celluloid wonders he has in store.

(PG-13). Contains adult situations and violence.

“Butcher the Bakers” – (Movie Review)

By Andrew Buckner

Rating: ****1/2 out of *****.

Butcher the Bakers (2017), the third full-length feature from writer-director Tyler Amm, is a uniquely entertaining and spectacularly inventive medley of humor and horror. Part contract killer tale, part buddy comedy and part slasher saga, the 94-minute arrangement is pure fun. Much of this endless enjoyment derives from Amm and Virginia Campbell’s sharp and briskly-paced script. Filled with well-timed gags, smirk-inducing dialogue and retro (primarily 1980’s influenced) terror elements, Amm and Campbell’s previously stated contribution also winks at audiences with a few genuinely inspired self-referential moments. One of these is a nod to Amm’s debut picture, River City Panic (2015). There are also subtle alignments to numerous big screen classics wisely placed throughout the affair. John McTiernan’s action masterpiece Die Hard (1988) and Steven Spielberg’s timeless science-fiction epic E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982) are the most easily perceptible of these allusions. There is also a frenetic and infectious energy the likable cast radiates throughout the undertaking. When unified by the stellar performances that only continue to reflect these terms, the rousing success of Amm’s latest genre crossbreed is increasingly distinguishable.

Amm chronicles Dragomir ‘Drag’ the Reaper (in a stupendous turn from Mike Behrens that drips old-fashioned macabre). Having recently lost his job, Drag begins the arduous process of killing members of a small town. The reason for his behavior is to collect souls. Why he needs to amass these internal mechanisms is an answer that Drag keeps to himself. Soon bakery shop laborers Sam and Martin (Sean Walsh and Ryan Mathew Ziegler respectively) are hired to permanently disrupt Drag’s massacre. Because of this, the lead villain of Amm’s effort finds it progressively difficult to keep his plans and reasoning for his wicked measures to himself.

It’s a great set-up. Such is one that is molded with crowd-pleasing flare from its commercial-like opening, which is spliced with flashes of tense brutality, until the satisfying conclusion of the exertion. The narrative is given further life by Amm’s stylish and efficient guidance of the project. His editing is just as proficient. Adding to these qualities is Zach Shaw’s alternately rich and appropriately gritty cinematography. Billy Niebuhr’s music beautifully echoes the offbeat, grim and gut-busting tone of the piece. The camera work is exceptional. Moreover, the special and visual effects enhance the joy of the enterprise. This is with their decidedly antiquated veneer. Nicholas Swartz’s costume design is terrific. The sound department work is top-notch. Relatedly, Lisa Wojcik is remarkable in her portrayal of Pat. The post-credits sequence is hilarious. It brilliantly expands upon the commencement of the story.

Co-executive produced by P.J. Starks (2015’s Volumes of Blood), Amm’s exercise has its share of exceptionally crafted instances of gore. Yet, it is never overblown. The same can be said for the sum of Butcher the Bakers. Amm’s endeavor is daring, delightful and unabashedly tongue-in-cheek. Still, it hardly ever feels excessive. Such is a fine balancing act. It is one of the various essentials of Amm’s opus that I admired throughout its trim runtime. Another constant source of esteem would be Amm and his filmmaking participants’ palpable chemistry. It resonates through every merry frame of his most current outing. These high-functioning components combine to form a wonderful B-movie. Such is especially evident when considering the several smartly done twists which encompass the labor. Recorded in Ottawa, Illinois, this Petri Entertainment distribution release is brimming with the glorious, can-do spirit of independent cinema. I highly recommend seeking out Amm’s cleverly titled flick. It will be unleashed on select digital platforms in the U.S. on January 16th, 2018.

(Unrated). Contains scenes of graphic violence, adult language and adult themes.

Capsule Reviews: “All the Money in the World”, “The Devil’s Well”, “Ferdinand”, “The Foreigner” and “Slumber”

By Andrew Buckner

ALL THE MONEY IN THE WORLD

Rating: ****1/2 out of *****.

All the Money in the World is one of the best films of 2017. It is also another masterful exhibition of craft from the always interesting director Ridley Scott. The 132-minute thriller, which chronicles the true- life story of the abduction of 16-year-old John Paul Getty III, is riveting from start to finish. It is so engrossing that I barely stirred during my viewing of the picture. Further benefitting the affair is a performance from Christopher Plummer that is one of the finest to hit movie screens all year. Michelle Williams and Mark Wahlberg, who portray Gail Harris and Fletcher Chase respectively, issue deft, layered and gripping enactments. Additionally, Scott’s engrossing storytelling, confident pacing and distinguished behind the lens style makes this compelling and highly-cinematic work evermore accomplished. This is a must-see!

(R). Contains violence, language and adult themes.

In theaters now.

THE DEVIL’S WELL

Rating: ***1/2 out of *****.

The Devil’s Well (2017) is an always interesting, if routinely structured, faux documentary style horror picture. It is one that gleans its chilling nature in the manner of many of the most enduring installments in the previously stated sub-genre: through the power of the imagination. Whether describing fearful incidents in the past or present, the Kurtis Spieler penned and guided opus often wisely tells instead of directly showcasing its stabs at trepidation. This is excluding the engaging concluding 15 minutes of this 88-minute endeavor. Such a time-honored approach works beautifully. Spieler’s affair is no exception. In telling the simultaneously chilling and entertaining tale of Karla Marks (Anne-Marie Mueschke) and her disappearance into the notorious title place, Spieler crafts both relatable and believable characterizations, same said dialogue, situations and scares into a deft dose of low-budget chills. Recommended!

(Unrated).

On DVD 1/23/18 from Wild Eye Releasing.

FERDINAND

Rating: **** out of *****.

Though formulaic in structure and prone to a few moments that may be thematically too dark for some young children (especially in the finale), the beautifully animated Ferdinand (2017) sports a balance of genuinely funny humor and effective sentiment that is as admirable as it is infectious. Alongside John Cena and Kate McKinnon’s lively lead voice work, the always welcome message of embracing love in a world of violence that courses throughout the film is as timely as it is timeless. In turn, the slightly overlong 108-minute feature, based on Munro Leaf’s classic book about the adventures of a kind-hearted bull who is mistaken for a menace, proves to be both a wonderful surprise and robust family-friendly entertainment.

(PG). Contains some crude moments and situations.

In theaters now.

THE FOREIGNER

Rating: *1/2 out of *****.

The Foreigner (2017) is a murky, dull, by-the-numbers mess of a movie. It fails as both a conspiracy thriller and as an action film. Worst of all, leading man Jackie Chan’s often jaw-dropping capacity for cinematic combat is wasted here. This is due to director Martin Campbell’s insistence on keeping such moments as brief and standard service as possible. This is a problem found throughout the relatively empty 112-minute runtime of the film. Moreover, the finale to this terrorist revenge tale is especially flat and unsatisfying. In turn, Campbell has crafted an all-around desperate, distant and forgettable venture. Skip it.

(R). Contains violence and adult themes.

Now available on digital.

SLUMBER

Rating: **** out of *****.

Slumber (2017) is a lean, well-mounted and genuinely effective sleep paralysis based horror outing. The story, which concerns a sleep doctor’s attempts to defend a family from a demon that torments them while they dream, is first-rate. The same can be said of Maggie Q’s central depiction of Alice Arnolds. Co-writer (with Richard Hobley) and director Jonathan Hopkins provides excellent work with his aforesaid contributions. The last 15 of this 84-minute production, though a shade predictable, are a perfect payoff to the immersive buildup beforehand.

(Unrated). Contains violence and terrifying situations.

Now available on digital and in select theaters.