horror

REVIEW: The Devil Makes Three by Tori Bovalino

When Tess and Eliot stumble upon an ancient book hidden in a secret tunnel beneath their school library, they accidentally release a devil from his book-bound prison, and he’ll stop at nothing to stay free. He’ll manipulate all the ink in the library books to do his bidding, he’ll murder in the stacks, and he’ll bleed into every inch of Tess’s life until his freedom is permanent. Forced to work together, Tess and Eliot have to find a way to re-trap the devil before he kills everyone they know and love, including, increasingly, each other.

I’ve been getting the book-only Illumicrate subscription for the past six months and this is the first book I’ve actually read from them. That’s not necessarily anything against the books from previous months (especially as I’m just generally not reading as much as I used to) but as soon as I read the blurb for The Devil Makes Three and looked at that beautiful but dark cover, I really wanted to read it as soon as possible. Thankfully, for a book I’d never heard of before and had just piqued my interest – I really did enjoy The Devil Makes Three.

The atmosphere in The Devil Makes Three is incredibly vivid. Even before the devil makes an appearance there’s a sense of foreboding and bleakness to both Tess and Eliot’s lives. As the story progresses you learn more about the two of them and how their relationships with their parents are strained for different reasons. Each of them are going through tough times and with Tess especially it’s made her hard and prickly. She’s been betrayed by the people (her parents) who are supposed to care about her and put her and her younger sister Nat first so she now finds it incredibly difficult to trust and rely on other people. This means that she tries to deal with what’s going on with the devil on her own before opening up to Eliot about what’s been happening to her.

The things Tess ad Eliot experience after the accidentally release the devil are truly creepy and terrible. Things they experience blur the line between dream and reality, making events even more unsettling as they (and you as the reader) are never entirely sure what’s real. There is a bit of gore in The Devil Makes Three but it’s not over the top and instead it’s ink that’s used to give you nightmares. Honestly never thought of ink as creepy/evil but the way it’s described here, how it moves and bleeds from pages and almost devours people, it’s really quite disturbing.

It’s been a long time since I’ve read a creepy/horror story and The Devil Makes Three was really very good. The ending was a little sudden and I’d have liked to see more of the consequences of Tess and Eliot’s actions on people in their wider sphere who were affected, but overall, it’s a gripping and atmospheric read. 4/5.

REVIEW: Army of the Dead (2021)

Mercenary Scott Ward (Dave Bautista) is approached by businessman Bly Tanaka (Hiroyuki Sanada) to put together a team to go into Las Vegas to steal $200 million from a safe beneath the Strip. The only problem is Las Vegas is walled off from the rest of the world and is overrun by zombies – some of which appear to be a lot smarter and faster than you’d think.

At almost two and a half hours long, Army of the Dead is a film where you feel that run time. There are entertaining sequences but there’s more lulls than not and there are certainly portions of the film which drag. The fact that this crew of people don’t get into Las Vegas into almost an hour into the film is telling. There’s a fair few characters to recruit but it takes so long and never uses any of the typical narrative choices from the heist genre to do so so it’s interesting. Not to compare a zombie heist film to Ocean’s Eleven but that film shows how you can quickly get what the key skills an personality quirks of characters in quick succession and how they’ll fit in the team. And to be honest, while Army of the Dead is pitched as a zombie heist movie and though there are certainly a lot of zombies, the heisting is actually quite minimal. There’s really only Dieter (Matthias Schweighöfer) who’s the safe cracker, everyone else is former military or gang members who can handle themselves in a shootout. Though an argument can be made for Peters the helicopter pilot (Tig Notaro) having the getaway driver role.

Naturally being a zombie film and having about a dozen characters in this band of thieves, there’s going to be some casualties and potentially a lot of death but there was far more than I was expecting leading to a very bleak viewing experience. Plus, so many of the characters get little to no development and many don’t seem to have strong ties to one another that the vast majority of deaths have no impact. Dieter and Peters had key roles to play in the plan, so the threat of their death means something but with everyone else it just let like they were there to be zombie fodder.

What I presume is supposed to be the emotional core of this film is the relationship between Scott and his daughter Kate (Ella Purnell), a volunteer at the camps outside Las Vegas who joins her father and his team on their mission though she has her own reasons for going. I say presume as it really didn’t do anything for me. Bautista and Purnell are both fine in their roles but it’s the dialogue and story that surrounds them that doesn’t work. It was also very difficult to care about Kate when her actions were often infuriating. Personally, I was more interested in the dynamic between Dieter and Vanderohe (Omari Hardwick), one of the former-military guys, as small interactions between them actually built the foundations of a relationship, something that none of the other characters had. More often than not you were told why these characters liked or cared about one another than were shown it.

One thing Army of the Dead has going for it are the zombies themselves. These creatures are fast and intelligent and there’s interesting power dynamics in play with them. Plus, the way these zombies move and the sounds they make is very unsettling. There’s a sequence with a room full of hibernating zombies that is very suspenseful, though character decisions after it are very annoying.

I’ve realised that there’s more negative here than positive but that’s what’s sticking out to me about Army of the Dead. There are fun moments like Dave Bautista jumping from car table to card table while money rains down, guns fire and zombies attack, but those are few and far between. It’s hard to care about the characters when they make so many bad decisions and seem to be bad at the jobs e.g. former-military people not doing basic things like watching each other’s backs so they don’t get bitten by zombies. The heist element is minimal and while the zombie element is good, it’s hard to care about it when the story is pretty dull. 2/5.

Honestly I think I’ve given Army of the Dead two stars instead of one because of how well Tig Notaro was added into the film (she shot all her scenes on greenscreen as she replaced an actor who was fired during post-production) and because her character was fun and weird. Something the rest of the film was lacking.

REVIEW: Peninsula (2020)

Four years after a zombie virus has spread across the country, South Korea has been quarantined from the rest of the world. A small team led by former soldier Jung-seok (Gang Dong-won) come back to the peninsula in order to retrieve a truck containing $20 million in cash.

Peninsula is a sequel to Train to Busan, but as it has new characters and is set after the events of the first film it can stand on its own. It’s a similar scenario to 28 Days Later and 28 Weeks Later really.

I think the best way to go into Peninsula is to not think too much of its predecessor. Train to Busan was like lightning in a bottle in terms of a zombie movie with a lot of heart. Peninsula tries to capture the same emotions with familial relationships, but it doesn’t reach the same heights of Train to Busan.

Gang Dong-won gives a great performance as the tortured but capable Jung-seok. He’s guilt-ridden over what happened to his family as they were fleeing South Korea four years earlier so to go back there and meet other survivors gives him a lot to think about. On the peninsula he meets Min-jung (Lee Jung-hyun) and her young daughters Joon (Lee Re) and Yu-jin (Lee Ye-won), and their grandfather Elder Kim (Kwon Hae-hyo). This little family is very likable and easy to root for but due to there being more characters outside this family unit and the heist/survival plot, they don’t get as much development to make you truly care about them.

As well as the zombie hoards Jung-seok and his comrades also have to deal with the soldiers of a unit who were abandoned by their government in South Korea. These men are mostly sadistic and greedy, looking out for themselves and subjecting any one they find to their cruel games.

The car chases as people try to either get away with the money, avoid the zombies or both are fun though a large part of them are done with easily noticeable special effects. Likewise, while scenes with a handful of zombies are actors in makeup (the zombies still move in an unsettling way and the makeup is very good), often when there’s a lot of them it’s CGI.

One could describe Peninsula as a zombie heist film with hints of Fast and Furious thanks to all the innovative car chases. The way people use lights, sounds and flares to attract or distract the zombies is really interesting and fun. All in all, while it doesn’t really hold a candle to its predecessor, Peninsula is a decent zombie film. 3/5.

REVIEW: 30 Days of Night (2007)

After the Alaskan town of Barrow is plunged into darkness for a month, it is attacked by a bloodthirsty gang of vampires and survivors, led by Sheriff Eben Oleson (Josh Hartnett), fight to survive the next thirty days until the sun comes up again.

30 Days of Night is a great vampire film and it’s also a great apocalyptic survival film. The film begins with many of the townsfolk moving away for the month as thirty days without sunlight is enough to put anyone on edge, nevermind throwing vampires into the mix. As people move out, Eben is called to investigate more and more weird occurrences and soon it becomes clear that something is trying to cut the town off from the rest of the world. When the sun goes down, it’s clear why that’s the case.

The film quickly sets up Eben as the lead and introduces various townsfolk and the people who are most important to him; his grandmother (Elizabeth McRae), his younger brother Jake (Mark Rendall) and his ex-wife Stella (Melissa George). As the sun sets and the vampires attack, things get very gruesome very quickly.

The initial attack on the town is brilliant. It’s very suspenseful and does the jump scares just right. There’s also a great overhead view of the town that shows the devastation these vampires are causing, pools of blood on the snow, people trying to escape before being struck down, and the echoes of screams.

The vampires themselves are very creepy and effective. They are all dressed really smartly but then they have pale skin, black eyes and a load of blood coating their faces and hands. Danny Huston plays the leader of the vampires and he is an intimidating presence whenever he’s on screen. Admittedly I often find Danny Huston menacing in films as I think I’ve only ever seen him play the bad guy, but adding fangs, long nails and blood into the mix makes him even more menacing.

There are time jumps, as seeing the whole thirty days would make a very long film, and it shows how time has passed with the growth of Josh Hartnett’s beard. The survivors have to decide between whether staying put for the thirty days would be their best option, or do they need to go out for supplies and maybe move elsewhere to be safer.

30 Days of Night is so effective because normally in vampire (or any monster) films, the humans only need to survive for one night, or generally a much shorter period of time than thirty days. The thirty days adds an extra layer of tension as there’s so many other things that could go wrong. The survivors could be discovered, they could turn on one another, they might run out of supplies – some of these elements could have been explored more but the ones it does touch on are good.

The performances are all great too, naturally the characters closer to Eben are given more to do and development than others, but there’s still some effective character moments. 30 Days of Night is an unsettling vampire/survival film, the score is eerie and adds to the whole creepy vibe of the story and the vampires themselves are some of the most lethal and scary ones I’ve seen for a while. 4/5.

REVIEW: Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1994)

When the brilliant but unorthodox Victor Frankenstein (Kenneth Branagh) creates life, it is far more powerful and gruesome than he imagined. After its creator turns his back on him, the Creature (Robert De Niro) escapes and swears revenge.

Much like the Dracula story, the tale of Frankenstein is one I know thanks to popular culture as I had not read the original book. While I knew how Dr Frankenstein reanimated the dead and it all went very wrong, the stuff about Frankenstein’s family, his upbringing, the intricacies to do with his experiments and the Creature was completely new to me.

Have to say I was rather surprised the film started with a crew of explorers running into an iceberg and their ship getting stuck on the ice. I did not know that was a part of the Frankenstein story at all. Still, it’s an eerie opening as there’s the threat of the elements the crew have to deal with before there’s weird noises and a strange figure appearing out of the snow.

As well as having the titular role, Kenneth Branagh also directed this film. His style is all over this with close ups of actors faces, spinning shots and dramatic zooming. The sets and costumes are lush and the house Frankenstein grows up in is suitably eerie when it needs to be thanks to the lighting choices.

Along with his over the top filming techniques, Branagh also gives some over the top acting. He says pretty much all of his lines with so much passion, even when a quieter reaction would better suit what’s happening. Branagh and Helena Bonham Carter’s chemistry is a bit hit and miss and her performance is just as grand.

Robert De Niro as the Creature is unrecognisable. The make up and prosthetics that bring that character to life are incredible and deserve that Oscar nomination. De Niro does well to portray the Creature in a sympathetic light as he is shunned by society and slowly tries to understand people and where he could possible fit with them.

The problem with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is that a lot of the time is spent waiting for something to happen. Especially when you know the basics of the story, you’re waiting for the monster to be created and then you’re waiting for everything to go wrong. The stuff with Victor and his friends and family just isn’t that interesting unfortunately.

All in all I think Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein could make a good double feature with Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Both are classic stories, with gorgeous sets and costumes and both are very dramatic and over the top. Unfortunately for Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, the exaggerated filming techniques and performances don’t work in its favour and it mostly ends up as a bit of slog to get through. 2/5.

REVIEW: The Blair Witch Project (1999)

In October of 1994 three student filmmakers disappeared in the woods near Burkittsville, Maryland, while shooting a documentary. A year later their footage was found.

The Blair Witch Project is one of those films that I knew of but hadn’t watched because I am a wuss. I did wonder how effective The Blair Witch Project would be with so much of it has become a part of popular culture and referenced in various other types of media, so I was aware of certain shots and the general story before actually watching it. I’m pleased to say it was still nerve-wracking and creepy.

The pace of The Blair Witch Project is really smart. The opening twenty minutes is the three students talking to residents of Burkittsville, hearing the stories about the Blair Witch and the other weird and horrifying things that have happened in the woods outside town. This sets the tone and makes you expect weird and creepy things to happen, and soon they do.

The trio of filmmakers all give great performances and it’s easy to see why people could believe the events of The Blair Witch Project actually happened. The fear, panic and stress is clear to see and their reactions to the unexplainable events are understandable. Heather is the projects director and she’s the one who is always filming everything and to start with doesn’t seem to mind the creepy things that are happening around them as in her mind it’ll make her documentary even better. She’s joined by Josh, who she knows well, and Mike, who she doesn’t, and as things get weird, tensions rise.

As the trio bicker as they traipse around the woods, getting more and more disorientated, the addition of unexplainable and strange piles of rocks, sounds and bundles of twigs gets everyone feeling anxious and just wanting to go home.

The Blair Witch Project is a classic of the horror genre and it’s the film that really kickstarted the found footage subgenre of films. As someone who very rarely watches horror films in general, never mind the found footage subgenre, The Blair Witch Project is tense and eerie from the outset and all the tropes that are so common now, are effective and unsettling. 5/5.

REVIEW: Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse (2015)

When a zombie apocalypse breaks out in their small town, best friends and scouts Ben (Tye Sheridan), Carter (Logan Miller) and Augie (Joey Morgan) – along with cocktail waitress Denise (Sarah Dumont) – must use their scouting skills to make it out alive.

This is one of those films where it started out and I was like, “Yeah, this is alright, a bit generic but fine” but then something clicked and I ended up having a great time with it.

The actual proper zombie battle stuff does take a while to get going, instead it spends time focussing on the friendship between the three scouts. The three scouts all have the sort of personalities you’d expect; Ben is the normal, relatable one, Carter is the loudmouth one and Augie is the more awkward one. They bicker and fall out as some of them feel like they’re getting to old for scouts while others still love it and it’s all very normal teen friend drama but in scout uniforms.

Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse is actually really funny. There are clever visual gags, one-liners, gross out and humour (they’re teen boys – what do you expect?!), and just a lot of laugh out loud moments. Perhaps I went into this with rather low expectations, but this was far funnier than I was expecting it to be.

The comedic timing and chemistry between the three friends and Denise is really good. Denise is badass and how she fits into the dynamic of this kind of dorky friendship group works surprisingly well. The four of them each bring their own skills to the zombie fighting and the action sequences are all well shot and very entertaining.

Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse has a solid mix of gore, crudity and laughs which makes it very enjoyable in its ridiculousness. Like honestly, there’s zombie cats and it has possibly the best use of a Dolly Parton song I’ve ever seen and that whole sequence, just like the film in general, is just so much fun. 4/5.

REVIEW: Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992)

The centuries old vampire Count Dracula (Gary Oldman) comes to England to seduce his barrister Jonathan Harker’s (Keanu Reeves) fiancée Mina Murray (Winona Ryder) and inflict havoc in the foreign land.

As I was watching Bram Stoker’s Dracula, I realised I didn’t really know the original Dracula story. Dracula (and vampires in general) is a character that’s so ingrained in our popular culture so I know the general things of what makes a vampire and I’ve seen so many variations of the story like Dracula Untold (2014) or Van Helsing (2004) but never the origin of Count Dracula so watching Bram Stoker’s Dracula was a weird experience. I knew the names, places and the general story beats but seeing them all play out on screen was fun – though obviously I don’t know how true it is to the source material.

Bram Stoker’s Dracula is visually interesting. The costumes, the set design and make up are all so striking. The make up used to make Gary Oldman look thousands of years old was so good that you just took his Dracula at face value so when he suddenly appears looking young and how Oldman looked in the early 90s it’s very effective.

The use of lighting and shadows adds to the creepy feel of Dracula’s home and the whole story. The way Dracula’s, and other creatures, shadows work, seemingly to touch people while they are the other side of the room, increases the uncomfortable feeling the humans have when in their presence.

The acting is a bit all over the place really. Keanu Reeves has a terrible British accent and both he and Winona Ryder are a bit wooden, especially in their scenes together. Somehow it doesn’t break the film though. Anthony Hopkins plays Professor Van Helsing and looks like he’s having a whale of a time with it. He swings from one emotion to another, serious professor to almost overexcited child at what is happening around him. Oldman’s Dracula is suitably unsettling and captivating and sells the obsessive love he has for Mina.

Bram Stoker’s Dracula is over the top (the bright red blood, the dramatic dialogue and score) but it totally works. Watching it for the first time now, almost thirty years after it was released, there’s a certain charm about Bram Stoker’s Dracula that we don’t see as often in modern films. It’s proper old-fashioned filmmaking with striking sets, impressive make up and beautiful costumes. I often feel films that are set in the past, in this case the late 1800s, have a timelessness to them, so the potentially outdated effects etc just help make the film feel like a perfect time capsule. Bram Stoker’s Dracula really is worth the watch if you enjoy classic stories of good vs evil. 4/5.

REVIEW: The Craft (1996)

Sarah (Robin Tunney) is a lonely newcomer to a Catholic prep school in LA, until she falls in with a trio of outcasts, Nancy (Fairuza Balk), Bonnie (Neve Campbell) and Rochelle (Rachel True). Together they practice witchcraft, conjuring up spells and curses in order to get what they want like love, beauty, and power – but magic comes with a price.

At the beginning of The Craft, it does a great job of leaving you guessing how much of what the girls are doing is magic, and how much is by chance. Sarah has always had weird things happen to her but it’s not until she’s with the other three that they can seem to control what they want to happen.

Yes, The Craft is a bit dated and very nineties in a lot of ways. The hair and the fashion, the chunky landline phones and the way the girls learn from the occult through books in a shop rather than scouring the internet. But, for someone like me who’s watching it for the first time almost fifteen years after it was first released, it’s still an effective film.

It’s creepy and eerie and the sort of spells or things the girls want are all relatable teen things. They want the boy their like to like them, they want their bully to stop tormenting them, they want to look beautiful – all things that teen girls wish for, but these four can actually do something about it.

The four actresses are all great in their roles and they have good chemistry. The dynamics between them all is interesting, especially how Sarah fits in (or doesn’t) with a ready-made, solid trio of friends. Tension rises between Sarah, who appears to have natural power, and Nancy, who wants to be strong and powerful and to get what she wants. The way these two butt heads as the film progresses and their spells get out of their control is interesting as there’s the high school teenage bitchiness level to a friendship group potentially breaking down, but then there’s also the potentially dangerous consequences to these girls actions and how they can hurt one another if they no longer see eye to eye.

The final act goes all out creepy and scary and perhaps it’s a bit of a leap from the sort of high school drama The Craft had inhabited before, but it’s still exciting to see how everything comes to a head – Fairuza Balk deserves a special mention for doing crazy so well.

The Craft is a great mix of high school drama and the occult. It’s whole aesthetic is great and it’s the kind of eerie but fun horror film I’m totally on board with. 4/5.

REVIEW: The New Mutants (2020)

The saga of The New Mutants production and release is almost legendary at this point. Different cuts were made, reshoots happened and the release date got pushed back by at least two years and was then released after the supposed peak of a global pandemic. What a legacy this film has.

The New Mutants follows Danielle Moonstar (Blu Hunt) who wakes up in a facility after her home is destroyed. There she’s told by Dr. Reyes (Alice Braga) that she’s a mutant and she and the four other teenagers are there to learn how to control their powers.

The New Mutants gets props for attempting something different within the comic book/superhero genre. There’s a small group of superpowered people (something we’re all familiar with by now) but instead of being in a safe and nurturing environment to learn about their powers like we’ve seen in previous X-Men movies, these teens are in what is called a hospital but is more like a creepy mental institution from a horror movie. There’s cameras and microphones everywhere and Dr Reyes likes to do tests on them and send them to solitary confinement if they misbehave. And that’s before each of the teens start to see and experience unexplainable horrors.

These mutant characters aren’t ones that are so easily recognisable. Personally while they’re regular human names didn’t instantly mean something to me, like Scott Summers would for instance, as their powers were slowly revealed I realised that all but one of the five were in the latter seasons of the X-Men: Evolution cartoon series. I highly recommend that series (it does the Apocalypse storyline brilliantly) especially if you want to see more of these characters as I feel it’s unlikely they’ll get a movie sequel.

Danielle is a nice enough character but isn’t particularly compelling. Her scenes with Rahne (Maisie Williams) are the best as their hesitant but blossoming relationship is an unexpected bright spot in a film where all the characters have or currently are experiencing great trauma. Anya Taylor-Joy often steals the limelight as the cutting Illyana, while Sam Guthrie and Henry Zaga aren’t given much to work with as their characters are the stereotypical quiet but nice guy and the brash jock type respectively.

After all the wait, The New Mutants is just fine really. It could’ve been scarier, and it could’ve delved more into these characters, so it doesn’t end up fulfilling the potential of its concept. It has a 90 minute runtime and you do feel that, an extra 20 minutes could’ve done wonders for character development and allowed for scenes to breathe as it was hard to gauge how long Danielle and the others had been in the facility before everything went wrong. Overall, The New Mutants is perfectly serviceable but not one to rush out to see during a pandemic. 3/5.