Horror

Jessabelle: Mediocrity Lurks in the Bayou

A woman torments her wheelchair-bound daughter from beyond the grave with VHS tapes in this voodoo-themed supernatural thriller. Written by Robert Ben Garant and directed by Kevin Greutert, Jessabelle (2014) keeps you guessing until the end, but an engaging mystery and attractive lead isn’t enough to save this mediocre horror film from Blumhouse Productions.

Tragedy strikes pregnant Jessabelle “Jessie” Laurent (Sarah Snook) when her fiancé Mark is killed in a car accident, which also causes her to miscarry and become paralyzed from the waist down. Now wheelchair-bound, she returns home to Louisiana to live with her father, Leon (David Andrews). For some reason Leon has kept her mother, Kate’s (Joelle Carter) old bedroom sealed and reopens it for Jessie. Neither Jessie nor their housekeeper seem to think this is odd.

Jessie, who believes her mother died of a brain tumor, discovers tapes her mother recorded as a message for her eighteenth birthday. This instigates several disturbing encounters with a dark-haired phantom (Amber Stevens West). Leon tries to destroy the tapes but ends up burning to death. At his funeral, Jessie reunites with her childhood sweetheart, Preston Sanders (Mark Webber).

Together, Jessie and Preston investigate the strange events and their connection to a local voodoo church. They discover a baby’s skeleton buried in the bayou with the same name and birth date as Jessie. The local sheriff (Chris Ellis) discovers the child’s origin too late to save Jessie, who is attacked by the ghost of Kate and a voodoo priest named Moses (Vaughn Wilson). I won’t spoil the ending, but it’s a crazy plot twist that might have been interesting if it was developed a bit more.

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The Blackcoat’s Daughter

A young girl’s isolation at a Catholic boarding school in Upstate New York leads to increasingly disturbing behavior, while a psych-ward escapee drifts closer, in the nail-biting supernatural thriller, The Blackcoat’s Daughter (2015). Originally titled February, writer/director Oz Perkins intended this film to be a meditation on loneliness. He crafted a creepy and disturbing tale that has all the elements of a good horror movie.

The film is essentially divided into two stories that progressively come together in a surprise ending. In the first, a freshman girl named Kat (Kiernan Shipka) is staying at her Catholic boarding school over winter break because her parents have failed to pick her up. Rose (Lucy Boynton), a senior, told her parents the wrong date to buy time so she could find out whether she was pregnant. They are watched by two nuns. Rose receives several phone calls from a mysterious voice she calls “Dad,” and her behavior becomes more disturbing with each phone call.

In the second story, a man named Bill (James Remar) picks up a young hitchhiker named Joan (Emma Roberts) over the objections of his wife, Linda (Lauren Holly). It’s implied Joan escaped from a hospital, but Bill believes she reminds him of his daughter, Rose, who was brutally murdered several years earlier. Bill and Linda are traveling to their daughter’s former school to lay flowers. Bill tries to emotionally connect with Joan, believing God brought them together. Joan replies that she doesn’t believe in God.

**Spoilers** At the school, Kat brutally murders Rose and the nuns, decapitates them, and offers them up to Satan in a macabre ritual in the boiler room. A police officer confronts her and fires a shot. Later, in the hospital, a priest exorcises the demon from Kat, and she sees a shadowy figure disappear. In the present, Joan (now revealed to be a grown-up Kat) kills both Bill and Holly, steals their car, and completes her journey back to the boiler room, only to find it unlit and silent.

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The Untamed: Wildly Provocative and Bleak Sci-Fi Horror

A young woman comes to grips with her failing marriage and homosexual husband, and oh yeah there’s something about a tentacle sex alien too, in The Untamed (2016), a Mexican sci-fi horror film written and directed by Amat Escalante. Originally titled La region salvaje, it was released in the U.S. in 2017. The film gratuitously uses a provocative subtext to explore serious drama and sexual themes in small town Mexico.

Amat Escalante is a Spanish director known for his gritty portrayal of the Mexican experience. The Untamed paints an unvarnished portrait, and even the natural scenes are bleak and depressing. Its original title translates to “the wild region,” which I’m assuming refers both to untamed nature and female sexuality. There are several close up shots that reinforce that theme scattered throughout the film.

Alejandra (Ruth Ramos) and Ángel (Jesus Meza) are raising two children in an unhappy marriage. Alejandra’s brother, Fabian (Eden Villavicencio), is a nurse at a local hospital. Ángel and Fabian are having an affair. Things get weird when Fabian meets Veronica (Simone Bucio), who visits the hospital after being bitten by a lusty tentacle alien her parents (?) keep in their barn.

Veronica lures Fabian to the barn, where the creature brutalizes him into a coma. He is later found naked in a ditch and brought to the hospital, where Alejandra meets Veronica. Police arrest Ángel for Fabian’s injuries because a bystander saw the two men arguing in a parking lot before Fabian disappeared.

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The Hatred: Rock Bottom Horror

Four college coeds and a young girl must survive the night in a farmhouse haunted by an ex-NAZI and his daughter in The Hatred (2017), written and directed by Michael G. Kehoe. The horror genre has long attracted up-and-coming filmmakers willing to take risks on shoestring budgets. This sometimes leads to cinematic masterpieces but often amounts to trash fit for the landfill. This film belongs solidly in the latter category.

As The Hatred opens, Samuel Sears (Andrew Divoff), his school teacher wife, Miriam (Nina Siemaszko), and daughter, Alice (Darby Walker) are living on an isolated farm. Samuel was a high ranking NAZI who changed his name and fled to the U.S. after the Second World War. He receives a medieval relic in the mail, drowns his daughter for rebelling against him, and then dies for some reason while his wife passively looks on.

Forty years later, recent college graduate Regan (Sarah Davenport) and her vapid sorority friends, Layan (Gabrielle Bourne), Samantha (Bayley Corman), and Betaine (Alisha Wainwright) drive out to her professor’s new country home, where she will babysit his daughter, Irene (Shae Smolik). As strange things begin to happen, will they unravel the mystery of Alice’s death and escape alive?

The Hatred is possibly the worst movie I’ve ever seen. I struggled to find a single redeeming quality. Normally, with low budget pictures, it’s unintentionally funny, or there’s memorable dialogue, or a clever concept, or just some good old fashioned T&A. The Hatred had none of those things.

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The Autopsy of Jane Doe

A coroner and his son attempt to solve the mystery of how a seemingly unscathed woman’s corpse ended up in a murdered family’s basement in this psychological-horror film from Norwegian director André Øvredal. The Autopsy of Jane Doe (2016) doesn’t have a complicated story, but is creepy and compelling enough to rise above its peers.

Coroner Tommy Tilden (Brian Cox) and his son Austin (Emile Hirsch) run a routine practice in a small town morgue, but the discovery of the pale, lifeless body of a black-haired woman (Olwen Catherine Kelly) in a murdered family’s basement changes all that. Austin has plans to take his girlfriend Emma (Ophelia Lovibond) to the movies, but something doesn’t feel right when the sheriff wheels in a fresh corpse from a crime scene, so he postpones the date.

As Tommy and Austin begin the autopsy on the mysterious woman, they uncover clues to how she died. All her injuries are internal, and they discover evidence that she’s much, much older than she appears. The more they cut into her, however, the more unsettling events begin to manifest around the morgue. Something unseen traps and pursues them, with predictable results.

It’s eventually revealed Jane Doe was a witch who was brutally tortured and magically bound in a prison of her own flesh in seventeenth-century New England. She inflicted torment on everyone who had custody of her body, so it was shuttled around until ending up in the morgue, where only Tommy and Austin had the tools and expertise to solve the mystery.

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The Staircase – A Horror Short

The Staircase (2017) was created and directed by Mario Flores, a photographer from Baja California, and stars Irauaddi Fuentes. Flores has appeared as an uncredited extra in Dirty Love (2005) and Resident Evil: Extinction (2007). The Staircase is a typical short suspense video punctuated by a jump scare.

We see a woman relaxing at home, answering text messages. Suddenly, a sound directs her attention to the second floor. A shadowy figure peers over the balcony, then a plastic ball comes tapping down the wooden stairs. She slowly ascends the staircase, until another noise sends her scurrying back down. She waits, then screams as–well, I won’t spoil the ending. But the short film ends there, at 2 minutes and 50 seconds.

The trailer on YouTube is actually more well-made and suspenseful than the movie. The “horror” element doesn’t work partially because of atmosphere (or lack thereof). It’s just way too bright. Second, the creature (or whatever it is) appears too early. There’s no way someone would go upstairs after seeing that thing looking over the balcony. It’s just not believable.

The Staircase is a decent first effort, but there’s nothing to capture your attention. It is available to rent on Amazon.com for $1.99.

Grindstone Road: A Forgettable Canadian Horror Film

A young couple moves into an old farmhouse, only to experience a series of strange events. Is the ghost of a missing child reaching out for help from beyond the grave? In capable hands, Grindstone Road (2008), written by Paul Germann and directed by Melanie Orr, had the potential to be an entertaining (if not very original) horror film. Unfortunately, it doesn’t even rise to the level of a made-for-TV movie.

Melanie Orr is a script supervisor (oversees a film’s continuity) who has directed episodes for a number of television shows. Grindstone Road was her sophomore effort. Paul Germann is a sound effects editor who has written a grand total of one film. Grindstone Road must have been so bad he never got another script optioned. It was like he had a weird dream and decided to make a movie out of it.

Somehow they tricked Fairuza Balk into starring in their cliched and mediocre Canadian horror film. Balk appeared in some popular movies in the ’90s, including The Craft (1996), American History X (1998), and The Waterboy (1998), then dropped off the public’s radar. She always embraced “alternative” roles, and wears a goth-ish outfit for one scene in this movie, but otherwise plays a conventional housewife. That’s like asking Jackson Pollock to paint an idyllic country cottage. It’s just not right.

As bad as Grindstone Road is, at least it has an interesting story. Wracked with guilt over a car accident that left her son Daniel (Felix Pennell) in a deep coma, Hannah (Fairuza Balk) begins having strange experiences in her new home. Her husband, Graham (Greg Bryk), is oblivious and blames the antidepressants she takes to help ease the pain. Their neighbors, an elderly couple named Ted (Walter Learning) and Linda (Joan Gregson), alert them to the possibility their house is haunted.

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