A pandemic sweeps across the Australian land, transforming the infected into hunger-driven cannibals. Andy and his wife, Kay, boat down river in hopes to find a safe zone for their baby daughter Rosie in attempt to avoid major populations and even the occasional infected, but when Kay falls victim to a bite aboard an apparent abandoned sailboat while salvaging for supplies, the couple have no choice but to seek help on the mainland. Desperation leads to carelessness when Andy veers off the road and crashes. He awakens to his wife having turned rabid, sustaining a bite on his arm when saving his daughter from the backseat. With maybe two days until the virus overcomes him, Andy must find a way across a mostly vacant landscape to find someone to take care of his young daughter. With time running out, Andy’s plight takes him through a barren-inhabited land where he encounters various walks with some being too unsavory and too unsuitable for his daughter’s welfare.
Ben Howling and Yolanda Ramke are the first time directors behind the 2017, zombie-classified horror-drama “Cargo.” The screenplay was also penned by Ramke stemming from a remake of the directing duo’s short film of the same title. The short, that went on to be a finalist at the world’s largest short film festival, Tropfest, and went viral back into 2013, being showcased on the internets most popular genre sites. From there, the success of Howling and Ramke’s 7-minute short, encouraged by a strong fan base, was able to land equity to fund a full-length feature set in Howling and Ramke’s home country of Australia. The 2017 film added a star cast, a grittier and gut-busting bigger budget, and even landed back the main actor from the short film in a smaller, but significant role. “Cargo’s” bigger, more organic, and exalts the very essence of being human in an isolated, catastrophic, capitalism dystopia overrun with the chrysalis monsters.
English actor and star of the “Hobbit” series, Martin Freeman, lands the lead role of Andy. Freeman’s usual knack consists of being mild-mannered with a variety of facial expressions and his performance in being a desperate father in “Cargo” is no different; yet Freeman expresses another quality that consistently stays in the shadows of his other worth and that is strength. Andy might be conservative and portrayed as meek, but when push comes to shove, Andy steps to the plate and Freeman shows us his upper hand of his character’s abilities. Freeman works alongside first time child actress, Simone Landers, as Thoomi, an indigenous native offspring who relies on Andy to return her to her family while Andy relies on her to bring safety to his infant daughter. For a first time performance, Landers couldn’t have been more of a perfect fit aside the experienced “Sherlock Holmes” actor. Also co-starring in “Cargo” is Anthony Hayes, Susie Porter, Caren Pistorius, Kris McQuade, and, “Crocodile Dundee’s” David Gulpili who, to quote Ben Howling who said it best, is essentially Australian actor royalty.
“Cargo” isn’t your typical genre zombie film. In fact, I wouldn’t even brandish it the label of a zombie film. Ramke’s post-epidemic story reverberates a more familiar “28 Days Later” echo that spurs more life altering contagion than the dead resurrecting to feast on the living. The infect do not run, but stumble, like a zombie and also crave living delicacies; yet, their tainted blood seeps an inhuman generated neon-orange-like sap through facial orifices that feels more like the European zombie of an organic or voodoo nature. These human-turned-monsters also bury their heads below the dirt up to their shoulders in a state of transformation or a rebirth in a sense. The essence of “Cargo’s” villainy is expanded further from Howling and Ramke’s initial short film that just introduced a milky-eyed dead head and these types of infected give “Cargo” a better, more substantial presence in an overcrowded living dead genre, but the infected are not the main villains as people, essentially one capitalistic vulture, is the real threat against the protagonists.
Umbrella Entertainment presents “Cargo,” a Netflix film, onto Blu-ray home video in a sleek full HD 1080p and presented in a widescreen, 2.35:1 aspect ratio. The region B, MPEG-4 AVC encoded disc has great detail over the dry Australian countryside stocked with brown and brown vegetation, natural coloring across the board, especially in the infected’s neon-orange ooze, and an overall favorable viewing experience. The English 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio doesn’t necessarily have a bombastic track, as it isn’t that kind of film, and the range is fairly around a mild-mannered tonality with a hiccup of gunfire and shouting in the ambient tracks. Dialogue is perfectly crystal clear in the forefront. Bonus material includes two featurettes, one entitled “Cargo: Shaping A Fragile Future” and the other “Cargo: Maternal Combat,” interviews with cast and crew, Q&A from May 2018 in Melbourne, the original Tropfest 2013 short, and the theatrical trailer. “Cargo” breathes fresh air into a threadbare genre with a sheer look into humanity’s willpower and callous.
An estranged and recently widowed grandfather purchases a used RV to take one last family road trip with his two sons, daughter-in-law, and granddaughter to rekindle a broken relationship. On an isolated stretch of desert highway, the family decides to pull over to assist two stranded motorists and offer them a ride to the next town. Suddenly, the RV veers out of control, steering itself to the middle of the dangerously sweltering desert. The group now finds themselves all stranded and alone with a RV that outputs a strange vibe, displaying vividly horrific secrets inside the RV’s enclosure. One-by-one, the RV kills them off and soon they realize that their ride to family fun is no more than a reincarnated recreational vehicle with a long lineage for death and thirsty for new blood.
Fan crushes are a strange phenomena. Once an actor or an actress imprints their image, their voice, or their one-time portrayal of a charismatic character onto you, the unexplainable captivation never releases the firm grip around the psyche. Denise Richards has had a long impression on this reviewer, resulting in a severe case of fan crush. The Illinois actress won my heart as the determinedly beautiful starship pilot Carmen Ibanez in Paul Veerhoven’s “Starship Troopers,” one year before her anticipated and unforgettable champagne popping nude scene in the convoluted thriller “Wild Things.” Twenty years later, Richards, an ageless beauty, co-stars in the Tom Nagel supernatural horror, “The Toybox.” Nagel (“Clowntown”) directs his sophomore film penned by screenwriter Jeff Denton and, together, the pair of filmmakers toy with and present an idea of a detestable serial killer leaving his twisted soul in the under the rusted hood of a his torture chamber, a beat up old RV camper. A killer RV story that sounds to be right up horror-comedy’s alley is actually a rather earnest narrative that has a solid kill count with an innovative, outside the box villain and a no one is safe attitude.
I’ve already mentioned that the goddess Denise Richards co-headlines “The Toybox” and though I have yet to experience her more recent work over the years, “Valentine” was the last horror film that I can recall with Richards in the cast and her role in Nagel’s film as a loving, yet undisciplined mother and wife in “The Toybox” puts her at the opposite spectrum of her roles in the late 90’s/early 2000’s career. Still, the now recently re-married mother of two still has her unrivaled hots and still has her acting chops as a leading lady despite the lack of Hollywood glam and stardom. Her co-star, Mischa Barton, has been an upcoming figure in the b-horror community. “The O.C.” actresses has starred in a string of horror films in recent years such as “The Hoarder,” “L.A. Slasher,” and “Apartment 1303 3D.” Barton tackles a tomboy Samantha whose picked up, along with her brother, by the RV traveling family and while Barton has a fine performance, she doesn’t quite sell the intensity as a final girl. Greg Violand (“The Devil’s Toy Box”), Matt Mercer (“Contracted”), David Greathouse (“Yoga Hosers”), writer Jeff Denton, director Tom Nagel, and introducing Malika Michelle round out of the remaining cast.
“The Toybox” loosely aims to unravel the inner turmoils of the characters mainly focusing around the estranged relationship of the father and his two sons. The trio can’t quite shake the secret inducing uneasiness that boils inside their broken relationship, making a situational cakewalk for the killer RV to pit them against each other as a deranged therapy session to unsheathe their kindred issues. The bickering and the blaming hurts those they love the most around them first, a very relatable and unfortunate circumstance in beyond the sensational borders of movie magic. However, no matter how much movie magic Nagel constructs to gore-out “The Toybox,” a stiflingly story rears an ugly head via undercooked characters pivotal in being the heart of the narrative. Samantha, Barton’s character, has soft, buttery edges that don’t take shape to ultimate purpose for being a focal point and the same can be said for David Greathouse’s serial killer character Robert Gunthry whose RV-inhabiting backstory is whipped swiftly a single anecdote.
Skyline Entertainment and Steel House Productions present Tom Nagel’s “The Toybox” onto Blu-ray home video in high definition 1080p and a widescreen, 2.39:1 aspect ratio. Image is quite sharp despite lacking vivid coloring and going more for a dusty western-horror, exhibiting the rocky arid landscape of the pacific coast. The English Dolby Digital 5.1 audio track is nothing to write home about, but offers a clean dialogue track, ample ambience, and balance. Depth’s slightly weak, but won’t hinder the experience. Bonus material on the single layer BD-25 includes a behind the scenes of various takes throughout production, the theatrical trailer, and a feature commentary with cast and crew. “The Toybox” is no child’s plaything. A RV serial killer with the homicidal motivations stemmed from pure evil and, in a fair opinion, only director Tom Nagel could have poised a coherent film without making it out too, for a lack of a better word, campy and that’s not my weird obsession with Denise Richards talking.
A small Australian town experiences a small, yet devastating portion of a world invasion by a hostile alien race during a night of carnival festivities and a rugby football game. A small group of locals band together to form a resistance against the alien occupation that seeks to turn mankind’s world into their own, using captured humans as slave labor for their own agricultural harvesters. After each liberation of prisoners, the resistance fighters train others as rebels to strike back, and strike back hard, against their oppressors while they continuously search for their missing loved ones, but for some, at the cost of their own humanity and compassion when only killing becomes the most instantaneous gratification toward taking back their home planet. A select few of rebels try to find common ground in peace with a homeless alien race that desperately seeks an inhabitable world, but red and green blood must be shed on both sides before amity ever becomes a realistic ideal between two humanoid races.
“Occupation” is the 2018 alien invasion action-thriller and the sophomore feature film from Australian director Luke Sparke. Sparke, who also wrote the script, shares additional dialogue credits with Felix Williamson of “Nekrotronic.” What could be considered as “Red Dawn” meets “Independence Day,” “Occupation” has wealthy production value breadth that kisses the line of being something constructed from the flashy and gleam-laden Michael Bay with grand scale visual effects that blend fairly seamlessly with ground level practical makeup. Explosions, weapons fire, and spray patterns of alien blood put a significant dent into the storyline that follows the nearly-a-year course of the ragtag team of human resistance fighters, firmly solidifying “Occupation’s” action status and large pocket budget on a this foreign science fiction film.
Not one actor headlines “Occupation,” but, rather, follows the subjective motives from each of the motley crew of survivors. If had to choose, the pill addicted and rugged rugby footballer Matt Simmons, played by “Beast No More’s” Dan Ewing, is shown some favoritism as he becomes the naturally unspoken for leader of the resistance team that includes his girlfriend, Amelia, played by Stephany Jacobsen. “The Devil’s Tomb” actress doesn’t quite mesh well with Ewing; her forced performance is uncomfortably ungraceful during action and melodramatic scenes of her perspectives on the alien culture and Matt’s audacious bravery. Temuera Morrison is a familiar face amongst the mix; the “Speed 2” and regular “Star Wars” mythology actor across many platforms is the passionately driven father, Peter, who desperately searches for his son and wife from whom he was separated during the invasion and Morrison does what the accomplished actor has always done best, being the aggressor and the muscle behind his character, especially when Peter mercilessly caves in alien craniums with scrap piping. When Peter is bashing skulls, he’s being an overprotective daughter to Izzy Stevens, a young actress from Sydney, who provides the teenage angst and, in a rather bizarre move, goes down a road of fixation with the local, older looking bum, played by Zac Garred. The chemistry only sparks here and there until their tunnel of love sequence; by then, they’re full throttle, ripping off clothes like cotton is contagious. Rhiannon Fish, Charles Terrier, Felix Williamson, Jacqueline McKenzie (“Deep Blue Sea”), Trystan Go, and Sci-fi genre vet Bruce Spence (“The Road Warrior”) make up the remaining cast.
Much of “Occupation’s” hefty flaws come from simply being forced. From the acting to the storyline, the pace doesn’t convey authenticity and where the characters should be within the stages of a post-invasion Earth. Oppressive occupation desolate inhabitants and landscape, but the majority of the human race remain not weathered by the conflict and Sparke doesn’t necessarily express that well with still very much clean shaven, well-kept, and strength-retaining displaced survivors with fat bellies and no sign of disease or starvation. In 8 months, the resistance is able to completely organize against an advanced alien race despite being taken by complete surprise. Dynamics are a bit off as well as many motivations abruptly change; for example, Amelia’s brother, Marcus, has a crush fixation with Izzy Stevens’ character during invading period, but the interaction between them go un-nurtured and wither to where a sudden connection between her and the bum form at a rapid pace without so much of a flicker of jealousy Marcus, losing any hope for an internal, tangent subplot. Same can be said between Matt and Amelia; they’re hot and cold relationship teeters on psychotic behavior and bi-polar tendencies that result in questioning where exactly their position lies in this conflict that’s nudges them to wedge apart but pulls them together again like nonchalant magnets without really tackling head-on their own issues.
Lionsgate and Saban Films release “Occupation” on Blu-ray home video. The transfer is in 1080p hi-definition with a 2.39.1 widescreen presentation. Nothing really to note here about the image quality other than the cleanliness of the digital video that sheds many landscape and personal details in the day and the night sequences. The English 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track has copious qualities for an explosive-laden borderline A/B movie from Australia. Dialogue is prominent and the LFE is quiet sparse though explosion heavy; ships whizzing through the air maintain on a level playing field audio track shared with human’s scampering frantically for their very lives. Spanish subtitles and English SDH are also available. For a two-hour runtime flick, surprisingly, there are no bonus features with this release. Luke Sparke’s “Occupation” is masterfully formulaic as we’ve all experienced this movie before whether be “Red Dawn” or “Independence Day.” Nothing under the satisfactory visual effects is awesome enough to rattle or challenge the mind with the venture of a militia of Australian resistance fighters pitted against ghastly, rubber looking extraterrestrials and that’s the ultimate and fateful bullet in Sparke’s sci-fi action film.
On a dark and stormy night after a school football game, a teacher and three students take shelter at a cottage adjacent to a cemetery. If the cottage wasn’t creepy enough, the sole occupant owner surpassed the bar. She calls herself Miss Leslie, a middle aged woman with an ill-fated story of her friend and mother’s fiery demise from long past and a quirky penchant for making life-size female dolls that set inside an illuminating shrine. Though they feel uneasy about the creepy surroundings, the visitors stay and get cozy, especially with each other, but Miss Leslie has ulterior, deranged motives. Her dolls are not just lifelike, they once were vibrant lives of women Miss Leslie sorely wanted to inhabit their feminine confines of youth and beauty from over the years, but now they are an undecomposable shells, encase in Miss Leslie’s special doll making brew to timelessly capture their lovely physiques. They are also beautiful, yet painful reminders of her failed attempts to transfer her essence into their adolescent bodies.
Every so often you come across a film with a gigantically absurd hard shell cover with the gooey insides of eye-rolling cheesiness and you just have to ask yourself, how in the world did something like this ever come to fruition!? Yet, somehow, someway, these productions of an oddball variety always have an intense allure about them and end up being just one of the coolest rarities to grace the glazed-over irises. Joseph Prieto’s “Miss Leslie’s Dolls” is the epitome of this very phenomena. “Miss Leslie’s Dolls” is an exploitation, nearly softcore porn, horror with a deranged killers with severe mental issues that range from communication with dead to, what can be now construed as antiquated, complications of gender identity. One of the last directed films from Prieto, who also helmed “Shanty Tramp” and “Savages from Hell,” also penned the screenplay alongside longtime collaborator and producer Ralph Remy Jr. The script reads like an insatiable bedside thriller novel, an object of complete obsession through the entirety and well long after being completed; “Miss Leslie’s Dolls’” has a rich gothic lining, a strong sexual appetite, and a timely LGTB subject that involves debate on mental illness or inherited gender orientation.
Not many actors performed in drag. Sure, there was Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis in “Some Like It Hot” and there was even Anthony Perkins from “Psycho,” who some might go as far as saying that “Miss Leslie’s Dolls” might draw inspiration from with the whole mother fixation, but only a small faction of fans, especially in the genre, might know Salvador Ugarte. The Cuban born Ugarte has great poise as a woman imprisoned in a man’s body. Miss Leslie just isn’t a deranged killer in drag; the character has deep rooted issues stemming out of not only being a woman embodied incorrectly, but also seeded by an engulfing obsession with capturing beauty to obtain it for herself, an addition from a result of a permanent scarring left behind by Miss Leslie’s homicidal rampage in the character’s history. Ugarte has the mannerisms and the gait down so unerringly that’s the performance is downright creepy, but there was one aspect of womanhood that Ugarte’s masculinity couldn’t mask: his voice. The actor is horrendously dubbed, adding charm to the bizarre concept. Ugarte’s joined by “Little Laura and Big John’s” Terri Juston, Marchelle Bichette (“The Gruesome Twosome”), Kitty Lewis, and Charles Pitts of “Supervixens.”
Contrary to the above, “Miss Leslie’s Dolls” has some drawback. Though the characters might be entertaining and interesting, especially with the Bourbon obsessed and hot for teacher Roy and his terrible gangster accent or the fact that Ms. Alma Frost is a smoking hot, twenty-something year old prude teacher to her pupils who are practically the same age as her, they’re washed over with an aloof mentality, consequently looking past or just blatantly oblivious to Miss Leslie’s obvious male features, her inauspicious ramblings, and the fact she has a shrine of creepy and realistic dolls of women that fill the room with the smell like rot and death. Perhaps too busy running through the cemetery at night in skimpy bedroom garments. Yes, this does happen. On top of that, Miss Leslie harness of occult powers goes relatively unexplored, yet very much utilized as an important portion of the film near the last act. Despite being passively mentioned and rather undercut from more than most of the film, Miss Leslie’s occult mischief is plucked right from left field to further the enigmatic aurora of Prieto’s mystical exploitation.
Network proudly presents “Miss Leslie’s Dolls” on an UK 1080p Hi-Definition, region free Blu-ray home video, remastered from the original film elements once thought to be have been forever lost. The newly scanned transfer came from a surviving print and presented in the film’s original theatrical aspect ratio of 1.85:1. The restoration included detailed grain management, the automated and manual removal of dirt and damage, and the correction of major color instability, warp, and density fluctuations. (In full disclosure, Network sent me a DVD-R screener and that is what the following critique is based off of) Though in some frames there flares up some instability, from my perspective, the first act and half really came out well with the vivid, yet natural, coloring. However, once inside Miss Leslie’s basement, woozy blotchy moments of Leslie fiddling around makes the particular scene a bit off putting. The stereo mono track is fair for the 1973 film that has it’s share of distortions and editing pop faux pas, but the dialogue is fiercely prominent, despite the inherent awfully laid dub track, and equally well balanced with ambient tracks. There were no bonus material on the release. Transvestitism horror is quite a rare experience that always has a lasting impression, cerebrally popping visuals of grim visions commingling with the blood, the viscera, and the other supplementary violence. “Miss Leslie’s Dolls” deserved this Blu-ray release and Network did right by Prieto’s obscure grindhouse feature that will sear into your skull.
After bearing witness the brutal suicide of her father, Mary undergoes family counselling as a result of being the cause of her father’s death with repetitive public accusations of molestation. The ill-equipped counselor suggests medical evaluation from a professional who beseeches the assistance of The Catholic Church when the determination concludes that Mary is suffering from severe Satanic possession. Directives from high positions in the Church service in waves three priests to perform the delicate exorcism; all of whom have conducted an exorcism under difficult and soul-exhausting situations. The irresolute and embattled priests field the call, blindly walking into Mary’s slithery persuasive possession state of soul-tormenting and death. The priests will tirelessly seek to have the beleaguered Mary exorcised of the nasty demon from within and have her tattered body come back to Jesus…or perhaps be personally delivered to the Devil.
Finally! American Guinea Pig: “The Song of Solomon” has been on my highly anticipated review material list for a very, very long time. Written, produced, and helmed by the founder and president of Unearthed Films himself, Stephen Biro has been more than widely known for years to promote and glorify gore in the shock-provoking films underneath his banner; a practice that has made his company a stable in the realm of horror aficionados. “The Song of Solomon” keeps the blood flowing….splattering, squirting, spurting, spilling, in fact! Whereas many of the Unearthed Films productions and distributions have a granular or avant garde stories, Biro, despite the confined and limited locations, pens an engrossing narrative with evocative, haunting, and surreal characters surged into a powerful and ageless tale that sordidly spanks “The Exorcist” like an irrefutably forgotten and spoiled rotten step-child. “The Song of Solomon” is that good and soars to the top in being one of this reviewer’s favorite Unearthed Films’ titles.
Jessica Cameron should just be handed a ton of awards for her performance as the possessed Mary. Cameron’s creative creepiness is unsurpassable and just oozes out of the character, zapping an icy chill down each disk of the spine whenever she uses the playful sing-songy voice of a snake’s fork tongue. As a whole, Cameron singlehandedly comes off overwhelming haunting and delivers a personality made up of nightmare material; a phenomenal performance that rivals, if not outright tops, Linda Blair’s Regan. There are moments when you think the 2003 “Truth or Dare” director and actress had post-production enhanced vocals to make Mary persuasive, enticing, and demonic, but only a slight vocal overlay on top is the only thin icing on the already devilish cake. It’s not as if Cameron didn’t have any competition on screen, either. Scott Gabbey, David E. McMahon (“Followers”), Angelcorpse’s Gene Palubicki (“American Guinea Pig: Bloodshock”), and Jim Van Bebber (“The Manson Family”) compliment the versus’ righteous, if not also flawed, challenger with immense passion for their respective roles of grief-stricken priests, plucked carefully by top Church officials to handle the exorcism. Maureen Pelamati, Josh Townsend, and Scott Alan Warner (“3-Headed Shark Attack”) co-star.
Production value must reign above the conventional indie fare and special effects owns much of that real estate. The man behind the special effects on such films as “Mohawk” and “Lung II,” Marcus Koch, has teamed up with “Bereavement” and “Murder-Set-Pieces'” Jerami Cruise to assemble some of best, yet refreshingly basic, gore effects seen recently. Regurgitation of internal organs, the compound splintering of bones, and even a Columbian necktie are the prime examples of what to expect from the unlimited imagination of the Koch and Cruise collaboration. Locations are simple and tight, leaving not much room for exploration of options for practical effects, but each scene is well thought out, choreographed, and designed for gruesome upshot that keeps true to Unearthed Films brand of filmmaking. Toss all that into a sack along with fellow colleague Gene Palubicki’s malevolently cacophony soundtrack and the outcome is a well-rounded horror film with extreme unapologetic values worth the time of day and night.
“The Song of Solomon,” an Unearthed Films production, lands onto Blu-ray distributed courtesy of MVD Visual. The 86 minute runtime film is presented in a High Definition 1080p widescreen format, 1.90:1 aspect ratio, on a single layer BD-50 disc. If you want gore, you got it with this particularly warm hued transfer really puts the devil in the details with grisly effects that could be hard to stomach. The English LCPM Dolby Digital 2.0 audio track caters with nice fidelity. Dialogue is clearly present amongst the Palubicki score and the ghastly ambience augments the visual viscosity of the gore. Bonus features include an audio commentary with Stephen Biro and Jessica Camera, another commentary with Biro and effects gurus Marcus Koch and Jerami Cruise, interviews with Jessica Cameron, Stephen Biro, Marcus Koch, Gene Palubiki, David McMahon, and director of photography Chris Helleke, a behind the scenes look, outtakes, and a photo gallery. Comparing Stephen Biro’s “The Song of Solomon” to William Friedkin’s “The Exorcist” is like comparing apples to oranges as both films relish and thrive in their own atmospheres. However, “The Song of Solomon” stands firm as a powerful competitor that offers up a ravishingly foul and metaphysical entry into the genre realm of demonic possessions casted with raw talent.