The End of Days Runs on EVIL Fuel! “Wyrmwood: Apocalypse” reviewed! (101 Films / Blu-ray)

“Wyrmwood:  Apocalypse” – Z-Nation on Steroids!  Available at Amazon.

In a zombie apocalypse wasteland, the gaseous belching undead are used as the primary energy source, but the sight for a cure is still the goal for survival.  At least that is for boots-on-the-ground foot solder Rhys who lives in an isolated camp surrounded by the dead and ventures out to retrieve uninfected humans to bring them to the bunker-dwelling Surgeon General in hopes in discovering a cure.  After snagging a hybrid female named Grace who can control her turning by drinking single vial of blood, Rhys quickly learns that the Surgeon General and his armed entourage are experimenting to death the people he’s delivering to the bunker for their own selfish objectives.  Teamed up with Grace’s people – Grace’s sister Maxi, Barry, and Barry’s sister Brooke who is also a hybrid – Rhys is determined to no longer retrieve people but rather retrieve his soul from a group of well-armed maniacs while trying to not get eaten by the zombie hordes.

For someone like me, a film reviewer, whose fairly anal about watching a series, franchises, sequels, etc., in sequential order, I am stepping outside my comfort zone and out of my own convictions and into unknown territory by watching “Wyrmwood:  Apocalypse,” the direct sequel to Kiah and Tristan Roache-Turner’s 2014 Australian bloody zombie comedy-romp, “Wyrmwood” aka “Wyrmwood:  Road of the Dead”, before the first film.  While typically a no-no in my book, and very much likely in the rest of the filmic community, I like to live dangerously.  Any who, Kiah Roache-Turner sits once again in the director chair with the direct, follow-up sequel that picks up immediately where the other film left off or, I at least think so.  In reading the ending to the 2014 film, I see no mention of a couple of characters that are present at the beginning of “Apocalypse” and so I’ll be interested to watch “Road of the Dead” to see for myself how both films tie together.  The script is penned by Kiah and brother Tristan after fan support of the first film urged the filmmakers to do a sequel to their brainchild inspired by the blood-soaked and vaudeville slapstick horror of New Zealand and Australia – such as Peter Jackon’s “Dead Alive” aka “Braindead” and the Spierig brother’s “Undead.”   “Wyrmwood:  Apocalypse” is a Bronte Pictures production (“Out of the Shadows”) in association with Roache-Turner’s Guerilla Films and backed by the executive producer team of Todd Brown, Tim Nagle, Rhys William Nicolson, Sam Gain-Emery, Clement Dunn, and Maxime Cottray.

To make matters more confusing for someone like myself who hasn’t seen the first film, Tasia Zalar and Shantae Barnes-Cowan, nor their badass sisterhood characters Grace and Maxi, are listed in the cast of the first film nor are they in the short-lived teaser episodic series from 2017, causing a bit of disconnect for a nobody like myself who knows absolutely nothing of Wyrmwood universe when beginning the Roache-Turner series will the latest production. The “Uninhabited” Zalar and the “Frostbite” Barnes-Cowan quickly establish themselves as survivors devoted to each other by blood as their introduced rather quickly, harshly, and without background in the company of returning actors Jay Gallagher as Barry, described in the first film as a talented mechanic, and Bianca Bradley as the zombie hybrid Brooke who can control the regular horde of gas-chucking dead heads. Of course, being that a direct sequel, at least that’s how the Roache-Turner plays it, follows up 8-years later, some of the characters don’t quite look the same as when we first left them. For instance, Barry’s a little rounder and beefier and Brooke is, well, blonder. However, the bond between brother-sister is still strong and is even reinforced by Grace and Maxi’s relationship that blood trumps all. Another actor returns for the sequel but not toward the same character as Luke McKenzie adds to the theme of family by playing the avenge-longing brother of the first film’s antagonist known only as The Captain. Rhys (McKenzie) has more of a pure heart in contrast to his brother, or so we’re informed by returning characters, and becomes the unintended principal character amongst an ensemble cast by being the retriever, the deceived, and the reclaimer of his soul when he discovers the paramilitary survivors – The Doctor (Goran D. Kleut, “Alien: Convent”), The Colonel (Jake Ryan, “Out of the Shadows”), and the Surgeon General (Nicholas Boshier_) – are experimenting and killing captives for their own survival and grinding their corpses to make into anti-viral pills. There’s nothing bland about the Roache-Turner brothers’ character diversity and charisma as they each stick to a persona throughout the unfolding that quickly established who-is-who in the bad and good category.

“Wyrmwood: Apocalypse” is dieselpunk coated dead and delirium. With a definite George Miller approach and a zany-zombie gift of gore and gags, I can see where fans of the zombie genre can feel freer and more relaxed outside the confines of the somber-and-serious toned oeuvre of zombie films of the last two decades that has literally been beaten like a dead horse with a stick at every angle. The gonzo-gearhead carpet definitely matches the drapes in an outlandish universe where zombies are the Duracell and Diehard batteries of the future and while the story engrains a kindred theme and blood splatter fun, one element still guts me more than the multiple eviscerated entrails in the movie. Being a zombie movie of the flesh-eating kind, one would hope scenes of flesh-eating would be apparently present. Unfortunately, “Apocalypse” has zilch on zombie feasts. Though close in one scene where a big toe might be become an appetizer, in the end, there isn’t one bite of rotting teeth be pressed and puncturing flesh or viscera. What “Apocalypse” offers quite the opposite in where the dead are the exploited, utilized as a fuel source by feeding them beef and harnessing their oral gasses to drive vehicles and run high-powered miniguns or be under-the-influence of control by telepathic hybrids to do their bidding, aka suicide bombers or take the hits so the living can stroll in without garner so much as a scratch in a skirmish.

The final conclusion about “Wyrmwood: Apocalypse” is this, watch “Road of the Dead” first. Then, enjoy the rip-roaring and violent horror-action zomedy now available on an UK Blu-ray from 101 Films. The hard region B locked, AVC encoded Blu-ray is presented in 1080p, high definition, with an aspect ratio of 2.35:1. “Apocalypse” has the look of the early comic-book era style of pre-“300” Zack Snyder that hovers around the practical properties of “Tank Girl” in what’s fashioned together by the director of photography, and co-producer, Tim Nagle to appeal to a tactile of cold and grimy steel, sweet, and blood. The film uses very little visual effects which is mostly on the blood splatter, and you can tell the splatter is a bit off in having a waxy look to it. The decoding runs efficiently well to provide a clean picture through an edit heavy story. The English language audio mixes come in two options: a Dolby stereo PCM and a DTS-HD 5.1 surround sound. While there’s nothing wrong with the stereo PCM track that offers a clean and lossless recording, the 5.1 audio mix is a robust beast that channels every engine roar and isolates a zombie belch to be more inclusive for a viewer. If you’re in the mood for a longer sitting and bonus content, perhaps this 101 Films release is not for you as the runtime hits just above an hour at approx. 70 minutes long and just contains the feature and a scene selection. However, there is reversible front cover art. Easily, continuing the journey by working backwards in the Wyrmwood universe is worth the time as “Wyrmwood: Apocalypse” catapults the zombie into a new and unexplored rancid category of reverse exploitation in parallel with carnage, mayhem, and all of the anarchical above.

“Wyrmwood:  Apocalypse” – Z-Nation on Steroids!  Available at Amazon.

Best Friends Trying Their Best to Best EVIL! “The Boy Behind the Door” reviewed! (Acorn Media International / Blu-ray)

Best friends Bobby and Kevin are kidnapped by a stranger and taken to a remote house in the middle of nowhere. After Kevin is removed from the stranger’s trunk and is dragged into the house kicking, screaming, and pleading to be let go, Bobby breaks free of his restraints, but hearing his best friend Kevin’s screams leaves Bobby with no choice but to help him. Working his way through the house and upstairs unnoticed, obstacles stand between him and rescuing Kevin, including the boys’ kidnapper, a paying customer, and Kevin being shackled to the wall, locked inside behind an attic door, but that doesn’t avert Bobby’s intentions from thinking outside the box to save his best friend from a fate far worse than death. However, only a matter time before the kidnapper or the paying customer knows there’s someone else lying low the house and unearthing troubling secrets.

Child sex abuse is, without a double, a disturbing and touching subject to exhibit in cinema.  How to maneuver around the theme with child actors can be a delicate balance of commitment and understanding when considering the cast involved, especially if most would argue that a child’s brain is too immature or not developed appropriately to comprehend the impact of sexual abuse and to expose them indirectly could also be traumatic to their being.  The opposite of that argument has been proved over the decades with child actors having major roles in general with horror films.  Monsters of all shapes and sizes, guts and blood, and violent themes surround them and films such as “The People Under the Stairs” and “IT” have some of the most frightening and disturbing practical effect imagery that would cause sleepless night terrors for months and, yet kids star in them and are key to their success because, as we all know, children are not immune to real world dangers and threats.  So, why should be exempt from the creative imaginary ones? David Charbonier and Justin Powell finesses that line with a massaged contented breakout feature in “The Boy Behind the Door” written-and-directed by the lifelong friends and produced by Ryan Scaringe of Kinogo Pictures. Howard Barish of Kandoo Films, and Rick Rosenthal, Bert Kern, Ryan Lewis of Whitewater Films

***Beware… this section may contain spoilers*** Lonnie Chavis (“This Is Us”) and Ezra Dewey (“The Djinn”) play Bobby and Kevin who find themselves in the worst-case scenario of two unaccompanied pre-teens violently whisked away to an isolated farmhouse near one or two oil well pumps. I commend Chavis and Dewey’s hard fought, emotionally deep performances in battling against the creepiest of odds and feigning injury without being too over-the-top or inauthentic. Either if by being well coached or, more than likely, just good child actors, the level of anxiety maintains a solid 10 throughout with them. Their only scenes together where I thought the fusing of their friendship didn’t quite work was before the abduction where their dialogue and interactions as two young boys drifting across fields and profoundly thinking about their future deemed itself well too mature and far beyond being advanced for boys their age that the moment was a complete misfire for the story. Inevitably, the two friends run into a couple of creeps and exploitative racketeers in Micah Hauptman (“Phobias”) as the paying customer abandoning paid up time to chase down Bobby and Kristen Bauer van Straten (“True Blood”) in a twisted plot point of a white, late 40s to early 50s-year-old woman, who in the film could be someone’s mother, as the ruthless kidnapper of young boys for old man pleasure. Hauptman is more-or-less there in slimy spirit but doesn’t ooze enough egregious behavior to note as that trait falls immensely well upon the shoulders of van Straten with a mean streak that never lets up despite the rather paralleling of a hard R “Home Alone” antics between adults and children.

“The Boy Behind the Door” is a butt-clenching thriller because of the sheer fact children straddle the danger line on either side of spectrum. You have Kevin locked securely away in the summitted play and video room, shackled and waiting in screams, tears, and fears for his sure fate, and then there’s Bobby escaping his restraints and staying in the shadows, out of sight, trying to save his friend before he becomes either chained and exploited like Kevin or executed because of his strong will. Charbonier and Powell offer little-to-no fluff in pretending “The Boy Behind the Door” is anything but a fight for survival, a fight for friendship, and a fight against the utmost evil. The film isn’t full of strong one-liners or momentous moments that keep the story grounded and pure in its vilest state with tiptoeing around the one-woman operated child sex abuse ring without going into the full gross details. Charbonier and Powell’s story has many strengths, but it also has a few weaknesses waned upon the characters’ decision making. For instance, when Bobby has to break into the house, he throws a rock through the mud room door window without knowing where the kidnapper is and if they are in earshot of the window breaking. Later in the film, Bobby is trapped in the upstairs bathroom and when a squad car pulls up, instead of breaking the window he can clearly reach, he tries to yell through it and fiddle with opening the latch. Why does he simply not break the window and then yell for help? That particular scene drove me nuts and there a few other minor instances of the same caliber throughout in a story that well made enough to be compelling, to be horrific, and to be gripping in and around every house interior scene.

Tense, harrowing, and an ugly truth, “The Boy Behind the Door” is defensible horror at its best and a righteous strength of friendship. Acorn Media International distributes “The Boy Behind the Door” onto a region 2 Blu-ray in the UK! The PAL encoded release is presented in a widescreen 2.38:1 aspect ratio and, speaking digitally, the picture renders flawlessly the inkling of low-lit hope inside a world of dark fatalism and cynicism under the cinematography eye of Julián Estrada. The English language DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 is crystal clear that occupies each channel with the right number of decibels to exact the range of sneaking through a creaky wooden floored house. Dialogue is clean and clear, especially at whisper breath. The Shudder original film comes with a pair of special features including a blooper reel of mostly Lonnie Chavis sneezing and goofing off which is nice to see kids being kids on set and a music video to the film which is more like a trailer with Anton Sanko’s dark synth-gripping score being an apogee of suspense. There’s never sympathy for these types of vile exploitation villains on and off screen and in “The Boy Behind the Door,” that fight back mantra resonates loud and clear in an unambiguous do-or-die between guileless innocence and pure evil.

Prepare Yourself for the Side-Splitting EVILS of Adultery. “Sex and Zen” reviewed! (Umbrella Entertainment / Blu-ray)

A Must-See, “Sex and Zen” is highly erotic and highly funny.

A wealthy educated man is arranged to marry the beautiful and sexually naïve daughter of a high scholar.  After persuading her sex being a cornerstone to a healthy marriage, she quickly concedes to his insatiable desires.  Yet, the man wants more and decides to venture out into world seeking passionate sexual escapades and when he happens upon a distinguished scoundrel, who’s good at swordplay, martial arts, and as a carnal adviser, the man is schooled about his insignificant manhood needing to be the size of a horse’s.  The obvious thing to do, transplant his penis with a horse’s.  The comical insanity pursues from then on out with the man falling for not only the brutish fabric maker’s wife, but also a bisexual noblewoman with a jealous lady lover.  When the scholar’s secret is found out, the jealous lover imprisons the man’s stay-at-home wife into prostitution, spearheaded by the seduction of the vengeful fabric maker posing as the house’s new gardener.  

Attuned to the same idea as war and peace, “Sex and Zen” is a delicate balance of control between the two and the dire consequences suffered if the sanctity of matrimonial fidelity is not respected.  Hailing from Hong Kong under the infamy of the Category III rating and with surprising staggering budget of approx. 4 million USD, director Michael Mak’s artfully erotic 1991 sex-comedy is by far one of the most entertaining of its genre ever to be produced into the world.  Michael Mak, the director of the three sequels following the “Long Arm of the Law” after taking over the franchise from his brother Johnny Mak, helms a script penned by “To Be Number One” writers Alexander Lee and Ying-Chiet Lee, based loosely off the drama-tragedy novel “The Carnal Prayer Mat” by Yu Li.  While definitely not a mirror dramatization of Li’s novel, “Sex and Zen’s” melodrama is in full-frontal effect with outlandish sex organ transferring and fiendish-flings and betrayals that make this slapstick an absolute riot.  Raymond Chow’s Golden Harvest (“Game of Death,” “The Man from Hong Kong”) and Michael Mak’s brother’s company, Johnny Mak Productions,” build “Sex and Zen’s” luxurious sets and wardrobe, bright with colors and backed by phenomenal talent. 

“Sex and Zen” is only as good in its absurdity as it’s actors and actresses and, fortunately, Lawrence Ng and Amy Yip, and amongst the others, infuse and imprint themselves to the carnally comically characters with pleasure.  Ng (“The Underground Banker,” “Madame Q”) plays the travelling sex alcoholic husband Mei Yeung-Sheng to “Erotic Ghost Story’s” Amy Yip character, Huk-Yeung.  Huk-Yeung is an in the closet nympho taught to be disgusted by sex from her father’s puritanical stance.  Though Ng. and Yip’s scenes are few, they sizzle as explorers of each other’s bodies with Ng portraying shameless lust for the flesh against Yip’s innocent purity.  When Mei Yeung-Sheng ventures out into the world seeking erotic flings, that’s when Kungfu superstar Lieh Lo (“Fiver Fingers of Death”) enters the fold as the famous masterful thief Choi Kun-Lun who not only steals from the rich and gives to the poor as a Robin Hood-esque martial arts bandit but also becomes the sexual advisor to a hapless Yeung-Sheng and his itsy-bitsy trouser snake problem.  Lo’s hilariously cavalier and unpredictable in his performance that offers a divergent against the constant yearnings to follow the graphic depictions of pornographic picture art.  The scholar becomes entangled with an abused fabric seller (Japanese-born actress Mari Ayukawa, “Groper Train Hurry Up and Come”) and, in consequence, the fabric seller’s husband Wong Chut, a ultra-physical ruffian played vigorously intensive by Elvis Tsui (“The Boxer’s Omen”), who has a vendetta against the scholar and has an affair with the scholar’s wife that leads to prostitution, frail health, and immense guilt in an parable about the misconduct of unchecked sexual liberties.  “Sex and Zen” rounds out with a solid cast in Hong Kong comedian Kent Cheng (“Dr. Lamb”), Isabella Chow (“The Nocturnal Demon”), Carrie Ng (“Angel Terminators”), and Feng Tien (“Fist of Fury”) as the Sack Monk who warns about lust-induced karma that pulls the story into a full arc.

“Sex and Zen’s” mighty price tag is beyond being obvious with elaborately detailed set designs and structures, equally elegant and era appropriate wardrobe and makeup, elevated stunt work that blends highflying Kungfu with softcore eroticism, a physical and omnipresent choreography, and a few complicated shots, especially the one involving the back-and-forth editing of above and below the surface of a steamy hot tub sexual assault-to-fantasy fornication.  The inexplicit story can be difficult to follow at times without much being conveyed to what the characters are doing, especially in the first act that jumps from a licentious Mei Yeung-Sheng debating with a temple-residing Sack Monk on the principles of polyamorous relationships, to the scholar fulfilling his engagement to and the slow deshelling into wanton exercises of the aristocracy daughter, to finally his sudden departure from her as he ventures out into the world for untamed carnal delights with strange women.  From that point, “Sex and Zen” becomes a little more cohesive and coherent, building upon the scholars need for a bigger penis at the suggestion of his newfound friend Choi Kun-Lun and bedding the wife of a loutish fabric maker while paralleling a forbidden lesbian love affair of two stepsisters without the meddlesome of man in the mix.  As Mei Yeung-Sheng and the lesbians’ paths collide, stiff and unforgiving karma catches up to each and every one of them with the welting sting of tit-for-tat cuckolding.  Yet, Mak’s depiction of the story is wilder than the slapstick and melee humor with a stark contrast of, or maybe a complete overshadowing all together of, the perversion of foreign sex toys.  From the hilt of a scroll brush to both ends of a golden flute (I’ll let that visual sink in)the women of “Sex and Zen” have a knack for insertion talents in this Hong Kong Cat III sideshow of debauchery and comedy. 

Coming in at #2 on Umbrella Entertainment’s Sensual Sinema label, “Sex and Zen” lands on a sleek Blu-ray home video from the Australian distributor. Presented in a widescreen 1.85:1 aspect ratio, the “Sex and Zen” Umbrella Blu-ray has impeccable full high definition, 1080p quality that pops right off the screen. The original 35mm transfer has a healthy amount of good grain and the colors lavishly seize control over every scene with a full-bodied range of hues. Blacks are inky and unaffected by any major artefact issues and the skin shades are poor-riddles and hair-laden in every since of the detail spectrum. Umbrella’s Blu-ray offers two audio options with a Cantonese 5.1 DTS-HD master audio with optional English dub or a Cantonese 2.0 Dolby Digital stereo with optional English dub. The dubbed-dialogue overlay is slightly asynchronous with the image, but there’s robust dialogue amplification centralized out of the five channels coinciding with isolating individual ambient sounds, such the swooshing of the swordplay or the chains clinking during acrobatic coitus. Special features are a little slim and of yore for a second title on a new sublabel, but the release offers an achieved, English-subtitled interview with director Michael Mak diving into the budget, working with the actors, and creating certain scenes. The theatrical trailer is also available on special features. The hot pink Sensual Sinema cardboard slipcover has a retro impression with various posters of the film on the slip and the snapper case surrounded by also a hot pink border. The film is listed as region B coded but played on my region free player without issue, runs at 95 minutes and is rated R+ for high level sex scenes. “Sex and Zen” is, by far, one of the best and most fetishized sex comedies ever produced and though a notorious Hong Kong CAT III production, the film is absolutely riotous and one-of-a-kind, deserving of praise from hedonistic crowds around the globe.

A Must-See, “Sex and Zen” is highly erotic and highly funny.

Making a Horror Movie can be EVIL on the Health! “Stoker Hills” reviewed! (101 Films / Digital Screener)

Three film studies college students are eager to win their class’s short film contest with story idea Street Walkers, a genre blending horror movie that crosses “Pretty Woman” with “The Walking Dead.” On their first night of shooting, isolated on the empty streets of Stoker Hills, their actress and friend is suddenly abducted right before their camera lens and instantly give chase without a second to call the authorities, falling right into the maniac’s nightmarish world. Left behind for two detectives is the students’ tell-all camera, leaving behind the recording as the only clue into tracking down their undisclosed whereabouts and stopping the kidnapping-killer. As the detectives home in on the killer’s lair, only hours are left before a determined and desperate madman drains every single drop of their youthful blood for a deadly selfish cause.

Director Benjamin Louis and “Stoker Hills” want you to believe in their compelling and bloody slasher narrative of periled college students fighting for their lives against a formidable, resilient killer while two resolute detectives sniff out the mystery of their disappearance before it’s too late. However, in “Stoker Hills,” nothing is as it appears to be. As the first feature script penned and produced by Jonah Kuehner, the “State’s Evidence” director, Benjamin Louis, coproduces the sheeny cinematic slasher that hits upon almost every known trope in the book by incorporating a backwoods nook, a torturous rec room, and foggy night underneath a vividly complete full moon into a story that’s one part found footage and one part cop thriller. Benjamin and cinematographer John Orphan (“The Black String”) do a phenomenal job crafting away from a Los Angeles look and into an unrecognizable, any-town-America by shooting at the dead of night in L.A.’s low-lit surrounding areas of Griffith Park and the Angeles National Forrest without focusing in on or revealing well-known landmarks. “Wildling’s” Rab Butler and Timothy Christian coproduces the 2020 teen-mystery slasher.

“Stoker Hills” begins very much in the same way as my last review of Seth Landau’s “Bryan Loves You” with a deep-in-character production by the great Tony Todd (“Candyman”) as a film studies professor. Instead of warning audiences to look away if frightened or to be ushered out of the theater when shocked beyond just stomaching the content, Todd’s professor of cinema is passionate and enthusiastic about what great filmmaking and the auteurs who wield their work upon the world. However, much like “Bryan Loves You,” Tony Todd only dabbles into the narrative with a superficial house role that opens the doors for Ryan (David Gridley, “The Unhealer”), Jake (Vince Hill-Bedford, “Sorority Slaughterhouse”), and Erica (Steffani Brass, “Ted Bundy”), three slackjaw, maybe even indolent, students eager to take “The Walking Dead” and turn it into a “Pretty Woman” romance comedy known as “Street Walkers.” The concept is no Guillermo del Toro or Martin Scorsese, but nonetheless barely sates the professor’s threadbare faith in the three’s semester-ending grade. Along the way, we’re introduced laterally to character who will eventually be integrated into the story later and at a state of prominence to the mystery, such as with fellow star student Dani Brooks (television actress Tyler Clark) and her university benefacting donor Dr. Jonathan Brooks (John Beasley, “The Purge: Anarchy”). “Stoker Hills” also isn’t entirely linear as the footage soon appears to be corrupted only to be on pause by two officers investigating the case and analyzing the video. William Lee Scott (“Identity”) and Eric Etebari (“Scream at the Devil”) play the high-blood pressure, blue collar, family-man Detective Bill Stafford and a sophisticated bachelor and quasi-Rain man Detective Adams respectively. The Scott and Etebari cop drama show entertains as less CSI and more NYPD Blue or Law & Order with a conspicuous partner correlation only to be separated by adding snippets of out of context humanity, such as why Adam’s is a loner and Stafford hates changing baby diapers. Powerful stuff. Each character is connected to “Stoker Hills'” antagonist, Charles Muyer (Jason Sweat), who’s been abducting young, healthy people off the streets and into his vacant buildings of intravenous drips of blood into a milk crate-based cylinder beaker tube. Thomas R. Martin, Joy McElveen, Maya Nucci, Michael Faulkner, and “Eraser’s” Danny Nucci round out the cast.

Director Benjamin Louis cherry picks the best traits from a triad of genres to smush together into one trope-tastic “Stoker Hills”  A lumbering mute killer bred to annihilate in his nihilism from the slasher genre, two dedicated detectives determined to catch a killer and able to snoop out clues out of nothing that’s familiar toward the cop drama genre, and a pair of brosefs, who dude each other in every other line of dialogue no matter if it’s joshing in film studies class or being chased harrowingly through the woods and having their foot snagged in the teeth of a beartrap, pulling from the pot-smoking and arrogant hijinks of two immature college aged guys usually hovering around the teen comedy category.  All the actors really get into their parts to the point of a fault in creating a bogus, simulated environment as if a knockoff matrix, coded by naive aliens who know nothing of the human race other than watching “American Pie,” “Law & Order,” and every Renaissance era slasher film, is being pulled over the eyes. The whole ordeal that has a context surrounding Charles Muyer’s bad pig heart is also grossly under kneaded and bordering nonsensical until the ending. That game changing ending spooled by meta wiring puts in perspective every last minute of the well-paced 91-minute film, and when the narrative quickly closes upon itself and fades to black into the credits, every scene previously pondered and examined, crisscrossed into a mental algorithm that breaks down character arcs and progression devices, and spits out answers like an Amazon Alexa has suddenly last all its calculated determination in a snap of a flash. Kudos to “Stoker Hills'” screenwriter Jonah Kuehner for conceiving an overtreated trope decoy story and kudos to director Benjamin Louis in pulling the wool over our eyes without flinching or showing his cards too early.

Everybody run for “Stoker Hills” and become caught up in a diabolical twist that’ll deflate the suspense out of you but also leave you pleasantly surprised. 101 Films released this film last month, March 28th, on digital platforms. Since “Stoker Hills” is solely a digital release from UK distributor, there are no audio or video specs to note or review. Aforementioned, John Orphan helms the “Stoker Hills” noir and no-nonsense veneer which is and also the minor league Jigsaw traps are very “Saw”-like, even down to peppering certain scenes with over illuminating primary color gels if by spotlight. Roc Chen, a profound composer for China over the last decade, notes a less than impactful score in what could be considered more run of the mill material, but that also could play into the whole narrative twist. There were no bonus features available with the film nor were there any bonus scenes during or after the credits. At first glance, “Stoker Hills” treads over the same worn trodden path of slasher predecessors, but then the finale hits like a five-finger slap in the face from Will Smith and, suddenly, everybody could be, should be, and will be talking about “Stoker Hills'” gripping gambit.

EVIL Masked as a Religion. “Bryan Loves You” reviewed! (MVD / Blu-ray)

All New Blu-ray release of “Bryan Loves You” on Amazon.com

Something weird is spreading across a small Arizona town.  A chapter of a new religion has influenced most of the community into believing in Bryan, a pure and pious young boy from long ago who was brutally slain by the devil.  Jonathan, a local psychotherapist receives a camera from his uncle, also a health professional, with a self-recording that warns Jonathan that Bryan zealots are a dangerous, violent cult.  Deciding to document the situation himself, Jonathan repurposes the camera to clandestinely record the widespread Bryan gatherings and even infiltrate their church where they speak in tongues and wear the scarred mask of Bryan.  As Jonathan goes deeper into the uncomfortable insanities of Bryan’s world, the more Bryan followers takes an interest in reconditioning Jonathan. 

“Bryan Loves You’s” grainy SOV pseudo-documentary lacquer not only captures the icy blank stares, the unabating drone chanting, and the brainwashed coup of an insidious cult assimilating small town America, but the Seth Landau written and directed film also homogenously captures, all too presently well, that sense of ambivalent and conspiracy dread that knots apprehension uncomfortably in the pit of the stomach.  The 2008 released “Bryan Loves You” has the story set in 1993 Arizona made out to be a historical home video and CCTV recorded account of the analyzed and dissected suppressed footage coming to light for the first time incomplete with censored last nights and specific addresses to make the pseudo-doc appear more genuine and shocking.  Filmed in and around the suburbs of Scottsdale and Phoenix, Arizona, “Bryan Loves You” is a found footage subgenre production self-produced by Mike Mahoney and Seth Landau, under the filmmaker’s Landau Motion Pictures, and marks the debut feature film of Landau’s humble career that started roughly around 2003 as a production assistant on “Arrested Development.”

For the average popcorn movie goer, “Bryan Loves You” is about obscure as they come with a no-name director and a cast with relatively no-name actors with the exception of one that might have a chance of recognition by the common Joe Schmo.  Old heads may recognize George Wendt, one of the barflies from the sitcom “Cheers” and the Saturday Night Live sketch of Super Fans, in his brief and strange scene as a patient holding a doll that speaks to him about people who talk about him.  For chin-deep genre fans, Wendt is about the biggest A-lister you can have in an indie film and what’s unusual about “Bryan Loves You” is the stacked list of iconic made-by-horror names that make up the cast list.  It’s impressive.  Landau’s connection to the late great master of horror Stuart Gordon (“Re-Animator”) opened the door to George Wendt, who starred in Gordon’s “King of the Ants,” and, likely, led to the onboarding fan favorites such as Brinke Stevens (“The Slumber Party Massacre”), Tiffany Shepis (“Tromeo and Juliet”), Lloyd Kaufmann (“The Toxic Avenger”), Daniel Roebuck (“The Devil’s Rejects”), Chuck Williams (“Demon Wind”), and Tony Todd (“Candyman”).  Now, with these many names, none of them have starring roles and few have reoccurring scenes, but they are headlined to draw attraction for “Bryan Loves You.”  Honestly, the performances are hardly worth nothing.  Steves and Kaufmann have little dialogue and are shot at weird angles that makes them hardly recognizable.  Best scenes go to Tony Todd as a hesitantly disturbed and full of fear narrator standing in an empty board room and talking directly into the camera about what we, the audience, are about to witness, even directing viewers to turn away or to be ushered out of the theater (did this get a theatrical release?) if the content becomes too shocking to behold.  Seth Landau stars as the principal lead Jonathan who can’t be taken seriously as a psychoanalyst as there is no depth to the character in those regards.  Plus, as someone who’s supposed to uphold ethical standards, Jonathan breaks quite a few HIPPA regulations and breaks into houses with a camera, filming Bryan acolytes without their consent.  “Bryan Loves You” rounds out the cast with Tori King, Candy Stanton (“Exit to Hell”), Shane Stevens (“The Graves”), Jilon VanOver (“Bad Blood”), Tom Noga (“Anonymous Killers”), Jesse Ramiawi, Jacqui Allen (“Blue Lake Butcher”) and Daniel Schweiger (“Die-ner”)

Seth Landau’s found footage cult film is a rough cut of rudimentary psychological suspense restrained by its limiting low-ceiling budget.  The acutely hard cut editing and wonky framing is enormously puzzling within the narrative’s supposed single camera source documentary structure that suddenly diffuses into being a splice between Jonathan’s camera, which he loses halfway through the story, and a bunch of randomly placed CCTV footage across all of Arizona, in which some scenes are randomly placed in the desert where no structures are seemingly present to house a camera.  Who gathered and edited all this multi-video footage together?  Or does that play into the mystery, no matter how illogical, of adding to “Bryan Loves You’” unsettling allure?  What Landau does accomplish compares closely to what directors Eduardo Sánchez and Daniel Myrick were able to profoundly achieve with their unexpected breakout found footage blockbuster, “The Blair Witch Project.”  Now, I’m not saying “Bryan Loves You” had the audience gasping power as the “The Blair Witch Project” but the air in the story still feels very uncomfortably still, like in holding your breath, because something sinister is closing in and that type of disturbing presence, coupled with the erratic demonic behavior boiled to the surface if love for the almighty Bryan is absent, is all too relatable in today’s political climate.

Though “Bryan Loves You,” MVD Visual really loves Bryan right back with a high-definition Blu-ray release, remastered and upscaled from the original master source, a digital recorded standard definition, with an approved up-conversion of 172,800 pixels to over 2 million pixels per frame to achieve full HD.  For SOV, the handheld cam footage turns out more detailed than expected with suitable tinctures that are often less vivid in the found footage genre; however, there are still varying levels of quality from lower quality posterization to better than mid-grade delineation.  Though stated as presented in a widescreen 1:78:1 aspect ratio on the MVD Marquee Collection back cover, the actual ratio is a pillarbox 1:33:1 without straying from that display. The English language dual channel stereo track also has varying fidelity levels using the inconsistency of a built-in handheld mic but the good bones behind the range and depth retain the natural auditory proportionate. A few augmented audio tracks are snuck in for effect, such as the preacher’s demon-speak and the school PA system. English subtitles are optional. With a new Blu-ray release comes all new special features with a few short film-length interviews between filmmaker Seth Landau and George Wendt (44:50 minutes), Tiffany Shepis (50:49 minutes), Daniel Roebuck (59:35 minutes), and Brinke Stevens (31:46 minutes) touching upon more than just “Bryan Loves You” but also various career moments and other media cultural topics. Also featured are two commentaries: a 2008 commentary with Landau, select cast and crew, and JoBlo critic James Oster and a new 2022 commentary with only Landau. Plus, a brand new 2022 theatrical trailer. “Bryan Loves You” draws parallels to the 1993 Waco, Texas cult led by David Koresh of the Davidian sect preaching fire and brimstone, but writer-director-product Seth Landau adds his own supernatural concoction in a trade-in of doom and gloom for mindless devotion and diabolism that turns folks into followers and flesh-hungry fiends at times. Maybe not the prime cut of the cult genre but does stand out even if you don’t really love “Bryan.”

All New Blu-ray release of “Bryan Loves You” on Amazon.com