High schooler Jill takes a babysitting job, overseeing two sleeping children while the parents have date night. The phone rings and an assumed prankster tries to scare Jill, either asking why she hasn’t checked the children or doesn’t say a word, but as Jill fields calls throughout the night with the same terrorizing voice, the terrified sitter phones the police whom trace the call from inside the house. Jill barely escapes the deadly encounter that left two children victims to a psychopath; yet the now happily married, mother of two small children is faced with the same killer seven years later after he escapes from a mental institution. Hot on his trail is detective turned private eye John Clifford who will stop at nothing from stopping a maniac who will kill again. Years later, Jill and Clifford team up once more to investigate a similar case of a co-ed being specifically terrorized by an obsessive stalker through the span of five years to the point where his next move could be her last.
Perhaps one of the best, if not the best, openings to a horror movie ever, Fred Walton’s “When A Stranger Calls” puts a freeze on the heart, forces to choke down the breath, and tightens the already painfully clenched fists with sheer, thick tension bred from an urban legend of the babysitter and the man upstairs. Walton, and co-writer Steve Feke (“Mac and Me”), develop two successful thriller from script to screen, spanning over the course of 14-years. Walton’s uncanny ability to invoke fear through a conduit of simple objects, such as a telephone ring or in the thicket of dead silence, and leading a direction of motivational hesitation or slowness to the story and through it’s characters is dread absolute. There’s similarities between Fred Walton and “The Driller Killer” director Abel Ferrara with a scent of realism and grittiest blanketed with a knack for the abstract in certain facets. Though slightly fluffier to Ferrara’s shock value, Walton builds anticipation in not just his hit first film in 1979, but also in his made for TV movie in 1993.
Starring as the lead in both films is Carol Kane. The “Scrooged” actress shells out a white knuckling performance in Jill, the terrorized babysitter phoned inside the house by man upstairs. The harrowing night that will scar for Jill for life will continue through into the sequel, “When A stranger Calls Back.” As Jill grows through both films, so does Kane who builds the character a tougher exterior to match wits with second psychopath stalking a hapless co-ed. She’s teamed with legendary actor Charles Durning. Essentially in Walton’s “When A Stranger Calls,” Kane and Durning never have any scenes together, performing in almost two separate stories until the climatic that intertwined that collaboration. During’s a fine actor and can be the bull of any detective and/or private dick lead, but, to be honest, Durning always carried a hefty, front-heavy load that didn’t quite fit his character, John Clifford, chasing on foot a much leaner foe. “When A Stranger Calls” cast also includes Ron O’Neal (“The Final Countdown”), Tony Beckley (“In the Devil’s Garden”), and Colleen Dewhurst (“The Dead Zone”) while “When A Stranger Calls Back” also includes Jill Schoelen (“The Stepfather”) and Gene Lythgow.
A fleeting glimpse of brilliancy can go relatively unnoticed in Fred Walton’s “When A Stranger Calls.” Much of what makes the film so effective is essentially obsolete; for example, rotary phones are dinosaurs or even landlines for that matter. Also, the way Walton breaks up the film into a definitive three separate acts perfectly stretches the urban legend much more than warranted and the director also completes the story and character arcs. Dana Kaproff’s sophomore score can be characterized as menacing, suspenseful, and aesthetically unfit to the point of inspiring dreadful sensations that heighten the story’s already engrossing nature. In “When A Stranger Calls Back,” the opening is basically a mirror image of the original film with a slight (of hand) change and the narrative itself is captivating enough to get engrossed with, but there’s something about the made for TV movie that doesn’t quite sit right. Perhaps, the killer’s underdeveloped motives doesn’t make things crystal clear or just maybe the killer’s use of a ventriloquist and body art into his perverted and obsessive arsenal is too zany. Despite being a made for television movie, Walton’s followup film was premiere on Showtime back in 1993, giving the movie a not-so-diluted and PG-13 appeal; instead, bits of grittiness and some strip club nudity rivals the tone of it’s predecessor.
Second Sight presents “When A Stranger Calls” and “When A Stranger Calls Back” double feature on Blu-ray home video in the United Kingdom. Despite the upgrade, a DVD-R was provided for the review so technical aspects will not be reviewed. The disc did include bonus features such as Fred Walton’s inspirational short film “The Sitter” and interviews with director Fred Walton, Rutanya Alda, and Dana Kaproff, and Carol Kane. Carol Kane has more recently been the quirky and city-salty landlady that’s quick to whip sarcasms and clobber any hipster with a gentrifying agenda with a baseball bat in “The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt,” but Fred Walton saw Kane for how the actress could truly perform under a realistically terrifying moment, a moment that savors being on tenterhooks and frozen in time for almost the last 40 years as a classic and iconic scene in horror movie history. “When A Stranger Calls” and “When A Stranger Calls Back” is simple, yet deploys effective thrills with pure impending loom and dread in massive, lucrative quantities that may have been antiquated by time, but is epitomized as vintage and elegantly construed horror.
Struggling filmmaker Gavin York discovers a stowed away box full of film cassettes in his in-law’s basement. As York delves into the tapes, he becomes obsessed with the tapes’ contents involving two film students documenting the evoking of localized folklore phantom, known as Peeping Tom, as their thesis. Capturing Peeping Tom on their camera acting as a human lens, the two students can’t escape the malevolent presence that gets closer and closer to their reality with every shutting off the camera. York, himself, is also being documented by a group of filmmakers, attempting to capture the far-fetched story of Gavin’s unravelling of the historic legend as well as to turn a profit in revealing that Peeping Tom does, in fact, exist. The two tales of filmmakers ride a distressing parallel that spirals them into ghastly obsession and forces them to never, ever blink again!
“Butterfly Kisses” is the 2018 supernatural faux-documentary from writer-director Erik Kristopher Myers. The “Roulette” filmmaker finds inspiration in Ellicott City, Maryland’s, very own, staring contest champion in Peeping Tom; a 16th century labeled example of a Flickergeist, a shadowy image just on the edge of the peripheral vision, and Peeping Tom also goes by the monikers Blink Man or The Tunnel Man. “Butterfly Kisses” title comes as when Peeping Tom gets closer with every blink of an eyelid, his victim will need to painfully keep their peepers open for as long as they can, but when Peeping Tom is so close, close proximity to the face, flutter’s his eyelashes against her eyes forcing one to blink and succumb to his deadly motives. With Myers’ film, a little bit of this reviewer wanted to see Peeping Tom actually deliver the act of butterfly kisses upon a victim before mangling the poor soul into oblivion.
While both documentaries involve shedding light onto the exposure of a Flickergeist, the narrative harshly shines more of the starlight onto the characters making these films. Gavin York is essentially dissected while he being self-absorbed in himself and his dollar signs he thinks his project is worth to the word. Seth Adam Kallick does Gavin well though perhaps slightly overselling the performance; however, there never was a deeper rabbit hole for York to escape from, leaving not a lot of range for Kallick and his character to arc. York studies and analyzes the original thesis film spearheaded by Sophia Crane, played by Rachel Armiger, and her cameraman Feldman, played by Reed DeLisle. The dynamics are fine between Armiger and DeLisle whom poke the bees nest of folklore legends, but moments to reflect their humanity, why should we care about these two characters as people from abandoned or forgotten footage, didn’t quite translate. Rounding out the cast Erik Kristopher Myers, Matt Lake (Author of the “Weird” state book series), and Eileen del Valle.
The documentary inside a documentary is like looking into a mirror that’s facing another mirror, ping-ponging back and forth between parallel stories that are only set a part bestowed year their recorded while peppering Peeping Tom true to form, as a flicker of a shadowy figure. Myers does his due diligence in editing these two films together, meshing appropriately the intertwining, sometimes combating, docs to find common ground in a linear story. Sometimes the realism just didn’t hit the mark and creating that casual dialect or the valueless moments didn’t blossom, staying focus more on the task at hand. Also, this narrative has been told and rehashed before in some way, shape, or form, whether hunting the legend of Bigfoot or summoning the Slender Man, finding separation between Myer’s film and those other project proves difficult. What’s enjoyable about “Butterfly Kisses” are the welcoming jump scares and while only a couple of jump scares make the cut, the two are well-timed, well-scored, and well-placed to send a shockwave through out the nervous system. Even I jumped on these scenes.
Four-Fingered Films presents Erik Kristopher Myers’ “Butterfly Kisses,” a supernatural documentary that explores a national, Great Depression-born, folklore bred in Maryland and depicts a contagious obsession of stubbornness and worth. Unfortunately, an online screener was provided for this critique so the audio and video aspects will not be reviewed. There were also no bonus material with this screener. “Butterfly Kisses” is a quasi-found footage spook show surrounding another of America’s frightful urban myths, granting Peeping Tom more staying power just inside the corner of our peripheral vision, but the film doesn’t quite highlight and tour the reason or the rhyme to Flickergeist’s true power. Myers chose to detail the downward spiral of those consumed by the sight of his very questionable existence in more than one profitable fashion and that can be more frightening than the realism of a ghoul.
After the untimely death of her mother, Linda returns from her university studies to reacquaint herself with the inherited Montclare, a home for the elderly her mother owned and operated through the decades as a family business. As she internally debates about whether to sell the grand, yet antiquated estate, 24-year-old Linda shuffles through her mother’s left behind things that rekindle Linda’s faded memories of her youth and add a sense of melancholy about her mother’s mental condition. A seemingly quiet, if not quirky, home for the elderly quickly becomes shrouded with mystery after the discovery of one of the residents found dead in a bathtub. Soon after, Linda feels as if she’s being watched and toyed with inside the corridors of Montclare: candles found lit, bathroom fixtures overflowing and cascading with water, mysterious figures looming from inside her room’s window, and her mother’s belongings sprawled out about the room. Paranoia sets into Linda as she suspects the resident caretaker and doctor of a lethal plot against her inside an old, foreboding manor that troubled her mother into deathly consequences and she searches for answers inside her mother’s extensive diaries that reveal the ominous dread that overwhelmed her inside an evil house.
“Next of Kin” is Australian’s answer to Dario Argento’s hauntingly apprehensive and vividly hued classic, “Suspiria.” Directed by Tony Williams and co-written with Michael Heath (“Death Warmed Over”), “Next of Kin” embodies monolithic brooding merits of a gracefully shaped horror and palpitating anxiety unlike any other Australian horror film we’ve ever seen before. In fact, Williams 1982 film doesn’t feel very Australian at all that’s set chiefly in and around Montclar, a lavishly gothic estate with expensive fountains and floral garnishes. Aside from native accent and barely a dusty road to drive down, the country of origin could be anywhere, punching home the aspect that the incident at Montclar is universal. Looking into a couple of their techniques, Williams and cinematographer Gary Hansen (“Image of Death”) utilize slow motion and interlaced scenes to convey a surreal dread that transcends from film to senses, also involving disruptive audio cues and visual jump scares, to culminate every scene, ever moment, into a well thought out result on how to effectively reach out and affect that scared little boy or girl in all of us.
Primarily a television and mini-series actress, Jacki Kerin sets foot into the main actress Linda. Kerin’s able to flip emotions from emitting a passive quality while she seemingly annoyed by her mother’s death while switching gears into a hyper-tensive defender. The small screen actress translate well onto the big screen, accompanying well versed thespians in “Picnic at Hanging Rock’s” John Jarratt, who went onto to more notably the “Wolf Creek” franchise. There’s also Alex Scott (“The Abominable Dr. Phibes”) and Tasmanian-born actress Gerda Nicholson. Scott and Nicholson do a fine job of portraying un-trust worthy snoops with underlining knowledge yet to be exposed and with Kerin, the fear goes unopposed and spreads like wild fire. the remaining cast includes Charles McCallum, Bernadette Gibson, Robert Ratti, Vince Deltito, and Debra Lawrence.
Practical effects are minimal in “Next of Kin,” but are well integrated with a meticulous purpose. Williams maintains the gore to an infancy amount, but the New Zealand born director doesn’t nickel-and-dime the macabre. Much of the death displayed comes in at post-humorous, visually positioning the cold and blue hued, more at times ripped life from, bodies to vessel the story forward toward a shocking, what-the-hell, and oh glorious climax. Then, when all the proverbial cards on the table, Linda finds herself ensnared in a cat-and-mouse game where Chris Murray’s practical effects come to the forefront. Special effects maestro, Chris Murray, had the George Miller experience while working on “Max Max” in 1979, prepping him to be the adequate effects artist to create surreal and, also, brutal Giallo-like murder.
Umbrella Entertainment presents Tony Williams’ “Next of Kin” onto a region free, full HD 1080p Blu-ray home video. An Ozploitation classic in itself, Umbrella Entertainment puts the film on a home media pedestal with a remastered 4k transfer from the original 35mm interpostive and presented in a widescreen, 1.77:1 aspect ratio. Beyond gorgeous with lush grim colors and able to keep the natural grain of the 35mm nitrate, “Next of Kin” sees one hell of an upgrade that shows no wear in the transfer and no compression issues or edging enhancements. Even with the heavy blue tint at time, the amount and the use is appropriate alongside Gary Hansen’s vision. The new English DTS-HD master audio emphasizes the heavy synthesized score by German electronic music composer Klaus Schulze that meshes fine with the creepy house ambiance. Dialogue is properly forefront and crystal clear. Special features run amok with audio commentaries with director Tony Williams, producer Tom White, and with cast members John Jarrett, Jackie Kerin, Robert Rattie. Also on the release is a “Return to Montclar – Next of Kin” shooting locations revisited, extended interviews from “Not Quite Hollywood” director Mark Hartley, deleted scenes, original and VHS trailer, German opening credits and trailer, an image gallery, and a couple of Tony Williams’ short films: “The Day We Landed on the Most Perfect Planet in the Universe” and “Getting Together.” “Next of Kin” has a brawny Italian Giallo flavor with a gritty, distinctive core of Australian horror filmmaking; sheerly beautiful and indisputably morbid, director Tony Williams has garnished a choice horror favorite that’s been sorely passed over through the years.
A Massachusetts foursome of girls, Wren, Chloe, Hallie, and Katie, invoke the summoning of an internet lore named Slender Man after watching an instructional online video on how to evoke his presence to reality. After the video completes and the girls dismissively chalk this activity up as hoax-filled rubbish, an embattled and disconnected Katie vanishes a few weeks later during a school sanctioned field trip to a historical graveyard, thrusting the remaining three friends into investigating her abrupt disappearance all the while they each experience an ominous figure haunting them in and out of consciousness. As the continue to look for Katie, Slender Man keeps popping up into the findings. Wren’s convinced, after suffering from terrifying visions, that Slender Man wants the four who’ve contacted him and when her friends dismiss Wren’s frantic ravings, she employs Hallie’s sister, Lizzie, to assist in stopping Slender Man. All of reality is being skewed while Slender Man hunts them down one-by-one and if they’re not taken, those left in Slender Man’s wake will forever be deranged with madness.
Straight from it’s internet meme playbook origins comes the constructed next chapter in “Slender Man’s” mythology from the “I’ll Always Know What You Did Last Summer” director Sylvain White and written by David Birke (“Elle”) that feels very familiar to “The Ring” premise. Based of the mythos created by Victor Surge, aka Eric Knudsen, “Slender Man” fruition onto the Hollywood scene finds a home under Sony’s Screen Gems division, the same division that delivered the Paul W.S. Anderson “Resident Evil” franchise. While not a mega-glossy action horror piece for Sony and Screen Gems, White’s take on one of the internet’s most popular and mysterious spawns revels in it’s own crowd funded supernatural element and White is the grand puppeteer behind the scenes piecing the material together that builds upon, and extends, “Slender Man” canon into film and video visuals. “Slender Man” provides the character flesh, extenuating doubt where special effects can make monolith his presence of inception and flourish from imagination to terrifying reality. If looking outside the box, “Slender Man” could also be translated into symbolism for the online predatory habits men take towards young, sometimes teenage and impressionable girls. There in lies references to this notion with such in Katie, who is a runaway teenage girl with a fixation toward an obscured man from the internet, aka Slender Man, and also Hallie’s vivid nightmares of being pregnant with the very Lovecraftian-esque spawn of Slender Man as tentacles shoot out from her large, protruding stomach. Yes, she’s a high school girl…
“Slender Man” centers around a four female, high school age characters: Chloe, Katie, Wren, and Hallie. The latter being the leader, Hallie, played by Julie Goldani Telles, is an unwavering non-believer of Slender Man, contributing her visions and feelings as some sort of coming of age Freudian bizarro show. The now 23-year old Telles convinces to pull off a well adjusted teenage girl spiraling into Slender Man’s otherworldly oblivion and absolutely turns the corner when younger sister Lizzie, Taylor Richardson, becomes an unwitting participate. Hallie almost comes toe-to-toe with her confident and frantic friend Wren, a character bestowed to Joey King of “Quarantine” and “White House Down.” King’s townboy-ish approach has served well to keep her character apart in order to not clash with other warring personalities. Yet, there’s not a whole lot interesting aspects associated with the other two characters, Chloe and Katie. If audiences were expected to be concerned for Katie, then Annalise Basso needed her character to have more screen time. The “Ouija: Origin of Evil” actress barely had a handful scenes to try to convey a poignant life with an alcoholic father before she’s whisked away to never been seen again. Chloe had a slight more substance as means to exhibit the result of not being taken by Slender Man; “Chilling Adventures of Sabrina’s” Jaz Sinclair didn’t really add any pizzaz to her poorly written flat character.
Though Slender Man’s origins surpasses being a byproduct of an internet meme and becomes woven into a lore of all it’s own through a global, technological network, the very fabric “Slender Man’s” tech horror theme had laid a negligent foundation. Viewers without a hint of Slender Man knowledge will find the connection between the shadowy figure that stalks and kidnaps children and the domain from which it was born, witnessing the technology used in the film being wielded as a tool of evil rather than a conduit of to connect two worlds. What works for Sylvain White is his knack for shaping Slender Man into physicality in an applauding effort that combines chilling atmospherics, well timed visual and audio cues, above decent special effects, and the crunchy, contorted body of Javier Botet as the Slender Man. We’ve covered Botet before in “Insidious: The Last Key” as the antagonistic KeyFace creature. KeyFace and Slender Man, two similar but still vastly different villains, wouldn’t be as influential or be brought to such a horrifying fruition if Botet was not behind the mask and it’s because of Botet’s blessing, but also a curse, Marfan Syndrome physique that he’s able to accomplish a wide range of distorted and malformed characters.
Sony Pictures presents “Slender Man” onto HD 1080p Blu-ray under the Screen Gems label. The Blu-ray is presented in widescreen of the film’s original aspect ratio, 2.39:1. “Slender Man” doesn’t sell itself as high performance, resulting in more details in the range of textures rather than relying on a clean, finished look. Colors are remain behind a cloak of darker shades to pull of gloomy atmospherics, but do brighten when the scene calls for it. The digital film looks great, if not fairly standard, for movies of today. The English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track is quite high performance, like revving an engine on an imported roadster. Slender Man comes with his own cache of audio tinglers to send chills up your spin and invoke cold sweats. Every branch breaking ambiance and desperate and exasperated breath being took by the teen girls aligns cleanly and nicely with the visual representations. Dialogue is lossless and prevalent as well as being integrated seamlessly during more active sequences in a well balanced fit all with range and depth. Thin extras do put a damper on the release with a bland featurette entitled “Summoning ‘Slender Man:’ Meet the Cast.” The featurette doesn’t do much more than give the actors’ and White’s opinion of their characters and Slender Man. The shame of it is that the internet is a vast place of information and knowledge and, yet, the featurette doesn’t knick the surface of who and what is Slender Man. Plus, if remembering correctly, there are scenes omitted from this release; more intense and bloodshed scenes that would have granted a more adult friendly rating. This release doesn’t offer up two versions of the film. Despite embodying a rehashed, bi-annual story of supernatural and psychological tech horror of the PG-13 variety, “Slender Man” endures through with a sliver of appreciation for the easily missed facets that work as a positive in Sylvain White’s 2018 film, such as bleak atmospheric qualities and Javier Botet’s performance, but the diluted final product, released on Blu-ray, benches what could have an at home video entertainment home run for Sony Pictures.
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.