A Security Guard’s Terrifying Dance With EVIL in the “Morgue” reviewed! (Blu-ray / Well Go USA Entertainment)

After fleeing a hit and run on his way to his girlfriend’s house, night security guard Diego Martinez is called to work a shift at the hospital morgue later that evening.  Seemingly showing very little concern for what transpired earlier, Diego goes through the motions of the night, checking doors and making sure the area is locked up tight and secure.  When a pursuit of a vagrant ends with Diego trapped inside the eight table slab morgue, he comes face-to-face with the malevolent paranormal in a terrifying night of survival.   Could what be happening to the scared night security be connected to the pedestrian he hit with his car or the transcendence of a purgatory afterlife from those who pass through the morgue without a pulse? 

“Morgue” is the Paraguayan poltergeist and purgatory thriller of high anxiety and tenebrific atmosphere proportions from the introductory feature film directorial debut of Hugo Cardozo.  The 2019 released horror film, which only recently made Stateside debut onto home video, is supposedly based on real events and written and produced for the silver screen by Cardozo and not only does the filmmaker showcase a hair-raising fright of a foreign film, “Morgue” also highlights the intrinsic South American infostructure and societal norms that’ll certainly be eye-catching details and differences to audiences from Paraguay’s northern neighbors.  From the Toyota Hillux trucks that are not sold in the U.S., to the wheel valve toilet flushes, to the open plaza compounds, “Morgue” is a down-to-Earth Latin American production that offers no unrepresentative notional misconceptions of other parts of the world.  Trust me, I’ve been to South America and to me, the city framework is authentic to the location.   With the support of FilmSharks’ subsidiary, The Remake Co., and HJ (Hugo Javier) Producciónes, a music video and film production company, “Morgue” is filmed in the district city of Encarnación, the capital city of Itapúa in Paraguay. 

Much of the story lands on poor Diego Martinez’s shoulders.  A cheapskate and a bit of an overall scoundrel, Martinez’s loafing life only has one thing going for it, his doting girlfriend who keeps him on thin ice because of his wandering eye and penchant for breaking promises.  Pablo Martinez has no problem playing a fool in Diego’s pitiful life as the actor shifts right into being indolent young man driving a beat-up jalopy and steel shavers just to keep ups his groomed look.  On the job, Pablo Martinez has to shift postures to a more diligent security guard which, for a character already established in a foundation without throwing down a trickster trope card, creates an uneasiness and a sense of empathy for Diego during his otherworldly ordeal as he follows his duties without much messing around.  Martinez, in both the character and actor, radiates fear once the tables turn and he realizes what he’s up against isn’t human or in figment of his imagination.  Or is it?  The role is written with some ambiguity on whether his experience might be guilt induced, but that’s for you, the audience, to decide.  “Morgue’s” one man show fleshes out with some strong supporting performances from Francisco Ayala, Willi Villalba, María del Mar Fernández, Abel Martínez, and Raúl Rotela.

Not many horror films hecho en Paraguay come across our screener desk; in fact, Cardozo’s “Morgue” is probably the first from the country and not too sound like a stuffy harsh critic, but I wouldn’t exactly say I’m more than pleasantly surprised by the overall design; yet,  I’m not not impressed either.  The middle of the road impression balances the bone-shivering atmospherics of a dark and tightly confining morgue where mischievous spirits seriously terrorize and toy with Diego’s physical and mental being with an about-face in Diego nonchalant behaviors and the established and recognized grim tone Cardozo slowly builds around the bonehead protagonist quickly fades at the very tail end with cheesy special effects and unfitting Latin rock music.  Without going too much into spoiler details, “Morgue” strongly reminds me of some elements of the “Creepshow 2” segment, “The Hitch-Hiker,” blended with Ore Bornedal’s “Nightwatch” while being stuffed with paranormal psychotic-nightmare fuel straight into the guts of story for gaslighting a terrified response.  The slow burn beginning might seethe a few eager to dive right into the you can’t-spell-pandemonium-without-demon action, but does set up perfectly, in a few suppressed laughs kind of way, Diego’s series of events that serve as a bread crumb trail to his frightening ordeal.  Cardozo utilizes various shooting techniques, many stunningly achieved in the manipulation of the film, to capture Diego’s fear and hikes the tension to a bite your lip in suspense level that’s well deserved. 

Light and spooky, “Morgue” is a lean, shivering supernatural story machine released onto digital and Blu-ray courtesy of Well Go USA Entertainment this past May.  The not rated, single-layered AVC encoded disc, 1080p Blu-ray is presented in a widescreen 16:9 aspect ratio, has a runtime of approx. 81 minutes, and has a region A playback. Director of photography, Blas Guerrero, discerns a softer touch that you can more or less notice around Diego’s face as the details are not as fine, but the deep blue and purples hued tints (and other lightly used color grades) and lighting make for elevated stellar direction toward the things that go bump in the morgue at night. Cardozo employs closed circuit cameras, extreme closeups, sped up playback, and a nifty deep focus of indiscernible corporeal silhouettes that is just creepy in itself. The Spanish and Guarani DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio track has little to muster in the dialogue department with Diego having very little interaction with others, such as his girlfriend through a video call or the night guard he’s relieving, but the dialogue track does come through clearly. The captioning is synched well with no obvious errors aside for some translational preferences from Spanish to English. Catered to be a startling romp, “Morgue” is heavy on the ambient LFE effects that do a nice job filtering through and landing the desired whip-in scare and then quiet again, resetting for the next go around. In the background, there is a slight engine-esque hum throughout and I thought maybe it’s presence was just in the Morgue, the rumbling spans the almost the entire duration of the story and doesn’t seem to be emanating from the dialogue track. Bluntly, the Blu-ray release lacks bonus features with only a theatrical trailer along with preview trailers before the film. The physical release does have a cardboard slipcover but of the same images and stills as the snapcase. A good time can be had with “Morgue’s” karma emerged psychological torment of one man and the spooky energy swarmed in shadows and dodgy point of views that solidifies Cardozo’s Paraguayan thriller as a rival to most name brand counterparts, but because of the ending that kills the entire mood of “Morgue’s” misery lashing, that bad taste of an anticlimactic drop off finale cuts far deeper than expected.

“Morgue” Blu-ray is on sale now at Amazon.com!

A Diary Full of EVIL Secrets. “The Darkness” reviewed! (Reel2Reel / Digital Screener)

David inherits his ailing grandmother’s countryside cottage and holidays with his novelist girlfriend, Lisa, who seeks a little refuge to inspire her next big bestseller.  As soon as they arrive and Lisa discovers an old storage chest in the attic, Lisa’s is pulled by a call of a supernatural entity that lures her outside to an unmarked grave, an ominous cave suspected with evil fairies, and a diary that tells the horrifying accounts of a murdered woman.  Their time at the cottage take a toll on Lisa who’s strange behavior places concern on David.  An ostracized priest forewarns possession, death, and the stakes if Lisa remains in the area that’s haunted with witches, ghosts, changelings, and betrayers. 

Originally titled “Dorcha,” an Irish term for dark, and then rebranded as “The Darkness” for the remainder of the English speaking residents of the world, the 2021 released multifaced specter and fairy Irish folklore spectacle is the directorial debut of Tharun Mohan, a current producer for the 2021 United Kingdom vampire versus human boiling point coexistence television series, “Age of the Living Dead,” co-starring our good genre loving friend and actor, Bill Oberst Jr.  While Bill Oberst Jr. is not a part of “The Darkness” (my apologies if I gave a sense of false hope), Mohan, from off the pages of his screenplay, aspires to illuminate Irish mythology as an alluring gothic horror mixture of mystery with fear sans the more popular little green men defending pots of gold.  The self-produced film under the Tharun Productions is the banner’s first feature with Aoun Khan, Neenu Mathai, Anoop Pillai, and Monique R. White serving as executive producers.

While we don’t get Bill Oberst Jr. (still hurts), we do get someone just as good with “The House of Bly Manor’s” Amelia Eve!  The UK actress headlines “The Darkness” in the role of Lisa, the struggling novelist looking for a slice of inspiration but instead receives the whole pie of possession.  Eve lives it up as an entity puppeteering her youthful outer shell in the filth and muck, stuffing her face with all the food in the cottage, and, at times, imitating an urbanity style of death.  Meanwhile, her boyfriend David (Cyril Blake) would have probably unintentionally babe’d her to death if she wasn’t already being haunted by a vindictive Victorian spirit.  “The Darkness” is Blake’s introductory role into feature films and the 36 year old, South Yorkshire actor can’t quite capture sincerity when it comes to his girlfriend’s unusual behavior.  David also just wanders to-and-fro around town in an aloof manner for more than just one reason until things become dire with Lisa and  then is that only when he’s starts to get really involved and attempt to fix whatever’s afflicting  Lisa, even if he has to entertain an informed, but shunned, eccentric priest (John Sudgen) with tea and biscuits in order to get just what the hell is going on.  A number of side characters pop up with an inclining of importance, such as the nosy waitress (Marian Elizabeth), a powerful witch (Gillian Kirkpatrick), and a determined historian (Mary Drake), but fall short of any real significance by fluttering in with just enough motivational tidbits and then flutter out of the scene and let the principle characters work out the rest.  “The Darkness” is a dual timeline narrative with the current story focusing on Lisa’s bubbling black enchantment slowly taking over her body with the backbone base layer account of events providing a tell-all mystery driving Lisa mad with a menacing spirit.  Occurring around a few decades ago before Lisa and David arrive, Niav O’Connor (Katherine Harthshorne) mysteriously disappears from her husband Bryan (Adam Bond), but much of this is revealed through the Lisa’s obsessive reading of Niav’s diary which begs the question, how did Niav write her demise in the diary pages if she was already dead?

And that last sentiment ultimately describes Mohan’s film, as an unfocused and trite expression of amateur storytelling.  There’s difficulty in trying to nail down, or taking a stab at anything as the saying goes, in the “The Darkness’” many moving parts and many fiends in the off shoots Mohan tries to tie in from all various directions.  Even in the film’s final scenes, Mohan had to pen in one more twist that corrodes even further the integrity of a much desired narrative about Irish mythologies and the malevolencies that spur them. Myths are the heart of “The Darkness,” more specifically with the changelings who are fairies that replace real people, and Niav and Bryan O’Connor’s ghastly tale echoes the non-fictional account of Bridget Cleary, an Irish wife murdered by her husband under the suspicion that his wife was a changeling. Connections made between the past and present are roughly tied together at best with only Niav’s unearthed and charmed diary serving as a conduit to possess Lisa’s curious id. The pursuit of revenge for her untimely demise falls upon… well, that part of the story is undoubtedly vague as Niav seems to be resurrecting from the grave, so to speak, to reveal dubious secrets held by relatives from the lineage of her husband Bryan and cling her spiteful lifeforce to that bloodline and haunt O’Connor descendants like a severe post traumatic stress disorder; yet the vapid ending doesn’t justify the means, falling short the buildup of the hallmarks of folklore horror in witches, changelings, fairies, dark arts priests, and ghosts with anything but spectacular.

No cheap thrills, no gore, no nudity. “The Darkness” relies heavily on the suspense of the gothic tale itself to drawn in and spook audiences as the Mohan film creeps onto digital streaming services and video on demand this month, May 3rd, from the fresh-faced independent UK distribution label, Reel2Reel. The production value on “The Darkness” catches the passing aesthetically expensive eye while still being an economically financed and that’s a big credit to director of photography, Ariel Artur, getting the artistic shots that displays time and patience in getting the minor key angles right to at least extract a gripping moment of apprehension, resembling 60’s and 70’s European horror to likes of Hammer Horror or Amicus in appearance alone. As far as bonus scenes during or after the credits, there are none. As a starting line feature, “The Darkness” is not terrible. Let’s be clear on this as Tharun Mohan understand the fundamentals of filmmaking with sound positioning of characters in scenes, a superb, expensive look on a value size budget, and the Amalie Eve’s crazed performance is a thrill in itself, but envisioning the structure still remains behind the blinders, leaving “the Darkness” just an aimless shot in the dark.

EVIL in the Family Tree Makes for a Terrifying “Reunion” reviewed! (101 Films / Digital Screener)

Recently separated from her philandering fiancé, a pregnant Ellie moves in with her estranged mother, Ivy, whose staying at Ellie’s recently-deceased grandparents family home and packing up home furnishings to put the house on the market.  Strained with going through a pregnancy alone and tirelessly working on her theoretic book of modern medicine deriving from the roots of barbaric magic and medieval practices, Ivy pledges to take care of her while providing space to let Ellie continue research work, but the house lends to the painful memories long thought suppressed in Ellie’s mind, manifesting visions of her adopted sister, Cara, who died suddenly in house when they were children.  As the visions become more prominent, stronger, and real, Ellie questions her remorseful memories and her mother’s recollection of events that sheds light on her family’s horrendous secret of anatomical science.

From the start, the realization that Jake McHaffy’s “Reunion” isn’t going to be a happy one comes as soon as Ellie crosses the threshold into her late grandparents’ home and is immediately swathed with a blanket of unsettling ambiance.  The “Wellness” and “Free the Deed” McHaffy writes-and-directs his third film with a steadfast sense of dread in the New Zealand mystery-thriller that tackles human inbred themes of long suffering guilt, prenatal anxiety, and the role of an estranged family during a time of need.  McHaffy compounds layered fears by compositing them with the confines of an old dark and creaky house witness to all the past secrets.  “Reunion” is a production from a conglomerate of New Zealand and U.S. companies that embark on independent filmmaking endeavors by Greyshack Films, the strong female character supporting Miss Conception Films, Overactive Imagination, and Water’s End Films in association with New Zealand Film Commission, MPI Media Group, and Department of Post.

“Reunion” obviously isn’t going to be your typical relative gathering shindig with your bad joke-telling uncle wisecracking over his 10th Miller Lite or a nose picking brat of a cousin cheating at horseshoes near the pit; instead, “Reunion” a tightknit cast playing the roles of mother, father, daughter, and adopted daughter drawn together not by the sake of longing for bloodline companionship but by necessity and circumstance and imploding by the unfun games of revelations hidden inside the closest deepest and darkest of descendants. “Witches of East End” stars Julia Ormond in a nearly unrecognizable far cry of her more glamourous bewitching role in Joanna Beauchamp on the FOX produced Lifetime Television series. The English actress, who hails from Surrey, assumes the matriarchal presence of a helicopter mother overextending herself beyond the limits of her control in order to seize some kind of power she once had living in the archaic house. Ormond bounces off mother-daughter indignities with her sole child, Ellie, played by Emma Draper in her first feature lead performance. Thick tension between them causes reserved friction Ormond and Draper do well to nurture throughout while a stammering posture by “Lord of the Rings” actor John Bach as the wheelchair bound infirmed father adds a whole new layer of irregular rigidity to Ellie’s nerves and to Ivy’s patience. Aside from being blood related, father, mother, and daughter also have another thing in common – present in the moment of the death of Cara (Ava Keane). Peeling back each emotion output struggles, in a good way, to grasp the character mindset made murky by uncontrollable shaking and crying, sneaking and conniving, lies and deceits, and the disillusioned rambles that vortex around the house without pure clarity. “Reunion” rounds out the cast with Nancy Brunning, Cohen Holloway, and Gina Laverty as young Ellie.

Jake McHaffy’s “Reunion” has the hairs on the back of your neck standing from beginning to end with prolonged foreboding leading up to a shocking finale.  Between the manic and enigmatic performances from Julia Ormond and Emma Draper, a chance to rekindle the past feels like a distant thought and a lost cause being blockaded by the past’s poignant trauma they share.  McHaffy isn’t hesitant about revealing a stymieing history with flashes of image splices and flashbacks cut with an antiquated VHS-style playback producing a statically charged visual incumbrance.  The stress and strain burden’s Ellie’s pregnancy, dam breaking flood of memories, her research into the occult, and the surrounding chaotic state of the house contributes to teetering mental stability creating a visceral unintelligible and augmented reality that is too real for Ellie to keep an authentic perspective and the longer she stays and the more she’s immerse into Ivy’s poisonous maternal supremacy, only fabricating a new and scary world can Ellie dig herself out of her family’s troubling past.  There’s much going on in McHaffy’s story to be bog down fully understanding what you’re seeing and trying to piece together the puzzle is nearly impossible – I, frankly, still don’t understand much of it – but the beleaguered attention of beguiling imagery and that overwhelmingly wild ending entrusts “Reunion’s” place in psychological terror. 

Modern gothic has never looked this good as “Reunion” rises to be a stalwart of horror. 101 Films and MPI Media Group has released “Reunion” digitally this month of March, one year after the start of the pandemic that has kept families away from each other and when eases of restrictions set in that’ll shorten the gap between estranged loved ones that becomes a distressing reunion in itself. Quite a masterful brush stroke from director of photography Adam Luxton building the house into the frame and framework of the story, which goes hand-and-hand with a house that’s deemed a toxic surrounding symbolized by the black sludge that drips out of the sink and into Ellie, as well as crossing video outputs and weaving them in as well. Luxton’s imagery has formulation maturity that combines hard and soft lighting, blurring, a range of depth shots, delineated night scenes, and the capitalization of utilizing the clutter of boxes and knickknacks to tell an eclectic visual odyssey culminating toward an all-consuming finale. The 95 minute runtime film is presented in a widescreen 1.85:1 aspect ratio with no bonus scenes during or after the credits. “Reunion” creeps unsuspectingly into the skin, eyes, and soul as a metastasizing slow growth of appalling family drama.

One Can’t Just Pray Away EVIL in “The Banishing” reviewed! (Shudder – Vertigo Releasing / Digital Screener)

Set in a backdrop of Great Britain on the very brink of world war against Nazi Germany in the late 1930s, a small English community has nearly lost it’s entire faith in the Catholic church after the last priest suddenly and mysteriously died.  When a young vicar is offered a generous stipend, the village parish, and a large estate by the region bishop to restore a congregational foothold, he brings with him his new wife and stepchild to make the house their home, but the house has a dark history that might have played a role in the previous vicar’s death and a lone, eccentric occultist urges the family to vacate the premises immediately before the house swallows them into grave danger at the haunted hands of sadistic monks, ghastly visions, and a tormented soul roaming the corridors. 

If the prim-and-proper social class structure of Julian Fellows’ “Downton Abbey” collided with the volatile and tormented spirits of James Wan’s “The Conjuring,” then Christopher Smith’s pre-wartime staged haunted house feature, “The Banishing,” would be the outcome.  The period piece horror marks the latest installment into the genre from the Bristol, English-born Smith who made a name for himself with 2004 dark subway corridor heartstopper, “Creep,” and went on to make cult favorites amongst genre fans with the workplace violence satire, “Severance,” and the medieval bubonic plague film, “Black Death” starring Sean Bean and Eddie Redmayne.  “The Banishing,” a term used as the practice within the supernatural ambit of dark magic to ward off negative spirits, is a UK feature co-written between David Beton, Ray Bogdanovich, and Dean Lines.  Maya Amsellem and Sharon Harel-Cohen serve as producers under the London-based WestEnd Films production banner with “The Banishing” marking their fifth completed feature film product and with the nearly worldwide distribution rights landing with AMC Network’s popular horror streaming service, Shudder, in partnership with Vertigo Releasing in the UK.

“The Banishing” revolves mainly around Marianne, the newly-wed vicar’s wife with a young girl along for the ride, played by Jessica Brown Findlay (“Downton Abbey,” “Victor Frankenstein”). Findlay endows Marianne with vitality as a woman who must meet the vicar’s standards of Godliness, but still be a strong mother to her child despite disreputable social standing. The priest Linus (Essex-born John Heffernan) lacks experience in the field of his cleric position, lending to question why the region bishop would appoint him to a muster a flock of faithful Christian followers during turbulent times. The husband and wife dynamic between Linus and Marianne is marred by dissonance backgrounds of a priest who doesn’t know to be with a woman and a woman who can’t escape her socially unflattering past. Heffernan and Findlay ignite as repellants of the same magnetic currents when the harder they try to extend their relationship, they push each other way, with Findlay giving a fervent performance. Speaking of performances, Sean Harris bares the most intriguing and rollicking local occultist. The “Mission Impossible: Fallout” actor parades around as Harry Price, a likable, straight-shooting outcast and a believer in the supernatural with extensive, and ghastly, historical knowledge on Linus and Marianne’s new home. As Price aims to extract the hapless from danger, he butts heads with a headstrong region bishop, a stern and solemn role secreted with distrust from John Lynch who has worked on a Christopher Smith film previously in “Black Death.” “The Terror” actor juxtaposes starkly against Harris as a character who dons a likeness to the clown prince of crime in costume than a dull agent man of the cloth…with secrets to uphold. “The Banishing” rounds out with a supporting cast in Adam Hugill, Jason Thorpe, Jean St. Clair, James Swanton, and Anya McKenna-Bruce as Marianne’s daughter, Adelaide.

Set convincingly in a quaint, 1930s English town, Christopher Smith transports the audience back in time to the predated anxious moments before World War II that would upheave turmoil across all across Europe, but though that fretted lingering of war is set as the backdrop for “The Banishing,” and is coiled around every man who served in the first Great War that brought up more than once, the root of the narrative ultimately becomes the house Linus and Marianne have come to call their home.  Haunted house films surmise the house as a built-in principal character because of either the way the architecture affects the mental or physical wellbeing of it’s flesh and bone counterparts or if the abode is actually possessed and set to harm the inhabitants in a personification of pure evil, as such with various films of this caliber (“House,” “The Haunting,” etc,). Yet, Linus and Marianne’s estate failed to become a part of the narrative limelight despite the immense grounds that compromised of a large greenhouse and a robust library complete with fireplace and the disconcerting labyrinth of a dungeon-esque basement full of barred enclosures and close quartered corridors.  Nearly every interior shot felt like a new section of the house hat kept extending upon, what would be assumed, a grand mansion that had a longer rap sheet by reputation in being a former religious torture chamber run by sadistic monks hellbent on whipping the sin out of the mentally tormented. Smith always had an eye for the unsettling visuals and sustains that feng shui by allowing time and space to be the inner horrors of a funhouse, but doesn’t evoke clean, unadulterated terror that continues to profusely bleed into the film’s climatic cause-and-effect unraveling. There is a lack of a transformative realization and a small hurtle of sedated possession to figure out that the main presence in the house, amongst the other more malevolent presences, wants something and the characters are spoon fed each and every morsel to get them up to speed. The final scene of the bishop meeting with the Nazi regime intended to leave the story open for supernatural possibilities, but felt like a more poignant and compelling crux leading into Nazi occultism, hinted by the eccentric resident occultist Sean Harris.

Morosely dramatic and haunting, “The Banishing” is an aggressive salvo of facing shame head-on, creeping into UK cinemas and digital platforms on March 26th courtesy of Shudder and Vertigo Releasing. Director of photography Sarah Cunningham has an remarkable ability to engulf the actors in the space of the shot, making them seem diminutive to the rooms that feel like a giant hand looming overhead, and with the bare, hard lighting, the cinematography is really where “The Banishing” shines as gothic cladding without a stodgy spot to speak visible. Cunningham adds all the hallmarks of a horror film with titled angles, brilliant reds, and tight shots on tense faces to garner a more anxiety that never actually pans out by the end. The organic electro duo TOYDRUM score the 97 minute film with a single note droning hums at various pitch levels that can really get inside your head. The “Prevenge” composers set up scenes with a ill-founded fears when nothing presently visible is intended to fright. There were no bonus scenes during or after the credits, but one scene to note is Sean Harris waltzing with an uncredited woman during the opening credits that seems out of place but speaks to the aberrated decorum of his character. “The Banishing” works tirelessly to discredit shame by confronting truth and while we’re being beat over the head by the message, the overlay of horror is lost despite some brilliant and engrossing performances from Findlay and Harris who usher us through to the imperfect conclusion.