Keep the EVIL Family Drama for Your Mama. “Abigail Haunting” reviewed (High Fliers Films / Digital Screener)

While searching for a life in Reno, Katie reluctantly becomes an accomplice in a heist job with her abusive boyfriend, scoring a small brown paper bag packed with stolen money.  In the middle of post-heist uncertainty, an opportunity to escape a troubled relationship presents itself and Katie hightails it to her hometown of Prescott with the loot, leaving the dark life behind her in Reno.  Unsure of her next steps, she hides away by moving back into her childhood trailer home with foster mother, Marge, who has nearly deteriorated into a completely catatonic state over the last few years.  As the days pass and Katie catches up with Brian, rekindling a relationship with a high school crush, her secretive past becomes plaited into Marge’s sinister skeleton in the cupboard that pulls both of them into the supernatural wrath of a tormented spirit haunting the trailer home, merging the past and present with a shocking conclusion.

Cursed.  No, not the vengeful spirit who resurrects to plague havoc on the still breathing, flesh and boned to set their tortured, spiritual planed souls to rest.  The curse I speak of involves putting Haunting into the title of any ghost film that has been released in, oh let’s say, the last 20 or so years culminating into being one mediocre release after another of mainstream and independent films that has, frankly the lack of a better word, cursed the subgenre.  Type haunting in the IMDB search field and just glaze over as hundreds of films crash over you in a tsunami of stale capitalism ever since the remake of Robert Wise’s “The Haunting” in 1999 with Liam Neeson and Catherine Zeta-Jones.  “The Haunting of Connecticut.”  “An American Haunting.”  “23:59:  The Haunting Hour.”  Being one step behind the hackneyed “possession” in nearly every title about, well, possession, these post-2000 ghost films are just morsels of the bigger crapola pie that investors love to sink as little of their money into as possible because the return is greater because ghost film don’t necessarily a R rating unlike other subgenres and, sometimes, piggyback off a successful film with the parlance.  PG-13 in slashers is an oxymoron, if you ask me, but in with ghosts, fear of mysticism and the unknown has enough power to scare if done correctly, i.e. the original “Poltergeist.”  This unbecoming setup leads us to the 2020 release of the revenant thriller “Abigail Haunting,” the latest Kelly Schwarze written and directed full length film after tackling an Area 51 inspired bloody battle beyond the stars set in our backyard with “Alien Domicile, and before we go into whether the Schwarze film, co-written alongside Charisma Manualt, can tame an unbridled use of title-exploitation with a first rate story, the Indie Film Factory production will receive full benefit of the doubt until the end of the review.


The story follows a small town girl, Katie, from Prescott, Nevada who falls into small time crime with a lowlife boyfriend that quickly turns sour and deadly after an armed cash grab, presumably from a Reno casino.  Chelsea Jurkiewicz fits that small description recipe of stuck in a rut local girl without much cause for disbelief.  As Katie, Jurkiewicz’s able to be the part of a young, harried woman running from a checkered past and into the flames of a paranormal bombardment.  The then early 20-something, “Stalker” actress kept Katie balanced between her cash stealing time in Reno, integrating back into what was a rough patch with an unreasonable and abusive foster mother, and dealing with unexplainable occurrences of nightlights turning on by themselves, her room being ransacked, and succumbing to disturbing visions while reminiscing of being a scared child hidden behind a makeshift potato sack mask that becomes a reoccurring object throughout.   While Schwarze loosely ties all the facets together in a nice, tight bow that leads to a climatic unraveling of Katie’s past, the visually assaulted Katie suffers as the centerpiece punching bag that connects them altogether.  To top Katie’s mounting pressure, a face from the past tries to pry his way into her life.  A lost fling in Katie’s fleeting existence is Brian, played by Austin Collazo in his debut film performance, forcing himself into her life in what reeks of single parent desperation.  A moment involving Katie looking through a photo scrap book shows the two smiling together in a lone picture, as if she’s reflecting upon a previous romance or friendship that has since fizzled, but that’s about the extent of their history that doesn’t dive deeper into the reflection or explain the spark from the sudden interest from Brian.  At the crux of the story is Marge (Brenda Daly), a dirtied, nightgown wearing middle-aged woman who fostered abandoned at 4 months old Katie in what only has been, in Katie’s sole exposition, a terrible experience.  Schwarze instinctively ties the trailer home and Marge together as a single entity, enacting as one to push Katie around in a fit of unmotivated hysteria.  Katie doesn’t seem too eager to lift an investigated finger any of phenomena that has plagued her in the home, in the back shed, or even follows her out on a date with Brian.  Instead, Brian initiates digging into her past that sends Katie down Marge’s rabbit hole of hidden secrets in an off kilter directional take where a protagonist stands indifferent or remains stagnant after multiple Abigail encounters that would seemingly rouse up curiosity or for the sake of proving sanity.  Rounding out “Abigail Haunting” is Michael Monteiro, Christopher Brown, and Taylor May as the titular ghost.

Not a positive start with flat, often time dunce, characters in “Abigail Haunting.”  The mindset behind Katie’s involvement with the Reno robbery and a scoundrel lover strains to play a bigger role into the eerie defense she’s positionally locked into at Marge’s dreary trailer home.  Schwarze remains on the fringes around the preoccupations that descend Katie into this dark place in her life between searching for her real mother that abandoned her as an infant, the deadly robbery in Reno, and the abusive ex that all seem to be weighing less on Katie’s shoulders than the duffle bag of a couple thousand dollars that would typical skewer one’s psyche, manifesting more than just the typical side effects of pressure.  Instead, Schwarz doesn’t fold in well enough the incorporation of our angry spirit, Abigail, whose unexplained appearance out of the Nevada blue sky in between Katie’s leaving and returning to Marge’s home denotes not one single explanation of when and why Abigail chooses to be a resurrected, phantasmal spite.  More jeopardizing toward Katie’s past and present life is her obsession with the stolen money versus living a decent life with possibly Brian and his dissociable, divorce struck kid, who the former is clearly obsessed with her, but the story more so saturates with a free floating, full torso phantasm, as the Ghostbusters would say, that undermines the subterranean psychology at work here and clouds the ghost foundation built on deceits, lies, and ugly truths. What “Abigail Haunting” succumbs to is being about as rudimentary as they come with a climax too riddles with plot holes that squish much of good establishing camera work and some decently laid jump scares. Haunting, as in a title, still curses the horror subgenre with middle-of-the-road dynamism.

Death clings to us all. In “Abigail Haunting,” death clings to vengeance in this supernatural thriller dropping on DVD in the UK on February 8th courtesy of High Flier Films and ITN Distribution. The region 2, PAL encoded DVD will be presented in a widescreen 2.35:1 aspect ratio with a runtime of approx. 85 minutes. I initially had high hopes for Abigail to be at least be a derivative carbon copy of “The Conjuring” as “Scare Me’s” Michael TusHaus’s shows off impressive camera work that organically flows through Marge’s tight quartered trailer, as well as in other scenes when applicable outside the trailer location, with generous use of a stepping in-stepping out steady cam. TusHaus’s hard lighting also creates stern atmospherics with full bodied shadows that symbolically keep secrets and spirits in the dark. The digital release had no extra bonus feature available with none displayed on High Flier Film’s website. There were also no bonus scenes during or after the credits. Solid cinematography and palatable performances couldn’t plug up all the plot holes that stiffen “Abigail Haunting” into a two-bit carnival attraction that looks cool upon entry but not worth the money on exit.

 

EVIL Exploits Your Fears in “Phobic” reviewed! (Samuel Goldwyn Films / Digital Screener)

The most vulnerable are being chained to chairs and tortured by the terrifying weight of their own extreme phobias until their bodies can no longer take the stress, fatally collapsing where they sit due to heart failure.  Homicide detective Riley Sanders notices frightening similarities to her own abduction months earlier where the kidnapper tortures the stunned detective with an intense light on repeater.   Refusing to believe her abduction and the case she’s investigating are linked, her partner, Paul Carr, continues to insist that her traumatic experience might be key to solving the homicides and finding the killer.  As the detectives dig deeper into a radical psychiatrist’s phobia program whose patients are showing up the killer’s victim list, they find themselves at the center of a disturbing experiment that aims unleash an inner, and only ever theorized, phenomenal ability.

Bryce Clark’s psychological cop thriller, “Phobic,” tales an irregular and irrational serial killer objective derivative of David Fincher’s “Seven” twisted quietly with elements from the superhero universe. Darkly toned exploitation of forcing the worst of the worst fears upon the those already cripple down by their distinct aversion, the 2017 shot “Phobic” marks the return of a Clark written and directed full length feature since the filmmaker’s 2012 debut in both categories with a romantic-comedy starring Mischa Barton.  Both polar opposite films were shot on location in Salt Lake City, Utah, Clark’s residential city, surrounded by picturesque ice capped mountains overlooking the illuminated, pedestrian-saturated metropolitan area home to the story’s wicked psychotronic experiment that literally frightens people to death.  “Phobic’ is a production of Storylab and Pale Moon Entertainment.

Two detectives continue to peel back the arcane layers of the unusual case before them with detective Riley Sanders at the heart of the matter being linked to the recent string of methodical abductions tailored specifically with the victim.  “Looking Glass” actress Jacque Gray dichotomizes Riley not only as a persistent investigator eager to bring this case to an end but also as a struggling closeted neurotic with her own fears that bleed through the celluloid.  Clark makes sure to underscore Riley’s nightly routine before going to bed with her constantly turning on and off lights in her path to represent a lingering but indeterminate phobia response.  Riley is supposed to be this tough, but law abiding cop, who survived a harrowing ordeal, but Gray hardly expresses Riley’s scarred rigid soul, representing more so in the lines of coloring her disposition by the numbers that refuse to waiver outside normalcy.  Devin Liljenquist is even more so vanilla as Riley’s partner, Paul.  As his introductory feature film, Liljenquist’s doesn’t carry the range of a cop who cares, topping out with a straight-faced sleepwalk that challenges the stakes and can be considerably creepy, like subtly sexual grooming predator, when Paul is trying to convince Riley to open her fears with him.  The character audiences deserved, or better suited as Riley’s partner to provide contrast, would have been the third scarcely screened detective on the case that occasionally popped in as the first investigator on scene of a crime in Alex Nibley’s Detective Hank Ferry.  The slightly elder detective, complete with Nibley’s stark white, Anderson Cooper hairstyle, had a quick, dark wit and cavalier presence about him that breached the Riley and Paul uncharismatic stiffness with a relieving change of pace dynamics between colleagues.  You couldn’t wait to see Detective Ferry to make a reappearance, but sadly, his character is sorely underutilized for only a couple of moments.  “Phobic’s” in-and-out supporting cast includes James Jamison, Tiffani DiGregorio, Fred Spencer, and Ernie Lively as Riley Sanders secret-keeping father.

“Phobic” follows a basic detective thriller in tracking down a homicidal maniac with a niche kill tactic that bread crumbs one of the investigating officers into being subverted by a conflict of interest stemmed from her past. However, out of Salt Lake City’s blue skies, Clark suddenly pivots in his script, diverting from a dark, gritty Finchian narrative to an acutely forged new shape of revival and hope, a shape that bares no cape, no mask, or no bald, psychic power yielding man bound to a wheelchair playing headmaster of a school that serves as a façade for an elite team of powerful, do good mutants. If my hint wasn’t overly blunt, let me be utterly clear, “Phobic” has no distinct x-factor but goes from fears to fight with the psychotronic theory where energy and strength derive from stress and fear over the witnessing the impending doom of a loved one. Urban legend surrounding the notion of hysterical strength siphons away the psychosomatic element from the grooves of the cop thriller and Clark copiously throws in crucial red herrings to keep viewers muddling and not Professor X cerebral filling in the gaps unraveling an unlikely and unrealistic prospect of superhuman truth, but “Phobic’s” off-the-cuff pivot is a quick to squander all that’s been built in what’s essentially Bryce Clark’s house of cards to discombobulate an audience with polarizing story principles, rebranding an assayed horror-thriller into rabid conceit.

 

Easily one of the most idiosyncratic and unanticipated films of 2020, “Phobic” induced fear into audiences panic-stricken hearts this past December 15th onto multiple digital platforms courtesy of Samuel Goldwyn Films, the distributor that brought you “Daniel Isn’t Real” and “Pet.” Brandon Christensen’s tenebrous cinematography is shot on a 6k red epic dragon with ultra definition displaying full range of details in every scene and despite the somber tones created by a slew of gaffer up lighting, we get some really rich natural coloring, even in the baby blue eyes of Ernie Lively, when Christensen isn’t blue or red tinting the lens to underscore the killer’s aftermath crime scene. While the cinematography is good, the editing can be pestilent expression of style to represent Riley’s sporadic and continuous reliving of a reoccurring memory. The stock score is just that set on autoplay for nearly the length of the 81 minute runtime with engineered eruptions in the pitch to denote the jump scares. There were no bonus features included with the digital screener nor were there any bonus scenes during or after the credits. The bland acting hurts “Phobic’s” exploration of the psychological symbiotic energies between that of the mind and body, but the film boils down to have a fascinating perspective on the detective thriller by reshaping the surface with bold expectations of an uncharacteristic, dormant fear free all.

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EVIL’s All Inclusive Resort. “Paradise Z” reviewed! ((Yet) Another Distribution Company / Digital Screener)

Sylvia and Rose are living the life of harmonious luxury together on a beautiful and serene Thailand resort. There’s only one tiny problem with their first-class accommodations: the world surrounding them is overrun by a population of rabidly crazed zombies. After establishing a rigorous routine of perimeter checks and pool time, food and gas are running dangerous low to keep a secluded and safe survival lifestyle sustained, leaving them no choice but to venture out to nearby villages in search for fuel, but the smallest of sounds could invite the hungry dead to storm their idyllic retreat. No matter how careful scouring outside the gated walls of isolated tranquility, the zombies’ insidious ways infest as bad resorts guests that turn Sylvia and Rose’s make-due habitation to their prospective tomb when all routes of escape are foiled by flesh-feasting zombies. The couple must rely on each other for survival.

There’s trouble in paradise from Wych Kaosayananda’s melancholic-apocalypticism horror “Paradise Z” focusing on two young women, romantically brought together by undead circumstances, to outlive the encompassing fatalist outlook. Marketed in the United Kingdom as a “Lesbian Zombie Apocalypse Gore-fest” and having been through the wringer with title changes from the original title of “Two of Us” to “Dead Earth,” as called in the States, the uptrend to incorporate the Z in any zombie film has been a musky motif ever since Max Brooks introduced the epithet for his 2006 zombie apocalypse novel, “World War Z,” yet that doesn’t stop writers Kaosayananda and Steve Poirier in dishing out a sanguine trilogy with “Paradise Z” laying the ground work as the first installment and “The Driver,” the third installment, following suit shortly after wrapping production on “Paradise Z.” With the second film, “The Rider,” is still in pre-production and the shot films released out of sequential order, Kaosayananda’s unconventional trilogy methods caters to a seemingly budget and location ready-timeline to which characters from all three films will interconnect the dissociated titles under the filmmaker’s self-funded production company, Kaos Entertainment.

Throughout the entire 1-hour and 35-minute runtime, there are only five speaking roles with three of those roles rarely comprising of about four minutes of combined dialogue, assigning by default much of the chitchat the principle characters, Sylvia and Rose. For the first nine and half minutes, Milena Gorum and Alice Tantayanon don’t say a single word as the day’s routine of waking up, showering, topless swimming, poolside yoga, lunch, and other recreational activities dominate the setup of quietude. When Gorum (as Sylvia) and Tantayanon (Rose) do utter a few words, they’re muttered projection is nearly unintelligible with little effort into the purpose of speaking. Born in Los Angeles and now, predominately, a New York city fashion model, Gorum has come across my radar before with a bit Succubus role in the 2017, Cleopatra Films produced demonic thriller, “The Black Room,” opposite Lin Shaye, Lukas Hassel, and Natasha Henstridge and though “Paradise Z” provides Gorum with her first lead role that showcases her immense beauty but limited acting range. The same wooden expressive opinion can be said for the little known Alice Tantayanon whose pigeonholed herself into a Kaosayananda celluloid corner with her only credits being three of his films. Sylvia and Rose rarely separate from each other sides, being lovers noodled into a pot of thick zombie soup, in a rigid position of affixed dynamics difficult to gauge how either one of them is handling the situation. When a show of complexity is finally unveiled, such as when Sylvia murders in cold blood two other survivors and turns to Rose to say it’s better this way, those actions somewhere along the story from there on out should be dissected in explaining just why lacerating two men to death is a good thing. Of course, we can all assume the survival of the fittest and selfish obvious reason that two rugged men are looking for more than just a box of Twinkies and an unopened can of goulash substitute from two good-looking ladies outside the safety of their homemade stronghold; yet, doesn’t answer where the killer instincts root and Kaosayananda shelves that bit of human nature when the zombie caca spreads throughout the resort upon their return that also evaporates a steamy sex scene and inklings of frustration for their dwindling supplies and mundane routine symbolizing an inching wedge between them. “Ghost House’s” Michael S. New rounds out the cast the DJ, an on-air beacon of infected information.

An Elysian-fabricated getaway resort can be an ideal hunker down for an apocalypse of the zombie kind. Mega resorts have a large footprint that are usually gated and fenced, plenty of food and lodging to accommodate a small village, and an escape route from the beach to the open waters where we all know zombies can’t swim. That works here for “Paradise Z” and almost plays like a pillar character that embeds the women survivalists from going on walkabouts, creating a real sense of comfortable isolation and simmering paranoia of the outside world. Kaosayananda, who can’t quite get the bad taste that lingers from out his mouth with the panned Antonio Banderas and Lucy Liu starring critically slammed and chaos-riddled film “Ballistic: Ecks vs. Sever,” left himself to his own devices in trying to rebuild his career shooting in Thailand, but “Paradise Z” crumbles as a stepping stone trilogy that lacks proper severe conflict of placing the heroines into a tight, perhaps inescapable, spot. What the couple have to escape from are the wild, warm flesh-craving leftovers of a plagued mankind, springing to a sprint at the first audible or visual morsel that tickles the eardrums, but the patchwork caked-face, grayscale zombies don’t render the likes from the bygone Golden Age of Horror, or even the current Golden Age of Modern Horror for that matter, in what looks and feels like cheap knockoffs of the genuine fictional man-eaters by rouge applying professionals. What Kaosayananda has made here is a two-tone, straight-forward, out-smart the dumb zombie breed of uninspired mirth, burdening the actresses to shoulder the story on looks alone rather than include emotional depth oppressed by the Z-factor.

Spend your vacation in a halcyon “Paradise Z” exclusively releasing on UK digital platforms come the new year on January 4th from the marginalized advocating distributor (Yet) Another Distribution Company. In regards to cinematography, presented in a widescreen 2.39:1 aspect ratio, Kaosayananda safely approaches most stories set in Thailand with a warm, yellowish glaze overtop the lush tropic vegetation, but, aside from a class I rapid stream the women decide to cool off in on a whim, without weapons and, basically, in their skivvies, outside the resort walls, there’s a limit to the Thai landscapes that doesn’t reach beyond the resort perimeter sufficing to just the surrounding allure rather than cutting in scenes of breath-taking grandeur. Kaosayananda occasionally reduces the frames per second to emphasize certain scenes with slow motion, such as with Gorum and Tatayanon’s topless make out session or when the two are back-to-back unloading an unlimited amount of ammo against a rushing horde with every shot being a fatal one; the silver lining here is the scene is at least aesthetically cool to watch. However, once again, Sylvia and Rose are given winning hands to play without as much showing their cards that work backwards their highly skilled background of arms fire. With the digital screener, there were no bonus material or bonus scenes included. No need to check the yelp reviews on holiday spot as “Paradise Z” is a four star resort with one star performances battling an underwhelming, minimum gory zombie contingent without dutifully jeopardizing survivors enough for the sake of gratefully being alive.

This EVIL Santa is Ho, Ho, Horrible. “Slayed” reviewed! (Terror Films / Digital Screener)

Five years after a murderous, Santa Claus-cladded maniac massacred a couple of young women in the dank basement of a water treatment plant in Harris County, AZ, the stigma of the plant being open has caused enough controversy, heartache, and notoriety for the local residents and will soon close the chained-link gate forever to soon transform into a car dealership. On the last day of operation, Christmas Eve night, the lone survivor of that night five years ago walks vigilantly around the perimeter with a tingled sense that something just isn’t right as he stashes weapons around the facility…just in case. With the last administrative staff gone for the night and a novice guard at the helm of watch, not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse, until there arose such a clatter and who did the guard and the survivor find? It was the return of Jolly Old Saint Nick with an axe to grind.

Merry Christmas, readers! You can’t spread Christmas fear without watching at least one, count them one, homicidal Holidays flick starring our favorite Yuletide strangler, Santa Claus. This year, the Fatman reins down upon a few unfortunate recipients on his coal gifting list in Jim Klock and Mike Capozzi’s “Slayed” that was released digitally this last month of 2020. The script is penned by Jim Klock following another Klock and Capozzi collaboration, the 2019 released Devil trickery detective-thriller, “Red Letters,” that has the unconventional atmospherics of a Christmas themed slasher set in the fictional location of Harris County, Arizona even though the climate of Arizona is semiarid and “Slayed” appears to be taking place in a lush, semi-tropic climate that’s perhaps more in tune with a Floridian winter. However, production company, Jim Klock and Darrell Martinelli”s Code 3 Films, is based out of New Jersey with offices in Los Angeles, suggesting a summer shoot with the cut off shorts, short sleeves t-shirts, and the wicking sporty running attire being worn amongst the limited primary characters.

Klock not only directs, writes, and produces the serial killer Santa but also co-stars as a new-to-the-area, aspiring actor standing in for a regular security guard. Klock enacts a classic clueless constitution for a baffled and bumbling outsider caught in the middle of historical notoriety having returned from the grave. Standing side-by-side and opposite is co-director, Mike Capozzi, who institutes a doomsday prepper’s fantasy come to fruition as the lone survivor of the 5-year bygone Harris County water plant massacre. The role of a water plant operator turned lone wolf of misanthropy never truly fleshes out of a state of rigid inflexible measures that stagnant the character’s mysterious backstory of surviving Santa’s bloody red-handed carnage and extend his development into an explanation of his long-awaited revenge obsession. Klock and Capozzi only bookend the film being in the same scene together, leaving much of the midsection, essentially the second act, for distressing females as hunting game for Santa’s slay. Coel Mahal and Kyra Kennedy, who have previously worked with Klock and Capozzi on previous projects, adequately fill in those rolls to an extent. Mahal’s masculine bity, water plant administrator acutely shifts into trope slasher-fodder of hapless articles of loosely bound prey. Things worsen with Kyra Kennedy’s rando abductee with an uncontrollably irritating sniveling in unprompted immediate danger as she sits in the passenger seat of a truck and just inconsolably cries, cries, and cries. Luckily, “Slayed” is a indie-reined in production that doesn’t swarm with halfhearted and ill-deserving characters as the film rounds out with minor roles casted to Delton Goodrum, Chuck Roberts, and Jennifer Meakin and Crystal Cameron as half-naked, strung up torture toys for a deranged Kris Kringle.

In a peeve already mentioned, “Slayed” rarely invokes as a Christmas chronicled horror film, striking lukewarm resemblances to that of “Silent Night, Deadly Night” or “Christmas Evil,” to which those films set a very low bar to emulated, unless you’re a trash-loving, so-bad-it’s-good, cult film enthusiastic, like yours truly, than its nothing but top shelf quality. However, the unexplained warm weather upholstery cripples “Slayed’s” genre-blend construct that’s been in august status of next level output over the last few years to dispel the happiest time of year into a certifiable time of fear in an apparent hostile seasonal takeover in a return of spite that Halloween shortens every year with Christmas nipping at the heels as soon as the first brown leaf hits the ground. If the shooting location is truly set in Arizona, winter months typically hover around a light jacket and shorts 60 degrees during the day and nippy 40 degrees at night, but the sweaty, wintery deficient clothing worn suggests a sweltering otherwise. Klock and Capozzi’s good faith effort into “Slayed’s” festive fare is in the garish Holiday decorations and ornamental lighting production design denotes the showy display of Christmas spirit, held in which season is not exactly clear. To speak more on the lighting, Emily Adam, another patron believer of Klock’s work, uses a restrained soft fuchsia lens tint, among other vivid primary colors, to elevate the seasonal veneer and Adam’s lighting is especially a favorable hallmark of the season with the use of the soft, but brilliant glow of Christmas string bulbs utilized to lash and tie up up naughty listers. Yet, up to scratch cinematography can’t fix what’s inherently broken with a story penned as a sequel structure that assumes the audiences’ knowledge of past events when, in fact, leaves viewers in blackout darkness with many questions: Why the Harris County water plant? Where did maniacal Santa go for five years? How did the water plant survivor make it out alive and is now determined to end not only maniacal Santa’s life but also his own? Why did maniacal Santa kidnap this random young lady from her house? What’s the significance of Christmas for maniacal Santa and why this period in time to return? I enjoy Christmas horror as much as the next genre votary but wrapping your head around “Slayed” topples any chance of actually enjoying the disgruntled, menacingly muttering “Ho Ho Ho” catch-phrasing, maniacal Santa terrorizing an unjolly skeleton crew on Christmas Eve night.

Ho Ho Horror! Santa delivers the gift of sufferable tidings and killjoys in the Terror Films distributed “Slayed” digitally only onto Prime Video. If you didn’t catch “Slayed” before Christmas when released on December 18th, then no worries! Quickly nosedive into your laptop or television set and catch Santa axing away on Prime Video today! An interesting tidbit about the crew of “Slayed” comes from the music department with composer Jojo Draven, former guitarists for a number of Las Vegas shows such as performance artists, the Blue Man Group, and Gothic street illusionist, Chris Angel. The Indonesian-American female rocker’s agreeable experimental-industrial sound comes across professionally astute toward the context with unbuckling tension baked right into the scene. There were no bonus material included with the screener nor where there bonus scenes during or after the credits. Instead of racing down the stairs, excited by the prospect of unwrapping that one main horror-inspired Christmas movie on Christmas Day, “Slayed” turns out to be a disappointing hefty lump of coal with a few diamond patches sparkling through the sedimentary rock and catching our eye in a rather humbug holiday horror falling short of that so-bad-its-good set bar.

Watch “Slayed” on Prime Video by clicking the poster!

Never Had An EVIL Friend Like Me! “Come Play” reviewed! (Focus Features / Digital Screener)

Elementary student Oliver has autism that impedes his speech, requiring near obsessive use of the phone and tablet to communicate with touchtone words as well as using the device for recreational binge watching of SpongeBob SquarePants to calm him when agitated.  Unable to make friends, Oliver’s loneliness causes him to sink deeper into his devices while his parents bicker amongst themselves on the endless topic of caring, treating, and assisting with Oliver’s needs, such as speech therapy and daily routine.  On another dimensional plane, looking inside-out of Oliver’s devices, is Larry, an equally lonely, misunderstood monster trying to break into Oliver’s world and take him away to be forever friends.  It’s up to his overprotective mother and insouciant father to stop Larry’s aggressively desperate out reach into Oliver’s world and pluck him forever from a life of being misunderstood. 

Forget the monsters lying in wait underneath the bed!  Forget the monsters lurking inside the dark closet!  The monster in your phone, capturing your attention span on a glossy-eyed level, should be the monster we all fear from Jacob Chase’s written and directed tech creature feature, “Come Play.”  “Come Play” introduces Jacob Chase into feature filmmaking after being involved wearing multiple hats in a series of short films, spanning over in the last decade and half, with his 5-minute long short film, “Larry,” plotted out as one third shift bored parking lot attendant who discovers an abandoned iPad inside the lost and found box located in his booth and releases a disfigured titular creature that lumbers toward him after reading through  “The Misunderstood Monster” children’s tale on the device, becoming the foundational work inspiring a 96 minute, fully fleshed out narrative with dangerous undercurrents of voyeurism and loneliness coinciding with an equally-hazardous theme in the detriments of being a helicopter parent, hindering the independent growth and maturity of youth. “Come Play” is a co-production of Amblin and Reliance Entertainment.

When they’re in a career hot zone, child actors flourish and grow inside a broad base of horror, being nurtured either from or by the creepy child sub-category or from or by being the unlikely hero that has the save the oblivious adults (just look at the kiddie cast of “Stranger Thingsfor example). Azhy Robertson falls into the latter as the epitome of innocence in playing Oliver, a young boy with autism unable to communicate clearly the monster stalking him from a stratum between two existences. “Marriage Story’s” Robertson continues to gleam versatilely as an actor who can use his imagination to not only react to a rendered behemoth creature but also submerse into the characteristics of autism and not oversell beyond what’s needed. Robertson also continues his girth toward a well-rounded career that now has a notch for horror under his broadening belt. Like many monster-plagued kid horror, the parents are always oblivious and dismissive to the situation and “Come Play” continues the trope with a pair of quarrelling parents in the midst of separation that undoubtedly adds to the extramundane energy fueling Larry’s need for Oliver. Gillian Jacobs (“Bad Milo”) and John Gallaghar Jr. (“Underwater”) butt heads sorely on one topic: Oliver. As their marriage dissolves through unspoken subtleties under the Oliver epicenter, that missed mightier connection could have been more powerful on how the split up affects the reactionary consequences of Oliver’s developmental disorder, an affect so tremendous that it componentizes Larry and his aggressive and brazen abduction tactics that are not so discreet. However there characters are perceived, Jacobs and Gallaghar modestly pack a punch in what has been laid to be the Azhy Robertson show of a vulnerable, yet smart, child versus a relentless and grotesque monster. Winslow Fegley, Jayden Marine, Gavin MacIver-Wright, and Eboni Booth round out the cast.

Jacob Chase has proven to be able to handle building breath-holding suspense and tension with the otherworldly plane Larry, a Slenderman-like in appearance and character inspired villain lumbering around not only in Oliver’s house, coursing through the electrical currents in his sub-plane world, but also by peering from out of closets, shying away in the darkest corners of the house, and looming around in a parking lot’s graveyard shift hours only to be perceptible through the phone and tablet camera lenses and, at times, manifesting a translucent presence that has force behind, the latter being an added side dish, transcending from Chase’s short film, to Larry’s predacious tech-manipulating arsenal when obstacles stand in the way of his BFF.  Even if “Come Play’s” superlative thrills ride on the heels of potent jump scares and unnerving silence with bated breathed, hiccups do arise in a more alleviated roller-coaster that shreds holes into the well-established terror instead of nurturing the tone.  Now while I understand the rating is PG-13 to secure a wider audience and, maybe, be a little lighthearted at times, an awkward diluted dread douses the credibility of the characters in strife with actions, such a scene include Oliver’s parents striking down upon his tablet with alternating hammer blows.  In what almost seems like a joke with an archaic technique that old-timey railroad workers use when nailing in track spikes or when carnies – one being a clown – hammer in spokes in unison to erect the big top, the scene is just out of focus in regards to the rest of the scope and there are other scenes like these sprinkled in throughout that raises character quandary concerns.  Why not just one parent whack away on the destruction of the dag’on device?  A handful of the reactionary actions to protect Oliver are glazed with an unreasonable, panic-stricken defense that begs the question whether they’re fit to actually be parents, which, if looking on the flipside of the argument, might also play into more of the unbeneficial family structure that originated the Larry intrusion.  Speaking of originating and the monster, Larry’s exact origins is obscured from the audiences as no plot points touch in depth upon Larry’s background and, you know what, that’s okay here; the more mysterious path is sometimes the best and, in “Come Play,” Larry’s inexplicable being as a child seducing abductor relates much more frighteningly and unfortunately in real world occurrences. 

Predators come in all shapes and sizes.  In this case, Larry’s atrocious presence, trying to obscure his real identity innately, symbolizes the very personalities of the real monstrous predators living among us, trolling online to prey on the vulnerable.  “Come Play” is an oxymoronic subtle hyperbole that serves as a cautionary warning for parents and children molded with pure monster in the closet entertainment in mind releasing theatrically on October 30, pushed from its original July release due to COVID-19, courtesy of Focus Features.  Serving as director to photographer is French cinematographer and serial shadow worker, Maxime Alexandre, who was worked with acclaimed horror director Alexandre Aja on “High Tension,” “P2,” and “Crawl.”  Alexandra manipulates the space, melding wide, full and closeups, to work the perceptions toward a post-production visual design in adding Larry into the frames and honing in on the lighting to just show enough of the space to make the allusion of Larry’s presence even more ominous. The back and forth of the underused practical Larry and the mostly CGI Larry sparsely have any difference between the final product outcome. The visual effects team of Mr. X saunter with what could have been a clear disaster of composite creature imagery with all the trademarks of synthetic splicing; instead, Larry matches well to the point of an indistinguishable challenge between what’s real and what’s not. The score by the “Don’t Breathe” and “Evil Dead” remake’s Roque Banos does the job to subversively infiltrate the security earmuffs to wring your cochlea to an inch of its life, but doesn’t resonate with you much more than the length of the film; however, Larry’s clicking and snapping of his appendageal joints and his guttural clatters emanate vicinity apprehension, as if the audiences can hear the dun dun hook as a tall tale sign of a circling shark in the water.  Sound design is half the fun in the film as the monster is more than half there when it’s on screen. No bonus material accompanied the release and there were no bonus scenes during or after the credits, but I’ve included Chase’s short, “Larry,” below for your own comparison and enjoyment!  “Come Play” boosts many unsavory themes between the parameters of technology and children underneath a mask of a faceless friend willing to frighten and fight anyone into submission to obtain complete, domineering companionship to end his chilling fairytale story.

Larry: Short Film