A Cop, a Paranormal Investigator, and a Priest Walk Into an EVIL Extermination Plan! “Belzebuth” reviewed!



The joy of a new baby is cut short for Detective Ritter who bares the tragedy of his little boy viciously killed in a massacre of nursey infants by a psychotic nurse before taking her own life.  Five years later, and losing not only his child but also his wife to severe depression, a disheveled Ritter is called in to investigate a mass murder involving a 12 year old boy slaughtering young children in a preschool classroom.  To him, the two events don’t spark similarities, but to a paranormal investigating Catholic priest, Ritter’s tragedy and the events in the classroom are linked by the unorthodox priest’s examination.  All the evidence points to an excommunicated Catholic priest practicing demonology that sends the two men down a path of unholy darkness in a series of murderous catastrophes influenced by the rebirth of the Messiah.

When the first scenes from “Belzebuth” open with a maternity ward nurse stabbing with vigorous force every single infant child in their crib with a scalpel, you know nothing wholesome is sacred and everyone is fair game in what is to be a grim story of infinite barbarity and darkness.  “Belzebuth” falls in the line of fire of Mexico City born writer-director Emilio Portes with an augmented, dark humored social commentary loaded with evil entities and grimace-laden gore.  The “Meet the Head of Juan Pérez” filmmaker cowrites “Belzebuth’s” irrational rational for the unfortunate real world trend of mass murders and touches upon, sensationally, the evolution of Catholicism extremities to battle evil in the world with first time feature length film screenwriter Luis Carlos Fuentes.   The Mexico/American film is produced by Rodrigo Herranz, Michelle Couttolenc, and Jaime Basksht, with Ana Hernandez as executive producer and Pastorela Peliculas in cooperation with patriotic promotion from the Instituto Mexicano de Cinematografia, aka IMCINE, serving as the production companies.

If you Google Mexican actors, the power of artificial intelligence and ignorant manual input couldn’t separate Mexico form any other Latin American country as the powerhouse search engine provided me results like Danny Trejo, John Leguizamo, Jennifer Lopez, Javier Bardem, and Penélope Cruz.  Now, while I respect each and every one of these performers who provide a variety of lush character and emotional erudition to each of their roles, not one of them is born in Mexico.  Some that listed do not even share the same heritage.  But do you know what the most astonishing, most outrageous, and most shameful aspect of my search was this?  The Tepic, Nayarit, Mexico born Joaquín Cosio was not among the top 50 results.  From captivating television with Guillermo del Toro small screen adaptation of vampiric apocalypse of “The Strain” and the intense drug-fueled drama of “Narcos: Mexico” to his Hollywood presence in the star-studded, James Gunn directed “Suicide Squad” to his humbler beginnings that includes Bond, James Bond, in “Quantum of Solace,” Cosio’s a strong and versatile candidate for intense thrillers and “Belzebuth” is right in the actor’s wheelhouse as a downhearted Detective Rigger with a short fuse.  As a supernatural skeptic, Ritter’s forced into confronting his past demons with the demons of the present by tracking down rogue priest Vasilio Canetti (Tobin Bell, “Saw” franchise) with the help of Father Ivan Franco (Tate Ellington, “Sinister 2”) of the Paranormal Forensic Department, which sounds kind of silly because Franco’s squad is an extension of the Church.  Bell brings his delightful deadpan bedside manner as the excommunicated priest in guerilla warfare with a determined, demonic evil trying to massacre as many children as possible to find the reincarnated Messiah in what would be the Third Coming as the Second had come and failed during the Crusades.  Bell is the yin to Cosio’s yang until circumstances rear-end last ditch efforts and all Hell breaks loose in a drug smugglers’ tunnel.  Aida López, José Sefami, Yunuen Pardo, and Liam Villa round out the cast.

If possession-fueled carnage and the antiheroic archetype weaponizing demonology for good tickles all the right places, “Belzebuth” can be the feather tickler of dreams.  Fans of Clive Barker’s “Lord of Illusions,” Peter Hyams’ “End of Days,” and the graphic novel “Constantine” can indulge into Portes’ explicit nihilism and lack of public conviction in religion in the director’s allegoric telling of something really big and really satanical happening right under people’s noses while a small motely crew of conversant peons try to stop a wall of Deviltry.  Portes also consistently touches upon Mexico’s unsystematic corruption, even among Ritter and other protect and serve officers, and the once firm-handed political system of the Institute Revolutionary Party (PRI) as potential cause for all the suffering enacted demon-rooted abscessations.  The mentioning of drug cartels pop up frequently, too, symbolizing the seemingly random acts of violence are just never just random acts, but an perpetrated hit on a human target much like the cartels’ unsavory methods to either take out competition, eliminate obstacles, or to silence whistleblowers.  Portes does a phenomenal job using his film as an allegory in making a political statement but lacks balance in favoring gore over profile with some characters who rather feel written in just for the sake of a broader English audience.  Father Ivan Franco is such character with interesting combinational vocations as a paranormal investigator and a holy man of the cloth.  Yet Franco, who wields a gun and has supercool video and audio recording specs, spearheads a larger suborganization shielded away from the public eye and, unfortunately, the viewer eye that never feels like a cog in the entire “Belzebuth” machine.  Franco and his team of spook-sleuths, who, by the way, vanish completely from his side early into the investigation, supposedly follow and investigate peculiar tragedies connected to misaligned presences leaving spiritual residue on the real world plane, but how his team comes about connecting the dots exclusively to just the first two tragedies, five years separated, is a bit of stretch and a letdown in fabricated continuity and weight behind Franco’s existence to be involved.  Pockets of plot holes pop up here and there on other facets but generally speaking, “Belzebuth” works black magically as a spiritually and culturally vivisecting detective thriller.

The Shudder original 2017 release, “Belzebuth,” scares up onto an UK Blu-ray release from Acorn Media International. The region 2, PAL encoded, single layer BD25 presents the film in a widescreen, 2.35:1 aspect ratio, with a runtime of 109 minutes.  Ramon Orozco’s cinematography flashes with a gorgeous red and blue color palate that fits the iniquitous tone and adds an ethereal, hazy backlighting to only enhance the tone to more sinister levels.  Acorn’s Blu-ray sharpens Orozco’s already byzantine schemes that enriches the details in the skin as well as a the sacred relic artifact-cladded locations that become claustrophobic and entombing.  Even Juan Martínez Espín visual special effects casts a solid effort of barely a smooth surface computer generated phoniness, especially in one crucifying scene of psychological torment.  You’ll know it when you see it.  “Belzebuth’s” powerful Dolby Surround 7.1 audio track is an assault on the eardrums of the best kind with a husky, industrial melodic soundtrack and hefty sound design with accompanying diverse range and proper depth that could be described as literally placing every creak, stab, and cackling laugh sound right into the darkest corners of your ears.    An unfortunate surprise about the Acorn release is that there are no special features aside from the animated menu that is essentially chaotic “Belzebuth’s” trailer plastered with menu options.  Possession films tend to stale at a dime of dozen, but Emilio Portes’s freshly terrifying “Belzebuth” entertains and scares to the very last morsel.

EVIL Is Everywhere. Even in Idyllic Alaska. “No Way Out” reviewed! (Baird Media & London Levine Pictures / Digital Screener)

3
A wilderness camping trip in the rural terrain of an Alaskan landscape becomes the serene backdrop for a pair of couples on a romantic getaway. With their backpacks in tow and a sense of adventure in hand, one of aspirations amongst the peaceful setting would be to create an ideal engagement spot for a happily affectionate couple while the other couple taps the trip as a therapeutic escape to rekindle or salvage a flailing relationship. Deeper and deeper they trek into the woods that begins to feel engulfing with a sense of lurking, ominous eyes voyeuristically peering at them from afar and as gunfire rings out in the distance and camping gear winds up missing, spine-tingling fear starts to set in for the couples eager to leave quickly as they came, but those in the woods, those menacing figures that have been keeping distance, are now toying with the campers’ very lives.
5
Impelled into a throng of horror films set with backpackers becoming lost on a camping trip with a mysterious figure in the midst, “No Way Out” struggles to find a distinct voice from writer and star Chris Levine and introducing Joe Hamilton in his very first feature length directorial. Following his 2017 “Anabolic Life,” a crime-injected thriller circled around bodybuilding, co-written alongside Cameron Barsanti and Landon Williams, Levine steps solo into the horror ring, penning a camping-gone-wrong 2020 released thriller that displays themes of secrecy, family, and the mentally unstable futile pursuit of happiness compounded by half-frozen isolation off of sideroad Alaska and a tactical gas mask wearing loom creeping through the thicket. “No Way Out” is an independent funded production by the Alaskan based companies, Baird Media (Charles A. Baird) and RocketJoe Films, which I believe “No Way Out” used the latter company’s monolithic humanoid props from a defunct film entitled “Seven Bones,” and in association with services provided by Levine’s own co-founded London Levine Pictures company.
2
The small cast is centrically focus around the four campers for approx. 98% of the film, only briefly swerving away from the core characters to interject some meaningless exchanges between backpackers and to also setup a lying-in-wait antagonist to build up prelude suspense. Leading the foursome is Chris Levine as a multi-hat contributor along with his written and co-produced thriller by playing Blake, a hands off, anti-woods boyfriend being dragged against his will to go camping in order to recoup his girlfriend’s goodwill in their sinking relationship. “Apocalypse Rising” and “President Evil’s” Johanna Rae is Blake’s contentious other half as girlfriend Jessica. The dynamics between Levine and Rae couldn’t push the turbulent couple’s interpersonal problematic parameters beyond the scope of vomiting their frustrations to the same sex individual of their camping buddies on the trip with only one minor other instance of a short-lived spat in an attempt pull in some kind of concerning emotion for either Blake or Jessica, but the scene falls flat and so does that thick air tension that repels any kind of bridging of the gap forcing Blake and Jessica to seem not like a couple with progressing relationship issues, but rather argumentative friends with benefits. On the other side of spectrum, Norah (Jennifer Karraz) and Kyle (Christopher McGahan of “Virus of the Dead”), portray parallel mirror opposites of a happy-go-lucky couple on the brink of engagement and parenthood and while the couple should be gleaming with affection, Norah and Kyle barely speak a couple of sentences to each other, marking their character profoundly shapeless and plain among the limited roles to root for survival.
1
Aside from not being able to relate to the characters, who more or less meander about asking each other what they should do or not do next, “No Way Out” can’t find a way out of the nonsensical design to shepherd audiences into the throes of character plight and make the hairpin turn toward revealing the abhorrent culprit of their situational terror. The story seems stuck in a rut in garnering not enough background or tidbits of intricacies to formulate a clear answer to the subtle hints being conveyed along the way about what’s unfolding before our eyes. Luckily, our brains start to take over, filling the gaps where needed, and coming to a haphazard conclusion that through the characters wavering suspense of the unknown encased around them, not everything is what it seems and that aspect really comes early on in the film, whittling down the complexity of the story to a low-effort thriller that can be solved by the time the four campers reach their terminus by car and have to hoof it aimlessly rest of the way. Unfocused editing of a fragmented story and misused ambience, such as the prolonged whooshing of highway cars when characters are supposed to be deep in the woods, added to the viewing friction. I liked the headspace of the story concept for “No Way Out,” where a shadowy, uncouth stalker sets a target on unsuspecting camping folk accessorized with a shrouded plot twist, but, ultimately, the execution flopped as a pitched tent overwrought thriller set in the icy, backwoods topography of Alaska.
4
From filmmakers Chris Levine and Joe Hamilton comes a brand a new backpacker thriller, “No Way Out,” premiering the last weekend of August in Alaska and then hitting VOD platforms in the next couple weeks, including Prime Video, Google Play, Pluto, Tubi, and more. Since “No Way Out” is a new, completed feature film and a digital screener was provided for review coverage, the typical A/V evaluation will not be done, but the debut of cinematographer De Gosh Reed’s hybrid found footage and observational shot style captures a pair of perspectives of not only an outsider, but also as the characters to join in as a terrified participant. Aforesaid, the English language audio mix is a bit wonky with some ambient missteps. The dialogue also comes and goes in an undiscernible pinpoint of depth that, at times, is trounced by the steadily vivacious soundtrack. The film felt very technically raw and unfinished, but, again, this is a digital screener of an unreleased film on the brink of debuting and maybe altered or adjusted for the premier/VOD. There were no special features included with the screener nor were there any bonus scenes during or after the credits. Though not my cup of flavored untamed tension tea, “No Way Out” has the bones to be a straight forward VOD thriller outlier despite being misshaped and disjointed around the particular edges.