A Stop-Motion EVILscape of Totalitarian Hell! “Mad God” reviewed! (Acorn Media International / Blu-ray)

Descending from above into the depths of grotesque terror and suffering, The Assassin steps out of the drop pod with a gas mask, industrial armor, a suitcase, and a crumbling map.  Bearing witness to the surrounding horrors – cruel experimentations, enslaved beasts, tortured manufactured slave laborers, dog-eat-dog atrocities – The Assassin sallies forth, descending deeper into the primordial pit.  The missioned at hand is to set an explosive charge that will eradicate out the ruinous, oppressive filth that aims to corrupt the everything, but there the darkness won’t be so easily wiped away and The Assassin must stay in the shadows and out of sight or else become a tortured fixture in the fray. 

“Mad God?”  More like mad genius!  Phil Tippett’s 34-year, stop-motion, pet-project “Mad God” is the purest Hell I’ve ever seen.  Tippet, famed stop-motion and puppeteer effects artist responsible for the iconic visual effects and stop motion work in fan films such as the original “Star Wars” saga and the “Robocop” franchise as well as cult favorites “Howard the Duck,” “Piranha” and “House II:  The Second Story,” started “Mad God” in 1987 that become more of an ambitious project than originally thought and once the 1993 saw a computer generated effects revolution with a little prehistoric dino-disaster film called “Jurassic Park”, a film Tippett also did work on as dinosaur movement consulting supervisor because of his expertise on the short “Prehistoric Beasts,” the gifted animator had shelved “Mad God” for about 20 years with the though a newer, shiner, computer-driven animation would be the next best thing studios would ardently desire. This two-decade span gave Tippett time to outline objectives and really expand upon ideas of how “Mad God” should look and feel when conveyed. Tippett co-produces the film with Jack Morrissey under Tippett Studios and presented by IFC Midnight and AMC’s Shudder.

Just because “Mad God” is dialogue-less doesn’t make the “Mad God” voiceless. All around, in every scene, is a disturbing commentary or an unhinged metaphor bred mostly out of the animatable inanimate, but there are some live action performances weaved into the mad tapestry of monstrous titans and despot of cruelty. The most clearly discernible face of the lot comes from a director, “Repo Man” and “Sid and Nancy” director Alex Cox to be more exact. Cox plays the long nailed and regime-driven “Last Man,” representing divine leadership of a modest, dieselpunk heaven above a more organic and grotesque hell-type world. Only on screen for perhaps a total of 5-to-10 minutes, Cox grunts and gestures with precision articulation to give off a fair and just ruler impression. Niketa Roman plays the next real person to have some substantial screen time. Less of an actress and more of an animator by trade, with credits including “Blade II,” “Jurassic World,” and “Star Wars: Episode IX – The Rise of Skywalker,” Roman finds an expressive talent in her striking, heavily made-up eyes overtop a surgical mask and gown when whisking away one of the Assassin’s souls to be studied and experimented on by a broodingly ethereal entity. Other micro-performances include minor roles of tortured monkeys, various iron-cladded Assassins, witches, and gnomes from Satish Ratakonda, Harper Gibbons, Arnie Hain, David Laur, Chris Morley, Anthony Ruivivar, Tucker Gibbons, Tom Gibbons, Hans Brekke, and Jake Freytag.

“Mad God’s” possibilities and interpretations are endless. Phil Tippett pulls from a motley of inspiration that includes, but is not limited to the fantastical, sometimes hellish, paintings of Hieronymus Bosch, the wacky, often gonzo animation of Tex Avery, the stop-motion titans of Nathan Juran’s “The 7 Voyages of Sinbad, and Dante’s Inferno. The mind is a deranged and wonderful creator of the macabre and of the aberrant and as a receiving device, the mind can also, if opened up enough, accept such visceral visuals of bowel fluids being jettisoned out by electric shock and into the mouth of an organic machine that manufactures fibrous, lumbering humanoids for slave labor. Like lemmings in a way, these exploited shadows of human beings will succumb under their own demise or at the gnarled and unforgiving hands of their master’s gargoyleish work-whippers. “Mad God’s” eye for detail is greatly disturbing to see cities in monolithic cities and cultures in ruins, the composite depth between foreground and background action in one scene reminds me a lot of older works like “The Neverending Story” or “Clash of the Titans” that create a vast scale with smaller objects, and the playful irony of a nightmare netherworld being commanded over by a baby’s babble doesn’t nearly seem to a stretch from the truth. As the multiple Assassins trek through the chaos and the insanity, an overwhelming sense of life is meaningless scores the landscape as there isn’t an ounce of compassion or empathy to be had or displayed for any of the malformed creatures and wretched humans. A laborer is crushed by a stone – no biggie. A cute and cuddle animal is attacked and whisked away for food storage – all in the day of cruelty. A man is stripped of his armored gear, injected with a mysterious substance, and prepped for exploratory surgery – all for show in front of a live clapping and cheering audience. The only compassion I can make sense is the Assassin’s mission to blow up this God-forsaken world of eternal suffering to restart the heart. Madness grinds bones, fillets spirits, and crushes souls in Phil Tippet’s Godless underworld and can haunt you even while you’re awake.

A surreal stop-motion wonder and excruciation, “Mad God” brings all the horrors of the subconscious mind to the surface with a high-definition, 1080p Blu-ray. The region 2, PAL encoded release from UK distributor Acorn Media International presents Tippet’s tour de force in a widescreen 1.78:1 aspect ratio and the image is purposefully varied to exhibit different strokes of craft as students would assist Tippet with contrastive topographies to carve out an apocalypse-riddled world that’s in a state of a violet retrogression. Tippet and Tippet Studio visual effects artist, Chris Morley, pivot to “Mad God’s” cinematography appearance with brooding, darker tones that illuminate and are erratically sparked with warm neon glows or brilliant voltage streaming through highly conductive bodies. Some earlier scenes from the late 80’s have natural grain from the 35mm stock and then later, more recent scenes have a cleaner, sleeker look with the digital recording. The Dolby Digital 5.1 surround sound mix has an all-embracing range, mostly with sudden and alarming blazons of guttural roars, unnerving baby babble, elongated zaps and shocks, and the indistinct yips and yaps of a mad world, that sustains on a line of being lesser than crisp, which might be contributed to the inexact capture of depth as sometimes all sounds casts like from inside the reverberations of a fishbowl. Descriptive SDH subtitles are available. Bonus features include audio commentary with Phil Tippett and “Pan’s Labyrinth’s” Guillermo del Toro, cast & crew commentary, an interview with Phil Tippett, “Mad God’s” various painter, cartoonist, animator, and psychology inspirations, the making-of “Mad God,” Maya Tippett’s Worse than the Demon – Phil Tippet’s daughter’s 12-minute thesis documentary of her father’s 34-year passion project journey, Academy of Art & “Mad God,” a behind-the-scenes montage, and a behind-the-scenes photo gallery. “Mad God” has a runtime of 84 minutes and is UK certified 18 for strong violence and gore. A motion picture diorama of Phil Tippett’s neoteric psyche, “Mad God” is wrath wrapped in heart and soul, two descriptors not topmost on the surface but are meticulously integrated into every frame of pain, suffering, and despair.

When the Heart Loses is When EVIL Invades the Head! “The Twin” reviewed! (Acorn Media International / Blu-ray)

After the tragic car accident that claims the life of their son Nathan, grieving Rachel and Anthony move from New York City to a sublime region of Finland, a place where Anthony’s lineage lies and where he spent time as a child. Nathan’s twin brother, Elliot, is frequently overprotected by his mother after the loss. When Elliot begins to exhibit troubling signs in his behavior that links to his deceased twin brother, Rachel grasps out for explanations, looking for a rational and irrational answer that could contribute to such erraticism in her son. One possibility, paved by a local outsider with her own personal demons, is the Finnish community is beholden to a supreme darkness that seeks to possess the child from the beyond. With nowhere to turn for help, Rachel relies of her motherly instinct to protect her child at all costs and from all malice from all forms. but what the evil that plagues Rachel and Elliot might be closer to her than she realizes.

Identical twins are already at about a 10 on the creep factor scale. Margot Kidder in the dual psychotic role of Brian De Palma’s “Sisters”, the unnerving Jeremy Iron performance of manipulation and cruelty in David Cronenberg’s “Dead Ringer,” and even those Grady twin sisters from Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining” are an eerie extract overlooking the fact that two people can look so exactly alike. The biological phenomena goes against what proclaims us to be human in the first place – our individuality – and to be regularly utilized as a factor of the strange and unusual in a horror film just fills the cup up with a whole bunch of, and I quote Jordan Peele, nope! Finnish writer-director Taneli Mustonen is the next filmmaker to implement the oddity of identical siblings in his latest horror-thriller entitled simply “The Twin.” Co-written with Aleksi Hyvärinen, “The Twin” is the sophomore horror feature behind 2016’s “Lake Bodom” to emerge from the writers who have found cadence writing, producing, and directing comedies. Spun from Mustonen and Hyvärinen’s production company, Don Films, Don as in the title of respect, along with collegial line producer Mika Pajunen. Responsible for funding “The Twin” are returning “Lake Bodom” executive producers Fabian Westerhoff, Joris van Wijk, and Toni Valla with Shudder’s Emily Gotto acquiring distribution rights with financial backing.

Like most films about twins, the 2022 released twists and turns of a back-and-forth intrapersonal thriller uses one person to Eddie Murphy the roles. That person in “The Twin” is the pintsized Tristan Ruggeri who made his television debut as young Geralt in the hit Netflix book-adapted dark fantasy series “The Witcher.” Unlike most films about twins, Ruggeri really only has to play one but teeter the personality of the other in a symbolic showing of painful sorrow manifested to sorely miss what’s essentially your exact self. Imagine you’re a twin of a deceased sibling and you look at yourself and see your brother or sister. Rugger’s able to capture that emotional payload at such a young age despite being rigid as many child actors typically unfold early in career. Much of the story is seen through the eyes of Rachel, a distraught mother coping with the tragic loss, and the audience experience darkening, supernatural plot that’s unravelling a Satanist cult’s clandestine desires to bedevil her now only son Elliot.  “Warm Bodies” and “Lights Out” star Teresa Palmer plays the now the mature and safeguarding motherly role in the grand horror scheme alongside fellow “Discovery of Witches” costar Steven Cree (“Terminator:  Dark Fate’) playing her novelist husband, Anthony. For “The Twin” to actually work for the viewer to understand on a sympathetic level, you need to feel the love between them and finding love between Palmer and Cree is about as loveless as a platonic relationship. Aside from sharing a bed and a child, the romance and amorous has been removed from play, but that of frigid factor could have very well been intentional for the story. The principal casting concludes with Barbara Marten (“The Turning”) and the town eccentric, a foreigner who Rachel relates to and latches on to when the crisis with Elliot worsens.

“The Twin” is small principal cast with big background actors that menacingly swallow nonconformers alien in nature to their surroundings. Foggy atmospherics, looming, creaky wooden house, and the dissociative difficulties that put Rachet through a tizzy compound the fear and the affliction of anxiety that turns everything close to you against you in a heap of isolation. All the dead silence and surreal nightmares build tension effectively, keeping the audience on the edge for that peak moment. Mustonen and Hyvärinen throw in a capacious curveball that lets characters wander and explore then develop and action against before pulling the rug from under our one-directional firm footing for a twist. That twist, however, is a play fake we’ve seen before in recent years with the armor of horror shielding the true trepidation. When the peeling begins and the revealing shows us more complicated layers beneath the rotten onion, the once randomized vectors formulate a picture and within the systematic process of slowly uncoiling initial perceptions and believed facts, the story takes on a whole new meaning and, sometimes, even begs the question if what we just watched is still a horror picture after all? “The Twin” very much fits into this goose chase genre but fits like a size two times too small. The path Rachel follows is a yellow brick road to Oz. Oz being the satanic cult is scheming kid-snatch in place of the Beast more vigorous. Mounds upon mounds of hearsay, circumstantial evidence, and even a factoid or two lead the film by the nose to an unwittingly demise of its importance to the story as a whole once all the cards are laid out before us. “The Twin” then goes into heavy exposition to try and explain much of what Rachel experiences and it really felt like a bunch of hot air, a passive attempt to briefly summarize the last 109 minutes without really telling us much about anything. There’s still lots of questions concerning Anthony’s wealth, background, and mental fortitude. Questions also arise about the story’s hook that suddenly drives the characters to make radical changes in a blink of an opening montage eye. “The Twin” has shuddering moments of stillness suspense and a disorienting subcurrent that severs safety at every turn but flirts with unoriginality too much for exhilaration in an all-been-done-before dogleg…with twins.

Acorn Media continues to be the leading UK home video rights distributor for exclusive Shudder releases as “The Twin” makes it’s Blu-ray debut in the region. The PAL encoded region 2 Blu-ray is presented in 1080p high definition with a 2.40:1 aspect ratio. Retaining mostly in gray and blue hue to convey melancholia to the fullest extent possible, the picture quality doesn’t retain a terrific amount of detail. Textures are often softer during gel-night scenes with no well-defined lines and when compared to day-lit scenes, the details are starkly steelier. The English language Dolby Digital 5.1 surround sound caters to a sound design that can differentiate between the bumps in the night as well as the stock-still silence that strikes at the nerves. Dialogue amplitude is on the softer side but very clean and very clear to comprehend. English subtitles have optional availability. Special features include a making-of featurette with cast interviews spliced in. The standard Acorn physical releases for Shudder remain the same for “The Twin” with a common blue case snapper with one-way cover art of uninspired creation. The film is certified 15 for strong horror, threat, bloody images, and violence. As far as doppelgänger bearing horror, “The Twin” is nowhere near identical to others but as for its fraternal individuality, there’s little unique about the Taneli Mustonen picture involving paranoia and primal maternal instinct.

All You Will See is EVIL if Blinded by Grief. “They Live in the Grey” reviewed! (Acorn Media / DVD)

Not the Blue, Not the Red, but the Grey!  “They Live in the Grey” on DVD!

CPS investigator, Claire Yang, struggles to cope with the untimely loss of her young son.  The tragedy forces her to push away her husband and have suicidal thoughts.  What’s also driving Claire further from the edge of sanity is her ability to see glimpses unhinged, and sometimes physically harmful, spirits.  When a child-protective case comes across her desk to look into the possible abuse of a young girl, Claire learns quickly that it might not be girl’s parents abusing her.  Tormented by an angry supernatural entity, Claire walks careful and hesitant thin line of keeping the girl with her family and attempt to prove that the parents are not responsible for the bruises and cuts, but when upper management pressures her to close the case at the school’s behest and a variety of ghastly come and go across her path, the churning burn of hurt and guilt grows inside her as she confronts her personal demons while trying to do the right thing for the abused girl in the middle of it all. 

“The Sixth Sense” meets “The Conjuring” in The Vang Brothers’ 2022 supernatural thriller, “They Live in the Dark.”  As the sophomore written-and-directed project for the Fresno, California raised Abel and Burlee Vang, following up on their 2016 release of the moderately successful supernatural and social media mashup debut, “Bedeviled,” continuing to venture off their solo work and into a collaborating unit, “They Live in the Dark” tackles various topical concepts and troubles with overwhelming grief and how it manifests negatively on an individual and family level.  Previously once titled as “The Uncanny,” the story is set in nowheresville, U.S.A., the brothers really set the tone that this story, or more realistically its themes and messages, are broad and non-exclusive and we also see that in the cast for the film, a segment that we’ll dive into further in the next paragraph.  The Shudder exclusive film, “They Live in the Grey,” is a production from Standoff Pictures in association with Whiskey Stream Productions with the Vang Brothers producing alongside former filmmaker-turned-film academic-turned-filmmaker Stephen Stanley.

Coming from Hmong ancestry, The Vang Brothers found personal importance to cast mostly Asian-Americans for the film.  Taiwan born Michelle Krusiec (“The Invitation,” “The Bone Box”) plays the lead and is the very first character we meet in an awkward and frightful position as a woman attempting suicide by hanging herself near the home staircase.  Immediately, we don’t know what we’re exactly in for, but we know when we’re introduced to the threadbare Clair, she has a major depressive factor that beleaguers her existence to the point of removing it from the equation all together.  The Vang Brothers thoughtfully shroud details into exactly what’s devouring Claire from the inside out and keep close to the chest in securing that ace of revelation in the back pocket until the time is just right in the story to unveil the dealt bad hand.  As the details trickle and we learn more about Claire’s disintegrating family life, we also learn of her ability to see lost spirits and how she handles those more than often visceral visions is dose up on medication that ultimately factors into her current state of mind.  Though I wouldn’t say the performance pops offscreen, but Krusiec does cruise through the role with meticulous character conditioning and the actress can tremble and look scared with the best in the business, anchoring Claire as the rooted principal and establishing a tone that works with the casted cohort.  Ken Kirby, who plays Clair’s estranged beat cop officer husband Peter, goes outside the usual comedy element for the Vancouver-born actor-comedian, walking the emotional pathway of a husband on the ousts by no fault of his own.  The heartbreaking tension that’s both expressed outward and internalized between the teetering from loss parents, husband and wife, fills the scenes with raw and relatable emotion and barrier-laden endeavor to fix what is thought hopeless. As Claire becomes closer to the case of Sophie Lang (Madelyn Grace, “Don’t Breathe 2”), nothing is as it seems from a family already on shaky ground with not only the school system’s case of suspected abuse, but also inwardly as past troubles fester toward a frenzy. Ellen Wroe (“Final Destination 5”), J.R. Garcia, Willie S. Hosea, and Mercedes Manning fill out the cast.

The Vang Brothers accomplish phenomenal representation in a female leading role with the talented Michelle Krusiec. Reaching back into my mind to access the cache of catalogued films I’ve watched over the decades, I find myself in extreme difficulty in recalling an American made story where an Asian woman female lead is not a martial arts expert. The Vang Brothers with “They Live in the Grey” expand the palette with a supernatural scenario that could curse not just the single white female rearing and protecting their child from a plethora of supernatural predators, but also afflict a person of color who has already suffered tremendously and who has to still have to find and work on themselves in the muck of overcoming a millstone. Instead of a double whammy, “They Live in the Grey” is a triple whammy of pitfalls that rival similar grief-stricken genre films like “The Babadook” and “The Orphanage.” “The Vang Brothers elicit a stillness in their shooting of an extremely melancholic yarn by not being too fancy with their camera footwork that doesn’t track or follow, no hand-held or drone, and is allowed to have a more natural tone with an unfiltered gravitate toward the austere and the tormented. Though nothing too striking to make a spectacle from Jimmy Jung Lu’s cinematography but each shot is carefully setup and the slow zoom in and out is effective enough in breath-holding moments. Early into the story, the first can be choppy and disorganized with the back and forth of present and past and though heavily focus or strict on the narrative’s virgin veneer, there’s distinguishable indication to the audience that we’re looking into the present viewfinder or the past’s. As a whole, the scenes blend together in a seamless patchwork that hinders more than helps.

“They Live in the Grey” extends that lack of light and vitality for the living and the dead. Now, you yourself can experience the saturnine of atmosphere of the film that lives on DVD from Acorn Media International. The region 2, PAL encoded, 124-minute DVD comes from our overseas friends in the United Kingdom with an 18 certification for strong injury detail – aka – stabbing and blood. Presented in a 2.39:1 widescreen aspect ratio, the 2-hour runtime coupled with a compressed presentation appears to have shepherd in some compression issues, such as banding and fuzzy details. The picture is not the sharpest it should be with old wooden house’s textures could have added texture to the nerve-wracking tension builds. The English Dolby Digital 5.1 track represents a solid audio inlay with clear dialogue and a diverse depth and range. The musical soundtrack is subtle but works hand-in-hand with the story. Optional English subtitles are available. Bonus features include only a behind-the-scenes photo gallery. When it comes down to brass tacks, a strong story is a good story and “They Live in the Grey” may miss a few technical marks, but the horrid truth of grief is personal, potent, and packed full of demons.

Not the Blue, Not the Red, but the Grey!  “They Live in the Grey” on DVD!

EVIL Secluded is When EVIL is Most Dangerous. “Hellbender” reviewed! (Acorn International Media / DVD)

Izzy is sheltered from the outside world, living isolated with her mother in the Catskill mountains.  Izzy’s been told all her life that at a young age, she was diagnosed with an autoimmune disease that warrants her from staying away from people.  When a lost hiker stumbles upon Izzy, his friendliness and niceties inform her of his niece who lives nearby and is around the same age as Izzy.  the lonely teen, who spends most of her time rocking out with her mother in a two-person band, curiously ventures away from the safety of her home and meets the niece, Amber, a freethinker and free-spirit very opposite in comparison to Izzy’s protected life.  The interaction ignites a hidden family secret form within Izzy that ties her family lineage to witchcraft, revealing the true intentions of her mother’s overprotecting behavior and an unleashing growing pains of power coursing through Izzy’s thirst for independence. 

No cackling.  No broom.  No familiar black cat.  No pointy black hat.  “Hellbender” isn’t your typical witch and witchcraft reel of dark magic spells.  The family owned and operated, produced and crafted, feature film, released in 2021 and hailing straight from upper New York State’s Catskill mountains, is indie folk horror of coiled family complications in the coming-of-age aspect of a daughter finding herself outside the confines of mother’s safety net as well as the adverse effects on a child because helicopter parenting. “Hellbender” is a family affair as the writers and directors of the film are a nuclear family consisting of father – John Adams, mother – Toby Poser, and their daughter – Zelda Adams. The Adams family, as they like to punningly like to credit themselves, have collaborated, along with their oldest daughter, Lulu Adams, together since 2010 and released their first film, a drama feature from 2014 that was written and directed by John Adams and Toby Poser, known as “Rumblestrips” of essentially mother and daughters playing themselves going on one last RV trip before cannabis cultivating mom’s incarceration. Since then, the unstoppable family unit have been perfecting their craft on the indie circuit with short films, such as with the “Kid Kalifornia” shorts, and such as with their previous horror film, “The Deeper You Dig,” which became Zelda’s debut directorial. As their 6th feature film, “Hellbender” is clearly self-produced by the troupe, specifically Toby Poser who must control the family purse strings, and is a production of their own company, Wonder Wheel Productions.

Being right on the heels of watching “While We Sleep,” an Ukranian-U.S. demon-possession collaboration with an actual family playing a fictional one on screen, “Hellbender” doesn’t feel so terribly unique with its layered, dual roleplaying, but the performances in “Hellbender” are far superior with a richer, robust dynamic and better character progression that leads to terrifying results. Up in the principal forefront playing mother and daughter are mother and daughter, Toby Poser and Zelda Adams, who have made a sustainable and simple life for themselves on the mountainside.  Passing time by forming their own lo-fi garage punk band (tracks recorded and used from their actual band of the same title but with 6s replacing the Es – H6LLB6ND6R), Mother and Izzy entirely live off the land, avoiding strangers, and substituting meat for twigs and berries.  Poser and Adams deliver a real sense of kinship between a caring and shielding mother and a daughter naïve to the rest of the world in an allegorical sense of parents defending their children from the spoils of a loose culture.  Inevitably, an outsider opens the door that now can never be closed and one of two of those outsiders is played by father John Adams as lost hiker.  Subsequently, his presence spurs Izzy to another outsider which is played by Zelda’s sister Lulu Adams as the residential mountain neighbor and individualist Amber.  Zelda admires Amber’s cavalier gamut that includes accepting Zelda into her friendship circle without condition.  The feeling profoundly impacts and alters Zelda’s way of life, way of thinking, and grows the seedling of sorcery inside her.  Watch Zelda flow through Izzy’s blossoming arc is subtle, ambiguous, and slightly volatile – a frightening combination to the best degree.  “Hellbender” rounds out the cast with Rinzin Thonden, painter/model Khenzom Alling, Rob Figueroa, Shawn Wilson, Tess McKeegan, and adding one more Adams to the cast with John Adams Sr. in a cameo role.

It’s been established that “Hellbender” is classic without being conventional but does that necessarily make the film worth watching.  The answer is resounding yes.  “Hellbender” has a spartan wit of etching out enough character-driven resolve balanced with soft-pedaled special effects around the spellcasters’ craft that’s intertwined more with nature. Their special blood mixed with twigs, berries, or leaves are the special recipe for conjuring charms and incantations and while the mother’s intent is to keep on a low profile and away from people, the teen daughter who was held back from who she really is, held back from her own life even, has been rewired as the monster with a spasmodic surliness seen through her deceivingly wide smile and chipper attitude. The love and psychopathy are a symbolic combination of a stereotypical tumultuous mother and daughter relationship stemmed from being two peas in a pod. The darkness within them yearns to be free and much like a teenage girl eager to spread her wings, Izzy tastes the power of individuality on her lips and develops an incognito ruse in learning more about her powers, her family history, and all her mothers’ secrets to be what all parents fear – to be replaced by their children. “Hellbender” has an immense sense of seeing our own mortality right before our eyes with the very presence of our children and as the idiom goes that knowledge is power, Izzy plans to learn the whole ins and outs of her true self. “Hellbender” never lets up and never doubts the story with implementing a charade within a charade to keep audiences on their toes up to the fiery finale point of no return after opening Pandora’s box.

The Yellow Viel Films distributed “Hellbender” is a witches’ brew unlike anything ever concocted in the genre and the Shudder Original film has a new UK DVD release from Acorn Media International. The region 2, PAL encoded, DVD is presented in a widescreen 1.85:1 aspect ratio, has a runtime of 83 minutes, and has a certified 15 rating for very strong language, strong bloody images, violence and threat. Running at a higher level DVD9 bitrate of 8-9 Mbps, the image presentation is phenomenal for the format with no compression issues and the visual details are seamless. Catskill mountains invoke a tactile dampness throughout, and the foliage enlivens with a primary green with good contrasts against the darker brown and forestry emerald shades. The English language Dolby Digital 5.1 surround sound also has little to complain about with a maxed-out output of 192kbps that provides an unsullied soundtrack to H6LLB6ND6R’s discography. Dialogue renders perfectly as well. The only flaw is with the ambient overlays that distinctly felt exaggerated to a fault. Even when Izzy is walking through the forest, the Foley had an extra 200% crunch underneath her feet being one among the examples. Bons features included a visual FX breakdown by FX artist Trey Linsdsay that goes over layer-by-layer the visual heavy effect scenes to see how they were created, a handful of blooper scenes, behind-the-scenes footage of the Adams family shooting scenes and testing lynched dummies, H6LLB6ND6R band music videos, travelling with Wonder Wheel productions, and a short, very short, slice of film of Zelda Adam’s alter ego, Eville Adams in an odd artificial scope. Unflinching folkloric horror with a pinch of overparenting gone awry, “Hellbender” is hell-spawn defiant and a perfect, LoFi witch film that isn’t a witch film.

A 10-Year-Old Girl Pieces Together an EVIL Tragedy. “Martyrs Lane” reviewed! (DVD / Acorn Media International)

Purchase ACORN Release of “Martyrs Lane” on DVD

10-year-old Leah is a curious, quiet child, living in a vicarage household.  Her nightly nightmares surrounding her mother’s necklace locket and her mother’s stern conduct along with her constant obsession with her necklace locket leads Leah into an interest in the ornament’s contents.  Inside is a lock of hair and Leah takes it and loses a day later, sending her mother into a tailspin of anxiety.  That same night, a little girl knocks on Leah’s window and provides Leah momentary comfort and friendship until every visit after that, the little girl grows sicker and more ominously enigmatic in her play, providing clues and the whereabouts of thought-lost items that will open up the truth about the mystery girl’s identity as well as her family’s dark secret.

“Martyrs Lane” is a thoughtful and empathetic drama with supernatural delicacies surrounding complexities in loss and grief of bottled-up family secrets.  The British film is the third feature film, second in horror, for actress-writer-director Ruth Platt (“The Lesson”) who has commented that “Martyrs Lane” is a plucking of aggregated events from her own childhood woven into the very fabric of the story. Platt’s 2021 release is a fined tune extension upon her 2019 short of the same title that recasts the core principal roles from original actresses Indica Watson, Phoebe Lloyd, and the live action adaptation of “Beauty and The Beast’s” Hattie Morahan and turned the short into a 96 minute closed book feature about a scrutinized and consuming locket and a slowly decaying little girl playing two truths, one lie with the main character during bedtime hours who then has to unravel the mystery behind it all. Ipso Facto Productions’ Christine Alderson, who also produced “Valhalla Rising,” “Alpha Alert,” and even Platt’s original short film, produces “Martyrs Lane” alongside Katie Hodgkin and partly funded by the British Film Institute (BFI) in association with Sharp Films, Lypsync, and LevelK.

Recasting the short’s linchpin framework actresses took an audition to bring to light exactly the kind of talent Platt needed to express the different levels of somber ambivalence toward a family obviously struggling to deal with something more than just the day-to-day tasks. Kiere Thompson took over for Indica Watson as Leah in her feature performance debut and Thompson smashes a complex role and gains high marks on the voyeur scorecard as the youngest child who watches as her mother ebbs and flows in various states of anxiety while serving a milder, yet vastly different, dish of dynamics with the levity being around her vicar father and to be always primed to deal with her tormenting much older sister Bex (Hannah Rae). The best chemistry is between Thompson and age-appropriate counterpart Sienna Sayer, taking over Phoebe Lloyd’s role from the short as the strange visiting little girl. You can see two youngsters’ genuine play and natural innocence come through their smiling faces, wide eyes, and contagious giggles and when the winch of fear washes over them, called for by the story’s puzzling rising of events, mirthless moments are quickly produced, snapping us back into Platt’s eerie cold quandary. Hattie Morahan is replaced by Denise Gough as the mother Sarah and though her performance is fine, there just wasn’t enough of the mother’s side of the story to evoke a sense of empathy or sympathy and ultimately just falls into right into apathy even though Sarah is a pivotal piece to the theme. Catherine Terris, Charlie Rix, Donna Banya, Anastasia Hille, and Steven Cree as the vicar and Leah’s father rounds out the cast.

A blend between “Let the Right One In” and “The Babadook” but with less blood and less malevolent atmospherics, “Martyrs Lane” offers an imposing exhumation of a secret told in a way that doesn’t carry the sensation of something being hidden from Leah or even the audience in general.  Instead, Platt invests into the thematic subtleties with the bigger picture on the supernatural element of a strange, orphaned girl who knocks on the outside of Leah’s second story window, wearing dress up angel wings and is slowly deteriorating health wise with each passing night.  Yet, despite her appearance and reluctance at times, Leah’s peculiarly drawn to opening her window, letting her in, and even play childish games with her and tell jokes but soon those games become clues, near riddle-like, for Leah to push the envelope that link her mother, the locket, and this strange girl together.  Platt tacks on a silent and tenebrous after-hours backdrop during Leah’s sleepless nights and the stillness is greatly encroaching upon into the terror senses that you find yourself holding your breath and jumping at the breakneck editing aimed to momentarily scare you until a sigh of relief for when it’s over.  “Martyrs Lane” is externally melancholic and mood driven from outside Leah’s perspective as she, herself, internalizes and absorbs the emotions of others, studies them, and puts the pieces together to unravel the truth.

Ruth Platt’s “Martyrs Lane” is a wistful, and often eerie, entry into the creepy child subgenre. UK distributor, Acorn Media International, releases the Shudder exclusive-streaming film onto a PAL encoded region 2 DVD.  Presented in a widescreen 1.85:1 aspect ratio, there’s virtually no issues with the compression as even the night sequences retain the thick and obscuring black levels with almost unnoticeable banding, and it’s a clean dark too with balanced contrast to really home in on and define the shadows.  Details and textures are good for Platt’s dreamy-presented cinematic approach of slight overexposure and blur are more a stylistic attribute than an issue with the imagery.  I liked the tactile details in the loose strands of hair around Leah and the mystery girl that plays on their differences, and sometimes similarities, really well.  The English Dolby Digital 5.1 surround sound retains no significant issues.  Dialogue track perceives slightly muted or distant in some scenes and clarity, though free from audio blemishes, can be straining.  English subtitles are available.   Bonus features include a behind-the-scenes with snippets of interviews from Ruth Platt and the cast, an interview with Ruth Platt (which contains the same segments pulled for the behind-the-scenes), and a behind-the-scenes photo gallery.  The Acorn DVD is certified 15 for strong supernatural threat and injury detail.  In the end, “Martyrs Lane” is a dead-end road to melancholy, a family-affecting affair that peripherally chronicles not only one person’s struggle to maintain a slither of normalcy but also profoundly hits innocent youth who know nothing of the skeletons kept in the closet.

Purchase ACORN Release of “Martyrs Lane” on DVD