Night Terrors Are Not EVIL Enough. “While We Sleep” reviewed! (VMI Releasing/ DVD)

“While We Sleep” available on DVD home video at Amazon.com!

Neurologist Nina Evanko is perplexed by the unusual CAT scans of 13-year-old Cora whose been suffering from sudden onset sleepwalking after her birthday party.  Believing the CAT scan is going through calibration issue with imaging process, Nina orders another set of scans, but when the scans produce the same result and a death of another patient right in front of Cora sends her home early before Nina’s arrival to study the results, Nina convinces Cora’s parents to an at-home sleep observation to root Cora’s sleepwalking cause.  What Nina finds is far more sinister than night terrors or any other kind of parasomnia as a demon has inhabited Cora’s body with nefarious intentions.  Cora’s only hope to save her soul is her bewildered parents, a rattled neurologist, and a rogue priest but a family secret may consume everything. 

If you’re still looking to support Ukraine during the now 6 plus months Russia invasion of their sovereign neighbor, why not support the Ukrainian-U.S. collaborative cinema?  Why not start more precisely with Andrzej Sekula’s 2021 child-possession thriller “While We Sleep” set in the Ukrainian capital and flagship city of Kiev.  Sekula, known more for his work with Quentin Tarantino as a cinematographer on “Reservoir Dogs” and “Pulp Fiction” as well as “American Psycho” and “Hackers,” has quietly and seldomly helmed a handful of films over the two decades with “Cube 2:  Hyperspace” being one of them.  “While We Sleep” returns Sekula to the director’s chair for the first time since 2006 with a script by Rich Bonat and the film’s supporting costar Brian Gross, the first feature script penned by the “Jack Frost 2:  Revenge of the Mutant Killer Snowman” and remake of “2001 Maniacs” actor.  “While We Sleep” is coproduced by American Brian Gross and Kiev-Los Angeles based CinemAday productions, which include company bigwigs Rich Ronat, Yuriy Karnovsky, and Yuriy Prylypko. 

While much of the story begins with Cora and her parents (real life family of husband Brian Gross, wife Jacy King, and daughter Lyra Irene Gross) cursed by Cora’s acute and disconcerting sleepwalking disorder and moody behavior, the daily battle to understand their predicament is not left in the out of their league but most lovable hands of the parents as the film leads you to believe.  Roughly half hour into the film, the narrative switches from the convincing family perspective, despite building background on their low-band relationship troubles and move it nearly 100% to Nina’s problem-solving perspective with a hint of her own troubled past.  Kiev born and “Stranger” actress Darya Tregubova plays the neurologist too curious to shrug off the mysterious case of Cora’s abnormal scans.  Tregubova is fetching without saying but she doesn’t provide the necessary emotional weight of person who’s going through grief and loss issues from the past.  Tregubova also doesn’t convey the necessary weight toward her strong connection to Cora and Cora’s case with only a few expositional moments that hint at such.  These aspects leave Nina outside the bubble of plot events that make the character stick out as unnecessary even more with the character’s negligent professionalism surrounding the wellbeing of Cora and with the parent interactions.  Once the story butts in randomly the blacklisted priest, Father Andrey (Oliver Trevena, “The Reckoning”), with an intimate familiarity with the demon that possess Cora, we know that the story is lost as it tries to quickly and covertly wrap its grip around how to come to a head with this storyline.  You can’t have a possession film without a priest, right?  Father Andrey feels very much like a leftover thought, but Trevena tries his darnedest to sell a washed-up man of the cloth with desperation pouring from word out his mouth despite looking like an English hooligan in a pop collared leather jacket. 

“While We Sleep” has not-so-brittle bones of demonism and possession albeit lacking its own or established cultural mythos, yet there’s a disjointed nature about the story structure and plot points that just don’t make sense that crumble that coherency faster than Cora descending into the depths of demonic disorder. The opening scene is the most perplexing of all with an elaborate birthday cake that neither mom nor dad had made or bought for Cora’s 13th year. Without a care in the world, mom and dad don’t explore further who could have possibly made such a beautiful cake and little do they know, the cake, or rather the cake’s candles, are a conduit for demonic transmission into the soul. This part is never explained through the rest of the picture and, in fact, Gross or Bonat don’t touch back upon a possibility of explaining the odious presence. Much of everything is taken a face value, such as the fact Cora cuts her long hair to a pixie style without an eyelash being bat or in what’s more crtical to the plot is with Cora’s real and darkly unholy father backstory. Those facts are a shot to the brain and we’re still not understanding where Cora’s biological father fits into Cora’s space, into her mother’s space, or even into Father Andrey’s space, but you would think as important as this twist was suddenly deluged in a quick spit of point-blank honesty, the edges would be smoothed over and the picture would become clear as the holy water that was cross was spritzed with; yet, that the aggregation of aggravation of little-to-no details continues to carry out as if everything is perfectly peachy and comprehendible within the story context.

From the at-home release distributor that delivered John Travolta as “The Fanatic,” VMI Releasing, a subsidiary of VMI WorldWide, releases “While We Sleep” on DVD home video. The clear snapper cased DVD, a MPEG-2 formatted DVD5, is presented in a widescreen 2.39:1 aspect ratio with an average speed bitrate of 4-5 Mbps. You can see noticeable banding issues in the darker bedroom scenes sporadically throughout. Aside from that, the picture result is fair with more than enough detail for viewing. The English-Ukranian soundtrack is not listed on the back cover, but my SEIKI player reads two audio options: a Dolby Digital 5.1 and a Dolby Digital dual channel 2.0. Discerning the difference between two is not worth the effort as there’s only subtleties in the output. The 5.1 surround sound has obvious better capacity for multi-channeling. Optional English subtitles are available but neither one of the audio tracks available nor the subtitles offer English captioning for the Ukranian dialogue and often times, there are back and forth exchanges that are intended to carry worth behind the exchange. The subtitles just state foreign language speaking which doesn’t help at all so there’s a bit of lost in translation in the dialogue unless you happen to speak or understand East Slavic languages. The 92-minute film comes unrated but doesn’t come with any bonus material as a feature only release. “While We Sleep” only nips at attempting to be a better than average “Exorcist” akin contemporary but remains on the haphazard course of shaky character building and bumpy, unpaved developments that make only for a rocky portrait of possession.

“While We Sleep” available on DVD home video at Amazon.com!

 

Superpowers Can Be Just as EVIL as They are Good. “The Unhealer” reviewed! (Scream Factory / Blu-ray)

“The Unhealer” on Blu-ray home video from Scream Factory!

An old graverobber unearths the supernatural powers of an ancient Native American burial ground that gives him the ability to heal as well as to be resilient against injury with self-restoring powers.  When exploiting the local residents of his newfound “Godly” gift, a botched healing of a bullied teenage Kelly with severe pica disorder transfers the powers to him, curing his disorders and restoring his health while also leaving the old graverobber to die.  With a new lease on life, Kelly pursues his dreams, standing up to his relentless tormenters, and even finding the courage to ask out a girl, but when the powers prove to be addiction beyond control and the bullies never let up on their aggression on him, Kelly uses his newfound gifts to exact a deadly course of revenge. 

“Pet Sematary” meets “Christine” – a Stephen King-esque bully-revenge, supernatural thriller “The Unhealer” from the Argentinean born director Martin Guigui.  The music video and feature film director returns to American horror nearly a decade later after helming the 2011 “Beneath the Darkness,” starring Dennis Quaid, with a thrilling teen angsty script penned by first time screenwriters Kevin E. Moore and J. Shawn Harris that recalls a narrative very familiar to the late 80’s to early 90’s with oppressive high school bullying by the jocks and the turning point revenge by the receiving end pipsqueak.  Originally scripted under the title “Pica Boy,” “The Unhealer” reveals the dangers of severe polarities between one disorder to the next with the humbling fragilities trapped inside one’s own psychological disorder to the over-confidence of feeling invincible due to physical anomalies that result in no pain being suffered, losing one’s empathetic reasoning.  “The Unhealer” is produced by writer J. Shawn Harris and his sibling actress, “Night of the Demons 2” and “Night of the Scarecrow’s” Cristi Harris along with star Natasha Henstridge and “Why?” filmmakers Corbin Timbrook and Galen Walker with Horror Business Films and 7 Ideas serving as production companies.

Headlined with three big and recognizable names inside the genre circles and out, the film stars Lance Henriksen (“Pumpkinhead,” “Aliens”), Natasha Henstridge (“Species,” “Ghost of Mars”) and Adam Beach (“Windtalkers,” “New Mutants”) playing variable degrees in their roles important to “The Unhealer’s” story progression and each performance never overlaps prominent personalities that can sometimes stall out and unbalance a production.   Henriksen plays a long in the tooth snakeoil salesman named Pflueger who exploits the locals with his newfound healing powers and when he’s hired by Kelly’s desperate mother, Natasha Henstridge, the scene becomes a passing of the torch as Pflueger unintentionally transfers his powers to Kelly (Elijah Nelson, “Chain of Death”) that magically heals him of his longtime psychological Pica disorder. Not so much a youthful soul anymore, Henriksen has tall tell signs of showing his age, but the 81-year-old New York City born actor can still sear memorable performances into our psyche with a wisecracking charlatan conman in Pflueger, dressed from head to toe in a shabby white suit and tossing up awkward hand gestures when deriding burial ground protecting Shaman Red Elk, played by long time serial supporting man Branscombe Richmond (“Commando,” “Hard to Kill”). More awkward in his reaction to receiving an unexplainable supernatural gift is Elijah Nelson who goes from deaths door to want to join the Navy Seals in a matter of minutes after the Pflueger plot point passes. The writing doesn’t exactly assist in Kelly’s transition with an acceptance of power without an inkling of trying to comprehend is as Kelly tries to hurt himself and tries to encourage being pounded by bullies as if he already fully understands the immense reality of his abilities. Even his mother, who under the understanding that she has tried everything possible scientific medicine man has to offer to cure her only child, is instantly okay with Kelly’s rushing into the unknown. A nearly unrecognizable Natasha Henstridge from her “Species” franchise days after a thyroid autoimmune disease diagnosis doesn’t stop the late 40’s blond beauty from being just that – a beauty – in an overly protective mother role desired by the local single men from the house visiting doctor to the Adam Beach’s Native American Sheriff Adler. Beach becomes the absent father figure for Kelly and a person who has a foot in both the Native American spiritual world and in the Anglo-Saxon realities and melodramatics. Beach proceeds as the main lead of the third act, following Henriksen and Henstridge to keep a constant, recognizable presence throughout and providing his own stamp as the voice of reason whereas the first two culminated extreme biases toward Kelly. Kayla Carlson, Angeline Appel, Gavin Casalegno, David Gridley, Mike Gray, Thomas Archer, Will Ropp, and one my new personal favorite actors in Chris Browning (“Agnes”) fills out the remaining cast.

Very early on initial reactions toward “The Unhealer” were poor mainly because of the luridly unflattering dialogue and perplexing transitions between scenes that don’t exactly hit the mark matching up character intentions, but the more I watched, the more an optimistic sensation started to arise in me. Starting small in the recesses of my cerebral film database then growing until metastasizing fully into my mind and, eventually, into my nostalgic-detecting ticker is “The Unhealer’s” robust recollection toward how fun bully-revenge-thrillers from two to three decades ago can be with a carbon copy simulation ingrained with a novel narrative surrounding Midwest Native American mysticisms carrying with it that age old “Spiderman” insinuation that with great power, comes great responsibility, but in “The Unhealer’s case, as the tagline suggests, comes great pain. Screenwriters Moore and Harris burden Kelly with a King Midas touch that no matter how hard the character tries to contain his nearly invincible power, outside forces influences and unforeseen happenstances steer Kelly toward self-destructing disaster. Between a group of buffed up and obnoxious high school jocks as unyielding tormenters, Kelly pushed into a self-protecting corner despite a generous passive attitude, especially being run over with car at one point, and the unpredictable and limitless avenues built as substory awry to make “The Unhealer” a joyful hidden gem, the Martin Guigui film on the outside appears to be a cheap, indistinguishable, B-movie, but if you dig deeper, dig until you unearth a medicine man’s ancient dusty bones, and you’ll discover deep seeded veneration, a gripping story, and dark magic carnage.

“The Unhealer” will undoubtedly fly under many viewers’ radars but is a must watch from (Shout!) Scream Factory’s distribution label in a cooperation release with VMI Worldwide (“Orphan Killer”). The full HD, 1080p Blu-ray of the 2020 production is an encoded region A release with unrated certification and a runtime of 93 minutes, presented in a widescreen 2.35:1 aspect ratio. Generally nothing to swing image quality from one spectrum to the next with a RED Weapon Dragon digital shot. Already decent at compression, the RED camera provides a crisp demarcating image in the forefront and capture the textures in a literal closeup with focus precision. “The Unhealer’s” lighting and set dresses cater less to the supernatural phantasmagoria with Massimo Zeri’s realistic Arizona landscapes and suburbia venues that don’t excite the camera with its cold truth realism rather than the mise-en-scene tropes of horror atmospherics. The English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 also has zip to complain about with high resolution quality with a surprising ample range of effects. Dialogue is prominent and clear as well. English SDH subtitles are an available option. Special features include one-sided individual cast/character behind-the scenes interviews which is basically cut and edited footage of the actors describing their characters in footnote fashion. The gag reel is a better feature that takes the same interview format, intertwines it with music, and lines up the gags with an instrumental soundtrack in one seamless show of goofs and hijinks throughout production. Deleted scenes and extended/alternate scenes, surrounding mostly around Kelly and Dominique’s coy love interest, cap the features. At first glance of the final package, “The Unhealer” looks totally like a rip off inside and out of the cardboard slipcover with a “Star Wars'” lightsaber color scheme and a character illustrated design underneath the title dressed in “Stranger Things” font, but don’t let parroting cover fool you as “The Unhealer’s” dark journey from being the bullied to the bully is an unabated and inescapable catch-22.

“The Unhealer” on Blu-ray home video from Scream Factory!