Spacehunter: Adventures in the Forbidden Zone (1983) – Mini Retro Review

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Space Hunter is one of my personal favorites. Directed by Lamont Johnson, this eclectic blend of various ideas and tropes from sci-fi and fantasy runs on pure cheese and asks no forgiveness. The story line is simple – three beautiful women crash on planet covered in radiation, blight and horny mutants. Space Hunter takes a contract to go rescue the damsels in distress, hopefully before they mussy up their dinnerware.

The film doesn’t take itself too seriously and should come as little surprise. Lindholm other credits for writing include Stripes, Meatballs and Heavy Metal. Peter Strauss take the lead role, teaming up with a pre-John Hughes Molly Ringwald and a hasn’t aged a day Ernie Hudson. The big bad is played perfectly by Michael Ironside, not a surprise.

The movie has cool monsters to include flying wasteland raiders, Amazons and water serpents, greasy mutated fat guys, and little bomb tossing kids that look straight out of The Brood. My main criticism is that the film is pretty misogynistic by today’s standards, treating the females characters as either sexual playthings or poor little girl sidekick. Originally released in 3D, the film came out 1 week before Return of the Jedi. Bad idea.

Space Hunter is a fun film that is worth seeing if you have a fetish for 80s sci-fi or wish Doc Brown’s Delorean was a real thing.

Clown (2016) – Raw Review

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If news reports are to be believed, professional clowns are lamenting the imminent release of the IT remake later this fall. They argue that clowns too often are the victims of public enmity, subject to stereotypes that are perpetuated in popular cinema and the most horrific of true crime. Despite some validity to their argument, the guise of the clown has entrenched itself as a mainstay in popular horror and that doesn’t look to be changing anytime soon. Between the fictional characters Pennywise and Twisty to real life killers like Pogo, something about their abstract appearance and unconventional antics stirs fear in the masses. Harness that fear, channel it into a narrative that is engaging, paint a pallet of menace and uncertainty at once both visceral and thrilling, you get a damned decent horror film in Clown.

In the opening minutes of the movie we see Kent (Andy Powers), a loving and dedicated father, presented with the problem of finding a replacement clown for his six year old son’s birthday party. Kent happens to discover a clown costume in the basement of a foreclosed house he is preparing for sale. Unwilling to disappoint his son, he dons the outfit and saves the day. The next day he finds that it cannot be removed and as time passes it begins to change him.

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Co-written and directed by Jon Watts, the film is not a typical spin on the killer in a clown suit. Toss any expectation of circus style clownery (a la Pennywise) out the window. There are no clown cars, lethal pies or cotton candy guns. Instead, what we receive is a compelling and emotionally charged trip through a horrifying metamorphosis. As the costume assumes more and more authority over Kent’s mind and body, his wife Meg (Laura Allen) sets out in a desperate gambit to save him by uncovering its true nature. This focus and attention to their relationship injects a complexity  into the the film, elevating the emotion and is essential to the success of the closing act.

Watts also handles the subject matter with a deft touch. The gruesome murder of children is certainly not uncommon in horror movies, and filmmakers will often inject dark humor to soften the impact of seeing a child ripped to shreds, but many films make the fatal mistake of crossing the line into exploitation. Inserting violence and gore for shock value, at the expense of story and character development. Watts seems to understand this, and while he gives the audience a significant amount of gore, it is always attune to the needs of the narrative.

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Where the movie suffers a slight hiccup is in the murky and underdeveloped relationship between Kent and Meg’s family. There is a clear level of tension between them, and it’s obvious that Meg’s father does not approve of the marriage, or at the very least Kent, but it is explained well and feels like the result of the editing process. The opening also feels a tad rushed and introduction of the clown costume occurs very nearly before anyone else, even Kent. Fortunately, the film moves forward at brisk pace, sweeping the audience into Kent’s nightmare almost immediately, leaving little time to reflect on the introduction.

Indie (a.k.a. low-budget) horror is an extremely fickle beast. More often than not they appear promising, either due to the presence of an esteemed actor (looking at you Lance Henricksen) or a well cut trailer; yet, more often than not they flounder in a morass of poor storytelling, terrible acting and boredom.

Not Clown. This film is an exception. A strong exception. I will be adding to the rotation for horror movie night.

The Blood of Heroes (1989) – Retro Review

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The Blood of Heroes is one of those films that is far better than you would ever expect. Of course if you go by Rotten Tomatoes then this film is dreck, lacking in any real character development or entertainment value. Fortunately, the critics are not always right, and in this case they are more wrong than usual.

The cast of characters include:
Rutger Hauer as Sallow
Vincent D’Onofrio as Gar
Joan Chen as Kidda
Delroy Lindo as Mbulu
Anna Katarina as Big Cimber

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The Blood of Heroes (or Salute of the Juggers as its also known) is set in a post-apocalyptic wasteland. On the surface people live in small villages strewn across the blight, eking out survival by growing small crops and raising dogs for meat. Below the surface lay the nine cities. Sprawling industrial caverns, the remnants of an old world. Each city has a professional team they use to settle disputes and maintain their status. There are aristocratic groups that are highly privileged in the cities and while the Juggers are treated like gods, they are not royalty.

The story follows a team of Juggers as they travel the wasteland, moving from village to village, challenging each to compete in The Game. Victory means food, drink and sex are bestowed upon them. The team is lead by Sallow, a former Jugger in the nine cities who was banished for reasons we learn about through the film.

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The game is simple. Five players on each team attempt to place a dog skull on a pike at the opposite end of the playing field. The catch is that only the player known as the “Quick” is able to touch the skull. The other four players fight one another in an attempt to open space for the Quick to score. Each game last for “100 stones, 3 times.” The Quicks do not carry implements, relying on their own fighting skills to beat one another as they try to wrestle the skull from one another.

What makes this film rise above expectation is how screenwriter and director David Peoples establishes the importance of the game and how its woven into the social and political order of the world. Its clear from the get-go that the game is akin to a common law (an expectation if you will) that no one will ignore or disrespect.  The players and peasants sportsmanship and honor for those they compete against is unwavering. The Juggers will crush one another in competition, but after, they drink and celebrate whomever is the victor.

I won’t defend the acting, but the cast is made up of some very fine actors that obviously were taking risks early on in their careers. The stand out performance is Vincent D’Onofrio. Even this early on in his career he was killin it.

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Its not surprising the level of subtleties built into the screenplay. We are provided no explanation of how the world came to be as it is in the film. No history of the game or how it developed. No backstory for anyone save Sallow and Chen. A smart move that avoids the pitfall of making things too complex. Its not surprising. David Peoples is responsible for writing some pretty fantastic and revered screenplays, to include Blade Runner, 12 Monkeys, Ladyhawke, and Unforgiven (yes, THAT Unforgiven).

What the film suffers from is a painfully low budget along allegory on plutocracy that is a bit too on the nose. Fortunately, the game is engaging and fun to watch, which minimizes the faults. The set-up to the final act (a challenge against one of the professional teams form the nine cites) is strong, built up through the film.

In the end, The Blood of Heroes is a sports movie dressed in a post-apocalyptic theme, which is woven together nicely.  The game is engaging and handled deftly enough to make all the rest fall into place. Don’t let the bad reviews fool you, this film deserves cult status.

 

Spectral (2016) – Raw Review

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A Netflix original film that is far better than you could ever expect.

Set in what can only be assumed is a near future, the story revolves around American troops who come under contact with apparitions of dead soldiers. Naturally standard light armor and infantry weapons do little against an enemy that is ethereal, so the military brings in a key scientist to study the phenomenon and develop so way to effectively defeat the new enemy.

For a movie that was initially to have a theatrical release, only to be delayed several times before ending up on Netflix, Spectral is surprisingly good. I’ll caution you that it is a full blown war film that feels very much like any number of console shooter games such as Call of Duty, but behind the endless grim battle sequences is a fun supernatural/science fiction story.

With some decent acting and a third act reveal that was not only cool but surprising, I found my self thoroughly enjoying this film. Take a peek and let me know in the comments what you think. You shouldn’t be terribly disappointed.

The Incredible Melting Man (1977) – Retro Review

Genre film fans, particularly old genre film fans, tend to be very forgiving when discussing terrible films of yesteryear. Most old-timers, including myself, can always find redeeming values that overcome problems of writing, directing, acting, or budget to create an entertaining experience. Of course, there are exceptions, such as Birdemic!, where there are no redeeming values to be found. A review of which would require only one or two sentences if that much. Not worth the effort.

Don’t misunderstand — The Incredible Melting Man is a very bad movie. It is also approaching cult status, if it hasn’t already reached that objective. Part of the rationale for this phenomenon lies with the delay in transition from VHS to DVD, which created a small-but-vocal demand from people like me who saw the film first-run at drive-in theaters in 1977, and have time-weakened memories. VHS print quality varied, probably due to generational duping, indicating that the film wasn’t taken very seriously by the distribution industry, and that lack of attention continued with a few DVD releases. But the main reason for its growing popularity is the special effects provided by a young Rick Baker (1950 – 2015) whose stature as a makeup artist was beginning to emerge out of low-budget genre films (John Landis’s first film Schlock, 1973; Larry Cohen’s It’s Alive, 1974; Jeff Lieberman’s Squirm, 1976; Batman artist/writer Bill Finger’s Track of the Moon Beast, 1976). This film was also the second (uncredited) appearance of special makeup superstar Greg Cannom (The Howling, 1981; Dreamscape, 1984; Dick Tracy, 1990; Mrs. Doubtfire, 1993). Together, these two practical effects experts were responsible for lifting The Incredible Melting Man out of obscurity and into genre film semi-stardom.

This new release, viewed for the first time over a period of three decades, is unintentionally hilarious all by itself. It needed absolutely no help from the egregious Mystery Science Theater 3000 (MST3K) that targeted the film for derision in 1996. As if it isn’t obvious, I am no fan of any production that takes older genre films, edits them down to smaller chunks for the benefit of idiots who toss off one-liners to make themselves look good. Viewers can, and should, make their own humorous comments from the comfort of their own couches – and true entertainment is derived from a complete, uncut film released in excellent Blu-ray format by Shout! Factory. Visually, the film is a crisp and clear 1080p HD delight that amplifies the extreme close-up photography used (or misused) throughout.

The story is linear and simplistic – the sole survivor of America’s first trip to the rings of Saturn (Alex Rebar in his only screen credit) is pulled from (unseen) wreckage and isolated in a nearby warehouse… er, hospital, cared for by one doctor and one nurse. He’s suffering from the effects of watching our sun through Saturn’s rings. How the sun and its flares got so big from that distance is not something to dwell upon. But his eyes bleed while out in space, and back on Earth he begins to melt. He kills the overweight nurse because somehow the only doctor around reached a diagnosis that the astronaut needs blood to survive. The now-monster escapes the conveniently- unguarded “hospital.” The rest of the 84-minute film is a chase through a lightly-wooded area populated by cannon fodder, one hilarious encounter after another (I have to reference the “fisherman.” I just have to.) But it will be more fun for viewers if I don’t provide details. Strangely, though, the film concludes with a confrontation that generates a modicum of suspense, and a final scene that’s successful in portraying black, bittersweet humor.

In addition to Baker and Cannom, above, there are a few recognizable names involved with the film. In the acting department, veteran TV personality Burr DeBenning (1936 – 2003) sleepwalks through the lead role of Dr. Ted Nelson, former friend of the afflicted monster, and enemy of extreme close-ups designed to minimize low-budget background exposure. Another veteran familiar to fans of 50s and 60s genre features ( a very late serial, Panther Girl of the Kongo, 1955; Jungle Moon Men, 1955; The Unearthly 1957) and virtually every TV series up through the 70s, is Myron Healy as General Perry. Of those two, Healy fares just a bit better as far as dialog is concerned, throwing orders around in his trademark deep, booming voice.

But the true villain of this piece – if you don’t include the mindless melting creature – is Writer/Director William Sachs. Responsible for story logic (there is none), dialog that is painful to hear, and direction that displays his limited range (and fondness for extreme close-ups) unless you’re a fan of his only other genre credit (Galaxina, 1980). Included in the DVD extras is an interview with Sachs in which he blames the producers for all of the budget constraints that destroyed an otherwise viable film. Take him at his word if you will, but I have difficulty putting responsibility on a group of producers that include an uncredited Max Rosenberg of Hammer Films and Amicus Productions, and production manager Peter Cornberg (first assistant director, Blade Runner, 1982; production manager, Testament, 1983).

Despite its myriad flaws, however, The Incredible Melting Man has survived time and troubles, hanging around for a decent treatment that presents its positive aspects in hi-def glory. While the film still generates loud guffaws (as it absolutely should), both old and new viewers will experience a highly entertaining piece of genre history.

The Black Scorpion (1957) – Retro Review

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Over the last decade or so, Baby-Boomer genre fans and collectors have welcomed a resurgence of science fiction and horror films of the 1950s in the form of standard and blu-ray DVD releases. The packaging and availability, however, differs wildly. There are some incredible bargains, such as the four-pack Icons of Horror: Sam Katzman boxset that collects The Giant Claw, Creature with the Atom Brain, Zombies of Mora Tau, and The Werewolf for the price of a single blu-ray disk. We’re not talking low-quality public domain films here, shoddily transferred from a blurry VHS tape recorded off television; these are crisp black-and-white prints as watchable now as when the viewer was 10- or 12-years old.

A number of until-recently-inaccessible films have received a (theoretical) upgrade to blu-ray format in either single or double-feature releases. Among those are some classics – Forbidden Planet and Them!, for example – and some less-than classic, such as The Neanderthal Man. And last, and not quite least, are the few titles held closely by production companies and released only in DVR format. The Black Scorpion, available on-demand from the Warner Bros. Archive Collection, is one of those titles. It is very doubtful that we’ll ever see a blu-ray version of this fun little picture, but… never say never.

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The Black Scorpion carries a serious pedigree – it is the last feature film associated with the legendary Willis H. O’Brien, or OBie in genre vernacular. O’Brien is arguably the most famous of stop-motion film effect creators, at least until the emergence of Ray Harryhausen, and Harryhausen was O’Brien’s protégé. O’Brien developed the technology behind King Kong (1933), Son of Kong (1933; uncredited), and the original Mighty Joe Young (1949). The mantle of superior  achievement in stop-motion technology passed on to Harryhausen in 1958, with The 7th Voyage of Sinbad.

Received industry knowledge indicates that The Black Scorpion film emerged from test footage of a stop-motion scorpion created by O’Brien and his assistant, Pete Peterson. Warner Bros. producers, intrigued by the possibility of a money-making successor to Them! (1954), hired O’Brien and Peterson to follow-up and expand the test footage into a marketable film. As it turned out, The Black Scorpion was released with a simplistic story and a weak script, but the effects are so diverse and bizarre they carry the film.

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The Black Scorpion is somewhat of a rarity among the Big Critter films of the 1950s in that the titular monster derives from volcanic activity rather than the common radiation mutation. Principal location cinematography in Mexico adds additional verisimilitude to the story – the terrain is sufficiently rugged, remote, and an active volcano is certainly not out of the question. The volcano opens a cavern from which several giant scorpions emerge to terrorize the rural countryside. But the special effects team serves up additional visual treats – in addition to the “regular” giant scorpions, there is a gigantic scorpion that preys on its own, and anything else that gets in the way, and assorted large insects lurking in the cavern.

Richard Denning plays Hank Scott, an American geologist sent to Mexico to do science on the volcano, but also help authorities with relocation of villagers cut off by earthquakes and landslides. And there he meets wealthy rancher, Teresa Alvarez, as played by the gorgeous Mara Corday, just as the scorpions begin their ravaging. Both actors were not strangers to genre films in 1957. Denning was a very visible semi-heavy in the widely acclaimed Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954), and lesser vehicles such as Target: Earth (1954), Roger Corman’s post-apocalyptic “thriller” Day the World Ended (1955), and Creature with the Atom Brain (1955). He also was a TV stalwart both before and after this particular film, probably most widely known as Governor Paul Jameson in the long-running Hawaii Five-O (1968 – 1980). Mara Corday was a B-movie star with just a few TV credits. The Black Scorpion was the last of her three genre films, but the other two are memorable for different reasons – Tarantula (1955) is a highly-regarded Big Bug films, while The Giant Claw (1957) is considered to be one of the silliest of 50s black-white monster movies. Arguably, Corday was at the peak of her profession when The Black Scorpion was released. In January of that year, she married TV personality Richard Long, a union that lasted 17 years until his death in 1974. In October, 1958, she was Playboy’s co-Playmate of the Month. And a friendship kindled with Clint Eastwood on the set of Tarantula led to appearances in four of his films.


The Black Scorpion certainly can’t be considered as a classic in its genre. Production problems led to some cutbacks on special effect expenses that are very evident in the film. When the scorpion of the title has (conveniently) eaten all of his brethren and set sights toward Mexico City, what viewers see are imposed negatives of the beast rather than the complete stop-motion critter. The Black Scorpion is very, very black. But given all the associated problems, The Black Scorpion remains one of the most enjoyable of genre films. Special effects carry it almost completely, at least up to the suburbs of Mexico City. 

Bone Tomahawk (2015) – Raw Review

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It’s hard enough to get a western made in Hollywood these days, let alone one infused with significant amounts of horror, but thank god someone green lit production on Bone Tomahawk.

Bone Tomahawk is without a doubt one of best movies of 2015. Smart, sophisticated, violent and atmospheric, no only is one of the better western films in the last thirty years but a damn brutal and terrifying horror movie as well.
Set in a small frontier town, the premise follows the Sheriff Hunt (Kurt Russell) as he leads a small group of volunteers (Patrick Wilson, Matthew Hunt, and Richard Jenkins) into the open prairie in pursuit of Troglodytes who’ve kidnapped several of the towns folk.
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Writer/director S. Craig Zahler’s screenplay is fantastic, setting a methodical pace for our heroes all the while fleshing out every character with some of the best dialogue I’ve ever heard in a film. The look and feel is immersive to the point that Bone Tomahawk transports the viewer into the time period thoroughly, engaging us with its attention to location and set designs, superior acting and a willingness to show the brutality of the old west.
The horror elements are largely held in reserve until the third act, but when they come they are as brutal as anything seen in more over the top horror films. Bone Tomahawk stands out however because Zahler does such a magnificent job establishing the narrative and context in the first two acts that the crescendo of violence leaves us paralyzed with anticipation and genuine fear for our heroes.
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I would be remiss if I failed to emphasize just how impressive Richard Jenkins, who plays Chicory the back-up deputy, is throughout the film. Jenkins performance is far and away the best of any I’ve seen in 2015 and although Bone Tomahawk is unlikely to be short listed for any of the Oscar categories Jenkins deserves a golden statue as much as anyone who receives one next month.
I cannot recommend this film enough. It’s easily in my favorite horror movies of 2015 along with It Follows, Spring, and We Are Still Here. Additionally, it fits in nicely with more mainstream violent films such as Sicario.
And for those hardcore horror fans out there, Bone Tomahawk features a cameo from Sid Hag, in a role that is probably the best he’s ever done.
Bone Tomahawk is now available on Blu-ray and Amazon Prime. DO NOT miss this movie.
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Scouts Guide To The Zombie Apocalypse (2015) – Raw Review

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Scouts Guide To The Zombie Apocalypse isn’t going to get anyone their film-making merit badge.

Scouts  is yet another offering in the zom-com genre, one that’s become saturated with lackluster and genuinely terrible films. Scouts doesn’t quite fall into the latter category but lackluster is an apt description for a film that for all purposes could have been much better than it was.

Starring Tye Sheridan, Logan Miller, Joey Morgan and Sarah Dumont, Scouts vs Zombies (original working title) follows three teenage ‘boy’ scouts who find themselves unknowingly thrown into a zombie outbreak during a camping trip. The film plays all the standard teen comedy, coming-of-age tropes you might expect but it does so half heartedly at best. Director Christopher Landon, whose writing career is prominent with films like Disturbia and all but the first film in the Paranormal Activity franchise, shows his lack of experience in handling Scouts comedy beats which come off silly and flat throughout most of the film. Much the way Cooties failed to hit the mark, Scouts suffers an even worse fate due to the lower caliber of acting from the cast. Tye Sheridan does a decent job, and silly but decent cameo by Cloris Leachman is a nice addition, but a pretty ridiculous recurring role for David Koechner will leave a lot of people scratching their heads.

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Zom-com films, when handled poorly, often enough go overboard on either the horror or the comedy. Scouts misses the mark on both, leaving horror fans wanting more fleshing eating zombie scenes and comedy fans stuck with the same ol’ stupid sight gags. I’ll give Landon credit for not relying on toilet humor, which one might expect for a movie of this caliber, but there are several boob and dick gags that do little in the way of laughs and nothing at all for story or character development.

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All-in-all, Scouts is a poor addition to the ever growing list zom-com films. For those who enjoy the genre there is little to find here that hasn’t been done exceptionally better in films like Cockney’s vs. Zombies, Shaun of the Dead, Zombeavers, Fido, Zombieland, Dance of the Dead, etc etc.

Demons (1985) – Raw Review

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Heavy Metal Horror Done Italian Style

The 1980s horror craze wasn’t strictly an American phenomenon. Across the pond and to the south a handful of filmmakers were crafting their own vision of gore and mayhem. Their craft, vision and technique set them apart in many ways. Some good, some not so good.

One of the stand-outs is Demons. Released in 1985 it’s possibly the most popular and/or successful (in the U.S.) of Lamberto Bava’s work. Co-wrote and produced by Dario Argento (Suspiria, Deep Red), Demons is a hard rockin horror in which moviegoers at a midnight premire get trapped with an evil force inside the theatre. It’s a zombie survival style movie done with possessed living humans rather than undead corpses.

The American version’s voice over (if Demon with long tongue tries to make out with couple.in fact it is voiced over) is pretty bad, adding a large dose of campy/silly to an otherwise fun over the top gore fest. Trust me when I say gore fest. It was the 80s and practical effects were cutting edge and horror movies were always trying to push the boundaries. Much like Evil Dead 2, this film has a ton of yellow, green, blue, and red fluids oozing out of every opening, socket, pore and membrane. Some of it’s is silly and some of it is done really well.

Face is ripped off by a demon and he decides to go home.

Adding to the awesomeness is the soundtrack. Bava those in songs by Motley Crue, Billy Idol, Rick Springfield, and Go West. Then he slathers on even more awesome sauce by having Claudio Simonetti write additional score for the film. Who is he you ask? He’s none other than the keyboard player for Goblin, the band who scored Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, Argento’s Suspiria, and more!

This film is universally reviled as poor, but equally loved as a mainstay of 80s horror. When you consider the hero not only hacks away demons with a katana while cruising a dirt bike up and down the aisles how couldn’t this film be a keeper!

Demons prepare to assault the remaining humans

Resolution (2012) – Raw Review

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Resolution is a fascinating film, having received a lot of credit for being “genre-bending.” I think that’s just a fancy way to say the movie turned out not to be what a lot of people expected. The movie originally wasn’t on my radar. Not until I saw Justin Benson and Aaron Scott Moorhead’s superior film Spring did I learned they had a couple other productions under their belts, including Resolution and the extremely enjoyable skateboard segment in V/H/S Viral.

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So what’s my opinion of Resolution?

 

Benson and Moorhead are skilled film makers, there’s no doubt. They have a very good handle on the concepts of suspense, slow-burn storytelling, and creepy undertone. The film really is quite different from conventional thriller-horror films. The primary narrative revolves around Michael Danube (played by Peter Cilella), a professional city dweller who heads off on a last crusade to help his best friend  Chris Daniels (played by Vinny Curran) kick a destructive drug habit. Not much to it for sure and in lesser hands the film probably would turn into a moopy commentary on the perils of addiction.

 

Not here.

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The dynamic between Cilella and Curran is impressive and I had absolutely no problem believing the two were long time friends pit in a life and death struggle over each other’s fates. This is key, considering the supernatural (if that’s in fact the correct way to phrase it) elements throughout the first two acts are extremely subtle. Without a solid piece of acting from our two protagonists this film would have been dead on arrival. Instead, we become engrossed in strange and fucked up house that Chris has come to inhabit on a Native American Reservation. Why does he have so many guns? Why do the local tribesmen warn Michael of helping his friend? Why is everyone obsessed with the idea of a beginning, middle and end? The mystery is compelling and revealed slowly enough to make the ending invoke a “Holy Shit, WTF… that was cool” response.

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Don’t get me wrong, this movie isn’t going to be for everyone. Countless reviews compare it to Cabin in the Woods, and although I understand the similarities these two movies have regarding subversion of expectations, they really are completely different films. Don’t be expecting an underground complex full of nightmare creatures, campy one liners or Sigourney Weaver to arrive in the final moments with a full explanation of the film. Benson and Moorhead are much more subtle than that, doing a very good job with what must have been a tightly held budget. Resolution is a decent film for anyone interested in thriller with supernatural elements. Good acting, great direction and attention to storytelling pay off.