Thursday, September 24, 2020

Survival and The Price Men Pay For It: Rituals (1977)

Rituals (Canada, 1977) (AKA "The Creeper")
Rating: ****
Starring: Hal Holbrook, Lawrence Dane, Robin Gammell

While some backwoods slashers tend to set themselves within campgrounds or lakeside vacation homes, a faction of them do brace the very woods itself and have their casts face on not only a psychopathic figure out for blood, but also the unforgiving savagery of steep terrains, rapid waters and forests veiling its threats in shadows at nightfall.

Rituals (1997) is among the early examples of these backwoods "survival slashers", taking very strong cues from the 1972 drama Deliverance as we follow five doctors on their yearly outdoor trip, escaping the busy and stressful city life. It's clear in their banters that they've been friends for a very long while now, their little jabs at each other's professions, ethics and personal life hinted with much good terms and sly warmth that only a good tempered bond can forge, thus this little stroll down to some place called the "Cauldron of The Moon" should have been nothing more than just another hiking and camping trip for these men.

However, in the morning after, they see their first hint that something's amiss when all but one pair of their boots suddenly go missing and, later that evening, someone erected a macabre idol made out of a freshly decapitated deer head on a stake nearby their camp. Assuming these being the work of a prowler (or prowlers) who decided to terrorize them, the men choose hike out while they still can with nothing but rags wrapping their feet, while one of them with the only pair of boots volunteers to venture to a dam he spots in the map to find help. It is then that they become aware of the severity of their predicament when, during a wasp attack from a hurled hive, someone throws one of them to their death, a cold murder that's bound to happen to the rest of them should they stay in the woods any longer...

From here, Rituals (1977) shows how strong its as a survivalist thriller and I will admit with no hesitation, it is verily effective; the further our men go through nature's harshness of heavy rain, crashing waterfalls and sun-scorched trails, the more we see their necessities get taken away and they slowly lose grip on being civil as they start throwing blame around or open old wounds to pick fights, getting reduced into angry babbling messes simply struggling to survive. This direction works so well with the casts' stellar delivery of the movie's superb scripting, bearing little to no ham even if the plot progresses out of its near-realistic wilderness terrors and stalk into straight-up fantastical horror. The film's handful of striking imagery somehow works itself within the plot's theme of losing control and the unpredictable cruelty of nature, swinging in a right amount of dread and suspense upon both its characters and the audience as we path through and observe an environment that is as unforgiving and dangerous as the human threat teased throughout the movie, a strong staple of survivalist horror done right.

As a slasher in turn, Rituals (1977) may not follow the classic bodycounter rulings given its greater focus on psychological strain and devolution, it does still tackle enough from the sub-genre to be a solid early outing for the backwoods hack 'n slash-type; we do have a body count with a decently fair number, albeit it's brought upon from a more wider variety of causes not limited to the movie's eerily obscured maniac. In fact, the killer's never really completely present on screen until the hour mark where we finally catch a glimpse or two, or see things through their eyes in your typical point-of-view shot. They got through a couple of kills, yes, but they're mostly an observer, biding their time to commit their next kill or let Mother Nature take out these men for them. The motive behind their killings can be a bit loose though, silly even for how both unrelated and specific it is, but I see it as a minor gripe considering how well the rest of the movie works itself around it, especially if it all leads to a harrowingly intense climax, a hauntingly silent reveal to what's behind these deaths and misfortunes, and one last shot that's serene and cathartic at the same time.

An excellent Canuck proto-slasher, this is one title that earned its cult fave status. I strongly recommend any true horror fans to try this out and consider giving this movie a spot for their collection as a minor classic and a hidden gem. A guaranteed genre pleaser!

1 male thrown down a cliff
1 male strangled to death
1 male had a leg caught on a rusted bear trap, suffers through toxic shock
1 male hacked on the chest with an axe, bled to death
1 male set ablaze
1 male shot with a shotgun
Total: 6

Thursday, September 17, 2020

The Paris Neo-Nazi Massacre: Frontier(s) (2007)

Frontier(s) (France, 2007) (AKA "Frontière(s)")
Rating: ****
Starring: Karina Testa, Aurélien Wiik, Patrick Ligardes 

In the midst of one of France's presidential elections wherein a far-right candidate gets considered for position, a street gang of French-Arab youths takes advantage of the resulting riots to pull a robbery, scoring some cash they needed to escape Paris. The plan, however, ends up with them splitting for a bit after engaging the police in a gun fight, with one group consisting of Yasmine and her ex, Alex, looking for a hospital to treat Yasmine's severely wounded brother Sami, while the other two, friends Tom and Farid, drive to the countryside to look for a hideout where the rest can catch up.

Their predicament worsens when Sami dies moments after getting past hospital doors, forcing Yasmine to leave her him behind as security's made aware of their possible involvement with the riots. All the while, Tom and Farid decided to stop by a family-run inn near the border for a small break, only to somehow anger the clan when the innkeepers felt disrespected by the boys after a fairly disturbing dinner.

From that point, it all escalates to torturous and deadly turns as not only is the family revealed to be deranged and hinted to be cannibalistic, but they're also living remnants of the Third Reich, Neo-Nazis desperate to keep the bloodline of their "supreme race" alive. As the youngsters fall victim to their murderous madness one by one, Yasmine alone will find herself in a situation much worse than death and she will have no choice but to fight back or die trying.

Heavily borrowing elements from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) and mixing it up with the violent taste of the New French Extremity movement, Xavier Gens' Frontier(s) is a bleak stroll down classic Hicksploitation horror that starts and ends in pure chaos. It's nothing relatively complex plot-wise as we follow yet another group of troubled friends ending up in unfamiliar grounds at a "middle-of-nowhere" countryside, to be horribly tortured and killed by what first looks like an angry family of rural folks, but the driving force that makes this movie a bit more extra is its unexpectedly wild turns tackling other exploitation tropes, leading to Grindhouse-gritty Nazisploitation, claustrophobic monster horror with secret tunnels being prowled by animalistic mutant children and Hostel-level of nihilistic torture and gore that get more grueling the further we go. 

It's a mixed bag of horror trappings that works well enough, though the multitudes of terrible on-goings definitely needs a tad more expanding around the conventions it introduced rather than mildly hinting it, such as the animosity and favoritism between the "family" members of the Neo-Nazi clan that broods a good deal of tension throughout the movie. There's also the matter that Frontier(s) wallows in its own bleakness a lot more than it needed to at times, which may turn off some viewers who isn't in it for complete doom and gloom as the film's flow pushes the ante of despair and torment to levels that bear little to no light to balance it out .

Then again, from what it offers, the film is made purely for exploitation fun and enjoyment, delivering on that front in full force with its sleek and grungy look, working on grainy-tint lenses, cinematography that's focused on everything in decay from buildings to flesh, and a breezy fast pace to keep the carnage going as much as possible. On that note, the gore scenes -the very highlight of this movie- are brutal in the rawest definition of the word, especially towards the finale in which Frontier(s) pulls a "reverse-slasher" on us. From Achilles heels crushed and cut with long pliers to a bisection by table saw, it's all a gorehound's treat for the amount of practical effects and fake blood used for these kills, with little to no CG assist done to keep it as old school as traditional filming and visual effects can get.

The cookie-cutter characters are played with good enough talent to bring them to life on screen, but their lack of depth may mean difficulty to empathize with them throughout their ordeal save, perhaps, Yasmine; leading actress Karina Testa done a fantastic job in her role as our definite final girl, a vulnerable protagonist at first, soon forced to fight back and feel the wrath of the clan after her character's subjected to watch her friends and former lover die. Her struggles to keep alive and escape in the later act infuses raw emotion and terror so perfectly, one might find themselves holding their breath back until the last shot of the film for how intense it all got.

Frontier(s) may be lacking a developed story or more fleshed out characters from both ends of the coin, it does have a story that sticks with you for a good while after all that manic cluster of blood, guts and torture. If you're looking for a carnal French horror flick that offers the basic exploits of people being tortured and slaughtered in all manners possible then try this for your liking. It could be your hidden gem!

1 male dies from gunshot wound
1 male brained, throat cut with a knife
1 male cooked inside a sauna, shot with a shotgun
1 male shot on the head
1 elderly male shot with a shotgun
1 male shot with a shotgun
1 male repeatedly hacked with an axe, eviscerated in half with a buzzsaw
1 male had his head blown in half with a shotgun
1 female caught on a gas explosion, seen dying from a shrapnel to the neck
1 female had her neck bitten open, bled to death
Total: 10

Thursday, September 10, 2020

A Cut At Night: In Their Sleep (2010)

In Their Sleep (Dans Ton Sommeil) (France, 2010)
Rating: ***1/2
Starring: Anne Parillaud, Arthur Dupont, Thierry Frémont 

A year after her son died from a tragic accident, Sarah's life is in shambles and her depression is taking over, robbing her of sleep and sanity. In this one night however, while driving home from work, she almost ends up hitting Arthur, a young man around the same age of her late boy who appears to be stalked by a car not too far off. After hearing from the boy that his family was murdered, Sarah sees herself responsible for Arthur's safety and allows him to stay at her nearly empty abode until they can sort everything out. 

But when the mysterious driver shows up and starts hunting down Arthur, the truth to his story begins to unravel and it seems Sarah will have to use her best judgement to determine what is real and who is the real threat among these people.

Written and directed by duo Caroline and Eric du Potet, In Their Sleep (2010) may lack a capricious plot but it's intriguing enough as a watch for how overwhelmingly bleak it is to follow through from beginning to end. Emotional and intense, it walks a rather devastating stroll down grief and anguish from the eyes of its relatively small casts, may it be the victims or perpetrators, though a good brunt of this is mainly from Anne Parillaud's character Sarah; from the very start, she is dangerously desperate to find happiness in her current emotional and psychological state and is willing to make decisions that go over her better judgment. This, in turn, has us observing a silent breakdown of Sarah's psyche as she tries to make sense of what's happening in this one night, her doubts and tumbles further marking her for a fate bound to happen no matter how hard she tries going against it.

The catalyst to all of this is basically a home invasion scenario that's simply chilling; without giving away much, a killer made their way through a house that appears empty, helping themselves to whatever is around and enjoying the bounty until the owners return. From there, they hide and wait until everyone in the family is asleep before murdering them all one by one, everyday box cutter in hand. There's a sense of routine to the massacre that's just upsetting to think about, especially when it is eventually implied this wasn't the killer's first rodeo for this modus. Though, given the situation for this one night, it seems this is the first time things didn't go as per the usual plan and seeing the survivor's powerful reaction to their murdered family is just heartbreaking to sit through.

With its narration interwoven with flashbacks, dreams and everything in between, In Their Sleep (2010) toys with how it illustrates and deploys its character's motives and tragedies, compounding weight upon weight of dread and anticipation as we see more of the bigger picture, albeit in foreboding pieces. This effectively raises the tension between each character's relation with one another the further the story goes, giving us pieces of the past that only we're aware of and hoping highly that gets to be brought up. It's a plot-building tactic that's paced modestly (thus giving this movie quite the slow trot despite the short running time), even having its occasions of being a bit upsetting when it teases us outcomes that may or may not go the way we anticipated. 

Filled with lush cinematography and artistic flair, there's an underlying reservedness with this movie's execution compared to other French home invasion shockers such as High Tension (2003), Inside (2007) and Martyrs (2008). It's shock factor relies less from kills that borderlines into body horror and more on emotional impact, in which the stellar performances of its three leads graciously provided as they strongly impassioned all the sorrow and woe that would come from broken hearts and damaged minds. In Their Sleep (2010) may not be all that perfect, but it understands terror and loss by tapping (or cutting) a vein or two and, sometimes, that's quite enough to make a horror thriller that terrifying and distressing to watch. A guaranteed viewing for genre fans like you and me.

1 male found impaled on rebars
1 female had her throat cut with a boxcutter 
1 girl had her throat cut with a boxcutter
1 male ran through with a sharpened lumber
1 male found with his throat cut with a box cutter
1 female seen dead from a throat cut 
Total: 6

Wednesday, September 2, 2020

Never Leave A Frendo Behind: Clown In A Cornfield (2020)

Clown In A Cornfield
Author: Adam Cesare
Publication Year: 2020
Chapters: 31 (Epilogue included)
Rating: ****

With hopes of starting fresh after the recent death of her mother, high school senior Quinn Maybrook finds herself moving out of the big city Philadelphia life to settle in Kettle Springs, Missouri with her father after he accepted a job there as the resident doctor. She is quickly taken in by a gang of misfits led by one Cole Hill after their science teacher suddenly goes mental on them on her first day at the town's high school, learning about the growing animosity between the town's youths and elders from this outburst, as well as from a brief incident at a local diner.

When a Founder's Day celebration goes disastrous after a prank gone wrong, however, it seems someone in town thought enough is enough, that these kids are out of control and they need to be taught a lesson they'll never ever forget; dressed as a certain porkpie hat-wearing town mascot Frendo the Clown, the killer stabs, slices and shoots their way through the town's youthful residents and all those who get in the way, which spells nothing but bloodshed and a possible end for Quinn as she'll soon see herself caught in this maniac's madness.

A gutsy take on a young adult horror novel, Clown In A Cornfield holds nothing back in regards to its bodycount horror and social commentary with its talks of small town poverty and generation conflict, before landing itself in an array of vile murders and an admittedly dark twist. The book basically sectioned itself in two halves to achieve this, doing a solid job taking its time to build around the situation of Kettle Springs as a place and community first, with vivid descriptions of crumbling facilities, rural politics and old folks spouting about the good old days when their home is still flourishing. This often trails into the mischievous yet well-intentioned and very informative banters between Quinn's new acquaintances as they bring up a bit of the town's history and hint past troubles that may or may not lead to the carnage later. 

It does take a while to get things going, in turn. Varying portions of certain chapters give way into developing the character or characters involved, mostly delving into Quinn's thoughts on her situation as the new girl around town and her attempts to get past her mother's passing. The writing done for these segments shed a good amount of sympathetic light to whoever the chapter's focusing on (some more than the others) but, in typical slasher fashion, once the town's secretive Founder's Day party gets held, the book mostly drops this in-depth look into rural life and teen conflict to eventually shift its gears to a more adrenaline-rushed pace, chaotically running down as much death and mutilation as possible in written format.

Without giving away much, the killings in this second half are linked to a conspirator who wants to weed out what they see as blighted youths to make Kettle Springs "great again". It starts out with your classic masked slasher stalkings and standard set of murders, but it soon breaks down into something more of a survivalist horror thriller as the kill count doubles in digits and teens start dying left and right in what looks like an active shooter scenario perpetrated by a creepy clown, undoubtedly the book's most unforgettable scene. This escalates even further to an unexpected turn that warrants a lot of shotgun-totting and even more bodies piling up, a reveal that, while not overly original (I can name two to three movies that this twist reminds me of), still deserves some merits for how well it was pulled off, putting great care into detailing the attacks and tying these set-pieces into the town's problems, both real and surmised, wonderfully. It all leads to finale that has us reading what I can best describe as a back-to-back villain monologue, a "boss fight" with guns and an epilogue that teases a possible new wave of slashing, a couple of moves that definitely echo the hammier side of slasher horror but still channeling a decent amount of grimness for just how insane and dark it is.  

From cover to cover, Clown In A Cornfield is a guaranteed page-turner of a slasher novel that delivers what it promises and more. It has the sensibilities of a 90s horror flick and the carnal homage to bloody 80s bodycounters, topped with new age teen theatrics and a bleak look into small town Americana. Again, for a young adult horror fiction, this is unrelentingly fun in a violent, old school horror way and I couldn't want it in any other way. If you have the chance to grab a copy of this at your local bookstores (or, have it in your eBook collection like moi!), don't you dare hesitate! 

Or feel the wrath of a chainsaw-wielding Frendo!

Bodycount: 20+
Notable Kill: A shocking crossbow massacre with multiple victims. The sheer chaos of this spree spreads throughout multiple chapters and the vivid details of the kills elevate the brutality of it all.