PSYCHO PATH—A Brief Review

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The latest short film from indie horror outfit 4 Leagues Media, PSYCHO PATH is a fantastic addition to their repertoire. I first heard of 4 Leagues Media through my friend and local writing group member Kayla Stuhr, who is part of the company and has produced, directed, acted, and written in these films. Like many of their short films, PSYCHO PATH is designed for the circuit, where the crew recently won numerous awards for their horror short Tethered. I was lucky enough to get a special code to watch PSYCHO PATH online, so I’m going to give you my honest opinion here. Nevermind that I know Ms. Stuhr. She told me not to be too nice.

But enough of that. Let’s get into the details of this film. I’ll try not to post anything too spoilery. The film is only 12 minutes, so I don’t want to give away too much.

A General Gist of the Plot

Some have said that the found footage genre is dead. For a while, I thought so too. It seemed like Cloverfield was the culmination of found footage and nothing could really build upon it. Then I saw the horror flick Creep. If you’ve read my brief film reviews, you know that I loved Mark Duplass’ film. The trick was Creep’s ability to justify the found footage mechanism. It was upfront about the fact that the characters were specifically attempting to create a home video, so all of the cinematography made sense within the context of the story.

PSYCHO PATH is much like Creep in that regard. Much of the 12 minutes of the film is captured by the personal camera of our main character, Laurel Rhodes. A vlogger who has a social media channel called Off Roads, Laurel takes her camera with her on backpacking adventures to find interesting trails, waterfalls, scenic locations, and probably anything else that captures her eye in the deep woods. This time around, she’s seeking a specific forest tunnel of some kind, but gets sidetracked by a storm and stumbles upon a lone, empty cabin.

Inside, inevitably, Laurel finds strange runic markings. More importantly for her situation, she finds a dry loft where she can rest her head as the storm passes.

Then, all hell breaks loose. I won’t say anymore here. You can’t make me.

My Thoughts on the Film as a Work of Art

As with most short films, the plot is simple enough. It’s the execution of the story that sets a horror short apart from the milieu. In haphazard fashion, as is my wont, I will now tell you how I think PSYCHO PATH measures up.

Abigail Wilson nails her role as Laurel. It can be difficult to carry the momentum of a story when you’re the only face on screen for the majority of the time, but she manages to seem real, nuanced, human, and exactly like I would expect a backpacking vlogger to be.

Unfortunately, the rest of the cast is not as good as she is. In fact, I’d say this film’s one downside is the awkwardness and somewhat stilted nature of the scenes with characters other than Laurel. This is not enough of a criticism to take away from the overall effect of the film, but it should be noted.

Aside from Wilson’s stellar performance, PSYCHO PATH is carried by its aesthetic and ability to capitalize on excellent moments of terror. Let’s talk aesthetic first. The lighting is great, the interior of the cabin is magnificently styled, and the clips of previous episodes of Off Roads are a really nice touch that sets the mood and establishes Laurel’s character brilliantly. Of course, no horror film is complete without music that colors the scenes. Composer Matt Vucic delivers a haunting score that genuinely impressed me.

Okay, now for the moments of terror. Let me explain what I’m talking about. HEY, HERE’S A SPOILER: when a man enters the cabin in the middle of the night, Laurel starts to climb down from the loft to announce her presence. Then, while she is poised halfway up a ladder in the background, the man begins to drag a body into the quiet room. We sit there, paused and tense with Laurel, as we pray for the man not to see her or hear her creaks as she slowly tries to hide herself again. OKAY, SPOILER OVER.

That kind of moment is pure. It shows what Tethered began to tell the world: 4 Leagues Media understands horror. They understand what makes us afraid, and how to exploit those moments in creative and sense-heightening ways.

The filmmakers are also well-versed in that old adage: show, don’t tell. They let us, the viewers, make of this film what we will. They let us tell ourselves the tale. They are careful to give us only the details we need to conjure the demons in our own imagination. If anything, the film left me wanting just a few more answers, just a little more information. It’s a delicate balance between revealing so little that your audience doesn’t understand the film and revealing so much that your audience is bored with what is inevitably not as scary as they made it out to be in their minds. Fortunately for us all, 4 Leagues Media seems at home on that tightrope.

Plus, the runic symbols are freaking cool. It’s difficult to create a thing that is objectively cool these days, with so much of our art shrouded in irony and cross-references.

The Final Analysis

PSYCHO PATH is really good. It’s not a perfect film, but it is great at showcasing the skill on offer at 4 Leagues Media. I’ve now seen two of their shorts, and I can say that their range is broad as well. Don’t let the simplicity of the story fool you: there is nuance here. This isn’t just a cookie-cutter film crew. I expect to hear a lot of great things about them in the future, and honestly I can’t wait until I’m able to watch another of their movies.

Overall, I give PSYCHO PATH 8/10. But remember kids: numerical scores are usually dumb. What I really mean to say is: see the film if you are lucky enough to have the chance.

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The Eyes of My Mother—A Brief Review

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I’ve written several brief film reviews, most of them about horror movies, which you can check out here. This one has been brewing in my head for a while, so I hope you enjoy.

The Eyes of My Mother is the single most disturbing film I have watched in recent memory. The horror debut of writer/director Nicolas Pesce, the film has had a lasting impact on me. I watched it alone the first time, was incredibly freaked out, and forced some friends to watch it with me again a few days later. I won’t spoil the film for you if you are interested, but I’ll talk here about the kind of horror that awaits you, and why the film is very good.

Our story begins, after a fittingly terrifying opening sequence, with a young girl named Francisca, who lives in relative isolation on a farm with her mother and father. Her mother was an eye-surgeon from Portugal, and there is a brief moment in which she teaches Francisca how to dissect the eye of a cow. She remarks that they used to practice on cow’s eyes in the old country because they were similar to humans’ eyes, but enlarged.

A series of events unfurl in the film, including the deaths of multiple characters, but we see this all by following Francisca first as a child and then as a young adult played to stunning effect by Kika Magalhães. All in black-and-white, the movie captures almost a neo-noir essence that manages to be both beautiful and austere. But let me get to the nightmarishness.

After I watched The Eyes of My Mother the first time, I remembered it as an incredibly graphic film. But, like the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre, this is an illusion. Most of the violence or graphicness happens off screen, the tension and terror packed into the space between scenes as we realize the extent of depravity and suffering going on. Even when we see limited moments of gore, the film’s black-and-white nature obscures our ability to see truly the viscera. We comprehend the grotesque through suggestion, mostly, as the director either doesn’t show us the violence or shows us it through a decolorized veil. This emphasizes the true horror, which has to do with time.

See, The Eyes of My Mother is, in my opinion, a film that is ultimately about isolation. It is about the ability of a human being to become completely and utterly isolated from other people. That person can interact with others, but never truly exists among them. This is why an inability to see or speak becomes integral to the horror we witness. It is also why the horror is revealed to extend through time in a way that continues to twist the tension into a coiling spring ready to explode. If I’m talking in circles, it’s because I don’t want to spoil anything, but after you’ve seen the film, remember this: I’m talking about the events that occur inside the barn and their extension through time, which we do not see directly. I’m talking about how long that horror lasts in character-time, how many days and hours it lasts that we, the audience, are not privy to.

Everyone in this film becomes isolated and remains isolated, save for one individual (and possibly two). This isolation and existential terror is also reflected in the pacing of the film. I alternate between thinking that Pesce paced his film perfectly and thinking that it is slightly, maybe a hair’s breadth too slow. The snail’s pace is obviously purposeful, however, and its punctuation with violence and terror enforces in the viewer the kind of (for lack of a better word) fucked-up-ness that is going on here.

Some additional notes: there are traces and hints of (what could be construed as) cannibalism, incest, sexual slavery, and more in this film. It manages to comment on almost all of our societal taboos without making the viewer witness (most of) them. I think the film’s strength is its ability to get at these things in a relatively tactful way while still delivering extreme horror, dread, terror, and the like.

The Eyes of My Mother is shocking, horrifying, beautiful, artsy, humble, and pretentious all rolled into one. It’s a package that you should unpack at least one in your life, especially if you love the horror genre. This one, while containing violence, is more of a horror-in-your-mind film than a torture-porn film, which to me is always, ALWAYS, scarier.

9.5-10/10, depending on how I feel about the pacing at any given moment. Watch it on Netflix while it’s available.

Afternoon’s Gold

[About a month ago, I went on a writer’s retreat with the Greensboro Scribe Order. One of our exercises was to write a short story in a very brief timespan with the title/prompt “Afternoon’s Gold.” This is my story, which was inspired by Caster Semenya and the ludicrous way that the IAAF has treated her.]

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Photo by Tim Gouw from Pexels

What she noticed first was the quality of the light. The way it splashed across the blacktop, the little black beads of rubber all melted together through some kind of strange osmosis. The way the light splayed out like an ocean, each ray like a drop of water, individual yet part of the whole.

The second thing she noticed was the gun. Like most of these events, the trackmaster had a gun with which he (and it was practically always a he) signaled the start of the race. The gun was loaded with blanks, and oafish like a flare gun, its barrel jutting out on the end like a cartoon prop. She thought about her mother in the stands, part of the faceless, cheering mass, and she felt like laughing. The absurdity of it. The absurdity of her, being here, against all odds, ready to set a record she knew the world would never recognize. Maybe could never recognize.

No.

The voice in her head was her mother’s, oddly enough. Strong and confident, never showing fear. A black woman in today’s world had to be that way. No cracks in the exterior. Present always the fangs first, the lioness gaze.

No. They will recognize you. They will see and learn. You be the best you can be, Fish.

She inhaled slowly, the world slowing down with her breaths. This was her moment, her day. The light splayed out like an ocean across the blacktop where she would run at the gun’s urging. This was her sea. She could be its Fish.


FWOOSH.

A gunshot snapped across the air like a whip, but for her it was all in slow motion. She could feel her heart beat, feel the air swirling in her lungs, giving oxygen to the blood cells that flowed down into her calves with each passing second. FWOOSH. The sound of air streaming through the trees. FWOOSH. The sound of fire sparking in a frigid hearth. FWOOSH. The sound of a wave crashing against the shore.

Her legs kicked out from under her, the muscles reacting to instinct more than any command. The gunshot snaps, the legs kick. That is the focal point of existence. That is when the world makes sense. She began to run, each stride as smooth as a backstroke, her movements cutting through the air with the elegance of a school of fish: each muscle, each ligament, each cell an individual yet inexplicably a cohesive whole. Not even sex felt this good, this purposeful. No other instinct or drive could be whittled down to one, single verb: run.


They watched her from the crowd, eyes hawkish. She could feel their gazes in the space between her shoulder blades. Cutting, slicing, dissecting her. She could feel the eyes of her mother, trying to somehow salve the pain, trying to deflect the questions that every reporter asked after every single race. Hormone levels. Birth certificate. DNA testing. Gene sequencing. Everything but the question that mattered. Every dissection except the one that would take.

The feeling of wind through the shaved stubs of hair all over her body. The sound of time as it rushed past her. The smell of, somehow, metal. Bubbling up and being smelted, its edges condensing and finally falling into the magma floe of liquid. The knowledge was there, always, from the snap of the gun. She would get that gold. That medal was hers, and hers alone. Inevitable. Like a fish to water.


A flurry of sound rushed into her like a tide as she let her body collapse across the painted white finish line. White as always, my baby Fish. You gotta chase that whiteness, but don’t let it own you. She thrust her body forward, let herself condense as the moment grew larger, time speeding up as she heard the cheers and jeers, saw the stopwatches click in the palms of these distant men with bloodshot eyes, these judges. She could no longer hear the wind.

Panting, hands on her knees, she heard the announcement of the times. She paced for several meters, shaking the lactic acid already starting to build in her thighs. Her name rang out hollowly across the stadium, the announcement solidifying what she already knew, what she could feel in the fibers of her calves, the tendons of her feet: a world record.

Not just that top spot; not just the prize of the day, the plinth at the end of the ceremonies. A world-ass record. The Fish had done it. She had been the best she could be. No, the best anyone could be, had ever been.

The two men in grayish overcoats took her, one hand on either side. They led her down the track for the tests she knew were coming: the reporters have to get their questions answered, after all. One hand on either arm, but those arms extended into the sky.

Her mother was watching, she knew. Her mother saw. No matter what else happened that day, her mother would see the victory in this. You gotta chase that whiteness, Fish. But don’t let it own you.


She raised her arms into the sky, two antennae, two feelers lifted into the air as the sun slid golden beneath the afternoon clouds.

Green Room—A Brief Review

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One of the last films starring Anton Yelchin released before the young actor’s extremely tragic death, Green Room is an absolute gem. Yelchin’s brilliance as an actor is on full display here, and he is joined by a cast that definitely earned the right to be on screen next to the inimitable Sir Patrick Stewart. Green Room is one of those films that features a mesh between brilliant acting, incisive writing, and the kind of directing that shows a knack for knowing what needs to be shown on screen. Watch it. Do it now.

Okay, a brief synopsis. Yelchin and his co-stars are in a punk band that is touring around the PNW, I think. They get a gig from this college student who runs a local radio station, but the gig unfortunately falls through. Stuck for cash, the band decides to heed the kid’s advice and take a gig playing for his cousin and his cousin’s neo-Nazi skinhead pals. Once they play their set, they find that the Nazi punks have left all of their gear in the hallway outside the eponymous green room in which they were staying. One of the characters realizes that she left her phone in the room, so Yelchin decides to go back to get it. When he opens the door, he sees the next band sitting on couches with a recently deceased body lying on the floor.

Of course, now the band is not allowed to leave. They are witnesses to a murder, after all. So the Nazis trap them in the green room. I won’t give away anything else, since everything I’ve said is basically the setup. But you really need to see the punchline.

This was the second film I watched that was directed by Jeremy Saulnier, the first being Murder Party, which I will review soon. In keeping with his origins, Saulnier’s film is incredibly violent. The film is moving, emotional, poignant, harrowing, terrifying, and essential to watch in our time, which has seen an increase in white supremacist movements and right-wing terrorism. I plan on watching more of Saulnier’s films in the future, as well as others from the Lab of Madness film group, like Macon Blair (who has an acting role in this film).

My rating: 10/10. This is one of the best horror and horror-adjacent films I’ve seen on Netflix. You really need to watch it, if you can stomach the gore.

I’ll be posting some similar reviews throughout the next weeks or months, so stay tuned. If you want to read other film reviews I’ve done, click on the “Movie Reviews” tab to your left.

The Endless—A Brief Review

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The Endless is one of the currently available Netflix horror-adjacent films that I have been evangelizing to my friends. I don’t want to spoil too much in this review because I think the pacing and slow reveal throughout the film are both brilliant and depend on you going into the thing with as few spoilers as possible. I’ll provide you with a relatively spoiler-free synopsis here.

Two brothers left what they term a UFO-death-cult years ago. In the present day, they receive a video of one of the cultists talking about a coming “ascension.” After much arguing, the two decide that they will return to the cult’s camp for a brief stay in order to say the goodbyes that they never were able to say before. From there, things get weird. The whole camp is a bit off, and the two brothers start unraveling the mystery of the entity that this cult appears to worship.

Filmmaking team Aaron Moorhead and Justin Benson directed, produced, wrote, starred, edited, and handled the cinematography for The Endless, which is set in a shared universe with their previous film Resolution. I cannot say enough good about this duo. Their performances were compelling, the story that Benson wrote is wonderful and terrifying in all the right spots, and Moorhead captures some absolutely astounding shots as cinematographer. They also benefit from a brilliant cast that produces some great performances.

The sheer horror that occurs as the two stars unravel the mystery is really moving. I don’t want to spoil anything else, so make sure you check this out while it is still available on Netflix. And remember the names Benson and Moorhead. The two are working on a new film called Synchronic, set to come out in 2019, and you should be ready. They will be names to know in horror for years to come.

My rating: 9.25/10

I’ll be posting some similar reviews throughout the next weeks or months, so stay tuned. If you want to read other film reviews I’ve done, click on the “Movie Reviews” tab to your left.

Gehenna: Where Death Lives—A Brief Review

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I’m going to get straight to the point. Gehenna: Where Death Lives maybe should not have been as fun for me as it was. Certainly, I don’t think I would have finished it were it not for my commitment to watching a bunch of horror films on Netflix and reporting back to the three of you, my avid readers. Essentially horror schlock aimed at crowd-pleasing its fans, the film’s plot involves a group of industrialists visiting the island of Saipan and researching a plot of land on which they wish to build a resort. Of course, this is a horror film, so we learn that the area holds a WWII Japanese bunker built on ancient sacrificial ground.

I found the concept of Gehenna interesting, and I think the filmmakers did a good job with visuals. But that’s where the good stuff ends. Though the film starts out with, frankly, bad acting, terrible dialogue, and a portrayal of natives that I found genuinely offensive, it progressively became better. The shame here is that the narrative of these people descending into this old bunker and finding a terrible curse is actually quite compelling and there is a lot of meat there that I think better hands would have crafted into a better story.

Some of the visuals are striking, some of the concepts are actually horrific and dreadful, but ultimately the film fails because it seems somewhat slapped together. It reads like a movie unsure of whether it is a B-movie or an A-film (spoiler: this makes it more of a subpar B-movie).

My rating: 5/10, would not watch again.

I’ll be posting some similar reviews throughout the next weeks or months, so stay tuned. If you want to read other film reviews I’ve done, click on the “Movie Reviews” tab to your left.

 

Creep 2 — A Brief Review

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Creep was one of my favorite horror films of the past decade. Not only did it use the trite found-footage format in as convincing a way as possible, but it also felt deeply disturbing and up-close on a level rarely seen in horror. This kind of dread/terror is what I want in a horror film: the creeping sensation that Things Are Not As They Seem and that Something Is Very Wrong. I won’t spoil the end of Creep, but it ended in a way that seemed both perfect and probably final, i.e. there could be no sequel.

When I first heard that the master Mark Duplass had reprised his role and co-wrote the script for a second film, I was skeptical. What new twist could they put on this guy? Now that we know who he is, how can we experience that same creeping terror? But boy, was I wrong.

Creep 2 features a key figure that makes the film worthwhile and highly interesting: Sara. A YouTuber who has yet to break into the big time (I can feel that, as a blogger and self-published novelist who has yet to make real money off my work), Sara is obsessed with odd people and decides to respond to a Craigslist add penned by the nominal Creep (the aforementioned Duplass). This device allows the film to be creepy and surreal all over again, as we follow Sara’s relationship with this creep knowing full well who he is and what he has done. The jump scares are okay, but the real horror comes from the subtext underneath the actions we see on screen. We know who he is, we can guess what’s coming, but there is still some mystery as he begins to form a real connection with Sara.

I won’t spoil any more for you. I love this and Creep, and I think they both work precisely because they explore different things about Mark Duplass’ character. This is not just a rehash of the first film but feels like an organic growth from its predecessor: a real tangent that the character has gone down and must handle. Watch it if you liked Creep.

Rating: 9/10

I’ll be posting some similar reviews throughout the next weeks or months, so stay tuned. If you want to read other film reviews I’ve done, click on the “Movie Reviews” tab to your left.