Review: 'Upgrade'

By: Heather Seebach

Fourteen years ago, Leigh Whannell was chained to a filthy bathroom floor with Cary Elwes in Saw but it paid off with a well-earned spot in horror's hall of fame. Since he and frequent collaborator James Wan went their separate ways (hopefully not forever), Leigh has been occasionally taking up the mantle of director. His latest endeavor as both writer and director is Upgrade, an outrageously fun sci-fi thriller that embraces Whannell's blood-soaked roots while exploring a bleak vision of a near-future ruled by technology.

Logan Marshall-Green (aka: that guy you keep thinking is Tom Hardy but isn't) stars as Grey, a mechanic who still prefers the hands-on approach despite living in a world of self-driving cars, surveillance drones, and bionic implants. He lives a happy domestic life until a brutal attack by thugs leaves him paralyzed and his wife dead. Stricken with grief and hopelessness, Grey is at the end of his rope when a billionaire inventor offers him a second chance at a normal life in the form of a spinal implant called STEM. Once installed, the tiny AI device can speak directly to Grey and it gives him the ability to walk again. More importantly, it also gives him superhuman physical powers to use in avenging his wife's death.

Despite the depressing nature of the narrative, Whannell delivers it with gleeful abandon. Grey is an average Joe who is suddenly gifted the abilities of a brilliant, bad-ass killing machine. His horrified reactions to STEM are hilarious, as are the sassy retorts of the AI itself which occasionally sound a bit like Ron Howard's sarcastic Arrested Development narrator. The laughs quickly give way to shocked gasps, however, when Whannell reminds us who co-created the Saw franchise. The gore is not steady but when it comes, it takes no prisoners. Expect a chorus of "God DAMN!"s from your theater audience. The ultimate result is like a gory, funny version of Knight Rider.

For all its brutality, Upgrade also has a surprisingly amount of heart, as well. The scenes that follow Grey's attack are downright heart-breaking as he struggles with grief, loneliness, and the sad realities of life as a quadriplegic. Marshall-Green is equally good as both wounded widower and cybernetic avenger. The script juggles humor, violence, and sadness adeptly with plenty of twists along the way. Add to that some body horror, creative fixed-camera techniques, and some incredible sound effects. From the cybernetic noises to off-screen gore, the sound effects are seriously awesome.

After the most recent trailer for Venom (starring actual Tom Hardy), there were inevitable comparisons to this film, as that story also involves a man with chatty parasite that has given him superhuman abilities. I will of course hold all judgment on that movie until I see it but I am skeptical that it will come close to the creativity and - for lack of a better term - balls of this one. Upgrade hearkens back to the gritty sci-fi thrillers of my childhood. At a recent screening of the film in Washington D.C., Whannell said he was inspired by films like Robocop and The Terminator, and those influences definitely show. The only way to make Verhoeven more proud would be to throw some tits in there (just kidding - it's not the 1980s anymore).

Those 80s cyborg actioners were so awesome because of their knack for combining relevant science fiction and unflinching violence. Upgrade brings this idea into the modern world where autonomous vehicles are quickly becoming a reality, and where most households already have Siri or Alexa. Technology can be a blessing (like Alex Murphy given a second chance) or a curse (see: Skynet). The warnings about technology in Upgrade are hardly new, but the delivery certainly is. I especially recommend seeing this one in the cinema, as its wicked sense of humor and unbridled violence are best enjoyed with a crowd of horrified normies.

 out of 5

Upgrade hits theaters in the U.S. on June 1st!

Review: Ash vs. Evil Dead - S3E1 - "Family"

By: Heather Seebach 

 **The following contains spoilers about S3E1** 

 When we last saw our deadite-slaying protagonists, they had gone back in time to save Pablo, banished evil to the netherworld, and celebrated with a hero's welcome from Elk Grove in an alternate timeline. As season 3 begins, Ash is content that he finished evil off for good and now owns a hardware store/sex toy emporium in-town. His grand opening celebrations are cut short when some idiot reads aloud from the Necronomicon and unwittingly unleashes The Evil once again. 

 Kandarian demons are not Ash's only problem, however, when an old flame turns up and informs him that he has a daughter. He and Pablo race to save the girl from monsters run amok at Kenward High School. Meanwhile, Kelly has a new demon-slaying buddy named Dalton, and alternate-Ruby is up to no good when she gets her mitts on the Necronomicon. 

 Season three of Ash vs. Evil Dead has big boots to fill after a mostly-stellar second season. Despite a large hiccup of a finale, last season delivered outrageous laughs and brutal gore in ways that easily surpassed its predecessor. Unfortunately, creative differences during season two resulted in then-showrunner Craig DiGregorio leaving the show. He was replaced by veteran TV producer Mark Verheiden. The latter is a worthy replacement with many solid shows under his belt; however, the significantly darker tone of his work (e.g., Battlestar Galactica; Daredevil) is undeniable, so there has been some concern that too much unwanted moodiness might be infused into AvED this season. 

 So far, this season is still pretty light-hearted, easing right into the familiar ridiculousness of the previous episodes. Episode 1, entitled "Family", opens with a corny commercial for Ashy Slashy's Hardware Store Emporium where Ash stands in front of green screen backdrops promising to "slash prices" with his chainsaw arm. "What's better than a handful of my nuts? A long screw!" The sex puns, sounds effects, and low-budget touches (e.g., a boom mic nearly whacking Ash on the head) tell the audience right out the gate: this is the same silly show you know and love. 

 The episode doubles-down on that reminder when Ash faces off with a deadite in the Kenward High's band room. Slapstick violence abounds as the musical instruments punch and poke Ash like a Three Stooges routine. This is the episode's primary gore scene, too, delivering on decapitation (with bonus severed fingers) and a harp kill (which is cool but reminds me a bit too much of that cheap slice-and-slowly-fall-apart gag with which early-00's horror was so obsessed). 

 Ash and Pablo feel pretty much the same, and I am so relieved that Kelly turned up. The Jai Courtney-looking dude in a leather jacket (Dalton? I've already forgotten) seems shoe-horned in and I hope he dies quickly. "Family" is a pretty good opener for the new season. Where it lacks in anything particularly memorable, it has plenty of laughs and little references to the films. Ash walking into Kenward High and saying, "I met my first Linda here" made me laugh harder than I care to admit. It will take a lot to top last season but I look forward to watching them try!

Favorite Line

 "You can call me Dad. Unless you're a Deadite, then you can go fuck yourself."

Easter Eggs:

 - The colors of latex paint sold in Ashy Slashy's Hardware Store included "Sticky Grey" and "Yes No Pink"

 - There is a sign on the hardware store window advertising "Groovy T-Shirts" 

- This is not really an Easter egg, but I REALLY want that inflatable tube Ash 

 - During the antique program, there is a painting in which the man looks exactly like a young Bruce Campbell It's hard to make out who the other two people are, though they distinctly have men's faces. Rob Tapert and a baby Sam Raimi, perhaps? Any guesses?

The Fan Who Cried CGI: An Analysis of the Visual FX in 2017's "IT"

By: Heather Seebach

***Warning: The following contains spoilers about 2017's IT***

The modern era of horror films has brought with it a slew of irritating fans. I'm not referring to ALL of them but you know the ones - the keyboard warrior slinging insults in the YouTube comments section, or that hipster rolling his eyes at every genre movie made since 1990. Their catchphrases are "overrated" and "meh", and they are triggered by the word "remake."

Then there are those three letters that every would-be critic throws around but only a fraction of them do so correctly - CGI. Every horror fan born before the ought's bemoans the loss of elaborate practical horror FX, and who could blame them? Like many people, my childhood was made better by the jaw-dropping work of legends such as Rob Bottin , Rick Baker, and Stan Winston. 

As an adult, I am a makeup effects enthusiast and I get very excited about practical effects in any film. Naturally, CGI has become the enemy of any "old-school horror fan" but it is not always a fair criticism. I personally cannot stand computer-generated blood on film - it is cheap and inauthentic. I HATE IT. I also hate to see the digitization of creatures that could have otherwise been created practically.

Laziness and cheap shortcuts have indeed been a bane upon modern horror. The same is true of remakes but then again, not all remakes are shit. And likewise, not all CGI is bad. Countless films use CGI without you even knowing it, for things like rain and fire. And then there are films that use 90% practical FX and still get berated for having 10% digital effects. Worse yet is when a film uses practical effects and the viewer still mistakes it for CGI!

Those latter scenarios have become annoyingly prevalent lately with the release of Andy Muschietti's film, IT. For the most part, critics and fans alike love the movie. Still, one criticism keeps coming up again and again: "Too much CGI."

It is an interesting argument considering how little CGI is actually in the film. I have not seen a single person discuss - let alone compliment - its extensive practical effects. The biggest example of course is Pennywise's fantastic FX makeup. From that giant cranium to the less-obvious touches like his cheek prosthetics [source], it is a sight to behold. Then there is Beverly's bathroom nightmare which utilizes gallons of practical FX blood and in-camera tentacles of hair filmed seemingly in reverse. One of the film's best scares is Pennywise leaping out of the projector image like a jack-in-the-box -- very much a practical effect -- and, thanks to forced perspective, suddenly appearing gigantic. The list goes on and on.

On the flip side, the film does have some CGI and it is not all good, either. Before I get into what works, I will start with what does not work. The worst offenders for me were Stan's flute lady and the moment when Pennywise bites Georgie. Granted, neither took me out of the film. Could flute lady have been created practically? Perhaps. I could have done without the character altogether, to be honest. As for the Georgie attack, I really wish it had been a practical effect but I suspect it was a logistical choice. The director told GQ: "Georgie talking to Pennywise was really complicated for the technical challenge. Having a six-year-old kid under the rain, talking into a hole. We shot part of that on location, and part on a stage we built. It wasn’t easy. We had to have the rain all the time, so there’s a water issue and a sound issue, and the logistics around putting a camera inside the tiny space of the hole, where Pennywise was." [source] So it stands to reason that it might have been too difficult to implement a fully-functioning mouth prosthetic in a tiny space filling with water. But a girl can dream, right? 

Then there are the CGI moments that do work, like the Deadlights scene or Pennywise unfolding from the ice box. I cannot imagine either being done well without digital effects. I think CGI was for the most part used appropriately and to great effect. To quote producer Barbara Muschietti:“Neither my brother, nor I, nor the other producers, nor New Line are fans of CGI....CG is used as a support tool in every circumstance; never as an element standing on its own. In every film, in this day and age, there is some CG, but we will use it as little as possible.” [source] In another interview, she added: "To be candid again, the effects budget is actually tiny [laughs]. There’s always support. We use CG mostly for transitions. So when you have things that are impossible then you have to do a little CG bridge." [source]

Since when do we let one or two weak CGI moments ruin a horror film anyway? When people talk about how great Let The Right One In was, they don't say "But that cat scene was garbage, took me right out of the film!" IT is a well-crafted movie full of great characters and performances with a solid heartfelt story. It does great things for modern horror, but all some people can add is, "Ew, CGI." And sometimes it's not even CGI! People demand original horror and practical effects, but when you deliver exactly that, they do not even recognize it. For instance, some people have criticized the fake appearance of Pennywise's eyes, and yet Bill Skarsgård has said he can move his eyes independently of each other [source] which, along with glowing contact lenses, gives him that bizarre look.

A behind-the-scenes photo from the set. Wonky yellow eyes and all. 
So too has the leper, Eddie's nightmare vision, been criticized as being "all CGI" and yet actor Javier Botet had this to say about that claim:

Botet in make-up as the leper on-set
Botet is often mistaken for a digital effect, having brought to life such nightmares as Mama from the same-titled film, and Niña Medeiros in [REC]. In fact, in The Conjuring 2, his portrayal of The Crooked Man fooled even me. The final effect looked very cartoonish but it is not CGI. As director James Wan explained:

IT too suffered from viewers mistaking camera trickery for CGI. From Pennywise charging the camera to his now-infamous jig, that odd sensation is not CGI. Muschietti & co. have not yet revealed how exactly those moments were created but it appears to involve foreground and background being independently manipulated. Pennywise's face remains fixed while the background rocks, shakes, and jolts. Call it an editing trick or call it silly if you like but please do not call it CGI. Admittedly, those scenes did not initially win me over, though I appreciate the filmmakers trying something unique. Upon repeat viewings, those moments have become part of the piece as a whole and I appreciate them more and more. 

Every time I see someone criticize "CGI" that is not even CGI, I think of how insulting that is to Muschietti, Skarsgård, Botet, cinematographer Chung-hoon Chung (Chan-wook Park's go-to DP), and the entire effects team, which includes FX legend Tom Woodruff, Jr. Disliking a film or its effects is fair enough but too many people toss the term "CGI" around haphazardly these days. I am reminded of the complaints about Alien 3 having "crap CGI" when in fact it had almost none. Did those alien rod puppets on a blue screen look shitty? Yes but that does not change the fact it WAS NOT CGI. Needless to say, it is a pet peeve of mine as an FX enthusiast.

For clarification, I have no problem with anyone disliking the film or even its FX, specifically. I only take umbridge to the lazy assumption that everything you dont like is CGI, and the closed-minded notion that good horror can't use digital effects. It is especially bothersome when the target of such complaints is a film loaded with creative practical effects such as this one.

I suppose I mostly have grown weary of horror snobs, particularly ill-informed ones. From the moment this incarnation of IT was announced, it had folks against it simply for existing. All remakes suck, they say. Never mind that it is a re-adaptation of a novel where the first adaptation was not very good. GASP! That's right, the 1990 adaptation was dull and has aged even worse since then. Tim Curry is a brilliant actor who elevated that otherwise tedious mini-series. Still, there are half-committed snobs who will tell you no modern version could ever be as good. The same folks who insist that all CGI sucks, period, and that this looks absolutely flawless:


**Editors Note: I felt my use of the term 'millennial' in the intro was creating a combative tone against all fans born of the millenial generation which was not my intention. Being a millennial myself, I was referring only to the particular type of nay-saying fan that seems most common to my generation but I do not want to come across as trashing an entire group of fans so I have altered my wording. Thank you.**

Review: 'Rupture'

By: Heather Seebach

Rupture is a film that asks the question: Can the human body transcend suffering to become something greater? I'm thinking no, as I sat through this tedious nonsense and frankly, I don't feel any different. What begins as a promising kidnapping thriller unravels into an illogical sci-fi mess riddled with plot holes, cheap visuals, and all-around silliness.

Renee Morgan (Noomi Rapace) is a single mother raising a teenage boy in the suburbs of Kansas City. She is a tough woman capable of handling most things herself - from electric work to changing tires - but spiders are her greatest fear. One day, after dropping her son off with his dad, Renee is en route to go skydiving with a friend but she never makes it there. She is ambushed by strangers, tied up with tape, and thrown into a van for a long drive to somewhere mysterious. She is taken to a seemingly isolated facility where medical staff ask her questions, take blood samples, and say creepy shit like, "You have interesting skin." Renee immediately begins to plot her escape.

This is the part where I approach semi-spoiler territory but this is all taken from the official synopsis: Renee's captors intend to use her fear of spiders to induce a part of her genetic code to "rupture" and unlock "her true self." If that sounds a bit familiar, you are probably thinking of last year's Deadpool wherein scientists torture Wade Wilson to unlock his powers. Whoever thought that tiny section of plot could carry an entire film in Rupture was sorely mistaken.

Rapace, who is so above this movie it is not even funny, gives it her best shot but the material is just too weak here. Not helping matters is the fact that her character was written to be a Canadian living in Missouri with an inexplicable Scandinavian accent. I do not blame Noomi for this, as Renee could have easily been a Swedish immigrant, but somewhere in the script-writing process, someone: A) opted to bring up her birthplace for no obvious reason, and B) chose Canada. Really?

The only other recognizable faces are Peter Stormare (who also deserves better) and Michael Chiklis, both of whom play forgettable men of few words. Considering all the talent involved in this film - including director Steven Shainberg (Secretary) and writer Brian Nelson (Hard Candy) - it is baffling how bad it is. In fairness, it starts off creepy when Renee is kidnapped. I love the terrifying imagery of her being wrapped in black electrical tape and chained up inside a van, which fits right into the wheelhouse of the director/writer duo, but once the story shifts to the hospital, things just turn silly.

From here out, the story is riddled with plot holes and vague half-explanations. Too many missteps create a dull experience culminating in a completely unsatisfying ending.  Visually, the film tries too hard to be creepy and weird, instead coming across as laughable. Check out the ridiculous goggles and giant syringe in the following photo, and then remind yourself that this is a serious film:

At one point, Renee's hospital room is wallpaper'ed with the carpet pattern from The Shining. Why? Who the hell knows, probably because it's "cool." Some pretty terrible CGI - including the spiders that are so pivotal to the plot - make the film look even cheaper and sillier. The movie never really ventures into gore territory, nor does it offer up psychological chills. It sits somewhere in-between, resembling a PG-13 Hostel by way of Deadpool with a half-assed sci-fi angle thrown in. The notion that a person can be broken and then re-born as someone (or something) new has great sci-fi potential, but unfortunately this script bungles the idea and "ruptures" into a whole lot of nothing. 

Rupture is currently available exclusively on DirecTV and will hit theaters and On-Demand April 28th. 

Comic Book Review: 'Blood & Gourd' Issues 1 & 2

By: Heather Seebach

Most adult horror fans today grew up on fare like Creepshow and Tales from the Crypt, which were themselves inspired by EC Comics of the 1950s, so it is only natural that the inspirations should come full-circle. Indie web comic Blood & Gourd seeks to follow in the footprints of those groundbreaking horror comics while revisiting the humor and monstrous creations that defined so much great horror of the 1980s. With only two issues so far, the comic series is already hitting that mark admirably. It's got gore, originality, humor, and the palpable passion of the horror fans who created it.

Said creators are Jenz K. Lund and D.H. Schultis, who started a crowdfunding campaign for their first issue of Blood & Gourd back in 2013. They set out to create the kind of comic they would want to read, and what developed was a tale about homicidal pumpkins. Issue #1, published in April 2015, takes place on Devil's Night on Henderson Farms in Olympia, WA. The hay rides and cider tastings are cut short when something awakens from the soil and the pumpkins begin their violent attack. The first issue is one giant bloodbath and it is wonderful. Full of humor, gorgeous illustrations, and gruesome kills, it leaves the reader immediately eager for more.

Vengeful vegetation is of course not a new concept: from the schlock classic Attack of the Killer Tomatoes to Jason Eisener's short Treevenge, it has been done. Fortunately, this comic series is much more than a one-note gore gimmick. While there are hints at the pumpkins getting revenge upon the human beings who have carved and gutted them all these years, Lund and Schultis have crafted a much more in-depth lore. Furthermore, the pumpkin menace takes on numerous, unique forms. It was clearly important to the writers to not simply rehash old monsters by way of the pumpkin, but rather to give the Halloween staple its own original mythology.

 Issue #2 (which found its footing on Kickstarter in 2015) delves deeper into the history behind the pumpkin menace, with undertones of H.P. Lovecraft. The follow-up also sees more emphasis on the survivors of the Henderson massacre, some of whom will presumably be continuing characters in the larger story. My favorite thus far is Kitty, the pumpkin-ass-kicking heroine. According to co-creator Lund: "It's really about making your heroes flesh and blood...and then stripping them of the flesh, and then draining them of the blood." [source] So maybe don't get too attached to anyone.

Lund has said he drew inspiration from 80s horror classics Night of the Creeps and The Return of the Living Dead, with a desire to bring the fun back to horror. To that end, Blood & Gourd certainly succeeds, from its sight gags to over-the-top deaths to the straight-up bizarre (e.g. a telepathic toy unicorn). There is also a dose of agro-corporate satire, the surface of which has only just been scratched in the first two issues. There is no doubt a lot of great material on the way from this comic series. It is a gorgeous, gory good time for fans of Halloween and/or splattery horror films. The Kickstarter for Issue #3 will be landing soon so do yourself a favor and follow B&G at these links:

Until then, you can read Issues #1 and #2 yourself here on Comixology!

Review: 'The Void'

 By: Heather Seebach

 Canadian filmmaking collective Astron-6 is best known for their throwback horror-comedies like Manborg and Father's Day but two of its members - Jeremy Gillespie and Steven Kostanski - have deviated from that schlock trend with their cosmic horror, The Void. This much-anticipated movie received nearly $83,000 in crowdfunding just to enhance its creature effects - and it shows! While the script is lacking and it wears its influences a bit too obviously at times, the film succeeds in being a creepy, satisfying re-visit to 1980s horror tropes with some visual flare all its own.

Police offer Daniel Carter (Aaron Poole) comes across a wounded stranger in the road and takes him to the nearest hospital. Due to a recent fire, the hospital is in the process of relocating and has only a small staff of nurses and one doctor. After the mysterious new patient arrives, so too does an even more mysterious assembly of figures in white hooded cloaks surrounding the hospital. Still, the knife-wielding creeps outside are not even as bad as what emerges from inside the building. Carter and the others face danger from all sides as a sinister secret unfolds. 

Without giving away too much, I will say that The Void is clearly inspired by the works of H.P. Lovecraft, dealing with themes of death, insanity, and cosmic entities. Visually, the film borrows most heavily from Carpenter and Fulci, with a touch of Hellraiser. The creature effects were no doubt inspired by Rob Bottin's stellar work on The Thing (1982) but one must give credit where credit is due: The Void's monster FX are outstanding and unarguably its strongest attribute. Sometimes the film is just too poorly lit, or quickly cut, to enjoy the creatures in their full glory but when you see them, I dare you not to be impressed. For practical FX fans, there is plenty to get excited about here. Films with this level of practical creature FX are far too rare these days. In fact, James Gunn's Slither is the only recent example I can think of.

On the other hand, some of the film's influences are a bit too blunt. One moment in particular is lifted directly from Fulci's The Beyond. It was no doubt meant as homage but it is just too on-the-nose. The movie is also hurt by a weak script that has lapses in logic and is downright confusing at times. Characters are poorly developed and unsympathetic. One is so annoying that I wanted to turn into an cosmic creature and kill her myself! The best contributor of the cast is without a doubt screen veteran Kenneth Welsh, who is fantastically creepy. His voice alone sends shivers down the spine. 

It has been said that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, but there is a limit on how much a horror film should flatter its predecessors. The Void toes that line precariously. It may wear its influences proudly but at least it does not shamelessly ape its predecessors - well, except for that Fulci scene. In addition to the satisfying creature FX, the film brings to the table some truly stunning cinematography and unique, nightmarish moments. Gillespie and Kostanski are talented art directors, but if the script had been handled by a more experienced screenwriter (preferably one well-versed in Lovecraft), this movie could have been something really amazing. Still, it hits the spot for anyone craving a slimy, stylish creature movie.

out of 5

Review: 'Raw'

By: Heather Seebach

In conversation, the word "raw" tends to precede one of two words: meat and sexuality. So it is an apt title for Julia Ducournau's coming-of-age cannibal film that explores the connection between the carnal and the carnivorous. This French-Belgian movie garnered quite a reputation after a screening at the Toronto International Film Festival, during which numerous attendees passed out and required medical attention. While I did not lose consciousness at any time during the film - and cannot imagine why anyone would unless there were unrelated physiological influences - Raw is still a fantastic horror tale worth watching. 

Justine (Garance Marillier) is a first-year veterinary student away from her family at college for the first time. The freshmen are forced to undergo a series of hazing rituals, including the consumption of raw rabbit liver, which is a particular problem for Justine as she comes from a family of strict vegetarians. Peer pressure ultimately wins, and her eating of the meat unlocks something unexpected inside her. Justine starts to crave meat, which gradually evolves into a ravenous desire for human flesh. Her insatiable hunger - combined with the hedonistic tendencies of the college students around her - slowly transforms the once-shy girl into a lustful animal.

The timing of Justine's transformation is key, as it aligns with a period of sexual awakening for many young women: college. She is exposed for the first time to parties, alcohol, and unbridled sexuality. Her initial college experience is a familiar one to many girls: struggling with classes; wanting to fit in; falling for a boy; drinking too much, etc. When she arrives at the school, she is guided by her older, much wilder sister Alex (Ella Rumpf) with whom she has a complicated relationship  - one that most younger siblings will recognize. Their sisterhood - fucked up as it may occasionally be - is one of the film's most compelling elements, and the two young actresses are great.

 This is the debut feature film of writer/director Julia Ducournau, from whom we will hopefully be hearing a lot more after this movie. Needless to say, the world needs more women filmmakers, and horror in particular has often benefited from female minds. Much about Raw is expertly done, from the music to the Kubrickian use of camera and color. The film is intense, surprisingly funny, and has just the right about of mystery. Given all the Toronto hype, it was not nearly as gory as I expected, but between body horror and naturally uncomfortable scenarios, it finds plenty of other ways to make the audience wince.

The Justine-Alex relationship and the general theme of a monstrous sexual awakening will no doubt draw comparisons to the 2000 Canadian werewolf film Ginger Snaps, wherein lyncanthropy is linked to puberty. I was never a big fan of that film, and frankly I think Raw hits the nerve perfectly where Snaps could not. It is everything I wanted that movie to be. As a woman, vegetarian, introvert, and veterinary worker myself, much about this one spoke to me, but you need not be any of those things to appreciate the unnerving, bloody beauty of Raw.

out of 5

Review: 'The Belko Experiment'

By: Heather Seebach

When watching the trailer for The Belko Experiment, many people said, "That kinda looks like Battle Royale!" For those unfamiliar, BR is a 2000 Japanese film about high school students who are put on an island wearing explosive collars and forced to fight to the death. Are they similar? Superficially, sure. Of course, many genre nerds also used that complaint against The Hunger Games, when in fact, the blood sport genre precedes all these films and that comparison is pretty tenuous. Upon actually seeing The Belko Experiment, well, it is actually the closest thing yet to a remake of BR; however, that is not necessarily a negative attribute. While lacking the depth of the Japanese thriller, Belko definitely delivers on the violence and gore with some biting black humor.

Belko Industries is a company that facilitates the hiring of American workers in South America. The film takes place at a secluded location in Bogota, Colombia. Employees there are set up with their own company car, an apartment, and a tracking device implant in case they are kidnapped. Mike Milch (John Gallagher, Jr.) notices things are a little different this morning: all the local employees have gone home, and the regular guards have been replaced by heavily-armed soldiers. It makes a little more sense when the mysterious voice comes on the loudspeaker, demanding that 30 employees be killed within two hours, or twice as many will die. Some folks panic, others think it's a joke, but things get dead serious when the tracking device in someone's head explodes. Naturally, a few people entertain the idea of doing as commanded, while others focus on escape. Such is the experiment.

 Belko packs a large fantastic cast of actors, including alumni of screenwriter James Gunn's other films like Michael Rooker, Sean Gunn, and Gregg Henry. Tony Goldwyn is great as the Belko boss Barry Norris who treats murder like a necessary evil. So too is John C. McGinley's unhinged, cleaver-wielding Wendell Dukes a scary menace. It is a far cry from when he was one of "the Bob's" in Office Space! On the opposite end of the spectrum from them is Mike, who sees no excuse to take innocent lives. Gallagher, Jr. has really shined in the genre lately after co-starring in two of last year's best horror films, 10 Cloverfield Lane and Hush

As for the BR comparisons, human nature is relatively consistent, so when 80 people are forced to kill each other or be killed - whether it's on a Japanese island or in a corporate office building - they are likely to behave similarly. Some will go mad with power; others will refuse to kill. Alliances will be formed, while some clever folks work on ways to beat the system. All these things occur in both Belko and BR, though the former is more shallow in its storytelling. Besides the basic concept that humans can turn savage in the face of death, the only depth for which Belko aims is that corporate office work sucks - and it does not even drive that home very well. The film leaps quickly into the carnage, which is great but it does not allow much time to nail the banality of office life. Most of the film feels like it could have easily taken place in any kind of secluded building anywhere. There are a few office supply kills, at least.

For gorehounds, there is plenty to sink your teeth into. The violence is unrelenting and brutal, ranging from disturbing executions to a slightly-humorous chorus of exploding heads. Cutting away is rarely an option, as almost every gory kill is on full display with glorious prosthetic fx. Director Greg McLean is best known for the Wolf Creek films and he brings that same savage brutality to this film's violence, while screenwriter James Gunn (Slither, Dawn of the Dead) provides the wit and cleverness. The soundtrack utilizes Spanish-language covers of Life FM-type songs to great effect. While it certainly has some dark humor, Belko definitely leans on the side of tense and disturbing, especially in today's socio-political climate where gun violence is almost status quo.

 McClean and Gunn are strong players in the horror genre, so their joining of forces for The Belko Experiment will have any horror fan salivating. The collaboration is unfortunately without much substance and its attempts at satire lack bite. As all the critics will say, it's like Battle Royale meets Office Space, but it does not measure up to the respective elements of either film. As your boss would say, "it brings nothing new to the table." Even the title of the film is a bit of a misstep as it spoils what could have been more mysterious. Despite that, the movie is more success than failure because it's damn entertaining. Likable characters played by a great cast and absurd levels of violence and gore keep the viewer  (at least the more sick-minded ones) jumping and gasping. It does everything a horror film is supposed to do, even if it's not exactly breaking the mold. Plus, you will almost certainly leave the theater wondering which of your co-workers would kill you first.

out of 5 R's

Review: 'Kong: Skull Island'

By: Heather Seebach

With seven previous films, Kong was not exactly begging for another incarnation; but with his lizard king counterpart getting the modern American treatment in Gareth Edwards' Godzilla, we knew the big ape couldn't be far behind. Much like that film, Kong: Skull Island was surprisingly entrusted to a relative newcomer, director Jordan Vogt-Roberts. Prior to helming Godzilla, Edwards had at least cut his teeth on a big monster movie with Monsters, but Vogt-Roberts' only feature at the time was the independent coming-of-age comedy, The Kings of Summer. While that was a fantastic movie, it's a bit surprising he would be plucked to helm a giant ape action film. Thank goodness for it, though; this trend of giving indie filmmakers the reins to blockbusters is great for artists and films alike.

With Skull Island, Vogt-Roberts draws from very unexpected influences, ranging from nature documentaries to Apocalypse Now. Whereas Godzilla has along been a metaphor for nuclear weaponry and its consequences, this version of Kong touches on war and imperialism. The film is appropriately set at the end of the Vietnam War as U.S. forces are pulling out. When government researchers (John Goodman, Corey Hawkins) are looking to study the uncharted Skull Island, a dejected Colonel Packard (Samuel L. Jackson) jumps at the opportunity for one last mission. Joining the crew is a jungle tracker (Tom Hiddleston) and a photographer (Brie Larson). Needless to say, they find more than they bargained for when they meet the island's colossal primate inhabitant.

John C. Reilly also joins the crew and easily steals the movie, at least as far as characters are concerned. Frankly, most of the lead actors are boring and underused. Hiddleston and Larson are both incredible actors, and yet they are completely wasted in this film. Reilly is easily the MVP and brings more emotion to the film than one might expect. Besides him, Jackson is also very good as the Colonel Kurtz-esque soldier with an ape-sized chip on his shoulder. In smaller roles, Shea Whigham and Marc Evan Jackson also steal many-a scene.

Nothing about this movie is subtle. There are primary characters named Conrad and Marlow, just to drive home that Heart of Darkness influence. The film also shamelessly apes (pun intended) Jurassic Park, right down to the moment Samuel L. Jackson exclaims, "Hold onto your butts!" Yes, really. Both thematically and visually, it's about as subtle as King Kong tip-toeing through the jungle. Still, these small transgressions are forgivable thanks to awesome action sequences and the inspired choice to set the story during the Vietnam War, which gives the film a unique look and feel. Expect obligatory (but always awesome) 70s music like CCR and Jefferson Airplane.

The computer-generated FX are top-notch and there is no shortage of giant creatures fighting each other. It is gory and violent in ways that push its PG-13 rating, which is fitting considering the prevalent war theme. Kong's very first appearance is a powerhouse of awesomeness to which the rest of the film never quite lives up but there is plenty more fun thereafter. There is even a bit of humor, though it does not always succeed. For sure, Skull Island's strongest attributes are its 70s-inspired visual style, the war allegory, and some bad-ass gorilla action. It is not a perfect film but it is a damn fun one that should ideally be experienced on the big screen. It is the very definition of a "popcorn flick" plus a little extra food-for-thought, at least for those who remember their history lessons.

(Psst, make sure to stay until after the end credits!)

Reviews: Ash vs. Evil Dead - "Trapped Inside", "Delusion", "Ashy Slashy" & "Home Again"

By: Heather Seebach

**Warning: The following contains spoilers**

Review: "Trapped Inside"

As you may have noticed, I fell a bit behind in my Ash vs. Evil Dead reviews, thanks to a very busy November, and boy did I pick a shitty time to take a hiatus! These last four episodes have been freaking great! After my last review ("Confinement") came "Trapped Inside" wherein Ash & co are under siege by an angry mob and Cheryl (played by Ellen Sandweiss herself) makes an epic return! Right down to the wardrobe and forehead bandage, she was perfect! The final sequence of Ash showing the townsfolk how demon-killing is done with her was pretty great, too. Sadly, we lost Chet this episode, but fortunately it wouldn't be the last time we see Ted...more on that later!

Best Lines of "Trapped Inside"

1) "You died after you got branch-banged by a demon tree about 30 years ago." - Ash
2)  "Back off now or I will fuck your faces with bullets!" - Kelly
3) "I'm gonna make like a tree and fuck you!"- Cheryl


Review: "Delusion"
Next up came "Delusion" wherein Ash wakes up in a mental institution. This episode quickly jumped up to my favorite of the season, possibly even the whole series to-date. Firstly, Baal is way more interesting as the doctor than that greasy-haired, fingernail dude. Secondly, it's a mind-bendy episode with just enough wackiness (i.e., the puppet) to fit comfortably in Evil Dead canon. There are definitely some moments in the asylum that recall Ash losing his mind in Evil Dead 2.

 Sure, we know full-well that Ash's experiences couldn't have all been a delusion (or at least we know what a cop-out that twist would be) but it's still a pretty interesting concept, and it would be typical of a murderer to create such a delusion to cope with the guilt and grief. Plus, the mental torment makes Baal that much more interesting of a nemesis. Finally, how freaking awesome is that puppet?!

Best Lines of "Delusion"

1) "You can suck my saggy bills, Baal." - Ash
2) "Ruby said this would be hard. Buddy, I've had harder turds. You are a joke of a demon!" - Ash
3) "Wait, there was that one time sunlight DID work..." - Ash (on deadites vs. vampires)


Review: "Ashy Slashy"

"Ashy Slashy" was the next episode. It is the weakest of the most recent episodes but not by much. It's basically part two of "Delusion", as Kelly, Pablo, and Ruby try to rescue Ash, who may or may not be brainwashed now. The MVP for me this episode is deadite Lacy. This season does not have as many classic deadites as season 1, so I love when they come along, especially ones enjoying themselves as much as the sheriff's dead daughter. Also, Kelly vs. the puppet is a classic Evil Dead 2-esque slapstick battle. It is also nice to see Ash as the enemy once again, even if it's just an act. Bonus: cosplayers now have a new version of Ash to dress up as! 

If I could change one small detail about this episode, it would be to have Linda be the one who shoots Baal in the final scene (after her rousing speech about avenging her family) - it's just more poetic. Speaking of the final scene...Pablo. *sniff sniff* I hope it's not really the end for him. I love Pablo!

Best Lines of "Ashy Slashy"

1) "Look daddy, a unicorn! Magic IS real!' - Lacy
2) "I have seen some seriously disturbing stuff lately but you...are ADORABLE." - Kelly
3) "Girl, you're the one with your hand all up in my puppet pooper!" - Ashy Slashy

Also, Ash chainsawing through a corpse's chest and saying "Having a heart to heart"? followed by Ruby swiftly punching him in the face through his chainsaw hole...makes me snort-laugh.


Review: "Home Again"

Finally, the most recent episode saw Ash dealing with the grief of losing his "little Mexican buddy." He realizes he can possibly save his friend by going back in time again, thus giving us our most solid reference to Army of Darkness on this series yet. Sure, it could still technically be an Evil Dead 2 reference, but all the same, the medieval times portion of Ash's life has not been alluded to yet on this show for legal reasons which are no longer an issue according to producer Rob Tapert. 

So Ash & co. go back through that familiar blue portal and end up in 1982. Right away we are reminded that time is a loop when Ash causes the business man to drink - the same man who we already know is a homeless drunk in present-day. Also, Ruby outright reminds us that there are always multiple timelines, thus introducing a clever and intriguing way of explaining (or at least poking fun at) all the loose continuity of the first two Evil Dead films. 

 This season has been dropping little throw-backs to Evil Dead 2 since episode 1 but this is the one that really brings it home. The particular timeline/universe in which Ash has arrived is seemingly the one we saw in Evil Dead 2. The cabin looks just as we remember, from the Home Sweet Home sign to the soon-to-be-possessed deer and rocking chair. The framed photo of Annie on the table basically confirms which film we are in.
What comes next is sheer delight for fans of ED slapstick: Ash steps on a nail, his foot gets possessed, and we assumed what comes next until it goes all Army of Darkness on us with a demon in Ash's belly. The sound effects in this scene are perfect and just as we remember. By the time Ash was back in the kitchen, punching himself and swallow scalding water, this fangirl was in heaven! This whole episode is just oozing ED2 goodness. The director clearly paid close attention because there are subtle shots that totally nail the style of the second film, from the quick-zoom montage to the slow pan toward the cellar door - perfection!

This episode has some fun Easter eggs for fans of the original films, like this little cameo by a The Hills Have Eyes poster. That same poster appeared in The Evil Dead

You may also have noticed the familiar Camp Tamakwa shirt hanging there by the closest...

There have been many references to Shemps beer so this one is not new, but since we got such a good shot of it this episode....

As you probably know, Freddy's glove made two appearances in Evil Dead 2, in the workshed and the cellar. This shot from the cellar in "Home Again" shows a glove and what almost looks like blades there, but I'm skeptical. It does look like the same location...perhaps it's still an intended reference but copyright is an issue now?

Compare those to this shot from season 1...

What comes next is when yours truly very nearly exploded. I am a massive fan not only of Evil Dead 2 but of Henrietta in particular, so this episode blew my goddamn mind. Not only does Henrietta make a grand re-appearance, blue dress and all, but then she transforms into her first gnarly deadite form and who else has returned to reprise the role but TED FUCKING RAIMI!  Ted was just 20 years old when he first suffered in that Henrietta suit, and here he is doing it again at 50! Never in a million years did I think I'd get to see that again. Dreams do come true folks! The make-up looks GREAT and Ted brings everything to it again! I'm still reeling! Needless to say, this episode quickly overtook "Delusion" as my favorite.

Best Lines of "Home Again"

1) "I thought it was here...or did I find it in cellar with Scotty?" - Ash, looking for the book
2) "Fuck you, Ash! Fuck you!" - Ash's tummy monster
3) "That chin of yours is an easy target!" - Henrietta

So, next week is the big finale! I'm curious if Professor Knowby's student Tanya is going to have any sort of yet-unseen relevance in the next episode (especially with that random story about her roommates' cat). Probably not but I'm curious all the same. I also figure Baal will be back, as this episode has a blink-and-miss-it moment of a man-in-black running toward the cabin. I love that this episode subtly addresses the confusing timelines and I expect we will get more of that next week. Here are the little things I most want to see...
My Wish List for the Finale:

- Henrietta in her third form (I already know we are getting this based on the preview, yay!)
- Return of the laughing deer, and maybe some possessed household items too!
- Return of Evil Ash (perfect timing what with all the Ashy slashy stuff)

What are you hoping for in the season 2 finale?! 

Watch Ash vs Evil Dead this Sunday at 8PM ET/PT on Starz! 

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