Review: 'The First Omen'

By: Heather Seebach

Damn, two fantastic religious horror movies in one year - and they don't even involve Russell Crowe! Prequels to classic horror movies can easily be a half-assed shit-show but The First Omen is the real thing, with a genuine atmosphere of terror and moments of shocking discomfort.

Set in 1971, Margaret (Nell Tiger Free) is an American nun-in-training brought to Rome to care for children in a Catholic orphanage. She bonds with an ostracized girl named Carlita (Nicole Sorace) who has been punished by the nuns for her troubling visions. Her relationship with the girl, however, puts Margaret in danger as Father Brennan (Ralph Ineson) warns her about Carlita's connection to a nefarious conspiracy within the Church. 

The First Omen is the sixth entry in the franchise that began with the 1976 film. It explores the origins of the infamous horror villain, Damien. Naturally, the film has callbacks to the original, including a few psych-out moments that put a twist on the viewer's expectations. Some of the connections are awkwardly shoe-horned in for the sake of fan-service but they are easily overlooked with everything else this film has to offer. It is by far the scariest film of the year (so far - looking at you, Longlegs), with a perfect balance of atmospheric terror, shocking gore and creature effects, and effective jump-scares. Once the scares kick off, they are relentless. There is no filler here; just an onslaught of dread and terror. 

In the lead role, Free is incredible. She commits completely to the role, including one scene where she goes full Isabelle Adjani in Possession. I could not take my eyes off her. So too does director Arkasha Stevenson make one hell of a first impression with this feature debut. The film looks gorgeous, and I cannot wait to see what she does next.

The First Omen goes to disturbing places I never expected. There are scenes that made me squirm and will be forever seared into my brain. Without giving too much away - you can tell this movie was directed by a woman! 

Some of the plot will feel like deja vu if you saw Immaculate but the two films satisfy very different niches. Both also share unique style, fearlessness, and amazing lead actresses. They make for great sister films in a subgenre that is so lacking in quality content. 

Review: 'Abigail'

 By: Heather Seebach

The filmmaking collective known as Radio Silence burst onto the scene with their standout segment in the original V/H/S (the final sequence, with the friends headed to a Halloween party). Since then, they gave us a few more anthology shorts, some Scream sequels, and most importantly, Ready or Not, of which I am a huge fan. Their latest, Abigail, is another carnage-filled romp with a fantastic cast. 

A team of criminals-for-hire are assembled to kidnap the daughter of a mysterious millionaire. They are tasked with babysitting the hostage for 24 hours while the ransom demand is made. They soon learn that getting caught is the least of their worries as their young captive is actually a bloodthirsty vampire.

As the titular bloodsucker, Alisha Weir is a scenery-chewing delight. The trailers overly-emphasize her creepy ballet dancing (thanks M3GAN), but the best bits are actually just her talking shit and taking heads with absolute glee. Opposite her is the team of professional criminals which includes Melissa Barrera (a solid heroine); Dan Stevens (a standout, as always); Kevin Durand (bringing the bulk of the comedic relief as a big ol' dum-dum); and rising scream queen, Kathryn Newton (who gets some of the films best moments). 

The locale and the character dynamic reminded me of Demon Knight and From Dusk Til Dawn, with sprinkles of Night of the Demons. The pacing drags a bit at the beginning but once Abigail is let loose, the gory madness begins. Much like Ready or Not, this one goes all in on the explosive bloodsplatter, which, along with its sizeable sense of humor, makes the film a surefire crowd-pleaser. 

My only complaints are some hokey dialogue and the piranha-like vampire teeth which I found really distracting. Call me old-fashioned but I like the classic long canines, as opposed to a mouthful of protruding fangs that give the actor a lisp. 

Abigail is not without its flaws but thanks to gore, good casting, and a wickedly funny bite, it is a good time for horror fans, especially those who miss when vampire films were actually fun back in the 80s and 90s. 

Review: 'Late Night with the Devil'

By: Heather Seebach

From a horror film perspective, 2024 is shaping up to be the Year of the Beast! Released alongside Immaculate - and two weeks prior to The First Omen - Late Night with the Devil is a low-budget horror that shakes up the mockumentary/found-footage subgenre. 

The film is presented as a documentary about the rise and fall of fictional late night host, Jack Delroy. It is mostly comprised of "lost" footage from a shocking live broadcast on Halloween night, 1977. In a desperate attempt to boost his ratings, Delroy invites to the show a series of guests specializing in the occult, including a medium, a skeptic, a parapsychologist, and a troubled young girl believed to be possessed by a demon. Spooky gimmicks quickly turn into dangerous games as the studio becomes increasingly haunted by some unseen evil, and dark secrets are revealed. 

Late Night with the Devil is a unique take on found-footage, taking full advantage of the live television format and the rising satanic panic of the 70s. It has some corny dialogue, and a few cringe-worthy CGI moments, but its minor weaknesses are outweighed by its cleverness. The film has been criticized for its brief use of AI but it more significantly employs practical effects and puppetry, which should not be written off.

David Dastmalchian, in a rare leading role, absolutely dominates the film with his performance. As Jack Delroy, he perfectly captures the essence of a power-hungry late night host without losing the heart that keeps him rooted as a flawed but human protagonist. 

This is a fun one to watch in theaters if you can catch it, but at the same time, it would make for ideal television watching, especially if you have an old console CRT set at your grandma's house. Grab a TV dinner and transport yourself back to the All Hallows Eve that shook the world of late night television.

Late Night with the Devil will be streaming exclusively on SHUDDER starting Friday, April 19th.

Review: 'Immaculate'

By: Heather Seebach

Immaculate very nearly flew under my radar as religious horror is so rarely satisfying these days. Too many bland, jump-scare-riddled creepy nun movies have saturated the genre to where I pay them little mind anymore. Fortunately, murmurs coming out of SXSW told a very different tale. This creepy nun movie packs a nasty, blood-filled bite and just the right amount of nunsploitation sleaze.

Sister Cecilia (Sydney Sweeney) is a young American nun who joins a convent in the Italian countryside. This picturesque parish, however, harbors many dark secrets. When the devoutly chaste Cecilia learns she is with child, her faith is tested by the sinister forces closing in.

Right from Cecilia's arrival in Rome, her inability to speak the language and the uncomfortable leers of men set the uneasy tone for this innocent young girl. The creep factor ramps up from there, with eerie figures in red masks and the looming feeling that nobody ever leaves this place. The film utilizes sound design and pitch blackness effectively for scare factor. It is not without a jump-scare or two but they generally feel earned. 

But the most anxiety-inducing element of the film is Cecilia's unwanted pregnancy, which leaves her at the mercy of the holy men who have decided her 'calling' for her. Needless to say, there are themes of bodily autonomy and religious oppression. Cecilia essentially becomes a prized cow for the clergy. 

In the lead role, Sydney Sweeney goes ALL in. This movie gave me a whole new respect for her as an actress, and firmly solidifies her place in the Good For Her-niverse. So too does the film itself follow her into unhinged territory with moments of sheer brutality and what-the-fuckness.

From the premise alone, Immaculate might sound like another wannabe Rosemary's Baby but it actually has a lot more in common with 70s giallo - mysterious masked figures roaming the halls, nubile young women in sheer gowns, striking religious imagery, and shockingly violent moments. Even the black gloves make an appearance! It leans into the nunsplotations subgenre a bit, as well (hello, gratuitous nun boobs!)

The film feels longer than its 89-minute runtime but I was never bored. It evolves from an artsy slow-burn to a nasty, disturbing shocker, culminating in a crowd-pleasing third act that will have you shouting, "Holy shit!" (I refuse to apologize for that pun). Seriously though, do not let the mediocre marketing and recent history of lame religious horror flicks dissuade from checking this one out. 

Review: 'Stopmotion'


By: Heather Seebach

Anyone who grew up on TOOL music videos probably already has a pre-existing uneasiness with stopmotion animation. When that is combined with a hallucinatory imagery, creepy kids, and an artist spiraling into madness, the result is Stopmotion, an eerie surreal horror that is sure to be counted amongst 2024's best. 

Ella (Aisling Franciosi) is an aspiring stopmotion animator looking to create her first film. Living in the shadow of her famous mother, she finds it difficult to create her own ideas; that is, until she meets a young girl (Caoilinn Springall) in her apartment building who provides just the kind of honest feedback Ella seeks. Together, they develop a story about a girl lost in the woods, hiding from a mysterious foe called the Ash Man. As the story progresses, the lines between  fantasy and reality become blurred for the disturbed artist. 

This feature-length debut by British animator Robert Morgan is perhaps a semi-autobiographical look at how an artist can be consumed by their own work. It also explores the concept of creating life from death, and the madness that ensues through that effort.

In the lead role, Franciosi gives a great performance as the young filmmaker struggling to escape her owns demons, namely the visage of a controlling mother that haunts her. In trying to find her own voice, she loses pieces of herself (figuratively and literally). 

One of the best elements of the film is its use of sound, especially the subtle creaks of metal armatures, as if reality itself is being molded in Ella's hands.

Stopmotion is one of the creepiest movies in recent memory. The imagery is genuinely unnerving, especially the ventriloquist dummy that will forever haunt my dreams. The fleshy little figurines that star in Ella's film evoke sadness and dread. The Ash Man itself takes on multiple forms, each more terrifying than the last. This is a bleak, haunting indie horror not to be missed. 

Review: "Love Lies Bleeding"

By: Heather Seebach

"Don't fall in love, okay?"

Love is pain; but as any gym rat could tell you - "no pain, no gain." Such is the theme of Rose Glass' sophomore feature film, Love Lies Bleeding. This wild, steroid-fueled erotic thriller is equal parts eccentric, romantic, funny, and violent.

In a small New Mexico town, Lou (Kristen Stewart) is just trying to keep her head low and away from her psychopath father (Ed Harris). Things get complicated when she falls in love with Jackie (Katy O'Brian), an ambitious bodybuilder on her way to Las Vegas to follow a dream. Their romance soon leads down a path of violence as the two women become entangled with drugs, murder, and Lou's dangerous family. 

Stewart and O'Brian are stellar as the young lovers-turned-criminals. Ed Harris is peak slime-ball as Lou's creepy, bug-collecting, gun-toting crime-lord father. The entire atmosphere of the film is great. Ben Fordesman's cinematography combined with Clint Mansell's score create a creeping, dream-like feel that is just as beautiful as it is terrifying. The film does not shy away from intimate moments nor shockingly violent ones, and a dark sense of humor ties is all together. 

Anyone expecting a straight-forward queer arthouse drama might be in for a surprise as this one forays into wonderfully weird territory. It's more like a neo-noir revenge romance with a splash of body horror. One could call it Thelma and Louise meets Pumping Iron by way of Nicolas Winding Refn but that would only cheapen its uniqueness. Director Ross Glass (Saint Maud) is definitely an up-and-coming talent to watch.

Review: 'New York Ninja'

By: Heather Seebach

In 1984, martial artist John Liu set out to make his first American film, serving as director, star, producer, and more. The core plot of New York Ninja is a familiar one to genre fans: a man's wife is murdered by thugs, propelling him into the role of an unlikely vigilante cleaning up the streets of 80s New York City. It was shot guerilla-style on-location with a miniscule crew. The movie wrapped filming but was unfortunately left gathering dust in storage after funding fell through and the production was abandoned. The sound elements of the film were lost over time, along with many of the original cast and crew as there were no credits, call sheets, or even a script anywhere to be found.

The film reels passed through many hands over the last thirty-five years, even Troma Entertainment who felt the movie was unsalvageable. Fortunately, the heroes at Vinegar Syndrome took a shot at the seemingly unfathomable task of reconstructing New York Ninja from the original unedited negative. What followed was one seriously ambitious jigsaw puzzle that involved trying to make sense of the jumbled footage without any sound or context, then having to reverse-engineer a script. Where there were gaps in the narrative, the VinSyn team drew upon their extensive knowledge of other 80s ninja films to maintain authenticity as much as possible. 

The source material is wild and it is easy to see why they could not just let this film be lost to time, or even worse, the garbage bin. Despite the guerilla style in which it was made, New York Ninja has some pretty legit action shots and stunts. It also has rare footage of 42nd Street in the heyday of exploitation cinemas, along with ridiculous, scene-stealing comic book villains and copious amounts of WTF. 

With the popularity of "so-bad-they're-good" movies these days, it must have been tempting to deliberately inject humor into the film but it never feels that way. While taking some artistic liberties is inevitable in a situation like this, the VinSyn guys did an incredible job preserving the source material and letting the bonkers footage speak for itself. When you have a roller skating ninja and a henchman who chews on his own rattail, you don't need to add anything. This is not Kung Pow: Enter the Fist; the ADR serves only to re-create the original performances (many of whom are still unidentified), not to add parody or forced irony. A couple of genre legends were recruited to lend their voices, including Don 'The Dragon' Wilson, Cynthia Rothrock, Michael Berryman, Linnea Quigley, and Leon Isaac Kennedy. Wilson had an especially challenging task as Liu's original lead performance is notably over-the-top. Liu's camp performance often provides the film's natural humor that will easily solidify its place among cult favorites like Miami Connection or The Room

In addition to the dialogue, the score had to be re-created. For this endeavor, synth-rock band Voyag3r was brought onboard to provide an authentic sound for the era. They did their research, including watching other John Liu films, and the result is a soundtrack that you will absolutely believe was born in 1984. It is suitably synth-heavy without being an undue distraction. The film even has a ninja rap which was amazingly tracked down from the source and not a modern-day addition! 

I am a purist when it comes to cult/bad/b-movies so I was originally hesitant at the thought of a film being "tampered with" but the reality is, they saved it. When scientists unearth 80% of a dinosaur skeleton, they fill in the missing bits and take a few liberties to re-create the animal for our viewing pleasure. The same has been done here for a film that would otherwise be lost forever. It goes without saying but genre fans can trust the film preservationists at Vinegar Syndrome to treat a movie like this with respect and not bog it down with hipster nonsense. They have resurrected it for all to see, as it was meant to be seen. The sleazy grindhouses of 42nd Street may be gone but New York Ninja lives on!

Review: 'Malignant'

By: Heather Seebach

Full disclosure: if I see the words "James" and "Wan" attached to a horror movie, I am automatically in. The Conjuring films are not always my cup of tea but Wan's scare-crafting skills are undeniable. I especially love when his films go a little nutty, like Insidious: Chapter 2. Well, Malignant turns that nuttiness up to 11. It swings for the fences and, although it suffers a few missteps along the way, Wan's outrageous return to splatter reminds us that the young Aussie who made Saw seventeen years ago has not lost an ounce of edge. 

Ever since Madison Mitchell (Annabelle Wallis) was injured in a brutal attack, she has suffered paralyzing visions wherein she is forced to bear witness to a series of grisly murders at the hands of a deformed serial killer. While helping the police catch the culprit, Madison must re-visit suppressed memories from her past that may unlock the key to the identity of the murderer. 

The horror influences are wide-reaching, running the gamut from Roman Polanski and Dario Argento to Sam Raimi and Frank Henenlotter. Even attempting to sub-categorize this film will run you in circles: Is it a haunted house story? A slasher? A psychological thriller? Perhaps all of the above? Malignant certainly keeps the viewer on their toes. Stylistically, the film is wild and daring with bold cinematography and the most in-your-face score since Suspiria. Longtime Wan collaborator Joseph Bishara delivers everything from the mournful strings of a ghost story to heavy metal chords that liken back to Charlie Clouser's Saw soundtrack. 

Bishara's score, along with Safari Riot's cover of The Pixies' "Where Is My Mind?", are featured so prominently that they feel like characters themselves. Where this gets the film into divisive territory is the intrusive use of the music during scene transitions, often undercutting tension or making a serious scene downright laughable. Not helping matters are clunky exposition and cheesy dialogue. I found myself cringing at these moments, and yet, by the time the movie was over, I couldn't even be mad about what doesn't work. 

Malignant won me over with sheer audacity and batshit craziness. There is an unfortunate lack of that quality in mainstream horror (or cinema in general). By the time this movie reached its climactic reveal, the gore was flying with reckless abandon and I was SMITTEN. I wanted to stand up and cheer right there in the theater. The prison sequence is one you will not soon forget and I dare anyone to be complaining about awkward transitions or corny dialogue at this point. 

Seeing Wan follow up Aquaman with a film like this reminded me of when Sam Raimi came back and made Drag Me To Hell after his stint directing Sony's Spider-Man films. For horror fans, it's like a warm-and-fuzzy feeling which reminds us that the low-budget horror auteurs we love are still in there. You can take the man out of horror but you can't take the horror nerd out of the man. Growing up on their work, we all know what talented filmmakers they are and are so proud for all their accomplishments but watching Raimi and Wan let their freak flags fly once more re-captured the first time we fell in love with them. Now, if only Peter Jackson would give us one last splatterfest... *dreamy sigh*

It almost feels like we are in on some hilarious prank that a film like this even gets to hit mainstream audiences. When I left the cinema, I heard some twenty-somethings call it "the worst movie they had ever seen." I had to laugh because this is not for them. They have never sat in a seedy auditorium at 3am watching obscure horror movies and screaming with joy when a movie reaches peak bonkers. People like us do not watch a lost 70s horror and lament the bad dialogue so why should modern horror be treated any different? If anything, I am more impressed when a new and/or mainstream horror film takes risks. 

Malignant is weird, flawed, and never not interesting. For all the influences it wears proudly on its proverbial sleeve, the film still feels original, like a shiny new amalgam of old parts. Wan has yet again demonstrated his passion for the genre, as well as his grasp on the broad and diverse elements that make it great. The fact that he has made horror films that both me AND my mother love speaks volumes. My anti-horror mother who can't even see a noseblood on-film absolutely adores James Wan for his Insidious and Conjuring films. She will NEVER watch Malignant, however, and that's okay. It is not for everyone. It is DePalma meets Darkman with a heaping dose of "what the fuck did I just watch?!" And that has my number all over it! 

Review: 'Seance'

 By: Heather Seebach

I first discovered screenwriter Simon Barrett at the 2010 Philadelphia Film Festival premiere of A Horrible Way to Die, his first collaboration with Adam Wingard. I watched the movie for AJ Bowen but was ultimately impressed with the film and its ability to creep under my skin with a relatively simple tale of relationships gone wrong. The writer-director duo would go on to make a series of acclaimed thrillers, including You're Next and The Guest (both favorites of mine). For the last decade, the names Wingard or Barrett have had horror fans pouncing eagerly on any movie to which they are attached, even the out-of-left-field surprises like Blair Witch or Godzilla vs Kong

Although Barrett has helmed a few shorts, including a segment for V/H/S/2, the writer hopped into the director's seat for his first feature with Seance. The film takes place at Edelvine Academy, a prestigious school for girls, where legend tells of a vengeful spirit that haunts the halls. When a late-night ritual/prank ends with one young girl dying under mysterious circumstances, her friends are left wondering if they accidentally awakened something sinister. The vacancy is quickly filled by a new transfer student, Camille Meadows (Suki Waterhouse) who - after some growing pains - ultimately joins forces with the other girls to find the truth about the dead girl. Along the way, the body count rises and suspicions begin to fly. 

I am sad to report it but the problem with Seance is that it is just too...bland. It is a boring slasher masquerading as a boring ghost movie, never really committing to either. At its best, it has giallo-inspired moments - one cool shot with a mirror and a blade comes to mind. The all-girls school definitely gave me Suspiria vibes. I would have preferred Barrett just go all-in on the homage; at least then it would be interesting, albeit a bit trite. Instead, the film straddles a snooze-worthy grey area.

Most of the characters are completely unlikeable; the exception being Helina, the kind-hearted RA played by Ella-Rae Smith. The rest of the schoolgirls range from dull to unbearable. One them is inexplicably played by an actress in her 40s. The protagonist, Camille, has a romantic subplot that surprisingly works but mostly she just comes across as a second-rate version of Erin from You're Next. She, along with other bits of this film, feel like recycled leftovers from better features. There are a few moments that work, where that biting sense of Barrett humor shines through, but unfortunately they are just too few and far-between to make this film particularly memorable. 


SEANCE is available on DVD and Blu-ray August 3rd, 2021 from RLJE Films. 

Review: 'Werewolves Within'

By: Heather Seebach 

Fresh on the heels of his 2020 feature debut Scare Me, the latest from director Josh Ruben tackles the werewolf subgenre with the horror-comedy Werewolves Within, based on a Ubisoft video game of the same name. The game was a multi-player VR game about a medieval town under attack by a werewolf, and the players are tasked with figuring out which of the townspeople is the monster.

The film adaptation relocates the story to a small American town called Beaverfield, where a proposed pipeline has divided the townsfolk in a passive-aggressive battle of environmentalism vs capitalism. When a massive storm traps them all together, they quickly realize they are in danger from some kind of wild animal. Neighbor turns on neighbor as fear and paranoia run rampant.

The first 30 minutes or so drags a bit as we are introduced to the protagonist Finn, played by Sam Richardson. He is the new U.S. Forest ranger assigned to Beaverfield. He becomes swift friends with another newcomer, Cecily the "mail-person", played by Milana Vayntrub. We also meet all the weirdos inhabiting Beaverfield, from the rednecks and yuppies to the nutjob trapper who lives in the woods. 

This introductory period of the film is largely carried by the charms of the effortlessly-likable Vayntrub. Where the film really gets going, however, is when this colorful cast of eccentrics get holed up together in the local Inn and a hirsute whodunit emerges. What - or who - is picking them off? In the classic Clue tradition, everyone has a motive and the question constantly lingers: is there even a werewolf at all? 

Much of this film reminds me of the 1974 Amicus production The Beast Must Die, another werewolf whodunit about a bunch of contentious assholes stuck in a house together,  trying to figure out who is actually a werewolf. I make this comparison as a sincere compliment; frankly, the world could use more werewolf murder mysteries! This one is far more of a comedy, of course. Expect less Peter Cushing and more toothless crackheads.

At its lowest point, Werewolves Within feels like a another middling horror-comedy trying to be Shaun of the Dead but then it taps into something special in the middle act. It finds its groove as the characters self-destruct and the mystery thickens. Even the humor improves as the film goes on. The character development is scattered at times but the film ultimately pulls it all together into one fun entry in an underappreciated subgenre.

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