Friday, January 27, 2017

Beware the Slenderman (2016) - A Review

A modern day boogie man. This is how Slenderman is described in the new documentary Beware the Slenderman that aired earlier this week on HBO. Before I get into this review I’ll say that going into this documentary I knew next to nothing about Slenderman; who he was, or what his motives may be. Of course, I had heard about the “legend” and was aware that he was an internet meme cooked up to spook young kids, I had heard about the near-fatal stabbing that occurred a few years ago but I didn’t know much more that. I don’t know anyone in my age range who does, to be honest, and it seems like that is what HBO was looking to change with it’s brand new film, Beware the Slenderman.

First off, I went into this film expecting a documentary on the mythos and story of how Slenderman came to be. This is not at all what this film is. This film tells the story of Morgan Geyser and Anissa Weier, a pair of twelve year old girls who attempted to “sacrifice” their best friend to Slenderman (or Slender, as they affectionately call him), in an attempt to get into his good graces. Just let that sink in for a moment: two little girls stabbed their best friend nineteen times in the name of an internet meme. Holy shit. This documentary is much more of a true crime documentary, than it is a documentary on stories and fabled boogie-men. It showcases the girl’s confessions, the impact that it’s had on their parents and loved ones as well as why they would be driven to commit such a heinous act. What would make them believe so wholly in a fantastical character spawned from the bowels of the internet?

As the film opens, we are introduced to Morgan and Anissa with an introductory focus on Morgan. Her mother tells us stories of what a sweet, albeit aloof, child that she was. She sang songs, played with her kitten and loved playing in piles of leaves. Pretty normal for a little girl, except for the fact that she showed almost a complete lack of empathy. Her mother tells us of the time in which she showed Morgan the film Bambi for the first time, and instead of mourning the loss of Bambi’s mother, she simply shouted at the titular deer to run and “save yourself”. According to Mrs. Geyser, this is one of many examples in which she would react in a way that you would not expect a little girl to react in certain situations.

We are then introduced to Anissa’s father, who goes on to tell us about his sweet and loving daughter, and how he could not have been more attentive or present in his daughter’s life. The running narrative at this point is that we have two sets of parents who are in complete shock that their children could have committed such a crime. Can you blame them? I don’t have children, so I am in no place to judge (and neither is anybody else, children or not). All that I can do is attempt to place myself in the position of these parents who are left to deal with the aftermath of what this ordeal with “Slender” has caused. And it’s not pretty, or fun. The film goes on to take a look at the mythical Slenderman, and they begin to examine why two children would not only have such a firm belief in him, but as to why they would feel that they would need to kill for him.

In the girl’s confession videos we see them deliver a cold and rather clinical confession describing the details of their crimes. They tell detectives that they feared for the lives of their families and that they needed to kill someone so that Slenderman would spare them and their families. They discuss a variety of plans that they had concocted, each failing until they decided to simply “wing it”. We see these girls talk about how they stabbed their friend, and in the end described getting blood on their clothes as more of an inconvenience than the crime itself. While the film opens showcasing Morgan’s lack of empathy, we soon see that Anissa has next to none herself. She may have shed a tear or two in the opening moments of her confession video, but watching her describe the stabbing is like watching a child talk about the events of an ordinary day at school. At a later point in the film, we are watch a phone call take place in which an incarcerated Anissa speaks to her family and an old friend. Her chipper and upbeat demeanor are chilling. I found myself wondering how one can go back to leading such a cheery and happy existence after doing something like that. Yet, while we hear from Anissa, we hear nothing from Morgan. While the film started leading you to believe that perhaps Morgan was the emotionless driving force behind the crime, it becomes apparent that this is not the case. At one point, Anissa admits that she wanted to kill Bella and find Slenderman in attempt to prove the skeptics wrong.

As I already mentioned, I knew next to nothing about Slenderman before watching this film (and I still don’t), but now I know enough to be able to see that in a day and age where bullied kids can so easily escape from the banality of daily life in a tablet or laptop, Slenderman provides a safety blanket to protect them from the pain of their everyday lives. A meme that was bred out of a contest to photoshop the scariest, most realistic photo turned into a sensation in which thousands of kids are creating their own versions of Slender, each injecting their own experiences and fears into their own iteration. Slenderman became a savior to these kids, taking them away from abusive homes or abusive schoolyards, and giving them a home in “Slender Mansion”. Is it so hard to see why two lonely, impressionable and bullied children would find sanctuary in a story like this? Unfortunately, according to the the creepypasta, the price to enter Slender Mansion is paid in blood, and their best friend Bella was picked to pay their way.

At a certain point, I began to fear that this particular documentary was going to begin to point a finger at the internet and violent media as the scapegoat for this heinous crime. It was a relief to see that the filmmakers did not go this route, rather taking a look at the true root cause: mental illness. The final act of the film takes an in depth look at how Morgan’s mental health played a major factor in persuading her that the Slender legend was in fact very real, and the toll that it has taken on her family and her well being. It becomes a harrowing look at how serious these issues can become if they go untreated, and yet, we are left with the realization that this entire situation was simply a perfect storm, one that almost seemed unavoidable. There is nothing to point a finger at, nothing to blame. It simply happened and no explanation can ever take the hurt away. It’s heartbreaking, and it’s destroyed the lives of three families who were simply happy that their beautiful young daughters had finally found friends who accepted them for who they were.

The film ends with a slew of fanart flashing across the screen, depicting Morgan and Anissa standing in the comforting embrace of Slenderman, but there is no happy ending here. Morgan and Anissa will be standing trial at a later date this year, and stand to be sentenced to 65 years in prison. In the end, what is the take-away here? How do we avoid something like this in the future? Ban your children from the internet and any media perceived as violent or “evil”? Ultimately I don’t think there is one, and that may be the scariest thing about this film.

Keep it spooky,
Ryan Wilkins

Monday, December 12, 2016

Blood Brothers (2015) - A Review

"Based on a true story."  Countless horror films have taken to flaunting the moniker as badge of honor, after all, what could be more horrifying than real life? The idea that such violent acts could take place in our world is often hard to swallow. No film capitalized on the idea more than The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. Even The Exorcist, Scream and The Hills Have Eyes (well most of Craven's work, actually) found it's roots in reality, although they did not claim to do so. This is a trend that will always be prevalent in the genre, and we find it in Jose Prendes' film Blood Brothers as well. 

Based on the infamous Leopold and Loeb case from the 1920's, the film follows a pair of wealthy, upper crust brothers who "concoct a deadly game to test their superior intelligence against the dimwitted masses.  This game will eventually lead to murder, but problems arise when they quickly discover that Detective Homer Gaul, a cop with a very special gift, is hot on their trail. (Uncork'd Entertainment)"

As the film opens, we are introduced to Thomas and Charles who are, quite frankly, a pair of privileged assholes who enjoy toying with those who they deem to be below them.  For the most part, Thomas pulls the strings while his shy and submissive brother Charles comes along for the ride. Charles' is a hopeless mama's boy, while Thomas craves power in the form of violence, degradation and, ultimately, murder.  We accompany them in their day-to-day lives, from taunting meth addicts, to fantasizing about murdering waitresses, to movies and late night drives hunting for prostitutes.  Y'know, typical stuff.  In many scenes the viewer is made to feel like a companion, and it adds a bit of voyeuristic feel to the film.  I really enjoyed this aspect; it felt intimate. 

The stylistic choices that Prendes' makes in the film are very beautiful, utilizing lighting and music to paint the scenes in a dream-like quality, not unlike what you would see in "Tales from the Crypt", or more recently Excision.  Not only does it make the film a pleasure to watch, but it helps blur the line between reality and delusion that Thomas and Charles' are constantly straddling.  We don't know if they are insane or if they're completely aware of their actions, and it adds to the chaotic feel of the film.  As a result, what would otherwise be a dull and rather uninteresting film becomes something else entirely.  It becomes more of an art piece, utilizing lighting and set dressing to showcase a more than competent cast and their performances.  We see these stylistic choices evolve throughout the film as well, as we see the brothers viewpoints on humanity and various social classes begin to change. 

To focus on the case, Graham Denman and Joe Kondelik absolutely deliver the goods as the leads of the film.  They not only bring what's needed out of their own characters but they compliment each other as well.  Prendes' script calls for a wide range from these actors and while it's hard to discuss the finer points of their performance without ruining large aspects of the script, I will say that as a result, the film takes on a completely different tone as it begins to comment on issues dealing with the human psyche, personal identity and the effect of traumatic events on one's personality.  Fans of the horror genre will also be excited to see two genre favorites in supporting roles: Barbara Crampton as their mother, and Ken Foree as Detective Gaul. 

Blood Brothers is a smart, well written and well acted film that, in my opinion, does a respectable job of bringing merit to the horror genre.  Prendes' managed to craft a film with a strong sense of direction that is well paced and engaging where it needs to be.  I thoroughly enjoyed the film, and ended up watching it a second time before submitting this review.  I felt that I missed certain aspects on the first viewing that I wanted to keep in mind while writing. It's not perfect, but it's fun and it has an original feel with an intense and satisfying ending. 

Keep it spooky,
Ryan Wilkins

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Abbey Grace (2016) - A Review

"She was born a bad seed..."

Abbey Grace, from director Stephen Durham (Blood Lines), is a film that in no way struggles with what it wants to be.  The supernatural film finds its home in a narrative style similar to Mama or The Others, but fails to deliver in substance, scares or originality. Durham's second directorial effort stars a small ensemble cast that tells the story of Stacey, a woman who has left her career in the psychiatric field to care for her brother, Ben, after their mother passes from an undisclosed cause.  Ben suffers from a severe case of agoraphobia and OCD, and Stacey is writing a book on what we are led to assume are her brother's conditions, however the topic is only grazed upon once or twice and not touched on again.  

By and large, the film has a 2 person cast: Debbie Sheridan (Stacey) and Jacob Hobbs (Ben), who unfortunately, do little to contribute to the film.  While Jacob Hobbs was not necessarily a bad actor, I feel that most of the issues with his performance probably come from poor direction, his portrayal of someone suffering from severe OCD and Agoraphobia seemed poorly researched and more stereotypical than accurate.  For someone to suffer from these disorders as severely as Ben apparently does, Hobbs made several decisions that surprised me making the ending of the film was wholly unrealistic.  As I mentioned though, I feel that these are issues that are more to blame with the direction or the writing.  Very little emphasis was placed on the strides of progress that Ben was supposedly making, and in that regard, I feel that Hobbs talent was largely wasted in this project.  Sheridan's performance was rather uninspired, giving the film the feel of a high school project, in which she was the director's mom who got a little too excited about starring in the film.  

The sound design was sloppy, often taking me out of the film, and was frustrating at times. It was very difficult to understand the dialogue for the final 20 minutes of the film, and I was often left wondering how a dog's rope toy was making squeaky noises. When additional characters are finally introduced into the film in the second act, I was hoping that it would inject fresh air into the film, however it merely reinforced the ideas that were already forming in my mind: that every supernatural, haunted house trope was tacked to a wall and Durham used a spool of twine to tie them all together. As a result, any attempt to tie a deeper mythology into the film just ended up falling on it's face as there wasn't enough time to fully explore the backstory that Durham was attempting to get across.  

While I feel as if I'm tearing this film apart (and I honestly never want to do that), it's hard to find things to praise. The film was most likely slapped together and rushed into distribution, and I feel that it shows a little too well. From the subpar performances, to the poor production quality (even the marketing materials spells the main character's name incorrectly several times), I cannot recommend this film to friends, family or even strangers. But hey, at least Roach, the dog actor, delivered a solid performance!

Ryan Wilkins

Sunday, November 13, 2016

NIGHTMARISH CONJURINGS - An Interview with Amanda Wyss

When I started writing about horror, reviewing and ranting and raving, I never thought that it would actually lead to a place where I would be interacting and working with the very people that I used to watch late at night, illuminated on the television screen in my parents' living room. Working on the Nightmarish Conjurings team has been an absolute pleasure, and I had the wonderful opportunity to interview Ms. Amanda Wyss after reviewing her new film The Id. You can find the interview over at NC's site, but I've taken the liberty of pasting it below as well. 

In preparation for the release of Thommy Hutson's acclaimed thriller, THE ID, Ryan spoke with genre favorite and star of the film, Amanda Wyss.  The film centers around Meridith Lane (Wyss) who for decades has felt trapped in her home.  Surviving on memories of youth, she watches the years slip by while caring for her abusive father...until a figure from her past makes a surprising return.  In order to live the life she desires, Meridith must confront her father's monstrous cruelty and attempt to escape his tyrannical grip.  But the man who controls her every move won't let go without a fight, leading father and daughter into a series of desperate and irreversible acts.  As Meridith's psyche is slowly pushed to the breaking point, the line between fantasy and reality is hopelessly blurred.  With strangers prying at the door and the walls of her childhood home closing in.  Meridith spirals into a frightening world of paranoia, madness... and violence. 

Ryan Wilkins: First and foremost, thank you so much for taking some time out of your day for us. I loved THE ID, it's absolutely one of the better thrillers that I've seen in recent years.  What initially drew you to this project? 

Amanda Wyss: It's nice to chat with you, so glad you liked our movie!  Thommy Hutson approached me and asked me to read the script with the role of Meridith in mind.  I was drawn to the rawness of the story and the challenge of playing such a complex character. 

RW: In my review I talked about how I believe that your performance carried the film.  It was raw, real and seemed like it was coming from a place that was very close to home for you. What was it like playing a role like Meridith, and where did you draw inspiration?  Did you have any exercises to help get you into the right frame of mind to play Meridith? 

AW: Sometimes I put on my headphones and listen to music for inspiration.  My intention with Meridith was to keep her grounded and truthful.  

RW: I've read in various articles that you actually knew Thommy Hutson before this project. I'm sure that it's always a relief getting to work with someone that you are already acquainted with, but please tell us what it was like working with him.

AW: Working with Thommy was fantastic.  I've known him for years, Heather Langenkamp introduced us.  We had a mind meld while making this movie.  

RW: Is it difficult working on a film that is not only filmed in a single location, but is primarily made up of a two person cast?  Throughout most of the film, almost every scene relies on Meridith's interactions with her father, played by Patrick Peduto.  How was it working with Patrick? 

AW: The house felt claustrophobic, it was hot and cramped.  It worked well for the mood and tone of the film.  Patrick is a hard worker and a really nice man.  He and I dove into our roles of father and daughter.  It was intense!

RW: You've certainly made your home in the horror genre, coming from one of the most iconic horror films of all time.  You've had the opportunity to see the genre grow and change over the past couple decades, what has it been like working in the industry throughout those changes?

AW: I love making movies and I'm lucky to be a part of the experiment!

RW: How does working with this generation of horror film makers compare with those 20 years ago? 

AW: A talented filmmaker transcends time.  A well written script, a great role for me to sink my teeth into, and a good director are ageless. 

RW: Well again, thank you so much for speaking with me today and for those of you interested in checking out Amanda Wyss' latest film, THE ID, it is now available on Blu-ray. 

Thursday, October 27, 2016

The Id (2016) - A Review

The most important man in a woman's life is her father...

I would imagine that there are few things in life harder than watching your parents fall ill.  To watch their minds and bodies slowly begin to betray them, and morph them into something else, must be one of life's greatest tragedies, however, being granted sole guardianship for an abusive and cruel man surely tops the list of ways that life can shit on you.  Directed by Thommy Hutson and written by Sean H. Stewart, The Id is a dark and intelligently written film that tells the story of Meredith Lane, a lonely woman who has been placed in that very scenario.  She has nothing but herself, dirty linens and a depressing house filled with the demands and profanities from a man who could care less that she has essentially given up her entire life to care for him.  Eesh.

This film is not your typical horror film.  I hesitate at even calling it that.  It's a thriller that relies on more than gore and shock (there's little to none of that either) in lieu of toying with some of the most innate emotional ties and responsibilities that one can feel.  Those of family.  Blood is, after all, thicker than water.  Meredith, played by Amanda Wyss, is an otherwise obedient and kind woman.  As the film opens, we see her day to day life in which she cooks, cleans and cares for her father, a boarish man who insults her, makes lewd comments about her body and barks various commands at her in attempts to keep her under his thumb.  It is a very stark look at what is, very likely, the lives of many people around the world.  Her father is ill, so ill in fact that he cannot stand on his own.  She cannot simply walk away or cast him out onto the streets, after all, he is her father.  He uses this to his advantage, as it is his greatest strength considering he is wheelchair bound.  Guilt is a pretty powerful manipulative tool, more so than muscles and grit. 

This is Meredith's life.  Day in and day out.  She does not leave the house, groceries and medications are delivered, she simply caters to the will of her father.  When an unexpected phone call from a ghost of Meredith's past shatters her father's trance over her, things take a very unexpected turn in this film, and we then see one of the most emotional power sturggles I've seen on film in recent years, and I must say, it was a treat to watch.  What starts as a very stark film, quickly takes on a very quirky tone, in all the right ways.  As the events unfold, it's akin to watching a car wreck that you simply can't tear your eyes away from.  Wyss's performance is amazing, giving this film the genuineness that it so needs to avoid becoming campy, while Patrick Peduto's take on the father almost causes you, at moments, to sympathize with his character's plights (just as Meredith does).  This is very much a film that relied on these two performances and both carried them very well.  I ultimately walked away from this film having felt like we have been robbed of 20+ years of killer lead performances from Amanda Wyss as she more than carries this film to the finish line, she fucking runs it there.

While the soundtrack screamed of "Lifetime" movies, The Id delivered on every front.  A solid screenplay that keeps you guessing (and I really mean that) was backed by solid performances resulting in a film that deserved it's Best Thriller win as the 2016 Hollywood Reel Independent Film Festival.  You can catch it on VOD, or over at Amazon, today.

Keep it spooky,
Ryan Wilkins

Friday, October 14, 2016

Padorica (2016) - A Review

The Future Reset

Set in a post-apocalyptic world following an event known as "The Great Reset", Pandorica tells the story of three young tribe members that are led into the woods to endure the "trial": an overnight event that will decide the new leader of the Varosha Tribe. The Varosha are a group of survivors of The Great Reset, some unknown element that wiped out civilization sparing only the most isolated of communities.  We are introduced to Eiren, Ares and Thade, our three hopefuls and their current leader, Nus.  None of them, not even Nus, knows what their trial will be.  All that is known is that only one them will return from the forest to hail as the new leader of the tribe. When a mysterious woman stumbles onto their campsite carrying a mysterious box, their trial is revealed to them.  They soon discover that a trio of deadly assassins are in search of this box, and it's up to them to destroy it before it falls into the wrong hands. 

Pandorica, directed by newcomer Tom Paton, is an interesting film.  Not quite horror, not quite sci-fi, it's an impressive freshman effort from Paton who has nothing else on his IMDB, other than a new feature that is currently filming entitled Redwood.  Boasting beautiful cinematography and a solid original score, the film is set up nicely as we are introduced to our small ensemble cast. I was pleasantly surprised at some of the shots that introduce us to this post-apocalyptic world and commented on what a beautiful film this would be to watch on the big screen.  Paton absolutely capitalized on his small budget, and the world that he created with it should be commended. 

While the writing was a little spotty at times (next to nothing is explained about The Great Reset, in fact it's never even mentioned by the characters) the film is well paced.  There are moments when I wish we received some more background information about aspects of this new world, but perhaps most of that was left on the cutting room floor.  I can't fault Paton too much for that one.  Moments of seeing these characters discover artifacts from the "old world", as they like to call it, were fun and added a nice element to the film that is not often seen in horror films released now a days.  And on that note, I have to applaud Paton's effort to create his own world in this film, it felt like Alien meets Battle Royale

Unfortunately, I feel that the film ultimately suffered greatly from poor on-screen talent.  In all honesty, I did not feel that there was a solid performance out of anyone in the ensemble. Jade Hobday, who plays our lead heroine Eiren, delivered a mild and forced performance giving me the feeling that she was cast based on aesthetic purposes, and Marc Zammit (Ares) was extremely one dimensional in his attempts to bring a villainous tone to his character.  As much as I hate to say it, the performances gave it the feel of a high budget home movie, or high school project.  While they each had their believable moments, more often than not I was left wondering if some of the budget that went into equipment and costume design should have been allotted to their casting department.  I'm used to seeing a spotty performance from one or two cast members, but I ended up feeling like it was taking me out of the film, which is unfortunate because I was so set-up to enjoy this experience. 
Pandorica  was a film that I wanted to enjoy, it captivated me from the get-go, however I was lost along the way and it was unable to recapture my attention as the film went on.  I do feel that Tom Paton is a promising new director, and I will be interested to see his next feature, I just don't think that I'll be recommending this one to friends and family any time soon.

Keep it spooky,
Ryan Wilkins 

Pandorica is now available in select theaters, On Demand, and DVD. 

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Lace Crater (2016) - A Review

Some one night stands last forever.

As human beings, we have all felt the painful sting of isolation and loneliness. Whether you like it or not, we're social creatures and we crave the love and attention of our peers. It's hard-wired into our being, and for many of us, the thought of spending the rest of our lives alone is one of the most terrifying prospects out there.

Harrison Atkins tackles this exact subject in his first full length feature film, Lace Crater, starring Lindsay Burdge, Peter Vack, Jennifer Kim and genre favorite, Joe Swanberg (VHS, You're Next). In what is presented as a dark comedy, the film follows the life of Ruth (Burdge) following a late night tryst with a ghost that causes her body to undergo strange and unidentifiable changes. Atkins take a long look at loneliness as a human condition, and what it can drive us to do in order to feel some level of love, acceptance and affection.

As the film opens, we are introduced to our core group of players: a group of friends traveling to a vacation house in the Hamptons for a night of drug fueled, drunken debauchery, or in their case: to do ecstasy and cuddle all night long. From the get go we are shown that these people are all expressing their desire and need for companionship in different ways. Andrew (played by Andrew Ryder) describes the details of a painful breakup that he is embroiled in, while still expressing the idea that he would like to maintain a friendship with her (whoever she may be). The entire group takes a drug that is specifically designed to enhance human interactions, and we see the characters start reaching out to each other for varying degrees of affection. In an audio-visual montage, we see each of them discussing the painful areas of their lives in what appears to be an attempt to simply be heard, regardless of whether or not anyone is actually listening. We also see that Ruth is interested in Andrew, while she battles her own past-relationship demons, fearing the idea of a long existence much in the same way that Andrew is fearing his.

All of this exposition takes place within the first 25 minutes of the film. By the time our ghost shows up, Atkins has managed to pain Ruth's emotional state on a multi-colored canvas for us to observe and to make this meeting between Ruth and this sad, little spirit that much more special. Through prolonged silences and lingering shots, he captures the awkwardness of their meeting in a meaningful and touching way; he brings to life a feeling that we have all felt with the use of little to no exposition - butterflies in your stomach. You can feel how excited they are to be with each other. To feel something with each other, and in this regard Atkins wastes little time on subtlety. While I won't dwell on our ghost too much (half the fun of this film is meeting him and getting to know him yourself), we see two people who are profoundly lonely, who have managed to find each other at the right time, and who find solace in their shared feelings. It says a lot about our need for companionship, in that Ruth is so starved for affection that she literally sleeps with a dead person to feel alive. 

While I thoroughly enjoyed the first half of this film, I have to say that I got a little lost
somewhere between the second and third act. While Atkins seemed to work so hard at injecting symbolism and imagery into the first half, the second half seemed disjointed and poorly executed. While the first half had some touching and genuinely funny moments, the second lacked all of that and went a very dark route that I normally would not protest, but that just felt out of place in a film like this. I understand that Atkins was attempting to give our ghost some depth; however, he ended up taking the film in a direction that was a little disconcerting and confusing. Dynamics between certain characters made little sense and I had trouble understanding why certain events took place when the first act seemed so well thought out. Maybe I'm overthinking the film as a whole, but I don't think I am, I just think that the film lost a few screws as the run-time wore on. It's hard to get into specifics without spoiling anything, but I would love to have a deeper conversation with someone regarding this film and the events throughout the final act.

That being said, I did find Lace Crater to be a very entertaining look at the effects that loneliness can have on our psyche, and the things that it can drive one to do. Although, I stand by my statement that things got a little wonky at the end there, I do believe that Atkins kept the heart of his story throughout, and while I had questions, they were not enough to turn me off to the film as a whole. While 

Lace Crater was far from a comedy (as it was described on the internet), it was still a very interesting look at a fear that so many of us are all too familiar with and I love that aspect of it. If you are interested in catching a viewing yourself, Lace Crater premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival last September but will be receiving a limited theatrical roll-out in the US, or you can catch it on a VOD platform in a living room near you, this Friday, July 29th.

Until next time, keep it spooky,
Ryan Wilkins

Friday, July 22, 2016

The Blackout Experiments (2016) - A Documentary Review

I am ready to accept my failures.

Haunted houses sure have come a long way. What you may remember as dimly lit hallways of an elementary school, complete with bowls of skinless grape eyeballs and spaghetti noodle brains have transformed into full on nightmare farms where your deepest psychological fears slap you across the face and call you their bitch. BLACKOUT, in specific, is at the forefront of this movement.  

Now, I first heard about BLACKOUT when it was brought to Los Angeles back in 2012 (I believe it was, details on BLACKOUT are insanely hard to come by) when a friend suggested it to me. All that you could really find out about it was a set of very specific rules: you had to be 18 or older to enter, you had to walk through alone and you had to sign a waiver releasing BLACKOUT from any liability should you be hurt, killed, maimed or worse. Oh yes, you're also given a safety word, should you not be able to handle the visceral onslaught you're about to be thrust into. Now, of course I was immediately drawn to it, I had to do it. But I didn't, because I was poor and I couldn't afford the ticket. C'est la vie. Lucky for me though, I was able to catch a screening of the brand new documentary which chronicles the experiences of four people who are BLACKOUT junkies, The Blackout Experiments, so I was able to see first hand what it truly entails for those willing to submit themselves entirely to the experience.

The documentary was directed by Rich Fox who works primarily as an editor and has a scant two directing credits to his name, one of which being The Blackout Experiments and the other a documentary released in 2001 based on tribute bands, aptly titled: TRIBUTE. While I initially expected this documentary to focus on the technical aspects of BLACKOUT, it went another route and focused entirely on the experiences of a group of people who have turned to the haunt in search of something more. These are not people who are fear junkies, they genuinely find BLACKOUT to be something of a spiritual experience. The way that they speak about it is not completely dissimilar to the way I've heard people speak about psychedelic use in that they believe that the experience is there teach them about themselves and to help them grow to be stronger and more able individuals. In that regard, I loved this documentary. To hear of something that is regarded as mindless shock value described as an enlightening and life changing experience was endlessly interesting. I was drawn to these people's stories with a morbid fascination; in many ways, I felt like I was getting an inside glimpse of a cult. The interviews are shot in pitch black rooms, intermingled with a cerebral editing style, not too dissimilar to what the haunt appears to present to its participants, and this intermixed with the chilling soundtrack help place the audience in the headspace necessary to dive into what BLACKOUT is all about.

At one point we are introduced to an elite core group of enthusiasts who are hand chosen by the creators of BLACKOUT called "Survivors". These are people who have walked the haunt numerous times and who have all gleamed positive experiences that they've integrated into their daily lives. They have regular meetings together, they eat and drink together, and if they are lucky enough they can receive special invitations to off-season events that are tailor made specifically for each of them; amplifying their own deepest fears that the team behind BLACKOUT has kept a detailed account of over the course of their relationship with the haunt. This shit is insane, and it's all thanks to creators: Josh Randall and Kristjan Thor. As the documentary goes on to show, they wanted to build an experience that would challenge people's fears, their minds and their psyche. They discuss how they want these participants to tackle their fears head on, and to ultimately come out of it viewing it as a positive experience. Obviously most people would think the idea of BLACKOUT being a positive experience to be an insane one, but this is what make this documentary so interesting.

Over the 80 minute run-time, we see our core group endure an onslaught of emotional trials that causes them to reassess their feelings about BLACKOUT, for better or worse. While one young man reaches a point of anger, claiming that the experience is merely a form of abuse that only a masochist would willingly submit themselves to, the others seem to reach a point of religious fanaticism in which they cannot find happiness in any other place. The limits of their fears are tested in various ways, be it the fear of failure and lack of acceptance, or for another it's lack of control (OCD). We, as the audience, get to see their journey through BLACKOUT as they go from their first experience to their very last, in which they are offered an ultimatum that is life changing. In this, lies the true genius of what Randall and Thor are attempting to accomplish with this endeavor. You see them in a state of dismay as they attempt to understand what they are supposed to learn from this startling revelation. Through this we see how they have grown as people through something that so many others view as simple shock value and that is damn impressive in today's day and age.

As I mentioned earlier, there is virtually no information on the internet about BLACKOUT. A quick Google search will not deliver much, it will bring up a few videos and a slew of reviews which tell of negative experiences dwelling on the disgusting and vile things that one is subjected to within the haunt's black, tarped walls. Aside from the few videos on the official website and various reviews from people who have experienced it themselves, we know nothing about it's background, why, where or when it was started, there aren't even prices listed. This documentary does so much more than just attempt to explore the inner workings of BLACKOUT because in doing so, it would essentially taint what makes it so special in the first place. The fear and appeal of this is that so little is known about it, because it is not about presenting you with new things to fear, it's about fearing what's already inside of you when you walk through those doors. What The Blackout Experiments really show is how a group of people were given what was needed to fight some of the biggest demons in their lives and come out the other side as better people. I think that this makes what Randall and Thor are doing one of the greatest contributions to the horror world that we've seen in years and years, and I applaud it.

It's almost difficult to refer to this as a "haunt" as it is just so much more than that. To call it a haunt almost seems demeaning to what they've so painstakingly created. This is more than a simple haunt, it is quite literally an experience. So, in closing (as I know I've been rambling), I'll say this to Rich Fox himself: your documentary has opened a new door to me and I've spent more time contemplating the things that you've presented in your documentary than I have with any other film in recent years. You've taken me from the role of a passive observer, too cheap to buy a ticket myself, to someone who is unsure if they are willing to look into that darkness and see what might be peeking back. As a lifelong fan of the horror genre, thanks for giving me something to fear again.

Keep it spooky,
Ryan Wilkins

Thursday, June 30, 2016

The Purge: Anarchy (2014) - A Review

After having finally sat down to a viewing of The Purge, I was excited to tear into it’s wildly successful sequel, The Purge: Anarchy. If everyone was saying that the sequel was infinitely better than the inadequate first chapter, then surely I was going to LOVE it considering that I actually quite enjoyed the The Purge. Right?

Released on July 18, 2014, James DeMonaco returned to his futuristic world in which the American public is plunged into chaos for 12 hours to cleanse their souls and purge themselves of all anger, hatred, jealousy, etc., etc. Seen on a much bigger scale this time around, DeMonaco shows the events of Purge Night on a city wide level. He takes the cameras into the city to give the audience what they were left clamoring for after the credits began to roll on the first film: blood filled streets and all the chaos they could possibly handle. After all, Purge Night comes but once a year, right?  

Celebate THE PURGE: ELECTION YEAR Early with Crypt TV's New Short: PURGE NIGHT

Blessed be the new founding fathers indeed, Crypt TV released a tasty new short in anticipation of The Purge: Election Year which is out in a theater near you tomorrow! The short teases another glimpse at the terrors of Purge Night, and not to sound biased, but I loved it. It's short, fun and it's a great take on a story we all know and love: "The Night Before Christmas". The short was directed by a dear friend, Miss Ama Lea, who's an amazing photographer in addition to her directorial skills. It also stars someone very near and dear to my heart, my lovely girlfriend, causing raucous in the streets, sparkler in hand and masked to boot.

Take a peek, enjoy it and I hope you all get out to a theater this weekend and catch The Purge: Election Year to celebrate the most American of all holidays, The 4th of July! If you like it, check out Ama Lea's online store here to see her artwork and purchase some of her prints, she's shot some of the most prolific names in the horror biz and her work is killer (no pun intended). Also, keep an eye out here on Nocturnal Visions, my thoughts on The Purge: Anarchy will be up shortly!