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THE MOOR

(NUCLEAR TANGERINE/BULLDOG FILM DISTRIBUTION (120 minutes; Rated R); 2024)

I’ll say this for the producers of THE MOOR, a spooky child abduction mystery story set among the bleak, forbidding landscape of the Yorkshire moors: They’re a patient lot. Where most films about hauntings or horrifying events usually do their dastardly “darkness of human nature” deeds in 90 minutes or so, THE MOOR takes its sweet time and puts you through two hours of gothic atmosphere and slow-burn buildup to keep you engrossed. This proves to be a mixed blessing, but you gotta admire first-time director Chris Cronin’s level of confidence and focus in sticking to a particular aesthetic to tell his tale of grim kidnappings in not-so-jolly old England. And while his film won’t command the attention of EVERY viewer, those that can appreciate a mystery story that unfolds more like a literary classic than a conventional scary movie with “jump scares” and shit, will find lots to get lost in here. And without any question at all, child kidnappings is about as terrifying as anything in real life gets… they HAPPEN, and often when they end in murder, which is the case here, the killers are not always found.

THE MOOR (SOPHIA LA PORTA) (Screen Shot)

This particular story begins when two childhood friends go to a candy store to pocket some goodies, with young Claire detailing to her pal Danny how her not-at-all smart plan will take place. When things seem to be taking too long, Claire goes into the store to check things out, despite the fact that the owner does not care for her at all, a fact she makes clear. Danny is nowhere around, and Claire is told that the little boy’s father came and picked him up, a blatant lie. The film then jumps to many years later, when the adult Claire (Sophia La Porta), still traumatized by never knowing what happened to Danny, is in conversation with Danny’s father, Bill (a haunted and credible David Edward-Robertson), who posits that the nearby moors may hold some of the answers they are seeking. Not sure at ALL why he decides this; would a vast unforgiving wilderness be where your average psycho kiddie snatcher would take his pint-sized victims to dispose of? Maybe; I know nothing of such matters. Anyway, Bill wants to investigate the dark and foggy terrain of the moors (a striking landscape that has graced quite a few mystery films through the years) with the help of a psychic (Elizabeth Dormer-Phillips) and an experienced local, Thornley (the great Bernard Hill, who played King Theoden in the LOTR franchise, in one of his last performances), who has maps of the terrain they are seeking to explore and familiarity with the entire nightmarish saga. Of the series of kidnappings that have terrorized the area, Thornley says “Normally it’s around about 10% of young people who leave the area they were brought up in. But since that summer, it’s been about 50%. Personally I think they just didn’t want to see that place out their window anymore.”

THE MOOR (ELIZABETH DORMER-PHILLIPS) (Screen Shot)

He has a point… once the film takes us out onto the actual moors, it’s about as unfriendly and brooding a landscape as you could ever hope to see. Miles and miles of marshy NOTHINGNESS, perpetually in fog or shadow, where you could take a terrible fall, get hopelessly lost, or encounter something you would NEVER want to see in your worst nightmare. The film counts on us being deeply unsettled by this unfriendly expanse, and primed for ANY freaky event or discovery that might take place.

THE MOOR (BERNARD HILL) (Screen Shot)

Except… there aren’t that many of them. Suspense builds rather slowly, and there are lots of scenes of our intrepid investigators wandering around in the grim nothingness clearly out of their element, and having a few combative conversations about what is really going on. As a viewer, you may find yourself ASKING what is “really going on,” and longing for a clear denouement. Some documentary style interview segments, a la the BLAIR WITCH PROJECT, try to fill in a few blanks for us, and clearly the film wants us to be open to the supernatural elements presented here, even though we already know a man has been arrested for the child killings and may possibly be released soon. We WANT Bill to learn the fate of his child, and for Claire to start having peaceful nights again once she learns the fate of her childhood friend. And let it be said that the ACTING is uniformly excellent in this film; those Brits do this stuff with class and absolute discipline; you will definitely BELIEVE there is a mystery to be solved here. La Porta and Edward-Robertson are both totally credible.

THE MOOR (SOPHIA LA PORTA, DAVID EDWARD-ROBERTSON, VICKI HACKETT, ELIZABETH DORMER-PHILLIPS, MARK PEACHEY) (Screen Shot)

But how much of this will be “riveting cinema” to you, ultimately? That is a highly individual thing. I really was compelled by the setting of this film, the chance to see the actual MOORS for the forbidding landscape they are, NOT a manufactured landscape. And I also felt I was in the presence of compelling, worthy filmmakers throughout. But was I scared? Was I really keen on the ultimate conclusion to this strange saga? Not so much, frankly. I tend to like my “evil” made straightforward and abundantly clear. So I don’t think most of you will get that from THE MOOR. But as a quietly gripping look at a truly ongoing nightmare, with an imposing natural landscape as one of the clear “villains,” this film is quite powerful in its own way. The “moor,” the scarier. Or something like that.

HEART OF AN OAK (LE CHENE)

(GAUMONT/CAMERA ONE/WINDS/KALEIDOSCOPE ENTERTAINMENT (81 minutes; Unrated); 2022)

There is so much that is rich and wonderful about this French-made nature film that I consider it a miracle that such a film even exists. It’s a “documentary” about the vividness of the natural world that has no narration whatsoever. It has all kinds of creatures scurrying around in its frames but virtually no “cutesy” music to accompany the movement of those creatures (with two minor exceptions). And instead of a panoramic overview of the wonders of Ma Nature that hops from setting to setting, this film focuses on the life within and around a specific tree. Yes, a TREE, in this case a gorgeous 200-plus years old oak tree that serves as the “heart” of the title. Can such a straightforward, unpretentious look at a portion of the natural world make for riveting cinema? Oh, you betcha. This film is a stunner.

HEART OF AN OAK (screen shot)

Although co-directors Laurent Charbonnier and Michel Seydoux obviously had a clear vision of the kind of film they wanted to make, they needed a specially talented cinematographer to zero in on the minute details of this landscape and the critters inhabiting it that would hold an audience’s attention. And they sure found the right guy in Mathieu Giombini, who gives us breathtaking views of insects crawling on leaves, birds huddling together on a high branch or dodging a threat from a watching raptor, red squirrels running to and fro to fetch acorns or do a million other things, and tiny mice in their hidden underground homes, playing, trying to stay warm and watching at every turn for possible danger. Often in nature documentaries, a narrator will tell us what the animals are doing and how remarkable their survival skills are in a possibly unforgiving landscape. There was something so refreshing about watching HEART OF AN OAK and soon realizing there was NOT going to be any narration. Only stunning sequence after stunning sequence, accompanied by mostly subtle, evocative music that is almost always perfect. So we are free, as viewers, to just revel in the colorful and stunning imagery, and let our natural curiosity about, well, all things NATURAL, hold sway. It’s a gift from the amazing French crew that made this movie, and honestly one of the biggest surprises I’ve had as a film buff in a long, long time.

HEART OF AN OAK (screen shot)

The giant oak tree that serves as the primary setting, does not prove to be limiting. We see what is happening in the upper branches of the tree as well as within the roots and below, in addition to the action happening in the general area of the tree, where deer and wild pigs are wandering (not to mention the omnipresent squirrels). We also get to see different seasons and weather conditions, with an extended rain sequence that is incredible. I can’t think of another film in this realm where you see raindrops hitting a patient insect in extreme closeup, or a family of rodents huddling together for warmth half hidden by leaves. There are numerous jaw-dropping sequences, such as a Northern Goshawk trying to make a meal out of a fast-moving Eurasian Jay, zooming after it through the forest like the speeder race on Endor in RETURN OF THE JEDI. I cannot for the life of me comprehend how this segment was filmed. Or how the camera was able to capture a slow-moving Acorn Weevil lumbering along a thin branch, allowing you to study every aspect of this photogenic insect in a way you’ll never get a chance to do in any other forum. And watching competitive mice fight over control of an acorn, like it’s a matter of life and death, conveys natural reality in a far more vivid manner than anything a narrator might say. It is honestly just a genius decision to dispense with narration in this film, meaning that there is no intrusive human voice, save for a somewhat questionable Dean Martin song used to accompany one rather vivid sequence of critters (mostly insects) getting it on and such. It’s sort of comical, I’ll say that. But the overall reaction I had throughout was absolute AWE, at the intense life force happening within and around a magnificent old tree. There are not many films of this “nature” out there, and if you are a lover of the sort of hidden wonders you might sometimes see on a hike in the woods, you’ll adore this movie.

HEART OF AN OAK (screen shot)

The typical action movie will show the names of the stars in the closing credit sequence. I found it absolutely endearing that this film lists the many SPECIES of creatures we see here (yes, I’d been wondering) since they are, truly, the real “stars.” So that includes the aforementioned Acorn Weevil, which deserves some kind of award, the Wood Mouse, the Eurasian Jay, the Great Spotted Woodpecker, the Barn Owl, the Coypu, the badger and many others. The extreme closeups we get of every critter makes for genuinely awe-inspiring views of the secret world we are treated to here. I was never bored; in fact, I felt pure gratitude at the genuinely inspired choices this film makes. It made me even more of a nature lover than I already was. I recommend HEART OF AN OAK with no reservations whatsoever. At a time when we are seeing so much of our natural world destroyed or threatened by climate change. it’s good to have this in-depth, detailed reminder of the powerful mysteries and vital life forms that exist out there closer than we think, wanting only to do their instinctive thing, just as every one of us do every single day. Truly a stunning piece of cinema!

THE GIRL IN THE TRUNK

(SUNRISE FILMS/VERTIGO RELEASING/LONE TOWER VISIONS/A BIGGER BOAT/ROUNOW PRODUCTIONS (90 minutes; Unrated); 2024)

One of the things I love about movies is the chance to experience something from a unique point of view, to live vicariously through a character’s actions, and maybe wonder if you’d behave in a similar manner or completely differently given their challenges in the story. There are so MANY movies out there, of course, that they tend to fall to well-worn tropes of plot development to hold your interest, and that can be tedious. I tend to really like films that show you characters in trapped situations, and to hold your interest by how they build the drama and suspense. A film I reviewed for ZM a couple of years ago was focused entirely on a young pregnant woman trapped in her car on a mountainside in a serious car accident. It was incredibly suspenseful, and when it turned into a horror film in the last half hour, the shocks were well earned. But I’m here right now to talk about THE GIRL IN THE TRUNK, a fairly ingenious little thriller that makes the most of its singular premise. Almost the entire movie consists of the plight and actions of a woman named Amanda Jennings (Katharina Sporrer) who has been kidnapped by an unknown baddie and tossed into the trunk of her rental car. We see a simple shot of her high heel shoes as she unsuccessfully tries to return the car at the film’s beginning, then the furtive actions of a stranger as he quietly gets in that same car without her seeing him. And next we are right in the trunk with her, her hands and mouth taped, trying to figure out what the fuck happened. Amanda has her cell phone, and that becomes absolutely central to the unfolding events. She is wearing a long white wedding dress, and she is a feisty, determined gal who manages to get the tape off her mouth and to call 911 on her phone. The detached sounding male operator asks her a series of increasingly annoying questions, including her location, to which she can only answer “somewhere north of Houston.” When she complains about his questions – after all she can’t give much info being trapped in the trunk of a car – he says “You’re under a lot of stress. but we’re doing all we can.” In the first of many small twists, it turns out the operator is, in fact, her kidnapper, She’s in the trunk and he’s the driver, and their “relationship” is going to evolve through a subsequent series of phone chats.

THE GIRL IN THE TRUNK (KATHARINA SPORRER) (Screen Shot)

So that’s the basic premise, and I gotta say, writer/director Jonas Kvist Jensen does an impressive job of giving us the claustrophobic feeling of being stuck in the trunk of a car, trying to figure out what to do. There isn’t much light, true, but Amanda finds a tool in the trunk that she uses first to poke a hole big enough to see out the back (ingeniously, this allows us to see what happens a few times when the kidnapper stops the car), and later to create an opening through which she can see the driver. In a good example of how cell phones can be used to help move a modern story along, Amanda even manages to snap a photo of her captor, who we’ll soon learn is an ordinary looking, middle-aged white guy named Michael Bellrose (Caspar Phillipson). I don’t think it’s necessary to spill every plot element here, as I think you SHOULD see this movie. But through a series of “games” and tense phone exchanges, we learn that Amanda is a runaway bride, that she and Bellrose have a connection to the same bank, and that getting ahold of her father on the phone turns out to be a key development. Bellrose’s intentions towards Amanda are a bit hazy, but he’s a seriously malevolent dude. When a good samaritan approaches the car offering to help Bellerose with something, the situation goes south in a hurry. And to my knowledge, this is the first cinematic example of a murder being shown to us via a hole in the trunk of a car. Generating even MORE suspense is when our psycho kidnapper tells Amanda she’s going to have company soon, and he slips a scorpion into the trunk through the main opening. This is filmed extremely well, with the critter crawling all over her and her having to maintain the kind of absolute cool that you or I likely would NOT possess. Scenes of this nature in so MANY films can be tiring and insulting to one’s intelligence. Here, it is a marvel of suspenseful pacing, and I wanted to cheer over Amanda’s believable actions. I also loved what happens when a good-natured female police officer stops the car and has a normal-seeming chat with Bellrose. Amanda has to listen to the dialogue without yelling out and risking her life. You’ll THINK you know how this scene is going to turn out, but trust me, you’ll be surprised. Some real thought went into this script and the necessity of getting from “point A” to “point B.” And if you are tired of thrillers and horror films where women either act stupidly or simply act as helpless victims, you’ll enjoy the plucky, sarcastic manner of the heroine here, and how she does her best to one-up the kidnapper mostly through dialogue. At most turns, this film avoids the obvious, which greatly impressed me. And whereas in the typical horror film (and THE GIRL IN THE TRUNK is ostensibly in that category) you’ll have to endure either an unpleasant or simply unbelievable ending, this cool little movie has a solid conclusion, almost cheer-worthy in fact. I found myself amazed at the end, and that doesn’t happen very often.

THE GIRL IN THE TRUNK (CASPAR PHILLIPSON) (Screen Shot)

My only criticism, and it’s basically a small one, is that while Sporrer is clearly a talented actress, her character rarely shows the kind of fear and vulnerability that I would think most women would display in her circumstances. She’s in a clearly desperate situation, and may very well be facing the end of her life, yet she always acts with confidence and resolve. It’s refreshing in a way, but wouldn’t it be more authentic if she lost her cool a couple of times? The “game” that Bellerose keeps her locked into, unwillingly, reveals her to be a more than capable opponent. And Phillipson is definitely a credible baddie, a blandly ordinary creep who insists he is “not really a violent man.” There’s a discernible vulnerability to him that again is somewhat refreshing, and the ongoing dialogue between him and our heroine is fast moving and full of interesting quirks. But overall, this movie is Jensen’s show; he deserves the bulk of the credit for how well this movie works as the writer and director, and I can’t imagine that many other films will be made that so successfully utilize the cramped trunk of a car the way this one does. So thumbs up from me on this surprising little thriller. It’s not flashy, and it’s mostly free of jump scares and the typical bloody violence inherent in this genre. But THE GIRL IN THE TRUNK is a minor miracle, a film that takes one of the most terrifying scenarios any woman could imagine and turns it into something riveting and even thoughtful. This movie beats the odds consistently for films of this nature, and I can only be grateful as a viewer.

HERE FOR BLOOD

(SCREAMBOX ORIGINAL/PAGEMAN PRODUCTIONS/BLOODY DISGUSTING/CINEVERSE (101 minutes; Unrated); 2024)

This is a horror movie that is aptly named, as it indicates that if you watch horror movies in hopes of seeing a lot of blood, this one delivers. Throughout the film, there is spurting blood from stabbings, limbs getting cut off and even a couple of outrageously over the top head choppings. So I am saying all that upfront so you know that bloody violence is the order of the day in this’un. But since it is billed as a “horror/comedy,” the undertone of absurdity and satire helps alleviate any revulsion you may feel about the killings, although I have to say, the first two were really rather shocking… they happen in the film’s first 15 minutes. But what’s it ABOUT, you ask? Well, there’s this wrestler guy named Tom O’Bannon (Shawn Roberts) who makes less than a good living from cheap matches that a sleazy promoter stages for peanuts. Tom isn’t happy about his plight but hasn’t much choice in the matter. His attractive girlfriend Phoebe (Joelle Farrow) has an important test to cram for, and she asks Tom to fill in for just two hours for a babysitting job she agreed to do for friends, who have a young daughter named Grace (Maya Misaljevic). Tom is anything but thrilled about this but reluctantly agrees. Problem is, the house has been targeted for sinister reasons by a band of psycho cultists. When Tom orders a pizza for him and Grace, the pizza delivery guy is slaughtered in brutal fashion, and then it’s abundantly clear something horrible is taking place. And when Tom investigates a couple of weird sounds, the mayhem begins in earnest.

HERE FOR BLOOD (MAYA MISALJEVIC) (Screen Shot)

That’s the setup in a nutshell.

HERE FOR BLOOD (JOELLE FARROW, SHAWN ROBERTS) (Screen Shot)

I don’t really think, in a low-budget horror film such as this, that you need either a detailed plot synopsis or an analytical review of how successful the horror tropes are. Most people watch horror for the visceral kicks a film provides and the overall entertainment value. We’ve seen plenty of films about home invasions by masked psychos, which is the deal here, but this movie seems to delight in a level of excess that definitely makes an impression. One of the dimmer of the psycho cultists, apparently named “Bernie” (Jesse Buck) gets his face held to a red hot stove burner by Tom, screaming his head off; he also gets stabbed a bunch and has a hand cut off. The way Buck screams and pouts angrily throughout is the first sign you should NOT take this movie too seriously. Performance-wise, Buck is over the top but clearly understanding of the TONE that director Daniel Turres is going for. Which is a kind of high-energy schlock-carnage. “We are under attack by a gang of sex perverts!” Tom declares to Phoebe when she finally arrives after her studying is finished. “Everybody grab a knife,” he adds. There are tons of knives in this film, and an axe or two, all utilized regularly. “Just chop!” Tom tells Phoebe when she is wondering how they are going to subdue one of the killers. Phoebe is reluctant at first to do any killing and seems pathetically unhelpful, but when a killer calls her a bad name, she does some chopping all right, to such an extent that Tom has to tell her she can STOP now. Blood spurting in all directions is all the evidence needed that one of the baddies has been taken down. I laughed at that scene, honestly. And I laughed even more when Grace’s parents return home; this seemingly innocuous but neurotic couple, played with sitcom-like dopiness by Tara Spence-Nairn and Michael Therriault, provide some of the meant-for-relief laughter in the film’s final third. Considering the grim nature of the intruders and the detailed butchery we witness, the presence of these two quarreling knuckleheads will either help you relax or annoy the shit out of you. It sort of did BOTH for me.

HERE FOR BLOOD (JOELLE FARROW) (Screen Shot)

The killers are part of a cult, naturally, preparing for some kind of “ascension” that involves both a disemboweled talking head (voiced by Twisted Sister’s Dee Snider) that keeps saying “Feed me!” (a la the plant in LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS), and the sacrifice of an attractive young woman, which is Phoebe’s intended role in all this and a point of attentive self-awareness and parody by the filmmakers, who score a point or so for that in terms of comedy. “We all knew the risks of joining a cult,” one of the homeowners casually declares. “But it’ll all be okay when we ASCEND.” Of course. That’s how it’s supposed to work! HERE FOR BLOOD is not a boring movie – it keeps things moving along at a good pace, and one or two setpieces of insane bloodletting, though winking at past films like THE EVIL DEAD and REANIMATOR, aren’t quite as deleriously funny as they’d like to be. The acting is not very good, for the most part, although the muscular Shawn Roberts tries to anchor things as best he can (and takes a thorough beating throughout). At one point, young Grace points to a bloody figure on the floor and asks “Is that guy DEAD?” “Yeah,” Tom replies. “Sucks, cause he was a fan of mine, too.” I laughed at that scene, and plenty of others. Clearly the intent was to have some fun with the genre by both the director and writer James Roberts. But it’s no classic, and much of the acting is just too stiff to be memorable. Still, it’s worth a watch for horror fans that like to be repulsed or startled by what they see. And I give the film an extra point or two by letting the good guys win despite going through hell. But many will perhaps NOT make it to the end of this one without a decisive response either yay or nay. But if you’re “here for blood” when you sit down to view this piece of self-aware horror carnage, chances are you will get what you came for.

IN THE COURT OF THE CRIMSON KING: KING CRIMSON AT 50

(DISCIPLINE GLOBAL MOBILE (86 minutes; Unrated); 2023)

In the pantheon of so-called “progressive rock” groups, you’ll always find discussion of such bands as Yes, Genesis, ELP, Pink Floyd and a few other titans of technological trailblazing and trickery. Prog rock has generally been revered and reviled in equal percentages, but that’s no big deal… EVERYTHING is nowadays. Mention King Crimson, however, and I suspect there’ll often be a pause before the expected opinion is uttered. There’s always been something DIFFERENT, something hard to pin down about this Robert Fripp-led ensemble. You can’t just say ONE thing about them. Were they the makers of that outstanding classic rock platter IN THE COURT OF THE CRIMSON KING, the one with the cover of an enlarged mouth gone wild and the immensely pleasing vocals by Greg Lake? The unpredictable sonic architects of challenging platters like RED? The laboratory where some of today’s finest musicians, such as Bill Bruford, Tony Levin (looking cool as heck in his segments) and Adrian Belew went IN and came OUT as changed players forever? The often tyrannical experiment waged by mad overseer Robert Fripp who expected DISCIPLINE (pun intended), tireless dedication and an impossible sort of perfection from anyone he deemed worthy enough to be part of his ongoing alchemical adventure? The answer: YES. To all of that. And as the amazing documentary IN THE COURT OF THE CRIMSON KING: KING CRIMSON AT 50 makes clear, there was a lot of suffering taking place to make that art over a half-century’s duration..

“I came back from making some of that music and my hair had fallen out,” said guitarist extraordinaire Adrian Belew, whom most associate with one of the most fertile and memorable phases of the band, from 1981 to 2009. “It was so stressful to be under the microscope that way.”

“It could be a very bumpy… and lumpy ride,” Bill Bruford offered about his time in the band. “Some people handle being winded, and WOUNDED, better than others.”

Guitarist/vocalist Trey Gunn, part of the band from 1994-2003, provides an even more memorable quote about the KC experience. He compared being in Crimson to having a low-grade infection. “You’re not really sick, but you don’t feel well, either.”

IN THE COURT OF THE CRIMSON KING (JAMIE MUIR) (screen shot)

Much has been written about King Crimson over the course of their volatile journey, and this documentary does a good job of trying to provide perspective on a fascinating musical story. A common element in any attempt to discuss the band is coming to terms with the uncompromising vision of guitarist/leader Fripp, who, as one of the most innovative guitarists of all time, had the right to pursue his musical goals and listen to what his ego commanded. But that was not always pleasant for the players, to say the least, and Fripp himself has often said he’s not always the nicest guy in pursuit of his musical ambition. Some contributors, such as percussionist Jamie Muir, didn’t last long; his work was mostly confined to the 1973 album LARKS’ TONGUES IN ASPIC.

“It’s a maelstrom of electricity,” he said in a clip from the film. “You’re in the middle of a storm, and you’ve got to stand in the middle of this storm and coherently play music. And a roaring, bellowing, regal animal tries to emerge out of something.”

IN THE COURT OF THE CRIMSON KING (ROBERT FRIPP AND “THE GREAT SILENCE”) (screen shot)

There are plenty of clips of performances in the doc, although maybe not as many as you might want from the early days. But it’s the honest interviews with the many fabled musicians that make the biggest impression. Some, such as drummer Bill Rieflin, are not around anymore despite a prominent presence in the movie (Rieflin died in 2020 at the age of 59). There are quite a few segments that feature Rieflin, and he’s one of the more affable commentators we see. “Urgency is one of the main characteristics of Crimson music,” he relates. We see that powerful vibe in clip after clip, and Rieflin is among those who apparently thought the relentless challenge of it all was worth it, despite the “constant pain” he was in during his last couple of years. Rieflin was quite a storied musician already, having contributed his talents to bands such as Ministry, Pigface, REM and Swans among others. He was passionate about what Crimson was doing and said he was “made for it” when asked why he stayed when it was clearly so tough. “Music can restore grace, if only for a moment, in a person’s life,” the drummer related. He could have been referring to both the players and the fans. The doc shows us numerous crowd scenes of Crimson fans, clearly enraptured, bobbing their heads or staring at the band in awe. There’s a substantial segment featuring a nun, of all people, expressing her rabid enthusiasm for the band. “It goes over most peoples’ heads,” one pundit declares. “It is quasi scientific. If you get it, you really get it. Something like magic happens. But the conditions have to be so perfect. To get there… it’s so fragile.”

IN THE COURT OF THE CRIMSON KING (ROBERT FRIPP) (screen shot)

The film does not shy away from showing how bull-headed Robert Fripp often was. He was often quick to get angry, dismissive of early incarnations of the band, and actually somewhat insulting to director Toby Amies. A long and painful moment near the end of the doc shows the director waiting eternally for Fripp to answer a reasonable question. I had to check my screen a couple of times to make sure the image hadn’t frozen… but no, it was just a long, long closeup of Fripp thinking, composing some sort of response. And one of the last scenes is a direct insult, with Fripp obviously NOT quite appreciating the inherent uncertainty of what Amies was trying to do… putting together a sprawling and ambitious doc about one of the most singular and unpredictable bands in the history of rock music. Amies makes a wise decision to feature so many players in KC’s revolving door talking about their experiences… a sense of the genuinely personal and honest comes through, from pride to abject misery at times. “I just started to hate what I was hearing,” admits Ian McDonald, a KC member only in their first incarnation. “The really dark things. I hated inflicting it on the audience.”

IN THE COURT OF THE CRIMSON KING (KING CRIMSON LIVE AT ROYAL ALBERT HALL) (photo credit: TONY LEVIN)

But as the passing of time (and the countless changes) have shown, King Crimson has a dedicated fan base, who LIKE the “dark things” and the less easily accessible elements of this wild and weird music. Fripp always has an intense look on his face in the doc, like he KNOWS that attaining musical transcendence is possible, no matter the hardships for the rest of the band (and, to be fair, HIMSELF) in trying to get there. KING CRIMSON AT 50 serves the fan base well and does a remarkably balanced job at portraying the tireless pursuit of aiming for the sonic UNKNOWN by a truly ambitious innovator and his band of (mostly) sympathetic comrades. Whatever your opinion of any phase of Crimson’s long career, this well-paced documentary is absolutely worth seeking out.


(EDITOR’S NOTE: As an aside for readers in the Saint Louis area, if you miss Crimson’s “live actions” or just want to see a really good band playing some very challenging music, there is a great tribute band called THRAK performing locally for your listening and dancing pleasure. Check out their Facebook page when you need to scratch that Crimson itch.)

A HAUNTING IN ATCHISON

THE SALLIE HOUSE DELIVERS THE FRIGHT

THE SALLIE HOUSE (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

 

I don’t write a travelogue; I have written very little in the way of “Haunted Houses,” traditional or otherwise… the closest I’ve come (other than the occasional film review) was an overview of haunted attractions in Saint Louis that I wrote last century. Plus… even though I love spooky and creepy stuff and have watched more than my fair share of paranormal programming, I remain a devout skeptic. Sure, I’ve encountered things that I have no firm explanation for, but I generally put it off to too much caffeine or too little sleep. So, anyway…

THE SALLIE HOUSE (Historic and paranormal descriptions adorn the walls) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

 

Somehow, the Sallie House in Atchison, Kansas has until very recently alluded my eagle eye for really (make that REALLY) haunted locations. When a cousin’s granddaughter (hi, Jameson) found out that I was into the ooky and kinda spooky, she showed me a YouTube video by a couple of guys named Sam Golbach and Colby Brock, Kansas natives who explored the house with rather frightening results. Since, I have been planning a visit there, which – naturally – led to me calling the Atchison Chamber of Commerce and the director overseeing the Sallie House, Jill Thorne. Jill told me that she, too, had been a skeptic until the deaths of her parents, when unexplained experiences began to occur around her. As for the Sallie House, she says that she has had no experiences there… primarily because she refuses to go to the location; she has been twice to the house at 508 North Second Street and, then, only because her position as director dictated that she be there. Anybody visiting the location must sign a waiver absolving the Atchison Chamber of Commerce of any liability in case of any spirit-inflicted injuries. Which begs the question… what has earned the Sallie House the title of “most haunted place in Kansas?

THE SALLIE HOUSE (A small operating table with tools of the trade and pictures depicting Sallie) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

 

Well, here’s the story: At the dawn of the 1900s, the property was occupied by a doctor – living quarters on the second floor, office and examination rooms on the first. A mother, frantic because her six year old daughter had collapsed with extreme abdominal pain, brought the girl to be treated. This is where things get a bit foggy. It was either a sunny day or a dark and stormy night (of course… aren’t they all?). The little girl’s name was Sallie or, the name belonged to the physician’s maid who answered the door. After a quick exam, the doctor determined that the culprit was an inflamed appendix ready to burst. The doctor was either groggy from being woken from a deep sleep or he was in a hurry to remove the appendix before it did burst or he was in a perpetual state of drunkenness; he either fumbled with the bottle of chloroform and dropped it, shattering the glass and losing the contents, leading him to operate on the poor child the old fashioned way (“Hold her down tight. This is going to hurt.”) or, again because of his fear that the offending organ would burst, acted in haste to try to save the youngster. Other stories indicate that the doctor had an affair with his Black maid, the result of which was a daughter; when the daughter became ill, the doctor was too ashamed to take her to the hospital and performed the surgery in his office. Regardless of which (if any) of these stories is true, it is almost a certainty that the child died on the operating table. So… does that mean that the ghost of the little girl is haunting the house, wreaking havoc on all and sundry because she’s upset that she died? Or, is there something more malevolent there?

THE SALLIE HOUSE (Upstairs bedroom where guests leave toys for Sallie to play with) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

 

If reports are to be believed, I tend to lean toward the latter. The residence has remained empty since the last tenants moved out in 1993 after experiencing some of the most frightening, painful attacks ever recorded this side of the infamous Lutz home in Amityville, New York. Tony and Debra Pickman spent nearly two years at the home. During those 22 months, Tony was scratched often and tormented in near-demonic fashion the entirety of their time in the Sallie House. Debra wasn’t safe, either, but Tony experienced most of the negative effects, including being pushed down the stairs. While everyone who visits say that they “feel a presence,” most of the violent activity seems to be targeted at males, giving rise to the entity being called a “man-hating spirit.” Most of the current reports from visitors to the house seem to indicate that much of the activity occurs in the basement, where there is a dark spot on the floor that is said to be an attempt to burn off a pentagram painted there, no doubt left by a coven of witches or Satanists (or a bunch of teens perpetuating the myth that ol’ Scratch, the horned beast himself, is on the prowl for fresh souls to steal).

THE SALLIE HOUSE (Atchison Chamber of Commerce director JILL THORNE) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

 

Whether you believe the tales of the haunting of Sallie House or not, the trip and the tour is worth your time. You can visit Monday through Friday (during regular business hours) for a one-hour self tour and try to scare up a spirit or two while revisiting a little bit of Americana in the ancient house. For the truly adventurous, you can schedule an overnight paranormal investigation to really rile up the ghostly and demonic residents of 503 North Second Street. Jill did allow me to tour the house and take the pictures used here and, while she did unlock the door (and pose for the picture above), true to her word, she did not accompany me into the house; in fact, when I asked if she was coming in, her eyes widened and she gave a quick shake of her head before leaving. Did I have any experiences there? Well… no. I did, however, meet a family from De Soto, Kansas who had stories from previous trips, including scratches, unexplained voices and glithcy electronics. After their session was over, I asked Sarah to describe some of the occurrences for a video. While she was explaining some of the camera and recorder malfunctions, I noticed that my phone had stopped recording and, later, as I tried to replay the remainder of the interview, I discovered that it was nearly all gone. Was it the entity of the house messing with us or was it operator error? Either way, I do thank Sarah for taking the time to talk about her experiences and her belief in what may actually be happening in and around the Sallie House.

AMELIA EARHART BIRTHPLACE (223 North Terrace Street) (uncredited photo); SANTA FE DEPOT (200 South Tenth Street) (publicity photo)

 

Haunted houses (there’s also the 1889 McInteer Villa, among others) aren’t the only reason to visit Atchison. Sitting on the west bank of the Missouri River, it was where Meriwether Lewis and William Clark’s Corps of Discovery Expedition disembarked after their journey upriver from Saint Charles, Missouri and began the western trek across this land; if you like to hike (and can dodge traffic), you can actually walk across the river and tell all your friends that you hiked through two states in an afternoon. Atchison is also the original home of the famous Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Rail System and the birthplace of Amelia Earhart, who may or may not still reside in the house she was born in… Hey, we are talking about haunted places, right? Happy haunting, everyone.

DAUGHTER

(DARK STAR PICTURES/YELLOW VEIL PICTURES/THIRTEENTH FLOOR PICTURES/ONE WORLD ENTERTAINMENT(96 minutes; Unrated); 2023)

I have a particular fondness for weird and unpredictable movies. So many films these days are by-the-book entries in their respective genres, and anything in the horror/suspense world is more likely than not to give the viewers what they want, more or less. DAUGHTER, a memorable little indie project from writer/director Corey Deshon, is a well-made offering that grabbed my attention right away. It starts with two masked individuals chasing a terrified girl through a bleak landscape, and I think one of the dudes mutters something to the other, after their terrible act, like “Remember, you were responsible for this.” But whether I got that quote right or not, we are soon privy to the terror experienced by a different girl played by Vivien Ngo, as she is being menaced, oddly in a “respectful” manner, by “Father’ (Casper van Dien, best known from STARSHIP TROOPERS, in a career-best performance here). Father is explaining to the girl that she is now part of his family, that she will be addressed as the titular “Daughter,” and that she is badly needed as a companion for “Brother,” played by Ian Alexander. And there is a “Mother” around also, Elyse Dinh. Both the women here are Vietnamese, and this is never explained, though they do use the language to speak to each other, presumably to keep “Father” from understanding their conversations. We have our setup: A cult-like family who think that the “outside” is “poison,” and that safety can only be counted on inside, are fixed on having the right daughter to complete their family, and to bring happiness to their son. Something really weird is going on, and the movie hangs on our suspense about what in hell is happening.

DAUGHTER (IAN ALEXANDER, CASPER VAN DIEN, ELYSE DINH) (photo courtesy DARK STAR PICTURES)

It is worth mentioning the score here, as I believe that music can have a huge role in one’s response to a film. This one was done by David Strother, a composer I don’t know, and it’s a doozy. All tense strings (likely cello and violin/viola) which are often discordant and almost always insistent, but very evocative. They tell us rather straightforwardly that something is really OFF in this scenario, and I think the music is very effective. Deshon made a good choice in utilizing this composer.

DAUGHTER (ELYSE DINH, CASPER VAN DIEN, IAN ALEXANDER) (photo courtesy DARK STAR PICTURES)

It was also a curious and very successful choice to put van Dien in the lead. We’ve seen this actor as an energetic and rather heroic type in past films, and here he is unhinged, spooked (in that way so common to overwrought cult leaders) and singularly set on his one dysfunctional goal: To maintain the semblance of a family and overcome any hesitation on the part of the girl(s) he kidnaps. “This is going to be home for a while,” he tells the scared Daughter. “You have to understand that. You’re part of a family now… I can’t do this without you.” We’ve all read sick news stories about cult kidnappings before, so the grim resonance of this scenario is vividly real. Ngo shows initial reticence and fear, but gradually we see her start to become a bit calculating, and the actress does a credible job starting to “adapt.” She slowly starts to become agreeable, though she is wacked in the face by Father wielding a rolled-up newspaper at one point. She is gingerly trying to push the limits a bit. And while she starts playing with the “Brother,” first at a board game he seems to fancy and then via a “storytelling exercise” that she has to persuade him to engage in (it soon leads to a weird bit of theatricality), Father is suspicious throughout, hovering never far away and making sure both of the “siblings” (as well as we the audience) are kept on edge. He reads periodically from a tattered book (it could be the Bible or some other culty guidebook), and he keeps saying things like “the diseases out there don’t play by the rules!” and issuing warnings like “Don’t you poison that boy!” and “Don’t ruin everything.” The youngster, Ian Alexander, has one of the difficult challenges here: How to show his innocent enthusiasm for “fun” and bonding with his new sibling, and his absolute adherence to Father’s wishes, while clearly getting rattled when something doesn’t seem right. Alexander has a crucial – and a bit inscrutable – role here and he fulfills it well.

DAUGHTER (ELYSE DINH, CASPER VAN DIEN, VIVIEN NGO, IAN ALEXANDER) (photo courtesy DARK STAR PICTURES)

But the film mostly belongs to Casper van Dien. He is entirely believable, quite scary, and a million miles away from his heroic part in STARSHIP TROOPERS. He wears monastic plain clothes (they all do), is clearly disturbed about what he perceives as the sick reality of the outside world, and shows how quickly he might go OFF, and hurt you. He makes it clear early on that if he thinks you DESERVE to be hurt, you WILL be. That keeps you guessing all the way to the end.

DAUGHTER (CASPER VAN DIEN, IAN ALEXANDER) (photo courtesy DARK STAR PICTURES)

It’s remarkable that director Strother keeps sex totally out of the picture here… the reality of most cults I have ever read about is that part of the MO when kidnapping women is to prey on them sexually. That is NOT part of this particular story. Also a surprise was the ending, which I won’t give away. Some things are left hanging, and you’re left knowing mostly, as one of the captioned chapter titles tell us, that you’ve seen “A Story About Sick People.” I found this film scarily resonant and relevant. We live in a world these days where all kinds of predatory creeps, whether motivated by religion or not, force or pressure people to do the things the sickos want, sometimes having to give up their old lives. DAUGHTER does not make everything clear about the reality we are witnessing, and each of the characters ends up representing a separate aspect of life in a dysfunctional (potentially dystopian?) small-scale system. It’s unsettling, unnerving and sometimes quite disturbing. But the decision-making process that went into the production of this offbeat gem of a film was thoughtful and deliberate, and it pays off. Kudos to the director and the acting foursome for serving up something that you’re not likely to forget, and avoiding almost all the clichés of this particular cinematic milieu.

(DAUGHTER premieres in theaters and On Demand on February 10, 2023, with a DVD release scheduled for May 9.)

MURDER AT YELLOWSTONE CITY

(YELLOWSTONE FILM RANCH/RENEGADE ENTERTAINMENT/RLJ ENTERTAINMENT (127 minutes; Unrated); 2022)

If you’ve spent any time here at all, you probably know that I’m a sucker for Westerns – movies (RUSTLERS’ RHAPSODY being my favorite), television series (HAVE GUN – WILL TRAVEL does it for me), comic books, novels and non-fiction. Anything at all that could be deemed a “Western” is pretty much okay in my book. So, when the chance to review a new flick called MURDER AT YELLOWSTONE CITY hit my email, I jumped on it. I was not disappointed!

MURDER AT YELLOWSTONE CITY (ISAIAH MUSTAFA, RICHARD DREYFUSS) (publicity still)

In the opening sequence, there are a few of the familiar “Western” tropes to set the mood and the scene for the rest of the film. There is, of course, the appearance of a stranger in town… a quiet, observant, somewhat moody stranger who quotes Shakespeare. As this stranger (played with brooding intensity by Isaiah Mustafa) approaches Yellowstone City, Montana, he is stopped dead in his tracks (well… his horse’s tracks) by an explosion. That explosion turns out to be a nightmare for the stranger: One Robert Dunnigan (Zach McGowan in a small but integral role, though he does appear more after his death than before) was blowing open a long-closed gold mine and, hitting the mother lode, begins making tracks to his shack in the woods. His ramshackle abode was merely a stopping off place so he could tell his wife, Emma (Scottie Thompson), that he found gold and he was heading to town.

MURDER AT YELLOWSTONE CITY (ZACH MCGOWAN, AIMEE GARCIA, EMMA KENNEY, ISAIAH MUSTAFA) (publicity still)

In town, the preacher, Thaddeus Murphy (Thomas Jane), rings the bell for the Sunday morning call-to-worship. Sheriff James Ambrose (Gabriel Bryne), looking for his son (Nat Wolff), finds him in the saloon (which, apparently, is also the town hotel, brothel and bathhouse). With the help of one of the working women, Isabel (Aimee Garcia), Ambrose rousts Jimmy from a hand of poker and into the church. Shortly after, the stranger rides into town, eyed by every person not inside the house of worship. Looking for a room, he is directed to the saloon, where he recites Shakespeare with one of the saloon owners, Edgar (Richard Dreyfuss), who tells him to be careful because the townfolk don’t understand anything but plain and simple. Inside the church, Pastor Murphy is just beginning his sermon as Mister Dunnigan rides into town, guns blazing, yelling that he’s struck it rich. After buying almost the entire town a round and offering the men jobs at his mine, he heads upstairs for a roll with his favorite girl, Isabel. All the while, the stranger sits in a corner alone, taking everything in. When one of the men demands payment for a past gambling debt, it looks like Robert Dunnigan’s celebration may be short-lived and the stranger’s hand automatically goes to his holster. Cooler heads (and the sheriff’s gun pointed between the gambler’s eyes) prevail and the party continues. Headed home after a hard day’s drinking and carousing, someone takes a potshot at Dunnigan, shooting his horse out from under him; obviously in fear of losing his gold, Dunnigan keeps a rapid-fire string of questions, pleas and bargaining opportunities aimed at his attacker while unloading both of his pistols in the general direction of where the shots came from. Of course, all of this shouting makes it that much easier for his assailant to find him in the dark. Taking aim, the shooter hits poor Robert in the back but, just to make sure he’s done the job, he slits his throat for good measure. Now, once his body is found, the sheriff and his deputies are certain of the killer. I mean, there’s only one new man in town so… it must be him, right? And, of course, the stranger’s refusal to speak and the fact that he had money only added to Sheriff Ambrose’s belief that he had his man.

MURDER AT YELLOWSTONE CITY (ANNA CAMP) (publicity still)

Amidst all of the death and brutality (and there is a LOT!), there are some truly sweet moments in MURDER AT YELLOWSTONE CITY. These mostly involve Pastor Murphy’s wife, Alice (Anna Camp), a woman who takes the “ministering” aspect of Christianity to heart, holding Bible studies with the women of Yellowstone City (including the “working” women of the brothel, holding the meetings at their place of business), visiting the sick and, of course, the stranger in his cell. Another pure soul, Violet Running Horse (Tanaya Beatty), was orphaned when a band of white men burned her family’s village and killed everyone in it; Edgar and his partner, Mickey (John Ales), looking for a better life out west, found the child when they happened upon the carnage, nursed her back to health and raised her. Violet operates the livery stables and is the first person the (as yet nameless) stranger meets. After a short exchange regarding the talismans hanging from the man’s saddle and, naturally, the length of his stay in town, the care of his horse and belongings, as well as where he can get a drink and a room. As mentioned earlier, she points him in the direction of the hotel/saloon. All of this obviously takes place right after Dunnigan disrupts the quiet Sunday morning. The next night, Robert Dunnigan is dead and the stranger is arrested. Violet realizes that he could not have killed Dunnigan because his horse and saddle had not been touched since he left them in her care; unimpressed, Sheriff Ambrose thanks her for the information but tells her that there are other ways for a man to get out of town.

MURDER AT YELLOWSTONE CITY (ISABELLA RUBY) (publicity still)

Aside from Edgar, the next person the stranger speaks to is Alice Murphy. The preacher’s wife, after having told her husband that he may be good at sermonizing but not at ministering, was there to minister to a soul in need. Alice asks the man his name. “Cicero,” is his reply. “Cicero? Like the philosopher?” Cicero explains that it is the name of a character in a play who delivers a speech that he dreams of reciting. He also tells Alice that, as a former slave, he has no family and no family name… he raised himself. The preacher’s wife is the moral compass in Yellowstone City, gently prodding her husband to do the right thing. The same morning that she tells him that she’s going to visit the prisoner, a gunshot rings out. It’s one of Isabel’s (yes… THAT Isabel) charges, an orphan girl named Josephine (or Josie, played by newcomer Isabella Ruby) shooting at cans in the cemetery. Thaddeus says, “It’s Josephine. You know, she could use a little ministering, too.” With a smile and a laugh, Alice tells him “What she could use is a father or… someone like that she could look up to.” Getting the point, the good parson heads out to the graveyard:

“You shouldn’t be shootin’ at graves.”

Ain’t like I’m hittin’ it.”

“You’re tryin’ too hard… you’re waiting for the gunfire. It’s not about the violence.”

“It is violent. It’s a rifle.”

As the preacher tells her to relax and helps her adjust how she’s holding, aiming and firing the weapon, Josie asks, “What do you know about guns?” A question that will be answered later in the film. As she takes aim once more, she actually hits the headstone where she placed her target. “Ain’t there somewhere better around here we can shoot?”

“That man killed my father.”

“Go ahead then.” The next shot hits the can. “Let’s set ‘em up.” It’s one of the sweet moments that make MURDER AT YELLOWSTONE CITY more than your typical Western or “who done it” murder mysteries. The young Miss Ruby has several career-making scenes and Josephine proves to be much more than the Bible quoting young lady we first meet. During the forty minute shootout that ends the story proper, she is wounded and does quite a bit of damage herself.

MURDER AT YELLOWSTONE CITY (JOHN ALES, DANNY BOHNEN, GABRIEL BYRNE, LEW TEMPLE, NAT WOLFF) (publicity still)

Throughout the film, the body count continues to rise… and unfortunately, for the prisoner, the night of the second murder (more throat slitting), the deputy in charge of watching over him is otherwise occupied with one of the ladies from the saloon and, thus occupied, doesn’t hear someone come in and unlock the cell door, allowing the prisoner to “escape.” Of course, sensing that he was being railroaded and, more than likely, headed to the gallows, he took the opportunity to get out of Yellowstone.

MURDER AT YELLOWSTONE CITY (THOMAS JANE) (publicity still)

Dunnigan continues to appear, first stinking up the church before his burial and later, after being disinterred by Murphy, as what could be considered the first case of forensic exploration ever performed; the preacher is now certain that Cicero could not have been Dunnigan’s murderer because the bullet he retrieved from the corpse was not fired from the kind of gun that the stranger uses. Things pick up considerably from that point leading to the already mentioned gunfight. As this is just as much a murder mystery as it is a straight Western, I don’t want to give too much away so… just let me say that MURDER AT YELLOWSTONE CITY reminds me of one of my all-time favorite movies – Western or otherwise – 1968’s FIVE CARD STUD starring Dean Martin, Robert Mitchum and Roddy McDowell. I wholeheartedly recommend this dark, engaging film. A star-filled cast doesn’t hurt its chances of reaching a wider audience than most recent Westerns have enjoyed and a strong script by Eric Belgau and deft genre-wise direction by Richard Gray makes it one of the best films of the year.

FROST

(CLEOPATRA EENTERTAINMENT/SNOW LEOPARD ENTERTAINMENT/SANDALED KID PRODUCTIONS/JCB PICTURES/MULTIVERSE CINEMA (80 minutes; Unrated); 2022)

There are many reasons to watch a movie: we want to enjoy a riveting tale, we want to laugh, we want to be in suspense or get scared, or we want to enjoy our favorite stars strutting their stuff and portraying compelling character. I don’t know anyone who would knowingly choose to watch a movie about someone SUFFERING. But that is what you’ll be experiencing for the 80 minutes that comprise FROST, a nonetheless fascinating and challenging little flick from director Brandon Slagle. Let me just say upfront that actress Devanny Pinn, who plays a pregnant young woman named Abby in this movie, turns in one of the most insanely stressed-out performances ever filmed, and she deserves some sort of special award for her work here. Pinn is confined inside a crashed vehicle for nearly this entire movie, seriously injured and about to give birth, trapped on a mountainside with an approaching snowstorm. It’s a thankless, horrendous situation and no matter WHAT else a person might think about this movie, you have a major actress giving her all here. It’s cumulatively more and more jaw-dropping as the movie progresses. The simple plot is that Abby is visiting her partially estranged father Grant (Vernon Wells) somewhere out west, and over dinner we learn that he drinks too much for Abby’s taste, can be rude, and doesn’t do much of anything to impress her. And yet, he loves her, and they agree to go on a father-daughter fishing trip despite the forecast of a winter storm. Naturally, an inattentive moment causes Grant to veer off the road and crash into a tree, with one limb going straight through the windshield and into Abby’s chest. Jagged pieces of glass are everywhere, and the car is perched on the edge of a dropoff. Grant is able to squirm out of his seat, but if Abby tries to do the same, the car will plunge off the edge and kill her. And she can barely move or maneuver at all. So the plan is, Grant will seek help (the pair have walkie-talkies) and return to save Abby and her soon-to-be newborn. But she’ll have to tough it out in the ruined automobile, and try to stay warm as best she can before the weather worsens. A grim setup, for sure. What follows is one incident after another of Abby talking to herself, talking to her unborn, utilizing whatever still works on the car to her advantage, and trying to find something to eat, which in one revolting scene, includes sampling her dad’s nightcrawlers. Pinn is absolutely believable here, playing the role of a desperate, trapped woman hanging onto shreds of hope and constantly trying to reach her dad to get “progress reports.” She tries to treat one of her own injuries, not a pleasant scene to watch, and there is a remarkable scene involving a wolf who discovers her and has a motive that she must do everything she can to foil. It’s all very, very unsettling, and yes, it will test the patience of many viewers. You are seeing a woman suffer here. NOT being tortured or stalked like in standard horror movies. Just enduring a hopeless situation. And enduring And enduring. And enduring more…

FROST (DEVANNY PINN) (publicity still)

It’s worth mentioning this film in terms of “horror movies,” because it’s mostly a wilderness adventure movie overall. Not all that realistic at times (I doubt most women would’ve made it as long as Abby given these circumstances). However, in the last ten minutes of the film, it does indeed turn to horror. I’m not going to say how, as that would spoil the “fun” for those of you who plan to see this. But I was genuinely shocked by the concluding section, as I did NOT see these events coming and literally could not believe what the filmmaker decided to show us. There are undoubtedly some viewers who will tune this film out before the final outrage, and that’s to be expected. But I give this film credit for NOT following the formula of this kind of scenario, and for deciding to make this’un a meditation on pure desperation rather than a conventional “rescue” situation. Just be warned, it is GRIM on every level. What we’re allowed to see of the scenery is kind of beautiful, and occasionally (but not always) the music is effective. And you gotta give writers James Cullen Bressack and Robert Thompson (screenplay) credit for crafting a small, personal largely one-character film and making it brutally realistic down to minute details. But… this is a fairly trying viewing experience. I take away from it two main things: that Devanny Pinn is a supremely ambitious and brave actress, one to watch for sure. And that some filmmakers like to set up one set of expectations and then “stick it to you” in the end. That’s certainly what they do in FROST, and sick as it is, I kinda admire them for it.

THE ANDY BAKER TAPE

(TERROR FILMS/4:02 PRODUCTIONS (69 minutes; Unrated); 2021)

The “found footage” phenomenon in the cinematic universe turned out to be a clever new wrinkle, one that found more creative approaches than the average person might think. THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT turned out to be one of the most purely profitable films in history, having been made on a shoestring budget by Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez, but then utilizing a compelling and unique promotional approach that drew audiences in droves. PARANORMAL ACTIVITY spawned a seemingly endless franchise, and there have been plenty of other movies that utilized the found footage thing successfully. Now we have THE ANDY BAKER TAPE, and while it hardly breaks new ground, it does show you can keep viewers interested in this kind of approach with a suspenseful setup and interesting actors. The film has both, with just two characters, Jeff Blake (Bret Lada, who also directs) and Andy Baker (Dustin Fontaine) holding your attention for a film that lasts little more than an hour. Blake is a culinary specialist hoping to finalize plans for his own show on the Food Network. He recruits his half brother, the titular Andy, to help him scout out some locations and hopefully interact with him in some scenes. This would seem to be a workable enough proposition, except that… Andy turns out to be kind of weird. He can’t seem to simply play to the camera for ordinary questions Jeff asks him, and he gets offended over nothing at all at times, keeping Jeff on edge. Lurking in the past for both men is the death of their father, whom Jeff says was killed in a horrible car accident. And both have the spectre of failure uppermost in their minds – Jeff because of the uncertainty of the offer for his own foodie show, and Andy because of a “deal” he was counting on that… falls through. Which has happened to him before.

THE ANDY BAKER TAPE (BRET LADA, DUSTIN FONTAINE) (publicity still)

We see these two guys checking out eateries in rural America, getting more and more impatient with each other (impatience is a wicked sort of behavioral thing in this movie), and battling at times for control of the big, mostly unseen camera. We’re told right at the beginning, just as with other movies in this genre, that their “footage” was put together from many hours that were “discovered” after the two disappeared. Eventually there are a few bad things that happen, mostly pointing at Andy as being… a bad and disturbed dude. I do count myself as a fan of unhinged behavior, and I don’t need every single thing explained to me. I DO hope for good, believable performances, and thankfully these two actors are quite convincing overall. Lada is a charismatic, dark-haired chap that is convincingly distraught when he discovers that his half-brother is not a trustworthy character. Fontaine is scruffier and harder to pin down in his behavior and motivations, but that’s the point. What do you do when you’re trying to achieve a career breakthrough and a relative seems like he could help at first, but then ends up threatening every single thing? “You can’t pick your family” is the tag line here, and boy is Jeff Blake sorry for THAT!

THE ANDY BAKER TAPE (DUSTIN FONTAINE, BRET LADA) (publicity still)

The quick running time, evocative empty landscapes, and most of all, the conviction in the lead performances make THE ANDY BAKER TAPE a more than worthy view. There really aren’t that many films out there that I’m aware of, that only focus on TWO guys interacting. Seeing ordinary behavior turn into something unsettling and then horrifying, is a more than relevant theme in these crazy times. So yeah, I appreciated this film quite a bit when I watched it in the middle of the night. And it’s without a doubt a worthy addition to the “found footage canon.”