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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.


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.


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.



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.


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.


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.


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.


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.)



So, when the first episode of the AMC+ series THAT DIRTY BLACK BAG debuted, I watched it two or three times. Each time, I found myself more confused about what was going on. I mean, I understood the basic concept: Ruthless bounty hunter, unscrupulous and corrupt sheriff, random horse-thievery, even more random drug use… a lot of death and mayhem, all in a wild homage to Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. I think that one of my problems with the episode, brilliantly titled “A Head Weighs Less Than a Body”, is that two of the main characters – bounty hunter Red Bill (Douglas Booth) and the severely put-upon farmer, Steve (Christian Cooke) – look enough alike to these tired old eyes that I had a hard time following their separate stories. Now, with the entire first season available on DVD and Blu-Ray, I’ve been given the chance to revisit that first episode and, well… it still confused the heck out of me! But, one must soldier on and, I must say, the series as a whole did not disappoint.


Right out of the gate, it was obvious that this was different kind of Western; Red Bill had hunted his bounty to a remote mission, where the hunted man had killed every person in the church, stealing not only the offering money, but the money and valuables of his victims. Bill meets him as he is leaving, his grisly work done. Bill throws a bag (yeah… that one, though it’s a lot cleaner at this point) at his prey’s feet and, when the outlaw draws on him, disables his gun hand. With the bounty lying at his feet dying, Bill pulls out an ax and decapitates the man and places the head – you guessed it – in the bag. From there, things get a bit more… confusing. With proof of the death of the outlaw, Bill goes in search of the sheriff of the bone-dry former boomtown of Greenvale, a place that hasn’t seen rain in five years. Water is scarce and, of course, there are a couple of ingenious entrepreneurs who charge premium prices for the little they have. The sheriff, McCoy (played with understated relish by Dominic Cooper), enjoys pouring water onto the floor (or the dirt street or wherever he happens to be) to make a point: “I am the law here and you are here only because I say you can be here.” He, naturally, refuses to pay the bounty on Bill’s capture so Bill, naturally, walks out of the saloon where he found McCoy and takes the sheriff’s horse. That’s certainly a lot to unpack and it’s all in the first 20 minutes of that first episode! Over the course of the first three episodes, we see lies, deceit, murder (in a particularly disturbing scene, McCoy shoots a slow-witted teen – who only wanted to please the lawman – in the back), kidnapping, backstabbing (both metaphorical and literal), an odd sidestep featuring a vengeful serial killer, a secret sect and, hey, just for kicks, let’s toss in some random cannibalism in episode 4.


A viewer’s review on IMDb says that things pick up and start to fall into place after Episode 4, which is called “Genesis” and, as the name would imply, is a prequel of sorts for everything that’s happening in the other episodes: How McCoy came to be the villain of the piece and what set Bill on the path to becoming Red Bill. Anything past the halfway point, I’m not gonna touch because I don’t want to give too much away. However, here’s my takeaway from the first three episodes: Just about everyone has a deep dark secret.


First, Steve, the pious and extremely unlucky farmer (who had his plow horses stolen at the beginning of Episode 1) has a couple of secrets that he’s keeping from almost everyone: First, he’s discovered gold on his land. Secondly, the only person he’s told is his mistress, Eve (played by Niv Sultan), who runs the local bordello and is one of two people who have access to whatever water that’s available… even his wife doesn’t know. Eve has a secret of her own and the only person that knows is, of course, our pious farmer friend. What’s the dreaded secret that she holds? Eve is bald which, apparently, is a big turn-on for Steve, not so much for the Sheriff. Speaking of, McCoy has some secrets, too. First, as we see in “Genesis,” he has had a fairly circumlocutious journey toward his position as Greenvale’s chief law enforcement officer. Second, he and his right hand man, Kurt (Ivan Shaw as the matter-of-fact, no-nonsense voice-of-reason to his boss’ hotheaded, brutally extravagant flights of fancy), had a wagon-load of money belonging to the Federal government drop into their hands quite by accident: The wagon’s guard thought that they were there to steal the money and was about to open fire on the pair before McCoy blasted him out of existence. Kurt, likewise, must have something that he knows about McCoy and is holding it over his head because every time the sheriff gets mad at him and threatens to kill him, he just laughs and walks away. Finally, Nathan (Benjamin Stender), another of McCoy’s minions has a couple of secrets, as well. Since his wife’s death, he has frequented Eve’s establishment, the Red Lantern, looking for love; he has found that love in Symone and has asked her to be his wife. The mistress is less than pleased at the prospect of losing one of her best workers and refuses to allow Symone to marry. The problem here is that Nathan promised his very young daughter that he was bringing her a new mommy. As Nathan confronts Symone about her decision not to become his wife, he lets slip that he has promised his Mary a new mother. Symone is mildly amused, telling her insistent beau that she was not mother material for which she receives a brutal beating (as all beatings tend to be here). When Eve sees his handiwork, she takes matters into her own hands, making sweet little Mary an orphan. And, of course, the whole time, Red Bill’s dirty black bag gets dirtier, blacker and now, with another head added to the collection, heavier.


So, without spilling any beans about the second half of the season (or how that second head ended up in Bill’s bag), just know that there is much more deceit, backstabbing, blood, guts and general mayhem to be had. As the previously mentioned IMDb reviewer said, things do become clearer after “Genesis,” with everything kind of tied up in a nice, big bow named Bronson (Guido Caprino). It’s gonna be fun seeing where the story goes after this season, as the series is currently mapped out to go three seasons of eight episodes each.