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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.)

NARRATIVES OF MODERN GENOCIDE

(PASSION RIVER FILMS/TEXAS TECH PUBLIC MEDIA (62 minutes; Unrated); 2021)

The worst action humanity has proven itself capable of is surely what we call genocide. That’s the systematic destruction of a particular group of people usually by government decree, and it’s generally incomprehensible to most of us. The new documentary NARRATIVES OF MODERN GENOCIDE doesn’t add that much new to our understanding of this vile policy, but it’s important nonetheless, especially by focusing primarily on two examples outside the “Holocaust,” which we already have countless films about. Here, director Paul Allen Hunton looks at the Khmer Rouge’s horrifying actions in the latter half of the 1970s, and the massacre of mostly children in Burundi in the early ‘80s. Key survivors of each atrocity are interviewed, and it’s hard to believe they are even here to tell their stories. Sichan Siv, a United States ambassador to the UN in the early 2000s and an author whose books include GOLDEN BONES: AN EXTRAORDINARY JOURNEY FROM HELL IN CAMBODIA TO A NEW LIFE IN AMERICA, guides us through a harrowing look back at the “Killing Fields” he escaped from. He lost 15 members of his family, including his mother, in the horror show that commenced after the Vietnam War ended and a bombing campaign in neighboring Cambodia illegally undertaken by Richard Nixon, gave the rebel group known as the Khmer Rouge an excuse to start organizing their plans.

We were in a situation where you could not really think straight because nobody has ever seen this kind of happening before,” Siv tells us. “Not anywhere in human history. A society that killed their own people!”

NARRATIVES OF MODERN GENOCIDE (SICHAN SIV) (publicity still)

Through simple but effective animations, and even more effective filming done at Tuol Sleng, the infamous and preserved torture prison in Phnom Penh (complete with countless skulls and photos of the actual prisoners killed there), Siv relates, with remarkable calm, how Pol Pot and his well-trained underlings proceeded to wipe out essentially a third of “Kampuchea’s” then population of eight million people. It’s almost impossible to comprehend unless you have the opportunity to visit the sites in Cambodia where the atrocities happened, something that American student Josh Kiser was able to do.

When a lot of people think of genocide, they think of NUMBERS, not the thought process behind the killing,” Kiser relates. “It doesn’t matter if it’s 50,000 people or two million people. If it’s the systematic killing of people… for whatever reason, that’s a genocide.”

We get some useful history of how the end of the Vietnam War gave birth to these nightmarish events, and how the Khmer Rouge wanted to form “an agrarian community… to get rid of all the powerful elites and… take things back to ZERO.” Some of the most powerful insights are provided by Doctor Ron Milam, Director of the Institute for Peace and Conflict Studies at Texas Tech University. He has studied these matters in depth, and almost matter of factly describes how important it is for the reality of genocide to be taught in schools.

NARRATIVES OF MODERN GENOCIDE (publicity still)

It will happen again some place, that’s the point,” Milam says. “We need people to know that it can go this way, that there can be a genocide. Unless you’re taught that, you could fall back into that comfortable way of thinking, that people ‘can’t do this to each other.’ It HAS to be taught. My calculation was always roughly that two percent of the population is psychopathic. Then there are fifteen to twenty percent who are just rascals. They don’t believe in genocide and are not driven by racial hatred. But they see it as a way to make money and be in power. Those people surround the psychopaths and will support them.”

This is obviously tough stuff to watch, and it won’t make viewers comfortable about the state of humanity, especially as we know that smaller genocides are still taking place around the globe. Gilbert Tuhabonye was a popular athlete in Burundi in 1993 when the genocide in neighboring Rwanda (with Hutus targeting their perceived rivals, the Tutsi) spilled over into the smaller country and caused many to be exterminated in cruel ways such as fire, including school children. Tuhabonye himself was tortured and marked for death; he relates that he did NOT think he’d survive, recounting in detail his harrowing escape from murderous pursuers. He is shown at a couple of meetings where he is to speak, being introduced and earning enthusiastic applause, before we learn how lucky he was to even get to this point. And he founded an important entity, the Gazelle Foundation, a non-profit that funds and builds clean water projects in his native Burundi. The sheer hate and determination of groups that are often government-sanctioned (and often the government itself), the underlying reality here, will have you shaking your head. It’s a little too resonant even today, in places like Yemen, Myanmar and parts of Africa. How can humanity hope to understand such a level of hatred?

NARRATIVES OF MODERN GENOCIDE (GILBERT TUHABONYE) (publicity still)

One of the things that genocide requires is the dehumanization of a people,” says Aliza Wong, an Associate Dean at Texas Tech University. “There is a… brainwashing that renders the aggressors to be firm in their commitment that their victims are not human.”

Humans killing other humans en masse, and for the flimsiest of excuses at times, has been going on since early in our history. When you can see exhibits on the subject, as with the Holocaust Museum or the evidence preserved at Tuol Sleng, or hear from survivors who lost loved ones, such as the subjects of this film, the effect is sobering. Though Hunton’s film is barely over an hour in length, and arguably could have provided more background, especially in the Burundi segment, it does a good job of zeroing right in on the primary horrors of its subject, and how escape from genocide appears to be an almost random and unlikely thing due to the thorough efforts of the organized killers. That Siv and Tuhabonye are alive to tell their stories is miraculous, and that they can do so in a tone of voice almost like simply having a hard time finding a parking spot at a crowded store, is just unreal. Sure, one moves on from personal trauma, but THAT level of trauma? Let’s hope none of us are ever in the position to find out what it’s like. This documentary is definitely worth the short time it takes to watch it, and though it won’t put you in a great mood, it’s essential that we all know what politics and war can lead to. Some history we definitely do NOT want to repeat.

NARRATIVES OF MODERN GENOCIDE is available now on DVD and On Demand

PARADISE COVE

(QUIVER DISTRIBUTION/VOLTAGE PICTURES/CRASHING WAVE PRODUCTIONS/SUNSET PICTURES/THUNDER STUDIOS (144 minutes; Unrated); 2021)

I don’t know, sometimes it’s not that complicated. Despite the fact I’ve been watching more movies than usual in the pandemic era and have in general been predisposed to like most of them, I still require an engaging plot and some kind of cinematic ZIP to push my thumb to the UP position. And the little sucker is resisting efforts to do so when it comes to PARADISE COVE, a new Malibu-set thriller directed by Martin Guigui. The only known star in this thing is Mena Suvari, whom I haven’t seen on screen for a long while. It was good to have a new appearance by her as kind of a guide, and she’s decent here as the restless, aching-to-get-pregnant wife of a guy who just took possession of the shell of his late mother’s beach house in Malibu, which needs – let’s just say – a ton of work. The setting is lovely enough, and our young couple, Knox Bannett (Todd Grinnell) and Tracey (Suvari) are shown admiring the view, playing with their tiny dog, and clinking wine glasses together as they discuss how much they want to have a child and Tracey’s apparent difficulty getting pregnant. Knox doesn’t seem too bothered by anything, and assures his wife that everything’s going to work out fine.

PARADISE COVE (TODD GRINNELL) (publicity still)

It’s a jolt, then, to discover that they have a mysterious squatter living below their abode-in-progress. That would be Bree (Kristen Bauer van Straten), a shifty, wild-eyed woman who looks older than her twenty-something age and is more than well-known to the locals, including a bar maid who telegraphs that something may be amiss with this gal, and to Sheriff Garcia (Ruben Garfias), who sees her mostly as a harmless nuisance. Ah, but Bree is more than just a danger in paradise. She is clearly unhinged, manipulative and not receptive in the least to Knox’s efforts to get her to relocate. A bit of background is provided about a tragedy she endured with a young son, and Knox tries to be sympathetic to her. But she’s not the sort to “work out a deal” with him or anything. And she quickly gets on the bad side of Tracey, too, who hardly wants to set aside her preoccupations with pregnancy and finances to deal with this crazy lady. Sparks are gonna fly, you might say. And sharp knives, hammers and coldly barbed insults are also gonna be utilized. That kinda stuff can definitely impinge on the aesthetic beauty of crashing waves and crying seagulls outside the window. A scene of Bree sneaking into the shower with Knox is downright ludicrous, and it’s sort of where I began losing patience with this film. Although Bree is reasonably attractive, I simply did NOT believe Knox would react as he did in this scene, not after what had already happened. In fact, Knox’s less-than-smart decisions throughout the movie detract from the sympathy he might have earned as the central character. He’s not all that bright, slow at putting the big picture together, and less than a truly reassuring husband for poor Tracey. As an actor, Grinnell LOOKS the part of an in-over-his-head husband, and he fits nicely with Suvari’s mostly plaintive, concerned wife. But he’s missing something in the charisma department, and his performance is simply too low-key in these proceedings. By the time a big confrontation occurs, there has not been enough energy built up to give this “thriller” an actual thrill. You just sort of want to get it over with.

PARADISE COVE (MENA SUVARI, TODD GRINNELL) (publicity still)

I will say that the premise is a reasonably interesting one – the list of movies about deranged homeless females in Malibu is a short one, as far as I know. And Bauer van Straten’s is the notable performance here. She’s a character who is not overtly psychopathic… more someone who gets under your skin by being rude and insensitive, and then starts doing increasingly nasty things without warning until you and your new place are in BIG trouble. The character has some compelling moments, and yeah, she’ll likely creep you out plenty. There’s a bit of “Fatal Attraction-lite” about Bree and her doings here.

PARADISE COVE (KRISTIN BAUER VAN STRATEN, TODD GRINNELL) (publicity still)

But ultimately this movie is somewhat of a tiresome watch, despite the scenic setting. Nobody is genuinely likable, the plot pushes at the limits of credibility a bit too often, and Knox and Tracey, while you basically ROOT for them, are kind of a bland, unromantic couple. The film lacks any big or genuinely impactful scenes that would make you invest more deeply in these characters. And as a so-called “thriller,” there’s a paucity in that regard, also, except for one or two sudden moments. Mena Suvari fans might enjoy seeing her in a sizable role like this, and some may find the film an okay diversion. But my stomach felt empty at the end of the movie and so did my brain. Not exactly “Paradise,” in other words, for my cinema-loving self.

PARADISE COVE is available now On Demand.

HAWK AND REV: VAMPIRE SLAYERS

(RBG FILMS/CLUMSY TIGER PRODUCTIONS/LOADED IMAGE ENTERTAINMENT (85 minutes; Unrated); 2020)

Without a doubt, this is one of the silliest movies I have ever seen. HAWK AND REV: VAMPIRE SLAYERS aims to be a kind of cross between DUMB AND DUMBER and THE LOST BOYS, in that it focuses on two very dim-witted friends, Hawk (Ryan Barton-Grimley) and Rev, his vegan-hippie space cadet counterpart (Ari Schneider) who are sure their town of Santa Muerte, California is being plagued by vampires. They wisecrack about everything, assemble a plan to take on the bloodsuckers that may or may not include the eye patch-wearing tough guy Jasper (Richard Gayler), and find time to parody other, better-known films such as FROM DUSK TILL DAWN. In fact, when former security guard Hawk tries to make a point about predictability to his clueless friend, he rattles off a long list of quotes from classic movies that Rev shows unblinking ignorance of. It’s a preposterous scene, and yet, it did sort of make me chuckle. So did a brief chat about how yes, you can still rent DVDs in some places, and seeing a trio of punk rockers mistaken for vamps (one of whom is a black leather covered gimp in an homage to Tarantino’s PULP FICTION… silent, but shown eating popcorn in one scene). The low-budget movie eases into its absurdity at first, with most of the budget apparently spent on some gory scenes that are over the top a la Monty Python. But by the final half hour, it simply goes all in on complete and total idiocy that, if you’re in the mood for it, will possibly give you giggle fits. The film is like an ego project for some college students making their magnum opus, probably stoned for most of the production. Weirdly, though, the acting is decent in a self-indulgent way, and Barton-Grimley is no newcomer. He’s been in the business for years, and I recognize him from one or two TV projects I can’t recall the names of. He’s obviously having a great time here, sending up every cliche in the world of vampire and crime investigation type films. The two leads are joined by a female writer named Theo (Jana Savage), who comes across as though she were doing little more than helping a couple of pals. And a bit of extreme gore in that last half hour will make college students chuckle, perhaps, but likely won’t be of much interest to anyone else.

HAWK AND REV: VAMPIRE SLAYERS (Ari Schneider, Jana Savage, Ryan Barton-Grimley) (publicity still)

I thought at first of including some of the more comical lines of dialogue in this review, and decided against it. The pace of this film is frenetic, and it wears its willful stupidity proudly, honestly wanting to be a throwback to the ‘80s on almost every level. There is an audience for this kind of movie, just as there was for DUMB AND DUMBER, although that one was art compared to the slim production values of this thing. And yet, its gleeful dedication to a brainless aesthetic is admirable. I DID actually laugh a few times, and once I realized that nothing serious was going to happen and the “stakes” (pun intended) would remain low, I could appreciate the lack of pretension here and the high number of ridiculous scenes. But forget all about stuff you’ve seen before like BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER if you watch this. That Joss Whedon show is like MASTERPIECE THEATRE compared to Hawk and Rev’s exploits. Describing the plot beyond what I’ve already said is pointless. These “vampire slayers” are just wanna-be’s, lug-headed friends whose main purpose is to send up a couple of time-worn genres. They do that moderately well at times, but any expectations at all for this film beyond indulging in some extreme silliness, are likely to result in head shaking and exhaustion. And yikes, it looks like a sequel dealing with werewolves is out there. You gotta be howling mad to make a franchise out of this stuff.

TWO WAYS TO GO WEST

(GLOBAL DIGITAL RELEASING (78 minutes; Unrated); 2020)

If a movie primarily consists of talking, and mostly features just two or three characters, a few things are essential. First, those characters should be distinctive and somewhat charismatic. Second, the thematic material covered should be compelling and fresh in some way. Third, the film needs to be shot and lit effectively. The little indie film TWO WAYS TO GO WEST gets about 50% of each of those categories down effectively. It looks good; everything is pretty sharp and clear, and the many, MANY closeups of the three leads help us get to know them and form at least some kind of opinion.

TWO WAYS TO GO WEST (Drew Kenney, Paul Gennaro, James Liddell) (publicity still)

Those characters, Gavin (James Liddell, who also wrote and produced the film), Marty (Paul Gennaro) and Shane (Drew Kenney) portray old school chums who have loads of problems and are not too happy with each other for most of this movie. Gavin is a struggling addict who’s made some movies; one of these gets some attention early on in a discussion and we even see a poster for that film, a nice touch. Marty is the most organized and proactive of the trio; he’s trying to put a small bachelor party together for Shane but finds himself appalled by the behavior of his two chums. Shane has a fiancé that he’s struggling to commit to. Gavin is sort of involved with a Las Vegas dancer named Addison (Levy Tran), who is from the Philippines, is covered with tattoos, but seems to have the most common sense of all of them. So about those three essentials: the characters are “sort of” distinctive, and certainly physically appealing and masculine, but they don’t reveal much depth. They say a lot of abrasive things to each other over and over (“What’s wrong with you?” is a recurring line, and “You always take everything much harder than everyone else” is a charge leveled at Gavin), express disapproval, and talk about women – a LOT. Gavin is fighting the drug thing with only partial success. We don’t necessarily get much insight about his habit, but we DO see that he’s giving it his best shot not to go under. Shane tends to be selective in what he shares, and it’s revealed that he slept with someone important to Gavin in the past. There is some bad blood. Marty is really disappointed in his pals, to say the least, and has little faith that they will ever be there for HIM, in ways that he tries to express.

TWO WAYS TO GO WEST ( James Liddell, Paul Gennaro, Drew Kenney) (publicity still)

So about that “thematic material” I mentioned? Well, “flawed male bonding” is the biggest take-away (including disappointed expectations of old friends), with the way relationships with women can impact things through the years. And also, cinematically speaking, the tensions, laughter and nostalgic asides that emerge in intimate, sustained conversation with those you think you know best. There are some believable dynamics and fast-moving discourse in this film, but it also gets tedious at times. You wait for a big revelation that doesn’t really come. By the time the film leaves the dark apartment where most of its “plot” takes place, and you get to see Marty in an actual diner talking to a sympathetic waitress who has a darkly funny story to tell (this story gives the film its name), the effect is oddly refreshing and memorable. And it helps set up a final conversation between the three friends that does have something to say about the passing of time, the possibility for change, and the ability of those we care about to face up to mistakes.

The film doesn’t quite earn any big emotions, and none of the three leads seems like someone compelling enough to imagine being old friends with (although they all try pretty hard to create real-life multi-dimensional chums convincingly). But as a talkie type film, it’s at least above average, and both the movie and its stars look plenty sharp, even if the emotional content goes flat at times. TWO WAYS TO GO WEST is directed by Ryan Brookhart, who does enough with his camera and perspective to make me think he’s got a promising future in character-driven films. He’s also chosen excellent country songs (including a couple by Suzanne Santo) to begin and end his little opus.

FLINT: THE POISONING OF AN AMERICAN CITY

(BARNHART FILMS/SABOTAGE FILM GROUP (85 minutes; Unrated); 2019)

Some cities are known for unique landmarks: We have the Gateway Arch in Saint Louis, San Francisco has the Golden Gate Bridge and its rich cultural history. Some cities have incredible skylines like Chicago and New York, or are hubs of vitality or historical significance. But poor Flint, Michigan? Not so much. This sad sack of a town first had to deal with GM pulling its factories out and decimating the employment situation, something Michael Moore covered in his documentary, ROGER AND ME. And not long after that? Well, there was kind of a water problem. You know, the color, the toxic nature of it, the corrupt state governor Rick Snyder refusing to do shit for years, people dying, that kind of thing. Talk about a raw deal! This was more like a raw SEWAGE deal, literally and metaphorically, as Flint residents kept asking questions about what was happening to their children and why no one would give them answers about the water crisis in their little city. It’s the difficult subject of a fine documentary by David Barnhart, FLINT: THE POISONING OF AN AMERICAN CITY. Choose your beverage carefully when you watch this thing.

FLINT: THE POISONING OF AN AMERICAN CITY (Screen Shot)

The system here is telling you that you aren’t worth anything,” says one of the besieged local residents interviewed for the movie. “This isn’t supposed to be happening in America.” No, it sure isn’t. In accumulating detail, we hear from residents about how the closing of GM plants set in motion a horrible sequence of events for this industrial burgh. It depended heavily on GM for jobs and its significance in the scheme of things. “The plants were really the heart and soul of growth and development in Flint,” an African-American local sadly tells us, surveying one of many bleak landscapes left behind. “I don’t know that we’ll ever get back to that. When they started moving out, that took a toll on the city.” We get to hear all about how crucial water was for the auto industry, but the water was never the same after the industry departed. Phosphates and other pollutants accumulated in the water, and already aging pipes began deteriorating at an alarming rate. One horror after another occurs: 22 million gallons of crap poured into the main river in just two days, rising lead levels, a marked decrease in fertility for the locals (and rising fetal deaths), etcetera. GM had to shut off Flint’s water supply due to the dangerous acidity of the water and the corrosion in the pipes. And in numerous scenes from C-Span and other outlets featuring outraged officials challenging Governor Snyder among others, we get to hear about the cost-cutting measures that worsened the situation, and the attempts to sidestep accountability for how bad things kept getting. Snyder does not come off too well in this documentary. Surprise, surprise… Distinguished Democrat Elijah Cummings (who died not long after this film wrapped) is shown getting increasingly angry about the awful quagmire that enveloped Flint and he doesn’t mince words. “This is a community of people rendered invisible in a thousand ways. It’s environmental racism!”” he shouts.

The sense of futility among Flint’s residents is a thematic through-line here, though many of them keep trying to raise the issue to anyone who will listen, and a female pastor in the town is quoted frequently. We’re giving specific stats about the lead content in the water, how the water pipes had a “protective scale” that failed due to cost cutting, and the increasingly ill health suffered by residents, thought to result in perhaps 119 deaths. And if you’re not outraged enough, you get to learn about how Nestle was pumping water out of Michigan for its own profit, a development that made the news more than once. You can truly lose it watching some of this awfulness, and the film wants to make sure you get the point. Poor people (mostly of color) were the primary victims of this mess, and Snyder and other inept politicians may have thought the matter wouldn’t rise to the level of a national scandal. But they were wrong. The publicity grew so intense that steps had to be taken, although they weren’t enough. It’s important to note that Lansing, a nearby city, took preventive steps to replace similarly faulty pipes, at great expense. And we hear a sobering stat that “5300 US cities were found to have overly dangerous levels of lead in their water.” Visually we see numerous vacant landscapes, deteriorating buildings, and children in school attempting to lead normal lives, despite the impossibility. You can only feel awful at the fate of these families, and despite a few corrective measures eventually being taken, the problems remain. Talk about a bitter lesson about what can happen in America when greed and indifference hold sway over the health and needs of minorities.

FLINT: THE POISONING OF AN AMERICAN CITY (Screen Shot)

This is not a fun film, but writer/director Barnhart has really put a searing indictment of the problem together, with help from skilled editor Scott Lansing. We don’t always get such an informative, powerful movie when a crisis such as this occurs. It makes you wonder about all the controversial things that go on that are simply swept under the rug or factually squelched before the media and caring officials can take action. The significance of FLINT: THE POISONING OF AN AMERICAN CITY goes well beyond stirring your sympathies for some unlucky people in the industrial north. It’s an awful true-life tale of the perils of capitalism, the crucial (and often ignored) need for corporate regulation, and the way helpless communities are often victimized by cynical politicians. I doubt you’ll laugh even once watching this despairing portrait of the downside of America, but you’ll learn an awful lot. And you may hesitate even more about drinking your own tap water. To think that something as essential and basic as water could be a major problem for an entire US city, well, that’s hard to stomach.

A “DEADSIGHT” BETTER THAN SOME ZOMBIE FLICKS: THE ADAM SEYBOLD INTERVIEW

PART ONE: THE INTRODUCTION

ADAM SEYBOLD in DEADSIGHT (publicity still)

Zombie minimalism. I doubt it will become a THING, as most audience members probably WANT to see oozing-faced members of the undead fraternity, ravenous for fresh flesh and single-minded of purpose. There is nothing discrete or casual about the way zombies behave (not that there is a rulebook on such), but director Jesse Thomas Cook (THE HOARD, SEPTIC MAN) deserves a spot on some future panel discussing the zombie cinema genre, which DEADSIGHT, after two years of industry machinations, is now a part of. It seems like Cook and his two stars, Adam Seybold and Liv Collins, are pretty familiar with zombie and plague movie lore, and mostly decided NOT to follow in the footsteps of George Romero, Danny Boyle, et al. They took their own restrained path, somewhat admirably. Cook, Seybold and Collins (who also co-wrote the script) gamely try to tell a suspenseful story in an idiom which has been done to death on both the big and small screen. Seybold plays an injured everyman, Ben Neilson, who has just had a tough eye operation, resulting in seriously impaired vision. He’s hoping to get back to his family soon, but something is terribly wrong. Ben is clearly at a disadvantage when it comes to skulking dead dudes who keep showing up hoping to snack on him. His only ally is a pregnant police officer who crosses his path, Mara Madigan (Liv Collins), taking it moment by moment in what is now a rural “zombieland.” The two must team up simply to survive.

PART TWO: THE INTERVIEW

“For me the attraction of making a movie like this, is that you’re not really making a ‘zombie movie,'” said Adam Seybold, during a recent phoner, of portraying Ben with both vulnerability and determination. “I’m playing a regular person who is blind, trying to get back to my family. And I meet a woman who is trying to survive WITH me. That’s what we’re doing. All you can do is play the moment to moment truth of what is happening. There are only so many ways to show a zombie outbreak. In terms of explaining where they come from, we don’t really do that. Viewers are smart about that. There just happen to be zombies. It’s better to just let the story happen and use zombies as a backdrop.”

Oh, they’re a bit more than a backdrop. Poor Ben never knows when he is gonna hear erratic footsteps behind him, and have to fend off another attack. Mara has the firepower, however, and Ben wants her close by at all times, especially when he learns she is pregnant.

“Liv was actually pregnant during the shoot,” he revealed. She was exhausted much of the time. But she was such a trooper. I’d say, ‘You should be at home resting instead of running around with a double-barreled shotgun!”

ADAM SEYBOLD in CREEP NATION (publicity still)

The two have an easy rapport on screen, despite the rather minimal dialogue. They previously appeared in CREEP NATION together, which Seybold described as a “PSYCHO for the modern age.” In DEADSIGHT, they often spent rainy, cold days on set trying to crack jokes and keep each other grounded.

“She’s one of my favorite co-stars,” he said. “We’ve worked together a couple of times. It makes those transitions (from off-camera waiting to ACTION) easier. Some actors save it all for the camera. But Liv and I are chatty by nature, so we’d try to crack each other up between scenes. It makes such a difference when you are comfortable with someone, and you can trust each other.”

How did Seybold prepare for such a challenging shoot? After all, he has gauze wrapped around his eyes for most of the film, and there are scenes of him attempting to make his way up steep hills or maneuver through the rooms of an unfamiliar house. Seems dangerous!

ADAM SEYBOLD with JORDAN HAYES in EXIT HUMANITY (publicity still)

“As much as possible I tried to limit how much I could see,” he said. “Unless there were obvious safety issues. I’m sure there’s hours of outtakes Jesse has where I am wandering out of the shot or something. But when your eyes are closed, you’re not really acting anymore. You might be truly in danger. I think that’s why we make horror films. It takes you to that edge. Sometimes it’s miserable while you’re IN it, the frustration of not being able to see. But I chose that situation ‘cause it does take you beyond the limit. My day job is a writer, and I don’t have those concerns. My biggest decision is, am I gonna have tea or coffee?”

I commented on the surprisingly minimal action for a zombie movie, and the rather austere look of the film. Did Seybold sense it was going that way when they were shooting? “I haven’t actually seen the finished film yet,” he responded. “We shot it two years ago. I think that initially, Jesse told me, they had something a little more comedic in mind when they conceived it. That was the vibe before Liv and I. But based on our skill set, it was the way we acted together that changed the movie. Stemming from the vulnerability of these two people. So I guess the acting and direction ended up becoming more naturalistic.”

While films such as DAWN OF THE DEAD and ZOMBIELAND seemed to take pleasure in featuring gorey closeups of the dead either having flesh fiestas or getting blown to smithereens, DEADSIGHT avoids that kind of thing for the most part. Yet it is still suspenseful, and the zombies are in some ways even more believable as a result.

ADAM SEYBOLD in EJECTA (publicity still)

“They are what makes the movie,” agreed Seybold. “If the zombies don’t work, the whole thing falls apart. It’s a credit to the tone that it worked so well.” An early scene of a “transitioning” woman confronting Officer Madigan near her police car is rather unsettling; you don’t know what to expect, and Collins plays it that way. But creepier still are shadowy figures showing up a distance from Ben and starting to shuffle towards him. This sort of thing is almost never good in horror movies. And having Ben be virtually blind is an undeniably interesting touch. But whatever DEADSIGHT’s strengths, it’s unclear if audiences will discover such a “subtle” tale of the undead.

“That’s out of my control,” said Seybold. “I don’t know about niche. I’ve done enough things now where I play the game of how things will be received. You can’t write a hit on purpose, or by accident. It’s been two years since we shot the movie. It exists in a time when I was with those people. I had a great time working on the movie. Those people are my friends, like brothers and sisters. And that’ll be true, whatever the outcome.”

PART THREE: THE REVIEW

DEADSIGHT

(RLJE FILMS/RAVEN BANNER/FORESIGHT FEATURES (82 minutes; Unrated); 2019)

I’m a fan of minimalism, I gotta admit. And when you’re talking about a cinematic genre as inherently goreworthy and unhinged as zombie horror, it’s admirable if a director does NOT aim to out gross-out the likes of DAWN OF THE DEAD, 28 WEEKS LATER, WORLD WAR Z, TV shows such as THE WALKING DEAD, et cetera. Honestly, the restraint shown by director Jesse Thomas Cook in lensing this modest production was the first thing I admired.

DEADSIGHT (Adam Seybold) (publicity still)

The film opens with a partially blind man, Ben (Adam Seybold), awakening in a hospital disoriented about where he is and what the hell is going on, a story element borrowed from Danny Boyle’s classic 28 DAYS LATER. Ben’s eyes are covered in gauze wrap, and he knows enough to put drops in them periodically, but everything is quite blurry. And rather than staying put, Ben decides to wander around and see what he can suss out from his surroundings. This is not a wise choice, as periodically a shadowy figure will appear behind him or come out of nowhere, and these of course are the undead. Weirdly, they often take their time in stalking and trying to dine on Ben, which tends to give him opportunities to hide or whack the living shit out of them with his little walker weapon. Ben seems a little too bold and clever for this story, and I found it hard to believe he could just walk up hills and locate empty houses as easily as he did having very little of his eyesight to aid him. But I don’t fault Seybold as an actor; he’s reasonably effective, and not overly emotional in his portrayal.

DEADSIGHT (Liv Collins) (publicity still)

It’s a lonely journey for Ben until a female… and rather pregnant police officer named Mara Madigan (Liv Collins) crosses paths with him. Mara has had a few zombie encounters of her own, and it’s probably best that we don’t get much exposition of how this particular apocalypse came about and why Mara ended up the lone officer on her force, pretending to do her job when the only sensible pursuit is terminating these ugly zombies with extreme prejudice. There is an interesting scene early on where Mara confronts a female almost-zombie, and it’s almost poignant. Somehow the hapless officer allows the transitioning undead missy to get in her squad car and drive off. That struck me as ludicrous… wouldn’t she have shot the fuck out of her before she could get in the vehicle? And how far can you get as a soon-to-be-undead citizen, already drooling and covered with oozing sores, behind the wheel of a car? These questions are not answered; Officer Madigan continues rather calmly on foot, and reaches Ben just in time to blast a hungry fiend before it could snack on the hapless sight no-seer. Whatever tension that remains at this point comes from the cautious relationship between Ben and Mara, which is underplayed and not as well scripted as it ought to be. Still, the actors are watchable and grounded in this peculiar reality. There are no dumb speeches, and thankfully, no romance. But the two do care about each other, and Ben shows plenty of compassion upon learning that Mara is preggers.

DEADSIGHT (Jessica Vano) (publicity still)

Each zombie kill is distinct, and there are no scenes of hordes of ravenous undead descending upon our heroes, as is usually typical of these films. It’s actually a fairly quiet drama overall, with little or no excess gore. And I want to say that the cinematography is a bit better than you might expect. That is thanks to a guy named Jeff Maher, who films the empty, half forested landscape (probably the eastern US) with a disarmingly pastoral sweep, making you notice the trees and the winding rural roads at all times, so that when a creepy figure emerges from a roadside in the background, it has maximum dramatic effect. Also the film pays attention to how many bullets Officer Madigan has in her gun, a detail I appreciated. And the script counts Collins as a co-writer and producer, so bully for her for committing to every aspect of this movie. I give it points for underplaying what is normally the type of horror that absolutely goes for broke in the gore and/or black comedy department (as ZOMBIELAND did). The music score is restrained, the action is selective, and I admire the fact that very little is explained.

DEADSIGHT (Adam Seybold, Liv Collins) (publicity still)

This ends up being a minimal two-character drama overall, and I can’t name another zombie movie you can say that about. It’s pretty suspenseful, and I was not bored by DEADSIGHT, which I sort of expected to be. It’s made with attitude and an understanding of its cinematic template, while seeming determined to avoid most of the cliches of the genre. Sure, it has a few screws loose, and I would have written a few more soul-sharing conversations for the two leads, but DEADSIGHT moves briskly and economically through its contribution to a genre that would seemingly have little new territory to explore. And that’s a “dead sight” more than you have a right to ask for.


The flick is available on DVD, Digital HD and Video-On-Demand beginning Tuesday, July 2.

AMERICAN POLTERGEIST: THE CURSE OF LILITH RATCHET

(ITN DISTRIBUTION/FRIGHT TECK PICTURES/DAGGER 3 MEDIA (104 minutes; Unrated); 2019)

I want to say something straight off the bat. B movies or even Grade “Z” movies should NOT be weighted against big budget or “major” films when they’re evaluated. It’s not fair. There are different tiers to moviemaking, and a low-budget production with unknown actors is NOT in competition with “regular” movies that get wide distribution. Or even a Netflix offering. Such films should be seen as what they are, lower-tier offerings that are either entertaining or NOT. And let them exist on that level for better or worse, while recognizing that they may still stink, or not. We NEED these films, and they can launch the careers of talented people sometimes. Enough said.

AMERICAN POLTERGEIST: THE CURSE OF LILITH RATCHET (KateLynn E Newberry, Rob Jaeger, Brianna Burke) (publicity still)

So, this low-budget horror film, AMERICAN POLTERGEIST: THE CURSE OF LILITH RATCHET came my way, and it survived two immediate tests for me as a viewer. First, it is entertaining. And, being a horror film, it’s actually rather suspenseful. It has some scares, and doesn’t always quite do what you might think. So I give it points for that. The titular Lilith Ratchet was an ill-fated woman who suffered losses during the Civil War (including her head) and vowed revenge for her suffering, via a series of chanted phrases which, if invoked along with her name, will cause hellish torments for those doing the chanting. When an antique shop owner sells the supposedly “shrunken head” of poor ol’ Lilith in a mysterious box many years later (the buyers are two curious young women, Alice Crow and her friend Lauren), a disturbing series of events begin to unfold, especially after Alice (KateLynn E Newberry) and Lauren (Brianna Burke) approach a paranormal radio show host named Hunter Perry (Rob Jaeger), whose show “Beyond the Veil” is immensely popular with the locals. The girls want to know more about this “thing” they bought, and Hunter sees an opportunity to get serious attention if he arranges for a “chanting game” to be done live in a local watering hole on Halloween. The kids can just toss Lilith around, say those phrases, keep pouring drinks, and see what kind of merriment results. I mean, what are the odds that the demonic spirit of Lilith Ratchet (Crissy Kolarik) would suddenly return and start inflicting nasty mayhem on all these fun-loving youngsters? Well, there wouldn’t be a movie if she didn’t, right?

AMERICAN POLTERGEIST: THE CURSE OF LILITH RATCHET (Crissy Kolarik) (publicity still)

Lilith is not your garden variety 19th century spinster, let it be said. She has terrible teeth frozen in a murderous grin, beady eyes bent on watching you take your last breath, and black, long, curving fingernails just perfect for slicing through youthful flesh. To paraphrase the Terminator, “she can’t be reasoned with, she can’t be bargained with, and she will not STOP until you are dead.” Hunter thought he was just gonna get some ratings for his podcast, and poor Alice and Lauren, while clearly spooked by disturbing visions and understandable apprehension, try to go along with the proceedings semi-enthusiastically. Nate, Lauren’s boyfriend (George Tutie), is not happy about the big “Beyond the Veil” fiesta and leaves the proceedings early. You can probably guess what happens to him. This Lilith gal, though a little too pleased with herself for her demonic ways, has an agenda, and unless the somewhat smug Mister Perry can suss out what to do, Ratchet will NOT bury the hatchet. It’s best not to get too attached to any of the characters in this film, to say the least. While most of the acting is simply functional, Newberry puts some real energy into her role as Alice and has you believing some of this craziness is really happening. She’s a gifted actress with a slew of credits as it turns out. Jaeger has a kind of generic charisma, and Burke acts like she’s at least trying. As for the nasty Ms Ratchet, her makeup designer deserves as much credit as the actress, although being singularly demonic for over 90 minutes has gotta take some concentration. The guy putting this vision on screen in its totality, however, is writer/director Eddie Lengyel, who has a good sense of pacing and a clear understanding of common horror movie tropes… the jump scare, the build-up, the power of an evil face, et cetera. Although everything in the movie is something we’ve seen before, Lengvel knows the formula well. Certain things are kind of ridiculous: the shrunken head itself, the ludicrous scene where Hunter evades Lilith by hiding in a bathroom stall with the door not even fully closed (I mean, come on… if you’re a demon and you’ve shown your ability to float in and out of EVERY physical space, how would a BATHROOM stall flummox you when you’re victim hunting?), the supposedly “crowded” party which seems to boast no more than a few dozen participants. I also was annoyed at the lack of genuine emotion shown when various characters found out their significant other had bought it. I can’t elaborate without giving stuff away, but come on… you’re gonna cry and be in anguish if your loved one is now history at the hands of a demonic old woman, right? There are a couple of exceptions to this complaint, thankfully.

All this said, there is something admirably purposeful about …THE CURSE OF LILITH RATCHET. It keeps moving, it has a fairly riveting nasty at the center, and it uses music well (some of that supplied by Timothy Smith). And at least a few of the actors rise to the occasion. The biggest “curse” I find in movies like this is usually that they are boring and show stupid people behaving stupidly. I was not bored watching the film, and I didn’t groan that much watching these characters. So hey, let’s give this little fright flick its due. But Eddie, my boy, I don’t think Lilith could really be called a “poltergeist.” Look up the definition. This vengeful bitch belongs in another category; she doesn’t just move objects around. She does some serious slicin’ and dicin’, and in case you decide to do a sequel (there is a hint of that), lose the “p” word. Just a thought…

THE LIMEHOUSE GOLEM

(RLJ ENTERTAINMENT/NUMBER 9 FILMS/NEW SPARTA FILMS/LIPSYNC/HANWAY FILMS/DAY TRIPPER FILMS (109 minutes; Unrated); 2017)

If I had to come up with one word to describe THE LIMEHOUSE GOLEM, it would probably be “stylish.” However, that isn’t the way reviews work, so… let’s get to it, shall we? The film, based on the Peter Ackroyd novel, THE TRIAL OF ELIZABETH CREE (also known as DAN LEO AND THE LIMEHOUSE GOLEM), is a tightly woven murder mystery set in the Limehouse district of 1880 London. At the time, Limehouse was a dark and gritty place and, geographically, not too far from Jack the Ripper’s Whitechapel haunts of 1888. Thanks to the attention to detail by director Juan Carlos Medina, cinematographer Simon Dennis, set decorator Pilar Foy and all of the other talented individuals on the other side of the camera, the seediness and rather tawdry look and feel of the sets (especially the music hall, where much of the movie takes place) are as important to the plot as any single character.

THE LIMEHOUSE GOLEM (Olivia Cooke, Douglas Booth) (photo courtesy: NICOLA DOVE)

That plot unfolds from the end, with a music hall dramatization of the murder trial of Lizzie Cree, an abused and neglected child who has grown up to be an abused and neglected young woman. Amid a frenzy of savage murders perpetrated by a sadistic slasher dubbed the Golem, Lizzie is accused of murdering her husband, John, a failed author, aspiring playwright and primary suspect for the Goelm’s grizzly work. The public, fascinated and horrified by the Golem murders, demands answers and an end to the madness; faced with the possibility of failure, the high-ranking Scotland Yard official handling the case passes the assignment off to Inspector John Kildare, a senior detective with “problems” of his own. With Kildare installed as the fall-guy, the Yard’s hierarchy sees a chance to kill two birds with one stone, so to speak: If Kildare fails to stop the killings, the top brass can save themselves a personal humiliation by laying the blame squarely at the feet of a man they don’t like and want to be rid of. And, why don’t they like Kildare? He is one of THOSE fellows – the Inspector is gay, something not well tolerated in the nineteenth century. By extension, Kildare also inherits the Cree murder case, which leads to a kind of father/daughter relationship with Lizzie. Believing her husband to be the murderous fiend terrorizing Limehouse, the Inspector seeks to prove John guilty in an effort to free Lizzie on a self-defense plea.

THE LIMEHOUSE GOLEM (Daniel Mays, Maria Valverde, Bill Nighy) (photo courtesy: NICK WALL)

As the tale continues to be told with a glance backwards, we are introduced to several characters essential to the Cree’s story, including Dan Leo, a flamboyant music hall performer and stage “narrator”; a stage director and calming presence for the music hall troupe called “Uncle”; aerialist and sexual focal point of the group, Aveline Ortega; and, in flashback fashion, perhaps the person most pivotal to Lizzie’s current woes, her mother. In the 1995 novel, Ackroyd populated his story with several historical figures; Jane Goldman’s script retains three of those luminaries for the film version, to stunning effectiveness: George Gissing, the troubled author whose first novel, WORKERS IN THE DAWN, was published in 1880; Karl Marx, the father of modern Socialism and Communism; and the aforementioned Leo. It is never an easy task to weave real personalities into a work of fiction, but the creative team responsible for THE LIMEHOUSE GOLEM have peopled the story with an entire cast of realistically believable characters that the trio of Leo, Gissing and Marx fit right into the surrounding landscape. All three lived in London during the time of THE LIMEHOUSE GOLEM, with both Marx and Gissing appearing on the suspect list (and in Kildare’s reimagining of the grizzly killings).

THE LIMEHOUSE GOLEM (María Valverde, Sam Reid, Douglas Booth, Olivia Cooke, Eddie Marsan) (photo courtesy: NICOLA DOVE)

While I fairly well had sussed out who the killer was early into the film, I found myself second-guessing my theories – changing my mind several times as Inspector Kildare and his equally astute assistant investigator, Officer George Flood, interviewed Lizzie and her music hall compatriots and unearthed new leads. Yet, the story is so well done that, when the identity of the Golem is finally revealed, you aren’t disappointed in the least. This is a movie and a story that works so well on so many levels. At the beginning of this review, I told you about the artistic and stylistic beauty of the sets… to that beauty, we can definitely add the work of costume designer, Claire Anderson, whose slightly modern take on the wardrobes of Victorian Londoners is every bit as important to the look of THE LIMEHOUSE GOLEM as anything else. Of course, any film is ultimately based on the talents of the people on the screen and this one is stacked with actors perfect for their roles, even if one is actually a replacement for another beloved performer. Olivia Cooke (ME AND EARL AND THE DYING GIRL and the BATES MOTEL television series) is devastatingly vulnerable as Lizzie Cree, while Sam Reid is suitably smarmy as her fame-seeking husband, John; as both business man/mentor and over-the-top stage performer, Douglas Booth (JUPITER ASCENDING, as well as Reid’s co-star in THE RIOT CLUB), shines in the pivotal role of Dan Leo; Spanish beauty Maria Valverde sizzles as Aveline Ortega; in fact, each member of the supporting cast shines brightly and each is given their moment in the spotlight, including Eddie Marsan (Uncle), Keeley Forsyth and Amelia Crouch (as Lizzie’s mother and a younger Lizzie in a couple of frightening sequences that give the viewer important insight into the character) and Daniel Mays (as the rather uptight but totally professional – and loyal – George Flood). As brilliant as these cast members are, I’m not sure that this flick would have risen to the heights to which I have elevated it if it were not for the presence of Bill Nighy (Davy Jones in the PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN movies, Minister Rufus Scrimgeour in HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS, PART ONE and a ton of video games and animated stuff over the last decade or so) as Inspector John Kildare; with Nighy’s understated performance, Kildare is thoughtful, vulnerable and, though set-upon (and set to fail), determined to get at the truth. Nighy was a last minute replacement for Alan Rickman, who was forced to pull out of the project due to illness (the film is dedicated to Rickman, who passed away in 2016).

THE LIMEHOUSE GOLEM (Olivia Cooke, Bill Nighy) (photo courtesy: NICK WALL)

Obviously, to divulge too many of the intricacies of the plot would be akin to telling your kids that the Tooth Fairy doesn’t exist (remember how that turned out for Dwayne Johnson in THAT movie?), so I’m just going to tell you that THE LIMEHOUSE GOLEM is worth your attention and, even if you think you have things figured out in the first twenty minutes, you won’t see the end coming. Just getting to the end is a thrilling, chilling ride through the dark underbelly of late nineteenth century London. Anyone who has ever explored, examined or theorized over the case of Jack the Ripper will certainly recognize the similarities here… that was Ackroyd’s intent with his novel. The fact that the film incorporates several of the tropes common to modern police procedural and crime scene investigation fiction keeps things fresh and allows us to play armchair detective, all the while rooting for Lizzie and Kildare; the fact that both of the main characters are fundamentally flawed (but, then, aren’t we all?) keeps us intrigued and totally invested in the story’s outcome. As always, there are certain scenes, as well as the generally violent theme of the movie that some may find objectionable and, as such, I would probably advise parents of children thirteen or younger to steer clear of THE LIMEHOUSE GOLEM while the kids are around… though I’m sure that they could possibly see far worse on an episode of LAW AND ORDER: SVU.