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Starry Eyes – 7

January 31, 2015 Leave a comment

Director – Kevin Kolsch, Dennis Widmyer

Cast – Alex Essoe, Amanda Fuller, Noah Segan, Fabianne Therese, Shane Coffey, Natalie Castillo, Pat Healy, Nick Simmons, Maria Olsen

Release Year – 2014

Reviewed by John of the Dead

Women suffering psychological torture to attain what they want in life are a real life tragedy, and it is the basis of horror in Starry Eyes. I can’t think of many horror films involving an actor in a film, so this idea is unique in a day where genre fans are begging for something “new”. On top of this, the film dabbles into the cult sub-genre. Writing/directing duo Dennis Widmyer and Kevin Kolsch, Widmyer’s employer, who happens to be famed author Chuck Paluhniuk, played a heavy role in helping the filmmakers attain the financial support they needed to make the film, which winds up as one of 2014’s most unique.

Alex Essoe stars as Sarah, an optimistic yet severely struggling actress desperate for her big break. When she finally succeeds at an audition for a major studio, she discovers the heinous secret behind the Hollywood elites she wishes to join.

The story begins with a strong emphasis on the struggle Sarah faces as she pursues her dream to become an actress. She works a dead-end job as a waitress for a lowly restaurant and a loser of a boss. In her free time she attends casting calls and the end result is usually the same – she never gets called. It is obvious she has talent, but the only person who is taking notice to it is…herself. Now when I say she “desires” to be an actress, I mean that in the most extreme way possible. After failed casting calls she makes drastic, psychotic decisions that leave her physically maimed. She finally gets her break though, when a notable studio gives her a shot after taking notice to her drive and determination. The casting directors are very odd, but don’t be turned off by them right away – their mannerisms serve a purpose. When she receives a second call back from the company her audition takes a more drastic turn than the first, and things begin to get fishy as I detected that something was very wrong. It isn’t until the 31st minute of the film when we start to get an idea behind what is going on with her auditions and the shady figures behind them. Without giving too much away, I can only say that there is a daunting secret behind how the Hollywood elites achieved their stardom, and Sarah has a decision to make. She can turn them down and keep struggling, or she can give in and pay her dues. I don’t think I am spoiling anything in saying that she chooses the latter.

The story begins a bit slow but you should still find yourself engaged thanks to the hell that Alex puts herself through. Basically, her torture is your entertainment. The first act is all development, and the second act is where I felt like the film started to lose me. The action is there, but for me it was unlikable. Alex begins to experience extreme changes in her persona and physical appearance, and her friends are taking the brunt of it. She deteriorates her relationships with those who have stood by her in her quest for stardom, and for no obvious reason (at the time). The second act left me thinking that I had maybe made a mistake in thinking this would be a good effort, but the third act changed all that. It is during the third act where the psychological horror becomes physical, and boy does it reach extreme levels. It is during this act that the first kill hits the screen, a whole 78 minutes into the experience. Trust me when I say this about the kill and the subsequent kills, they are worth the wait. It is not often that a third act is so good that it pretty much makes up for the rest of the film, but I believe that is the case here with Starry Eyes. The horror that erupted in this final act left me in awe, and to top it off the film’s climax includes a revelation that I did not see coming.

The directors did a fair job executing this film, with their talent showing during the awesome third act. They get things started pretty well, giving us gloomy atmosphere and proper “odd” execution of the quirky characters seen in the first act. Actress Alex Essoe gave a tremendous performance as Sarah, going from one emotional extreme to the other and delivering some of the best kills I have seen this year. If it were not for her incredible performance early on I am not sure I would have been as into the flick as I was, so she deserves a lot of credit for that. The directors definitely left their mark on the genre this year with the final act thanks to their execution of the kills. These kill sequences were brutal, shot in full-frontal fashion, drawn out to keep you squirming, and they come via live-action effects…which means you get some great gore. Hopefully these directors stick around and maintain the horror seen in this effort.

Overall, Starry Eyes is an incredible experience that I suggest to those who want to see something unique and brutal. Keep in mind that it may try your patience at first, but the payoff is well worth the wait.

Rating: 7/10

…Additional Stills…

The Aggression Scale – 7


Director – Steven C. Miller

Cast – Ryan Hartwig, Fabianne Therese, Dana Ashbrook, Derek Mears, Jacob Reynolds, Joseph McKelheer, Boyd Kestner, Lisa Rotondi, Ray Wise

Release Year – 2012

Reviewed by John of the Dead

After breaking into the genre with the gory zombie effort Automation Transfusion back in 2006, writer/director Steven C. Miller made the impact that warranted him the ability to remake Silent Night Deadly Night this past year as the mostly-positive Silent Night. Somehow, for reasons I have yet to discover, his early 2012 film The Aggression Scale went under the radar when it debuted. With Miller’s developing direction and a story you don’t often see – one that appeals to me very much – this was a film that I had to get my hands and was glad that I did. The Aggression Scale is a pretty good horror film, but with a little forgiveness this should be a solid effort for horror fans to enjoy.

When mob boss Bellavance (Ray Wise) sends four hardcore hit men to retrieve the $500,000 his employees stole from him during his incarceration, he instructs them to leave a “loud and messy” message to the thieves and their families. Their search leads them to invade the newly acquired Rutledge home, but they will not achieve the easy and simple hit they desire. Bill’s emotionally troubled son Owen is now home from a mental health facility, and Owen’s history of maniacally violent behavior is about to resurface.

I know I have said this numerous times but I will say it again, I absolutely love stories that involve criminals carrying out a task and then finding themselves faced with evils they never expected nor saw coming. In my experience these stories have also delivered positive results as well, with Deep Rising, V/H/S, Rites of Spring, and Botched serving as examples of this tactic executed correctly. Writer Ben Powell (Satanic) kicks the story of quickly, with Bellavance’s hit men working their way through a hit list comprised of those who stole money from their boss. This introduction is brutal and gives us a sweet taste of the events to come once the story kicks into gear, and I applaud Powell for captivating the viewer from the get-go. Soon enough the hit men, lead by Lloyd (Dana Ashbrooke; Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, “Twin Peaks”, Sundown: The Vampire in Retreat, Waxwork, Return of the Living Dead Part II) make their way to the isolated Rutledge family home, and after delivering violent justice to the Mr. and Mrs. they look to easily finish the job by finishing off the kids and finding the rest of Bellavance’s money.

Early on it is obvious that there is something…”different”…about Owen. He is shy and never says a word, yet he bleeds intelligence and intuition like a mind reader. When the initial onslaught of his home takes place he immediately goes into defense mode and uses household objects to create makeshift booby traps to allow himself and his sister to escape, but their troubles are far from over. They are surrounded by miles of unfamiliar forest, and with a team of gunmen hot on their trail Owen is going to have to become more violent if he plans to save himself and his sister, so he does just that…he becomes more violent in his actions and in his traps. It was great to see him toy with the brooding hit men and subsequently watch them rage at their ineptitude against a pre-teen showing that it is definitely possible for brains to defeat brawn.

The story runs a cool and short 85 minutes, but I honestly feel that it feels much shorter than that thanks to good pacing. All in all the bulk of the story does not last for very long, lasting only a few hours from the moment the hit men break into the Rutledge home to the final battle between the remaining survivors. I enjoyed this short overall story and found it to fit just right with the rest of Powell’s storytelling, which was not detailed enough to last much longer than 85 minutes. I did not find any major faults in his writing but I do wish there had been more violence from Owen. While he did what had to be done to survive we really do not see him go as crazy as he had the potential to be. Powell does not delve too much into Owen’s past but he does shed light on how violent he kid used to be, and I only wish we had seen more of that violence from him when his life was in danger.

Director Steven C. Miller did a great job executing Powell’s story and did so right from the get-go, joining Powell in securing the viewer’s attention right away by giving us full-frontal direction of the story’s violent introduction. The location used for the home/property, where the bulk of the story takes place, was excellent in captivating the viewer with its beauty and also letting us know that the family is far from any nearby help. His execution of the tension and horror was superb at times, showing that he has come a long way from his lesser films of the past. I must say though that one element I am glad he kept from his “lesser” films is his inability to hold back from live-action gore. The kill sequences shown were brutal in the amount of gore shown, and Miller gave us front row seats to those taking a shotgun blast to the face or chest and the depravity shown by Lloyd (he dished out the most kills). Much like with Powell’s screenplay I did not find any major faults in Miller’s direction, but the acting was questionable at times when the going got tough and emotions began to flare. This was a minor issue to me and not something to sway my opinion of the film, which had a lot more to offer thanks to its cool and violent story.

Overall, The Aggression Factor is a sweet film that gives us good horror in the form of vengeful justice delivered from an unlikely source. The story is a short and simple one that allows director Steven C. Miller to carry the film, and he does so by focusing on atmosphere, tension, and violence. I do wish there had been more violence for me to marvel at, but all in all this was a truly positive experience for those who can be a tad bit forgiving on minimal faults.

Rating: 7/10

…additional stills…

John Dies at the End – 8

January 6, 2013 1 comment

Director – Don Coscarelli

Cast – Chase Williamson, Rob Mayes, Paul Giamatti, Clancy Brown, Glynn Turman, Doug Jones, Daniel Roebuck, Fabianne Therese, Jonny Weston, Jimmy Wong, Tai Bennett

Release Year – 2013

Reviewed by John of the Dead

It has been a decade since famed horror director Don Coscarelli last gave us a full length film, the awesome Bruce Campbell-starring Bubba Ho-tep, and it feels great to say that the Phantasm creator is back in the horror scene. This time, he adapted a screenplay from David Wong’s (pseudonym for Jason Pargin) hilarious horror novel, “John Dies at the End”, into a full-length film that provides a hilarious and downright awesome experience. Once again Coscarelli shows his skill diversity in giving us a film unlike the Phantasm films that made him famous. He did this with Bubba Ho-tep and now adds John Dies at the End to his list of successful film adventures – a list whose history is growing with comical and zany flicks.

“It’s a drug that promises an out-of-body experience with each hit. On the street they call it Soy Sauce, and users drift across time and dimensions. But some who come back are no longer human. Suddenly a silent otherworldly invasion is underway, and mankind needs a hero. What it gets instead is John and David, a pair of college dropouts who can barely hold down jobs. Can these two stop the oncoming horror in time to save humanity? No. No, they can’t.” – David Wong

Wait, is JohnoftheDead the guy who dies at the end?

Thanks to its awesome storyline this has to be one of the coolest horror films I have seen in a long time.  The film takes off quick, with David (Chase Williamson) meeting with disheveled reporter, Arnie (Paul Giamatti), to tell his “story” in hopes that a book can be made explaining the insane yet unseen events going on around us. The “story” is what we follow as if it were in real time, but is actually being told to a skeptical but wide-eyed Arnie who sees this as a potential fiction over non-fiction publication…until David proves what he is saying is very, VERY true.

After taking the “Soy Sauce” Dave and John’s worlds are not turned upside down, but expanded with the ability to see alternate dimensions concurrent with our own, as well as the evil creatures that have found a loophole into ours with the intentions of eradicating human life. Only a few others have taken the Soy Sauce, and experience has shown the two that those who take the sauce eventually succumb to the creatures within it, so their time is running out. We watch Dave and John battle the paranoia and confusion resulting from their newly acquired “abilities”, which was hilarious to watch and did not take up too much screen time. Of course, they eventually get the hang of things and become the badasses they were destined to be.

Coscarelli expertly adapted the book into a screenplay that moves often and at a good pace, and he included numerous fun and hilarious scenes that may have left me laughing more than I did with Bubba Ho-tep. I enjoyed seeing the film being told in the past tense by Dave to Arnie, as it made for a different feel than the usual horror films we get that are told in the present tense. On top of that we are not only forced to watch Dave and John in their early days, but also get a few glimpses of them as seasoned veterans in this war against other dimensions – another fine idea rarely seen in horror films. I think most of the story’s unique qualities come from it being an adaptation of a very cool book, and Coscarelli knew what to use and what to leave out. There are many colorful characters aside from our two main protagonists, Arnie and a dog named Bark Lee, and I did not find any of them to be useless or not contribute to the story. The death scenes were awesome and came via a unique killer, and Coscarelli threw in a heavy amount of horror that kept me entertained and very engaged throughout this 99 minute experience.

Hold on, this hot dog has poor reception.

Equally awesome is Coscarelli’s direction, which from the get-go threw us into the experience with incredible atmosphere, good camerawork, and entertaining performances from everyone involved. It is rare that I come across a horror film where every acting performance is a solid one, but Coscarelli got the most out of his cast in this one. His execution was terrific, giving us many hilarious sequences that could have come off stupid if a lesser director was at the helm, but he did things his way and it worked out great. Most importantly, the horror was also fantastic. The look of the creatures was great and only some of them came via CGI, and those that did still came off in a positive way. There was a fair amount of gore as well, and I am glad that Coscarelli went with live-action FX when it mattered most. I cannot say that I was ever scared during this piece but there were plenty of sequences that carried good tension, so just know that while the film is heavy on the laughs it also provides a good horrific experience as well.

Overall, John Dies at the End is another awesome horror film from Don Coscarelli. Adapted from the popular novel, the story is an utterly engaging one that comes expertly directed to give you an experience you will not soon forget. The film is fun, hilarious, and comes with loads of horror to please fans abroad. I highly recommend this.

Rating: 8/10

Additional Stills…

(some images will be “graphic”)

One hell of a “welcoming” party.

 

There’s plenty of gore y’all.

WE CAN’T GO THIS WAY!

 

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