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The Frighteners – 8

January 18, 2015 Leave a comment

Director – Peter Jackson

Cast – Michael J. Fox, Trini Alvarado, Peter Dobson, John Astin, Jeffrey Combs, Dee Wallace, Jake Busey, Chi McBride, Jim Fyfe, Troy Evans, Julianna McCarthy, R. Lee Ermey, Elizabeth Hawthorne

Release Year – 1996

Reviewed by John of the Dead

Horror consumes my life, but even then I have not seen every major horror film there is. The Frighteners is the most recent notable effort to be remove from such a list, and it was as good as I expected it to be. Michael J. Fox stars as Frank Bannister, a man who attained a unique ability to speak to the dead after the sudden death of his wife. Frank does not use his abilities lightly though, and has since become a con man who employs spirits to haunt unsuspecting / potential “customers” and leave them no choice but to call him to remove the “evil” presence. However, when a real demonic spirit invades the town and starts killing at will, Frank becomes the only hope in saving the living from the dead.

The story kicks off right away and gives you the impression that this is going to be a really scary movie, then you realize you are being fooled just like Frank’s “haunted” customers. It is then that you realize this flick is going to be more “fun” than scary, which I expected because over the years I never heard this film referred to as scary. The first act is highly comedic, with fun characters and consistent jokes for you to enjoy. These jokes come from both Frank Bannister as well as his restless undead companions, each with their own unique personality. Nearly all of the main characters was colorful in their own right, with FBI Special Agent Milton Dammers taking the cake as the most outlandish. He was written superbly awesome, in the weirdest of ways, and left me laughing in my seat on several occassions. During the second act the kills begin to hit the screen, with a Grim Reaper-esque being delivering death via squeezing the life out of his victim’s heart. Frank’s unique abilities allow him to see, in sequential order, who the demon’s next victim will be, but only moments before they are to be taken from this world. This gives him little time to save the person’s life, or even convince them that they are in danger, which of course increases the conflict and tension. A fair amount of kills are written into the film and paced at just the right times, but don’t expect much when it comes to gore. There is ONE kill that will leave gorehounds happy, which was added when the filmmakers realized they were going to be tagged with an R-rating with or without the kill. When the third act hits we are provided a unique development where Frank goes through a drastic measure to make himself closer to the demon. This was done because he was powerless beforehand, but now he can fight. Jackson and his longtime co-writer Fran Walsh include constant developments over what is going on behind the killings, and while not overly shocking I did find the revelations towards the end of the film enjoyable.

Jackson’s direction is as good as his writing, although if you are expecting this to be like his previous horror flicks, Bad Taste and Dead Alive, you are in for a rude surprise. He sets the fun tone early on with great performances from Michael J. Fox and his ghastly companions, however horror legend Jeffrey Combes steals the show as Milton Dammers. It was incredible to see Combes deliver such an odd yet wonderfully executed performance unlike any you have seen in his filmography. Several other notables provide supporting roles, like R. Lee Ermy, Jake Busey, and another horror legend – Dee Wallace. Jackson’s horror was good, and while not scary it definitely kept me entertained. I enjoyed the look of the antagonist and the kill sequences, while tame on the surface (heart attack via a squeezed heart) were executed in strong fashion. Sadly, the antagonist and everything that has to do with him comes via CGI effects, which naturally lessens the severity. The CGI was not terrible, but it was not good either. With Jurassic Park debuting a few years earlier it is obvious that good technology was out there, but it was not in The Frighteners. Thankfully, there is so much more going on in the film that you learn to forgive it for the CGI blasphemy. Just look at Peter Jackson’s works since then, his Hobbit trilogies are nothing without computer-generated imagery.

Overall, The Frighteners is a great 90s film that provides a fun story with great execution from one of the genre’s masters who has sadly refrained from returning. You won’t find many scares here, but this is a flick that you can enjoy with a group of friends.

Rating: 8/10

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Jeffrey Combs

Zodiac – 8

October 2, 2014 Leave a comment

Director – David Fincher

Cast – Jake Gyllenhaal, Robert Downey Jr., Mark Ruffalo, Anthony Edwards, Brian Cox, John Carroll Lynch, Chloë Sevigny, Elias Koteas, John Getz

Release Year – 2007

Reviewed by John of the Dead

Chances are, if you are a fan of non-fiction crime stories then you know of the Zodiac Killer. This person plagued northern California sporadically from the late 1960s to the early 1970s, and was never caught – at least not for the crimes he was accused of. Because of its long runtime (2.6 hours) I never got around to viewing this film until recently. With David Fincher directing and Jake Glenhall, Robert Downey Jr., and Mark Ruffalo as the main protagonists I was pretty sure I would enjoy this, and I did. It’s a bit tame in comparison to films like Se7en and The Silence of the Lambs, but Zodiac is a good watch nonetheless.

The true story of San Francisco Chronicle cartoonist Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal), a man who’s obsession with tracking the Zodiac killer brought police as close as they would get to nabbing one of history’s most elusive serial killers.

I would have never expected that the writer credited with adapting Robert Graysmith’s novel, James Vanderbilt, got his start co-writing the often laughed-at Darkness Falls. Vanderbilt has since found success after Zodiac, so don’t let the Darkness Falls credit fool you. When the Zodiac killer begins sending his cryptic messages to the San Francisco Chronicle, Robert Graysmith can’t help but overhear the editorial staff freaking out over whether or not they should concede to the killer’s demands. Crime reporter Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr.) and Detective Dave Toschi (Mark Ruffalo) are assigned to work the case by their superiors, but it is Graysmith who shows the most interest in who the killer is. His character is the most developed, as we watch the shy young man go to desperate lengths to catch a killer he is not paid to catch. He is not interested in award money, but is driven by the intellectual game of “catch me if you can”. The investigation is not without its tolls, as it has a negative effect on his relationship with his family (thought not so much), his cohorts (Avery), and the police force. Thankfully, this story does not dwell much on his troubles. Instead it keeps the viewer engaged by keeping us in the same boat of addicting confusing that Graysmith is in. By the time the second act rolls around you feel as if you are constantly on the brink of solving an immense crossword puzzle, and that is what I like about these types of serial killer films. Zodiac was heralded for its accuracy about the investigation, and that is the result of director David Fincher, writer James Vanderbilt, and producer Brad Fischer spending 18 months doing their research on the investigation.

As far as the horror goes it is most definitely there, but keep in mind that the horror is not the top element. The opening sequence helps set a horrific tone, and there are several other death scenes for the viewer to enjoy, but the story is mostly about the investigation. Since the film stays factual and the facts say that the Zodiac was rarely seen nor heard, the story does not involve him as much as the killers in other serial killer films. Instead, the story is told from the points of views of everyone on the opposite side of the spectrum, those hunting the killer, namely Robert Graysmith. Nonetheless, Vanderbilt found ways to insert tension here and there on Graysmith’s end, so don’t expect a snoozer.

David Fincher’s direction is great and he made this long experience one that flowed smoothly and kept my interest. His execution during the opening kill sequence is fantastic as he kept the tension at the utmost despite fairly simple writing. From then on out he delivers great atmosphere, good chills, and top-notch acting performances. Despite being filmed mostly in digital, Fincher managed to deliver atmosphere similar to that seen in the early 70s, but with an obviously crisper picture and lack of grain. I was impressed with his execution of the horror and felt that he made the most of these scattered sequences. He is obviously no stranger to horror after directing Alien 3 and the incredible Se7en, so going into this film I figured he’d get the job done. You should expect nothing less than the usual good performances from Gyllenhal, Downey Jr., and Raffalo, but also keep an eye out for genre vet Brian Cox, Elias Koteas, John Carroll Lynch, Anthony Edwards, and Chloe Sevigny.

Overall, Zodiac is another great film from David Fincher that does a good job at telling a factually based tale about one of America’s most famed serial killers.

Rating: 7/10

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Hannibal – 7

September 29, 2014 Leave a comment

Director – Ridley Scott

Cast – Anthony Hopkins, Julianne Moore, Gary Oldman, Ray Liotta, Frankie Faison, Giancarlo Giannini, Francesca Neri, Zeljko Ivanek, Hazelle Goodman, David Andrews, Francis Guinan

Release Year – 2001

Reviewed by John of the Dead

The sequel to The Silence of the Lambs, it surprised me that Hannibal was released an entire decade later. Typically sequels are released with the original still fresh in our minds, but I suppose Anthony Hopkins was so darn good in his Oscar-winning performances that filmmakers thought they could cash in on him once again. This time, Hannibal gives Lecter much more screen time and continues the manhunt with a new lead portraying Clarive Starling. It was never going to be as good as its famed predecessor, but this effort is sure to please those who want more of Dr. Lecter’s charismatic mayhem.

With Hannibal Lecter living in exile, the once esteemed FBI Special Agent Clarice Starling is now treated as a disgrace after a colleague causes significant casualties in a botched raid. With the agency railroading her to save face, Dr. Lecter reaches out to Clarice, which in turn makes him a target for a powerful victim of his seeking vengeance.

Just by looking at the credited cast and filmmakers you would expect this to be a tremendous effort. It comes directed by Ridley Scott, who at the time was still reeling in praise for Gladiator. Co-writer Steven Zaillian adapted Shindler’s List – enough said. Lastly, the cast consists of Anthony Hopkins, Julianne Moore, Gary Oldman, and Ray Liotta. With names like these you would assume this would be an Oscar contender, but it’s not. In fact I would not even say this is the best in the series, as I enjoyed prequel Red Dragon more. While it may seem like I am dogging the film I promise you I am not, I just…expected better. I expected greatness and was instead treated to “good”.

The film takes off with Clarice Starling’s action-packed fail of a suspect apprehension. It’s not her fault, but the good ole boys she works will don’t mind watching a natural over-achiever, who happens to be female, fall from grace. Much of the first act focuses on Clarice’s troubles, but 24 minutes in we get our first look at the devil of her past, Hannibal. After reaching out to her with a perfume-laced letter, he appears via a surveillance video from a store in Italy. At the 30 minute mark he finally makes his on-screen appearance, when a police detective makes contact with him. To further trouble Clarice’s attempt to bring Hannibal to justice, the detective intrudes on the investigation so that he can claim the 3 million dollar reward for Lecter’s capture. All of this attention brings the eccentric Mason Verger into the game. Verger is a former victim / lover of Hannibal the Cannibal, and his grotesque physical appearance is proof of that. Verger wants his revenge and he will pay handsomely for it. There are so many different elements going on in this film, and they all lead to Lecter. Clarice, dealing with the consequences of Special Agent Paul Krendler’s accusations of wrongdoing, wants him captured the right way. The Italian Inspector, Rinaldo Pazzi, wants the reward money for himself, and Verger is in cahoots with the inspector to have Lecter assassinated by Verger’s hired goons. Despite of the extreme odds against him, Lecter is on top of his game and gives everyone one hell of a fight.

There is plenty of horror written into the film, and unlike The Silence of the Lambs, we get to experience Hannibal commit several murders first-hand. These are not tame murders either, but torturous slow deaths that ridicule the victim as much as they cause physical pain. This effort gives us more of the Hannibal the Cannibal spoken of earlier in the series, and I was glad to see what I had been missing. The horror, first present about half way into the film (58 minutes), never relents and continues until the film’s final sequence that will leave some of you shying away from the screen in disgust.

Director Ridley Scott did very well with this effort, although I feel that I have been hard on him. He directed some of the greatest films all time, including Alien – one of the best horror films ever, so naturally I expected him to exceed what Jonathan Demme did with The Silence of the Lambs. He did not, but he did expand on the horror and I believe that is what matters most. Live gore was employed during the kill sequences, which included a kill that left a victim’s innards exposed for screaming spectators to see. The kills are full-frontal and Scott, along with the film’s two writers, did not why away from the violence. You would expect good performances from the notable actors involved, and to no surprise their performances were top notch. Obviously Anthony Hopkins stole the show, with Gary Oldman stealing thunder from Julianne Moore. Ray Liotta’s role was miniscule but he did well at portraying an asshole. I enjoyed the atmosphere here but the 10-year difference displayed the difference in film quality. The graininess from The Silence of the Lambs is gone and we are instead treated to a crisper image. This may seem minimal, but it did have a direct effect on the atmosphere. Thankfully, Scott still delivered a moody, dark, shadowy feel that makes this especially fun to watch with the lights off, which you should already be doing anyway with horror films.

Overall, Hannibal is a solid sequel to one of the most notable horror films there is. While high expectations will most likely not be met, this effort makes up for any shortcomings with great horror, awesome performances, and an engaging story that comes very well written and directed.

Rating: 7/10

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Mindhunters – 7

September 22, 2014 Leave a comment

Director – Renny Harlin

Cast – Val Kilmer, LL Cool J, Christian Slater, Eion Bailey, Clifton Collins Jr., Will Kemp, Jonny Lee Miller, Patricia Velasquez

Release Year – 2005

Reviewed by John of the Dead

I saw this film in bits and pieces over the years but never took it seriously enough to give it a legitimate viewing. It looked cheesy and seemed to consist of the usual Hollywood nonsense, and because of my lack of interest in such antics I decided to play the movie as background music while I tried to fall asleep. Also, I assumed the film had little to do with horror and served mostly as a cheap thriller. Much to my surprise, Mindhunters was a poor choice as a film to snooze too because I was hooked from the get-go. Not only that, but it contained elements of horror I had not noticed in my previous scattered viewings. Never did I imagine I would say I liked the movie, but I liked Mindhunters.

Seven FBI agents and a police detective partake in a psychological profiling program on a deserted Naval island only to discover that they themselves have been profiled as part of a serial killer’s deadly game.

If you have an interest in serial killer films then this story should definitely interest you. Often times the authorities are pursuing a killer whose victims are not themselves so this tactic ups the ante and definitely secured my interest. Writer Wayne Kramer went on to write and direct the awesome Running Scared after this, so you know the guy has talent. The FBI agents and Detective Gabe Jensen (LL Cool J) are students of Jake Harris (Val Kilmer), a controversial criminal profiler said to be the best in the business. Their stay at the Naval island is to be the agents’ final test before selection to the esteemed rank they desire, and things go awry very quick. The first of the agents is killed 32 minutes into the film, and the initial kill is a shocker sure to wake you up. They are unsure if the kill is an intentional death or an accident, but they soon realize that something sinister is at hand. One by one the students are dropping like flies in awesomely violent fashion, leaving a very obvious question to be answered: “Who is doing the killing?”. It is obvious the murders took a lot of planning, and with Harris gone they are unable to tell if he went crazy for their final test or if one of the students is the culprit. Tensions flare between them and friendships deteriorate as everyone is a suspect until they meet their gruesome demise. The story keeps things interesting with deaths spaced out at just the right times, constant developments, and surprisingly good horror. The usual Hollywood clichés are there, like the students shooting things to make them work (a dangerous action in real life), but if you can look past that or enjoy it then you’ll be good.

Finnish director Renny Harlin directs, and if that name sounds familiar he got his break with A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master. He does well in setting up great gloomy atmosphere and the sets used for the island location, which take up the bulk of the film, are incredible. I felt immersed within the students and marveled at their living quarters, which is where most of the deaths occurred. I was also very impressed with the kills in this flick! For such a “Hollywood” film the kills were brutal, filmed in full-frontal fashion (no shying away), and most importantly…came mostly via live action effects. Had this film been done today with a different director I would expect lame CGI gore to the utmost. With Renny Harlin in charge he delivered on the horror in the way a guy behind one of the better Freddy Krueger films should. The acting performances were cheesy but that is expected with an action-oriented story involving Val Kilmer, Christian Slater, and LL Cool J. Both a horror and action director, Harlin executed both elements very well and is the biggest reason behind my enjoyment of a film I expected to laugh at.

Overall, Mindhunters is a sometimes cheesy but nonetheless awesome horror/thriller executed very well on what matters most. The story is a highly engaging one and with Harlin’s solid direction you can’t go wrong.

Rating: 7/10

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Wolf Creek 2 – 8


Director – Greg Mclean

Cast – John Jarratt, Ryan Corr, Shannon Ashlyn, Philippe Klaus, Shane Connor, Ben Gerrard, Gerard Kennedy, Annie Byron

Release Year – 2014

Reviewed by John of the Dead

It was Christmas Day, year 2005, when I saw what is still one of the best films of last decade, Wolf Creek. Greg Mclean’s simple but highly effective debut film shocked the masses and gave us the best Aussie horror we had seen in our modern day. The years passed and he followed up with the enjoyable Rogue, a killer croc flick, but I never thought he would give us a follow up to the film that made his career. Typically, sequels debut while the effect of the first film is still relevant to the masses, which is usually two years at the most. It surprised me when I learned last year that Wolf Creek 2 was a go, as I was sure most viewers, including myself, had forgotten about the original film. Either way, I was excited to give this a watch and went in hoping that Mclean still had it in him to further the carnage caused by serial-killing pig hunter Mick Taylor, and that he did. Wolf Creek 2 takes its predecessor and does what sequels are supposed to do: make the series even better. Wolf Creek is the sincere effort that even non-horror critics loved, and Wolf Creek 2 is the monster movie we’ve been waiting for.

The outback is home to some of the most dangerous animals in the world, and the most dangerous of them is man – specifically, Mick Taylor. Once again, unwitting tourists become prey for the incognito killer who does not merely kill for food, but for euphoric pleasure.

Mclean kicks the film into high gear with a great slow-burning intro that ends in the same maniacal fashion that will continuously linger over the 106 minute experience. Teaming with a co-writer (actor Aaron Sterns) for the first time in his career, Mclean’s story will appear as more brash than brainy, but that is far from the case. After the opening sequence we follow a pair of naïve tourists looking for fun in the isolated outback, and we are lead to believe that these will be the protagonists we are to follow from there on out. WRONG. For the first act of the film the story treats its characters the way Feast did, where you are constantly thrown for a loop over who the lead protagonist will be…because they all keep dying. This tactic is fun and it keeps you focused on what is going on during the developmental phase. Once Taylor has his eyes finally set on a nemesis its all all-out brutal cat and mouse game for the remainder of the film. Instead of focusing mostly on one location like the first film did, this sequel takes us across the Outback. There are even times when the film feels like the Spielberg flick Duel, mixed in with Joyride, as they battle each other on the open road. Eventually things settle down and we see the inner workings of Taylor’s compound, and that is when the film really shines. I really enjoy it when a sequel does more than give us the same antics but also improves on the story and reveals more to the viewer, which Wolf Creek 2 does. Most importantly though, Mclean’s horror is absolutely incredible. The kills he wrote into the film are maniacal, brutal, and unforgiving. No one is left unscathed and everyone who comes across Taylor is killed in brutal fashion. Men, women, the elderly – NOBODY is safe from this man. With awesome kills, a great antagonist, and constant tension, this is a story that never drags and actually becomes even better when it slows down for the slow-burn scenes.

Mclean’s direction is absolutely incredible and he does the best job possible when it comes to bringing his story to life. Starting with the opening sequence he gives us a great preview of things to come, which mostly consists of brutal torment and gut-wrenching kills. The film’s atmosphere is fantastic, and excellent locations are used to give us the same solemn yet adventurous feelings the unwitting tourists exhibit. We receive great performances from our leads, with Ryan Corr delivering a breakout performance while John Jarratt solidifies Mick Taylor as one of the genre’s most maniacal killers. Despite all of this, Mclean’s greatest accomplishment is his execution of the kills. Each kill is shown with full-frontal direction, never skimping away or keeping the carnage offscreen. We only see live-action gore, and lots of it. From blood splatter to dismemberment / decapitation, everything is done with practical effects that do their job in leaving a lasting memory well after the end credits roll. With 3 solid horror films under his belt in 8 years, it is safe to say that Greg Mclean is one of the genre’s top modern filmmakers, and I hope he continues his great work.

Overall, Wolf Creek 2 is a damn good sequel to a damn good film. Greg Mclean gives us one of the best horror films I have seen in quite a while and possibly the best of 2014 so far. The horror is diabolical, the tension is ever-present, and as I mentioned…it’ll leave a lasting memory well after the end credits roll.

Rating: 8/10

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Jack’s Back – 7

December 22, 2013 Leave a comment

Director – Rowdy Herrington

Cast – James Spader, Cynthia Gibb, Jim Haynie, Robert Picardo, Rod Loomis, Rex Ryon, Chris Mulkey

Release Year – 1988

Reviewed by John of the Dead

More often than not I am in need of an 80s serial killer flick, and this time Jack’s Back came in for the win. From first-time auteur Rowdy Herrington we follow a story 100 years in the making. It is the 100th anniversary of the Jack the Ripper killings and a copycat is killing the city’s hookers. A young doctor is suspected of committing the grisly crimes, but when he himself is killed the police force must rely on an unlikely source of information to catch a killer mimicking a killer who was also never caught.

Films playing on or influenced by Jack the Ripper are not a rare occurrence for the genre, but somehow I had never heard of this film until recently. Herrington pens an engaging screenplay that includes many twists and turns, including a major one that throws us for a loop early on. Despite its emphasis on one of history’s greatest serial killers the film does not come with a supreme amount of kills, and focuses more on the investigative measures taken to find the copycat killer. The character play is good and eventually each role is fulfilled more than I expected, with wasteful roles eventually becoming very significant ones. The horror was good as well and managed to keep some good tension going despite a lack of kills and gore, which comes thanks to good writing execution from Herrington.

Equally important is Herrington’s direction, which was surprisingly good for a first-timer with a low budget when so many others have failed under the same conditions. The acting performances are enjoyable and James Spader leads the way in a very diverse fashion. Herrington’s execution of the horror was good and he managed to keep things interesting despite a lack of good kills.

Overall, Jack’s Back is a positive 80s serial killer film playing on one of the most famous serial killers of all time. This experience will not win any awards and is nothing to marvel at, but it is most likely worth your time.

Rating: 7/10

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The Factory – 5

November 6, 2013 Leave a comment

Director – Morgan O’Neill

Cast – John Cusack, Dallas Roberts, Jennifer Carpenter, Mae Whitman, Sonya Walger, Mageina Tovah, Katherine Waterston, Gary Anthony Williams, Michael Trevino, Cindy Sampson, Lita Tresierra, Vincent Messina

Release Year – 2013

Reviewed by John of the Dead

The Factory is a film I had been waiting to see for years and fans were finally afforded a DVD release this year – five years after the film was completed in 2008. Suffering numerous release date setbacks, we were left to wonder for years why this film kept failing to make the cut…and now I know why. This $25,000,000 film is far from the experience it could have been and starring actor John Cusack did little to save it. Sure he has done some stinkers and the mediocre The Raven, but Cusack delivered solid performances in both Identity and 1408, but sadly The Factory is only mediocre at best.

Mike, a cop obsessed with catching a serial killer that has been abducting young girls, loses all professional restraint when his daughter is kidnapped and the race against time forces him to take matters into his own hands.

I do not know about you but I know a lot of horror fans, including myself, enjoy serial killer films and watching cops / investigative reporters desperately try to find them. This story gives us just that, but sadly the story falls flat on multiple levels. Things start off OK, but when Mike’s daughter is kidnapped the story gets worse when it was supposed to get better. We are forced to watch Mike and his young partner Kelsey (Jennifer Carpenter; The Exorcism of Emily Rose, Quarantine) bumble around and employ moronic police work, while the writers’ attempts at character conflict consistently fail. Not every element of the story is this bad though, as I did find the killer to be a solid freak whose reasoning behind the kidnappings was enjoyably demented. :possible spoiler alert: Of course, those who have seen the film have talked non-stop about the film’s harrowing climax, and I for one feel that while it was an OK idea overall, the writing execution was downright pathetic and riddled with continuity issues.

Co-writer Morgan O’Neill directs this film and does little to improve on his mediocre story.. I did enjoy the look and atmosphere of the flick, and the horror itself wasn’t bad either. Dallas Roberts portrays the killer, Carl, and he does a fantastic job of selling his creepy character – stealing the show from both Cusack and Carpenter. We don’t get much as far as gore and kills go, but the horror scenes were good enough to keep me engaged and interested. O’Neill’s execution could have definitely been a lot better and could have maybe made this a better film, but he will have to try again another time.

Overall, after watching The Factory I can now see why it took 5 years to see a release – the direction, writing, and acting are out-gunned by mediocrity.

Rating: 5/10

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