Let Us Prey (2014)

A rookie police officer comes back to her childhood home to start her job, only to discover that Murphy’s Law applies even harder in small towns filled with ugly secrets: everything that can go wrong, will. In spades. PC. Rachel Heggie starts what should be a quiet night bringing in a teenager for hitting a pedestrian – only for said pedestrian to vanish without a trace, leaving only bloodstained headlights behind. As the night goes on, the stranger appears again and again, connected to a series of violent crimes that he seems to know too much about. Being the rookie, Heggie is left alone at the station to watch over the inhabitants of the jail, with the mysterious pedestrian who seems to know far more than he should about their darkest secrets, and a flock of screaming ravens that seem to gather right before disaster strikes.

 

Things get worse from there.

 

Given the religious imagery at play in the trailer, I went into Let Us Prey expecting to see a film choked full of biblical righteousness, but that’s not the direction the story goes in. The stranger – identified only as Six, in reference to his cell number – even has a discussion with Heggie over the expectation that dogma is influencing his actions. At its heart, Let Us Prey wants to talk about vengeance – the biblical sort, minus any specific religion or even belief to back it up. Though the film never explicitly states who – or what – Six is, his self-described “job” is to gather the souls of the wicked, usually by causing their horrible death in retribution for whatever vicious secret they’re hiding. And this small town has so many. Interesting, Six never seems inclined to justify himself or excuse any of the things he allows to happen. That is not his role in the story. He has the opportunity to save people throughout the film, save them from horrible fates, and never does. Instead, Six is a figure of brutal vengeance, striking down with look and the twirl of a wooden match. There is no nuance there. Six represents vengeance; nothing else.

 

That alone is fascinating. Revenge is a popular theme in all kinds of stories, especially film. However, I’ve noticed that the stories tend to go in two directions: the vengeance is justified, or the vengeance makes the victim just as bad or worse than the target of their rage. There is little to no middle ground. Let Us Prey is one of the few films I’ve found that explicitly explores this. While the people that Six targets clearly deserve what comes to them, his actions have a tendency to cause extensive collateral damage – or if not directly cause it, then allow their deaths to happen. At least eight people died over the course of Let Us Prey who – so far as the audience knows – didn’t do anything wrong, except for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. So, is vengeance right or wrong? Or, more specifically, is violent retribution – the messy, biblical kind – ever justified?

 

Well, that’s up for interpretation. Nearly every character in the film has an opinion. Let Us Prey gives us a figure of seemingly righteous vengeance who also causes immense harm to the people around him, and leaves the audience to decide where they stand with him. In that way, Six is one of the more interesting horror movie villains – what he represents isn’t simple. And there may not be one answer. I appreciate that Let Us Prey didn’t try to force one on the audience, even though the characters eventually came to their own conclusions within the story.

 

In short, Let Us Prey gave me a lot to think about. It developed its own sense of mythology and iconography without getting stuck on a warped understanding of Christianity, and created some truly horrifying moments with a sparse set. Let Us Prey is beautifully shot and edited with a thoughtful touch. It also has one of the most beautiful, understated openings of any movie I’ve seen recently. This is also director Brian O’Malley’s first feature length film, which belies its tight production. This is not a film that stumbles often. I look forward to seeing more of O’Malley’s work after finishing Let Us Prey; he’s one to watch.

 

See this one. It’s worth the time.

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Kristy (2014)

A young college student at the end of her rope finds herself alone on campus during Thanksgiving Break, and under siege by a violent cult. A dark, moody twist on the home invasion subgenre that can’t quite manage to find its footing before the end.

To be sure, Oliver Blackburn’s film is a technical achievement; the shots are beautifully composed and Haley Bennett delivers a smart, understated portrayal of the lead, Justine. The soundtrack felt a bit on the nose at times, as did some of the camera work, but I thought it made for a compelling visual image. It’s rare that I see a film that manages to convey such an eerie sense of isolation and silence in an industrial space like a college campus. Again, the camera work and some of the sound effects pushed a little too hard – the audience can make its own conclusions, people – as if the director thought that the point was too vague to catch. A scene that comes to mind is the close up on a collage of photographs with the eyes scratched out, which the camera lingers on for several seconds too long to really add any atmosphere.

Which, if we’re being honest, indicates a larger problem with the film.

See, Kristy has things to say about isolation and appearances, but doesn’t trust that the audience will understand the point. Justine is targeted because on the surface, she appears to have it all. She goes to a fancy college (she’s in horrible debt and afraid of losing her scholarship), drives an expensive car (it belongs to her roommate), and has a circle of good friends (who leave her alone on the holidays). Kristy seemed more interested in giving fragmented, confusing views of the beliefs that the cultists chasing Justine hold without really exploring any of the themes it has brought up. We have a “blessed” victim targeted by cultists who resent her apparent success – except that the victim’s life turns out to have some darker undercurrents. This should have made for some excellent tension.

Only problem? Kristy doesn’t do anything with this. The themes just sit there, leaving the film as an extended cat and mouse chase as Justine eventually outsmarts her pursuers and – as expected – triumphs over them. Yay? Justine is sympathetic enough as a protagonist and has an excellent screen presence, so the audience wants her to survive, but Kristy doesn’t really have anything to say after she does. Its interesting when compared to other home invasion films, especially with it’s themes about appearances and privilege, but doesn’t explore them enough to stand on its own. It’s worth seeing if you’re interesting in home invasion films and where the subgenre is going, but don’t expect anything mind blowing.

Exeter (2015)

A group of teenagers decide to party at an abandoned mental hospital and inadvertently summon an angry something that traps them inside. Being children of the 21st century, they try a DIY exorcism and employ all the tricks of Youtube and the Internet to survive. It’s old school horror versus the modern survivalist, and all the carnage in between.

Exeter tries, it must be said. It obviously wants to talk about the modern age, sibling relationships, and how teenagers deal with the sins of the previous generation. The film and the characters use humor – sometimes off colored, sometimes outright cruel – to deal with the situations they find themselves in, situations they aren’t prepared for in the least. These are ambitious themes for any project to take on, but horror seems like an especially suited genre to tackle them with.

Unfortunately, Exeter isn’t as smart or as nasty as it needs to be to pull off that sort of commentary. Certainly the film has its moments, but isn’t willing to give the characters enough depth for the themes to have any resonance. Even the sibling relationship between two of the characters, easily the most nuanced and interesting dynamic in the film, falls short at the end. Exeter can tell us that the brothers have issues and hint at why, but it doesn’t want to explore the issue fully and risk its lead character appear unsympathetic.

Visually, Exeter pulls out all the stops. This is a film that looks very nice in every shot. The lighting is spot on, the costumes work, and the setting manages to convey the essence of chaos and decay that come with abandoned places (they have a lot of junk in them) while not cluttering the scene. It’s a delicate balancing act, though one that Exeter has mastered. Still, it’s not enough to watch a film based on its looks, and I can’t honestly recommend Exeter on its content. It tries, but falls short.

The Beast of X Moor (2014)

A pair of documentary filmmakers team up with an unhinged guide to hunt a mythical black panther in the remote New Devon moor, only to accidentally stumble – or perhaps not so accidentally – into a serial killer’s dump site. A great idea with a not-so-great execution. Most of these problems are technical, though a lot of the lore and history in the film refuses to acknowledge its origins.

The Beast is a proud member of a time-honored tradition that attributes the horrific crimes of human beings to fantastical monsters. Even before the term “serial killer” entered the popular consciousness, crimes committed by men and women who would eventually fall under that category were largely considered to have been committed by werewolves. Among that category we have Gilles Garnier, a hermit convicted of killing four children and accused of about fifty more, who was executed in 1573, and Peter Stumpp, a Roman farmer who was accused of killing eighteen people and executed in 1589. There was also the man known only as the Demon Tailor, or the Werewolf of Chalons, who murdered and cannibalized an unknown number of children. All records of his life were destroyed after the execution. None of these people were actually werewolves in the traditional sense; they were human beings who committed, or were accused of committing, horrible crimes – mostly against children. Gilles Garnier claimed to have made a deal with the devil that allowed him to transform into a great wolf, and Peter Stumpp confessed to something similar after being tortured. Allegedly, the Werewolf of Chalons never considered himself to be a wolf of any sort, but the moniker was attached to his legend due to the brutality of his crimes, of which he was supposedly unrepentant.

Now, a lot is unknown about these crimes. It’s entirely possible that some of the men accused were innocent and picked as convenient scapegoats due to the political climate of the time, something that has been theorized extensively about Peter Stumpp’s case. He was a wealthy Protestant in a country where Protestants were not well liked. On the other side of things, Gilles Garnier was a poor man, mentally ill, and disliked by his community. It’s possible that these men were serial killers in a time before people had come up with a word for that, but it’s also possible that they were simply caught up in a situation over which they had no control, and condemned to death by communities that had no love for them. This far in the past, it’s nearly impossible to tell. We do know that the confession that condemned Peter Stumpp was extracted under torture, and also condemned the rest of his family to execution along with him. We know next to nothing about the Werewolf of Chalons. Even his name has been lost to history.

What we do know, however, is that people have been attributing the bloody acts of men to those of mythical monsters before we even had the words to describe a serial killer. In that sense, The Beast of X Moor is only playing on an age-old tradition. However, the film doesn’t acknowledge that in any way. There’s a brief conversation about cryptozoology, and how it’s easier to go hunting for Bigfoot than to understand that the monster hiding in the dark “drives a Land Rover.” Which is a good point, but doesn’t acknowledge that this conundrum outdates cryptozoology by a long margin. The Beast of X Moor doesn’t have that much to say about cryptozoology either, only to laugh at it. This could have been an opportunity to look at why certain people are so invested in searching for myths to explain horrific events, but it devolves into your traditional slasher without pausing to examine the origins of these ideas, or even explore them in any meaningful way.

When a film brings up a concept with such a rich and nuanced history as this, the least it can do is, you know, talk about it.

The Beast of X Moor does not.

The scenery is beautiful and gloomy in the daytime shots, but unfortunately the majority of the film takes place at night, with little to no lighting. One of the unfortunate facts of video cameras is that, in certain situations, they’re actually weaker than the human eye. The human eye can adjust quite well to almost complete darkness under the right circumstances. A camera?

Yeah, not so much.

There were several sequences in The Beast of X Moor that were so dark that I literally couldn’t see what was happening. I fully believe that the actors and crew could see, but that doesn’t mean that the camera did.

To put it simply, this movie had issues. The ending was the worst kind of deus ex machina, I really don’t know why one character was introduced or what purpose she served in the narrative, and the characters weren’t as developed as I would have liked. That’s not even getting into the frankly strange costume choices that were made because damn, it’s not a real horror movie unless we see a woman running around half naked! The Beast of X Moor has an excellent premise and moody sort of creepiness that can’t quite make up for its less than stellar execution. See it, but don’t come in with high expectations.

Lost After Dark (2015)

 A 1970s period piece with your average slasher plot: a group of hooligans and one A+ student decide to steal a school bus at a dance, and promptly get stuck out in the middle of nowhere with a psycho killer. Hilarity ensues.

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There’s not all that much to say about Lost After Dark, to be honest. It’s decently acted, has some surprisingly human moments in unexpected places, and walks to the beat of a well-established drum. This is a movie that knows its roots. It’s a horror film about a certain breed of horror films and looks exactly like the old-school slashers fans of the genre have come to know and love. But looks are about as far as it gets. Lost After Dark features some decent moments, to be sure, but the film itself just isn’t remarkable. There’s no analysis or refection on old horror tropes, or even the culture of the 70s: everything is presented as is, all surface level. Individual characters have conversations that reveal some more humanizing complications, but these aren’t reflected in the film as a whole.

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Another problem I had was that the majority of the film was shot at night, and in such poor lighting that I had trouble telling what was happening for most of the scenes. There is an art to shooting film in the dark, but this movie has sadly not mastered it.

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Lost After Dark has its moments, but the lump sum just doesn’t hit the mark. Skip it.

Sorority Row (2009)

A very loose remake of The House on Sorority Road (1983), with some added black comedy. The story centers around a group of Theta Pi sorority sisters who decide to play a prank on one of their boyfriends. Specifically, faking his girlfriend Megan’s death and putting the resulting footage on Youtube. This being a horror film, it goes wrong in less than ten minutes. Megan gets stabbed by a tire iron and dies. Her friends take a good long look at the situation, and being reasonable adults, decide to call the police.

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Ahahahha no. They decide to cover the whole thing up, and toss Megan’s body down a mine shaft. And for a while, it looks like they got away with it.

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Cut to the end of the school year, where the sisters of Theta Pi are celebrating their graduation with a huge party. Pity that somebody’s texting them pictures of the murder scene and leaving the evidence all over the sorority house. But who could be responsible?

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I’m making Sorority Row sound much funnier than it actually is. The setup has the potential for a lot of black humor. Lacking likable or sympathetic characters, the logical step for a horror film is to play the whole thing as funny and nasty as possible. If you can’t make the audience like your characters, at least make the story fun to watch. And it must be said that Sorority Row makes the effort. Sadly it ends up missing the mark more often than not, torn between making a “serious” sort of slasher and just accepting the sheer absurdity of its plot. The dialog is snarky and fun, but the delivery never quite hits the right spot. This is one of those films that I wouldn’t mind seeing remade, because it has the potential to be a really good black comedy – with a director and cast that accepted the premise, that is.

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Consider this: your slasher’s weapon is a “tricked out” tire iron. None of the characters are especially likable, and the majority of them are so wealthy that they’ve lost touch with how the world works, or borderline sociopathic with their zeal in covering the murder up. All of the female characters are beautiful and scantily clad. It’s a premise ripe for humor and deconstruction. But if you’re not going to do that, then you’re left with telling a story with a message. Horror films usually have one, as subtle or blunt as the director prefers. And why not? The majority of horror, and slasher films in particular, are convoluted morality tales. This is how you should act, and these are the consequences for acting badly.

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The problem here is that Sorority Row isn’t funny, and doesn’t really have anything to say about the behavior of its characters. It doesn’t go into why covering up the murder is wrong besides the fact that it’s against the law – this is the reason that so many of the characters freak out. Despite the fact that Megan’s younger sister actually shows up in the story, the reaction of her family – who only know that she’s missing – is only brought up once. The turmoil is always that the main cast did something illegal, which could throw them in prison. Not betraying one of their supposedly closest friends, and letting her family live on in anguished uncertainty. Nope, they’re more concerned with whether or not they’ll be going to jail.

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This is their big moral dilemma.

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And hey, that would make for good comedy if you wanted to go in that direction. Unlikable characters struggling to survive against a righteous killer. Give me something like Scream or Fresh Meat. Take your premise and run with it! Don’t futz around if you haven’t got anything to say. Stories shouldn’t just present events as they happen – a story should have interpretations about what happens inside it, and how the characters react. One of the great joys of film spectatorship is looking at the film’s interpretation and seeing whether or not it matches up with your own. This doesn’t happen in Sorority Row. Things just happen and the film carries the audience along for the ride.

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Lastly, I want to say something about the portrayal of the main cast. On one hand, I’m pleased to see a film that portrays women who clearly enjoy sex and hedonism for its own sake – it’s clear that these women, however you interpret them, are enjoying life for their own sakes’, not anyone else. Some of them have emotional connections to men which are shown and reinforced through sex, others have platonic friendships with men and other women, and a few of the characters have sex just for the joy of sex – no relationships required. If films can portray and celebrate male (hetero)sexuality, then they can damn sure do the same for women. However, all of them women in Sorority Row are conventionally attractive, and all but one are white. Unfortunately, this continues with a trend in storytelling of saying that conventionally attractive, straight, white women are the only characters who can explore their sexual desire.

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So, in conclusion, Sorority Row is a decent entry into the slasher subgenre, but it doesn’t do anything new. It would have worked much better as a horror-comedy.

Desecrated (2015)

Desecrated opened with the sort of black humor that people will either see as hilarious, or crossing about ten lines in two sentences. Humor and horror have always been tricky to combine – after all, there is a small difference between making a joke and making light of something horrible. Still, I enjoyed the first part of Desecrated. It’s a low budget B-film and the film quality isn’t the best, but the actors are clearly having a blast with their roles. The dialog is smart and funny, and the film appears to be aware of its own ridiculousness enough to play around with it. Desecrated is a smart little horror film with a nasty sense of humor. It flows well, it’s genuinely funny, and isn’t afraid to get mean. All qualities that make up the best sort of B-films.

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At least, for the first half.

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Then Desecrated takes an unfortunate turn for the melodramatic, and tries hard to play everything straight. Sadly, the film just hasn’t set up a world that can be taken seriously in that way. The villain ends up feeling more comical than tragic, the humor becomes entirely unintentional, and the dialog I previously praised becomes flat and boring. It honestly feels like the film switched directors halfway through, and that they had very different ideas about how the story should be told. The end result is a confusing disappointment. The first half of the film had a mean sense of humor that could have carried it through the mediocre scenery and special effects if the director had taken it to the logical extreme.

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For a film that supposedly wants the villain to be motivated by PTSD and what seems to be a psychotic break from reality, Desecrated doesn’t appear to understand how either actually work, or how to portray them effectively on screen. Desecrated had some interesting ideas about debt, graves, and the complicated nature of trespassing, but doesn’t come to any conclusions about them. I’d say the first thirty minutes are the best, but the rest of it can be skipped.

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This could have been a good film. It didn’t quite get that far.