Murder Made Easy

The dinner party has long been a staple of fiction, especially of the mystery variety. Which is understandable; there’s something very grand and dramatic about getting all your suspects together to enjoy roasted sirloin with new potatoes and then having the big reveal of the killer over coffee and dessert. Of course, dinner parties can sometimes go wrong, but for a good whodunit they’re hard to beat as an impressive ending or just a useful way to get everyone together. In Murder Made Easy, longtime friends Joan (Jessica Graham, BnB Hell) and Michael (Christopher Soren Kelly) plan to use a dinner party — or more accurately a whole succession of such gatherings — as a cover for crime.

Michael and Joan over the body of a victim.
This is never a good thing to see at a dinner party.

One year ago, Joan’s husband Neil died, and it’s to mark this occasion that she and Michael — a disgruntled college professor whose job may be in jeopardy — have invited some old friends over, one at a time, for dinner. You see, Joan has decided that it’s time to even some scores on her late husband’s behalf. Marcus (Edmund Lupinski), for instance, once damaged Neil’s career. Cricket (Emilia Richeson) — I’m not clear whether that’s her given name or not — did some financial damage. Fellow academic Angela (Sheila Cutchlow) may or may not have plagiarized some of Neil’s work. And Joan is convinced that her ex, wanna-be filmmaker Damien (Daniel Ahearn) is still in love with her.

When each guest arrives, he or she is properly wined and dined, though Michael and Joan must have a hard time eating anything by meal number three. In each case, however, while the food is excellent the conversation quickly becomes strained, as old wounds are reopened. But the hosts have this all planned out, and their revenge is both ruthless and thorough — though it also isn’t quite the revenge you might think. As each course unfolds and the next part of the scheme is unveiled, you won’t be entirely sure who to root for. It’s a classic, intricately plotted old-style whodunit, with motives and doubts slowly revealed as it takes us towards a twist you won’t see coming.

Each of the guests steals their scenes in their own quirky ways. Christopher Soren Kelly as Michael not only carries out the scheme with style, he gets most of the best sarcastic asides. As you might expect, Joan isn’t exactly the picture of the grieving widow, with Jessica Graham giving a performance that’s darkly fascinating in more ways than one. Our two ‘heroes’ make deviously devilish partners in crime. All in all, it’s a skewed and compelling glimpse of the secrets we hide, sometimes even from our oldest friends, and how little we really know even about the people we love. It gives you a little something to think about the next time you decide to invite your nearest and dearest over for a nice meal.

No Knock List

Most neighborhoods seem to have one house that attracts all the strange stories. Maybe everyone thinks it’s haunted, maybe it just seems cursed. We had a house like the latter a few miles down the road from where I grew up, where every new family that moved in seemed to have deeper problems than the last. Thankfully, after the illegal detainment incident someone realized the house was slowly sliding down the hill and it was condemned before anything worse could happen. In No Knock List, the house is far worse but also far more gorgeous, a rambling Victorian mansion that’s been converted to an exclusive bed and breakfast.

Reclusive owner Ms. Vangobels (the redoubtable and terrifying Maria Olsen of Marrtown) has lived there for years raking in money and never seems to spend anything, so rumor has it there’s a fortune hidden somewhere inside. Keith (Brian Stowell) grew up in that neighborhood and now he’s told his friend Lou (James Quinn) the story. They could both use some quick cash, you see, since they’re both recently escaped convicts. I’m not sure how they ever managed to join forces since Lou is a murderer headed for Death Row whereas I’m fairly certain Keith couldn’t kill anything larger than a mosquito without being crushed by the weight of the guilt, but there we are. Lou needs someone to bully and Keith apparently enjoys being bullied, so it works for them. Anyway, they need money and this seems an easy place to rob.

A creature on the bathroom floor
That’s the thing about a B&B – you never know who you might have to share a bathroom with.

You know that can’t be true with Maria Olsen in charge, however, and soon their simple plan starts unraveling as they get caught up in the strangeness of the house and its inhabitants. Repairman Lee (Rick Montgomery Jr.) has only one eye but doesn’t miss much, acting as a creepy lookout for the even creepier Mrs. Vangobels. Maid Andrea (Emily Lapisardi, also of Marrtown) mainly just keeps her head down, trying to avoid getting on her boss’ bad side, and I can hardly blame her. There are plenty of other beings in the house as well, though most aren’t staff or paying guests — or even alive, probably — and since they seem to like bullying bullies you can imagine that Lou might be in for a rough time. But the next several hours won’t be easy for either Lou or Keith, and the choices they make will affect them in more than just this life.

Of course Maria Olsen couldn’t be more sinister, stealing all her scenes as she cautions her guests to follow the rules, with the “or else” strongly implied. Even she has her unseen superiors, but in her house she’s undeniably the queen and even a hardened criminal like Lou has no idea what he’s in for. Montgomery as Lee has a marvelous time chewing the scenery, while Lapisardi floats ghostlike in the background, more than a little overwhelmed but still doing her best. The house itself gives up its secrets only reluctantly, creating an effective slow build of suspense. There are solid special effects and a quietly creepy atmosphere that fills the house and haunts the characters. It might even make you think a little about how the person you are compares with the person you always hoped you’d be.

Spirits in the Dark

Even the worst workaholic probably has some kind of hobby to help them unwind. Granted, hobbies can sometimes get pretty specific and therefore incomprehensible to those of us who don’t enjoy whatever it is. I like to relax by playing quizzes on Sporcle, which to some might seem an awful lot like deliberately reliving high school where everything will be on the test, so I understand people thinking it’s weird. In the same way, I certainly wouldn’t be interested in the hobby Gil (József Gallai) enjoys in Spirits in the Dark.

Gil, you see, likes to explore abandoned buildings and doesn’t mind doing so after dark. You couldn’t pay me enough for this kind of expedition, and it isn’t because I scare easily, or at least not just that. I’d constantly be worrying about the ceiling caving in or the floor giving way. Anyway, Gil and his wife Stephanie (Beáta Boldog) both enjoyed this, so I guess they were made for each other. Sadly, both Stephanie and their daughter died in childbirth, leaving Gil to explore alone with his camera.

A deserted theater
See, this isn’t even a nice place to visit.

Then Gil discovers some mysterious footage on his computer, footage of someone exploring an abandoned building he’s never seen before. He finds the structure intriguing, but what really stuns him is a closeup image of a white crystal necklace exactly like the one his wife always wore. Managing to track the location down, Gil finds himself in a deserted complex of buildings, supposedly a former military complex, with the main structure also the site of the video. I was just thinking it looked like Pripyat when Gil agreed with me, and the place definitely has the same grey, institutional design as well the same unsettling air of having been hastily abandoned to the elements. As his eerie walk through the crumbling, deserted hallways continues, it’s as the mystery footage suggested — Gil isn’t alone. But what haunts these halls isn’t quite what you might think, and Gil faces an unexpected test of courage that goes far beyond ghosts.

There’s a beautifully scary slow build to this film, with every shadow hiding a secret and every half-seen movement a threat. Gil, still quietly grieving his loss, is a relatable Everyman — albeit one with a strange hobby — turned into an unlikely hero. The setting is a terrifying, palpable presence, with an atmosphere that weighs on you even through the screen. Best of all, the ending makes you think. It’s a creepy and compelling film from József Gallai, who also wrote and directed, that gives another layer to the usual abandoned building tropes. It proves that you never know what nightmares — or miracles — you might find when you explore off the beaten path.

Slapface

At some point in their lives, nearly every kid has a phase that involves a lot of obsessing about monsters. Most of us outgrow this; the rest get into the horror movie game, one way or another. Of course, the big problem most kids face is convincing the grownups in their lives that the monsters are real. In the short film Slapface, however, one boy (Joshua Kaufman) faces a slightly different dilemma.

Movie poster
You’re never really alone in the woods.

For one thing, he seeks out the monster (Lukas Hassel) that lurks in the woods where he lives with his widowed father (Nick Gregory), when usually kids do everything they can to avoid said monster. Possibly he’s trying to prove his bravery, but equally possibly he finds playing with monsters preferable to going home. Let’s just say that his father has some strange ideas about what makes good parenting, and his definition of a game isn’t at all like mine.

It’s often hard to tell where the real danger lies in this film, and trying to figure it out will more than hold your attention. The relationship between father and son is complicated, to say the least, and the addition of a monster to the mix won’t make things any easier. As often happens with short films, there isn’t enough time to explore all the questions the movie raises, but the questions alone are fascinating. Writer-director Jeremiah Kipp handles the movie and its undertones deftly, creating something much more than just a monster movie, and I look forward to seeing more of his work.

Butterfly Kisses

Butterfly kisses are an affectionate little gesture that involves fluttering your eyelashes against someone else’s skin, the idea being to mimic the quick, gentle movements of a butterfly’s wings.  I always thought the phrase referred to a series of tiny little actual kisses, so I learned something from the movie Butterfly Kisses.  Of course, I have now also learned to associate the phrase with ghostly stalking, torture, and gruesome death, so it will never again make me think of anything even remotely affectionate, but hey, at least I know the dictionary definition.  I guess that counts as a win, right?

Butterfly Kisses movie poster
When you stare into the abyss…

Back in 2004, film student Sophia Crane (Rachel Armiger) is working on her senior project with cameraman Feldman (Reed Delisle), who seems to have no first name.  They’ve chosen to do a documentary on local urban legend Peeping Tom, aka Mr. Blink.  As with any good supernatural antagonist, there’s a ritual to summon him, and it’s a doozy: you have to go to the old Ilchester Railway bridge and stare down through the neighboring tunnel for exactly one hour, from midnight to one am.  And they mean stare, without blinking.  There are a couple of people out there who hold records for not blinking for an hour or so (though none of these are Guinness records), but you have to be some sort of staring prodigy to pull this off.  Considering this feat is almost certainly most often attempted by teenagers with nothing to do on a Friday night, you would think that just not getting bored and wandering off would be enough of a challenge, but apparently not.

Our intrepid filmmakers can’t find anyone who can manage the staring, but they’re determined to tempt fate for the sake of their art.  Reasoning that a camera lens is analogous to the human eye, they set up Feldman’s camera on the bridge at midnight and let it do the staring for them.  But it’s only when they review the footage later that they realize they’ve caught something eerie.

Meanwhile, in 2015, struggling filmmaker Gavin York (Seth Adam Kallick) is supporting his family as a wedding videographer until his mother-in-law (Janise Whelan) finds a shoebox full of Sophia and Feldman’s old tapes and gives them to Gavin.  The box is clearly labeled “Don’t Watch”, and whoever wrote that clearly knows nothing of human psychology because that’s the surest way to get anyone to watch, and Gavin is no exception.  In fact, he quickly becomes compelled to edit them and show them to the world, and prove that everything on the tapes is absolutely real while he’s at it.  But no one else seems nearly as fascinated with the discovery, and Gavin becomes increasingly frustrated and angry.  He’s spent almost his last dime on a film crew (led by writer/director Erik Kristopher Myers as himself) to track his progress on the editing as well as his attempts to discover the fate of the student filmmakers, and he can’t fathom why the world isn’t falling at his feet over the project.

So this is a film within a film about the making of a film, though despite this potentially confusing premise it’s not hard to keep the storylines straight.  Where it really turns meta and strange is when you try to work out whether or not Feldman and Sophia were making a documentary or a narrative film disguised as a documentary.  Further complicating this issue is the inclusion of various paranormal experts as themselves, like Matt Lake, author of several books in the Weird U.S. series, Andy Wardlaw of Finding Bigfoot, and Eduardo  Sanchez of Blair Witch Project fame.

Then there’s Gavin himself — he’s clearly fixated, but is he truly delusional or just desperate to make a name for himself?  Kallick is thoroughly convincing as a man who’s barely holding himself together for much of the movie, though in many ways it’s also his performance that holds the movie itself together.  There are strong hints of a overarching conspiracy to cover up any proof of Peeping Tom’s existence, though it seems far more vast than it needs to be considering that all the photographic proof was lost in some random basement for a decade.  And at one point, Peeping Tom seems to break his own rules to keep the plot going.  But overall the film expertly manages its sometimes convoluted premise and keeps the viewer riveted.  From jump scares to expert debunking of the tapes, Butterfly Kisses weaves a delicate, teasing web of creepy suspense that would do Mr. Blink proud.  Watch it, and you just might be afraid to close your eyes again.

Oni-Gokko (Tag)

There are all sorts of sayings about being stuck with your family, though most of the time the majority of us are okay with that.  For all the complaints and teasing that can sometimes be indistinguishable from harassment, most people will drop everything to rush to the aid of a family member when it’s truly needed.  For every story of terrible rivalry, there’s a story of a sibling coming through in a crisis, and the bond between siblings can be a powerful one.  In Oni-Gokko — Japanese for Tag, as in the children’s game — even death might not break that bond.

Aki, dropping in for a visit from beyond the grave.

Miki (Eri Akita) had a little sister who died long ago, when she was just six years old.  Her name was Aki (Mariko Miyamitsu), and apparently she was the more popular of the two sisters, the one everyone doted on.  One day while the girls were playing tag tragedy struck and Aki drowned.  Was it a simple accident, did it happen because Aki was frightened by a stranger, or was there something more sinister at work?  After all these years, even Miki isn’t so sure anymore.

But now Aki is back, and she wants something from her sister.  Whether that something is revenge or just the simple truth, Miki will never be the same when this night is finally over.

This short packs a lot into eight minutes, and while the ending wasn’t quite what I expected it also fit well with the rest of the film.  Wisely, the movie stays tightly focused on the interaction between the siblings, often without so much as even the background visible to distract the viewer.  The pale, wraith-like Aki is a startling contrast to her living sister — even Aki’s emotions seem dulled and slightly off, only her resentment over all the years of life she lost still clear and strong.

The sisterly bond between the characters also shines brightly, and though they both might chafe against that tie, it’s obvious there’s still love there, beneath the anger and guilt.  Pulling no punches, this movie offers a darkly, beautifully vivid portrait of the things that both pull us apart and bring us together again.

American Virus

If the zombie apocalypse begins in Los Angeles, we’re all doomed.  No one would try to stop it until it was too late because any witnesses would assume that someone was making a zombie movie and ignore all the warning signs.  Even if the outbreak is contained, well, “containment” can be a very fragile thing sometimes.  It might only take one moment’s inattention — or one quick, deliberate act — to unleash the monster all over again.

Heading home after a long night of zombie hunting. Or something involving zombies.

In American Virus, we get a bit of a different approach to the zombie trope in that one small group, at least, seems to welcome the arrival of their zombie overlords, so to speak.  However they might have gotten involved during the initial outbreak — at just over five minutes the movie doesn’t have a lot of time for background — now that the containment has failed, some of them are way too happy about that.  This includes the de facto leaders of the group (Kathryn Eastwood and Shane Ryan), and another young woman (Tommie Vegas, Nite Nite), though troubled, is still all too willing to follow them.  The situation turns awkward, however, when some in the group decide they’ve had enough.  But it’s awfully difficult to change your mind once you’ve thrown in with the fanatics.

Unfortunately they’re far from being the first extremists to decide that what this world really needs is a good cleansing via some horrible catastrophe, natural or otherwise.  Of course, those are the same sorts of people who often assume that they’re the chosen ones who will survive no matter what, which is only one of many such logical flaws in such philosophies.  Here, though, I’m not entirely sure that surviving, at least as non-zombies, was ever part of the plan. I’d love to find out what brought this bunch together, but any movie of this length is likely to feel more like a teaser than anything else, and this one is no exception.  But it’s a very intriguing teaser, well worth a look, and hopefully indicative of good things to come from Mad Sin Cinema.

Let’s Chat!

Movies are always having to adapt to changing technology in various ways, sometimes with mixed results.  Cell phones, for instance, are ever-present but at least easy to neutralize through dead batteries or the fact that there’s just no reception in these extremely isolated camping sites.  Some movies take a slightly different tactic, however, and make the technology at least as much the enemy as any slasher, as in Let’s Chat!, where any online conversation can  suddenly turn dangerous — and I don’t mean just a slightly racy game of truth or dare, though that happens, too.

Some of the facial expressions alone make it worth watching.

It all starts innocently enough, when Luke (Jaimy Homberg) virtually gathers his friends together to invite them all to a Katy Perry concert.  Luke’s boyfriend Jesse (James Burleson) doesn’t get what all the fuss is about, and I’m with him, but Elle (Amber Romero) and Nico (JohnPeter Johnson) are terribly excited.  Sidney (Billionna Olivia Reyes), however, is stuck babysitting her little brother and is desolate about not being able to go.

But the chat has been acting twitchy, even by Skype standards, which I hear are pretty low these days.  As the other friends sign off, someone else muscles into Luke and Jesse’s chat, and that someone claims to be the notorious — and recently escaped — serial killer Peter Loft (Johnnie Brannon), whose favorite targets are teenagers.  He says he just wants to liven up the conversation, but considering what his idea of fun is like, this is one Skype call Luke will wish he’d never made.

It’s rather like a low-budget reboot of Unfriended, and though I wasn’t thrilled with the execution of the latter, it was certainly an interesting idea, so there are worse movies out there to emulate.  At least this version has likable characters, which is more than I can say for the original.  This is also more technical than supernatural, which is a better approach in my opinion, even if some of the techy stuff here goes a little over the top.

It feels too rushed, and the level of acting talent varies, but overall it’s a fun watch with an interesting twist at the end, even if that twist does seem particularly out of left field.  But it’s a solid take on a good idea that everyone seems to have had a lot of fun with, and I’m looking forward to seeing more from Homberg.

Stalked

We’ve all had that feeling of not quite belonging, and it’s with good reason that misfit characters are everywhere in fiction — it’s something we can all relate to.  In the new web series Stalked from JH Producties, set in Holland,  Finn (Jaimy Homberg) is the awkward teenager who doesn’t quite fit in.  He dreams of being an actor someday so he automatically can’t be one of the cool kids, and honestly, liking to cook probably doesn’t help much.  But his life isn’t all bad, since he has his cat, his best friend Olivia (Myrna Laanen), and an older boyfriend who looks like a model, Jim (Billy Twomey).  Sadly, Jim is now back in England for college so they can only talk on Skype.

This is what happens when you go camping just because it’s scary.

Since he’s missing Jim, Finn does his best to keep busy, especially during the week that his parents are gone.  He goes to auditions and makes plans with Olivia, including a camping trip, about which Olivia is far too excited, especially since they don’t seem to be going anywhere except the middle of a random field.  But hey, whatever floats your boat, as they say, and they seem like they’re having fun.

But there’s some dark stuff happening in Olivia’s life — she’s certainly in need of some distraction, to say the least — and things only get darker for our heroes as the series progresses.  At first you might be able to pass events off as being nothing but tasteless practical jokes, and Finn tries his best to do just that, even though it’s a lost cause.  The fact is he’s being stalked, and neither he nor Olivia is quite sure what to do about it as they’re both thrown into the midst of this very grown-up problem.

Homberg directs as well as stars and does well at both, creating a charmingly offbeat character in Finn, while Laanen’s Olivia manages to be perky and optimistic without being dreadfully annoying, which is quite a feat as far as I’m concerned.  The twist ending isn’t entirely a surprise, but I enjoyed the reveal nonetheless — both leads bring a lot of enthusiasm to their roles and that really shows on the screen.  The cinematography could use a little work, but overall it’s a solid drama that I hope predicts great things for Homberg and crew.  It’s available on YouTube and well worth watching.

Under the Flowers: Circle of Hell

Since the events of Under the Flowers, most of the characters have gotten on with their lives, or at least whatever passes for their lives.  Not all of them are actually alive, in the strict sense of the term.  But for one character, at least, getting on with existing has been getting harder, and in Under the Flowers: Circle of Hell, like Alice, she seems to be having to work harder and harder just to stay in the same place.

Poe (Lauren LaVera) isn’t quite herself these days, and I mean that literally –these days she’s Rose (Amanda Kay Livezey), now much less Goth but also much more confused.  If her soul is ever going to be able to move on, there’s a journey Rose has to complete, a journey both physical and psychological filled with dangers of all kinds.  Worse, it’s a journey she’s attempted before, without success, and she’s running out of chances.  This time she has a guide, Nerissa (Kirsten Lee Hess), which may sound promising but let’s just say that Nerissa doesn’t seem all that invested in Rose’s success.

Movie poster featuring the cast.
Careful, or the circle might pull you in…

But there’s a wild card in play: Charlotte (Catherine Kustra), the Halloween Girl herself, who just might be able to help her friend.  Her best efforts still might not save Rose, however, and will almost certainly hurt Charlotte — at least if the Darkness (Richard T. Wilson) is to be believed.  Even Evil must tell the truth once in a while, right?  In the end, though, it all comes down to Charlotte’s decision and Rose’s willpower as she faces her demons one after another.  And of course Nerissa, whatever she might be up to, is waiting for her chance.

It’s a satisfyingly scary and suspenseful second series from Mad Shelley Films, featuring plenty of familiar guest stars along with the new arrivals as we follow Rose’s dangerous journey.  The two series have a good sense of connection without being too much alike, each possessing its own unique feel while still seeming to exist in the same strange — and not so strange — realms.  Best of all there’s still an enticing air of mystery about the characters which should continue for a while, since every answer seems to lead to five more questions. This is easily one of the best and creepiest web series out there, and I look forward to seeing more from the creators’ twisted minds.