Final Destination 2 (2003) – A 20 Year Retrospective

With millions of memes scattered across social media pages, there is one that shows up from time to time. All that consists of the meme is a photo of a logger truck making its way down a highway. The meme has been reused and edited multiple times, but the message being conveyed in it is the same. You’ve seen Final Destination 2 and know exactly what to do in this situation. You are going to keep your distance so that maybe you’re not a part of deaths plan today.

Final Destination 2 - The opening sequence dazzles
If nothing else, the opening sequence of Final Destination 2 is spectacular

Death – The Ultimate Villain

It’s been twenty years since the opening scene of this film terrorized audiences’ psyche and made them more scared than ever to travel long distances down a highway. Final Destination 2 did for logging trucks what Jaws did for going to the beach. No matter where you rank the films in the franchise, the message they all give to the audience always hits well, you never know when Death is going to strike; it’s never clear who’s next and how you’re going to go out.

Building off of the original installment to the franchise. Final Destination 2 takes place a year after the events of the first one. Ushering in a new batch of survivors who cheated death. The formula is the same as the first. The main character, this time played by A.J. Cook, has the premonition of all her friends dying horribly in a freak highway car pile-up so she makes the choice to hold off on her trip down to Daytona Beach. The formula furthers itself as it gives you kill after kill of all who thought they could cheat death.

The film is composed of building block of near death experiences, and just when you look away and then look back at the screen is when death strikes.

Stacking up to the original

Of course, a sequel would try to outdo its predecessor in scale and overall cinematic experience; sometimes bigger isn’t always better and that is the case here. There are a lot more characters in the film than the first film. With a run time of only ninety minutes, it crams some of these characters into the story making their deaths not as impactful. You don’t get as emotionally invested in them. Some of the supporting role performances are lacking, and it is hard to tell if the actors are missing their mark or if the lines and direction they’re being given is just falling short.

The film’s leads do deliver, A.J. Cook, Michael Landes, and reprising her role from the original film, Ali Larter, all put the film on their backs and carry the exposition to make you feel the high stakes. It also needs to be acknowledged that the great Tony Todd is back in his cameo appearance. It’s a shame to say this time around it feels like he is there for fan service and just there to cram more exposition.

Final Destination 2 - A log falls off of a logging truck with predictable results
The old log through the windshield (and subsequently the face) trick

It still packs a punch, or rather a log through the windshield

With all that’s wrong with some of the film, there are still a lot of moments that deliver. The Final Destination franchise did for us what Saw would eventually do in the years to come. Nobody paid a ticket to see these movies for character arcs, and plot twists. As morbid as this sounds, audiences want to see somebody die in creative ways. The kill scenes all have a formula to them. You see multiple red herrings as the scene starts of what is eventually gonna do this person in and you try to add up how all of it is going to come together. The film aims high on that and does in fact deliver. The opening premonition scene is iconic and could be argued that it trumps the original and other films that followed.

20 years later it still delivers

Final Destination 2 delivers on entertainment, which genre fans can get behind. And still holds up as a fun popcorn flick. It needs to be mentioned what draws us to a film like this though. Whether we like it or not, it’s the concept of death. Death being the villain of the movie, as a force of sorts that we can’t escape. Despite all the big set pieces and moments that make you look away, it is that simple idea that we can never escape death, one day it is going to happen to all of us, and the scary thing about it is, we don’t know how or when. That frightens audiences and also invites them to want to learn more about their own fears.It’s this reason alone why we’re still talking about Final Destination 2 and all the other films in that canon, twenty years later.

Teddy Told Me To (2022) – A fluffy bloodbath from Tom Devlin

We are taking an early look at Tom Devlin’s debut at the directing helm of his new feature film, Teddy Told me To. Tom Devlin is no newcomer to the horror genre. He much experience providing the special effects for many movies such as, Freakshow (2007), Someone’s Knocking at the Door (2009), and Puppet Master X (2012) as well as many other Full Moon Feature films. You’ll no doubt recognize Tom from the SyFy series Face Off and his work shows up in the Haunted Attractions Industry all around the country. The writing credits for Teddy Told Me To go to Lola Devlin and Vincent Cusimano.

The film is being released by Devlin’s production company, Plan 10 Pictures. It also unsurprisingly features effects from Devlin’s 1313FX.

Plot Synopsis

Teddy Told Me To begins the film with a person recording what seems to be a live stream of himself in an abandoned Haunted attraction in Boulder City, Nevada. He states that this place holds stories that go back all the way to the 1990s (Tom, thank you for making me feel old…). Will this social media star make it to the conclusion of his video or will something or someone be waiting in the old haunt?

The action shifts to two people were watching this video on their phone. Danny (Topher Hansson, 60 Seconds to Die) and Zoe (Kamarra Cole, Times Up) roll up to the front of said Haunted attraction with the intent to purchase it. Their middling realtor, Jan(Lisa Wilcox, A Nightmare on Elm Street 4&5), greets our two characters and says a few not so reassuring things. Danny falls in love with the building, but Zoe eventually falls in line. Of course they love it. Who wouldn’t?  They purchase the property and start the process of starting up their own haunted attraction.

That should be easy enough, right?

Teddy Told Me To (2022) - Tabitha Stevens gets some impromptu plastic surgery
Tabitha Stevens gets a cheekectomy

Welcome to Boulder City

At this point in the film some who have visited Boulder City will start to recognize a few things! Tom shot this movie on location. As Zoe starts visiting different locations in the city to post flyers for auditions to work at the Haunted House. It warms my heart because I live only 45 minutes away and I spend a lot of time in Boulder City. I should add that Tom Devlin’s Monster Museum also resides in Boulder City and Devlin makes a shrewd move shooting his first film in his backyard.

Back on Task

Shortly after we see another familiar face from the horror genre, C.J. Graham. He is mostly known for his role as Jason Voorhees in Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives (1986). Graham plays the “Ralph, or rather harbinger of doom. His character, the groundskeeper Ron, is introduced as a nice man who has been with the property since the beginning. He sheds light to the new property owners about the horrible murders that were rumored to have happened at the haunt. The stage is set.

Later, Ron’s brother finishes the origin story of Teddy and his horrible crimes at a pre-open campfire…

A former haunt employee named Teddy received a stuffed Teddy Bear in 1985 (a banner year for horror) from his mother (Felissa Rose, Sleepaway Camp – 1983). That bear would become his only friend. In an appropriately wonderfully ridiculous string of events, Teddy’s father Theo becomes more and more distant from Teddy and his mother. This eventually boils over into Theo committing Teddy Bear mutilation just before cheating on his wife with a woman named Ali (Tabitha Stevens, Vampire Sex Diaries). Tensions continue to rise until one fateful day when Teddy loses everything… 

As Danny and Zoe launch their haunted attraction, an old friend would return to the haunt to terrorize the team.

Teddy Told Me To (2022) - Nothing's scarier than a homicidal Teddy Bear
Nothing’s scarier than a homicidal Teddy Bear

A Horror Film Directed by the Ultimate Horror Fan

One thing rings out for absolute certain in Teddy Told Me To, Tom Devlin is true horror fan and his passion for the art infects almost every frame of the film. He and the writers let no classic trope go unused. This trust building maneuver comforts the viewer with an assurance that they will get exactly what they came for. For example, the harbinger of doom trope plays out not only before Zoe and Danny enter the building, but then again at a boilerplate Friday the 13th Standard campfire.

Teddy Told Me To show extreme reverence to the rich history of slashers that precedes it. The examples are almost too many to mention, but a clear shout out to not only Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) with a direct reference it’s awesome sound design. Then he references its 1986 sequel and a sweet little horror gem Motel Hell (1980) in ways I’ll occlude for spoilers sake. The dayglo fluorescent color invoke the work of another horror fan and master director, Rob Zombie. More importantly, Devlin and his team integrate enough original ideas around it that it never feels derivative. Instead, it shows the utmost respect for what came before while simultaneously moving the genre forward.

They say in music that one must know the rules before they break the rules… and the best art is made by breaking the rules. Tom Devlin clearly understands not only the genre, but a very specific style of horror that came to prominence in the 80’s. His depth of understanding of what works and what doesn’t allows him to push the limits.

Teddy Told Me To (2023) - The birth of a new horror icon
The birth of a new horror icon

Brilliant Technical Execution

Great horror begins with the cinematography… and at first I hated the look of Teddy Told Me So. It felt brash and lacked a sense of depth. This type of cinematography seems to plague contemporary films. This type of filming feels bounded and staged as if the action is taking place in box, much like 80’s and 90’s serials. Then something unexpected happened when I realized exactly what was happening. Between the corny jokes, the over-acting, a montage set to a meat grinder version Loverboy’s “Everybody Working for the Weekend”, this approach creates the aura of a blood drenched night at Camp Kiawanka in Disney’s Bunk’d. It’s almost like Saved by the Bell for the sick and twisted. Upon this revelation I was able to completely immerse myself in the approach.

Still this type of shooting could get out of hand over the 89 minute runtime, but once the mayhem begins everything changes. Brilliant film editing by Caleb Emerson and visual effects by Topher Hansson (yeah that Topher Hansson) take center stage. The film shifts from flat and boring to dynamic and disorienting. Possibly, some of the techniques get overused, but not to the detriment of an otherwise remarkable changeup. The original music by John Messari and sound effects by Lola Wallace provide strong connective tissue that holds it all together.

And then comes the gore, in buckets. You may not be surprised that a film from the mind of Tom Devlin and 1313FX goes hard into realm of over the top gore. More than once did I giggle like a school girl as haunt employees get torn up in the most grotesque ways. My only regret is that I can’t speak more about it for fear of spoiling the fun. I can say this, one kill in particular came off as so unique that I am unable to remember seeing anything like it in film.

One kill that I can talk about since it made the trailer is Tabitha Stevens full-frame cheekectomy. It happens in such a ridiculously slow pace as Tabitha utters the longest scream in slasher cinema. It’s absolutely clear that Teddy Told Me So is steeped in satire and the entire filming crew is loving everything they are doing.

Teddy Told Me To (2023) - Papa Shango makes a cameo appearance
Papa Shango makes a cameo appearance

Fantastic Cameos

The production team of Teddy Told Me To filled their film to the brim with kick-ass cameos and throwbacks to time when life was simpler and slashers on needed a butcher knife. I will start by mentioning a horror legend a second time. If there ever was a star that rocked the young minds of 80’s horror fans, it was Felissa Rose in her gender bending role  Sleep Away Camp. I can still hear my mother bellowing in disgust while my friends and I stared speechless at the screen.

Then sprinkle on a heaping helping of adult sexuality with the likes of Tabitha Stevens, Kiki D’Aire and Daisy Ducti. Add a pinch of former Jason Voorhees actors with Warrington Gillette and C.J. Graham. Then stir this melting pot of talent with some professional wrestling in the form of Papa Shango (aka The Soultaker and The Godfather), Wes Logan and Sinn Bohdi. This all adds brilliantly to the satire, nostalgia and mania that is Teddy Told Me To.

Tom and his wife Lola, and daughter Lily play roles in the film as well. I found Lily’s performance to be exceptionally strong considering how critical her role becomes to the story.

Bedtime for Teddy

The smile on my face betrays my ability to be taken seriously as a horror film critic. I loved this film. It checks all the boxes for a fun yet reverent romp in the old world of slasher cinema. Standard horror comedy is hard, and I am not one to gravitate towards it. However, good horror lovingly interpolated with tongue in cheek humor and clever satire works every time. As a lifelong horror fan, I know implicitly when the person feeding me is a true horror fan. Tom Devlin knows exactly what I need because he is as big a fan of horror history as I am. It’s entirely possible that someone not cut of my cloth could miss the punchline, however anyone that grew up with Madman Marz and Mr. Slauson will be smiling ear to ear after watching Teddy Told Me So.

Down and Out in Vampire Hills (2022) – A Charming Horror Comedy Short

We just got our hands on a horror short titled Down and Out in Vampire Hills (2022) directed by Craig Railsback (Dark Classics) and written by Heather Joseph-Witham (Vampires in the Big Easy) This one is currently making the rounds (and clocking major awards) at several film festivals and we wanted to give it a look. To date, we have reviewed any shorts, in then in the span of a single weekend we got three of the in quick succession. The title says it all, this is a comedy horror film.

Down and Out in Vampire Hills (2022) - Dawna Lee Heising as the opulent and outmoded Penelope
Dawna Lee Heising as the formerly opulent and currently outmoded Penelope

Down and Out in Vampire Hills

The film takes a spin on the standard fish out of water trope that it not only tried but true, but never seems to waver in its infinite potential as a plot device. Penelope, The Vampire Queen (Dawna Lee Heising) finds herself on skid-row living in a homeless encampment. Not one to settle for second class, she and her intellectual familiar Harold (Ken May) break out and see the world. Penelope, one for gaudy high-fashion, channels the spirt of Eva Gabor in Green acres as she embodies the international blood-thirsty debutant that finds herself living below her means.

It could happen to anyone, really. All it takes is an ill-advised investment in a Montana Alpaca farm or going long on Dogecoin.

Thanks to the wonders of modern technology, Penelope wears undead class sunscreen (SPF 2700?) that allows her to walk dogs, wash cars and pick trash. Little does she know that Ivan the Vampire Hunter (Bill Housekeeper – Sawyer Massacre).

Will Penelope and Harold survive in tent city? Can Vampire hold down a regular 9-5? Can Penelope stop eating long enough to keep a job?

Down and Out in Vampire Hills (2022) - Penelope and Harold collect trash in the park... somebody gets hurt
Penelope and Harold collect trash in the park… somebody gets hurt

Making the Grade

On a normal day, I like my horror comedy a bit more subversive, but I certainly understand the love for this type of horror fun. Growing up in the days of Saturday the 14th (1981) and Transylvania 6-5000 (1985), Down and out in Vampire Hills fills that little horror parody void that seems to have been abandoned by Hollywood. Railsback and Joseph-Witham sneak in enough humor with deep roots in horror lore. Subtle references to other Horror families (The Munstersand even Bram Stokers work make their way into the film.

The film is shot beautifully on-location in Huntington Beach, California. Being one of my favorite haunts, it was lovely to see it unabashedly referenced on film. We especially loved the special effects. A keen eye will call out several digital tricks from spurting blood to refacing cellphones and store fronts. In grand the scheme, these tricks must have saved a ton of time and complexity that could be spent much better places. We love how technology enables modern indie horror.

Dawna Lee Heising embodies everything that Penelope is and her presence in the film evokes everything that a good fish out of water story needs. I also really enjoyed the performance of LeJon as Boris, former dog lover, reckless coffee drinker and recently converted vampire. Ken May provides the glue to hold all of the performances together with his conceited intellectual mannerisms and random facts and philosophies.

Finally, we would like to call out Bill Housekeeper. He recently played a young Drayton Sawyer in Steve Merlo’s Sawyer Massacre (2022). In this one he puts on his black cowboy hat, Yellowstone style, and hunts Penelope before getting mowed down by a really fashionable smart car.

Finally, no horror comedy should go without a bit of social commentary. The producers make the case that everything evolves. As opposed to the view from Blade that vampires are the superior race and in time will replace humanity, this one suggests that vampires struggle to find their place in the new world (and their hunters), and the modern world threatens them to extinction.

Down and Out in Vampire Hills (2022) - LeJohn as Boris getting staked
Lejon gets staked in the street, but not by Ivan

Wrapping Up

Down and Out in Vampire Hills fills an important niche in the horror community. Considering its current success on the film festival circuit, clearly it fills that niche extremely well. It provides ridiculous laughs set in a horror context and serves both the comedy and horror communities. It’s a cute little film that’s easy to watch. Considering the simplicity of the standard fish out of water trope, one can easily see this idea expanding to feature length or even a serial (Munsters, Mork and Mindy). We’ll see where it goes.

Annabelle (2014) – Conjuring the Mediocre

Overall: 2.5 out of 5 stars

Upon the release of James Wan’s The Conjuring (2013), it seemed pretty clear to anyone with a pulse that its side-story about a demonically possessed doll named Annabelle would make a future appearance. New Line Cinema loves horror franchises, and as soon as the numbers for The Conjuring came in Annabelle (2014) became inevitable. Directed by John R. Leonetti, the second entry attempts to capitalize on previous success. The film released to largely negative reviews, but many of those reviews judged it in the shadow of its predecessor.

However, the film itself may not be so terrible when judged on its own merits.

The Story of Annabelle

John and Mia Form expect their first baby soon. Mia, collects porcelain dolls (a clear indicator that John should file for divorce). John bring home a rare doll that Mia had been coveting for some time. She names it Annabelle. Later that evening, just after going to bed, Mia hears a terrified scream from the next door neighbors. John runs over and finds the neighbors brutally stabbed to death. Unbeknownst to Mia, after killing their neighbors, the murderers hid in her home. The invaders stab Mia just before the male attacker is shot by the police. The other attacker, a woman, slits her own throat while holding the doll.

The Form’s eventually learn that the killers worshipped in a demonic cult. How foreboding?

Annabelle (2014) - The doll looks rather nice when first taken out of the box
The demonic doll looks rather nice when she first comes out of the box

Bumps in the Night

Immediately, the Forms begin experiencing supernatural events. John throws the doll out in hopes that it will help Mia settle down. Unable to overcome the trauma of the home invasions, the couple decide to move out of their house and into an apartment after the birth of their daughter. Inexplicably, John again finds the possessed doll in the moving boxes (yet another opportunity to get divorced and leave). This time Mia stops him from throwing it out again. Unsurprisingly, supernatural occurrences begin almost immediately in their new home. The situation escalates to the point that Mia fears for her and her daughter’s life.

Evelyn and Father Perez

In an interesting departure, this entry does not feature Ed and Lorraine Warren. In a future timeline, The Conjuring details how the Warren’s kept this very same doll locked in a glass case to protect visitors from its evil. Writer Gary Dauberman’s story closes the gap with this film by explaining how the Warren’s come into possession of the doll and suggests the Warren’s presence in the early frames, but they never appear in the film. The Warrens provide an important service to The Conjuring universe and without them, Annabelle lacks a simple plot device for explaining the unexplainable in terms that advance the supernatural goals of the movie. Without the Warrens, Annabelle required another approach to drive the narrative. Her name is Evelyn.

Evelyn lives in the same building as the Form’s. She also owns a bookstore. Together with Mia, they begin to uncover the truth behind the satanic cult that attacked them. The attackers worshipped in The Disciples of Ram and paid tribute to a demon named Malthus. Malthus must take a soul, and he uses any trickery necessary to make that happen. Father Perez presides over the Form’s Catholic church. He informs the Forms that sometimes demons attach themselves to inanimate object in order to provide a channel for achieving their evil goals.

Malthus must take a soul, and he uses any subterfuge necessary to make that happen.

Annabelle (2014) - John and Mia form recollect the night of the attack with a detective
John and Mia form recollect the events that occurred during the attack in their home

Lacking, but Still Scary

Annabelle occasionally lands some pretty scary moments, but in the end it mostly leave the audience wanting for James Wan. While James Wan shows up in the producer list, his absence behind the camera shows. John R. Leonetti’s major triumph comes from a scene that places Mia in the dark basement of the apartment complex. Clearly something sinister hides in the darkness. She runs for the elevator, but the doors of the elevator keep opening to the basement.

She must face her fears and run into the darkness and up the dark stairs. During this pursuit, one of the most frightening scenes occurs when Mia looks down the stairs that she just traversed and sees Malthus, silent, shrouded in darkness and totally still. Malthus pursues her up the stairs until she narrowly escapes into her apartment.

Apart from that, many of the scares come in the form of simple jump scares. These scares often get the intended effect, but they lack the finesse and the impact that James Wan effortlessly achieves. From a critical perspective, the negative response seems to be born of a gap in expectations rather than a total lack of quality. Despite the poor critical reviews, Annabelle did $257M at the box office on a $6.5 budget. If anything, it scored a massive success for New Line Cinema and their fledgling franchise.

New Line Cinema thought enough of the films success to launch its own sub-franchise with two additional films: Annabelle Creation (2017) and Annabelle: Comes Home.

Annabelle (2014) - Mia form runs from Malthus in the dark basement of her apartment
Mia Form runs from Malthus in the dark depths of her apartment

Still, a Decent Film

Unquestionably, Annabelle pales in comparison to its forbearer. Its plot stumbles over the clumsy cult trope. It somewhat implausibly stages much of the action in a multi-tenant apartment complex. I mean really, nobody else sees the lights flickering or hears all of the commotion? Finally, it relies on loosely stitching basic scare techniques together with little artistic connective tissue. Yet, Annabelle and her demon, Malthus, make for an unholy dynamic duo and some of jump scares payout, even if they lack the mastery of James Wan behind the camera.

I still feel that this film possesses merit, but it may be best viewed with a generous time spread between it and The Conjuring. Back to back viewing (like I did), made for a disappointing experience. Yet, with my cloak of objectivity, I tried to isolate my emotions from what I saw on screen. What was left still had enough punch to seem worthwhile. Rather than hunt it down for your collection, it might be better to catch it on one of its endless spins on streaming media.

The Leech (2022) – Pious indie horror from Eric Pennycroff

You likely wouldn’t know this about me, probably because I’ve never said it. I have some major beef with religious horror as a subgenre. It usually feels contrived and relies heavily on prosperity gospel as a fear tactic. Normally, I would not have picked a movie like Leech (2023) up.

However, I am a Christmas horror fan, so let me tell you why this movie is a rare exception.

Simply because it was out of pocket as hell.

Leech (2023) - David is a pious man, or so he believes
David is a pious man, or so he believes

Synopsis

Directed by (Eric Pennycoff) this movie is about young priest David (Graham Skipper) who decides to take in a “lost soul,” Terry (Jermy Gardner) after his girlfriend seemingly abandons him. Opening up his home and heart, David feels elated at the prospect of a potential convert. Not so long after Terry’s arrival, his girlfriend Lexi (Taylor Zaudrke) finds her way to David’s doorstep asking for the same slice of generosity. David hesitantly agrees, but the line between hospitality and exploration is one the priest isn’t so keen on acknowledging. At least, not at first.

Boundaries and Transactions

The plot in its bare bones is a game of boundaries and transactions.

There will never be a religious horror dynamic that isn’t set up upon these two ideals. First, there is the relationship between the holy man and the mere man. Right off the bat, the transactional nature of religious-based help is laid out plainly.

David doesn’t necessarily want to take in Terry or Lexi. This is made clear the first night they are with him, when he writes in his personal blog, “this is what God’s people are called to do.” He even outright reminds them multiple times that the will of God is his reason for being so hospitable and their ideal repayment in his eyes, is conversion. religious therapy, sobriety, and modest clothing become some of the base requirements of their new life under his care.

Leech (2023) - Lexi and Terry are not religiously inclined, but they can try
David is a pious man, or so he believes

He isn’t the only one that has to make sacrifices though. Though, admittedly, minimal coaxing he is subdued into drunken nights full of moral ambiguity, threesomes, and confessions. All to gain favor with his new projects.

You could tell that the writers had some actual experience with the ins and outs of church life. Including the pressure, guilt, and shame that come free of charge with your devotion.

Furthering into just how dangerous these parallels can be, the unyielding desire to “dirty” the pure that started as a subplot, becomes the catalyst for the climax. Terry and Lexi spend a solid chunk of the movie trying to find threads within David to unravel the Godly persona he’s presented the world with. David spends most of the movie trying to convince himself and others that he is, in fact, above secular influence.

Spoiler, David does not succeed.

Back to the plot

Leech shows the danger of absolute conversion in its beginning phases. Especially when being nurtured by someone with muddled intentions. Terry expresses his willingness to devote himself to God at a speed David wasn’t prepared for. Unfortunately for everyone involved he quickly goes full throttle into the old testament.

Lexi gets more of the brute end of this than anyone. As a woman, a pregnant woman no less, she is subjected to an unruly amount of building misogyny. Starting subtly with throw-away comments made about women’s sin “beginning in the garden of Eden,” to required modest clothing and forced birth.

She is the antithesis of why a majority of desperate people would rather suffer than fall at the mercy of religious leaders. In the beginning David is gracious with his pushback against her want for abortion. He uses key religious phrases like, “this is God’s gift to you,” and, “the life inside of you is a miracle,” he goes as far as to tell her the baby could be the push she needs to pull
herself out of homelessness.

Leech (2023) - It takes more than swanky clothes to channel the holy spirit
It takes more than swanky clothes to channel the holy spirit

I want to mention that the pacing of Leech is phenomenal. The plot structure was set up to be tense with a slow build over time, despite ending explosively.

Aside from that, the characters weren’t just faces. Everyone had a moment to showcase the structure of their personalities giving pertinent examples of their intentions, reasonings, and resolve. We get details into their past, sex life, and secret desires in throw-away comments and subtle gestures. This is a feat that isn’t easily accomplished in an hour.

From the onslaught, Lexi and Terry seem, albeit pushy, but mostly just desperate for shelter. David on the other hand is in need of a congregation. With no one to proselytize to he is just as lost as the couple and from all sides they see a sort of salvation in each other.

Ick Value and Personal Testimony

From someone who also had strong roots in religion growing up, it was funny to see some of the elements they chose to include. Ex. Rico, the rapper/pianist, (for the lord), and the #sundaysquad and #blessed slang terms used in David’s personal blog. Personally, I think it illustrates well the disconnect between old religion’s continuous strive to win favor with a generation that has little interest in conformity, or the rigidity of spirituality.

Leech also takes on a lot of heavy topics, some of which I found particularly hard to reason with. The aforementioned, anti-abortion rhetoric and misogyny, but also, religious pedophilia, corporal or old testament-like punishments, classism and racism were a few that came up.

Leech (2023) - Terry is going off the chain in his Santa hat
Terry is going off the chain in his Santa hat

These are not uncommon themes and truthfully, if none of them were mentioned I’d have considered the movie unrealistic. That being said, it did come across as a forced amalgamation of religions’ worst qualities for ick value at times.

In the end, it gave you really nothing to root for, but is that a bad thing?

When done well, this can be a very useful plot device. On the one hand, I didn’t care enough about anyone to not enjoy the absolute shit show that erupted in the climax. It was psychedelic, bloody, and jaw-dropping. On the other hand, the last scene before the credits held little resolve for me, because I didn’t find anything to really root for. Lexi walked away exactly where she
began. Pregnant, alone, but with significantly more trauma.

Conclusion

In conclusion, I mostly liked the movie despite the fact that religious horror is typically outside of my range. It was really well made cinematically, it depicted quite realistic relationship dynamics and concluded with a bang. Literally.

Leech is by Arrow Video, purveyors of fine horror cinema. Be sure to also check out their 4K restoration of Profondo Rosso (1975).

Bermuda Island (2023) – Bloodcurdling Lovecraftian monsters abound

We would like to give a big thank you to the folks at Mahal Empire for the opportunity to review a pre-release of their new castaway monster movie Bermuda Island (2023) being release by Gravitas Ventures. From the perspective of fundraising, marketing and releasing high-quality content at an amazing pace, Mahal Empire’s game it real tight. The secret to their success involves keeping it simple and delivering honest horror films that cater to tried and true formulas. One of the shining examples of one of those tropes is the good old fashioned monster movie with a hint of Lovecraftian horror.

In Lovecraftian horror, the focus is on the unknown and the unknowable, often involving powerful, ancient deities or in this case an ancient esoteric tribe of monsters that are indifferent to humanity. The stories often describe characters coming into contact with these beings and being driven to madness by the experience. The settings of these stories are typically dark and oppressive, and there is often a sense of hopelessness and helplessness in the face of the overwhelming power of the entities described.

Bermuda Island (2003) - A towering fly-over shot of the Carolyn and Damon approaching the waterfall

Synopsis

Menagerie of tourists set their sites on traveling to an island paradise in the midst of a brewing storm off-shore. In transit, the plane is struck by lightning causing it to torpedo into the ocean, killing most on board apart from a small band of survivors. The survivors make their way to the shore, but it’s not the paradise that they were looking for. Their trouble begins with infighting amongst themselves.

When night falls, their situation becomes much more dire. Behind the beautiful tropical backdrop hides an ancient tribe of bloodthirsty monsters.

Fantastic cinematography in fantastic location

The production team shot Bermuda Island on the the island of Viques just off the coast of Puerto Rico. The setting is utterly fabulous and the Director Adam Werth and Director of Photography Michael Su take full advantage of it. It start with what seems to be reoccurring theme in Mahal Empire films, towering fly over shots of vast terrain. One shot in particular creeps over the edge of a waterfall cascading into a pool below while the subject, make their way like tiny little ants.

Bermuda Island (2023) - A cool similarity between Bermuda Island and Ruggero Deodato's Cannibal Holocaust
This shot from Bermuda Island (left) bears a striking resemblance to one in Ruggero Deodato’s Cannibal Holocaust

Honestly, its more than simple photography of majestic scenery. The night shooting looks fantastic, maintaining the illusion of darkness with the subjects fully illuminated and visible. Furthermore, the use of a cinematic depth of focus draws the eyes to the critical visuals while obfuscating the rest really stands out. One shot brought back serious vibes from Ruggero Deodato’s Cannibal Holocaust (1980). That’s a serious accolade.

Filming at Viques did not come without its challenges. Production of Bermuda Island occurred during the height of the pandemic and strict COVID protocols triggered hazmat suits and impromptu testing. This created serious delays and undue pressure on the budget because of costly reshoots. Fortunately the production team persevered and completed the film.

Bermuda Island (2023) - fantastic night shooting technique
Fantastic night shooting technique

Strong Performances

Adam Werth gets some strong performances in key roles to help carry the film. It begins with Sarah French as the lead female role of Carolyn. Coming off of a strong performances in Death Count (2022) French plays another strong female character that sets the tone very early. Carolyn is a literal ball-buster.

Other strong performances come from Victor V Gelsomino as Damon, a street smart survivor and eventual apple of Carolyn’s eye. He concedes early on that he’s not a survivalist; however, his ability to navigate his environment makes him a strong character. The other is a man named Bruce played by John Wells. The survivors find Bruce already living on the island as a previous castaway. He proves to be the keystone to the plot of the film.

Bermuda Island (2023) - More competent night shooting makes the dark monsters stand out
Competent night shooting makes the darkly colored monsters stand out

The supporting performances range from good enough to pretty damn interesting. It starts with Sherry Davis as the Peggy, the loud and abrasive traveler with resting bitch face. Our only lament is that name “Karen” went to another actress in the film  because she is a “Karen” if I have ever seen one.

Kimberly Lynn Cole utters my favorite dark comedic line as Maleah. She screams, “It’s going to take more than you to fucking take me down” while being attacked… dies 2.5 seconds later. Lest we forget Midnight, the gothic rocker for Baphomet records played by Greg Tally.

My favorite supporting performance comes from Noel Gugliemi as the notorious gun runner, Diego Montalban. For those that know their film history, Gugliemi delivers one of the most terrifying performances while going cold on Ethan Hawke in Training Day (2001). Bermuda island, tugs on some of that street tough personality. Diego provides another outlet for dark comedy. Sadly, Diego doesn’t make to the island, but his short screen presence works really well.

Bermuda Island (2023) - A great look at the monster
Another great shot of Bermuda Island’s monsters

Bringing it all together

Heretofore, I’ve been really high on Bermuda Island, but it’s not without its not with issue. The story feels somewhat fragmented sometimes wanders. For example, as much as we like the Diego Montalban story arc it doesn’t really fit the overall plot other than to provide a clumsy vehicle for getting some FBI agents to the island. But hey, we all know that FBI agents are delicious.

In explicably, Carolyn and Damon decided that after a night of harrowing attack by flesh eating monsters sexy time and a skinny dip alone by the waterfall is a prudent move. Furthermore, the carnivorous beasts starve for flesh, but kindly ignore a herd of wild horses.

At the end of the day, it’s horror movie and these things are not only par for the course, but they are also forgivable.

The writers, do a great job of setting up a MAJOR twist at the end that I did not see coming. That twist resolves some of the wide-open questions concerning Bruce’s strange tale of how he got to the island and how long he had been there, but I was left wanting more. For the sake of spoiling the film, we’ll leave it at that.

Mahal Empire does a great job at making honest monster movies, and Bermuda Island is another fine example of that. We loved the mystery of this monstrous civilization, but would have preferred a bit more resolution; however, Bermuda Island is beautifully shot and provides enough strong performance to keep it all together.

If you are looking for an honest indie horror movie about a lost civilization of Lovecraftian monsters craving human flesh garnished in Hawaiian shirts, Bermuda Island is the film for you.

In one last shout-out, the marketing and design department did a fantastic job with the movie poster for this one. All in one, it tells the story in an abstract enough way to create mystery. It’s both beautiful and horrifying at the same time.

Bermuda Island (2023) - Movie Poster
Kudos to the marketing and design department on the Bermuda Island movie poster

Fang (2022) – For the evil rats inside all of us

Written and Directed by Richard Burgin, Fang (2022) really caught us by surprise. In this particular case, the film delivers something significantly outside of initial expectations based on the plot line in IMDB. What we saw seemed to fall more in line with Darren Arnofsky’s work than standard horror fare.

It’s winter in Chicago and Billy Cochran (Dylan LaRay) can’t stop alienating the people around him. His mother Gina (Lynn Lowry) is in and out of the hospital and her mind is breaking down, caught between her glory days as a Southern belle and her current state of decay. One night, Billy gets an unexpected visitor: a rat that springs out of his bathroom and bites him. At first, everything seems okay. Billy comes home, drowsy from the tetanus shot, and bonds with Gina’s lovely new caregiver Myra (Jess Paul). Then the rat fur appears. It grows out of Billy’s skin, then goes away like it was never there. The more Billy looks in the mirror and scratches, the more he’s forced to face the unthinkable: he might be turning into a rat. Billy is plunged into a waking nightmare where he slowly discovers the truth about himself as he unleashes the ferocious depths of the human and rodent soul.

Fang (2022) - Billy Cochran struggles to make it
Billy Cochran (Dylan LaRay) struggles to make everything work

We thought this would be an ode to body horror, or even a throwback to simple days of half-man half-somethings like The Mole People (1956) or The Alligator People (1959). Instead Richard Burgin delivers a descent into madness and psychological horror. While painstakingly detailing the downward spiral of his lead character, Billy Cochran (Dylan LaRay), Burgin manages a parallel narrative on the struggles dementia and declining metal health. More importantly, he unveils a society that lacks empathy for those suffering from catastrophic mental health ailments.

Mental health as a multi-faceted horror plot

The films begins with Billy. Something is not right about Billy. He is emotionally distant and has difficulty navigating the world. His hobby is an obsessive compulsion to document a fantasy world of his own creation through art and illustration. Eventually, Burgin reveals that Billy is autistic. That’s not a spoiler. In fact, its not even extremely relevant to the plot of the movie. Billy’s condition is really just a thread in a much larger tapestry that describes a larger struggle with mental health.

In addition to his own struggles, his mother, Gina Cochran (Lynn Lowery, The Crazies – 1973) suffers from late stage Parkinson’s. Gina’s condition has progressed well beyond the point in which she requires 24/7 care. Billy, can barely take care of himself, much less his mother. Secretly he harbors a deep resentment of her and the burden in which she has become. Billy also works for a narcissistic boss that could care less about his problems or his mothers. Only one person, Gina’s caregiver Myra (Jess Paul), seems to care about Billy and Gina’s situation.

All of this pressure builds and builds on Billy until he finally cracks.

As an aside, Richard mentions in his own bio that his own struggles with mental health help to inform is work. We think that this lends itself to his ability to subtly address Billy’s state of mind without putting a sign around his neck that says autism. This delicate treatment of the matter breaths authenticity into the story.

Fang (2022) - The Rat King represents Billy's deepest darkest urges
The Rat King represents Billy’s deepest darkest urges

The Rat

When I first heard about Fang, I suspected that I was in for a Kafka-eqe transmutation from a man into a rat. Likewise, I expected a heaping helping of body horror as the transformation takes place. Instead, Fang uses the rat as a metaphor for all the ugliness that people try to lock deep inside themselves while they try to be what society expects them to be. Once, that hidden evil finds a seam in which to escape, it erupts with disastrous consequences.

Richard Burgin does use some body horror to illustrate Billy’s unraveling, the more impactful imagery comes from the visions in his head. These include maggot infested rodents, the ugly facets of his mother and even a personified “King” rat. The psychological window into Billy’s brains feels much more like the work of Darren Arnofsky. In fact, some of the imagery pays homage to Requiem for a Dream (2000). Anyone for a pulsating pus filled boil on the forearm? It also shows reverence to the jarring soundscapes in Arnofsky’s Pi (1998).

Burgin’s departure from the realm of physical horror into the psychological realm makes this film much more impactful than the average low-budget independent film. Brian Cunningham took a similar direction in an indie film called Wretch (2018). Psychological horror provides an infinite landscape in which produce a horror film on limited resources.

Interestingly enough, despite Billy’s obvious struggles with his mind, Richard Burgin carefully ensures that his ailments do not constitute an excuse. At the end of the film, Burgin’s intentional fence sitting allows the audience to consider Billy a victim, but at no point is the audience willing to forgive him of his eventual transgressions.

Fang (2022) - Electric lighting and keen camera work creates chaos
Chaotic dreamscapes created by electric lighting and keen camera work

Technical Execution

Fang does a lot of things really well. Starting with the cinematography, the film begins with an erratic (not so) steady-cam shot that trucks right through the front door and into Billy’s bedroom. The camera work by Jason Kraynek has depth and looks very professional. The scenes seem well choreographed to story boards and they provide a graphic novel style presentation. The production team also make extremely good use of light. In some scenes the lights paints a chaotic background that shows the instability of Billy’s mind.

We would recommend spending a moment with recognizing the crew on the Fang IMDB page. There are simple too many accolades to give out in this short review. Everything from the sound design, visual effects, lighting, practical effects and film editing contribute greatly to the overall quality of the film.

Fang punches way above its weight for an independent horror film. Of course, we could find some things to nitpick, but that seems petty when this team pulled together a very compelling psychological horror movie. If the story doesn’t move you, the the audio and visual landscape will. We strongly recommend Fang, especially for fans of Independent horror film.

We would also like to thank Richard Burgin for reaching out to us directly. Had he not, we might have missed this one. We’ll look forward to seeing more from him in the future.

Ash and Bone (2022) – Inbred family horror from Harely Wallen

Ash and Bone (2022), a horror thriller directed by Harley Wallen, chooses to tread familiar territory. At malevolent Dark, we have long held that every plot can’t be 100% unique. Therefore, we’ll causally discuss some of the film’s inspirations while refraining from wallowing in the cliché. While Ash and Bone doesn’t bring a ton of new stuff to the table, it does a lot of little things that make it stand out from the plethora of indie films hitting the streaming market like a blood-drenched tsunami.

The Michigan Pick-Axe Massacre

The film begins with the tried and true unnamed female running from some unknown threat. Plowing through the brush and the bramble, her feet find the soothing firmament of asphalt. For a fleeting moment she feels salvation as headlights rise over the hill. As she approaches the vehicle, her elation turns to horror as the report of a high-powered rifle puts a punctuation mark on the story of her life.

On another thread, a family takes high-tension car ride out of the city of Detroit. Lucas Vanderbilt (Harley Wallen) and his newlywed wife Sarah (Kati Wallen) are escaping to the family home with Harley’s troubled daughter Cassie (Angelina Danielle Cama). Harley wants to forge a bond with his new family, but Cassie will never let Sarah replace her real mother. Shortly after arriving, Cassie ejects herself from the family situation and goes out on her own to find something to do.

Cassie meets a couple of locals at the bar. Tucker (Mason Heidger) and Anna (Jamie Bernadette) tell Cassie of the McKinley’s. Long thought to be a local legend, the McKinley’s are rumored to be up to no good. The pair cite the very real and frequent disappearances around town. Of course Cassie, no stranger to breaking and entering, must see for herself. She convinces Tucker and Anna to take her to the house. In a moment of incredibly poor judgement, Cassie slides open a window and sneaks inside.

Once inside the house, all three learn the horrifying truth of the McKinley’s and barely escape with their lives. Unfortunately for them, this would not be their last brush with them.

Ash and Bone (2022) - Angelina Danielle Cama as the angst ridden Cassie
Angelina Danielle Cama as the angst filled Cassie Vanderbilt

Familiar Territory

As discussed, a lot of horror standard tropes are being thrown around. Most notably, serious Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) vibes emanate from this one. Cue up one inbred family in a American gothic home. The similarities go even deeper than this, but we’ll stay away from the spoilers. Possibly more interesting, some of the imagery in Ash and Bone coincidently feel a lot like Steve Merlo’s The Sawyer Massacre (2022).

Then there is the whole Blair Witch Project thing, but considering Cassie’s goth style sensibilities, we’ll say Blair Witch Project 2.

Finally, we get a sprinkle of Last House on the Left (1972) during a home invasion by the McKinley’s. Interestingly, Wallen switches up some of the roles, especially when it comes to the sexual assault aspects. During the finale, the audience gets a final reminder of the Last House on the Left similarities.

If you’re going to recycle old horror tropes, go hard. These are some pretty solid horror references and we are not mad.

Avoiding the Pitfalls Modern Cinematography

We live in a wonderful age of technological advancement. The cost of putting high-quality content on screen has never been lower. The quality is up, the costs are low. Heck, even high-quality video editing can be done on a laptop fit for my mother. Laptop CGI is simply an eventuality. At no other point in the history of cinema have we been able to do so much with so little. As Uncle Owen once said, “With great power comes great responsibility”.

As of late, we have been reviewing a ton of indie horror flicks. More and more, we encounter the visual brutality of high framerates, high definition and an inexplicable lack of focal awareness. To be honest, we’ve even seen big budget films make the same mistake. Harley Wallen and cinematographer Alex Gasparetto avoid this pitfall and Ash and Bone benefits greatly from it.

Using a shallower depth of field, they draw the focus of the audience to the performances (and there are some good ones). Smart lighting and shot-framing work well to capture the human interactions.

Ash and Bone’s cinematography will not be confused with Dario Argento’s Opera (1987) by any stretch, but Wallen and Gasparetto lean into astute cinematic sensibilities enough to create an engaging experience that does not abrade the senses.

Ash and Bone (2022) - Erika Hoveland as the crazy May McKinley
Erika Hoveland as the crazy May McKinley

Competent Acting

Ash and Bone offers several interesting performances. For starters, Harley Wallen not only directs the film, but plays a fairly significant role as Cassie’s father. Not that I should be surprised that he can act, I simply haven’t seen his work. His performance as a concerned father felt authentic enough to carry the narrative. On the other side of the coin, Angelina Danielle Cama portrayed Cassie’s with convincing angst. More importantly, Cama showed an inner strength of character that later becomes critical to her survival.

On the bad-guy side of the fence, Erika Hoveland plays May with calculated malice. During some of her most heinous acts , it actually invokes a bit of sympathy for the character. Of course, this sympathy because her actions seem to be born of loneliness and circumstance. Hoveland’s eyes effortlessly oscillate between piercing calculation and wide-open crazy.

A Conspicuously Bloodless Affair

Wallen and the production team seem to go out of their way to keep the red stuff off of the screen. For a movie based in an extremely violent premise, Ash and Bone shows very little gore. In fact, it shows so little that I wonder if the decision comes from Wallen’s artistic sensibilities or rather a nod to the past. We found the following quote:

“I wanted to make a film in the style of the mid 2000s horror films such as House of WaxThe Hills Have Eyes and Texas Chainsaw Massacre. l wanted to follow up Agramon’s Gate with a more raw and imposing horror film.”

— Harley Wallen (Secondary soruce, TheMovieWaffler.com)

Most that know their horror history know that Texas Chainsaw Massacre notoriously lacks blood and gore and instead replaces it with mind-numbing psychological terror and shock. Unfortunately, Ash and Bone simply doesn’t have enough of the brutal aura to completely side-step the gore. In fact, a bit more of the red stuff might have served this one very well.

Bringing it Home

All in all, as a independent horror film, Ash and Bone gets the job done. It appears that Wallen might have aspired for it to be something that never really achieves. Yet, it provides interesting performances and cares enough to go the extra miles to make a professionally produced film. Ash and Bone captured out attention and made us curious to see what Harley Wallen does next. Currently, Ash and Bone can be found on Tubi streaming for free. Support independent horror and go check it out!

Death Count (2022) – Blood soaked social media from Mahal Empire

Mahal Empire released Death Count (2022) through Gravitas Ventures back in July of this year. For those that not keeping score, Sonny Mahal his brother Michael have been making waves, raising funds and cranking out high-quality horror, action and thriller flicks. Sonny has been kind enough to give us early access to few movies to review, and so far we have really enjoyed them.

We missed the timing to review the pre-screener for this one, but we wanted to take a look before Death Count hits international distribution. Death Count currently streams for free on Tubi.

Death Count (2022) - Prisoner #3, Rachel Phillips is portrayed by actress Sarah French
Prisoner #3, Rachel Phillips is portrayed by actress Sarah French

An awesome and familiar plot

Probably the most outstanding thing about Death Count is the brutal honesty in which it confronts its own identity. Anyone with a pulse will quickly see the parallels between it and the Saw franchise. Not only does director Michael Su not hide from that comparison, he embraces it. In fact, the films news anchors coving recent crimes reference the similarity and call out Saw and Hostel by name. At one point Michael Madsen (Reservoir Dogs, Kill Bill) refers to the situation as “See-Saw 69, the Remake”.

Give me a plot I already know and remind me why I love it.

J. Brams, Malevolent Dark Contributor

But wait, there’s more. Death Count features a man named Costas Mandylor, the same Costas Mandylor that played Detective Mark Hoffman in the Saw series. Any knowing that the Saw story arc knows that Mandylor is no stranger to being the villain. The only difference this time is that instead of playing apprentice, he runs the whole horrific show.

Death Count (2022) - Michael Madsen and Charles Solomon as hard-knocks detectives hunting The Warden
Death Count (2022) – Michael Madsen and Charles Solomon as hard-knocks detectives hunting The Warden

The film begins in a dank dark cell in an unknown prison where a woman awakes, hungry and scared. Soon she comes to realize she is just one of several people locked up with chains a around their necks. Soon they learn their fate. A masked man makes them play a game. He enumerates a set of rules and explains that if anyone cheats, an explosive device implanted at the base of their brain will explode. The goal of the game is this: compete for “likes”, the currency of the Internet. At the end of a round, whoever possesses the least likes gets whacked.

Death Count, built on a solid cast

The cast offers one of the most compelling arguments for Death Count. Robert LaSardo (Night of the Tommyknockers, Amber Road) makes a another appearance in a Mahal Production. This time, his on-screen time is short, but memorable as the first contestant to die at the hands of the The Warded, The Warden. As usual, LaSardo squeezes in some laughs before meeting his doom… explosively. We think the gore-hounds will appreciate this one.

Costas Mandylor (Saw franchise) also brings some dark humor to the film. For starters, his costume makes him look a Mortal Kombat B-lister. Subtly, he displays his disappointment and dismay with his bumbling contestants. The Warden periodically utters an audible sigh as if to say, “did you not understand the part where I said that I WOULD kill you if you did that? Why did you do what I just told you not to do?”.

Death Count (2022) - Costas Mandylor returns to the torture porn arena as The Warden
Costas Mandylor returns to the torture porn arena as The Warden

Our favorite character comes in the form of Detective Casey, played by Michael Madsen. Those that remember Madsen’s career know him to be one of the best actors from the early Tarantino era. His penchant for tough-guy comedy shines through Detective Casey. More often cast as a bid guy, this role worked really well for Madsen and fully embraced his strengths as a actor.

Detective Casey and partner, Detective Tanner (Charles Solomon) make for some great dialog as they drive around looking for The Warden in a Tarantino-esq sequence.

The lead role of prisoner #3, Rachel Phillips, is played by actress Sarah French. In a fight for survival, French carries her character through a heavy arc of confusion, reconciliation and finally survival instinct. Of all the cast, French provides a bit of emotional depth and a touch of redemption to balance out the darkness and violence.

As for one final shout-out, we would like to recognize Denny Nolan as #1, Mr. Turner. We loved Denny in Night of the Tommy knockersIn Death Count, Denny fails to convince that he has ever used the word “motherfucker” outside this narrow confines of this script. That not only makes for great dark comedy, but makes his character endearing at the same time.

Brutality and bloodshed for all

While Death Count does its best to offset its violent intent with a splash of dark comedy, make no mistake, Death Count goes hard into the realm of gore and wince inducing injury. At the end of the day, Death Count relies on the painful torture and death of its contestants to drive the narrative forward.

While the film has many moments, the pyrotechnic deconstruction of one of the prisoners heads sets the stage early. Another scene involves a frenzied self-inflicted attack with the cringe end of a ball peen hammer on a human hand. I’ll freely admit that I had to look away. We are talking really potent stuff. The practical effects are in your face and really good. Watch out for mustard gas!

Death Count (2022) - This movie has the gore where it counts.
Death Count has the gore where it counts – goodness gravy

Languishing 3rd Act

Death Count starts on a solid premise, and the honesty of its implementation helps sell the story in the early frames. However, it struggles to wrap it with a bow. Avoiding spoilers, the story tries to interleave a tale infidelity, dishonesty and betrayal. Much like in the Saw series, writer Michael Merino tries to weave a tapestry of deception to describe how all of the contestants got themselves into this situation. While technically Death Count ties up the loose ends, it forgets to put an exclamation point on it.

Sadly, the film never reveals any meaningful detail about The Warden, that omission leaves the film feeling a bit unresolved.

Final Score

Overall, Death Count provides another strong showing for the Mahal Empire team. While the plot fails in its bid for perfection, the cast carries the film to the finish line. Like most of the films from this studio, it’s a ton of fun. While it never really ascends to the heights that the Saw films reached, its a perfect late night streamer for people that love the terror of confinement and torture (You sick individuals).

Remember to look for Death Count on Tubi. We’ll update the article as soon as we have more details on International distribution.

Amber Road (2022) – Extreme deep web horror

Most of us have heard something or another about the Dark Web. If you haven’t it’s probably a good thing. It is the part of the internet that lurks beneath the surface with no regulation and total anarchy. Much like the fictional market Amber Road (2022), the Dark Web supports trading-posts that push illicit items anonymously and for lots of money, including the most depraved and explicit material. Life is cheap… really cheap. Put simply it’s a giant black market that even the most advanced law enforcement struggles to keep in check.

Amber Road (2022) - Another Robert LaSardo sighting as Hades, a member of an underground criminal enterprise
Another Robert LaSardo sighting as Hades, a member of an underground criminal enterprise

Amber Road – Koa Aloha Media

This leads me into the latest movie I had the opportunity of viewing, Amber Road produced by Koa Aloha Media, from Huntington Beach, California. At Malevolent Dark, it’s our first time reviewing stuff from this studio. We appreciate them reaching out with this opportunity as they have a pretty compelling pipeline of material. Koa Aloha, if you are listening, sign us up for Herbert West: Reanimator! 

This movie takes on a slightly different angle of the use of the Dark Web plot device. To date many overleverage the cringe factor of torture to drive the narrative. The term “Torture Porn” springs to mind. Movies like Red Room, Hostel and Deep Web XXX are prime examples of these. Amber Road does its best to bring much more to the table. It relies more on plot development than most and strikes a good balance between the narrative and the extreme violence that it portrays. Amber Road crosses real world Silk Road drama with a bucket of blood.

Amber Road is a hidden place in the digital universe where anything can be bought, sold and traded. Anything.

It is a place where a person can fulfill their darkest desire or unleash their deepest depravity. And once you travel down that path, there comes a point where you can never return.

— Amber Road tagline

Amber Road (2022) - Mary Janet Wang gets tortured pretty graphically
In case you thought the plot of this film might be too high-brow for horror fans

A tangled web of revenge and deception

Directed by B. Luciano Barsuglia, Amber Road displays the complexity of relationships in the shady underground enterprise of Dark Web business. We see not only the shady side of the business that provides these nefarious services, but the so-called principled people that ignore the real world costs as they consume them. As the film unravels this deceptive web, the audience quickly learns that not all is what it seems. Barsuglia asks the question, is anyone in this game really a victim?

The film plot involves a the wife of a police officer, a police officer herself. Recently, criminals kidnapped and tortured her husband to death. Distraught, she stays in touch with the case through periodic updates with the investigation team. On another thread, a masked female tortures a couple while the whole affair is streamed online. Amber Road, an underground marketplace run by Hades (Robert LaSardo), Pluto (Tom Sizemore) and Atropos (Crystal Huang), learns that the masked torturer is stealing money from them.

Like an unholy onion, Amber Road peels back layer by layer revealing new relationships, characters and motives. Ultimately Barsuglia unveils a interwoven cycle of revenge that should resonate well with fans of the Saw franchise.

So yeah, the plot of Amber Road runs deep, but in the gore and violence department, it’s no walk in the park. Films of this type confront violence up close, personal and painstakingly slow. These images can be so powerful that even off screen, the crunching of bone, the “snikt” of hedge shears and the bellows of pain cause the audience to squirm. Amber Road high-steps into this hyper-realistic and violent territory. Long-story short, this film delivers the goods for those that came for the splatter.

From a pure cinematography perspective, the film does put off a boxy soap opera vibe. It tends to suffer a from a stark digital presentation that robs some of the scenes of depth. Quite frankly, it’s something we have been seeing a lot of. We did however notice that this quality creates a bit of oppressive claustrophobia, especially in the torture scenes. Whether driven by artistic vision or budget, it does feel a bit fatiguing over the 87 minute runtime. It’s important to add that between Barsuglia and his Assistant Director, Andrew Roberts do make effective use of intensely colored frames to add a bit of flair.

Amber Road (2022) - The team makes effective use of colored light to provide contrast between scenes
The team makes effective use of colored light to provide contrast between scenes

Familiar faces

For second time in short succession we get a look at  Tom Sizemore. He plays a small role, but it’s still great to see him flourishing in the horror world. Anyone familiar with our recent reviews recognize that name Robert LaSardo. Again, LaSardo plays a small role, but his versatility and penchant for tough guy comedy have quickly escalated him on our list of horror/action favorites. Another flash to the past comes in the form of Vernon Wells, famous for starring across Arnold Schwarzenegger in Commando (1985) as the mustachioed villain, Bennet. This time Vernon Wells plays a slightly less menacing Sheriff in Amber Road.

Bigger roles in this film include Emma (Elissa Dowling) and Pauline (Rachel Riley). Both are seasoned actors that take charge lead the movie. The supporting cast does a great job supporting the story. Among those names, we have been seeing a lot of BJ Mezek lately. He recently starred in Night of the Tommyknockers (2022) and Death Count (2022). Janet Wang performs admirably as the center-piece of a drawn out gorefest.

Overall this is one of the better Dark Web thrillers. In support of independent horror studios, this one deserves a look. The producers deserve praise for taking the time to develop the complicated underworld politics of the Dark Web. This extra plot development provides a backbone to what could have easily descended into to cheap torture porn. To be perfectly clear, if you dig the unfettered violence of torture porn, Amber Road contains scenes that make the squeamish crumble, but the plot is broader and the story has depth, and for that it’s a better movie.

According to Koa Aloha media, horror fans should look to the following dates for the North American release:

12/25/22 – AlohaStream Exclusive
01/10/23 – DVD/Blu-Ray
01/30/23 – VOD Rollout