June 3, 2021

Time-release Capsule Reviews: Horrific 21st Century Life Lessons (Part One)

I just want to reiterate that, although I run a blog devoted to lean-budgeted genre movies from the hazy past, roughly ranging from the 1930s to the 1970s, I am not some close-minded old codger who refuses to watch anything new.

Okay, so I’m not a big fan of the current crop of comic book movies or Disney’s endless retreads, but I’m constantly on the look-out for intriguing new films to feed my addiction.

Not to brag or anything, but my wife and I saw a good many of the films nominated for Academy Awards this year, and enjoyed them all to some degree or another. (We also were among a relative handful that watched the awards from beginning to end, but I’m not sure that’s a bragging point.)

Still - Psycho (1960)
Although viewership for the 2021 Academy Awards hit a new low, the show
still managed to do well with the key 100-110 year old demographic.

If you’ve stopped by here before, you may have run across the disclaimer in About this Blog that I will occasionally write about newer films that pique my interest, if only to prove that I’m not hopelessly mired in the antediluvian past.

It’s been awhile since I reviewed something reasonably contemporary, so I’m devoting the next couple of posts to independent, low-budget horror and sci-fi films made in the past dozen years or so that grabbed my attention for their fresh, inventive takes on their genres (and that IMHO deserve more exposure).

I’m calling these “time-release capsule reviews” because a.) I’m releasing myself temporarily from the preference for moldy oldies, and b.) I’m hoping that with these capsule descriptions, I will plant a mind-seed that will tempt you to hit play the next time you run across one of these titles.

A time-release capsule from Hell
Warning: this blog uses time-release technology that will blow your mind.


Poster - Triangle, 2009
Triangle (2009)

“Mind-bending” is a term that gets tossed around a lot by critics, but Triangle earns that description in spades and then some. Jess (Melissa George) is an exhausted single mother of an autistic child who has taken the day off to go yachting with a group of wealthy friends. When their boat capsizes in a freak squall, the survivors, who are clinging desperately to the upended hull, are ecstatic when an ocean liner passes close enough to climb aboard.

Jubilation turns to consternation as the group explores the ship, which seems to be an antique from decades past, and which also is apparently completely deserted. Wandering around the spooky ship, Jess gets an uncanny sense of deja vu. But before anyone can fully process what’s going on, terror strikes in the form of a burlap-hooded killer who is targeting the group one-by-one.

The terror is amplified exponentially as Jess discovers that she and her yachting friends are caught in a time loop, seemingly condemned to repeat the chilling events over and over. Jess has to avoid becoming the hooded maniac’s next victim while trying to figure a way out of her terrifying Groundhog Day from hell.

Triangle is a sci-fi-mystery-action-psychological-thriller that steadily ratchets up the tension and keeps the audience guessing along with its frantic protagonist. It takes the old time loop clichĂ© and transforms it in very disturbing ways. There is one scene in particular, involving one of Jess’s companions, that very graphically illustrates how many trips around the space-time merry-go-round the group has taken (and it’s a scene you’re not likely to forget).

At the start of the film, Jess is something of a mystery. She’s a working class mom, a duck out of water among the toney yuppies that she sets sail with. As things get deadly serious, Jess appears to be another in a long line of B-movie heroines and final girls; down-to-earth, practical types who are far-better equipped to survive than their arrogant, pampered companions. Yet, even as Jess is on the brink of solving her hellish puzzle and emerging triumphant, the film reveals events leading up to the sailing excursion that completely upend assumptions.

Writer-director Christopher Smith also co-wrote and directed Severance (2006), a grisly black comedy about a corporate team-building retreat in the wilderness of eastern Europe that goes horribly wrong. Australian actress Melissa George has done a ton of TV along with the occasional feature film. She is currently starring in Apple TV’s The Mosquito Coast.



Poster - The Shrine, 2010
The Shrine (2010)

While international backpacking has not been a thing recently for obvious reasons, vaccine rollouts are opening up more travel possibilities, and before long restless souls will no doubt once again be tromping around exotic locales on the cheap and staying in crowded hostels.

The Shrine begins with the aftermath of a backpacking trip gone bad. Carmen (Cindy Sampson), a young journalist, is intrigued by a string of mysterious disappearances of backpackers in eastern Europe, the latest of which is a young man by the name of Eric Taylor.

Carmen tries to sell the idea of an investigative story to her editor, but he declines. Undaunted, she interviews Eric’s mother, who gives the journalist her son’s diary that was found after his disappearance. From the diary, Carmen pinpoints Eric’s last known location to a remote village in Poland. Even without management’s blessing, she talks intern Sara (Meghan Heffern) and photographer Marcus (Aaron Ashmore) into accompanying her on a trip to try to find out what happened to Eric.

The trio wind up in a Polish village that seems to be straight out of the middle ages, run by severe-looking priests. At first the sullen, tight-lipped villagers are of no help, except to warn the visitors not to go in the woods where an odd, static fog bank hovers over the trees.

Eric’s diary mentioned the bizarre fog, so of course, Carmen and her companions have to investigate. At first Sara, then Carmen stumble upon a demonic-looking statue located in the center of the fog that appears to be examining them with sightless eyes, leaving them paranoid and disoriented.

Back at the village, one of the locals has a change of heart and leads them to an ancient-looking shrine that contains the bodies of Eric and other unfortunate travelers, each wearing a primitive iron mask suggesting some sort of grisly blood ritual. By trespassing in the woods, the visitors have marked themselves to be the next sacrificial victims, but incredibly, that may not be the worst fate awaiting them.

At first glance, The Shrine seems to be another standard entry in the “Don’t go in the woods!” subgenre featuring naive young campers, hikers and backpackers meeting gruesome demises that Cabin in the Woods parodied so well. But The Shrine cleverly adds yet another layer of horror onto the proceedings, and you’re suddenly not sure who the bad guys and good guys really are.

This culminates in a very effective scene in which Marcus and Carmen, exhausted, terrified, and desperately trying to avoid having metal masks nailed to their skulls, invade a family’s home to try to get the keys to their truck. The language barrier adds to the tension, but the family members, upon seeing the strangers, are panicked beyond what a garden variety home invasion would suggest. At this point the viewer is clued into what’s going on, but Marcus, who just wants to get out of Dodge, is completely oblivious.

The Shrine features some very hard, but important life lessons:

  1. Don’t make snap assumptions about people you don’t know, including those who live their lives differently from you.
  2. If the locals tell you not to go into the woods, don’t go in the woods.
  3. Always be aware of your surroundings.
  4. Sometimes, you have to be cruel to be kind.

Carmen and her crew pay a very heavy price for traipsing into a place they know nothing about in an attempt to solve a mystery for fleeting journalistic glory.

Jon Knautz, also a writer-director, is responsible for The Shrine’s unique take on an old subgenre. Since then, he has directed a pretty well-received “neo-slasher,” Girl House (2014), and a psychological horror film, The Cleaning Lady (2018; expanded from his short film from 2016). Fans of the Smallville TV series will recognize Aaron Ashmore (Marcus), who played Jimmy Olsen.



Coherence (2013)

It’s a sad fact of 21st century life that many people rarely interact with their neighbors except to squabble over fences that encroach on someone’s property or uninvited kids trampling on flower gardens. Coherence is a sci-fi/psychological horror film that asks the question: What would you do if you suddenly encountered the mother of all bad neighbors, and that bad neighbor was.... you!

Eight young suburban professionals are having a dinner party on a night when a comet is passing close to the earth. When the power goes out, the group goes outside and sees that one house in the neighborhood still has power. Two of the men go over to the other house to find out what’s going on. They return with a box containing pictures of them, the eight friends, and a strange story about the place being deserted, but it also being an exact copy of their house, with a dinner table set for eight.

They write a note to tape to the front door of the other house, but then are freaked out by a stranger who approaches their house, then runs off. To their amazement, they find the very same note they had written pinned to their door.

One of the more scientifically inclined dinner guests suggests that somehow, the passing comet has torn open space and time to such an extent that an infinite number of alternate universes/realities are suddenly coexisting together. Naturally, this induces paranoia and distrust in the group -- and all the other alternate groups that are co-occupying “reality.” Things degenerate from there.

Coherence is great example of a film of far-out ideas and suspense, made for next-to-nothing (reportedly around $50k), that grabs you from the get-go, doesn’t let go, and twists you around until you have no idea who’s on first or what’s on second (but in a fun way, I assure you).

The film was released in 2013, just as the possibility of parallel universes was gaining more ground among mainstream physicists, and in popular culture, the notion of the Mandela Effect -- allegedly false memories that make it seem as if the fabric of reality is changing in small but noticeable ways -- was also gaining traction.

But beyond cutting-edge physics or the paranormal, Coherence speaks to some very down-to-earth realities of daily living. It’s a sort of metaphor for how, in spite of the supposed unlimited connectedness of social media and technology in general, we continue to carve ourselves up into smaller and smaller groups of like-minded people who are increasingly suspicious of those who aren’t in the club. The social pods that developed out of the pandemic have only accelerated the trend.

James Ward Byrkit completes this post’s trifecta of writer-directors. This was his first feature film directing job (and the only one to date); he also wrote the screenplay. He is apparently a jack of all filmmaking trades, with producer, art department, visual effects, acting and soundtrack credits on his resume in addition to writing and directing.

Emily Baldoni, who plays Em, the alpha female in the dinner group, has been all over TV since about 2008, with parts in several of the CSI and NCIS series, among others.