THE EYES OF MY MOTHER (2016)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 16 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Disturbing Violent Content and Behavior, and brief Nudity

Directed by: Nicolas Pesce

Written by: Nicolas Pesce

Starring: Kika Magalhaes, Diana Agostini, Olivia Bond, Will Brill, Joey Curtis-Green, Flora Diaz, Paul Nazak & Clara Wong

Wow! Just wow! This is one fucked up movie! I don’t usually start off reviews like that, but THE EYES OF MY MOTHER floored me. Last year, EYES gained a lot of praise from the festival circuit and was released in December (of all months). Ever since it hit streaming outlets and home video earlier this year, I’d been hearing about how disturbing and crazy this film was. I was saving my first viewing of it for 31 Days of Horror 2017 and boy howdy, Nicolas Pesce proves that he’s one sick puppy with this directorial debut. In the space of a mere 76 minutes, Pesce crafts a horror tale that’s disturbing beyond words and will surely shock even the most desensitized viewers.

Meet Francisca. When she was a child, young Francisca (Olivia Bond) loved her dear surgeon mommy (Diana Agostini) and they bonded over removing eyeballs from farm animals. After a tragic fate befell her mother, Francisca took her surgical know-how and enacted a painful revenge on the man responsible for her mother’s death. Years later, an adult Francisca (Kika Magalhaes) is desperate for companionship and will do anything to raise a family of her own…including utilizing that twisted surgical know-how that I previously mentioned. This results in mutilation, shocking scenes, beautiful cinematography, and a nightmare that is sure to brutally beat its way around your brain for hours after this film ends. This is a messed up one, folks!

If EYES OF MY MOTHER was simply another cheap torture-porn flick that aimed to shock and did nothing more, then I wouldn’t be praising it all that much. Instead, this film is like an artsy take on TEXAS CHAINSAW type material and it’s a hellish ride that kept me glued to the screen from the dark beginning to the haunting conclusion. The black-and-white cinematography gives beauty to the film’s grisliest scenes and Pesce doesn’t revel in all of the gory details. In fact, he leaves the most brutal bits off-screen and merely shows us the horrifying aftermaths of certain deeds. The sound of a body part thudding on the floor or the anguished reaction of a mutilated victim are far more cringe-inducing than showing us all of the gory procedural work leading up to those moments.

That being said, EYES OF MY MOTHER wouldn’t work nearly as well as it does without convincing performances. Young child actress Olivia Bond sells her brief screen time as the younger incarnation of Francisca and gives us a glimpse into how this cinematic psycho was born. Then, Kika Magalhaes takes the reins as adult Francisca for a majority of the screen time. What’s truly impressive is that there’s a shadow of a sympathetic side to this terrifyingly deranged protagonist. Francisca went through a traumatic event as a child, had a not-so-normal upbringing, and doesn’t want to be alone. All of those concepts are completely understandable…until enter the barbaric actions that she executes with surgical precision. The nastier bits received many disgusted vocal reactions out of me, so think of Francisca as a female Ed Gein type and she’s just as crazy as you’d imagine from that description.

What’s also surprisingly impressive about EYES OF MY MOTHER is how well paced this entire film is. Earlier this month, I reviewed THE DEVIL’S CANDY and complained about how that film packed too many half-developed ideas into the space of 79 minutes. Here, EYES runs three minutes shorter than CANDY and masterfully spreads out its storytelling into different chunks of Francisca’s life. The entire film is definitely on the artsier side of things (which is a plus for me) and it isn’t for the faint of heart (as you might have imagined from my descriptions of the film’s disturbing bits). My sole complaint with EYES falls onto noticeably shaky sound quality during one major sequence, but that likely won’t stick out to anybody who isn’t paying attention to those technical aspects.

If you’re into really messed up movies, then THE EYES OF MY MOTHER is pretty much required viewing for you. This is a nightmarish piece of cinema that’s sure to linger in the back of your mind and send shock waves to your senses. EYES OF MY MOTHER freaked me out in the best way possible. This is a tour-de-force mixture of artistic filmmaking, a psycho character study, and nasty violence that very much feels like TEXAS CHAINSAW done in the vein of Lars von Trier. Take this review as either a recommendation to watch this film immediately or a warning to stay as far away from this film as humanly possible. You should already know what side of the fence you’re on.

Grade: A

PULSE (2005)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 58 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for some Violent Images

(Japanese with English subtitles)

Directed by: Kiyoshi Kurosawa

Written by: Kiyoshi Kurosawa

Starring: Kumiko Aso, Haruhiko Kato, Koyuki Kato, Kurume Arisaka, Masatoshi Matsuo & Shinji Takeda

Before I get into this review, it’s worth noting that I know I’m in the minority on this one. Asian horror films seem to be hit or miss for me. Sometimes, they’re super scary (SHUTTER), haunting (AUDITION), and disturbing (THREE EXTREMES). Other times, they’re tedious (RINGU, there I said it), derivative (CINDERELLA), and dull (THE EYE). I’d heard nothing but endless praise for 2001’s PULSE, which hit US shores four years after its Japanese release and a year before 2006’s piss-poor remake (which is among the very worst horror films that I’ve ever seen). Even though I wasn’t a fan of its US remake, I decided that I would give the original (better) version of this story a shot. Sadly, I find myself disappointed by the first PULSE too. It’s not nearly as bad as its horrible Americanized version, but it remains a dull, slow, and borderline incoherent mess of a ghost story.

After her friend commits suicide, Kudo Michi (Kumiko Aso) begins to notice bizarre things around her. The deceased friend’s distorted face is reflected on a computer screen, a human-sized black stain seems oddly menacing, and gloomy specters seem to be using the internet to terrorize the world of the living. Meanwhile, college student Ryosuke (Haruhiko Kato) has just hooked his computer up to the worldwide web and discovers that it’s displaying some really disturbing images. Either these images are the jokes of a really sick hacker…or all technology seems to be being invaded by spooky ghosts. Seeing as this is a horror movie, you can likely guess which one it is.

I understand that PULSE is terrifying for a lot of people and this film has garnered loads upon loads of praise from both critics and horror fans alike. However, this movie didn’t do much for me and I’ll attempt to put my thoughts into words that explain my reasoning. To be clear, there are effectives moments in PULSE. The sound design of the ghosts and occasionally eerie music can be unnerving. There are also a handful of scary scenes, ala a slowly approaching ghost who corners a guy under a couch or a stain that suddenly turns into a deceased friend. However, these creepy bits are few and far between.

The first thing that really throws me off about PULSE is its deliberately glacial pacing. I can dig on slow-burn horror, but the build-up has to be worth the pay-off or compelling enough to stand on its own. Neither of those things can be said about PULSE’s tedious storytelling. Maybe my view is slightly tainted because I already kind of knew what was coming thanks to the shitty American remake that I saw as a teenager, but I was frequently bored throughout this sluggish two-hour viewing experience. The characters aren’t exactly worth rooting for either, as I found them all to be blander than bland.

Another thing that’s distractingly bad is that PULSE’s technology, which is a major part of its threadbare plot, has aged horribly and the resulting “terrifying” technological proceedings are more laughable than frightening. Director Kiyoshi Kurosawa takes the time to show characters explaining how the internet works to each other, setting up old-school computers, and explaining theories about how the dead might corrupt technology. That last idea was pretty much perfected in the 2002 remake of THE RING and not so much in the 1998 mediocre original RINGU), but this ghost story feels very weak in its actual plot.

Speaking of ghosts, I want to get into spoiler territory, so skip to the final paragraph if you don’t want anything revealed. The motivation behind PULSE’s evil spirits and their ultimate end goal is kind of laughable and more depressing than scary. These ghosts basically drain a person’s will to live by either being around them or telling them how depressing it is to be dead. The victims of these ghosts either kill themselves or disintegrate into ash (hence the black stains everywhere), and red duct tape keeps them out for some inexplicable reason (that was explained just as well here as it was in the awful remake, which is to say not at all). The end result is an apocalyptic ghost story that sounds like it could be terrifying in theory, but is mostly just dull and more depressing than it is disturbing.

PULSE might wind up doing something for you, like RINGU and THE EYE have also satisfied other film buffs and horror fans. However, this movie bored me to tears more than it scared me and left me feeling all-around cold. Some might argue that feeling drained was the entire point of this film, but I’d counter with most emotionally draining viewing experiences usually leave you thinking about the film long after it’s over. PULSE didn’t do that in a positive way for me. Instead of pondering the futility of life, the potential of how the internet is killing us all through socially awkward separation, and the possibility of the dead invading technology, I was instead lamenting the two hours that I just wasted on an overrated, subpar ghost story with a few cool ideas and nothing more.

Grade: C

SEVERANCE (2007)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 36 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Strong Bloody Violence, Language, Drug Content and some Sexuality/Nudity

Directed by: Christopher Smith

Written by: James Moran & Christopher Smith

Starring: Danny Dyer, Laura Harris, Tim McInnerny, Toby Stephens, Claudie Blakley, Andy Nyman & Babou Ceesay

Combining goofy comedy and straight horror is a tough feat, even for the most seasoned filmmakers. While Drew Goddard excelled with 2012’s THE CABIN IN THE WOODS and Wes Craven captured lightning in a bottle with SCREAM, loads of other visual storytellers have tried and failed to craft films that are equally scary and funny. Enter Christopher Smith, who directed the not-so-good subway creature feature CREEP and the excellent medieval horror tale BLACK DEATH. In SEVERANCE (his second feature), Smith combines wacky hijinks that would feel at home in one of the better episodes of THE OFFICE with a brutal slasher flick. So far, SEVERANCE is one of the most entertaining movies that I’ve sat through for 31 Days of Horror 2017.

The sales division of Palisade Defense are stuck on a boring team-building weekend in the remote mountains of Hungary. When a toppled tree forces their bus to stop, dickhead manager Richard (Tim McInnerny) forces his employees to hike to their “luxury lounge” (code for a “rundown shack”). Soon enough, the stressed-out employees suspect that something sinister is afoot. Their suspicions are confirmed when a few bodies turn up and booby traps are uncovered. A group of heavily armed psychos are hellbent on killing the Palisade employees one-by-one. If the unlucky Palisade office drones wish to survive, they’ll have to go through the ultimate team-building activity: a life-or-death game of cat-and-mouse.

SEVERANCE kicks things off in full comedic mode as happy music plays over a guy getting disemboweled and the over-the-top office stereotypes make their presence known. When I refer to these characters as over-the-top office stereotypes, I mean that in the best way possible because you likely have coworkers that remind you of these characters in some way. The way that the Palisade employees feed off of each other is hilarious to behold as the first third packs some of the biggest laughs in the entire film. That’s not to say that the rest of SEVERANCE isn’t amusing, because there’s almost always a sick sense of humor present. However, things get darker as the plot progresses forward.

Some reviews have described SEVERANCE as “THE OFFICE meets FRIDAY THE 13TH” and while that might be an accurate description to a certain degree, I’d argue that this slasher-comedy is far more entertaining and clever than any of the FRIDAY THE 13TH series. Possible details about the killers’ origin stories are given in stylized flashbacks as characters relate stories to each other, but we’re never given a concrete exposition dump of who these psychos are. Instead, Christopher Smith trusts the viewer to connect the dots for themselves as he feeds us some clues, including two big reveals in the final third. It’s worth noting that SEVERANCE’s killers would seem more at home in an action-packed thriller as opposed to a gory horror comedy, but their unique presence greatly benefits this film.

As far as kills go, SEVERANCE doesn’t skirt on the bloodshed. While it doesn’t revel in some of its unpleasant demises (ala a gasoline-related death is thankfully cut away from), the kills range from darkly humorous to aggravatingly brutal. This mixture injects grittiness into the proceedings as the suspense takes over for most of the second half and big laughs become more spread out. The former and the latter qualities are always present though, just in varying measures. I’d argue that SEVERANCE’s biggest gut-busting joke comes in a hilariously dark twist that arrives during the final 15 minutes. This bit had me laughing so hard that I actually rewound the film to watch the scene again.

While the victims and survivors range from various over-the-top office stereotypes, the performers make these characters into their own unique roles. Danny Dyer (who also starred in the decent zom-com DOGHOUSE) steals the show as drug-addicted slacker Steve. Laura Harris plays the most level-headed of the bunch as Maggie. Claudie Blakley is convincing as stuck-up nerd Jill, while Toby Stevens is hysterical as asshole coworker Harris. Though Tim McInnerny is a bit underused as the dickhead boss, he does receive a handful of moments to shine in. Also, Andy Nyman is a lot of fun as overly happy suck-up Gordon and gets a particularly nasty moment that will have viewers torn between giggling and gagging.

SEVERANCE’s tonal shifts from hilarious dark comedy to straight-faced slasher can be slightly jarring in certain areas. This mainly comes in one death scene that feels excessive to the point of almost being torture-porn in a film that mostly functions on being a twisted, suspenseful horror-comedy. Slightly distracting tonal changes aside, I had a ton of fun watching SEVERANCE. The characters are enjoyable, these villains haven’t really been seen in a horror film before (they seem like bad guys from an action flick), the kills range from funny to shocking, and the final third perfectly balances laughs and scares. Overall, I highly recommend SEVERANCE for horror fans who want something out of the ordinary.

Grade: A-

FINAL PRAYER (2015)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 29 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Language and some Frightening Moments

Directed by: Elliot Goldner

Written by: Elliot Goldner

Starring: Gordon Kennedy, Robin Hill, Aidan McArdle, Patrick Godfrey & Kevin Johnson

I’m not breaking new ground when I say that found footage horror flicks have more misses than hits. Because handheld horror is cheap and easy to make, you tend to get a lot of crappy low-budget cash-ins in the already overcrowded subgenre. Occasionally, a great found footage horror film will make waves on the festival circuit and receive tons of acclaim. FINAL PRAYER (formerly known as THE BORDERLANDS) received solid reviews upon its UK festival premiere and was finally dumped onto DVD a few years later in the US. While it’s not a terrible film by any means, FINAL PRAYER has a few borderline genius moments that are drowned by untapped potential and monotonous filler.

After a “miracle” occurs at an old South West England church, a small team is sent to investigate and possibly debunk the supposedly supernatural activity. Religious skeptic Deacon (Gordon Kennedy) and non-believer tech guy Gray (Robin Hill) have opposing views on this miracle. However, doubt gives way to eerie belief when strange events continue to occur around the church and a morbid history about a Pagan deity emerges. Have Deacon and Gray actually stumbled upon something otherworldly? If that is the case, will both men make it out of this ever-deepening mystery alive?

On the positive side of things, FINAL PRAYER nails its found footage immersion factor with realistic performances. Gordon Kennedy and Robin Hill have believable chemistry together. Even though both characters can be annoying in spots (especially Gray), they feel authentically annoying and their reactions are totally believable in the increasingly strange situations. Gordon Kennedy’s Deacon comes off as especially interesting, because the film slowly reveals that he has a bit of a complicated past…to say the least.

Another positive quality worth mentioning is this movie’s kick-ass conclusion. The film plants seeds of a genuinely disturbing finale early on and even has one very early line of dialogue that foreshadows things in a big way (though it won’t stick out until the closing credits have begun to roll). FINAL PRAYER’s ending is the stuff of nightmares and will leave you thinking about it long after it’s over. However, here’s where I’m faced with some complicated feelings and a weird opinion about this movie. Despite having good performances and a great finale, there simply isn’t much else to this film.

I wish that the shaky cam and shoddy post-production effects (like fake static to cover up a microscopic budget) weren’t as aggravating as they were in this film. Sadly, they really grate on the viewer’s nerves in a bad way. The same can also be said about the glacial speed of the plot. Don’t get me wrong, because there are incredible found footage horror flicks that can easily be categorized as slow-burns (e.g. the first PARANORMAL ACTIVITY, the sensation that was BLAIR WITCH PROJECT, and the criminally underrated HOME MOVIE). Those films kept delivering scares as they built up their super creepy plots, but FINAL PRAYER spends a ton of time developing stuff for its final 10 minutes. There simply aren’t many chilling bits in this film, save for the final 10 minutes.

I have a split opinion about FINAL PRAYER. On one hand, most of the film is rather unoriginal as we get a ton of tedious build-up that gets on the viewer’s nerves. On the other hand, the performances feel authentic and the ending is borderline genius. If the rest of the plot was nearly up to the level of the Lovecraftian inspired finale, this very well could have been one of the best found footage horror flicks of the last 10 years. As it is, I found FINAL PRAYER to be a mixed bag. There are fantastic qualities, but there are also mediocre bits and a rather unscary tone throughout that detracts from the film’s better moments. If you currently have no other horror films on your queue, then I’d tepidly recommend checking out FINAL PRAYER for its believable performances and the nightmarish finale. Other than that awesome ending, you’re not missing much.

Grade: C+

THE DEVIL’S CANDY (2017)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 19 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

Directed by: Sean Byrne

Written by: Sean Byrne

Starring: Ethan Embry, Shiri Appleby, Pruitt Taylor Vince, Kiara Glasco, Tony Amendola, Craig Nigh & Leland Orser

There were plenty of reasons to be excited for THE DEVIL’S CANDY. Tons of praise was heaped upon this film when it played the festival circuit and even more positive reviews followed when it was finally released this past spring. I purposely held off on watching this film, so I could see it for the first time during this year’s 31 Days of Horror. DEVIL’S CANDY is the sophomore effort of Sean Byrne, who previously helmed the insane Aussie shocker THE LOVED ONES. Also, just about everything for this movie looked like a perfect combination of creepy and kick-ass. Having finally seen it, I can safely say that THE DEVIL’S CANDY delivers the goods, even though it’s a tad overhyped and suffers from some flaws.

Artist Jesse Hellman (Ethan Embry) has just purchased a secluded farmhouse with his wife Astrid (Shiri Appleby) and daughter Zooey (Kiara Glasco). Things seem to be going pretty well, until Jesse begins to hear a strange demonic voice and his paintings take on a more sinister vibe. As the voice in Jesse’s head becomes progressively louder, he begins to lose track of time and his sanity threatens to slip. All the while, former psychotic resident Raymond Smilie (Pruitt Taylor Vince) comes knocking at Jesse’s door and begins to eyeball Zooey. Things get very creepy, very fast…partially due to the script’s great ideas and partially due to a ridiculously short running time that houses those great ideas.

On the positive side of things, THE DEVIL’S CANDY has fantastic performances, an overall eerie plot, and a grim atmosphere to boot. There is believable family chemistry between Ethan Embry, Shiri Appleby, and Kiara Glasco. This is particularly true of Embry and Glasco, who share an adorable daddy-daughter connection through their love of heavy metal music. Besides the three central characters, Pruitt Taylor Vince (who you may recognize from numerous thrillers and a handful of dark comedies) is 100% terrifying as the antagonist. Vince sells his role with an odd restrained delivery that gives way to shocking bursts of violence.

Speaking of violence, this movie gets batshit nuts during its final third. Up until that point, there is an atmospheric restrained approach to the story’s grislier bits. This film goes into places that are…uncomfortable (to say the least) and the suggested less-is-more approach makes the creepy moments even creepier. Some sound design and a couple of minimalist shots suggest graphic violence, instead of giving unflinching close-ups on carnage. This makes for a far more disturbing viewing than your average in-your-face gorefest. The film saves most of its brutally realistic violence for a finale in which all hell breaks loose (pun fully intended).

Where I find myself struggling in praising THE DEVIL’S CANDY stems from the short running time. There have been near-masterpieces of horror that have run under 80 minutes in length (e.g. [REC]). However, THE DEVIL’S CANDY packs tons of material into the space of a meager 79 minutes and it feels too rushed at points. Apparently, the festival cut of this film ran 11 minutes longer and I can’t help but think that some extra padding/character development would have greatly benefited the overall pacing of this film. That being said, there are very effective moments and strong ideas here. However, some of the better bits feel rushed or are altogether forgotten by the film’s final five minutes that quickly tie everything up with a bow on top.

There are lots of things that I really dug about THE DEVIL’S CANDY. The disturbing atmosphere was creepy the whole way through and the performances were pretty great all around. The film’s use of sound is especially unnerving, as incomprehensible demonic voices slightly drown out other characters when we cut to the stressed-out Jesse or psycho-killer Raymond. Still, the ridiculously short running time undercuts this film’s overall pacing. Certain scenes simply don’t have time to sink in because we immediately rush from one plot point to another. Overall, THE DEVIL’S CANDY is a solid scarefest, if not a tad overrated and undeniably flawed.

Grade: B+