W lesie dziś nie zaśnie nikt (Nobody Sleeps in the Woods Tonight, 2020)

W lesie dziś nie zaśnie nikt (Nobody Sleeps in the Woods Tonight) is a 2020 Polish horror film about a group of camping teens who are stalked, attacked, and murdered by mutants in the woods. It’s 10% Phenomenon by way of the aesthetic of the European forest and the house in which the mutants are sheltered by their mother, a solid 40% Friday the 13th per its teenage-camping-trip narrative, 20% Scream via the discussion of the “rules” of horror films, 15% C.H.U.D., 8% Housebound, 2% Fargo, and 3% X-Files black goo episode for some reason. Like certain things that advertise themselves as being 98% recycled material, it’s rugged, durable, and serviceable, but not that exciting.  

The film follows a standard gang of five teens who, along with their adult chaperone/instructor Iza (Gabriela Muskała), are guided through “Camp Adrenaline,” which not only separates the kids from their electronic devices but also appears to be at least partially punitive. At least that’s the impression that one gets from Julek (Michał Lupa), who I think is supposed to be “the fat one” but who just looks like, you know, a teenager, is explicitly stated to be there instead of at a South Korean eSports summit because of his parents’ concern regarding his hobbies (the kid has 900K YouTube subscribers, though, so that’s like a career, dad). There’s also handsome, athletic, and–based solely on the number of mobile devices he owns–presumably wealthy Daniel (Sebastian Dela), who is immediately attracted to blonde cardboard cutout Aniela (Wiktoria Gąsiewska), who honest-to-goodness curls her hair in preparation for the hike. Rounding out the teenage troupe is soft-spoken closeted kid Bartek (Stanisław Cywka), who seems excited to disconnect from social media and its accompanying jealousies and clout jockeying, and Zosia (Julia Wieniawa), our final girl who is haunted by the death of her family in a fiery car crash. 

No, you’re not having déjà vu. You have seen this before. You may not have seen it better, but you have seen it. 

Each of the deaths is nigh-identical to a kill you’ve seen before in the Friday the 13th movies. The first death, in which one of the kids is trapped in their sleeping bag and then bashed against a tree, is how Judy is killed in The New Blood (Part VII); the second, in which someone is impaled through the neck, has shades of the death of Jane (also from New Blood) and Jack (from the original film). There’s also a decapitation, which is a Friday staple, a head crushing and a person being bisected (both appear for the first time in Part III), and a woodchipper. The last of these accounts for the 2% Fargo mentioned above. I don’t know what it’s doing here, but as for that 10% Phenomenon, it turns out that the killers were the sons of a poor woods woman living in bucolic, pristine Polish woodland in her little adorable house, until one day they were turned into mutant cannibals (or at the very least cannibalistic humanoids) by the black goo inside of a meteorite* and were thereafter locked in their mother’s cellar (where they dwelled underground). We learn this from a man (Mirosław Zbrojewicz) who lives nearby, a postman who escaped from the terror twins some 30 years prior in the film’s opening, in a scene reminiscent of the expository scene in a lot of films but I went with Housebound because I am so very tired. When it’s not aping Friday the 13th, we also get Julek’s recitation of the six “sins” of horror films: curiosity (i.e., “let’s look inside”), disbelief (“it’s just the wind”), overconfidence (“it’s just a haunted house”), splitting up, having sex, and being unattractive, some of which have already been broken and the others follow shortly thereafter. 

Where this film triumphs over the forebears from which it borrows is in the kids themselves, who are all more charming than they have any real right to be, given that these could just as easily have been cardboard cutouts of people. Julek crushes on Zosia almost immediately, and attempts to compliment her in his own awkward way, mostly by comparing her to Sarah Connor, even before she squares off against the unstoppable killing machine(s). Zosia, for her part, finds this endearing, even quoting the T-800 back to him in a sweet moment. Daniel, for all his swaggering and posturing, turns out to be a virgin whose only relationship has been with a woman online, and he’s a secret stoner to boot. There’s also a sweet scene between Bartek and Aniela, in which the two bond over the absurdity of the social expectations placed on them, in which Bartek opens up about how his father is completely blind to his son’s sexual orientation, even when the kid brings home his boyfriends. It’s bittersweet in a way that Friday the 13th knockoffs and imitators rarely get to be; when Jason mows through a group of teenagers, it’s the deaths that are memorable while the characters, other than a few outliers who manage to make an impression, are usually interchangeable. That we the audience know that Aniela and Bartek are doomed lends an air of poignancy to Bartek’s bitterness about the difficulty of being gay in Poland and Aniela’s comiseration. The scene also leads into one of the film’s few genuine shocks, which elevates it by default. 

It’s also worth mentioning that there’s a strange little plot cul-de-sac in which Bartek escapes from the killers and makes his way to a small church, where he asks the priest (Piotr Cyrwus) to call for help. The priest initially claims that the church’s landline is out of service, but when the phone rings, he ditches this pretense and knocks Bartek. When the boy comes to, he’s tied to a chair with a ball gag in his mouth, but when the priest leaves to check and see why the woodchipper turned on by itself, Bartek frees himself and hides in the confessional, his fate left unknown for a pretty long period of time. It’s a scene fraught a truly weird energy where it seems like our buddy is in for some kind of sexual assault, and it feels extremely out of place. Bartek’s treated as kind of an afterthought once the killings begin, and even his fate feels more like a tied-up loose end than a logical plot progression. It also occurs that the situation feels a little bit like the gimp scene in Pulp Fiction, which means that this film really is 100% recycled material. 

It’s also worth noting that the gore here is largely understated. There are some dismemberments and even a decapitation, but on the scale of believability they hover somewhere around “Christian haunted house alternative.” Even in the film’s most cinematic scene, a flashback to Zosia’s father crawling out of the wreckage of his burning car while she watches, not only does the fire look fake, but it doesn’t even look like he’s in that much pain. A few times we see grue drop into frame from offscreen, but the combination of R-rated concept with mostly TV-14 content makes the whole thing feel smaller than the sum of its parts. It’s not bad, but it barely exceeds “fine.” 

*This fact is, and I cannot stress this enough, completely irrelevant. It could have been any MacGuffin, even just like, radiation or something, but for some reason it’s X-Files black oil.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

The Pool (2020)

I usually hate when a horror movie opens with a sneak preview of its own climactic violence, then rewinds the clock back to when everything to was peaceful just a few days before. It’s almost always a sign of the film not trusting its audience to be patient for the payoff, a cowardly reassurance that things will escalate if you hang around long enough. I’ll make an exception for the recent Thai creature feature The Pool, however, where that sneak preview serves an entirely different function. The film opens with its hero dazed & dehydrated at the bottom of a drained pool, fighting off a killer crocodile with only a bucket and few splintered furniture legs. In this case, the preview plays as a useful warning to the audience about the film’s budgetary restrictions. The CGI crocodile looks absurdly, unfathomably cheap, as if our sun-damaged hero is fighting a 2D photograph of a croc clipped out of a magazine. Instead of promising mayhem to come, the film is just being honest about the limits of what it can deliver, making sure the audience is on board with its bargain bin CGI upfront before wasting our time with less pressing concerns like dialogue, theme, or plot.

In essence, The Pool is a bargain bin riff on The Shallows, in which a young couple is stranded in a drained swimming pool with a killer crocodile. Between The Shallows, Crawl, and 47 Meters Down, we’ve been gifted a few solid confined-space aquatic horrors in recent summers, which does put The Pool at a slight disadvantage considering the limited resources it’s competing with. It has no choice but to pave over its budgetary restrictions with a playful sense of humor, then, making sure the audience has a fun time even if not an extravagant one. In most of our hero’s attempts to escape the 6-meter concrete walls of his swimming pool prison, everything is just out of reach, amusingly so. A charger cord saves his phone from falling into the water just long enough for him to barely miss catching it; a Pizza Hut® delivery driver misses his calls for help because he’s briefly tethered to the drain by his wallet chain; a ladder lowered into the pool by strangers rolls away as he approaches it because it’s attached to a precarious stack of pipes. There are two major obstacles to survive in this picture: a cheaply rendered crocodile & an absurdist Rube Goldberg contraption designed specifically to keep him in place.

And then, just when you think The Pool is going to play everything for cheap laughs, it gets shockingly fucked up. Its flash-forward preview of the killer croc warns the audience of the film’s limited budget, but there’s no such accommodation for its wild shifts in tone. This is fun, upsetting trash that’s eager to push its limited scenario to its furthest extremes, alternating between slapstick gags & vicious cruelty without much notice. I will not spoil the shock value violence of its third act, so I’ll just report that I genuinely gasped once I got there. Weirdly, there’s also a thematic undertone to the film that suggests it might be Pro-Life propaganda. Otherwise goofball characters discuss in severe, worried tones about how “abortion is illegal, and also a sin”, and the killer croc herself only really lashes out to protect her eggs from being eaten by her fellow starved prisoners. I honestly don’t know what to make of that thematic swerve, nor do I know what to make of the film’s harsh shifts from broadly comedic schtick to nasty ultraviolence. All I can say is that I’m impressed that a film this cheap & this unassuming managed to surprise me at all, especially considering its reliance on a flash-forward prologue.

-Brandon Ledet

The Exotic Ones (1968)

I don’t know how useful this review of the 1968 creature feature The Exotic Ones (aka The Monster and the Stripper) will be to anyone reading it, since the film is very precisely my exact personal brand of trash. This locally-set novelty attempts to combine the Roger Corman rubber-suit monster movie with the post-Russ Meyer nudie cutie into one perfect swinging-60s trash pile. It has so much fun establishing a nonstop party atmosphere on its French Quarter strip club set that it goes to Matt Farley levels of effort to delay the inevitable disruption of its horrific monster – almost a full hour into its 90-minure runtime. This movie has nothing on its boozy, lingerie-clad mind beyond ogling as many burlesque performers as it can before it must sober up and deliver the horror genre payoffs promised on its poster. It’s a sloppy, horny, locally flavored party film with no clear themes or purpose beyond the cheap, simple pleasures of Bourbon Street hedonism; it’s also my new best friend.

Bourbon Street mafia types abduct a swamp-dwelling sasquatch known as The Swamp Thing from the Louisiana bayous (played by rockabilly musician Sleepy La Beef) and force him to perform onstage as part of a cheap strip club act. In color! You can pretty much guess how the story plays out once the “monster” (a shirtless, hairy oaf with vague caveman features) is displayed for the public, assuming you’ve seen any monster-in-captivity movie released since 1933’s King Kong. The Exotic Ones delays those tedious plot concerns for as long as it can manage, though, saving the entirety of its creature feature narrative for its final half hour. Everything that precedes that third-act genre shift is just a parade of go-go dancers, burlesque performers, and various other salacious sideshow acts. Some slight attention is paid to fabricating a rivalry between the club’s newest act (a shy R&B singer who’s reluctant to strip for tips) and its long-established queen bee (a daredevil stripper with flaming titty tassels and drag queen eyebrows), but it doesn’t amount to much. You can guess which one the monster falls in love with once he arrives to the scene, can’t you? And which one taunts him into a rage? You’ve pretty much already seen this movie, outside the specific quirks of its strip routines, and the producers wisely pack the screen with as large of a variety of them as possible to keep you alert & entertained.

The Exotic Ones very quickly won me over as a fan with its opening newsreel-style introduction to New Orleans as a city – a rapid-fire montage that was clearly inspired by Russ Meyer’s strip club “documentary” Mondo Topless. Machine gun-paced cuts of strippers & French Quarter storefronts assault the audience as a beat-reporter narrator invites us onto “a street they call Bourbon” in a city that’s “sleepy by day, psychedelic by night.” It’s not exactly hyperbole when he describes Mardi Gras as “a time of reckless abandonment,” but the monologue is still deliciously overwritten & tonally chaotic – harshly juxtaposing a “Get a load of this filth!” moralism with tantalizing shots of naked, gyrating flesh. I personally loved seeing local 1960s sleaze-joints documented with the same reverent, drooling eye that was typically reserved for notorious prostitution hotspots like Amsterdam’s “Red Light District” or New York City’s 42nd Street porno theater strip. I don’t know that a New Orleans-specific remake of Mondo Topless disguised as a dirt-cheap monster movie is exactly the movie most audiences needed in their lives, but it is exactly the one I needed in mine.

Judging by most genre nerds’ boredom with the Ed Wood-penned Orgy of the Dead (a film I’m personally fond of, to my discredit), this movie’s 5% monster mayhem, 95% strip routines mixture will likely not win over everyone. The go-go strip routines and the surprisingly gory violence are both far more enthusiastically wild & erratic than those in Orgy, but you must already be on the hook for that genre imbalance for the formula to work on you. It seems that even the film’s own producers—June & Ron Ormond—weren’t entirely sold on the artistic merits of this kind of amoral hedonism. Shortly after The Exotic Ones‘s release (and a life-threatening plane crash) the couple shifted into making fire & brimstone Christian propaganda meant to scare audiences away from the temptations of Hell. Oh well. I personally could have watched a hundred Bourbon Street monster movies in this same vein, but no party lasts forever – not even the “reckless abandonment” of Mardi Gras.

-Brandon Ledet

The X from Outer Space (1967)

The standard complaint about most kaiju movies is that they feature too much human-to-human interaction and too little Giant Monster action. There has never been a single Godzilla movie that hasn’t suffered complaints that there wasn’t enough Godzilla in it, regardless of how that true that is in its specific case. What a lot of people don’t realize is that a pure 100% Monster Action kaiju movie would almost certainly be a repetitive bore. Yes, the heavy metal imagery & cheap-thrills payoffs of watching a giant creature smash buildings to crumbs is inherently more exciting than listening to scientific government types cook up a plan to stop it (expect maybe in the brilliant bureaucracy satire Shin Godzilla), but if kaiju movies didn’t break that mayhem up with something, the spectacle would quickly become a monotonous bore.

What I love most about The X from Outer Space is that it breaks up its Monster Mayhem spectacle with so much on-the-ground human drama that it feels as if it’s actively trolling its audience. If it weren’t for the monster on the poster, there’d be no implication that this was a kaiju movie during its opening hour, two-thirds of its total runtime. In the meantime, the movie putters around outer space to a snazzy samba score – like a hip, jazzy update to vintage Flash Gordon radio serials with a (mostly) Japanese cast. There are a few run-ins with “space sickness,” love-triangle melodrama, and a UFO that’s shaped like a glowing pot pie to drum up some conflict before the monster arrives, but it all registers as lighthearted fluff – deliberately so. By the time the film’s doomed space crew pauses their mission for a fun, carefree holiday at their company’s moon base it’s clear no one is in a rush to fight off any giant monsters, at least not while the party vibes are still alive.

Once “the space monster Guilala” does hatch from its space-spore incubator, he does go full Monster Mayhem on any and all Japanese infrastructure he can smash by hand, laser beam, and fireball. By saving all its kaiju spectacle payoffs for its final half hour, The X from Outer Space can afford to allow Guilala to rampage on uninterrupted for long stretches, as there’s little time for his mayhem to backslide into monotony. Even then, the character design for Guilala has too much Big Goofball energy to be taken fully seriously – falling somewhere between the dorky giant-bird looks of Big Bird, The Giant Claw, and Q: The Winged Serpent. His motivation for smashing up Japanese infrastructure is that he’s just a little hangry. The fictional compound the space cadets synthesize to stop that temper tantrum is somehow even sillier than his motivator: guilalanium. Watching Guilala smash the miniature sets beneath him is absolutely adorable, which might not be the exact effect most kaiju movies are aiming for.

The X from Outer Space is too purposefully, flippantly campy to be taken seriously as the pinnacle of the kaiju genre (at least not while Godzilla vs. Hedorah outshines it in every conceivable way). Between its adorable miniature space rockets, its goofball bird monster, and its willingness to pause any conflict for a jazzy soiree, the movie’s overall tone is decidedly Cute. The movie only makes vague gestures towards the Horrors of the Atomic Age that usually concern the genre, while it mostly busies itself by having a swinging good time. Still, I do think there’s something to the peculiar way it withholds all of its kaiju action for its third act, where it unloads its rubber-suit monster mayhem in one continuous, concluding flood. That choice sidesteps the usual complaint about lack of kaiju action in kaiju movies by leaving the audience with the strongest dose of the stuff at the very end, making for a potent final impression. This particular kaiju action just happens to be very, very goofy – adorably so.

-Brandon Ledet

Underwater (2020)

One warm night outside The Broad Theater in July of 2017, we were chatting with friends who happened to attend the same screening of the psychedelic gem Funeral Parade of Roses as us. When asked about what they’ve been up to lately, a buddy groaned that they were working on “some dumb under-the-sea monster movie with Kristen Stewart” that was in production. For the longest time, I was struck by the dismissive tone of that complaint, as if they were currently working on Paul Blart: Mall Cop 3 instead of the coolest-sounding project to ever be greenlit. I immediately began salivating over the prospect of watching KStew square off against deep sea monstrosities in a schlocky creature feature, an excitement I’d have to hold onto for three years as the movie suffered a series of post-production delays. And now, having experienced the final product myself, I can look back to see that our buddy’s nonplussed attitude was probably the more appropriate level of enthusiasm. It turns out that the Kristen Stewart deep-sea monster movie is just okay, nothing to dork out about.

Like last year’s Captive State, Underwater feels like the exact kind of generic sci-fi schlock that usually goes straight to VOD streaming platforms but somehow instead broke free to wide theatrical release. Everything from its vague title, to the over-explanatory newspaper headlines that provide its opening-credits exposition (“REALLY BIG DRILL,” “DRILL REAL BIG”), to naming its corporate villain Titan Industries, feels like the bargain brand facsimile of a Real Movie. The only distinguishing factor at play that signals this is a proper Hollywood production is the presence of a few over-qualified actors. In the cases of Kristen Stewart & Vincent Cassel as the central heroic duo who wage war against invading sea monsters, the overambitious casting is a blessing that elevates the material. In the unfortunate case of human colostomy bag T.J. Miller, it’s a curse. It should be noted to all concerned that Underwater’s T.J. Miller problem is a major problem. His character’s comic “relief” is constant for the entire time that he remains alive (far too long) so that he never fades into the background enough for you to forget that you’re watching a movie that stars a known abuser. I will forever love KStew’s unshakable sense of detached cool, but it’s not enough to cover up the stench of Miller’s obnoxious presence here, no matter how gruesomely he dies when his time comes.

As with most deep-sea aquatic horrors, Underwater mostly functions the same as any post-Alien spaceship thriller. It just skips a lot of the usual atmospheric preamble to jump right into its monster action. We open in a corporate Hell-future where Stewart & crew are working at an oil facility that mines directly into the ocean floor with seemingly the world’s largest drill. This fracking experiment throws our heroes into immediate crisis before we even get to know their names. Stewart teases a pensive, jaded narration track as if we’re about to watch a calm mood piece, but her inner thoughts are immediately interrupted by the deep-sea facility being attacked from all sides by creatures unleashed from beneath the ocean floor. Using her elite hacking skills as a ship mechanic, Stewart navigates the crumbling facility by bypassing its failing computer systems to open & close jammed doors as she flees to safety. She picks up a small crew of survivors along the way (including the ship’s captain, played by Cassel) and scrambles to save as many lives as possible by trekking to a far-off bay of escape pods. This doomed mission includes walking outside of the facility across the ocean floor as the monsters swirl around them in the deep-sea darkness. Few survive.

All told, Underwater is a modestly serviceable, 3-star aquatic horror that’s only elevated by the casting of its leads, the last-minute escalation of its monster mayhem, and the novelty of giving its creatures the same fracking origin story that Monster Trucks gave Creech. Setting its crisis on the ocean floor was smart in a few ways, as the darkness allows for a few moments of surprise and conveniently hides its cheap-end CG effects. Unfortunately, it also makes the film resemble far too many deep sea & deep space creature features that precede it – ones that don’t star T.J. Miller. For the movie to truly distinguish itself in any significant way, it would’ve had to make some grand gesture to break free from its subgenre’s expectations: a found-footage framing device, a “one-shot” editing gimmick, a last-second tie-in to the Cloverfield franchise, something. Instead, its monsters just get bigger & more plentiful until it’s over, delivering exactly what you’d expect from “some dumb under-the-sea monster movie with Kristen Stewart.” I thought that novelty would be more than enough to swoon over, but it turns out it’s just enough to pass the time. It’s fine.

-Brandon Ledet

The Tingler (1959)

It’s becoming apparent that I’ve been foolishly overlooking William Castle’s value as a visual stylist & an auteur. Thanks to my own heroes’ reverence for Castle in works like the John Waters book Role Models & Joe Dante’s Matinee, I’ve always thought of him as a charming huckster & a good anecdote. Most coverage of William Castle’s art understandably focuses on his gleeful love for & exploitation of theatrical gimmicks: 3D tech, plastic skeletons that “fly” over the audience in key scenes, offering insurance policies to the audience, etc. As endearing as those playful pranks are and as big of an impression they made on the young genre nerds who grew up to become the producer’s biggest champions, it’s kind of a shame that they’ve wholly overshadowed his other merits as a filmmaker. After catching the Joan Crawford psychobiddy Strait-Jacket earlier this year and now the infamously gimmick-dependent The Tingler this Halloween, I’m shocked by how little praise Castle gets as a visual stylist, a boldly visionary genre cinema schlockteur. His imagery is often just as vividly memorable as his marketing gimmicks, which is something that needs to be stressed more often when he’s being praised.

1959’s The Tingler is a perfect illustration of the fight for attention between Castle’s visual work & his offscreen theatrical gimmickry. The movie is most often remembered for its so-called Percepto! gimmick – which simulated spine-tingling sensations referenced onscreen with electrically rigged theater seats that would mildly shock audiences during the bigger scares. The titular “tingler” in the film is explained to be a centipedal creature that lives in each of our spines, growing into massive rock-hard spinal obstructions whenever we are stricken with fear. Castle himself appears onscreen to introduce the film, instructing audiences to scream for relief from this rigid-back, tingly spine sensation whenever we get too scared, or else our respective tinglers will become too strong and crush our spinal columns from within. This insane mythology was conceived by screenwriter Robb White when he found himself studying centipede specimens around the time Aldous Huxley encouraged him to experiment with LSD. Castle’s gift was being able to transform those William S. Burroughs-level dark forces in the screenplay into a playful theatrical prank that’s fun for the whole family. And yet, as much as the Percepto! gimmick has aged into kitschy fun, Castle found other ways to accentuate the surrealism of this acid-soaked centipede premise in imagery that borders on legitimate fine art.

Vincent Price stars as a frustrated mad scientist studying the phenomenon of the tingler, increasingly obsessed with extracting the creature from a patient’s spine at the exact moment they’re effectively crippled with fear. In-between struggling for funding, fighting through skepticism from his peers, and engaging in bitter spats with his flagrantly adulterous wife, Price experiments with inciting terror in potential subjects (read: victims) in an attempt to extract a tingler at its most rigid. He starts with performing autopsies on already-executed prisoners, but diabolically graduates to shooting large amounts of LSD into his own arm in an attempt to scare himself and pulling a gun on his philandering wife to frighten her into frenzy. In each case, the subjects’ involuntary screams interrupt the experiment before completion, “releasing the fear tensions” before the tingler can fully take shape. Eventually, though, the mad scientist finds his his perfect specimen in the spine of a mute woman who cannot scream to dissolve her tingler. Once he inevitably frees the monster from her body, it runs loose, causing havoc onscreen and—through Castle’s Percepto! gimmick—in the very theater where the audience is watching the film. The tingler itself is an adorable centipede puppet operated by clearly visible twine, but Castle manages to squeeze more pure entertainment value out of those limited means than any working filmmaker could with big-budget modern tech.

Of course, you can’t entirely separate what Castle achieves as a visual artist from the novelty appeal of his theatrical pranks, since everything onscreen is toiling in service of that almighty gimmickry. Even just the long-winded, convoluted mythology of a fear-feeding centipede that causes spinal tingling in the moments of intense fear is such an over-the-top justification for the Percepto! stunt, making for one of the most delightfully bizarre B-movie plots in history (especially when you factor in Price’s onscreen experiments with mainlining LSD). Once the tingler is loose, though, the film’s formal experiments with theatrical cinema get even more impressively bizarre. The creature sneaks into an old-fashioned silent era movie house to terrorize the audience there, mimicking the theatrical environment where The Tingler would be screening in real life (an effect enhanced greatly for me by catching the film at the historic Prytania Theatre). It crawls across the projector light, revealing a kaiju-scale silhouette of its centipedal body. Vincent Price “cuts the lights” in the theater, shouting encouragements in the dark for the audience to scream in a collective effort to subdue the tingler, lest we suffer the wrath of the Percepto! chairs. Castle’s gimmickry is not a distraction from his visual artistry, but rather a commercial justification for it – finding a wonderful middle ground between surreal art & cheap amusement.

The tingler itself only represents a portion of the visual novelties Castle screentests here. Disembodied heads scream in a pitch-black surrealistic void as a visual representation of fear. A haunted house display disrupts the film’s black & white palette with splashes of blood-red color as one character attempts to scare a tingler out of another. The movie theater itself becomes a confining menace as the projector light shuts off, trapping the audience alone in a room with the monster they paid to see attack fictional others. William Castle’s playfulness extends beyond his imagination for attention-grabbing gimmickry to push schlocky premises into the realm of vividly graphic, surreal art. I have not been giving him the respect he’s owed for that willingness to experiment with the boundaries of cinema myself, and The Tingler’s a perfect example of these experiments’ dual extremes as silly novelty & high art.

-Brandon Ledet

Nightbeast (1982)

The opening twenty minutes of Nightbeast may very well be my favorite movie ever made. The other hour is pretty decent too. This $14k regional cheapie wastes no time trying to win its audience over, immediately flooding the screen with gorgeous D.I.Y. nightbeast action in a way that promises a nonstop low-fi special effects showcase. An incredible combo of collage animations & hand-built miniatures stage a spaceship crash in the forested wilderness outside Baltimore. The titular alien beast emerges from his wrecked ship with a raygun in hand and commences vaporizing all cops & townies in his path, revealing Looney Tunes body outlines where their corpses should be. Crosscuts between disembodied handguns firing and nightbeast reaction shots alternate at a strobelight pace. When not vaporizing victims in The Arrival-style animation effects, the nightbeast tears open their torsos with his giant claw, leaving a trail of post-Romero intestinal gore. It’s an incredible opening that’s extremely light on dialogue and extremely heavy on nightbeast. Then the creature loses his raygun and the movie loses its immediacy, slipping into a much more familiar mode of microbudget genre storytelling.

Once Nightbeast settles into constructing a plot, it isn’t sure what to do with itself, so it instead opts out in a way many late-70s, early-80s creature features did: lifting its story wholesale from Jaws. Despite protests from the town sheriff and the local science community, the grandstanding mayor of the small town the where the nightbeast crashed refuses to cancel a fundraising party & evacuate the city, putting his citizenry at unnecessary risk. There’s also a local, unrelated threat from a misogynist biker who strangles women who reject his sexual advances. Oh yeah, and the sheriff makes sensual love with one of his deputies. That’s it, at least until the nightbeast re-emerges for one final outburst of explosions & gore in the third “act.” It’s clear that local microbudget legend Don Dohler and his crew at the aptly titled Amazing Film Productions (including an early “music by” co-credit for a teenage J.J. Abrams) poured almost all of their money & effort into that bewildering first reel, gambling that the opening spectacle would be enough to carry the hour of comedown filler that follows. They weren’t wrong! There’s plenty of typical B-movie charm to the concluding hour of Nightbeast to maintain a goodwill for the cheap-o production on the whole, and then its final outburst of D.I.Y. practical effects spectacle is just enough to freshen your memory that it started off as an all-timer of a creature feature.

I’m a habitual sucker for this kind of communal “Let’s put on a show!” D.I.Y. filmmaking, and that enthusiasm for no-budget genre films may be required at the door to love this frontloaded frivolity for what it is. Despite featuring more sexual sleaze & gross-out gore than either camp (not to mention frequent John Waters player George Stover), this plays as a very wholesome middle ground between 1950s drive-in filler and Matt Farley’s regional horror comedies like Don’t Let the Riverbeast Get You!. The titular nightbeast spills a lot of blood & viscera in this small Maryland town, but in lingering close-ups he’s so charmingly quaint that I can’t help but think of him as a harmless cutie (especially in comparison with the grotesque serial-strangler subplot). Most audiences would be understandably frustrated with the way the film slips into Jaws-riffing tedium after the alien beast loses his spectacular cop-melting raygun, but I personally didn’t mind the cooldown too, too much. If anything, the go-nowhere melodrama in the second act and the final-minutes return to the initial spectacle provided context as to just how cheap this production really was, only making those opening twenty minutes more incredible in retrospect. The ambition of that opening is must-see trash cinema excellence, whether or not you find the more pedestrian hour that follows as charming as I do.

-Brandon Ledet

The Head Hunter (2019)

I was a little surprised to find the online enthusiasm for the cheap-o swords & snow fantasy horror The Head Hunter so muted & reserved, at least among the critics & bloggers I follow. Early reviews from the festival circuit praise it as an underdog gem that barely scraped together a $30,000 budget but somehow make a compelling feature out of it. Since it’s hit VOD, however, it’s been met with a polite 3-star shrug, which is strange since this is the exact kind of scrappy, make-do filmmaking genre nerds usually celebrate. Admittedly, I had a similar muted reaction to the low-budget, high-ambition fantasy-horror Hagazussa earlier this summer, so I’m guilty of this exact crime elsewhere, but I really do think The Head Hunter strives to be more of a traditionally entertaining crowd pleaser in its own cheap-o way than that fellow curio. Its scope is limited and it’s extremely light on dialogue, but it moves for its entire 72min runtime as it reaches for one grand, grotesque payoff to release all its atmospheric tension. That concrete payoff totally worked for me in a way the loftier Elevated Horror ambitions of Hagazussa did not, and I was surprised to find there wasn’t more of a fist-pumping, whooping-and-hollering reception out there to reward its budget-defying efforts.

In this post-Game of Thrones swords & snow fantasy horror, a medieval monster slayer seeks to add the head of the beast that killed his daughter to his trophy collection. That’s it; that’s the entire plot. It’s such a simplified, constricted premise for a feature film that it combines both the fridging & the macho-warrior-humanized-by-raising-a-daughter tropes that weigh down most modern action blockbusters into a single meat-headed motivator. What’s interesting about The Head Hunter is that it turns that setup into a picture about the process of beast-slaying instead indulging in full-on action-horror (which would require effects work far beyond its budget). This is essentially the Bon Appétit Test Kitchen video of monster-hunting. One gruff medieval warrior with a Nick Offerman-level scowl makes healing potions out of animal carcasses and hangs the ooey-gooey severed heads of his beastly opponents on his trophy wall of spikes. Of course, audiences would generally prefer to see those offscreen battles than the daily preparatory chores & bloody cleanup aftermath we get instead, and the monster slayings themselves do essentially amount to an [IMAGINE A BIGGER BUDGET HERE] insert. Personally, I found this setup to be an impressive device in low-budget filmmaking shrewdness. It knows it can’t convincingly stage battle scenes on its limited production scale, so it makes up for it by leaning into what it can do well: grotesque creature designs & a nihilistic mood.

Readjusting my expectations to The Head Hunter’s budgetary limitations & emphasis on process set me up to be absolutely floored by its climactic monster battle—which is onscreen, extensive, and shockingly cerebral in its brutality considering how shallow the premise can feel in the lead-up. After all the film’s withholding & obscuration, it really digs deep into the hurt & anger shared between our beast slayer & the monster who killed his daughter. All the frustration of feeling left out of previous battles melts away as you’re invited into a cramped, chaotic space for an up-close look at the only one that matters. There’s plenty to praise in The Head Hunter in terms of low-budget filmmaking craft: the attention to detail in its practical gore & costume design; its handheld cinematography that alternate POVs between Evil Dead monster cams & heroic video game screengrabs; its utilization of fog machines & natural lighting to enhance its no-budget forest sets; etc. What’s most impressive to me, however, is how physically & psychologically brutal its climactic showdown feels after that slow, methodical build to the moment – something it could not achieve without withholding the other monster battles before it (especially considering its budget). That choice seems to have alienated a lot of potential genre nerds hoping for more straightforward action-horror, but I personally found it to be incredibly impressive in both craft & effect.

-Brandon Ledet