For the third week in a row horror movies dominate the titles I’ve received. Perhaps the DVD companies know something about the 2016 we don’t. If it brings many more titles like “Wrecker” (2015 / XLrator Media / 83m / $14.99 / NR) it will be a grim year indeed. This low budget indie has two young women on the road to a party (why else would they be taking two bags of weed and a backseat full of beer?) when they run afoul of a truck driven by a man whose face is never seen and who has both an upside down crucifix and a right side up pentacle dangling from his windshield. He may be confused as to whether he follows black or white magic but he stalks and terrorizes the women after they have the temerity to pass him and flip the bird. If this sounds familiar it should; it may replace Dennis Weaver with two obnoxious young woman and a tanker truck with a tow truck but it would not be going too far to describe director Michael Bafaro’s (who also co-scripted) film as a complete rip-off of Steven Spielberg’s (adapted by Richard Matheson from his own short story). Things go way beyond homage as every event in the earlier film is repeated here down to the color of the car. The only good thing I can say about this production is that Andrea Whitburn, who plays the ill-fated woman riding shotgun, deserves much better. This film is further guilty of far worse than being derivative; it’s downright boring.
Very nearly anything would seem much better viewed shortly after “Wrecker” which may explain why I found most of “Kill Game” (2013 / Cinedigm / 102m / $14.93 / NR) reasonably good. This slasher whodunit has a group of friends being knocked off in various unpleasant ways by a killer wearing a dress, mask and wig that makes him (or her) resemble Marlene Dietrich by way of Mrs. Bates. The friends practiced vicious pranking while in high school and one of their jokes resulted in the death of a classmate. Someone it seems is revenging the young man’s death, but who? Might it be his twin brother, new in town and whose existence was previously unsuspected? There isn’t exactly anything new here – and there are several plot holes – but at least the familiar ingredients are tropes not a wholesale lifting of someone else’s story. Technical aspects are good; the direction doesn’t let things lag and the acting is sufficient to the task at hand. It is thus disappointing that the film goes off the rails after the revelation of the killer and a final image that’s the very definition of WTF?
I wasn’t expecting much from “Little Dead Rotting Hood” (2015 / Cinedigm / 88m / $14.93 / NR); the title alone promised a groan-inducing cheesefest of epic proportions. That it hailed from The Asylum did not bode for a quality experience – though I have to admit their films while tending to be pretty awful are also usually lots of fun. This particular effort however is actually quite good – of course we’re talking horror movie good not Ingmar Bergman good but coming from the same company responsible for the “Sharknado” flicks that’s saying something. The opening has Grandma (Marina Sirtis in another one of those cameos that waste her exceptional talent) killing granddaughter Samantha (Bianca A. Santos) and then opening a vein over the young woman’s shallow grave. This double sacrifice is intended to transfer granny’s werewolf fighting powers to the lass. (How it is the older woman acquired them without having to expire is never addressed.)
And this turns out to be not a moment too soon because the small Appalachian town is soon plagued with lycanthropes and Sheriff Adam (Eric Balfour) is perplexed to find neither guns nor flamethrowers are of much use against the furry shapeshifters. Fortunately Abigail rises from her dirt nap to become the title character, kind of like Buffy except of course she kills werewolves and she like, you know, dead. That’s pretty much all there is to the story but “Little Dead Rotting Hood” possesses some surprising virtues such as some decently crafted dialogue – and with the underrated Balfour and Patrick Muldoon as his deputy it has the actors to do it justice. Most intriguingly for a low budget affair that was no doubt shot quickly the film does a very nice job of capturing the atmosphere of a small rural town. The horror film isn’t exactly reinvented here but there are enough unexpected touches to lift this genre effort out of the ordinary.
Thrillers of one kind and another – and of varying degrees of value – are also on hand. “Close Range” (2015 / XLrator Media / 85m / $14.99 / NR) is a showcase for action star Scott Adkins, who is also one of the producers so he has no one but himself to blame. A preamble has Colt McReady (Adkins – and ouch about that name) rescuing his niece from Mexican drug dealers who have nabbed her because her stepfather has been shorting them on deliveries. The banditos pursue partly because Adkins has killed one of the druglord’s sons during his mission and partly because he’s unintentionally taken along a flash drive attached to a keychain that also held the handcuffs key. There’s little time to ponde why such a crucial item would be so cavalierly treated before the usual one man against many scenario unfolds. The only time I was taken by surprise was when Colt’s sister (Caitlin Keats) grabs a semi-automatic from the wall and starts shooting baddies alongside her brother. Given Adkins’ impressive physical skills it’s disappointing that most of the action consists of gunfire and precious little hand-to-hand combat. (And given that Adkins is a decent enough actor it’s a further pity that there’s next to no character development in the script for either him or any of the performers.) It’s also a tad ridiculous that with only a limited amount of ammo our hero just keeps blasting way even when there’s clearly nothing he can hit. Action fans who are satisfied merely by lots of bang-bang may find this by-the-numbers flick a satisfactory outing but few others will be so easily pleased.
There’s more depth and some real nail-biting provided by “Adulterers” (2015 / RLJ Entertainment / 97m / $27.97 / NR) in which Samuel Deuprey returns home unexpectedly bearing flowers and dark chocolates to celebrate his one-year wedding anniversary only to discover his wife Lola (Stephanie Charles) making the beast with two backs with another man, Damien (Mehcad Brooks). Holding the two naked at gunpoint he puts them through a variety of humiliations while deciding whether or not to kill one or the other or both. At one point he even suggests his wife shoot her lover and they’ll bury the guy under the backyard rose bushes; she seems willing enough to take that option to save her own skin. He also forces Damien to phone his own wife and relate the predicament in which he’s become ensconced. And there’s one very surprising turn of events I won’t even hint at here. That Damien is black and has been more successful than Samuel (and may outstrip him in other departments) remains a subtext but an inescapable one. Because Lola and Damien spend their entire screen time nude some might term this an erotic thriller but that would be far off the mark. There’s nothing terribly revealing, nothing remotely sexy about the proceedings and no frontal below the waist footage of either.
Those who might suppose that three characters in one room for an hour and a half would be unexciting would also be in error. Writer/director H. M. Coakley has scripted tensely believable dialogue and kept his camera and performers moving so that while the confines are claustrophobic the visuals are never boring. And if none of the dialogue is quotably memorable the script does build sympathy for all the characters. None of this would matter much if his actors weren’t up to the task and these three decidedly are. Special note should be made of Faris who delivers a tour de force portrayal of a man both hurt and outraged and dangerously unhinged. “Adulterers” is worth the price of admission for his performance alone. If there is a mis-step anywhere here it is at the very end when Coakley decides to go for ambiguity and suddenly pulls in factors previously unhinted at. Try to ignore that and relish Faris in a turn that, if there’s any justice, ought to propel him to the A-list of screen actors.
With “Heist” (2015 / Lionsgate Premiere / 93m / $24.99 BR / R) we have a thriller that’s close to perfection. Health insurance has run out for Vaughn’s (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) little girl so he approaches his boss, The Pope (Robert DeNiro) – who runs a riverboat gambling establishment – for a loan to save her life. As the amount needed is a cool third of a million dollars The Pope has Vaughn promptly tossed out of his office. Vaughn then decides to throw in with a thuggish employee, Cox (Dave Bautista), who has suggested robbing the casino. Things go awry pretty quickly (this is not the kind of heist caper where much of the running time is taken up with the mechanics of the operation) and when the getaway driver gets cold feet and drives off the remaining trio (one mortally wounded) hijack a crosstown bus. This decision is every bit as problematic as you might assume. The police – some of whom are in The Pope’s pocket – are soon in pursuit and Cox has to be restrained from killing passengers to force the police to let them escape (a private flight to Mexico has been arranged).
The tension never lets up in this tightly paced endeavor. Naturally you want Vaughn to get away and with enough money to save his little girl’s life but any such outcome seems improbable. (And actually part of the climax does depend on a huge improbability but you may not consider it until well after the fact.) it’s been revealed in a preamble that The Pope terminates those who steal from him with extreme prejudice so even if Vaughn gets away from the law his future seems far from rosy, particularly since this theft could expose a money-laundering operation for some Oriental mobsters – this by the way leads to a sub-plot where The Pope’s dicey relations with his own daughter are explored. This is one rich script courtesy of Stephen Cyrus Sepher that even knows to include character exploration and some subtle comic touches, such as the one bus passenger who is apparently returning from a late night furry party (and has a choice bit of dialogue). Director Scott Mann knows that the tighter a thriller the more effective it is – and at just barely over an hour and a half this is one tight thriller. The cast is terrific though this is Morgan’s movie pretty much all the way and he’s excellent. DeNiro in a somewhat lesser role plays the kind of character he’s all too familiar with but he brings freshness and complexity to the role. Don’t pass this one up.