Double Feature: Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials (2015) & Maze Runner: The Death Cure (2018)

If you haven’t seen the review for the first film, you can check it out HERE.

Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials (2015)

Director: Wes Ball

Cast: Dylan O’Brien, Kaya Scodelario, Thomas Brodie-Sangster, Ki Hong Lee, Giancarlo Esposito, Dexter Darden, Alexander Flores, Jacob Lofland, Rosa Salazar, Patricia Clarkson, Aidan Gillen, Lili Taylor, Barry Pepper, Alan Tudyk

After having escaped the Maze, the Gladers now face a new set of challenges on the open roads of a desolate landscape filled with unimaginable obstacles. – IMDB

The Scorch Trials picks up right after the events of the first film when they escape the maze and is flown away to a closed compound which they eventually realize has ulterior motives which takes them on the run again. With both WCKD and the new dangers in the new desert landscape in the midst, the group has changed a little but still they are working together in hopes to find a rumored safe haven.

Its no secret that I’m a big fan of The Maze Runner books so its even more exciting to see that the films do live up to the world building and atmosphere of each desolate place that Thomas and the Gladers traverse. Much like its first film, The Scorch Trials excels in creating those two elements really well. The second film has a lot more than just an empty space with an ever-changing maze, this time its a vast desert landscape but shows the deterioration of time and battles and such with its ruins scattered around. It gives a better idea of what the world has now become and the dangerous creatures called Cranks that have inhabited it which are basically zombies. They are the reason that WCKD is looking for the cure with belief that the kids are immune. While the film market is saturated with zombie films at this point, perhaps its the fact that Scorch Trials brings out the “zombies” as an unexpected element adds to the surprise element a little.

Usually, I’d complain about the runtime as this one does go over the 2 hour mark. However, The Scorch Trials keeps things action-packed and builds up on the tension of each scene, making the film very entertaining and captivating to watch for the most part as it moves from one quick-paced scene to the next from one dangerous situation and escape to the next one. These spaces where the action is taking place also range quite a bit from dilapidated buildings to sewers to vents. Even the Cranks themselves have their own evolution in having a variety of two as we can see from the film. The visuals here do add to the whole environment and setting for the film.

Despite its long runtime, character development does leave a bit to be desired. All the characters don’t really expand a lot on terms of personality. The focal characters, Thomas (Dylan O’Brien) and Teresa (Kaya Scodelario) extend their storyline a little to build up their purpose and where they stand after the events of the maze. Aside from them, in my opinion the characters that felt more well-constructed through his actions is Minho (Ki Hong Lee). This film brings out a lot of where the loyalties lie. While the lack of character development was acceptable in the base movie, it feels like the supporting characters could benefit from a little more depth especially for Newt (Thomas Brodie-Sangster) who was a fun character in the first film and while this film gives him more screen time still feels like it doesn’t quite do justice to his character completely. Breaking out of the maze also means that they now have new groups of people to deal with including one group led by Jorge, played by Giancarlo Esposito and the other led by Vince, played by Barry Pepper. Both of these creating their own dynamics.

As someone who has read the source material (review), the film does capture most of the big moments and the atmosphere up to the world-building elements. What’s good about The Maze Runner trilogy really is that even though they aren’t completely self-contained, each book starts with a new area and phase so while the other movies would help to complete the image, its not incredibly hard to follow except for the character alliances in some cases.

Maze Runner: The Death Cure (2018)

Director: Wes Ball

Cast: Dylan O’Brien, Ki Hong Lee, Kaya Scodelario, Thomas Brodie-Sangster, Dexter Darden, Will Poulter, Rosa Salazar, Giancarlo Esposito, Patricia Clarkson, Aidan Gillen, Barry Pepper, Walton Goggins

Young hero Thomas embarks on a mission to find a cure for a deadly disease known as “The Flare”. – IMDB

Taking place a little while after the end of events in The Scorch Trials, mostly able to tell with the unitedness of the three crews of last once and the mid-length hair that Brenda, a new female character from the previous film, The Death Cure is a last hurrah which continues on with the quick-paced action-packed world. Attempting to keep this spoil-free, the previous film flipped a lot of things around with Minho being caught and Thomas keeping his promise to never leave him behind, Brenda bringing a little love triangle but not really while betrayal is the center of how things are the way they are with WCKD.

This film’s adventure starts off with a bang with a rather adventurous and daring rescue plan to hijack a train car which ends up leading them off to their new setting this time, the Last City aka the headquarters of WCKD and meeting the rebellion group in that area lead by Lawrence played by Walton Goggins and they see an old face, Gally who has mellowed out a little and willing to help them. The Last City is a pretty good new setting as it differs from the previous two in a metropolitan setting full of tall skyscrapers and guarded to protect from Cranks and those infected by the Flare. The contrast of the rebellion group in the outside area in their underground dark and gloomy base to the sci-fi WCKD headquarters, this movie adds a lot of scope.

The big finale brings a lot of big moments as the characters start pivoting more and having a little more screen time. The atmosphere is still captured very well from the characters in the WCKD building following orders and having a one track mind to create a cure while the other group with Thomas is planning to not only rescue but also steal the cure. The dangers gives this group another chance to navigate this cityscape maze, something we haven’t talked about is each place having its own maze. The first one being an actual maze whereas its all a maze as they navigate the unknown in the desert landscape of Scorch Trials and the cityscape and WCKD headquarters of Last City.

In some ways, the big finale does get harmed a little by the lack of character development since the ending does create quite the event. For a little comparison, the book (review) does a much better job in that scene (if I remember correctly, its been a while). However, the final film of the trilogy does achieve quite a bit with some pretty fantastic scenes especially the elaborate rescue and escape plan in Last City which creates some gripping moments.

Overall, The Maze Runner is a pretty entertaining adaptation. Its not exactly the same as the book and some of the character development leaves a little to be desired which makes the ending lack a little of the punch that it wants to deliver, however the world building and the settings along with the gripping atmosphere and the visuals really are the elements that stand out quite a lot.

Double Feature: Profile (2018) & Scary Stories To Tell In The Dark (2019)

Profile (2018)

Director (& co-writer): Timur Bekmambetov

Cast: Valene Kane, Morgan Watkins, Christine Adams, Emma Cater, Amir Rahimzadeh, Shazad Latif

An undercover British journalist infiltrates the online propaganda channels of the so-called Islamic State, only to be sucked in by her recruiter. – IMDB

Released as part of the initial three Screenlife films aka cyber found footage along with Searching (review) and Unfriended (review), Timur Bekmamtov delivers Profile, a film about a UK journalist Amy (Valene Kane) who goes undercover and engages into an online conversation with a jihadist Bilel (Shazad Latif) to learn about their ways of recruiting religious converts, their operations and how these converts are transported. As she uses her alias profile Melody to talk to Bilel, a leader who wants to woo her, she starts to blur the reality of her assignment with this new relationship during the process and things go out of control with both her boyfriend and her boss. 

Screenlife is a fascinating subgenre that fits very well to the modern world we live in and breathes new life into the found footage genre. The three Screenlife productions by Bekmamtov all vary in scenario and genre, showing the potential of the variety of stories it can tell in a convincing way through the screen of someone. The cyber element used here focuses heavily on the accessibility of information at our fingertips and the ability to multitask while in a conversation. It exposes a world of danger that resides online. Unlike the other screenlife stories, this one is based on a non-fiction book In The Skin Of A Jihadist. The fact that its based on a real event makes it even more captivating. 

When dealing with cyber found footage, this one is centered around two main people, Melody aka Amy and Bilel. Their characters become the focal point especially for the former as it’s all from her point of view aka her computer screen. Her character is fantastic as the contrast of nervousness of setting up the first conversation to the ease of diving into believing Bilel to the big finale makes her character rather complex or perhaps gives a nod to how convincing the character of Bilel is. He becomes a real and convincing person when he seemingly can offer so much and knows the right things to say: shedding a bit of personal information at the right time and sharing an insight of the positivity that surrounds him as well as the dangers. However, it’s all an expectations versus reality situation that drives to a rather intense finale. There are some sudden character shifts and it has to do with the subtle and fast moving timeline however the interactions between the two along with Amy’s research along the way is some shocking stuff.

Profile might not quite hit the epicness of Searching in the Screenlife films by Bekmamtov, however, it definitely packs a punch with the narrative. A lot of these films do work so much better watching it on a computer screen than the big screen in terms of involvement. Much like documentary films like Caught In The Net which tries to lure out its predators in a real situation, this adapts a true story into a believable scenario with this format which suits the whole investigation very well. It’s definitely worth a watch. 

Scary Stories To Tell In The Dark (2019)

Director: André Ovredal

Cast: Zoe Margaret Colletti, Michael Garza, Gabriel Rush, Austin Abrams, Dean Norris, Gil Bellows, Austin Zajur, Natalie Ganzhorn, Lorraine Toussaint, Kathleen Pollard

On Halloween 1968, Stella and her two friends meet a mysterious drifter, Ramón, and uncover a sinister notebook of stories. – IMDB

Based on the children’s book series of the same name by Alvin Schwartz, Scary Stories To Tell In The Dark was co-produced and the screenplay co-written by Guillermo Del Toro. The story follows three friends as they find a sinister notebook of stories which writes itself and eventually, the people around her start disappearing. As danger creeps closer to themselves, Stella (Zoe Margaret Colletti) has to act quickly to find out the truth about the girl Sarah Bellows (Kathleen Pollard) who lived in the haunted house where they found the notebook in order to hopefully put an end to the string of events which as befallen them.

In some ways, Scary Stories To Tell In The Dark almost plays out like a horror anthology. The different stories being written throughout the story reflect a different segment for the different characters who are Stella’s group of friends. While the film focuses on the angle from Stella’s point of view as she is the one who took the book and asked for its help in the first place, it becomes an “evil” that she can’t get rid of even after regretting her choice. Its also because of these moments that the film’s main storyline around Stella and finding out about the Bellows history becomes what strings along the story but its hard to not feel like there is a sense of disjointedness when the strength is in the little stories themselves and this isn’t meant to be an anthology. That is coming from a person that hasn’t read any of the source material so maybe its the issue of adaptation.

The cinematography is the standout element for the film. While the stories themselves might not be all that scary in execution, the horror elements is mostly from the different forms of the horror figures that it brings to life in a varying dark and creepy atmosphere that somewhat exceeds that of what you’d expect from a children’s book adaptation. Each story has their own horrific element and as the story is being written and the actual events are going down, it leaves space for anticipation of what comes next and what horror is waiting for that character. Most of them are great imaginations and as they come to life really add in the darker element for this film set around these simple horror stories to scare children. Perhaps its the simplicity that makes them work even more.

Overall, Scary Stories To Tell In The Dark is visually appealing especially when bringing to life the horrors of the stories. The premise itself is also quite good as a foundation especially for a children’s books series and actually some of the horrors in the film feel almost too much for children however, the execution does leave a little to be desired. While the separate stories are really fun to see come to life, the main plot line isn’t quite as well told and with the teen cast, some bits are still rather silly.

Double Feature: The Invisible Man (2020) & The Crazies (2010)

The Invisible Man (2020)

Director (and screeenplay): Leigh Whannell

Cast: Elisabeth Moss, Oliver Jackson-Cohen, Harriet Dyer, Aldis Hodge, Storm Reid, Michael Dorman

When Cecilia’s abusive ex takes his own life and leaves her his fortune, she suspects his death was a hoax. As a series of coincidences turn lethal, Cecilia works to prove that she is being hunted by someone nobody can see. – IMDB

*Originally published on Friday Film Club*

Inspired by H.G. Wells’ novel of the same name, directed and written by Leigh Whannell, mostly known for the co-creator of the Saw franchise as the writer, he modernizes a story using the invisible man science fiction concept and puts it into a domestic abuse story between a scientist and his ex-girlfriend. The Invisible Man tells the story of Cecilia who decides to escape her rich optics scientist boyfriend’s home because of his controlling nature to find out that shortly after, she can stop living in fear when he is reported to be dead. However, she starts experiencing some odd events that makes her believe that he is stalking her with some invisibility technology, trying to isolate her from the world she knows however no one believes her and thinks she is mentally unstable.

The Invisible Man is a pretty competent horror thriller. It takes the source material its inspired by and puts together a tense and thrilling environment from start to finish. It doesn’t actually give you the feeling that all is well, mostly because not being able to see the threat means that it can be constantly anticipated and gives the sense of insecurity to its audience. Leigh Whannell doesn’t only put together a well-crafted story but also uses the cinematography with both the light and the camera work to build up the tense atmosphere, playing with what could happen and what might be in the empty space as it follows an increasingly suspecting female lead played by Elisabeth Moss. The great part about a story is like this is that there is no hiding the threat’s existence and the reveal that there is someone lurking in the emptiness is very quickly revealed and Cecilia’s sense of security doesn’t last too long. However, what is the goal and who is behind the whole thing is still the big question as the threat doesn’t talk and just acts abruptly.

While there are other character’s in the whole story, a lot of the acting credit does go to Elisabeth Moss who mostly feels like she’s in this film by herself and interacting with thin air. For the most part, its very believable as the invisible man does make her life fall apart. While there are some mechanics of this threat that feel a little off as it plays with the invisible, the saving grace is that the film is always building on the tension in different scenarios but also keeps the threat mostly invisible for the most part, letting the audience’s imagination fill in the blanks which in this case proves to be very effective.

While Leigh Whannell is mostly credited for writing, The Invisible Man proves that he has quite the eye for directing as well especially when crafting a tense environment for a horror film. Whether its the theme, the writing, the execution and pacing or the horror thriller element, The Invisible Man is one well worth a watch.

The Crazies (2010)

Director: Breck Eisner

Cast: Radha Mitchell, Timothy Olyphant, Danielle Panabaker, Joe Anderson, Christie Lynn Smith, Brett Rickaby, Preston Bailey, John Aylward, Joe Reegan

After a strange and insecure plane crash, an unusual toxic virus enters a quaint farming town. A young couple are quarantined, but they fight for survival along with help from a couple of people. – IMDB

Being a remake of George A. Romero’s 1973 film of the same name, The Crazies sets itself in a viral outbreak that overtakes a small farm town as it follows four people who are luckily not infected and join together to find a way to escape town before either the turn called The Crazies get them or the military who is trying to contain this outbreak.

Lets put it out there right now that I haven’t seen the original. For myself, this is a fresh story and movie. Its interesting that infected humans are mostly regarded as zombies and yet, the root of this is very similar to Resident Evil where the whole issue is rooted from an accidental viral outbreak with a group of military trying to contain it by all means. While there is that parallel, the viral outbreak concept is still pretty well structured as The Crazies do have a rather solid cast and the story starts off on a creepy note which ends up turning into a mystery as the Sheriff and Deputy hunt down why this is happening and much like other horror films, the mayor doesn’t take their suggestion and yet, despite their rebellious efforts, its just a little too late.

The horror of the film is much more toned down than other viral outbreaks which do focus more on the bloody and gory element. This one has more violent moments and the infected appearance makes for creepier moments as the group encounters infected previously introduced before their infection, reinforcing the core issue with this bioweapon that is trying to be contained. As each side of the spectrum reveals itself, the situation clarifies quickly. Its a film about the survival as the government’s extreme stance makes them out to be villainous which is as dangerous as the infected around these four survivors.

The cast is pretty decent as well. The Sheriff is played by Timothy Olyphant. Along with him as the core group of survivors is his wife, a doctor in the small town played by Radha Mitchell (most probably know her for Silent Hill films). There is also the Deputy played by Joe Anderson who is the MVP of the whole survival operation. His character has the rarely seen accuracy as the sharpshooter as he saves everyone in a tight situation more than once but also wavers the most in personality. Also part of the group is a young Danielle Panabaker which isn’t really contributing much but worth a mention.

Overall, The Crazies is a pretty good viral outbreak romp. While it lacks in the gore department, it does do well in building up the story and laying out how the whole situation went down and how the bioweapon virus works and has some decent reveals. Its well worth a watch.

The Girl On The Train by Paula Hawkins

The Girl On The Train
By: Paula Hawkins

Genre: Crime/Mystery/Thriller/Suspense

Rachel catches the same commuter train every morning. She knows it will wait at the same signal each time, overlooking a row of back gardens. She’s even started to feel like she knows the people who live in one of the houses. “Jess and Jason,” she calls them. Their life—as she sees it—is perfect. If only Rachel could be that happy. And then she sees something shocking. It’s only a minute until the train moves on, but it’s enough. Now everything’s changed. Now Rachel has a chance to become a part of the lives she’s only watched from afar. Now they’ll see; she’s much more than just the girl on the train… – Goodreads

Having reached a decent popularity after its release, The Girl On The Train is compared with Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl (review), which happens to be one of my favorite books. While its not quite the same level as Gone Girl, the novel embraces the culture of people watching to its full potential and structures its point of view between three main female characters as they each experience different sides of the spectrum. The first being Rachel, the girl on the train who lives a routine life and envies the life of this home and couple that the train she commutes on at the same time everyday, making her reminisce her own marriage before it was broken and when she used to live a few houses down from this couple. As she fantasizes about this couple, the second point of view turns to the woman of the house that she looks at, Megan who ends up missing and the police investigation opens for her which leads Rachel to share what she’s seen that could be suspicious and also approach Megan’s husband, Scott which opens up another can of worms as she ends up peaking the attention of her ex-husband’s current wife, Anna who takes up the third point of view. Through these three, the mystery unfolds as to what happens to Megan and who is involved.

The Girl On The Train is a good premise. Mystery thrillers have been rather plentiful to say the least however this one does build up a pretty decent reveal. The novel is well-written and the structure is good as well as the first person view from three characters helps piece together the novel but still with a good amount of unknowns from both their own characters and the people around them. It helps construct these three very different sort of female characters with their own pasts and different values that end up setting up their relationships around them as well. Alternating between characters and point of views is probably one of my own favorite novel structures and this story fits in it really well. This in turn builds up these three characters so that they each can also have their own interpretation. In this case, Rachel takes a center stage since she is “the girl on the train” which is the book is titled after and her character is by far the one with the most depth which crafts her into a rather realistic sort of character who has plummeted into alcohol after her divorce, making most of her life rather blurry and spiraling downwards with this mystery giving her something new to focus on.

The mystery element of the novel is the highlight of the story as a whole. It builds up and is crafted rather well. The thriller element is definitely there mostly because these characters all are rather imperfect in their own ways, making them feel hard to truly erase them from suspicion for one reason or another. However, the thrill is mostly with all the characters, not just the main three female characters but also the other ones who all feel like its one big cycle of waiting for their stories to unfold to rid them of suspicion. It throws a few twists here and there, some land more unexpectedly than others. The big reveal of who is responsible does end up being rather surprising and a decently executed twist.

Overall, The Girl On The Train is pretty good overall. There are some little bits here and there that feel like it could be polished a little better in execution. Sometimes, reading a slew of characters which was completely imperfect also feels a little hard to completely bond into the book and its events as is the situation here which at times feels a bit tiring as it cycles around some events a little too much. However, the mystery is decently crafted, the structure keeps things moving from one side of the story to the next, even if some of it jumps back and forth in the timeline and the thrilling parts are mostly from character development and a believable yet unpredictable reveal.

Goodreads score: 4/5

TV Binge: Deadly Class (Season 1, 2019)

Deadly Class (Season 1, 2019)

Creator: Miles Orion Feldsott & Rick Remender

Cast: Benedict Wong, Benjamin Wadsworth, Lana Condor, Maria Gabriela de Faria, Luke Tennie, Liam James, Taylor Hickson, Jack Gillett, Tom Stevens, Michel Duval, Sean Depner, Olivia Cheng

A coming-of-age story set against the backdrop of late 1980s counterculture, which follows a disillusioned teen recruited into a storied high school for assassins. – IMDB

Based on the comic book series of the same name by Remender and Wesley Craig, Deadly Class is set in the 1980s revolving around a hidden private academy called King’s Dominion which trains those skilled with assassin abilities, honing their unique and individual skills. Its with this that Marcus (Benjamin Wadsworth), who is on the run for allegedly burning down the orphanage he lived in that he is recruited by Master Lin (Benedict Wong) with a little help from his trusted student Saya (Lana Condor). Not from an elite dangerous order, Marcus finds himself not truly fitting in except for a group of misfits at the school as he navigates through this new environment and embraces his own capabilities as new dangers start targeting both the school and himself personally.

Deadly Class is an interesting existence. It embraces and integrates its comic book roots as it does add in these animated sequences especially when recalling the past of the key characters with this group of friends that has bonded together due to different issues. Their back stories help explain the motives of their characters. The comic book elements down to the whole cinematographic elements of the show gives its a lot of style whether its the character designs or King’s Dominion. The whole tone of the show blends well together and is visually appealing for the most part, capturing both the environment of the school but also the grimy outside world that exists which polishes them as they go on their own “missions”.

The tone and plot point can be a little off-putting as the high school drama for the most part. Especially by the middle of Season 1 when Marcus, Maria and Saya have this very wishy washy sort of love triangle that gets a little frustrating to watch as these three take a turn in their character arcs. Much like most series, when things go bad, everything else is going bad at the same time so its all goes a little crazy which is intriguing to watch how it all unfolds since it adds in other elements that help build up the world but also adds in some annoying bits that seem beside the point especially since Marcus is a character with his own issues that also seem rather easily manipulated into certain situations. With that said, the best parts of the show is the action and assassin oriented bits when each of these characters do work together or go into some outing together to achieve something. The danger and the classes do make it all the more intriguing to navigate but at the same time, it somehow does feel like the angle being this unique school gets lost in the bigger plot. Thats not to say that the enemy isn’t decent. For the most part, its the typical mentally unstable sort of character coming for some kind of revenge but there are some outside forces that are targeting the school as well. The two together works well enough.

Looking at the cast itself, everyone fits their role fairly well. Benjamin Wadsworth plays Marcus fairly well. It does capture that teen angst and inner struggle, considering the show is mostly about him. The standout of the show absolutely goes to Benedict Wong as Master Lin who is a tough headmaster of King’s Dominion but also done in such a well-balanced way. Much like its great to see Lana Condor as Saya to be playing this Japanese yakuza’s daughter who is a femme fatale in training with her motorcycle and her katana in hand. Much like Maria portrayed by Maria Gabriela de Faria whose character is on the more frustrating side but does have a lot of ups and downs but her assassin look is really great.

Overall, Deadly Class is a pretty fun ride for its first season. The premise is pretty original and isn’t quite like other teen dramas especially with the school for assassins setting. Sure, there’s a few things that I wasn’t particularly happy about but it did have some pretty decent style. Its a little sad to see that after the great foundation it set up and the cliffhanger ending that it was cancelled for season 2.

BITS 2021: The Family (2021)

The Family (2021)

Director (and co-writer): Dan Slater

Cast: Nigel Bennett, Toni Ellwand, Benjamin Charles Watson, Keana Lyn, Jenna Warren, Yasmin MacKay, Onyx Spark

A young family, living in isolation and forced into hard labor out of fear of dishonoring their Father and Mother, fight to free themselves from their religious cult. – IMDB

The Family dives into the rural 1800s setting in an isolated farmland who is run by a family who has strong religious faith and the parents makes sure that their children follow their strict rules. Right from the opening scene, the consequences of defying those rules are harsh. The opening scene sets up the tone of the plot as much as the whole scenario that this family lives with a strict father (Nigel Bennet) standing watch while the children work on their various chores and their mother (Toni Ellwand) keeping watching in her chair holding a shotgun in her hands. Its immediately apparent that this family is very different. Throughout the first act, their followings and their rules are laid out one by one. However, when a new member joins them and ends up having altered plans, it makes them question whether their father’s teachings are as true as they’ve believed before. The Family feels like a combination of The Witch (review) and another indie film earlier this year, Glasshouse (review).

The Family is a very decent watch. Its a psychological thriller at its core with both the haunting parent figures who craft their beliefs into their children’s mind, the unknown surroundings outside of their set threshold and a group of children who obviously are not their own offspring. The million questions start firing right from the beginning. What is this religion? Where do the children come from? Is there really an exterior threat? The main focus of the story is through the eyes of their children especially Caleb (Benjamin Charles Watson) as he is now entering adulthood and waiting for his companion to show up. At the same time, he is growing more curious about what his parents are up to and what may lie outside the threshold especially when his chore leads him to follow this odd noise. His curiosity slowly trickles to the others as they start to act on their suspicion especially Abigail (Jenna Warren) who quietly observes each of his brothers’ punishments one by one and hurts on her own. When a new girl enters the picture, Caleb’s infatuation and their father’s change in attitude all comes together to create their suspicion and wavering in faith.

With quiet films like these, its very much in the atmosphere and tone and The Family does this incredibly well. What also helps is that the cast of characters are also very well portrayed. The reactions and expressions exceed any dialogue whether its fear or worry. There’s this lingering unsettling feeling of not knowing when the whole situation will turn around and how they will retaliate when they inevitably will no longer believe in their religious ways and their parents’ teachings as well as try to break free from the rules. The Father and Mother are done incredibly well especially with the Mother who is this more subtle character who doesn’t speak a lot but feels like she has this dominating and manipulative appearance even more than the Father who seems to be running the whole thing. Caleb, portrayed by Benjamin Charles Watson, does a fantastic job as well. His character having the most development and change as he is the focal character right from the start as he experiences quite a few events throughout the film. However, in a more subtle role, Jenna Warren as Abigail also does a great job despite the lesser dialogue especially in the final act.

There’s a lot to love about The Family. It grabs the psychological thriller elements really well. There are a few interesting twists here. While its nothing that becomes very surprising but the tension and atmosphere is done very well as it uses the isolated natural setting efficiently and creating their whole life in this space. The questions are all answered by the end especially the ending itself giving a really nice touch. A really well done thriller through and through.

BITS 2021: Woodland Grey (2021)

Woodland Grey (2021)

Director (and co-writer): Adam Reider

Cast: Jenny Raven, Ryan Blakely, Art Hindle, Katharine King So, Chelsea Goldwater

When a man living alone in the woods saves the life of a young woman, they are forced to coexist. Chaos ensues when the woman makes a terrifying discovery in the woods behind the man’s home and unleashes something truly haunting. – IMDB

Isolated woods setting is such a great setting and its nice to see that it is being used more and more in recent horror and/or thrillers. The helplessness and emptiness and difficulty to navigate makes it all the more dangerous. Woodland Grey captures all these elements. In the face of meeting a solitary loner in the woods who appears to be saving this young woman who has her own baggage to set off this spontaneous hiking trip and to make a rather ominous discovery, the typical assumptions can be made which are gradually revealed to be something else. The film itself drives the story rather well from that point on and keeps a constant grasp on the situation adding in a little something while also giving space for flashbacks to better understand these two characters and why they have ended up in the woods.

Woodland Grey thrives from a certain fear that is similar to that of films like Blair Witch where something more sinister resides in the woods. When this fear is revealed (as most synopsis have already revealed which doesn’t exactly make it a spoiler but it kind of is), it sits in a rather mysterious and unknown space for the remainder of the film. It also has a similar mechanism where the crew seems to be stuck in a loop. Not a time loop but just a literal loop in terms of area where they cannot escape this place, or can they being the main goal from that point on. The concept of the hidden mysterious entity is a rather decent concept except in execution here, it sits in so many questions and most of them unanswered by the end that it becomes so confusing by the end that its a little hard to digest what was watched when so little of the result can be fully understood. Normally, I do love films that give the mind a nice boggling but leaves space for some mystery to sit but this one has too many confusing moments by the end that even the ending itself feels too open to find some type of closure for this film or even contemplate further. However, the whole story structure moving from past and present is well thought out where the past and present does work well together.

However, the film is executed very well as it does use its location very well. The woods and the wandering isn’t just that. Every detail does come into play at some part of the story. Some of it is fairly predictable and rather easy to see where it goes but still, the mystery and atmosphere does help to make those moments still have a certain psychological fear attached to it. In films like this, a lot of it does revolve around well-crafted logical characters and whether in terms of the solitary man or the hiking girl, their reactions to their encounter all does make sense. Adding in their back stories in the flashbacks, they have a good development throughout. The most important one being the urgency of why the girl must escape the woods within a certain timeframe being a big underlying factor.

Overall, Woodland Grey is a decent psychological thriller. There are certain thrills to be had especially with all the mystery and the twist upon twists which sometimes are predictable but some that do have a nice bit of creativity. With decent characters and acting along with a good nature backdrop and a mysterious threat that never seems to be fully explained, the film is mostly a good viewing experience perhaps right up to the end when things truly feel a tad unresolved and hard to fully comprehend.

BITS 2021: Flee The Light (2021)

Flee the Light (2021)

Director: Alexandra Senza

Cast: Annie Tuma, Ariana Marquis, Jamar Adams Thompson, Jane Siberry, Caroline Raynaud

A psychology student attempts to cure her sister’s crippling psychosis only to expose them both to its origin: an ancient creature intent on claiming their souls. – IMDB

Flee the Light is an intriguing premise. It meshes a storyline, something like a lore from its past to its present day that goes through generations of something awaken from the past which haunts these sisters which dabbles into sorcery and the concept of light and dark. The premise itself as a whole works well especially when this unknown entity seems to be preying on them and ready to possess them at the right opportunity. As one of the sisters try to help the other more unhinged one, it first becomes a whole acceptance than this whole situation surpasses that of science and dives into the occult practices to get to the bottom of the situation. With some cryptic and odd encounters as well as their own journey facing this together, the story is a little bizarre in places.

While the premise of the film itself is pretty decent, there are some little issues in execution. This is a minor issue which relates mostly to a flashback that builds up the whole plot and twist. The repetition of it loses its effectiveness with its frequency perhaps. The purpose of it is rather good but rather having a little less repetition perhaps would benefit it in my opinion (but of course, I’m not a screenwriter). The setting especially when the reach the cabin setting as the past merges with the present bringing the beginning moments of the film together in plot does work really well while the setting also creates a nice atmosphere and tone to the film which brings in a little bit of answers but also some mystery. This whole entity (not sure what else to call it) is also rather well constructed as it remains mostly mysterious throughout but still has that threatening/danger element that’s moving closer as the story progresses.

Much like the supporting characters that are introduced which feels very useless overall. The story’s focus is mostly on the sisters and these extra encounters are all a means to an end giving them rather empty shells, some more than others. However, the sisters are well-crafted characters and yet the acting also seems to lose a little bit of the desired effect mostly for the character of Andra (Annie Tuma) who has a more complex role and experiences some really weird stuff particularly one scene when she seems to be woken up from this whole situation. It sometimes makes the character feel awkward like the script or whatnot doesn’t seem to jive exactly with the whole situation. Its hard to exactly say what it is. The character does come together in the final act.

Overall, Flee the Light is a decent directorial debut for Alexandra Senza. The film itself is done well and there are little things probably more related to script that affected the whole execution. The premise is also pretty intriguing which introduced a mysterious entity from the past, almost like a old lore. It didn’t get a whole lot of depth but still had a decent threat element.

BITS 2021: Peppergrass (2021)

Peppergrass (2021)

Director: Steven Garbas & Chantelle Han

Cast: Chantelle Han, Charles Boyland, Michael Copeman, Philip Williams

During a pandemic, a pregnant restaurateur tries to rob a priceless truffle from a reclusive veteran. – IMDB

At this point, anything set during the pandemic is still fairly realistic as it is still more or less in the world. Peppergrass using the early phases of lockdown as its setting gives it a grounded moment as it took the struggling restaurant and bar businesses in its desperate moment to craft a situation where these two resorted to more extreme measures to ease their financial situation. With a beautiful isolated woods setting that brings forward a wilderness dangerous setting, the script itself almost feels a little to thin to keep its momentum going as the result is a rather lackluster hiding in the woods movie experience with only a few moments of conversation to make it more intriguing that pads out the main character. Visually, there are some really decent cinematography scenes and the setup and the ending both has some more action to keep it exciting but the middle bit is a bit of a drag as its mainly a solo quiet wandering in the woods even if the pregnancy seems like a question that hangs in the air but never directly addressed but more of a subtlety.

Wilderness settings and isolated cabins are always a rather effective horror and thriller element. The setting itself gives it the mystery especially when its wandering around in the dark woods which can also mask the danger that could be lurking in its shadows. Peppergrass starts off that way for sure as the two get separated fairly quickly and the film quickly turns its focus onto its main female lead, Eula played by Chantelle Han. The whole film itself is fairly subtle leaving a lot of space for the camera to give those little details especially when it comes to her pregnancy with a shot at the pregnancy test or the nausea along the way right down to the whole reveal about the nature of peppergrass, which also happens to be the name of her restaurant that she is trying to keep alive during the pandemic which also leads to a conversation of the insight to her backstory a little.

Things is, subtlety and darkness and the woods setting and even the isolation are all great in most horror film as it keeps it minimalistic but keeping the unsettling feeling rather alive but something here just doesn’t jive with it as the story is too thin, the character Eula doesn’t have enough to make her feel like she’s worth fighting for and then the tension never feels strong enough to keep the film engaging especially in its second act. That’s not saying that Chantelle Han didn’t do well as her character does have those moments of desperation and survival as she stumbles through the forest and in the few perilous events that happen much like the woodsman that she meets played by Philip Williams who really only shows up for a little part of the film but the conversation with Eula was one of the better moments and gave quite a bit of insight on the character primarily.

With all that said, Peppergrass is a good concept and premise. The setting and the isolation is done really well. The cinematography creates some very nice shots and truly highlights the isolated woods setting much like using the pandemic as a back frame for the story at hand. However, the script is lacking with both its characters and the substance for the motive or even the character arc that feels almost overly simple making it have a decent set up and finale but not enough to hold itself up in the second act.

TADFF 2021: Nightshooters (2018)

Nightshooters (2018)

Director (and writer): Marc Price

Cast: Adam McNab, Nicky Evans, Rosanna Hoult, Jean-Paul Ly, Richard Sandling, Kaitlyn Riordan, Mica Proctor, Nicholas Aaron, Ben Shafik, Doug Allen

An action thriller about a group of filmmakers who find themselves on the run from a violent horde of criminals after witnessing a brutal gangland execution. Unable to flee the derelict building they have been shooting in, the hapless film crew must use their technical skill and cinematic knowledge to defend themselves. The stunt man is a martial arts master, the special effects guru disregards safety and sets lethal traps, and the sound department strategically lay radio mics to detect when the hoodlums are on their way. Cue lots of thrills in a cat and mouse game of survival. – IMDB

For fans of The Raid and Snatch, there’s a lot to love about Nightshooters, a low budget action thriller that takes place in one location, a soon-to-be demolished building which almost feels like some kind of the real situation being reflected in a more fictional setting but similar as the story also features a group of filmmakers making a low budget film in a soon to be demolished building with a few hours countdown. This right away sets up this urgency that this will come into play as the two groups goes up against each other. While there is not actual counter, its a little detail that really does bring the setting as a constant reminder.

When the crew ends up witnessing a crime execution in the other side of the way and the criminals goes after them in this building, its all a great set-up in the first act which sets the tone especially in terms of the dark comedy and the characters involved and their basic characters and abilities. Much like how it naturally flows into some fantastic action sequences and choreography when it gets into the criminals against filmmakers running and hiding through this building which is both dangerous as it already has all its demolishment explosives in place which could easily be triggered but also the criminals being rather a wide group of characters and lethal in their own ways as well.

Talking about the characters, there’s so much to love about them as well especially when it comes to the film crew themselves. This group is definitely the characters which are meant for the audience to connect to a lot more. Their different roles and their abilities and know-how come into play as they try to survive the chase from the other criminals. With a lot of the action sequences powered by a fantastic action choreography and sequences with Donnie played by Jean-Paul Ly (also, could the name be a nod to Donnie Yen?), there’s some exceptional moments here through these fight scenes.

However, not only their more professional fight sequences are great to watch but also a moment where the more amateur fight moments like one with the character Kim (Mica Proctor) which was a lot of fun but the other character encounters also leading to some creative death sequences as they defeated the criminals one by one. There are some really cool effects executed there. The stand-out characters has to be the three girls of the film crew as they are very resourceful especially Ellie (Rosanna Hoult) who has some foreshadowing in what she will use at the beginning but also a lot of other know-hows that effectively come into play. Of course, for much more personal reasons, Kim is a character I rooted for (considering I’m also a Kim and she kind of reminded me of myself).

Overall, Nightshooters is a really entertaining low budget action thriller. Its effective in what it achieves as the setting and the tone is used really well. There are definitely nods to other films throughout that are rather apparent but also fit incredibly well and adds to the film itself. There’s a cast of characters that have their own value and personality which adds contrast and makes them all stand-out and fun to watch. Nightshooters has a very straightforward plot which works well with what they are trying to do.

*Nightshooters is available on Toronto After Dark Film Festival from October 13th to 17th on their virtual platform. You check it out HERE*