OUIJA: ORIGIN OF EVIL (2016) dir. Mike Flanagan

Director: Mike Flanagan
Producers: Michael Bay, Jason Blum, Stephen Davis, Andrew Form, Brad Fuller, Brian Goldner
Writers: Mike Flanagan, Jeff Howard, Juliet Snowden, Stiles White
Stars: Lulu Wilson, Annalise Basso, Elizabeth Reaser

The Ouija board is a remnant of Spiritualism by now so hackneyed that the archetype does not so much conjure up demons for audiences as it does eye rolls. Leave it to Mike Flanagan (HUSH [2016], OCULUS [2009]), horror’s latest darling, to revitalize a plot device that is otherwise dead (no pun intended).

“Doris, listen to me. A scam is a lie. We don’t lie; we help people. We give them closure, we give them peace, we heal their hearts . . . that’s something that can’t happen without a little showmanship.”

OUIJA: ORIGIN OF EVIL (2016)

Alice Zander (Elizabeth Reaser), widowed and raising a teenager and small girl alone in the 1960s, is looking to spruce up her business when the film begins. Clients, who come to her to communicate with the dead during séances in her dining room—a con pulled off in part due to daughters Lina (Annalise Basso) and Doris (Lulu Wilson) who, in the (dis)honored tradition of the Fox sisters, furtively blow out candles and rap on wood to create the illusion of spirit communication—have been fleeing after readings, often without paying, either unconvinced or unsettled by the events of the séance. Fatefully, Lina tools around with a Ouija board at a friend’s party—classic—and on the car ride home, mentions it to Alice: “It was actually pretty fun. You should consider getting one for the act.” Lo and behold, when Alice drops by the store to replenish her candle supply, a board is prominently displayed and she grabs one on impulse. The success of the act shifts in a positive direction . . . everything else, not so much.

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HOLY HELL (2016) dir. Will Allen

Producers: Will Allen, Tracey Harnish, Alexandra Johnes
Stars: Will Allen, Michel Gomez, Cristala Allen, Gina Allen

CNN poster for Holy Hell, depicting people sitting cross-legged in a field

HOLY HELL (2016) dir. Will Allen

What’s in a cult? Our culture is saturated with them. The Manson Family, Heaven’s Gate, and The People’s Temple (the site of the Jonestown Massacre) may be the most famous of American cults, but they’re hardly the only few. A cult is defined by three characteristics, all of which are rather vague: a charismatic leader, the use of “coercive persuasion,” and some form of exploitation. In movies, cults are glaringly suspicious. The leaders are always heavy-browed and blank-eyed, darkly hinting about “transcending Earth” or “becoming one” or something equally as ominous. But, if in real life cults were so obviously spotted, it’s safe to say that they would have died out long before now. Would you notice a cult if the leader demanded no sacrifices? If the fellow members were the smartest, most creative people you had ever met? If your siblings were also members?

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GREEN ROOM (2016) dir. Jeremy Saulnier

CONTENT WARNING: The following review contains discussion of white supremacy (including the appearance and activities of the Ku Klux Klan and other white supremacist groups) and repeated references to the Holocaust.

Director: Jeremy Saulnier
Producers: Neil Kopp, Victor Moyers, Anish Savjani
Writer: Jeremy Saulnier
Stars: Anton Yelchin, Alia Shawkat, Imogen Poots

“What was the name of your second to last song?”

“Uh … ‘T-Toxic Evolution.’”

“It’s fucking hard, man. That’s the one I did her to.”

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GREEN ROOM (2016)

The Ain’t Rights, a traveling punk rock band desperate for cash, know for sure that they’re scraping the bottom of the barrel when they reluctantly agree to play at a dive bar where an acquaintance’s cousin works. Tadpole (David W. Thompson) describes the punk rock scene at their new venue as “right-wing,” anathema to rebels Pat (Anton Yelchin, giving a captivating final performance before his sudden death in June 2016), Reece (Joe Cole), Tiger (Callum Turner), and Sam (Alia Shawkat). Still, they reluctantly press on, hoping for the best. Unfortunately, things could not be worse: what Tadpole understated as “right-wing” turns out to be a band of neo-Nazi punks … and that’s only the beginning of the misfortune to come. When Pat stumbles upon the scene of a stabbing, he is detained with the rest of his band and Amber (Imogen Poots), a local punk caught up in the same illicit mess.

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BLAIR WITCH (2016) dir. Adam Wingard

Director: Adam Wingard
Producers: Jess Calder, Keith Calder, Roy Lee, Steven Schneider
Writer: Simon Barrett
Stars: James Allen McCune, Callie Hernandez, Brandon Scott

BLAIR WITCH (2016)

Dark: the nonnegotiable dark that can only be found in the depths of the wilderness dominates BLAIR WITCH (2016). This much-anticipated sequel—and remake—slowly unveils what we most fear: that which we cannot see, the tangible unknowable that lurks beneath a particular velvety night.

BLAIR WITCH is—and should be—viewed as a direct follow-up to 1999’s THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT, as no self-respecting fan acknowledges the first film’s unfortunate follow-up, BOOK OF SHADOWS: BLAIR WITCH 2 (2000) as any relation to the smashing first installment. In contrast, BLAIR WITCH will more than satisfy fans of THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT, echoing all of the Gothic eeriness of the first film, while peppering in new scares sure to thrill a current audience.

When a YouTube video surfaces, depicting previously unseen footage of the night of the Burkittsville disappearances, James Donahue’s (James Allen McCune) interest is piqued. He has a special interest in the case: Heather Donahue, the documentary filmmaker who disappeared in Burkittsville, is his sister. Over the years, he has kept a keen eye out for new evidence, hoping to recover her from the depths of the forest where she vanished—and in the video, he sees a blurred woman’s face. Enlisting the help of his friend Lisa (Callie Hernandez), who is eager to record their investigation as her own documentary film project—a girl after Heather’s own heart!—and friends Peter (Brandon Scott) and Ashley (Corbin Reid), he sets out to Burkittsville in hopes of solving the mystery once and for all.

Peter (Brandon Scott) and James (James Allen McCune) help Ashley (Corbin Reid) across the creek by Coffin Rock. (Recognize it?) (Image courtesy of IMDb and Chris Helcermanas-Benge.)

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THE INVITATION (2015) dir. Karyn Kusama

Director: Karyn Kusama
Producers: Martha Griffin, Phil Hay, Matt Manfredi, Nick Spicer
Writers: Phil Hay, Matt Manfredi
Stars: Logan Marshall-Green, Tammy Blanchard, Michiel Huisman

THE INVITATION (2015)

Director Karyn Kusama is a force of nature cinema; in 2000, she swept film festivals—awarded at Sundance, Cannes, Deauville, Ghent International, Gotham, and Sitges—with GIRLFIGHT, the groundbreaking tale of a young girl blazing trails as a boxer and, in 2009, JENNIFER’S BODY rocked the worlds of horror fans and lesbians alike. THE INVITATION (2015) is something of a departure—most apparently, the empowered and deeply complex female protagonist typical of Kusama’s films is absent. Perhaps this absence of transgression is what makes THE INVITATION comparably dull … Kusama’s latest film is somewhat lackluster.

Will (Logan Marshall-Green) has suffered tremendously in the recent past: after his son, Ty (Aiden Lovekamp), dies in a tragic accident, his wife, Eden (Tammy Blanchard), meets another man at a grief support group and promptly divorces him for her new lover. Given all that, it’s understandable that he is loath to accept an invitation from Eden to attend a dinner party—held at their old home, where she and her lover, David (Michiel Huisman)—now her husband—live. However, with some convincing from his girlfriend, Kira (Emayatzi Corinealdi), Will agrees to give Eden and David a chance. When he arrives, Eden’s and his mutual friends are all in attendance, making themselves at home in a strange situation. What only Will seems to intuit is how strange things will become—and how dangerous.

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The attendees gather together, at David’s (Michiel Huisman) insistence, and watch a video on his laptop. (Image courtesy of Karyn Kusama, Bobby Shore.)

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CREEP (2014) dir. Patrick Brice

Director: Patrick Brice
Producers: Jason Blum, Mark Duplass
Writers: Patrick Brice, Mark Duplass
Stars: Mark Duplass, Patrick Brice

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CREEP (2014)

I dare you to name a movie scarier than CREEP (2014). I bet you can’t.

Granted, “scary” is a pretty subjective term; some might be most frightened by blood and guts, some by truly grotesque monsters. If you’re like me, you most vehemently fear the psychopath, an antagonist who is truly deranged. CREEP lacks the former two, but represents the latter—in droves.

When filmmaker Aaron (Patrick Brice) responds to a Wanted ad for a short-term freelance gig, he is uncertain what the assignment is—the ad is vague, and Aaron jokes on the way to the job about it being a spinster’s bid for male attention—but he is optimistic, and willing to go out on a limb for some cash. When his client, Josef (Mark Duplass)—late for their meeting—finally hits the scene, he explains to Aaron that he has cancer and, given the bleak prognosis he has been given, will likely die in a matter of months. He has hired Aaron, he explains, to record a short video to leave behind to his unborn son after his death, an imitation of Michael Keaton in MY LIFE (1993). Aaron is struck by Josef’s tragic situation but, as the film progresses, it dawns on him that he has matters of his own safety to contend with …

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STRANGER THINGS, S1E5: “The Flea and the Acrobat” (2016) dir. Matt and Ross Duffer

Directors: Matt and Ross Duffer
Producers: Matt and Ross Duffer, Dan Cohen, Karl Gajdusek, Cindy Holland, Shawn Levy, Matt Thunell, Brian Wright
Writer: Alison Tatlock
Stars: Finn Wolfhard, Millie Bobby Brown, Winona Ryder

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SPOILER ALERT: THE FOLLOWING REVIEW INCLUDES SPOILERS FOR THIS EPISODE OF STRANGER THINGS.

A heightened sense of suspense sets apart Chapter 5 of STRANGER THINGS, “The Flea and the Acrobat.” You’ll recall that in Chapter 4, Joyce was convinced that her son’s recovered corpse was a fake and Hopper discovered that she was right. The boys are still fervently searching for Will, having been convinced by a radio transition supported by Eleven’s telekinesis. Nancy and Steve, if you happen to care, are fighting.

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KILLER LEGENDS (2014) dir. Joshua Zeman

Director: Joshua Zeman
Producers: Rachel Mills, Gregory Palmer
Writer: Joshua Zeman

TRIGGER WARNING: THE TRAILER BELOW INCLUDES CRIME SCENE PHOTOS.

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KILLER LEGENDS (2014)

Every town has a legend, Joshua Zeman (CROPSEY [2009]) tells us once more in his latest documentary, KILLER LEGENDS (2014). We know his own from CROPSEY: that a maniac who steals children prowls around every corner. Zeman reminds us that the Cropsey legend is loosely based on true events (Andre Rand’s abduction and murder of two children in Staten Island). In KILLER LEGENDS, Zeman extends his analysis to four more prominent urban legends: “The Hook,” the Candyman, babysitter killings, and the mythology behind a fear of clowns.

As a quality documentary film, KILLER LEGENDS is only so-so. Many of the scenes of Zeman’s—and fellow researcher Rachel Mills’—investigations take place at night for dramatic effect (we can only assume), sacrificing a clear image for blurry scenes of Zeman and Mills making awkward conversation as they visit the scenes of various crimes related to urban legends. Inexplicably, they rarely have much to say in these instances, causing one to wonder why they bothered to visit decades-old crime scenes in the first place … staring at a tree where townspeople believe a murder occurred or pointing out a gravestone adds nothing to the exploration. These scenes are mundane in comparison to the informational portions, which are dense and fascinating.

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Director Joshua Zeman and Producer Rachel Mills check out the scene of a murder by night. (Image courtesy of Joshua Zeman and Gregory Palmer.)

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STRANGER THINGS, S1E4: “The Body” (2016) dir. Shawn Levy

Director: Shawn Levy
Producers: Matt and Ross Duffer, Dan Cohen, Karl Gajdusek, Cindy Holland, Shawn Levy, Matt Thunell, Brian Wright
Writer: Justin Doble
Stars: Finn Wolfhard, Millie Bobby Brown, Winona Ryder

STRANGER THINGS Cover Image

SPOILER ALERT: THE FOLLOWING REVIEW INCLUDES SPOILERS FOR THIS EPISODE OF STRANGER THINGS.

Will’s body has been found—and tensions are high in Hawkins. Joyce struggles to convince others of what she is sure of: that Will is nearby and, what’s more, he is alive. Even Mike turns on Eleven after the body is found, convinced that she has been leading the boys on a purposeless journey to nowhere, rather than in pursuit of Will. Hopper digs into the case, having realized that Will’s disappearance is likely not an isolated incident. Chapter 4 heats up, and STRANGER THINGS approaches its climax.

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STRANGER THINGS, S1E3: “Holly Jolly” (2016) dir. Shawn Levy

Director: Shawn Levy
Producers: Matt and Ross Duffer, Dan Cohen, Karl Gajdusek, Cindy Holland, Shawn Levy, Matt Thunell, Brian Wright
Writer: Jessica Mecklenburg
Stars: Finn Wolfhard, Millie Bobby Brown, Winona Ryder

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I won’t lie: this is a tough episode to watch, from start to finish. The triggers are minimal, yet the content is disturbing—emotionally wrought. “Holly Jolly” includes a fresh visual of the monster, Eleven’s heartrending exploration of the Wheeler house, an alarming discovery dragged up from the depths of a local lake, and the instantly iconic painted and lit alphabet that Joyce creates as a method of communication with her son … wherever he might be.

SPOILER ALERT: THE FOLLOWING REVIEW INCLUDES SPOILERS FOR THIS EPISODE OF STRANGER THINGS.

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