Reviewed by Johnny Butane
Starring Jack Huston, Pell James, Nick Searcy, Terry Becker
Directed by Graeme Whifler
When we were first contacted about Neighborhood Watch by one of our board members who worked on the film, our initial reaction was trepidation. It usually is these days when it comes to indie cinema, but Watch, we soon learned, was a different breed all together.
A lot of what sets the film apart from the rest of the over-crowded indie horror market is its reliance on strong leads and a narrative that’s sure to make anyone currently residing in suburbia uncomfortable when they see some new neighbors moving in.
The story follows Bob and Wendi Peterson (Huston and James, respectively), a newly married couple who have just moved into their first house together after Bob takes a job at a new company. They’re in a quiet, unnamed town that looks like it could be pretty much “Anywhere, USA” (it was filmed in Victorville, CA, but you’d never know it). The weird stuff begins almost right away when an elderly couple, both deaf, crash their car in the Petersons’ front yard on their first night and completely ignore Bob’s demands for an explanation. They both seem very frightened, however, and very eager to get away.
Soon we figure out why. Across the cul-de-sac resides Adrien (Searcy), a bachelor who’s been on his own since his father, the former mayor of the town, died two years before. He’s holed up in his house, the windows of which are covered in newspaper, doing God knows what while listening to a seemingly 24-hour broadcast of a religious show of the most extreme nature. The elderly couple knows that he’s evil, and we’re led to believe he’s been tormenting them for years now, but their initial warnings go unheeded as the couple is too convinced that nothing can go wrong. Bob and Wendi accept Adrien’s offer of a box of candies when he comes over to welcome them to the neighborhood, despite the tirade he goes on about the elderly couple and their filthy lies. This is after Wendi has a major allergic reaction to the poison oak bouquet that was anonymously left at her doorstop.
The candies aren’t store bought, that’s for sure, and soon the couple are spending most of their time on the toilet, shitting out everything but their intestines. Since they’re not stupid, they figure out the cause of their discomfort and not so politely tell Adrien to leave them the hell alone, which only pisses him off, causing him to accelerate his efforts as he goes about slowly poisoning them to death.
Adrien’s psychosis is never fully explained, but from the scenes of him alone in his house, listening to the near-psychotic ramblings of the aforementioned radio show, it’s obvious he’s a worst case example of the human species. Just smart enough to keep ahead of those he’s victimizing and possessing very few moral scruples, he’s able to do the sort of things normal people wouldn’t even contemplate…like fingering an open wound while listening to a tape of the Petersons having sex. He is a nasty, nasty human being. And he doesn’t like being told “no.”
The most striking thing about Neighborhood Watch, at least initially, is the cinematography. The suburban neighborhood in which the story takes place is filmed in such a way as to give it a sense of almost complete isolation from the rest of the world. Shots are framed that showcase more of the big, empty sky than the houses below, which serves to evoke a sense of seclusion that you usually don’t see from suburbia. The entire point of suburban neighborhoods is the “safety in numbers” theory, but in Watch it’s clear from the look alone that there is no safe place from a neighbor like Adrien.
By now I’m sure you’ve read about how gory and disgusting the movie is, and I would be remiss not to mention it. While the aforementioned gash loving, and some earlier scenes of Adrien nibbling on the chunky bits of a stomach wound, are well done in terms of their realism, overall Watch wasn’t as gory as I was led to believe. What there is in terms of disturbing imagery, however, is done effectively enough so it stands out as more prominent than it actually is in the context of the film, especially the final scenes when Adrien is finally alone with Wendi and aims to remove the parts of her that cause her to be a “sexual deviant.”
The skill of the effects can only be so effective; without some characters you actually care about, they would be wasted. Thankfully writer/director Whifler took just enough time with our leads to give them real personality so when the horror does come down on them in a big way, you’re more emotionally involved with the outcome. Don’t get me wrong; it’s not like you’re going to be weeping during the final reel or anything, but enough life is given to the leads to make them believable, an important consideration that is rarely utilized by directors these days.
I did have some issues with it overall; some of the scenes of Bob at his new job didn’t really lead anywhere like I had hoped they would, and the only scene that actually features a Neighborhood Watch meeting is probably the weakest of the entire film. There were also some cringe-worthy performances by minor characters, though few and far between. Minor complaints considering the quality of the film as a whole, and they’re pitfalls that any director can make when trying to build characters and tension. Sometimes a scene or two just don’t work out as planned and you have to make the rest of the film good enough to make up for it; Whifler has no problems there.
I’m sure we’ll be hearing more about Neighborhood Watch soon; it’s one of those films that I see turning the right kinds of heads at film festivals to garner it a decent, if not minor theatrical, then at least straight-to-SE DVD, release. With a strong cast, an easily related to story, and top-shelf makeup effects, Neighborhood Watch is the kind of disturbingly real film seen all too rarely these days. At its heart it’s still an indie movie, bringing with it some of the trappings that implies, but easily stands tall as a different kind of horror film…one that could take place right next door.
3 ½ out of 5
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A Demon Within Review – Familiar Possession Beats To A Dreary Tune
Directed by Ayush Banker and Justin LaReau
Possession flicks don’t often hold a long shelf life in the horror community, with Ayush Banker and Justin LaReau’s A Demon Within suggesting why. Hands emerging from the darkness, exorcisms, anxious priests – you’ll see it all again as you’ve seen it before. Early scenes glimmer a polish unlike equal indie products, but that’s just the devil playing tricks on you. Once the film’s main satanic takeover begins, cursing teens and stony glares become the been-here-before norm. Low-budget filmmaking isn’t an immediate detractor like some high-society snobs may believe, yet it’s surely no excuse either. Today’s review being an example of both mindsets.
Charlene Amoia stars as Julia Larsen, a divorcee who moves into Crestwick, Illinois looking for a clean start with daughter Charlotte (Patricia Ashley). Their dusty toucher-upper is a quaint, aged farmhouse in the middle of nowhere, complete with electrical issues and weird noises at night. Nothing to worry about, right? Julia’s focus is better directed towards town doctor Jeremy Miller (Clint Hummel), who she immediately hits it off with (after almost hitting *him* with a car). She’s eating stir-fry at his place one night, all things going well, and that’s when it happens – Charlotte is possessed by an evil force who enacts its sinister plan. Charlotte may physically be present, but only as a vessel for “Nefas.”
Without hesitation, A Demon Within lays predictable groundwork as small-town haunters have for decades. Charlotte’s new home is already infested with a spiritual squatter, Jeremy bottles (and drinks down) a blemished past that’s exposed too late, there’s plenty of characters sneakin’ up on one another – never with much “oomph.” Charlotte’s teeny-bopper voice drops to truck-driver deep at the height of possession, but it’s a distracting sound design that alone strikes little fear. Serious scares are attempted, be it a pitch-black basement slashing or Charlotte’s hide-and-seek pounce, just never delivered. An inconsequential failure to unite tone and atmosphere.
Performances are…well…rigid, to say the least. Amoia and Ashley strike a surprisingly likable chemistry as living humans, but once Ashley goes demonic, chemistry bottoms out. The way A Demon Within positions Charlotte when possessed is utterly dull and undefined; Ashley playing an unenthusiastic harbinger of death. It’s bad enough that Hummel’s tortured doctor masters the emotional range of Mona Lisa and the town’s pastor is hardly a scene stealer – but to have a demon be so vanilla (without a side of nuts, no less)? Getting past the limited lighting and Charlotte’s manly demon voice is hard enough, let alone her mostly relenting threats.
Making matters worse, the film’s third act is hardly a religious salvation that flows with ease. I had more fun watching Julia stammer over pizza and beers with Jeremy than their final fight against ghastly hellspawns. The truths of Jeremy’s past leak out in flashback form, only to reveal his stubborn inability to comprehend one’s own possession encounter in the very house Julia bought (useful information, eh?). The local priest shows up in the nick of time, a few cutaway jolts attempt cheap thrills, and some holy water mucks up an old painting – but again, minimal notability. Er…not even minimal? Shaky last-minute framing makes it hard to even notice the touch-ups to Charlotte’s face that signify her unholy imprisonment, even worse than blackened CGI mists.
A Demon Within tries, fumbles, and tries some more, but it’s best treated as a reminder of better exorcism stories that exist elsewhere. Even something like The Vatican Tapes is an improvement over this possessive redundancy, hokier than the honky-tonk love song that plays atop a pizza-chain flirt scene. There’s something to be said about getting out and creating original horror, but herein lies the problem – this ain’t *that* original. With harsher scares and tension, such a fate could be ignored. As-is? It’s hard to see past anything more than a January release placeholder.
A Demon Within is a seen-it-before possession thriller that brings nothing new to the conversation. Not the worst, but also not a “hidden secret.”
Desolation Review – The Joy of Being Rescued and All the Surprises That Come With It
Starring Raymond J. Barry, Brock Kelly, Dominik Garcia-Lorido
Directed by David Moscow
It’s those random, once-in-a-lifetime encounters that only a select few get the chance to experience: when we as regular participants in this wonderful thing known as The Rat Race, stumble across a soul that we’ve only witnessed on the big screen. I’m talking about a celebrity encounter, and while some of the masses will chalk the experience up as nothing more than a passing moment, others hold it to a much larger interior scale…then you REALLY get to know the person, and that’s when things get interesting.
Director David Moscow’s thriller, Desolation follows shy hotel employee Katie (Lorido) and her “fortuitous” brush with Hollywood pretty-boy Jay (Kelly) during one of his stops – the two hit it off, and together they begin a sort of whirlwind-romance that takes her away from her job and drops her in the heart of Los Angeles at the apartment building he resides in. You can clearly see that she has been a woman who’s suffered some emotional trauma in her past, and this golden boy just happens to gallop in on his steed and sweep her off of her feet, essentially rescuing her from a life of mundane activity. She gets the full-blown treatment: a revamped wardrobe, plenty of lovin’, and generally the life she’s wanted for some time.
Things return to a bit of normalcy when Jay has to return to work, leaving Katie to spread out at his place, but something clearly isn’t kosher with this joint. With its odd inhabitants (a very creepy priest played by Raymond J. Barry), even more bizarre occurrences, and when one scared young woman cannot even rely on the protection from the local police, it all adds up to a series of red flags that would have even the strongest of psyches crying for their mothers. What Moscow does with this movie is give it just enough swerves so that it keeps your skull churning, but doesn’t overdo its potential to conclusively surprise you, and that’s what makes the film an entertaining watch.
While Lorido more than holds her ground with her portrayal of a woman who has been hurt in the past, and is attempting to place her faith in a new relationship, it’s Barry that comes out on top here. His performance as Father Bill is the kind of stuff that wouldn’t exactly chill you to the bone, but he’s definitely not a man of the cloth that you’d want to be stuck behind closed doors with – generally unsettling. As I mentioned earlier, the plot twists are well-placed, and keep things fresh just when you think you’ve got your junior private investigator badge all shined up. Desolation is well-worth a look, and really has kicked off 2018 in a promising fashion – let’s see what the other 11 months will feed us beasts.
Got your eye on that shining movie star or starlet? Better make sure it’s what you really want in life – you know what they say about curiosity.
Wolf Guy Blu-ray Review – Sonny Chiba As A Werewolf Cop In ’70s Japan
Starring Sonny Chiba, Etsuko Nami, Kyosuke Machida
Directed by Kazuhiko Yamaguchi
Distributed by Arrow Video
As virtually every American adaptation has proven, translating manga to the big screen is a job best left to Japanese filmmakers. There is an inherent weirdness – for lack of a better term – to their cultural media that should be kept “in house” if there is to be any hope for success. Ironically, the stories are often so fantastical and wildly creative that a big American studio budget would be necessary to fully realize such a live-action vision. But I digress. Back in 1975, Toei Studios (home of Gamera) adapted the 1970 manga series Wolf Guy into a feature of the same name. Starring the legendary Shin’ichi Chiba (a.k.a. Sonny Chiba), who at that time was in his prime, the film combines elements of crime and psychedelic cinema, delivering less of a werewolf film (despite the title suggesting otherwise) and more of a boilerplate crime caper with a cop who has a few tricks up his hairy sleeve. I should stress it is the story that plays fairly straightforward, while the film itself is a wild kaleidoscope of strange characters and confounding situations… mostly.
An unseen killer, known only as “The Tiger”, prowls the streets at night slashing victims to death and leaving behind no trace. Beat cop Akira Inugami (Sonny Chiba) is on the case, and he has an advantage over his fellow brothers in blue: being a werewolf. As the opening credits flashback shows, Akira is the sole survivor of the Inugami clan of werewolves after a slaughter wiped out the rest of his kind. Now, as the last of his brethren, he uses his acute lycanthropic skills, under the auspices of the moon, to track down underworld thugs and solve cases uniquely tailored to his abilities. As the lunar cycle of the moon sees it growing fuller Akira’s powers, too, increase to superhuman levels.
Searching for this mysterious “Tiger”, Akira is led into a subterranean world of clandestine government organizations, nightclub antics, and corrupt politicians. One night, Akira is attacked and taken prisoner by a government research lab that wants to use his blood to create werewolves they can control. Only problem is – which they don’t realize – Akira’s blood cannot be mixed with that of a human; the only end result is death. Miki (Etsuko Nami), a drug user with syphilis, comes to Akira’s aid and proves to be quite useful. She holds a secret that has the potential to vastly change Akira’s world but, first, a showdown with the criminal underbelly looms on the horizon… as does the fifteenth day of the Lunar Cycle, when Akira will be made nearly invincible.
First, some bad news: Sonny Chiba never attains full werewolf status. This is not that movie. Sure, he growls and snarls and sneers and possesses many of the traits of a werewolf but in terms of physical characteristics he more or less remains “human” the entire time. Yes, even during “Lunar Cycle Day 15”, a.k.a. the moment every viewer is waiting for, to see him turn into a wolf. Instead, he just winds up kicking a lot of ass and taking very little damage. To be fair, a grizzled Sonny Chiba is still enough of a formidable presence, but, man, to see him decked out as a full-on kung-fu fighting werewolf would’ve been badass. The film could have done better at tempering expectations because it builds up “Day 15” like viewers are going to see an explosion of fur and flesh, instead it’s just plenty of the latter. Aw, well.
Lack of werewolf-ing aside, the film plays out a bit uneven. The opening offers up a strong start, with The Tiger attack, wily underworld characters being introduced, and a tripped-out acid garage rock soundtrack (which I’d kill for a copy of). But Second Act Lag is a real thing here and many of the elements that may have piqued viewer curiosity in the first act are scuttled, and although the third act and climax bring forth fresh action and a solution to the mystery it also feels a bit restrained. Then again, this is Toei, often seen as a cheaper Toho. Wolf Guy serves as a good introduction to Akira Inugami and his way of life, which makes it a greater shame no sequels were produced.
Presented with a 2.35:1 1080p image, Wolf Guy hits Blu-ray with a master supplied by Toei, meaning Arrow did no restorative work of their own on the picture – and it shows. Japanese film elements, especially those of older films, are often notorious for being poorly housed and feebly restored. This transfer is emblematic of those issues, with hazy black levels, average-to-poor definition, minimal shadow detail, and film grain that gets awfully noisy at times. The best compliment I can give is daylight close-up scenes exhibit a pleasing level of fine detail, though nothing too eye-popping. This is a decidedly mediocre transfer across the board.
The score fares a bit better, not because the Japanese LPCM 1.0 mono mix is a beast but because the soundtrack is so wildly kinetic, exploding with wild garage rock and fuzzy riffs right from the get-go. Dialogue has a slight hiss on the letter “s” but is otherwise nicely balanced within the mix. Subtitles are available in English.
“Kazuhiko Yamaguchi: Movies with Guts” is a September 2016 sit-down with the film’s director, who reflects on his career and working with an icon like Sonny Chiba.
“Toru Yoshida: B-Movie Master” is an interview with Yoshida, a former producer at Toei who oversaw this film and many others.
“Sonny Chiba: A Life in Action, Vol. 1” covers the man’s career up to a point, with the remainder finished on Arrow’s other 2017 Chiba release, Doberman Cop.
A theatrical trailer is also included, as is a DVD copy of the feature.
- Kazuhiko Yamaguchi: Movies with Guts
- Toru Yoshida: B-Movie Master
- Sonny Chiba: A Life in Action, Vol. 1
- Theatrical trailer
While the film might be a bit of a letdown given what is suggested, fans of bizarre Japanese ’70s cinema – and certainly fans of Chiba’s work – should, at the least, have fun with this title.
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