Movie review: Countdown (2019)

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Initially when I heard about this movie, I couldn’t help but think of a sketch from popular British comedy series, The I.T. Crowd.

It did also smack of clutching at straws to try and get a horror vehicle out there that taps into the latest technology and social media trends and invokes the same sense of fear and dread that J Horror films such as The Ring or Kairo subjected into the mainstream.

With previous attempts such as Unfriended missing the mark, I went in with my expectations low. What I found was a film that was able to elevate those expectations, while admittedly it didn’t blow my mind, director Justin Dec manages to wrangle enough out of the plotline to make it both enjoyable and watchable.

We get the inevitable precursor explanation of the virus mobile app called Countdown, which correctly predicts the users time of death. A group of teenagers discuss this at a party where they provoke each other into downloading the app and participating in it as a sort of dare moment. The outcome. One of said teenagers is told she only has hours to live and tries to change her fate only for the app to prove true with its prediction.

The story then revolves further around Nurse Quinn Harris (Elizabeth Lail – Dead of Summer)  who has just finished up her internship at the hospital and been appointed to a full time position. Quinn learns about the app from a patient who was the boyfriend of our first victim. The app tells her that she only has 3 days left to live and with it opens up the labyrinth for Quinn to fall down in order to try and outlast and outwit this curse. 

Joining her on her voyage is Matt Monroe (Jordan Calloway – Riverdale) who is predicted to die a few hours before Quinn, and her sister, Jordan (Talitha Bateman – Annabelle: Creation) who also downloads the app. (Insert facepalm emoji). 

There’s a fairly decent supporting cast in Matt Letscher (Flash) as the single Dad, Peter Facinelli (The Twilight saga), but the stand out has to go to P.J. Byrne (The Gift) as Father John going against the religious, disciplined stereotype, busting out more as a fanboy of the occult if anything else, which felt refreshing.

The Prognosis:

So despite my predisposition that this film reached higher than my expectations, it still failed to deliver on the horror front and go beyond the realms of previous genre movies in the scare department. Nor did it offer anything too original.
It did entertain though, and I can’t help but feel this was down to its cast more than the plotline or directorial choices.

  • Saul Muerte

Retrospective: Pillow of Death (1945)

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Unfortunately for the sixth and final instalment of the Inner Sanctum Mystery feature films produced by Universal Pictures starring Lon Chaney Jr. I found that the delivery was incredibly formulaic and as such all I wanted to do was reach for the snooze button.
Upon reflection, my opinion may have been marred from watching each instalment within close succession and it may have warranted a little bit of space between each viewing to allow each film to strike up its own identity.
Without wanting to give too much of the plot away, the one strength that Pillow of Death has over its predecessors is the twist finale, going against the grain of our expectations.

This time around Chaney Jr. stars as an attorney, Wayne Fletcher, whose heart belongs to his secretary Donna Kincaid (Brenda Joyce – Strange Confession), who also happens to be from a fairly wealthy family.. Bound by wedlock, Fletcher is in the midst of filing for a divorce so that he can be with Donna when his wife is found murdered, suffocated by the titular weapon of choice.
This makes Fletcher prime suspect number one and must now fight to prove his innocence.

The one person standing in Fletcher’s way is a fraudulent medium, Julian Julian (J. Edward Bromberg) a man who despite his charlatan ways is intent on pointing the finger at Fletcher for his wife’s murder. What makes the task for both parties is the rise in the body count whilst staying at the family mansion one evening.

The film takes on a slightly lighter tone in comparison to the other Inner Sanctum Mysteries, much like other Universal outings such as The Mystery of Marie Roget. One can almost sense the doors opening for Abbott and Costello to march into the mansion and infuse it with satire at any given moment.
That direction was not long off for Universal and the tide is certainly changing away from that darker edge that they had been synonymous for over the past decade and a half. It’s a shame as I feel that if they were willing to push the boundaries of dread, their films would have marked an altogether different experience and been much more rewarding, but they were hindered by their times and one must remember that world was going through its own dark times, carrying the burden of a Global war on its back. The stark reality is that people were needing an escape from the world and a need for humour to step in and poke fun at the grim and dire circumstances that humanity had to endure. For Universal, Abbott and Costello would provide that alternate formula… but that’s for another retrospective.

  • Saul Muerte

Retrospective: Strange Confession (1945)

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By the time Universal were producing their fifth instalment of the Inner Sanctum Mysteries starring Lon Chaney Jr., the fizzle had run out in this writers’ mind.

Strange Confession sees Chaney Jr. as chemist Jeff Carter, who has been running tests to find a cure for influenza. 

One could argue that this film could be viewed with the lens of all the horrors that Capitalism can arise. Carter works for an egocentric tycoon, Roger Graham (J. Carroll Naish) who is always eager to gain a profit by any means even if that means cutting corners. When Carter grows wise to Graham’s ways he initially resigns, and works at a local store. Once married to  Mary (Brenda Joyce) and raising a son, their fiances take a strain and Carter finds that he has no choice but to work once more for Graham. It is here that he potentially finds the influenza cure and is encouraged by Graham to go to South America to perfect his findings.
Unbeknownst to Carter however, Graham has eyes on rolling out the formula despite not having a 100 percent success rate, and also to prize Mary away from Carter while he is away.

Tragedy inevitably strikes when Carter’s son is fatally struck down by the killer virus. Once Carter learns of this, he only has vengeance on his mind.

It takes the final reel before this film hits home and true, but the lead up to its conclusion is slow and cumbersome.
Stand out performance goes to Lloyd Bridges as the bright and cheery friend to Carter, Dave Curtis, and potentially the only real spark in the film.

  • Saul Muerte

Retrospective: The Frozen Ghost (1945)

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When I came to casting a retrospective of the Universal Inner Sanctum Mystery movies, I decided to watch them all fairly close together. As such, due to the similarity in style and substance, combined with the fact that Lon Chaney Jr. starred in all sic of the, a blurring of the narratives came about. 

In the case of The Frozen Ghost, I found that I struggled to bring to mind what actually occurred without looking it back up again. This is surely an indicator that the movie had little or no impact on me, which says a lot about my connection to the movie.

When I did research back into it again, the visuals soon sprang to mind and I was left pondering about why it didn’t resonate so well.

My resolution comes down to that the film was just a bit messy in its delivery. 

The tale presents Chaney Jr as mentalist Alex Gregor, who is provoked by an intoxicated non-believer in his audience that he is a fake, so out of anger, hypnotizes the individual spurring a heart attack that leads to the man’s untimely death.

Gregor is now consumed with grief and then turns within himself, ending his relationship with assistant Maura (Evelyn Ankers in a subdued performance, albeit still a strong one) and runs away to work as a lecturer for an old friend, Mme Valerie Monet (Tala Birell).

Trouble creeps up once more however when Valerie also turns up dead and Gregor becomes prime suspect number one.

The continuing theme involved with the Inner Sanctum Mysteries centres around mystery, intrigue and in the case of the movies, a wronged man troubled with murder most foul.

The Frozen Ghost has to shift and change on numerous occasions to accommodate the plight of its lead protagonist, who tries to figure out if he truly is responsible for the death of these individuals through the use of paranormal abilities.

The road isn’t a straight one to the conclusion and the perpetrators are all too obvious, so the attempt at clever deception is lost much to the detriment of the film.

The performances are still strong regardless, but unfortunately the executions is just too weak. 

  • Saul Muerte

Retrospective: Dead Man’s Eyes (1944)

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By the time Universal delivered their third Inner Sanctum feature starring Lon Chaney Jr., it felt like the production house had hit their stride. I for one, really enjoyed this entry and felt that Chaney Jr. was comfortable wearing the shoes of the troubled lead, artist David Stuart and really amplifies the plight of his character to the benefit of the viewer.

All appears to be well for Stuart, who is settled down with his fiance, Heather (Jean Parker) and is marrying into a fairly wealthy estate.
Tragedy strikes however when Stuart is blinded by his assistant, Tanya (Acquanetta – Captive Wild Woman) in a fit of jealousy. Believing his career as an artist to be over, Stuart is offered some salvation when his father-in-law, Capt. Drury agrees to donate his eyes in the vent of his death. Fate takes a wicked turn once more though when Drury is murdered and Stuart becomes the prime suspect as he benefits from the victims eyes. 

There are a number of twists and turns to this short running time which makes the film standout and is fuelled by a love quadrangle in Stuart, Heather, Tanya, and Stuart’s best friend Dr. Alan Bittaker (Paul Kelly), all of whom provide strong performances and add to the intrigue and mystery of the tale, keeping you guessing as to who the killer was until the final reel.

  • Saul Muerte

Retrospective: Weird Woman (1944)

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For their second outing under the Inner Sanctum Mysteries umbrella, Universal would turn their attention to a novel by Fritz Leiber called Conjure Wife.
The novel has since been adapted a further couple of times with Night of the Eagle (1962) an Witches Brew (1980) and tells the tale of Professor Norman Reed (Chaney Jr. once again taking lead duties) who falls in love and marries with a woman, Paula (Anne Gwynne) who he meets while abroad.
When they return to the Professor’s hometown, the couple receive a somewhat frosty response from the community, especially as Paula associates herself with the tribal beliefs and voodoo associations that she had been accustomed to during her time on the islands of the South Seas.

These negative views turn sinister once stage things begin to occur, including the death of one of Professor Reed’s colleagues. 

All eyes are on Paula, the outsider, but is she really to blame or is there something else kicking the hornet’s nest?

Weird Woman doesn’t necessarily strike as strongly as the previous Inner Sanctum feature, Calling Dr. Death, playing a fairly simple plotline with some questionable choices under today’s standards, but the highlight for me was Evelyn Ankers who was often paired with Chaney Jr. in Universal films around this time including The Wolf Man and Ghost of Frankenstein.
Here she plays the jealous Ilona, infatuated with Professor Reed and longs to be by his side. Ankers taps into this character drive with such conviction that it elevates her amongst her costars and provides an enjoyable watch to a fairly mediocre movie.

  • Saul Muerte

Retrospective: Calling Dr. Death (1944)

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Launching off the success of the popular radio series, Universal scored the rights to produce a series of films based on The Inner Sanctum Mysteries, an anthology of mystery, terror, and suspense. Initially, the film series had been intended as a joint venture for stable actors Lon Chaney Jr., and Gale Sondergaard to be cast in the lead roles, but for reasons unknown to this writer, the latter didn’t end up being involved.
For Chaney Jr however, he felt that this would be the perfect vehicle to break his horror monster mould that he had been typecast in of late. 

The first in the film series, Calling Dr. Death casts Chaney Jr. as a neurologist, Dr Steele, who is also a dab hand at hypnosis. Unfortunately he is caught in a bitter marriage, where his wife, Maria (Ramsay Ames) displays no feelings towards him and clearly is only invested in his money and the status that comes with it.

So, when Maria turns up dead, Steele becomes the prime suspect, clouded all the more by his sudden amnesia with a lack of recollection for the last few days.

Steele decides to call upon his assistant, Stella (Patricia Morison) to put him under hypnosis and uncover the truth before Inspector Gregg (J. Carrol Naish) pins the murder on him. 

Could it be Maria’s lover Robert (David Bruce), Robert’s jealous wife (Fay Helm) or is he really responsible for wrongdoing?

Calling Dr. Death uses a fairly standard voiceover device, (apparently on the insistence of Chaney Jr. and used throughout the series, which sometimes works but often grates) to gain the insights of Dr. Steele. There is enough of a plot here to intrigue the viewer, with plenty of suspects to fuel the mystery and keep you guessing, marking the movie as a strong entry into the series and worth checking out to see Chaney Jr without getting his wolf on.

  • Saul Muerte

Movie review: Host

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Straight off the bat, I have to proclaim that I am not a massive fan of the found footage genre. There have been some exceptions, primarily Spanish horror flick, [REC], and as much as it pains me, I’ve come to appreciate The Blair Witch Project over the years for how it’s simple storytelling and tapping into the wake of the internet boom. 

Check out the Surgeons team on the Found Footage genre here

Similarly, Host capitalises on the current social climate and the restrictions that COVID 19 has had on the Arts. Unlike the film Unfriended which tried to harness the ever-changing social media landscape to project fear onto the screens, but ultimately falling short of expectations, Director Rob Savage, crafts a clever and creative script using the minimal amount of tools to his advantage, shooting everything through Zoom links and relying heavy on his cast to create the lighting, stunts, and visual effects needed to pull off the story and make it seem believable.

The narrative takes place with a group of friends meeting together via Zoom to initiate a seance, conducted by a medium, Seylan. It all seems innocent with some of the group not entirely taking it seriously, but as events play out, it soon takes a sinister turn with the group unwittingly calling in a demonic entity into their fold. Can they ward off this evil presence, or will it slowly and violently take them out?

The Prognosis:

Don’t be turned off by the remarkably short running time, Host packs in a lot into the story with great performances and strong characters. Not all of them are likeable, but that’s the point. You have to have a few that you wish to get their comeuppance and those that you genuinely hope to survive their ordeal. Savage has proved himself a compelling storyteller as a result, while taking a simple enough premise and weaving a delightfully dark tale with minimal tools at hand. It goes to show that you don’t need a lot to create a little bit of magic and by tapping into the social mainstream, breathe life into the found footage genre once more.

  • Saul Muerte

Movie review: The Platform

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This Spanish horror flick that is currently streaming on Netflix Australia has garnered some buzz since its release early in 2020. A potential reason that it resonated so profoundly among viewers is its clear social commentary on class warfare. 

Our stage is set when the main protagonist, Goreng (Iván Massagué), awakens in a cell marked with the number 48. We soon learn primarily through his cellmate, Trimagasi (Zorion Eguileor), that they are now part of the Vertical Self-Management Centre, a vertical tower where each floor has a hole that drives straight through its centre, in which a platform of food is lowered down to feed the inmates. The purpose is that those nearest the top are provided with the highest quality food and the further down the tower you are, the less likely you will be to reap the benefits of their status.

Each inmate is either sentenced or volunteers to serve a term inside the complex and must endure the time in order to survive. There is no knowing which floor you will be placed, and even then, one only remains for a total of 30 days before being moved on to a different floor. There is only a small amount of time to eat the allocated food too, before it is passed on down to the lower levels. Naturally with such a strict and measured regime, it brings out the worst in humanity, forced to fight tooth and nail for every last scrap or morsel of food. 

Despite the desperate and the barbaric,  bloody nature on show, there is a glimmer of hope in some of the inmates, and Goreng does his level best to turn this state of affairs around and search for a chance for salvation for all.

The Prognosis:

This movie may slather on the morals with a thick wedge of conspicuousness, but the manner in which it delivers is gloriously brutal, heart-rendering and painstakingly satisfying that it deserves high praise for the bold and accessible approach that director Galder Gaztelu-Urrutia serves. 

The system may be broken, but it only takes a few to stand true and turn the table. 

A brave statement told through a dystopian lens.

  • Saul Muerte

Movie review: Blood Quantum

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There is a lot to praise about this film, but chiefly is its stance on American colonialism and thrusting the theme of zombie horror as the platform to herald from. The term Blood Quantum is from the Indian Blood Laws in the United States that determine Native American identity by the percentages of their ancestry, for example if you are born from a mother and father who are considered 100 percent Native American, you would be deemed as having pure blood.

It is this concept that is then carried through the film’s narrative which determines those with Native American blood, immune to a zombie outbreak that occurs.

When we meet our lead characters, they are a mismatch of family members, fractured by the toils that society has placed upon them. There’s the patriarchal figure in Traylor , an indigenous sheriff, who despite being the lead authority in the fishing town, has had his fair share of mistakes to bear his soul. The biggest test that Traylor must face is the bestow upon his two (Michael Greyeyes) sons (both from different mothers) the responsibilities that adulthood brings. One of his sons, Joseph (Forrest Goodluck) has the promise to take on this role, but is prone to self-sabotage and avoidance, which is primarily brought around by the daunting task of becoming a father himself. The other son, Lysol (Kiowa Gordon) seems to be beyond salvation, content on playing by his own rules. Traylor certainly has his work cut out for him under normal circumstances, but this all unfolds in the middle of a zombie outbreak. 

Thankfully, he’s supported by some kick-ass individuals along the way to protect him, his family and community along the way. Among them are his own father, Gisigu (Stonehorse Lone Goeman), a sword-wielding fiend who certainly knows how to hold his own and bastion of his kin. There’s also Traylor’s ex-wife, and mother to Joseph, Joss (Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers), who also happens to be a nurse. In this narrative, she serves as the constant strength and support to her family, despite all of their flaws.

The Prognosis:

The first half an hour of the movie as the zombie outbreak is unleashed, is jam-packed with tension as the lead characters first fathom what they are faced with and then how to survive this ordeal.

Unfortunately the middle section sags a little as the community has set up a refuge six months after the outbreak and learn that they are immune from the virus. The film struggles to stay afloat during this phase and at times feels that it is in danger of losing all the promise that led the stories charge. 

Blood Quantum’s saving grace comes from the strength of its characters. The inner turmoil that is evident in the set up, and like the virus itself, cannot be saved. Instead it is down to the most resilient of them to prevail and find a way out of their predicament. Just a shame it wasn’t able to keep the pace throughout.

  • Saul Muerte