Retrospective: The Driller Killer – 40 years on

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My first entry into the world of Abel Ferrara came in the early 90s with his two features dedicated to the criminal underworld of his hometown; King of New York, and Bad Lieutenant. The latter resonated strongly long in my mind with Harvey Keitel’s powerful performance as a drug-addicted, corrupt police officer intent on changing his ways. Ferrara is clearly inspired by the unhinged minds of mankind and this subject is often the driving force of the lead protagonists in his movies, as we watch them spiral deeper into insanity and out of control.

The Driller Killer, (Ferrara’s debut feature in the director’s chair), is no exception, and follows struggling painter, Reno Miller (played by Ferrara), living in New York, as he slowly descends into madness and despair. His crazed mind, unable to contend with the reality of his dire situation, resorts to taking his frustrations and anger out on the streets and onto the homeless and impoverished, wielding his weapon of choice; a power drill.

Growing up in the UK, The Driller Killer had been thrown into the video nasties heap and wouldn’t see the light of day through legal means until 1999, when a cutdown version would make its way into the video rental market. It was shortly after this that I would finally get to watch the movie, which by now was so heightened in my mind as a dark and distressing feature, that I went in, fully wanting to be shook to the core and have my mind inflicted with some gross-out gore to the extreme.

So I huddled up in my horror haven at the time, a labyrinth of blood curdling wonder that hosted the classics and the downright disturbing delights, and let The Driller Killer wash over me. I have to admit my initial reaction was underwhelming, as I was confronted with a mish mash of a storyline, jumbled up with sparse and confusing dialogue, combined with really long jam sessions from the band living in the neighbouring apartment. True, when Reno lost control, it was suitably unhinged and the SFX were effective enough with its crimson palette oozing from his victims. The trouble was, I found the fractured nature of the narrative too jarring and the abrupt conclusion a little too complex. And yet somehow, something hung in my mind and stuck there to this day.

Abel Ferrara playing Reno Miller drenched in blood from the movie The Driller Killer

So, with its 40th Anniversary upon us, I thought that now would be a good time to dust down the dvd that was immersed in my horror film collection and take a look at The Driller Killer once again.

True, the same old flaws are apparent, but rather than seem like blemishes within the celluloid frame, they become moments of wonder, as we journey with Reno into his state of madness and social decay. I’d like to think that my older, wiser mind appreciates the disconnected and fractured storyline as a symbol of the human psyche, but it may also be that I too have cracked in the realms of reality and find that I am able to connect with the artists plight a little more, (although thankfully I haven’t picked up the nearest power tool to reek my vengenace on the world…yet).

The moments of rage are deliberately awkward and messy, which adds to the raw energy that Ferrara brings to his work, and by the time we reach the climax, the audience is suddenly snapped out of the macabre fantasy. This is something of an unpopular choice these days, as often audiences like to have their narrative sewn up and explained, but I prefer the ambiguity of the films’ closure, leaving us to wallow in the wake of Reno’s rampage. This feeling of desolation that hangs in the air is a stark reminder, that society may have come a long way, but we still have no direct answer to aid anyone with mental deficiencies. We’re quite content to let their actions go by and merely act as spectators, as long as it affects the impoverished members of society, but the moment it has an impact on someone deemed of class, then we feel appalled and react, which is why it seems fitting that Ferrara denies the audience the chance to witness Carol’s outcome. It’s for this reason that I feel The Driller Killer still resonates today and is a must-watch on any fan of the horror genre. It maybe a little rough and raw compared with some of the polished movies of today, but this only makes the impact of the film a much greater one.

  • Saul Muerte

Movie review: Why Don’t You Just Die (Sydney Film Festival)

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I have to admit that when I first read the short synopsis about Why Don’t You Just Die, I loved the title, and I was intrigued by the idea of a crime thriller with the promise of gallons of blood, but I instinctively put it on the maybe pile. My reasoning was purely down to the film not quite fitting into the horror genre, rather than the context of the story, but as I watched, I instantly regretted my instincts as boy does this movie deliver.

The action and tension on screen is relentless with top marks to the choreography of each set piece as it unfolds. What tips this above your average pot-boiler though is that writer/director, Kirill Sokolov doesn’t provide any easy solutions or fixes for the characters to weave their way out of, but rather offers obstacle after obstacle, providing a gruelling and effective journey that keeps you guessing the outcome.

The plot is a fairly simple one as Matvei is steered to avenge his girlfriend Olga’s mistreatment by her father. Armed with only a hammer, Matvei enters the apartment, only to find his plan is far from straight forward, much to the delight of the audience.

Peppered with flashbacks and character reveals that lend weight to deception and mistrust, the players are forced to outwit, out-muscle and out-hustle each other in order to survive the bloodbath. It’s not just about guts and gore though, (although this does have some awesome effects to satiate the hardened viewer) as its trump card is the macabre humour that ticks along and has you laughing at the ridiculously glorious events as they unfold.

The Diagnosis:

This is a Machiavellian tale that beats along at fun and crazed pace. The characters hold their secrets close to their chest, but are forced to spill their guts (literally in some cases) with bloody carnage and mayhem. Every twist and turn is delivered with powerful impact that resonates off the screen and into the cerebellum. Prepare for an enjoyable ride from Russian director, Kirill Sokolov. I predict big things to come from this sharp young mind.

TICKETS

Thu 13 June 8.45pm: Event Cinemas George St 

Head here for tickets

  • Saul Muerte
Guy stands opposite woman who sits on the kitchen counter with her legs stretched out.

Movie review: School’s Out (Sydney Film Festival 2019)

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Leading the charge for the Freak Me Out Program Strand at Sydney Film Festival this year is French, Environmental, Fantasy & Sci-Fi, Horror film, School’s Out. Before I delve into the guts of the film, I have to remark on the strength of genre movies coming out of France at the moment that are both insightful and leveraged with deep integrity. This writer has been remarkably affected by the likes of Raw, Revenge, and The Night Eats The World in the last couple of years, that I’m becoming a huge fan of this new-wave of francophile horror. Despite not being an all-out horror, School’s Out is firmly can firmly sit side-by-side with these movies.

In its opening scene, director Sébastien Marnier sets out to deliberately disturb the viewer, by confronting the audience with a seemingly tranquil school classroom setting, only to witness the teacher attempt suicide by throwing himself out of the window. What is most unsettling about this scene is the manner in which some of the students seem unaffected by this traumatic moment, simply staring out of the window at the body of their teacher on the ground below. In this one moment, Marnier sets the tone for the remainder of the film. The audience has a feeling of distrust towards the six unempathetic, yet highly-gifted students, and when we are introduced to the lead protagonist, relief teacher, Pierre Hoffman, he carries our fears and animosity with him throughout the films narrative.

The theme is also spelt out fairly early on in the piece too using the sub-genre, environmental horror at its core, which could very well be a growing trend in this class, much like the underrated, The Marshes, which came out last year. After all, horror is supposed to tap into our greatest fears, and what is more horrifying to humanity at the moment than ourselves and our impact on this world?

The message isn’t rammed down our throats though, more rather, it looms large in the background, ever-present, and a reminder that the danger is all around us if we dare to open our eyes and see. The symbolism isn’t lost whenever Pierre is swimming in a nearby lake with a huge power plant filling the landscape behind him.

What makes this film stand out though, is that it cleverly weaves Kafka’s theory of existentialism into the fold with the notion that each one of us is responsible and free for the actions we take. Should we be bystanders in our own destruction, or hopelessly try to prevent our own undoing? Pierre sows this seed fairly on when he mentions that he is working on a thesis around Kafka, and yet can’t seem to find the momentum to complete what he has started. Kafka was known to explore themes of alienation and isolation in his work, fuelled by anxiety in a world that fuses fantasy with reality; all of which is on display in School’s Out and provides the film with the necessary structure in which to tell Marnier and his screenwriting partner Elise Griffon’s narrative.

The beauty of this movie is that in the way Marnier steers his audience into a particular focus, and like Pierre we become blinded by the this narrow approach that we neglect to look at the bigger picture, and in doing so poses some big questions about our responsibilities.

The Diagnosis:

Whilst not strictly a horror in the fullest sense of the word, Marnier’s movie reflects the horrors that humanity is capable of in this slow-burning movie, that lifts the lid and exposes our damning actions. The performances are particularly strong and effective in School’s Out, and in some cases are quite confronting, which only adds to the strength of the overall storyline. Like Kafka’s most known novel, Die Verwandlung” (“The Metamorphosis“), we must learn to adapt or transform our ways if we are to survive, or ultimately face the consequences.

TICKETS

Wed 5 June 6:30pm: Dendy Newtown
Tue 11 June 9pm: Event Cinemas George St
Head here for Tickets

Movie review: Here Comes Hell (Sydney Film Festival 2019)

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It’s that time of year again when Sydney is offered some horrifying and thrilling delights as part of the Freak Me Out program strand at the Sydney Film Festival.

Among the cracking lineup comes a directorial debut feature by Jack McHenry that speaks right to my heart as it cleverly crafts 1930s British decadence. With a cast of fops and socialites, Here Comes Hell injects a twisted and psychotic world of the undead into the depression era.

The tagline sums it up perfectly, “Downton Abbey meets The Evil Dead.”

I found myself drawn in seamlessly by the rich cinematography, which perfectly encapsulates the movies of that time, and you can tell that Jack McHenry and his cinematographer Rory McHenry are lovers of the craft as spend time drawing you in before twisting the knife abruptly as it spins into the unknown and thrusts the characters beyond their wildest imaginations.

The concept follows the recklessly rich, Victor, who invites gun-wielding American George, sharp-tongued Christine, tennis playing Teddy, and his new girlfriend Elizabeth (who is our entry point into the family unit and the only character not born of higher breeding). When Victor decides to host a seance in order to spice up the evenings gatherings, the night takes a drastic turn as they unleash the spirit of a former owner of the mansion who had a curious passion with the dark arts.

Here Comes Hell could so easily be sucked into a vortex of the absurd and unbelievable but thanks to some crafty dialogue and deliciously delectable humour, provided by McHenry again and his screenwriting partner Alice Sidgwick, we’re treated to a fun romp into the macabre with some killer effects to boot.

The Diagnosis:

Despite its slow start, the gears grind up and we’re given a fun ride into a dark world that combines a twisted humour with an homage to a decadent time.

  • Saul Muerte

TICKETS

Sat 8 June 9pm: Event Cinemas George St
Tue 11 June 8:30pm: Dendy Newtown
Head here for Tickets

Here Comes Hell

Movie review: Greta

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It would seem that in a post MeToo age, to make a statement about a female centric film (regardless of its genre) is to generate discussion of a lively nature from both sides of the sex divide.  From feminists with their shields permanently on high-alert to whiney little men pissed at the thought of having to give up a place at the table – it seems there’s not a stance that can’t get attacked.

So, if that’s the case, this review would like to get a few things out of the way before proceeding.  Wonder Woman SUUUUCKED. Based purely on storytelling that is trying to at least present something new (as well as good) it is a poorly written film – just listen to some of the dialogue, especially during the boss fight.  The (now) disgraced Joss Whedon wrote a version that is easily accessible and INFINITELY better.  I won’t go so far as to say it’s a better feminist take that is the Gal Gadot version (although it is, because it doesn’t disrespect WW by offering her substandard scenes and cringeworthy dialogue) but it is certainly a more compelling, wittier and all round better told adventure.

And sexual politics aside that’s what we strive to focus on here at SoH; the story. (And before you go making assumptions, The Ghostbusters remake is good.  Really good.  Don’t listen to the haters with their invalid “painting eyes on the Mona Lisa” bullshit.  Look at it objectively as a story.  It is well told and entertaining.  Female cast or no female cast – end of).

Anyway… where were we?  Oh yes Greta.  A film set in New York with 2 female protagonists and a single female supporting cast.  It’s not that there are no men in it.  There’s a dad and a private eye who are dudes, and they have stuff to do, but really the meaty stuff is for the ladies.

It’s not Bechdel immune, as the young female lead in it – Frances, played by Chloe Grace Moretz – talks about her father with her best mate Erica (Maika Monroe) pretty early on, but this is after the opening of the film which has Frances finding a green handbag on the subway during her work commute (she is a waitress at a high class restaurant).

Opening up the bag she finds that it belongs to an elderly French lady named Greta, and being the good-natured soul that she is, Frances knocks on Greta’s door to return it.

Out of gratitude the older lady invites her in and soon an unlikely friendship is struck.  Unlikely not because of their different ages, but because this is one of the few parts of the film that definitely feels forced.  The character of Frances has recently lost her mother, but even that fact seems clumsily written as Greta soon becomes a surrogate maternal figure to the happy-to-please Frances.

But early on things get flipped when one day whilst having dinner in Greta’s house Frances finds in a cupboard (in another clunkily written scene) a number of identical green handbags each with a different young woman’s name written on them, and each with the EXACT same contents.  It’s soon clear that Greta orchestrates these encounters, and that her interest in younger women lies in psychotic-ville territory.

From there what ensues is the usual cat ‘n’ mouse shenanigans associated with this sort of thriller – some executed well, others not.

Greta herself is admirably performed by veteran Isabelle Huppert – although as can almost happen every time with these sort of parts – she occasionally spills over into farce, as does the direction and the writing (seriously, leaving multiple handbags on the subway with your identity in there to entrap women? As schemes go it’s about as water tight as a colander trying to sieve lava). And one melodramatic moment involving Greta turning up to Frances’ work will hit you flush on the nose.

Yet despite all that you do want to see how it ends, and there are enough twisty moments (no matter how clumsy) to keep you engaged.

Especially the twisty twist, which is both predictable in nature, and admirable for the sheer fact it exists.

The Diagnosis:

At the end of the day, Greta is a female centric horror/thriller, but is it any good?  Well – as may have previously been mentioned – that depends on the quality of the story. End of.

Antony Yee

Movie review: The Curse of the Weeping Woman

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Taking place within the universe of The Conjuring, The Curse of the Weeping Woman (or The Curse of La Llorona internationally) is the first feature length work from director Michael Chaves. With strong casting choices throughout, what would be an otherwise typical film for the genre was transformed into a well-balanced, well-paced and thoroughly enjoyable experience.

Based upon the Mexican folk story ‘La Llorona’, or The Weeping Woman, who drowned her two sons in an act of revenge when jilted by her husband for a younger bride, La Llorona (Marisol Ramirez) was cursed to roam the Earth searching for children to replace those she lost. It is said that there is no escape from her once you hear her weeping and feel her tears against your skin.

Thus we find Anna (Linda Cardellini), a case worker and single mother to two children following the death of her husband, when Patricia (played by Patricia Velasquez who was Anck-Su-Namun in The Mummy Franchise… The Brendan Fraser Mummy Franchise… The good one) curses Cardellini’s children to be the next in La Llorona’s sights, leading her kids to get the fright of their short lives in a great little car sequence. Strong performances by Chris (Roman Christou) and his sister Sam (Jaynee-Lynne Kinchen) who deliver noteworthy scenes throughout the film.

Many innovative effects make an appearance with a fun sequence near the pool involving an umbrella, using simple masking techniques that would make Georges Méliès proud, but in the critical eye of our 4k resolution era may come off a little cheesy, yet I find myself applauding the filmmakers for allowing creative risks to be taken. Another moment that stays with you is an eerie bathroom scene will see you bathing using the buddy system.

The pace of the film takes a turn when Anna seeks out the assistance of former priest Rafael Olvera (Raymond Cruz) who completely steals the show with his dry wit and deadpan delivery that make you want to come back for more.

With cinematography by Hollywood royalty Michael Burgess and James Wan in the producer’s seat you know you’re in for a good time. Paying homage to recurring themes within the universe to connect stories in a way that can only advance its reach while at the same time terrifying audiences.

The Diagnosis:

Not quite scary enough to provoke cardiac arrest but enjoyable, particularly with a deadpan dose of Raymond Cruz.

  • Surgeon Richard Lovegrove & Anesthesiologist Kelsi Williams

Us: Through the looking glass

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Jordan Peele’s follow up to his critically-acclaimed debut feature, Get Out has a lot of similarities to Lewis Carroll’s second outing with Alice as he not only puts a mirror up to American society and not only forces us to watch the horror as it unfolds but physically flips our perspective without us realising in an effective twist moment.

That’s not where there the similarity ends, as we also have some twins, a red queen, and placed is as pawns in our own game of chess. Only the colours are so blurred, it’s hard to know which side we should be on. We certainly should know and definitely root for our protagonists, but what if it’s revealed that we’ve been championing for the wrong side? Do we still pledge our allegiance?

Peele craftily weaves in all these images to subject his picture with pop culture images and references ranging from The Shining to The Lost Boys to C.H.U.D. and Michael Jackson and N.W.A. It’s a style that works in this instance as film and music have so shaped our worlds that we have become embedded in these Arts and in some cases schooled by them.

Essentially a home invasion turned country invasion, Us takes the audience on a journey where a family must unite in a bloody tale of survival, but in a world that is so fractured and broken, how can we truly know who to trust and survive without hiding behind the masks that protect us?
Can we really join hands across the globe and save humanity from itself by building a wall of protest, or will it merely be viewed as an art installation with no real impact at all?
Peele seems quite happy to leave that question unanswered.

The Diagnosis:

Peele is starting to make his mark on the film circuit with his second psychological horror and although it isn’t quite as impactful as Get Out, Us still offers an enjoyable, powerful punch.

Movie review: Pet Sematary (2019)

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Sometimes novels are better.

For those questioning that opening statement from a website dedicated to the horror movie genre, here’s the thing… Stephen King is so immersed in my discovery of horror as a pre-adolescent male and he opened up my eyes into the world of darkness and the recesses of the human soul, whether it was through a possessed Plymouth Fury or a disturbed entity from the dawn of time that takes on the form of a killer clown. King’s universe easily slipped into the corners of my imagination and lit them up like wildfire, so to emulate these visions and project them onto the big screen would always be a tough sell for this writer.

Maybe I am warped by these Stephen King tinted spectacles that I use in every facet of my waking (and sleeping) life, but in this instance I feel that I have good reason to have the bar set high. King himself was reluctant to release his novel upon completion and described it as his darkest novel to date. The reason it was eventually published fell down to contractual reasons as King was short by one novel with his publishers and so The Creeds and their cat Church saw the light of day.

During the 80’s when King was hitting his stride, Hollywood would snap up his novels, eager to put bums on cinema seats by trying to lure in his fans and to emulate his horror in celluloid form, so it was inevitable that Pet Sematary would also be adapted into film. Mary Lambert’s vision had haunted me in my youth from its depiction of the bed-riddled Zelda to Gage’s death and return from the grave. Another strength was that it was grounded in reality partly through the set design and scenery which was meticulously detailed and shot primarily in Maine, King’s hometown, which also added a level of authenticity to it. Having said all that though, it wasn’t flawless and watching it back now, it does feel dated, so when it was announced there would be a remake, there was a twinge of excitement at the prospect of what that would look like.
Early talks were of how it would be more of an inspiration piece and take some alternate directions on its journey beyond the dead lands and back. This did not deter me though, as I was open to a fresh take on the narrative.

The results though left me wanting. Whilst I admired directors Kevin Kolsch and Dennis Widmyer’s bold attempts in adding an alternate skew, I didn’t mind the gender switch with Ellie’s untimely demise and resurrection, I found that the choices they made were more based on ‘what if we did this?’ or ‘why not do that?’ without any rhyme or reason behind decisions. What’s more, the film relied too heavily on jump scares rather than genuinely frightening moments. The overall tone of the piece was a mess and never resonated with me. For a story that is ultimately about death and grief, it was strangely lacking in powerful emotion from the characters.

Grief is such a powerful feeling and evokes a range of emotions from sadness to anger, and that void or emptiness where one wishes to be whole again is absent in this film. I wanted to experience that deep level of despair but it never materialised. In facet, death became more of a comical component in this film from the awkward conversation that Rachel and Louis have with Ellie and even Church’s presence is one that sparks horror.

There was a lot of promise at the beginning when we witness a procession for a dead dog led by a bunch of kids in creepy animal masks that sparks the imagery of an occult and the town of Ludlow, which would have a really interesting take, but this is never really touched on again, which is a real shame.

There are some standout performances from Ellie (Jete Laurence), the always magnificent John Lithgow as Judd, and I really enjoyed the character development of Rachel Creed portrayed by Amy Seimetz (You’re Next), which just fell short at the last hurdle. It would have been really interesting if she faced up to her fears of death by confronting it head on. And one of the creepiest moments was presented by Rachel’s sick-ridden sister, Zelda even if it did evoke some Samara-type behaviour in its delivery.
The rest was just white noise.

The Diagnosis

A brave attempt at taking this story in a whole new direction, but falls flat on exposition.
The horror was lacking and comical with the emotion completely stripped away, leaving an empty vessel that is soulless and inconsequential.

For more thoughts and discussions on Pet Sematary, check out our podcast below:

Short movie review: The Tattooist

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Currently making the rounds at the festival circuit and turning more than the occasional head is this glorious short from independent film director Michael Wong.
Wong has a beautiful eye for detail with his short feature, The Tattooist, a movie that is rich in colour and texture, where the images leap off the screen and buries into the back of the audiences visual core.

In order to make a decent short, you have to go one of two ways, focus on narrative or provide a visual treat for the senses. Both are really hard to pull off and to execute well. Wong in this instance chooses to go with the latter by luring the audience into the dark and twisted mind of an ink specialist, who harbours a disturbing secret.

Whether it is within the tattooists’ mind as he imagines these harrowing depictions of brutal torment and gore that is reminiscent of Eli Roth’s Hostel movies, or genuine insight into these torture chambers, where he imprisons his victims is down to the audiences interpretation.
Either way, Wong provides a window into this disturbing underbelly of a tattoo parlour that taps into our fears of the uncertainty and sometimes taboo views associated with such places.

It’s an abrasive and voyeuristic vision that Wong delivers and in doing so makes him a director to keep a firm eye on.

To watch The Tattooist, check out the link here.

  • Saul Muerte

Movie review: Happy Death Day 2U

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Here at the Surgeons School of Horror there are some key elements that make up a good sequel.

  1. It stays faithful to what was set up in (the spirit of) the original.
  2. It offers something new that adds to the original. It needs to feel right and makes you say, “Yeah, that fits!” without contradicting it.
  3. And the tipping point in shifting from a great sequel into an awesome one is that it must stand on its own as an individual film.

Highlander 2 for example completely ignored the rules as to why they were immortal in Highlander 1 = Bad movie.

Escape From LA is a literal rehash of Escape From New York = Bad movie.

Where as Aliens explored and expanded the mythology of the xenomorph whilst making a film that stands alone, which is fantastic and feels like it sits comfortably within the universe that Ridley Scott set up = Great movie.

So, where does Happy Death 2U fit into this equation?
Well, lets take a quick snapshot of our original review from its predecessor:

Murdered on her birthday, college student wakes up to find that she is stuck in a time loop in true Groundhog Day style and must relive the day all over again and can only break out of this vortex by finding her murderer.

It was a cool premise with some black comedy thrown in to boot to keep the viewer connected. Sure it had its flaws, particularly with continuity left, right, and centre. At the time I found it hard to connect with and treated it as a fairly middle of the road movie but it resonated with the younger generation who understood the humour and the college satire that was injected into the lead protagonist, Tree’s plight.

So with a successful first outing, Director Christopher Landon and producer Jason Blum felt that there was enough material there to warrant a second trip into the time loop with a sequel.

So going back to our rules for what makes a successful sequel how does it fair.

  1. Does it stay faithful to the original?
    Yes and no.
    Yes, because it does keep up with the rules applied with Tree finding herself, trapped in a time loop again and it amps up the comedy element this time around more successfully I felt.
    No, because it loses the horror element and steps firmly into sci-fi territory which may lose some of the original fans… but having said that and to use our Alien / Aliens analogy again, the original movie was a sci-fi horror, where as the sequel was more of a sci-fi action movie, so there’s no reason that you can’t shift genre and still make it successful.
  2. Does it add anything to the original that feels right?
    Hell yes! And this is HDD2U’s trump card. Where fans of the original maybe disappointed with the shift in genre, the writers stay within the boundaries of believability by throwing in the McGuffin of Carter’s roommate Ryan, who has invented a reactor that sucks Tree into said time loop with the added parallel universe jump to he mix.
    Tree still has to hunt down a killer, but this time around is faced with a few complex life choices.
  3. So, does it stand on its own as a stand-alone movie? Not really, as it heavily relies on the original to tie things together.

The Diagnosis:

The name of the game is fun in this movie. Whilst it steers away from the horror element, there is enough humour and drama in the mix to make this an incredibly entertaining feature that not only supports the original, but may even surpass it in some people’s eyes.
Oh and stick around for a mid credits scene that potentially opens up the universe even further.

– Antony Yee and Saul Muerte