Friday, August 11, 2017


(UK/US - 2017)

Currently sporting an impressive 92% on Rotten Tomatoes, THE DEVIL'S CANDY, written and directed by Sean Byrne (THE LOVED ONES) made the festival rounds in 2015, two years before it was released by IFC in a slightly tweaked version that cut the running time from 90 to 80 minutes. It was lauded by critics and horror bloggers as yet another Horror Insta-Classic (© William Wilson), with many of the reviews citing as "a heavy metal horror movie" and "a totally metal horror movie" and even "metal as fuck." The metal element is perfunctory at best and pandering at worst, serving little purpose other than to get Slayer and Metallica on the soundtrack and score some hipster horror scenester points by being set and shot in Austin and having the credits in the Iron Maiden font. Today's horror fans are notoriously easy lays when it comes to hyping new product, but is that really all it takes to seduce them into declaring it a modern classic? As a metal horror movie, it's no TRICK OR TREAT. Hell, it's barely even BLACK ROSES. As an occult movie, it pales compared to Oz Perkins' THE BLACKCOAT'S DAUGHTER. And as an instant cult classic, it's basically a Rob Zombie hicksploitation romp camouflaged in hipster garb. To be fair, it's not a bad movie--there's some unexpectedly deep character development in the early going and some undeniable atmosphere, with a droning, downtuned ambient score by Sunn O))), and a stained glass window bathing people in shades of Argento red--but in the end, it's yet another generic indie horror slow burner that gets its leg frantically humped by breathlessly panting fanboys but delivers nothing you haven't seen before. Some good performances give it some extra credibility, but come on, guys. What's so special about this?

Artist Jesse Hellman (Ethan Embry), his wife Astrid (Shiri Appleby), and their teenage daughter Zooey (Kiara Glasco) move into a farmhouse in the rural outskirts of Austin after closing on it at a really low price. Of course, it's because two people died in the house, which is never good sign in the horror genre. Astrid works full-time and metalhead Jesse makes ends meet by painting murals of butterflies and pretty scenery for local businesses. They're a loving family--Jesse's passed his love of metal on to Zooey, and it's cute watching father and daughter bond by headbanging to some death metal ("Can you play something lighter?" Astrid asks, to which Zooey smirks "Like what? Metallica?"). Once in the farmhouse, strange things begin happening, starting with random appearances by Ray Smilie (Pruitt Taylor Vince), the son of the elderly couple who died in the house. Smilie has spent a significant chunk of his life in mental hospitals and likely killed both of his parents. He hears voices and plays doomy riffs on a Flying V as if being directed by an outside force. He abducts and kills children, following the instructions of the voices, and the visions of those dead kids are revealed in Jesse's paintings. The paintings take on an increasingly Satanic bent, though when they're done, Jesse awakens from a trance and has no recollection of painting them, which disturbs him even more when Astrid sees that he's painted Zooey's screaming face into a mural of hellfire and murdered children ("They're inside me," he says, "begging to be let out"). Much of the muddled plot unfolds in total darkness, and though the Hellmans (real subtle) are a happy family, the film almost wants you to be surprised that pot-smoking metalheads can be loving, nurturing parents. The much-acclaimed metal angle has no real purpose, though it's awfully convenient that a serial child killer whose instructions from the devil come to him in the form of a riff on a Flying V would happen to have a family of Slayer fans to pursue. THE DEVIL'S CANDY is an OK horror flick to stream on a slow night, and the four stars give this a lot more than they get in return (Appleby and Glasco are great screamers), but it's all rather silly and dull, even with the closing credits rolling at 74 minutes. (Unrated, 80 mins, also streaming on Netflix)

(US/UK/China - 2017)

Inspired by the 1997 "Phoenix Lights" incident, the faux-doc/found footage horror film PHOENIX FORGOTTEN wants to be the UFO version of THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT but it lacks the ingenuity and originality. It tries to pass itself off as something with a low-budget, DIY aesthetic but it's really a three-country co-production with 29 credited producers, including After Dark Films chief Courtney Solomon, MAZE RUNNER screenwriter T.S. Nowlin and director Wes Ball, 300 producer Mark Canton, and, for some reason, Ridley Scott, all of whom must've cleaned out the change in their car's cupholders to get this thing made. Nowlin co-wrote the script with first-time feature film director Justin Barber, and for a while, PHOENIX FORGOTTEN is actually pretty good. Haunted by the disappearance of older brother Josh (Luke Spencer Roberts) 20 years earlier, Sophie Bishop (Florence Hartigan) begins work on a documentary to find the truth about what happened to her then-17-year-old brother and his friends Ashley (Chelsea Lopez) and Mark (Justin Matthews). They vanished in the weeks following the appearance of the Phoenix Lights, two different events on March 13, 1997 where massive light formations in the sky--most likely flares from jets on a training exercise at a nearby military base--were witnessed by many and presumed to be UFOs (even then-Arizona governor Fife Symington laughed it off at the time but would later admit he believed them to be UFOs). Sophie interviews all of the parents, school officials, retired cops, and local astronomers, but the investigation hits the same dead end it did 20 years ago. She's even given the brush off by a former Symington aid after showing up at his house. Josh documented their trip with his own video camera, but when another camera with a school "property of" label on it, battered and damaged after being discovered in the desert and sent back to the school, is discovered in a long-unused storage unit rented by the school, Sophie finds a tape left inside.

Obviously, the other tape holds the answers to the mystery, and Barber does a nice job cutting from Sophie's discovery of it immediately to her shaken reaction after watching it. Then we see it, and what was an interesting and well-constructed faux doc turns into yet another rote, tired BLAIR WITCH ripoff, right down to the final tilted shot from the POV of a Dutch-angled video camera that's been dropped. It's too bad the inspiration flamed out at the midway-point, because even though found footage is as played out as can be, PHOENIX FORGOTTEN was shaping up as a decent little sleeper. Sophie's documentary unfolds like a riveting episode of DATELINE, and the mix of fiction with actual footage from the period is handled quite effectively. Another plus is that the actors deliver believable, "real" performances--at least until the second half, when all they're doing is bitching at each other and screaming "Mark!" when he vanishes into pitch black darkness. The big revelation here is the charming Lopez, who's got such a natural screen presence about her that when she's onscreen, it's easy to forget you're watching a fictional horror movie (and her impression of Jodie Foster in CONTACT--a small example of how this film gets the 1997 period detail right--is a clip that deserves to go viral). It's easy to dismiss films of this sort, especially this late in the game when there's really nothing new to do with them. Once in a while, a good one will break through and surprise you (like Bobcat Goldthwait's WILLOW CREEK), but these days, they're mostly like last year's hyped and crushingly disappointing BLAIR WITCH. PHOENIX FORGOTTEN falls somewhere in between, buoyed considerably by its cast's efforts and an opening half that's better than it has any right to be (and with a creepily effective use of Paul Revere & the Raiders frontman Mark Lindsay's 1969 solo hit "Arizona") but ultimately fizzling out when the filmmakers appear to simply give up when it mattered most. Maybe a different approach would've been to follow Sophie's efforts to expose the truth, especially after she meets with an official on a military base who tells her "don't let the public see that tape." Why not go the conspiracy route instead of checking out and coasting the rest of the way with an alien abduction remake of the first BLAIR WITCH? (PG-13, 87 mins)

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