The setup: Once their mother (Susanne Wuest) returns from the hospital wearing ghoulish bandages after an unexplained accident, twin nine-year-old boys (Lukas and Elias Schwarz) start to doubt her identity as her behavior becomes increasingly erratic and antagonistic. Is she their true mother, or has someone else replaced her? Within their isolated rural environment, a twisted game of cat and mouse ensues as the boys desperately seek out where their mother has gone.
The breakdown: Written and directed by Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala, this taut psychological thriller from Austria eschews dramatic music and overt scares in favor of gradually swelling tension as the mother, whose nerves are frayed by the accident and her spousal separation, begins taking out her anger on the boys who plot an escape. What works really well in the film is how much of it takes place during daylight rather than ominous shadows. The darkness is inherent in the characters rather than the bucolic locale. The story twists, turns, and then plunges into an unsettling climax that is surprising and squirm inducing.
SINISTER 2 (2015)
The set up: Another fear fest with nine-year-old twin boys! Is this becoming a trend? Following the events of the first Sinister film, Deputy So & So (James Ransone)—who tried to aid the now deceased author whose family was killed by the spirit of Bughuul possessing their young daughter, and who has since become a P.I.—now seeks to save a single mother (Shannyn Sossamon) with young boys from the same grisly fate. He also gets caught in the middle of her custody battle with her abusive, estranged husband.
The breakdown: It’s bad enough fearing a real-life monster, but coping with ghostly children seeking to seduce you into familial murder just makes things worse. While the original story focused on a more adult perspective, the sequel flips the angle onto the boys, one of whom is being groomed for killing. And, of course, to capture the act on Super-8 film for posterity. While not as effective or frightening as the original, Sinister 2 has its moments and actually benefits from having an awkward hero who desperately wants to save the family and stop Bughuul’s cycle of death. The dead kids are creepy too, like ghostly Children of the Corn. The eerie, avant-garde soundtrack adds to the tension.
THE VATICAN TAPES (2015)
The setup: When 27-year-old Angela Holmes (Olivia Taylor Dudley) starts to exhibit disturbing behavior and the ability to harm people around her even without touching them, her overly protective father (Dougray Scott) and smitten boyfriend seek help. Soon the Vatican calls in a priest to battle what could be a true case of demonic possession.
The breakdown: A rather unusual entry in the exorcist genre, director Mark Neveldine’s supernatural thriller breaks down into a benign first act, a mildly scary second act, and an intense final act that veers in an unexpected direction. It is actually the last third of the film where the stakes really get raised and the demonic drama takes hold. The film is peculiar in that regard, requiring viewers to initially show patience, but the palatable 80-minute running time leads more quickly to the payoff. The Vatican Tapes is not great but is certainly a different entry in an ever-crowding playing field.
THE VISIT (2015)
The set up: A single mother (Kathryn Hahn) who has not to spoken to her parents in nearly 20 years decides to let her teenage daughter Becca (Olivia DeJonge) and son Tyler (Ed Oxenbould) visit their grandparents so they can connect with their extended family. Becca goes so she can shoot a documentary on her mother’s hometown and parents in hopes of familial reconciliation. But once the children are there, they discover that creepy Nana and Pop Pop (seriously?) may harbor dark, hidden secrets and have something nasty in store for them.
The breakdown: Considered by some to be a return to form for director M. Night Shyamalan, The Visit focuses on two different narratives: a quest for redemption and forgiveness and a fearful tale of grandparents seemingly gone mad. The two might seem incongruous, but they intertwine somewhat and the weightier themes imbue the main story with an extra layer of depth missing from like-minded films. The found footage gimmick has been played out but is tolerable here since the camera and webcam do not shake violently. While not totally the freak show one might expect, The Visit spares us any supernatural shenanigans and delivers a pretty good dose of reality-based terror that reaffirms belief in family while also playing into fears of familial disintegration.
THE BROOD (1979)
The set up: A father (Art Hindle) seeks to keep his five-year-old daughter (Cindy Hinds) away from their institutionalized mother after learning she abused her during a visit. But the doctor running the Somafree Institute (Oliver Reed)—home to “psychoplasmics,” a weird role-playing therapy that imbues the head doctor with a lot of power and causes physical changes in his patients—is trying to make a breakthrough with the severely disturbed mom (the wonderfully creepy Samantha Eggar) and needs the daughter to return. At the same time, an evil dwarf creature is picking off extended family members, and the embattled father seeks to tie it all together. He won’t like what he finds.
The breakdown: This early David Cronenberg film, which features the second score ever from Lord Of The Rings composer Howard Shore, mixes up psychological and physiological horror in the gruesome fashion typical of the director’s oeuvre. This is the man who brought us Rabid, Scanners, and Videodrome, all highly original works of science or technology-based horror. Thankfully not everything is explained outright in this bizarre thriller (what would be the fun in that?), but at the very least the whole story can be looked at as a metaphor for the cycle of abuse and its long-lasting emotional scars. As a bonus, this Criterion reissue includes a new transfer of Cronenberg’s 1970 feature Crimes Of The Future, his second film which has rarely been seen.
In this 1988 update on the Jack the Ripper legend, a serial killer is picking off prostitutes in L.A., and the police’s main suspect is a doctor (James Spader) who has visions of the murderer and wants to exonerate himself by catching him. The film has that great Manhunter/Michael Mann look with very saturated colors, and solid plot twists keep the suspense rolling. (The key one within the first half hour is a doozy that you won’t see coming.) This was an early movie appearance for both James Spader (The Blacklist) and Cynthia Gibb (of TV’s Fame fame), and director Rowdy Herrington made a fine debut, although sadly did not make many films after. (But he did helm Road House!)