Lisa Cleans Out Her DVR: A Neighbor’s Deception (dir by Devon Downs and Kenny Gage)


(I’m currently cleaning out my DVR and right now, I kinda suspect that a comic book movie might get a best picture nomination before I ever get finished.  By that, I mean that this is taking forever!  But, no matter!  I’m having fun.  Anyway, I recorded A Neighbor’s Deception off of Lifetime on April 8th.)

Welcome to the neighborhood!

And what a neighborhood it is.  Big house, big yards, big SUVs, and … wait, where are all the people?  Chloe (Ashley Bell) and Michael Anderson (Adam Mayfield) have just bought a new house in this neighborhood and everything should be perfect.  Chloe has had her struggles and, from the first minute we see her, it’s obvious that she’s not exactly stable.  She’s nervous and a bit too quick to smile.  Michael feels that the new neighborhood will be perfect for Chloe.

While Michael goes to work during the day, Chloe runs and takes pictures.  It’s a beautiful neighborhood, surrounded by wonderful scenery.  And yet, there’s something off about it.  The streets and sidewalks often seem to be strangely deserted  The first time that Chloe sees her neighbor, he’s driving past her and he barely acknowledges her.

It’s not until later that Chloe and Michael finally meet their neighbors face-to-face.  Gerald (Tom Amandes) and Cheryl Dixon (Isabella Hoffman) seems like their friendly enough but there are hints that everything may not be perfect with them.  For one thing, Gerald is considerably more friendly than Cheryl.  Gerald is also a retired psychologist and starts to counsel Chloe for free.  He says he’s just doing it to be a good neighbor but are his motives truly pure?

That’s what Chloe being to wonder.  It doesn’t help that she’s soon getting mysterious phone calls from a man who blames Gerald for the death of his sister.  The man wants Chloe to investigate Gerald and his past.  Chloe agrees but is her paranoia justified or, as Michael suggests, is she on the verge of having another breakdown?

Written by noted horror expert Adam Rockoff, A Neighbor’s Deception is a hundred times more creepy than the usual Lifetime film.  Wisely, both the script and the direction puts the emphasis on atmosphere.  That big and oddly empty neighborhood becomes as much of a character as Chloe, Michael, Gerald, and Cheryl.  This is one of those films that seems to have literally been bathed in a tub full of existential dread.  As we watch, we find ourselves wondering if the neighborhood is really as creepy as it looks or if maybe Chloe’s paranoia is rubbing off on us.

Chloe is played by Ashley Bell, who some will recognize as being the “possessed” girl in The Last Exorcism.  Bell gives an excellent performance in this film.  She’s immediately sympathetic but, at the same time, she plays the role with just enough a nervous edge that you’re always aware that she could be imagining things.  (Bell is often framed in the scene so that she’s seen alone, reinforcing the feeling that Chloe is not quite living in the real world.)  Also deserving of credit is Tom Amandes, who is all dapper menace as Gerald.

A Neighbor’s Deception ends with a twist that won’t necessarily take you by surprise but no matter.  The journey makes it all worh it.

Playing Catch-Up: The Accountant, Carnage Park, The Choice, The Legend of Tarzan


Continuing my look back at the films of 2016, here are four mini-reviews of some films that really didn’t make enough of an impression to demand a full review.

The Accountant (dir by Gavin O’Connor)

2016 was a mixed year for Ben Affleck.  Batman v. Superman may have been a box office success but it was also such a critical disaster that it may have done more harm to Affleck’s legacy than good.  If nothing else, Affleck will spend the rest of his life being subjected to jokes about Martha.  While Ben’s younger brother has become an Oscar front runner as a result of his performance in Manchester By The Sea, Ben’s latest Oscar effort, Live By Night, has been released to critical scorn and audience indifference.

At the same time, Ben Affleck also gave perhaps his best performance ever in The Accountant.  Affleck plays an autistic accountant who exclusively works for criminals and who has been raised to be an expert in all forms of self-defense.  The film’s plot is overly complicated and director Gavin O’Connor struggles to maintain a consistent tone but Affleck gives a really great performance and Anna Kendrick reminds audiences that she’s capable of more than just starring in the Pitch Perfect franchise.

Carnage Park (dir by Mickey Keating)

I really wanted to like Carnage Park, because it was specifically advertised as being an homage to the grindhouse films of the 1970s and y’all know how much I love those!  Ashley Bell plays a woman who gets kidnapped twice, once by two bank robbers and then by a psycho named Wyatt (Pat Healy).  Healy chases Bell through the desert, hunting her Most Dangerous Game-style.  There are some intense scenes and both Bell and Healy are well-cast but, ultimately, it’s just kind of blah.

The Choice (dir by Ross Katz)

The Choice was last year’s Nicholas Sparks adaptation.  It came out, as all Nichols Sparks adaptations do, just in time for Valentine’s Day and it got reviews that were so negative that a lot of people will never admit that they actually saw it.  Benjamin Walker and Teresa Palmer play two people who meet, fall in love, and marry in North Carolina.  But then Palmer is in a car accident, ends up in a coma, and Walker has to decide whether or not to turn off the life support.

As I said, The Choice got terrible reviews and it’s certainly not subtle movie but it’s actually better than a lot of films adapted from the work of Nicholas Sparks.  Walker and Palmer are a likable couple and, at the very least, The Choice deserves some credit for having the courage not to embrace the currently trendy cause of euthanasia.  That alone makes The Choice better than Me Before You.

The Legend of Tarzan (dir by David Yates)

Alexander Skarsgard looks good without his shirt on and Samuel L. Jackson is always a fun to watch and that’s really all that matters as far as The Legend of Tarzan is concerned.  It’s an enjoyable enough adventure film but you won’t remember much about it afterward.  Christoph Waltz is a good actor but he’s played so many villains that it’s hard to get excited over it anymore.

Cleaning Out The DVR #17: Don’t Wake Mommy (dir by Chris Siverston)


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This morning, as I struggled to adjust to the tyranny of Daylight Saving Time, I watched yet another movie off of my DVR.  As our regular readers know, I am currently in the process of cleaning out the DVR by trying to watch 38 films by Friday.  Don’t Wake Mommy was film #17.

(Of course, what I didn’t realize, as I watched Don’t Wake Mommy this morning, was that the Lifetime Movie Network would be reshowing the film in just a few hours time.)

Don’t Wake Mommy premiered on Lifetime on January 3rd.  It was the first Lifetime film of 2016 and somehow, that seems appropriate.  When most people think of the stereotype of a Lifetime film, chances are that they’re thinking of something like Don’t Wake Mommy.

Ashley Bell, who was so good in the Last Exorcism films, plays Molly.  Molly has a wonderful husband (Dean Geyer) and a great career (though don’t ask me to explain what she does, beyond the fact that she works in one of those generic Lifetime offices).  However, ever since giving birth to her daughter, Molly has had to put her life on hold.  Suffering from extreme postpartum depression, she joins an online support group and ends up meeting Beth (Sara Rue).

At first, Beth seems like she’s perfect.  In fact, she’s too perfect.  If you’re a veteran Lifetime viewer like I am, you’ll know that Beth is trouble from the first minute she offers to help Molly out.  (The film also starts with a rather unnecessary prologue, in which Beth harasses another couple.)  Beth is all smiles and good advice but soon, she is literally running Molly’s life.

While Molly’s husband is away, Beth moves into the house.  She keeps Molly constantly medicated and insists on taking care of Ava herself.  When Molly’s BFF stops by, Beth tells her that Molly no longer needs her around.

And then one day, Ava disappears…

Don’t Wake Mommy is a fairly predictable film.  After the 1st 15 minutes or so, you will have figured out everything that is going to happen.  That’s not necessarily a bad thing when it comes to Lifetime films.  In many ways, their familiarity is a part of their appeal.  But being familiar does not necessarily mean that a film should feel generic and, far too often, Don’t Wake Mommy feels generic.

That said, Sara Rue does a great job playing the unstable Beth and Ashley Bell proves that she’s a capable actress even when she isn’t playing someone possessed by the devil.  Here’s hoping that both actresses get a lot more opportunities in the future to show off what they can do.

Horror Film Review: The Last Exorcism (dir by Daniel Stamm)


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First released in 2010, The Last Exorcism is one of the best films of the past 5 years.

I know that a lot of people are going to disagree with that statement.  When The Last Exorcism was released, a lot of people were so angered by the way the film ended that they dismissed the entire movie.  Add to that, The Last Exorcism is yet another found footage horror film and that genre has produced a lot of truly terrible movies.  Whether fairly or not, a lot of people have judged The Last Exorcism on the basis of the sins committed by films like The Devil Inside.  With all that taken into consideration, it’s perhaps not surprising that The Last Exorcism only has a rating of 5.6 on the IMDb.

However, those who casually dismiss The Last Exorcism are making a mistake.  The Last Exorcism is a hundred times better than it has any right to be.  If nothing else, it’s probably one of the best found footage horror films ever made.

Produced by Eli Roth and directed by Daniel Stamm, the film opens with footage of the Rev. Cotton Marcus (Patrick Fabian) leading a revival meeting.  We quickly see that Marcus is a showman, a born actor who knows how to manipulate and control an audience.  In interviews with a mostly unseen film crew, Rev. Marcus also explains that he’s both a highly successful exorcist and a complete fraud.  As he explains it, he has lost his faith and is participating in a documentary to reveal how he and other evangelical exorcists con and exploit their followers.  He’s agreed to perform one last exorcism, specifically so he can reveal just how much of a fraud that he really is.

One of the more interesting aspect of this setup is that it’s based on an actual documentary.  Released in 1972, Marjoe followed a former child evangelist named Marjoe Gortner as he conducted his last revival tour.  Talking directly to the camera, Marjoe would explain the tricks that he and other preachers would use to cheat the faithful out of their money.  The documentary, which won an Oscar for Best Documentary Feature in 1973, painted an intriguing picture of a con artist and The Last Exorcism does the same thing.

Marcus and the documentary film crew go out to a small rural community where farmer Louis Sweetzer (Louis Herthum) claims that his daughter, Nell (Ashley Bell) has been possessed by a demon.  Nell’s brother, Caleb (Caleb Landry Jones)  is openly hostile to both Marcus and the documentary film crew.  Marcus, meanwhile, is convinced that Nell is faking.

However, as both the film and the exorcism progress, we are given reasons to suspect that Nell might actually be possessed.  While a good deal of the film’s scares will be familiar to anyone who has ever seen a found footage horror film (there’s the usual loud noises in isolated parts of the house and the menacing shadows glimpsed in the corners), the question of whether or not Nell is possessed is given extra importance by what the answer means to Cotton Marcus.  If Nell is faking, then Marcus’s own loss of faith will be justified.  However, if it turns out that Nell actually is possessed than it will mean that Marcus hasn’t merely been a con artist for his entire life.  If Nell actually is possessed, it’ll prove the existence of a God that Marcus claims to no longer believe in.

Indeed, it’s the character of Cotton Marcus who elevates The Last Exorcism over other entries in the found footage horror genre.  Much like Father Karras (as played by Jason Miller) in the original Exorcist, Marcus is a conflicted protagonist, a former man of faith who isn’t quite as ready to give up on his belief as he originally seems.  As played by Patrick Fabian, Cotton Marcus is an intriguingly ambiguous hero.  At the beginning of the film, Fabian is spell-binding and believable as a fire-and-brimstone evangelist.  (In perhaps his best scene, he impishly sneaks a recipe for banana bread into his sermon.)  As the film progresses, Cotton Marcus goes from being an arrogant charlatan to being a very vulnerable and scared man and Fabian is both believable and compelling throughout the entire film.  Patrick Fabian elevates The Last Exorcism from being just an average (if effectively atmospheric) horror film to being a truly intriguing piece of pulp art.

As for the film’s ending, I may be in a minority but I think it works.  The most common complaint about the film’s final 15 minutes is that they tend to contradict everything that came before them.  I’m not sure that’s necessarily true.  You have to remember that we’ve only seen the film’s events through the perspective of the documentarians and we’ve only heard Marcus’s admittedly biased interpretation of what’s going on.  Perhaps the worst possible thing that you can really say about the ending is that it reveals that Marcus wasn’t as clever as we previously assumed him to be.

The Last Exorcism was followed by a far less successful sequel, which I reviewed here.

Horror Review: The Walking Dead: “The Oath” 3-Part Webisode


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What has become a yearly ritual, whenever a new season of The Walking Dead inches closer to it’s premiere AMC and the folks running the show shoot a series of webisodes telling the story of a group of survivors outside of the show’s main cast. These individuals never come into contact with Rick and his band of survivors, but they do come across similar places that we’ve seen in past episodes.

The first webisode series was the 6-parter “Torn Apart” arrived just prior to Season 2 and told of the origins of the so-callled “Bicycle Girl” zombie Rick comes across soon after waking up from his coma. Then we had the 4-parter “Cold Storage” preceding Season 3’s premiere. Now we have the 3-parter “The Oath” which extends each webisode and deals with a surviving couple whose camp have been overrun by a swarm the night before.

“The Oath” stars Ashley Bell (The Last Exorcism) as Karina with Wyatt Russell (Cowboys & Aliens) playing Paul. The duo races to find medical help in the early months of the zombie apocalypse and they soon come across an abandoned hospital that should be familiar to fans of the show from the very beginning. We even see the origin of the barricaded door in the hospital with the ominous warning to keep any passer-by away.

While the webisodes themselves have been hit-or-miss when it comes to the casts performances they do fill in some backstory on the fringes of the main show. With “The Oath” we see that the Governor and Michonne may not be the only ones to have found a way to use the zombies as a sort of mascot/camouflage.

Overall, “The Oath” was a nice webisode with some average acting from the cast. The teleplay by Luke Passmore was actually quite good and series executive producer Greg Nicotero does a good job directing the whole affair. Some sequences turn out to be very tense and scary. Maybe it’s the nature of the webisode itself that the acting could be uneven, but it was still a good little story that should help whet the appetite of the fans who have been waiting a year for Season 4 to start.

“Alone”

“Choice”

“Bond”

Film Review: The Last Exorcism Part II (dir. by Ed Gass-Donnelly)


Though it was dismissed by a lot of critics and remains underrated to this day, The Last Exorcism is one of the best horror films of the past four years.  Featuring an excellent lead performance from Patrick Fabian and an intelligent, thought-provoking plot, The Last Exorcism was both a very creepy horror movie and a surprisingly effective character study.  It even managed to be effective despite being an example of a “found footage” horror movie.

The Last Exorcism‘s sequel — the unimaginatively titled The Last Exorcism Part II — was released this weekend.  Like a lot of people, I have to admit that I wasn’t expecting much from the sequel.  The first film’s success was such a surprise that I doubted that the sequel could come close to matching it.

To a certain extent, I was right.  The sequel is nowhere near as good as the first film.  However, that said, The Last Exorcism Part II is still an above average horror film.

Ashley Bell

Wisely abandoning the whole found footage format, The Last Exorcism Part II begins with Nell (played, again, by Ashley Bell) as the only survivor from the previous film.  After escaping the cult that previously attempted to sacrifice her, Nell finds herself put into group home in New Orleans.  The group home is run by Frank Merle (Muse Watson), a friendly (if vaguely threatening) man who encourages Nell to try to move on from her traumatic past.  With Frank’s help, Nell starts to recover.  She gets a job working as a motel maid, makes friends with some of the other girls at the home, and she even starts to flirt with shy Chris (Spencer Treat Clark).

Everything seems to going so well for Nell.

Or is it?

Despite her claim that she no longer believes that she was ever possessed, Nell still finds herself being watched by menacing, masked figures who pop up on random street corners.  She still receives mysterious phone calls.  She’s still haunted by visions of her dead father walking through the dark hallways of the group home.  Nell is still having nightmares where she’s seduced by an unseen creature and her roommate and new best friend Gwen (Julia Garner) still seems to be oddly amused by any type of human suffering.

And that’s not even taking into consideration the voodoo priestess who follows Nell up and down the streets of New Orleans…

As opposed to the first film, The Last Exorcism Part II is a pretty conventional horror film.  Whereas the first film kept you constantly wondering whether Nell was actually possessed and made some surprisingly intelligent observations regarding the battle between faith and reason, The Last Exorcism Part II never gives you any reason to doubt that both the demon and the possession are real.  Whereas The Last Exorcism was a horror film that could be appreciated even by people who hated horror films, The Last Exorcism Part II is pretty much a film for horror fans only.

Fortunately, I happen to be a horror fan and I was pleasantly surprised by The Last Exorcism Part II.  While director Ed Gass-Donnelly shows little interest in rewriting the rules of the horror, he also shows that he can effectively work within the conventions of the genre.  He even uses the PG-13 rating to the film’s advantage, making up for the lack of gore by emphasizing the otherworldly atmosphere of New Orleans.

It also helps that Ashley Bell returns in the role of Nell.  As is typical of other possession movies (like the Exorcist, to cite an obvious example), the demon inside Nell can just as easily be taken as a metaphor for Nell’s emerging sexuality.  Ashley Bell gives a performance that walks a perfect line between innocence and carnality.  Much as Patrick Fabian’s performance elevated the first film, Bell’s performance elevates the second.

That said, The Last Exorcism Part II is ultimately the type of film where people tend to spend a lot of time wandering around dark hallways in the middle of the night without ever bothering to turn on a light.  It’s up to each individual  member of the audience to decide whether they’re going to demand to know why nobody turns on the lights or whether they’re simply going to enjoy waiting for the inevitable “jump” scene that we all know is coming.  If the audience is willing to set aside logic and enjoy a movie for what it is, then they are the ideal audience for a film like this one.

Perhaps not surprisingly, The Last Exorcism Part II has not received a lot of critical praise.  The film was not screened for critic prior to release and now that it has been released, it has a 15% overall rating over at Rotten Tomatoes.  However, you could have guessed that without me even telling you.  Everyone knew that the professional critics were going to hate The Last Exorcism Part II.  This is the type of film that most critics feel almost duty-bound to condemn.  This is also the type of film that reminds us of just how little the critical consensus really matters.  When judged on its own (admittedly limited) terms,The Last Exorcism Part II is an effective and creepy film.  It’s the epitome of a fun and occasionally stupid horror film, the type of movie you want to see with a group of friends who enjoy jumping at things that go bump in the night.

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