Friday, October 26, 2018

Worth Mentioning - For Whom the Bell Tolls

We watch several movies a week. Every Friday, we'll talk a little about some of the movies we watched that we felt were Worth Mentioning.

The devil is in the details.


Even with the horror and thriller genres, most movies feel safe to some degree - although characters are in peril, you know which ones are probably going to make it through the film. No matter what sort of terrifying ordeal they're going through, you know they're going to find a way out of it, so you can't work up too much concern for them. But sometimes you come across a film that feels dangerous, one where there's a feeling that no one is safe, any of these characters could die in this situation. I love when I find a "dangerous" movie, as they allow me to become more emotionally invested in the most intense moments.

Writer/director Sean Byrne's film The Devil's Candy is one that felt dangerous to me. It's built on the foundation of a familiar story: a family moves into a home where a previous resident had murdered his mother and father, driven to kill by the sound of demonic voices. When the home's new owner, artist Jesse Hellman (Ethan Embry), starts to hear those voices himself and starts losing time while painting some disturbing images, you might think the film is going to head down a well-beaten path and will soon have Jesse going completely off the deep end and menacing his wife Astrid (Shiri Appleby) and their adolescent daughter Zooey (Kiara Glasco).

But while strange things are going on with Jesse, the true threat here is Ray Smilie (Pruitt Taylor Vince), the simple-minded fellow who killed his parents in the house that is now the Hellman home. After spending some time on the road, Ray is coming back home... and during the climactic sequence, I was on the edge of my seat, because the tone Byrne achieved with this film and the way he told his story made me feel like any one of the Hellmans, possibly all of them, could be killed at any moment. Not only was an uncertainty about the characters' chances of survival getting to me, but I was also troubled by how real the violence felt when it kicked in. There may be supernatural forces at play in The Devil's Candy, but the violence is as down-to-earth real world as it gets.

The performances of the actors made me believe in and/or care about the characters, and while I've seen Embry, Appleby, and Vince around enough to know to expect good acting from them, this was my first time seeing Glasco in anything. I was impressed by her skills, and think she could have a solid career ahead of her if she sticks with acting into adulthood.

The Devil's Candy made its film festival premiere in 2015 but received a wide release in 2017, and I would rank it high among the best horror movies of '17.


Devil's Express is a prime example of a movie that's so bad it's good. It's a film that doesn't live up to the potential of its concept, but is so poorly put together that it's highly entertaining to watch, so you can forgive it for its squandered potential.

The film is also known by the title Gang Wars, which totally makes sense for it. It's basically two movies in one, so the distributor could market it in two different ways. Call it Devil's Express and you draw in the horror crowd, call it Gang Wars and you can in fans of martial arts action. I'm a fan of horror and martial arts action, so I'm having fun either way.

Written by director Barry Rosen and four collaborators - Niki Patton, Pascual Vaquer, CeOtis Robinson, and Bobbi Sapperstein (the fact that there were five writers may be why the movie feels so scatterbrained) - the story is set in New York, where martial arts instructor Luke (Warhawk Tanzania) watches from the sidelines as the Black Spades, a group of criminals headed up by his pal Rodan (Wilfredo Roldan) - who calls Luke C-Fu, and I spent the movie thinking he was calling him Seafood - goes to war with the Chinese Red Dragons. A war that consists of martial arts battles in public places.

People are getting killed in the subway system, and a police officer student of Luke's suspects Rodan and the Black Spades are responsible. Another police officer has a different theory: he thinks there are mutant animals stalking the subway tunnels and attacking people, and the way the camera moves in on the cop while he's sharing his theory, it feels like the film is taking this idea seriously in the moment, even we know that mutant animals aren't to blame.

We saw what this thing is. It's a demon that Luke and Rodan accidentally stirred up during a trip to Hong Kong and which possessed a Chinese man to follow them back to New York. Once in the subway, the demon emerged from the man's body in a bloody, slimy meltdown. Before being awakened by Luke and Rodan, this demon had been dormant in its resting place since 200 A.D., when a group of men dropped it down a hole and then took the secret of its location to their graves: one of the group decapitated all of his cohorts, then stabbed himself.

We're halfway into the movie before the first dead body is found in the subway and almost an hour into the 84 minute film before Luke is aware of the subway deaths. He still has a good 25 minutes to take care of the situation, though, and he decides to do just that after the demon attacks Rodan. He dons a flashy gold outfit and heads down into the subway to kick some demon ass.

A martial arts expert taking on a demon that's stalking the New York subway system is the idea I thought had so much potential, but while the movie is trying to take things seriously the execution comes off as being ridiculous. It also struggles to reach that short 84 minute running time and only accomplishes it by being packed with filler. We watch that possessed guy walk down into the subway for a long time. There's random dialogue exchanges, arbitrary fight scenes. The movie even takes the time to show us, over the course of about 3 minutes, 24 hours in the life of Luke on a day when nothing at all happens. He gets out of bed, has breakfast, goes about his day, and we see every pointless event.

If you want to see a badass movie about a guy called Warhawk fighting a demon, Devil's Express or Gang Wars isn't going to do it for you. But if you can get enjoyment from the unintentionally amusing, you might have a lot of fun with this movie.


Twelve years after making her screen debut in A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors, actress Patricia Arquette made her return to the realm of supernatural horror with director Rupert Wainwright's Stigmata, which is part of the "Catholic priests and possession" sub-genre.

The trouble begins in Brazil, when a priest who experienced stigmata - that's when a religious person starts bleeding from the same areas as the wounds Jesus Christ received during his crucifixion - passes away and a statue of the Virgin Mary in his church begins weeping blood. A young boy steals the priest's rosary and sells it to an America tourist, who mails the rosary back to her daughter in Pittsburgh. I'm not sure why she thought this would be a suitable gift for her hard-partying atheist daughter, but that decision sets everything in motion.

Arquette plays that daughter, Frankie Paige, and she hasn't had the rosary for long before she starts to experience stigmata. This is highly unusual to begin with, but unheard of for an atheist.

Father Andrew Kiernan (Gabriel Byrne, who played Satan himself in the Arnold Schwarzenegger movie End of Days this same year) was in Brazil and saw the weeping statue, he was pretty sure there really was something supernatural going on there, but he has been ordered by the Vatican (represented by Tomorrow Never Dies villain Jonathan Pryce) to drop that investigation. He is, however, sent to Pittsburgh to investigate whether or not Frankie really is experiencing stigmata.

Frankie isn't just bleeding from various wounds that weren't actually inflicted on her, though. She's also demonstrating odd behavior, seeing things, communicating in other languages, and being thrashed around by invisible forces. She knows who Kiernan is long before she ever meets him. Something otherworldly was passed to her through that rosary, and now Kiernan has to figure out how and why.

As far as "priests and possession" movies go, Stigmata is a decent one. A lot of these sorts of movies I find tough to sit through, not because they scare me but due to lack of interest. Stigmata holds my attention. I like Arquette as a horror heroine, and Wainwright directed the hell out of this movie. At times it even looks like he was drawing inspiration from Arquette's True Romance director Tony Scott, he's packing so much stylistic flourish into scenes. It doesn't always work, but he was going for it.

Wainwright was working from a screenplay by a duo with great names: Tom Lazarus, a perfect name for someone writing a story that deals with Christianity, and Rick Ramage. That just sounds cool.

The following review originally appeared on


The Devil's Doorway is a horror film presented in the "found footage" style, so I should start out by acknowledging that I am not a fan of this style of filmmaking in general. There have been a few stray found footage movies I've enjoyed here and there, but honestly I would not be bothered if I never saw another found footage horror film. More specifically, I would be perfectly content to never watch another horror movie in which there are scenes of a shaking camera running through dark areas, nothing to light the way but the light on the camera. I had heard there was more going on in The Devil's Doorway than in the average found footage flick, so I was open to giving it a chance. I wanted it to show me something different, to impress me. And when the film began with a "flash forward" scene of a shaking camera running through a dark area, nothing to light the way but the light on the camera, I was far from impressed.

Thankfully there's a good amount of build-up before we get back around to that running scared portion of the film, which actually proves to be more interesting during the downtime between the scares and instances of paranormal activity, when it functions as a condemnation of the inhumane way the Catholic Church treated women at the Magdalene Laundries asylums in Ireland. The Devil's Doorway is the feature directorial debut Aislinn Clarke, and by making this film Clarke became the first woman to direct a horror movie in Northern Ireland, so it seems quite fitting that she would use her movie to take on the mistreatment of women in Ireland's past.

The story begins when two priests are called in to investigate a reported miracle at a Magdalene Laundry: a statue of the Virgin Mary has been weeping blood. Documenting the process is the young Father John (Ciaran Flynn), who desperately wants to confirm that this was indeed a miracle, and conducting the investigation is the veteran Father Thomas (Lalor Roddy), who doesn't expect this to be a miracle. This sort of thing never is, and even if a miracle were to happen, it certainly wouldn't happen at a place like a Magdalene Laundry. Thomas is deeply disturbed by the way women are treated in these places, and Roddy delivers a terrific performance as this caring, skeptical character.

By crafting a story that deals with a real world issue from Ireland's history, Clarke and co-writers Martin Brennan and Michael B. Jackson managed to make their film much more intriguing than it would have been if it were simply set in some random, modern Catholic Church location. The choice to tell a Magdalene Laundry story also allowed for the film to be more visually appealing than if it were presented as if it had been shot by modern characters with modern equipment. The last Magdalene Laundry closed in 1996, so that required The Devil's Doorway to have an old school look, and Clarke chose to go further back than 1990s VHS camcorders. The setting is October of 1960 and Father John is shooting on 16mm film, so the entire movie has a grainy film look and a 1.37:1 aspect ratio. This was a great artistic choice, although the flashes of fake film damage come along with annoying frequency.

Of course, this movie isn't entirely about shady, abusive nuns and a priest speaking out against their behavior. There is a statue literally weeping blood here, after all, and as the priests dig deeper into that strange occurrence it becomes very clear that there are dangerous supernatural forces at work in the laundry. Ghostly voices, giggling apparitions, possible possession, mysterious pregnancy, evidence of Satanic worship... there are plenty of horrific things for Father John to scream about while waving his camera around in dark corridors. Whenever The Devil's Doorway would get around to the typical found footage moments of the camera wobbling through creepy rooms, and especially when it reached the point we saw the flash forward to, it would lose me, because all this panicked roaming around felt like a tedious waste of time. It's a shame, because the film had a lot going for it otherwise.

There are very interesting ideas within The Devil's Doorway, the supernatural mystery at the laundry is gripping and Father Thomas is a captivating character wonderfully brought to life by Roddy... but it fails to reach its potential because of the found footage approach, despite the cool retro look it has. The shooting style short-changes the story, and as the film went by I could only imagine how much better it could have been if it had a traditional structure and shooting style.

The Devil's Doorway does stand out as being one of the better found footage horror movies out there, but that only elevates it to being middle-of-the-road. It could have been so much better, with the elements that are at play within it, it could have been so much more effective, but the presentation holds it back. If you're an established fan of the style, you might be able to go along with this version of the story and appreciate the film as a solid new entry in the sub-genre. If you don't appreciate this type of filmmaking, this isn't likely to win you over, as you'll be left mourning what could have been if only we weren't stuck just looking at what's directly in front of Father John the whole time.

Although The Devil's Doorway ended up disappointing me, the basic story and some of the artistic decisions do make it worth checking out - it's only 76 minutes long, so it's not asking a whole lot of you. The major revelation here is Lalor Roddy; I was shocked to see that he has earned over seventy screen credits over the last thirty years, because I have seen exactly two of the things he's been in: this and Grabbers. And I didn't even realize he was someone from Grabbers. That guy is awesome. Lalor Roddy is a name that should be known by film fans.

For her part, Aislinn Clarke certainly shows a lot of promise with this debut, and I look forward to seeing what she'll do next. I really hope it won't be found footage.

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