Nicolas Cage prepares to launch into Cage Rage mode in "Prisoners of the Ghostland"
Ah, the wonderful holiday season. A time for relaxing, reflecting and enjoying a stress-free existence.
Wait, who the hell are we kidding. Between family obligations, frothing mobs fighting at the mall and the pressure to purchase the best gift possible for people you barely speak to on a daily basis, this is actually the least relaxing time of year.
Thankfully, we've curated a list of new and recent home media movie releases to offer some measure of escape until the ball drops and 2022 ushers in some new form of hell for us all to endure.
Prisoners of the Ghostland
4 star(s), 103 minutes, Shudder
There’s simply no finer actor working today who understands, embraces and celebrates genre cinema the way Nicolas Cage does.
While his taste may be suspect more frequently than we would like, and he seems to rarely pass on a script no matter how ridiculous the premise, when he’s on fire and bringing his full Cage-Rage to play, I would challenge anyone who loves movies to be immune to his particular and utterly peculiar charms.
I’m not nearly the fan of his 2018 art-house mind-fuck “Mandy” as many people are, but I will stand and die on a hill in defense of his latest, “Prisoners of the Ghostland,” which is so batshit crazy that I was enthralled throughout.
Director Shion Soto, who hails from Japan, has been making crazy genre/art-house flicks for decades, and his credits include such stellar achievements as “Suicide Club,” “Cold Fish,” and “Strange Circus.”
But with “Prisoners,” Soto feels like a beast uncaged, and he runs roughshod through a dizzying array of cinematic genres, gleefully paying homage to cult directors from Akira Kurosawa to John Carpenter to Sergio Leone and George Miller.
Soto’s fictional Ghostland serves as a kind of mad, dystopian landscape, part Burning Man festival and part purgatory, and it can be found somewhere on the outskirts of an equally mad Japanese village with geishas and samurai ruled by the maniacal Governor (Bill Moseley), who forcibly enlists Cage’s character, simply called Hero, to go retrieve a young concubine, Bernice (Sofia Boutella), whom the Governor has held captive for years.
To ensure that Hero cooperates, the Governor straps him into a leather suit affixed with smart-bomb devices near his throat, shoulders and testicles. If Hero doesn’t return with Bernice in three days, all of the bombs will detonate.
Say what you will about Cage’s career trajectory from Oscar winner to cult cinema icon, there’s just no one else that I would rather watch utter dialogue like, “If you had told me three days ago I would be standing here with one arm and one testicle trying to reason with you bitches, I would have said impossible too.”
Anthony McCoy (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) becomes seduced and empowered by the spirit of vengeance in "Candyman"
4 star(s), 91 minutes, streaming, Blu-Ray and DVD
Director/co-writer Nia DaCosta and co-writer/producer Jordan Peele have teamed up for a fantastic reimagining of Clive Barker’s short story that became Bernard Rose’s 1992 classic and helped launch Tony Todd into horror’s upper echelon of iconic villains.
Continuing the blistering string of Black-centric horror films that Peele himself kicked off with “Get Out,” DaCosta’s “Candyman” is a portrait of gentrification as the genesis of despair for low-income minority residents living in and around Chicago’s infamous Cabrini-Green public housing project.
“Candyman” is peppered with razor-sharp dialogue that hits hard, driving home its social commentary like a jagged wooden stake into a vampire’s black heart.
“White people built the ghetto and then erased it when they realized they had built the ghetto,” one character observes early on, discussing both Cabrini-Green’s newly refurbished, upscale housing and the origin of a particular urban legend that fans have long loved.
DaCosta uses different visual styles, including shadow puppets, to tell the story of Helen Lyle, who becomes the villain here, a privileged white woman who sought to educate herself about the plight of Black folks before transforming into their worst nightmare.
But it’s Colman Domingo’s William Burke who kicks the new film’s narrative into high gear when he seduces local artist Anthony McCoy (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) with tales of the different iterations of Candyman that have long stalked the shadows.
In DaCosta and Peele’s hands, Candyman is less a movie maniac and more an avenging angel, a force of nature and imagination that can be summoned to stab and slice back against racial profiling, excessive police brutality, gentrification and other race-based issues that stifle, diminish and destroy minority communities across the country.
At one point, in a biting bit of blissfully unaware self-own, a white art critic argues to McCoy that it is actually poor artists who have created an untenable low-income housing plight by taking advantage of cheap rent in minority neighborhoods.
I won’t lie, I love this new take on “Candyman,” maybe even more than I love Rose’s original film. If you haven’t seen it yet, I can’t urge you enough to seek it out.
Kick-ass fight choreography is just one of the joyous discoveries in the incredible indie film "Nightshooters"
4 star(s), 100 minutes, streaming
Independent films don’t get much better than “Nightshooters,” writer/director Marc Price’s gonzo 2018 action flick about a film crew that becomes trapped by a ruthless gang in an abandoned building set to be imploded into rubble in a matter of hours.
From its very first frame, which showcases a movie-within-the-movie, Price demands respect by showcasing exactly how cheesy action movie heroics can be done to perfection, while also gifting viewers with a glorious “Dawn of the Dead” homage, and that’s before he even gets to the real life-and-death stuff.
The Suicide Squad
Warner Bros. Pictures/DC Comics
They may not be the heroes you asked for, but The Suicide Squad are the heroes you want when all hope is lost
4 star(s), 132 minutes, streaming, 4K Ultra-HD, Blu-Ray and DVD
If there ever was any doubt, “The Suicide Squad” proves definitively that writer/director James Gunn is unrivaled in his ability to shepherd a large cast of characters through a series of unbelievable challenges while still writing whip-smart dialogue that fills your head with the craziest, most glorious music possible.
Gunn’s movies crackle with an electric current born of true inspiration, and that feeling of awe is just so palpable that you can close your eyes and envision him typing like a man possessed, cackling at every word that he’s capable of magically transforming with a single strike from a lump of coal into a dazzling diamond.
And if you still don’t believe me, here’s a snippet that perfectly encompasses why I will stand and fight for my belief that “The Suicide Squad” is easily tied for best DC film yet with “Birds of Prey”:
Bloodsport: What’s with the javelin?
Harley Quinn: I’m waiting for God to tell me.
Bloodsport: Jesus Christ.
Harley Quinn: Or him. Or any of them really.
No Time to Die
4 star(s), 163 minutes, streaming, 4K Ultra-HD, Blu-Ray and DVD
Daniel Craig’s impressive 15-year-long run as James Bond, the longest of any actor to play 007, comes to a close with “No Time to Die,” the second-best Bond film of Craig’s storied tenure behind his debut, 2006’s “Casino Royale,” which is fitting for an actor who reimagined what the world’s greatest spy could accomplish and overcome, giving us a grittier, more flawed hero than ever before.
Even more impressive, “No Time to Die” also delivers the second-best villain of Craig’s stretch with Rami Malek’s Lyutsifer Safin harkening back to Bond villains of old.
Dark Star Pictures
A young girl bears witness to the horror of an urban legend come to life in "Achoura"
3.5 star(s), 90 minutes, streaming
This fantastic import, hailing from Morocco, is a superb creature feature that dazzles with a healthy combination of practical and CGI effects. Best of all, “Achoura” both educates and terrifies viewers by introducing them to an urban legend that has never been explored in this creative medium before.
“Achoura” does a bang-up job crisscrossing between present day and flashback sequences, and it succeeds in large part due to its attention to the small details, like solid character backstories that help audiences both identify and invest in the people they’re watching battle an ancient amorphous demon.
3.5 star(s), 107 minutes, streaming, Blu-Ray and DVD
Writer/director Joe Carnahan gained notoriety for his early 2002 undercover cop thriller “Narc,” and he kept fans of live-action gun mayhem satiated with 2006’s “Smokin’ Aces” and 2010’s better-than-expected adaptation of “The A-Team,” but the reality is that he truly has only made one film that counts as a masterpiece, 2011’s survival-thriller-cum-meditation-on-mortality “The Grey.”
Carnahan’s latest, “Copshop,” is a fast-paced throwback to the days when lower-budget genre films ruled the multiplex, and he gets solid support from his two leading actors, Gerard Butler and Frank Grillo. The real standout here, however, is Alexis Louder who plays Officer Valerie Young, a very resourceful cop who proves to be more than anyone bargained for.
This is a fun watch for action fans who find themselves bored on a rainy day and stuck on the couch.
Krampus: The Naughty Cut
3.5 star(s), 98 minutes, streaming, 4K Ultra-HD and Blu-Ray
Few films in the past 15 years have seized the public’s fascination and become a cultural zeitgeist like Michael Dougherty’s classic Halloween anthology, “Trick ‘r Treat.” Though he’s only made two films since then, Dougherty has yet to reach the same dizzying heights, though not for lack of trying.
Still, his 2015 Christmas horror tale, “Krampus,” suffered from the weight of unfair expectations, a cruel and unfair fate for a movie that clearly was made with much love and respect for the season’s other
Santa, the one that doles out extreme and sever punishment to bad children.
It’s fun then to revisit this film through Dougherty’s just-released “Krampus: The Naughty Cut” in glorious 4K Ultra-HD, which reinserts the darker moments that had to be excised in order for the movie to receive a PG-13 rating.
I wish I could report that this version of “Krampus” will forever convert fans who felt let-down, or worse, confused by Dougherty’s blitzkrieg of imagery and ideas (a barrage of evil toys and holiday treats, a literal hellmouth waiting to swallow Krampus’ victims). It won’t.
But a second viewing does reaffirm just how talented Dougherty is, and it helps rekindle the hope that he still has one or more comparable classics on par with “Trick ‘r Treat” yet to be unleashed.
The Horror Collective
A young girl hides during a violent home invasion in "Motherly"
3.5 star(s), 80 minutes, streaming
“Motherly,” a surprisingly effective, unexpectedly twisty home-invasion thriller, does a bang-up job toying with viewer expectations. And director/co-writer Craig David Wallace (“Slasher,” “Todd and the Book of Pure Evil”) steps up in a big way too, which is nice to see. None of his previous output would suggest he’s capable of delivering something so simple, yet brutal.
This is definitely a movie to put on your radar.
3.5 star(s), 94 minutes, Shudder and streaming
“The Strings,” much like its beautiful, understated DIY musician/artist Catherine (Teagan Johnston), is a sly, subversive slow-burn that creeps under your skin with hints of paranormal menace before revealing itself as a portrait of an artist in full psychological meltdown.
Highly recommended for fans of methodical horror for whom the journey is as important, if not more so, than the payoff.
Shock Wave 2
Echelon Studios, Inc./Stonecutter Media LTD
Try not to breathe when defusing the inventive and impressive array of bombs in "Shock Wave 2"
3 star(s), 120 minutes, streaming
This sequel to Herman Yau’s successful 2017 action flick about a Hong Kong bomb squad expert who squares off with a terrorist, doesn’t reinvent the wheel, but much like some of the best U.S. action franchises, Yau and star Andy Lau simply add more, more, more as far as explosions, white-knuckle action sequences and overall mayhem. Check your brain at the door and prepare to have a dopey grin throughout.
Dark Star Pictures
Meet these lovable tykes who transform into blood-thirsty, pint-sized vigilantes in "Ankle Biters"
3 star(s), 91 minutes, streaming
As creepy kid movies go, “Ankle Biters” falls somewhere in the gray area of this horror subgenre because it’s not really a film about an evil, possessed or otherwise bad seed. Instead, “Ankle Biters” focuses on the four young daughters of a single mother who enjoys a little rough BDSM with her fiancé when they’re alone in the bedroom.
All’s well until the daughters happen to spy a few select bruises on their mom’s body, which prompts them to go straight into protective cub mode and set their sights on eliminating the threat to their mom’s safety.
“Ankle Biters” is solid, and entertaining, a bitter brew of pitch-black horror-comedy that explodes with violence deep in the third act, but I personally would have liked to see a little bit more edge to match the film’s razor-sharp intentions.
The Advent Calendar
2.5 star(s), 104 minutes, Shudder
Fans of yuletide horror will likely find a lot to enjoy with “The Advent Calendar,” which does a good job of mashing together elements from a host of movies like “The Ring” and “The Monkey’s Paw.”
Nothing to see here but the creepy hideaway of folk horror legend Green Eyes in "They're Outside"
2.5 star(s), 83 minutes, streaming
“They’re Outside” owes a debt to “The Blair Witch Project,” but it also suffers immensely in comparison.
This found-footage thriller, directed by Sam Casserly and Airell Anthony Hayles, focuses on Max (Tom Wheatley), a conceited YouTube “self-help guru,” who works with his girlfriend as his videographer. Together, they venture out to the hermetic residence of Sarah (Cristine Randall), who suffers from agoraphobia and has not left her home in five years.
The reason for her fear, it turns out, is Green Eyes, a local urban legend about an entity that lures people out of their reality starting with a knock on their door that no one else can hear and leading to their descent into the Endless Woods, where they will eventually stumble upon Green Eyes’ lair, which is supposed to be a secret, hidden door in a tree.
Right off the bat, you know exactly how “They’re Outside” will end, which is both problematic and promising, depending on how the big Green Eyes reveal is handled. Sadly, the reveal isn’t enough to support the weight of more than an hour of back-and-forth bickering and too-subtle hints and allegations about the origins of Green Eyes.
Wild Eye Releasing
Nothing to see here but the living embodiment of every stereotypical character found in a slasher film, courtesy of "Black Holler"
2.5 star(s), 89 minutes, streaming
If anything, a viewing of “Black Holler” might make less-informed fans feel as if this low-budget take on classic slasher flicks is little more than another cash-grab in the recent surge in Black-centric horror stories like “Antebellum,” “Lovecraft Country” and even “Candyman.”
You might be surprised to learn that “Black Holler,” which focuses on an ill-fated group of camp counselors who run afoul of a local hillbilly madman, was actually completed in 2017, the same year that Jordan Peele’s “Get Out” released, and kickstarted the renewed focus on Black horror, so I don’t think it’s fair to call Jason Berg’s movie a calculated attempt to cash in.
“Black Holler” is a revisionist take on slasher films that doesn’t bring anything new to the genre, but it also doesn’t completely embarrass itself in the process. It’s a minor effort that only bona fide slasher aficionados will likely care to check out.
2.5 star(s), 91 minutes, Shudder
Part action movie and part creature feature, “Death Valley” offers up some impressive practical makeup effects even if its core story feels disjointed and leans too heavily on the dueling mercenaries assigned to infiltrate a secret underground government laboratory.
Kairos Productions/Terror Films
Meet the creature at the heart of "Portal Runner," a time-jumping threat that can travel through any mirror
2 star(s), 72 minutes, streaming
Fans of high-concept 1980’s science-fiction flicks might watch the trailer for “Portal Runner” and think they’ve stumbled across some long-lost VHS classic. The reality, though, is that while director Cornelia Duryée’s heart is in the right place, her family-friendly adventure fails to evoke the nostalgia of that decade’s best and misses the bar set by more recent, far superior retro-homage flicks like “PG: Psycho Goreman.”
A home invasion goes awry in "Wired Shut"
2 star(s), 95 minutes, streaming
“Wired Shut” packages a tepid home invasion thriller inside a bunch of family strife and then completely neuters one of its three lead actors by making him incapable of speaking due to extreme jaw surgery. Avoid.
A local haunted house attraction becomes the epicenter of buried secrets and family upheaval in "Autumn Road"
2 star(s), 95 minutes, streaming
“Autumn Road” is confounding and admirable in equal measure. This is a “thriller” with such a benign, generic title that you forget you’re watching what should be a horror movie about a young woman whose sister went missing a decade earlier who returns to her hometown and reconnects with a pair of disparate twins (one’s outgoing, the other is an asshole) who operate a year-round haunted attraction. The bursts of violence stand in stark contrast to the family drama that “Autumn Road” seems more interested in exploring.
There's no such thing as monsters under the bed, right?
2 star(s), 96 minutes, streaming
Another confounding new release, “Lair” kicks off with a fantastic opening sequence before losing its momentum, and eventually your attention, as you learn more about the main characters, which are a lesbian couple traveling with their two children and the owner of a rental flat who hopes to use his unsuspecting tenants to prove the existence of supernatural entities by populating his Airbnb with a host of supposedly haunted artifacts, including a creepy old doll. I made it about halfway through before nodding off.
Dead & Beautiful
1.5 star(s), 98 minutes, Shudder
I had high hopes for this Taiwanese import, which reimagines vampirism as yet another perk to be exploited by elite, uber-wealthy twenty-somethings with no moral compass, especially after viewing the film’s trailer, which makes “Dead & Beautiful” look like a neon-colored, BPM-fueled kaleidoscope of hunger and carnage. Imagine how gobsmacked I was to discover that director/co-writer David Verbeek’s ambitious flick is mortally earthbound and never takes flight.
The Darkness of the Road
Yes, the road is dark in "The Darkness of the Road"
1.5 star(s), 80 minutes, streaming
Writer/director Eduardo Rodriguez made a name for himself way back in 2005 when his debut feature, “Curandero,” was supported and promoted by cult icon Robert Rodriguez. In 2013, he helmed “Fright Night 2,” a direct sequel to the 2011 remake starring Anton Yelchin.
His latest, “The Darkness of the Road,” is a bleak portrait of a single mother in distress that peppers viewers with a barrage of confusing imagery designed to keep Rodriguez’s narrative destination somewhat secretive, which proves to be not very successful despite his best efforts.
The Last Rite
Samuel Goldwyn Films
Further proof why safe words are a must when tying your lover to the bed in "The Last Rite"
1 star(s), 107 minutes, streaming
Yes, it’s another demonic possession exorcism film. Yes, it’s another movie that treats its main protagonist as an unreliable narrator because no one actually believes that she’s seeing creepy, crazy visions, such as a dark entity stalking the home she shares with her overbearing husband. And, yes, it’s yet another movie that forces viewers to watch a despicable human act in ways that defy logic and go against basic human nature and the accepted rules of human interaction. I’ll be honest, I couldn’t make it past the 25-minute mark because of the lead male character.
Never Back Down: Revolt
1 star(s), 80 minutes, streaming
Oh look, it’s another direct-to-DVD flick about a secret underground cabal that kidnaps young, attractive women and forces them into servitude in an underground MMA-style catfight circuit. I won’t lie, I typically enjoy this genre if
, and it’s a big if
that most movies of this ilk rarely achieve, the movie has something interesting to say or at the least brings some creative panache to the fight choreography.
“Never Back Down: Revolt” plays it straight throughout, which proves to be pretty tedious.
Also Available as of December 21, 2021:
“The Mitchells vs. the Machines,” “My Stepmother is an Alien,” “The Card Counter,” “The Monkey King: Rebron,” “The Karate Kid Collection 4K Ultra-HD,” “Dear Evan Hansen,” “Mill of the Stone Women – Limited Edition,” “The Show,” “Future Boy Conan: The Complete Series,” “Sailor Suit and Machine Gun,” “Phantom of the Mall: Eric’s Revenge,” “Don’t Breathe 2,” “Deep Red,” “The Amazing Mr. X – The Film Detective Special Edition,” “Frankenstein’s Daughter – The Film Detective Special Edition,” “Walker: Season One,” “Underworld: Limited Edition 5-Movie Collection 4K Ultra-HD,” “Whitetail,” “Old Henry,” “Neon Genesis Evangelion: The Complete Series,” “Reminiscence,” “The Hills Have Eyes – Limited Edition,” “The Emperor’s Sword”