"The Funeral Home"
4 star(s), 86 minutes, streaming
It’s been about 40 years since Italian horror maestro Lucio Fulci made a seismic impact on genre cinema with a string of gory, surreal and often goofy fun films like “The Beyond” and “The House by the Cemetery,” but his influence lives on thanks to up-and-coming talent like first-time writer/director Mauro Iván Ojeda.
That Ojeda and his debut, “The Funeral Home,” hail from Argentina shouldn’t come as a surprise. It just shows that classic horror tropes are universal and transcend geographic boundaries. What can’t be stressed enough is just how fucking good “The Funeral Home” is, and how well it works, both as a supernatural fright-fest and a portrait of a dysfunctional family in emotional free fall.
Bernardo (Luis Machin), his wife Estela (Celeste Gerez), and her daughter Irina (Camila Vaccarini), live in a dreary residence attached to the local mortuary where Bernardo works.
Estela has essentially compromised her happiness for the illusion of security after her first husband turned out to be a serial abuser, but the strain of that decision can be seen in her haunted eyes and muted soul. Constantly at odds with her daughter, Estela basically slaves away day and night to provide some semblance of an existence, even though Bernardo barely acknowledges her or her efforts.
Slowly, masterfully, Ojeda peels back the sour layers of his blooming onion to show why no one in this family seems remotely happy and why the women in particular exist in a perpetual state of dread and fear.
The reason is that all three central characters are living with ghosts, both those of their own respective pasts (like Bernardo’s cruel father and Estela’s sadistic ex-husband) and those who arrive at the funeral home, only to take up residence.
Ojeda lets his camera speak directly to viewers, whether lingering on the words scrawled across the bathroom door, warning the family not to enter at night, or returning to the thick chain and padlock securing Bernardo’s deceased dad’s room.
As darkness falls each night, the gloomy, stagnate residence fills with undead life. Spirits move freely, visiting each character. Some seem harmless and inviting, but others point toward darker intentions yet to be realized.
By throwing viewers into a world where ghosts are acknowledged and accepted, a burden to carry much like life itself, Ojeda frees himself to go deep into the abyss and unleash a torrent of physical and emotional damage all the while hurtling toward a pitch-perfect, pitch-black final frame.
"The Queen of Black Magic"
4 star(s), 99 minutes, Shudder
Speaking of pitch-black and pitch-perfect, if you’re not yet familiar with Indonesian writer/director Joko Anwar, it’s time for you to take note.
Anwar has steadily made a name in horror over the past few years with films like “Satan’s Slaves” and “Impetigore,” and I for one will now be seeking those titles out, too. He wrote “The Queen of Black Magic,” but equal credit is due to director Kimo Stamboel (if you haven’t seen his 2014 classic, “Killers,” make it a must-see). Stamboel proves the perfect shepherd for Anwar’s dark tale of ritual magic and serial abuse in a remote orphanage.
“The Queen of Black Magic” starts off as a slow-boil, making sure to allow viewers to learn each of the characters, including Hanif (Ario Bayu), a former ward who was adopted, and his family, as well as two other former orphans and their wives. They’ve all arrived to pay respect to the ailing headmaster, who is inches from death’s door, but the reunion is short-lived as long-buried secrets quickly claw through the fetid dirt to find new life.
Before long, reality begins to warp, loyalties are tested and loved ones are imperiled, and Anwar and Stamboel never let off the gas, ramping up from one masterful set piece to the next, whether a busload of dead-not-dead students or a delirious face-to-face with the queen herself. It feels odd to say, but if there is one upside to this crippling pandemic, it’s the glut of magnificent new horror films to stream and champion.
For the not-faint at heart, I strongly recommend a late-night double feature on Shudder, “The Queen of Black Magic” followed immediately by “May the Devil Take You Too.”
"Silence & Darkness"
4 star(s), 81 minutes, streaming
I won’t lie, “Silence & Darkness” is the type of film that I immediately tell a publicist I will 100% watch and then never do. The reason why is both self-serving (I'm but one man trying to watch a half-dozen or more new films a week) and a product of a film critic's innate cynicism. A lot of movies can cobble together two-minute's worth of decent footage to produce a great trailer. But what about those movies for which even a trailer can't capture or do justice to the plot and ambition contained therein?
I beg of you, do not seek out the trailer for "Silence & Darkness" before you rent it. Just trust me.
“Silence & Darkness” is the story of Beth, who is mute, and Anna, who is blind. And their father, unnamed, who is a local community doctor, a major germaphobe and their sole parent, raising the girls in a remote, palatial ranch. Father (Jordan Lage) will make your skin crawl, and Lage deserves kudos for his masterful turn. The entire cast, really, is phenomenal. Mina Walker (Anna) and Joan Glackin (Beth) make you believe not only in their respective disabilities, but in their sisterly bond.
To say much more would be criminal, as the plot hinges on a series of reveals, both bloody and deliciously dark, but I can tell you that first-time feature director Barak Barkan should vault immediately to your list of exciting young talents to follow.
Barkan does more, so much more, with less than many writer-directors do with more, and more, and more. He expertly draws his audience into Beth and Anna’s world, their intoxicating way of communicating through touch and modified sign language, and their fearlessness through a series of simple, yet telling, interactions and adventures.
I found myself completely subjugated, and yet thrilled, by the point I realized that I was putty in Barkan’s hands, enthralled by his exquisitely-drawn characters and wholly supportive of the violence, and revelations, that arrive without warning in the deliriously downbeat third act.
2.5 star(s), 96 minutes, Blu-Ray, DVD and streaming
There are lengthy sequences from “Come Play” that should be at the heart of an excellent sizzle reel for Jordan Chase.
Chase, a first-time feature director, who secured the support of Steven Spielberg's Amblin Entertainment (!?!) for his debut, definitely has the chops to scare us silly, and I wholly suspect he will do that one day, but sadly, “Come Play” is more of a passion project than the real-deal, scary-as-shit spookshow that it should be.
Chase, to his credit, has created a worthy addition to horror’s hallowed elite. Larry, the misunderstood monster, with his spindly limbs and hidden face, is a thing of terrifying beauty. Unlike the equally chilling titular character from “The Babadook,” however, Chase forgets to have fun when it matters most and really let Larry loose.
As a result, every time “Come Play” starts cooking, Chase backtracks to an unnecessary subplot, or thrusts some overwrought family drama into the spotlight. I completely understand why. “Come Play” is as much a fairy tale as it is a creature feature, and in order to arrive at the ending that Chase wants, narrative sacrifices must be made.
I wouldn’t recommend paying to watch “Come Play,” but I wouldn’t forget the title either. As soon as it arrives on a cable platform, make a date. If you go into it knowing that you’re there for a handful of moments as opposed to a full experience, “Come Play” can be viewed as a delightful tease meant to spark hope for a better, more satisfying nightmare still to come.
Also available as of Jan. 26
"Southland Tales" If ever a cult classic deserved the deluxe high-definition treatment, it’s Richard Kelly’s bonkers 2016 time-travel mindfuck, “Southland Tales,” and thankfully Arrow Video has does the title right. The previously unreleased “Cannes Cut,” included on a second disc, is fascinating with its near-20 minutes of additional footage, but honestly I still prefer the theatrical version, which remains fearless and unbridled in its ambition.
"Synchronic" Hear me now. Arron Moorhead and Justin Benson are our generation’s Stanley Kubrick, and their latest, the beautiful and breathtaking “Synchronic,” is time travel cinema in its best and most thought-provoking form. “Synchronic” is now available to stream.
"Caged" Shout! Studios’ latest, an intense solitary confinement thriller about an accused Black man, imprisoned for killing his wife, who must battle both sadistic guards as well as his own guilt and imagination, is available to stream.
John W. Allman has spent more than 25 years as a professional journalist and writer, but he’s loved movies his entire life. Good movies, awful movies, movies that are so gloriously bad you can’t help but champion them. Since 2009, he has cultivated a review column and now a website dedicated to the genre films that often get overlooked and interviews with cult cinema favorites like George A. Romero, Bruce Campbell and Dee Wallace. Contact him at Blood Violence and Babes.com, on Facebook @BloodViolenceBabes or on Twitter @BVB_reviews.