Sometimes adventure calls. The great unknown beckons, and when reason, logic and common sense tell you to take the safe path, you have to throw caution to the wind and take the chance. You only live once, right?
In Fangs Out, a crew of young Americans seek budget-friendly plastic surgery in Mexico. They don’t know where the clinic is, and they have no direct contact with the surgeon. Their instructions lead them to a bookshop whose owner provides them with a map and tells them to walk through the desert.
Despite all the glaringly bright red flags, our intrepid heroes continue forth seeking the clinic of the mysterious Dr. Pavor (Samuel Code). Is it possible that the clinic may in fact be run by vampires that sucker in unwitting medical tourists? Or is Dr. Pavor simply a kind-hearted physician, offering low-cost cosmetic surgery for those willing to take the risk? Our heroes don’t care. They take their chances, answering the call to adventure.
Likewise, despite all the equally bright red flags I saw, I too took a chance on this movie and answered my own call to adventure. It turned out just slightly better for me than it did the characters.
The ultra-low-budget movie is an acquired taste to begin with and has to be accepted on its own terms. Traditional film criticism is a fool’s errand. You must expect bad framing, horrific acting and wildly off-kilter pacing. It’s par for the course and part of the charm.
But at the same time, the movie is obligated to know what it is and hold up its end of the bargain. If you can’t be good, you should at least be bloody. If you can’t be bloody, then you’d better be funny. And if you can’t be either, at least get weird. If that bar is too high, then why bother?
Fangs Out just doesn’t make much of an attempt to be any of those things. Not consistently anyway. It occasionally tries to be funny, and sometimes even manages to do so successfully. But more often than not, it just exists. When it does manage to land a joke, it likes to dwell on the punchline way too long, killing whatever humor may have been gaining momentum.
Likewise, it teases us with a potential bloodbath but never follows through. Except for one genuinely brutal sequence about midway through the movie, there’s bafflingly little bloodshed.
If you’re going to go for a ridiculous film, you actually have to go for it. Stupid humor can be great fun, but it needs to be lightning fast. The movie has to be so overloaded with so many puns, sight gags and pratfalls that the human mind can’t keep track of them all upon first viewing.
Likewise, the violence should be excessive and nonstop. Be creative. This kind of movie is not bound by conventional rules of storytelling and has the luxury of being limited only by one’s imagination and the amount of money set aside for fake blood. There’s no reason for Fangs Out to be as boring and bloodless as it is.
It doesn’t even get particularly weird. Dr. Pavor’s medical experiments are wildly perverse and seem to signal a bizarre turn for the story. But the experiments are introduced for only a moment and are barely referenced again for the rest of the film.
The movie refuses to pick a direction and never follows through one way or another. Every time it seems like it’s about to become entertaining in some capacity, it kneecaps itself and opts to stay boring instead. Director Dennis Devine and writer/star Randy Oppenheimer bring some sparks of creativity here and there. Just enough to string you along, hoping for something wild to happen. But it just never does.
I love a schlocky, low-budget mess. There’s nothing better than putting on some bloody, sleazy nonsense and getting lost in a sea of stupidity. Fangs Out brings the low budget and the stupidity but leaves the blood and the sleaze out of the equation. The only thing the movie really has going for it is its flippant sense of humor. But even that can only carry it so far. In the end, Fangs Out just doesn’t have much bite.
Sometimes ambiguity is a blessing. Sometimes a curse.
First-time feature film director Cory Choy’s Esme, My Love straddles that line in ways guaranteed to leave you, appropriately enough, satisfyingly frustrated. This is a sumptuous bit of filmmaking, so beautiful to watch (and listen to, I might add) that you tend to forgive a pace so slow you literally can watch paint dry.
Confusion, doubt, bewilderment, soul searching, head scratching, perplexity – all are in play here as you wait for an “Ah Ha!” moment that never comes. But maybe that’s the intent.
We begin on the road, with Hannah (Stacey Weckstein) and daughter Esme (Audrey Grace Marshall) headed to a lush forest that lends itself to camping, canoeing and an eventual visit to the abandoned home of Hannah’s grandparents. It’s known that Esme is ill, but exactly how ill remains a mystery for most of this adventure.
Adventure might be a bit of a misnomer, as the ultimate goal is to meet up with Emily, whose relationship to Hannah and Esme is never made clear. It’s just one part of a 105-minute guessing game that plays out mostly in the viewer’s mind.
Some of that guesswork applies to Esme’s approach to her mother, alternately calling her Hannah and Mom. The mother-daughter bond, in fact, is stretched to the limits as Hannah’s behavior begins to jump from lucidity to delusion. She has visions, for example, of an angelic Esme in white, flowing garments. She nearly allows Esme to drown after a plunge into the lake, only to rescue her at the last moment. She’s frequently digging in the dirt, sometimes to discover childhood objects long since buried, other times for reasons unknown.
Esme, too, has moments of illusory confusion, at times seeing her mother as a monstrous creature caked in dirt and with eyes and mouth sealed shut. She frequently opens a compact mirror that seems to reflect both reality and the supernatural.
But there are moments, too, when Hanna, like any mother, comforts, nurtures, scolds and instructs, just as Esme, like any pre-teen child, taunts, yells, embraces and grows.
So, is this then an exploration of a familial relationship? Is this an allegory on grief, loss and past remembrances?
The plain simple truth: The hell if I know. Your guess is as good as mine, though sometimes there’s joy in that.
But I will say, the journey to any interpretation is mind-blowing. While the story, co-written by Laura Allen and Choy, is no doubt purposely ambiguous, the cinematography by Fletcher Wolfe is clear-as-a-bell gorgeous. The colors of the forest, shot from above and below, from near and far, are breathtaking, as are the lake images and the moodier, deftly lit scenes in the car and the home. It’s all an atmospheric feast.
As director, Choy gets credit for turning his two-person cast into a dynamic duo. The chemistry between Weckstein and Marshall is electric. Both turn in bravura performances, and Marshall’s Esme, in particular, is nothing less than riveting. You can’t take your eyes off her.
Choy, along with Ash Knowlton, also gets credit for a soundtrack that is mesmerizing, whether it be through vocalizations, strings, woodwinds or even the sounds of a triangle and cymbal tapping. The sounds and sights in Esme, My Love blend as seamlessly as peanut butter and jelly.
There is a reason this movie, a Silver Sound production, has fared so well in various film festivals. It’s turned ambiguity into not just a visual and musical tour de force, but into an artform. So, armed with few answers but tons of admiration, I’m here to say Esme, My Love is … well, lovely.
As many struggling writers have had to do a time or two or three, I’ve had to write some very stupid things for very little money. I’d much rather write my own stupid things for myself because at the very least I’d have some semblance, some illusion, of control over the stupidity, but, nevertheless, cheeseburgers can’t be made without the beef and you can’t get the beef without the cheddar and the cheddar is that sweet, sweet green, aka money.
What’s money? It might be a foreign concept to many of us horror enthusiasts. The great Dr. Steven Brule described money as “one of paper equals four of coin.” Quite medieval. Greasy old coins with the engraved likenesses of tax-evading slave owners are for 80-year-old pedophiles to polish on The Antiques Roadshow. Those wrinkled sleeves of faded green paper are just certificates of appreciation for working class strippers. A Frank Bennie (Ben Franklin, aka a one-hundred-dollar bill) is just a prop young yachtsmen use to impress their bedfellows before a night of motor boatin’, nose tootin’—blowbangs to the deviated septum.
Now—right here and now—despite the best efforts of Chinese spies, money is what we make of it. Money is, now, any artist’s imaginings; it’s an ever-evolving, cyberpunk expression of value and gratitude given to one another’s avatars in a nano-second of appreciation for OnlyFans’ services rendered or for the smooth acquisition of digital armor. Money, in the here and now of web 3.0, is a quantum musing generated by A.I. that dances for you in your digital wallet (wallets used to be folds of leather carried by cowboys to protect their tobacco and their vouchers at the whore house saloon).
A piece of currency can be anything now. It can be a squid eating a lollipop dancing in neon radiance sent to strangers to have weed delivered to you by a drone. Dancing radishes can be beamed over the dark web to pay serial killers to murder people. Little pink crystalline pyramids are given in reverence to the dexterity of a video gamer with a wireless vibrator up their ass that’s connected to a digital cash register that vibrates every time someone zaps over some sweet, sweet Digi-mon.[i]
Well, long before there were money-making vibrators, we had to get butt fucked by corporate America the old-fashioned way. Some of us still do. Those corporate stooges are who we call Octopi Feet, my lad! Squid Fingers, baby girl! SUCKERS, DADDIO. I’m talking about suckers with a capital ‘S’. People who used to go to the circus and enjoy the peanuts, you feel me? I’m one of them. Always have been and always will be. I’m proud of it the way a dung beetle is proud of its mound of shit it just rolled up into a ball. It’s not something you want to brag about, but at least you’re accomplishing something.
Anyway, speaking of balls of shit, one of the more interesting gigs I’ve had was my very short tenure (about four months) writing copy for a security company. I won’t name names, but this was a fairly large, national home-security provider who was struggling to maintain its foothold in the market with the rise of more affordable home security camera systems like the Ring Doorbell. In fact, the Ring Doorbell had just hit the market and was showing customers how pointless expensive home security packages truly were. There was no need for expensive camera installations when Ring could just be mounted to your front door by any idiot with a screwdriver. There’s no need for a digital call center when Ring can send you live updates directly to your phone while you’re enjoying a chalupa and allow you to speak to your would-be intruder(s) in between fiery Taco Bell shits.
So, one of these corporate strongholds that had a small army of call center workers and thrived on selling overpriced security packages was hemorrhaging contracts. In an effort to be “young and with it” they employed keyboard monkeys like me to churn out home security articles and reviews of their own products that no one would ever read. On top of that, they offered a much more expensive and potentially much more inferior service that was a corporate version of Ring.
All of this was a strategy to do battle in the Algorithm Wars across cyberspace. If they could entertain and entrap the ghosts of artificial consciousness to do their bidding, to lure all the beeps and boops and eyeballs away from Ring, they could potentially save their business. To put it more straightforwardly, this company wasn’t competing to capture the favor of new customers, it was competing to capture the favor of algorithms. Nowadays, this isn’t simply a common occurrence, it’s standard operating procedure. But it was strange for me, as such a dewy-eyed young lad from the shire, to realize that my writing was guided by algorithms for algorithms (FABA not to be confused with FUBU).
I overshared all of this with you because the new Erik Bernard-directed feature I’ll Be Watching triggered some previously forgotten memories that made me wax nostalgic for those simpler times when robotic minds didn’t do all our writing for us (looking at you, ChatGPT). I imagine that every customer of the security company where I hacked up web copy into a keyword generator was somehow duped by the Inception-level layers of algorithmic manipulation overriding their computers with pointless headlines about protecting their homes during cookouts and forced them into purchasing an overpriced Ring knockoff attached to a “smart system” that probably ended up just trapping them in their homes against their will. All of that could have been avoided if they’d just purchased a baby monitor for their front door to monitor their precious little packages and provide a side business on YouTube assembling creepy Ring Doorbell compilations of maniacs and meth heads trying to break in at 2am (which is pretty terrifying).
How does all this nonsense relate to I’ll Be Watching? Well, the movie reminded me of a terrible article I had to constantly update about how smart homes were worse for you than lead paint. The company I worked for went to great lengths to showcase how a smart house can easily be hacked. “Did you know your personal identity can be stolen by hackers accessing your smart fridge?!” While some of the claims they made were outlandish, there were actual cases of smart houses short circuiting and causing accidents, and, even scarier, there were a lot of instances of hackers actually hacking into cameras to watch you or your children. At face value, these types of digital home invasion fears are the impetus that’s driving the horror in I’ll Be Watching, but much like the web copy I used to produce back in 2010, I’m left wondering if this movie was written by A.I. for A.I. Let’s review.
Like an episode of Frasier, the movie starts at an art gallery where the overworked and stressed-out protagonist, Julie (played by Eliza Taylor, whom many may remember from the show The 100) enlists the help of her sister Rebecca (Hannah Fierman of V/H/S, Dead by Midnight Y2Kill) to go to her apartment to take care of her cat Pepper. Julie’s poor pet parenting inadvertently leads to the death of her sister, who’s murdered by a home intruder, an intruder who, in my humble opinion, should have killed Julie. I’m also not convinced that Julie’s “beloved” cat Pepper wasn’t in on the whole deal (it would have been an amazing twist).
Rebecca’s death is at the hands of a man wearing a black mask with a solid white line down the center of it, who I’m going to dub The Median (“Cross The Median and you’re roadkill!”). The Median would be a better killer if he attacked people from the center of the highway, but in I’ll Be Watching he breaks into a home and strangles Julie’s sister Rebecca. Blink and you’ll miss this movie-launching kill, but just like me in the bedroom, it’s an action packed 10 seconds of thrills and chills.
Grief stricken and plagued by guilt over the death of her sister, Julie, and her husband Marcus (played by Ben Morley who is also from the show The 100), are attending couples counseling conducted by Dr. Tate whom all you Mad Men superfans will remember as Salvatore Romano (Bryan Batt).
Julie is not only fucked up by her grief and guilt, but this party girl is also fucked up on wine and pills (what my friends in high school used to call BEANS). “No Principal Sherman, I’m not doing pills. I’m eating beans. Individual beans that I keep in Ziplock bags and crush up into dust to breathe into my system through my nostrils.” Anyway, Julie is about one or two tickets away from taking a trip to Ocean City Maryland (that’s Bean Head code for getting fucked up on oxycontin) but, little does she know that she’s about to get even more fucked up in her smart house (not to be confused with Disney’s Smart House).
Marcus and Julie drive into the country in their slick, smart car to their new smart house filled with smart appliances, however this smart house is run by H.E.R.A., the sadistic cousin of Amazon’s Alexa and Google Home, that controls every electronic device in the domicile.
Once the couple moves in, the start of a slow burning psychological thriller occurs. Julie, spending a lot of time by herself in the house, is hearing men’s voices and feeling as though she’s being watched. The subtle tormenting starts to escalate to the point where she’s being taunted by an unknown number about the death of her sister.
In a panic, she enlists the help of the cowboy from Indian in the Cupboard played by David Keith (not to be confused with Keith David of The Thing, They Live, and making girls go ass-to-ass in Requiem for a Dream fame).
The sheriff (David Keith) doesn’t find any intruders, and Julie is left to wonder if she’s going crazy. Then, in arguably the most gut-wrenching death in the movie, (SPOILERS) Pepper the Cat is locked in a smart washing machine and killed. Is this the work of a sinister killer? Or is Julie really that awful of a pet parent? Probably both.
Pepper the Cat’s death is the final sign that the end is nigh for Julie. In an interesting twist, a man dawning the mask of The Median (the killer at the start of the movie) enters the house and attempts to send Julie to hell to meet her sister. As she’s being strangled, Marcus, her usually absentee husband, shows up to give the killer the old “100.”
There are multiple twists unraveling at the end of this flick. Twist #1: The man donning the mask of the killer I dubbed The Median may not be the original Median … or is he?! This is where the other two fans of I’ll Be Watching and I will be furiously circle jerking over our fan theories about The Median (but we’ll save that for the I’ll Be Watching Median Subreddit).
Before Marcus turns the killer’s head into mush (again it’s probably not the original Median), the killer unmasks and reveals that he was hired to kill Marcus’s wife BY MARCUS. Ol’ Marky Mark is very confused until he sees that his smart phone sent the following instructions to the killer:
TWIST #2: Marcus beats the hell out of the killer. Julie is dead. With the cops enroute, H.E.R.A. reveals to Marcus that Julie had to be killed because she was interfering with their love for each other. H.E.R.A. also tells Marcus not to worry; she’s removed all digital evidence of his involvement in Julie’s murder.
So, in the end, H.E.R.A. was sentient and had a digital lady boner for Marcus. She controlled all the digital devices, sent all the texts to their phones, set the washer to spin with Pepper the Cat locked inside, and shut down the power to their electric car all to psychologically taunt and torment Julie. Then it hired a low-rent, contract killer using cryptocurrency (probably H.E.R.A. rubles) to finally take Julie out of the picture.
We’re left wondering whether Marcus actually did attempt to kill Julie before they left the big city. Was Marcus actually somehow having sex with H.E.R.A. this whole time and wanted all of this to happen!? Was Marcus sleeping with The Median!? OR is Marcus really The Median who’s sleeping with the copycat Median who then shows up at the end in order to pin all of his crimes onto Marcus before whacking him off … to death!?
This movie is sort of a blend between The Rental (2020) and Fatal Attraction (1987), but the obsessive psychotic lover is Hal 9000’s great grandchild H.E.R.A. and the thrills are few and far between. Some of the best moments happen in the very beginning and the very end of the movie. The ride between isn’t terrible, but it’s a slow burn, and I think one of the reasons movies like I’ll Be Watching and other home invasion movies like The Rental or You’re Next often induce sleep paralysis is that they do too much telling and not enough showing. They do a great job at weaving an interesting plot and setting up something big, but the tension the characters are feeling, like the unhinged mania that comes with feeling like you’re losing your mind, isn’t palpable to us when the movie falls short of completely plugging us into the world it’s creating through the eyes of the protagonist.
With that said, all the performances were great given the material the cast was working with. I mean, Eliza Taylor’s acting is a little stilted, but her character is supposed to be fucked up on that lean most of the movie, and all the other characters are in and out of the movie so quickly that it’s hard to truly judge whether their performances are good or bad. They were there. They were professional. They were intelligent and spoke clearly.
Ultimately, it comes down to the overall story. I’ll Be Watching could have played better if it was either shorter, like a 30-minute episode of a thriller anthology, or if Julie’s psychological torment by H.E.R.A. was ramped up to more insane levels. There are lots of missed opportunities for more action beats while Julie is in the house struggling with whether she’s going crazy. We don’t feel her struggle with insanity. There could have been more strange accidents, more taunting, more injuries, more sinister deliveries, more bizarre malfunctions, or even more terrifying ways for H.E.R.A. to try and separate Julie from her husband like using smart vacuums to trip her down the stairs and to send her to the hospital, locking her in a smart freezer, or using drones to scoop her up and drop her into a quarry.
I was dreaming up all these ideas while I was watching I’ll Be Watching because I wanted to bewatching something else, but that might have less to do with the movie being lackluster and more to do with the fact that I may have undiagnosed ADHD. I mean, when it comes to watching anything, it’s like someone is sawing into the front of my face while Egyptian scarabs screech into my ears … on second thought … maybe I have something much more serious going on in my brain. While I call the local clinics in my area to see if they accept collectible pog slammers as a form of co-payment, tell your Alexa that you love her with all your heart, and if you’re bored on a Sunday afternoon have her cue up I’ll Be Watching.
[i] Digi-mon is arguably an inferior version of Poke-mon that explores the nightmare world of your Tamigachi coming to life, jumping out of its little digital computer, and battling other Tamagotchis. I refuse to explain what a Tamagotchi is.
Les Hackle (James Marsters) leads a boring life. He spends his days at a job he hates and his evenings with a girlfriend who hates him. At night he stays up drinking and playing guitar in his room, much to his mother’s annoyance.
When he discovers a bomb has been implanted in his neck, Les finds himself embroiled in a global conspiracy. Ominous text messages demand that Les commit increasingly violent acts. Should he refuse, the bomb in his neck will detonate. Can Les outsmart his seemingly omniscient overlords? Or is he doomed to remain a cog in a machine which he will never understand?
Sometimes life manages to bring you exactly what you need, exactly when you need it. You didn’t even know you wanted it, but once it’s discovered you wonder how you’ve managed to survive this long without it. The beauty of these gifts is they come when you least expect them.
The trailer for Abruptio came across my path as I laid in bed watching the 1994 classic Speed. In one film, there’s a bomb on a bus. In another, there’s a bomb in a neck. The synchronicity felt appropriate. Call it fate. Call it luck. Or call it karma. I believe that everything happens for a reason. I believe that I was destined to see Abruptio.
For what purpose?
I haven’t the slightest idea. But be that as it may, Abruptio is an absolute must-see. Written and directed by Evan Harlowe, Abruptio is clearly a labor of love. For reasons unknown, Harlow and his team have been toiling away at this completely psychotic project since 2015. Did the world need a hyper-violent, puppet movie about a shady world-wide conspiracy?
Of course not, but Harlowe and company gave it to us anyway, and we’re all the better for it.
I did have some concerns at the start of the film regarding the puppets. I was unsure how palatable the puppetry would be for a full feature-length time frame. Perhaps I’ve become a bit spoiled with the state of the art in puppetry over the years, but I worried that the mobility of the puppets (or lack thereof) would be something of a hindrance.
I had no need to worry. The limited mobility, relegated mainly to the mouth and eyes, is a complete benefit to the film. The almost-but-not-quite-human appearance of the characters pushes the imagery straight into Uncanny Valley territory. From Les to his young companion Chelsea (Hana Mae Lee), to the old man Sal (Sid Haig), the characters come across as actual people trapped within their garish and distorted bodies. Puppetry is a perfect choice to present a world that’s almost normal, but just slightly askew.
The voice-actors provide the final masterstroke to bring Abruptio to life. Along with James Marster’s fantastic performance as the schlubby yet likable Les, the movie features appearances from Jordan Peele, Robert Englund, and Christopher McDonald. The cast here is absolutely stacked, and despite the oddness of the project, every actor puts in a perfect performance.
The story does falter somewhat as it reaches its end. Fantastical stories (bloody or otherwise) have a tendency to stumble over themselves at the finish line. It’s relatively easy to dazzle with imaginative set pieces and elaborate forms of torment for the characters. What’s harder is bringing all that home to a satisfying conclusion.
So, like many films before it, Abruptio struggles in its final moments. Not enough to undermine the preceding events, but just enough to leave a hint of sourness in the mouth.
But to use the old cliche, it’s about the journey, not the destination. And Abruptio is a journey completely unlike any other. This is the kind of movie made for a particular breed of mutant. One look at the trailer and you’ll know if it’s meant for you or not. But if fate has chosen to make you aware of this little beauty, then you really don’t have a choice. You have to see it.
What do you get when you take Mena Suvari, Jason London, Jeremy London, Casper VanDien, and wait for it…Mickey fuckin’ Rourke?! Yep, a hot mess. Not a good mess either. I don’t even know where to start with this one, guys. This steaming pile of a waste of time is called Hunt Club, and we have the writing team of David Lipper and John Saunders, as well as director Elizabeth Blake-Thomas to thank for it. Thanks all! You shouldn’t have! No, you really shouldn’t have. Seriously.
Hunt Club is a mashup of I Spit on Your Grave(2010) and Hostel (2005) in the sense that the basic concept is simply people hunting people for a big stroke of the ego and a fat wallet at the end of the day. What people? Why, rich “toxic” males who trick, drug, and rape “weak and stupid” women for their pleasure, of course! It’s another one of those movies that rely on the same tired old scenario that’s been played out time and again, but there’s an audience who still gets off on seeing this stereotypical shit.
Hunt Club starts off with a less than interesting scene featuring our lead female character, Cassandra (Suvari), drunk and vulnerable in a parking lot. She’s approached by some undesirables, but before things get too crazy, she’s saved by some badass who seemingly shows up from out of nowhere. This savior we find out is named Tessa (Maya Stojan) and she becomes Cassandra’s girlfriend.
Eventually, Tessa and Cassandra wind up in the same diner as a sharp-dressed man and his good-looking son. Tessa and Cassandra get into a fight. Tessa bails, leaving her girlfriend alone and stupidly making “fuck me” eyes at the guys. They notice and ask her to join them, and she practically runs there.
She’s supposed to be a teacher, but she carries herself like a desperate bar fly. The older of the two fellas charms the pants off Cassandra and tells her his name is Carter (Casper Van Dien). He introduces her to his handsome young son Jackson (Will Peltz) and informs her that the weekend’s going to be a big one for them both because it’s going to be Jackson’s first hunt.
After a bunch of talking and not much else, Cassandra finds out about the cash reward at the end of said hunt and runs off with these two guys she’s JUST met and is all-in for whatever they want to do. Remember, she’s a mature woman who does what she wants…and she’s a teacher! So, if that’s the case, why does she keep being pervy with young Jackson? She’s old enough to be his mom.
When they arrive at the location where the hunt is supposed to take place, Hunt Club begins to fall all the way apart.
Here we meet the other players, unfortunately. Remember when Mickey Rourke was beautiful and sane? I miss those days. And they’re long gone. The London brothers make their appearance, and as other characters show up and the hunt gets underway, we see just how dumb this movie really is. Somewhere, there’s supposed to be a message of female empowerment or something, but all I cared about was whether to press fast-forward or stop.
I guess you can tell I didn’t like Hunt Club, huh? What gave it away? I’m not sure if this movie is supposed to be taken seriously, but it’s really difficult to do so. It really is a ridiculous watch. The acting is bad. The dialogue is bad. And not in a fun way. The best part is when the credits roll. You can see what you think and rent it now on Prime for $2.99.
“All irregularities will be handled by the forces controlling each dimension. Transuranic heavy elements may not be used where there is life. Medium atomic weights are available: Gold, Lead, Copper, Jet, Diamond, Radium, Sapphire, Silver and Steel. Sapphire and Steel have been assigned.” — opening narration for each episode.
When considering British time travelers, a certain chameleon-like eccentric with many faces and lives inevitably comes to mind. However, that well-known Time Lord is by no means the only such character from British TV history. Diving a bit deeper into TV lore reveals arguably the two most enigmatic beings to ever appear there…the title characters of Sapphire and Steel.
The series was not a long-running or particularly successful one, yet it definitely left an impact on those lucky enough to see it. It can be described as perhaps the most cryptic television series of all time. The title characters reveal nothing about themselves, they work for some cosmic force which is completely obscure, and their adventures are like puzzles that only have a bare minimum of clues. Questions are many and answers are few. It’s no wonder it never achieved mass popularity. But it intrigued enough people that more than 40 years on, it has amassed a sizable cult following.
Back to the Beginning
Sapphire and Steel appeared on Britain’s ITV network between 1979 and 1982. Six major storylines consisting of several episodes each ran during that period. The title characters were played by two well-known and popular actors; David McCallum played the gruff and taciturn Steel while the luminous Joanna Lumley portrayed the cool beauty, Sapphire. The series was conceived of by P.J. Hammond, who freely admitted from the outset of the show that not only would few answers to the show’s many mysteries be provided but that he himself didn’t know those answers.
So, what exactly was the show about? Put succinctly, it was about time. In the world of Sapphire and Steel, time is an all-encompassing power…but one vulnerable to attack from forces “outside” the normal confines of time. These outside forces are always seeking to invade the present and distort it. Some wish to bring the past into the present. Others delight in causing mischief and horror.
Working against these cryptic enemies is an equally cryptic force of agents: The Elements. Sapphire and Steel are two such elements. Over the course of the series, we meet a couple of others, Lead and Silver, and hear about even more. The Elements all appear to be human beings, but clearly have powers far beyond what any normal human would possess. Each has their own specialty. Steel can generate extreme cold and has superhuman strength. Sapphire can “run time back” up to 24 hours. All the Elements have the power of telepathy amongst themselves.
We never learn who the “boss” of the agents is. It could very well be God. And perhaps the Elements are his angels. It is never made clear. Sapphire and Steel simply show up at each of their assignments. We never actually see them dispatched or what/where their headquarters is. Also, it seems they are more guardians of time itself than of humanity. In fact, Steel seems to regard humans as little more than annoying insects. And although Sapphire is more sympathetic to people, she is still quite detached from them.
Ideas, Not Imagery
The show was described as science fiction but there are many elements of the supernatural. Many of the stories can be considered ghost stories that involve entities of the past intruding into the present. And those malevolent forces from outside the time stream seem to be nothing less than demons…almost Lovecraftian powers from a world beyond comprehension. The world of Sapphire and Steel is one of Great cosmic forces playing against each other, with human beings as mere pawns or observers.
Despite the cosmic theme of the show, the budget was miniscule to the point of ridiculousness. Each of the major storylines takes place in small, confined areas: an old railway station, an ancient house, a carefully restricted set of rooms used for a party. Almost no exterior shots are provided, giving each episode a very claustrophobic feel. As for special effects, these were the most minimal available. Even the “scrolling” image of the lead titles is amateurish. The result is that the show is focused on ideas, not imagery…an idea certainly foreign to many Americans who watched the show.
Assigned to Mend Time
Each of the show’s storylines were described simply as “assignments” by creator Hammond. Despite this, fans have attached their own more descriptive names to the assignments, and these have somehow stuck. The first story was “Escape Through a Crack in Time”, the second was “The Railway Station”, the third “The Creature’s Revenge” and so on.
The First Assignment
“Escape Through a Crack in Time” introduces us to Sapphire and Steel and their strange world. It takes place in a very old English house in the countryside where a family resides. The young son Robert suddenly notices the clocks…of which there are many…all stop working. Then as his young sister Helen recites old nursery rhymes, his mother and father vanish completely. As the two children try to fathom what has happened, two strangers arrive. Steel is a grim and taciturn man who immediately takes charge of the situation while his gorgeous companion Sapphire assists him. It soon becomes apparent to Robert that these two strangers are much more than they appear. The old house becomes ground zero for many ghostly appearances stretching back to when the house was a haven for refugees during the English Civil War.
This episode not only introduces us to the main characters, but also features a key idea of the series…that the past should remain in the past and that the presence of too many old or ancient things causes damage to the walls of time. We also meet another one of the Elements, the jovial big man Lead. Eventually a resolution to the time disruption is found, but to say the episode is cryptic would be a gross understatement. Future episodes would be even more enigmatic.
The Second Assignment
“The Railway Station” is even more of an overt ghost story than the first one was. It takes place completely in a deserted railway station known to be haunted. Ghost investigator George Tully has staked out the station and comes in contact with the spirit of a young soldier killed in WWI…an angry spirit who seems to be dragging the station into the past. Sapphire and Steel arrive and discover that a malevolent outside force that feeds on the resentment of those who die an early death is manipulating hauntings at the railway station. The demonic force is reluctant to give up its grip on the place and Steel is forced to make a ruthless bargain to outmaneuver that force. This episode more than any other showed Steel’s inhuman nature.
The Third Assignment
“The Creature’s Revenge” did the seemingly impossible and elevated the show’s bizarre and cryptic elements to even greater heights. The plot here is virtually indescribable. Sapphire and Steel are drawn to what seems to be an abandoned high-rise, only to find that strange time travelers from the future have established a kind of base there behind a forcefield. The people from the future are one of several teams dispatched to the past to observe people of the 20th century. But some inscrutable force has decided to attack the time travelers. It has taken their infant child and advanced him to a teenage state and also given him the power to dissolve things with a touch…including human flesh.
Very little is explicitly spelled out in this creepy and unnerving tale and Sapphire and Steel spend as much of the episode in the dark as the viewer. We also get introduced to the urbane agent Silver, who Steel detests and Sapphire apparently had some kind of prior relationship with. Ultimately, the malevolent force harassing the time travelers seems to be the spirit of all the animals murdered in the name of progress. In the future world, animals have apparently been eliminated completely, but their life force is hungry for revenge against the humans.
The Fourth Assignment
“The Man Without a Face” is regarded by many as the best of the series. It is certainly the creepiest. The agents are assigned to investigate an old building that seems to be haunted by children from the Victorian Age. The children are actually images from old Victorian photographs that have been brought to life by a sinister being that resembles a faceless man. Apparently, every photograph that has ever been taken has a bit of the life force of this diabolical entity. A researcher in the old building accidentally brought the Faceless Man fully into our world and he is happily tearing time to bits using people stolen from photos. This episode has really got some very uncomfortable images…when the Faceless Man burns a photograph, we can hear the screams of a person trapped in a building in the photo. He also has the power to put Sapphire and Steel themselves into photos. This episode is a classic of ghostly, unearthly foreboding.
Assignment Number Five
“Dr. McDee Must Die” is by far the most complex of the series and resembles a classic Agatha Christie whodunnit, only with time travel deeply embedded in the mystery. The eccentric millionaire Lord Mullrine decides to hold a party celebrating the 50th anniversary of the foundation of the company he created with Dr. George McDee, a brilliant scientist now dead for many years. The party is set in a series of rooms designed to be exactly like what they were in 1930. Once the guests arrive, they are sealed in the rooms and contact with the modern world is cut off. The only problem is, once the party starts, guests begin dying in unusual ways and the rooms really do seem to be back in 1930. The late Dr. McDee appears alive and well. Two of the party guests are none other than Sapphire and Steel, who have detected a force from outside of time causing mischief at the party. The episode throws a ton of complex ideas at viewers, and it seems every single person at the party has an ulterior motive for being there. In fact, the episode is so complex that it is very likely that a complete resolution to its many mysteries will never arrive.
No story was more frustrating than the series’ finale, “The Trap”. Not only does it set up another baffling time travel conundrum, but it ends the series on a cliffhanger that is never adequately resolved. In this one, Sapphire and Steel are drawn to a strange gas station/cafe combo where time is frozen into place. Stuck in this odd location is a couple of enigmatic strangers from the year 1948 who seem to know more than they should. Our intrepid agents learn too late that the whole set up is indeed a trap by their mysterious “boss”. It seems the “boss” is no longer satisfied with Sapphire and Steel’s performance and has set everything up as a way to remove them from action.
“The Trap” marked the end of the official Sapphire and Steel program. P.J. Hammond apparently had written the next story which would have resolved the predicament of “The Trap” and given the agents a new purpose. But that story was never filmed. To the surprise of few, the cryptic series confused many viewers and although it got a strong response, the numbers didn’t justify it continuing. McCallum and Lumley moved on to new projects and Sapphire and Steel receded into the realm of televised obscurity.
Sapphire and Steel Today
The characters did continue in a fashion after the show’s cancelation. A comic strip featuring Sapphire and Steel ran in Britain’s Look In magazine for a while. As late as 2004, there were a series of audio adventures on CD released. In the audio plays, actor David Warner played Steel and Susannah Harker portrayed Sapphire. These audio adventures were quite involved and introduced new Elements like Gold and Ruby into the stories.
There has been talk in recent years of trying to revive the series with new actors, but nothing ever came of it. Strangely enough, the show which was buried in almost total obscurity in the ‘80s and ‘90s has become more and more popular in recent years. The original episodes can now easily be found on the Tubi streaming network and DVD collections are available.
The legacy of Sapphire and Steel is in the creation of its universe that is almost totally inscrutable to ordinary humans, where time is more often than not a hostile force and great powers are playing games with it. Humans seem to be completely incidental and at the mercy of such powers, including Sapphire and Steel themselves. Again, it’s an almost Lovecraftian view of the universe. There is no lovable Dr. Who racing to the rescue of mankind here…Sapphire and Steel have no sentimental feelings for humanity and seem to approach their job of fixing time almost like glorified repairmen. It’s a cosmic viewpoint almost unique in television history and one well worth checking out if you don’t mind a bit of mystery in your TV viewing. Who knows? Perhaps one day, the enigmatic pair may return to action…
Wolf Garden is a tale about a man (Wayne David) coping with love and loss. His mental state is questionable as he’s faced with isolation, desperation, and the strange noises he keeps hearing in the dark. And what is it that he’s sliding food to under the locked door of the shed? Is something coming for him…or is he the thing to be feared?
I’m just going to jump right into this because I don’t want to take as long to get to the point as this movie does. Wolf Garden, which is not only written, directed, and produced by Wayne David, but stars him as well, is a terribly slow-burn of a werewolf film.
Normally, I can appreciate a slow-burn when the storytelling is straightforward and can hold my attention from start to finish. Unfortunately, though, I had a rather hard time paying attention to Wolf Garden despite it having only an 89-minute runtime. The movie is just so strangely uneven. It’s atmospheric and has a decent score, but the dialogue is a bit much in spots. Also, the overuse of flashbacks and the main character’s memories/hallucinations make stretches of this film terribly confusing. And once you figure out what’s going on, Wolf Garden eventually goes on to become predictable, sadly. On a happier note, if you make it to the end, it’s worth it.
I really wanted to like Wolf Garden more than I did since I’m a huge fan of werewolf films. Wayne David had a lot of good ideas and intentions with this film, but they just weren’t executed very well. The transformation scene is impressive, I just wish there had been more of it. I also enjoyed the emphasis on dark, gothic atmosphere. The movie would have been more effective had there been a simpler approach to the storytelling.
If you’re looking for something along the lines of An American Werewolf in London(1981) or The Howling (1981), Wolf Garden may not be the film for you. If you’re looking for more of a gothic, story-driven take on the werewolf lore, you can find this one streaming right now on Prime Video.
A lone drifter stumbles through the desert of the old west. Ragged and sun-beaten, Solomon (Owen Conway) looks ready to keel over and die at any moment. Upon discovering a town, he cackles with joy, believing his salvation has finally come.
But life on the frontier is hard. Explosive violence can break out at any moment. The weary townsfolk don’t seem to be interested in making life easy for Solomon. His employer, the barkeep Hagan (Robert Sprayberry), barks orders and listens little. Strange noises threaten Solomon whenever he’s alone. An unseen malevolent force seems to stalk him wherever he goes. Solomon’s salvation quickly turns to damnation as he struggles to keep his sanity in Ghost Town.
The older I get, the more I find myself attracted to the Western genre. Are they historically accurate? Rarely. Are they formulaic? Usually. And are they full of tropes and character archetypes that make a modern viewer roll their eyes? Almost always. But still, I just can’t help myself. Give me some dusty towns, six-shooters, and surly drunkards in cowboy hats and we can call that a party. Throw some horror into the mix and we can call that a genuine hootenanny.
Despite my newfound attraction to them, the horror-western is not always an easy one to pull off. While recontextualizing a well-worn horror trope within the old west can often yield some fantastic results, all too often the final product can come across as the worst of both worlds. Too redundant to be a satisfying horror movie, and too unfocused to be a satisfying western.
I hate to say it, but Ghost Town falls right into that category. As much as I was rooting for it, it just didn’t come through in the end. The biggest issue at hand is that there’s just not enough meat on these bones for a full movie. The story could maybe work as a short, but as a feature the plot is so thin you can see right through it. Based on the trailer alone you can get a pretty good idea of where this story is headed. You may not be exactly right in your prediction, but you’ll probably be in the general vicinity.
The frustrating thing is that individually, no single element of the movie is particularly bad. In addition to acting in the lead role, the film is written and directed by Owen Conway, and he does a good job of bringing the story to the screen. The setting is suitably bleak, the costumes are fantastic, and the characters are interesting. The main cast all put in strong performances, and aside from a few forays into the melodramatic, the actors do a good job of bringing their characters to life and making them feel unique.
Where the movie falters is in the script itself. The story is just too predictable, and not particularly engaging. The interesting characters tend to be pushed to the side in order to shoehorn some horror into the mix.
If anything, the horror elements are the movie’s biggest weakness. When Solomon isn’t besieged by supernatural threats, his misadventures with the locals have a peculiar, off-kilter charm. Between the drunk Ezekiel (Nathaniel Burns) continually sleeping in the outhouse, and the cantankerous Hagan admonishing Solomon for speaking rudely around “the whores”, there’s an awkward, almost David-Lynch-like sense of humor that is never truly taken advantage of.
The sequences that are genuinely unnerving are introduced for only a moment and then quickly abandoned. A brief flashback presents a moment in Solomon’s life when he made ends meet as a photographer of the recently deceased. The imagery of the dead with eyes painted on their shut lids is suitably macabre, but for all the power that the moment could have, the movie never does anything with it.
In the end, Ghost Town would be better suited if it didn’t try to be horror at all. There’s a wide range of unsettling and darkly humorous moments presented throughout the course of the film, but its insistence on focusing on the scary noises and distorted faces completely undermines what would otherwise be an interesting study of life in the old west.
If you’re like me, and you just can’t get enough western horror, go ahead and give Ghost Town a watch. It’s decently shot and acted, and it has a couple of interesting moments. Just don’t expect it to blow your boots off.
Here’s a question for you: What do you get when you take Get Out (2017) and mix it with Frankenstein (1931) and toss in a bit of The Island of Dr. Moreau (1996)—yeah, that one? The answer would be The Welder co-written by David Liz and Manuel Delgadillo and directed by Liz. This weird story takes place in the middle of nowhere, which is the perfect setting for the bizarre things that a troubled couple encounters while trying to find a bit of rest and relaxation.
Essentially, The Welder is about Eliza (Camila Rodriguez) and her boyfriend Roe (Roe Dunkley). Eliza is a former military nurse who suffers from PTSD and sleepwalking among other things that make her life difficult. So, being the loving boyfriend, Roe suggests they take a relaxing weekend out of town at a ranch (because he remembers that he used to like spending time with horses and whatnot when he was a kid).
Anyway, he finds a lovely ranch online and, surprisingly, he books it super easily. Within seconds he gets a reservation. Weird, right?
After Eliza tells Roe she wants to talk with her mom, he makes fun of her for always wanting to talk to her mother about everything, and blah, blah, blah. You’ll find these characters’ relationship annoying because Eliza seems a bit too clingy, and Roe seems to enjoy it. We see more of how unhealthy and unstable their relationship is as the movie goes on.
Once Roe and Eliza make it to their getaway destination, things really take a wrong turn. For one, the destination is really out in the middle of nowhere and nothing looks like it did online. But these two just stupidly ignore all the red flags that are so obviously waving right in front of their faces. Once they meet their host and landlord of the property, William Godwin (Vincent DePaul), things get even more bizarre. For instance, the electricity in their room goes out, so they can’t charge their phones. Also, Eliza and Roe notice that William isn’t fond of the fact that they’re a mixed-race couple….
While the first half of The Welder is slow, Eliza and Roe eventually discover that Mr. Godwin is indeed The Welder and his reason for doing the horrible things he’s done—and continues to do—is to end racism. I mean, right on! It’s a noble cause. But his way of going about it is a bit…extreme? Anyway, after the big reveal there’s a gory climax that goes on for a good while between Eliza, “Dr. Godenstein” and a couple…things? I won’t ruin it for you, but I will let you know that the ending of The Welder is predictable.
So, is this movie worth a watch? I obviously didn’t care for it, but if you want to give it a chance, The Welder is currently streaming on Tubi and other platforms.
As a fan of Bryan Enk’s work for nearly fifteen years, I’ve grown accustomed to a certain atmosphere and aesthetic with his works. A master of making every penny count, Enk’s filmography is an immersive experience that has won over fans for good reason. An aficionado of the genre we all love, Enk rarely will shock you with a jump scare, and gratuitous gore is never on the shot-list. It’s all about the paranoia, dread, and heartache that comes with facing horror.
Enter Blood Daughter, Enk’s latest project and another entry of his into the Dracula pantheon. Written, produced, and directed by Mr. Enk, it’s the filmmaker’s reverence for the genre that gives this project its heartbeat. Everyone knows any good Dracula-esque story requires a shoulder-crushing weight of loneliness and loss. Blood Daughter delivers in that regard.
In Blood Daughter, Jonathan Harker and Dracula are both pushing forward after the monumental loss they suffered in previous iterations of both Enk’s films and the Dracula story, determined to keep Mina’s memory alive. Here, Harker finds himself hiring women for his law firm who physically resemble his lost love. Dracula, on the other hand, has the daughter Abby (Alexandria Johnson) he shares with Mina locked away in a tower in the hope that he can protect her from what has proven to be a treacherous existence as a threat to humanity.
The movie isn’t a simple telling of Dracula’s bloodline and the carnage that ensues, rather there’s quite a bit of time spent on the village that has seen its residents plucked and brought to the blood castle to quell Abby’s thirst.
We also meet a cult called The Blood Sisters, a group consisting of both men and women, who work for the ‘Master’ (Jeff Miller) in providing Abby with her nourishment. We also get to know Inspector Claudius (Andy Hunsaker), who has lost his daughter and believes she has joined the cult.
Abby isn’t your stereotypical starving vamp, though. She’s struggling mentally, and that is portrayed nicely in the film as inner dialogue. It’s easy to feel for a child born into a vicious cycle of bloodshed and torture and I feel like the film ends strongly from a story-telling standpoint.
Overall, the film is about the curse that Dracula has befallen a whole new generation of victims. It can be difficult to tell a story under the shadow of the classic horror character without leaning on crutches and nods to previously done fanfare, but Enk does a good job of constructing a story that stands up on its own.
What I like most about this film is the fever dream quality it has. That’s pretty typical with independent films, all things considered, but it’s not a pitfall here for Enk. It’s a turbine engine that keeps things moving forward. Most importantly, it keeps the spirit of the Dracula terror intact.
Another aspect I really loved about the film is something I learned after viewing. The two images that played such a big visual part in Blood Daughter are shots from two college films Enk made back in the early 1990s. Appropriately titled Dracula and Dracula Returns, the nostalgia is a great personal nod from Enk. Most importantly, it works great here and isn’t simply self-indulgence. Enk has dipped his wooden stake into the Dracula mythos numerous times in between those first VHS college films and his latest.
Enk takes the connections with his previous films to another level by employing Chuck Johnson as Van Helsing, some thirty years after he originally played the character in those Bowling Green flicks. Keeping things in the family, Abby is played by Johnson’s real-life daughter.
All of Enk’s films hit the mark visually, and Blood Daughter’s use of color is a major character in this storytelling experience. The black and white sequences and shots shrouded in endless shadow respect the mood of the source material.
For all the positives that Enk brings behind the scenes to the forefront, I was fairly disappointed in the quality of acting here. Storytelling being such a strength of Enk’s, it’s imperative that his films relay that story effectively and I didn’t feel like this one hit the mark. A rare miss but a glaring one, unfortunately. That’s no personal knock on anyone cast in the film—it’s extremely difficult to cast an indie film and everyone here did their best work. But at the end of the day, a film is tasked with telling a story and this one would have hit harder and left a lasting effect on audiences more if there was a bit more firepower in front of the camera. Honestly, I think this project would have made for a great novella considering the strengths of the story.
All in all, Blood Daughter is a satisfying installment in Enk’s vampiric canon.