2015 Movies

Midnight Special 

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Midnight Special (2015) – Drama | Science Fiction 

Directed by: Jeff Nichols 

Starring: Michael Shannon and Joel Edgerton 

How I Watched: Amazon Instant Video

Jeff Nichols makes a habit out of taking his viewers into a different dimension. Take Shelter lifted Michael Shannon into an otherworldly acting status and Mud further solidified this decade’s Matthew McConaughey dominance. In both of those films, it was easy to get completely absorbed into the stories. His characters, often seemingly simple people, can be frustrating, yet immensely likable. Shannon is fighting paranoid schizophrenia in Take Shelter, stricken with visions of an imminent worldwide storm threatening his family’s safety. In Mud, McConaughey quite literally takes shelter in the forest on an island in Arkansas. While both stories stay grounded, there are times in each which border on the unbelievable. I don’t want to say this film is unbelievable, but Nichols definitely has jumped into another genre with this effort.

Midnight Special tells the story of a young child with extraordinary powers and his father (played brilliantly by Nichols alum, Michael Shannon) who does everything he can to protect his son from all those who threaten his existence. From the beginning, the film is exciting, unnerving and incredibly mysterious as it ramps up toward the heart of the movie. There’s a creepy religious cult, car chases, shit crashing to earth from space and some breathtaking CGI that is refreshingly done right in today’s world of graphic overabundance. While it might not reach the emotional levels that Nichols’ previous two offers do, Midnight Special has earned its place in the world of modern Science Fiction.

The film’s ensemble is one of the most impressive elements of Midnight Special. Joel Edgerton shines as Shannon’s old friend, driving and protecting the father and son throughout the film. Adam Driver is not a huge part of the movie, yet provides some of the little humor that pops up. Kirsten Dunst makes an appearance, which seems questionable at first, until I remembered when she rocked the hell out of the transcendent Melancholia. This is not quite the emotional rollercoaster that Melancholia is, but it’s easy to compare elements of the two. I get annoyed by child actors quite often, but Jaeden Lieberher does a great job as Alton, the film’s focus as the young boy with supernatural abilities. Whenever I see Sam Shepard’s name in the credits, I know I’m in for a treat. He does not let down in Midnight Special, as the leader of the cult. His character is unsettling, and walks the tightrope that begs both empathy and hate.

As I mentioned previously, Jeff Nichols has a knack for creating his own worlds. Like Steven Spielberg, you know when you’re watching one of his movies. David Wingo (who has worked with Nichols on all three of his features) and his music in the film, oppressively drones at your emotions, only ramping up when the action does. The beginning of Midnight Special is strange, but delivers an important sense of wonder, much like Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Not much is said for quite a while and we as the viewers are left wondering where the story might move next. Little by little, the story comes together and is pieced together much like a 1980’s sci-fi flick (ala Spielberg) would be. Nichols ultimately abandons his typical penchant for leaving us suspended by the time the film comes to an end, but it still leaves enough to probably require a second viewing.

Midnight Special is the ultimate display of just how much Nichols is capable of with the appropriate budget. With more than three times the amount of money he was given to make Take Shelter, Nichols created a golden Science Fiction film that does not forget to keep the human element an active part of the story. While I feel it does not quite reach the level of Take Shelter and MudMidnight Special is a spectacular visual treat that lovingly takes from exciting sci-fi of yesteryear. If you haven’t yet experienced Jeff Nichols’ cinematic worlds, do yourself a huge favor and soak all of these in.

Final Score: 3.5/4

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Similar Films: Melancholia, Take Shelter, Close Encounters of the Third Kind

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We Are Still Here

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We Are Still Here (2015) – Horror | Drama

Directed by: Ted Geoghegan

Starring: Barbara Crampton and Andrew Sensenig

How I Watched: Blu-Ray

Best Line: “You’re not leaving here. You stay, you satisfy the darkness.”

A good haunted house movie is defined by the house itself. It has to use the house in a way that it stands as its own character, impacting the story in a way that you, as the viewer, do not want to be in that house. It has become a difficult feat in modern horror cinema, something that was taken to heart back in the 1970’s. The Shining and The Exorcist both used their surroundings to scare the living hell out of their audiences and first-time director Ted Geoghegan knows this well.

We Are Still Here‘s house is a prime example of how to use the setting as an effective character. The movie begins with the characters driving up to the house and then shots of the lonely rooms inside of its antiquated shell. Each great shot is dripping with dread and it really does not let up from these first few moments for the rest of the film. Setting this in the 1970’s was extremely effective as well. The absence of cell phones in We Are Still Here plays a big part in this story and I think Geoghegan knew this when he wrote it.

The cast is not especially incredible but it does not really need to be. Barbara Crampton plays the grieving and ever-optimistic mother role pretty well, carrying a few scenes that really needed a convincing performance. Andrew Sensinig does a convincing enough job as her husband and Lisa Marie plays a pretty damn good hippie with self-professed mental gifts. Monte Markham has a particularly good turn as the film’s menacing antihero, growling his way through some pretty dark scenes.

We Are Still Here‘s standout performance though, comes from Larry Fessenden. Evoking a stoner Jack Nicholson from The Shining, Fessenden grabs the screen from his first appearance as Jacob Lewis, husband of Lisa Marie’s bohemian telepath. He seems immediately lovable, providing the film with its first hints of levity from the opening credits. His ultimate scene though, is one of the most intense in the movie, reminiscent of The Exorcist at its most extreme. This scene will cause you to grit your teeth and sink into the safety of your couch and was really the standout of the film, for me at least.

Though We Are Still Here is set in the 70’s, the movie feels like it was filmed in that decade as well. It seems purposely low budget, not dirty, but not very polished. Scenes are awash in a sea of grey and earthy tones, making the red in the especially gory scenes stand out that much more. CGI is used sparingly, Geoghegan springing instead for physically acted frights. There are not many jump scares to speak of and darkness is used cleverly by the film’s cinematographer. The score is not overbearing and its electronic elements remind me a lot of Fulci’s films, as well as Romero’s Dawn of the Dead.

I think why I enjoyed this movie so much was due to how they used the house. One of the most repeated quotes by multiple characters in We Are Still Here is, “This house needs a family,” suggesting ultimately, that the house itself is an active character. This idea has frightened me since I saw The Shining for the first time, imagining that an inanimate object can bend the will of humans. It gives me shudders and this film carries this idea out masterfully.

We Are Still Here definitely isn’t perfect. It precariously rides the fine line between B-Horror throwback and haunted house hall of fame. Some may understandably find the low budget schlock angle off-putting and even a bit silly. What the film lacks in polish though, it returns in a deliciously vicious mountain of dread. It takes quite a bit of love and dedication to make a haunted house movie this well, and to learn that this is director Ted Geoghegan’s debut is very impressive. I really can’t wait to see what he has for us next.

Final Score: 3.5/4

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Similar Films: The Innkeepers, The Evil Dead, The Shining

Deadpool

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Deadpool (2015) – Action | Comedy

Directed by: Tim Miller

Starring: Ryan Reynolds and T.J. Miller

How I Watched: Amazon Instant Video

Best Line: “I had another Liam Neeson nightmare. I kidnapped his daughter and he just wasn’t having it. They made three of those movies. At some point you have to wonder if he’s just a bad parent.”

(I’m going to start this out by telling you that I have next to no familiarity with Deadpool and the universe surrounding him in the comic books. I sincerely apologize if I make any blasphemous misinterpretations or assumptions in the following review.)

Hollywood took a risk here. Allowing the X-Men franchise to stray into the world of violent rated R films was not without the potential hazard of being dead on arrival. Middle America is stuffy and boring and for some reason, Hollywood makes most of their choices to appease these pastor-driven zombies. I mainly drift toward independent film to avoid this, so when I heard “Marvel is making a Rated R action comedy,” my eyes and ears definitely perked up.

Ryan Reynolds hasn’t exactly had it easy since Green Lantern shit the bed in 2011. With movies like R.I.P.DThe Woman in Gold, and Self/less coming out and causing everyone to scratch their heads, you couldn’t help but wonder if it was over for him. Deadpool is more than enough to get his career back on track, though. In the movie, you get a sort of Van Wilder on a cocaine binge. His one-liners fly out of his mouth at a rapid pace and laughing at one might cause you to miss the next. He’s not afraid to make fun of himself either. There are at least a couple references to his last attempt at superhero stardom.

The other cast is unfortunately pretty underwhelming. T.J. Miller is funny as a bar owner and Wilson’s friend, but everyone else just seems to be there. The film’s antagonist is a British dude doing a Jason Statham impression and seems to really ride Reynolds’ wave throughout. Thinking about it now, though, this may have been the intention. Reynolds easily carries each scene, whether he is in the suit or casting jokes in his hamburger-like skinjob.

While Deadpool doesn’t exactly showcase a budget that its X-Men counterparts would receive, it makes the most of what it has. The script is fragmented in a way that allows those unfamiliar with the story to follow along without actually focusing too much on Deadpool’s origin. Superhero movies fall into the ‘origin story’ trap far too often (ahem, Spiderman, cough, cough) and it was nice to see it presented a different way. I realize that Reynolds was introduced in X-Men Origins: Wolverine as Wade Wilson and Deadpool, but it really doesn’t feel like those are connected at all once you watch this movie.

Maybe I was a little spoiled by violent action comedies like Kick-Ass and Kingsman, but I was prepared for a little more insanity that there actually was in Deadpool. Don’t get me wrong, right from the hilarious credit sequence, the movie is pretty nuts. Think Guardians of the Galaxy, but with stripclubs and George Carlin’s seven words you can’t say. From the way people were talking about Deadpool though, I was expecting to have my mind blown. Dredd and Punisher: War Zone both featured an unbelievable amount of jaw-dropping bloodshed, and even Netflix’s series Daredevil went off the handle once in a while. Deadpool has its fair share of R-rated insanity, but I felt like they could have gone crazier.

This was the perfect way for Marvel and Fox to dip their feet in the adult-aimed, superhero water. Grab a star that is self-aware that his last attempt at being a superhero hit a wall full of broken lanterns and let him run wild as a swearing, murdering jester in a red suit for an hour and a half. Like I said before, this could have exploded in their faces, but honestly, most everything works in Deadpool. It’s funny, pretty damn violent, and gives hope to a franchise that really, could have used this shot of coffee in its arm. If you haven’t already, check it out. If you have, watch it again. I’m sure like me, you missed a bit when you were laughing.

Final Score: 3.5/4

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Similar Films: Kick-Ass, Kingsman: The Secret Service, Guardians of the Galaxy

Crimson Peak

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Crimson Peak (2015) – Horror | Drama

Directed by: Guillermo Del Toro

Starring: Mia Wasikowska and Tom Hiddleston

How I Watched: Amazon Instant Video

Best Line: “A house as old as this one becomes, in time, a living thing. It starts holding onto things. Keeping them alive when they shouldn’t be.”

Let me begin by warning you that this movie is not scary in the way that you’d expect an R-rated haunted house flick directed by Guillermo Del Toro to be. Crimson Peak is at times, uncomfortably frightening but it just manages to avoid terrifying you into oblivion. Its story instead grows increasingly insidious as it progresses and is almost surgical in its mental burrowing of the viewer. What it will not do however, is cripple you into fear like some scenes in The Conjuring or The ExorcistCrimson Peak is a classically well-told ghost story built upon the back of a Victorian era love affair.

Those of you that are now planning to avoid this one due to the words, “Victorian era love affair,” hey, I don’t blame you. From the trailers, I could tell that this one was possibly more Jane Eyre than Del Toro’s exceedingly brutal Pan’s Labyrinth or The Devil’s Backbone. When all is said and done though, trust me, it works. Fear not, thy testosterone. There’s enough tense moments in Crimson Peak to get at least a couple nods out of even the most jaded Horror film aficionado.

If you’re familiar with Del Toro’s track record, you know he’s made some pretty solid films. Including the two mentioned above, he’s credited with the insane Cronos, the Hellboy series and Pacific Rim. Sure, Mimic and Blade II weren’t exactly Citizen Kane, but c’mon. Everybody is allowed to slip up once in a while. While The Devil’s Backbone is his only other true ghost story, there were plenty of horrifying scenes in Pan’s Labyrinth, as well as movies he helped produce like The Orphanage and Mama, so I was not worried that he could handle the task of scaring us again.

For a little background on the film itself, the story features a young American writer that is swept off her feet by a mysterious entrepreneur that lives in a haunted British estate. For a bit, I felt the movie was going to be like 2012’s The Woman in Black. English accents swept over the lines and it started to seem as it was going to be a costume-themed period piece, until it really began to pick up once the story moved to this British estate. Those that have picked up on it might have already realized that the estate is called ‘Crimson Peak.’ I won’t tell you why but really, the more I think about it, the stranger this story gets.

The cast in Crimson Peak is pretty good, but it’s not exactly something to write home about. I was a bit disappointed that Del Toro didn’t manage to slip stalwart Ron Perlman anywhere in the movie, but hey, Doug Jones made it in so I guess I can forgive the man. Leads Wasikowska and Hiddleston do enough the keep the story going, but I really think this one belongs to Jessica Chastain. Del Toro is famous for his absolutely stone cold, evil villains and Chastain does not break this chain. It’s pretty refreshing to see her play a character that is not emotionally or morally confounded in a muddled thriller and she definitely steals the show from the rest of the cast.

As I mentioned above, this movie isn’t going to turn your blood cold. A few scenes will have you gripping the arms of the couch (if you’re in the right mood), but honestly, Crimson Peak is just more of a really cool movie. The cinematography is absolutely stunning and though I felt Guillermo was a bit liberal with some of the CGI effects, it was not enough to take away from the tale itself. Del Toro weaves his story intricately with those scares and avoids the easy jump-frights that a good number of recent horror films are guilty of. He instead takes the opportunity to build the terror like a layered cake, until those final few moments when he knows he has you roped in and invested in the storyline.

Final Score: 3.5/4

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Similar Films: The Others, The Devil’s Backbone, The Shining

Black Mass

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Black Mass (2015) – Gangster | Drama

Directed by: Scott Cooper

Starring: Johnny Depp and Joel Edgerton

How I Watched: Amazon Instant Video

Best Line: “The last thing I would do if I was planning to harm you is to warn you in advance, you dumb fuck.”

One of the most polarizing genres of film is the gangster movie. Loyalists often argue the merits behind the Godfather films and compare those with the absolute perfection of GoodFellas. Personally, I love the first two of the Godfather trilogy and GoodFellas about just as much as the other (admit it, you watch GoodFellas every time you happen upon it clicking through channels). A good gangster flick is just perfect sometimes. While Black Mass can’t really be placed in this higher echelon, it is still a damn good time and may even take its own place as time goes on.

Scott Cooper has only directed two movies previous to Black Mass. Those that saw Jeff Bridges in Crazy Heart (for which he won an Oscar) know a bit of what to expect out of a Cooper film; it’s going to be dark, dirty, a bit depressing and there’s going to be some pretty cool music. 2013’s critically under-appreciated (in my opinion) Out of the Furnace continued this trend, but turned those elements up to the max. Woody Harrelson is especially disgusting and I felt like there was definitely a lot more that we were going to get out of Cooper.

Then the trailer for Black Mass hit. Cooper traded the country music and Appalachian meth dealers in for 1970’s Boston gangsterland. Johnny Depp looked like he fell out of a Tim Burton nightmare and I honestly thought it looked too much like The Departed. The more I watched it though, the more I was intrigued. When I learned more about the supporting cast (including Benedict Cumberbatch, Joel Edgerton, Peter Sarsgaard, etc.), I knew I had to check this one out.

Let’s start with what is great about this movie. I love The Departed. The accents, the cast, the crazy ending; all are great about that film. One thing I’ve noticed as time goes on though, is that it feels too chaotic, almost disjointed in its storytelling. Scorcese does some frantic cuts and at times, it’s difficult to keep up, but I think that’s also what makes his movies as exciting as they are. Black Mass, like The Departed is based in Boston, but it spans over a few decades. It does not take the same approach and really paces itself in its build-up of Johnny Depp’s character, Whitey Bulger.

This is important, because I really believe this character is one of the chameleon-esque Depp’s best. From the moment his face appears, it’s clear that this is not going to be the kooky Depp we so often get. This is a character that can stand on its own in the gangster canon, including the Vic Vega’s, the Tommy DeVito’s, the Michael Corleone’s. Depp’s Bulger is downright frightening, and his presence steals every scene in this film.

Something that I felt the movie was missing though, was just a little bit more to the story to make it more exciting. I don’t want to say it lags in the middle, but there was a definite change of tone from where the film started. If you can handle changes like this in movies, you’ll be just fine and appreciate Cooper trying to tell a story, but I could see how some would check out at this point.

There are a lot of moments in Black Mass where I felt like I did watching Out of the Furnace: Cooper is trying some really cool things. There are some awesome zoom shots in Black Mass that I wasn’t expecting and he even seems to be experimenting with some Nicolas Winding Refn-ish, neon-infused backdrops that really breathe some life into the gritty browns I’ve come to expect from Cooper’s films.

If you like gangster movies, you’re probably going to like this one. There’s great one-liners, it’s bloody as hell at times, and it’s got some great characters. It may not stand up as one of the best in the genre, but god damn, it’s worth the ticket alone for Johnny’s Depp’s Bulger.

Final Score: 3/4

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Similar Films: Killing Them Softly, Out of the Furnace, The Departed

The Revenant

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The Revenant (2015) – Drama | Action

Directed by: Alejandro Gonzalez-Inarritu

Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hardy

How I Watched: Theater

Best Line: “It turns out Jesus is a squirrel. A big fat meaty one. And I shot and ate that son of a bitch.”

This film is a monument to brutality; an absolute monster that initiates its death march in the hunt to crush your being within the first few seconds. Emmanuel “Chivo” Lubezki‘s endless sweeping shots that we are all still coming to terms with (see Children of Men, Birdman, Gravity, shit, ANYTHING by Malick in the last 10 years) are at their most devastating and vicious throughout. You know that feeling when a day is coming to an end and you just want those last few minutes of light? That’s the feeling I got here and it lasted for a very intense 156 minutes.

The Revenant is important in so many ways, but I’d like to start with some testosterone-driven reasons. This is a god damn revenge flick. Straight up, blackened, hardcore revenge. This is also a survival movie. Those of you that saw the previews for this and pictured Rambo running through the forests of First Blood or Anthony Hopkins fooling that Kodiak in The Edge will not be disappointed. I know, because I loved The Revenant like those movies, as if I was lost in that great hopeless expanse with them.

Now, I’ve also heard some remarks concerning the pacing of this film. Listen, I get it. I happened to hear the same rumblings walking out of Inarritu‘s Birdman and definitely felt this way the first time I saw his epic, Babel. This is not as much movie though, as it is an experience. Experiences on the screen are meant to pick you up out of your seat and treat you as if you are part of the story. It usually is triggered at the beginning; a slow panning shot with no credits and no dialogue. Just the slow movement of the camera, welcoming you to join. If I see this at the beginning of a movie (There Will Be Blood, holy shit) I’m in, and I’m in for the long haul. The pacing is part of that experience, no matter how long Leo scuffles through the snow in silence.

I suppose I should discuss the acting. Both DiCaprio and Hardy are phenomenal in this. If you’re expecting to see some Titanic-y Leo or ripped-up Hardy, you’re going to be let down. They look more like extras that fell in the mud on Deadwood than they do Hollywood stars. This is all part of it though.

DiCaprio grabs the screen from the beginning and just puts it in his pocket. Never have I seen him more outstanding. I really felt like he was in pain and that his quest was driven by overwhelming hatred. Which brings me to his fellow nominee, Hardy. There’s a lot of us out there that get Tom Hardy. We just get it. Not Bane Hardy. No, I’m talking about the incredibly horrifying beast in Bronson and the quiet badass in Warrior. While he’s great in this, and it’s definitely top-5 Hardy, this is Leo’s film. Hardy is really just a great complement to the whole show.

Now onto the music. God damn, the absolutely batshit score in this movie is so nuts. It does a great job ramping up the action scenes and pressing on your chest during some of the more emotional scenes, but where it really shines is in the film’s quieter moments. It’s really not fair to describe it in words, but it really felt like Twin Peaks-era Angelo Badalamenti being rearranged by a classically-trained serial cannibal confined to an asylum. This is all part of the experience.

The Revenant is not for everyone. Between the lack of female performances, the sheer intensity that does not let up, and the pacing, it’s enough to keep a lot of people away. The only spoiler I’ll give you is in the form of this recommendation. When that first shot envelops the canvas in that theater and the music softly sweeps over the crawling shot of the bubbling mountain stream, jump in. Just let it take you. You won’t be sorry.

Final Score: 4/4

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Similar Films: The Edge, The Grey, First Blood

The Hallow

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The Hallow (2015) – Horror

Directed by: Corin Hardy

Starring: Joseph Mawle and Bojana Novakovic

How I Watched: Streamed on Netflix

Best Line: “Hallow be their name / And blest be their claim / If you who trespass put down roots / Then Hallow be your name.”

Every once in a while, a movie comes along that you’ve never heard of previously and bites the living hell out of you. This is one of those. Grasping onto its predecessors in the ‘shack in the woods’ genre, The Hallow knows what its job is right from the get-go. Never taking itself too seriously, but at the same time, avoiding any laughable moments, this flick will definitely get under your skin. There’s monsters, some paranormal weirdness and some really jumpy scares. So switch off the lights and turn it up loud.

There is a blast of immediate dread when the movie begins that seems to be lacking in a lot of horror movies lately. Very often, we get the slow burn for the first hour or so, that builds into a bloody, chaotic payoff that just manages to hold the film together. That’s not the case in The Hallow. We are introduced to the characters a lot like in The Shining as an automobile is seen looping through country roads on the way to its ominous destination. Without ruining anything, a married couple with a newborn is moving from London to the Irish countryside, where the father is tasked with preparing the forest for logging. This does not make the forest or inhabitants happy, and did I mention the couple has a newborn? Ok, that’s all I’ll tell you about the plot.

A lot like Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead series, there are a number of disgusting and squishy moments that made me recoil. When I say squishy and Evil Dead in the same sentence, you probably know what I mean; revolting sounds of flesh getting smashed and the gooey crunching of various parts in monster’s teeth. There’s a lot of that in this one. But unlike Sam Raimi’s series, it’s not very funny. At all, actually.

Now, a lot of people have problems with CGI in horror movies. I am one of those people, but I understand it in moderation. The Hallow does a great job of using it when they need to. At times, you can tell the CGI would probably look ridiculous, but the creators did a great job with the lighting so that the effects don’t take center stage. This by all means is a monster movie, so there were plenty of chances for the team that filmed this to screw it up.

Those of you frightened by the creatures in The Descent or some of the fairy tale monsters in Pan’s Labyrinth need to stay away from this one. The Hallow borrows from those films and turns it up to 11. There are some absolutely jarring jump scares in this and the things causing them are anything but pleasant. Watch out, too if you’re easily affected by eye injuries on film.

I think one aspect of the film that it could have improved upon was to further explore the mythology that is behind the menacing force out in those woods. It is briefly touched on as the small town’s unspoken folklore, but there was definite opportunity to make this story as chilling as something out of Lovecraft. There is even what seems to be a direct reference to the Necronomicon in one of the scenes, which again, is not focused on enough.

Really though, this was a great film. It’s vicious in pace, storytelling and bloodletting. It does a great job of building dread, but not for so long that you anticipate the next scare. The film knows right when to surprise you. If you have surround sound, you’re in for a treat as the sound editors did a wonderful job using the rear sound field to assist in the scares. The acting was pretty good, but if you have a difficult time with English and Irish accents, you might need to flip on those subtitles. So switch those lights off and enjoy tonight’s nightmares. This one will do everything to make you feel like you shouldn’t be in the dark.

 

Final Score: 3.5/4

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Similar Films: Evil Dead (all of them), Pan’s Labyrinth, The Descent