To the surprise of no well-versed viewer of horror, The Houses October Built refers to the “haunted” variety — in particular, those ramshackle attractions that spring up nationwide in the weeks leading to Halloween, then shutter their makeshift doors until next fall. Houses, however, is no documentary, although it started life that way in its original 2011 incarnation of the same name. Now, that scrappy project has been restructured as a mockumentary, getting slathered with a heavy coat of the found-footage craze in the process.
The story seems tailor-made for that approach, slim as it is: Five friends spend five days in an RV, going from town to town to take in the best haunts the season has to offer. Because they’ve brought a camera, it’s like we’re in the actual spook-shack halls with them: It’s tough to see and not as much fun once you’re inside. They also hit up more inventive entertainment experiences, from shooting paintballs at zombies to patronizing strip clubs where the dancers don masks (not a bad idea, based on the bethonged I’ve seen IRL).
And that’s about it, until this ersatz Scooby-Doo gang gets the itch to track down the not-advertised, not-on-the-map “underground haunt” that’s rumored to make its visitors shart their britches in terror. The question of whether they’ll make it out alive is answered in Houses’ opening minute, so don’t enter this one in search of suspense; the exercise is more about being jolted by SUDDEN! LOUD! NOISES! than any skillful building of tension. While unremarkable and anticlimactic, its mix of fact and fiction makes for a decent time-waster.
The Houses October Built is directed by Bobby Roe, one of the aforementioned five haunt-hunters, all of whom we can assume are playing themselves since they go by their real first names and, lest ye already forgot, much of the 91 minutes comes cobbled from its humble documentary beginnings. (If you can find it, the Best Buy-only Blu-ray contains the full doc as a bonus feature.) Bubbly Brandy Schaefer is our token female and, comparatively speaking, the voice of reason among fellow travelers Mikey Roe, Jeff Larson and Zack Andrews, because there’s always a Zack. (What, no Chad?) —Rod Lott
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After delivering a few sharp efforts right out of the gate, writer/director Kevin Smith became as lax, predictable and increasingly off-putting as those hockey jerseys he wears like a uniform. For more than a decade, the bar for his movies has been set awfully low, yet along comes the bonkers Tusk to clear it with air to spare. Accounting for much of its success is that, as with 2011’s Red State, Tusk bears next to none of that Kevin Smith feel — one of pot worship, infantile humor and fanboy-pandering in-jokes.
Ironically, Tusk’s most Smith-y element can be found in the arrogant, immature, insensitive lead character. He’s Wallace (Justin Long, Drag Me to Hell), a podcaster with a porn ’stache who makes bank by tracking down and interviewing weirdos. His latest target to exploit takes him o’er the border to Canada, until an unforeseen turn of events leaves Wallace high and dry and desperate for content.
One plot-convenient urination in a bar bathroom later, he’s pissed himself into a lucky break by learning via handbill of local retired seaman Howard Howe (Michael Parks, Django Unchained), a crusty coot who has many weird tales to share about his ocean voyages of yesteryear. Wallace takes the bait … and a cup of drugged tea, waking up to learn Howard’s true intentions: to turn him into a walrus. Let the body horror begin!
Tusk is essentially Smith’s entry in the Human Centipede sweepstakes, yet explicitly a comedy. And with Parks chewing the scenery and a surprise A-lister all but unrecognizable as an Inspector Clouseau type, it is funny … just not to all tastes; dark humor rarely is, which is why it’s so often misunderstood. While the film shows seams of padding in its expansion from a literal joke in Smith’s own podcast to a lark of a feature, it’s the scenes between those seams that count, and Tusk has several you not only haven’t seen before, but won’t be able to unsee ever. Not that I would try, given the flick’s unexpectedly high repeatability factor. —Rod Lott
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Truth is, every hopeless film addict has a story like comedian/actor Patton Oswalt shares in Silver Screen Fiend. The difference is we’re not famous, so who wants to hear it?
Okay, okay, so Oswalt’s knack for making an anecdote as compelling as it comedic may have something to do with it, too.
Because of this, anyone who has experienced the near-orgasmic, adrenaline rush (don’t deny it) of a movie projector flickering to life as the lights fade away — along with your disbelief — will find themselves in lockstep with a kindred spirit …
An alternate title for The Psycho Lover is The Loving Touch — one über-creepy appellation for a movie about a serial rapist whose on-the-job face is smashed underneath a heavy layer of pantyhose.
That felonious fellow is Marco (Frank Cuva, Game Show Models), who has trouble distinguishing his fantasies from reality. Meanwhile, motorboat enthusiast (in more ways than one) and psychiatrist Dr. Kenneth Alden (Lawrence Montaigne, The Great Escape) wishes his fantasies were reality, because he’d like to shack up with his mistress, but his cock-blockin’ crone of a wife (Jo Anne Meredith, J.D.’s Revenge) refuses to grant him a divorce. That chaps the hide and boot-shaped sideburns of Kenneth so bad that he brainwashes Marco into making Mrs. Alden his next victim.
If that sounds at all icky, reserve judgment until you see the gangly homicide lieutenant (John Vincent, The Exotic Dreams of Casanova) who looks like Edgar Allan Poe discuss his police work: “You know, Doc, I’m like the proverbial bloodhound: I can smell him in this room and the hairs on my ass stand on end every time I catch his scent.”
No matter the name it plays under, The Psycho Lover is a sexploitation thriller after my own heart. Written, directed and produced by Robert Vincent O’Neill (creator of the Angel franchise), the picture has more on its dirty mind than most programmers of the era and budgetary level. By combining Dial M for Murder with The Manchurian Candidate — not to mention Hanes’ L’eggs line — he ended up with a twisty, inventive, enjoyable slice of sleaze. —Rod Lott
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At Stonehearst Asylum, the inmates are in charge. This crucial bit of info is unbeknownst to Dr. Newgate (Jim Sturgess, Cloud Atlas) when he arrives for training at the remote mountain institution, but hindsight might finger that cuckoo clock in his boss’ office as an eerie, aural clue. The joke practically writes itself. (Same goes for when the opening credits reveal Mel Gibson as a producer.)
Fetching pianist-cum-patient Eliza Graves (Kate Beckinsale, Underworld: Awakening) warns Newgate to leave the foggy grounds posthaste, but the young physician pays no heed to her admonition until it’s too damn late. Before long, he learns Stonehearst’s true staffers (Michael Caine among them) are locked in cages at the behest of the aforementioned “boss,” the insane-in-the-membrane Silas Lamb (Ben Kingsley, Iron Man 3).
Oh, and there’s also an ogre.
Much more than Kingsley’s presence will remind viewers of Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island, as this exercise in Gothic trappings plays like a prequel — think Shutter Island: Ye Early Years. Like that 2010 thriller, Stonehearst Asylum comes well-crafted, yet deeply flawed. Based on Edgar Allan Poe’s (very) short story “The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether,” the film is largely inert despite sumptuous visuals and the confident hand of director Brad Anderson (The Call).
On the basis of his exquisite, highly recommended 2004 novel, the 1920s-set and similarly themed Inamorata, screenwriter Joe Gangemi would seem to be the ideal adapter of Poe’s material; unfortunately, the work is long-winded and gaseous without becoming offensive. Such an upward climb is its pacing that I gave Stonehearst three separate tries to hook me, yet I admitted defeat in that final run, throwing in the towel with one-fifth left to go. Shorn of some curlicue story turns, the film would feel far more spry, perhaps “within two shakes of a whore’s tail.” —Rod Lott
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