Directed by: Gregg Bishop
Run time: 82 minutes
The Lowdown: In 2012, Brad Miska, the originator of the popular horror website Bloody Disgusting.com, conceived of a way to reinvigorate the horror anthology, a mixed-bag subgenre defined by more misses (Nightmares, Tales from the Hood) than genuine hits (Creepshow, Trick ‘r Treat).
He commissioned a group of talented young directors to craft a series of short films with a very specific hook – each of the films would be shot POV-style utilizing the latest technology, from Google Glass to GoPro cameras.
The result was V/H/S, and it was at once fantastic and surprisingly effective. It also spawned a franchise, resulting in one great sequel and one so-so sequel.
But what worked best in the original film stayed in the minds of fans, and one of the best – if not the best – original characters introduced in V/H/S was Lily, a sweet-faced, naïve woman with a deadly secret, who was conceived by director David Bruckner and introduced in the very first short film segment, Amateur Night. Lily terrorized a group of loathsome lotharios after being picked up at a local bar and brought back to a dingy motel-no-tell room. And the final frame of Lily, sprouting wings from her back, razor-sharp claws for fingers and an unsettling rupture of split skin down her face, hoisting the last surviving douchebag into the air and flying away, was truly memorable.
Fast forward four years, and SiREN is Lily’s official, feature-length coming out story. Stepping into Bruckner’s shoes as director is Gregg Bishop, who also worked on the V/H/S franchise and whose 2008 horror-comedy Dance of the Dead was considered one of that year’s best genre films.
This fantastic creature feature is everything fans could want. It has a group of believable, but not overbearing, friends going off on a weekend excursion to celebrate a bachelor party. It has a mysterious supernatural summoning ceremony. It has a wickedly erotic private fetish club in the middle of a graveyard bayou. And it has Lily, who we finally learn is a siren, the mythical creature of lore capable of summoning men to their doom.
Only in SiREN, Lily isn’t free to wander the world looking for prey. She has been neutralized by the charming and evil Mr. Nyx, who keeps her caged at his fetishistic boudoir in the bayou to service patrons with her supernatural aura.
Nyx is a great character and perfectly played by Justin Welborn with just the right mixture of menace and whimsy.
The group of friends, groom-to-be Jonah, his loutish brother Mac, along with buds Rand and Elliott, end up at a dive-bar strip club in South Carolina where they meet a mysterious guy who tells them about this secret fetish house hidden away. They follow him to Nyx’s club and what they discover is an amazing smorgasbord of bare flesh and free-flowing drinks. Then they meet Nyx and everything goes to hell, literally.
What Bishop manages to do in expanding Bruckner’s short is revelatory. Not only does he provide a plausible set-up, but the backstory and mythology presented for Lily is both rewarding and satisfying. More than that, Bishop pays particular attention to the small details, which serve to elevate SiREN well-above a blatant cash grab and transform it into a shining example of the good that can happen when a spin-off gets everything right.
Nyx’s club is by far one of the best, and much arousing, alternative fetish clubs ever put in a genre film, which usually reduces such locations to a bunch of goth kids in guyliner dancing to Bauhaus. His supernatural predilections, including the possibly-mythical creatures he employs, and particularly the leeches that he uses to absorb the best memories of patrons as payment for them getting busy with his girls, are original and unexpected.
And Lily herself gets a slight makeover in that her appearance remains true to Amateur Night with the successful addition of a tail, her siren’s song and some unique mating rituals. All the credit goes to Hannah Fierman, who portrays Lily in both films. Her brilliant, wide eyes, blank expression and seductive cooing amplify and drive home the belief that she absolutely could lure most men to an awful fate.
When Lily goes on the attack, she is a fearsome and formidable foe. And, rightfully so, when she goes on the make, and claims Jonah as her would-be baby siren daddy, she is just as fearsome with a dash of seductive temptress thrown in for good measure.
SiREN delivers the boobs, the blood and several rousing bursts of brutal violence to justify BVB’s endorsement. But it’s more than that – it’s just a truly solid horror film that doesn’t muck up its potential by trying to do too much or be something more than what it is.
In short, go seek it out, now. SiREN is currently available on most streaming Video-on-Demand platforms, as well as in limited theatrical release.
The Stuff You Care About:
Hot chicks – Hannah Fierman is creepy hot.
Nudity – Gratuitous.
Gore – Considerable.
Drug use – Yes.
Bad Guys/Killers – Mr. Nyx and his evil leeches.
Buy/Rent – Yes.
The Possession Experiment (Momentum Pictures, 84 minutes, Unrated, VOD): There’s a small, but growing, number of recent horror films that seem to be mining the rules-be-damned spirit that infused many of the classic Italian horror movies in the late 1970s and early ‘80s.
You know, the types of movies where anything and everything could happen without reason. Films that were wildly unpredictable and defied traditional classification.
Recent examples of U.S. releases would be Uncaged, the werewolf coming-of-age/blackspoitation/should-be cult classic from earlier this year, and now The Possession Experiment, the debut feature from co-writer/director Scott B. Hansen.
These movies spit in the eye of conventional genre expectations by mashing together a slew of potentially disparate styles and gleefully diving down different rabbit holes to see what surprises might lurk below.
Uncaged told the story of a young man who begins to learn about his lycanthrope lineage at a particularly awkward time as he’s about to enter adulthood. But then it also includes several over-the-top sequences featuring a black wannabe-gangster, a dinner party from hell, a secret covert werewolf special forces team, a love story and a prolonged subplot about two best friends who become mortal enemies. It’s as ridiculous as it is ambitious, but that’s what makes it so enjoyable.
The Possession Experiment follows a similar path. Cobbling from found footage, the slasher genre and a host of demonic exorcist flicks, it creates something wholly unique.
For one, The Possession Experiment starts where most traditional demonic possession movies end, with a rousing exorcism that goes bad in a hurry. What it lacks in pea soup, it more than makes up for with solid practical effects and impressive wire work in allowing a possessed woman to levitate and flail. It also showcases Bill Moseley in a rare turn as a good-guy priest instead of the maniacal bad guy killer.
From there, the film segues into a more traditional story, albeit briefly, about a college student, Brandon, who devises a plan to research a local urban legend about a house where a woman died during an exorcism (which is the opening segment) and then go to the house with a camera crew and a mystic and basically allow himself to be possessed on camera (hence, the experiment) to prove the existence of evil. Naturally, he recruits a stoner to be his camera man, which introduces some awkward humor, and a gorgeous co-ed applies to be his med tech during the possession, so you know she’s the love interest.
And then things get really weird. Brandon creates a GoFundMe campaign to finance his possession, which is a nice topical play on current technology and digital interaction. And the attention he receives from his online fundraiser introduces us to his parents, who are none too happy. The possession experiment itself is a blast as Dixon and Hansen pull out all the stops, employing expected tropes (slamming doors, flying objects, flickering lights) and a few new tricks (specifically the Ouija board equivalent of the Necronomicon).
By this point, The Possession Experiment is only halfway through its brief runtime. A lot has happened, but there’s so much more to go.
Suffice to say, the experiment has consequences. An evil force is unleashed. Online supporters of Brandon’s effort, desperate for more footage, get way more than they bargained for as viral possessions start to run rampant. There’s a crazy subplot introduced just past the midpoint about Brandon’s birth parents and possible ties back to the house where the opening exorcism failed. And then The Possession Experiment goes full-on slasher mode for a bit with people being gorily dispatched, jaw bones being torn asunder and all kinds of unexpected bloody mayhem.
Following a slew of similar-themed movies in recent years, coupled with the reimagining of The Exorcist on network television as a weekly serial, the demonic possession genre had begun to feel as stale as vampires and zombies. Many of the films followed a specific formula, and most of the ones that utilized found footage were a complete waste.
It's exciting then to discover a director (Hansen) and writer (Dixon) who seem to understand the failings and shortcomings that have plagued this specific genre category, and watch them bravely fly in the face of expectation by flipping the script and trying something fresh and inventive.
The Possession Experiment isn’t the best horror movie you’ve ever seen, but it is fun and rewarding in ways that most horror films aren’t of late. Some of the acting borders on camp, some of the subplots border on silly, but in the end, it doesn’t matter. You just switch your critical brain off and enjoy.
All hail the new school of horror – the fearless, the funky, the fun.
As a fan, there’s really not much more to be asked.
The Possession Experiment is currently available on most streaming Video-on-Demand platforms, as well as in limited theatrical release.
The Devil’s Dolls (Shout! Factory, 85 minutes, Unrated, Blu-Ray): Here’s a pro tip – if you plan on watching The Devil’s Dolls, you can, but only up until the title card appears. Then you should hit eject. That’s the best part of the movie. Yep, we’re talking maybe 10, possibly 14 minutes, and then the whole thing just falls apart. But those first few minutes are inspired and bloody and enough of a sad tantalizing tease that should you get sucked in, you will be very, very angry by the time the final credits roll.
Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer – 30th Anniversary Edition (Dark Sky Films, 82 minutes, Unrated, Blu-Ray): One of the best horror films ever made gets a grand 30th anniversary, high-definition release. For more on Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, check out BVB's A Conversation With John McNaughton.
Jason Bourne (Universal, 123 minutes, PG-13, Blu-Ray): The fourth (not counting the spin-off, The Bourne Legacy) film in the Robert Ludlum franchise is not the best outing for superspy Jason Bourne, and it’s a tepid return engagement for star Matt Damon and director Paul Greengrass to a film series that helped reinvigorate action movies and spy movies altogether. The reasons why are plentiful, but for sake of brevity, let’s just say this is a movie about the U.S.’s best covert operatives where those operatives do so many ridiculous, unrealistic things with technology – particularly hacking top-secret documents and disabling computer systems, etc. – that you simply go numb after a while.
If There’s a Hell Below (Dark Sky Films, 94 minutes, Unrated, DVD): It’s probably unfair to judge director Nathan Williams’ first feature through the perspective of a former long-time newspaper journalist, but it’s also difficult not to do just that.
If There’s a Hell Below is a timely, topical examination of life post-Edward Snowden as the United States prepares to enter its most uncertain political term in modern history.
The central thrust is that a young reporter, Abe (Conner Marx), who works for an alternative news weekly in Chicago, is meeting his very own Deep Throat in a very rural stretch of eastern Washington state. This whistleblower, Debra (Carol Roscoe), works deep inside the U.S. government and she has information – viewers are never told what exactly – that is considered very confidential and potentially very dangerous.
A good chunk of the film involves the back and forth between Abe and Debra in trying to establish trust and find a secluded spot somewhere free from recording devices and spying eyes for Debra to present Abe with her information.
If There’s a Hell Below drips with paranoia and suspicion, and for good reason, as viewers eventually learn. But getting to the good stuff requires some patience, especially for anyone who has ever worked as a professional reporter. The character of Abe doesn’t talk or act like a real reporter, and his skeptical responses and dismissive reaction to the requests for secrecy and the undeniable unease and disquiet that Debra voices to him rings false for a while.
Putting professional experience and bias aside, there is much to appreciate about Williams’ debut, which he co-wrote with his brother, Matthew. Williams takes risks and utilizes creative camera angles to keep the first two acts of the film from meandering while he establishes his small cast of characters. Once he introduces his other two players, a pair of menacing government contractors, things start to percolate and momentum builds.
Williams also makes a bold decision in the third act to abandon Abe and Debra entirely, which allows him to present a lengthy metaphor – one that could easily be applied to the current state of world affairs, personal privacy and government oppression – that resonates well past the final twist and the credits roll.
As first features go, If There’s a Hell Below is both confident and confounding, but it holds definite promise and should place Williams on a short list of young directors working today whose next feature should be eagerly anticipated to see just what he comes up with next.
I Am Bolt
The T.A.M.I. Show/The Big T.N.T. Show Collector’s Edition
The Secret Life of Pets
Howard’s End:25th Anniversary 4K Restoration
The Shannara Chronicles: Season One
The Great Gilly Hopkins
Don’t Think Twice
Call of Heroes
Dead Rising: Endgame
Braindead: Season One
In Order of Disappearance