It Stains the Sands Red
Directed by: Colin Minihan
Run time: 92 minutes
The Lowdown: Color me impressed.
It Stains the Sands Red starts off with what feels like a one-note premise, a gimmick that surely can’t sustain a feature-length film, and then, lo and behold, something truly fantastic happens.
It... finds its voice and settles into a wildly unpredictable groove that keeps smacking you across the face with waves of unexpected joy.
A lot of movies boast that they have an original approach to the zombie genre. It Stains the Sands Red not only is wholly original, but it has an awesome redemptive arc and a strong female lead discovering her true worth.
That lead actress, Brittany Allen, owns this movie as Molly, a coked-up Vegas stripper fleeing the zombie apocalypse whose life takes quite-the-unexpected turn.
It’s a star-making performance in a genre not always known for the quality of acting. I simply don’t think It… would work with a different actress playing Molly, who slowly evolves from self-centered eye candy to a badass momma bear protecting her young son. Seriously, as kick-butt female heroes go, Allen’s work here rivals Milla Jovovich in Resident Evil and Sigourney Weaver in Aliens.
Even typing that seems surreal given that It Stains the Sands Red comes from co-writer/director Colin Minihan, who previously brought us Grave Encounters, Grave Encounters 2 and Extraterrestrial, which were OK, but not great, genre films.
Minihan seriously steps up his game here.
It… wows early with lots of gorgeous cinematography, including what must be aerial drone footage, perfecting capturing the desert wasteland outside Vegas where Molly gets stranded initially when her meathead boyfriend Nick gets their car stuck in sand.
Within minutes, the couple is interrupted by a mysterious figure shuffling down the interstate. That would be a zombie, Smalls, as Molly eventually nicknames him, who eats Nick and begins pursuing Molly for miles and days across the rugged and harsh Nevada terrain.
And here’s where It... could have been a one-note, discount bin DVD title. It’s a risky gamble to focus the majority of your movie on two characters walking, especially when one of the characters can’t talk because he’s, you know, dead. But huge kudos to actor Juan Riedinger, who manages to imbue Smalls with distinct personality that shines through his impressive practical makeup effects.
Smalls is the kind of zombie that fans remember, much like Bub in Day of the Dead or Tar Man in Return of the Living Dead. Some cool toy company needs to make a Smalls figure, stat!
There’s a lot I’m purposefully leaving out about It Stains the Sands Red and that’s because I want everyone else to be as gobsmacked as we were upon first viewing.
Let’s leave it this way: You’ll laugh. You’ll scream. There’s a high probability you may even cry. But in the end, just when you think it’s over, you will quickly discover how wrong you were.
It Stains the Sands Red is something special, that rare genre film that ultimately feels truly epic, and it deserves to be seen and championed by genre fans worldwide.
The Stuff You Care About:
Hot chicks – Brittany Allen is smoking hot as Molly.
Nudity – No.
Gore – Considerable.
Drug use – Considerable.
Bad Guys/Killers – Zombies.
Buy/Rent – Buy it.
Unforgettable (Warner Bros., 100 minutes, R, Blu-Ray): Unforgettable shouldn’t live up to its title.
Unforgettable should have been just another discount-bin, big-budget, bitchy Lifetime Channel reject about two women who simply hate each other for no good reason other than a man and they spend 90 minutes at each other’s throat before finally squaring off in a ridiculous catfight designed to titillate male viewers who think it would be cool to be the epicenter of so much misguided attention.
I mean, in all reality, you’ve seen this movie dozens of times, from Obsessed, The Hand that Rocks the Cradle, Mother’s Boys, Single White Female and more, and you know every stop along the tired trail that ends with a penultimate showdown.
Unforgettable breaks all the established rules for the better, proving that there is still truth in advertising.
In fact, we’ll go so far as to proclaim Unforgettable the best example of the Woman Scorned subgenre to hit the big screen since Fatal Attraction.
Here’s why it's so different.
First, and likely the film’s secret weapon, is that it was helmed and written by women, which explains why it never sinks into typical male fantasy.
Instead, longtime producer and first-time feature director Denise Di Novi and screenwriter Christina Hodson (who also scripted the upcoming Bumblebee spin-off in the Transformers franchise’s expanding universe) take what I can only assume are real-world examples of issues that many women have faced and twist them in unexpected and terrifying ways.
Second, the cast just nails it.
Rosario Dawson is perfect as Julia, an online magazine editor who moves to the Pacific Northwest to be with her fiancé David (Geoff Stults). Julia has a dark secret that she has yet to share with David, and for once it doesn’t feel contrived. The more we get to know Julia, the more we understand why she would tightly close that dark chapter.
But the revelation here is Katherine Heigl, who plays David’s ex and mother to his daughter, and that dual-parenting conundrum when another woman enters the picture lays the foundation for much of what follows in a totally believable way.
After years of being maligned for off-screen issues, Heigl seizes this opportunity and just crushes it.
She maintains a level of icy poise and simmering malice throughout that is simply startling. Every facial tick, every pursed lip, every time she clutches her throat when slipping deeper into darkness feels entirely on point and relatable.
Di Novi and Hodson provide ample time for viewers to truly get to know Julia and Tessa so that they become more than just cardboard stand-ins for real people.
Sure, Tessa is a bitch and an over-protective Mommie Dearest mother, but it’s earned, and you learn this through a series of blistering and biting interactions with her own mom, Helen (Cheryl Ladd, delivering a triumphant return). Heigl and Ladd’s mother-daughter exchanges are so deliciously venomous that you start to feel sympathy for Tessa for having been raised by a woman who doles out passive-aggressive bon mots like she’s driving a rusty shiv into her daughter, over and over.
Whereas other films in this subgenre just dive right into the crazy, Unforgettable slowly builds anticipation for the crazy so that when it erupts it feels earned and genuine.
To get there, though, Di Novi and Hodson come up with the perfect 21st century equivalent of an unlocked desk drawer waiting to be secretly explored. Julia leaves her phone unattended for a minute, and that opportunity sets Tessa off on a voyage of identity theft and sadistic exploitation that causes serious chills.
It’s here that Heigl truly shines, her face and subtle body language speaking volumes about the illicit thrill that an unbalanced individual must feel when being truly devious.
And, boy howdy, what an evil plan it is that unspools. For anyone who has ever watched Catfish and wondered what’s the worst that might happen, Unforgettable serves as a cautionary PSA for never trusting technology again.
If you’ve ever believed BVB before, then you know we don’t just heap praise unless it’s deserved. Unforgettable deserves to be seen and championed as a cult classic in a genre known more for films that are best immediately forgotten.
Warlock Collection (Lionsgate, 291 minutes, R, Blu-Ray): The Vestron Video Collector’s Series rolls on this week, delivering a worthwhile trifecta, the Warlock Collection, which includes 1989’s Warlock, 1993’s Warlock: The Armageddon and 1999’s Warlock III: The End of Innocence.
Warlock – much like Wishmaster, Leprechaun and The Prophecy franchises from the late 1980s and early ‘90s – served a specific purpose in the canon of horror, if only to milk money off a series of diminishing sequels that all followed a specific pattern.
A great evil is unleashed. An innocent is in peril. A young man or woman must step up to prevent annihilation.
The thing that separates Warlock from its peers is its bat-shit bonkers sequel, The Armageddon, which showcased the best possible returns from gory practical effects and early CGI technology.
And that’s the reason for rushing out to own this collection. Sure, the first film did a fine job of introducing Julian Sands as an immortal acolyte hellbent on world destruction. Helmed by Steve Miner, the director behind Friday the 13th: Part 2 and Part III, as well as House, the first film is fun in a dated way, like revisiting a brick-and-mortar arcade after years of playing 4K Playstation games.
But not since Howling II: Your Sister is a Werewolf has a sequel taken an existing property and gone in such a distinctly different, rules-be-damned direction as to fear the train might at any second fly off the rails.
The Armageddon expands upon the mythology introduced in the first film and then heaps on, adding a backstory that dates to the Druids, introduces a collection of ancient rune stones that can summon the devil’s spawn and thrusts not one, but two youthful protagonists in the path of the Warlock to thwart his nefarious plan.
The sequel benefits immensely from the steady genre direction of Anthony Hickox, whose incredible output in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s included such genre favorites as Waxwork, Waxwork II: Lost in Time, Hellraiser III: Hell on Earth and the underappreciated early HBO original film, Full Eclipse.
Hickox knows how to tweak a sequel, and he comes charging out of the gate in The Armageddon with an early scene showcasing the rebirth of the Warlock that includes one of the most glorious full-body, practical effects transformations since An American Werewolf in London.
But he doesn’t stop there – this is a film filled with unexpected gory delights, whether its Sands ripping the scalp off a party girl or leaving an elevator dripping with the shorn remains and splattered guts of a Druid assassin.
The Armageddon is nearly unclassifiable, morphing from a straight supernatural thriller to a coming-of-age origin story to a western showdown in a dusty, abandoned town.
Somehow, it works, and for those who have never experienced its majesty, or taken a chance on the nostalgic Vestron Video slate of Blu-Ray releases, the Warlock Collection is one you need to own and share with like-minded friends.
Black Butterfly (Lionsgate, 93 minutes, R, Blu-Ray): Imagine if you were watching The Sixth Sense for the first time, and as the film finally reached its pinnacle point – the big twist – instead of Bruce Willis’ character being dead, it was in fact young Cole Sear who had perished despite his special ability to commune with the departed, and Willis’ Dr. Malcolm Crowe was writing about this very strange case that he observed.
It wouldn’t make a lick of sense, right?
Henceforth, the problem at the core of Black Butterfly, the new thriller from director Brian Goodman starring Antonio Banderas and Jonathan Rhys Meyers.
The entire plot of the film hinges on two key twists, or reveals, that follow one on the heels of the other in the movie’s final 15 minutes.
The first twist basically chucks everything you’ve watched in the first 80 minutes into the trash. The second twist basically sets fire to the trash, leaving you with nothing to show for the last hour and a half of your life wasted.
I’m all for twists, even ones that call for a significant suspension of belief. If executed properly, they can be jaw-dropping and wholly unexpected, forcing you to rethink and reconsider a film in an entirely different light. The Sixth Sense is the gold standard of cinematic twists because it worked so well and fooled so many viewers, and it turned a decent supernatural flick into a watershed movie moment.
Black Butterfly doesn’t need one, much less two, twists. It’s not that kind of film. It’s a lightweight thriller, at best, buoyed by an above-average performance from Banderas as a broken family man, a foundering novelist and a drunk. It’s good to see the former Desperado top-lining a new feature; if only this one warranted his talent.
The sad takeaway from watching Black Butterfly is that it misses several opportunities to explore interesting ideas, and instead wallows in a series of repetitive, unnecessary scenes of Banderas drinking, passing out and waking up confused while a bunch of stuff that won’t matter later takes place around him.
Nocturne (Monarch Home Entertainment, 90 minutes, Unrated, DVD): I will give Nocturne credit – I seriously was stumped on where it all was going for much longer than I expected.
This is the kind of high-concept horror film that lives or dies on its execution, and co-writer/director Stephen Shimek barely clears the high bar.
I get exactly what Shimek was going for, and it’s an admirable goal, but it seems he had a much clearer idea in his head of how the events should unfold than what ultimately made it into the final cut.
The chief culprit is time, which Shimek plays with in an interesting, but ultimately uneven way. The problem with time lapses in movies is that you absolutely must nail the setup in order for the reveal to make sense. Shimek takes a very low-key approach to the setups – so low-key that you won’t even realize a future plot development is being foreshadowed when it happens. And then later, when the reveal comes, it’s not handled in a manner to maximize its impact.
Nocturne isn’t awful. It’s likely that some viewers might dig it a lot. I kept waiting for something more substantial to happen, and sadly, it never did.
Ghost in the Shell 3D (Paramount, 107 minutes, PG-13, Blu-Ray 3D): Forget the ridiculous (and completely baseless) criticisms about white-washing.
Forget that Scarlett Johannson can basically now play this particular brand of kick-ass female assassin in her sleep.
Forget the damn source material, and the iconic anime film.
Ghost in the Shell is an enjoyable, if lightweight, sci-fi/action popcorn flick with some solid fight sequences (mostly spoiled by the trailers) and some of the best future-world-building visuals since Blade Runner.
This isn’t going to land on anyone’s Top 10 most favorite movies of all-time list, but it didn’t deserve the critical drubbing and audience snubbing that it received upon its release.
The Stendhal Syndrome: 3-Disc Limited Edition
S.W.A.T.: Under Siege
Now on Video-on-Demand:
The Gracefield Incident (Momentum Pictures, 89 minutes, PG-13, VOD): The new found-footage film, The Gracefield Incident, by first-time feature writer-director-editor Matthieu Ratthe, promises a new approach to a subgenre that has grown exhaustingly repetitive.
Ratthe, who plays Matthew Donovan, retreats to a family cabin with his wife Jessica (Kimberly Laferriere) and several friends. The getaway is a chance to move past an unfortunate experience, the loss of an unborn child in a traumatic car crash, but Ratthe’s script isn’t smart enough to milk the necessary gravitas from the crash. Ultimately, it seems to exist solely as a hook to tie together loose ends at the end of the film.
And that explains the frustration that The Gracefield Incident summons.
Ratthe’s ‘new approach’ to found footage is basically stolen from an earlier, better found-footage film, V/H/S 2, where a character experiences paranormal craziness following an eye transplant.
In Gracefield, Ratthe’s character loses an eye in the previously-mentioned accident, so he decides to manipulate his new false eye and repurpose it with a built-in camera. When it’s recording, the cornea glows red, a la The Terminator, an obvious visual mark that most of his accompanying friends fails to notice.
Watching the first 20-plus minutes of Gracefield proves to be a disorienting experience because whenever Ratthe’s eye is capturing the action, there’s no indication that’s what is happening, and all we as viewers see is Ratthe’s POV with voices talking in the background. Another friend also has a camera that seems to be forever recording, and Ratthe toggles back and forth between these two vantage points. A blinking red REC displays in the upper left corner of the frame whenever the view switches to his friend’s camera.
Early on, however, it’s clear that Ratthe needs more than just the two vantage points to tell his story, and there are an increasing number of instances where viewers simply can’t tell whose perspective is on display or if it’s even possible for Ratthe to be physically seeing the action as it unfolds.
So, that’s a big problem – the “found” footage can’t be trusted.
A bigger issue is that Gracefield works overtime to check off the tried-and-true list of horror movie cliches.
Example: Upon arriving at the cabin, everyone realizes they no longer have cell service. And Ratthe makes a point to show that the gas gauge on their vehicle and needling toward empty. OK, OK, we get it. They’re stranded.
Then, once the craziness starts – heralded by a blazing light in the night sky over the cabin, which seems to crash land somewhere deep in the adjacent forest – Ratthe and his friends do everything wrong. They race off into the night to investigate. They find a smoldering object that looks like a meteorite, which they immediately pick up and take with them. They find a deep cave with weird noises emanating from the dark; naturally, they go explore.
As a writer-director, you never want your audience to feel like the characters they’re watching should be punished for simply being dumb, but that’s exactly how you end up feeling watching Gracefield.
It also doesn’t help that Ratthe tries to withhold the actual origin of the entity stalking his group for as long as possible, even going so far as to offer a repetitive red herring that it might be some type of Bigfoot-like creature.
Spoiler: It ain’t Bigfoot.
However, the biggest issue with The Gracefield Incident is that it can’t overcome its own rules, which consistently get broken for the sake of the narrative.
Whenever something bad is about to happen, any and all electronic devices – cell phones, televisions, light fixtures – go wonky and begin blinking, rolling in static or fritzing on and off. Every electronic device, that is, except for Ratthe’s fake eye camera and his friend’s handheld camcorder.
Later, when Ratthe and a friend find themselves in a corn field that appears to have been surgically harvested in specific places, they decide to attach a cell phone to a group of helium balloons and let it float up with a tether in order to see a wider view of their location. The camera then floats up and up and up and up to the point of just being ridiculous in how high it appears to have gotten in order to deliver the equivalent of a money shot that reveals they’re standing in the middle of a huge UFO crop circle symbol.
Why is it ridiculous and not simply a cool trick? Because they also show the tether, which keeps unspooling until the camera appears to be a mile or higher off the ground. Who runs frantic into the woods when pursued by a creature of unknown origin but just happens to have that much twine/string/rope in their pocket? Easy answer: No one.
If it seems like we’re being unnecessarily harsh, we’re honestly not. But at some point, if you sit down to write a found-footage script, you should consider these types of things.
This is a genre that, when it works, it works because it seems real. The second you display something on screen that doesn’t make sense, or you display a camera angle that seems improbable, you lose that advantage
One of the best found-footage films ever made, Exists, which is about Bigfoot, worked because each reveal made sense in the context of the action unfolding and the perspective of the people filming.
Ultimately, The Gracefield Incident feels like a movie with a hidden agenda about parents and parenting and how one responds to the loss of a child, and that’s not a bad thing at all. But you can’t simply throw in some extraterrestrial jump scares and call it a day. You can’t ask viewers to invest in characters who ultimately are solely responsible for the bad things that befall them and then make a hard swerve seconds before the closing credits and say, ‘Nope, they’re OK! All is well!’
Future filmmakers take note. There are rules to this type of storytelling. The Gracefield Incident may yet serve a purpose, if only as a primer on what not to do with found footage.
Killing Ground (IFC Midnight, 88 minutes, Unrated, VOD): Ozploitation – a subgenre spotlighting low-budget, independent features, primarily thrillers and horror movies, from Australia – has always lurked just on the fringe of American cinema.
From mid-80s fare like Turkey Shoot and Dead End Drive-In to more notable, and well-known, entries like 2005’s Wolf Creek by director Greg McLean, and 2014’s Wyrmwood: Road of the Dead, the Australian influence has rarely waned.
First-time feature writer-director Damien Power’s Killing Ground owes a large debt to Wolf Creek, but Power wisely resists the opportunity to attempt to fashion an iconic horror villain in the vein of Mick Taylor, the outback version of Leatherface minus the penchant for wearing human skin.
And Power also doesn’t go all-in on brutal gore too early, which allows him the time to methodically extract real human drama from the plight of newly-engaged campers Sam and Ian, who venture out to a remote waterfall site to celebrate New Year’s Eve.
Killing Ground earns high praise for its deft telling of twin narratives that play with time in a surprisingly effective manner. Power starts off telling the story of Sam and Ian, who discover an abandoned campsite by the river where they pitch tent, and then weaves in the story of Chris and Margaret, their daughter Em and newborn Ollie, who had previously occupied the campsite.
Power also provides enough backstory into the lives of his two central villains, German and Chook, ex-convicts with a thirst for causing misery, to make them more than bland killing machines.
But the true jewel in Power’s taunt script is its focus on the decision-making process and the repercussion that snap judgments in the face of true life or death stakes might have.
By exploring that impact, and showcasing its emotional fallout in Killing Ground's final frames, Power concludes his debut with a chilling dagger of truth.
Survival doesn’t guarantee a happy ending.