Published on January 5th, 2022 | by Richard Gary0
Richard Gary’s Favourite/Not Favourite Indie Horror Movies of 2021
Our resident expert in all things DIY film, Richard Gary, gives us his comprehensive list of favourite and not so favourite horror movies of 2021.
First, the rules I have about such lists as these:
I have an issue with “Best of” and “Worst of” year-end lists for the following reason: most are chosen from those that play in theaters. For me, I like to watch the DIY ones, for these tend to have more heart.
As for Best and Worst, I never liked those terms; art is just way too subjective, which is why I called them Favorites and Not Favorites. That being said, even the “Not” movies have redeeming qualities, and the fact that I felt they had issues means nothing. I have hated films that have won tons of awards, and liked some that others find abhorrent, so don’t take anything as the definitive. It’s just opinion, and I welcome you to agree or disagree. It’s all good.
These two lists are alphabetical, rather than ranked (another thing I don’t believe in).
Dante’s Shadow of Sin
Directed by Dakota Ray
I ask you: in the time of Covid, what’s a man supposed to do? Easy, just down a glass or two of absinthe, get a new and sharper lens for your camera, and direct your eighth film of nihilistic behavior, as has done Denver-based director/writer/cinematographer/editor Dakota Ray. Ray’s characteristic use of monochrome-colored filters, in this case one that is a rich, dark blue hue, the new lens really is incredible at showing details. As is his wont and right, the title character is played by the director and his insanely deep voice, who in the first line, explains the nihilism that clouds his very soul: “My name is Dante, and I serve no man but myself.” He is remorseless, unhinged from reality, and a complete narcissist. There is a lot of fine editing by Ray, which improves with every film, between characters, objects, Satanic symbols, and insects in various states of health. These, their use as subliminal commentary on the action, all become characters in their own right in a way, rather than just be filler. Two years after committing a horrific murder, Dante is contacted by an acquaintance, Mahoganny who has inherited the Boleskin House (referencing the Boleskine House in Scotland, owned by renowned Satanist Aleister Crowley and guitarist Jimmy Page). Mahoganny suggests they get together and go to the house. The name Mahoganny is more symbolic for the hardness and darkness of his heart rather than skin color. Throughout the film, we hear the thoughts of the two central characters more than words which are orally spoken; that makes sense since so much of the planning of these two are secretive, so we become cognizant of just what the hell is going on. We also hear the drug-induced disembodied voices of objects such as dolls, a white rabbit and a goat head who represent the Satanic elements. Dante, though not redeemable, kills for a purpose, even if it is self-gratification. With Mahoganny, however, slow and painful control and sadism is more his speed. These two both know that the time in the vacation house will not end well, and each has a motive to be the only one out, but the build-up to the confrontation is a large part of what is going on through the story. With hexes, drugs, alcohol and just sheer deviance of a multitude of natures, these guys have a deep hatred that Ray manages to convey quite strongly. It a steadily intensifying to-the-death duel, both mentally and physically. The lightening in the sky is a foretelling of the bad actions to come. The film is broken into a number of chapters via long title cards. This is also common among Ray’s films. However, story-wise, this is the most cohesive of the eight, being threadbare in its plot. Rather than mixing a number of different stories into one, here he focuses on the two main characters, and yes, you could say that it still two tales into one, but its focus is more exact, with less opaque moments. As much as I have enjoyed all of Ray’s releases, I think this one could be a turning point as far as a pathway. As much as I like the past ones, I look forward to the swing in this direction.
The Forever Room
Directed by Kevin Hicks
This psychological thriller starts off with Claire, a young woman who is chained by her ankle in a basement somewhere that has basic necessities, and a bucket for, well, you know. However, there is naught but herself to spend the time. She is way angrier than she is scared of her captor, an older woman named Helen. The latter accuses Claire of committing a heinous crime and states, “You have a lot of skeletons in your closet, dear,” which Claire vehemently denies. That’s just the opening. As the film progresses, things are not always what they seem at first, and much of the story is the basis of the relationship between these two women. Claire is confused and angry, and Helen is (mostly) calm and calculating, many of their exchanges being when it is feeding time. Each conversation builds on the previous one, with bits of information to the audience to fill them in. Despite the claustrophobia of the small room in which Claire forcibly occupies, the story is interesting, and the viewer wants to know more and more of what put these two people in this dire situation. Claire doesn’t remember anything before being chained up, but parts of her past are telegraphed by both events that happen to Claire in the room, and the things she hears. Meanwhile, people keep appearing when Claire is alone, such as a middle aged man, Ethan, Rebecca, who is closer to her age, and a boy named Michael who seems to be playing a game of hide and seek with Claire. Rebecca explains how she is a figment of Claire’s imagination (“Haven’t you ever had an imaginary friend?”), but something dark brings out these three…and a couple of sock puppets. No, I’m not kidding. Possibly it is a bit like Gerald’s Game (2017) in that the imagination runs havoc, perhaps it is dreams, or is it something more sinister or supernatural than that? Over time, the frequency of the pop-ins increases and become more intense. Sometimes it is incredibly creepy, especially with Ethan and Michael. Rebecca is sort of a Greek Chorus in that she helps with some self-questioning and pieces of exposition for the viewer. Or perhaps it is Claire’s own brain eating itself because she refuses to eat for days on end. Despite the small, narrow space, the filming work is well staged, almost like a three-camera television shoot, keep the elbow room still tight, but not too claustrophobic. The two female leads prove themselves to be naturalistic actors who makes it look easy, proposing them both empathetic and unhinged in fearless performances. The lighting is phenomenal, with shades of primary colors, but not to the Creepshow (1982) level, but more of a realistic tone, and with the editing gives some expansion to the space. Speaking of the basement, this could actually be a one-set play, using shadows and dark spots for characters to “pop” in and out quite easily. It almost seems like it was written that way. For a troupe of five (not counting the two puppets), the story stays engaging for the full run time, and even though the space is small, as is the cast, it remains compelling. The final act is full of unexpected moments and answers quite a few questions. A good watch.
A Ghost Waits
Directed by Adam Stovall
Most of us have seen hauntings films, where the spirits are present in the home and they are going to probably scare the inhabitants away. This is the occupation of a particular ghost, Muriel, and she is a champ at it. No one will stay at the Cincinnati house, which is – in the alive world – possessed by a management company that just wants the problem of constantly rotating lease-breaking tenants solved. To get the house ready for the next renters, handyman employee Jack cleans up and takes care of any issues. It becomes pretty obvious early on that what is there walks alone, and steals his pizza. Jack is a bit of a ne’er-do-well though good at his job, and is just floating through life in a job that doesn’t really mean much to him. It is pretty obvious that Muriel and Jack are going to connect on some level. It takes a while, but these two lost souls are looking for something and someone. Muriel has her own issues with her by-the-book spook supervisor, Ms. Henry and a fellow up-and-coming “spectral agent” Rosie. This film definitely has a comic vibe to it, though it is more of a “dramedy.” It is well written, especially the way it uses the soundtrack as another major character. It is also interesting to see the differences between the two main haunting ghosts. Rosie is newer, and more up-to-date in her language as a teenager, while Muriel talks with no contractions, as in “I do not,” as opposed to the more modern “I don’t”. I thought this was a really smart, deliberate, and subtle choice. Another one of the understated points of the film, though written by men, is that the strongest characters here are the women. Jack is kind of weak and generally unmotivated in life, but Muriel likes what she does and is, to say the least, fierce. And yet she has a lot to learn in the experience which makes her more independent and a leader (such as over Rosie), taking control of her own life – er – death to make choices. This pro-women aspect is one of the finer themes of the film for me. Because, in part, due to the use of sharp shadows, especially on Muriel’s face as she is consistently lit from below (as are all the spectral agents), the film works so much better in Black and White and, again, it was a wise choice. It’s just the right amount of grainy, which gives the look a sense of texture. There are also many very long shots, some static and others following the characters, rather than a jumble of quick edits. It works for the pace of the story. While I thought the ending was predictable, it was really the right way to end this, so I did not let that get in the way of the story. Overall, it was the right length to keep the interest up, and had some really fine moments. The acting is top notch and helps make the film even more enjoyable. This is fun, and may play well as a date night film without being too Hallmarky over-schmaltz. For a director’s first film, this is quite compelling and a positive release.
Lake Michigan Monster
Directed by Ryland Brickson Cole Tews
Almost like a Terry Gilliam fever dream, we are introduced to Capt. Seafield (director Ryland Brickson Cole Tews) who explains that his dear ole dad was killed by the titular creature, and gathers a crew together to find and slay it. There is snarky weapons expert Sean Shaughnessy, Sonar “individual” Nedge Pepsi, and former Naval Officer Dick Flynn, or as Seafield calls them, “The Team of the Century.” There is more to the cast, such as the director’s father playing his pirate-clad brother Ashcroft, and his 87-year-old grandmother playing his wife, Martha. The cool-yet-chincey-in-a-good-way looking sea hag monster is played by the director, that looks a bit like the titular The She-Creature (1956). Of course, things don’t go as planned, as if there were a real plan, though that not-real plan gets played out more than once, leading to a mutiny of sorts. I will not give away much of the story, such as it is, and will instead revel in its insanity. Through what looks like it may be Paper Mache masks, scenery and monsters, along with the graphics, Tews’ vision is brought to life, in its own twisted world within our world. There are some amazing set pieces, mostly either on or under the water, in Milwaukee (beer plays a key role in this, as should be, as beer could be what made Milwaukee famous), the North Point Light Station (lighthouse), or on the Lake X-press ferry. The whole third act’s setting is ridiculous at best, which is part of what makes its charm. The film is shot in contrasty and grainy black and white with “film scratches” added in to “age” it. Even so, there is a lot of animation work going on; when it was filmed it was with a green screen to add texture and said computer graphics. There are three ways to watch this film. The first is get shitfaced and to just mock it like you’re on “Mystery Science Theater 3000”; have a blast! The second is to see it straight, pay attention to the humor and catch the lines the stoners are bound to miss, and feel righteously smug (my category). Third is to just think it’s a stupid mess and turn it off after five minutes as you would with the likes of Monty Python and complain that “SNL” hasn’t been funny since John Belushi left. For me, I found it quite amusing, knowing I would be watching it again to dig for the jokes I missed, and I’m guessing there are a few. There are some influences here and there, such as Guy Maddin, and there is a bit of the good Capt. playing checkers with a ghost a la Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal (1957).
Directed by Justin Harding and Rob Brunner
The story centers around a couple: Christian runs his prank site, and then there is the focus of his vicious pranking, his fiancé Allison. Merry prankster, indeed, making money off people that he terrorizes. Allison is stressed out and done, and asks him to cut it the fuck out, so they decide to take some time and visit friends out in the country. In genre films, is it ever good to go out to a house – actually, a deconsecrated church – in the middle of nowheresville (a fancier cabin-ish in the woods)? This one is owned by Chris’s long-lost school friend Jesse and his fiancé, the very odd and off David, who is an uber fan of the prank videos. In the words of that other great thinker, Astro Jetson, “Ruh-row.” After a night of some sex and drugs, this leads to something unworldly. Up to now, it’s been in our realm, but post-hallucinogenic, the audience is not sure what we are seeing is supernatural or part of a mind-bender, leading to some nice and creepy shit, and some decent jump scares. The question is what happens when a prankster meets the dark Web real deal? A taste of his own medicine? You see some of this coming early on in the second act, but certain elements keep the tensions taut, I am happy to say. This is definitely a watch between the fingers kind of film, and not just because of the violence, but the expectation of it. That’s what makes this enjoyable. This could have been really corny, but the acting, especially by the two leads, and the way it was shot and stylishly put together by the directors (who have worked extensively in television, such as “Top Chef Canada” and “Canada’s Worst Drivers”), make this a pretty solid scarefest. By the end, the tension really ramps up and becomes quite a frenetic film as our killer, in a mask that I suppose is meant to reflect Chris’s look with long hair and a somewhat beard, makes his way through the small cast with quite gruesome and beautifully done SFX. As I have indicated earlier, there is a supernatural element to the film in the form of a ghost, which was fine for some jump scares, but honestly, there really did not need to be anything like that needed, as the spookie really does not advance the story at all (though it looks cool), and the human part of it is certainly terrifying enough. That being said, this is one of the better slasher films I have seen in a while, being innovative while not going too far off the mark for some effective genre tropes. Yeah, I enjoyed this one a lot.
Directed by Jason Figgis
Asthmatic Anna James is a popular author of youth mysteries on a deadline, who has hit a dry patch. What better way to rekindle a writing block than to rent a stunning house in the middle of nowhere? This particular trope is well used; perhaps the underlying connection is that the creative mind is more open to spirituality. Anyway, the Seaview House in Suffolk, England, is beautiful, but imbued with a darkness (filters help) that could have come right out of Shirley Jackson’s iconic opening paragraph of her novel The Haunting of Hill House (1959). At once both modern (such as a flat-screen TV) and rustic (lead pane windows and a dial phone), it is a perfect place for a spookie to be hanging around, doncha think? I really enjoyed how the director would situate the camera in a different room, and you would watch the character of focus through the doorway. The first act is mostly atmospheric, as Anna settles in for the night, with a beautiful score and long and luxurious shots at the start, other than a quick jump scare. We get familiar with the sadness of Anna, reflecting these moody views of her temporary life at the house. It definitely starts as a slow burn, with one subtle indication that there is something not right, shown almost as a throwaway line (okay image), and another warning of what’s to come. Ever slowly, but increasingly so, the presence of a previous owner, the titular Winifred makes herself known. She vacillates between sadness and anger, both reflecting the mood of Anna, but bringing her own story with it, which is the mystery behind the film of which Anna seeks to learn in the second act. While this is a contemporary story – albeit with an older ghost from a hundred years ago – I would definitely define this as gothic, with its turn-of-the-century (at least) house and what inhabits within its walls (and beyond). I believed I figured out the ending pretty early on, but I’m happy to say I was wrong, Figgis did not take the easy and obvious route, which is refreshing. With only two living on-screen characters and one un-, the rest of the cast is either on the phone or mostly the radio. Perhaps the disembodied voices are to reflect the spirits of the world, or specifically Winifred. It is a solid choice. The photography and drone work are excellent, over the beautiful West Coast of England. There is no blood, no violence, no nudity (other than an upper back), and no contact, and yet this still manages to be extremely creepy, which is a credit to Figgis. My appreciation of his work just keeps growing.
Directed by Andy Palmer
We are introduced to two rival mob families from Jersey, who went into the witness protection program, and by an FBI mistake, both get sent to the same small city of Temecula, California. Needless to say, there are a lot of bowling shirts and jumpsuits. Rather than go to war and kill each other, they pull a Dark Ages type deal between them, where Carlo – who runs a pet grooming shop – and rival gang daughter Patricia have one week to get married, and then produce a kid. Neither is happy about this arrangement, especially Carlo’s co-groomer, Gina, who loves him. If you have already figured out where this goes, it will not matter in the long run. Along for the ride is Carlo’s older letch and cinephile cousin and (further) comic relief Vince, who has the best line in the film. Anyways, there’s a popular street meat food truck selling sausage sangwiches that is having a disastrous effect on people, turning them into zombies, but while stumbling around can also be fast, and definitely with a George A. Romero-style hunger. Oh, and their skin starts to boil and melt. While the humor is mostly verbal and pretty consistent, it is worth paying attention because there are a lot of throw-away lines that are easy to miss, and are too good to ignore (even the groaners). Part of the fun is the many other film references, from the verbal mentioning of a few films to the more subtle ones like two hit men who seem to be right out of Pulp Fiction (1994), and then there’s Rose, presenting a fine Pam Grier/Coffy-like (1973) pose; her meta-commentary on blacks in genre films is a hoot. The first two acts, which are totally worth watching, is mostly comedy, but then the bloodbath starts in earnest in the third act. There is a huge body count, and copious amounts of blood, guns, gore, and guts, and looks spectacular. Usually in a film like this, the tendency is to play the characters broadly – usually too much so – but director Andy Palmer manages to squeeze out some really nice performances, even though a bit over the top in stereotypes. This is a good thing. It is not surprising to me, though, because the cast is well-seasoned. This is one of the better zombie films I have seen in a while, especially in the comic vein (pun not intended).
Directed by Erick Wofford
Bigfoot ain’t the only thing retro going on here. We set foot in the woods with an old-film-into-VHS-style filter that occasionally adds scratches and “rolling” distortion to the images, and an oversaturation of color. There is also an ‘80s-style synth soundtrack (not counting the excellent Americana music over the credits). The film appears to be shot on a single-camera in Georgia, including the beautiful Chattahoochee National Forest, about two hours northeast of Atlanta. And because it’s a throwback,” it should come as no surprise that there are Bigfoot POV shots using what I believe is an infra-red, fisheye lens. It definitely is not taking itself too seriously and is a very dry comedy, and I like that. However, it is more humorous than funny, making the occasional bits stand out all the more. The titular bride is Heather. She’s pitched her tent in the woods on her own (who does that?), with you-know-who watching her every move, including some cringy bathroom moments. It’s love at first sight for Biggie, as he follows her around like a schoolboy, trying to get up the courage to approach her (you heard me). Meanwhile there is fish to try and catch, and RVs to rummage, and other campers/body count upon which to chomp. It’s all a matter of survival for our Bigfoot, which seems to not be too easy. The creature’s head and the film’s make-up look pretty good, even at its cheesiest. He does look more like Toxie or a later version of Jason Vorhees than Bigfoot – plus he wears overalls with a nametag and his upper hair is an obvious jacket – but in the words of Liam Lynch, whatever.” There is a lot of practical effects, even a touch of cartoonish gore, but the occasional time there is blood spray, it is hysterically cartoonish CGI, reminding me of the “Pow” balloons in the old “Batman” television show from 1965. I have no doubt this was done purposefully, and it made me laugh out loud. One of the interesting aspects of this film is that even when Biggie interacts with others, it’s rare to see him and the other person in the same shot, but rather goes back and forth like they weren’t filmed at the same time. Perhaps this was filmed in the height of Covid, and that was their workaround? From a technical perspective, this intrigued me. I had an issue with the use of the Bigfoot name, as it is incredibly inaccurate. There is no explanation as to why this deformed guy with Bigfoot feet and talons is given that name; that being said, in the middle of the end credits, its origin and nods at a possible sequel are hinted. Those fans of the hairy Sasquatch may be turned off by that association. While the director shows quite a bit of heart and some beginning filmmaking skills, there were definitely some issues with the film. For example, the first two acts are merely set pieces strung together with little connection other than his lust for Heather. It isn’t until the third act that the story begins to find some cohesion into an actual storyline. For me, the biggest problem was in Wofford’s editing, as in not enough. This would have been a more solid hour film: it could use some serious and judicious snipping, especially early on, such as the way-too-long scene at the river where we see someone fishing and Bigfoot finding a clown mask in the water. The film loses momentum in these moments. Also, I could have done without the lingering shots of fish being gutted and cleaned. This is the director, Erick Wofford’s first full feature film, but this is certainly a family affair as a number of the cast and crew is actually members of his clan, and I’m sure many others are friends. That’s a smart financial move and I respect that aS lot. I look forward to seeing his skills growS
Demented (aka The Demented)
Directed by Nigel Hartwell
This Canadian film falls well into the category of torture porn, with a supernatural touch. And in an extremely micro-budget way. Lovebirds Senica and Amanda go up to Senica’s cottage on the lake. After dropping a ring on her, they spend the night. When Senica awakes, Amanda is gone. According to a police detective (the ever-fun Felissa Rose), so are her parents. Meanwhile, somewhere there is a room where women are systematically tortured and snuffed for the Dark Web by a burly guy dressed in black, including a bullet-proof vest, and a leather hood. His voice is digitally manipulated, and honestly, I can only make out about half of what he says. We watch as he’s a-rapin’ (with his pants all the way on and her underwear intact) and a-chokin’ and a-tauntin’ his chained-to-a-bed victims. There is also some playing with time, with numerous flashbacks to various periods and present day, making the narrative timeline a bit confusing for a while. In one of these vignettes (past? present? future?), Amanda is a chainee, abused by the dark and mysterious man. Between the patterns of abuse, Amanda is visited by knowing spirits, who are helpless to aid her, but communicate quite easily. Don’t get me wrong, this supernatural element is actually what made the film for me. The violence compared to most torture porn is relatively mild and mostly threats (and yes, full-dressed rape). But the rules of the film change with Amanda. Her accomplishments are the closest this comes to empowering women. They are generally are seen as torture victims and strippers, not counting that the main authority figure is the police detective. Misogyny? Maybe, but it felt good to have these women get some of their umph back, a lot of good it will do them in the long run. There is nothing real to talk about in the blood department. There are some cheesy CGI effects at a point, but I believe it was meant to be that way. The film is overlong at 96 minutes, but there is easily quite a bit that could be excised and not lose any of the story. For example, the “torment” scenes go on for what feels like a really long time of just the killer yakking away. Too many of the scenes and shots – especially the punishment ones – also just seem too “samey.” The acting is okay, though as always, Rose easily holds her own; the two main leads often don’t look like they are trying too hard. There are some really well-done shots, including some drone work, which was refreshing after some obvious green screen parts. The production pattern is a bit different. Many times, especially in the police station scenes with Rose, it is pretty obvious that – despite some similar motifs on the walls that I am pretty sure are green-screened – the detective and two of the people she is interviewing are two single shots and not in the same room. It seems like those interviewed, including a porn/snuff provider, Brad (Canadian wrestling champion Bret Hart), doesn’t know which direction to look, often off to the wrong side of where the Detective would be standing. There is an almost amusing moment when we hear a character’s thinking processes, and it was obviously recorded later in a studio by how well it sounds, but also that there is a comment when the actor obviously accidentally falls during the filming, and the narration goes, “Oh, that hurt.” I am so glad they put that in. If I had my druthers, I would like to see them take this film, re-edit it or have someone other than the director do it, and see where it goes. It has some nice potential, and I would like to see that fulfilled.