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Teens' poor choice of a vacation spot proves deadly in horror flick.

Teens’ poor choice of a vacation spot proves deadly in horror flick.

By C. Michael Forsyth

I’ve long been intrigued by the tragedy of The Donner Party, pioneers who set out for California in the winter of 1846, became stranded in the Sierra Nevada mountain range and were forced to resort to cannibalism to survive.

News of the grisly events captivated the nation. The California Star reported, “A more shocking scene cannot be imagined than that witnessed by the party of men who went to the relief of the unfortunate emigrants. The bones of those who had died and been devoured by the miserable ones that still survived were lying around their tents and cabins. Bodies of men, women and children, with half the flesh torn from them, lay on every side. A woman sat by the body of her husband, who had just died, eating out his tongue; the heart she had already taken out, broiled, and ate! The daughter was seen eating the flesh of the father; the mother that of her children.”

Donner Party members James and Margaret Reed faced a terrible choice when stranded in the mountains.

Donner Party members James and Margaret Reed faced a terrible choice when stranded in the mountains.

The movie Donner Pass takes that already-horrifying tale and adds an extra ingredient to the stew: As a result of eating human flesh, the wagon train’s leader George Donner becomes a wendigo, endowed with unnatural strength and longevity—as well as an insatiable hunger for man meat. When a group of present-day teens pay a visit to a cabin in the cursed mountain pass, they soon find themselves on the menu.

The first scene set in modern times is less than promising. Four teens of quickly identifiable types drive toward the cabin, while one recounts an urban legend that Donner still haunts the woods. The story-teller cavalierly jettisons the well-known facts of the tragedy. In his version, Donner was the sole survivor, while in actuality 48 of the 87 members of the party lived. Par for the course, the kids are not deterred by talk of Donner’s ongoing snack attacks nor is their enthusiasm dampened by news that a woman’s half-eaten corpse was recently found, apparently the victim of a homicidal maniac.

KILLER, SHMILLER: The fact that there's a cannibal killer on the loose doesn't keep the Whore (Krystal Davis from a topless dip in the hot tub.

KILLER, SHMILLER: The fact that there’s a cannibal killer on the loose doesn’t keep Valerie The Whore (Krystal Davis) from a topless dip in the hot tub.

After Joss Whedon so brilliantly dissected the hackneyed remote-cabin scenario in Cabin in the Woods, it’s hard not to groan at another stab at it. However, the movie turns out to be well-executed, with some imaginative twists—and more than one of the characters is nursing a surprising secret. Yes, of course the archetypes Whedon pinpointed are back: The Good Girl, the Whore, the Jock, the Nerd, etc. And the characters die in exactly the order you’d anticipate. (Don’t expect the amorous couple who get busy in the hot tub to make it to the prom). But the interplay between the characters is engaging, particularly when they turn against each other as the situation grows more desperate. Although most of the plot turns are telegraphed five or ten minutes ahead, they are well thought out—and you many not actually see the final twist coming.

TRUST NO ONE: The Bitch (Adelaide Kane) creeps up on The Jock (Dominic DeVore).

TRUST NO ONE: The Bitch AKA Nicole (Adelaide Kane) may have a hidden agenda.

This isn’t the first time Hollywood has sunk its teeth into the myth of the wendigo, which is rooted in Algonquin Indian folklore. The movie Ravenous (1999) also featured a vampiric cannibal spawned by a Donner-Party-type catastrophe, and the intrepid brothers in TV’s Supernatural did battle with one.

Interestingly enough, psychologists have identified a real version of the phenomenon, just as there is for lycanthropy. “Wendigo Psychosis refers to a condition in which sufferers developed an insatiable desire to eat human flesh even when other food sources were readily available, often as a result of prior famine cannibalism,” according to Wikipedia.

I think one reason the Donner Party tragedy so profoundly affected the mind of the public is that it exposed an ugliness in Manifest Destiny and our winning of the West. Just as the sinking of the Titanic later put a damper on the Gilded Age, the Manson family murders revealed the dark side to carefree hippie movement of the 1960s and the Challenger disaster knocked the wind out of America’s triumphant space program.

PARTY ANIMALS: Georgia Donner, Eliza Donner and Mary Brunner survived the Donner Party tragedy--by resorting to the unthinkable.

PARTY ANIMALS: Georgia Donner, Eliza Donner and Mary Brunner survived the Donner Party tragedy–by resorting to the unthinkable.

And perhaps it lingers in our imagination more than a century and a half later because of the awful choice it presented. Would you resort to cannibalism to survive? Drawing straws and dining on the unlucky loser may seem morally defensible in an extreme famine. What would Jesus do? Hard to imagine Him nibbling on the calves of St. Peter. Still, He did say, “Eat of my flesh,” at the Last Supper, so He might be forgiving of cannibals. Anyhow, not much of a worry for a fellow who can mass produce fish and loaves of bread at will. But I digress. Chew the question over, then answer the poll below:

Also by the writer of this review is the new novel Sir Arthur Conan Doyle & Harry Houdini in The Adventure of the Spook House

Houdini and Conan Doyle investigate a bizarre disappearance  in new book.

Houdini and Conan Doyle investigate a bizarre disappearance in new book.

Here’s why you SHOULD “Be Afraid of the Dark.”   Leave a comment

WHO ARE YOU CALLING A FAIRY? These tiny critters take no prisoners…oh, wait a minute, they do!

By C. Michael Forsyth

I’ve been chafing at the bit for months to see the remake of the memorable 1973 TV movie “Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark.” The trailer was one of the most compelling I’ve seen for a horror movie in years and it’s the brainchild of Guillermo del Toro, who directed the visually stunning “Pan’s Labyrinth” and “Hellboy.”

The premise is promising. A young, withdrawn girl is sent by her mother to live with her father and his new girlfriend in a 19th century Rhode Island mansion the two are restoring. The child is plagued by tiny, malevolent gremlins that emerge from the ash pit of a fireplace in the basement of the house – ancient creatures that prey on kids and drag them to their hellish underground kingdom.

The massive flaw that renders the movie almost unwatchable is that the entire family, especially surrogate mom Kim (Katie Holmes) are idiots. Look, I know that horror movie characters usually aren’t too swift and one of their traditional bonehead moves is staying in a house long after it’s become obvious that it’s haunted. But “Don’t be Afraid of the Dark” takes that to a ludicrous level.

It’s one thing to stay in a house after a troubled child in your care is traumatized by fear of creatures she claims to have seen in the basement. It’s another to stay after an old workman emerges from the basement with a tool in his neck following a savage attack and warns you from his deathbed to get the girl out of the house! Even after slow-on-the-uptake Kim learns from a librarian that the previous owner painted evil beings just like Sally described and vanished without a trace along with his son, she allows Sally to wander around the mansion on her own.

If there existed a child welfare agency devoted to the paranormal, they’d take the daughter away. (Hopefully in real life, Katie Holmes does a better job of mothering little Suri).

NO SUPERMOM: Dim-witted Kim (Katie Holmes) fails to take common sense steps to protect child.

In the original version, Sally was an adult. One striking scene from the 1973 movie stands out in my memory. The imps are repelled by light and as they drag Sally across the basement floor toward the ash pit, she grabs a Polaroid camera and uses the flash to fend them off. It was a pretty cool move, I thought as a kid. In the remake, when Sally tells Kim about the creatures’ Achilles’ heel, Kim gets a bright idea, smiles, and gives the girl one of the old-fashioned cameras for protection – instead of a freaking flashlight like any normal person would!

Using a Poloroid flashbulb for light isn’t a plan. Using a Poloroid flashbulb for light is what you do what a plan fails, as Fred Ward’s character in “Tremors” would say.

Little Sally, who unleashes the menace when she sneaks into the basement and uses tools to unseal the ash pit, isn’t much brighter. She continues to think the critters might simply want to be her friends even after she’s seen their monstrous, hissing faces up close. More unbelievably, she doesn’t tell Kim or her dad about the pint-sized pests even after they’ve repeatedly terrorized her in her bedroom. Nor does she tell her real mom, whom she’s clearly close to, over the phone. Here’s some advice, kids: When a swarm of small creatures from the bowels of hell try to shred you with a straight razor, tell Mommy or Daddy.

LESS THAN LOVABLE tot Sally (Bailee) gets the ball rolling when she sets the evil creatures free.

On top of not being very bright, our young heroine is far from adorable. Sally (Bailee Madison) is perpetually cold and sullen. When she meets Kim for the first time, she tells her, “My mother said he picked you because you’re young. But you’re not – you’re old!”

The biggest idiot, naturally, is dad Alex, who as is par for the course in horror flicks, pooh poohs his daughter’s fears long after any reasonable person would. Even after his child has run away out of terror, he refuses to leave until he’s held a big dinner party to show off the mansion he hopes to sell. Guy Pearce, as Alex, excels in playing uptight guys, most famously in “L.A. Confidential.” There he brought an intelligence and sincerity to the role that made you root for him. Here he’s just a jerk, like the pompous concierge he played in the comedy “Bedtime Stories.”

The scuttling, rat-like creatures look frightening. But, in the time-honored tradition of mediocre horror movies, we see way too much of them and they quickly cease to be scary. Heck, they’re almost as cute as the mischievous little devils in “Gremlins.” The CGI isn’t very convincing, further weakening their impact.

In an interesting deviation from the original, the creatures are described as fairies – nasty ones that collect children’s teeth. Guillermo del Toro, who wrote but did not direct the film, said in an interview that he got the idea from the books of Welsh writer Arthur Machen, whose works are mentioned in the movie.

“I love his idea that fairy lore comes from a dark place, that it’s derived from little, pre-human creatures who are really, really nasty vermin but are magical in a way, living as they do for hundreds of years,” del Toro said. “His books are what compelled me to do this.”

However, the case that the Tooth Fairy is actually evil was made with greater logic in the Darkness Falls (2003).

The takeaway for film buffs: A terrific trailer does not always mean a terrific movie. Also, if you’re stuck in a horror movie, never, ever go in the basement.

The author of this review penned Hour of the Beast , hailed by Horror Fiction Review as “a fast-paced, rip-snorting, action-packed, sexy college romp.” The book is available in hardcover and softcover at But you can save $4 by clicking HERE! The Kindle version is just $7 and the eBbook is a measly $5. Be the first on your block to read this bone-chilling tale — before the movie comes out.

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