REVIEW: “The Offering” (2023)

Jewish folklore meets horror’s demon possession sub-genre in director Oliver Park’s smart and sinister new chiller “The Offering”. Written by Hank Hoffman from a story he conceived with Jonathan Yunger, this surprisingly rich and devilishly spooky tale digs into themes of family, reconciliation, repentance, and sacrifice. At the same time, it fully embraces many elements of the horror genre, leading to its eerie atmosphere and ominous sense of dread. Best of all, nothing about “The Offering” feels old hat.

Park and Hoffman’s melding of classic horror with strained family dynamics is a key ingredient that sets “The Offering” apart. It has the perfect horror movie setting which Park utilizes to the fullest, and genre fans will immediately recognize many of his techniques and tricks. But it’s his keen management of tone rather than an over-reliance on cheap jump scares that keeps you on the edge of your seat.

Image Courtesy of DECAL

Then you have the family angle which adds some unexpectedly potent layers to the story. From the father-son tensions to their Hasidic background, Park gives a lot of attention to developing the frayed family at the center of Hoffman’s story. But its the details, both familial and cultural, that not only enrich the drama, but that feeds directly into the horror. It ends up turning something potentially conventional into a more thoughtful yet delightfully creepy experience.

After years away from home, Art (Nick Blood), along with his pregnant wife Claire (Emily Wiseman), arrive in Borough Park, Brooklyn where his estranged father Saul (a terrific Allan Corduner) owns and operates Feinberg Funeral Home. They arrive unannounced and with no real explanation other than Art’s desire (at Claire’s urging) to reconcile with his father.

Saul is delighted yet understandably curious at his son’s sudden reappearance. He welcomes Art with open arms and immediately hits it off with Claire, who happens to be non-Jewish. But Heimish (Paul Kaye), a long-time family friend who also works at the funeral home, is much more skeptical. He doesn’t trust Art and warns Saul to keep his guard up.

Things take a more sinister turn after the body of a local Jewish man arrives at the funeral home. During the film’s opening prologue we see man encounter a terrifying demon known by many different languages, cultures, and religions as “The Taker of Children”. Before dying, the man was able to trap the demon within his body and seal it inside by an enchanted pendant. As long as the demon remains in the dead body it is powerless. But if the pendant is taken away or destroyed, the seal will be broken. See where this is going?

Image Courtesy of DECAL

As the story unfolds we’re treated to more family drama as Art’s motives for returning are revealed. And we get more frights once the demon is inevitably let loose in the cold unnerving funeral home. Lorenzo Senatore’s cinematography is essential to capturing the mood Park is going for, making especially great use of lighting and shadows. Add to it Park’s confidence in his vision and his ability to build tension through his camera, often by small and/or or subtle choices that really enhance a number of scenes.

And then you have the heavy infusion of Jewish faith and folklore; of ritual and tradition. It’s a component that effectively places us within an immersive orthodox world that will be as foreign to some (myself included) as any purely fictional setting. It’s authentic and eye-opening. But it also brings something fresh and original to the horror genre. And as any honest fan will tell you, freshness and originality aren’t words often associated with the horror movies of today. They certainly apply here. “The Offering” is now showing in select theaters and on digital/VOD.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

REVIEW: “The Old Way” (2023)

In this wild and crazy “Age of Cage” (a phrase borrowed from the title of a terrific book from Keith Phipps – you should read it), there isn’t an idea, a style, or a genre that the 58-year-old nephew of director Francis Ford Coppola won’t try. The prolific Nicolas Cage has become something of a cultural phenomenon and seems to have fully embraced his cult status as evident by last year’s feature length self-parody “The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent”.

Cage shows no signs of slowing down. He has six movies in the works including his latest, “The Old Way”. It’s a Western that sees Cage playing a retired gunslinger whose past sins come back to haunt him. This modestly budgeted but handsomely shot genre flick comes from director and producer Brett Donowho who seems well studied on the classic Western form. Perhaps a little too studied at times, as his film leans pretty heavy on the countless movie and television Westerns that came before it.

Image Courtesy of Saban Films

This comes through most in the script penned by Carl W. Lucas. His age-old tale of revenge is chock full of well-worn genre tropes, and anyone who is the slightest bit familiar with classic Westerns will know exactly where “The Old Way” is going within the first ten minutes. Yet despite its by-the-book story and (at times) storytelling, there’s a certain charm to the film which is mostly due to the performances of Cage and his young co-star Ryan Kiera Armstrong.

In an opening prologue we’re introduced to a notorious hired gun named Colton Briggs (Cage sporting a hilariously bad mustache meant to make him look younger I suppose). When a public hanging goes sideways, Briggs is forced to kill a man in front of his young son. Briggs hops on his horse and rides away while the camera slow zooms in on the face of the seething boy. Of course the most basic understanding of Westerns 101 let’s us know that this is one killing that’s going to have consequences.

Hop ahead to twenty years later. Briggs has shaved off his mustache (good move) and put his gunfighting days behind him. These days he runs a small town mercantile. But the biggest change is that he’s now happily married to his wife Ruth (Kerry Knuppe) and they have a 12-year-old daughter together named Brooke (Armstrong). All seems right for the one-time killer, but of course it’s short lived.

While Briggs and Brooke are in town at their store, back home Ruth is approached by a not-so-mysterious stranger named James McAllister (Noah Le Gros). It turns out he has a score to settle with Briggs (and I bet you can guess what it is). And what better way than to kill the woman he loves. But McCallister and his henchmen (played by Shiloh Fernandez, Clint Howard, and Abraham Benrubi) don’t quite realize what they’ve done. But we do thanks to some comically on-the-button lines like “You boys have woke up the devil.

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After Federal Marshall Jarret (Nick Searcy) informs him that his wife is dead, a quietly simmering Briggs dusts off his old six-shooters and sets out for revenge with young Brooke in tow. While his cold-blooded killer impulses immediately rush to the surface, his fairly new fatherly instincts remain, making for a pretty interesting conflict that Donowho and Lucas have fun exploring. It comes to a head in one particular campfire monologue that has no reason to work. But it’s so much fun, simply by it being Nic Cage delivering it. It’s a weird variable, I know. Yet it’s something he brings that’s uniquely his own.

I love westerns and have grown to appreciate them more as they have become more scarce. This one won’t bag Cage his second Academy Award, but fans of the enigmatic star will have fun with it. The story does some interesting things with the struggle between his character’s cold-blooded instincts and his newfound conscience. And young Armstrong makes for a good sidekick. But don’t expect anything you haven’t seen before. I had a good time with “The Old Way”, but it’ll have a hard time standing out. And Cage’s growing cult status can only carry it so far. “The Old Way” hits theaters January 6th.

VERDICT – 2.5 STARS

REVIEW: “On the Line” (2022)

Several actors have found new life in the world of VOD. What started in earnest during the VHS video tape era is now thriving with Video On Demand. Prior to the sad news of his retirement due to health problems, Bruce Willis was putting out several of these low-budget, straight-to-VOD action-thrillers per year (he made SEVEN in 2021 alone). While Mel Gibson is still seen in larger big screen projects, lately he’s been popping up in several of these VOD features.

Gibson’s latest “On the Line” comes from writer, director, and co-producer Romuald Boulanger, and technically it fits within the VOD sphere in terms of budget and (at times) quality. But Boulanger creates a few moments that elevate it beyond the box that so many of these movies snugly fit in. And we get a few scenes that tease us with the old Mel Gibson who can carry a movie with his gravelly charisma alone.

But “On the Line” can’t quite shake the nagging problem of its utterly preposterous scenario. It left me with so many questions. It’s also a movie that hinges so much on its final act twist. But getting to that twist isn’t easy. The movie’s shaky opening gives way to a middle section that ranges from head-scratching to astonishingly bad. But what makes this such a hard review to consider is that the ending actually explains why the long and bumpy middle is the way it is. But that doesn’t make our first sitting through the stretch any more satisfying.

Image Courtesy of Saban Films

Gibson plays Elvis Cooney, a “legendary” LA shock jock who hosts a popular midnight radio show called On the Line. After arriving at the station for his evening slot, Elvis butts heads with his on-air rival, Justin (Kevin Dillon), gets an earful from his ratings-worried boss, Sam (Nadia Farès), and is introduced to his new producer named Dylan (William Moseley). He then sits down with his switchboard operator, Mary (Alia Seror-O’Neill) and kicks off his caller-based program.

Early into the show, Elvis takes a disturbing call from a troubled man named Gary from Pasadena. He claims to be outside of the home of the man who “ruined his life”, and if Elvis takes him off the air he’ll kill everyone inside. It puts Elvis in a tricky predicament that only gets thornier once Gary reveals he’s at Elvis’ house. So with his wife and daughter held hostage by an armed madman, all Elvis can do is keep him on the line and play his demented game of wits.

It all makes for a fairly interesting premise that’s easy to latch onto but hard to stay connected with, especially as things get more and more absurd. Outside of Elvis, all we get are wafer-thin characters, some weird decision-making, and bits of cringe-worthy dialogue that’s hard to get past. But then we get that twist which makes you second guess your frustrations with the earlier stuff. It’s just as ridiculous, but it does catch you off-guard and help make sense of what you’ve seen up to that point. But it’s hard to toss aside the experience leading up to the reveal. It’s ultimately what keeps the film from hitting its ambitious mark. “On the Line” premieres today, November 4th, in select theaters and on VOD.

VERDICT – 2.5 STARS

REVIEW: “Old Man” (2022)

Stephen Lang plays a character simply credited as Old Man in the fittingly titled new psychological horror-ish thriller “Old Man”. Now for the sake of clarity, this isn’t the same old man he plays in the two “Don’t Breathe” movies although certain similarities are impossible to miss. Instead, here he plays an old man living in seclusion somewhere deep in the wilds of the Smokey Mountains.

“Old Man” is a wily two-hander led by Lang and Marc Senter. Directed by Lucky McKee from a script by Joel Veach, the movie does a nice job sucking you into its crude, one-location setting. At least for a while. Unfortunately it begins to lose its grip around the halfway mark, struggling to maintain the tension it builds so well early on. But Lang and Senter keep it afloat. They’re nice fits for Veach’s off-kilter story, and McKee smartly leans on his two actors and their weird yet fascinating chemistry.

Courtesy of RLJE films

Its no-frills setup begins with the camera panning around and snaking through a rustic wood cabin, stopping on an old man (Lang) in red longjohns asleep on a bed. He suddenly snaps awake as if jolted from a nightmare. He gathers himself (sort of) and gets up, his bones creaking as much as the tired bed springs and planked flooring. He starts rambling incoherently, calling for his dog Rascal who has apparently run off. “Nobody leaves me”, he grumbles with a tinge of anger in his voice.

Suddenly there’s a knock on his door. Startled, the old man grabs his double-barrel shotgun and opens it to find a polite yet nervous young man named Joe (Senter). The old man pulls him inside, sticking his gun to the terrified young man’s throat. What’s this guy doing at his cabin in the middle of nowhere? “My wife, she didn’t send you out here, did she?”, asks the suspicious old-timer, hinting at a backstory which will come more into focus a bit later.

Courtesy of RLJE films

Joe explains he got lost in the woods. He saw the smoke from the old man’s chimney so he came to the cabin for help. Should the old man believe his uninvited guest’s story? Should Joe be scared of the old man with gun? Nearly the entire movie is spent sorting these questions out as the unhinged codger and his jittery visitor simply talk – tense and genuinely frightening at first; deeper and more personal later. Yet we know from the start that things aren’t as they seem. It comes down to patiently waiting for McKee to reveal his hand.

As for that reveal, it’s fine. Nothing as twisted and gnarly as I hoped for (the film would had benefited from a final act burst of gonzo nuttiness). Instead it goes in another direction, adding a twist that’s reasonably clever but that won’t blow anyone’s socks off. Still, “Old Man” squeezes a lot out of its meager budget and single setting. And there are stretches where you’re so absorbed in the dialogue and the two central performances that the film’s constraints all but vanish. And while it sputters in the second half, it keeps your attention throughout – a testament to the talent both in front of and behind the camera. “Old Man” is out now in select theaters.

VERDICT – 2.5 STARS

REVIEW: “Orphan: First Kill” (2022)

“Orphan: First Kill” is a prequel to the 2009 psychological horror cult hit “Orphan”. It’s a rather unexpected second feature that sees Isabelle Fuhrman reprising her role as Esther, the creepy and calculating adoptee who terrorized her foster family in the first film. Despite being 13 years older and this new movie taking place prior to the original, Fuhrman falls right back into Esther’s skin, bringing the character and all her devilish cunning back in a startlingly convincing way.

William Brent Bell directs this new installment with David Coggeshall handling the screenplay. It’s based on a story by David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick and Alex Mace, the brainchildren behind the first movie’s script. Fans of the original film might remember one particularly disturbing aspect of Esther’s background. More specifically, what happened to her family before she was put in the orphanage. “First Kill” gives us a first-hand dive into those events.

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“Orphan: First Kill” may not convince us of the need for its existence, but it does provide fans of the 2009 movie plenty to munch on. At the same time, it’s undeniably silly and it doesn’t exactly start off on the strongest foot. But credit to the filmmakers who broadside us with a midway twist that I can’t imagine anyone seeing coming. It’s utterly bonkers and sadistic, but in a weirdly satisfying way it energizes the rest of the movie and makes this much more than just a carbon-copy of its predecessor.

Bell opens his movie with a prologue set in 2007. At an Estonian mental hospital called the Saarne Institute, Leena Klammer, the facility’s most violent patient, escapes. She assumes the identity of Esther Albright, the believed-to-be abducted daughter of a well-to-do American couple, Tricia (Julia Stiles) and Allen (Rossif Sutherland) Allbright. In Darien, Connecticut, Esther/Leena is ‘reunited’ with the Allbrights and their teenage son Gunnar (Matthew Finlan).

From there, the movie borrows the model of the first film as Esther’s deranged game of manipulation really kicks in. It seems like she may have hit the jackpot. The Albrights are a big-money family who fly in private jets, live in a sprawling country estate, and even have a collection of Fabergé eggs lined across their living room mantel just to highlight their wealth. And to top it all off, the ruggedly handsome Allen immediately catches Esther’s eye, if you know what I mean (à la Peter Sarsgaard from the 2009 flick).

That sounds like a pretty copy-and-paste approach, and you’d think it would be a hard sell this time around since we already know Esther’s BIG secret from the previous movie (I won’t spoil it for those yet to see it). Also, there’s an undeniable silliness to the idea of a daughter being gone for just four years yet returning this dramatically different. Yes there’s a physical resemblance, but the weird personality, the ice-cold eyes, the 18th century dress code, the poorly concealed Russian accent. Are there really no question marks or red flags popping up for this family?

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Enter that midway twist I mentioned. The movie answers all those concerns (to varying degrees of success) with a wild out-of-the-blue turn that jolts the entire story and sends it in a vastly different direction. It’s pure gonzo camp that doubles down on the nuttiness of its premise and gives the cast some warped yet wildly entertaining places to go. It’s especially true for Stiles and Fuhrman. Stiles has always been an underrated actress. It’s great seeing her get a role she can really sink her teeth into. Fuhrman is an unsettling force, but at age 25, it’s a little tougher to look like a convincing 9-year-old. But the movie pulls it off thanks to a clever mix of body-doubling, strategic camera angles, and an occasional splash of CGI.

Interestingly, the movie’s ending feels a little hurried and cheap. Yet at the same time, it kinda fits considering how zany this thing gets. And I can’t imagine them being able to take the series any further. Overall it’s hard to call “Orphan: First Kill” necessary, and in terms of series status all it really does is fill in a few holes. But who cares about all of that when we’re given something this much fun? Bell and Coggeshall have a field day bending the genre, and the small but game cast are all onboard. By the end, I knew I had been thoroughly entertained, yet I still sat wondering what on earth I had just watched. “Orphan: First Kill” is streaming now on Paramount+.

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS

REVIEW: “Orphan” (2009)

For some reason the 2009 psychological horror film “Orphan” slipped completely by me. Not only did I not see it during its original release, I don’t remember even hearing about it. In fact, it wasn’t until the announcement of its recently released prequel and its subsequent good word of mouth that I was actually aware of its existence. That’s crazy for me considering that “Orphan” wasn’t some obscure, minuscule budgeted, straight-to-video release. Even more baffling, it stars two acting talents I really enjoy – Vera Farmiga and Peter Sarsgaard.

To prep for its prequel, I finally sat down with “Orphan”. It’s directed by Jaume Collet-Serra (“Jungle Cruise”, “Black Adam”), written by David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick (“Aquaman”, “The Conjuring 2”), and co-produced by Leonardo DiCaprio (???). As mentioned, the film stars Farmiga and Sarsgaard playing a struggling couple who adopt a young girl to help cope with the loss of their own child. Needless to say, things don’t quite turn out as they had hoped.

Image Courtesy of Paramount

Kate and John Coleman’s marriage is at a critical point following the stillborn loss of their third child, Jessica. Kate (Farmiga), a recovering alcoholic, is finding it harder to resist her urges to drink. And the couple can’t seem to rekindle the intimacy they once had before losing their baby. After much consideration, Kate and John (Sarsgaard) visit St. Mariana’s Home for Girls and adopt 9-year-old Esther (Isabelle Fuhrman).

Esther is exceptionally bright, well-mannered, and artistic. But she’s not without her eccentricities. For example, she dresses as if she’s been yanked from another time period. And what’s with that old Bible she keeps hidden in her sock drawer? She immediately hits it off with the Coleman’s 5-year-old hearing impaired daughter, Max (Aryana Engineer). But their jealous 12-year-old son Daniel (Jimmy Bennett) immediately dislikes the new family addition, and the tension between the two only intensifies.

“Orphan” is one of those movies where the audience knows the angle from the start. We know something is off with Esther and that nothing good is going to come for this family. So it’s all about watching it play out and waiting for the truth about Esther to be revealed. In some films like this, that can be maddening. But kudos to Collet-Serra and Johnson-McGoldrick for creating characters we can connect with and care about. From there the task is to create atmosphere and build tension, something Collet-Serra does very well.

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The film is really helped by strong performances from Farmiga, Sarsgaard, and Fuhrman. Farmiga gets the meatiest and most complex role while Sarsgaard is a sturdy scene-sharer. Both find layers of humanity in their characters especially as their family dynamic starts to crumble. In the meantime, Fuhrman is a steadily unnerving presence, and she only gets creepier as Esther’s malevolence grows. It’s a wickedly effective performance.

So it took me a while, but I finally got around to seeing “The Orphan”. I’m glad I did. It’s a fun, preposterous, and at times chilling horror thriller that’s more interested in the psychological than cheap scares or gore galore. Other than a prequel, it’s hard to see what more they could do with it as this works really well as a stand-alone movie. There’s some quality character work, some really good tension-building, and a pretty gnarly final act that should please the genre faithful. “Orphan” is now streaming on Paramount+.

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS