By Steve Newton
Here’s my original reviews of five worthy horror flicks now streaming on Tubi for zero dollars.
Take a hike, Netflix.
Bubba Ho-Tep (2002, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer)
Bubba Ho-Tep is a horror-comedy about two elderly men at a rundown retirement home–one supposedly Elvis Presley, the other claiming to be John F. Kennedy–who battle a mummy that sucks souls from victims’ arseholes.
Who would have thought that such a far-out B-movie premise could result in this sharply directed, wonderfully acted, and laugh-out-loud-funny tale of courage and redemption?
Three people are most responsible for Bubba Ho-Tep‘s surprising success. First off would be hard-nosed East Texas author Joe R. Lansdale, who wrote the offbeat novelette on which the film is based, publishing it in his 1994 short-story collection Writer of the Purple Rage.
The director who brings Lansdale’s singular vision to life is genre vet Don Coscarelli, who was in his early 20s when his feverish sphere-of-death horror flick Phantasm brought him cult acclaim in 1979. And Bruce Campbell is the actor who delivers the goods with a career-topping performance as geezer Elvis. His subtly nuanced take on the tragic superstar brings Campbell full circle from the Three Stooges like pratfalls of his Evil Dead flicks.
The talents of Lansdale, Coscarelli, and Campbell converge brilliantly in Bubba Ho-Tep, although thanks to the lack of foresight from any major Hollywood studio, that fact won’t be widely known until this overlooked gem becomes a hot property on video.
All the action, except flashbacks, takes place at the Mud Creek Rest Home in East Texas, where the decrepit residents start getting attacked by huge scarab beetles. Elvis’s battle with one such bug is particularly hilarious, especially when he skewers it on a fork, holds it up, and declares with a curly-lipped sneer: “Never, ever, fuck with the King!”
Soon after, Bubba Ho-Tep himself appears, shuffling about in cowboy boots and Stetson hat, sniffing around for stinky souls to steal. That’s when Elvis joins forces with the black JFK, played by charismatic Ossie Davis, and the two previously downtrodden codgers find new reason to embrace life in their quest to vanquish the ancient evil.
It’s the powerful bond between these two characters, much more than the creature effects or lowbrow humour, that screenwriter Coscarelli focuses on. His words, many of which are respectfully lifted directly from Lansdale’s original tale, are given resonance by the evocative, guitar-based score of Brian Tyler (Six-String Samurai).
After experiencing Bubba Ho-Tep‘s winning mix of pathos and absurdity, fans of contemporary horror-comedies will think twice when the next Scary Movie comes along.
Wolf Creek (2005, Roadshow Entertainment)
The intro to Wolf Creek claims that 30,000 people are reported missing every year in Australia and that 90 percent of them are found within a month. Of those who are never heard from again, there’s little doubt that some are murdered; there’s been a spate of backpacker killings down under in recent years. Writer-director Greg McLean’s uncompromising take on such real-life cases shocks with the same gritty realism as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
The movie opens with rugged Aussie good guy Ben (Nathan Phillips) buying a cheap used car and picking up two friends, British holidayers Liz and Kristy (Cassandra Magrath and Jennifer Aniston look-alike Kestie Morassi). The carefree trio have plans for some outback sightseeing, and after a routine run-in with rednecks at a remote gas station, they reach their destination, a meteorite crater at Wolf Creek National Park.
Everything goes fine until after their hike, when it’s time to leave, and the newly purchased clunker won’t start. As the group hunkers down for the night, a jovial hick named Mick (Oz screen veteran John Jarratt) shows up in a big truck and offers to tow them back to his place, where he’ll fix the car for free and send them on their merry way in the morning.
At first, their talkative host seems harmless enough; he’s the type of macho, eccentric loner you’d expect to find living out in the boonies. But when one of Ben’s smartass remarks draws a long, cold stare from Mick, it becomes pretty clear that the party has to end.
Sure enough, after being drugged with spiked rainwater, the guests awaken to find themselves bound and at the mercy of one well-armed and extremely sick puppy.
McLean’s digital videocam doesn’t pan away from Mick’s casually administered yet shockingly gruesome tortures, and the ghastly images are hard to shake. The tension meter gets stuck on high for the last 30 minutes of the film, culminating in an action-packed highway sequence straight out of Mad Max.
Wolf Creek relies as much on the extreme environment as the twisted motivations of a sadistic killer to instill fear and compound dread. The sheer, desolate expanse of the outback makes it obvious that even if the victims manage to escape the psycho’s grimy lair, their chances of survival are slim.
McLean’s cliché-free script and the believable performances by Phillips, Magrath, and Morassi keep you focused on their characters’ grim, life-or-death struggles against the unfathomable evil of man and the unforgiving power of nature.
Low-budget horror doesn’t get much better than this.
P2 (2007, Summit Entertainment)
As if underground parking wasn’t scary enough already. Ever try finding an empty spot in the Metrotown parkade on the weekend? The stress involved with that alone can kill ya. I just say, ‘Screw it,’ park out on the street somewhere, and deal with the pouring rain.
In the Big Apple you don’t always have that option, especially if you are like ambitious young executive Angela (Rachel Nichols of TV’s Alias). She’s working late on Christmas Eve, and by the time she leaves the office, the parking garage is deserted–apart from the uniformed security guy, Thomas (Weirdsville‘s Wes Bentley). When Angela’s car won’t start, he tries boosting it with a battery charger, to no avail.
He gets slightly miffed when the flustered blond fails to appreciate his efforts, but that’s nothing compared to how he reacts when she rejects his invitation to enjoy the turkey feast he’s whipped up at his guard station. Next thing you know, she’s been chloroformed, changed into a silk cocktail dress, and cuffed to a chair at Thomas’s dinner table.
The idea of a delusional man holding a beautiful woman captive isn’t exactly original, but in the skilled hands of screenwriters Alexandre Aja and Grégory Levasseur–who’ve honed their suspense chops on the riveting High Tension and The Hills Have Eyes–the result is a thoroughly engrossing psycho-thriller that never lets up.
Nichols and Bentley fulfill their cat-and-mouse roles to perfection, she as the strong-willed, resourceful victim and he as the pitiful, voyeuristic psychopath. The movie has a few gruesome moments, but for the most part first-time director and cowriter Franck Khalfoun takes a subdued approach to the unfolding nastiness.
He refuses to rely on the blindingly fast edits and screeching sound effects common in today’s teen-oriented horror flicks. While avoiding those types of technical cop-outs, Khalfoun fashions one of the most wildly entertaining fright flicks of the year, an old-school nail-biter that’s sure to make late-night holiday shoppers think twice as they push the button marked P2 on the parkade elevator.
Way to ruin Christmas, Thomas!
Buried (2010, Warner Bros. Pictures)
A few years ago, I was sleeping in the bunk of an old camper and I woke up feeling claustrophobic for the first time in my life. I had to clamber over my startled wife in the dark and exit that cramped space, pronto. It was a very unsettling experience, but nothing compared to what the protagonist endures in Buried, a gripping real-time experiment in close-quarters dread.
An American truck driver in Iraq, Paul Conroy (Vancouver’s Ryan Reynolds) is attacked on the job and taken hostage, waking up bound and gagged and freaking out in a wooden box—or coffin, if you will. He’s facing suffocation in, oh, 90 minutes or so, but he quickly learns that a mind-over-matter, Kill Bill–style escape is not an option. His precarious lifeline takes the form of a cellphone, a lighter, and a pencil.
An arresting study of modern man facing ancient fear, Buried falters only when its victim comes off as a bit of a dick. Conroy is in a do-or-die situation and, understandably, panicked, but imbuing him with a few people skills could have seriously heightened the drama. Even when he calls his Alzheimer’s-plagued mom and she doesn’t remember her own son, you don’t feel as sorry for him as you should.
Spanish director Rodrigo Cortés deserves credit for shooting an effective feature in 17 days with one set, one on-screen actor, and not a lot of other expenses. His creative use of total darkness and anxiety-inducing sound effects should inspire budget-challenged nightmare makers everywhere.
A beneficial byproduct of Conroy’s aforementioned personality flaw is the pitch-black humour that screenwriter Chris Sparling sparingly sprinkles amid the bleakness. His next film, ATM, is about three coworkers who become trapped during a late-night visit to a bank machine.
Forget being buried alive in a box; prepare yourself for the extreme terror of unavailable cash!
Frozen (2010, Anchor Bay Films)
After suffering through his witless 2007 gore fest, Hatchet, I didn’t have high hopes for writer-director Adam Green’s Frozen. I knew it was a skiing-related horror flick, so I pictured an axe-wielding maniac lunging from behind trees and turning the slopes bright red with blood.
Man, was I off the mark.
For its first half-hour or so, Frozen does resemble a routine slice-and-dicer, as young characters played by Kevin Zegers, Emma Bell, and Shawn Ashmore are shown wangling their way onto a ski lift and engaging in the usual inane chitchat befitting slasher victims.
But later on, when they try to squeeze in a last-minute run on the near-deserted mountain, the chair lift shuts down, leaving them stranded 30 metres above the ground.
Things get hairy when the night lights are switched off and the skiers realize the resort is shutting down and won’t reopen for another five days, and they’re without cellphones. What the fuck are they gonna do? What the fuck would you do?
When screaming for help doesn’t work, there are only three options. One is to stay put and freeze to death, another is to jump and risk breaking your legs, and the last is to traverse the chair-lift cable hand over hand until you get to a supporting tower and climb down. Either way, the do-or-die drama involves a whole lot of human suffering.
Fortunately for horror fans, all three actors embrace their pain-filled roles and deliver the goods. Apart from a cameo by actor-stuntman Kane Hodder of Friday the 13th fame, Green avoids Hatchet’s corny clichés and totally redeems himself with a harrowing portrait of humans at the mercy of the great outdoors.
The tourism department at Whistler will not be impressed.
Go here to read more than 350 of my original reviews of scary movies released theatrically in North America between 1988 and 2018.