Movies Till Dawn: Summer Shockers

The Columnist” (2019, Film Movement) Writer Katja Herbers takes a direct approach to the ceaseless toxic spew issuing from anonymous male posters about her column: she tracks them down and murders them in increasingly gruesome ways. The blackly amusing conceit at the heart of this Dutch comedy-thriller from director Ivo van Aart is likely to raise a crooked smile from anyone –writer or otherwise – who’s found themselves on the receiving end of a online troll’s ire, and there are some smart touches sewn throughout the film, like her daughter’s agitprop response to a teacher and her boyfriend (Bram van der Kelen), a horror writer in Criss Angel gear who’s really a stay-at-home kind of guy. Aart doesn’t dig too deeply into the complexities of revenge, though he also doesn’t make it easy or pleasant for Herbers; it’s ultimately grisly entertainment that nods at a real-life problem. Film Movement’s DVD is subtitled and widescreen

The Amusement Park” (1973/2020, Shudder) Long-shelved project from the Lutherans, who hired a then-still-unknown George A. Romero to deliver an educational film on societal disregard for the elderly and instead got a surreal and often alarming nightmare. Lincoln Maazel – who appeared in Romero’s “Martin” – is top-billed as a dapper elderly man who wanders into an amusement park (the real West View Park in Pennsylvania) where the rides and attractions seem focused on debasing and abusing him and other seniors. Romero leans heavily on blunt metaphor, but many of the setpieces are jarring (a sequence in which a woman tries and fails to get a doctor to see her ailing husband is particularly anxiety-provoking), and the harsh tone and editing does underscore the film’s unpleasant (but true) core notion: that most institutions (law enforcement, the medical and insurance industries, banks, etc.) and many individuals don’t give a shit about the elderly. Romero devotees will note his cameo as an abusive bumper car driver (!) and many regular collaborators behind the camera (William Hinzman, the first zombie seen in “Night of the Living Dead,” handled cinematography); it’s currently streaming on Shudder.

A Glitch in the Matrix” (2021, Magnolia Home Entertainment) Rodney Ascher, who makes fascinating and alarming documentaries (see “Room 237,” “The Nightmare,” and “The El Duce Tapes“), focuses here on the growing belief that life and reality as we understand it is a computer simulation. Mr. Ascher uses an impressive array of media – movie and video game clips, computer animation – to illustrate the external and internal influences that have allowed simulation theory to gain ground; the former includes the usual suspects (proliferation of technology, video games with sprawling universes like Minecraft), while the latter is a wealth of social and psychological issues (alienation, family trauma, conservative religious childhoods) that plague some of his interviewees – all of whom are hidden behind elaborate avatars – and have caused them to perceive what appear to be coincidence, synchronicity, and pure chance as evidence of an omnipotent super computer guiding their lives. Ascher also touches on celebrity proponents of the belief, including a 1977 speech by sci-fi writer Philip K. Dick that apparently set it in motion, and the extremes to which its adherents might reach, like Joshua Cooke, who discusses how “The Matrix” allegedly influenced the murder of his adoptive parents. Judgment of these positions, no matter how extreme, is absent from “Glitch,” which appears to have motivated some of its negative reviews; I don’t think Ascher’s intention was to make any sort of call on his subjects and their beliefs, and as such, the film remains a deep and deeply disturbing dive into a unreal mindset that somehow seems to be gaining ground. Currently streaming via various platforms.

The Fear” (1995, Vinegar Syndrome) Psychology student Eddie Bowz drags a motley cross-section of fellow students to his family’s remote cabin to conduct experiments on fear with the help of “Morty,” a wooden mannequin (!); upon confessing their deepest issues, the group is whittled down by an unseen assailant while a sexual predator stalks a nearby town (played by Lake Arrowhead). Indie chiller has a novel and creepy presence/antagonist in Morty (played by Erick Weiss) and makes an effort to fold supernatural phenomena into the body count/Jungian encounter session frame; those elements, along with a cameo by Wes Craven as Bowz’s advisor, may be enough to overcome the hopelessly muddled plot. Vinegar Syndrome’s 4K restored Blu-ray offers commentaries by director Vincent Robert (now a lecturer at USC) and producer Greg H. Sims, as well as a making-of with cast and crew interviews.

The Death of Me” (2020, Lionsgate Home Entertainment) While on holiday in Thailand, American travelers Maggie Q and Luke Hemsworth discover a video on his phone in which he appears to murder and then bury her. Supernatural thriller from director Darren Lynn Bousman (the “Saw” franchise) features appealing leads, some remarkable location photography, and some decidedly gruesome imagery (including a nod to gross-out Asian horror in which Ms. Q appears to spew up a snake) but cannot deliver a satisfying (or comprehensible) payoff for the intriguing hook of its premise. Blatant nods to “The Wicker Man” do not help, nor does the out-of-date depiction of a foreign culture as a hotbed of black magic with a singular focus on eliminating visitors. Lionsgate’s Blu-ray includes a making-of featurette.

About Paul Gaita

Paul Gaita lives in Sherman Oaks, California with his lovely wife and daughter. He has written for The Los Angeles Times, LA Weekly, Variety and Merry Jane, among many other publications, and was a home video reviewer for from 1998 to 2014. He has also interviewed countless entertainment figures, but his favorites remain Elmore Leonard, Ray Bradbury, and George Newall, who created both "Schoolhouse Rock" and the Hai Karate aftershave commercials. He once shared a Thanksgiving dinner with celebrity astrologer Joyce Jillson and regrettably, still owes the late character actor Charles Napier a dollar.
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