DVDanger: House on Willow Street

Kidnapping meets possession, plus more home releases

Sharni Vinson may need a bigger gun in House on Willow Street

Ever get up in the morning thinking you're in The Disappearance of Alice Creed, only to find out you're actually starring in The Evil Dead? That's the basics of supernatural kidnapping horror House on Willow Street.

Nobody does tough-but-panicked quite like Sharni Vinson (You're Next, the 2013 Patrick remake). Here, she gets to utilize that skill pretty quickly, since it's rare that an abduction caper goes so south, so fast. She's also the first in the gang to realize that something is very awry – not least that their victim seems more scared for them than of them. Quite wisely, since she's possessed by a demon that gloms onto grief, and everyone in this gang of two-time losers has more than enough of that to go around.

House on Willow Street (formerly From a House on Willow Street) doesn't bother with any ambiguity about whether there's something sinister afoot. Pretty much from the first moment that the crew bags up diamond heiress Katherine (Carlyn Burchell), there's grue-drooling, red-rimmed demons flitting in and out of view. Like all ill-fated criminals, the quartet of kidnappers have her holed up in a suitably decrepit old warehouse, filled with dark corridors and peeling paint, perfect for spook show antics.

There's nothing subtle going on here, with the action starting at 11 and pushing ever-harder. But it's so gung-ho in its action/horror fusion that it's hard to dislike, especially when each criminal faces their own increasingly disturbing demons. After all, when you've got a possessed teen levitating and force-choking people before the third act, you have to go for gonzo broke.

There's one very strange decision: a vital geographic note that only makes sense if the events take place somewhere in the ocean east of New Zealand. True, looking for watertight (or at least buoyant) logic here seems misguided, since the film flips from Sam Raimi territory, through your new favorite Turkish horror Baskin via Urotsukidōji, and then smashes joyously straight into full-blown Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance territory. Logic, schmogic, there's possession by long, wiggly, demonic tongue to be done.

House on Willow Street (IFC Midnight) is available on VOD. Also out now:

Nick Damici as Mister, hanging around in Stake Land 2

The world died with a scream, Martin (Connor Paolo) says at the beginning of Stake Land 2 (MPI, on VOD and Blu-ray now), and he was there to hear every one of them. The 2010 original, which redefined vampires back to the gutter-dwelling vermin they should be, was a horror-tinged Winter's Bone, with the mysterious Mister (Nick Damici, Late Phases) and his teenage ward Martin on a stumbling road trip through the last shreds of a rural America being ripped apart by near-mindless vamps. The ending had a brief glimpse of optimism, with the pair going their separate ways. A decade later, all hope is lost.

For the sequel, director and Damici's co-writer Jim Mickle (Cold in July, the U.S. remake of We Are What We Are) was indisposed, working on Sundance's Hap and Leonard adaptation. So Damici got to write the script all by himself, and the producers at Glass Eye Pix brought in Dan Berk and Robert Olsen (Body) to take over behind the cameras.

Part of the power of the first one was the semi-adoration in the voice of Martin as he narrated the story of their quest for a little bit of peace. Now that peace has been shattered, Martin is out only for revenge, and he needs the missing Mister to achieve his nihilistic quest. So like the first, this is a slow-paced and dust-covered quest for vengeance at the end of the world.

It's not perfect: Without Mickle, Damici overwrites Mister as something more akin to a Conan-era Schwarzeneggar character, even delivering a couple of off-key one-liners. Yet it also takes many of the standard features of vampire lore and views them through the very particular Stake Land lens. Kristina Hughes as the Mother, the next wave of vamp evolution, and a horde of messianic hillbilly Renfields, mixed with rising cannibalism, is a darker future than even the first film. Surviving for surviving's sake is the key issues, with even the increasingly starved vamps heading into daylight in desperation. Particular credit to production designer Sara McCudden and cinematographer Matt Mitchell for melding the next chapter of this broken future into one whole.

Zoe Kazan has some adulting to do in The Monster.

The world may not be ending in The Monster (Lionsgate, on DVD, Blu-ray, and VOD now), but even before the titular creature appears, it may feel like it for young Lizzy (Ella Ballentine, Anne of Green Gables). The teenager's bond with her mother Kathy (Zoe Kazan, Meek's Cutoff, Ruby Sparks) has fallen to such a point that she's going to live with her father. All they have left is one road trip to exchange custody, and they're done with each other. Inevitably, as they pass through the woods, their plans come unstuck after a car crash, and the appearance of something dark and terrible between the trees.

As with his debut, 2010's The Strangers, UT alum Bryan Bertino takes an established horror convention, and substitutes simple thrills for something more nuanced, more characetr-driven. In this instance, it's being trapped in a small space against a malevolent force (cf Cujo, Splinter, Phone Booth), and Bertino uses the empty back road as a stage upon which Kathy and Lizzy play out their dysfunctional relationship.

This isn't the lazy trope where the child becomes the adult. Kathy is the mother, she's just a terrible one. Flashbacks show that her decision to send Lizzy to live with her father is the most responsible she has ever made. From the first moment she appears, sprawled in bed like a surly teenager, Kazan makes her look just old enough to clearly have been too young to raise a child, and her bitterness, alcoholism, and physical abuse could make it hard to feel any sympathy for her.

It’s only the intervention of the monster – a hulking rat-bat-bear hybrid with skin like bubbling tar, straight out a nightmarish fairy tale – that places her within inches of redemption. Bertino doesn't spare the violence, gore, or hasty dispatching of those sent to help the stranded pair, but he never loses sight of the fact that this is a mother/daughter drama, albeit under the most extreme and bloody-clawed duress.

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