Wednesday, 8 May 2019
Eddie Lengyel’s Scarred, that I reviewed here back in November 2015, was a cool throwback slasher movie that very much suggested Lengyel is a horror director to watch.
And now he’s back, but this time he takes on more crowd-pleasing mainstream fright flicks like the Conjuring or Insidious movies with American Poltergeist: The Curse Of Lilith Ratchet.
Scarred proved a strong effort, but would his creepy ghost story deliver the frights as well?
AMERICAN POLTERGEIST: THE CURSE OF LILITH RATCHET (2018)
Dir: Eddie Lengyel
Stars: KateLynn E Newberry, Rob Jaeger, Roger Conners, Angela Cole, Brianna Burke, George Tutie, Crissy Kolarik, Debbie Scaletta
SPEEDY SYNOPSIS: I’ll try not to spoil too much here but continue at your own risk.
Friends Alice (Newberry), Lauren (Burke) and Dylan (Conners) make a bizarre discovery in a small antique store - a shrunken head said to belong to a local legend, the witch Lilith Ratchet.
Upon presenting their find to supernatural podcast host Hunter Perry (Jaeger) they learn that playing an ancient game with the head (think hot potato but with the severed body part) runs the risk of awakening the ancient spirit.
Of course, Hunter - looking to give his show a ratings boost - gathers a group of fans to a special party to play the game. One by one they are eliminated until a winner is crowned.
But the game doesn’t end there - and as the losing players fall one-by-one the group enters a terrifying race against time to break the curse - before Lilith breaks them.
THE BEST BITS (mild spoiler warning): The biggest trend in crowd-pleasing horror right now is the spooky supernatural story. Almost a backlash to the torture porn craze of a few years ago, now blood has been replaced by chills, and the visceral reaction of these movies is caused by the jump scare rather than lashings of gore. The likes of Insidious and Sinister have proven to be real heavy-hitters while The Conjuring franchise has become one of the most profitable in the genre with The Curse Of La Llorona, the sixth entry, currently in cinemas.
What American Poltergeist: The Curse Of Lilith Ratchet proves is that it’s not only James Wan helmed big studio efforts that can make this format work.
Director Lengyel emerged as a great filmmaker with Scarred. With this movie he proves that was no fluke. He has crafted a fun and spooky flick that almost acts as a greatest hits of the ‘Blumhouse’-style genre movie, all while bringing plenty of new touches to the table as it does so.
The story is simple, not overly complex, but brings a couple of unique hooks to make it feel fresh. The game element of the storyline is very cool, while the flashbacks detailing the macabre story behind arch-villainess Lilith are also great fun.
That Lengyel frames each shot so well as to really evoke a suitably uneasy feeling also helps to elevate the ghoulish subject matter.
It helps that he has such a strong cast at his disposal. Newberry does a fine job as the leading lady, ensuring the viewer always feels sympathetic toward her plight.
Burke is a real revelation as Lauren and this promising young actress is one I shall be looking out for in the future.
It’s not just the ladies who impress, Jaeger delivers arguably the stand-out performance as Hunter- bringing the sleazy character to life without ever descending into caricature. His character also takes quite the journey and it’s fascinating watching him.
Conners (who I spoke highly of before in my review for Chill: The Killing Games) is also quite excellent. I enjoyed his work before, and it was a pleasure to see him once again.
Last but not least, Crissy Kolarik is brilliant as the titular phantom. The role is primarily silent, a wordless performance built on sheer theatrical physicality. Kolarik does not just understand this, she revels in it. A good horror villain can elevate a genre flick - and this is a very good horror villain indeed.
The character design is a huge part of what makes the character work - she looks not unlike Insidious’s infamous Bride in Black crossed with the criminally underrated Dead Silence’s Mary Shaw with a hint of the divisive Stay Alive’s Elizabeth Bathory all topped off with The Woman In Black. Think spooky pale-faced Victorian school ma’ams and you get the idea. It’s a recurring motif in horror for good reason - it works!
Credit has to go to make-up artist Daniel Blain Click and special effects guru William M. Johns for bringing the look to life so effectively.
And Johns delivers in other areas too. We get some decidedly grisly wounds and bloody kills along the way to the unexpected conclusion of Lengyel’s tale. That Lengyel can take so many familiar ingredients but still deliver some surprises along the way speaks volumes about his skills.
THE WORST BITS (mild spoiler warning): As I wrote earlier, Blumhouse’s character-driven ghost/demon stories are very much in vogue when it comes to the horror genre. It is good to see a smaller indie tackle these subjects - however, it is worth remembering that The Curse Of Lilith Ratchet is doing so on a significantly lower budget than your average Blumhouse national release.
It isn’t that Lengyel’s movie is shoddy - far from it - but of course it isn’t quite as polished as a lot of those big studio flicks. As such it is worth adjusting your expectations accordingly.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in a few scenes in which perhaps the time and budget to construct tailored sets would have worked to counter the limitations of the locations used.
I think it’s safe to say the hiding place chosen during the opening kill isn’t the strongest, while a key stand-off during the climactic game of cat and mouse in the night club where the game began also feels a little hampered.
I know it’s not really fair to pick at these things, caused by financial and time constraints rather than any deficiency of skill, but they are moments that can pull some people out of the moment.
These same constraints mean that not every performance hits the highs of the best moments during the movie. It’s not due to any lack of effort on the part of the actors, but every now and then the odd line does fall a little flat. Thankfully this is something that only occurs rarely, and does not significantly hinder enjoyment of the movie.
Finally, the pacing of the movie can get a little erratic at times. There are a couple of longer scenes that could probably have been excised or at least trimmed significantly to help the flow of the story. The movie does clock in at a little over 100min - it could afford to lose a minute (or five).
THE VERDICT: It is so refreshing to see a skilfully told jump-scare genre flick coming from the indies rather than a massive studio. It is even better to see that it is genuinely fun!
Lengyel has delivered the goods once again - sure, it’s a little rough around the edges at times, but at its core, The Curse Of Lilith Ratchet is pure entertainment. It features a neat hook with its game plotline, and an extremely cool villain. Under the writer/director’s assured guidance, and buoyed by some sterling performances and effects work, this is a sure-fire hit.
It’s not often I get to the end of an indie horror flick and instantly look forward to a sequel - rest assured, that if Lengyel and his crew want to return to this story, I am ready for Ratchet!
American Poltergeist: The Curse Of Lilith Ratchet is available at Walmart and Amazon.com - UK readers, stay tuned for an official release date. In the meantime, why not check out the film’s official Facebook page here? Give it a like while you’re there too, these guys deserve it!
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Until next time, I hope you enjoyed your stay.