‘The Amusement Park’
What if Samuel Beckett had been a writer-in-residence at Six Flags Great America?
That’s what I kept thinking as I watched this heartbreaking existential drama from George A. Romero. Shot at the defunct West View Park north of Pittsburgh, the film recently started streaming for the first time, 48 years after the maverick horror director completed it.
Lincoln Maazel (the father of the conductor Lorin Maazel) plays an older man who becomes mentally disoriented and physically battered as he wanders a surreal amusement park filled with hucksters, uncaring doctors and other abusive villains. As a horror allegory on aging, “The Amusement Park” is worse than scary. It’s despairing.
Long considered lost, the 53-minute movie was commissioned by a Lutheran organization for use as an educational film to combat ageism and the mistreatment of seniors. But the group stopped showing it after some initial screenings, citing its edgy content.
That’s no surprise since Romero, who died in 2017, stamped his horror hallmarks all over the film, from unsettling camerawork and enthusiastic amateur actors to a harrowing story of a brutalized Everyman. It’s one of the most exciting horror movie events of the summer.
“Saw” meets “Big Brother” and “The Circle” in this blood-drenched dark satire about the inhuman lengths humans go to be liked and, even scarier, how far we as consumers push them on their descent to social media hell.
The film starts as a cast of international D-list celebrities gather at a mansion to compete in an online reality show featuring one-on-one battles. The prize is $5 million for the person who remains the last one standing as voted on by viewers.
The problem is that the game is overseen by an evil mastermind who directs the eight captive contestants in horrific fights to the death. As ratings soar, and as the authorities struggle to find the location where the blood baths are happening, fame becomes a kill-or-be-killed pursuit.
Written and directed by Jason William Lee, “Funhouse” is macabre catnip for reality-TV fans. The metaphors about the ugly side of virtual fame aren’t subtle. But there is a sick pleasure in watching self-aggrandizing internet nobodies reach their final eliminations, whether by battle axes or flesh-disintegrating acid.
‘An Unquiet Grave’
I’m a sucker for horror stories about the well-intentioned but ill-fated desire to have a loved one resurrected from the dead, only to have it become a case of Be Careful What You Wish For. The French series “Les Revenants” nailed it.
So does this low-budget two-hander, directed by Terence Krey. A year after his wife, Julia, dies in a car crash, Jamie (Jacob A. Ware) asks his wife’s sister, Ava (Christine Nyland), to help him perform a ritual at the accident site that he says will bring Julia back.
But what Jamie doesn’t say is that he wants to revive Julia in Ava’s body. He does it anyway, but Julia quickly becomes unnerved by her between-worlds spirit living in her sister’s body. Her guilt becomes overwhelming, to Jamie’s distress.
Small but mighty, the film uses only a few claustrophobic locales — a car, a house and a spot in the woods — to tenderly examine grief, loss and what happens when healing has no end date. The spot on final scenes hauntingly conclude a poignant what-if story about a return from the other side.
Nicolas Cage speaks volumes with his mouth closed. In “Raising Arizona,” he offered an entire back story in his hangdog gaze alone.
Cage’s nonverbal chops come in handy in this bloody action-packed horror comedy, since he doesn’t say a word. Cage plays a drifter whose car breaks down in a small town. He agrees to work off the repair bill by cleaning Willy’s Wonderland, a Chuck E. Cheese-style pizza emporium with cuddly looking animatronic characters.
But something sinister is brooding in the once-happy eatery, and Ozzie the Ostrich and his furry oversized pals are out for blood.
The kicks in Kevin Lewis’s film come from a ridiculous series of human vs. mascot death fights. The story will look familiar to fans of Five Nights at Freddys, the horror video game series about killer animatronics at a pizza shop, and to anyone who watched the 2019 horror reboot of the “Banana Splits Adventure Hour.”
As a Gen Xer with a decent Skee-Ball throw, I watched “Willy’s Wonderland” as cinematic closure on childhood animatraumas. When Cage’s character kills Gus the Gorilla in a game of hide-and-seek, it’s like watching an entire generation exorcise the hopes and dreams of youth that the 1980s promised and never delivered.
This horror anthology has an intriguing premise: An evil doctor tries to weaponize fear by sapping terror from five hostages who suffer from intense phobias.
Unfortunately, the shorts collected here are not as scary as I hoped they would be in a horror movie about irrational fear. But two are standouts.
“Robophobia” (fear of robots) stars Leonardo Nam as Johnny, a man contacted by a supernatural being whose initial benevolence comes with sinister strings. Directed by Joe Sill, the segment is a taut and surprisingly touching examination of a father-son bond.
But fast forward to the final film for the real reason to watch “Phobias.” Jess Varley’s gory and very creepy “Atelophobia” (fear of imperfection) stars the singer Macy Gray as an architect on a “Frankenstein”-style mission to reimagine and rebuild herself.
By the end of her intensely ghoulish performance, you’ll be as convinced as I was that Macy Gray is the horror movie queen you didn’t know you wanted.