When someone is going to hypnotherapy, there is a certain level of trust placed in the therapist. Now what if that therapist is possessed by a demonic force looking to take advantage of the situation? This is just one of the ideas explored in “Evil Lurks”, a new indie horror film from director Aaron Hawkins and Chris Shern.
Kimberly suffered a great loss in her life and has been overcome with grief ever since. She seeks the help of a hypnotherapist named Harold. Harold is quickly drawn to her, and he suggests a private therapy session, which she agrees to. Little does she know that her therapist is possessed by a malevolent force known as the “Ssh Man” who appears every 15 years on the blood moon. After being viciously sexually assaulted, Kimberly is sent to the psychiatric hospital where she gives birth to a daughter, Erica. Fifteen years after her birth, the Ssh Man is once again roaming the earth, this time looking for his offspring. Kimberly, knowing that her daughter is in danger, gathers all of her strength to track down Erica and protect her before the “Ssh Man” discovers Erica’s location.
What “Evil Lurks” may lack in budget it makes up for in spirit, creativity and talent. Hawkins and Shern tell a story that covers the subject of grief, loss, foster parenting, and trust. The idea of the “Ssh Man” is chilling and executed well. I loved the concept, and the portrayal was legitimately scary thanks to the performance of Chris Shern. Harold flips between charismatic hypnotist to possessed madman like a light switch. He sells the evil, elevating some of the more extreme scenes. Amanda Winston’s Kimberly is a very sympathetic character. Winston makes you feel her frustration and sadness as she deals with all of the trauma she has experienced. You get the feeling there is something more than just the horrors she’s faced at the hands of the “Ssh Man”. Kimberly’s daughter, Erica, is played by Savannah Mae. I thought she did great as a young woman caught up in something so dark. There was a good mother-daughter chemistry between her and Winston.
It is always interesting to see how a filmmaker will handle extreme abuse scenes. Some show everything, some keep things more to the imagination with quick cuts and obscure camera angles. Hawkins and Shern do a little bit of both. The camera does not shy away from the abuse, giving weight to what is happening, but it does not feel exploitative. Props to both Winston and Shern for how they handled difficult scenes.
“Evil Lurks” feels overambitious when it comes to the visual effects. There are a number of scenes where Kimberly is in a nightmare world. These scenes are where the smaller budget is most evident. The compositing of the green screen is apparent in some spots but Winston still does an excellent job in selling the idea that she is in an otherworldly place. I loved what they were going for and I wish they would have had a bigger budget to pull these sections off better. The dialog audio is also muddled in a few scenes.
The subject of grief, separation, and loss have been a popular subject in horror the last couple years. Some have handled these subjects well while others have stumbled. Evil Lurks is in the middle of this group. While some of the production elements could have been better, it is the direction and performances that make it a worthwhile watch.
There is a new coming-of-age movie out that has the spirit of a classic fairytale but with modern sensibilities. W tells the story of Violet, a very inquisitive and naive girl who believes that she is a witch. Her family life is not the greatest. Her sister Savannah aspires to be a model and is overly concerned about her body image. Violet’s mom Chloe never smiles like she used to, and Violet figures it may be because her dad Adam spends all the time on the internet. While her sister auditions to be a model for a fashion icon named Yana, Violet wanders into a nearby forest and comes across a witch named Hazel. Violet bonds with Hazel through their mutual connection to nature and magic. Soon Violet is on a journey that will change her and her family forever.
Wonderwell is a fanciful female-led story that is sure to spark the imagination of many young people. It will also spark conversations about puberty, self-image, family dynamics, social behaviors and more. Director Vlad Marsavin weaves these themes into the tapestry of a fantasy world that includes floating gold faces, extra large venus fly traps, and flowers that seem to be able to move. All the elements looked fantastic thanks to the special effects which helps immerse you into Violet’s world. Whether you are in the green gardens of the Paradiso or the coldly modern Inferno, it all looks great thanks to Cinematographer Kenji Katori. The gorgeous score by William Ross is part John Willams and part Hans Zimmer that not only enhances the emotions of each scene but manages to shine on its own.
The cast also shines. Carrie Fisher puts in a solid, heartwarming performance that reminds us how much we miss her talent. Her Witch Hazel had the perfect balance of kindness, sympathy and strength. Rita Ora plays Yana, the Yin to Hazel’s Yang. They only get one major scene together but it was my favorite scene; powerful and tension-filled. Yana is a dark, cold character who has a commanding presence everytime she is on screen. Ora plays her perfectly. She is definitely a villain you will love to hate. Young newcomer Kira Mileward holds her own with the veterans. While her line delivery was rough at times, her charisma and energy helped make up for it. She had great chemistry with the other performers, particularly with Carrie Fisher and Nell Tiger Free who plays Savannah. Free makes a perfect jump from a rebellious teen to someone questioning their choices. She uses a lot of facial expressions effectively in her performance to convey this transition. You can see she is torn between being a cold-hearted model and a loving sister.
There is an interesting parallel between the Hazel and Yana relationship and Violet and Savannah relationship. It is as if we are seeing how Hazel and Yana started out through the younger characters. It is not just reflected in how the characters are written, but also in their costuming. Costume Designer Nicoletta Ercole designs were both visually striking and helped enhance the personality of the characters. Violet and Hazel wore soft, warm, earth toned clothing while Yana’s clothing was far colder, abstract and made up of mostly black. You could tell Ercole had a lot of fun designing Yana’s clothing line. I could see any one of these designs on the runway in real life.
The only issue I had with the film was with the ending. I could have used a bit more explanation on how the magic worked. Specifically, in the way things are resolved. I understand that the main focus is Violet dealing with the changes that occur with getting older, so some aspects of the story do not get as much attention. Still, I would have liked a little more in the rules of the world and why the resolution worked the way it did. I don’t need everything spelled out but the ending did leave me with a few questions.
Wonderwell is a magical, entertaining and sometimes thought-provoking family film. It does not shy away from presenting some heavy topics like infidelity and the sexualization of young women but it doesn’t get too far into the weeds on these topics. The ninety-six minute run time breezes by and the overall production value makes it worth a watch. 4 out of 5 stubs.
Curses, Demons, and the Occult. While most commonly found in horror films, these elements can also be found in other genres. Their meanings vary from culture to culture. There is a new film from Japan that deals with all three subjects, but not in a way that you might be used to.
In The Divine Protector - Master Salt Begins, members of a high school occult club discover a way to summon “Master Salt”, a protector of the Divine, repealer of evil, and eliminator of curses. One of the members of the club has had a number of strange and scary incidents that the club determines are due to a curse. They summon Master Salt to help get rid of the curse. Master Salt does as advertised. The club decides that there are many people who could use Master Salt’s help and they work together to help eliminate curses and heal those affected by them.
The Divine Protector - Master Salt Begins is a Buddhist morality play. It is a female driven story that is well acted, excellently crafted, and solidly written. I am glad that I watched the subtitled version with the original dialog. Rin Kijima delivers a skillful performance as Master Salt, played with such passion and strength that you can’t wait for her to appear. Her theme song is catchy too. By the third time I heard it, I was happy as I knew Master Salt was about to lay the smack down. There is a wonderful balance and honesty to her character that is amplified by Kijima’s performance.
The story plays out like an anthology with four self-contained subplots dealing with different curses. These curses take various supernatural forms and carry out selfish, evil deeds. There is a man who uses a phone scam to prey on the elderly, an abusive husband, an egotistical playboy, and a jealous classmate. These curses are exposed by Master Salt and removed from the people they are plaguing. In many movies, we would see the hero just kill the evil, but Master Salt rarely takes that path. Instead, she teaches the curse what it is doing wrong. She also teaches the person about what they did to allow the curse to inhabit them. The strong religious overtones may be hard to relate to, particularly in Western culture, but the story’s intention is one of positivity and redemption. The special effects were a bit campy but given the budget and type of film this is, I found amusement in their quality. The cinematography and color usage was beautiful whether it was just a scene in a hallway or someone walking through a park. It is a gorgeous film.
With all that is going on in the world, we need more positive films and The Divine Protector - Master Salt is definitely that. Director Hiroshi Akabane takes care in addressing dark subjects without turning bleak. While some may not enjoy the film due to the religious foundation, many will find a lot of fun with this fantastical tale. I know I did and so did my wife. The Divine Protector - Master Salt Begins is out in select theaters now and will soon be on VOD.
I have been reviewing films since high school. I love discussing films with those who share my passion for them. I also do video reviews on YouTube and on my podcast.