A prequel-then-sequel to the runaway low-budget horror hit of 2009, Paranormal Activity 2 follows Kristi (Sprague Grayden), the sister of poor Katie (Katie Featherston) from the first film, as she deals with her own haunted house in which she lives with her husband Dan (Brian Boland), teenage stepdaughter Ali (Molly Ephraim) and infant son Hunter (oh, and Abby, the family's trusty German Shepherd who gets knocked around in a particularly nasty tussle with whatever-the-hell-it-is). To reveal any of the plot details would just spoil everything, but suffice to say that the Paranormal Activity movies are carving out as intricate and layered a mythology as the Saw films they so victoriously replaced; kudos also to Paramount for keeping the original film's grungy but extremely effective "found footage" aesthetic for the sequel and not going for something completely overblown and inappropriate like Artisan did with the franchise-destroying Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2. PA 2's visual style might not pack as strong a punch as it did in the original simply because familiarity deflates surprise and tension, but it still makes for some terrific scares -- there's a particularly strong "Gotcha!" moment in the kitchen that you won't see coming even now that we've told you about it.
Afghanistan gets the Blair Witch treatment in this intense docudrama that somehow manages to be almost as disturbing and harrowing as anything you saw on the news over the past decade or so. September Tapes follows an American journalist, Don Larson (George Calil), as he travels to the region accompanied by an interpreter, Wali Zarif (Wali Razaqi), and a cameraman, Sunil (Sunil Sadarangani), one year after 9/11 in an attempt to shed some light on the hunt for Osama bin Laden; his frightening journey consists of him being arrested by local police, beaten by Al-Qaeda sympathizers and clashing with Wali himself before he goes missing; the film is made up of footage from tapes that were recovered from a cave used as a sanctuary for Al-Qaeda operatives. September Tapes might qualify as the ultimate "Don't Leave Home" horror film ever made, and you'll marvel at the fact that it's not a documentary -- director Christian Johnston has staged some of the most startlingly realistic images of a country tearing itself apart ever put to film, seen through the eyes of a well-meaning but ultimately powerless foreigner. Paul Greengrass' Green Zone delved into this kind of territory but only half-succeeded in capturing the same feelings of danger and chaos; meanwhile, September Tapes pulled off its startling vision on a budget of only $30,000.
One of the (much) better entries in the annual "8 Films to Die For" horror series, Lake Mungo follows the grieving Palmer family -- Russell (David Pledger), June (Rosie Traynor) and their son, Mathew (Martin Sharpe) -- as they strugge to come to terms with the death of their daughter/sister, 16-year-old Alice (Talia Zucker), a drowning victim; when things start going bump in the night in their home, they enlist the services of a psychic (Steve Jodrell) and discover that Alice was living something of a mysterious -- and dangerous -- double life. Not so much a horror film as an unsettling portrait and exploration of grief, Lake Mungo might disappoint horror fans looking for a rollicking haunted house movie; however, the film ends up being a disturbing descent into the darkness in its own right, especially whenever we cut back to the "found footage" shot on the night that Alice died (and once the nature of her relationship with her neighbors is revealed, but we'll shut up now). A modest but classy supernatural mystery that for some reason inspired talks of a possible American remake; why, just so we don't have to listen to all those Australian accents?
A sort of first-person companion piece to Gus Van Sant's excellent Elephant (also released in 2003), Zero Day follows two teenagers as they plan for a Columbine-style attack on their high school; their video diary consists of a series of weapons preparations and explanations of their motives as well as a chronicle of unrelated events such as going to the prom, working at a local pizzeria and egging the house of a fellow student. The film's climax, seen through a series of security cameras, has the boys showing up at school with three pistols, a rifle, a shotgun and a bunch of pipe bombs, where they execute their plan with a chilling precision and distinct lack of emotion. Zero Day is perhaps a more disturbing portrait of psychosis than Elephant simply because the two students seem so lucid; they're seemingly completely aware of what they're doing and what the consequences will be, often assuring their respective parents that it's "not your fault" via video confessions meant to be found after the incident and going about their planning and preparation with a kind of deadpan casualness. Like Elephant, the film is almost unbearably intense as it leads up to its inevitable tragic conclusion; it's almost something of a relief when the two boys actually -- and finally -- open fire.
A bunch of gangbangers get a bonus trophy after they hijack some poor bastard's car: a video camera, with which they chronicle their various law-breaking exploits. An almost complete lack of narrative structure makes for occasional tedium (the film is really little more just a series of profane and often violent vignettes), but Gang Tapes has nothing if not dangerous energy and brutal honesty; the amateur actors sometimes mug and show off a bit too much, but that's kind of the point, and director Adam Ripp deserves credit for just going for broke with this searing portrait (or home movie, rather) of South Central Los Angeles. With the exception of Darris Love, all of the lead actors in this movie were former gang members -- this doesn't provide a pulpit from which Ripp can preach a heavy-handed anti-gang message but rather brings an even stronger sense of gritty realism. A genuine, uncompromising piece of low-budget filmmaking; call it a "coming of rage" story, a sort of variation on Boys n the Hood as if done by the Cannibal Holocaust crew.