Sunday, 17 June 2018

Hereditary (USA 2018: Dir Ari Aster)

Horror films SHOULD NOT BE TWO HOURS LONG. There, it's out there. Bit shouty but you get the point. Hereditary is actually over two hours long, and this is a drawback, as it is impossible to sustain the tension generated by the first half of a movie if said movie runs for 127 minutes. Mind you, if it had generated the tension of the first hour right the way through, it would be advisable for cinemas showing the film to revive those marketing wheezes of the 1960s by having a crew from St John Ambulance on standby to deal with fainting members of the audience.

So, being Ari Aster's feature debut as director, I'll be generous and assume that any mild sagginess at the movie's mid point is all about him giving the audience a bit of a breather, before things ramp up again for Hereditary's climax. And, like a Masterchef judge who initially slags off a beautifully presented dish knowing that they're really going to give it maximum points, for the things that Aster puts on the screen and how his superb cast of actors deliver it, it's well deserving of praise.

I've long thought Toni Colette has a face for horror (as witnessed in 1999's The Sixth Sense and even occasionally in the 2015 comedy horror Krampus) and she is note perfect as Annie Graham, an artist who, when we first meet her, is dealing with the death of her mother, a person she wasn't particularly close to, while being tolerantly supported by husband Steve (Gabriel Byrne). She's annoyed that her daughter Charlie (a miraculous debut performance from 15 year old Milly Shapiro) seemed to be her late mum's favourite, and this guilt, with a mix of feelings generated via bereavement, leads her to believe that her mother's presence remains in the house. Normally this would be sufficient content alone for a movie, but these events are just a jumping off point for the rest of the show (although the spoiler free policy of this site forbids me explaining much more).

Aster is rather guilty of throwing everything genre into the mix - seances, discovered books, a spooky attic - but there are so many great flourishes that this can be forgiven even if the sheer weight of parlour tricks slightly dilutes the impact of the movie's climax. And there's a refreshing lack of jump scares accompanied by thundering music. In fact the soundtrack by Colin Stetson is a haunted house theme ride all of its own, all shudders, clicks, whirrs and silences. Quite brilliant.

But I haven't mentioned Toni Collette for a while. Now 46, the actor's face is impossible to take your gaze away from. And that's because Aster spends a lot of time sticking it in your face with the audience watching her respond to the awfulness around her - a trick pulled off to the same effect in the recent mother! This is to some extent Annie's movie, as nearly all the events unfold via her experience or detection, and it's only right at the end that the action opens out - it's a shift in tone which again almost threatens to unseat the movie which has, up to this point, been a succession of things only partly glimpsed. Praise also for Milly Shapiro's performance - old beyond her years, her passive face nevertheless communicating a whole film's worth of fears and anxieties. Also excellent is Alex Wolff, playing Annie and Steve's son Peter. Wolff is also currently in Marc Meyers' My Friend Dahmer - which I confess to not having liked very much - but nothing prepared me for his searing performance in this movie. One scene in particular, if you see the film, will definitely haunt you for days.

Hereditary is a fright flick that has impressed me the more I think about it. Yes it has its flaws, but more often than not it hits the spot, and as a debut feature Aster should be congratulated for doing new things with some very old tools.

Thursday, 14 June 2018

The Endless (USA 2017: Dir Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead)

Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead’s follow up to their excellent 2014 romance-with-tentacles movie Spring is a real melon twister of the highest order.

Benson and Moorhead both star (casting themselves using their own first names) as brothers, who ten years previously had escaped from a woodland deity worshipping cult. The group had adopted the pair from infancy, rescuing them from a car crash near the commune which killed their mother.

But returning to normal life has clearly been difficult. When we first meet them, Justin and Aaron are both stuck in menial cleaning jobs, living a real second gear existence. But a strange package delivered to their home, containing an old video tape featuring one of the cult - Anna - seeming to address them personally, sets off a desire (by Aaron at least) to return to the commune. Grudgingly Justin agrees to accompany him. 

When the brothers arrive at the so called ‘Camp Arcadia’ they find the cult members no older than when they last saw them. The group are also preparing for an ‘Ascension’ which presumably will find the commune members reborn. Justin remains sceptical but Aaron is quickly seduced back into the cult's strange ways and rituals, forming an attachment with Anna, now broadly the same age, who raised him from a baby.

As usual to tell more of the plot would be to spoil the fun, suffice it to say that we’re in Triangle, Time Crimes and Primer territory here. And while all those films are good in their own ways, what makes The Endless such a terrific movie is the balance of ‘oh wow’ moments with a rich vein of dry humour which not only adds to the suspension of disbelief needed to accept the movie’s plot, but makes Benson (who wrote the script) and Moorhead (also Director of Photography on the flick) a really enjoyable duo to spend time with.

Other supporting characters are also well-defined, particularly the inscrutable cult leader Hal (Tate Ellington) and there's a fine turn from James Jordan as the brilliantly named and creatively angry Shitty Carl - intriguingly some of these characters return from Benson and Morehead's debut feature, 2012's Resolution, suggesting that the cycles in which the cast of this movie operate may exceed the confines of the film. The Endless builds quietly from its linear opening, and tells its story with some care while opening out the drama, resisting the urge to be overly tricksy and maintaining wit and humanity: the ending packs such a punch because the preceding hour and a half has been structured so well.

One of my favourite films of the year so far. See it.

Tuesday, 12 June 2018

Exquisite Corpse (USA 2010 Dir: Scott David Russell)

Despite the DVD distribution company rather clumsily re-dressing this movie as House of Death and pretending it dates from 2014, Exquisite Corpse was actually made back in 2010 (not to be confused with 2012's The Exquisite Corpse Project or an adaptation of the 1996 Poppy Z Brite novel of the same name), and is a bizarre retelling of Re-Animator but with a squeaky-clean cast that seem to have strayed in from old One Tree Hill episodes.

Steve Sandvoss plays Nicholas, a bright med student who is obsessed with bringing an end to death. His experiments on lab mice have so far resulted in precisely the opposite - and has a box of expired rodents to prove it - but when he accidentally sends a charge through one of them, the results, combined with a serum previously applied to the late mouse (extracted from humans at various points including orgasm and childbirth), produces the effect he was hoping for. This medical breakthrough proves extremely useful when his new girlfriend, rather pretentious artist Sophia (helium voiced Nicole Vicius) accidentally drowns while on a weekend break with Nicholas and two friends. Administering the serum Sophia is brought back to life, but it's not long before the only things she wants to eat in the refrigerator are the bags of blood that Nicholas has brought home from the lab.

Things get pretty gruesome in Exquisite Corpse but the whole thing is served up with a sheen worthy of high quality TV drama. There are some unintentionally funny sequences (Nicholas and his jock friend spouting medico-babble, and particularly Sophia's first death scene which intercuts between her thrashing in the water, Nicholas grinding coffee grounds and said jock friend and squeeze getting jiggy with it). There are attempts to classic up the dialogue, with frequent references to the state of orgasm in French (la petite mort) and not to be trusted course supervisor Dr Waldman (this film's version of Re-Animator's Dr Carl Hill) alluding to Greek drama, likening Nicholas to Orpheus and Sophia to Euridyce.

Silly as it is I found Exquisite Corpse to be far more entertaining than I was expecting. More than likely to turn up at charity shop near you sometime soon, it'll be worth at least 99 pence of your hard earneds.

Thursday, 31 May 2018

Who's Watching Oliver (Thailand/USA 2017: Dir Richie Moore)

The Oliver of the title in Richie Moore's pitch black trangressive movie is a strange, lumbering loner of a man. Possessed of a voice that is half Keith from UK TV show The Office and half Michael Caine, this troubled character appears, in the film's opening scenes, newly relocated to Thailand, accompanied by little else other than some threadbare clothes, a set of rusty knives and a laptop, which he uses to Skype and receive instructions from his domineering and clearly very addled dipsomaniac mother.

From here on in Oliver does what he has presumably done in other countries. At his mother's bidding he procures girls in bars, takes them home, rapes and kills them (rather like 'Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner' in Warren Zevon's 1978 song of the same name) then dismembers and disposes of the bodies. Oliver is clearly torn between the life he wants and the murderous desires of mama, which he tries and fails to resist. His worst excesses (!) kept in check by regular medication, Oliver's life is turned round when he meets the beautiful and beguiling Sophia (Sara Malakul Lane) in an amusement park. Sophia sees beneath Oliver's strange exterior, a romance of sorts blossoms, but it gradually becomes obvious that his new beau has some dark secrets of her own. Will her love for Oliver be enough to halt his life of murder and allow him to defy his own mother?

Richie Moore's debut feature is a very strange beast indeed. Tonally it tries to have its (bloody) cake and eat it, which means it never really settles between dark romance, torture porn and psycho biography. The recent crop of Ozploitation flicks  - from Wolf Creek to The Snowtown Murders via 1993's Bad Boy Bubby are obvious jumping off points (and this film is at times as difficult as all those put together) - but there was also something of Hywel Bennett's Martin/Georgie character all the way back in 1968's Twisted Nerve. I kept wondering whether Russell Geoffrey Banks (playing the titular character with a rawness seldom seen in independent pictures these days) was going to break character - and thus the fourth wall - direct to camera. It's to his credit that he didn't, but it makes Who's Watching Oliver a more relentless watch. 

If there is a criticism it's that the combined exuberance of Banks as Oliver and Margaret Roche as his mother are too sustainedly over the top to keep the lid on the movie's tension. At times it felt like early Peter Jackson gore movies - frenetic but with diminishing returns for the viewer - and I could have done with more light and shade in the performances. Also the relationship between Oliver and Sophia rather strained the 'opposites attract' concept and thus was never quite believable.

But there is an intensity in this film which was quite unexpected for this viewer, helped by a splendidly awkward soundtrack, which veered between jazz standards juxtaposing the onscreen, er, action, and pleasingly edgy electronic pieces underscoring Oliver's conflicting states. And even if his performance is occasionally uneven, you'll not see a more committed embodiment of the tortured serial killer in the shape of Russell Geoffrey Banks for quite some time. Go easy there traveller, but worth a watch.

Tuesday, 29 May 2018

Child of Satan (USA 2016: Dir Mitesh Kumar Patel, Sam Son)

A quick toddle around the internet will tell you two things about Child of Satan: firstly its distribution history. This 2016 movie was originally marketed with Rosemary's Baby in mind (including telltale baby carriage on the cover), but was then repackaged under the alternative name Neron, with the tagline 'Knowledge leads to extinction' - no, me neither. In the latest release the pram is now back, as is the original title, but with the Neron strapline. No, still none the wiser.

The second thing the world wide web will tell you is that no-one, but no-one has a good word to say about the movie in either of its guises.

Director Patel's previous feature, 2011's The Man in the Maze, seems to have been beset by the same problems encountered in Child of Satan: well photographed but shoddily edited, incomprehensible plot, and with a script not so much written as fought over by committee. But five years is a long time not to learn from the errors in your first movie.

In Child of Satan a heavily pregnant Allison (played by the UK's own Kacey Grange Hill Clarke) almost miscarries at her baby shower, which may have something to do with an eclipse taking place at the same time, deemed as an ill omen. The baby is born premature if healthy, but exerts a strange demonic influence on those looking after it - calling it Neron probably didn't help. The cause of the diabolic kerfuffle may be traced back to the father, Kevin, being involved in some voodoo business in Mexico five years previously (and who is still up to his old tricks carrying on with Allison's best friend Tara (Caite Upton, formerly Miss South Carolina Teen USA 2007) behind her back. As the baby grows in strength a string of fatalities occurs, but the evil bambino resurrects the fallen as zombie slaves to realise its grand plan - whatever that is. An increasingly disturbed Allison does not know where to turn, until she encounters a priest who may or may not be of this earth (a rather bored looking Eric Roberts) and who offers her Christian salvation in the form of a very big knife.

Patel and Son's film feels like it was rescued in the editing studio, and with no fewer than nine producers on board, it's kind of a surprise it got made at all. It's unfair to say that the movie makes no sense although several plot strands do kind of disappear and the whole thing feels like it's been held together by a wing and a prayer. And on that subject, initially I thought that because of the pronounced good vs evil plot it may have been church funded (although the uttered line "Fuck off you homewrecking cunt!" suggests not). The SFX are a triumph of lo fi-ness, and it's a shame there aren't more of them as, basic though they are, they are intriguing (depicting blood spray by animating it onto the lens of the camera filming the action anyone?). But all round this was very hard work even for a genre completist like me.

Monday, 28 May 2018

Hangman (USA 2017: Dir Johnny Martin)

Hangman feels like a movie beamed in from another decade, with its blue/grey colour palette, grizzled anti heroes and the unnecessary plot intricacy of, say, David Fincher (Se7en and Zodiac are obvious reference points).

Al Pacino gives a rather insouciant performance as Ray Archer, retired and much loved cop brought back for one last case when his ex partner, brick outhouse-shaped Detective Will Ruiney (Karl Urban) needs assistance in catching a serial killer. Pacino's performance is all quirks and tics - he relaxes by completing puzzle books, but in Latin because, well, once an altar boy always an altar boy. "Most people go fishing when they retire," someone observes of Archer in one of the film's many script cliches (also on offer is an observation from one cop to the other that the "donut shop's open," but my favourite is the evergreen "...if the media gets hold of this they'll go into a frenzy."). Also along for the catch-a-killer ride is plucky Pulitzer nominated journalist Christi Davies (Brittany Bushwick Snow),who has inexplicably been given an access all areas pass to accompany the policemen on the job - including crime scenes - in the interests of writing an article aiming to restore the reputation of the police in the eyes of the public.

What saves Hangman from being a complete travesty is that for the most part it's a well paced, good looking thriller. It may have Blackwall Tunnel sized plot holes but Pacino, Urban and Snow are a likeable trio (it goes without saying that it's the journalist who spots the key clue that both cops have been too close to the case to notice), and if you don't exactly care about them, you don't wish them ill. The same does not go for the scriptwriter, who as well as the clunky dialogue sets up a killer whose modus operandi is so overly complicated - and yes it does involve a game of 'Hangman' with each murder providing another letter - that you want to help out just to move the film along a bit.

As a stunt arranger by trade director Johnny Martin knows how to build the action and rustles up a number of good set pieces, although an early scene, where Pacino's car gets dinged by a drive by and he gives chase, is sloppily edited, and a couple of on foot pursuit scenes go on a little too long.

Hangman is reasonably diverting but no more. Pacino can do this sort of thing in his sleep and looks like he does just that in some of his scenes. But for the most part it's a fun ride which only occasionally  prompts one to question why it was necessary to offer the world another downbeat-dysfunctional-cops-on-the-trail-of-a-serial-killer movie.

Monday, 21 May 2018

Ghost House (Thailand/USA 2017: Dir Rich Ragsdale)

Scout Taylor-Compton (Laurie Strode in Rob Zombie's Halloween reboot movies) is Julie, who is about to have a very bad number of days when she and boyfriend Jim (James Landry Hébert) tour the Bangkok area of Thailand. Hoodwinked by a couple of Brits into investigating ornate shrines deep in the woods, the young couple are caught up in a nightmare when Julie becomes haunted by a frightening figure who can only be seen by her. Jim faces a race against time to find a cure for Julie's deepening psychosis before he loses his wife to irreversible insanity.

Rich Ragsdale's second feature (his first, 2005's The Curse of El Charro wasn't well received) is a curious thing; a well made, superbly photographed ghost story which borrows a lot of elements from other films but has enough verve and spirit to be, if not original, then certainly worth your time.

Ghost House has a very keen sense of place and its adoption of Thai belief systems is essential to the story (unlike, for example, a film like The Forest, with its rather lurid appropriation of a well known and very real suicide location in Japan). Ragsdale isn't beyond a bit of exploitation himself however, with footage of various undernourished and disabled locals thrown in for verisimilitude, and a story which on more than one occasion strays into 'superstitious villagers' territory.

While her boyfriend Tim is somewhat lethargically played by Hébert, Taylor-Compton is extremely effective as Julie. Trapped in her own private hell with the sometimes extremely frightening apparitions visible to no-one but her, it's a step up from most genre movies in that you genuinely feel for the character - clearly her role in the Halloween movies was a useful training ground. At times Ghost House resembles a more serious Drag Me to Hell - the story has its roots in MR James's story 'Casting the Runes' via its 2017 adaptation It Follows. The movie has drawn some criticism for its rather overly used shock haunting shtick, but I disagree. The menacing of Julie by the avenging spirit takes on a rather relentless feel, and the visions of the spectre (which for once isn't overly cursed by expository explanation) are genuinely unsettling.

Ghost House does well with its obviously limited budget. It may not be offering anything particularly new, but its combination of eastern myth, magic and traditional frights worked for me.