Wednesday, 29 January 2020

The Cleansing Hour (USA 2019: Dir Damien LeVeck)

The horror movie genre is generally pretty unkind and morally censorious when it comes to practitioners of social media meddling with the unknown, whether it's the ill starred modern day Ouija dabblers of the Friend Request or Unfriended movies, or the haunted vlogger of last year's Deadcon.

The Cleansing Hour is no exception. Father Max (Ryan Guzman) is a - sort of - actual priest who performs live streaming exorcisms on his channel 'The Cleansing Hour,' and as we meet him Max is doing just that, in real time, in front of his thousands of worldwide followers. Except that it's all fake: the subject of the exorcism is an actor and the whole thing is rigged up for maximum ratings and to take viewers to the merch page. "Better than Netflix any day" is one of the constant stream of (often very funny) comments that scroll down the screen during programme transmission.

But Max has a problem: with little time remaining until his next broadcast, his exorcism actor has taken a powder. So at the last minute show producer Drew (Kyle Gallner) convinces his fiancee Lane (Alix Angelis) to step in as 'Sabrina.' Lane agrees on the basis that Drew upgrades the quality of their intended honeymoon destination, and straps herself into the set's exorcism chair as 'Sabrina' to prepare for her performance. And she's really good - no REALLY good, mainly because Lane actually becomes possessed - by a demon later identified as Aamon (via a bit of sleuthing utilising on line demon identification software) - and the possessor of her body is hell bent on taking over the show and exposing Max for the fraud he truly is.

The Cleansing Hour was developed from a short film of the same name by LeVeck back in 2016, but unlike some feature adaptations of shorts, this feels like a fully rounded film: it's not subtle, but it's inventive, and while the script could be smarter, Lane, as the demon, gets the best lines: "You fight with the bull, you eventually get the horns!" she offers up at one point. The movie scores a double whammy in its send up of internet culture - surely a bit of a shooting-fish-in-a-barrel choice which will date incredibly quickly - and lampooning fake psychics: Max is to all intents and purposes a cinematic update of those dodgy holy roller healers from any number of 'dustbowl' movies.

Aamon's ruse to get Max to confess his confidence trick live on air feels like a rather prosaic outcome for a demon who could have the world at their feet, and of course it does mask its true ambition. But it's fun watching the technical team get theirs via hallucinations and set malfunctions, and the struggle with Lane for the occupation of her body and soul. The one room set doesn't feel limiting and there's a good mix of practical and CGI effects on hand - particularly in the gloopy final stages - when things threaten to get a bit too talky. Not brilliant - and certainly not particularly original - but quite fun while it lasts.

The Cleansing Hour screens at Glasgow FrightFest on Friday 6th March 2020.

Friday, 24 January 2020

Films from FrightFest 2019 #7: Reviews of Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark ( USA/Canada 2019), Deadcon (USA 2019), Freaks (Canada 2018), The Black String (USA 2019), The Banana Splits Movie (USA 2019) and Here Comes Hell (UK 2019)

Well I'm still trapped in FrightFest. The popcorn's all gone and I'm pretty pleased that I'm on my own in the back of the stalls as anyone near me might start looking like dinner round about now. But the films keep playing...

Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark (USA/Canada 2019: Dir André Øvredal) It's such a shame that Øvredal's movie was landed with a 15 certificate because it's YA through and through, and will have to wait until its home release, where no-one gives two hoots about observing classification systems, to find its true audience.

As a 13 or 14 year old, I would doubtless have loved this film. Actually as a 58 year old I really liked it, although any suggestion via the plot that this is in any way a 'portmanteau' movie should be dispelled. it's a combo creature feature with a strong emo/life lessons theme.

We're back in 1968 in the fictional town of Mill Valley, Pennsylvania. Nixon is running to be the 36th President of the United States, and the draft teams are in town recruiting young men to do battle in Vietnam. Stella (Zoe Colletti, excellent) is a young nerdy girl of divorced parents who spends a lot of time in her room writing short stories, surrounded by monster movie paraphernalia. She communicates with her friends Auggie (Gabriel Rush) and Chuck (Austin Sajur) by walkie talkie, and it's not long before they're exploring a local house, the property of the Bellows family. Reputed to be haunted, Stella finds a book of handwritten stories, written by Sarah, the Bellows's acromegalic suffering daughter who met a nasty end back in the day. But Sarah isn't finished writing her tales yet, and as new stories mysteriously appear on the book's pages people that Stella knows are written in to the text, all meeting terrible ends at the hands of some very odd monsters - "You don't read the book, the book reads you!" concludes Stella, who with her new friend, draft dodging Ramon (Michael Garza) must return the book to its rightful owner and put Sarah's soul to rest.

While the trailer for SStTitD makes the creatures the thing, the assembled cast of broken scarecrows, bloated girls and toeless phantoms only really make fleeting appearances. This is basically an old fashioned Stephen King-esque story of friendship and vanished childhood, with a heavy 'Nancy Drew' vibe.' And while watching this obviously younger person targeted movie, it occurred to me just how many of the crop of recent PG-13 horror movies include 'finding out' sequences, whether to bond the cast or provide i dotting and t crossing and often rather prosaic solutions to whatever horror has been unearthed. Which is the case here, but doesn't stop the movie being a lot of fun along the way.

Deadcon (USA 2019: Dir Caryn Waechter) Here's a rather strange - and not particularly effective - ghost story/comment on the youth of today which is surprisingly conservative in its underlying message. Deadcon puts us in the world of the internet celebrity, more specifically Viewcon, a convention for vloggers and their pre/pubescent fans. At the centre of this is reality superstar AKA Ashley (Lauren Elizabeth) who is already internally withdrawing from the relentless requirements of the fans to be continuously upbeat. She may also be paying a little too much attention to the bottle, much to the annoyance of her friend/manager, pushy Kara (Mimi Gianopulos), who is responsible for ensuring that Ashley remains super chipper while keeping all her engagements.

A mixup in the hotel bookings means that Ashley ends up in Room 2210a, the last one left available; the only problem is that it's the locus for a haunting. Back in 1984 the room was occupied by John Althus, an IT guru whose revolutionary and innovative virtual chatroom 'Link RabBIT' was pulled by its sponsor. But its fate is spared by the arrival of 'Bobby,' a ghost in the machine, who persuades John to provide him with 'friends' in return for which he will supply chat room subscribers. A Faustian deal is struck, but the ghost of 'Bobby' is still active within the hotel, and his sights are set on Ashley and her vlogging friends.

I'm not really sure where to start with this one. In the flashbacks to 1984, where we see Althus and his social network progenitor application, we are clearly meant to infer that 'Link RabBIT' became very successful - at a human cost - and is ultimately responsible for the hotel full of rampaging, unsupervised children and adolescents charging up and down the corridors trying to track down their favourite media icon. While the continuity of history is a smart touch, there's a definite feeling of the director suggesting that the vengeful ghost is there to punish youth for its vanity. Indeed the hotel manager, who allocates the room to Ashley knowing full well its violent history, does so out of spite to punish Ashley and her bossy manager.

Audiences way younger than me may sympathise with AKA Ashley character but to me she and her hangers on are appalling ciphers for the fame hungry self obsessed culture of the 21st century. I'm fairly sanguine about this: I wouldn't want to spend any time with them, but each generation grows up wanting to ridicule the one below them. However Deadcon doesn't work because the spooky elements of the film battle against the human horrors on display: I was left thinking that the aim of the movie was for the audience to vicariously enjoy punishment being meted out to the young cast, but the movie isn't clever enough for that to feel anything but just plain nasty.

Freaks (Canada 2018: Dir Zach Lipovsky, Adam B. Stein) Directors Lipovsky and Stein are still in their infancy director-wise, but you wouldn't know it on the basis of this tense, taut actioner.

7 year old Chloe (an astounding performance from Lexy Kolker) lives with her dad Henry (Emile Hirsch) in a suburban house sealed off from the outside world. Dad's protection of his daughter verges on the insane, but there's a reason for his concerns. Chloe is a 'freak,' a person with special powers. She's not alone - Henry and Chloe's estranged mum Mary (Amanda Crew) also have them as do a number of other citizens. It's not clear how the situation has occurred (news footage on TV refers to '10 years since the attack') but what is apparent is that the authorities want to round up all the freaks and isolate them.

Luckily the local ice cream man (Bruce Dern), who lures Chloe into his truck on one of her rare forays outside, is also her grandfather. He too has powers and is aware that Chloe's 'gifts' are powerful - whereas dad wants to keep her hidden - and has done ever since she was born. G-dad feels that she should embrace her talents and face up to her would be captors and Chloe, who's been told that her mother is dead, believes the opposite (her powers have let her contact mum). The stage is set for a family reunion and a fight to the death with her would be oppressors.

The sci fi on a low budget approach of Freaks brings to mid the TV show Heroes (2006-2010) in its mix of mundanity and downbeat superhero antics. The movie scores extra points by positioning itself from a child's (ie Chloe's) perspective, meaning that for much of the movie we're as confused as she is by the application of her powers (the connection with her presumed dead mother and scenes where she teleports into her next door neighbour's daughter's bedroom and slumber party). Lipovsky and Stein keep the FX minimal (and mostly effective) and manage a decently staged last reel face off which benefits from not being overblown.

As Chloe Lexy Kolker, who already has some form with appearances in US TV shows, is a revelation as the gifted kid who is protected and shunned in equal measures: she reminded me of Drew Barrymore in Firestarter (1985). Bruce Dern shows that at 82 he can still do action roles, and Emile Hirsch is great as the dad who wants nothing more than to protect his little girl from the outside world, something most dads have in their DNA.

The Black String (USA 2018: Dir Brian Hanson) Pity poor Jonathan (Frankie Muniz): he's a nobody in a nobody town, who works at the local Stop 'n' Shop, and whose only entertainment seems to be his friend and co-worker Eric (Blake Webb) who dispenses endless advice about girls.

Problem is, Jonathan is girlfriendless. To overcome this he signs up for a phone sex line, and ends up securing a date with one of the girls, Dena (Chelsea Edmundson). After a night of torrid (but unseen) sex, Jonathan wakes up alone, and with a rather odd rash on his torso. And from then on things go from bad to worse. An increasingly unhinged Jonathan tries in vain to track Dena down - did she ever exist? - and ends up badly beating Eric, an act for which he's banged up. He's then released into the care of his parents who, it seems, have been bailing their son out for a while to avoid him becoming homeless, and have kept his room just as he left it, obviously expecting something like this to happen.

Jonathan consults a psychic, Melinda (Mary K. Vault) who provides him with a 'Spiritual Defense Safety Kit - Level 3' and encourages him to rid himself of the dark tendrils of gloop growing underneath his rash - the 'black string' of the title. But Jonathan is spiralling out of control, and feels that he's a marked man, pursued by unknown forces; is he bonkers or telling the truth?

The problem here is that I sort of didn't care one way or the other. The is-he-mad-or-is-it-really-happening? story is a well worn one, and its success lies in the sympathy the audience has with the central character. And while Muniz may have come a long was from his Malcolm in the Middle TV show days, and remains terribly convincing as the disturbed Jonathan, he's just too OTT and the film kind of putters out in the wake of his mania. It's a shame because Hanson's debut is not without its positives - it looks suitably grungy and Blake Webb is good for a few chuckles - but it's pretty unfocused, far too frantic, and I didn't really like it much at all.

The Banana Splits Movie (USA 2019: Dir Danishka Esterhazy) The slightly baffling premise to this movie sees an alternative reality where the BS (ahem) never stopped recording shows or being a 'thing.' We join a group of adults and their kids as they look forward to attending the recording of the anthropomorphic funsters' latest programme. Focusing on BS mad young Harley (Finlay Wojtak-Hissong), he's rather more excited about the prospect of seeing the Splits in the fur, as it were, than his disinterested old brother Austin (Romeo Carere) and tag-a-long friend Zoe (Maria Nash). Mum Beth (Dani Kind) and stepdad, the unfaithful Mitch (Steve Lund) make up the posse: the line for the show also includes a couple of non youthful social media bloggers and a pushy dad intent on introducing his daughter to the show's producers.

But inside the studio things are not going well, for the station owners have pulled the plug on the Splits: this will be their last show. Taking this news particularly badly are the BS's human stooge Stevie (Richard White) who disappears into a bottle, and the guy behind the Splits' animatronics (did I mention they're robots these days?) who may or may not have intentionally stuffed up their latest upgrade, turning the lovable beasts into killing machines.

The recording itself goes off ok apart from an increasingly sloshed Stevie, but it's when a select group of kids are invited backstage, Willie Wonka style, to meet the Splits, that the trouble begins: the BS gang turn on their captive humans and it's a race to stay alive.

The target audience for this nonsense will be forty/fifty somethings who remember the Splits from their childhood (they always used to freak me out, so I had a head start here) but anyone younger will probably be scratching their heads: incidentally that includes the director and scriptwriter, so quite why this particular revival was seen as a good idea heaven only knows. Anyhow this is pretty tawdry stuff: it's not particularly violent not remotely scary and very little is done to use the show's quirkiness to direct the shape of the action - it's kind of stalk and slash with outsize animal suits. As the final girl - ok woman - Dani Kind is effective as Split-bashing Beth, but she'd be better off in a different movie; I did quite like the soundtrack though, which includes some great minor chord riffs on the BS theme tune. Filmed in Cape Town, South Africa apparently, in a location that was presumably as cheap as the rest of the production.

Here Comes Hell (UK 2019: Dir Jack McHenry) ...and here comes a wonderfully inventive low low budget mashup of Andrew Leman's DIY Lovecraft adaptations and, er Evil Dead II. After an introductory warning to the audience a la Edward Van Sloan in Frankenstein, we meet George Walker, son of oil tycoon George Walker ("don't call me Jr!") on his way by train to visit old friend, feckless Victor Hall (Charlie Robb) who has just inherited a small fortune, including the dilapidated Westwood Manor. Courtesy of Walker's travelling companion (Robert Llewellyn), George learns the dark history of the house, previously owned by Ichabod Quinn, a master of magic and the occult, and that the pile has been empty for many years...until now.

Arriving at the manor, Walker is surprised that he's not the only guest: secretary and spook story writer Elizabeth (Jessica Webber) and her husband, failed tennis player Freddie (Timothy Renouf) also arrive as does Victor's sister Christine (Margaret Clunie). Victor is keen to hold a seance to communicate with Ichabod, and has invited Madame Bellrose (Maureen Bennett) for the purpose. As M. Bellrose falls into a trance, a portal opens into the spirit world, and Ichabod makes his presence felt - with murderous results.

Here Comes Hell is an absolute hoot. Shot for around £20,000 the movie is a triumph of ingenuity. It's also very funny, helped by a spirited cast who play up the 1930s country house character cliches without lapsing into irony. Sure most of the horror elements are rather shamelessly filched from other movies (including, most obviously, Sam Raimi's Evil Dead films), but it doesn't really matter as everyone seems to be having a great time, the practical effects are a wonder on the budget, and the black and white photography adds a touch of class.

Sunday, 5 January 2020

The Lighthouse (Canada/USA 2019: Dir Robert Eggers)

In Eggers's monochromatic, deeply symbolic follow up to 2015's The VVitch, two men arrive on an inhospitable tiny rocky island off the coast of Maine in the 1890s (actually Nova Scotia), to start a four week shift operating and maintaining a lighthouse and its outbuildings. Thomas Wake (Willem Dafoe) is the elder of the two, an experienced 'wickie' who takes no time in establishing his authority over the younger Ephraim Winslow (Robert Pattinson). Winslow is assigned the heavy day to day manual work, including roof repairs and cleaning out the cistern, whereas Wake does all the cooking, reserving the duties of maintaining the light for himself ("The light is mine!" he tells Winslow). The pair forge an uneasy alliance as they wait out their month of duty, with Wake, a hard drinker, chiding Winslow at every step of the way for slacking in his duties. Winslow, refusing to drink alcohol because of his sense of responsibility on the job and because he doesn't want to risk his pay being docked, suffers greatly, but in silence.

Winslow's mind, bothered by a past guilt and fleeting visions of a mermaid on the beach, as well as something strange in the lighthouse tower, is also increasingly overcome by anger at his treatment. Things come to a head on the day before the pair are to be relieved of their shift and picked up by boat. Bothered by the constant pecking of one of the gulls visiting the island, Winslow kills it, bashing its head and body on the rocks until little remains of the bird. It's a disturbing scene, more so because in one of Wake's salty homilies Winslow has been warned that to harm the gulls will bring bad luck. Sure enough that night a storm breaks: at the same time because he thinks it's his last night at the lighthouse Winslow relaxes his decision not to drink, and the pair become hopelessly drunk, passing out on the floor. The morning after they are met with the realisation that the rescue ship has not arrived, either because they had missed it in their drunken state, or because of the severity of the storm. The 'wickies' then face an uncertain and ultimately hallucinatory wait for recovery amidst dwindling supplies, Wake's continual goading of his co-worker, and Winslow's increasingly fragile mental state driven by the need to confront his past.

I've now seen The Lighthouse twice. On first view I confess that I didn't take to it. It's an unpleasant and cold film, its dialogue impenetrable and scenario bleak and unappealing (despite the stunning black and white photography from Jarin Blaschke, who was also responsible for the equally breathtaking work on Eggers's previous feature). The movie's tight box framing, pushing the unappealing characters of Winslow and Wake closely together, turn it into a sustained two-hander claustrophobic nightmare.

But viewed a second time it emerged as a much more powerful and human work, and strangely I found the elements that put me off the first time to be its strengths. Eggers surrounds his film in the vernacular of the time which gives the film a parabolic feel. The script, co-written with the director and his brother Max, borrows heavily from 19th century literature and other textual sources, including journals of lighthouse keepers, and with references to the writings of Edgar Allan Poe and Herman Melville, the albatross killing from Samuel Taylor Coleridge's epic 1798 poem 'The Rime of the Ancient Mariner' and the Greek myths of Proteus and Prometheus. The almost mythic mood of the film is enhanced by the strange jarring imagery of the piece, inspired by, amongst others, the Blake-influenced work of the early 20th century German painter Sacha Schneider, and the films of early expressionist directors.

Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson are outstanding as the 'wikies'. Dafoe in particular, his face a creased map of grizzled experience, gives an extraordinarily physical performance, and it's a testament to both actors that, from their initial exposure to the camera at the beginning of the movie, where Wake and Winslow both face the audience as if posing for a photograph, as The Lighthouse progresses the two characters become increasingly alike in age and stature, and gradually merge with their surroundings. It's been reported that the whole shoot was extremely difficult, with a combination of elemental challenges and the actors' ability to cope both with those conditions and their own characters. The results of this are clearly apparent on screen, but that only adds to the intensity of the piece, backed by an incredible soundscape punctuated by moaning, echoing foghorns and Mark Korven's dramatic, menacing score.

Like Ari Aster, whose two movies, Hereditary and Midsommar, have established him as a fresh face on the horror scene, the still thirty-something Robert Eggars's second film is as mesmerising as his first, making him an equally important newcomer to the genre. The Lighthouse is certainly not an easy watch, but it's a fascinating one, and I'm really looking forward to see where he's going to go next.

Friday, 3 January 2020

Films from FrightFest 2019 #6: Reviews of Red Letter Day (Canada 2019), Bloodline (USA 2018), A Serial Killer's Guide to Life (UK 2019), Harpoon (Canada 2019), Mary (USA 2019) and Stalked (UK 2019)

Help! I'm still stuck in FrightFest! The doors are bolted and the only thing to eat is popcorn, but I do at least have the benefit of not having to sit next to anyone. And I get to watch even more Festival films.

Red Letter Day (Canada 2019: Dir Cameron Macgowan) The Purge movies, or more accurately the first instalment in that franchise, is the obvious influence for this satire of small town Canadian citizenry breaking down.

Divorced mum Melanie (Dawn Van de Schoot) has just moved into Aspen Ridge, a development of new cookie cutter homes, with her son Tim (Kaeleb Zain Gartner) and late teenage daughter Madison (Hailey Foss) who is, against mum's wishes, dating an older guy, Luther (Roger Le Blanc). Someone has been delivering mysterious letters in red envelopes to the development's homes, the contents of which all identify a different person in the neighbourhood with an exhortation for the receiver to kill them.

Melanie's contains a photo of her friend Alice (Arielle Rombough), to whom she decides to pay a visit to discuss the letters, leaving her kids home alone; unbeknownst to her, Tim has sneaked a carving knife into mum's bag, just in case. While Melanie manages to assure her friend that she harbours no murderous intentions, Alice's husband Lewis (Michael Tan), already no big fan of Melanie, discovers the hidden knife and assumes the worst. A fight ensues which demonstrates the key theme of the film - that civilised society can break down incredibly swiftly - and Lewis ends up with a knife in the neck. Meanwhile Tim's pursuer has arrived at the house.

From here on in Red Letter Day ups a gear into full on Purge territory, as people act on the letters' invitations and seek out their targets; there's also some sinister social media people wearing masks who may be orchestrating things (they're not - the culprit is far more prosaic). But those movies handled a problematic premise - would people really descend into anarchy and murder that quickly? - far more believably. And despite a very credible performance from Van de Schoot and the bizarre location (a new homes community seemingly in the middle of absolutely nowhere) Macgowan's first feature tests the patience despite its slim hour and a quarter running time. The satire isn't original and falls very flat, and the set piece action is all rather clumsy.

Bloodline (USA 2018: Dir Henry Jacobson) There's more than a whiff of the TV show Dexter in this ice cool study of psychopaths who keep it in the family, which concentrates on troubled new dad Evan (Seann William Scott) struggling to do the best for his new baby and his 'delicate' wife Lauren (Mariela Garriga).

Evan has grown up in an abusive household, his father violent and his mother over controlling (there's a faint suggestion of incest here too). In the film's prologue we see a nurse being knifed to death in the showers at work. The rest of the film takes place three months earlier (this plot approach is now as familiar as the omnipresent drone shot). Evan's attendance at the 'business end' of his wife's birth triggers flashbacks of people being killed, and we see the new parents struggle with their bundle of joy, a situation not considerably assisted by the arrival on scene of Evan's clingy mother Marie (Dale Dickey). Evan's a killer alright, but we learn that he focuses his murderous tendencies only on those who 'deserve' it. In his day job as a high school counsellor all those who seek him out have a story to tell, usually involving deadbeat dads being violent towards them. Using his role to give him access to information about the parents, Evan seeks them out late at night, using an empty housing estate as his killing room, and dumping their bodies in makeshift graves.

But this concentration of his victim selection is a little shortsighted, as it's not long before the police make a connection between the deaths. And the nurse we saw in the prologue? Well she's not so innocent, being the member of staff on duty after the birth, whose caustic tongue belittles Lauren's already limited confidence as a new mother. But is Evan the only murderer in town?

While Bloodline does fall apart a little in the last third - it sort of runs out of steam and the ending does it no favours - for the most part Jacobson's debut feature is a bone dry, darkly humorous study of a killing family - is Evan a natural born killer or, wait for it, a nurtural one? Superb performances from Seann William Scott - whose grin is a very sinister thing - and Dale Dickey as Evan's quite 'off' mum make this film. It's very watchable, and at times convincingly gory. I liked it a lot.

A Serial Killer's Guide to Life (UK 2019: Dir Staten Cousins-Roe) Staten Cousins Roe’s debut feature is a kind of Nietzschean study of the self, filtered through Ben Wheatley’s Sightseers, in which we meet eternally drab Lou (Katie Brayben), a young woman who is the unofficial carer for her domineering mother. Lou is addicted to self help books, including those by Tony Robbins-a-like Chuck Knoah (Ben Lloyd-Hughes), although there are no signs yet of any self-improvement going on: but a mood board in her bedroom tells us that Lou desires a life beyond the four walls of her home.

While watching a flared trousered motivational speaker she meets icy Val (Poppy Roe), herself a self help guru, but with a difference: Val is also a serial killer. After a brief meeting/grooming session, Lou takes the drastic step of agreeing to accompany her new life coach on a road trip to meet Chuck Knoah in person. Lou abandons her mother and the pair take off. On the way to Knoah’s country retreat they encounter a succession of dodgy therapists, including an outward bound tree hugger and a couple using sound as their way back to health, who spike their drinks and get the dildos out.

Lou is rather slow to pick up on the fact that before they move on from each therapist Val (rather bloodlessly as it happens – it’s not that kind of film) despatches them, and the pair soon become the subject of a (wo)man hunt across the south coast area, as they move closer and closer to the self-important Knoah, who it seems isn’t quite the confident self-improver he makes himself out to be.

A Serial Killer’s Guide to Life is an uncompromising film that offers laughs when you feel you shouldn't be, with some killer one liners (pun very intended); set in a world of static caravans and the quiet beauty of the south coast of England (it was filmed in the hinterlands of Brighton) it has a decidedly 'off' charm. But as in any film where content is slender, it’s all about the performances really. As Val Poppy Rose remains staunchly one note in her performance, and if the audience were expecting Lou’s caterpillar to emerge as a self-discovered butterfly, well the director isn’t about to do that. What he does is to take the spirit of Thelma & Louise in capturing the freedom and nihilism of the girls’ trip. There may only be one way out for them, but they’re enjoying the ride on the way.

Harpoon (Canada 2019: Dir Rob Grant) In Rob Grant's aquatic chamber piece we're thrown in with three friends and an unnamed (and unseen) narrator, on board a boat. Munro Chambers is Jonah, a guy who, when we meet him, is trying to make ends meet after his parents have both died penniless and in debt. Along comes Christopher Gray as Richard (that name will be important later), a chap with full on anger management issues, intent on bashing several shades out of Jonah for - as he supposes - fooling around with his girlfriend Sasha (Emily Tyra). Luckily it seems that it was all a misunderstanding, and the three head off in Richard's boat to patch it all up, together with Rich's harpoon, a present from Sasha.

But what starts out as a reasonable pleasant afternoon trip turns into a nightmare when the trio find themselves snarking at each other again, and before we know it Jonah has a harpoon sized hole in his hand, and the boat has conked out and drifted into unknown waters with few provisions on board. With no hope of recovery, and Jonah's wound beginning to infect his arm, Richard mentions the story of his namesake, Richard Parker - a young shipboy in the 19th century sacrificed as food while adrift to feed two other sailors (the lot of the unfortunate decided by the drawing of straws) - and suggests they do the same.

This largely one set three hander draws on the hopeless waterlogged scenarios of Open Water (2003) and Adrift (2018), and the claustrophobia of Knife in the Water (1962) and Dead Calm (1989). Its cross and double cross plot makes the most of a limited setup, and the 'Richard Parker' story element lends a frisson of repeating history to the proceedings. Harpoon is graced with three strong central performances (it would be fairly tedious if that wasn't the case) and the narrator's voice and inter title cards hint that the whole thing could be read as one big morality play. It's quite fun while it lasts and some of the gore scenes (surgery by broken bottle neck, anyone?) had this reviewer's toes curling.

Mary (USA 2019: Dir Michael Goi) Goi has been around for a while but most of his directorial output in the last decade has been TV based (his last feature was the controversial 2011 found footage movie Megan is Missing concerning child abduction). Mary front and centres two A list-ish stars (Gary Oldman and Emily Mortimer) and dumps them into a well made but pretty trashy B movie about a haunted boat.

Oldman is David Green, a yachtsman keen to own his own rig. He's patching up his life after his wife Sarah (Mortimer) had an affair, and hopes that a boat trip with his family, which also includes teenage daughter Lindsey (Stefanie Scott) and her younger sister Mary (Chloe Perrin), will achieve this. At a boat auction Green ignores all the classier vessels in favour of a beaten up yacht. The family are appalled at the fixer upper he's purchased, but after a bit of elbow grease and the name 'Mary' applied to the craft to honour his daughter, the family, together with Lindsey's slacker boyfriend Tommy (Owen Teague) and David's first mate Mike (Manual Garcia-Rulfo) set sail; destination? The Bermuda Triangle.

Told in flashback from inside a Florida police station where Sarah and her kids are the only survivors, it's pretty obvious from the start that this is one trip nobody should have taken. and when Sarah explains to the rather incredulous agent carrying out the interview that "evil needs a body to exist, and the body was a boat", we know we're in the realms of the silly. For it appears that the craft has some history: previous crews of 'Mary' have all gone missing, and each time the boat has been chartered in the past it always ends up in the same Bermuda location, one where something awful has occurred. While Mary is full of the usual cliches (possessed crew members, watery footprints, lank haired spirits, that sort of thing) it's refreshing that the central characters are adults rather than teens for a change, and also that Mortimer's character doesn't succumb to the usual emotional distress that we're used to seeing in films like this; she's a tough cookie desparate to remain practical through the supernatural hi-jinx, and to convince her husband that she's back on track fidelity-wise. Goi should be thanked for not reducing the conclusion to a CGI fest (although he may have done if he had a bigger budget) and for only giving us glimpses of the creature haunting the boat. "The thing about boats is that there's nowhere to run" explains Mortimer at one point; but while Oldman and Mortimer give it all they've got in generating the claustrophobic tension needed, their classy turns can't disguise the essentially thinness of the whole thing. Nevertheless Mary remains a bit of a guilty pleasure.

Stalked (UK 2019: Dir Justin Edgar) A remarkably well constructed and tense thriller shot on a micro budget that conjures something out of, well, not much at all really. Stalked is the story of marine commando Sam (Rebecca Rogers); single mum with a feckless ex, landed with a sick child, she leaves the baby home alone while making a dash to the chemist. Only to find herself abducted and imprisoned in a factory that turns out to be home to Epsilon Military Solutions.

The twist here is that her abducter is wearing a stealth suit, making him invisible to her unless she catches him on CCTV or her phone. Sam isn't the first person to be kidnapped by the (near) invisible man; she runs into others who are also trying to escape, none of them very successfully.

Most of Stalked is a cat and mouse between the resourceful, ultra limber Sam ( a very visceral performance by Rogers, particularly effective when she has to act against someone invisible) and her pursuer. Oh and a drone; we haven't had many killer drones before and then two come along at once (FrightFest's other murderous drone flick being, er, The Drone). The effects are a little shonky but that's what you get on a low budget and the now you see him, now you don't appearance of the guy in the stealth suit remains rather unbelievable. But it's mastefully edited considering it's mainly one woman running around something that looks more like the packing area in your local B&Q, and mask any inconsistencies well. It's not going to bother anyone's memories of similar setups in Predator (1987) or a myriad 'Invisible Man' movies, but Stalked is effective, not overlong, and gets the job done.

Friday, 27 December 2019

Supermarket Sweep #12 - Reviews of The Amityville Murders (USA 2018), The Cleansing (UK 2019), Candy Corn (USA 2019), The Isle (UK 2018), Doll Cemetery (UK 2019) and The Curse of Halloween Jack (UK 2019)

The Amityville Murders (USA 2018: Dir Daniel Farrands) This was the movie Farrands made prior to the execrable The Haunting of Sharon Tate (2019) and continues his obsession of making a living (if indeed he does) from ‘real life’ horror stories.

So what we know is that, yes, in 1974 Butch deFeo murdered his entire family at their home in 112 Ocean Drive, Amityville, Long Island. The house’s name was ‘High Hopes’ which might equally apply to the drug addicted Butch, whose moments of lucidity gradually diminished to the point where he took a shotgun to the rest of the deFeos. Butch has spent most of his incarceration making up different stories about what really happened, not helped by the exploitation of the history for reputational gain by the Lutz family when they moved into the property in 1976.

The real back story to the murders, compete with added incest, had already been told in the otherwise quite amusing 1982 flick Amityville II: The Possession. So quite why Farrands felt that it was worth retelling it in 2019, in that the original account was a load of porky pies, is anyone’s business.

But although these days few if any believe that there was anything supernatural motivating Butch's killing spree, nevertheless Farrands doesn’t let that fact get in the way of telling his story. The director sets the scene of 1974 as clumsily as you like for a guy who was 5 years old at the time. There are references to ‘The Exorcist,’ a copy of the book 'Helter Skleter' lying on a coffee table, and footage of Richard Nixon’s resignation on the TV.

An early scene has Butch attending a party where one girl indulges in a version of the hidden writing game 'consequences' where, after the papers is handled round for completion in secret, the results read “Butch deFeo is going to murder you after going insane in the red room." Subtle. Also Ferrands sows the seeds of supernatural motivations by saying that the house was built in an area reputed to hold a portal where the dead can contact the living.

Butch’s relationship with dad Ronnie is not good. Ronnie is a guy who thinks with his fists, landing one on both Butch and his wife on regular occasions. Butch tells his sister that the only way to deal with dad is if he were 'gone for good.’ Ronnie also has mob connections, as evidenced in a scene where he takes money from some shady guys and hides it in a safe. Butch, clearly on the edge from the get go, has a vision of a man with a gun inside the house while in the car outside making out with his girlfriend. Mother finds drug paraphernalia in Butch’s room, some drawings in a book which further hint at her son’s state of mind, and a letter from Syracuse University rejecting Butch’s joining application. So far, so Farrands: some suggestions of what's to come, and a strong sense of the inevitability of fate.

But the real trouble begins when Dawn holds a séance to invoke spirits. Soon after noises are heard, a bird flies into one of the house’s windows, and the word ‘Pig’ is found written on a mirror in lipstick. Dawn tries another ritual to reverse what she’s done but it just makes things worse. Dawn’s bedclothes are mysteriously whisked away from her: shadowy figures follow Butch around the house, doors open and close of their own accord, and he hears voices telling him what he must do, until eventually he take up the shotgun and does it.

Quite what all this is supposed to mean, either as a movie or an addition to the Amityville canon, is for better minds than mine to navigate. The Amityville Murders isn’t a badly made film, just a totally pointless one, but the director seems to have found his niche in making these true life with a weird twist kind of movies, so I guess we should expect many more of them.

The Cleansing (UK 2019: Dir Antony Smith) The Cleansing's director clearly likes a period romp: his last two excitably titled features were 2014's Viking: The Berserkers and King Arthur: Excalibur Rising from 2017. For this one it's to 14th century Wales we go, and a plague ridden country at that.

Young Alice is doing her best to care for her disease ridden mother, but a group of villagers, led by the hooded 'Cleanser', obey the edict of the region that all carriers of the plague should be despatched and burned. Stunned into mute silence following her mother's death, that Alice also remains unaffected causes the villagers to gossip. Village leader and priest Tom offers to shelter and support her, although Alice rejects his advances because she knows that his real intentions are carnal rather than honourable. In response Tom accuses her of being a witch and tries her as such, first asking her to recite the Lord's prayer - she refuses - then ducking her in water, asking her to hold a hot stone, and finally stringing Alice up on a cross, until her only friend Mary releases her.

Through all these trials Alice remains silent but resolute, and when she makes her escape and is subsequently drugged and abducted, we fear the worst. But her abductor is James, a man of the forest, who knows of the uses of herbs, a sort of woodland chemist. It seems they are both immune to the plague. He encourages her to eat the root of a powerful plant to expand her unconscious mind. But in so doing, we're asked to consider whether Alice as innocent as she seems?

Smith aims for and achieves a slow burn, folky vibe with his third feature; there's not much going on but he convinces with his leafy setup. As the largely silent heroine of the story Rebecca Acock is serviceable as Alice, but she doesn't get much to do except suffer and look annoyed until the last reel (well not 'reel' but well, you know...). Rhys Meredith and Simon Pengelly are both suitably enigmatic as Tom and James respectively, but The Cleansing is really all atmosphere and little consequence. Still it's good to see a director working confidently within the restrictions of a limited budget.

Candy Corn (USA 2019: Dir Josh Hasty) Hasty's last feature was the Halloween set Honeyspider back in 2014. It's to the holiday season we return with Candy Corn, a mix of slasher, drama and police procedural, which builds up a great atmosphere but doesn't quite deliver.

A group of bullies, led by the awful Mike (Jimothy Beckholt) are up to 'their usual Halloween hazing.' This means giving local oddball Jacob (Nate Chaney) a hard time, something they do every year. But this time Jacob fights back, which leads Mike and his gang - Bobby (Caleb Thomas) and Steve (Cy Creamer), together with Steve's unwilling girlfriend Carol (Madison Russ) and sleazy hanger on Gus (Sky Elobar) - to kick him to death.

Luckily - or unluckily, depending on how you look at it - the circus is in town, and leader of the local freakshow Dr Death aka Lester (Pancho Moler) applies some voodoo to Jacob's corpse, along with a repulsive mask, and before you know it the oddball is back, 'Toxic Avenger' style, to 'rise and obey' and avenge his death at Lester's bidding: local non gun carrying Sheriff Sam Bradford (Courtney Gains) takes a long time to work out what might be going on, even though he's ringleader Mike's dad.

Candy Corn's strength is in its look and feel. It's set in a mid West town before mobile phones, all flat one level homes and big autumn skies, where even the police precinct has Halloween decorations. Some crisp photography by Ryan Lewis shows off the colour palette - mainly browns and oranges - to great effect, and nearly all the cast look scuffed and downtrodden.

Hasty aims for a slow burn feel to his movie, but at times it's nearer to no burn. It's clear that he wants his murderous set pieces to stand out, but the kills, although gory (including spine ripping and tongue severing - we're almost in Herschell Gordon Lewis territory here) - lack the punch he was looking for.

Cast wise the young gang are perhaps not as young as the story suggests, although Beckholt has a hissable meanness. Better are Pancho Moler as the diminutive freakshow owner and voodoo master Lester, who convinces in his smeared carnival makeup and ill concealed hostility to those around him (although his 'freaks' don't seem to be particularly odd, unless you think being a bit on the large side is odd), and former The Greasy Strangler star Elobar as grubby, lank haired Gus, pretty much reprises the same role from his earlier movie. PJ Soles - of original Halloween (and Carrie) fame, lands a support role as a member of the police team, and genre standby Tony (Candyman) Todd is one of Lester's grumbling carnies.

At only 85 minutes long, Candy Corn still manages to drag in places. It's a pity because the movie has bags of atmosphere, but it's let down by a meandering pace and story points which remain underdeveloped (for example Lester had clearly done the whole resurrection shtick before, and at one point declares "I will never die" suggesting something otherworldly, but these are never explored). Shame, but still worth a look.

The Isle (UK 2018: Dir Matthew Butler-Hart) Here's a strange, atmospheric little movie, set in the mid 19th century, concerning three merchant seamen who are the only survivors of a capsized ship bound for New York. They are captain Oliver Gosling (Alex Hassall) and crew members Cailean Ferris (Fisayo Akinade) and Jim Bickley (Graham Butler). Adrift in their lifeboat and hopelessly lost somewhere off the coast of Scotland, the sailors spy an island which is not mentioned on their maps and charts.

Once ashore, and initially believing the place to be deserted, they encounter a small community of islanders who offer assistance and medical help - Gosling sustained an injury in the shipwreck - but are guarded and unfriendly. The head of the island, Douglas Innis (Conleth Hall) and his wife Lanthi (Tori Butler-Hart, the director's wife) do their best to discourage the men to explore the inhospitable land mass, and at night, while the winds rage around the house in which they're staying, they seem to hear the ghostly voice of a woman singing. Finally, with no offer of a boat back to the mainland and fearing that their lives may be in danger if they remain, the seamen plan their escape. But the island, or something on it, clearly has other ideas.

In its slow pace and atmospheric use of the island's isolated location, The Isle at times feels in execution like a good old BBC 'Ghost Story for Christmas.' All the performances remain understated, the mood sombre and foreboding, and, in keeping with those classic TV dramas, little actually happens for most of the film. But it's the increasing sense of unease which makes this successful, in part due to the movie's rural setting but also a small cast of actors whose muted performances keep things tense if for the most part unexplained (although the film's final reveal does well to shift its mood without sacrificing the sombre pall that The Isle exerts on the audience). The Isle seems to have been rather overlooked as a fine example of a British horror flick and also a good entry in the f*lk h*orror genre: it deserves a wider audience. Recommended.

Doll Cemetery (UK 2019: Dir Steven M. Smith) After the superior thrills of our last movie, we're back to the staple of the Supermarket Sweep strand of this blog: yep, the micro budget British horror film. This one does at least try and break free of the usual narrative conventions associated with this type of flick. so let's not be too hard, eh?

Brendan (Jon-Paul Gates, a Smith regular who has a hairdo you can't take your eyes off of) is a writer whose current dry period, triggered by separation from his wife and a drink problem, is causing his literary agent Arthur (Matt Rogers) some concern. Arthur decides to send Brendan to a remote country retreat, free of WiFi and any other distractions, so that he can complete the book he's contracted to provide. En route to the property he bumps into a seductress (Kit Pascoe, and no I'm not being sexist, that's how she's credited) who's all over him like a rash, so he feels his sojourn might not be all that bad, particularly as she invites herself over, complete with a couple of bottles of best petrol station wine, to flirt some more.

In a prologue, we've seen a woman, who we later learn is also a writer who has missed a deadline, receive a large parcel that turns out to contain a murderous doll who hammers her to death. So it's perhaps no surprise when Brendan takes delivery of a similar large box, which contains the same boy sized inanimate doll, complete with red smoking jacket. The author props the doll up on a chair, but it's not long before the mannequin starts moving about (it's never where Brendan last left it), eventually coming to life with murderous intentions. But is this really happening, or is this just Brendan's imagination bringing the words of his latest novel to life?

Who knows, really? Doll Cemetery is one confusing mess, ably unassisted by some ropy acting and a crummy rural location with one of the most unappealing holiday rentals I've seen for quite some time (apols if this was the director's house). Where the film does score on the fright front is the doll, also called 'Arthur' (and yes there is a link with the agent), who during the course of the movie grows in size while still wearing a tiny face mask that makes all the contours of his body look wrong. It's a shame that this rather striking figure could not have been deployed in a more effective movie. Oh and there isn't a cemetery in sight.

The Curse of Halloween Jack (UK 2019: Dir Andrew Jones) I swore I'd never go back...never see a film by that director again. Well I relented reader, and you shall read the results. Which, and I'm quite surprised I'm writing this, aren't too bad.

Set just two years after the murders documented in the first film of this, er, franchise, The Legend of Halloween Jack, the town of Dunwich struggles to deal with the aftermath of the slayings which cut a swathe through the village at the hands of the scarecrow killer. Put upon Mayor Lou Boyle (Phillip Roy) has banned the celebration of Halloween, much to the chagrin of Detective Earl Rockwell (Patrick O'Donnell), but that's the least of his problems: the local Cult of Samhain (a group of pan sticked troublemakers) are intent on causing trouble and are taken out by trigger happy cops as they invoke a ritual on the site where Halloween Jack was interred at the end of the first movie.

The blood of one of the slain coven leaks into Jack's resting place and before you know it the behatted creature with the glowing face is alive - or undead, more accurately - again, and terrorising the locals. His attentions turn to a party of, ahem, teens who have gathered to defy the Halloween ban and party like it's October 31st. Which it is. One of the party guests is Danielle (Tiffani Ceri, a regular in Mr Jones's movies) who is the Mayor's daughter and a specific target for Halloween Jack - and with good reason (no spoilers here but if I mention Jamie Lee Curtis in Halloween - well hopefully you get the picture). The scene is set for a final showdown between the kids, the police and a bizarre Snake Plissken character called Dennison (Lex Lamprey).

Jones is still doing that thing of trying to make his movies look and sound American, despite the right hand drive cars, UK vehicle license plates and the obvious Welsh village locations. But this time nearly everyone seems to have given up the ghost accent wise - the only characters that didn't get the 'leave off the US drawl' memo were Lamprey and Neil-Finn-a-like O'Donnell: and there's an unintentionally funny scene where Lou advances his daughter some money in US dollars.

But Jones actually manages some excitement in this movie, as well as some intentional laughs (the scenes between partygoers Glen (David Lenik, who was so good in this year's An English Haunting) and Tom (Alastair Armstrong) are very funny indeed. I've always maintained that he employs good technical staff and for the most part credible actors, but seems to have no idea how to direct a film. Well I'm pleased to report that either he's finally learning his craft, or someone has taken over the creative controls. For most armchair critics the response to The Curse of Halloween Jack will still revolve around not being able to get back 75 minutes of their life, but this has slightly restored my faith in this previously fairly maligned director.

Thursday, 26 December 2019

Supermarket Sweep #11 Christmas Special! Reviews of Krampus: The Reckoning (USA 2015), Krampus Unleashed (USA 2016), Christmas Slay (UK 2015), Mrs Claus (USA 2018), Dead by Christmas (USA 2018) and Christmas Apparition (USA 2016)

Krampus: The Reckoning (USA 2015: Dir Robert Conway) Here's a low budget movie that really bit off more than it could chew concept wise.

Zoe (Amelia Haberman) is a young girl whose foster parents, a particularly nasty couple called Katie and Teddy, end up burned to a crisp when Krampus comes a calling. The creature here is a spectacularly cheap looking bit of CGI that bears very little resemblance to the folkloric Krampus creature, and, presumably because of the technical limitations, doesn't ctualy come into contact with his victims.

Dr Rachel Stewart (Monica Engesser), a clinical psychologist attached to the police, is called in to interview the decidedly tight lipped Zoe, whose only friend in the world seems to be a Krampus doll from whom she doesn't like to be parted. Aided by down on his luck police detective Miles O'Connor (James Ray), whose job in a small town city in Arizona is made difficult by the fact that charred corpses keep turning up, Rachel interviews the taciturn Zoe and finally discovers her link to the Krampus creature, but also Rachel's connection to the little girl and the Christmas demon.

Krampus: The Reckoning was the first of two movies directed by Conway to feature the Christmas Devil. And 2015 was a busy year for the creature, who featured in Krampus, A Christmas Horror Story and Deep in the Wood. K:TR is the weakest of these seasonal offerings, but it has a damned good try. Part police procedural, part psychodrama, it's let down by some flat performances and pedestrian direction. Oh and a terrible Krampus that looks like an inanimate superhero with horns. On the plus side Amelia Haberman is spitefully good as Zoe, the girl with a dark secret, and unlike other Krampus movies we'll be visiting in on this page, the story is way more than a guy in a monster suit killing people. It's pretty lame as a Christmas movie though; a few fairy lights and a sparsely decorated Christmas tree do not exactly fill the viewer with the yuletide spirit.

Krampus Unleashed (USA 2016: Dir Robert Conway) So Conway must have carried out some post K:TR focus groups and realised the errors of his previous Krampus movie, because this one, made just a year later, not only has a real (ie not CGI) demon but a tighter running time and a bigger commitment to making it a proper Christmas movie: it's still not good though.

KU has the obligatory prologue, set in 1898, involving a German outlaw, a group of prospectors and the discovering of a dark lump of rock called a 'summoning stone' which when exposed to flame brings forth the legendary Krampus.

After that, and the opening theme, a truly horrible out of tune version of the classic 'Let it Snow,' we're in 21st Century Arizona, where we meet a family en route to spend Christmas with the folks. Mum and dad, kids Fiona and Tommy arrive at the grandparents' ranch in the middle of nowhere, and are joined by brother and sister in law and their horrible son Troy. Prompted by the sight of granddad's prize nugget of gold, the men and boys of the family decided to go down to the creek to do a little prospecting of their own, running into local girl Bonnie on the way. But when Tommy finds a big black rock in the water, that looks suspiciously like the summoning stone we saw in the prologue, it's not long before Krampus is back on the prowl, the stone coming into contact with Troy's discarded cigarette.

In no way a sequel to Conway's 2015 movie, KU isn't that impressive but what it does have is some great local flavour in a town full of good ol' boys. We're in prime Trump territory here - everyone carries guns and hunting is the main passion in the area (the grandparents even have a decoration on their Christmas tree that reads 'Born to Hunt'). The Krampus figure doesn't look too bad, and benefits from being a real guy in a creature suit, and there's some impressive gore too: a disembowelment that we get so see a lot (Conway was clearly pleased with this effect); limbs lopped off and entrails pulled out, that kind of thing. Most of the acting is so so, but Taylor Buckley as Troy is worth singling out: he's such a loathsome teenager, one has the urge to smack him - good work, Taylor!

Christmas Slay (UK 2015: Dir Steve Davis) Davis is a micro budget director working within the Kent Independent Film network. Christmas Slay - slightly awkward title - was his first film (he's since made another seasonal outing, 2017's Christmas Presence, which doesn't seem to have seen the light of day yet), and isn't half bad for a debut feature, although as I've mentioned before with this type of movie, a certain amount of expectation adjusting is required.

It's Christmas Eve and a bad santa has broken into the home of a family. Not only does he scoff all the chocs in the advent calendar and have a go at the Christmas cake, he also kills both mum and dad, leaving the murder weapon in the hands of their daughter. But the police (call sign Sierra Lima Alpha Yankee - geddit?) are quick to arrive and before you know it he's whisked off to a maximum security hospital in Scotland, from which he effects an escape with some of the other inmates.

Three girls, Becky, Sarah and Emma, have journeyed to Scotland (although the exteriors were filmed in Bulgaria) to spend a get away from it all weekend in a ski lodge; a mini break of hot tubs, wine and most importantly no men. Emma has just split up with her bloke Ryan after he was caught out with Emma's best friend Chloe, only for the girls to find that Chloe has made the journey north to explain to her friend that nothing had happened between her and Ryan. Chloe makes herself useful by going into the nearby forest to get wood for the stove. But guess what? Our killer from the prologue, Simon, now on the run, has donned a Father Christmas outfit and is on the rampage, the ski lodge being conveniently near the hospital. As the girlfriends' guys turn up, the body count rises - who will be left?

Well it's pretty obvious that the 'final girl' in this one will be sensible Emma, although this sense does not extend to wearing much more than her skimpies while running about in the snow. The filming location looks genuinely cold and it's to the actors' credit that it doesn't always show on their faces (lots of quick takes I suspect). Christmas Slay is a definite throwback to 1980s slashers, although any promised hot tub sauciness fails to materialise - the movie isn't quite sleazy enough, although as Simon Frank Jakeman gives good axe. And well done to Davis for skirting the rights issues involved in procuring proper Christmas songs, and instead giving us some specially composed seasonal tunes by Matt Collins. Not bad at all if very rough round the edges.

Mrs Claus (USA 2018: Dir Troy Escamilla) More low low budget indie fare, this time a movie in thrall to the slasher boom of the 1980s.

In a prologue, wicked Amber, self appointed head of the Alpha Sigma Sigma sorority, mercilessly bullies sweet Angela with increasingly mean hazing rituals until the girl can't take it any more, murders Amber in her bed and then hangs herself.

Ten years later Angela's sister Danielle enrols at the same sorority house where her sister took her own life, a move which is not viewed well by the other pledgers, Kayla, Grant, Madison, Hannah, Monica and frat house cynic, podcasting Tyler, nor Amber's mother, who arrives at the house unexpectedly and starts shouting the odds; like mother, like daughter it seems. Danielle starts receiving threatening Christmas themed emails but things get really difficult when Grant's fuck buddy Sophie gets garotted in her car by someone dressed up as Santa Claus wearing a fright mask. From then on the bodies pile up as the suspects get reduced (in a nice touch after each pledger murder there's a shot of their Christmas stocking hanging on the mantelpiece) until the final girl - Danielle of course - goes head to head with the killer, who turns out to be...

I rather liked this film. Yes there's a lot of chatter - most of the movie involves the sorority house occupants sitting round talking - and the pacing is rather pedestrian, but the practical gore effects - including a beheading and that perennial favourite 'two on a spike' - are competent, and Escamilla spends quite a bit of time establishing the characters, who work well as an ensemble.

Dead by Christmas (USA 2018: Dir Armand Petri) For those of you who moan that movies should be able to deliver the goods within 90 minutes, rather than the two hours plus length of some features, along comes Armand Petri and shows how to sew the whole thing up in just under an hour (although relatively this is a rather bloated offering considering that his other 2018 film, Cajun Mystery, weighed in at just three quarters of an hour).

This one takes the questionable topic of church abuse - Spotlight this is not - when a group of former orphans return to the institution in which they were housed - and abused - as kids by the sinister Father Le Doux, who they in turn forced to kill himself.

Sister Mary Nicholas, who cared for the kids back in the day and who has remained at the St Jerome care home since its closure some years back, invites the now grown up former orphans for one last reunion. But one of their number, Sam, has died, reportedly taking his own life by gouging his eyes out. Not the usual means of ending it all then. Except that we know he didn't. He was visited at home by a freaky looking Santa Claus figure who did the gouging. And that same figure is about to make its appearance at the orphanage, with murder on his mind.

Dead by Christmas is nothing if not ambitious. It packs psychobabble, gore scenes, and self help homilies into its slender running time, and I liked its mix of social commentary and slasher antics. It also uses flashbacks well to piece together the story of what really happened at the orphanage, and wisely steers clear of any of the abuse details, concentrating instead on its impact on the assembled young people. It certainly doesn't outstay its welcome, and remains inventive and involving throughout, despite its micro budget and a range of acting styles.

Christmas Apparition (USA 2016: Dir Colleen Griffen) Griffen's second feature is actually also her first: originally released in 2013 as The Cold and the Quiet, it has since been repackaged under the slightly more genre title Christmas Apparition. Neither title really does justice to a film that for most of its running time is a rather creepy little thriller.

It's the end of term at college and student Emma (Katie O. Jones) hopes that, as usual, she can continue to stay on in her dormitory over the Christmas holidays. No such luck, as the college is replacing the heating system. It's telegraphed fairly early on that Emma is a girl with some issues, evidenced by an OCDness and a jar of pills at the side of the bed.

A chance meeting with a woman called Trish (Ellen Lancaster) in a cafe provides a possible solution to her accommodation issues: Trish has been let down at the last minute in her attempts to secure her usual babysitter so that she can get away from her kids for the holiday weekend. Emma, somewhat surprised, accepts the offer to look after Trish's kids (and Ralph the dog). After all it's her only option, based on a quick rejection by Emma's sister of her request to stay there, and a tense conversation with her mother which hints strongly that a return to the maternal home is not on the table.

A strange setup is made odder by the fact that when Emma arrives at Trish's house, the kids' mother has already left, leaving a bundle of cash and some emergency numbers on the table. Emma is left to meet the kids on her own: they are 17 year old Chrissy, a talented musician come wild child who needs no assistance in taking care of herself, and her silent, withdrawn brother William, who expresses himself via drawings and listening to classical music. A welcome present of a dead rat in her room should perhaps send Emma running for the hills, but she's determined to befriend the odd pair, and so begins a strange time of attempting to be surrogate mother for the weekend. But all the while her mental health threatens to make an already stranger situation more difficult to deal with, and William's drawings suggest the story of the real reason why their dad is no longer on the scene. While Christmas Apparition gets terribly muddled towards the end, for the most part this is a strange, alienating movie that really gets under the skin, aided by some terrific sound design by Joe Rabig and a great central performance by Katie O Jones.

Tuesday, 24 December 2019

Top 10 Films of 2019

In no particular order, here are my big screen picks of the year...

1. Can You Ever Forgive Me? (USA: Dir Marielle Heller) Superb performances by Melissa McCarthy as the clever but ultimately artless forger Lee Israel and Richard E. Grant as her brittle confidante Jack Hock are just two of the reasons to watch this film; as an evocation of the now (almost) lost Manhattan bookstore community, it's a feature as sad as it is funny. Heller's first film after her excellent 2015 debut The Diary of a Teenage Girl, her talent in making bittersweet movies makes me look forward to her next, A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood, which opens early in 2020.

2. Diamantino (Portugal/France/Brazil: Dir Gabriel Abrantes, Daniel Schmidt) A delirious mix of polymorphously perverse relationships, Cronenberg-style bio horror and championship football, "Diamantino is an explosion of genres and styles that appears camp and flimsy but betrays a more steely heart. It's both knowing and naive, its over-the-topness redolent of classic Almdovar." With its stunning sets - a med lab looking more like a camp Bond villain lair - and sheer WTFness of its plot, in less capable hands this could have been a nightmare. An assured, truly bizarre film that it's impossible to second guess or classify.

3. Rocketman (UK/Canada/USA: Dir Dexter Fletcher) As the director bussed in to (unsuccessfully) rescue the woeful Bohemian Rhapsody, hopes weren't high for Dexter Fletcher's Elton John biopic. But from its opening Ken Russell-esque formation-dancing-in-the-suburbs rendition of 'The Bitch is Back' Rocketman giddily but confidently oscillates between the strident and the vulnerable (check the scene with Elton and Renata at their dining table). Taron Egerton is absolutely superb as Elton but the rest of the sometimes eccentric casting choices provide strong support. 

4. The Souvenir (UK/USA: Dir Joanna Hogg) Hogg's fourth feature is her most narratively straightforward film and one in which she injects large autobiographical elements to tell the story of a young woman beginning her filmmaking career in faux bohemian London of the early 1980s. Honor Swinton Byrne, who stars as the stand in Hogg Julie, acting alongside her real life mother Tilda Swinton (cast as Julie's mother Rosalind in the movie for added confusion/verisimilitude), is a picture of innocence: swept up in the attentions of Anthony (Tom Burke), an upper middle class drifter with a heroin habit and little to show for his life except a classical education, Julie is hopelessly drawn in to his chaotic and increasingly dangerous life. It's not a film for everyone - Hogg's pacing remains as glacial as ever - but it remains an entrancing study of people that we may not like but nevertheless end up caring about.

5. Midsommar (USA: Dir Ari Aster) Many have criticised Aster's follow up to the audience dividing Hereditary as being too lacking in tension and overly in thrall to its influences, namely The Wicker Man. Although its bum numbing length (2 hrs 27 mins, even longer in the recently released 'Director's cut' Blu Ray version) may have seemed offputting, for those that 'got it' (and I'm not being snobby about this, I promise you) Midsommar was a perfect length to languidly explore the customs and culture of the Swedish rural village preparing to celebrate the height of summer. The eternal sunlight of the region and the blissed out villagers masking an increasing sense of dread creates a stunning atmosphere of implied violence. Yes it's potentially silly, but I also found it bold, alienating and, yes, incredibly tense.

6. Knives and Skin (USA: Dir Jennifer Reeder) Not to be confused with this year's similarly titled faux giallo movie Knives + Heart, Reeder's film was one of my highlights at this year's FrightFest (it was also one which inspired a large number of walkouts at the Festival, many of the audience being suspicious of films which were 'arty' or 'pretentious,' a disappointing but commonly held view which is unlike to see me revisiting the Festival in future years). In its dreamlike plotting and pace, it recalled the 1986 movie River's Edge, Twin Peaks and even Rian Johnson's Brick (2005): the story of the discovery of a dead schoolgirl causes tensions in class, among the faculty and local parents, with secrets coming to light during attempts to identify the killer. With a superb soundtrack (including haunting acapella versions of songs which appear on mixtapes discovered during the film) Knives and Skin was powerful, tragic and a genuine surprise.

7. Satanic Panic (USA: Dir Chelsea Stardust) Another FrightFest standout, this, together with choice number 8, delivered two of the best comedy horrors of the year (sorry Zombieland: Double Tap, you didn't quite make the grade) or indeed the last ten years." A genuinely funny, occasionally scary and definitely very subversive take on witchcraft movies of the 1970s, with a lot to say about class divisions in suburban USA," is how I described it, with standout performances from Hayley Griffith as Sam, a pizza delivery girl who gets more than she bargained for when she barges in on a posh social gathering looking for her tip, and Rebecca Romijn as the cult leader. With a great script by the excellent Grady Hendrix, this one never let up.

8. Ready or Not (Canada/USA: Dir Matt Bettinelli-Olpin, Tyler Gillett) My last pick from FrightFest "is an arch and sumptuously mounted horror comedy which is, at its roots, an amusing update of Irving Pichel and Ernest B. Schoedsack's classic chase thriller The Most Dangerous Game (1932)." Like Choice number 7, a resolutely anti Trumpean movie about the haves and the have nots, As well as the whip smart script and well paced action, the interiors of the groom's family's house in which new bride Grace (Samara Weaving) finds herself fighting for her life are truly sumptuous, Great fun with a very nasty edge.

9. Sator (USA: Dir Jordan Graham) Of all the films in my Top 10 this one, screened at the small but perfectly formed Soho Horror Film Festival, was the biggest surprise of all. It's pretty much a one person labour of love, and very abstract too (although when I spoke to the director after the screening he said that each and every shot was meticulously planned). Mood wise, although the movie is contemporary, it has the feel of The VVitch in its folk-horror intensity. It's about memory and grief, specifically the death of the director's grandmother who in the latter years of her life began spirit writing, including the name Sator in her scribblings. Real life footage of his late relative during her writing sessions is included in the film, and woven into a fictional narrative. In truth it's one of the strangest things I've seen on screen since my first exposure to David Lynch's Eraserhead nearly 40 years ago. Apparently Graham has struck a deal with the Shudder channel to screen it, so watch out.

10. Little Joe (UK: Dir Jessica Hausner) Chronologically the most recently seen of my Top 10 (and due out in the UK in February next year), Little Joe’s title refers to a genetically modified plant, a variant of a previous experiment developed to allow growths to be more durable, so that they don’t have to be watered as regularly as normal ones. The side effect of the last strain was the lack of scent from the flowers, but a new modification has not only rectified that but also developed a curious by-product: if carefully looked after and kept at the ideal temperature, the scent produced by the blooms will make people happy - but there's a further and more worrying side effect. Hausner's film nods to Invasion of the Body Snatchers but is as cool and detached as Cronenberg's early student films. An understated cast and veteran composer Teiji Ito’s jarring, discordant soundtrack make this an extraordinary, strange but compelling film.

Honorable mentions for Bait, Tucked, The Nightingale, Fanny Lye Deliver'd, Girl, Zombieland: Double Tap, Attack of the Demons, Jellyfish, Once Upon a Time...in Hollywood and The Irishman.