Friday, 30 December 2016

New Films Round Up #5 - reviews of Downhill (Chile/Canada/France 2016), Holidays (USA 2016), I Am the Pretty Thing that Lives in the House (USA/Canada 2016), Hush (USA 2016), The Autopsy of Jane Doe (UK 2016) and Broken (UK 2016)

Last round-up of the year fright fans - 6 more movies made or released this year which have caught my eye (and sometimes left bits of grit in it):

Downhill (Chile/Canada/France 2016: Dir Patricio Valladeres) Another example of the 'chuck-a-whole-lot-of-genre-stuff-in-and-see-what-sticks' school of horror movie making, this is a breakneck speed movie bringing us the story of 'retired' competition cyclist Joe, summoned to Chile by a mate for one last tournament. Joe and his girlfriend Stephanie meet up with Pablo and Magdalena, but soon after arriving at Santiago airport they're deep in the countryside rescuing a total stranger from a car crash and being set upon by the local toughs. Just when you thought this might just all be a bit Eden Lake the rescued guy develops a weird infection (Cabin Fever) which makes him sprout growths (very The Thing) and there's also a local cult which feeds their victims long snake like things that seem to come from from the stomach of victims of the virus (all sorts of films).

The makers of Downhill cleverly disguise the low budget with some fast moving action sequences (headcams on bikes with a pumping score) and purposefully disjointed editing. This film really shouldn't work but the energy of its cast make and some quite disturbing WTF moments make this a stand out example of horror-on-a-shoestring. The Chilean countryside is also shown off to great effect, and gives a real sense of vastness in which all manner of head scratchy oddness is allowed to take place. Silly but accomplished, this film is anything but downhill all the way.

Holidays (USA 2016: various directors) Anthology or portmanteau films seem to be in the ascendancy again. Unlike their 1960s/1970s precedents which were made by one director, the new batch are clearly a good way to show off the talents of a variety of contemporary film makers, most of whom seem to cut their teeth on short films anyway so it's not much of an effort to string a few together and call it a feature in its own right. To be fair many of the contributors to the zippy Holidays are well established film makers already, which perhaps explains why the segments - each of which is a different take on seasonal holidays eg Valentine's Day, Christmas, Hallowe'en etc - manage to be consistently good, and much less hit and miss than many similar movies doing the rounds in the last few years.

Standouts of the eight 'vignettes' are Gary (Dracula Untold) Shore's 'Happy St Patrick's Day' where spunky Ruth Bradley (great in 2012's Grabbers) is an eccentric schoolteacher who ends up pregnant with a something, Nicholas (The Pact) McCarthy's short and sharp 'Easter' where a little girl's fear of the annual visit from the Easter bunny turns into murderous reality, and Sarah Adina Smith's 'Mother's Day,' about a woman seeking medical help because she gets pregnant every time she has sex.

Having mentioned all this, Holidays is a rather gentle form of this type of movie. There's none of the over-the-topness of the V/H/S or ABCs of Death movies, but each story is well done, moderately diverting, and, oh yes, good fun.

I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House (USA/Canada 2016: Dir: Oz Perkins) Perkins - yep, that is Tony's son - has two films streaming in the UK at the moment. February aka The Blackcoat's Daughter (2015) is a ponderous tale of evil stalking a girl's school. But this is a thrill ride next to his most recent offering, which is currently streaming on (UK at least) Netflix.

Ruth Wilson, who was so good as Jane Eyre in the eponymous 2006 BBC/PBS mini series - but who has taken some very strange roles since - adopts the same terrible US accent she deployed in the insipid Showtime TV production The Affair to play Lily, a young nurse sent a remote gothic house to care for elderly Iris Blum, a former author. Lily is a cynical young woman who is clearly only in it for the paypacket, but when she begins to read Blum's books out of boredom, she gets sucked into a world that may either be her own wild imaginings or the supernatural at work, featuring a character called Polly, which is also the name that Iris uses to address Lily.

IATPTTLiTH (whew, even the letters take ages to type) takes the bold step of trying to create a film where image is subservient to language. Its images are often little more than illustrations of the moribund voiceovers from Lily and Iris as her younger self. There's an almost Bergman-esque feel in the overlaying of characters here, and the movie - if that's not too grand a word - stretches ambiguity to breaking point. The attempt to make this a film that's read to the audience of course removes any frights and ultimately makes it a turgid chore. Like trying to read Henry James, when you really want to read M R James. I appreciate that Perkins is trying something different, but his succession of tableaux vivants left me completely cold.

Hush (USA 2016: Dir Mike Flanagan) Terence Young's 1967 movie Wait Until Dark and the 1971 film Blind Terror directed by Richard Fleischer both featured sightless women being menaced at home. Mike Flanagan's Hush maintains the same setup, but adds more violence and replaces the heroine's visual disability with hearing loss. Flanagan has scored highly with a run of fright hits this year. Ouija - Origin of Evil and Before I Wake are both competent horror movies (the former particularly good, rescuing the original movie from deserved obscurity) and Hush is similarly effective (it's probably no coincidence that the director has 'borrowed' the title from arguably the most frightening episode of TV's Buffy the Vampire Slayer).

Kate Siegel (Flanagan's wife) plays Maddie, a deaf writer who lives on her own. She is a successful author and has adjusted to her disability after contracting meningitis as a child and going deaf as a result. However Kate's peaceful existence is shattered when a masked intruder kills a neighbour, then mounts a sustained cat-and-mouse style attack on her home. But unlike the heroines of the previously mentioned films Kate is resourceful and knows how to fight back, and it's this toughness that wrongfoots the viewing audience, who may have thought they were about to endure another helpless woman-in-peril flick.

Flanagan skilfully sets up scene after scene that in a weaker director's hands could have lead to second reel ennui. After all the setup - one man, one woman, one house - is quite limited.  Hush is an effective thriller with a strong central performance from Siegel, and it's good to settle down and be entertained by a director comfortable working in this field, and who knows how to skillfully manipulate an audience. Recommended.

The Autopsy of Jane Doe (UK 2016: Dir André Øvredal) A very effective low budget chiller about a
father and son autopsy team who, faced with the corpse of an attractive young girl with an unknown identity, gradually unleash an evil force as they go about their work.

UK made and co-produced, this is a far cry from Øvredal's previous feature, the well respected (which means I didn't like it) found footage monster movie Trollhunter back in 2010. The sense of fun that inhabited that film strays into TAoJD too. Brian Cox and Emile Hirsch, playing the father and son team Tommy and Austin Tilden, have an easy camaraderie which makes their characters believable despite only the slightest of backstory brushstrokes. The director boldly restricts all the action to a couple of rooms in the team's mortuary, and when the scares arrive Øvredal is careful not to resort to an over the top firework display, but rather continues the 'onion skin' approach to telling the story, revealing more and more details as the autopsy progresses. Again it's a risky step to have so much of the movie's content centred on an inanimate body, but it works.

As some other critics have commented, this is little more than a (pun intended) fleshed out TV episode, but it's a never less than watchable offering from a director who should by all rights be making films more often, and whose next project, Mortal (about a young man discovering he has Norse god like powers) sounds like one to watch. 

Broken (UK 2016: Dir Shaun Robert Smith) This is an extremely odd and sadly only partly successful film by a UK director whose background is in horror. Broken isn't a horror film per se but it has the feel of an urban fright flick.

John is a former rock star who is now a tetraplegic following a chemically enhanced jump off a tall building, and unable to do anything for himself - at the film's start he calls out for assistance, having just soiled his bed. He is angry and egotistical, requiring 24 hour care. Evie, one of his carers, has come to the UK leaving a dark past behind, but the level of abuse she suffers from John, and also John's ex band member and all round nogoodnik Dougie, leaves the audience wondering how bad her past experiences must have been for her to tolerate the present situation. John's nihilism, fed by booze and drugs supplied by Dougie, turns the house into a 24 hour party zone in which Evie tries her best to do her job. But her past will not leave her, and Evie's need to remain professional approaches breaking point. 

This is a powerful, angry film, low on budget but high on raw performances. Mel Raido as John and Morjana Alaoui (who electrified as Anna in Pascal Laugier's 2008 film Martyrs) as Evie deliver very different but equally strong performances. John's drab, squalid house, now taken up with all the accoutrements of 24 hour medical care, is a dismal battleground for the war of will between patient and carer (although I did have a little trouble accepting that this was the home of a former successful rock star). 

Broken's conclusion is well signposted and, to be honest, something of a letdown, coming at the end of an otherwise very tense but authentic film. There was, arguably, nowhere else to go with the story and I don't blame Smith for his decision. This film is a cry of rage although an internally directed one - Broken isn't an indictment of this country's care system, but it sure is a movie that makes you think very carefully about ever working in it.

Thursday, 22 December 2016

Delusion (USA 2016: Dir Christopher Di Nunzio) plus short interview with the director

Anyone worried about 'the state of cinema' would do well to look past the popcorn fodder that fills the multiplexes, which represents only a percentage of total film output, and search out the plethora of independent movies currently available to view, although not necessarily on cinema screens. Christopher Di Nunzio's Delusion is a fine example of a movie that knows the limitations of its budget and instead works on creating a sombre downbeat mood which harks back to the regional indie US movies of the 1970s.

Frank Parillo is a lost soul. In grief over the loss of his wife Isabella, he's torn between cherishing her memory but wanting to feel a woman's love again. Belatedly receiving a letter from Isabella some three years after her death (a strange scene which shows, in his passive acceptance, how mired in grief he remains), which implores him to live life to the full, he encounters a strange and much younger woman, Mary. She quickly seduces him, despite a warning from a fortune teller that she is not what she seems. Frank's life begins to fall apart as he realises that the fortune teller is right and Mary may well be supernatural in origin. But by then it's too late.

Di Nunzio's short and full length film output has oscillated between supernaturally and crime themed movies, but all have been more character than narrative driven. 2009's Livestock mixed Sopranos-style gangsters with occult horror. His second feature, last year's A Life Not to Follow, was a fractured neo-noir tale of drug dealers and more gangsters. Frank Parillo, a tough, grizzled type with a New England drawl, could equally have stepped out of a crime movie. But rather than showing us a violent side, Parillo's actually a software developer (although we never see him at the day job). He's amiable but aimless, a man wandering through a life now without purpose, seeking an end to his grief.

David Graziano as Frank Parillo

Delusion takes its time in unveiling the supernatural elements of the story - when they arrive, they're delivered as matter-of-factly as the rest of the film, although we're not really sure what we're seeing. We learn that Mary has been spending some time 'in Mexico' and from various clues around the house it is assumed that she is connected in some way with the country's festival of the dead - but does she really exist, or is Mary simply a manifestation of Frank's grief? Delusion is leisurely and contemplative, but never boring - only the infrequent and bizarre dream sequences break the movie's overall pacing. I was reminded of early 1970s independent quasi-supernatural output like George Romero's Season of the Witch (1973) and the 1971 movie Let's Scare Jessica to Death, but also, via the roving camera of Nolan Yee and the naturalistic performances, Nick Cassavetes' slow, intimate dramas like Husbands and A Woman Under the Influence (1970 and 1974 respectively).

As Parillo, relatively unknown actor David Grazanio is a revelation, with a natural style and soporific world-weariness that makes him totally believable. His hangdog expression and yearning for a female connection make it quite understandable that he should fall for Mary's (Jami Tannille) chilly charms, even though the audience can see that she's T-R-O-U-B-L-E (her encouraging of Frank to live life to the full is of course a repetition of the advice of his dead wife, albeit with disastrous consequences). There are a number of supporting actors who don't do much but are crucial to establishing the movie's small town feel (Delusion was filmed on location across Massachusetts): Carlyne Fournier, as Isabella, is a standout, having the difficult job of conjuring up a believable character seen only in flashback.

Jami Tannille as Mary
I was sufficiently intrigued by Di Nunzio's output to seek him out and ask a few questions. The director was born and raised in Boston, Massachusetts and attended film classes at Massachusetts College of Art, School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston:

DEoL: What was the genesis of the idea for Delusion?

CDN: It's hard to say because it evolved from an older script. I knew I wanted to make a film with more controlled camera movements and tell a more obscure story then I did with my last film. For me it was really about trying to control the emotional arch. 

DEoL: Your 2009 film Livestock and this one both have supernatural/occult themes but nothing is really made specific in either. What is it about this theme that appeals to you?

CDN: I've always been into the occult since I was a teenager. I remember staying up late researching all these different organizations and theories. I love the imagery and movies with that theme. I guess I have always been fascinated with the concept of hidden knowledge. I also like the idea that something supernatural could happen and you don't have an answer for it. It's refreshing and weird, things really do happen no matter what you believe in. It leaves a lot of room for interpretation. 

DEoL: Delusion reminded me of a lot of 1970s US indie low budget flicks. Were there any films (or TV, books etc) that you had in mind when filming Delusion?

CDN: I am a big fan of Let's Scare Jessica to Death and 1970s crime and horror films. It was a good decade for occult films but I didn't have any specific film in mind. Me and our Director of Photography Nolan Yee watched a few scenes from the films of Bella Tarr to get an idea of where we wanted to go with camera movement. Not that we're trying to do anything like those films but it's a fun way to get the conversation going about cinematography. I do like to help create organic and natural performances. I always preach subtlety as well. Not to sound clichéd but I feel like when you take that approach you find the truth in the character. I think the audience can sense that and helps them connect to the performance better, and that's always a good thing for a film. 

Christopher Di Nunzio
DEoL: The acting was uniformly good but David Graziano was a revelation - the way he combined grief, desire and overall world weariness was fantastic - also he could have stepped out of The Sopranos or a crime movie, except he's a software designer! Tell me about the actor and the character of Frank.

CDN: Funny you say crime film because David and I first started working together on a crime film I co-wrote and directed called A Life Not To Follow. He was recommended by a friend of ours, Skip Shea, and I thought he looked like a detective from a 70s film which made me want to cast him. I quickly learned he gives 110% and is very professional. He is always game to try something new. For Frank I wanted to create an average every day type of guy. Someone you can picture as an uncle, someone's dad or even a neighbour. I felt by making him relateable that way his journey would be that much more tragic. David and I talked a lot about the psychology of the character and what is going to happen to him and in concentrating on creating a natural, real performance we would add a lot of depth to Frank. I also gave David a piece of music that was 19 minutes of this weird pulsating sound, and at certain moments in the film I wanted him to play that song in his head over and over again. Almost like the powers were calling to him. 

DEoL: Could you tell me about some of the other casting choices and did any of the characters change from the original scripting when cast? 

CDN: Nothing really changed from the original script but of course some things naturally do change when making a film, like suddenly you want to have a character with an edge. Maybe you randomly thought up some sort of new trait or tick. Maybe you explore a different angle last minute. Something seems to always develop or changes but nothing too drastic to mention.

Jami Tannille who plays Mary was someone I saw in a film and really liked her look and thought she had amazing timing and screen presence. It would've been really hard to recast her. She has a lot of range. 

Carlyne Fournier, who plays Isabella, is someone I've seen in a few films and known for a while. I just thought she would be a great fit with David plus she's talented and professional. Also a lot of fun to have on set!

DEoL: My readers always like a few shoot details - could you tell me a bit about how long the shoot was, budget, location choices, any compromises etc.

CDN: It took us nine days to shoot the whole film. We had a lot of long days and one sleepover. There was also a month or so break in between. The house we used was in Cape Cod and belonged to our sound recordist Laura Grose's girlfriend's Dad. We were lucky to get the house since it fit the character Frank so well. We also shot all over Massachusetts and in Rhode Island. We shot at a diner in Gardner, MA that was also used for the film School Ties [1992 movie with Matt Damon and Brendan Fraser]. We also shot the little car chase scene in Ashburnham, MA which I had no idea was even a real town until right before we shot there. Pretty place but nothing around. 

DEoL: The film is streaming on Amazon Prime in the UK. Did it ever get a theatrical release? Also what are the future distribution plans for the film?

CDN: Unfortunately, it didn't make it into the theaters. As of right now it's just on Amazon Prime in the US, Canada, and UK. I'm not sure the exact strategy yet but our distributor will be releasing it on more platforms soon. They like to release it on Amazon first.

DEoL: What's next for you?

CDN: I'm trying to get a name actor attached and find funding for new feature crime film. It's about a hitman who had second thoughts about doing what he does and trying to walk away from it all. I have my fingers crossed! 

DEoL: Thanks Christopher and best of luck with Delusion and your future projects!

Tuesday, 6 December 2016

New Films Round Up #4 - Reviews of Abattoir (USA 2016), The Darkest Dawn (UK 2016), Antibirth (Canada/USA 2016), Satanic (USA 2016), Fear Inc (USA 2016) and The Devil Lives Here (Brazil 2016)

Abattoir (USA 2016: Dir Darren Lynn Bousman)  Bousman's movie, about a seemingly immortal man, Jebediah Crone, who feeds off the souls of murdered people by entrapping them in a constructed house made up of the murder rooms of each of the victims (a very cool idea), is based on a series of comic books also created by the director. A planned web series, turning Abbatoir into a multi-media spectacle, hasn't happened, but the whole concept is really interesting.

Jessica Lowndes plays Julia Talben, a reporter whose family are slaughtered in their home, and who, in investigating the deaths further with her detective accomplice Grady, finds a pattern emerging. Over the years houses which are the scene of murderous acts are quickly bought and then re-sold, with the rooms in which the deaths occurred removed first. Talben connects the dots which take her to the remote town of New English, which turns out to be her own birthplace too. Talben and Grady gradually piece the story together, encountering the evil Crone and his band of followers, and attempt to foil Jebediah's master plan. 

So yes, I liked this. It's packed full of ideas, some of which work and some don't (the initial faux forties look and dialogue is quickly and advisedly dropped - I'm sure it worked better in the comic strips - and some of the ghost effects at the end tip over into plain silliness) but it's wonderfully atmospheric with some well used Louisiana locations and a brooding score by Mark Sayfritz. Abattoir also fails to deliver the obligatory redemptive ending, hinting at the possibility of a sequel. Bousman's earlier work - including three installments of the Saw franchise and the over the top Repo! The Genetic Opera (2008) - have suggested a talented low budget film maker learning his craft. Abattoir, by no means a perfect movie, demonstrates skill with a small budget and a desire to try something new in a crowded genre market.

The Darkest Dawn (UK 2016: Dir Drew Casson) Impossibly young and possibly talented Drew Casson brought out the micro budgeted, derivative but still impressive Hungerford back in 2014. Tasteless title aside (Hungerford was the town where crazed inhabitant Michael Ryan killed and wounded more than 30 people in a gun spree back in 1987), the movie concerned an alien invasion straight out of Robert Heinlein's The Puppet Masters, with alien beings attaching themselves to residents of the town and controlling their brains. The Darkest Dawn is set in London, and also deals with an alien attack across the UK and the efforts of a small band of survivors to escape from the Capital and head to Manchester.

The very impressive opening, with its post production scenes of mayhem - including an extremely believable plane crash - bodes well, but once Casson draws you in, the remainder of the film is an extended hike around Blighty with our bickering survivors. Central to this group is the plucky but irritating Chloe Murdock (Bethan Mary Leadley) who has captured everything we see on a digital camera, a present for her 16th birthday. So yes, we're in 'found footage' territory once again, which provides plenty of opportunities for Chloe to speak direct to camera, with messages for her (presumably now dead) family about how brave she's being in the face of all this alien adversity.

It's difficult to know quite what Drew Casson was attempting to achieve with The Darkest Dawn. There's nothing that audiences haven't seen many times before; it's perfectly serviceable but terribly drawn out, with only a few scenes of CGI mayhem to leaven the endless footage of people tramping around shouting at each other.

Antibirth (Canada/USA 2016: Dir Danny Perez) Oh lordy, this one's nuts.

Natasha Lyonne (yes, that Natasha Lyonne) plays Lou, a wild child who following an evening out in the company of a marine, passes out and wakes up the morning after, well, sort of pregnant, despite maintaining that they didn't do the nasty. Her friend and fellow substance hooverer-upper Sadie (played by Chloë Sevigny, yes that Chloë Sevigny) is little help, and when a pregnancy test confirms the chain-smoking, bong bashing Lou is definitely in the family way, she encounters the weird Lorna (played by Meg Tilly - yes that Meg Tilly) who may have an explanation for the weird thing growing inside Lou's stomach, involving secret experimentation on young soldiers.

If I mention that writer/director Danny Perez's first spell in the director's chair was 2010's Oddsac, a 54 minute non narrative film which was basically an extended video for wackjob Baltimore band 'Animal Collective' with whom he regularly collaborates, you'll get some idea that Antibirth is a film best viewed through, er, artistic lenses. Both storyline and the collected contents of Lou's stomach are metaphorically and literally all over the place. I loved the ending - there is a birth and it's twins...after a fashion - but a lot of this film is like a cross between a Frank Henenlotter movie and Jed Johnson's 1977 flick Andy Warhol's Bad. If you think that's a recommendation, well then it is.

Satanic (USA 2016: Dir Jeffrey G Hunt) Ah, PG rated horror films - they're great, aren't they? Well some are. This isn't. Jeffrey Hunt is best known for his work behind the camera on a plethora of US TV programmes, including several CSI spinoffs. This becomes painfully apparent in the endless drone and pan shots of the LA skyline at night, and the slick but flat TV style of his direction. The story is the opposite of a tidily concluded 40 minute drama that he would be used to making, and, let's be quite clear about this, makes absolutely no sense in its final stages.

A group of young people are taking a school break. Enroute to a music festival, they decide to turn dark tourist and travel to LA to check out the death scenes of victims of (real life) satanist Anton le Vey. Snooping around these sites they come across an actual black magic mass and help a young girl, Alice, to escape the coven's clutches. Instead of thanking them the girl utters some enigmatic phrases and then cuts her own throat. Now under police surveillance strange things begin to happen to the group - it looks like Alice was the conduit for the forces of evil which now threaten our heroes. I'll stop there, because at this point I lost any understanding of what was happening. There's some poltergeist activity, a turgid power ballad, a lot of screaming and one of those 'self reflexive' endings deployed when there's nowhere else to go plot wise.

I'll make one confession: I was kind of fascinated with Sarah Hyland, who plays goody goody Chloe (and is therefore destined to make it to the final reel). Hyland is a great comedy actress - her prissy, narcissistic turn as Haley Dunphy in TV's Modern Family is a delight. But as a yelling machine, she's just awful. With her large saucer shaped head and bulging eyes she's like a live-action version of one of Tim Burton's puppetoons. And while she and the rest of the cast use the F-Bomb like it's going out of fashion, they manage to drum up not one iota of drama. A bad bad film, and while I have a strict no spoiler policy on this site, don't look at the movie's poster unless you want to find out how Ms Hyland ends up.

Fear Inc (USA 2016: Dir Vincent Masciale) Here's an enjoyable horror comedy that out post moderns Scream and all its sequels. It's Hallowe'en and we meet Joe, who's the kind of guy you need on your pub quiz team if the bonus round is 'US horror movies of the last twenty years.' He's a walking movie guide, always out for a seasonal thrill. So when he finds out about 'Fear Inc,' a company who specialise in custom made pranks for punters who think they're hard enough, he's disappointed when, after making the call, he's told that they're 'sold out' and can't help him. Well that's their story. Shortly afterwards, relaxing at his Australian girlfriend's luxury house with his other mates, the terror begins, and the group are stalked and despatched in the manner of famous scenes from horror movies. Perversely Joe is delighted, but when his girlfriend is kidnapped and he's forced into some Saw-like decisions he changes his mind.

Fear Inc doesn't start very well, but the second half is a rather clever update of the 'do you like scary movies?' school of film making, which ups the pace and manages a good deal of tension as well as knowing humour. There's nothing particularly new in this, but there's some good performances and a couple of laugh out loud sight gags. There's clearly a moral here about the negative impact of a life spent consuming horror culture and the subsequent inability to separate reality from fiction, and watching Joe communicating entirely via lines of movie dialogue made this reviewer think twice about how annoying he might be when talking about films. Not bad.

The Devil Lives Here (Brazil 2016: Dir Rodrigo Gasparini and Dante Vescio) Gasparini and Vescio's debut feature - previously titled The Fostering - is a decidedly baffling story about the sadistic slave owner of an apiary who calls himself, no, not the Honey Monster, but the Honey Baron, and who is mixed up in all kinds of violent goings on. Two centuries previously the Baron was murdered by one of his slaves, and the illegitimate child he fathered is also killed. Following his murder the Baron's vengeful spirit is kept in check by descendants of the slave, but when a group of young people arrive at the house where an annual ritual of driving a nail into the ground keeps the Baron away, they are caught up in a web of terror. Or something. I had quite some difficulty working out what was going on.

The movie draws on elements of Candyman and The Evil Dead but the promise of a violent denouement presaged by the heightened score doesn't actually appear, and the merging of youth in peril, some rather ill advised comedy with a smattering of folk horror didn't really work. Pacing is a massive issue in a film which just tips the hour and a quarter mark, and although ambitious in scope for the budget, The Devil Lives Here really does crawl along.

I did like Pedro Salles Santiago's creepy soundtrack, a symphony of discordant notes and insidious scratching, and I can applaud the attempt to make something of Brazil's rich folk heritage and its troubled past as the backdrop for the horror. But it's a bit of a mess really, a film that tries too hard to be intriguing, and could possibly have benefited from a simpler premise and, well, more scares.

Monday, 5 December 2016

Night of the Demon (UK 1957: Dir Jacques Tourneur)

These are the notes from my introduction to the film at East Dulwich Picturehouse on Sunday 4 December 2016

Good afternoon. My name's David Dent, a local writer on film, and I'm here to give you an introduction to one of my favourite horror films.

This afternoon’s film, Night of the Demon, has a claim to fame in being the only direct big screen adaptation of one of the ghost stories of M R James. Published at the beginning of the last century, James’s tales of dusty academics foraging in old churches and houses, disturbing things that shouldn’t be disturbed, and being menaced by unknown demonic forces as a result, are arguably not particularly cinematic.

That’s not to say that James hasn’t been an inspiration for film makers; some have spliced elements of his stories into their movies, while others have adopted a Jamesian feel rather than direct references. Quite what ‘Jamesian’ means is a bit of a loose concept, but usually involves some sort of creeping dread, a gradual haunting rather than a succession of shocks, and a sense of the unreal entering into the everyday. Some of the other films in Picturehouse’s current ‘A Warning to the Curious’ season are good examples of this: the 1970 UK film Blood on Satan's Claw finds a hairy monster summoned by 18th century English country villagers, David Robert Mitchell’s recent US flick It Follows sees a bunch of young slackers being menaced by a slowly advancing something, and the terrific recent Iran set film, Under the Shadow, has a mother and child haunted by an ancient being in war torn Tehran.

In keeping with the claustrophobic nature of his writings, adaptations of the James canon have been far more successful on television. Most famous of these was the run of adaptations on the BBC between 1971 and 1975 by former documentary maker Lawrence Gordon Clark under the ‘Ghost Story for Christmas’ umbrella. For those of a certain age eg me, these will always fondly be remembered as rites of passage television, screened at a time when children like me should have been in bed, but were allowed to stay up by seasonally motivated sherry fuelled parents, who were as chilled as their offspring when watching the broadcasts. Gordon Clark eventually left the BBC but went on to adapt ‘Casting the Runes’ for ITV in 1979.

Which brings us to this afternoon’s film, also a reasonably faithful adaptation of ‘Casting the Runes,’ one of James’s more lively tales. Originally published in 1911, it’s the story of a researcher for the British Museum, who has recently unfavourably reviewed some writings by the notorious Mr Karswell, an Aleister Crowley-like alchemist and occultist. The researcher, Dunning, finds that he has been cursed by Karswell, via a rune – a parchment containing arcane symbols secretly passed to him – which will summon a demon at an appointed hour to kill the possessor of the parchment. Dunning must find a way to reverse his demonic death sentence before the appointed time of his demise. 

The script for the film began development in 1955 at the hands of former Hitchcock collaborator Charles Bennett who held the rights to the story, with Elstree Studio booked for the shoot.  At more or less the same time just 40 minutes down the road, a guy called Anthony Hinds was negotiating another adaptation of literary weirdness – Mary Shelley’s 'Frankenstein' at Bray studios, which would become the first of Hammer Studios’ popular Eastmancolor horror outings, entitled The Curse of Frankenstein. The British horror film, which up until that point had produced only a small handful of examples of the genre - notably Ealing Studios’ Dead of Night in 1945 – was about to see in its golden age of English Gothic film making, kicking off with these two 1957 releases.

But I digress. Bennett’s working script title was 'the Bewitched,' although that changed to 'The Haunted' during filming. Both of these titles give you an idea of the subtlety that Bennett was aiming at with his adaptation – that would all change with the arrival of one Hal Chester, to whom Bennett sold his script.

The American former child star turned movie producer Chester optioned Bennett’s script to Columbia Pictures. In the grand tradition of movie hucksters Chester claimed that he had already written his own treatment of the movie, and used Bennett’s only because it had more detailed production notes. But he had the decency to give Bennett top billing for the script, even though, in the producer’s eyes anyway, it was largely Chester’s own.

Having secured a deal with Columbia, Chester started injecting a few more commercial ideas into the script, with his eyes firmly on the youth market to whom the movie would be pitched on release. Most controversial was the suggestion that audiences should actually see the 40 foot high fire demon, which was only suggested in Bennett’s original screenplay. He entrusted the specifics of these changes to long-time friend and former Orson Welles collaborator Cy Endfield, a McCarthy blacklisted screenwriter who had left the US for England in 1950. Like many caught up in the anti-communist House Un-American Activities trials, Endfield came to the UK in order to keep working, mainly as a script doctor. He remained uncredited in the film, as his inclusion would have automatically resulted in the film being blacklisted in the States.

To direct Chester chose French born Jacques Tourneur, who had famously worked with director Val Lewton at RKO studios in the 1940s with a string of expressionist horror movies, whose lurid titles betrayed their subtlety – films like CAT PEOPLE, I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE and THE LEOPARD MAN.

Tourneur was impressed with Bennett’s script, but he also did some rewriting of his own, being
unhappy with the sudden lurches towards horror – Tourneur envisioned something more psychological, trying to reconcile Endfield and Chester’s more lurid ideas with Bennett’s nuanced take on the story. In the end Bennett didn’t recognise any of his script and wanted his name taken off the project. He failed. Years later a still bitter Bennett said of Chester  “if he walked up my driveway right now, I’d shoot him dead.”

To help bolster his confidence when dealing with the pushy Chester, Tourneur cast two actors in leading roles who he both knew and trusted. Peggy Cummins played Joanna Harrington (a character not in the original story) and Dana Andrews was selected for the lead part of John Holden, a name change from James's Dunning.  

Andrews had been battling alcoholism for some years, and as his drinking increased in the 1950s the parts began to dry up. But Tourneur took a chance on him. Chester was less impressed, claiming that Andrews, drunk, fell down the steps of the plane when it brought him to England The Head of Columbia pictures also witnessed this and the mogul reputedly questioned of Chester “There’s your star?” Andrews largely kept it together but close watching of the film reveals one or two scenes which demonstrate that he must have been a nightmare to direct.

Andrews was a character, that’s for sure. One story tells of ten policemen arriving on set one day to arrest him. Apparently Andrews used to go out on the town after shooting and on one occasion slapped a girl in a bar. The production company had to pay the girl off to avoid a common assault lawsuit. Also while shooting the film he attended a Royal Command Performance in London. On being presented to the Queen, she asked him whether he was in England for business or pleasure. He told her he was here making a film about witchcraft in England, and she replied saying “Good heavens. Don’t bring that back again!”

Another piece of casting worth noting is Irish actor Niall MacGinnis as Julian Karswell – the script gave him a first name which James’s story did not. His performance is a tour de force of profound menace cut with gentlemanly charm. MacGinnis was used to more prestigious pictures than this – four years previously he’d been the lead in Irving Pichel’s brilliant 1953 biopic Martin Luther – but he delivers his role with dignity and panache.

And Brit TV fans should also keep a look out for Brian Wilde as crazed farmer Rand Hobart. Wilde is more popularly remembered for his parts as soft prison warder Mr Barrowclough and amiable Foggy Dewhurst in BBC comedies ‘Porridge’ and ’Last of the Summer Wine.’

The Director of Photography on the film was Ted Scaife. Scaife was a much in demand cameraman who’d previously done some great work on films like 1955’s A Kid for Two Farthings and An Inspector Calls the previous year. His night shots are particularly good – no easy feat on a limited budget with a fairly tight shooting schedule – and he imbues various mundane locations like Bricket Wood train station and Watford Junction with a real sense of unease.

Night of the Demon is now considered a classic of that rather awkwardly categorised sub genre known as folk horror. It has also seeped into popular culture. Two examples being a line from the opening song in the 1973 musical 'The Rocky Horror Show' which goes "Dana Andrews said prunes gave him the runes/And passing them uses lots of skill." And more recently a sample of Professor Harrington’s chilling line, uttered in the movie's séance scene “It’s in the trees. It’s coming!” was used by Kate Bush in her 1986 hit ‘Hounds of Love.'

Night of the Demon is a classic, of that there’s no doubt. That it successfully combines subtle scares and brilliant set pieces, while maintaining the sense of Jamesian dread as the story unfolds, is some feat. That it manages to do this when you consider its production history is something of a miracle. I still find the séance scene one of the most frightening in any British horror film. For those that have seen it, you’ll be pleased to know that rumours of me about to lead the audience in a sing a long to the song ‘Cherry Ripe’ are quite unfounded.

And before we settle into the movie, I leave you with this information. A new film adaptation of 'Casting the Runes' was announced back in 2013 by director Joe Dante, a modernised re-imagining of the story with James's characters of Dunning now portrayed as a celebrity blogger and Karswell a successful motivational speaker and self-help guru with connections to the occult. Actor Simon Pegg has been attached to star. I am beside myself with excitement.

Now, does anyone have Mr Joe Dante’s address (producing a rune from pocket)?

Saturday, 3 December 2016

Nocturnal Animals (USA 2016: Dir Tom Ford)

Wow, 2016 may have had a slow start (film wise, that is) but the second half of the year has delivered some sensational films, of which Tom Ford's Nocturnal Animals is a great example.

His first movie, 2009's A Single Man, left me decidedly cold, all calculated surface and mannered performances - something you'd expect from a former commercial fashion designer, Ford's previous occupation. But his adaptation of Austin Wright's 1993 novel 'Tony and Susan,' although teasing with the same apparent superficiality, has a slowly coiling tension within which, like the character of Susan in the film, engrossed in reading the book dedicated to her, occasionally made me gasp out loud.

Amy Adams (a mass of neuroses and anxious glances) plays Susan Morrow, an art collector and exhibitor whose gallery has all the warmth of a chest freezer. She is cool and remote as befits the world she moves in. Susan's husband Hutton, we learn immediately, is good looking, also distant, and involved in an affair that he does little to hide.

Susan receives a parcel in the post, and asks her assistant to open it and read the note inside (a nice touch which says a lot about her life). Inside is the manuscript of a book, written and dedicated to her by her ex-husband Edward Sheffield, who she left for Hutton because she was fed up with Sheffield's constantly heightened emotional state. With Hutton away on 'business' Susan settles down to read the book, the contents of which are depicted to us on screen over several 'readings.' The story-within-a-story is also a roman à clef, telling the tale of a family - husband Tony, wife and daughter - forced off the road by thugs, with the women abducted and later killed. Tony - who in Susan's imagining of the story is actually Edward Sheffield (although he remains unseen in Susan's 'real world') - teams up with a Texas cop with a limited life expectancy and a determination to get his man (Michael Shannon, a truly great actor). Together they hunt down the killers in decidedly unorthodox ways over a number of years.

'Nocturnal Animals' the book is a nasty piece of work. Grisly and violent, with an emotional undercurrent at times almost too much to bear, Susan's Peckinpah-esque mental realisation of the book is one of the first clues to the film's subtext and her own troubled mind. Through flashbacks to her past with Edward she instinctively visualises Sheffield as the Tony character, and as the story progresses - through a combination of those flashbacks and hints at Edward's character in the story - the reasons why Susan divorced him and why she may have bitterly regretted that decision emerge. As 'Nocturnal Animals' unfolds Tony/Edward searches for the strength to avenge his wife and daughter's deaths, and Susan gradually comes to understand her ex-husband, as events in the book mirror her own experiences, in ways she never could in real life.

This is a desperately unhappy film, right through to its forlorn conclusions. While not perhaps as worryingly glacial as, say, Nicolas Winding Refn's The Neon Demon, it certainly inhabits the same environment. Susan's gallery is almost comic in its sterility - the opening scene of braying artistic types, ignoring a group of obese naked dancing women, filmed in slow motion and offered up as art, is both distasteful and disorientating. One of the gallery's recent acquisitions is a large work of art with a single word. 'revenge,' painted on it (it's tempting to see this as a portent but to view the novel as Edward's own revenge is far too simplistic). Susan's world is cold and heartless but it's a world in which she has chosen to wallow, allowing her to marry a man in symaptico with the coolness and detachment she has chosen following her divorce from Edward. In interviews Ford has declared Nocturnal Animals a romance which warns about the danger in relationships of giving up too easily. But it's also an extremely internal film about perception and reality - a deconstructionist's wet dream - and it also offers a rather scathing take on the director's former profession.

Sunday, 20 November 2016

The Wailing (USA/South Korea 2016: Dir Hong-jin Na)

Hong-jin Na's epic story of supernatural magic is one of the more extraordinary films of 2016. Easily justifying its near two and a half hour running time, this is a rich if at times impenetrable movie which provides no easy narrative answers and allows for multiple interpretations.

Jong-Goo is a rather luckless police officer in the South Korean village of Goksung. We first meet him investigating a bizarre murder, where the perpetrator remains at the scene of the crime, blood-soaked, dazed and covered in a strange rash. This is only the latest in a string of strange killings in the village, which coincide with the arrival of an enigmatic Japanese man who has taken a house in the hills. Jong-Goo as a village policeman is clearly unused to this level of violence. Suspicion falls on the Japanese visitor (who some locals think is a ghost), but even when confronted with seemingly incontrovertible evidence the cop fails to arrest him - is this a comment on the inability of South Korea to 'police' the presence of Japan in their country? Also under suspicion is a strange almost wordless young girl who seems to taunt the police and who holds her own secrets.

Jong-Goo's daughter Hyo-Jin falls ill, showing signs of demonic possession and becoming covered in the same rash as earlier victims of the strange village sickness. Her mother, fed up with the inability of the authorities to handle the situation, summons a smooth, well dressed, 4-wheel drive owning shaman to drive the devil out of the village. This action sets off a chain of increasingly odd events, where no-one is to be trusted and it becomes impossible to tell who, or how many, are hosts to the evil presence which causes the dead to return and attack the living.

The Wailing can be read in many ways; political allegory; a state of the nation look at communities in South Korea; family drama; wonky ghost story; and even as broad social comedy. For the film resists any particular categorisation and often veers crazily between all of them. However at its root this is a very tightly directed movie which rarely loses pace, moving slowly from amiable comedy to histrionic tension and some impressively horrific set pieces. But despite the often bizarre events on screen, Hong-jin Na consistently frames the action within a very believable village community, with sleepy police, jumped up authority figures, and people going about their business amid the mayhem. The weather is frequently appalling and much of the action takes place on rain sodden hillsides or surrounded by low level disorienting cloud cover, rendering the village even more isolated and its occupants trapped.

The Wailing has one set piece after another; the exorcism scene is a standout, with both the smooth shaman and the Japanese stranger battling it out for control of the situation in a riot of drumming, fire and precision editing. There are also some stand out performances here. Do Wan Kwak as Jong-Goo transitions from amiable village cop to frustrated father, powerless to control the murders in his district or the demonic disobedience of his daughter. And as Hyo-Jin young Hwan-hee Kim is exceptional, ranging from little girl cute to authentically and scarily possessed in a matter of seconds (I had a similar problem with the emotional extremes that this young actress was exposed to as I did with  Kim Su-ann in the recent Korean movie Train to Busan).

Some critics have written that the director has failed to understand the horror genre in his sprawling epic. My own view is that we are in a golden era of horror movie making, where most of the more interesting takes on the format emanate not from the US or Britain, but from the east and other parts of Europe. The Wailing is a winner.

Sunday, 13 November 2016

Arrival (USA 2016: Dir Denis Villeneuve)

A while back I was complaining to a friend about the all embracing spread of emo-driven advertising at the cinema to sell anything from booze to banking. Well the trend has seeped into the sci fi genre as well. Swelling string sections and trembling bottom lips have recently found their way into metaphysical sci-fi outings like Interstellar and Midnight Special. Denis Villeneuve's ponderous Arrival also has metaphysics and emotion in spades, and sadly isn't the better for it.

Amy Adams, in a bravura performance, plays Dr Louise Banks, a lecturer in linguistics with a tragic past - a teenage daughter who died from cancer - called upon to assist when a series of huge oval spacecraft suddenly appear, hovering above a number of towns and cities around the world.

The authorities, in the shape of Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker, whose age and acting style have finally found harmony) persuade Banks to join a small team of experts to travel to Montana, where one of the craft is located, and help decode the first messages from the aliens inside (the UK also have one, in Devon of all places, but we don't get to see that story). Also assisting is scientist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner, smarmy as always) representing the yin of fact to Banks's yan of belief.

Much of the film is devoted to the pair's growing understanding of the language of the Cthulhu-like aliens, named heptapods (as well as a discordant moaning they write their messages in what looks like a cross between smoke and squid ink), while other members of the team monitor the reactions from Governments around the world to the arrival of the strange craft in the other visited countries - predictably China are first to turn from tolerance to aggression.

This is a fine setup - taking the germ of the last few minutes of Steven Spielberg's 1977 film Close Encounters of the Third Kind and making a whole movie out of it - but a rather thin one, and in its rush, or rather gentle trot, to replace content with emotion Arrival becomes rather laboured. By the end, Jóhann Jóhannsson's sweeping orchestral score had become so overpowering I wasn't sure whether I was still watching the movie or just more adverts. As an aside, Jóhannsson used to be a much more interesting composer (just listen to his score for The Miners' Hymns - it's on YouTube - and tell me if it isn't the most powerful soundtrack you've ever heard) but seems to have blanded out recently, possibly tantalised by the promise of more Oscar nominations.

The first part of the movie is the most successful. Villeneuve, a skilled director who gave us one of my favourite films of last year, Sicario, delays showing the spacecraft, cutting away from news items and reflecting the wonder of the alien vision via the reactions of his actors. And the final unveiling of the craft, about twenty minutes in, is a woozy mix of aerial and tilt shift photography that depicts the military activity around the craft as the aliens would see them, small and insignificant dots in the Montana landscape - it's a great scene. The craft's interior is simply designed, with its own gravity system (which provides the film's most obviously exciting moment) and as mentioned the tentacled heptapods are distinctly Lovecraftian.

But as the film progresses the promise of the first half subsides. The analysis of the alien language may be interesting but doesn't make great cinema, and Villeneuve's decision to show the world's varying reactions to the alien presence - from fervent prayer to looting and violence - via TV screens is clearly a deliberate attempt to tell a 'first contact' story from the point of view of one character rather than through spectacle. But in so doing it reduces the film to a rather one dimensional, almost soap-operaesque drama. I also couldn't help but notice that, once again, the only country to make the communication breakthrough was the Americans.

Arrival is based on a short story called 'Story of Your Life' by Ted Chiang, who also contributed to this movie's script. The story's themes of language, time and memory are arguably more suited to the printed page than the cinema screen. Here the awkward melding of aliens and sentiment just didn't work for me. I found Arrival at times very clumsy and forced, and if it wasn't for the casting of Amy Adams (a central character in some ways similar to Emily Blunt's flawed heroine in Sicario) it would scarcely be worth bothering with at all.

Thursday, 3 November 2016

The Girl With All the Gifts (UK/USA 2016: Dir Colm McCarthy)

This is Colm McCarthy's second feature film as director. His first, Outcast, from 2010, weaved magic and dysfunctional relationships in an uneasy and decidedly low budget mix. The Girl With All the Gifts, an adaptation of M R Carey's bestselling 'possible future' novel of the same name (Carey also wrote the screenplay) is similarly downbeat, a kind of paean to 1970s UK dystopian sci fi television, but with some bigger themes (and bigger stars) on display.

The Girl With All the Gifts opens with a group of young children in a classroom setting, somewhere deep within a secure facility. Unusually the children are manacled. One of them, Melanie, shows a high degree of intelligence and a connection with their teacher, Helen Justineau (a nicely downplayed performance from Gemma Arterton). Sgt Eddie Parks (Paddy Considine, slightly going through the motions) is wary of treating the children as 'normal' - he exposes a bare arm which is enough to set off the childrens' collective bestial behaviour. For these children are infected by the same fungal disease that has turned most of the rest of the country into crazed zombies nicknamed 'hungries' - the children display much more control and sentience, although they're feared by the military staff (who wear protective gel to disguise their human smell) and fed on a diet of worms to remind us of their genus. When the hungries break through the compound's barrier and into the facility, Melanie, Parks and Justineau all manage to escape in a truck also containing Dr Caroline Caldwell (Glenn Close, icy and not exactly redefining herself), a ruthless scientist who believes that the children bodily carry the infection's antidote via their brain tissue and spinal fluid, and therefore must be sacrificed to save the world. But Melanie has other ideas.

This is a zombie film which attempts something a little loftier than the usual. Don't get me wrong, it's still a B movie, albeit an expensively cast one - more than half of the film is devoted to the characters wandering the overgrown abandoned shopping arcades of our once great cities, for example - but in concentrating the story on the androgynous Melanie (a stellar performance from newcomer Sennia Nanua) rather than the zombie hordes it offers some more interesting observations about the relationship between infected and uninfected.

I liked the way in which the film slowly explained the relationship between the different factions rather than rushing to cram the exposition into the film's first fifteen minutes, and how it referenced the changing shape of the virus: as a fungus, it begins to sprout from the dead into huge, spreading growths containing seed pods that if broken will make the disease airborne. The generational aspect of the zombies is also interesting and probably the most frightening idea in the film - that the initially infected are the foot soldiers for something much more calculated. The film has a lot to say about what it means to be human and the division between human and beast, with a depth rare for such a genre movie.

It also offers up an ending (which of course DEoL cannot divulge) both apocalyptic and redemptive, a fiery climax in striking counterpoint to the washed out colour palette of the rest of the film, which concludes with a scene that is arguably more cinematic than plausible - but hey, this is a zombie film. Mention should also go to the immersive soundtrack of the Chilean composer Cristobal Tapia de Veer, which underscores the increasing tension perfectly. Not a masterpiece, but along with the recent Train to Busan, doing something very different with a genre that needed to diversify.

Wednesday, 2 November 2016

New Films Round Up #3 - Reviews of The Faith of Anna Waters aka The Offering (Singapore/USA 2016), Ghost Team (USA 2016), Tell Me How I Die (USA 2016), Lair of the Beast aka Chupacabra Territory (USA 2016), The Boy (Canada/USA 2016) and The Hatching (UK 2016)

The Faith of Anna Waters aka The Offering (Singapore/USA 2016: Dir Kelvin Tong) "Leviathan is using the internet to rebuild the Tower of Babel" declares one of the cast about half way through this daft blend of The Exorcist, The Da Vinci Code and every other urban haunting movie you've ever seen. The quote pretty much summarises the plot too, which revolves around saucer-eyed Jamie Waters, summoned to Singapore following the suicide of her sister Anna. Jamie doesn't believe her sibling is capable of such an act and stays on to super-sleuth her way to the truth, which involves objects moving, shadowy shapes, and a string of deaths suggesting her sister's demise was part of an overall plan by a demonic force with surprisingly good IT skills.

Primarily a Singapore movie with some US cash, the western cast suggests a remake of an Asian spook flick but no, this is an all original movie which actually is anything but. It's the kind of flick where a character tries to work out an anagrammatic string of letters really slowly, making the audience shout "FFS, it's L-e-v-i-a-t-h-a-n, it's not that difficult!" It might have had more impact had director Kelvin Tong not injected so many plot strands that the attempts to understand what's happening obscure any possibility of being scared or indeed anything but puzzled. As readers can see from past posts, I'm willing to give most stuff a go, but this was fairly painful.

Ghost Team (USA 2016: Dir Oliver Irving) Here's an amiable but not terribly funny indie comedy about a duo of gormless guys making an audition tape to apply for a vacancy on their favourite show, the fictional 'Ghost Getters.' Ambitious Louis suggests that as a location the pair check out a supposedly haunted barn, having been tipped off by the owner when he calls in at the copy shop where Louis works to order some 'No Trespassing' signs. His partner Stan, who has a lot of trouble staying awake and is the archetypal slob that's wandered out of an early Kevin Clark movie, tags along, his heart not really in it. The team are joined by perky fellow shop worker Ellie and jumped up store security guard Ross (Justin Long, a David Schwimmer for a new generation). The barn is staked out, there's a lot of goofing around, but then there's a Scooby Doo moment which provides a more prosaic explanation for the things that go bump in the night.

This movie's at its best when Louis and Stan are clowning around, slacker style. Long proves a bit too literal for comedy (a bit like Schwimmer freed from the comforts of the Ross Geller character) and there are long periods when nothing really happens, including laughs. The rest of the cast have a good comedy pedigree (Jon Heder as Louis, for example, was terrific in 2004's Napoleon Dynamite) but they're not helped by an uneven script. The whole thing is fairly unsuccessful, but not without the odd funny line.

Tell Me How I Die (USA 2016: Dir D.J.Viola)  A group of young people sign up for a drugs trial in a remote medical establishment, presided over by the mysterious Dr Jerrems. The drug's properties are to enhance memory, but uh oh! there's side effects. Principal casualty is the already half psychic Anna, who starts getting visions of her colleagues' deaths. And there's a killer among them who has the same abilities. Soon the kids are being picked off, as Anna battles to stay alive and keep one step ahead of the killer.

Generic is the name of the game here. All of the cast could have wandered in from a million similar 'I-Know-What-Your-Final-Destination-Is' movies. The film is consciously teen friendly and as a result increasingly bland, despite attempts to whip up some tension in a snowbound cat-and-mouse (more like mouse-and-slightly-bigger-mouse) finale. 107 minutes is a long time to spend in the company of this lot, and unleavened by any real gore, violence or rumpy pumpy to distract the viewer from the fact that not much is happening, it's quite a slog: this is clearly a first feature from director Viola, previously responsible for the MST 3000 style Elvira's Movie Macabre series and various music promos. And it shows.

Lair of the Beast aka Chupacabra Territory (USA 2016: Dir Matt McWilliams). Well what do you know, it's a good ol' found footage film. But wait - come back! It's quite good! Writer/ producer/director Matt McWilliams's first feature delivers a lot more than the average FF movie in terms of content, gore and, well, gratuitous sex scenes. Three young kids head out to the woods to capture footage of the infamous Chupacabra (a blood draining beast reportedly sighted throughout the Americas since 1995 - the name is translated as 'goat sucker'). For a FF movie, our three hunters, Amber, Joe and Morgan, are surprisingly engaging. Warned off by the park police the trio ignore the advice and steal onto the trails, meeting another party along the way. But it isn't long before we realise that the Chupacabra is real - various mountain animals are found gored, with their necks bitten and entrails removed (the classic kill sign of the 'Chupa'), a fate which soon extends to the humans. Some Chupa goo gets onto Morgan's arm, which gradually turns into a festering mess. More bizarre still is Amber, who seems to get a bit possessed and walks off into the woods to pleasure herself. What's going on? I don't know but it's all strangely watchable. The gore is well handled (although CGI blood splatters are very annoying) and as mentioned the nudity is completely gratuitous, harking back to the days of 1980s 'lost in the woods' movies that had to include at least one scene where a member of the female cast gets nekkid, as Joe Bob Briggs would once have said.

Ok this isn't brilliant, yes there is quite a lot of running around in the woods and there's the usual moments where you wonder exactly who's doing the filming, but McWilliams deserves some credit for adding more elements into his movie than you would expect (and arguably than he knows what to do with), and his leads at least give us enough personality that you care a bit about what happens to them. Cautious thumbs up then.   

The Boy (Canada/USA 2016: Dir William Brent Bell) This got a bit of a roasting from critics when it appeared in cinemas earlier this year. I have to confess to liking it (well the first two thirds anyway). It's very moody and Lauren Cohan does an extremely good job at conveying a gentle and increasing unhingedness as Greta, an American nanny in England appointed to look after a dummy named Brahms. Brahms' parents of course treat the dummy as if it was a real person, introducing Greta to a strict regime of dressing and teaching the 'child' which the nanny is expected to comply with even after the couple disappear on holiday. Strange things begin to happen, with the seemingly inanimate Brahms shifting position when Greta's not looking. Is he real after all or is Greta losing her mind?

Local delivery guy and wet dishcloth Malcolm forms an attachment to Greta, who's in the UK to escape her violent ex Cole. Of course Cole turns up, and this viewer (wrongly) guessed that maybe there was a plot between Cole and Malcolm to drive Greta bonkers. The truth is sadly quite different, and disappointingly takes the movie in a more formulaic direction in its closing stages. But for a while The Boy achieves a rather stately menacing feel. The camera prowls around the house (located in British Columbia rather than the UK) watching Greta go through her strange routines, 'observed' by the glacial porcelain face of the dummy. Cohan doesn't have anything to act against for much of the film so its to her credit that The Boy is quite creepy. With The Devil Inside (2012) and Wer (2013) director William Brent Bell seems to be establishing a well made schlock career similar to Jaume Collet-Sera, whose 2009 film Orphan this film resembles in tone.

The Hatching (UK 2016: Dir Michael Anderson) Oh now this is a terrible film. Actually a 2014 movie only just now getting a release, and the delay is completely understandable - another ten years would have suited me fine. The Hatching is the story of Tim, who returns to his home village in Somerset after the death of his father where, as a child, he broke into the local zoo with some other kids to steal some crocodile eggs. The prank went wrong and one of his friends was fatally gored by a Crocodile. Seems that the eggs made it out though as there's a wild crocodile on the loose in the shadow of Glastonbury Tor. And as if that's not bad enough, local girls are going missing, supposedly at the hands of a serial killer. Who is it? There are so many choices, but our money's on the local butcher who lingers too long over the bloody carcasses in his shop.

Supposedly a comedy horror, The Hatching is neither funny nor frightening. It's certainly odd, but not in a good way. Further hindered by almost glacial pacing, the story features characters with no definition who seem at times to be on the verge of corpsing on camera. And don't get me started about the ludicrous fake crocodile. The cast features various TV 'stars' (Tim is played by television regular Andrew Lee Potts - looking considerably younger than his near 40 years - and Lucy by familiar small screen face Laura Aikman) and not very funnyman Justin Lee Collins is on hand doing what he does best - being a bit of a tool with a west country accent. Worse still, Thomas Turgoose, whose career seems to have stalled since his triumphant turn as Shaun in Shane Meadows' This is England saga, plays the Caesar the butcher, a role in which he looks distinctly uncomfortable. One entry on imdb, from a cast member, suggests that the film was originally targeted at the 15-25 group - presumably that's an IQ reference. Truly awful.

Sunday, 30 October 2016

Have a Poundland Hallowe'en! Reviews of A Night in the Woods (UK 2007), June (US 2015), Axe Giant (US 2013), Lake Fear aka From Beneath (US 2014) and Abominable (US 2006)

Who says £5 can't bring you happiness? I wanted to enjoy some Hallowe'en thrills, but I wanted to do it on a budget. So I went to my local Poundland in Brixton and hoovered up five of their most promising DVDs, to have me my very own Poundland Hallowe'en. Here's what happened:

Film 1: A Night in the Woods (US 2007 Dir Richard Parry) Richard Parry made the not very good South West 9 back in 2001, a drama set on the streets of Brixton. Ten years later he made his entry into the 'found footage' sub genre, about a trio of hikers who head off into the wilds of Norfolk and spend, you know, a night in the woods. Hang on, I thought, I've seen this before. I even wrote a short review about it for another site, which went something like this:

"A few tips for budding 'found footage' film makers: 1. By the very nature of what you're doing you're ripping off The Blair Witch Project. It isn't necessary to set up bits of your movie that directly copy scenes from the original film. Try to avoid ripped tents (also tents messed about by 'unseen' forces), and senseless screaming (both from your main characters and the 'disembodied screams in the night' variety). 2. Your cast are filming on camcorders. Do not therefore actually film on much better equipment as it spoils the illusion (unless you can disguise the professional camerawork to look like cheap camcorder footage). 3. Never forget who's doing the filming. If there's a scene where all three central characters are being filmed (ie the only ones supposed to be in the movie) and no-one has a camera in their hands, then someone else is filming. This is not good. Same advice applies in the 'action' scenes. 4. To paraphrase Steve Martin in Planes, Trains & Automobiles, have a fucking point to what you're doing. It makes it so much more interesting for the audience. 5. Not a great idea to have lots of different music over the end credits for a 'found footage' movie. The ending's bound to be a bummer. Let silence do the work for you."

Film 2: June (US 2015: Dir L. Gustavo Cooper) Actually dating back from 2014, L. Gustavo Cooper's surprisingly watchable if very silly June is certainly a step up from his last genre effort, 2013's overly talky The Devil Incarnate. In a plot which bears some similarity to this year's Midnight Special (and also harks back to 1984's Firestarter), a young baby conferred with special powers is snatched away from a cult. Nine years later, as a young girl pursued by shadowy authority figures, she is placed in the hands of foster parents who gradually realise how special their adopted daughter really is, what with her ability to mess up the house in seconds and speak in a funny voice. We learn that the powers are supernaturally endowed (the little girl is possessed by an ancient demon) - and essentially that's the whole plot of June. It's thin stuff but reasonably enjoyable provided you don't think too hard about what's going on and can cope with the bargain basement effects work. Casper van Dien (Starship Troopers (1997)) gets credits on both sides of the camera for this one - maybe he sunk some money into it. Kennedy Brice is pretty effective as June. As a young actor she already holds an impressive CV; in fact her first appearance was at her birth, the actual footage being utilised in the 2013 movie Crackerjack. Nice.

Film 3: Axe Giant aka Axe Giant: The Wrath of Paul Bunyan (US 2015: Dir Gary Jones) Hey, getting in the Hallowe'en spirit now! Or I was. Now I'm no expert on American folklore, but I thought the giant lumberjack of legend was a rather amiable fellow? So what the hell is this nonsense? Filmed in the rather beautiful California, Ohio and Michagan countryside back in 2013, the forest locations are about the only thing going for this. After the obligatory prologue set in the 19th century (although one guy's wearing a rather modern bomber jacket) featuring a group of hicks who get chopped up, we cut to the present day, where a bunch of young offenders are sent on an outward bound course as an alternative to imprisonment. The group is presided over by a 'yes sir no sir' ball buster and a counsellor. They end up staying at the very house where the prologue's massacre took place and pretty soon the giant form of Paul Bunyan rocks up (he's an average guy with a few warts but is filmed to make him look massive - he also gets to act against some terrible model work to unconvincingly emphasise his stature) and the CGI dismemberment begins. Axe Giant can't make its mind up whether it wants to be a comedy or a straight out horror movie and of course ends up being neither. Poor old  Dan Haggerty (The Life and Times of Grizzly Adams (1977-78)) is in it and Martin Sheen's younger brother Joe Estevez plays someone bonkers. Jones directed the better than average B movie homage Spiders back in 2000, so I was expecting more from this, but Axe Giant is a terrible, terrible film which even some casual nudity and a nine foot giant can't fix.

Film 4: Lake Fear aka From Beneath (US 2014: Dir David Doucette)  This is actually the 2012 movie From Beneath repackaged as something it isn't. What I think it is, judging from the regular scene fades, is a movie strung together from a number of webisodes. It's very uncinematic, the sound's all over the place, and the acting from the two leads is pretty awful, when you consider that apart from these two there's pretty much no-one else in the film.

Sam and Jason are heading out into the woods to visit Sam's sister and her newly acquired house. But when they get there, no-one's at home. Opting to take a dip in the lake, Jason gets bitten by a leech like creature which then burrows into his leg. Holed up the house, he begins to hallucinate. Sam meanwhile has found her sister, who is dead. And it looks like what killed Sam's sister has plans for Jason.

Lake Fear is quite a chore to watch, and despite David Doucette wanting to make something claustrophobic and unsettling, which is laudable, the movie is just plodding and silly. It also has a terrible soundtrack - I'm assuming the musicians were friends of the director.

Film 5: Abominable (US 2006: Dir Ryan Schifrin) Yep, we're at the end of my Hallowe'en five for a fiver mini odyssey, and we conclude with the oldest of the movies selected. This was Ryan Schifrin's first feature (he went on to write and direct one of the segments in 2015's enjoyable Tales of Halloween). It's got a pretty good cast too, including Dee Wallace, Jeffrey Combs, Lance Henricksen, and Troma regular Tiffany Shepis - ok a good cast if cheesy horror flicks are your bag. And as an added bonus there's some quality soundtracking from Schifrin's dad Lalo, which to be honest sounds like it's strayed in from a much classier movie.

Yep, Abominable is pretty, well, abominable maybe too harsh, so  I'll go with barely adequate. Despite that title hook, the beast in question is actually Bigfoot The creature itself is an impressive bit of costume and prosthetics (the guy in the suit is Michael Deak, who as well as making special effects behind the camera, is pretty much the go-to guy when you want someone tall in a monster outfit). However the story is pretty hokey. A group of girls from the city take a house in the woods for a hen weekend, watched over - via binoculars - by next-door neighbour, wheelchair bound ex-climber Preston Rogers (played by Matt McCoy in his second Bigfoot film, twenty years after Bigfoot - the Unforgettable Encounter, which of course everyone has forgotten about). When Bigfoot arrives and starts picking off the party-goers, Preston shouts commands at them to help the girls escape. He becomes the hero of the day, eventually rear-ending the beast in his car and trapping it against the tree. However, in the darkness more sets of Bigfoot eyes look on - the story is not yet over.

Neither smart or pacy enough to get by as comedy horror, Abominable limps along rather episodically, only managing a soupcon of excitement towards the end. Most of the genre cast are rather wasted, although Jeffrey Combs should at least be singled out for being almost unrecognisable, dressed up as a backwoods bum.