Saturday, 18 June 2016

The Conjuring 2 (US 2016: Dir James Wan)

Up until now I've always seen James Wan as a confident if not particularly exciting or mature fright flick director. I found Saw (2004) a mildly diverting one gag movie and Insidious (2010) rather silly and suspense barren. I wasn't overly enamoured with The Conjuring (2013) either. I could see what he was trying to achieve - it certainly had its moments - but seemed overlong and too episodic to consistently engage. But The Conjuring 2 is another matter...what a belter of a film!

We're back in the world of Ed and Lorraine Warren, real life ghost hunters transformed by Wan into the significantly more photogenic Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga, the latter who manages levels of emotion rarely seen in this genre of film making. It's 1977 and the Warrens are recovering after their time spent trying to exorcise the murderous demon lurking in a certain house in Amityville. Come to think of it, they got their invitation to 'a house in Long Island' at the end of the first movie, set in 1971, so does that mean they were there for six years?

Meanwhile across the water something's stirring in Green Street, Enfield, England - the events leading to the now infamous 'Enfield Poltergeist' story are starting to happen. Like The Conjuring's depiction of the plight of the Perrons in Rhode Island, the sequel is also based on a true story - the haunting of a north London Council house by the spirit of a dead man, Bill Wilkins, and the physical effects on the Hodgson family resident at the time. It's a story that's been referenced as long ago as 1992 in the superlative BBC production Ghostwatch, and more recently in When the Lights Went Out (2012) and directly in last year's three part drama The Enfield Haunting.

So the Warrens are looking for some R&R time, but when they are played a tape of an old man's raspy voice and told that the speech actually came from the mouth of an 11 year old girl - the youngest Hodsgon child Janet - they're on the plane to Enfield, and discover that beneath the haunting there's something even scarier which links to one of their earlier cases, and which directly threatens the couple.

As a director James Wan has always been able to press the audience's buttons as efficiently as, say, Hitchcock, but I've always found this talent to be slightly undone by pacing issues. The Conjuring 2 is a masterclass in 'the jump', and whereas in some films overexposure to this trick breeds ennui, this movie paces itself so perfectly that the tension doesn't let up for more than a few seconds of its two hour running time (Ed's acoustic rendition of Elvis's 'Always on My Mind' notwithstanding). It's that scary that I saw it on my own in a large cinema and consider it a badge of honour that my fingers didn't flutter in front of my eyes once.

While the story and setting are pretty accurate  - it's a mark of his skill that he's taken the actual events (which have the whiff of hoax about them) and turned them into something far scarier -  Wan isn't afraid to take a few risks with his plot and visuals (he also plays fast and loose with the architecture of the English Council house - basement with running water, floorboards with no joists anyone?). This provides some visual variety in a film which doesn't have a complex plot, but the director for once spends as much time with the characters as what he wants to show us, even allowing him to stray into Spielbergian territory for the final reel.

There is some top notch acting going on here. I've already mentioned the emotional range of Vera Farmiga, but Simon McBurney is note perfect as friend of the family Maurice Grosse, and US born Madison Wolfe as Janet Hodgson is also a standout. I was astounded that he managed to get such accurate 'estuary drawl' accents from Wolfe and Australian Laura Esposito (playing Janet's sister Margaret), although in the moments when those accents slipped I was slightly taken out of the story and left musing on why it wasn't possible to cast UK kids.

It's a sign of how good this film is that at the end I both wanted and didn't want The Conjuring 3. I really want to meet Ed and Lorraine again, but I fear the franchise even more than some of the things I saw on screen over the last couple of hours.

Tuesday, 14 June 2016

A Short Interview with Pablo Raybould, director of The Snarling

Pablo Raybould
Following on from my review of new werewolf/zom-com The Snarling, I managed to ask a few questions of writer/director Pablo Raybould. 

DEoL: The Snarling is clearly indebted to loads of horror films, not least An American Werewolf in London but also The Beast Must Die and many others. Are you a dyed in the wool horror fan or did you have to watch a number of these movies in prep for the film?
PR: I’m not a big horror fan really and only watched a couple of films during the run up to this just to make sure that the references were right. All done from memory I guess really – but all prepared well before the shoot. All the little things like the signs e.g. ‘Bracken Trails’ which had the first part covered by a copper’s jacket later to just read ‘…en Trails’. The puffa jackets in different colours were bought with the similarity in mind, the red riding hoodie worn by the cyclist was very tenuous but he was going to have to wear something anyway so we really didn’t go out of our way to shoehorn anything in. We wanted Hot Fuzz, Shaun of the Dead, American Werewolf in London etc in there as loads of Easter eggs, hence Albert’s appearance in the hospital bed (a character from AAWIL). The same lines he delivered to the ‘Kessler boy’, were now delivered to him by his real life son wearing a replica of Albert’s porter uniform. 

DEoL: There's been a bit of talk about the 'product placement' in the film which may make it difficult to secure a production deal on DVD. What thoughts do you have on this - would you be prepared to re-shoot scenes to get wider exposure, or are you a guy who, if you'll pardon the phrase, 'shoots and moves on'?
PR: Yes – product placement! That was my naivety really.  The chicken box that the finger comes in could be pixelated maybe but I’d hope that others that can just be seen in the background in the bar etc wouldn’t be a problem. No brand is brought into disrepute – but yes, we’d be happy to re-shoot if necessary. No, I don’t think either of us are ‘shoot and move on’ really. We always need to move on but not at the expense of the shot so happy to spend a little more time to get it right…if we can.

Filming The Snarling
DEoL: Can you tell me a bit about the cast? I know you mentioned at the Derby Film Festival that you'd worked (in panto I think) with Julie Peasgood, but did you know the others as friends? I ask because there seems to be a great sense of camaraderie on set.
PR: Ben (Manning) and I have been lucky enough to work with lots of different people whilst doing hundreds of corporate training jobs and so have met and worked with lots of people, so we have built up a large list of friends that are all actors. I totally agree with you about the camaraderie. We spent most of the time in an empty shooting lodge in the middle of nowhere and everyone loved it. The lodge was just an empty brick building with a wood burner in it that is used by the farmer for drinks and food after pheasant shoots. I collected a bar from Leicestershire and built the pub in it as the set. The woodburner was a lovely thing as it was so cold filming. The ‘family’ feeling was made even more so by this too. We had food there, a generator, warmth and even a few drinks at the bar! Laurence I have filmed with before and Ben had worked with Chris (Simmons) and Joel (Beckett aka Lee from The Office) in a play in Stevenage. Julie – yes, panto in Grimsby and it was through her that we got her friend Julia Deakin (who plays a reporter) which made that lovely connection to the Edgar Wright films (Hot Fuzz and Shaun of the Dead). 

DEoL: Are you happy with the final film? Anything you'd do differently?
PR: Yes – generally I am very happy with it. Would I change anything? Well yes, but those changes would have come with a better money and time budget. There is one scene that I am not too happy with and that was a result of not having ‘options’ in the edit. The small scene was taken in one shot so there was no point at which to edit and no other complete takes. Again, more time – more options.

DEoL: And what's next? I think you mentioned something about witches and some sense of continuity from The Snarling in your next picture?
PR: Well – next. The script has been written for a while now and yes, there is a witchcraft theme running through it, an escapee from the local institution for the criminally insane and some horrific murders. This new script is darker and quite possibly funnier than The Snarling. There is some continuity from The Snarling but I certainly would not say sequel. It is a totally stand-alone piece but will have some of the village’s locals moving over to this one. The three boys and the two coppers. 

The Snarling will (hopefully) be out later this year, lawyers permitting. Thanks Pablo!

The Snarling (UK 2016: Dir Pablo Raybould)

'The funniest werewolf zom-com you'll never see' is hardly the catchiest promotional line for a film, but in the case of The Snarling, outside of seeing it on the festival circuit it's probably true. Pablo Raybould's debut movie is ragged round the edges, energetic and very funny in a gormless clowning around way. However it's also got rather a lot of uncleared product placement, which would have lorry-loads of lawyers baying for blood the moment the film came anywhere near a production deal.

The Snarling is also only ostensibly a horror film. Most of it is an extended cinematic paean to how rubbish blokes can be, with a rather tacked on werewolf plot and some police procedural stuff. But it is laugh out loud funny, if you're in the mood for unsophisticated comedy.

Greg Lupeen, 'star of over 17 films and the voice of chunky cut crisps', is the actor of the moment, here filming a zombie movie, complete with moaning extras and a harassed production crew. Lupeen's diva-ish ways and treatment of his colleagues is threatening the whole production, already plagued by the disappearance of one or two of the crew under strange circumstances.

The Bromsgrove Three Stooges
Elsewhere in town we meet Mike, Bob and Les, a Bromsgrove Three Stooges who spend most of their time propping up the bar in their local and indulging in the kind of banter that gives the word a bad name. Chief among these is twit-of-the-week Les, who we discover is a dead ringer for Lupeen, which comes in useful when the movie production team get tired of Greg's antics and engineer a quick swap with his lookalike. And it comes in extra handy when Lupeen is fatally incapacitated via a sausage and spotlight accident, and Les is moved to centre stage, with his compadres signing up as zombie extras.

Meanwhile the local police, who consist of a constantly-hungry Detective Inspector (Raybould himself) and his twerp of a sidekick Haskins, very slowly work out that the murders might be carried out by a werewolf. But who could it be? The range of possible suspects brings to mind the 1974 werewolf whodunnit The Beast Must Die, and that's just one of a number of films lampooned in The Snarling - it won't surprise readers that there are also very heavy copyright-infringement strength nods to John Landis's 1981 classic An American Werewolf in London. 

But it's the constant barrage of one liners that keep this one going, as well as the sprightly comic playing by Laurence Sanders, Ben Manning and Chris Simmons as the hapless trio of Les, Bob and Mike (with Sanders doubling up as Lupeen). Mention also should go to Pablo Raybould and Ste Johnston as the incompetent police team. Oddest casting is probably Julie (1983's House of the Long Shadows) Peasgood, showing up as a rather unconvincing ball busting producer and proving that being a friend of the director can have its uses. There's also a bit part for Julia Deakin as a reporter, in honour of her casting in Edgar Wright's 2004 movie Shaun of the Dead, another stylistic influence on this film.

I use this phrase a lot in reviewing, but The Snarling won't be for everyone. It's somewhat shambolically made, and some of the scenes go on far too long - I couldn't work out whether this was intentional in a Mike Myers way - and the relentless gaggery is also a bit exhausting. But you have to give it points for enthusiasm. Comedy horror is hard to get right, and if The Snarling is only remembered for a handful of decent setups then that's more than you can say of many movies that I've sat through recently. Finger in the car park, anyone?

Saturday, 11 June 2016

Dark Signal (UK 2015: Dir Edward Evers-Swindell)

They say that God loves a trier, so He must be absolutely delighted with Edward Evers-Swindell's debut feature, a smorgasbord of horror themes packed into one straining-at-the-sides but still enjoyable movie. Dark Signal's genre spread manages to include EVP (Electronic Voice Phenomenon), stalk 'n' slash, crime, torture porn, domestic drama, ghost story and comedy. It's a giddy mix which doesn't all work but it's a lot of fun watching it have a go.

Laurie is a radio DJ whose show is about to be cancelled - she and her producer Ben are gearing up for one last evening of broadcasting, and he's lined up a psychic to make the final night go with a bang. Elsewhere Ben's on line friend, down-on-her-luck Kate, is being roped in to a robbery by her boyfriend - it's easy cash and all she has to do is drive the getaway car. The location of the robbery is a remote farmhouse which just happens to be the site of a recent killing, and the spirit of the murdered girl within is restless, a fact picked up when her disembodied voice comes through during the radio broadcast, summoned by the psychic. Who is the girl? Who is the killer? What is Laurie's dark secret? Is Ben as nice as he seems?

Obviously I'm not going to answer any of those questions, but despite the mixed critical reception this film has received, I rather like it  - it's far better than some have given it credit for.

Much has been made of the fact that Dark Signal was (executive) produced by Neil Marshall, and certainly the overall look of the film - it's very effectively shot mostly at night - recalls some of his early work like Dog Soldiers (2002) and The Descent (2005), although as usual with an 'executive' status, it's not clear how much or little direct involvement he had. Dark Signal was filmed in Snowdonia and the North Wales setting is suitably isolated (fact for location spotters: the hilltop radio station - surely a nod to John Carpenter's The Fog (1980) - is in reality a tourist attraction at the summit of the Great Orme in Llandudno).

Evers-Swindell has chosen his cast well. Siwan Morris as Laurie is  world-weary, all rolled eyes and one liners, and her on screen relationship with Ben (Gareth David-Lloyd) is often funny and touching. Elsewhere James Cosmo turns in another vaguely bonkers performance, but perhaps the biggest surprise is the first UK film appearance of veteran actor Cinzia Monreale as Carla Zaza the medium: fans of Italian horror will recall her from roles in, among others, Lucio Fulci's The Beyond (1981) and Dario Argento's The Stendhal Syndrome (1996) - she even gets a line where she gets to say the words 'the beyond'.

Either the budget or directorial choice (or a combination of the two) means that the final reel doesn't descend to over-the-topness as is so often the case with films of this type, and there's a good last section twist which is well timed and caught this reviewer off guard. I could have done without the obligatory torture porn scene - although necessary to the story - and the EVP stuff is just plain silly. But in a film where if you don't like one element another will be along in a minute there isn't time to worry about this, and anyway the whole thing's pretty daft, which is part of its charm.  

Saturday, 4 June 2016

An interview with Monica Demes, writer/producer/director, Lilith's Awakening (2016)

Monica Demes
I caught up with Monica Demes, writer/producer/director of the enigmatic and visually stunning vampire movie Lilith’s Awakening, prior to its official premiere at the ‘Dances With Films’ Festival in Hollywood later this month. 

DEoL: How did you arrive at the subject matter for the film?
MD: Through Transcendental Meditation (TM). I used it to dive into my unconsciousness and came up with one of the scenes - the one where Art meets the mysterious woman on the dark road. After I came to that scene through intuition, I asked my intellect - why did I write that scene? What does it mean? And I came to the conclusion - I wrote that scene ‘cause I was tired of seeing women raped in films, especially in horror. In those kind of films they are usually portrayed as victims. So I said, what if it’s reversed? What if something really bad happens with the rapist instead? That was the seed of the entire screenplay. 

DEoL: The film includes lots of references to Dracula in character names. Was this a gentle homage or were you saying something more serious about that text in the context of the film?
MD: I used the line - “what if…” meaning - what if instead of a prince of the darkness, that seduces Lucy and takes her away from her beloved Jonathan and society - it is a woman in his place, a princess of darkness? What if …that princess lives inside Lucy’s head? In her dreams? What if she was Lucy’s shadow, her hidden part? Vampire tales are all about sexual repression. 

DEoL: How much should this be read as a feminist film? The women are strong and the men are, well, deadbeats (which I know isn't a definition of feminism, but...)?
MD: On one hand we have a controller father, a passionate lover (the pretty bad boy Art) and the loving husband, Jonathan (he cares about her in his own way) - on the other hand, we have Lucy - an oppressed woman who works in a gas station (symbol of man’s land) who is unhappy in her marriage and who will never grow under the shadow of the father. We see in one scene that she is afraid to go to the woods. The woods that represent the unknown, the lack of protection and the wild. She knows if she goes there, her world might never be the same. It’s a very symbolic film. And what does Lucy finds in those woods? Nothing but her own self. Her dark side, her hidden part. And the more she connects with what she tries to hide, the stranger she gets. She will feel alive again as much as she embraces her dark side and experiences her true self. The film is all about connection with the shadow. And it’s not that men are deadbeats. In the film. Jonathan wants a wife that will support him and love him, help him get a better job by having a social life with his boss, and have a kid. But the film is perceived from Lucy’s perspective and she can’t connect with him. She can’t love him because he can’t make her happy, and never will. I guess she is more into biting beautiful necks at night, than raising a family, that’s all. And I would say even more... deep inside of her, she has always been different. Different from what surrounds her. Different from what’s expected from her. Different from everything she knows in that small town. The vampire in this film is used as a metaphor. 

Demes with mentor David Lynch
DEoL: So briefly, how has the David Lynch MFA Program been of assistance in bringing Lilith's Awakening to life? Was this an idea that you'd had for some time or did it evolve within the Program? 
MD: No, I went with an empty mind and wanted to feel the energy of the place to write there. It was a cold place with huge distances, puritan and conservative and people didn’t talk much or connect - with that landscape I knew I had to build a vampiric story. The MFA was important because it was the first time I was using TM in my creative process. And David (Lynch) gave me great feedback when I was having a repetitive problem with the screenplay. He went right into the grain, and opened my eyes towards the process of storytelling, on how our brain functions as an antenna - perceiving the ideas that surround us and transforming it into images that will shape the story. 
DEoL: And finally, what do you think about the finished film? Equally importantly, what feedback have you had from David?
MD: I love the film, hahaha. But I am subjective. About David, he didn’t see the film yet, but I hope he does shortly.

Lilith's Awakening (US 2016: Dir Monica Demes)

Lucy is a bored and distracted girl, working at a service station in the wilds of sleepy mid America. Her husband Jonathan is more worried about a forthcoming dinner with his boss Renfield than his increasingly distant wife. Lucy has a guy on the side, Arthur, who is clearly more sexually involved with Lucy than she is with Jonathan. But Lucy doesn’t seem particularly interested in either man, and when she chooses not to show up for a midnight tryst with Arthur he instead falls victim to a strange kohl-eyed guitar-wielding exotic woman who sucks his blood. This mysterious vampire, Lilith, has previously appeared in Lucy’s dreams, triggering her period (a rare splash of colour in this otherwise monochrome film), but it’s only when Lucy tries to locate the missing Arthur and sees a drawing of the vampire in his trailer that she starts to believe Lilith might be more than a figment of her imagination. “I saw her in my dreams, and now she’s coming for me” she says. And she’s right.

The stunning black and white palette and strikingly haunting visuals of Lilith Awakens announces the latest in a small sub-genre of stylishly made films concerning contemporary female vampires, which include Michael Almereyda’s 1994 part toy camera filmed Nadja and Abel Ferrara’s gritty 1995 movie The Addiction. More recently Ana Lily Amirpour’s splendid 2014 film A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night featured an Iranian female vampire on the lookout for lowlife victims in a Hopper-esque Californian landscape, and it is to this last film that Lilith’s Awakening owes a significant stylistic debt. Intriguingly Monica Demes, the movie’s Brazilian born writer/producer/director, developed this film within the David Lynch MFA film program, so as you’d expect the movie also looks to his inspiration for many of its visual touches.

Lilith Awakens is a slow burning mood piece of a film. Every shot is exquisitely framed, and the bleakness of the Iowa landscape recalls the bleached Texan environment of Peter Bogdanovich’s 1971 film The Last Picture Show. As you may have picked up, Demes uses a number of character names from the Bram Stoker novel Dracula (Lucy’s boss is even called Abe Helsing) and while this may initially seem a little clumsy, the ultimate effect is to weave this inspiration into the strangeness of the events on screen. The other standout is the soundtrack, which mixes Brazilian musician David Feldman’s brooding score with a wash of environmental sounds – fox cries have never sounded so scary, believe me – to great effect. Strong performances from newcomers Sophia Woodward and Barbara Eugenia as, respectively, Lucy and Lilith, keep the film from feeling like an exercise in cinematography. This is an enigmatic, enthralling and occasionally very unsettling debut from Demes, which will hopefully get a big screen run in the UK – it’s where it should be seen.