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.

Wednesday, 26 October 2016

New Films Round Up #2 - Reviews of The Amityville Terror (US 2016), Evolution (France/Belgium/Spain 2015), The Possession Experiment (US 2016), They Look Like People (US 2015), Let's Be Evil (UK 2016) and The Evil in Us (Canada 2016)

The Amityville Terror (US 2016: Dir Michael Angelo) Any film with the word 'Amityville' in the title isn't headed anywhere near The Oscars, that much we all know, but it's certainly an inspiration for film makers. Last year we were treated to Amityville Death House and The Amityville Playhouse. In 2016 so far we've had The Amityville Legacy, Amityville: No Escape, Amityville: Vanishing Point and Amityville High. To which we add, completely unasked for, Michael Angelo's (no, I'm sure that's his real name) appalling The Amityville Terror.

Todd (Kaiwi Lyman-Merserau, whose credits include 'Surfer 2' in 2005's Frankenstein vs The Creature From Blood Cove) and Jessica (Kim Nielsen from this year's Zoombies and the accompanying video game 'Escape From the Zoombies'), together with daughter Hailey, up sticks and move in with Todd's fresh-out-of-rehab sister Shae (Amanda Barton from Dracula's Curse (2006) and the previous year's Frankenstein Reborn). Shae has rented a rambling house in the town of Amityville, hoping to make a new start, but the demonic spirits within have other ideas, gradually taking her over and causing a deadly threat to the rest of the household.

An unbelievably stupid film with a plot seemingly made up as the film progresses, the only remarkable thing in it (apart from a group of people who move into a house in Amityville with no knowledge of its history) is the inclusion of a load of nudity just as the movie watcher is convinced that this MUST be one of those anodyne cheapo cheapo made for Syfy offerings; watch for the scene where the evil estate agent dispenses advice to a co-worker mid, well you know, session. The demon make up is truly terrible, and the paucity of budget means that the final burning of the house (and just how many times has the Amityville house been razed to the ground in films?) is represented by some smoke and someone flashing a torch on and off. 

Evolution (France/Belgium/Spain 2015: Dir Lucile Hadzihalilovic) Ah, a return to arthouse monster movie making. A beautifully shot, glacially paced mood piece about a white-washed coastal village inhabited entirely by women and boys, focusing on young Nicolas (a great performance by Max Brebant) and his 'mother' (Julie-Marie Parmentier). Nicholas feels that all is not right at home. He thinks he sees a dead body on the beach, and witnesses his mum, together with the village's other women, indulging in strange seaside rituals. Along with the other boys Nicolas becomes sick and is confined to a sterile hospital, also staffed only by women who watch training videos showing how to perform Cesarean Sections. Nicolas is told his friends are being cured, but instead they go missing. Is his mother really who she makes out to be? Is she really a mother at all?

Very little is explained in Hadzihalilovic's serene nightmare. It's arguably too abstract to be truly gripping but there are enough bizarre scenes to hold the attention, with body horror elements suggested rather than over-emphasised, like watching a Bela Tarr movie filtered through early Cronenberg. The Lanzarote locations are both familiar and strange and the whole thing is decidedly odd. Cautiously recommended, and a film I'll certainly be watching again.

The Possession Experiment (US 2016: Dir Scott B. Hansen) Or 'Bill and Ted Go Ghost-hunting.' Scott B. Hansen's 2014 film Monumental was an above average road movie which featured some touching performances and beautiful photography. Two years on, The Possession Experiment couldn't be more different.

Brandon is a slightly strange, awkward high school student who hooks up with stoner classmate Clay to carry out an end of year assignment on exorcisms for their Religious Studies course. Clay's along for the ride while Brandon's the brains of the outfit - a relative term here. The goofy pair decide to investigate a twenty year old case of possession which was notorious because the footage of the exorcism survives as do two of the people involved. Tracing the house where it all took place, Brandon takes the rather severe step of holding a seance there in the hope of being possessed by the same spirit responsible for the original incident. Is he nuts? Yes indeed. Does it work? Uh huh.

Reading this synopsis I understand if you're tempted to roll your eyes and carry on to the next review. And indeed the film's prologue, featuring the 1994 exorcism, doesn't give you much hope of seeing anything new here. I was intrigued how Hansen's direction takes the movie from lark about stoner buddy flick to more sinister territory rather effortlessly, encouraged that surely some of Monumental's promise would filter through? But no, it's just a mess. Silly gore (a woman ripping her own jaw off) and clumsy pacing abound, and boy are you bored with Brandon and Clay by about the one hour point.

They Look Like People (US 2015: Dir Perry Blackshear) Here's a battle of the losers movie which spends nearly all its time in the company of Christian, a likable guy on the rebound, in love with Mara, the hire and fire HR manager at work, and long lost friend Wyatt, who Christian runs into on the street and persuades to move into his apartment. While Christian has a bit of a damaged past, Wyatt is the real deal, receiving strange phone calls from voices who tell him that humans are gradually being replaced by...well, it's not entirely clear.

A lot of They Look Like People is concerned with Christian's attempts to rediscover his friendship with the increasingly addled Wyatt, and the latter's preparations for an apocalyptic takeover of the world - is the conspiracy real or in his mind? There's some subtle laughs to be found in the duo's messing around, and Mara is a sweet character who's all-business sacking of Christian in an office shakeup suggests to us (and Wyatt) that she might just be a non-human. Perry Blackshear's debut feature is a slight, inconclusive movie which resists a big payoff, a bold move but one which left this reviewer feeling rather unsatisfied despite convincing performances from Evan Dumouchel and MacLeod Andrews as Christian and Wyatt.

Let's Be Evil (UK 2016: Dir Martin Owen) And you thought that Virtual Reality was killed off as a cinematic concept by 1992's execrable The Lawnmower Man? Think again - twenty odd years on the idea has now acquired some retro cache. Earlier this year UK director Charles Barker offered the VR shoot 'em up thrills of The Call Up. Now we have the inexplicably titled Let's Be Evil, in which a group of gifted children are chaperoned by three equally talented individuals in an underground facility which is actually a created VR environment looked after by the mysterious avatar called Ariel. This works out ok until the children start playing up and picking on Cassandra (the only one of the children who will engage with the adults), and the chaperones begin hallucinating.

Owen's budget doesn't allow for much detail in his rather scuzzy VR world - it's all out of date computer equipment and bulk rented neon lighting. I wondered if the British cast, who all sport US accents with varying degrees of success, would revert to natural tongues a la 1999's eXistenZ, but no, this just seems a way to sell the film across the channel. The key problem with Let's Be Evil is that it's just terribly boring. The character of Ariel, who carries the film's expository weight, is as engaging as a sat nav system from Argos. And the children, who could have been the real core of the film, are just a bunch of drama school poppets. Even Julian Scherle's soundtrack, very reminiscent of this year's Mr Robot series (which he also scored) and 2014's It Follows (which he didn't) soon starts to grate, suggesting as it does a level of sophistication which the film can't hope to match.

The Evil in Us (Canada 2016: Dir Jason William Lee) It took good old William Hurt a series of dunkings in an immersion tank and a night out on the peyote to find his inner beast in Ken Russell's 1980 movie Altered States. It takes a dodgy bag of cocaine to achieve the same effects in a matter of minutes in The Evil in Us - a sign of the march of disposable society I suppose.

Five friends meet up for a Fourth of July weekend, little knowing that one among them has become infected and will soon transform into a cannibalistic primal beast  - and then spread whatever he has to the others. Jason William Lee's film is basically 28 Days Later wrapped up in some weird science and a police procedural, the latter story strand singularly failing to find its feet. It takes a hell of a long time to get going, but when the beasts come out to play it certainly has its moments. The ending looks like it drifted in from another film altogether, with some extremely laughable make up and a political payoff that 'trumps' (and if you see it you'll know what I'm going on about) all the other storylines, and could lead you to read the movie's title in a slightly different way. A mediocre effort then but not without a sense of trying, even if it does feel like two or three separate films bolted together.

'O Whistle and I'll Come to You My Lad' Performed by Robert Lloyd Parry

Robert Lloyd Parry as M R James
One of the genuine pleasures of life, and an often forgotten one in a world of instant gratification and increasing self centredness, is having a story read to you. Robert Lloyd Parry knows this - he's also a great storyteller.

Fresh from a one man show realising HG Wells's The Time Machine, Parry has returned to his first love - a performance of one of the stories of perhaps the greatest English writer of supernatural fiction, M R James, which has been filmed for viral release on 31st October (see details at the bottom of this piece).

Parry, as James, performs one of the author's most famous stories, the 1904 tale "O Whistle and I'll Come to You, My Lad." Those familiar with James will know that many of his stories originated via Christmas recitals to pupils of the schools where he was provost, and it is this intimate setup, illuminated only by a solitary candle, that Parry recreates here.

We may not fully know the accuracy of Parry's lively creation of James - records of his style of storytelling are scant - but visually he is strikingly Jamesean. The story, about an academic who finds a whistle in an isolated coastal location and, blowing it, summons a dark something that stalks the scholar for its return, is familiar James territory, although less layered than some of the author's later stories. Parry is the voice of all - James himself, Parkin the academic, various pompous dinner guests and even a maid at the hotel where Parkin lodges. The gentle humour in the observation of humanity, an often overlooked aspect of James's writing, is beautifully rendered in this performance, but what everyone anticipates is the slow creep of unease as the academic, previously a denier of anything vaguely supernatural, gradually realises to his mounting horror that he is being stalked by an otherworldly entity.

"O Whistle" has televisual broadcasting pedigree: the 1968 BBC adaptation by Jonathan Miller with Michael Hordern as the wordless, bumbling academic (and arguably the scariest use of bedsheets ever on screen, although Parry stages an effective recreation of this in his performance); and more straightforward readings by Robert Powell and Christopher Lee in 1986 and 2000 respectively (I'll draw a a veil - pun slightly intended - over the 2010 adaptation with John Hurt as Parkin). But there's something about Parry's obvious love of James as a writer, his reverence for the material and enthusiastically theatrical performance which makes this version a worthy addition to the canon. And I defy you not to look over your shoulder at least once as the tale is told.

"O Whistle and I'll Come to You My Lad" will be available to download from midday 31st October (UK time) and for the first 12 hours will cost £2.99 to buy here:

Friday, 14 October 2016

Ghostwatch (UK 1992: Dir Lesley Manning)

People who talk of influential television refer to programmes which change the way we think, give us a different perspective, or cause us to re-evaluate our position on a given subject. But TV can work in other ways. The 'retina of the mind's eye', as Brian O'Blivion referred to the idiot lantern in David Cronenberg's 1982 film Videodrome, can also be a subversive force, whether by design or by accident.

Shortly after the screening of Ghostwatch on 31st October 1992, the national press ran the tragic story of 18 year-old Martin Denham from Nottingham, who, according to his mother, had hanged himself a few days after watching the programme, convinced that he was possessed. This news effectively ended the furore and urban myth making that had been growing in the media ever since the programme screening, making Ghostwatch one of the most controversial programmes ever aired by the BBC in terms of public impact. The news effectively drove Ghostwatch underground for many years until its reissue by the BFI in 2002. Now, 24 years on, Ghostwatch is ripe for re-evaluation. Put simply, did the programme really justify all the uproar?

In a word - yes.

Ghostwatch was arguably the first sustained pastiche of reality programming, in itself a genre in its infancy in the early 1990s, the premise being a live Hallowe'en event, hoping to catch a glimpse of the supernatural at work. The BBC outside broadcast team are set up in and around a house on the outskirts of London, occupied by the Early family, and which has been the focus of abnormal levels of poltergeist activity in recent months. The team are headed by Sarah Greene, popular TV presenter of the time and, like all the celebs in the programme, playing herself. Craig Charles is also around to act like an awkward pain in the rear, a role he seems to manage very credibly. Back in the studio, TV's 'Mr Congenial' Michael Parkinson presides over the evening with Dr Lin Pascoe, a dour psychic researcher who has been working with the Earlys, and Greene's real life husband, the late Mike Smith co-ordinating the phone lines, where viewers can call in and tell Parky and the world about their supernatural experiences.

Things start slowly - in fact almost nothing happens for the first two thirds of the programme. The plight of the family is explained, and Greene interviews the mother, Pam (who is divorced), and her daughters Kim and Suzanne, who recount the catalogue of events. The audience is shown footage of one of the poltergeist attacks in the children's bedroom, prompting a number of calls from the public claiming to have seen a figure in the corner of the room while the footage is being shown. Dr Pascoe remains unconvinced after reviewing the tape, and during the course of the programme, as much as there is any characterisation, we begin to understand that the parapsychologist has little sympathy with the plight of the family but is simply desperate to find actual existence of supernatural activity to support her rather wayward theories.

Greene begins to find out more about 'Pipes', the hideous figure reportedly seen on several occasions - but only by younger daughter Kim - and who is so named because the mother has tried to explain away the sharp knocking sound that accompanies his appearance by telling them that it's the fault of the central heating system. Kim has drawn a picture of him, telling us that he's "disgusting - really disgusting" and that he lives in the cupboard under the stairs. From the drawing 'Pipes' looks like a Doctor Who monster with leprosy. Sarah helpfully suggests to Kim that they should place the picture somewhere where everyone can see it. Pam shows Sarah letters sent to the Council, local press cuttings and even footage from a Kilroy-type show she and her family attended to get their case taken seriously.

With Greene and the rest of the technical team (a mix of real life technicians and actors) installed in the house, Kim decides to go to bed. We learn that elder daughter Suzanne has been the physical target of the visitations, not only receiving inexplicable scratches to the body, but also speaking in a strange guttural voice, captured on tape by Lin Pascoe while Suzanne was undergoing a sensory deprivation experiment, and played to the Ghostwatch audience in the first really frightening moment of the programme.

Outside, Craig Charles talks to local people and finds that the sinister events might not just be confined to the house. Several local children have gone missing, and a pregnant dog has been found butchered in the nearby playground. Back inside, things seem to be hotting up, the team picking up the sounds of scratching and later loud banging. Unfortunately the cameras inside the house spy the hunched up figure of Suzanne, making the noise herself - it would seem that it's all been a hoax brought on by a teenage girl's need for attention, but there's a certain "calm before the storm" feeling. Pascoe is mortified and attempts to change her rationale in the face of a scoffing Parky, who seems relieved that it was after all a childish prank. It looks like it's all over, but wait…the calls are still coming in thick and fast, all corroborating sightings in the footage of an old man with a skull like face, wearing a dress buttoned up to the neck. Back in the house, cuts have appeared all over Suzanne, who is now in a state of shock, and will soon start talking in a strange voice. Parky warns viewers that if they've tuned in for the next programme, it'll be late as they will be staying with events in Northolt. While panic begins to take hold amongst the crew, people who know Foxhill Drive begin calling in to tell the real story of the house, of the mad baby farmer Mrs Seddons, and the strange cross dressing paedophile Raymond Tunstall who killed himself in the house and was eaten by trapped and hungry cats in the cupboard under the stairs. Finally, Dr Pascoe, picking up on the fact that what they have been watching from the OB transmission is not real time but a loop from an earlier point in the evening, concludes with a look of horror - 'it's in the machine.' 'Pipes' has come to meet us.

"No creaking gates, no gothic towers, no shuttered windows," declares Mr Parkinson of the events we're about the see - and he's not wrong. This is a ghost story with the house lights left on, where the scares are not so much in what is seen but which arise from the deepening dread we feel over the unpeeling of the 'onion skin', as Dr Pascoe would have it, that reveals the true story of the history of Foxhill Drive. Writer Stephen Volk, who had also penned 1986's Gothic, had obviously been studying the Nigel Kneale plot handbook, to great effect.

Ghostwatch is not without its problems. While the real presenters do a fantastic job at remaining natural throughout most of the running time (only falling apart slightly when they are asked to emote), the rest of the non-technical cast are professional actors, which jars slightly. For example, Pamela Early, the mother of the family, is played by well-known TV actor Brid Brennan, who not only has to work really hard at not being an actor playing a working class mum, but also is asked to adopt an estuary drawl, fairly unconvincingly. Dr Lin Pascoe, played by Gillian Bevan, is similarly unbelievable as the needle butt paranormal psychologist, but these are small gripes really.

But there is so much that is right. The pastiche approach works fantastically, right down to the details: the prepared credits, the intercutting of the calls from the phone room, the taped accounts of ghosts played as filler, even the problems of cutting between studio and OB - all show a great knowledge of TV process. 'Pipes', or Mrs Seddons, or Raymond Tunstall, is only ever shown very briefly, and the sequence where he may or not be glimpsed in the CCTV footage, which changes when it's re-run, is excellent stuff. Above all, especially seeing it for the first time, it's bloody scary. Not only the sudden shocks, but the story itself is nasty and sordid, unfolding as it does under the sheen of the studio, and the switch from calm to gradual unease, to eventual panic and terror, is very well handled. Maybe it won't push everyone's terror buttons, but it sure did mine.

Ghostwatch, then, as well as being a fantastic piece of TV which bears repeat viewings, is incredibly important for several reasons. Firstly, it was produced by Auntie Beeb, the watchdog's watchdog, whom we expect to be more responsible than this. It's also self referential, possibly taking a critical swipe at its own roster of programmes - Crimewatch and Kilroy spring to mind - who generate ratings from the misfortune of others. Secondly, it came out of nowhere. The 1980s and 1990s were renowned as largely barren ground for TV scares - television had cleaned up its act - so unlike say the 1970s, where Ghostwatch would have fitted in nicely with a glut of like-themed programming (although arguably because of the technical set up the programme is very much a product of its time), this was a true one off. More importantly, Ghostwatch reminded us what TV could be like - TV with the brakes off, where children's presenters, the guardians of tea and crumpet family viewing, were seen scared out of their wits, where the very icons we trust not to give us sleepless nights do an excellent job of letting us down on that score, but creating great entertainment in the process.

A version of this article was first published at 

Wednesday, 12 October 2016

New Films Round Up #1 - Reviews of 47 Meters Down aka Into the Deep (UK 2016), The Windmill Massacre aka The Windmill (Netherlands 2016), The Neighbour (US 2016), She Who Must Burn (Canada 2016), Night of Something Strange (US 2016) and Accidental Exorcist (US 2016)

47 Meters Down aka Into the Deep (UK 2016: Dir Johannes Roberts) Johannes Roberts' follow up to the supernatural shenanigans of 2015's The Other Side of the Door returns him to the more small scale terrors of his earlier films, albeit directed with assurance and confidence that presumably his last bigger budget offering has given him.

Sharks are big at the moment, which is good as there are some damn big sharks in 47 Meters Down. Lisa and Kate are two sisters on holiday on the Mexican coast. Kate has just been dumped with her boyfriend, but her more outgoing sister recommends that they party with the local boys to get over it. The guys they hook up with operate a shark viewing gig for tourists. they invite Lisa and Kate, who bluff that they're experienced scuba divers, to get into a cage which is lowered into the ocean. Yes, you guessed it, the winch malfunctions and the cage plummets to the sea bed, 47 metres below the surface. With oxygen running out, the girls must work out how to stay alive and get to the surface without being eaten or succumbing to the bends.

This is a far more realistic take on women vs. sharks than Jaume Collet-Serra's glossy but nevertheless enjoyable The Shallows which came out earlier this year.  Like that film it's a fairly simple setup, but there's a growing air of desperation and claustrophobia which makes 47 Meters Down particularly nail-biting. Roberts is really good at capturing the girls' growing panic, and the shark effects, though minimal, are very effective. At the end of the movie there's a credit for Underwater Studios, Basildon, where all of the underwater scenes were shot - well, you could have fooled me.

The Windmill Massacre (aka The Windmill (Netherlands 2016: Dir Nick Jongerius) Wow, here's a film that triggered some nostalgic memories for this reviewer. The Windmill Massacre is a bizarre homage to late 80s/early 90s supernatural slashers. And while it's one thing to now watch those often naive movies with affection, does anyone really have any business making a film like this in 2016? Of course they do. Unsurprisingly The Windmill Massacre is set in Holland (I'm waiting for a film called 'The Oast House' set in Kent, featuring a crazed brewer) and its set up is as corny as the films that inspired it - a coachload of individuals are taken out of Amsterdam on a tour of the polders, but end up at an abandoned windmill when the tour bus breaks down. The Windmill is of course the location for Miller Hendrick, a legendary figure recruited by Satan back in the 17th century to stand guard at the gates of hell for the admittance of sinners. And the coach party are all...yep, you guessed it.

The fun stuff here is the background of the coach travellers, who all have something to hide, which is disclosed as the movie progresses - and the old school makeup effects and kills, which are both inventive and icky. This is all rather good stuff, and the cast, led by Charlotte Beaumont (who was amazing in TV's Broadchurch back in 2013), Noah Taylor and Patrick Baladi (still best known as Neil Godwin in The Office) keep very straight faces. It all looks like it was great - if rather damp - fun to make, and there's an end of movie twist in keeping with the films which inspired it. Recommended.

The Neighbour (US 2016: Dir Marcus Dunstan) Director Dunstan's previous films, The Collector (2009) and its sequel The Collection (2012) were both examples of stipped down, ruthless film making; not doing anything new but doing the whole cat and mouse serial killer thing very efficiently. The Neighbour could almost be a third in the series, so well does it maintain the tone of his earlier movies. Its 'stars' are shady up-to-no-good couple John (played by heavy lidded Josh Stewart) and Rosie (Alex Essoe, brilliant in 2014's Starry Eyes), who are boosting stolen cars and running drugs to build up enough cash to leave town and escape to an idyllic life in Mexico. Their neighbour, Troy, comes snooping around, suspicious about all the vehicular activity, and when John completes his last deal he returns home to find Rosie gone and his suspicions turning to Troy, whose home is also a house of secrets.

Nobody is particularly nice in this watchable catch 'em and chase 'em thriller. Running at a brisk 80 minutes there's not much fat on the bones. The small town USA feel is well captured, although I could have done without some of the tricksy faux 8mm film footage which rather unnecessarily bookends the movie. The actors all do fine jobs, although John and Rosie are the only characters who get a bit of back story, but this is essentially a pretty good lesson in extended tension, the gore held to a minimum, and with a closing shot that leaves the audience remembering Troy's comment about he and John being 'middle men.'

She Who Must Burn (Canada 2016: Dir Larry Kent) There’s a storm coming, literally and metaphorically in veteran director Larry Kent’s grim and rather heavy handed tale of religious extremism in Canada’s Bible belt.

The film centres on a policeman, Mac, and his wife Angela, who until recently had worked as a counsellor at an abortion clinic. The facility has been closed as a result of the director being shot and killed by the leader of a small group of radical procreation fixated Christians, all strongly against the termination of unborn children. Angela continues to support local women who need advice, which means that she becomes the prime focus of the extremists. Their leader is the distinctly psychotic Jeremiah; and when Angela helps his wife to leave Jeremiah following a brutal rape and beating, with help of his brother Caleb and sister Rebecca, Jeremiah places increasing pressure on Angela to tell him where his wife has gone. Despite Mac’s intervention, the trio’s pursuit of Angela is relentless. Eventually their obsession tips over into violence and then murder, and as the threatened storm breaks overhead, it all goes a bit ‘Wicker Man.’

There’s no doubting the earnestness of Kent’s movie. He wants you to believe that under the religious fanaticism of this group is something much closer to madness, personified in the clearly nuts Jeremiah and sister Rebecca, who seems to have become unhinged following the stillborn birth she’s recently undergone (a very disturbing scene). However in doing so he’s in danger of turning the fanatics into cartoon figures, and with a very slim storyline, characterisation is everything in this film.

She Who Must Burn (and although I tend not to offer spoilers the title and the poster do the job for me, thank you very much) doesn’t slow burn as much as it should (watch Sean Durkin’s brilliant 2011 movie Martha Marcy May Marlene as tense example of a cult at work) and its villains are too villainous to really believe in them. It’s a tough watch but not a gripping one.

Night of Something Strange (USA/Canada 2016: Dir Jonathan Straiton) Comedy horror. Mostly it doesn’t work. You have to be in the right mood too. Well obviously I was because in a very knockabout (and very very) gross out way Jonathan Straiton’s STD virus/zombie movie works brilliantly. It opens as it means to go on with Cornelius, a mortuary worker who has sex with an infected corpse, contracting a Cabin Fever style flesh melting disease, going home, raping his wife and then eating her reproductive organs. Uh huh. The film then focuses on a group of young people out to have fun on their spring break, who run into a number of victims of the spreading disease, including of course Cornelius.

That’s all you need to know. The lead characters are interchangeably stereotypical and all equally annoying, so it’s fun (in a rather odd way) to see our squeaky clean cast suffer all sorts of zombie like indignities as they end up in a motel fighting off the infected – and each other. However it’s the supporting actors that get the big laughs: the endlessly hungry and randy Cornellius; the chain smoking store worker who’s only marginally more horrible in her zombie state than human form; and the motel owner who catches one of the cast having a pee behind a dumpster and warns him “If you shake it more than three times, you’re playing with it.” The word that came to my mind while watching this was ‘Troma’ but there’s far more excess in Night of Something Strange than in any of Mr Kaufman’s output. This is more like Peter Jackson’s early movies Bad Taste and Braindead, but it’s even grosser than those.

But unlike all those films Night of Something Strange boasts a very funny, sharp script and acting turns that are occasionally surprisingly nuanced. For a first movie this is something rather special. Not for everyone probably, but destined for cult status, and one of those rare things, a comedy horror movie I really want to see again. With this and the hold-on-to-your-lunch delights of this year’s The Greasy Strangler, is this going to be the latest genre craze? Oh hang on, there's more to come.

Accidental Exorcist (Us 2016: Dir Daniel Falicki) More gross out cinema here, more ooze - and a good title too. Now this is a strange one. I really couldn't decide if I loved it or loathed it, much like the early films of John Waters, which it resembles in its general oddness.

Richard Vanuck (Falicki playing the central role - I'd say this was a vanity project but that's the last word I'd use in the context of this movie) is a poverty row alcoholic and pill popper with a line in Charles Bukowski living. By day he's a writer but by night - which it always seems to be - he's an 'accidental exorcist,' a man with a unique gift of being able to suck a demon out of the possessed body very quickly but quite confusingly. To mask the seemingly simple (but agonisingly exhausting) process Vanuck concocts all manner of rituals which he maintains are essential to the exorcism process. And this is thankless work. He's puked on - a lot; and he's abused and beaten up, not least by the landlord to whom he owes a stack of rent with no hope of repayment, judging by the paltry salary he gets from his mysterious employer for all these assignments. The relentlessness of his existence is almost rendered real time - the movie runs for an hour and three quarters and many scenes are stretched to the point of tedium. The possessed souls for who he provides his service (post possession he often remarks kindly that they 'scrub up well') are as un-Hollywood as it gets, inhabited by bored demons who seem to exist mainly for the purposes of pissing him off.

The net result of the endless exorcisms is the increasing personal cost to Vanuck, who takes the demons into him, ultimately with catastrophic results. Daniel Falicki's performance as Vanuck is extraordinary. God knows what this is all about, but Falicki throws himself into it head first - he's like a one person performance piece, which you watch, jaw gradually dropping, while at the same time trying to understand the point of what you're witnessing.

Filmed in the less than glamorous locations of Grand Rapids and Wyoming, Michagan (but to be honest it could have been filmed anywhere, as it's nearly all interiors) Accidental Exorcist is a slog, a demanding watch, but with occasional flashes of brilliance and a sense of intelligence at work that shine through the overall weirdness on display. Completely and utterly bizarre.

Thursday, 6 October 2016

The Time Machine - a play based on the novella by H G Wells, adapted and performed by Robert Lloyd Parry - Old Red Lion Theatre, London: 5 October 2016

First time posting here for a play review, but the subject matter's very in keeping with DEoL, so it fits in comfortably with the 'anything else that fits the bill' part of the site's strapline.

Robert Lloyd Parry's one man revisioning of H G Wells's novella 'The Time Machine' is a triumph of physicality and, if you'll pardon the use of the word, invention.

Wells's original text was the somewhat cool and rational account of an unnamed time traveller's journey into the distant future and his encounter with two races (the placid Eloi and the troglodytic Morlocks) - it's the author's contribution to the 'what if?' literature of the end of the 19th century.  Parry's re-telling is a far more visceral rendition, and while the vigorous and abhorrent descriptions of what he sees maybe more frantic than the source text, his excitement is entirely understandable. Parry's talent easily allows the audience to conjure up the (invisible) cast of Eloi, Morlocks and otherworldly shapes that the time traveller encounters in the course of his adventures - it's effective and imaginative storytelling.

Parry breaks the narrative in two. In the first act he describes his first forays into time travel (wisely skipping any description of his machine, which as I recall from the text is basically a complex bicycle), his arrival in A.D 802,701 and his account of the insidiously harmless Eloi. In the much darker Act 2 he introduces the Morlocks, the attempts to recover his time machine, his relationship with Eloi Weena and the traveller's ultimate return to the 19th century via a trip even further into the future, in which he witnesses, very impressively and with only a fading light for company, the end of all living things.

Parry in action as the time traveller
Dressed only in a Victorian 'onesie,' distressed socks and unkempt beard, Parry's characterisation of the time traveller depicts him as eccentric and irascible, a scientist whose attempts to remain rational are ultimately scuppered by the sensory experience he undergoes and his own innate sense of curiosity. His excitable performance is part Brian Blessed, a little bit of the modern world confounded Catweazle (and I mean this in a good way) and, towards the end, a soupcon of Charlton Heston playing George Taylor at the finale of the 1968 movie Planet of the Apes (an ending which is indebted to the Victorian 'dying earth' story). He plays it, if not exactly fast and loose with the source material, then generously, introducing some modernisms (it is after all an acting performance), great humour and some literary in jokes: at one point he refers to himself as 'The Chronic Argonaut' (referencing the title of a similarly themed short story written by Wells in 1888), and when wandering around the disused library he states "No Homer, no Virgil, no George Gissing" (which is undoubtedly a nod to the at-the-time extremely popular Victorian author who is practically forgotten today, never mind eight thousand years in the future).

The production is a stripped-down one. Apart from a garden chair, a lantern and a cucumber, the main prop is a specially designed large faux-Victorian metronome-styled structure which acts as Parry's activity centre, allowing him to scale its sides, crawl within it and generally utilise various parts to help bring the world of the future to life. Ashley Summers' sound design is similarly spare; I liked the sped up clock chimes signifying the time traveller's journey to the future, but it seemed a little underused in the more dramatic second act.

This is a bold and enthusiastic performance from an actor more usually associated with sedate readings of the ghost stories of M R James, but he is to be congratulated on bringing a classic slice of Victorian degeneration fiction to rude life.

Sunday, 2 October 2016

The films of Tyler Tharpe - Freak (US 1999) and Return in Red (US 2007) plus exclusive director interview

Like the vinyl obsessive scouring second hand shops for hidden musical gems, the horror film enthusiast wades his or her (mainly his) way through stacks of so so movies hoping to find an undiscovered film worthy of their attention. This was how I came across the name Tyler Tharpe and his first film Freak, made in 1999. I had no expectations of the movie but after two viewings I'm now convinced that it's one of the best genre films of that decade that nobody's heard of.

Freak opens with scenes of a young boy being verbally abused by his horrendous mother (rather like the opening of Bad Boy Bubby but with clothes thankfully on) who is not just angry, she's heavily pregnant. The mother gives birth herself and tries to burn the new baby, but the boy rescues the infant from the incinerator and bludgeons his mother to death. Time advances and we meet Staci and Jodi, two sisters (one a half sibling adopted by their mother and now re-adopted by Staci) who must leave the family home and relocate across America to West Virginia. Meanwhile the boy, now grown up and hospitalised but also heavily bandaged to disguise his supposed disfigurement (we're never really sure whether he is or possibly it's just his mother's delusion), is also transferred across America to another secure facility. He escapes his transport and returns home to the scene of his boyhood crimes, paying particular interest in the orphaned twins, now in the same area, the youngest of which just may be the same baby he rescued from a fiery death nine years previously. 

Freak consciously takes its story steer from Halloween, but the grainy 16mm stock on which it's filmed, the leisurely pace and the cast of oddball characters give an impression of movies made much earlier - I was specifically reminded of Let's Scare Jessica to Death (1971) which used its American locations similarly effectively, all banging screen doors and abandoned trucks. The actors are all good at underplaying their roles and the whole thing is very gloomy but immensely successfully rendered.

Intrigued by this I checked out Tharpe's other available movie, 2007's Return in Red. The title refers to a military test classification for 'serious' or 'fatal' experiment results, which hints at what's to come. This is a very sinister movie about the effects of sonic experiments on the inhabitants of a small Indiana town (Tharpe's own home state). Many of the town dwellers are employed by a local factory, and Return in Red documents their rituals as they go about their day, fitting their life around working either the day or night shift. Into this poor but seemingly happy community enters an anonymous van, roving around town. When it stops the side door opens to reveal a large dish which, when activated, emits a sonic pitch that has horrendous effects on the living. People receiving low bursts become dissociated and confused. A larger dose leads to intense levels of pain that trigger people becoming suicidal or murderous. Much more nihilistic than Freak, nothing is explained here, and the viewer is left with the distinct feeling that the town is being deliberately experimented on; the final scene has a caller to a radio show convinced that this is all the Government's doing - she's dismissed as a crank but we're pretty sure she's right.

What both films have in common, as well as the shot on film format as opposed to video, is the terrific use of mid Western locations (free of most trappings of modernity) and the deployment of a 1:33 frame which keeps things very intimate. The cast of quirky local characters is about as un-Hollywood as it gets; and the deliberately slow pace, which in both films leads to a violent climax, is deceptive. 

Tharpe behind the scenes at his drive in
Intrigued by these very odd but extremely interesting films, I decided to track Mr Tharpe down, which in these days of social media isn't difficult. Since 2008 Tyler has run a drive in cinema in Martinsville, Indiana, so he's pretty busy with that, but recently his mind has returned to film making, as we shall see...

DEoL: So what’s your background, and how did you get into making films?

TT:  I started out like a lot of filmmakers my age, making Super 8 films in the back yard and in the basement. I went on to study film in college, where I ended up making my favorite short film, The Fifth Man. I went to Los Angeles from college, working in the the industry for a few years, starting out reading scripts at a production office on the Sony Studios lot. Then after working as a production assistant on the animated feature Bebe's Kids for Paramount in 1992, I decided to strike out on my own and make my first feature film, Freak.

DEoL: Can you tell us a bit about your first short film, Cow Stories Part 1, in which your contribution was, according to imdb, uncredited?

TT: Cow Stories Part 1 was a short film I shot in the Los Angeles area about 1998, right as I was finishing up the edit on Freak. I kind of just wanted to keep the creative juices flowing.  I shot it on Super 8, just like I did when I was a kid... but it’s sitting on my 20 year old PowerMac 8500.   I’m not even sure I’m able to transfer it off this old computer or even view it again someday!

DEoL: Tell me how you got Freak together, and some details about the shoot.

Tharpe on the set of Freak (1999)
TT: I moved back home from Los Angeles to Indiana in 1993, and started writing Freak and finished the script in about 6 months or so, with the intention to produce and film it in my home state. I knew I wanted to shoot it on film, and although at first I thought it would be shot on Super 8, I later decided to shoot it on 16mm, which was the format of choice for modest budgeted productions at the time. I spent a few months scouting for real locations and locating a crew including local cinematographer Tony Hettinger, and with a couple of good sized credit cards in my wallet, production began in October of 1994.

DEoL; I know the story has a few nods to Halloween, but were there other film influences in your head when putting the movie together? I thought that tone wise it was rather like the 1971 movie Let’s Scare Jessica to Death.

TT: I have not seen Let’s Scare Jessica to Death, but now I’m gonna have to check that out. Halloween was a huge influence, probably way too many similarities to count actually, mostly in the present day/second part of the story. If I could go back in time, I would rewrite the whole film, and the entire story would be an extension of the opening scene, taking place when the “Freak' was a young boy. I had a great back story that fed that opening scene, and I think that really would have made the movie stand out more.

DEoL: Looking at the opening credits, the title Freak seems to have been added in. Was there originally a different name for the film?

TT: was originally titled The Last Roadstop. When the film got picked up by E.I. Independent Cinema in New Jersey, they expressed interest in changing the title to something more marketable. I agreed...and they came back with a list of of about a dozen titles, such as Criminally Insane (which they later used for a different film), Gruesome Freak etc. I felt it fit well, so I chose and we went with Freak.

DEoL: You shot both this and Return in Red on 16mm. The choice makes both films look timeless (that and the locations) – were you tempted to shoot on video for either, or was 16mm a conscious choice?

Michael Todd Schneider in Return in Red (2007)
TT: Film was my first choice. Even high end video still looked like video back in the early 90’s. I did some tests and tried to make Super 8 look great, but I just couldn’t pull it off. So I decided to splurge and shoot on 16mm, which cost about $13,000 including the cinematographer, and was the bulk of the film’s budget. As for the locations, yes, I too really love the locations I was able to secure for both films; like the old house in Freak, and the seedy factory in Return in Red. Shooting in real locations helps add much needed authenticity to a film, and it helps the actors get into the mood, especially on a horror movie. 

DEoL: Moving on to Return in Red, while there’s a quote at the beginning that gives the subject matter some historical subtext, what drew you to make a movie about something so specific (‘government’ sonic testing)?

TT: I was really into listening to Coast to Coast AM (a local Indiana radio station - Ed) throughout the nineties, where the guests talk about the paranormal and other such topics.  The original host, Art Bell, had a guest on one night named Nick Begich. He talked about how the U.S. has this facility named HAARP (which stands for 'High Frequency Active Auroral Research Program') located up in Alaska, which is able to beam electromagnetic frequencies into the atmosphere, bounce them off of the ionosphere and back to Earth, for whatever mysterious purpose. He had some theories on what this is actually used for.  That set my mind racing, and I came up with the idea for Return in Red.

DEoL: In the film what are they supposed to be making at the factory? I loved the brief scene where all the workers moved in sync – was that a reference to Metropolis by any chance?

TT: Cool, I’m glad you liked that... no one really ever asks me about that shot.  That wasn’t a direct reference to Metropolis; however that POV was there to explain what was going on deep in the mind of Katie, who felt stuck and at a dead end in life, and who felt everyone around her were automatons.  As for what they were making at the factory...I have no idea!  However, the owner of the location did train the actors to operate that heavy machinery. So all of those machines were actually running, and the actors were drilling holes in spare parts, and threading pipes, etc.  So I hope it’s not too obvious that we were faking it.

DEoL: Script wise both films seem improvised, which makes them feel very real. How much were they scripted and how much did you let the characters create their own lines?

TT: I wrote the dialogue for both films...very little improvisation, outside of an actor changing a word or two by accident, or to make it flow better.  The only improvised scene I ever filmed - and I happen to love this scene - is in Return in Red, with the four factory workers chatting outside before going into work. Those guys came up with that scene, and I love how it worked, and captured the grit of those characters. Overall, I’m not too comfortable writing dialogue, and I’m tempted to experiment and let my actors improvise all of the dialogue in my next film.

DEoL: Have any of the people in your movies seen the films, and if so what was the reaction?

Freak (1999)
TT: Yes, I gave a copy to almost everyone who was involved with the film... I think most of them enjoyed the films, but it’s hard to tell.  Funny story... the actor who played Pete the gas station attendant in Return in Red provided the awesome brick gas station for the film, and played himself in the movie. When you walked into that station, that is exactly how it would go.  Anyway, I gave him a copy of the movie when we finished it, and I visited him a few years later I asked him what he thought of it, and he said, “I haven’t gotten around to watching it yet.” He not only provided a location, but was in it, and he hadn’t seen it yet!

DEoL: I know we’ve spoken briefly about this on Facebook, but can you tell me something about your involvement in the ‘lost film’ Double Dose of Terror!

TT:  I collaborated on that film with Michael Todd Schneider, who is a filmmaker-of-all-trades who did the special make-up effects and score for Return in Red, and and played the crazed 'screwdriver victim.' We got together shortly after the shooting for Red wrapped, and came up with the idea to shoot an anthology film (and I’ll add, we weren't the first people to ever do this obviously, but we thought of this idea a few years before Grindhouse and V/H/S and the million other anthologies that started to flood the marketplace). We finished it in 2011. It exists and is out there, and I think it’s currently for sale on Michael’s website, (it may be but good luck finding it! Ed).  My only problem with it was that I shot my segment on DV, which doesn’t excite me in the least bit.  I consider it an extremely underground effort...which is kind of cool in its own way.

DEoL; And finally, if you don't mind me saying your film making career isn’t exactly prolific (although your two major films are both better than many film makers achieve in a lifetime). Would you like to make more films? And if so do you have any plans?

TT: Thanks for the compliment! Yes, I have another film in the works...I consider it more of a mainstream effort, in the spirit of Sinister (Scott Derrickson's 2012 movie -Ed), which I really loved.  What happened was, in a nutshell, I bought a drive in theater a year after my last film was released, back in 2008, and I’ve been so bloody busy keeping that thing running that I’ve kind of had to put filmmaking on the back burner.  But the best thing about having a drive in, is the fact that it’s only open for 6 months, and that gives me 6 months off to shoot a movie and do other stuff. So I hope to make a return to film making very soon...!

DEoL; Thanks so much for taking the time to answer these questions, Tyler, and best of luck with the drive in and the next movie project.

If you're ever in Martinsville, Indiana, make sure to visit Tyler's drive in - the website is here. Freak and Return in Red can both still be found for sale in the usual on-line places.