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.

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