Friday 30 December 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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