Thursday 12 January 2017

New Films Round Up #6 - Reviews of Beyond the Gates (USA 2016), Carnage Park (USA 2016), Pet (USA 2016), SiREN (USA 2016), The Disappointments Room (USA 2016) and The Monster (USA 2016)

Beyond the Gates (USA 2016: Dir Jackson Stewart) It's 1992 and estranged brothers Gordon and John are back in their home town to clear out the video store owned by their missing presumed dead father. Together with Gordon's girlfriend Margot they slowly package up the cavernous shop's seemingly endless numbers of bulky video cassettes. Stumbling across one of those interactive VHS/Board games popular a few decades ago (this one's called 'Beyond the Gates') and with the video tape still in their dad's VCR, they decide to play. The trio are immediately plunged into a fight for their lives where successive playing levels must be unlocked - with deadly and bloody consequences - before they can make their escape out of the game and the nightmare world it has created.

Although Beyond the Gates doesn't fetishise the VHS phenomenon in the way that, for example, 2008's Be Kind Rewind or 2013's curio doc Rewind This! have done (or even aim for cassette accuracy - the inclusion of 1996 flick Fargo on the shelves is clearly a mistake), the movie is otherwise consciously in love with its era. From the opening neon titles and Wojciech Golczewski’s spot-on synth score, to the use of former scream queen Barbara Crampton as Evelyn, the video guide to the game, this is an affectionately mounted homage, rather than a send up of 1980s creature features (the title even evokes the 1987 kids-meddling-with-the-unknown movie The Gate). Cleverly Jackson Stewart's debut directorial feature takes its time getting to the good stuff - and the characterisation of Gordon, John and Margot shows a lot of film-making confidence. But the gore, when it arrives, is definitely of the non CGI type that used to feature in the pages of 'Fangoria' magazine back in the day - and there's plenty of it. Pretty entertaining stuff.

Carnage Park (USA 2016: Dir Mickey Keating) Apparently based on a true story, Mickey Keating's latest movie mixes Tarantinoesque botched robbery stylings, a killer with gas mask straight out of My Bloody Valentine, and a heroine that could have passed as Tina Fey's sister, although not nearly as funny.

'Scorpion' Joe and Lenny, a couple of washed up herb-heads, hold up a bank, whose only customer seems to be winsome Vivian (played by skinny scream queen Ashley (The Last Exorcism and The Last Exorcism Part II) Bell), busy negotiating with the manager not to foreclose on her father's house. Joe and Lenny abduct Vivian but as they drive away from the scene of the crime, one of the robbers is picked off by a hidden sniper. Vivian makes her escape into a local mine where a cat and mouse game ensues between unwilling heroine and crazed gunman.

This is about as good as it sounds. The first half aims for a sub Tarantino merging of crazy camera angles, 'cool' music (including 'Big Bad John' - please) and narrative time shifts, although lacking any of the sizzling dialogue one might expect. Once Carnage Park becomes a chase movie, any stylistic pretensions are abandoned, and the focus moves to the overall bonkersness of the killer, one Wyatt Moss, and whether Vivian will get out alive. I don't know if the fact that the film was based on true events hampered the director's choices here, but this is a derivative, uninspiring film which can't settle on one style and just emerges, like a number of Moss's victims, as a bit of a mess.

Pet (Spain/USA 2016: Dir Carles Torrens) Judging by Pet's premise - twisted guy abducts woman and holds her captive in a secret room for pleasure rather than ransom - one would be forgiven for assuming that this was just another adaptation of John Fowles' 1963 novel 'The Collector.' Originally and memorably filmed in 1965 with twitchy Terence Stamp, the theme has been re-used down the years, including the underrated 1981 movie Tattoo, with Bruce Dern as a tortured artist and Maud Adams his captured muse, and 2007's Captivity, where Eliza Cuthbert is exposed to all sorts of indignities by her crazed abductor.

Pet starts slickly if unpromisingly: nervous kennel assistant Seth bumps into beautiful but glacial and aloof Holly on a bus, claiming they were at school together. Holly denies knowledge of him, leading to Seth finding out her likes and dislikes via social media and stalking her at the restaurant where she works. When he is again rejected Seth drugs and abducts her to the kennels, where he keeps her prisoner in a cage. So far so formula, but without giving anything more away the tables are slowly and cleverly turned, with the imprisoned Holly slowly waging a war of nerves with the distinctly unbalanced Seth.

Basically a two hander, Pet grips throughout its tense hour and a half - it has the same air of claustrophobia that director Carles Torrens brought to his 2011 spookfest Apartment 143. Strong performances from Dominic (TV's Lost) Monaghan as the just-the-right-side-of-bonkers Seth and Ksenia (Black Swan) Solo as Holly are aided by a Jeremy Slater's literate script and a nerve jangling score by Zacarías M. de la Riva (who also produced the haunting music for Evolution, one of my favourite films of last year). Pet was a big hit at festivals last year and will hopefully do well in the home market.

SiREN (USA 2016: Dir Gregg Bishop) Jonah, about to get married, is whisked off to a stag weekend by his effervescent brother and best mates. Disappointed in the choice of lap dancing joint picked for the start of their festivities, the group are persuaded to head out to a remote house where they're promised something a little raunchier. But when Jonah falls for a young girl who dances for him in a locked room, he decides to do the gallant thing and free her, little knowing that she is Lilith, the siren of the title whose benign exterior masks an ancient monster within.

I watched this fully aware that it was a feature length development of the 'Amateur Night' segment from the 2012 movie V/H/S. 'Amateur Night' was directed by David Bruckner (responsible for the excellent 2015 movie Southbound). SiREN was directed by Gregg Bishop, whose was responsible for the 'Dante the Great' segment of 2014's V/H/S Viral. Symmetry cries out for the feature length development of 'Dante the Great' to be directed by David Bruckner. But I digress.

SiREN is, surprisingly, a lot of fun. It has some genuinely laugh out loud moments and wears its horror lightly enough, but it's not short on tension. It has a decidedly old school feel (when I started watching it I though possibly that I'd acquired the 2010 film of the same name instead - is seven years ago 'old school'?).Hannah Fierman as Lily reprises her performance in the V/H/S segment and joins a relatively small list of actors whose claim to fame is spending an entire movie in the altogether. It's normal here to describe such a performance as 'brave' but Fierman inhabits the siren character with an astounding physicality not usually seen in Trowbridge, Wilts (from where she emanates). Far better than its origins suggest, then.

The Disappointments Room (USA 2016: Dir D.J. Caruso) If you're old enough to remember I-Spy books, well by the time you've got through this one I'm betting your page of  'things you always see in haunted house movies' will be fully ticked. Really, what terrible generic nonsense this is.

Kate Beckinsale (sleepwalking - how surprising that she turned in her brilliant performance as Lady Susan Vernon in Whit Stillman's Love & Friendship the same year as this - maybe it means she's 'versatile') plays Dana, an architect who with her husband David and son Lucas movie to a real fixer-upper in the countryside, to make a new start after the accidental death of their baby daughter. So get those pencils out and get ready to tick some boxes: on their first night Dana hears a baby crying; there's a locked room in the attic that she's drawn to; Lucas starts talking to an imaginary person; the house has a terrible history; Dana has had psychiatric treatment following the baby's death and David thinks she's going bonkers again; the steadicam prowls around the house constantly: a kooky local librarian provides all the information Dana and we need to understand what's going on.

There are so many films like this that have been made in the past few years, and I bet there's a load in production - astonishingly there does seem to be a market for them; this one is prolific TV director D J (The Shield) Caruso's first attempt. As you'd expect from his credentials The Disappointments Room is very well made, but I do wonder what film historians will make of this almost fin de siecle outpouring of the supernatural onto our screens in, say, twenty or thirty years' time? Will this ever be seen as good?

The Monster (USA 2016: Dir Bryan Bertino) Back last year the only criticism I levelled at the otherwise very good South Korean movie Train to Busan was the arguably exploitative way that the young actor Kim Su-An was made to cry her eyes out for the last twenty minutes of the film. Well there are child's tears aplenty in writer/producer/director Bryan Bertino's stifling modern fairytale The Monster. Oh and rain. A lot of rain.

Lizzy (an astonishing Ella Ballentine) is a young girl living with her dysfunctional booze and drugs addicted mother Kathy (Sarah Michelle Geller lookalike Zoe Kazan). Kathy can no longer parent Lizzie, who is to be shipped off to her grandmother's house. But en route their car is involved in a night time collision with a dog. Mother and daughter must await roadside services, but there's something in the woods that's large, hungry and has very big teeth.

The Monster wears its fairytale elements a little heavily (Lizzy mistakes the injured dog for a wolf; the visit to granny's house etc) but there's no doubting the integrity of the two central performances. I may be getting older and a bit over-protective, but I wasn't sure that having long scenes of Lizzy getting soaked to the skin in the rain while crying her eyes out was a particularly healthy way to add drama to the piece. And the simplicity of The Monster very nearly kills it. At times the setup feels like an extended homage to a scene from Jurassic Park but its metaphoric power, never overstated but always obvious, lets us know what this film is really about. It's powerful stuff, carried by strong performances, some very effective monster sequences, and such a bleak world view that it's only at the end you'll realise how tense the whole thing has been.

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