Tuesday 21 March 2017

New Films Round Up #8 - Reviews of Daylight's End (USA 2016), Dead Story (USA 2016), Before I Wake (USA 2016), XX (USA 2016), Capture Kill Release (Canada 2017) and Bloodrunners (USA 2017)

Daylight's End (USA 2016: Dir William Kaufman) There's nothing particularly new in this post plague zombie shoot 'em up, but William Kaufman's back catalogue of action movie directing credits ensures that, if not original, this is a well staged, exciting horror movie.

A slim story sees outsider Rourke (Johnny Strong, who's also responsible for the pulse pounding soundtrack) saving the life of Samantha on the lawless streets of Texas. Not only are there plague infected folk to worry about (the fast moving kind) but bands of human renegades to cope with too. Sam takes Rourke, and a strange traumatized girl called Annabelle back to the camp - an abandoned police station - that she shares with a rag-tag collection of human survivors. Rourke's willingness to go it alone clashes with the overall group leader Frank, (Lance Henricksen, still a commanding presence), but the arrival of the infected inside their complex forces the group to unite to defend themselves.

Because this is set in the south, as you'd expect everybody is handy with a firearm, and the resultant gunplay is extensive and relentless - the number of the cast who choose to kill themselves rather than become infected also suggests a rather Republican state of mind. Kaufman gives his infected some vampire like attributes - death by sunlight and the ability to 'turn' people rather than randomly bite them - which renders them more interesting than the average zombie horde. And while, with the exception of Henricksen and Chelsea Edmundson as Sam, characterisation is paper thin, this is a low budget film which knows what it's doing and is all the more effective for it.

Dead Story (USA 2016: Dir Suneel Tripuraneni) So here's a game you can play at home. Which modern supernatural movie has its ghost appear on screen the quickest after the start of the film? The vengeful spirit in Dead Story must be a strong contender - you can see her on the cover, looking all Sadako from-Ringu-like (or Samara if you're watching the US remake) with long floppy hair obscuring her face - popping up a mere 1 minute and 16 seconds into the movie. Could we have a winner? Maybe you know of a spook who makes its appearance even quicker? Do write and tell me, but I'd be surprised.

And that's probably the most interesting thing going on in Indian-born director Suneel Tripuraneni's debut feature.

Anne and Harold Harris, who despite their names are probably only in their 20s, move into a 'dream home' - actually it turns out that any home would do as long as it was many miles from Harold's domineering mother. Predictably the couple have no idea that the house they've moved into was the scene of a number of mysterious murders in the past, even though it had stood empty for five years before their occupation. Harold works in the city, leaving Anne, a photographer, at home during the day, taking shots of tree stumps and gradually discovering that the house may have a third occupant who lives part of the time in the upstairs closet. Anne's visions of the spirit begin unhinge her mind, and soon enough mother-in-law is on the scene to add to the young woman's anxiety.

This is pretty bad stuff. Because of the immediate spook exposure and the very early signs of Anne's bonkersness, there is little left to unveil for the next hour and a quarter, so it's just a repetition of similar scenes featuring a ghost glimpsed in corners, some screaming and a disbelieving husband. Dead Story is only partly enlivened by the arrival of the wicked mum-in-law Martha (overacted by Sheril Rodgers, who also took 'wardrobe' credit on the movie). Ho hum. 

Before I Wake (USA 2016: Dir Mike Flanagan) Director Flanagan continues his string of well made, entertaining if family friendly fright flicks with a keen eye for characterisation over spectacle, in this occasionally over syrupy offering.

A young boy, Cody, is fostered by Jessie and Mark, a couple still grieving for the death of their own son Sean in an accident at home. Cody is a special child, with the ability to conjure up realistic images for others while sleeping, beginning with a room filled with butterflies which entrances the young foster couple. When Cody catches sight of photographs of Sean it's not long before Jessie and Mark's dead son is appearing to them. But there's also something inherently evil conjured up by the child, which threatens everyone in the house.

Rather similar to the classic Twilight Zone episode 'It's a Good Life' - where a child uses his mind to isolate his home town from the rest of the universe - Before I Wake hinges on the believability of all three central characters. Luckily Kate Bosworth as Jessie, Thomas Jane as Mark and particularly Jacob Tremblay as Cody deliver good, understated performances. the effects work for the most part is subtle and unsettling, and there are some eerie touches around Cody's inability to properly conjure faces. Where the film falls down is the need to have a consciously evil protagonist, the by now obligatory 'onion skin' backstory, and a saccharine redemptive ending. Pity, as the opening half hour managed to be genuinely unsettling. It's worth a watch and Flanagan is a very good director, but a lot more could have been done with the material on offer.

XX (USA 2017: Dir Roxanne Benjamin, Karyn Kusama, St. Vincent and Jovanka Vuckovic) The modern-day portmanteau movie, as I have commented elsewhere, is enjoying a renaissance these days because of the rise in popularity of the short film. Having mentioned that, just like the quality of full length features, there are short films and short films. XX contains four shorts with little in common except for the fact that they were all directed by women, with women as the central characters. There's a linking device of short animated interludes by Sofia Carillo, clearly influenced by early Svankmajer, which don't actually link to anything, but are nice to look at.

About half of XX is watchable, with the last two stories being much stronger than the first two. Opener 'The Box' is a rather pithy segment, with a family succumbing to (I think) cannibalistic urges after their little boy gets way too curious on a subway train; the less than serious 'The Birthday Party' features a suburban woman who doesn't let her husband's death get in the way of a good celebration, and 'Don't Fall' sees a group of hikers encountering an ancient evil in the desert. The most effective of the four stories is the last: 'Her Only Living Son' is the story of a woman who realises that her son, quite possibly the quintessence of evil, has the entire town at his mercy and must be stopped. Unlike the other stories it's subtly played, and understands that, like the best short stories, the audience needs enough to be able to fill in the plot blanks but not too much that they can't let their imaginations do some work.

Overall I was rather underwhelmed by XX - it suffers from the usual portmanteau problem - none of the segments on their own is that great and together the film is not equal to the sum of its for the most part insubstantial elements.

Capture Kill Release (Canada 2017: Dir Nick McAnulty and Brian Allan Stewart) Just when you thought that the found footage (or first person filming) genre had backed itself into a corner, along comes Nick McAnulty and Brian Allan Stewart’s terrifying Capture Kill Release to make you think again.

The film has a simple premise: Jen and her boyfriend Farhang plan to kill someone and film themselves doing it. But there’s so much more to this film than is suggested by that description. To start with, the matter of factness and overall playful nature of the couple – we see them shopping in a hardware shop for tools to do the deed and dismember the corpse afterwards – brings to mind the great killer couples of the screen in films like The Honeymoon Killers (1970) and Natural Born Killers (1994). For once the almost obligatory dialogue exchange in a FF flick – “Why are you filming all the time?” “Because I have to document everything” makes a whole lot of sense. It IS important for the couple to record the preparations for and the process of killing their victim. We know very little about Jen and Farhang but we can only suggest that this act is the latest in a long line of (unseen) incidents. Then there’s the couple themselves. Initially it looks like both of them are equally into carrying out the act, but as the film progresses it’s clear that Farhang is hopelessly in love with Jen and it is she who is the decidedly bonkers brains behind this, with Farhang as the increasingly unwilling accomplice.

As the character Jen Jennifer Fraser is a marvel. There’s some clever stuff where we’re shown Jen as a little girl in a seemingly loving environment (the footage is actually Fraser as a child) and are left to wonder exactly how Jennifer the monster came to be. Certainly this is a person who would kill a cat to practise the act of taking a life and then calmly lie to the owner who comes looking for it that she’d never seen it.  I’d say that’s a big 10 in the Psychopath test! Farhang Ghajar as, er, Farhang, has the difficult role of underplaying to emphasise Jen’s craziness, looking increasingly confused as she oscillates between cute and crazy – he does this very well. Without spoiling things, Jen and Farhang do get to kill someone (with all the gory details – the body disposal details in Joe D’Amato’s 1979 Beyond the Darkness have nothing on this), but predictably events take a sickening turn.

Capture Kill Release is believable and shocking – I was quite unprepared for the intensity of the movie, and its images replay in the mind long after the camera has stopped filming. Strong stuff.

Bloodrunners (USA 2017: Dir Dan Lantz) Dan Lantz is a cheapo director whose latest film - budgeted at $180,000 - seems to be his biggest production yet, which says a lot about his previous work. Set in the 1930s during the Prohibition era (an ambitious feat given the resources available), Bloodrunners stars ICE-T as Chesterfield, a speakeasy club owner whose up front activities mask the usual bootlegging and prostitution rackets, but with a side order of vampirism. And yep, you're right, that ain't claret in them claret bottles, no sir.

Corrupt cop Jack Malone, who fought in the first World War, suffers from PTSD and somehow passed the medical for the police force. He's now more used to shaking down establishments for protection money, but at Chesterfield's he's bitten off more than he can chew. Not only are the club employees being picked off one by one to join the undead, but Jack realises that the vampire responsible is a phantom from his past.

Although cheap Bloodrunners is cheerfully done, and while it takes a while to get going, with lots of subplots that threaten to strangle interest, it becomes quite fun when Malone and the vampires get to it. There's some good use of authentic locations and some nifty CGI (ICE-T was even green screened in his own garage, but still manages to convey menace - what a guy!). The cast are all gleefully up for it, and I really liked Jack Hoffman as drunken preacher Luther, who provides one or two laugh out loud moments. Slight but slick, Bloodrunners is undemanding but a fun watch, if you can get over the rather meandering first half hour.

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