Tuesday, 23 May 2017

Poundland Lucky Dip Part 3 - Reviews of Haunted aka Bad Building (Canada 2013), Code Red (USA 2013), Demons aka Family Demons (Australia 2013), Evil Things (USA 2009), Salem Witch Hunters aka The Secret Village (USA 2013) and Halloween Haunting aka Hayride (USA 2012)

It's time for a round up of recent acquisitions from the shop which acts as my time machine to the golden days of VHS, when I'd pop into my local video emporium back in the early 1980s, choose some titles from the shelf in the 'six for £5' deal, then take them back home to find out what the devil I'd just rented. It goes without saying that these would all be horror movies, so now I can do the same in Poundland. Six films for six quid (one pound inflation over thirty five years ain't bad) - so what did I get, this time courtesy of Poundland Derby (I'm nothing if not well travelled)?

Haunted aka Bad Building (Canada 2013: Dir Philip Granger) Johnny Craig, host of a paranormal reality show, has been given one last chance by the TV station he works for to pull together an episode that actually features footage of a haunting, or face the chop. Luckily he's tipped off about Desmond Towers. an abandoned hotel in Victoria, British Columbia, with a dark past of murders, suicides and unexplained deaths on its premises. Via a couple of urban explorers Johnny and his team gain entry to the premises. It's not long before the supernatural activity kicks off, although their cameras repeatedly fail to record any of it. Soon they are trapped in the building as it starts to come to life and pick members of the team off one by one.

How relieved was I that this was not made in the 'found footage' format, despite its setup suggesting that this would be the case. Haunted (for once I concur with the distribution company's renaming of the film's terrible original title Bad Building for its 2015 home release) is actually very well photographed. The tortured history of the Desmond Towers reveals that successive owners had added to the original building, which explains why the floors look different when the team explore the hotel - although I suspect that this was really because Granger had to use several locations. The exterior shots are a sweet little bit of computer animation which could have been terrible had I not felt rather benevolently towards the film.

The cast - and there's a lot of 'em, many recruited from Vancouver's New Image college - are actually fairly competent if rather anonymous, and it's kind of difficult to keep track of who's alive and who's dead. A couple of them may need to lay off the biscuits if they want a career in film; the camera adds pounds, you know. There are some inventive and gory, if rather implausible kills as the hotel goes about its business - death by pigeon spikes anyone? - but the budget clearly dispenses with anything remotely ghostly, as the spirits on display are of the decidedly corporeal variety. But while I wouldn't go so far as to describe it, as one unnamed critic has, a 'rollercoaster,' this was a fun hour and a quarter, blessed with a very eerie soundtrack and some quirky touches. Best cast name - Havana Guppy!

Code Red (USA 2013: Dir Valeri Milev) Don't be fooled by the cover - there are one or two Nazi zombies in this film but only in the WW2 set prologue, where Stalin has apparently perfected a nerve gas which has the unique property of resurrecting those soldiers who have died after exposure to it. I'm guessing that the stormtrooper suit rental was charged by the day, because quick as you like we're in modern day Bulgaria (where Code Red was shot and where, one assumes, technical teams can be hired for peanuts) and it seems that supplies of the gas may have survived, pointed out courtesy of a recovered diary from the weapon's crazed inventor. Captain John McGahey (martial artist, stuntman and The Asylum flicks regular Paul Logan) is sent undercover by the US powers that be to find out what's been going on.

You won't be surprised to learn that the gas supplies get released, causing the whole of Bulgaria (well a run down housing estate in a tiny grimy part of it) to go zombie simple. Actually the zombie makeup is quite inventive, and the whole thing is filmed in that hyper real colour downgraded style beloved of directors who want to cover up their paltry budgets. By about the halfway mark Logan has become a kind of Steven Seagal lite action hero, and when the director wheels out the tanks and the hardcore armoury, the 'infected' have become a bit of an afterthought.

Competently directed but entirely lacking in charm, wit or purpose, this is about the worst travel ad for Bulgaria that I've ever seen. But I'm still worried that two films in, my Poundland haul is showing remarkable signs of...dare I mention it...quality?

Demons aka Family Demons (Australia 2013: Dir Ursula Dabrowsky) Clever old marketing companies - at it again. This is actually a 2009 slice of Ozploitation called Family Demons (although actually shot three years earlier), but they've dropped the first word of the title and put some woman with ragged hair on the cover - lead character Billie as it turns out - to make you think it's a horror movie. Well it is kind of a horror movie, and a pretty good one at that.

Billie lives at home with her crazed alcoholic mother, chained (literally) to the house. One day Billie makes a break for it in search of food (her mother spends all her money on booze and the occasional dress for when she picks up random guys) and meets neighbour Sean. In a struggle Billie's mother is hospitalised, but when she returns home, after a vicious argument, Billie kills her. But Billie's mother continues to haunt her daughter from beyond the grave...or are the apparitions just a figment of Billie's increasingly unhinged mind?

As you can probably tell laughs are few and far between in Demons. It's pretty much a two hander with great performances from Cassandra Kane as Billie and Kerry Reid as Mother. Cheaply made (just over $6,000 Australian) and shot entirely on location in Adelaide, it's let down by a very limited structure and a really cheap string synth score - I would have loved one of those soundtracks of noises and glitches with this one. Apparently well received on first release, winning a few awards at festivals, it's a shame that it's been repackaged this way. But it's worth seeing if downbeat domestic psycho dramas are your thing.

Evil Things (USA 2009: Dir Dominic Perez) A trip back to the previous decade, when 'found footage' was king. Yep, we have a fairly nondescript group of young New Yorkers off to stay in a country retreat upstate. On the way the would be party posse encounter a people carrier with blacked out windows that cuts them up, then slows down in front of them, and generally menaces the group. Arriving shaken at the destination, they find that the people carrier knows where they're staying, and its occupants may already have been in the house. After three...one...two...three...scream and run (while still holding the camera, obviously).

Anyone who has read my reviews will know that my critical faculties are severely reduced if a director uses an authentic snowy location. So yes, some of my bonhomie towards Evil Things can be attributed to the white stuff that makes the upstate New York woodland locations look rather beautiful. The other thing this movie has going for it is that the threat isn't supernatural. It isn't that scary either but the setup is believable (the premise is that these are tapes picked up by the police at the house following the disappearance of all of the group - nice of the cops from the precinct's music department to add some droning sounds when they assembled the footage).

The last twenty minutes or so is a total mess, but until then Evil Things does a reasonably good job of conjuring up a good foreboding atmosphere in a chilly setting. This was Dominic Perez's first film - his next, 2015's Saving Borshia, a comedy about the pitfalls of independent filmmaking (and six years between films suggests this is something the director knows a bit about), is streaming on Amazon Prime now and may be worth a look.

Salem Witch Hunters aka The Secret Village (USA 2013: Dir Swamy Kandan)  Swamy Kandan's directorial track record isn't that great. One previous movie - 2009's Catch Your Mind - which seems to have tanked. Kandan also produced and wrote that one, and takes on similar duties for the appalling Salem Witch Hunters (and by the way distribution company - the new title makes no sense whatsoever). The film is set in a small village in western Massachusetts (spelled incorrectly in the end credits, fact checkers), whose history includes frequent outbreaks of poisoning through ergot, a fungus found on crops.

Skinny saucer eyed Rachel, an investigative journalist, has moved into a friend's house in the area to find out more about the infections. Unbeknownst to her she's joined by heavy browed square jawed Greg, who has been booted out of his flat by his ex and needs somewhere to crash.

Greg forms a closeness to Rachel but she becomes increasingly concerned as her researches seem to show the involvement of a clan of people (possibly witches) and a strange building close by which may be keeping people prisoner. Greg has to leave for town and alone in the house Rachel is persecuted by the very people whose stories she is uncovering.

Kandan's decision to convey Rachel's increasingly fractured state of mind by increasingly fracturing the narrative construction of his film may have been a good idea on paper but needs great execution (Nic Roeg, Christopher Nolan, Quentin T take a bow) to pull it off. Salem Witch Hunters has tragically awful execution, a lumbering intrusive score (surprisingly by the normally reliable Robert The Slayer Folk) and a denouement that sets the eyes rolling in the sockets. Strangely you'd expect a movie of this calibre to be staffed by a cast of unknowns, but Greg is played by Jonathan (Mean Girls) Bennett and Rachel by Ali Faulkner, who was in one of the Twilight movies. I can only think that Kandan must have rich benefactors, for I feel that both actors will be replacing this entry on their CV with the words 'career break' any time now. Awful.

Halloween Haunting aka Hayride (USA 2012: Dir Terron R. Parsons) Apparently hayrides are a hallowe'en thing in the US. You and a group of friends sit on the back of a truck which is towed through fields, while various iconic characters leap out from time to time and scare you - a sort of rustic ghost train. Terrifying, right? Well I can tell you something - Hayride is not a scary title for a film. Halloween Haunting is better, but no haunting takes place in this movie - only someone having a slash. Ahem.

We get terrible 'teen' acting by people who have long since forgotten their teenage years. We get the legend of Pitchfork, who stalks the countryside looking for his lost daughter. We get an escaped serial killer who assumes the role of Pitchfork as a disguise by nicking the costume intended to scare the kids on the Haunted Hayride. We also gets lots of walking around and talking, CGI rain and blood spatters, and people dying very anaemically. So anaemically in fact that it felt like watching a good old VHS copy of a 1980s slasher flick after the BBFC got hold of it.

Director Terron R. Parsons went on to make Hayride 2 which by all accounts rehashes many scenes from the first movie and proves that the director has learned nothing from the mistakes of his first feature. All very very tedious.

Monday, 22 May 2017

The Shining (USA/UK 1980: Dir Stanley Kubrick) - notes from an introduction to a screening at East Dulwich Picturehouse 21 May 2017

When Jack Nicholson was approached by director Stanley Kubrick for The Shining, the actor had just completed shooting the comedy western Goin' South, which he both directed and starred in. Filmed in 1977 and released the following year, it was, to use that old phrase, a ‘troubled production’ which received a critical mauling. A New York Times reporter, who made an on set visit, found Nicholson in a morose and misanthropic mood: possibly, one person suggested, the now 40 year old actor was finding it hard to balance his on set duties by day and his night time partying antics. Pauline Kael subsequently referred to Nicholson’s performance in the film as a ‘leering leprechaun’ who ‘talks as if he needed to blow his nose.” To what could she have been referring?

In Jack’s private life the production of Goin' South coincided with the truth about his parentage being made public – that June Nicholson, who he had always believed was his sister, was actually his mother. So in many ways it wasn’t a great time for him.

Kubrick had known Nicholson for many years and they had talked about working together since Jack’s Easy Rider days – in fact, a potential historical epic had been talked about, with Jack playing the part of Napoleon - this came to nothing, however.

Although Nicholson was Kubrick’s first choice for The Shining’s lead role of the caretaker, Jack Torrance, other actors were also tested, including Robert de Niro, Harrison Ford and Robin Williams.

Kubrick needed to make a movie with decent box office returns after the dismal failure of his previous film Barry Lyndon in 1975. Kubrick probably thought that a horror film would guarantee him a hit. According to one source he amassed a load of books in that genre, which he then shut himself away to read. He could be heard noisily discarding all of the books after a few pages, throwing them against a wall, before things quietened down after he picked up Stephen King’s ‘The Shining’ which had been published in 1977. Of course Kubrick wasn’t interested in making a horror film per se – he’d already been offered and rejected director duties on The Exorcist and The Exorcist II - The Heretic – but the plot of the novel, about a writer with creative block who takes on the job of caretaker in a closed for the season – and haunted - mountain hotel, and the strange psychic power of his son Danny, afforded him lots of opportunities to make a horror movie with a difference. It also appealed to his interests in ESP and the paranormal.

The Shining went into production in the winter of 1978, at the same time that Goin' South was tanking at movie theatres. The long shot exteriors of the Overlook Hotel, where the action takes place, were filmed at an actual hotel in Oregon, but the close up exteriors and all the interiors were shot on meticulously designed and constructed sets at Elstree Studios in Borehamwood, Hertfordshire. The vast spaces of the hotel are navigated in breathtaking style by Garrett Brown’s revolutionary Steadicam set up.

Even people with only a slight knowledge of Stanley Kubrick will know of his legendary habit of multiple shot takes. The Shining was no exception. One scene, between Scatman Crothers playing Hallorann, and Danny Lloyd as Torrance’s son Danny, went to 148 takes and was only stopped when Crothers broke down and Nicholson intervened. 

As a result of this, the shooting timetable went way over schedule, turning from a 17 week shoot into a 46 week one. Two major films scheduled to start at Elstree, Warren Beatty’s Reds and Spielberg’s Raiders of the Lost Ark, were cued up but massively delayed. Matters became more complicated when most of the The Shining’s sets were destroyed in a studio fire in February 1979, before filming had completed. The final scenes were finished as in an adjacent studio The Empire Strikes Back was going into production.

Because of the extended shooting schedule – the length of which caused Nicholson to comment at one point that both he and Shelley Duvall, who plays Jack’s wife Wendy, wore the same costumes every day for a year – Jack ended up taking a rental house in Chelsea. Nicholson made himself pretty comfortable and by all accounts the house became party central. Jack was filming during the day, partying at night and fitting sleep in during the the car rides ferrying him from London to Elstree. Interestingly much of the film was shot in order – unusual in film making – and towards the end it was commented that Nicholson needed less and less makeup to turn him into the possessed, manic Jack Torrance.

The Shining met with a lot of critical hostility when it opened during the summer of 1980. It was also seen as too long - the original film ran to 144 minutes, but Kubrick reduced this to 118 for audiences outside the US – it’s this print that you’ll see this afternoon.

I saw it when it first came out and like a lot of people was impressed with the look of the film, but couldn’t get past Jack’s performance and also the fact that Kubrick had used King’s book - which was a favourite of mine - as a jumping off point to make his own rather idiosyncratic version of the story.  But like most of Kubrick’s films, it took a few re viewings of the film for its genius to sink in.

James Joyce once commented of his famous novel ‘Ulysses’ that there were enough traps and tricks in that book to keep critics guessing for years. And the same can be said for The Shining. Doing some research for this introduction I was amazed at the sheer volume of analysis – a lot of it quite bonkers – produced in reaction to the movie. Some of these theories were collected together in Rodney Ascher’s 2012 film Room 237, a conspiracy theory style documentary almost as extraordinary as the film that inspired it. And yet there are so many inconsistencies in the film, which add credence to some of these theories, and which surely could not have happened by accident with a director as scrupulous as Kubrick.

So whether it’s your first time or your twentieth viewing of the film, you’ll still find a lot to interest you. You may even have your own theories about what happens in the film, but I’d think carefully before committing them to the internet.

Enjoy the film.

Wednesday, 17 May 2017

War of Words: Battle Rap in the UK (UK 2016: Dir Tom Worth and Craig Tuohy)

Like many people over the age of, ahem, 40 - well ok 50 - my experience and understanding of the battle rap scene (a fast, furious and frequently very funny offshoot of the more mainstream rap genre) has been limited to Eminem, the 2002 'rap odyssey' 8 Mile, and the mainstreaming of Professor Green, whose put downs and character assassinations, an important part of this movement, have successfully transitioned into his successful music career.

Worth and Tuohy's documentary on the UK battle rap scene was five years in the making, but with its intensity and (pardon the borrowing of the word) flow feels like it could have been put together in 48 hours - that's not a criticism - and its hour and a bit running time passes in a flash.

Part of the reason that the battle rap scene has remained underground, if far from un-noticed - just witness the crowds at the events on screen - is that the average content of the rappers' battles is so eye poppingly obscene that it wouldn't stand a chance of being shown on any mainstream media - not that they need it, their lives being filmed and broadcast almost entirely via social media.

War of Words expertly captures the rawness of the verbal attacks and the non violent, peace keeping culture that underpins their outbursts - as one describes it, they're like boxers in the ring who forget their differences once offstage. The timescale of the documentary demonstrates the scene's transition from a freestyle approach to a more rehearsed rapping style, without sacrificing the shock of the rhymes but allowing a wider and more diverse group of people to participate.

Apart from the live footage, War of Words is brilliant in its portrayal of the almost Hogarthian rapper population, with great names like Lunar C (comedy gold), Stig of the Dump and Eurgh, all competing for centre stage in a relentless display of braggadocio. But the film also takes some time to concentrate on decidedly ordinary rappers Marlo and Shuffle T who - as the film's publicity states - look more like internet nerds than tough hip-hop guys, as they prepare for battle against Detroit legends MarvWon and Quest MCODY. Unlike the smooth and perhaps more fluent US exponents of the scene, the UK rappers use rhymes less cliched, funnier (and sarcastic) with a rough round the edges approach that makes the contrasting styles fascinating viewing.

I admit it, I'm old enough to have lived through punk rock, and watching Tom and Craig's footage - expertly dividing itself between the battles and the personalities behind the mouths - is pretty similar to punk gigs of 1977; profoundly DIY, alienating to outsiders, but to those involved providing a close knit community of people sharing something very difficult to understand and appreciate from an outsider perspective.

Go see it.

Tuesday, 16 May 2017

The Frighteners (UK 1972 - London Weekend Television - various directors)

The oft quoted L.P. Hartley line 'the past is another country; they do things different there' may be overused, but is entirely apposite when trying to write about TV drama from the late 1960s/early 1970s. Network's release of the previously difficult to see London Weekend Television 1972 series The Frighteners is an extraordinary collection of thirteen half hour plays, where even the most straightforward example is quite unlike anything you'd see on TV in the 21st century.

Although each of the stories was written by different people, The Frighteners credits John Burke as script advisor. Outside of fan circles Burke, who died in 2011, was a relatively unknown but very influential figure in 'weird' television, a prolific author who wrote in the horror, science fiction and thriller genres under a host of aliases. He contributed to a number of similarly themed anthologies both on BBC and ITV including Late Night Horror (1968) and Tales of Unease (1970). Only fragments of these have so far surfaced, but based on the the emergence of The Frighteners I remain hopeful.

While the series name and opening titles suggest something more directly scary, the 'frights' in The Frighteners are subtle but sinister - in this the series has something in common with the ITV series Shadows of Fear dating from the same period - clearly something in the scriptwriting water at the time. But the setups, mainly focusing on tense 'two hander' exchanges between captor and captive or aggressor and victim, are strange indeed, and viewed back to back, have a cumulatively disturbing effect.

Series highlights include: the Mike (Get Carter) Hodges directed 'The Manipulators' in which a couple in a flat and a room full of people being tested for typing skills are observed for undisclosed reasons; Brian Phelan's 'The Disappearing Man' where a lonely commuter is convinced he's actually disappearing from the world; 'Bed and Breakfast' featuring a typically wobbly performance from Ian Hendry as a man who with his wife takes the phrase "you treat this house like a hotel" rather literally by forcing themselves into the home of a stranger and proceeding to do just that; and 'You Remind Me of Someone' where a lorry driver picks up a hitchhiker with a potentially sinister purpose.

The Frighteners is out now in a 2-disc set from Network Releasing.

Monday, 15 May 2017

Lady Macbeth (UK 2016: Dir William Oldroyd)

Katherine has has been sold into marriage with Alexander, a wealthy mine owner with an impressive country address, although the union has not been consummated - he seems unable to make love to her, and their consequent lack of a child causes displeasure with Boris, Alexander's father, who also lives with them. The real reason why Katherine has been 'procured' for Alexander will be disclosed later in the film.

With Boris away for long periods of time and only her maid Anna for (virtually mute) company, Katherine's life is a routine of dressing in finery and wandering the austere rooms of the country house. She enters into a profoundly physical relationship with Sebastian, a groom, after seeing he and others setting upon a naked Anna in the estate's outbuildings. The affair triggers a sense of opportunity and confidence in Alexander's wife, although Boris attempts to control Katherine's new found sense of freedom. This struggle will set in motion a chain of tragic and ruthless acts in which she attempts to assume control of the household and her own destiny.

Based on 'Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District,' an 1865 novella by Nikolai Leskov, William Oldroyd transposes the events from Russia to the Northumberland of the 19th century and, via Alice Birch's minimal script, reduces the complexity of the original text, keeping the story relatively simple, and setting the events in sedate country surroundings (actually Lambton Castle in County Durham).

Central to the film's success is Florence Pugh as Katherine. Much has been made of this being a pivotal role for the young actor (who had previously starred in the otherwise rather underwhelming 2014 film The Falling). Pugh's impassive face, barely masking the ruthlessness and icy determination of the young woman within, is mirrored in the constricting clothes she wears, her lust imprisoned in crinoline and whalebone corsets. It's an extremely impressive performance but one that somehow becomes less convincing as events in the film become more extreme. The small details are where the power is to be found; a scene where she privately tries on her mask of grief is very effective, as are recurring shots of Katherine sitting calmly, perfectly posed with her formal dress spread put on her seat, with just a few stray wisps of hair as the only outward indication of what rages within.

The cast surrounding Pugh are also very effective: relative newcomers Cosmo Jarvis and Naomi Ackie underplay well as rough round the edges Sebastian and downtrodden maid Anna; and Christopher Fairbank's turn as Boris is a brilliant portrayal of anger and disappointment.

Although clearly filmed on a budget (less than £500,000 apparently) the film makes the best of its surroundings, only occasionally feeling like costumed actors in a National Trust house. The film's look almost expects the addition of a lavish score - so inured are we to the conventions of TV costume drama (ironically then this film is part funded by the BBC), but the director wisely avoids this in favour of an almost entirely natural soundtrack where the noises of living (and loving) fill the space.

William Oldroyd has delivered a very impressive debut feature. Maybe his training in theatre makes the mannered first half of the film just too big a contrast with the 'revenge tragedy' events of the second - this sometimes feel likes Madame Bovary crossed with the 1970s rural love and drama TV series Country Matters. But it's gripping stuff watching the transformation of Katherine from bought wife to mistress in control, and the price she'll pay for her status.

The Demonic Tapes (UK 2017: Dir Richard Mansfield)

You're never that far from the gothic or the classic ghost tale with Richard Mansfield's work, whether he's giving us faithful adaptations of M R James stories via his shadow films, or contemporary live action movies containing more than a whiff of classic supernatural fiction.

In 2016's Video Killer urban paranoia loomed large among strange visions and spectral followers. The rather luridly titled The Demonic Tapes - a title which perhaps unfairly masks a much more subtle film than that - is also set in contemporary London, and was filmed very quickly over a three day period on a budget of about £400.

The Demonic Tapes is the supposedly true story of an unnamed man, staying alone in a north London house share in the days leading up to Christmas, who discovers a box of audio cassettes in the basement. These tapes record a series of sessions involving a medium and a former resident of the house. Our current resident listens to the tapes increasingly obsessively, and realises fairly quickly that the haunting documented on them - and the death of the medium on the tapes - has taken place in the same house in which he's currently living. As the cassettes' hold on him deepens, he starts to see and hear things in the rooms upstairs, suggesting that the demonic presence caught on tape may be back in the house.

A nightmarish image from The Demonic Tapes
Perhaps befitting the brief shooting time The Demonic Tapes didn't have quite the same impact that the more ambitious Video Killer had when I first saw it. But I have to congratulate Richard Mansfield on conjuring something interesting out of not much at all; whether it's tricksy camera shots - from within a kettle and bath while being filled, for example (very giallo) - or the use of the crumpled animated bedsheet twitching on the floor or rising slowly from bathwater (a nod to the BBC version of the M R James story Whistle and I'll Come To You). And the pre Christmas time setting (announced in a series of title cards) is surely a reference to the classic 1973 film The Legend of Hell House which uses the same device.

"I feel like I'm listening to something I shouldn't be" says our doomed hero at one point (carefully underplayed by Darren Munn), and there's a palpable sense of unease generated by watching the man passively listening to the recording of a sustained haunting (complete with Ghostwatch style disturbing voices). Although largely unseen Alice Keedwell is also convincing as the voice of the medium on the tapes - she also plays her sister Sarah in a brief scene. Aided by an extremely atmospheric soundtrack by the enigmatically titled 'Pig 7' - with help from Mansfield and former Video Killer actor Victoria Falls - The Demonic Tapes creates what is becoming a trademark urban horror feel from the director, but with the 'onion skin' approach to storytelling adopted by M R James, to whom Mansfield remains indebted.

The Demonic Tapes is available to stream on Amazon Prime now.

Tuesday, 9 May 2017

Train to Busan (South Korea 2016: Dir Yeon Sang-ho) - notes from an introduction to the screening at Herne Hill Free Film Festival - 8 May 2017

South Korean Yeon Sang-ho, the director of tonight’s film Train to Busan, is one of the brightest hopes in eastern film making at the moment.

Born in Seoul in 1978, Yeon’s background is in animation. The stories behind his early films were written in notebooks while he was doing his military service, a difficult time for him, which included a spell in prison: these experiences fed into his first feature length animated movie, 2011’s King of Pigs, which dealt with the themes of bullying and poverty. In the following year he made an award winning short film, The Window, depicting violence in the military, and in 2013 his continuing political disillusionment inspired his next feature The Fake, about a cult religious leader who swindles a community out of compensation money paid to them because their village is to be submerged. Not for nothing did one critic describe these films as being “full of poignant stories targeted at the very heart of society.”

In 2015 the director developed a (sort of) prequel to tonight's film, Seoul Station (although confusingly this was released after Train to Busan). Asked for his inspiration Yeon said recently “...for a long time I have been wanting to depict society’s collective rage, and Seoul Station is the film where I can discuss it… I don’t think there is a specific moment or target for the people’s rage. Rather, it is more like a monolithic rage against big entities such as the nation.” The rage he’s referring to concerns the large numbers of homeless people who live in and around the station, who have become almost invisible to the rest of the city’s inhabitants – in the film it is within this group that the zombie infestation breeds. But don't worry - you don’t need to have seen Seoul Station to watch tonight's film, which is set set one day after the prequel ends.

Train to Busan, working title Busan Bound, is Yeon’s first live action movie.  Why move into live action after a career in animated films? Well it comes down to money really – the film has taken over $130 million at the box office, whereas his last two animated features took just a fraction of that – about $280,000.

This being the first Korean zombie movie, the director has cited mainly western movies as influences on the film, including the claustrophobic actioners of Paul Greengrass like United 93 (2006) and Captain Phillips (2013) and also ‘community under threat’ films such as Frank Darabont’s 2007 movie The Mist and John Hillcoat’s The Road (2009).

An overlooked influence is the disaster movie: Train to Busan is the arguably the world’s first zombie example of this – and why not? The genre lends itself to borrowing from others - we’ve had the zombie romance movie, zombie comedies, the zombie war film, and even zombie animals attack films (most recently in 2016’s Zoombies, about a virus that spreads through a safari park). Train to Busan uses the clich├ęs of the disaster movie to tell the story: there’s the usual brief thumbnail setup to establish the key players; the ‘must-survive-at-any-cost’ businessman who’ll step on anyone to stay alive; the flawed but basically decent hero realising his inner humanity while struggling with a messy divorce; emotional final reel. They’re all present and correct, and of course what could be a better setting than a speeding train?

Yeon’s animation training shows on screen - he stages the action really well, filling the screen with incident, and many of his wide shots of city devastation look stunning. The zombies in the movie were choreographed by Park Ja-In (who also worked on the 2016 Korean movie The Wailing), but put aside all thoughts of Michael Peters helping Michael Jackson go through his moves in the ‘Thriller’ video - Ja-In choreographed about 20 to 30 actors at a time in her studio, where she designed all the stunning movement you’ll see in the movie.

Yeon is at heart a political film maker - this was more obviously to the fore in Seoul Station, but Train to Busan also shows its colours, albeit more subtly, in the class tensions on board the train and the inability of the government to deal with the developing crisis (and indeed to to be honest about their incompetence). Yeon recognises that Korean audiences expect to see realism in their films, together with humour and big set pieces. He achieves this brilliantly but never at the expense of his characterisations - the New York Times called the film “a public-transportation horror movie with a side helping of class warfare.” 

Train to Busan has been a massive success in Korea – the fifth highest grossing film in the country’s movie production history, taking nearly $135 million at the box office, playing to over 10 million moviegoers in Korea alone. Fans have been clamouring for a sequel which now looks like happening (working title Train to Busan 2), and the inevitable Hollywood remake has also been green lit with French company Gaumont sealing the deal. 

But will the director be back on board (pun very much intended)? Last month Yeon announced the production of a film called Psychokinesis, a dark comedy about an ordinary man who accidentally obtains superpowers and uses them to help his daughter and others around them, scheduled for release in 2018. After watching tonight's film I hope like me that you'll be very interested in any future project by this inspiring film maker.

Enjoy the film.

Monday, 1 May 2017

New Films Round Up #9: Reviews of Don't Kill It (USA 2016), Don't Knock Twice (UK 2016), The Void (Canada 2016), Shadow People (USA 2017), Asylum of Darkness (USA 2017), and The Bye Bye Man (USA 2017)

Don't Kill It (USA 2016: Dir Mike Mendez) I'm going to admit that the films of Dolph Lundgren have managed to pass by my film viewing, er, career - and I'm happy to have let that happen. So how am I ending up watching nigh on sexagenarian Dolph after a lifetime of avoidance? Because he's in a film about a shape shifting demon, that's why. Old Hans (for that is his real name) plays Jebediah Woodley, a demon hunter that's a cross between Crocodile Dundee and, well, Dolph really. Woodley turns up in the small town of Chickory Creek, Mississippi, where a spate of random murders have been taking place. And the twist is that all of the murderers and their victims are connected by association - it's almost as if someone...or thing...is moving between them causing the mayhem.

Don't Kill It is an almost sensationally violent film. I'm not easily shocked but the body count (and parts) in the first five minutes was probably higher than most films I've seen this year put together. Into this rather campily arranged carnage wades Dolph, introduced to the viewing audience via the good old 'deal-with-the-sex-pest-hitting-on-the-woman-in-the-bar' routine, then taking said woman - a lady of the evening - home, having his wicked way with her then almost refusing to pay her. What a rotter - although he vapes rather than smokes, presumably to show his sensitive side. Lundgren then smile/snarls his way through the rest of the movie, getting to the truth behind the killings quicker than the rest of the state police force. The truth is of course a riff on the old The Thing story - or more accurately the 1987 movie The Hidden - with an ancient demon replacing the alien.

So we have a demon who inhabits bodies, makes the hosts scream a lot, develop jet black eyes (when the FX team can remember to apply the CGI) and murder, murder, murder. At only an hour and a quarter Don't Kill It is terrific fun and although I've nothing to compare it with Dolph is clearly having a whale of a time - although I sense that, like William Shatner in the last pre-reboot Star Trek movies, his extended running days may be over. Exploitation regular Kristina Klebe, as his FBI partner in crime-solving Agent Evelyn Pierce, is clearly no stranger to the treadmill though, and makes up for Hans's fear of the fall by doing enough of her own stunts to help us forget when Mr L sits it out. Huge fun if dumb as a box of something very stupid indeed.

Don't Knock Twice (UK 2016: Dir Caradog James) For our second movie we're back in 1980s genre reboot territory again, although quite what persuaded Mr James to dust off the old Candyman template - demon summoned by knocking twice on the front door of a spooky house in defiance of local legend - I'm not sure; however, despite the technical skill with which he executes the movie, it wasn't a wise decision (see The Bye Bye Man review below to show you how the same theme can be better developed)..

Katee Sakhoff, no stranger to exploitation fare but still bringing more class to the table than the movie deserves, plays Jess, a sculptress with an addictive past who is keen to re-connect with her daughter Chloe (Lucy Boynton) from whom she has become estranged. Chloe has a dark past of her own, and there's oodles of back story which pours out of the script and dilutes from the reasonably interesting dysfunctional parent and child reunion through supernatural adversity theme, which has been used an awful lot recently (Under the Shadow, The Babadook etc).

This is a shame as there are some fine set pieces in Don't Knock Twice. The demon is brilliantly realised (having ancient origins via Baba Yaga woodcuts is a nice touch) and the whole look of the movie is decidedly sinister. But any tension generated by individual scenes is is lost in the sheer weight of exposition. Honestly, it's ok for some things to remain unresolved, particularly if your ending is less than tidy. Pity.

The Void (Canada 2016: Dir Jeremy Gillespie, Steven Kostanski) This film has been widely trumpeted as eschewing CGI in favour of good old latex effects and karo syrup. And while this is true, the fact that the FX have achieved advance notice top billing is something to do with there not being an awful lot else to congratulate the directors for apart from some rather icky modelling.

The Void has an interesting if hardly original setup: a group of hospital staff go about their business in a facility which is in the process of being closed down (giving the movie the atmosphere of some of John Carpenter's most claustrophobic work, like Assault on Precinct 13). Into their midst comes an agitated man and, later, two people who have been hunting him - it's not long before the dead don't stay dead and the basement's full of tentacles.

Sadly there are too many plot elements that don't really come together - like the white robed sentinels on hand throughout the movie, and the strange, mystic ending which comes in from absolutely nowhere - which reminded me of a whole load of other films, rather distracting me from the one I was watching. This film is, like it or not, all about the effects, but the creatures on display, impressive though they are, only served to evoke memories of Hellraiser, From Beyond, er The Beyond, and many others from the most recent golden age of the monster movie. Like some of The Void's predecessors from that time, the film kind of stops for the set pieces and then picks up again, rendering it an FX show reel with a (baffling) story attached. Ultimately it all runs out of steam, and while The Void aims high within its clearly minimal budget, it's just a bit too all over the place to satisfy.

The Shadow People (USA 2017: Dir Bryan T. James)  Holy moley, what do we have here? There's about twenty movies out there using the title The Shadow People, and this, folks...well this is one of them.

So we have a young couple, Andrew and Megan. He's a successful writer and she's an artist (not specified but definitely struggling) who are relocating out into the country. On the way there, driving at night in the pouring rain (actually pouring - a particularly useless bit of FX work) Alex swerves to avoid a figure in the road and their car spins off the highway. The couple are unharmed, and make their way on foot to their country retreat. Thereafter things start to get a bit strange - shadowy figures appear to Megan. Alex starts to bleed from the nose. What's going on? Actually it's pretty flipping obvious.

Apart from the shadowy wraiths who pop up from time to time, this is basically a two hander - which might in itself set off some alarm bells. The reality is that the two actors playing the couple - the impressively named Bug Hall and Kat Steffens - are no great shakes, and an hour and twenty minutes in their company is almost more than the human frame can stand. Add in some really inappropriate soundtrack music and the constant rain which does not let up for the whole film - again, a bit of a clue - and the result is really quite poor. The denouement - which of course my blog policy forbids me to share - is one of those that invites you to look back and re-appraise everything that's happened. Believe me, if you do watch The Shadow People, don't do this - it'll just make you more annoyed.

Asylum of Darkness (USA 2017: Dir Jay Woelfel)  Dwight Stroud is a patient at a psychiatric facility who's under constant assessment for his own particular psychosis. He wants to be well enough to leave hospital, but is clearly rather round the bend. Stroud does eventually manage to escape, trading identities with a writer called Artemis Finch via a car crash, with whom he also seems to swap personalities, even down to living in Finch's house and passing himself off as the real thing with Finch's wife (scream queen Tiffany Shepis), who can't believe the transformation from the real Finch, who was clearly a misanthropic sort.

But just as Stroud is settling down to enjoy his new life, figures from the past intrude to remind him of his new identity. Can Stroud find peace in his new body, or will he be forced to reconcile himself with his original form to rid himself of the demons that continue to haunt him?

The packaging of this film suggests, rather than the ruminative mind flip that Woelfel offers, a rather more straightforward spookfest. It would also seem (although I might be wrong) that the film is a repackaging of the director's earlier offering, 2012's Season of Darkness, which remained unreleased. Four years is a long time for a film to be languishing on the shelf...except in this case. It's a valiant attempt at something different, but its random editing, presumably intentional to serve the 'dissociative' nature of the movie. coupled with a somnambualatory performance by Nick Baldasare as our lunatic hero and a near two hour running length make this one a no no. Add in a deafening soundtrack cobbled together from what must be the director's top 10 classical pieces (you'll never want to hear Saint Saens again, believe me) and you have un grande dinde of a film on your hands. Different does not always mean good, unless it's good in its own right.

The Bye Bye Man (USA 2016: Dir Stacy Title) I'd heard discouraging things about this movie, based on its very restricted UK cinema release and its supposedly derivative Candyman style storyline. Also on a personal note director Title's first movie was 1995's The Last Supper, one of the very few films that have caused me to walk out of a cinema half way through the film. So things didn't augur well for this.

Which makes it rather refreshing that The Bye Bye Man has a lot going for it. Adapted from a supposedly true story of an urban legend (if that's not an oxymoron) 'The Bridge to Body Island', it's the story of three students, Elliot, Sasha and their best friend Colin, who rent an out of the way house in Wisconsin, only to find that it's been the site of multiple murders back in the late 1960s (disclosed in the movie's prologue). Uncovering the scratched words 'The Bye Bye Man' and a sheet of paper on which the phrase 'don't think it, don't say it' is endlessly scrawled, it isn't long before the three learn that to say the words 'The Bye Bye Man' summons a hooded creature - together with devilish hound - who wants nothing more than the soul and bodies of its victims. Through some assiduous research in the local record office the history of 'The Bye Bye Man' is revealed and the three students must find away to defeat the supernatural entity they have unwittingly summoned.

To be fair to the critics, there's seemingly little to differentiate The Bye Bye Man from the dozens of PG-13 horror lite films clogging up the world's movie streaming channels. But on closer inspection Title's movie does offer something rather more intense than the average. The flashbacks to 1969, so often a throwaway element of a movie like this, are well structured and intrinsic to the plot. This is also a lot nastier than many of its competitors - without giving the plot away, there is only one sure fire way to escape from the hooded terror, and it doesn't offer a happy ending. The central characters of the three students, while not necessarily fully fleshed out, are at least more interesting than the usual demon fodder, and the breakdown of their friendship over the course of the film offers a kind of offbeat boy-meets-girl, boy-loses-girl  setup. So yes, I'd cautiously recommend this, if approached with the right adjustment of expectations.