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.

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