Sunday 10 September 2017

New Films Round Up #11 - Reviews of A Dark Song (Ireland/ Wales 2016), The Terror of Hallow's Eve (USA 2017), It Stains the Sands Red (USA 2016), The Evil Within (USA 2017), and Revelator (USA 2017)

A Dark Song (Ireland/Wales 2016: Dir Liam Gavin) Wow, what a fascinating, bold and arresting film this is. First time feature director Gavin's slow burn two hander has Sophia, a bereaved woman renting a large house in the remote countryside and engaging Joseph, an occultist, to undertake a ritual that will enable the woman to speak again with her dead little boy.

As many critics have commented, this is perhaps the first commercial film to treat the occult seriously - there's dark comedy in there, but it's character, not subject driven. And whereas previous movies of this type have rather abbreviated the spell making processes - Terence Fisher's The Devil Rides Out (1967) is a good example - Gavin's film stretches the time taken - but not the viewer's patience - for the summoning to almost Tarr-esque proportions.

But it's never boring, firstly because the detail shown is so fascinating (a lot of research has gone into this, but the learning is not conveyed in a showy way). Also, and perhaps more importantly, the performances of the two leads keep everything very grounded. Catherine Walker as Sophia is the epitome of hope against hope; her frustration as the spell casting process drags on for weeks, then months without any signs of a visitation is palpable, as is the audience's when it realises that she has not been truthful in her motivations - she is ultimately caught between doubt and acceptance, and the need to put all of her trust into the occultist Joseph, played by Steve Oram. As those who have seen Sightseers (2012) or Aaaaaaaah! (2015) will attest, Oram is one of the most interesting figures working in British cinema today, and his role as Joseph, truculent, knowledgeable, unscrupulous but also sincere, is a brilliant one, full of conviction and nuances.

When the visitation does come, it's bravely handled. Although not to show anything would surely shortchange the audience and not repay their patience thus far, the depiction of the angels and demons promised by Joseph throughout the ritual could have been less plausible without the intense and credible build up. I completely bought into the whole package of the film, from the brooding, still camerawork of Cathal Watters, picking up the passing of seasons outside the house almost as an afterthought, to Ray Harman's atonal soundtrack. A very good film indeed.

The Terror of Hallow's Eve (USA 2017: Dir Todd Tucker) It's 1981 - Timothy is a shy retiring lad, obsessed with monster movies, an excellent creature artist who lives with his mother following his parents’ break up. Timothy is going through a difficult adolescence, not helped by being the object of bullying by the town’s local tearaways, led by thuggish Brian, and having a crush on Brian’s girlfriend April. After a particularly vicious beating up, Tim discovers ‘The Book of Halloween’ in the attic of his house. Reading aloud from it, he wishes his bullies to be scared to death. And then the fun begins, as his desire is realised, courtesy of a weird creature called The Trickster whom he has inadvertently summoned.

Although the Halloween holiday feel is a little lacking in a film set between 30th and 31st October, as if to make up for it the spirit of John Carpenter is all over this movie (the director’s trademark font for the titles, the use of Haddonfield as a place name for the local asylum, even the use of one of Carpenter’s ‘Lost Themes’ on the soundtrack). But Todd Tucker’s second feature (supposedly ‘based on true events’) plays more like an extended version of a fantasy-themed episode from the old ‘Tales from the Darkside’ series. As you might expect from someone with Tucker’s extensive special effects CV The Terror of Hallow’s Eve is relentlessly inventive even when it stops making any sense; The Trickster is a particularly vivid creation, a kind of Gollum character crossed with The Crypt Keeper (excellently played by Guillermo del Toro’s go to creature actor Doug Jones), and the rest of the pleasantly non-CGI and rather colourful effects are also well rendered, if not actually scary. 

Where the film lets itself down is the end coda, an unnecessary bit of exposition which only seems to have been included to set the scene for a sequel (and while I’m not generally a fan of this sort of thing, I would like to see The Trickster in action again). Caleb Thomas’s performance as Tim (“Don’t call me Timmy!”) is also a little ragged round the edges – I wasn’t sure if he was supposed to be shy or mildly autistic. But for the most part The Terror of Hallow’s Eve is an old school wild ride, a beer and popcorn Friday nighter, no more, no less.

It Stains the Sands Red (USA 2016: Dir Colin Minihan) I loved this funny and rather touching take on the zombie movie, its intimate examination of human and inhuman very much a product of these post The Walking Dead times.

Molly (brilliantly and sympathetically played by Brittany Allen) is the blowsy girlfriend of wannabe gangsta Nick; they are driving away from zombie infested Las Vegas, aiming to reach a remote airfield where they can hook up with their friends and get away from the mayhem. When their car gets stuck in the sand, an approaching zombie - who Molly later nicknames 'Smalls' (short for 'small dick') munches on Nick, and Molly is forced to escape on foot into the heart of the Nevada desert, with 'Smalls' following.

At this point you either expect Molly to cop it in a lead-character-gets-it-in-the-first-half-hour-didn't-see-that-coming moment, or for the drama to open out with more zombies, more action, more warfare. Neither of these things happen. Instead there is a developing relationship (of sorts) between Molly and the slowly pursuing 'Smalls' which acts as a narrative pivot to understand Molly's character and back story. Loaded with gentle comedy, It Stains the Sands Red becomes a bizarre story of friendship which has its roots in odd couple buddy movies, but it's the transformation of Molly from tough cookie to fully rounded and responsible human that is this movie's big selling point. The Nevada desert, luminously photographed by Clayton Moore, looks both stunning and relentlessly bleak, and is an appropriate backdrop to the developing story of woman and zombie. Great fun, with a truly uplifting final reel, I heartily recommend this.

The Evil Within (USA 2017: Dir Andrew Getty) Even without the tragic story of the death of director Getty this would have been a remarkable film. Opinions vary on how long the thing took to make - 15 years is the most favoured guess - and The Evil Within, which started life as The Storyteller, was finished posthumously by editor Michael Lucceri.

The other most noteworthy things about the film are the central performance from Frederick Koehler as Dennis, a disabled boy who is plagued by troubling dreams (although because of the length of time to film it, Koehler ranges from teenager to man from scene to scene) and the dreams themselves, featuring some of the most nightmarish images seen by this reviewer in some years.

Dennis lives with his brother John (Sean Patrick Flanery), whose girlfriend Lydia (Dina Myer) wants John to hospitalise Dennis so they can have their own life together. For some inexplicable reason John buys Dennis a hideous antique mirror. Dennis is freaked out by this as he has already seen the mirror in a dream. The mirror contains a demon, who sometimes materialises in the familiar shape of Michael Berryman and sometimes as Dennis himself. Evil Dennis taunts good Dennis that the only way for the boy to become well is to kill things. Cats, random people, then those closest to him.

Despite Getty's singular vision - the film was actually finished in 2008 but the director spent the next seven years obsessively re-editing the thing until his untimely death in 2015 at the age of 47 - this is an incredibly uneven and rather depressing movie, which probably says more about the director's state of mind than offering up a bona fide horror film. It has moments of genius - the scene in the singing restaurant will not leave my mind for some reason, and some of the camerawork as it travelks through the mirror is breathtaking. But it's a hard watch simply because of its disjointedness. Getty seems to forget character motivations, so his cast constantly act in odd ways, and its difficult to get a handle on quite what's going on. Although it should be remembered that the guy wasn't a director, just a man with a film in him and a shedload of money to spend on it (Andrew was a member of the Getty oil dynasty). Bizarre and seriously flawed then, but absolutely worth watching.  

Revelator (USA 2017: Dir J. Van Auken) Ever since Haley Joel Osment whispered “I see dead people!” to a distinctly less than corporeal Bruce Willis in 1999’s The Sixth Sense, there’s been a thin but steady stream of films dealing with visions of the dead in a relatively prosaic manner; recent examples include Adrien Brody in Backtrack and Nicolas Cage in Pay the Ghost (2015) and 2016’s We Go On. To this list can now be added the debut feature written and directed by J. Van Auken, Revelator. John Dunning is a rather mercenary but genuine psychic who has made his living cosying up to wealthy benefactors, and taking his share of their estates in return for helping them to renew their acquaintance with departed loved ones. He’s also popping prescription pills at an alarming rate, in part to deal with the relentless tide of spirit forms in front of his eyes, but also to stave off the memory of his wife, who died in a boating accident.

His latest bequest is from a woman who left Dunning an entire island in her will. Her family are less than pleased because the land mass’s natural resources produce a healthy profit, but John is determined to take what’s his, feeling that the island will be a great place for him to live in solitude untroubled by his ghostly visions, and be closer to his departed partner with whom, for all his skills, he’s unable to contact. Into this rather tangled web walks listicle journalist Valerie, keen to pick up on his story and re-insert herself back into proper journalism via a juicy exposé of John’s talents. Valerie and John team up in a rather awkward symbiotic partnership to investigate the death of another member of the family, who has died under mysterious circumstances. And then things get really complicated.

Van Auken’s film is almost Chandler-esque in its narrative twists and turns. Nobody is who they’re supposed to be, and the longer the movie plays out, the less the supernatural elements are of importance. The film is shot in such washed out pastel colours that the sight of a bright amber plastic pill bottle comes as something of a shock, and the whole thing has a tired, scruffy, aimless feel to it which perfectly matches Dunning’s persona.

Although there are some dark comedic moments in Revelator, kiss goodbye to any thoughts of lightheartedness – this is sombre stuff. There’s also no chance of Valerie and John becoming an item – he’s too much of a mess and there are hints that she plays for the other team anyway. Ultimately the story becomes too convoluted to involve, bogged down by a funereal pace (pun intended) and a rather one – note set of performances. It’s a film I’d probably have to watch a second time to really understand (again like Chandler’s stories) but it’s not appealing enough to make that happen anytime soon. A shame, as it’s beautifully shot (Van Auken’s cinematography training clearly helpful here) but someone should have paid more attention to the sound design, which is uneven, with a soundtrack that wants to be moody but is mainly dirge-like.

The Reviews of The Terror of Hallow's Eve and Revelator were originally published on 

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