Monday 16 July 2018

Supermarket Sweep #1 - Reviews of Circus Kane (USA 2017), Angel of Death (Canada 2017), Mother's Doll (USA 2016), Ghoul (USA 2017), Nightlight (USA 2017) and Terrifier (USA 2017)

Since Poundland stopped stocking pile 'em high sell 'em cheap horror movies, I've been forced to dig a bit deeper and extend my search to bring you a whole load of reviews of new (ish) movies. So it's to the supermarkets I've turned my attentions, for this hopefully regular round up of bargain basement fright flicks. Now as I'm not sponsored by any of the major grocery chains I can't advertise from where I derived my haul - but one of them sounds like Wazzda and the other Disdainsburys. So, if youre out shopping for groceries and get tempted by the mid priced DVDs on the superstore racks, well better read this item first. Onwards!

Circus Kane (USA 2017: Dir Christopher Ray). Promising start. Not a very old movie dusted off and clumsily retitled (there will be many of them I predict) but a genuine film from the correct year and sporting its original release title. The end credits give away that the director is actually Christopher Douglas Olen Ray. Yep he's the 40 year old son of our pal Fred Olen Ray. Argh!

And while he hasn't yet matched his dad's prodigious output as director, he ain't doing bad - this is his thirteenth feature. And it's a whole lot more watchable than some of Olen Ray pere's efforts, that's for sure.

A diverse group of horror media people accept a challenge to spend 24 hours in a rambling house previously occupied by the late arch clown, Balthazar Kane. In true House on Haunted Hill style they're offered $250,000 each if they make it through the night. Needless to write that most of them don't. The house is rigged with enough tricks and trap door stuff to keep the rag tag media team busy (think The Crystal Maze via the Saw franchise) and there are three demonic clowns hanging about to cut the group down to size just in case the booby trapped rooms don't get them. Behind all this action is the soon to be resurrected figure of Kane himself, although he has a little assistance in one of the dafter last reel reveals I've recently witnessed.

As much as he's emulating dad, who is thanked at the end of the movie, Ray is clearly also in debt to the films of Rob Zombie - cast of odd characters, random cultural references etc - but this is cheaply done stuff, and it's difficult to perceive much threat in a house that seems held together predominantly with plywood. Various teens get offed in nasty ways but it's all pretty dreary. Outstanding role goes to Ted Monte as video store owning Big Ed, who manages to talk almost entirely in movie quotes while looking like a low rent Robert Downey Jr. There's a clown movie in this article which is pretty good. But it's not this one.

Angel of Death aka Evangeline (Canada 2017: Dir Karen Lam) Ah, that's more like it. This 2013 independent movie has been dressed up and retitled Angel of Death, but it doesn't make it any less silly or pretentious. Coming across like a more gothy I Spit on Your Grave with a side order of The Crow, the flick features not one but two killers and is a rather poor advertisement both for the Great White North or indeed men in general.

Evangeline is a lonely student, relocated to a new school after a family bereavement. She comes out of her shell for a frat party, but falls under the attention of a rich boy and overall nasty bit of work who, with his mates, assaults and leaves her for dead in the woods. Meanwhile one of the school faculty, who has a sideline in murdering young women and working out in the nude, does his thing for no particular reason. Eva is discovered near death by a group of generally benevolent homeless guys, but is possessed by an evil spirit within the woods, who empowers her to seek revenge on, well men generally it seems.

I've actually seen this movie twice and it was no better the second time. Plot lines that go nowhere, a serial killer with no narrative tie in, some truly shonky acting and a handful of scary pop promo possession scenes. The Canadian countryside sure looks pretty, but revenge fuelled kohl eyed Evangeline (Katerina Katelieva) is as menacing as a sock puppet, and the whole thing is so obvious and literal - not to mention at times baffling - that by the time the Evanescence style end theme rose up over the credits I was pretty convinced that Ms Lam should not be allowed near a camera again. Sadly she has just wrapped another supernatural movie called The Curse of Willow Song. I can wait.

Mother's Doll aka The Melancholy Fantastic (USA 2016: Dir Alejandro Daniel) More retitling alert. The distribution company have seen fit to replace the rather brilliant original title of this movie with Mother's Doll for obvious cash in purposes, and then compound the crime by placing the DVD cover art and title over the movie's opening credits. Pretty shameful stuff, particularly as this is a nice little independent film which started off life in 2009 picking up quite a few plaudits on the Festival circuit, before being re-released (and re-edited) in 2016 as Doll in the Dark, a longer cut than this version.

The title Melancholy Fantastic is a quote from Kierkegaard, and a lot of literary references surround this film, not least Albert Camus' 'The Stranger,' which has echoes in the movie's plot.

Melanie is a young girl grieving the death of her father in a car crash and her mother's subsequent suicide. Things are clearly not right in her world - she carries round a full size home made doll who she dresses up, and as it's Christmas she decorates her tree - but with garlands of razor blades. Melanie's state of mind also sees her happily making sandwiches with mouldy bread and drinking glasses of way past its sell by date milk (a nice bit of mental health shorthand memorably deployed at the end of Buddy Giovinazzo's 1984 movie Combat Shock). Into her life comes gothy Dukken (his name is Danish for 'doll') who forms a sort of relationship with the clearly damaged Melanie. He is tolerant of her odd behaviour and attachment to her creepy inanimate friend. But Melanie's grief is an out of control thing, and when she hears the voice of her mother coming from the doll, things begin to get dangerous.

Mother's Doll (ugh!) is basically a two hander with excellent performances from Amy Crowdis as Melanie and Robin Lord Taylor (who would later turn up in the TV show Gotham) as Dukken (it's a shame that Crowdis hasn't done more in front of the camera since - she seems to have developed a role behind the scenes in recent years - as she carries the movie). It's slow paced for sure, although still very watchable (aided by the beautiful backdrop of wintry Connecticut), but if anyone buys it hoping for Annabelle style thrills, they're in for a massive disappointment.

Ghoul (USA 2017: Dir Gregory Wilson) Well no, actually this is a 2011 TV movie re-released, one assumes, to cash in on the recent rash of movies using the same title, which proudly calls itself Brian Keene's Ghoul in that it's based on the guy's 2007 novel. Keene's critics, and indeed the author himself, have acknowledged a debt to Stephen King in his writings, and Ghoul is a kind of 'It' lite, a rite of passage story wherein three outsider boys take on an ancient menace, complete with various angsty subplots including adult unemployment, alcoholism and, in perhaps the most distasteful story thread, incest. The problem is that Wilson's movie barely scrapes the 1 hour 15 minute mark and so the whole thing becomes a rather confusing mess of half unravelled storylines. There's even a Scooby Doo ending revealing the truth behind the ghoul which makes not one iota of sense in terms of what we've previously seen.

The young cast are reasonably competent in their roles, standout being Nolan (Modern Family) Gould as Timothy, the only child of the three friends without a troubled upbringing, and 80s regular Catherine Mary Stewart also turns up, casting possibly inspired by the movie being set in the same decade (way before the whole 80s kids shtick of Stranger Things materialised). Sean Spillane's soundtrack of FM rock adds to the period authenticity, but this is pretty uninvolving stuff and the TV movie sheen of the production removes any vestige of threat or terror.

Nightlight (USA 2017: Dir Scott Beck, Ryan Woods) Ok so let's get the really silly thing out of the way first; this 2013 movie - released in 2015 and now re-packaged - is shot POV style through a flashlight. Yes that's right, through a flashlight. Not a flashlight attached to a camera, but a common or garden switch on/switch off flashlight. Quite why the directors decided on this particular take on the 'found footage' genre instead of just shooting a movie about kids messing about in the woods is beyond me. Of course said kids would need flashlights if they were messing about in the woods at night, and watching a film about kids trying to scare themselves silly in the woods at night would be pretty tiresome if there was no gimmick to make you think you're watching something cleverer than it actually is.

For we're in the Covington Woods, an area of the US countryside favoured by young people wishing to take their own lives. It's a location steeped in folklore, complete with an abandoned church that people are warned against entering, where the spirits of the newly departed are reborn into the trees and rocks of the wooded realm. So this is the obvious place for a group of kids - and their flashlights don't forget - to fool about in the dark. Yeah, they go in the church too. Twits. 

And so clearly I was not predisposed to like Nightlight. But it does have a number of things going for it once the cliche of the setup and the daftness of the whole nature of filming is overcome. As an entirely shot on location movie the directors make very good use of the dense woods. It also manages one or two nifty scares, making good use of an obviously slender budget. Unfortunately Nightlight delivers all of its goods far too quickly, as if Beck and Woods feared audience ennui and were so focused on hooking us in that they forgot to pace themselves, so it kind of runs out of steam at the hour mark - bit of a problem when you have another twenty minutes of wood romping and screaming at nothing in particular to go.

Terrifier (USA 2017: Dir Damien Leone) Good lord, what an extraordinarily violent film! A friend had tipped me off that this was a kind of return to the golden days of gore movies, and how right they were.

Plot wise, it's a little thin: Art the clown (a character who featured in director Leone's previous movie, 2013's multi story All Hallows Eve, and was the basis for a 2011 short of the same name) is back on Halloween night. A worse for wear woman witnesses her friend - another woman -  being despatched by Art after said friend is let into a house so she can use the bathroom, and runs for her life.

That's it. It's simple, brutal and David Howard Thornton (taking over from Mike Gianelli, who played Art in both All Hallows Eve and the short) is quite brilliant, highly dangerous but also very darkly funny as the killer clown. How this is so watchable with its paper thin premise and lack of plot progression is entirely down to a combination of Thornton's performance, breakneck speed of pace and an economical hour and a quarter running time. The effects are pretty much of the latex and fake blood kind, and there's a lot of them; heads squished, shots at close range, and, in possibly the most toe curling scene, a woman strung up and chainsawed in half. It's very Rob Zombie of course, and instantly forgettable, but while it's on it does its job very effectively. Not for everyone, mind.

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