Wednesday 16 January 2019

Supermarket Sweep #6 - Reviews of Redwood (UK 2017), The Toybox (USA 2018), Down a Dark Hall (Spain/USA 2018), Stephanie (USA 2018), Nocturne (USA 2016) and The Terrible Two (USA 2018)

Time for more scouring of supermarket shelves, digging deep and paying cheap for movies to make you weep. For various reasons, probably.

Redwood (UK 2017: Dir Tom Paton) Another movie, another Nietzsche quote; "When you gaze long into the abyss, the abyss gazes long into you." No me neither.

Flaky musician Josh and girlfriend Beth are a young couple - what else? -  taking a hike in the US's Redwood National Forest (although actually filmed in Poland). The pair need some alone time - Josh has just found out that he has leukaemia and is about to start chemotherapy - and hopes that the trip will bring them closer together. Bumping into Steve the Ranger (a bizarre turn from Burnley born comedian Muzz Khan, whose American accent is frankly awful) he advises the campers to keep away from the grey zone. A warning which is echoed by another ranger, Vincent (a quick day's work for Nicholas Brendon), who they also encounter on their travels and who is doing a spot of 'animal control.' He also advises against visiting the mausoleum in the forest and he's right, because we've already seen bad stuff happening there. There's no miracle cure, he warns, sensing Josh's sickness. What can he mean?

Genre requirements dictate that a) Josh and Beth get lost, b) become increasingly irritated by each other and c) wander into the grey zone as a quicker route to where they want to go. Cue more bad stuff, with their tent getting attacked by humanoid things, forcing them deeper into the inhospitable woods, and inevitably the mausoleum.

Redwood's rather banal storytelling is thankfully leavened by some lush photography of Poland's Snieska State forest and some night shooting that is moody rather than murky. But sadly that's about it. Leads Josh (Mike Beckingham) and Beth (Tatjana Nardone, who at least has a vaguely passable US accent) are only convincing when in full bicker mode - they don't have much chemistry as a couple in crisis. The two strands of the story only really connect at the end, and frankly it isn't worth the wait. Neitzsche also famously wrote "what does not kill him makes him stronger" which seems curiously appropriate on viewing this.

The Toybox (USA 2018: Dir Tom Nagel) Films about haunted vehicles have been absent from our screens for a while now. Most famously John Carpenter adapted Stephen King's novel about a possessed Plymouth Fury in Christine (1983) but along the way we've also had a murderous truck in Duel (1971), a killer car in The Car (1977) and a phantom hearse in, well The Hearse (1980).

Tom Nagel feels we're not finished with this sub genre yet, offering us the splendid and rather bonkers The Toybox. A dysfunctional family (what other type is there?) decide to take a rather run down RV, recently purchased by the newly bereaved dad of the unit, on a bonding trip into the desert. Along for the ride are Charles's sons Jay and Steve, plus Steve's wife Jennifer and their daughter Olivia. En route the family also pick up stranded travellers Samantha and Mark, and then the fun starts.

For the RV is haunted by the spirit of serial killer Rob Gunthry, who used the vehicle as a mobile butcher's shop - the 'toybox' of the title - and despite the police cleaning the vehicle out in their forensic enquiries (but clearly not doing a very good job), there are enough bits of evidence in various cupboards on board to convince our intrepid caravanners that Gunthry is up to his old tricks from beyond the grave.

The Toybox earns its horrific spurs for two reasons: firstly it's proper nasty. There's a Texas Chainsaw Massacre feel to the whole thing, and the RV, which starts off life rather cruddy, gets more and more disgusting as the spirit of the killer takes hold - the murders are pretty grim too, including a child death which is a bit of a rarity in this type of movie. Secondly the cast. Mischa Barton's in it (as Samantha) which is a sure fire exploitation guarantee these days. Also Denise Richards, looking a little older but still game for a pout, is Jennifer, a woman who ends up the victim of a jump rope - you'll just have to watch. And, as a bonus, go to horror movie bit player, the ever dependable Matt Mercer, also crops up, although he's despatched criminally early. A first rate rubbish movie, where you'll believe that someone can die in a camper van, in the heat, and be kept there for days without anyone mentioning the corpse.

Down a Dark Hall (Spain/USA 2018: Dir Rodrigo Cortes) Quite why Lionsgate sought to get an 18 certificate slapped on this well made, reasonably big budget but ultimately rather inconsequential 2016 filmed teen supernatural horror is anyone's business.

Kit (played by AnnaSophia Robb, who I last saw in Trudie Styler's fairly poor Freak Show) is a troubled teen forced into a strict school, Blackwood, by her parents, as an alternative to an almost certain prison sentence. She's joined by a number of clearly bright but equally wayward girls, who are brought under the tutelage of the strict Madame Duret (Uma Thurman, looking somewhat embarassed) and her sidekick Mrs Olonsky (Rebecca Front, clearly having a better time than Uma). The school seems to bring out the natural giftedness of the girls: Izzy (played by Isabelle Orphan, The Hunger Games Fuhrman) becomes good at equations; Kit comes on leaps and bounds on the old 'joanna'; and Ashley (Taylor Russell) gets to be a dab hand at poetry, even if her verse reminds her tutor of progressive 19th century poet Elizabeth Webb.

For something is going on at Blackwood. Madame Duret is not what she seems, and the girls were brought to the school on purpose to act as conduits for a darker purpose. Kit must work out what's going on before Duret's plan is fully hatched, and protect both herself and her classmates.

This is largely teen horror by numbers stuff, although despite the almost constant gloom - the school has an on/off (pun intended) relationship with the electric lightbulb - director Cortes, who made the rather claustrophobically good movie Buried back in 2010, mounts a fairly lavish production. The gothic touches threaten to overwhelm as the movie progresses - all candles and dramatic piano flourishes - and the denouement recalls a more threatening Poltergeist (1982). But this is a movie that knows what it's doing and its target market (despite the aforementioned 18 cert) - I couldn't help laughing at the obligatory 'research' scene, where Kit explores a number of old tomes to find out the history of the school, filmed in a succession of quick cuts as if worried that the young audience might find the idea of books a little tedious.

Stephanie (USA 2018: Dir Akiva Goldsman) What's all this? Quality movies clogging up the snarkfest that is 'Supermarket Sweep'? These days the appearance of the Blumhouse ident at the start of a film triggers a fairly standard response in me. It's going to be well made, teen focused, and resolutely unoriginal. This one bucks the trend somewhat. While Stephanie nods both to A Quiet Place and the movies of M. Night Shyamalan, it also has enough original ideas to make it rather a refreshing and an occasionally very bleak watch.

The opening scene gives a good example of what's in store. Little Stephanie (an extraordinary performance from Shree Crooks, who was also very good in the hugely underrated 2016 movie Captain Fantastic), alone in the family house, attempts to make a smoothie in a blender; fumbling for a jar of fruit she drops it, but, heedless of the shards of glass lying around the kitchen, scrapes some off a jagged piece of the jar into the mixer, licks the broken shard and carries on. Knowing what we know later this isn't such a surprising act, but the scene sets the nerves jangling.

After around half an hour of watching Stephanie clearly being 'home alone' the film has a pronounced sense of unease, not helped by visitations of an unknown growling beast which sends the little girl hiding under the bed, and the presence of her dead brother in an upstairs room. It's only when Stephanie's parents come back home (after a prolonged absence) that anything like reality is restored. But this sets up lots of other questions: why did they leave her? What happened to her brother? Hints are given on the TV news (which Stephanie ignores in her search to find cartoons) about some epidemic, but the truth is much stranger. It's also only briefly explained (suffice to say that there's some Night of the Living Dead stuff going on).

I'm not going to explain any more of the plot. You'll just have to see it yourself and I recommend that you do. It's a slow paced mood piece, which like that other 'quiet' movie of last year lets the characterisation guide the action for the most part. Yes there'a pyrotechnic climax but it's well timed and effectively done. Incidentally the 2018 year of production was initially a bit confusing because the movie was actually released in 2017, but it seems that the producers subjected the original version to a significant overhaul, which worked well in its favour.

Nocturne (USA 2016: Dir Stephen Shimek) On a budget roughly equivalent to the costs of Stephanie's catering van, Stephen Shimek's second adult horror feature (he's more known for family friendly fantasy stuff) is, and I haven't used this term for a while, a real melon twister.

A group of friends meet up for graduation drinks prior to them going their separate ways. They're a tight knit bunch with all the usual rivalries and relationship issues that come with close friendships - a change from the rather loose characterisation that dogs a lot of genre films. Among their number is Jo, who's far less a party animal than the rest, and Maren, who also seems a little detached and watchful.

When a random conversation about religion and the supernatural leads to an impromptu seance, the group get more embarrassed than spooked (especially when questions to the spirit world are based around how many times people have had sex) and shrug off the experience.

But the aftermath is not so great, particularly when one of them confesses that he's dropped acid and may have spiked other drinks too. Things begin to get really weird, with Maren acting strangely and beginning to quote bits of the bible. Yep, it looks like the ouija board has opened a gate, and the devil's come a calling.

Around two thirds of Nocturne is fairly straightforward youths-letting-their-hair-down action. Drinking, strip poker, tears, sulks, more drinking etc. Where the film succeeds is that the last third begins, to quote someone else, 'to fuck with the fabric of time.' It's not the first time that micro budget movies have used timeshift sequences to create interest in lieu of budget, but the capable cast are believable in their confusion, and some scenes are genuinely unsettling. I can forgive the rather hokey Dead of Night ending, for this is worth a watch. It's a lot more intelligent than the setup suggests.

The Terrible Two (USA 2018: Dir Billy Lewis) Ah a return to the more usual fare offered up in 'Supermarket Sweep' with this unintentionally funny quasi religious story of demons in the southern states of America.

Rose and Albert Poe are a young couple looking for a home in which to start a family. Rose is already pregnant and they have plans for two kids. They're shown a house by a smarmy estate agent that looks perfect. Sadly seven years later both children, sisters Addie and Jade, have died in an accident on their birthdays, and Rose and Albert, inconsolable in grief, must find a way to go on, the two of them now rattling around in an otherwise empty house. But Rose starts to hear the dead children's voices, and when she finds a manuscript in the loft called 'Chasing Legion,' detailing a history of evil entities that live in the house, she and Albert start to fear for their lives.

At one hour and twenty minutes, this film never seems to end. While the daylight setting of a newly built house may have thrown up a few incongruous scares in the Paranormal Activity movies, here the setting just gets you questioning the interior design taste of the average American - it may be a matter of personal choice, but it really is an ugly house, and we spend the entire movie in its confines.

We also spend the whole film with Rose and Albert, in the shape of actors Cari Moscow and Reid Doyle, whose received direction seemed to have been 'act catatonic.' Grief is a really difficult emotion to act, but these two are way off the mark. And as if that isn't bad enough, in the final scenes they're called upon to show 'terror' and 'panic,' wherein Mr Doyle seems to stand around looking like he needs the bathroom in a hurry.

There's an awful lot of religious stuff going on in the movie, and sure enough, director Billy Lewis's Twitter handle sees him passionate about 'God, family and film.' Which probably explains the quotes from the bible that litter the movie, and Rose's insistence on the power of prayer ("It's as if I've lost my relationship with God," she says at one point). As with a lot of 'religious' based horror movies, the actual threat doesn't seem to be thought through - it's enough that there's evil in the world.

But if you want to see a movie located in a soulless suburban home, where grown adults are reduced to gibbering wrecks by the sight of two little girls wearing fright masks, and where the script has people running around spouting lines like "I just found a death note in the sock drawer," well then step this way. And out of interest, what's with the title? Just awful.

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