Monday 17 June 2019

Supermarket Sweep #8: Reviews of Ravenswood Asylum (Australia 2017), Heretiks (UK 2018), The Sanctuary (Germany 2018), Curse of the Scarecrow (UK 2018), Demon (USA 2017) and The Siren (USA 2019)

Ravenswood Asylum aka Ravenswood (Australia 2017: Dir Jon Cohen) We start the latest 'Supermarket Sweep' in fine style, with a hideous load of old toss from Down Under (don't worry, we finish on a much stronger note).

Four Americans, newly arrived in Sydney, are persuaded to join a ghost hunt around an old abandoned medical facility that was infamous for conducting electro shock therapy experiments back in the 1950s ("the history here is amazing - it goes back 130 years," says one character). But the spirits of the crazy doctor responsible for the tests, and his last patient/victim still haunt the building, waiting for new young hosts so they can occupy their bodies and, well, continue having arguments. And you can tell that our youthful charges are being possessed because a blue tint appears over their eyes, a bit like when an engaged toilet goes from green to red. And on the subject of toilets, check out the Aussie actors doing American accents, y'know, so that the five or so production companies responsible for this can get some of their money back flogging the movie to a Stateside audience.

The 'kids' featuring in the flick look way out of their depth, and also in terms of characterisation like they've been handed the script to learn page by page. There is of course a lot of walking round the asylum corridors (or rather I think single corridor re-dressed for different shots); some half-assed gore is thrown in towards the end but it's too little, too late.

Now I would never stoop to offer a comment like 'that's an hour and a half of my life I'll never get back.' Not only is that mean, but I know what I'm getting into when I write these articles. Hell this is the eighth 'Supermarket Sweep,' so that makes this the 43rd film I've sat through under the SS umbrella. But it might also be the worst; a relative term I know (look out - there's actually worse to come). It's clearly aimed at a teen audience, what with the lack of f-bombs, nudity, content, coherence etc etc. Teens should all be royally insulted. Atrocious.

Heretiks (UK 2018: Dir Paul Hyett)* Well what’s going on here then? I confess I was a bit wary about returning to make up artist turned director Paul Hyett’s work after the powerful but extremely distressing The Seasoning House back in 2012, a movie that delivered the final nail in the coffin for this reviewer in terms of enduring ‘torture porn’ flicks. Happily Hyett redeemed himself with the impressive and distinctly less bleak Howl in 2015. And, a few scenes of gore aside, Heretiks is rather a different animal again, part of a re-emerging trend I didn’t think we’d witness in the 21st century – nunsploitation!

Essentially a group of actors playing dress up in wimples, Heretiks, set in the 17th century, is a tale of witchcraft. It’s also a kind of a love letter to certain ‘draughty castle’ British horror films of the 1960s and 1970s. The story? Persephone (Hannah Arterton, Gemma’s younger sister) is tried for being a witch, but spared her fate by being swept up by the Reverend Mother (Clare Higgins, relishing her role and surely a Sheila Keith for our times?) into a nunnery complete with other similarly charged women, and with such a rigid and borderline sadistic regime that it may have been preferable for our (demonstrably psychic) heroine to have chosen the other route.

Predictably the Reverend Mother is hiding a big secret, but there’s a lot of fairly inconsequential stuff before we get to the last reel pyrotechnics, although they’re pretty impressive on a small budget. The cast look genuinely uncomfortable (scratchy hired costumes and filming in December were probably jointly to blame) but they don’t really get much to do. Michael Ironside turns up for an afternoon’s work (and probably some Christmas shopping) as the sentencing judge, but without a ripe script and the presence of Ms Higgins (and to some extent the resourceful character of Persephone) this would have been a duller, if elegantly staged film.

*A version of this review was first published on

The Sanctuary aka Heilstätten: Haunted Hospital (Germany 2018: Dir Michael David Pate) Director Pate uses the rise of social media and YouTube stars as an excuse to return to the found footage movie, a sub genre most of us hoped had run its course.

Two annoying youths, who run a prank website, challenge fellow YouTuber Betty to spend a night at Heilstättenan abandoned and supposedly haunted hospital on the outskirts of Berlin. Also along for the ride are serious Theo, constantly sounding a note of caution (but does he protest too much?) and Theo's ex, Marnie, another social media queen.

The setup is much as you'd expect, with all the standard abandoned hospital cliches present and correct: barbaric surgical equipment; overturned wheelchairs; cine projectors that work themselves; and discarded partly burnt toys (the hospital achieved its notoriety by carrying out Nazi experiments back in the day, and one particular patient, driven to take her own life, supposedly haunts the corridors).

True there's nothing particularly different on display here than any number of similar 'kids-wandering-around-a-spooky-building' films. However, there's less aimless rambling and more inventive use of the hospital's rooms and accoutrements than I was expecting. The cast are annoying (which is intentional, hence the line "because of guys like you, and that stuff you do all day, our youth is going stupid") but they're also competent: there's some well delivered gore moments and a last reel twist that, while not unexpected, is less eye rolling than it might have been. More interesting is that, as a German film, it's not afraid to use the legacy of Nazi horrors as its narrative base (the director being born in 1980 might have something to do with it). Don't expect greatness, but The Sanctuary is far from awful.

Curse of the Scarecrow (UK 2018: Dir Louisa Warren) In 'Supermarket Sweep' #4, I reviewed Warren's pitiful Scarecrow Rising aka Bride of Scarecrow. I wasn't kind, and I didn't think I'd be going back for more pedestrian Scarecrow action from this director. I was clearly wrong.

June (Kate Lister, an Australian actress whose accent is rather out of place in a film about a UK family) together with her brother Carl, witnessed the death of her parents twenty years previously, and is summoned back to the homestead by Carl's death, seemingly by his own hand. June is accompanied by her therapist Karen (Cassandra French), as you do, and friend Nancy (Warren). The trio very slowly learn from the locals about the curse of the scarecrow, who returns every twenty years to wreak mayhem. Perhaps it's the same scarecrow sitting lifeless in the field with the sack on its head, or the one in the barn (you'd think that once the curse was known you'd eliminate all potential threats, wouldn't you?). The rest is a hideously slow build to the inevitable scarecrow menacing climax, a welter of straw and pathetic attempts to escape.

Heavily borrowing from the Jeepers Creepers films, apart from Lister, who provides the movie's only non scenery chewing performance, this is as leaden as her previous offering, with characters uttering awful lines like "It's a house in the middle of nowhere. Of course there are going to be unexplained murders," and oodles of banal psychotherapy banter. Warren has no less than four films in post production with titles like Scarecrow Vs. VikingsVikings Vs Krampus and Cyborg Wives. But this will be my last dalliance with her cinematic career. I promise. No, really this time.

Demon (USA 2017: Dir Dallas King) Boasting rear cover art that to quote fellow lover of trash Gavin Whittaker "looks like someone took a photo of their mate waking up from a bender and photoshopped wings on his head," hopes were not high for this 67 minute (well 60 plus credits) US independent effort.

But Demon, with its tag line "When evil rises to destroy the earth," is not what it's advertised as (and you'll get no clues from the IMDB entry): in fact it's a collection of six short films which, much like any viewing of a shorts collection, is a mix of highs and lows.

The vaguely witty Demon's Dilemma (2012) features a demon on earth who mistakenly does a good deed and is turned into an angel (complete with halo) as a result; Devil Town (2016) has an obnoxious London estate agent (is there any other kind?) shown the existence of undercover demons all around him, They Live style, by a strange tramp he meets in a cafe, and includes a great twist; Little Soldier (2010) shamelessly rips off 1998's Small Soldiers (with about one hundredth of the budget) in a story about a small child whose constant bed-wetting infuriates his military father, but is helped to a dryer state by the animation of his collection of toy soldiers, who band together to successfully defeat a troll in the boy's closet; Incubus (2016) is a very short movie about a guy who is visited at night by a strange woman (so shouldn't that be 'succubus'?) - this is the film from which one of the stills on the back cover of the DVD is taken, except that the photo has indeed been photoshopped to make it more exciting; Van (2018) is one of the best of the lot; a short which uses Unfriended style split screen stylings, about two girlfriends who become separated after a party, one of whom finds out what really happened when she fell asleep at the wheel - clever end credits too; and finally we have Most Wanted (2011) a sci fi short rather out of place in the rest of the collection, about two teleporting cops trying to track down the villainess Bodega in a night club, a low budget combination of Tron and Strange Days, ambitious but not very exciting.

The film-makers involved probably won't be very impressed that King (who also directed the Little Soldier and Most Wanted shorts) has hacked up the movies, removing the titles and the end credits and bunching them together at the end. There's no link story between the films, so by rights King can't really take the directing credit, and he probably shouldn't have been so proud at announcing himself as editor, unless he did it blindfold. With garden shears.

The Siren (USA 2019: Dir Perry Blackshear) "That which is done out of love always takes place beyond good and evil." When a film opens with a quote from Nietzsche, it's generally not a good sign. But for once the use of his words is spot on, in this stunning movie that totally took me by surprise in its intensity, and builds on the director's 2015 feature They Look Like People.

Margaret Ying Drake is Nina, a once human creature who now lives in water. Heartbroken and cast out, she is variously named 'siren' and 'rusalka' but is doomed never to leave her aquatic prison, but to kill others in revenge. Evan Dumouchel is Tom, mute as the result of a watery accident, a man of the church who has rented a waterside cabin to collect his thoughts. And then there is neighbour Al (played by MacLeod Andrews), whose husband died in the water, and who seems similarly imprisoned on land, trying to make sense of it all.

Tom and Al strike up a friendship of sorts. Meanwhile Tom, who is now understandably afraid of swimming, meets Nina and mistakenly thinks she is another neighbour out for a dip. The two form a strange bond, her helping him conquer his watery fears, and a relationship of sorts blossoms. But when Al sees a charm around Nina's neck that once belonged to his husband, her true nature is revealed.

Some critics have suggested that Blackshear's movie, which premiered at Glasgow FrightFest earlier this year, is too slow, comparing it to other slowcore movies like Oz Perkins' recent output or David Lowery's 2017 flick A Ghost Story. But where those films were overly ruminatory, The Siren has a glacial pace but a steady directorial hand which manages the relationship between the three central characters perfectly. It's also beautifully shot, with an ethereal score by Kitka, a San Franciscan women's choral group. In a nice reversal, it is Tom who is the quiet character, with Nina - who would normally in a film like this be mute - oddly wholesome and chatty (this is really Drake's film; she spends 90% of the film in the water and wholly convinces as the enigmatic creature). A scene where Nina shows that she cannot fully leave the water, one foot remaining submerged, is both erotic and enigmatic, and there's some humour too (she dresses for Tom on a kind of aquatic date by wearing some earrings which she keeps in a watertight tin full of things she's obviously stolen from past victims).

The Siren is an elegant, sublimely paced film which really has no right sitting in the 'Supermarket Sweep' pile. Get yourself to a supermarket now and snap one up. It's a film of the year for me. 

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