Wednesday 7 August 2019

Supermarket Sweep #9 - Reviews of Nails (Ireland 2018), The Nursery (USA 2018), Unfriended: Dark Web (USA/Russia 2018), Mara (UK/US 2018), The Midnight Man (USA/Canada 2016) and The Haunting of Redding Hospital (USA 2019)

Nails (Ireland 2017: Dir Dennis Bartok) Athletics coach and all round fitness nut Dana Milgrom (Shauna The Descent Macdonald) is knocked down by a car while out running. Although she survives, it's touch and go and her recovery is slow - her legs are shattered, she has facial scars, she cannot speak, and for a couple of minutes after the incident she has - briefly - died before being resuscitated: this will be important later. Dana's husband Steve (Steve Vikings Wall) and daughter Gemm (Leah McNamara) try to be supportive, but become concerned when bedbound Dana describes a figure she has seen at night, emerging from a cupboard in the ward, which she later discovers goes by the epithet 'Nails', and to which she may be connected.

Dana's attempts to convey her distress are limited by her being unable to speak (she communicates via a text to voice laptop, a plot device that soon outstays its welcome) and her inability to convince anyone that she isn't seeing things. But we all know that the danger is real (well unreal, but you know what I mean) and it's up to Dana to find the truth while battling to save her own life.

A first feature for Bartok, which plot wise borrows rather heavily from A Nightmare on Elm Street, on the plus side is well setup, with half glimpsed visions of 'Nails' and the old 'they don't believe me' storyline made more believable by casting the very capable Macdonald as Dana.

But at around the halfway mark the over familiar starts to crowd in: Dana doing her on line investigations into the history of the hospital and finding out the truth of 'Nails' and his baby killing origin; the 'I see dead people' shtick which allows Dana to look bonkers to all except the viewing audience; and the presence of the haughty hospital director who clearly knows more than she's letting on about the whole haunted hospital setup. Macdonald is the best thing about this, managing to communicate a range of emotions (including the suspicion that her husband may be doing the dirty on her) while remaining virtually immobile for much of the film: and funnyman Ross Noble offers a rather good turn as Trevor, a put upon hospital orderly - who seems to be the only person working on the wards - caught between helping Dana and keeping his job. But ultimately Nails foregoes its earlier atmospheric build up for the usual running around and screaming. And 'Nails', when he finally fully emerges from the cupboard, obeys that tried and tested horror film rule that what's glimpsed is way more frightening that what is fully seen. Ultimately disappointing but not without atmosphere in its early stages.

The Nursery (USA 2018: Dir Christopher A. Micklos, Jay Sapiro) More vengeful spirits pop up in The Nursery, a debut feature from directors Micklos and Sapiro - and most of the cast too as it happens.

Young Ranae, whose mother died one year previously and is now in dire need of some cash, has taken a babysitting job at a house in the middle of nowhere, Wisconsin. When she arrives, driven there by her best friend Cali, she's more than a little nervous, and it doesn't take Ranae long to get properly freaked out, all alone the sprawling country pad of parents Tanya and Roman, while baby Miller lies asleep upstairs. Luckily Cali and friends Jeremy and Grace play surprise visit to keep their chum company (and do a little partying of their own), but strange things are afoot. Ranae glimpses a strange woman with long hair in the garden, and is sent weird photos on her phone, including messages from mum. She contacts her younger brother Ray, who's an expert on things that go bump in the night, and who dredges up some information on the history of the house: the child of the previous occupants, the Belasco family (the name presumably a nod to the owner of Richard Matheson's 'Hell House' one assumes) was drowned, and it would appear that a figure has returned from beyond the grave, with designs on the current baby of the house.

I really wanted to like this indie movie, and for the most part did. Its setup very much evokes those 1970s independent flicks filmed on zero budgets with local people standing in for 'proper' actors (Sapiro's own parents - I think - play Tanya and Roman) and the same names cropping up in multiple technical credits. There are also some nifty moments early on in the movie utilising technology (the creepiest scene occurs where Ray, talking on Skype with his sister, says hi to everyone in the room but then asks Ranae about the woman he doesn't recognise standing behind her - there is of course no one there). While the last section of the film falls back on stock chill moments - and expository revelations - we've all seen far too many times, and most of the cast are terribly one dimensional (although as Ranae Madeline Conway makes for a plucky final girl), overall The Nursery is a spirited attempt, and the sheer hard work and enthusiasm on display elevates it above a lot of similar genre films.

Unfriended: Dark Web (USA/Russia 2018: Dir Stephen Susco) How fitting that this sequel to the popular 2014 movie Unfriended, which once again deals with the issue of the sinister side of social media, should have Russian funding!

But this is a sequel in name and modus operandi only. There's no continuance of cast, and whereas Unfriended dealt with a predator from beyond the grave, Stephen Susco's movie, his directorial debut, concerns much more earthbound terrors.

Geeky software developer Matias (Colin Woodell) cheekily picks up a laptop in the 'lost and found' area of his local internet cafe, although it's not his - his online friends just assume he bought it second hand. But when he gets a message via the owner's Facebook page asking for it back, he's very quickly drawn into the Dark Web, and finds out that the owner is linked to some very sinister goings on where sums of money are paid for users to experience footage of victims getting offed. Matias's mates, and his deaf girlfriend Amaya (Stephanie Nogueras) inevitably become involved in a scenario where it looks increasingly unlikely that anyone is going to escape alive.

It's interesting that the idea of the online movie hasn't really taken off. UDW (excuse the abbreviation) follows the format of the Levan Gabriadze original, in that the entire film is shot via camchats and computer screens, utilising the 'windows' option to show multiple views and perspectives. Neither film should really be seen at the cinema (I watched UDW on my laptop and at times it felt like someone was taking over my system), and how you view this film - and I mean opinion rather than format - rather depends on your sense of 'metaness.' Call me easily pleased, but I'm still impressed that a series of shots of computer screens, picture in picture Skype calls and the clicking of keys can create suspense or sustain a story. Where UDW falls down slightly, and this is perhaps inevitable, is the director's wish to open out the action. This is a much more ambitious movie plot-wise than Unfriended, and a problem that nagged away when watching the first movie - surely the characters could just switch off their laptops and do something more interesting instead - becomes even more apparent here. But there's a lot to like in Susco's film: Matias's attempts to communicate with his girlfriend on line while keeping her at bay from what he has discovered are genuinely affecting, and the ensemble playing from the rest of the cast, who manage to give us insight into their lives despite the restriction of small on screen images, is impressive. And it's a lot of fun, although being a Blumhouse production any violence is decidedly PG13.

Mara (UK/US 2018: Dir Clive Tonge) Another debut feature, this time from a UK director with a slickly made but rather over-complicated procedural/horror movie shot in the southern states of the US. Mara's plot device concerns sleep deprivation: over 40% of the population suffer from it, we're told, and two thirds of them describe being attacked by a demonic entity. Of course.

Rookie psychiatrist Kate Fuller, a woman with a dark past - her mother developed schizophrenia and killed herself after being hospitalised - is brought in to interrogate a young mother who has supposedly slain her husband. Initially believing that the accused woman is insane, Fuller signs off on committing her to an institution, but when she finds a pattern of other similar deaths, with the same method of despatch, she regrets her earlier decision and makes it her job to uncover the strange truth behind the murders; namely a pre-Christian sleep demon.

As Kate Fuller, one time Bond girl Olga Kurylenko pretty much sleepwalks through her part: she is, I think, supposed to be American, but no explanation is given for her Russian accent, and has clearly been cast for box office draw rather than suitability for the role. The plot goes this way and that as the cast try and work out what's going on - there's even a scientist who suggests that the condition of sleep deprivation is a cultural phenomenon brought about by exposure to films like A Nightmare on Elm Street, to which this movie nods thematically, as well as J-horror movies like Ring. The demon itself is quite impressive (played by go to monster guy Javier Botet, and there are some creepy moments, but it's all just a little drawn out and derivative, and takes itself way too seriously.

The Midnight Man (Canada/USA 2016: Dir Travis Zariwny) It was Travis Zariwny - or Travis Z, as he likes to be known - that brought us the totally unnecessary 2016 remake of Eli Roth's already rather dumb Cabin Fever, let us not forget. For his most recent feature he brings us a sort of haunted house/Candyman mashup which has some good things going for it and some really terrible things dragging it down.

Kelly (Emily Haine, awful) is a young girl who has lost her mother and is now taking care of her grandmother Anna (Lin Shaye, wonderful) in the family house. We've already seen a prologue, set in 1953, where young Anna and her friends are in the middle of a game which has summoned a character called The Midnight Man. Quite why anyone would play such a thing when all it does is summon evil with no upside is anyone's business, but suffice it to say that only Anna makes it out alive. Back to the present day and Kelly and her terminally drippy friend Miles (Grayson Gabriel, wet as a wet J cloth) discover the accoutrements of the game - candles, list of victims, instructions - in a box in the attic, and decide to give it a go. Before you know it, the MM is back and everyone is fighting for their life.

OK so the good things - Mr Z filmed in an actual house in Wolesely, West Winnipeg, rather than a set, and this really helps to create an authentic atmosphere, helped by some elegant dressing which gives a real impression of a house where time has stood still. The Midnight Man himself is impressive: he's rarely glimpsed in full, and when he is seen fully extended it's a very creepy sight (even though his voice makes him sound like a knock off Pinhead). 75 year old B Movie grandmere Lin Shaye, as addled Anna, gives a terrifically spirited and physical performance and is probably the best thing about the film. And towards the end of the movie there are some admirably creepy set pieces which give a glimpse of how this movie could have played in more capable hands.

The downers: Haine and Gabriel are incredibly uninspiring leads, unable to summon anything that convinces that they are threatened or even interested in what's going on: there's an essential pointlessness to the thing that gnaws away the whole time, in that summoning the MM has no purpose apart from misery and death, so why play it? At least Mr Z didn't give us a tedious backstory to the history of the MM, for which we should be grateful. But what we shouldn't thank is the epilogue which is basically the director asking for a sequel.

The Haunting of Redding Hospital (USA 2019: Dir A.D Calvo) Aha, this is more like it! Calvo's unexciting but strangely watchable film is actually 2012's House of Dust, repackaged to look like pretty much all the other abandoned hospital horror films around at the moment. And indeed the movie starts exactly like that: drony soundtrack; shots of an abandoned medical facility; and a prologue dating back to 1952 (the bloody fifties again) with a mad doctor carrying out horrendous trepanning experiments and shoving live bodies into the building's crematorium.

Cut to the present day and three medical students, Dylan, Kolt and Gabby, whose dormitory is just around the corner from the abandoned hospital - actually an asylum - are joined by a fourth, Emma, who's a brooding soul with a history of schizophrenia. But whereas in other movies this may be the last reel plot twist, here it's just an excuse to contrast her goth-liteness with the mall fodder she's sharing rooms with.

But Emma, despite being heavily on meds, is increasingly drawn to the strange facility next door, and the noises she hears. One of the students decides to break in to the asylum, but just when you think that the rest of the movie will comprise endless walking along corridors with flashlights, the group make it out alive and well. Except...teetotal Kolt starts necking the booze and acting all alpha male, and formerly slobby Dylan becomes a cleanliness nut. "What the fuck, dude?" says one character, and I know what he means. Yes, it seems that the students have become possessed by the souls of former inmates, and worse, the spirit of the psychotic Levius, another patient seen in the prologue, is back with murder on his mind. Honestly, it's like a slightly more sweary episode of Buffy, the Vampire Slayer, but despite this, and the fact that it makes no sense, I actually quite liked its fast and loose approach to plot development and continuity.

"The unseen world exists because I say it does," is the 1952 quote from an anonymous psychiatric patient which opens a movie supposedly inspired by true events: namely the discovery in 2005 of a large number of decayed bodies in Oregon State Hospital (the very same place that inspired Ken Kesey's book 'One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest' - so that's one hell of a few degrees of separation). Actually this is a fib - the real story is that land developers were held up on their plans to build housing on the site of the former hospital because the authorities couldn't locate the precise site of the building's cemetery. But that wouldn't make much of a film, now would it?

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