Wednesday 4 September 2019

Films from FrightFest 2019 #2 - Reviews of Knives and Skin (USA 2019), Kindred Spirits (USA 2019), I'll Take Your Dead (Canada 2018), Feedback (Spain/USA 2019), Extracurricular (Canada 2018) and The Dark Red (USA 2018)

Knives and Skin (USA 2019: Dir Jennifer Reeder) Reeder is predominantly a short film maker, which comes through in the  abstract shorthand of her latest feature, where the surface sheen suggests deeper thematic currents. Knives and Skin's story revolves around a death: high school student Carolyn Harper (Raven Whitley) has refused to put out for the local soccer jock Andy Kitzmiller (Ty Olwin) while out in the hills on a date, and now she lies dead in a patch of scrubland. Her mother Lisa (Marika Engelhardt) is distraught, but Andy fails to come forward as the last person to see her. Against this backdrop the affairs of the town and its interconnected personalities unfold, principally around Andy’s complex sister Joanna (Grace Smith), whose has a fractured relationship with her mentally ill mother Lynn (Audrey Francis), and who sells Lynn’s underwear and prescription pills to schoolteachers.

The most obvious analog for Knives and Skin is Twin Peaks, not only in the centring of the story around a missing (and subsequently dead) girl, but also the air of sadness that envelops the town, the doomed lives of those living in it and the woozy manner in which the action of the film is played out (it also nods to Rivers Edge (1986) and to some extent 1988's Heathers), but Knives and Skin is a successful film in its own right.

Although the period in which the film is set, like so much of Knives and Skin, is hard to pin down, the music used is largely from the 1980s. Songs sung acapella by the school choir - managed by Lisa Harper - derive from mixtapes which Andy's father finds in the garage. A sense of the end of innocence threads through songs which should be joyous but instead are rendered mournfully and heartbreakingly. In essence this is a small town film where the kids long to escape and the adults are trapped in convoluted emotional nets of their own making. Perhaps because it was so different to pretty much everything else playing at FrightFest this year it couldn't help but stand out, although its languid plotting and narrative occlusion divided the audience.

Kindred Spirits (USA 2019: Dir Lucky McKee) Here's a real return to the b*nny b*iler movies of way back when, right down to the play on words title. Thora Birch stars as mum Chloe, whose daughter Nicole is approaching her 18th birthday, when Chloe's sister Sadie appears from nowhere after having lost contact with the family for the last 12 months.

In contrast to the rather staid Chloe, Sadie is, initially anyway, a breath of fresh air, teaming up with Nicole for joint shopping trips where she's delighted to be mistaken for Nicole's sister. But as usual with this type of thing, Chloe's sister slowly transforms from trendy aunt to something way more psychotic, and it's not long before Sadie's bedding Nicole's nice but dim boyfriend Alex, and getting between Chloe and her new beau Shay - Alex's dad. And then things get really nasty.

McKee's first film since the 2017 thriller Blood Money thematically develops the concept of the raging female first unveiled in his debut feature, 2007's May, and front and centred in his extraordinary The Woman (a 2011 sequel of sorts to 2009's Offspring). Like the movies it references (Single White Female I'm looking at you) Kindred Spirits doesn't offer up a particularly positive view of women, but it's rattlingly well made: the soundtrack's Bernard Hermannisms and excerpts from 'Swan Lake' invite you to have fun, but Sadie's motivations aren't straightforward. In hands less talented than McKee's this could merely have been a clumsy homage, but instead it's a very entertaining love letter to some of the movies that inspired the director to get behind a camera, a movie that knows exactly what it's doing.

I'll Take Your Dead (Canada 2018: Dir Chad Archibald) This rather odd little thriller, the latest from the director of 2017's The Heretics, may never quite make up its mind what kind of a film it wants to be, but is nevertheless a diverting if slightly unsatisfying jumble of styles and genres.

William aka The Candy Butcher (Aidan Devine), a former farmer who has somehow got into the trade of being paid to chemically dispose of dead bodies left for him by local gangs, lives on a remote homestead with his daughter Gloria (Ava Preston). Gloria is fully witting of dad's sideline but understands that "good people sometimes do bad things." She also has the ability to see dead people: or is it her guilty conscience manifesting the angry spirits of the dismembered?

When one gang leader drops off a load of corpses for disposal, William is surprised when one of them, Jackie (Jess Salgueiro) isn't actually dead. William chains her to the bed until he can decide what to do with her, but a bond forms between Jackie and Gloria, whose mother died of cancer and for whom Jackie becomes a surrogate parent. But the gang finds out that one of their consignment is alive and kicking, forcing this new found family to do battle with the bad guys.

For most of I'll Take Your Dead, the film is a reasonably tense thriller, with some impressively gruesome severed limbs FX by James Anthony Young. Where it slightly comes apart is the injection of supernatural elements which jar rather than satisfy. The three central performances of Devine, Salgueiro and Preston are arguably better than the material they're offered, the latter particularly fine as a young girl on the threshold of puberty determined to see the good in her father despite the way he makes his living. 

Atmospherically photographed in wintry Canada, while the movie never drags it's overall just a bit too bitty to really admire, but there's enough going on to sustain interest.

Feedback (Spain/USA 2019: Dir Pedro C Alonso) Eddie Marsan excels as controversial talk radio host Jarvis Dolan in this tense, pared down thriller. Dolan, a kind of James O'Brien type figure, used to baiting Brexiteers live on the radio, and who has recently been abducted and returned (presumably for his stance on political issues), is facing a tough time with station boss Norman Burgess (Anthony Head in a bit part). Burgess wants Dolan to dial down the rhetoric and re-unite with celebrity focused DJ Andrew Wilde (Paul Anderson) with whom he previously enjoyed a successful on air relationship. But although Dolan agrees to team up with his ex-radio partner, he still has one more opportunity to be the scourge of the airwaves. Or does he? Just as he's about to play a recording likely to get someone else in hot water, he's isolated in his booth, and two masked men overcome the staff at the studio, including rookie assistant Claire and producer Anthony. These men have an agenda involving both Dolan and Wilde and it most certainly isn't about leaving the European Union.

And that's the basic setup for Alonso's war of nerves which follows. Although the studio environment adds to the claustrophobia of the piece, the whole radio station setup is really just a McGuffin for events to follow, and I was expecting much more to be made of the whole 'are we on the air'? possibilities. Feedback is basically one long standoff of shifting allegiances and 'will they get out alive?' cliffhangers. The real motive behind the studio takeover, which eventually leads to the final reel revelation, can't be disclosed for spoiler reasons. But this is Marsan's film. By turns aggressive, pitiful, resourceful and downright cunning, it's fun seeing the power balances swing to and fro. But at its heart it's basically a one set thriller, no more, no less, diverting for its hour and a half run time and increasingly tense, but its effectiveness lies in the economy of its execution, rather than anything it might be trying to convey as a film. Good fun while it lasts though.

Extracurricular (Canada 2018: Dir Ray Xue) There's a danger these days that any film depicting lawlessness or moral redundancy can taken as a coded comment about where society is heading and perhaps more importantly the politics that's going to take us there: The Purge movies are a good case in point.

Ray Xue's sophomore feature concerning teen violence, which originally played at the 2018 Toronto After Dark festival, arguably dodges that bullet firstly by being set in that nice Canada, whose smartly dressed current President contrasts healthily with his more gauche, warmongering counterpart across the border, and who couldn't possibly ever be seen as being at the helm of societal destruction. And secondly its youthful killers are more likely to ally themselves to literary rather than chaos theory - think American Psycho rather than, er Psycho.

Extracurricular focuses on four students, who happen to share the same classes, and who find time in their hectic school schedule for a bit of the old ultra violence. Under cover of darkness, the quartet plan and execute (literally) attacks on unsuspecting dwellers in remote homes. The human choices are random but, once selected, meticulously thought out and scoped, right down to credit ratings - and none of their victims survive. Their only dilemma is the extent to which their deadly excursions are planned or improvised using whatever is available. Sensible Ian (Spencer Macpherson) wants to leave nothing to chance, whereas his brother Derek is increasingly interested in chance and randomness to drive events: "this is supposed to be fun, not school," he says. Derek's girlfriend Jenny and their friend Miriam make up the foursome, and their wholesome smugness and unlikeliness to profile as suspects - handy in that Ian and Derek's dad (Luke Goss) is the town sheriff - mean that they can effectively hide in plain sight, even planning their next attack in class during breaks.

Xue accentuates the intellectual underpinning of the quartet's credo of violence by drawing parallels with the colonial forces' extermination of the indigenous tribes in the Pequot Wars, which their teacher, Mr Vollman, discusses in class. "The moral argument is an illusion," responds one of the four, to which Vollman warns of the danger of "confusing Nietzsche with adolescent testosterone."

But Miriam is clearly starting to doubt the motives of her gang. She is just embarking on her first relationship - a same sex one with Layla, a classmate - and she's torn between loyalty to the group and her friend. At home the camera lingers on childhood photos of her, inviting us to speculate how someone from such a seemingly well adjusted family could get into this. Is it nature or nurture? It also brings forth the question as to how foursome ever broached the subject of their joint passion in the first place?

Extracurricular's second half, which moves firmly into You're Next style home invasion territory, isn't as satisfying as the cool as a cucumber first, and the characters of the four are never developed enough for the audience to really care about their outcomes. But it's good to see a post modern horror movie that doesn't play it for laughs or irony, and the moral dilemma running through Extracurricular is persuasive enough, even if one does ending up rooting for the killers and then feeling slightly dirty about it afterwards.

The Dark Red (USA 2018: Dir Dan Bush) Bush is a talented director/writer/producer who brought us the excellent movie The Signal back in 2007 (was it really 12 years ago?). In The Dark Red he's turned out another great, atmospheric low budget movie which fizzes with ideas.

Sybil Warren (a brilliant performance from April Billingsley) was taken into care as a child, and as we meet her is being interviewed by a psychiatric assessor, Dr Deluse (Kelsey Scott) to assess whether she can be released from the hospital where she's currently incarcerated. Via a series of interviews we hear of Sybil's life: her meeting with partner David (Conal Byrne); her perceived powers of mind reading; her pregnancy, and of the events that befell her after meeting David's parents, where she maintains that her baby was taken from her by C-Section for reasons which, for most of the movie, remain unclear.

Dr Deluse remains unconvinced, feeling that Sybil may be creating stories in her head to compensate for more fundamental mental health issues and childhood trauma. But Warren remains convinced that what she has recounted is true, and remains determined to find out the truth about her past.

The Dark Red is very much in thrall to early David Cronenberg - Scanners is clearly an influence - and much of the film is delivered in a deliberately distancing way, with flashbacks within flashbacks, Sybil's voiceover, or the cold analytical assessment sessions in which the story is pieced together. Its pace is slow but absorbing, and you're never quite sure where it's headed next. Arguably there are too many elements at work here and they don't all get room for full development, but the film is intriguingly dystopian and Billingsley's performance strikes the right balance between vulnerability and power. Recommended.

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