Friday 13 September 2019

Films from FrightFest 2019 #3 - Reviews of The Drone (USA 2019), Dark Sense NEW WAVE OF THE BRITISH FANTASTIC FILM 2020 (UK 2019), Critters Attack (USA 2019), Madness in the Method (USA 2019), I Trapped the Devil (USA 2019) and Spiral (Canada 2018)

The Drone (USA 2019: Dir Jordan Rubin) The director of 2014's Zombeavers uses a plot device straight out of the 1980s classic Child's Play to kick off his hugely enjoyable satire. Here the Charles Lee Ray character is the Violator, a sleazy serial killer whose soul and spirit is transferred into a drone via a passing lightning bolt and a bit of occult code, following a showdown with the cops.

The possessed drone comes into the possession of newlyweds Rachel and Chris who have just moved into their first home and find the thing tossed away in the dustbin. Chris decides to keep it and slyly acquires a compatible remote - which turns out not to be much use. As you might expect with a drone being controlled not by the owners but a peeping tom serial killer within its circuits, it's not long before the machine starts acting up, spying on a sunbathing neighbour (Icelandic actress Anita Briem) and generally setting the household against itself (antics that also cropped in another 2019 FrightFest movie, Kindred Spirits), with tricks like importing a sex tape of the pair onto Chris's laptop for Rachel to find, before upping the ante and offing some of the neighbours. Will the pair realise what's really going on before the drone targets them with its murderous side?

What makes The Drone such great fun is that, despite the ridiculous setup, it's played absolutely straight. As Rachel and Chris, Alex Essoe and John Brotherton have to put up with some really daft lines, but come through it amazingly well. The spirit of the 1980s VHS classics inhabits The Drone totally (the possession of a non sentient object wasn't limited to Child's Play) and the final scenes of gore and mayhem absolutely tap into the excesses of that decade: step forward, we're in Charles Band territory now.

The Drone is a film best seen with an audience, but it's smart enough to survive a solo view too. You won't see it featuring in the awards season, but I was pleased that Rubin had toned down the eye-rollingly obvious parody of his first feature, even though The Drone is a movie that still manages to say nothing about anything much for the duration of its running time. Just dumb gory fun then.

Dark Sense (UK 2019: Dir Magnus Wake) NEW WAVE OF THE BRITISH HORROR FILM 2020  Adapted from the novel 'First and Only' by Peter Flannery, and developed from a 2016 short film Simon, First and Only, Wake's debut feature is impressive, particularly in that its budget was just over £65,000.

Simon (Shane O'Meara) is a young man who has grown up in the knowledge that he has special powers, namely an ability to predict the future, and an empathetic experience of the murder of others. During one of these odd dreams/visions he has a premonition of his own death, and has just five days to locate the person who plans to kill him. He employs a former SAS soldier Steve (Jim Sturgeon) to act as is bodyguard while he tries to identify his nemesis, in reality a serial killer who is murdering all known psychics, and also comes to the attention of MI5, in the shape of Sonia Chatham (Maggie Bain), who realises that his incredible abilities make him both a threat and a possible secret weapon.

If all this sounds like Sunday teatime serial stuff, then in a way you'd be right. For much of Dark Sense, stylistically it feels like watching an extended episode of a British TV police procedural, complete with on point effective soundtrack work from Daniel Elek-Diamanta. Wake has clearly learned his craft well: the camera never lingers enough on anything to show a paucity of budget. But this isn't a criticism. After a shaky start, the film settles into a smart pace, with some likeable characters (the pairing of Steve and Simon works really well in true buddy buddy anti-hero style) and, surprisingly for a low budget movie, an intelligent script which does well to accommodate some of the more, shall we say, ambitious plot devices and stock characters without too much raising of the eyebrows. With plus points for some very atmospheric location shooting in and around Edinburgh, Dark Sense is a movie that, even if it doesn't get a cinematic distribution, should do well on other platforms.

Critters Attack! (USA 2019: Dir Bobby Miller) OK, confession time, I've never seen a 'Critters' film. I know, I know, what kind of genre fan am I? My researches tell me that this is the fifth such film (not including a 7 minute short back in 2014), the last being Critters in Space back in 1992, and staggeringly the franchise is now over thirty years old.

Did we need another one? Well we got one anyway and director Bobby Miller's CV shows him to be a rather talented soul, so I'm guessing he took this project as an homage to a monster movie he grew up with. Critters Attack! wastes no time in bringing back the Krites to a small American town (actually Cape Town, South Africa but we'll let that pass) where plucky Drea (Tashiana Washington, taking a break from more sultry roles to be this movie's gung ho heroine) and her brother Philip (Jaeden Noel) are baby sitting two young charges, Trissy and Jake Lacy (Ava Preston and Jack Fulton). While out in the woods, the quartet discover a wounded white Krite - she's one of the good ones, apparently - who has travelled to earth to take on her dark furred brethren, of which very soon there are many. And really are people still doing the white - good and black - bad thing?

Anyway the bad Krites start to do their rolling, chomping and giggling thing, while Drea and the gang try to get some medical attention for the good Krite in their possession, who they name 'Bianca.' Along the way they learn lessons about teamwork, loyalty, coping with loss and the first stirrings of young love. Oh and Dee Wallace turns up (she was in the first film) as a bounty hunter, unimaginatively called Dee.

Despite this apparently being a TV Movie, there's no shortage of gore, although most of it is reserved for Krite deaths. It's well photographed and builds up a decent head of steam towards the climax, and Ms Washington makes for a spunky lead. But it's all rather unnecessary, frustratingly polite, the jokes are really lame, and after one too many schmaltzy music queues to signpost the arrival of another moral lesson uttered by one of the cast, I concluded that I had no inclination to search out the Critters back catalogue.

Madness in the Method (USA 2019: Dir Jason Mewes) Meta just got funny in this comedy thriller from Mewes, who of course was Jay to Kevin Smith's Silent Bob in most of the latter's movies. Smith turns up as himself here along with Brian O'Halloran and a bevy of stars including Dean Cain, Teri Hatcher, Vinnie Jones and Danny Trejo. Mewes is also himself, or a version of it anyway.

When we meet Jason he's down on his luck, trying to get into straight parts but forever doomed to be typecast in stoner buddy roles. Recommended by Smith to purchase a famous book on method acting, after he consumes the first few chapters he borrows his mate Vinnie Jones's motor and drives out to have a chat with the latest director who has failed to give him a part (Matt Willis) and accidentally runs him over after they fight. Mewes realises that notoriety is key to fame, and as his name rises up the popularity pole on celebrity websites, and pursued by a drunk police detective who fancies him as the murderer, he embarks on a killing spree in pursuit of his dream role, the titular hero of an adaptation of 'The Odyssey' planned by Brian O'Halloran.

Madness in the Method is a weird hybrid of US and UK locations and humour (it was filmed in LA and Derby!) but sadly it's not very successful. More amusing in its early stages, once the film has played its hand - Mewes, desperate for acting respect, becomes more and more deranged - it becomes rather samey, and the movie seems overlong at 99 minutes. The humour, as you might expect, is pretty broad, which functions better in the interplay between the cast and the sending up of the movie industry, less so when the cast are left to develop their own characters (Danny Trejo method playing a gay man is pretty dodgy, but adulte terrible Teri Hatcher as Mewes's hard as nails agent fares better).

Whether you like Madness in the Method sort of depends on whether you're a fan of Kevin Smith films, to which this movie closely follows the template (and Kevin Smith gets to do some of his trademark f-bomb filled rants if that's your bag). Hmmm.

I Trapped the Devil (USA 2019: Josh Lobo) An independent three hander which restricts its action to a small shack, this one has to win the 'does-what-it-says-on-the-tin' title award. Matt (AJ Bowen) and his wife Karen (Susan Burke) decide to pay a Yuletide visit to Matt's reclusive brother Steve (Scott Poythress). Steve is reluctant to let them in, which is perhaps unsurprising, as he seems to have trapped the devil in his basement behind a locked door. Has Steve gone totally bonkers and imprisoned an innocent person, or does her really have the dark lord under lock and key? Newspapers lining the windows, complex maps connecting newspaper incidents pasted on the ceiling and a loaded gun attest to the former, but the insidious voice that emanates from the basement door suggests Steve may have a point.

"This is less about keeping someone in as it is about keeping everyone else out" claims one of the cast during the movie, which is a rather good summary of the ebb and flow of the whole film. This is less a narratively strong movie than a mood piece which invites the audience to transfer its allegiances between the cast as the story develops. It's above all a study of faith and kinship, and while it takes a while to reach a suitably hallucinogenic conclusion. I Trapped the Devil manages effectively to get under the skin.

Spiral (Canada 2018: Dir Kurtis David Harder) Harder's two previous features have been rather lukewarm thrillers, with 2011's Cody Fitz and incontrol from 2017.

His latest is rather a film of two halves. Set in a less tolerant 1995, Malik and his older partner Aaron (Jeffrey Bowyer-Chapman and Ari Cohen) are a same sex couple who decide to move away from the big city to a small town together with Kayla (Jennifer Laporte), who is Aaron's natural daughter from a previous heterosexual relationship. The trio seem happy although some tensions lie beneath the surface between the two adults: Aaron is a stay at home writer struggling to write his next bestseller, while Malik has a 'proper' job to bring home the bacon. Aaron has time on his hands and starts to check out the locals, finding them a rather conservative bunch. But there's also something more sinister at work. He discovers after a break in to their home the word FAGGOTS written on the wall, and purchases a security system as a result: but he doesn't tell Aaron the reason, seeking to protect his newly out partner. Malik's concern deepens when he witnesses some form of ritual inside one of the townspeople's homes, which involves a young boy called Tyler, who has just started to date Kyla.

For me the second half of the movie - a kind of Race with the Devil (1975) chase fest - wasn't a strong as the sustained build up, which was pretty much my experience with Jordan Peele's Get Out (2018) too, of which this could be seen to be a gay version. Bowyer-Chapman and Cohen convince as the couple whose difference in age and gay experience creates added tension in the movie: Malik airs his concerns by telephone to a previous partner rather than confiding in Aaron, and the fact that Malik is of colour ups the prejudice ante. We've all seen the robed-coven-hiding-among-nice-townspeople setup many times before, and it's the least interesting aspect of the film. But the lead up is great. Of course this should be seen as a state of the US movie (although it's actually Canadian) and the cyclical plot hook is evidence that the more things change, the more they stay the same. Not bad at all.

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