Wednesday 25 September 2019

Films from FrightFest 2019 #4 - Reviews of The Furies (Australia 2019), Haunt (USA 2019), Witches in the Woods (Canada 2019), Daniel Isn't Real (USA 2019), Ready or Not (USA 2019) and Master of Dark Shadows (USA 2018)

The Furies (Australia 2019: Dir Tony D'Aquino) Maddie and Kayla are friends going through a tough time. Maddie wants Kayla, who she feels is hiding behind her epilepsy diagnosis, to take more risks in life. They quarrel and Maddie storms off, only to be abducted by a masked man. Later Kayla, whose epileptic episodes seem to be triggered by threat, wakes up in a box with the words 'Beauty 6' written on its side, in the middle of a forest. She meets two other women, Alice and Sheena, who are being pursued by masked men that look like they've stepped out of a 1980s stalk 'n' slash movie. And so begins Kayla's fight for survival and to locate her friend Maddie, a fight that eventually leads her to an abandoned old mining town and a realisation about what's happening to her.

This fairly standard setup, a sort of cross between The Hunger Games and The Most Dangerous Game, is rather overwrought without any real purpose, and the final reveal will have been guessed by most. Despite the rather 'meta' subtext to the movie, this is basically 80 minutes of scared women being menaced by large masked blokes, with some Hatchet style over the top gore added to keep the audience awake. And in 2019 I thought we'd got past this kind of setup. The cast are all totally unmemorable (even the ones without masks) and if one of the key themes of the film is to show a woman casting off her vulnerability and acquiring courage and determination, it's not enough.

Haunt (USA 2019: Dir Scott Beck, Bryan Woods) Hallowe'en funhouse and escape room films seem to be big business at the moment, and this movie has both, but let's not get ahead of ourselves.

Harper (Katie Stevens) is gradually facing up to the prospect of leaving her physically abusive boyfriend, and is persuaded by her plucky friend Bailey (Laura Lisa McClian) and their mates to get out and party. Said evening out ends up at an 'extreme' Hallowe'en haunted house with all the usual trap doors and out of work actors dressed up as your favourite fright flick villains (and a seemingly endless layout, which of course is necessary to lengthen the threat and thrills). But the 'extreme' element of the 'haunt' lives up to its name when the party can't tell whether those suffering at the hands of the marauding monsters are faking it or not. Of course they're not, and so Harper and her friends must try and find the exit, before others hasten their own.

Beck and Woods wrote A Quiet Place, which puts them way above the Z list credentials wise, and love him or hate him Eli Roth has a production credit: but the pair's last joint directorial effort was the rather ho hum Nightlight, so I wasn't expecting much. Haunt certainly isn't pushing any envelopes content wise, but it's an efficient chase piece. The people behind the 'Haunt' strongly suggest that there might have been more back story that didn't make it to the final cut, and the same can be said for the tortures which prey on the friends' phobias - spiders, closed spaces etc - which remain undeveloped. This is old school stuff for certain, but the escape room which Harper comes across within the house suggests an affectionate nod to that genre as well as an opportunity to understand her childhood exposure to domestic abuse, and the directors know how to mount a feint. Reasonable but no awards winner, Haunt passes the time, but no more.

Witches in the Woods (Canada 2019: Dir Jordan Barker) Seven students drive out into the woods headed for a ski resort and a weekend of beer and hot tub action. Among their number is sensible Jill (Hannah Kasulka) whose boyfriend, the irascible Derek (Craig Arnold), has encouraged her to tag along and ditch her schoolwork. Also along for the ride is grouchy Alison who doesn't seem to want to be there at all. Taking an ill advised short cut following a highway blockage, the group crash the car, just as snowfall begins to lower the temperatures and daylight fades. As if that's not enough, they're right next to the Stoughton Valley Witch Trial historical site.

Realising that they have literally nowhere to go, the occupants of the car start to eat away at each other (not literally, it's not that kind of film). It transpires that Alison's state is due to her being stuck with a group of guys that she has accused of being indirectly involved in an assault against her. Equally awkward is the fact that Jill is keen to break up with soccer jock Derek and formally get together with Derek's black teammate Philip (Corbin Bleu), also in the car. So when Alison goes off in search of help with one of the other guys, but returns alone, bloody and moaning, things go from bad to worse.

This movie's original title was 'Stranded' which plays to those elements in it that reminded me of the sub genre of 'abandoned' movies all the rage a few years ago, like Open Water and Frozen (no, not that one). The retitling shifts the emphasis to the quasi supernatural subtext which in all fairness is a bit of a con. It's left to the audience to decide whether what's happening to Alison is other worldly or just the actions of a deeply traumatised soul. The movie does however make the comparison between the Stoughton Valley witch trials and the microcosm of allegation and hysteria which ramps up within the crashed vehicle. But while the wintry scenery (shot in Ontario) looks genuinely isolating, there are too many genre cliches at work here (feet in bear traps, accidental injury by ski pole etc) to lift it from the run of the mill, and the post teens stuck in a car riff runs out of steam fairly quickly. 

Daniel Isn't Real (USA 2019: Dir Adam Egypt Mortimer) I described this to a fellow viewer at the FrightFest screening as a cross between Harvey (1950) and Drop Dead Fred (1991) but with the six foot rabbit and Phoebe Cates' imaginary friend replaced by a suave and unpredictable Patrick Bateman-alike from Brett Easton Ellis's 'American Psycho'. No wonder that viewer found his excuses to leave.

Anyhow, Daniel Isn't Real is a whole lot better than that rather awkward explanation above. Co-scripted by Brian deLeeuw, from whose book 'In This Way I Was Saved' the story was taken, DIR is, to put it mildly, quite the ride.

In an opening scene whose realism feels straight out of the news, young Luke witnesses a mass killing in a cafe, after which another little boy, Daniel, appears and whisks Luke off to play in the park. The arrival of Luke's mother reveals to us, as the film's title suggests, that Daniel is imaginary. His mother, who is none too well mentally herself, allows Luke to bring 'Daniel' home and the pair - one real, the other unreal - grow up together, with Daniel gradually pushing Luke to be more and more mischievous.

A grown up Luke attends college and seems to have grown out of having Daniel around, but all is not well with him and when his therapist suggests that Luke should embrace, rather than distance himself from his one time imaginary playmate, suddenly Daniel's back on the scene, calling the shots once more: shots which include sectioning Luke's mother and giving him tips on what to say to bed girls, a little like a psychotic Cyrano de Bergerac. Of course this can only have an ugly outcome.

DIR's greatness lies in its sheer woozy execution. Of course this is little more than a retelling of the classic 'Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde' story, but Patrick Schwarzenegger as grown up Daniel and adult Luke, Mike Robbins, make a bizarre but very watchable pair. As a movie it probably feels more dangerous than it actually is, but DIR looks great and is fully of trippy imagery, often at surprising moments. A great film, well worth both an initial and repeat viewing.

Ready or Not (USA 2019: Dir Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett) The last feature from this directing pair, 2014's underwhelming Devil's Due, promised little after their entertaining segments in 'portmanteau' movies V/H/S (2011) and Southbound (2015). But Bettinelli-Olpin and Gillett's latest is an arch and sumptuously mounted horror comedy which is, at its roots, an amusing update of Irving Pichel and Ernest B. Schoedsack's classic chase thriller The Most Dangerous Game (1932).

With those twin topics of class and the abuse of wealth and privilege never far from the surface, Ready or Not has plucky orphan Grace (Samara Weaving) marrying up into the wealthy Le Domas family, who have made their money through the manufacture of board games. After the wedding ceremony and festivities, which take place at the family's sprawling gothic home - straight out of the Addams family - Grace's new husband Alex (Mark O'Brien) informs his wife of a midnight tradition bestowed on all new members of the Le Domas clan: the playing of a game chosen at random from a puzzle box, whose origins are interlinked with the rise of the dynasty's prosperity. When Grace is dealt a card from the box marked 'Hide and Seek,' what first appears an innocuous request becomes a deadly fight for survival.

The potential thinness of premise of the movie is overcome by some great casting, a smart script and tightly directed action that brilliantly utilises the quirky layout of the mansion and grounds. The members of the eccentric Le Domas family are all superbly realised, although special praise should be given to the matriarchal side, namely Nicky Guadagni as the icy and formidable Aunt Helene, Andi MacDowell as haughty Becky, a brilliant psycho southern belle role which utilises the actor's South Carolina drawl to great comic effect, and Elyse Levesque as the brittle Charity, a survivor of the 'most dangerous game' whose most important goal is to hold on to the status of the family she married into. But the real star of the show is Samara Weaving (Hugo Weaving's daughter) as Grace, who manages the transformation from winsome bride to bloodied but unbowed fight-for-your-life action heroine all while wearing the same white wedding dress. What makes Ready or Not so successful is the script, which amidst all the comic horror mayhem never fails to shine a light on the satirical elements of the setup, gradually revealing the Le Domas family as grasping and insecure, while at the same time transferring all the power to our heroine.

If the final reel follows current trends in horror movies a little formulaically (and if you've watched Hereditary and indeed Satanic Panic you'll know what I mean) it can be forgiven, for the ride getting there is tremendous fun, and let's face it any movie which exposes the frailty and pettiness of the rich is fine by me.

Master of Dark Shadows (USA 2019: Dir David Gregory) As the title suggests, this documentary about the producer, writer, director and all round horror visionary Dan Curtis spends most of its running time devoted to arguably his most important output, the groundbreaking TV series Dark Shadows, which served up a steady diet of vampires, time travel, witches and werewolves to US daytime viewers every weekday between 1966 and 1971.

UK horror fans d'un certain âge will recall the tantalising drip feed of Dark Shadows gum cards, tie in books and comics in the late 1960s, without ever once seeing the show (a recent story had it that a single reel of the show was optioned to the BBC back in the day but they passed on the offer), so for us the first exposure to DS was the relatively recent release of the whole series via DVD box sets - and I should know, I've sat through 'em.

Most of the material garnered for this doc sadly comes from the plentiful extras in those sets, fleshed out with interviews filmed at a DS reunion several years ago. So the content is largely restricted to available information, which makes Master of Dark Shadows a trifle thin even for the novice, and more than a little dull for those with some knowledge of the show. Gregory includes all the usual touchpoints: the cheapness of the production and wobbliness of the sets; the lack of rehearsals; the inability of some of the cast to cope with live performances comfortably (again, older viewers will be able to appreciate much the same feeling from watching the soap Crossroads, although that show had fewer vampires). And of course looming over the whole thing was the toothsome, gruff visage of Curtis himself, admired by some, feared by many, a creative who took a chance to enliven a ratings nose diving soap with the injection of horror lite elements.

At about the hour point it's quite clear that there's going to be little room for his other TV and film projects, although the two spinoff DS movies, House of Dark Shadows and Night of Dark Shadows get some exposure, as does his 1975 Karen Black portmanteau movie Trilogy of Terror and his Herman Wouk adaptations The Winds of War (1983) and War and Remembrance (1988-89).

Master of Dark Shadows comes as a major disappointment after Gregory's hugely entertaining 2015 doc Lost Soul: The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley’s Island of Dr. Moreau, although I confess I didn't catch his other 2019 doc, Blood & Flesh: The Reel Life & Ghastly Death of Al Adamson, which I understand was much better than this. But one can't take away the importance of DS. Without it there would be no Count Yorga: Vampire, no Blacula, and arguably no Buffy: the Vampire Slayer either (a series devised by Joss Whedon who had consumed DS on TV when he was a child).

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