Wednesday 6 November 2019

Films from FrightFest 2019 #5 - Reviews of Darlin' (USA 2019), Nekrotronic (Australia 2018), Satanic Panic (USA 2019), Bliss (USA 2019), Rabid (Canada 2019) and Tales From the Lodge (UK 2019)

Darlin' (USA 2019: Dir Pollyanna McIntosh) There's a certain sense of satisfaction in McIntosh helming the third instalment of the most unlikely cinema franchise ever, mainly because it's one which she has consistently imbued with life and vigour. For those not in the know, McIntosh's feral, cannibalistic 'The Woman' character first popped up in the 2009 movie Offspring. Based on the book by Jack Ketchum, Lucky McKee made a sequel of sorts, The Woman, two years later. As well as giving McIntosh's character front and centre casting position, the movie also served as a damning study of a certain type of maledom in mid America.

Darlin' is something else again, proving the franchise's flexibility. Actually the movie is lots of things, which don't always hang together that smoothly.

At the end of McKee's film 'The Woman' had walked off with some of the family who had initially captured her, including their youngest little girl. As Darlin' opens it seems that only 'The Woman' and the young girl are left. Previously a normal walking talking youngster, Darlin' (as she is now known) has become as silent and feral as her surrogate mother. But deep down Darlin' has desires to rejoin the real world, and breaks into a hospital where she is captured and farmed out to a girl's home run by nuns. Seeing the opportunity to attract necessary funding by publicising the successful taming of a feral child into young womanhood, the Bishop puts the nuns to work.

Meanwhile 'The Woman' maintains a constant search for her child, snacking on the odd passerby to keep her strength up, until she finds some temporary sanctuary with a group of homeless people roughly as convincing as Alice Cooper's bunch of down and outs in John Carpenter's 1987 flick Prince of Darkness. Back in school, Darlin' has been (re?) taught to speak and read, and is a hit both with the class and kindly Sister Jennifer (Norah-Jane Noone) who has taken the girl under her wing. But the school has a dark secret, and the truth is about to come out.

Darlin' is ambitious (perhaps overly so) and fires off in all directions. It's held together by a terrific performance from Lauryn Canny as our heroine (the grown up version) and Noone's Sister Jennifer, who finds out the awful truth behind the goings on in the school. McIntosh wisely pushes herself in the background, but also gives her character more colour this time round (a scene where she travels in a car for the first time and leans her head out of the window like a dog is pretty funny). The thing is,  I didn't like the film that much, although I admired McIntosh's directorial vision.

Nekrotronic (Australia 2018: Dir Kiah Roache-Turner) Since the dawn of time demons have been operating in the world, taking over human bodies and souls, their only opposition being the Necromancers who have a similarly long pedigree. But the demons have found a new way into their human hosts - via the internet, or more precisely a virally successful Pokemon Go like game, where the player spots ghosts (actually the demons) who then latch on to the gamer. The demon activity is master (or should that be mistress?) minded by uber evil Finnegan (Monica Bellucci, having a great time hamming it up) and the Necromancers fight a hi tech battle with the demons to stop them possessing all of the city's souls.

Howard and Rangi, a couple of sewage disposal engineers, get swept up into these events courtesy of the fact that Howard is actually a powerful Necromancer himself. Inducted into the ranks of the demon battlers, and with dim Rangi killed but returning as a spirit guide like sidekick, most of the movie consists of noisy set pieces which rapidly turn Nekrotronic into something resembling a minor entry in the Marvel universe movies.

The film also borrows from Ghostbusters with its demon trapping paraphernalia and The Matrix by way of its slightly dated 'hacking into the mainframe' plot. It's certainly a colourful and fast moving romp, but it fails to sustain interest and the script, which aims for but fails in delivering the smarts of something like Guardians of the Galaxy, would have benefitted from some better one liners. The characters of Howard (Ben O'Toole) and Rangi (Epine Bob Salva) - the latter of whom aims for gormless but comes off as offensive as the only cast member of colour in the movie - are not particularly inspiring, and are rather shown up by the Necromancer sisters Molly (Caroline Ford) and Torquel (Tess Haubrich) who both kick some serious ass. Passable by no means essential.

Satanic Panic (USA 2019: Dir Chelsea Stardust) Stardust's debut feature was one of my favourites at this year's FrightFest. A genuinely funny, occasionally scary and definitely very subversive take on witchcraft movies of the 1970s, with a lot to say about class divisions in suburban USA.

Sam (Hayley Griffith) has taken a job as a pizza delivery girl, but finds out the hard way that the tips, which is where she should be making her money, are pretty hard to find. Taking on a job to deliver food to the swanky out of town Mill Basin area, Sam's funky little scooter and black leather jacket look rather out of place among the suburb's gated community. When the recipients of the pizza order fail to tip, and with her scooter out of gas, Sam, annoyed with being snubbed, takes it on herself to enter the house and ask for the gratuity herself. But the glamorous occupants within are actually Satanists, and, bad news for sweet and innocent Sam, the coven are in need of a virgin to kick start their rites to summon Baphomet. Luckily she teams up with previous sacrificial victim turned non virgin Judy (Ruby Modine) whose mum is Danica, coven leader, and therefore knows her witchcraft stuff - "these demons have more rules than Yahtzee" she tells Sam - and the scene is set for a fight to escape the coven's devilish clutches.

"I know girls like you. You go to public school. And eat Government cheese. And get pregnant in the sixth grade." This diss to Sam is typical of the haves/have littles tension between classes in Stardust's film, which are taken to extremes by the extent of the power and wealth grabbing Satanists, who see the worth of people like our heroine only as sacrifices or incubators for demon babies."Welcome to the world behind the world," summarises Judy, a character who has grown up needing nothing but who sees through the conspicuous consumption and petty squabbling of Mill Basin's nouveau riche. That Satanic Panic works as biting satire and is hugely funny is largely down to Grady ('My Best Friend's Exorcism') Hendrix, one of the smartest writers working in the genre today. Hendrix is unafraid to mine his horror roots - 80s trash cinema (Brian Yuzna's 1989 movie Society was definitely an influence), witchcraft movies - hell there's even a vengeful bedsheet scene which must be a nod to M R James's story and its TV adaptation 'O Whistle and I'll Come to You My Lad.'

As Sam Hayley Griffith shows considerable gumption and great comic timing. She's funny, not that smart, but very determined. And as sassy Judy Roby Modine gets all the best lines. Praise too for Rebecca Romijn as coven leader Danica, all cheekbones and withering looks. If there's one thing that slightly lets the movie down it's a rather muddled and abrupt last reel, but most of the movie is so good this can ultimately be forgiven. See it.

Bliss (USA 2019: Dir Joe Begos) I'm really not sure what all the fuss was about at FrightFest on this one. Begos seems to have made a sort of Gaspar Noe-like ramped up remake of Abel Ferrara's 1995 urban vampire movie/metaphor The Addiction. It's noisy, frantic, but actually not nearly as deviant as he thinks it is.

Opening with edgy, scratchy credits underscored by The Nymphs' 1991 track 'Revolt' (also used on the soundtrack to 1992's Pet Sematary II, fact fans), we meet down on her luck artist Dezzy (a performance by Dora Madison which would once have been called 'brave' mainly because she's naked a lot of the time and gets covered in blood regularly) who's late on the rent and whose agent is about to drop her because of a lack both of new product and public interest in the existing pieces: Dezzy is suffering from artist's block and her latest work, a floor to ceiling painting which looks like the entrance to hell behind the Tower of Babel, isn't progressing.

She visits her dealer who sells her a new strain of the popular 'Bliss' drug called 'Diablo,' and while he advises her to take it easy with the powder, Dezzy goes for it, hoping to unblock her creative juices. Teaming up with her friends Courtney (Tru Collins) and Ronnie (Rhys Wakefiled) the evening spirals into a hedonistic wipeout of sex and drugs. And blood. But recovering the following morning, Dezzy's artisitic inspiration may have returned, but with it has come a craving for sustenance that no normal food will satisfy. Dezzy's needs can only be met by the consumption of one thing - human blood - and that makes her a danger to all around her.

Begos deliberately keeps the link between art, drugs and vampirism loose in Bliss, inviting the audience to lose themselves in Dezzy's increasingly abstracted and angry life. One is to believe that the sacrifices Dezzy suffers are all in the name of art, but as is often the case with the expression of the creative painting urge on film - and Bliss is no different - the central piece of art which drives her urges is, well, not very good. Madison is believable as Dezzy, surrounded and increasingly annoyed by the clubflies and sleazebags that surround her. But for all the noise, blood and dizzying camerawork, this felt like rather a conservative film dressed up as something more dangerous, and left me rather cold.

Rabid (Canada 2019: Dir Jen and Sylvia Soska) The Soska sisters' latest is a love letter to Canadian horror and specifically the influence of David Cronenberg, whose 1977 feature they have chosen to re-boot. The original film was full of atmosphere but a little light on narrative coherence, and therefore ripe for re-interpretation, but Jen and Sylvia's take is, although defiantly modern, far more crass and lacking in nuance.

Laura Vandervoort, taking on the role of Rose - previously played by Marilyn Chambers in the original - is a shy fashion designer who suffers a face mangling accident, hit by a car following an angry walkout from a party. She already has imperfections in the form of facial scars, the result of being in a motor accident which killed the rest of her family. As Rose works in the fashion industry it's important to look perfect, so when she receives an email from the Burroughs Institute (just one of a number of groan inducing nods to Cronenberg during the movie) promising experimental stem cell manipulation surgery that will provide full facial recovery, she agrees, despite the warnings of side effects.

But while Rose's post op recovery seems complete she's left with cravings for blood and raw meat, and her body is clearly undergoing some form of change. Those that she attacks turn into rabid monsters, and when she returns to the Institute for help it's clear that those in charge of the procedure have a deeper motive for performing the surgery.

"True beauty lies within the things we've yet to uncover" is just one of the silly lines of dialogue that purports to elevate this trashy and very cheap looking B movie to something more than it is. While those sorts of lines worked in early Cronenberg movies because his films were oblique, the Soska sisters' take on things accentuates the literal, and the homages to their favourite director - the scarlet robes the doctors wear during Rose's op are direct steals from those in Dead Ringers, and the art on the wall of the Burroughs Institute including preparatory sketches for The Naked Lunch, for example - are just crass.

While Jen and Sylvia deserve points for trying, and despite the welter of practical effects which usually get the thumbs up from me, I really didn't like this film. I found it pointless, cold, and all surface - just like the fashion business that provides the setting. Maybe that was the point.

Tales from the Lodge (UK 2019: Dir Abigail Blackmore) If the title of this film suggests to you the portmanteau movies of the 1960s and 1970s, well you'd be right: Tales from the Lodge is a portmanteau film, except here the stories told are more of a sidebar to the central plot.

A group of friends come together to celebrate the life of a mutual chum, Jonesy, who took his life in the lake next to the lodge where they're all staying. They are Martha (Laura Fraser), her seriously ill husband Joe (Mackenzie Crook), Russell (Jonny Vegas) and Emma (Sophie Thompson) having a welcome break from their three kids, and serial womaniser Paul (Dustin Demri-Burns) who has brought along his latest girlfriend Miki (Kelly Wenham), the odd one out among the circle of close friends.

As Miki struggles to integrate, the group make an aborted attempt to scatter Jonesy's ashes (predictably the wind blows them back into Paul's face) and then retire to the lodge for drinks, reminiscing and storytelling. As the alcohol flows the tales told by each of the cast become slightly more bizarre - a ransomed car, a woman who becomes possessed with an insatiable sexual appetite, and the funniest, told by Russell, about a survivor of a zombie apocalypse played by Vegas dressed up as 80s Keifer Sutherland. Like all portmanteau movies, these segments are slight, but the real meat here is the wraparound story, which by the end of the movie shows a different side to all the otherwise likeable cast. Others have commented that the setup is rather similar to Lawrence Kasdan's 1983 movie The Big Chill, but there's something of Kenneth Branagh's 1992 flick Peter's Friends in there too. It's all terribly British (not sure what the Americans will make of it all), quite fun while it lasts, but ultimately rather slight and, with the exception of Emma's impassioned speech about the horrors of child rearing, slightly uninvolving.

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