Monday 11 November 2019

Supermarket Sweep #10: Reviews of Pentagram (UK 2019), Ouija House (USA 2018), The Haunted (UK 2018), Halloween at Aunt Ethel's (USA 2019), The Curse of Lilith Ratchet (USA 2018) and Dead List (USA 2017)

Pentagram (UK 2019: Dir Steve Lawson) Lawson's second collaboration with Jonathan Sothcott (possibly the least popular person working in the horror genre today) follows on from The Exorcism of Karen Walker, released earlier this year, and represents no improvement on his last movie: it suggests that while Lawson can at least get his films financed through Sothcott's Hereford Films company, the trade off is that he has to use the producer's stories, which are both unoriginal and totally ill suited to small budget productions.

Pentagram is the slender story of four people en route to California, holding up diners to pay their way (you know, just like the couple in Pulp Fiction). They are bad boy Max, his girlfriend Lauren, Holly and her brother Luke. Holly is a drug addict and their intention is to get her into rehab in LA. Fleeing from their latest robbery and with their getaway car on the fritz, they hole up in a very un-American looking house (ok, none of it looks like the US, because it's filmed in Derbyshire). In a bedroom at the top of the house Holly, looking to rest up and beat her craving for junk, comes across a man lying on the floor in the middle of a hand drawn pentagram within a circle. The man, Oliver, pulls Holly inside the chalked design and explains that she is to be a sacrifice, which in turn will enable him to leave the pentagram without being ripped apart by a strange entity. His ruse fails, he's pushed outside the circle and a creature slices him up. It's not long before all four of the young travellers end up inside the pentagram, and have to work out how to leave and who, if anyone, should be sacrificed.

In a more experienced director's hands, and with a larger budget, this fairly simple idea may have worked, or at least managed to generate some tension. On Lawson's watch, it's sadly largely a boring mess. The laws of magic in operation are full of WTF moments, and the audience gets lots of opportunities to raise quizzical eyebrows because of the, shall we say, languid pace of the thing. Cast wise everyone attempts, and fails, to deliver US accents - really, why bother? - and like Lawson's last film, a rather faded star - in this case Nicholas (Hazell) Ball - is roped in for an afternoon's work and trumps all of the rest of the cast in the hopeless accent stakes. Probably the best thing in this is Alexis Rodney as mean old Max: he acts everyone else off the floor and deserves a much better film than this tripe. Lawson was once an interesting director. He needs to unshackle himself from Mr Sothcott and recover some of his micro budget mojo.

Ouija House (USA 2018: Dir Ben Demaree) Now this is why I haunt the supermarket shelves. Laurie is just about to complete her PhD in something supernatural ("I study paranormal phenomenas (sic) as they relate to science"). Astoundingly she has a book deal waiting for her once she finishes it - not self publishing, she's keen to point out - and the icing on the cake of her thesis would be to visit a real haunted house. How handy then that there's one in the family, although Laurie's mum Katherine won't hear it talked about, as it's associated with a side of her relatives she'd prefer to forget.

Luckily Laurie's cousin Samantha who's a bit up on the old witchcraft joins them at the house and fills in the gaps on the witch and warlock side of Laurie's ancestral family, with some choice stories about an evil git called Roka who's not averse to some baby eating. Also along for the thrills are Laurie's friends Tina and Spence, which is a bit daft because there's obviously some unresolved sexual tension between Tina and Laurie's dull BF Nick. Before you know it, a pissed Tina has turned herself into a human ouija board (in one of the more bizarre movie scenes I've witnessed this year - and there's a lot to choose from) using a pebble as a planchette. And no I don't know how the pebble traverses her underwear, best not to ask. It can't be log before the contact lenses are worn, vices growl and there's lots of running around.

The big sell on this one (and that's a relative term) is that the title is for once entirely accurate - the house they're in acts as a giant ouija board, for reasons too ludicrous to detail (but it involves the house trapping the spirit of the demonic warlock Roka). While that might be quite fun with a bit of money behind it, the concept is squandered here. But what a cast! As Samantha Mischa Barton wonders where she went wrong career wise, Dee Wallace plays Laurie's loopy mum Katherine, and go-to craggy geezer Chris Mulkey turns in a ripe performance as crazy Tomas, whose bonkersness is explained by a prologue set way back in time...1988 to be precise.

Actually Ouija House is quite fun. Pretty much every genre standby is chucked in, from the aforementioned ouija board to spooky dolls to demonic possession. And if nothing else it gives people thinking of doing a PhD something to aim for.

The Haunted (UK 2018: Dir David Holroyd) Young Emily, new to her job as care worker, is sent to an overnight shift at the home of Arthur, who is suffering with Alzheimer's. Arthur is in bed asleep when she is introduced, and Emily is left to settle herself into the house - Arthur's bed is monitored by CCTV, but he seems pretty inactive.

With little to do, Emily wanders around the house, but is frightened by occasional glimpses of a young girl. Convinced that the girl is a ghost of Arthur's daughter, as there are photographs of the two of them around the house, Emily feels increasingly isolated and afraid, particularly when Arthur wakes up and has visions too. Discovering a ouija board and and a book of spells, the young care worker begins to suspect that there is something seriously odd going on within the house.

David Holroy's background is in TV and there's certainly something very televisual about his second feature. On the plus side he builds great atmosphere from very little, aided by an effectively moody but spare soundtrack. Sophie Stevens - who also has TV credits - is convincing as out of her depth care worker Emily, and the slow build of tension works well in a movie that at just over 70 minutes doesn't outstay its welcome.

But just as the viewer is wondering where it's all going plotwise, Holroyd brings out all the genre toys and throws them in willy nilly - running about, failing lights, doors that lock themselves - and before we know it he's offered up one of those 'who-is-the-real-ghost?' type endings, which in terms of the paucity of plot and context, makes no sense at all. A missed opportunity.

Halloween at Aunt Ethel's (USA 2019: Dir Joseph Mazzaferro) Here's a limp, desperately unfunny horror 'comedy' with absolutely no redeemable features except its slender 68 minute running time (padded out to the hour and a quarter mark with a cringy fake rap video and bloopers reel.

In a small town in Florida, newcomer Melissa (Madeleine Murphy) is told by her new friends about the story of crazy Ethel, who lives alone and has a reputation for inviting people into her home every Halloween, killing them and chopping their bodies up to make human candy. It's all true of course, as confirmed when the friends decide to stake out her house, underestimating Ethel's truly nasty nature.

And that's it. There's really bad sex gags, lame pratfalls and a rancid script. All three of the main younger actresses are required to appear topless for totally spurious reasons (one of them, Ciara (Rhyssa-Kathryn Marie) promptly and inexplicably disappears from the movie after hers. The main attraction here is Ethel herself, played by Mazzaferro regular Gail Yost, who hams it up something chronic as the cannibalistic Ethel, all pinafores and fright wigs (actually she reminded me of Salvador Ugarte in the camp 1973 flick Miss Leslie's Dolls, and that's not a compliment). The make up effects are perhaps rather better than I was expecting in such a low quality film, but a few convincing severed limbs can't rescue this one.

The Curse of Lilith Ratchet aka American Poltergeist (USA 2016: Dir Eddie Lengyel) Homes of the mid West USA feature prominently in this daft, overlong but heart-in-the-right-place movie. Best friends Alice and Lauren steal a box from a new age store. The box turns out to contain a shrunken head and a poem. The head is that of Lilith Ratchet, a woman whose head was lopped off back in the day following her discovery that her husband was playing away from home, and her soul was transferred to a wicked demon. And guess what? Lilith's spirit is back and she's pretty mad.

So Alice and Lauren take the box to perky Hunter Perry who has hair like Gary Rhodes (ask your parents) and an online show called 'Beyond the Veil.' He knows about this stuff. Perry thinks he's on to something big, so takes over the Halloween bash at the local club for a live podcast in which he gets the audience to pass round the head while reading the poem: "Call her name and feel her pain." Fun, huh? Of course everyone involved in the head passing subsequently starts to get offed, including Lauren, surprisingly early in the proceedings (the only surprising thing in the film), until only Alice and Hunter are left. Will anyone survive?

Lilith Ratchet is full of new age-y nonsense, people being very dumb indeed and everyone talking and talking about what might happen next: this film is an hour and three quarters long and my stars it feels like it. Lilith herself is quite impressive in a knock off Mrs Drablow from The Woman in Black style. The problem is, the demon is so overexposed that she almost has more screen time than the leads. And the rest of our cast are unimpressive but not hopeless. I could see that in the hands of a different director and screenwriter this movie might have something going for it. But as it is, it's pretty poor.

Dead List (USA 2017: Dir Holden Andrews, Ivan Asen and Victor Mathieu) Ah the continued rise in popularity of the portmanteau movie: the V/H/S /ABCs of Death effect continues apace with Dead List, its film within a film approach being the reason for three directors.

A group of actors are all auditioning for the same part. It is, as one of them comments perhaps unnecessarily, a dog eat dog world, but eternal loser Calvin (Deane Sullivan) and his flatmate create a spell to eliminate the competition, via an old book which literally lands on Cal's car windshield. The ancient tome contains a 'dead list' which just happens to list the names of his thespian rivals, who are linked by sharing the same bodily mark as on its cover, and whose fates are the subject of the five short films making up the movie: 'Zander' features a guy who turns into a black guy and is subject to racist police action; uber confident 'Scott' loses his power of hearing when his mobile phone plays up and comes to a sticky end trying to disable it; 'Jason' and his friend Kurt pick up a crazy old lady in the road who turns out to be rather a handful; drug dealing 'Kush' gets bitten while out surfing and turns to goo in the shower; and 'Bob' features a coked up guy hanging out at his friend Jeff's swanky pad and doing battle with a killer clown.

Seriously if I'd pitched that movie to you at funding stage, would you have given it the green light? Dead List feels thrown together, and the stories are all either offensive ('Zander') or just lame (pretty much all the rest). Logan Long's FX work on the 'Kush' segment is really good, but it should have been utilised in a movie where it would have had a much greater impact. Scrappy and inconclusive, this film could more accurately have been titled 'Dead Weight.' Not good.

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