Friday 27 December 2019

Supermarket Sweep #12 - Reviews of The Amityville Murders (USA 2018), The Cleansing (UK 2019), Candy Corn (USA 2019), The Isle (UK 2018), Doll Cemetery (UK 2019) and The Curse of Halloween Jack (UK 2019)

The Amityville Murders (USA 2018: Dir Daniel Farrands) This was the movie Farrands made prior to the execrable The Haunting of Sharon Tate (2019) and continues his obsession of making a living (if indeed he does) from ‘real life’ horror stories.

So what we know is that, yes, in 1974 Butch deFeo murdered his entire family at their home in 112 Ocean Drive, Amityville, Long Island. The house’s name was ‘High Hopes’ which might equally apply to the drug addicted Butch, whose moments of lucidity gradually diminished to the point where he took a shotgun to the rest of the deFeos. Butch has spent most of his incarceration making up different stories about what really happened, not helped by the exploitation of the history for reputational gain by the Lutz family when they moved into the property in 1976.

The real back story to the murders, compete with added incest, had already been told in the otherwise quite amusing 1982 flick Amityville II: The Possession. So quite why Farrands felt that it was worth retelling it in 2019, in that the original account was a load of porky pies, is anyone’s business.

But although these days few if any believe that there was anything supernatural motivating Butch's killing spree, nevertheless Farrands doesn’t let that fact get in the way of telling his story. The director sets the scene of 1974 as clumsily as you like for a guy who was 5 years old at the time. There are references to ‘The Exorcist,’ a copy of the book 'Helter Skleter' lying on a coffee table, and footage of Richard Nixon’s resignation on the TV.

An early scene has Butch attending a party where one girl indulges in a version of the hidden writing game 'consequences' where, after the papers is handled round for completion in secret, the results read “Butch deFeo is going to murder you after going insane in the red room." Subtle. Also Ferrands sows the seeds of supernatural motivations by saying that the house was built in an area reputed to hold a portal where the dead can contact the living.

Butch’s relationship with dad Ronnie is not good. Ronnie is a guy who thinks with his fists, landing one on both Butch and his wife on regular occasions. Butch tells his sister that the only way to deal with dad is if he were 'gone for good.’ Ronnie also has mob connections, as evidenced in a scene where he takes money from some shady guys and hides it in a safe. Butch, clearly on the edge from the get go, has a vision of a man with a gun inside the house while in the car outside making out with his girlfriend. Mother finds drug paraphernalia in Butch’s room, some drawings in a book which further hint at her son’s state of mind, and a letter from Syracuse University rejecting Butch’s joining application. So far, so Farrands: some suggestions of what's to come, and a strong sense of the inevitability of fate.

But the real trouble begins when Dawn holds a séance to invoke spirits. Soon after noises are heard, a bird flies into one of the house’s windows, and the word ‘Pig’ is found written on a mirror in lipstick. Dawn tries another ritual to reverse what she’s done but it just makes things worse. Dawn’s bedclothes are mysteriously whisked away from her: shadowy figures follow Butch around the house, doors open and close of their own accord, and he hears voices telling him what he must do, until eventually he take up the shotgun and does it.

Quite what all this is supposed to mean, either as a movie or an addition to the Amityville canon, is for better minds than mine to navigate. The Amityville Murders isn’t a badly made film, just a totally pointless one, but the director seems to have found his niche in making these true life with a weird twist kind of movies, so I guess we should expect many more of them.

The Cleansing (UK 2019: Dir Antony Smith) The Cleansing's director clearly likes a period romp: his last two excitably titled features were 2014's Viking: The Berserkers and King Arthur: Excalibur Rising from 2017. For this one it's to 14th century Wales we go, and a plague ridden country at that.

Young Alice is doing her best to care for her disease ridden mother, but a group of villagers, led by the hooded 'Cleanser', obey the edict of the region that all carriers of the plague should be despatched and burned. Stunned into mute silence following her mother's death, that Alice also remains unaffected causes the villagers to gossip. Village leader and priest Tom offers to shelter and support her, although Alice rejects his advances because she knows that his real intentions are carnal rather than honourable. In response Tom accuses her of being a witch and tries her as such, first asking her to recite the Lord's prayer - she refuses - then ducking her in water, asking her to hold a hot stone, and finally stringing Alice up on a cross, until her only friend Mary releases her.

Through all these trials Alice remains silent but resolute, and when she makes her escape and is subsequently drugged and abducted, we fear the worst. But her abductor is James, a man of the forest, who knows of the uses of herbs, a sort of woodland chemist. It seems they are both immune to the plague. He encourages her to eat the root of a powerful plant to expand her unconscious mind. But in so doing, we're asked to consider whether Alice as innocent as she seems?

Smith aims for and achieves a slow burn, folky vibe with his third feature; there's not much going on but he convinces with his leafy setup. As the largely silent heroine of the story Rebecca Acock is serviceable as Alice, but she doesn't get much to do except suffer and look annoyed until the last reel (well not 'reel' but well, you know...). Rhys Meredith and Simon Pengelly are both suitably enigmatic as Tom and James respectively, but The Cleansing is really all atmosphere and little consequence. Still it's good to see a director working confidently within the restrictions of a limited budget.

Candy Corn (USA 2019: Dir Josh Hasty) Hasty's last feature was the Halloween set Honeyspider back in 2014. It's to the holiday season we return with Candy Corn, a mix of slasher, drama and police procedural, which builds up a great atmosphere but doesn't quite deliver.

A group of bullies, led by the awful Mike (Jimothy Beckholt) are up to 'their usual Halloween hazing.' This means giving local oddball Jacob (Nate Chaney) a hard time, something they do every year. But this time Jacob fights back, which leads Mike and his gang - Bobby (Caleb Thomas) and Steve (Cy Creamer), together with Steve's unwilling girlfriend Carol (Madison Russ) and sleazy hanger on Gus (Sky Elobar) - to kick him to death.

Luckily - or unluckily, depending on how you look at it - the circus is in town, and leader of the local freakshow Dr Death aka Lester (Pancho Moler) applies some voodoo to Jacob's corpse, along with a repulsive mask, and before you know it the oddball is back, 'Toxic Avenger' style, to 'rise and obey' and avenge his death at Lester's bidding: local non gun carrying Sheriff Sam Bradford (Courtney Gains) takes a long time to work out what might be going on, even though he's ringleader Mike's dad.

Candy Corn's strength is in its look and feel. It's set in a mid West town before mobile phones, all flat one level homes and big autumn skies, where even the police precinct has Halloween decorations. Some crisp photography by Ryan Lewis shows off the colour palette - mainly browns and oranges - to great effect, and nearly all the cast look scuffed and downtrodden.

Hasty aims for a slow burn feel to his movie, but at times it's nearer to no burn. It's clear that he wants his murderous set pieces to stand out, but the kills, although gory (including spine ripping and tongue severing - we're almost in Herschell Gordon Lewis territory here) - lack the punch he was looking for.

Cast wise the young gang are perhaps not as young as the story suggests, although Beckholt has a hissable meanness. Better are Pancho Moler as the diminutive freakshow owner and voodoo master Lester, who convinces in his smeared carnival makeup and ill concealed hostility to those around him (although his 'freaks' don't seem to be particularly odd, unless you think being a bit on the large side is odd), and former The Greasy Strangler star Elobar as grubby, lank haired Gus, pretty much reprises the same role from his earlier movie. PJ Soles - of original Halloween (and Carrie) fame, lands a support role as a member of the police team, and genre standby Tony (Candyman) Todd is one of Lester's grumbling carnies.

At only 85 minutes long, Candy Corn still manages to drag in places. It's a pity because the movie has bags of atmosphere, but it's let down by a meandering pace and story points which remain underdeveloped (for example Lester had clearly done the whole resurrection shtick before, and at one point declares "I will never die" suggesting something otherworldly, but these are never explored). Shame, but still worth a look.

The Isle (UK 2018: Dir Matthew Butler-Hart) Here's a strange, atmospheric little movie, set in the mid 19th century, concerning three merchant seamen who are the only survivors of a capsized ship bound for New York. They are captain Oliver Gosling (Alex Hassall) and crew members Cailean Ferris (Fisayo Akinade) and Jim Bickley (Graham Butler). Adrift in their lifeboat and hopelessly lost somewhere off the coast of Scotland, the sailors spy an island which is not mentioned on their maps and charts.

Once ashore, and initially believing the place to be deserted, they encounter a small community of islanders who offer assistance and medical help - Gosling sustained an injury in the shipwreck - but are guarded and unfriendly. The head of the island, Douglas Innis (Conleth Hall) and his wife Lanthi (Tori Butler-Hart, the director's wife) do their best to discourage the men to explore the inhospitable land mass, and at night, while the winds rage around the house in which they're staying, they seem to hear the ghostly voice of a woman singing. Finally, with no offer of a boat back to the mainland and fearing that their lives may be in danger if they remain, the seamen plan their escape. But the island, or something on it, clearly has other ideas.

In its slow pace and atmospheric use of the island's isolated location, The Isle at times feels in execution like a good old BBC 'Ghost Story for Christmas.' All the performances remain understated, the mood sombre and foreboding, and, in keeping with those classic TV dramas, little actually happens for most of the film. But it's the increasing sense of unease which makes this successful, in part due to the movie's rural setting but also a small cast of actors whose muted performances keep things tense if for the most part unexplained (although the film's final reveal does well to shift its mood without sacrificing the sombre pall that The Isle exerts on the audience). The Isle seems to have been rather overlooked as a fine example of a British horror flick and also a good entry in the f*lk h*orror genre: it deserves a wider audience. Recommended.

Doll Cemetery (UK 2019: Dir Steven M. Smith) After the superior thrills of our last movie, we're back to the staple of the Supermarket Sweep strand of this blog: yep, the micro budget British horror film. This one does at least try and break free of the usual narrative conventions associated with this type of flick. so let's not be too hard, eh?

Brendan (Jon-Paul Gates, a Smith regular who has a hairdo you can't take your eyes off of) is a writer whose current dry period, triggered by separation from his wife and a drink problem, is causing his literary agent Arthur (Matt Rogers) some concern. Arthur decides to send Brendan to a remote country retreat, free of WiFi and any other distractions, so that he can complete the book he's contracted to provide. En route to the property he bumps into a seductress (Kit Pascoe, and no I'm not being sexist, that's how she's credited) who's all over him like a rash, so he feels his sojourn might not be all that bad, particularly as she invites herself over, complete with a couple of bottles of best petrol station wine, to flirt some more.

In a prologue, we've seen a woman, who we later learn is also a writer who has missed a deadline, receive a large parcel that turns out to contain a murderous doll who hammers her to death. So it's perhaps no surprise when Brendan takes delivery of a similar large box, which contains the same boy sized inanimate doll, complete with red smoking jacket. The author props the doll up on a chair, but it's not long before the mannequin starts moving about (it's never where Brendan last left it), eventually coming to life with murderous intentions. But is this really happening, or is this just Brendan's imagination bringing the words of his latest novel to life?

Who knows, really? Doll Cemetery is one confusing mess, ably unassisted by some ropy acting and a crummy rural location with one of the most unappealing holiday rentals I've seen for quite some time (apols if this was the director's house). Where the film does score on the fright front is the doll, also called 'Arthur' (and yes there is a link with the agent), who during the course of the movie grows in size while still wearing a tiny face mask that makes all the contours of his body look wrong. It's a shame that this rather striking figure could not have been deployed in a more effective movie. Oh and there isn't a cemetery in sight.

The Curse of Halloween Jack (UK 2019: Dir Andrew Jones) I swore I'd never go back...never see a film by that director again. Well I relented reader, and you shall read the results. Which, and I'm quite surprised I'm writing this, aren't too bad.

Set just two years after the murders documented in the first film of this, er, franchise, The Legend of Halloween Jack, the town of Dunwich struggles to deal with the aftermath of the slayings which cut a swathe through the village at the hands of the scarecrow killer. Put upon Mayor Lou Boyle (Phillip Roy) has banned the celebration of Halloween, much to the chagrin of Detective Earl Rockwell (Patrick O'Donnell), but that's the least of his problems: the local Cult of Samhain (a group of pan sticked troublemakers) are intent on causing trouble and are taken out by trigger happy cops as they invoke a ritual on the site where Halloween Jack was interred at the end of the first movie.

The blood of one of the slain coven leaks into Jack's resting place and before you know it the behatted creature with the glowing face is alive - or undead, more accurately - again, and terrorising the locals. His attentions turn to a party of, ahem, teens who have gathered to defy the Halloween ban and party like it's October 31st. Which it is. One of the party guests is Danielle (Tiffani Ceri, a regular in Mr Jones's movies) who is the Mayor's daughter and a specific target for Halloween Jack - and with good reason (no spoilers here but if I mention Jamie Lee Curtis in Halloween - well hopefully you get the picture). The scene is set for a final showdown between the kids, the police and a bizarre Snake Plissken character called Dennison (Lex Lamprey).

Jones is still doing that thing of trying to make his movies look and sound American, despite the right hand drive cars, UK vehicle license plates and the obvious Welsh village locations. But this time nearly everyone seems to have given up the ghost accent wise - the only characters that didn't get the 'leave off the US drawl' memo were Lamprey and Neil-Finn-a-like O'Donnell: and there's an unintentionally funny scene where Lou advances his daughter some money in US dollars.

But Jones actually manages some excitement in this movie, as well as some intentional laughs (the scenes between partygoers Glen (David Lenik, who was so good in this year's An English Haunting) and Tom (Alastair Armstrong) are very funny indeed. I've always maintained that he employs good technical staff and for the most part credible actors, but seems to have no idea how to direct a film. Well I'm pleased to report that either he's finally learning his craft, or someone has taken over the creative controls. For most armchair critics the response to The Curse of Halloween Jack will still revolve around not being able to get back 75 minutes of their life, but this has slightly restored my faith in this previously fairly maligned director.

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