Friday 3 January 2020

Films from FrightFest 2019 #6: Reviews of Red Letter Day (Canada 2019), Bloodline (USA 2018), A Serial Killer's Guide to Life (UK 2019), Harpoon (Canada 2019), Mary (USA 2019) and Stalked (UK 2019)

Help! I'm still stuck in FrightFest! The doors are bolted and the only thing to eat is popcorn, but I do at least have the benefit of not having to sit next to anyone. And I get to watch even more Festival films.

Red Letter Day (Canada 2019: Dir Cameron Macgowan) The Purge movies, or more accurately the first instalment in that franchise, is the obvious influence for this satire of small town Canadian citizenry breaking down.

Divorced mum Melanie (Dawn Van de Schoot) has just moved into Aspen Ridge, a development of new cookie cutter homes, with her son Tim (Kaeleb Zain Gartner) and late teenage daughter Madison (Hailey Foss) who is, against mum's wishes, dating an older guy, Luther (Roger Le Blanc). Someone has been delivering mysterious letters in red envelopes to the development's homes, the contents of which all identify a different person in the neighbourhood with an exhortation for the receiver to kill them.

Melanie's contains a photo of her friend Alice (Arielle Rombough), to whom she decides to pay a visit to discuss the letters, leaving her kids home alone; unbeknownst to her, Tim has sneaked a carving knife into mum's bag, just in case. While Melanie manages to assure her friend that she harbours no murderous intentions, Alice's husband Lewis (Michael Tan), already no big fan of Melanie, discovers the hidden knife and assumes the worst. A fight ensues which demonstrates the key theme of the film - that civilised society can break down incredibly swiftly - and Lewis ends up with a knife in the neck. Meanwhile Tim's pursuer has arrived at the house.

From here on in Red Letter Day ups a gear into full on Purge territory, as people act on the letters' invitations and seek out their targets; there's also some sinister social media people wearing masks who may be orchestrating things (they're not - the culprit is far more prosaic). But those movies handled a problematic premise - would people really descend into anarchy and murder that quickly? - far more believably. And despite a very credible performance from Van de Schoot and the bizarre location (a new homes community seemingly in the middle of absolutely nowhere) Macgowan's first feature tests the patience despite its slim hour and a quarter running time. The satire isn't original and falls very flat, and the set piece action is all rather clumsy.

Bloodline (USA 2018: Dir Henry Jacobson) There's more than a whiff of the TV show Dexter in this ice cool study of psychopaths who keep it in the family, which concentrates on troubled new dad Evan (Seann William Scott) struggling to do the best for his new baby and his 'delicate' wife Lauren (Mariela Garriga).

Evan has grown up in an abusive household, his father violent and his mother over controlling (there's a faint suggestion of incest here too). In the film's prologue we see a nurse being knifed to death in the showers at work. The rest of the film takes place three months earlier (this plot approach is now as familiar as the omnipresent drone shot). Evan's attendance at the 'business end' of his wife's birth triggers flashbacks of people being killed, and we see the new parents struggle with their bundle of joy, a situation not considerably assisted by the arrival on scene of Evan's clingy mother Marie (Dale Dickey). Evan's a killer alright, but we learn that he focuses his murderous tendencies only on those who 'deserve' it. In his day job as a high school counsellor all those who seek him out have a story to tell, usually involving deadbeat dads being violent towards them. Using his role to give him access to information about the parents, Evan seeks them out late at night, using an empty housing estate as his killing room, and dumping their bodies in makeshift graves.

But this concentration of his victim selection is a little shortsighted, as it's not long before the police make a connection between the deaths. And the nurse we saw in the prologue? Well she's not so innocent, being the member of staff on duty after the birth, whose caustic tongue belittles Lauren's already limited confidence as a new mother. But is Evan the only murderer in town?

While Bloodline does fall apart a little in the last third - it sort of runs out of steam and the ending does it no favours - for the most part Jacobson's debut feature is a bone dry, darkly humorous study of a killing family - is Evan a natural born killer or, wait for it, a nurtural one? Superb performances from Seann William Scott - whose grin is a very sinister thing - and Dale Dickey as Evan's quite 'off' mum make this film. It's very watchable, and at times convincingly gory. I liked it a lot.

A Serial Killer's Guide to Life (UK 2019: Dir Staten Cousins-Roe) NEW WAVE OF THE BRITISH HORROR FILM 2020 Staten Cousins Roe’s debut feature is a kind of Nietzschean study of the self, filtered through Ben Wheatley’s Sightseers, in which we meet eternally drab Lou (Katie Brayben), a young woman who is the unofficial carer for her domineering mother. Lou is addicted to self help books, including those by Tony Robbins-a-like Chuck Knoah (Ben Lloyd-Hughes), although there are no signs yet of any self-improvement going on: but a mood board in her bedroom tells us that Lou desires a life beyond the four walls of her home.

While watching a flared trousered motivational speaker she meets icy Val (Poppy Roe), herself a self help guru, but with a difference: Val is also a serial killer. After a brief meeting/grooming session, Lou takes the drastic step of agreeing to accompany her new life coach on a road trip to meet Chuck Knoah in person. Lou abandons her mother and the pair take off. On the way to Knoah’s country retreat they encounter a succession of dodgy therapists, including an outward bound tree hugger and a couple using sound as their way back to health, who spike their drinks and get the dildos out.

Lou is rather slow to pick up on the fact that before they move on from each therapist Val (rather bloodlessly as it happens – it’s not that kind of film) despatches them, and the pair soon become the subject of a (wo)man hunt across the south coast area, as they move closer and closer to the self-important Knoah, who it seems isn’t quite the confident self-improver he makes himself out to be.

A Serial Killer’s Guide to Life is an uncompromising film that offers laughs when you feel you shouldn't be, with some killer one liners (pun very intended); set in a world of static caravans and the quiet beauty of the south coast of England (it was filmed in the hinterlands of Brighton) it has a decidedly 'off' charm. But as in any film where content is slender, it’s all about the performances really. As Val Poppy Rose remains staunchly one note in her performance, and if the audience were expecting Lou’s caterpillar to emerge as a self-discovered butterfly, well the director isn’t about to do that. What he does is to take the spirit of Thelma & Louise in capturing the freedom and nihilism of the girls’ trip. There may only be one way out for them, but they’re enjoying the ride on the way.

Harpoon (Canada 2019: Dir Rob Grant) In Rob Grant's aquatic chamber piece we're thrown in with three friends and an unnamed (and unseen) narrator, on board a boat. Munro Chambers is Jonah, a guy who, when we meet him, is trying to make ends meet after his parents have both died penniless and in debt. Along comes Christopher Gray as Richard (that name will be important later), a chap with full on anger management issues, intent on bashing several shades out of Jonah for - as he supposes - fooling around with his girlfriend Sasha (Emily Tyra). Luckily it seems that it was all a misunderstanding, and the three head off in Richard's boat to patch it all up, together with Rich's harpoon, a present from Sasha.

But what starts out as a reasonable pleasant afternoon trip turns into a nightmare when the trio find themselves snarking at each other again, and before we know it Jonah has a harpoon sized hole in his hand, and the boat has conked out and drifted into unknown waters with few provisions on board. With no hope of recovery, and Jonah's wound beginning to infect his arm, Richard mentions the story of his namesake, Richard Parker - a young shipboy in the 19th century sacrificed as food while adrift to feed two other sailors (the lot of the unfortunate decided by the drawing of straws) - and suggests they do the same.

This largely one set three hander draws on the hopeless waterlogged scenarios of Open Water (2003) and Adrift (2018), and the claustrophobia of Knife in the Water (1962) and Dead Calm (1989). Its cross and double cross plot makes the most of a limited setup, and the 'Richard Parker' story element lends a frisson of repeating history to the proceedings. Harpoon is graced with three strong central performances (it would be fairly tedious if that wasn't the case) and the narrator's voice and inter title cards hint that the whole thing could be read as one big morality play. It's quite fun while it lasts and some of the gore scenes (surgery by broken bottle neck, anyone?) had this reviewer's toes curling.

Mary (USA 2019: Dir Michael Goi) Goi has been around for a while but most of his directorial output in the last decade has been TV based (his last feature was the controversial 2011 found footage movie Megan is Missing concerning child abduction). Mary front and centres two A list-ish stars (Gary Oldman and Emily Mortimer) and dumps them into a well made but pretty trashy B movie about a haunted boat.

Oldman is David Green, a yachtsman keen to own his own rig. He's patching up his life after his wife Sarah (Mortimer) had an affair, and hopes that a boat trip with his family, which also includes teenage daughter Lindsey (Stefanie Scott) and her younger sister Mary (Chloe Perrin), will achieve this. At a boat auction Green ignores all the classier vessels in favour of a beaten up yacht. The family are appalled at the fixer upper he's purchased, but after a bit of elbow grease and the name 'Mary' applied to the craft to honour his daughter, the family, together with Lindsey's slacker boyfriend Tommy (Owen Teague) and David's first mate Mike (Manual Garcia-Rulfo) set sail; destination? The Bermuda Triangle.

Told in flashback from inside a Florida police station where Sarah and her kids are the only survivors, it's pretty obvious from the start that this is one trip nobody should have taken. and when Sarah explains to the rather incredulous agent carrying out the interview that "evil needs a body to exist, and the body was a boat", we know we're in the realms of the silly. For it appears that the craft has some history: previous crews of 'Mary' have all gone missing, and each time the boat has been chartered in the past it always ends up in the same Bermuda location, one where something awful has occurred. While Mary is full of the usual cliches (possessed crew members, watery footprints, lank haired spirits, that sort of thing) it's refreshing that the central characters are adults rather than teens for a change, and also that Mortimer's character doesn't succumb to the usual emotional distress that we're used to seeing in films like this; she's a tough cookie desparate to remain practical through the supernatural hi-jinx, and to convince her husband that she's back on track fidelity-wise. Goi should be thanked for not reducing the conclusion to a CGI fest (although he may have done if he had a bigger budget) and for only giving us glimpses of the creature haunting the boat. "The thing about boats is that there's nowhere to run" explains Mortimer at one point; but while Oldman and Mortimer give it all they've got in generating the claustrophobic tension needed, their classy turns can't disguise the essentially thinness of the whole thing. Nevertheless Mary remains a bit of a guilty pleasure.

Stalked (UK 2019: Dir Justin Edgar) A remarkably well constructed and tense thriller shot on a micro budget that conjures something out of, well, not much at all really. Stalked is the story of marine commando Sam (Rebecca Rogers); single mum with a feckless ex, landed with a sick child, she leaves the baby home alone while making a dash to the chemist. Only to find herself abducted and imprisoned in a factory that turns out to be home to Epsilon Military Solutions.

The twist here is that her abducter is wearing a stealth suit, making him invisible to her unless she catches him on CCTV or her phone. Sam isn't the first person to be kidnapped by the (near) invisible man; she runs into others who are also trying to escape, none of them very successfully.

Most of Stalked is a cat and mouse between the resourceful, ultra limber Sam ( a very visceral performance by Rogers, particularly effective when she has to act against someone invisible) and her pursuer. Oh and a drone; we haven't had many killer drones before and then two come along at once (FrightFest's other murderous drone flick being, er, The Drone). The effects are a little shonky but that's what you get on a low budget and the now you see him, now you don't appearance of the guy in the stealth suit remains rather unbelievable. But it's mastefully edited considering it's mainly one woman running around something that looks more like the packing area in your local B&Q, and mask any inconsistencies well. It's not going to bother anyone's memories of similar setups in Predator (1987) or a myriad 'Invisible Man' movies, but Stalked is effective, not overlong, and gets the job done.

No comments:

Post a Comment