Friday 24 January 2020

Films from FrightFest 2019 #7: Reviews of Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark ( USA/Canada 2019), Deadcon (USA 2019), Freaks (Canada 2018), The Black String (USA 2019), The Banana Splits Movie (USA 2019) and Here Comes Hell (UK 2019)

Well I'm still trapped in FrightFest. The popcorn's all gone and I'm pretty pleased that I'm on my own in the back of the stalls as anyone near me might start looking like dinner round about now. But the films keep playing...

Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark (USA/Canada 2019: Dir André Øvredal) It's such a shame that Øvredal's movie was landed with a 15 certificate because it's YA through and through, and will have to wait until its home release, where no-one gives two hoots about observing classification systems, to find its true audience.

As a 13 or 14 year old, I would doubtless have loved this film. Actually as a 58 year old I really liked it, although any suggestion via the plot that this is in any way a 'portmanteau' movie should be dispelled. it's a combo creature feature with a strong emo/life lessons theme.

We're back in 1968 in the fictional town of Mill Valley, Pennsylvania. Nixon is running to be the 36th President of the United States, and the draft teams are in town recruiting young men to do battle in Vietnam. Stella (Zoe Colletti, excellent) is a young nerdy girl of divorced parents who spends a lot of time in her room writing short stories, surrounded by monster movie paraphernalia. She communicates with her friends Auggie (Gabriel Rush) and Chuck (Austin Sajur) by walkie talkie, and it's not long before they're exploring a local house, the property of the Bellows family. Reputed to be haunted, Stella finds a book of handwritten stories, written by Sarah, the Bellows's acromegalic suffering daughter who met a nasty end back in the day. But Sarah isn't finished writing her tales yet, and as new stories mysteriously appear on the book's pages people that Stella knows are written in to the text, all meeting terrible ends at the hands of some very odd monsters - "You don't read the book, the book reads you!" concludes Stella, who with her new friend, draft dodging Ramon (Michael Garza) must return the book to its rightful owner and put Sarah's soul to rest.

While the trailer for SStTitD makes the creatures the thing, the assembled cast of broken scarecrows, bloated girls and toeless phantoms only really make fleeting appearances. This is basically an old fashioned Stephen King-esque story of friendship and vanished childhood, with a heavy 'Nancy Drew' vibe.' And while watching this obviously younger person targeted movie, it occurred to me just how many of the crop of recent PG-13 horror movies include 'finding out' sequences, whether to bond the cast or provide i dotting and t crossing and often rather prosaic solutions to whatever horror has been unearthed. Which is the case here, but doesn't stop the movie being a lot of fun along the way.

Deadcon (USA 2019: Dir Caryn Waechter) Here's a rather strange - and not particularly effective - ghost story/comment on the youth of today which is surprisingly conservative in its underlying message. Deadcon puts us in the world of the internet celebrity, more specifically Viewcon, a convention for vloggers and their pre/pubescent fans. At the centre of this is reality superstar AKA Ashley (Lauren Elizabeth) who is already internally withdrawing from the relentless requirements of the fans to be continuously upbeat. She may also be paying a little too much attention to the bottle, much to the annoyance of her friend/manager, pushy Kara (Mimi Gianopulos), who is responsible for ensuring that Ashley remains super chipper while keeping all her engagements.

A mixup in the hotel bookings means that Ashley ends up in Room 2210a, the last one left available; the only problem is that it's the locus for a haunting. Back in 1984 the room was occupied by John Althus, an IT guru whose revolutionary and innovative virtual chatroom 'Link RabBIT' was pulled by its sponsor. But its fate is spared by the arrival of 'Bobby,' a ghost in the machine, who persuades John to provide him with 'friends' in return for which he will supply chat room subscribers. A Faustian deal is struck, but the ghost of 'Bobby' is still active within the hotel, and his sights are set on Ashley and her vlogging friends.

I'm not really sure where to start with this one. In the flashbacks to 1984, where we see Althus and his social network progenitor application, we are clearly meant to infer that 'Link RabBIT' became very successful - at a human cost - and is ultimately responsible for the hotel full of rampaging, unsupervised children and adolescents charging up and down the corridors trying to track down their favourite media icon. While the continuity of history is a smart touch, there's a definite feeling of the director suggesting that the vengeful ghost is there to punish youth for its vanity. Indeed the hotel manager, who allocates the room to Ashley knowing full well its violent history, does so out of spite to punish Ashley and her bossy manager.

Audiences way younger than me may sympathise with AKA Ashley character but to me she and her hangers on are appalling ciphers for the fame hungry self obsessed culture of the 21st century. I'm fairly sanguine about this: I wouldn't want to spend any time with them, but each generation grows up wanting to ridicule the one below them. However Deadcon doesn't work because the spooky elements of the film battle against the human horrors on display: I was left thinking that the aim of the movie was for the audience to vicariously enjoy punishment being meted out to the young cast, but the movie isn't clever enough for that to feel anything but just plain nasty.

Freaks (Canada 2018: Dir Zach Lipovsky, Adam B. Stein) Directors Lipovsky and Stein are still in their infancy director-wise, but you wouldn't know it on the basis of this tense, taut actioner.

7 year old Chloe (an astounding performance from Lexy Kolker) lives with her dad Henry (Emile Hirsch) in a suburban house sealed off from the outside world. Dad's protection of his daughter verges on the insane, but there's a reason for his concerns. Chloe is a 'freak,' a person with special powers. She's not alone - Henry and Chloe's estranged mum Mary (Amanda Crew) also have them as do a number of other citizens. It's not clear how the situation has occurred (news footage on TV refers to '10 years since the attack') but what is apparent is that the authorities want to round up all the freaks and isolate them.

Luckily the local ice cream man (Bruce Dern), who lures Chloe into his truck on one of her rare forays outside, is also her grandfather. He too has powers and is aware that Chloe's 'gifts' are powerful - whereas dad wants to keep her hidden - and has done ever since she was born. G-dad feels that she should embrace her talents and face up to her would be captors and Chloe, who's been told that her mother is dead, believes the opposite (her powers have let her contact mum). The stage is set for a family reunion and a fight to the death with her would be oppressors.

The sci fi on a low budget approach of Freaks brings to mid the TV show Heroes (2006-2010) in its mix of mundanity and downbeat superhero antics. The movie scores extra points by positioning itself from a child's (ie Chloe's) perspective, meaning that for much of the movie we're as confused as she is by the application of her powers (the connection with her presumed dead mother and scenes where she teleports into her next door neighbour's daughter's bedroom and slumber party). Lipovsky and Stein keep the FX minimal (and mostly effective) and manage a decently staged last reel face off which benefits from not being overblown.

As Chloe Lexy Kolker, who already has some form with appearances in US TV shows, is a revelation as the gifted kid who is protected and shunned in equal measures: she reminded me of Drew Barrymore in Firestarter (1985). Bruce Dern shows that at 82 he can still do action roles, and Emile Hirsch is great as the dad who wants nothing more than to protect his little girl from the outside world, something most dads have in their DNA.

The Black String (USA 2018: Dir Brian Hanson) Pity poor Jonathan (Frankie Muniz): he's a nobody in a nobody town, who works at the local Stop 'n' Shop, and whose only entertainment seems to be his friend and co-worker Eric (Blake Webb) who dispenses endless advice about girls.

Problem is, Jonathan is girlfriendless. To overcome this he signs up for a phone sex line, and ends up securing a date with one of the girls, Dena (Chelsea Edmundson). After a night of torrid (but unseen) sex, Jonathan wakes up alone, and with a rather odd rash on his torso. And from then on things go from bad to worse. An increasingly unhinged Jonathan tries in vain to track Dena down - did she ever exist? - and ends up badly beating Eric, an act for which he's banged up. He's then released into the care of his parents who, it seems, have been bailing their son out for a while to avoid him becoming homeless, and have kept his room just as he left it, obviously expecting something like this to happen.

Jonathan consults a psychic, Melinda (Mary K. Vault) who provides him with a 'Spiritual Defense Safety Kit - Level 3' and encourages him to rid himself of the dark tendrils of gloop growing underneath his rash - the 'black string' of the title. But Jonathan is spiralling out of control, and feels that he's a marked man, pursued by unknown forces; is he bonkers or telling the truth?

The problem here is that I sort of didn't care one way or the other. The is-he-mad-or-is-it-really-happening? story is a well worn one, and its success lies in the sympathy the audience has with the central character. And while Muniz may have come a long was from his Malcolm in the Middle TV show days, and remains terribly convincing as the disturbed Jonathan, he's just too OTT and the film kind of putters out in the wake of his mania. It's a shame because Hanson's debut is not without its positives - it looks suitably grungy and Blake Webb is good for a few chuckles - but it's pretty unfocused, far too frantic, and I didn't really like it much at all.

The Banana Splits Movie (USA 2019: Dir Danishka Esterhazy) The slightly baffling premise to this movie sees an alternative reality where the BS (ahem) never stopped recording shows or being a 'thing.' We join a group of adults and their kids as they look forward to attending the recording of the anthropomorphic funsters' latest programme. Focusing on BS mad young Harley (Finlay Wojtak-Hissong), he's rather more excited about the prospect of seeing the Splits in the fur, as it were, than his disinterested old brother Austin (Romeo Carere) and tag-a-long friend Zoe (Maria Nash). Mum Beth (Dani Kind) and stepdad, the unfaithful Mitch (Steve Lund) make up the posse: the line for the show also includes a couple of non youthful social media bloggers and a pushy dad intent on introducing his daughter to the show's producers.

But inside the studio things are not going well, for the station owners have pulled the plug on the Splits: this will be their last show. Taking this news particularly badly are the BS's human stooge Stevie (Richard White) who disappears into a bottle, and the guy behind the Splits' animatronics (did I mention they're robots these days?) who may or may not have intentionally stuffed up their latest upgrade, turning the lovable beasts into killing machines.

The recording itself goes off ok apart from an increasingly sloshed Stevie, but it's when a select group of kids are invited backstage, Willie Wonka style, to meet the Splits, that the trouble begins: the BS gang turn on their captive humans and it's a race to stay alive.

The target audience for this nonsense will be forty/fifty somethings who remember the Splits from their childhood (they always used to freak me out, so I had a head start here) but anyone younger will probably be scratching their heads: incidentally that includes the director and scriptwriter, so quite why this particular revival was seen as a good idea heaven only knows. Anyhow this is pretty tawdry stuff: it's not particularly violent not remotely scary and very little is done to use the show's quirkiness to direct the shape of the action - it's kind of stalk and slash with outsize animal suits. As the final girl - ok woman - Dani Kind is effective as Split-bashing Beth, but she'd be better off in a different movie; I did quite like the soundtrack though, which includes some great minor chord riffs on the BS theme tune. Filmed in Cape Town, South Africa apparently, in a location that was presumably as cheap as the rest of the production.

Here Comes Hell (UK 2019: Dir Jack McHenry) ...and here comes a wonderfully inventive low low budget mashup of Andrew Leman's DIY Lovecraft adaptations and, er Evil Dead II. After an introductory warning to the audience a la Edward Van Sloan in Frankenstein, we meet George Walker, son of oil tycoon George Walker ("don't call me Jr!") on his way by train to visit old friend, feckless Victor Hall (Charlie Robb) who has just inherited a small fortune, including the dilapidated Westwood Manor. Courtesy of Walker's travelling companion (Robert Llewellyn), George learns the dark history of the house, previously owned by Ichabod Quinn, a master of magic and the occult, and that the pile has been empty for many years...until now.

Arriving at the manor, Walker is surprised that he's not the only guest: secretary and spook story writer Elizabeth (Jessica Webber) and her husband, failed tennis player Freddie (Timothy Renouf) also arrive as does Victor's sister Christine (Margaret Clunie). Victor is keen to hold a seance to communicate with Ichabod, and has invited Madame Bellrose (Maureen Bennett) for the purpose. As M. Bellrose falls into a trance, a portal opens into the spirit world, and Ichabod makes his presence felt - with murderous results.

Here Comes Hell is an absolute hoot. Shot for around £20,000 the movie is a triumph of ingenuity. It's also very funny, helped by a spirited cast who play up the 1930s country house character cliches without lapsing into irony. Sure most of the horror elements are rather shamelessly filched from other movies (including, most obviously, Sam Raimi's Evil Dead films), but it doesn't really matter as everyone seems to be having a great time, the practical effects are a wonder on the budget, and the black and white photography adds a touch of class.

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