Friday 6 March 2020

Supermarket Sweep #13 - Unlucky for some! Reviews of Mermaid's Curse (Canada 2015), The Curse of La Llorona (USA 2019), Snatchers (USA 2019), The Gallows Act II (USA 2019), Mayday (USA 2019) and The Jack in the Box (UK 2019) NEW WAVE OF THE BRITISH FANTASTIC FILM

Mermaid's Curse (Canada 2015: Dir Nicholas Humphries) We start our 13th SS post in fine style - well in terms of titling anyhow. Mermaid's Curse started off life as 'Charlotte's Song' then became 'Mermaid's Song': the 'Curse' was obviously added to make it sound way scarier.

A loose adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen's 'The Little Mermaid', set in a 1930s Oklahoma dustbowl community, Humphries' film centres on a sort of bawdy house with an aquatic theme. Run by father of four daughters George (Brendan Taylor), the family put on shows for the local lads, keeping it clean but gently suggestive. As the movie opens the show's star, mum Serena (Natasha Quirke), takes her own life, leaving a distraught family including favourite daughter Charlotte (Katelyn Mager) who possesses something of the siren voiced qualities that her mother used to captivate audiences. As the shows dip in quality and the takings dry up, visiting 'businessman', the hissably evil Randall (Iwan Rheon) bails out the show in return for bawdier content and a requirement to pimp out the girls to both the audience and his henchmen.

But Charlotte, like her mother, has a secret. As well as her siren like voice she is a mermaid who has taken human form, a fact which mum - and a strange grandma character too - kept from her. And in her mer-form she's a whole lot more lethal than the popular image of the half-woman, half-fish creature. Sadly all this action only takes place in the last few minutes, rendered almost entirely in shaky CGI. So for most of Mermaid's Curse we get a lot of budget period detail, some ripe chat which borders on the amateur dramatics at times, and, well, not a lot else.

The show's songs are probably the highlight of the movie: although they're a little too contemporary for the 19th century setting, they're convincingly delivered by the showgirls and the overall seediness of the flophouse boardtreading feels authentic. Which is a good job as we spend an awful lot of time in that room, waiting for something to happen. And apart from a few brief bloody sequences Mermaid's Curse remains a tastefully told tale of rather distasteful goings on. It's not terrible, just not terribly needed, and the inclusion of Game of Thrones' Rheon in the cast seems the only reason it's sitting on supermarket shelves five years after it was made.

The Curse of La Llorona (USA 2019: Dir Michael Chaves) We all know the 'infinite monkey' theorem - which concludes that a primate hitting keys at random on a typewriter for an infinite amount of time will almost surely type recognisable text, such as the complete works of William Shakespeare. Well I have a feeling those monkeys have been employed on this minimum opus, which is a bit unfair to the actual writers, Mikki Daughtry and Tobias Iaconis, but, well, you try sitting through it.

Ostensibly part of The Conjuring 'puniverse' (sic) in that the priest trying to assist the afflicted family, Father Perez (Tony Amendola) was in Annabelle - and references the doll in this film - it's a rather wretched spook movie that revolves around a woman who, back in the day, drowned both her kids after discovering her husband with another woman, becoming a restless soul hunting down other children as a result.

It's 1973: single mum Anna is struggling to balance the requirements of bringing up two kids with a job at child welfare. She's assigned to deal with a suspected abuse case and, visiting the home, finds the kids hiding in a cupboard, the door to which is daubed with mystical symbols. The suspected mum, who of course isn't really guilty of inflicting the burn type marks that appear on the kids' wrists, warns of the spirit of La Llarona and before you know it Anna's being spooked by the spook and also under investigation for abuse in her own family,

This totally by the numbers movie has jump moments you can time your watch by and centres Anna's two kids as the main people in peril to target a PG13 audience, while the rest of us sit there failing to identify or sympathise with anything that's going on. Everyone has already queued up to give this one short shrift so I'll not labour the point, except to say that a small handful of atmospheric moments couldn't save this anodyne and uninvolving feature. 

Snatchers (USA 2019: Dir Stephen Cedars, Benji Kleiman) The love affair with 1980s creature features continues with this movie, developed from both a 2015 short and a 16 part TV series, and employing many of the same cast.

Sara Steinberg (played exuberantly by the wide eyed Mary Nepi) loses her virginity to athletic co-student Skyler (Austin Fryberger) who promises to pull out at the crucial moment in lieu of possessing a condom - guess what, he doesn't. Within 24 hours Sara not only falls pregnant, but nine months size pregnant and gives birth alien. But there's worse - it's twins! And the next little bundle of joy is even clawier and scalier than its brother/sister/whatever.

From the brief description above you'll have guessed that Snatchers is a horror comedy that's full of young people with smart mouths speaking lines that are more often than not only passably funny. The alien, who latches itself to the back of a victim's head then controls the body, is straight out of Robert Heinlein's 'The Puppet Masters' but with anything sinister cast aside in favour of more laffs. The reason for this alien activity is traced back to Skyler, who was infected with an extraterrestrial virus while on holiday in Mexico with his folks, which would be a nice idea if it wasn't shoehorned in at the last minute to explain everything.

Nepi is very good as the innocent (gormless?) Sara, and she makes a good double act with her estranged then reconciled best friend Hayley (Gabrielle Elyse). While I could see what Cedars and Kleiman were trying to do with the material, and were very sure in their execution (they'd had enough practise!) the whole thing looked good but came off as really inconsequential. And, sadly, not that funny.

The Gallows Act II (USA 2019: Dir Travis Cluff, Chris Lofing) I bet you were all really keen to see more of the supernatural adventures of the late Charlie Grimille, who we first saw stalking high school students in Cluff and Lofing's 2015 rather grim found footage movie The Gallows? Thought not, but you've got it, as the guys return for more haunted hi-jinx after the first instalment netted a tidy $43 million in box office receipts.

OK so let's recap: in 1993 during a performance of the play 'The Gallows' one of the cast - Mr Grimille - tragically died in a hanging scene that went wrong. Twenty years later the school mounted a restaging of the play in honour of Mr G's death, but revenge arrives from beyond the grave, placing the teen actors in peril.

A couple of years later, Auna Rue and older sister Lisa (Ema Horvath and Brittany Falardeau respectively) move to California. Lisa is a clothes designer and Auna, who has her own YouTube channel, has enrolled at drama school. Throughout her life Auna has harboured acting ambitions but her family have not been supportive, and watching her first monologue in front of a class, you can understand why. But when she happens on a copy of the 'The Gallows' in the library, things change: her first class speech from the play has them eating out of her hand, and her on line followers increase exponentially when she films herself reading the same passage from the play on webcam. But there's something odd in the background of the footage, and very soon Auna is enmeshed in the activities of the social media 'Charlie Challenge' community, and realises that the curse of Charlie may be upon her.

The sequel to The Gallows adopts a kind of meta Blair Witch 2: Book of Shadows approach to the original material, focusing on the viral possibilities of the story and the anonymous 'Charlie Challenge' contributors, headed by the mysterious 'AlmostFamous99' who seems to be able to track Auna's every move. But it fails at almost every point, a PG-13 lite film that, even for a Blumhouse production, is so lacking in incident, plot and narrative coherence, that you almost wish you were watching the original movie (and as if to answer that, it actually throws in some scenes from The Gallows which make you realise you were wrong on that count too). Ema Horvath is rather too sickly sweet as our social media heroine - and is it just me or is the whole YouTube referencing in films getting really tired? - and while Act II does at least deliver a downer ending, it's hard to feel sorry for the victim or remember any of the cast's character names. This is bland, tedious filmmaking of the lowest order: it was apparently made directly after the first film and shelved until last year. What a surprise.

Mayday (USA 2019: Dir Massimiliano Cerchi) There were a couple of internet rumours that actors either failed to get paid or were paid late on Cerchi's last movie, 2017's The House of Evil, which may or may not have been officially released. Certainly his previous releases have him marked as a kind of Uwe Boll figure, and on the basis of Mayday they'd not be wrong.

On a plane bound for London from New York, a motley assembly of passengers presents like characters from a B disaster movie. There's newly married couple Mark and Penny who can't keep their hands off each other, sleazy music video producer Smokey (who gets a final reel personality shift into a caring soul), Doctor Singh, a Sikh guy who comes in for a bit of casual racism, Nero, a strange dude with an unnatural attachment to his attache case, psychologist Rochelle and lantern jawed air marshal Adam Anderson (Michael Paré, an actor whose z movie credit list is quite something to behold). Keeping the passengers in check are hostesses Lynn and Aeryn, who handily detest each other, and a couple of on the make pilots.

Mid flight the cabin lights flicker and lusty Mark vanishes, shortly followed by other passengers. What's going on? Uber cool Rochelle (stuntwoman Crystal Santos) has an explanation, drawing on a parallel story from history of the figure of death playfully picking off sailors, one by one, from a boat that was already destined to sink. Is, as Rochelle muses, an evil spirit abroad on the plane, or maybe a demonic presence...or death itself? She's right, and it's the last option if you're still paying attention. Luckily the contents of the strange guy's attache case include an ancient grimoire and a ritual dagger, both of which can be used to exorcise the on board presence.

Watching this laughable but oddly curious movie, it's difficult to know how seriously to take it. I'm guessing that the crew got hold of a cabin simulator as nearly all the 'action' takes place in one location. There are a couple of line fluffs left in and I'm assuming the external shots of the plane in flight have been borrowed as the tail fin logo has been digitally obscured. Ripe dialogue abounds: "I'm not being rude," says Adam, poring over the ancient book, "I'm trying to read Old English!" and stewardess Lynn, who spends most of the movie melting down and repeating things that others say, screams, in the middle of one of her freak outs, "Freaking out is not going to solve anything!"

Garbage yes, but at an hour and 10 minutes, it's very watchable garbage, and in what other film can you see two exorcisms on a plane, one conducted in ancient English and the other in Urdu?

The Jack in the Box (UK 2019: Dir Lawrence Fowler) Fowler's second feature, while by no means a masterpiece, is considerably better than his first offering, 2018's Curse of the Witch's Doll. Casey Reynolds (Ethan Taylor) is an American working at the fictional Hawthorn Museum, a National Trust style setup in the English countryside (actually it's Abington Park in Northamptonshire). Reynolds has come to the UK to escape the guilt of failing to respond to a call from his girlfriend who was phoning shortly before being attacked and killed.

While doing some clearance work at the museum he finds a square container, a kind of larger Lament Configuration contraption which, when activated, unveils a jack in the box. But the device has a history: the 'jack' is actually a demonic clown figure who rises from the box every now and then to feast on six victims. Staff and museum visitors start to go missing, and Reynolds is very much in the frame for the disappearances. But with the aid of local demonology author Maurice Ainsworth (Tom Carter) Casey learns about the demon and, more importantly, how it can be returned to the place from where it emerged. His only other aide is fellow museum worker Lisa (Lucy-Jane Quinlan) who, initially unbelieving of the supernatural explanation for the disappearances, quickly changes her mind when she claps eyes on the thing.

So far so low budget shot on digital fare then. But The Jack in the Box has some advantages over its DTV competitors. Firstly the full sized figure of Jack is actually quite unnerving, a combination of some impressive costume design (the responsibility of one of the many Fowler clan behind the scenes in this film) and the movements of the creature himself, played by Robert Nairne (who was, among other credits, the monster in 2017's Marrowbone and a werewolf in 2015's Howl). Another plus is an astonishingly well written score which for once eschews the string synthesiser and is played on proper old school instruments; ok so the drama of the soundtrack can on occasion rather run away with itself in relation to what's actually happening on screen - which is often not much - but it still sounds impressive. The cast are also a notch above the usual players found in this sort of thing, and their skills stop the rather leisurely first half of the movie from getting too irritating. The Jack in the Box has a satisfying downbeat ending and, predictably, a way in to a sequel. Not bad at all.

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