Thursday 19 March 2020

Supermarket Sweep #14 - Reviews of The Haunting of Alcatraz (UK 2020) NEW WAVE OF THE BRITISH FANTASTIC FILM 2020, Bigfoot aka Hoax (USA 2019), The Appearance (USA 2018), The Intruder (USA/Canada 2019), PandaMonium (UK 2020) NEW WAVE OF THE BRITISH FANTASTIC FILM 2020 and Countdown (USA 2019)

The Haunting of Alcatraz (UK 2020: Dir Steve Lawson) Lawson's last two movies, Pentagram (2019) and The Exorcism of Karen Walker (2018) were made jointly with Jonathan Sothcott and I criticised both for being far too ambitious for a director of slender means. Fortunately The Haunting of Alcatraz finds Lawson back under his own steam, and is all the better for a simpler approach.

Set in Alcatraz prison in the 1940s (although actually partly filmed on location at the now abandoned Gloucester Prison, as well as his own Creativ Studios, which from the size of the sets is probably his living room), young, privileged Charlie Schmidt (Tom Hendryk) hopes to secure daddy's trust fund by gainful employment, and signing on as a guard at the infamous Alcatraz prison is an obvious career choice.

Some years previously the deranged killer Ed Wutz (Beau Fowler) killed himself in Cell 13 of the prison and vowed revenge from beyond the grave. Al Bradbury (Chris Lines) and Gerry Rebane (Marcus Langford), the guards who witnessed Wutz's suicide, are still on the payroll; Cell 13 forms part of D-Block - the solitary confinement wing  - and there's been a pattern of deaths when prisoners are transferred into the haunted cell. Schmidt slowly puts the pieces together, aided by prison nurse Sherry Vallens (Helen Crevel), but both of their lives are put in danger when their investigations reveal just how involved are Bradbury and Rebane.

I wasn't expecting Lawson's latest to be quite so stately - it moves at a glacial pace, and the supernatural elements are very slight. This is pretty much a straightforward prison thriller and, despite the fact that it's cobbled together from stock shots, ill matched exteriors and Lawson's usual budget-dictated close shots in lieu of any real sets, it's actually a pretty good film. Hendryk and Crevel, the latter a Lawson regular, make a good couple and Chris Lines is disturbingly nasty as the evil guard Bradbury. The boast of the story being based on 'actual events' seems to emanate from stories that persist about D-Block in Alcatraz actually being haunted. So now you know.

Bigfoot aka Hoax (USA 2019: Dir Matt Allen) The retitling of Allen's debut feature (as director) from Hoax to Bigfoot handily disguises a signposting of some plot twists which throw this rather tepid creature in the woods movie off course into some darker territory.

After a group of students are killed by person or persons unknown in the Colorado woods, slightly past it pushy TV producer Rick Paxton (Ben Browder) convinces the head honcho at the local network to let him put together a team, with a view to making a documentary about the so called 'Bigfoot' that inhabits the forest and is suspected of offing the kids.The crew he assembles are fairly standard B movie types: down on her luck simian-studying scientist Dr Ellen Freese (Cheryl Texiera) who could do with the $10K sweetener offered to her; the father of one of the missing students who knows the hills like the back of his hand (Max Decker); a new-agey cryptozoologist (Schuyler Denham) and a celeb news anchor with a drink problem (Shoshana Bush).

As you would probably expect, the next 45 minutes or so features a lot of walking around in the dark as the crew attempt to secure Bigfoot footage, some PG gore as they're picked off one by one by the shadowy thing, and a lot of chat as Allen, who also scripted the movie, tries to establish character: the only thing we really pick up on is that Rick is one mean mofo who'll stop at nothing to get his show in the can.

While Bigfoot has the decency to leave the old 'guy-caught-in-a-bear-trap' cliche until the 1 hour 18 minute mark, just when you're expecting this rather sorry mess to end - presumably with lots more screaming and running - final girl Freese discovers a house in the woods, containing a (on the surface) kindly French lady, who turns out to be the head of the house of a family of cannibals who've been dressing up as Bigfoot to obtain human main courses! And they have plans for Ellen that involve, well, the continuation of the species. I really didn't see this gory The Texas Chain Saw Massacre style final reel coming, so different is it to the rest of the movie. Doesn't make it good though, just surprising, and leaves the movie feeling like a bit of a mess. And they stole the final shot from the 1961 Adam Faith fake Loch Ness Monster vehicle What a Whopper! 

The Appearance (USA 2018: Dir Kurt Knight) Knight's second feature after his equally languid 2016 post apocalypse movie We All Fall Down is the story of an inquisitor, Mateho (Jake Stormoen) who is called to an abbey, somewhere in Europe in the Middle Ages, at the time of the great plague. He has been summoned to investigate the suicide - or murder - of one of the monks; a young girl, Isabel (Baylee Self) has been held for the crime and is accused of witchcraft. Mateho and his faithful assistant Johnny (the mountainous Kristian Game of Thrones Nairn) are concerned that the girl is to be executed without a fair trial, and set out to establish the facts of the case to reach an independent verdict. But all the time the strange goings on keep occurring, despite Isabel's incarceration, and the monks' attention increasingly turn to Mateho as the culprit.

If you're thinking at this point "hang on, isn't this plot a revisit of Umberto Eco's book 'The Name of the Rose', turned into a successful 1986 movie by Jean-Jacques Annaud?" then you'd be right: hidden symbols; a cabal of furtive monks trying to protect a secret; lots of shadowy goings on with a backdrop of chants emanating from the mouths of invisible singers. Unlike that movie however, there's a less prosaic solution to the mystery facing Mateho, although it becomes difficult towards the end to work out what is supernatural and how much is conjured up by the inquisitor's mind in dealing with his murky guilt-ridden past, in that - we learn by flashback - it's not the first time in his life that he has visited the abbey.

The Appearance, at just under two hours, seriously outstays its welcome in terms of the paucity of content. The movie is all about atmosphere, and to be fair Knight does a good job of convincing to the audience that we are not in Utah, where, like his previous feature, the movie was shot - this plays more like a UK or European feature. He's helped here by the cast, many of whom were also in the Utah located TV series The Outcast (of which Knight directed a number of episodes), so are used to wandering around in robes and speaking in hushed tones. It's a frustrating movie and I wanted to like it more - there are some impressive scenes towards the end bearing in mind the film's low budget - but it could really do with some tightening up and losing a few pounds off the running time.

The Intruder (USA/Canada 2019: Dir Deon Taylor) Every few years someone makes one of those 'nice-guy-goes-loco-and-may-be-hiding-in-the-house' movies: more recent films like Neil LaBute's Lakeview Terrace (2008) play on the audience's fears about security and who your neighbours might be behind the curtains, but there's whole slew of  'em from the 1980s and 90s.

This one, described by the LA Times on the cover as "a reverse Get Out" (whatever that means) has a thirtysomething couple moving out of San Francisco to a big pile in the Napa Valley, in search of solitude and a place to raise a family: he is Scott (Michael Ealy), a successful marketing executive, and she is Annie (Meagan Good), a writer for women's magazines - although we never see her write anything.

The house, which has been on the market for a while (1st alert) is being sold by Charlie Peck (Randy Quaid). When the couple first meet Charlie he's waving a gun in their face after shooting a deer (2nd alert). He shows them around, telling them "you're going to love my home" (3rd alert). For it seems that Charlie, despite selling the house to them for just over $3m and with plans to move to Florida, isn't actually thinking of going anywhere. He's converted the basement into a den, has intentions on Annie and a real need to reclaim the homestead.

This is well made but really stupid, a movie for the Friday night cinema crowd except I'm pretty sure it went straight to VoD and DVD. The basic dumb premise is that Scott smells a rat almost immediately, but Annie is far more accommodating, even when Charlie lets himself into the house unannounced. You can tick the cliched scenes off quite happily: Charlie spying on Annie in the shower - check; disposable support actor not noticing that Charlie has an axe when they're taking a late night walk together - check; people walking around after being stabbed in the back (literally not metaphorically) - check.

The Intruder is pretty poor stuff and about three decades out of date. The only thing to remark is that, although both Ealy and Good are actors of colour, the whole story isn't predicated on a racist motive.

PandaMonium (UK 2020: Dir M.J. Dixon) Someone - well maybe me if I continue to be confined to the house due to Coronavirus fears - should attempt a Pete Frame-style family tree of the cottage industry of UK filmmakers and actors who have been populating each others' films for a few years now. Let's do a little unpicking: PandaMonium's director, MJ Dixon, has made over 50 features, shorts and TV pieces, as well as acting in many of his own movies. Most of the cast have been in other Dixon films, or indeed features by the prolific but deadly dull Welsh director Andrew Jones. Other actors in the movie, like Martin Payne and Pablo Raybould, are also directors in their own right, Raybould most recently with The Snarling.

The hallmark of all of these offerings, as readers of my website will be aware, is that they're shot cheaply, are usually quite irreverent and go for broad laughs. They're not all successful, but I'm pleased that they exist.

PandaMonium (and honestly if ever there was a title thought up in a pub before one shot of the movie was considered, this is it) introduces us to Arielle Walters (Oriana Charles), ex 'entertainer' now wanting a proper job; she's applied to Killmore and Percival solicitors, and lead slimeball Damian Hook (James Hamer-Morton) has decided to hire her based on the quality of her legs. Hook, along with his colleagues on the 6th floor, is in the running to fill the place of his senior partner, vacated following present incumbent Philip Tanterton (Payne) who, in a prologue, is seen killed at the hands of a man wearing a large panda head. Once in her job, Arielle is disgusted at the treatment of women in the firm ("it feels like they've been hired off the sex offenders register," she remarks of her colleagues), who only seem to number her and pervy Carole from HR (Charlie Clarke); newly promoted Daniel Prince (Will Jones) seems about the only other decent soul in the place. Hook decides to hold one of the 6th floor's impromptu after work parties, but, as the booze and cocaine flows and the strippers arrive (one of whom, Jasmine - genre regular Dani Thompson - recognises Arielle from her former line of work), the panda headed killer turns up and starts offing the legal team and anyone else who gets in his way.

Apparently said killer - Jacob Jakushi (David Hon Ma Chu) - returns in Slasher House 2, which confusingly was released in 2016: the references to the same year in PandaMonium suggest that this one was made earlier than suggested, but that could just be Dixon pulling the audience's collective chain (even more confusingly the end of the movie also announces a movie called Slaypril Fools 82 - a short which was made last year); if so there's a real sense of Dixon and his chums creating a kind of home county slasher universe with these things. Whether you like PandaMonium or not will rather depend on how broad you like your humour - not much in my case, although there's a funny 'Talking Heads' gag which made me laugh. The cast clearly had a lot of fun making it, and I'd rather see stuff like this than some portentous turgid supernatural nonsense (mentioning no titles of course). Oh and it's good to see a film that had not one but two post credits sequences.

Countdown (USA 2019: Dir Justin Dec) Move over Final Destination movies, there's a new kid in town. When a group of young students all download an app called 'Countdown' they're kind of thrilled that the software tells them how long they've got until they die. Those who are due to live into their 80s or 90s look relieved but one girl is given three hours. Offered a lift home by her drunk boyfriend, she prefers to walk but gets a message that her user agreement has been broken; she was destined to die in the car, which ends up wrecked, with the seat she would have occupied completely mangled. Back home, a mysterious force finishes the job and her body lies lifeless on the bathroom floor at the exact time the app said she would die.

And so begins this rather tepid but not unappealing update of the FD franchise, which also manages to draw in strained family relationships, a bit of #metoo and a whole load of demonology (basically the force behind the app is a demon who stalks people who have cheated death).

The focus of the movie is on Emily Blunt-a-like Quinn Harris (Elizabeth Lail), a student nurse who when we meet her has just qualified. Treating the boyfriend of the recently deceased girl for injuries sustained in the car crash, Quinn downloads the app and isn't amused to find that she only has 2 days and 22 hours to live. Teaming up with all round nice guy Matt Monroe (Jordan Calloway), who also has a limited existence, she enlists the help of an excitable but knowledgeable priest, Father John (P.J.Byrne), who tells her the origin of the countdown myth and of the demon who tracks down those who seek to escape their designated fate. It seems that the only way to stop the thing is for someone who has accessed the app to die in advance of the allotted time. But who will it be?

Unlike the FD movies, which took more time in unfolding the story behind the events, the characters in Countdown are downloading (and dying) just minutes into the movie. While this sets up the film pretty well it also means that there isn't anywhere to go with the story for much of its running time. Nevertheless it's a fun if totally unoriginal ride, and Lail is good as the troubled nurse having to deal with mythical and real demons, the latter in the shape of the 'rapey' Dr Sullivan (Peter Facinelli). There are a couple of fx moments, include a 'foot' scene in a toilet, that are genuinely weird, plus the old 'whose-hand-am-I-touching?' trick which works really well; and the demon, once glimpsed, is pleasingly old school. There's not much new in Countdown, but part of the fun in watching is the familiar given a slightly new slant.

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