Thursday 2 April 2020

Supermarket Sweep #15 - Reviews of Break (Russia 2019), Nefarious (UK 2019) NEW WAVE OF THE BRITISH FANTASTIC FILM 2020, Doll House (UK 2020), School of the Damned (UK 2019), Prey (Netherlands 2016) and Scare Attraction (UK 2019)

Break (Russia 2019: Dir Tigran Sahakyan) En route to a New Year's eve party in the mountains, a group of young people are in a race against time to catch the last cable car to their destination. Bribing the miserable car operative (Vladimir Grusev), whose shift has just ended, to take the car themselves - it's automated, so they should be able to stop when they arrive - the group set off. They are Katya (Irina Antonenko), who is secretly pregnant by boyfriend Kirill (Andrey Nazimov) and is looking to break things off with him; in your face Roma (Mikhail Fillipov, whose name and character have vanished from the imdb listing for some reason); and loved up couple Denis (Denis Kosyakov) and Vik (Ingrid Olerinskaya).

Kirill mislays his bag and ducks out of the car ride at the last minute - this will be important later, in one of the movie's heavy handed plot progressions. The cable car driver gets strangled by tension wires in a freak accident and, before karking it, manages to sever a cable, cutting off the power to the line and plunging the car into darkness. Inside the occupants make merry, at least in the short term; it's nearly midnight, and Kirill's bag has been found - it was there all along: it contains champagne, provisions and, annoyingly for Katya, an engagement ring. But the morning after the night before, when the power still hasn't been turned on (more witless staff arrive for the day shift but can't be arsed to check anything), things start getting ugly among the occupants. Meanwhile Karill, oblivious to what's happened except that he thinks his gf has given him the cold shoulder, goes about his business, unaware that he's the only person who knows where his friends are.

Break is occasionally visually impressive, although that's probably down to the stealthy use of mountainous stock footage, as most of the close up stuff in the cabin, particularly a fight on the roof, Where Eagles Dare (1968) style, looks rather fake. The key problem with the movie is that, unlike a similarly themed film Frozen (2010) which kept its focus on the plight of a young couple trapped on a chairlift, Break throws in too many on the ground scenarios and characters and as such dilutes any tension within the stalled cable car. Everyone in this movie, apart from Katya, is either poorly developed or just plain awful. Russian service personnel don't come out of it very well (it would be hard to imagine a US movie like this where part of the 'perfect storm' of disaster hinged on the sheer incompetence of employees) and Roma goes from amiable tubby guy to resident psycho in about twenty minutes. Sadly Katya, who is clearly being lined up as final girl, oscillates between vague resourcefulness and just clinging on for dear life, only for her salvation to take the form of a bloke, who gets to do all of the heroic stuff. "The mountains take theirs," one of the cast pontificates before all the trouble starts: they're welcome to it.

Nefarious (UK 2019: Dir Richard Rowntree) NEW WAVE OF THE BRITISH FANTASTIC FILM 2020 You have to hand it to Mr Rowntree; the day job green screener's micro budget follow up to 2017's Dogged chucks it all in, giving us two movies in one.

Potty mouthed angry young man Darren (Buck Braithwaite) is not in a good place: owing £2000 to Jack, a local heavy with no chance of repayment, and being sacked from his job for trying to make off with the petty cash tin. A houseful of slacker, druggy friends doesn't help either. Marcus, the boss of Darren's on/off girlfriend Jo (Abbey Gillett) is loaded and lives in isolation in the country. Marcus's learning disability brother Clive (Gregory A. Smith) lives in a separate building on his sibling's large estate, and Darren reasons that he'll be able to find the money he needs by breaking in with his dopey mates. But the robbery goes wrong - as in loss of fingers wrong - and the group end up in Clive's flat, where they discover a metal door behind a bookcase, and a nasty surprise within.

Other reviewers have been less that kind to Rowntree's movie, but the director and cast both give it their all, and any shortcomings in the acting department are soon forgotten in the movie's bloody final act. It's also one of the sweariest films I've seen for a while; Darren effs and jeffs like it's about to be banned, even keeping up the meanness after he's lost his digits to a booby trapped safe.

But what really impressed me was the stylishness of the thing, both in look and execution. The whole movie is framed by an after the event police investigation, which is a clever way of introducing us to the characters, and presages nasty things to come, even if the movie's first half is little more than a bunch of losers getting shirty with each other. There are some really great individual scenes, too, particularly a short sequence with the gang being taken out to Marcus's house by taxi; their collective anxieties reflected in the hallucinatory passing of roads and streets out of the cab window. And I'm not sure what budget was set for the film, but I was pretty much convinced that the filmmakers had gone down the Herschell Gordon Lewis route for some of the gore scenes. Pretty nasty stuff!

 Doll House (UK 2020: Dir Steven M. Smith) NEW WAVE OF THE BRITISH FANTASTIC FILM 2020 The first of two films in this SS by the prolific Mr Smith, a man keen to make Essex the horror capital of the UK. Previously he'd tried to make Essex the thug capital of the UK (not sure anybody would disagree) with output like Essex Boys: Law of Survival (2015) and I Am Hooligan (2016). Smith seems to have moved firmly into horror these days - although I'm sure there's room for a horror/boot boy hybrid - and I've seen most of his scary movies, like 2019's The Haunting of Borley Rectory, Doll Cemetery (the latter of which was cheekily re-released a couple of months ago as The House on Cemetery Hill) and the dreadful Scare Attraction, which you can read about below...and then avoid.

Anyway...Doll House is the story of Emma (Jennifer Leahey), a care worker at a children's home rendered mute due to a recent traumatic incident. The institution, whose present rather slender intake comprises sulky Noah (Connor Starling) and less sulky Steph (Saskia Sheridan), welcomes Ava (Saffia Larter-Green), a little girl whose only possessions seem to be a doll and a mahoosive dolls' house which she installs in her room (an increasingly common indie horror prop, presumably spawned by a lot of directors watching Hereditary and taking notes). On advice Emma has been to see a travelling psychic, Layla - we later learn the source of the trauma was Emma's daughter's death - which is a less than successful afternoon out. Layla (a nice day's work for Toyah Willcox, the first of two 'names' in the cast) gets a bit possessed during the session, an unintentionally hilarious scene which has Ms Willcox revisiting some moves last used in one of her 1980s music videos, and scaring the audience of about six people.

Back home Ava is showing that she's a bit weird too. She's also silent, whispers to her doll a lot and likes to stare at herself in the mirror. Emma was followed home from Layla's seance by Heather, a vlogger researching the paranormal, who takes an interest in the increasingly weird goings on at the home. A psychologist, James (Mark Wingett, you know, off of The Bill) turns up to interview Ava and has visions of being stabbed in the eye with some scissors. Soon enough, Ava is wreaking psychic havoc, and various members of the cast meet their untimely ends at the hands of the possessed little girl. But is this demonic young 'un really Ava, or a satanic interloper? And who can possibly stop her?

The Care Quality Commission would have a field day identifying the many and various ways in which the children's home is spectacularly mismanaged, but this is a movie, don't forget, and a Steven M. Smith one, so accuracy isn't key here. Nor is good acting, although as Ava Ms Larter-Green manages to be vaguely menacing. As you'd expect both Willcox and Wingett give competent performances, and while the former just seems to have a good time on these projects, the latter has a look that suggests he's well aware that The Bill finished thirteen years previously.

Doll House is very silly and parts of it stretch the patience, but it's quite good to see a 'moppet-from-hell' flick which harks back to demonic kiddie movies of the 1970s for its reference point, and it is a step up production wise from Smith's previous offerings, particularly in the final scenes of mayhem. Emma's one and only line of dialogue is "I'm completely fucking sick of this," and while I wouldn't go that far, this is still very much a Steven M. Smith film...and there's more to come, with at least seven more movies in post production. Eek!

School of the Damned (UK 2019: Dir Peter Vincent) The title might give you a clue to the inspiration for Vincent's debut feature. Yes, it's a modern update of the Village of the Damned/Children of the Damned movies (1960 and 1965 respectively - I'll put to one side John Carpenter's 1995 re-boot) with a touch of David Cronenberg's 1981 movie Scanners.

Tony Middleton (James Groom) leaves his London school under circumstances only slightly alluded to but clearly traumatic, and arrives in the rather less urban Herbert West (ouch!) Grammar School and Sixth Form College. Once there he fairly quickly detects that the pupils are somewhat better behaved than in his previous establishment. There's also a class, Year 8, comprising kids with problematic family backgrounds, who seem different to the others, and it becomes apparent that one of their number, a little girl called Sarah, is very different, communicating telepathically with her teacher and creating a hive mind with her fellow pupils to control the school.

The school head, Mr Abbot (Michael Geary) seems on the surface to be congenial and rather laid back, although Middleton's suspicions are aroused when he witnesses Abbot getting a severe talking to from an anonymous guy who clearly has some authority. Something's definitely afoot here, and when Sarah (Amelie Willis) gets the better of the school bully Georgie (Max Mistry), a kid at least eight years older than her, Middleton suspects that Year 8, with Sarah at their centre, might be more lethal than even he suspected.

Vincent's movie doesn't offer many explanations so it's not clear whether there's a scientific reason for the altered kids, or whether it's something more supernatural. This runs in the movie's favour, and some effective casting and credible acting also make School of the Damned a cut above most micro budget genre efforts. Some of the kids seem way too young to be attending a grammar school - would a teacher really be reading them 'Jack and the Beanstalk'? - but I liked the frequent references to Huxley's 'Brave New World,' the book that Middleton teaches in his class, as a metaphor for the hive mind's wider purpose. Sure Vincent isn't ashamed to plunder from his influences to put his story together, but as a debut feature this was very watchable, and I really liked Brad Watson's creepy theme tune as well.

Prey aka Uncaged aka Prooi (Netherlands 2016: Dir Dick Maas) Maas is probably best known for his 1988 thriller Amsterdamned; more recently he made the rather fun Christmas horror movie Sint (2010) and although his output has never been prolific, at nearly 70 he's to be admired for still directing, producing, writing and even composing the music for his movies. Even more impressive is that they, and Prey in particular, are usually very good.

A man eating lion (is there any other kind? Maybe a brie eating lion?) is loose in the beautiful city of Amsterdam. Local veterinarian surgeon Lizzy (Sophie van Winden) is called in to help when mangled bodies start turning up. The Chief of Police doesn't want to raise a panic - you don't say? - so ropes in his big game hunting cousin to take the lion out. Except of course the lion takes him out, so as a last resort Lizzy's adventuring ex, the one legged Jack (Mark Frost), is flown over from England, much to the annoyance of Lizzy's on/off beau Dave (Julian Looman). And so the stage is set for a no holds barred encounter between beast and, well, English dandy show off.

Prey is obviously in thrall to Jaws, wasting no time exposing the audience to the furry threat, but revealed gradually before bringing the thing out into the daylight. The beaches of Amity Island are here replaced by one of Amsterdam's main public spaces, the Vondelpark; there's the 'pretend-nothing's-happening' law enforcer and the usual 'is it or isn't it? feints: and the part of the maverick expert Quint in this movie is Jack, wounded in a previous big cat encounter and equipped with a supercharged tractor wheelchair which means that stairs don't phase him; Frost is good value here playing in the great spirit of eccentric experts; van Winden also turns in a fine action hero performance.

It's also cheerfully gory and Maas, a schlocky thorn in the side of serious Dutch filmmaking for much of his life, isn't afraid to show children falling victim as much as adults. Effects wise the lion is a combination of ok(ish) CGI and some practical stuff for the close ups; there's also a tram smash amidst the carnage of the streets of Amsterdam which was surprisingly effective for what must have been a modestly budgeted film. What's surprising is that among the horror and tension the movie often falls back on comedy, and that the movie is actually pretty funny - a mix that usually doesn't work. Yep, I liked this - Prey zips along, and it's a treat to see a director in full command of his movie.

Scare Attraction (UK 2019: Dir Steven M. Smith) Oh dear. The second of this post's SMS movies, and by far the weakest thing he's made to date. Scare Attraction is some sort of cash in on Halloween haunt movies like Hell Fest (2018) and Haunt (2019), but seems to have been constructed without a real story, and filmed on the hoof (in four days apparently - I wonder what they did for the other two).

So a group of chancers set up a Scare Attraction in some sprawling dump in the country (actually Poltimore House in Devon, a Grade II listed Tudor mansion ravaged by fire and general dereliction, which would have made a great location if the crew had moved the re-building materials out of shot). A group of reality TV stars are given an advance tour of the place before it officially opens to generate a bit of publicity (you know they are famous as there are literally nine fans waiting to meet them when they arrive).

The whiny reality TV group and their entourage are shown round the attraction, their guide being JP (Jon-Paul Gates, a Smith regular, but I don't recall him ever being this annoying) and spend some time in each of the themed rooms, which include a clown room, a mafia room (?) and a boxing room (??). Oh and there's also an escape room. Meanwhile a real killer prowls around, randomly offing people, and the whole group end up strapped to chairs in the escape room, while an unseen Jigsaw like character asks them to reveal their secrets before creatively killing them. And that's about it. There's a recurrent scene where visitors to the attraction walk into the clown room (filmed in night vision) and are scared by the sight of a greasepainted urchin. This happens again and again to pad out the running time, and on the same subject, there are no less than 11 minutes of beginning and end credits to perform the same function - not bad for a 71 minute film. If I'd seen this before any of Smith's other films, well let's just say that I would never have seen any of his other films. Truly putrid.

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