Sunday, 30 August 2020

Films from 2020 Digital FrightFest Part 1: Reviews of There's No Such Thing as Vampires (USA 2020), 12 Hour Shift (USA 2020), The Honeymoon Phase (USA 2020), The Horror Crowd (USA 2020) and Playhouse (UK 2020) NEW WAVE OF THE BRITISH FANTASTIC FILM

There's No Such Thing as Vampires (USA 2020: Dir Logan Thomas) We are by now quite used to films that fetishise movies of the 1980s in look, feel and soundtrack choices. But Thomas's latest feature goes one step further and gives you a movie that literally feels it was pulled down from the video shelves of a 1986 rental establishment.

It's the day before Halloween, and Joshua (Josh Plasse) is on the run from something shadowy and evil. He bumps into a girl, Ariel (Emma Holzer) and before you know it, they're driving away in her car, pursued by a huge truck. Stopping off to get gas and directions at a church (occupied by 80s doyenne Meg Foster who, as Sister Frank, tells them about the "dark wind" which has "drained all life from this valley") they eventually arrive at Ariel's friend David's place (Will Haden), who lives with his friend Peter (Scott Lindley). David is a movie obsessive with familial links to Hollywood, who feels that he's seen Joshua before. He screens some footage of an old silent movie featuring a magician character called Maximilian. And sure enough also in the footage is a guy who looks just like Joshua! This is the jumping off point for the explanation of how the vampire, Joshua and Ariel are connected, but I'll leave you to discover that. Anyhow, it's not long before the vampire has caught up with them, despite their appeal to the cops for help: "there's no such thing as vampires!" says the policeman on duty, just before the lights go out, and all PG hell lets loose.

The only thing missing from Thomas's faithful recreation of cheesy 80s horror flicks is the VHS tracking marks on the print; everything else is present and correct. Throbbing Carpenter like soundtrack interspersed with anaemic FM soft rock tracks? Check. Ridiculous exposition that tries to make a chase movie more grand than it is? Double check. On point discussion about movies with Hollywood Dave, with dumb Peter thinking, in a discussion about Carpenter's Halloween, that they're referring to the Rob Zombie remake? Triple check! It perhaps goes without mentioning that There's No Such Thing as Vampires - which if there was any justice would be the title of Grady Hendrix's next book - is hugely fun, if you like that kind of thing. And if you do you'll be pleased to know that there's a sequel on the way, which Thomas promises will be "bloodier" than the first film.

12 Hour Shift (USA 2020: Dir Brea Grant) Grant, a renaissance woman de nos jours - she acts, writes and illustrates comic books, produces and directs - has given us an American class war parody perfect for these Trumpean times.

It's 1999, and Mandy (an astonishing performance by Angela Bettis) is a nurse at an Arkansas hospital, just starting her shift. But she's far from the 'angel' we come to expect from members of the profession; she's drug dependent, and runs an organ farming business - selling various bits of human offal to shady buyers after despatching the donors with bleach - with fellow nurse Karen (Nikea Gamby-Turner), in return for cold hard cash.

But on this particular night things are about to go very wrong. Mandy sells a kidney to her strung out cousin Regina (Chloe Farnsworth) for her horrible boss. But Regina promptly misplaces it, which enrages the boss man, and a replacement must be found. Into this already Coen brothers style farce is added David Arquette as a thug who ends up in the same hospital, Mandy's brother Andy, admitted after an overdose, and a whole load of eccentric side characters whose inclusion seems aimed at frustrating Mandy's ability to get though her shift. Oh and there's a couple of musical interludes too.

Grant's script (yep, she wrote this one too) is smart but not in itself overly humorous; the dark comedy of the film is achieved via its wayward characters and a rising sense of panic. I wasn't quite as excited as some other reviewers about this film, but there's an overall atmosphere of sleaze and anarchy which is tightly controlled by Grant's assured direction, And Bettis is uncomfortably watchable as the nurse struggling to keep it all together.

The Honeymoon Phase (USA 2020: Dir Phillip G Carroll Jr) A young couple, Tom (Jim Shubin) and Eve (Chloe Caroll, trying on and not being very successful at adopting a British accent) apply to join a project, which invites married couples to stay locked up in a secure facility for 30 days under intense and constant CCTV scrutiny, with $50,000 offered to any couple who complete their stay. There's one snag: Tom and Eve aren't married. So they fake it, and get the gig. After their round table induction with the other couples (all men/women partnerships; no same sex marrieds here), the pair are whisked off, sedated, and when they wake up, Tom and Eve find themselves in a luxury apartment, complete with writer's room for the man of the house (Tom is a budding playwright) and a kitchen complete with dispenser that mysteriously produces anything desired by the couple; a device that remains unexplored in the movie. Oh and there's a holographic help assistant, who will later help with the division between the couple.

Almost from the start (with Tom aggressively having sex with Eve) the cracks start to show; the real problems start when Eve tempts Tom with some LSD laced cookies that she's managed to smuggle in - bad girlfriend! Tom becomes more withdrawn and faces writer's block, while Eve wonders what's happened to her boyfriend and becomes more afraid of him: if it sounds like a lift from The Shining's setup, you'd be dead right, and there's even an 'all work and no play' style scene later in the movie when Eve finds out what Tom has been working on. Oh yes, and Eve falls pregnant (resulting in a rapidly developing foetus that's just one more unexplained aspect of the movie).

The Cabin in the Woods style curtain whisking in the third act, which discloses the real nature of the experiment, sets the scene for a denouement which is both offensive and narratively stupid. But is it more offensive than the scene where pregnant Eve tries to self abort using a heated hair roller? Difficult to decide. The problem with The Honeymoon Phase is that it wants to pretend that it's throwing up moral condundrums when in reality it's just a well photographed but ham fisted sci fi drama which leaves a nasty taste in the mouth, and where women are depicted as victims or mothers. In the credits the director puts 'God' at the top of his 'thanks' list. So maybe this is really about punishment for Tom and Eve lying about not being married? Yeah, you're right. I didn't like it.

The Horror Crowd (USA 2020: Dir Ruben Pla) Pla's documentary is an overview of the contemporary US horror scene which, as the title suggests, its participants view as much as a community as an industry, helping each other along the way to keep the spirit of fright flicks alive and well.

Pla, an actor with a fair few credits in modern horror movies, is an amiable, passionate and appealing soul, low on sycophancy, whose doc was driven by the need to find out why the various filmmakers, writers and producers interviewed chose to work in the horror field. What seems to be almost universal factors are 'outsider' childhoods and liberal (or irresponsible, depending on how you look at it) parents who exposed the 'crowd' to life changing horror experiences at very young ages (The Exorcist at 6 years old, anyone?) which both scarred them mentally and set them on the path to a career in fright. 'Career' is probably the wrong word here as most of the movie making partnerships seemed to be a combination of happy accidents and random dream realisation, which kind of plays down the logistical nightmares associated with even the most modest independent feature.

The participants vary in age, with the veteran wing being represented by Russell Mulcahy (Highlander), Lin Shaye (Insidious) and Ernest R. Dickerson (The Walking Dead), and a range of voices including Chelsea Stardust (Satanic Panic), Mike Mendez (Tales of Halloween) and Brea Grant (12 Hour Shift, reviewed elsewhere here). What's apparent from the testimonies is that most came of age in the 1980s, so the films they were initially exposed to emanated from the local video store via said liberal parents; this may have something to do with the 80s leanings of much of their output. It's also notable that few movies older than the 1960s are mentioned (contrast this with interviews with people like Joe Dante and John Landis from the previous generation, who often cite the prevalence of older black and white movies screened in regular 'Creature Feature' slots on TV as their primary influences).

The director does a good job of getting the talking heads to open up although much of what is said is a little 'horror 101' (horror is cathartic; contemporary special effects allow more to be achieved these days, that sort of thing). This makes the piece overall feel a little conservative; where did those outsider kids go? But maybe that's a bit harsh. Although horror is much more mainstream these days, (and to echo good old Lord Shawcross, "the so-called new morality has too often the old immorality condoned") there are still many that would consider the product of these filmmakers rather twisted, and the comment from one about finding themselves typecast as a director of fright flicks by companies looking down on their product suggests these guys and gals are going to have to continue supporting each other a bit longer.


Playhouse (UK 2020: Dir Toby Watts, Fionn Watts) New Wave of the British Fantastic Film Horror writer Jack Travis (in a performance by William Hosltead that occasionally reaches Ken Russell levels of histrionics) has relocated both he and his daughter Bee (Grace Courtney) to a remote castle in Scotland, to plan his new venture: an immersive theatre experience which will draw the crowds. He has been researching the recent history of the castle; the story will be drawn from the real life incident where the onetime Laird of the place, an evil fellow, bedded his maid who became pregnant and subsequently fell downstairs to her death, and then bricked up his son in the cellar because said offspring, Alistair, knew the truth. Alistair however made a pact with the devil for revenge on his father. Jack is helped to realise the project by finding a painting of the laird, his son and the maid which he proudly displays in his study.

Meanwhile his nearest neighbour, Jenny (Helen Mackay) has moved back into a house left to her by his dead grandmother. Together with her useless boyfriend Callum (James Rottger) she's trying to decide whether to stay or go, but something seems to be holding her there. Back at the castle, as Jack develops his project, he becomes more and more obsessed with the dead laird. Or maybe the laird is possessing him? And slowly (very slowly in this case) the past begins to repeat, and revenge from beyond the grave can't be far away.

The genesis of this movie is a good example of art imitating life. As children the directors, who are brothers, lived in the film's Scottish castle location (Fenwick) and their father was a writer. Playhouse feels like a labour of love, which has clearly taken some time to develop. As such narratively it's often inconsistent, but it has a wealth of atmosphere. Despite its languid pace it builds up a number of creepy moments, and its gothic story harmonises well with the location. This won't be for everyone, but I really liked it.

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