Tuesday 11 August 2020

New Films Roundup #14: Reviews of Revenge Ride (USA 2020), The Rental (USA 2020), You Should Have Left (USA/UK 2020), Hunter's Moon (USA 2020), Aquaslash (USA 2020) and Two Heads Creek (Australia/UK 2020)

I realise that I haven't done one of these posts for well over a year. A round up of new movies (not Brit ones, that's reserved for another thread) heading for VoD, festivals and possibly physical media at some point this year.

Revenge Ride (USA 2020: Dir Melanie Aitkenhead) The all woman 'Dark Moon' gang have the phrase 'Suck My Pussy' etched into the back of their leather jackets, and manifesto wise they're definitely from the Valerie Solanas school of female/male inter-personal relationships. Entry to the gang is simple; you have to be abused by a man, and in Trump's America there's no shortage of applicants.

Headed by Trigga (Polyanna MacIntosh at her big gobbed, feral best), the gang's defacto deputy is Maggie (Serinda Swan), who has never had both feet under the table vis a vis the 'Dark Moon'ers: hell, they haven't even worked out a gang name for her. And it's this trust/mistrust deal between the two of them which drives the movie.

Into their midst comes Mary (Vannessa Dubasso), recently drugged and date raped at a party by one of her school's soccer jocks, Keegan (Jake Lockett) in cahoots with two other members of the team, and who magnifies the indignity by leaving her violated body - still in party clothes - on the school grounds. Mary wants in with the gang, and Trigga wants to wreak revenge, which the gang achieve by ambushing the jocks and branding their exposed arses with their 'Suck My Pussy' tag. Meanwhile Maggie has struck a friendship with Brian, also a member of the football team but not involved in the unpleasant stuff. And as the tension escalates between the 'Dark Moon' members and the guys, Maggie finds herself increasingly opposed to Trigga's tactics.

Guatemalan born Aitkenhead's second feature is an expanded version of her 2017 short Blood Ride, which included many of the same cast. It's an odd movie, and at just an hour and a quarter almost not quite a full film. It's a polemic piece; there's little build up to the action and although some backstory is provided by Maggie's flashbacks (she was also raped) and explanations provided by Trigga, the viewer is left in no doubt that the men are scum and the women the avengers. There are echoes of other biker movies here - the sassy 'The Maneaters' from Herschell Gordon Lewis' She Devils on  Wheels (1968) came to mind, or possibly Barbara Peeters' Bury Me an Angel (1971) but this is a very 21st century gang. At its core it's quite a moral piece, and not as lawless as it first appears. Serinda Swan makes the film, with a nuanced performance I wasn't expecting, and while the whole thing feels a little undercooked, it's certainly stylishly delivered.

The Rental (USA 2020: Dir Dave Franco) Franco's directorial debut is a return to old school hider in the house style thrillers that were old hat twenty years ago.

Four people - brothers Josh (Jeremy Allen White) and Charlie (Dan Stevens) and their respective partners Mina (Sheila Vand) and Michelle (Alison Brie) - splash out on a very expensive weekend cabin rental to celebrate Charlie and Mina's success in their joint business venture. So far so good, except Charlie and Mina are more than work buddies, a fact fairly obviously withheld from their other halves.

They're met at the property by the creepy Taylor (Toby Huss) who shows them round. Mina takes an instant dislike to him; she tried to book the rental first but her order was refused, whereas Charlie managed to book immediately, and she suspects that this may have something to do with her ethnicity (she is of Middle Eastern origin).

The four settle into the home and the audience is invited to speculate on the motives of the characters; for example, why does Michelle sit out of the first evening of recreational drug partaking even though she was the one who brought the stuff? And why, on the following morning where a big hike is planned, do Charlie and Mina cry off, both citing hangovers following their partying? Well the last one's obvious; they're planning a one time deal get it on party which can never be repeated (in further revelations we learn that Charlie has a history of this kind of thing) after canoodling in the hot tub the night before.

Later that day Mina takes a shower and notices that there's a tiny camera in the showerhead. Freaking out (as the shower was one of the locations of their lovemaking) she and Charlie reason that the creepy Taylor was responsible but opt to do nothing because of the fallout with Michelle and Josh. But when Michelle asks Taylor to come over to fix the now not working hot tub, a chain of events is set in motion which will endanger all four of them.

Despite a gorgeous setup, lush coastal photography and some serious acting chops on display, The Rental never really gets going, mainly due to a lukewarm script and a third act so predictable that even though it evokes the climax of so many suburban thrillers on the 1990s still feels unwanted. The movie really has nothing to say beyond the usual moral warning about the impact of breaking the seventh Commandment (you know, the adultery one), and its pedestrian pacing and lack of any tension make this one to miss.

You Should Have Left (USA/UK 2020: Dir David Koepp) Ah, movies whose titles serve as warnings; don't you love 'em? Koepp's latest film, his first since the much derided Mortdecai back in 2015, attempts to conjure up the spookiness of his 1999 flick Stir of Echoes by bringing back that movie's star, Kevin Bacon (who doesn't seem to have aged much in the intervening 20 odd years) and sticking him in a story which is as preposterous as it is tedious.

Bacon plays a wealthy American screenwriter, Theo Conroy, who has remarried after the self inflicted death - via pills and a bathtub - of his first wife. Mrs C number 2 is a much younger version, Susanna (Amanda Seyfried), an ambitious actress. Theo is lying low following the investigation of wife number 1's death, in which he was implicated by the police; the resultant high profile case ended in a trial by public that found him guilty in their eyes even though he was officially exonerated. This puts a strain on the marriage and also on Susanna's young daughter Ella (Avery Tiiu Essex). So now Theo skulks around in splendid isolation while Susanna tries to carve out a career. In a telling scene he tries to visit her on the set of a movie she's filming, but is denied access because she forgot to obtain permission - meaning he has to wait to one side and hear her while she's involved in a noisy sex scene; it's an embarrassing moment, made more so by the fact that afterwards they have sex in the car, presumably so he can regain some self esteem.

Susanna is cast in a movie to be shot in the UK, and to relieve the tensions within the household Theo arranges to rent a house in Wales in advance of the shooting dates, to give the whole family a bit of R&R. But cast aside any thoughts of a quaint cottage in the valleys: the brutalist monstrosity they rent looks closer to Frank Lloyd Wright's Ennis House in California, the exteriors of which were utlised in the 1959 movie House on Haunted Hill. And the property continues to be imposing on the inside too, although the Conroys love it. But, as usual in these things, it's not long before the cracks in the family start to show, and before long they're all having separate nightmares, where an elderly figure called Stetler stalks their dreams. Theo, who before all this was practising meditation and keeping a journal of his thoughts - which mainly comprise his annoyance with Susanna - finds some hastily scribbled words in the book, which read "Leave you should leave go now." He also dreams of a door where there shouldn't be one, which leads to an older part of the house; it's an area he can't find when awake. The family grow to hate the place, but departure becomes tricky after Theo and Susanna have a big fight and she leaves with the car to stay in town. Theo and Ella are trapped, and the house seems to be waking up around them.

While this is undeniably a great looking film - although those oh so west coast interiors do not convince that the house is actually in Wales, despite the Welsh extras in the local shop - narratively it's fraught with problems. It starts off with a rather improbable family set up (irascible unappealing older guy with trophy wife who clearly can't be trusted) involved in a plot which gradually deconstructs time and place like a bigger budget version of a Sapphire and Steel episode. Koepp seems too in love with his setting to worry about audience identification with the characters: it's left to Avery Tiiu Essex to offer the only performance with which we can sympathise. Theo's connection with Stetler is pretty much signposted from the get go, and the movie's final reveal feels like a plot device just to end the thing. Blumhouse are still one of the most reliable companies producing modern horror films, but there's a reason this one will be going straight to VOD.

Hunter's Moon (USA 2020: Dir Michael Caissie) In terms of movies about hulking creatures stalking the woods, Bigfoot seems to win hands down subject matter wise over the humble werewolf. Caissie's first feature (and at times it does feel like it) eschews most of the standard werewolf standbys - the torment of the creature, the hunt to kill it, the human/beast dichotomy, hell even a close up look of the thing for 90% of the movie - in favour of something a little more rambling but nevertheless not without interest.

Parents Bernice and Thomas Delaney (Amanda Wyss and Jay Mohr) and their three daughters, the rather forward Juliet (Katrina Bowden) and younger siblings Lisa (India Ennenga) and Wendy (Emmalee Parker), are moving from the city to the country, a decision that remains unpopular with the three girls. Mum makes the best of things, but Thomas is rather inscrutable. When they make a convenience store stop en route, one of the staff, Bill (Will Carson) discloses that the house they're about to live in was previously occupied by a serial killer, news which doesn't provoke the gasps of horror you'd expect from the new arrivals. We already know this because we've seen the killer at work in the prologue, drugging and strangling a woman, before burying her in the woods and then getting attacked by an unknown something.

Scarcely have the family settled in to the home when Bernice and Thomas decide to take a little trip - destination unclear - leaving the girls to amuse themselves for a few days. Meanwhile it seems that Bill, whose rugged good looks had instantly attracted Juliet back at the store, is a bad 'un and is mates with the town's other hoodlums. Together the gang decide to play surprise visit on the house that the Delaney's have moved into. But if they were expecting to wreak terror on those inside, well let's just say that the surprise is on them.

Hunter's Moon is a werewolf movie that is rather afraid to play its (hairy) hand for much of the picture. But there's a lot of fun in the build up; the bad guys are cartoonish in their nastiness and most of the film sets up the expectation that they're going to get theirs. The motivations of the three girls, vaguely complicit in the boy's sexual attentions, demure but calculating, remains unclear until the last five minutes of the movie - and even at 80 minutes that feels like a long time to wait. Thomas Jane, an actor who excels in unpleasant characters, turns up as a sheriff without a name, and continues not to play against type. The movie is rather all over the place, and the werewolf reveal makes you realise why it's remained hidden, but Hunter's Moon remains watchable and a final twist at the end provides a satisfying coda and possibly a sequel.

Aquaslash (USA 2019: Dir Renaud Gauthier) Vimeo lists Aquaslash's director as 'a French Canadian guy from Montreal raised on 'The Price is Right', 'CHiP's', 'Bionic Woman', 'The Streets of San Francisco', 'The Incredible Hulk', 'Miami Vice' and 'Saturday Night Live.' His first film in the English language, Aquaslash has to be one of this year's more inspiring movie titles, even if he may be unaware that the vernacular suggests this might be a film about having a piss in a swimming pool.

It's not. But that might be preferable to this tosh, a weak, poorly imagined homage to 1980s slasher films. So we join Valley Hill school's Class of 2018, who have organised a celebratory weekend at the Wet Valley Water Park, looking forward to 48 hours of, as one character puts it, the 3 C's: "Courtesy, Control and Consent."

In a prologue a couple of the park workers are hacked up by a unseen (obviously) stranger, caught unawares in a bit of nighttime how's your father. So we know from the get go that there's a killer on the loose, much as there was 35 years previously at the same venue. And while the kids begin letting their hair down and stripping to their skimpies, we're introduced to the usual range of red herrings: there's Conrad Carter, the attraction's handyman who's worked there since 1984: Priscilla, from the Class of 1992, and who was renowned at school for popping young boys' cherries; her husband Paul, who owns the place but maybe looking to sell; and Michael, father of one of the students, who for some reason has the plans of the park in his car, and has been seeing Priscilla on the side.

Meanwhile Josh has been getting it on with his former squeeze Kim (they're not suspects, they're under 30) which angers Tommy, Kim's current boyfriend (who's also under 30 but may be a subject because of his near psychotic temper). And while the whole camp lights up with Josh's 80s tinged band 'The Blades', who do a mean cover of Corey Hart's 'Sunglasses at Night', the killer stalks the darkness, taking out a few staff and, sabotaging The Sea Snake, one of the larger water tunnels in the park, by inserting two crossed blades to slice the hapless bathers who ride the chute.

And this is (one of) the main problem(s) of the movie, which only runs a shade over 70 minutes: nearly thirty of them are devoted to the build up to to the inevitable diced teens scene. To be fair it's a well staged and pretty gruesome set piece, but it really feels like the rest of the movie was constructed around it. There isn't even a Scooby Doo unmasking at the end; the killer is revealed in a slightly confusing flashback to 1984 (filmed using a scratched movie filter to emphasise that the 1980s were, like, a long time ago man). To be fair, if the movie was aiming to pay homage to the endless slasher movies of the 80s which promised so much and delivered so little, it did its job well. Add in some unwanted comedy, far too many characters for a film of this length and some decidedly long in the tooth looking students, and you have one not very good film. The Corey Hart cover stays with you much longer than anything else in the movie.

Two Heads Creek (Australia/UK 2019: Dir Jesse O'Brien) Here's an amiable, gently offensive and ultimately gory horror comedy which starts off in the sink towns of England and ends up in the Australian outback.

Norman (Jordan Waller) is a young man coping with a problem; his Polish mother Gabriella has just died and the butchers shop mum used to run faces daily racist abuse from the local tearaways. Facing an uncertain future and with no desire to take over the meat trade, two things impact on his next life choice: the arrival of his sister Anna (Kathryn Wilder) and a discovery that Gabriella wasn't their real mother (Norman and Anna don't look in the least bit Polish); they were handed over to her at some point by their real mum, Mary (Kerry Armstrong), who now lives in Australia.

Anna and Norman sell the shop and use the proceeds to travel down under - specifically Two Heads Creek, which is in a part of the continent that recalls Wolf Creek or Wake in Fright - in the heart of ocker country. Already feeling like fish out of water, they're additionally bemused when their transfer bus to the town, guided by the over the top Apple (Helen Dallimore) is full of Vietnamese people. And when they arrive it seems they're too late to see mum: they're told that Mary has recently popped her clogs, although the townsfolk are shifty about when she died and an accident at the funeral discloses that someone very un-Mary like occupies the coffin. Anna and Norman realise that something's clearly afoot when arrangements are made for them to leave the town quickly: the audience pieces together what's happening pretty quickly, not least that the folk of Two Heads Creek are partial to a particular type of meat, and that the supply of that food - the incoming Vietnamese - handily deals with one of the Oz government's biggest immigration headaches.

There's no denying that Two Heads Creek is fitfully funny and full of well observed characters: as Apple Dallimore is a treat, whether marshalling the cannibalistic troops or belting out a decent karaoke version of Skyhooks' most famous song 'Horror Movies' on the karaoke as part of the town's Australia Day celebrations; and veteran actor Don Bridges has a great turn as the sweary town elder Uncle Morris.

But Two Heads Creek's descent to Peter Jackson style comedy splatter towards the end, while showing off some nifty practical effects, is the least surprising part of the whole enterprise, and seems a long way from the wisecracking opening section, the interplay between Norman and Anna giving us the film's best lines. This is a movie probably better appreciated with a crowd than a lone watch, where the social commentary came across as not as sharp as it should have been, and the unevenness of the plot became more apparent.

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