Wednesday 30 September 2020

Supermarket Sweep #17 - Reviews of Patient Z The Infected (USA 2012), The Last Experiment (USA 2014), Awoken (Australia 2019), Island Zero (USA 2018), High Moon (USA 2019) and The Assent (Israel/USA/UK 2019)

Patient Z The Infected aka After Effect (USA 2012: Dir David McElroy) A glance at McElroy's imdb entry shows that he has struggled to make another feature after this, his debut, back in 2012, and after watching it, unfortunately I'm not surprised. Originally called After Effect, this was repackaged as Patient Z The Infected in 2016, possibly to confuse people into thinking that it may have been connected with 2013's World War Z, and recently added to the supermarket bargain bin. That movie had a big star in it - Brad Pitt - and so does this one: Daniel Baldwin.

Actually Baldwin's in it for about five minutes. But let's not get ahead of ourselves. Lacie Donovan (Tuckie White) is one of a group of university students in need of some quick cash. She signs up for a 3 day programme which, in return for her volunteering, will net her $1000. After a medical examination she's accepted for the trial, the details of which are kept secret right up to the point where she meets her fellow guinea pigs. They include 'get a room' loved up couple Amanda (Lily Hex) and Carter (Jeremy Kahn), wisecracking oddball Jake (Jake Hames) and Killian (Matthew Lucki) who immediately forms a friendship with Lacie.

After they all surrender their electronic devices for the period of their stay, the group learn from the programme manager Sanders (brick outhouse shaped actor John Turk) that the research with which they're involved relates to an anxiety reducing medicine to be administered to soldiers - yeah, right! So one by one the group members are taken into a room for administration of the medicine, but they don't come back; predictably Lacie is last, and we follow her into a chamber where she's exposed to a gas which makes her pass out. Of course the trial is much more sinister than explained. The group locate each other and, fearing for their lives, plan their escape. But Amanda and Carter are first to show the symptoms following their exposure, and before long Lacie is having to fight for her life as her colleagues gradually become infected.

If all this sounds generic and pedestrian, that's because it is. Half of the movie devotes itself to setting up the characters, who are a dreary and unremarkable bunch, and the rest involves the cast navigating their way through corridors and, yes, air ducts, and being trapped in rooms. The reality of the setup is that the gas is a bio weapon intended for easy slaughter of the enemy; nobody was ever in line to pick up their grand. The bigger picture suggestion is that this is the latest lab created epidemic by a team whose previous successes had included the AIDS virus; yes, seriously. Baldwin is the brains behind the project and has a hotline to the Vice President, who has presumably authorised the experiments, previous rounds of which have failed dismally; he gets to say lines like "I expect a full report on my desk by the end of the week" although looking at the staff that surround him it's a toss up whether any of them have to capacity to produce said document.  Dismal stuff.

The Last Experiment aka Bloodwork (USA/Canada 2014: Dir Eric Wostenberg) What are the supermarkets doing to us? A movie that is not only identical in plot to Patient Z The Infected, it's also a 2014 recycling of a 2012 film called Bloodwork, packaged by distribution company High Fliers to capitalise on the then trend for 'infected' films, and restocked by supermarkets this year to tie in with the Pandemic.

The difference between Wostenberg's movie and McElroy's is that this one is really rather good, demonstrating how to take a similar premise but make it scarier, pacier and, well, funnier; not bad for a feature debut.

Two young and horny male students, Greg (the superbly named Travis Van Winkle) and Rob (John Bregar) sign up for clinical trials to test a new anti-histamine, RXZ-19, in return for a fee of $3000, which they plan to use to visit the Red Light district of Amsterdam. Once admitted to the facility where they will be staying for the next few weeks, they meet the rest of the volunteers, most of whom are regular guinea pigs, and project manager Dr Wilcox (Tricia Helfer). Among the group is nervy Brit Nigel (Rik Young), a former drug addict who shows them round the facility but seems to be a totally unsuitable subject for experiments. They also meet two girls, Stacey (Mircia Munroe) and Linnea (Tamara Feldman) and immediately start making moves on them.

Things start well, but this is the first time that the drug will have been tested on humans, so there's a certain amount of nervousness about the proposal. And that nervousness is justified, as predictably things start getting weird pretty quickly. It starts with scratch tests where the subjects are given skin scrapes from needles dipped in a variety of disgusting containers. And then there's worms in the pasta at dinner that evening. Yes, real worms. What's going on? Ok so the real story behind the drug is that it's actually a revolutionary serum that encourages cellular regeneration, and it turns out that Wilcox is, behind her professional demeanour, a stereotypically mad scientist. She's been experimenting on animals deep in the lab, and one particularly scrawny kitty is the result of being grown from, well, bits of kitty. But there's a side effect; disgust levels reduce so that subjects are more likely to do, and eat, things that would have grossed them out before: so the worms in the meal were a test. And as if to prove that the side effects are kicking in, Rob and Linnea get it on in the stock cupboard, which is overrun by cockroaches (released by Wilson who watches the whole thing on CCTV) but the lovers ignore the infestation and carry on making out. The net result of this is the degeneration of the subjects. Only Greg, who wants out but can't leave because to do so would invalidate everyone's payments, rejects the drug and waits it out until the end of the three weeks, while all around him things seriously deteriorate.

Wostenberg's movie seems indebted to the early films of David Cronenberg, with its cell regeneration and moral breakdown of society themes, and has a distinctly Stuart Gordon feel with a strong vein of dark humour running through it. It succeeds mainly because of some solid performances; Van Winkle and Bregar in particular convincing as the two hapless students trying to make sense of what's going on. Rik Young turns in a performance which starts off at 100 mph and then ramps up as the serum takes hold, and as all round good girl Stacey Munroe degenerates very creepily. There's also a terrific scene where one of the volunteers with life threatening injuries undergoes surgery, but the incisions heal before the procedure can begin.

The Last Experiment does rather fall apart towards the end and to be fair none of it makes much sense, but along the way it's a gory, involving treat, and a refreshing spin on the 'infected' genre.

Awoken (Australia 2019: Dir Daniel J. Phillips)
 “95% of people who experience sleeplessness longer than 18 days rarely survive. The ones who live past this point do not need doctors…they need priests.” This ominous wording opens Phillips' rather dour debut feature, and introduces us to Fatal Familial Insomnia - a branch of that particular illness where the awake body eventually dies after failing to be able to sleep.

Medical student Karla (Sara West) had an unhappy childhood - her parents were murder/suicide victims - and is desperate to help her brother Blake (Benson Jack Anthony) who has FFS. A cure may finally be at hand courtesy of Robert (Erik Thomson), a lecturer, who has been carrying out experiments on other subjects with FFS in the basement of the university. Karla smuggles Blake to the testing facility, where he shares a room with fellow sufferers Chris (Adam Ovadia) and Angela (Felicia Tassone). But on the first night Karla finds a journal, video recorder and some tapes entitled 'William Dawson - video log.' which document experiments carried out to cure this strain of insomnia using Dawson's wife Sarah (Melanie Munt). And before very long it's revealed that the experiments have a supernatural aspect to them, resulting in the patients showing that the illness is triggered by demonic possession. And in real time the patients in the lab start showing familiar symptoms; but there is an even bigger secret which without spoiling anything does not hold the Australian medical profession in a good light.

This is all very much by the numbers stuff, with the McGuffin of FFS simply a gateway to all the usual possession shenanigans you'd expect from such a movie, plus the complex exposition included in place of simple wonder and experience. Some points for the claustrophobic location, recalling The Possession of Jane Doe (although that was a much better film). Everyone plays it very po-faced and serious, and there are some mild pyrotechnics at the end to differentiate the last twenty minutes of the film from the previous sixty odd. All distinctly average.

Island Zero (USA 2018: Dir Josh Gerritsen)
Wow, here's a neat little creature feature with bags of New England atmosphere and a real low key feel.

It's a few days before Christmas, and most of the occupants of an island off the Maine coast are packing up and heading for the mainland. Waitress Jessie (Joanna Clarke) is one of handful of island residents going nowhere fast; in fact her only excitement is a bit of love in the afternoon with visiting novelist Titus (Matthew Wilkas) who's here to soak up the atmosphere for his latest novel, a story of "love and jealousy" according to the author.

Others waiting to depart include marine biologist Sam (Adam Wade McLaughlin) who's getting worried about the absence of fish in the area, and who is still getting over the death of his wife who disappeared at sea while investigating the same issue. Sam's obsession with marine weirdness seals him off from his mainland loving girlfriend Lucy (Teri Reeves) and only his daughter Ellie (Elaine Landry), who has developed similar geeky tendencies, knows where he's coming from.

Meanwhile Jessie's former boyfriend Emmett (Thomas Campbell) has disappeared after taking a boat out, and the usually regular ferry, which arrives to take people off the island, hasn't turned up for two days. With supplies running low, Sam works out that the islanders are being threatened by something which is deliberately isolating them, but which they can't actually see.

If the script for this little number is way above average, it's no wonder: it was written by Josh's mum, Tess. Yes, the Tess Gerritsen. But it's the combination of solid acting and a real sense of place that makes Island Zero rather special. Clearly made on a small budget, the decision not to show the attacking creatures works in the movie's favour; it's often tense and eerie, and Gerritsen doesn't blow it with an over the top last reel, despite the twist which you may see coming. Very impressive, particularly as this is his first feature. 

High Moon aka Howlers (USA 2019: Dir Josh Ridgway)
I was convinced through most of this dreck that I was watching a movie from the 'Full Moon' stable, and a bad one at that. 

In an 1863 prologue, werewolf hunter James Franklin Colt Jr (Chad Michael Collins) comes face to face with a group of undesirables headed by William Price (Tom Zembrod). Before you can say "shut up and comb your face" the gang have transformed into hairy handed gents; Colt, using a silver sceptre, given to him by a dimension jumping ninja who has trained Colt in werewolf hunting techniques, kills Price and his men and is sacrificed by the ninja as the completion of the ritual.

Cut to the present day, and Price and his outfit, together with Colt, have somehow travelled through time, arriving in the exact place where their climactic battle took place, but 160 years later. The gang waste no time getting back to their old wolfy ways, slaying the local biker gang and then looking for a hideout. Colt is hidden away by local girl Lucy (Chelsea Edmundson). Meanwhile the town Sherriff, Erhan Hardy (Matthew Tompkins), is not only struggling with his marriage to wife Karen (April Hartman) who's been doing the nasty on the side with the wrong 'un town Mayor (the kind of guy who has guns and showgirls sitting around at home) but also trying to understand the reason for the bodies piling up in his normally quiet little town.

If this had been made by Cannon Films in the 1980s it may have been more bearable; come to think of it, a lot of Cannon Films were awful but nostalgia has made us kinder to them, and maybe in thirty years time I'll look back at a movie like High Moon and be more forgiving. But at the moment it's 2020, and rubbish is rubbish. Inert acting, a soundtrack that largely consists of two repeated notes, odd comedy moments occasioned by Colt's attempts to understand the 21st century (older readers will remember Catweazle; yeah that sort of thing). And let's talk about the werewolves, shall we? Now I'm not sure if Ridgway was planning to enhance the pathetic makeup effects with some CGI but honestly, if the audience hadn't specifically been told that these guys were lycanthropes, I'd have been none the wiser. This is appalling stuff, to be completely avoided.

The Assent (Israel/USA/UK 2019: Dir Pearry Reginald Teo)
 Teo's photo on imdb shows a gothy looking figure, which isn't surprising as he makes gothy looking films aimed at, I'm guessing, a young audience of people whose parents don't understand them. Previous Teo titles have included Necromentia, Ghosthunters and The Evil Inside: you get the idea.

The Assent takes its title from the third stage of possession (the first being 'the presence' and the second 'the affliction'). Schizophrenic dad Joel (Robert Kazinsky) is barely holding it together following his wife's death in a car accident; his son Mason (Caden Dragomer) sees things that aren't there, as does dad, who uses a polaroid camera to take photos of his visions to prove that they're not real. Things get worse when his counsellor/medic Dr Maya applies pressure on him to get a job, and housekeeper babysitter Cassie (Hannah Ward) bails on them following an out of state college offer, but also freaked at the weird things going on in the house.

Cassie's friend Brother Michael (Douglas Spain) is, at the request of the local diocese, looking after Father Lambert (Peter Jason) recently released from prison for the unlawful and aborted exorcism of a young boy. But Lambert, despite his conviction, is not done with his exorcistee yet. And when Cassie asks Brother Michael and Father Lambert to come and meet Joel and Mason, Lambert swiftly reaches the conclusion that Abadon (the devil) who had possessed the young boy, may now be making moves on Mason; and this time Lambert's aiming to be more successful in driving Satan out.

The Assent has a lot going on; in fact, way too much. The rather overbearing mental health storyline (which becomes rather suspect when schizophrenia is linked to demonic possession in a last reel twist) adds to the angst of the movie if not its credibility. The spook show party tricks are all present and correct, and the final half hour exorcism is straight out of the Friedkin playbook. Teo certainly makes his film look good, but I felt overall that he was showing how clever and scary he could be (he isn't) rather than getting on with telling the story. Drogomer is excellent in his role; he just deserved a subtler movie.

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