Monday 11 January 2021

Supermarket Sweep #18: Reviews of In The Trap (Italy 2019), Widow's Point (USA 2019), Death of Me (USA/Thailand 2020), The Voices (USA 2020), The Haunting of Sophie (Italy 2018) and Child Eater (USA/Iceland 2016)

Haven't done one of these for a while, it seems. For the uninitiated, this is a (n irregular) feature on genre movies currently clogging up the supermarket shelves. Supermarkets have seriously reduced the availability of DVDs and Blu Rays in their shops recently. Shelving policy is a rather cynical exercise, very much dictated by what's trending viewing wise at the moment (1917 for example triggered a whole rush of recently and not so recently released low budget war movies), but there's still stuff to be got hold of, and here are six examples.

In the Trap (Italy 2019: Dir Alessio Liguori) Devon, England 1995. A little boy, Philip, thinks there's something in his bed. His religious mother gives him a cross and tells him to say a little prayer if he's scared. A figure rises up from the bedsheets and he screams for his mother again. His sister Isodore also wakes up and, in the film's first frightening moment, gets dragged by an unseen force into a room, where she is killed. 

As a grown up Philip still lives in Devon, in his mother's house, which he has inherited following her death. He's a proofreader, who has also inherited his mother's religious tendencies. He's also deeply in love; his girlfriend Catherine (Sonya Cullingford) is a musician, and they make a sweet couple. But something seems to have survived from Philip's childhood encounter; one night in bed Catherine wakes up and beholds something clearly ghastly. The day after, strange things start happening; Catherine hallucinates that her hands are bleeding, which the doctors put down to stress. Philip finds an unwound rosary and later a displaced statue of the Virgin Mary, and Catherine discovers an old teddy bear, which was Isodore's, thought lost. Philip's mentor, Father Andrew (David Bailie) asks Philip not to read much into the events, but later he finds Catherine in a distressed state in Isodore's room. Father Andrew is called, and concludes that she has become possessed. He attempts an exorcism, but it fails and Catherine dies. This all happens in the movie's first thirty minutes.

Then things get very confusing. Philip isolates himself in his home. An odd, vaguely seductive neighbour called Sonia (Miriam Galanti) pops round for some salt and then later enters his apartment claiming the door was open; is she some form of succubus? Father Andrew warns Philip not to see her again, which is sage advice, but Philip, who periodically glimpses the creature that haunted him as a child, and a strange old lady, doesn't listen. 

In the Trap's hysterical conclusion is just plain daft and makes absolutely no sense; if it's supposed to make you look back and re-evaluate everything you've seen in the last ninety minutes, what it actually does, while drowning itself in an increasingly overwrought soundtrack, is make you conclude how pointless the whole exercise has been. Despite its flashiness, it's all pretty thin stuff; none of the characters are fleshed out, the acting is often questionable, and the themes of religion and psychology merely tacked on. Terrible.

Widow's Point (USA 2019: Dir Gregory Lamberson)
Based on a 2018 book by Richard and Billy Chizmar, Harper's Cove has a haunted lighthouse, the subtly named Widow's Point (named after a woman whose grief at her missing mariner husband resulted in her falling from a cliff). Built in 1838, it's one of the most infamous haunted places in America, which has only been prevented from demolition by the local historical society (the location is actually the Dunkirk lighthouse in New York state, which also makes a claim to be haunted). 

Author Thomas Livingston (Craig Sheffer, Hellraiser: Inferno) rents a house in the town to research his new book; he's getting a divorce and has been forced to return to the genre that made him famous. He hopes that the area will provide literary inspiration.

The building was last occupied in 1933 when a lighthouse keeper's entire family were slaughtered by a friend of the family who had been instructed to 'kill them all' by a woman in a white bridal veil. In 1985 a film crew used it as a location for a movie, when one of the stars hanged herself; and more recently a photographer, who gained access to the building, went crazy after taking innumerable shots of the same watery location; all the lighthouse's victims were heard to chant "it will come." The lighthouse has been cordoned off since then, but Livingston wants to generate a bit of publicity (and a few dollars) by being the first person to occupy the building since that time, planning to spend a weekend locked in, without methods of communication. He will be monitored via video feed courtesy of Rosa (Katelynn E. Newberry, The Curse of Lilith Ratchet, Mother Krampus 2: Slay Ride).

Predictably things go wrong pretty quickly; his video feed gets cut off and Thomas begins to unravel after hearing children's voices and that of his dead dad's. All his bottled water tastes salty and therefore become undrinkable, he loses track of time and generally starts going a bit Jack Torrance (and I don't even want to begin talking about his perma bad hair day). 

This is one of those unsubtle movies where the supernatural presence starts making its presence visually in about the first minute. There are spooky dolls, ghost children, a very cheap synth heavy soundtrack, and lots of flashbacks to add historical perspective to the rather dull prospect of a guy going doolally in a confined space. Sheffer loses the plot very hammily but is still by far the most convincing member of the cast; unless you count the CGI blob that makes an appearance in the film's bafflingly Lovecraftian finale. Terrible.

Death of Me (USA/Thailand 2020: Dir Darren Lynn Bousman)
A couple staying at an Airbnb in Thailand, Christine (Maggie Q) and travel reporter Neil (Luke Hemsworth), wake up in a filthy state after a night out about which they can remember nothing, and have to hurry to reach the ferry that will transfer them to their flight home. When they get to the port they've mislaid their passports, so can't access the boat, and Christine has also lost her phone; to compound matters the ferry sails away with their luggage on it. Neil uses the photos on his phone to recall their night; it includes a two and a half hour video in which they film themselves visiting a bar, getting their drinks spiked, having rough sex outside, culminating in Neil strangling Christine then snapping her neck, after which he busts her phone and buries the body. It's a rather amazing 18 minute pre credits sequence, and sadly the rest of the film doesn't come anywhere close to matching its tension. In fact it all slowly unravels from this point on.

Understandably distressed, the couple are still at the accommodation when the next booking turns up; Samantha (Alex Essoe) and her daughter are initially concerned, particularly at Christine's state, but agree to help. They work out that the pair have been given a strong Buddhist hallucinogen; Christine starts hallucinating and throws up dirt, weeds and worms. In the middle of a carnival which Neil is photographing, a guy nicks his phone and deletes the video.

By now if you've ever seen The Wicker Man or Rosemary's Baby, you'll know what's ahead. The remainder of the movie has Christine and Neil, and later Christine alone as Neil goes missing, trying to find out exactly what's going on. The use of Thai islanders as 'other' really isn't great in 2020, but perhaps worse is Essoe's character who starts acting as white intermediary but is also possibly part of the whole thing. Lush locations and some impressive photography can't cover up the fact that this is a stylish movie in search of a point, and when the point finally arrives it's not been worth the trip and leaves a nasty taste in the mouth. Q and Hemsworth have both been in better movies than this: Death of Me does their careers no favours.

The Voices (USA 2020: Dir Wesley Alley, Bradley Fowler)
After discovering her boyfriend David (Brendon Sexton III) having a thing with one of her best friends, Grace Crawford (Amanda Markowitz) leaves the city and stays with her older sister Catherine (Virginia Matlock). Catherine, who is gently welcoming but rather distant, has clearly had mental health problems, and, after divorcing her husband Jerry, now lives in a rather basic house inherited from their late parents; no Wi-Fi or central heating. 

Grace picks up a book she finds lying around the house, 'Abnormal Mental Health' whose pages contain scribblings and references to someone called 'Penny'. "I sleep when the sun goes down: I like to keep a consistent pattern," Catherine informs her. It is perhaps fortuitous that Grace is in the middle of prepping a thesis for college on the subject of 'Paranoid Schizophrenia; The Demons Within Us' as she quickly identifies the signs of the illness in her sister; and on the first night Grace wakes to find Catherine up playing a board game and talking in a child's voice to someone called Abby, revealed as her daughter who now lives with her ex-husband following the divorce. It is revealed that their mother was similarly ill, and took her life because of her condition.

Grace and Catherine gradually re-connect and Catherine, correctly as it happens, suspects that Grace might be pregnant, and becomes worried as the pregnancy was the trigger for the mental health problems, both for Grace's sister and their mother. Catherine also reveals that 'Penny' is a childish character who she must inhabit to communicate with Abby. Grace begins to lose touch with reality until she realises that what she thinks may be her own mania has more than a basis in truth.

Until its final histrionic drama-of-the-week minutes, The Voices is a carefully controlled essay in the extremes of mental ill health. It's strongest in the first half, where Grace tries to understand in the her trained detached way what's happening to Catherine, but can't sustain the position because of her need to connect with her sister emotionally. Virginia Matlock delivers a powerful performance as Catherine and the movie really revolves around her. It's perhaps a shame that The Voices reaches a rather prosaic conclusion, but it remains a powerful piece which for the most part resists the opportunity to sensationalise its subject matter.

The Haunting of Sophie aka The Music Box aka Il Carillon (Italy 2018: Dir John Real)
 Any film that gives us a ghostly glimpse in the first minute of its running time never bodes well. But let's not be too hasty. Annabelle (Rachel Daigh), a book restorer, and her temporarily dumb orphan niece Sophie (Cearl Pepper) move into an oddly shaped rental house with added gargoyles on the roof (and inside too - the gargoyles get a lot of visual attention considering they look like they were bought wholesale from a garden centre). The place has been empty since the previous owner died.

Outside they find a box buried in the garden with unusual markings on the case, and which contains a musical box. Why was it buried? Sophie undergoes counselling via toy therapy, courtesy of Loris (a truly wooden performance from square jawed former male model Antonio Lujak). Asked what the toys convey to her, Sophie writes, with better script than I can achieve (she's about 6) "their daughter was left alone she's so sad." Soon Sophie is talking to someone who isn't there named Lania (it's her new best friend and who everyone else thinks is imaginary), there are strange noises in the house, rose petals left on Annabelle's pillow, and more glimpses of the troubled spirit. One of the books she is restoring is named 'Theory of Possessed Objects', containing an inserted illustration of the same markings as on the retrieved box; and the last person who booked it out of the library was, guess who, the previous resident of Annabelle's house. Working it out yet? Yes, the music box holds the spirit of a young girl, trapped in the box, and she's on the lookout for revenge.

If you've never seen even one of the legion of movies which The Haunting of Sophie has borrowed from, you're still unlikely to be enamoured with this weak offering. In the grand tradition of Italian directors aiming for a wider market, 'John Real' here is actually Italian producer Giovanni Marzagalli, a man clearly better suited to brokering deals for movies rather than making them. Having most of his Italian cast having to speak their lines in English doesn't help (and the occasionally dubbed performance is laughable), but the real problem here is the total lack of imagination, woeful plotting and, with the exception of Daigh, half baked performances. Oh and there's a 'One month later' end coda in which nothing happens. Utter nonsense.

Child Eater (USA/Iceland 2015: Dir Erlingur Thoroddsen) 
Helen (Cait Bliss) is asked to babysit for Lucas (Colin Critchley), the son of Matthew Parker (Weston Wilson), who's the local sheriff. The house, located in the middle of a forest (the movie was filmed in the Catskills) was the site of a series of killings 25 years previously by someone named the 'Child Eater of Widow's Peak,' his MO being to eat the eyes of kids to stop his incipient blindness (a rather disturbing prologue illustrates this).

Lucas is a slightly weird little kid who quickly puts the frighteners on Helen by claiming to have seen an old guy creeping around outside; the threat however is much nearer home. "When I was a kid," an old-before-his-years Lucas says, "I used to think children couldn't die". Helen's on-off boyfriend Tom (Dave Klasko) turns up to the house, only to be greeted with the news that Helen is pregnant. Lucas goes missing and while searching for the boy Tom ends up in a bear trap and, incapacitated, becomes the CE's first victim; the monster has returned, and it falls to Helen and Lucas to stop him.

While Child Eater is terribly formulaic, its lack of post modern context (there are no references to horror movie tropes in the dialogue, nor name checking of other horror movies) and general seriousness makes it feel like a 1990s supernatural killer movie; and the CE, whose creepiness is exacerbated by his wearing aviator shades, is refreshingly catchphrase free. Critchley is plucky and resourceful and Bliss makes for an unlikely heroine, resolute even in the face of injury (let's just say that going forward the 3D experience won't be for her). Most of the movie is filmed at nighttime and the cinematography adds to the movie's claustrophobic feel. Child Eater won't be on anyone's Top 10 list but it's an effective and at times very nasty thriller.

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