Friday 29 January 2021

Supermarket Sweep #19: Reviews of Sputnik (Russia 2020), Peninsula (South Korea 2020), Black Water: Abyss (Australia/USA 2020), Robot Riot (USA 2020), The Vigil (USA 2019) and The Curse of the Knight Templar aka Curse of the Blind Dead (Italy 2020)

Sputnik (Russia 2020: Dir Egor Abramenko) Many reviewers have prefaced their pieces on this film with an 'inspired by Alien' caveat, but the reality is that this is closer in spirit to Dennis Villeneuve's 2016 movie Arrival than any creature on the loose flick.

It's 1983 in Russia, and the country proudly awaits the re-entry of a two man Cosmonaut expedition; unbeknownst to the citizens of the country, something has gone wrong with the mission while the craft was in orbit; and when the capsule re-connects with terra firma, half of the crew is dead.

The remaining Cosmonaut, Konstatin Veshnyakov (Pyotr Fyodorov) is taken in for observation; something is clearly amiss, and it's not long before truculent psychologist Tatiana Klimova (Oksana Akinshina), who is already facing questions because of her unorthodox treatment of a young male patient, is summoned to observe the Cosmonaut; and with good reason. 

Klimova's study of the Cosmonaut remains inconclusive until she's shown the problem directly; Veshnyakov has brought back with him an alien host, which can exist outside of the human body for a short period of time, but enjoys a strange symbiotic existence with its human (although the latter doesn't know about the former's existence). It has also attacked one of the other facility staff and remains behind toughened glass for everyone's safety. The psychologist's challenge is to see whether host and human can exist separately, but she doesn't reckon on becoming attracted to him (the human, obviously).

Sputnik is to be praised for showing restraint when in others' hands this might be a more visceral movie. Veshnyakov is by no means the perfect hero; the Cosmonaut feels that he may have brought the infestation on himself for abandoning a young son in favour of a career. And Klimova's bedside manner leaves a lot to be desired. The pressure of Soviet victory at any cost hangs heavily over the proceedings, and while the movie may follow the tried and tested formula of the scientist gradually unveiling the real truth behind the cover up, none of this feels contrived. There's some great brutalist locations to underscore the gloom of the story and Oleg Karpachev's score is satisfyingly portentous. It's perhaps a shame that a lot of the dramatic tension revolves around a not overly impressive bit of CGI, but the human drama and moral dilemmas of the piece make up for it.

Peninsula (South Korea 2020: Dir Sang-ho Yeon) It's been four years since Yeon's game changing zombie flick Train to Busan and its animated prequel Seoul Station. The balletic attack sequences of the latter and the nihilism of the former were both memorable for different reasons. The 'Train to Busan Presents' strap before the title of this movie suggests a franchise in the making, and by the end of it we're pretty sure where that's going.

In a prologue, set at the time of the original movie, we are reminded that it took just one day for the infected to take over in Seoul. Soldier Han Jung-Seok (Dong-Won Gang) is driving hell for leather to ensure that he, his sister and her son make it onto a boat departing for safety. But the craft is diverted to Hong Kong after an infected outbreak (an early scene which reminds us of the speed and potency of the virus; one passenger infects about thirty others in just a few minutes). Han's nephew and his sister succumb, but Han and his brother in law Chul-min (Do-yoon Kim) survive.

Four years later sees Han and Chul-min living off the grid in Hong Kong, hopelessly awaiting the award of refugee status. Seeking quick cash they get mixed up in a scheme to recover a lorry, containing $20 million, located in the Korean peninsula, now entirely abandoned to the infected. Predictably the heist goes wrong and the two men become separated. 

Han is picked up by a woman, Min-jung (Lee Jung-hyung), who lives with her daughters - the elder of the two is Joon-i (Re Lee) and her equally resourceful sister is Yu Jin (Ye-won Lee) - and her father (Hae-hyo Kwon). Chul-min, on the other hand, is captured by a band of renegades led by the bonkers Captain Seo (Kyo-hwan Koo) and made to cage fight, alongside other prisoners, with the infected. Ultimately the two men reconcile, as they both attempt to free themselves and their charges and escape the peninsula.

If the first two movies were, respectively, the Mad Max and Mad Max 2 of the trilogy, then Peninsula is most definitely its Beyond Thunderdome. Here the infected almost take a back seat to the human drama, and Sang-ho Yeon purposely foregrounds the character's survival instincts, loyalty and savagery; oh and the bad guys' love of cage fighting, a future movie plot standby. That's not to say that the film isn't without its set pieces, but here there's far too much emphasis on CGI, and some of the set pieces, which thrilled in TtB, feel a bit overexposed in the sequel. There is of course an emotional final reel, and some impressive performances (particularly, once again, on the part of the kids) but I couldn't help wishing for less of everything. Good, but just not great.

Black Water: Abyss (Australia/USA 2020: Dir Andrew Traucki)
Thirteen years after Traucki's first Black Water movie, and ten years after the shark infested waters of his The Reef, we're back in Northern Australia, where in a pre credits sequence we get the measure of what we're up against; a backpacking couple fall into a sink hole in the Outback and get devoured by a ravenous giant croc.

Jen (Jessica McNamee), her keeping-his-options-open boyfriend Eric (Luke Mitchell) and their friends, newly pregnant Yolanda (Amali Golden) and asthmatic cancer survivor Viktor (Benjamin Hoetjes) are given a tipoff about an unexplored cave by Cash (Anthony J. Sharpe), who found it while looking for said missing backpackers; you'd think that local boy Cash would be aware of the risks associated with swimming in the area, but there you go.

So the party set out for the secluded entry point. There's a storm on its way but it's not moving in their direction; yeah, I know. The five, a combination of the inexperienced and old hands, do the spelunking thing, in the knowledge that no-one knows they've made the trip, and things go ok for a time. But the storm changes direction and breaks, filling the hole with water from a burst riverbank; there's no phone signal, the water level is rising, and their options are running out. And then the croc arrives. 

This may be movie by numbers business, but it remains amazingly effective despite the clichés on show - early injured member of the party who slows them all down; third reel character reveal - largely due to keeping the croc out of sight for most of the flick (rendering its occasional glimpses very threatening) and a superbly claustrophobic setup, all rising water and accompanying shuddering string soundtrack from Michael Lira. Favourite moment of the film was the 'a ha!' moment as the getaway plan of the final survivors turns pear shaped; overall this feels like a real guilty pleasure watch, unlikely to remain in the memory but fun while it lasts, once again showing that Traucki knows what he's doing when it comes to watery predator movies.

Robot Riot (USA 2020: Dir Ryan Staples Scott)
"Where the fuck am I?" are the first words uttered by Shane, a stranded solder with no memory and a chip in his neck, who almost immediately is stalked by a robot that looks like Ed 209's beaten up older brother. He gradually encounters other soldiers, all in similar situations. They band together and come to the conclusion that their continued survival seems to be some kind of test, and they must pit their wits against the different sized robots who want them dead. But who are the shadowy figures who have set up the deadly challenge? And will the Government owned mechs (the robots), formerly docile machines turned into sentient killers by the leader of the baddies, develop a collective guilty conscience and turn on their programmer? And just who was that human sized robot we saw briefly at the beginning?

Despite all the above questions being answered during the course of the movie's 90 odd minutes, this remains a fairly excruciating chase around a warehouse romp, with sci fi elements added in post. Scott's movie comes across like something the SyFy channel considered then rejected. Filmed in the ghost town of Maud, Oklahoma, and with Scott basing most of his action there to make full use of the location, Robot Riot's title suggests it wants to attract viewers brought up on a diet of 'Robot something' movies from the 1990s, with a soupcon of Westworld thrown in. But for a couple of briefly violent scenes and the odd F-bomb, this would strictly be early teen fare. It's soulless, dumb, but what's worse is resolutely un-fun, which is basically all a movie like this has going for it.

The Vigil (USA 2019: Dir Keith Thomas) Recent attempts to take a kind of 'world cinema' approach to 'faith and fright' flicks, with ancient evil reaching into the present day, have been a mixed bag. Babak Anvari's 2016 movie, Under the Shadow, set the bar high, with a mother battling a djinn in Tehran. 2018's unsuccessful The Tokoloshe saw the supernatural and the working classes at war in Johannesburg; and closer to home, Remi Weekes' His House from last year depicted the plight of an immigrant family forced to live in a London council house, threatened with an evil force that could equally have been domestic or foreign in origin.

Thomas's The Vigil takes us into a community of young Jewish people who have broken from the constricts of their religion and are hoping to forge a new, more 'modern' life.

The film concentrates on one of the group, Yakov Ronan (Dave Davis) who, as well as having the challenge of adjusting to new habits and customs, is additionally plagued by mental health problems, seemingly triggered by memories of the tragic death of his younger brother. Yakov's perilous financial situation (he's faced with a stark choice between buying food or medication) leads to him agreeing to be a paid Shomer for a night. In the Jewish faith, the term refers to one who watches over the newly dead, protecting their soul during the first night after they have passed, called 'the Vigil.' Yakov isn't the first choice apparently, but Shomer Number One quit because they were afraid.

Yakov's charge is, or rather was, Rubin Litvak; his wife (Lyn Cohen) is still alive, but with Alzheimer's; she's unhappy to see her Shomer for hire. The young man begins his vigil but, before long, Yakov is having strange nightmarish visions, coupled with flashbacks to his brother's death. He fears he might be headed towards hospitalisation again, but Mrs Litvak tells him that her husband had the same visions, and that something followed Litvak, a Holocaust survivor, back from Buchenwald; that something is described as the Mazik (in Hebrew texts defined as a mischievous person), a creature who latches on to sadness in its victim and drains them dry before moving on. And Litvak's demon has its sights on Yakov.

Thomas's film has its heart in the right place, but its symbolism and loading of portentous events and signs quickly wearies the viewer. As Yakov Davis is a simmering ball of guilt and frustration, always seconds away from a complete meltdown; it's an impressive performance but after a while the intensity starts to overshadow the supernatural elements of the story, and all you're left with is an unfocused feeling of anxiety. Despite some odd imagery, The Vigil just tries too hard to be more than a horror movie, and ends up not being very clear what it wants to be. And a note for the future: don't underscore your final 'but will he escape?' shot with an intrusive emo-core number, as it's a real mood killer.

The Curse of the Knight Templar aka Curse of the Blind Dead (Italy 2020: Dir Raffaele Picchio)
Remember the series of 'Blind Dead' movies back in the 1970s, directed by the inimitable Amando de Ossorio, that mixed beautiful Spanish backdrops, slowed down horse riding and lashings of gore? Well scrap the inimitable because here's Raffaele Picchio, director of the controversial 2011 hit Morituris (which featured ancient Romans returning from the grave), to kick start the legend of the 14th century sightless knights of the undead, 45 years after they were laid to rest in 1975's Night of the Seagulls. Actually, the distribution company are perhaps banking on movie fans not remembering the original movies, hence the title change for UK audiences and the rather Game of Thrones look of the cover.

Except this time the Knights Templar end up in a post apocalyptic landscape, a setup tossed aside as soon as the 'action' begins (the concept of the blind dead thriving through, or because of the evils of history is established via a credit sequences showing, somewhat distastefully, brief real scenes of death and horror through the 20th century). After a prologue, which sets up the baby sacrifice theme revisited during the movie, while also explaining how the knights ended up sightless, we meet two survivors of nuclear war, a father, Michael, and his (pregnant) daughter Lily. Rescued after being set upon by murderous denizens, the pair are taken into a community who hang out in what looks like an abandoned church (actually a former cement factory) run by a guy called 'Maestro' Abel who convinces them to stay, and seek comfort in their religion. 

But all is not as it seems, and, as the moon enters full eclipse, Lily's baby is about to be sacrificed to the blind dead (the Knights don't actually appear until past the movie's half-way point). But the dead are no respecters of the subservient Abel and his cronies and are soon abroad, and on horseback, on the lookout for more babies, principally the one carried by Lily.

This rather horrendous homage to/revisit of de Ossorio's movies appears to be little more than a supposedly good idea by the director squandered in a sea of witless direction, terrible performances and appalling dialogue. The post apocalyptic scenario sits awkwardly with the Knights Templar (and there is more than one, re-titling team), who sort of turn up, pull some limbs off, ignore some plastic looking babies and disintegrate when caught in the rays of the morning sun (only to appear again a few scenes later). Cheap, pointless and above all humourless, had I seen it in the year of its release it would have been my stinker of 2020.

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