Wednesday 14 April 2021

Supermarket Sweep #21: Reviews of Abigail Haunting (USA 2020), The Last House (USA 2019), Skin Collector (USA 2012), Crone Wood (Ireland 2016), The Odds (USA 2018) and You're Not Alone (USA 2020)

So as the 'Sweep' moves into its 21st edition, there are still plenty of rich pickings available on the supermarket shelves if your tastes run to the dark and dangerous, although one chain in particular seems to be flying the flag for horror these days (I can't name it for reasons of commercial competition, but let's just describe it as an anagram of  'daAs.' Anyway, here are six more offerings from the company who also bring you baked beans and tea bags:

Abigail Haunting (USA 2020: Dir Kelly Schwarze) Young Katie (Chelsea Jurkiewicz) rolls out of Reno with a fitstful of cash courtesy of a robbery and a murder rap thanks to the bullet she's just fired into the body of her abusive ex-boyfriend.

Seeking to hide out, she hot foots it to her foster mum's trailer house on the edge of what looks like the Nevada desert. But Marge (Brenda Daly) has gone downhill since Katie last saw her, and sits in a chair all day watching TV. Stashing both the gun and loot safely away, Katie quickly reconnects with former boyfriend, now single dad Brian (Austin Callazo) and his son Gavin (Zander Garcia). 

Brian looks like he's happy to pick up where things left off, but Katie is understandably rather jumpy. She's jumpier still when strange things start happening around the trailer, including someone mussing with her stuff and, more worryingly, Marge getting attacked, strangled by an unseen pair of hands. Marge's kindly neighbour Walter (Michael Monteiro) offers Katie a warning: "nothing good ever came out of this place," he counsels, and when Katie finds a skull in the garage, and witnesses the ghost of a tortured woman, she begins to see his point.

Abigail Haunting has a slight Stir of Echoes (1999) feel, with blue collar communities encountering the supernatural. Bit Schwarze's movie never seems to decide whether it wants to be down at heel urban drama or fright fest, and therefore fails to fully deliver on either side. It certainly has a lot of dowdy atmosphere, and Jurkiewicz is effective as the troubled Katie, but the final reel rush to explain everything away, and the explanation itself, feels overfamiliar and drab. The movie is best when it's subtle and unsettling, which it achieves excellently in its early stages. 

The Last House aka Cry for the Bad Man USA 2019: Dir Sam Farmer) More small town entertainment, with Camille Keaton (who had recently cameoed the same year in one of the many sequels to the 1978 original, I Spit on Your Grave: Deja Vu) starring as Marsha Kane. 

Seems everyone wants the widow Kane to take some money and leave the family home following her husband's death; even the local police are in with old man MacMohan, whose sons are exerting pressure for Marsha to move out, including pinning a contract to the front porch with a knife. But the lady's not for moving, much to the chagrin of her daughter Helen (Karen Konzen). "This is my house," she says, giving her daughter a quick one across the chops, and her intransigence gives an indication of what's to come: well that and the endless shots of Ms Keaton tooling up for the night ahead.

There really isn't very much to this beyond the setup described. Marsha hunkers down with an arsenal at her disposal, and the bad guys steal into the house to get what they think is theirs. One guy gets his entire hand blown off, shouts a bit then continues like nothing's happened. There's some tension in the stand off (well sit down off actually) between Marsha and the brothers, and it's tightly shot, effectively covering up for the lack of budget. At a slim one hour and fourteen minutes it knows exactly how to stay its welcome, but unless you're a Camille Keaton completist I can't really recommend this.

Skin Collector aka Shiver (USA 2012: Dir Julian Richards) Quite why this 2012 movie is being passed off as a new release I'm not sure, but Julian Richards' films are generally worth seeing (I really liked his last feature, 2018's Reborn), even if his output can be rather uneven.

A killer is stalking Portland, Oregon, who calls himself 'the Griffin' and whose MO includes taking parts of women's bodies and having sex with them post mortem. Detectives Delgado and Burdine (Casper van Dien and Rae Dawn Chong respectively) are tasked with catching him. Quite slowly as it happens.

Into the story steps Wendy Allen (Danielle Harris, who we last saw looking rather out of place in last year's Redwood Massacre: Annihilation). Wendy's having trouble asking her boss for a raise, but that's about to be the least of her problems, as 'the Griffin' is about to make her his next victim. Plucky Wendy stabs him in the leg and makes her escape, but the killer develops a fascination with the one that got away and begins his creepy stalking, and entrapping, of his new quarry, leading to a succession of scenes where's she's caught, escapes and gets caught again.

Skin Collector is, sadly, truly abyssmal. At nearly ten years old, I'm hopeful that mysoginistic rubbish like this would not get green lit these days. It doesn't help that the killer is a man of manners who appreciates women (he just has a funny way of showing it), which is supposed to make him extra creepy but instead just becomes cartoonish; a redemptive ending doesn't cancel out the poor taste of including a serial shooting scene in an enclosed space either. Apart from the subject matter, there's just no style, tension or characterisation to fall back on (the killer driving past the school where he was once bullied and having flashbacks is the nearest we come to gaining any insight into his psychosis - yes it's that bad). It's just empty, unpalatable nonsense.

Crone Wood (Ireland 2016: Dir Mark Sheridan) First time feature director Sheridan is a brave chap to make their debut a 'found footage' movie. Was that still a thing even four years ago? Well that's what we have here, anyways. Danny (Ed Murphy) and Hailey (Elva Trill) are out on a first date and getting on like a house on fire. They don't want it to end, and the fun never stops as the couple use Danny's video camera to film each other. 

Hailey makes the rather rash suggestion that they should go camping - in November - prompting a trip to a shop for useful things like, you know, a tent. Hailey, clearly full of good ideas,  thinks that travelling to out of the way Crone Wood, a place associated with a coven of witches, would be a good idea. The place has since been renamed but for locals it's still a spooky area. Danny's all for sticking to the paths, but Hailey wants to go rogue. She's from round these parts apparently so knows what she's doing. 

On the first night their bickering and occasional lovemaking is interrupted by a creepy looking guy with a mask. Giving chase, they lose him, but also mislay their tent. Seeking help at a nearby house, occupied by a group of women, they're welcomed in until help arrives. But strangely Hailey seems to know them. 

Crone Wood is a movie of two halves; the first being the standard lost in the woods story, with Danny and Hailey taking it in turns to assume the lead, but both getting nowhere. The second half moves into folk horror territory and it's here that the FF format starts to strain at the edges. There's a point beyond which the utilisation of a stand alone camera - apart from filming events for the audience - seems totally pointless. It's a different kind of fourth wall which, once broken, ruins the illusion.

Sheridan's movie is ambitious for the resources on hand but doesn't really break new ground, and at nearly an hour and half is simply too drawn out to sustain any tension. Not awful then, but a little unnecessary, and it's been done better before by more skilled directors.

The Odds (USA 2018: Dir Bob Giordano) A 2018 movie only now getting a UK DVD release, the premise of The Odds is pretty simple: at twenty undisclosed locations around the world, a game is being played simultaneously, involving six rounds of personal endurance. The winner will be the last person standing who doesn't either quit or die; the prize money of one million dollars is the lure, and various unseen people bet on the outcome.

The unnamed 'Player' in the room (Abbi Butler) has literally nowhere else to go. Her daughter has been taken away from her, apparently for being an unfit mother, and she wants the prize money to make things right between the two of them. The only other person in the sealed room is the 'Game Master' (James J. Fuertes) whose role is to mentor the Player and administer the punishments required in each round (from putting one foot in a box full of rats to nailing screws to the other one); he's done this fourteen times before and has, we assume, never been successful at producing a winner. 

The first test is for the Player to hold her hand over a lighted candle until three players drop out. The rounds progress in degress of cruelty but the woman remains resolute. A kind of weird master/servant relationship develops between the two of them; the Player has to administer some of the tortures to herself, and the Games Master acts as a kind of trainer/suitor. But gradually the Player realises that things may not be as they seem; and then it's time for Russian Roulette.

Anyone expecting classic over the top tort*re p*orn from my description will be disappointed; I was, but not for that reason, as it's a sub genre that does nothing for me. The Odds has some wider pronouncements to make about the relationship between men and women and human endurance, with the two main characters signifying an eternal struggle. And while the developing caustic relationship between the Player and the Games Master is well done for much of the film, the problem is that the movie runs out of steam with an extra half an hour to go and becomes, literally, a battle of the sexes.

Butler's turn as the slightly older, care worn but defiant heroine of the piece recalls Betty Gilpin's bravura performance in 2020's The Hunt, but where that film was rather sly and subversive about its politics, this movie remains po faced throughout, and therefore very one dimensional. To paraphrase slightly, The Odds was not in my favour.

You're Not Alone (USA 2020: Dir Eduardo Rodriguez) 
When Emma (Katia Winter) is bequeathed her former martial home following the death of estranged husband Patrick, she also gets custody of daughter Isla (Leya Catlett), who's previously been living with her grandmother. Emma has clearly seen some tough times and has a suicide attempt under her belt (grandma calls her an 'unfit mother' and she was asked not to attend Patrick's funeral) but she has support from gothy sister Ashley (Emmy James) and old flame local guy Mark (Zach Avery). But strange things begin to happen in the house: Isla sees someone in the house's upstairs window; a photo of Patrick flies off the wall; and Emma's online therapy session gets cutoff mid way through.

Emma installs CCTV for protection, and attempts to re-bond with her daughter despite her continuing fragile mental health. But when people start disappearing, starting with Ashley and nosy neighbour Mrs Willis (Lane Bradbury), she becomes convinced that there is something in the house.

Filmed in 2016 under the title of 'Unwanted' (ahem) but shelved for the next four years, watching You're Not Alone it's not difficult to see why. To be honest it's no worse than a hundred other 'woman-on-the-verge-of-a-nervous-breakdown' movies where the explanation for events is more prosaic than supernatural, but my goodness rarely have I seen a film that wants to have its cake and eat it so much in the audience hoodwinking stakes. First we're given to believe that the incidents in the house are of a ghostly nature (some of them happen without any possible human agency; what else are we expected to believe?) then it looks like one of the distinctly human characters is in the frame, then they get despatched, the real killer being someone we've barely seen! Bodies go undiscovered, almost forgotten about, and Emma's last reel final girl performance is stretched to incredulity by the amount of times she is stabbed, but still manages to get on her feet. "Nightmarish" states the quote on the cover art; yes, but for all the wrong reasons.

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