Monday 22 November 2021

Supermarket Sweep # 25: Reviews of Cynthia (USA 2018), Paranormal Prison (USA 2021), The Haunting of the Mary Celeste (USA 2020), The Last Exorcist (USA 2020), Demonic (Canada 2021) and The Last Inn (USA 2021)

Cynthia (USA 2018: Dir Devon Downs, Kenny Gage) Best summarised as a kind of slapstick version of the 1974 mutant baby saga It's Alive, Cynthia is a movie probably best seen with a crowd.

Michael (Kyle Jones) and his wife Robin (Scout Taylor-Compton) are a young couple trying for a baby via complicated (and expensive) in vitro fertilisation treatments, all the way from China (because they're on a budget). The situation is putting a strain on their relationship, so it's a relief when Robin falls pregnant; initially it's thought that she's expecting twins, but it soon transpires that it's one foetus and a large fibroid cyst, discarded by the medical staff when the baby is born. 

But the cyst is far from a load of dormant tissue, and before you can say Basket Case or It's Alive the little beggar - the 'Cynthia' of the title - is laying waste to the hospital staff while growing at an inordinate rate; there's also a normal daughter but really no-one is that interested in her. 

Genre regulars Robert Le Sardo, the late Sid Haig and Lynn Lowry (as a modern day wet nurse) are all present and correct, and the mostly practical effects feel like something that Joji Tani aka Screaming Mad George (remember him?) would have concocted back in the 1980s. The script, by the creation 'Robert Rhine' (you better look it up, I don't have the space to explain here) develops the wicked humour of his successful 'Girls and Corpses' magazine. It ain't subtle and, despite the light tone of the movie, its subject matter is pretty gritty; definitely not recommended for those trying to start a family. 

Paranormal Prison (USA 2021: Dir Brian Jagger) Jagger's debut 'found footage' feature comes down with a nasty case of firstfilmitis. An Idaho prison with a dodgy reputation, operating as a tourist attraction until recently closed, is the focus of the action; the authorities blame structural problems as the reason for its closure, but others suggest more supernatural reasons and a cover up.

A YouTube group of paranormal debunker investigators, called 'The Skeptic (US spelling) and the Scientist' is led by the enigmatic Matthew (Todd Haberkorn), the owner of the channel, whose ratings have nose dived. He's hoping things will pick up again when the group are offered the opportunity to spend the night in the prison. They are the last such group to be allowed access as the whole building is to be demolished to make way for an apartment complex; 17 film crews have covered the location before, without results; so no pressure then.

So, armed with a variety of bits of equipment (including a machine which lights up blue in the presence of ghosts) the group wander around the prison, while the individual members have direct to camera personal history moments, and the history of the prison inmates is disclosed. 

Like a number of films about paranormal explorations (and their TV counterparts) the hope is that the location will do all the dramatic heavy lifting. And while it is indeed an impressive place, and Jagger wisely leaves the running around screaming to the final reel, Paranormal Prison drags terribly for most of its running time, not helped by the rather clumsy visual and audio effects which punctuate the proceedings. "This is bullshit!" one character opines, and I'm inclined to agree with them.

Haunting of the Mary Celeste (USA 2020: Dir Shana Betz) A group of researchers headed by the almost crazily driven Rachel (Emily Swallow) heads to the Azores to, once and for all, clear up the mystery of the disappearance of the ship the 'Mary Celeste' in the area back in 1872. Accompanied by her two assistants, Grant (Dominic DeVore) and Cassandra (UK's Alice Hunter with a shaky Australian/US accent) they want to scientifically debunk all of the existing theories about the boat, whose crew mysteriously disappeared all those years ago, and get to the truth. Rachel's opinion is that the ship's occupants got sucked into a rift in time, and can still be reached.

Shaft himself, Richard Rountree, is Tulls, the salty captain who helps Rachel and her team out when their boat doesn't materialise, so it's all aboard his trusty rig and into uncharted waters, their equipment a mix of scientific instruments and actual objects from the original ship. Out at sea the engines give up and Tulls's assistant, Aldo (Pierre Adele) sustains an injury; he later disappears. Stranded at sea, other unexplained things begin happening on board, and it looks like whatever happened to the crew of the Mary Celeste is about to repeat itself within Tulls's craft.

This is a rather downbeat haunted house story whose low budget doesn't really allow for anything exciting; at 74 minutes things feel a little rushed and undercooked at the confusing climax; the restrictions of the setting (basically a boat) also fail to build up the required tension. It's telegraphed pretty early on that Rachel has a sad secret, and much of the narrative revolves around this, but overall this is rather uninvolving stuff. I think the critic whose review contained the words 'Genuine Terror' mistakenly included the letter 'T'.

The Last Exorcist (USA 2020: Dir Robin Bain) Could the possession of a human being pass on through generations, asks a shouty exorcist, Father Peter Campbell in a TV broadcast in Rome, moments before he's blown to smithereens courtesy of a robed suicide bomber? 

Epileptic religious observer Jo (Rachele Brooke Smith) and her boozy, druggy older and therefore rather more secular sister Maddie (Terri Ivens) are distraught at the news, as Father Peter looked after them when their mother died. When I say 'looked after' I mean 'accompanied him to exorcisms'; they clearly had a bit of a tough childhood. Onto the scene comes Brother Marco (Danny Trejo), who knew their mother, and feels that they will need his help. And they will, as mum was a possessed soul, and now it's transferred to Maddie! Jo recognises the signs - her mum began drinking heavily as the devil entered her heart, which is exactly what Maddie is doing - but we know things are going very wrong when Maddie stares at a man who's been hassling her, causing him to burst into flames, and goes all low level Carrie in the local good old boy bar.

And then everything gets weird. Maddie ends up in the psych ward, abused by Daniel, a devilish orderly with a fondness for snakes. Jo's epilepsy gets worse but she manages to ordain as a priest, and her first robed up job is the exorcism of her sister, complete with martial arts moves and ritual phrases like "I love you sister!". Start with the easy jobs, why don'cha?

The Last Exorcist is a hoot. It plays like a church funded movie, and everyone's pretty awful in it, including Trejo who looks plain awkward (Ivens gives good possession though). I quite liked the 'possession is hereditary' idea but Bain mangles the storytelling and the script is unbelievably atrocious. Avoid. And I mean avoid.

Demonic (Canada 2021: Dir Neill Blomkamp) Blomkamp's first foray into horror was rather coolly received by punters when it did the rounds of festivals early this year.

Carly (Carly Pope) is estranged from her mother Angela (Nathalie Boltt) who, Carly believes, is in prison for murder following her arson of a fully occupied care home. Her ex boyfriend tells Carly that Angela is in fact in a clinic, comatose; she has all her mental faculties but is unable to move. On visiting the facility, called Therapol and renowned for cutting edge medical technology, Carly meets two men who have developed a way for her to be inserted into a VR world where she can communicate with her mother. Not that Carly wants to do this; she hasn't spoken to Angela in years, and the first virtual meeting is understandably spiky.

But what is supposed to a safe process is the beginning of Carly's nightmares. The clinic persuade her to have another VR conversation, but Carly finds real life and the VR world blurring. She also discovers, courtesy of her resourceful friend Martin (Chris William Martin) that her mother's badass attitude may just have something to do with her being possessed.

Blomkamp's aim here is to tell a possession story with enough narrative tics to differentiate it from the usual genre efforts. The problem is that there are too many of them, and most feel like McGuffins, sleights of hand that just stick out in their awkwardness. Demonic (even the title is borrowed) brings to mind a lot of different films, and indeed starts to feel like watching a number of different movies. The scares are well signposted and noisy rather than frightening, and the creature reveal at the end is quite the anticlimax. Despite the money spent on the thing, and a fine central performance from Pope, Demonic is one of those films you struggle to remember the day after viewing it.

The Last Inn (USA 2021: Dir David Kuan) An online summary of the films of David Kuan includes the following: "The task of directing a film is not at all easy since the director must be attentive or attentive that everything is fulfilled as planned and, if it is not, make important decisions for the course of the project. David Kuan has managed to create wonderful films despite the inconveniences that arise in all the shoots and that is worthy of admiration." Well we'll be the judge of that.

And we're not off to a good start when the movie's opening credits tell us that the movie was 'Derected by' Kuan. But really that is the least of the film's problems.

Relentlessly chipper Laura (Emily Hall) crashes her car into a tree while driving at night in the mid US; she'd swerved to avoid a figure in the road. When she comes to at the wheel the following morning she has no idea where she is. Unable to solicit passing help (why it's as if other drivers can't see her) she comes across a sign directing her to 11 Misty Road and an imposing building in the shape of a huge, abandoned hotel, whose sign reads 'Welcome to the Lawst Inn'.

Inside she meets the hosts, Mr and Mrs Lawst. Mr L wants her to leave but the lady of the house is more accommodating. Laura learns that the whole area has been abandoned following an epidemic. Which doesn't account for how the proprietors are still living. Or are they (see where I'm going with this)? Despite the hotel being supposedly empty, she meets some other occupants of the place; Steven (Walker Barnes) and young couple in love Nicole (Tristan Cunningham) and Peter (Jamel King). Oh and Britney (Zarema Akmalove), a young woman of the gothic persuasion who, with her young son, never leave their room. But it's not long before Laura realises she is unable to leave the hotel, and is forced to watch a horrible chapter of the house's history being played out in front of her.

The Last Inn is, and I don't know how else to put this, putrid. All the cast either sound like, or are, dubbed, and their voice over artists are people who don't seem to be able to read a script properly, much less act; this casts some shade on the quality of the original actors too. Inexplicable things happen, like a charred ghost girl screaming 'Get out of my house!' for no apparent reason, and Mr Lawst disclosing his penchant for chopping up dead bodies. It's all underscored by a soundtrack that sounds like shopping centre elevator music, and there is so much bad CGI that I became convinced that everything I was looking as was green screen created (most was filmed at the massive Hangdian World Studios in China, which may explain the movie's lack of place and atmosphere). Very, very bad.

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