Saturday 25 November 2023

Halloween 2023 Round Up Part 1: Reviews of The Wendigo (USA 2022), All Fun and Games (USA/UK/Canada 2023), There's Something Wrong with the Children (USA 2023), When Evil Lurks (Argentina/USA 2023), Beneath Us All (USA 2023), Spirit of Fear (USA 2023), Sammy Slick: Vampire Slayer (USA 2023), Run Rabbit Run (Australia 2023), Birth/Rebirth (USA 2023), Allensworth (USA 2022) and Scala!!! Or, the Incredibly Strange Rise and Fall of the World's Wildest Cinema and How It Influenced a Mixed-up Generation of Weirdos and Misfits (UK 2023)

For the month of October 2023 – culminating in Halloween, of course - I decided to do capsule reviews of 31 horror movies released this year which I’d not previously seen. There aren’t 31 entries in this post (there are actually 22) as some are UK films and as such are included in various BHFF2023 posts; others appeared on the Bloody Flicks site. Here are the rest, split over two posts.

The Wendigo (USA 2022: Dir Jake Robinson)
 The Wendigo is a mythical creature whose origins date back to stories told by American First Nation people. Popularised as a result of the creepy 1910 novella by Algernon Blackwood, the Wendigo has enjoyed a fitful career on the big screen, mostly notably in Larry Fessenden’s low budget creepathon Wendigo back in 2001.

Director Jake Robinson’s first feature is a good example of a new generation of filmmakers embracing the hoary old ‘found footage’ format, now entering its third decade. Logan (Tyler Gene) is a social media star who live streams his exploration of a section of Appalachian trails and, on camera, is whisked away by a horned beast. Logan’s social media comrades launch an expedition to find him, only to find that some rival Youtubers have had the same idea; needless to say it doesn’t end well for any of them.

The ’new wave’ of found footage here weaves in the complexity of vacuous social media personalities treating each other like shit and trying to max their likes, before it becomes a Costco The Evil Dead; suffice to say that the legend of the Wendigo becomes rather an afterthought. The woods look great but this is poor stuff; mercifully the whole thing is over in just over an hour.

All Fun and Games (USA/UK/Canada 2023: Dir Eren Celeboglu, Ari Costa)
 Grim (but not in a good way), this PG-13 horror has a dysfunctional family – three kids, distracted mum and her feckless brother - living in Salem, Mass. Popular belief maintains that the horrific and satanic history of the town can be entirely explained away as the persecution and death of many innocent young women at the hands of awful men.

But apparently there are actual supernatural histories of the area too – one of these concerns a knife that possesses its owners and drives them to do awful things. Passed on through history the knife finds its way into the hands of the youngest child of the family, Jo (Benjamin Evan Ainsworth) and thence to oldest boy Marcus (Asa Butterfield, surely fulfilling some contractual obligation here). The knife possesses, children and (real) witches from the 17th Century return, and it’s all a terrible mess, clocking in at a still regularly watch checking 75 minutes.

There’s a lush score by Alex Belcher to heighten the drama, but it has to do all the work as there’s precious little among the largely teeny cast. Dull.

There’s Something Wrong With the Children (USA 2023: Dir Roxanne Benjamin)
Sometimes the viewing palate cries out for a good old-fashioned bit of filmmaking, competently produced and directed, well played, with a story that remains satisfying while not going anywhere new. Roxanne Benjamin’s first ‘fantastic’ feature delivers all of this.

Two couples, one childless - Ben (Zach Gilford) and Margaret (Alisha Wainright) - and the other, Ellie (Amanda Crew) and Thomas (Carlos Santos) with two kids, Lucy (Briella Guiza) and younger brother Spencer (David Mattle), rent cabins in the woods for a vacation together. The parents have been through a few things, and the childless pair have too, but they’ve clearly known each other a while and so time away seems like a good idea.

While out for a walk, the group come across a strange building filled with corridors and steep, lethal drops. Lucy and Spencer seem transfixed with the place. Later Ben and Margaret offer to put the kids up overnight at their cabin to give Ellie and Thomas some much needed alone time, but the morning after the children have disappeared from their beds. On searching for them Ben tracks the pair to the building visited the previous day, only to see them jump to their deaths into one of the site’s deep holes. But when he returns to the cabins, unsure how to break the news of the fatalities, Ben is surprised to see Lucy and Spencer, full of beans, but subtly changed into something monstrous – and murderous.

TSWwtC looks back to two evil moppet movies for its influence; Tom Shankland’s 2008 UK movie The Children, and the classic 1976 Spanish film Who Can Kill a Child? aka ¿Quién puede matar a un niño? And rather like those movies, Benjamin doesn’t disclose precisely who (or what) has taken over the kids (apart from a shadowy glimpse of something insect like and the children’s obsession with beetles). There are the usual present and correct narrative moments – Ben’s previous mental health issues mean that his suspicions about the kids go unbelieved by the adults, and nobody except Ben sees the children at their worst – and Benjamin builds the tension well, teasingly holding off the mayhem until the last possible moment. The film is also good at skewering that awkward thing of childless couples having to deal with friends’ kids with no experience of childrearing themselves. Good stuff.

When Evil Lurks aka Cuando acecha la maldad (Argentina/USA 2023: Dir Demián Rugna)
 Don’t expect Señor Rugna to give you any easy answers in this very strange, and occasionally incredibly disturbing Argentinian fright flick.

Brothers Pedro (Ezequiel Rodriguez) and Jimmy (Demian Salomon) are concerned. In a farmhouse on the edge of their village a large, decaying man called Uriel – alive but with all the hallmarks of a bloated corpse – lies on a bed; they refer to him as ‘a rotten’. Precisely what this means is never really explained, but the infected man can only be despatched by a specialist – called a cleaner – provided by the Ministry.

The only problem is that the cleaner appointed lies in bloody pieces, attacked en route to his task; so it’s left for non qualifieds Pedro and Jimmy to load the body onto a truck and drive it hundreds of kilometres away from civilisation. But they manage to lose the body on the way, which spells trouble for the brothers and the local community; the ‘rotten’ is highly contagious and this disease spread has all the hallmarks of zombie cannibalism.

Pedro visits his estranged wife and child, with a view to abducting his offspring and getting as far away as possible as quickly as possible. But that plan fails, and Pedro and Jimmy find themselves enmeshed in an increasingly deadly situation.

Honestly it’s kind of difficult to get a handle on the nature of the threat in When Evil Lurks; all the audience knows is that it’s a sly and very bloody one. Therefore there’s no neat cause/effect narrative, and the advice provided to stave off a ‘rotten’ infestation by one of the cast – something about no light, no shooting, not calling it by its name – is intriguing but baffling.

But the effectiveness of the movie lies, and is saved by, its horrid details: a dog savaging a little girl, who appears unharmed in the next scene; a mother chewing on the brains of her offspring, strobed in a car’s headlights; and a wife killing her husband, and then herself – with an axe – to stop the spread of infection. When Evil Lurks may not equal the sum of its parts, but some of those parts are incredibly effective.

Beneath Us All (USA 2023: Dir Harley Wallen)
 I couldn’t work out whether the title of this film was a nod to the evil that lurks at the heart of humans, or some more general comment on the worth of the film. Turns out both are right.

Wallen, this movie’s director and a former martial artist, apparently has a bit of a fanbase, people seeing him as a powerhouse filmmaker who’s churned out a number of horror movies in quick succession; now I haven’t seen his last two efforts, 2022’s Ash and Bone and this year’s The Devil’s Left Hand, but based on Beneath Us All I’m good thanks.

Evil foster parents Todd (Sean Whalen) and Janelle (Maria Olsen) have a gaggle of kids at their house, but they’re wrong’uns; they both day drink and Todd supplements their income through gambling. Among their brood is 17 year old Julie (Angelina Danielle Cama) who, being a late teenager, is wise to Todd and Janelle’s dodginess, and is keen to flee the nest.

Meanwhile social worker Rebecca (Kaiti Wallen, the director’s wife, who appears in all of her husband’s movies) has relocated to the area in which Todd and Janelle live and has got her beady eye on the unsavoury couple and the harm they might be causing to the kids. But Julie has found her own salvation, courtesy of a 1000 year old Scandinavian vampire who she has been psychically drawn to and has dug up; and after being woken from his slumber he is desirous of blood.

This, my friends, is pretty much all there is to the movie, which is fairly bloodless, literally and narratively. It reminded me of one of those movies put out by Charles Band’s Full Moon Features, but without any of the campy fun. This is very much a locally produced flick too; product placement for, among other things, a neighbourhood IPA suggests where some of the finance may have come from.

Keeping it in the family Wallen also includes his two little kids in the cast (I suppose it saved on babysitting fees) and the director also pops up as a detective. It’s not a bad movie, just a dull one, but if it has its fans, well good luck to them.

Spirit of Fear (USA 2023: Dir Alex Davidson)
 More indie US fare, low low budget but some decent ideas at work here. Chris (Christopher Lee Page) wakes up in a house he doesn’t recognise. There’s blood all over one of his arms but it doesn’t look like he cut himself. Walking around the house he sees various post it notes, including one on the front door advising him not to go out and a similar one on the entrance to the basement. There’s also one advising him not to spend too long in the bathroom; wise words, apparently, as there’s something demonic lurking behind the shower curtain. Oh and he works out that the notes are in his writing.

Chris finds an old 8mm projector, initially unloaded with film, which later shows footage of him with a woman and child – his wife and daughter? A later descent into the forbidden basement will show him further visions which may be echoes from a past life.

The almost dialogue free depiction of one person’s search for the reason he’s in the house, revealed through small clues which he must piece together, reminded me of those old first person walk around observation games like ‘Myst’. Unfortunately unlike that game it’s Chris in control and everything is revealed very slowly, and we have to deal with a lot of emoting on the way.

Thankfully the whole thing is explained – well sort of – with a last scene that’s pretty clever and provides a different spin on a classic genre setup. It still doesn’t add up, although I’m sure the director, Alex Davidson, would be keen to explain it to you; it feels like a real labour of love story. Even at 75 minutes Spirit of Fear rather drags, but it’s good to see something different being attempted.

Sammy Slick: Vampire Slayer (USA 2023: Dir Christopher Leto)
 Regional indie horror filmmaking courtesy of prolific director Leto. This one comes all the way from Ybor City and Tampa, Florida.

Sammy Slick (Klein Wong) is a private eye come vampire hunter, whose twin skills allow him to do the spade work on the location of the undead and then despatch them, Buffy style. Sammy’s PA Ashley (Ariella Aegen) is, we soon find out, also a slayer, disguising her vampire hunting chops by providing secretarial services.

But the pair realise they need to team up when they’re faced with Sofia (Barbara Sulova), a mean uber vampiress who’s running a nest of bloodsuckers behind the façade of a strip club. To stake out Sofia, Sammy and Ashley must face a whole heap of befanged henchmen and strippers.

SS:VS is cheap, cheap, cheap and really shouldn’t work; but it does. A lot of this is down to Wong and Aegen who make a great pair, wisecracking and will-they-won’t-they flirting through the movie, but both able to throw some moves when they need to. The supporting cast of vampires is also good value and everyone looks like they had great fun making the thing; no-one is taking this particularly seriously and the movie is all the better for it. I had a great time watching this and – spoiler alert – would love Sammy and Ashley to return for more vampire adventures.

Run Rabbit Run (Australia 2023: Dir Daina Reid)
 Sarah (Sarah Snook) lives with her young daughter Mia (Lily LaTorre) and leads an emotionally precarious life. Divorced, and dealing with the recent death of her father, she’s also busily ignoring calls from the rest home where her estranged mother (Greta Scacchi) lives.

Mia begins to act strangely, increasingly defying her mother (nothing strange there, I hear you comment); she takes an increasing interest in Sarah’s sister Alice, who went missing at the age of 7, assuming the missing sibling’s name, and being mistaken for her when Mia and Sarah visit her mother. A stay at Sarah’s parents’ house exacerbates Mia’s disassociation and her mother’s poor mental state, and a family secret gradually exposes itself.

This is director Reid’s first feature, but her background in TV means that Run Rabbit Run remains focused on Snook and LaTorre for most of its running time; their performances are consistently powerful, even if the story they’re in feels overstretched and inconclusive. The supernatural elements of the movie only really surface towards its close but remain oblique. But this is still impressive for the most part, just not as gripping as it could have been.

Birth/Rebirth (USA 2023: Dir Laura Moss)
 I’m slightly staggered that Birth/Rebirth is director Moss’s first feature; it’s an assured, grim but deftly handled piece, centring on a doctor, Rose Casper (a superb performance from Marin Ireland) and her attempts to return the dead to life.

It’s difficult to work out whether Rose is incredibly committed to her calling, nuts, or a combination of both; the lengths to which she uses herself, and others, to achieve her aims, makes it difficult to work out. In one of her first scenes, for example, Rose approaches a random guy in a bar, offers to masturbate him, collects the semen and, when home, artificially inseminates herself. That this act is part of a wider plan only becomes obvious as the movie progresses, when Rose’s life collides with a nurse, Celie (Judy Reyes) with whom she works. Celie is equally committed to her job, so much so that, as a single mother, she sometimes offloads her little daughter Lila (A.J. Lister) onto a neighbour so that she can work. Following Rose’s ‘no phones’ rule on the ward (and thus tying the two women’s fates together), Celie misses calls that Lila has become sick, and is consumed with guilt when the child dies.

But Celie’s attempts to see her daughter’s body are frustrated by the news that it has gone; it’s been taken by Rose who, after a successful experiment bringing a dead pig back to life, has transported Lila back home for her next challenge. Celie’s discovery of this fact leads to the pair entering into a bizarre domestic partnership; she moves in with Rose and together they resurrect and care for the little girl, with perhaps inevitably tragic results.

Perhaps the strangest take on Mary Shelley’s ‘Frankenstein; or the Modern Prometheus’ you’re ever likely to see, both Reyes and Ireland are superb in their roles, but it’s the latter’s film. Rose is an extraordinary character, played as a combination of Frasier Craine’s ex wife Lilith (Bebe Neuwirth) and Sofia Helin’s on the spectrum Saga character from The Bridge. But the really clever thing going on here is that Moss manages to cut the drama with some mordant humour, making this a difficult but fulfilling watch. It’s definitely one of my films of the year.

Allensworth (USA 2022: Dir James Benning)
 It may seem a little unusual to include this disturbingly lyrical documentary in my Spooktober lineup (even the title I’ve given the season provides a whiff of discomfort in the context of this film) but bear with me.

Allensworth is a ghost story; of sorts. The town was the first in America to be founded, financed and governed by Black Americans. It was founded in 1908 by Allen Allensworth, a Chaplain of the United States army, who established the land for the purposes of “a colony of orderly and industrious African Americans who could control their own destiny.” The town flourished in the years following its creation but its success was brief; following its founder’s untimely death in 1914, a combination of its location near a railroad that was subsequently redirected (as was the town’s water supply, causing a failure of crops) caused the town to dwindle, leading to its eventual demolition in 1966.

James Benning’s documentary splits itself into twelve months of a year; most of the months ‘shown’ depict a building in the town (most of the buildings are rebuilds of the originals following the creation of the area as a heritage State Park in 1974) shot in a series of static five minute shots. The only signs of life are passing cars and trains and the odd person occasionally seen in the periphery of the picture. The only break in this succession of haunting images occurs when a teenage girl named Faith Johnson, authentically dressed and reading a series of poems written contemporaneously by Lucille Clifton; the poems provide fragments of the struggle felt by the occupants of Allensworth, and thus context for the images we see.

Allensworth is both an exercise in hauntology and a memorial to a pioneering experiment that burned brightly but too quickly. It’s a documentary that requires patience but has a cumulatively powerful impact.

Scala!!! Or, the Incredibly Strange Rise and Fall of the World's Wildest Cinema and How It Influenced a Mixed-up Generation of Weirdos and Misfits (UK 2023: Dir Ali Catterall, Jane Giles)
It’s been thirty years since the Scala in Kings Cross closed as a movie house; that’s a whole generation timewise. But this ragged, heartfelt documentary about the Scala’s history as a little bit of 42nd St in London, brings it all back.

Separated into three sections, the doc covers the cinema’s origins in Tottenham St (acknowledging but playing only fleeting attention to the infamous all nighters there, which mixed bands and underground movies), then spends the bulk of its running time looking at the Pentonville Rd site. A third section covers the venue’s forced closure as a cinema and its renaissance as a club.

For anyone who went to the place in either of its incarnations (guilty as charged), Scala!!! (the full title and exclamation marks is a tribute to Ray Dennis Steckler’s most famous film The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed Up Zombies!!?) serves as a fabulous time machine, although a lack of photos and filmed footage means that most of those memories are recalled via interview (we do get some excellent movie clips though); the weird audiences, the deaths on site, and the venue’s two lovely cats are all covered, as is the venue’s cultural – and counter cultural - significance. For anyone who wasn’t born when the place closed its doors as an independent cinema – as the result of a financially crippling court case following an ‘illegal’ screening of A Clockwork Orange, although sources in the film hint that the place was just too ‘other’ for the Government at the time, who were looking for an excuse to strike – I’m not sure that Scala!!! will be anything other than a curio.

But if just one person watches the doc and, as a result, decides to programme independent cinema in their home town, or even asks the question as to when their multiplex will show anything other than the latest big budget compubuster, this documentary will have done its work.

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