Saturday, 24 September 2016

"Roar" ... and WTF

Noel Marshall, 1981, USA


There are a few films that have a genuinely WTF ingredient. I don’t mean in the way that they amaze through execution, a wow of wonderment reaction; no, what I am referring to is that reaction where you find yourself thinking What the fuck were they thinking when they made this?! All the way through. I’m not thinking of examples such as Troma’s output, as that’s contrived to elicit such a response. I mean those films that seem to be genuine in intent, have no idea that they are bizarre/laughable/outrageous. And when you revisit them, they still have that WTF effect, because it is in their DNA. It’s not something easily explained: you have to watch it and experience all the elements to fully get and feel why it causes jaw to drops and laughter of disbelief. It’s in  the timing of things, the presentation of scenes, a turn of phrase. ‘Troll 2’ has it. ‘The Children of Ravensback’ has it. Even ‘Shrunken Heads’ has it, although that’s partially intentional. 

And ‘Roar’ has it. In a way that few films can ever reach.

A man lives in Africa and has a house full of big cats. Dozens and and dozens dozens of them. Over a hundred, in fact. His problem seems to be that they attack visitors all the time, albeit and arguably playfully. Anyway, he has invited his family to come live with him. And the premise seems to be that since he is late meeting his family at the airport and he is on his way – um, his getting to such an important appointment on time doesn’t seem to be his concern – they get to the house early when he’s not there and the big cats think it’s playtime, or dinner. 

From the very beginning, the film has the lions and tigers and panthers pawing and lunging at the cast as well as each other, and the film essentially does that throughout. Even when they are being playful, they are lunging at people to have “hugs”. The film doesn’t try to soften the idea that when they are playing around these big hunters still cause injuries. I mean, even being friendly and disinterested, they cause mayhem. It’s all part of their being wild animals. Characters even tell Hank – their deluded landlord rather than their owner - that he’s crazy to invite his family, but he insists that the big cats are just misunderstood, even as they playfully chomp on his foot and make his hand bleed and… Well, the thing that makes the jaw drop is watching the actors trying to act whilst wild big cats do their thing. Hank is played by Noel Marshall, the director, and the cast is filled out with his family. One imagine a family being convinced this is a good idea, but the crew? The official ‘Roar’ website even states: 

“No animals were hurt during the filming, but over 70 people were injured, including all cast members except Mativo. Not the animals fault, but the fault of the project. We’ve now learned that these are wild animals. If you do what the family did in the film, it’s not “if” you’ll get bitten, it’s “when”!”



“We’ve now learned that these are wild animals.” “We”? The website writers? Because if it was the filmmakers, well it apparently took eleven years to make so one would imagine they would have worked out the wildness before then. And there’s a certain lightness to that paragraph – as if being bitten by a big cat was all part of the hi-jinx! –that even a cursory summary on Wikipedia will easily cast a somewhat more sceptical light, saying that “It has been considered the most dangerous film shoot in history.” Reading through the “cast and crew injuries” will loosen the jaw for dropping. There is this irreconcilable friction between the idealised vision of the big cats and the threat they pose, and the film swings from one to the other without any qualms, even if it acknowledges that very friction, and that’s where the WTF element lies. 

So the premise is that the big cats are misunderstood and the family’s arrival and terrifying experience by being met and attacked by a whole menagerie – hey, the elephants are just as aggressive – is just a kind of comedy of feline manners? Indeed, the positive reviews all seem to reference a humour and amusement, which means I guess they were seeing a farce where I was thinking This is crazy! I guess the moment where the guy is holding his breath underwater in a barrel as the big cats drink above is meant to be comedy whereas I was thinking it could be read a moment of genuine danger and suspense? Indeed, much of the positive response seems to display a sentimental view of these wild creatures that I am not sure gives them their proper respect. 

So the big cats are both the threat and, ultimately, the loveable critters that just need to be understood and lived with? In the end, according to the closing montage, the family just goes about their lives with the big cats without apparently any incidents. Hmm. I’m not buying it and no crappy closing song will convince me otherwise. 

Sunday, 18 September 2016

Dear Wendy

Thomas Vinterberg, 2004,
Italy, USA, Netherlands, Denmark, France, Germany, UK


A main criticism against Lars Von Trier’s satirical critique and goading of America’s love affair with firearms, “Dear Wendy” is that neither he as the writer nor director Thomas Vinterberg know anything about America or its gun culture. They are Swedish, of course, and the film was even made in Europe… as if making a set in Europe is less authentic than one erected in a backlot in the States. But I am not sure that criticising Von Trier for lack of realism is helpful as he has never dealt in neo-realism. It is hard to imagine that “Europa”, for all its grubby look, is an authentic portrayal of post Second World War Germany, or “The Kingdom” of European hospitals. And so on. He has always processed his polemics through cinematic artifice, allegories and fairy-tales. Downbeat real life frequently gives way to cinematic fantasia (see 'Dancer in the Dark' as the major example). Indeed, the character's embrace the poses of American Wersterns mythology as something to aspire to.

The Wendy in question is an antique gun with which Dick (Jamie Bell) is having a love affair, to whom he is writing a love letter which acts as the film’s narration. Orphaned and alienated, rebelling against a life down the mines and living alone, Dick buys the gun as a gift, believing it to be a toy. By chance, this gun bonds him to other gun-enthusiast pacifists and they form a secret club, “The Dandies”. “The Dandies” treat their guns like secret friends: they dress up absurdly, create bad poetry to firearms, research the horrific effects of bullets, give themselves what they consider to be Dandyish codes and phrases, et cetera. The balance and conceit is disturbed with the arrival of a new black member, but it is not quite this that brings them to the inevitable movie consequences of their firearm fetish.


Where the parable-like quality doesn’t help can be in the tiny but crucial details, such as the local residents being paranoia of a couple of gangs. Trying to be general and specific at the same time causes some friction: that is, there is nothing seen in the American mining town of “Dear Wendy” that supports the existence of the violent, amoral and street-owning gangs that the residents fear. Perhaps then the joke is that the only gangs we see are “The Dandies” and police, both trigger-happy. In fact, the best surprise and gag that the whole drama rests upon is the use of a shotgun by the most unexpected of residents. So: gun culture and fear and love of gun culture breeds more love and fear of gun culture and gun culture. It can only end in bloodbaths. I am not sure that an example, by comparison, like Oliver Stone’s “Natural Born Killers” is any more subtle, advanced or informed just because he is American, regardless of his evident first-hand experience with warfare. It’s not subtle nor advanced, and yet there is always something a little punkish about Von Trier, and the black humour sidesteps the judgemental fascism of that other provocateur Haneke. As a fantasy about the allure of firearms to young people, a punkish sensibility serves well. It’s all aided by strong performances and Von Triers’ typically borderline Brechtian inclinations, embraced by Vinterberg. 

Saturday, 10 September 2016

FrightFest 2016 summary

So FrightFest 2016 finished on a great high indeed with ‘Train to Busan’ and everyone came out very buoyant to stand around for the after-screening lock-in to give a chance to chat and say goodbye. It wasn’t a remarkable year but it was enjoyable as always, because the atmosphere and the multitude of guest make it special. To abandon the real world for a long weekend and to watch twenty-five films with like-minded people is the treat. It's a funny thing that there is a sense of being bereft when it's over, even though we've surely had more than our fill? Also, the fact that Shepherds Bush Vue was all on one level seemed to increase sociability too, as people were for more likely top bump into each other and into the cast and crew of films.

My favourites. In no particular order:

·        Broken
·        White Coffin
·        Director’s Cut
·        Train to Busan
·        They Call me Jeeg Robot

And I found 'Beyond the Gates' highly charming. 

And favourite moments? Well, getting to talk a little to the cast of ‘Broken’ and Ivan Silvestrini (director of ‘Monolith’). People laughing at ‘Blood Feast’ and ‘Sadako  vs Kayako’, especially the dialogue, treating them as more as farces. And then there was the near physical joy running throughout the audience to ‘Train to Busan’. Bumping into friends in the lobby to discuss editing in ‘Johnny Frank Garret’s Last Words’ and the nature of zombies. It seems there were some real treat in the alternative screens – ‘We are the Flesh’ got lots of positive feedback, for example, and then there was ‘Egomaniac’ which evidently handed out promo sock puppets.




·        BEST UNINTENTIONALLY FUNNY DIALOGUE: ‘Sadako vs Kayoko’ provided more consistent comedy, but the biggest laugh was for ‘Blood Feast’ when a new character, apropos to next-to-nothing, asks our crazed cannibal if he’d like to see come all over her face.

·        BEST FREE-FOR-ALL: A toss-up between ‘White Coffin’ and ‘Train to Busan

  • ·        BEST PERFORMANCES: The cast of ‘Broken’.
  •  
  • ·        MOST CRINGE-INDUCING DEATH SCENE: Oh, the pencil-suicide in ‘Johnny Frank Garret’s Last Words’ had the audience squirming in their seats.
  •  
  • ·        MOST BEAUTIFUL: ‘Monolith’s Utah desert scenery.



Until next year.                                                                                                    

FrightFest 2016 Day 5

DIRECTOR’S CUT

Adam, Rifkin, 2016, USA

It’s the era where we’re all film directors, editing, scoring and shaping our life on film to upload on social media. Now more than ever our lives are dictated by film and their narratives. And remember those mix-tapes we made… well, we call them playlists now, but…? Well, what else has Quentin Tarantino been doing except making films around his mix-tapes? Hell, he even steals other film’s theme songs (of course, it helps that he can actually write). And you know how a big part of hip-hop was sampling other tunes to make a new claim on its ool? Well, that’s where ‘Director’s Cut’ begins, with a nerd appropriating someone else’s film to make it his own. This means wandering around as a crowd-funder on the set of the film ‘Knocked Off’ and splicing into it amateur footage he’s made on the fly. His real intention is to make a film with its star, Missi Pyle, which goes on to involve stalking and kidnapping. ‘Knocked Off’ is one of those slick serial killer movies that take up a lot of space, but it soon gives way to his “improvements”.

‘Director’s Cut’ is a hilarious satire on film-making with jibes at crowd-funding and product placement and all. The sequences with ‘Knocked Off’ are done as if it’s a credible script – it’s the kind of ridiculous serial killer thriller that certainly took off in the Nineties – until it falls to the delusion of Herbert Blout, the nerd who is the natural result of an audience who’s criticisms go “Yeah, but they should’ve done this to make it better.” Blout is played in a remarkable turn by Penn Jilette; and the film features a very droll cameo by Teller. Blout’s narration is a funny appropriation of the director’s commentary and although the actual plot is lesser than the satire, and although it pokes fun at the problems of film-making, it’s also a great dig at a generation that will film everything. Even their delusions and crimes.


The Windmill Massacre

Nick Jongerius, 2016, The Natherlands

Not every film can be a masterpiece and it’s surely wrong to expect that. Some films, Like ‘The Windmill Massacre’, are just good solid fun with enough style and artfulness in script and execution to avoid being bad. ‘The Windmill Massacre’ plays like a story from Amicus portmanteau films: certainly director Jongerius reference Hammer horror as an influence. A bus of tourists find themselves at a mysterious windmill where their ‘sins’ are to punished by supernatural malevolence. Except the innocents, who are to be dispatched anyway as kind of collateral damage.
There are visions of the sins before the ghoulish Miller appears to dispatch standard outrageous slasher kill-offs and the whole thing is played with an straightforward professionalism and intent that may not be enough for some, but it’s fine undemanding entertainment.










MONOLITH

Ivan Silvestrini, 2016, Italy/USA

My experience as a passenger in a smart car is that it beeps and alerts you all the time – which I dislike immensely. But a car like the eponymous Monolith doesn’t seem so very far from plausibility. Designed to be impenetrable, Sandra’s new car is meant to keep her and her toddler safe, but there’s no protection from the messy errors of humans. Soon, through a sequence of foolish impulses, Sandra (Katrina Bowden) is stuck out in the middle of a desert locked out of the car and desperately trying to save her child trapped within. As a cautionary tale, ‘Monolith’ gets how the easy yet fussy usability of super-technology – a big selling point, being all interactive and interconnected and susceptible to accidental touches on a screen – can quickly create crisis for the owner. It’s the standard warning we get from science-fiction not to trust technology, although this is very softly in that genre. But its real intention is to track how Sandra’s self-absorption and bad luck leads her to calamity and how she’ll have to think past herself and use all her smarts to resolve the situation. It’s a tale of redemption, then, but is resolved more by Sandra getting some simple and critical insight to herself rather than some big salvation. It’s a gorgeous film to look at, utilising its Utah locations to maximum stunning effect and looking somewhat slyly like a car commercial. It’s increasingly tense and never really uses a deus ex machina to spur things on. Katrina Bowden is more than able to carry the film and from a simple premise a lot of suspense is generated.


The promo car air freshener accompanying 'Monolith'















RED CHRISTMAS

Craig Anderson, 2016, Australia

One of those endless chains of date-themed horrors that subvert holidays and so on, this starts well with a typically dysfunctional family gathered and set up for slasher slaughter. The mother thought she had an abortion a long time ago, but the foetus was saved and has grown up to be a hideously deformed character that just wants to be loved (and I don’t believe that head would really be capable of speech). And if he isn’t getting that, he’ll kill everyone in sight. The comedy of awkwardness when the cloaked figure gatecrashes the Christmas celebrations and insists on reading a letter provides a peak of black humour that the film never goes on to replicate, although it’s a great moment of high absurdity. The abortion provocation seems like strong stuff for a film that then just goes on to abandon its black humour for increasingly routine and shoddily executed slasher tropes. The ellipses in scenes that show before and after a killing is mordantly amusing early on, but by the end these ellipses seem out of necessity to skip over budget restrictions rather than producing more gags at the expense of genre expectations. It’s a shame because early on it seemed to promise something raw, outrageous and darkly funny.



TRAIN TO BUSAN

Yeon Sang-Ho, 2016, South Korea

The last films of FrightFest has often been notable. I loved both ‘Big Bad Wolves’ and ‘Willow Creek’, for example. ‘Train to Busan’ follows a tradition of delivering one of the best for last.


A rip-roaring zombie film set mostly on a train, a real crowd-pleaser because it’s brilliantly presented, funny, nasty and with a decent emotional core. It’s been a great hit in South Korea. These are the fast kind of zombies that swarm – and how they swarm. The audience I was with was sent into repeated laughter of delight as the zombies burst through glass doors and clung to the rear of the train en masse. I got into a debate with a friend who said that this wasn’t a zombie film because, as per Romero, zombie films are slow and existential and social commentaries, but since ‘20 Days Later’ they just run. Well it’s true that the swarming zombie is a standard now, representing how quickly society can descend into chaos and how we are easily overwhelmed by it. It’s true this is more like a virus horror, but I’d say they’re still zombies, whose nature has progressed from voodoo origins through Romero and Fulci to the overpowering hordes they are now. There is no brooding here and very little social commentary, but themes of heroism and self-sacrifice provide the commentary that guides the narrative without letting them be smothered totally by the sentimental streak. Rather this is fun and furious with enough emotional punch to feel like a full course meal.

Wednesday, 7 September 2016

FrightFest 2016 Day 4

Downstairs, in the shopping centre below the cinema, FrightFest songs play over the shopping speaker system. There’s “The Monster Mash” and “Thriller”, of course, and I’d guess that if I hung around and listened there would be Screaming Lord Sutch’s “Jack the Ripper”; but I doubt we’d get Bauhaus’ “Bela Legosi’s Dead”. Anyway, I have to be upstairs in a dark place to see films that cover troubled subject matter.



BROKEN

Shaun Robert Smith, 2016, UK

A both bleak and humane kitchen sink drama that turns to horror for its resolution. Splatter by Ken Loach, perhaps. Up until then, we are introduced to a world every bit as claustrophobic as ‘The Chamber’, with tetraplegic former rock star John – a remarkable turn from Mel Raido – and his 24 hour carer, Evie – Morjana Alaoui of Martyrs. John is bitter and difficult, trying to come to terms with his condition, while Evie seems strong but has experienced a traumatic childhood and, in this situation, comes up against her limits. The whole thing takes place in one house and the acting from everyone is exemplary, proving once again that if you lock up a bunch of good actors with a decent script you need not need to do or demand much more. But Shaun Robert Smith keeps the camerawork interesting and the somewhat dour surroundings never descend into wanton miserablism, despite the subject matter. Indeed, so engrossing and brilliantly played is the drama that it’s almost a disappointment when the film veers into more extreme territory for its denouement. But it’s about people’s breaking point and the abusive, relentless nature of work when there’s no real support and nothing else to balance it out.  

Originally it was called ‘The Myth of Hopelessness’ but it was changed to a far more generic and anonymous ‘Broken’, which director Shaun Robert Smith didn’t seem pleased about (he did mention it was against his will).



DOWNHILL

Patricio Valladres, 2016, Chile

It’s awkward when the filmmakers are present and the film you have just seen isn’t much good. And there’s also not much unintentional humour to make it enjoyable as a shared experience. Mostly, people just head for the exit as soon as the Q&A starts over the closing credits. 

In ‘Downhill’, cyclists head to the hills for an exhibition contest but run into a man at death’s door due a strange virus and a group of hillside killers they soon fall foul of. Although it commendably doesn’t try to explain everything, especially when it gets to its demonic sect, it is increasingly badly performed and edited so that it seems to have skipped whole scenes and looks more and more amateurish as it goes on. It gets so that it’s hard for any hack to not utilise the title for negative criticism. But I won’t.  


JOHNNY FRANK GARRET’S LAST WORD

Simon Rumley, 2016, USA


Johnny Frank Garret was executed on death row for the rape and murder of a nun although it seems this was an obvious miscarriage of justice. From this true story comes a supernatural tail of revenge from beyond the grave as the last thing Garret did was to write a curse at length (far longer than the version in the film, the director told us) for all those that had condemned him, as well as their loved ones. I always feel a little uncomfortable of true stories and suffering used for the trivia of cash-in films, but Simon Rumley talked of how the Garret family are fully behind this film, I guess seeing it as a platform to truly spoke of how he was unjustly murdered by the state so long ago. 

But as to the film: it’s obvious from the way that Rumsey also told us he tried to tone down the business of the malevolent fly that he wanted to stay away from ‘The Omen’ route. Indeed, it manages to mitigate much ridiculousness by keeping the tone mostly sombre and by not giving in too much to horror melodrama, sticking closer to themes of injustice than vengeance. It avoids the unnecessary blares of jump-scares and achieves some eeriness by always keeping in view Garret’s fury at the injustice as an ongoing otherworldly force. As such, this is a decent and solid chiller whose true story basis lingers long after the genre shenanigans. 


REALIVE

Mateo Gil, Spain/France, 2016

There is always one film in the FrightFest programme sidestepping the usual horror tropes for a small breather, and this year it’s ‘Realive’. It’s a futuristic tale about Marc, brought back from a terminal illness after having put himself in cold storage until a cure can be found. Well, now he’s the the first successful case of being brought back from the dead to live a second life. But his emotional ties and existential ruminations butt against the limits of his new clinical existence, for he can’t go too far. The feel is somewhere between Jan Van Dormael and ‘Gattaca’, or ‘Ex Machina’ even, with the clean and antiseptic feel on one side broken up with multiple flashbacks to Marc’s former life. It’s good, solid science fiction reflecting over mortality, the meaning of existence, love, all that jazz. Just when its dour tone threatens to be a little pleased with itself, there’s a last minute twist that throws a welcome chill over it all. 


31

Rob Zombie, 2016, USA

Wherein one whacky Rob Zombie gang fights another whacky Rob Zombie gang. After the unfair panning given to ‘Lords of Salem’, Zombie reaches back to his earlier homages to Seventies grindhouse to tell the tale of a travelling group of carnival workers who find themselves kidnapped for the amusement of some upper class types who pit them against highly conceptualised killers. It’s a comic book of crazed characters whose designs provide much of the visual feast. Zombie is usually better when his characters shut up, but this one is full of talk with a recurring motif being the telling of disgusting jokes. The fights are so hand-held-blurry and edited into incomprehensibility that you really won’t know what’s going on – Oh, did he just fall on a chainsaw? I think so… And at one point he introduces a strobe effect so you really won’t know what’s going on. Zombie always remains interesting but it’s Richard Brake that steals the show as Doom-head, starting it all off with a memorable monologue… although it’s true that Doom-head's reputation as a super-killer seems unearned as he stabs his prey in the back and attacks them when they have been stabbed multiple times, etc. It’s rude and crude and waywardly stylish, but it mostly misses.


And coming out of the screenings, there’s someone handing out squishy stress-ball hearts like some Victorian street flower girl gone off the rails.

Tuesday, 6 September 2016

FrightFest 2016 Day 3

THE MASTER CLEANSE

Bobby Miller, 2016, USA

Socially awkward Paul (Johnny Galecki) goes to a self-help retreat where he discovers that all his negative traits are manifest into initially cute monsters. It’s like Cronenberg meets ‘Sesame Street’. I say ‘Sesame Street’ rather than ‘The Muppets’ because tthere is an agenda other than just humour and because there is a message here, an intent to illustrate human relationships and loneliness. Like ‘Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind’ or ‘Being John Malkovich’, a fantastical conceit is used to puncture the human condition and although ‘The Master Cleanse’ may not be as devastating as those films, and even if its metaphors aren’t really that subtle, they still contain a forthright emotional charge. Kill your monsters or they will kill you. Think Todd Haynes’ ‘Safe’ by Michel Gondry perhaps, or ‘Scanners’ for the indie crowd that liked ‘The Lobster’. It is amiable, low key, well played and deceptively light of touch so that maybe, just maybe, it becomes genuinely affecting.


THE REZORT 


Steve Barker, 2016, Spain/UK

After a zombie apocalypse, there’s one island where the undead still walk to provide safari fun for those who want to vent on walking cadavers. Then, of course, the systems go down due to sabotage and all hell breaks loose. A decent entry in the zombie canon – yes, ‘Westword’… oh okay, ‘Jurassic Park’ with zombies – that doesn’t do anything new but keeps a breezy pace, looks as clean as a brochure and only rarely drops real clunkers (hey, who’s the real monster here?). It even finds room to give genuine pathos to the otherwise cartoonish annoying yoofs who are just along for a real-life first-person shooter. It makes the zombie outbreak a fast and brutal one - these are the kind of undead that run and swarm -  and remembers that this genre – as George Romero said from the start – is always for social commentary. 


ABATTOIR


Darren Lynn Bousman, 2016, USA

Someone’s stealing crime scenes. Entire rooms where murders were committed. Investigative reporter Julia (Jessica Lowndes) and toughnut cop Grady (Joe Anderson) are on the case in this mash-up of film noir and supernatural thrillers. Inspired by a comic serial, this blend doesn’t quite work here: the script isn’t vivid or cutting enough. I was talking to someone afterwards that said it should’ve gone the whole hog and set it in the Forties or something. Indeed, I can see a black-and-white, less modern version making more of an impression: as it is, there is a feel of dress-up to the whole thing. Nevertheless, Dayton Callie cuts an eerie figure as the procurer of murder scenes to build one gigantic haunted house. Unfortunately, its ghosts are all CGI swirl that undermine any creepiness otherwise achieved. CGI is just not uncanny enough; it just leaves a so-what feeling if there's no flair to it.  And the final scenes are to full of exposition to haunt.


BLOOD FEAST

Marcel Waltz, USA, 2016

Re-make of the Herschell Gordon Lewis flick credited with starting the whole gorefest trend in horror. But it doesn’t even try to outdo the original in gore or mitigate its datedness by being smart. I mean, perhaps its castration etc is nasty for some, but you really need to up the ante if you’re remaking the granddaddy of splatter films. Rather, just as I couldn’t quite decide if it was just bad or deliberately hokey in a homage to Lewis, the audience started laughing openly at the bad dialogue and it all became enjoyable in an unintentional comedy sort-of way. 


SADAKO vs KAYAKO

Koji Shiraishi, Japan, 2016

And the unintentional comedy vibe continued into this, a misguided merging of two independently creepy franchises. Oh how the audience laughed their way throughout, mostly at the dialogue and at moments that were meant to induce scares; whether at the professor saying, quite blasé, that two days to live is enough or at the spooks killing a bunch of trespassing kids. Maybe it’s intentionally stupid? Despite the title, this is Sadako’s film, really, as her haunted videotape wrecks havoc on a some students and paranormal dabblers. The deaths mostly provoked laughs in the audience until the over-the-top showdown (disappointing and not all that interesting) put paid to any subtlety and creepiness that were so integral to the originals. One of the worst of the weekend, but enjoyable enough with the right amused crowd.


BEYOND THE GATES

Jackson Stewart, 2016, USA

And more 80s horror homage. Of course it looks and sounds the part but there is also something pleasingly authentically “VHS era” about the restrictions of its budget showing through in the limitations of the story, in the roughness at the edges. This is low budget in feel and execution in all the right places so that it feels genuine. A couple of brothers (Chase Williamson and Graham Skipper) come together to clean out the legacy of their missing father, an old video store that is bound to make the audience of a certain age misty eyed with nostalgia. They find an old horror video game horror – you know, pop in the video as a guide to rolling the dice, etc – hosted by 80s horror icon and FrightFest favourite Barbara Crampton and before you can say “‘Jumanji’ for horror fans”, they’ve opened portals to other malevolent worlds. The performances are winningly modest, the script is nicely written and when the gore and prosthetics finally kick in, they don’t disappoint. Who would have thought the 80s would produce a wealth of good homages some decades on?

Monday, 5 September 2016

FrightFest 2016 Day 2

There's a zombie outside the screens handing out fliers. Dominic Monaghan is wandering around and it takes me a while to go from "Hey, I recognise him; he's famous, right?" to actually realising who he is. And I find myself excited to see Johannes Kuhnke in person, talking about "The Chamber", because I liked him very much in the excellent "Force Majeure". 


MERCY

Chris Sparling, 2016, USA


A dysfunctional family gather around the deathbed of their matriarch, but pretty soon grievances and hidden agendas come to the fore. The main pleasure from ‘Mercy’ will be from its non-linear narrative that lets you think one thing happened before retracing its steps and showing what actually occured. Of course, now that I’ve disclosed that, part of the surprise will be gone. Even so, there is a downbeat, washed out feel and intelligent playing that makes this a pleasing twisty-turny home invasion thriller from Chris Sparling (the writer of ‘Buried’). 


FROM A HOUSE ON WILLOW STREET

Alastair Orr, 2016, South Africa

Kidnappers abduct a possessed girl and all manner of spooks follow. The group of kidnappers aren’t so intriguing soon they can’t go around any corner without experiencing a ghostly vision accompanied with a blaring music cue from apparitions with a penchant for cricking their necks. Watchable but too conventionally played to muster much interest or scares. This apes the tropes of typical American cattle-prod cinema too closely to offer anything new from a South African perspective. The poster might imply a cartoonish, perhaps exploitation throwback, but this is just another thriller-plot-turns-into-horror narrative with nothing new to offer.


THE CHAMBER


Ben Parker, 2016, UK

A Special Ops unit commandeers Captain Mats’ (Johannes Kuhnke) submarine and once they are submerged, the fact that they are less than forthcoming about their intentions creates increasing problems until they are trapped and in life-or-death circumstances. Claustrophobic, well written and performed, all that needs be done is to go along with the ride. It sticks to its premise and uses human folly and weakness to make things happen, but does so with commendable plausibility. When you have a decent script, all you need do is put a group of good actors in a small space and let them do their thing.



WHITE COFFIN

El Juego Diabólico
 Daniel De la Vega, 2016, Argentina

I’m a fan of the work of Adrián García Bogliano, who wrote this with Ramiro García Boglianon, and
White Coffin’ exhibits all the genre playfulness and cruelty of his previous scripts. It’s the tale of a woman, Virginia (Julieta Cardinali), whose daughter is abducted by a child-killing cult and when this woman dies, she is given one more day to save her daughter. What follows is a gonzo supernatural narrative that burns along at a breakneck pace. It’s a quest where the otherworldly rules aren’t necessarily spelt out and where the narrative sometime skips over scenes you might expect to illustrate crucial moments – this is typical of Bogliano. Delirious without losing focus, darkly funny and truly mean, a genuine horror romp. 



THEY CALL ME JEEG ROBOT

‘Lo chiamavano Jeeg Robot’
Gabroielle Mainetti, 2016, Italy

Credited with reviving the Italian film industry interest in home-grown genre films, this benefits greatly from contemporary interest in the still reasonably new super-hero genre but, like ‘Deadpool’,
it is so enjoyable and engaging that it is only afterwards that it’s a somewhat conventional origin tale becomes apparent . No matter, like ‘Deadpool’, this shows what can be done with above average script and flare. Small fry criminal Enzo (Claudio Santamaria) falls into something-radioactive-something-something and finds he has super-strength, and that’s just for starters. In fact, his discovery of powers is one of the film’s most delightful passages. He is a reluctant hero and starts out as a petty supervillain (if that isn't a oxymorn), but when he finds himself saddled with a loopy, mentally challenged neighbour Alessia (Ilenia Pastorelli), her incorporating an old Manga cartoon ‘Jeeg Robot’ into her delusions gradually rubs off and brings out the best in him. Meanwhile, nearby, there’s a supervillain in the making… 


So, no, nothing new here but the action, relationships and comedy are handled with such straightforward conviction and the atmosphere is so winning that you will barely notice. Indeed, the ambition of the showdown in a stadium is surely enhanced by the lack of budget, giving the effects more impact and credibility when they do occur instead of relying on a plethora of CGI. Entertaining and hugely likeable, this shows how desperate and charmless most of the bigger-budget peers are. And the humdrum message that maybe you don’t have to settle for your lot, that even the lowliest might be heroic becomes quite stirring as the film takes its time earning such a coda.


PET

Carles Torrens, 2016, USA/Spain

Again an example that with a decent script all you have to do is stand back and let the cast do their thing. Dominic Monaghan is the socially deficient Seth who bumps into an old crush on a bus and then turns into a stalker and eventually kidnaps Holly (Ksenia Solo) and … where you might expect a torture porn scenario, this moves in a different direction. A cat-and-mouse game and battle of wits ensues providing a consummate and well-delivered thriller. 

Wednesday, 31 August 2016

FrightFest 2016


FrightFest 2016 it is then. I like it for the moment halfway through the five festival days of horror and harder edges thrillers when you realise you have lost all sense of time and self and your only worry is if you are going to reach the next film in time. There was a moment when I was in the lobby and I thought I heard a fake zombie noise. Actually, it turned out to be a baby in a pushchair, but to be fair I had just been handed a flier by a zombie a moment earlier. But it gives some idea of how your mind becomes so quickly accustomed to seeing and hearing the signifiers of the horror genre when you are knee-deep in it. 

This year, rather than Leicester Square, FrightFest had moved to and taken over Shepherd’s Bush Vue and – perhaps I had missed something before, but it certainly seemed more sociable simply because it wasn’t taking place on multiple levels and so perhaps there was a greater chance of bumping into people. And there was the moment when I was chatting and someone simply came up and handed us free copies of ‘Martin Collins’ without a word. Why, thank you. And then there was the moment I saw Dominic Monaghan crossing the street towards me and it took me a moment to realise that I probably shouldn’t stop him in the middle of the road to tell him that I had enjoyed ‘Pet’.

I do miss the big screen of The Empire Leicester Square where the main screen could house something like 1,300 people, all of who were tuned into the film and all justabout on the same wavelength (that screen doesn't exist now). This was particularly great when the film onscreen wasn’t so good and people started openly laughing and treating it like a comedy. The so-bad-it’s-good thing. However, there was still this reaction to ‘Blood Feast’ and ‘Sadako vs Kayako’, making them a good length more enjoyable as a shared experience.

The main menu of films is split and staggered over three screens these days and I have seen some complaints on forums that the main screen roster is somewhat tame and some of the true gems were in the alternative Discovery screens. Now, aside from ‘Willow Creek’, my experiences with the Discovery screens have not been great, so perhaps next year I will not only stick to the main screen and maybe try other things too.

And the films…

Day #1:

MY FATHER DIE

Sean Brosnan, 2016, USA

A fine slice of grimy Southern Gothic and surprisingly the only fully fledged vengeance narrative on the main screen where the FrightFest selection is usually inundated with them. When they were kids, Asher (Joe Anderson) saw his brother murdered by their father: now their father is being released and Asher is preparing for revenge. Sean Brosnan directs his debut with enough flair and artiness that it mostly succeeds on aesthetics alone, something like if Cam Archer directed straight horrors. It’s all surface deep as the relationships are thin and the father is a thorough is a thoroughly one dimensional slice of brutality (hey, he murders a cop on his first day out; his being released early for ‘good behaviour’ is the most unbelievable aspect of the whole affair). But, like a song with a single great riff, if you like it the pace has a full-ahead momentum that it will undoubtedly make a raw impression. 



CELL

Tod Williams, 2016, USA

A cell phone signal turns people into murderous zombies. One of those Stephen King tales that starts out promising and then gets so bogged down its earnestness that it just becomes dreary and tiresome. It’s not as bad as ‘Desperation’ but it is too close to that to be interesting. And this despite a great opening where we see a quick zombie outbreak in an airport lounge and a memorable final image of the mindless ones circling a transmitter. But then the ragtag ensemble of survivors meet the Stacey Keach of Exposition and it’s all duller and duller from there. And then there’s the thing that mobile phones make you a mindless zombie (hey, social commentary!!) and the perpetrator is something Satanic in the guise of a hoody guy with big headphones. No, really.

I don’t usually associate John Cusack, Samuel L Jackson and Stacey Keach with flatness, but they pretty much sleepwalk through this. On the poster it has the Kim Newman (an instantly recognisable face wandering around FrightFest) blurb saying ‘Cell’ is “Smart, persuasive, intriguing … a refreshing throwback.” No, it isn’t those things. 




I didn’t get through all of Cody Calahan’s 'Let her Out'  (Canada, 2016) due to a bout of being ill near the end (I’m recovering from a chronic cough) so it would be unfair of me to review it all. 







* That big screen doesn't exist now. I was there for it's last use to show 'Big Bad Wolves', so it least it went out with a bang.

Monday, 22 August 2016

Cross My Heart and Hope to Die


Ti kniver i hjertet
Marius Holst, 1995, Norway

Although the US packaging tries to sell this “in the tradition of My Life as a Dog”, this is in fact more akin to darker strains of ‘The Northeners’, or even ‘The Slingshot’. As pastiche of moods and genre trappings, including rites-of-passage, mystery, domestic tragedy; complete with cellar secrets, dangerous staircases, bogeymen caretakers, enigmatic delinquent strangers, stolen cars and river corpses. Most of these are in fact false leads, of which the opening narration and uplifting song are just the first; and although the hints of peripheral horror are never consummated, ‘Cross My Heart and Hope to Die’ is at pains to estrange and alienate its young protagonist from his peers and family, and to inflict near irreparable damage to his relations to both. Here is loneliness and the mundane horror of the adult world. 

The set-up is typical: it’s the 1960s and young Otto (Martin Dahl Garfalk)  is at a loose end for summer, being an outcast from his peers. And then… Moderate and whimsical as the tone might seem, like Otto it is unlikely that any audience will walk away uplifted. It culminates in a mash of near hopes and irresolution. It is not always successful, moving from the sunny pranks and smiling face of Otto to the muted finale, but it possesses flashes of brilliance, of which perhaps most hypnotic is Otto’s decent into a dream-like near-surreal costume party, only to burst the bubble with his first proper sexually charged indiscretion. Or even a trip to a train station that inexplicably becomes emotionally charged with rain and alienation. Otto’s world is packed with red herrings; his attempts to join his peers are scuppered by his ability to always do the wrong thing; his childishness is dealt merciless blows, and if he ends the film more adult, this is no comfort. Fear of the dark, blind piano tuners and games of blind-man’s-bluff accompany the quasi-voyearism subtext, but if this is about the seeing the truth ~ don’t always trust what you see, he is predictably told ~ then it is hard to tell exactly what the truth amounts to. Then the worst happens, but not necessarily the way you think. It is true that families can fracture and reunite, that innocence is not enough and will not survive and that Otto’s secrets really don’t amount to much. But if there really is no answer, the discovery of the questions here remains an intriguing and occasionally baffling mood-piece where the threads of growing up do not necessarily lead to answers.