Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Short Review: 'Beyond the Black Rainbow' (2010)

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The culmination of what is generated through mood and atmosphere and its effect upon the way in which one interprets information is a process few artistic mediums are capable of instilling. When it comes to cinema the often profound impression put forward by a tangible ambiance has the ability to completely immerse an audience within an entirely alien world and thus, evoke feelings and emotions perhaps left dormant and undiscovered. When this does occur filmgoers are arguably pleasantly reminded of the power of the medium, reassured that the latest blockbuster offering at the multiplex most certainly is not the only example of what is available to the public at large.

Playing into this wonderful coordination of the senses is Beyond the Black Rainbow, the sterling debut from first timer Peter Cosmatos (son of veteran action director George P Cosmatos). Clearly influenced by cinematic fever dreams such as Altered States, Blue Sunshine, Enter the Void and others, Cosmatos takes the more psychedelic manifestations of visual and auditory storytelling and fuses them with aspects of horror cinema to create a truly superlative display of entrancingly strange and breath-taking imagery, resulting in a viewing experience that firmly establishes him as a talent to watch.

At its core the film is a period science fiction story, albeit an intentionally ambiguous one. Opening in 1983, a beautiful teenaged girl Elena (Eva Allen) is imprisoned within a medical research facility known as the Arboria Institute; a highly experimental organization focused upon the search for human contentment and serenity. Constantly under surveillance by the smug Dr. Nyle (Michael Rogers), Elena manages to escape her detainment, sending Nyle off on a hunt for her recapture. Suggestions as to Elena’s significance to the institute are vaguely alluded to but never made explicit.

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From frame one it becomes clear that Cosmatos has an impeccable understanding of the language of film and its relationship to the unconscious. Clearly in symbiosis with cinematographer Norm Li, his placement of the camera and ability to capture the most distinct of images one after another recalls the surrealist works of Buñuel, Lynch and Anger whilst also being divergent from them and true to the specific voice of the film. Aesthetically, Rainbow recreates the cold detachedness of late 1970s science fiction cinema fused with the foreboding dread of a great horror film, all filtered through the dark guise of a dream-fuelled obsession that never once fails to engross. Furthermore, the ethereal score by Jeremy Schmidt that puts analogue synthesizers to the best use since early John Carpenter is absolutely hypnotic and evocative of the time. Style is precisely substance with regard to this film.

Much of the mind-boggling attention to detail presented in Rainbow is evidenced not only through deliberately retro photographic processes (the film was shot with a vintage Panavision camera on ultra high grain 2/3 35mm stock) but also by way of exceptional set and costume design, evoking the often primary colour-infused palette of the period. However, the visual architecture is in no way designed to reflect an accurate repositioning of times past but rather more of a heightened interpretation of what was once fashionable. Much of the Arboria Institute is structured like a maze of sprawling tunnels lit by pulsating lights that seem to originate from some unseen place beyond, resulting in an antiseptic nightmare existing almost as if floating in outer space. Characters, as minimal as they are, seem to become their environments, exhibiting just as much melancholic despair as the atmosphere that surrounds them.

And ultimately this is what Beyond the Black Rainbow is concerned with and excels at the most: atmosphere. All other aspects such as narrative complexity and character backstory are secondary to creating a singularly entrancing experience and one that teleports the viewer through time, allowing for an interpretive and intuitive response. Sure, there are certain Freudian connections to be made with regard to some of the suggestive imagery used and even nods to religious implications, however the intentions of the film appear less fixated upon the subtextual and more toward casting a spell upon those willing to surrender to its wealth of mysteries. 

Beyond the Black Rainbow is available now through Madman Entertainment

Dir: Peter Cosmatos
Writer: Peter Cosmatos
Cast: Eva Allen, Michael Rogers, Scott Hylands, Rondel Reynoldson
Country: Canada
Run Time: 110mins
Rating: MA15+

Friday, May 24, 2013

Short Review: 'Inbred' (2011)

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Anyone with the most base-level understanding of genre films will acknowledge that Tobe Hooper’s immortal classic, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, has gone on to be regarded as one of the finest film accomplishments ever made, not just within horror cinema but cinema period. Other nightmarish tales of the disenfranchised lower class such as Deliverance, The Hills Have Eyes, Children of the Corn and more recently Frontiers similarly depict an existence whereby the contemporary powers that be have completely turned their back upon whom they consider to be of lesser societal value, thus dismantling notions of the traditional nuclear family and giving way to all sorts of varying interpretations of what is considered ‘normal’ family practise. There is something to be said for such a distinct and thematically rich setting as these films continue to stand strong today, both for their masterful craftsmanship as well as for their biting commentary.

In 2001, English director Alex Chandon made the conceptually interesting but ultimately underwhelming Cradle of Fear and has remained relatively quiet amid our screens ever since. Wearing his influences plastered all the way across his sleeve (to say the least), he has returned with the aptly titled Inbred, a film clearly derivative of all those aforementioned but infused with some of the most watchable cinematic bravado and gleeful black humour ever tasked to a 21st Century UK horror film, making it far more than simply a respectable ode of reverence to a bygone era of genre nastiness. 

Care workers Jeff (James Doherty) and Kate (Jo Hartley) take four young urban offenders Dwight (Chris Waller), Zeb (Terry Haywood), Tim (Seamus O’Neill) and Sam (Nadine Rose Mulkerrin) under their wing to a small countryside town in Yorkshire for a weekend of community service and fresh air. Greeted by a rather broken-down cottage with an abundance of peeling walls, the dysfunctional group attempt to make the best of a rather sordid situation by making a trip to the local pub in the hope of raising spirits. However, a mildly confrontational encounter between visitor and local soon puts the lives of the entire group in jeopardy and reveals an organised plot to make the hapless tourists the town’s next ‘attraction’.

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At first glance as the film’s ill-fated cast of characters naively roll on into the British countryside in their polished white van, a brief sense of doubt arises as to whether or not Inbred will be anything more than the usual backwoods slaughter fest consisting of stupid teenagers, dim-witted adults, poor decisions and an overall sense of repeatability as one-by-one the cast numbers decimate. Funnily enough this film is all of those things, however with one major difference: it’s uproariously entertaining. Not only that it also showcases some genuine directorial flair and a level of production aptitude and willingness to even upstage the films it so obviously holds in such high regard.

Part of this grotesque vigor is the unrelenting energy director Chandon infuses throughout the action and the manner in which it becomes organically infectious, manifesting itself in scenes of often shockingly psychotic behaviour exhibited by both hero and villain. As reprehensible as the conduct of the congenital townsfolk is, once the youngsters and their parental carers are exposed to the possibility of imminent death they too begin acting as if possessed by forces beyond their control, leading to some of the most insane deeds that pull into question whether or not they are just as crazy as their oppressors. This makes Inbred a gleefully manic exercise in the unpredictable and the absurd.

Visually the film is one of the most polished depictions of unbridled mayhem to emerge from the low budget scene, due in no small part to the stellar efforts of cinematographer Ollie Downey and costume designer Madeleine Millar. During the second half of the film when the chaos is in full swing so are the abilities of both crew members, giving way to a truly carnivalesque sensibility as the surreal torture games and outlandish goings-on dominate the greater action of each scene. Influences range from 1920s vaudeville to contemporary practices of classical theatre, albeit with a significantly more twisted and perverse blue-collar disposition. It’s as if Charlie Chaplin spent twelve months in the English countryside, developed an LSD addition and mentored a populous of homicidal compatriots.

Outwardly, Inbred may appear to be a somewhat unimaginative culmination of all things redneck-horror, filtered through the guise of a British anamorphic lens. All the expected elements to support this presumed summation are present, however this would be grossly (no pun intended) underestimating the films’ clearly realized vision. It’s disgusting, vile, horrific, outrageous and altogether hilarious in the blackest of ways, proving there’s still more than enough roasted chicken to go round. Or is it roasted children..?

Inbred is available now through Monster Pictures

Dir: Alex Chandon
Writer: Alex Chandon
Cast: Jo Hartley, Seamus O'Neill, James Burrows, Nadine Rose Mulkerrin
Country: UK
Run Time: 94mins
Rating R18+

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Short Review: 'Berberian Sound Studio' (2012)

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Sound is sacred in Berberian Sound Studio: it is the direct messaging of all things imperative to the mind of its characters, both to transcribe as well as comprehend the complexity of the environment around them. In the film it serves as an aural gateway and a means of exposing the delicate nature of psychosis and the fractured maze that is one’s own sanity. It literally is its own entity and engulfs the story from first frame to last. 

As filmgoers we can agree that sound is inseparable from celluloid. From a storytelling point of view it co-exists with images in order to convey a totality of action and consequence, both of which rely unmistakeably upon each other to generate a result. And while acknowledging these truths wholeheartedly with both attention and skill, director Peter Strickland takes the notion of sound further and emphasizes it toward a more profound level of awareness, making Berberian Sound Studio one of the most deftly realized allegories for ‘life imitating art, imitating life’ the cinema has seen in years.

The year is 1976. Gilderoy (Toby Jones), a timid, middle-aged audio engineer is curiously selected to travel to Italy to begin work on a new film, the details of which he has no knowledge of until his arrival at the studio. Upon learning the horrific nature of the films’ subject matter, Gilderoy is somewhat hesitant to be a part of the project but begins working away regardless. As the production grows more intense the studio manager, Francesco (Cosimo Fusco) and the film's director Gianfranco Santini (Antonio Mancino), begin to impose a watchful eye upon the increasingly nervy Gilderoy, causing his sense of isolation and anxiety to rise..

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Berberian Sound Studio opens with the audible cue of a tape recorder switching into playback mode. A brief montage of images follow, including film spooling through a projector, the arm of an audiometer swaying back and forth and the illuminated red light of a recording sign – ‘Silencio’ – fading in and out of darkness. From this moment onward the audience is implicitly involved with the journey the films’ protagonist is soon to undergo, however oblivious to its implications they may be. This is the true brilliance of Strickland’s film, for it demonstrates both a deft understanding of active audience identification with cinema as well as their unconscious submission to it.

Taking the format of an initially familiar setup, the film cleverly subverts expectations by communicating its ideas through the meditation of soundscapes emitted within the titular studio as well as their relationship to the photographic elements of the fictitious film the crew are working, despite never actually making the viewer privy to a single frame. The soundtrack and library of effects start out relatively modest but soon become increasingly more threatening and visceral as the tension elevates. Likewise, as Gilderoy’s sense of internal unease is permeated through mirages of (arguably) self-inflicted torment, a similar disorientation of time and space is reflected in the mind of the viewer, shrewdly lulling you into a false sense of perception. This is by no means a condemnation but rather a remarkable achievement and a testament to the level of intimacy conveyed by the storytelling.

Moreover, it would be a crime to underestimate the astounding contribution provided by the uniquely talented Toby Jones and his effortless performance in portraying the psychological framework throughout Berberian. Echoing the works of early Polanski, Argento, DePalma and even Kubrick, his delicate grasp of the material is nothing short of remarkable and remains consistently interesting and understated, even when things get mighty obscure.

Just like the intricacy of its subject matter, Berberian Sound Studio demands your attention at every cue, making sure the viewer takes nothing of which is presented on screen for granted at any time. More importantly, it underlines many of the reasons why cinema remains one of contemporary culture’s most subversive forms of artistic expression and the importance it retains both to those who produce it and those who consume it. It’s also a damn good thriller, just in case you were wondering. Highly recommended.

Berberian Sound Studio is now available through Madman Entertainment

Dir: Peter Strickland
Writer: Peter Strickland
Cast: Toby Jones, Cosmo Fusco, Mancino Fatma, Antonio Mancino
Country: UK
Run Time: 92mins
Rating: M15+

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Short Review: 'Midnight Son' (2011)

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One of the oldest stories ever told is the nature of loneliness. The search for companionship and human connection is an aspect of life many have found extremely appropriate for expression in popular mediums, one being that of the cinema screen. Taxi Driver, The Conversation, Two Lane Blacktop, The Hitcher and Solaris (1972) are but a few examples of enduring studies in mental isolation and the existential questioning faced by those simultaneously overwhelmed and withdrawn by life’s complexities. Stylistically these films are often very strong, however it is arguably their relevance to reality that make them so eternal within the public consciousness.

Interestingly enough, many genre films that incorporate these themes are often overlooked simply because many audiences assume the weight of such subjects cannot be effectively tackled within the boundaries of convention. Disproving this naïve notion, Midnight Son skilfully takes the vampire metaphor and transposes it to the urban decay and seclusion of Los Angeles, encapsulating everything great about the aforementioned films whilst still infusing the intensity of a slow burn horror movie into the mix to create one of the most intelligent and affecting stories of vampirism in many a year.  

Jacob (Zak Kilberg) suffers from a rare skin disorder that prevents him from making contact with sunlight. A reclusive yet talented artist, Jacob remains in his basement apartment during the day while working the night shift as an office building security guard. After frequenting a late night bar after work, Jacob meets a lone bartender named Mary (Maya Parish) with whom he eventually develops a romantic relationship with. As Mary increasingly situates herself within Jacob's world she slowly begins to realize her boyfriend may be keeping a deadly secret, one that could well prove dangerous, no matter how hard he tries to conceal it.

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Midnight Son is the first feature film written and directed by Scott Leberecht, a former ILM visual effects artist and concept designer. Even though its influences may be highly derivative (Martin and the Swedish version of Let The Right One In to name but a couple), Leberecht manages to craft a screenplay so nuanced and relatable to human emotion - within a unique environment no less – that his take on what could have been a tired melodrama is elevated significantly above the par of cliche. The direction of the story is confident and concise and told both through the actions of well-realized characters as well as the enormity of the atmosphere that surrounds them. Moreover, while the film is ultimately about the loneliness of addiction and the desperate lengths to which an obsession can sometimes drive one to commit the most heinous of acts, Leberecht never looses sight of the story’s grislier aspects, making sure to bring things back to the macabre when it really counts.

So effectively personalising is the experience of Jacob's transformation that any glamour and mystique of the vampire myth is also quickly stripped away, making the fantastical aspects of Midnight Son less about the supernatural and more affiliated with Cronenbergian ideas of body horror and the fear of uncontrollable physical disfigurement. Also, much the same way Romero articulated issues of medical anxiety with Martin, Jacob’s confusion as to the nature of his ‘illness’ is exemplified through his feelings of self-disgust and revulsion as a result of his own extreme actions to support his compulsion. Thankfully, the terrific lead performances from both Kilberg and Parish compliment the subtleties of the writing and aid in a number of deeply moving moments, particularly toward the tumultuous third act.

The overriding attribute of Midnight Son is, again, its attention to the intricacies of human emotion and for this reason alone it comes highly recommended. Quietly captivating and impressively performed, it stands as one of the more tragic love stories to slip its way into the genre whilst also keeping its finger firmly on the pulse of fan expectation so as to not disappoint in its more horrific moments. With all the effects-laden teen angst tales we’ve seen hold the genre hostage in the last few years, this neat little effort comes as a breath of fresh air and a definite shot to the heart in what is possible in low budget filmmaking.

Midnight Son is now available for purchase through Monster Pictures.

Dir: Scott Leberecht
Writer: Scott Leberecht
Cast: Zak Kilberg, Maya Parish, Jo D. Jonz, Larry Cedar
Country: USA
Run Time: 88mins
Rating: MA15+

Monday, May 13, 2013

Short Review: 'Father's Day' (2012)

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First of all, it goes without saying that if you’re a genre fan, the 70s, 80s and early 90s were a great time for B-movie cinema obsessives. Including myself in this spectrum, I am somebody who generally spends the better part of almost every day seeking out the very best (and sometimes worst) in weird and wonderful filmmaking by whatever means possible in the hope of having the opportunity to see something previously banished from public view. Furthermore, unlike the vast majority of conceited mainstream film reviewers, I find sincere critical value in movies like Nymphoid Barbarian In Dinosaur Hell, Bloodsucking Freaks, Humanoids From the Deep, Mod Fuck Explosion, Demented Death Farm Massacre and any other number of so-called ‘trash’ titles commonly neglected by all except those who cherish them.

The recent explosion of retro exploitation ‘homages’ by young, low budget filmmakers eager to strike a cord with like-minded fans seems to be very in vogue, evidenced by titles like Black Devil Doll, Run Bitch Run, Prison-A-Go-Go, Bitch Slap, Jesus Christ: Serial Rapist and countless others. For whatever reason though these filmmakers seem to completely misunderstand the fact that it is – by definition – impossible to consciously manufacture a cult film. Period. No matter how much intentionally bad acting you interject, no matter how realistic the faux film grain filters are or how grotesquely cheap the special effects, the test of time is the only governing power what will determine whether or not a film as culturally significant on the midnight circuit. It’s that simple.

Distributed by maverick independent studio Troma, Father’s Day is but another lowly attempt to pay tribute to transgressive cinema and the result is one of the most boring, reprehensible pieces of filmmaking you’ll ever have the displeasure of sitting through. 

Slobby sexual sadist Chris Fuchman (Mackenzie Murdoch) is going around raping unsuspecting fathers before dismembering them and eating parts of their bodies. After teen gay prostitute Twink (Conor Sweeny) loses his own dad to the killer, he decides to recruit a fellow by the name of Ahab (Adam Brooks), a reclusive vigilante who thought he killed Fuchman years before. Together they uncover a demented plot instigated by the Devil himself that involves demonic possession, heaven, hell and a ton of other gibberish that makes no sense whatsoever.

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Astron 6, the label for the filmmaking team behind Father’s Day, were supposedly granted $10,000 to finance a film based upon a fake trailer they had made some time before. Ultimately, if you were to imagine a gang of college film students obsessed with Z-grade movies being given their first minor budget and told to make whatever film they wanted, this would be pretty close to the resulting product. Thus, the film suffers terminally from almost every reoccurring problem present in movies of this ilk. It is painfully unfunny, woefully uninspired, dreadfully acted with no attempt at sincerity, the effects work is deliberately hokey and poorly conceived and, just like every other supposed homage made today, its tongue is embedded so heavily in its cheek that almost nothing presented onscreen during its 90 minutes can ever be taken as a genuine compliment or point of praise. It’s difficult to see how Astron 6 view exploitation cinema as anything more than a cheap lark. 

Perhaps more unfortunate though is the films’ connection to Troma and the legacy of Lloyd Kaufman, even if it is simply from a distribution standpoint. Unlike the delightful directorial efforts of Kaufman, Father’s Day displays no awareness at all for either substance or style, despite being an alleged tip of the hat. Even the early films of Roger Corman and New World Pictures found ways to incorporate a sly flick of the middle finger to the establishment through cheeky socio-political discourse that was a treat to revel in should one have been of a likeminded intellect. Unfortunately, it would appear there was not much else driving the creation of Father’s Day except a juvenile penchant for shock tactics and cheap shot humour, all of which are of the lowest possible denominator.

But hey, if 90 minutes of endless sodomy jokes sounds like it might be your thing, then by all means go right ahead and check out the glory that is Astron 6’s Father’s Day. Otherwise, there are far less time consuming solutions to curing sleep apnoea than forcing yourself to sit through this drivel. At any rate, one can only hope that eventually these indie filmmakers will finally come to understand that an expression of one’s own nostalgia for pop culture, no matter how authentic, is no substitute for a creatively crafted and entertaining film experience.

Dir: Astron 6
Writer: Astron 6 
Cast: Adam Brooks, Mathew Kennedy, Conor Sweeney, Amy Groening
Country: Canada
Run Time: 97mins
Rating: R18+

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Short Review: 'Saint' (2010)

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It goes without saying that Norway has produced some of the most offbeat genre cinema this side of the Atlantic. If you know anything about the region then you’ll probably be aware of the name Dick Maas and thus films such as Amsterdamned, Flodder, Silent Witness and Killer Babies to name but a few. These oddities are equal parts comedic and macabre, goofy and gruesome, weird and wonderful (although not necessarily in that order) and for many foreign film fans little-seen gems that exist in a time and place where conventional genre aesthetics are acknowledged, yet turned gleefully on their ear.

The latest film from Mr Mass, 2010’s tongue-in-cheek horror romp Saint, continues in a similar vein to the aforementioned films, albeit with a more intentionally stylised outlook and sensibility. More importantly, it may be the first horror film to take the myth of Santa Claus and position the much-loved figure not only directly within a religious context but claim the man himself to be of holy circumstance. Talk about a sinner!

As a quaint yet upper class Norwegian township celebrate the December 5th tradition of ‘Sinterklaas’, a local legend rears his ugly head to prey on the unsuspecting youths. It transpires that the real Saint Nick was actually a murderous medieval thief who was put to flaming death along with his followers the Black Peters. Disgraced police investigator Goert Hoekstra (Burt Luppes) who years before lost his whole family to the evil Saint, must convince the community and local authorities that supernatural vengeance is upon them and only he knows how to stop it.

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Anyone disappointed by the frustratingly brief but otherwise impressive Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale will be delighted to witness the full-throttle attack on the senses bestowed by this nifty effort. Unashamedly trashy and packed to the brim with pulpy panache so extravagant it teeters on the edge of a comic book adaptation, Saint takes its native folklore and transforms it into a flamboyant nightmare so spirited and determined to amuse that one could almost label its inherent absurdity as pure genius. While that may sound like an over-praising given the film is about a murderous semi-Santa Claus brought back from the dead riding a decaying horse and stalking mischievous co-eds with a staff in the shape of a razored noose, it is honestly one of the most entertaining pieces of B-movie madness to come through the Netherlands in years.

Director Maas's twisted sense of humor is also on full display here, not to mention his unique ability to balance ridiculous subject matter with sincere dramatic intensity. The production values of Saint are incredibly slick and well defined, something rather unusual for a modest budgeted film and one with arguably limited critical ambition and mass-market appeal. Furthermore, the Christmas atmosphere is wonderfully depicted and suitably macabre; the snowy exteriors of the terrorized town are convincingly chilly and foreboding, contrasted only by deceivingly warm and welcoming interiors where danger still lurks around every corner. And while the film may never be legitimately scary, the cast play the material straight down the line and with a solemn sternness that pays absolute respect to Mass’s marvellously skewed vision. It’s safe to say that only the Europeans could achieve such a balance and not make it appear ironically arrogant.

At times the relentless pace of Saint grows somewhat wearisome but there’s plenty of eye candy on show to make up for the hustle and bustle layout of each and every plot thread. Still, this film makes the discombobulated efforts of Hollywood mega-budget obsessives like Michael Bay and Rob Coen appear hopelessly inept at their job, for something with just as much action and spectacle yet made for a tenth of the price tag proves to be infinitely more enjoyable. While it may not possess the lasting power of classics such as Black Christmas or Silent Night Deadly Night, this cheeky middle finger to organised religion and childhood fair tales deserves a dignified place next to fellow holiday season horrors. 

Dir: Dick Mass
Writer: Dick Mass
Cast: Egbert Jan Weeber, Burt Luppes, Caro Lenssen, Huub Stapel
Country: Netherlands
Run Time: 87mins
Rating: MA15+  

Monday, May 6, 2013

Short Review: 'The Dead' (2010)

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It may be difficult for many fans to admit but the zombie movie is well and truly dead. And no, that’s not a pun. With all do respect to the sub-genre it has been eons since anything remotely innovative (or at the very least half way interesting) has emerged from the independent scene and it is hard to see how the much loved flesh-eater film is better off because of it. With Paramount Pictures soon to finally release the much troubled mega-budget World War Z into mainstream theatres it would appear no one is particularly excited by the prospect of yet another walking dead film lumbering toward their wallets, much less being able to see how the film will stand out amongst the hundreds of other undead yarns already widely available to the public. But hey, Brad Pitt is starring so why not go see it?

With that said, don’t throw in your shotgun just yet. Whether the majority of consumers are aware of it or not the home video market is increasingly becoming (and has been for some time) the go-to source for horror's most criminally unheralded movies. Often what makes it into a theatre and what is shelved for DVD is wildly unconstitutional and sometimes it simply takes a little word of mouth to notify those in search of quality fare to head to the right place. Case in point: The Dead.

When the last evacuation flight out of war-torn Africa crashes off the coast, American Air Force Engineer Lieutenant Brian Murphy (Rob Freeman) emerges as the sole survivor in a land where the dead are returning to life and attacking the living. On the run in a hostile and inhospitable parched landscape, Murphy’s path clashes with that of Sergeant Daniel Dembele (Prince David Oesi), whose village has been torn apart by the reanimated dead. The two men from two very different cultures soon reconcile their differences and fight side by side to survive the deadliest of viruses.
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The most obvious factor in The Dead setting itself apart from the legions of other zombie movies on the bill is the wild change in setting. The psychological trauma induced by the hopelessness of the stark African desert is not only visually striking but also wonderfully atmospheric and speaks volumes to the films’ intentionally meditative disposition. Unlike the vast majority of walking dead films where the nature of mankind and its propensity for unpredictable violence is often woefully heavy-handed and clumsy, the subtlety of silence and minimal dialogue that drive the emotions of The Dead result in a far more affecting and thoughtful experience. The desolation, sparseness and near inhospitability of the films’ barren landscape emphasizes such ideas to the point of inseparability.

Another key differentiation initiated here is the films' road movie aspect. The bulk of the action is segmented between scenes of off-road driving during which simple yet motivated conversation is shared between the film’s two leads as they unknowingly travel from one dangerous encounter to another. In addition to providing an obvious platform for opportune character development, these scenes also act as a dramatic counterpoint to the measured slaughter of the undead, breaking the mould if you will. The performances by Freeman and Oesi are wonderfully understated and restrained as they communicate only what is necessary in order for them to survive, veering only slightly into personal interpretation and reflection upon the insanity of the events unfolding around them.

From a horror fan’s perspective the zombies in The Dead are interestingly offbeat as well. Cut very much from the Romero cloth, the ghouls are slow and shambling but also methodically focused upon their prey with a malicious intent that is particularly frightening; the pearly white contacts with miniscule black corneas are an eerie addition to these marauding stalkers. And while there are generous helpings of spilled grue at numerous points throughout the film, director Howard J. Ford keeps the mayhem short and sharp, enforcing a tight control upon the average shot length to ensue maximum impact is achieved. The howling screams of those meeting their fate are what linger in the mind as opposed to the glistening detail of bloody entrails.

If one were to strip away the façade of pop culture from the zombie film they would find a sub-genre of horror whose existence is founded upon the potential end of civilization and the transcendence of a new order. Notions of man’s demise and the grappling of an uncertain future fuel the very core of these films, however more often than not such ideas are dealt with in laments terms that undermine their importance. The undeclared and the unspoken play a very important role in The Dead’s depiction of the apocalypse and it takes a special film to acknowledge what is essentially an inevitable reality and make it palpable for an audience, zombified or otherwise.

Director: Howard J. Ford
Writer: Johnathan Ford & Howard J. Ford
Cast: Rob Freeman, Prince David Oesi, David Dontoh, Ben Crowe 
Country: USA
Run Time: 100mins
Rating: MA15+

Friday, April 5, 2013

Short Review: 'A Horrible Way to Die' (2010)

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True crime has a habit of slithering its way into cinema on an almost continual basis. The horror genre, for one, is a platform that thrives on it; everything from the exploits of Wisconsin serial killer Ed Gein whom influenced Robert Bloch to write the novelisation of Psycho to the infamous ‘bodies in the barrel’ murders of John Bunting that led to the film Snowtown. The cinematic representation of real life atrocities and the minds of those who commit them, however, is an entirely different factor and rarely one that receives the same amount of care and attention to detail as the often times sensationalistic nature of the media coverage that surrounds them. Too regularly we see the likes of films such as Untraceable, 88 Minutes, Nightstalker and countless others infiltrating the marketplace.

On the contrary, some films choose to take a more sophisticated approach to such subjects, namely Badlands, Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, Monster and more recently the highly underrated UK independent Tony. Written by rising genre star Simon Barrett, A Horrible Way to Die wears the aforementioned influences on its sleeve whilst also providing its own take on the deteriorating mind of the criminally unhinged to rather poignant effect.

The film tells of Sarah (Amy Seimetz), a recovering alcoholic trying to rebuild her life having escaped past trauma. During her arduous recovery process, Sarah meets a seemingly nice fellow by the name of Kevin (Joe Swanberg) at one of her AA meetings and the two quickly begin a romantic relationship. We are also privy to the life of Garrick Turrell (A J Bowen), a convicted serial killer on the run from the authorities. Eventually it becomes clear that Garrick is searching for Sarah and he is the trauma she’s tried so desperately to escape. 

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A Horrible Way To Die is one of the most dramatically defined serial killer films in years. It deals with several difficult and confronting aspects of human behaviour and refuses to play coy with any of them, never for a moment judging the motivations or actions of its characters for fear of moralistic chastization. Barrett positions each figure in the story as wholly independent and completely accountable for their own actions and director Adam Wingard makes sure to keep a critical distance at all times with regard to the films’ point of view. This measured yet naturalistic approach provides a level of objectivity and chances for further audience engagement that would have been otherwise unattainable had the story been filtered through the guise of a more exploitative temperament.

The unchronological order in which A Horrible Way to Die is told further heeds the films’ chances for mainstream audience digestibility, another reason why it succeeds as well as it does. Through the use of a drifting timeline that uncovers events both prior to and after the main action of the film, Wingard is able to evoke a sense of narrative disorientation that is unnerving but never frustrating. If anything it compliments the dramatic beats of the story by keeping the viewer on their toes and forever party to horrors occurred and those yet to.

Interestingly, the movie pays much homage to the so-called ‘mumblecore’ movement with regard to its visuals, this being of largely improvised photographic coverage and sporadic camera movement in favour of a less staged, polished visage. Intentionally heavy changes in focus, minimal depth of field and an almost voyeuristic placement of the lens help create a sense eavesdropping upon the lives of those onscreen. Wingard takes this to the next step by introducing murder into the equation, making the aesthetic even more palpable and disturbing for the audience. Strong, understated performances by all involved (particularly Bowen, who is making quite the name for himself as the genre's current resident creeper) don't hurt either.

By naïvely defining notions of ‘good’ and ‘evil’ as simple opposing forces unrelated in any way, ideas of what drives man to take on violent behaviour and inflict it upon others immediately become easier to assimilate within the context of a ninety-minute narrative. Not only is this a socially narrow-minded perspective, it greatly undermines film as a valid medium with which to explore complex psychological issues of anger, repression and alienation. A Horrible Way to Die refuses to submit to this common convention and is a far more intelligent and accomplished work because of it. Not for the lighthearted but absolutely recommended.

Dir: Adam Wingard
Writer: Simon Barrett
Cast: Amy Seimetz, Joe Swanberg, AJ Bowen, Brandon Carroll
Country: USA
Run Time: 88mins
Rating: MA15+

Friday, March 22, 2013

Short Review: 'Forget Me Not' (2009)

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Vengeful spirits and the unrequited rage of the undead fuel much of horror’s soul. We’re familiar with ghosts and phantoms through the visage of cinema, through novels and short stories, paintings and new and old art and we carry these myths on from one generation to another so that a mutual appreciation may be formed. Such an attraction to paranormal ideas and imagery can lead to a healthy and creative imagination, so long as these ideas are kept fresh and vital and never left to stagnate or wither away like an old woman’s vaporous corpse.

Unfortunately, the horror genre suffers far more than its fare share of outmoded and archaic ideas. Many contemporary films often reflect old conventions and borrow heavily from the past, which in and of itself is fine and hardly a new development. However, problems arise when no attempt is made at all on behalf of the filmmakers to reinvent or reinterpret these ideas so that a film doesn’t simply come across as derivative and unimaginative. This is where Forget Me Not fails, as every second it spends eating up screen time you’re reminded just how much of a lazy reprocessing of the old and the older it really is.

Graduation weekend is afoot and Sandy (Carly Schroeder), the popular class president of her small-town high school, should be enjoying the time of her life. But when her friends start disappearing, Sandy discovers they have unwittingly awakened the vengeful spirit of a girl they wronged long ago. Fighting for her sanity and her life, she must unlock a dark secret from her own past before it’s too late. 

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If one were to judge from the page, it’s difficult to imagine what would have made Forget Me Not an appealing venture to produce. Structurally, the film plays out exactly as you would expect: dumb kids unwittingly resurrect ghost, ghost begins to knock kids off one-by-one, heroine amid the group confronts a terrible secret from her past that links her to the current events and thus amasses the courage to eradicate the ghost. Heard it all before? That’s because the movie rips off everything from classic Edgar Alan Poe stories to Japan’s phenomenally successful Ringu series, and every aspect – dramatic, thematic or otherwise - is driven by a thousand inherited influences. Screenwriters Jamieson Stern and Tyler Oliver (also the director) cram as many of these into the ninety-plus minute running time as they can and make no apologies for their apathetic ways.

On a visual level the film is just as lethargic. The very nature of the material, plagiaristic as it is, could have lend itself to some potentially interesting cinematic opportunities but instead of stylistic lighting or innovative camera work we get some of the most pedestrian screen direction for a supernatural spook show in recent memory. Director Oliver gives off the impression of being half asleep behind the megaphone during scenes that should be suspenseful and his camera operator feels the bite of the snooze as well. Furthermore, despite a nifty saw blade death early on the film is populated with godawful CGI spectres whom look as if they’ve been animated by an overzealous university student in his/her first week of After Effects training. Oh, and there’s enough obnoxious false jump scares present to ruin your eardrums for a week, just in case that wasn’t predictable enough.

When you’re dealing with a film so intent on force feeding you a story you know the outcome of before the opening titles roll, it’s difficult to sustain an interest of more than a passing phase. What’s worse, the makers of this slumber-inducing phantasm try to win the audience over by casting a bevy of supermodel-like actors with unrealistically pretty faces and youthful pizazz in the hope you’ll glaze over the lack of creativity on display. Who knows, maybe it would have worked had they not all been such vapid, thoughtless, annoying assholes whose idea of fun is robbing a convenient store while the token slut distracts the attendant by screwing him in the back office. Forget Me Not, you say? 

Dir: Tyler Oliver
Writers: Jamieson Stern and Tyler Oliver
Cast: Carly Schroeder, Cody Linley, Micah Alberti, Brie Gabrielle
Country: USA
Run Time: 98mins
Rating: MA15+

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Short Review: 'Wrong Turn 4: Bloody Beginnings' (2011)

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It’s no secret that the vast majority of slasher films are populated to the brim with less-than-intelligent teens and overly obnoxious twenty-somethings. Poor judgment, stubborn logic, lack of awareness to danger and a general propensity for tomfoolery that almost always leads to an early grave are staples of such characters and have rarely seen any variation applied for almost forty years. With the exception of the heroine it is rare for the genre to be inclusive of smart, forward-thinking individuals who stand up for themselves, display skill and aptitude and fight back against adversity when faced with no other choice. Why is this so? Perhaps audiences simply prefer to see stupidity in humanity punished in violent ways. 

Case in point: Wrong Turn 4: Bloody Beginnings. The latest entry in the backwoods hillbilly hacksters series achieves something either quite extraordinary or shamelessly stubborn, depending on your point of view. The characters in this otherwise unremarkable slasher effort are so astoundingly dim-witted, so utterly devoid of even the most rudimentary capacity for basic intelligence that every action and reaction they exhibit throughout the course of the film will make your jaw so gapingly sore from bewilderment that you can’t help but be amazed by the sheer level of human ineptitude taking place on screen. Call me crazy but something that would normally be a major setback for any other film somehow makes this goofy gorefest bizarrely captivating. 

Supposedly serving as a prequel to the original film, Bloody Beginnings opens in 1974 in a hospital for the criminally insane and sees inbreeding brothers Three Finger, One Eye and Saw Tooth picking the lock on their cell door and slaughtering their way through several prison guards and staff until all that's left is the screaming approval their fellow inmates. Jump forward to 2003 as we’re introduced to a group of college co-eds setting off for a snowmobile session, only to become lost in heavy storm conditions. Luckily for them they soon stumble across an abandoned hospital in the middle of nowhere (!) and decide to take refuge, only to become victims of the building’s mutant inhabitants. 

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As mentioned before, horror fans are often relatively dismissive of character’s exhibiting lowest common denominator behaviour, arguably as a result of years of being conditioned to lazy screenwriting. However, Wrong Turn 4 takes character airheadedness into a whole other realm. The kids in this film – a variation of bimbos, himbos, bitches and assholes – struggle to string together coherent sentences, make the worst possible decisions imaginable, fail to acknowledge the blatantly obvious, neglect danger when it stares them in the face and somehow confuse ‘only the strongest survive’ with ‘if you scream at each other endlessly, hopefully somehow, someone from somewhere will come and save your sorry ass’. 

While it may appear unbearable at first, director Declan O’Brien capitalizes upon the imprudent plight of his characters with such fervent glee that it quickly becomes so obvious as to be a driving point in the film. In a (dare I say it) genius way, the host of fools stumbling through every frame of Wrong Turn 4 are perfectly representative of today’s youth culture and it’s as if O’Brien has taken the formula of the slasher film to exorcise his own frustrations upon an arguably soulless generation by choking each and every one of them to death vicariously through the brute force of fictitious bucktoothed maniacs. 

It’s difficult to identify much else of significant note about Wrong Turn 4, as the ascribed trait is so fascinating in its own right that it almost overwhelms everything else on display. Sure, the FX work is top notch, the setting is suitably creepy and you perverts out there may get a kick out of some intermittent girl-on-girl action but it's pretty standard fare for the veteran among us. Whether valid or not, the film is weirdly cathartic and thus transforms what could have been a fairly uneventful ninety minutes of splatter into a rather unique experience - an anomaly for almost all contemporary slasher cinema. 

Dir: Declan O'Brien
Writer: Declan O'Brien
Cast: Jennifer Pudavick, Tenika Davis, Victor Zinck Jr, Dean Armstrong
Country: USA
Run Time: 93mins
Rating: R18+ 

Thursday, February 28, 2013

Short Review: 'Damned By Dawn' (2009)

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The Australian independent horror scene rarely produces certifiable gems. Aside from the likes of recently acclaimed numbers such as Wolf Creek and The Loved Ones, the majority of locally produced genre product is of an arguably lower plateau, usually met with the fate of a limited home video release or worse, nothing at all. Whether intentional or not most such efforts turn out to be rather cynically made, quite often reflecting a level of ignorance and posturing by filmmakers not at all versed in the intricacies of the genre and the skill with which it takes to produce an effective piece of suspenseful cinema. Even the producers of the god-awful 2000 slasher wannabe Cut hoped that casting Kylie Minogue would compensate for their cluelessness. 

On the opposite end of the spectrum there are those whom truly respect the horror film and its place within history. And while it may not be quite up to the same standard as some of the aforementioned films, Damned By Dawn – the feature debut of writer/director Brett Anstey – is in many ways infinitely more admirable than most other cinematic snoozers that receive the honour of a theatrical treatment, if nothing but for its honest appreciation for the films it worships.
Metropolitan gal Claire O'Neil (Renee Willner) ventures home to the country with her boyfriend Paul (Danny Alder) to visit her sick Nana (Dawn Klingberg) and family. Soon after their arrival Claire learns of her grandmother’s fateful condition and of a secret she has kept from her for years: whenever a member of the O'Neil brood is ready to pass on, a mysterious Banshee is summoned to collect their souls. If interfered with, the Banshee will call upon the dead to avenge those responsible refusing to rest until they have tasted pure blood, blood of the family line. When finally visited by the Banshee, Claire foolishly attempts to rescue her grandmother from death’s door and in the process temporarily dispatches the hideous creature. Any ideas as to what happens next? 

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Plastered across the cover art of the US DVD release of Damned By Dawn is a review snippet from Quiet Earth that reads: ‘Sick of waiting for Evil Dead 4? Check out Damned By Dawn’. If Brett Anstey is in possession of even but one angry bone in his body, he should seriously consider using it to skull crack the jerkoff who authorised this moronic decision. While there’s no denying his film borrows liberally from the early works of Sam Raimi’s (eg, fog-laden woods, demonically possessed ghouls, wild camera movement and stylized set pieces, etc), it is unfair to those involved in the production and misleading to the public to think that this indie effort is some kind of temporary replacement product.

On it’s own merits, Damned By Dawn is a more than competent supernatural spook show boasting great cinematography and a palpable atmosphere most larger productions only wish they could muster. Judging from the look of it the film was shot with high-end digital cameras and the resulting range of colors and depth of contrast captured is honestly quite stunning. Reg Spoon’s lighting design is also spectacular, particularly during the night exterior sequences when the fog machines are working overtime. From an FX point of view the films’ over-reliance on amateur CGI induces much groaning (the floating skeletons are especially unfortunate), however the practical work is solid and effective enough to make up for it.

Conceptually, the idea of positioning the legend of the Banshee as the key villain in a horror film is interesting, if somewhat problematic. Visually, such a creature is relatively unsettling and haunting to look at, although the notion of a monster whom cries constantly in order to summon others to do its dirty work is frankly a little pathetic, even laughable. In the films’ defense, newcomer Renee Willner makes for a strong heroine and good counterpart for an otherwise less-than-impressive boogeyman/woman. 

Anstey wears his influences on his sleeve and Damned By Dawn is his love letter to the undead. This one has a hell of a lot going for it and if you’re in the right frame of mind you’re bound to get some enjoyment from the rollercoaster ride it presents, which is more than you can say for most A-listers invading the multiplex week after week. 

Dir: Brett Anstey
Writer: Brett Anstey
Cast: Renee Willner, David Alder, Dawn Klingberg, Peter Stratford
Country: Australia
Run Time: 81mins
Rating: MA15+ 

Monday, February 25, 2013

Short Review: 'Plaguers' (2008)

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Remember the days of 1990s direct-to-video exploitation movies? Strolling down the new release section of the local video store with your buddies on a Friday afternoon after the school bell rang, perusing the covers of the latest low-budgeters freshly slapped with an overnight rental slicker and slamming down a pile on the counter with your pocket money in preparation for a long night of vegging out on the couch? Whether it were horror (Night of the Scarecrow), action (Shotgun), science-fiction (Virtual Assassin) or some weird amalgamation of all three, these sleazy flicks prided themselves upon a no-bullshit approach and delivered a very specific level of viewer comfort and assured expectation of enjoyment that most mainstream releases of the day could never match

In an age where digital technology has made amateur filmmaking possible for even the minimally ambitious and home distribution more accessible than ever, the independent horror film scene has experienced an almost unprecedented influx of product, most of it of admittedly sub-par quality and below. What is rare, however, is homage and Plaguers (made in 2008 but shelved for several years) is a direct love letter to the schlocky days of the VCR generation and, more importantly, the purest aesthetics of Roger Corman

A working man crew of space truckers on their way home from a fuel transport mission intercept a distress call from another ship and decide to investigate. After rescuing a bounty of babes dressed in nurse’s outfits (?) from the craft whom initially present themselves as victims of an unexplained on-board disaster, the team are quickly had when the women then reveal their true motives as pirates after the crew’s cargo. However, the kerfuffle soon becomes the least of either party’s concerns when a glowing green orb of extra-terrestrial goo entombed within a canister right out of Prince of Darkness threatens the lives of all on board, transforming those infected into rampaging alien zombies

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Quite simply, if one were to imagine Ridley Scott’s Alien if it were directed by a significantly less-talented George A. Romero for the price of a Rice Krispy treat, then you’d be somewhere in the ball park of what to expect when sitting down to watch Plaguers. This thing steals from almost every cheap intergalactic exploitation fare in the book; from Bava’s Planet of the Vampires to Corman’s Galaxy of Terror but does so with such an unabashedly gleeful reverence for its forefathers that it’s (mostly) kinda awesome. Read on to find out why.

Director Brad Sykes is clearly a disciple of 80s-90s shlock fare and this is evident in practically every frame of Plaguers. His screenplay is whipped straight out of the drive-in recycle bin, the set design looks as if it were complied of painted egg crates, the effects work is nothing but good old fashioned rubber and silicone (including a few stuntmen in monster suits) and the appearance of genre vet Steve Railsback as a robotic ‘synthoid’ recalls the days when character actors were rife amongst this breed of home video quickie. In other words, it’s as if Sykes put his film in a cryogentic freezer in 1994 and defrosted it in time for release to the Bluray generation.

Granted, some of you may be asking yourself if any of the above qualities are actually admirable in any way. It’s difficult to impart to someone who might not have immersed themselves in this find of cinema during their youth the kind of nostalgia Plaguers evokes, however derivatively. There are most certainly moments of weakly choreographed action, groan-worthy performances and laughable logic but when viewed in the right context these and many other aspects of the film are utterly endearing. If I didn’t know better, I could have picked Plaguers up off the shelf and enjoyed it as if I were in the fifth grade and it had just been ejected from a duplication deck ready for delivery to my local Blockbuster. 

Dir: Brad Sykes 
Writer: Brad Sykes 
Cast: Alexis Zibolis, Bobby James, Noelle Perris, Steve Railsback
Country: USA
Run Time: 86mins
Rating: MA15