Gathered here you will find my thoughts on the big budget, so called ‘mainstream’ offerings, mainly from the Hollywood dream factory, but with the odd international picture that has fought its way to the top of the heap!
Overlord (USA 2018) Dir: Julius Avery Jovan Adepo, Wyatt Russell, Mathilde Ollivier, Pilou Asbæk
I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that the war and horror film genres should be natural bedfellows, and given that World War II is indelibly etched into both British and American popular culture it’s surprising that the many cross genre films that have been attempted have all been execrable dross (special mention for Michael Mann’s 1983 effort THE KEEP, but even that’s a very mixed bag.)
Step forward OVERLORD, the latest offering from JJ Abrams’ Bad Robot stable. The trailer promised much, with FURY levels of war violence mixed in with the Nazi super soldiers trope topped of with AC/DC on the soundtrack. Thankfully, director Julius Avery’s Ronseal approach to his film means we pretty much get what we were promised. The tight narrative sees gentle farm boy turned paratrooper Boyce (Adepo) and his comrades dropped into occupied France on the eve of D-Day to take out a German radio tower located in a nearby town.
They soon discover something very nefarious going on in the German base involving human experiments conducted by the sinister Dr Schmidt (Erich Redman) backed up by rent a villain Nazi Commandant Wagner (Asbæk).
OVERLORD knows that it’s b-movie schlock albeit backed with a decent budget and studio backed marketing, and it and wisely chooses to revels in the fact. With that in mind the script takes care to avoid any incongruous humour, and the cast play the whole thing straight. Thus we avoid tipping into IRON SKY territory with proceedings kept just the right side of ludicrous, as Avery cranks the cartoonish level of violence all the way to eleven.
Unlike the current glut of spandex drenched bore-a-thons bunging up the multiplexes, OVERLORD doesn’t lose sight of the story it is telling and never feels like it has neglected its narrative in favour of spectacle. Sure, it may come in for criticism from some quarters for its theme of Nazi human experimentation, but these are Indiana Jones style comic book nazis, and while Avery’s film riffs off old school exploitation it never reaches ILSA, SHE WOLF OF THE SS levels of bad taste either.
This is a solid action horror that, while containing no surprises, certainly won’t disappoint its intended audience either. And on the face of it who ever went to see an action-horror mash up featuring Nazi super soldiers expecting Shakespearean levels of character development?
Jamie Lee Curtis, Judy Greer, Andi Matichak, James Jude Courtney, Nick Castle
The 1980’s saw saw the horror genre dominated by the slasher movie; cheaply produced, formulaic shockers revolving around gormless American teenagers being despatched by mysterious masked killers using inventive but increasingly contrived methods of dealing death.
John Carpenter’s seminal 1978 independent horror flick HALLOWEEN was the film that really kicked off enthusiasm for the sub genre, despite coming four years after Bob Clark’s proto slasher BLACK CHRISTMAS, the tale of an all female sorority house terrorised by a mysterious killer. Carpenter’s efficient, stripped down chiller perfected the formula in the tale of escaped mental patient Michael Myers who returns to his home town fifteen years after murdering his sister on Halloween night, intent on reliving his crime. It quickly became the most financially successful independent film on record at the time, and led to a slew of imitations as well as a series of inferior sequels, both direct and retconned, the last of which, HALLOWEEN: RESURRECTION (2002) saw the series surely reach its nadir in the scene featuring rapper Busta Rhymes karate kicking Myers through a window.
Thankfully no such incongruous nonsense intrudes on David Gordon Green’s retconned sequel for production outfit Blumhouse. Picking up the story in real time, forty years after Myers’ rampage in the first movie, the script by Green, Danny McBride and Jeff Fradley wisely ignores the convoluted sequels. Which means no familial connection with Laurie Strode (Curtis), who hasn’t perished in a car accident, no Jamie Lloyd and no Thorn cult thank goodness, (the point in the series where it really jumped the proverbial shark in this reviewer’s humble opinion.)
With all that baggage out of the way (I like to think of the previous sequels as different timelines) the film is free to forge its own path, which, with a few caveats I think it does successfully. The story picks up with Michael incarcerated back in the Smiths Grove Mental Institute where he has been under close observation by the shifty looking Dr Sartain (Haluk Bilginer), a protege of the now deceased Dr Loomis. Frustrated that Sartain has made no progress with his studies of Myers, the authorities order that he be transferred to a much less ‘comfortable’ institution. In a last ditch attempt to reach Michael, Sartain allows access to two investigative journalists (Rhian Rees and Jefferson Hall) putting together a podcast (how 2018!) about the 1978 murders, but they too are unable to penetrate Myers’ wall of silence.
Meanwhile, original final girl Laurie Strode lives a solitary life in a fortified compound, two failed marriages behind her and an estranged daughter and granddaughter testament to the PTSD she has suffered since her fateful encounter with ‘the Shape’ four decades earlier. When the bus transporting Myers mysteriously crashes, Laurie’s warnings are dismissed as paranoid ravings by her family, and the stage is set for history to repeat itself on Halloween night…
The essential problem with the HALLOWEEN series is the same one that bedevils all slasher movies, and that is the in built limitation of the central idea; a madman stalking a bunch of luckless victims is essentially a one film deal. If you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all. But money talks, and inevitable sequels follow put together by luckless directors for hire in which the only real way they can try and put a spin on the story is to explore the character and motives of the mad killer protagonist, which only serves to demystify them, thus diluting their scare factor (the recent ALIEN prequels are also guilty of this with the xenomorph.)
The new film sensibly avoids going down this route, leaving Michael as the enigmatic, relentless force of pure evil that Carpenter originally envisaged. He doesn’t want to rape, or torture. He doesn’t want money and can’t be bought off in any way. Michael Myers doesn’t seem to have or need a motive and that’s what makes him truly frightening. He’s a flesh and blood version of THE TERMINATOR.
Leaving alone any exploration of Myers’s character means that the film’s focus is instead on Curtis’ Laurie Strode and the long lasting psychological scars left on her and her family from her ordeal all those years ago. Pretty much from the first moment she is on screen, it’s clear that this is going to be Curtis’ show and she clearly relishes Laurie’s transformation into a paranoid backwoods gun lady reminiscent of T2 era Sarah Connor.
The rest of the cast portray characters that essentially exist either as inevitable victims, or to give us an insight into either of the two main protagonists. Through daughter Karen (Judy Greer) we get a glimpse of growing up under the care of the helicopter mum from hell, while exposure to Myers seems to have unbalanced Dr Sartain (in the same way as was hinted in Donald Pleasance’s manic portrayal of Dr Loomis.) Granddaughter Allyson (Matichak) has little to do other than fend off teenage suitors and run around a lot. As a character she lacks any real depth, so it’s difficult to empathise with her, and unlike the girls in the original it never feels like she is in any real peril. This is a minor quibble though, and Matichak at least gives her all to an underwritten role that ultimately has to play second fiddle to Curtis.
Inevitably a prisoner of the constraints of its own sub genre, HALLOWEEN is part sequel, part remake and part tribute movie to the original with a plethora of nods to the 1978 film, and even a little Easter egg for fans of the underrated HALLOWEEN III SEASON OF THE WITCH in the form of the Silver Shamrock masks. But that said, this is still a solid addition to the franchise that both looks and feels like a ‘true’ sequel to John Carpenter’s original low budget masterwork, while managing to tread the fine line between celebrating its source material and wallowing in nostalgia.
As is traditional for the smasher movie, the end leaves the story wide open for a sequel, and given its more than healthy box office take, the temptation for Blumhouse will likely prove irresistible.
Let’s just hope they resist the urge to cast any rap stars in it.
Now its thirteenth year, Mayhem is Nottingham’s premier (only?) film festival dedicated to horror, sci-fi and cult cinema. Held every October at the excellent Broadway cinema, this year I managed to squeeze in the time to get to four showings, only a couple of days after getting back from Grimmfest in Manchester. Apologies for the lateness of the review, it’s been a bit of a whirlwind October, so writing time has been on the lean side. Anyway, enough of my prattle, let’s launch into my thoughts on this years Mayhem offerings –
Nightmare Cinema (2018) US Dir: Joe Dante, Mick Garris, Alejandro Brugués, David Slade, Ryûhei Kitamura Mickey Rourke, Richard Chamberlain, Elizabeth Reaser
Five strangers are each drawn in turn to a deserted old picture house where they are met by a mysterious projectionist (Rourke), who proceeds to play them each a tale that delves into their deepest fears… The horror anthology movie has a long and storied history beginning with the classic Ealing horror and granddaddy of creepy doll films, DEAD OF NIGHT (1945) through to the now classic Amicus productions of the 70’s like THE UNCANNY (1977) and DR TERROR’S HOUSE OF HORRORS (1974) up to THE TWILIGHT ZONE: THE MOVIE (1982) and the EC comics inspired CREEPSHOW (1982) and TALES FROM THE CRYPT tv show (1989-1996.) Joining this illustrious roll call comes NIGHTMARE CINEMA, and like all anthology flicks it lives and dies on the strength of each of its constituent segments. The two stand outs in the movie are Brugués’ TheThing in the Woods and Slade’s This Way to Egress. The former is closest in spirit to the aforementioned CREEPSHOW movies in style and content, smartly combining the mad killer in the woods slasher trope with an alien invasion plot all drenched in a good helping of cartoonish gore. The latter is an adaptation of a Lawrence Connolly short story from his eponymous collection. Shot in stylish monochrome, this segment convincingly portrays the fraying, and increasingly warped and terrifying mental state of a young mother (played by Elizabeth Reaser, currently starring in Mike Flanagan’s superb THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE in Netflix) while on a visit to her psychiatrist. Of all the segments Egress most deserves the epithet ‘nightmare’ and it’s worth giving the movie a watch for this segment alone. The weakest has to be Ryûhei Kitamura’s demonic possession fable Mashit. Lacking a likeable central character is this segment’s biggest flaw, and the derivative story adds nothing to the possession sub genre. A missed opportunity. Of the remaining two segments, Mirare, directed by Joe Dante and Dead by Mick Garris, the former is classic Dante, a pitch black comedy about body confidence and plastic surgery featuring a demonic performance by Dr Kildare himself, Richard Chamberlain. While entertaining enough, it does feel rather lightweight and predictable in its denouement when compared to the other segments. Garris’ contribution feels meatier, being a study of maternal love taken to supernatural extremes, but lacks the pace of what has gone before, and thus feels rather laboured in places.
As I said earlier, the inherent weakness of the anthology format is inconsistency, a problem which bedevils NIGHTMARE CINEMA and prevents it being a wholly satisfactory watch. Mickey Rourke also feels underused as the menacing and otherworldly Projectionist. All in all though, NIGHTMARE CINEMA is great fun for horror fans a laudable effort and a, welcome addition to the anthology horror sub genre. Whether it is able to breathe new life into the format and act as catalyst for more films of this type to be produced remains to be seen.
Release details for Nightmare Cinema are tbc.
Puppet Master: The Littlest Reich (2018) US Dir: Sonny Laguna, Tommy Wiklund Thomas Lennon, Jenny Pellicer, Barbara Crampton, Michael Pare, Udo Kier, Matthias Hues
Recently divorced comic book artist Edgar (Lennon) returns to live with his parents. Finding an old sinister looking puppet in his late brother’s room, he soon discovers it is one of the creations of Andre Toulon, a hideously disfigured Nazi war criminal responsible for an infamous series of murders in the town thirty years before. With an upcoming auction of memorabilia at a convention commemorating the Toulon murders, Edgar sees the chance to make some ready cash, but he reckons without a strange and evil force reanimating the puppets… A gloriously retconned reimagining of the beloved 90’s straight to video classics from cult favourite Charles Band’s legendary Full Moon Pictures, PUPPET MASTER: THE LITTLEST REICH boasts a script by S. Craig Ziegler of BONE TOMAHAWK fame, so expect zero subtlety in this splendidly off the wall exercise in bad taste horror comedy. Complete with practical effects galore and competitive scenery chewing between genre legends Barbara Crampton, Michael Pare, Matthias Hues and the incomparable screen legend that is Udo Kier, PUPPET MASTER: THE LITTLEST REICH glories in its own sense of low budget schlock and insane level of cartoonish violence. Make no mistake, this movie knows exactly what it is and what it wants to do, and it wants you to know it too. Highlights include a ‘Baby Fuhrer’ puppet, a decapitated man urinating on his own head and a gory puppet ‘birth’. If there’s a taboo you can think of in these neo censorious times, then this movie wants to break it, usually with a buzz saw or a flamethrower.
Directors Wiklund and Laguna apparently secured the rights from Band on the condition that they made the film as a separate ‘reimagined’ entity divorced from the Band’s own established PUPPET MASTER series, thus opening up the possibility of a brand new series of Puppet Master films. Fingers crossed!
Release details for Puppet Master: The Littlest Reich are tbc.
Mandy (2018) US Dir: Panos Cosmatos Nicolas Cage, Andrea Riseborough, Richard Brake, Linus Roache
Logger Red Miller (Cage) lives with his artist girlfriend Mandy Bloom (Rise borough) in 1983 California. Mandy encounters the members of a hippie cult called the Children of the New Dawn who proceed to kidnap and burn her alive right in front of a bound and incapacitated Red. Left for dead, an enraged and grief stricken Red sets out in single minded pursuit of the cult and its leader, the deranged Jeremiah Sand (Roache)… So far, so run of the mill revenge fantasy, right? Wrong.
It’s difficult to do justice to Panos Cosmatos’’ warped, psychedelic headfuck of a movie using mere words, this is a film you have to experience in order to get a true feel for its sheer batshit levels of craziness.. So if demonic quad riding bikers on a bad acid trip, chainsaw duels and Nicolas Cage going full Nicolas Cage against the son of Ken Barlow from Corrie are your thing (and why wouldn’t they be?) then check out this acid fuelled Lynchian nightmare fantasy. Plus, it’s got Bill Duke in it, which is always a reason to watch a film in my book. This one can legitimately be called an instant cult classic..
Mandy is available on Amazon Prime and also on DVD and Blu-ray.
The Devil’s Doorway (2018) Ire Dir: Aislinn Clarke Lalor Roddy, Ciaran Flynn, Helena Bereen
In 1960 Ireland two priests, Father Thomas (Roddy) and Father John (Flynn) are sent to investigate claims of a weeping madonna statue in a Magdalene Laundry, a bleak workhouse-like institution for ‘fallen women’ run by the Catholic church. But as they investigate, they discover something much darker and evil has infected the home… Nearly twenty years after the damp squib that was THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT opened the floodgates on the found footage sub genre (although its true progenitor is Ruggero Deodato’s 1979 mondo splatter epic CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST), it finally feels like a film has come along that really makes good on the format’s promise. And that film is Irish filmmaker Aisleen Clarke’s THE DEVIL’S DOORWAY. Put together on a shoestring budget, the film is cast iron proof that done well, horror does not need big name stars or expensive effects in order to both tell a compelling story and send an icy chill down the spines of audiences. Rather than ‘found footage’, the central conceit of the film is that what is being shown to audiences ‘has been suppressed by the Catholic Church for 58 years.’ Presented as historical record captured on 16mm film, the grainy and ethereal quality of the film stock adds a sense of authenticity, compounded by the story of the real life horror behind the Magdalene laundries in Ireland.Indeed, the idea for the film grew from Clarke’s interest in the laundries and the research she carried out for an unmade documentary on the institutions. Another big catalyst in the films development was the discovery in 2017 of a mass grave of infants at the site of a former laundry in Tuam, County Galway. Clarke skilfully weaves these horrific aspects into the narrative while simultaneously avoiding any hint of exploitation or an anti religious hatchet job.
Instead the focus is on the inherently fallen nature of the human condition and the corruption that can infect and eat away at institutions. In one particularly memorable scene the Mother Superior (Helen Bereen in a standout performance), icily asks of Father Thomas if he is aware of ‘how many of these babies fathers, were Fathers?’ The film has all the tropes of the demonic possession/religious horror sub genres present and correct; the priest grappling with a crisis of faith, flying furniture, scary looking kids, officious nuns and levitating girls, but even if it doesn’t try to reinvent the wheel in this regard, then it does a more than efficient job of scaring the bejeezus out of the viewer (Father Thomas’ first encounter with the possessed Kathleen (Lauren Coe) is genuinely terrifying). The film also wisely opts for subtlety rather than the Grand Guignol excess of THE EXORCIST and its many imitators, trading spectacle for offscreen hints at the evil present in the bleak surrounds of the home, both in its temporal and supernatural forms. That being said, when it comes to staging shocks, Clarke proves admirably adept at ramping up the terror without the benefit of a huge effects budget, and the climax of the films last five minutes or so is pure nightmare fuel. Period set horror is one my favourites sub genres (no comforts of modern living here!), and I doubt you’ll see a bleaker or more effective indie horror this year, nor one made all the more thought provoking for the horrific real life history that influenced it. Essential viewing.
The Devil’s Doorway is available on Amazon Prime and also on DVD and Blu-ray.
A Quiet Place (2018) US Dir: John Krasinski Emily Blunt, John Krasinski, Millicent Simmonds
Several months after the world’s human population has been decimated by blind extra terrestrial creatures that hunt by sound, the Abbott family continue to survive on their isolated farm. When their youngest son Beau is killed by one of the creatures, their congenitally deaf daughter Regan blames herself. Meanwhile their engineer father Lee (Krasinski) continues to try and upgrade a cochlear implant for Regan and figure out the creatures weakness, while making fruitless attempts to contact any survivors in the outside world. Lee’s heavily pregnant wife Evelyn (Blunt) concentrates on continuing the children’s education whilst making preparations to give birth to their fourth child… A QUIET PLACE is a terrific achievement and has gone some way to restoring my faith that the major Hollywood studios can still produce engaging multi layered storytelling, and not just endless paint by numbers superhero franchise entries. Developed from a spec script by Scott Woods and Bryan Fuller, that originally featured only one line of dialogue, writer/director Krasinski sensibly opts for a restrained ‘if it ain’t broke don’t fix it’ approach to what is essentially a creature feature overlaid with familial angst, the film wisely opts for a slow reveal of the creatures, and not just of their appearance but also their abilities and weaknesses. This is a firmly character driven piece that doesn’t drown the audience in flashy cgi or clunky exposition, and is all the better for it. It says a lot about how the cgi revolution has resulted in too many films prioritising spectacle over narrative that A QUIET PLACE’s old school approach to storytelling feels so refreshing. One of the best examples of this comes from how the backstory of the aliens arrival on our planet and the subsequent breakdown of society is told subtly through glimpsed newspaper cuttings in Lee’s workshop and snippets of deftly crafted dialogue in what has to be a textbook example of world building in a film. The performances are uniformly excellent, with real life husband and wife Krasinski and Blunt exuding a mixture of fortitude and quiet desperation in the face of their grief and their unspoken fears of what the future may hold for the family. Special mention must go to the sound design by Erik Aadahl and Ethan Van Der Ryn along with the score by Marco Beltrami taking on more significance than usual given the film’s central premise and the attendant sparseness of dialogue for extended periods of the run time. Stripped of its sci fi trappings, the theme that lies at the heart of the film is the fear of every parent of not being able to protect their children from outside forces beyond their control. The horror genre functions best when putting our repressed fears and anxieties under the microscope, forcing them to the surface through a fantastical narrative device (in this case blind alien predators.) A QUIET PLACE is a welcome return to old school sci-fi horror in the tradition of ALIEN and THE THING where concept, characterisation and narrative take precedence over empty spectacle (not that the film is deficient in the FX department but Krasinski as writer/director wisely keeps the creatures full reveal for the climax.) Hopefully the film’s healthy box office returns (US$332,583,447 on a bufget ofUS$17,000,00) will bode well for more thoughtful and narrative driven genre cinema of this quality.
Now in its tenth year, Grimmfest is the premier horror film festival in the north of England, and the organisers were kind enough to grant press passes to The Stricken Land so we could report back on the many delights the festival had to offer. Held at the Odeon Great Northern the centre of Manchester, we were only able to cover the Saturday and Sunday of the festival this year, and due to time constraints we weren’t able to make every single screening, but I’ve compiled all my reviews of the festival highlights for your reading pleasure below. Let’s dive in…
Piercing (2018) US Dir: Nicholas Pesce Christopher Abbott, Mia Wasikowska, Laia Costa
A married father of one goes on what he tells his wife is a short business trip, instead booking a hotel room with the intention of hiring an escort girl and murdering her. Grimmfest’s press for Nicholas Pesce’s twisted relationship drama calls it a ‘date movie for psychopaths,’ a succinct description that’s hard to top. Based on controversial Japanese novelist’s Ryu Murakami’s eponymous 1994 novel, this is a complete oddball of a film that nevertheless engages you through the portrayals of its two neurotic leads even if it’s impossible to feel comfortable at any point during its running time. Quickly turning into a black as night comedy of errors as proceedings fail to go according to the meticulous plan laid out by Christopher Abbott’s emotionally constipated protagonist, Pesce’s film veers off into Lynchian style surrealism, mixing in Cronenbergian body horror, explorations of BDSM etiquette and urban alienation all set against its retro-eighties style neverworld and a score plucked from Patrick Bateman’s record collection. A brave, interesting and acutely observed character study with excellent performance from its two leads. No one for a first date though, unless you’re both psychopaths of course.
The Witch in the Window (2018) US Dir: Andy Mitton Adam Draper, Charlie Tacker, Carol Stanzione
A familial drama wrapped in a haunted house flick, Andy Mitton’s debut plays out like a Spielbergian take on a CONJURING movie with a sliver of ice replacing the sugary sentimentality. Divorced Dad Simon (Draper) buys an old farmhouse in rural Vermont as a renovation project, hoping to use it as some bonding time with his son Finn. After an ambiguous warning from their neighbour about the house’s dark past, father and son soon encounter Lydia, the malicious spirit of the previous owner. Unbowed, Adam determines to continue the project, but with every repair he makes, Lydia becomes stronger…
Less a full blown horror flick than an affecting observation of father son relationship dynamics, this is acutely well observed with two deft performances by Draper and Tacker.But make no mistake, when Mitton wants to inject unease and then outright terror into the lives of his protagonists then he is a true pro, particularly in the scene when Simon takes a phone call from Finn (you’ll have to watch the movie to get the full import of this sequence.) The nature of Lydia and the history of the house is wisely kept ambiguous and in the background, allowing the relationship between Simon and Finn to come to form the emotional core of the film. A timely lesson that horror can be so much more than jump scares and splatter. THE WITCH IN THE WINDOW serves as a textbook example why budgetary constraints are no barrier when you have well crafted narrative combined with great performances and direction. One to put at the top of your watchlist.
Pledge (2018) US Dir: Daniel Robbins Zachery Byrd, Aaron Dalla Villa, Zack Weiner, Erica Boozer
A group of nerdy misfit freshmen get invited to a secretive frat house for a wild sex, drugs and booze fuelled party, and the next morning are offered admittance if they will pledge to undergo a series of initiation rituals… Riffing off the time honoured American campus culture that brought a slew of mostly forgettable frat house comedies to 80’s video stores, Pledge is a tense thriller and a razor sharp commentary on just how far human beings will go to gain acceptance from their peer group.
Director Robbins’ and writer/star Zack Weiner mix in conspiracy theories about real life fraternities like the Skull and Bones society and urban legends around arcane hazing rituals, and then crank everything up to insane levels of malice and cruelty. The tight pacing and twisting storyline keeps us guessing as to what the outcome will be right up until the brutal denouement. This is a masterful blend of the stalk and slash and survival horror sub genres underpinned by great naturalistic performance by its cast of newcomers. University never looked less appealing.
Alive (2018) Can Dir: Rob Grant Angus MacFadyen, Thomas Cocquerel, Camille Stopps
A ferociously original take on a source material that to reveal in this review would surely spoil the experience of Rob Grant’s viscera spattered thrill ride. Two strangers, a man and woman (Cocquerel and Stopps) awake in a derelict abandoned hospital, inhabited by a seemingly unbalanced doctor (a splendidly manic performance by MacFadyen). Nursed back to health after apparently suffering physical traumas, and with no memories of their pasts, the pair realise that the doctor intends that they should never leave… What follows is essentially an ‘on the run’ escape movie, although we are never quite clear what or where the pair are escaping from (apart from MacFadyen’s psycho surgeon), or where an eventual sanctuary may be. This makes for a deliberately disorienting experience for the audience and Grant’s assured direction, sense of quiet menace and frenetic pacing keep us guessing right up until the slam dunk denouement. File under essential viewing.
We also managed to cram in horror anthology NIGHTMARE CINEMA, gross out comedy horror throwback PUPPET MASTER: THE LITTLEST REICH and the period found footage chiller THE DEVIL’S DOORWAY while we were there, but I’ll be giving these a second viewing at Nottingham’s Mayhem Film Festival by the time this gets posted, so look out for my review of these in the coming week.
A big thanks to the Grimmfest organisers who were kind enough to grant us press passes for the festival, and to guest of honour and PUPPET MASTER: THE LITTLEST REICH star Barbara Crampton (gutted we missed the showing of REANIMATOR!) who was kind enough to chat and sign stuff. Her Q & A with the audience was a joy to behold, and her tales of working with legendary genre filmmaker Charles Band sent this writer in particular into paroxsms of fanboyness! We love you Barbara, come back soon! The Stricken Land crew will definitely be making the trip north next year and plan to extend or coverage of this fine event. Keep an eye on the Grimmfest website people, and get this one in your for your calendars for 2019!
Dogged (2017) UK Dir: Richard Rowntree Sam Saunders,Toby Wynn-Davies, Tony Manders, Debra Leigh-Taylor
Sam (Saunders), a university student returns to his middle class parents home, a remote tidal island called Farthing to attend the funeral of Megan Lancaster (Abigail Rylance-Sneddon), the 11 year old daughter of family friends who has mysteriously perished from a cliff top fall. Soon after attending the funeral service given by local vicar Father David Jones (a superbly menacing Wynn Davies), Sam re-encounters Jones’ disturbed son Daniel (a superbly off kilter and menacing Nick Stopien) and hooks up with his old flame, Jones’ rebellious daughter Rachel (Ayisha Jebali). Realising that Jones appears to exert some kind of hold over the town’s menfolk, including his outwardly authoritarian, but weak willed father Alan (a fantastically twitchy performance by Philip Ridout) and the local Doctor Donald Goodman (Manders), Sam and Rachel are drawn to a hippie commune whose inhabitants are despised by the island’s more ‘well to do’ natives. Suspecting that there is more to Megan’s death than just a tragic accident, they team up with one of the hippies, Sparrow (Nadia Lamin) to investigate further.
Revealing any more will mean plot spoilers, so I’ll refrain and instead, highly recommend that you seek out DOGGED for yourself. The film is the debut from writer/director Richard Rowntree’s Ash Mountain Films outfit, co-written with Matthew Davies from an original short film of the same name co-written and directed by Richard and Christina Rowntree, that was entered into BBC Three’s The Fear, a competition to find up and coming filmmakers in the horror genre. Considering that DOGGED is a mini budget affair (it became the fourth most successful UK based horror feature film to receive funding from Kickstarter on 24 March 2016), Rowntree works wonders with fifteen grand, delivering a bleak slice of very British folk horror that bodes well for future output from Ash Mountain and for a renaissance in British horror in general.
On first viewing DOGGED appears to owe a very large debt to Robin Hardy and Anthony Schaffer’s 1973 folk horror classic THE WICKER MAN, with it’s tale of an alienated outsider in an isolated close knit community, a missing/dead little girl and strange cultish goings on. But it also has traces in its DNA of two other classic British folk horrors of that era; namely WITCHFINDER GENERAL and BLOOD ON SATAN’S CLAW. The film’s themes of religious mania, malevolent authority figures and outward hypocrisy masking a cold hearted evil seem particularly suited to british horror, drawing on the class system and our shared history of puritanism and sectarian conflict.The class commentary aspect is represented by the antagonism between the middle class, slightly incestuous villagers and the hippie community, featuring a scene stealing turn by Tony Parkin as Woodsman Jim, the town derelict driven mad by a long ago trauma connected to the island’s dark secret. But rather than seeking to ape the style or look of the aforementioned films, Rowntree wisely treads his own path to give DOGGED its own identity, the cinematography drenching the film in bleak, windswept greys, browns and creams, and staying just the right side of making the film look like ITV drafted in Eli Roth to direct one of it’s kitchen sink misery-dramas. Grounding the horror in a real world setting sans any supernatural elements is another aspect of 70’s horror that runs through the film’s bloodstream. Back then indie filmmakers were reacting against the stylised gothic melodramas of Hammer which by then were looking increasingly irrelevant in the era of Vietnam and Watergate. In our own time a film like DOGGED seems like a return to basics after all the derivative jump horror, bloated franchise sequels and tiresome paranormal found footage cheapies. As a writer, Rowntree understands that the most terrifying monster is the fallen nature of the human condition itself, where monsters look just like you or I, and hide in plain sight among us. The script is confident enough to leave just the right amount of ambiguity about just how far knowledge of the island’s secret extends, and the direction is assured enough to make certain that Ash Mountain’s feature debut stands on its own alongside its influences. The creative passion and energy of both the cast and behind the scenes creative team really shine through, an once again prove that you don’t need a massive budget to produce something special on screen. Based on this outing, both Richard Rowntree and Ash Mountain Films have a great future ahead of them, and indeed are filming their second feature NEFARIOUS (also crowdfunded through Kickstarter) as of this writing.
Of course the best way to support indie filmmakers like Ash Mountain is to buy the fruits of their labours, and I hope this review may go some way to persuading you to part with your hard earned and add a contemporary Brit horror gem like DOGGED to your collection.Let me know what you think of the film in the comments below, or alternatively you can find me on Twitter @thestrickenland or in my Facebook discussion group Movie Babylon.
You can also follow Richard and Ash Mountain Films on Twitter at @r_rowntree and @AshMountainFilm respectively.
4/20 Massacre (USA 2018) Dir: Dylan Reynolds Jamie Bernadette, Vanessa Rose Parker, Jim Storm, James Gregory
For lovers of Mary Jane, the twentieth day of April has become the one day of the year marked for activities involving a certain plant related substance. Legend has it that the date was picked due to numerous malign events occurring on the 20th April, including the birthday of Adolf Hitler and the Columbine School massacre. Allegedly, the idea of making the date synonymous with marijuana culture was to associate it with the passive effects of smoking cannabis, thus supposedly restoring some measure of karmic balance to the world (or some such new age hippie nonsense!).
With his fourth feature 4/20 Massacre, director Dylan Reynolds has exploited these ideas behind the stoner holiday, and combined it with the phenomenon of ‘guerrilla growers’ to come up with a splendidly entertaining take on the well worn stalk and slash horror sub genre.
Part homage, part reinvention of those beloved VHS bottom shelfers of the 1980’s, 4/20 Massacre tells the story of five young women who set off to the California hills on the titular weekend to camp out and get stoned. They are warned by the local Park Ranger, Rick, not to stray too far from the trail due to reports of illegal cannabis farms operating. The women later encounter a seemingly crazed young man who warns them of a bloodthirsty killer who is pursuing him after he stumbled across just such a farm whilst hiking. The intrepid bunch of course ignore such ravings and proceed to set up camp, soon after which, said killer (James Gregory) begins to make his presence known.
So far, so slasher. But what really sets 4/20 Massacre apart are the performances by the actresses (Jamie Bernadette, Vanessa Rose Parker, Stacey Danger, Justine Wachsberger and Maria Pistone), which lend real depth and pathos to their relationships in what could so easily have been cookie cutter victim roles. Kudos is also due here to Dylan Reynolds who also wrote the script that gave the cast such rounded characters to work with. Jim Storm also seems to be having a whale of a time in his scenery chewing turn as Ranger Rick.
The quality of the cinematography is also striking, not least given that it is not an element usually associated with this genre, and the audience really gets a sense of place due to the level of attention given to it.
But what about the horror? Well, gore fans needn’t worry, there are several inventive kills here to satisfy afficionados. My favourites being the bong through the brain and the stogie in the eyeball, along with the de rigeur disembowellings and decapitations, all leading to a suitably grand guignol finale. Although the film features some elements of black comedy it wisely steers clear of the self referential approach that was much popularised by Scream and its many imitators. This may be a cut above your usual stalk ‘n’ slash but it’s still a balls out horror when the chips are down, and it’s clear that Reynolds has a love and reverence for the genre.
The writer/director has stated that he does have a sequel in mind, and The Stricken Land fervently hopes his labour of love gets a follow up!
You can get more on 4/20 Massacre from our friends over at the Horror of the Remake podcast where they also have an interview with Dylan Reynolds. Check it out here –
Annihilation (USA 2018) Dir: Alex Garland
Natalie Portman, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tessa Thompson, Tuva Novotny, Gina Rodriguez, Oscar Isaac
Fresh from his success with previous sci go flick Ex Machina, novelist turned screenwriter and director Alex Garland serves us up another welcome slice of conceptual science fiction with this handsome looking, if loose adaptation of the eponymous Jeff Vandermeer novel.
A meteor crashes to earth in the vicinity of a lighthouse in the opening sequence. Three years later, and ex soldier turned cellular biologist Lena (Portman) is still grieving the loss of her special forces soldier husband Kane (Isaac), missing believed killed whilst on a top secret mission.
When Kane suddenly reappears at the marital home, and shortly after begins to suffer some form of haemorrhage, the ambulance is waylaid by a military team and Kane along with Lena suddenly find themselves housed in a top secret military complex.
The mysterious Dr Ventress (Leigh) informs Lena that Kane disappeared while on a mission inside ‘the Shimmer’ a quarantined zone surrounded by an electromagnetic field resulting from the meteor crash, and which appears to be slowly expanding inland. Several teams have been sent inside the zone, but none have ever returned, save for Kane.
Ventress announces that she is to head the latest expedition into the Shimmer to trace its source and investigate the nature of the phenomenon. She offers Lena the chance to join the all female team which along with Lena’s scientific field and the Psychologist Ventress also comprises an anthropologist, physicist and paramedic.
And it’s when the team venture inside the Shimmer that the story really kicks into gear…
It would be remiss if me to give away any spoilers, save to say that Annihilation is not the creature feature that the trailer suggests, but rather an intelligent piece of science fiction/horror of a type that I’d feared had gone out of fashion amidst the seemingly relentless tide of brawling superhero yawn festivals that have taken over cinemas recently.
Garland definitely has a touch for this sort of thing, and his hinterland as a novelist ensures the concepts explored by the story don’t drown out the characters, and his assured script ensures the film stays on just the right side of narrative ambiguity,when at times it feels as if it might stray off into pretentious twaddle. Portman as ever, gives it her all, her commitment to the work shining through here, and she is ably supported by her fellow actresses, with each given just enough background and personal arc to make us care when things inevitably head south. With Annihilation being the first in the planned Southern Reach trilogy by Vandermeer, and the ambiguous climax of the film adaptation, the door is wide open for a sequel, dependent on the film’s success of course.
The tone of the film brought to mind the science fiction novels of John Wyndham (which he himself referred to as ‘logical fantasies’) , the most famous of which is of course The Day of the Triffids, but his oeuvre extends well beyond his most well known work, and fans of Annihilation (the film and/or the novel) could do worse than to check out such titles as The Kraken Wakes and Trouble with Lichen.
In conclusion, Annihilation is a film sure to please fans of cerebral science fiction or for those discerning film fans who wish to cleanse their palettes of glossy but hollow studio blockbuster fayre.
Annihilation is available to stream on Netflix now.
He Never Died (2015) Dir: Jason Krawczyk Henry Rollins, Kate Greenhouse, Jordan Todosey
…Then you’d probably have ended up with this quirky oddball of a film starring bull necked ex Black Flag frontman and wordsmith Henry Rollins as Jack, a mysterious antisocial loner who just happens to be immortal, cursed with an unfortunate addiction to blood and human flesh.
Jack lives alone in a grubby apartment, only interacting with the outside world by playing bingo, purchasing blood from hospital intern Jeremy (Booboo Stewart), and making trips to the local diner where waitress Cara (Greenhouse) has developed a crush on him.
Two events conspire to interrupt Jack’s strict, but quiet routine. First; Andrea, a daughter from a long ago relationship rocks up on his doorstep, then Jeremy is kidnapped by two hoods who he is deep in debt to. When these two factors collide, Jack is forced into action.
This is an excellent film. If you have Netflix go and watch it now. Rarely has there been a horror flick with such pathos, superb acting and writing. He Never Died stands out even more considering it was made for the VoD market, which is notoriously awash with derivative jump horror dross. Great performances across the board, especially from Rollins (Henry, if you ever read this, we love you!) and Kate Greenhouse, who works wonders given that her character is required to spend most of the running time wondering wtf is going on.
Director Krawczyk also wrote the screenplay which cleverly keeps Jack’s nature and origins deliberately ambiguous (is he a vampire? A fallen angel?), with some great naturalistic, funny dialogue and subte visual clues (just what are those scars on Jack’s shoulder blades glimpsed in the opening scenes?). Jordan Todosay as Andrea more than holds her own as a foil to Rollins, and their scenes together gain an emotional resonance as the film goes on.
Strange as it seems, the film this most reminds me of is Clint Eastwood’s dark western classic Unforgiven (1992). The tale of a seemingly unlikable protagonist with a very dark past seeking redemption is at the core of both films, and Krawczyk handles the material his material at least as well as far more experienced filmmakers like Eastwood. It just goes to show that talent, and a good story well told and acted doesn’t need a Michael Bay level budget and attendant egos to come up with the goods.
Happily it seems that a sequel is on the cards (not to give anything away, but the film ends with several strands left open for a continuation). According to The Hollywood Reporter, both Krawczyk and Rollins are on board and filming is due to start in May. Watch this space.
Daniel Kaluuya, Alison Williams, Bradley Whitfield, Catherine Keener
The explicitly political horror film is a rare beast. Over time, the genre has justifiably gained fame as a vehicle for societal allegories, even if these were attached to certain films in hindsight by critics looking to give their copy more resonance. I’m thinking of the underlying social conservatism prevalent in the slasher sub genre (so memorably lampooned in the Scream franchise), and the alleged critique of western consumerism as the underlying theme in Romero’s original Dawn of the Dead (1979). Personally I like to think of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) as a treatise on the horrors of unemployment, a sort of Boys from the Blackstuff with a darker heart.
The two horror films that best exemplify an intentional socio/political commentary in this reviewer’s opinion are the original Night of the Living Dead (who can forget its shocking nihilistic ending?), and Bryan Forbes’ excellent 1975 second wave feminist chiller The Stepford Wives adapted from the Ira Levin novel of the same name.
It is this latter film that Get Out owes a debt to. Jordan Peele’s directorial debut begins as a taut, slightly unsettling tale centring on the angst of meeting the parents of one’s other half for the first time. Along the way it also weaves in an examination of the disparity between the level of media exposure that missing black people receive in the US as opposed to cases featuring whites (particularly females) that disappear.
Chris Washington (Daniel Kaluuya), a young black photographer is taken to meet his girlfriend Rose Armitage’s (Alison Williams) parents Dean and Missy (a pair of splendidly restrained performances by Bradley Whitfield and Catherine Keener respectively), and her passive aggressive brother Jeremy (Caleb Landry Jone) at their spacious country pile.
The Armitage family employ two black people, groundsman Walter (Marcus Henderson) and maid Georgina (Betty Gabriel), both of who display curiously affected behaviour. Conscious of how this domestic setup may look, Rose’s neurosurgeon father Dean reassures Chris that ‘he would’ve voted for Obama a third time if he could’. This case of protesting too much is soon compounded at a weekend gathering of the Armitage’s friends and family who all make disparaging, passive aggressive racist remarks towards Chris, with the exception of Jim Hudson (Stephen Root), a blind art dealer, who tells Chris how much he admires his work. After Missy tricks Chris into being hypnotised over curing his smoking habit, matters quickly go south for the young man.
Black Lives Matter go to Stepford is perhaps too crude a label to give the film, and Peele goes for more of a straight horror/thriller angle than the satire of Forbes’s classic. We are cleverly wrong footed near the start of the film with a skilfully navigated confrontation with a local traffic cop, and the film resists the temptation to play up the victim angle (the climax to the third act shows that Chris is anything but). In fact it is this climax to the third act that is the weakest point of the film, seeming rushed and splatter heavy where a subtler, more nuanced and sinister denouement would have been more in keeping with the overall mood and tone of what has gone before. One half expects there to be a coda to events at this point, to rob the audience of reassurance and show that all is not well in this world despite the hero’s survival. Perhaps Peele was wary of sequelitis, and who can blame him? Given the film’s success and capturing of a particular moment in the zeitgeist, one wouldn’t put it past the studio to float the idea of a follow up.
In summary then, Get Out is an interesting and well made horror with great performances, even if the material is not quite as fresh and original as some of the hype has made it out to be. In the wake of this success, Peele has been linked to the long gestating live action Akira project, which he may be wise to stay clear of given Hollywood’s track record with Japanese properties. Resist the siren calls of sequels to your debut feature though Mr Peele, few recall the follow ups to The Stepford Wives, and with good reason.
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