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!

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 –

https://www.spreaker.com/user/hotrpod/hotrpod-ep6-420-massacre

(Horror of the Remake is also available on iTunes and all good podcast apps).

We also hope to publish our own interview with the writer/director very soon, so watch this space!

4/20 Massacre is released on DVD, Blu-Ray and VOD on 3rd April 2018.

 

Dead & Buried (1981) USA Dir: Gary Sherman
James Farentino, Jack Albertson, Melody Anderson

In the coastal town of Potter’s Bluff, tourists are being murdered in various gruesome ways, only to seemingly return from the dead without a scratch, only days later. Sheriff Dan Gillis (Farentino) investigates, aided by the local mortician Dobbs, (Albertson, in his final theatrical release). As the murder count escalates, Gillis begins to suspect the elderly Dobbs may have a connection to the horror engulfing the town…

Gaining some notoriety after initially being swept up in the ‘video nasties’ scare in the early ‘80’s, this is a solid homage to the 50’s EC horror comics that provoked a similar bout of pearl clutching in the US. An unusual take on the now ubiquitous zombie sub genre, Dead & Buried is held up by decent performances and some splendid practical gore effects by the late, great Stan Winston.

Interesting facts:

  • Jack Albertson, whose previous credits included playing ‘Grandad’ in the Gene Wilder version of Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, was terminally ill with cancer during the shoot and sadly died soon after the film was released.
  • This was only the second film of director Gary Sherman after a nine year hiatus between this and Death Line (1972). He went on to make Poltergeist III (1988). Everyone has bills to pay I guess.

I love a good list. In true High Fidelity style I’ve decided to make top ten lists a semi regular feature on the site, and to kick off, here is my inaugural top ten horror films.

The criteria for making the cut was that the film had to have had an immediate visceral impact on first viewing and stamped themselves indelibly on my febrile young consciousness.

Let’s dive in…

Jaws (1975) Dir: Steven Spielberg

“Mr. Vaughn, what we are dealing with here is a perfect engine, an eating machine. It’s really a miracle of evolution. All this machine does is swim and eat and make little sharks, and that’s all.”

There’s a lot of waffle talked about Spielberg’s finest hour, namely that it’s a ‘thriller’, an ‘action adventure’ etcetera. Codswallop. Jaws is an out and out horror movie par excellence. Sit through the opening ten minutes again and tell me I’m wrong.

With a story structure lifted straight from a golden age western by way of a classic fairytale (a small frontier town is threatened by a malevolent exterior force, three champions set out to confront and defeat it at high noon), Jaws easily transcends its b movie creature feature progenitors.

Spielberg wisely dropped the soap opera melodrama elements of Peter Benchley’s source novel and presents the audience with a lean man vs nature thrill ride. It’s only in the third act that the shark finally makes an appearance (mainly due to the fact that the mechanical contraption never worked properly in the open sea), and as every sensible person knows, the film is all the stronger for it.

Michael Cimino’s Heavens Gate (1980) is often touted as the film that ended the 70’s auteur period in Hollywood that began with Easy Rider in 1969, but in truth it was Jaws that sounded the death knell, helping to usher in the era of the high concept summer blockbuster. For better or worse Hollywood was changed forever, as was an entire generation’s attitude to the seaside.

 

The Omen (1976) Dir: Richard Donner

“Here is wisdom. Let him that hath understanding count the number of the beast; for it is the number of a man; and his number is 666.”

The story of the coming of the Antichrist could have been pure hokum in the wrong hands, fortunately we got a pure measure of distilled terror in this seventies classic. One of the secrets to The Omen’s scare factor is the marrying of the satanic themes of Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist to the conspiracy sub genre popular at the time in the wake of the Watergate scandal. Except that this time it’s Old Nick himself and his demons in human form directing events rather than evil corporations or shadowy star chambers.

An original spec script called The Birthmark had apparently been doing the rounds in Hollywood since the early years of the decade. Once optioned, screenwriter David Seltzer reportedly excised all of the more explicitly supernatural elements, coming up with a lean psychological thriller that could be innocently interpreted as the worst day of someone’s life. All of the deaths in the film can be explained away as accidental or self inflicted (the satanic rugrat Damien actually does very little), but a series of warnings about his adopted son’s true origins prompts Robert Thorn (Gregory Peck, lending the necessary gravitas) to begin uncovering the truth. Boasting pitch perfect turns from the cast and a memorably ice cold atmosphere, The Omen is the best of the triumvirate of Satan movies that began with Rosemary’s Baby. It also features what is for me, easily the most disturbing death in horror cinema, the ‘suicide’ of Damien’s nanny (Holly Palance, daughter of Jack).

Three progressively mediocre sequels followed and a superfluous remake was released on 2006. A tv series following directly on from this first film and ignoring the sequels was also made in 2015 by US cable channel A&E but cancelled after one season.

Director Richard Donner also got his big break here, and never looked back, going on to direct Superman (1978) and the Lethal Weapon series (we shouldn’t hold that against him though).

 

Halloween (1978) Dir: John Carpenter

“I met this… six-year-old child with this blank, pale, emotionless face, and… the blackest eyes – the Devil’s eyes. I spent eight years trying to reach him, and then another seven trying to keep him locked up, because I realized that what was living behind that boy’s eyes was purely and simply… evil.”

Much imitated, never bettered it’s easy to forget what a masterful nerve shredder John Carpenter crafted on a budget of only $300,000 (the film went on to gross $47m making it one of the most successful independent films of all time, hence the relentless cash ins).

The simple tale of escaped killer Michael Myers returning to his hometown to relive his crime on the neighbourhood’s unsuspecting teens simultaneously spawned the stalk and slash sub genre, launched Jamie Lee Curtis’ career and put Carpenter firmly on the map. Veteran actor Donald Pleasance nearly walks away with the whole thing as the obsessed Dr Loomis, hot on the trail of his deranged patient.

 

Threads (1984) Dir: Mick Jackson

“Jesus Christ! They’ve done it… They’ve done it!”

The Cold War was nearing its denouement in the 80’s, not that we were to know that, and fear of a nuclear war was always in the back of people’s minds. Step forward the BBC then with this utterly harrowing public information style drama documentary showing in unremitting detail the effects of a nuclear strike on the UK through the experiences of two working class Sheffield families. Much of the horror is by implication, as the film really makes you really think about the consequences of such a nightmarish event. As many an 80’s kid will tell you, many local education authorities thought it appropriate to screen this in schools. They’d almost certainly be running for the safe spaces today. The past is a foreign country as someone once said. My advice is to make sure you are in a ridiculously happy mood on a bright sunny day before you settle down to watch this one.

Interestingly, director Mick Jackson went on the Hollywood where he made the somewhat more tonally upbeat The Bodyguard (1992) and Volcano (1997).

 

The Thing (1982) Dir: John Carpenter

“I know I’m human. And if you were all these things, then you’d just attack me right now, so some of you are still human. This thing doesn’t want to show itself, it wants to hide inside an imitation. It’ll fight if it has to, but it’s vulnerable out in the open. If it takes us over, then it has no more enemies, nobody left to kill it. And then it’s won.”

Buoyed by his success with 1978’s Halloween, The Fog (1980) and Escape from New York (1981), Carpenter chose an adaptation of John W Campbell’s 1938 short story Who Goes There? As his next project. The tale of a shape shifting alien terrorising a group of scientists at an isolated Antarctic research station had been filmed one before as Howard Hawks’ The Thing from Another World (1951). Carpenter’s version sticks much closer to the original story though, shot through as it is with mounting paranoia, and some truly memorable practical effects from Rob Bottin (who would go on to work on Paul Verhoeven’s Robocop (1987). The blood test sequence is all time favourite horror movie scene ever.

The film famously bombed on release, going up against a much more cuddly alien in Spielberg’s E.T. (1982). Carpenter thought the film a failure for many years, but like many initial box office bombs the dawn of VHS gave it new life and audience reach, and it is now rightfully regarded as the stone cold classic it always was.

 

The Dead Zone (1983) Dir: David Cronenberg

“The ICE… is gonna BREAK!”

Still the best Stephen King adaptation for my money. Growing out of the moral conundrum posed by the question; ‘is political assassination ever justified?’ the source novel takes place across the tumultuous decade of the 1970’s as the central protagonist, everyman Johnny Smith wakes from a coma with the power to see into people’s future.

In the hands of David Cronenberg (directing his first non original material), the film version deftly condenses the vignette structure of the novel and is topped off by brilliant performances by Christopher Walken as Smith, and Martin Sheen playing demagogic local politico Greg Stillson, who Smith foresees will rise to the highest office and trigger nuclear Armageddon. A tv series starring Anthony Michael Hall of The Breakfast Club and Weird Science fame aired in the early 2000’s.

 

Race with the Devil (1975) Dir: Jack Starrett

“I don’t drive too well when I’m asleep.”

A fantastic down and dirty drive in b-picture that marries the car chase action movie with a folk horror devil worship plot, this sees two middle class couples (Peter Fonda, Loretta Swit, Warren Oates and Lara Parker) on the run after witnessing a satanic sacrifice in rural redneck country. Almost a forgotten movie now, I remember catching this late night in the mid nineties, and I’ve always fondly remembered it as a kind of American Wicker Man, with it’s isolated rural setting and dark religious element. Happily there’s a DVD release that can be picked up on Amazon for a few quid. Get it for the trademark 70’s nihilistic climax (and Warren Oates of course).

 

Witchfinder General aka The Conqueror Worm (1968) Dir: Michael Reeves

“They swim… the mark of Satan is upon them. They must hang.”

In a crowded field, possibly one of the bleakest British horror films ever made. Set during the English Civil War, its a study of how malign individuals can rise to power and incite their fellow men to acts of depravity when the ties that bind society break down. Vincent Price puts in a career best performance, dropping any hint of campy theatrics, as the misogynistic, ice cold sadist Matthew Hopkins, a real life historical character who preyed upon the superstitions of the time and instigated a reign of terror across 17th century East Anglia.

Critically reviled in some quarters upon its release, director Reeves in was only his fourth feature crafts a disturbing portrait of the barbarism lurking just under the surface of civilisation. Tragically he was to die of an accidental overdose of barbiturates just a year after the film’s release.

 

The Vanishing (1988) Dir: George Sluizer

“The best plans can be wiped out at any moment by what we call fate. I confess, that saddens me.”

Adapted from Tim Krabbe’s 1984 novel The Golden Egg, this tale of obsession is most famous for its shock ending, but is equally notable for its superbly written character study of two men Rex Hofman (Gene Bervoets) and Raymond Lemorne (Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu). Hofman is obsessed with discovering what happened to his girlfriend Saskia, who went missing at a motorway services, and after three years of fruitless searching is contacted by Lemorne, a well off family man who claims to know the truth behind her disappearance.

The Vanishing is probably most famous for Donnadieu’s performance of the highly intelligent, yet totally amoral socioopath, Raymond Lemorne. The second half of the film follows Lemorne about his daily life as we learn more of his past, his thoughts and feelings. Most disturbing is Lemorne’s lack of discernible motive, his obvious love of his family and general all round sheer normalness. The viewer is left in no doubt that Saskia’s disappearance could happen to anyone, in fact, Lemorne could be anyone, and by the time such a person were to reveal their true nature it would be far too late…

Sluizer inexplicably remade his own film for Hollywood in 1993 with a disgraceful tacked on happy ending. Avoid this at all costs and seek out the Dutch language original. And don’t have nightmares…

 

The Masque of the Red Death (1964) Dir: Roger Corman

“Why should you be afraid to die? Your soul has been dead for a long long time.”

Like Witchfinder General, this is another period horror (this time set in Renaissance Italy), and the penultimate film in American International Pictures’ Edgar Allen Poe adaptations. Corman regular Price as hedonistic satanist Prince Prospero throwing a big party in his castle while the peasantry outside suffer the ravages of the mysterious plague known as the Red Death.

Poe’s original story is oft though to be a metaphor about human mortality (Prospero hopes to achieve a sort of immortality as one of Satan’s lieutenants in hell), but Corman avoids the rabbit hole of literary pretension and instead crafts a splendidly sinister tapestry pitting the innocence of the captive Francesca (Jane Asher, before the cakes) against Prospero’s waspish depravity. Combining a portentous tone with the trademark lush visuals and rich colours of the previous Poe adaptations, and a great supporting cast in horror regular Hazel Court and Patrick Magee, Masque is probably one of Corman’s best films, and certainly my favourite among his Poe adaptations.

I confess, it’s been a difficult task trying to whittle this list down to just ten films, and there are a lot of excellent scare fests that only narrowly missed out. The great thing about this kind of exercise is that it inevitably stokes (light hearted) disagreement and debate. Let me know your views on my choices and feel free to post your own, either in the comments below or feel free to join The Stricken Land’s very own Facebook group, Movie Babylon. I’m also on Twitter, Tumblr and Instagram (links on the sidebar) if any of those platforms are more your thing.

Till the next time…

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Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi (USA 2017) Dir: Rian Johnson

Watching this latest instalment of the Star Wars series was a rollercoaster experience; I went through alternate feelings of both loving and loathing it, punctuated by the occasional threat of boredom. And boredom is a feeling that should be anathema when watching an adventure set in a galaxy far far away.

Is this a bad movie? No. Is it a great movie? Again, no. It’s an okay Star Wars movie. Faint praise, but unfortunately the movie’s good points are more than offset by the numerous flaws carried over from its predecessor, The Force Awakens. The questions raised by that instalment are not answered here. Questions like; how exactly have the remnants of the Imperial forces once again risen to galaxy spanning dominance only 30 odd years since their Stalingrad like defeat? Why, despite their all encompassing victory at the Battle of Endor, have the rebels been reduced to an even more hunted, rag-tag shower than they were in the original trilogy? These narrative holes leave both films lacking any sense of narrative follow on from Return of the  Jedi, which they are supposed to be direct sequels to. While much better than the execrable prequels and the terminally leaden and characterless Rogue One, both this movie and The Force Awakens feel like a superfluous coda to the saga of the Skywalker clan. One wonders why the House of Mouse didn’t just have the cojones to start afresh with a new cast of characters and story arc. Alas Hollywood risk aversion won out and we are presented with The Last Jedi.

Taking up exactly where The Force Awakens left off, the Resistance led by General Leia Organa are forced to evacuate from their secret base when the First Order fleet rumbles the location and suddenly appears in system. So far so good. Even minus the traditional Fox fanfare I felt the hairs on my arms rise as the first boom of John Williams’ iconic score reverberated through the auditorium followed by the yellow crawl of the intro.

Tragically this bubble is almost immediately burst by some truly awful and incongruous humour between hotshot rebel pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac)and First Order Commander Hux (Domnhall Gleeson,one of the worst actors to grace the series, and there is some stiff competition.) At this point of the screenplay, you would have hoped the director would have taken the crayons off the scriptwriter, and we are thankfully saved from the film descending into a Spaceballs territory by a fantastic set piece space battle as the rebels attempt to break through the First Order blockade. With this sequence, Johnson more than proves a flair for directing action, which is cemented later on by the lightsaber fight between Daisy Ridley’s Rey and Kylo Ren (a scenery chewing Adam Driver, looking like he is enjoying himself immensely), and the climactic battle sequence on the salt moon.

Meanwhile, Rey is stuck at the arse end of the galaxy with a curmudgeonly Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) who is doing what all Jedi do after having a pupil turn dark and joining a rapacious space tyranny – living in a hut being terminally dour. Hamill does well here, slipping back into the character like someone donning a rumpled but comfortable old raincoat. Daisy Ridley is engaging enough, refusing to let her character be subsumed by the competing screen time of a bloated cast.

The film’s midsection is where most of the faults lie. Some leaden exposition about the First Order being able to track the rebel’s  through hyperspace sees ex stormtrooper Finn (a wasted John Boyega, easily the cast member with the most presence) along with rebel pilot Rose (couldn’t the writers have thought up a more Star Warsy name than this?) despatched to a generic looking casino planet devoid of any visual references to the SW universe in order to track down some famous code breaker (a criminally wasted Benicio Del Toro doing his mumbling schtick) who can ensure the rebel fleets escape. Or something. To be honest I lost it a bit here as boredom threatened to set in listening to the characters tell each other the plot.

Doubling down, the writers then treat the audience to some sledgehammer moralising about animal rights and wealth inequality (rich people in the Star Wars universe seem to be all gun running poker demons), that skirts perilously close to trite Hollywood liberalism. There is a place for this, but if I want to watch cheap moralising and characters signalling impotent virtue, then I’ll watch something directed by George Clooney. Not in Star Wars thanks.

An attack on the rebel flagship sees the bridge destroyed and Leia blown into space, resulting in possibly the worst, most ill conceived scene in the entire series, I mean, we are talking midichlorian level awfulness here. Flung into vacuum, Leia somehow uses her undeveloped Jedi powers to envelop herself in some kind of ‘force bubble’ and navigates her way back to the ship. Yes, it is as ridiculous as it sounds, no explosive decompression, no visible physical trauma (from a direct hit in the bridge and exposure to vacuum!) Not exactly Event Horizon, and yes I know it’s a Star Wars film and foremost aimed at kids, but really? Why have this scene in the first place? It serves no purpose plot wise, and looks and feels like its been tacked on from a Guardians of the Galaxy movie. Dreadful.

A hilariously miscast Laura Dern then assumes the mantle of command, sporting a purple crimp hairdo (what is it with Star Wars and bad hair?), and radiating incompetence. The audience is meant to buy into this character being some kind of military genius having scored an impressive victory over the First Order in a previous battle. None of that strategic nous is displayed in the actual movie though, as the rebels continue to be picked off, resulting in a Poe led mutiny and Dern’s heroic self sacrifice in an admittedly awesome sequence of mega destruction. Perhaps if the rebellion was being led by its version of Nelson or Nimitz, rather than being run by the intergalactic equivalent of a Home Counties sewing circle, they might do a bit better.

Escaping to a nearby mineral rich moon, the rebel forces confront the First Order in the climactic battle, which, as with the opening sequence delivers the Star Wars goods in full, and is almost enough to make you forget the patience baiting elements in the previous hour and a bit.

We get a bit more hopey changey waffle, but predictably it proves useless against the First Order’s miniaturised Death Star tech, and the rebel’s once again are forced to hot foot it out of there. I don’t think the  audience is supposed to cheer for Kylo Ren, but it’s hard not to appreciate his results focused pragmatism when measured against the rebels empty virtue.

To summarise, my main gripes with the movie are it being overlong, the incongruous humour, the bizarre Leia in space sequence, the dull and laboured casino planet interlude and a stilted overall narrative. Big pluses include the superb battle sequences, which show fellow Disney property Marvel how it’s done, and showcases Johnson’s flair for space operatics. And John Boyega – get that boy an X-Wing.

There is a great Star Wars film wanting to get out here, but the movie is burdened with a story that simply doesn’t flow very well, and a portentous tone that ends up going nowhere. Maybe it’s an age thing and I’m simply too jaded by constant exposure to the dream factory’s product, but this modern crop of Star Wars movies  just fail to engage me on a visceral level. Instead they feel like just another visual effects fest in what has become a crowded field. My expectations of future films have now been officially lowered. Surprise me Disney.