Saturday, 13 October 2018

The Incredible Shrinking Man

Jack Arnold, b/w, 1957, USA

Jack’s Arnold’s classic adaptation of another of Richard Matheson’s genre-defining concepts: exposed to a cloud of radiation and insecticide, Scott Carey (Grant Williams) starts to shrink, and nothing seems capable of stopping this process.

The effects – supervised by Clifford Stine – include glittery torsos, trick perspective shots, split-screen, primitive super-imposition and decent back-projection. The cat attack is a highlight, not forgetting the spider battle, but the whole scale of the project and realisation is impressive: giant drips of water (water-filled condoms), out-sized phones, monolithic stair cases, etc. Its sheer scope remains impressive.

And, of course, this all directly relates to his loss of masculinity. Richard Christian Matheson (the author’s son) says that he thinks Arnold saw in the book “this idea of masculinity being a kind of falsehood, a kind of vulnerable construct, and I think he was very fascinated by that.”* We first meet Carey charmingly bullying his wife into getting him a beer and strikingly peaks in the image of Carey trying to lay down the law from a doll house balcony. Perhaps the film misses a trick in excising the daughter character for the book and therefore establishing his virility. Evidently, he comes from a period mindset where the privilege of male dominance is a given and his shrinking loss of it is more than he can bare. He goes from a man that assumes his privilege is to get his wife to get him a beer – the punishment for this casual misogyny being that he gets exposed to the radioactive cloud that will lead to him shrinking – to self-pitying and then to a diminutive figure fighting living in a matchbox and for resources and survival in the basement. Only when Carey has fulfilled the manly business of surviving and killing and anoints himself triumphant over the universe of the basement is he ready to stop mooching and embrace his fate. The novel makes even more explicit the concurrence between Carey’s increased bitterness as his size diminishes: as Ryan Lamble says: 

“As Carey dwindles in size, so too does sense of power and self-esteem, until he becomes an embittered, deviant character who comes to hate the people he once loved.” 

It’s a vivid metaphor for toxic masculinity that never seems to date.

Wonderfully self-obsessed with its own high-concept, it remarkably takes this to its logical conclusion whilst moving through stages of kitchen sink drama, Atomic Age fear and pseudo-science, metaphysics and body-horror, primal man adventure and monster movie. We have Matheson’s fidelity to his own text to thank here (although the book doesn’t end with “With God, there is no zero”, that punchline is allowable as a concession to a happy ending), but also Jack Arnold’s strong refusal to have a trite ending with something like a serum returning Grant to his original height. 

Carey's transformation is as transcendental and as complete an odyssey as Kubrick’s ‘2001: a space odyssey’, with his established masculinity as a conditional. The closing voice-over speech can be taken as ‘50s cornball pseudo-religious sentimentalism, or evidence of Carey’s delusion and instability of sanity as he shrinks way into … nothing? The infinite? 

* Arrow blu-ray: 'There Is No Zero: Writing The Shrinking Man an in-depth conversation with author Richard Christian Matheson about his father and the creation of the original Shrinking Man novel'.

The Commuter

Jaume Collet-Serra, 2018, France-USA

Poor Liam Neeson: he can’t even get on a train without having to punch his way out.

Jaume Collet-Serra starts vividly enough by rendering Liam’s morning routine in jump-cuts that vary time and moods to give a summary of the everdayness of this family man/insurance salesman/ex-cop (that should come in handy). But Collet-Serra films always have dashes of playfulness such as this temporal trick amidst genre obviousness. At best, this keep things alert and entertaining; elsewhere it means a simple shot down train carriages has to be a trick shot and that it all peaks in a hilariously ridiculous and overblown CGI train crash. But this opening does play on the fact that, despite how big and efficient in a fight he is, there is a vulnerable quality to Neeson, something unassuming that allows him to be relatable and the ridiculous scenarios to spin from an overwhelmed centre.

 So Liam is made redundant but doesn’t have the nerve to tell his wife, and on his way home on the train, Vera Farmiga approaches him. But she’s not looking for a nun (that’s a ‘Conjuring’ reference), but rather someone to complete a task she proposes: find someone that isn’t a regular commuter on the train, tag them with a GPS and walk away with the reward of $100,000. Yes, he’s in a high-concept scenario and it’s soon evident that he’s way in over his head with the malevolent and seemingly mysterious omnipotent manipulators not giving him an inch to get out of it. In fact, so seemingly all-powerful are these puppet-masters, killing people at will and seemingly having foot-soldiers all over the place, that one wonders why they don’t already know who this “Prin” is and why they’re taking so much trouble to frame Liam. But once it’s clear that all this will be solved by punchy action rather than mystery convention, airtight suspense logic isn’t really needed. It's like the good-clueness-man-in-peril Hitchcockian suspenser shoved into a Nineties actioner. 

Indeed, it’s not particularly good but it seems redundant to chastise a film for the very dumbness it’s very self-aware of and playing with. Even the train crash comes on like a kid bashing toys together.  But there’s a side of the film that seems to be trying for a more mature suspense-genre guessing game and tapping into contemporary paranoia that bigger powers and terrorists are all out to get you. But this paranoia is typically taken for granted as a truth in the genre. All it takes is one kick-ass guy to sort it out.

There are faces and names you’ll recognise but they really don’t have much time to mark themselves out; rather they add some semi-prestige as Liam punches his way into greater absurdity, through the implausible conspiracy theory that seems to refute itself as it goes along. You could probably shove this train through the plot holes. It’s the exact same trouble Liam had in ‘Non-Stop’* except, you know, on a train: if I was him, I’d avoid public transport and stay clear of mobile phones.

·         * For a review of ‘Non-Stop’, just change “train” for “plane” in this review.

Sunday, 30 September 2018

Silent Running

Douglas Trumbull, 1972, USA

If there was ever a hippy science-fiction, this is it. But although it’s feel is quintessentially Seventies, its ecological message feels more contemporary that ever in an age of Global Warming. 

On a spaceship around Saturn, Lowell (Bruce Dern) and a team of ever-changing colleagues mind the cargo of samples of Earth’s terrain, now that Earth culture itself is apparently totally synthetic. Whilst Dern is thoroughly in love with these nature domes, his colleagues are less impressed, thoroughly immersed in the artificial world they have left behind. To them it’s a job; to him it’s a cause. The catalyst for this is when they are ordered to destroy the domes so that ship can be returned for more commercial use. Dern finds himself taking drastic action to preserve the last vestige of an Earth he doesn’t really care to return to.

Trumbull’s spaceship effects are exemplary, as you would expect from he who worked on ‘2001: a space odyssey’, and worth the price of admission alone. The model work is  The shot of the spaceship against the rings of Saturn is gorgeous. This is the kind of sci-fi that looks lived in, where the hardware is dirty and scuffed and all the more working class for it. The film starts with pretty pictures of plants and wildlife before revealing its all on a spaceship. Characterisation is straightforward: we know his colleagues are wrong’uns and probably doomed by the way they recklessly speed their buggies around inconsiderately. Dern kills his colleagues – more from the desperation of the moment than premeditated – and thinks he can survive alone on the space station with Huey. Dewy and Louie the maintenance robots. But humans are predominantly social and nature turns out to just simply not be enough. Then, if there’s any doubt of the film’s hippy-leanings, Joan Baez sings about children running free.  

But it's mostly Dern's one-man show, and he does a fine job of articulating the regret beneath the fortitude. Mostly, it’s Dern’s relationship with the pet-like robots which he and we anthropomorphise that give the emotional charge. "Amazing companions on an incredible adventure" the poster blurb says. They are diminutive and just this side of cutesy, falling just short of R2D2 twittering – although at one point one nudges the other when the human is approaching. Even so, he can’t quite make them human enough; after all, they don’t talk. As a kid, I used to cry at the eventual perpetual oblivious solitude of the robot at the end. Its sentiment is on its sleeve and powered by emotion and human failing rather than swamping man with metaphysics and his smallness in the scheme of things; indeed, Trumbull apparently made this as reaction to Kubrick’s ‘2001’. It’s probably this sentiment that leads Mark Kermode to say it’s superior to ‘2001’, as that is more his taste. It certainly means this is a less questioning work when the answers are so clearly evident: nature good; business bad; robots cute; boorishness bad; anthropomorphising good; etc. But it is more morally complex than that – as John Kenneth Muir details - as Lowell cannot reconcile his actions with his morality and humanity. 

“Silent Running asks viewers to countenance a man who wants to save the last forest of Earth, and does, but pays too a high a personal and moral price to achieve that noble end.” 

(But more than that, I wonder how it takes Lowell, as an ecologist, so long to realise that sunlight might be important to the growth of the forest. After all, the ultraviolet lights are right there.)

Nevertheless, that its agenda is so emotionally transparent and achieves its effect with a little anthropomorphising blunts its edge and – as a retort to ‘2001’ – leaves mankind foolhardy, desperate and emotionally fallible. In that sense, it's more of the Ray Bradbury strain of sci-fi. As a comparison, ‘2001’ is the more optimistic vision – one of transcendence – and ‘Silent Running’ as a riposte is left wanting by reducing humanity to self-destruction. Nevertheless, as a science-fiction vision and cautionary tale about man’s casual indifference to nature, it’s vivid and highly enjoyable and earns its place as a Seventies genre classic.

Thursday, 27 September 2018

I Was Born, but...

 大人の見る絵本 生れてはみたけれど Otona no miru ehon -
Umarete wa mita keredo "An Adult's Picture Book View — I Was Born, But...”

Yasujirō Ozu, 1932, b/w, Japan

One of the great things about Ozu is that he proves the failing of much cinematic and soap opera drama in that their tendency is to always, always fall into melodrama. The quietness of Ozu’s dramas may look as if nothing much is happening, but a relatively still surface does not mean it is untroubled beneath. Hierarchy and manners and social mores barely seem to keep frustrations and anxieties and unfairness at bay, but time and again Ozu’s characters rely upon those traditions to hold things together and to bare compromise.    

Ozu’s silent masterpiece “I Was Born, But....” starts off as a kind of Japanese “Our Gang” frolic but ultimately shifts into something far more resonant and troubling. It is troubling in its outlining out of the hierarchies of society that allow for bullying, humiliation and the compromise of character. Even in the more slapstick and amusing first half, this is already being sketched out in the tale of two young brothers dealing with bullies when they move to a new town. Although not exactly the timid sort, the brothers avoid school to avoid the bullies until they employ the services of a bigger bully – the local delivery boy – and mercilessly move into the role of gang leaders. It’s all about power games. 

The coming-of-age story takes a darker turn when the brothers attend a home-movie screening in which their father – a mild and fair man – is seen goofing around, seemingly to gain favour of his boss. The boys are humiliated and furious and confront their father with accusations of being a loser and unworthy. If you would ever think a verbal confrontation to lack power when conveyed by inter-titles, “I Was Born, but...” is probably the film to prove you wrong, for so fluid and engrossing is Ozu’s set-up and flow that the seriousness of the argument and the clash of generations is indeed distressing. Father turns to sake and the boys put on a hunger-strike. There is no harmonious ending here, not even a true acknowledged truce, just recognition of human weakness that lasts a lifetime and shapes character. And life goes on.

Sunday, 23 September 2018

The Conjuring 2

James Wan, 2016, Canada-USA

Oh, surely full of the kind of stuff that a horror audience usually both laughs at and with: although not really marred by bad acting, it has bad dialogue and an over-earnestness that only amplifies the condescension of the conceit that this is a “true story”. Oh, it’s bad with a lack of focus because it’s so busy squeezing out a franchise. The popularity of the extending empires of James Wan’s ‘Insidious’ and ‘The Conjuring’ is probably down to the most obvious mainstreaming of horror slickly reduced to the noise/jump scares: not that horror fans don’t like them too, but they also act like your unhip uncle’s idea of “scareee” and “spookeeee”. They don’t care for depth, just noise/jump-scares that are supposed to sate that most superficial and perpetual horror qualification of “Was it scary?” Now, there is nothing wrong with just being a vehicle of dispensing horror vignettes – the recent ‘Terrified’ and ‘The Grudge’ series does that nicely – but for any artistry Wan has, there is something phoney at work here. 

‘The Conjuring 2’ feels like his laziest yet, not really providing a truly distinctive scare or surprising set-up and frequently veering into unintentional comedy. The use of “I Started a Joke” to accompany the emotional moment when the girl is found falsifying the possession is hilarious – and then it rains for some pathetic fallacy; but I laughed out loud from the first chunk of dialogue when Lorraine Warren (Vera Farmiga) is conducting a séance in Amityville (!) and tells those around the table, “Envision yourself in a halo of glowing white light. It will protect you.” It’s too professional to be in ‘Troll 2’ territory but it’s wading in the same shallow waters. But then again ‘Troll 2’ was sincerely intended, not realising how deliriously stupid and delightfully inept it was being*; ‘The Conjuring’ franchise by contrast is deeply cynical, peddling noise scares as fear and the “True Story” as some badge of validation, ransacking the grift of a couple of con artists for material.

It cares not for the truth: if it did, “Annabelle” would be a seemingly innocuous rag doll and the original “demon” Valek plaguing the Hodgsons wouldn’t have been swapped for the more franchise-friendly Nun; not that Valek was “the truth”, but just that his replacement by the Nun shows how fast and loose this will play with the source. And it also shoe-horns in The Crooked Man. The thing with ‘The Exorcist’ however silly it may be (and silliness is a general genre ingredient), there is no doubt that it absolutely and vividly believes in itself and so the silliness doesn’t matter; it doesn’t register because it’s too busy being unnerving. But yes, streaming trivia pop-up does say this is "loosely based" on the Warren's Enfield investigation and it's probably redundant to expect credibility. ‘The Conjuring 2’ is so starkly a shrug at the lowest common demands of horror tricks it has the conviction of someone jumping from a closet shouting “Boo!” and then getting all unconvincingly serious and earnest about the motivation.

With ‘The Conjuring’, there was at least no doubt that James Wan could stage and frame a scare, but aside from a prolonged Nun sequence in this sequel, this just feels indifferent and baggy. It’s unnecessarily over two hours long, which I guess allows for the inclusion of Patrick Wilson’s Elvis impersonation and gives him time to knock up a painting of The Nun (!) (“Hey, I know I’m no Picasso but I didn’t think it was that bad.”). It also allows a brief trip to Amityville at the start, but despite a pleasing reveal of the iconic Amityville windows (which can be seen as a nice nod to horror aficionados) it appears that that “true story” was just another set-up for The Nun.

In Enfield, Wan seems to have no idea that the cramped interiors of an English house would allow for all kinds of memorable claustrophobia and cramped cold corners: instead, we get a house with the most unconvincing interior; it’s too big and no poor family on their last pennies would not have such a place (and the “Trivia” pop up when streaming points out that the spooky chair’s corner changes size repeatedly). What’s amusing is that the film closes with a series of pictures of the real Enfield haunting and Hodgsons which imply the actual cramped conditions. And what about that seemingly permanently flooded basement? …and why don’t they just get rid of the apparently possessed chair? I’m sure the Warrens could have found space for it in their lounge.

And it’s a shame because Wan has proven he can set-up trashy scares (even if he then hammers the point home) and the cast of kids all seem to be acting with a great conviction even as the dialogue lets them down. It’s bright and glossy enough, but it’s unconvincing and has that unintentional comedy in that special way that horror can provide.  

·        See Michael Stephenson’s ‘Best Worst Movie’ on the making of ‘Troll 2’.

Saturday, 22 September 2018

The Spy Lodgers "Codename: Redacted" file 003

The third EP from The Spy Lodgers "Codename: Redacted" files. I informed and sung on these tracks. music by Henrik Svedlund and featuring undercover spies Bernadette Ulla (Unbeknownst) Thomas Meyer, Johannes Lang and Frank Flemisch.

Files: "The Sea Sessions", "Down With the Wildlife", "In the capsule of the werewolf heart" and "The Romance of the Colossus". 

Sunday, 9 September 2018

FRIGHTFEST day #5, 2018


Padraig Reyolds, 2018, USA

Mary (Vanessa Grasse) has just been released from a mental institution for setting her serial killer boyfriend on fire – how’s that for baggage? She is barely keeping it together as she tries to embark on a normal life and gets a job at a remote all-night petrol station (you see, there’s your problem…). Things are made harder by the fact that she has the stigma of being called “The Watcher” due to the fact that her boyfriend The Rain Ripper (cue old classic rain-themed popsong) used to force her to watch him kill. …But she keeps seeing him right now: is she going crazy?

Despite the fact that it’s a pretty crowded story, it’s more of a grab-bag of tropes and red herrings to mask the fact that it’s your usual slender premise. There’s nothing wrong with that but the twists don’t really resonate as much surprise as they should and the whole premise of is she imaging it? runs out of steam pretty quickly. It’s nowhere near as tricksy and trippy as it should be. It also cheats in that the Rain Ripper seems to be able to appear whenever and wherever. Too long and without a good shave to sharpen itself up, ‘Open 24 Hours’ provides unremarkable genre diversion.


Yannis Veslemes, Ashim Ahluwalia, Can Evrenol, Severin Fiala, Vernika Franz, Katrin Gebbe, Calvin Reeder, Agnieszka Smoczynska, Peter Strickland, 2018, USA- New Zealand

There’s always one FrightFest film that induces unintentional humour, but it’s not usually the arty subtitled one. On paper, this looks like a winning premise: eight tales from folklore and myth by a variety of international directors. Fiala and Franz’s opening story, “Die Trud” has the quietude and pace that speaks to the patience of European cinema: in a time ago, a couple of girls try to conduct a love affair but only seem to summon the eponymous monster. It’s promising and despite the vivid and troubling Trud itself, the story seems to go nowhere – although I am willing to accept that perhaps this impression is because I am unfamiliar with the legend. The man next to me just threw up his hands in bafflement when it ended. But what is most interesting about this and Katrin Gebbe’s “A Nocturnal Breath” is that the summoned monster is embraced by the women for sexual freedom.

But there was a little response of bafflement to most of the tales. As Kim Newmanwrites, “many of the episodes have an unfinished, anecdote-like feel typical of often-told stories handed down with contradictions and ellipses.” There was outright laughter at the revelation of the melon-headed cannibal children (Calvin Reeder’s “The Melon Heads”). That, and the references to “fucking up a goblin” in "What Ever Happened to Panagas the Pagan ?" caused much laugbter. This Yannis Veslemes’ episode is so frantically edited and dark that I gave up trying to understand what was going on (forgive me: I am watching a lot of films here). Peter Strickland’s “The Cobbler’s Lot” perhaps proved the most satisfactory, channelling his inner Guy Maddin to conjure the ludicrous and nasty nature of his tale.

‘The Field Guide to Evil’ is by the same team that produced ‘The ABCs of Death’, Ant Timpson and Tim League, and the idea that this could be a similar series promises further improvements and gems, but for now this film succeeds mostly on its bizarreness.


Justin P. Lange, Austria 2018

There’s a pleasing patience and austerity to ‘The Dark’ that, at first, implies that there’s going to be a concentration of build-up to something perhaps unusual… the kind of tone and austerity that served ‘Inheritance’ so well. There’s even a slight playfulness at first and slyly delivered twists (Alex’s first appearance made me jump). But then it settles down to something far more recognisable, resembling one of those tween romance-horror about a misunderstood special one overcoming their alienation through friendship. Yes, I’m aware I’ve dampened its appeal as adult fodder, but there is much to like about ‘The Dark’ and that tone, although not especially leading to transcendent things, maintains a level-headed detachment and elusiveness throughout. The slightly drained palette helps.

Mina is a flesh-eating ghoul, mythologised as the creature in the woods praying on those unfortunate to stray into the trees. But then she accidentally discovers a blind and abused boy in the back of a victim’s car and, finding herself burdened with him, things start to change for her. For a start, Alex (Toby Nichols) is a far more convincing representation of trauma than Mary in ‘Open 24 Hours’, exhibiting a crushed soul and a little Stockholm Syndrome. It’s a physical performance where he always seems to be trying to make himself smaller. Mina (Nadia Alexander) is a little on the side of the bratty undead, a Goth girl fantasy about to save the nervy needy boy. Nadia Alexander’s performance storms ahead through the film like a teen strop, providing momentum that always seems a step ahead of the more deliberate pace. She provides the dynamism without disturbed the measured tone. The relationship of the kids doesn’t fall into unwarranted sentimentality and there is a healthy streak of nastiness to keep it on the right side of the tween horror I compared it to earlier. The pinnacle of such a tale is ‘Let the Right One In’, but ‘The Dark’ is a assured and spiky enough to conjure a painful coming-of-age fantasy.


Doran & Yoav Paz, 2018, USA

The Paz brothers produced one of the better found-footage films in ‘Jeruzalem’, a film that did right what ‘Cloverfield’ got wrong. For this reason, I had much anticipated for their second feature, ‘The Golem’. It starts much like I imagined the film would continue, with a huge Golem in the shadows. But this is the prologue and we then move into the tale proper. In 17th Century Lithuania, Hanna is trying to assert herself as a woman as their community is threatened by outsiders. She uses Kabbalah magic to create a Golem from mud to protect them, even though she is forbidden to do such a thing as a woman, which puts her in conflict with the men and her husband. But the Golem she creates takes the form of her dead son, responding to her desires and dormant anger, and this can only lead to tragedy.

This isn’t a monster movie as you might anticipate, but something more concerned with characters and the question of genders and defiance. It’s the monster as an extension of the individual, an Id unleashed for both good and bad. In this, it benefits immensely from the full-blooded performances of Hani Furstenberg as Hanna and Ishai Golan as her husband who treat it like the serious drama of relationships and community that it also is. It’s intriguing and shows that the Paz’s are interested not only in Judaism but in the nature and origin of monsters, not just in unleashing them (‘Jeruzalem’ had evidence of this too). Perhaps I wanted more head-crushing Golem devastation, but this is a thoughtful, considered and well-rounded tale about the uses and causes of monsters.

Gasper Noé, 2018, France

The surprise was that Noé was there to introduce the film. The opening question was from Alan Jones who declared how this film was receiving the best reviews of Noé’s careers, that is was generally getting great response, and then he asked, “So what went wrong?” Of course, Noé is notorious, loathed and heralded for being controversial and although the Twitter responses to ‘Climax’ have mainly been positive, I have also seen reactions bemoaning that this is not a horror film and should have not have closed the festival. All I know that I was fully engrossed and captivated and that then when I actually thought of the world around me, about two thirds into the film, I realised the women next to me had walked out and I hadn’t noticed: I guess that is an example of two differing responses.

It starts with the epilogue and end credits and then a series of talking heads introducing the diverse bunch of dancers we are about to meet in a practice hall surrounded by the harsh winter conditions outside. Then they come together and dance in what might be one of the greatest dance scenes ever filmed. And when the music starts, it never stops: this is a constantly sublime dance soundtrack (a highlight being Aphex Twins’ ‘Windowlicker’, one of my all-time favourites).There is no flash setting or context or props, just amazing moves and glides and contortions: Noé uses a typically long take which allows the dancers to perform without edits interrupting or creating false fluidity; and when the camera does move, it’s to gently prod and probe the performances with flowing slides between them. Synchronicity is not the whole game here, although they do that too, but it’s the individualism of each dancer that is prioritised and celebrated. And I was mesmerised from then on as the long takes deliver a real-time descent into madness when someone spikes the booze.

Then the outrageousness takes a nasty turn. PeterBradshaw says, “It is as if Noé has somehow mulched up the quintessence of dance, coke and porn together and squooshed it into his camera.” The acting of hysteria is something I’m usually averse too (hysteria is often mistaken for poignancy in film, which is why I can’t quite get along with Zulawski’s ‘Possession’), but this is about that. There is a long scene where Selva (Sofia Boutella) puts her hands down her tights in a kind of onanistic ecstasy and then, in the following moment, has this abruptly change to panic when she thinks her hands trapped: it’s moment that plays out the ups and downs of drug-induced moods that can change in a blink, and a convincing playing-out of the high and lows of hysteria. We don’t get to connect with characters and we know just enough about them to give their LSD nightmare some context. But this is not a film for that: it’s just following them around as the barriers to their civility, restraint and responsibility crumble. And the music keeps pumping.

Descents into madness and/or hell are standard in horror – and of course represented at this festival - and in this way ‘Climax’ fits the horror mould: it’s not a fall into an orgy of gore and Bosch-like terrors, but there’s nothing truly stretching the realms of plausibility. In this way it’s all the more unsettling. It’s not a character piece, but the various personalities come through enough to make it a tragedy that we start out at a place of ensemble exuberance and, when the barriers are down, fall into the realms of irresponsibility and debauchery. By the end, it falls into the realms of an upside down camera with strobing editing which left me wondering what the hell was going on and I gave up trying to decipher; it’s only at this final hurdle that Noé lets the camera interfere instead of observe. But otherwise, it’s formally engrossing with its long takes and convincingly lays out its improvisations and decline into cruelty in real time. But it’s true that from the evidence of the first half of the film that Noé would do just fine with a ensemble piece if he ever decided to step away from being a shockmeister. Perhaps the camera is searching too hard to find the next outrage. It’s conclusion that our civility is a tissue-thin construct is an old one, but this mixture of dance and decadence is vibrant and compelling where hell is on the dancefloor.

Friday, 7 September 2018

FRIGHTFEST day #4, 2018

Orson Oblowitz, 2018, USA

Beneath the clunky title is a reasonable minor thriller with enough suspense and slickness to keep interest. The programme says, “Two dysfunctional couples rent a modern luxury desert home for the weekend hoping to sort out their messed-up lives.” You see, that’s your problem right there: “a modern luxury desert home”, remotely located, plus you’re “dysfunctional” – that’s just asking for trouble. The film takes its time setting up its inner threat, laying out the domestic strife and prioritising characterisation so more context is given before the trouble starts. Then potential trouble knocks on the door in the shape of a woman who has broken down and just needs to use the phone. This gets their paranoia going and this is the film’s best sequence. Then there’s the external threat breaking in – the home invasion – and this is swift and, refreshingly, doesn’t linger to let bad dialogue rise to the surface. On the down side, the bad guys here are quite intriguing but this is never really satisfied; but maybe they are inriguing because they are given minimal time. It’s a crime thriller more than a slasher, which makes it a little different in current company. It’s decent and well executed with enough twists to keep things on edge, but it’s unlikely to greatly trouble you much afterwards.


Robert D Krzykowski, 2018, USA

With a title like that like that, I was expecting something more along the lines of ‘Puppet Master’ or ‘Frankenstein’s Army’, but then in the introduction the cast and crew started namedropping John Sayles and composer Joe Kraemer started citing John Willaims as an idol, which meant I quickly reassessed my expectations. Someone said this was like an episode of Spielberg’s ‘Amazing Stories’ and that’s certainly a fair comparison. 

Sam Elliot is the eponymous Calvin Barr, trying to live humbly as real American heroes who have killed the poster boy for fascism are prone to do. This part of the film is all about old age and that Elliot is great goes without saying. Aiden Turner plays Barr as a younger man, killing Hitler: a touch of spy gadgetry is fun and the romantic subplot is the kind that harks to bubblegum romance. We're American myth-making again. The film has a big streak of nostalgia, the kind that starts to coagulate early as this is all about former peaks in life and waning in old age.

Then, as an old man, Barr is approached to kill The Big Foot as it’s causing an illness that might spread throughout mankind, or at least America. As a fabulation, it’s an agreeably oddball conceit that swaps potential fun for earnestness. By the end, you may be moved or feel smothered with Kraemer’s score and the soft hues for its insistence on being emotional.


Quinn Lasher, 2018, USA

A somewhat by-the-numbers slasher when a family go to their secluded holiday home – you see, there’s your problem… - unaware that they have been watched there over the years by someone in the woods who is now ready to unleash his craziness. There are fairy-tale trimmings all the way through with a read thread guiding protagonists through the trees and whatnot, but this is just the kind of window-dressing that isn’t half as poignant as it thinks: that fairy-tales are kindred spirits to horror is old, old news. Its most risqué feature is putting two young girls in constant threat, but only in a TV Movie thriller way. It’s fluid and nicely filmed, but with only bland characters to root for against a mask-wearing maniac, there isn’t so much to get to grips with.

Demian Rugna, 2018, Argentina

You see, the thing I do like about ‘The Grudge’ series is that its premise is just an excuse for a series of scary set-pieces; it’s not so concerned with causes and resolution. There’s some of that to Rugna’s ‘Terrified’ with an entire neighbourhood suddenly suffering from malicious supernatural phenomena. Two paranormal investigators come to sort things out, but really they do nothing except get frightened – and that’s all good. In the paranormal investigation arena, it isn’t insultingly po-faced or obsessed with itself as ‘The Conjuring’ but just gets on with its scares. In the face of true supernatural force, what good would investigators actually do when there is no plot-convenience and a deux ex machina to resolve things? No, more importantly ‘Terrified’ concentrates on the scares. Oh, and there are plenty. And if you’re not unnerved, there’s plenty of creepiness.
The man under the bed/in the closet is unlikely to be forgettable. But it’s the boy corpse at the dinner table - just sat there in broad daylight - that I won’t be able to shake. An example of how well-known scares can still pack a punch when done correctly and with flare, with cutting away just at the right moment and perhaps lingering a little too long at times. All it’s interested in is a neighbourhood under siege by horror set pieces. ‘Terrified’ provides lots of fun in being a showcase for the genuinely unsettling.


Issa López, 2017, Mexico

It’s hard to think that this film, which has been so warmly received and whose worth and skill are obvious, had such trouble getting accepted, but that’s the story López tells. No one wanted it. But it was apparently taken under FrightFest’s wing and now it’s blooming. It came frontloaded with such a reputation that I dashed from ‘Terrified’ to the Predator statue at the top of The Empire’s stairs to queue for passholder tickets (I was second in line and got the very last ticket for the screening at The Prince Charles cinema). It’s easy to see where its emotional clout comes from as it’s based in the truth of street orphans in Mexico. There is a long history of coming-of-age cinema crossing over with horror – ‘The Secret of the Beehive’, ‘Celia’, ‘Class Trip’… oh, too many to mention – but the obvious reference is Guillermo del Toro in its particular mix of brutal realism and escapist fantasy, harsh truths mitigated with magic realism. Murder and dead kids mix with ghosts, animated toy bears and graffiti coming alive, for example. When her mother goes missing, abducted by the ruthless Huascas, a trail of blood follows Estrella (Paola Lara) everywhere – and indeed, she does seem to get people killed – and she falls in with a street gang for survival. The ostensible leader of this gang is the diminutive but determined Shine (Juan Ramón López) who is both threatened and fascinated by Estrella. When he pickpockets a mobile phone and a gun from one of the Huascas, a fatal run-in with the gang seems assured.

The kids are hunted and ignored and not even acknowledged except as victims by this underworld. There will be no adult help or protection. Despite this merciless context, the kids still find time to believe in wishes and find moments of fun. It’s so good that you won’t really won’t really care that the phone seems to stay charged by the power of narrative, or why the Huascas are so worried about it when the police really don’t want to anything to do with it. Or why the kids don’t just turn it off at important moments. Yet it’s only in the last act that the balance seems to tilt to insistence on magic realism at the expense of some obvious character motivation and behaviour; like Del Toro, ‘Tigers are not Afraid’ uses horror for sentiment that eventually forgoes reflection for escapism. Nevertheless, there is no doubt López has produced something affecting and unforgettable.

Issa López