Wednesday, 24 April 2019



Nicolas Pesce, 2018, USA

Nicolas Pesce’s follow up to ‘The Eyes of my Mother’ is another oddball affair and likely to prove unequivocally divisive. But if it’s one thing that seems clear just from these two features is that Pesce is following his own agenda and doesn’t mind being an acquired taste. His explorations into horror are the ingrowing kind, thoroughly opposed to the mainstream. 

“Can we eat first?”

‘Piercing’ begins with a striking montage of building miniatures. Like the Onetti brothers’ ‘Abrakadabra’, its aesthetic is clearly a homage to the ‘70s giallo, another growing genre trend after the wealth of ‘80s reverences. This means it also reuses music from ‘The Red Queen Kills Seven Times’ and ‘Tenebrae’: I guess that maybe we can thank Quentin Tarantino for making reusing the soundtracks from other films a trend – sometimes incongruously.* 

And then it becomes instantly queasy arthouse horror with a twitchy man hovering over a toddler with a knife. He doesn’t do it, but the urge is strong, so he rents a hotel room with the intention of murdering a prostitute. Like performance art, he mimes the murder for practise.  But then Mia Wasikowska turns up at the door and… things don’t go as planned. 

Christopher Abbot seems about to deliver a consummate performance of the meek-seeming killer, but Wasikowska then introduces something more playful and equally dangerous. If not dangerous, then unpredictable. The actors relish turning the tables on one-another within Naomi Munro’s sumptuous, slightly unreal art design. And all the time, the tone of Seventies giallo frames it all, the bold colours, the simultaneous perversion and flippancy.

Based on Ryū Murakami’s novel, ‘Piercing’ plays with assumptions until the audience is in the submissive role of wondering just who’s in charge. Rarely has S&M been played so openly and brazenly with the viewer as Pesce artfully removes one block after another from underneath until we are left as uncertain as can be. This is sly, adult material and very stylish. Steve Abrams is frustrated by 'Piercing' and that's as it should be, surely.  Of course, the ending will be the decider in dividing opinion, but it is completely in keeping with the S&M agenda and leaves the audience teetering on the edge of satisfaction. 

Yes, I am aware that Cattet and Forzani’s ‘Amer’ utilises the music of other films but that feels more in the service of giallo mash-up that ‘Amer’ is and not in the service of their vinyl collection.

Tuesday, 23 April 2019

10 Shocks & Scares

Here are 10 of my favourite shocks & scares, both drawn out and skin-jumpers.

(Mario Bava, 1977): 
Boy-into-man jump-scare.
So simple but so effective.

(Bobcat Goldthwait, 2013): 
In the tent.
When I saw this at FrightFest, a woman screamed and usually this might encourage a chuckle from others, but by that time the tension had us wound so thoroughly that nobody murmured a thing.

 (Pedro Amenabar, 2001)
The curtain.
Just a little thing, but thoroughly chilling.

(Damien Rugna, 2017)
The man under the bed and/or the corpse at the table.
A truly effective and fun dispenser of fright scenes.

5. JAWS 
(Stephen Spielberg, 1975)
Shark reveal.
Well, not seeing Bruce has been pretty damned scary up until that point, and then...

(John Landis, 1981)
Home invasion dream.
Never fails to unnerve me and scared me shitless as a boy. I mean, I was already freaked out by the moors scene, but then...

7. Dr WHO: The Talons of Weng-Chiang 
(David Mahoney, 1977)
Old-school scary puppet. Terrified me as a kid and once Mr. Sin’s true nature is revealed – something to do with being a pig-creature – as an adult I found something viscerally repulsive in him too.

(Robert Wise,1963) 
Whose hand? 
Well, the whole thing really, but this one moment is a classic.

(Mike Flanagan, 2018, NetFlix series)
The car jump-scare.
This is a jump-scare in the tradition of “Boo!” that the ‘Insidious’ and ‘The Conjuring’ franchises pedal, but this one actually caught me out. And that’s because it seemingly comes as a reaction to sibling squabbling and thereby also has resonance. It’s headlong to disappointment from then on and therefore far inferior to the other entries here. But it gets a mention because it fully worked on me and I jumped mile. 


(Daniel Bergman, 1992)
The swinging ghost.
Directed by his son, but written by Ingmar Bergman whose work has always seemed just a shadow away from horror. These moments often come without warning in otherwise perfectly realistic domestic dramas, and they’re all the more shocking and scary for being unexpected. 

Sunday, 14 April 2019

Pet Sematary

Pet Sematary

Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Wydmyer, 
2019, USA

A generic loving family buy a huuugge piece of Stephen King real estate, which means their land also includes an old Indian Burial Ground that brings the dead back to life. Within minutes, they’re experiencing jump-scares – a passing foreshadowing truck – and are quickly alerted to the “Pet Sematary” when a procession of horror kids marches through their land for a burial. It seems the estate agent missed out mentioning the “semetary”. These horror kids wear creepy masks and are all over the trailer, but actually, once they have proven their worthiness as memes and Halloween dress code, they disappear from proceedings. The burial ground has a wall of fallen trees that looks just as fake as the “scary tree” from ‘The Conjuring’, and beyond this is where the true zombie-making dirt lies, in the immense misty swamp and Native Land beyond.

Another remake (surely “reboots” are for reviving old franchises?) of a middling favourite, but it seems redundant to complain when Horror has always been the most cannibalistic genre, constantly reviving and regurgitating old titles. The trailer is, in fact, one of those that tells you everything and kind of misleads at the same time. We know it’s not Gabe as the zombie-kid this time because of the trailer and the poster, so the fake-out in the film that puts him peril is made somewhat redundant. In fact, there’s an underlying feeling that the whole enterprise seems to be ticking points off instead of getting under the skin. It’s a fair distance from the condescension of the aforementioned ‘The Conjuring’, but it’s on the same post code. The theme of grieving-leading-to-horror doesn’t feel more than a trope being perfunctorily marked so we can get on with the horror set-pieces. The only truly chilling moment is the bath-time corpse staples, and that’s in the trailer anyhow. Oh, and also the final moment and its implication, even though any chills are subsequently blared out with a cover of The Ramones' ‘Pet Sematary’.

With a little more emphasis on theme the horror would have been deepened. This is how films like Hereditaryand ‘A Hole in the Ground’ create more resonance and praise. For example, the death of a student and Amy Seimetz’s flashbacks and visions of her dead sister are almost affecting but give way to just being horror jump-scares. Being brought back from the beyond apparently makes the dead – who are seemingly an interconnected resentful mass – metaphysical and homicidal and therefore potentially intriguing, but this avenue also gets stunted. For a spook-kid given a low horror-voice to angrily lament and goad, there is the sense that Jeté Lawrence is capable of far more and therefore underserved: Jeff Buhler’s screenplay seems to be giving her generic horror kid dialogue but Lawrence’s performance seems far more soulful and insidious. The adults are solid but unremarkable. (But Peter Bradshaw is more positive.)

Kölsch and Wyndmeer’s previous film, ‘Starry Eyes’, is far more convincing in its psychology and, of course, there’s plenty of room to argue if Mary Lambert’s 1989 ‘Pet Sematary’ is better. There is a sense that a more troubling and vivid film is trying to emerge. And, just like King’s novel, it bails on truly expanding on the consequences of all this (it’s nasty but where does it go?).

Thursday, 11 April 2019



Josh and Jonathan Baker, 2018, USA 

Against a backdrop of low-income struggle and a scenery of deserted buildings, black teenager Eli goes scrapping and finds an alien rifle. Meanwhile, his white brother returns from prison to a tetchy father’s homecoming but still has issues with local and lethal lowlife. 

A Tough Love father, a wayward but fun older brother and a stripper with a heart-of-gold. A hint of “chosen one” syndrome. And a ray-gun. With all these elements, the Baker brothers’ ‘Kin’ acts as a full-blooded young male adult fantasy. In this sense, it’s best evaluated as young adult fiction that still has a lot of maturing and self-reflecting to do.

Besides this, the problem seems to be for many commentators that it’s also made up of a blend of genres and the argument is that it satisfies none. Part indie crime drama, part road journey, part sci-fi, part coming-of-age family drama. But such a mash-up is fine by me and keeps things on its toes. It reminds me of such eighties favourites as ‘Tron’, ‘The Last Starfighter’ and ‘Flight of the Navigator’ where a slightly dull and tatty real world gives way to special-effects and Chosen One excitement. I’m far more likely to raise an eyebrow buying into the idea that a ragtag group of bad guys would attack a police station; or that it probably stays too long in the nudity free strip-club where Jimmy (Jack Reynor) acts like an asshole and gets them into trouble. But the genre-blending that might not quite gel and yet marks it out as likable entertainment is surely a central pleasure of genre b-movies: the lack of genre mainstream conformity often redeems the failings and rough edges.

I’m amused at ‘Kin’ acquiring a “not present” grade on commonsensemedia for “consumerism” as we spend a long time in a strip club (but no actual stripping): surely the selling of objectified women qualifies? And then, of course, the central theme of “a magic gun makes boy heroic” is greatly problematic. The film is weak in self-reflection in these areas and leads Glenn Kenny to see it as “insufferable, self-seriously combining shut-in nerdiness with wannabe macho pyrotechnics.  It’s Bro Cinema in all the worst imaginable senses of the term.” Well, I wouldn’t say insufferable, more that it has b-movie charm despite these obvious flaws. I certainly found it less obnoxious than McG’s ‘The Babysitter’ (2017, NetFlix), another male teen fantasy (again, ‘Kin’ reminds me of those eighties young adult flicks). I also probably find it a less stupid male teen fantasy than ‘John Wick’. It helps that it is boosted by the inclusion of two veterans that know this turf well with Dennis Quaid and Jesse Franco, but it’s the unassuming appeal of Myles Truitt as young Eli that grounds the freewheeling drama.

Even with its streak of immaturity, ‘Kin’ still contains comic fun and charm, even if it is distinctly less than its promise.

Wednesday, 10 April 2019

Bird Box


Susan Bier, 2018, USA

The high concept end-of-the-world scenario this time is Sandra Bullock is pregnant but seemingly not quite the maternal type, preferring to paint and stay home rather than go out and start mothering (it’s the art/motherhood conflict). Then the apocalypse happens and people start seeing something that makes them either suicidal or homicidal. So don’t look… although it seems that whispers of temptation from your subconscious has a lot to do with it too. Soon Bullock is holed up with a house of mismatching and bickering survivors, including the archetypal John-Malkovich-is-an-asshole type.

It’s like the Talk Talk song Happiness is Easy  which points out that a part of religion’s key allure is the faith that the afterlife is better – so why not kill yourself? The threat in ‘Bird Box’ seems to be not only that the vision is sublime, but also the appeal of an (empty?) promise that you get to see your deceased love ones. Which casts Bullock’s trajectory to motherhood as a struggle against violence – to herself and others. The family dynamic becomes literally blindfolding yourself and trusting to luck. Or to the kindness of the narrative. And it plays on the themes of kindness and empathy whilst also check-listing that no-good-deed-goes-unpunished. But as the cast is whittled down, all this is filtered to Bullock opening her eyes to motherhood.

‘Bird Box’ was/is a NetFlix phenomenon, the self-perpetuating kind made possible by social media and memes and the “Bird Box challenge” (where you can play at being blind!). It’s just dangerous enough to mark genre credentials and yet safe enough to be a crossover hit – for the big screen, it was rated “R”, but it’s average stuff for a horror fan. More than many NetFlix originals, this feels like a TV movie.

Based on Josh Malerman’s novel, this will inevitably be compared to A Quiet Placein that survival depends more-or-less upon denial of one of the senses. But blindness is surely harder to convince with because, even if we accept the rapids, when they are fleeing through woods and not constantly tripping or running into trees it relies more on suspension of belief. Perhaps the “blind” car expedition for food is the best horror set-piece as it taps into something truly unpalatable – as well as being great promotion for proximity sensors. Bier doesn’t take us close to the detail of being blind, mostly rendering the experience from mid-shots or in brief cuts, such as small moments of blindfolded camera; she never truly finds a way of solving the problem of characters not being able to see in a visual medium which deflates any terror.

‘Bird Box’ is serviceable and slick then, if average, and the blindfolds provide a vivid meme that audiences have already run with. But there’s not enough in the execution to overcome its obvious weaknesses –where it differs crucially from ‘A Quiet Place’ – or the questions that Amy Nicholson lists: 

"However, the back of the audience’s brain is stuck trying to figure out things like: are the monsters hunting their prey, or is it just impersonal? How do the roommates get rid of the corpses? And how offended will the American Psychiatric Association be that Bird Box’s secondary fiends are mental patients who, according to the film, can’t be driven crazy by the creatures because they’re already insane?"

And now falling into the mode of cheesy reviewer’s-punning-punchline: you’ll be looking for more.