Sunday, 8 October 2017

ESCAPE ROOM

NOT THAT IT MATTERS, BUT SPOILERS

Quite clearly, they're not trying any more. Quite clearly, they're not even pretending that a halfway decent movie was ever on the cards. Quite clearly, they just don't care about any semblance of quality or style, any semblance of interesting character or narrative. Quite clearly, so long as there's enough horror completists out there willing to watch absolutely anything with a bit of gore or a bit of violence and a couple of hot chicks, the job's as good as done and they don't need to bother doing anything better. When did audience standards slip so low that crap - there are few better words for it - like Escape Room was considered acceptable? When did people stop asking "is that really the best you (or I) can do?"

The phenomenon of the Escape Room is new to me (though a quick Google reveals that there's one not too far away from my town): a sealed environment in which a group of people have to solve a series of puzzles against the clock. In this particular instance Skeet Ulrich's escape room (called Deranged for no obvious reason) is somewhat enlivened by the presence of a mysterious Skull Box he's purchased from Sean Young's ephemera/junk shop: it contains a demon that possesses the struggling actor who's playing the sack-headed monster chained to the wall and proceeds to unspectacularly off the quartet of idiots who've just been locked in...

Why does the demon possesses the one person whose movement is restricted? Why, when it's finally clear what's going on, doesn't Ulrich at least reel back the chains from the outside? Why do the hapless idiots locked in the room waste so much time on very obvious clues? More damagingly, why do we yet again have to have a couple of horror nerds arguing endlessly about classic horror movies when their own film is not, and never had a chance of being, anywhere near that league? You haven't earned the right to casually namedrop You're Next and John Carpenter's The Thing unless your own film isn't even vaguely competent, and for all your obvious horror geekery it absolutely isn't here. Contains strobing.

*

Thursday, 5 October 2017

UNHINGED

CONTAINS SPOILERS AND... WHATEVER, I'M NOT SURE I CAN HONESTLY BE BOTHERED ANY MORE

The standard studio wisdom appears to be that you remake the great movies because they're the famous ones and it'll make lots of money; no-one expects them to be as good as the originals because they never are but people will still watch them, and modern audiences haven't seen the earlier versions anyway because no-one is interested in movies more than two years old. Personally I'd rather they remade the rubbish films instead because the bar is so low that a better film is pretty much guaranteed. Don't remake A Nightmare On Elm Street, remake Zoltan Hound Of Dracula where there's room for improvement and people will still watch it because clearly they'll watch anything.

The flaw in the plan is when they obligingly remake something utterly worthless and still make a steaming great Farage of things. For absolutely no good reason beyond its unwarranted inclusion on the Video Nasties list from the early eighties, they've chosen the festival of rampant mediocrity that is Unhinged. (Maybe a Bloody Moon remake is already in the works somewhere and the owners of Night Of The Bloody Apes wanted too much money.) In this they've not only chosen the dullest and most miserable load of old nothing, but have done it so badly that they've failed to clear a bar that Ant-Man would have trouble slithering under. Four annoying American girlies on a road trip to a wedding get lost in the wilds of England and have to spend a few days at a remote farmhouse; bad stuff happens.

The all-new Unhinged has nothing to commend it: a complete lack of visual flair (in fairness, the original was scarcely Hitchcock), performances somehow even less expressive than a Mind The Gap tannoy announcement, characters it's impossible to root for even when they're being chased around drab woodlands or being tortured in the woodshed by a mystery maniac. In the end, for all the fact that the original's writer-director Don Gronquist is credited on this one it's actually got very little to do plotwise with the 1982 film (the trailer bills it as a "remake of the 1983 video nasty classic", not only getting the year wrong but redefining the word "classic" to mean "thing") beyond the central premise of a car load of idiots stuck in a house with a killer. It's a premise that's scarcely innovative but even so, if you can't make anything better than this out of it you probably shouldn't even bother trying. In the end it just makes you wonder whether you actually need, or even want, to watch cheapo schlock horror movies any more.

*

KINGSMAN: THE GOLDEN CIRCLE

CONTAINS SOME SPOILERS AND SOMETHING I CAN'T QUITE PUT MY FINGER ON, OO-ER MISSUS

There's a scene in this second Kingsman movie, about which a lot has already been said: an attempt to top the alleged anal sex joke at the end of the first one with a perhaps overly graphic gag about fingering: specifically the digital insertion of a tracking device into a lady's crevices for dubious plot purposes. I'm not about to go in to bat defending this scene: it isn't at all necessary (can't she just swallow it?) and it isn't funny, any more than the bum-based payoff from the first film. But it is indicative of the film's attitude to women in general and its lack of any sense of shame or guilt over that attitude.

Still, there's plenty of fun to be had with Kingsman: The Golden Circle, kicking off with a dizzying fight and car chase through London between Eggsy (Taron Egerton) and a rejected Kingsman trainee. Later that same evening, missiles streak out of nowhere and destroy the entire Kingsman organisation, from the tailor's shop to the country training base to Eggsy's own flat. The villainess is Poppy (Julianne Moore), multi-trillionaire drugs dealer scheming to get her products legalised by contaminating the drugs with a poison to which only she has the antidote. The only survivors of the Kingsman firm (just Egerton and Mark Strong) have to team up with their American equivalent, Statesman, run by Jeff Bridges with Halle Berry and Channing Tatum in support....

It's nonsense, obviously: Poppy specifically takes out Kingsman yet not only ignores Statesman but also mysteriously ignores the CIA, FBI, MI5, Interpol, and every other national and international intelligence in the world. It's also nonsense that they've managed to get the could-not-be-deader Galahad (Colin Firth) back to life with a bag of magic jelly, because he was the best thing about the first film and they've realised they made a mistake in killing him off. Worse, though, is the boysy, blokey attitude to women as sex objects, staying behind in the office or at home while The Men go off and have all the fun fighting and chasing and blowing things up and fingering hot chicks at a rock festival. Eggsy's princess girlfriend (Hanna Alstrom) is off screen most of the time, the American tech wizard (Halle Berry) never leaves the HQ, and fellow British agent Roxy (Sophie Cookson) gets one solitary scene in her bedroom before being blown up, and the only woman of any significance is Julianne Moore's villain. It's the guys who do all the exciting stuff - even Sir Elton John, of all people, gets to kungfu a couple of disposable minions to a pulp. (It's been quite a year for rubbish celebrity cameos in blockbusters and this is every bit the equal of David Beckham and Paul McCartney except that there's a hell of a lot more of it this time around.)

And yet... as a rubbish popcorn action movie for unreconstructed blokey blokes it's kind of big stupid fun and it doesn't have the dead hand of psychological angst (a post-Bourne trend that's plagued rubbish popcorn action franchises for years, from Batman to Bond to Doctor Who) weighing it down by pretending it's Serious Drama. Things go bang, people get attacked by robot dogs, people get fed through a meat mincer, people get cut in half with laser bullwhips: the film knows exactly what it's doing and for whom it's doing it. I don't think it's as good as the first one: I could have done without the brasher American angle dominating the peculiarly British charm of the original, but its flaws certainly weren't enough to get me angry and I had enough knucklehead entertainment to carry me through the dodgy passages. That said, maybe enough is enough now and they should stop while they're slightly ahead.

***

Wednesday, 20 September 2017

A GHOST STORY

CONTAINS EEEEK! SPOILERS

Don't worry: this isn't a scary film at all. I mean, it's obviously a horror film, and it's a film with a ghost in it - that much is on the poster and in the title - but it's a safe bet that you absolutely won't find what's on screen scary. Funny, quirky, sad, perhaps. Behind the screen, the ideas behind the story, that's the troubling territory. A Ghost Story is a ghost story for ghosts: a ghost story from the ghost's perspective. And if this is how we come back, it's utterly terrifying.

C and M (Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara) are a young, moderately happy couple whose average, everyday domestic relationship is shattered when he's killed in a car smash (this isn't a spoiler, as it takes place in the first ten minutes of the film). Rising off the morgue trolley, he has the chance to go towards the light but instead returns as an invisible, inaudible presence in the house. Invisible to everyone else, but visible to us as the simplest and most old-fashioned ghost: hidden under a sheet with eyeholes cut out. Silently watching M go through her grief, standing unobserved next to her... until she meets someone else and eventually moves out of the house, crucially leaving a handwritten note tucked into the woodwork as she leaves. The contents of this note become the driving force in his (after)life and he ends up worrying away at the tiny crack in the paint to find this sliver of paper...

Meanwhile, real life goes on as a family move in to the house - and he's still there. Years go by and the house changes hands again - and he's still there. Alone and silent under a sheet. For how long? For ever? An apparently eternal, inescapable nonexistence. Perhaps until, as is helpfully pointed out by one of the house's later tenants, the vaporisation of the Earth in some six billion years' time. Or maybe, not even then...

It's a fantastically glum film, pared right down to the basics: a 4:3 aspect ratio (with round corners), long takes with a static camera in which very little happens, one location, very low budget. Yet it's mesmerising throughout, enjoyable without having any laughs in it at all (the only actual joke is the name of the production company), slow without ever being dull, and genuinely sad. Granted, I think I may have missed the point from which things ultimately resolve themselves, and the rules governing how much interaction C can have with the physical world aren't entirely clear, but those are minor quibbles: this is a fascinating, (literally) deadpan, non-horror horror film. I enjoyed it immensely.

****

Monday, 18 September 2017

MOTHER!

contains! some! major! spoilers?

First off, let's dispense with the supposedly lower-case title malarkey: many people are referring to Darren Aronofsky's latest as mother!, for no apparent reason than because that's how it appears on the end credits. Well, so do all the names on the title cards at the end, and we don't refer to jennifer lawrence or javier bardem, because that just looks stupid, so in the absence of any solid, unanswerable reason why it shouldn't be capitalised (auteurial affectation doesn't cut it), I'm capitalising it as Mother!. I'll give you the exclamation mark, but don't push your luck.

Secondly, just what the hell is it? Horror? Allegory? Arthouse ramblings? All of the above. I don't think there's any doubt it's a horror movie: it's pure nightmare, particularly in its later scenes, with some images and moments that easily push it into the 18 certificate bracket, and it pretty much starts at a pitch of awkwardness and discomfort and proceeds downwards from there. Perhaps wisely, the publicity has been centred around the first act, which is more an unsettling drama in which the idyllic lives of Him and Mother (no-one has a name beyond their actual function, though Mother is actually Him's partner/wife) are disrupted by two strangers. Him (Javier Bardem) is a blocked poet, Mother (Jennifer Lawrence) has restored their massive rural mansion from its burned-out original state. Suddenly Man and subsequently Woman (Ed Harris, Michelle Pfeiffer) turn up out of (literally) nowhere and are initially welcomed by Him, to Mother's increased concern. Then Younger Brother and Oldest Son arrive...

From there both Mother and Mother! descend into a nightmare of escalating madness as strangers arrive at the house en masse and systematically wreck the place, while Mother tries vainly to cope with their needs and demands (you can see her hair getting greyer as the scene progresses) even as the house starts to collapse around them. And that's only the first act of the film - the second, madder and more extreme half concern Mother's pregnancy and the birth of her son. Specifically, it's what happens after that birth that leads to the most unpleasant and shocking scenes: suffice to say that if you're in the process of having children or have recently done so, don't see this film. The entire film is centred around Mother, with Lawrence almost never off screen and the camera frequently hovering over her shoulder.

Much has already been written in director's statements and the dreaded broadsheet think-pieces about exactly what Mother! is an allegory of: Creation, Adam And Eve, mankind's destruction of Mother Earth - everything on Earth was beautiful until People came along and destroyed it. Him is God and Mother is Mother Nature. Or maybe it's about drugs or oil or The Patriarchy or the act and cost of artistic creativity. For all I know it's actually about the Power Rangers (Him's precious crystal might as well be a reference to their Zeo Crystal from which all life is supposed to spring) - yes, I'm obviously being facetious, but is it that much MORE ridiculous than the Dan Brown-level symbolology of what the frog represents or the symbol on Ed Harris' cigarette lighter?

Look: if I'd known I was basically sitting an exam I'd have done some revision. I'm not an intellectual, I didn't go to University, but I'm not a knuckle-dragging imbecile who needs everything spoonfed in simple words. I made it through Hard To Be A God in one go, for goodness' sake. Sure, I didn't much enjoy the experience, but at least I was open to it. And I think it's great that major companies like Paramount are putting difficult, challenging and unusual films into the marketplace, and pushing them in wide releases rather than a couple of Curzons and the ICA - although if Mother! doesn't connect with audiences then this probably won't happen again and cinemas will play safe with a fourteenth week of the latest Batman instead.

But I also think there's no shame in having to look these things up afterwards to find out exactly what the hell that was all about. I had to do it with Michael Haneke's Hidden (I totally missed the supposed reveal in the final shot) and it wasn't until this year that Mulholland Dr. clicked with me courtesy of a featurette that explained how I (and others) had actually got the reality/fantasy divide backwards. Now I understand this, I find I like the film more. In the case of Mother! I think it's partly down to the publicity which completely misrepresents it: the trailer makes it look like an uneasy four-character drama and ignores the more visceral and shocking second hour when logic and reality break down into apparently random chaos, and the UK posters similarly give no hint of what watching the film is actually like. (I also think it's entirely irrelevant that this Cinemascore thing, an audience-based approval system of which I was entirely unaware until this weekend, gave it the lowest possible F rating, putting it in such shameful company as Bug and Wolf Creek.)

Look, it's clearly not rubbish. At least, it's clearly not rubbish in the way that, say, a Fred Olen Ray film is rubbish or a Don Dohler film is rubbish. You can't fault Mother!'s full-tilt committed performances or the grainy 16mm photography, or the way it builds its orgies of destruction not once, but twice, and presumably you can't fault it for doing exactly what Darren Aronofsky wanted to do. (That said, Fred Olen Ray movies always did exactly what he wanted.) But did Aronofsky want me to feel so angry and depressed by his film? Did he want me to leave the cinema feeling worse than I did leaving Fist Fight or Chips? And I've liked some of Aronofsky's films in the past: I liked Black Swan and Noah and The Fountain. Not this time, and I refuse to accept that it's entirely my fault. It's a divisive film, and the whole point of divisive films is that there are camps on both sides.

Okay, my initial response might have calmed down a bit since Friday afternoon, when I came out of the cinema absolutely hating the film with an almost tangible fury. But I can't feel that I've warmed to it over the weekend. Sure, it's demonstrably not a terrible film, but it made me feel terrible as I watched it and I still feel terrible towards it now. If that makes me an idiot, well, okay, you're entitled to that view. If that means I don't ever get to be a "proper" reviewer, so be it. It doesn't make me wrong. For me it remains a one-star film: obviously not rubbish (which is why I haven't tagged it as such) but among the most frustrating, upsetting and infuriating films of the last however many years. And not, as occasionally happens, in a good way.

*

Tuesday, 12 September 2017

PLAYGIRL KILLER

CONTAINS SPOILERS AND SINGING

The trouble with Netflix (or at least the main trouble) is that there's really not much on there: certainly not enough to justify the sub, which is why I'm likely cancelling once I've seen the half-dozen titles on my watch list that aren't on DVD. If you're looking for anything odd, anything a bit strange, anything made before 1980, then you're out of luck because the murky byways of the movie swamp really isn't their territory. The trouble with Amazon Prime, on the other hand, is that there's too much: hundreds of old spaghetti Westerns, Euro obscurities, Hong Kong martial arts movies, 70s drive-in cheapies and the occasional bonkers giallo, some presented in the wrong ratio and/or with sub-third generation VHS picture quality, and little of it available anywhere else. Occasionally a gem will turn up (I'm actually having some mindless fun with Terence Hill and Bud Spencer knockabouts) but it's sometimes a chore wading through the almost daily additions of yet more junk. First world problems.

Playgirl Killer is a scarcely noteworthy thriller-type thing from 1966 in which a man kills his girlfriend with a speargun because she wouldn't sit still while he tried to sketch her. Going on the run, he eventually turns up at the home of two sisters, one of whom has just left for college with her boyfriend (Neil Sedaka in what the IMDb suggests is his first, last and only dramatic screen role). The other is a colossal tease forever wandering around in her skimpies; she hires him to help close up the house for the season, but then she won't sit still while he tries to sketch her. A woman turns up at the door in response to a job advertisement, but she won't sit still while he....

I kind of like the fact that someone's dug this twaddle out of the vaults and put it online, but I can't figure out to what end: is there that much money to be made from it? Was there a huge clamour for Playgirl Killer to be disinterred for a whole new generation to be bored senseless by? It's all very tiresome and it never comes to any kind of life: if you nodded off for half an hour you honestly wouldn't feel like you'd missed anything. There are three absolutely horrible songs (two rock numbers in the first twenty minutes, one of them performed by Sedaka, and the third one is in French) and a fantastically annoying jazz score full of sleazy sax that does nothing for what we're supposed to call the drama, none of the characters are interesting and it's not even fun as throwaway drive-in trash. Honestly not worth the effort involved in clicking the Watch Now button. (Incidentally, Amazon's artwork bears no resemblance to anything in the film.)

*

Sunday, 3 September 2017

NIGHTWORLD

CONTAINS SOME SPOILERS

To be honest, you're asking for trouble setting any horror movie over one of the seven gates of hell or one of the seven doors of death. Such things are the stomping ground of wonky Italian horrors of the late 70s and early 80s, particularly Lucio Fulci, whose unique blend of morbid darkness, excessive gore and plots that make no sense has always been a curiously agreeable mixture. The Beyond is even known as Seven Doors Of Death in America, and for all that's wrong with that film the bar is set pretty high.

Nightworld is too well-behaved to go down the Fulci route, save for the morbid darkness. It's mostly goreless (it would most likely get away with a 15, and not a top-end one at that) and its logic more or less hangs together except on one point. Following personal tragedies, Brett (Jason London) takes a job as a security guard at a Sofia apartment block, a shining example of a building you would never want to set foot in in the real world. There's apparently no-one else in the block except for a maid, who is only seen once: no-one appears to actually live there and underground there's a vast hangar that is kept permanently locked. So what are the occasional shadows that show up so briefly on the CCTV feed?

The point at which the logic collapses is when Brett calls it in to his superiors, who respond by sending in an elderly blind man (Robert Englund, having fun) to investigate what's on a video tape. It does also falls victim to the old trope of characters encountering people they know to be long dead but suddenly not being bothered by the fact that they're ghosts or zombies, and wanting to stay with them rather that doing the sensible thing and getting the hell away from them. But it's generally pretty decent: a nice creepy setting, dark and doom-laden, with a good sense of imminent apocalypse, and I enjoyed it enough.

***

Saturday, 2 September 2017

MAYHEM

CONTAINS SPOILERS

I used to work in offices. I still do, if and when the agencies hire me to do so, and my particular skill set is solid if admittedly a bit low-level. I've never been one for climbing the ladder, jockeying for a promotion or a better parking space or an office that doesn't overlook the dumpsters. The rat race is for rats, and if everyone else wants to drive themselves barmy for the sake of a shinier desk and access to the cappuccino machine on the fifth floor, go for it. In truth I've only ever really done the grunt work at the bottom: support jobs making sure that the people on the next pay grade up can do their jobs properly. Hell, somebody has to and I'm mostly pretty good at it. (Please contact me directly regarding any appropriate opportunities in the Milton Keynes and Bedford areas.)

There are three separate threads in Joe Lynch's Mayhem. Derek (Steven Yuen) is a middle-ranking wonk at a large law firm who's set up as the fall guy for a corporate balls-up and summarily fired. Secondly, Melanie (Samara Weaving) suddenly turns up at the office to get an extension on her imminent home foreclosure. Thirdly, and most importantly, a rage virus has suddenly infected the building: its victims lose their conscience and inhibitions, enhancing and reinforcing their existing negative traits to the point of violent, destructive and/or sexual savagery...

Structured like a computer game, in which the two wronged parties have to ascend the higher levels of the building to take on the final Boss, Mayhem is a lot of exceptionally violent fun with plenty of blood splatter and bone-crunching fight scenes. The virus' effects don't seem consistent: some people become unreasoningly aggressive, senior management become even colder and more ruthless, while Derek and Melanie seem to maintain self-control - the gag is that he created the legal precedent that sufferers of the virus are not guilty of any crimes they commit under its influence, yet they seem to be perfectly aware of what they're doing throughout.

It's blackly funny, the headpunching mayhem is well-staged and there's enough of the Author's Message - the rewards of big business are hugely tempting but it will cost you your soul - to give the carnage some depth. In the cheery but grisly manner of Lynch's Wrong Turn 2 it's very entertaining: more visceral than something like Dementamania and less grossout than My Bloody Banjo. And, particularly for those of us cubicle drones who've worked in offices for clueless managers who absolutely needed an almighty smack in the mouth, there's an extra layer of if-only glee. Enjoyed it enormously.

****

TRAGEDY GIRLS

#ContainsSpoilers

I don't really get social media. I mean, I do have a small online presence, and I occasionally get a "like" or a retweet, but mostly I use it to keep in some kind of virtual touch with people I know and pimp my bloglinks like this one (to no real effect, I should add). The idea of living and measuring your life by how many total strangers uptick and forward your contributions to the infinity of hashtags and forums and upper case bellowing, no matter how banal or ignorant or incorrectly spelled, seems to me no more logical than rating and ranking people by their shoe size or what they're allergic to.

Sadie (Brianna Hildebrand - a magnificent name in itself) and McKayla (Alexandra Shipp) are the Tragedy Girls: a couple of vapid, empty, soulless high school teenagers with a vapid, empty, soulless podcast thing about death and serial killers, even as an actual serial killer is active in the area. In a surprise opening, the girls capture and imprison him, but it's all part of a grand plan to continue his work for the benefit of higher ratings for their show and their own personal fame. But the hint of romance between Sadie and their editor/technical whizz (Jack Quaid) - who also happens to be the son of the local Sheriff - might break the team up. And then the serial killer escapes...

The two girls' surnames are Cunningham and Hooper, ticking off two slasher franchises immediately, and the serial killer's surname is Lehmann because there's a heavy dose of Heathers and high school clique movies in there as well. But yet again, yet again, there's absolutely no-one to root for or empathise with, no story arc worth following, nothing to connect with under the surface. That surface may be pretty and glossy and colourful, but yet again there's absolutely no reason why I should care. I ended up looking for interest in the supporting characters - like the bespectacled Plain Jane on the Prom Committee - because I wasn't getting anything from any of the leads.

There's an absence of morality that makes Tragedy Girls hard to stomach and harder to enjoy, and the cheery tone of its casual murders sits oddly with the idea that we're supposed to like or admire McKayla or Sadie. Granted that it's brash and slick and heavy on the splattery gore, and there is some satire in there about the social media obsessions of the millennial generation, but the film seems to want to be a celebration rather than a condemnation when there's nothing to celebrate and everything to condemn. Their final body count is ahead even of Jason's or Freddy's whole franchises, and the cheeriness of it all left me wondering what the point was, and why we're expected to want to spend the evening in the company of such appalling individuals. I didn't, and found it an increasingly uncomfortable watch with no heart. Presumably that's what it set out to be, in which case: congratulations. I really found it hard to stomach.

**

LEATHERFACE

CONTAINS SPOILERS AND IS IT OVER YET?

Questions: how does a film with this level of blood, gore, murder, death, shrieking, insanity, brutality and evisceration manage to be so staggering, stunningly, spectacularly dull? How can the directors of the original Inside have come up with ninety minutes of trashy, ultraviolent, headbanging mayhem that are so thoroughly devoid of any interest or excitement whatsoever? How can anyone make an eighth trip to the Texas Chain Saw Massacre well that, believe it or not, brings forth even less than the rubbish 2013 3D version? It's remarkable how ineffective cranking everything up to eleven can be.

Leatherface is another origins story: an Early Years prequel of how the monstrous chainsaw-wielding cannibal got that way (which ignores 2006's The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning). In this version of events the young Jedediah Sawyer was removed from his family home as a child and promptly locked up in an asylum, but years later his ghastly mother (Lili Taylor, probably the best thing in the film) engineers a mass escape in which four inmates and a nurse taken hostage make their way across what's supposed to be Texas towards the family homestead, killing as they go. Meanwhile an embittered Sheriff (Stephen Dorff) is on their trail, since Jed was responsible for his daughter's brutal death in the opening reel...

The first trouble is that until five minutes from the end of the movie we don't know which of the group will eventually become Leatherface (the poster artwork is not entirely honest in that regard). Hell, in these post-Jodie Whittaker days you don't know if this reboot might even switch the character's gender just for the fun of it. Secondly, the whole point of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is that there isn't any backstory or exposition for Leatherface, The Gas Man or any of the unhinged family: they were just inexplicable, maniacal forces of evil, and shining a light on them only diminishes their status as nightmare figures. Like the later entries that sought to explain Jason, Freddy and Michael Myers, the film weakens its monsters by exploring them. The whole point of horror movies is the darkness and shadow, be it Leatherface or Castle Dracula, and the more you can see the less you fear.

It's loud, it's hysterical, and a lot of people die bloodily, but it's all pointless because at no point do we care. For all the death and violence there's no emotional connection, no human contact: it's just a succession of nasty set pieces in which horrible people are horrible to each other and everyone else they meet. Sure, some of the brutality is well staged, but to what effect? I'm perfectly happy with splattery horror movies in which a bunch of people get messily killed, but usually there's someone in there to care about, someone whose story arc is worth following and whose character can generate some small empathy. Not in this case: it's bleak, nasty and senseless, without any semblance of warmth or even the darkest humour, and for all the upfront gore and yeehawing hillbilly trash it has none of the demented, genuinely terrifying impact of Tobe Hooper's original.

*

BETTER WATCH OUT

CONTAINS MAJOR SPOILERS AND MAJOR, MAJOR HATE

Sometimes it's almost scary how comprehensively the rest of the army seems to be marching out of step. Some years ago I was the only person in the room not to fall in love with Hobo With A Shotgun and now it's happened again: absolutely everyone else was having a great time and I grew steadily more convinced that somehow they were watching a completely different film. Where everybody else was enjoyed a dark Christmas-tinged psycho horror comedy I was glimpsing an alternate universe with a screening of a diametrically opposite movie.

Better Watch Out starts off with the expected tropes of the modern Christmas horror film: the well-heeled suburban mansion (that could comfortably accommodate a family of fifteen), lots of snow, sleigh bells and carols on the soundtrack, even though the time of year is largely irrelevant to the action. The parents are out for a pre-Christmas social get-together, leaving their twelve-year-old Luke and his geeky best friend Garret in the care of foxy babysitter Ashley. Initially there are a few hints of genial and cheery but unsettling horror, such as establishing Ashley's fear of spiders, fleshing out twelve-year-old Luke's inappropriate lust for her as he actively romances her with candlelit meals and highly inappropriate conversation, until suddenly it seems to swerve into a home invasion movie with bricks through the window and someone prowling around upstairs with a shotgun...

And then twelve-year-old Luke (sorry to keep bringing up his age, but it's important) punches Ashley down the stairs, ties her to a chair with duct tape and reveals himself as a leery, repugnant sociopath who's been manipulating events the whole time and will stop at nothing to have Ashley to himself, even to the extent of killing her current boyfriend. It's a sudden dive into what would be very uncomfortable territory even if Luke was a grown adult: an outwardly charming but inwardly callous and unfeeling (and casually murderous) sexual predator drooling over a barely legal high school girl is awkward enough; a pre-teen dancing those steps far more so.

Much is made, for some reason, of Home Alone, specifically whether Daniel Stern's character would have survived being hit in the face with a paint can (leading to Better Watch Out's alleged highlight), which is odd because the Macauley Culkin movie that springs to mind is actually the The Good Son. This comes across like a tinsel-decked version of The Good Son but played for laughs, although it's never actually funny because the film is so much in love with its pubescent villain and his brilliantly meticulous schemes that even a last-minute twist that might undo all his victories doesn't redeem it, and certainly can't redeem him. With a tired motivation for twelve-year-old Luke's moral compass (he wasn't hugged enough as a child, boo-hoo) and a genial tone that's bizarrely pitched as seasonal feelgood but wildly unsuited to the icky sexual obsession of its twelve-year-old lead, it's a film that I (apparently alone) found entirely impossible to like. Better Watch Out? Better Still, Don't.

*

Monday, 21 August 2017

ANNABELLE: CREATION

CONTAINS SOME SPOILERS AND EEEEEK!!!

Most horror movies aren't scary. Some of them can be creepy, racking up the tension by utilising the darkness and the quiet; many of them are just happy to make you jump (even if it's the old standbys of a cat leaping into frame or a sudden loud noise) and a few can be actually revolting with a full-on splatter grossout. Very, very few are actually frightening to the extent that you want to pause the DVD for a moment to put the lights on, as with Lake Mungo and The Last Will And Testament Of Rosalind Leigh. The first Insidious managed this brilliantly: I had to have lights on in the flat for a few nights afterwards. Later entries haven't had that same impact in me. Sure, the Insidious sequels were solidly crafted and satisfyingly creepy, as were the two Conjuring films and the first Annabelle. (Incidentally, I was wrong when I thought there was nowhere they could really take the Annabelle idea!)

Annabelle: Creation is a prequel, in which a group of orphaned children are taken in by a kind-hearted toymaker and his reclusive wife (Anthony LaPaglia, Miranda Otto). Twelve years ago they'd lost their beloved daughter in a car accident but now they're opening up the house for half a dozen girls whose orphanage has closed. The only rule is never to go into that locked room. But of course some of the girls do, and inside there's a wardrobe with a mysterious doll inside... Because vintage dolls are always, always unsettling, with their glass eyes and sickly grins: there's something seemingly almost evil about them. And when they chose the prop doll for The Conjuring and Annabelle they picked what is probably the freakiest-looking monster ever to grace a toyshop's shelves.

Director David F Sandberg (who made Lights Out last year) knows how to use the darkness, directing your attention to the vague, out of focus shapes and shadows behind the characters. He also knows how to time the Boo! moments and, when the time comes, punch up the pace as the evil gets loose and, as a result, the film works terrifically well. Maybe it loses a little oomph towards the end when we see the demon thing, which is again Joseph Bishara (composer for most of these films, though curiously not this one) in the black monster suit, just as the first Insidious took its foot off the pedal for the last act, but for the most part it's effective throughout and as a bonus it ties up nicely to the start of Annabelle itself (there's also a post-credits sting leading up to the next film in the franchise). Sure it's not doing anything wildly radical or hugely innovative, but what it is doing - slow burn scares with a creepy doll in a creepy old house - it's doing extremely well and I enjoyed it enormously.

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