Saturday, 31 October 2015

THE INTERVIEW

CONTAINS SPOILERS AND DEEP DEPRESSION

Exactly a quarter of a century ago I was at Art College, a mature student on a Media Studies course (for all the good it did), and right across the hall from our main classroom was a gents lavatory, the single cubicle door of which bore the following biro-scrawled graffito: "For God's Sake Write Something Funny". I don't recall anyone ever going along with this appeal; I don't believe anyone ever attempted a witty riposte. But that single sentence has stuck with me while a lot of the classroom bibble about Stan Brakhage and Maya Deren has faded like a dull dream. Write Something Funny. And I'm always reminded of this every time I sit down with a comedy film. Make me laugh. It's really quite amazing how often they fail at what is a very simple task.

One of the problems with The Interview - above and beyond the mere handicap of Seth Rogen being one of the least comedic comedians currently walking the Earth - is that the circus surrounding its original release has completely overshadowed the film itself. Was North Korea really behind the Sony hacking and the threats to blow up any cinemas that dared to screen it a year ago? Or was it just the marketing department thinking up desperate new tactics to get people to watch a very, very stupid film which they knew would die at the box-office without a high-profile fillip? "See The Interview or the terrorists have won" is only a sliver away from "Buy Thompson's Toothpaste or the terrorists have won" - grotesquely inappropriate even if you're not engaged in a war on terror. If The Interview does make it into the history books rather than fading quickly into obscurity in the bowels of Netflix and the DVD shelves in Cash Converters, it'll be for the controversy rather than the content.

You would think that the untrammelled excesses of absolute rulers, when juxtaposed with liberal Western cynicism, would make for fertile satire. In this case the totalitarian whackjob is Kim Jong-Un, and the decadent imperialist pigdogs are an egotistical TV talkshow host (James Franco) and his producer (Seth Rogen, also the writer and co-director), whose lightweight Hollywood gossip show is apparently one of the Great Leader's favourite shows. But when our idiot heroes secure an interview with him, the CIA step in and persuade them to assassinate him for The Greater Good....

The trouble is the film isn't really interested in scalpel-like political satire. It's easier to just do the usual crowd-pleasing gags about gays, poo, willies and bums (one long sequence involves Rogen's character having to insert a metal cylinder full of ricin up his bottom). The nearest point of comparison is actually The Dictator, in which Sacha Baron similarly resorted to the lowest brow of humour rather than shine any acerbic light on the atrocities routinely perpetrated by a (fictional) Middle Eastern tyrant - it's far more tempting to cop out and sell out with lazy bad taste. Granted, The Interview doesn't stoop to Cohen's cheap shots about 9/11, child abuse and abortion, but it's still offputtingly puerile, and all wrapped up in that tiresome "I love you, man (but absolutely not in that kind of way, no sir)" flavour of American dude bromance. Towards the end the film stops even trying to pretend it's a comedy and settles for surprisingly violent action sequences in which there's spurting blood and tanks and helicopters and shootouts and explosions, which feels like it's from a different film entirely but by that point you're just grateful for any kind of diversion.

None of which would matter that much if the film had at least succeeded in its basic ambition: comedy. It's as funny as Pineapple Express and This Is The End weren't. There are a few smiles from an Eminem cameo early on, but that's about it because Rogen and (particularly) Franco just aren't very likeable company. I don't have to abide by that doctrine on the back of the lavatory door in Portsmouth, because I'm not a paid comedian; the makers of The Interview are, and they trousered a hell of a lot of money for frankly not doing their job. Ill-judged, lazy, charmless and not worth the effort - theirs, mine, or yours.

*

THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE

CONTAINS SOME SPOILERS

Let's not mess about here: the original The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is a genuine, full-on, copper-bottomed classic. A demented primal shriek of a horror film, it's one of the very few films that feels as though the howling insanity on view has somehow infected the film stock itself. There's no comfort, no light relief, no sense that it's only a movie and everything will be all right in the end. It won't. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is not a human film; it's like watching a transmission from another planet. Unsettling doesn't come close to describing it. (Having seen it several times over the years, from a well-worn VHS rental to a battered print at the Scala, I've found a good way to still derive the full effect is to see it with someone who's never seen it before, and leech vicariously off their reactions).

You know the story: two couples and one of the girls' wheelchair-bound brother are on a road trip through the wilds of rural Texas, to visit a grave and the old family home. After a disturbing encounter with a hitch-hiker and the inevitable "you don't want to go messing around in those old houses" from a friendly-sounding gas station attendant, they go merrily wandering round what's left of the old homestead. But the apparently unoccupied house next door appears to have petrol, which they'll need to get home...

Leatherface's first kill is still a shock, and Pam's discovery of the room of bones, feathers and caged chickens (and her subsequent demise) is the start of the full roaring horror which never lets up but which also never goes for the easy horror option of blood and gore. Before long there's only Sally (Marilyn Burns) left, a prisoner of The Family: Leatherface, The Gas Man, The Hitch-Hiker and their 115-year-old Granpaw, barely able to grasp the hammer to kill her. It's the kind of sustained hysteria you hadn't seen in films up to that point, and you've hardly ever seen since. The film might end with Sally's narrow escape, but there's no way she'll ever recover psychologically.

This has always been a film I've appreciated and respected rather than enjoyed, and it's probably Tobe Hooper's best work in terms of pure horror (although I love Lifeforce!) while never being a film I've ever wanted to watch regularly. The soundtrack - all dissonant clangs and rumbles - is hardly music, but it's effective, the photography conveys the blazing heat and discomfort, and the set design for the inside of Leatherface's house is astonishing. In the end it's a pure horror film, a pure nightmare on 16mm, and now in what must surely be a definitive presentation. And finally: it's Chain Saw, not Chainsaw in the title.

*****

FRANKENSTEIN AND THE MONSTER FROM HELL

CONTAINS SOME SPOILERS

In some ways it's sad, but it's perhaps unsurprising that the vintage Hammer horrors of the 60s and 70s have lost some of their shock value in the intervening decades. It's not that they've dated, just that the envelope has been pushed so far since then that what was once full-on horror is now pretty inoffensive. In a world of Saw and Insidious they now come across as safe, comfortable and indeed borderline family entertainment, agreeably creepy rather than outright shocking. Many have been downgraded from their original X to a wimpy 12 certificate (principally the earlier ones without the nudity) and could play quite happily on TV without upsetting anyone.

Frankenstein And The Monster From Hell is the seventh and last of Hammer's Frankenstein series (running from 1957 to 1973), and the sixth film to feature the great Peter Cushing as the mad Baron. This time, despite being killed off at the end of at least one earlier entry in the saga, he's back again and working incognito as a doctor in an insane asylum: by a happy coincidence it's the same institution to which mad doctor Shane Briant has been sentenced after his conviction for attempting to replicate Dr Frankenstein's experiments (or, in legal terms, sorcery). Here there's a plentiful supply of fresh bodies that won't be missed. And he has even more nightmarish plans for his creation, involving his mute and traumatised assistant Angel (Madeline Smith, the sole note of glamour in an otherwise pretty grim film)...

With the presence of numerous familiar faces (Patrick Troughton, Bernard Lee, Charles Lloyd Pack all turning up for a few scenes each), Frankenstein And The Monster From Hell is generally good, pleasantly nasty fun. David Prowse returns as the Monster (perhaps confusingly not the same one he played in The Horror Of Frankenstein three years earlier), an intelligent mind locked inside a more grotesque than usual patchwork of body parts. And, of course, you get the always wonderful Peter Cushing. It also ups the ante on the gleefully tasteless gore somewhat, with a graphic brain operation and some loving shots of eyeballs in a glass jar, but even with all its previously censored sequences restored it's still only deemed worthy of a 15 rating. A package well worth picking up: even if the film isn't quite the shocker it once was, it's still enjoyably entertaining, and far better than many more recent horrors I've plodded through.

****

THE BEAST WITHIN

CONTAINS SOME SPOILERS

This is one of the many horror movies that got overlooked in the transition from murky VHS to shiny DVD: it's 28 years since it last went to the BBFC for its tape release, when it was summarily cut by over a minute. Now it's been fully restored, it's in full widescreen (none of this pan and scan nonsense!), and it's an enjoyable and good-looking blast of trash/horror nostalgia for the ex-rental era which delivers on the gore and sleaze with a vengeance.

The Beast Within starts off in 1964, when newlyweds Ronny Cox and Bibi Besch break down in the middle of nowhere: he goes off for help and she's brutally attacked and raped by some kind of forest creature. Seventeen years later, their son's (Paul Clemens) worsening health sends the family back to the quiet rural town where it happened. But he's changing, metamorphosing into the same kind of monster, apparently taking revenge for crimes a generation past and ultimately sowing the seeds for further horrors in another seventeen years....

It's true that the Tom Holland script doesn't entirely clear up whether the new creature is possessed by the original, whether it's a whole new life-form (somehow derived from cicadas), or how cannibalism has contributed to its development. The Beast Within is only passingly interested in that. Far more important are the gore sequences: Tom Burman's full-on transformation effects run the likes of The Howling and An American Werewolf In London a pretty close race, but they're badly undercut by the scene running far too long. It's as if they're so proud of the prosthetics and animatronics (and quite rightly so) that they can't bear to trim them back. Elsewhere the gory kill scenes are enjoyably gruesome, including a terrific decapitation, while the two rape scenes are more than nasty enough, but feel unnecessarily graphic in this slightly more progressive age (albeit an age where I Spit On Your Grave 3 actually exists).

The Beast Within is probably not a classic, though it's certainly leagues better than director Philippe Mora's atrocious brace of Howling "sequels" (but then what isn't?). It's messy and trashy, and the explanation for its monster makes no sense, but it's well-mounted with an upfront horror score by Les Baxter, and it looks wonderful now it's in high definition and the correct aspect ratio. More importantly, it's a reminder of a time when even splattery B-movies could be well crafted and atmospheric, with believable and likeable characters, in the way that you don't see often enough these days.

***

EVIDENCE

CONTAINS SOME SPOILERS

Olatunde Osunsanmi's latest attempt to give the found footage subgenre some credibility has a few terrific moments but overall doesn't add up to very much at all. It didn't work in the ridiculous alien conspiracy movie The Fourth Kind and it doesn't work here. Rather, it reveals yet again how tiresome and empty the camcorder horror bag of tricks is: we've had so many of these reality horrors that they've lost the power to shock or to scare. More damagingly, we just don't believe them any more (assuming we ever did). The Blair Witch Project was fifteen years ago and we're still seeing the same faux reality schtick trotted out again and again.

The best scenes in Evidence (which has nothing to do with Howie Askins' unwatchably terrible found-footage horror film of the same name) aren't to do with the camera and cellphone footage found in the aftermath of an apparent bus crash and a massacre in the Nevada desert, but the scenes of the cops (led by Radha Mitchell and Stephen Moyer) wading through all this glitch-ridden video material in an attempt to piece together what happened, and identify the homicidal maniac who killed most of the bus passengers with some kind of welding torch....

We get footage seen from four different phones and cameras, some of it showing events from different perspectives, and this material comes in a variety of ratios from 4:3 to 16:9 to full 2.35 scope (do regular digital cameras even shoot in that format?), and even pillarboxed mobile phone footage looking like a stamp in the middle of the screen. However, there is a plot twist at the end that comes straight out of nowhere, complete with one of those Saw-style recaps that strings together all the important shots and dialogue intercut with the cops as they finally understand what happened. It's a pity that that final plot twist makes absolutely no sense as it yet again depends on the killer having far great control over events than could possibly be predicted: it's a great "Wow!" moment but it comes about two minutes before a "Hang on a second..." moment.

Nor does it hold water that one of the leads claims she's a documentary film maker when she patently has no more idea of film making than simply pointing the camera vaguely in the direction of stuff and forgetting to press the Stop button. Or that those other cameras would capture precisely the required footage and no more. Still, while the found stuff is typically as annoying as expected, the "proper" film surrounding it is far more watchable, and like Cannibal Holocaust it does provide a fictitious (but more plausible) dramatic context for all the shakycam sequences which wholly "found" films like The Blair Witch Project don't have.

In the end, while chunks of it are a chore to get through and none of the victims are remotely worth rooting for, Evidence isn't very good, and it hasn't persuaded me that there's much value in "found" as a viable film-making technique. It is, however, better than I'd feared and even though it doesn't entirely hang together it is probably an okay watch if you keep your expectations down.

**

BASKET CASE / BASKET CASE 2 / BASKET CASE 3

WHAT'S IN THE BASKET? SPOILERS, THAT'S WHAT!

The first time I saw Frank Henenlotter's splattery debut movie was more than twenty years ago, on the twice-censored British video release. I suspect at the time I was too young to fully understand it when I first saw it. Not because I was a kid; but simply because I knew nothing of the world of 42nd Street and Times Square grindhouse cinemas, so the film came out of a tradition I'd never heard of and I didn't really get the joke; thus I probably didn't care as much for the film as I should have done, and as I now do.

Made in 1982, Basket Case is a grainy, neon-soaked hymn to trashy exploitation cinema, with gore, violence, sleaze and grotesquerie and the tackiest locations of a New York long gone: it's gloriously tasteless yet in places almost moving, as Duane (Kevin Van Hentenryck) turns up at the seedy Hotel Broslin carrying a large wicker basket. What's in the basket? His hideously deformed ex-Siamese twin, Belial! And Belial is out for bloody revenge against the dubious doctors who ruthlessly separated them and left him to die with the garbage... Produced on 16mm for $35,000 (estimated, according to the IMDb), it's a triumph of ideas and imagination over pitifully limited resources, shot against the kind of production design that money genuinely can't buy. Watching it now on BluRay still isn't the ideal (which would be when projected slightly imperfectly in a damp fleapit cinema full of suspicious characters), but it's an immeasurably better viewing experience than a VHS tape with most of the splatter taken out.

Despite the downbeat ending, they survived for a pair of sequels in which Duane and Belial, now fugitives, meet up with Granny Ruth (Annie Ross), who runs a community of "unique individuals" - unfortunate people with rat heads, frog heads, eleven noses and so on. (Significantly, none of the "freaks" on view correspond with any real-life disabilities or disfigurements.) Basket Case 2, which arrived in 1990 (though takes place immediately after the first film) has the brothers tracked down by a tabloid reporter seeking a big exclusive: will Granny stand by them against these exploitative lowlifes? Meanwhile, both brothers fall in love, Belial with the similarly malformed Eve, and Duane with Granny Ruth's beautiful granddaughter Susan (Heather Rattray). But she has a unique condition of her own...

1992's Basket Case 3 is sometimes subtitled The Progeny (although not here), and features the whole community travelling to Georgia as Eve is about to give birth to Belial's child. But the uncaring, heartless "normal" people yet again only see a chance to exploit the unfortunate freaks and make some easy money out of them - this time a couple of comedy cops out to claim the million dollar tabloid bounty on Duane and Belial. But again they've reckoned without the freaks' community standing up for themselves and each other, and without Belial's perhaps unexpected love for his own offspring.

Both sequels are smoother, slicker and better budgeted than the original film: they're in 16:9 (Basket Case is in 4:3) and the fleshy make-up effects by Gabe Bartalos are far better. But they don't have the rough edge of the first: whereas in Basket Case absolutely anything could happen, the sequels feel more mainstream and therefore a bit safer. In the first film Belial was a savage murderer and the humans, no matter how despicable, were the victims, but in both sequels the regular people are the villains and the "unique individuals" are the kind, considerate and humane ones. It's intriguing that Duane, an accomplice in Belial's killing spree and a wanted fugitive, is the nominal hero but spends most of the sequels struggling to cope with the increasingly surreal strangeness around him, just wanting to get away from the freaks and live a normal life when those "normals" are the ones that cause all the problems. Even if the two follow-ups don't have the grimy, squalid nastiness of the first entry and don't really match up to it, they're still oddly charming in their cheerful bad taste, and all three are absolutely worth seeing.

****
***
***

APARTMENT 1303

CONTAINS SOME SPOILERS

This is yet another movie in which a young woman moves into a suspiciously cheap apartment and is immediately beset by supernatural forces: the problem isn't that it's is a fair-to-middling chiller at best, but that we’ve seen this sort of thing so many times before. It’s yet another telling of a very familiar story - and not just because it's a remake of a perfectly acceptable Japanese horror film (directed by Ataru Oikawa in 2007). Stir in all the other J-Horror productions like Hideo Nakata's Dark Water (and its English language remake) or straight originals like the recent The Echo, and ultimately it's the familiarity of the material that works against the film more than the occasionally dodgy dialogue or the characters' frequently irrational behaviour.

At 24, Janet Slate (Julianne Michelle) is so desperate to get away from her domineering, drunken former rock star mother (Rebecca De Mornay) that she signs up to the first available apartment: it’s close to her work, with terrific views and at very reasonable rates. But unbeknownst to Janet, Apartment 1303 has a gruesome history as the last four tenants all committed suicide within a few days of moving in, and it’s not long before she is violently attacked by an unseen presence. Following Janet's apparent suicide, her sister Lara (Mischa Barton) moves in and, with the aid of Janet's cop boyfriend, tries to uncover the truth. But whatever it is that's still living there won't allow anyone to stay...

The Asian horror technique of finding chilling horror in the mundane and ordinary that we're all familiar with in our daily domestic lives (be it a mysterious videotape, a missed cellphone call or an odd photograph) is more effective in creating honest scares than Hollywood's more splattery fixations on axe murderers, vampires and the walking dead. We've all heard strange noises in the flat in the middle of the night, but few if any of us have been chased round the place by flesh-eating ghouls and/or serial killers. But the film still isn't anywhere near as look-away scary as it needs to be, and one of the big jump moments where the ghost is outside and then suddenly inside (a trick pulled off beautifully by Insidious) has no impact at all.

More mysterious than anything in the film, however, is why on Earth it was shot in 3D. As with so many other 3D movies, there's not a single shot that cries out for that extra dimension effect, and with no theatrical release in the offing the only way you can see the 3D version is on the 3D BluRay - if you happen to have a 3D-compatible television, which most people don't as yet. Still, if you can forgive the sometimes awful dialogue and the last half of the film, in which increasingly illogical things happen (the climactic revelation concerning the building’s creepy super and the equally creepy schoolgirl down the hall makes absolutely no sense), there are a few effective moments to be had, and it doesn't waste any time, being over in a slim 83 minutes including credits. A few nice moments don't cut it, however, for a horror film and it doesn't even match up to the (scarcely a classic) original. Not awful, but really not good enough.

**

HALO 4: FORWARD UNTO DAWN

CONTAINS SOME SPOILERS

Despite most examples of the game-movie crossover being neither huge hits nor particularly good (it's a subgenre in which Silent Hill is one of the front runners), the idea of a film version of the Halo game franchise has been around for quite a few years, with some major names attached to it. Guillermo Del Toro and Neill Blomkamp were both down to direct it under executive producer Peter Jackson; when those collapsed, Steven Spielberg apparently expressed an interest. Since then: nothing. In the meantime, there's this compilation of five 15-minute "webisodes" which were originally designed as a marketing tool for the Halo 4 game (all five are freely available on YouTube): they've now been bolted together with some new footage and released as a feature film.

I'm not a gamer, so I've had to look this stuff up, but most of the movie version of Halo 4: Forward Unto Dawn is not concerned with intergalactic war between humanity and aliens. Instead it focuses on the cadets at the elite Corbulo Military Academy on the planet Circinius IV in the year 2526, and specifically Thomas Lasky (Tom Green), of whom great things are expected due to his family's military careers, but he can't maintain discipline and follow orders. Only when giant alien killing machines show up does the film change gear with a mere handful of surviving cadets running through the forests to get to the evacuation point as the Academy - apparently the only population centre on Circinius IV - is destroyed.

It opens with a pretty spectacular derelict spacecraft sequence, which suggests the movie is going to be a proper SF thriller in the Event Horizon mould, and includes the film's sole mention of The Covenant, "a theocratic alliance of aliens" (at least according to Wikipedia, as this is not made clear in the film itself) which are apparently the villains of the game series. Sadly, all this is used as a framing device for veteran Commander Lasky's flashback to his training days, so it ends up like a softened and less satirical Starship Troopers with none of the giant bug material, and with Predator-like warrior aliens showing up for the final battle. It seems unlikely they were trying to echo Young Kirk from the Star Trek reboots, given that the film is really a feature length advert for an Xbox game, but that's almost what it feels like. The mystery of what happened on the freighter Forward Unto Dawn, why the ship's AI computer has turned into a CG-animated woman, and who's in the sole surviving cryo tube are sadly not explored and they would have made for a much more exciting and imaginative film than Lasky's reckless past.

Once it gets going - the aliens don't turn up until well over the halfway point - it is slightly more fun, with action sequences, character redemptions and unexpected casualties crammed into the final 30 minutes. It's enjoyable, it's certainly well enough done (it's directed by Stewart Hendler, who made the glossy but empty remake of Sorority Row a few years back), and the CG effects are a lot better than expected given the relatively meagre $10m budget, but the structure lets it down somewhat, with the visually striking opening never resolved and the interspecies war which is apparently the heart of the Halo series taking a back seat to Lasky's Academy struggles. Whether it will ultimately lead to a full-fledged Halo movie, remains to be seen.

***

Monday, 26 October 2015

THE KILLAGE

CONTAINS SOME SPOILERS

The most important thing to say about this new (though actually not all that new, as it was copyrighted back in 2011 according to the end credit crawl) Australian comedy horror is that it isn't even faintly funny. It admittedly qualifies as a horror movie, through the traditional slasher technique of lining up a bunch of annoying people and killing them off in gleefully unpleasant ways, but the jokes die more painfully than any of them. Comedy and horror are probably the two genres that are hardest to combine in one movie, and The Killage gets it wrong from the first frame.

You can't laugh with any of these people unless there's a trace of empathy to be had with them, and they're drawn so cartoonishly and played so broadly that it's impossible to see them as anything but the crudest of TV sketch caricatures. The Satanic goth chick, the abusive wheelchair guy, the freakishly well-endowed simpleton (who spends most of the second half of the film naked for no good reason beyond comedy), the stoner who constantly denies it: they could all be recurring characters off Little Britain or similar. In The Killage, they're part of a corporate weekend at a remote woodland camp, vying to become team leader over their colleagues. But it's not long before an unseen maniac starts killing them off in unusual ways....

The "office team-building exercise gone wrong" idea brings to mind Severance, but The Killage is just not in that film's league. As a slasher spoof it's closer in tone to I Know How Many Runs You Scored Last Summer (admittedly, that's from New Zealand rather than Australia) than Scary Movie which riffs on specific movies and specific scenes; this has a couple of meta-jokes about modern horror tropes, and is more in the vein of Shriek If You Know What I Did Last Friday The 13th but nowhere near as funny. But it's clearly a labour of love for Joe Bauer who wrote, co-produced, directed, edited, co-photographed, co-cast, sound mixed and took a leading role in the film (he also did the visual effects, and wrote and performed the end credits song). Maybe he spread himself too thinly?

Sadly, it's the puerile streak of lowest common denominator humour that kills it. Toilet jokes, vomit jokes, knob jokes, fart jokes, bottoms and boobs jokes - the kind of "poo willy bum knickers" thing that's infinitely hilarious when you're ten years old, but has no business in movies aimed ostensibly at grown ups. In other words, if you're young enough to still think that's funny then you're actually too young to see it. The film actually begins with the Australian MA15+ certificate, which in the UK would be the equivalent of a 15A; frankly I'm surprised the BBFC let it through with a 15. The gore is excessive and most of it is entirely gratuitous (one bit of business is straight out of Monster Man), which isn't necessarily a bad thing, but the CGI splatter looks as terrible as you'd expect and at 102 minutes it's noticeably on the long side. Still, it won "Best In Festival" at the 2011 Crystal Palace International Film Festival, which I confess I didn't know even existed, and I'm now mildly intrigued as to what the runner-up was.

*

Friday, 23 October 2015

PAY THE GHOST

CONTAINS SOME SPOILERS

This is one of those movies that's the most difficult to review at any length: it's not great, it's not terrible, it's just one of those mid-ranking films that's okay, perfectly entertaining, enjoyable without necessarily being impressive. It's unremarkable but fun, it's uninspired but well put together, everyone involved has done much better work elsewhere but it's nowhere near their worst either.

Pay The Ghost is a very silly but more than watchable horror movie in which literature professor Nicolas Cage (yeah, right) loses his son at the Halloween carnival when the kid disappears into thin air. Unwilling to accept it (or the blame for it), Cage researches every missing child and unearths the existence of a curse placed on the town whereby three children will be stolen every Halloween by a witch's spirit as restitution for the three children murdered by witch hunters three centuries ago. Yes, that's the plot. Can Cage find a way to (literally) cross over to the other side and free his son in the last few hours before this Halloween and three more disappearances?

It's absolute bunk, but it's reasonably well-mounted bunk and far more enjoyable than you'd expect just glancing at the artwork in the Sainsburys DVD aisle; it's a shame the film is not getting a proper cinema release. It's decent looking, there's a score by horror veteran Joseph LoDuca (he started out on the original The Evil Dead), and even though he sometimes (more than sometimes) turns up in absolutely terrible movies, Nicolas Cage is always watchable, though he doesn't get to do his shouty bug-eyed freakout routine this time out, which is perhaps a pity. Against that, it's pretty clunky: there's a vast slab of "Legend has it..." exposition that's lowered in towards the end at precisely the right time, and while it's efficiently creepy in places (owing something to the likes of Insidious), it goes for the easiest horror technique of sudden loud noises and scary faces in close-up rather than trying to make anything genuinely chilling. Once it gets to the somewhat ludicrous finale, the movie borrows again from Insidious - this time it's riffing on The Further as the spectral realm where Cage has to try and get his boy back.

Pay The Ghost really isn't anything special but as a Friday night rental or an impulse Netflix selection it'll do the job. It's directed by Uli Edel, but we're a long way from Christiane F and The Baader Meinhoff Complex: this is not a film of character depth or development, it's not a film of style and subtlety, and absolutely no-one is going to think it was overlooked come next year's awards season. Sometimes silliness is what's required, but at least it's not the silliness of Cage's The Wicker Man.

***

Tuesday, 20 October 2015

EVERLY

CONTAINS KABOOM SPOILERS

More violence, and enough of it to get an 18 (and not hacked back to get a teen-friendly 15 either). Joe Lynch's shoot-em-up killfest certainly doesn't skimp on the corn syrup and on that level it's more than entertaining enough, and it's a pity that it had the most minuscule "limited release" in UK cinemas (probably a couple of late screenings at one suburban London multiplex at most: enough to qualify for theatrical reviews but scarcely an actual cinema release that more than a handful of people could attend). How are we supposed to enjoy films in their natural habitat if you don't actually show them to us?

Everly takes place in one apartment - the camera doesn't move from its confines until the last shot of the film - in which brutalised sex slave Everly (Salma Hayek) decides she's finally had enough of the odious gangsters who've imprisoned and abused her over the years. She has the guns, she has the cash: all she has to do is get out of the apartment alive and reunite with her mother and her daughter. But the gang boss isn't prepared to lose her that easily, putting a contract on her head and sending dozens of top-level assassins after her....

Sophisticated it ain't (the film may technically pass the Bechdel Test, but it's a blokes' movie through and through). But it is rather good fun, stylishly put together and very noisy with a welcome streak of weird comedy. One particular killer, known as The Sadist (who comes with his own personal masked retinue of assistants), seeks to transform Everly's execution into some kind of ritual performance art, which is agreeably cruel though it either slows the film's pace right down (or provides a respite from the constant gunfire, depending on your point of view). I enjoyed it.

***

UNHALLOWED GROUND

SIR, CONTAINS SOME SPOILERS, SIR!

I really don't want to spend too much time on Unhallowed Ground as it frankly isn't worth the effort: a dull and tiresome low-budget British horror in which too much happens due to plot contrivances and none of it is particularly well executed. Six army cadets (three boys, three girls) in their final year at elite boarding schools are roped into their final practical assessment: a night patrol of the boys' school. What they don't know is that the building was a sanctuary during the Great Plague, there was a deal made with the Devil involving ritual suicide, and this very night is the anniversary of the killings.

What they also don't realise is that tonight has been chosen, purely by chance, for a disgruntled Army veteran to break into the school and steal priceless rare books and first folios from the archive; but the cadets assume that any disturbances have been deliberately set up to test their military mettle under pressure. They do a bit of patrolling before giving up, chilling out with some booze and going off for some discreet fooling about. But who set up the Satanic circle in one of the upstairs rooms? What are the glowy-eyed figures occasionally glimpsed in mirrors? And what of the Plague Doctor, a masked spectre with a huge beak-like nose?

What the Plague Doctor doesn't get is his own cheapo horror franchise in which he stalks top educational establishments bumping off odious rich kids. What we don't get is a film that's any good at all: the characters are stupid and uninteresting (and don't have the discipline that's essential if they're even halfway serious about an Army career) and the extra plot twists in the last reel don't add up because they haven't left themselves enough victims. Impossible to care, and no fun to watch.

*

Monday, 19 October 2015

THE ENFIELD HAUNTING

CONTAINS SOME SPOILERS

Though I'm not sure I want them to be true, I'm all for haunted house movies. Especially ordinary, suburban, "real" British houses with cracked tiles in the bathrooms and not really enough space for everyone: they're much more the kind of abodes we're used to, rather than the unfeasibly vast American houses of films like the Paranormal Activity series. They feel that much more real and believable than Castle Dracula or the fabulous old mansions Vincent Price would go insane in in the Corman Poe movies. If a horror movie is set in a house not dissimilar to one you've actually lived in at some point, much of the heavy lifting of plausibility is already done. Even Hellraiser, wonky and wayward though it might be, works in part because we've all been in a house like that. All you really need to do then is to slap on an opening caption saying it's "Based On Real Events".

As far as true, fiercely British period ghost stories go, The Enfield Haunting is closer to 2010's When The Lights Went Out (at least up to that film's unnecessary CGI-enhanced climax). This is also set in the 1970s, in this case 1977, when an ordinary North London family in suddenly plagued by inexplicable activity: noises, marks on the wall, moving furniture. The press turn up, then Maurice Grosse and Guy Lyon Playfair (Timothy Spall and Matthew McFadyen) from the British Psychical Society arrive to investigate. Are the two daughters faking it, and why? (Neither the psychic investigators nor the Daily Mirror were called in by the family.) Or is there a genuine presence in the house?

Much of the first half of The Enfield Haunting is pretty chilling and very effective (the sight of large items of furniture suddenly rocketing across the room always creeps me out: for me it's actually one of the more potent images from The Exorcist), and given that it's based on Playfair's book and that both Playfair and Grosse's son Richard acted as consultants, it should have a measure of truth on its side. Later sections, where it suggests that Grosse was particularly interested in this case due to an overwhelming need to communicate with his daughter who died after a motorbike crash the previous year, do feel more like dramatic padding. The ending lacks punch, but that's probably due to the facts of the case rather than a desire not to end in a spectacular and exciting, but perhaps inaccurate, way.

At around 135 minutes it's way too long, but The Enfield Haunting isn't actually a movie, so the usual rules and preferences for a tidy running time don't really apply. It's a TV mini-series for Sky TV which originally ran in three one-hour timeslots but condenses down to two and a quarter hours minus the advert breaks; the DVD includes the opening and closing credits for each individual episode, though it does omit any "End Of Part One" bumpers and "Previously On...." introductions. But the period detail (cars, decor, hair, clothes and so on) looks perfect, Timothy Spall is one of those character actors who's infinitely watchable in pretty much anything, and the various manifestations of the poltergeist activity work terrifically, mostly because the show stays low-key and keeps visible spectres out of sight save a few very scary walk-ons. Generally it's pretty enjoyable, and it'll be interesting to see what next year's The Conjuring 2 makes of it, as it's based on the same events.

***

CRIMSON PEAK

CONTAINS SOME SPOILERS

It's a great shame to report, but Crimson Peak is a disappointment. This was one of the very few films of the year I was actually excited to see: I was looking forward to it in the way that I just don't for most films - even the new James Bond or the new Star Wars - and I left the cinema having watched a film that was very good but not great: it's perfectly okay. Normally "perfectly okay" is a decent enough result (especially given a lot of the thoroughly unremarkable films out there) but coming from Guillermo Del Toro I was hoping for more. This is not to suggest that Crimson Peak is a bad movie - it absolutely isn't - but when you've made The Devil's Backbone, Pacific Rim and Pan's Labyrinth the bar is that much higher than for, say, Michael Bay.

Less a horror film than a melodramatic Gothic romance (admittedly one with genuinely scary ghosts in it), it's very dialogue heavy and takes surprisingly long to get into gear. In New York in the late 19th century, classically handsome but impoverished English baronet Sir Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston) and his frankly creepy sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain) try to secure funding for his revolutionary new clay scooping machine. He's turned down by industrial baron Cushing (Jim Beaver), but falls in love with Cushing's authoress daughter Edith (Mia Wasikowska). Or does he? Is it more about her inheritance when Cushing suddenly dies violently?

Storywise, the movie is lush romantic tosh of the Rebecca and Jane Eyre school with the old dark house full of secrets, the naive and winsome heroine, the creepy sister who is plainly mad as a bag of hammers. The ghosts are creepy, though not as creepy as in The Devil's Backbone, but these are the kind of movie ghosts whose method of communicating with the living is to scare the living soot out of them and speak in frustratingly cryptic riddles that won't make any sense at all for twenty years. And for all the visual panache - and it has visual panache by the ton - Crimson Peak is curiously inert dramatically. Early scenes have the feel of The Age Of Innocence with its elite New York class distinctions and formally mannered socialising, but once the film moves to the wilds of Cumberland and the Sharpe family mansion, literally sinking into the crimson clay, events do pick up. Allerdale Hall, crumbling and decaying even as you look at it, is a marvellously dark and morbid locale (it's a pity we never see the house spectacularly destroyed).

But, much like the house, Crimson Peak never seems to catch fire and roar into life. It looks great, it's gorgeously photographed with terrific costumes and production design, and there's a full-on orchestral score on top. Handsomely mounted it may be, my end feeling was that it's good but not great, though this may well be one of those films that needs a second viewing to work its full magic - that's a prospect I certainly don't dread, and in the days after seeing it it's already growing on me. [Disclaimer: I saw Crimson Peak under less than ideal circumstances, as my local 'plex left the 3D filter on from the previous film, substantially draining the image of colour and vibrancy.]

****

Saturday, 10 October 2015

IRRATIONAL MAN

CONTAINS, UM, SPOILERS

What's the defining Woody Allen text? One of the "early, funny ones" like Annie Hall or Love And Death? One of the mid-period ones that the Academy liked so much: Crimes And Misdemeanours, Hannah And Her Sisters? One from the recent renaissance, such as Midnight In Paris or Blue Jasmine? Frankly it could be any one of a dozen: most Allen films have a lot to commend them, even something like Interiors or Magic In The Moonlight. (I think we can all agree that Cassandra's Dream and You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger aren't making the shortlist.) However I'd like to suggest Melinda And Melinda, not because it's any good - it's okay but surely no-one's idea of much more than that - but because it does perfectly illustrate the difference between a Woody Allen comedy and a Woody Allen drama by having them both in the same movie: the same setup used as a springboard for two different stories told seriously and comedically. It's a nice way of working out exactly which Woody Allen you prefer.

Sadly (for me, anyway), Irrational Man sees Allen in glum drama mode: no jokes, but the time-honoured Allen trope of middle-aged man going at it like hammers with a much younger woman. No laughs, but a lot of babbling about Kierkegaard and deep philosophical musings about the meaning of existence and the possibility of moral choice in a perfect world, which just confirms the idea that philosophers should be given a slap and told to get a proper job. Joaquin Phoenix is Abe Lucas, a struggling author and impotent alcoholic who turns up as the new philosophy professor at an expensive college. Emma Stone is Jill, one of his students, who immediately becomes obsessed with the man to the point of turning into a crashing bore, forever banging on about what Abe Lucas said, what Abe Lucas did, what Abe Lucas wrote, what Abe Lucas had for dinner, what Abe Lucas sat down on.

Mysteriously, the two of them begin a sexual relationship, which is not just ridiculous (she has a perfectly nice boyfriend already) but a sackable offence at the very least. She won't shut up about him, he won't shut up about morality and existentialism and Dostoyevsky and Kierkegaard. Nobody cares. Then by chance they overhear a conversation in a diner which instigates a perfect murder plot (and also allows Abe to put his theories about morality and crime and whatever into practice). Except that this perfect plan starts to unravel....

Halfway through Irrational Man, Abe plays Russian Roulette with a loaded gun, to demonstrate the odds on life and death (or something). Frankly, I'd have liked the gun to go off. It's not as if all Woody Allen movies need a steady supply of jokes: they weren't necessary in Blue Jasmine, for example. But I really needed some levity here. On the plus side, Darius Khondji's photography is lovely, giving the film a gorgeous 70s look to proceedings. But that's small consolation. Usually I'm all for Woody Allen as a purveyor an evening's civilised, intelligent entertainment, but this is definitely one of his less interesting ones and ranks well in the bottom third of the Woodyometer.

**

VENDETTA

OUCH! CONTAINS OOOF! SOME AARGH! SPOILERS OW!

Despite what some might think, I am not an intellectual. I mean, I'm not an entirely uncultured baboon who needs everything slowly spoonfed in capital letters and bright colours. I'll always go for Woody Allen over Michael Bay for an evening's civilised entertainment, and on occasion I'll regard three hours of miserable black and white Russian science fiction as a challenge rather than a bit of fun. But sometimes you don't want art, you don't want subtlety, allegory or subtitles. Sometimes you just want ninety minutes of freakishly ugly blokes beating the living daylights out of each other.

Despite being directed by the Soska Sisters (Jen and Sylvia), Vendetta is a blokes' movie. The only woman in the film is killed off early and the rest of the running time is devoted to the grieving husband's insane quest for revenge, which involves getting sent to the same prison as her killer and then taking his criminal empire to pieces, one tattooed sociopath at a time. It's like The Shawshank Redemption remade as a Jean-Claude Van Damme vehicle.

Vendetta (nothing to do with the Danny Dyer film of the same name) isn't subtle and it isn't much more than an efficient showcase for maniacs lamping one another. But I didn't go in expecting existential angst or the Meaning Of Existence: I went it expecting guys getting punched in the head. For your rental fee, then, you get Dean Cain muscled up as the husband, the seven-foot wrestler Paul Wight (aka The Big Show) as the bad guy, and several crunchingly excessive fight sequences which in the real world would surely have resulted in fractured skulls and smashed ribs all round. And as a full-on Friday night thudfest it's rather fun, if a little wearing, and the low budget doesn't give it much room for panache and style.

Thirty years ago it would have been a Cannon film, and would have probably had Chuck Norris in it. It would also, probably, have been a better film: like the Soskas' slasher sequel See No Evil 2 this doesn't have the personal touch of American Mary. but it's an efficient enough exploitation movie that I rather enjoyed. But then I'm a clueless idiot.

**

Monday, 5 October 2015

THE NIGHTMARE

CONTAINS SOME SPOILERS

Sometimes I wonder how I've been watching horror movies for over thirty years and have never once had a screaming nightmare as a result. Unusually well-balanced, or no imagination? Sure I have the occasional bad dream, but it never includes images, sounds or characters from any of the films I've seen in the previous few days. I watch them, but they don't stay in my mind and trouble me after dark. Maybe I'm just incredibly lucky: there are people who are plagued by these things every night and have done so for decades.

Rodney Ascher's The Nightmare is a partially staged documentary which takes eight sufferers and mixes their to-camera retellings with creepy dramatisations of their dreams, in which various unholy monsters invade their bedrooms and taunt, threaten and terrify them. Featureless black silhouettes (either solo or in groups), alien-like entities not unlike the so-called Greys, red-eyed demons.... invariably accompanied by total paralysis, an inability to defend yourself except possibly through sheer force of will. What do these unwelcome visitors want? Our minds, our souls, our actual beings? Or are these creatures to us humans as we are to sparrows or ants: something entirely beyond our comprehension? It's never entirely clear what they are, what they want from us or where they're from: other dimensions, somewhere beyond death, the darkest recesses of our own imaginations?

Rodney Ascher's previous film was Room 237, in which people put forth elaborate (and frankly unlikely) theories as to the hidden meanings of Stanley Kubrick's The Shining. Oddly, that's the kind of academic approach I would have liked from The Nightmare: what it doesn't do, and it would have been interesting to see, is to wheel on a professor of oneirology to try and explain what dreams and nightmares are in scientific terms. Instead it focusses on the accounts of a small number of people, mostly from the US (the sole British contributor is from Manchester), reconstructing their dreams as short, small-scale horror films.

Those dramatisations are, of course, pretty scary: they're happening to ordinary "real people" who live in the same world as we do, so there's the definite sense that this could easily happen to us. Entities like "Shadow Man" are terrifying on a far more primal level than a horror movie bogeyman who has a history and a backstory; these creatures are unfathomable to us, we can't communicate with them or reason with them, they just Are. It's effective, certainly, but it gives no explanation as to why the same phenomena are experienced around the world, what they actually are or what can be done to stop them. In addition, it features illustrative clips from feature films including the original A Nightmare On Elm Street (obviously). the bonkers Communion, and Insidious, one of the few movies that has forced me to keep lights on in the flat overnight - incidentally something that this film, despite its subject matter, did not achieve. (Incidentally, top-level arachnophobes should be aware that The Nightmare contains a sudden, frankly unnecessary closeup of a giant spider.)

***

THE HOUSES OF HALLOWEEN

CONTAINS SPOILERS

And still they come.... it's yet another found footage horror movie that, despite the publicity blurb's claim, does not reinvent the genre, it merely does it again. No better than any of the last dozen I've dragged myself through, it does nothing original, nothing interesting, and the result is nothing you haven't seen before. The potential might be there in the idea, but it's thrown away in the literally nauseating camerawork, indecipherable sound recording and nonsensical editing to the point where the film is pretty much unwatchable.

The Houses Of Halloween flogs that already overflogged dead horse of a set-up: five tedious idiots on a roadtrip in an RV. One of them is allegedly a film student (though on the basis of his prowess with a camcorder as demonstrated here he wouldn't get into a film school as a cleaner), so the RV is fitted out with about a dozen meaninglessly positioned cameras inside and out, some of which are bolted on sideways or pointed straight at the headlights for no fathomable reason. They're out to find the most extreme and terrifying haunted house attraction in the country in the week leading up to Halloween: ones which are genuinely, physically frightening rather than just mildly scary with rubber skeletons dangling from the ceiling.

Most of the early walkthroughs are full of the expected: people dressed as clowns, zombies or scary porcelain dolls, though they're not so much innocently macabre ghost trains as full-on immersive experiences with physical contact and cinema levels of sound and set design. But even the sudden jump scares and visual grotesquerie isn't enough: they want the Real Horror. And a mysterious and shadowy organisation, referred to in hushed tones as Blue Skeleton, is rumoured to provide just that....

So it's a "real" (and therefore arguably snuff) version of The Game, if the Michael Douglas character had been a horror obsessive and spent his entire time filming himself. There's actually nothing wrong with that as a set up, but - yet again - doing it as a found footage exercise makes no sense at all. Who is supposed to have collected all this footage from the various cameras and RV cams and edited them together? And why? All the usual tropes are trotted out again: the night vision, the running feet, the sick-making shakycam, the noises off, the scenes of people blathering on about nothing. Midway through, they stop going to horror installations and go to a strip joint instead, for no apparent reason beyond the desire to get some naked breasts into the film.

The one nice idea, which is mulled over briefly and then tossed aside, is that our heroes are being stalked across the country by one of the clown figures from the first attraction. That might have made for an intriguing and potentially scary "proper" horror movie. Instead it settles for a final act of halfwits bumbling around in the semi-darkness and yelling "What the f*** was that?" at everything. I haven't been as thoroughly bored and depressed by a horror movie since the last of these found-footage underachievers, and I daresay I won't be as bored and depressed by a horror movie until the next one.

*