Thursday, 31 March 2016



This screened at this year's Glasgow FrightFest, and while some didn't particularly care for it I liked it very much. Anguish ("inspired by true events" according to an opening caption) is an enjoyable little horror that works through being a low-key and creepy indie rather than a loud and jumpy multiplex popcorn-spiller. Comparisons have been made to It Follows, not least by the film's own marketing, and while it's not in that league, and doesn't go for that film's 80s retro mood (no Carpenter style synths on the soundtrack), it's well acted, well paced, and it does have a similarly engaging non-Hollywood sense of place.

There's a very nice Stanley Kubrick quote to the effect that ghost stories are essentially optimistic since they clearly suggest an afterlife, and by extension that would encompass stories of possession by the recently deceased. Anguish centres around two mothers and daughters: teenage Lucy (Amberley Gridley), recently killed in a tragic road accident following a silly row with her mother (Karina Logue), and a girl of the same age, Tess (Ryan Simpkins), who's just moved into the same small Nowheresville, USA with her mother (Annika Marks). Spooky events ensue as Tess seems to be taken over by Lucy: but is it a ghost, or a possession.... or might it all just be a result of the medication Tess has to take every day?

Though there are certainly some visually striking moments that look good in the trailer but don't necessarily much much narrative sense (such as a multitude of hands at a window), mostly Anguish does have a feel of being rooted in reality with an agreeably dark mood. Boasting an almost entirely female cast (both fathers are missing, though one does appear occasionally via Skype calls), its horror is less that of being possessed by a departed spirit than the idea of that spirit seeking to reconnect, even briefly, with the living world, even if has to take over a living host to do so. Maybe it's a pity that after two thirds of its running time creating an ambience and atmosphere the film changes gear into a more overt possession thriller with flickering lights and the mothers and daughter(s) battling around the house, as if they've realised they need to keep the punters from getting restless.

Frankly Anguish doesn't need to bother with the more obvious stuff, but it does get away with it and the last few scenes do return to the subtlety of much of the earlier parts of the film: it's a refreshing change from unbelievable people shouting Boo! at you all the time (Anguish has its jump moments, sure, but they're far from the whole point of the exercise) and it's a pity it's only playing "Key Cities" before a DVD release in two weeks' time. Well worth seeking out.


Wednesday, 30 March 2016



Nudity! Explicit sex! Real hardcore action! Full-on humping! Threesomes! Group! Orgies! Boobs! Willies! Phwoooar! Get in there my son! Except that this is a serious Franco-Belgian arthouse drama about lost love and regrets, and not Miami Cheerleaders Gone Wild Vol 26, so you're expected to at least pretend to care about the relationships and to see the characters as believable human beings, and not just sit there watching it in your underwear and grunting. (Oh, to have been a fly on the wall during the national press show!) Frankly, pornography is in the wrist of the beholder, so if you want to get off on this one or 9 Songs or Nymph()maniac or some old episodes of Bergerac, fill your boots. Whatever does it for you.

In the event, however, that you want to see beyond the meat and look at the people underneath, Love tells of a three-way relationship in which alleged film student Murphy, feeling trapped and frustrated in his life with girlfriend Omi and their baby son, flashes back through his memories of a previous relationship with the more exciting, daring and passionate Electra (quite what either of these smart, intelligent young women see in this whiny little ratbag, for whom no number of smacks round the head with a chair leg would ever seem enough, is anyone's guess). This, however, was a relationship he threw away by knocking up Omi and behaving like a colossal knob when suspecting Electra of cheating on him. Now he has regrets, and wants to go back....

Curiously, given his technique of long takes from largely static cameras, Noe has filmed Love in 3D which might give the hardcore some extra oomph although there are only a couple of moments where the extra depth might have been noticeable: our hero blowing smoke rings to camera and the predictable, and inevitable, money shot, but for most of the time nothing "leapt out" from the 2D Blu as being worthy of the stereoscopy effect. The extensive needle-drop soundtrack throws up a few surprises: a sex club sequence is mysteriously backed with the theme to Assault On Precinct 13, while an early tryst plays against the off-kilter lullaby music from Deep Red, of all things.

Nothing much happens in Love beyond alternating scenes of Murphy whining and mumbling, and Murphy humping either or both of the two women. As a film it's much, much lighter and far less uncomfortable than the last two Gaspar Noe films, Enter The Void and (obviously) Irreversible. But the emphasis on nudity and copulation gets a bit wearing after a while and frankly it's a relief when they spend five minutes with their clothes on. A little more background and a little less grind and throb wouldn't have gone amiss, to be honest. Whereas a film like Blue Is The Warmest Colour spaced the sex sequences out so that you understood the characters long before they ever took their clothes off, here the leads are naked and going at each other literally from the first frame. That's not to suggest I didn't enjoy it: it's interesting enough, but don't put it on it if there's any chance of someone else wandering into the room at precisely the wrong moment.


Monday, 28 March 2016



Industrial strength idiocy from Albert Pyun that's very probably the worst thing he ever did, and that's including his horrendous cheapo Captain America movie from 1990. I used to have a soft spot for Pyun based on dumb but good-looking SF thrillers like the first Nemesis (the nominal sequels were vehicles for bodybuilder Sue Price and aren't anywhere near as interesting) and dumb but good-looking action movies like Blast (basically Die Hard In An Olympic Swimming Pool), but this is a whole new and terrifying level of bloody awful filmmaking and a sad comedown from someone who started with the engaging sub-Conan twaddle of The Sword And The Sorceror. Every single facet is botched beyond salvage, either through bone-headed incompetence or (more likely) no-one giving a single wet shit about it.

Urban Menace starts off with Ice-T banging on direct to camera about how this film is going to be really offensive and full of blood and gore and swearing (well, one out of three ain't bad) before settling into the story of idiot gangsters wandering around an abandoned building and getting killed by Snoop Dogg, apparently because his entire family were murdered when an evil gangster firebombed his church. Is Dogg a ghost, an evil spirit, a demon, or did he just survive and start killing off the bad guy's halfwit goons in revenge?

Half the cast seem to be rappers who can't act (one of them has been given substantial amounts of dialogue yet can barely speak) and the other half seem to be actors who can't act either. Technically it's borderline unwatchable: the digital effects of a burning church at the start couldn't be less realistic if they'd been drawn on the back of an envelope, the picture quality looks like a fifth-generation VHS tape that's been dunked in a sewer until everything is tinged green and is in such low definition that you'll think you're undergoing a glaucoma attack. Violent splatter is notable by its absence (it's earned its 18 certificate just for the monotonous overuse of the Oedipal Expletive), and the audio includes the same dull Ice-T song at least three times. Presented on DVD in a ratio that doesn't properly fit any TV set, in a 2-for-1 set with The Wrecking Crew, another of Pyun's urban thrillers shot at the same time with most of the same cast (which I haven't seen and am not going to), Snoop Dogg's Hood Of Stupidity is only about 76 minutes long and that includes very slow credit rolls fore and aft. Utter, utter garbage.


Sunday, 27 March 2016



When this first appeared around the time of the London Film Festival I wondered whether I'd actually enjoy it when it finally came out. I've never been much of a fan of Ben Wheatley: Sightseers was okay as a dark but silly sitcom, but I wasn't overly struck on Kill List (three meh films bolted together into one) and I absolutely hated A Field In England (unwatchable first year media studies coursework): films to pretend to be impressed by rather than to actually enjoy. Given all the raves and enthusiasm, would this new one make me a Team Ben flagwaver?

As it turns out, no: set in some kind of alternative 1970s retro future, High-Rise is a tiresome and obvious screed about the social inequality, class warfare, the inevitable collapse of a too-rigidly structured society and how rich people are bastards. Architect Jeremy Irons claims he's developed his high rise as "a crucible for change" (yet merely replicates the "toffs at the top, plebs at the bottom" system we've had for centuries): he and his coterie of similarly over-moneyed scum live like Roman emperors in the luxury apartments, throwing decadent parties and hogging the amenities. Meanwhile the oiks downstairs are getting bolshy with unreasonable demands for the rights and services that they've paid for; the power goes out and everything turns into some kind of ghastly post-apocalypic nightmare.

So what are we supposed to make of High-Rise? Obviously it's not supposed to make literal, narrative sense: it's an allegory of capitalism complete with lines like Keeley Hawes' despairing "The trouble with poor people is they're obsessed with money" as she whines about having to pay her miserable housekeeper who has to clean dogshit off the carpets. Our lead (he's not a hero by any means) is neurologist Tom Hiddleston: he starts out as our way into this microcosm, but even he succumbs to the madness, shagging left and right and really leaving us no-one to side with. The other key line is Hawes' "Okay, which one of you guys wants to f*** me up the a***?", which instantly sent me back to a similar line in White Mischief, another rich-people-are-horrible exercise.

Once you've sat through the first half hour or so of this prattling nonsense, you do wish the damned place would just turn into Towering Inferno and catch fire (except the emergency services don't bother turning up: the police only appear briefly and never return). Or parasites would get into the apartments and turn everyone into slavering maniacs like the residents of Starliner Towers in David Cronenberg's classic Shivers (in which the swimming pool is also a significant location in a soulless apartment block). Instead everyone just degenerates into animalistic savagery, and it's neither entertaining, intellectually stimulating or dramatically interesting. It ends with an audio clip of Margaret Thatcher speechifying about capitalism, because hey guys, capitalism is horrible and rich people are bastards. Right?

But I guess I knew I wouldn't love it. Having emphatically not loved any other Ben Wheatley films thus far, it would be too much to hope I'd suddenly settle into his groove. What surprised me is just how much I didn't like it, just how bored I was, just how irritating I found it, just how much I didn't care about anybody or anything on screen. Yes, it looks nice. Yes, it's got A-list stars. Yes, there are a few oddly interesting music choices (a Portishead version of Abba's SOS). And yes, it's probably very heartfelt and important. Is it any good at all on any of its levels? Sadly not. It's frustrating, politically clunky and very, very dull and I liked it less than anything else I've seen in a cinema this year.




Oh no! Another remake! Another veritable classic goes through Hollywood's chop shop to be transformed into bland beige gloop: all the rough edges shaved off, all the sharp corners smoothed over, all the distinct textures washed away into tepid, anonymous mediocrity. Can't they leave our beloved masterpieces alone and try to make something original, rather than desecrating things they simply don't understand? The Wicker Man, Friday The 13th, Robocop, and now this....

In the event, of course, it doesn't really matter. Halloween, A Nightmare On Elm Street and Dawn Of The Dead will always be Carpenter, Craven and Romero, in spite of the best efforts of whichever one of Larry, Curly and Moe thought they could do better. If it turns out they can do better: well, hurrah, you've got another great movie to enjoy that you weren't expecting. And if they can't: you can just smile smugly in the knowledge that it was a dumb idea all along. Duff remakes of films that weren't even masterpieces in the first place, like The Fog, Last House On The Left or The Amityville Horror, are already all but forgotten, but of course the wild and undeniably superior reimaginings of The Thing and The Fly can be discounted because they don't really fit the argument.

The basic thrust of Martyrs remains the same: young girls are held captive by a cult (led this time by Kate Burton) and subjected to extreme torture, to push their agonies to a point of transcendence where they can see into the afterlife and then report back what they witnessed. But this new version is nowhere near as brutal as Pascal Laugier's 2008 original: it's still pretty grisly (enough to get an 18 certificate) but, depending on your point of view, either more accessible or less confrontational. As one who wasn't wildly enthusiastic about the original film (I did like it but I've had no desire to watch it at any point in the intervening seven years) I don't believe this is entirely a bad thing.

Yes, sure it's softer than the original. But it's made for the more mainstream, less adventurous audience who probably aren't going to look at the original foreign language version anyway. By comparison it may be only turned up to eight, but not everything needs to be played at full blast and it doesn't lose anything from being toned down a notch. And it's not as if you don't still have the French original to enjoy!




Is there much more dispiriting than a comedy that just flat out refuses to work despite the best and most strenuous efforts of everyone involved? Well, how about a comedy where no-one seems to care very much? How about a comedy where a clearly talented cast are thoroughly defeated by the dead-on-the-page material and have no real interest in anything other than getting it over with as quickly as possible? You can see it in their eyes that every last one of them would rather be doing absolutely anything even if it's just staring out of the window: they know that no-one is getting out with a shred of dignity intact and this is one of those calamities that seemed like a good idea at the time - except there's no way this ever looked like a good idea. Small wonder then that Maureen Lipman tried to put it into Room 101 when she was the show's special guest. And small wonder the film has disappeared from UK distribution entirely following its VHS release: no-one wants to touch the damned thing. What beats me is why anyone went near it in the first place.

The idea of doing a comedic take on Columbus' discovery of America on the 500th anniversary isn't necessarily a bad one - as a complement to the two serious 1492 films - but Carry On Columbus needed a script that took longer than ten days to throw together and enough of a budget to ensure the shipboard scenes were better staged than the Cockermouth Amateur Operatic Society's last production of HMS Pinafore. The end result looks cheap and tawdry and it's not funny: it meshes the production values of an ITV studio sitcom with the sparkling wit and wordplay of an ITV studio sitcom.

Given the absences of Sid James, Kenneth Williams, the peerless Charles Hawtrey and the rest of the gang, rebooting the Carry On brand makes about as much sense as bringing back Abbott And Costello or George Formby: they were of their time and that time has long gone. Only a handful of familiar Carry On faces were still around in 1992 and not all of them were keen on dancing those old steps again anyway so to fill the gaps a stellar assortment of new comedians (Alexei Sayle, Julian Clary, Rik Mayall, Peter Richardson) try and fail to make anything of the thuddingly awful script. Clary and Richard Wilson do their usual thing, while veterans of the series like Jon Pertwee, Leslie Phillips and June Whitfield are given almost nothing to do and top-billed Jim Dale and Bernard Cribbins are given lots to do, none of it worth doing.

Compensations? Redeeming features? Anything on the positive side? Well, it's fairly short, and it's arguably 0.02% less offensive than Carry On Emmanuelle. But it was still a monumentally bad idea badly executed: a long way from the glory days of Cleo, Screaming, Henry and (my personal favourite) Cowboy. Hardly worth watching, even for series fans and masochists.


Sunday, 20 March 2016



Unthinkable! Can it really be that someone has managed a new wrinkle on the found footage genre several years after it had been thoroughly flogged to death? Israeli production Jeruzalem (despite the large red Z in the title it's nothing to do with World War Z, and isn't even a zombie movie) doesn't solve any of the by now overfamiliar problems of the form - either narrative or technical - but at least it's documenting something slightly more interesting than the usual night-vision idiocy and it does lace proceedings with a few nice gags about the technology.

Shot entirely first-person with Google Glass (which makes the film a one-off, at least for the present, as that product has now been put on hold), Jeruzalem tells of (the barely seen) Sarah and her best friend Rachel, two annoying American tourists who suddenly decide to abandon their (presumably expensive) holiday to Tel Aviv in favour of hanging out in Jerusalem. Of course they don't know that there have been documented instances of the dead coming back to life there; they don't know one of the holiest cities in the world is built on one of the three gates of Hell. So they've having a terrific time partying when suddenly the apocalypse happens. As the city descends into the chaos of a hasty evacuation, impossibly tall demon beasts walk the streets and the dead return as malevolent angels spreading a contagion, our heroines try and get out of the city through the network of ancient tunnels....

It all ends, as these things inevitably do, with a lot of running around in the dark and screaming while the impressive-looking monsters aren't seen in more than shaky glimpses, and Sarah does the usual illogical thing of refusing to believe that one of her comrades is transforming into a demon in front of her. Still, the film does manage some nice moments through the Google Glass technology: music tracks, maps and Skype conversations open up on screen (bringing to mind Unfriended), while facial recognition software that opens up Facebook profiles is a neat way of introducing characters.

But you are yet again left with the feeling that this could have been a decent little religion-based horror movie if they'd made it as a proper film. I know it's more difficult and more expensive, but it's worth it. Yet again the project is sunk by the format: it restricts the film-makers to a single viewpoint and it allows for no injection of visual style. Moreover, it (yet again) makes no narrative sense within the context of events on screen: how has all the footage been obtained, who has edited it together, and why on Earth would they spend half the running time documenting the holiday antics of Sarah and Rachel when there's a full-on biblical Day Of Judgement going on down the street? Overall it's a slight improvement on the usual found routine, but not enough.


Monday, 14 March 2016



It's always interesting to see a movie which makes absolutely no concessions to the multiplex audience somehow getting a release beyond the arthouse circuits. Will it find favour out of its natural habitat? Will the Friday night date-and-a-pizza crowd give it a go or stick to the big studio crowdpleasers? And if they do make that leap into the unknown, will they like it and maybe make genuinely weird movies a viable concern? Or will they find it so strange and different that they'll scurry quickly back to the safety of Marvel and Michael Bay? Because pretty much everything about The Witch seems to have been designed specifically to annoy and alienate that popcorn demographic, from the dialogue to the score and even the aspect ratio. Which is no bad thing, frankly.

Subtitled A New England Folktale, The Witch (technically it's The VVitch but that just looks weird) tells of an immigrant English family in 1630's America, freshly thrown out of a Puritan community for being too puritanical. Trouble strikes early when the youngest of the children disappears without trace: was it witchcraft that spirited the baby away for an occult ritual? Is there something genuinely evil lurking in the woods? Or does it lurk within the family themselves - as a result of their unreasoning obsession with original sin and eternal damnation, or a need to escape that suffocating religious fervour?

It aims for an atmosphere of quiet dread rather than big shocks (though it did make me jump at one point): it has no gore or black humour, its bogeyman figure is kept to the shadows at all times and may not even be there. Instead it works its power through terrific acting (especially from the children) and its unbroken mood of darkness that may or may not contain some malevolent physical entity, all helped by keeping the dialogue in ancient English throughout: lots of "thee" and "thou" which is startling at first but you soon get used to it. It's shot in a cropped 5:3 ratio (emphasising the height of the woods rather than width) with a sombre, colourless palette, and overlaid with Mark Korven's non-traditional soundtrack of dissonant, partly improvised choir wailings (think Ligeti's choral pieces as heard in 2001: A Space Odyssey) and instruments such as a hurdy-gurdy and something called a nyckelharpa, to create an unsettling aura of menace and unease: there might be an evil out there, or it might already be here with you.

If the film does have a manifestation of occult Evil, it's the family's pet goat, Black Phillip, sinister star of the UK poster artwork who might as easily be the Satanic embodiment as just a regular goat. Whichever, he already has his own (supposedly comedic) Twitter account and will almost certainly turn up in lame spoofs of the Scary Movie variety. Certainly The Witch qualifies as a horror film, though it's a radically different beast from any horror movie that's played the circuits in recent years. It's a horror movie in the way Under The Skin was a science-fiction movie: that's technically what it is but it's quite unlike any other films of that category. But is The Witch actually scary? Not by traditional horror movie standards, perhaps: the archaic dialogue (which is apparently verbatim from records of the time) and period setting tend to distance it from the real world of 2016, and its refusal to commit to an actual or a psychological explanation for its horrors means we're not sure what to be scared of, but the film has definitely conjured something. It didn't completely wow me when I saw it, but the more I think about it, the more I like it.


Wednesday, 9 March 2016



Every so often there's one of those strange coincidences which throws up two similarly-themed movies around the same time (Volcano and Dante's Peak, Antz and A Bug's Life, Deep Impact and Armageddon): in 2013 we got two knuckle-headed action movies that were basically Die Hard In The White House. Neither White House Down nor Olympus Has Fallen were great films, but they were enjoyable enough: mindless popcorn spectaculars full of gung-ho flagwaving and big explosions with a not very well hidden Author's Message of Don't Mess With America.

In London Has Fallen, presidential bodyguard Gerard Butler doesn't so much wrap himself in the Stars And Stripes as tattoo it on his knuckles and challenge the rest of the world to come and have a go. No sooner have various world leaders gathered in London for the funeral of the British PM (including a randy Italian, cavorting with his lady friend atop Westminster Abbey) than terrorists show up with grenades and guns and rocket launchers and proceed to blow everyone and everything away. Butler manages to get the Prez out of the danger zone, but the arms dealer mastermind behind the carnage has special plans for him and has recruited legions of troops to capture him....

It's thoroughly terrible, and it's objectionable on numerous levels. Let's not bother too much with the female characters, because the film certainly doesn't: Radha Mitchell gets a bit at the start and finish as Butler's pregnant wife and Angela Bassett has a few scenes as his boss, while Charlotte Riley turns up over half way through as an MI5 agent who gets to take out the secondary villain. Let's be more concerned with the film's frankly ugly political stance which would make Chuck Norris look like a bit of a softie: Butler's declaration that "everyone is a terrorist scumbag until proven otherwise" might carry a bit more weight if he (or the film) actually gave any of them a chance to prove otherwise before emptying a handgun into them at first sight: he's not so much "shoot first, ask questions later" than "shoot first, move on".

Even as blokey, sweary, aggressively right-wing macho gun fantasies go, however, London Has Fallen is rubbish: maybe you could forgive, or at least ignore, the alarming politics and the sidelining of all the female characters if the movie was big dumb fun or at least competently strung together the way this sentence isn't. For a film that actively promises to kaboom most of London it's surprisingly lacking in spectacular money shots: we don't get to see Buck House, Big Ben or the Raymond Revuebar orgasmically reduced to digital cinders. And the destruction we do see is performed with CGI so unconvincing you suspect the FX crew from Sharknado have either lowered their game or they got a bulk deal on ZX Spectrums.

It's less of a meat-and-potatoes thudfest and more of a boiled-beef-and-carrots wet slap of a film, Compensation is very thin on the ground: there are big names in the cast (Jackie Earle Haley, Melissa Leo, Colin Salmon, Robert Forster) but they're given nothing to do; Morgan Freeman does his worthy, statesmanlike Morgan Freeman act again, and the naming of one second banana character does result in a pleasing (or terrifying) mention of "Prime Minister Clarkson" towards the end. None of it makes any sense on a narrative level, it's morally questionable to anyone outside of the EDL whackjob club (Butler swearily tells one goon, who he miraculously hasn't shot yet, to go back to wherever he came from), it has absolutely no sense of humour, and it's slung together with a lack of quality control bordering on audience contempt. Everyone involved should really sit down in a darkened room for a few hours and think seriously about what they've done.


Thursday, 3 March 2016



There's nothing particularly wrong with this low-key London-based psychological thriller. It's got a decent enough story to tell and it does it without much fuss or empty distraction, it's certainly well enough performed and put together with a satisfyingly bleak ending. But the only question that really stands out is "why is this in the cinema?": The Ones Below looks and feels like a TV movie which would play quite happily on BBC2 just after the watershed on a Sunday night, but it never feels like a a theatrical film that could be playing next door to a Marvel superhero epic. The BBC Films logo has graced a lot of "proper" movies in recent years - Saving Mr Banks, Quartet, The Awakening just three out of hundreds of titles - but to be honest this doesn't have any more of a cinema feel than any BBC peak-time thriller.

Essentially The Ones Below is a four-hander between two couples, Kate and Justin (Clemence Poesy, Stephen Campbell Moore) and Teresa and Jon (Laura Birn, David Morrissey), both of whom are expecting, in apartments in the same building, specifically concerning the aftermath of a tragedy in which one of the babies is lost. It was clearly an accident, but once the other baby is born the young mother starts to suspect her former neighbours are not as friendly as they seem to be: they might be conspiring against her in acts of increasingly uncomfortable revenge - but is it all in her head or is there actually something to it?

The Ones Below does at least resolve that question of whether the heroine's demons are real or imaginary, allowing for a satisfying downbeat conclusion to a quiet, understated, occasionally agreeably unsettling film. It's set firmly in an affluent middle-class London (someone actually says "We've run out of saffron!" while making dinner) and it gives no clear indication as to what the husbands actually do for a living except a vague mention that Jon is some kind of high-flying investor. Comparisons have been made (though not by me) to Roman Polanski, presumably for its leading lady going slowly mad in her apartment (Repulsion), for her increasing concerns over her pregnancy (Rosemary's Baby) or simply for its two initially cordial sets of parents pitted against each other (Carnage).

It's a perfectly solid film - David Morrissey is watchable as ever - but it's mostly pretty unremarkable and doesn't have any big show-off setpieces to burst off the screen, content to start off as a personal drama before heading for restrained thriller territory. Granted, not everything has to be a white-knuckle multiplex spectacular, and The Ones Below is a film that isn't even trying to be in that league, but a measure of zip would perhaps have helped and would have made it a more memorable movie if nothing else.




You know that feeling when you're watching a movie and you're seduced into the atmosphere and the general vibe? You're sucked into the mood and the look of the film, you've settled into its groove when DEMON!!! suddenly and without warning something horrible appears out of nowhere to make you jump? It's an undeniably effective and GHOST!!! reliable horror film tactic, like a jab with a sharp stick, but it looks a little hackneyed now and it feels cheap and WHOA!!! SCARY FACE!!! lazy when the film is absolutely capable of MONSTER!!! EEEK!!! conjuring up a perfectly persuasive aura of dread and anxiety without resorting NIGEL FARAGE!!!! to the easiest of jack-in-the-box techniques.

It's as if the makers of The Forest don't trust the material to deliver without zazzing it up, and they really should. Schoolteacher Jess (Natalie Dormer) has gone missing in Aokigahara, a forest at the base of Mount Fuji with a history as a suicide site. Her sister Sara (also Dormer) travels over to find out what happened to her: trusting the psychic bond between the identical twins over the fears and concerns of Jess' colleagues, pupils and the locals....

As an American stab at J-Horror (though shot over five and a half thousand miles away in Serbia), it certainly has the folklore and mythology aspect we got maybe a little overfamiliar with in the immediate wake of Ringu and Ju-On (mercifully, there are no jerky-limbed girl ghosts with faces obscured by lank black hair). It has a pleasing darkness and cold dread about it. But every so often it has to yell Boo! in your ear and while that may send the popcorn flying it leaves the sense that things would have been more unsettling had they concentrated on the film as a whole rather than the isolated (and sometimes irrelevant) jump moments. The end result feels like a missed opportunity as the legends of Aokigahara - a real place with a genuine history - would have made a perfectly decent movie by themselves.




One of the problems with writing about, or even talking about, movies is the avoidance of spoilers. It's not enough to keep the big plot twist a secret: these days it's bad form to even suggest there is a big plot twist. In this post-Shyamalan era we've become so used to the idea of there being a major reveal that we end up watching every movie trying to figure what that reveal might be, even when there isn't one. So it's very difficult to discuss a film like Goodnight Mommy (original title Ich Seh Ich Seh) without at least hinting at the presence of a Rosebud or a Keyser Soze moment. In any case it's definitely one of those films where the less you know, the better, and going in totally cold is the ideal.

For the most part it's a three-hander with a simple set-up: during an idyllic summer in the countryside, twin brothers Elias and Lukas (Elias and Lukas Schwarz) gradually come to suspect that the bandaged woman claiming to be their mother (Susanne Wuest) may be an impostor. If so, where's their real mother? Is she really their mother who's just come away from plastic surgery (either as a result of cosmetic procedures to enhance her TV career, or reconstruction following an accident)? Or - potential spoilers ahoy - is there something much darker and more sinister going on?

The film morphs from "what's wrong with Mommy?" to "what's wrong with those kids?", but it does it so neatly and so smartly that you don't initially realise the whole movie has shifted a whole 180 degrees on its axis. Even if you do guess what's actually going on - as I did eventually, and probably a long time after most people cottoned on - it doesn't matter too much as directors Severin Fiala and Veronika Franz turn the thriller screws pretty tight in the second half, occasionally offsetting the tension with some odd comedy asides (such as the unexpected arrival of a pair of Red Cross collectors who casually wander around the house looking for donations).

It looks wonderful ("shot in glorious 35mm", according to the last line of the end credit crawl), building the tension superbly and opting for an unsettling tone rather than outright violence; the BBFC have given it a 15 certificate and their warning notes "strong violence" and "scenes of torture", but it's hardly a gorefest. Aside from a few painful moments (particularly one involving superglue), it's more interested in the personal and emotional rather than the visually visceral. And it works: I enjoyed Goodnight Mommy far more than I was expecting and, barring a few wonky moments around the ending, it's one of the best releases of the year so far. Such a pity we've had to wait so long for it.