Tuesday, 29 September 2020

THE BORDERLANDS

CONTAINS SPOILERS

So I finally yielded to the cacophany of voices telling me that The Borderlands is really good. "Is it a found-footage, though? Because I don't do found-footage any more, it's a long dead subgenre that had its very meagre bag of tricks emptied very quickly many years ago." "Well, yes, but it's a good one, trust me. Honest it is. This is the one that actually does something interesting and effective with the format and it's properly scary and everything the way it's supposed to be." "Really? Because I've been kicked in the nackers so many times with these things and I really don't want to go back in there again." "Seriously, it's fine. This is the one."

No it isn't. It's just more of the same, much more of the same faux-doc shakycam rubbish, murky security footage non-photography, no sense of who's supposedly edited it all together (or why they've spliced in time-lapse countryside shots that obviously weren't filmed by the "characters"). It is the absolute usual, save for the inexplicable casting of familiar faces which works against the idea of it being "real" because it's Gordon Kennedy out of Absolutely.

Sure it makes you jump a few times but that's not very difficult: it's the well-timed orchestration of spooky noises and the occasional loud bang. It has a fine location in its tiny, barely attended moorland church, either the site of paranormal activity or a clever fake involving hidden wires and speakers, and it certainly looks creepy when lit by a single bulb in the dead of night through the remorseless gaze of a static camera. But so would the biscuit aisle at your local Waitrose if the chocolate digestives suddenly fall off the shelves. And the final moments of the film do go where no other horror movie I can immediately think of have gone.

My main annoyance, apart from the fact that I've been comprehensively suckered yet again, really stems from the fact that so much of The Borderlands could have been done as a straight horror film with proper cameras and a music score. Much of the screenplay, from the occasionally almost sitcom dialogue to the handy plot points like the discovery of the diary of the church's original minister, feels like it could have been shot in the regular manner, and frankly would have been so much more effective for it. If you want to go further: that "normal" version could actually have been an interesting project for Danny Dyer who would have easily fitted in as the tech specialist fitting all the cameras and microphones. There aren't many films that would have been improved by the inclusion of Danny Dyer but this is one of them. Made back in 2013 and also known as Final Prayer.

**

Friday, 11 September 2020

CONJURING: THE BOOK OF THE DEAD

CONTAINS SPOILERS AND PUBLIC WARNING

He's back. You thought he'd gone away, you thought they'd got rid of him. But not even the massed ranks of HMRC and the courts could stop him: Richard Driscoll is back and making films again. And the time served for tax fraud has not made him any better at writing or acting or directing or producing - not that that has prevented him from writing, starring in, directing and producing this thunderingly seventh-rate sack of incoherent drivel that isn't borderline professional. Indeed it ranks as barely even amateur.

Nominally based on MR James' Casting The Runes, this has a heavily medicated author (Driscoll, under his usual pseudonym of Steven Craine) hired by Lysette Anthony to research legendary occultist Aleister Crowley for a new graphic novel. Trekking all the way to New Orleans for no good reason (he could have stayed home with one of the numerous biographies, or indeed just googled him), he meets a variety of blimey-it's-him characters who turn up for one or two scenes (Sylvester McCoy, Michael Madsen, Tom Sizemore) and starts typing a Word document sketching out the plot of Driscoll's earlier The Legend Of Harrow Woods (including footage from it which explains why Jason Donovan is in the credits but doesn't explain why Norman Wisdom isn't). Eventually there's a black mass with red robes and a feeble car crash...

Conjuring: The Book Of The Dead (nothing to do with the James Wan Conjuring movies) is desperately, punishingly bad: not so-bad-it's-good rubbish but just plain bad on every level, from storytelling and performance through to basic technical competence. The Necronomicon is mispronounced Necromonicon twice by different actors. The CG effects are dire, the nudity is entirely gratuitous and pointless, and the sound recording renders most of Tom Sizemore's bit all but inaudible. Editing is slack, photography is My First Camcorder murky, the plot is gibberish and the dialogue is atrocious. It's mercifully short at 75 minutes but it's still well down to Driscoll's astonishingly low lack of standards. The only laugh you might get from it is during the end credits when Assistant is routinely abbreviated to Ass, and a variety of poor sods are thus listed as Ass Grip or Ass Make Up.

Someone might care to investigate how much this blathering nonsense owes to an earlier Driscoll project called When The Devil Rides Out, listed on the IMDb with the same cast but no apparent release; this may be the result of confusion, or the earlier film might have been re-edited into this one. Someone might, but it isn't going to be me. Having sat through The Comic thirty years ago at the Scala and having been subsequently bored and insulted by Kannibal and Eldorado I think I can find better things to do with my evenings. There really is no excuse for vaguely respectable actors and familiar faces to sully themselves with this kind of tripe, even Robin Askwith who's only in it for about thirty seconds: by comparison Confessions Of A Window Cleaner and ITV sitcoms about randy milkmen now seem like some kind of Golden Age. It's not just that this is absolute face-punching rubbish: it's that there are no standards on Earth by which this is not absolute face-punching rubbish. Consider yourselves warned.

*

Monday, 7 September 2020

THE SWERVE

CONTAINS SPOILERS AND CONTAINS SPOILERS

The Swerve is, frustratingly, half a good film, and half a bad film. The first section is perfectly decent: well observed, well written and played, interesting, entirely plausible and absorbing. But somewhere in the middle it morphs into something utterly annoying, occasionally ridiculous, and ends on a miserable downbeat note that undoes a lot of the earlier good work and, for me, left me deflated and unenthused. Maybe I wanted it to play to the crowd a little more, maybe I wanted it to be more of the psychological thriller the director introduced it as.

It's not a psychological thriller, it's a psychological drama. It's a coldly believable piece centred around English teacher Holly (Azure Skye) and her frankly horrible family: lazy children, unloving (and faithless) husband, aggressively unlikeable sister. She's on sleeping medication, she's downtrodden (stuck with the washing up while everyone else enjoys themselves), ignored, taken for granted, routinely unappreciated... until one evening she runs a couple of obnoxious bellowing yahoos off the road.

But at somewhere around the halfway point there's a scene, which I shall obliquely refer to as The Hand Scene, when I lost all sympathy and involvement. Partly because dramatically it just didn't fit, partly because it seemed so wildly out of character (not to mention unprofessional) for her, and partly because why are we still supposed to empathise with her? The swerve of the title is not so much the fatal car crash, more her sudden shift in character. And from that point it doesn't get better: once the sad scrapey strings kicked off with an elegy for a dead mouse (shamefully, I giggled) there was no way back for it.

I'm also not sure whether a movie about someone with a whole battery of anxieties, problems and stresses should send such a questionable message by ending with the darkest of all possible conclusions, but maybe that was the point: this is what ultimately happens if people's psychological and emotional needs aren't addressed but allowed to fester until there's no other way out. Certainly it would have been easier, and more popcorn fun, for that car "accident" to have triggered in her the strength to  seriously sort her loathsome brood out, but that wasn't the film they wanted to make even if, deep down, that was more the kind of film I wanted to watch.

***

Friday, 4 September 2020

AQUASLASH

CONTAINS SOME SPOILERS AND DESPAIR

After the straight slasher movie (Halloween), the sequel slasher movie (Halloween II), the ripoff slasher movie (Prom Night), the ripoff sequel slasher movie (Sorority House Massacre II), the spoof slasher movie (Wacko), the ironic slasher movie (Scream), the remake slasher movie (Rob Zombie's Halloween) and the reboot slasher movie (David Gordon Green's Halloween), the next step, sadly, appears to be the retro slasher movie. Specifically, a movie that's not harking back to Halloween or Friday The 13th but The Mutilator or Umberto Lenzi's Nightmare Beach, deliberately recalling all those useless knockoffs and near-forgotten cheapies we unaccountably used to love twenty years ago rather than the genre's high points (possibly because they're too familiar and many of them have gone down the remake route already).

Aquaslash is an astonishingly hateful concoction: by turns boring, annoying and incredibly stupid. It is a film in which every single character is utterly despicable and without one single redeeming feature and you can't wait to see them get bloodily hacked to pieces. It is a film that spends what feels like hours plodding through the sexual and emotional turmoils of its tiresome teenage simpletons, oblivious to the fact that no-one on Earth cares one hoot whether she goes with him or he cops off with her. Because it's a longstanding tradition, the high school graduation party is held at the local water park (despite the occasional fatalities): amidst the love triangles, the infantile bullying, the drinking and snorting and shagging and fighting and cavorting about in bikinis, someone is planning to sabotage the water slides with sharpened saw blades....

Sure, the first hour or more of imbecile soap opera pays off with a final act of bloody carnage that's certainly spectacular, but there's nothing to enjoy except the spectacle because you absolutely don't care, don't care, don't care. Aquaslash makes Porky's look like The Seventh Seal and I may have lost forty IQ points just being in the same room; even the worst and lamest offerings from the arse end of the original slasher cycle weren't this gruelling.

But more than just being bored, I was actually feeling insulted, seeing the admittedly variable standards of my beloved horror genre being so comprehensively trashed. Lord knows there have terrible horror movies pretty much since the invention of the horror movie and even the warmest waves of nostalgia can't cover up the inadequacies and idiocies of Final Exam, Blood Song or Graduation Day. (I always had an irrational fondness for Friday The 13th Part V but I can't defend that one any longer.) But even by those standards Aquaslash is substandard, and whether it's a deliberate or accidental - either a knowing, painstaking homage to bad film or just the inability to do any better - scarcely matters.

There's a moment when it looks like it might be actively referencing the original Friday The 13th, with its inattentive lifeguards too busy groping each other to realise someone's been killed; but it doesn't ultimately mean anything because nothing does; there are other moments when the film's principal reference point is clearly The Bikini Carwash Company. The comedy doesn't work because there's no empathy with anyone, the suspense doesn't work because you actually want to see them die. The sole point of interest is an early reversal where the main black guy doesn't get racially abused because he's actually the principal troublemaker and chief alpha-dickhead bully. Other than that, it's rubbish and you might as well watch genuine 80s slasher rubbish like Mountaintop Motel Massacre or Satan's Blade instead of 80s-infused slasher rubbish like this.

*

SKY SHARKS

CONTAINS SPOILERS????

Is it ironic that in Sky Sharks there are just too many plot elements, spectacular events and general things happening for one film, yet one film is absolutely more than enough? So many strands going on, flitting back and forth between them, yet at the same time there's hardly anything there and what there is is, ultimately, not very good. In no particular order there are Nazis, war criminals, naked women, sharks, invisibility cloaks, mutation serums, sex in the lavatory, zombie super soldiers, Herman Goering, more naked women, the Vietnam war and much terrible music. Ingredients there are plenty, but they've not been prepared, measured or cooked properly and the result is mostly a lumpen, indigestible pudding.

Richter was a former Nazi scientist brought to the US under Operation Paperclip and is now a billionaire tech mogul; one of his wartime schemes involved not only the development of an evil super-soldier strength serum but also the creation of invisible flying sharks to take control of the skies. No, really. Anyway, the ship they were all on has now been thawed out due to global warming and they're out and destroying airliners full of disposable children and familiar guest stars (Robert LaSardo, Lynn Lowry), and only Richter's two daughters can save the day - and one of those has been infected with the super serum.

It's never actually boring, because there's just too much going on, but it's obviously absolute nonsense, trying to top the SyFy/Asylum stupidometer and, yes, succeeding. Even given the near-toxic stupidity levels of Sharknado 4 and Mega Piranha, Sky Sharks is probably the maddest shark movie thus far. Yet there's a sense of pandering to the lowest levels: ultra-gory carnage (some prosthetic, in which Tom Savini was involved and which looks great, and some CGI, which looks terrible), cheap, crass and ugly nudity (do they not know that we have porn pretty much on tap now?) and fan favourite cameos (including Amanda Bearse and Tony Todd), as if those elements by themselves will suffice. Tits, blood and the bloke from Candyman - instant horror classic, that'll do.

Cult movies come about by accident, never by purpose - like a lot of Troma movies, this is too graphically gory to be funny, but it's too stupid to take even slightly seriously. (The comparison with Troma ends there: Sky Sharks just isn't in their league for obnoxious bad taste and puerile shock value grossout.) Still, it does feel like another attempt to deliberately create a cult movie and it doesn't work because it's always the audience, not the makers, who decide which films attain cult status and which don't. Just adding sharks to a rubbish Nazi movie (Iron Sky was a fair stab, but lost it in the second half), or just adding Nazis to a rubbish shark movie, isn't enough. There are a few minor, momentary pleasures, and the physical splatter effects are enjoyable, but those aside it's a joke of a film, and not a very well told one. The post-credits bit is a fake trailer for Sky Frogs, which one of the airline passengers was watching on his iPad about seventeen hours before, and which outstays its welcome at around two minutes just as efficiently as Sky Sharks manages at an excessive hundred and two.

**