The Belko Experiment

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US/Colombia | 2016 | Directed by Greg McLean

Logline: A large group of employees trapped in a remote high-rise corporate office are ordered to begin killing each other, or they will be systemically killed.

Written by genre hot-shot James Gunn prior to directing his satirically brilliant Super, and directed by acclaimed ex-pat Aussie Greg McLean (as Gunn decided he no longer wanted to helm the project due to his own divorce) this hybrid horror-thriller-action-black comedy is more entertaining than it deserves to be, but it’s ultimately not as sharp as it thinks it is. 

In a remote property in Bogotá, Colombia, on the outskirts of the city, a building housing Belko Industries employees is preparing for another day on the corporate grind. But something is not right. Security at the entrance is on high, with intimidating armed guards checking IDs and vehicles. Shortly after the working day commences an authoritative voice over the building’s intercom makes a startling announcement; that within the next two hours the eighty employees that are currently within the building must begin a deadly task. They must kill thirty of their co-workers, or else sixty will be killed by alternate means. To punctuate the order impenetrable metal walls seal off any means of escape. Game on.

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Turns out all eighty personnel have an implant in the back of their neck, originally as a security tracking protocol in case of abduction, but revealed, horrifically, as actually a remote-controlled explosive. Yes, the instigators of this sadistic social experiment are deadly serious. A little murderous fun at the expense of the innocent, it’s corporate corruption at its most base level.

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Taking inspiration from the cult Japanse movie Battle Royale, with elements of Punishment Park and The Naked Prey, and even the Saw franchise, The Belko Experiment is essentially an elevated exploitation movie (if you’ll pardon the pun), or shall we say, low-end high concept. It’s the kind of straight-to-video movie that was made in the 80s, and it feels oddly out of place. In fact it has the vibe of a foreign movie that’s been remade for the English-speaking market. Perhaps it would’ve carried a bit more impact if McLean had actually shot the movie in Spanish, probably not, but I kept thinking that all the way through.

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There are no real plot surprises, and there are a few clunkers in the jokes department, but McLean directs with gusto, and he gets solid performances from his cast, all of whom are charismatic, with a few standouts, including the dodgy suits Tony Goldwyn as Norris, the company’s CEO, and John C. McGinley as stationary-chewing sociopath Wendell Dukes, John Gallagher Jr. and Adria Arjona as central protagonists Mike and Leandro, who do their best to stay on top of the chaos and carnage, and also of note, James Gunn’s brother Sean, as neo-hippie dork Marty.

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For a movie relying on lots of bloodshed and a few choice practical gore gags I was surprised there wasn’t an opening titles credit for special effects makeup. If the movie had been made in the 80s, Tom Savini would’ve, no doubt, been all over it. As it is, The Belko Experiment serves up a high protein dish of mayhem. There’s not a whole lot of satirical fibre, but the ending, whilst expected, provides a satisfying bigger picture.   

 

 

Killing Ground

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Australia | 2016 | Directed by Damien Power

Logline: A family camping in a remote location are terrorised by two locals who have already committed a horrific crime and are intent on doing more.

There must be something in the Aussie water that compels local horror filmmakers to paint the country red with the blood of victims slain by redneck serial killers, especially in the last ten years or so; The Loved Ones, Snowtown, Dying Breed, 100 Bloody Acres, Charlie’s Farm, and, of course, the most infamous, Wolf Creek, to name a few. Here’s the latest, the feature debut from writer/director Damien Power, who does nothing further for the Australian tourism board, just like Greg Mclean and the others. Of course, one could argue that Aussie horror movies about deadly critters have been just as prevalent; Long Weekend, Razorback, Black Water, Rogue, The Reef, to scatter a few more, but I digress. There seems to be a real fascination with the psycho Ocker from out west. 

Harriet (Sam) and her boyfriend Ian (Ian Meadows) are looking for a quiet spot to pitch tent and see the New Year in. Whilst stopping for supplies Ian asks for directions from a grubby local, German (Aaron Pederson), who recommends a more remote location nearby. Soon enough they’re enjoying the tranquility of a bush land watering hole. Another tent has been pitched at the other end of the billabong, but the owners are curiously absent.

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Soon enough the missing owners’ whereabouts will be revealed, as Power begins to thread back and forth with two narrative timelines; that of Harriet and Sam encountering German and his dim-witted mate Chook (Aaron Glenane), and that of a family who arrived shortly after Xmas; Rob (Julian Garner), his wife Margaret (Maya Stange), and their teenaged daughter Em (Tiarnie Coupland), and toddler son Ollie, who happen to have encountered the same two locals.

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The two timelines collide at the titular spread deeper into the bush from the camping spot when Chook leads Ian to where he thinks the family have trekked to, and the reveal of what happened is brutal and confronting, even though the audience is only privy to the latter end of it.

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Killing Ground is well-made on the technical front, but I have many issues with the scripting, and the performances are okay, with Harriet Dyer and Aaron Pedersen being a cut above the rest. The movie might impress those who don’t usually stray into such territory, but for True Believers it never manages to be as remarkable or memorable as it wants to be, or even thinks it is.

The non-linear dual narrative feels like a decision made late in the editing stages. Maybe it was written in from the beginning, but it comes across as a gimmick. I certainly didn’t believe German and Chook would leave the scene of their crime they way they were intending to, with their DNA covering everything, or maybe they really were as thick as thieves. They’re not especially menacing either.

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But I have a bunch of bees in my bonnet. Why spend so much time trying to invest empathy with the first family – especially the daughter – when their ordeal and demise is executed (pardon the pun) in such an off-hand and, ultimately, removed way. And what’s with the early scene in the toilets with the cop, other than to provide a red herring later on? That kind of thing annoys me. 

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Now, horror movies that are aiming for realism need to make sure the violence that appears on-screen be as realistic as possible, which means a close-range rifle shot to the head would be extremely destructive, not just knock the victim's head to one side. Hey, I’m not nitpicking; this kind of negligence scuttles a horror movie for me. 

I have more issues, such as the dog leaving its owner’s side, and that lame ending, but I’m gonna leave it at that. Killing Ground is brutal, but in a half-arsed way, it's not very convincing, and it’s certainly not scary. It’s no Wolf’s Creek

 

 

Playground

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Plac Zabaw | Poland | 2016 | Directed by Bartosz M. Kowalski

Logline: Following the behaviour and actions of three 12-year-olds on the last day of primary school; a girl, a boy she harbours a secret crush on, and the boy’s best friend.

Gabrysia (Michalina Swistun) fancies young Szymek (Nicolas Przygoda). Szymek and his best friend Czarek (Przemyslaw Balinski) are bored, restless, and ticking time bombs. Gabrysia isn’t conventionally pretty, but she plucks up the courage to manipulate the object of her affection, by blackmailing him into a clandestine meeting, with the threat of exposing apparent compromising photos. Szymek brings Czarek along for moral backup and to help enforce any assumed punishment that needs meting out.

In the movie’s opening montage we see a series of apparently innocuous locations. The movie’s narrative is broken up into a series of chapters, the first three named after the three central characters. Gabrysia applies lipstick in the bathroom, prettying herself. Her father interrupts her and she stares back at him. With the lipstick removed Gabrysia dons her school uniform and writes a secret note. She deliberately drinks scolding hot water and grimaces at the pain. While her mother drives her to school she texts her friend reminding her of a plan. She is a determined young girl.

Szymek deals with his invalid father, helping the wheelchair bound man do his morning ablutions and feeding him breakfast, then carefully styling his quiff, before, inexplicably, slapping his father violently around the head after he puts the poor man back into his bed. The boy then slips his school bag over his shoulders, gazes vacantly into the hallway mirror, and slips out of the public housing block, then lights a cigarette from his secret stash.

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Czarek sits in his bedroom staring at his wailing infant brother, whom he shares the bedroom with. Finally he picks the upset baby up. He pleads with his mother for his own room. She refuses him. His older brother teases and threatens him when he asks to borrow money for a school requirement. He reacts to the rejections by shaving his head of his blond mop. HIs mother is indifferent. Later, on the way to school, having been to the butchers, he taunts a dog but placing the bagged meat just out of the dog’s reach and then videoing the scene.

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It is obvious both Szymek and Czarek come from dysfunctional households. Both boys have broken morals, and as Playground unfolds towards its utterly devastating denouement their behaviour becomes more and more frighteningly sociopathic, ultimately descending into the pit of pure abject evil. The threat of violence that is quietly palpable at movie’s beginning increases and in the eventual confrontation between the two boys and the girl there is a distressing indication of sexual assault.

But the really horrific violence is yet to come, and nothing will prepare you for its impact, except the realisation during the scene at the shopping mall that the events unfolding echo the true life crime of the 1993 abduction, torture, and murder of two-year-old James Bulger by two ten-year-old boys, Robert Thompson and Jon Venables. It is this tenebrous shroud that will smother the viewer.

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Filmed like a docudrama Playground has the unassuming naturalism of Elephant, and is punctuated at film’s end with the same kind of perspective that makes the rape scene in Irreversible so traumatising; a single long take, the action viewed from a distance, helplessly trapped from intervention. The crime is far more appalling to witness than if the director had chosen to film it with a sensationalist technique of a series of swiftly-edited closeups, cut to dramatic music, as one would normally see in aconventional horror movie. Ion doing so the scene resembles more of a death film, even a snuff film, but without the voyeuristic intent. It is so disturbing because of its distinct lack of spectacle.

While the ending reminded me of the cold, calculated cruelty of Funny Games, it also brought to mind the haunting end scene of The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With the Sea, those monsters, seemingly innocent, that smile at you on the bus seat opposite, and will stab you when your guard is down.

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Playground is a hard, hard movie to recommend, but the picture it paints is a necessary evil, for it captures the despicable truth of how murderous intent is a psychological disease that can infiltrate the young and impressionable, and if you look, the signs are there. It is a very well made movie, with excellent performances from the three leads, a powerful, brooding score, and very subtle special effects that will leave you dumbstruck.

Those of a fragile sensibility, and especially parents, be warned, Playground will shock you, that’s guaranteed, it may even traumatise you. Hell, I’m a hardened True Believin’ horrorphile and I was rattled. It completes in that scathing, scarring way the very darkest portraits of humankind’s inhumanity to humankind can. 

Playground screens Friday, September 15th, 10.30pm, at Factory Theatre, as part of the 11th Sydney Underground Film Festival.

 

Bad Girl

Australia | 2016 | Directed by Fin Edquist

Logline: A troubled teenage girl, prone to delinquency, moves into a new neighbourhood with her adoptive parents, is befriended by a clean cut local girl, but soon finds herself in dangerous waters. 

During the first fifteen or so minutes of this thriller - with a taste for horror - I was hopeful it would transform into something special, especially with its two leads, Sara West, who plays Amy, the seventeen-year-old with a history of foster homes and drug and alcohol abuse, and Samara Weaving (Hugo's niece), who plays Chloe, the same age, a very pretty girl whose past is shrouded in mystery. The two actors have different kinds of charisma, and they both provide the movie with a strong surface appeal. But, unfortunately, it’s not enough. 

Amy has arrived in a rural Aussie township called Serpentine (yup, apparently it’s a real place) with her two adoptive parents, Peter (Ben Winspear) and Michelle (Felicity Price), who’ve had her since she was twelve. She’s been hard work for them, and they’re at the end of their tether. Amy has one last chance to prove she can be a trusted. The new, modern home is one of Ben’s own architectural projects, and is due to to be sold for a tidy sum. 

Amy wants out immediately, and in the dead of night she slips away, intent on rendezvousing with her city friends, but they bail on her, and, tanked on booze and high on ice, Amy decides jumping off a bridge is the best response. She’s saved by Chloe, her neighbour, who had come around earlier in the day hoping to score a housecleaning job. There’s an immediate connection between the two girls. They may be chalk and cheese, but sometimes opposites attract. 

Bad Girl wants to be taken seriously, and it plays its game very earnestly, but the problem lies with the screenplay, which becomes less and less convincing, and more convoluted, the deeper it delves into the secret agenda of one of its leads. It doesn’t help that the characterisations of the two parents are shallow and rather thankless, which is further hampered by less-than-impressive performances from both the adult actors (I know they’re capable of better work, but they’ve got slender bones to chew on). 

By the time the truth is revealed all plausibility has been thrown out the window. Single White Female meets Fatal Attraction meets Bad Influence meets My Summer of Love, except all those movies are very convincing, even if they are far-fetched, and while Bad Girl nods to all those movies, it fails to conjure much empathy with either of its two adolescent leads, whose connection and relationship manipulation the narrative is hinged on, or the kind of nerve-rattling suspense it demands. 

Perhaps if director Edquist had played more of the horror card, and less of the lustful romance card (where the hell did that come from?!), then maybe Bad Girl might’ve risen above its own shortcomings, it’s own young adult soapy trappings. It certainly needed to be a lot more brutal than the genre kid gloves it was handling it with. But props must go to Warren Ellis for the brooding, electronic score, even if it was underused. His minimalist approach certainly lifts the game of Bad Girl and gives the movie a bit more of that sharp edge it craves.

XX

Canada/US | 2017 | Directed by Jovanka Vuckovic/Annie Clark/Roxanne Benjamin/Karyn Kasuma

Logline: Four short horror films, with female central characters, written and directed by women. 

Devised as a indirect celebration of women filmmakers - the xx chromosome - within the horror genre, this anthology of four tales of the macabre and supernatural is more interesting when looking at the individual short films, rather than the case of the whole movie being greater than the sum of its parts. This is the kind of project that would’ve looked great on paper, but the end product doesn’t quite live up to its promise, or expectations. 

First up is Jovanka Vuckivic’s “The Box”, which she’s adapted from a short story by cult horror writer Jack Ketchum. Jovanka has made three shorts and she is the associate producer on XX. She was editor for over six years on the horror in film and culture magazine Rue Morgue. Her segment is the strongest, certainly it has the most intriguing premise. 

A mother, Susan (Natalie Jacobs) is returning home on the subway with her two children, Danny (Peter DaCunha) and Jenny (Peyton Kennedy). A creepy-looking stranger (Michael Dyson), with a large red box on his lap, sits adjacent to them. Danny pesters the man as to what’s in the box. The man agrees to show him, and gently lifts the lid a little, so that Danny can peer inside. Whatever was inside “infects” Danny. Now Danny is no longer hungry, he no longer wants to eat, much to the concern of his parents, especially his father Robert (Jonathan Watton), who is determined to get the truth from his son. 

The tone and suspense of "The Box" is its strongest elements, but it also features a very gory set-piece that seems to be the climax of the short, seemingly its end, but the narrative wanders into an ending that doesn’t really reward the way it should. I’ve not read the original short story, but the short film had a kind of Twilight Zone meets Roald Dahl feel. 

In “The Birthday Party” wealthy Mary (Melanie Lynskey) is preparing for her precocious young daughter’s bash in the afternoon. Trouble is, her husband is dead in the office, and Mary does not want her maid Carla (Sheila Vand) discovering the situation. What does a mother do? Well, Mary knows full well that show must go on. Guests and their respective parents will be arriving shortly. There’s not a moment to lose. Just then, the doorbell rings. It’s a birthday telegram in the guise of a young man in a panda bear suit. 

Directed by Annie Clark (who has a successful career as hipster, indie pop star St. Vincent), and co-written by Clark and Roxanne Benjamin, this short story sticks out like a pleasantly sore thumb. Not really horror, more like a particularly macabre “tale of the unexpected” a la Roald Dahl (again). There is a deep, darkly comic streak that runs through this short, which has the nail of pitch black comedy rammed into it with the inter-titles at segment’s end. 

Third up is “Don’t Fall” (another of these “meta” titles that really don’t agree with me), written and directed by Roxanne Benjamin, who was one of the producer/directors on another recent horror anthology Southbound. This is easily the most conventional of the four segments, pedestrian even, as it relays the last hours of a bunch of hikers who find some Native American rock wall paintings, and later that evening all fall prey to some kind of marauding wendigo. 

Finally there is Karyn Kasuma’s “Her Only Living Son”, which focuses on a mother’s increasing anxiety over her son’s behaviour as he celebrates his 18th birthday. It becomes quickly apparent that the lad’s father was not of human flesh and blood, and with the teenager now a young man, his true calling does not come from his mama, Cora (Christina Kirk), but instead from something that most likely clomps around on hooves and has horns sprouting from his head. There’ll be tears before bedtime, and there’ll most likely be blood.  

The segments that impressed me the most were “The Box” and “The Birthday Party”. “Don’t Fall” had nothing remarkable about it at all, and whilst I loved Kasuma’s “The Invitation” feature, “Her Only Living Son” wasn't very menacing, and lacked a punchy ending. The Jan Svankmajer-style stop-animation used to book-end the segments, as well as interludes in between, looks cool, but it has nothing to do with any of the segments, so as a wrap-around it feels tenuous, pointless. And, why is the title of each segment credited twice on screen, that’s just annoying. The filmmakers are talented, but XX feels oddly rushed, scrambled together with little thought to its cohesion as a whole. 

It's curious to note that when the project was first announced the directors onboard were Jennifer Lynch, Jen and Sylvia Soska, Mary Harron, and Kasuma. For whatever reason Lynch, the Twisted Twins, and Harron dropped out, and Clark and Benjamin were recruited. Even the posters still have Lynch's name attached. 

I body-doubled as zombie Mum in Peter Jackson's Braindead!

That’s right! During Braindead’s cemetery carnage there is a brief close-up shot of “Mum”, Lionel’s zombie mother, lurching at the camera about to throttle it. That’s me! Well, that was me under a prosthetic mask and wearing prosthetic hands (gloves). I also got to play one of the dozens of zombie extras during the movie’s climactic household carnage, and for one brief moment body-doubled as the beheaded priest (see pic below). 

In 1991 I pulled out of Victoria University of Wellington for a bit of hands-on experience within the film industry. I had become frustrated with the curriculum offered by VUW; you couldn’t major in either of the two areas that most interested me: film and drama. 

I still needed about another year’s worth of credits in order to complete my B.A. But I’d had enough of varsity life. I desired something in my chosen vocation to engulf me. Lady Luck patted me on the back. My father’s partner mentioned to me to contact film producer Jim Booth in regards to a trainee position on a new horror movie being directed by Peter Jackson, who was about to start work on his third feature. 

That's me crouching down, holding a cup of coffee, waiting to pile onto the house set at Avalon Studios to assist shooting some zombie mayhem.

That's me crouching down, holding a cup of coffee, waiting to pile onto the house set at Avalon Studios to assist shooting some zombie mayhem.

I scored the position. I can’t remember exactly how, probably a little nepotism and a whole lot of unbridled enthusiasm on my behalf. But there I was about to start work on a full-blown zombie movie! I was stoked!

My full official title was Production Assistant Trainee, basically a glorified gofer. I spent a lot of the time production running and liaising with the production coordinator and production manager. However, the title also meant that at any given moment I could be hauled off whatever job I was doing in one department and thrown into another department to assist. It was gruelling at times. But there was also a constant air of excitement and anticipation. 

Me as zombie extra. 

Me as zombie extra. 

It was a twelve week shoot, of which two weeks were a night-shoot spent in Karori cemetery, Wellington, and four weeks were spent in a huge open-plan house set at Avalon studios shooting the escalating mayhem and carnage that makes up the movie’s last third set in Lionel and his mother’s home. 

Some of the jobs were hell, especially to a newbie like me. Having to be on-set a full hour before everyone arrived (often arriving when it was still dark outside) and another after everyone left, making sure coffee and tea was constantly available (unit assistance) was not my idea of fun. But hanging with the special effects boys definitely was; watching them create the blood and latex molds, build the miniatures, getting grossed out looking at their forensic pathology “bible”. Dirty horror mischief alright. 

Richard Taylor was head of the creature and gore effects team, his wife Tania was the administrator. This was all pre-digital, before WETA. There were eight technicians, as well as Australian veteran Bob McCarron on board for special makeup and prosthetic application. Those boys worked like dogs, and delivered the goods in spades. 

But the special effects didn’t stop there, there was another team doing miniatures (a Peter Jackson specialty) and another team of puppeteers working various bits and pieces (of which I had a go operating the punk zombie Void’s disemboweled and re-animated intestine and sphincter from under the house set floorbaords! Wahey!), and there was even a chunk of stop-motion photography employed as well, which Richard Taylor and Peter Jackson handled.

Peter Jackson knew where he wanted the budget spent, that was for sure. This was a horror movie for horrorphiles made by a horrorphile. No gore effect was undercut. No drop of blood was spared. In fact Braindead holds (still?) the record for largest volume of blood ever used on a horror movie. To get an idea, during the infamous lawnmower scene fake blood was being pumped at five gallons per second! A total of 300 litres of fake blood was used during the movie’s final scene alone! 

There is an unpleasant downside to having that much fake blood on set under baking studio lights over several weeks. It becomes very sticky, and starts to give off a really disgusting sickly sweet smell. Not fun when you arrive on set early in the morning with a hangover from drinking with the art department the night before. Everyone was relieved when we wrapped the interior house-set. 

The movie was released in America as Dead Alive (another film already had the rights to the title Brain Dead) and was butchered of much of its climatic gore footage. It was my own suggestion to Peter to combine both words as one (my other obscure claim to horror fame), so as to be unique, at the expense of being grammatically incorrect. 

It was a chaotic shoot, with numerous scenes being shot in a wham-bam fashion, but that was the visual style Jackson was after. The film has more cuts per half hour than most films have in their entire running time! It’s a blink and you’ll miss it kinda movie. So make sure you have your eyes peeled during the cemetery scenes otherwise you’ll blink and miss my moment of on-screen horror glory! 

We knew we were making a film destined for cult status (Jackson’s earlier two films had already garnered that status), but we didn’t envisage Braindead eventually becoming regarded by horror fans the world over as possibly the bloodiest, messiest, over-the-top goriest horror movie ever made. Sure, it’s a real cheeseburger kind of flick, and much of the effects have a B-grade look and feel, but that’s precisely the point. Jackson was never intending to make High Art; this was never going to look like Ridley Scott’s Hannibal (2000). 

Ideally one should consume Braindead with heavily buttered, heavily salted popcorn, a super-large coke, or a six-pack of beer, and your tongue playfully squirming in your cheek. Its utter splat-stick, and I had a bloody ball being part of it. 

Now, please, Peter, pretty-please-with-entrails-on-top, can you put together a deluxe special edition Blu-ray with commentary, deleted scenes, and extras (I know George Port shot a lot of behind-the-scenes video!), as you apparently promised you’d do some years ago. We've been waiting patiently, but, hell, it's the 25th anniversary this year! 

Scanners

Canada | 1981 | Directed by David Cronenberg

Logline: A man with powerful psychic abilities is used by an organisation to seek out another of his kind, who has become a dangerous renegade. 

Scanners was the beginning of David Cronenberg’s crossover into the mainstream, although he stepped sideways with Videodrome, he then came back with The Dead Zone, and followed that with his most successful movie, The Fly. Scanners also marked the beginning of the end of his fetish for scientific clinics and shadowy organisations, which had started with his short features Stereo and Crimes of the Future, and continued through Shivers, Rabid, and The Brood, ending with Videodrome.

Scanners is a science fiction thriller, with a strong horror undertone, but it also works as an elusive mystery. Cameron Vale (Stephen Lack) is a social outcast, homeless, plagued by the voices of everyone around writhing in his head. Darryl Revok (Michael Ironside) infiltrates the organisation ConSec, masquerading as an innocent audience member, and partakes in an experiment to showcase “scanners”, a very small number of people in the world who are gifted with the ability of telepathy and mind-control. The scanner unwittingly goes up against Revok, who is a much more powerful scanner, and the results are messy, to say the least. 

Vale is collected and restored by Dr. Ruth (Patrick McGoohan) to help find Revok and stop him from his megalomaniacal agenda. Vale tracks down troubled scanner Pierce (Robert Silverman, in a small, but memorable role), then later teams up with Kim (Jennifer O’Neil), another scanner, as they try to stay one step ahead of Revok, his crony Keller (Lawrence Dane) , and ultimately learn the evil reality behind Revok’s relentless quest, and the truth of the drug that binds them.

Cronenberg has admitted many times the nightmare it was to make Scanners, which under the Canadian tax shelter government incentive the movie only had a precious couple of weeks pre-production leaving Cronenberg to complete the script whilst shooting, writing pages in the hours before dawn. As a result the movie is erratic, ill-paced, and at times feels unsure of which direction it is going and what kind of movie it actually is. It also suffers, irreparably, from the worst lead performance in a Cronenberg movie, Stephen Lack (of talent). Yet, despite his slim screen time, Michael Ironside brings the goods with a performance of such simmering intensity it threatens to implode the entire movie. 

Dick Smith, the legend, was hired as a prosthetic consultant for then special effects makeup, and his work in the duel between Vale and Revok, combined with Cronenberg’s mastery of drawn-out tension, makes for an intense and visceral climax. But let’s not forget the now legendary head explosion from the ConSec demonstration, which is forever burned onto the retinas of many X-Generation horrorphiles. Apparently assistants worked for two weeks in a warehouse trying to master the effect, and finally the head technician decided to get under a table and blast a shotgun up through the false torso! But there is a huge continuity error that irks me every time; in the wide shot of the auditorium immediately after the head explosion there is absolutely no sign of the carnage on and around the desk. Normally I let small goofs slide by, but this is a real doozy. 

Scanners certainly isn’t among Cronenberg’s best work (Dead Ringers, Videodrome, and The Fly), but it’s memorable just the same, for Howard Shore’s score, firstly, but it is also notable, like many of the director’s original screenplays, for its prescience and insight, in this case, genetic mutation and computer hacking. Where Scanners stumbles is in much of the pacing in the second half. By the time we reach the climactic showdown between Vale and Revok the audience has been worn down by all the psychobabble and lacklustre espionage. 

Still, Scanners will always hold a dear place in my horrorphile heart, as it was one of the very first R-rated movies I watched with mates on VHS when I was about twelve-years-old, and it also sports one of the coolest posters of the era. 

 

The Mind's Eye

US | 2015 | Directed by Joe Begos

Logline: A man and woman, both with powerful psychokinetic abilities, are abducted and held prisoner by a deranged doctor intent on harnessing and harvesting their powers for his own evil agenda.

Baby-faced Begos has delivered his second feature, continuing on with his body-horror fascination and tribute to the early 80s glory days of practical effects. His first feature, Almost Human, was more of a nod to John Carpenter, whilst this one is definitely a big shout out to the baron of body horror, David Cronenberg in particular Scanners. Both movies rely heavily on practical special effects, prosthetics, squibs, and lots of pumped blood. Begos would’ve barely been old enough to have grown up with Carpenter and Cronenberg on VHS, let alone in the cinema, but he certainly knows how to channel their atmosphere, and he loves the illusion of sfx. 

Zach Connors (Graham Skipper, looking weirdly like Daniel Radcliffe) just wants to remain a loner, but he is picked up on a snow-laden road and is taken prisoner by Dr. Michael Slovak (John Speredakos), who also has young Rachel Meadows (Lauren Ashley Carter) as a captive in his institution. The deranged doctor wants to siphon their supernatural telekinetic powers for himself, so he can go beyond the pale. It’s up to Connors to try and rescue Rachel and escape the madman’s clutches, and the doctor’s henchmen. 

It’s a race against time, but there will definitely be tears before bedtime, and there will be blood spilled in large amounts. The problem is, it’s all frightfully earnest. Begos tries incredibly hard to capture the essence of Carpenter and Cronenberg, but there are glaring issues, which were very evident in Almost Human, and which he has failed to fix on The Mind’s Eye

Both movies lack any kind of humour. They are grim and deadly serious, and yet, the premise and action is frequently so absurd that the overt seriousness ends up working against the movie’s impact, instead making many of the more intense scenes come across as risible, absurd, unintentionally hilarious. To compound the silliness as it unfolds - and becomes sillier - is the dreadfully uneven performances. To be honest, almost no one delivers a convincing piece of acting. 

And therein lies the bloody Rub. If the acting was better all-round, then the serious intent would feel genuine, and not feel like some kind of ill-conceived parody. Begs is shooting himself in the foot. He is spending a large proportion of his low-budget on the special effects, which are impressive, but if he spent more effort and money on casting decent actors, and/or learned how to elicit the kind of delicate performances required for such intense characters, then his movies would be so much more effective. 

Cronenberg and Carpenter understood this very well. Begos has much to learn, but he’s a talented filmmaker, he has a lot of aptitude, I look forward to what he can and hopefully will do with future features. 

Blair Witch

US | 2016 | Directed by Adam Wingard

Logline: After watching a video showing what he believes to be his long lost sister’s encounter with a malevolent witch a young man and friends head into the infamous forest in search for her and the truth. 

It’s been seventeen years since the found footage of student filmmakers Heather Donahue, Michael C. Williams, and Joshua Leonard vanishing in the Black Hills near Burkittsville, Maryland, was first shown to the world. They had gone in search of a local legend, the Blair Witch, and they found her. The rest is cinema history. 

The Blair Witch Project wasn’t the first remarkable "found footage" movie, Cannibal Holocaust (1980) holds that title, and sits comfortably on a dark and disturbing mantle of its own. It was a micro-budget, shot-on-video movie titled UFO Abduction (a.k.a. The McPherson Tape) from 1989 (and remade by the same director nine years later) that probably inspired filmmakers Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez to make The Blair Witch Project. There had been no horror movies using this style or technique for ten years. In the fifteen year wake there has been a glut of “found footage”. A false sense of security shrouds filmmakers' feel with the sub-genre. The harsh reality is, it’s much harder to make a great found footage horror movie than any other. 

So what does Adam Wingard do? Well, firstly he presents his new horror movie to excited audiences as The Woods, just to make sure he gets his unsuspecting hooks in. Then he reveals that the movie is actually called Blair Witch, announcing it as a sequel to the original 1999 movie (and completely disregarding the patchy sequel from 2000, Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2). Turns out, he hasn’t really made a sequel, he’s delivered a remake of the original. The opening text is very similar, informing the audience that what follows is an assembly of the (digital) footage found in the cameras abandoned in the woods (unnecessary, annoying digital glitches and all). 

Most of the same plot points are in place; the characters set off gung-ho, meet some locals, enter the forest, get lost, get frustrated with each other, become confused and are terrorised. There is really nothing new in Wingard’s version, except for a twilight zone interference, the movie’s only genuinely interesting element. It's frustrating, Wingard could've really played something, but he squanders it, and he relies way too much on the "Boo!" jump scares.

Here's the rub: I'm not a fan of Wingard’s movies. I think he’s a vastly overrated. I didn't like You’re Next, or The Guest, or his segments in V/H/S and V/H/S 2. His uneven shifts of tone really annoy me. For some reason I was prepared to give him another chance, thinking maybe, with the potency of the Blair Witch premise he might actually deliver something half-decent. I was wrong. Blair Witch is pointless, a waste of time. It's Wingard's strongest movie, but the reason for that is plainly obvious. I was only reminded of the effortlessly creepy Willow Creek, or the visceral tour-de-force of [REC] (curiously Wingard’s female lead, Carrie Hernandez, bears a striking resemblance to Manuela Velasco), or just how atmospheric and effective the original Blair Witch Project is. 

Wingard’s challenge, and where he dropped the ball, was to take the original’s premise and expand on it, take the savvy audiences’ expectations and pounce on them. Rather than repeat the original recipe, give them something more unbridled, savage horror (and something The Witch didn't really deliver!) Instead, Wingard has taken a lazy, desperately safe approach. I’m sure, however, that there will be many viewers - especially those that haven’t seen the original - who will find the movie unnerving, frightening even. But the performances are so dull, with the exception of Hernandez, though at least he used a cast of unknowns. Technically the movie is very proficient, and there is one highly intensely claustrophobic scene, but ultimately the whole movie smacks of hollow contrivance. 

As an end-note, I was lucky enough to see The Blair Witch Project about six months before it was released in Australia, so the original - and masterful - online publicity campaign was still in firm effect. It was a publicity campaign unlike anything before it, and it was genius. Unfortunately in the years since the movie’s release, the hype surrounding it, and the plethora of similar movies, has only damaged it irrevocably to younger, more cynical audiences. It’s a shame, the original’s clever use of sound manipulation, the conceptual and directorial ingenuity, combined with the convincing, naturalistic performances, make it easily one of the three most powerful "found footage" horror movies. 

 

The Shallows

US | 2016 | Directed by Jaume Collet-Serra

Logline: A surfer is injured by a great white shark and trapped, alone, a couple of hundred metres out from an empty stretch of beach. 

I dig b-movies, but I can’t go down the Sharknado path. If I indulge in trash, I want it to be deep (arty) trash. If it’s schlocky, then it needs to be slick. In fact, my favourite horror movie, Alien, is essentially a super-slick b-movie. The Shallows is a slick b-movie. It’s no Alien, that’s for sure, but it knows its limitations, and so it applies thick brush strokes to the areas where it counts. The cinematography is lush, the damsel in distress has sex appeal, the performances are solid, the special effects are excellent, and, most importantly, the monster is suitably menacing. 

Nancy (Blake Lively), a med student and skilled surfer, is holidaying in Mexico. She’s still dealing with the recent death of her mother, and now she’s traveled to the secluded, unnamed beach where her mother had once been, barefoot and pregnant. Her friend is too hungover and has remained back at the hotel. Nancy joins two locals on the waves, and enjoys the surf. The two surfer dudes depart, and Nancy is left alone. Except for the humpback whale carcass floating nearby. 

And the massive great white shark that knocks her off her board and then bites her leg. 

With the tide out Nancy swims to a small rocky reef, where she is able to apply first aid, and then plays cat and mouse with the shark. An injured seagull joins her. The shore is close, but not close enough. There’s a large ship buoy about 50 metres away. Nancy will need to get to that when the tide comes in. 

There’s enough silliness to sink The Shallows, but attacking its implausibilities would be doing this horror-thriller a disservice. Since when did true realism ever get in the way of a b-movie? Okay, so where are all the other sharks hanging around the dead whale? Since when did sharks that big ever take bites that small? Where was the head inside the helmet? Why did the swimming between the jellyfish suddenly become a light show in a swimming pool? Why hadn’t the surfer dudes spotted the dead whale before Nancy? The list goes on. 

Okay so the shark’s demise is just plain ridiculous. But hey, it’s been OTT leading up to that point, with the furious shark so hellbent on having Nancy for dessert it’s decided to chew through the buoy to get to her. I swam with it. 

I never had any time for Blake Lively before this, but she does a great job here, and the camera loves her. Especially the Sony Xperia smart phone which Nancy owns. So much so, that one would be forgiven for assuming Sony was one of the movie’s financiers. Which it is. For Lively it’s a mostly physical role, with little dialogue, and much lying sprawled uncomfortably on a rock. Funny, because her husband, Ryan Reynolds, had to endure a similar kind of cramped singular location in Buried a few years back. 

There’s a lot of high praise being splashed on The Shallows by audiences saying its the best shark movie since Jaws. I’m certainly not about to haul this behemoth onto the same kind of high rig, but I’ll definitely add it alongside The Reef and Open Water, in terms of palpable suspense and slick filmmaking, albeit a lot gorier. Whereas The Reef used real shark footage cleverly intercut with the actors, The Shallows uses top notch CGI, and I was genuinely surprised at how effective and realistically the shark was depicted. I also liked that Collet-Serra chose to use the shark's on-screen presence sparingly. 

I’ll finish up on Nancy’s bite wound, because it’s a bloody doozy. With only an M rating I wasn’t expecting any gore, but Nancy is forced to deal with a very nasty thigh wound, a long and deep gash. The special effects makeup is superb, and the blood is realistic. Yes, I'm a real stickler for this stuff, and well done to Collet-Serra for making sure it’s bang on. 

Some Kind of Hate

US | 2015 | Directed by Adam Egypt Mortimer

Logline: A bullied teenager is sent to a remote reform school where he accidentally summons the ghost of a girl, herself a victim of bullying, who takes vengeance on his tormentors.

This movie had many of the elements that could’ve made it a decent horror flick; the downtrodden teenager, the asshole bullies, the girl who wants to save the boy, the dodgy reformers, the remote desert valley location, the metal music, the supernatural edge, and, of course, all the bloody violence, oh, and a catchy title. Shame then that Mortimer dropped the ball with this one. I really wanted the movie to work, but early on the scrawl was on the wall. 

Lincoln (Ronen Rubinstein) is a troubled young man. His drunken father (Andrew Bryniarski in a blink and you miss it appearance) is a lost cause, and at high school the class bully (Jim Greene) makes a concerted effort to humiliate Lincoln in front of everyone else. Lincoln snaps and plunges a fork into the bully’s cheek. This leads to Lincoln being sent to an isolated lo-fi school for problem kids called the Minds Eye Academy. 

Out here the tuition plays second fiddle to pep talks from the Academy head Jack (Michael Polish). Jack and his right-hand man Krauss (Noah Segan) are dubious characters, but nothing compared to Moira (Sierra McCormick), the local malevolent spirit in physical form, who is trapped in a subterranean storage facility just itching to get vengeful on someone, anyone. Lincoln provides the necessary goods when he screams out in anguish one night, crying for justice on the bullies who have now targeted him at the Academy, because they heard he snaps real good. 

Willie (Maestro Harrell), with the help of a couple of a couple of cohorts, is set on making Lincoln’s life a misery. Lincoln is already an emo, so not much a stretch there. Kaitlin (Grace Phipps), a striking brunette, catches Lincoln’s eye at one of the alfresco encounter sessions. It’s not long before she is stealing cigarettes and batting those big dark lashes. Lincoln is in, hook, line and sinker. He offers her his metal playlist. She responds with a kiss. Meanwhile, Moira, the bullied victim, is keen as hot mustard to give Lincoln’s tormentors a taste of their own copper medicine. Soon enough there is blood on the floor. And the wall. And the ceiling.

The screenplay, by Mortimer and Brian DeLeeuw, is a hot mess. It’s this tangled, confusing, meandering narrative that mortally wounds the movie. Why is Lincoln able to cause Moira pain, and no one else? Why didn’t the Academy get closed down after the first brutal slaying? Why is the sheriff so damn useless? Who are the Academy instructors really? Why is tough Christine (Lexi Atkins) a peripheral character for most of the movie? What was the point of Isaac (Spencer Breslin)’s character?

Despite all these frustrations, Some Kind of Hate carries some kind of curious weight, mostly in the performances, and a little in the atmosphere. The look of the movie is solid, with some of the underground scenes carrying an intense, Euro-horror vibe. The grim tone of the whole movie is brave, but a sense of humour is drastically missing, even if it was pitch black. The self-harm theme is confronting, and the special effects are solid, but it’s the performances of the female characters that keeps the movie watchable. Rubinstein is a good-looking chap, but he lacks the charisma required, and as such, he’s just a pathetic wallflower with a fringe. 

The movie would’ve been a lot more interesting if Phipps had played the lead, opposite McCormick, with Atkins trying to intervene from early on, and the love interest element removed entirely.

 

Some Kind of Hate DVD is available from Accent Film Entertainment.

Macabre

Rumah Dara | Indonesia | 2009 | Directed by The Mo Brothers

Logline: A group of friends encounter a traumatised young woman and return her to her mother only to be trapped and brutality set upon by the young woman, her two brothers, and their mother. 

Timo Tjahjanto and Kimo Stamboel directed a short film, Dara, in 2007 which received much acclaim on the international festival circuit. This lead to a feature based around the central character, Dara (played in both by Shareefa Daanish), a flawless, almost doll-like woman with murderous and macabre tastes. The Indonesian title of the feature is Rumah Dara (translating, roughly, as "Dara’s Home"), whilst in Singapore the movie was known as Darah (meaning "Blood"), and for the international release it was re-titled Macabre, not the most original of titles, but let me tell you this is one of the more visceral and gruesome dances of death!

Adjie (Ario Bayu), his pregnant wife Astrid (Sigi Wimala), his sister Ladya (Julie Estelle), and two friends, Eko (Dendy Subngil) and Alam (Mike Muliadro) are heading on a road trip when a dazed young woman, Maya (Imelda Therinne), wanders in front of their van. She claims to have been robbed and needs help. The group intend to drop her off at her family home, but Maya convinces them to meet her mother, Dara, and two older brothers Arman (Ruly Lubis) and Adam (Arifin Putra). Dara insists the group stay for a dinner feast, and Astrid is happy to rest up for a short while. 

The striking and immaculate Dara is spellbinding in her speech and body language. At the very beginning of the movie an old Super-8 film is being projected depicting three children being shown illustrations of anatomy by Dara, who looks the same, and then being supervised in the ritualistic stabbing murder of a man, tied to a chair. While waiting for dinner to be served Ladya peruses the homestead photo collection and notices a photo of beautiful Dara dated 1889 … and she looks exactly the same. There is something very, very weird going on, and the night is still young and ripe for much bloodletting. 

The motive for this murderous family is revealed briefly about half-hour through the movie - adding to the movie’s very sly, blackly comic tone - when a car arrives at Dara’s home to make a pickup of precious produce. Just how does Dara stay looking so young and beautiful? It seems there is a smell of tribal philosophy in the air; consume your enemies to make yourself stronger, more invincible. Later, a bunch of undercover cops turn up at the house, and the director duo push their tongues deep inside their cheeks. 

The Mo Brothers (who went on to deliver a stand-out segment in V/H/S 2) designed Macabre to be an alternate approach to Indonesian horror which, in the past, was mostly mystical and supernatural in nature. They openly admit to be inspired by Western slasher movies, but theirs is less like an American stalk’n’slash (and let's face it, much of which are fairly tepid in atmosphere) and more like a European assault on the senses in its atmospheric intensity and striking mise-en-scene. I'm reminded more of High Tension, Frontier(s), and Inside, than The Strangers, House of Wax, or Mother’s Day

The stand-out performances belong to the women of the movie; Julie Estelle, Imelda Therinne, and, of course, the commanding Shareefa Daanish, with her deep voice, elegant poise, and those black eyes like pools of demonic oil. As the matriarch, Dara, she is like a deadly snake, and her home is a lair for consumption. On the technical front, Toni Arnold’s vivid cinematography is a standout, also a nod to the composers too, Yudi Arfani and Zeke Khaseli, and to the great work by the special effects crew, both in the prosthetics department, and the CGI enhancements.  

Macabre is horrorphile heaven; soaked in atmosphere, drenched in blood, and seeping a genuine creepiness, and as I like to say, one for the True Believers. 

 

Macabre Blu-ray and DVD is released via Mandala Films/Gryphon Entertainment. Both feature a Deleted Scenes (which is odd, since all the scenes are within the movie) and a Making Of featurette. 

NB: You can find the original half-hour short film, Dara, on Vimeo here

Friday the 13th

US | 1980 | Directed by Sean Cunningham

Logline: A group of camp counsellors is stalked and brutally murdered by an unknown assailant while trying to reopen a summer camp which, years before, was the site of a child’s drowning. 

I don’t have a lot of good things to say about this flick, despite its cult following, and the massive wake of copycats that followed. The intent is obvious, there is some aptitude, for sure, but the delivery and execution has dated something chronic! To be honest, it’s a real hack job (pun intended). In a making of featurette on the DVD producer/director Sean Cunningham admits he blatantly fashioned the horror after seeing how massively successful Halloween (1978) has been at the box office. He had a provocative title (during production, however, it was known as A Long Night at Camp Blood) and he sold the idea of a "stalk’n’slasher" to all who’d indulge him. Screenwriter Victor Miller also openly admits he borrowed everything he could from every horror movie he’d seen. 

The result spawned more sequels than any other movie in history. To date there are eleven movies in the Friday the 13th series (as well as a late 80s television series, a 2009 re-imagining of the first movie, and apparently a TV re-boot and sequel to the remake in the pipeline). Do the sequels get better or worse? That is entirely debatable. Fans of the series all have their own personal favourites (many rate Part 2 highly, despite it receiving some of the worst cuts from the MPAA), some diehards lament when the series “jumped the shark”, while others state emphatically that Jason Voorhees is the ultimate horror villain. My "fave" of the series is probably The Final Chapter (1984), where Tom Savini pulled out all the stops, Crispin Glover plays an hilarious, brokenhearted Romeo, and hockey-masked Jason Voorhees has become one relentless demonic butcher indeed. 

So is there anything going for Friday the 13th? Hmmm. Oh yes, Tom Savini’s special effects work, although most of the murders happen off-screen. Unfortunately Cunningham was forced to trim the effects work in order to receive the R rating (and not an X). Cunningham and Wes Craven had made The Last House on the Left (1972), which was originally slapped with an X rating after several submissions, but, notoriously, Craven wrangled an MPAA friend of his to give him an illegitimate R rating seal of approval so he could release it uncut! Cunningham knew that the board of censors had become savvy with the amount of onscreen violence being depicted in horror movies, and he needed the official R to ensue a wide release. 

In an unprecedented move Paramount Pictures picked up the national distribution, while Warner Brothers handled foreign distribution. The movie racked in the millions, and had teenagers running screaming down the aisles in the droves, despite highbrow critics panning the film. Let's be real here, the movie hasn't so much as dated, it’s just taken me a long time to actually wake up and smell the coffee. They don’t make ‘em this bad anymore … Or do they? Yeah they do, but with bigger budgets. 

WARNING! CONTAINS SPOILER!

The plot, in a peanut shell, has a group of young counselors at jinxed Camp Crystal Lake being picked off in brutal fashion, one by one, leaving final girl Alice (Adrienne King) and Mrs. Voorhees (Betsy Palmer), mother of mongoloid Jason, a boy who drowned in the lake back in 1957. Mrs Voorhees only wants to protect the memory of her son by preventing the camp from operating, and to punish all these sinful, horny teenagers who never looked after her son. Friday the 13th is the only movie in the entire series not to feature Jason Voorhees as the killer. He begins his reign of carnage, wearing a burlap sack, in Part 2 (1981).

Kevin Bacon is the only actor in this movie who doesn’t shamefully overact, and then there is Adrienne King, who can’t even act at all. Of special note, King was stalked and terrorised after the movie came out and apart from her small role in the first sequel she has never acted again … whew). I’m sure Bacon has a guilty grin when he mentions this as part of his resume. Arguably his death is one of the best and most effective of the whole series: harpoon penetrates the bed he’s lying on and pierces up through his throat, with Tom Savini’s genuine pig’s blood providing a nice little geyser. Apart from Savini's work, the other element which lifts the movie’s game is Henry Manfredini’s inventive score with the now legendary “Ki Ki Ki … Ma Ma Ma” vocal echo effect. 

Friday the 13th may have spearheaded the 80s slasher era with the emphasis on graphic violence, but it was by no means the first horror movie to do so. Bob Clark’s Black Christmas (1974) had already been there (and with a lot more style and creepiness), while Mario Bava’s Twitch of the Death Nerve (1971) holds the bloodied body count crown high. But it's Halloween - curiously with almost no bloodshed - that remains my favourite, by a country mile. 

If you’re curious about where the slasher craze all began … throw a few grains of salt in the popcorn , some lashings of butter, and amuse yourself and a few mates. 

The Dead Zone

US | 1983 | Directed by David Cronenberg

Logline: After a man awakes from a coma to discover he has the ability to foresee the future he soon realises that the psychic ability is both a gift and a curse. 

Based on one of my favourite Stephen King novels, first published in 1979, Cronenberg’s first (and only?) director-for-hire movie is one of the best King big screen adaptations, especially as it successfully harnesses the book’s central narrative, but more interestingly it exudes the book’s inherent melancholy, a tone in prose that so often is lost in movie adaptations. Johnny Smith (Christopher Walken) is a tragedy, both in character and his tale that unfolds in the wintery township of Castle Rock. 

Smith has only been courting Sarah (Brooke Adams) a short time when tragedy strikes. Johnny bids his sweetheart goodnight, fatefully choosing to turn down her offer to stay the night, promising her, “Some things are worth waiting for.” On the icy road home a petrol tanker over turns and Johnny ploughs into the vehicle. He is in a coma for nearly five years. When he finally awakens, Sarah has married and has a child. Johnny is heartbroken. But the accident has given Johnny a psychic ability. When he holds someone’s hand he can see their future. 

This was only Stephen Boam’s second screenplay, having been involved in the Dustin Hoffman crime drama Straight Time (1978). In King’s sprawling novel there are several sub-plots interwoven, and dozens of characters. Boam creates a classic three act structure, taking much of the episodic nature of King’s novel and paring it right back. Little time is wasted in setting up Johnny and Sarah’s romance (although the build-up to Johnny’s accident is a powerful part of the novel. 

Two of the novel’s main sub-plots are used to powerful effect; the Castle Rock Killer and Johnny’s assistance in revealing who the serial killer is. Tom Skerritt is in fine form as local sheriff Bannerman. The third act, (the novel’s climax), involves Johnny’s obsession with dodgy local politician Greg Stallman (Martin Sheen, obviously enjoying himself as one of the movie’s villains), and the question that Johnny asks his doctor and therapist, Dr. Weizak (Herbert Lom, whom one almost expects to start twitching violently, channelling his Inspector Dreyfus), that if he could travel back in time to before WWII and had the opportunity to assassinate Hitler, would he? 

Christopher Walken is in brilliant form as the deeply troubled Johnny, plagued by his psychic ability, a gift, that becomes a curse, that he is compelled to use as a weapon for good. Cronenberg has said that the secret of great casting is finding an actor that fits the role so snugly no executive producer or audience can think of another actor in the role. Cronenberg might have had Bill Murray in mind originally, but Walken is Johnny Smith. 

Brooke Adams conjures just the right balance of fragility and sensuality, while Anthony Zerbe is excellent as the selfish father who attempts to manipulate Johnny’s good intentions, and Nicholas Campbell is perfect as deputy Frank Dodd. And while I had reservations with Lom’s inclusion, it is rare for Cronenberg to screw up with his casting decisions. 

The visual style of The Dead Zone is, in many ways, one of Cronenberg’s most restrained, conservative, even. This can be attributed to Cronenberg not wanting to create friction with the upper echelons of Tinseltown, as heavyweight Dino De Laurentiis was executive producer (although uncredited) and it was in Cronenberg’s best interests to deliver a movie that appealed broadly and did strong box office, which it did (made for $US10m it made $US20m). 

While The Dead Zone is not amongst my favourite Cronenberg movies, it features one of my favourite Christopher Walken performances, and is in my top three favourite Stephen King adaptations. It’s that sadness (oh, the ending) that permeates the movie so effectively, it creates such a surprisingly emotional journey, something that seems to elude so many horror/supernatural thriller movies.

 

The Dead Zone is part of Via Vision’s three-disc “Cronenberg Collection”, available on Blu-ray and DVD, May 6th. Also included are Shivers and Rabid. All three movies include making of featurettes and audio commentaries and/or interviews with David Cronenberg.

Rabid

Canada | 1977 | Directed by David Cronenberg

Logline: Following experimental surgery a young woman becomes bloodthirsty, infecting her victims, and creating an epidemic. 

Rabid was Cronenberg’s fourth feature after his two experimental Dystopian efforts Stereo (1969) and Crimes of the Future (1970) and his apocalyptic nightmare Shivers (1975). It was low budget at only $530k, but this was significantly higher than the $179 grand he made Shivers on. He was able to expand the plague-like horror scenario of Shivers with a larger cast, and more elaborate production values.

Following a motorcycle accident with her boyfriend, Hart (Frank Moore), a young woman, Rose (Marilyn Chambers), is given plastic surgery, but contracts a kind of supernatural virus; a monstrous form of rabies. Rose becomes a very dangerous woman, with a worm-like parasite living inside her armpit (!) When she attacks the worm viciously penetrates its victims like a moray eel springing from its cave. There’s something outlandishly, ferociously sexual about it.

Like Dario Argento’s oeuvre, Cronenberg’s movies - especially his early features - are an acquired taste. Putting aside the trappings and limitations; cheap production values and often ropey performances, there is something undeniably intellectual and truly disturbing. Rabid and Shivers (they are two sides of a diseased coin) are possessed with a virulent atmosphere and heavy tone. What they lack in convincing special effects (although the work in Shivers is pretty good considering) and the mostly wooden and obvious acting they excel in creating a palpable nightmare fabric. They spell doom by attacking the most fundamental elements of human survival: copulation and reproduction. 

Rabid thrusts forward as s a psychosexual thriller just like Shivers. They are rogue players in a deadly game of mutation. Cronenberg is fascinated with what makes us tick as humans, our physical fragility and our psychological obsessions. We are contradictions; bent on contact, prone to infection. Cronenberg loves to twist our desires and fears, melding them perversely. These ideas – and Rabid and Shivers are similarly rich in the concepts and themes of disease, infection, addiction, mutation – he lets loose in his early movies, are further developed, experimented on, refined, and torn apart in his later more sophisticated features such as The Brood (1979), Scanners (1981), Videodrome (1982), The Fly (1986) and also Naked Lunch (1991), Crash (1996), and eXistenZ (1999). 

With Shivers and Rabid Cronenberg was dubbed the King of Venereal Horror, but as his career progressed be become more (in)famously known as the Baron of Body Horror. 

Sissy Spacek was Cronenberg’s first choice to play Rose, but the producer didn’t like her Southern accent and her abundance of freckles. They needed a name to sell the picture, but it had to be a name they cold afford. Ivan Reitman, who was executive producing, suggested Marilyn Chambers, as she was one of the most in-demand porn stars at the time, was keen to do a straight movie, and she was affordable. Curiously, Carrie (1976) was released whilst they were shooting and the poster can be seen in the background in a scene where Rose has exited a porn cinema and walks past another one that is screening Carrie (no doubt Cronenberg’s little in-joke dig at his producer). Chambers is actually not bad as the anxiety-stricken protagonist/antagonist, but she never pursued a straight career instead returning to the porn fold. 

With its downbeat ending Rabid’s fate as an apocalyptic nightmare is sealed, and most satisfyingly so, but was that the hint of dark comedy rearing its head from time to time?! 

NB: The Canadian Soskia Twins (American Mary) are soon to start production on a remake. 

 

Rabid is part of Via Vision’s three-disc “Cronenberg Collection”, available on Blu-ray and DVD. Also included are Shivers and The Dead Zone. All three movies include making of featurettes and audio commentaries and/or interviews with David Cronenberg.

Shivers

Canada | 1975 | Directed by David Cronenberg

Logline: The residents of a high-rise apartment building are infected by a virulent strain of parasites that turn them into sexual psychopaths. 

“Everything is erotic … everything is sexual. You know what I mean? Even old flesh is erotic flesh. Disease is the love of two alien kinds of creatures for each other. Even Dying is an act of eroticism. Talking is sexual, breathing is sexual. To even physically exist is sexual.”

Cronenberg’s first commercial feature, Shivers (1975), set the unique tone of many of his films to come: rampant body horror. And despite its production value shortcomings, it’s a remarkably intense and resonant film; an pseudo-intellectual shocker for psycho-sexual deviants.

In the stylish, but sterile, new apartment building Starliner, on an island compound near Montreal, a crazed man attacks a high school student, in what appears to be a sexual assault. He strangles her and then administers crude surgery upon her, slicing her open and pouring acid into her stomach region. It turns out the man is a scientist experimenting with a kind or parasite. However, the creation has turned into a monster, and that monster has multiplied ten fold, turning the hosts into deranged, homicidal sex-fiends!

Cronenberg wrote the movie under the schlocky title Orgy of the Blood Parasites. It was first released in Canada as The Parasite Murders, but did much better business in the French-speaking parts of Canada under the French title Frissons. The film’s executive producers decided to re-title the movie Shivers (the English language translation), whilst in the U.S. the movie was given another B-movie title, They Came from Within.

Shivers was produced for $179,000 (Canadian dollars), and it shows, but Cronenberg has always used his budgets shrewdly, and despite the movie’s low budget constraints, the director instills a strong intelligence into the movie’s overall themes and conceptual ideas. The tone is serious, despite the absurdity of some of the situations. And the movie’s frenzied finale is a most unsettling and apocalyptic denouement. 

The acting is wildly uneven; one of the leads Paul Hampton (Dr. Roger St Luc), is dreadful, mumbling his lines and smirking at the most inappropriate moments (was Cronenberg not watching the monitor??), however four of the other support actors manage to distract from his inadequacies; Allan Kolman (billed as Alan Migicovsky) as Nicolas Tudor, whom spends the majority of the film in a parasitic-induced stupor, yet still out-performs Hampton! Lyn Lowry (a B-movie queen) plays a nurse who manages to survive for much longer than one anticipates. Also of note is Joe Silver (poor Rollo Linsky), and the legendary Barbara Steele.

Joe Blasco’s use of the bladder prosthetic effect pioneered by Dick Smith in The Exorcist is used to great effect in Shivers with convincing shots of Nicolos Tudor’s pulsating naked hairy torso, apparently Smith was genuinely alarmed when he first saw the movie, as it become obvious that Blasco had invented the same procedure almost at the same time as he. 

Most interestingly Shivers spawned numerous similar-themed movies; that of an alien-like infection transporting itself from body to body via human orifices (sexually-charged symbolism) and resulting in a plague of corrupt flesh. At one festival Cronenberg was even accused of ripping off Alien (1979), until he bluntly informed that Shivers had been filmed five years earlier. Even Martin Scorsese has expressed how impressed, yet utterly disturbed he was by the film’s suggested cataclysmic end (28 Days Later anyone …?)

 

Shivers is part of Via Vision’s three-disc “Cronenberg Collection”, available on Blu-ray and DVD from May 6. Also included are Rabid and The Dead Zone. All three movies include making of featurettes and audio commentaries and/or interviews with David Cronenberg.

Observance

Australia | 2016 | Directed by Joseph Sims-Dennett

Logline: Due to a personal and financial crisis a private investigator reluctantly takes on a mysterious job which soon begins to affect his mind, body, and soul, his entire wellbeing. 

Parker (Lindsay Farris) is struggling with inner turmoil. He has hit rock bottom, close to bankruptcy, his marriage a shambles, following the tragic death of his son. He has bottled his grief in order to plough through a potentially lucrative job. Holed up in a decrepit apartment with his laptop and high-powered lens, all he has to do is watch the woman in the adjacent terrace and photograph and make notes of her behaviour. Her phone line has been tapped, but he needs to bug the apartment at the soonest opportunity. 

Tenneal (Stephanie King), the subject of Parker’s assignment, is dealing with an abusive relationship. Bret (Tom O’Sullivan) keeps hounding Tenneal, even getting rough. Parker’s anxiety grows, but his employer (voiced by Brendan Cowell) insists he sit tight and watch and report back. A darkness begins to emerge within Parker’s newspapered cell, nothing is what it seems. 

Co-written by Sims-Dennett and Josh Zammit, both on their debut feature, Observance is a handsome-looking picture, with fine technical achievements. The tight, controlled camerawork and green-grey-tinged cinematography creates a a palpable sense of claustrophobia, and with the reoccurring imagery and symbolism of the coastal rock and oceanic swells, there is something very Lovecraftian about the movie’s atmospheric shroud. The dread drips and oozes with impressive menace. 

But just what exactly is going on? This is an elusive haunted house story that permeates the protagonist’s mind like a creeping nightmare of the soul. Parker’s fear manifests itself as sores and fatigue, while a black primordial sludge that sits in a jar beside his bed steadily fills, eventually spilling from his own mouth. We’ve seen this kind of unctuous imagery a dozen times in other horror movies, but it still works a treat in Observance

The movie’s overall mood and tone - the nightmare hollowness - reminded me of Mike Flanagan’s Absentia (2011), yet Observance tries too hard to be cryptic, arcane, even Lynchian in its horror. Roman Polanski achieved a brilliant sense of pervading paranoia and dread in his masterful nightmare thriller The Tenant (1976), which Sims-Dennett and Zammit have obviously been influenced by, but their control is too tight, too contrived, and ultimately, confusing. Just what exactly was wrong with his friend Charlie (Benedict Hardie)? Why does Parker end up doing what he does at movie’s end? It’s all frustratingly obscure. 

My biggest gripe isn’t that we’re not given any of the answers, that’s okay, even if it does smack of pretentiousness, it’s that the filmmakers have chosen to have the movie take place in an American setting, so that all the characters speak with US accents. I can only understand this to be a commercial decision, which is always disappointing. There appears to be no artistic need for this to be an “American” story, cosmic horror of this kind is universal. It didn’t help that John Jarratt couldn’t quite pull his accent off either, or that I could pick it was Sydney within the first five minutes. 

The accent quibble aside, and the frustration with the obscurity of the narrative, Observance sports a strong soundscape/score from Haydn Walker and Adrian Sergovich, excellent art direction, and a solid performance from Farris, whose rattled presence the entire movie rests on. This kind of low-budget, artful horror is commendable, but, ultimately, it’s too obscure for its own good. It's the kind of movie that I fear would be labelled as "elevated horror", or worse, maybe not even horror at all, but instead, a psychological thriller. Observance is very much a convoluted nightmare, for better or for worse.

The Witch

US/UK/Canada/Brazil | 2015 | Directed by Robert Eggers

Logline: A 17th Century Christian family are plagued by a local witch who uses black magic to infiltrate and ruin their lives. 

It is New England, North America, circa 1630, and William (Ralph Ineson) and his wife Katherine (Kate Dickie), and their four children, teenager Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw), and young twins Mercy (Ellie Grainger) and Jonas (Lucas Dawson), have been exiled from their village. A few months later they have re-established themselves in a cottage with a small goat farm, on the edge of a thick forest. But the bad luck has followed them and now it strikes hard. 

Thomasin is playing peek-a-boo with the newborn baby, Samuel, and the infant suddenly vanishes; clutched and stolen by a cloaked figure who darts through the forest wilderness with the foulest of agendas. This sets off a chain of events that sees Thomasin being accused of witchcraft and plants the evil seeds of destruction.

The Witch has been riding a broom of intense hype, opening the Sitges Film Festival last year, and receiving much critical acclaim and audience praise. It is so hard these days to avoid hype, to not be affected by it. The social media platforms have given loud voice to everyone’s inner critic, and it’s a harsh and unforgiving realm. Gone are the days when sometimes all you glimpsed of a movie before you saw it in the cinema was a 30-second TV spot, or even just the film poster. You went in cold, and this is arguably the best way to see a movie. 

I resisted reading any reviews of The Witch, but I couldn’t avoid seeing comments posted online from those that had already seen the movie overseas, and it sounded like my kind of horror movie. It certainly proceeds that way; the opening fifteen minutes are excellent. Strong performances from a mostly unknown cast (Ineson and Dickie I recognised from Game Of Thrones), especially Taylor-Joy who essentially carries the movie. The charcoal-grey palette and European 1.66:1 ratio of the cinematography and authentic period costuming and “Olde English” dialogue add a weight of realism to the production, and the truly nightmarish depiction of the hirsute hag preparing her flying ointment gave the movie serious horror punctuation.

The narrative rests entirely on the implosion of the family unit, the paranoia and distrust cracking through the parental pillars, the children’s innocence inexorably corrupted. This is essentially a chamber piece wearing the unctuous shroud of a witchcraftian horror. It’s a pity then that the strongest, most visceral and affecting horror elements were played out so early, and never returned to with the same nightmarish effect. There are missed opportunities, in particular with Black Phillip (the he-goat who Satan uses as a vessel), but chiefly with the witch (portrayed in all her hideous naked glory by Bathsheba Garnett) - and including her voluptuous younger guise (Victoria Secret model Sarah Stephens) - who mysteriously vanishes three-quarters into the movie, to be replaced by Satan in corporeal form (but only the glimpse of a bearded face in deep shadow), who intends to seal the fate of the desperate Thomasin.

But what happened to the twins?

Half way through The Witch I was certain the narrative was going to head toward a particular Salem-style judgment (the movie is actually set around 60 years before the infamous Salem witch trails), but Eggers chooses a different nihilistic path. It’s not the most satisfying denouement, certainly to those who love The Wicker Man or Kill List, both a lot creepier and overwhelming. But to those who normally don’t watch horror movies Eggers debut feature is compelling and will provide some genuinely unsettling moments. As a drama about the fear of God and the manifestation of supernatural evil The Witch succeeds admirably, but as a True Believin’ horror movie it falls short, playing its Ace of Spades too early in the game, instead of those horns of the Sabbat being driven to the hilt (like Baskin), that the second half and, ultimately, the ending so demands. 

A Night Of Horror Volume 1

AUS | 2015 | Directed by various

It’s a rare breed indeed, the Australian horror movie anthology. And just as rare are the horror anthologies that are actually any good. So in a double rare move, two Aussie writer/producer/directors have teamed up to create the first in what will hopefully be an ongoing series: A Night Of Horror Volume 1. The men behind this dark sun are Dean Bertram, the festival director responsible for Australia’s premiere genre film event, A Night Of Horror & Fantastic Planet International Film Festival, the dual horror and sf/fantasy movie festival that has graced the Dendy Newtown cinemas for the best part of a decade. The other helmsman is Enzo Tedeschi, CEO of Deadhouse Films, co-writer/co-producer of the recent Airlock web series, and co-writer/co-producer of the found footage flick The Tunnel.

A Night Of Horror spins seven tales of supernatural and visceral dread, each one dripping with blood, each one its own distinct nightmare, and yet, cleverly laid into the framework of a wrap-around narrative. Life Imitates, directed by Tedeschi, features Bianca Bradey who wakes to find herself alone in a warehouse of macabre art pieces. With each sculpture and canvas discovery, a new segment is unleashed. Eventually at anthology’s end, the reason for her abduction is revealed in classic giallo fashion.

The first two segments are the only international productions. The first is from the US, Hum, and it’s a deeply unsettling descent into one woman’s audio-visual paranoia that eventually consumes her. In the Canadian Point Of View a mortician is terrorised by sly undead activity preceding the grave. These first two segments set the creepy tone and shadowy atmosphere for the rest of the anthology.

The subsequent five segments are Australian productions, and they are a solid bunch indeed. From Tasmania comes I Am Undone, director Rebecca Thomson, from Stranger With My Face Film Festival, a pitch black comedy of designer beauty gone seriously bloody messy. Dark Origins is from Queensland, writer/director Evan Randall Green delves into the diabolical psyche of a mental patient. Goran Spoljaric’s The Priest is the ride from hell, or perhaps into is more accurate. The family claustrophobia tightens with Carmen Falk's Ravenous, every child's worst nightmare about their grandparents. Writer/director Matthew Goodrich’s Scission is a complex and savage portrayal of a family torn apart, quite literally, while the final segment Flash captures malevolent spectres that linger most lecherously.

Production values are high, performances are uniformly excellent, and the overall vibe is impressively consistent, certainly well sustained, a factor which frequently derails many anthologies. This first volume of A Night Of Horror feels auspicious. I'm sure many more annual nights are brewing in the shadows. Let the bloodletting continue in this fashion!

A Night Of Horror Volume 1 screens at Opening Night, A Night Of Horror International Film Festival, Thursday, November 26th, Dendy Cinemas Newtown, Sydney.