In Fabric

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UK | 2018 | Directed by Peter Strickland

Logline: A haunted dress ruins the lives of several people who purloin it in the hope it brings them love. 

Writer/director Strickland fancies himself a bit of an old-school auteur, and with his fourth feature he descends unabashedly into the realm of Argento-esque weirdness, which he flirted with on his second feature Berberian Sound Studio. His love of deep Euro-trashy aesthetics verges on fetishistic. Pushing the boundaries, then pulling them back again. In Fabric is his most ardent and unhinged movie yet. 

Sheila (Marianne Jean-Baptiste) is a divorcée single mum trying to cope with her young adult son bringing his lovers-with-attitude home, such as Gwen (Gwendoline Christie). Sheila is not having much luck in the dating game herself. She decides to spruce herself up and purchases a garment from a popular 1950s-styled haute couture clothing store during its busy winter sales period. 

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Indeed Dentley & Soper’s Miss Luckmoore (Strickland regular Fatma Mohamed) seems to have stepped right of Dario Argento’s Inferno, a kind of corseted head witch who speaks in a highly stylized retail culture vernacular, and is most heavy with her powers of persuasion. 

Before Sheila can say, “Chiffon, silk and satin, double dream, diamond-wrapped, purpose embroidered, body sensual” she is entranced, and the dagger neckline dress is at one with her. So much so, when she takes the dress off it leaves a nasty scar-like rash on her upper breast, as if to say, “How very dare you!”

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But the rash is only the start of her troubles. This malevolent artery red number wants more than just a figure-hugging curve to cling to, and there’ll be scarlet tears before bedtime. 

Like some kind of strange bad dream In Fabric weaves a psychosexual spell. Part supernatural horror-thriller, part darkened comedy of manners, part soft erotic excursion - with one sticky scene involving Miss Luckmoore and the storeowner Mr. Lundy (Richard Bremmer) that seems spurted straight from a Borowczyk indulgence! 

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It’s a hybrid that is bizarre and tantalizing, but doesn’t reward in the ways one anticipates. Instead the dress makes it way through several other unsuspecting victims - more captivating, candlelight glances and canapé conversations - and instead of the suspense and tension being ratcheted up, it begins to dissipate, leaving the fiery climax a little undercooked. Perhaps In Fabric might have worked more effectively as a shorter, sharper segment within an anthology. 

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But it’s such an idiosyncratic oneirodynia that one can’t help but feel impressed by the movie’s saturated, feverish vibe, highlighted by the resonant electronic score from Cavern of Anti-Matter, and the charismatic performances from the key cast, especially Mohamed, who steals every scene she’s in, but nice work from Hayley Squires as another caught “in fabric”.

I feel Strickland is moving steadily toward a truly brilliant movie, but he’s not quite there yet. 

The Nightingale

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Australia/Canada/US | 2018 | Directed by Jennifer Kent

Logline: A young Irish woman, working in an Australian penal colony, experiences great trauma at the hands of a British Officer and subsequently sets out an arduous revenge mission. 

It is 1825 on the Australian island known as Van Diemen’s Land (which would become the state of Tasmania some thirty years later). It is the country’s primary penal colony. Clare (Aisling Franciosi) is a young Irish convict under the parole supervision of British Lieutenant Hawkins (Sam Claflin), who is brown nosing for a promotion. He wields his power over Clare with brutality and humiliation, raping her in his office, after she sings for his men. 

Clare has been allowed to marry an Irish convict, Aidan (Michael Sheasby), and they dwell in a tiny cabin with their infant baby, but she wants out, having served more than enough time. She lies to her husband about the assault, but Aidan senses her fear, and he is determined to set them both free. Aidan drunkenly confronts the Lieutenant which results in Hawkins being severely reprimanded by his superior, and in his anger the officer and two of his cronies, Ruse (Damon Herriman) and Jago (Harry Greenwood) storm Clare and Aidan’s cabin where sickening, murderous hell is unleashed. 

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In the horrific aftermath Clare, left for dead, is blinded by abject grief, desperation and rage. With just her husband’s horse and musket, she enlists a reluctant young Aboriginal tracker, Billy (Baykali Ganambarr), to help her pursue the Lieutenant and his men, who have set off through the dense bush on a journey to the next township. 

In the traditional modern horror world The Nightingale would fit into the sub-genre known as the rape-revenge flick, but Jennifer Kent’s follow-up to The Babadook is not a traditional horror movie, more of a drama with thriller aspirations, that is steeped in the black water of horror. This is the kind of contemporary take on a genre movie some critics would add the word “elevated” to, trying to shine a lofty ray of respectability into the coal black darkness at its core. But, the truth of the matter is, The Nightingale is, essentially, a horror movie in a historical setting. It is the nightmare journey Clare undertakes, pulling hapless Billy into her injured fold, as she grapples with hatred and retribution. 

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Kent has said she was compelled to make the movie as a response to the frequent violence she was seeing on the news. She felt the ghastly truths about Australia’s colonial past, in particular the rampant misogyny and racism, needed to be illustrated, and as such she wrote a fictional tale embedded with these horrendous details. She describes The Nightingale as a movie about love and compassion, and that if the film was just about violence she wouldn’t have made it. 

I feel Kent is being somewhat disingenuous, especially as the movie indulges in its depiction of horror, and eventually languishes in it. The movie is undoubtedly a study of violence and hatred. Any love and compassion is buried deep, almost out of reach. Clare’s mission is a two hour journey of misery and despair, grim as coffin nails, bleak as an Arctic winter, with hope a candle in the cold hard wind. 

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Clare eventually abandons her husband’s weapon - but not before she demolishes one of the soldier’s faces with repeated blows from the musket’s butt - and takes on a fragile, ruined sense of resignation, but by that stage her accomplice, Billy, has been psychologically damaged, pushed to the same edge of the abyss. To further the tragedy it is Billy who will complete her mission, at mortal cost. 

Kent has elicited a powerful performance from Franciosi in the lead role. The rest of the cast are solid, although I wasn’t entirely convinced with Gunumbarr, in his acting debut. The curious choice of shooting in the old-fashioned standard (or Academy) ratio (1.33:1) creates both a sense of claustrophobia, but, combined with the accents, costumes, and muted cinematography, I was reminded of the New Zealand docudrama television series of the late 70s, The Governor. This was probably not intended, but it gave the movie an unshakeable theatricality. 

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The inherent nihilism and revenge premise of The Nightingale paints a picture that would work very well with the suspense structure of a more traditional horror movie, but Kent doesn’t want to be recognised as a director of horror. Instead she depicts the atrocity of sexual violence and systematic annihilation of the indigenous people as a reminder of where we’ve come from, and the real dark truth is that little has changed. 

Kent’s intention feels confused. The movie is ill-paced, the narrative drifting, meandering along, and then seemingly rushing toward a climax that fails to deliver properly what the audience will be demanding, especially considering what they’ve been subjected to. It sets up a potentially explosive climax, only to stumble toward its denouement and finally collapsing in a heap. Shifting Clare’s story to Billy’s in the final act fails as we’ve not been given enough back story to Billy to warrant his decision to embrace Clare’s fading vengeance. 

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Kent could’ve made a truly powerful horror movie, one covered in the dark blood of rage, resonant in the kind of wholly retributive way the most memorable rape-revenge movies are, but instead The Nightingale becomes a harrowing ordeal without justice properly served, without the dramatic climax it demands. There’s no real hope in that. There’s certainly no satisfaction.

The Nightingale screens as part of the 66th Sydney Film Festival, Sunday 16th June, 6.15pm (Dendy Newtown).





Depraved

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US | 2019 | Directed by Larry Fessenden

Logline: A disillusioned field surgeon has constructed a new man from body parts and a brain, only to find his creation is suffering from existential angst and loneliness. 

Larry Fessenden is a younger, contemporary Roger Corman, having produced more than sixty features in the last twenty years, acted in over a hundred movies, and directed twenty-three. He’s also shot and cut a number of them as well. He’s regarded highly in the independent genre community. I haven’t seen many of them, but his latest is being touted as his best work yet. 

Depraved takes its inspiration from Mary Shelley’s classic version of “Prometheus”, a mere mortal who defies the Gods, creating life from clay, and giving it fire. The story of Frankenstein has been adapted for the big screen more times than almost any other (apart from Dracula). So what does Fessenden bring to the operating table that makes his version stand out? 

It’s a modest production, as all of Fessenden’s flicks are, with budget limitations obvious, in terms of location shooting and special effects. The performances are pretty good, nothing amazing. The best spot of acting comes from Addison Timlin, in a tiny role as a blonde stranger in a bar. It’s a shame Fessenden didn’t give her a bigger role, as her scene is one of the movie’s highlights.

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Depraved begins with young Alex (Owen Campbell) and his girlfriend Lucy (Chloë Levine) discussing their relationship, and the prospect of moving in together. It’s part of the gentrification of Brooklyn, but they are still in an industrial area. Alex leaves, frustrated, and runs foul of a hooded mugger who does him in at the pointy end of a knife. 

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Alex awakens in a makeshift laboratory. But he’s not the same man. He’s a stitched together creation of Henry (David Call), an ex-military field surgeon, who has discovered a way of bringing back the dead by way of a DIY medicine. This medical project is being funded by the opportunistic Polidori (Joshua Leonard), who is running a wee bit rogue from his pharmaceutical company. Henry has named his re-booted human Adam (Alex Breaux), and he feeds him a steady diet of pills to keep him functioning and in check. He’s assisted by med school colleague Liz (Ana Kayne). 

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After Polidori takes Adam out for some night time action (bar, strip joint, nightclub), the physically, psychologically and emotionally scarred patient begins to yearn for more than just the sound of his doctor calling his name. Just as Frankenstein’s creature yearned for a companion, Adam is plagued by the memories of Lucy. But he’s like autistic child, he needs contact supervision.

It’s by no means the first time Shelley’s story has been given a contemporary setting, but Fessenden’s interpretation has an immediacy, both in its down-trodden urban locations and its modern bureaucracy. There’s corruption afoot and jealousy abounds. It’s not long before Adam is at large (cue: Shelley, get it?) and doctor and benefactor are at odds with each other. 

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Depraved suffers from being too long, as it drags in the middle. But the last third is where things become really interesting as Henry and Liz plan to derail the runaway train, and Polidori attempts to gain a higher, more secure footing in the company. Production values and performances aside, Depraved delivers an interesting meander down an alternate path in the cautionary fable world of the Modern Prometheus. 

Depraved screens at the 66th Sydney Film Festival, Monday 1oth June, 8.15pm (Dendy Newtown)

Us

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US | 2019 | Directed by Jordan Peele

Logline: A middle-class family, vacationing at their lakeside retreat, are inexplicably terrorised by a family of doppelgängers. 

Probably the most anticipated horror feature since Fede Alvarez’ re-booted Evil Dead, Jordan Peele’s hotly anticipated follow-up to Get Out is a movie far more entrenched in nightmare logic than his blackly comic thriller debut (sorry, pun unintended). This is a movie that is almost critic-proof, a movie that has managed the enviable feat of becoming the biggest box office opener for a horror movie in cinema history. Indeed, in terms of critical and commercial stats Peele has hit one clean out of the park and into the parking lot. 

The Wilson family, Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o), husband Gave (Winston Duke), adolescent daughter Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and her kid brother Jason (Evan Alex), are taking a much-earned break in Santa Cruz. They have friends, the Tyler family, next door, and Gave has splashed out on a speedboat for the family to enjoy on the lake. There’s the beach too, although Adelaide is reticent to visit the seaside, as it reminds her of a terrifying incident from her youth, a sequence which provides the move with it’s very unsettling prologue. 

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It’s 1986 and Adelaide is with her folks on the boardwalk, at the fair attractions, and while her mother goes to the toilet and her father is distracted the young girl wanders off down onto the sand, and then into the Hall of Mirrors where she backs into a girl who looks and dresses the same as her. Identical. 

This opening sequence provides the movie with much of adult Adelaide’s paranoia and anxiety. She fears something is coming to a head, as the clues are all around her. She fears for her own safety, that her family are in danger. Then they see a family standing in their driveway, staring silently. The family look similar; an imposing father, a slim mother, a girl, and a younger boy. What do they want? Gabe is confident he can deal with the situation. 

But it all goes horribly awry. 

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There’s no denying Peele is a very talented filmmaker. Us is a very well made movie, and it sports a sensational central performance - a dual one, to be precise -  from Lupita Nyong’o. The rest of the cast are very good too, most notably the young Joseph girl, and also Madison Curry, who plays Adelaide in the prologue. Peele has the Scorsese Midas touch in casting. 

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Peele has said how he has always been a fan of horror movies, and wanted to make his own, but found comedy a much easier route for the earlier part of his career. Certainly comedic elements have made their way into both his features, more so in Get Out, and less so in Us, although there are a couple of scenes in Us where the comedic tone felt a little too obvious, as if suddenly we’d slipped into a sketch from his television show Key & Peele. 

I wondered also if Us would’ve worked better as a segment in his upcoming re-boot of classic horror/fantasy/science fiction, The Twilight Zone. As original as the concept is for Us, certainly the sub-text and the last act of the movie, but much of it felt very conventional, essentially a home invasion-cum-slasher flick. And not a a very scary one either. 

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The Wilson doppelgängers aren’t very menacing, neither are the Tyler ones. They’re more amusing, in a grotesque kind of way. Why are they super-strong? Why did Pluto have a mask and scarred face and act like a dog? How on earth did they have such an elaborate underground existence, so close to the surface, and yet were undiscovered for so long? 

I hate the term “elevated horror”, and yet Us engages this pretentious, oh-so-clever socio-political metaphor for the current United States climate. The mechanics of an effective horror movie have been left on the wayside. We are left with a series of set-pieces that don’t really gel together into a cohesive, albeit nightmarish horror movie. I’m all for nightmare logic, but when it’s depicted with such an obvious sense of realism, then it needs to follow through. Much of the second half felt contrived, the whole scene with the fire and Jason’s abduction was plain silly.

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The ending was an anti-climax. Yes, I’ll admit, a little spooky, but by that stage, I had lost interest in the mother’s plight. What had started out as a very promising creep-fest, steadily underwhelmed me as a horror movie. The trailer promised something a lot more like a weird Fulci-esque oneirodynia, but, despite its strangeness, and being drenched in symbolism, its commentary was self-conscious and obscure. Get Out delivers a much more effective and sustained nightmare.

Pet Sematary

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US | 2019 | Directed by Ken Kölsch & Dennis Widmyer

Logline: A family moves into a new rural home and discover an ancient curse lurks in the adjacent woods which insidiously overwhelms them. 

Stephen King has gone on record as saying that his 1983 novel Pet Sematary is the only book of his own that has genuinely scared. I’ll second that dark emotion, and say that it is definitely one of my favourite of the author’s, and I rate it amongst his creepiest, most unsettling tales of horror. The first movie adaptation, made by Mary Lambert, was scripted by King himself, and was fairly faithful to his novel. It’s been thirty years since I saw it, but from memory, I thought it was okay. I’m not sure how well it would hold up today. 

I was very excited when I learned that the directors of one of my favourite horror movies of the past ten years, Starry Eyes, were on board a fresh adaptation of the novel. This one had a screen story by Matt Greenberg (who has been involved in a few other King adaptations over the years) and screenplay by Jeff Buhler (who adapted Clive Barker’s The Midnight Meat Train). I was convinced these were the guys to deliver an vibrant and terrifying new vision of one King’s best horror stories. 

Dr. Louis Creed (Jason Clarke) relocates his family, wife Rachel (Amy Seimetz), young daughter Ellie (Jeté Lawrence) and toddler Gage, to beautiful, wooded (not far from Derry, as a road sign tells us, in a sly nod to King’s It). Their neighbour is Jud (John Lithgow), a widower who knows a thing or two about the area. 

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The family settle in, including their furry Maine Coon, Church. But Dr. Creed has a harrowing experience at the university medical centre where he works, when a severely injured man is brought in from a nearby car accident and promptly dies in Creed’s arms. Creed is not so much shaken by the man’s death, as his wounds were horrendous, but more so because the man’s ghost appears before Creed and warns him of a dark future. Creed is an atheist, so, you can imagine his concern. 

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Kölsch and Widmyer set up the movie well, and the performances are solid. Then the first major change from the novel occurs, when tragedy strikes the family, in full force. I can appreciate this radical twist to the narrative, by having Ellie as the child returned from the grave, as she is able to converse with Louis and it allows her to behave and interact in ways that a two-year-old simply couldn’t or wouldn’t. However, the original novel and adaptation’s abject grotesquerie of having a very young child armed with a scalpel, on a murderous spree is a macabre image that cannot be improved upon. Perhaps in the post-Chucky world we live in the writers and producers felt it would appear blackly comical? But then why did they come up with such a risible ending for the movie?? I’ll come back to that. 

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The production values are high, and, as I mentioned, the acting is strong, with Clarke, Seimetz, Lithgow, and Lawrence, all delivering solid work. The score provides suitable punctuation also, but I felt the whole movie was playing it all very safe, very Hollywoody. I wasn’t entirely sold on the folk-horror element. It felt half-assed, almost token. There was nothing to wow me about any of it. I wasn’t creeped out, as I assumed I would be. Even the violence, with the exception of the heel slice - but we were all expecting that one, and would’ve been very disappointed had they not used it. 

The very ending, and the lead-up to the ending, is where the story takes a radical departure from the novel. I’m sure your average audiences, who haven’t read the book, and probably haven’t seen the original adaptation, will find little to fault the movie, as it delivers all the “right” spooks. But why did the opt for such a tonal shift for the ending? The screenwriter could’ve really driven the nail into the coffin by having them douse the car in kerosine and light it up. 

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Pet Sematary is the kind of horror movie which wasn’t bad, but it disappointed me greatly. High expectations can do terrible things, I know. I feel the urge to re-read King’s novel. That makes me feel better.

Possum

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UK | 2018 | Directed by Matthew Holness

Logline: After returning to his childhood home, a disgraced children's puppeteer is forced to confront his wicked stepfather and the secrets that have tortured his entire life.

All the oppressive atmosphere and grim and grimy tone won’t help you if you’re stuck with a narrative that is chasing its own paranoid tale. There’s only so much mood and unctuous characterisation one can stomach before the stench becomes unbearable, or the monotony sends you to sleep. Possum pushes the boundaries, and not in the best way. 

Possum is the feature debut from one of the two creators behind Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace, the cult fantasy-horror-black comedy television show, also an actor. Apparently based on his own short story Holness has written an intensely dark tale of one man’s reluctant revisitation to the home and landscape of his youth, where something dreadful too place.

Philip (Sean Harris) used to be the puppeteer of a large grotesque arachnid. He still has the hideous thing stuffed inside a duffel bag, which he takes everywhere with him. Philip has so much of his own horrendous baggage that it has affected his entire physique. He walks stiffly, his face contorted, his arm holding the bag at length, as if it carries some kind of disease. 

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After exchanging awkward looks with a teenage school boy on the train Philip makes his way across the desolate countryside to his boyhood home. It’s seemingly derelict, or at least currently empty. But no, Philip’s father, Maurice (Alun Armstrong), is there, seated at the kitchen table, rolling his own cigarettes, staring with a filthy gaze. There is no love lost here. 

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Philip has returned to do away with his once prized possession. The puppet spider must be destroyed. Providing Philip has the courage to do it. He has many demons scratching away inside him, and his father has even more diabolical ones awaiting release. Before Philip can deal with the nightmare of reality, he must battle with the nightmare of his tortured mind, and its own un-reality. He scours the bogs, streams, and woods, looking for the best places to get rid of his duffel bag’s contents. 

This happens over and over and over. Philip’s “little possum” does not want to go quietly, certainly doesn’t want to vanish without a trace. Philip’s elusive guilt and heavy angst is threatening to consume him. But what’s the truth? Where’s the truth?

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Possum would’ve made a terrific horror short. Philip is obviously mentally and emotionally disturbed. The movie’s narrative, using a circular, repetitive structure (insanity is often described as re-doing the same exact task over and over and over, but expecting a different result) is what provides the film with it’s atmospheric intensity, especially combined with the excellent score, courtesy of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop. But it is too drawn out to work effectively as a feature. 

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I’m reminded of the 1993 film Clean, Shaven, directed by Lodge Kerrigan, and starring Peter Greene. Another study of identity, violence, and the collapse of one’s mental health. Clean, Shaven is around 75 minutes long. It too is very demanding, and too long. They’d make a good - albeit gruelling - double feature for those prepared to go the distance. 

Harris and Armstrong give amazing performances, but they’re hard ones to tolerate. The ending, although disquieting, isn’t nearly as wrenching as it could, or should have been. To have endured all of Philip’s rage-driven meandering and squandering and Maurice’s unctuous, tar-stained existence for that long, one really needs a kick-arse horror denouement, and, for all intensive purposes, Possum goes all possum on us. 

Trauma

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Chile | 2017 | directed by Lucio A. Rojas

Logline: Four young women arrive at a rural retreat, but are attacked by an older man and his adult son, leaving the women fighting for survival. 

Part of a new wave of brutalism out of Latin America, this has the spine of a rape-revenge flick, wearing the torn and tattered clothes of political contempt, and is definitely the most savage and unrelenting horror movie I’ve witnessed since A Serbian Film (2010). Indeed Rojas has delivered a pulverising study of inhumanity, and it will likely shock the most jaded horrorphile. Trauma is exactly what it says it is. 

The movie opens in the dungeons of Chile, 1978, a country under the despotic rule of dictator Pinochet, who had endless atrocities committed by his military regime, killing thousands. A badly beaten woman prisoner is trussed up, with her legs spread. A high-ranking officer, aided by soldiers, injects her teenage son with some kind of potent steroid, and forces him to rape her, slices the boy’s face open with a knife, and then shoots his mother through the head at point blank range. The boy, trapped like a lab rat, vomits over his mother, unable to stop.

Cut to 2011, slam bam into the middle of a graphic sex scene between Camila (Macarena Carerre) and her girlfriend, Julia (Ximena del Solar). The contrast is so extreme, so sensational, it’s unintentionally absurd. From rape and cruelty to making love and tenderness. Okay, Rojas isn’t interested in subtly, even if he is making a movie with a political sub-text. He doesn’t beat around the bush (in fact, there’s no bush here at all, it’s South America, not even landing strips in this jungle hell, but I digress, sorry, tasteless humour in an attempt to lighten the mood)

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Camila and Julia hook up Andrea (Catalina Martin), and Camila’s cousin Magdalena (Dominga Bofill). The four women pile into a small car and head out into the countryside to a family homestead outside of Santiago for a little rest and recreation. But they end up stopping at a dingy bar for directions, and are harassed by the local barflies. Juan (Daniel Antivilo) steps in and allows the women to leave the premises safely. 

At the cottage the women unwind, but they are being watched. The two peeping toms enter the home. It is Juan, and his simple-minded son Mario (Felipe Rios). The two men have very bad things in mind. It’s not long before the women are pulled down into absolute hell. 

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For the second half of the movie the women must fight to survive. It’s a living nightmare. After a return to the bar where two policeman attempt to rescue the women, and fail badly, the group end up in a derelict warehouse where they must attempt to outwit Juan and Mario who have been living as monsters. 

Indeed Trauma is a movie about monsters, human monsters, and the poor, poor victims of atrocity. Rojas doesn’t just slap his audience in the face, he king hits them with a clenched fist. With high production values and solid performances from the cast, especially the brave female actors, Trauma bears much similarity to A Serbian Film, not just in the technical departments, as the special effects are very impressive too, but also in the angry political perspective, though it’s hard to make the sub-textual connections when you are being sledgehammered with such atrocity ferocity (sorry, couldn’t resist that one).

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Trauma is not an easy one to recommend. For the horrorphiles, yes, but for most everyone else, I would probably say, take proper heed, you will not come out the other side unscathed, for it is horrendously icky and ultra-violent. Even I felt like taking a long sudsy bath after watching it, and I am a seasoned, hardened horrorphile. That said, ultimately Trauma provides a modicum of light at the end, unlike the truly tenebrous denouement of A Serbian Film

Trauma. It’s a very, very dark journey. Consider yourself warned. 

Trauma screens as part of the 12th Sydney Underground Film Festival, Friday, September 14th, 10.30pm, The Factory Theatre, Marrickville. For more information and ticketing please visit: suff.com.au

What Keeps You Alive

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Canada | 2018 | Directed by Colin Minihan

Logline: A female couple at a lakeside forest cabin on their first wedding anniversary discovers, much to one’s horror, that their relationship is not what it seemed to be.

The psycho-thriller done well is one of the horror genres' aces, but several factors need to be in place for it to work a treat, the most important being performances and a few well-screwed twists. Minihan, on his fourth feature, fresh from SXSW, after messing around with ghosts, aliens, and zombies, now turns his hand to the homicidal single white female sub-genre and delivers his strongest feature to date. 

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Jules (Brittany Allen) and Jackie (Hannah Emily Anderson) arrive by jeep at a lovely secluded forest cabin beside a large lake. They are celebrating one year as wife and wife. But whilst enjoying a cosy wine by the fire they are interrupted by the arrival of Sarah (Martha MacIsaac), from a house on the other side of the lake, who has come over to investigate, since the cabin has been dormant for ages. Sarah recognizes Jackie as Megan, an old friend from many years earlier. This immediately puts Jules offside and in a foul mood, feeling betrayed by her lover. But the name change is not even the half of it.

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Soon enough Jules finds herself face-to-face with a ferocious predator, and Jackie’s father’s hunting advice that “You kill what keeps you alive” (and a great movie title) takes on a whole new meaning. Survival of the fittest as Jackie and Jules go head-to-head in one of the silliest, yet very enjoyable two-hander horror movies in recent years. Minihan is having a lot of fun with this movie, and it shows, with some great camerawork and eliciting two exciting co-lead performances, but of particular note is Hannah Emily Anderson who shines with dark ferocity.

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The problem that frays the movie is Minihan can’t seem to find the ending his psycho killer tale demands, with several dénouements happening during the movie’s last twenty minutes. This upsets the well-paced rhythm the movie has been riding on for the better part of seventy minutes. It’s as if Minihan can’t decide which should reign supreme, the good or the evil? He lurches in one direction, then comes hurtling back and into the other, then swerves back again. This continues right up to the final image (which is a neat duplicate of the movie’s opener, though through a different perspective).

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Any horror movie makes the demand of suspension of disbelief, depending on the sub-genre. When the movie operates in a realistic, plausible fashion, such as with What Keeps You Alive, it becomes increasingly hard to stay locked to the suspension of disbelief when the characters are exhibiting superhuman survival behaviour, or not just getting the fuck out of dodge when the going gets tough.

Still, What Keeps You Alive has enough gung-ho chutzpah and fresh charisma that will charm most audiences, and even if you do see the twists coming, it’s still a solidly thrilling and good-looking ride. 

In My Skin

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Dans Ma Peau | France | 2002 | Directed by Marina de Van

Logline: A woman grows increasingly fascinated and obsessed with injuring and disfiguring herself following her own accident.

Esther (Marina de Van) is a successful corporate business analyst. She has a boyfriend, Vincent (Laurent Lucas), and she enjoys a healthy social life. But one night at a party while wandering in the yard she stumbles and accidentally lacerates her leg. At first she is unaware of the nasty injury, but later on while in the bathroom she notices blood over the carpet, and realises it is her own. She studies her wound, fascinated by the extent of her injury, curious as to why she didn't feel any pain.

Later, Esther finds herself picking at the stitches and fingering the gouges running down her flesh. As a kind of relief from the pressures of her heavy office workload she sneaks away and toys with her damaged self. Soon this preoccupation leads to self-harm, resulting in truly perverse behaviour. Her work colleague, Sandrine (Léa Drucker) is appalled. Her relationship with her boyfriend suffers, as her body horror obsession further intensifies, and the boundaries between her psychological and her physiological worlds collapse.

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Esther descends into a very disturbing state of mind of auto-vampirism/auto-cannibalism. Her emotional instability, her psychological perspective on humanity and communication all collide, manifesting themselves in her ability to cross the threshold of pain and embrace her own controlled disfigurement, as a form of escape and release from the overwhelming social pressures that are bombarding her on a daily basis.

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Her self-mutilation takes on a sensual exploration that is both carnal and destructive; it is as if she is combing sex and death and controlling them, keeping them both at arm's reach (so to speak), leaving herself balancing on a precarious edge. She can't get enough of her self (literally), yet knows it is inevitable that her behaviour and actions can only go so far before it is too late to stop. But she can't help herself.

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After several shorts, and working with Francois Cluzon co-writing several of his movies, In My Skin is Marina de Van's debut feature, from her own screenplay, and playing the harrowing central role, no less! It is quite possibly one of the most confronting films I have ever seen. I'm used to gore on screen, but there were several times during In My Skin that I had to cover my eyes! It's not that the special effects make-up is especially realistic, but, very cleverly, Marina de Van manages to show just enough to warrant an extreme reaction in the viewer, a delicate, but powerful combination of mood, tone, and sound effects.

Indeed, it’s a difficult movie to recommend, truly tough viewing. But it is brilliantly made, and superbly acted. The overall tone (even the pitch-black humour), and the director’s approach to the subject matter, is reminiscent of the style and intent of the two Davids, Cronenberg and Lynch. If you're at all squeamish, stay well away. Yet in dealing with the fragility and perversity of the human condition, In My Skin is strangely, hypnotically rewarding. 

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The movie finishes abruptly, an existential nightmare. Marina de Van doesn't offer a rationale behind Esther's behaviour - which is both the film's strength and weakness - yet she has gone to some lengths to purge her own inner demons, delivering a thoroughly disturbing and frequently ghastly portrait of one woman's slide into madness, and suggests we are an inherently lonely race, constantly looking for love and acceptance, and often searching in the darkness, flailing blindly. 

 

 

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.