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.


Knock Knock

US/Chile | 2015 | Directed by Eli Roth

Logline: A married father, alone and working from home, is caught up in a seduction game of two seemingly stranded young women.

As a rule I’m not a fan of Eli Roth’s movies, whether he wrote, directed, or produced, or acted, for that matter (he’s okay in Inglourious Basterds). He annoys me in a similar way to Rob Zombie; both filmmakers champion horror movies, yet they make crap. Actually, that’s not true, they’ve each managed to pull one rabbit out of the hat: House of 1000 Corpses and Hostel: Part II. Now I know both directors have a legion of fans, but I don’t care, they’re both hacks as far as I’m concerned.

Okay, so Roth has now opted for lighter fare, having attempted to deliver what he thought was going to be a kick-arse cannibal gut-cruncher, The Green Inferno, but in reality turned out to be the biggest steaming pile of jungle poo I’ve seen in a long time. Knock Knock is a departure from the kind of horror Roth has made up until now; essentially a black comedy-thriller quietly fashioned after a rarely seen exploitation flick from the 70s called Death Game, which starred Sandra Locke and Colleen Camp. Knock Knock is co-produced and co-scripted with his Chilean friends, who have been collaborating with him for several years now.

In Death Game a businessman, whose family is away on his birthday, picks up two young women. He takes them back to his pad, and they seduce him. Later, they tie up him, humiliate and torture him, trash his home, and murder a delivery boy. In Knock Knock, which gives story credit to the Death Game screenwriters, Anthony Overman and Michael Donald Ross, Keanu Reeves plays Evan, a wealthy DJ-turned-architect, married to a sculptor, whose family has gone to the holiday house on Father’s Day weekend. During a torrential downpour (in California??) two exceptionally pretty young women, Genesis (Lorenza Izzo) and Bel (Ana de Armas), knock on his door, somewhat desperate, as they are soaked and lost, trying to locate a party. 

Evan is a decent bloke, and he offers towels and robes, dries their skimpy clothes, and calls a cab. The girls, however, have a secret agenda. After much suggestive chitchat, and whilst waiting for the cab to arrive, the girls manage to get Evan into DJ mode. Before he can say “Superfunkycalifragisexy” they have shed their robes, and are romping in the bathroom. When Evan tries in vain to get them to leave, they latch onto his cock with their mouths. He was a happily married man with two children, but now it’s gone beyond the point of now return. He can’t help himself.

There’ll be tears before Karen (Ignacia Allamand) and the kids return. But before they get home there is much mischief, manipulation, and mayhem to deal with as young Genesis and Bel cause a mountain of trouble for poor Evan. Yup, ‘cos he let his dick make a decision he will now pay dearly. According to Roth, all men are the same, and one should never, ever trust a couple of minxes at the door.

Knock Knock is so eager to please that it almost trips over itself. Plausibility is thrown out the window early on, as the farce becomes truly farcical (much of Reeves' latter dialogue is cringe-inducing). Most of this rests on Keanu’s performance, which once it hits the hysterical notes becomes something one has to see and hear to believe. Or not believe, as the case may be. One can’t help but wonder if Roth was having a laugh at Reeves’ expense. Surely he was aware at just how incapable Reeves is at delivering the intense dramatics. His casting is the piece that brings this Jenga tower crashing down.

On the other hand, it is the spunky performances of Lorenza Izzo and Ana de Armas, especially Izzo, whose smiling assassin is nicely sustained through the theatrical proceedings, whilst Armas (who came to my attention as the damsel-in-distress in the not-too-shabby giallo Blind Alley from a few years back) plays the ditzy bombshell with aplomb. The young women definitely keep the movie buoyant.

My immediate reaction after watching the movie as Sydney Underground Film Festival’s closing night feature was one of, “Meh!” (I had laughed only once the entire movie, right at movie’s end when Evan tries to delete a compromising video from Facebook, only to accidentally press the Like button). The movie had left an odd taste in my mouth, like I’d been hoodwinked. But now, a few days later, I feel okay about describing Knock Knock as an entertaining disaster, a perverted sex farce masquerading as a thriller, that may just haunt Keanu Reeves for the rest of his life.  

The Human Centipede III (Final Sequence)

US | 2015 | Directed by Tom Six

Logline: The psychopathic warden of a failing prison takes inspiration from a horror movie and has a “human centipede” created surgically using all the inmates.

The most anticipated sequel since Dario Argento announced Mother of Tears (the third part of his Three Mothers trilogy), but only marginally less disappointing than Argento’s disaster, Tom Six’s rip-roaring trilogy of revulsion is finally stitched up (well, not quite, but more on that later). The Human Centipede III is the Final Sequence, and, fittingly, it pushes the boundaries of “good taste” deep into the trough, swirls it around, fishes it out, and flaps it in your face, flinging fecal matter and disgustingness in your eye. But is it actually any good? Well, this depends entirely on your point of view.

The First Sequence was an exercise in grotesque restraint, far more suggestive than explicit, a little like The Texas Chain Saw Massacre in tone and execution. The title alone conjured up far worse things than what was actually depicted on screen. Still, it was an experience that few people were prepared to take on, and even some horrorphiles found it unpleasant. But any narrative that involves poor victims being force-fed shit is, well, unpleasant.

Dieter Laser played the insane surgeon with consummate skill. The move became a modern “classic”, did solid business, and secured Six the opportunity to move onto the production of the sequel - Full Sequencein which he stated, “Part 1 was My Little Pony compared with Part 2, and Part 2 is a Disney film compared with what will be in Part 3.” Yes, to the former, no to the latter. 

Tom Six decided in the editing stages of Full Sequence to grade the movie into monochrome (with the exception of fecal splatter), as he thought the black and white effect would make the movie scarier, and ultimately would effectively reflect the intensely dark psychological state of mind of the movie’s protagonist/antagonist Martin (Laurence R. Harvey). With minimal dialogue and maximum grime the result was an expressionist nightmare masterpiece, not too dissimilar to David Lynch's seminal Eraserhead in its Grand Guignol weirdness. It was also a brilliant piece of coal comedy. The dark comic tone of the first movie painted even blacker, with a clever juxtaposition between the two movies (Martin repeatedly watches a DVD of the fictional First Sequence, fetishising it, possessing the evil, and eventually creates his own elaborate monstrosity).

It made sense then that the Final Sequence would take inspiration from the first two movies and continue the fictional/non-fictional stylistic. As such, the Final Sequence begins with the last moments of the Full Sequence (just as Full Sequence begins with the closing scene of First Sequence) being played on video and watched by prison warden Bill Boss (Dieter Laser) and his personal assistant, Dwight Butler (Laurence R. Harvey). The three movies are now “stitched” together!

With the bar raised so high (or low, depending on your sensibilities) and the subsequent immediate cult status of Full Sequence, Six made the decision not to play to fans' assumptions that he would up the gore quota, but instead opted to keep the shit out of sight, and the bloodletting to a minimum. The shock factor is definitely in effect, however, the biggest slap in the face is just how disappointing the movie is. 

Six has attempted a satire on American morality and political correctness (a la John Waters), but the movie simply isn’t very clever in that department. Even Tom Six playing himself only comes across as a self-indulgent gimmick. As a parody of the first two movies I barely spluttered out a chuckle, so as a comedy, the movie fails miserably. Dieter Laser’s bully warden is meant to represent the nadir of human despicability; a deeply sexist, racist, bigot drunkard, who savours dried clitorises from circumcised native African tribeswomen, and enjoys the crumbed testes of a particularly staunch inmate, whom he castrates with pleasure (the movie’s only genuinely horror cringe moment), but – and this is probably the movie’s biggest flaw – much of Boss’s dialogue is unintelligible due to Laser’s thick German accent and his penchant for shouting most of the time. Sure he's completely OTT, but he's no Divine. 

It’s a shame Harvey’s Butler is a shadow compared to his inspired turn as Martin in the trilogy’s middle sequence, whilst Eric Roberts brief appearance, as the State Governor, is completely thankless. Porn star Bree Olsen plays the buxom warden secretary, waddling around in a tight uniform, being humiliated and abused left, right, and centre. I was very surprised she didn’t get her kit torn off by lusty inmates, considering the “offensive” nature of the movie. Robert LaSardo, as the nut-doomed inmate, attempts to have fun, and, in a nod to Paul Morrisey’s Flesh for Frankenstein, he gets to fuck the warden over in gung-ho kidney fashion.

Oh, I'll give props to Six for including The Human Caterpillar! The movie's one true inspired moment. 

Shot like daytime soap, The Human Centipede III might've been more interesting springing out of nowhere as a late night television sitcom about a megalomaniacal, lunatic warden trying to keep his head above (latrine) water in a riotous prison system, instead of having the brilliant shadow of The Human Centipede II shrouded over it. But it was always going to be the difficult third, and perhaps in years to come Final Sequence might be judged less harshly when viewed without the comparisons to the first two parts. I doubt I will change my mind, but, that said, I am interested in watching the “Complete Human Centipede Cut” (all three movies edited together into a four-and-three-quarter hour crawl) that Tom Six intends to release a little further down the track, call me a glutton for punishment. 

Spring

US | 2014 | Directed by Justin Benson & Aaron Moorehead

Logline: An orphaned young American man escapes to Italy and begins a whirlwind romance with a beautiful, mysterious, and elusive woman.

There is so much to love about Justin Benson and Aaron Moorehead’s sophomore effort, but it comes at a price. After the brooding science fiction nightmare that was Resolution, one of my favourite horror movies of 2013, and my interview with them revealing their next production, Spring, I was sold immediately. If it was even half-as-good as Resolution it would still be an interesting and compelling movie. Weel, it's maybe three-quarters-good, which is ultimately a shame, because I really, really, wanted to love Spring. I wanted it to be my next Monsters, my next Bellflower, one of those hybrid movies that utterly entranced me.

Evan (Lou Taylor Pucci) is not in a good place. His mother, riddled with cancer, passes away in front of him. That night, whilst drinking at the joint he cooks at, he gets into a brief, violent altercation, and is fired. Drunk at home he makes a booty call, but passes out. With a hangover, he takes heed of his colleague’s advice and gets the hell out of dodge. He arrives in Italy and immediately finds himself tailing along with two Poms to picturesque Puglia, on the south coast. They end up bailing, but not before Evan strikes up a conversation with a local, Louise (Nadia Hilker), a sultry brunette with spunk to burn.

Over the next week Evan and Louise get to know each other … but not that much. It’s a classic summer romance, all red wine, ocean breezes, coy propositions and stolen kisses. Evan falls head over heels; he’s got nothing to lose. Louise plays a different game; she’s got everything to lose, so no strings attached is where she’s at. 

“Love is a monster” is Spring’s tagline, and the poster depicts tentacles surrounding the silhouette of a slim female. This is a romantic drama that slides into a creature feature. It’s a fresh take on the conventional vampire or werewolf tale where the innocent protagonist falls for the antagonist harbouring a dark and dangerous secret. There are so many elements that work beautifully in Spring; the likeable young American (I really enjoyed Pucci in the Evil Dead reimagining), the rustic Italian setting, especially that bay, the gorgeous “femme fatale” (a German native with one of those seductive hybrid accents), the dreamy, floating cinematography (washed out hues, and some stunning drone camerawork), the subtle score, the spare, but effective creature effects, and, most importantly, the wonderful lead performances.

It is the burgeoning adventure and subsequent romantic intrigue that provides the movie with its charming spine. There is a natural chemistry between the two leads, and their dialogue spills forth with a terrific ebb and flow. We soon understand there is something very wrong with Louise; she is dealing with a supernatural affliction, and Evan is getting in the way.

A movie that starts out as a naturalistic romance will inevitably hit a wall when the horror sub-text bursts to the surface, and Spring slams into it around the 2/3rd mark. Once Louise is revealed to Evan in all her slimy, primordial monstrosity the suspension of belief becomes a very heavy one. As Evan bravely hangs around and asks pertinent questions, and Louise does her best to answer them with all her bioscience gobbledygook, the movie’s charm slowly slid from my grasp. I became less interested, and even less convinced, the more Louise’s plight was revealed, and the more Evan tried in vain to rescue the woman he’d fallen for from the clutches of her ancestral evolutionary devices.

As tragi-romantic a fitting as Benson tried with his screenplay Spring, it was the narrative obscurity and the bleaker, more nihilistic, and overwhelmingly abrupt ending of Resolution that I desired.

 

Spring plays as part of the Freak Me Out section of the 62nd Sydney Film Festival, Saturday 13 June, 8:30pm – Dendy Newtown.

German Angst

2015 | Germany | Directed by Jorg Buttgereit, Michal Kosakowski, and Andreas Marschall

Logline: Three bitter tales of love, sex, and death, all set in Berlin.

I was hanging out for some extreme Euro horror. It’s been seven years since the French and Spanish carved out some seminal and highly original pieces of extreme horror; Frontier(s), Martyrs, Inside, and the first two [REC] movies. Those five signaled the arrival of some serious talent in the genre. But none of the directors have been able to follow up with anything as memorable. Instead, we’ve been overwhelmed with a steady saturation of Hollywood PG-13 flicks, and remake after remake after remake.

I’m not a fan of Buttgereit. I saw Schramm a few years back and thought it was okay, nothing special. I finally caught up with his two Nekromantik films a year or so ago and I thought they were both rubbish. The first one was particularly self-indulgent and tedious, the second one marginally better, but that’s not saying much. Perhaps if I’d seen them back in the late 80s, early 90s, I might have found them shocking, but somehow I doubt it.

Buttgereit is the most prolific of the three anthology directors, with numerous shorts, documentaries, and features to his name. The other two, who I had not heard of, have a clutch of shorts, a few features and a couple of documentaries between them. Apparently they’re considered Germany’s most shocking directors. Well, France and Spain have got nothing to worry about. German Angst failed to deliver on several accounts: there was very little that was actually Germanic about the three shorts, there wasn’t much that could be described as “angst-ridden”, and there was virtually nothing shocking about any of them.

In the first short, Final Girl, directed by Buttgereit, a young girl, barely in her teens, lives with her pet guinea pig in a filthy apartment. She has a man (her father??) bound and gagged in the bedroom. In a voice-over she relates how the guinea pig is operated on to neuter him. She then indulges the technique on her captive.

In the second short, Make a Wish, directed by Kosakowski, a deaf-mute couple sharing a romantic moment in a derelict building are set upon by a bunch of brutal thugs who proceed to ruin the couple’s lives. The handicapped man uses a talisman to apply a supernatural remedy and exact a revenge of sorts.

In the final short, Alruane, directed by Marschall, an American man relates a very strange story to his German girlfriend about pursuing a mysterious young woman who leads him to a clandestine sex club where members indulge in the imbibing of the notorious mandrake root.

Marschall has the best premise and sports the best shot short, a Lovecraftian vagina dentata black magic nightmare, but squanders it with a gruff, moody, and ultimately unlikable protagonist, and takes too long to deliver the horror. When it finally reveals itself, it’s all a bit late in the game (I was reminded of Isaac Ezban’s Nasty Stuff, a much more effective short with a similar sting). Shame about Kira (Kristina Kostiv), she had the most charisma of the entire movie.

Buttgereit’s short is the most concise and, ultimately, the most effective of the three, shot with a great tilt-shift technique. The middle short is the ugliest, most obnoxious, and the most pointless. It does, however, feature the only obvious German element (other than the Berlin setting): WWII Nazi brutalism in the form of a yarn being spun by one of the victims, and arguably the only genuinely ghastly moment, a blink and you’d miss it moment of infant bashing. There also are a couple of graphic head injuries, but again, cut so tight you could blink and miss them.

German Angst should’ve been a kick in the teeth. Instead it was a slap on the butt, and a nudge in the ribs. While the subject matter was edgy, it promised far more than it delivered. I wanted to recoil and shudder, to gasp and goggle, but I was only disturbed by an inconsiderate elderly couple sniggering and muttering in German in the row behind me (?!).

Come on Europe; bring (back) the dark love for us True Believers!

 

German Angst screens as part of the Freak Me Out section of the 62nd Sydney Film Festival, Sunday 14 June, 9:45pm – Event Cinemas 9

We Are Still Here

US | 2015 | Directed by Ted Geoghegan

Logline: A couple, grieving the loss of their teenage son, move into a rural home not knowing it is haunted by vengeful spirits harboured by the townsfolk. 

Haunted house movies are a dime a dozen, and most of them are about as scary as a prod on the arm in the middle of the day. But every now and again a director gets it bang on, or at least manages a half-decent atmosphere and a few cheap thrills. The haunted house’s cinema heyday was during the 70s and early 80s, a time when the clichés weren’t quite as hokey, the art direction was more authentic-looking, the music dripped with genuine Mooginess, and the special effects were all done with prosthetics and engineered in front of the camera.

The haunted house sceptre was brandished by the late, great Lucio Fulci, an Italian who drenched his movies in atmospherics and an oneiric sensibility. His presence - in particular The House by the Cemetery - is draped all over Ted Geoghegan’s feature debut, and it’s this element that shines darkest. Geoghagen is an established screenwriter now turning his talents to the camera, and his eye for the lingering moodiness is most apparent.

Anne (Barbara Crampton) and Paul (Andrew Sensenig) have moved into a creaky old two-storey home in the snow-laden wintery expanse of late 70s New England. Anne still feels the presence of her dead son, Bobby, close by, whilst Paul would rather pour himself another Scotch. Before some friends turn up for the weekend, their neighbours drop by for a howdy-doody. Dave (Monte Markham) and his wife Maddie (Susan McCabe) can’t help but mention the house’s dark history, the trouble and bloodshed, and then they’re on their way.

Jacob (horror indie veteran Larry Fessenden) and May (Lisa Marie - yes, that Lisa Marie) arrive. May is a medium, and Jacob is a stoner. Nice combo. Jacob’s son Harry (Michael Patrick Nicholson) and his girlfriend Daniella (Kelsea Dakota) are due to turn up too. The house needs the company.

Turns out the house wants more than just good conversation, it demands flesh and blood to sate its evil hunger, and it will burn like hell if it doesn’t get what it wants. Cue: Joe the electrician (Marvin Patterson) getting more than he bargained for when he turns up to check out the dodgy wiring. That basement isn’t hot because the boiler is playing up, that basement is hot because the embers of fury have been smoldering for thirty years and are ready to ignite once again.

I’m not entirely sure just how much humour Geoghegan intended to be plucked from his movie, but in the full cinema I watched it in the audience were at first sniggering with mirth and eventually hooting with hilarity. It became apparent that the retro elements of We Are Still Here were being devoured as unintentionally comedic, just as a modern audience unaccustomed to Fulci’s narrative and visual stylistics would probably receive his movies now. 

We Are Still Here wasn’t the straight-as-an-arrow horror I was anticipating (like Ti West’s The House of the Devil), but after gauging the pitch black comic edge, and watching it with an appreciative full house, it was a most entertaining carnival ghost ride with some effective thrills and spills.

 

 

We Are Still Here screens as part of Freak Me Out section in the 62nd Sydney Film Festival, Friday 12 June, 9pm – Event Cinema 11.

  

Infini

2015 | Australia | Directed by Shane Abbess

Logline: During a daring search and rescue mission an elite team and the lone survivor find themselves at the mercy of something far more dangerous than they anticipated.

It’s all well and good taking inspiration from other movies, it’s the fuel that feeds the creative oomph, and it’s just as fine and dandy to put those influences up on the screen. The cinephiles nod and smile, the fans hoot and cheer, the critics take note, and the end result is a movie that oozes cult appeal and smacks of movie saavy. But sometimes a movie can be so weighed down by its own muse that the audience becomes distracted from what is original, by what has been seen time and time before.

Shane Abbess has certainly created an impressive production with Infini, his sophomore feature. The first was a low-budget dark fantasy flick, Gabriel, which garnered him a lot of attention, most notably for the film’s striking visual style. Abbess certainly has a talent for action set pieces and creating a palpable atmosphere. Infini makes more than a passing nod to the most obvious comparison, Ridley Scott’s seminal Alien.

Not only does Infini have a very similar production design, right down to mimicking the same computer interface a la “Mother”*, but also it captures a similar sense of grimy claustrophobia, and plays on the same kind of cat-and-mouse tension, while Event Horizon, another hell-in-a-tight-space scenario, and the extreme paranoia of John Carpenter’s The Thing echo and resonate throughout Infini’s look and feel.

Less obvious, but more interestingly, Infini’s storyline involves a sentient planetoid and the immediate consequences of humans, both physically and mentally being affected by their close proximity. This bears comparison to the ponderousness of Solaris, one of the great science fiction movies (and novels) of the past fifty years. Unlike Solaris, which deals with the manifestation of characters’ memories, Infini plays on the extraction of the characters’ base emotions of rage and hatred, and the subsequent violence it sparks.

Indeed, Infini is a study of identity and self-control, and the violence that tears humanity apart. There are some powerful moments, but it’s a shame that none of the characters are that likeable, or that interesting, making the nearly two hours holed up with them shouting and screaming at each other in a dark, cramped mining facility a bit of an endurance test. Not sure about the ending either, which felt tagged on.

The cast is strong though, the performances solid, and nice to see a bunch of mostly lesser known, charismatic Australian actors delivering the goods. Daniel MacPherson (yet another ex-Neighbour), as the long-suffering lone survivor Whit Carmichael, is the standout, but also of note, Luke Ford as one of the search and rescue team, and Andy Rodoreda as West Coast Division leader Sefton Norick.

There are not that many Australian science fiction movies of this calibre, and Infini kicks some visceral arse. Okay, so maybe not into the beyond, or even the middle of next week, but definitely hard into tomorrow. 

 

 

* In 1979 when Alien came out the MS-DOS-style interface of the Nostromo’s ship computer, Mother, had a clunky-cool aesthetic. But for a science fiction movie made thirty-five years later and set two hundred years in the future involving the super-advanced technology of “slipstreaming” (or, teleportation a la The Tomorrow People or Star Trek) Infini’s concept of a computer interface that looks exactly like the one used in Alien is, at best, contrived, and at worst, risible. Of course, Shane Abbess might've intentionally set his movie in the same universe as Alien, in which case, my gripe is null and void. 

 

Infini is available to rent or purchase on iTunes and other digital platforms now. 

Late Phases

US | 2014 | Directed by Adrian Garcia Bogliano

Logline: A blind war veteran moves into a retirement community and discovers the dog attacks on residents aren’t from dogs at all, but something far sinister.

There’s an elusive quality to the movies of Bogliano, a kind of drifting atmosphere that lingers, like the acrid smell of gunpowder, or the sickly-sweet scent of musk from a wounded animal. A prolific filmmaker with eleven features in ten years under his belt, Bogliano loves putting his protagonists in the lurch, in extended jeopardy, under extreme pressure, having them spooked, or just plain terrorised.

His best work is, arguably, also one of the most powerful and atmospheric rape-revenge movies ever made; I’ll Never Die Alone. Late Phases isn’t anywhere near on the same level, but it provides enough intrigue to warrant watching through to the end. What makes Late Phases more interesting than not, is that it deals with lycanthropy. I’m always game for a lupine nightmare, but the problem is, there are so few that are actually above-average as horror movies.

Late Phases slides between being a creature feature and a character study, but can’t seem to work out which one it really wants to be. For a beastly nightmare, there’s precious little transformation, but there’s a lot of groping and snarling in the dark, and Ambrose isn't the most empathatic guy on the block.  

Ambrose (Nick Damici) is a grumpy and blind war veteran who reluctantly moves into a retirement village on the recommendation of his son Will (Ethan Embry), and is befriended by his neighbor Gloria (Rutanya Alda), and local padre, Father Roger (Tom Noonan). Ambrose has his trusted seeing-eye dog at this side, but everything is torn asunder when Ambrose is attacked in his home by some kind of large ferocious dog, leaving his own canine mortally wounded.

It becomes apparent the dog attack is not random, but one of a series of focused home invasions. It’s no dog that is the culprit, but instead, a huge werewolf. Now armed with a spade as his trusty blindman’s crutch, and his faithful revolver, it’s up to Ambrose to end the cycle of lunar violence. Can he peer past his disability, and stare down the abyss?

Bogliano has opted for an old school approach for his first English-language movie, employing the prosthetics talents of Robert Kurtzman (of legendary KNB fame). There's a decent gore gag, but the man-in-a-suit isn’t the most frightening werewolf we’ve seen, looking like a cross between the statuesque beasts from the action-fest Dog Soldiers and the pig-nosed snout from the brilliant An American Werewolf in London (a movie still very hard to beat). However, the actual transformation that is depicted, late in the game, is easily the set-piece highlight of the entire movie.

It's a shame then that Late Phases is a movie that meanders along, promising much more than it ever delivers (the US poster art is certainly misleading). The performances are adequate at best, with only little of Bogliano’s character edginess that has made his earlier movies, for example, Here Comes the Devil, so disquietingly memorable. Late Phases feels more like a TV movie with hairy benefits. I howl quietly in disappointment. 

 

Late Phases is released on BLU-RAY & DVD by Accent Film Entertainment on April 22nd 2015.

Kwaidan

Kaidan | 1964 | Japan | Directed by Masaki Kobayashi

Logline: Four tales of the supernatural, jilted wife, wrathful woman, greedy warriors, mischievous Samurai, that tell of possession and confrontation.

The title translates as “ghost stories”; and the four tales combined clock in at nearly three hours; the first two are around forty minutes, the third is about seventy minutes, and the last tale is the shortest, at twenty-five minutes. The first three are based upon traditional Japanese folk tales, and the last was written specifically for the movie. Screenwriter Yoko Mizuki took the first three stories from the published works of Greek ex-pat Lafcadio Hearn, who moved to Japan in 1890, and so taken with the culture he changed his name to Koizumi Yakumo.

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The film production company employed Kobayashi to helm the ambitious project partially because of the social commentary he invested in his movies. He had never made a fantasy picture, yet he completely immersed himself in the project, even painting much of the elaborate sets (which were constructed inside an unused aircraft hangar) single-handedly. The direction, as well as much of the production design, combined elements of Kabuki Theatre and traditional art. Rich in colour, often using tableaux for poetic effect, Kwaidan is a masterful mural of motion picture art that dabbles with surrealism and expressionism. 

The Black Hair (Kurokami) has a Samurai suddenly leaving his wife and re-marrying into a wealthier family. But his new wife is odd and cold, and he longs to return to his first love, despite having abandoned her. When he does, he discovers nothing’s changed, especially his ex-wife. Something strange is in the air. This is the freakiest of the four tales, and one can see the influence it has had on modern J-horror, especially Ring and The Grudge.

In The Woman of the Snow (Yuki-Onna), two woodcutters are caught in a blizzard and seeks shelter in a shack where they are visited by a chilly spectre who drains the lifeblood of one of the men. She makes the other promise never to tell a soul. Years later the man is married, and itching to tell his story, and so he spills the beans to his curious wife …

In Hoichi the Earless (Miminashi Hoichi no Hanashi) a blind servant with a gift for plucking strings is besieged by the ghosts from a battle 700 years earlier. The ghosts demand he entertain them with his melancholy ballads, but it comes with a cost. Priests attempt to protect him from their wrath with painted prayers all over his body, but they fail to cover his ears …

In a Cup of Tea (Chawan no Naka) a Lord visiting a temple sees the visage of a young man floating in his bowl, much to his bewitchment. Later that night the spirit appears again at the Lord’s home, but his presence is menacing, malevolent even.

These ghost stories are not that frightening, but they are drenched in atmosphere, soaked in an oneiric mood, and saturated in design. Executed with a sparseness of dialogue and a audio minimalism, yet still vivid, even studied. The score is as experimental as it is creepy. The overall tone is one of careful thought, reflection, ponder, and muse. Provocative without being ostentatious, these are nightmares for the quiet soul.

Kwaidan won the Special Jury Prize at Cannes. It is an acquired taste; very languid, very composed, very deliberate, but ultimately rewarding.