Saturday, October 31, 2015

13 FOR HALLOWEEN #13: Treevenge

It’s weird to think that Jason Eisener has been on the cusp of being horror’s Next Big Thing for nearly a decade now. He won a ‘Grindhouse’ fake trailer competition in 2007 with the distilled (and decidedly more focused) version of what would become his feature length debut, ‘Hobo with a Shotgun’. He followed that with the short film under consideration this evening, the punningly titled ‘Treevenge’, after which it was three years until the full-length ‘Hobo’ appeared. It did little business at the box office, earning only a scraping of its already low budget back, but went on to become a cult favourite. Eisener went on the contribute segments to the anthologies ‘The ABCs of Death’ and ‘V/H/S/2’. Since then, there’s been a couple more shorts, including ‘One Last Dive’ which is rumoured to be getting the feature-length treatment though what’s happened to his mooted second feature ‘Blatant Violence High’ is anyone’s guess.

I have a feeling that Eisener might prove better suited to the short film form. ‘Hobo with a Shotgun’, while genre-savvy and dementedly inventive, ultimately felt like someone had crossed Quentin Tarantino with the Tasmanian Devil, pumped the resulting hybrid full of more coffee than a long-haul truck driver drinks in a year, and had it scream at you about ALL ITS FAVOURITE MOVIES for an hour and a half while jabbing hat pins under your nails at random moments just to make sure you were still paying attention. ‘Treevenge’, at just sixteen minutes (twelve if you lose the opening and closing credits) suffers from a similar condition. Let’s call it Demented Nerd Boy Exploitation Fan Syndrome.

‘Treevenge’, in case you didn’t guess from the title, is a comedy. Its best joke is the use of the opening theme from ‘Cannibal Holocaust’ as Eisener’s camera pans across acres of fir trees. That the title card looks like this is just beautiful:

Having delivered its subtlest and funniest moment, Eisener then cuts loose in gleefully unrestrained and self-indulgent fashion for a tale of Christmas trees pushed beyond endurance – chopped down, the unsaleable ones burned, the saleable ones sold to toothpaste-commercial squeaky clean families and decked with baubles while saccharine festive music plays at heinous volume; Christmas trees that fight back in graphically bloody fashion; Christmas trees that mercilessly exact their treevenge.

In all fairness, Eisener dishes up some great ideas: the fir tree POV scenes are brilliantly done; a sequence in which saplings find themselves in the back of a truck and go into a claustrophobic panic manages to be funny and weirdly poignant (they’re comforted by the bigger trees) at the same time; the first death turns the fact that you can see it coming like an ocean liner on a duckpond into its biggest asset; a particularly graphic moment segues from Fulci eyeball-trauma homage to a grotesque version of the spaghetti scene from ‘Lady and the Tramp’; and the underlying concept that some Christmas trees are sentient and even have their own language is priceless.

Just as much, however, doesn’t work. After spending two-thirds of his running time establishing a handful of specifically delineated characters, Eisener foregoes the besieged-group-of-survivors scenario that would have suited the story down to the ground (imagine it: mall, Christmas decorations, piped-in carols, Santas and elves fleeing in terror) and simply has his deeply pissed off trees rampage all over some identikit small town; he jettisons his main characters, too, and suddenly we have NRA types cutting loose with rifles, a nod to ‘Deliverance’ that you might never be able to get out of your head, and a cynical payoff involving a small child. Whether anything’s off-limits in a horror movie is a moot point, and these moments might have worked if there had been something in the preceding few minutes to contextualise them. As it is, Eisener giddily throws in as much gross-out fare as he can given the constraints of budget and running time. The reintroduction of the ‘Cannibal Holocaust’ theme as the film abruptly ends seems less like effectively mordant humour this time round than an admission that it was all a bad-taste joke. Which, to be fair, it was. But a joke is only as good as its teller, and ‘Treevenge’ would have benefited from more flair and style in the telling.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

13 FOR HALLOWEEN #12: Fido

Welcome to Canada, home of ice hockey, the Mounties and a population who are notable for not being American. Not that there seems to be much difference in the town of Willard. In a vision of Americana straight out of ‘Pleasantville’ and garnished with the swish materialism of ‘Mad Men’, executives in sharp suits drive shiny convertibles while their wives wear petticoats and mix martinis. The opportunities and good living the citizens of Willard enjoy are all thanks to Zomcon, a corporation that handles undead security in the wake of the zombie wars.

Let’s pause to exhume the backstory. Andrew Currie’s ‘Fido’ takes place in an alternative history 1950s where solar radiation has caused a plague of zombies. Military intervention forestalls the immediate threat. Meanwhile Zomcon pioneers a collar device that controls the zombies’ urge to eat flesh. Rendered docile, the undead are put to work as gardeners, housekeepers and unskilled labourers, Zomcon guaranteeing that any problems will be swiftly taken care of.

One such problem occurs after Helen (Carrie-Anne Moss) acquires a zombie in order to keep up with the neighbours. She’s keen to propel husband Bill (Dylan Baker) up the career ladder and since their neighbour is Jonathan Bottoms (Henry Czerny), head of security at Zomcon, the couple seek to ingratiate themselves. Meanwhile, their lonely and socially inept son Timmy (K’Sun Ray) begins to bond with the zombie (Billy Connolly) and names him Fido. Yes, that Billy Connolly.

Bill’s an old-school zombie hater, mainly on account of his father being killed by (and subsequently turning into) one. He’s further antagonised when he realises how affectionately Timmy, and later Helen, regard Fido. Things take a macabre turn when Fido’s collar malfunctions and he attacks a bystander. Owing Fido a favour – the zombie interceded when bullies had him cornered – Timmy helps cover up the death. Inevitably, Fido’s victim comes back from the dead, one bite leads to another, and soon Willard is threatened with a bona fide zombie invasion.

‘Fido’ is an odd little film, not least for casting legendary raconteur Connolly in a non-speaking role. Tonally, it veers from poignant rites-of-passage piece (the title encapsulates the “one boy and his dog” aspect of the material) to Lynchian small town dystopia by way of a satirical enquiry into America’s complicated fear/dependency relationship with homeland security. Large scale alternative history world-building strains against budgetary limitations (the madcap finale suffers as a result), whereas steadily accreted minutiae paint a more effective picture. The POV flits from Timmy to Helen, with Timmy in particular too often sidelined. The director’s humorous broadsides are equally uneven, ranging from Hitchcockian black humour (a ‘Trouble with Harry’-style corpse disposal is inspired) to the kind of slapstick you’d associate with the final reel of ‘Blazing Saddles’.

If ‘Fido’ never quite coheres, then its flaws are not for want of ambition. “A man’s reach should exceed his grasp,” Robert Browning once declared, “or what’s a heaven for?” ‘Fido’ exceeds the grasp of its pallid, bony, clutching hands. But Heaven’s the last thing on its mind; brains, however … brrraaaiiinnns.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

13 FOR HALLOWEEN #11: Winter of the Dead

Think Finnish cinema and you’ll probably think of Aki Kaurismäki and then sit around and scratch your head for quite some time. In fact, think Finland in general and you’ll probably come up with saunas, reindeer and the stark, wintry beauty of Sibelius’s symphonies and tone poems. In Markus Heiskanen’s 35-minute short, the nuclear winter is the order of the day. The country is ravaged, survivors are few (the script flirts with the frankly bonkers concept of radiation immunity but doesn’t really explain it) and zombies are a fact of life.

The film starts in ‘Omega Man’ fashion: Toni (Pasi Martikainen) maintains a lonely outpost against the undead. His low-key, reflective voiceover paints him less as a survivalist or gung-ho military type than a regular guy who has used intelligence and practicality to adapt. He lives by routines and safeguards.

It’s a shock to discover – a third of the way in – that Toni is not alone. Once a week, he visits Risto (Antti Riuttanen), who he refers to as his neighbour even though their houses are miles apart. They’re a study in contrasts: Toni is disciplined, sober and self-sufficient; Risto is laid back, brews moonshine and curates the largest collect of girlie magazines in Finland. (One assumes they’re all back issues, since the possibility of a “zombie’s wives” edition is frankly unpalatable.) Toni and Risto spend a little quality time discussing the frequency and intensity of zombie attacks, knock back some hooch, smoke a pipe and recreationally shoot zombies in the head as they sit by the lakeside. Then Toni heads home and reflects that it really doesn’t do to cultivate friendships in this zombified new world.

Thus far, Heiskanen establishes a chilly aesthetic, sketching in his protagonist as a man of few words and cautious actions. The Toni/Risto interplay leavens the atmosphere with wry humour. A feature length exposition of the movie would function equally well as stark existentialism or comedy horror. For all that Risto is the comic foil (albeit granted a moment of rough-diamond gravitas by the end), the focus is on Toni and his pragmatic stripping away of all unnecessary emotion and sentiment: the price he pays for staying alive.

So effective is this portrait that it’s almost regrettable when Marika (Kirsti Savola) appears, driven out of the village in which she sheltered as the zombie attacks become more ferocious. Toni finds her unconscious and almost frozen to death, but is reluctant to offer shelter. Risto, meanwhile, is reduced to gormless gawping at the sight of a woman. Fortunately, Heiskanen avoids the obvious pitfalls and – apart from the single Hollywood-like shot that concludes the film – steers away from the clichéd possibilities of burgeoning relationships and romantic rivalries. Better still, Marika is the complete antithesis of the outmoded woman-in-peril heroine, pulling her weight, stating her mind and blasting zombies in the head as determinedly as Toni or Rosti.

If ‘Winter of the Dead’ never gets developed as a feature or remade Stateside, it will leave the original as a stellar example of how craftsmanship and imagination can triumph without CGI or a blank cheque to the special effects department. On the other hand, it would be thrilling to see what Heiskanen could do with a reasonable budget.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

13 FOR HALLOWEEN #10: Let Me In

Pretty much the only misstep Matt Reeves’s ‘Let Me In’ makes is the truncation of its title from John Ajvide Lindqvist’s novel – and Tomas Alfredson’s earlier film adaptation – ‘Let the Right One In’. “Let me in” is a blunt request or command. “Let the right one in” has about it more of a caution or a warning; it adds an extra layer of meaning to the book/film.

Lindqvist made an immediate name for himself with ‘Let the Right One In’, earning comparisons to Stephen King. And the book certainly has the narrative verve and economic characterisations that typify King’s best (i.e. least verbose) works. It’s also pulpy as all hell, and no-one’s idea of literary fiction no matter what some of the more fawning reviewers might have you think.

Alfredson’s Swedish language adaptation took a chilly, somewhat Cronenbergian approach to the material; a good aesthetic decision, but I found the direction a little too removed from the story being told; the performances slightly too well-considered. It lacked, for want of a better expression, the human element. Granted, the human element in a story about a bullied kid forming a tentative relationship with a centuries-old vampire trapped in the body of the 12-year-old girl whose requirement for blood necessitates a series of grisly murders carried out by her middle-aged paedophile companion is a relative concept; but nonetheless, the relationship between troubled child and vampire is at the centre of the narrative and without some degree of emotional engagement, the concept flounders.

Reeves (making a quantum leap as director from the hackneyed ‘Cloverfield’) trusts to the director’s two greatest allies: script (his own) and cast. The script keeps its real horrors (bullying, broken homes, social disenfranchisement) to the forefront while backgrounding the supernatural elements – quite literally backgrounding: virtually every scene of Abby (Chloe Grace Moretz) attacking someone for their blood or scaling is done in long-shot. Close-ups are reserved for the aftermath: the smears of blood on her face; the crazed look of an animal in her eyes. The script also strips away Lindqvist’s more heavy-handed moments, particularly the pile-up of narrative developments that make the second half of the book so top-heavy. It also sanitizes the relationship between Abby and Thomas (Richard Jenkins), almost conjuring him as a sympathetic character rather than abject failure of a human being crushed by self-hate that Lindqvist and Alfredson have him as.

And having mentioned Moretz and Jenkins in that last paragraph, let’s sing the praises of the cast. In a career that’s consisted of youthfulness juxtaposed with worldly-wise (or, in the case of ‘Kick-Ass’, wholly inappropriate) behaviour, Moretz was the obvious choice to play a character who is essentially Nosferatu shoehorned into Lolita’s prepubescent form. Her performance is understated and, at times, purposefully gauche; yet, when Reeves needs her to remind the audience exactly what Abby is capable of, she’s chilling. That scene in ‘Goodfellas’ where de Niro stands at the bar, eyes flicking from person to the next as he works out who he needs to silence? Moretz does a similar thing, but straight to camera. Jenkins is basically faultless: I’ve never seen a Richard Jenkins performance that’s less than pitch perfect. He’s simply one of the best actors around. Smit-McPhee, as the luckless Owen, a victim who’s only a couple of steps away from becoming an aggressor himself, is astounding. Your heart breaks for him in one scene, only for his burgeoning obsession with knives to worry the hell out of you moments later.

Three great central performances; three instinctive pieces of characterisation. And yet it’s Reeves as director I keep coming back to – a man whose CV prior to ‘Let Me In’ suggested, at best, a proficient hack – not only for his intuitively empathetic script and his facility with an exemplary cast, but his confidence in the pacing of the film, allowing the characters to emerge as products of their past or their environment, letting the drama and tension develop organically, letting the genre elements gradually bleed into an already tautly disturbing set-up.

‘Let Me In’ isn’t just a damn good vampire movie or horror movie; it’s a damn good work of cinema, period. As a remake, it’s peerless.

Friday, October 23, 2015

13 FOR HALLOWEEN #9: La Horde

If any country can lay claim to cinema as an art form, then surely it’s France. The birthplace not just the medium itself, but arguably its most important practitioners. France: the birthplace of Francois Truffaut, Jean-Luc Goddard, Jean-Pierre Melville; just the thought of a movie in black and white conjures their work. The smoke from a Gitane might just as well be curling over this paragraph.

But this is 13 for Halloween on The Agitation of the Mind and we’re leaving the leaf-strewn avenues and pavement cafes for grittier, starker locations. We’re bidding adieu to the old masters and cautiously making the acquaintance of a new generation of genre-savvy filmmakers who have transmogrified l’horreur from, say, the dreamy surrealism of Georges Franju’s ‘Les yeux sans visage’ to the disturbing but thought-provoking brutality of Pascal Laugier’s ‘Martyrs’.

Laugier has also plied his trade in Hollywood (‘The Tall Man’), as have his fellow countrymen Alexandre Aja, Franck Khalfoun and Xavier Gens; and with American cinema not exactly short of young directors focussing almost exclusively on the horror genre – Adam Green, Ti West, Joe Swanberg et al – a certain degree of cross-pollination was always going to be inevitable. ‘La Horde’ has an incredibly American sensibility, from its grim urban setting to its gleeful appropriation of Hollywood iconography. Superficially, it offers nothing the splatter fan hasn’t seen before. Nonetheless, directors Yannick Dahan and Benjamin Rocher cannily anticipate audience expectations. Moreover, ‘La Horde’ packs its fair share of existential mean-spiritedness: if Henri-Georges Clouzot had made a zombie movie, this would be it.

The genre-spanning first act has more in common with a policier or a vigilante thriller. A group of cops, incensed at the murder of one of their own by a drugs gang, dispense with due process and storm the dilapidated tower block said gangsters have occupied as their base of operations. Internal tensions are rife and the plan of attack is badly thought out. Things swiftly go wrong and the gangsters gain the upper hand. At this point, the zombie apocalypse occurs, the undead lay siege to the tower block and two very dangerous and antagonistic groups of people have to band together to survive.

This latter is the film’s most Hollywood concept, however Dahan and Rocher avoid any redemptive undertones. No mismatched allegiances or declarations of brotherhood are forged in the furnace of this particular crisis; both sides continue to hate each other even as their numbers dwindle. The cops’ talk of honour and looking out for each other is quickly revealed as so much hot air. The gangsters are reduced to macho posturing, juvenile stupidity and, finally, pathetic vulnerability in the face of something they can’t threaten or bully or extort.

Interestingly, both groups seem to exist within a cultural frame of reference that doesn’t recognise the zombie as an existing trope: it takes a hell of a long time for anyone to cotton on to the old “shoot ’em in the head” modus operandi. Whether or not this idea was deliberate – à la the protagonists’ attempts in ‘Juan of the Dead’ to find a rationale for what is, to the audience at least, a self-evident phenomenon – it lends the film an urgency, as well as allowing the filmmakers a last-minute point about parochialism and social/political division. The final scene has the survivors emerge into a landscape that’s utterly unpopulated. The zombie threat has faded. A pall of smoke hangs over a ravaged but silent city. And that’s when the ugliness of the human condition takes centre stage again.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

13 FOR HALLOWEEN #8: The Horribly Slow Murderer with the Extremely Inefficient Weapon

There are, as far as I can discern, two purposes served by the fake trailer: 

1) to contextualise a feature-length work, e.g. the trailers for ‘Don’t’, ‘Machete’, ‘Thanksgiving’ and ‘Werewolf Women of the SS’ which emphasise the drive-in exploitation traditions which the two halves of Tarantino and Rodriguez’s ‘Grindhouse’ grew out of; or those which begin ‘Tropic Thunder’ and present an ironic commentary on the kind of movies its mismatched actors are usually associated with;

2) as works of satire or spoofery in their own right.

Of course, all of the trailers in ‘Grindhouse’ and ‘Tropic Thunder’ are satirical. And just to make things meta, ‘Machete’ became a movie in its own right, as did ‘Hobo with a Shotgun’ which was originally conceived as a fake trailer for a ‘Grindhouse’ competition. Moreover, ‘Thanksgiving’ is easily the most accomplished piece of cinema Eli Roth has put his name to.

Having said all of that, let’s turn our attention to Richard Gale’s magnificently titled ‘The Horribly Slow Murderer with the Extremely Inefficient Weapon’. Everything about it suggests that Gale was going all out to make the fake trailer of all fake trailers, the ne plus ultra of movies that don’t exist. (Yet. Of this, more later.)

To begin with, it runs ten minutes. Fake trailers, by their very definition, generally exist at a length analogous to your average punk single. Edgar Wright’s ‘Don’t’ is just one minute eighteen seconds. Rob Zombie’s ‘Werewolf Women of the SS’ seemed outrageously operatic at five minutes. ‘The Horribly Slow Murderer with the Extremely Inefficient Weapon’ doubles down on ‘Werewolf Women of the SS’ (and, man, that sentence takes on a raft of new meanings if you remove the quote marks!), stretching its running time into double figures, hellbent on being the ‘Santango’ of its (admittedly underpopulated) subgenre.

Then there’s the sheer amount of stylistic homages Gale packs in, from stalk ‘n’ slash to Rambo-style mano-a-mano business, by way of oriental mysticism, widescreen globe-trotting, spaghetti western grunginess and elements of the police procedural. Gale’s own narration leaves no voiceover cliché unturned, be it overly dramatic diction or relentless repetition (“again and again and again and again and again and again …”). One the trailer’s best jokes is the assertion that the movie itself was twelve years in the making, filmed on four continents and is nine hours long.

And what, you may be wondering, is ‘THSMwtEIW’ about? Well, our hero is Jack Cucchiaio (Paul Clemens), who is one day subjected to a vicious attack by an antagonist known as the Spoonman (Brian Rohan). The Spoonman looks like a cross between the Grim Reaper and a heroin addict, and spends the duration of the trailer reappearing in Jack’s life and attempting to kill him … with a spoon.

Jack’s attempts to variously run, fight back and learn the truth about his attacker do little prevent the onslaught of spoon-thwacks, although Jack does glean one seemingly important fact from a sinister eastern mystic: the Spoonman is an immortal being known as the Ginosaji. Cucchiaio versus the Ginosaji (linguistics will appreciate the names): a duel between a forensic pathologist and a spoon-wielding demon. The absurdity sells it without even trying.

It’s certainly been lapped up by a genre-savvy internet audience, with Gale expanding the Ginosaji’s mythology in four sequels: ‘Spoon vs. Spoon’, ‘Save Jack’, ‘Spoon Wars’ and ‘Ginosaji vs. Ginosaji’. And he’s not done yet. Gale is currently crowdfunding to expand ‘THSMwtEIW’ to feature-length. Whether, as a 90 minute feature, it’ll manage to sustain its one-joke premise remains to be seen, but good luck to the guy.

Monday, October 19, 2015

13 FOR HALLOWEEN #7: No One Lives

Ryuhei Kitamura’s ‘No One Lives’ begins in media res with heiress Emma Ward (Adelaide Clemens) – missing following a mass-murder that cost fourteen lives – plunging through a heavily forested area in the middle of the night in what is obviously an escape attempt. It’s foiled by a mantrap that snares her legs and hauls her off the ground. Dangling upside down, frustrated to the point of rage, she uses a knife she had on her person to etch a stark message into a tree trunk: “EMMA – ALIVE”.

The next sequence has an affluent couple (Luke Evans and Laura Ramsey) stop at a shitty motel during a cross-country. She’s identified as “Betty” in dialogue, but the man is only referred to as “The Driver”. This, and the curiously stilted relationship between them, suggest that something in their relationship is awry. There’s a sense of depersonalization that is only emphasized later when they are threatened in a diner and there is something distinctly off-kilter about the way they react.

And who are they threatened by? That’d be Flynn (Derek Magyar), a hotheaded younger member of a gang headed up by the patriarchal Hoag (Lee Tergesen). This less-than-lovable bunch are introduced in a scene where their wholesale robbery of a mansion disguised as removal men is interrupted by the unexpected return of the owners. Hoag’s convinced that he can talk his way out of it, but Flynn’s nerve breaks and he cuts loose with a shooter. Hoag is understandably pissed off that B&E has now escalated to Murder One and he tells Flynn in no uncertain terms that he’d better do something quite special to get back into his good books.

How Flynn interprets this, his targeting of Betty and The Driver, the nature of their relationship, the interrelationships between Hoag’s gang – including his partner Tamara (America Olivo), his daughter Amber (Lindsey Shaw) and her boyfriend Denny (Beau Knapp) – and the truth about Emma fuel the next hour or so (‘No One Lives’ boasts an agreeably spare 83 minute running time) with roughly the same intensity as rocket fuel cut with Colombia’s finest. Many films treat narrative development as a case of “this happened, then this happened, then this happened”, all of it telegraphed with laborious exposition. ‘No One Lives’ treats narrative development as a cluster of pool balls smashing into each other and careering crazily around the green baize. From Kitamura’s first rug-pull – a triple-whammy of unexpected reactions/revelations – a mere twenty minutes in, all bets are off. Nothing is certain. In this movie, anything could happen with the only guarantee being that the mechanics of it are going to be brutal. The title is earned.

For this reason, I really don’t want to talk about the film in any detail. The less you know when you approach it, the more you’ll enjoy it – assuming, of course, you enjoy cynical and hyper-violent genre movies. And one of the most entertaining aspects of ‘No One Lives’ is how gleefully it dabbles in genre tropes. At any one time, it’s a stalk ‘n’ slash flick, a revenge thriller, a ‘First Blood’ style drama fascinated by fieldcraft and man-traps, and a psychological horror movie trading in Stockholm Syndrome mind games. It’s never dull. The pace is unremitting, the tension razor-sharp.

Performance-wise, Evans is terrific – he’s brooding and intense, but smart enough to underplay. Clemens owns every scene she’s in. And in the midst of hive of amorality and self-interest that characterize Hoag’s gang, Shaw manages to conjure a sympathetic non-scumbag torn between filial duty and survival.

Japanese director Kitamura – whose second American film this is, following the Clive Barker adaptation ‘The Midnight Meat Train’ – brings a hyperkinetic intensity to the proceedings, but is savvy enough to know when to allow a few character beats, a moment or two of calm before the next bout of blood-letting. He also allows himself a few riffs and visual homages to other movies, the most explicit being ‘Apocalypse Now’ and ‘Angel Heart’, but generally keeps things on the right side of derivative. ‘No One Lives’ was saddled with a limited release and struggled to find an audience theatrically. One of the better reviews it got was “mindless entertainment done right”. Hopefully it’ll have its day on DVD, where its twists and turns and curveballs and bloodbaths are lapped up by midnight movie aficionados who’ll appreciate the tradition of exploitation cinema that it taps into and to which it pays visceral, irony-free homage.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

13 FOR HALLOWEEN #6: Children of the Corn

In my paperback copy of ‘Night Shift’, Stephen King’s first short story collection, ‘Children of the Corn’ clocks in at 35 pages. It’s one of the creepier tales in that volume, but nowhere near the best of King’s short fiction in the greater scheme of things. Dragging it out to a 93 minute feature film was stretching the material enough, but for some reason that I don’t think I could fathom if I retired to the mountains and gave it my full philosophical consideration, Zen Buddhism stylee, the story birthed a three-decade franchise encompassing nine films including a 2009 remake of the original for the SyFy Channel. A franchise, sure, but one that’s distinctly low-rent.

Let’s consider the original. Newly qualified physician Burt (Peter Horton) is driving through the corn-swathed countryside of Nebraska with his girlfriend Vicky (Linda Hamilton) when a young boy runs out from said corn and they inadvertently run him over. Burt – who spends the movie behaving more like an amateur (very amateur) sleuth than a medical professional – deduces that someone must have been chasing the boy, hoists a crowbar from his car boot and goes wandering off into the fields to investigate, having first admonished Vicky to stay in the car and keep the doors locked. Presented with the isolated locale, the trauma of just having run over a child, and the uncertainty of her partner suddenly haring off, Vicky responds by taking a nap. She dreams that someone with a scythe is creeping up on her. Awaking with a start, she finds that Burt has returned none the wiser. They decide to wrap up the boy’s corpse, stuff it in the car boot, and drive into a small town called Gatlin.

Burt and Vicky driving around and slowly realizing that something very freakin’ weird is going on accounts for pretty much the next half hour. These scenes are interlaced with occasionally spooky, occasionally stupid scenes of the children of the town behaving in a decidedly unhealthy manner. Scenes that would have worked much better if director Fritz Kiersch and scripter George Goldsmith had allowed the audience to come to a realization of the town’s ungodly secrets as gradually as Burt and Vicky do. As it is, however, they set out their stall way too early with an opening sequence in which the children of Gatlin slaughter the adults. By rights, this should have been brutal and chilling, but the acting tips it into hilarity, particularly when Kiersch cuts away to prepubescent ringleader Isaac (John Franklin) sneering through a window and looking less like a messianic psychopath than a cute ickle kid whose favourite cartoon has just come on TV.

As Burt and Vicky discover more about the quasi-religious shenanigans to which the kids are in thrall, the more the power struggle between the supposedly urbane Isaac and his bumpkin second-in-command Malachai (Courtney Gains) comes to the fore. Again, this is potentially dramatic material, and the religious elements even threaten to become interesting. But Gains’s acting is worse than Franklin’s. By the time he appeared in ‘The ’Burbs’ and ‘Memphis Belle’ just half a decade later, Gains’s talent had developed no end; here, though, in his first movie, he overdoes it and then some. Mind you, Hamilton is no better and there was less than a year between her pitiful turn in this movie and her iconic performance in ‘The Terminator’.

Blame it on the script? Blame it on the direction? A little bit of column A, a little bit of column B, perhaps. Certainly the script’s deviations from King’s story weaken things. The direction falters when it comes to performances, but the atmosphere is often successful, even though Kiersch tries too hard to conjure a ‘Wicker Man’ vibe. Ultimately, it’s one of those films that inspires not so much a bad reaction as a “meh” kind of reaction. It’s a film that would never have been great, but needn’t have been this bland.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

13 FOR HALLOWEEN #5: An Appetite for Bernard Brady

Suche gut gebauten Achtzehn bis Dreißigjahrigen zum Schlacten.” Such was the ad Armin Meiwes posted on a website called The Cannibal Café in 2001. It translates as “looking for a well-built 18 to 30 year old to be slaughtered” and the weird thing is that a whole bunch of people replied to it. All but one subsequently changed their minds and to give Meiwes his dues, he respected their choices. The guy who didn’t welsh on the arrangement was Bernd Jürgen Armando Brandes. They met at Meiwes’ house, a dwelling Meiwes had outfitted with what he called “the slaughter room” in readiness for their assignation. They made a video which documented how Brandes became the main course. The specifics are visceral, but for those unacquainted with the case, it’s worth a short précis for the sheer absurdity of it. If you’re eating, about to eat, or considering eating in the next, oh I don’t know, week and a half, you might want to disengage at the end of this paragraph and maybe pop back later.

For those of you still reading, this is what happened:

Meiwes and Brandes decided that they would cook Brandes’ penis and eat it together, with Brandes apparently quite keen that Meiwes bite it off. This, for me, is where the absurdity starts. I can only imagine that if Agitation Jnr were bitten off or otherwise severed, the last thing on my mind would be its nutritional value. I would imagine that the main thing on my mind would be the ungodly degree of pain resulting from its detachment. Meiwes and Brandes were obviously hardwired to a completely different psychology. Meiwes tried biting Brandes’ todger off, but found it difficult and resorted to the use of a kitchen knife. I’m making an educated guess that anaesthesia wasn’t employed. Of the gastronomy that followed, Meiwes’s Wikipedia entry offers this wonderful description: “Meiwes then fried the penis in a pan with salt, pepper, wine and garlic; he then fried it with some of Brandes’s fat, but by then it was too burned to be consumed. He then chopped it up into chunks and fed it to his dog.” Now imagine that piece of prose delivered in the plummy tones of Delia Smith or Nigella Lawson. Or even Gordon Ramsay bursting into Meiwes’s kitchen screaming, “You’ve overcooked the cock, you fucking Teutonic loser!” Comedy gold.

Meiwes took a break from the kitchen for a few hours while Brandes lay bleeding in the bath tub. Eventually, Meiwes gave his victim alcohol, pain killers (pain killers, after chopping his willy off – fucking pain killers!!!) and sleeping pills, then hauled Brandes to the slaughter room, stabbed him in the throat (presumably as a safeguard in case the combination of blood loss, alcohol and cocktail of pills hadn’t already done the job), and hung him on a meathook. Thanks to the convenience of owing a deep-freeze, Meiwes made Brandes last for 10 months. Probably cut down on his grocery bill no end.

Now, you might consider me a sicko for suggesting this, but the Armin Meiwes story – which inspired songs by Rammstein, Marilyn Manson and Bloodbath – has all the makings of a cracking comedy. ‘Carry on Up the Meat Hook’. ‘Honey I Burned the Penis’. ‘Who’s Being Killed for the Great Chefs of Europe?’ Inexplicably, none of the films that take their cue from the Meiwes case are comedies. They are, indeed, a mixed bag (and one that I might have to explore as part of this year’s Winter of Discontent), ranging from Martin Weisz’s ‘Butterfly: A Grimm Love Story’ (a.k.a. ‘Grimm Love’) which focuses on a student (Keri Russell) researching her thesis on cannibalism, to Marian Dora’s ‘Cannibal’ which I can only describe as what you’d get if a Ruggero Deodata video nasty were spliced with a gay porn version of ‘Elvira Madigan’. 

Perhaps the most elegant and cerebral take on the subject matter, however, is Chris Mangano’s ‘An Appetite for Bernard Brady’, which relocates the story to Seattle and reimagines Brandes as the eponymous Brady (Kyle Littelfield). This 15-minute short is told entirely in voiceover; various characters in the film address Brady, but he never speaks except to record a message inviting the Meiwes stand-in to eat him. I say “stand-in”; Mangano doesn’t actually give us a version of Meiwes, apart from a darkly eroticised figure who features very briefly in a dream sequence. It barely even counts as a spoiler to reveal that Mangano doesn’t even take the story through to their meeting. What he concentrates on is a psychological portrait of a man who has lived a solitary life – and, outwardly at least, a conventional one – a man you’d perhaps dismiss as boring; a bit of a nerd. But Brady’s unassuming demeanour has been his armour from a young age: it’s what cloaks his obsession with, and sexual response to, the concept of victimhood.

Right from the outset, with Brady pouring over a book of Bible stories for children and lingering on a picture of Abraham about to sacrifice his son – a picture which takes Brady back to his own boyhood and the furtive glee with which he returned to that image – Mangano steers the film into some effectively dark territory. A subsequent scene where the young Brady, fascinated by an old movie showing a deserter executed by firing squad, re-enacts it in his bedroom, starts off almost ridiculously with a line up of toy soldiers, then suddenly takes a turn into the genuine horrible as the lad happily pulls a pillow case over his head and stands to attention.

Audience knowledge that something twisted and dysfunctional has sat in Brady’s psyche from childhood throws into sharper relief moments that document his banal day-to-day existence – moments that would be dull to watch without this dark context. Mangano – whose only film this is as director – demonstrates a sure touch with only a montage of Brady failing to click with a series of dates relying on obvious stereotypes. Between his telling attention to detail and Littlefield’s nicely underplayed performance, Brady emerges as curiously sympathetic. And the visual punchline the film ends on is perfect.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

13 FOR HALLOWEEN #4: The Raven

Under no set of even remotely objective critical perameters can ‘The Raven’ be described as good. Charitably, the descriptions “mishmash”, “ill-conceived” and “flawed” might best apply. Anybody immediately galvanised to scroll down to the comments section and leave a remark along the lines of “what the hell are you talking about, Fulwood? it’s an abject piece of shit” would do so without any attempt at argument from yours truly.

But dammit, I’d been emotionally wrung out by ‘The Babadook’ and disappointed in the extreme by ‘It Follows’ and I went scouting for something that I’d approach with such low expectations that I might just find myself pleasantly surprised. ‘The Raven’ didn’t quite pole-vault up from the wasteland of its reputation (which, as much as it has one, is probably the critical equivalent of a shrug of the shoulders and a vocalisation of the “meh” variety) and reveal itself as an overlooked and/or misrepresented cult classic, but it did waltz me through the ballroom at the What The Fuck Lounge for an hour and three quarters while the strains of the So Bad It’s Watchable Symphony Orchestra melted around us. And for that I’m … well, no so much thankful as moderately unrepulsed by the experience.

‘The Raven’, superficially at least, takes its cue from those occasional ‘Doctor Who’ episodes that posits the Time Lord’s influence on an historical figure during a period of personal crisis (Vincent van Gogh in ‘Vincent and the Doctor’) or purports to explain a blind spot in their biography (Agatha Christie in ‘The Unicorn and the Wasp’). Here we have the final days of Edgar Allen Poe and a monumentally lurid solution to his mysterious demise. Only without David Tennant or Matt Smith or a blue telephone box. These absences prove a serious flaw: ‘The Raven’ would have been fucking amazing as a 45-minute ‘Doctor Who’ story.

As it is, we have an overwrought feature length movie scripted by Ben Livingston (a TV actor whose only writing credit this is) and Hannah Shakespeare (a writer of TV pabulum such as ‘The Playboy Club’ and ‘Killer Woman’) and brought to life by the director of ‘V for Vendetta’ and ‘Ninja Assassin’.

So, having examined the film’s credentials and vigorously washed our hands, let’s proceed to a synopsis. It’s 1849 and Poe (John Cusack) is trading on former glories, reciting his gothic poem ‘The Raven’ to anyone who’ll listen and churning out bitchy screeds of literary criticism to the indifference of newspaper editor Henry Maddux (Kevin McNally) who would much prefer the spine-chilling short stories of Poe’s earlier career. He’s also in the habit of getting thrown out of taverns on account of his inability to settle his tab, and punching way above his weight in terms of a nascent romance with Emily (Alice Eve), daughter of abrasive socialite Capt. Charles Hamilton (Brendan Gleeson). With enough going on in his life already, Poe is suddenly and bluntly hauled into a police investigation when Inspector Fields (Luke Evans in a role originally earmarked for Jeremy Renner and I could weep at how much better that would have made the film) realizes that a series of grisly murders owe their modus operandi to Poe’s fiction.

The genre fan will have immediately pegged that what we have here is Dario Argento’s ‘Tenebre’ reversed-engineered by a century or so and hung upon the gothic reputation of an actual horror writer rather than the fictive Peter Neal. And director James McTeague mines Argento’s ‘Tenebre’ and ‘Opera’ for the best scenes ‘The Raven’ has to offer. Indeed, the corvine imagery of the raven owes as much to the finale of ‘Opera’ as it does to Poe’s gothic poem. In fact, for all the imagery of ravens that haunt the film, McTeague and his writers seem to forget that ‘The Raven’ was in fact a poem and therefore doesn’t correlate with the central narrative of a copycat killer basing his crimes on Poe’s short stories. Had the film been called ‘Rue Morgue’, ‘Amontillado’, ‘Masque of the Red Death’ or ‘The Premature Burial’, those titles would have actually been earned.

Also, for all its slavish rehashing of Poe’s most macabre concepts, there are moments where scripters, director and actors demonstrate total misconception of Poe’s work, particularly in the scene where Cusack references the short story ‘The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar’ by pronouncing the “M.” as a initial rather than “monsieur” (the character’s name is in fact Ernest Valdemar). Then there are the logistics of – no spoilers here – what it would have cost the perpetrator to reconstruct Poe’s tales (specifically the mechanism required to approximate ‘The Pit and the Pendulum’ and the rental on a building large enough to house it) in terms of what that character actually does for a living.

At its best – a cat ‘n’ mouse hunt through a theatre, a shadowy subterranean pursuit, a horseman bursting into a masked ball – ‘The Raven’ wears its cheesy B-movie heart on its sleeve and makes no pretence that it exists for any purpose other than as a delivery system for hyper-stylised but inherently camp grand guignol imagery. At its weakest, it tries to blend the best of Argento with a worst of Eli Roth and stir in the tabasco sauce of ‘Seven’. In these moments, as may be imagined, the flavor is decidedly questionable.

Friday, October 09, 2015

13 FOR HALLOWEEN #3: It Follows

There was one of those storm-in-a-teacup kerfuffles on social media recently when Quentin Tarantino said of David Robert Mitchell’s sophomore feature ‘It Follows’ that “it’s one of those movies that’s so good that you start getting mad at it for not being great”. QT went on to enumerate some of the issues, his main gripe being that Mitchell was inconsistent as regards the film’s mythology. There are those who took umbrage at Tarantino’s opinionism. Personally, I think he was being charitable.

The basic concept of ‘It Follows’ is that there’s a curse, or a haunting, or something (Mitchell’s savvy enough not to get bogged down in exposition) that is passed on through sexual encounters. Once you’ve received it, you become aware of people – they might be male or female, strangers or family members, they might appear to be alive or bear the disfigurements of death – following you relentlessly; unstoppably. If they catch up with you, it’s goodnight Vienna. The only way to break the curse, or dispel the haunting, or whatever is to have sex with someone else. Only that doesn’t entirely guarantee you a “get out of being killed” waiver. If the individual you’ve passed it onto doesn’t get rid of it by the same means before the follower catches up with them – if, in other words, they’re killed – the curse, or haunting, or summat starts working its way back down the chain.

Which, admittedly, is a pretty good concept. Particularly the idea of the follower doing a u-turn and working its way back. Thread this through an acutely observed picture of teenagers on the cusp of discovering their sexual identities and dealing with the accompanying emotional rollercoaster, and – pace Tarantino – there was no reason for this not to be something special. The problems start with the very first shot …

… which looks for all the world like a screengrab from John Carpenter’s ‘Halloween’. And for the next hour and a half Mitchell only pauses in his wholesale plundering of Carpenter’s seasonal classic in order to nick a few other bits from David Lynch. Even the music (by Disasterpiece) is a film-long riff on the ‘Halloween’ soundtrack except in one place where it throws in an homage to Mike Oldfield’s ‘Tubular Bells’ (‘The Exorcist’) and a few others where the order of the day is some discordant atonality a la ‘Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me’.

The problems continue with the very first line of dialogue and continue through to the last. Not the dialogue itself, I hasten to add – Mitchell often gives his teenagers interesting and thoughtful things to say, and allows that some teens will have read T.S. Eliot and Dostoyevsky and not everyone under the age of twenty-five has to act like a douchebag – but the sound recording. The music is intrusive, the foley only slightly less so, and the dialogue is often helplessly lost in the mix. I had to replay a few scenes, and some others I gave up on.

The performances are variable: as protagonist Jay, Maika Monroe has a winsome and haunted look about her that suits the narrative, but she sleepwalks much of the film. Lili Sepe as her sister Kelly and Olivia Luccardi as their friend Yara seem more at home with their characters, but are given very little to work with. Keir Gilchrist and Daniel Zovatto, as romantic rivals over Jay, create just enough by way of characterization to keep themselves afloat. Only Jake Weary as Hugh, the love rat who gives Jay the curse/haunting/whatever actually invests himself in a performance and goes for broke: the scene where the gang confront him and he sweatily tries to justify himself, warn Jay to pass it on, and absent himself before anything nasty happens (all within the space of a couple of minutes) is the best-acted moment in the movie, Weary single handedly creating a dynamic and a sense of urgency.

Elsewhere, the characters veer between acting like normal (if utterly unnerved and bemused) teenagers, then doing stupid character-in-a-horror-movie things purely because the script needs them to. There are other moments that are just plain awkward, such as Jay driving as far as she can in an attempt to escape her follower, then having to stop and get some sleep. Now, you’re being pursued by something weird and unstoppable; you’re driving a car; you just can’t keep going. Do you: (a) find somewhere off the road and out of sight, trigger the internal locking system, slide the front seats forward and huddle into the backseat footwell, hoping no-one will see you should they happen across the vehicle; or (b) stop the car right on the edge of the road, get out, curl up on the bonnet and go to sleep? It’s (a), isn’t it? Every time. Mais non! Jay, who has hitherto made very well-considered decisions, opts for (b), a course of action guaranteed to see you robbed, possibly assaulted and your car absconded with, and that’s quite without any supernatural threat! 

Ultimately it’s this unholy trinity – too many borrowings from other directors’ work (which is fine if, like Tarantino, you fashion them into your own authorial style); inconsistency in the film’s internal logic; and ostensibly smart characters suddenly and pointlessly doing stupid things – that work against the film. ‘It Follows’ has a lot of promise and some intensely memorable moments – an opening scene spatially dislocated by a dizzying and entirely unexpected 360° pan; an exploring-an-abandoned-house sequence that builds its menace from social realism and avoids the obvious scaremongering; a beachside idyll that explodes into supernatural horror – and there’s enough to suggest that once Mitchell develops his own filmmaking style he’ll be a force to be reckoned with. But its weaknesses stack up mightily, particularly its puppyish obsession with mimicking ‘Halloween’. ‘It Follows’ isn’t bad – it isn’t bad at all – but it’s still the work of a beginner. To continually call to mind and allow itself to be judged against ‘Halloween’ – the work of a master – is a huge aesthetic miscalculation.

Monday, October 05, 2015

13 FOR HALLOWEEN #2: The Babadook

Of all the things ‘The Babadook’ gets right – and let’s just call it from the outset: ‘The Babadook’ is a film of such intuitive psychological intelligence and aesthetic filmmaking confidence that it’s astounding to realize that it’s a debut feature – perhaps its greatest strength is that writer/director Jennifer Kent isn’t scared to structure what is essentially a two-hander around two often unlikeable (and sometimes outright fucking detestable) characters, one of them a young child.

Indeed, it would be fair to say ‘The Babadook’ documents the unhealthiest mother/son relationship this side of Oedipus Rex. Mrs Bates and young Norman are a well-adjusted picture of fulsomeness compared to young widow Amelia (Essie Davis) and her demanding 6-year-old son Samuel (Noah Wiseman). A floaty, surreal opening sequence establishes the dynamic immediately: a heavily-pregnant Amelia was on her way to hospital when a car accident robbed her of her husband and left her with, to put it mildly, mixed feelings towards her child.

Fast forward and Amelia is working a thankless job, struggling to cope with Samuel’s neediness, trying to suppress a rollercoaster of grief/resentment/hormonal overdrive, and stoically withstanding the vaguely contemptuous pity/condescension that seems to be the standard operating procedure of the smug housewives who constitute Amelia’s poor alternative for a social life. She’s about two sleeping pills away from a nervous breakdown, and it doesn’t help that Samuel is forever tinkering away down in the basement, creating little gizmos, unearthing his late father’s possessions, and subconsciously modeling a persona on that of a man he never knew.

Kent takes her time establishing all this, almost dissecting every interaction between two people who don’t, for all that they’re bonded by blood and loss, actually like each other all that much. To Amelia, Samuel is an annoyance; an incessant drain on her patience. To Samuel, for reasons that only become apparent after Kent pulls a mid-film POV switch that’s as subtle as it is audacious, Amelia is someone he desperately needs to protect even though his motivations are underpinned by fear.

And even contriving that deliberately vague and not particularly elegant sentence, I start to wonder if I’m giving too much away. ‘The Babadook’ is grueling; upsetting; emotionally bleak. Like all the greatest horror movies, it roots its sense of horror into something all too human, all too real, all too immediately recognizable. A few nights ago, at home, I was sitting in my bedroom, reading, the window open. From the street below, the caterwauling of a young child demanding attention. Said racket was superseded by a screech from the child’s mother: “Fuckin’ shurrup!” What chance for a child raised in that environment? What effects when unconditional love is stamped out by anger and vehemence? ‘The Babadook’ renders a more effectively disturbing treatment of these questions by placing Samuel in the emotional cauldron engendered not by some teenage chavette for whom a child is merely a shortcut to a benefits claim but a mature woman with a job and responsibilities whose personal circumstances and devastating loss ought to make her a centerpiece for the audience’s sympathies.

The other great success of the film is its introduction of the supernatural. One day, Samuel demands that Amelia read him not one of his usual retinue of gently improving bedtime stories, but from a book he’s found that Amelia is sure she’s never seen before. A hardback tome with sturdy covers, rough pages, childlike but gut-wrenchingly sinister woodcuts and stark minimalist prose which tells the story of a creature called (you guessed it) the Babadook. The Babadook, it turns out, fair enjoys killing people. Amelia, naturally, recoils at the book’s content (the fact that its most horrific images are incorporated as cheesy pop-ups makes it somehow worse) and hides it on a top shelf. The book returns. She throws it out. It returns. She burns the motherfucker. Whaddaya know? Can’t keep a bad book down.

From hereon in, the Babadook threads itself through the fabric of the movie: whether seen, unseen or half-glimpsed, it literally haunts the film. And it’s under the shadow of the Babadook’s pervasive presence that Kent effects her mid-film switcheroo and suddenly the audience’s perception has changed and the stakes are higher. To say much more would be a disservice to anyone yet to discover the film’s grim delights. I say “grim” advisedly, because this is one of the most emotionally bruising horror movies I’ve encountered for a while. Entire stretches of it are depressing on an Ingmar Bergman circa ‘The Silence’ or a Lukas Moodysson circa ‘Lilya 4-Ever’ level of depressing. You could strip out every vestige of the supernatural and ‘The Babadook’ would still function as a horror movie because it taps into such a morbid and emotionally raw area of the psyche.

Indeed, back-pedalling from the obvious supernatural elements might have strengthened the finale, certainly during a couple of scenes where Kent seems to doubt her own directorial style and borrows fairly obviously from the David Lynch playbook, and not least with regards to the finale which seems very stagy and suggests that an evil spirit is best confronted when you’re super-fucking-pissed-off.

Still, genuinely scary horror films are as thin on the ground as genuinely intelligent ones, and ‘The Babadook’ manages to be both. It’s also exceptionally well crafted and the performances are raw, nervy and immediate. If you only know Essie Davis as the elegant 1920s sleuth in the ‘Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries’ TV show, be prepared for a revelation. And whatever Jennifer Kent directs next, prepare for one hell of movie.

Saturday, October 03, 2015

13 FOR HALLOWEEN #1: Sinister

Described in terms of its most reductive elements – a couple with young children move into a house in which something violent and tragic occurred; inexplicable events happen; the children encounter spirits and/or start acting out of character – ‘Sinister’ sounds utterly boilerplate. The few words of that synopsis could be applied to any number of horror titles from ‘Amityville’ to ‘The Conjuring’. Most of which also ensure that the protagonists are financially overstretched so that simply grabbing the car keys and fucking right off the moment the weird shit kicks in isn’t an option to them.

The first of a handful of things that ‘Sinister’ does differently – not perhaps differently enough to vouchsafe it a reputation as a re-interpretative or deconstructive classic of its subgenre, but enough to keep the attention of the more jaded and difficult-to-please horror fan – is to make its protagonist white-collar and cerebral rather than blue-collar and mortgaged up to the hilt. (Have you ever noticed how often the paterfamilias in these kind of movies is a construction worker or similar? As if the scriptwriters are saying, “hey folks, this guy’ll be too dumb to figure out what’s going on, so he’ll have to consult priests and academics during the movie and we can therefore flood you with exposition”.) Granted, our rather nervy hero, Ellison Oswalt (Ethan Hawke), is scrabbling for a grasp at the brass ring as desperately as the bread-winners in ‘Amityville’ or ‘Conjuring’, but in his case it’s a reputational rather than fiscal imperative.

Ellison is a once-bestselling author whose reinvestigation of a murder case earned him a New York Times #1 bestseller, a period of flash-in-the-pan celebrity and the lifelong enmity of law enforcement officials wherever he goes – his wife, Tracy (Juliet Rylance), complains of spending her life driving at five miles under the legal limit and being ticketed anyway – due to his less-than-flattering portrayal of cops. Subsequent books don’t seem to have recaptured his initial success – a mordant early scene has an antagonist hick sheriff (Fred Thompson) enumerate the various inaccuracies in each volume – and he’s pinning his hopes on a literary comeback on an account of a murdered family and a missing girl.

Marital tensions are already rife between Ellison and Tracy, the latter despairing of how her husband’s writing comes before his family. Tracy’s reservations that they are once again going to be moving, as a family, “two doors down from a crime scene”, are quickly proved right. For this time Ellison has actually moved them into the crime scene. The argument that erupts when Tracy finds out is as hide-behind-the-sofa as any of the supernatural elements. Hawke and Rylance nail the dynamic of a couple whose relationship is unravelling: they yell impotently, stumble over their words, pick up mid-sentence on something the other has said and the argument zings off peripherally like a pinball. God knows whether it was scripted so precisely, or ad-libbed during filming, but it’s a tour de force of kitchen sink realism and it anchors the more obviously hokey and generic narrative beats.

Horror is generally more interesting when mature characters are called upon to deal with the inexplicable. Even a second division outing like ‘Vacancy’ immediately benefits from focussing on a couple in their thirties and the emotional baggage of their lives so far, rather than throwing a bunch of kids into the mix and thumb-twiddling through the obligatory tomfoolery and making out, merely killing time until the blood-letting starts. In ‘Sinister’, a flawed but basically decent bloke (he genuinely cares about his kids, even though Tracy’s accusation about his priorities isn’t without foundation) has a significant reason to remain in a haunted property; moreover, his co-option of a local deputy and an academic with an interest in the esoteric – the kind of characters, as noted above, who are usually introduced merely to spout exposition – are not only narratively relevant but provide insight into Ellison’s personality. His borderline exploitation of the puppyishly enthusiastic deputy (for whom a mention in a book’s acknowledgements page is the highest accomplishment he can think of) demonstrates how sneakily Ellison conducts his research and is the film’s clearest indicator of why Tracy has come to view her husband’s profession with trepidation.

The supernatural elements start innocuously: Ellison finds an old projector and some canisters of Super 8 film with bland titles like “Pool Party” and “Sleepy Time”. Running them, he finds they all follow a pattern: surreptitious documentation of a family interacting together followed by the ritualistic killing of same in a manner that mimics or subverts the dynamic which brought them to their offscreen murderer’s attention. Ellison is initially repulsed, but when he finds footage of the case he’s investigating, curiosity and the promise of a surefire bestseller prove too compelling. Naturally, he’s concerned that the material be kept from his children and he’s careful to stow the projector and the film cans away, even keeping them under lock and key. Progressively, however, he wakes in the night to find the projector set up and scenes of horror flickering across the walls of his home.

For a good chunk of the film’s middle section, director and co-writer Scott Derrickson treads an ambiguous enough line – things half-seen; Ellison behaving increasingly erratically – to suggest it’s either all in his mind or that he’s being possessed by whatever malevolent spirit is at work. Ellison’s research and the gradual uncovering of connections between the murder victims is juxtaposed against his embattled mental state, his fragmenting marriage and the potential psychological impact on his children. All told, Derrickson brings slow-burn tension to boiling point with remarkable aplomb for someone whose previous genre outings were the best-not-spoken of ‘Hellraiser: Inferno’ and the unfocussed ‘Exorcism of Emily Rose’. He keeps his villain – identified in various children’s drawings as “Mr Boogie” – firmly in the shadows. His big scare moments are earned, and there is remarkably little playing to the gallery.

Right up, that is, until the end. There would have been a really simple and effective way to conclude ‘Sinister’: right at the point where Ellison receives the crucial last piece of information. A ‘Tenebre’-like reveal of a character behind another character; a face at a window; or just an abrupt cut to black and an ambiguous noise on the soundtrack. ‘Sinister’ could easily have kept its demon in the shadows and its audience unnerved. However, Derrickson does two things in the last five minutes which threaten to unravel much of the good work he’s achieved up till then. Neither of these moments utterly deflate the film like, say, the last third of ‘Insidious’, but it’s still an annoyance that ‘Sinister’ stumbles so wonkily after not putting a foot wrong for nearly two hours.

Thursday, October 01, 2015

Fearsome fulminations from the Pumpkin King …

Greetings to however of few of you web-surfing horror aficionados still wend your wicked way to this dastardly and disreputable corner of the blogosphere.

Needs must, I commence this year’s prefatory address with an apology. I usually take my annual break from Agitation (1st November to 30th September) in the secure knowledge that the wordy little homunculus who administrates these pestilential pages will keep up a decent schedule of sarcastic commentary, caustic opinionism and generally revel in the kind of filmic fare that your mother would chastise you for, your wife divorce you for, and your best mates come round to watch with a keg of beer and a pizza the size of Kanye West’s ego. Only last year I took my break and what did said homunculus do? He got sidetracked by a publishing project and the training for a half marathon. And what do I come back to? A corner of the blogosphere emptier than David Cameron’s moral conscience.

So do please accept my apologies for a half year’s depletion of content. If this vile little blog hasn’t for some strange reason fallen like a dead leaf from your link list, please also accept my heartiest thanks and my assurances that young Fulwood has been imprisoned in a dank basement with only a laptop, a WiFi password, some slightly out of date snack foods and a stack of DVDs. Once he’s redeemed himself with this year’s 13 For Halloween and a good showing on the Winter of Discontent, he’ll be allowed a couple of beers, a shower and three-minute telephone call with Mrs F. Any funny business and it’ll be the nipple clamps and some unspeakable business with a rubber chicken.

But I digress. In the spirit of compliance, young Fulwood has already penned this month’s first horror movie review, and is currently sketching out the second (under threat of a rusty metal-working tool and a Justin Bieber CD on a continuous loop). I think it’s safe to say that things will be getting back to normal around these parts.

You’re welcome, folks. Don’t mention it. The pleasure is all mine …