Wednesday, October 31, 2018

13 FOR HALLOWEEN #13: The Nun

The prologue to ‘Annabelle Creation’ takes place in 1943, with the remainder (i.e. the bulk) of that film taking place in 1955. ‘The Nun’ is set entirely in 1952: indeed the entire film takes place over two days. Which kind of makes ‘The Nun’ episode 1.5 in the ‘Conjuring’ multiverse.

This distinction is wholly irrelevant.

James Wan’s ‘The Conjuring’ was a pretty fucking great haunted house movie that proved he can be an astoundingly good director the moment you cut him loose from the fuck-awfulness of frequent collaborator Leigh Whannell’s scripts. ‘The Conjuring’ spawned two prequels: ‘Annabelle’, which was borderline terrible, and ‘Annabelle Creation’ which was damned good on a level almost equal to ‘The Conjuring’.

‘The Conjuring 2’ wasn’t quite as good as its predecessor but remains a rock solid and occasionally inspired haunted house movie with a cluster of good performances and a commitment to a grimly realistic urban aesthetic.

These distinctions are utterly relevant.

To put it simply: ‘The Conjuring’, ‘The Conjuring 2’, ‘Annabelle’ and ‘Annabelle Creation’ all take place within a post-war 35 year span, all are set in recognisable western locations (three of them in either urban or rural America, one partly in America and mainly in the economically strangled England of the late 70s), all are relatively realistic in their set-ups (i.e. they establish normal characters leading normal lives against unremarkable backgrounds) prior to the intrusion of the supernatural, and all of them are populated by characters who make logical and understandable decisions (in both of the ‘Conjuring’ films, the homeowners only take so much supernatural shit before they get the fuck out of their respective properties).

‘The Nun’ bucks the trend in every respect. It’s set in Romania. Its depiction of Romania is as if a Val Newton b&w chiller got jiggy with Michel Soavi’s ‘The Church’ and Lucio Fulci was called away from a screening of Powell & Pressburger’s ‘Black Narcissus’ to be the godfather. Its main characters are basically a Vatican hired gun and a yet-to-take-her-vows sister who has visions from God. The supernatural doesn’t need to intrude because it’s been strutting all over the screen waving its big Satanic dick in the audience’s face from the start, and Vatican McGuyver and Sister Plot Device abandon any semblance of logical decision making the moment they arrive at the spooky old convent, a modus operandi that achieves its apogee when they descend into the bowels of the edifice to confront an ancient and all-powerful evil and decide that the best way to defeat it is by splitting up and allowing the bad shit to feed off their respective vulnerabilities. Which is kind of like the Ghostbusters ditching the equipment, blindfolding themselves, and stumbling towards Mr Stay Puft and the Slimer clad in t-shirts emblazoned with ‘ALL GHOSTS ARE BASTARDS’ and making the wanker sign instead of the sign of the cross. Also, there’s some total bollocks about the blood of Christ that Dan fucking Brown would have been embarrassed to come up with.

Ladies and gentlemen: ‘The Nun’.

The film opens in full-on gothic style with two nuns – a stern mother superior type and a hot chick who looks more like a Victoria’s Secret model than a bride of Christ – facing up to some demonic something under the convent. The mother superior type is dragged into the stygian darkness by an unseen force. The hot chick flees back to her cell, but said something pursues her. Terrified, she loops a rope around her neck and pitches herself from a high window.

Cut to: Vatican City. Vatican McGuyver, a.k.a. Father Burke (Demián Bichir) attends a meeting at the Vatican. The other attendees include Cardinal Conroy (David Horovitch) and Bishop Pasquale (Michael Smiley) and they all speak wid Oirish accents and mayk wid da t’ousand yahrd stares and the audience would be forgiven if they expected the lot of them to cut loose with the effing and blinding like this was a ‘Boondock Saints’ spin-off. Hey, Fadder Burke, dis nun fokken trew herself out a winduh ‘n’ dat’s a mortal fokken sin sae fokk yersen off ta Rahmaynyah ‘n’ if ’tis the Divvel, kick his fokken ahrse. ‘N’ whoile yer about it, tek Sister Not Confirmed Yet wid yer on account of shhhh that’d be tellin’.

If the Catholic Church ever bankrolled an ecclesiastical reboot of ‘Mission: Impossible’, this would be the pre-credits sequence of the pilot episode.

So we swiftly find ourselves in Romania as Burke and yet-to-be-Sister Irene (Taissa Farmiga). They team up with Frenchie (Jonas Bloquet) – so named because he’s French-Canadian – who undertakes to drive them out to the convent. Weird shit ensues. That’s weird shit as in … well, I did the whole Val Newton-Michel Soavi-Powell & Pressburger-Lucio Fulci comparison a few paragraphs ago, and if that isn’t enough to indicate how bat-shit crazy ‘The Nun’ is, then I might as well throw in the towel and quit writing film reviews.

In some respects, it’s check-list stuff: Gateway to hell? Tick. Priest haunted by an exorcism that went terribly wrong? Tick. Visions of dead kid from aforementioned exorcism? Tick. Fog-wreathed graveyards? Tick. Premature burial? Tick. Fuckloads of crosses at wonky angles? Tick. Massively unsubtle music cues? Tick. Over-reliance on jump scares? Tick. Jaw-droppingly over-the-top supernatural smackdown involving a demon and the actual blood of Christ? Tick. Cynical coda that ties a supporting character in to the original ‘Conjuring’? Tick.

I’d be tempted to say that it’s filmmaking by committee, except that the committee in question must have been binge-watching 1970s and ’80s Italian horror movies and doing large quantities of hallucinogenics. You can level a lot of justifiable criticism at ‘The Nun’ – and you’d have to look elsewhere for someone to argue its case as one of the better entries in the ‘Conjuring’ cycle – but one thing you could never accuse it of being is dull.

Monday, October 29, 2018

13 FOR HALLOWEEN #12: Annabelle: Creation

The ‘Conjuring’ universe – because a group of interconnected films can’t be a series or a franchise anymore, oh no, it’s got to be a fucking universe – has, to date, notched up five entries of which, arguably, there has only been one real dud. That dud was John R. Leonetti’s ‘Annabelle’, and when I wrote about it for the twelfth entry in 2016’s 12 For Halloween, I concluded: “Remarkably, it made a fuckton of money at the box office – over $250 million from a budget $6.5 million – making ‘Annabelle 2’ an inevitability. David F Sandberg, whose feature-length debut ‘Lights Out’ did a similar cleaning up at the box office number, is attached to direct. Whether a narrative or psychological hook can be found that makes the Annabelle doll scary – pace the lifeless ventriloquist’s dummy in ‘Magic’, still the best scary doll film – remains to be seen, but the director trade-up is to be welcomed.”

I was right.

That Sandberg, on the evidence of the splendidly creepy ‘Lights Out’, would make a better film than Leonetti was a given. That it would be this good was something I didn’t see coming. Let’s face it: the odds were stacked against him. The Annabelle doll provides a moderately spooky pre-credits sequence to the original ‘Conjuring’ but there was little enough there to suggest an entire 90-minute prequel was required to fill in the backstory. And has there ever been a prequel that wasn’t an exercise in redundancy? Prequels are what happens when studios flog there cash cows so hard that there’s no mileage after in fucking sequels, for Christ’s sake! ‘Annabelle: Creation’ looked set to be a nakedly shameless exercise in milking it. How nakedly shameless? It’s a prequel to the fucking prequel! That’s how nakedly shameless.

And yet … and yet …

‘Annabelle’ fails because … well, it fails on many many levels, but principally it fails because of the nastily cynical Manson-like cult murders upon which it hangs its narrative hook – an aesthetic decision that’s made worse by the fact that it then goes on to rip off ‘Rosemary’s Baby’ for all it’s worth (‘Rosemary’s Baby’ director Roman Polanski’s then partner Sharon Tate was brutally slaughtered by Manson’s followers) – and because it can’t even be bothered to do anything challenging or remotely useful with the material, instead aiming low with the tiredest set of genre tropes imaginable. Moreover, there’s sweet f.a. in ‘Annabelle’ to suggest that an earlier chapter was required to set up the events that it portrays.

‘Annabelle: Creation’, against the odds, manages not only to bring a new provenance to the Annabelle mythology – an infinitely more effective and memorable one than in Leonetti’s film, too – but emerges as a very different beast aesthetically. Dialling back the setting to the 40s and 50s, ‘Annabelle: Creation’ feels different to the other episodes in the ‘Conjuring’, ahem, universe. Those films, grounded in the 70s, explored first a rural American haunted house, then a grimy English haunted house – no rambling gothic mansion for ‘The Conjuring 2’: instead a glum council house allotted to an underprivileged single parent family. ‘Annabelle: Creations’ returns to the American setting, but this time a dustbowl, dirt farm evocation of Nowheresville USA, all creaking front porches, shadowy barns, rusty pick up trucks and the glaring pitiless sun beating down on it all. Maxime Alexandre’s cinematography owes more to the western than the horror film in the exteriors, which is not to say that he doesn’t know how to manipulate negative space and play with focus and visually misdirect the audience in order to make the scare scenes that much more effective. He does indeed, and one of the chief pleasures of the film is how beautifully Alexandre’s visual sense gels with Sandberg’s mastery of slow burn tension and precision timing. For all that ‘Annabelle: Creation’ was doubtless conceived as a dollar-bottom-line profit-spewer, for all that it’s a prequel to a motherloving prequel, the craftsmanship on display is to be marvelled at.

Kudos, also, to the cast. Anthony la Paglia does his best work in ages as a grieving toymaker who, in the aftermath of his daughter’s death (depicted in a shocking blunt pre-credits sequence that has zilch to do with the supernatural), opens his rambling old house to a group of orphaned girls under the charge of idealistic nun Sister Charlotte (Stephanie Sigman). Miranda Otto, as the reclusive matriarch, creates spiky but just-about-sympathetic character where she could easily have gone for the tragic, melodramatic Mrs Rochester type that the script wants to edge her towards; she’s better in this than anywhere else in her filmography. Talitha Eliana Bateman and Lulu Wilson, as fast friends sorely tested by supernatural malevolence, turn in the kind of work that would count as career bests from plenty of seasoned performers three or four times their age.

Narratively, things are kept simple. For a good chunk of the running time, little attempt is made to explain the happenings that centre around the Annabelle doll: weird shit just happens and man that’s all she wrote. And that’s all ‘Annabelle: Creation’ really needs to do in order to work: take a creepy old house and fill it with creepy unexplained happenings. That Sandberg is smart enough to build up the tension slowly but inexorably, and that his creative team get just about every durn thing right in terms of staging and production design, is just the cherry on the cake.

That he finally brings everything to the boil in an 18-minute set piece that plays the viewer’s nervous system like a piano concerto – a dark, Mephistophelean one, perhaps by Liszt – is where ‘Annabelle: Creation’ makes the leap from very good genre flick to bona fide great horror movie. That he follows this with two audacious flash-forwards to link up with that terrible opening to ‘Annabelle’ – does so without pissing all over everything he’d achieved in the preceding hour and three quarters – is quite the achievement.

Saturday, October 27, 2018

13 FOR HALLOWEEN #11: April Fool’s Day

How to rate 1986 in terms of horror movie? On the plus side, it gave us standouts ‘The Fly’, ‘The Hitcher’ and ‘Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer’, as well as the guilty pleasures of ‘Witchboard’, ‘Slaughter High’ and ‘The Wraith’. But it was also the year of ‘Killer Workout’, ‘Maximum Overdrive’, ‘Poltergeist II: The Other Side’, ‘Neon Maniacs’ and ‘Spookies’.

It was a year in which the stalk ‘n’ slash genre yawned with tiredness and sequels marinated in their own redundancy: in addition to the ‘Poltergeist’ follow-up, there was ‘Psycho III’ and ‘Demons 2’, while ‘Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2’ forewent the grainy, grimy, gruelling aesthetic of its predecessor and decided to be a comedy instead.

It was the year that gave us ‘Troll’ (which, four years later, would spawn an all-but unrelated sequel destined to be regarded as one of the absolute worst films ever made*) and cult trash-fests ‘Chopping Mall’ and ‘Class of Nuke ’Em High’.

It was an odd year for the horror fan and if said horror fan wanted to examine a film into which that oddness seems to have been distilled, they could do a lot worse than take a look at Fred Walton’s ‘April Fool’s Day’. It was Walton’s second feature film after ‘When a Stranger Calls’, made almost a decade earlier, and he went on to do very little else of interest; it has no big names in the cast; and its budget was a little over $5million. (When the film was remade, 22 years later, with Scout Taylor-Compton in the lead, the budget was still $5million!) For comparison, ‘Chopping Mall’ cost $800,000, and ‘Witchboard’ and ‘Slaughter High’ $2million apiece, while ‘Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer’ – arguably 1986’s most critically acclaimed horror film – cost just $111,000. And I’m damned if I know what that $5million gave ‘April Fool’s Day’: apart from Charles Minsky’s often gorgeous widescreen cinematography (who I doubt was pulling down mega-bucks for what was only his second gig)**, it pretty much conforms to the production values of most films of its ilk, i.e. single location, cast of unknowns, and make-up work that is actually pretty shoddy; moreover, there are no special effects to speak of, no explosions, no car chases, no helicopter shots, nothing that would have been especially costly to stage. Boat hire: one ferry, one speedboat. Vehicle hire: couple of cars, pick-up truck. Snake wrangler. Swimming cozzie.

Wherever the money went, then, this is what we get in terms of audience satisfaction: an attractive young cast (even if most of the characters are douchebags), some nice rural location work, a script that trades almost solely in rug-pulls, bloodless death scenes (in fact, death scenes that are often cut away from at the crucial moment), very few extended set-pieces and little tension generated by those that do at least attempt to remember that the whole project is supposed to be a tense horror flick, and absolutely zero nudity. If this were a Winter of Discontent pick, it would have ticked none of the boxes.

Still, we’re a little more forgiving in the 13 For Halloween stable, so let’s take a paragraph or two to dwell on the incidental pleasures of ‘April Fool’s Day’. First, though, a quick plot synopsis:

The hilariously named Muffy St John (Deborah Foreman) lives in an ancestral pile on an island accessible only by boat – she stands to inherit the property on her 21st birthday – to which she invites a group of friends for the weekend. The party includes the bookish Nan (Leah Pinsent), the vampish Nikki (Deborah Goodrich) and her wiseass boyfriend Chaz (Clayton Rohner), girl-next-door Kit (Amy Steel) and her underachieving boyfriend Rob (Ken Olandt), and prissy ambitious type Harvey (Jay Baker). On the ferry over to chez Muffy, a bad-taste prank ends in a deckhand sustaining a gruesome injury and a pall settles over the weekend before the celebrations have even begun. Nonetheless, Muffy hosts an elaborate dinner party and proposes a toast to friendship – a toast that ends with a prank of her own, albeit a more good-natured one.

That night, as the various guests take to their rooms, they experience further pranks, some genuinely funny (Kit and Rob trying to turn off the lights in their room: the off switch for one light triggers another to snap on), others darker (the tape of a baby crying in Nan’s room, something that has an unpleasant connotation for her). The next morning, Muffy’s behaviour alters: gone, the gregarious hostess; in her place, a strange, edgy young woman who could almost be a different person. Then one of the guests goes missing …

The first thing ‘April Fool’s Day’ does is effect a nice balance between the expected tropes of the genre and a satirical sense of humour in its approach to the material. The cast, all in on it (and what “it” is, I’m honour bound to keep shtum), play wittily off each other and know just how far to go in terms of tipping the audience a wink. Secondly, it takes the prank-gone-wrong scenario that was already a staple of the stalk ‘n’ slash genre courtesy of everything from ‘The Dorm that Dripped Blood’ (1982) to ‘Slaughter High’ (released the same year as ‘April Fool’s Day’) and has fun using the concept not as a set-up but a series of variations on a theme. Thirdly, it monkeys with the audience’s expectations in a way that stalk ‘n’ slash films rarely do: usually, there’s a red herring or two, but ultimately the business at hand is less about whodunit than how bloodily they did it and who the final girl will be. ‘April Fool’s Day’, on the other hand, positively embraces the whodunit playbook (Muffy’s palatial pad is described as being like “something out of Agatha Christie”), even if it does so purely to set up its final rug-pull.

Ah, yes. The ending. The thing that I can’t tell you about without going full speed ahead for Spoiler Island. Let’s just say that the clue’s in the title. Whether it works for you or not is, I suspect, entirely dependent on the mood you’re in. I watched the film this afternoon, indoors and warm while rain beat against the window and the wind howled; I sank a pink of the Old Crafty Hen while I watched it. My general mood was a sense of oneness with the world and everything in it, and I enjoyed the cheekiness of the ending. Had I been in a more critical mood – or a grumpier mood – I could well have hated the ending. Most critics won’t admit to that degree of subjectivity, would rather you believe that they uphold a rigid set of objective perameters. Movies like ‘April Fool’s Day’ poke fun at such fallacies.

*Let’s review that motherfucker for Winter of Discontent, shall we?

**Minsky went on the lens several dozen films as well as directing for film and TV. In addition to ‘April Fool’s Day’, his CV includes ‘Valentine’s Day’, ‘New Year’s Eve’ and ‘Mother’s Day’. He’s obviously the go to guy for films based on calendar dates.

Thursday, October 25, 2018

13 FOR HALLOWEEN #10: Wish Upon

What does it take to elevate a piece of genre boilerplate – or, in the case of tonight’s offering, a piece of teenie genre boilerplate – from an undemanding watch over a couple of glasses of wine to something that gets its very own review on The Agitation of the Mind?

Is it the way in which all the familiar tropes are laid out with the care and enjoyment of one who clearly loves the genre but hasn’t necessarily distinguished himself within it? (Step forward John R Leonetti of ‘Mortal Kombat: Annihilation’, ‘The Butterfly Effect 2’ and ‘Annabelle’ not-quite-fame.)

Is it the winning performance by a leading lady who gives her all and in doing so transcends a script chicaned with twists and turns that you can see coming like an aircraft carrier on a duckpond? (Step forward Joey King, who at the age of 19 has more acting credits to her name than most septuagenarians who have been in the business all their lives. Though, granted, most septuagenarians don’t have ‘Ramona and Beezus’ and ‘The Kissing Booth’ on their CVs.)

Or is it because it’s closing in on All Hallow’s Eve and your humble blogger needs to bash out the last few 13 For Halloween reviews pronto pronto?

A little bit of column A, a little of column B and a little bit of column C, as it turns out.

‘Wish Upon’ starts with a prepubescent Clare Shannon (Raegan Revord) go cycling off down a suburban street with a distinctly Haddenfield vibe, under the watchful eye of her mother Johanna (Elisabeth Rohm). Johanna’s just dumped a suspicious looking package in a bin and withdraws wearily into the house. By the time Clare reaches the end of the street and pedals back, Johanna has taken herself off to an upstairs room, thrown a rope over a ceiling beam and goodnight Vienna.

Fast forward a decade or so and Clare (King) is the unpopular white trash girl at the kind of high school that can’t make up its mind whether it wants to be in ‘Carrie’ or ‘Clueless’. Her best, indeed only, friends are June (Shannon Purser) and Meredith (Sydney Park) who are also outcasts (seemingly based on hair colour and skin colour respectively). Clare’s frustrated musician father Jonathan (Ryan Phillippe) makes a living foraging for scrap metal or resaleable items from peoples’ trash, kind of like a less phlegmy Albert Steptoe and HOLY FUCK, WHEN DID RYAN PHILLIPPE START PLAYING DAD ROLES? CHRIST ALMIGHTY, THAT MAKES ME FEEL OLD! Oh, and there's Sherilyn Fenn, the va-va-voom sex symbol of my adolescence, playing the kindly middle-aged neighbour, so just pass me my free fucking bus pass already.

I SAID Clare’s dad is a scrap merchant and one day he brings home a puzzle box for her that’s covered in Chinese ideograms. Long story short, the box grants her seven wishes. Small print: blood price required for wishes one to six, the owner’s soul in return for the seventh. And guess what, the blood prices are always paid by those closest to the owner.

So what we have is a melange of ‘Hellraiser’ (box that releases something unpleasant), ‘The Box’ (you get a good deal, someone else gets a truly shit one) and ‘Final Destination’ (in the way that ‘Wish Upon’ sets up its death scenes, most transparently in a roadside wheel change intercut with some business in an elevator), with a little bit of ‘The Babadook’ (the puzzle box, like the pop-up book, seems impervious to getting chucked away) and ‘The Unborn’ (curse born of wartime trauma) thrown in for good measure. You’ll probably identify a couple of dozen other points of genre reference when you watch it.

So why should you watch it? Well, it’s Leonetti’s best film to date, and while I realise that’s not exactly saying much, it does at least point to the possibility of better things from him in a way that everything else on his filmography most definitely doesn’t. And it’s got an attractive young cast who engage with the material and don’t condescend to it, or the audience, in terms of their performances. Also, it doesn’t break its own rules like, say, ‘It Follows’ did. And it doesn’t allow its characters to dodge the inevitable. As much as a lightweight flick like ‘Wish Upon’ can be said to be about anything it’s about the price that has to be paid, never mind how shallow the pleasures that were taken along the way and how ultimately transient they were.

Tuesday, October 23, 2018

13 FOR HALLOWEEN #9: Happy Death Day

Okay, there’s no two ways around this. For all that it was the pitch that persuaded Blumhouse Productions to sign the cheque, for all that it was high concept around which the script is constructed like a house of cards with the finest of Swiss watches at the heart of it, and for all that every frickin’ review of the film that’s ever been written or will ever be written immediately utilises it as an entry point to facilitate discussion, there’s no way I can tender my own review without reaching for that exact same pop-culture comparison.

‘Happy Death Day’ is the ‘Groundhog Day’ of the stalk ‘n’ slash genre.

Self-obsessed sorority sister Tree (Jessica Rothe) wakes on her birthday in the dorm room of nice guy Carter (Israel Broussard) after a drunken bender; during the walk of not-quite-shame (nothing happened between them) back to her sorority house, a series of events that may or may not be important occur; on her return, she interacts spikily with roommate Lori (Ruby Modine) and sorority queen bitch Danielle (Rachel Matthews); as her day progresses, she meets married lover and university lecturer Charles (Gregory Butler), attends a house party, is menaced by a knife-wielding figure in a mask, and is viciously murdered. At which point she wakes in the dorm room of nice guy Carter; it’s her birthday.

When ‘Edge of Tomorrow’ used the ‘Groundhog Day’ formula in the context of a futuristic war story, it worked through small permutations in Cage (Tom Cruise)’s day from hell, making him jump through any number of (time) loops in his quest to make contact with Emily Blunt’s Angel of Verdun and therefore kickstart the non-timey-wimey* part of the plot. By comparison, the only part of Tree’s day that is set in stone is the walk from Carter’s room, and even then her response to the pre-ordained sequence of events changes as the film progresses, from ice-queen ignorance of the world around her, to carefree disregard (in the film’s funniest and most lurid moment), to interaction with those around her. Beyond this, Tree almost immediately begins making changes to the structure of her, using every bit of foreknowledge to firstly try to evade her death, then to solve it, and finally to fight back against it.

‘Groundhog Day’ had a clever script, ‘Edge of Tomorrow’ a not-as-clever-as-it-thought-it-was script. ‘Source Code’ and ‘Looper’, which play with similar conceits, have scripts that almost trip over themselves in their attempt to play in the ouroborus sandbox. ‘Happy Death Day’ has a script (by Scott Lobdell) that is pure joy. And if you think that describing the script of what, for all its sci-fi elements and its comedic moments, is essentially a slasher as “pure joy” is pushing it about, then all I can say is watch the thing and prepare to spend an hour and a half feeling like you want to stand up and applaud, while a big cheesy grin wipes itself across your face and unabashedly stays there.

As a slasher, ‘Happy Death Day’ is perfectly on point and a hell of a lot smarter than it needs to be. As a variation on the theme of ‘Groundhog Day’, ditto. As a comedy, ditto. As a character study (yes, really), ditto.

Which brings me to the other ace in the film’s hand: its leading lady. Jessica Rothe owns ‘Happy Death Day’ in the way that the then-unheard-of Kate Winslet owned ‘Heavenly Creatures’ or the then-unheard-of Emily Blunt owned ‘My Summer of Love’. “Star-making performance” is an overused old saw, but damned if it isn’t the perfect description of Rothe’s turn as Tree.

Christopher Landon’s direction is also spot on. He handles the comedy in refreshingly cynical fashion, gets his attractive cast playing off against each other in fine style (Modine and Matthews get some maliciously memorable moments of their own), and pulls out all the stops when it comes to the horror tropes. Tree’s first date with death – an Argento-esque set-up involving an underpass, a masked figure and a music box – is properly creepy, while elsewhere there’s some cat ‘n’ mouse in an underground parking garage and a desperate chase through hospital corridors.

Ultimately, everything ties together satisfyingly and seamlessly, with only one thing unresolved: why Tree got stuck in the time loop to begin with. A sequel, due out next year – and with director and principle cast returning – promises to explain why. I’m not entirely sure that it needs to.

*Sorry. ‘Doctor Who’ fan.

Sunday, October 21, 2018

13 FOR HALLOWEEN #8: III: The Ritual

Let’s get the one overriding criticism of ‘III’ out of the way. Let’s take a deep breath, boys and girls and creatures of darkness, and say it together:

‘III’ is not particularly original.

In fact, let’s double down on that, purely in the interests of clearing the decks of the one inescapable negative of tonight’s offering. Let’s take a deep breath, ladies and gentlemen and monsters under the bed, and say it together:

‘III’ is pretty fucking derivative.

‘III’ is a Russian film that is haunted by the grim landscapes and mindscapes of Tarkovsky, the disturbing dream-(il)logic of David Lynch and even a soupçon of Tarsem Singh’s ‘The Cell’ if ‘The Cell’ had genuinely been a descent into psychological nightmare and a not a boilerplate cop thriller.

(And while we’re getting things out of the way, it should be mentioned that this isn’t ‘Three – III’, the Kelly Brook on a desert island hand-shandy enabler from a decade or so ago. Y’know, just in case the Tarkovksy/Lynch/Singh comparison didn’t tip you off to that fact.)

‘III’ is set in a small town that doesn’t look like it’s changed much since medieval times apart from the provision of running water. Not that sanitation has done much for anybody’s life expectancy: a plague is cutting a swathe through the residents like 2017 through rock stars*. Sisters Ayia (Polina Davydova) and Mirra (Lyubov Ignatushko) are caring for their ailing mother when the film opens and receiving spiritual counsel from Father Herman (Evgeniy Gagarin). After her death, Mirra – already sceptical of Herman’s pious placations – turns away from the church, while Ayia draws closer to the priest. Mirra seems to fall prey to the contagion, but the escalating series of strange visions that Ayia begins to experience suggests that the real cause of her sister’s malaise might be something deeper and darker. A notebook Ayia finds in Herman’s possession indicates that his interest in the ultimate mystery goes a way beyond the teachings of the scripture and then some. When Herman admits that there’s a ritual he can perform which will take her into Mirra’s dream state – thuddingly obvious caveat: it might be a tad dangerous – Ayia accepts unhesitatingly.

This set-up, by the way, takes us to about the 45 minute mark in a film that runs just 1 hour 17 minutes. That’s another thing about ‘III’: it’s leisurely paced. Sure, even before director Pavel Khvaleev cuts loose with the ritual and the surreal sequence that it presages, ‘III’ delivers plenty of images that you’d swear had been reeled out of your worst nightmares by an unholy conflation of the Fisher King and the Sandman but it still takes its damn time, even as it’s weirding you the fuck out.

Equally visceral imagery is the order of the day once Herman conducts the ritual and Ayia descends into Mirra’s subconsciousness, only less fantastical, more brutally realistic. This is perhaps the most interesting thing the film does: become less dream-like once Ayia finds herself in what is essentially a dreamscape. Not that Khvaleev does much with the dichotomy, which is a shame as ‘III’ had the potential to be as cerebral as it is symbolic, as psychologically penetrating as it is imagistic. Instead, and literally just as the last seven or eight minutes are slipping through the sand-timer, he takes a sudden and jarring swerve with a big reveal that could have worked had there been a single fucking thing in the rest of the film that laid any groundwork for it.

All told, the derivative aspects, the leaden-footed pacing and the abrupt, narratively-unsupported ending should add up to a disappointing viewing experience for the horror fan. Yet ‘III’ avoids being entirely a disaster. Principally, it’s Igor Kiselev’s cinematography and the production design that save the day, though kudos are due to Davydova and Ignatushko. Surmounting a scrappy script that paints them as little more than ciphers, both women emerge with restrained, nuanced performances that linger in the mind as effectively as the imagery.

*Sorry, was that too soon?

Thursday, October 18, 2018

13 FOR HALLOWEEN #7: Ghost Stories

It takes confidence for a filmmaker to pitch a good two-thirds of their movie at a level that is just a little bit naff. It also takes confidence to tackle the portmanteau structure and find a framing device that isn’t hopelessly contrived. Ditto when it comes to expecting one’s audience to invest themselves in more than an hour of content which essentially seeds the clues for an extended coda that follows a rug-pull that some may find audacious and others an incitement to facepalm. It walks a very fine line, does ‘Ghost Stories’, and had it not been underpinned by so specific a commentary on guilt and sins of omission, it might well have fallen flat.

The portmanteau film is tricky to get right at the best of times, more so the horror portmanteau. Twenty or thirty minutes per story generally doesn’t offer much scope to establish character, develop tension or reconcile haunting with provenance while at the same time building towards a denouement. Inconsistency in tone is a pitfall, with even the greatest of creepy portmanteau films – Ealing Studio’s ‘Dead of Night’ – stumbling with the inclusion of a comedic tale.

Co-directors Jeremy Dyson and Andy Nyman structure ‘Ghost Stories’ around paranormal investigator Professor Phillip Goodman (Nyman), introduced in mockumentary style (a device that’s quickly abandoned) as he unmasks a celebrity medium. Goodman is contacted by a parapsychologist who has been missing for years; said individual is actually living in a caravan park in a shitty British seaside town, which is a pretty good working definition of being missing when you come to think about it. The grouchy old cove gives Goodman the files on three cases he couldn’t solve and – three cases he is convinced are proof that the supernatural exists – and challenges Goodman to prove him wrong.

The first concerns a night watchman (Paul Whitehouse) working at a former asylum who encounters the ghost of a child; the second a teenager (Alex Lawther) who borrows his parents’ car (they don’t know he failed his test) and runs over something that isn’t human; and the third a businessman (Martin Freeman) who witnesses poltergeist activity in the nursery room prepared for his unborn child while his wife is hospitalised. If I’ve not bothered identifying these characters by name, that’s because the script doesn’t bother fleshing them out beyond casually racist working class dude, nervy teenage dude and stuck-up rich dude. They are painted in such broad strokes that Whitehouse and Freeman skate the border of parody in their performances; Lawther fares better, probably because he carries over some creepy baggage from ‘The End of the Fucking World’ and the ‘Black Mirror’ episode “Shut Up and Dance”.

Even as the individual stories play out, there’s an off-ness about them. Much is made of the night watchman’s racism, yet he’s avuncular in the advice he gives to a Polish colleague and he regains his faith after receiving counselling from a black priest. The three cases are described as having troubled the parapsychologist for his whole career, yet the nervy teenage dude is still patently a teenager when Goodman shows up at his door to reopen the case. His interview with the businessman just gets weirder and weirder until Dyson and Nyman execute the first of several rug pulls.

Numbers and symbols proliferate. The imagery becomes ever more jarring and the juxtapositions stranger. Then the film dials back the weirdness as everything comes together and the big reveal takes into the realms of decidedly non-supernatural horror. Horror that comes from urban realism. Horror that connects to an historical and specifically twentieth century evil.

There are screeds to be written about the last quarter of an hour or so of ‘Ghost Stories’ and there is much to be said about religion, guilt and the nature of sin. But that would entail going so far into spoiler territory as to lay the entire film bare and leave not a sliver of discovery or enjoyment (if that’s the right word) to the viewer coming to it anew. The viewer coming to it without any preconceptions, except that they might – just might – have their head comprehensively fucked with.

That’s “just might” as in “almost certainly” by the way.

Sunday, October 14, 2018

13 FOR HALLOWEEN #6: Curtains

This is the basic premise of ‘Curtains’:

Egomaniacal film director Jonathan Stryker (John Vernon) acquires the rights to a melodramatic novel entitled ‘Audra’ via his long-term leading lady Samantha Sherwood (Samantha Eggar), who sees the part as her career-defining role. Stryker balks at an early rehearsal, criticising Samantha for being unable to communicate Audra’s madness. The two of them cook up a ruse to have Samantha committed to an asylum so that she can observed psychiatric illness at close quarters. Only Stryker does the dirty on Samantha and leaves her there while he invites six actresses to his opulent home, with the intent of casting one of them as Audra. One by one these hopefuls are targeted, the first buying the farm before she’s even arrived at chez Stryker.

Now, this is a pretty decent set-up for a slasher. Machiavellian anti-hero, a woman spurned and a cluster of gorgeous victims, all wrapped up in a blurred-lines-between-fantasy-and-reality meta-narrative. Plus it has prowling Argento-esque camerawork, creepy dolls, a killer in a creepy mask, and a handful of genuinely iconic images.

Yep, ‘Curtains’ is an off-kilter, eccentric, memorably bizarre little number. It’s the kind of movie for which the phrase “cult classic” was invented. It’s also an abject clusterfuck in many ways, often resembling a set of writers’ room notes rather than an actual scripted feature film. Intriguing ideas are flung into the melting pot, but never developed. Subplots are hinted at but not developed. Hell, there are at least two actual frickin’ characters who are given no development: one seems to be set up as a sexual rival to Stryker, only to disappear for huge swathes of the 89 minute running time and then be dispatched offscreen, while the other has to carry the weight of an extended soft-of-final-girl sequence without having been granted any shred of personality or emotional investment by the script.

Then there are the lacunae around Samantha’s escape from the asylum, Stryker’s tolerance of her presence when she shows up at his gaff, and why he attempted to sequester her there in the first place. (To secure the rights to ‘Audra’ for himself? Surely Stryker’s rich enough to hire a slick lawyer to inveigle them from Samantha.) And then there’s the film’s aesthetic schizophrenia: the way it lurches from Strindbergian investigation of the creative process (only with kill scenes) to boilerplate stalk ‘n’ slash tropes and hot tub nudity.

To understand how this loveable muddle of maniacal mishmash came into being, let’s consider the making of ‘Curtains’. Euphemistically speaking, it was a troubled production. But let’s be honest, the very nature of film-making – particularly when budgets are undercut during filming, creative differences emerge with the intensity of 2am pub car park fights, and script rewrites proliferate even as the cast are trying to learn the scenes that have just been summarily junked – means that more movies than not are troubled productions: particularly low-budget exploitationers.

Which is to say, there are troubled productions … and then there’s ‘Curtains’.

Initially conceived as a more mature and intelligent take on the stalk ‘n’ slash genre – i.e. a full-on genre flick, but one populated with adults rather than teenagers and character motivations more complex and interesting than smoking weed and fucking in the woods – creative tensions quickly developed between director Richard Ciupka and producer Peter Simpson. The latter, as is the wont of producers, viewed the project in purely commercial terms. Ciupka however wanted ‘Curtains’ to have the feel of an art-house movie. And if there’s one thing that’s guaranteed to strike fear into the heart of a money-fixated producer, it’s the phrase “art-house movie”. With only about 45 minutes of usable footage in the bag, Ciupka left the project.

‘Curtains’ was then shelved for a year or so, during which at least one role was recast, and heavy-duty script revision was undertaken. New scenes were written, and eventually filmed, that never made it to the final edit. That character I mentioned who disappears for a whole chunk of the movie only to be murdered offscreen? His death scene originally involved a tricky stunt involving a snowmobile crashing into a house – something that I can only assume was pretty expensive for a meagrely-budgeted production of this ilk – but this was inexplicably junked in favour of the offscreen death that makes little narrative sense. Likewise, an entirely different ending was shot but it found no favour with Simpson’s wife (she dismissed it as improbable) so again: cutting room floor, new scene written, more reshoots.

All told, from pre-production to the final negative being locked down, ‘Curtains’ took three years to make. Ciupka petitioned to have his name removed from the film; it’s credited instead, in perhaps the most meta (and certainly most interesting) aspect of the production, to Jonathan Stryker.

Ciupka went on to direct a small handful of films that I’ve never heard of and work mainly in television. Simpson producer quite a few more films, including ‘Hello Mary Lou: Prom Night II’, ‘Prom Night III: The Last Kiss’ (which was also his sole foray into directing) and ‘Prom Night IV: Deliver Us From Evil’ (he’d scored an early hit with the original the year before ‘Curtains’ went into production). Neither would work with such an eclectic or interesting cast again, nor emerge with a film quite as characterful … notwithstanding that it truly is a multi-layered clusterfuck.

Friday, October 12, 2018

13 FOR HALLOWEEN #5: Ghosts

There is a tradition wherever ghost stories are told – but particularly so in England – that railways are rife with ghostly phenomena. Charles Dickens’s ‘The Signalman’, adapted by Andrew Davies and directed by Lawrence Gordon Clark as a BBC “ghost story for Christmas” in 1976, stands as probably the finest example of the subgenre.

Waaaaay at the opposite end of the spectrum is Steven M. Smith’s ‘Ghosts’.

Since I hit eject on the DVD some 24 hours ago, I’ve been racking my brains for a handy, catch-all description that gets across how soul-drainingly awful it is on every level.

This is the best I can do: ‘Ghosts’ is what you’d get if the cast of ‘The Only Way is Essex’ decided to recreate the notorious BBC mockumentary ‘Ghostwatch’, working from a script by an intellectually subnormal hamster, and their overriding aesthetic for the project was that it needed loads of old trains, only they didn’t have the budget to shoot at Neen Valley or Great Central Railway where they actually have, y’know, working steam locomotives, so they made the film at a dismal little railway museum in Essex instead.

Now, there’s precious little to commend here – the script is barely literate, the performances fucking dreadful, the camerawork uninspired at the more palatable end of its visual spectrum and a right old bleedin’ mess at the other, and the attempt at effects work during the rushed and shoddy climax is frankly embarrassing – but there’s no denying that there’s the kernel of a good idea at the heart of the film. The touchstone is ‘Ghostwatch’ – that’s obvious from the mumsy presenter (Vivien Creeger) who narrates to camera the legend of a Victorian haunting whilst standing on the wind-swept platform upon which the events supposedly happened, from the gradual accretion of unexplained events that become increasingly frequent as the film unfolds, and from the fact that the participants in the documentary are stranded in a single location.

But ‘Ghosts’ is also beholden to a strand of singularly awful and intellectually retarded small screen fare that hides behind the seemingly verité sobriquet “reality television”. And if anything sends a shiver down the spine of the aesthete more repulsively than the phrase “reality television”, then I don’t know what it is and I sure as hell don’t want to. ‘Ghosts’ takes the ‘Ghostwatch’ template and throws into the mix a group of “guest investigators” – the actors appear under the actual names – who have been selected to take part in the documentary. They’re all Essex types with fake tans and grating accents and they say things like “naffink” and “axshully” instead of “nothing” and “actually” and they all talk over each other and say the same thing, ad naseum, for entire chunks of the running time.

An example: Freddie (Freddie Fuller) draws the short straw and has to spend a certain period of time on his own, in the dark, sitting in an old, decommissioned London Underground carriage parked in a siding outside the railway museum. He’s given a hand held camera in case he witnesses any supernatural activity. What follows is about five minutes of Freddie waving the camera around like it’s a bonfire night sparkler while he waffles onto himself along the lines of “faakin’ ‘ell, it’s bit naughty, this, faakin’ creepy, innit, I’m gonna faak this off in a minute or two and get a cup of faakin’ tea”. Then he thinks he sees a face at the window, screams like a girl, and goes legging it back to the museum. Once there, he spends ten minutes trying to convince the others that he saw something. When they finally give a modicum of credence to his account, they accompany him outside and return to the carriage and ask him to take them the through the sequence of events once more. Which takes another five minutes. In a film that runs eight minutes short of an hour and a half, an entire fifteen minutes is given over to Freddie saying “I saw sumfink at the windar”. Over. And. Over. Again.

There’s also a scene where Gemma (Gemma Gurvitz) expresses the paradox that although a lot of weird shit is going on, she feels safe inside the museum. This takes five minutes and her voice is like nails on a blackboard in a dentist’s office where root canal is done without anaesthetic and the dentist’s drill is hooked up to an amplifier borrowed from Metallica’s road crew.

Still, there’s something here that could have worked. The random selection of “guest investigators” could have been developed as a plot point. A discourse could have been set up into the relationship between gullible reality TV participants and the audience who feed, vampire-like, off their embarrassments and exhibitionism. The outmoded exhibits in the museum could have been played off against the trappings of modernity. Smith, in short, could have done something and it wouldn’t have taken much more of a budget than the shoestring he so evidently shot on to make it come to life.

But ultimately he squanders it, and the only genuinely scary thing that emerges is Smith’s ability to bend 82 minutes into a fugue of mind-draining endlessness. Just as Nietzsche gazed into the abyss and the abyss gazed also into him, I watched a Steven M. Smith film and it stared back from the screen at me and gave me naffink in return. Naffink at all.

Monday, October 08, 2018

13 FOR HALLOWEEN #4: The Devil and Father Amorth

‘Exorcist’ director William Friedkin, best known for the modern classic ‘The Exorcist’, returns to the subject of exorcism in this Netflix documentary because who better to make a documentary about exorcism than ‘Exorcist’ director William Friedkin, the man who made the classic horror film ‘The Exorcist’.

And if you think that’s overstating Friedkin’s credentials in thuddingly repetitive style, believe me it’s an exercise in subtlety compared to how egotistically Friedkin bangs his own drum in the opening minutes of ‘The Devil and Father Amorth’.

And if you think Friedkin’s presenting style in the opening minutes of ‘The Devil and Father Amorth’ is a hectoring cavalcade of verbal showboating and po-faced self-importance, then brother you ain’t seen nuthin’ yet.

The documentary’s not-quite-an-hour-an-a-quarter running time has as its centerpiece 13 minutes of skuzzy footage on a home video camera that Friedkin shot of an actual honest-to-God exorcism. At least that’s what Friedkin wants to browbeat us into believing. Personally, I’d say that the phrase “an alleged exorcism” probably gives it more credence than it deserves. “A cheap shitty am-dram performance” is how I’d describe it. And since I’s running this here blog, that’s what we’re going with.

‘The Devil and Father Amorth’ consists of a 13-minute cheap shitty am-dram performance, around which Friedkin assembles some visually dull ‘talking heads’ interview footage, some travel-board-approved vistas of Italy, and endless, agonizing, excruciating footage of his own self yammering away at the camera, taking every opportunity to remind you that he’s William Friedkin, director of ‘The Exorcist’, y’all.

Even the ‘talking heads’ stuff isn’t free of Friedkin. Time and again he deals out a leading question, obviously pushing for his subject – be they a Catholic priest or medical consultant – to state on camera, categorically, that demons exist, evil is real and exorcism works, because he’s ‘Exorcist’ director William Friedkin, goddamnit it, and he directed ‘The Exorcist’.

The whole thing is exhausting to watch. Listening to Friedkin orate for longer than, say, thirty seconds is like unto 24-hours of forced wakefulness while a Dalek screams Donald Trump’s entire archived Twitter stream at you without factoring in the punctuation. Watching the 13 interminable minutes of the cheap shitty am-dram performance that’s supposed to be an exorcism is like watching a particularly unpleasant shade of paint dry. In slo-mo.

It’s so exhausting to watch – so debilitating to engage with – that I staggered it over three evenings. I’m still struggling to come up with a sensible rationale for actually going the distance, for not switching the thing off and picking lint out of my navel instead. Maybe it was misplaced nostalgia. The director, after all, did make a few good movies, albeit a while ago now. Including that horror film. You know, the really influential one.

What was it called again?

Saturday, October 06, 2018

13 FOR HALLOWEEN #3: The Quiet Ones

Now and then you pick up a DVD for a song and, not knowing the first thing about the movie, sit down and watch it and you think to yourself Hey, for a couple of quid that wasn’t bad, while knowing in your heart of hearts that if you’d paid full whack for it as a new release your thoughts might be a little different.

On cover of the DVD of ‘The Quiet Ones’ that I picked up for a song without knowing the first thing about the movie, it cites Jared Harris and Sam Claflin as the names-above-the-title. I sat down and watched it and thought to myself Hey, for a couple of quid that wasn’t bad, while knowing in my heart of hearts that if I’d paid full whack for it as a new release my thoughts might have been a little different.

It also occurred to me that, as well respected as Harris is (though his work here is nowhere near his best) and as much as Claflin had just come off a triumvirate of high budget Hollywood fare – ‘Pirates of the Caribbean: The Dead Horse Drowns in Stranger Tides’, ‘Snow White and the Hot Fella from Thor’ and ‘The Hunger Games: Catch it While YA Fiction’s Still Popular’ – it should have been Olivia Cooke with her name above the title and everyone else banished to the tiny writing on the back of the DVD cover.

I first saw Cooke in ‘Ouija’ and, man, did she elevate a by-the-numbers sheet of boilerplate into something watchable. Then I saw her in ‘The Limehouse Golem’ and while the film was indubitably flawed, her performance was hypnotic. Ditto ‘Thoroughbreds’: considerably less than the sum of its parts, but Cooke and Anya Taylor-Joy’s double-act was deliciously dark and entertaining. The lady’s currently redefining Becky Sharp for a new generation in the BBC adaptation of ‘Vanity Fair’.

So, yeah, there’s a lot of Olivia Cooke love going on at The Agitation of the Mind. And ‘The Quiet Ones’ is where her British-cinema’s-hottest-new-talent journey began. And the fact that I’m now five paragraphs into this review and all I’ve really said is that Olivia Cooke is all kinds of wonderful sort of returns us to that opening sentence caveat that ‘The Quiet Ones’, picked up on DVD for a song, leaves one thinking Hey, for a couple of quid that wasn’t bad, while knowing in one’s heart of hearts that if one had paid full whack for it as a new release one’s thoughts might be a little different.

The sixth film produced by Hammer since the studio’s relaunch in 2007 (though owned by various consortia, it had been dormant as a production company since the mid-80s), ‘The Quiet Ones’ is set in 1974 and for the most part – kudos to cinematographer Mátyás Erdély – looks like it was made that year. Ironically, 1974 was a year in which Hammer, more than ever before, was struggling to retain its market share in amongst experimental counter-culture fare, blaxploitation classics and American and Italian exploitationers that were grittier and gorier than Hammer’s stable of writers and directors would ever have striven for. It was the year of ‘Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell’ and ‘The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires’.

The aesthetic of ‘The Quiet Ones’ is about as far as you could imagine from these lurid but curiously cosy entries in the canon. I’d like to be able to make a case for comparing it to ‘The Quatermass Experiment’ (it does feature an experiment) or ‘Straight on Till Morning’ (much of the action is confined to a single house), but I’d probably be pushing it a bit.

And again, I’m writing about anything but the film I’m supposed to be reviewing!

Okay. Deep breath. ‘The Quiet Ones’ is about a university professor Joseph Coupland (Harris) and his research assistants – the romantically involved Harry Abrams (Rory Fleck Byrne) and Kristina Dalton (Erin Richards) – who are joined by film student and cameraman for hire Brian McNeil (Claflin) as they seek to find a scientific rationale for the disturbed and possibly supernatural behaviours exhibited by Jane Harper (Cooke). Coupland is a suave academic, self-assured to the point of arrogance, and Harry and Kristina are in thrall to him … Kristina to the point of going behind Harry’s back with him. Brian is the outsider: a sceptic, unimpressed by Coupland and increasingly sympathetic to Jane, whom he sees less as a potential danger to herself and others than Coupland’s meal-ticket to grants and academic acclaim.

Divisions and distrust and hardwired into the group dynamic from the outside; factor in the pressure cooker of the single location (a mouldering old house the group move to after the university essentially distance themselves from Coupland), McNeil’s resentment as Coupland’s experiments on Jane become more extreme, and the weird events that start happening as Jane (or the thing within her) responds angrily towards Coupland’s provocations.

For much of the 93-minute running time, writer/director John Pogue keeps ‘The Quiet Ones’ on a slow boil. Then things reach the tipping point, McNeil quits being a passive protagonist (asking questions on the audience’s behalf and reacting with either confusion or moral outrage but without actually challenging or steering the narrative) and starts doing some digging into both Coupland and Jane’s backgrounds. Revelations and recontextualisations pile up, with only minutes left. At which point the film goes off the rails. Not disastrously, not irretrievably, but the tone changes and characters start behaving according to the dictates of a script that suddenly wants to wrap everything up immediately if not sooner. Careful characterisation and slow burn tension is junked in favour of melodrama. A potentially terrifying denouement is glossed over in favour of an obvious twist.

Shame, really. Another pass at the script and a couple of days reshoots on a less hamfisted ending and it could have been quite the Hammer revival.

Thursday, October 04, 2018

13 FOR HALLOWEEN #2: Final Exam

Let’s jump straight into the plot synopsis with this one, shall we, and pause at such salient points as merit more in-depth discussion?

A university campus in America. A soft top parked in an out-of-the-way spot. A young couple in the front seat, canoodling. The gentleman is angling to get the lady in the back seat, the better to instigate fuller and more meaningful intercourse. An awful lot of back-and-forth ensues, with the lady insisting the gentleman commits to saying that he loves her. After about five minutes of this, and the audience forgiven for thinking that ‘Paradise by the Dashboard Light’ is going to kick in at any moment (it doesn’t), the pair of them repair to the back seat only to be attacked by a psychopath whose face remains unseen. Both buy the farm in what, to be perfectly honest, is fairly bloodless for a stalk ‘n’ slash flick.

So far, so protracted.

The scene then shifts to another campus where nerd Radish (Joel S Rice) and goody-two-shoes Courtney (Cecile Bagdadi)’s discussion of the aforementioned murders is interrupted by fraternity bro Mark (John Fallon). Mark is stressing the imminent chemistry exam where, if he doesn’t achieve 82%, he looks set to lose his scholarship, the immediate and most galling ramification of which will be that his parents cease making payments on his car. But Mark needn’t worry. His frat buddies stage a prank, under the ensuing chaos of which Mark successfully cheats in the exam. And what kind of prank, you ask, is so attention-grabbing that Mark can pull such a stunt and get clean away with it?

They fake a school shooting.

Now, maybe things were a bit different in 1981, but holy fucking fuck – this is a cheapie horror movie in the ‘Prom Night’ vein that uses a faked school shooting as a plot device and then has most of the characters, including the football coach and the alcoholic groundsman laugh it off in a “gee, those crazy kids” kind of way. A faked fucking school shooting!

Just as jaw-dropping is the indifferent response evinced by the sheriff (Sam Kilman), who turns up (if the wobbly chronology of the film is anything to go by) at least an hour after the incident, doesn’t have any back-up and, on finding out it was a hoax, is more interested in lambasting Radish for making the call than dealing with the pranksters. Radish, incensed that he’s taking shit for being a good citizen, provides the sheriff with the licence plate of the van used during the stunt. This earns him the wrath of Mark and his fratboy best bud Wildman (Ralph Brown). Wildman is like Stifler in the ‘American Pie’ movies, but without the depth or charm.

Now, having incorporated something as tasteless as a fake school shooting into the movie, you might think that writer/director Jimmy Huston is at least going to key in the killer’s motivation to the incident (a la the prank-gone-wrong approach of, say, ‘Slaughter High’). Mais non. Not only has the killer already struck, rendering this an impossibility, but the fake shooting literally plays no part whatsoever in anything that follows.

And speaking of what follows: heads down and see you at the final reel, because we’ve got a fucking boring forty minutes or so to wade through. We’ve got Radish hopelessly carrying a torch for Courtney, Courtney’s low-grade jealousy of how easy life is for blonde bombshell roommate Lisa (DeAnna Robbins), Lisa’s grade-earning dalliance with her sleazy chemistry teacher, Wildman and Mark’s scheme to sell pills, overeager fratboy-wannabe Gary (Terry W Farren) agreeing to an exam paper theft in order to secure entry to the fraternity, and Gary’s simpering girlfriend Janet (Sherry Willis-Burch) at odds with him over his secretive behaviour.

Granted, that sounds like more than enough to fill forty minutes, but Huston invests it with no a single iota of dramatic imperative. It’s more like watching the pilot for a painfully unfunny sitcom: episodic scenes, a cast desperately mugging away to try to convince you that they’re quirky and worthy hanging out with, and a susurration of coughs, exhalations, indrawn breaths and soft rhythmic snoring where the canned laughter track ought to be.

Intermittently, the killer strikes. Sometimes in a brutally effective scene, such as the particularly unexpected despatch of one of the fratboys following a fight in the gym. Although the killer has the element of surprise, and has effected other kills using a knife, he actually engages his victim in hand-to-hand combat here. Sometimes in an utterly stupid one, such as the death of (SPOILERS) a character who’ll do anything to be part of the fraternity. Wildman and co. seize on his desperation and force him into a ritual where he’s tied to a tree, denuded apart from his tighty whiteys, has shaving foamed sprayed on him, and a bucket of ice decanted into the aforesaid undergarment. As night falls, Janet goes looking for him. She finds someone else instead. Guess who? Meanwhile, back at the tree, Gary’s bonds are loosened and he goes stumbling around in the dark, calling out to Janet, convinced that she’s his rescuer. Then a dark shape drops from the tree and knives him to death.

Let’s pause here to consider the logistics. Imagine you’re a psycho-killer. You’re doing your nocturnal rounds, looking for someone to kill the shit out of. You come across a dude in his underwear tied to a tree. Do you (a) kill him in situ while he’s in a deeply compromised position and unable to fight back or run away; or (b) cut him loose, climb the tree and then jump on him from the upper branches of the tree, risking a twisted ankle or broken leg if you land badly? If you picked (b), you’re an idiot and you’re just looking to get caught. But (b) is exactly what our knife-wielding nutjob plumbs for.

Then again, maybe he’s not worried about being caught, since the script effectively puts him in three or four significantly removed locations around the campus during the film’s final stretches. Maybe he can teleport or astrally project, not that I recall mention being made of either at any point.

‘Final Exam’, with its soundtrack that brazenly rips off John Carpenter, its tired script and its bland performances, is a mostly forgettable entry in the killer-on-campus cycle. Bagdadi is an entirely proficient final girl, but Huston’s script invests nothing into her character. In fact, said script just haemorrhages clichés. It does only two things that lift ‘Final Exam’ out of the doldrums: the aforementioned bad-taste fake shooting business, and the revelation that the killer is just some random individual. No big reveal, no final girl/killer relationship, no twist ending. Just a random individual. With a knife. Killing high school students. There’s something in the stark, implacable nastiness of this idea that could have made for a gnarly and challenging horror thriller, one that doubled as a deconstruction of its very aesthetic.

But nah: they just went with the obvious. As well as short changing us on the gore and the nudity. As Windsor Davies would have put it, “Oh dear, how sad, never mind.”

Tuesday, October 02, 2018

13 FOR HALLOWEEN #1: Sleepaway Camp

Reviewing trash movies with any degree of regularity leads one to the employment of a fairly truncated critical sliding scale. Narrow “trash movies” down to 1980s American stalk ‘n’ slash flicks, and the requirements for a positive review pretty much come down to: (a) are there any boring bits?, and (b) is the camera equipment visible in shot? Answer no to both and the motherfucker gets a pass.

And for the most part, the theory works. Watch ‘Friday the 13th’ or ‘The Burning’ or ‘Prom Night’ or ‘Sorority Row’ or ‘Tits-Out Cheerleaders Get Massacred in the Shower Block’ and employ those two questions when writing your review. It’s a failsafe and I’ll probably be following your blog within a week or two.

But there’s always an exception that proves the rule.

Ladies and gentlemen, ‘Sleepaway Camp’. Written and directed by Robert Hiltzik, ‘Sleepaway Camp’ is basically Schroedinger’s slasher: it’s the best and the worst of the genre at one and the same time. How it manages this is entirely down to Hiltzik himself. As writer, he does some brilliant and unexpected things with the material. As director, he’s borderline incompetent.

It seems unfair to bash ‘Sleepaway Camp’ for not being particularly interesting to look at – it was made for a pittance, and none of its contemporaries have any real production values to speak of – but I’d be outright shocked if I came across another film of its ilk as visually uninteresting as this one. Hiltzik is incapable of making a summer camp, with its lake and woods and proliferation of buildings, seem in shape or form like a unified locale. Shots are placed next to each rather than the film actually being edited. Entire scenes idle past without any internal dynamic; any sense of rhythm. Performances range from terrible to just-about-functional.

Again, you’re probably mentally enumerating any number of slashers that feature poor acting, badly constructed set pieces and shoddy cinematography and wondering why I’m singling out ‘Sleepaway Camp’ for special critical treatment, but I really can’t stress enough how singularly unengaging it is as a viewing experience. Emphasis on “viewing experience”. Because Hiltzik’s actual script is quite an unusual and noteworthy piece of work.

Most slashers set at a summer camp or retreat follow a simple narrative model: a group of good looking but expendable kids are whittled down until the final girl puts the run-around on the killer in the final act, with the hour or so of screen time not given over to gory kill scenes functioning on the level of ‘Porky’s’-style lowbrow sexploitation. You know the drill: skinny-dipping, shower scenes, shagging in the woods. ‘Sleepaway Camp’ does things differently. Hiltzik’s script posits the summer camp or retreat as a place of existential awfulness and takes pains to make his depiction of it as abjectly depressing as, say, Ingmar Bergman’s ‘Winter Light’.

A prologue has prepubescent siblings Peter and Angela bereaved of their father after a boating accident. Years later, Angela (Felissa Rose) is living with her eccentric aunt Martha (Desiree Gould, whose performance has to be seen to be disbelieved) and much-put-upon cousin Ricky (Jonathan Tiersten). The flamboyant but self-centred Martha packs the two of them off to Camp Arawak. Angela has zero enthusiasm at the prospect, while Ricky looks forward to hooking up with Judy (Karen Fields), a girl he schmoozed with at camp the previous year.

Arawak quickly reveals itself as some kind of nexus point for all the shittiness of the universe. Judy spurns Ricky, more interested in flirting with bad boys Kenny (John E Dunn) and Mike (Tom Van Dell), or joining forces with bitch queen gal pal Meg (Katherine Kamhi) to bully Angela. Kenny and Mike take an immediate dislike to Ricky and his buddy Paul (Christopher Collet). Ricky and Paul’s unified front is tested when Paul takes a shine to Angela. Meanwhile, Angela withdraws into herself, to the consternation of sympathetic camp counsellors Susie (Susan Glaze) and Ronnie (Paul DeAngelo). Efforts to bring Angela out of her shell are compromised when head chef Artie (Owen Hughes) attempts to molest her.

Artie’s sudden death shortly afterwards – vociferously deemed an accident by grouchy camp owner Mel (Mike Kellin) – sets the tone. Any number of fatalities ensue, and all of them proceed from some offence against Angela. The script posits the killer as either Angela or Ricky in such self-evident style that I became convinced Hiltzik was going all out to smokescreen a last-minute twist that it was someone else entirely. And, yes, Hiltzik does have a twist up his sleeve – and it’s a zinger – but the nature of it is … well, this is where reviewing ‘Sleepaway Camp’ becomes problematic.

It’s not that well-known a franchise – there were two direct sequels, then a ‘Return to ~’ that tried to pretend parts two and three didn’t happen and picked up straight after the original, as well as a supposed canonical part four, the filming for which was never completed but which was belatedly released in a version padded out with clips from the earlier films – certainly not when compared with the ‘Friday the 13th’, ‘Halloween’ and ‘Nightmare on Elm Street’ sagas, and has never really broken cover beyond its cult following. So I don’t want to go into the mechanics of its twist ending, which is as genuinely effective a twist as you’re likely to come across, nor would it be fair to consider the sneakily effective ways Hiltzik elides it for so much of the running time.

But the thematic implications of the twist are something else. Yes, it was made in 1983 and attitudes were different then. And the very nature of the slasher film (name just one that isn’t, at the very least, sexist and voyeuristic) is an exercise in political incorrectness. But ‘Sleepaway Camp’ takes its unreconstructed thinking to new levels. Again, there’s little I can say without giving far too much way, but at least two expressions that end in ‘-phobic’ apply.

So: ‘Sleepaway Camp’ – grim, joyless, jaw-droppingly insensitive in its final moments, and the whole thing parcelled up at a technical level that could almost count as anti-film-making. And yet, for the connoisseur of the genre, or at least the exploitation fan looking for something a tad off-base, curiously – indeed, very very cautiously – recommended.

Monday, October 01, 2018

Ladies and gentlemen, a big scary pumpkin …

Greetings, freaks and freakettes, Big Scary Pumpkin here, taking over editing duties from that Fulwood fellow for the duration of October. Be prepared! This blog is about become bloody, boisterous and Beelzebubian. We’ll be counting down to All Hallow’s Eve with 13 films guaranteed to send shivers down your spine. Whether that’s for a good or a bad reason is for me to know and you lot to find out.

The boy Fulwood’s been confined to a dank cellar with an internet connection and a stack of DVDs and he can’t come out until he’s given me 13 cutting and controversial pieces of film criticism to edit, paste some screengrabs onto and post up on The Agitation of the Pumpkin.

He’s already made a start. Here’s some of the dark delights you can look forward to:

Tune in tomorrow for the first of the 13. Bring pizza and beer. I like beer. I like a lot of beer.

Was that too soon?