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Byzantium

31 Oct

byzantium

 

Director: Neil Jordan

Writer: Moira Buffini (play)

Stars: Saoirse Ronan, Gemma Arterton, Sam Riley

Motion Picture Rating: R

Runtime: 118 minutes

 

 

Although film and TV vampire stories are being remodeled for younger viewers – Twilight, True Blood, and The Vampire Diaries – one of the best remains Neil Jordan’s 1994 film Interview with the Vampire. That was an adult tale of two vampires in a very gothic 18th century New Orleans. With Byzantium the same director returns in subject matter and tone, but the two vampires are female and the setting is a distressed English seaside town.

Gemma Arterton is Clara, a streetwise exotic dancer and guardian to sensitive Eleanor (Saoirse Ronan). They wash up in a rundown coastal town after Clara has a violent encounter with a thug from their past. They are seemingly on the run, but it’s not clear from what. Their relationship is also ambiguous as the age gap makes them closer to sisters than mother and daughter. The 200 year back story is revealed slowly and in fragments. Their first encounters with vampires are explained and that past is carried as a burden.

The two women take refuge in a defunct boarding house called Byzantium. Clara meets the owner Noel (Daniel Mays) whilst turning tricks down by the pier. As the dancer / hooker Gemma Arterton is saddled with a shaky accent, but is effortlessly enticing. The harlot with a heart of gold is a bit of a cliché, but never has it been played with such sex appeal. Arterton does well, but is outperformed by Ronan who is typically captivating. At 19 she is already a mighty talent.

The look of Byzantium is washed out, distressed and grey. There are splashes of colour, such as the symbolic red cape that Eleanor wears, but mostly the aesthetic is reminiscent of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011) by Tomas Alfredson. I like the production design in this, it suits the story and frankly most English seaside towns are shabby, dull and foreboding.

Those chasing Clara and Eleanor include Sam Riley as a shady policeman. He appears in present and in flash backs as part of some form of vampire secret society. Jonny Lee Miller also appears as a rotten naval officer. The centuries evolving plot is borderline ridiculous, but the actors commit to it and the slow reveal keeps it interesting. There is a nice modern day relationship, very much taken from Let the Right One in (2008, again Alfredson), involving Ronan and local teenager Frank (Caleb Landry Jones). Its youthful sweetness part balances the sourness of the adult liaisons.

There is a nice mix of serious and schlock in Byzantium and I enjoyed it. The film is sexy and scary at times and the cast is impressive and works hard throughout. It is not young and dumb like so much of the content in Twilight or True Blood and that’s one way to put some freshness back into the immortal bloodsuckers.

Berberian Sound Studio

20 Feb

berberian sound studio

Director:

Peter Strickland

Writer:

Peter Strickland

Stars:

Toby Jones, Tonia Sotiropoulou, Suzy Kendall

Motion Picture Rating: 15

Runtime: 92 minutes

Giallo horror films emerged in the late 1960s, flourished in the 1970s and fell away by the 1980s. They were Italian films based on the yellow (‘giallo’) covered paperback books with crime and mystery themes. In moving to celluloid those novels took on a heavy dose of sex and depravity. Strongly psychological, giallo horror films typically had extended murder sequences (forerunners of the modern slasher movie). Films such as Torso and Deep Red were and remain disturbing. In Berberian Sound Studio Peter Strickland pays homage to giallo horror and delivers a similarly uncomfortable ride.

Toby Jones is Gilderoy, an unassuming English sound engineer hired to work on a giallo horror film in Italy in 1976. He is unsuited to the task at hand and out of step with the rather laid back and mysterious Italians in and around the studio. That said, he does get stuck into the work at hand laying on the sound effects to a violent film about witch trials and black magic. Gilderoy smashes rotting fruit, stabs fresh melons and records endless screams from local actors. He adds texture to the horrible images that are projected off-screen.

The unravelling of Gilderoy, a quiet man isolated in a foreign land and deeply affected by the sick and twisted film that he is working on, is the heart of this film. As such his dream life starts to overlap with his real life and we the audience are given little help to identify where the dividing line sits. There is a strong dose of David Lynch running through this film and Strickland does well to conjure up an unsettling ambiance in the style of Blue Velvet and Lost Highway.

Peter Strickland is a UK writer-director to keep a close eye on. His first film was the spell-binding Katalin Varga and whilst this second effort is not as impactful, it is still a very clever and original film. There is enormous skill on display here and fantastic performances from the dependable Toby Jones and others including Fatma Mohammed (as actress Silvia, a formidable screamer). The use of sound is particularly smart as might be expected; it provides visceral shocks. The tone is foreboding and sinister and it is all very creepy if not completely intelligible.

The Cabin in the Woods

3 Oct

 

Director: Drew Goddard

Writers: Joss Whedon, Drew Goddard

Stars: Kristen Connolly, Chris Hemsworth and Anna Hutchison

Motion Picture Rating: 15

Runtime: 95 minutes

 

 

Call me a snob, but I prefer my horror flicks to be smart and clever as opposed to sopping wet with blood and gore. I don’t enjoy the torture porn of the Saw and Hostel franchises and that’s roughly where I believe  Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard were coming from with this effort. Past collaborators on the Buffy TV series, they apparently aimed to re-invent horror and to turn the genre inside out. Certainly that’s the position taken by the large number of online commentators and fanboys who have dissected this film.

The start is classic scary movie territory. Five attractive students set out from campus for a weekend of fun in the woods at a borrowed cabin. There is an athlete, a bitchy prom queen, a pot smoking goofball, a pretty ‘good girl’ and a smart, but reserved mate of the athlete. The five hit the road and stop hours later at the requisite redneck gas station. There the standard in-bred local insults and warns them in equal measure. Slightly spooked, the group press on and reach the isolated cabin in time for an afternoon dip in the lake. That night, over beers, some exploration of the cabin – of course it has a cellar – and a game of truth and dare, the horror begins.

I am not going to write much more about the plot as I don’t want to spoil it. However, the opening 10 minutes of the film plus the trailer reveal that there is far more going on at the cabin than a conventional story. We see Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford in a high tech facility seemingly preparing for the students arrival. The cabin is under surveillance and Jenkins and Whitford have a small army of assistants to monitor and potentially manipulate the goings-on.

There are lots of early nods to classic films here including Friday the13th, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Evil Dead. It’s fanboy heaven to spot them and whilst reassuring for the audience, there is also plenty of smart dialogue to freshen things up. The film is also scary once the group enters the cellar. It handles the horror very well in the first 60 minutes, but gears are then shifted and the final third is something else altogether. Whedon and Goddard throw convention out the window and all hell, literally, breaks loose.

Now I agree that the last 35 minutes is ground-breaking – in fact it is utterly bonkers – but does it really explode the horror genre? I am not so sure. There is subversion certainly and the mashed up sci-fi and folklore elements are cleverly added. It is entertaining, and there are smart lines and popcorn shocks galore, but for me this does not turn the genre inside out. Whedon and Goddard have delivered a quick, slick and fun movie, but I can’t see it stopping or altering the current flow of Saw and Hostel copycats. Not even a killer unicorn could do that.

The Thing

13 Jul

 

Director: Matthijs van Heijningen Jr.

Writers: Eric Heisserer, John W. Campbell Jr.

Stars: Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Joel Edgerton and Ulrich Thomsen

Motion Picture Rating: 15

Runtime: 103 minutes

 

 

Prometheus, in cinemas now, is a form of prequel to Alien in that it sets up the abandoned spaceship and fossilized alien to be found by Sigourney Weaver in the 1979 classic. This reboot of The Thing operates in the same territory. It explains the presence of the alien life-form / virus that is encountered by Kurt Russell’s team in the Antarctic in 1982. There is a pattern here, but not necessarily a trend, although we shall see what gets dug up next. The trick is not that difficult; identify a popular sci-fi, horror or action movie released between 1979 and 1989, write a knowing prologue to it and benefit by marketing the ‘new’ film with a massive nod to the original.

In this case the nod is more of an almighty head-butt – the ‘prequel’ has kept the exact same title. That’s hardly subtle, but the original The Thing was far from refined (classic John Carpenter). It was, and is, one part horror and one part monster movie with some sci-fi hokum thrown in for good measure. And this time around the director is hugely inexperienced so it’s unsurprising that they have stayed close to the original. I wonder if the team behind this considered recycling the 1982 tagline as it has always been one of my favourites; Man is the Warmest Place to Hide. Brilliant.

Kurt Russell held the original together with a typically hard-boiled performance and he is missed in this one. Mary Elizabeth Winstead, as scientist Kate Lloyd, does a decent job stepping in for Russell, but her transformation from unassuming PHD into the resourceful and kick-ass leader is a real stretch. The make-up and CGI is better and this time some of the mutating humans are genuinely gruesome to look at. It has some nice horror moments, such as an attack by a severed arm, and the film moves along quickly enough. The Antarctic landscape is refreshing for this genre and there are a lot of flame-throwers – sorely underused in most horror sci-fi yarns.

The Awakening

9 Apr

Director: Nick Murphy

Writers: Stephen Volk, Nick Murphy

Stars: Rebecca Hall, Dominic West and Imelda Staunton

Motion Picture Rating: 15

Runtime: 107 minutes

 

 

 

 

I appreciate creepy ghost stories on film, such as The Orphanage and The Others, and this one garnered strong reviews in the UK on its theatrical release. It stars Rebecca Hall as a 1920’s ghost hunter called Florence Cathcart and it has the feel of a modestly budgeted English production throughout. That might explain the good reviews here, but certainly Hall is always worth catching up with – especially after her recent performances in fine films such as The Town and Everything Must Go.

In reverence to all good ghost stories the film is set in a single and remote location. The ghost hunter Cathcart is hired by a boys’ boarding school in North West England to investigate the possible presence of a ghost. The school is grey, cold and foreboding. Its young students are suitably timid and respectful of authority. However, it is clear that they are scared of something and that all is not quite right at the school.

The set-up, initially in London and then up to Cumbria, and the first hour of the film are interesting. Hall is well cast as the “educated woman” and is backed up nicely by Dominic West as a teacher and Imelda Staunton as the school matron.  The setting, pacing and camera work are also good. The problem, and the disappointment, comes in the final third. The plot unravels and the final reveal is simply not convincing. The level of creepiness and the number of scares also fall away as the non-believing ghost hunter succumbs to her own paranoia. This is not as good as either The Orphanage or The Others, but it’s a reasonable effort.

Don’t be Afraid of the Dark

31 Mar

Director: Troy Nixey

Writers: Guillermo del Toro (screenplay), Matthew Robbins (screenplay), and 1 more credit

Stars: Katie Holmes, Guy Pearce and Bailee Madison

Motion Picture Rating: R

Runtime: 99 minutes

 

 

Katie Holmes, since being locked away in a scientology cupboard by husband Tom Cruise, has not made many films. Judged on this one and her other recent offering Jack and Jill (with serial offender Adam Sandler) we are being saved as movie goers by diminutive Tom’s spousal control. Katie is in this ‘scary’ outing with Guy Pearce so there are two fairly heavyweight actors attached. More headline grabbing is the writer-producer credit that goes to Guillermo del Toro who started his career with really scary films such as Cronos and The Devil’s Backbone.

The pre title opening of this film provides its gruesome backdrop and sets up the nasty secret that gets locked away in the bowels of the creepy mansion. That secret will be unearthed by Holmes, Pearce and their daughter as they renovate the house in the present day. Those first five minutes tell a lot about the film. The ghostly horse and carriage, the candlelit manor, the strange goings on in the dark basement etc are all very Scooby Doo. Once the ‘crime’ occurred I was half expecting the Mystery Machine to show up, but had to settle for half decent actors phoning in poor performances.

There is nothing here to recommend this film. It is poorly executed and borderline funny at times. On the Scooby Doo front we even get a grumpy and suspicious gardener as one of the important second string characters! Guillermo del Toro mines some of his previous films including Pan’s Labyrinth, but this is light years away from that masterpiece. The acting is wooden, the music is awful and there are very few scary moments indeed.

Fright Night

7 Feb

Director: Craig Gillespie

Writers: Marti Noxon (screenplay), Tom Holland (story), and 1 more credit

Stars: Anton Yelchin, Colin Farrell and David Tennant

Motion Picture Rating: R

Runtime: 106 minutes

 

 

I did not see the original, but apparently this is a straight remake of that 1985 film. Back then it was a contemporary of Gremlins and Ghostbusters in the niche that is ‘comedy horror’. Later examples included House and The Lost Boys with all such films mashing up traditional scary stories with smart modern dialogue. Comedy horror remains a niche with unfortunately more misses than hits and Fright Night retains that slightly awkward feel to it.

In this remake it is Colin Farrell that plays creepy Jerry who moves into a desert bound suburb of Las Vegas and almost immediately puts his teenage neighbour Charley (Anton Yelchin) on edge. Encouraged by his geeky friend Ed (Superbad’s Christopher Mintz-Plasse), Charley starts to believe that Jerry is indeed a vampire. And when other neighbours start disappearing, Charley seeks help from acclaimed TV vampire hunter Peter Vincent (Roddy McDowall upgraded to David Tennant).

Fright Night 2011 works well in Farrell’s seriously sociopathic performance and in the isolated and other worldly nature of the Vegas suburb setting. There are some decent lines including a nice anti Twilight joke and it is scary at times. However, the jumps back and forth between farce and fright combined with all of the high school angst (think Buffy meets Clueless) make a less than perfect cocktail. Watching David Tennant channel Russell Brand early on is amusing, but even that joke runs a little dry by the end. Not bad, but not great.

Apollo 18

8 Jan

Director: Gonzalo López-Gallego

Writer: Brian Miller

Stars: Warren Christie, Lloyd Owen and Ryan Robbins

Motion Picture Rating: PG-13

Runtime: 86 minutes

 

 

This is another of those films set up as being based upon authentic, but disputed and previously unseen footage. That was the case with Troll Hunter, but that film stayed true to the premise and provided far more entertainment. In this case we have footage of a secret Apollo lunar mission that may or may not have ended in mystery and tragedy in 1973.

I can see more of these mockumentary style movies being released as the costs of digital film-making equipment decrease and the influence of the Internet increases. As with the Wikileaks phenomenon, this film Apollo 18 comes with its own conspiracy website in place. That’s clever, but unfortunately the underpinning movie is not. This is a really poor film. It only lasts for about 80 minutes, but it still drags and there is very little tension for what is set up as a scary thriller.

In part defence of the film there are some nice 1970’s type jumpy and grainy shots. The big problem, however, is that those more authentic sequences are in the minority and interspersed between far more modern, clean and clichéd set pieces. And when the film gets to the moon there are cameras everywhere which again undermines the basic premise of authentic and unseen 1970’s footage.

Kill List

4 Jan

Director: Ben Wheatley

Writers: Ben Wheatley, Amy Jump

Stars: Neil Maskell, MyAnna Buring and Harry Simpson

UK Rating: 18

Runtime: 95 minutes

 

 

Kill List is a low budget British thriller / chiller that packs a mighty punch. It was released to great UK critical acclaim in September 2011 as the second feature film from Ben Wheatley (as written by Ben and his wife Amy Jump). The film echoes 1970’s British horror films in its styling and ambiguous narrative whilst also bringing to mind some of Shane Meadows’ work, especially Dead Man’s Shoes.

The bulk of the movie is focused on ex-soldier Jay trying to get to grips with recessionary family life and his mercenary / hit man activities with best friend Gal (another ex-soldier). It is clear early on that Jay has difficulties adjusting to his new life. Some form of post traumatic stress appears to be affecting him and throughout the scenes of domestic non-bliss the overall tone is moody, uncomfortable and menacing. Something is not quite right.

Once Jay and Gal, pushed along by Jay’s wife Shel, get back into killing work by taking on the hit list from a mysterious client the horror ramps up. Jay spirals downwards into severe darkness as the list is dealt with, bodies pile up in bloody style and ominous signs appear. All of this makes for unsettling viewing. The acting is incredibly strong, the direction tight and the sound design haunting. Where it all finishes up is too outlandish and odd to mark this as a masterpiece, but as a modern British horror film it is really very good and surely bound for cult status.

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