Author: iotahorror

Review: 10 Cloverfield Lane

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There’s very little I can say about this film without venturing into spoiler territory, so I will say very little.

Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) is fleeing her old life after a tiff with her fiancé and finds herself in a car accident. When she comes to, she is hooked up to a drip with her leg chained to a concrete wall. Apparently, some kind of doomsday event has transpired and she is just lucky that Howard (John Goodman) was kind enough to pick her up and keep her in his bunker. Only she’s not so sure she wants to stay there, regardless of whatever poison gas/zombies/space worms might be waiting for them on the surface.

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You have probably already heard that this so-called sequel is worlds away from Cloverfield (2008). What hasn’t changed since 2008, however, is the delight the franchise apparently takes in playing with audience expectations. Cloverfield had an almost nihilistic ability to dispatch main characters with little fanfare; this worked well with the lack of empathy inherent to the found footage format. 10 is perfectly willing to show us what we don’t want to see, but it isn’t found footage. Instead, it employs a narrative perspective limited to its average-Jane protagonist. This lack of outside interference creates intimacy between audience and heroine and allows the twists – and there are many – to have more impact.

There are moments when the film achieves an almost Hitchcockian grace. There are many parallels to the portly master’s work: a domineering parental figure, a single location, duplicitous characters, the staircase motif, quasi-platonic male-female partnership, and, bien sûr, the twists. Audiences will find themselves forever changing their mind about Goodman’s character. This is as much down to the writing as it is to Goodman’s fantastic performance. He is exceptionally well cast; the natural tension between his good-guy, Roseanne/Pixar pedigree and his intimidating physique is used to its full advantage. In typical funnyman fashion, he scores some comic relief points, as well.

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Be warned that the third act does not quite live up to the first two, and that the twists become increasingly ludicrous – although this might not bother you. There are some parts that just don’t add up, some loose ends that are left untied and certain moments that are just too much muchness. This would have worked fine in Cloverfield, with its trademark combination of an ostensibly realist approach on the one hand and monster-movie madness on the other, but 10 leads us to believe we’re watching a different kind of movie.

Perhaps this bait-and-switch is the whole point, but the effect is undermined by the film’s promotion as a sequel to Cloverfield. Ultimately, I think this brilliant, tense thriller suffers from being two different things at once. If this awkward pairing gets more people to see the film, then perhaps it’s justified. I’m torn between acknowledging that the things I like about 10 have nothing to do with monsters (and that this association, therefore, detracts from my enjoyment) and admitting that I kind of admire the playful way the filmmakers have addressed the issue of mythology and fictional universe. People will have radically different experiences of the same event, and 10 Cloverfield Lane uses this fact that make something unpredictable.

The movie opened in US cinemas on 11th March and on 18th March in the UK, and is gradually conquering the globe as I write this.

Until next time,

Iota

 

 

Review: The Witch

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“What went we out into this wilderness to find?”

Robert Eggers’ new film The Witch is startling, to say the least. Critics love it, but audiences don’t seem to know what to make of it. This first line represents, in my opinion, a microcosm of the film’s principle dread. To watch The Witch is to embark on an uncertain trek into a chaotic and unknowable world, stumbling into a thorny bushes in the dark. You might emerge oblivious to what’s just happened to you, but you’ll be pulling out the splinters for days.

This is Eggers’ directorial debut, a fact which is revealed not by a lack of polish but by the inescapable feeling that one has never seen anything quite like it before. The story is set in New England in the 1630s and begins as a family of six is excommunicated from their Puritan plantation. They then set up a remote settlement of their own, perched on the edge of a dense forest. From this point on, most of the suspense is derived from the insidious accumulation of strange happenings. Events descend into Dionysian disorder, in a way that reveals the fault lines in the family’s relationships. This is a film about witchcraft that isn’t actually about witchcraft – this is simply the guise that cleverly conceals a story about grief, parental hypocrisy, incest, zealotry, womanhood and New-World anxiety. It doesn’t shy away from any of these topics, and is frequently quite shocking, as a result.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen a film that so effectively addresses the psychological trauma of the North American settler, the dark side of pioneer spirit. Nature is callous and unknowable, and threatens to creep into the home and infiltrate one’s life if not actively kept at bay. A family, alone in a haunted environment, surrounded by the unforgiving hinterland, might recall the Torrances or the crew of the Nostromo. If horror can teach us anything about families, it’s that isolation is not the path to peaceful, happy relationships.

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I heard some audience members in the cinema express their disappointment with the film, claiming that is was bleak and pointless. Certainly, if you’re expecting a fun thrill ride, or really anything analogous to most contemporary horror, then you are bound to get more – or rather, less – than you bargained for with The Witch. This is not to say that Eggers doesn’t make use of horror conventions and clichés, but rather that he does so in such a completely different way and in such an unusual context that I, and many others, found the experience invigorating. I was not frightened, really, but I was thoroughly discomforted whilst simultaneously in awe at the beauty of the production.

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The film looks gorgeous, even down to the actors’ distinctive faces, which almost make the characters seem like apt illustrations in a storybook. The costuming, muted palette and extensive use of natural light conspire to create a convincing period piece. The dialogue, written in convincing, Caroline-era English (It’s nice to see someone who knows their thous, thines, and thees) helps with this effect without becoming obtrusive. The score is an unsettling assortment of dischords, buzzing and shrieking that suggests the cacophony of a coven’s ritual. The father’s (Ralph Ineson) gravelly voice reverberates throughout the cinema and builds anxiety towards the character. On that note, I would be remiss not to mention Anya Taylor-Joy’s surprisingly understated performance as the family’s eldest daughter, Thomasin.

You might like this film if you particularly enjoyed last year’s The Babadook. Both are similar in terms of narrative pacing, fairy-tale elements and the emphasis on shame and resentment in family relationships. Where they differ is that The Witch arguably lacks the accessibility and cohesiveness of its distant, Australian cousin. The titular (no pun intended) villain doesn’t quite feel consistent (perhaps due to the inherent mutability of witches) and many audience members will find that the viewing experience can only be described as “a drag”. But if that doesn’t bother you – and it doesn’t me – then crack on.

The Witch opened last month in the US and hit UK cinemas on the 11th of March.

Beware and take care,

Iota

 

The Best of FrightFest: London 2015

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This past weekend I had the pleasure of attending the 16th annual London FrightFest in Leicester Square. This wonderfully curated event lasts for five days and shows some of the best new genre films, most of them from outside the mainstream (so no Sinister 2). Last weekend, festival programmers served up a whopping 76 feature-length films, 30 shorts and 4 special events, such as an extended Q&A with guest of honour Barbara Crampton. I managed to see 21 features and all of the shorts. It was tough to narrow it down, but here are my top 10 favourites from the festival.

  1. Banjo
    Writer/Director: Liam Regan. UK 2015.
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© Cincest Films

Banjo is a film about meek Peltzer Arbuckle (James Hamer-Morton), a man abused by his boss, coworkers and girlfriend to the extent that he is paid a visit by his childhood imaginary friend, Ronnie (Damian Morter). Ronnie is impulsive, crude and violent, but above all, he wants to break Peltzer out of his funk. He’ll do anything to shake things up, with no regard for Peltzer’s or anyone else’s safety. This is a fun, indie shlockfest with a professional polish, and more people need to know about it.  Director Liam Regan works in an office and says he first came to FrightFest five years ago, where he met so many fellow fans and people working in the industry that he felt inspired to scrape together a bit of money and make a film of his own. The result is impressive, to say the least, with a wide variety of settings and an attention to detail that demonstrate the director’s ambition. Fans of Troma and Henenlotter will appreciate the film’s exploitation vibe, as well as a few cheeky inside jokes.

  1. Scherzo Diabolico
    Writer/Director: Adrian Garcia Bogliano. Mexico-USA 2015.
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© Salto de Fe Films

The director of last year’s knockout Late Phases brings us a Spanish-language production about ambition, sadism and revenge. Aram is overworked and underappreciated at his office job, and decides to seek revenge by kidnapping his employer’s teenage daughter. The first half is bleak and difficult to watch, but the film takes an unexpected turn at its midpoint that brings some sick humour into the mix. It is beautifully shot and undoubtedly of a high standard, but it seems to express such a nasty and cynical view of human nature that I can’t help feeling slightly dirty after watching it. But still, it’s a story in which Mozart’s “Turkish March” plays a pivotal role, so it can’t be bad.

  1. The Hallow
    Writer/Director: Corin Hardy, Writer: Felipe Marino. UK 2015
© Occupant Entertainment

© Occupant Entertainment

A tree surgeon moves his wife and baby into an old house in the middle of the Irish woods. At first, unfriendly neighbours, windows mysteriously smashing and black sludge seeping through the ceiling are mere nuisances. Soon the family find themselves in grave danger, and with nowhere to turn. There are strange creatures in the woods, and the answers may lie in an old book of Irish folktales. The Hallow is a very competent and well-paced take on what is probably the oldest plot in horror cinema: the haunted house. In this case, it’s the woods surrounding the house that are haunted – but don’t worry; they find a way in. The folkloric mask allows the film to explore some dark and taboo themes and still end up with something I imagine will be quite successful in the international mainstream. It’s an impressive first feature for the director.

  1. We Are Still Here
    Writer/Director: Ted Geoghegan. USA 2015.
© Snowfort Pictures

© Snowfort Pictures

A middle-aged couple (Barbara Crampton & Andrew Sensening), grieving the loss of their only son, move into a big, old, New England house to escape reminders of the past. Unfortunately, echoes of the past are exactly what they find. “The house needs a family,” and it’s going to get it.

This is a true, nostalgic haunted house movie and fans of the same from the 70’s and early 80’s will appreciate the film’s self-aware references. There are highly improbable situations and characters, bizarre dialogue and over-the-top deaths that affectionately underscore the ridiculousness of the film’s predecessors without stepping into the territory of overdone “meta” horror. The director himself said he wanted to make a haunted house movie for, by, and about grownups, and that’s exactly what this is.

  1. Deathgasm
    Writer/Director: James Lei Howden. New Zealand 2015.
© Metalheads

© Metalheads

Frustrated with small-town life, loveable teen outcasts turn to heavy metal to ease their heavy souls, forming a band by the name of Deathgasm. They uncover an old piece of handwritten music, with accompanying lyrics in Latin, and think they’ve found their first big hit. Unfortunately, the song turns all who hear it into demons, and the boys accidentally transform their small town into a literal living hell. It’s up to Deathgasm to save the world.

Much has been said of the film’s fantastic use of outrageously good practical effects on an indie budget. This is definitely a major selling point. For me, though, its real strength is in the snappy writing and subversive humour. Even when it comes across as immature (which it often is), you can tell that a great deal of love went into making it, and the audience couldn’t help but buy into it and laugh along. If you like metal, you must watch this, and if you don’t, there’s plenty to enjoy besides.

  1. Nina Forever
    Writers/Directors: Ben and Chris Blaine. UK 2015
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© Charlie Productions

Holly is working in a supermarket when she falls for her coworker, a brooding romantic who tried to kill himself after his girlfriend, Nina, died in a horrific car crash. The two begin a passionate affair that has potential to turn into something more… if Nina would let it. She appears, in physical form, bloodied and broken, at the most inappropriate moments. The story progresses as the lovebirds try to free themselves from their physical and emotional Nina-baggage.

This is a film that blurs the boundaries of the genre a bit. It’s a unique and bloody ghost story dressed up as an indie romantic comedy. While it may not have much to offer by way of suspense, it makes up for it with depth of character and feeling. There is plenty of dark humour, but a more wry, understated variety than you find in most horror comedies these days. The film’s biggest strength is its three lead actors, who succeed in selling this bizarre love triangle to the audience.

  1. Turbo Kid
    Writers/Directors: Francois Simard et al. Canada-New Zealand 2015.
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© EMA Films

Born from a short segment in The ABC’s of Death, Turbo Kid is set in a dystopian, futuristic wasteland, which just happens to be in 1997 (although civilisation and industry seem to have ended in the 80’s). It’s been described as Mad Max meets Power Rangers, and tells the story of a young man who dares to stand up to the tyrant Zeus (Michael Ironside), becoming the hero from the comic books he so adores. Along the way, he meets a chipper sidekick called Apple and a tough-guy mentor. Together, they will fight for goodness and equality. Oh yes, there will be blood. And intestines, and severed limbs, heads and torsos – but all in good fun. The result is dark, hilarious and frenetic, with a nostalgic electro soundtrack that will make you feel like your fists could punch rainbows.

  1. They Look Like People
    Writer/Director: Perry Blackshear. USA 2015.

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Christian, a young man who has pulled himself out of depression through the magic of self-help dogma and bench presses, receives an unexpected visit from an old friend, Wyatt, whom he invites to stay in his house. While their paths may have diverged, they bond over shared memories. The trouble starts when Wyatt receives mysterious phone calls in the middle of night telling him of a body snatcher-like conspiracy that only he can prevent. As his delusions (or revelations?) progress, Christian and Wyatt’s friendship is pushed to its limits. This is an incredibly profound character study, made all the more compelling by its minimalism and plausibility. The tension increases gradually as the film subtly absorbs the audience into its deceptively simple story before hitting them with unflinching emotional honesty. Both sensitive and terrifying, it moved me in a way no film has in a long time.

  1. Bait
    Writer/Director: Dominic Brunt. UK 2015.
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© Mitchell-Brunt Films

Two women dream of opening their own café in their post-industrial town, so when they meet an independent lender who offers to front them the cash they need, they think their dream has come true. Unfortunately, this man is human scum, and there is no limit to the sadistic measures he is willing to take to get his money. Not since Shylock has there been such a ruthless usurer. The script is razor sharp and the characters fully realised and human. I have heard the film classified as more of a thriller, but I believe that the pacing and omnipresent paranoia, along with a brutally good finale, reveal Brunt’s true horror allegiance.

  1. Tales of Halloween
    Directors: Many. USA 2015.
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© Epic Pictures Group

The perfect finale to the festival, Tales of Halloween is a mega-anthology film featuring 10 shorts – directed by the likes of Darren Lynn Bousman, Lucky McKee, Neil Marshall and many more – all set on the same Halloween night. It is riddled with cameos and is made with so much affection for the genre that fans will not be able to resist its immense charm. It deserves a spot amongst the most accomplished anthology films ever made. Irreverent humour abounds, but there are some sincere scares, as well, so horror fans will want to get cozy with this warm, fuzzy blanket of a movie.

© Epic Pictures Group

© Epic Pictures Group

There you have it. Finally, here’s a list of films (with directors’ surnames) that I unfortunately did not see, and therefore cannot vouch for personally. Still, I have it on good authority that they’re excellent, and will track them down when I get the chance:

Landmine Goes Click (Bakhia)
Shut In (Schindler)
Rabid Dogs (Hannezo)
Road Games (Pastoll)
A Christmas Horror Story (Harvey et al)
Night Fare (Seri)
Body (Berk & Olsen)
Summer Camp (Marini)

I hope each and every one of the films named in this post gets the widest release possible. And if I’ve persuaded anyone to seek out these films, or to come see FrightFest for themselves, then I can finally sleep soundly (just kidding; catharsis experienced through good horror always knocks me out).

Happy viewing, and see you there next year,

Iota

Review: It Follows

I have little patience for reviews that applaud the “rare” horror film that eschews gore in favour of “real scares”, thereby proving that the genre “still has something new to offer audiences”. I can see that the purpose might be to attract people who would otherwise avoid it entirely. Still, I find myself becoming defensive of the horror genre, which turns out at least a dozen or so brilliant cinematic disembowelments of the human condition every year. What they see as the shining exception I see as part and parcel of a genre that is doing just fine, thank you very much.

© Animal Kingdom

Which brings me to It Follows. If you follow any kind of horror media, you’ve probably already heard some of the hype surrounding the indie film that seemed to appear out of nowhere, stalking from festival to festival, leaving a trail of petrified filmgoers in its wake. It has already earned sweeping praise from mainstream and genre critics alike. As for me, the year is still young, but I’m already saving a spot for it among my top 5 favourite films of the year. Here’s why.

When genre newcomer David Robert Mitchell wrote and directed It Follows – his first horror feature – he had the audacity to create a brand-new monster, with its own mythology and rules. The threat is deceptively simple: a young woman (Maika Monroe) has a sexual encounter that leaves her with a kind of hallucinatory infection. So far, so Cronenberg. What she sees, and what the uninfected can’t see, is people – one at a time, and in various stages of undress – walking slowly and deliberately towards her. They appear at random and haunt her waking hours. What happens if they get to her? She’s not about to wait around and find out.

© Animal Kingdom

This constant menace has a number of effects that make me wonder what it must have been like to have been among the first audiences to see A Nightmare on Elm Street, with its sense of brutal inevitability, or Night of the Living Dead, with its eerily ambling assortment of the undead. While the threat may be somewhat avoidable in the short term (as opposed to, say, a charging grizzly), the sense of dread is created by the knowledge that a real life cannot be lived under its shadow. The sexual element recalls early Cronenberg and is just outlandish and retro enough to (probably) avoid stepping into the political hot mess of a decade where everyone is offended by everything.

The film’s 1980s aesthetic is not just a gimmick, but has the escapist effect of detaching the audience from the era of mobile phones and social media. The only handheld device in sight is used to read Dostoyevsky. Rich Vreeland’s neo-80s synth score has been a popular talking point in reviews of the film, and for good reason. It rumbles ominously at the right moments, and soars thoughtfully at others. The camera engages in old-school slow pans and zooms that create a sense of both nostalgia and voyeurism, contributing to an atmosphere of dread as well as intimacy: perhaps the two words that best describe the emotional core of the film.

The other bold move Mitchell makes is in creating a horror film that is so sentimental or, indeed, intimate. One gets the impression that the setting, a suburb of Detroit, holds a great deal of personal significance to him. The teenage friendships we see on screen, thriving on the outskirts of a city in ruins, feel genuine and carry an unspoken history with them. Scenes of, ahem, passion are ardent and steamy enough without becoming gratuitous or uncomfortable. The entire concept of the film lends itself well to creating a bond between audience and heroine (Monroe), as we are so often privy to horrors only she can see. What I enjoyed most, though, were the simple but surprising POV shots of her twiddling the stem of a flower, putting on lipstick in front of a mirror, or calmly watching an ant crawl across her arm.

© Animal Kingdom

As much as the term is overused, I think Maika Monroe is the scream queen we need. This performance, combined with her role in last year’s The Guest have proven that she is more than just a pretty face. I think she makes a far more believable young, introspective female lead than Jamie Lee Curtis’ iconic Laurie Strode (Halloween). That’s not to say she’s fascinating or edgy; to use the parlance of our times, she’s on the “basic” side of the spectrum – more Taylor Swift than Debbie Harry. She’s the young woman still clinging to childhood nostalgia but eager to start living her life and to find out what that means for her. In other words, she’s perfectly poised for some supernatural terror to write its name in that blank space of hers. One way or another, it’s gonna get her, get her, get her, get her.

It Follows is a fantastic and memorable work of horror, but it doesn’t prove anything about the genre’s merit that fans didn’t know already, because it doesn’t need to. After a long festival tour and wide releases in France, the UK and Ireland, It Follows finally finds its way stateside on March 13th.

If you like the blog, feel free to follow me,

Iota

Review: Clown

© Cross Creek Pictures

Kent (Andy Powers), a real estate agent, has a happy family life with his wife Meg (Laura Allen) and young son, Jack. Jack’s birthday party is already underway when the clown they hired calls and cancels at the last minute. What does Kent do? He digs up an old clown costume from one of his properties and jumps in to save the day. The next morning, he discovers that the suit, nose and wig have fused themselves to his skin. But that’s not all – he soon starts exhibiting violent tendencies and cravings for the flesh of human children.

Clown is the surprising feature debut of TV-movie director Jon Watts and his frequent cowriter Christopher D. Ford. I have to hand it to them for giving us something we haven’t seen before. Killer clowns themselves are nothing new, but they often appear in films of a farcical (see Killer Klowns from Outer Space or Stitches) or surrealist (see It) nature. The film strikes a serious tone and isn’t played for laughs per se, although those viewers with pitch-black sensibilities may find a few things to smirk at. Overall, it’s not as ridiculous as the promotional material or plot summaries would suggest.

Speaking of promotional material, you may have seen the posters or trailers for the film, proudly presenting it as a creation of “The Master of Horror Eli Roth”. I don’t know when this became a thing people started saying, but I can remember a time when Roth’s own film, Hostel, was billed as “Quentin Tarantino Presents”, so maybe this is just part of the circle (one might say downward spiral) of life. Roth’s involvement is, actually, a bit of a funny story. Back in 2010, Watts and Ford posted a fake trailer for a prototypical Clown on YouTube, presenting it as an admittedly plausible production of Roth’s. Well, the master himself stumbled upon the clip and admired the duo’s chutzpah so much that he agreed to produce the real thing. He even gave a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo appearance. Now, I have to admire the guy for lending his name and support to genre newcomers (see the Soskas), but let’s give credit where it’s due by remembering whose movie this is.

© Cross Creek Pictures

Watts and Ford take their interesting clown-metamorphosis idea and end up with a film that is far better than I expected it to be. Roth compares it to The Fly, but I wouldn’t go that far. The first act is fast-paced, loaded with satisfying plot points and characters who behave somewhat reasonably. The gradual transformation continues as we are exposed to the invented Nordic folklore of the “Clöyne”, complete with fake medieval illustrations – fitting, for two filmmakers who have no qualms about manufacturing their own reality. The story gets a boost from Karlsson (Peter Stormare), an expert in the mythology of this particular clown suit. Indeed, I half expected Clown to fizzle out after a busy 45 minutes and devolve into cheap sight gags, as is the case with many other carny slashers.  Not so; the movie fills its runtime with plenty of unfortunate events and some striking visuals. If anything, I could accuse it of being a bit busy.

The script and actors deftly handle the potentially explosive subject of child murder that is so indispensable to the story. These scenes are always staged and shown carefully, if not quite sensitively. Laura Allen impresses as she tests the lengths to which she will go to save her child, revealing an unexpected depth in her character. Unfortunately, she makes some of the supporting cast look even weaker by comparison.

© Cross Creek Pictures

This is the point in the review where I will admit to not really “getting” scary clowns. While I understand that the irony of fearing something that’s intended to bring joy could be widely appealing, that doesn’t quite explain the ubiquity of murderous clowns in popular culture, nor the glut of coulrophobic films since It. One can’t help but think clowns are terrible at their only job; a study from the University of Sheffield claimed that clowns were “universally disliked by children”, who find them “frightening and unknowable”. Perhaps too many people have bad memories from early childhood of painted people ruining perfectly good birthday parties or trips to McDonald’s? Adults may find the aesthetics or behaviour of clowns unsettling, but then the same could be said of other figures from children’s entertainment. Why do clowns, in particular, deserve to be the objects of such repulsion? I think this is partly a case of art imitating life imitating art… The eponymous villain will recall, of course, real-life serial killer and clown John Wayne Gacy, the two sides of his identity having grown inseparable in the public’s mind, not that I can blame them.

All in all, it’s not the kind of subgenre I tend to go for, but the film is pleasantly surprising and, really, could have been far worse. It’s also fairly light on gore, at least by contemporary standards, if that is a consideration for you. Clown premiered in Italy during November 2014 before making its way to the 2015 Glasgow FrightFest last weekend. It was released on DVD in the UK on the 2nd of March. It is set to open in Japan later this month, but so far no North American release has been announced.

Next time, just go to a costume shop.

Iota

West End Thrills: Ghost Stories

Lest you think me narrow minded for relying solely on films to get my horror kicks, I thought I would share with you a recent theatre-going experience I had in London’s West End. I’m not talking about Stephen Mallatratt’s adaptation of The Woman in Black, which I’ve also seen and whose perennial popularity I can confirm is entirely deserved. No, I’m talking about a smaller, more recent original production on at The Arts Theatre until the get-your-keister-to Leicester-Square-before-it’s-gone 15th of March: Ghost Stories.

Ghost Stories was written by Jeremy Dyson, a co-creator of BBC’s The League of Gentlemen who went on to adapt Roald Dahl’s Twisted Tales for the West End, and Andy Nyman, an actor and magician with roles in Severance and Death at a Funeral. It premiered in February 2010 at the Liverpool Playhouse, and has since terrified audiences in London and even (briefly) in Toronto. There have been whispers about the play extending its reach to the USA this year.

If you’ve heard anything at all about Ghost Stories, you’ve heard the gimmicky, almost William Castle-esque taglines: “We strongly advise those of a nervous disposition to think very seriously before attending”. The play also takes a couple of leaves out of Hitchcock’s book by forbidding (re)admittance to the theatre after curtain time and imploring patrons after curtain call to “Please, keep the secrets of Ghost Stories”. I will honour this request by attempting to reveal as little as possible about the play while still communicating why I think you should go see it.

Walking into the theatre, you feel the hum of nervous anticipation emanating from your fellow patrons. The unnerving cocktail of ambient sounds – water droplets, echoes, rumblings – cuts through banal chitchat. The theatre is “decorated” with black bin bags and yellow caution tape, which suggests that the performance to follow will be similarly frugal and minimalist. Never fear (at least, not about that); the story starts off slowly before revealing its technically impressive, expressionist set pieces, all superbly lit to maximise tension. The sound crackles, whistles, booms and screeches. Packed into tight seats, you feel trapped in an immersive environment of dread. Even your sense of smell is eventually turned against you.

Overall, Ghost Stories can best be described as an experience: a ride, almost. The quality of the acting and direction surpasses the admittedly thin script. None of the three stories is particularly groundbreaking and each relies on ready-made archetypes (and the fantastic atmosphere mentioned above) to create suspense quickly. This means you probably won’t spend the next few days thinking about the stories, and you definitely won’t be saving them for your next campfire.  Genre fans, in particular, may find this disappointing. That’s not to say that the script is flawed, merely that narrative novelty is not its raison d’être. The surprise ending I’ve been asked to protect is, well, surprising, but it’s not what you will remember about Ghost Stories. You’ll remember the sense of intimacy created both on stage and within the stalls and circle, thanks to the care and attention to detail that go into one sumptuous, satisfying, 80-minute feast.

“Thank you and sleep well.”

Iota

Review: The Pact II

© Preferred Film and TV

© Preferred Film and TV

The Pact II is this year’s sequel to Nicholas McCarthy’s well-received 2012 feature debut.  This time, the franchise’s fate has been entrusted to writers/directors Dallas Richard Hallam and Patrick Horvath, who previously brought us the 2009 zombie film Die-ner (get it?) – not that anyone noticed. It’s safe to say they were still cutting their teeth on The Pact II. It’s not a good film by any stretch, but it is just barely watchable.

The first Pact film sees a solely female family tormented, thrown about, and abducted by a supernatural presence in their recently deceased mother’s home. Or so it seemed. The sequel picks up a few weeks after the first film’s conclusion. If you haven’t seen the original, the sequel will make very little sense to you. And even if you have, you may still find yourself scratching your head. Crime scene clean-up specialist June is the latest play thing for a Judas killer who returns in spectral form, although it’s unclear for what purpose. He’s pretty good at casting shadows, manipulating doors, and creeping up behind people, but that’s about it. And why does he bother? There’s an attempt at an explanation during the twisting climax – which, I will admit, did involve some moments of tension – but the twist itself is not only forced but utterly pointless.

© Preferred Film and TV

© Preferred Film and TV

This snooze-fest of a film gets a slight energy boost from the performance of the always sharp and charismatic Patrick Fischler, who plays FBI Agent Ballard. His poorly written character is full of unresolved contradictions and forced to perform hackneyed dialogue, but Fischler somehow manages, all while bringing an oddly sinister sex appeal to the role that just works. We also see the return of Caity Lotz as Annie: a wise move, and I can’t imagine how they would have lifted the saggy second act without her. Of course, the decision was also a double edged sword, since having Annie around only highlights how weak the sequel’s heroine is in comparison.

© Preferred Film and TV

© Preferred Film and TV

The main downfall of The Pact II is that it shows a fundamental lack of understanding of what made the original film interesting. The first Pact is calm and quiet and deliberate, taking its time with careful pacing and buzzing sound design. It has a mystery worth solving, and we’re happy to wait patiently, only to be suddenly jolted into understanding. The Pact II throws all of this out the window with its clumsy cinematography and uneven tone. Flawed presentation aside, the film doesn’t even add anything worthwhile to the Barlow family narrative. Worse still, it’s bo-ring. If you loved the first one, you may feel compelled to seek out the sequel in order revisit old characters and settings, but you will almost certainly be disappointed by this well-meaning, bumbling imposter.

© Preferred Film and TV Really? How much longer?

© Preferred Film and TV
“Really? How much longer?”

Also, can I just point out that there is nothing about a pact mentioned in either film. Oh, how I long to turn the cultural clocks back to a simpler time when horror titles said what they meant and meant what they said – and weren’t afraid to say it in three, four, even five words, if necessary!

Best wishes, and don’t forget to look behind you,

Iota

The Best of FrightFest: London 2014

© 2014 Film4

I’m taking a brief detour from my top-5 countdown of horror to report on my most recent genre event, and it was a biggie. I’ve just had the immense pleasure of sitting in a cinema, along with hundreds of other fans, for five straight days, watching the premieres of dozens of brand new horror films from around the world. I’m talking, of course, about the 2014 Film4 FrightFest hosted by the Vue Cinema in Leicester Square, London. After catching the two-day festival earlier this year in Glasgow, I knew I had to make it to the massive August event. The main festival is spread out across three screens, with two additional discovery screens so that viewers can (attempt to) tailor their festival experience to their unique tastes. All told, 64 feature films were shown, of which I was able to see 25. Out of those, these are my top ten films to look out for this year

10. The Samurai (Der Samurai)
Writer/Director: Till Kleinert. Germany 2014.

© 2014 Tribeca Film

A very welcome entry into the disappointingly sparse contemporary German horror canon, The Samurai is a dark, bizarre, and captivating homoerotic fantasy-adventure. A German village is turned upside-down and sliced open when a brooding and volatile stranger comes to town, armed with a samurai sword and utter disdain for the locals’ small-minded categorisations of sex, gender, and species. Jakob is a straight-laced rookie cop who becomes entangled in the samurai’s twisted fairy tale of transformation and transcendence, and is ultimately forced to face the wolf within. The film draws from a different spirit of storytelling that’s definitely not for everyone, but that’s ultimately The Samurai’s strength. It’s really something special.

9. Late Phases
Director: Adrian Garcia Bogliano. Writer: Eric Stolze. USA 2014.

© 2014 Dark Sky Films

Another great film with lupine symbolism, Late Phases stars curmudgeonly, blind veteran Ambrose who moves into a suffocatingly bland retirement community. Some of his new neighbours come to welcome him to the community, among them an unfriendly eight-foot-tall werewolf. Surviving the first attack, Ambrose has one month to get in peak shape and prepare for the next full moon, all while finding time to unravel the mystery of his claustrophobic community and scare his neighbours by using a shovel instead of a walking stick, because that’s just the kind of guy he is. Late Phases is a unique and mature film with an endearingly cranky and unconventional hero audiences will love to root for.

8. Coherence
Writer/Director: James Ward Byrkit. USA 2013.

© 2013 Bellanova Films

© 2013 Bellanova Films

If you’ve ever worried about the exponential and infinite proliferation of alternate realities, Coherence is the film for you. Shot and lit in a style that’s both warm and intimate, it documents an awkward dinner party of sort-of friends that takes place as a comet passes by overhead. Suddenly, all of the houses on the street lose power… except one. And then it’s déjà vu all over again. Rather than give anything away, I’ll just say that Coherence is an unsettling and mysterious ride through quantum physics that gives full weight to all of the dark and terrifying philosophical problems that come along with it.

7. The Harvest
Director: John McNaughton. Writer: Stephen Lancellotti. USA 2013.

© 2013 Elephant Eye Films

A nostalgic thrill ride that will remind you of the adventures of childhood, The Harvest is a fairy tale with modern concerns and timeless themes. A newly orphaned little girl moves in with her grandparents and explores the new neighbourhood, where she meets a lonely, bedridden little boy guarded by his fire-breathing dragon of a mother. While trying to keep their friendship alive, she discovers the dark secret of why he’s never allowed out of his room, and must fight to make things right. An unlikely and imperfect fable, The Harvest is eerie and irresistibly charming, and probably the only film from the festival that you could safely watch with your mum.

6. Starry Eyes
Writers/Directors: Kevin Kolsch, Dennis Widmyer. USA 2014.

© 2014 Snowfort Pictures

Starry Eyes is a neon parable of Hollywood glory and the sacrifices one young woman is willing to make to see her name in lights. Sarah works in fast food and lives with a half-dozen other aspiring film-types in LA. She thinks she’s found her big break when she gets a callback after a particularly invasive audition. Soon the producer makes some uncomfortable requests of her, and she must decide how far she is willing to go to achieve her Hollywood dream. Sarah knew it wasn’t going to be easy to make it in show business, but she never thought it would involve so much blood. And… maggots. Starry Eyes is a twisted and uncomfortable, if slightly heavy-handed, film that’s all about character development and the seedy, soul-sucking power of Tinseltown.

5. Dead Snow 2: Red vs. Dead (Død Snø 2)
Writer/Director: Tommy Wirkola. Writers: Stig Frode Henriksen, Vegar Hoel. Norway 2014.

© 2014 Tappeluft Pictures

This is one of the rare sequels that surpasses the original. It feels like a natural follow-up made by people who loved the original and knew how to take its absurd humour to the next level. The story continues exactly where it left off in 2009, with our sinister Nazi zombies ruthlessly invading the world’s happiest country. The sleepy little Norwegian villages never saw it coming! But the movie doesn’t just rehash the original; it adds a mission, a hilarious police force, a loveable trio of American nerds who call themselves the Zombie Squad and – get this – Soviet Russian zombies. If you like pitch-black, no-holds-barred, goofy humour, then you need to see Dead Snow 2.

4. The Babadook
Writer/Director: Jennifer Kent. Australia 2014.

© 2014 Causeway Films

Something dire must be going on Down Under, because there’s been a growing and impressive output of Aussie horror in recent years. The Babadook is just one example, and it’s a damn scary one. Widow and single mum Amelia struggles to love and understand her very difficult 6 year-old son. He is convinced that the monster from the disturbing children’s book The Babadook is real, and is determined not to “let him in”. But Amelia feels she’s slipping now more than ever, and the audience can feel the darkness creeping in and taking hold of her. The Babadook is eerie and gorgeous and was a universal hit at the festival. It’s about more than just monsters. It’s about the fear of parenthood, of losing loved ones and of losing one’s sense of self.

3. The Guest
Director: Adam Wingard. Writer: Simon Barrett . USA 2014.

© HanWay Films

The Guest should be coming to a cinema near you very soon, and it does not disappoint. It’s the sharp and stunning new brainchild of the makers of You’re Next. The Peterson family has just lost a son in combat when an army buddy of his arrives at their doorstep. He charms the family with his good manners and military competence, but soon it becomes clear that the intentions behind his visit are more than just loyal and dutiful, and that he has a secret lurking beneath his steely stare. This is the kind of fun, charismatic action movie that you don’t see much anymore, with fantastic performances, visual style, and loads of wit that elevate and update it to the level of contemporary masterpiece.

2. Honeymoon
Director: Leigh Janiak. Writers: Phil Graziadei and Leigh Janiak. USA 2014.

© 2014 Fewlas Entertainment

Honeymoon is a movie that’s not afraid to keep an audience guessing to the point of excruciating discomfort, because that’s what makes the final release that much more haunting. The story follows an obnoxiously adorable pair of newlyweds on their cabin-in-the-woods honeymoon. But the clichés stop there. The intimate camerawork and careful pacing transform the typical slasher set-up into something new and unrecognisable. Something comes between the couple and starts to eat away at their relationship from the inside, but what is it? Distrust and desperation pull the newlyweds apart in ways more harmful and insidious than a masked man with an axe ever could. Don’t watch the trailer, just watch Honeymoon. And then have a good cry.

1. Housebound
Writer/Director: Gerard Johnstone. New Zealand 2014.

© 2014 Semi-Professional

Now that you’re emotionally scarred from watching Honeymoon, you can lift your spirits with Housebound, my favourite film of the festival. This fun Kiwi gothic is the perfect marriage of spooky tension and comic relief, with razor-sharp wit and wacky plot twists. Rebellious recovering addict Kylie lands herself in some legal trouble and is placed under house arrest and the supervision of her well-meaning but overbearing mother who’s convinced the house is haunted. At first Kylie laughs at her mother’s superstition, but strange occurrences soon change her mind. Or is something else going on in the house? Housebound’s biggest strength is an excellent script chockfull of goofy moments and legitimate scares that any horror fan will appreciate, anchored by the brilliant chemistry between the two female leads.

And those were my favourite films from the 2014 FrightFest in London. If you think there are any conspicuous absences, it might just be because I didn’t get the chance to see them. You can check out the full list of films on the FrightFest website. If you’re located in the UK and want to taste-test the festival atmosphere, keep an eye out for the October event with a half-dozen or so films, details to follow. As always, I love to hear your thoughts, comments, and questions, so please keep them coming!

Yours frightfully,

Iota

My top 5 horror films: #5 Ginger Snaps

Hello horror fans, I think it’s time we got to know each other a little better. This is why I’ve decided to talk about my favourite horror movies of all time. Counting down one post at a time, here is my #5 favourite horror film: Ginger Snaps, directed by John Fawcett, written by Karen Walton and starring Katharine Isabelle and Emily Perkins.

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Ginger Snaps (2000) is the first of three films, followed by Ginger Snaps 2: Unleashed (2004) and Ginger Snaps Back (also 2004). The trilogy, with its edgy wit and sarcastic bite, marks a milestone in Canadian horror cinema. The first film in particular captures the zeitgeist of ironic late-nineties youth culture perfectly, with “likes” and “whatevers” galore. It’s a film that understands young women and portrays them as complete characters while giving their issues top billing. As if that weren’t enough, it’s a near-perfect genre film that understands its place within the horror canon and deftly applies horror themes and aesthetics to its unique subject matter. You can call it a werewolf movie about puberty, or a coming-of-age film about werewolves, but to do so would be to glaze over the myriad intersections of this deceptively simple fusion film. The result reveals new insights into the parallel processes of adolescence and lycanthropy.

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Ginger and Brigitte are two nihilistic teen sisters with an unhealthily close relationship, united in their hatred of their parents, their school, and their suburban lifestyle. Their mantra is “out at sixteen or dead in the scene, but together forever”. Both girls hide beneath baggy, dark clothing and scornful sneers. They fear adulthood, more specifically womanhood, and its accompanying loss of identity, and fantasise about ensuring their individuality through death rather than growth. I think many girls and women can relate to the feeling of being pummeled with Gender from the onset of puberty. It’s a time of physical change and emotional shame, when “woman” still feels like a dirty word. Then comes the fateful night when Bridget gets her first period and is brutally attacked by a ferocious werewolf in the woods. It’s hard to tell which is more upsetting to her. The pubertal changes that follow, such as bleeding, cramps, hair growth, increased sexual appetite, etc., become practically indistinguishable from other, more lupine developments.

GingerSnaps_shot1a

Menstruation and horror are an oft-neglected match made in heaven, most likely due to the taboo (originally a Polynesian term for “unclean” women on the rag) surrounding menses. Women will even refer to awkward period moments as “horror stories”. TMI, amirite? Various beliefs found in cultures the world over proclaim menstruating women to be possessed by powerful sexual and reproductive forces, and require that they remain in isolation during this time, for the safety of others. The source of confusion is obvious; bleeding is nearly always a sign of danger… except when it happens to women every month. It’s also easy to see how declaring someone unclean for her natural biological processes serves as a form of moral subordination, even as it grants her a kind of spiritual power. Such depictions of women, like that of the wicked witch, are as old as dirt. The most obvious example of menstruation in another horror film would be Carrie (1973), in which the title character’s menarche is a traumatic moment that provokes a dark power that she has possessed since birth. This only foreshadows the even bloodier and more humiliating incident where she is doused in blood at her prom. We all know what happens next. The difference between Carrie and Ginger is that Carrie has always had telekinetic powers and the “curse of blood” is just part of the pattern of shame and oppression that culminates in utter destruction at the prom. This is a firm connection, but in Ginger’s case the relationship is explicitly causal, so much so that there is often ambiguity between the biological horrors of her female curse and the bestial horrors of her wolf curse.

ginger-snaps-werewolf1

The link between menstruation and the lunar cycle is not a huge stretch. In fact, the word “menses” comes through Latin and Greek variations of “moon”. There is even some evidence to suggest that women’s menstrual cycles correspond to the lunar cycle in cultures without artificial lighting at night. With all of that in mind, it’s almost hard to believe no one thought of making a werewolf-menstruation film before Ginger Snaps. Perhaps it’s the typical association Hollywood makes between wolves and hyper-masculinity. But we soon learn that in Ginger’s case, it’s best to “forget the Hollywood rules”. Indeed, Ginger Snaps plays counter to expectations by virtually ignoring the cyclical werewolf in favour of adopting a linear transformation similar to puberty. This more closely corresponds to Ginger and Brigitte’s real fears: the gradual and permanent transformation and loss of identity that they would rather die than endure. This is why the film changes the usual rules, and it is this well-considered twist that makes Ginger Snaps a standout genre entry, one that knows the rules but doesn’t have to obey them, just like its rebellious teen protagonists. None of that silver bullet nonsense here; these are postmodern werewolves we’re dealing with.

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You could easily go on forever about this movie and how it comments on gender, puberty, werewolves, teen (and female) sexuality, bestiality, genre, teen angst, sisterhood, and even Anglo-Canadian identity and postcolonialism. In fact, I’ve included a list of articles written by scholars who do go on forever about all of these things and more. That alone should help illustrate just how great a cult following this movie has. Its depth and complexity are hidden under a dark, furry coat of entertainment value.

Not only is it clever; it’s also very funny, and for a movie about werewolves and puberty, it can even be pretty subtle. Watch for a crane zoom into the dark entrance of a blood-splattered dog house in the opening scene. Sure, you don’t have to be Freud to figure that one out, but you do have to know what to look for. In another scene, Brigitte finally finds the coveted potential cure, monkshood, at home after her housewife mother bought it at a craft store. The cure to the curse can be bought at a craft store and then cooked by a teenage pot dealer and injected like heroin. That’s more ironic, self-deprecating humour than I know what to do with, and I’m Canadian.

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So that’s Ginger Snaps, and it’s one of my favourites. And if you like your werewolves mixed with equal parts Angela Carter and Heathers (1988), then it might just be one of your favourites as well. Stay tuned for the rest of the countdown.

And don’t forget to check out my old blog, Terrifying Treats, for a very different response to Ginger Snaps.

 

United against life as we know it,

Iota

 

Further Reading

Barker, Martin, Ernest Mathijs, and Xavier Mendik. “Menstrual Monsters: The Reception of the Ginger Snaps Cult Horror Franchise.” Film International 21 (2005): 68-83. Web.

Briefel, Aviva. “Monster Pains: Masochism, Menstruation, and Identification in the Horror Film.” Film Quarterly 58.3 (2005): 16-27. Web.

Mathijs, Ernest. John Fawcett’s Ginger Snaps. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 2013. Print. <http://www.utppublishing.com/John-Fawcett-s-Ginger-Snaps.html&gt;

Miller, April. “‘The Hair That Wasn’t There Before’: Demystifying Monstrosity and Menstruation in Ginger Snaps and Ginger Snaps Unleashed.” Western Folklore 64.3&4 (2006): 281-303. Web.

Poulin, Brock. “Reading against the Gore: Subversive Impulses in the Canadian Horror Film.” Cinephile: The University of British Columbia’s Film Journal 1 (2005): n. pag. Web.

Rothenburger, Sunnie. “‘Welcome to Civilization”: Colonialism, the Gothic, and Canada’s Self-protective Irony in the Ginger Snaps Werewolf Trilogy.” Journal of Canadian Studies 44.3 (2010): 96-204. Web.