Monday, 19 June 2017

THE BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE

Directed by Dario Argento, Starring: Tony Musante, Suzy Kendall, Eva Renzi. Horror, Italy, 1970, 98mins, Cert 15.
Released in the UK in a Limited Edition Blu-ray/DVD dual format package on 19th June 2016 by Arrow Video.

“Right, bring in the perverts!”

Dario Argento’s stylishly assured directorial debut was the catalyst for the renaissance of the giallo, and acted as a significant calling card for one of horror cinema’s most celebrated cinematic stylists.

Loosely adapted from Fredric Brown’s pulp 1949 mystery novel ‘The Screaming Mimi’ (previously adapted for the 1958 film  SCREAMING MIMI), Argento take, stalking in the footsteps of Mario Bava’s THE GIRL WHO KNEW TOO MUCH and BLOOD AND BLACK LACE, provided a revised blueprint for dozens of giallos which followed in its wake.
Sam Dalmas (Tony Musante), an American writer on an extended stay in Rome to overcome his writers’ block, witnesses an assault on a woman in a modern art gallery for which he is powerless to intervene as he gets trapped between the gallery’s sliding glass doors. Haunted by a nagging feeling that there was more to the incident than it appeared, he becomes obsessed with the case and pursues his own investigation in parallel with the police who are desperately trying to identify a serial killer terrorising Rome with a string of brutal murders. In doing so, Sam brings himself to the attention of the killer, and soon it is Sam, and his girlfriend Giulia (Suzy Kendall) who are being stalked.

Argento sets out his intentions right from the off by focusing down on an unseen black leather-gloved killer fetishizing over a selection of polished knives before covertly photographing the next would-be victim. He then proceeds to foreshadow the iconic gallery set-piece by introducing our protagonist Sam by tracking him down a corridor of glass display cases filled with stuffed birds (whilst a predatory cat looks on). 

There’s much joy to be had in spotting the incidental details, visual puns and coded clues in the film. The ironic fact that Sam’s case of writer’s block has resulted in him having to write a ‘manual on the preservation of rare birds’, and the striking prehistoric-like bird claw sculpture in the gallery are all winks and nods to the film’s title and hint at the killer’s denouement. 

Many of Argento’s traits and recurring themes are already present in his debut feature. The theme of voyeurism is to the forefront as Sam is trapped between the glass panes he is forced to spectate on the gallery assault as are we the viewers, all within a glass frame that resembles the ratio of a ‘scope cinema screen. The misperception of what has been seen, and how the eye can be tricked (at least initially) is also a recurrent trope in subsequent works. Despite being an animal lover, cats often don’t fare too well in Argento’s films - here they are captured, caged, fattened and cooked!  And then there’s the influence of art itself, a painting depicting a past trauma acting as a psychological trigger, and the physical threat of sharp pieces of sculpture.

What’s probably not recognised so much is the amount of humour, albeit mostly of the non-politically correct variety, in the film. There’s intentional light relief in the form of endearing Gildo Di Marco’s stuttering pimp “so long” Garullo, the grumpy reclusive cat-hating artist, and the twitchy informer who wouldn’t seem out of place in a Pink Panther film or a ‘Fast Show’ sketch. There are also the more embarrassing character depictions, notably with the gay antique shop owner (whose overtures towards Sam make Lieutenant Gruber's interactions with cafe owner René in BBC comedy ‘ALLO ‘ALLO! positively subtle in comparison.) And then there’s the classic suspect line-up scene, which not only features the headline quote “Right, bring in the perverts!”, but then manages to top that with Inspector Morosini’s exasperated reaction to one of the attendees in the line-up: “How many times do I have to tell you, Ursula Andress belongs with the transvestites, not the perverts!” To be fair to Argento, sexuality and gender are subjects he does not shy away from, and are tackled with greater significance in his later works, so I’m inclined to award him a ‘get out of jail free’ card this time. 

Interestingly, he doesn’t subscribe to the traditional macho male hero image, despite Sam’s outward appearance. He’s rendered impotent to intercede in the gallery assault, his writing has faltered, there’s a hint that he may have had a drink problem, escapes assignation himself by sheer luck on more than one occasion, seems unreasonably blasé about how his meddling might draw the killer’s attentions onto his girlfriend, and is clearly bested by the killer. (And what’s with the ticking metronome behind the bed, is Argento suggesting he is a repetitive and uninventive lover?)

Accusations of misogyny are frequently hurled at Argento, to which it must be said he hasn’t always countered convincingly, but it’s only fair to note that the detectives (all male), for all their fancy (1970’s style) computer equipment and scientific analysis, fall hopelessly short in indentifying even the most fundamental fact about the killer.

The murder set-pieces, orchestrated and perpetrated by the hands of Argento himself, are less explicit and more restrained in terms of onscreen depiction than Argento would become renowned for in subsequent outings, yet one sequence involving ‘sexualised violence’ was still sufficiently problematic for the UK censor back in the day and resulted in 18 seconds of cuts (now fully restored of course, and tellingly, the rating has reduced from ‘18’ down to ’15).

The influence of THE BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE cannot be underestimated both in Italy with the renewed interest in giallo filmmaking, but also across the pond, where it, and subsequent entries such as Bava’s BAY OF BLOOD paved the way and provided the  blueprints for the next incarnation of murderous mayhem: the US slasher film. With Arrow’s brand new vibrant 4k restoration from the camera negative, it’s quite simply essential viewing.

As you’d expect, there’s a positive cornucopia of brand spanking new extras on this special release, including a new audio commentary by Troy Howarth, new visual essays and critical analysis, a brand new interview with Dario Argento, and a new interview with actor Gildo Di Marco (Garullo the pimp). And to top it all there’s also a limited edition 60-page booklet.

**** (out of 5*)
Paul Worts

This review was originally published on the FRIGHTFEST website.  

Saturday, 17 June 2017

NAILS (2017)

Directed by Dennis Bartok, Starring: Shauna Macdonald, Ross Noble, Steve Wall. Horror, Ireland, 2017, 85mins, Cert 15.
Released in cinemas on 16th June 2017 by Kaleidoscope Entertainment.

Super-fit track coach Dana Milgrom’s early morning jog is rudely interrupted by a near fatal run-in with a car which leaves her almost completely paralysed. Trapped inside her own body, with her speech severely affected, Dana communicates through a voice synthesised computer keyboard. Staring at the prospect of a lengthy recovery process in a (very) rundown rehabilitation hospital, Dana’s physical vulnerabilities are about to be heightened by a supernatural inhabitant of the hospital. A shadowy figure with long, sharp, finger nails...

Despite a strong committed performance by Shauna (THE DESCENT) Macdonald as the recovering patient trapped by her injuries, the initially promising basic premise never develops into anything more resonant than a couple of jump-scares and some truly clunky dialogue and exposition. Ross Noble is largely wasted as the sympathetic and seemingly only full-time employed nurse in the hospital. Not since HALLOWEEN II (1981) has there been such an under-staffed and under-lit hospital setting. (Frankly, given its sparse resources, I was surprised there was even Wi-Fi available for Dana to conduct the obligatory historical-news-clipping-revelation on her MacBook!)   

Narrated by the resident shrink ‘Dr Stengel’ with such a deadened one note delivery you wonder whether he’d previously performed a self-lobotomy, the back-story to ‘Nails’ reads better than it sounds or translates on screen. (It’s creepy, albeit highly implausible – hence why it may work better on the printed page).

‘Nails’ himself appears to have Freddy Krueger-like dream aspirations - albeit preferring to skip manicures instead of threat-enhancing finger knives. Sadly, without recourse to witty pun-laden one-liners, he is somewhat limited to dramatically opening supply cupboard doors, scraping Shauna MacDonald’s paralysed bedsore legs, and scratching out an ominous message on her bare tummy.

The introduction of surveillance cameras half-way through the film seemed at first to suggest a visual detour into PARANORMAL ACTIVITY territory, (the film’s working title was ‘P.O.V’) but it’s not tellingly utilised apart from a clumsy means to emphasise a marital sub-plot which doesn’t need highlighting.

NAILS had potential, but for me it rather disappointingly failed to scratch more than the surface of its terror intentions, and despite a surprisingly bleak finale, remained largely bedbound. 
**(out of 5*)

Paul Worts

This review was originally published on the FRIGHTFEST website.

Tuesday, 11 April 2017

SWISS ARMY MAN

Directed by Daniel Scheinert and Daniel Kwan, Starring: Paul Dano and Daniel Radcliffe. Arty(Farty) Comedy Drama, US, 2016, 94mins, Cert 15.

Released in the UK on DVD & Blu-ray on 10th April 2017 by Lionsgate UK.

Imagine an art-house reworking of WEEKEND AT BERNIE’S and CAST AWAY with Daniel Radcliffe as a perpetually flatulent drowned corpse who washes up ashore a deserted island. Well, almost deserted, apart from a bearded young man, Hank (Paul Dano), a stranded castaway who's just about to hang himself when he spies ‘Manny’ lying on the beach. Hank’s initial hope of living company soon turns to despair when he realises Manny is dead, but Manny is destined to become Hank’s ‘Wilson’ like Tom Hank’s volleyball in CAST AWAY.  And he’s also about to be Hank’s ticket off the island when Hank harnesses Manny’s propellant fart power to ride him like a jet ski back to the mainland.  

Bodily functions play a crucial role in directors’ Scheinert and Kwan’s (the ‘Daniels’) surreal and charmingly quirky meditation on the human condition. Audaciously skipping across a tight rope of puerile crudity and gross-out outrageousness, it also finds time to juggle in affecting moments of pathos and regret, and a re-evaluation of the restorative power of Cheesy Puffs.

Radcliffe undertakes as much of the physical dead corpse work as he can, including selling practical effects such as spewing geysers of digestive seawater, whilst inevitably having to concede certain tasks to stunt dummies, stunt bottoms (and animatronic penis).

Paul Dano carries the film (and often Radcliffe’s corpse) as the desperate and disillusioned Hank, who finds himself increasingly confiding in his deceased confidant. The two characters ‘exchanges’ on the intricacies of the body’s biological functions induce full-on guffaws, whilst scattering wry observations on modern life and unrequited love in equal measure.

The sound department excel themselves in providing an impressive arsenal of variant fart effects which renders the camp fire sequence in BLAZING SADDLES positively constipated in comparison. The uplifting vocal scoring elevates and soars to accompany Hank’s trials and tribulations. The detailed intricacies of the set designs (such as the simulated ‘bus ride’ sequence) consistently provide intriguing possibilities for the players to work with. And there’s also a refreshing commitment to practical effects over CG work, wherever possible, so whilst you won’t quite believe a man can fly by intestinal gastric expulsion, you have to at least admire the audacity of the gag.  

I know this is a film which divides. I’ll wager you’ll know by the time the title credits flash up to accompany Hank’s butt-ski dash across the waves whether this is a film you’ll happily let float your boat, or one which you’ll happily tell the filmmakers exactly where they can shove it. I for one loved its unabashed unapologetic lack of self-restraint coupled with its joyously tainted sentimental optimism about acceptance. And it had the best use of the theme from ‘Jurassic Park’ ever.

Extras: Deleted Scenes, Q&A with the filmmakers, Behind the Scenes Featurettes and Audio Commentary. 
****(out of 5*)
Paul Worts

This review was originally published on the FRIGHTFEST website.

Saturday, 8 April 2017

THE GREASY STRANGLER

Directed by Jim Hosking, Starring: Michael St. Michaels, Sky Elobar, Elizabeth De Razzo. Comedy, Horror US, 2016, 93mins, Cert 18.

Grease is the word...

Jim Hosking’s directorial feature debut comes across like a congealed platter of early John Waters and Troma films, and is disgustingly enjoyable in its (albeit) calculated bizarre grossness.
‘Big Brayden’ (Sky Elobar), a taller version of Matt Lucas’ character ‘Andy’ from LITTLE BRITAIN, resides uneasily with his grease obsessed father ‘Big Ronnie’ (Michael St. Michael), a cross between Klaus Kinski and the titular creature from Stan Winston’s PUMPKINHEAD. Big Ronnie - apt considering his humongously grotesque (prosthetic) penis - runs tours of L.A’.s disco scene with his son by day, and just maybe the greasy strangler by night (hint: this isn’t really a mystery). Their dysfunctional grease encrusted existence is shaken to its core by the arrival of “Hootie tootie disco cutie” Janet (Elizabeth de Razzo) who overlooks Brayden’s remarkably small penis and lack of stomach definition “Not all girls like ripped up abs”, and begins to fall in love with Brayden. That is until dad works his disco moves and greasy globules of lubricant on Janet.
This intentionally bad taste mix of copious full-on genitalia, cartoon-like splatter gags, and repetitive expletive infected dialogue doesn’t register anywhere near the shock value it once might’ve had in these desensitised times. I actually found myself chuckling more at the drawn out patience-testing scenes of banality such as the verbal sparring between Big Ronnie and his tour party insisting on free drinks, the latter’s discussion as to the contents of a packet of crisps, and a hot dog vendors’ insistence on not being able to sell his dogs covered in grease.  
Of course the repetitive singularity nature of these character lives are what director Hosking is conveying here, even the supposedly illicit serial killing thrills of the greasy strangler are reduced to a replicated pattern whereby he ends up each night in the local car wash purging off the grease before exchanging inane pleasantries (whilst still nude) with the blind gas station owner.
Accompanying the intentional one-note performances which nail the films sensibility with toe-curling precision is Andrew Hung’s plink-plonk electronic soundtrack, a hybrid of 80’s video gaming bleeps and what sounds like Alvin and the Chipmunks underwater.
Overall less eye-popping then it perhaps aimed to be, this is still a noteworthy calling-card for Brit Jim Hosking, and it will be interesting to see what he serves up next as to whether he is a “Bullshit artist!” or one to watch. Judging by THE GREASY STRANGLER, I’d say (for now at least) the latter.  
**** (out of 5*)

Paul Worts

Wednesday, 8 March 2017

OUIJA: ORIGIN OF EVIL (2016)

Directed by Mike Flanagan, Starring: Elizabeth Reaser, Annalise Basso, Lulu Wilson. Horror, US, 2016, 95mins, Cert 15.
Released in the UK on digital download on 13th February 2017, and Blu-ray, DVD and on demand on February 27th 2017 by Universal Pictures Home Entertainment.

(Alice) “The basement...Lina: wait outside.”
(Lina) “No. No way, no, that’s my sister. This is my house, and I’m going with you...Besides, splitting up sounds like the stupidest idea in the world.”   

Taking over the reins from Stiles White, director/co-writer Mike Flanagan delivers a retro-tinted character-driven prequel to the 2014 box-office hit OUIJA. We rewind back to a 1967 suburban neighbourhood in Los Angeles. Widowed mother Alice Zander (Elizabeth Reaser), together with teen daughter Lina (Annalise Basso) and younger daughter Doris (Lulu Wilson), run a home based séance scam business. The act is getting stale until Alice purchases a Ouija board as a prop to enhance their deception. The board game comes with three rules:
1. Never play alone.
2. Never play in a graveyard.
3. Always say goodbye.

Unfortunately, Alice’s blasé attitude as a spiritual charlatan leads to fatal complacency and she promptly breaks rule 1 and 3 (and unknowingly, rule 2 in the bargain). You see the Zander’s seemingly quiet suburban house harbours a dark gruesome secret buried behind its walls, and an evil entity which doesn’t need a second invitation once the Ouija board is opened to find a human host to give it a voice.

The problem with prequels is no matter how radical a tangent you set out your stall, you’re duty bound to eventually converge plot points in order to join up with the original narrative. No more so is this evident than in ORIGIN OF EVIL. That’s not to say director Flanagan doesn’t lead us on a merrily entertaining and determinedly nostalgic visual dance beforehand - at least until the final reel that is. 

Although shot digitally, Flanagan works hard to achieve (with some degree of success) a 70’s/early 80’s vibe. Utilising the classic Universal Studios logo and a retro-styled title card for starters, we are also treated to reel change cigarette burns, and DP Michael Fimognari’s camera zestily zooming in and out with an antique set of lenses which infuse candle light and sunset with a warm hazy palette mostly absent from current genre offerings.

There is also further warmth generated by a trio of fine performances from the three female leads. Lulu Wilson in particular is a revelation as little Doris, who undergoes a startling character transformation courtesy of Doug Jones’ demonic ghoul with chilling effect. 

Director Flanagan admirably holds out for close on 40 minutes before unleashing his first big sting jump scare sound effect – a notable achievement given today’s multiplex template - instead wisely opting for ambient sound design and judicious scoring to achieve sustainable unease. Of course given the PG-13 brief of the franchise, he is somewhat hampered as to how far to push the scares and physical threat when necessity dictates in the final reel. And it’s here where the film stumbles when the inevitable haunted house/possession clichés are rolled out stage left, right, along the walls and up on the ceiling. Think a mishmash of elements from POLTERGEIST and THE EXORCIST filtered through a PG-13 gauze, with ET’s Henry Thomas wearing the white collar of the heroic priest. (And yes that is an intentional nod to THE EXORCIST’s iconic poster image when he pauses outside the Zander house).

If you’ve seen OUIJA (2014) you’ll already know the respective fates of the three Zander women. (I watched the original on Netflix by way of prior homework the night before). There are still some loose ends which don’t quite tie-up when you review the events of the first film, and the final jump scare before the credit roll rings hollow (even if it just might be a homage to THE EXORCIST III). Oh yes, and if you reading the end-credits and begin wondering where was Lin Shaye, she turns up in a very brief post-credit coda which does link up nicely with the first instalment and proves just what a good sport she is.

Extras: Deleted scenes, x3 making of featurettes, director commentary.
***(out of 5*)


Paul Worts

Wednesday, 4 January 2017

LIGHTS OUT (2016)

Directed by David F. Sandberg, Starring: Teresa Palmer, Gabriel Bateman, Maria Bello. Horror, US, 2016, 78mins, Cert 15.
Released in the UK on Blu-ray, DVD and digital download on 12th December 2016 by Warner Bros. Home Entertainment.

“Ghosts aren’t real”- “Then what is she?”

When the lights are on, there’s nobody home...
David F. Sandberg’s 2013 short film competition entry went (deservedly) viral on YouTube. Within its 2 ½ minute running time it succinctly encapsulated and distilled the very essence of being afraid of the dark. A supernatural silhouette appears at the end of a hallway every time the occupant switches off the hallway light. There’s two punchily effective jump scares and it’s over: job (well) done.

Having been invited by producer James (all things that go bump in the night) Wan to direct an expanded feature based on his short, Sandberg delivers a visually slick piece of lightweight multiplex spookery, but fails to conjure up anything more than run of the mill chills from a script that combines THE BABADOOK with DARKNESS FALLS with incrementally diminishing returns.

In this unsuccessful endeavour Sandberg is hampered by a script which on the one hand seems obliged to crank out expositional ingredients by the numbers yet never satisfactorily explains away how the entity, known as ‘Diana’, haunts the shadowy recesses of creaking cupboards and under lit interiors.

Teresa Palmer (Rebecca) older sister of Martin (Gabriel Bateman) generate some sympathy when they’re lured into a trap in the basement with only a UV glow stick and a torch to defend themselves. Maria Bello as their manically depressed and under-medicated mother spends most of the running time either unconscious or oblivious to the harm she’s exposing her (remaining) family to by entertaining her ‘friend’.
Despite it’s relatively short running time, you do get a decent ration of scare set-ups for your buck - rarely do you have to wait more than a couple of minutes for the next ‘BOO!’ moment – even if they’re only occasionally effective (the use of a flashing neon sign outside Rebecca’s apartment being a rare moment of inspiration).

But ultimately the more contrived instances of lights out in LIGHTS OUT, the less the scares register, and the fade out to credits is decidedly underwhelming. Watching the deleted scenes on the disc, there’s an alternate coda sequence which concludes proceedings far more satisfactorily – and I can only assume it was dropped in order to implausibly green-light LIGHTS OUT 2 (although where the filmmakers go from here is something I can’t shine any illumination on).
   
Extras: Deleted scenes.
**(out of 5*)

Paul Worts

Sunday, 20 November 2016

NOW YOU SEE ME 2

Directed by John M. Chu, Starring: Jesse Eisenberg, Mark Ruffalo, Woody Harrelson, Dave Franco, Daniel Radcliffe, Lizy Caplan, Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman. Action, Adventure, Comedy, 2016, 123mins, Cert 12.
Released in the UK to download from 28th October 2016 and on Blu-ray, DVD on 7th November 2016 by Entertainment One.

A year after winning worldwide acclaim and admiration for pulling off a spectacular populist heist, the four illusionists known as The Four Horseman are tempted back out into the limelight to expose a dodgy tech magnate. Having the tables turned upon themselves in the process, they find themselves blackmailed into performing an abracadabra snatch and grab of a highly prized microchip with the FBI in hot pursuit.

I hadn’t seen the original NOW YOU SEE ME – but it doesn’t take long to get up to speed thanks to some nippy exposition (and a quick supplementary peek at IMDb.) Feisty brash Lizzy Caplan (Lula) has replaced Isla Fisher (Henley) as the female ‘Horseman’, whilst hypnotist Woody Harreslon (doubling this time as his goofy brother), card-shuffler Dave Franco and rain-controlling (not really, it’s just an illusion) Jesse Eisenberg continue to work what magic they can pull out of the hat with surprisingly unlikeable and paper-thin characters. The joker in the pack this time is manic Daniel Radcliffe, more annoying than Jesse Eisenberg (now that’s some trick to pull off), as Michael Caine’s villainous ‘mini-me’-like son. The script does allow Radcliffe a couple of self-referential Harry Potter digs about how he once dabbled in magic at school (snigger snigger) – presumably the raison d'être for his involvement. Caine looks bleary-eyed and unengaged as the billionaire who previously had his fortune nicked by The Four Horseman, whilst Morgan Freeman seems to breeze through a largely nonsensical character arc with a (no doubt) large pay check induced grin. Mark Ruffalo’s FBI agent by day (leader of The Four Horseman by night), gets sealed in a replica safe his escapologist father supposedly failed to break out of underwater in an opening flashback. (If I were a betting man I’d wager dad will turn out to be very much alive in part 3).

Director Chu directs this giddily ridiculous OCEAN’S ELEVEN (with magicians) heist sequel with an assured visual aplomb. Logic is tossed to the wind like a playing card, and the actual ‘illusions’ are obviously reliant on the sleight-of-hand of CGI artists rather than any genuine illusionist skill. The London-based New Year’s Eve finale proves to be an especially unconvincing overblown set-piece, hampered further by the fact the scriptwriters seem to think the whole world runs on Greenwich Mean Time!

But it’s a breathless, slick and glossy piece of multiplex fodder, and director Chu is wise enough to not give the audience any real down-time to figure out the audacity of the cheap tricks and logic cheats constantly being pulled on them. Will I watch the seemingly inevitable NOW YOU SEE ME 3 - well, we’ll just have to wait and see. But to be fair - and to paraphrase that venerable stage magician Paul Daniels: I liked NOW YOU SEE ME 2, not a lot, but I liked it.

Extras: Audio Commentary with Director John M. Chu, making of feature.
***(out of 5*)

Paul Worts

Tuesday, 15 November 2016

VIRAL

Directed by Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman, Starring: Sofia Black D’Elia, Analeigh Tipton, Michael Kelly, Travis Tope, Machine Gun Kelly. Horror. US, 2016, 82mins, Cert 15.
On EST from 10th October and on DVD from 17th October 2016 from Lionsgate Home Entertainment.

A global parasitic virus is turning victims into blind blood spewing zombie hosts for squiggly worms. Cut off from their parents, teen sisters Emma and Stacey’s relationship is tested to breaking point when the ‘Worm Flu’ inevitably begins to take a stranglehold on their isolated desert community.

Under the auspices  of the seemingly unstoppable Blumhouse Productions juggernaut, directors Joost and Schulman (PARANORMAL ACTIVITY 3 & 4) deliver a well-worn (or ‘worm’) premise which, whilst adding nothing new to the global infection plague scenario, at least provides some half-likeable teen characters for once. The end result is that even when the sisters make the inevitably irrational kind of decisions that horror so often relies on (e.g. attending a house party despite a military enforced home curfew) you still half-care about whether the Worm Flu will eventually be spat all over them.

Younger Emma (Sofia Black D’Elia) is sympathetic as the more bookish slightly reserved sister to Analeigh Tipton’s older, snarkier Stacey. Nice guy next door Evan (Travis Tope) is well, nice, as Emma’s secret crush until big sis gives loves young dream a less-than subtle nudge to start the ball rolling.
There’s not a lot of actual zombie mayhem on display here as the story is largely (and wisely) confined to the immediate neighbourhood and the intimacy of the sister’s plight. The worm effects are modest, nothing we haven’t seen before, but nicely handled and there’s a pleasingly icky sequence involving an improvised amateur worm removal from a bulbous neck wound.

VIRAL is hardly a game-changer in the zombie-virus-pandemic field, but its redeemably likeable teen characters for once don’t get too under your skin (unlike those Worm Flu worms that is). 
***(out of 5*)

Paul Worts

Originally published on the FRIGHTFEST website.

Saturday, 15 October 2016

HOLIDAYS (2016)

Directed by Kevin Kolsch, Dennis Widmeyer, Gary Shore, Nicholas McCarthy, Ellen Reid, Sarah Adina Smith, Anthony Scott Burns, Kevin Smith, Scott Stewart, Adam Egypt Mortimer  Starring: Seth Green, Ruth Bradley, Madeleine Coghlan. Horror. US, 2015, 100mins. Cert 18
On DVD from Monday 10th October 2016 from Kaleidoscope Home Entertainment.

“Holidays are hell”.

A slickly produced portmanteau of eight short tales each set on or around a holiday or significant calendar date.
The anthology film has seen a revival in recent years with the likes of TALES OF HALLOWEEN, SOUTHBOUND and the V/H/S series picking up the baton from Michael Dougherty’s superb TRICK R TREAT (2007) - which in turn took up the tradition from CREEPSHOW. Tracing back further still, we had the Amicus delights of FROM BEYOND THE GRAVE (1974) and DR. TERROR’S HOUSE OF HORRORS (1965) for example, and stretching right back: Ealing Studios classic DEAD OF NIGHT (1945).

HOLIDAYS isn’t in the same league as most of the above, for one it lacks any sort of wraparound like Mervyn John’s delightfully dreadful recurring nightmare nor can it boast an iconic host like Peter Cushing’s tarot reading  ‘Doctor Schreck’, or antiques dealer “Naughty, shouldn’t of done that”. But with eight tales crammed into its modest 93min pre-credits running time, if the current story doesn’t grab you take you can take comfort in the fact only have to wait around 11mins for the next one to unfurl. Having said that there are some treats as well as soft-centred mediocre misses in this Pick n’ Mix collection.

The opening tale set around Valentine’s Day is a fairly pedestrian CARRIE referencing take on high school bullying where put upon Maxine (Madeleine Coghlan) ‘maxi-pad’ is literally pushed too far and her crush on the swimming coach has heart-felt but fatal repercussions.

Director Gary Shore (DRACULA UNTOLD – but we won’t hold that against him) delivers a tongue in cheek Ken Russell LAIR OF THE WHITE WORM-like segment for St. Patrick’s Day. Shore gets great visual mileage out of taking the allegory of Patrick driving ‘snakes’ out of Ireland literally. Ruth Bradley (GRABBERS) is a primary school teacher desperate to have a child. When her ‘deepest wish’ seems to have comes true, her initial joy is somewhat tempered by her gynaecologist delivering the news by asking: “Have you ever seen the Hollywood movie ‘Rosemary’s Baby”? “If you replace ‘Baby’ with reptile...that’s what you have”.
If you’ve ever wondered what you’d get if you fused the image of the Easter Bunny with that of the post-crucifixion Christ, look no further than Nicholas (THE PACT) McCarthy’s disturbingly memorable mash-up.  

Mother’s Day is served somewhat unsatisfactorily by an underwhelming story of a young woman who constantly finds herself pregnant, despite her insistence that her boyfriend wears 2, sometimes 3 condoms! Prescribing an unorthodox approach, her doctor suggests a desert commune of earth mothers.

Next up is a memorably flawed segment for Father’s Day, involving an ominous planetary alignment, and a perplexed daughter receiving a tape recording from her long-thought dead father. Unfortunately, despite daddy’s message promising: “this will all make sense at the end”, it doesn’t.

Kevin Smith gets what you’d consider the plum gig with Halloween, but instead directs a lazy uninspired revenge tale of 3 web-cam girls who turn the tables on their nasty pimp employer in graphic fashion.

Seth Green stars in the Christmas tale which seems set to riff on JINGLE ALL THE WAY but rapildy steers off into darker waters when a dad seemingly misses out on acquiring the must-have Xmas toy for his son (a VR headset names UVU, which ominously promises to ‘shows you YOU’) Loved the sign inside the closed toy-shop’s door: ‘Children left unattended will be sold to the circus’.

The final calendar date sees in the New Year with a bloodbath when an online dating search leads to a serial killer biting off more than they can chew as Auld Lang Syne rings out from Times Square on the TV.

HOLIDAYS is a reasonably diverting assemblance of folklore riffs and twisted seasonal clichés, but I’d stop short of saying it’s truly worth decking the halls with boughs of holly for. 
***(out of 5*)

Paul Worts

Originally published on the FRIGHTFEST website.

Thursday, 13 October 2016

CREATURE DESIGNERS: THE FRANKENSTEIN COMPLEX


Directed by Gilles Penso / Alexandre Poncet, Starring: Steve Johnson, Rick Baker, Guillermo del Toro, Joe Dante, John Landis, Phil Tippett. Documentary 2016, 102mins, Cert 12.
Released in the UK on DVD on 3rd October 2016 by Studiocanal.


"It's kind of godlike to create something that never existed before." (Steve Johnson).

"The happiest I can be is when the monster walks into a set and I feel for a moment my life is complete." (Guillermo Del Toro).

About an hour into this interview-heavy documentary chronicling the evolution of creature effects designers throughout motion picture history, the celebratory mood darkens and becomes a more sombre reflective memoriam tinged with bitter sadness.

Up to this point a joyously spinning carousel of practical creature designers and film-makers line-up to expound on the joy and unmistakable pride (deservedly so) they have for their work bringing monsters to life with their bare hands (often aided by tons of latex and wires).
The practical pioneers are all name-checked with suitable reverence, from Lon Chaney Snr’s ability to transform and contort his face into such memorable roles as THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (1925) to Jack Pierce’s iconic Universal creations turning Boris Karloff into FRANKENSTEIN (1931) and Lon Chaney’s son into the hair-raising WOLFMAN (1941). From facial make-up to stop motion animation originator Willis O’Brien (KING KONG, 1933) to his onetime apprentice the legendary Ray Harryhausen; about whom Guillermo Del Toro pays the ultimate compliment by declaring: “he created actors not monsters”. 


Alec Gillis describes Dick Smith as "The grandfather of the modern era of make-up effects” most notably for his groundbreaking work on THE EXORCIST (1973). Dick Smith in turn inspired a generation of artists, the Fangoria pin-ups or ‘rock stars’ of 80’s special make-up effects such as Rick Baker (AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON), Chris Walas (GREMLINS, THE FLY) - both interviewed here - and Rob Bottin (THE HOWLING, THE THING) who sadly appears to have retreated into solitude since his unsurpassable work on films such as John Carpenter’s classic creature-feature. 


Why? Well, it all seems to be traceable back to James Cameron’s deep sea alien encounter THE ABYSS. A single CGI effect within the film had such an impact on audiences and commentators alike that Steve Johnson’s substantial bioluminescent underwater creature effects were completely overlooked: “Everybody in the special effects team got an Oscar except for me because of that goddamn water tentacle!” 


Then Cameron followed this up with TERMINATOR 2 which was, according to Stan Winston’s son Matt, “the seminal film that launched CGI”, despite the fact that “the majority of the shots in that film were handled with practical effects”. And so here’s where the documentary begins to shift in tone. Although the film doesn’t set out to portray CGI as the bad-guy per se, it’s nigh on impossible for someone like me who grew up in the golden era of practical effects not to feel an overwhelming sense of loss. And this is borne out by the way the digital age affected artists such as stop-motion designer Phil Tippett: “my whole world just kind of disappeared" when computers were allowed to largely stomp all over his work on JURASSIC PARK, an experience which left him both physically and "emotionally devastated." (Thankfully Phil rallied and his animation skills adapted to the new technology). Then there was Rick Baker’s creature work on MEN IN BLACK being unceremoniously rejected in favour of pixels, and a general loss of respect seemed to seep into the film-making business for these practical pioneers of their craft.


Then we come onto the CGI saturated present day where, as Del Toro comments: “if everything's possible, nothing's impressive: and we're there right now". Joe Dante quotes Rick Baker who, whilst viewing an UNDERWORLD sequel whispered: “just because you can have 100 werewolves running across the ceiling doesn't mean you should”. In defence of CGI, director John Landis counters this by suggesting that those who say “old-school make-up is better: Bullshit. What I do see is an over reliance on post."


If, like me, you prefer the rubber shark in JAWS and the hand-puppet of ‘Yoda’ then you’ll find yourself wistfully saddened by the way the film industry so rapidly and ruthlessly turned away from those truly hands-on artists whose craftsmanship and creativity gave life to so many beautifully creatures for our pleasure and terror. But at least there’s documentaries like CREATURE DESIGNERS to chronicle their unforgettable achievements upon which our beloved genre is grounded.


Extras: Soundtrack, designing the opening credits, a conversation with John Landis & Joe Dante, a conversation with Steve Johnson & John Vulich, stills gallery, Guillermo del Toro master class.
****(out of 5*) Paul Worts
This review is dedicated to the memory of John Vulich.







This review was originally published on the FRIGHTFEST website.