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.

Saturday, 8 October 2016

THE LAST KING



Directed by Niles Gaup, Starring: Kristofer Hivju, Jakob Oftebro. Action, Historical Drama. Norway, 2016, 96mins, Cert 15.
 Released in the UK on DVD and for download on 3rd October 2016 by Studiocanal.
 
“An innocent boy today, our mightiest foe tomorrow”.

Norway: 1204. The throne is held by the Birkebeinerne king. However all is not well in the kingdom, and the rival Baglers, with the support of Denmark, are launching an attack upon the Birkebeinernes and hatching a plot to kill the king. Therefore, the king’s rightful heir - a baby born in secrecy out of wedlock - must be protected at all costs otherwise the royal bloodline will be severed and the Baglers will take the throne. 

Norwegian director Nile Gaup’s returns to the realm of historical drama he first mined to great acclaim with PATHFINDER (1987) (a film set around the year 1000AD). This time around he’s fast-forwarded 200 years to deliver a rollicking GAME OF THRONES like tale (minus the dragons) in which winter isn’t just coming, it’s already here. 

Against a sweeping widescreen snow covered landscape, the machinations of Norwegian civil war play out with neither women nor children safe from the marauding Baglers as they ruthlessly hunt down the king’s illegitimate son. Fleeing on skis, warrior Torstein (Kristofer Hivju (GAME OF THRONES, THE THING 2011) and his magnificent ginger beard, together with family man Skjervald (Jakob Oftebro) and his perfectly respectable but more modest beard, are forced to protect the infant across treacherous icy terrain.
The narrative toboggans along at a cracking pace, with the constant pursuit of the Baglers never more than an arrow or a bludgeoning axe away. 

Both Hivju and Oftebro are excellent in their respective roles, and you find yourself genuinely rooting for the two frosty musketeers and their little innocent infant upon whom the future of Norway relies. You’ve gotta love Hivju’s hard-as-nails-heart-of-gold Torstein, lying on a bed of straw waiting to have his chest cut open to remove an embedded arrow head, growls at his impromptu farmer surgeon: “If I die...I’m going to kill you”.

Battle are swift, brutal, occasionally bloody, and efficiently staged using a modest numbers of stuntmen and extras as (presumably) the budget allowed rather than Hollywood level legions of CGI regiments which wouldn’t deliver the gritty bone-crunching intimacy conveyed here. 

There’s a quote during the film’s end credits from an Icelandic writer named Halldor Laxness which reads: “The difference between a novelist and a historian is this: the former tells lies deliberately and for the fun of it; the historian tells lies and imagines he is telling the truth”. I cannot vouch for the historical accuracy of THE LAST KING, but I can however testify to its engaging thrusting Nordic storytelling. And any film where a man appears to be playing music by plucking his beard like a hirsute harp and a princess is played by an actress named Thea Sofie Loch Næss gets two thumbs-up from me.

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

Wednesday, 14 September 2016

THE CHAMBER (2016)

Director: Ben Parker. Cast: Charlotte Salt, Johannes Kuhnke, Christian Hillborg, Elliot Levey, James McArdle. UK 2016. 88 mins.

Director: Ben Parker. Cast: Charlotte Salt, Johannes Kuhnke, Christian Hillborg, Elliot Levey, James McArdle. UK 2016. 88 mins.

A special ops unit commandeer a research vessel and an aging (two-man) submersible craft, The Aurora. The three-person unit, led by ‘Red’ (a very impressive Charlotte Salt),   instruct the Aurora’s reluctant pilot Mats (Johannes Kuhnke) to take them down to the bottom of the Yellow Sea off the shores of the Korean Peninsula to locate a top secret item. The already cramped conditions and tense atmosphere within The Aurora are about to turn  deadly when the impact of an underwater explosion causes the sub to overturn, trapping the four occupants in a potential death chamber as water begins to breach the craft and the emergency power begins to drain...

Director Ben Parker’s debut feature is a ruthless effective exercise in underwater claustrophobia. A lean pared down script efficiently dispatches the three US military personnel (all played by Brits) and the grumpily distrustful salty Swedish sea-dog Mats down into the watery depths in their rusting spam-tin with minimal set-up. Terse exchanges simmer away until their real mission objective is revealed, and a fatal decision is taken by ‘Red’ which unleashes a knife-edge of raw survival instincts and brutal self-preservation.

I admit this was not a film I was expecting too much from. On paper the synopsis sounded somewhat well-worn and predictable. However I was pleasantly surprised to find this deep sea pressure cooker tense and engrossing and director Parker’s tight grip hooked me in right from the start. The limited confines of the submersible are superbly conveyed through Benjamin Pritchard’s crisply enclosed cinematography and James (Manic Street Preachers) Dean Bradfield’s score heightens the edgy brooding undercurrents.  Johannes Kuhnke convinces as the protective seasoned pilot of the previously decommissioned Norwegian Navy submersible, and Charlotte Salt (delivering an unwaveringly good American accent) essays a refreshingly steely resolve as tough decisions have to be taken. As this pair are literally thrown together when conditions become critical down on the seabed, there’s a thaw in their previously frosty relationship which is well-handled by both players and makes for a coldly moving final act.

With a potentially clunky old premise, this could have sunk without a trace under its familiar cargo of clichés, but instead it delivered an ice-cold gripping underwater nightmare which instantly surfaced into my top 5 films from FrightFest 2016.   

****(out of 5*)        
Paul Worts

Tuesday, 13 September 2016

THE DEVIL'S WOODS

Directed by Anthony White, Starring: Stephen Cromwell, Danielle Keaney, Daniel Mahony, Caoimhe Cassidy. Horror, Ireland, 2015, 70mins, Cert 15.
Released in the UK on DVD on 12th September 2016 by Left Films.

A group of friends set off from Dublin on a road trip to a festival in the countryside. On route they stop off in the woods near a small town and set up camp for the first night. According to the news bulletin on the radio, there’s a serial killer on the loose, but by the end of the night that will be the least of their worries in these particular woods...

Clearly any horror film which opens quoting from the poetry of Emily Dickinson (“Witchcraft has not a pedigree...”) is not one short of ambition. Director Anthony White’s first feature is obviously a labour of love driven by the desire to encapsulate and emulate as many of his genre influences as his micro-budget will allow. A noble cause for sure, but one which seems to have taken precedent over storytelling basics, resulting in a magpie’s nest of borrowed references loosely bound by an unoriginal thread.

After a strong opening sequence involving that aforementioned serial killer (who has an extraordinarily bulbous thumb), director White cuts to a nodding bobble-head of Sid Haig’s ‘Captain Spaulding’ with a PULP FICTION poster in the background and a Leatherface figurine on the shelf signalling to the viewer we’re deep into fan-boy territory. It’s jarring yet fun as we get to meet the first of the friends, Keith (Stephen Cromwell) snorting coke. Then we’re introduced to Katie (Caoimhe Cassidy) via a black and white dream sequence which segues into red as blood trickles down her cut wrists. (A nod to William Castle’s striking blood red bath scene from THE TINGLER?) It’s an effective moment, which seems to be setting up a later character reveal that is never explored again in the film, and consequently feels like an empty jolting gimmick. Her boyfriend Jay (Daniel Mahony) doesn’t notice the guilty glance she gives her mobile phone though when she wakes (that however will come into play later). The fourth member of the group is Keith’s girlfriend Jennifer (Danielle Keaney) whose bottom seems to dominate the film frame more often than to be just mere coincidence.

Driving past a dead fox by the roadside (armadillos not being native to Ireland) they make for a pit stop at ‘The Hatchet’ pub (surprisingly not a reference to Adam Green’s swamp slasher but its actual real-life name). Unsurprisingly, this results in the kind of reception which awaited those two American tourists in ‘The Slaughtered Lamb’ (‘The Hatchet’ doesn’t serve food either by the way).

Some indiscriminate bloodied object later hits the windscreen whilst they’re driving along a remote country. Twitchy Katie asks if someone threw it at the car, to which Keith rather tellingly replies: “...No, You’ve seen too many horror films”. Yes, unfortunately we all have Keith, and so therefore this account of the tragedy which befell a group of (four) youths is far too predictable and lacking in any real suspense. The seemingly obligatory cheap jump scares fail to land any telling blows either. Considering its short running time of 70 minutes, it wastes almost 45 of them before anything sinister occurs. The characters and their partially improvised dialogue aren’t nearly that illuminating or likeable enough to devote so much time to, particularly at the expense of any genuine exposition regarding the nature of what they encounter in the woods. There’s a brief mumbled mention of the 18th century British nobleman society known as ‘The Hellfire Club’ by Keith over the camp fire but it’s a throwaway reference and never elaborated upon.

The brief snatches of gore are grittily effective (the local butchers shop seemingly the main supplier) but the methods of sacrifice appear random rather than ritualistic in nature.
On the plus side, at least director White didn’t go down the wobble-cam found footage country path, and as a result there are some nicely composed atmospheric wide shots of the County Meath woods and surroundings. Paul Scott’s score is evocative and there’s some very unsettling noises emanating from the nearby cattle that sound more like squealing pigs – are the cows fans of DELIVERANCE too? 

“Jesus, I’ve seen this film before” mutters Jay at ‘The Hatchet’ petrol station. Clearly so has director Anthony White. The challenge next for him is to encompass his influences and homage’s into material sufficiently original enough to divert our attention away from those same original classics he obviously knows and loves so well.

Extras: director’s commentary, trailers.
(This review was originally published on the FRIGHTFEST website.)
**(out of 5*)

Paul Worts