Saturday, 18 May 2019

CUJO (1983)


Directed by: Lewis Teague, Starring: Dee Wallace, Daniel Hugh-Kelly, Danny Pintauro, Christopher Stone, Ed Lauter. Horror, US 1983, 93mins, Cert 18.

Released on Blu-ray in a special limited two-disc edition by Eureka Entertainment on 29th April 2019.  

In his memoir ‘On Writing’, author Stephen King confesses he barely remembers writing his JAWS-with-claws novel ‘Cujo’; such was his raging alcoholism at the time. This saddens him as whilst he liked the book, he wishes he “...could remember enjoying the good parts as I put them down on the page”. However, by the time he sat down to write the screenplay (which would ultimately be rejected for straying too far from his own source material) he was clearly troubled with one part - namely the novel’s bleak ending – so he recommended a revision. The filmmakers were on the same page as King on this matter and so the 1983 film version duly delivered a more upbeat conclusion.

Taking over from original director Peter Medak, Lewis Teague was only gifted two days of prep time. Still, he came by virtue of a recommendation by King himself who had been impressed by Teague’s previous giant scaly monster mash ALLIGATOR. Enlisting Jan de Bont (SPEED) as his director of photography proved an inspired choice. Whilst the final product is still hampered by its lumbering premise, the film is at least infused with visually innovative story-telling.

Cujo, a loveable gentle-giant family pet St. Bernard chases a rabbit into a cave in an opening sequence more akin to a BENJI movie. However, as de Bont’s steadicam enthusiastically tracks Cujo through an idyllic meadow, things are about to take a decided turn for the worst for the slobbering pooch when he thrusts his snout into what turns out to be a nest of rabies-infected bats and is promptly bitten on his nose by one of the fanged creatures. This ignites the slow-burning fuse which will eventually bring about Cujo’s descent into infection and deadly menace, setting up the film’s third act set-piece.
But before arriving there, we have to wade through a soap-opera-ish subplot concerning housewife Donna Trenton’s (Dee Wallace) extra-marital affair with ‘local stud’ Steve (played by Wallace’s real-life husband Christopher Stone – reuniting them on screen again after Joe Dante’s THE HOWLING). Meanwhile, Donna’s young son Tad (Danny Pintauro) is convinced there’s a growling monster with glowing eyes and big sharp teeth lurking in his closet. Cuckold husband Vic tries to reassure his son by reciting a monster banishing mantra but the audience is already way ahead with this telegraphed foreshadowing. Vic on the other hand is too preoccupied with his disastrous marketing campaign for a children’s cereal to see what’s going on right under his nose with his wife and Steve. Meanwhile, Cujo’s nose is looking increasingly infected... 

Eventually, through a series of rusty plot contrivances, Donna and son Tad end up stranded in their broken down Ford Pinto in the baking heat at the deserted farmstead of car mechanic and Cujo’s neglectful owner Joe Camber (Ed Lauter). Unbeknown to Donna, Cujo had already chowed down on his former master, as he lays siege to the car trapping mother and son in a dehydrating stand-off.

The close-up shots of Cujo’s slobbering pus and gore smeared visage in the latter stages of his rabies metamorphosis look impressively repulsive in HD. Teague and de Bont employ a visual bag of tricks in staging Cujo’s attacks, but it’s a tall order to nail a jump scare when you’re working with such large good-natured tail-wagging cumbersome co-stars. Between 5-10 different St. Bernard’s were ultimately employed during filming, and there’s a noticeable inconsistency in the size-differences between the various trained pooches onscreen.

I did however admire the false slasher-like ending set-up which pays off with a suddenly revived Cujo bursting through the window like a canine Jason Voorhees from FRIDAY THE 13TH PART 2.

As for the humans, Dee Wallace delivers an unflinching portrayal of a woman initially wrestling with the guilt of her infidelity who is then propelled by her ferocious maternal instinct to defend her child Tad by violently confronting a monstrous force of nature. Is she somehow being punished, albeit unjustifiably, for the affair? Possibly, but the softened on screen resolution seems less judgemental than the novel’s. 6 year old Danny Pintauro gives an extraordinary performance as the terrified seizure-prone youngster – “Can he eat his way in here?” he panics, as his imaginary monster in the closet fears are realised despite his mother’s attempt at rationalisation: “It’s not a monster, it’s just a doggy”.

Cujo is one humongous metaphor for the force of nature – and how mistreatment and callous disregard can lead to nature coming back to bite you (quite literally in this case). The rabid doggy acts as a catalyst for change for all the characters; liberation for Joe Camber’s wife and her son – finally free from their abusive patriarch – and ultimately reconciliation for the Trenton’s, the nuclear family dynamic seemingly restored, the monster bested and the temptation of infidelity sated.

Plot holes abound larger than the cave Cujo snuffles down into. Why doesn’t Donna phone ahead to make sure Joe Camber is there before driving all the way out to his deserted farm with a knowingly unreliable car? Why doesn’t anyone think to lock their front doors, and why would you trust a flimsy porch screen when a rabid St. Bernard is charging towards you full (matted) pelt? But despite these misgivings the film is far from a dog’s breakfast. Rewarding compensations include inventive camera work infused with a pleasing layer of nostalgia-inducing 80’s hue, and Charles Bernstein’s lush evocative score provides a rich treacly syrup of both melody and menace. There’s also real pathos in Cujo’s forlorn eyes. In a prelude to the mayhem yet to be unleashed, Cujo, sentient to what he is becoming, rejects his young master’s calls and retreats into the fog. A pivotal and quietly heartbreaking moment.

Extras: Over 7 hours of content! Audio commentary by Lee Gambin, new interviews with key cast and crew, a 42min archival making of documentary, and on disc two a 96min Q&A with Dee Wallace and an interview with Kim Newman. Accompanied by a 60-page collector’s booklet and hardbound slipcase with newly commissioned artwork by Graham Humphreys. This all adds up to a four star package.

**** (out of 5*)

Paul Worts

This review was first published by FRIGHTFEST

Saturday, 30 March 2019

NEXT OF KIN (1982)

Directed by: Tony Williams, Starring: Jackie Kerin, John

Jarratt, Alex Scott. Horror, Australia 1982, 89mins, Cert 15.

Released on Blu-ray, download and on-demand by Second Sight Films on 25th March 2019. 

Championed out of obscurity by Quentin Tarantino, Kiwi director Tony Williams’ only foray into the horror genre is a little gem of Ozploitation. Whilst citing Italian director Bernardo Bertolucci’s LAST TANGO IN PARIS and 1900 as being among his visual influences, Williams’ nifty slow burner also displays (perhaps unwittingly) many cues from another Italian source of cinematic tradition, namely the giallo.


Despite winning the best director award at the Stiges Film Festival in 1982, the film unjustly slipped below the radar for various reasons including being a victim of the tax incentive scheme it was borne out of. I would also suggest it’s not an easily marketable product, as evidenced by the films’ slightly misleading contradicting artwork (e.g. a little girl standing rigid with a red ball by her side) and the tagline: “There is something evil in this house.” 
Granted there are gothic elements enlisted here. Firstly, there’s a spooky old mansion - a retirement home named Montclare - inherited by Linda (Jackie Kerin) from her late mother. There’s tree-felling flashes of lightning which help illuminate a spiral staircase leading to a dust laden attic with a leaky window and a child’s red ball. Taps are mysteriously left on in bathrooms and candles are lit by unseen hands. However, there is a lot more happening at Montclare beyond the supernatural trappings.


A childhood trauma, buried in Linda’s subconscious is about to resurface as Montclare’s residents appear to be rather alarmingly prone to drowning in the bath tub and Linda becomes convinced there’s someone or something else stalking the corridors of the retirement home.


Utilising gliding steadicam (for the first time in an Australian production) together with innovative crane and ambitious camera setups, the visual palette achieved is at times akin to a fever dream. This ethereal quality is further enhanced by the evocative electronic music of synth maestro and early Tangerine Dream member Klaus Schulze (the producer originally approached Vangelis: unavailable). Striking set pieces and memorable images abound, a fountain’s water turns to blood, there’s a painting which signifies a key character trait, sparkling crystals lit by lightning, misdirection glimpsed through a window pane, raindrops rhythmically cascading down a windscreen – and even a giallo-like silhouetted figure in raincoat and hat briefly glimpsed from afar in the stormy night. Then there’s the good old well-worn feline jump-scare, a hideously creepy child’s doll tumbling out of a stowed away box and a red-coated figure which may or may not be a red-herring. 


And as well as the numerous giallo references, there’s also a horribly effective slow-motion visual nod to the classic French thriller LES DIABOLIQUES.


The cast provide solid support as they pirouette around the gliding camerawork. John (WOLF CREEK) Jaratt essays local hunk and Linda’s former sweetheart Barney with a disarming level of open-shirted charm whilst trying in vain to allay Linda’s suspicions as they crank through the gears right up to full-blown hysteria.


There’s even a steadicam shot following the aforementioned moggy down a corridor which reminded me of the husky tracking sequence in Carpenter’s THE THING (1982)!


After a measured hour of build up, director Williams lets rip and the powder kegs which have been kept in reserve are lit in a bloody and literally explosive final third which also boasts a modest but admirable body count in a dénouement which is suitably barmy, implausible and yet strangely satisfying all at once. In many ways this perfectly summarises my thoughts on the film itself. A real treat.


(Tip: try to avoid watching any of the trailers prior to first viewing – they really give far too much away).    
         

Extras: two audio commentaries, director Tony Williams and Producer Tim White, and a separate commentary with cast members. There’s a lovely evocative montage of shooting locations revisited accompanied by Klaus Schulze’s gorgeous music, extended interviews with director and John Jarratt, 2 short films from Tony Williams, a tantalising glimpse (using film stills) of a sequence deleted prior to release which would have been a real humdinger, trailers, the complete ballroom footage (which will make sense once you’ve watched the main feature), and finally an image gallery and reversible sleeve art.      

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

 This review was orginally published by FRIGHTFEST

Saturday, 16 March 2019

READY FOR MY CLOSE UP (2019)



Directed by: Jason Read, Starring: Lynn Lowry, Charlotte Mounter, George Sweeney, Dawn Perllman, Gary Shail. Comedy horror, UK 2019, 30mins.

A Robo Films & Misty Moon Production. US premiere at Wastelands Cinema in April 2019.

Low-budget auteur Jason Read follows up his 2018 short RIPPER TOUR with a biting satirical portrayal of the devastating psychological effects of Care in the Community. No, not really – it’s actually a South London SUNSET BOULEVARD with cult genre legend Lynn Lowry playing a fading psychopathic ‘B’ movie version of Gloria Swanson’s Norma Desmond.

Penned by Michael Haberfelner from Lynn Lowry’s concept, it’s a tongue in cheek love letter to the magic of the ‘B’ movies, and a vehicle for Lowry to bring to life various fictitious movie roles once played by her character ’Megs Topplethwaite’.

Relying on home care nurses, Megs has a penchant for takeaway food, and a rather deadly taste in home delivery men. There’s more than just skeletons in her closet, as Charlotte Mounter’s fake nurse and memorabilia thief ‘Becca’ is about to find out...

Lynn Lowry is wonderfully effervescent as she effortlessly weaves between pathos and camp, breaking the fourth wall with her addresses straight to camera and meta in-jokes about using digital instead of celluloid.  Lowry’s clearly having a ball as the gloved strangler from ‘Gloves of the Strangler’, and the other colourful incarnations she inhabits with such delicious aplomb. Director Read even throws in some gleefully pastiche ‘clips’ from her supposed ‘B’ movies for added flavour. The served up smorgasbord of delivery men include writer Haberfelner himself (afforded a nasty throat attack from Ninja assassin ‘Crystal’). Then there’s a visit from George (‘The Sweeney’) Sweeney, and a pizza delivered by QUADROPHENIA’S ‘Spider’, Gary Shail.

Considering the ludicrously ambitious 2-day shooting schedule, not to mention (but I will anyway) the incredibly modest crowd funded budget (£4k), director Jason Read, producer Stuart Morris, and the entire cast and crew somehow manage to deliver up a tastily ripe, ribald treat with their affectionate tale of mid-terrace terror.       

Paul Worts

Monday, 4 March 2019

POSSUM (2018)



Directed by: Matthew Holness, Starring: Sean Harris and Alun Armstrong. Psychological horror, UK 2018, 82mins, Cert 15.

Released on Blu-ray, DVD and Digital HD by Bulldog Film Distribution on 4th March 2019.  
 
Matthew Holness’ first feature is based on his short story originally written for an anthology themed around Freud’s essay ‘Das Unheimliche’ (trans.‘The Uncanny’). It’s therefore a far cry from Holness’s British horror parody television series ‘Garth Marenghi’s Dark Place’.

Receiving its English premiere at FrightFest 2018, it’s a stark, bleak, nightmarish portrayal of a man haunted by past traumas, and his despairing attempts to unburden himself of his emotional baggage. Returning to his grim, semi-condemned Norfolk childhood home, disgraced former children’s puppeteer Philip (Sean Harris) clutches a brown holdall which contains ‘Possum’, a hideous marionette with tendril spider legs and a ghostly doll’s head, borne from a nursery rhymed creation drawn by Philip. Plagued by nightmares where an animated ‘Possum’ crawls towards him, Philip makes several attempts to discard the puppet, without success. He also has his creepy dishevelled stepfather Maurice (Alun Armstrong) alternating between offering him sweets and rollups and taunting him about the disappearance of a 14-year old schoolboy. There’s also a room in the old house Philip seems more than a little reluctant to enter...

An expressionistic suburban nightmare, dripping in a haunting 70’s atmosphere of dread, with jolting moments of disturbing imagery. It’s narrative light, with Pinter-like minimalist dialogue, but The Radiophonic Workshop’s evocative soundtrack permeates every frame saturating the film with a melancholic menace that beautifully conveys the somnambulist nature of Phillips waking nightmares.

The Norfolk locations are brilliantly bleak and haunting. The open marshlands conveying the spirit of M.R. James as Phillip runs through muddied landscapes pursued by the invisible ghosts of his haunted past.

Sean Harris is superb as the broken damaged ex-puppeteer, and Alun Armstrong is grotesquely effective as the stepfather from hell. 

Filmed on Kodak 35mm, the blackened grimy gloom of the burnt childhood home seemingly drips with inherent sadness and past terror, and the stark loneliness of the open landscapes offers bleak comfort as images of black balloons float in the sky.

The abrupt and literal denouement jolts the viewer out of the seductive fever dream state and feels out of step with the meticulous Danse Macabre so carefully orchestrated to this point. But, equally, they’d surely be groans of complaint were proceedings left unresolved.

Early David Lynch, Jan Å vankmajer and even Pete Walker could be considered as influences in this disturbingly assured first feature. It will be interesting to see just what Holness pulls out of the bag next.   

Extras: None on the DVD/Digital HD release, but the Blu-ray has an audio commentary with director Matthew Holness and cinematographer Kit Fraser, an artwork gallery and two early short films.

****(out of 5*)

Paul Worts

This review was first published by FRIGHTFEST.

Sunday, 3 February 2019

DAVE MADE A MAZE (2017)



Directed by: Bill Watterson, Starring: Meera Rohit Kumbhani, Nick Thune, Adam Busch, James Urbaniak. Comedy Horror, US 2017, 81mins, Cert 15.
Released on Blu-ray, Digital HD, and also premiering on Arrow Video Channel on Prime Video Channels 28th January 2019. 

Charlie Kaufman meets Jim Henson courtesy of Doctor Who (except it would be churlish to complain about the cardboard sets) in director/co-producer Bill Watterson’s indie debut feature.

Returning from an out of town trip, Annie (Meera Rohit Kumbhani) opens the apartment door to find that her frustrated artist boyfriend Dave (Nick Thune) has constructed a cardboard fort in their living room – and he’s trapped inside it. Boasting TARDIS-like dimensions, the fort contains an extensive labyrinth maze of corridors laden with cardboard booby traps and a Minotaur. Annie, together with Dave’s best buddy, gamer nerd Gordon (Adam Busch), and a disparate collection of characters including a reality-TV film crew and a couple of Flemish tourists, ignore Dave’s warnings and enter the maze in a quest to rescue the architect.



This quirky art house film fest favourite is an a(MAZE)ing feat of production design ingenuity. And whilst it’s largely populated with paper-thin characters delivering lines which occasionally fall flat(packed)(sorry), there’s still much to admire in the visual rendering of Dave’s cardboard prison. Employing a variety of old-school non-CGI techniques such as stop-motion, puppetry and in-camera forced perspective trickery, Dave’s maze boasts an impressive array of threats and creative conceits. Stop-motion origami creatures flutter around Dave and his ragtag band of liberators, whilst RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK-like traps are triggered by giggling anthropomorphic tripwires. (The resulting carnage is amusingly conveyed by red lace and silly squirty string). Whilst sliding down a drain pipe to avoid pursuit by the Minotaur, Dave’s party are briefly transformed into hand puppets before having to duck and cover to avoid paper blow darts.

Dave (Nick Thune) delivers a couple of half-hearted attempts to rationalise what’s really going on here (a desire to actually complete something for once?) but frankly neither this nor Watterson and co-writer Steven Sears seem overly concerned to fully explain, if indeed they actually know themselves, and it’s left up to individual viewer interpretation to assemble anything remotely solid.

Meera Rohit Kumbhani displays an unfathomable degree of patience as Dave’s long-suffering girlfriend Annie, whilst Adam Busch’s geeky Gordon gets to wear a t-shirt boasting an increasingly less pixelated version of himself on the chest as he completes each level of challenge in the labyrinth. (So at least someone gets a character arc). I did admire James Urbaniak’s unblinkingly focused mercenary TV director Harry, grinding out interviews and character reactions whilst seemingly oblivious to the surrealist paper and card nightmare enfolding around him.

Ultimately, DAVE MADE A MAZE is a film which can be enjoyed with a wry appreciative smile. The odd laugh out loud moment pokes through the holes in the script, and the level of artistry and detail in the construction of the sets could offer repeat viewings a degree of reward making this cardboard fantasy worth recycling.

Extras: A veritable Amazon-like delivery warehouse of features has been assembled for this release. The audio commentary with writer/director Bill Watterson and co-writer Steven Sears together with the making-of documentary chronicle the extraordinary lengths the designers and crew went to in order to get the film realised. A couple of deleted and alternate scenes are included along with ‘The Worst Fundraising Pitch Video Ever’ (in the end it wasn’t crowd funded). There’s storyboard and concept galleries, trailers, a reversible sleeve featuring two artwork choices and for the first pressing, an illustrated collector’s booklet featuring new writing on the film by author and critic Anton Bitel.

***(OUT OF 5*)

Paul Worts



This Review was first published by FRIGHTFEST.