Sunday, 16 September 2018

THE NUN (2018)



Directed by: Corin Hardy, Starring: Demián Bichir,Taissa Farmiga, Jonas Bloquet, Bonnie Aarons. Horror. US 2018, 96mins, Cert 15.
In cinemas now.

Director Corin Hardy (THE HALLOW) is given the keys to the supernatural sandbox that is THE CONJURING universe, and delivers an unapologetic gothic Hammer inspired spin-off. Having made such an impression with her brief appearance charging at Vera Farmiga’s character from a painting in THE CONJURING 2, the demonic entity known as ‘Valak’, who inherits the form of a nun (Bonnie Aarons), is gifted an origin story all her own.

It’s 1952. Following the suicide of a nun at a remote monastery in Romania, the Vatican dispatch a priest, Father Burke (Demián Bichir),and a young nun, Sister Irene (Taissa Farmiga) in her novitiate  to investigate the death and to establish whether the abbey can still be considered as holy ground. (Minor spoiler alert: no!).

A fog enshrouded graveyard where the headstones are adorned with bells for buried plague-victims to ring in case of premature burial, a labyrinthine maze of foreboding corridors, and a backdrop of spooked horses and villages too scared (and too sensible) to visit the ecclesiastical hell house in the mountains. All that’s missing is a James Bernard score and rubber bats daggling on strings. 

It’s a brave move to set the entire fifth instalment of James Wan’s supernatural franchise in this period setting (which flash-backs further still into the abbey’s dark past). It’s certainly one that requires an adjustment of sensibilities that some multiplex patrons (and even some mainstream critics) might struggle with. 

Full disclosure. I watched THE NUN on the biggest screen in the UK at the BFI IMAX on the Southbank. The combined sound and visual presentation on the huge immersive screen certainly heightened the experience – but at its heart the film is essentially a 90+ minute ghost train ride, or a haunted walk-through attraction where something (or someone) jumps out at you every few minutes – boo! And it’s great fun.


Taissa Farmiga as young Sister Irene takes the acting plaudits and proves to be just as adept as her older sister Vera in conveying the wide-eye terror required to sell the spooky shenanigans and keep the audience invested in her character’s fate. Demián Bichir’s investigative priest and failed former exorcist throws himself headfirst into his role (and quite literally into a freshly dug open grave at one point). But a plot contrivance largely keeps him at arms bay whilst Sister Irene is left to explore the cavernous monastery with a flickering candle inadequately illuminating the veils of the remaining sisters praying continuously in a valiant but futile attempt to ward off the evil Valak. And as for Jonas Bloquet’s ‘Frenchie', the supposed comic-relief – well let’s just draw a veil over this misstep shall we?


So it’s THE SOUND OF MUSIC with Taissa Farmiga as a non-singing Maria, enduring a host of her least favourite things wrapped up in packages of sting and occasionally spine shudderingly effective jump scares which enlist both the inhabitant nuns as well as THE nun (who is judiciously wheeled out only sparingly from the shadows). Director Hardy continues to seemingly stage homage’s to Italian horror maestro Lucio Fulci with CITY OF THE LIVING DEAD’S premature burial sequence following on from THE HALLOW’s eyeball trauma from ZOMBIE FLESH EATERS. The bookending sequences from the respective CONJURING films seem superfluous calling cards (and the retconning of the ending from the first CONJURING is a naughty cheat).


But THE NUN is lavishly mounted, gloriously overblown, with sumptuous gothic production design and a plethora of visual tricks to prod you in the dark with. Definitely worth the price of a ticket to ride this ghost train.   
**** (out of 5*)

Paul Worts

Wednesday, 12 September 2018

ASSAULT (1971)



Directed by: Sidney Hayers, Starring: Susy Kendall, Frank Finlay, Freddy Jones, Tony Beckley. Crime thriller. UK 1971, 94mins, Cert 15.
Released on Blu-ray on 27th August 2018 in the UK by Network.
  
Journeyman director Sidney Haynes’ extraordinarily far-fetched filmography stretches from British horror flicks such as NIGHT OF THE EAGLE (1962), to episodes of ‘The Avengers’ (both the old and ‘New’), and a slew of 80’s US TV shows including - but by no means limited to: ‘Magnum, P.I.’, ‘Manimal’, ‘T.J. Hooker’, ‘Airwolf’, ‘Knight Rider’ and ‘The A-Team’! Before this 80’s stint in the US, Haynes directed a quasi (and slightly queasy) British giallo (of sorts). Also known in the US as THE DEVIL’S GARDEN, ‘TOWER OF TERROR’ and numerous other international variations, ASSAULT (1971), as we called it here, was based on a novel entitled ‘The Ravine’ and was executively produced by Peter (CARRY ON) Rogers.

A lurid opening sees nubile schoolgirl Tessa (Lesley-Anne Down) taking a shortcut home through the woods surrounding the edges of Heatherden Hall and being relentlessly pursued by POV camera before being raped by an unseen assailant in the shadow of a towering electricity pylon. Following her ordeal, Tessa descends into a catatonic state and is taken into the care of Dr. Lomax (James Laurenson – the whistling ‘Shadmock’ in THE MONSTER CLUB 1981). Meanwhile, despite explicit warnings, another schoolgirl takes herself off down through the exact same wooded path only this time the perpetrator murders their victim after raping her. Art teacher Miss West “Wash your brushes!” (giallo veteran Suzy Kendall) briefly glimpses the murderer in the red taillights of her car as she’s trying to reverse it out of the muddied ravine close to the murder scene, but is laughed at by the police investigators headed up by Frank Finlay’s Det. Chief Supt. Velyan when she describes the suspect as looking like the devil. 

There’s a positive shoal of red herrings served up by director Hayers and writer John Kruse, as the remainder of the film settles down into a very 70’s whodunit with an unhealthy dose of voyeuristic leering of teenage school girls thrown in for good measure. Most of the onscreen leering is conducted unrestrainedly by the husband of the school’s headmistress. Played by Tony (“Have you checked the children?” WHEN A STRANGER CALLS) Beckley, he’s soon offered up as a prime suspect with his stash of pornography in his toolbox (a metaphor?) and his inappropriate ‘assistance’ to the female student shelving books in the library – a scene made particularly uncomfortable by the suggested acquiescence of the student.

Freddie Jones plays a relentlessly over-the-top reporter pursuing Suzy Kendall’s school teacher/witness mercilessly. How far would he go for that exclusive...? And that Dr. Lomax seems to have taken quite a shine to her too, slipping her sedatives and sleeping pills like smarties...If you’re in anyway familiar with the conventions of the giallo, you should be able to spot the killer fairly quickly, but there’s still a few entertaining diversions and unlikely plot developments before the shocking climatic showdown back in the woods.

Whilst the HD transfer on the disc is absolutely pin-sharp and pristine, the dialogue seems a tad muted. Be warned therefore when compensating by increasing the volume (particularly in the first third of the film) as you yourself will be assaulted by the ear-splittingly awful soundtrack by Eric Rodgers, whose totally (and tonally) inappropriate bombastic accompaniment drowns out any possibility of sustained suspense from the  stalking scenes.

An odd little thriller this one, dodgy 70’s male chauvinism, schoolgirl voyeurism, a couple of ‘15’ rated assaults (originally garnered with an ‘X’ certificate) and an explosive set-piece in a chemists (spot the random David Essex cameo) which feels like a visual cuckoo in the nest of this otherwise pleasingly unpleasant slice of tentative Brit-giallo. 
              
Extras: Theatrical Trailer, Image Gallery, Limited edition, collectable booklet written by Laura Mayne and Adrian Smith, PDF material

*** (out of 5*)

Paul Worts

This review was first published by FRIGHTFEST.

Friday, 24 August 2018

FRIGHTFEST 2018 - DAY ONE

THE RANGER
Director: Jenn Wexler. With: Chloe Levine, Jeremy Holm, Granit Lahu, Jeremy Pope, Larry Fessenden. USA 2018. 77 mins. UK PREMIERE.

Set in an alternative - 'just to the left of reality' - '80's Dreamland' (director Jenn Wexler's own words), a group of punks selling drugs at a gig are caught on the hop by a police raid. In the ensuing escape a police officer is fatally wounded, forcing Chelsea (Chloe Levine) to reluctantly suggest the group hide out at her deceased uncle’s cabin in a nearby national park. Unfortunately there they run into a psycho park ranger (Jeremy Pope) - think an eco- MANIAC COP - who shares an ominous back story with Chelsea, and who doesn't take kindly to anyone breaking the national park's rules and regulations...

Wexler's debut feature boasts a finely nuanced central lead in Chloe Levin (THE TRANSFIGURATION). It is however let down by her supporting group of punks who are excruciatingly unlikeable and I for one couldn't wait for the ranger to evoke his extreme methods of park law enforcement with some (admirable) practical gore. Bonus points however for a bizarre but brilliantly effective use of Charlie Rich's 1973 song 'The Most Beautiful Girl' in the midst of a punchy punk soundtrack. Overall a predictable, slightly muted curtain-raiser on FrightFest 2018.    
**(out of 5*)



SUMMER OF 84
Directors: François Simard, Anouk Whissell, Yoann-Karl Whissell. With: Graham Verchere, Judah Lewis, Caleb Emery, Cory Gruter-Andrew, Tiera Skovbye. Canada 2018. 105 mins.EUROPEAN PREMIERE.

The trio behind the quirky retro surprise hit TURBO KID offer up more retro goodies with this STRANGER THINGS meets STAND BY ME 80's trip. However, beware, for lurking at the end of this sweet and thoroughly engaging sugar coated nostalgic suburban BMX ride is a dark heart which caught this reviewer by complete surprise and left him somewhat devastated as the end credits rolled.  

Davey (Graham Verchere - excellent) thinks his police officer neighbour Mr. Mackey is the  serial killer known as the Cape May Slayer. Eventually enlisting his three sceptical friends, Davey starts to investigate Mackey, placing him under walkie-talkie surveillance. There's a vibe not unlike Joe Dante's THE BURBS about this one, is the (admittedly) suspicious neighbour really a serial killer? It's a beautifully played piece with IT-like banter between the 4 young teens (and the hot blonde neighbour Nikki (Tiera Skovbye)  - the object of their affections - refreshingly scripted with a poignancy of her own. The is he or isn't he narrative generates a well-earned gently incremental build up of suspense, the pay-off for creating likable characters we are encouraged to emotional invest in. All of which is accompanied by a terrifically evocative synth score that almost had my 80's-tuned ears drooling (that sounds a bit disgusting I know - but it's meant to read like a compliment)  And then comes that kicker of a finale which is a hammer blow to the heart. Left me both shaken and stirred. It's only the 2nd film of FrightFest 2018 but I'll already be surprised if I like any of the other films more.  

*****(out of 5*)

MEGA TIME SQUAD
Director: Tim van Dammen. With: Anton Tennet, Jonny Brugh, Milo Cawthorne, Josh McKenzie, Yoson An. New Zealand 2018. 81 mins. EUROPEAN PREMIERE 

A Kiwi TWIN TOWN (1997) with time-travel thrown into the pot. A petty criminal from a small town (Thames) in New Zealand steals an ancient Chinese time-travel bracelet that he hopes will helps him pull off a previously bungled heist and start a new life with the sister of the local crime lord. But messing with time has consequences, as well as creating multiple versions of himself, there's also the not so small matter of an ancient demon being summoned.   
This rude, crude and giggly quirky BACK TO THE FUTURE send-up derives much of it's humour from the mundane way the characters react when faced with something as extraordinary as teleportation time-travel. A running gag about a misaligned rifle hits the target several times, and the occasional but generous splatter is used effectively. A nicely amusing, entertaining and untaxing way to end day one of FrightFest. 

***(out of 5*) 

Paul Worts

Saturday, 11 August 2018

IT LIVES (AKA TWENTY TWENTY-FOUR) 2016


Directed by: Richard Mundy, Starring: Andrew Kinsler.Sci-Fi/horror, UK 2016, 88mins, Cert 15.
Released in the UK on DVD on 6th August 2018 by Second Sight Films.

“But you are not alone”.

In the year 2024, the doomsday clock is mere seconds from midnight. In response, multinational conglomerates create twelve secret underground bunkers to be inhabited by a carefully selected group known as ‘Priority One’ once the nukes start flying. Each bunker is maintained by a lone scientist known as an ‘Undertaker’. Roy (Andrew Kinsler) is one such caretaker of subterranean bunker ‘Plethura’. His only companion is a (non-vocalised) HAL-9000ish computer named ‘Arthur’ who tries to cheer him up with screen messages such as, “Would you like a hug Roy?” Then the bunker seals itself in an apparent reaction to nuclear fallout up above. Roy’s sanity is put to the ultimate test as he questions the reality of his situation, and the feeling that he is not alone down there...

Writer/director/producer/editor/production designer Richard Mundy’s 2016 debut feature, aka TWENTY TWENTY-FOUR, plays like an incredibly drawn out pre-opening credit sequence from an episode of ‘Doctor Who’. Unfortunately, at no point does Peter Capaldi burst through the hatch to explain what is actually going on.

Echoes of Duncan Jones’ MOON (2009) reverberate through the sterile underground sets in this micro-budgeted exercise in claustrophobia. Visually, the thrifty production design, lighting and cinematography admirably manage to squeeze every last drop of atmosphere and tension they can muster – even if those corridors look at times to be far too flimsy to withstand a nuclear holocaust. And I did like the motion tracking computer graphics consisting of 2 white dots careening around a maze as if about to be swallowed up by Pac-Man.

Andrew Kinsler essays the increasingly paranoid scientist ‘Roy’ with a fully committed performance. It’s not however a sympathetic or particularly convincing role. He’s not helped by having to deliver some pretty stilted dialogue whilst being gifted with nothing to do as a supposed scientist except vigorously pump leavers up and down.

Director Mundy works hard to achieve a creeping sense of dread and for a time it kind of works. However, this was accompanied incrementally by my own increasing sense of dread that the film was heading towards a thoroughly underwhelming climax. My fears proved justified. IT LIVES doesn’t live up to its initial promise and ends up hermetically sealing itself in.

No extras.

**(out of 5*)

Paul Worts

This review was first published by FRIGHTFEST.