Tuesday, 26 October 2021

THE BLACK FOREST (A MATA NEGRA) 2018

Directed by: Rodrigo Aragão. Starring: Carol Aragão, Elbert
Merlin, Francisco Gaspa. Brazil, 2018, 98 mins. 

Sam Raimi's EVIL DEAD meets Lloyd Kaufman's POULTRYGEIST, with a seasoning of Michele Soavi's DELLAMORTE DELLAMORE in this bloody bananas Brazilian folktale.

Naïve foundling teenager Clara's (Carol Aragão) eventful and hostile first excursion into the nearby village concludes with her coming into possession of a demonic spell book known as Cipriano's Black Book. The book's dying owner warns Clara to burn this Necronomicon of black magic after entreating her to perform a ritual from its pages to aid his soul passing peacefully into the afterlife in exchange for a bag of gold coins. Unfortunately for Clara, the villagers, and ultimately all of humanity (but not for us viewers), the lure of gold leads to tragic consequences and Clara's increasingly desperate attempts to redeem the situation by resorting to darker and darker magic from her book of spells results in the boundaries between life and death blurring amidst a bloodbath of hellish retribution.  

For a modest budget, director Rodrigo Aragão delivers a heady intoxicating cornucopia of nightmarish set-pieces and some gloppy practical gore effects in a (quite literally) all hell breaking loose final third featuring demonic chicken embryos, reanimated corpses, an exploding head and demonic disembowelment. 

Before unleashing his KFC bargain bucket of blood, Aragão’s magical realism tale lands a couple of critical punches towards religious hypocrisy and a few stabs at socio-political themes. None of which detract from the essence of this cautionary terror tale warning of the potential perils of selling your soul and renouncing your moral beliefs.

It's a rollicking yarn, directed with maniacal assurance and infectious gusto, and given Aragão's resources, quite a coup (or rather coop considering the demonic fowl he unleashes).

****(out of 5*)

Paul Worts







Sunday, 24 October 2021

AMSTERDAMNED (1988)

Directed by: Dick Mass. Starring: Huub Stapel, Monique van
de Ven, Serge-Henri Valcke. Holland 1988, 104mins. Certificate 15.

Thanks to streaming on Amazon Prime, this was a rewatch after a 30+ years gap from when I first caught it at the cinema on its initial release. It took many years to get that damned catchy ‘Amsterdamned’ end credits song out of my head, so now of course after all these years it’s once more taken up long-term lodging in my brain. Damn you ‘Amsterdamned’!

I have a lot of time for Dick Mass flicks, which is just as well given that here he stretches the (admittedly nifty) premise out to just 7 minutes short of 2 hours. And whilst this Dutch frogman canal giallo/slasher is relatively restrained with regards to the body count and actual on-screen kills, it more than compensates with:

  • zippy dialogue (even surviving relatively intact in the English dubbed version),
  • gloriously immersive location work,
  • quirky throwaway moments such as the bakery holdup,
  • cheeky references to ‘Jaws’,
  • outrageous set-pieces:  e.g. the very messy tourist canal boat ride, the James Bond like over the top speedboat chase, and a restaging of Nancy's Elm Street bathtub nightmare on an inflatable with a rather large knife.

 Definitely worth a punt down these murderous Dutch canals.

 P.S. all together now…

Amsterdamned, Amsterdamned, ooohooo

This is Amsterdamned

 Amsterdamned, Amsterdamned, oho

(This place is damned!)

This is Amsterdamned

****(out of 5*)

Paul Worts

Saturday, 7 August 2021

SHADOW IN THE CLOUD (2020)

It’s Murray Futterman’s ‘Nightmare at 20,000 Feet’. 

Chloë Grace Moretz‘s World War 2 take on Ellen Ripley sees her fending off a gremlin on the wing, an aircrew of (mostly) salivating misogynists, Japanese fighter planes, and the basic laws of physics as she fights to protect her secret carry-on case and its precious contents.

An increasingly ludicrous premise which climbs to hysterical hysteria (and then manages to ratchet it up yet another notch). Roseanne Liang directs the hell out of it, delivering a jaw-dropping WWII creature feature and bringing it in to land with a rousing aplomb whilst Moretz pummelled me into helpless giggling submission. 

Hugely enjoyable over the top fun.

*****(out of 5*)

Paul Worts

Friday, 21 May 2021

GRAVE OF THE FIREFLIES (1988)

Directed by Isao Takahata, Featuring the voices of: J Robert
Spencer, Rhoda Chrosite, Veronica Taylor and Amy Jones.  Animation, Japan, 1988, approx. 90mins, cert 12.

Based on Akiyuki Nosaka’s semi-autobiographical novel, writer/director Isao Takahata’s 1988 Studio Ghibli anime focuses on 14 year old Seita and his 4 year old sister Setsuko, and their desperate struggle to cling to life and hope amidst the scorched ruins of a firebombed Japan in 1945.

With father away serving with the Japanese navy, Seita and his little sister live with their unwell mother in the city of Kobe. During a devastating air raid by US forces, the two children are separated from their mother and upon emerging from the dust and smoke are confronted with a decimated landscape. Forced to flee the rubble they initially escape to the countryside to stay with an aunt. Tensions soon mount as food supplies become scarcer and Seita takes the decision to leave their aunt and seek refuge on their own. Alone, they face an arduous struggle for survival.

Not an obvious choice of subject matter for an animated film then.

This is a profoundly moving and truly unforgettable piece of filmmaking. It fully deserves its status not only as classic anime, but also as one the greatest war films ever made. The depiction of the horrors of war are presented with searing honesty and without overwrought manipulation. Director Takahata himself experienced an air-raid when he was 10 years old and this clearly infuses the bombing sequence with a chilling level of authentic detail. The awful 'beauty' as the glowing firebombs fall from the sky, the eerie silence before the flickering flames of the incendiary devices burst into deadly life and rip through wooden homes without mercy are images which seer straight to the minds-eye and linger.

Although Seita and little Setsuko’s plight is heart wrenching, director Takahata takes time to pause from the inevitable bleakness and gives the children precious moments of innocent pleasure and beauty. Running on a sandy beach and paddling in the sea. Sharing a bath, Seita uses a piece of cloth to create an air bubble which splashes a giggling Setsuko. And of course we have the magical glow of the fireflies, caught in numbers to illuminate their abandoned sheltered hide-out. These gentle bitter sweet scenes stand out like sun rays bursting through the storm clouds of war.

This is not an anti-American film. The B-29 bombers that drop their deadly cargo are of course US, but the film is not about apportioning blame, but instead about the loss of innocence and the consequences of war.

Originally released in Japanese cinemas as a Studio Ghibli double-bill with the charming MY NEIGHBOR TOTORO, audiences understandably gravitated toward Miyazaki’s sweet fable compared with its more challenging and provoking accompaniment. (The intention was for TOTORO to be the soothing second feature balm, I can only imagine the impact if the audience had watched FIREFLIES after TOTORO). I freely admit I sobbed uncontrollably at the closing image. But this is a film everyone should see. It may not be one you can easily revisit time and time again, but even if you only watch it once, you will never forget it. 

*****(out of 5*)

Paul Worts

KIKI'S DELIVERY SERVICE (1989)

Directed by Hayao Miyazaki, Featuring the voices of: Kirsten Dunst, Janeane Garofalo, Debbie Reynolds, Animation, Japan, 1989, approx. 103mins, cert U.

Adapted by Hayao Miyazaki from the children’s book by Eiko Kadono, this was Studio Ghibli’s fourth feature film and yet, somewhat surprisingly, their first real box-office success.

Upon turning thirteen, teenage witch Kiki must leave home in order to complete her training. Accompanied on her broomstick by her sarcastic familiar black cat Jiji, Kiki leaves her loving parents behind and clumsily flies off into the starry night. A storm forces her to seek refuge on an overnight cattle train. Awakened by the cows on board who are breakfasting on the straw Kiki and Jiji have bedded down on, Kiki takes flight once more into a clear blue sky morning and eventually comes to a picturesque city by the sea. Not possessing any specific skills like potion-making or fortune-telling, Kiki is initially at a loss as to what she can offer the city as their witch in residence. But she soon utilises her broom-flying abilities to reunite an infant with its “pacifier” (dummy to you and I) and an idea begins to surface...

This is a gentle coming-of-age tale set in an alternative 1950’s where world war hasn’t occurred. Bi-planes and airships grace the blue skies over the fictional city of Koriko (largely inspired by the cityscapes of Stockholm and specifically the city of Visby on the island of Gotland). Beautifully detailed buildings and streets are meticulously rendered and offer a breathtaking degree of realism. The magic elements of the story are played very matter-of-fact and at its heart we have a young teenage girl embarking on a journey of self-discovery (albeit on a broomstick).

In Miyazaki’s skilled hands he conjures up a potent charm which avoids falling into saccharine sweetness by its genuine honesty and consummate craftsmanship.

Purists will no doubt insist on the original Japanese audio track (and I would never usually go against this point of view) Audio-wise, but the US dub is a fairly decent effort, albeit tweaked for its targeted audience. Kirsten Dunst gives a reasonable account as Kiki but Phil Hartman’s sub-Nathan Lane turn as JiJi the cat adds a welcome touch of cynicism to the proceedings which plays more favourably to my ears than the harsher-sounding original (sacrilege I know but...)  

*****(out of 5*)

Paul Worts

Saturday, 1 May 2021

RAW (2016)

Directed by: Julia Ducournau. Starring: Garance Marillier, Ella
Rumpf
, Rabah Nait Oufella. France/Belgium 2016, 99mins, Certificate 18.

Released on Blu-ray in a limited edition by Second Sight Films from 26th April 2021.

Early on in writer/director Julia Ducournau’s 2016 debut feature, first-year veterinary student Justine (Garance Marillier) is asked by the school’s doctor: “How do you see yourself?” Justine replies: “Average”. There is however nothing remotely average about this arthouse coming-of-age cannibal hybrid. Nor, fittingly enough, is there anything average about Second Sight’s stunning limited edition blu-ray release both in terms of disc content and in the gorgeously designed slipcase, booklet and collectors’ art cards that accompany it.

Having been brought up in a strictly vegetarian family, Justine follows in the family’s footsteps by enrolling at the same veterinary school her parents graduated from, and where her older sister Alexia (Ella Rumpf) is a senior. Having barely had a chance to unpack and be introduced to her gay male roommate Adrien (Rabah Nait Oufella), the hazing initiation rituals orchestrated by the senior faculty begin their onslaught. These culminate with Justine having to eat a rabbit kidney after her and her fellow newbies are drenched in animal blood. After being pressured into consuming meat for the first time, Justine suffers an allergic skin reaction before a craving for meat takes hold and she’s pocketing burgers from the canteen and chowing down on raw chicken breast from the fridge. However, Justine’s cravings for meat will transition from animal to human flesh following an unfortunate accident, forcing her to confront family secrets and wrestle with her newly acquired animalistic instincts.

In what sounds like classic grindhouse exploitation hype, during a screening at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2016, several audience members allegedly fainted during the film’s graphic scenes and required medical attention. (Clearly, they hadn’t been repeating to themselves: ‘It’s only a movie…only a movie…’). Whilst hardened gorehounds would certainly sneer at this over-reaction, the film does contain some genuinely raw (no pun intended) real sequences involving animal dissection and veterinary practice which I can appreciate could be deemed upsetting. Given the film’s subject matter, the actual on-screen cannibalism is however relatively restrained (at least when compared to the notorious Italian gut munching nasties of the 80’s). But its intimacy, coupled with the searingly committed performances of Garance Marillier and Ella Rumpf, sell the prosthetics (and light-touch CGI in one scene) and achieve far greater impact as a result. If I am honest, after revisiting the film it made me ravenous (not for human flesh you’ll be pleased to know). I actually feel the most wince-inducing moment involves a close-up botched Brazilian wax job.

The brutalist architecture of the location lends the film visual comparisons with David Cronenberg, as does aspects of the body horrors presented. Overall, it has an arthouse sensibility which is somewhat jarring with the gore and jet-black humour, (and may account for the Toronto audience’s reaction). The clear early visual nod to De Palma’s CARRIE, whilst audacious, seems to hint at an intention to position the film firmly in the horror genre, but there are multi-faceted aspects at work which straddle genres, and takes them confidently in its stride.

Ultimately, it is an exploration of humanity, or as director Ducournau states in the interview feature on the disc entitled ‘In the Name of Raw’: “I think it’s the story of a girl who becomes a human being”.

Speaking of the discs extras, there’s a rich bounty to get your teeth into which provide plenty of food for thought (and that’s enough of the puns). The extraordinary Garance Marillier is interviewed a fresh, providing her with an opportunity to look back on her experiences and close collaboration with her director. Producer Jean des Forets shares some of the practical considerations in terms of the film’s budget, and its selling challenges. As well as a previous audio commentary with Julia Ducournau and film critic Emma Westwood, there is also a new commentary by film critic Alexandra West to lend a fresh critical perspective. Alexandra Heller-Nicholas’ new video essay contributes a perfectly succinct, and frankly perfect 12-minute summary of the film’s themes and concepts. There’s tons more content including footage from the Australian premiere, panel discussions, an alternative opening, deleted scenes and trailers.

Recommended.

*****

Paul Worts

This review was first published by FRIGHTFEST.


Sunday, 28 February 2021

THE STYLIST (2020)


Directed by: Jill Gevargizian Starring: Najarra Townsend, Brea

Grant, Sarah McGuire US 2020, 105mins, Certificate TBC.

Available exclusively on the Arrow VOD platform from 1st March 2021.

“But we all want what we don’t have”.

Expanding on her award winning 2016 short, writer/director Jill Gevargizian’s debut feature is a stylishly crafted and beautifully executed portrait of a serial killer hairstylist. Claire (Najarra Townsend, CONTRACTED) has a penchant for drugging her clients and scalping them. By candlelight, Claire then sits in her cellar wearing her victims scalps in a macabre costume role-play acting out her clients perceived coveted lives through recalled phrases, flesh and hair.

A cursory glance at the above would suggest comparison with Joe Spinell’s grungy grindhouse scalper ‘Frank Zito’ from William Lustig’s MANIAC (1980). However, shorn of the male gaze, Gevargizian’s primary focus is less the dissection of the female form, (albeit unflinchingly graphic on occasion), but rather more about social isolation. Her protagonist Claire’s crippling low self-esteem hampers her from successfully navigating the intricate cutting mores of social interaction and precludes her from forming any meaningful female friendships.

The opening sequence, re-worked from the short, encapsulates the intimacy and sensuality of the hairstylist’s work and maps out the dichotomy of the stylist/client relationship. A new random customer reveals that she is having a marital affair. A hitherto secret that the client feels she can somehow unburden to a stranger, enlisting Claire as an anonymous confessor. What her client doesn’t realise is that Claire absorbs these snatched intimate details of her clients lives, the only meaningful interactions she has beyond ordering her daily coffee, and weaves them into her fatal fantasies.

When Claire is asked by regular client Olivia (Brea Grant) if she will step in as an emergency replacement hairstylist for Olivia’s upcoming wedding, it sets in motion a chain of events that will give Claire am initial tantalising glimpse of the friendship she dreams of creating before exposing her emotional fragility and unhinged psychology. Inevitably her obsession will eventually lead to nightmarish consequences.

They say write what you know, in which case writer/director Jill Gevargizian’s background as a hairstylist has obviously informed her insight into the nature of the profession (but hopefully not into the mind of a scalping female serial killer). This is an astonishingly assured debut feature, with a nuanced performance from Najarra Townsend at its core, accompanied by lyrical storytelling imbued with vividly rich colour and texture.

Stylishly shot by Robert Patrick Stern, the film looks fantastic, with a vibrant giallo-like palette which belies the modest budget. Split screen sequences highlighting the contrasting lifestyles of Claire and Olivia are pure De Palma, and Nicholas Elert’s lush score, punctuated with discordant notes perfectly encapsulate Claire’s dysfunctional state of mind. Production, costume and of course the hairstyles (naturally) are all meticulously interwoven to illustrate character and setting. Claire’s ornate chandelier and candlelight cellar is a glowing gothic subterranean lair, not unlike that of the operatic Phantom, in contrast to the relative starkness of the salon and Olivia’s apartment.

But the film isn’t merely gorgeous to look at on the surface, it has real bite and Gervargizian pulls off an excruciatingly nasty sequence involving a drugged victim’s untimely regaining of consciousness. Hitchcockian transference of empathy is earned as you cringe for Claire when her Single White Female stalking leads to her having to take refuge behind the shower curtain of an intended victim or almost being caught red-handed (and red-faced) on Olivia’s bed.

Claire’s backstory is only briefly sketched in, an absent father and the death of her mother (also a stylist) at a relatively young age are nearly all the hints we are given. When recalling her mother’s constantly changing hair colour and styles, Claire does however tellingly reveal: “I never knew who was gonna come home”, foreshadowing Claire’s own (twisted) role-plays.

The interplay between Claire and bride-to-be Olivia is teased out with precision playing by Najarra Townsend and Brea Grant (writer/director of the also excellent 12 HOUR SHIFT), and incrementally increases the cringe factor we share with, and for, both characters before the final bleak yet beautiful payoff.

Originally screened at the Arrow Video FrightFest online Halloween event in October 2020, I was glad to book in another appointment to see THE STYLIST, and to reconfirm my opinion that it’s a cut above the rest and destined to be one of the genre highlights of 2021.

****(out of 5*)

Paul Worts

This review was originally published by FRIGHTFEST.