Monday, 28 April 2014

SISTERS (1973)

Directed by Brian De Palma, Starring: Margot Kidder, Jennifer Salt, William Finley, Charles Durning. Horror, thriller, USA, 1973, 93mins, cert 15.

Released in the UK on DVD and Blu-ray by Arrow Films on 28th April 2014.

Brian De Palma’s 1973 SISTERS represents a significant change in direction for the eventual Hitchcockian auteur. Taking his inspiration from Hitchcock’s REAR WINDOW, and adding a pinch or two of PSYCHO to the mix, De Palma concocts a deliciously delirious thriller that marks the first of his visual voyages into cinematic voyeurism.

Phillip Woode (Lisle Wilson), a 25 year old African American man, is faced with a moral dilemma when a blind woman enters a changing room and begins to undress in front of him. But nothing is what it seems. The woman is an actress/ model, Danielle Breton (Margot Kidder) and the scene is being filmed and shown to two contestants on a TV show who have to guess how Woode will react to the situation. Both Woode and Danielle are watching from the wings along with a studio audience which includes Danielle’s former husband Dr Emil Breton (William Finley). Pulling the visual rug from under the audience straight away, De Palma wastes no time at all in signalling his intent to present to the audience a deceptive and duplicitous tale. A tale ripe with red-herrings; audacious technical conceits and a tongue in cheek premise.

Everything in the film is connected with watching. Danielle’s neighbour, Grace Collier (Jennifer Salt), a local newspaper reporter, witnesses a murder from her apartment window, with the victim smearing the word ‘help’ with a bloodied hand on the window within Danielle Breton’s flat. De Palma employs the split screen device to supreme effect during both this and a subsequent sequence which gives the audience simultaneous insights into how the murder scene is being cleaned up (and the body hidden) on the left of the screen, whilst the right-side shows us the police officers and reporter Collier ascending up to the apartment. The split screen technique is often dismissed as being purely gimmicky, but De Palma’s employment of it here yields a playful heightened suspense.

De Palma’s films are not on the whole known for having strong female protagonists, but in SISTERS the male characters are largely playing second fiddle to the two outstanding female leads (and the only murder victims are men).  Margot Kidder excels in her dual roles as both sensuous playful French / Canadian actress/model Danielle and as her deadly sister Dominique. Jennifer Salt delivers an effective turn as the feisty reporter determined to uncover the truth despite the sceptical antipathy of the police. Even her real-life mother (Mary Davenport) pitches in as her onscreen mum and their comedic scenes together have an added air of authenticity about them as a result.

For the chaps, William Finley’s creepy and sinister Dr Breton looms alarmingly in De Palma’s fish-eye lens. (Finley, a regular for the director, would go on to play The Phantom in De Palma’s PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE). And the venerable Charles Durning, in an early role, plays a private detective roped into helping Jennifer Salt’s reporter with some amateur snooping. Having followed a sofa all the way from Staten Island across into Canada, he is last seen suspended from a telegraph pole watching through binoculars (presumably waiting in vain) for someone to come and collect it!

Proceedings are heightened immeasurably by a terrific Bernard Hermann score, complete with early use of Moog electronics! For me, the soundtrack perfectly sums up De Palma’s little gem of a film. It’s at once clearly recognisable as being in the tradition of a Hitchcock; yet it has its own unique identity; infused with impish creative embellishments; and it is this duality that elevates the film to more than the sum total of its maguffins and magic tricks. 
   
The transfer from Arrow retains the authentic film grain, and whilst the image initially appears slightly cropped during the opening credits, its overall a fine rendering of a film which utilises both 35mm and 16mm film stock.

The extras, listed in full below are excellent, with Justin Humphreys' efficiently comprehensive 47 minute visual essay being the stand out.     

Extras: What the Devil Hath Joined Together: Brian De Palma’s Sisters – A visual essay by author Justin Humphreys. Interviews with co-writer Louisa Rose, actress Jennifer Salt, editor Paul Hirsch and unit manager Jeffrey Hayes, The De Palma Digest – a film-by-film guide to the director’s career by critic Mike Sutton, Archive audio interview with William Finley (excerpt), Theatrical Trailer, Gallery of Sisters promotional material from around the world.

There’s also apparently an illustrated booklet featuring new writing on the film by author Kier-La Janisse (House of Psychotic Women) as well as Brian De Palma’s original 1973 Village Voice essay on working with composer Bernard Herrmann and a contemporary interview with De Palma on making Sisters, and the 1966 Life magazine article that inspired the film. These items were not included with the preview copy.


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


This review was originally published on the FRIGHTFEST website.


Monday, 14 April 2014

ANTISOCIAL - A review by Paul Worts

Directed by Cody Calahan, Starring: Michelle Mylett, Cody Ray Thompson, Adam Christie.
Horror, Canada, 2013, 92mins, cert 18.
Released in the UK on DVD and Bluray by Monster Pictures on 14th April 2014.


It’s New Year’s Eve. Forced to attend a university lecture as she didn’t do very well on her criminology finals, Sam’s day goes from bad to worse when her (cheating) boyfriend Dan breaks up with her via a Skype-like conversation conducted through The Social Redroom, a Facebook-like social media forum. Closing her laptop down, she takes out her mobile and deletes the Social Redroom app (not before catching an alert informing her that Dan’s status has already been changed from “taken” to “single” – ouch!) Given the reason she really wanted to talk to him, this was not what she was hoping for...But then there’s long-time best friend Mark’s New Year’s Eve party to go to, and even though she’s clearly not in the mood to party, and prone to bouts of nausea, she reluctantly shows up. And just when Sam thinks her 31st December can’t get any worse; it appears there’s a highly contagious global infection breaking out which turns the affected victims into violent hallucinating zombies.
  
Given its European premiere at FrightFest 2013, Cody Calahan’s Facebook meets VIDEODROME via NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD premise isn’t outstandingly original, yet once you get past the generic teen tosh it manages to crank up a gear or two and the final third pulls off some pleasingly effective tongue-in-cheek moments of gore before the memorable final sequence concludes proceedings nicely.  
As with most films that feature social media-reliant scenarios, I always marvel at how quick and reliable the protagonist’s wireless signals are. Even whilst fleeing up a staircase in a block of flats, a character can conduct a near-perfect Skype video conversation (Why you’d want to do this at such a time of clear and present danger is another matter). Of course the whole premise is a not-so-subtle dig at how social media is controlling our lives, turning us into zombie-like addicts constantly seeking on-line validation and recognition and all the while losing our grip on reality and, paradoxically, our ability to really communicate with each other.
The story would have benefited from a less teen-angst-centred approach; I’m thinking perhaps a more coldly analytical Cronenberg-like scalpel to the material. However, director Calahan, along with his co-writer Chad Archibald certainly provide some nice hallucinatory moments of body-horror – not to mention quite literally a scalpel (and power-drill) for those hard to reach brain infections.
Of the cast, Michelle Mylett as Sam is the best of a fairly generic bunch, infusing her character with a plausible layer of sympathy and vulnerability before ratcheting up her self-sufficiency and survival instincts. Ana Alic’s blonde nymphet Kaitlin rises above the standard nubile-for-hire guise when trussed in Xmas tree lights and crawling feral-like on all fours in the film’s singularly most memorable sequence.
Ironically, I deactivated my Facebook account (temporarily) a week before watching this film. I felt I was actually becoming more and more (forgive the unintentional pun) antisocial with every posting. Putting this in context, Cody Calahan’s ANTISOCIAL is more than worthy of a few ‘likes’, even if the teen’s early postings induce initial buffering before connection is achieved.   


Extras: Audio commentary, behind the scenes feature, trailer.

*** (out of 5*)

This review was originally published on the FRIGHTFEST website.

Wednesday, 2 April 2014

OUTPOST III: RISE OF THE SPETSNAZ - A review by Paul Worts

Directed by Kieran Parker, Starring: Bryan Larkin, Iván Kamarás, Michael McKell, Velibor Topic, Alex Utgoff . Horror, UK, 2013, 84mins, cert 18.

Released in the UK on DVD by Entertainment One on 31st March 2014.
Along the Eastern Front in March 1945, a small Russian Special Forces Unit (Spetsnaz) is lying in wait to ambush an approaching Nazi convoy. The resulting bloody battle doesn’t go entirely to plan however, and the Spetsnaz are captured and taken to a nearby underground facility. Once imprisoned in this subterranean test facility they discover the Nazi’s are conducting experiments in order to develop an invincible army of undead soldiers.
Stepping up from his previous producing duties, first-time director Kieran Parker delivers an ‘origin’ story for this third instalment in the OUTPOST franchise. Utilising the extensive bunker set originally constructed for OUTPOST: BLACK SUN, this outing for the Nazi Zombie storm troopers is, for the most part, subterranean which proves to be both an asset and a hindrance.

The most obvious comment to make is how colourless the film appears. It’s as if the image palette has deliberately been set one-notch above monochrome. Given that an extensive chunk of the film takes place in dimly lit underground corridors, there are whole segments which appear to be in black and white. Compared to some of the footage featured in the ‘making of’ featurette, it’s striking just how ‘washed out’ the final print appears. Perhaps the filmmakers felt this added a claustrophobic authenticity to the proceedings, but the film’s impact is considerably lessened as a result.
This is especially notable in the gory sequences - plentiful and gleefully vicious though they maybe - and in some of the zombies themselves. Neither gets the forthright presentation they deserve.

The script is understandably action-heavy but there are a few gems glistening in the darkness of the bunker. Michael McKell’s chillingly barmy Nazi Colonel Strasser mines some choice dialogue before suffering an outstandingly gruesome demise.
Glaswegian lead Bryan Larkin, beefed up for the role of lead Spetsnaz Sergeant Dolokhov, acquits himself admirably as he almost single-handedly slaughters the entire Third Reich in his attempts to blow the lid on his captures’ devilish plans. He may well occasionally loose his grip on the Russian accent, but his grip on his knife, pickaxe and machine-gun remains true throughout.        

Not having seen this film’s two predecessors I’m not qualified to judge where it sits in terms of quality within the franchise. However, whilst it lacks the insane invention of FRANKENSTEIN’S ARMY and the crowd-pleasing humour of DEAD SNOW, it’s nevertheless an efficient (if largely colourless) addition to the increasingly crowded Nazi Zombie sub-genre.


(And it does feature this admirable pun in the end credits: “Filmed in (Goose) Stepps Glasgow”)
Extras: Making of

*** (out of 5*)

This review was originally published on the FRIGHTFEST website.