Friday, 27 June 2014

COLD IN JULY - A review by Paul Worts

Directed by Jim Mickle, Starring: Michael C. Hall, Don Johnson, Sam Shepard, Vinessa Shaw. Thriller, US, 2013, 109mins, cert 15.

In cinemas from Friday 27th June 2014.

Based on Joe R. Lansdale’s multi-layered novel, director Jim Mickle follows up the highly regarded STAKELANDS and WE ARE WHAT WE ARE (2013) with a gripping 80’s Southern film noir.

Having accidentally shot and killed an intruder in his home, family man Richard Dane (DEXTER’S Michael C. Hall) is reassured by the local sheriff that he acted in self-defence and that the intruder was a wanted felon. Still racked with guilt (the intruder was unarmed), he drives out to the graveyard just as the funeral is concluding. There is only one other mourner – the deceased’s father (Sam Shepard)...

This is a film which delivers three plots for the price of one. Just when you think you’ve got a handle on where the narrative is heading it shifts into an altogether darker territory. The opening chapter offers echoes of CAPE FEAR, with two relatively straight-played suspense set-pieces. But then the rug is gently but assuredly pulled from under both the viewer and our protagonist Dane, and the landscape twists into shades of BLOOD SIMPLE and beyond.

As the film continues to peel back layer upon layer, Michael C. Hall’s ordinary family man is pulled deeper and deeper into the film’s heart of darkness, until his initial desire to protect his wife and son leads him into having to make judgement calls upon which lives hang in the balance.

Shaking off his finely honed forensic psycho persona as DEXTER, Hall’s performance is engrossing and gives the film its emotional core. In addition, Sam Shepard delivers a perfectly pitched performance encompassing both understated menace and pathos. And then along comes Don Johnson’s almost film-stealing cowboy private investigating pig-farmer ‘Jim Bob’ who waltzes into town and acts as the ringmaster in the film’s final third ring circus.

Eschewing the first-person narration from the source material, Mickle and his long-time collaborator Nick Damici have fashioned a lean and taut screenplay which hones in on the story’s essence and strips away any fat from the bone. Mickle’s trusted composer Jeff Grace delivers a stunning synth soundtrack channelling Carpenter which throbs majestically in harmony to the ebb and flow of the story. The 80’s setting isn’t rammed down the throat (with the exception of Don Johnson’s intentionally hilarious gigantic ‘car-phone’), but is used more to isolate and pair-down the options available to the characters rather than to inject cheap knowing winks of nostalgia.

Jeff Mickle’s film is a confident, assured piece of genre filmmaking which cements his highly regarded reputation as a director and which proves unquestionably that revenge is a dish best served COLD IN JULY. 

****(out of 5*)

This review was originally published on the FRIGHTFEST website.

Tuesday, 24 June 2014

CAMP DREAD - A review by Paul Worts

Directed by Harrison Smith, Starring: Eric Roberts, Danielle Harris, Felissa Rose. Horror, USA, 2014, 90mins, cert 18.

Released in the UK on DVD by Image Entertainment on 23rd June 2014.

Back in the 1980’s, horror film director Julian Barrett (Eric Roberts) helmed three successful instalments of the ‘Summer Camp’ slasher franchise. In an attempt to reboot his now flailing career, Barrett lures a bunch of young adult offenders to take part in a new reality TV show (Dead TV) with the chance to avoid prison and rehab, and a $1 million prize for the last contestant to be ‘eliminated’. Returning to the original location of the ‘Summer Camp’ franchise, and inviting his former scream queen (now newly trained counsellor) Rachel Steele (Felissa Rose), Barrett has installed video cameras throughout the camp grounds. Having wired each contestant with a micro-camera, he informs them that whilst they carry out their (scripted) daily tasks of preparing the camp for summer reopening, they will be ‘killed-off’ one-by-one by an unseen assailant. Once they have encountered the killer they are effectively out of the contest (sort of like a paintball fight if you will) and will have to depart the camp. However, the scripted reality starts to go decidedly off-course as the contestants start to be bumped off for real, and the stakes are raised to life or death.
This is a heavily signposted love letter to SLEEPAWAY CAMP (which itself featured a memorable performance by Felissa Rose and a jaw-dropping ending), and early 80’s summer camp slashers such as FRIDAY THE 13TH and THE BURNING. And whilst it isn’t a patch on any of them, it’s nevertheless reasonably entertaining - doesn’t scrimp on the gore (including one genuinely original death) - and boasts a real surprise ending all of its very own.

The script assembles the standard archetypes which have populated every decent slasher, and whilst they all come across as thoroughly unlikeable individuals at first, it does become easier to identify with (some of) them as the grisly proceedings begin to unfurl. Eric Roberts’ is excellent as the puppermaster director, monitoring his ‘contestants’ through his bank of video screens. Felissa Rose provides top-notch support as the faded scream queen. Danielle Harris plays the local sheriff in a welcome variation from her own scream-queen persona, unfortunately her screen time is limited to two scenes (pivotal though they maybe) which bookend the beginning and end of the film. She does however get to deliver some tongue in cheek dialogue such as: “I don’t watch horror movies...because I think that they suck.”
The practical make-up effects are over the top and range in quality, but it’s nice to see Crazy Ralph’s death scene from FRIDAY THE 13TH PART 2 restaged without MPAA-enforced restraint, and a set-piece murder inspired by the ‘Angry Birds’ game.

Having grown up in London in the 80’s, my only knowledge of summer camp came from watching those body count horror flicks that CAMP DREAD obviously pays homage to. As a result of which, I’d consider any teenager completely insane for even contemplating entering those grounds previously stalked by the likes of ‘Cropsy’, ‘Jason’ or ‘Angela’. However, there’s clearly a commonly held nostalgia for the summer camp slaughter feature, and whilst CAMP DREAD doesn’t tick every box (it’s largely devoid of suspense for one), I still enjoyed my stay in its cabins. 

*** (out of 5*)
(This review was originally published on the FRIGHTFEST website.)

WITHER - A review by Paul Worts

Directed by Sonny Laguna, Tommy Wiklund, Starring: Patrik Almkvist, Lisa Henni, Patrick Saxe. Horror, Sweden, 2012, 92mins, cert 18.
Released in the UK on DVD by Signature Entertainment on 23rd June 2014.


A Swedish homage to Sam Raimi’s EVIL DEAD, this low-budget Scandinavian effort pours on the gore in buckets but lacks the ferocious audacity of its inspiration.
Led by Albin (Patrik Almkvist), a group of good-looking youngsters head out into the woods to an isolated cabin for a weekend of frolicking. The deserted cabin is recommended by Albin’s father, and he assures Albin and his girlfriend Ida (Lisa Henni) that the place has been abandoned for at least five years; that he’ll make sure there’s electricity available; and that if they run into any problems they’re to contact him. It’s not made clear just how dad came to know about the cabin, nor how much investigation he did into the reason for its abandonment, but it turns out he really couldn’t have picked a worse location...


I missed its original showing on the Discovery Screen at last year’s FrightFest, so I was very much looking forward to checking this out. Unfortunately, it failed to live up to my expectations. The script creaks more than the rotting floorboards in the cabin. The one-dimensional characters are as equally wooden as the walls – and they stay that way even once they’ve been possessed by the soul-swallower in the cellar.
The female characters in particular suffer a disproportionately rough ride (even by generic horror standards) although I did feel sorry for the poor lass who initially (and quite inexplicably) decides to descend into the cellar with just a candle for company. Still, it’s not just any candle, it’s a magic candle as it appears to decrease and increase in length from shot to shot. At least no one suggests playing a mysterious tape recorder (there isn’t one – or else I’m sure they would’ve). The script is filled with idiotic moments – which would be perfectly acceptable if the two directors and three scriptwriters (!) offered some indication that this was all being played tongue-in-cheek or with a knowing wink to the audience. But instead we just get a joyless po-faced gore-fest. Admittedly some of the largely practical gore effects are exceptionally well executed, but they really deserved a better showcase than this leaden clomping effort for which my initial enthusiasm gradually waned the longer it went on until ultimately it withered away completely.
No extras.

** (out of 5*)

(This review was originally published on the FRIGHTFEST website.