Monday, 13 October 2014

DEVIL'S TOWER (2014)

Directed by Owen Tooth, Starring: Roxanne Pallett, Jason Mewes, Frances Ruffelle,
Jessica-Jane Stafford. Horror, UK, 2014, 82mins, cert 18

Released in the UK on DVD and Blu-ray on 15th September 2014 by Monster Pictures.

Having been (literally) thrown out onto the street by her abusive alcoholic mother, Sarah is forced to take up residence in Albion Court, a tower block seemingly filled with wall to wall drug dealers, generic low-life characters and a murky past. “What, you’re moving into the murder flat?”(exclaims one of the residents). “He’s just winding you up, they didn’t die IN the flat”, reassures another. But Sarah will soon find out that it’s what is residing in flat 254 on the top floor that she really needs to worry about...

Not entirely sure where to begin in trying to review this film. I guess I’ll start with the lead, Roxanne Pallett (formerly of TV ‘Emmerdale’ fame), making her ‘scream queen’ debut playing Sarah a character who is either 21 or 18 years of age. Let me explain. Her most treasured possession, a silver cigarette lighter, is inscribed ‘21st Happy Birthday’ from her mum and dad (dad’s dead: not explained). But - and here’s the rub – when mum (Frances Ruffelle) subsequently totters up unannounced and unwelcome at her flat she tells Sarah that motherhood is a life sentence which started: “...18 years ago when you were born”. Perhaps the booze has clouded her timeframe – then again, her confusion could be down to the fact that her onscreen daughter is being played by an actress who is in reality 31 years of age.

This low-budget British supernatural zombie rom-bonk is crammed full of awful cringe-inducing characters uttering cringe-inducing dialogue which even the script editor for ‘Eastenders’ would baulk at. Remember the film David and his dead friend Jack watch in the porno cinema on Piccadilly Circus in AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON (‘See You Next Wednesday’ of course), well the acting in that for the most part surpasses most of the performances here.

In fact, its sheer preposterousness is actually its only saving grace; such is the level of seemingly unashamed amateurism on screen you feel somewhat obliged to see it through to its bitter end just to see quite how much further down it will sink.

And then there’s Jason (CLERKS, JAY AND SILENT BOB STRIKES BACK) Mewes, whose career has faded so far he can’t even claim top-billing, turning up surreally as ‘Sid’ the squatter. “Sid, no offence, but you’re a bit of a lunatic” pronounces Sarah’s best friend Lucy in a rare moment of perceptive insight. But then everyone is a loony in this loony tune of a horror film which is described as a ‘zombie home invasion horror’ but which doesn’t deliver on this promise (and which is laughably half-hearted even then) until there’s only 20 minutes left of the running time. Presumably the make-up budget must’ve run out by this point as the zombies appear to be munching down without a hint of viscera or steaming innards in sight. And speaking of ‘home invasion’, everyone seems to blithely leave their front doors unlocked. There are countless occurrences where characters just barge into their neighbours flats – surely this shockingly lax sense of home security belongs back in the ‘Ena Sharples’ era of Coronation Street rather than a contemporary graffiti littered hell-hole like Albion Court?

DEVIL’S TOWER is frankly a car-crash of a film which you can’t help but stare at in astonishment. Why Roxanne Pallett thought a film where she gets to deliver dialogue such as: “He tried to rape me [“What?”] No, it’s alright I tried to rape him too” would act as the propellant to launch her ‘scream queen’ career is unfathomable. (On the evidence of this I don’t think Danielle Harris needs to worry about any competition). Perhaps she should have taken more heed of the caretaker’s advice: “This building isn’t kind: now bugger off!” Then again, as the film staggers limply towards its daft climax, a possessed participant utters this particular gem: “Don’t ask me to explain, his mind is otherwise engaged”.  This sums up DEVIL’S TOWER in a nutshell.

Extras: Commentary by director Owen Tooth and writer Adam J. Marsh, bloopers, trailers and ‘Behind the Scenes’ stills.

**(out of 5*)

Sunday, 5 October 2014

ANNABELLE (2014)



Directed by John R. Leonetti, Starring: Annabelle Wallis, Ward Horton, Tony Amendola, Alfre Woodard. Horror, US, 2014, 99mins, cert 15.

In cinemas Friday 10th October 2014

Expectant mother-to-be Mia collects antique dolls, and her doctor-in-training husband John has found her the perfect gift: a rare vintage child-sized doll in a pure white wedding dress. Initially saving it for when their child was born, he instead decides to make peace after a bit of a tiff by unveiling his present to her early. A piercing scream from their neighbour’s house awakens the couple in the middle of the night and upon investigating, John finds their neighbours have been brutally attacked. Hurrying back to her house Mia is about to find out that the perpetrators, a man and a woman belonging to a satanic cult, are now in her home and the woman is more than taken with Mia’s new doll...

So here we have the origin story of the creepy doll known as ‘Annabelle’ which featured briefly in James Wan’s far superior THE CONJURING. Admittedly this prequel had a tough act to follow; so it’s no real surprise to find it’s not nearly as successful in eliciting the sustained supernatural threat and constant frissons to consistently make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up. It does still have its moments though.

Wan this time hands the directing responsibilities over to his go to cinematographer John R. Leonetti (who lensed both INSIDIOUS instalments for Wan as well as THE CONJURING). Leonetti, whose last directorial gig was THE BUTTERFLY EFFECT 2 back in 2006, delivers the occasional effectively choreographed set-piece, but fails to consistently nail the ‘BOO!’ money-shot scares. To be fair, he isn’t helped by Gary Dauberman’s uneven script which can’t seem to make up its mind whether it’s a made-for-TV homage to ROSEMARY’S BABY or a mainstream compendium of the 20 greatest modern supernatural clich├ęs presented in a James Wan stylee. Leonetti is further hampered by his bland leads, Annabelle (spooky coincidence!) Wallis, as ‘Mia’ (insert ‘Farrow’ here), and Ward Horton as ‘John’. (Thought: if even the writer isn’t interested enough in these characters to invest them with last names what chance do you think the audience will?) You feel the director has been somewhat sold short when THE CONJURING had the calibre of Vera Farmiga, Patrick Wilson and Lilli Taylor shoring up the script and bringing genuine believability to the characters.

Alfre Woodard (last seen on the big-screen in 12 YEARS A SLAVE and probably best known to genre fans on the small screen in TRUE BLOOD) does her best with what little she’s given to play with as ‘Evelyn’, a local bookshop owner who stocks a handy range of satanist cult literature and who has seen ‘one or two things’ herself. She also has a nasty scar on her wrist and a tragic back-story which is glossed over too briefly which then comes back to haunt the film (no pun intended) later on when her actions strain plausibility.  The church is represented by F. Murray Abraham-lookalike Tony Amendola as ‘Father Perez’ who has a slightly suspect habit of taking photos of all the newborn members of his flock. Priests generally don’t fare too well in supernatural films, so compared to say poor ‘Father Karras’ in THE EXORCIST, ‘Father Perez’ gets let off relatively lightly on this occasion. 

As with THE CONJURING, the period detail (late 1960’s here) is impressively rendered. In addition, the backdrop of the Manson murders and references to ‘Helter Skelter’ lend the film a chilling real life context in which to place the cult elements of the plot. Ironically, for a film firmly pitched as a supernatural thriller, the most effective sequence (and coincidentally the only time the film actually made me ‘jump’) was the non-supernatural and visceral attack on the neighbours and the subsequent home violation.

Another key sequence which I felt should've registered higher on the shock ohmmeter, involves Mia’s nightmarish trip to her apartment block’s basement whereby she finds herself trapped in a lift that won’t budge whilst fleeing from something demonic lurking in the shadows. Perhaps it was fact that there was also an ugly scary pram wheeled into view which let it down for me. Upon seeing the pram, all I could think about was NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET 5: THE DREAM CHILD and I suddenly found myself half-expecting Freddy Krueger to jump into the light proudly proclaiming: “It’s a Boyyyyy!”

There’s at least two other ‘jump’ moments which didn’t work for me due to poor staging; and then we must consider the ‘star’ of the film: ‘Annabelle’ herself. As the aforementioned doll is only a conduit for evil demon thingies she doesn’t actually do anything except look pig ugly. No head-twisting; not even a cheeky wink or a flash of sharp teeth. And yet despite this fact the camera pulls up close and personal on her visage on several occasions. Each time you brace yourself for ‘the moment’ but each time you’re left slightly deflated with no payoff. Perhaps we've been spoilt by ‘Chucky's antics? And as for her design, why would any sane person want to: a. collect something that looks like a shrunken version of Bette Davis in WHATEVER HAPPENED TO BABY JAN; and b. place it in prime view on a shelf glaring down at her newborn child? If that isn’t a recipe for childhood trauma then I’ll just go and write a letter to daddy... (See what I did there?)

ANNABELLE is a film that will mostly scare people who scare easily. It does generate the odd moment of genuine jumpiness; but these are then more often than not dragged down by leaden scenes where nothing much happens to paper-thin characters and a demonic doll that looks ghastly but doesn’t actually do anything.  

 **½ (out of 5*)
    
 Paul Worts