Wednesday, 25 February 2015

SUMMER OF BLOOD

Directed by Onur Tukel, Starring: Onur Tukel, Anna Margaret Hollyman, Dakota Goldhor, Vanna Pilgrim, Melodie Sisk, Juliette Fairley. Comedy/Horror, US 2014, 86mins, cert 18.

Released in the UK on Blu-ray and DVD on 23rd February 2015 by Monster Pictures.

Having turned down far-too-good-for-him girlfriend Jody’s marriage proposal, commitment phobic Eric Sparrow (Onur Tukel) then promptly loses her to an old college flame. Realising too late that she was the best thing to ever happen to him, he unsuccessfully tries to win her back before turning to online dating and a series of disastrous encounters ensue. On the verge of being fired from his office job, his attempts to woo his office co-worker (whose photo he masturbates to in the toilet) seem to be getting him nowhere also, he takes a late-night stroll down by the Brooklyn Bridge where he finds a man with a gushing neck wound. As the man bleeds to death in front of him, Sparrow is so self-absorbed his assistance amounts to little more than offering his ex-girlfriend’s spare tampon to stem the blood. Returning to the same spot the next night and with his life at an all-time low, (we know this because he passes a road sign which reads ‘dead end’ – geddit?), he meets a vampire who (consentingly) bites him. Instantly transformed into a sex-god (albeit one with fangs and weird eyes) he is also bestowed the gift of persuasive hypnosis (handy when the landlord comes knocking for the unpaid rent) – but will it allow him to win back Jody?

Writer/director/co-producer and star Onur Tukel is clearly trying to channel Woody Allen with his talky indie-art house flick, and whilst it isn’t nearly as insightful and witty as it tries to be, Tukel’s Turkish vampire in Brooklyn by way of ANNIE HALL tale is reasonably entertaining – in spite of the central character. I say in spite of because Tukel’s Eric Sparrow is not someone you can easily root for. Instantly dislikeable on every level, it’s hard to fathom quite why girlfriend Jody (Anna Margaret Hollyman) not only stuck with Eric for three whole years, but also unfathomably entertained the notion of marriage and a family with him. It certainly wasn’t for the sex:  “Do you know how I keep dry when it’s hot and humid outside? I think of you.”(Ouch).

This exchange sums up one of the film’s essential weaknesses. The dialogue is often snappy, pithy and smart – but it rarely rings true in terms of what real people would actually say; no matter how clever it might read on the page. And for a dialogue-driven film, this at times becomes a real pain in the neck (sorry).

Sparrow’s transformation into a hypnotic undead love-machine (albeit one whose love-bites are a bit messy) is an embarrassing self-indulgent male fantasy, but he does eventually attempt to grapple with the morality of his blood-lust and seek some kind of redemption.

The neck biting (with traditional pinchers) serves up bloody arterial sprays and gory gloop, and there’s more than a sprinkling of vampiric bonking with Sparrow’s three ‘brides’ before they collectively decide to follow their (non-beating) hearts to find their true loves. Sparrow in turn follows suit to try to win back Jody (a task now made easier following the after-effects of having taken a bite out of her chiselled-jawed lover’s ankle). But can he commit when faced with the prospect of immortality?
Unlike Woody Allen, Turkel doesn’t set out to romanticise the city that never sleeps, so we get a grubby tungsten-stained yellow palette in place of Gordon Willis’ gorgeous monochrome cinematography. The sickly humid visuals complement the sweat-stained loose-fitting shirts of the lead protagonist – shirts that become increasingly blood-stained during the film – a fact which goes almost unnoticed by the blasé neurotic-obsessed inhabitants New Yorkers. 

It’s neither MARTIN nor MANHATTAN (nor MIDNIGHT SON for that matter), but at least it’s the dialogue that occasionally sparkles in SUMMER OF BLOOD rather than the vampires.  

Extras: Commentary, behind the scenes, trailer, deleted scenes.
***(out of 5*)

Paul Worts

(Originally published on FRIGHTFEST

Wednesday, 18 February 2015

THE BABADOOK

Directed by Jennifer Kent, Starring: Essie Davis, Noah Wiseman. Psychological horror. Australia, 2014, 93mins, cert 15. Released in the UK on Blu-ray /DVD on 16th February 2015.

“If it's in a word, or it's in a look, you can't get rid of the Babadook.”

Six years after surviving a horrendous car crash in which her husband was killed, Amelia (Essie Davis) is still struggling to come to terms with her loss, and equally struggling to cope with her six year old son Samuel’s “significant behavioural problems”. Unable to get a good night’s sleep due to Samuel’s bad dreams about a monster coming to get him; Amelia’s increasingly fragile mental state begins to unravel further after Samuel chooses for his bedtime story a pop-up book not seen on his shelf before entitled: ‘Mister Babadook’.

Building on her award-winning short film MONSTER, writer/director Jennifer Kent’s debut feature is a disturbing portrait of a mother being slowly consumed by unresolved grief and a traumatised child haunted by inherited guilt and fear. The very real traumas of how Amelia’s sleep deprivation and encroaching social isolation seep into her dysfunctional relationship with son Samuel makes for uncomfortable viewing. Amelia’s descent into a maelstrom of exhaustive depression and then further down into even darker waters is brilliantly conveyed by Essie Davis. Young Noah Wiseman, making his feature film debut, is equally convincing as the demanding, terrified and ultimately heartbreakingly vulnerable Samuel: “My daddy’s in the cemetery. He got killed driving my mum to the hospital to have me.”

The domestic reality-based psychological drama is skilfully drawn with an assured hand. Embedding the relationship between mother and son so carefully, director Jennifer Kent’s reward for her meticulously layered groundwork comes with the introduction of ‘Mister Babadook’ and the escalating sense of unease that the viewer can’t help but share right from the moment the dreaded book is opened.

It’s a matter of interpretation as to whether the Babadook (a cross between comedian/card magician Jerry Sadowitz and Struwwelpeter) is merely a physical manifestation of the darkness festering within Amelia, or a tangible entity in its own right, but whatever it is, its status as an instant inductee into the stuff of nightmares hall of fame is guaranteed.

It’s rare for a film to deliver the goods in terms of creepy scares having firstly invested such care and attention on establishing a strong layered character dynamic. But director Jennifer Kent’s first feature offers up a potent blend of both. It’s by no means an ‘easy’ watch – but that’s a compliment. The psychologically damaging fireworks that explode between mother and son are as shocking and effective as the dread and ‘BOO!’ provided by the Babadook.

There are some nice ‘tip-of-the-hat’ genre moments such as the sequence where Amelia is watching ‘The Drop of Water’ segment from Mario Bava’s BLACK SABBATH on late-night TV, together with the bleary-eyed semi-conscious TV montages which include Lon Chaney’s unmasking as the PHANTOM OF THE OPERA and the alarmingly surreal but brilliant cameo appearance by the Babadook in amongst a Georges Melies film.

Allowances need to be made however for the EXORCIST-like trappings towards the end (perhaps a by-product caused by Amelia’s seeming penchant for late-night horror viewing – then again she also watches episodes of SKIPPY – so perhaps not). But apart from that, THE BABADOOK represents a rare 2-for-1 offer in modern genre cinema: an absorbing sometimes harrowing psychological drama with well-written credible characters, and a scary nightmare bogeyman that feels integral to the drama rather than just a cheap shock cipher.

(Top tip for parents: if your child is having nightmares or is convinced a monster is coming to get him/her, it is probably best to avoid reading ‘Mister Babadook’ to them as a bedtime story.)
*****

Sunday, 15 February 2015

IT FOLLOWS

Directed by David Robert Mitchell, Starring: Maika Monroe, Keir Gilchrist, Jake Weary, Daniel Zovatto, Olivia Luccardi, Lili Sepe. Horror, US, 2014, 100mins, cert 15.
Released in the UK on 27th February 2015.

Whilst basking in the post-coital afterglow of her brief backseat coupling with new boyfriend Hugh, Jay (Maika Monroe) is unceremoniously chloroformed by her new beau. When consciousness returns she finds herself strapped to a wheelchair in an abandoned car park. Her kidnapper then informs her that in having sex with her he has given her some kind of SSTD (Supernatural Sexually Transmitted Disease) and the only way she can rid herself of this curse is to in turn play pass-the-parcel and sleep with someone else. Until she does the dirty deed, she will be followed by ‘It’ – an entity which can take the form of anyone either young or old, complete stranger or dead relative, and whose sole purpose is to slowly and methodically follow you. If ‘It’ touches you - you die. (And here’s the small print): if the person you have sex with in order to unload ‘It’ onto them is subsequently caught and dies, then ‘It’ will turn its attention back to you... 
 
Writer director David Robert Mitchell’s second feature certainly hits the ground running with an immediate attention-grabbing opening sequence which places us slap bang in the middle of a retro Carpenter-like HALLOWEEN neighbourhood suburb. The tree-lined, manicured lawned street’s deceptive peacefulness is broken by a scantily-clad young woman stumbling out into the road. She’s obviously trying to escape the clutches of something, but unlike Carpenter’s tale that something is not wearing a boiler suit and a pale Captain Kirk mask. That something is invisible (to us at least).

Unfortunately, whilst the shadow of Carpenter seems at times to practically drape itself over this modern sexual take on M.R. James’ ‘Casting the Runes’ tale, director Mitchell isn’t able to build upon this striking beginning, and what momentum he does initially generate is slowly dissipated by a limiting premise and a weak third act. 

This is a real shame as there’s much to admire along the way as we follow ‘It’ following the sympathetic and nicely played performance of rapidly rising star Maika Munroe as ‘Jay’. Together with sister Kelly (Lili Sepe), bookish friend Yara (Olivia Luccardi), childhood-friend Paul (Keir Gilchrist) and hunky neighbour Greg (Daniel Zovatto), Jay’s core group of confidants are a likeable and believable bunch who rally round their friend when she (and only she) starts to see dead people breaking into the kitchen and peeing on the floor.

Mike Gioulakis’ 2.35: 1 cinematography pulls off some neatly choreographed full-circle panning shots whilst the drives through the suburban landscape are beautifully captured through the frame of a car windscreen. Accompanied by a haunting melodic and evocative electronic score by Rich Vreeland, when these elements gel the results, albeit fleetingly, elevate the film above its (ultimately) risible concept.

The idea that in order to escape death you need to have sex is a wry, but not entirely original twist on the usual horror film morality blueprint for teenagers that equates to: sex = death. CHERRY FALLS (2000) gave us a psycho who bumped off virgins –resulting in the local teen population holding a mass sex-party in order to rid themselves of their virginity and not become a target. The problem with IT FOLLOWS is that having had the premise explained to us via Jay’s less-than gallant boyfriend practically right from the off, the story has really nowhere to go, except for the audience to speculate how long before all these creepy incarnations eventually persuade her into copulating (and there’s no shortage of willing willies available) in order to save her own skin.

Whilst there are several well-staged unsettling early sequences set within the domestic confines of the immediate neighbourhood, the film loses ground and tension when it ventures further afield. A pointless search to find Jay’s (now ex) boyfriend wastes running time and tells us nothing new except that he seems to have largely spent his spare time jerking off to porn magazines (judging by the copious amounts of crumpled tissues lying about). A scene at a remote coastal house is clumsily executed, and an implausible set-piece in a swimming pool makes no sense whatsoever given the nature of the threat ‘It’ poses.

It’s a shame then, that IT FOLLOWS ultimately fails to follow through on its own initial promise, and unfortunate that, thanks to its inconclusive open ending, my one over-riding thought as the credits rolled was: when he was out kerb-crawling, did Paul avail himself of one of the street corner hookers or not...?

*** (out of 5*)

Paul Worts

Wednesday, 11 February 2015

THE KILLING

Directed by Stanley Kubrick, Starring: Sterling Hayden, Elisha Cook Jr., Marie Windsor. Crime, Thriller, US, 1956, 85mins, cert 12.
Released in the UK on Blu-ray on 9th February 2015 by Arrow Academy.

12 years before he would film apes discovering a monolith and 15 years before Malcolm McDowell’s droogs would indulge in bit of the old ultra-violence, Stanley Kubrick chose to adapt a crime novel entitled ‘Clean Break’ for his third feature film and in so doing produced one of the most highly regarded heist movies.

Employing hardboiled crime fiction writer Jim Thompson to write the ripe nourish dialogue, the film plays out like a game of chess, with the various protagonists all being pawns in the elaborate scheme of ring leader Johnny Clay (Sterling Hayden) to rob $2million from a racetrack on a big race day. With a radio commentator-like narration intoning, each of the film’s characters are introduced to us, along with the dates/times of the non-linear narrative (of which there’s no point in trying to keep up with) which jumps back and forth, often days at a time, before we finally arrive at the actual robbery. Assisting Hayden with his plan are a rich assortment of characters including a race-track cashier George Peatty (Elisha Cook Jr. - who I remember most from the original HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL), his gold-digging and cheating wife Sherry (Marie Windsor), a crooked cop, a bartender with a sick wife, and a marksmen tasked with shooting a racehorse. It’s a rich selection and they’re given some choice hardboiled dialogue to chew around with before we get down to the dramatic events at the racetrack.

The heist itself is giddily exhilarating and choreographed with a controlled precision that Kubrick would become renowned for. Little details such as a ‘lucky’ horse-shoe, an ill-fitting suitcase lock and a pampered lapdog take on seismic significance as the carefully plotted plan starts to unravel like a ball of string and the seemingly most innocuous character ultimately triggers a bloodbath.

THE KILLING is an early demonstration of how Kubrick could take genre-specific source material and fashion it with his own unique vision. It’s a gripping noir crime thriller in its own right, but it’s also a fascinating glimpse of what Kubrick would bring to cinema in the years following. 

Extras: Stanley Kubrick’s second feature, Killer’s Kiss (1955), an interview with film critic Michel Ciment, an interview from French television with Sterling Hayden, an interview with filmmaker Ben Wheatley and trailers. 
        
****(out of 5*)

Paul Worts

(Originally published on FrightFest)

Saturday, 7 February 2015

DRACULA UNTOLD

Directed by Gary Shore, Starring: Luke Evans, Sarah Gadon, Dominic Cooper, Charles Dance. Fantasy/Horror, UK, 2014, 92mins, cert 15.

Released in the UK on Blu-ray and DVD on 9th February 2015 by Universal Pictures UK

It’s 1462, and former impaler Vlad (Luke Evans), having been enslaved by the Ottomans as a child and brought up to be a fearsome warrior, is now a peaceful loving ruler of his homeland Wallachia. Unfortunately, history is due to repeat itself as his former childhood friend Mehmed is now the evil Turkish sultan and he’s demanding 1,001 Wallachian boys to be drafted into his army (the thousandth and one being Vlad’s own son Ingeras). Desperate to protect his son and people he enters into a Faustian pact with the ‘Master Vampire’ (Charles Dance) whereby he will gain the strength of one hundred men, the speed of a falling star and the ability to hear a squirrel break wind several miles into the distance. The small print in all this is that he will develop an insatiable lust for human blood, and if he can’t resist this diabolical craving for three days he will become a vampire for all eternity and free the ‘Master’ vamp from his cave on Broken Tooth Mountain forever... 
  
This then is Universal Studios attempt to reboot their classic monsters by giving the world the ‘untold’ origins story of Dracula. Unfortunately, despite first-time director Gary Shore pulling off some visually impressive set-pieces, it never amounts to much more than a bland, cynical, studio penned attempt to match Marvel’s lucrative superhero factory line. 

So anxious are the makers to arrive at their modern-day envelope opening finale, that in their unseemly haste they don’t have the time (or inclination) to show us Vlad’s actual ‘origins’ as a child. Instead we have to make do with a throwaway montage glossing over his childhood indoctrination into the Ottoman army, his burgeoning into the feared impaler and his subsequent rejection of all this impaling and his desire to settle down and become a lover (not an impaler). Whilst brevity is often a quality to be admired, if you’re going to rip up one of the most well-known ‘origin’ novels of gothic fiction of all-time, doing so in such a rapid roughshod fashion is doomed to failure regardless of the merits of your conceit.
  
Luke Evans does what he can with an anaemic script, but his Vlad doesn’t stand a chance of entering into the pantheon of iconic onscreen Dracula’s no matter how impressive his command of the weather is or his new-found ability to transform into a colony of bats in the blink of a CG eye. Charles Dance’s ‘Master Vampire’ is a suitably creepy Nosferatu-like creature skulking in his skull-laden cave with his overlong tongue, but his encounter with Evans merely serves to remind one just how much enjoyable the tale would be if its tone was consistently darker than IMAX grey.

It strikes me as almost perverse that given the bloody origins of the story, DRACULA UNTOLD attempts to deliver its undernourished tale with only the merest hint or briefest coy smidgeon of the claret stuff. And it plays fast and loose with Vlad’s supernatural capabilities too, surely someone who has ‘the speed of a falling star’ could save a person from plummeting to their death down a Cliffside...?  

DRACULA UNTOLD is an unnecessary half-told tale created solely for the purpose of trying to inject some lifeblood into a character that really doesn’t need rebooting. And as for the overarching aim of teeing up an X-Men (X-Monsters?) monster-mash up franchise, well we’ve already had Fred Dekker’s wonderfully affectionate 1987 homage THE MONSTER SQUAD, so thanks, but no thanks.

Extras include audio commentary, deleted scenes, alternative opening and various supplementals. 
**(out of 5*)

Paul Worts

(This review was orIginally published on FRIGHTFEST)