Tuesday, 26 May 2015

DARKEST DAY

Directed by Dan Rickard, Starring: Dan Rickard, Chris Wandell, Samantha Bolter. Horror, UK, 2015, 90mins, cert 15.

DVD release on 25th May 2015 by Left Films.

Washed up on a deserted Brighton beach with no memory of how he got there, Dan (Dan Rickard) stumbles into the debris-strewn burnt out town. A devastating neurological virus has swept across the land - resulting in a zombie plague. After a chance encounter following a zombie-skirmish, he falls in with a small group of survivors who are hiding out in a small terrace house; plundering food and booze from nearby supermarkets and dodging the occasional rampaging zombie. But there is also a military presence in the town, and it soon becomes apparent that their mission is to hunt him down. Can Dan and his new found friends find sanctuary in the out of town ‘safe camps’ before the soldiers find him – and just why is he the army’s number one priority...?

Filmed largely over spare weekends, this micro-budgeted project (£1,000) originally started out way back in 2006 - when director Dan Rickard was just 19 years old. Enlisting the help and endless goodwill and perseverance of his friends (not to mention the occasional 50 or so volunteer zombie extras), it’s a minor miracle that the film actually got completed at all. What’s more surprising still is that it hangs together reasonably well and flows far smoother than its protracted production history would suggest. Combining a shooting schedule not too dissimilar to Peter Jackson’s first feature BAD TASTE, with a DIY-like approach to the visual effects, Rickard’s achievement is certainly commendable purely from a logistics point of view.

However, both his choice of subject matter and the largely improvised script upon which he hangs some (admittedly) impressive images on in amongst the shaky-cam approach to action, is far too much 28 DAYS LATER reliant and offers little in the way of originality in an already vastly over-populated zombie apocalypse ravaged sub-genre.

As the lead, Rickard himself admits he’s no actor (and he’d be right) – but his self-casting came from him figuring no one else could be persuaded to lay down in freezing sea-water for no money! The rest of the cast wade in as best they can with what little they’re given to work with. But if I said the line “Why’d you need artificial colouring in peas?” was the dialogue highlight for me, perhaps this might tell you something?

Visually though there are some strikingly effective images including a seemingly deserted road junction strewn with burnt out vehicles, (actually filmed in the middle of the day in between traffic incursions), and a derailed commuter train. There’s also some seamless additional CG soldiers (Rickard only had 3 army uniforms at his disposal). The Chinook (?) military helicopter shots (achieved using a model) are admirably resourceful – albeit displaying a tad too much manoeuvrability me thinks (but I’m no helicopter expert).
The zombies run full-pelt at the camera with often little more make-up applied than a smattering of red paint. There is a very brief glimpse of gut munching but nothing really juicy for gorehounds to salivate over.

At one point in the film, the survivors find themselves playing a game of cat and mouse with the tracking soldiers in a fully-stocked branch of the now defunct Blockbuster rental chain. It’s an amusing anachronism which seems somewhat appropriate given that Blockbuster and DARKEST DAY are essentially both examples of outdated concepts whose respective shelf-lives have now expired. 

But I’ve reviewed far worse, far bigger-budgeted flicks recently, so DARKEST DAY gets a (generous) three-stars rather than my increasingly common two-star rating of late.

Extras: Commentary, trailers, making of.

***(out of 5*)

Paul Worts

  

Saturday, 23 May 2015

POLTERGEIST (2015)

Directed by Gil Kenan, Starring: Sam Rockwell, Rosemarie DeWitt, Jared Harris. Horror, US, 2015, 93mins, cert 15.

“They’re heeeere...” (again) inside the damn telly – but this time it's a Sony flat screen. Unfortunately, despite the upgraded technology - including post-conversion stereoscopy – it ultimately amounts to little more than a disappointingly ‘flat’ experience.

Tobe Hooper’s original 3-ring circus of special effects and Spielbergian saccharine is hardly the untouchable modern classic that rose-tinted 80’s apologists make it out to be. But at least it felt like an ‘event’ experience at the time: and the skeletons were more convincing (perhaps because they were real!)  In director Gil (MONSTER HOUSE) Kenan’s 2015 reboot/regurgitation, the restless CG spirits resemble bargain basement House of the Dead video game cast-offs. It’s a shame producer Sam Raimi couldn’t have dusted off a few of the original Deadites from ARMY OF DARKNESS to try and salvage the ending.

The plot follows the 1982 blueprint faithfully, albeit with a few tokenistic contemporary upgrades: iPhone; drone and Dad’s (Sam Rockwell – criminally underused) redundancy forcing the family to up sticks and move to a less desirable neighbourhood.

To be fair, the early scenes are reasonably effective and do achieve a promising frisson of foreboding: ‘Carol Anne’ stand-in Madison (wide-eyed Kennedi Clements) pushing a stick into the flowerbeds only to watch it repeatedly pop back up (presumably courtesy of the buried corpses seething with rage under the earth); and the bedroom closet’s doorknob that provides (literally) hair-raising static fun for Madison and her brother Griffin (Kyle Catlett). There’s also a couple of nice 3D jump scares (one of which references the stacked table set-piece from the original) and a squirrel attack to rival NATIONAL LAMPOON’S CHRISTMAS VACATION. 

But the clown scene is a let-down; a squandered opportunity given that there’s an attic full of the creepy things this time, and unlike ANNABELLE these can actually move. The other iconic sequence, the tree attack, is technically impressive, with the camera seamlessly gliding after the spindly CG branches pulling Griffin out of the house. But the tree lacks presence (have I just typed that?) and more closely resembles a de-needled Christmas leftover than an arboreal arbiter of the dead.

The team of paranormal investigators called in to retrieve Carol Anne –whoops, I mean Madison, barely register as characters (clearly the screenwriter didn’t give much of a hoot for them either) – apart from one frustratingly promising hallucination involving a power drill - during which I fleetingly entertained hopes of a Fulci-like CITY OF THE LIVING DEAD/GATES OF HELL 3D splatter gag. (Alas, no such luck).

And by the time Jared Harris shows up as professional ghost-whisperer Carrigan Burke - reprising Zelda Rubenstein’s line: “This house is clean” whilst wearing a silly hat - all hope is lost for the film as it’s sucked into a half-hearted CG light-show and the nasty damp patch of mould on the ceiling spits out ectoplasm and children (probably in disgust at how underwritten it feels its part is).

They were here in 1982. They were here again in 2015. I sincerely hope that’s the last we’ve seen of them.

**(out of 5*)

Paul Worts

Saturday, 9 May 2015

WHAT'S LEFT OF US aka THE DESERT (EL DESIERTO)

Directed by Christopher Behl, Starring: Victoria Almeida, Lautaro Delgado, William Prociuk. Horror/drama, Argentina, 2013, 98mins, cert 18.

Released in the UK on DVD on 11th May 2015 by Peccadillo Pictures.

Three survivors of the zombie apocalypse try to come to terms with the psychological and physical strains of an increasingly dysfunctional ménage a trois whilst living in the claustrophobic confines of a fortified house in an urban wasteland.

German writer/director Christoph Behl’s minimalist Spanish language art house zombie-film was screened at FrightFest 2013 under its original title: THE DESERT (EL DESIERTO). It played twice over the weekend as part of the Discovery Screen programme. I caught it on the Sunday evening, straight after watching several episodes of Adam Green’s horror-sitcom HOLLISTON. If I’m honest I didn’t care very much for Behl’s low-key sluggish offering at the time, but I was fully prepared to change my opinion when the chance came to re-watch it recently.

The isolation is conveyed through the sounds picked up on the external microphones set up around the house. The constant buzzing of flies provides a soundscape of decay, whilst the occasional grunt and wail conveys hints of external threat. Inside the house (where the majority of the film takes place), Axel (Lautaro Delgado) is the unfortunate ‘gooseberry’ in a love triangle, whose unrequited love for Ana is made all the more unbearable by the fact that his two companions, Ana (Victoria Almeida) and Jonathan (William Prociuk) are lovers. When he’s not spying on Ana, Axel passes the time by tattooing flies onto his body – with the idea being that once he’s covered every inch of his flesh in the inked insects he’ll leave the house.

Another pastime for all three residents involves filming private video diaries à la BIG BROTHER and then depositing the tapes in a padlocked suitcase to protect their privacy. Unfortunately, one of the housemates isn’t playing by the rules and is sneakily viewing the tapes – breaking a fundamental code in the ‘house constitution’. Meanwhile, Ana maintains an art project of her own - a memorial to each killed zombie – by recording a fictional name for each one on her wall of commemoration. As the film opens she is utilising Greek names. This theme continues when, following a ‘dare’ resulting from an ill-advised game of ‘truth or dare’, a zombie is captured and brought into the house. Ana christens him ‘Pythagoras’ (presumably because his mathematical namesake knew a thing or two about triangles, geddit? – these are the jokes folks – and trust me they’re few and far between).

The film plays like an overlong episode of THE WALKING DEAD for the art house crowd. It utilises the well-trodden (shuffled?) zombie apocalypse scenario (although doesn’t attempt any explanation or background as to how events led to this point) to isolate three characters and place them under a microscope to see how they’ll react. The problem is that whilst the film can survive without the apocalypse’s origins being sketched in, it suffers (in my opinion fatally) from failing to provide Ana, Axel and Jonathan with any kind of back stories. I found it a tough watch back in 2013 at FrightFest, and I found it an even tougher watch in 2015 as I gradually realised that the film’s shortcomings were all still very much prevalent. I simply couldn’t engage with the protagonists or their predicament on any level and as a result the film’s running time felt then (and still feels now) excruciatingly long and drawn out. It strives to say something profound and meaningful, but frankly I felt more sympathy for the chained-up ‘Pythagoras’ then I did for any of the other characters, and ultimately what it left for me just wasn’t enough.  

**(out of 5)


Paul Worts