Wednesday, 14 September 2016

THE CHAMBER (2016)

Director: Ben Parker. Cast: Charlotte Salt, Johannes Kuhnke, Christian Hillborg, Elliot Levey, James McArdle. UK 2016. 88 mins.

Director: Ben Parker. Cast: Charlotte Salt, Johannes Kuhnke, Christian Hillborg, Elliot Levey, James McArdle. UK 2016. 88 mins.

A special ops unit commandeer a research vessel and an aging (two-man) submersible craft, The Aurora. The three-person unit, led by ‘Red’ (a very impressive Charlotte Salt),   instruct the Aurora’s reluctant pilot Mats (Johannes Kuhnke) to take them down to the bottom of the Yellow Sea off the shores of the Korean Peninsula to locate a top secret item. The already cramped conditions and tense atmosphere within The Aurora are about to turn  deadly when the impact of an underwater explosion causes the sub to overturn, trapping the four occupants in a potential death chamber as water begins to breach the craft and the emergency power begins to drain...

Director Ben Parker’s debut feature is a ruthless effective exercise in underwater claustrophobia. A lean pared down script efficiently dispatches the three US military personnel (all played by Brits) and the grumpily distrustful salty Swedish sea-dog Mats down into the watery depths in their rusting spam-tin with minimal set-up. Terse exchanges simmer away until their real mission objective is revealed, and a fatal decision is taken by ‘Red’ which unleashes a knife-edge of raw survival instincts and brutal self-preservation.

I admit this was not a film I was expecting too much from. On paper the synopsis sounded somewhat well-worn and predictable. However I was pleasantly surprised to find this deep sea pressure cooker tense and engrossing and director Parker’s tight grip hooked me in right from the start. The limited confines of the submersible are superbly conveyed through Benjamin Pritchard’s crisply enclosed cinematography and James (Manic Street Preachers) Dean Bradfield’s score heightens the edgy brooding undercurrents.  Johannes Kuhnke convinces as the protective seasoned pilot of the previously decommissioned Norwegian Navy submersible, and Charlotte Salt (delivering an unwaveringly good American accent) essays a refreshingly steely resolve as tough decisions have to be taken. As this pair are literally thrown together when conditions become critical down on the seabed, there’s a thaw in their previously frosty relationship which is well-handled by both players and makes for a coldly moving final act.

With a potentially clunky old premise, this could have sunk without a trace under its familiar cargo of clichés, but instead it delivered an ice-cold gripping underwater nightmare which instantly surfaced into my top 5 films from FrightFest 2016.   

****(out of 5*)        
Paul Worts

Tuesday, 13 September 2016

THE DEVIL'S WOODS

Directed by Anthony White, Starring: Stephen Cromwell, Danielle Keaney, Daniel Mahony, Caoimhe Cassidy. Horror, Ireland, 2015, 70mins, Cert 15.
Released in the UK on DVD on 12th September 2016 by Left Films.

A group of friends set off from Dublin on a road trip to a festival in the countryside. On route they stop off in the woods near a small town and set up camp for the first night. According to the news bulletin on the radio, there’s a serial killer on the loose, but by the end of the night that will be the least of their worries in these particular woods...

Clearly any horror film which opens quoting from the poetry of Emily Dickinson (“Witchcraft has not a pedigree...”) is not one short of ambition. Director Anthony White’s first feature is obviously a labour of love driven by the desire to encapsulate and emulate as many of his genre influences as his micro-budget will allow. A noble cause for sure, but one which seems to have taken precedent over storytelling basics, resulting in a magpie’s nest of borrowed references loosely bound by an unoriginal thread.

After a strong opening sequence involving that aforementioned serial killer (who has an extraordinarily bulbous thumb), director White cuts to a nodding bobble-head of Sid Haig’s ‘Captain Spaulding’ with a PULP FICTION poster in the background and a Leatherface figurine on the shelf signalling to the viewer we’re deep into fan-boy territory. It’s jarring yet fun as we get to meet the first of the friends, Keith (Stephen Cromwell) snorting coke. Then we’re introduced to Katie (Caoimhe Cassidy) via a black and white dream sequence which segues into red as blood trickles down her cut wrists. (A nod to William Castle’s striking blood red bath scene from THE TINGLER?) It’s an effective moment, which seems to be setting up a later character reveal that is never explored again in the film, and consequently feels like an empty jolting gimmick. Her boyfriend Jay (Daniel Mahony) doesn’t notice the guilty glance she gives her mobile phone though when she wakes (that however will come into play later). The fourth member of the group is Keith’s girlfriend Jennifer (Danielle Keaney) whose bottom seems to dominate the film frame more often than to be just mere coincidence.

Driving past a dead fox by the roadside (armadillos not being native to Ireland) they make for a pit stop at ‘The Hatchet’ pub (surprisingly not a reference to Adam Green’s swamp slasher but its actual real-life name). Unsurprisingly, this results in the kind of reception which awaited those two American tourists in ‘The Slaughtered Lamb’ (‘The Hatchet’ doesn’t serve food either by the way).

Some indiscriminate bloodied object later hits the windscreen whilst they’re driving along a remote country. Twitchy Katie asks if someone threw it at the car, to which Keith rather tellingly replies: “...No, You’ve seen too many horror films”. Yes, unfortunately we all have Keith, and so therefore this account of the tragedy which befell a group of (four) youths is far too predictable and lacking in any real suspense. The seemingly obligatory cheap jump scares fail to land any telling blows either. Considering its short running time of 70 minutes, it wastes almost 45 of them before anything sinister occurs. The characters and their partially improvised dialogue aren’t nearly that illuminating or likeable enough to devote so much time to, particularly at the expense of any genuine exposition regarding the nature of what they encounter in the woods. There’s a brief mumbled mention of the 18th century British nobleman society known as ‘The Hellfire Club’ by Keith over the camp fire but it’s a throwaway reference and never elaborated upon.

The brief snatches of gore are grittily effective (the local butchers shop seemingly the main supplier) but the methods of sacrifice appear random rather than ritualistic in nature.
On the plus side, at least director White didn’t go down the wobble-cam found footage country path, and as a result there are some nicely composed atmospheric wide shots of the County Meath woods and surroundings. Paul Scott’s score is evocative and there’s some very unsettling noises emanating from the nearby cattle that sound more like squealing pigs – are the cows fans of DELIVERANCE too? 

“Jesus, I’ve seen this film before” mutters Jay at ‘The Hatchet’ petrol station. Clearly so has director Anthony White. The challenge next for him is to encompass his influences and homage’s into material sufficiently original enough to divert our attention away from those same original classics he obviously knows and loves so well.

Extras: director’s commentary, trailers.
(This review was originally published on the FRIGHTFEST website.)
**(out of 5*)

Paul Worts

Wednesday, 7 September 2016

LET HER OUT

Director: Cody Calahan. Cast: Alanna LeVierge, Nina Kiri, Adam Christie, Kate Fenton, Michael Lipka. Canada  2016. 89 mins.

Bike courier Helen is repeatedly drawn back to the motel where her hooker mother tried to kill her in the womb (with a pair of scissors) twenty-three years ago. Following a serious accident Helen suffers a traumatic head injury and is diagnosed as having ‘vanishing twin syndrome’ It turns out that her mother was carrying twins at the time but as a result of her self-inflicted trauma, the twin died in the uterus and was reabsorbed back into Helen. Unfortunately for Helen, and her friends, the twin is taking over Helen’s psyche – and eventually will want out...  

Following on from his two ANTISOCIAL films, director Cody Calahan serves up a female Jekyll and Hyde wrapped in THE NEON DEMON visual aesthetic of Nicolas Winding Refn, and finishes it off with a garnish of flesh tearing body-horror.  

It was an odd choice for the FrightFest Thursday night late slot which has in recent years tended to feature relatively undemanding crowd-pleasing creature features such as killer wasps in STUNG in 2015 and killer beavers in ZOMBEAVERS the year before. Perhaps as a result I may have (partially at least) approached it in the wrong frame of mind, but I just couldn’t seem to engage with the overly ponderous, over baked nature of the film at all.

That’s not to take anything away from Alanna LeVierge’s central performance as Helen, who, in her feature debut, delivers both an emotional and physical powerhouse portrayal of the tortured courier with the worrying blackouts. 

I guess I was waiting for the twist, which never came. The story plays out exactly as I’d imagine it would – and I didn’t need the not-so-subtle over-egged attempts at symbolism such as naming the hotel Helen is drawn to ‘The Gemini’ (sigh). At one point I began speculating as to whether the shadowed figure who calmly enters her mother’s motel room and rapes her might have been of supernatural origin? There then seemed to be a hint that her mother’s ghost was still haunting the motel as implied by the quickly glimpsed silhouette at the motel  – but alas neither of these potentially diverting ideas materialised.

Still, kudos to a film that tries to stage a dramatic dash across neon soaked urban Canadian streets on a bicycle.

**(out of 5*)

Paul Worts

Friday, 2 September 2016

CELL (2016)


Director: Tod Williams. Cast: John Cusack, Samuel L. Jackson, Isabelle Fuhrman, Stacy Keach, Joshua Mikel. USA 2016. 98 mins.

Co-adapted from his own 2006 novel, author Stephen King’s apocalyptic techno nightmare finally lands in cinema screens after cresting some rough production seas. Graphic artist Clay Riddell (John Cusack) is on his mobile phone to his estranged family at the airport when (luckilyy for him) his battery dies. Switching to a payphone (remember them?) he is suddenly caught in the middle of a zombie-like massacre as a signal, The Pulse, is transmitted through the cellular network instantly transforming all users across the globe into savage drone-like killers (‘Phoners’). Escaping from the terminal onto a subway train (narrowly avoiding a poorly CG rendered crashing plane fuselage in the process), he eventually hooks up with train driver Tom McCourt (Samuel L. Jackson), and the Goth girl neighbour Alice (Isabelle  Fuhrman) who’s just had to dispatch her ‘Phoner’ mum. Together they embark on a perilous road trip to try and reach a safe haven where The Pulse signal hasn’t yet penetrated and for Clay to try and reconnect with his wife and son.

As with so many of Stephen King’s works (both on and off screen), what starts out as an interesting idea (you can almost picture King’s smirk when the notion hits him) is then squandered on an unsatisfactory resolution. That’s not to say it isn’t a reasonably entertaining popcorn ride in the process, but all that instant sugar rush doesn’t sustain and when you’ve scooped out the last kernel in the bucket, you’re still left with a hungry gap.

The opening airport massacre is surprisingly brutal and attention grabbing set-piece (a splendid cameo from Troma maestro Lloyd Kaufman does however momentarily dispel the dramatic impetus). In amongst the carnage is a blink and you’ll miss it axe assault that echoes Scatman Crothers shock demise in Kubrick’s THE SHINING (not that King would intentionally reference that adaptation in any shape or form).

The road trip that then ensues however meanders disappointingly and whilst there are momentary flashes of inspired carnage along the way such as the torching of a field of private schoolboys - instigated by the school’s headmaster (an underused Stacy Keach), the film never recovers its dramatic drive. And even in this scene, the ropey sub-Syfy Channel CGI undermines its potential impact, but a bonus point surely for the bizarre use of the “Trololo song”! 

I liked the way the zombie hoards seemed to move in coordinated flock-like migratory waves, and the death rattle-like sounds they transmitted through gaping INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS maws. However the film ultimately falls on its sword in the muddled finale. The source of the signal is never explained, there is a suggestion swirling in the air that graphic artist Clay drew the instigator into existence – but this isn’t resolved either way. I haven’t read the source novel but I’m reliably informed the screen ending is bleaker than the book’s. I actually liked this downbeat ending, as laughable as its depiction and lead up looks.

CELL is an entertaining but uneven flick which takes a concept that whilst fresh in 2006 seems outdated to us now (perhaps King could pen a sequel based on the Pokémon Go app?). Cusack and Jackson try their damnest to keep straight faces throughout but you’ll need to meet them more than half-way in order for them to succeed in selling you CELL.

***(out of 5*)
Paul Worts

Thursday, 1 September 2016

MY FATHER DIE


Director: Sean Brosnan. Cast: Joe Anderson, John Schneider, Kevin Gage, Candace Smith, Gary Stretch. USA 2016. 102 mins.

Inspired by J.M. Synge’s ‘The Playboy of the Western World’, Sean (son of Pierce) Brosnan’s directorial debut shifts the play’s setting from Ireland to the Mississippi for this Southern Gothic gory tale of revenge. 

In a monochrome flashback we are shown a father, Ivan (Gary Stretch) pummelling to death one of his sons whilst the other, 12 year old Asher (Joe Anderson) loses both his speech and hearing during the attack. Ivan is jailed for this monstrous assault, but when he is released two decades later Asher sets out to avenge his brother’s death and to kill the man who maimed him both physically and mentally.

A gripping, often brutal study in dysfunctional family dynamics, tattooed monster Ivan stomps across the swamp landscapes like an indestructible Terminator whilst his adrenaline fuelled son Asher alternates between pre-emptive strikes against his old papa and seat-of-the-pants retreats. An already heady bayou gumbo is further seasoned with flavoursome support characters such as a dodgy preacher and Nana (Candice Smith), her dead brother’s girlfriend (and object of Ivan’s lust), who Asher unwillingly ends up dragging back in to the fatal cat and mouse game he is playing with his (seemingly) unstoppable father from hell.

Whilst there are momentary lapses of reason, (one particular moment had me almost shout at the screen in pure frustration – I won’t elaborate further for spoiler reasons), this remains a powerful, haunting and visually ambitious first feature from Mr Brosnan. I just hope given both the title and subject matter, that it isn’t in the least autobiographical! 

****(out of 5*) 

Paul Worts