Saturday, 15 October 2016

HOLIDAYS (2016)

Directed by Kevin Kolsch, Dennis Widmeyer, Gary Shore, Nicholas McCarthy, Ellen Reid, Sarah Adina Smith, Anthony Scott Burns, Kevin Smith, Scott Stewart, Adam Egypt Mortimer  Starring: Seth Green, Ruth Bradley, Madeleine Coghlan. Horror. US, 2015, 100mins. Cert 18
On DVD from Monday 10th October 2016 from Kaleidoscope Home Entertainment.

“Holidays are hell”.

A slickly produced portmanteau of eight short tales each set on or around a holiday or significant calendar date.
The anthology film has seen a revival in recent years with the likes of TALES OF HALLOWEEN, SOUTHBOUND and the V/H/S series picking up the baton from Michael Dougherty’s superb TRICK R TREAT (2007) - which in turn took up the tradition from CREEPSHOW. Tracing back further still, we had the Amicus delights of FROM BEYOND THE GRAVE (1974) and DR. TERROR’S HOUSE OF HORRORS (1965) for example, and stretching right back: Ealing Studios classic DEAD OF NIGHT (1945).

HOLIDAYS isn’t in the same league as most of the above, for one it lacks any sort of wraparound like Mervyn John’s delightfully dreadful recurring nightmare nor can it boast an iconic host like Peter Cushing’s tarot reading  ‘Doctor Schreck’, or antiques dealer “Naughty, shouldn’t of done that”. But with eight tales crammed into its modest 93min pre-credits running time, if the current story doesn’t grab you take you can take comfort in the fact only have to wait around 11mins for the next one to unfurl. Having said that there are some treats as well as soft-centred mediocre misses in this Pick n’ Mix collection.

The opening tale set around Valentine’s Day is a fairly pedestrian CARRIE referencing take on high school bullying where put upon Maxine (Madeleine Coghlan) ‘maxi-pad’ is literally pushed too far and her crush on the swimming coach has heart-felt but fatal repercussions.

Director Gary Shore (DRACULA UNTOLD – but we won’t hold that against him) delivers a tongue in cheek Ken Russell LAIR OF THE WHITE WORM-like segment for St. Patrick’s Day. Shore gets great visual mileage out of taking the allegory of Patrick driving ‘snakes’ out of Ireland literally. Ruth Bradley (GRABBERS) is a primary school teacher desperate to have a child. When her ‘deepest wish’ seems to have comes true, her initial joy is somewhat tempered by her gynaecologist delivering the news by asking: “Have you ever seen the Hollywood movie ‘Rosemary’s Baby”? “If you replace ‘Baby’ with reptile...that’s what you have”.
If you’ve ever wondered what you’d get if you fused the image of the Easter Bunny with that of the post-crucifixion Christ, look no further than Nicholas (THE PACT) McCarthy’s disturbingly memorable mash-up.  

Mother’s Day is served somewhat unsatisfactorily by an underwhelming story of a young woman who constantly finds herself pregnant, despite her insistence that her boyfriend wears 2, sometimes 3 condoms! Prescribing an unorthodox approach, her doctor suggests a desert commune of earth mothers.

Next up is a memorably flawed segment for Father’s Day, involving an ominous planetary alignment, and a perplexed daughter receiving a tape recording from her long-thought dead father. Unfortunately, despite daddy’s message promising: “this will all make sense at the end”, it doesn’t.

Kevin Smith gets what you’d consider the plum gig with Halloween, but instead directs a lazy uninspired revenge tale of 3 web-cam girls who turn the tables on their nasty pimp employer in graphic fashion.

Seth Green stars in the Christmas tale which seems set to riff on JINGLE ALL THE WAY but rapildy steers off into darker waters when a dad seemingly misses out on acquiring the must-have Xmas toy for his son (a VR headset names UVU, which ominously promises to ‘shows you YOU’) Loved the sign inside the closed toy-shop’s door: ‘Children left unattended will be sold to the circus’.

The final calendar date sees in the New Year with a bloodbath when an online dating search leads to a serial killer biting off more than they can chew as Auld Lang Syne rings out from Times Square on the TV.

HOLIDAYS is a reasonably diverting assemblance of folklore riffs and twisted seasonal clichés, but I’d stop short of saying it’s truly worth decking the halls with boughs of holly for. 
***(out of 5*)

Paul Worts

Originally published on the FRIGHTFEST website.

Thursday, 13 October 2016

CREATURE DESIGNERS: THE FRANKENSTEIN COMPLEX


Directed by Gilles Penso / Alexandre Poncet, Starring: Steve Johnson, Rick Baker, Guillermo del Toro, Joe Dante, John Landis, Phil Tippett. Documentary 2016, 102mins, Cert 12.
Released in the UK on DVD on 3rd October 2016 by Studiocanal.


"It's kind of godlike to create something that never existed before." (Steve Johnson).

"The happiest I can be is when the monster walks into a set and I feel for a moment my life is complete." (Guillermo Del Toro).

About an hour into this interview-heavy documentary chronicling the evolution of creature effects designers throughout motion picture history, the celebratory mood darkens and becomes a more sombre reflective memoriam tinged with bitter sadness.

Up to this point a joyously spinning carousel of practical creature designers and film-makers line-up to expound on the joy and unmistakable pride (deservedly so) they have for their work bringing monsters to life with their bare hands (often aided by tons of latex and wires).
The practical pioneers are all name-checked with suitable reverence, from Lon Chaney Snr’s ability to transform and contort his face into such memorable roles as THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (1925) to Jack Pierce’s iconic Universal creations turning Boris Karloff into FRANKENSTEIN (1931) and Lon Chaney’s son into the hair-raising WOLFMAN (1941). From facial make-up to stop motion animation originator Willis O’Brien (KING KONG, 1933) to his onetime apprentice the legendary Ray Harryhausen; about whom Guillermo Del Toro pays the ultimate compliment by declaring: “he created actors not monsters”. 


Alec Gillis describes Dick Smith as "The grandfather of the modern era of make-up effects” most notably for his groundbreaking work on THE EXORCIST (1973). Dick Smith in turn inspired a generation of artists, the Fangoria pin-ups or ‘rock stars’ of 80’s special make-up effects such as Rick Baker (AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON), Chris Walas (GREMLINS, THE FLY) - both interviewed here - and Rob Bottin (THE HOWLING, THE THING) who sadly appears to have retreated into solitude since his unsurpassable work on films such as John Carpenter’s classic creature-feature. 


Why? Well, it all seems to be traceable back to James Cameron’s deep sea alien encounter THE ABYSS. A single CGI effect within the film had such an impact on audiences and commentators alike that Steve Johnson’s substantial bioluminescent underwater creature effects were completely overlooked: “Everybody in the special effects team got an Oscar except for me because of that goddamn water tentacle!” 


Then Cameron followed this up with TERMINATOR 2 which was, according to Stan Winston’s son Matt, “the seminal film that launched CGI”, despite the fact that “the majority of the shots in that film were handled with practical effects”. And so here’s where the documentary begins to shift in tone. Although the film doesn’t set out to portray CGI as the bad-guy per se, it’s nigh on impossible for someone like me who grew up in the golden era of practical effects not to feel an overwhelming sense of loss. And this is borne out by the way the digital age affected artists such as stop-motion designer Phil Tippett: “my whole world just kind of disappeared" when computers were allowed to largely stomp all over his work on JURASSIC PARK, an experience which left him both physically and "emotionally devastated." (Thankfully Phil rallied and his animation skills adapted to the new technology). Then there was Rick Baker’s creature work on MEN IN BLACK being unceremoniously rejected in favour of pixels, and a general loss of respect seemed to seep into the film-making business for these practical pioneers of their craft.


Then we come onto the CGI saturated present day where, as Del Toro comments: “if everything's possible, nothing's impressive: and we're there right now". Joe Dante quotes Rick Baker who, whilst viewing an UNDERWORLD sequel whispered: “just because you can have 100 werewolves running across the ceiling doesn't mean you should”. In defence of CGI, director John Landis counters this by suggesting that those who say “old-school make-up is better: Bullshit. What I do see is an over reliance on post."


If, like me, you prefer the rubber shark in JAWS and the hand-puppet of ‘Yoda’ then you’ll find yourself wistfully saddened by the way the film industry so rapidly and ruthlessly turned away from those truly hands-on artists whose craftsmanship and creativity gave life to so many beautifully creatures for our pleasure and terror. But at least there’s documentaries like CREATURE DESIGNERS to chronicle their unforgettable achievements upon which our beloved genre is grounded.


Extras: Soundtrack, designing the opening credits, a conversation with John Landis & Joe Dante, a conversation with Steve Johnson & John Vulich, stills gallery, Guillermo del Toro master class.
****(out of 5*) Paul Worts
This review is dedicated to the memory of John Vulich.







This review was originally published on the FRIGHTFEST website.

Saturday, 8 October 2016

THE LAST KING



Directed by Niles Gaup, Starring: Kristofer Hivju, Jakob Oftebro. Action, Historical Drama. Norway, 2016, 96mins, Cert 15.
 Released in the UK on DVD and for download on 3rd October 2016 by Studiocanal.
 
“An innocent boy today, our mightiest foe tomorrow”.

Norway: 1204. The throne is held by the Birkebeinerne king. However all is not well in the kingdom, and the rival Baglers, with the support of Denmark, are launching an attack upon the Birkebeinernes and hatching a plot to kill the king. Therefore, the king’s rightful heir - a baby born in secrecy out of wedlock - must be protected at all costs otherwise the royal bloodline will be severed and the Baglers will take the throne. 

Norwegian director Nile Gaup’s returns to the realm of historical drama he first mined to great acclaim with PATHFINDER (1987) (a film set around the year 1000AD). This time around he’s fast-forwarded 200 years to deliver a rollicking GAME OF THRONES like tale (minus the dragons) in which winter isn’t just coming, it’s already here. 

Against a sweeping widescreen snow covered landscape, the machinations of Norwegian civil war play out with neither women nor children safe from the marauding Baglers as they ruthlessly hunt down the king’s illegitimate son. Fleeing on skis, warrior Torstein (Kristofer Hivju (GAME OF THRONES, THE THING 2011) and his magnificent ginger beard, together with family man Skjervald (Jakob Oftebro) and his perfectly respectable but more modest beard, are forced to protect the infant across treacherous icy terrain.
The narrative toboggans along at a cracking pace, with the constant pursuit of the Baglers never more than an arrow or a bludgeoning axe away. 

Both Hivju and Oftebro are excellent in their respective roles, and you find yourself genuinely rooting for the two frosty musketeers and their little innocent infant upon whom the future of Norway relies. You’ve gotta love Hivju’s hard-as-nails-heart-of-gold Torstein, lying on a bed of straw waiting to have his chest cut open to remove an embedded arrow head, growls at his impromptu farmer surgeon: “If I die...I’m going to kill you”.

Battle are swift, brutal, occasionally bloody, and efficiently staged using a modest numbers of stuntmen and extras as (presumably) the budget allowed rather than Hollywood level legions of CGI regiments which wouldn’t deliver the gritty bone-crunching intimacy conveyed here. 

There’s a quote during the film’s end credits from an Icelandic writer named Halldor Laxness which reads: “The difference between a novelist and a historian is this: the former tells lies deliberately and for the fun of it; the historian tells lies and imagines he is telling the truth”. I cannot vouch for the historical accuracy of THE LAST KING, but I can however testify to its engaging thrusting Nordic storytelling. And any film where a man appears to be playing music by plucking his beard like a hirsute harp and a princess is played by an actress named Thea Sofie Loch Næss gets two thumbs-up from me.

****(out of 5*)
Paul Worts