Sunday, 28 February 2021

THE STYLIST (2020)


Directed by: Jill Gevargizian Starring: Najarra Townsend, Brea

Grant, Sarah McGuire US 2020, 105mins, Certificate TBC.

Available exclusively on the Arrow VOD platform from 1st March 2021.

“But we all want what we don’t have”.

Expanding on her award winning 2016 short, writer/director Jill Gevargizian’s debut feature is a stylishly crafted and beautifully executed portrait of a serial killer hairstylist. Claire (Najarra Townsend, CONTRACTED) has a penchant for drugging her clients and scalping them. By candlelight, Claire then sits in her cellar wearing her victims scalps in a macabre costume role-play acting out her clients perceived coveted lives through recalled phrases, flesh and hair.

A cursory glance at the above would suggest comparison with Joe Spinell’s grungy grindhouse scalper ‘Frank Zito’ from William Lustig’s MANIAC (1980). However, shorn of the male gaze, Gevargizian’s primary focus is less the dissection of the female form, (albeit unflinchingly graphic on occasion), but rather more about social isolation. Her protagonist Claire’s crippling low self-esteem hampers her from successfully navigating the intricate cutting mores of social interaction and precludes her from forming any meaningful female friendships.

The opening sequence, re-worked from the short, encapsulates the intimacy and sensuality of the hairstylist’s work and maps out the dichotomy of the stylist/client relationship. A new random customer reveals that she is having a marital affair. A hitherto secret that the client feels she can somehow unburden to a stranger, enlisting Claire as an anonymous confessor. What her client doesn’t realise is that Claire absorbs these snatched intimate details of her clients lives, the only meaningful interactions she has beyond ordering her daily coffee, and weaves them into her fatal fantasies.

When Claire is asked by regular client Olivia (Brea Grant) if she will step in as an emergency replacement hairstylist for Olivia’s upcoming wedding, it sets in motion a chain of events that will give Claire am initial tantalising glimpse of the friendship she dreams of creating before exposing her emotional fragility and unhinged psychology. Inevitably her obsession will eventually lead to nightmarish consequences.

They say write what you know, in which case writer/director Jill Gevargizian’s background as a hairstylist has obviously informed her insight into the nature of the profession (but hopefully not into the mind of a scalping female serial killer). This is an astonishingly assured debut feature, with a nuanced performance from Najarra Townsend at its core, accompanied by lyrical storytelling imbued with vividly rich colour and texture.

Stylishly shot by Robert Patrick Stern, the film looks fantastic, with a vibrant giallo-like palette which belies the modest budget. Split screen sequences highlighting the contrasting lifestyles of Claire and Olivia are pure De Palma, and Nicholas Elert’s lush score, punctuated with discordant notes perfectly encapsulate Claire’s dysfunctional state of mind. Production, costume and of course the hairstyles (naturally) are all meticulously interwoven to illustrate character and setting. Claire’s ornate chandelier and candlelight cellar is a glowing gothic subterranean lair, not unlike that of the operatic Phantom, in contrast to the relative starkness of the salon and Olivia’s apartment.

But the film isn’t merely gorgeous to look at on the surface, it has real bite and Gervargizian pulls off an excruciatingly nasty sequence involving a drugged victim’s untimely regaining of consciousness. Hitchcockian transference of empathy is earned as you cringe for Claire when her Single White Female stalking leads to her having to take refuge behind the shower curtain of an intended victim or almost being caught red-handed (and red-faced) on Olivia’s bed.

Claire’s backstory is only briefly sketched in, an absent father and the death of her mother (also a stylist) at a relatively young age are nearly all the hints we are given. When recalling her mother’s constantly changing hair colour and styles, Claire does however tellingly reveal: “I never knew who was gonna come home”, foreshadowing Claire’s own (twisted) role-plays.

The interplay between Claire and bride-to-be Olivia is teased out with precision playing by Najarra Townsend and Brea Grant (writer/director of the also excellent 12 HOUR SHIFT), and incrementally increases the cringe factor we share with, and for, both characters before the final bleak yet beautiful payoff.

Originally screened at the Arrow Video FrightFest online Halloween event in October 2020, I was glad to book in another appointment to see THE STYLIST, and to reconfirm my opinion that it’s a cut above the rest and destined to be one of the genre highlights of 2021.

****(out of 5*)

Paul Worts

This review was originally published by FRIGHTFEST.

Friday, 19 February 2021

BREEDER (2019)


Directed by: Jens Dahl. Starring: Sara Hjort Ditlevsen,
Anders Heinrichsen, Signes Egholm Olsen, Morten Holst. Denmark 2019, 107mins, Certificate 18.

Released digitally and on Blu-ray by Eureka Entertainment from 15th February 2021.

“How much can you get away with when you hold the reins?”


Originally premiered as part of the Arrow Video FrightFest Digital Edition 2, Jens Dahl’s disturbingly chilling dissection of biohacking certainly created a stir in genre circles. Inaccurately dismissed by some as a belated Danish entry into the annals of the so-called torture porn sub-genre, the strong reactions to sequences in the film’s final third seemed less about the actual content, but more about their jarring juxtaposition in contrast to the relatively measured restraint and cold sense of foreboding intrigue which precedes.

Olympic equestrian Mia (Sara Hjort Ditlevsen), conscious of her body clock and with a specific window before the next Olympics, wants to have a child, but her investment banker husband Thomas (Anders Heinrichsen) has taken to refusing her sexual invitations. One of Thomas’ clients is Dr Isabel Ruben (Signes Egholm Olsen), who is experimenting with a revolutionary new anti-ageing treatment labelled ‘Resurrecta’. After a neighbour’s Russian au-pair narrowly escapes abduction and staggers dishevelled to their door for help, Thomas offers to drive her to the hospital. Mia’s suspicions lead her to track Thomas’ iPhone not to a hospital, but instead to an old sugar factory, and it is here, in the bowels of the facility, where Mia will discover the ghastly secret behind Dr Ruben’s ‘Resurrecta’ and be forced to engage in a brutal struggle with her tormentors for survival.

There is a clinical precision to BREEDER, both visually and scripted. At its cold heart is Signes Egholm Olsen’s white-coated Dr Isabel Ruben, whose unflinching pursuit of the fountain of youth has transformed her into a modern-day Countess Elizabeth Báthory. “There’s nothing natural about ageing. Ageing is a disease”, she opines to an interviewer. Interestingly, screenwriter Sissel Dalsgaard Thomson admits in the disc’s interview that she did not originally envision Dr Ruben’s mad scientist as being female. However, the change of heart adds additional resonance and poignancy to the script when it tackles gender inequality and the sexual politics of ageing.

The film also takes broad swipes at the injustices in the class divide, and the moral implications of animal husbandry.
Visually, the colour grading is predominately tinged sickly yellow once the narrative arrives at the old factory, reflecting the (very) queasy goings on within, and the notable focus on urination and urolagnia. Branded like cattle, the caged women are tortured and humiliated by Dr Ruben’s viscous caretaker ‘The Dog’ (Morten Holst) and his assistant ‘The Pig’. “You’re a sadistic misogynist, and I’m letting you live out your dreams” admonishes Dr Ruben, who seemingly will turn a blind eye on her video monitor to nearly every act of enforced degradation metered out by ‘The Dog’ but will draw the line at rape (presumably not wanting her ‘cattle’ to be internally compromised). For this however is all merely a prelude to the gynaecological procedures awaiting ‘breeder’ Dr Ruben’s captives, and the horrific DNA extraction method that will follow. 

Although compared in some quarters to the New French Extreme films of the early 2000s, the level of onscreen violence, gore and nastiness, whilst unquestionably repugnant on occasion, never reaches those notorious ‘heights’. Nor can it be said that it delivers such a devastating denouement as Pascal Laugier’s MARTYRS (2008). The most affecting moment is a disturbing display of Stockholm syndrome by one of the captives towards ‘The Dog’. Cathartic just deserts for torturers and experimenters are relatively slim-pickings, and the somewhat hurried wrap-up does not fully satisfy or entirely gel given all that has transpired, and the various plot-elements that remain underdeveloped.

Nevertheless, this is an intriguing Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde hybrid entry in the medical conspiracy sub-genre, popularised by more mainstream fare such as COMA (1978). However, once Dr Ruben’s secret is revealed, it transforms into a strong survivalist horror nightmare which is a different beast altogether. Be warned.

Extras:
There is an interview with director Jens Dahl and screenwriter Sissel Dalsgaad Thomsen, a collector’s booklet featuring a new essay by film historian Kat Ellinger, which will be a fascinating take of the film, and exclusive to the first 2000 copies, a Limited-Edition O-card Slipcase.

***(OUT OF 5*)

Paul Worts
 
This review was first published by FRIGHTFEST.

Friday, 29 January 2021

LINK (1986)

Directed by: Richard Franklin. Starring: Terence Stamp, Elisabeth Shue, Steven Finch.

UK 1986, 104 mins, Certificate 12.

Released on Blu-ray, DVD & digital download digital on 1st February 2021 by Studiocanal.

Thankfully, Australian director Richard Franklin (PATRICK, ROAD GAMES, PSYCHO II), chose not to heed W.C Fields’ advice to never work with animals or children when he helmed his pet project (no pun intended) high-concept killer chimp flick, LINK. Eschewing the conventual wisdom of using stunt performers in ape costumes, Franklin plumped for dyeing an orangutan’s fur black and kitting him out with prosthetic ears to provide his gloriously barmy conceit with its titular ‘chimpanzee’.

A brief plot summary just doesn’t do this film justice in terms of its numerous jaw-dropping elements. But for the record, future Oscar nominee Elisabeth Shue (THE KARATE KID, BACK TO THE FUTURE II/III, LEAVING LAS VEGAS), plays American zoology student in London ‘Jane’, in a far from subtle Tarzan reference from Ozploitation scripter Everett De Roche. Taking a summer job at a remote gothic farmhouse pitched picturesquely and precariously on a cliff-top along the English coastline, her goal is to work for, and study with, its human inhabitant, Dr Steven Phillip. Sporting a wild mop of hair and a crazed Rik Mayall like appearance, it’s none other than ‘General Zod’ (SUPERMAN II) himself Terence Stamp. Dr Phillip, a mad misguided anthropologist, is studying the link (ahem), between man and ape, and rather dubiously exploring the concept of ‘civilisation’ by utilising his prime primate chimpanzee ‘Link’ (played by Locke the orangutan) as a butler.

(Side note: the film’s German title was literally ‘Link, der butler’).

In addition to which, Dr Phillip also encourages his former circus trained captive companion to recreate his talent for lighting and smoking cigars. (This is foreshadowing folks). In addition to Link, Dr Phillip is also working with a rather aggressive and mostly caged elder female chimp ‘Voodoo’, and a deceptively playful younger chimp, ‘Imp’, who may well be not nearly as child-like and innocent as the cheeky little scamp appears. This dysfunctional and frankly disturbing set-up cranks up through several bizarrely unnerving notches until Jane finds herself suddenly abandoned and alone in the farmhouse with the three primates. And she’s about to find out quite how accurate were Dr Phillip’s graphic warnings about the inherent aggressive nature of chimps…

This stylishly idiosyncratic addition to the killer primate sub-genre, released two years before George A. Romero’s critically regarded MONKEY SHINES, is often unjustly overlooked. Having pulled off, with some considerable aplomb, the unenviable task of delivering a worthy sequel to Hitchcock’s seminal shower slasher, director Franklin (a Hitchcock devotee), works in several PSYCHO references in his commendably warped take on beauty and the beast. Dispensing with the star-billed lead a third of the way in mirrors PSYCHO structurally. A further doff of the cap occurs from a notable dissolve into a bath drain sequence. Then there are the PSYCHO (and PSYCHO II) reminiscent interiors, crowned with the ominous looming overhead shots of the grand staircase. Lensed by veteran cinematographer Mike Molloy (who worked as camera operator for Kubrick on A CLOCKWORK ORANGE and BARRY LYNDON), Franklin pulls out all the stops visually, including a bravura opening POV sequence stalking a pursued cat up a trellis and across a rooftop toward a pigeon coop, whilst cutting to TV footage of Marlene Dietrich emerging from a gorilla costume in BLONDE VENUS.

Even though most of the film’s mayhem (and modest final third body count) occurs offscreen - which may have harmed its commercial success – the tangible simian threat (not to mention the added menace of attack dogs) is convincingly staged thanks to the work of animal trainer Ray Berwick (THE BIRDS) and skilfully judicious editing.

The actual ‘performance’ from Locke the orangutan as ’Link’, garnered from the meticulously crafted use of montage, is brilliantly nuanced, and the scene whereby Link perves at a naked Elisabeth Shue is unforgettably disturbing on several levels.

Composer Jerry Goldsmith (scoring again for Franklin after PSYCHO II), opts for an impishly playful musical approach, reminiscent of his GREMLINS work, which perfectly complements the largely tongue-in-cheek off-kilter material on screen.

Inspired by the work of primatologist and anthropologist Jane Goodall (perhaps another reference for Elisabeth Shue’s character’s name), LINK is a far more interesting work than its somewhat limiting and misleading tagline: ‘an experiment in terror’ suggests. Thematic development and character backfill were pruned from the released print’s running time, but thankfully there is some tantalising clues to the originally intended version provided on this disc with a generous reel of deleted workprint scenes.

As well as a superbly restored HD transfer, which showcases the richly infused visual storytelling of this hairy tall tale, there’s also some juicy treats to forage for.

A new audio commentary by film historian Lee Gambin, (author of ‘Massacred by Mother Nature’) and film critic Jarret Gahan is both exhaustive and exhausting. Lee’s boundless enthusiasm for nature-centric horror films is infectious, and it’s a great accompaniment. Film programmer and horror expert Anna Bogutskaya’s interview offers a fascinating reading of the film, and a short audio interview with director Franklin serves up some tantalising titbits about the project. (I particularly chuckled at his disappointment with the work ethic of the British film crew and their slavish devotion to tea-breaks. Perhaps it was the simian cast providing a constant reminder of PG Tips TV commercials?). Jerry Goldsmith’s demo of the main theme is included as an audio extra – fair warning, it’s an infectious earworm, and the original UK trailer rounds off a decent selection of extras.

LINK is very much a product of its time. Were it to be made today (highly unlikely, granted) we would probably have Andy Serkis’ motion-capture wizardry replacing living breathing primates. Of course, it is morally questionable to stick fake chimpanzee ears on an orangutan and dye his fur (or for that matter dyeing a tiger in order to play a black panther, Don THE BEASTMASTER Coscarelli I am looking specifically at you here) purely for the pursuit of entertainment. But LINK is nevertheless far more than one-dimensional schlock, and worthy of reappraisal and appreciation.                        

Paul Worts

****(out of 5*)

This review was originally published by FRIGHTFEST.

Friday, 18 December 2020

CRASH (1996)

 

Directed by: David Cronenberg. Starring: James Spader,
Deborah Kara Unger, Elias Koteas, Holly Hunter, Rosanna Arquette. Canada 1996, 100mins, Certificate 18.

Released on digital download from 30th November 2020, and on both Ultra HD 4K Blu-ray and Blu-ray in limited editions by Arrow Video from 14th December 2020.

“The car crash is a fertilizing rather than a destructive event.”

When David Cronenberg’s adaptation of J.G. Ballard’s controversial 1973 novel ‘Crash’ screened at the Cannes Film Festival on the morning of 16th May 1996 it set off a chain-reaction that became a very English moral panic. The Evening Standard’s pompous film critic Alexander Walker pronounced the film as being “beyond the bounds of depravity”, and wrote in his review that it contained “some of the most perverted acts and theories of sexual deviance I have ever seen propagated in mainline cinema.”

So, thanks to Arrow Video you can now view these depraved sexually deviant acts in ultra HD courtesy of a 4K restoration of the uncut NC-17 version, supervised by director of photography Peter Suschitzky and approved by director David Cronenberg himself!

Not that the film was ever actually banned or cut in any way by the BBFC. Instead, thanks largely to a concerted crusade spearheaded by the Daily Mail - which eventually led to some 400 press reports on the film – and harkened back to the ‘video nasties’ moral panic in the 80’s,  Westminster City Council insisted on cuts being made before it was shown in London’s West End. This, despite the fact the Council had previously given permission for the film to be premiered as part of the 1996 London Film Festival. Having been granted an uncut ‘18’ certificate from the BBFC, to the distributors considerable credit, they refused to re-submit for cuts and the film was therefore effectively banned in the West End, including Leicester Square. (I watched it at the A.B.C. Shaftesbury Avenue, a short walk away over in neighbouring Camden).

Reviewing it again after some considerable time in this glorious HD restored version, I found the film to be far more sexually focused, both visually and dialogue-wise, than I originally recalled. Still somewhat restrained compared to the moral indignation it stirred up however, with only one scene I’d class as actual sexual ‘body-horror’ (involving Rosanna Arquette’s leg, and even that is shot largely through implication rather than graphic close-up). I chuckled appreciatively at the customary dark Cronenbergian conceits (Cronenberg himself admits in the TIFF Q&A to laughing all the way through a recent re-watch). And I admired the detached unblinking viewpoint, admittedly here never bleaker, as he focused his microscopic lens on the Petrie dish of human subjects crashing and colliding about, indulging their symphorophilia and car crash fetishism, or ‘benevolent psychopathology’ as their leader, Vaughan outlines.

Having only previously been available in the UK in a bare-bones DVD, this limited edition release from Arrow Video represents somewhat of a gourmet banquet in comparison.

Firstly, the HD transfer, which I viewed on standard Blu-ray, is superb, rendering every scar and metallic infusion with skin in pristine clarity with natural film grain, and showcasing Cronenberg regular Peter Suschitzky’s cinematography richly and with depth. I would imagine the Ultra HD 4K version is equally terrific and then some.

There’s a brand new audio commentary by the Australian film scholar Adrian Martin. Significant new interviews are included: director of photography Peter Suschitzky, (who doesn’t like horror films, thought Cronenberg was ‘just’ a horror film director, but concludes he was “the most intelligent director I’ve ever worked with”), executive producer Jeremy Thomas, composer Howard Shore (three harps and six guitars), and casting director Deirdre Bowen, which collectively add up to some 90 mins.

There’s two substantial Q&A’s included on the disc, one recorded in 2019 at TIFF with Cronenberg and actor Viggo Mortensen (52 mins), together with the gargantuan 1996 Q&A at the National Film Theatre with author J.G. Ballard (with a running time longer than the film itself, clocking in at a whopping 1 hour 41 mins). Some behind-the-scenes footage, contemporary press interviews and trailers are sprinkled in for good measure, along with a brand new video essay by Caelum Vatnsdal entitled ‘Architect of Pain: The Cronenberg Project’ on the Canadian auteur’s use of architecture and location.

And then there’s five short films vying for attention on the disc. Firstly, an 18 minute film originally broadcast as part of the BBC’s Review series, starring J.G. Ballard and loosely adapted from his 1970 novel The Atrocity Exhibition entitled, ‘Crash!’ (catchy title). Two shorts inspired by Ballard and the novel Crash: Nightmare Angel (33 mins) and Always (crashing) (14 mins). And finally, in terms of what’s crammed on the disc, Cronenberg himself contributes two short films: ‘The Nest’ (2013, 10mins) and At the Suicide of the Last Jew in the World in the Last Cinema in the World (2007, 4 mins).

The only extra which appears missing, which will apparently be included on the upcoming US Criterion Blu-ray release, is a 1997 commentary by Cronenberg himself, which does seem an odd omission. Personally I’d have sacrificed Adrian Martin’s commentary if it was a choice (no offence Adrian).

The limited edition also includes a fully illustrated collector’s booklet featuring new writing by Vanessa Morgan, Araceli Molina, Jason Wood and Zoe Beloff, and a reprinted excerpt from Cronenberg on Cronenberg (which I have a dog-eared and well-read copy of on my shelves at home).And to top and tail this lavish release, there’s a fold-out double-sided poster featuring original and newly commissioned artwork, and Limited edition packaging with reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Gilles Vranckx

In an archival interview on the disc, Cronenberg states that his intention with the film was to avoid all the emotional response clichés (in the same way that Ballard’s original source novel does). In this I think he certainly achieved his goal, as it’s a film to be admired and respected, but perhaps a challenging work to completely warm to. Cronenberg, whist somewhat horrified to admit it, also considers CRASH to be ‘politically correct’ in the sense that all the sexual and violent acts depicted in the film are consensual. Ballard, in turn, described his novel as a cautionary tale, a nightmare marriage between sex and technology, but at the same time an invitation to explore. A perfect analogy of the  Cronenberg approach, and now with Arrow’s fine limited edition release, an invitation I’d certainly recommend accepting.

 *****(OUT OF 5*)

Paul Worts

This review was first published by FRIGHTFEST.

SPRING (2014)

 

Directed by: Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead. Starring: Lou Taylor Pucci, Nadia Hilker, Francesco Carnelutti. Horror, Romance, Sci-Fi. US 2014, 109mins, Cert 15.

Released on Blu-ray by 101 Films from 30th November 2020.

“Are you a vampire, werewolf, zombie, witch or alien?”

In answer to American tourist Evan’s (Lou Taylor Pucci) question posed to his alluring ‘Italian’ girlfriend Louise (Nadia Hilker): actually none of the above as it turns out in Justin Benson and Aaron Moorehead’s critically acclaimed romantic/sci-fi/body horror hybrid. Think Richard Linklater’s BEFORE SUNRISE, Andrzej Zulawski’s POSSESSION, by way of Ron Howard’s SPLASH with a healthy dollop of H.P. Lovecraft. 

Finally available on Blu-ray here in the UK,(after an inexplicable wait), plaudits are therefore in order to 101 Films for coming up with a handsome package of special features, including 2 separate director commentaries, a HD transfer that showcases the subtle palette cinematography and meticulous framing, and comes replete with a reversible sleeve with alternative artwork.

On the surface it’s a deceptively simple story of boy meets girl, at least initially, before splicing sub-genres into a romantic exploration of the cyclic nature of change, rebirth, renewal and decay.

In California, Evan Lou Taylor Pucci – EVIL DEAD, 2013) gets into a vicious bar brawl after attending the funeral of his mother, his last remaining relative, who he has cared for whilst watching her gradually succumb to cancer. Losing his job as a result of the fight, and with the cops on his trail, on impulse he gets on a plane and heads to Italy. After several days spent in the company of a couple of boozy British travellers (incredibly grating), he finds himself in a sleepy coastal town where he encounters a beautiful woman in a red dress, Louise, (Nadia Hilker, THE WALKING DEAD). Plucking up the courage to ask her out, she instantly offers him sex, which arouses (steady on) his suspicions that this is all too good to be true and that maybe she’s a prostitute.

He takes a job as an assistant to an elderly widowed farmer named Angelo (Francesco Carnelutti), and spends his nights back in town hoping for a glimpse of Louise again. Soon enough he finds her and a relationship quickly develops. Louise is however somewhat of an enigma. After confiding as such to farmer Angelo, Evan is counselled with: “Women, jewels of the world”. Evan will however eventually discover Louise’s true nature, and just what she means when she describes herself as: “half undiscovered science”.

Gradually, as their relationship develops, Benson and Moorhead begin to introduce visual hints and pointers into their widescreen frame. Spiders entrap flies in webs, and there’s a creeping accumulation of dead strewn fauna scattered around the town. Seemingly in contrast however, vines begin to grow rapidly, leaves spring out of brickwork, and flowers bloom and wither. The poster on Louise’s wall warrants close scrutiny too.

The film’s third act goes into overdrive in terms of explanation, revelation and off-the-wall humour. The script throws up all manner of details and mind-boggling reveals which quietly explode like a row of firecrackers. In the interest of not overly spoiling the almost giddy pleasures herein I will not go into them here. I will however quote Evan’s consoling “At least you’ve got the same back story as Harry Potter” in response to Louise’s “You’ve got the same back story as Batman”.

The final sequence is a brilliantly conceived resolution, which lingers long after the end credits roll. Benson and Moorhead manage to pull off a naturalistic and convincing balancing act, on the one hand an engaging portrait of two young people falling in love, (perfectly played by its two leads), whilst on the other, delivering a sprinkling of practical and CG enhanced creature effects to supplement themes and concepts which all blend into a richly entertaining and quietly moving tale.  

Extras.

2 separate commentaries with Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead, one from the time of original release (2014), and a fresh reflective 2020 commentary addressing many of the questions posed by audiences since it’s highly acclaimed premiere. Highly rewarding and recommended as the creators provide vast amounts of background detail whilst remaining engaging.

Multiple making of vignettes, two deleted scenes and an extended scene which surely takes the award for best titled extra ever: ‘Wankster Girlfriend Monologue’, multiple takes of the scene where Evan writes Louise a note, a VFX Case StudY (not to be watched until you’ve viewed the film, naturally). There’s also an ‘alternate ending’ (hmm...), a black-and-white silent short about a villager named ‘Filippo’, who appears very briefly in the film, bloopers and a couple of promo videos which round off a very solid package of extras.

Recommended.

**** (Out of 5*)

Paul Worts


This review was first published by FRIGHTFEST.

Thursday, 22 October 2020

DEAD WATER (2019)

Directed by: Chris Helton. Starring: Casper Van Dien, Griff Furst, Brianne Davis, Judd Nelson. Thriller, US 2019, 86mins, Cert 15.

Released on DVD and download from 5th October 2020 by Altitude Film Entertainment.

“You ready for a weekend that’s gonna change your life?”

DEAD WATER meekly follows in the wake of far more effective claustrophobic sea thrillers such as Phillip Noyce’s 1989 DEAD CALM and Rob Grant’s 2019 HARPOON. It sinks itself with a script that treads (dead) water for two-thirds of its modest running time before introducing Judd (THE BREAKFAST CLUB) Nelson’s black bearded pirate (no, really), who appears to have randomly drifted in from a completely different and far more interesting film.

In a clear attempt to kick against type-casting, STARSHIP TROOPERS Casper Van Dien is implausibly cast as a rich orthopaedic surgeon named Dr John Livingstone (I presume). Whilst his decorated Marine buddy David ‘Coop’ Cooper (Griff Furst) was on active duty in Afghanistan, the bone doctor Livingstone was ‘taking care’ of David’s TV reporter wife Viviane (Brianne Davis). Returning home with full-on raging PTSD, buddy John suggests the couple come along for a few days away on the open water cruising with him on his new luxury 75ft yacht the ‘Bella Would’ (don’t ask).

Once onboard, Dr Livingstone’s rehabilitation strategy consists largely of plying Coop with beer, poker and a supremely inadvisable game of truth or dare. When that fails, he employs an unorthodox therapeutic technique of shoving a harpoon gun in his mate’s face and demanding he tells him how many people he killed in combat! As Coop understandably storms off Van Dien strains every sinew of his chiselled jaw to deliver this cod-psychology diagnosis with a semi-straight face: “You know you act like a calm ocean but you’re turbulent underneath!”

When Coop first boards the yacht, he quips: “It’s not going to be a ‘three hour tour’, is it?” Well the first hour almost feels like three, with ponderous rather than portentous pacing floundering to the point where I would have welcomed the introduction of a poorly rendered 3-headed CGI shark to chow down on this plodding love-triangle.

However, just as I was about to send up a boredom distress flare, along comes partial salvation in the shape of a fishing vessel named ‘Usual Suspects’ (no, really) and Judd Nelson as Sam, a black bearded pirate with a freshly-inflicted scar above his eye (sadly a poor substitute for an eye-patch).

The unwritten commandment thou shall not spoil prevents me from navigating you much further through the remaining turbulent waters of salty and frankly ludicrously laughable plot twists and weakly staged (belated) violence. However, I honestly wished the film had introduced Judd Nelson’s pirate a whole lot sooner, or better yet, jumped ship completely over to the ‘Usual Suspects’ vessel.

But, the location photography shot in the U.S Virgin Islands provided an agreeable distraction when viewed on a grimly wet and windy Sunday morning. To give Casper Van Dien his due, although he would have been better served playing the ex-marine role, Casper acquits himself competently enough given the blandness of the writing and the unsubtle direction which undermines any implied ambiguity as to his character’s motivations. Apart from his PTSD, all I learnt about his buddy Coop was that he prefers pistachio ice-cream to actual food, and Brianne Davis’ ‘Viviane’ is a better shot with a firearm than Dr Livingstone is with a harpoon gun.

Ultimately, DEAD WATER is dead in the water long before Yo Ho Ho! pirate Nelson climbs aboard. There’s just about enough story here to fill up the running length of an episode of ‘Tales of the Unexpected’, but the preceding 50+ minutes serve as unnecessary ballast that should have been heaved overboard long before this ship set sail.      

(P.S. Note for all scriptwriters, if you’re going to reference arguably the finest sea-faring suspense film of all-time, please have the courtesy to at least get one of its main protagonist’s character’s names correct: it’s ‘Quint’ not ‘Quintin’.)

Extras: 2 unrelated trailers: ‘Black Water: Abyss’ and ‘Unhinged’ (both of which, in retrospect, looked preferable alternatives to the feature on the disc.)

Paul Worts

**(Out of 5*)

This review was first published by FRIGHTFEST.

Tuesday, 11 August 2020

ECHOES OF FEAR (2018)

 

Directed by: Brian Avenet-Bradley and Laurence Avenet-Bradley Starring: Trista Robinson, Hannah Race, Paul Chirico, Marshal Hilton. Horror, US 2018, 90mins, Cert 15.

Available on-demand/download from 20th July 2020 and on DVD from 3rd August by Second Sight Films.

“Retirement is death.”

When her grandfather dies unexpectedly, Alisha (Trista Robinson) inherits his house. Unable to afford the upkeep, she temporarily moves in to get it in a reasonable state to sell. But almost straightaway there’s an eerie atmosphere, and things soon start to go bump in the night. Is the supernatural presence trying to guide her to hidden secrets buried in the crawlspaces of the house, or is there a more tangible threat lurking around the periphery of the property?

The modern urban setting is reminiscent of JU-ON: THE GRUDGE, (albeit with California instead of Japan) and the well-worn spooky haunted house tropes are familiar from an inordinate amount of genre ghost-fests. However, writer/director Brian Avenet-Bradley and his co-directing real-life partner Laurence have two aces up their sleeves which elevate the material, enabling it to deliver more than the sum of its initially clichéd parts.

Firstly, they execute with clinical precision half a dozen absolute doozy jump scares, several of which had even this semi-jaded old horror connoisseur yelping involuntarily. The first doesn’t arrive until nearly a third of the way into the running time, even though the measured preceding build-up is laden with portent indicators. Doors creak open, intercoms and pipes convey whispering voices, a creepy ornament twists it head before revealing an old photograph inside with a face scratched out, bathwater turns black, and, in a nice variation on the child’s ball bouncing down the staircase, a pet mouse’s exercise ball clatters and spins on its axis (without its owner inside). Whilst on the staircase, and trust me, I wouldn’t choose to linger there any longer than necessary, this is the location for the film’s most effective jump scare, a perfectly choreographed staging of sleight-of-hand misdirection not unlike the type of shock pulled off in-camera by Mario Bava in his literally titled SHOCK. 

And then there’s the Avenet-Bradley’s second ace. Incidental details incrementally build to a disconcertingly and unexpectedly dark twisted third-act reveal.

I must mention ‘Twinkie’ the mouse (and Twinkie’s stand-in ‘Twixie’). At one point Alisha’s friend Steph (Hannah Grace) suggests letting Twinkie run free in order to lead them to where a secret is hidden. I half-hoped she would justify this theory with something as equally barmy as Dario Argento’s assertion in PHENOMENA that: “It’s perfectly normal for insects to be slightly telepathic.” Sadly no such justification was forthcoming.

ECHOES OF FEAR is a well-engineered ghost train ride. From the outside it appears to be housed in the back of an old funfair lorry with sunlight poking in through the holes in its walls. The ride initially meanders through a steady cheesy stream of the cinematic equivalents of rubber cobwebs and juddery animatronics before cranking up to some genuine gotcha seat-jumper scares and delivering a grim finale in amongst the crawlspaces. It’s by no means a game changer, but it left me with a wry smile on my face when I finally emerged back into the daylight and exited the ride.  

***(out of 5*)

Paul Worts

This review was originally published by FRIGHTFEST.

Sunday, 19 July 2020

BLACK RAINBOW (1989)



Directed by: Mike Hodges. Starring: Rosanna Arquette, Jason Robards, Tom Hulce. Horror, US 1989, 103 mins, Cert 15.

Released on Blu-ray by Arrow Video on 6th July 2020.

“We steal if we touch tomorrow. It is God’s.”

Criminally under distributed on its initial release, this intriguing late-80’s metaphysical thriller is finally now getting the HD release it merits courtesy of Arrow Video. In a brand new restoration from the original negative, approved by writer-director Mike Hodges (FLASH GORDON, GET CARTER), all the colours of this dark rainbow radiate in a spectrum of themes and ideas about religion, bilocation, corporate corruption and the darkness that lies ahead for the planet. 

In a spellbinding performance eschewing her early 80’s ‘kookiness’ Rosanna Arquette (DESPERATELY SEEKING SUSAN, CRASH) plays Martha Travis, a travelling medium who tours across the Bible-Belt with her sceptical alcoholic father (Jason Robards, ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN). Conducting séances on stages to relay messages from the deceased to their ticket-paying loved ones in the audience, during one such séance, Martha communicates with a dead man, violently murdered, all of which comes as quite a shock to his wife who insists she left him watching TV at home only an hour ago! But Martha has been given the blessing/curse of foresight – for later that evening the husband is indeed assassinated by a hit man whilst he’s at home watching James Cagney in WHITE HEAT on the tele. But this is only the beginning of Martha’s prophetic messages from the afterlife, and as more of her psychic predictions come true, this attracts the attention of both an investigative journalist, Garry Wallace (Tom Hulce, AMADEUS), and the aforementioned hit man, for Martha knows his name... 

Although labelled a supernatural thriller, Mike Hodges twisty, serpentine-like film is a Hydra of multiple plot strands, much like the Kudzu weeds whose tendrils invade the Southern US, consuming the landscape and the film’s ambiguous coda. Perhaps there’s actually just too much going on here for one film? For example, you could certainly argue that the sub-plot involving the hit man seems somewhat incongruous given the main thrust of the subject matter and it’s overreliance in the trailer miss-sells the film’s ambiance as a result.   

Rosanna Arquette’s medium, (sister Patricia would coincidentally also go on to play a medium in the literal-titled TV show ‘Medium’), is not only a conduit for the dead to relay words of comfort to their loved ones, but also it seems a  prophecyer for the destructive path human beings are on course for to turn the world black. If that wasn’t heady enough material, religion also comes up for close scrutiny and Hodge’s sprinkles in some spicy quips in amongst the debate. A corrupt policeman warns his dodgy benefactor that: “As the only Jew in the area, I know where the nails are going...” Hodges’s dialogue is often ripe and juicy with a hard-boiled pulp cynicism, as when Martha explains her willingness towards one-night stands to reporter Garry: “This way men lie with me and not to me”. 

Industrial corruption, health and safety whistle blowing scandals, meditations on the afterlife; it’s certainly a rich concoction. Little incidentals such as Martha’s wristwatch always seeming to be an hour or two behind merely float on by without further extrapolation. I was tickled by the wryly mundane scene at the airport check-in where the ruthless hit man is firstly informed his ticket isn’t for first class, that he cannot therefore access the first-class lounge, and finally, to add insult to injury, his flight is delayed! 

The North Carolina shooting locations provide a richly rewarding backdrop, and veteran cinematographer Gerry Fisher (EXORCIST III, WOLFEN, THE NINETH CONFIGURATION) pulls out all the tops with his crisp cinematography. A particular standout sequence encapsulates the early morning rising sun gradually illuminating the reflective glass of downtown office blocks before cutting to the raising of the American Flag and concluding with an ominous gust causing traffic lights to sway in the breeze as an explosion rings out in the distance and sirens are heard.

Jason Robards is splendidly grizzled (and guzzled) as the burnt out father who dismisses his daughter’s abilities (as he did her mother’s) but relies on the takings from her séances to keep him in liquor. Tom Hulce acquits himself equally well as the reporter initially described as being “...an agnostic and an arsehole” who starts off merely chasing a story before gradually becoming obsessively entangled both with Martha’s psychic claims, and then with Martha herself, spiralling downward into one of the film’s open ended strands.

This is not a film that provides a neat explanatory wrap-up. As the weeds encroach upon the finale, the fate of one, (and the very nature of another) lead protagonist is ambiguous to say the least. Listening to the director’s commentary, this is intentional, so don’t castigate yourself if you too can’t immediately formulate a satisfactory hypothesis upon first viewing. Normally, I find open-ended conclusions frustrating, but given the richness of the material presented beforehand, combined with the strength of the performances, most notably Rosanna Arquette’s hauntingly beautiful and ethereal Martha, I’m willing to concede there is still a pot of gold waiting at the end of Mike Hodges’ BLACK RAINBOW. 

Extras:

The newly restored HD print is pin-sharp and colours pop out, especially in the almost Giallo-like lit final third set piece. As well as the archival commentary from Mike Hodges you also get a new commentary from film historians Kat Ellinger and Samm Deighan together with a host of archival features. There’s an 18-minute making of documentary entitled ‘Message in a Bottle, along with interviews with key cast members Jason Robards, Tom Hulce, Rosanna Arquette, producer John Quested and behind-the-scenes footage. Naturally there’s a trailer, a reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Nathanael Marsh and for the first pressing only a booklet featuring new writing on the film by author Alexandra Heller-Nicholas, Mike Hodges and more illustrated with stills. 

**** (out of 5*)


Paul Worts

This review was first published by FRIGHTFEST.