Monday 18 November 2019


Directed by: Lee Won-Tae.Starring: Ma Dong-Seok - aka Don Lee, Kim Mu-Yeol, Kim Sung Kyu. Action thriller, South Korea, 2019, 109mins, Cert 15.

“The real devils are those who commit crimes with kind faces.”

Around the 76-minute mark in Lee Won-Tae’s slick pulsating crime/serial killer hybrid actioner, there’s a brief humorous scene which perfectly encapsulates the film’s premise. Scarred crime lord (the ‘gangster’ of the title) Jang Dong-su (Ma Dong Seok, TRAIN TO BUSAN), stands at a bus-stop in the pouring rain waiting for detective (the ‘cop’) Jung Tae-Seok (Kim Mu-Yeoland) and gives his umbrella to a shivering school girl. When the detective turns up he advises the schoolgirl not to take random things from strangers: “He’s a gangster!” to which the girl responds: “You look more like a gangster than him!”

The moral boundaries between cop and gangster are not merely blurred like the smudged fingertips of serial killer ‘K’ (Kim Sung Kyu), but bludgeoned into a bloody pulp as gangsters teams up with cops to hunt down the devilishly brutal killer. 

Already earmarked by Sylvester Stallone for a Hollywood remake, director Lee Won-Tae delivers a headily entertaining mix of sparring mob rivalry, corrupt police bosses, and a brutal murderer whose modus operandi involves crashing his car into lone motorists before repeatedly stabbing them to death. That is, until he randomly picks on the wrong victim, and sets in motion an extraordinary manhunt involving both sides of the South Korean judicial system.

The uneasy and often queasy alliance between gangster Jang (introduced pulverising a punch-bag containing a rival gang member), and cop Jung (introduced alleviating boredom at being stuck in traffic by marching into a gambling den on a whim because the ‘hooligan’s’ running it ‘need a serious beating’) delivers a fascinating and darkly funny tension.

Director Lee Won-Tae has fashioned a pacy K-cop vehicle for some splendid, ferociously choreographed mayhem as rival gangs bloodily clash, and a stabby killer slices and dices. The courtroom finale seems incongruously restrained in comparison, but it’s a reminder that the script is based on a true story, set in August 2005, and that there is a morality tale here least we temporarily forget it in amongst the kinetic carnage. And then there’s the impish fade-out which earns a wry-smile. 

****(out of 5*)

Paul Worts

This review was first published by FrightFest.

Thursday 24 October 2019

HARPOON (2019)

Directed by: Rob Grant. Starring: Munro Chambers, Emily Tyra, Christopher Gray. Horror, Canada 2019, 82mins, Cert 18.

“If he dies, is he edible?”

Director Rob Grant steers his dark-humoured nautical indie reworking of Polanski’s KNIFE IN THE WATER (1962) through some claustrophobic choppy (and bloody) waters. 

Rich short-tempered brat Richard (Christopher Gray), convinced by a text exchange that his slacker best friend Jonah (Munro Chambers) has slept with his girlfriend Sasha (Emily Tyra), bursts into the film, and Jonah’s apartment, and proceeds to pulverise Jonah into a bloodied pulp. Luckily for Jonah, referee Sasha arrives in the nick of time to call a halt to the proceedings. Explaining the texts were really about buying Richard’s surprise birthday present (a spear-gun, the subject of a running gag where it’s constantly referred to as a harpoon), Richard tries to make amends by taking his friends out on his yacht for a day-trip on the open seas.

But this is an ill-fated love triangle which couldn’t be any more ill-fated if they’d sailed straight into the Bermuda Triangle. An omnipresent narrator (Brett Gelman, ‘Stranger Things’, ‘Fleabag’) drily fills us in on the morally questionable back-stories of our three protagonists. The camera peers down from on high in judgement before focusing in on a makeshift ‘SOS’ sign and a blood trail on the deck of ‘The Naughty Buoy’.

Given its UK premiere at this year’s Arrow FrightFest, this crowd pleasing three-(deck)-hander wrings every salty drop of tension from its modest premise. Although neither Richard, Jonah nor Sasha are remotely likeable, it’s a testament to the cast and filmmakers that their respective fates still manage to maintain our morbid curiosity.
Kudos to director Grant and co-scripter Mike Kovac on their gag reflexing riff on survival strategies to stave off dehydration, and the constantly shifting character arcs which refresh the narrative whenever the story threatens to run-aground.

HARPOON (“It’s a spear gun!”) briskly and efficiently navigates its way through its seafaring tall tale of dysfunctional friendships turned septic with a commendable degree of aplomb. It may not land huge breaking waves on the genre’s shores but it certainly generates entertaining ripples on the surface. 

Paul Worts

***(OUT OF 5*)

This review was first published by FrightFest.

Wednesday 16 October 2019

FRIGHT (1971)

Directed by: Peter Collinson. Starring: Susan George, Ian Bannen, Honor Blackman, Horror, UK 1971, 87mins, Cert 18.

‘How do you spell that word “psychotic” sir?’ 
“You might have to spell it M.U.R.D.E.R., murder if you don’t get someone over there quickly!”

Who’d want to be a babysitter in a horror film? 7 years before a Captain Kirk mask would become the iconic face of a babysitter-stalking bogeyman, and 8 years before Carol Kane would be invited to go upstairs and check the children, doe-eyed Susan George assumed the mantle of the vulnerable teenage babysitter in Peter Collinson’s very British proto quasi-slasher. (A pertinent follow up question therefore might be: who’d want to be Susan George in 1971 given she went straight from this to Sam Peckinpah’s STRAW DOGS...?)

On the anniversary of her divorce from psychotic (check spelling) ex-husband Brian (Ian Bannen), Helen Lloyd (Honor Blackman) and new hubby Jim (George Cole) decide to go into town for a celebratory prawn cocktail at a mock Tudor pub. Needing someone to take care of 3 year-old son Tara - played by the director’s real life son – (who should have got himself a better agent after this), and with their usual nanny unavailable, (too busy making her husband’s supper apparently) – instead along comes cute blonde college student Amanda (Susan George) arriving at the creepy isolated old gothic mansion. Unfortunately, Helen’s deranged ex-husband (and biological father to her child) has escaped from a nearby mental institution and is making a beeline for an unwelcome family reunion...    

Director Peter Collinson (THE ITALIAN JOB, STRAIGHT ON TILL MORNING), together with writer Tudor Gates (THE VAMPIRE LOVERS, LUST FOR A VAMPIRE, TWINS OF EVIL) map out a basic template of tropes for the babysitter in peril sub-genre which, whether coincidentally or not, have been imitated, refined and regurgitated ad infinitum ever since.

Accompanied by an unsettlingly ominous song entitled ‘Ladybird’, our scantily-clad college babe Amanda (Susan George) walks through the sprawling overgrown grounds of the Lloyd’s country house stalked by the camera as it peers through the spiked gates and railings. Collinson and veteran cinematographer Ian Wilson carefully frame her behind bars at every opportune moment, whether through these gates, through the bars of the child’s crib or the bars of the stair banisters – foreshadowing her impending entrapment. A grandfather clock’s reflective pendulum is also deployed as a ticking reminder of fate (for both main protagonists). There’s also a nice little additional wink of foreshadowing in the discarded child’s doll with the slash on the right cheek discarded in the kitchen.

Once he’s got our babysitter alone in the creepy house, Collinson wastes little time in deploying the gamut of spooky stock sound-effects: creaking doors, dripping taps, rotating washing-lines (ok maybe that one’s not standard). Then there’s the face at the window, the unseen passing silhouette outside, but strangely enough the family cat is not enlisted to provide a fake jump scare (too soon?) As Romero’s NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD wasn’t in the public domain back in 1971, Amanda watches PLAGUE OF THE ZOMBIES on the TV to calm her nerves. (Given scripter Gates’ credits, perhaps he wanted a change from vampires?)

After necking back some sherry, Amanda immediately brews a cup of tea, which made me feel a tad queasy if I’m honest. Not as queasy however as I felt when Dennis Waterman’s charisma-bypass of a boyfriend pitches up as the red-herring intruder wearing an implausible cardigan and suffering from a severe case of blue balls syndrome as Amanda isn’t putting out. (Can’t possibly see why she wouldn’t wish to lose her virginity to such a suave suitor courting her with such enticingly come hitherto compliments such as: “"I reckon you got a lovely pair of Bristols!".)      

Whilst the basic suspenseful set-up is workable, the film begins to lose its way and falls down once psychotic (check spelling) Brian shows up, at which point it’s all over the place. Contriving to gain the trust of Amanda by conveniently showing up as a concerned neighbour (really?) just as she’s taken delivery of a blood battered boyfriend (reminding me of how Betsy Palmer’s Mrs Voorhees initially ingratiates herself with final-girl Alice Hardy in FRIDAY THE 13TH (1980)), the hitherto threat of the unseen stalker is somewhat dissipated by Ian Bannen’s countenance. To be fair he makes a half-decent stab (no pun intended) at it until he starts to call Amanda by the name of his ex-wife.

What built up tension remains is then further diluted by Collinson cutting back to the excruciatingly naff scenes at the pub where an overwrought Honor Blackman and an underwhelmed George Cole dance groovily to mutual career-lows. Their ‘fun’ is soon cut short however  thanks to their psychiatrist dinner companion, Dr Cordell (John Gregson) who is treating Blackman’s nutty ex-husband. Firstly he tries (unconvincingly) to reassure that strangler Brian is safely incarcerated in the mental institute, and then, upon checking, discovers he’s actually escaped,but not to worry there’s absolutely no way the mad ex would think about heading to the house. (Dr Loomis he certainly isn’t).

Meanwhile, back at the house where psychotic (enough of that joke now) Ian Bannen’s Brian is pretending to massage the supposedly stopped heart of Amanda’s boyfriend, events are about to get decidedly and uncomfortably nasty when our babysitter wants to check on her little charge upstairs. What follows is a troubling scene in which Susan George’s character is sexually assaulted (partially off-screen) in the child’s bedroom. Thankfully, although highly unlikely, youngster Tara appears to sleep right through undisturbed as Amanda’s piercing scream heralds her violation. 

However, Tara (Tara Collinson) is not spared further potentially disturbing scenes, notably where a large shard of glass is held to the child’s neck. Although the child was the son of the director, and actress Susan George had carefully crafted a rapport with Tara prior to filming, these must surely have been questionable choices even so, and they certainly elicit sharp intakes of breath when viewed today. 

The final third disintegrates into a frankly laughable siege scenario involving the most inept police marksman ever portrayed on screen, and some dreadful dialogue such as: “What about the gas gun?, “Well it’s easy enough to lob one in but it just might hit the kid”. Time has also not been kind to the sight of ‘Trigger’ from TV’s ‘Only Fools and Horses’ as a moustached police constable. At least the George Cole and Dennis Waterman ‘Minder’ association is limited to Cole stepping over the bloody corpse of his future co-star. Cole for the most part under-eggs his ostrich-in-the-sand husband role, whilst, on the other hand, Honor Blackman over-eggs to the level of omelette with her ‘terrible secret’ nervous ticks right from the get go. When Amanda asks her: “Is there anything I ought to know Mrs Lloyd...?” I half expected her to suffer an aneurysm from over-acting.

Susan George is of course poutingly gorgeous as the screaming-at-hanging-laundry babysitter-in-peril, although what attracted her to what rapidly descends into an increasingly lurid sexist piece of exploitation (beyond loyalty to a director who helped kick-start her career) will remain a mystery. Actually, I may have answered my own question there.

Whilst it lacks any sort of body count, overt gore, or even actual scares, Collinson’s unique mise en scène fashioned a modest visually arresting fore-runner for better known and more celebrated directors to hone the urban legend of the escaped killer and the vulnerable home alone teenage babysitter blueprint.

***(OUT OF 5*)

Paul Worts

This review was originally published by FrightFest.

Monday 9 September 2019


Directed by: Benjamin Barfoot. Starring: Danny Morgan, Michael Socha, Georgia Groome, Kelly Wenham. Comedy, Horror, UK 2017, 89mins, Cert 15.

“They’re just girls, man. What’s there to be afraid of?”

Jack-the-lad Alex (Michael Socha) is determined to ensure his best-friend Jim (Danny Morgan) gets laid and finally loses his virginity before his imminent 30th birthday. A seemingly chance encounter with two attractive sisters in a bar feels too good to be true for unlucky in love Jim. However, spurred on by his insistent wingman, Jim and Michael invite confident Kitty (Kelly Wenham) and her more reticent sibling Lulu (Georgia Groome) out on a double date. Jim’s instincts prove correct when the lads find out their respective dates’ true intentions...  

I feel I owe director Benjamin Barfoot and writer/co-star Danny Morgan an apology for having effectively stood up their first feature film several times to date. Firstly I missed its hugely popular premiere at FrightFest, then, having recorded it from Sky Movies it was inadvertently deleted before viewing along with a whole raft of other titles in what our household refers to as the great TiVo purge of 2019. And to top it all, I even managed to miss the special screening and Q&A at the Prince Charles cinema on 5th September.

However, I’m pleased to report that I’ve finally managed to catch DOUBLE DATE in advance of its release on digital and physical media from 9th September.

For a first-time feature, it hits the ground running straight from the off with a brutally effective opening sequence which leaves you in no doubt as to the peril Alex and Jim will unwittingly set themselves up for on their double date. Kelly Wenham’s stabby kick-boxing Kitty equips herself persuasively as the fierce femme fatale who choreographs her sacrificial carve-ups to Yazoo’s ‘Only You’. Georgia Groome’s Lulu on the other hand is altogether more reluctant to get her hands dirty – even if she shares her 
badass sister’s ultimate wish for patriarch resurrection. 

There’s some broad laddish comedy at play here, most of it orchestrated by Michael Socha’s cocky Alex. But Socha (and writer Morgan) infuse his character with a sprinkling of vulnerability and likeability – the type of role Socha excels at – and the relationship between Alex and sympathetic Jim is amusingly touching. A couple of scenes standout here, firstly when Alex, in full-on Cyrano de Bergerac mode, texts Jim mistyped chat-up lines to use on the sisters. And there’s a lovely gender-reversing romcom sequence where Alex advises panicky Jim on a suitable outfit for their date (even checking his breath and making sure he’s got condoms) which director Barfoot intercuts with Kitty and Lulu’s clinically methodical preparations of their essential items: syringe, chloroform, and knife. 

An excruciatingly embarrassing detour to Jim’s happy-clappy Christian family provides toe-curling amusement, whilst Alex’s background is sketched out by a visit to his divorcé dad (Dexter Fletcher) in his squalid caravan.

The third act takes a pleasingly barmy left-field lurch into TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE territory when this largely hitherto comedy/horror firmly shifts gears into bloody confrontation. The raison d'être for the sisters murderous endeavors is treated with a blithely sketchiness but overall this confident, pacily assured debut feature more often than not pulls off that tricky tonal comedy/horror balancing double act. 

Worth making a date for.

****(OUT OF 5*)

Paul Worts

This review was first published by FrightFest.

Saturday 18 May 2019

CUJO (1983)

Directed by: Lewis Teague, Starring: Dee Wallace, Daniel Hugh-Kelly, Danny Pintauro, Christopher Stone, Ed Lauter. Horror, US 1983, 93mins, Cert 18.

In his memoir ‘On Writing’, author Stephen King confesses he barely remembers writing his JAWS-with-claws novel ‘Cujo’; such was his raging alcoholism at the time. This saddens him as whilst he liked the book, he wishes he “...could remember enjoying the good parts as I put them down on the page”. However, by the time he sat down to write the screenplay (which would ultimately be rejected for straying too far from his own source material) he was clearly troubled with one part - namely the novel’s bleak ending – so he recommended a revision. The filmmakers were on the same page as King on this matter and so the 1983 film version duly delivered a more upbeat conclusion.

Taking over from original director Peter Medak, Lewis Teague was only gifted two days of prep time. Still, he came by virtue of a recommendation by King himself who had been impressed by Teague’s previous giant scaly monster mash ALLIGATOR. Enlisting Jan de Bont (SPEED) as his director of photography proved an inspired choice. Whilst the final product is still hampered by its lumbering premise, the film is at least infused with visually innovative story-telling.

Cujo, a loveable gentle-giant family pet St. Bernard chases a rabbit into a cave in an opening sequence more akin to a BENJI movie. However, as de Bont’s steadicam enthusiastically tracks Cujo through an idyllic meadow, things are about to take a decided turn for the worst for the slobbering pooch when he thrusts his snout into what turns out to be a nest of rabies-infected bats and is promptly bitten on his nose by one of the fanged creatures. This ignites the slow-burning fuse which will eventually bring about Cujo’s descent into infection and deadly menace, setting up the film’s third act set-piece.
But before arriving there, we have to wade through a soap-opera-ish subplot concerning housewife Donna Trenton’s (Dee Wallace) extra-marital affair with ‘local stud’ Steve (played by Wallace’s real-life husband Christopher Stone – reuniting them on screen again after Joe Dante’s THE HOWLING). Meanwhile, Donna’s young son Tad (Danny Pintauro) is convinced there’s a growling monster with glowing eyes and big sharp teeth lurking in his closet. Cuckold husband Vic tries to reassure his son by reciting a monster banishing mantra but the audience is already way ahead with this telegraphed foreshadowing. Vic on the other hand is too preoccupied with his disastrous marketing campaign for a children’s cereal to see what’s going on right under his nose with his wife and Steve. Meanwhile, Cujo’s nose is looking increasingly infected... 

Eventually, through a series of rusty plot contrivances, Donna and son Tad end up stranded in their broken down Ford Pinto in the baking heat at the deserted farmstead of car mechanic and Cujo’s neglectful owner Joe Camber (Ed Lauter). Unbeknown to Donna, Cujo had already chowed down on his former master, as he lays siege to the car trapping mother and son in a dehydrating stand-off.

The close-up shots of Cujo’s slobbering pus and gore smeared visage in the latter stages of his rabies metamorphosis look impressively repulsive in HD. Teague and de Bont employ a visual bag of tricks in staging Cujo’s attacks, but it’s a tall order to nail a jump scare when you’re working with such large good-natured tail-wagging cumbersome co-stars. Between 5-10 different St. Bernard’s were ultimately employed during filming, and there’s a noticeable inconsistency in the size-differences between the various trained pooches onscreen.

I did however admire the false slasher-like ending set-up which pays off with a suddenly revived Cujo bursting through the window like a canine Jason Voorhees from FRIDAY THE 13TH PART 2.

As for the humans, Dee Wallace delivers an unflinching portrayal of a woman initially wrestling with the guilt of her infidelity who is then propelled by her ferocious maternal instinct to defend her child Tad by violently confronting a monstrous force of nature. Is she somehow being punished, albeit unjustifiably, for the affair? Possibly, but the softened on screen resolution seems less judgemental than the novel’s. 6 year old Danny Pintauro gives an extraordinary performance as the terrified seizure-prone youngster – “Can he eat his way in here?” he panics, as his imaginary monster in the closet fears are realised despite his mother’s attempt at rationalisation: “It’s not a monster, it’s just a doggy”.

Cujo is one humongous metaphor for the force of nature – and how mistreatment and callous disregard can lead to nature coming back to bite you (quite literally in this case). The rabid doggy acts as a catalyst for change for all the characters; liberation for Joe Camber’s wife and her son – finally free from their abusive patriarch – and ultimately reconciliation for the Trenton’s, the nuclear family dynamic seemingly restored, the monster bested and the temptation of infidelity sated.

Plot holes abound larger than the cave Cujo snuffles down into. Why doesn’t Donna phone ahead to make sure Joe Camber is there before driving all the way out to his deserted farm with a knowingly unreliable car? Why doesn’t anyone think to lock their front doors, and why would you trust a flimsy porch screen when a rabid St. Bernard is charging towards you full (matted) pelt? But despite these misgivings the film is far from a dog’s breakfast. Rewarding compensations include inventive camera work infused with a pleasing layer of nostalgia-inducing 80’s hue, and Charles Bernstein’s lush evocative score provides a rich treacly syrup of both melody and menace. There’s also real pathos in Cujo’s forlorn eyes. In a prelude to the mayhem yet to be unleashed, Cujo, sentient to what he is becoming, rejects his young master’s calls and retreats into the fog. A pivotal and quietly heartbreaking moment.

**** (out of 5*)

Paul Worts

This review was first published by FrightFest.