Saturday 3 September 2022

CULT OF VHS (2022)

Directed by: Rob Preciado. With: Graham Humphreys, David
Gregory, Michael Keene, Kevin Martin. Feature-length documentary. 89mins. Strangelove & Q Cumber Films & Studio POW.

World premiere screening at Arrow FrightFest on 28th August 2022.

“VHS you know, it’s like vinyl, if vinyl kinda sucked.” (Michael Keene (‘The Head’, ‘Fatal Future’).

Despite the above opening quote, Rob Preciado’s documentary about the VHS video format is a kind rewind back to the origins of the home video revolution. It’s a fascinating celebration of the experiences of the renters, the mom-and-pop (US) and corner shop (UK) independent video stores, the current-day collectors and curators of the treasured tapes bound in amaray boxes, and a speculative fast-forward to the future: will VHS enjoy a vinyl-like renaissance?

It revels in the tactile (sometimes forbidden) pleasures of under-age viewing of age-inappropriate horror films. It highlights the luscious and at times lurid cover art which lured us into renting those often obscure and dodgy titles, whilst celebrating arguably the finest exponent of the art, the UK’s very own Graham Humphreys.

Naturally, no discussion of VHS can take place without considering the ‘video nasty’ saga – something which us UK horror fans of a certain age still have nightmares (in our damaged brains) over the vilification and moral panic which saw some of our beloved gore fests being withdrawn, or cut to ribbons, robbing us of most of the best bits.

CULT OF VHS draws in the (often moving) global experiences from a multitude of fans and collectors both young and mature. From Mexico to Holland, from Australia to Spain as well as here in dear old Blighty. Conceived during lockdown, it’s poignant that so many of the interviewees highlight the advantage of being able to watch a physical copy of a film as opposed to having to rely on your broadband speed to stream a selective algorithm-curated range of largely mainstream fare. Whilst the world was stuck at home who had the last laugh when internet providers couldn’t cope with demand...?

Accompanied by a suitably rocking retro synthwave soundtrack, a bounty of old VHS adverts and juicy trailer snippets – and a fabulous opening credits sequence homaging John Carpenter’s ‘The Thing’, CULT OF VHS is a love letter to VHS for both seasoned home video romantics, and a timely reminder to current and future generations of the advantages and unadulterated pleasure of owning physical media – whether that be in ultra-HD, or pan-and-scan snowy tracking 4:3 VHS.

“VHS is a cult, but it’s not the creepy kill yourself cult, it’s the let’s kick ass and let’s be good to each other kind of cult because movies fucking rule, and in a time like this, escapism is the best and their ain’t no better escapism than trying to go back to the 80’s and 90’s when life just seemed simpler”. (Kevin Martin, Owner of the Lobby Videostore).


Paul Worts

Saturday 21 May 2022

COLD MOON (2016)

Directed by: Griff Furst, Starring: Josh Stewart, Frank Whaley,
Chester Rushing, Candy Clark. Horror, US 2016, 83mins, Cert 15.

Approximately 55 minutes into this adaptation of Michael McDowell’s 1980 novel ‘Cold Moon Over Babylon’, a coffin levitates out of its freshly dug grave, explodes, and deposits a snake-like creature bearing a remarkable resemblance to Michael Keaton’s ‘Betelgeuse’. Given author McDowell co-wrote Tim Burton’s BEETLEJUICE, this is either a belated tribute to the late writer (who died in 1999), a cynical attempt to miss-sell this Southern gothic tale of supernatural revenge, or a complete coincidence (admittedly, Candy Clark’s Grandma Larkin is a dead ringer for the “...ghost with the most...”).

It’s 1989. Down at the Larkin Blueberry Farm in Babylon, Florida, Jerry Larkin (Chester Rushing from MY FATHER DIES, STRANGER THINGS), is worried the blueberry yield is getting lower every year, and those red repayment reminders building up in the kitchen drawer look increasingly likely to spell foreclosure in the not too distant future. But Jerry and his grandmother Evelyn (the venerable genre Candy Clark, hugely over-emoting here) have a more immediate concern: why hasn’t Jerry’s 16 year old sister Margaret not returned home from cycling into town to help her teacher Mr Perry...?

There’s a lot of plot strands all desperately straining for screen time in this unnecessarily overcomplicated ghost story. Like the muddied waters of the river which Margaret Larkin’s strangled corpse is fished out of, the narrative focus constantly seems to be shifting, which, whilst never dull, makes for an uneven, muddled experience. There’s a murder mystery for starters (who strangled Margaret?) which is then abandoned at the start of the second act when, in a double-whammy that the film never really recovers from, not only is the killer revealed, but they also brutally dispatch two of the main characters by unflinchingly beheading one before swiftly running a sword through the other! As I said, dull it certainly ain’t! Then, whilst the sheriff (Frank Whaley) does his best to complicate matters further by arresting an innocent man on the basis of a clue stitch-up even the writers of Scooby-Doo would baulk at, the unsympathetic bank manager who’s been itching to grab the deeds to the Larkin Farm, Nathan Redfield (Josh Stewart), is consuming increasingly vast quantities of hard liquor and drowning his liver whilst seemingly transforming into Sean Penn with every swig. Meanwhile, his wheelchair bound dad James, (Christopher Lloyd, wasted – in the role I mean, not literally like his on screen son Nathan) spends most of his limited screen time nonsensically ranting whilst leering at his nubile cheerleading babe carer, who’s favourite past-time is trying on new bikinis – when she’s not sleeping with his alcoholic son that is – and who also just happens to be the sheriff’s daughter to boot.

There’s the obligatory scene of characters watching NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (1968) on TV for those who wish to play genre cliché bingo. The Tommy Wiseau cameo is of the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it variety (who thought that would ever be a selling point anyway?),

Oh yes, I nearly forgot, there’s also the ghost of strangled Margaret Larkin, floating around town suspended in mid-air peddling her invisible bicycle and generally harassing her killer at inopportune moments. These yield some visually striking flourishes, but even she too flounders (along with her fellow haunters) in the near hysteria of a film which is trying to cram too much of a novel into its relatively modest running time. Ultimately, COLD MOON eclipses itself.    

 ** (out of 5*)

Paul Worts

This review was first published by FrightFest.

Tuesday 12 April 2022


Directed by David Blue Garcia. Starring Sarah Yarkin, Elsie
Fisher, Mark Burnham. Horror, 2022, 81 mins, Cert 18.

Available to stream on Netflix from 18th February 2022.

"The only way to deal with an invasive species is to eradicate them." [with a chainsaw] 

Leatherface gets a retcon facelift in this direct sequel to Tobe Hooper's seminal 1974 classic. Taking its lead from the rebooted Halloween franchise, TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE (2022) eschews all the previous TCM prequels, sequels and reboots whilst employing artistic amnesia by erasing the entire Sawyer family; thereby granting our chainsaw monster the status of orphan for nearly 50 years.    

Helmed by David Blue Garcia (no, me neitherfrom a story by the Evil Dead (2013) / Don't Breath tag-team of Fede Alvarez and Rodo Sayagues, this latest entry in the face peeling franchise sees a disappointingly brief return for original final girl 'Sally Hardesty' to face-off (so to speak) against her one-time nemesis. Sadly Marilyn Burns passed away in 2014 so the original's 'final girl', now a Texas Ranger (albeit a not very good one) is portrayed by Olwen Fouéré in a frankly underwhelming few minutes of screen time.

The aforementioned invasive species of the film are a bunch of young millennial "Gentri-fuckers" led by Melody (Sarah Yarkin, a spitting image of 80's Diane Franklin) and Dante (Jacob Latimore). Somewhat implausibly, these two restaurateurs and social media influencers have assisted a bank in buying up an abandoned Texan town and are coaching in a busload of potential young hipster investors to auction off the old dilapidated properties to transform the town into a trendy 'village' of restaurants and art galleries. (In reality, their sole raison d'être is to augment the film's body count as human cattle for literal slaughter). There's just one problem with this regeneration project - the sick and elderly remaining tenant running the local orphanage claims she still retains her property deeds - and the last remaining 'orphan' upstairs has been with her ever since 1973 when he was taken in as a troubled teen "...that needed me to show 'em mercy for their ways."            

Reports of a troubled production, (original directors being fired after underwhelming dallies and allegedly disastrous test screenings) combined with the decision to drop a theatrical release and dump it straight onto Netflix meant expectations were lower than usual for a TCM entry (if that is actually possible at this point in time). 

Credit where it's due however, this is the first installment to actually deliver an on-screen chainsaw massacre. There's certainly no scrimping on the (largely practical) gore, despite the film's ruthlessly pared-down running time, with the coach/bus (UK/US translation) scene a truly Bacchanalian bloodbath. 

The abandoned town setting gives off House of Wax (2005) vibes, and visually feels more like a Western (despite bizarrely being filmed in Bulgaria) albeit with kitchen rather than saloon doors swinging open to reveal a gruesome tableaux. Plotwise, Leatherface (Mark Burnham) is essentially Jason Voorhees this time around. The death of his mother-figure, Mrs MC (Alice Krige), who knowingly harboured a mass-murdering butcher all these years, here sparks his murderous instincts back to life, and persuades him to crank up the old 'saw once more. Of course Jason didn't honour Mrs Voorhees by skinning mummy's face and using it as a mask, but both are adept at constructing rudimentarily gruesome altars of sorts to their respective deceased matriarchal guardians.

The truncated brevity of the film's running time results in the ruthless slaughtering of the majority of characters without giving us any realt time to get to know them (although perhaps here this isn't always such a bad thing). The relationship between Sarah Yarkin's 'Melody' and her younger sibling 'Lila' (Elsie Fisher), a lone survivor from a High School shooting, is still reasonably affecting however. The sisters form an interesting tag-team when they are forced to pair up against old, near-geriatric, but still surprisingly nimble Leatherface. Moe Dunford also brings an ounce or two (no more mind) of nuance to the role of local gun-toting rootin'-tootin'  petrol polluting mechanic 'Richter' who bonds with Lila over a rifle and some clunkingly obvious foreshadowing. 

Visually, the film offers some striking sequences, such as the chainsaw blade slicing through floorboards like a deadly metallic shark fin, and the finale staged in an abandoned flooded moviehouse which allows Leatherface a watery jumpscare as he launches out of a submerged rain filled basement (instead of a lake onto a canoe, surely I don't need to spell out this visual nod?). The photography is pleasingly free from shaky-cam, which allows the often richly detailed production designs space (if not time) to be appreciated, and the set-pieces are nicely choreographed to generate at least a modicum of tension. 

Sure there's some gaping, chasm-wide plot holes: was Leatherface really so hard to find that he remained undetected for so long purely because he'd worn a mask? Had he been working out in an unseen home-gym in the orphanage throughout all those intervening years to make him so spritely (and seemingly impervious to bullets)? 

But brushing obvious faults aside, this is still a slick, sick thrill-ride with just enough meat on the bone in terms of script to hook one's attention for 81 mean-spirited, nihilistically splattery minutes deep in the heart of Texas (or Bulgaria).

****(out of 5*)      

Paul Worts

Sunday 6 February 2022

A HYMN FOR HER (2022) (Short)

Directed by: Emma Pitt. Starring Linda Marlowe. Short. 

Horror, UK 2022, 9mins.

A Misty Moon & One Eyed Man Music and Film Production. 

Premiering at the Genesis Cinema, as part of The Dark Side magazine’s DarkFest 5 in November.

“I’m not a monster.”

Whilst viewing award winning writer/director Emma Pitt’s latest short film A HYMN FOR HER, I was very much reminded of a Pet Shop Boys song entitled ‘Invisible’: “After being for so many years, the life and soul of the party, it's weird, I'm invisible.”

Former starlet ‘Rosemary De Souza’ (Linda Marlowe) sits in front of her mirror surrounded by posters and framed imaged reminders of her younger self reflecting to her reflection on her heyday years past, the adulation and attention she once commanded, garnering rave reviews and turning heads as a young glamorous actress. Now, with the ageing of time, Rosemary feels herself invisible and largely ignored by a society that assigns a woman’s value and worth on looks and pigeon holes and prejudices based on the superficial exterior of youth and perceived ‘beauty’. Barged into without a hint of an apology, sneered at in a boutique, on the receiving end of unsolicited advice “for women of your age” from her hairdresser, and ignored whilst waiting to be served at the bar: a day in the life of ‘Rosemary De Souza’.

But, as ‘Rosemary’ confides directly to us, “When I said earlier I do nothing about it, that’s not strictly true…”

Having been executive producer on Misty Moon’s previous short: READY FOR MY CLOSE UP (about a fictional fading homicidal B-movie actress), the venerable Linda Marlowe - whose own illustrious stage, film, and TV career is neither fictional nor B-movie in quality – here brings her A-game to writer/director Emma Pitt’s poignant and pithy tale of societal patronisation.

After soliloquising into her bedroom mirror, Marlowe breaks the fourth wall to brilliant effect. Pitt’s script gifts Marlowe with some juicy barbs such as: “It’s not you, it’s my secretary who’s 20 years younger than you” when ruthlessly translating her husband’s attempt to justify leaving her, and the sharply inflected expletives land like verbal grenades. And even without dialogue, Marlowe’s turn to camera upon being advised to consider a bob by her stylist manages to convey the film’s theme in just one succinct gesture.

All this is not to say the film is in anyway preachy or ‘woke’. Rosemary’s exacerbations never ring as hollow posturing and Marlowe draws us along with her sympathetically before her plight simmers over from frustration to boiling point and we are invited to be complicit in her very literal strategy for dealing with a cutthroat world.

There’s fun to be had in spotting cameos from Deborah Voorhees (director of 13 FANBOY and ‘Tina’ from FRIDAY THE 13TH PART V), Hayley Greenbauer (13 FANBOY) and the amusing ‘missing’ posters cropping up during both mid and post end credits: one featuring producer Stuart Morris; and one of Rosemary’s ‘missing’ husband, played by Dave Sutherland, who also contributes the end-credits song ‘Meadow Daises’.

Speaking of which, the song's melody is also employed in the film’s opening, treated with a haunting piano arrangement from DOP and editor Jason Read which sets the off-key tone of the film perfectly. There’s also some nice use of Mozart and later Tchaikovsky to accompany the grand guignol macabre.

Whilst Linda Marlowe’s ‘Rosemary De Souza’ is largely unnoticed to the world and invisible, A HYMN FOR HER very much deserves to be seen by audiences who will surely sing its praises.  


Paul Worts