The Twilight Saga: Eclipse (2010)

2017 #142
David Slade | 119 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

The Twilight Saga: Eclipse

For the third Halloween in a row, I’ve subjected myself to true cinematic horror: a Twilight film. I suppose this one’s theoretically the turning point of the franchise: it’s the middle movie in the film series, while in the books it’s the penultimate instalment — surely in every regard placed to set up the final conflict. Well, you wouldn’t know it, because this is another Twilight film where very little happens.

The plot, such as it is, sees Bella (Kristen Stewart) trying to juggle her romantic relationship with vampire Edward (Robert Pattinson) and her just-about-platonic friendship with werewolf Jacob (Taylor Lautner), which is tricky because the pair don’t get on owing to an ancient feud between their species. Just your regular high school problems, then. Meanwhile, a series of mysterious murders in Seattle have caught the attention of Edward’s de facto vamp family, because they reckon it’s probably not your bog standard serial killer, but rather something in their neck of the woods. (Their neck of the woods. Geddit? Neck of the woods. Nothing? Okay then.) What do they plan to do about it? Watch it… on the news… and… er… wait and see… if it comes near them… maybe?

So, that, but for two hours.

I know how to settle this... a stare off!

So yes, nothing happens — and yet, somehow, nothing happens less boringly than last time. I mean, it’s not great, but it’s not as bad. It actually has some passably good scenes and conflicts, for example. That said, it spends the whole movie getting to basically where the last one ended. The dialogue’s still shit as well. Especially the supposedly passionate stuff, which is like some 11-year-old-who’s-watched-too-many-movies’ idea of what would be romantic. Most of the scenes go on far longer than needed. Plots go round in circles (as I said, nothing happens). And there’s nothing as brilliantly awful as Face Punch, though Edward and Jacob do get one passingly amusing one-liner each. And I have absolutely no idea whatsoever why it’s called Eclipse. I suppose Twilight and New Moon didn’t mean a great deal either, but I still think they meant more than Eclipse.

This may sound a strange thing to say, but this one’s very much a romance movie. The first two must’ve been as well, because that’s what Twilight is, so I’m not sure why I felt it more this time. I suppose the first one had a lot on its plate establishing all the supernatural stuff, and New Moon had a lot of palaver building out the world further, mixing in werewolves and the vampire high council (or whatever). Eclipse does have the Seattle stuff, but that just pops up now and then in between Bella umming and ahhing over her relationships.

Team Abs

As to that, the story tries so. hard. to make you believe it’s possible Bella could change her mind and switch affections from Edward to Jacob — but did anyone ever really believe that was an actual possibility? The story just isn’t built that way. Before I watched the films, I could never understand why anyone would be Team Jacob. It seemed so obvious she’d end up with Edward, why waste your energy? But now, even still thinking it’s inevitable, if I had to pick a team it’d definitely be Team Jacob. The reason is Taylor Lautner. No, not because of his phwoarsome abs. I remember everyone being very surprised when Lautner joined BBC Three sitcom Cuckoo, but actually watching these films you can see he has at least some ability with comic timing. His character is also more down-to-earth and levelheaded than his vampiric rival. Put together, these traits make Jacob much more likeable than bloody Edward.

The rest of the cast are as much nonentities as ever. It’s no wonder it’s taken Kristen Stewart years to re-establish the positive career path she was on before Twilight. Original Victoria actress Rachelle Lefevre was fired because her schedule for another film overlapped, and her replacement is Bryce Dallas Howard. Although Victoria has been an antagonist throughout the series, and her storyline ostensibly comes to a head in this instalment, she’s barely present. Quite why they cast a relatively well-known actress in such a minor role, or why she agreed to do it, is a mystery. At least it doesn’t seem to have harmed her career.

Team Sparkles

Others have been less fortunate. I mean, Robert Pattinson still works, but in what lately? I thought the same about director David Slade, whose work here is perfectly serviceable while at no point being memorable. Previously he’d helmed well-received horror/thrillers Hard Candy and 30 Days of Night, a promising start to his career. However, since taking the Twilight dollar (he’d previously slagged off the series, comments he tried to pass off as a joke when he signed on for Eclipse) he’s shifted to TV, starting off poorly with a raft of pilot episodes like This American Housewife (not picked up), Awake (ditched after a half season), Crossbones (cancelled after nine episodes), and Powers (only available on PlayStation). But more recently he’s been an executive producer and director on Hannibal and American Gods, and has a Black Mirror coming up. I guess the era of prestige TV is working out for him.

Anyway, back to Eclipse. For a movie in which so little happens, I found it surprisingly unobjectionable. It’s not good, but I’d say it’s the least-bad Twilight so far. Of course, it wouldn’t make any sense to watch it without sitting through the previous two first, so my assessment is even more damning with faint praise than it sounds.

2 out of 5

See you this time next year for Breaking Dawn Part 1… and maybe Part 2, just to get this thing over with.

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The Exorcist (1973)

2017 #150
William Friedkin | 122 mins | Blu-ray | 16:9 | USA / English & Arabic* | 18 / R

The Exorcist

Did you know The Exorcist was based on a true story? I didn’t, until I watched some of the special features on the Blu-ray release. “Based on” is a bit of a stretch, to be honest. “Inspired by” would be more accurate. But you get the sense from author and screenwriter William Peter Blatty that he believes all this stuff so much that he thinks “based on” would be fine.

The Exorcist does start out very plausibly. It’s about Regan MacNeil (Linda Blair), a sweet 12-year-old kid living with her mother Chris (Ellen Burstyn) in Washington, D.C. But one day Regan begins to act oddly: delivering insults and soiling herself at a party; yelling obscenities; slapping her beloved mother; somehow causing her bed to shake uncontrollably… Doctors run tests, but they reveal nothing. The only suggestion they’ve left to give is that Regan may believe she’s possessed by an evil spirit, and that she might be tricked into believing she’s cured if the church will perform a little-known procedure called an exorcism.

Worried mother

Everyone’s so busy talking about The Scary Stuff when it comes to The Exorcist, no one ever tells you how low-key and grounded a lot of it is. Okay, the talking in voices and spinning heads and vomiting green gunk and bloody crucifix masturbation are pretty memorable, so fair enough. Before that, though, it’s more of a character drama, about a single mother struggling to handle what appears to be her daughter’s out-of-control mental health problems. Meanwhile, a priest, Father Karras (Jason Miller), struggles with a crisis of faith brought on in part by his ailing mother. Naturally these two threads align when Chris calls on Karras to investigate Regan’s condition.

Another thing I’ve never heard about The Exorcist is how good Miller is. This is his film debut, before which he was a stage actor, but he delivers a very naturalistic performance as a man of the cloth who also has his head screwed on — his training in psychology keeps him suitably skeptical of what’s going on with Regan. Events conspire to challenge his point of view, of course. Karras has the clearest arc of anyone in the film, giving Miller the most scope to develop his role. I’d venture he’s the film’s most interesting character.

Father Karras

That’s not to dismiss Burstyn, who’s also excellent as the very together mom who begins to crack under the increasing strain of her daughter’s worsening, inexplicable condition. As said daughter, Blair’s performance is certainly memorable, though the potency of Regan is aided by special effects and voice work from another actress. Although second billed, Max von Sydow only pops in at the beginning and end in the titular role of Father Merrin. It’s no wonder someone later thought Merrin’s past was ripe for a prequel, because there’s a backstory there that’s only hinted at.

And no one ever says how little Tubular Bells is in it, either.

The thing people do say about The Exorcist is how scary it is. Tales of audiences fainting and running out during its initial theatrical run are the stuff of movie legend. Today its releases are branded as “the scariest film ever made”, with the justification of several polls that have named it thus. I can well believe that, in the early ’70s, it was indeed the most shocking film most people had ever seen, certainly from a major studio. The extreme bad language, the gruesome special effects, the morally depraved acts, and all of it happening to a child…

Regan... or is it?

It was surely an element of sensibilities being offended (especially in America), as much as it was actual horror, that provoked such radical reactions from audiences back in the day. Nowadays we’re a bit more deadened to those things — the last 40+ years have served up plenty of elaborate gore, and potty-mouthed pre-teen girls are more likely to be found in comedies (Hit-Girl is even younger than Regan when she utters the C word in Kick-Ass, for example). I also thought it frequently undermined its own intensity by cutting away from the scary scenes to more mundane stuff. Maybe the goal was to never give those scenes an ‘out’ — we always seem to leave them when supernatural stuff is still going on — but for me it killed the momentum that was building.

That’s not to say the horrific and shocking stuff is no longer powerful. What really works in its favour is how long the film spends being grounded and plausible — most of the first hour is a ’70s social drama about a child with a mental health problem. That level of realism helps the later horror scenes be all the more effective. They quite quickly transcend the realms of the plausible (unless you’re some kind of religious fanatic, I guess), but the grounded setup lends weight to them nonetheless. The climax in particular — the actual exorcism — might just be silly without the realistic world it’s been placed in. Instead, it’s a suitably tense climax.

The exorcism

Obviously it was the extreme stuff that caught people’s attention and earnt The Exorcist a reputation that it still trades off to this day. However, I’d say it’s best regarded, not as a fright-fest, but as a film about characters: the mother who’ll do anything for her child; the priest battling with a crisis of faith. It’s a drama about real people in extreme circumstances, it’s just that these extreme circumstances happen to be horror movie fodder. In this respect it’s such a film of the ‘70s, which I mean in the best possible way.

5 out of 5

The Exorcist was viewed as part of my Blindspot 2017 project, which you can read more about here.

* IMDb lists half a dozen other languages, but Arabic’s the only one I remember being significant enough to earn subtitles. ^

Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983)

2017 #129
Joe Dante, John Landis, George Miller & Steven Spielberg | 97 mins | streaming (HD) | 16:9 | USA / English | 12 / PG

Twilight Zone: The Movie

I can’t remember when I first heard of Twilight Zone: The Movie — certainly not until sometime this millennium — but I do remember being surprised I hadn’t heard of it before. Why wasn’t it more often talked about? After all, here’s a film based on a classic TV series, directed by some of the hottest genre filmmakers of the time: John Landis just after An American Werewolf in London; Joe Dante just before Gremlins; George Miller fresh from Mad Max 2; and, most of all, Steven Spielberg, coming off a run that encompassed Jaws, Close Encounters, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and E.T. I mean, Jesus, even if the movie wasn’t great then surely it should be well-known! It was only later still that I learnt about the infamous helicopter crash. Couple that with a mediocre critical reception and relatively poor box office results, and suddenly it’s no wonder no one ever talked about the film. My viewing of it was primarily motivated by attempting to complete the filmographies of Spielberg and Miller, but I’m glad I did because, on the whole, I rather enjoyed it.

As the original Twilight Zone was an anthology series, so is the movie — hence having four directors. Although the original plan was to have some characters crop up in each segment, thereby linking them all together, that idea didn’t come off. The end result, then, is really just five sci-fi/fantasy/horror short films stuck together — composer Jerry Goldsmith is the only key crew member to work across more than two segments. The advantage of that as a viewer is, if you don’t like one story, there’ll be another along before you know it. Because of that, I’ll take each part in turn.

The Trump Zone

The film begins with a prologue, directed by John Landis, featuring Albert Brooks and Dan Aykroyd as a driver and a hitchhiker chatting about classic TV and scary stories. Although obviously the shortest segment, it’s good fun and sets a kind of comic tone — not one the rest of the film follows, to be fair, but it’s kind of effective in that it has a knowing wink to the audience: “we all know The Twilight Zone is a TV show. Now, here are four stories from it.”

Landis also directs the first full segment, Time Out, the only one of the four not adapted from an original TV episode. Basically, it’s about a Trump supporter. You might not have noticed that if watching before last year, for obvious reasons, but viewed now it’s kind of hard to miss. What’s depressing it that the point of the film is this guy’s views are outdated in 1983, and yet you have Trumpers spouting the same shit in 2017, three-and-a-half decades later. That aside, as a short moral parable it’s effective. It doesn’t have the ending that was scripted (thanks to the aforementioned tragedy), I think the conclusion it does have is actually more appropriate. It feels kind of wrong to take that view, because the only reason it was changed was that terrible accident. Obviously it wasn’t worth it just for this segment to have a better ending, but there it is.

Scary kid? Check.

Segment two, Kick the Can, is Spielberg’s, and anyone familiar with his oeuvre — and the criticism of it — will see that right away: it’s shot in nostalgic golden hues and contains positive, sentimental moral lessons. In fact, it’s so cloyingly sweet, it’s like a parody of Spielberg’s worst excesses. It was originally intended to be the last film in the movie, and you can see why: it would’ve formed a positive, upbeat finale to the picture. I’m not sure why they moved it — possibly because they felt it was the least-good. That’s what a fair few critics believe, anyway.

Personally, segment three was my least favourite. This is Joe Dante’s short, titled It’s a Good Life, and is about a woman who accidentally knocks a boy off his bike, gives him a lift home, and finds a pretty strange situation therein. I found it to be kind of aimless; weird for the sake of weird. It’s prettily designed and shot, with bold cartoon colours, but if I watched the film again I’d give serious thought to just skipping it.

The final segment remakes arguably the most famous Twilight Zone episode: Nightmare at 20,000 Feet. It’s about a paranoid airplane passenger on a turbulent flight, who thinks he sees a monster on the wing. Naturally, no one believes him. I’ve not seen the original version so can’t compare, but director George Miller and star John Lithgow do a fantastic job of realising Richard Matheson’s story, loading it with tension and uncertainty — is it actually all in the passenger’s head? And if it isn’t, can they survive?

Fear of flying

On the whole, I liked Twilight Zone: The Movie more than I’d expected I would. Nonetheless, as a series of shorts, it’s destined to be a footnote in the career of all involved (even Landis has done a fair job of moving on from the controversy — as I said, I hadn’t even heard about it until relatively recently). The only truly great segment is Miller’s finale, but the others all have elements that make them worth a look.

4 out of 5

Death Note (2017)

2017 #115
Adam Wingard | 100 mins | streaming (4K) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 18

Death Note

Something of a global phenomenon in the ’00s, Death Note started life as a manga, is perhaps best known for its anime adaptation, was adapted into a series of live-action films (I reviewed the first two last week), adapted again as a live-action TV series, and was even turned into a musical. Although it’s taken a while, finally the inevitable is here: an American remake. After passing through several studios, it’s wound up with Netflix, under the helmsmanship of Adam Wingard. Thus, I was hoping for the new film from the director of The Guest. Instead, I got the new film from the director of Blair Witch. And much like Blair Witch, this is a ham-fisted reimagining of a once-popular franchise.

This incarnation of the story concerns Light Turner (Nat Wolff), a Seattle high school student who one day discovers the mysterious Death Note, a notebook with the power to kill just by writing someone’s name in it. Goaded into using it by the demonic death-god Ryuk (voiced by Willem Dafoe), Light soon teams up with his crush Mia (Margaret Qualley) and they set about murdering criminals. Their actions become famous under the alias Kira, which they hope to use to establish a new world order. But hot on the case is a mysterious super detective known only as L (Lakeith Stanfield), who engages Kira in a battle of wits.

As with so many things nowadays, the US version of Death Note has been dogged by accusations of whitewashing. As seems to be the case at least half the time, these accusations are largely unfounded. If this had kept the Japanese settings and character names but given them white faces, fair enough, but it hasn’t — it’s relocated to America, with American characters. It’s no different to all the other new-country remakes that have always happened (and also goes on the other way, with US movies remade in Bollywood and Asia, we just don’t hear about them very often here).

Light vs L

Unfortunately, Death Note: America has genuine problems to contend with. Despite that reimagining status, it’s still understandably shackled to the broad shape of the original work. Consequently, it glosses over some of the more interesting implications of the premise in its rush to make Kira famous and introduce L. Partly that’s what happens when you condense so much story into just 100 minutes, but it’s also because it’s beholden to bringing in L and starting his cat-and-mouse game with Light. When I reviewed the Japanese live-action movies, I didn’t think Light and L’s battle of wits was as clever as the films clearly thought they were, and it’s even worse here.

There would seem to be more fertile and interesting ground for exploration in why Light and Mia are trying to establish a new world order — what exactly they think that means; what motivates them to do it; and how they intend to achieve it. On the whole, the film doesn’t seem to be making time to dig into the psyche of its characters — why they’re doing what they’re doing, how it changes them — instead just going through the motions of a thriller plot. It feels like it’s had 20 minutes of character stuff cut out that would grease the wheels of the plot. The worst offender is the climax: there’s no weight to the big finale because we’ve been given no time to care about these characters or their relationships with each other.

Ello, L

For all the faults of the way the other version I’ve seen executed Light and L’s chess-like interactions, at least they consistently involved Light using the Death Note and its rules to try to trick L. Here, after the eponymous book and its abilities have been established, it’s basically just used to control other people to make them forward the plot, only returning to its real purpose come the climax. This is another reason the focus on Light and L’s duelling doesn’t work here: at least the original thought they were both geniuses and behaved as thus; each of them was motivated by proving they were cleverer than the other, everything and everyone else be damned. Here, L is still some kind of savant, whereas Light seems a pretty normal teenager, motivated by… well…

So, in the original, Light does his utmost to keep the Death Note secret from everyone to protect his identity as its user. Here, almost as soon as he’s got it he blabs about it to the girl he fancies. Why? Same reason most guys try to show off to girls: because he thinks it’ll impress her. It’s a change of motivation, but okay, why not? But he’s given very little indication that such a thing would impress her. What if she’d been appalled and gone running to the police? She doesn’t, of course, because this is a geek’s fantasy, so she a) loves it, and b) within minutes is shagging him. (Presumably. This may be an 18 for gore, but sexy times are implied by no more than a little light clothing removal. Perhaps they just sat around in their undies while murdering people with their magic book, I dunno.)

Bloodthirsty crush

Believe it or not, Death Note is not a total washout. Indeed, the best things about the film are easily identified. Firstly, there’s Willem Dafoe’s voice performance as Ryuk. If you need a manipulative death-god, he’s a perfect choice. Secondly, the visual realisation of said death-god, a mix of strong CG and keeping him in the shadows. It’s light years more effective than the ’00s movies. On the downside, Ryuk’s role amounts to little more than a glorified cameo: after an initial appearance to explain the rules, he just pops up briefly to remind us he’s still a bother.

Thirdly, then, there’s the death sequences that occur on the first couple of occassions Light uses the Death Note. This film skips the “they just die of a heart attack” phase and goes straight for the “you can dictate how they die” jugular. In this version, that means a Final Destination-a-like chain of random events occur that make the deaths fairly amusing. Also, graphically violent — enough for that 18 in the eyes of the BBFC. These go AWOL again as the film has to get busy with its plot, which is a shame. Basically, someone should’ve tapped Wingard to make Final Destination 6.

Fourthly, and finally, the score is very likeable. It’s full of the ’80s horror movie synths you’d expect from the director of The Guest, though it’s undercut somewhat by a few bizarre song choices, mostly during the climax.

In the dark, no one can see your CGI

Having read a few reactions to the film online, it strikes me that on one hand you’ve got fans criticising it for not being faithful enough, while on the other you’ve got critics picking on it for things that I’d argue are inherent in the source narrative (at least based on what I’ve seen before). That doesn’t excuse this adaptation entirely — they’ve changed so much that fixing logic issues could definitely have happened too — but it’s an amusing juxtaposition of reasons for displeasure: it’s a film scuppered both by being faithful and by not being faithful. Unfortunately that means that, whether you’re comparing it to a previous version or not, it fails to be a coherent experience.

2 out of 5

Death Note is available worldwide on Netflix now.

The Girl with All the Gifts (2016)

2017 #28
Colm McCarthy | 111 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.00:1 | UK & USA / English | 15 / R

The Girl with All the Gifts

When George A. Romero invented the zombie subgenre in the ’60s, he was more concerned with allegory than blood ‘n’ guts. The latter has come to dominate, as it has with so much of the broader horror genre, but from time to time there’s still room for thoughtful contributions more befitting Romero’s legacy. This low-budget British film, adapted from a young adult novel, is one such effort.

As the film opens we’re introduced to Melanie (Sennia Nanua), a young girl who sits in a concrete bedroom treasuring her photo of a kitten. Then soldiers enter and, at gunpoint, strap her to a chair, before wheeling her to a classroom with similarly restrained children. It’s just the beginning of a fantastic first act, full of atmosphere and intrigue as this world is rolled out before us. The less you know the better, though the chances of going in so cold that it’s a total mystery are sadly slim. If you’re intrigued enough already to check out the movie on my recommendation alone, stop reading now! Go watch it! If not…

So, as it turns out, we’re in the near future and a fungal disease has turned most of humanity into zombie-like creatures known as ‘hungries’. They spend most of their time in a dormant trance, but the smell of uninfected blood sends them wild and chompy. Melanie and her classmates are children who are infected but ‘normal’ — unless provoked, when they too turn into ravenous fiends — and they may hold the key to a cure. They live on an army base, but, when it’s overrun by hungries, Melanie and a ragtag group of survivors — including Paddy Considine’s sergeant, teacher Gemma Arterton, and scientist Glenn Close, who’s obsessed with finding a cure at any cost — hit the road in search of safe haven.

On the road

In the A.V. Club’s review, Katie Rife asserts that “once this initial premise is revealed and The Girl With All The Gifts leaves the base… this intriguing twist on zombie lore becomes subsumed by postapocalyptic road-trip cliché.” Well, yes and no. There are certainly some familiar beats, but I felt like those just gave a narrative shape to contain otherwise interesting ideas. I haven’t seen enough zombie movies to vouch for The Girl With All The Gifts being 100% original, but I’d certainly not come across some of its ideas before. That goes for both the way it handles the zombie action (though, of course, there are only so many ways you can depict the monstrous undead) and the social commentary, which, as much as anything, tackles the way children and adults interrelate.

The eponymous girl is fantastic — Melanie is an interesting character, and an interesting type of character too. She’s fantastically played by Sennia Nanua, who may be a talent to watch out for in future (I say ‘may’ because, per IMDb, she’s not got anything else coming up). The more familiar supporting cast are as superb as you’d expect. Glenn Close brings plausibility to what could’ve just been an Evil Scientist role, while Gemma Arterton provides the film’s heart as a motherly teacher. Paddy Considine’s role is best appreciated once all is said and done — he seems to be just the gruff soldier type, but snippets of his backstory are revealed right up until the end, revealing new layers to his character.

Special school

Director Colm McCarthy, a veteran of copious amounts of British TV (Spooks, Doctor Who, Sherlock, Ripper Street, Peaky Blinders, and much, much more), keeps the focus on the characters while also giving their world a fantastic sense of scale. The film was made for a pittance (for comparison, it cost about half as much as a single episode of Game of Thrones) but looks incredible. There may be some blurry edges on green screen shots and things like that, but I’ve seen less convincing effects work in movies that cost 50 times as much. Some of the footage was captured by flying over the remains of a town left to rot after Chernobyl, which lends a veracity to the post-apocalyptic vistas (and presumably saved a tonne on CGI). In terms of places you can actually take actors, it was partly filmed in Birmingham, which seems to be becoming a go-to location for dystopian / post-apocalyptic cityscapes (Spielberg’s forthcoming Ready Player One also shot there last year).

The zombie genre is an overcrowded one nowadays, even if you exclude the innumerable direct-to-DVD knock-offs, but there’s still space for well-made movies that can put the familiar tropes to greater use. The Girl with All the Gifts is an impressively mounted and performed production, and is worth watching if just for that horror-thriller kick. However, it also has something to say. I imagine Romero would be pleased.

5 out of 5

The Girl with All the Gifts is available on Sky Cinema from today.

Blair Witch (2016)

2017 #66
Adam Wingard | 89 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.85:1 | Canada & USA / English | 15 / R

Blair Witch

Twists in movies come in all shapes and sizes, but rarely do they come in the marketing. This latest film from the writer-director team behind You’re Next and The Guest was initially promoted as The Woods, only for its true name to be revealed at the first public screening. Quite neatly, during said screening they switched all the posters in the lobby for ones featuring the real title. It’s a shame it wasn’t possible to give every viewer that “oh shit, it’s a sequel to The Blair Witch Project!” surprise, because it’s probably the most interesting thing about the film.

Set however-many years after the original movie (and ignoring the first sequel, just like the rest of us have), it’s about the younger brother of one of the original missing documentary-makers, who comes to believe that his sister is still alive, somehow, in those woods, all these years later. So he sets out with a couple of friends to investigate, and of course one of them documents it, using all sorts of cameras — handheld, body mounted, even a drone. So, yes, this is once again a found footage movie. Well, they are all the rage.

In fairness, the first Blair Witch was the father of found footage, so it only makes sense to retain the form. However, I’d argue that everything that worked about the original movie did so because of how it was filmed — that the cast had been put in that situation ‘for real’ and the filmmakers were fucking with them. It gave it all a rough plausibility, which is largely what made it scary. Conversely, this Blair Witch feels scripted and constructed from the off. That’s fine for most movies, even found footage ones, but here it stands in sharp contrast to how the original worked, and I think it undermines this movie. Almost everything feels inevitable, and you know all the important stuff will be captured on camera (at least one major stunt in the original film was missed because the scared actors didn’t happen to point the camera at it).

A deserted house in the middle of a creepy forest? What could possibly go wrong!

As a horror movie, it does achieve moments that are kind of scary, but they’re undercut by a certain obviousness. I mean, of course a deserted house in the woods is scary when you know there’s a murderous witch inside and you’re limited to seeing it only from one character’s torchbeam-lit perspective. The whole movie is powered by similarly cheap jump scares: friends creeping up on each other; cameras glitching whenever they’re turned off; or, indeed, on — that kind of thing. The only genuinely terrifying bit, at least to me, was a final-act crawl through an underground tunnel. This is not a good movie for claustrophobics. And it only gets worse when you learn they made the actress do it for real.

In some ways Blair Witch is just a remake — a bunch of young people running around in the woods from something scary that we don’t see. Early on it seems like it will bring something interesting to the party with its use of new technology to update the concept: whereas in the original they had one simple video camera, here there are ear-cams with GPS, webcams they can mount in trees, even a drone. Sadly, none of these contribute anything except more angles for the editor to use. Plot-wise there’s a shiny new twist, though I wonder how many people guessed it a long time before the end. Credit to the filmmakers for not overplaying it — it’s there just to be noticed; it’s not highlighted when it’s revealed — but I was so expecting it that such credit doesn’t get them far.

Eh, that's a bit of a reach

According to, er, themselves in their commentary track, director Adam Wingard and screenwriter Simon Barrett actually had a lot of interesting ideas about and explanations for the inexplicable stuff that’s going on in the movie. Unfortunately, they buried these notions so deeply in the finished work that it feels as if they’re not there at all; and now there’ll be no sequel to expound upon them, and the guys were in such a bitter mood when they recorded the commentary (within days of the film being a critical and box office flop) that they don’t explain them, apparently out of spite. Well, I guess we’ll have to take their word for it, then.

Maybe if they had bothered to explore the implications of their new tossed-in ideas then there’d be something to appreciate here, but instead it’s just 80 minutes (and it feels longer) of shaky footage of people running around in the dark. I suppose that, as a horror film, some of it works in the most literal sense of being scary in the moment. But it doesn’t feel earned; it doesn’t feel like it’ll be haunting me later, in the way the most effective horror movies do — in the way the ending of the first Blair Witch did.

2 out of 5

Blair Witch will be available on Netflix UK from tomorrow. It’s also currently available to rent on Amazon UK at a discount for Prime members as part of Prime Day.

10 Cloverfield Lane (2016)

2016 #180
Dan Trachtenberg | 104 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

10 Cloverfield Lane

After Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) is in a car crash, she awakens in a basement chained to a wall. Her captor, Howard (John Goodman), tells her he’s saved her life: a massive attack has taken place and they, along with an acquaintance of Howard’s called Emmett (John Gallagher, Jr.), are in Howard’s self-built bunker to hide from the deadly fallout. But Michelle only has Howard’s word as evidence these attacks happened at all, or that their aftermath is lethal, and can he be trusted?

For most of its running time, 10 Cloverfield Lane is a good psychological puzzle. Michelle has little choice but to trust her captor(s) / quarantine-mates and little chance to investigate the truth for herself, try as she might. I must say I never felt a particularly palpable sense of tension, despite the varied and regularly renewed attempts to make Goodman a threat, but it nonetheless works as a characterful mystery-driven single-location thriller. And then…

We’ve all read reviews where a critic (or blogger!) will write something like, “it would benefit from being 10 minutes shorter”. That sounds very precise and therefore clever, but it’s really a number plucked from thin air. No one who’s written a sentence like that has actually sat down with a film, noted all the bits they’d cut, added them up, and then presented that total in their review. It is, at best, intuition (at worst, it’s random and thoughtless). However, with 10 Cloverfield Lane I can say exactly how much needs to be cut: 9 minutes and 10 seconds. To be exact, those’d be the 9 minutes and 10 seconds between a (spoilery) revelation and the credits rolling.

Roomies

There’s no need to go into detail here — if you’ve not seen the film it’s a massive spoiler; if you have, you surely know what I’m talking about. This climax feels wholly unnecessary and like it belongs in a totally different movie. Tonally, and in terms of the main plot points that drive the story, it has absolutely nothing to do with the movie we’ve just watched. If you cut that bit out, it wouldn’t make the rest of the film any less satisfying. And because it’s so unnecessary, I found it intensely irritating.

The bulk of 10 Cloverfield Lane is a very solid contained psychological thriller, undoubtedly deserving a strong 4-star rating. Then the final ten minutes happens. It’s so misjudged, in my opinion, that it overshadows what’s come before, to the point that I’ve taken a whole star off my rating.

3 out of 5

Split (2016)

2017 #62
M. Night Shyamalan | 117 mins | download (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA & Japan / English | 15 / PG-13

Split

Once-fêted writer-director M. Night Shyamalan surprised a lot of people in 2015 by finally beginning his long-awaited comeback (a day I think it’s safe to say many thought would never come) with low-budget high-concept horror The Visit. Then earlier this year he surprised people again by delivering another long-promised return. Well, he surprised people who didn’t find it out on the internet the day after the darn thing came out, anyway. For that reason (plus the newsworthy announcements that have followed in its wake), this review presumes you know Split’s last-minute twist.

And, like many a twist before it, once you know what’s coming it can’t help but colour the entire film. What’s unique about Split’s reveal is that, really, it shouldn’t — it’s a bonus extra-textual connection, not a traditional twist that forces you to reassess the narrative you’ve just seen. The problem, I suppose, is that it’s a distraction; or it was for me. I spent the entire movie with a background awareness that this was in the same universe as Unbreakable, which meant that (a) I was hyper-attentive for anything that suggested a link before the closing cameo (I didn’t see anything significant; I think the similar posters are probably the cheekiest thing), and (b) any tension about whether or not James McAvoy’s character will turn out to have (semi-)supernatural powers dissipates, because of course he will — that’s the world we’re in.

Oh, you!

This is why having twists spoiled is bad. I guess journalists felt that as it wasn’t a twist inherent to the film’s narrative — not like, say, The Sixth Sense or Fight Club — it was OK to shout about it online with uncommon speed. In fairness, the later news that the trilogy-completing Glass is in development means that, even if they had kept schtum, anyone waiting on Split’s digital/DVD/streaming/etc release was likely to have the connection blown anyway. But I didn’t want to be having a conversation about the point at which discussing spoilers is permissible. That’s a distraction from the film itself, which does it a disservice. But then, so’s knowing the ending before you start.

I guess this is a long-winded way of saying I don’t think I’ve fairly judged Split yet. I was too busy thinking “OMG, Unbreakable sequel, yay!” Still, it’s easy to spot several plus points. The Witch’s Anya Taylor-Joy makes for an engaging heroine, her character quiet but assured, more capable than the bolshy but kinda useless classmates she’s imprisoned with. Even as a twist-spoiled viewer is waiting for the inevitable reveal that, yep, McAvoy has powers that are going to manifest, there’s tension in when and how and who’ll make it out alive.

Making it out alive?

However, the really exceptional part of the movie is McAvoy’s performance. I don’t know how accurately or sympathetically the film handles the science of his character’s condition, but his embodiment of the role — of all the roles — is superb. The multiple distinct personalities aren’t created just by putting on a silly voice or funny costume; McAvoy changes the way he holds himself, the way he stands and moves, the way his face expresses. It’s the kind of performance that in a different kind of film would’ve been all over awards season.

I feel bad for not entirely assessing Split on its own merits, but equally I can’t help it — the thing that most excites me is where it promises to go next; the full-blown sequel to Unbreakable that many people (myself included) have been hoping would come for the best part of two decades. Maybe once that’s been and gone I’ll be able to revisit this and take it as a standalone piece.

4 out of 5

Split is released on DVD and Blu-ray in the UK today.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)

2016 #147
Don Siegel | 77 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.00:1 | USA / English | PG

Invasion of the Body Snatchers

A sci-fi thriller about a stealth alien invasion using human duplicates (clue’s in the title), this original film version of the oft-remade Invasion of the Body Snatchers is best not at genre-movie chills, but at evoking and commenting on paranoia and what causes it.

Thematically, the narrative of insidious outsiders slowly replacing good honest people with braindead versions who are on their side has been read as either anti-communist or anti-McCarthyite, with some critics claiming the framing story (more on that in a bit) changes it from the latter to the former. Allegedly none of these themes were intended — not by the author of the original story, the screenwriter, the producer, or the director. Which doesn’t mean you can’t see them there. Indeed, director Don Siegel felt the anti-McCarthy subtext was inescapable, but he tried not to emphasise it. Whichever reading you prefer, or none, the sense of unease, distrust, and lurking danger that the film creates are a peerless reflection of paranoid feelings.

Although I deemphasised the genre aspect above, that doesn’t mean it lacks for sophistication there either. It’s as much a thriller as it is science fiction, and more mature in that regard than what’s commonly brought to mind by the phrase “50s sci-fi movie” (whether that’s fair or not). The way the mystery slowly unravels — the calmness of it; how even our heroes unwittingly allow some of it to happen — sucks you slowly deeper into its anxious grip. (“Slowly” being a relative term, because this is a short, quick movie.) Nonetheless, the most outright SF elements — the plant-like pods that the clones emerge from — are suitably creepy. Not in themselves, but when they first burst open and the bodies inside begin to ooze out… Though not strictly a horror movie (at least not as we’d define it today), those moments are chilling.

Extreme gardening

The impact of this sequence is supported by the black-and-white photography, which helps obscure any cheapness or amateurism to be found from the era- and budget-restrained special effects work. But such photography benefits the film as a whole, too, with some great film noir visuals during nighttime scenes. Siegel had previously helmed several such crime pictures (and would go on to a couple more) and it’s clear those skills crossed over. It also works very nicely with the film’s paranoia — what’s lurking in the shadows?

In some respects it’s amazing Invasion of the Body Snatchers is as successful as it is, because the studio chose to dick around with it in a couple of ways. Originally the film had some humour, which (as I think we all know by now) definitely can have a place in a horror movie, generally to help manage tension levels. Despite successful test screenings in which the audience screamed or laughed as appropriate, the studio ordered the humour be cut. I guess they then felt they’d made the film too glum, because they next ordered the addition of bookend sequences, against the wishes of both the producer and the director. It’s clear these couple of scenes were shot much later, with much less care given to their quality. They do somewhat detract from the pervading pessimistic, bleak, increasingly hopeless tone — which was why they were added, of course, so at least in that respect they’re a success.

Those late additions aren’t bad enough to ruin the film, however, which still comes away as a well-made exercise in tension.

4 out of 5

Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (1992)

2017 #67
David Lynch | 135 mins | Blu-ray | 1.85:1 | USA & France / English | 15 / R

Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me

This review contains major spoilers for both Twin Peaks and Fire Walk with Me.

When Twin Peaks was cancelled, co-creator David Lynch quickly realised he wasn’t done telling stories in that world — probably because he’d just ended the TV series on a massive cliffhanger, having only recently refocused his attention on the show after a period of absence. Within a month of the series’ end, he’d secured a deal to produce a big-screen continuation. Along with one of the series’ lead writers, Robert Engels, Lynch cooked up a plan for a trilogy of movies that would explore some of the series’ leftover mythology — primarily, the mysterious and otherworldly Black Lodge. The first of these movies would begin by revisiting the aspect of Twin Peaks that had brought it so much attention in the first place: the murder of Laura Palmer.

Unfortunately, Lynch had misjudged the public’s appetite — or, more likely, didn’t particularly care about that, but nonetheless what people wanted didn’t line up with what Lynch made. The resulting movie, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me, was not a success. For fans of the TV programme, the tone didn’t match, most of the regular cast didn’t appear, and, on the surface at least, it was a story about events they already knew, rather than a resolution to the series’ cliffhanger. For non-fans, it didn’t seem to stand alone in the way a ‘proper’ movie should. Lynch had won the top prize at Cannes just two years earlier, but now the screening of Fire Walk with Me was booed; so was the press conference. Reviewers were similarly unimpressed. The film flopped at the box office. The intended trilogy stalled with its first instalment, and Fire Walk with Me went down as a poorly-regarded failure, unquestionably one of Lynch’s worst films.

Lady in red (room)

Well, opinions change. Nowadays you’re just as likely to see someone contend that Fire Walk with Me is the pinnacle of Lynch’s career as you are to see someone express the view it’s his nadir; perhaps even more likely. From what I can gather, a quarter-of-a-century’s distance has allowed people to become more understanding about what it was Lynch was actually trying to achieve with the film; that it is, despite what the title might lead you to believe, as much “A David Lynch Film” as it is “A Continuation of The Popular Mainstream TV Series Twin Peaks”.

In both of these respects, there’s an awful lot to unpack. It’s a continuation and expansion of the ongoing Peaks story (and certainly not a conclusion to it), with pieces that lead up to Laura’s murder, pieces that expand on or continue stuff from the series finale, as well as brand new mysteries and puzzles. Simultaneously, it stands on its own two feet as a depiction of — and, in its use of horror, allegory for — the terrors of domestic psychological abuse and incest. And before all that it starts with a half-hour prologue in which a cast of character we mostly don’t know investigate a murder that die-hard fans might just about recall from its fleeting relevance to the series’ earliest episodes. And David Bowie turns up for a bizarre cameo that goes nowhere. In many respects, Fire Walk with Me is not an easy movie.

It is a rewarding one for those prepared to dig into it, however. Again, that applies to both levels the film is functioning on. It may not directly continue after the events of the series, but there are a couple of hints and nods towards the events of the finale and what happens next, as well as a lot of general additions to the mythology. And as a films about abuse, it’s not just a depiction of events, but is attempting to in tap into how that actually feels, psychologically — as Lynch has said, it’s about “the loneliness, shame, guilt, confusion and devastation of the victim of incest.” It must do this successfully because Sheryl Lee has said that, “I have had many people, victims of incest, approach me since the film was released, so glad that it had been made because it helped them to release a lot.” Bravely, it’s also a bit about the abuser, presenting him with, if not sympathy, then some degree of understanding — to quote Lynch again, it deals with “the torment of the father – the war within him.”

Happy families

One thing that straddles both sides of the film, I think, is that It goes a long way to ‘redeeming’ Laura Palmer. In the series she’s the all-American good girl homecoming queen who we quickly learn wasn’t so good under the surface, spending her time partying hard with drugs and promiscuous sex. At one point it seems like she was just a wild child who got in too deep. Now, I forget if the series eventually made clear that she let herself be murdered in order to stop a malicious demon from possessing her, but, even if it did, it’s a few lines of dialogue. Here, we see the real, severe struggles she was battling while trying to maintain some kind of normal life, and how hard she fought against them. She was, actually, just an ordinary girl, forced to face extraordinary circumstances.

Conversely, this is almost exactly why some people disliked the film: because it took how Laura Palmer appeared in the series, as kind of a notion or concept that the town projected their values and issues onto, and made her into a real person, who was consequently as messed up as most teenagers are. Essentially: Laura Palmer was more interesting dead than alive. I have two thoughts on this. One: Laura wasn’t exactly leading a normal life, so there’s definitely something in seeing how she ended up how she did; what her psychological state was like. Two: perhaps it’s entirely the point that the reality and the legend (particularly the legend built around someone tragically cut down too young) are not the same thing; that the reality is not as great as the notion. That sounds like a particularly Lynchian theme to me.

All of this added depth to Laura is driven by a remarkable performance from Sheryl Lee. Originally cast to play a corpse and a photograph, Lynch liked her so much they created a role for in the series (as Laura’s lookalike cousin Maddie), and she gets an even meatier role here. Even though viewers of the series already know the answers that Laura only discovers during the film, Lee’s performance is so powerful, particularly when enacting fear or terror (no one instils fear in the viewer quite so well as Sheryl Lee looking terrified by something off camera that we never see), that we are horrified along with her. There’s also a power in seeing something play out that we’ve previously only been told about — the reality of it happening is more horrendous than the facts we’ve heard.

LAWNa Palmer (get it?)

This is partly why Fire Walk with Me has a distinctly different tone to the series (which, as noted, probably didn’t help win people over). It’s still full of quirky surrealism, of course, because it’s a David Lynch film; but the lighter, funnier, chirpier elements have all been excised. This is a dark, dark movie. One suggestion I’ve read from a fan is that the TV series was from Agent Cooper’s point of view, hence it emphasised the small-town charm and optimistic worldview, while the film is from Laura’s perspective, so it’s altogether grimmer and more fatalistic. This may not have been deliberate on the part of Lynch and co, but it certainly makes some kind of sense.

Which road the imminent Twin Peaks revival will walk, obviously no one outside of the production yet knows. But the other week it was widely reported that Lynch had said Fire Walk with Me would be essential to understanding the new series. I think some people who surprised by this — the vestiges of the film’s original negative reception, perhaps — but, having just watched the film, it feels like a bit of a “well, duh” statement. Fire Walk with Me is often summarised as being just “the last seven days of Laura Palmer”, which makes it sound like it’s wholly related to a mystery that was wrapped up in the original series. It’s more than that, making huge contributions to the series’ ongoing mythos, as well as a couple of hints about events in and after the original finale — unless those were going to be completely ignored by the new series (which doesn’t sound like Lynch to me, not to mention that it would surely irritate fans), then of course Fire Walk with Me is important!

One thing that’s probably never getting explained is that Bowie cameo. His character was one of the things inserted by Lynch and Engels to build on in the proposed sequels — yes, rather like all those films that adapt the first novel of a series and fill it with foreshadowing, assuming they’ll get to make the rest, but never do. Reportedly Bowie was lined up to appear in the revival, but died before he could film any scenes. Whether that particular mystery will be explained some other way, or be left forever as a dangling thread in Twin Peaks’ complex web, obviously remains to be seen. So too the disappearance of Agent Chester Desmond, as actor Chris Isaak isn’t part of the extensive cast list they’ve announced. But then, maybe they’re keeping some secrets there too…

He's here to blow our minds

There’s so much more that could be said about Fire Walk with Me. About ‘fake Donna’, for instance — actress Moira Kelly standing in as Laura’s best friend, Donna Hayward, because original actress Lara Flynn Boyle was unavailable — and how there’s a camp of people who think she might actually be better than the original (me included). About the significance of time (there’s a definite clock motif; several clear references in dialogue; it’s technically a prequel but with sequel pieces; there’s definitely a few bits of time travel going on; and so on). About the Lil scene, which may or may not be a dig at over-analytical fans; indeed, that whole prologue is like some kind of inversion of Twin Peaks. About the Pink Room sequence and its seedy artistry. About the interpretation that Bob is a shared fiction, concocted by both Leland and Laura to help that pair of troubled souls deal with the horrors they’re living through (you may think Leland deserves no sympathy, but the series made it fairly clear that he had been a victim of abuse himself…)

Fire Walk with Me is so many different things all at once that it’s almost a mess of a film. But Lynch knows what he’s doing, if not entirely then at least to a significant degree. Plus it only becomes more interesting and complex as you continue to think and read about it after viewing. Perhaps, after the new series, it will slot into place even better, and its significance in the overall scheme of Twin Peaks will become even clearer. Maybe its critical rehabilitation has a few steps left to take yet…

4 out of 5

Tomorrow: the missing pieces.