AfterDeath (2015)

2015 #197
Gez Medinger & Robin Schmidt | 89 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | UK / English | 18*

A woman wakes up on a beach in the middle of the night. Stumbling away, she comes across a beach house with three strangers inside. They establish that the last thing they remember was being in a nightclub when there was some kind of accident, and then they woke up here. Fortunately, they’re not stupid and quickly twig this place is some kind of afterlife, then begin to work out how to get out — not that they’re helped by the lighthouse beam which causes immense pain, or that if they run away from the house they end up back at the house, or the vicious smoke-monster that’s flying around…

A low-budget British single-location thriller with a mostly unknown cast (the lead is Miranda Raison, who you may recognise from Spooks, 24: Live Another Day, or even things that aren’t about spies), AfterDeath mainly trades on the mystery established by its situation. The characters are quickly sketched and somewhat archetypal, and the twists in their storylines aren’t all that surprising, but combined with the relatively brisk running time this means they crack on with trying to solve what’s going on. There are some familiar elements to this (the looping ‘world’), but also ideas fresh enough to keep it watchable.

Hampering that watchability is the ugly digital cinematography. There’s always the possibility this was affected by the fact I was watching via streaming, but I normally get next-best-thing-to-Blu-ray quality from Amazon Instant Video (where I watched this, obviously) so I’m inclined to think it’s just the shooting and grading choices of the filmmakers. The end result is frequently murky, making the film look like it was shot or finished on cheap equipment, exacerbating the low-budget feel in a negative way.

AfterDeath is billed in part as a horror, emphasised by the skull imagery used on the poster. It’s not particularly scary though, so if you’re after that kind of thrill then it’s one to miss. As single-location mysteries go, it’s not remarkably original or exceptionally engaging, but the story and its revelations are solidly executed and the whole is decently performed, providing you don’t strain your eyes trying to see what’s happening.

3 out of 5

* The film doesn’t actually have a BBFC certificate, but the trailer is rated 18. ^

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The Babadook (2014)

2015 #170
Jennifer Kent | 94 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | Australia & Canada / English | 15

Essie Davis is best known for playing the sassy title role in popular Australian Christie-esque TV series Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries (for now — she’s in Game of Thrones next year), but here goes completely against type as single mother Amelia, who has to battle not only the stress of her awkward child, but also a strange storybook that may contain some kind of monster… but that would be silly… wouldn’t it?

Perhaps it’s best to not say too much about what’s going on with all that, because the film does a fantastic job blurring the lines between reality and dreams, facts and imaginings, whether it’s all happening or is all in Amelia’s head. For the majority of the film you’ll wonder: is this real? Is she being pranked? By who? A stalker? Her kid? Is she going insane and imagining it all? Sure, it’s a horror movie, so you’re thinking it’s real, but that’s what twists are for — the scares may be real, doesn’t mean the monster is.

And the scares are very real indeed. Not simplistic jump scares, but a festering tension that occasionally bursts forth in moments of specific terror. That doesn’t work for… a certain kind of viewer (to put it politely), but, for me, it makes the film far more genuinely scary, and memorably so, than being made to jump out of my seat a couple of times. Some have also criticised The Babadook for not being 100% original. Well, what is after a century of moviemaking and millennia of storytelling? What it does do is rearrange the familiar in new and terrifying ways, and tap into seams of fear that are harder to access and consequently too rarely touched by horror films. In that regard, the film it most reminded me of was The Shininga horror film for people who think about what they’re watching, rather than just waiting for something to be thrown at the screen to make them jump. The slow burn tension will bore those content with the latter, who I suspect don’t tend to think a great deal (for one thing, they’d spot most of the jumps coming if they did).

Underpinning this is an incredible performance by Essie Davis. If this were merely a drama about a single mother coping with grief, rather than a genre movie, I’m sure she’d’ve been being rewarded all over the place. Again, I guess this turns off the ‘gorehound’ cadre of horror fans, but it’s the combined strength of the writing (by director Jennifer Kent) and Davis’ performance that mean the entire film is interpretable as a drama about grief and mental illness, rather than about an attacking monster or demonic possession or whatever else it might seem is going on (trying to avoid spoiling it again there!) For more on that, see this interpretation, for instance (bearing in mind it’s obviously spoilersome).

Although it’s Davis’ film, Noah Wiseman gives an accomplished performance as her kid. Well, maybe he’s too young to call it “accomplished”, I don’t know, but it must’ve been a difficult role to play — it calls for him to be a sweet little boy one minute, and a nightmare demon-child (in the real-world rather than horror-movie sense!) the next. He starts off immensely irritating — you can see why no one in the film likes him! — but he does grow on you. The next best performance is, of course, by their very cute little dog. (Do not watch this movie just because of the dog. Seriously.)

There is little in The Babadook that will make you jump, and even less that will make your stomach turn in disgust, but that’s absolutely fine. What it will do is chill your blood, make your hair stand on end, make you worry about every little creak or thump you hear elsewhere in the house after dark, and make you want to sleep with the lights on. Not just the bedroom lights, all the lights. Because once you’ve seen it, you can’t get rid of the Babadook.

5 out of 5

This review is part of the 100 Films Advent Calendar 2015. Read more here.

You’re Next (2011)

2015 #172
Adam Wingard | 91 mins | TV (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA & UK / English | 18 / R

From the makers of The Guest, a horror-thriller that’s really a dark comedy.

Murderous home invaders get a surprise when one of their targets is a secret badass. She’s cool; everyone else is thinly sketched. I’d’ve liked more character development; some viewers think it’s already too slow getting to ‘the good stuff’. That’s very violent, but imaginative and funny — the lead villain suffers an exceptionally inventive amusing demise.

You’re Next isn’t all it could be, but is pretty fun. My score errs towards generosity — those with no taste for horror, or laughs derived from murder methods, will like it less.

4 out of 5

This drabble review is part of the 100 Films Advent Calendar 2015. Read more here.

Shivers (1975)

2015 #116
David Cronenberg | 87 mins | TV | 4:3 | Canada / English | 18 / R

The first commercial (i.e. non-student) feature by horror maestro-to-be David Cronenberg, Shivers depicts the sexually-charged chaos that erupts after the spread of a man-made sexually-transmitted parasite in an isolated hyper-modern tower block.

The film contains all the requisite titillation of cheap schlock (nudity! gore!), but a handful of interesting, potential-laden ideas indicate the filmmaking promise that Cronenberg would later fulfil. Unfortunately, the execution here is hindered by dirt cheap production values and unfocused, undisciplined storytelling.

The most horrific part for fans is the mere mention of a sometimes-mooted remake, but I don’t think that would necessarily be a bad idea.

2 out of 5

The Thing (1982)

2015 #97
John Carpenter | 109 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 18 / R

The Thing 1982It’s just an ordinary day at the US Antarctic research base staffed by helicopter pilot MacReady (Kurt Russell) and his compatriots, until a helicopter buzzes overhead dropping grenades on a dog it’s pursued across the ice fields. The dog finds sanctuary in the US base; the helicopter and its crew are less fortunate. Realising it’s from a Norwegian facility an hour’s flight away, MacReady and the doctor brave inclement conditions to investigate. They find numerous corpses and the base burnt to ruins. What horrors befell the Norwegian base? And have they inadvertently brought them into their own…?

I think we all know the answer to that second question. It wouldn’t be much of a movie if the answer was, “nope, they’re good.”

Derided by some on its release for being naught but wall-to-wall gore, The Thing naturally developed a cult following among horror/sci-fi fans. The funny thing watching it today is that, while the special effects still retain the power to shock in their gross extremity, they’re limited to a handful of quick-fire sequences; indeed, those seeking out The Thing to get their blood-and-guts fix nowadays often seem to declare it “boring”.

Naturally, they’re missing the point. At its heart, John Carpenter’s film is a psychological thriller: an alien is in the group’s midst; it has taken on the form of one or more of them; who can you trust? How can you tell? It’s both a dilemma in an abstract “sci-fi concept” sense, and no doubt a parallel from an era when spying and the threat of ‘the other’ infiltrating society were still major issues. I suppose it’s a facet that’s come round again these past few years, with the increasing rise of home-grown terrorists, previously decent citizens lured and brainwashed by propaganda. The most enduring themes are always timely, I guess.

Are you MacReady for this?Even if you don’t want to get deep about it, The Thing has the “who’s human?” thrills to keep you engaged on that level. Accusations of boredom no doubt stem from the fact it’s a bit of a slow burn, the early acts building suspicion and unease as MacReady and co investigate. Even after the true nature of the threat is revealed, Carpenter paces himself, though the frequency of incidents begins to mount inexorably as we head towards the climax. Well, that’s just good structure.

If the film has one problem, it’s there are too many characters. We know MacReady: he’s Kurt Russell, and he’s singled out early on as the hero — though we come to suspect even he may not be ‘right’ as the film goes on. As for the rest, I believe there are eleven of them, and at best they are loosely sketched. At least a couple are easily conflated and therefore confused, and for the rest, there just isn’t time to get to know them properly, so we’re less invested in what happens to them. There’s a reason most “who will survive?” movies have something like five or six characters in peril, not twelve.

In spite of all that, The Thing does remain best remembered for its extraordinary effects. Even though you know it’s rubber and silicon and corn syrup and whatever else, and even though the intervening thirty-odd years and lashings of CGI have enabled even more, even darker imaginings to be brought before our eyes, the visceral physicality of these effects, the way they play on long-established fears, and apply those to the human body in nauseatingly contorted ways, is plenty enough to render them still effective; certainly so within the context of a film that is, as I say, really more of a thriller than a gore-fest.

These people are going to dieFor me, it’s the psychological quandaries that are gripping and exciting, rather than any enjoyed disgust at the emetic special effects. However, knowing the characters a little better — thus caring if they’d been replaced or not, and also perhaps allowing us a chance to try to guess for ourselves — would have just made it that bit superior.

4 out of 5

The Thing was viewed as part of my What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…? 2015 project, which you can read more about here.

The 2011 prequel, also titled The Thing, will be reviewed tomorrow.

American Movie (1999)

2014 #73
Chris Smith | 100 mins | TV | 4:3 | USA / English | 15 / R

American MovieA behind-the-scenes making-of with a difference, American Movie: The Making of Northwestern (to give its full title) is a documentary about wannabe-filmmaker Mark Borchardt attempting to produce a horror feature film with little more than some mates and good intentions, battling against a lack of money, interest, and dedication. It descends, quickly, into the kind of farcicality that leads some to assume it’s a This is Spinal Tap-style spoof. But it isn’t. It’s real.

It’s hard to know if you should laugh at it all, in fact. These are individuals whose lives are so quietly, subtly absurd that you can genuinely think they’ve been scripted or improvised by comedians — it’s funny, yes, but it’s also kind of sad. It’s a combination that could make for uncomfortable viewing, but for some reason it doesn’t. Maybe it’s the boundless optimism that Mark has; the belief that what he’s doing is worth pursuing and that it’s going to work out. Perhaps that’s less optimism and more naïvety.

I imagine this is actually a story that’s repeated regularly all around America — heck, all around the world: people who’d love to be filmmakers, trying to realise their dream, without really knowing what they’re doing. Hopefully not all those stories are as amusing and lightly-crazed as this one, but the vast majority will be just as unsuccessful. Whether there’s a lesson to take away from that, and what that lesson is, I’m not sure. “Don’t bother,” perhaps (to be pessimistic about it!)

Filming filmingWhatever you take away from it, American Movie feels like a must-see for certain sections of film fandom, particularly anyone who wants to make a movie themselves. Its appeal is broader than that though, an everyday story of adversity that isn’t so much overcome as temporarily averted. It’s not bleak or sad, but it is melancholic. And, whatever the morals of it, often laugh-out-loud funny.

Rarely seen (I hadn’t even heard of it until Film4 bunged on a late-night screening once last year), I recommend catching it if you can.

4 out of 5

John Dies at the End (2012)

2014 #28
Don Coscarelli | 100 mins | download (HD) | 16:9 | USA / English | 15* / R

John Dies at the EndBased on the cult novel by Cracked.com editor David Wong, John Dies at the End is a bizarre horror-fantasy that defies easy explanation or summary.

It’s definitely an acquired taste — some will genuinely love it, some will genuinely despise it. I often fall in the middle when that’s the case, though I err towards the former here. It’s scrappy and weird and wrong in so many ways, but, on balance, pretty entertaining.

Plus, in an era when every mainstream movie (and many so-called independents) are essentially the same story told the same way, kudos for trying to do something different.

4 out of 5

In the interests of completing my ever-growing backlog, I decided to post ‘drabble reviews’ of some films. For those unfamiliar with the concept, a drabble is a complete piece of writing exactly 100 words long. You’ve just read one.

* What do you have to do to get an 18 these days? The BBFC would’ve cut this to shreds in their scissor-happy heyday! It would seem the fact it’s a comedy allows the extreme gore to pass at a lower rating. ^

Video Nasties: Moral Panic, Censorship and Videotape (2010)

2014 #60
Jake West | 71 mins | DVD | 16:9 | UK / English | 18*

Video Nasties: Moral Panic, Censorship and VideotapeOriginally produced for the 2010 FrightFest film festival, horror director Jake West’s feature-length documentary with the unwieldy title explores the ‘video nasty’ scare that gripped early-VHS-era Britain. Starting with a primer on the birth of home video, and what it was like to watch movies in those days (because, ladies and gents, we’ve now reached a point where even fans of that (second-)most adults-only of genres, the gory horror flick, are young enough to not recall a time before DVD), West uses archive news clips and a wide array of new talking head interviews to take the story from the UK’s first video recorders in 1978, through a newspaper-led panic, up to the infamous Video Recordings Act of 1984, which irrevocably (thus far, anyway) changed the face of home entertainment releasing in the UK.

In terms of documentary filmmaking, this is not a flashy affair — as I said, archive clips and talking heads. But this is a gripping story — horrifying in its own way, ironically enough — and West and producer Marc Morris have a double whammy of quality components with which to tell it: well researched and selected clips and cuttings, which include key interviews from news and opinion programmes of the time; alongside new interviews with people from both sides of the debate. These include those who campaigned at the time, both anti- and pro-censorship, as well as those who said nothing and perhaps regret it; and now-famous fans who lived through the era and have since gone on to prominent positions — filmmakers and journalists, primarily. It’s this array of informed opinion that makes the film such captivating, essential viewing.

Seize the video nasties!Focusing on the scare rather than the films embroiled in it makes this less a “horror documentary” and more a social history/pop culture one, though the liberal use of extreme clips from the movies in question shuts out anyone without a hardened stomach. (If you did want more on the films themselves, the DVD set that contains the documentary — Video Nasties: The Definitive Guide — includes 7½ hours of special features discussing all 72 ‘official’ video nasties alongside their trailers.) There’s room for little asides amongst the main narrative, though. One of the highlights is the story of an interviewee who was invited on to Sky News in the wake of the James Bulger murder and asked if the film many were holding responsible, Child’s Play 3, should not be available on video… at which juncture he pointed out to the interviewer that it was currently showing on Sky Movies.

One of many fascinating aspects of the documentary is learning how little defence was given to the movies or, more potently, the idea that we shouldn’t be censoring media. It’s the Guardian’s own film critic from that time who highlights that certain papers should have been mounting some kind of defence, or at least counterpoint, but simply didn’t. He explains that they actually found the films a bit extreme and shocking too, which is why they didn’t step in, but — as he says — that’s besides the point: they should have been arguing against censorship; and it was that lack of an intelligent counterargument (or a paucity of one) that helped the ridiculous views take hold and the ill-thought legislation sweep through.

Martin Baker, heroThere was some counterargument, however, which leads us to the film’s best interviewee, and surely a new hero to many: Martin Baker. Baker was one of a few (certainly the first, and for a time the only) critical/intellectual-type voices to speak out in defence of the films that were outraging so many. He’s to be commended not only for his valiant defence of, essentially, free speech at a time when his views were immensely unpopular; but also because he remains one of the most lucid and fascinating commenters in the documentary. He makes the clearest points about the need to not forget both what happened and how it was allowed to happen, lest it occur again.

In a film overloaded with memorable points and sequences, two of the best come near the end. One is the aforementioned, a series of points (including Baker’s) about how the public must learn because politicians won’t. Very true, and surely the main take-away point of the film. Just before that, however, there’s a piece of vintage news footage. Over shots of innocent children in a playground, a reporter tells us that the potential long-term effects of children watching video nasties are not yet known — the implication being we should be terrified that they’ll all grow up either emotionally scarred or to become mass murders. What follows is a near-montage showing successful filmmakers and journalists of today attributing their entire careers to video nasties; and it only scrapes the surface of the tip of the iceberg of those, too.

For those of us not alive or aware during the period in question, it’s a massively informative film. Indeed, even for those who remember it well, this may offer a level of insight and explanation that was absent at the time. It’s important for film fans of all stripes, not just gore hounds, because the legislation passed in response to video nasties still dictates so much of modern British film releasing. And beyond even that, everyone has something to learn from the story of how mass government-sponsored censorship — to a level that, at some points, is reminiscent of Nazism or Stalinist Russia — was not only allowed, but encouraged, in such recent history. Indeed, such issues very much still play out today — after all, this is a country that has recently enacted ludicrous, ineffectual rules Graham Bright, politician - villainthat force ISPs to attempt to censor what we can and can’t see on the internet, and just yesterday rushed through anti-privacy legislation without proper debate. Sad to say, many of the valuable lessons of the ‘video nasties’ brouhaha — lessons made explicit with superb clarity in Jake West’s excellent documentary — have not been heeded.

5 out of 5

A new sequel documentary, Video Nasties: Draconian Days, is released on DVD as part of Video Nasties: The Definitive Guide: Part Two this week.

Video Nasties: Moral Panic, Censorship and Violence placed 10th on my list of The Ten Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2014, which can be read in full here.

* Moral Panic, Censorship and Videotape isn’t actually listed on the BBFC websites, suggesting the makers decided that, as a documentary, it was Exempt. However, the rest of the DVD set on which it is available is rated 18 and, thanks to all the included clips, that’s certainly the appropriate category for the documentary. ^

Dark Floors (2008)

2009 #26
Pete Riski | 82 mins | DVD | 15 / R

Dark FloorsYou may remember Lordi, the surprise winners of the 2006 Eurovision Song Contest. If that doesn’t help, they were the Finnish rockers all dressed up in monster suits. Here in the UK we gave them our highest number of points.

You’d be easily forgiven if you had forgotten them, but clearly someone hasn’t as they not only made this film, someone thought they were big enough to use in its promotion — it’s subtitled “The Lordi Movie” on posters, DVD covers and what have you. Maybe they’re still well-known in Europe. Or Finland. Yet despite the country of origin, Dark Floors is in English, with a predominantly British cast, and it appears to be set in America. On top of which, it has a surprising level of glossiness (albeit glossy gloominess) that, if you didn’t know better, would suggest a moderately budgeted US horror flick. Apart from the monster costumes.

In fact, expectations are gratifyingly knocked down at every turn. Riski’s direction and the cinematography are very slick, though some of the action/horror sequences lack much tension — the film effectively builds tension for these sequences, but rarely, if ever, delivers genuine scares on the back of it. While this isn’t always a bad thing, one begins to learn the tension being built isn’t likely to lead anywhere, robbing it of much impact. Effects, music and sound design also lend the project a higher budget feel than initial impressions suggest. As mentioned, Lordi’s costumes are the weakest bit, neutered either by familiarity — there’s no chance of genuine shock value if you recognise them from brightly-lit TV performances — or quite simply not having been designed for this kind of scrutiny or story. Riski does his best, hiding them with lighting, angles and special effects, but it’s not perfect.

Monsters aside, performances are pretty good. No one is outstanding but equally there’s nothing glaringly awful, always a plus for B-movie-level horror. At times the characters seem to accept the bizarre events that are occurring with too little reaction, though in fairness this is partly the fault of the script. What the latter occasionally lacks in believability (within a fantasy/horror context, obviously) it makes up for in efficiency. Admittedly this also means the whole cast are stereotypes, but it’s the world they find themselves in that’s of more interest.

Indeed, Dark Floors features more intriguing mysteries than it can keep a handle on, merrily setting them in motion but ultimately failing to pay many off. It’s packed with interesting imagery and good ideas, many of which aren’t hammered home, but equally many are never explained — key among these being… well, The Whole Thing. The final scenes seem to suggest there is some meaning, but it never comes close to a clear revelation. Having read around, it’s clear that it can be interpreted multiple ways (one of my favourites references an old Finnish children’s song), and so perhaps the makers are after a Cube vibe. Despite some surface similarities to that film’s awful first sequel, the overall effect thankfully sways closer to the original.

Some have called Dark Floors boring, but I think this is again a case of misaligned expectations — I found it never less than well-made and thought-provoking. There are undoubtedly weak spots, yet you’ll find weaker in plenty of major movies. That doesn’t excuse the flaws, but it shouldn’t be written off as a meritless B-movie because of them. One can’t help but think the project would have been better received if it hadn’t been conceived by and starred a slightly camp Finnish rock band who are never seen out of their monster costumes. It is, I feel, one of many cases where if you changed the credits to name certain other directors it might be beloved and endlessly debated by a certain sector of film fans rather than dismissed as “a glam rock band trying to be deep”.

It may even provide greater rewards on repeat viewings, especially if one wants to decipher the ending, because of its circular storytelling. Some elements of this are clear immediately (when Ben shoots up the stairwell, for example), others half-clear (it treats the audience with an above-average degree of intelligence in this respect), while other bits may only make sense (if they do, that is) with another viewing and/or some interpretation. Tobias and Sarah spend a lot of time repeating things or saying things out of context, for one — might these find a greater meaning second time through?

In a similar vein, I can’t help but wonder if in trying to be quite clever Dark Floors ultimately alienates the core horror audience who might pick it up; the people who’ll miss their straightforward scares and gratuitous gore and nudity. By so obviously billing it as “The Lordi Movie” and slapping on quite a lurid cover, the marketers have done nothing to suggest the film might actually benefit from the application of some brain power. True, this same problem can be alleged of the film itself — it’s only a horror film after all, and with somewhat ludicrous monster costumes at that — but I can’t help but wonder what might lurk within if people chose to look past these unfortunate style choices.

Naturally the counter argument goes that there’s not actually anything there, it’s just pretending there is instead of having a proper plot. I’m not certain which to believe.

Ultimately, an appreciation of Dark Floors comes down to its ending. The whole film is stylishly made — surprisingly so in fact — but there are no concrete explanations for what happened during it. If you like ambiguous endings there may be enjoyment in that very fact — and there are certainly plenty of theories floating around the ‘net for the interested to explore — but if you require your entertainment neatly wrapped up, I’m prepared to guarantee you’ll hate it. If, on another hand, you don’t care about the plot of your horror film as long as it’s scary… well, that all depends on your horror threshold, but if you’re a hardened horror fanatic I don’t imagine there are many chills to be had here.

I’m not entirely sure what to make of Dark Floors in the end, but err on the side of generosity because it’s well-made and has left me thinking — something I certainly never expected.

4 out of 5