SPOILER ALERT: This review discusses the big twist(s) – though anyone who’s seen a horror film in the last 50 years will pretty much be able to guess them from reading the sleeve copy.
A competently horrifying take on scientific experiments gone wrong.
A decent, well-made, small-scale genre film with a great cast of on-the-cusp players, The Lazarus Effect begins as a modern-day spin on Frankensteinian mad science, but segues into more demonic matters. In a university lab, significantly named scientists Frank (Mark Duplass) and his fiancée Zoe (Olivia Wilde) supervise a team – techies Clay (Evan Peters) and Niko (Donald Glover), and documentarian Eva (Sarah Bolger) – working on a process involving a nerve-rebuilding compound and electric shock with the intention of creating a defibrillator equivalent to overcome brain death. They are successful in reviving a put-down dog, whose cataracts mysteriously heal and who develops slightly sinister abilities, before the university dean (Amy Aquino) shuts them down for breach of ethics – raising the important issue of the embattled state of science in facilities where the student body and alumni donors push a fundamentalist Christian line, a promising thread then dropped – and the process is bought through a corporate loophole by a Big Pharma concern repped by a smiling shark (Ray Wise).
The follow-up to Jim Mickle’s apocalyptic vampire tale Stake Land is disappointing but there is life still in this undead saga.
It’s nice to see Glass Eye Pix building up something like a franchise, with star-writer Nick Damici staying on from Jim Mickle’s Stake Land and the Body team of Dan Berk and Robert Olsen stepping in as directors. The first film offered an alternative to the many, many zombie apocalypses by presenting a vampire apocalypse. It also added the I Am Legend fillip of showing the last remnants of North American humanity besieged by zombie-like nocturnal monsters and equally dangerous lunatic religious factions (‘the Brotherhood’), as hints of malign intelligence suggest that there might be more traditional, calculating vampires out there. In this follow-up, the theme is only slightly developed with the addition of a vampire villainess, the Mother (Kristina Hughes) – should she get together with the Father, from Octane? – who has a grudge against Mad Maxy veteran vamp-hunter Mister (Damici) for killing her child (she’s a rare vampire who can give birth) and putting out her eye with an arrow.
This Farsi-language maternal horror film was one of the great discoveries at this year’s Horror Channel FrightFest.
Opening with an explanatory text that places the film within the context of the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s, Under the Shadow firmly grounds its horror in the doubly terrifying realities of a conflict zone and a harsh authoritarian regime. Slowly building up the tension, the film initially centres on the frustrations of Shideh, a young mother banned from continuing her medical studies because of her past political activism. The grinding down of women takes many forms in post-revolution Iran, from the active repression of the authorities to the incomprehension of her generally kind husband, who seems unable to sympathize with her ambitions.
When he is drafted and sent to the front, Shideh finds herself alone to care for their young daughter Dorsa, stubbornly refusing to leave the city to go and stay with her in-laws. As the bombardments intensify, a missile falls through the apartment above, and superstitious neighbours begin to whisper that it has brought something sinister with it. Rational and modern, Shideh initially dismisses the claims, but soon she is forced to take her daughter’s mounting fears seriously.
The realistic start and slow-burn narrative make the terrors that follow intensely affecting. Shideh is a character out of place in her country, in her apartment block and in her own marriage, and her feelings of inadequacy wildly erupt once the missile has broken through the familiar ordering of reality. The cracks in the ceiling it has caused cannot be closed up, the irrational forces it unleashed now out of control. Maternal anxiety, at odds with Shideh’s longing for a medical career, poignantly seeps through the second part of the film, her conflicted love for her daughter making every scare horribly meaningful.
After A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, this is the second Farsi-language horror film that uses the chador in a menacing way, but where in Ana Lily Amirpour’s film it took on a positive meaning, here it has negative, frightful, oppressive connotations. The use of the chador in Under the Shadow is one example of how the film successfully manages to be both a serious reflection on the position of women in Iran and an intensely creepy horror film. Intelligent and effectively chilling, it wisely avoids providing any facile resolution in its climactic ending.
A stylish riff on Repulsion that pays homage to a number of other arthouse horror classics.
A chilly art-horror exercise from writer-director Mickey Keating (Pod), who reunites with lead actress Lauren Ashley Carter – but here gives her the crazy role rather than asking her to be the ‘normal’ character. Indeed, the film is pretty much built around Carter’s presence as a stylish beauty with distracted eyes – she’s virtually the whole show, and luckily is strong enough to carry a picture that sometimes can’t make up its mind whether it’s more than a collage of homages (we checked off The Shining, Repulsion, Rosemary’s Baby, Ms 45, The Tenant and others) couched in coolly gorgeous black and white (the only colour is lettering used in chapter headings).
In New York – perhaps circa 1970, though that’s not quite clear – an unnamed woman (Carter) takes a caretaker job (from sinister Sean Young) in an old house that has given rise to many ghost stories and whose previous caretaker has taken a suicide leap off the roof. The house is pristine – and, as a real location, interestingly narrow – but has a single locked room the Madame warns ‘darling’ away from – later, when opened, the contents are terrifying to the protagonist but not shown to us. The woman finds an inverted crucifix necklace in a drawer and later a random guy (Brian Morvant) in the street gives it back to her, claiming she’s dropped it… She becomes convinced that the guy did something avenge-worthy to her (she has scars on her ribs – except when she doesn’t) and sets out to stalk him and pick him up in a bar, leading to an uncomfortable flirtation/confrontation, which pays off with a stabbing and extensive (if tactfully shot) dismemberment. Not only isn’t it clear that the victim is the guilty party who (presumably) raped ‘darling’, it’s ambiguous as to whether she’s remembering something that happened to her – or has filled her blank soul with a trauma inherited from the previous caretaker, and liable to be passed on to the next (Helen Rogers), who turns up during the end credits to replay the opening scene.
Glass Eye Pix mascots Larry Fessenden and John Speredakos show up as cops, barging in just as the heroine has been pared down to a screaming, primal creature. Many reviewers are puzzled or infuriated by the refusal to state clearly what’s going on, but the inferences seem plain to me… and the cloudy areas deliberate. Carter – who was in Jugface too – has something of the pop art look of a 1960s Italian comic heroine, with bobbed hair, carefully applied make-up (we see her doing it) and an array of little black dresses. Her stare is discomforting, yet undeniably sexy – raising the creepy possibility that she’s attractive to her victim because she’s mad rather than in spite of her mental troubles, be they her own or imposed on her by the house. Short enough not to wear out its welcome, this is an intriguing entry in the recent spate of post-millennial Repulsion redos (Goddess of Love, Sun Choke, Broken).
For this edition of Nightmare Movies, Kim Newman looks at a recent film from the busy Blumhouse boutique genre production label.
In 1985, the Reverend Jim Jacobs (Thomas Jane in a white suit with a folksy-sinister accent) of the ‘Heaven’s Veil’ cult presides over what seems to be a mass suicide at his woodland retreat… and only a little girl survives.
In the present day, driven documentarian Maggie Price (Jessica Alba), daughter of the FBI agent who led the raid on the camp and later killed himself due to bad memories, and Sarah Hope (Lily Rabe), the grown-up sole survivor, visit the site with a crew of genially disposable techies in the hope of finding some answers… which lead them to an abandoned house the FBI never found (accessible by seemingly walking across a lake surface). The place is full of corpses, film cans (and video tapes) and other useful stuff, which prompts flashbacks that give a slightly different view of what happened on that fateful day in 1985. [SPOILER ALERT] For a start, Jacobs was given to deathtripping à la Flatliners and had an antidote prepared for his poison sugar cubes so his followers could be revived en masse, but Maggie’s dad showing up scuppered that plan, setting the charismatic loon off on his backup scheme, which involves killing the documentarians and bringing them back to life in CGI-ghostfaced semi-possessed form to perpetuate his cracked beliefs. Oh, and Sarah learns he was her dad and his faithful nurse Karen Sweetzer (Aleksa Palladino) his mom. [END OF SPOILER]
This lesser Blumhouse production is a collaboration between eclectic screenwriter Robert Ben Garant (Jessabelle, Night at the Museum) and not-that-busy-lately director Phil Joanou (State of Grace, Final Analysis), which riffs on the suicide cult theme – resurgent in the movies thanks to The Sacrament – by blending Jonestown and Heaven’s Gate, though it’s less concerned with weird beliefs and groupthink than simple creep stuff with a gang of Scooby-Doo-like kids in a van being done in and brought back in an eerie woodland setting. Alba, slipping a bit from the mainstream, and Rabe, a rising spook name thanks to varied turns on American Horror Story, are oddly given slightly thankless roles, upstaged by the decent, mostly engaging supporting stooges, who at least give the impression of being lively characters before their demon-zombification. It looks great, with blue-tinged widescreen images of ominousness, well-staged 1985 flashbacks and a couple of semi-workable scares, but it’s a predictable, pat programmer.
Daniel Castro Zimbrón’s twilight tale of an isolated Mexican family in the woods impressed at the L’Étrange Festival.
This year’s L’Étrange Festival opened with the world premiere of Daniel Castro Zimbrón’s new feature film The Darkness (Las tinieblas). After Tau (meaning ‘sun’ in the Huichol language), which dealt with a biologist stranded in a sunburnt desert and forced to reconsider his past and present, this second part of the ‘Trilogy of Light’ explores the other extreme, while starring the same Gustavo, convincingly and charismatically played by Brontis Jodorowsky. This time the desert gives way to a misty forest, where a father lives with his three children: a teenage Marcos, 12-year-old Argel and 8-year-old Luciana. They live alone in the woods, cloistered in a house repeatedly haunted by something dark, noisy and scary, in an unspecified future. The post-apocalyptic dimension of these woods is only vaguely hinted at when young Argel asks his father about the use of an old rusted pick-up, a relic from an unknown, bygone past. In this indefinite future there seem to be neither seasons nor any difference between day and night – only claustrophobic mist-ridden twilight. The title’s darkness is recurrently created by the father’s meticulously closing the shutters and locking his children in the cellar for bedtime. This world is further blurred by Argel’s mystical dreams, which invade the narration now and again, revealing their oneiric nature only when Argel wakes up. In one such dream, a Pandora-like box diffusing a blinding white light alludes to Robert Aldrich’s Kiss Me Deadly (1955), where a similar box was the fruit of the Manhattan Project.
The fact that the whole story is narrated from Argel’s point of view, oscillating between dream and reality, adds to the general mystery, as does the masterful cinematography of Diego García who, as in Tau, shoots exclusively in natural light. Tenebrist tableaux, reminiscent of Caravaggio or Joseph Wright of Derby, are worth a look for themselves, but Zimbrón avoids complacent indulgence in mannerist camerawork by endowing his shots and his plot with an inner depth that transfigures the film from a post-apocalyptic thriller into a universal comédie humaine, exploring the confused limits between parental protection and authority, set against young Argel’s coming-of-age. For the beast that visits the house ‘nightly’ is (to quote the director’s own words) ‘a metaphor of the world in which we live, in which the beast represents the dangers outside the home as well as the dark side of human nature’. During his waking hours, the father makes elaborate wooden puppets of and for his children, the last one being fashioned after Luciana’s drawing of him as a spider-shaped monster. Like this puppeteer, Zimbrón manipulates our expectations, scatters contradictory clues as to what is really going on, and deceives us into believing in a M. Night Shyamalan-like twist, only to depart from it in the last part of the film, leaving us eventually, bewitchingly and literally in the dark.
Julia Ducournau’s technically masterful female-focused cannibal film is less insightful than it may seem.
A girl walks alone at dawn, alongside a deserted country road. When a car drives by, she dives underneath it, causing the car to crash into a tree. The driver is dead and the girl leans over the car door to examine him. Here we are, then, revisiting David Cronenberg’s Crash, one might be tempted to think. Yet we soon find out that, if Julia Ducournau’s first feature film – selected for the Cannes Critics’ Week 2016 – definitely pays tribute to the ‘baron of blood’, it is most indebted to his recent novel Consumed. (Incidentally, let it be said that the English title makes the film’s cannibalistic turn evident from the start.) Cronenberg makes a perfect and duly acknowledged tutelary figure for the 32-year-old French director, who must have been fed pithy anecdotes from dissecting tables and emergency wards in her early days by her dermatologist father and gynaecologist mother. This might partly account for Ducournau’s obsession with the transformation of bodies, already omnipresent in her short film Junior (2011) and in her TV film Mange (2012). Junior actress Garance Marillier – now come of age and confirming her talent – is entrusted with the main role of Justine, who joins her elder sister Alexia (Ella Rumpf) for her first year in a veterinary school. During the unavoidable fresher initiation ritual (and in France medical schools are known to be the most gruesome), vegetarian Justine is forced to swallow a raw rabbit kidney, which, after an allergic reaction, triggers a novel taste for meat. A bikini-line depilation accident transforms this taste into a craving for human flesh, which actually runs in the family, as Alexia turns out to be ‘crash’ girl, eating her victims’ spare parts.
Although at first sight, Ducournau seems to be using the horror genre as a vehicle for a reflection on the passage to adulthood, the film is rather short on social or psychological insights, while the plot and the characters seem half-baked. In fact, Ducournau indulges in a sensationalist exploitation of the theme and the wide range of unpalatable reactions it provokes. This was clearly confirmed when she presented her film at the Etrange Festival, and evidently relished retelling the pungent anecdote from the Toronto Film Festival where paramedics had to be called during the screening to assist a spectator who had found the film hard to stomach. Thus, inscribed within the horror genre, Raw rather self-consciously plays with its codes, safe within its boundaries and often verging on parody. Ducournau delivers an efficient and technically mastered (but one would not expect less from a Fémis graduate) variation on the cannibal flick, which manages to keep a few twists in store alongside the more expected final feast. Ducournau was one of the 30 people on The Alice Initiative 2016 list, which aims to boost the number of female directors. Let us hope she gives us more fat to chew on in the years to come.
The unlikely mix of black magic, undead bikers and Safeway makes this 70s British oddity endurably appealing.
‘Deep shame,’ was how Nicky Henson characterised his feelings about this suis generis exploitation weirdie, when quizzed by Matthew Sweet, but really, though the lovable thespian has obviously had great moments on stage, this is the one he’ll be remembered for. Witchfinder General is the superior film, but it’s not really a Nicky Henson film. Psychomania, God bless it, despite top-lining oldsters George Sanders and Beryl Reid, is Nicky Henson’s film, whether he wants it or not.
As if cobbled together from a fever dream about The Wild One and Polanski’s Macbeth, the film combines black magic and biker gangs, stone circles and juvenile delinquency. The script is by the same duo of blacklisted Americans who wrote Horror Express, and it has the same rather appealing mixture of strange, vaguely clever ideas, goofball nonsense and bizarrely naive exploitation elements. I wish the pair had written a whole bunch more horror films: they had a unique sensibility.
Genre specialist / all-rounder Don Sharp directs ably, starting the film rather brilliantly with slomo cyclists roving round a set of papier mâché megaliths on a misty morning, with John Cameron’s sonorous wacka-wacka score adding a kind of camp solemnity. Sharp had an affinity for overcranking, opening his Curse of the Fly (1965), a belated sequel to the Hollywood teleportation horror, with a surprisingly atmospheric, oneiric nocturnal chase, shot at around 48 fps. He’d also made Witchcraft (1964) with Lon Chaney Jnr. as an unlikely English warlock, and Hammer romps Kiss of the Vampire (1963) and Rasputin: The Mad Monk (1966), as well as the first two of Christopher Lee’s Fu Manchu outings.
Henson plays the biker son of medium Beryl Reid who acquires the power to come back from the dead through a mysterious ritual involving a frog (don’t ask). Sanders plays a butler who might be Satan, or something (I wasn’t totally clear: see what you think). Soon, Henson, looking damned good in his leather trousers, is converting his whole gang to an afterlife of mayhem, running amok in a Walton-on-Thames branch of Safeway.
The film’s take on youth culture is wonderfully peculiar: the bikers bury their leader on his bike in the stone circle to the tune of a folk song strummed on acoustic guitar; the gang wear crocheted waistcoats; nobody smokes (the producers were afraid they wouldn’t be able to sell the film to TV); nobody swears. But they run over a baby in a pram, and that was considered perfectly OK.
The violence and criminality is still slightly shocking, maybe because all the surrounding action is so absurd. The bikers are the main characters, and they will keep killing people. Elsewhere, there is amusing dialogue: ‘Abby’s dead.’ ‘You must be very happy.’ ‘I’ve always fancied driving through a brick wall.’ But then the movie will alternate pathetic, puerile hi-jinks (spanking a young mother in a hot-pants one-piece) with cold-blooded murder. The two tones only come together as black comedy during the impressive stunt sequences where the bikers commit suicide in order to rise again.
Rumours that old pro Sanders killed himself in response to seeing a print of this, his final movie, are doubtless false. The old rogue had gotten himself involved in a crooked business venture, hilariously called Cadco, and was facing possible financial ruin and legal proceedings, a likelier motivation for suicide than either a bizarre horror film or boredom, the cause cited in his note. And after all, the man had already worked for Jess Franco.
Scattered throughout Psychomania are familiar faces from TV shows like All Creatures Great and Small, Eastenders and Dad’s Army, with everyone managing to appear perfectly earnest and, in Henson’s case, actually cool, even though his character is a colossal jerk. The leftist writers appear to have had some kind of critique of youth culture in mind: Henson’s undead cyclist espouses a plan to kill every policeman, judge and teacher in the land, but once back on his bike, he always seems to gravitate back to Safeway.
This original ghost story looks at grief with both humour and poignancy.
The debut feature from Ben and Chris Blaine is a blackly comedic character study that takes its setup from a fairly common circumstance – the prospect of starting a new relationship in the shadow of much-beloved or outstanding former partner. However, while a number of relationships are haunted by the intangible spectre of a previous love, in Nina Forever the problem is a little more substantial, in every respect.
Following the death of his girlfriend Nina (Fiona O’Shaughnessy, Outcast) in a car accident, Rob (Cian Barry, Real Playing Game) has quit his PhD, taken a minimum wage job at a supermarket, and even tried a half-hearted attempt at suicide. His tragic story has caught the attention of Holly (Abigail Hardingham), a co-worker and trainee paramedic with a fascination for all things morbid. The pair begin a tentative relationship, but their first attempt at consummation is rudely interrupted when the formerly deceased Nina appears in the bed with them, limbs twisted from the crash and dripping blood. Equally surprised by her sudden return to corporeal existence, she is not impressed by the other girl’s presence. When Rob points out that she’s supposed to be dead, Nina snaps back: ‘That doesn’t mean we’re on a break!’
Despite the fact that Nina reappears whenever they try to have sex, Rob and Holly do their best to maintain their relationship, even trying to bring the ex-ex into a somewhat unorthodox ménage à trois situation that nonetheless fails entirely. Their other attempts, including having sex on Nina’s grave, are equally unsuccessful. Eventually a series of unforeseen events forces Rob and Holly to reassess the situation and the possible reasons behind it.
Even though it presents a number of humorous moments, Nina Forever is actually a serious look at the nature of grief (and to a lesser extent attraction). Rob and Holly might be struggling to deal with Nina’s very real presence, but the dead girl’s parents are no less affected, even though it’s only intangible memories they are trying to process. They’re not even able to move on in the ways Rob is attempting; he can blot out and replace his memories, but that’s simply not an option for Nina’s parents. Ironically their only desire (to have their daughter back with them) has turned into Rob’s nightmare, highlighting the somewhat transitory nature of his grief as compared to theirs, which can never be removed, only accommodated.
However, although they are dealing with serious themes, the Blaines are also careful to balance the more sober elements with humorous situations and witty dialogue, including Nina’s priceless observation that putting white sheets on the bed might not be the best way to go, all things considered. All three primary cast members are solid, but Abigail Hardingham gives a standout performance in a role that could easily have become a fairly archetypal ‘weird girl’. It’s good to see that her career as a paramedic becomes something more than just an extension of her morbid interests, thanks to a key scene that shows she may have a genuine talent for helping people in distress. In all Nina Forever is a confident, original debut that suggests Ben and Chris Blaine may have an interesting career ahead of them.
Watch the trailer: