This review of is an excerpt from horror luminary Kim Newman’s new book Video Dungeon (Titan), which explores the B-movie basement and digs out unexpected gems.
‘Have you tried saturating with deuterium yet?… They’re hydrogen isotopes charged with thermal neutrons. There’s nothing like it on Earth!’
The pre-credits scene of this NuImage quickie will make you think the SciFi Channel have changed their schedule without telling anyone. Spaceships ram each other while bark-faced aliens grunt urgently as if this were a space opera called something like Terminal Space (ships and costumes are from NuImage’s Alien Lockdown) rather than the expected Jaws knockoff. Things get on track when the losing ship jettisons a glowing orange pod into the seas of nearby Earth. After an expository title (‘Impact Zone – Bermuda Triangle – 5 Years Later’), Raging Sharks plays to expectations. Alien particles are found near Oceana, an undersea base everyone pronounces as if it were an Irish name. Abyss-type soap-opera scientists alternate shouting at each other with heartfelt character dollops about children or hobbies which are supposed to make us upset when they die. Oceana is attacked by several shark species working in cahoots: we mostly see one regular shark – plus a few CGI fish and footage recycled from other shark films.
Dr Mike Olsen (Corin Nemec, Mansquito), Oceana’s commander, is topside when the base is cut off and motivated to effect a rescue because his wife Linda (Vanessa Angel, Puppet Master vs Demonic Toys) is in temporary command, despite grumbling from wrench-wielding British handyman-cum-shop steward Harvey (Bernard van Bilderbeek, opting for a more sensible by-line after being billed as Binky van Bilderbeek on a few films). Mike has to fend off nasty government inspector/lawyer Stiles (Todd Jensen, Bats: Human Harvest), while crusty Captain Riley (Corbin Bernsen, Atomic Twister) is gruffly good intentioned but not very helpful.
After a regulation attack on surfers and bathers in Bermuda – either tipped in from another film or matched surprisingly well by Bulgarian locations – an autopsy discloses that the raging, co-operating sharks are full of weird alien orange crystals. Mike and Stiles make their way into Oceana to supervise an evacuation, but extra crises require people to go outside and get killed. For a reel or so, the shark/alien stuff is put on hold, and the film is all about running around the base skirmishing with cackling maniacal villain Stiles as leaks spring and wires spark. After supporting Oceanans (Elise Muller, Simona Levin, Atanas Srebrev, Emil Markov) have died, a poignant moment has Mike and Linda staggering about the wrecked base as tragic choral music plays – but Stiles pops up (with an axe!) for another fight and gets a proper back-spearing. Opera excerpts play as a spaceship arrives and aliens retrieve or detonate their capsule, which seemingly dispels the sharks who have been guarding it from untrustworthy Earthers (attacking Bermuda was probably over-enthusiasm). Mike and Linda escape – apparently because a by-product of an alien encounter is the ability to breathe underwater. The persistent Stiles swims along evilly, but is finally eaten by a shark which hasn’t departed like all the others. On board the rescue sub, nobody believes Mike’s yarn about aliens.
Written by producer Les Weldon (who might conceivably get the joke, since much of the dialogue evokes Airplane!), directed by Danny Lerner (Shark in Venice).
Format: DVD + Blue-ray Release date: 26 June 2017 Distributor: Lionsgate Director: André Øvredal Writers: Ian Goldberg, Richard Naing Cast: Brian Cox, Emile Hirsch, Ophelia Lovibond, Olwen Kelly
UK, USA 2016
André Øvredal follow-up to Troll Hunter is an original, elegant horror tale anchored by a well-observed father/son relationship.
When an advance screener of André Øvredal’s Troll Hunter slipped into my machine at the end of 2011, the buzz about the film was already intense, with plenty of discussion about the fact that it had been optioned for a US remake before the film had even been released there. The remake never materialised and although I enjoyed it, I wasn’t blown away. So when I began watching The Autopsy of Jane Doe, which has been surrounded by another blaze of publicity (including favourable comments from Stephen King and Guillermo del Toro), I was a little wary. This caution was quickly dispelled, however.
Format: Blue-ray Release date: 15 May 2017 Distributor: Eureka Entertainment Director: Sidney J. Furie Writer: Frank De Filetta (original novel and screenplay) Cast: Barbara Hershey, Ron Silver, David Labiosa
Sidney Furie’s disturbing, ambiguous 80s poltergeist tale brings up difficult issues surrounding sexual assault.
Sidney J. Furie’s sunshine-set supernatural horror, The Entity, is based on an alleged true story, ‘a story so shocking, so threatening, it will frighten you beyond all imagination’. Carla Moran (Barbara Hershey) is the single mother of three children, a teenage boy (David Labiosa) and two younger girls, struggling to get by in Southern California. Our brief introduction to Carla is set to menacing, clanging noises; after an exhausting day, she returns to the safety of her modest bungalow, only to be viciously attacked in her own bed by an unseen assailant. Her cries bring her son running, but a search of their home uncovers nothing – no perpetrator, no forced entry, no unlocked doors.
Cast: Caroline Munro, Verónica Polo, Marta Flich, Almudena León
Release date: 11 July 2016
Distributor: High Fliers Films
Directors: Mauricio Chernovetzky, Mark Devendorf
Writers: Karl Bardosh, Mauricio Chernovetzky, Mark Devendorf
Based on the novella by: Sheridan Le Fanu
Alternative title:Angel of Darkness
Cast: Stephen Rea, Eleanor Tomlinson, Julia Pietrucha
USA, Hungary 2014
Kim Newman rummages through the straight-to-DVD treasure trunk
This double bill of European vampire movies revisits oft-told stories. Indeed, the ghosts of earlier incarnations hang as heavily over the films as the curses of the past affect their mostly doomed characters.
José Ramón Larraz’s Vampyres (1974) is among the most minimally-plotted horror films – a fusion of the Spanish director’s sensibilities with the last gasps of the British Gothic boom as a pair of lesbian vampires who might have come from a Jesús Franco or Jean Rollin film (or a Halloween layout in Knave magazine) bloodily prey on feeble men in that familiar decaying mansion that turns up in so many UK-shot horror films. Contemporary Spanish director Victor Matellano shares his script credit with Larraz on Vampyres (2015), a close remake – it even restages some gore/sex scenes shot-for-shot as in the Gus Van Sant Psycho, though a few new ones are thrown in (the ever-popular Bathory-inspired human blood shower is featured). 1970s genre fixture Caroline Munro gets a non sequitur role as a hotel owner and seems as out of place in these surroundings as she did in the New York sleaze of Maniac in 1980. Spanish horror star Lone Fleming, heroine of the first Blind Dead films, also pops up. Further evidencing Matellano’s interest in genre history, new passages of the script have the hapless Harriet (Veronica Polo) – reduced to a tent, since this even-scantier production can’t stretch to the camper van of the original – discover a copy of Théophile Gautier’s vampire story ‘La morte amoureuse’ and ponder how it might feed into the current situation. Marta Flich and Almudena León replace Marianne Morris and Anulka as vampire vixens Fran and Miriam – they are pretty, and willing to do nude splatter scenes with abandon, but Matellano doesn’t get out of them what Larraz did of his stars. It’s a case of the direction being at fault rather than any thespic lack: Morris and Anulka were nude models rather than actresses and their performances were entirely shaped by Larraz (and professional dubbing). As properties suitable for remaking go, Vampyres was an odd choice – a film distinguished by approach and ferocity rather than any particular strength of concept or story. Transplanting the whole thing to contemporary, non-specific Spain from the tatty, fraying edges of 1970s Britain cuts away much that makes Vampyres interesting. It’s a remake that feels like a footnote, and – though it’s scarcely an hour and a quarter long – your attention is likely to wander quite a lot while it’s running.
Writer-directors Mauricio Chernovetzky and Mark Devendorf’s Styria (released on UK DVD as Angel of Darkness) tells an even more familiar story. It adapts J. Sheridan Le Fanu’s much-filmed ‘Carmilla’, with moments that explicitly evoke many of the story’s earlier incarnations (Carl Dreyer’s Vampyr, Roger Vadim’s Et Mourir de Plaisir/Blood and Roses, Roy Ward Baker’s The Vampire Lovers, Vicente Aranda’s La Novia Ensangrientada/The Blood-Spattered Bride) and such Carmilla-by-association efforts as The Moth Diaries and Byzantium. In a more sophisticated manner than the simple Gautier-read-aloud sessions of Vampyres, Styria draws on a wealth of pre-Bram Stoker vampire stories to present a version of the myth that’s unusual and distinctive. Carmilla films often seem odd because the Stoker/Lugosi/Hammer vampire myth is so entrenched in pop culture that Le Fanu’s more nebulous, ambiguous creatures appear somehow ‘wrong’ in interesting ways. Even the very physical Ingrid Pitt in The Vampire Lovers, Hammer’s own take on the story, does some ghostly vanishing that wouldn’t do for Christopher Lee’s Dracula.
Styria sets the story in Hungary in 1989, and pares away much of Le Fanu’s plot and most of the supporting cast. Dr Hill (Stephen Rea) comes to a shuttered castle to examine murals that have been papered over, working under the threat of the collapsing communist regime levelling the building. Lara (Eleanor Tomlinson, who has now taken the Angharad Rees role in the remake of Poldark), his teenage daughter, has just been expelled from school after a violent incident. The sulky girl’s interest is piqued when she learns the castle once belonged to the family of her absent mother, whom Dr Hill doesn’t like to talk about. In the forest, Lara sees Carmilla (Julia Pietrucha) escape from a car driven by a bullying official, General Spiegel (Jacek Lenartowicz), and befriends the blonde, peculiar girl, who becomes a major influence in her life.
Though there’s a kiss that mimics a scene in Blood and Roses, Styria plays down the lesbian eroticism – too often taken to be the only interesting feature in Le Fanu’s extraordinarily complex story – and makes Carmilla possibly the protagonist’s alter ego, imaginary friend, sister, incarnated wild side or reincarnated mother. The film mostly stays in the crumbling castle to concentrate on the two girls … only venturing into the village near the end, to show the gruesome depredations of the vampire (whoever she may be) among the local population. It’s a successful evocation of the approach Euro-horror took in the 1970s rather than simple pastiche, and there are creepy, fresh scenes: a night-long sleepover on a bare mountain, which ends with Lara waking to find a bloody smiley face scrawled on a rock, a midnight swim with cold fingers that might be dumped statues or petrified corpses brushing Lara’s feet. The performances are all pitched slightly high – and Lenartowicz goes over the top as a malign take on the fearless vampire killer – and there’s attention to décor and atmosphere rather than shock, though the last reel (which borrows a lick from Hammer’s Kiss of the Vampire) is eventful and gruesome. Following The Moth Diaries by blurring the roles of vampire and victim, Styria gives Tomlinson (who is excellent) as much to play with as Pietrucha. This gets around the persistent problem that Le Fanu’s heroine, Laura, is a passive doormat who tends to be the dullest part of any film adaptation, even when played by Elsa Martinelli or Madeline Smith. Arty and sometimes too elliptical for its own good – Carmilla draws art film attention as much as commercial horror – Styria is nevertheless an interesting, unusual vampire movie.
In his latest offering, the Argentinian director Daniel de la Vega takes us into some delightfully juicy territory.
***½ out of *****
Who in their right mind doesn’t love George Sluizer’s 1988 shocker The Vanishing (aka Spoorloos)? It’s the Dutch suspense classic in which a man obsessively searches for his girlfriend who disappears without a trace at a roadside pitstop. As great and perfect as Sluizer’s picture is, Argentinian director Daniel de la Vega (working from a zanily inspired screenplay by the Bogliano Brothers) takes us into some delightfully juicy territory in White Coffin, which enjoyed its World Premiere at Fantasia 2016 in Montreal.
Imagine The Vanishing, wherein a smelly guy is substituted with a hot babe searching for her sweet little girl amongst a sect of evil-infused torture-hounds. Add plenty of supernatural frissons, a wham-bam no-nonsense 70-minute running time and some to-die-for action and you get the rich cocktail of powerful 100-proof homebrew that is White Coffin.
Shaken, of course. Not stirred. Belt it back and allow your nerves to be jangled and definitely not soothed.
Virginia (Julieta Cardinali) is taking a powder from her abusive hubby with cute-as-a-button daughter Rebecca (Fiorela Duranda) in tow. Hightailing it across the Pampas, the duo encounter a strange fork-in-the-road from which they’re warned off by Mason (Rafael Ferro), a hunky gaucho who appears to be taking far too much interest in them. When they arrive at a pitstop on the highway, the worst thing any parent can imagine occurs. Sweet little Rebecca disappears without a trace.
Luckily for Virginia (and mostly for the audience), she spots a glimpse of her daughter through the window of a souped-up tow truck and we’re treated to one of the most delightfully hair-raising chase scenes I’ve seen in sometime. (It’s up there with the recent and decidedly overblown Jason Bourne chases, but happily sans the herky-jerky of that otherwise dull blockbuster.)
There’s no point ruining some of the surprises in store, suffice to say that the outcome of the chase brings a return of Gaucho Mason who mysteriously appears ever so often to dispense cryptic advice and guide our hot heroine through a labyrinth of horror and suspense, which also involves a dangerous game played by two other hot mamas also missing their kids.
All I will promise you is white knuckle suspense, a perplexing puzzle of evil, a passel of devil-worshipping inbreds, detailed instructions on how to build a white coffin (in case you should need this yourself whilst vacationing in lovely Argentina), vice-like direction to manage all these elements of horror and, most importantly, you will enjoy some first-rate cat fights, with babes, naturally. The latter treat is like a jarful of maraschino cherries dumped into this mega-fun concoction of witches’ brew.
Cast: Clémence Poésy, David Morrissey, Stephen Campbell Moore, Laura Birn, Deborah Findlay
Despite a sense of déjàvu and an unconvincing ending, David Farr’s London-set pregnancy chiller conjures up a claustrophobic atmosphere.
With more than a passing nod to Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby, this contemporary chilling thriller riffs well enough off its contained, two-up, two-down set-up, even if it struggles to convince with its grand reveal.
Kate (Clémence Poésy) lives upstairs with husband Justin (Stephen Campbell Moore) and is expecting their first child, albeit with some reticence. Brightening her day is her new ground-floor neighbour, Theresa (Laura Birn), a vivacious blonde whose older husband, Jon (David Morrissey), has a brusque manner and an even worse temper. They have been trying for years (seven, to be precise) to conceive. When they are invited for dinner, Jon can barely mask his contempt for a couple that can successfully procreate at the drop of a hat.
Inevitably, the new arrivals prove to be awkward guests, made worse after a tragic accident, which sends them scurrying downstairs back to their renovated flat. Almost immediately, the promise of like-minded neighbours vanishes. Or so it would seem.
Director David Farr, here making the leap from stage to screen, does well handling Kate’s mental deterioration, which convinces as the line separating fantasy from reality becomes increasingly and alarmingly blurred. Poésy’s pale and increasingly drawn complexion, captured effectively by the lensing of Ed Rutherford, makes for unsettling viewing. Moore’s typically solid turn as the hapless husband, seemingly powerless to stop the dramatic denouement of the piece, is also well timed.
Given their positioning in the narrative – and the mysterious goings-on that play out on screen – it’s trickier to take Morrissey and Birn’s characters quite so seriously. Yet the pair both respond to their material in a suitably colourful way, allowing for brief moments of dark humour to waft through proceedings, before matters begin to turn ugly.
And ugly they most certainly are. While Polanski needn’t fret about this young, London-based pretender, The Ones Below succeeds in crafting a tense and claustrophobic environment within which this motley crew of characters can do their worst. That its finale seems almost laughably absurd is soon alleviated upon reflection of what’s just unfolded. Farr’s film, which showed at Toronto as part of the festival’s City to City programme, isn’t likely to rattle any cages, but it might just upset a few light sleepers. Provided you don’t mind a plot hole or two.
Cast: Yael Grobglas, Danielle Jadelyn, Yon Tumarkin, Tom Graziani, and Howard Rypp
The gates of hell open in Jerusalem in this tense and fun Israeli horror film.
***½ out of *****
History, folklore, various ancient scriptures and occult experts have agreed that there are three gates to Hell. Two of them are usually associated with topographically/geographically tempestuous regions like oceans, volcanoes and deserts. The third one is located in a variety of ancient cities.
To my mind, the scariest has always been the southern portion of Old Jerusalem, oft-referred to as the ‘Old City’, about 35 square miles contained within its venerable walls and a crossroads twixt the faiths of Judaism, Islam and Christianity (not to mention a considerable Armenian population around the turn of the 20th century). Given the on-going Israeli-Palestinian claims to the Old City, it seems an ideal Gate to Hell for a horror film, one in which Jews, Muslims and yes, even Christians (who only really want to convert the other two to their side of the God Squad), must all try to put differences aside and work together, if and when the Jaws of Hades spew forth the most malevolently and seemingly unstoppable demons.
This is the rich, visually tantalizing backdrop to JeruZalem.
Americans Sarah (Danielle Jadelyn) and her dad (Howard Rypp) have been in mourning over the death of their brother and son respectively. Dad decides to bankroll a trip to Tel-Aviv for the beautiful, raven-haired apple of his eye and Rachel (Yael Grobglas), her golden-tressed, equally hot bestie. Most importantly, Dad bestows Sarah with the most wonderful gift of all, the insanely expensive Google glasses, which not only act as prescription spectacles, but offer a first-person digital video camera and all manner of internet connectivity and handy-dandy voice-activated apps like Skype, browsers and Google-icious mapping and GPS info.
What this means for us, is that we don’t have to question why the first-person camera keeps running as its wearer is tear-assing away from fucking demons when the gates of Hell spill out a variety of winged nasties and cloven-hoofed giants. Hell, at one point, Sarah even places her glasses down (conveniently) whilst receiving the root from Kevin (Yon Tumarkin), a handsome, young stud who (conveniently) happens to be an anthropology-archaeology grad student and (even more conveniently) affords us glimpses of delectable nudity.
It’s what one can call ‘win-win’.
Yes, this is yet another found-footage horror film shot on a shoestring, but there’s no need to despair since JeruZalem is a wildly entertaining, often unbearably intense and occasionally drawer-filling experience. Featuring hot babes and hunky hunks (including the well-humoured hotel employee Omar, delightfully played by Tom Graziani), plus cool digital effects (some of which have a Ray Harryhausen other-worldly. borderline stop-motion quality), whiz-bang direction, editing that knows when to sparingly mess up spatial concerns, and shots of both the action and the Old City ably captured by cinematographer Rotem Yaron, the movie yields some worthwhile terror-infused shenanigans.
Add to the mix a few ultra-hunky Israeli soldiers, generally decent acting (save for the clunky deliveries of Indiana Jones-wannabe and Sarah’s bone-beau Tumarkin), a few fun scenes in Old City night clubs, plenty of chills in the labyrinthine streets and, among a few terrific set pieces, one set in an asylum which is so creepy and chilling that some of you might wish you’d worn adult diapers. Importantly, most genre fans will respond positively to a horror picture that benefits greatly from its indigenous flavour.
Hilariously, the Paz Brothers shot this film in The Old City without the usual permissions and permits required since they managed to convince the powers-that-be that they were shooting a documentary. The results of this bravado added a few warm cockles to the guerrilla filmmaking side of my heart and reminded me of those halcyon days of producing no-budget independent movies in the 80s and 90s when I used to do the same damn thing.
I normally care less about exigencies of production, but these have such stellar attributes, that the result is one rip-snorter of a ride.
Based on the Gothic novella ‘Carmilla’ by: Sheridan Le Fanu
Cast: Hannah Fierman, Christin Orr, William Katt, Kylie Brown
***½ out of *****
When movies are rooted in a sense of place that pulsates from their opening frames, deepening to a point where the story is inextricably linked to a regional atmosphere, thus becoming as much a character as the picture’s on-screen personages, then you know that you’re in a world of total immersion. When said films feel like they’re coming from a place that feels familiar and lived-in from the perspective of the filmmaker, the work takes on an added transcendence that can only come from the heart, as well as a good eye for detail and local colour.
In genre films, some of the strongest examples of this can be found in all of George A. Romero‘s early Pittsburgh films (Dawn of the Dead, The Crazies, Martin); Alfred Sole’s astonishing New Jersey-rooted Alice, Sweet Alice; Paul Maslansky’s Houston-based voodoo thriller Sugar Hill; and amongst many others, the latest foray into regional horror, Bret Wood’s The Unwanted.
From the beginning, writer-director Wood plunges us into a contemporary milieu, a kind of antebellum-ish New Millennium Gothic, as a mysterious young woman (Christin Orr), attired in fashionable grunge duds and bearing a countenance of toughness and determination, gets off a Greyhound bus in an alternately seedy and retro-cool South Carolina burgh.
She makes her way on foot to a leafy post-war neighbourhood to the house she’s targeted. Here she inquires into the whereabouts of one Millarca Karnstein (Kylie Brown). The door is answered by the handsome, but alternately seedy-looking owner Troy (William Katt of Carrie fame, here adorned in a grubby ball-cap with long curly locks of head-banger-hockey-hair), and Laura (Hannah Fierman, ‘Lily’ in the ‘Amateur Night’ segment in V/H/S), his insanely gorgeous wide-eyed daughter who hovers silently behind him.
He claims not to know whom she’s looking for. The woman is insistent, though: he must know, since Troy’s house was the exotically named Millarca’s last-known address. Troy amusedly points out that he’d have heard of someone in the town with a name like Millarca Karnstein, never mind someone of that monicker residing in his home.
By this point, ‘Karnstein’ is ringing a bell with us (at least those of the geek persuasion). For horror aficionados, the mere mention of the name Karnstein immediately signals that we’re about to plunge into an adaptation of ‘Carmilla’, Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu’s immortal 1871 classic novella of vampirism, which predates even Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897), making it one of the earliest major works in the (relatively) modern genre of vampire fiction.
Some of the best movies adapted from the Le Fanu include Vampyr (1932), Carl Dreyer’s liberal cinematic borrowing from the material, as well as several faithful renderings including Roger Vadim’s 1960 Blood and Roses , with its highly charged erotic qualities; Camilo Mastrocinque’s creepy 1964 Terror in the Crypt, starring Christopher Lee and Adriana Ambesi; the exceptional 1974 Roy Ward Baker-directed Hammer Horror version The Vampire Lovers, with Ingrid Pitt and Peter Cushing in the first film of Hammer’s Karnstein Trilogy; and now, of course, The Unwanted, one of the most effectively oddball attempts to wrestle with Le Fanu’s work.
When our heroine (bearing the name, Carmilla Karnstein, of course) leaves Troy’s home dejectedly, but also with skepticism, she inquires at the local cop-shop for information about the missing Karnstein, and is told the report she’s requested will take two full business days.
Damn! She’s now going to be in this low-down Hicksville conurbation longer than anticipated. Carmilla sallies over to the local greasy spoon for some coffee where her waitress is none other than Laura, Troy’s daughter, the drool-inspiring beauty with the jet-black hair and come-hither saucer-like dark eyes.
Laura reveals to Carmilla that Daddy Troy didn’t tell the truth. Millarca Karnstein did indeed use their home as a mailing address, living in the family trailer on the outskirts of town near Daddy’s hunting grounds. Carmilla, in turn, reveals that Millarca was her mother, and even though Laura’s mommy Karen (Lynn Talley) died when she was a tyke, she has vague recollections of both women.
And now we plunge into the Le Fanu tale proper, the two women eventually embarking upon a passionate lesbian relationship with the added touch of bloodsucking.
Here Wood takes us into strange territory involving dreams, nightmares, flashbacks and lingering questions all needing answers. While there are vampire-like qualities to the eroticism, Wood sublimates the supernatural elements in favour of a compelling mutual lust amongst the two women for both flesh and blood.
Troy, creepy from frame one, slowly edges into complete psychopathic bunyip territory, especially as the film reveals one new horrific revelation after another. With his clearly incestuous desires for his own daughter (and the possibility that he’s acted upon them), he’s as much a danger to the women as they are to each other.
What’s delightfully perverse is the identical lesbian vampire relationship twixt the mothers of Laura and Carmilla. For genre fans, it’s like getting dreamy, healthy dollops of ‘double-double’. Karen and Millarca slurp, suck and wildly caress away in dreams and flashbacks while their daughters in the present are also engaged in identical gymnastics.
The movie has a few strange pacing problems, due on one hand to the screenplay being a touch ambitious for its own good, and, once we take time to peruse a number of cut and/or alternate takes in the Kino Lorber Blu-ray extras, we discover why there are a few lapses in logic, motivation and tone, most of which inspire us to think, ‘Uh, why the hell were these sequences cut and/or not worked into the overall narrative?’ There might have been concerns, rightly so, about pacing, but I suspect the film feels longer and a bit more disjointed than it needed to be, because these scenes fell to the cutting room floor.
Another irksome touch that affects pacing and tone is one of the most jarringly annoying song-scores I’ve heard, which wends its way through the picture. The opening song is terrific and well utilized, as are the orchestral elements of the score proper, but a lot of the others seem shoehorned into the proceedings.
Happily, the aforementioned fumbles don’t detract from the overall visual dexterity, which the picture has in spades, as well as the performances by all four leading and supporting ladies engaged in vampiristic Sapphic pleasure.
The revelation here is William Katt. It’s almost impossible to separate him from his post-Carrie work as the sweet, handsome young lad who finally takes Sissy Spacek to the prom in Brian De Palma’s masterpiece, but in The Unwanted, we drop all notions of that much earlier role from our minds and marvel at his initially subtle and eventually mounting, crazed viciousness.
It’s such a great performance that one feels a certain degree of regret that such mainstream industry awards as the Oscars all but ignore low-budget independent horror, since the work Katt does here is Academy Award-worthy, at least in terms of even a nomination in the Supporting Actor category.
Also, pacing problems aside, the final third of the film is utterly chilling and plunges us into one terrific jolt after another. The movie features, hands down, the best on-screen use of a hunting arrow and where/how it plunges since Burt Reynolds’s fine aim delighted us in John Boorman’s Deliverance.
Bret Wood’s previous feature-length work has been in documentaries. He’s highly regarded as one of the finest producers of added-feature extras in the world of home-entertainment for the Kino Lorber company. His recent commentary track for the Blu-ray release of Lewis Milestone’s The Front Page is phenomenal. Incidentally, the extras on The Unwanted include Wood’s first-rate short dramatic effort The Other Half, a grimly funny, scary and perverse bite-sized treat involving a double amputee, his wife and a prostitute.
Wood’s first feature film was the funny, revelatory and, frankly, vomit-inducing Hell’s Highway: The True Story of Highway Safety Films and his sophomore feature effort, Psychopathia Sexualis (2006), was a dream come true for me personally, as it focused upon the classic encyclopaedia of sexual deviance by Richard Fridolin Joseph Freiherr Krafft von Festenberg auf Frohnberg, genannt von Ebing (known more popularly as simply Krafft-Ebing, though I’m a big fan of his full name).
As a seemingly unrelated aside, the Krafft-Ebing Psychopathia Sexualis was a favourite tome amongst director Guy Maddin, screenwriter George Toles and myself as young gents in the early flowering stages of our lives, a book that we’d read aloud to each other round campfires in Gimli, Manitoba throughout the 80s, along with our coterie of similarly enchanted colleagues.
The feature film Archangel (which I produced, Guy directed and George wrote) includes a Krafft-Ebing phrase for our favourite sexual delight, one which means very little to anyone not acquainted with arcane terms in Psychopathia Sexualis, but never fails to give us insider-chuckles to this very day. I refuse to tell you what it is. You must acquaint yourself with Krafft-Ebing and then see Archangel again. It will put Maddin’s entire film in a whole new context for you (if you hadn’t sensed it already, that is).
That a contemporary filmmaker has created a documentary portrait of Krafft-Ebing seems an extra-special treat for those who partake of The Unwanted, Wood’s first fictional feature: one which features so many delightful dollops of bloodsucking, lesbo action, incest, chilling suspense and glorious bits of mad violence.
Cast: Michiel Huisman, Logan Marshall-Green, John Carroll Lynch
Will (Logan Marshall-Green) and Eden (Tammy Blanchard) split up two years ago after a tragic accident drove them apart. Now he and his new girlfriend are invited to a dinner party in Los Angeles with Eden, her new partner David (Michiel Huisman) and a handful of old friends, at their old house in the hills. The evening’s festivities were, perhaps inevitably going to be a trifle strained, but from the moment Will enters the house he senses that something is a little…off. Maybe it’s the two new friends of Eden and David‘s, who seem overly familiar and willing to get intimate, maybe it’s the guest that persistently fails to show up. Maybe it’s Eden herself, with her blissed out smile and her claims to have banished pain from her life. It could be just his grief, and his resentment of her happiness blossoming into paranoia, but something is…off. And as the night wears on his certainty that the hosts have a hidden agenda grows, something more sinister than swinging or scientology…
A masterclass in sustained unease, The Invitation had me more agreeably creeped out than any film in recent memory. The prevalence of ‘I appreciate your honesty’ L.A. therapy speak alone gave me the terrors. Add that to the accretion of unsettling details and the claustrophobic, chamber piece setting and your brain is screaming; ‘Run! Get the hell out of there!’ at the guests before the first 40 minutes are up. But the genius of the construction is that there’s nothing specific that Will can point to to justify his fears. Or rather, the bar for committing the social transgression of telling the hosts to go fuck themselves has not yet been met, especially after they’ve broken out the ’8-million dollar wine’. And that moment remains elusive. Until….
Performances are all excellent, especially Tammy Blanchard, whose Eden is all tactile gestures and fragile positivity. The camerawork is fluid and unfussy with a nice line in unbalanced compositions, and the focus is on telling body language and expression and well edited reaction shots. I love how the outwardly desirable house becomes a scarily unreadable beige and brown prison. And I love how it never lets you off the hook until the final payoff. A proper skincrawler.
Cast: Emma Roberts, Kiernan Shipka, Lucy Boynton, James Remar, Lauren Holly
USA, Canada 2015
*** out of *****
The prolific character actor Oz Perkins makes his promising directorial debut with this creepy, atmospheric and surprisingly affecting blend of psychological thriller and outright horror. Most importantly, February not only signals the arrival of a formidable filmmaking talent, but is a picture that takes its rightful place within an important pedigree of scarefests, which harkens back to the golden age of RKO’s horror unit in the 40s.
The childhood fear of dark corners, in addition to feelings of both loneliness and abandonment, always seem to make for the happiest of bedfellows in genre cinema – happy for viewers, however, not so much for the protagonists of said films. For me, the grandfather of all such work is Val Lewton’s alternately chilling and deeply moving 1944 classic The Curse of the Cat People (directed by Gunther von Fritsch and Robert Wise, written by the indomitable DeWitt Bodeen). That highly influential RKO masterpiece saw the ghost of Irena (Simone Simon) return from the Jacques Tourneur-directed and Bodeen-scribed Cat People (1943) to act as a spiritual guide, playmate and protector for Amy (Ann Carter), the daughter of Irena’s former lover. Utilizing an ‘imaginary’ playmate and nods to Charles Dickens’s “Great Expectations” allowed for a horror film that worked on both visceral and emotionally dramatic levels.
February treads similar territory in a wholly contemporary context. Following the mysterious journey of Joan (Emma Roberts), a furtive, seemingly eidolic, yet determined young lady who makes her way across a New England landscape of blood, ice and snow, we become all-too aware that her destination is a place of gothic bumps in the night and a genuinely malevolent force. The place in question is an old, isolated, high-end girls’ boarding school, which has been closed for its winter break and appears to house only Kat (Kiernan Shipka) and Rose (Lucy Boynton), two young ladies who are stranded there when their respective parents do not arrive to pick them up.
A storm appears to be brewing – not simply of the meteorological kind, but of the supernatural kind as well. At first Rose, the eldest, bitterly rejects being placed in the role of protector and ignores Kat. Gradually Rose’s protective instinct kicks in as the long, dark night wears on. Alas, she finds herself desperately powerless as a truly insidious force overcomes Kat and increases in ferocity. Occasionally cross-cutting with Joan, it seems that the evil in this dark, old school is ever-swelling as she nears her ultimate destination.
A convergence is clearly in the cards and it’s not rocket science to guess that it might not at all be pretty. Where things do go a bit awry on my own disappoint-o-meter is that the fine combination of visceral and cerebral chills were of the ‘I hope things don’t go here’ variety during the denouement. A fine screenplay buoys so much of the film’s evocative directorial style, plus the genuinely terrific performances, but once again, I find myself up against a wrap-up I’d expect from a much lesser work.
I doubt this will bother most, but as a psychopath who sees way too many movies, it troubled me to no end. That said, on my baser levels of critical assessment, the movie offers three babes, a creepy old house and a malevolent possession all within a sumptuously crafted indie feature, so what the hell am I complaining about?
This review is part of our 2015 TIFF coverage.
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