Tag Archives: thriller

The Ones Below

The Ones Below
The Ones Below

Format: Cinema

Release date: 11 March 2016

DVD release date: 4 July 2016

Distributor: Icon Film Distribution

Director: David Farr

Writer: David Farr

Cast: Clémence Poésy, David Morrissey, Stephen Campbell Moore, Laura Birn, Deborah Findlay

UK 2015

87 mins

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.

Ed Gibbs

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The Corpse of Anna Fritz

The Corpse of Anna Fritz
The Corpse of Anna Fritz

Format: Cinema

Seen at LFF 2015

Director: Hèctor Hernández Vicens

Writers: Hèctor Hernández Vicens, Isaac P Creus

Cast: Alba Ribas, Cristian Valencia, Bernat Saumell

Original title: El cadáver de Anna Fritz

Spain 2015

76 mins

When the body of a young film star turns up at the hospital where Pau works, he can’t resist sending an illicit photo to two of his friends, Javi and Ivan, who turn up, booze and coke in hand, ready to party. Once in the morgue, conversation soon turns to…(well, there’s no way to put this politely) nailing the celebrity cadaver. The forceful Ivan takes the lead, and Pau, as ever, follows. But mid coitus, Anna’s eyes open. She’s alive! And they’re all in big trouble. Unless…

Hèctor Hernández Vicens’s nasty little thriller largely plays out, after its moment of awakening, along familiar lines. The three men fall out and fight, the immobile Anna tries desperately to stay alive, plans are made, escapes are attempted, everything goes horribly wrong – it’s all pretty tense and effective and well achieved. What separates the film from the flock, and may well damn it, is the sheer unpleasantness of its premise, and its lead characters.

For much of the film’s lean 76 minutes, we are exclusively in the company of three of the most repellent douchebags cinema has to offer. Whilst Vicenz is relatively restrained on the graphic sex and violence front, he lets their bros-before-hoes macho arseholery run wild and free; when, for example, Javi raises an objection to violating a dead woman, Ivan counters ‘just pretend she’s drunk’ – a line which sent cold ripples around the cinema I was in. I suspect the film may generate more walk-outs from their dialogue in the first twenty minutes than anything thereafter. Anna’s revival makes the film more bearable by, at long last, providing us with a single character that you wouldn’t like to get hit by a bus. She is gradually revealed to be crafty and resourceful, but a massive question mark hangs over the sexual politics. There’s a weird through-the-rabbit-hole morality on display, where Javi is better than the others because he didn’t fuck a corpse, and Pau is better than Ivan, because, with the kissing and hair stroking, he’s a more considerate, romantic corpse fucker.

Possibly not the best choice as a date movie.

This review is part of our LFF 2015 coverage.

Mark Stafford

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Schneider vs. Bax

Schneider vs. Bax
Schneider vs. Bax

Format: Cinema

First seen at
L’Etrange Festival 2015

Part of LFF 2015

Director: Alex van Warmerdam

Writer: Alex van Warmerdam

Cast: Tom Dewispelaere, Alex van Warmerdam, Loes Haverkort, Maria Kraakman

Netherlands 2015

96 mins

After the haunting and otherworldly Borgman, presented two years ago at L’Étrange Festival, Alex van Warmerdam – the enfant chéri of the festival – returned this year with Schneider vs. Bax, only to win the Grand Prix. As suggested by the title, the film’s plot is built around the duel between two contract killers hired by the same employer to do each other in. The film starts with the two protagonists waking. Schneider (Tom Dewispelaere) – allegedly an engineer – is woken up by his beautiful wife (Loes Haverkort) and children on his birthday, and has to cancel his day off because of a phone call from his boss Mertens (Gene Bervoets). Ramon Bax, a solitary writer living in an isolated house by a lake in the middle of a swamp, is woken up by the thought of his daughter Francisca’s (Maria Kraakman) imminent visit, and unmannerly chases away his young mistress, Nadine (Eva van de Wijdeven), to avoid an embarrassing encounter.

Long before the duel is put in place, Warmerdam establishes the comic nature of his film, when Mertens clumsily falls from his chair and accidentally knocks himself out after Schneider’s phone call. From there on, a long series of unexpected twists and blunders complicates the trap originally set for Schneider, in a way reminiscent of Édouard Molinaro’s A Pain in the Ass (1973).

Yet Warmerdam does not play by the rules of the hitman genre. He remains faithful to his criticism of the Dutch middle classes, and in this dark, social-comedy thriller, we go through every stage of a family crisis: the grown-up daughter’s depression, the father’s drug abuse, the grandfather’s incest, to name but a few.

Once again, Warmerdam succeeds in creating a perfect, absurd mix of very realistic action and very unrealistic sequences of cause-and-effect, the accumulation of which fuels the plot. The mystery of Borgman gives way here to exhilarating comedy, indulging in some delightfully trashy jokes, as when Nadine returns with her friend Jules, who threatens to crush Bax under his thumb, only to have his thumb shot off a few minutes later.

In Schneider vs. Bax Warmerdam yields to nature’s call, which was already budding in his previous films. The gardens, forests and countryside there provided a counterpoise to the urban, middle-class setting that Warmerdam is so keen on satirising (the countryside is also an occasional burying ground). This film was shot on location in a nature reserve, and the choice of the wild marshes deeply affects the aesthetics of the film, which moves away from the usual Hopper/Tati-like atmosphere. Much more than in The Last Days of Emma Blank (2009), the exceptionally picturesque landscape has enabled Warmerdam to achieve an unprecedented level of mastery in articulating elements of the plot with visual effects. Bax’s white, immaculate lakeside house (contrasting with his profession) is made even brighter by the fact that the house has a glass roof to let more light in. The obsessive cleanliness of the interior is almost uncanny, especially as Bax returns there all muddy from the swamps, without affecting the pristine state of the house. This is perhaps the most original of Warmerdam’s aesthetic choices: rather than a chiaroscuro reflecting the moral stakes of the protagonists, the screen is overwhelmed by the unchallenged brightness of the swamps in broad daylight, which thus paradoxically enhances the film’s dark atmosphere and the characters’ no less dark motivations. No pathetic fallacy here – the weather remains sunny all through the fight between Schneider and Bax, and the different deaths that occur in its course, even until the film’s ‘happy ending’, when Schneider returns home to his ‘perfect’ family, who are blissfully ignorant of the pater familias’s profession.

Pierre Kapitaniak

This review is part of our Etrange Festival/LFF 2015 coverage.

The Invitation

The Invitation
The Invitation

Format: Cinema

Seen at LFF 2015

Director: Karyn Kusama

Writers: Phil Hay, Matt Manfredi

Cast: Michiel Huisman, Logan Marshall-Green, John Carroll Lynch

USA 2015

97 mins

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.

This review is part of our LFF 2015 coverage.

Mark Stafford

In Cold Blood

In Cold Blood
In Cold Blood

Format: Cinema

Release date:
11 September 2015

Distributor: Park Circus

Director: Richard Brooks

Writer: Richard Brooks

Based on the novel by: Truman Capote

Cast: Robert Blake, Scott Wilson, John Forsyth

USA 1967

134 mins

Released eight years after the event, Robert Brooks’s In Cold Blood is an adaptation of the infamous book by Truman Capote, about an unfathomable crime that took place in Holcomb, Kansas in 1959. Acting on a tip-off, newly released convicts Perry Smith (Robert Blake) and Dick Hickock (Scott Wilson) decided to rob the home of the Cutter family, convinced they had a safe full of cash. Armed with rope, a knife and a shotgun, and full of confidence that their plan was foolproof, they drove across state lines to the remote farm, with little intention of leaving any witnesses behind. The result was four dead bodies, and Smith and Hickock on the run.

Brooks methodically divided the film into parts: the first cuts together scenes of the perpetrators and their victims. The Cutters, the teen children especially, are all wholesome, mid-west innocence, the slightly saccharine scenes overlaid with a sentimental score – as opposed to the cool 60s jazz that drives the scenes with Smith and Hickock, both ex-convicts looking for their next big score. Smith is a greaser in a leather jacket, his oily hair slicked back. Addicted to painkillers after his leg was torn up in an accident, he’s an almost-crippled figure, haunted by searing memories of his childhood (whether or not his past in any way justifies his actions is up to the audience to decide). Hickock, in a terrific performance from then-newcomer Wilson, is the charismatic one, the guy with the plan, who – though he talks the talk – is unable to kill people himself, and needs someone with muscle.

The atmosphere is claustrophobic as Smith and Hickock drive the hundreds of miles to the Cutters’ home, their journey across the barren plains brilliantly evoked by cinematographer Conrad Hall, who won an Oscar for the film. The camera is ever present in the car with the men throughout much of the film, dialogue, rather than action, propelling the story. Their conversations shine a light on their past and present lives, a means of exploring their motivation, and establishing them as deluded and strangely naive, rather than just cold-hearted killers.

After their arrival at the farm, the film skips ahead, leaving the audience initially in the dark (the murders themselves are later relived in cruel detail when Smith and Hickock are finally caught and forced to confess). As the focus shifts to the following day, and the discovery of the bodies, In Cold Blood becomes less of a film noir and more of a police procedural, with the manhunt led by Alvin Dewey (John Forsythe). The murders are shocking, senseless, and the police, the community, and of course, the film itself, struggle – in the words of a journalist, who follows the tragic story through to its conclusion – to understand how a ‘violent, unknown force destroys a decent, ordinary family’.

This attempt at understanding, unfortunately, becomes one of the film’s weaknesses. There are moments of brilliance, but the narrative, with the exception of some terrific flashbacks, feels relentlessly unswerving, from the introduction of the characters, to their arrest, imprisonment, and finally, their execution. Capote was famously opposed to the death penalty, and Brooks carries across that sentiment. Their deaths are presented in a documentary-like style, which, although chilling, again robs the film of cinematic tension. In Cold Blood is at its best, stylistically, when it indulges in its noir leanings, rather than when it works as a docudrama. But with Quincy Jones’s excellent soundtrack, the captivating black and white cinematography, and the dynamism between Smith and Hickok, it’s still a compelling watch.

Sarah Cronin

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Format: Cinema

Release date: 7 August 2015

Distributor: Altitude Film Entertainment

Director: Alberto Rodríguez

Writers: Alberto Rodríguez, Rafael Cobos

Cast:Javier Gutiérrez, Raúl Arévalo, Mar Rodría Varod

Spain 2014

105 mins

Spain, 1980. When teenage sisters go missing in the remote and barren Andaluz wetlands, two detectives from Madrid are sent to investigate. It’s immediately clear to them that the locals, even the girls’ own father, are virtually indifferent to their disappearance, believing that the sisters, with their ‘loose’ morals, have either run away or brought their fate upon themselves. Although the town’s residents remain stubborn in their refusal to help, the detectives soon discover that the girls are not the first who have gone missing from the area, and that a serial killer (or killers) is sexually exploiting the women before callously disposing of their bodies.

Juan (the excellent Javier Gutiérrez) is the experienced detective with a murky past under the Franco regime. Pragmatic, wily, manipulative, he’s better at needling out information over a few drinks, or, if that doesn’t work, using his fists. His new partner is the idealistic rookie, his future already in jeopardy after publicly criticising Franco’s still-powerful generals. Played by Raúl Arévalo, Pedro is the more earnest, less charismatic of the two, his integrity at odds with the casual way business is done in the marshlands.

Director Alberto Rodríguez’s atmospheric Marshland, (which swept the Goya awards on its release last year) can feel at times like a by-the-numbers police procedural, but it’s saved by its backdrop of social upheaval and unrest. The murders are used as a foil to delve into the legacy left behind by Franco, revealing a country struggling to find its way forward. The climate of fear that existed under his regime still permeates the small, impoverished town, where the police don’t ask too many questions (turning a blind eye to the drug running in the region’s swampy rivers), and where powerful business owners are still untouchable. But things are slowly changing, as men strike for better working conditions, and women are lured away to places like the Costa del Sol with promises of hotel work. But as the women become more independent, more sexually liberated, they are shunned by the community, and left vulnerable to the town’s dangerous predators.

Parallels have been drawn between the film and True Detective, but it’s also reminiscent of Arthur Penn’s excellent Florida-set Night Moves. Marshland is a terrifically well-crafted sunshine noir, with the genre’s usual shadows replaced by the searing bright light and heat of southern Spain. Rodríguez is clearly inspired by the atmospheric, treacherous bayous of the deep American south; the marshes are like fetid pockets of water, where bodies and secrets can lurk unfound just below the surface. The flat, open spaces are stunningly captured by cinematographer Alex Catalan, with some remarkable, abstract aerial shots of the land below, the rivers and tributaries, forming resonant motifs.

Though the violence that the women are subjected to, and its casual dismissal, is deeply disturbing, the victims themselves are never really fleshed out by the filmmaker. It’s the relationship between Juan and Pedro, between the past and future, justice and abuse of power, that is the film’s beating heart. Though the crime is solved, Rodríguez refuses to indulge in a neat resolution, either for the murderer, or the two detectives.

Sarah Cronin

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The Manchurian Candidate

The Manchurian Candidate 1
The Manchurian Candidate

Format: Dual Format (DVD + Blu-ray)

Release date: 23 February 2015

Distributor: Arrow Films

Director: John Frankenheimer

Writers: George Axelrod, John Frankenheimer

Based on the novel by: Richard Condon

Cast: Frank Sinatra, Lawrence Harvey, Angela Lansbury, Janet Leigh, James Gregory, Henry Silva

USA 1962

126 mins

Political and conspiracy thrillers do not always age well. Many of them are so firmly anchored in their day and age that the passing of time and changes in society render them naïve, illogical or ridiculous. John Frankenheimer’s The Manchurian Candidate is certainly of its time: the era of the Cold War, Reds under the bed, a succession of Asian wars and the McCarthy witch hunts, the Cuban missile crisis, not to mention the Kennedy assassination, which it is often seen as prefiguring. So why does it retain its ability to shock and its relevance to generation after generation? Because for all the James Bond shenanigans and the talk of Communists and Chinese, it’s not really about any of those things.

At first The Manchurian Candidate seems to play out like a comedy. Major Bennett Marco (played by Frank Sinatra, an excellent performance he considered his personal best) has been having nightmares. He sees himself and his unit from the Korean War sitting in a hotel lobby, bored out of their minds, while a local horticultural society holds a meeting about hydrangeas. Then the image changes; now they’re in a lecture hall surrounded by Russian and Chinese officials, and it’s not flowers they’re discussing but the fact that the hated sergeant Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey) has been brainwashed and reprogrammed as a remote control assassin. These hints and half-glimpses are enough to convince Marco and his superiors that something serious is under way. Meanwhile, Shaw’s domineering mother Eleanor (Angela Lansbury) and her boozy, under-intelligent husband Johnny Iselin (James Gregory) are revealing to the world that large numbers of ‘card-carrying communists’ have infiltrated key US government departments.

It’s a move straight out of the McCarthy playbook, and Iselin is a scathing, deliberate caricature of McCarthy (Richard Condon’s original novel was published two years after the senator’s death). Like McCarthy, Iselin never actually provides any concrete evidence to back up his claim; after all, he only says there are 57 communists in the Department of Defense because he happened to see a bottle of Heinz tomato ketchup that morning. In private Iselin is dominated by his brilliant, callous wife, and on screen Gregory is overshadowed by a captivating Lansbury performance. It’s only when it becomes clear just how willing she is to mentally, spiritually and eventually physically obliterate her son in furtherance of her own ambitions that Eleanor Iselin Shaw becomes one of the cinema’s most memorable villains. By that point the Chinese and Russians have long since faded into the background, their hackneyed representations rendered obsolete (and unnecessary) by Eleanor’s diabolical schemes, schemes that go much further than Communist takeovers.

Ultimately that’s the reason why The Manchurian Candidate has lasted better than its contemporaries. Not only is the central conspiracy entirely feasible and practical, but in just a few minutes it’s possible to come up with a sizeable number of examples from history where similar things have been tried and (for the more paranoid viewer) have quite possibly succeeded. Whether you’re in favour of remakes or not, a post-9/11 reworking of The Manchurian Candidate was an utterly logical step, and the surprising quality of Jonathan Demme’s 2004 version suggests that certain points still need to be made.

Jim Harper

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The Man in the Orange Jacket

The Man in the Orange Jacket
The Man in the Orange Jacket

Director: Aik Karapetian

Writer: Aik Karapetian

Cast: Anta Aizupe, Maxim Lazarev, Aris Rozentals

Original title: M.O.Zh.

Latvia 2014

71 mins

An odd, upsetting 71 minutes from Latvia, in which an unnamed man, dressed in the utilitarian high-visibility vest of the title, separates from the crowds of similarly attired workers, leaves a plant and makes his way to the house of the industrialist who has just put him and 211 others out of work. There, he uses his toolkit to exact bloody revenge, and maybe steal a little of the luxury lifestyle he feels he is owed. However, something isn’t right; the mansion makes strange noises, the cupboards are bare. Rich food, when he eats it, doesn’t agree with him, cigars make him choke. He’s plagued by nightmares, just-glimpsed figures and the feeling that he’s being stalked. Possibly by a man in an orange jacket…

Partly a twist on home-invasion horror, part old-fashioned ghost story, part politically conscious fable, The Man in the Orange Jacket is complex and unsettling. Bringing to mind The Shining and Jan Švankmajer in some places, The Woman in Black in others, it is not averse to getting properly nasty now and then. Divided into four acts, and largely dialogue free, it eludes simple explanation. Has the act of murder and greed in act one turned the man into his own enemy in the class war? Is he simply a horrible psychopath being tortured by the unquiet shades of his victims? How much of any of this is only happening within his head? Undoubtedly there is an emphasis on the emptiness of bourgeois desire, and on the corruptions of capital, especially in scenes where he treats two (apparently twin) prostitutes he has hired as a ‘rich man’ appallingly, showing his own capacity for exploitation.

Frankly, I’d be lying if I said I had a handle on exactly what was going on at every given moment. What I can say without much fear of contradiction is that the sound design is brilliant and that writer-director Aik Karapetian is a dab hand at evoking nameless menace and delivering brutal shocks. Approach with caution.

Mark Stafford

This review is part of our LFF 2014 coverage.

Cold in July

Cold in July
Cold in July

Format: Cinema

Release date: 27 June 2014

Distributor: Icon Film Distribution

Director: Jim Mickle

Writers: Nick Damici, Jim Mickle

Based on the novel by: Joe R. Lansdale

Cast: Michael C. Hall, Wyatt Russell, Sam Shepard, Don Johnson

USA 2014

99 mins

Set in the late 1980s, Cold in July starts with a masterfully directed scene, in which father and husband Richard Dane (Michael C. Hall) accidentally kills an intruder in his living room. Richard has the cops on his side and faces no charges, but soon enough the dead man’s father (Sam Shepard) comes to town seeking to avenge his son.

Although the film starts in straightforward fashion and director Jim Mickle demonstrates clear abilities in economic direction, it gradually becomes apparent that Cold in July is not your average thriller but a camp bomb primed to explode. From the cinematography and cheesy electronic music to Michael C. Hall’s ridiculous moustache, the movie cleverly undermines itself, and the audience is not sure whether they should invest in the story or burst into nervous laughter.

For a time, Jim Mickle walks the fine line between the two modes more or less successfully, but the narrative detours betray him and reveal the film’s true colours. Somewhere after the halfway mark, it becomes clear that Cold in July is more of an 80s Carpenter homage than a stand-alone film with a coherent plotline. What begins as a gripping psychological thriller develops into a buddy movie and ends with an absurd bloodbath. In the course of the story, Richard goes from being the clear protagonist to a mere helping hand in the final scenes, and it’s Sam Shepard who takes the reins as the narrative’s most important character. The plot’s various twists and turns feel forced and unreasonable, and so do the characters’ motives. The second act’s slow pace doesn’t help, and despite its strong start, Cold in July soon becomes boring. Sam Shepard and Don Johnson (playing a silly, Tarantinian cowboy/detective) do a decent job and seem to enjoy themselves when the movie slips into buddy-movie territory, while Michael C. Hall’s unsure performance mirrors the fact that his character doesn’t have a goal to pursue after the middle of the film.

Even at their most outlandish, the Carpenter movies that are such a strong influence on Cold in July retained gripping plotlines and clear protagonists. By denying us either, Mickle makes it very difficult to care about his film. The continuous shift in styles, protagonists and storylines becomes tiresome after a while; the audience has nothing to grab onto, and there isn’t much of an emotional or intellectual point being made by these constant changes, apart from the message that Mickle likes to stuff as many different influences and genres as possible into a single film.

Cold in July works pretty well as a goofy commentary on other films and genres and it’s funny enough to be an amusing, rather than an annoying, failure. Judged on its own, however, the film is slow-paced, uneven and shallow. The effort might have been admirable but the film is plainly forgettable.

Pavlos Sifakis

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Cheap Thrills

Cheap Thrills
Cheap Thrills

Format: Cinema

Release date: 6 June 2014

Distributor: Koch Media

Director: E. L. Katz

Writers: David Chirchirillo, Trent Haaga

Cast: Pat Healy, Ethan Embry, Sara Paxton, David Koechner

USA 2013

92 mins

Director E. L. Katz’s Cheap Thrills is an incredibly timely and unexpectedly thrilling dark comedy which goes to places that you never expect. An astute and wicked journey, it’s shot with a keen eye for the absurd and the grotesque.

The script by David Chirchirillo and Trent Haaga centres on a family man named Craig (Pat Healy putting in an exceptional performance). On the day Craig finds an eviction notice on his front door, and is determined to ask for a raise at work in order to cover his family’s costs, he finds himself made redundant. Desolate and desperate, he goes to a bar to have a drink as he can’t bring himself to face his wife and their newborn child. By luck, he runs into his old friend Vince (Ethan Embry on top form). They are soon approached by a strange couple who buys them a round of drinks – Colin and Violet who are out celebrating Violet’s birthday. Over an increasingly strange night, the two will put Craig and Vince through a series of dares that will test the friends’ desperate need for money with progressively odder challenges.

Fitting snugly within the current social climate, Cheap Thrills acts as both social commentary and black comedy without ever becoming preachy. The tight set-up allows Katz to pile on the tension as the evening keeps taking ever stranger turns, and because the characters are so well defined, he’s able to elicit responses from the audience that otherwise would not be possible.

The opposing characters of Craig and Vince create a tension throughout the night that undoubtedly plays with the moral expectations of the audience: while the two start off as fairly wide archetypes, the script throws in hints throughout the film to suggest that the moral core of these characters might not be what the audience expects. Craig’s role as a failed author is reminiscent of James Mason’s hidden personality in Bigger Than Life; the blame may be attributed to the experimental drugs his character is given, there is the cruel suggestion that all the drugs have done is release some subconscious personality traits. Vince, on the other hand, might start the film of as typical alpha male but grows at the film goes along, becoming much more interesting.

Although Sara Paxton’s Violet is largely silent throughout the movie, letting the fast-talking, charmer with a glint in his eye Colin (played by David Koechner) dominate, she still manages to bring a depth to the character which builds throughout. Through gestures, looks and lines delivered with sly knowing, it’s obvious that Violet is as involved and in control as Colin – never an unwilling participant or forced audience member but both manipulator and thrill-seeker.

The dares within the film work well – rather than being gross and grotesque for the sake of shocking the audience, each one fits within the frame of the story in pushing our duo further into weird moral territory. There is a moment in the second act on which hangs a very delicate balance and it’s to the credit of the four leads that this climax works rather than playing out as cheap and sleazy.
Perhaps the greatest pleasure of the evening comes from watching the tight, taut script handled with such expertise by Katz. What could have been a straight thriller or just a mumble-core drama straddles a razor sharp line between satire, black comedy and thriller building up to a climax and a final image that will be impossible for the audience to get out of their heads.

An incredible achievement, Cheap Thrills is the sort of film that makes you want to applaud as soon as it ends – filled with great lines, terrific acting and the sort of cheap thrills you never thought you’d see , it is a must for anyone with a penchant for the darker side of cinema.

Evrim Ersoy

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