Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Cherry Tree--David Keating (2015)

Sissy (Anna Walton) likes blood in David Keating's Cherry Tree (2015)
Wow.  Cherry Tree (2015) is a hot mess swimming in a mighty sea of WTF!  I give David Keating's new film props for provoking that description, as much I appreciate its absolute defiance of any attempts at logic, sense, or narrative structure.  Very little information was given about this film prior to its world premiere at the 2015 Fantasia Film Festival, and now I know why.  The audience all got a heads-up on what we were in for when the lovely Tony Timpone announced to the crowd that there MIGHT be a Q & A after the film, even though the director and writer/producer were present.  I got the sense that they were off to get hammered at the Irish Embassy, and honestly, heavy drinking might be required for this film.  No need for hallucinogens, though.  This film is a TRIP.

The film opens with some titles about a coven that existed in Orchard, Ireland, but then was destroyed by an overly ambitious witch named Eleanor Young, who got too friendly with the devil (also known as the Lord of the Underworld).  Oh, the coven got its power from the roots, and fruits of a cherry tree.  I so appreciated some of the CGI tree visuals, that I missed the date when all these events occurred.

Fast forward to present day, and Brian (Patrick Gibson) is giving a presentation on the very same witch in his folklore class, where Faith (Naomi Battrick) and her friend Amy (Elva Trill) giggle and make sexual innuendos.  They think he's cute.  I still missed the date, even though the film provided this exposition twice.  Maybe I was distracted by all the scenes of girls playing field hockey and running in slow motion--over, and over again.  Turns out Sissy Young (Anna Walton), who is obviously related to Eleanor Young, is the new field hockey coach, and she has her eye on Faith--for the senior team and much, much more.
Sissy wants to become "Queen of the Underworld"
Anna Walton is really great as Sissy Young.  She carries the film with just the right amount of nutso menace, and coneys a ton of charisma in just one of her brooding stares.  She takes her role as defacto coven leader and future "Queen of the Underworld" very seriously, and when sh** hits the fan over, and over, and over again, she somehow pulls it off.  She's miles beyond the milquetoast Faith, whose father is seriously ill, and decides to make a bargain for his life that she comes to regret.  I found it so hard to care for this bland, bland girl.

By far, the most horrifying aspect of this film are the familiars that Sissy uses to do her dirty work--giant venomous centipedes.  While I thought the bugs in Goodnight Mommy were beyond nasty, they were positively cute compared to these poisonous, burrowing creatures.  I didn't know that I had Chilopodophobia (fear of centipedes) before this film, so thanks for that.  The ICK factor in this film is through the roof, and I'm not even bringing up all the blood. This film has some really startling SFX scenes--possessed demon sex, bloody human sacrifices, the fastest gestation period ever, skinless coven members, and Sissy transformed into something so indescribable, you might just want to see the film in order to see her final form.  Unfortunately, though, you have to sit through countless shots of Faith in field hockey garb, walking, running, and playing in SLOW MOTION.  And the ending is just plain silly.
Super-cool poster though
After Tony suggested that the Q & A might not happen, when it actually DID, much of the theater was on its way out, and the rest of us were just kind of struck dumb by the whole thing.  The filmmakers didn't seem to take the Q & A seriously either, so things just kind of fizzled out.  I felt bad for the writer/producer Brendan McCarthy because he seemed pretty disappointed when I bumped into him outside the theater.  I think that one of the problems with the film was tone.  Emotional scenes were more hyperbolic than moving, so the film often came off as hysterical, and not intentionally so.  Sometimes a bat-sh** crazy film is fun because it rides the campy line.  Unfortunately, Cherry Tree doesn't fit into the "so bad it's good" category.  Nor the "so good it's good" one either.  Still, some of the visual moments really do stick with you.  And Anna Walton rocks.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Tales of Halloween--anthology film put together by Axelle Carolyn (2015)

Demented pumpkins are just a small sinister part of Tales of Halloween (2015)
While I love Halloween (Samhain), I enjoy its symbolism and rituals more than actually celebrating the holiday the way most Americans do: doling out candy, crafting kitschy spooks, dressing in sexy cat costumes.  Sometimes the holiday seems geared specifically for kids or adults suffering from severe arrested development.  Like everything else, Halloween has become over-commercialized.  I feel similarly about horror comedies in relation to horror films.  Horror comedies seem to be tailor-made for 14 year boys, or guys that are still psychologically that age.  A really good horror comedy like Gerard Johnstone's Housebound (2014) even has to resort to toilet humor.  Sigh.  So you can imagine that Tales of Halloween, the anthology film produced and co-directed by Axelle Carolyn (Soulmate) would not be my favorite film screened at Fantasia this year.  Nevertheless, the screening was quite fun, and the crowd was really, really into it.  In fact, the film had its World Premiere at Fantasia, and some of the directors in attendance had not even seen the complete film--so that was damn exciting. 

The film has some really great moments, on which I'll primarily focus.  First off, the horror microcosm in this L.A. suburb is divine.  The film makes clear that each and every event is going on in the same town on the same night, with characters intermingled throughout the different shorts and keeping to a consistent timeline.  The town in which the film's events take place makes perfect sense, even amidst all the craziness. Adrienne Barbeau's DJ character (an homage, among so many, to The Fog) holds everything together as she narrates over the shorts.  There's some gore, some spookiness, but primarily a lot of humor--and frequently that humor is both sly and smart.  All of the films are riddled with horror cameos from actors and directors alike (Lin Shaye, Barbara Crampton, Barry Bostwick, John Landis, Stuart Gordon, Mick Garris, Adam Green, and all the segment directors make notable appearances).
Axelle Carolyn's Grim Grinning Ghost was the most accomplished and atmospheric film of the bunch
One of the scariest pieces is Axelle Carolyn's Grim Grinning Ghost, which not only highlights smart, attractive female characters, but also is by far the most sophisticated and atmospheric of the shorts.  Carolyn places her main character in believable peril.  Lucy McKee's Ding Dong is a pretty sly mashup of Hansel and Gretel meets a melodrama about a sexy witch desperate to have a child, and the negative thoughts and desires that Halloween, a night rife with little kids, provokes. Adam Gierasch's Trick starts off with me thinking one thing (these kids are EVIL), and ends on another thought entirely (maybe these two couples deserved it).  While Mike Mendez's Friday the 31st is utterly over-the-top with too many cliches for my taste, his use of stop-motion animation to craft the most adorable alien elevates this short to a whole other level.  Both cute and ICK.  Finally, Neil Marshall's Bad Seed ties the whole universe together, and is a wonderful homage to Halloween 3, a tragically underrated film.
Tales of Halloween effectively captures the night's hijinks w/ teenage boy glee and mayhem
The rest of the shorts, well...as I said before, teenage boys, and those teenage boys trapped in the body of an adult, are going to LOVE this film.  The other shorts have enough gore (Sweet Tooth, Friday the 31st, Trick), teenage girls in very short skirts (Sweet Tooth, The Night Billy Raised Hell, Friday the 31st) and a heady mixture of teen and pre-teen boys as protagonists (Sweet Tooth, The Night Billy Raised Hell, The Weak and the Wicked).  The film has something to offer for every kind of horror fan.

During the Q & A after the film, Carolyn explained that the project really came about because they all hang out at each other's houses in L.A. and watch horror together (and often share holidays, like Thanksgiving).  My first thought was "I want to hang out with these people," and then my next was "where are all the women directors?"  Axelle Carolyn definitely is "one of the boys," but I wish she had wrangled more women to direct, because maybe then the film wouldn't be so testosterone heavy, and her husband, Neil Marshall, wouldn't make such bone-headed comments as "she's the best looking director here."  Really?  Who says that about male directors?  Isn't Darren Lynn Bousman pretty enough for you?? I'm pretty sure this film is going to be a hit, and I hope that Carolyn continues to make atmospheric films.  Another feature from her would be awesome.

Anguish--Sonny Mallhi (2015)

Tess (Ryan Simpkins) isn't sure it's safe to go home in Anguish--Sonny Mallhi (2015)
Mental Illness and Demon Possession have always been strange bedfellows--in horror films and throughout history.  Mentally ill people are often wrongly persecuted under the assumption that they are possessed by evil.  Unnecessary exorcisms ensue.  Throw in rampant sexism, and then women who do not behave appropriately (too sexy) are also deemed possessed.  Burn them at the stake--problem solved.  Rarely does a film that dabbles in spiritual possession do so with any sense of nuance or moral ambiguity.  Rather, the world is strongly rendered in moral contrast, and films that focus on spiritual possession obsess over the struggle between GOOD and EVIL at play in the film.  These films are often about punishing mothers for not being good enough (The Exorcist, The Conjuring), reiterating the scariness of female sexuality (The Exorcist, The Haunting of Hell House, The Last Exorcism), or focusing on a male character struggling with his faith in the face of EVIL (The Exorcist, Deliver Us From Evil).  Sonny Mallhi's Anguish (2015) is that rare film that gets the balance just right, exploring people struggling with mental illness while also suggesting that those "illnesses" may be a way of explaining what happens to people "gifted" with spiritual possession.  Anguish also explores these ideas through the sensitive representation of women characters--two pairs of mothers and daughters.  What this film accomplishes is really rather astounding, and frankly, pretty damn scary too!

The film opens on one mother/daughter pairing, Sarah (Karina Logue) and her daughter Lucy (Amberley Grimley).  The two are having a fairly typical conversation, with Lucy asking sullenly if she can go on a camping trip, and her mother saying "nope."  In a huff, Lucy decides to walk home rather than sharing space with her Mom, and as one sees in the trailer, things turn deadly.

Jumping forward to what seems like a mere few months later, another mother and daughter move to town, Jessica (Annika Marks) and her daughter Tess (Ryan Simpkins).  Tess's quiet withdrawal and darkness mirrors Lucy's brooding from before.  These teenage girls seem sad and mysterious, trapped in discomfort, misunderstood, and wrestling with their inner demons.  What becomes clear quickly is that Tess is "troubled," on medication, and struggling to get through each day.  Her new home does not help matters, as she seems to be especially sensitive to the bad vibes (or spirits) lingering around town.  She and her Mom both wear crosses, and visit the local Priest, Father Meyers.  Still, when sh** gets real, the church and religion do not seem to provide any clear or easy answers.  In fact, as my friend Andrew Mack, an Associate Editor at Twitch points out, men do not save the day in this film.  How refreshing.  The only way Jessica and Tess can find there way out is through the help of another mother and daughter--Sarah and Lucy.
Sarah (Karina Logue) and Jessica (Annika Marks) do their best to save Tess (Ryan Simpkins) from her Anguish
Mallhi is probably best known for producing films like The Strangers (2008) the Oldboy remake (2013), and last year's At the Devil's Door (2014).  Here he crafts some remarkable set-pieces and characters, creating a heady atmosphere of dread.  What Mallhi does beautifully is capture the misery of what it feels like to be a teenager while showing that parents, especially mothers, are not always the enemy. Not once are Jessica or Sarah shown in a negative light, even when they are acting like parents and telling their daughters what to do, or expressing their concern.  The daughters, like many teenagers, are pretty damn inscrutable at times.  Ryan Simpkins' Tess is a fascinating presence in the film, and Simpkins effectively conveys to the audience what it feels like to live in Tess's skin.  And wearing that skin is like wearing an itchy sweater.  Not comfortable. 

Another striking thing about this film is how ambiguously it frames the "afterlife"--or at least what happens after a particularly violent death.  To me, that part of the film was truly terrifying, and suggests that there is all this messed up stuff happening behind the veil between worlds.  Hints of this world could be parlayed into a sequel (I know, bite my tongue) in order to explore this realm further.  Yes, you know it's a good film when I'm actually requesting a sequel!  Likewise, the film ends on a slightly ambiguous note, leaving the film open to interpretation with some questions left unanswered.  This film's openness respects the audience's intelligence, and encourages repeat viewings.

Sonny Mallhi's Anguish (2015) was one of my most hotly anticipated films screening at the 2015 Fantasia Film Festival, and I was not disappointed.  Here's hoping that Mallhi makes another soon. I highly recommend this scary, thoughtful, and unsettling film.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Observance--Joseph Sims-Dennett (2015)

Tenneal (Stephanie King) does not realize that she's being watched in Observance--Joseph Sims-Dennett (2015)
Two amazing things frequently happen at the Fantasia Film Festival.  First, you often get to see the World Premieres of films--screening a film before any other audience has seen it.  And during those premieres, you get to meet the people behind the vision--directors, producers, cinematographers and other cast and crew.  With Joseph Sims-Dennett's Observance, I got to experience the best of all things.  Not only did the film premiere at Fantasia, but the director and producer were in attendance even in my little afternoon screening (since the big shindig was the previous night).  I feel pretty bad about kind of dissing this film in my summary from a couple of weeks ago.  I pigeon-holed the film as a voyeur gone bad, Dad needs dough, mourning his dead kid, kind of picture.  I'm not saying that those elements are not a part of the film.  They are.  Nevertheless, this film is so much more complex than my summary suggests.  I was confused and questioning for a great deal of the film, and I mean that in the best possible way.  Observance was a majorly wonderful surprise!
Parker's haunted grief over his son takes on an increasingly nightmarish tone
The film follows Parker (Lindsay Ferris), who returns to a work at a surveillance job far too soon after the tragic loss of his son in order to pay for some extremely steep medical bills (in the six digit range).  He receives his instructions from a voice on the phone (Brendan Cowell) and he's told to stay put, watch Tenneal (Stephanie King), and report on her actions at the end of every day.  Parker has some concerns regarding the ethics of watching Tenneal, fearing that something violent will occur and that he is meant to watch and "observe."  While the job is only supposed to be for a few days, Parker is asked to stay longer.  At that point though, strange things have started to occur, and Parker really, really is not feeling well.  Since the film is almost entirely from his perspective, spectators can create virtually no distance between themselves and the grieving Parker, and as for Parker, the line between what's happening, and what he thinks is happening, becomes increasingly hard to discern.
Has Tenneal come to ask Parker to "stop looking?"
Observance is definitely a slow burn until Parker starts to seriously unravel both physically and mentally.  The film raised so many intriguing questions for me, that I think I can list some of them without remotely spoiling the film.  Did I see something swimming in Parker's milk glass?  What is this mysterious institute where Tenneal works?  What is up with that bottle of ink in Parker's bedroom?  What exactly happens to him in the shower?  Why is this apartment such a broken down mess compared to Tenneal's cozy home?  What does Tenneal's boyfriend, Brett, have to do with any of these events, and how is he linked to his father's sordid past?  Why does he warn Parker, or does he?  And finally, who is exactly watching whom in this film??
Who Are They??
After hearing Joseph Sims-Dennett speak on this unique (and slighly confounding) film, I think he would be delighted that these questions are what the film provoked in me.  Sims-Dennett regaled the crowd with tales of his days making KFC ads (sounds bloody awful), and how he shot the film in 11 days in the midst of a horrible heat wave in Sydney in 2013.  It's incredible what he and his producer, Josh Zammit, accomplished with a tiny budget in such a small amount of time.  The film is frequently gorgeous, even at its most grungy moments.  The gore is actually pretty subtle, even though there are some good ICK moments in there. The score is not overpowering; in fact, Observance masterfully uses silence to ratchet up the dread.  And there were just enough moments where I asked myself, while viewing, "what am I seeing here?"  This film retains a level of ambiguity and mystery that I find very rewarding.  I was quite impressed by Observance, and I eagerly look forward to Sims-Dennett's next film.

Saturday, July 25, 2015

The Reflecting Skin--Philip Ridley (1990)

Childhood is just a series of nightmares in Philip Ridley's The Reflecting Skin (1990)
I think I'm running out of superlatives for all the "gorgeous," "beautiful," "stunning," and "visually breathtaking" films that I've seen at the 2015 Fantasia Film Festival, but Philip Ridley's The Reflecting Skin (1990), recently remastered, may be the most mind-blowingly dazzling film I've seen, or will see, at this festival--and it's 25 years old.  Having only seen the film on VHS and on a crummy DVD print, I knew that I loved the film, but had never really seen it as I should.  Well, as I said.  MIND BLOWN.  Concordia Hall was only half filled at the screening, and all I could think is that it should have been sold out.  But no, that privilege is reserved for stuff like Cop Car and Cooties. Whatever.  This film is fu**ing awesome, and I'm just irritated that more people have not discovered this film.
Seth (Jeremy Cooper) wanders through the wheat fields for most of the film
The film follows young Seth Pope (Jeremy Cooper) as a 9-year old struggling to grow up in the isolated Prairies of 1950's Idaho.  He is under the thumb of his violent and abusive mother, Ruth (Sheila Moore) and his timid, closeted queer father, Luke (Duncan Fraser).  Mrs. Dove hates her life, despises the reek of gasoline that permeates her husband's clothes and the curtains, and focuses all her love and energy on her son Cameron (Viggo Mortensen), who happens to be setting off nuclear weapons tests in the Pacific.  Unsurprisingly, she does not direct any of this longing affection toward her husband or other son.  Her rapacious frustration finds them easy targets for her rage.  The rest of the townsfolk seem equally ruled by a mix of religious dogma and disappointment.

Suspicious men arrive in their shiny black car
When a bunch of sinister young thugs drive up in a shiny black car to get gas from the Dove's pumps, things start to spiral downhill in an absolutely chilling fashion.  A suicide by immolation, the kidnapping and sexual interference of some local young boys,  a fossilized fetus, and some particularly sadistic law enforcement all add to the air of unfolding menace that creeps through the film.
The widow Dolphin Blue (Lindsay Duncan) is the victim of an exploding frog
Amidst all this strange and sudden drama, Seth must contend with his simultaneous fear and fascination of the widow who lives next door, Dolphin Blue (Lindsay Duncan).  While she's mostly the victim of Seth's unfortunate childhood pranks, he begins to believe (with the help of his father's pulp fiction) that Ms. Blue is actually a vampire, who drinks blood in order to stay young, hates sunlight, and may be feeding on the local youth.  Because the film is told explicitly through the eyes of an impressionable nine-year old boy, viewers can see the logic of some of his more hare-brained ideas.  Likewise, Seth's fear and despair are quite palpable--a testament to Cooper's performance and the film's powerfully intimate pull. 
Viggo Mortensen as returning veteran Cameron Pope
Once Cameron finally arrives home, and falls for the local widow, spectators are torn between wanting this couple to find some semblance of happiness in this bleak place, and identifying strongly with Seth's childish jealousies regarding his brother's affection and attention.  And if you're a Viggo Mortensen fan (The Lord of the Rings series), he is both understated and deeply sexy in this film.  The love scene between Cameron and the widow is very erotic, and surprise, he's the only one who gets fully undressed.  Alas, since Cam has been making snowballs from nuclear ash, he's losing weight, his hair, and has bleeding gums.  For Seth, all signs point to Dolphin's vampiric influence.
Cam and Seth against a bleak but beautiful backdrop
One's heart breaks for Seth at film's end.  He starts off as a bit of a little sh**, but we soon see how the world is stacked against him.  Once Seth finally gets to pour out his rage and despair (since he's eerily stoic throughout), spectators are right beside him, feeling every moment of his bottled up pain.  Thank you, Fantasia, for screening this remastered gem.  This film should be a well-regarded classic.  See it soon, see it often.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Goodnight Mommy--Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala (2014)

Mommy (Susanne Wuest) checks on her kids in Goodnight Mommy (2014)
Goodnight Mommy (2014) was everything I could hope for and more.  This film fits beautifully with the work I'm exploring on the topic of ambivalent mothers and "evil" children exemplified in films such as We Need to Talk about Kevin (2011) and The Babadook (2014).  The fact that the film is also co-directed by a woman makes it hit the sweet spot.  This film is both gorgeous and terrifying.  I cannot wait to watch it again.

Elias (Elias Schwarz) and Lukas (Lukas Schwarz) are hard to tell apart
The film opens with Elias and Lukas (Elias and Lukas Schwarz) galloping through some fields, exploring a cave, playing in a bog.  They're boys having fun in the great outdoors, and so what if their playground is so damn empty.  Nary a soul in sight.  Lukas seems to be the troublemaker of the two, constantly disappearing and running off.  Elias spends the majority of his time calling his brother's name.  For viewers, it's really hard to tell them apart. 

Mommy requires darkness, quiet, and rest, in order to recover
Soon enough, their Mommy (Susanne Wuest) comes home from a mysterious surgery.  She's wrapped in bandages, and it's clear that she's had some work done.  Whether this was elective surgery or not, she seems to have changed rather dramatically.  She's no longer sweet and sunny, singing them lullabies.  Instead, she demands the blinds drawn, quiet, and not to be disturbed.  For two rambunctious boys, those demands seem pretty impossible.  They start to grow suspicious.  Is this their mother, or some imposter?

Mommy is just not herself these days
The film's ambiguities are what truly make the film fascinating.  While most of the film's subjectivity is focalized through the twin boys, there are enough scenes where viewers get to spend time with Mommy to experience her point-of-view.  She gives off a palpable sadness, although it's not initially clear the cause.  Still, she's an incredibly enigmatic character, and the film's cinematography frames her as an otherworldy ghoul covered in bandages.  The filmmakers are clearly fans of George Franju's Les Yeux Sans Visage (1960), and that's a very good thing.

The things that kids get up to, with boxcutters and bugs
Now let's discuss those kids.  Holy Sh**.  This film rises to the top of my list of cautionary tales for would-be parents, right up there with the two films I mentioned previously.  I figured out some of the film's mysteries fairly early on, but knowing some twists makes the film more harrowing rather than less so, because the film allows us to identify with Mommy too, and things do not go well for her AT ALL.  For me, the first giveaway is that those twins keep a giant box of woodlouse and pillbugs next to their bed.  These bugs are beyond disgusting, and I'm sorry, but that's just not your average pet, even for smelly little boys.  Oh, and they are twins.  Twins are always bad news.

Mommy regards her own reflection
The film's settings, especially the contemporary house in which much of the action takes place, are really cool.  I was jealous of these lucky kids, even though the place seems pretty isolated.  That isolation becomes really important, especially in a scene where a couple of Red Cross volunteers come to ask for a donation.  Likewise, the simplest household objects become utterly menacing.  You will never think about super-glue the same way again.

What's disturbing about Goodnight Mommy is how much viewers are compelled to identify with those kids, and that identification turns into its own form of torture.  The film toys with childhood innocence, playing on cultural expectations of family.  These days, you're not a good mother unless you sacrifice everything for your children and you love every minute of it.  Any veering from that proper path seems to demand the most vicious of punishments.  Goodnight Mommy plays upon those feminine anxieties skillfully, illustrating the horrors that mothering demands in our contemporary world.  See this film as soon as you can, but brace yourself.  This film is the fuel of nightmares.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

We Are Still Here--Ted Geoghegan (2015)

Annie (Barbara Crampton) faces the darkness with a fist full of knives in Ted Geoghagen's We Are Still Here (2015)
One of the highlights of the Fantasia Film Festival is the guests that they bring in to talk about the films that the festival screens.  Believe me, festival audiences give filmmakers (and other cast and crew members) a raucous and enthusiastic welcome.  Director Ted Geoghagen and Cinematographer Karim Hussain have had a long collaborative relationship with Fantasia, so screening Geoghagen's feature debut was like coming home.

Speaking of home, the film opens on a snowy country road that leads toward a rather ominous looking house.  Anne and Paul Sacchetti (Barbara Crampton and Andrew Sensenig) are renting a house in the country, attempting to get over the recent death of their son, Billy, who died in a car crash.  As I was watching the film I thought--this landscape looks familiar.  Really familiar.  Turns out that Geoghagen and co. shot the film in Palmyra, NY, and I grew up in the adjoining little town, Newark.  Palmyra is a slightly strange place, especially with its unique history.  In fact, the Hill Cumorah Pageant is happening right about now, and that performance is really something...Also, the film is set in 1979, and the decor is really distinctive.  Back then my family's big home renovation project was turning the garage of our little ranch house into a BAR with orange shag carpeting and bean bag chairs.  That room is where the hi-fi rested.  Geoghagen gets the time period just right.

The late 70's were not so chic--the art direction in this film was spot on 1979
Anyway, shortly after their arrival, while Anne is unpacking, weird things start to happen, especially in the BASEMENT.  Within the film's first ten minutes, Anne investigates the basement two very nerve-wracking times, and the audience is informed very quickly that something's down there with her.  She, unsurprisingly, thinks it's Billy, and maybe it is.  And maybe not.

Soon, the neighbors, Dave (Monty Markham) and Kathleen, visit, and pretty much freak the Sachettis out with a story about the former home-owners, the Dagmars, with corpse selling, and death by fire.  Kathleen makes little noises throughout, and in the end sneaks a note to Paul stating "The house needs a family.  GET OUT!"  Nice people.  Anne does feel strange things in the house, but even she thinks that these neighbors are nutty.  Well, there's a lot more going on with the neighbors than even their slightly strange etiquette.  Think Wicker Man.

Anne decides to invite their friends May and Jacob to visit, and that's when things get really, really great, because they are hippie new age folks that do seances and stuff, and Jacob smokes a lot of pot.  And May is played by Lisa Marie and Jacob is the absolutely awesome Larry Fessenden.  Everything those two do in the film from here-on-out is MAGIC.  A seance w/ Jacob turns horribly awry, and a scene with him eating his own gag is truly, truly excellent.  You may ask, "Why is Jacob gagged?"  Why indeed.  That's just one of the film's delights.  Oh, and May and Jacob invite their son, Harry, and his girlfriend to visit too, because four victims is clearly not enough!  Harry checks out the basement too.

Jacob (Larry Fessenden) and May (Lisa Marie) think the Sachetti's new home has some bad vibes
The film is a delightful hybrid of haunted house film, with some possession hijinks, and evil villagers thrown in for good measure.  In the Q & A, Geoghagen stated that the film is a homage to Lucio Fulci, especially House by the Cemetery (1981), but the beauty of We Are Still Here is that it tells a story of its own--one with some familiar moments, but also with plenty of fresh surprises. 

What makes this film stand out as exceptional horror is its careful balancing of chilling atmosphere with gore.  That's where Karim Hussain's talents really come into play.  I'm not a fan of gore.  I know to some that would make me a lame-o horror fan.  Yet, my favorite television show right now is Hannibal (and Hussain shot a couple of those episodes).  That show is all about human parts arranged in aesthetically unique ways--it's damn gory, but very beautiful.  The blood spatter in We Are Still Here is plentiful, but it's also painterly.  So many beautiful framegrabs.  The film's compositions are really stunning, and Hussain has a wonderful visual sense.  Can you tell I'm crushing on him too?  I stood in line to talk to the filmmakers after the screening, and Crampton, Geoghagen, and the film's producer, Travis Stevens, were really nice and gracious.  Meeting Karim Hussain was the high point.  He was charming and friendly--I just like the ways in which he sees the world.

We Are Still Here is really, really good horror.  Geoghagen compared his film to Ti West's House of the Devil (2009), shot near my current home weirdly enough.  I really like West's film, but I think Geoghagen's is better.  Let's hope he gets to make another film soon.

The film's ending is pretty ambiguous, and even if there is some slight plot weirdness, Barbara Crampton's Anne is utterly convincing.  She's the soulful heart of a film that mixes good scares, pretty gore, and characters about whom you care.  I've always liked her in Re-animator (1985), but I'm a fan of her most recent work. She's great in Rob Zombie's Lords of Salem (2012), but We Are Still Here really allows her to show her range.  I'm really dying to see Sun Choke (2015) where she also has received rave reviews.  She's also in Tales of Halloween which I will see in just a few days!  Crampton seems to be getting some of her best roles yet, and I'm just delighted that genre filmmakers can appreciate the work of this gorgeous, talented woman.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Extinction--Miguel Angel Vivas (2015)

A "cool" set-piece from Miguel Angel Vivas's film Extinction (2015)
Urrgh.  I get so irritated when the trailer of the film is better than the film itself.  Unfortunately, Miguel Angel Vivas' Extinction (2015) disappoints, big time. Even the post-apocalyptic frozen landscape and fast snow zombies couldn't save the hamstrung emotional relationships that serve as a rubbery backbone to this overwrought, unoriginal film.  Vivas' last film, Kidnapped (2010) was relentlessly bleak and also pretty derivative (Haneke's Funny Games (1997 and 2007), but still had flair in its Home Invasion stylings.  If you're looking for some global-warming-gone-wrong snow apocalypse, I highly recommend Joon-ho Bong's Snowpiercer (2013) instead.

Still, the Fantasia crowd was super-enthusiastic for the film's World Premiere, especially when the organizers announced the screening's special guest, child actress Quinn McColgan who plays the young Lu, the heart of the film's emotional center.  All of twelve now, she came up to the stage poised and excited, ready to watch the film on the big screen for the first time.  She revved everyone up, and the hoots and cheers were thundering.  Quinn deserves a better movie, as did the Fantasia crowd.

The film opens in a frozen environment, with a bunch of survivors bundled onto a school bus as two lonely buses try to make it through some military checkpoint.  The town is under martial law and the passengers are being held by gunpoint.  On this bus is Patrick (Matthew Fox--that guy from Lost) and Jack (Jeffrey Donovan--that guy from Burn Notice), and they seem to both be bent on protecting a pregnant Emma (Valeria Vereau), because a good zombie apocalypse is nothing without either a pregnant woman, infant, or child-in-peril.  Yeah, already I'm annoyed.  After an almost comical series of military blunders as the bus in front of them suddenly stops ("Alpha one do you read? "Static" "Alpha one?  I'm going to go out there to check it out, close the doors behind me." RINSE AND REPEAT 3 times), the zombies get on the bus, Emma's bitten, and the film flashes forward to 9 years later.
Jack (Jeffrey Donovan) and Lu (Quinn McColgan) leave a meager, listless "life"
Jack and Lu have been holed up in a house for the last nine years, where Jack home-schools Lu on basic mathematics and geography, and never lets her leave the house.  She's understandable pretty bored, especially when Jack insists that the monsters are all gone, having frozen to death.  She's also pretty fascinated with the guy next door, a grizzled drunken mountain man of a dude with his cute dog, who unsurprisingly turns out to be Patrick.  A high barbed-wire fence separates the two houses, and it's clear that divide has something to do with Emma from years ago.  Turns out that Jack holds an incredibly pissy grudge; even if there's a zombie apocalypse and his kid doesn't even remember meat, he's not gonna speak to the guy who regularly hunts meat next door.  Patrick alternately drowns himself in booze and tries to communicate through a ham radio to the outside world.

Patrick (Matthew Fox) gets snuggly with a zombie
Jack rigidly maintains this enforced division between the neighbors until Patrick comes back from town with a zombie in tow.  He seems to get bitten, and it looks like curtains for the neighbor, but somehow the monsters are no longer contagious, so there's that.  The kid ends up repeatedly in danger because she never stays put when she's told to, and the two quarreling boys have to band together to keep her alive.  The film's narrative is almost entirely constructed by a series of dumb ideas or choices and an overworked melodramatic narrative that is telegraphed by extremely annoying orchestral cues.  You could figure out exactly where this film is going with your eyes closed.
A pregnant woman (Clara Lago) shows up to complicate things further
Because it's hard to care about anyone but Lu (and only because she's cute and we are required to), Vivas ups the stakes by bringing a pregnant woman back into the narrative--a different one.  I'm not kidding.  I wish I was.  She does not even get a name.  But for that little detail, this film would probably pass the Bechdel Test, although the only time that the two women communicate is when the woman is braiding Lu's hair.  Ugh.  At least the pregnant lady knows how to use a gun, and she helps defend the house with the inevitable zombie siege goes down.

Extinction isn't terrible.  There are a couple moments of levity that make the film quite engaging, and those scenes center on Quinn McColgan's gritty and endearing performance as Lu.  Scenes where Lu learns to shoot a gun, and where the neighbors discuss the population of China over dinner, stand out as film highlights.  The film has some very satisfying kills as well, and the zombies slurpy ear orifices create just the right amount of ICK. 

Matthew Fox actually does a better than average job as Patrick, but Jeffrey Donovan as Jack?  Dude, what happened?  He's so great in Joey Lauren Adams' Come Early Morning (2006), but in Extinction he's a histrionic, whiny, pathetic jerk whom I wanted to die through the entire damn thing.  Not a good sign.  Better stick to TV.  Wait for this film to play repeatedly on either the SyFy channel or FX in the next 5 years.  And give Quinn McColgan a part that she can really take a bite out of ;)

Bridgend--Jeppe Ronde (2015)

Jamie (Josh O'Connor) and Sara (Hannah Murray) share an intimate moment in Bridgend (2015)

I find it hard to describe the elegiac beauty and the narrative frustrations intertwined within Danish director Jeppe Ronde's first narrative feature Bridgend (2015).  Based on over 80 incidents of suicide by hanging that occurred from 2007-present in Bridgend, Wales, mostly by kids aged 13-19, the film's links to actuality can be a little bit distracting, what with investigative articles and conspiracy theories circulating, including a documentary on the topic directed by John Michael Williams in 2013.  Here's some material if you feel like falling down that particular rabbit hole.  This narrative feature is much more ambiguous and nuanced than any "factual" exploration of these events.

Sara (Hannah Murray--Gilly on GOT) and her father, Dave, (Steven Waddington) have returned to Bridgend from Bristol after the (unexplained) death of Sara's mother.  The two hope to start fresh in their former home, but the film also implies that Dave, a copper, has returned to help investigate the string of recent suicides that have been plaguing the young people of the area.  Each kid dies by hanging, and does so in a way that they are very deliberately found by their parents.  Is there something in the water in Bridgend that's making all the kids so miserable, or is the parenting just really terrible?  Thankfully, the film does not provide any easy answers.

Plenty of Toxic Masculinity on display in Bridgend
I have not been a teenager for quite some time.  I do not happen to have any teenagers (or kids for that matter) either.  But I teach a revolving door of teenagers for a living, and those kids certainly struggle--Bridgend, Wales has not cornered the market on teenage misery.  So part of my frustration with this film is that these kids just do not seem to have it that tough.  Yes, some of their friends have ended their lives, and that's a really hard situation to face.  And yes, some of their parents could have done better (as many parents could).  At the same time, Sara's Dad and Jamie's Dad, the local vicar (Adrian Rawlins), seem to be doing their very best and reaching out to their kids while still trying to maintain some sense of order.  Frankly, these kids are pretty OUT OF CONTROL.  Drinking like crazy, beating on each other, screaming constantly, vandalizing property, sexually assaulting each other.  Even Sara's sneaking out her bedroom window at night to hang out with a teen who gets off on strangling her.  Then she plays chicken with a train.  I frequently show Catherine Hardwicke's Thirteen as a great example of kids out of control, but this film gives that one some competition.  After a while, the kids just started getting on my nerves, and I wanted them to shut the hell up.  Not a good sign for a film that's really trying to foster sympathy for them.

Jamie and Sara riding home on his scooter w/their eyes closed
Nevertheless, this film is gorgeous.  I get crushes on DPs/Cinematographers who visually make me viscerally experience a film's setting.  Yes, in many ways the director is the vision behind a film, but the cinematographer makes that vision tangible.  This film introduced me to Magnus Nordenhof Jonck, a cinematographer capable of investing every frame with both beauty and dread.  From sweeping views of the Welsh woods, to dappled light touching on a sea of naked teenage bodies, the visual poetry of Bridgend elevates this story beyond its often frustrating narrative.  Even the film's most gritty and disturbing images, such as the film's opening where a camera follows a dog bouncing through the woods until it encounters one of the town suicides, are infused with a sense of majesty.  Likewise, the teenagers are drawn to a nearby lake, where their silent, floating bodies allude to children at peace, and the waxy, white stillness of a sea of corpses.

A sea of bodies in the lake, both beautiful and uncanny
Bridgend raises more questions than it answers, but it rewards viewers who have the patience and intellectual curiosity to formulate their own interpretations about what is happening in this Welsh town.  I found that the film was so stunning to watch that its visual beauty counterbalanced some of its more annoying narrative twists and turns.  Definitely worth a look.

Monday, July 20, 2015

Therapy for a Vampire--David Ruhm (2014)

Freud (Karl Fischer) analyzes Count Geza von Kosznom (Tobias Moretti) in David Ruhm's Therapy for a Vampire (2014)
Okay, it's official.  I just do not like horror comedies.  So many of them are just plain sexist, and women are often the brunt of the joke.  This film is not that offensive, but it's not that memorable either.  David Ruhm's Therapy for a Vampire is an amusing little film that brings out the occasional chuckle, but it's really just a trifle.  A little bite-sized concoction that is momentarily delicious, but then rather forgettable and not very satisfying.  White chocolate instead of some 80% dark chocolate (Fair Trade) from Madagascar.  Okay, I clearly need some chocolate in order to write this review...

The best thing about this film is Freud, who happens to be hanging around a vastly underpopulated Vienna in the 1930s.  I'm not going to go into the fact that real Freud is way older than this character by this point, etc., etc.  It's Freud (Karl Fischer), and he's just some schmoe instead of a world famous psychoanalyst, and he just happens to be a therapist to Count Geza von Kosznom (Tobias Moretti).  The Count is bored and sick of immortality, mostly because he hates his wife, the lovely Countess Elsa (Jeannette Hain) and all he can think of is killing her.  Elsa's not too happy either.  She can sense that the Count is not really interested in her, and over hundreds of years has become more and more insecure because she cannot see herself in any mirrors (of course), and thinks she's not beautiful enough for the Count.  By the way, she's completely, utterly gorgeous, and I wanted to own all her fabulous costumes.  To turn this elegant woman into an insecure nag is just unjust.

The Count is also pining away for his one true love, Nadila, a woman he lost in the past (a villagers-with-torches tragic scenario).  Coincidentally (or not), she happens to look just like the girlfriend of Viktor (Dominic Oley), a struggling artist hired by Freud to illustrate Freud's dreams.  Every woman that Viktor happens to paint or draw looks like Lucy (Cornelia Ivancan), but an idealized version of her--a blond, elegant, sensual sophisticate rather than her smart, spunky brunette self.  Lucy, following up on the "women are insecure" theme in this film, transforms herself into the slinky blonde of Viktor's dreams, and catches the eye of the Count, who now sees his reincarnated lost love.

Countess Elsa (Jeannette Hain) gets Victor (Dominic Oley) to paint her portrait
The Count decides to take care of two problems at once.  In order to steal Lucy away from Viktor, he convinces his wife that the painter has a special technique that will be able to capture her beauty on canvas.  While Elsa is busy with Viktor, the Count tries to seduce Lucy.  Hijinks ensue.

Countess Elsa attacking Lucy for stealing her man.  Eye roll and yawn.
So, in this film we have two women who struggle to gain the attention of the men in their lives, are obsessed about their appearance (because of said men), and the men see them as nagging wives or girlfriends who they actively manipulate and/or successfully get to change.  Nice.  And so hilarious!!

As I said before, the interactions with Freud were the only moments that I found really rather funny, and that's because of all the sly asides to Freud's writings (Totem and Taboo, The Wolfman, The Interpretation of Dreams).  Likewise, the Count's "Renfield" character, Ignaz (Anatole Taubman) steals quite a few scenes away from the key players as he bumbles around and messes thing up.  I was pretty disappointed by this film, but I should have known better.  After all, Sigmund Freud referred to femininity as the "dark continent"; it looks like this film is pretty clueless about women as well.

Nicholas Grimshaw (Jason Flemyng) confronts a curse from the past in Kevin McTurk's The Mill at Calder's End (2015)
In fine Fantasia form, the short screened before Therapy, Kevin McTurk's The Mill at Calder's End (2015) is a really fantastic and beautifully-made puppet film.  Created through a successful Kickstarter campaign, this powerful little short follows Nicholas Grimshaw (Jason Flemyng) as he tries to end a curse that has plagued every male Grimshaw, and may come for his newborn son as well.
The Inimitable Barbara Steele voices the Apparition at the Mill--looks just like her!
The puppets are incredible and really lend to the Uncanny and unsettling atmosphere that permeates this film.  The lighting and soundtrack truly enhance the film's tangible dread, and the puppets' emotional realism is conveyed through sophisticated expressionistic lighting. In a casting coup, the apparition that haunts all these male Grimshaws (and other men that fall into her "web") is played by Barbara Steele, looking like she just made a side trip out of Mario Bava's Black Sunday (1960).  McTurk has made a really cool making of documentary in case you're interested, and hopefully the film will be widely available once it rakes in the awards on the festival circuit.  It's a truly unique and wonderful film.

Catch Me Daddy--Daniel Wolfe (2014)

Dreamy-eyed Laila (Sameena Jabeen Ahmed) in Catch Me Daddy--Daniel Wolfe (2014)
I have a very short list of films that have left me breathless upon first screening them, often rendering me speechless and too stunned to move in the face of the film's beauty and power.  Daniel and Matthew Wolfe deliver such an experience with Catch Me Daddy (2014), and it is certainly one of the most riveting films I've seen this year.  Robbie Ryan's cinematography is so startlingly lovely, I could watch it as a silent film--although that would be a disservice to a film that so loves Patti Smith and channels her heartbreaking, rebellious spirit.

Aaron (Connor McCarron) and  Laila are on the run
Some of the film's tropes are familiar, but they are still explored in a unique manner.  Laila (Sameena Jabeen Ahmed) and Aaron (Connor McCarron) are a young couple in love and on the run, at odds with their respective families.  Laila works in a hair salon by day, conveniently forgetting her papers when asked for them by her co-worker.  Aaron seems to be cooking drugs while ostensibly "looking for work."  They rendezvous in the evening in their tiny caravan on the Yorkshire moors, where the flickering colors of glowing butterfly lights illuminate their modest little home.  Here they can be themselves, far away from the people from which they hide.  Or so they believe.

Tony (Gary Lewis) conveys equal parts menace and despair
The couple are being hunted by two very different sets of thugs.  First, we meet two white British blokes who give off a significant degree of menace.  The film introduces us to Tony (Gary Lewis) as he snorts some drugs off a CD case.  He proceeds to do this in every bathroom he encounters.  He's soon joined by Barry (Barry Nunney), who's kind of a dipsh** but still plenty threatening.  These two guys do not say much, and that cold silence, especially emanating off of Tony, gives viewers a hint of the coiled violence lurking within them, waiting to erupt for the right payday.  I surmised that they are after Aaron for some drug-related shenanigans.

Bilal (Adrian Hussain) is a sweet daddy when he isn't bounty hunting
The other gang of thugs are sent by Laila's father, Tariq (Wasim Zakir), to track down Laila, and bring her back to the fold after the shame she has brought on her Pakistani family.  Bilal (Adrian Hussain) is joined by Junaid (Anwar Hussain), Shoby (Shoby Kaman), and Laila's brother, Zaheer (Ali Ahmad).  The fact that they carry plastic sheeting in the back of their SUV suggests that their intentions are far from peaceful.  This group teams up with the British blokes to hunt the couple down.  The film maintains a quiet ominousness throughout as the hunting parties just narrowly miss the couple, their car headlights cutting through the majestic moors with deadly purpose.  Unfortunately, Laila and Aaron cannot outrun their pursuers forever, and the film's climax will haunt you long after the film ends.

Laila's no longer her father's "Chum Chum" (a Pakistani dessert)
What gives Catch Me Daddy its power, beyond the film's breathtaking cinematography and nuanced performances, is the way in which it humanizes the bad guys.  While viewers are largely rooting for Laila, both Tony and Bilal are shown softer, more humane sides.  The fact that both of these men can be loving fathers toward their daughters while participating in the violent persecution of another young woman adds to the film's moral tensions.  Even Tariq, the film's clearest villain, is a man layered with emotional complexities.  The spectre of the contemptuous practice of honor killing haunts the film's every moment, and creates a building horror that permeates the film like a slow-acting poison--one that reveals the monster inside all of these "loving" patriarchs.  The film beautifully tells an horrifying story.  I found Catch Me Daddy absolutely heartbreaking.  See it as soon as possible.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

The Hallow--Corin Hardy (2015)

Things lurk just beyond the door in The Hallow--Corin Hardy (2015)
Seeing a film in Concordia Hall at the Fantasia Film Festival is always an experience.  I got to the theater at 8:15pm for a 9:35pm showing, and there were still a significant number of people ahead of me.  After my ticket was taken, I rushed into the theater to find it already packed with VIPs, but I still got a pretty sweet seat.  The hall is so full of activity, voices raised in excitement and anticipation, it always reminds me, just a little bit, that I'm there on my own, notebook in hand.  Still, people are so damn welcoming, I always meet the coolest viewers.  A shout out to Daniel, one of the organizers at the festival, for letting me take a seat next to him, and immediately making me feel not so alone.  Once the lights go down and the meowing stops, screening films with such an enthusiastic crowd really is a treat.

As I mentioned in my earlier post about the films that I planned to see at Fantasia, The Hallow has a rich, fairytale quality, greatly impacted by the lush foliage of the Northern Irish woods.  And it has a baby-in-peril which is a really boring cliche to me, but I'll get to that.  The film immediately places the fight over natural resources into context as a couple head off into the woods while a radio broadcast debating the plundering of Ireland's forests is overheard on the soundtrack.  Adam Hitchens (Joseph Mawle--most recently in the Wachowski's Sense 8) has been hired to check out the quality of the trees that are going to be stripped and sold.  He's not happy about the reasons he's been sent out there, but it's his job, and somebody's got to do it.  He brings along his wife, Claire (Bojana Novakovic) and their newborn, Finn, to fulfill that "in peril" requirement.  Oh and a dog, too.  Unsurprisingly, the locals are not too happy about this "rape of the forest" and warn them with a great deal of drama that this place isn't London, and here, "things go bump in the night."  The most vehement neighbor is Roose Bolton...oops, I mean Colm Donnelly (Michael McElhatton).  I don't know if this actor will ever be able to get a sympathetic role again.  He plays a sh** here too, but one whose young daughter entered the woods and disappeared.  He warns the couple that bad things are going to happen to them, and he sure is right about that.

Adam plays with fire against the beasties
One of the things that drives me crazy about some horror movies is when characters do really, really dumb things that telegraph their stupidity from minute one.  I understand that Adam is going to bring his whole family along on this job, but you've got a newborn, dammit.  Things like medical help, working technology, and useful transportation are going to be prioritized.  The film does suggest that for all Adam's savvy about trees, and mold, and parasites, he's just a city boy on a "camping trip" and doesn't know what it's really like to be in nature.  When Adam and Claire aren't tromping around obliviously, they are ignoring all their neighbors' advice, even when a window gets broken and there seems to be suspicious slime everywhere.  Thankfully, they get clued in pretty quick when the action starts speeding up and the "demons" make their first appearance about mid-way through the film.  The demons are really, really ugly, animal-like predators, and yet they seem to be really smart as well--either that or singularly bent on the goal of stealing THEIR BABY, because scary fairies and changelings.  With this film, it's best to not spend too much time on logic; the plot is full of holes.

Claire tries to save Finn, a baby who will definitely need therapy if he survives
The strongest part of the film is the gorgeous Irish landscape providing an atmosphere reeking with dread.  Everything looks so pretty during the day, but the woods are also constantly filled with dark, sinister shadows.  The Yuck factor is incredibly potent and engaging as the black slime that seems to have infected the forest seeps into the house, and turns into sharp sentient talons that attack the protagonists.  A couple moments of "eye horror" were really intense (just saying).  The reasoning behind the attack is a little spotty, but I really appreciated the environmental message in the film, and one should stick around through the end credits to see how pointed Hardy makes that critique.  Adam's transformation from city-slicker know-it-all to something quite "different" feels a little stretched, and his surviving "humanity" seems really hard to believe in the film's final moments, especially as he's set up as pretty unreliable from the beginning.  Of course, Claire will do anything to save her baby, and that narrative is just so tired to me.  I really wanted the baby to become a little bundle of pure, powerful evil, but alas, that's a different film, I suppose.  Stay for the film's setting and sly message; slog through the horror cliches.

The short film Fantasia chose to screen with The Hallow, Colum Eastwood's The Morrigan (2015) was a perfect match, and, I liked it better than the feature for its elegance and forcefully concise storytelling.  A couple escape to a little house by the ocean for some intimate time (the film implies that the man is married to another woman) when a young girl shows up unconscious outside of their bungalow.  They help her and contact the local police.  When the locals show up, the innocent girl turns out to be not so innocent.  The Morrigan is a war goddess from Irish mythology--not really applicable here but for the folkloric elements.  Still, it accompanies, and perhaps outshines The Hallow, beautifully.  Both films capture the haunting quality of the Irish woods with style.