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Entries in Haunted house (4)

Sunday
Oct182015

CRIMSON PEAK

Stars: Mia Wasikowska, Tom Hiddleston, Jessica Chastain, Charlie Hunnam, Jim Beaver and Leslie Hope.
Writers: Guillermo del Toro and Matthew Robbins.
Director: Guillermo del Toro.

Rating: 2.5/5

Genre god Guillermo del Toro’s grand but grating gothic melodrama Crimson Peak is rich in indulgent style but as prone to inconsequential substance as the ghoulish spectres that sporadically manifest.

Such a shortcoming need not be the death knell for a supernatural thriller; plenty have favoured good time frights over thematic complexity. But having established a turn-of-the-century heroine in Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska), whose ambition to write smart horror posits her as a gender pioneer, the revered horror auteur bends to suit his favourite old-school tropes, reducing her to a shrieky ‘final-girl’ stereotype at best. At worst, she becomes a mere redemptive tool for Tom Hiddleston’s milquetoast fancy-lad, Thomas Sharpe. It is this lack of narrative ambition that reduces Crimson Peak to an uninvolving nod to horror's 'golden era', instead of the vibrant, modern retelling it could have been.

The film’s creepiest moment happens in the opening minutes, when the ghastly visage of a young Edith’s recently deceased mother returns to forewarn, “Beware of Crimson Peak”; why the maternal spirit (played del Toro regular, legendary movement artist Doug Jones) would take such a terrifying form to revisit her little girl is the first of many logical incongruities that curse the film. We next meet Edith as the well-to-do but independent young woman struggling to break free of her kindly, capitalist father, Carter (Jim Beaver), hawking her first manuscript but butting heads with chauvinist traditionalists.

Her dashing knight arrives in the form of Hiddleston’s entrepreneur who, having failed to secure Cushing’s financing, woos Edith in the wake of a family tragedy and whisks her away to his crumbling English estate, Allerdale Hall. Here, under the snarly glare of his nefarious sister Lucille Sharpe (Jessica Chastain, chewing what’s left of the decrepit home’s scenery), Edith uncovers dealings that reveal The Sharpe’s sinister past and their plans for her alarmingly truncated future.

Scripting with the usually reliable Matthew Robbins, a longtime collaborator (Mimic, 1997; Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, 2010) and industry veteran (The Sugarland Express, 1974; *batteries not included, 1987), Del Toro structures a plot of gossamer flimsiness, clearly designed as a nod to the Giallo genre and Hammer oeuvre (note the protagonist’s surname) but barely able to inject any sense of dread into the labourious proceedings. Save the aforementioned apparition and two moments of ‘that’s more like it!’ ultra-violence, the 119-minute running time proves to be the Mexican director’s cruellest indulgence.

Del Toro the writer entirely cedes this production to del Toro the conceptual artist. From the muddy streets and mansions of Buffalo, New York, to the multi-tiered, majestic ruin that is Allerdale, del Toro’s vision is brought beautifully to life by art director Brandt Gordon (Total Recall, 2012; the soon-to-be-released Suicide Squad) and two-time Oscar-nominated production designer Thomas E Sanders (Bram Stoker’s Dracula, 1993; Saving Private Ryan, 1999). When the overripe dialogue and stodgy pace prove tiresome, there is always a great deal of artistic detail upon which the eyes can feast.

The ghostly matriarch’s foretelling comes to pass (to no one’s surprise, rest assured) when it is revealed that the locals often refer to Allerdale Hall as ‘Crimson Peak’, after the blood red clay upon which the estate is built. As winter falls and the soil swells with moisture, the grounds turn a corpulent scarlet. So, it’s just mud, that looks gory, but is not at all gruesome or sinister or even very interesting. Such a bloodless, messy foundation seems particular fitting.

It was a similarly vast but vacuous vision that left so many ambivalent towards his last effort, Pacific Rim. The director, whose one true masterpiece Pan’s Labyrinth is nearly a decade old, may find himself teetering on the edge of irrelevance in the wake of his latest.

Wednesday
Sep032014

HOUSEBOUND

Stars: Morgana O’Reilly, Rima Te Wiata, Glen-Paul Waru, Cameron Rhodes, Millen Baird, Ross Harper and Wallis Chapman.
Writer/Director: Gerard Johnstone

Screens as the Opening Night film of the 2014 Sydney Underground Film Festival on Thursday, September 4.

Rating: 4/5

That moment of indescribable horror when you realise that your only option in life is to move back in with your parents proves a grand premise for Gerard Johnstone’s debut outing, Housebound. Exhibiting a bold visual style and a natural flair for funny, character-driven dialogue, the New Zealander has delivered a giggly, gory romp that both honours and enhances his native film industry’s love of the macabre. In tandem with Taiki Waititi’s vampire comedy What We Do In The Shadows, 2014 has proven to be a banner year for the New Zealand sector and its grasp of what constitutes marketable, fresh content (take note, Screen Australia).  

Miserably failing as a petty criminal, angry young woman Kylie (a terrific Morgana O’Reilly) is ‘sentenced’ to eight months in an ankle bracelet under the care of her upright and old-fashioned mum, Miriam (comic great Rima Te Wiata). The dark and dusty family home, its countryside setting ensuring Kylie has nowhere to run, seems cursed by unexplainable phenomena stemming from its past as a refuge for wayward teens. When things start to go bump in the night, Kylie reluctantly teams with self-proclaimed ‘ghostbuster’ Amos (Glen-Paul Waru) to unravel decades of small-town secrets and lies.

Years as one of the creative forces on the hit Kiwi sitcom The Jaquie Brown Diaries has served Johnstone’s comedy timing well; he establishes key characters with a swift, confident series of broad brush strokes that are funny and insightful. Less assured is the film’s central second act, when an extended sequence between Amos and a creepy neighbour provides little pay-off and Rima Te Wiata’s comic presence as Miriam disappears for far too long.

All shortcomings are forgiven when the frantic third act kicks into gear, with every energetic blast of increasingly off-kilter exposition scaling giddy heights in gleeful terror and icky comedy. The nerve-shredding creepiness of the first act is largely jettisoned by the film’s denouement, which utilises some well-timed tech wizardry to transport the audiences into every nook and cranny of the grand mansion. The frantic final moments also serve to cover up some gaping holes in logic and realism (the interior of the home starts to take on Tardis-like qualities, for example), but Johnstone has earned so much audience goodwill that such concerns barely register.

Comparisons to countryman Peter Jackson’s early works Bad Taste and Braindead are inevitable, given the high-energy inventiveness and consummate technical skill displayed by the first-timers. But Johnstone’s film is a far more polished undertaking, which also benefits from not relying upon the kind of one-joke local flavour that proved the undoing of Jonathan King’s Black Sheep. More accurate comparisons include such off-shore efforts as Steve Miner’s 1986 cult item House (the artwork for Housebound’s one-sheet echoes that film’s poster font), Tony Williams 1982 gothic-horror Ozploitation favourite, Next of Kin, and Barry Sonnenfeld’s Addams Family films.

Wednesday
May142014

SXTAPE

Stars: Caitlin Folley, Ian Duncan, Diana Garcia, Daniel Farado, Julie Marcus and Eric Neil Guiterrez.
Writer: Eric Reese.
Director: Bernard Rose.

Rating: 3/5

Although the ‘shakie-cam’ found-footage horror genre prides itself on a style-less aesthetic, the craftsmanship of a director with highly-regarded credentials is plainly evident in Bernard Rose’s LA-set haunted-hospital shocker, sxtape. This latest addition to the Brit’s eclectic career is as far from his period dramas (Immortal Beloved; Anna Karenina; The Kreutzer Sonata) as any film could be, but is steeped in the gritty, grimy minutiae of urban decay and chillingly well-defined supernatural components that made his breakout hit Candyman an enduring cult favourite.

Like the 1992 film that introduced horror fans to Tony Todd’s iconic ‘Man in the Mirror’ boogeyman, Rose finds old-school scares in the heart of the modern metropolis. Back then, it was the Chicago projects; this time around, it is in an abandoned sanitarium in the wilds of inner-city Los Angeles. A vibrant blonde artist named Jill (Caitlin Folley) is being followed about town by her horny new beau, Adam (the barely-glimpsed Ian Duncan), who is recording her as she prepares to launch her first exhibit. Sweet time together fills most of the film’s first act, which bounces from boho-loft bonking to playful public giggles and back again; Rose’s film takes a broadminded approach to energetic and frank lovemaking that will attract tough censor attention in some territories.

Adam surprises Jill by taking her to a dingy old mansion to get her thoughts on the place as a gallery space. He surprises her further when, as some kind of bad joke, he straps her to a guerney and briefly leaves her briefly; this allows for the film’s first big scare and the beginning of Jill and Adam’s descent into the vengeful spiritual memory of the building. The plotting comparisons to The Shining grow increasingly apparent (Rose references the ‘naked hottie/old hag’ mirror moment from Kubrick’s film at one point), though it is hardly the first to do so and ultimately carves out its own satisfying narrative path.

Just as fellow veteran Barry Levinson showed on his criminally-underseen handheld horror work The Bay, the format can reinvigorate a director who has spent a career grinding through the traditionally cumbersome production process. Rose held his own camera and cut his own footage on sxtape and the confidence of an old-pro given free reign comes through in every well-timed scare. He has major assets in leading lady Folley, whose all-or-nothing performance goes from darling free-spirit to bloody, shrieking banshee, and production designer Bradd Fillmann, whose vision of a hellish hospital landscape is clearly influenced by those first-person horror games that I refuse to play because they terrify me.

sxtape never fully overcomes the inherent problems that dog the found-footage film - why don’t they just leave? why would they keep filming? why doesn’t the camera battery run out? who adds the post-production elements? The film has its own unanswered conundrums, such as who would still  be running power to the clearly derelict building, although the biggest logical misstep in Eric Reese’s script comes in the form of a prologue in which a cop questions a bloody and distressed Jill; if she is seen to have survived and the fate of her companions is in no doubt, who finds and watches the footage?

Fortunately, Rose and his team generate enough goodwill with some solid scares and a truly icky final frame to overcome any shortcomings. sxtape breathes some fresh air into the handheld-horror genre via the skill of a deft, proven journeyman filmmaker who is clearly enjoying himself.                 

Saturday
May032014

THE BABADOOK

Stars: Essie Davis, Noah Wiseman, Daniel Henshall, Hayley McElhinney, Barbara West, Tiffany Lyndall-Knight and Ben Winspear.
Writer/Director: Jennifer Kent.

Rating: 4/5

The fractured, fragile mental states of a struggling widow and her clingy 6 year-old son manifest as a startling poltergeist-like possession in the nerve(and tongue)-twisting horror thriller, The Babadook.

Representing a stunning debut for writer/director Jennifer Kent, this truly chilling vision is steeped in the nightmarish lore of fairy-tale storytelling while at the same time reconstructing familiar haunted-house tropes within a modern suburban setting. Exhibiting the same love of and fresh vision for the genre as fellow Australian James Wan did recently with The Conjuring, Kent pushes beyond the trappings usually associated with its kind and plunges thematically into the corrosiveness of grief, guilt and loneliness as they exist within the already difficult role of single parent.

Central to the film’s profound impact is Essie Davis as Amelia, the actress taking her character and the audience to the abyss of fragile despair before being reborn with a supernatural ferocity. The on-screen chemistry she shares with Noah Wiseman, the child actor playing her trouble son Samuel, is utterly convincing; when the horrors take shape and the shadowy pall of physical violence hangs heavily over their shared suburban terrace, the acting from the pair captures the threat with a razor-edge intensity.

Where Kent excels is in her handling of Amelia’s descent into mental instability. With her terrific editor Simon Njoo, she adopts the technique of clipping early scenes by a just a few frames, resulting in a disconcerting narrative trajectory that effectively leaves her main character behind at times. As Amelia is loosing grip on her mind, so is the character struggling to keep up with her own story (it helps that the naturally beautiful Davis foregoes all vanity in the role, often appearing to be barely holding it together physically and emotionally). The film works as great horror fiction thanks entirely to the believability afforded the protagonist’s psychological state.

Equally impressive is the titular spook, brought to life from the pages of an ominous bedtime book and given resonance by a child’s imagination before dining off the inky, colourless misery of the home environment. Kent knows exactly the power of the ace she has up her sleeve; she confidently inches forward for almost the entire film before a final reveal that delivers a visceral jolt of terror.

Despite a relatively meagre budget (reportedly little more than Aus$2million), The Babadook is an expertly crafted film, with all tech contributions (notably Alex Holmes’ production design and Radoslaw Ladczuk’s cinematography) of the highest standard. The darkened home is often cast in shades of grey, echoing the black-and-white origins of Kent’s vision; The Babadook is a feature-length adaptation of Kent’s 2005 short, Monster, an equally effective frightener with the terrific Susan Prior screaming up a storm in the role of ‘Mother’.