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Entries in horror (11)

Monday
May082017

ALIEN: COVENANT

Stars: Michael Fassbender, Katherine Waterston, Billy Crudup, Danny McBride, Damien Bichir, Carmen Ejogo, Jussie Smollet, Callie Hernandez, Amy Seimetz, Nathaniel Dean, Alexander England, Benjamin Rigby, Uli Latukefu, Tess Haubrich and Guy Pearce.
Writers: John Logan and Dante Harper

Director: Ridley Scott 

Reviewed at the Sydney cast and crew screening, Hoyts Entertainment Quarter, on Sunday, May 7.

Rating: 3.5/5

Creation and identity, the duality of man and science vs spirituality are some of the high falutin’ themes that Ridley Scott wants you to consider in Alien: Covenant, his latest expansion of the ‘where did they come from?’ narrative through-line introduced in 2012’s plodding and regrettable Prometheus. However, like all the franchise instalments that have emerged in the 38 years since Scott’s lean and brilliant Alien, the oh-so-serious intellectualising of B-movie tropes only serves to get in the way of the what we pay to see – screeching monsters rip people apart.

Which is not to say that the vast reams of text afforded the sexual and maternal nightmare that is his 1979 masterpiece are not valid, but rather to acknowledge that the dissection of the nightmare came after it had been dreamt, not while the dreaming was happening. When the great craftsman Scott focuses in on why the film series has proved so enduring – the visceral, primal terror of associating with the prey, facing off against an alpha predator – his latest delivers bloody and bracing thrills and chills. When it waxes on (and on) about such lofty pretensions as the origin of the species and the identity of ‘The Creator’, there develops a sense of desperation, as if Alien: Covenant yearns for justification as more than the outer space splatter epic it just needs to be.

The opening credit sequence, in which aging scientist Weyland (an uncredited Guy Pearce) discusses origin mythology, art and classical music with his creation, ‘Walter’ (Michael Fassbender) in a sterile setting which may or may not be a memory implant of the android, establishes what most engages the director. The film finds a more familiar and pleasing groove when on-screen graphics introduce the crew of the settlement craft Covenant, spearheading the 2104 colonization of 2000 cryo-slumbering settlers on a new home on planet Origae-6.

Following a tragic (and spectacularly staged) mishap that demands the crew are awakened, they are sidetracked by a garbled signal that suggest life may exist on an uncharted planet just a few galactic clicks that way. These developments clearly harken back to the opening moments of Alien, although the cast’s game effort to recapture the chemistry of Scott’s original players is in vain; one must assume that camaraderie exists between the paired-off space travellers, rather than it being earned by good writing and great performances.

Leading the ground mission is newly appointed captain Oram (Billy Crudup), a man of waivering self-confidence but strong religious faith, an aspect of his personality which one expects to have resonance but never does. Standing out from the crew is the recently widowed Daniels (Katherine Waterston; pictured, above), a level headed ecologist who sees no value in putting the colonists at risk to explore a random radio single (she makes a good point), security tech Lope (Damian Bichir) and cowboy stereotype Tennessee (Danny McBride), left on board to pilot the Covenant.

Once the advance party set foot on the habitable planet (New Zealand exteriors doubling for lush interstellar greenery), they set forth into the unknown in a passage that recalls the marine’s first moments on LV-426 in James Cameron’s masterful sequel Aliens. To Scott’s credit, it is one of several nods to Cameron’s contribution to Alien lore and the role his skill and imagination played in establishing the franchise; would that Scott have also adopted some of Cameron’s brisk storytelling skill and aversion to pretence.

Soon, as is to be expected, the planet reveals its dangerous secrets, crew members are brought back on board in clear defiance of quarantine regulations and all hell breaks loose. The first alien reveal, the climax to a rivetting and truly terrifying sequence of events, reaffirms that Scott, for all his high-mindedness, is going to deliver the horror for which his series is known. By mid Act 2, however, plotting grinds to crawl with the re-emergence of Prometheus’ synthetic human ‘David’ (also Fassbender, in a performance edging dangerously close to camp) and the mystery behind the integral role he has played in the last decade of the planet’s lifecycle. True Scott fans will go weak-kneed at ‘easter egg’ moments, including a close-up of an eye and a verbal clue, that hint at the Alien saga's lineage between it's own synthetic humans and Scott’s other robo-villains, Blade Runner’s replicants.  

Working with A-list penman John Logan (Gladiator; The Aviator; Skyfall) and first-timer Dante Harper and a visionary tech team that craft some flawless deep space imagery, Ridley Scott essentially offers up the big-screen equivalent of an aging rock band’s mega-concert - a repackaged mix of the ‘Greatest Hits’ moments the fans came for intermingled with new stuff of interest to the band, but no one else. This leaves Alien: Covenant a frustratingly flawed, uneven work that rolls and pitches like a commercial space vessel navigating a solar storm. It is at times a thrilling, stomach-churning journey, but one that leaves those on board wondering if the disorientation and down time was worth the investment.

Monday
Mar272017

78/52

Featuring: Walter Murch, Elijah Wood, Osgood Perkins, Guillermo del Toro, Peter Bogdanovich, Bret Easton Ellis, Jamie Lee Curtis, Karyn Kusama, Eli Roth, Leigh Whannell, Mick Garris, Danny Elfman, Richard Stanley, Neil Marshall, Stephen Rebello and Marli Renfro.
Director: Alexandre O. Phillipe.

Rating: 4.5/5

The images and emotions instantly conjured when one hears the words ‘the shower scene’ are reason enough for the existence of Alexandre O. Phillipe’s absorbing documentary, 78/52.  From Robert Bloch’s source novel, Saul Bass’ pre-production storyboarding and the precision of its staging, to the impact it had on audiences and the legacy it has forged, no scene in world cinema history has impacted the medium like Alfred Hitchcock’s butchering of Marion Crane by the blade of Norman Bates in Psycho.

Having dug deep into film pop-culture with previous works The People vs. George Lucas (2010) and Doc of The Dead (2014), the director turns his insightful fan-boy gaze up a notch in this forensic-like examination of the minutiae of the Bates Motel murder. Not all of the content will be revelatory to hard-core film buffs (Hitch’s use of Hershey chocolate sauce; the censorship-pushing flashes of the bare skin of Janet Leigh’s stand-in, Playboy bunny Marli Renfro), but no film has stared so deeply into the long shadow cast by onscreen violence as Phillipe’s often-mesmerising study (fittingly lensed in beautiful monochrome).

Deriving its title from the 78 camera set-ups and 52 edits that ‘Hitch’ employed to change the course of film storytelling, the documentary, like Anthony Perkin’s iconic protagonist, exhibits two distinct personalities. It is first and foremost the great ‘Making of…’ dissection, an infinitely intricate journey into the minds and methodologies that created the sequence. Phillipe has assembled a battalion of industry giants to breakdown its staging, including editor Walter Murch (Apocalypse Now; The Conversation); horror heavyweights Guillermo del Toro, Eli Roth, Leigh Wannell, Mick Garris and Neil Marshall; composer Danny Elfman; author Bret Easton Ellis (American Psycho); and such esteemed minds as journalist Stephen Rebello and critic-turned-filmmaker Peter Bogdanovich (whose recollections of attending the 10am screening in Times Square on the first day of release are priceless).

78/52 is also an examination of the power of Hitchcock’s film to enthral and terrify every generation since its release, remaining hypnotically watchable to this day.. As has been repeatedly stated, the initial release of Psycho rocked American cinemagoers to the core; Phillipe goes a step further, implying that it played a significant role in ushering out the dangerous naivety of a nation basking in post-WWII glory and forging a path for the social upheaval of the 1960s. Mirroring the means by which later generations first encountered its horror, the director has several of his contributors sit before a TV screen, in a dreamlike recreation of a late-1950s living room, and take in the film for the umpteenth time. Hipster icons Elijah Wood, Josh Waller and Daniel Noah, founders of the cutting edge production outfit Spectrevision (A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night; The Greasy Strangler) share a couch and riff on the vice-like grip Hitchcock’s masterwork holds to this day.

This stylistic flourish ensures the doco avoids becoming a stuffy exercise in academia, along with some well-placed humour. Watching Marion do some basic maths in her notebook ledger, Anthony Perkins’ son Osgood (director of the well-received 2016 thriller, February) wryly comments, “this is a really old film,”; playfully recalling days of being all but nude in front of the notoriously lascivious director, the delightful Renfro is a joy.

Alexandre O. Phillipe’s 78/52 is a giddy, engaging study in filmmaking bravado and of the passionate response such ambitious talent and dark psychology is able to evoke. It works ingeniously because it is simultaneously the voyeur and the subject of the voyeur’s eye; we are watching Norman with the same pulsating thrill as he feels watching Marion through that hole in the wall. 78/52 peels back and peers deeply into half-a-century of cinephile adoration for Hitchcock’s groundbreaking take on Oedipal psychosis.

Saturday
Mar182017

BLOODLANDS

Stars: Gëzim Rudi, Suela Bako, Emiljano Palali, Alesia Xhemalaj, Enxhi Cuku, Florist Bajgora, Fioralba Kryemadhi, Ilire Vinca, Rina Narazini Sojli and Tan Kazazi, Edvin Mustafa, Andi Begolli, Ermal Sadiku and Dritan Arbana.
Writer/Director: Steven Kastrissios.

Rating: 4/5

‘Blood is rewarded with blood’, recites a character at the midway point of Steven Kastrissios’ Bloodlands, and there could be no truer description of the Australian auteur’s sophomore feature. Although lighter on the raw brutality of his 2008 debut The Horseman, this moody, menacing work revisits the themes of familial ties and above-the-law vengeance, while introducing a convincing supernatural component drawing upon centuries-old Eastern European mythology.

Kastrissios’ story is based upon the self-imposed state of law and order known as ‘kanun’ and the subsequent blood feud culture called ‘gjakmarrja’, an eye-for-eye justice system that has been passed down through Albanian generations for over 2000 years; since the collapse of communist rule, the ‘kanun’ has re-established itself, with close to 3,000 families in regional Albania living under the threat of blood feud retribution. Bloodland’s multi-layered narrative traps its protagonists in this world of insurmountable conflict, in which the home of small-town butcher Skender (Gëzim Rudi) becomes embroiled with a dirt-poor clan of woodland dwellers, who serve their immortal matriarch, a witch known in local lore as the ‘Shtriga’ (conjured to dark life by a terrific Ilire Vinca).

Yet the truest drama emerges from within the family home, where kitchen-sink conflict of a more character-driven nature points to Kastrissios’ skill at subverting and enhancing his genre setting. The patriarchal rule of Skender has begun to fracture; his tolerant wife Shpresa (Suela Bako) is covertly helping their daughter Iliriana (Alesia Xhemalaj) plan a new life abroad, while son Artan (Emiljano Palali), dreaming of a career as a photographer far from the family business, pines for the unattainable Lorena (Enxhi Cuku). Only when the Shtriga and her dark magic enter their nightmares do the family find the unifying strength of their bloodline. To the productions credit, the lingering message is one of hope for future Albanians, in which the archaic rituals of the past are cast aside by a new generation eager for change.

The visuals meld hard-to-decipher Euro-arty moments (a levitating chunk of meat that holds its own mystical properties, apparently) with stunning landscape imagery and glimpses of ‘homestead life’ that recall the great American western. DOP Leandër Ljarja, in his feature film debut, captures the bleak yet beautiful countryside in steely greys and blues, juxtaposing overflowing garbage bins and stray dogs with stunning sunsets and hillside contours. Though easier on his human cast than in his past film, Kastrissios captures some rural truths with tough scenes of abattoir life, so animal lovers be warned (all shot under controlled, real-world conditions, the end credits assure us).

A compelling, polished and intelligent film, Bloodlands is the first co-production between Australia and Albania, and the region’s first venture into the horror format. A passion project for the director and his producer, Sydney-based Albanian Dritan Arbana, the long-gestating work emerges triumphantly from an extended post-production period. Exhibiting a grasp of nuanced character dynamics, rich atmosphere and technical skill that places him amongst the top tier of Australia’s new directing talents, Kastrissios has delivered an ambitiously unique horror/drama hybrid primed for global festival exposure.

Wednesday
Nov302016

SAFE NEIGHBORHOOD

Stars: Levi Miller, Ed Oxenbould, Olivia DeJonge, Dacre Montgomery, Aleks Mikic, Virginia Madsen and Patrick Warburton.
Writers: Zack Khan and Chris Peckover.
Director: Chris Peckover.

Reviewed at the Australian Premiere at Monster Fest 2016, Sunday November 27 at Lido Cinema 4, Hawthorn.

Rating: 4/5

In an alternate mid-80’s universe, director Joe Dante’s follow-up to his grim Yuletide fairy tale Gremlins would have been Safe Neighborhood, a crisp, crackling, black and bloody Christmas comedy/horror that came to fruition after Dante glimpsed an early draft of Michael Haneke’s Funny Games script. Seasonal cinemagoers would have surely warmed to its crowd-pleasing, nerve-twisting verve, setting it on a path to festive season VHS-viewing immortality.

Of course, this would have denied 2016 audiences the giddy thrill of watching a young directing talent emerge in Chris Peckover, who exhibits slick technical skill and an ease of touch with the chills and giggles in his script, co-written with Zack Khan. Peckover’s well-received 2010 debut Undocumented gave no indication that his sophomore effort would define him as such a confident storyteller, well-schooled in character, atmosphere and mise-en-scène. No less crucial to the grasp his film maintains on its audience is the chemistry and energy of his three leads, a triumvirate of tweenage talent destined for prolonged and deserving bigscreen careers.

Taking his cue from Dante’s frost-tinted, green-&-red hued view of Spielbergian suburbia, Peckover and his masterful DOP Carl Robertson paint a picturesque façade of blissful well-to-do family life that begins to crack almost immediately; a snowman is beheaded, while the joyful playing of young siblings descends into a brutal snowball fight. Every-girl teen archetype Ashley (Olivia DeJonge), texting while driving through the crowded residential avenues on her way to a babysitting gig, barely brakes in time to avoid a black cat that runs across her path.

Inside an expertly production-designed middle class home that effortlessly evokes the McCallister abode in Home Alone (the influence of Chris Columbus’ cinematic kindred spirit running through the film's DNA), acerbic mum Deandra (Virginia Madsen) and goofy dad Robert (Patrick Warburton) are preparing for their night out. Son Luke (Levi Miller) and his bestie Garrett (Ed Oxenbould), embodying the roles that the Corey’s would have played 30 years ago, are bantering about how Luke can fulfil his pubescent urges and impress upon Ashley his intentions.

Miller is a revelation; the Australian teenager fronted the notorious 2015 misfire, Pan, but has grown in stature and on-screen presence (he also anchors the blockbuster-to-be, Red Dog True Blue, debuting Boxing Day Down Under). As Luke, the transformation that Miller undergoes represents an arc that actors four-times his age would struggle to capture (keeping any coverage spoiler-free is tough but an absolute must). He is, in key moments, mesmerising to watch. Cast mates and fellow Aussies De Jonge and Oxenbould (reteaming on-screen having played siblings in M Night Shyamalan’s The Visit) are equally committed and impressive.

The first act set-up is meta-horror 101, delivered with knowing humour and great pacing. To delve too deeply into the Scream-like Act 2 spin that Peckover employs would do a disservice to the dexterity with which he both manipulates the narrative and amps up the tension. Suffice to say, by the time the Bueller-esque final moments unfold, the next-big-thing directing talent has not only referenced and honoured that subversive period of 80’s mainstream cinema during which Reagan’s America was slyly being diced and sliced; he has also conjured a wonderfully witty, bracingly shocking and completely contemporary home-invasion/slasher-pic reinvention.

Friday
Aug052016

KILLING GROUND

Stars: Aaron Pederson, Aaron Glenane, Harriet Dyer, Ian Meadows, Tiarnie Coupland, Maya Stange, Julian Garner, Liam Parkes, Riley Parkes and Stephen Hunter.
Writer/director: Damien Power.

Reviewed at the World Premiere screening, Thursday August 4, presented by the Melbourne International Film Festival at Hoyts Melbourne Central.

Rating: 4/5

Damien Power’s brutal bushland nerve-shredder Killing Ground can rightfully sit alongside such dark kindred spirits as Wolf Creek and The Long Weekend in the annals of Aussie genre infamy. Bolstered by revelatory star turns from Aaron Pedersen and Aaron Glenane as the latest ute-drivin’, pig-shootin’ incarnations of the Australian male’s primal, predatory id, Power’s skilfully crafted feature debut demands global exposure beyond genre fests and midnight showings.

The young director both embraces and deconstructs a myriad of familiar ‘bad ol’ boys’ tropes, the likes of which rankle detractors who argue that such stereotypical characters demean the country folk portrayed in ‘hillbilly horror’ works likes Deliverance, Straw Dogs, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre or, as recently as 2015, Sam Curtain’s similarly-plotted Aussie shocker, Blood Hunt. Regardless of such intellectualising (which is not without merit), there is no denying that this vivid, slow-burn reworking of a well-worn conceit is engrossing and, in at least one extended sequence certain to be examined frame-by-frame by censorship authorities, not for the weak of constitution.

Most thrillingly, Power and his virtuoso editor Katie Flaxman apply a complex narrative device that allows for interweaving storylines to span two distinct chronologies only hours apart. The foreboding sense of inevitable horror that permeates the first two acts of the auteur’s self-penned script works at such a pulsating pitch, it can’t possibly be sustained through to the more conventional but no less riveting denouement; for the faint of heart, that may not be such a bad thing.

The set-up is Horror 101; a young couple - Sam (Harriet Dyer), a doe-eyed twenty-something smitten with her upwardly mobile doctor bf, Ian (Ian Meadows) - indulge in a romantic getaway off a tourist trail in the Australian bush. Staking their claim on a riverbank clearing, they are resigned to sharing the spot with a big orange tent but, as their first night becomes a new day and there are no signs of their fellow adventurers, concern mounts.

Power begins his crosscutting of timeframes nonchalantly, introducing the missing family unit of troubled teen Em (a terrific Tiarnie Coupland), mum Margaret (Maya Stange), cool dad Rob (Julian Garner) and toddler Ollie (Liam and Riley Parkes, sharing the call-sheet). As Sam and Ian become entwined in the mystery of the empty tent, the fate of the young family unfolds at the hands of charming sociopath German (Pederson, giving his all in a thrilling, against-type performance) and Chook (Glennane, arcing his ‘simple man’ archetype from dimwitted follower to coldblooded killer with an agonising intensity). The actors are superb in roles that recall David Argue's and Chris Haywood's moronic, murderous mates in Russell Mulcahy's Razorback, minus the tension-relieving buffonery. When the timelines converge, the narrative is powered by a relentless momentum that essentially doubles-down on the 'final girl' plight synonymous with the genre. 

Displaying a entirely appropriate confidence in his material, Power takes time building character detail and a convincing sense of time and place, which may frustrate gorehounds who like their bloodletting upfront. But the patience the director displays adheres to the traditions of the best of B-cinema (especially the slasher pic heyday of the early '80s) and ensures audience empathy is peaking just as the nasty business kicks in. The cinematic heritage of great grindhouse works is also embraced by ace cinematographer Simon Chapman (Cut Snake, 2014; The Loved Ones, 2009), who captures the wilderness with stark, superb widescreen lensing before getting down and dirty, both figuratively and literally, in the third reel darkness. 

Monday
May162016

RAW

Stars: Garance Marillier, Ella Rumpf, Rabah Nait Oufella, Laurent Lucas, Marion Verneux, Jean-Louis Sbille and Joana Preis.
Writer/Director: Julia Ducournau

Screened in Semaine de la Critique selection at 69th Festival de Cannes; reviewed at Olympia Cinemas 2, Cannes.

Rating: 4/5

While filmmakers and audiences tend to gag at the thought of ‘the other C-word’ onscreen, writer/director Julia Ducournau and her fearless leading lady Garance Marillier launch themselves teeth first into their bloody and occasionally brilliant cannibal horror pic, Raw (aka Grave, to its homeland Euro auds).

Blood ties and the inflamed passion of a woman’s blossoming are central to the French director’s strikingly accomplished first feature, one of the most invigorating debuts in recent memory. A coming-of-age tale conveyed with deftly handled emotional complexity and chilling thematic subtext, Raw is above all else a gut twisting work of classic body horror. On one occasion, your seasoned scribe averted his eyes in anticipation of what was about to unfold; there were a couple of other times when he wished he had.

In almost every frame is teen actress Garance Marillier as Justine, a committed vegetarian(!) who we meet as she is being delivered by her parents (Laurent Lucas, Joana Preis) to veterinary college. From the first night, senior students haze and harass the newbies; Justine is cut no slack by her big sister Alexia (Ella Rumpf), who so fervently adheres to university tradition she makes Justine eat raw rabbit kidney instead of being shamed before her peers.

Justine’s despair at eating flesh manifests in scaly, itchy skin; in one excrutiating but brilliantly sound-designed sequence, she works her nails deep into the red patches that have formed. Worse is yet to come, however, as the hunger for raw meat becomes an all-consuming need for Justine, her ravenous desires of every kind escalating to predatory proportions.

Such developments would be sufficient for many lesser works, but Ducornau taps a rich vein of sibling rivalry drama and familial intrigue that elevates the stakes and pits Marillier against the ferocity of Ella Rumpf’s Alexia. There are corpulent detours and the odd surreal touch along the way, but nothing derails the foreboding menace and driving dramatic pulse of the story; the denouement, a shocking sequence that plays like a real-world nightmare, and icky coda will induce a goosepimply bout of the cold sweats.

Raw is a film that both embraces and defies cinematic traditions. The sublime camerawork of DOP Ruben Impens (The Broken Circle Breakdown, 2013; The Sky Above Us, 2015) enhances the narrative while also subverting the genre; coming-of-age loveliness can turn to animalistic rage from one frame to the next. Other major assets include co-star Rabah Nait Oufella as coarse but caring gay roommate Adrien; the dizzying music score by Jim Williams (Sightseers, 2012; Kill List, 2011); and, of course, the precise and often sickening work done by the make-up effects units led by Olivier Alfonso and Laura Ozier. Julia Ducournau’s command of the production and assured guidance in the pursuit of her harrowing, unforgettable vision signifies the director as a new major talent. 

Wednesday
May202015

POLTERGEIST

Stars: Sam Rockwell, Rosemarie DeWitt, Jared Harris, Jane Adams, Kyle Catlett, Kennedi Clements and Saxon Sharbino.
Writer: David Lindsay-Abaire.
Director: Gil Kenan.

Watch the trailer here.

Rating: 2.5/5

If Gil Kenan’s remake of Tobe Hooper’s (or, if you believe the scuttlebutt, Steven Spielberg’s) 1982 spectral spectacular Poltergeist is remembered at all, it will be as further evidence of Hollywood’s disregard for the horror genre in its pandering to the PG-13 demographic.

Robbed of the upwardly mobile, early 80s spunk that imbued leads Craig T Nelson and the great Jobeth Williams with such warm personalities, whiny smart-alec Sam Rockwell and an anaemic Rosemarie DeWitt star as Eric and Amy Bowen, two career-less strugglers mired in an America of foreclosed suburban blocks. In 1982, The Freelings earned our affection with funny and familiar family moments that remain fan favourites (the burying of the dead bird; giving the pool guys the finger; the battle for remote control with the jerk-neighbour); in 2015, The Bowens are introduced in a static single shot, bundled together in their bland people mover and shrilly yelling over each other to be heard. In modern screen parlance, writer David Lindsay-Abaire’s lazy opening represents ‘establishing character.’

Those rich characterisations that ensured emotional investment in the plight of the all-American nuclear family are but one of the many assets exorcised in this shallow retelling, but it is arguably the most crucial omission. The narrative’s dramatic impetus has been taken away from the mother; the tormented focus that the grief of losing a daughter to supernatural forces and the desperate determination to get her back provided Williams with meaty maternal material. Alternatively, DeWitt is largely a nonchalant bystander, barely registering a furrowed brow as her youngest navigates ‘The Great Beyond’. Similarly, Rockwell’s father figure seems annoyed by the overall inconvenience of the spiritual invasion; any comparison to Nelson’s crumbling emotional wreck is really no comparison at all.

Otherworldly heroism falls to middle-child Griffin, played by an ok Kyle Catlett (moms can’t be heroes in 2015 franchise reboots); his role is essentially a live-action version of the animated tyke director Kenan conjured in 2006’s Monster House.  Teenage sister Kendra is played with an ultra-modern ironic detachment by Saxon Sharbino, who can’t be jolted into any kind of emotional life no matter how much the ethereal denizens of her home try; the abducted moppet made famous by the late Heather O’Rourke is ably realised by Kennedi Clements, easily the best of the ensemble. Jared Harris and Jane Adams are reduced to naff comic relief in roles that carried dramatic weight 33 years ago when played by Zelda Rubinstein and Beatrice Straight, respectively.

If the human elements are left wanting, there is some meagre joy to be had in the prerequisite frights. The most successfully rendered reworking of an original element is the clown that freaks out Griffin (although how it comes to be in his room at all represents an implausible disregard for new home owner due diligence); based on the high profile that the clown has in all the marketing material, the producers are aiming for the ‘creepy doll’ audience that PG-13 hits The Conjuring and Annabelle brought in. Also relatively effective are CGI-heavy re-imaginings of the iconic ‘Killer Tree’ sequence and the ‘Wardrobe to Hell’ portal to the homes’ heart of bi-location.

To list further failings in Kenan’s remake would begin to sound churlish – the financial hardship the Bowens find themselves in means no backyard pool sequences; no E-Buzz, the family dog whose animal instincts first sensed the true nature of the house; no discernible music score, unlike Jerry Goldsmith’s orchestral masterwork. Also, blaming the atmospheric ineffectiveness on the tinny digital sheen that has replaced the rich, deep shadows and vibrant colours provided by film stock is a moot point; film production is what it is in the modern industry.

Fact is, Poltergeist 2015 was not made to honour its source material. Nor will the PG-13 audience for which it was created be all that familiar with its origins (or, for that matter, what a poltergeist even is). It should be judged on its own terms; in that regard, it is a tepid, mid-range effort, lacking in logic and derailed by one-note characters servicing a narrowly focussed B-movie storyline. It’s just that little bit sadder that proof exists indicating it could have been so much more.

Friday
Jan232015

THE QUARANTINE HAUNTINGS

Stars: Lauren Clark, Elizabeth Wiltshire, Darren Moss, Jack Marshall, Jenna Edwards, Bailey Skelton, Peter Sumner and Troy Harrison.
Writers: Bianca Biasi, Rebekah Biasi, Arnold Perez, Josh Sambono and Stephanie Talevski.
Director: Bianca Biasi and Arnold Perez.

Rating: 3/5

Co-directors Bianca Biasi and Arnold Perez deliver a skilfully crafted calling card pic with their psychological thriller/ghost story mash-up, The Quarantine Hauntings. Exhibiting a solid understanding of genre machinations, the pair make up for a lack of narrative inspiration with sufficiently solid scares. Cable TV and digi-download viewership amongst those who appreciate high ambition on a low budget is assured.

A hectic 24-hour handheld shoot at the infamous Quarantine Station on Sydney’s most northern headland is central to both the plot and the pic’s marketing. (Urban legends have proven popular of late with Oz filmmakers; Carlo Ledesma’s The Tunnel [2011] explored the abandoned subterranean network under Sydney, while Dane Millerd took on the legend of the Yowie in There’s Something in The Pillaga [2014]). Although fully restored for the tourist trade, the old hospital site once housed the seriously ill in archaic conditions during the nation’s early colonial period. The high mortality rate led to its reputation as one of the east coast’s most haunted sites, home to several spectres that have allegedly appeared to the unsuspecting for many years.

One such apparition is Jolene (Dalisha Cristina), aka ‘The Girl in The Pink Dress’, a 9 year-old who passed away as medicos bickered over her treatment. Seen in flashback (with veteran character actor Peter Sumner supplying some old-school villainy), Biasi and Perez employ slick post-production trickery to create a nightmarishly immersive vision of poor Jolene’s final moments.

Thematically, the film adheres (at times, tenuously) to such horror genre staples as grief, memory and regret. Key protagonist Jasmine (a particularly fine Lauren Clark) continues to struggle with the death of her father; bff Skye (Elizabeth Wiltshire) offers positivity, guiding her through boyfriend dramas (Daren Moss’ douche-y Cameron) and parental discord. Always nearby is Skye’s younger brother Blake and his offsider Zac (respectively, Bailey Skelton and Jack Marshall) in the smart-mouth comic relief roles that would have been played by Corey’s Haim and Feldman thirty years ago, and little sister Eva (an underused Jenna Edwards).  

The reckless recital of an ancient incantation summons Jolene from beyond and the angry spirit seeks out kindred dark soul Jasmine, who has holed up with the group of friends to sleep off antidepressant medication. One moment of true terror, a darkly lit scene during which the extent of Jolene and Jasmine supernatural bond is revealed, is the stuff of nightmares. The unfolding of broader plot points becomes both overly familiar and unnecessarily convoluted, but the performances overall are natural and engaging and few of the clichés will register with the film’s target teenage demographic.

The second and third acts combine lots of references to classics of the genre – a character notes that the diary that contains the spell “looks like the Necronomicon”; Cameron’s late night snacking turns into a homage to a similar scene in Poltergeist; and, Jolene’s muted colour and long black hair unavoidably recall the Yurei spirit seen in J-horror classics Ringu and Ju-On: The Grudge.

Also embraced are the ‘shaky-cam’ techniques and ‘real-world’ lensing (security cameras, mobile phones, etc) that have been refined in standard bearers The Blair Witch Project and Paranormal Activity. Most of the late night panic at the quarantine station is deliberately hard to decipher; the result is more disorienting than terrifying, but achieves enough chills to satisfy.

SCREEN-SPACE was a grateful guest of the production at The Quarantine Hauntings premiere, held at the Quarantine Station site ahead of a limited local theatrical season.

Wednesday
Oct152014

LOST SOUL: THE DOOMED JOURNEY OF RICHARD STANLEY'S ISLAND OF DR. MOREAU

Featuring: Richard Stanley, Marco Hofscneider, Fairuza Balk, Robert Shaye, Graham ‘Grace’ Walker, Rob Morrow and Edward R Pressman.
Director: David Gregory.

Screening at the 2014 A Night of Horror / Fantastic Planet Film Festival. Session details to be annouced soon. 

Rating: 4.5/5

A riveting, rollicking study of counter-culture creativity clashing with the early days of Hollywood’s corporatization, David Gregory’s Lost Soul: The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley’s Island of Dr. Moreau transcends the standard ‘making-of’ format and emerges more an ‘undoing-of’ study in psychological torment and film sector hubris.

Gregory’s filmography cites over 100 DVD-extra snapshots of the directorial mind at work, as well as the highly-acclaimed features, Forget Everything You Have Ever Seen: The World of Santa Sangre (2011) and What’s in the Basket (2012), a retrospective study of Frank Henenlotter’s Basket Case trilogy. This vast experience has clearly proven to be the perfect training ground, as his latest ranks alongside Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse (1999) and Lost in La Mancha (2002) as an acutely penetrative account of film artistry in turmoil.

Documentaries that chart the hurdles faced by ambitious film projects have been plentiful of late. Like Frank Pavich’s excellent Jodorowsky’s Dune, Lost Soul… is afforded the good grace and fortune of having a truly eccentric visionary at its core – underground artist/philosopher/academic/author and film director Richard Stanley, a brilliant, enigmatic presence whose plummy accent and intelligent gaze emerge from beneath the broad brim of his trademark Stetson.

Stanley found favour with some of the more adventurous LA executives after his 1990 sci-fi metal-noir oddity Hardware and trippy serial-killer western Dust Devil. He boldly pitched a fresh version of his lifelong obsession– H.G. Wells’ The Island of Dr Moreau, the nightmarish tale of man’s inner beast becoming externalized. Given a surprising degree of free rein for a newcomer to Hollywood, Stanley’s small, dark vision was soon spiralling out of control, the self-serving influence of boardroom bullies to the harsh physical realities of shooting in the Queensland rainforest proving to be just two of the elements that led to Stanley’s descent into his own heart of darkness.

Present is the undeniably dark pleasure one derives from watching a slow-motion train wreck take shape. Cast (Fairuza Balk, Marco Hofschneider, one-time lead Rob Morrow and several Australian support players) and crew (from LA maven Robert Shaye to legendary Aussie production designer Graham ‘Grace’ Walker) flesh out the reality of events that have long since formed into legend. Thoroughly entertaining are the accounts of Marlon Brando’s grand eccentricity, replacement director John Frankenheimer’s methodical boorishness and Val Kilmer’s utter dick-ishness.

But it is the broader insight that Gregory explores in Lost Soul: The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley’s The Island of Dr Moreau that proves most satisfying. Stanley’s planned film was perhaps the last of its kind – a wild, unsafe gamble on a director’s mad, complex, thematically rich studio tent-pole. It shares a pedigree with the likes of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil or Jeunet’s & Caro’s The City of Lost Children - expensive visions left bloodied by horrible births that clawed their way to cult status. To Hollywood’s great shame, Richard Stanley’s vision of Wells’ hellish utopia never materialized, but its legacy makes for an appropriately insane real-life narrative every bit as brilliantly mad and maddening as the fiction promised to be.

Monday
Sep082014

THE GREEN INFERNO

Stars: Lorenza Izzo, Ariel Levy, Aaron Burns, Kirby Bliss Blanton, Magda Apanowicz, Daryl Sabara, Ignacia Allamand, Nicholas Martinez, Sky Ferreira and Antonieta Pari.
Writers: Eli Roth and Nicolas Lopez.
Director: Eli Roth.

Rating: 1.5/5

The grand-scale cannibal epic that sly marketeers have been hinting at is nowhere to be found in Eli Roth’s low-rent, low-IQ disappointment, The Green Inferno. Touted as a loving homage to Italian grindhouse hero Ruggerio Deodata’s 1980 cult shocker Cannibal Holocaust, Roth’s limp, one-note adventure plays more like a half-baked piss-take than the work of someone with any knowledge of, let alone respect for, the anthropophagus genre.

Providing the film’s only inherent worth is Lorenza Izzo as Justine, a restless freshman sharing a dorm room with her gormless bff, Kaycee (Sky Ferreira). Disgusted by a classroom presentation on female genital mutilation (surely a course requirement, though everyone acts like the images were just sprung on them), Justine is in the frame of mind to be convinced by smitten, schlubby do-gooder Jonah (Aaron Burns) to attend a campus activist group session led by the charismatic douche-bag, Alejandro (Ariel Levy).

A bat of his eyelids later and Justine is bound for South America, part of a naïve but energised group of protesters determined to highlight the region’s deforestation. A dozen nobodies padlocked to trucks and trees to spread the word about the already well-documented practices of indigenous habitat destruction seems a tad pointless, so some techno-babble about uploading the real-time confrontation for the whole world to see is inserted. In what proves to be just one of the film’s shortcomings, The Green Inferno is peopled almost entirely by imbeciles, burdened with execrable dialogue. These twenty-somethings are smart enough to be accepted into college but too dumb to research their logging industry targets before jetting off into the Amazonian jungles. “You mean, they’ll have guns?” says one wide-eyed moron, just before they board a boat to head upstream.

Long overdue action in the form of a well-staged plane crash finally spins the film on the narrative axis the target audience has been waiting for– the bloody deaths of non-essential support players and the insertion of our protagonists into unfriendly jungle. Thankfully, Roth finds some mojo and moves his players swiftly; in a whirlwind sequencing of post-crash carnage and poison darts, Justine and her surviving activists (which now include ‘Spy Kids’ alumni Daryl Sabara and pretty blonde screamer Kirby Bliss Blanton) are soon in the clutches of a red-skinned native tribe and the festivities begin.

Gorehounds will be happy that the film finally gets down to some bloodletting; by the half way mark, tongues, eyes, limbs and torsos have featured. Those new to either cannibal film lore or Roth’s gleeful depiction of acts of dismemberment will squirm, but the tone of The Green Inferno doesn’t allow for any sort of serious investment on the audiences’ part. Just as no character earns our empathy, nor do any of the acts of cannibalism prove truly shocking. It is one of several misjudgements on the productions part that creates such a chasm between it and Deodata’s film; the Italian’s camera cast an almost objective eye over the horrors, while Roth’s all but screams “Wow, look what I’m doing!”

Devolving into pointless padding (Justine’s plunge into the Amazon is entirely unwarranted) and episodic fight-or-flight diversions, The Green Inferno’s most diabolical liability is tone. Is Roth’s work a satire on spoilt rich kids and the privilege they blindly yield? Why are there passages of wacky black comedy in my cannibal movie (the ‘bag of pot’ sequence is plain stupid; it’s ‘overseas’, remember, so we gotta get a diarrhoea joke in there…)? There is meant to be humour in the notion that the traditional tribal practices the protesters are trying to save proves to be their undoing, right? So why is it barely referenced? And does the tribe (whose ‘remote outpost’ looks like a quiet corner of Central Park) exist only to prepare and eat human flesh? Little else seems to be going on for the whole time the captives are there.

Of greater interest than anything in the film would be to consider The Green Inferno as part of Roth’s broader filmography. To date, his films present the ‘uncivilised world’ as a dangerous threat to those who are privileged, collegiate, good time go-getters. His heroes aren’t always the brightest of bulbs, but they are America’s future; so far, they have been threatened by the swampy backwaters of their own homeland (Cabin Fever), the horrors of Eastern Europe (the Hostel films) and, in his latest work, the ‘savages’ of South America. In each case, powerful forces not aligned to the vision of the upwardly mobile represent pure evil (here, personified by the majestically demonic Antonieta Pari as ‘The Elder’); myopic villains driven to exploit those that represent the best the US can and will offer. There is a forceful horror at work in The Green Inferno, but perhaps it is not the flesh-eaters of the rainforest.