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Entries in horror (16)

Saturday
Nov182017

TARNATION

Stars: Daisy Masterman, Emma-Louise Wilson, Danae Swinburne, Blake Waldron, Jasy Holt, Joshua Diaz, Sean McIntyre, Sarah Howett and Mitchell Brotz.
Writer/Director: Daniel Armstrong.

WORLD PREMIERE: Monster Fest, Friday November 24 at 9.30pm at Melbourne's Lido Cinema. 

Rating: 3.5/5

It is easy to imagine Sam Raimi giggling with gleeful pride should he ever stumble across Daniel Armstrong’s Tarnation. Stretching a meagre budget and pushing a game cast are two of Armstrong’s great strengths as a director; another is clearly a love for the works of Michigan’s favourite filmmaking son, whose Evil Dead epics are paid the type of knowing homage only a true fan could conjure.

The unselfconsciously preposterous plot centres on wannabe singer-songwriter Oscar, played by the endearing Daisy Masterman with the same spirited abandon that Bruce Campbell displayed 36 years ago. We meet Oscar as she gets marched from her singing gig by her band’s manager (Sean McIntyre), a creepy golf-enthusiast who recommends she get some R&R at his log cabin just outside of the township of Tarnation. With BFF Rain (Danae Swinburne) and two ill-fated beau-hunks along for the ride, they are barely through the door when the spirits that possesses the property start playing up.

With its veranda awning and Tardis-like interiors, the cabin is a masterfully recreated version of Raimi’s Evil Dead cottage, and Armstrong uses every corner of the set to offer shout-outs to his favourite genre works. Like-minded fans will have a blast spotting references to such cult pics as Friday the 13th, Night of The Creeps and Basket Case. The prolific young filmmaker is not above trumpeting his own contributions to DIY-horror, with posters for his past films From Parts Unknown (2015), Murder Drome (2013) and Sheborg Massacre (2016) pinned to the wall.

While it is clear that Armstrong has little regard (or budget) for elements such as logic or continuity, the on-screen energy that he skilfully crafts puts him in the same league as contemporaries Kiah Roache-Turner (Wyrmwood: Road of The Dead, 2014) and Christopher Sun (Charlie’s Farm, 2014; Boar, 2017) and Ozploitation greats like Brian Trenchard-Smith (Turkey Shoot, 1982; Dead End Drive-In, 1986). His nighttime sequences achieve more with one source light and a fog machine than most would with twice the resources, while his old-school practical effects (including a possessed and rotting kangaroo whose design recalls the goat-monster from…that’s right, Sam Raimi’s Drag Me To Hell) are top tier.

As with any independent filmmaker worth their weight, Armstrong calls in favours to realise his project. Oscar’s band is played by soundtrack contributors The Mercy Kills, who have utilised Armstrong’s vision in the past for their film clips; Tarnation reunites the director with the star of Sheborg Massacre and From Parts Unknown, actress/stuntwoman Emma-Louise Wilson, who brings some well-timed and tasteless laughs as the wheelchair-bound ‘Wheels’.

Sunday
Nov052017

THE MARSHES

Stars: Dafna Kronental, Sam Delich, Mathew Cooper, Zac Drayson, Amanda McGregor and Eddie Baroo
Writer/Director: Roger Scott.

Reviewed ahead of the Australian Premiere at the 2017 A Night of Horror Film Festival; December 1, 2017.

Rating: 4/5

The jolly swagman of Australian folklore is not so jovial in Roger Scott’s swampy psycho-thriller, The Marshes. A nasty piece of work in which the spirit of the bushman traveller escalates his penchant for opportunistic crime from sheep stealing to stalking and stabbing, Scott’s twisty deconstruction of slasher pic tropes is as good a calling-card pic as we’ve seen from a young Aussie genre filmmaker since Damien Power’s similarly sinister Killing Ground in 2016.

The Marshes adheres to a well-trodden ‘big smoke-vs-hillbilly’ opening act, as in when eco-warrior academic Dr Pria Anan (Dafna Kronental) has some fightin’ words at a last-stop gas station with brawny pig-hunter Zac Drayson. With her offsiders Will (Sam Delich) and Ben (Matthew Cooper), she forges ahead with her research field-trip deep into remote marshlands, only to have her days filled with further pig-hunter angst and her nights disrupted by a nightmarish presence haunting her campsite.

Scott’s storytelling skills kick into high gear in Act 2, when the threat turns out to be more than a cranky shooter and the landscape of the marsh reveals otherworldly secrets dating back to wild colonial days. With the aid of some skilful lensing from DOP Giovanni Lorusso, who switches from lush, sun-dappled widescreen location work to tight, terrifying close-ups, Scott amps up the menace and revs up the gore at expertly timed intervals.

Audiences will be challenged at times to go with the film’s divergent path into the slightly surreal. Some narrative ‘dog legs’ recall the occasionally head-scratching developments in the TV hit Lost, yet the cut-and-slice thrills of classic Friday the 13th/Texas Chainsaw Massacre-type entertainment remain ever present throughout the pic’s second-half.   

Traditionalists who view the larrikin swaggie of ‘Waltzing Matilda’-fame as some kind of Aussie hero are going to be rattled by Scott’s version of the iconic figure, brought to hulking, horrifying life by big-man actor Eddie Baroo and kitted out in period-authentic swag-and-drizabone attire by costumer Maria Papandrea. As Pria, the terrific Kronental (channelling Sigourney Weaver, circa ’79, in both looks and intensity at key moments) offers a striking and powerful version of the ‘final girl’/horror heroine.

The Marshes is technically top tier, with Jessica Mustacio’s cutting of the intense handheld camerawork a standout, Nigel Christensen’s sound design crucial to The Swagman’s ominous presence and Tristan Coelho’s atmospheric score adding immeasurably to the tension. Despite the cultural origins central to the story and some broad colloquial language, the authentic locations (which look to have made for an arduous shoot) are not typically synonymous with the Down Under setting and should help sales agents spruik The Marshes as a deserved global marketplace player.

 

Tuesday
Sep262017

HORROR MOVIE: A LOW BUDGET NIGHTMARE

Featuring: Craig Anderson, Gerard Odwyer, Bryan Moses, Robert Anderson and Dee Wallace.
Director: Gary Doust

Rating: 4/5

Eighteen years after the soul-crushing realities of self-funded film production were exposed in Chris Smith’s landmark documentary American Movie, director Gary Doust puts a warm but no less anxiety-inducing Australian spin on the tribulations faced by the next-to-no-budget auteur in Horror Movie: A Low Budget Nightmare.

Craig Anderson had runs on the board after the TV comedy success Double the Fist (he earned a 2015 AACTA Award for Best Comedy Directing), but the dream was to helm his horror feature script Red Christmas. Nearing 40, Anderson’s life was moribund, reduced to sleeping on the floor of his small office studio surrounded by his VHS tapes and (admittedly impressive) collection of Stephen Pearson prints. Existence hits a low point when a painful condition demands mature-age circumcision. Anderson is frank and funny about the increasingly dire state of his life, which bottoms out with the pathetic reality of having to have his adult foreskin removed while still on his mother’s Medicare card.

Doust had exhibited a natural talent for capturing the torment of a low budget shoot as far back as 2002 with his own award winner, the terrific Making Venus. His affinity for and incisive understanding of the filmmaker’s experience, nurtured during his tenure as head of the film collective Popcorn Taxi and in his doco series Next Stop Hollywood, affords him a sweet and trustful rapport with his subject. Footage inside the Anderson family home, where the desperate director asks his financially stable brother for a loan, provide for a rare kind of awkward intimacy; Anderson’s snowballing anguish over budget/crewing/schedule/union conditions make for some truly stomach-tightening and heart-tugging moments of factual filmmaking.

By the time the Red Christmas shoot gets underway in regional New South Wales, Doust and his camera are deeply embedded within the on-set dynamic. Personalities emerge that bring Anderson into sharper, deeper focus – actor Gerard Odwyer, a Down Syndrome sufferer who proves to be accomplished actor and strong emotional core, for both productions; first AD Bryan Moses, often the voice of reason amidst the madness (he and Anderson co-directed the 1999 Tropfest winning short, Life in a Datsun). Not for the first time in her career, leading lady Dee Wallace (pictured, above) proves a winning (and suprisingly sweary) presence and inspires her director to stretch his talents.

The final stages of Anderson’s Red Christmas journey provide insight into the end-to-end process of envisioning, realising and selling your work (including a post-production stretch on a cruise ship that seems slightly incongruous given the penny-pinching woes that make up so much of the film). In practical terms, Horror Movie: A Low Budget Nightmare should be required viewing in film schools nationwide for its matter-of-factness. The film truly soars as an endearing character study; an examination into the determination and borderline delusion it takes to make one’s vision a reality. In Craig Anderson, Gary Doust honours the archetypal passion-fuelled dreamer of great cinematic lore.

HORROR MOVIE: A LOW BUDGET NIGHTMARE will have its World Premiere at the 2017 Adelaide Film Festival. Session and ticket information can be found at the event's official website.

(Footnote: SCREEN-SPACE attended 2016 Sydney Film Festival screening of Red Christmas, but did not publish a review. We did provide a 2.5 star rating on our Letterboxd page.)

Monday
Sep182017

KUSO

Stars: Iesha Coston, Zack Fox, The Buttress, Shane Carpenter, Oumi Zumi, Mali Matsuda, Tim Heidecker, Hannibal Buress, Donnell Rawlings, Anders Holm, Regan Farquhar, David Firth and George Clinton.
Writers: Steven Ellison, David Firth and Zack Fox.
Director: ‘Steve’, aka Flying Lotus.

CONTENT WARNING: Some details in the review may offend.

Reviewed at The Factory Theatre as part of Sydney Underground Film Festival; Closing Night selection, Sunday September 17, 2017.

Rating: 2.5/5

When John Waters asked Divine to eat a fresh dog poo in Pink Flamingos (1972), or Pier Paolo Pasolini tortured the innocents in Salo or The 120 Days of Sodom (1975), it was cinema that confronted its own power to influence and defied standards of decency within society. They were frames of an altered reality, a dangerous and challenging new use of the art form. The most important (frankly, only) consideration that arises after watching Kuso is, ‘Can cinema still perform that function?’

The debut feature from musician and hip-hop artist Steve Ellison, a.k.a. ‘Steve’, a.k.a. Flying Lotus, features a scabby, pustule-covered young man having sex with the mouth of a cancerous talking boil that has grown on the neck of his equally putrid girlfriend. The sequence comes after 90-odd minutes of raucous bad taste; penises are pierced, faeces are smeared, eyeballs are consumed then regurgitated, all set to a soundscape of screeching incoherence. Kuso is an anthology film, the segmented narrative able to afford Ellison greater opportunity to explore his scatological, menstrual and anal fixations.

Of course, that all sounds pretty ‘shocking’, as was certainly his intention above all else. There is very little indication this film has any greater ambition than to disgust and disturb the audience that will seek this out when search engines turn up…oh, let’s go with ‘Giant Anus Cockroach,’ or ‘Laser Ray Abortion’. It is all set in a post-earthquake L.A., where the freshly scabby population has turned moronic (turned?) and transdimensional portals exist that allow hairy creatures with TV monitor faces to live amongst us. Maybe Ellison is working some satirical angle, commenting on the nature of modern living or the destruction of society by the media or something like that, but it seems unlikely.

But is it possible for cinema that sets out to shock to achieve the genuinely shocking anymore? Kuso is certainly distasteful, but can make-up and prop department versions of shit, piss, cum and blood really disturb when those who seek those diversions can surf all night to their heart’s content. Society’s standard bearers for ‘goodness’ will feel compelled to rise in defiance of ‘art’ like Kuso, whether that be the current generation of trigger-happy PC-enriched snowflakes or the ageing ultra-conservative baby boomers that initially embraced then abandoned counterculture principles. But is the content worthy of their fight? Might they just be wagging fingers at a naughty little boy who drew the movie equivalent of a pee-pee on the wall with his new box of digital crayons?

The film’s debut at Sundance was met with walkouts, although subsequent reports indicate this was less about paying customers being rattled by the content and more about industry types realising there was little more to Ellison’s film than bluster and bravado.

In all fairness, there is a little bit more. The various narrative strands are bookended by some wildly imaginative montage animation, as if Terry Gilliam had helped Charles Manson with his film school assignment, and one truly beautiful CGI-rendered sequence features frozen chickens being launched by an immense spacecraft over Los Angeles (pictured, above). In 'Smear', the best of the anthology segments, a diarrheic mutant schoolboy connects with a giant sphincter in the woods as a sort of surrogate father, affording Ellison a modicum of sentimentality to fill his frame with some warm composition. There is no denying that some passages achieve the truly nightmarish, though that accomplishment brings further disconnect from character engagement, an element desperately lacking in most of the film.

Loud, objectionable, occasionally funny but mostly trying, the visual experimentation and adherence to all things ugly quickly grows tiresome. By the time Ellison unveils the ‘neck boil sex’ moment, Kuso has devolved into a filmic manifestation of a high school boys’ diary, filled with gross, puerile wanderings of the mind that might shock the kid’s mom, but just bring raised eyebrows from everyone else.

 

Wednesday
Sep062017

IT

Stars: Jaeden Lieberher. Jeremy Ray Taylor, Sophia Lillis, Finn Wolfhard, Chosen Jacobs, Jack Dylan Grazer, Wyatt Olef, Nicholas Hamilton, Jackson Robert Scott, Owen Teague, Logan Thompson, Jake Sims and Bill Skarsgård.
Writers: Chase Palmer, Cary Fukunaga and Gary Dauberman; based on the novel by Stephen King.
Director: Andy Muschietti.

Rating: 4/5

The new millenial obsession with all things 80s may have reached its zenith with Andy Muschietti’s spectacularly terrifying and terrifically satisfying retro-riff on Stephen King’s bestseller, It. Condensing the source material’s mammoth narrative into a workable 135 minute film has taken some lithe restructuring, yet what remains is a lovingly faithful rendering of the themes, characters and milieu of the landmark horror tome. And, for all the warm familiarity and unexpected sweetness conjured by the production’s adherence to nostalgia, ‘horror’ it most certainly is.

Muschietti leaves no one guessing just how horrifying his adaptation will be with a rain-soaked opening setpiece that perfectly visualises King’s unforgettable first pages. Drawing upon his origins as a short-form horror visionary (his 2013 feature debut, Mama, was a reworking of his own 2008 mini-movie), the director’s masterly pre-title sequence could stand alone, called ‘The Taking of Georgie Denborough by Pennywise the Clown’. As both a tone-setter for the frights to come and an introduction to King’s most iconic horror figure, it is the ideal primer.

Act 1 jumps several months ahead to the final day of the school year, the thrill of summer vacation tempered by a town on edge; a curfew keeps the children indoors after dark, so prevalent is the threat of unexplained disappearance. A tightly packaged and deftly handled piece of scripting brings to vivid life the friends who call themselves The Losers Club. Georgie’s older brother, stutterer Bill (Jaeden Lieberher) is coping with his grief by surrounding himself with best buds, including momma’s boy Eddie (Jack Dylan Grazer), nerdish Stanley (Wyatt Oleff) and bespectacled Richie (Finn Wolfhard, stealing every scene). This group of under-the-radar types spend their days dodging bully Henry Bowers (Nicholas Hamilton, channelling a young Kevin Bacon) and firing off coarse insults about each other’s mothers (the other 80s King property It most resembles is Stand By Me). Soon joining the group are fellow outsiders, big-boned history buff Ben Hanscom (Jeremy Ray Taylor), orphaned Mike Hanlon (Chosen Jacobs) and the older but no less alone alone Beverly Marsh (the film’s breakout star, Sophia Lillis).

A key theme in much of King’s oeuvre is facing and overcoming that which you fear the most, and each of the group must contend with grotesque manifestations of what haunt their young psyches. Muschietti proves his mettle in this regard; it is no small accomplishment that, in a film that features so grotesque a representation of terror as Pennywise, a whole series of equally nightmarish creations populate the screen. Of all in the group, it is Beverly’s pubescent transformation into womanhood (and her implied abuse by a lecherous father) that carries with it the most profoundly disturbing and ultimately moving challenge to overcome.

Capturing the decade extends beyond the precise costuming, hairstyles and production design flourishes. Muschietti adopts a strong stylistic adherence to 80s cinema, employing that most Spielberg-ian of camera movements, the ‘dolly-in close-up’. A memorable sequence involving a slide projector evokes specific memories of the Spielberg-produced/Dante-directed Gremlins; The Goonies is another Spielberg production that courses through this film’s DNA. Veteran South Korean DOP Chung-hoon Chung tones down the overtly 'cinematic' richness of some of his most acclaimed work (Oldboy, 2003; Lady Vengeance, 2005; Stoker, 2013; The Handmaiden, 2016), only employing his consummate skill with colour, shadow and movement when the film earns that indulgence. The result is a film that draws a distinctively well-defined line between the bright warmth of a summer friendship and the otherworldly void of the supernatural. 

After the very public casting (and recasting) of the role made famous by Tim Curry, the burning question is how the relatively unknown actor Bill Skarsgård (son of Stellan) cuts it as one of the purest visions of supernatural evil in modern literature. With one pupil cocked askew and a stalagmite of spittle heading south from his pursed, crimson lips, Skarsgård’s Pennywise recalls both Freddy Krueger and, somewhat unexpectedly, ‘Ed’, the most unhinged hench-hyena from The Lion King. Under the prosthetics and grease paint (and occasional CGI enhancement), Skarsgård goes to hell and back to craft a truly malevolent creation, utterly believable as the black soul of King’s cursed small town.

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.