Film Review: The Pact II

© Preferred Film and TV

© Preferred Film and TV

The Pact II is this year’s sequel to Nicholas McCarthy’s well-received 2012 feature debut.  This time, the franchise’s fate has been entrusted to writers/directors Dallas Richard Hallam and Patrick Horvath, who previously brought us the 2009 zombie film Die-ner (get it?) – not that anyone noticed. It’s safe to say they were still cutting their teeth on The Pact II. It’s not a good film by any stretch, but it is just barely watchable.

The first Pact film sees a solely female family tormented, thrown about, and abducted by a supernatural presence in their recently deceased mother’s home. Or so it seemed. The sequel picks up a few weeks after the first film’s conclusion. If you haven’t seen the original, the sequel will make very little sense to you. And even if you have, you may still find yourself scratching your head. Crime scene clean-up specialist June is the latest play thing for a Judas killer who returns in spectral form, although it’s unclear for what purpose. He’s pretty good at casting shadows, manipulating doors, and creeping up behind people, but that’s about it. And why does he bother? There’s an attempt at an explanation during the twisting climax – which, I will admit, did involve some moments of tension – but the twist itself is not only forced but utterly pointless.

© Preferred Film and TV

© Preferred Film and TV

This snooze-fest of a film gets a slight energy boost from the performance of the always sharp and charismatic Patrick Fischler, who plays FBI Agent Ballard. His poorly written character is full of unresolved contradictions and forced to perform hackneyed dialogue, but Fischler somehow manages, all while bringing an oddly sinister sex appeal to the role that just works. We also see the return of Caity Lotz as Annie: a wise move, and I can’t imagine how they would have lifted the saggy second act without her. Of course, the decision was also a double edged sword, since having Annie around only highlights how weak the sequel’s heroine is in comparison.

© Preferred Film and TV

© Preferred Film and TV

The main downfall of The Pact II is that it shows a fundamental lack of understanding of what made the original film interesting. The first Pact is calm and quiet and deliberate, taking its time with careful pacing and buzzing sound design. It has a mystery worth solving, and we’re happy to wait patiently, only to be suddenly jolted into understanding. The Pact II throws all of this out the window with its clumsy cinematography and uneven tone. Flawed presentation aside, the film doesn’t even add anything worthwhile to the Barlow family narrative. Worse still, it’s bo-ring. If you loved the first one, you may feel compelled to seek out the sequel in order revisit old characters and settings, but you will almost certainly be disappointed by this well-meaning, bumbling imposter.

© Preferred Film and TV Really? How much longer?

© Preferred Film and TV
“Really? How much longer?”

Also, can I just point out that there is nothing about a pact mentioned in either film. Oh, how I long to turn the cultural clocks back to a simpler time when horror titles said what they meant and meant what they said – and weren’t afraid to say it in three, four, even five words, if necessary!

Best wishes, and don’t forget to look behind you,

Iota

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The Best of FrightFest: London 2014

© 2014 Film4

I’m taking a brief detour from my top-5 countdown of horror to report on my most recent genre event, and it was a biggie. I’ve just had the immense pleasure of sitting in a cinema, along with hundreds of other fans, for five straight days, watching the premieres of dozens of brand new horror films from around the world. I’m talking, of course, about the 2014 Film4 FrightFest hosted by the Vue Cinema in Leicester Square, London. After catching the two-day festival earlier this year in Glasgow, I knew I had to make it to the massive August event. The main festival is spread out across three screens, with two additional discovery screens so that viewers can (attempt to) tailor their festival experience to their unique tastes. All told, 64 feature films were shown, of which I was able to see 25. Out of those, these are my top ten films to look out for this year

10. The Samurai (Der Samurai)
Writer/Director: Till Kleinert. Germany 2014.

© 2014 Tribeca Film

A very welcome entry into the disappointingly sparse contemporary German horror canon, The Samurai is a dark, bizarre, and captivating homoerotic fantasy-adventure. A German village is turned upside-down and sliced open when a brooding and volatile stranger comes to town, armed with a samurai sword and utter disdain for the locals’ small-minded categorisations of sex, gender, and species. Jakob is a straight-laced rookie cop who becomes entangled in the samurai’s twisted fairy tale of transformation and transcendence, and is ultimately forced to face the wolf within. The film draws from a different spirit of storytelling that’s definitely not for everyone, but that’s ultimately The Samurai’s strength. It’s really something special.

9. Late Phases
Director: Adrian Garcia Bogliano. Writer: Eric Stolze. USA 2014.

© 2014 Dark Sky Films

Another great film with lupine symbolism, Late Phases stars curmudgeonly, blind veteran Ambrose who moves into a suffocatingly bland retirement community. Some of his new neighbours come to welcome him to the community, among them an unfriendly eight-foot-tall werewolf. Surviving the first attack, Ambrose has one month to get in peak shape and prepare for the next full moon, all while finding time to unravel the mystery of his claustrophobic community and scare his neighbours by using a shovel instead of a walking stick, because that’s just the kind of guy he is. Late Phases is a unique and mature film with an endearingly cranky and unconventional hero audiences will love to root for.

8. Coherence
Writer/Director: James Ward Byrkit. USA 2013.

© 2013 Bellanova Films

© 2013 Bellanova Films

If you’ve ever worried about the exponential and infinite proliferation of alternate realities, Coherence is the film for you. Shot and lit in a style that’s both warm and intimate, it documents an awkward dinner party of sort-of friends that takes place as a comet passes by overhead. Suddenly, all of the houses on the street lose power… except one. And then it’s déjà vu all over again. Rather than give anything away, I’ll just say that Coherence is an unsettling and mysterious ride through quantum physics that gives full weight to all of the dark and terrifying philosophical problems that come along with it.

7. The Harvest
Director: John McNaughton. Writer: Stephen Lancellotti. USA 2013.

© 2013 Elephant Eye Films

A nostalgic thrill ride that will remind you of the adventures of childhood, The Harvest is a fairy tale with modern concerns and timeless themes. A newly orphaned little girl moves in with her grandparents and explores the new neighbourhood, where she meets a lonely, bedridden little boy guarded by his fire-breathing dragon of a mother. While trying to keep their friendship alive, she discovers the dark secret of why he’s never allowed out of his room, and must fight to make things right. An unlikely and imperfect fable, The Harvest is eerie and irresistibly charming, and probably the only film from the festival that you could safely watch with your mum.

6. Starry Eyes
Writers/Directors: Kevin Kolsch, Dennis Widmyer. USA 2014.

© 2014 Snowfort Pictures

Starry Eyes is a neon parable of Hollywood glory and the sacrifices one young woman is willing to make to see her name in lights. Sarah works in fast food and lives with a half-dozen other aspiring film-types in LA. She thinks she’s found her big break when she gets a callback after a particularly invasive audition. Soon the producer makes some uncomfortable requests of her, and she must decide how far she is willing to go to achieve her Hollywood dream. Sarah knew it wasn’t going to be easy to make it in show business, but she never thought it would involve so much blood. And… maggots. Starry Eyes is a twisted and uncomfortable, if slightly heavy-handed, film that’s all about character development and the seedy, soul-sucking power of Tinseltown.

5. Dead Snow 2: Red vs. Dead (Død Snø 2)
Writer/Director: Tommy Wirkola. Writers: Stig Frode Henriksen, Vegar Hoel. Norway 2014.

© 2014 Tappeluft Pictures

This is one of the rare sequels that surpasses the original. It feels like a natural follow-up made by people who loved the original and knew how to take its absurd humour to the next level. The story continues exactly where it left off in 2009, with our sinister Nazi zombies ruthlessly invading the world’s happiest country. The sleepy little Norwegian villages never saw it coming! But the movie doesn’t just rehash the original; it adds a mission, a hilarious police force, a loveable trio of American nerds who call themselves the Zombie Squad and – get this – Soviet Russian zombies. If you like pitch-black, no-holds-barred, goofy humour, then you need to see Dead Snow 2.

4. The Babadook
Writer/Director: Jennifer Kent. Australia 2014.

© 2014 Causeway Films

Something dire must be going on Down Under, because there’s been a growing and impressive output of Aussie horror in recent years. The Babadook is just one example, and it’s a damn scary one. Widow and single mum Amelia struggles to love and understand her very difficult 6 year-old son. He is convinced that the monster from the disturbing children’s book The Babadook is real, and is determined not to “let him in”. But Amelia feels she’s slipping now more than ever, and the audience can feel the darkness creeping in and taking hold of her. The Babadook is eerie and gorgeous and was a universal hit at the festival. It’s about more than just monsters. It’s about the fear of parenthood, of losing loved ones and of losing one’s sense of self.

3. The Guest
Director: Adam Wingard. Writer: Simon Barrett . USA 2014.

© HanWay Films

The Guest should be coming to a cinema near you very soon, and it does not disappoint. It’s the sharp and stunning new brainchild of the makers of You’re Next. The Peterson family has just lost a son in combat when an army buddy of his arrives at their doorstep. He charms the family with his good manners and military competence, but soon it becomes clear that the intentions behind his visit are more than just loyal and dutiful, and that he has a secret lurking beneath his steely stare. This is the kind of fun, charismatic action movie that you don’t see much anymore, with fantastic performances, visual style, and loads of wit that elevate and update it to the level of contemporary masterpiece.

2. Honeymoon
Director: Leigh Janiak. Writers: Phil Graziadei and Leigh Janiak. USA 2014.

© 2014 Fewlas Entertainment

Honeymoon is a movie that’s not afraid to keep an audience guessing to the point of excruciating discomfort, because that’s what makes the final release that much more haunting. The story follows an obnoxiously adorable pair of newlyweds on their cabin-in-the-woods honeymoon. But the clichés stop there. The intimate camerawork and careful pacing transform the typical slasher set-up into something new and unrecognisable. Something comes between the couple and starts to eat away at their relationship from the inside, but what is it? Distrust and desperation pull the newlyweds apart in ways more harmful and insidious than a masked man with an axe ever could. Don’t watch the trailer, just watch Honeymoon. And then have a good cry.

1. Housebound
Writer/Director: Gerard Johnstone. New Zealand 2014.

© 2014 Semi-Professional

Now that you’re emotionally scarred from watching Honeymoon, you can lift your spirits with Housebound, my favourite film of the festival. This fun Kiwi gothic is the perfect marriage of spooky tension and comic relief, with razor-sharp wit and wacky plot twists. Rebellious recovering addict Kylie lands herself in some legal trouble and is placed under house arrest and the supervision of her well-meaning but overbearing mother who’s convinced the house is haunted. At first Kylie laughs at her mother’s superstition, but strange occurrences soon change her mind. Or is something else going on in the house? Housebound’s biggest strength is an excellent script chockfull of goofy moments and legitimate scares that any horror fan will appreciate, anchored by the brilliant chemistry between the two female leads.

And those were my favourite films from the 2014 FrightFest in London. If you think there are any conspicuous absences, it might just be because I didn’t get the chance to see them. You can check out the full list of films on the FrightFest website. If you’re located in the UK and want to taste-test the festival atmosphere, keep an eye out for the October event with a half-dozen or so films, details to follow. As always, I love to hear your thoughts, comments, and questions, so please keep them coming!

Yours frightfully,

Iota

Film Review: Ginger Snaps

Hello horror fans, I think it’s time we got to know each other a little better. This is why I’ve decided to talk about one of my favourite horror movies of all time: Ginger Snaps, directed by John Fawcett, written by Karen Walton and starring Katharine Isabelle and Emily Perkins.

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Ginger Snaps (2000) is the first of three films, followed by Ginger Snaps 2: Unleashed (2004) and Ginger Snaps Back (also 2004). The trilogy, with its edgy wit and sarcastic bite, marks a milestone in Canadian horror cinema. The first film in particular captures the zeitgeist of ironic late-nineties youth culture perfectly, with “likes” and “whatevers” galore. It’s a film that understands young women and portrays them as complete characters while giving their issues top billing. As if that weren’t enough, it’s a near-perfect genre film that understands its place within the horror canon and deftly applies horror themes and aesthetics to its unique subject matter. You can call it a werewolf movie about puberty, or a coming-of-age film about werewolves, but to do so would be to glaze over the myriad intersections of this deceptively simple fusion film. The result reveals new insights into the parallel processes of adolescence and lycanthropy.

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Ginger and Brigitte are two nihilistic teen sisters with an unhealthily close relationship, united in their hatred of their parents, their school, and their suburban lifestyle. Their mantra is “out at sixteen or dead in the scene, but together forever”. Both girls hide beneath baggy, dark clothing and scornful sneers. They fear adulthood, more specifically womanhood, and its accompanying loss of identity, and fantasise about ensuring their individuality through death rather than growth. I think many girls and women can relate to the feeling of being pummeled with Gender from the onset of puberty. It’s a time of physical change and emotional shame, when “woman” still feels like a dirty word. Then comes the fateful night when Bridget gets her first period and is brutally attacked by a ferocious werewolf in the woods. It’s hard to tell which is more upsetting to her. The pubertal changes that follow, such as bleeding, cramps, hair growth, increased sexual appetite, etc., become practically indistinguishable from other, more lupine developments.

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Menstruation and horror are an oft-neglected match made in heaven, most likely due to the taboo (originally a Polynesian term for “unclean” women on the rag) surrounding menses. Women will even refer to awkward period moments as “horror stories”. TMI, amirite? Various beliefs found in cultures the world over proclaim menstruating women to be possessed by powerful sexual and reproductive forces, and require that they remain in isolation during this time, for the safety of others. The source of confusion is obvious; bleeding is nearly always a sign of danger… except when it happens to women every month. It’s also easy to see how declaring someone unclean for her natural biological processes serves as a form of moral subordination, even as it grants her a kind of spiritual power. Such depictions of women, like that of the wicked witch, are as old as dirt. The most obvious example of menstruation in another horror film would be Carrie (1973), in which the title character’s menarche is a traumatic moment that provokes a dark power that she has possessed since birth. This only foreshadows the even bloodier and more humiliating incident where she is doused in blood at her prom. We all know what happens next. The difference between Carrie and Ginger is that Carrie has always had telekinetic powers and the “curse of blood” is just part of the pattern of shame and oppression that culminates in utter destruction at the prom. This is a firm connection, but in Ginger’s case the relationship is explicitly causal, so much so that there is often ambiguity between the biological horrors of her female curse and the bestial horrors of her wolf curse.

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The link between menstruation and the lunar cycle is not a huge stretch. In fact, the word “menses” comes through Latin and Greek variations of “moon”. There is even some evidence to suggest that women’s menstrual cycles correspond to the lunar cycle in cultures without artificial lighting at night. With all of that in mind, it’s almost hard to believe no one thought of making a werewolf-menstruation film before Ginger Snaps. Perhaps it’s the typical association Hollywood makes between wolves and hyper-masculinity. But we soon learn that in Ginger’s case, it’s best to “forget the Hollywood rules”. Indeed, Ginger Snaps plays counter to expectations by virtually ignoring the cyclical werewolf in favour of adopting a linear transformation similar to puberty. This more closely corresponds to Ginger and Brigitte’s real fears: the gradual and permanent transformation and loss of identity that they would rather die than endure. This is why the film changes the usual rules, and it is this well-considered twist that makes Ginger Snaps a standout genre entry, one that knows the rules but doesn’t have to obey them, just like its rebellious teen protagonists. None of that silver bullet nonsense here; these are postmodern werewolves we’re dealing with.

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You could easily go on forever about this movie and how it comments on gender, puberty, werewolves, teen (and female) sexuality, bestiality, genre, teen angst, sisterhood, and even Anglo-Canadian identity and postcolonialism. In fact, I’ve included a list of articles written by scholars who do go on forever about all of these things and more. That alone should help illustrate just how great a cult following this movie has. Its depth and complexity are hidden under a dark, furry coat of entertainment value.

Not only is it clever; it’s also very funny, and for a movie about werewolves and puberty, it can even be pretty subtle. Watch for a crane zoom into the dark entrance of a blood-splattered dog house in the opening scene. Sure, you don’t have to be Freud to figure that one out, but you do have to know what to look for. In another scene, Brigitte finally finds the coveted potential cure, monkshood, at home after her housewife mother bought it at a craft store. The cure to the curse can be bought at a craft store and then cooked by a teenage pot dealer and injected like heroin. That’s more ironic, self-deprecating humour than I know what to do with, and I’m Canadian.

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So that’s Ginger Snaps, and it’s one of my favourites. And if you like your werewolves mixed with equal parts Angela Carter and Heathers (1988), then it might just be one of your favourites as well.

And don’t forget to check out my old blog, Terrifying Treats, for a very different response to Ginger Snaps.

 

United against life as we know it,

Iota

 

Further Reading

Barker, Martin, Ernest Mathijs, and Xavier Mendik. “Menstrual Monsters: The Reception of the Ginger Snaps Cult Horror Franchise.” Film International 21 (2005): 68-83. Web.

Briefel, Aviva. “Monster Pains: Masochism, Menstruation, and Identification in the Horror Film.” Film Quarterly 58.3 (2005): 16-27. Web.

Mathijs, Ernest. John Fawcett’s Ginger Snaps. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 2013. Print. <http://www.utppublishing.com/John-Fawcett-s-Ginger-Snaps.html&gt;

Miller, April. “‘The Hair That Wasn’t There Before’: Demystifying Monstrosity and Menstruation in Ginger Snaps and Ginger Snaps Unleashed.” Western Folklore 64.3&4 (2006): 281-303. Web.

Poulin, Brock. “Reading against the Gore: Subversive Impulses in the Canadian Horror Film.” Cinephile: The University of British Columbia’s Film Journal 1 (2005): n. pag. Web.

Rothenburger, Sunnie. “‘Welcome to Civilization”: Colonialism, the Gothic, and Canada’s Self-protective Irony in the Ginger Snaps Werewolf Trilogy.” Journal of Canadian Studies 44.3 (2010): 96-204. Web.

Film Review: Oculus

Mike Flanagan just might be the newest name on my list of favourite people. His movies are imaginative in their approach to supernatural phenomena that exist on the periphery of our everyday world. In this way, his carefully crafted scares absorb even the most skeptical viewer. What I like about him is that he leaves room for mystery. Was it real or was it all imagined? We’re free to decide for ourselves, but if we’ve done our job and suspended our disbelief, the answer will be obvious.

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Oculus (2013) is Flanagan’s second feature following the festival hit Absentia (2011).  Absentia takes a premise that would be fairly bland or even laughable under different circumstances, but Flanagan keeps the mystery going and imbues it with emotional depth and complex interpersonal relationships that give the film an almost spiritual resonance. Oculus does something similar. It takes its core premise from his 2006 short film “Oculus: Chapter 3 – The Man with the Plan”, and then builds a world with new, fleshed-out characters around the same basic concept. Essentially, it’s about a killer mirror, which could have been ridiculous had the writing been lazier. Lucky for us, that’s not the case. I recommend the short to anyone who has seen Oculus, for a great example of an effective, minimalist short film, but also a revealing look at how stories like this one are written, from a seed of an idea to a feature-length film.

Oculus begins as a young woman (the captivating Karen Gillan) takes in her brother (Brenton Thwaites) who has just been rehabilitated and released from juvenile detention after allegedly killing their father (Rory Cochrane) some ten years prior. He considers himself justified but guilty, while she thinks the whole tragic series of events was due to the malevolent influence of the antique mirror that hung in their father’s study. Gillan has had plenty of time to research the mirror, and implicates it in dozens of cases of unusual and often self-inflicted deaths. I won’t spoil it by listing them here, but they’re the kind of brilliant two-line stories you might hear around a campfire, the ones that haunt you for weeks. She creates an elaborate and supposedly foolproof plan to catch the mirror’s evil on camera, thereby proving her family’s innocence, before destroying it forever. As she executes her plan, under the constant skepticism of her brother, the narrative is interspersed with childhood flashbacks that illuminate the mechanisms the mirror uses to drive its owners insane. It controls people by manipulating perception, by creating powerful sensory illusions in the minds of anyone within the mirror’s zone of influence. How do you destroy something that knows your every thought and feeling and can manipulate all five of your senses at any time? I’m often frustrated by the kinds of films that are acclaimed for “blurring the line between the imaginary and reality”, because those tend to be the kinds of films that indulge in spectacle at the expense of logic and coherent writing. While watching Oculus, there were times I had no bloody clue what was real and what was imaginary, but I knew I was in the capable hands of a well-crafted story, and the experience was incredibly satisfying.

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I think Oculus has a lot in common with the film 1408. Both movies have a slightly hokey premise (haunted mirror vs. haunted hotel room); a skeptical character as well as a believer; exposition scenes describing dozens of mysterious, self-inflicted deaths; a malevolent force that manipulates humans by altering their perception; and an epic, high-stakes battle for the human soul. I liked 1408, because hotel rooms are inherently a bit creepy, but I prefer the concept of the mirror and love the way it was integrated into the overall aesthetic of Oculus.

The film is expertly crafted and permeates with metaphors of reflection. The narrative corkscrews its way through flashbacks that reflect and intensify the contemporary storyline until, finally, past and present become one and the same. The elegant camerawork creates the illusion that something is lurking just beyond the frame, something we long to glimpse at the edge of every panning shot. The sound design makes heavy use of echoes, which are not only creepy, but also the auditory equivalent of reflections. There is also a great deal of symmetry (a.k.a. mirror images) in the set design, most notably in Gillan’s curiously deliberate set-up of monitors and cameras to catch the evil mirror in the act.

Speaking of cameras, technology is assumed to produce more reliable representations of reality than mirrors, when in fact all that either can do is capture light and present an indirect image of an unknowable reality. Photography, too, is eventually shown to be fallible. The human eye essentially does the same thing. None of us can fully trust the story told to us by our five senses, but it’s all we have to go on. And isn’t that terrifying? The difference here is that a tangible entity, a mirror, is to blame for the brother and sister’s deception, and that they are in immediate, mortal danger.

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At the best of times, mirrors are powerful and dangerous things. The French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan identified a process of identity formation in infants that he called “the mirror stage”. The infant is uncoordinated and feels that the different parts of her body are fragmented. When she is old enough to look in the mirror and identify the reflection as her own self (the exact age at which this occurs will vary), she experiences a sense of “imaginary wholeness”. She can look at the reflection and say, “This is me”. From that point on, she constructs her identity as “I”, and strives to make her internal sense of self as unified as this external reflection (the “Ideal I”) appears. This is an exciting moment, since she has an “I” and knows that she exists, but it also comes with the frightening realisation that her fragmented self that was once intertwined with her mother’s body is now separate and distinct. She also develops a lifelong dependence on external validation, such as mirrors and the perception of other people, to define herself. Innocent introspection is replaced by external reflections. Mirrors, even non-haunted ones, turn people from subjects into objects.

Jean-Paul Sartre would agree that this is the beginning of an oppressive situation for identity formation. In his play Huis Clos (No Exit), three people find themselves in hell, which is actually just a living room in which they are forced to spend eternity together, without sleep. They are forced to exist as objects in the perpetual gaze of the “other”, rather than as subjects within their own consciousness. With no reflective surfaces in the room, a vain young woman desperately begs the other characters to “be her mirror” by describing what they see when they look at her. This ultimately gives her no better sense of who she is. We need external validation at the same time as we suffer from it.  “L’enfer, c’est les autres,” goes the famous quotation (“Hell is other people”). You are not yourself, you are located in someone else’s eyes, in the reflection of a mirror.

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Moving away from the intellectual and into the more obvious, mirrors regularly hurt us by facilitating a distorted body image. The film plays with the idea brilliantly. We’re used to women looking in the mirror and seeing themselves as fatter, uglier, or older than they actually are. But this mirror can actually make you hallucinate your husband calling you a “grotesque cow” and make you think he’s having an affair! This happens to the mother character (Katee Sackhoff) who succumbs to the mirror’s power, gazing into it obsessively. How’s that for distorted body image!

Oculus works because it plays on major human fears, the most obvious being a) dying, b) people we love dying, and c) physical and emotional pain. But those three fears alone aren’t what make Oculus interesting. Having a mirror as its villain means bringing out existential fears like d) not being able to trust your senses, and e) not being real. Any minor gripes I have with the film are redeemed by the sheer effectiveness of the central metaphor and the engrossing story. I can’t wait for Somnia, the next horror film from Flanagan, a talented filmmaker with a peculiar fondness for Latin titles.

But dammit, Flanagan, enough with the stretch-face ghosts with strange eyes. You don’t need them. You are better than that.

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See you later, and hopefully much more frequently.

Iota

Film Review: The Quiet Ones

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I’m as excited as anyone about the recent revival of Hammer, the iconic British horror brand that specialised in Gothic B-movies. The prolific studio produced nearly 300 films from the mid-30’s until its forced hibernation in the 80’s due to a crippling lack of investment.  Although I’ve never seen a retro Hammer film that I would classify as “genius” by any kind of universal standard, the studio has put out an absurdly impressive catalogue of campy late-night fare. There’s nothing quite like spending a cozy evening in with some bizarre fight-scene choreography, gratuitous nudity, and Christopher Lee’s arresting stare. Now, history lives on under new CEO Simon Oakes, who has seen the company produce films like Let Me In (2010), The Woman in Black (2012) and, now, The Quiet Ones (2014).

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This is the second feature from director John Pogue, who previously made the surprisingly watchable Quarantine 2: Terminal (2011).  The Quiet Ones is set in 1974 and tells the “true” story of an Oxford professor (Jared Harris) and his dedicated students and cameraman (Sam Claflin) who attempt to document a link between mental illness and the supernatural by keeping an unstable young woman (Olivia Cooke) under observation in an extremely unethical study. They keep her locked in a single room of an old house out in the countryside, where they conduct experiments designed to “plunge a patient into mental chaos”, and force her to listen to “Cum on Feel the Noize” on repeat. However, it’s never entirely clear what kind of discovery they are hoping to make, as our lecherous academic fluctuates between the opposite modes of “There are mysteries science can’t explain” and “There must be a rational explanation” when confronted with Cooke’s strange and violent behaviour. Tensions and temperatures rise, the shouting becomes louder and the jump scares more frequent as the film jogs along at a steady pace towards its adrenaline-pumping (you’ll get it once you see the film) conclusion.

I thought this had a lot in common with last year’s The Conjuring. Both films have such bafflingly irrelevant titles that they could only have been drawn from a hat. Both, though set in the 70’s, are thoroughly contemporary horrors with only minor concessions to the period in the form of obvious music and wardrobe and some token zoom shots. The Quiet Ones may have a couple of sexy nods to Hammer’s skin flicks of the 70’s, but in a far tamer and disappointingly hetero way. The plots are similar, too, with their ghost/demon/whatever and the academic characters who attempt to understand and fight it with pseudo-science. However, with the exception of Harris and Cooke, the performances in The Quiet Ones are far more irritating than those in The Conjuring. Both make liberal use of cheap jump scares, but The Quiet Ones doesn’t try to do much else to unsettle its audience other than, again, the effective performances of Harris and Cooke.

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Even if I wasn’t impressed by the central mystery in the movie, at least there was a mystery. That’s one good thing I can say about it. If you’re going to make a film about scientists studying unexplained supernatural phenomena, it helps if it’s not just a simple case of A+B+C= vampire/ghost/demon/werewolf. When you watch The Quiet Ones, you don’t actually know what’s going on, which helped keep me interested in Cooke’s strange symptoms, since I couldn’t immediately diagnose them.

On a more personal note, this is the first film set in Oxford that I’ve seen since becoming a student here. Identifying colleges, libraries and landmarks that are now a part of my daily life was a fun distraction that I don’t normally get to enjoy in films (except those explicitly set in Toronto). Although the opening credits flash a bit of paperwork with the letterhead for the fictional “Latimer College, Oxford”, most of the filming locations were around Merton College, and one character is repeatedly seen wearing a Merton crest on his shirt. And, of course, there’s the obligatory shot of the Bridge of Sighs as our cameraman walks towards the Bodleian. It was eerie, then, to walk past that same spot on my way back from the cinema.

This was one reason why I had a bit of an epiphany about Freud’s unheimlich while watching this film. Yes, my mind had time to wander into my limited knowledge of psychoanalysis, which is probably not a good sign. The unheimlich (German for “uncanny”) is, in a tiny nutshell, a way of describing the unsettling feeling of seeing something familiar but… different. This is why it feels strange to see your city on film. This might also be why the children from Cronenburg’s The Brood are so disturbing: they look like they were made by someone who generally knows what children look like, but there’s something not quite right and, therefore, horrifyingly wrong about them. Actually, this is why I think film is a particularly appropriate medium for horror, since it necessarily creates artificial sights and sounds modeled after real life. What I noticed while watching The Quiet Ones is that the recurrence of set pieces, the repetition of a song, and the general insularity of the house all become something hideously transformed once things go pear-shaped. For example, we see that same heavy metal door with its two sliding locks and rectangular opening countless times throughout the film. As we get to the crazy, paranormal finale, the door’s familiarity grounds us in the setting of the story, but also becomes all the more disturbing because we are recognising it in a new context. Now that I type this out, it seems obvious that this is why horror films spend so much time on mundane actions and set pieces. Not only does it create a greater familiarity with the setting, but if done correctly, it allows room for that familiarity to be turned against the audience when things go wrong. But I digress.

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All in all, this is a dull but not-bad film with some good performances. I’ve never expected masterpieces from Hammer, but I’m thrilled that they’re back from the dead and doing interesting things. Far from finding a place of cult status like many vintage Hammer films enjoy today, The Quiet Ones feels more like it was made for the general movie public than for real horror buffs, who may catch themselves glancing at their watches. But I suppose we shouldn’t be too selfish.

Until next time,

Iota

The Best of FrightFest: Glasgow 2014

As promised, here is my personal ranking of the films from the 2014 Glasgow FrightFest, from worst to best. Bear in mind, I found something to enjoy in every single film, and I thought the festival as a whole ranged from decent to excellent. But enough of that, time to get mean and cut the wheat from the chaff. I should know, after all; I’ve got my own blog! Hold on to your hats…

11. Almost Human

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The first feature-length effort from writer/director Joe Begos, Almost Human is a micro-budget horror about a man from small-town Maine who is abducted by aliens, only to be returned two years later with some new homicidal tendencies and, ahem, appendages. The film is clearly made by people who love horror and are determined to make their first steps into the genre count. Joe Begos and actor Josh Ethier were at the festival to introduce their film, and encouraged the “polite” Glaswegian audience to yell and interact with it, adding that it was the kind of film to watch while drinking. Clearly the audience hadn’t drunk enough, because the vibe was a bit… awkward. The intention was clearly to be an over-the-top shockfest like Dead Alive, except that the finished product lacks both gore and humour. The result isn’t particularly shocking or original, and draws a little too obviously from films like Slither and Fire in the Sky. One scene in particular, reminiscent of a certain tree scene from The Evil Dead, falls uncomfortably flat. However, Begos himself acknowledges some of the film’s shortcomings, explaining that writing dialogue is not his strong suit and that the film was financed with credit cards. I’d say there’s definite potential in this uneven production, and the ending is surprising and got a genuine laugh from the audience. I’ll be excited to see what Begos-Ethier do next.

10. The Scribbler

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The Scribbler, which made its world premiere at the festival, was directed by John Suits and written by Daniel Schaffer, who adapted the screenplay from his graphic novel of the same name. In it, Suki, whose mind is home to multiple personalities, moves into “the psychiatric version of purgatory”, a halfway house for recently released mental patients. As she undergoes a new form of shock treatment that burns away her unwanted identities, she has a series of bizarre encounters with neighbours, blackouts and hallucinations. Also, people keep mysteriously jumping out of windows. Unable to distinguish her hallucinations from reality, Suki goes head to head with “the scribbler”: one of her personalities that possesses her hand to write cryptic messages backwards and all over her apartment.

This one had the most mainstream stars of the festival, featuring Eliza Dushku and half of Michelle Trachtenberg’s face. There’s atmosphere to spare in this stylish film, but little to sink your teeth into. There are plenty of “deep” one-liners, like, “When you’re crazy, you sometimes have to let your hands do things for you”. I don’t like comic book adaptations in general, and this one is over-the-top and incoherent (fitting, I guess, considering the subject matter), with a twist ending that’s more offensive than revelatory. That said, there are some interesting performances and engaging acts of weirdness. The talking bulldog is an especially nice touch.

9. Savaged

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This rape-revenge flick, directed by Michael S. Ojeda, has been called “The Crow meets I Spit on Your Grave”. In it, a deaf mute woman travelling alone across the American Southwest is abducted, brutalised, and left for dead by a gang of racist thugs. A shaman finds her just in time and performs a ritual that lends her dying body the strength (and motivation) of an Apache warrior spirit. Baby got an axe to grind.

I kind of have to admire Savaged for having the guts (and hopefully not just lack of self-awareness) to be boldly offensive to nearly every group of people. The result is a lot of guilty, I-can’t-believe-they-went-there laughs. The violence is deliberately ridiculous, the music melodramatic, the dialogue dreadful, the CGI obvious, and the sound effects gooftastic. But the whole theatre was in stitches, especially as it swelled to its corny finale, with two characters facing the camera, staring into the middle distance and endlessly spewing trite proverbs on life and death.

8. Torment

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This Canadian feature, directed by Jordan Barker and starring the lovely Katharine Isabelle, is typical home invasion fare. A young family head out to their vacation home in the woods in hopes that some time away will help the annoying little boy bond with his new stepmother. But things go horribly wrong when the boy is kidnapped by a family of freaks wearing the heads of stuffed animals. The trip that was supposed to bring the family closer soon finds them banding together to fight for their lives.

I was very excited going into this film, mostly because it stars Katharine Isabelle and Stephen McHattie, but I was disappointed to find both actors were criminally underused in the script they were given. The movie looks great and has some good performances, but the story is just not very good. Everything happens too quickly for any tension to really build, and the script is incredibly repetitive. I swear, Isabelle rolls around on the floor with a masked villain while fighting over a weapon on at least three separate occasions. And the “twist” at the end is not very significant to the story. That said, it’s competently made and the masks look awesome. It may not have the tension of The Strangers, but at least it’s not as frustratingly sparse.

7. Mindscape

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This US/Spanish production, directed by Jorge Dorado, probably differs the most from the other films at the festival. It sets itself in a world where detectives can enter people’s minds to uncover the truth of their memories. One such mind detective finds himself engaged in a battle of wits with a brilliant but troubled teenage girl. As he enters her mind, the line between fiction and reality becomes blurred, and he must decide whether she is an innocent victim or a sociopath before any more mysterious “accidents” occur.

This cerebral thriller is a feast for the eyes. It’s dark, sexy and dangerous, with the kind of tightly scripted dialogue that you need in a film that largely consists of tense conversations between very intelligent people. The film is never scary but is occasionally disturbing. Taissa Farmiga is perfectly cast as the genius teen who’s all purity and roses on the surface, but with a dark flicker in her intense stare (Dorado said she never blinked on camera). Did I mention the whole thing looks absolutely gorgeous? It’s an enjoyable watch, even if it doesn’t always make sense. The strangely Hollywood ending is unexpected in a film that feels so thoroughly European. Also, more films should have a Noah Taylor ex machina moment.

6. Video Nasties: Draconian Days

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This film is the follow-up to the FrightFest brainchild Video Nasties: Moral Panic, Censorship and Videotape, and is essentially a continuation of the same theme. This is not a horror film, but a documentary about the dark age of the Video Nasties, from the early 80’s until the end of the millennium. As a Canadian, this gave me some fascinating insight into an area of recent British history I knew very little about. The film charts events such as the Video Recordings Act, mass censorship of video releases and the banning of obscene video material. It explores the polemic themes like the imitability of violence in the media and the imposition of a moral agenda on creativity. The documentary makes its point through interviews of people from both sides of the issue, archival footage, and myriad gory, too-shocking-for-video scenes. We hear first-hand accounts from horror movie smugglers who had their collections raided by police, of the illicit trade networks and private screenings that brought a generation of British horror enthusiasts closer together. Video Nasties’ editorial stance is clear, but its treatment of the facts is fair. It made me grateful to live in a time and place where, as an adult, I have the right to freely seek out adult entertainment that suits my tastes, whatever they may be.

5. Wolf Creek 2

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We had to wait eight years for it, but Greg McLean finally gave us the nasty sequel a film like Wolf Creek deserves. Much like the first installment, our charismatic Crocodile Dundee from hell continues his murderous rampage, this time involving an adorable German couple and a charming British guy. But don’t get too attached to them…

I loved the first film and I love its sequel just as much, if not more. The premise is similar, but McLean gets the chance to play with more money this time around, and he puts it to good use. It’s just as dark as the first but has a lot more humour, which works fantastically at some points but falls flat at others. It’s pretty clear that we’re supposed to root for the deranged killer, at least in the beginning, but  when his violent acts become increasingly despicable, the result is… uncomfortable. There were some moments that hurt my soul a little bit. But it’s all worth it for one 15-minute scene that is one of the most hilarious, tense and original things I have ever seen in horror. At one point I was so absorbed that I couldn’t feel my legs. Everything about John Jarratt is absolutely terrifying, and ultimately it’s his performance that made this the scariest film of the festival for me.

4. Afflicted

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In this Canadian/US found footage film, two 20-something best friends (played by directors Clif Prowse and Derek Lee) embark on a journey around the world, vlogging their adventures as they go. But within a couple of weeks, Derek starts behaving strangely. Normally full of joie de vivre, he’s sleeping all day. He’s starving but can’t keep any food down. And then things start to get superhuman.

This film is A Canadian Vampire in Paris with a dash of Chronicle. What’s not to like? I’m not even particularly fond of found footage, but the set up for this one makes sense, and the characters are likeable enough that I would happily watch them gallivant around Europe, even on a good day. They react believably as a couple of nerdy extroverts suffering from an increasingly bizarre and inescapable affliction. The basic set-up feels familiar, but there is enough humour, shock and heart along the way to keep the story engaging.

3. Killers

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The Mo Brothers, who once taught us that L is the most disturbing letter of the alphabet, closed the festival with the UK premiere of Killers. The film chronicles the unlikely collegiality between a sadistic snuff filmmaker in Tokyo and a vigilante journalist in Jakarta who develops a taste for murder. Very soon, however, our journalist gets far more than he could have expected from the online friendship.

Killers is a mercilessly brutal, exquisitely shot, no-holds-barred film that reminded me of a more sophisticated I Saw the Devil. The film makes a powerful and worrying statement about the forces that drive people to commit despicable acts of violence, and the morbid curiosity that causes people like me to watch it on film. We want murder and mayhem, but only if we can keep our conscience clean (and thank God for that, too). It’s when we lose that human empathy that all hell breaks loose. The Mo Brothers explore this idea with style and unparalleled grace (and gross) in a movie that feels shorter than its 140-minute runtime.

2. Proxy

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In Proxy, which made its UK premiere at FrightFest, writer/director Zack Parker takes us past the white picket fences of Richmond, Indiana, where twisted minds and unspeakable tragedies await. It begins as a pregnant woman is horrifically assaulted in the street in an anonymous, seemingly random attack, causing her to lose her child. While recovering, she attends a support group where she befriends a fellow grieving mother. However, nothing is as it seems as the two women’s fates become intertwined, with perverse, tragic results.

Proxy is a beautiful film with compelling performances and complex female characters, and it had me captivated for each of its thoroughly disturbing 120 minutes. The narrative is split into two distinct parts, each indispensable to the other, in a novelistic structure that felt like a maternal version of The Place beyond the Pines. It approaches topics such as grief and mental illness with maturity and restraint, while still managing to provide some sexy and violent thrills. This is a film that knows when to take its time, knows how to show (rather than tell) the darker recesses of the human mind, and cares enough to revel in the beautiful detail of its scenery. I’ve never seen anything quite like it.

1. The Sacrament

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I mentioned last time that there would be shameless Ti West fangirling, but rest assured that it is completely deserved. The Sacrament is West’s creative reinterpretation of the Jonestown massacre of 1978. Shot in a mockumentary style, it follows a brother who, out of concern for his runaway sister, travels to Eden Parish, a kind of hippy cult commune in the South American jungle, with a reporter and camera man in tow. At first the parish appears to be a heaven on earth, free of discrimination and modern anxieties, but it soon becomes clear that “Father”, the man who runs the show at Eden, wields a disturbing amount of power through clever discourse and turn of phrase. But is that power in responsible hands?

West explained that he made the film in an effort to bring a human face to a historical event that is too often trivialised in contemporary pop culture. Not only is he successful in this aim, producing a beautiful and wrenching film about the dangers of groupthink, but by making the media the reason behind the parish’s downfall, he effectively implicates the audience as voyeur in the tragic outcome (see Killers). The film has its questionable moments, but such is the nature of risky filmmaking. It gets a tremendous boost from Gene Jones’ phenomenal performance as Father. He helps keep things unsettling as the movie builds to its horrifying and sublime conclusion. One particular scene involving a brother and sister, left bare and uncut, was one of the most emotional moments of the entire festival.

So, there you have it, my ranking and rationale for all 11 films of the 2014 Glasgow FrightFest. Leave a comment if you feel so moved, and subscribe to my blog to be the first to know about my horrific encounters in the future.

Thanks for reading,

Iota

Glasgow FrightFest 2014: What a weekend!

Well folks, I’ve spent the past four days gorging myself on gory films and Scottish delicacies. I thought I would take this opportunity, as I recover from my extravaganza of grotesque indulgence, to give an overview of the festival. I’ll talk more on the specific films in the coming days.

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Glasgow FrightFest, now in its ninth year, showcases new and diverse horror films from around the world. You might say it’s the little brother of the London FrightFest, which runs for five days every August bank holiday weekend. Both festivals attract hundreds of people from far and wide, all united in their love for “the dark heart of cinema”. My Friday and Saturday were spent at the Glasgow Film Theatre, a cozy, classic cinema decked out in dark wood, brass bars and red plush carpets. The cinema was packed and buzzing with excited nerds, many of them wearing t-shirts emblazoned with horror posters ranging from the classics to the campy. I kept hearing film titles and directors’ names casually thrown around in conversation, always met with nods of recognition and approval rather than the blank stares I’m accustomed to receiving from most of my friends. I felt surrounded by my own people. There was a wide age range in attendance, with a roughly even mix of 20-, 30-and 40-somethings, with maybe a 70/30 male/female split.

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I spent the first night at the opening event, “Ti West in Conversation”, which took place in a smaller, more intimate theatre than the rest of the festival. The 33 year-old House of the Devil director talked about his challenges as a young filmmaker, his stylistic experimentations, and his future plans. I even got to meet him after the interview!

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After that, the 11 films of the festival were shown in marathon format, with 5 on Friday and 6 on Saturday, and half-hour refreshment breaks in between each movie. Most of the films were introduced in person by their directors and followed by a Q&A period afterward. A lot of the filmmakers hung around for both days, mingling with fans in the bar or lobby in between films. This, for me, was one of the more remarkable aspects of going to a festival like this one. You don’t just go to watch movies! The organisers of the event spiced things up with lots of retro trailer reels and prize giveaways. It’s these extras that bring horror fans back year after year, many of them making the pilgrimage up to Glasgow in February, then to London in August for FrightFest and to various cities in October for the Allnighter, reuniting with old friends each time. As for me, I met some fellow genre nut friends whom I can’t wait to meet up with at the London fest, if at all possible!

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Now, to tide you over until the next post, here are some fun, gory statistics, gathered by yours truly, about the 11 Glasgow FrightFest flicks:

8/11 of the films had someone tied to a chair at some point

6/11 of the films involved chainsaws or circular saws

5/11 of the films had people set on fire, with 4 of them involving gasoline.

4/11 of the films involved beheading.

3/11 of the films involved people lying convulsing on their backs with white foam spilling out of their mouths.

3/11 of the films involved people asphyxiating with plastic bags over their heads.

3/11 of the films involved wrist cutting.

2/11 of the films starred Joe Swanberg.

 

And the award for the hottest guy goes to:

Ryan Corr from Wolf Creek 2

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with runner-up Graham Skipper from Almost Human

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And presenting the hottest girl:

Katharine Isabelle from Torment      

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And runner-up Luna Maya from Killers

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Stay tuned for some shameless Ti West fangirling and my personal ranking of the films!

Iota