Sunday, June 28, 2009
Polly Watt and Seth Belzer (Jill Wagner from TV’s Blade and Everything’s Gone Green’s Paulo Costanzo) are all set for camping, both looking forward to some anniversary sex under the stars. But when the tent defies their romantic intentions, they relent and head for the nearest motel, putting them on a collision course with another couple, and placing them on a path that will bring them to the Sherman gas station, and the gruesome thing that awaits there…
Toby Wilkins’ Splinter is a frisky blast of low budget horror that grabs you from the get-go (with a splendidly-edited opening, courtesy of David Michael Maurer), and introduces us to one of the freakiest cinematic beasties from 2008.
Wisely opting to utilize old school physical effects—by Quantum Creation FX—Wilkins amplifies the suspense and tension of the dire circumstances the film’s characters find themselves in as Splinter unspools.
If this had been some bigger-budgeted Hollywood horror flick, the monster might very well have been achieved with CGI, which is still usually a problematic option, as, a lot of the time, the pixels really don’t display any genuine physical presence. It’s hard to get worked up when the onscreen menace is clearly not having any actual interaction with the cast, as with, say, Francis Lawrence’s I Am Legend.
In Splinter, the creature is most definitely there, banging and scuttling and flailing about with the rest of the flesh-and-blood cast.*
But Splinter is more than just that horrible beast (co-designed by Wilkins); Splinter is also an involving narrative populated by characters with actual dimension, who surprise us with their humanity, and keep us involved by gaining our sympathy (some, more quickly than others).
Here, the headstrong characters occasionally show their vulnerability, the physically inept step up when the chips are down, and the apparently despicable… well, let’s just say even they’ve got their own story.
And while the cast (which includes Wristcutters: A Love Story’s Shea Whigham, who does a thoroughly bang-up job here) is to be commended for that vital grounding in an essential humanity, the film’s script—by Kai Barry and Ian Shorr—should also be noted.
There’re also some nice bits of scoring in here by Elia Cmiral, who also scored Jim Sonzero’s remake of Pulse.
With Splinter, Wilkins makes quite a shuddering first feature impression, enough that I’m actually driven to check out the straight-to-DVD The Grudge 3—which he also directed—despite my having been underwhelmed by Ghost House’s first two English-language installments. (Wilkins had already previously directed the Tales of the Grudge shorts.)
Here’s hoping Wilkins continues to fly the flag of earnest, low-budget horror in the future, even if he, like other indie horror helmers before him, crosses over into the majors.
* In light of Splinter’s decidedly lo-tech effects approach, it’s interestingly ironic to note that Wilkins is an experienced Inferno/Flame artist.
Parting shot: Reviews of Everything’s Gone Green, I Am Legend, and Wristcutters: A Love Story can be found in the Archive.
(Splinter OS courtesy of bloody-disgusting.com; images courtesy of shocktillyoudrop.com.)
Tuesday, June 9, 2009
THE DEVIL’S CHAIR
“I guess you’ve seen Hellraiser. I’m guessing you’ve seen all those kind of films. Pumpkinhead or whatever. That’s probably why you’re watching this now.”
Well, this one was interesting. I can’t say I completely love it, but it’s an intriguing piece of horror cinema nonetheless.
We open with the scathingly knowing narration of Nick West (Andrew Howard), as we’re treated to fragmentary glimpses of how this tale will end, before we’re quickly shown the foundation of Adam Mason’s The Devil’s Chair: Nick and his bird Sammy (StarStreet’s Polly Brown) are larking about the abandoned Blackwater Asylum, when they discover the eponymous chair, which becomes instrumental in Sammy’s apparent demise.
We’re never really certain what exactly happened—not yet, at any rate—but Sammy’s body is never found, and Nick’s crazed rantings about the chair land him in a functioning loonybin for four years, before he’s prematurely sprung by Psychology professor, Dr. Willard (David Gant, possibly familiar to some of you from Paco Plaza’s Romasanta, François Girard’s Le violon rouge, or Terry Gilliam’s Brazil).
Willard intends to write a book about Nick, about the incident and his delusions. Central to that book is Nick’s reactions to his return to Blackwater, in the company of Willard and a few handpicked students.
Right off the bat, we can plainly see the terrible Catch-22 here: if Nick is indeed a nutter, then the good doctor is returning to the scene of the crime with the lunatic murderer (something which is actually brought up by one of the characters early on in the film); if Nick is telling the truth, then there’s some weird supernatural shenanigans going on in Blackwater.
Either way, an abandoned asylum is the last place any sane individual would want to be in.
But Willard and academic company take the plunge, with Nick in tow, and The Devil’s Chair chronicles the results of that boneheaded decision.
“Look at this poorly written, badly acted bullsh!t! Is there any truth in this B-movie banality? No! No!
“There is no truth, my friends. Believe no one. Believe nothing.”
At its core, The Devil’s Chair is a fascinating look at the dichotomy of the traditional supernatural-tinged horror film and the more modern, grounded brand of endurance horror which finds its roots in Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and Wes Craven’s The Hills Have Eyes.
Nick’s voice-over, which runs the entire length of the film, serves as a sort of postmodern commentary on the on-screen action, adding another layer to the whole. Initially, this may at first seem to be a way to inject a Guy Ritchie-esque air about the proceedings (complete with freeze-framing the action so as to better punctuate Nick’s observations and opinions), but ultimately the narrative technique bolsters the climactic reveal.
It’s the non-linear narrative though, which could make or break it for an audience.
As it is, that opening montage pretty much telegraphs the film’s outcome; it’s all right there.
Given though that the third act eventuality was always in my mind, when Mason and co-writer Simon Boyes choose to let that particular shoe drop, it’s still a horrible, pivotal moment that subsequently drags the audience through the grueling, bloody climax.
And, potential deal-breaker though it is, the reveal is certainly more intrinsic to the material than, say, a plot flip like Haute Tension has.
Love or hate that curve which The Devil’s Chair takes, it’s undeniably part of the whole.
For my part, I’ll say this: You know those moments in a movie where you see another film that might have been, had the filmmakers chosen to go down a particular path?
Those instances when you exit the theatre and go, Why didn’t I see that movie, instead of what I was actually shown?
Well, in the case of The Devil’s Chair, I can safely say, I’m glad I didn’t see that movie, the one that was actually going on… What we do see of it is enough to drive the point home.
After all, in this day and age of extreme cinematic horror, there’s something to be said for the adage “A little goes a long way.”
“I tell you what, party people, you geeks and freaks, you bloodthirsty morons... F*ck you. Bring on the red parade.”
As potent a brew as The Devil’s Chair is though (with enough bravado to sneak a David Lynch moment in before the end credits), it’s not without its warts.
There may have been a tad too many of those aforementioned Guy Ritchie moments, and the voice-over did get contrived in some bits, and in one stretch, strangely derisive of the film’s intended audience.
I was also none too thrilled with the CGI bits.
And even though the borderline hammishness of Gant’s portrayal of Willard makes a little more sense by the time the film wraps up, it’s still a borderline hammy piece of acting that we need to endure for the length of the feature.
Still and all, it’s an effective piece that marks Mason as a name to watch in the future. (I’ve yet to see his previous film, Broken, though in the wake of The Devil’s Chair, I’m certainly looking forward to his next feature, Blood River, which reunites him with Howard.)
If you, like me, revel in the broad and dark spectrum that horror resides in, then The Devil’s Chair is a title that needs to go on your viewing list.
At the very least, it could open up some involved discussions of the different kinds of horror, and the particular personal preferences of any given horrorhound.
“Do you ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?”
Parting shot: Incidentally enough, having mentioned Ritchie, Howard had a role in his underappreciated Revolver.
(The Devil’s Chair OS courtesy of bloody-disgusting.com; images courtesy of bloody-disgusting.com & shocktillyoudrop.com.)
Like Ils, Vacancy, and The Strangers, Eden Lake follows the travails of a couple who run afoul of violent and murderous rascals, who terrorize and stalk their hapless prey to a bloody end.
Unlike Vacancy though, this one doesn’t wuss out at its climax.
And of all the films mentioned above, though Eden Lake is closest to Ils, writer/director James Watkins has made it a point to provide his work with a thematic backbone which serves as a subtle commentary on today’s youth and their relationship to violence.
Kelly Reilly and Hunger’s Michael Fassbender are Jenny and Steve, the unlucky couple this time out, who plan to spend the weekend at Slapton Quarry, before it is shortly to fall prey to real estate development, and become part of the gated community, Eden Lake Executive Homes.
It’s a simple and familiar set-up, which soon takes a turbulent turn, as Steve and Jenny realize that they must fight for their lives if they intend to make it back home.
What makes Eden Lake stand out from its ilk is our view of the couple’s stalkers, allowing us glimpses into the possible roots of the violence we see unfold onscreen.
And while the inexplicability of the events in Ils and The Strangers may heighten the thrills and tension, Watkins’ script takes the time to illustrate how the young really are sculpted by their environment and upbringing, infusing Eden Lake with an additional layer of relevance absent from its cinematic brethren. (The fact that this was released in England in 2008, where there was a rash of murders involving young perpetrators, is also a gruesome footnote to its chilling narrative.)
If I haven’t quite made it clear, allow me: Eden Lake doesn’t pull its punches.
While it may not reach the bizarro heights of certain examples of French extreme horror (at the moment, no one’s doing it quite like the French are), Eden Lake is still a particularly brutal bit of horror, which takes place in a world where justice—worldly or cosmic—does not seem to exist, and where the comeuppances happen to those who, arguably, deserve it the least.
Parting shot: Reviews of Ils, The Strangers, and Vacancy can be found in the Archive.
(Eden Lake UK quad and images courtesy of shocktillyoudrop.com.)