Monday, July 20, 2009


SURVEILLANCE
(Review)



If you’ve been to the Iguana before, you’ll probably know that I’m a huge David Lynch geek. So it shouldn’t be surprising that when Jennifer Lynch’s Boxing Helena came around in 1993, I was on tenterhooks to see it, wondering how much of the bizarre could be passed on through the generations.
But, whether it was because I expected too much since she was Lynch’s daughter, or whether the production itself took an early (and unrecoverable) bad step in the whole Kim Basinger casting brouhaha, I came away from the film a sad, disappointed man.
The younger Lynch then fell off the cinematic radar till last year, when her Surveillance began to stir up much praise, winning the top prize at Sitges. (It also won the Best Director and Best Actress awards at the NYC Horror Film Festival; Lynch being the first female director to take the prize in the festival’s history, and Ryan Simpkins, the first child to win Best Actress.)
And now that I’ve seen it, I’m a very happy man, extremely glad that after all these years, my disillusionment with Boxing Helena has finally been washed away by this involving thriller.


The film centres on a violent incident along a stretch of highway in the Santa Fe desert and the three witnesses to it. An a$hole cop (Surveillance co-writer Kent Harper), a junkie (Zodiac’s Pell James), and a child (Simpkins, also seen in Sam Mendes’ Revolutionary Road) are asked to recount the incident (and their respective journeys leading up to that point), by the FBI agents (Julia Ormond; and Bill Pullman, who’d of course previously worked with David Lynch on the stunning Lost Highway) who’ve arrived to investigate the crime.
The fractured storytelling (three points-of-view; discrepancies between what is being said and what actually took place) affords much of what makes Surveillance so involving in its early section, with the witnesses’ convergence during the incident in question a bloody, violent, and unrelenting set piece.
Then…
Then we’re privy to what comes next…


There is much here that is Lynchian, particularly the characters and characterizations that are slightly off-centre, and it’s actually an element of the proceedings that Lynch uses to good effect, acting as partial camouflage for the twists the narrative takes during its course.
To everyone’s credit, the clues are there, and even if you suspect the nature of the shoe you’re just waiting to drop, the reveal is still brutally effective, the finale suitably bleak.


Though this is nominally a thriller, as with most of her father’s work, Lynch’s Surveillance does what the best horror movies should do, unsettle, disturb its audience.
Central to that aspect of Surveillance are the performances of Harper and French Stewart (who plays Officer Jim Conrad), who are the worst sort of cop you’d ever have the misfortune of meeting.
It’s the fact that most of the cops we see in the film range from flaming a$holes to annoying incompetents, that the departmental rivalry between the local law enforcement and the FBI becomes a wryly amusing sight.
The third act reveal then makes it positively perverse.


Lynch, like her father, knows a good musical moment, and gives The Violent Femmes’ “Add It Up” a neat spin during the proceedings. (Aside from executive producing, Daddy Lynch also provides the creepy-a$ “Speed Roadster,” portions of which are heard in the film’s main body, then heard in its entirety during the end credit crawl.)
She also knows how to visually captivate, and she’s ably assisted in this respect by DP Peter Wunstorf and editor Daryl K. Davis.
All in all, this is a stunning return for Lynch, and the fact that she chose her next project to be the Bollywood production Hisss (about a nāginī—a female nāga, or snakewoman), makes me grin even wider.
Whatever flaws I may have perceived in Boxing Helena, Surveillance is a cold, calculated diamond, proving quite decisively that the younger Lynch is a capable and rather gifted storyteller.
Hopefully, she has more bizarre cinematic jewels up her sleeve.


Parting shot: A double feature of Surveillance and David Fincher’s The Curious Case of Benjamin Button would be a blast, if only to showcase two very different sides of Ormond.

(Surveillance OS courtesy of impawards.com [design by Jeremy Saunders]; images courtesy of latimes.com & shocktillyoudrop.com.)

Friday, July 17, 2009


DØD SNØ
(DEAD SNOW)
(Review)



Norwegian director Tommy Wirkola kicks off Død snø (Dead Snow) to Grieg’s “In the Hall of the Mountain King,” and this rousing (yet vaguely sinister) tune ushers us—without much ado—into this fun Nazi zombie romp.
Yes, you read that right.
Nazi zombie.
How cool is that?!


A bunch of med students are off in the snow-capped mountains for Easter vacation, and, well, they run into those pesky Nazi zombies, and much screaming, and bloodshed, and running around (yes, these are post-28 Days Later deadheads) ensue.
Now, despite that smirk-guaranteed premise (Nazi. Zombie.), Død snø isn’t a horror-comedy on the order of Shaun of the Dead, but rather a horror film that straddles two sub-genres (the zombie romp and the isolated-cabin-in-the-wilderness thriller), with some comedic touches thrown in for good measure.
Think a more sedate version of a latter day Evil Dead installment, when the humour was quickly encroaching on the material. To be clear, there aren’t any Three Stooges or dismembered-hand-giving-the-hero-the-finger moments in Død snø (I did say “more sedate”). But there are some laughs and over-the-top insanity amidst the shouty, gory bits.


In point of fact, early on in Død snø, the horror film milieu is acknowledged, with Evil Dead actually mentioned, a cheeky swipe all in line with Død snø’s sense of fun within a horror movie context; it’s also a sentiment I happen to agree with, a feeling that’s been with me ever since I was vaguely disappointed after seeing Evil Dead 2 for the first time.
Of course, what Evil Dead 2 and Død snø share is that both are rather fun experiences at the cinema. That common trait notwithstanding, Død snø does have its shortcomings, among them, the vaguely insubstantial back story to the wild goings-on. (And yes, Evil Dead did have a very basic back story as well, but somehow, the rest of the audacious proceedings more than made up for its rather elementary nature.)


Still, Død snø does have its moments, and has piqued my interest, not just in a proposed sequel (here’s hoping Wirkola hits it spot on a second time out), but also the reported Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters, in which we find the titular siblings all grown up and having turned their childhood trauma into their livelihood. (In this case, I’m hoping Wirkola can get right what Terry Gilliam fumbled in The Brothers Grimm.)


(Død snø OS courtesy of twitchfilm.net; images courtesy of twitchfilm.net, empireonline.com, & shocktillyoudrop.com; Dead Snow OS courtesy of rushprint.no.)

À L’INTERIEUR
(INSIDE)
(Review)


And the French raze the house down once again…
There’s just seems to be something about France, extreme horror, and Christmas: Kim Chapiron did it in Sheitan, and now, it’s Julien Maury and Alexandre Bustillo’s turn to rain buckets of fake blood down on the holidays, in À l'intérieur (Inside).
Sarah (Alysson Paradis) is recently widowed, and scheduled to give birth on Christmas morning. First though, she must spend Christmas Eve alone, while riots and violence shake the city around her.
And to make matters worse… well… let’s just say matters are made worse. Very very much worse.


Now, since À l'intérieur is the sort of film that works best the less you know about it going in, I really shouldn’t say much more than that.
What I can say is that there’s some Hitchcock in here, along with some Argento, some Miike, and a smidgen of Cronenberg thrown in for good measure.
There’s also a discordant and unnerving score, courtesy of Francois-Eudes Chanfrault, who also penned music for Gilles Marchand’s Qui a tué Bambi? (Who Killed Bambi?), Alexandre Aja’s Haute Tension, Oliver Blackburn’s Donkey Punch, and Fabrice Du Welz’s Vinyan.


Make no mistake, À l'intérieur is extreme horror that brings the goods, a brazen bit of Grand Guignol that will find its audience riveted, watching slack-jawed over stretches of running time, as the onscreen atrocities—supervised by Jacques-Olivier Molon—just escalate to terribly ridiculous heights.
Either that, or they’ll simply flee to the bathroom to throw up whatever they’ve just eaten.


Pregnant women should not, I repeat, not come within a hundred metres of this one, and if you’re particularly fond of Christmas, you should probably steer clear of this too.
Yes, there are moments where the characters seem to forget the meaning of words like “phone” and “back-up,” but still and all, this one doesn’t mess about.
If you’re into loud horror that oozes and spurts, consider this a bloody present from Santa.
You have been warned.


Parting shot: After brief flirtations with the Halloween sequel and the impending Hellraiser reboot, Maury et Bustillo have instead chosen Livid to be their English-language debut. Livid is a dark fantasy with supernatural elements that sounds—at least to me—like it could wind up in Suspiria territory.
Bring.
It.
On.

Parting shot 2: Reviews of Sheitan, Donkey Punch, Vinyan, and Suspiria, for that matter, can be found in the Archive. There’s also The Children in there, which takes another brutal swing at the holidays.

(À l'intérieur OS courtesy of impawards.com; images courtesy of gomorrahy.com and shocktillyoudrop.com; Inside DVD cover art courtesy of shocktillyoudrop.com.)

Sunday, July 12, 2009


HORSEMEN
(Review)


“And when he had opened the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth beast say, ‘Come and see.’”
-- Revelation 6:7



There are certain recurring elements that seem to be thrown at the viewer when the standard serial killer thriller/procedural is on hand: among them, some Bible bits, and a slew of disturbingly gruesome kills.
Se7en did it.
Millennium did it. A lot.
So it is that it takes quite a lot for me to get worked up over a serial killer thriller/procedural these days.
Now we’ve got Jonas Åkerlund’s Horsemen, which, admittedly, attempts to take the sub-genre a little further than it’s traveled before.


I’ve been following Horsemen’s trail for quite awhile now, tuning into the project after it looked like Jaume Balaguero was going to direct it for Platinum Dunes.
That ultimately didn’t work out though, and Horsemen instead fell into the lap of Åkerlund, whose last feature was the frenetic entry in the canons of drug cinema, Spun.
I rather liked Spun, so when news broke that Åkerlund was in the director’s chair, I was still determined to check out Horsemen.
And now that I have seen it, I must admit that while some of it works, some of it doesn’t.


Det. Aidan Breslin (Dennis Quaid) is a troubled cop whose specialty—forensic odontology—brings him to the fore of a case that quickly reveals itself as one where the perpetrators display a distinct fixation on the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.
Cue Biblical bits (complete with expository chat with the neighbourhood priest, played by Paul Dooley) and disturbingly gruesome kills (courtesy of the awesome K.N.B. EFX).
Those aspects, and the view we get of Breslin’s struggles on the homefront, particularly his fractured relationship with teen son Alex (Southland Tales’ Lou Taylor Pucci), are what work in Horsemen.
There’s also an attempt to portray a complicated plan that’s compromised by the very human nature of its perpetrators; we eventually see where the scheme buckles, despite the intentions of its mastermind.


Where Horsemen doesn’t work though is in its underutilization of some very capable actors (among them, Clifton Collins, Jr. and Peter Stormare).
We get a fine performance from Patrick Fugit (who’d previously worked with Åkerlund on Spun), but it’s limited to a short portion of the film, playing almost like a vignette in the context of the entire narrative.
In fact, there are elements of the script (by Dave Callaham, who’s also written the script for Michael Cuesta’s Tell-Tale) that just don’t seem to reach any manner of resolution, among them, the subplot that involves Zhang Ziyi.
Then there’s that ending, which plays like such a Hollywood copout, the sort of ending that isn’t earned at all, but somehow feels tacked on.


Granted, the perpetrators have a point to make, motivations that transcend the usual psychopathology of your average movie serial killer, but in the end, Horsemen just doesn’t cohere as well as I’d hoped.
Disappointing, considering my fondness for Spun.
At any rate, Callaham’s script showed a certain level of ambition, so I can only hope that his screenplay for Tell-Tale (a contemporary update of Edgar Allan Poe’s "The Tell-Tale Heart") will likewise strive for something more than your average Hollywood horror thrills.


Parting shot: With Cuesta at the helm of Tell-Tale, my hopes for it rise even higher…

(Horsemen OS courtesy of impawards.com; images courtesy of bad-taste-it.)

Thursday, July 9, 2009


THE CHILDREN
(Review)



As if the French weren’t bad enough, the holiday season gets yet another kick in the nuts in Tom Shankland’s shocking The Children.
And, as if to up the that’s-just-so-wrong ante, Shankland looks back to Narciso Ibáñez Serrador’s ¿Quién puede matar a un niño? (Who Can Kill a Child?) and casts the eponymous wee ones as the film’s antagonists.
It’s a recipe for a tense and disturbing cinematic experience that leaves many other so-called “horror films” wondering where they left their teeth.


Rebellious teen Casey (Hollyoaks’ Hannah Tointon) is hijacked by her mum Elaine (Eva Birthistle, soon to be seen in David Keating’s upcoming Hammer Film, The Wake Wood) and stepda Jonah (The History Boys’ Stephen Campbell Moore) for a holiday weekend in the snowbound country home of her aunt Chloe (The L Word’s Rachel Shelley).
But it isn’t long before—amidst the shrill clatter of squealing children (including Chloe’s own)—it becomes glaringly obvious that this is not going to be one of those regular, interchangeable holidays.
Something’s wrong with the children.
Very wrong.


The premise—from a story by Paul Andrew Williams, writer/director of London to Brighton and The Cottage—is simple enough, but it’s in Shankland’s helming where this film asserts itself as a nastily effective yarn for those who’ve always suspected that all kids are just little devils in disguise.
Not only does Shankland have a rather good cast here (including the four child performers; hats off to the children’s acting coach, Jane Karen), he also has Nanu Segal as DP, Tim Murrell as editor (masterfully deploying the lightning-quick cuts where they’re most potent), and Stephen Hilton on music.
United by Shankland’s vision, Segal, Murrell, Hilton, and Karen, help in very significant ways, to bring The Children to the unsettling heights it manages to reach, and they make it all seem so effortless.
Neat trick, that.


For the record, if you haven’t yet figured it out, The Children is quite simply not for those who love-love-love the holidays and/or children.
This film is not for you.
Everyone else, if you’re in the mood for some unflinching horror—not so much in the French school of disturbo shock-and-grue, but rather in the narrative’s subject matter—then The Children is a timely and provocative title that should really be on your to-watch list. It depicts quite chillingly, in the best kind of horror film milieu, the deep-seated fear all generations have, of forced obsolescence, of being cruelly replaced by one’s progeny.

It should also go without saying (though I’m saying it anyway) that this should not be seen by the young ‘uns.
It could give them ideas…


Parting shot: Of the three Segal-shot films I’ve seen thus far (the other two being Paddy Breathnach’s Shrooms and Oliver Blackburn’s Donkey Punch), The Children is most definitely the best.

Parting shot 2: Reviews of The Cottage, The History Boys, and Shrooms can be found in the Archive.

(The Children UK quad and images courtesy of shocktillyoudrop.com.)

Wednesday, July 8, 2009


LESBIAN VAMPIRE KILLERS
(Review)


“It’s spelled A-D-V-N-T-U-R-E, my friend.”
“Christ, you’re a tit.”


It’s all right there in the title, innit?
The glorified send-ups of the B-movie romp—as exemplified by such films as James Gunn’s Slither and Robert Rodriguez’s Planet Terror—find a new recruit in Phil Claydon’s Lesbian Vampire Killers.
Here, there’s a little English village called Cragwich, with a curse laid down upon it by the dykey vampire queen, Carmilla (Van Helsing’s Silvia Colloca, who is now, by the way, Mrs. Richard Roxburgh; sign up for a movie single, and get a gorgeous wife out of it… brilliant!). As the curse goes, every village lass turns into a lesbian vampire on her 18th birthday.
But hope lies in Jimmy McLaren (Mathew Horne), the descendant of Baron Wolfgang McLaren III, who vanquished Carmilla once before. But in Jimmy’s blood also lies Carmilla’s one shot at resurrection.
And all we need for that, is a virgin.


Yup. It’s that kind of British horror-comedy.
And while it may not fulfill its promise as successfully as a Shaun of the Dead or a Severance, it’s nonetheless a sight funnier than efforts like The Cottage.
At the very least, there’s loads of hot women in this, so that’s got to count for something, yeah?

“Yup. Lesbian vampires.”
“How ridiculous.”
“No. Just another one of God’s cruel tricks to get on my tits. Even dead women would sooner sleep with each other than get with me, it would appear. But eatin’ me alive? Oh, no, that’s fine!”


Much of the film’s humour can be found in the funny, overweight sidekick figure, as essayed by Nick Frost in Shaun of the Dead, or to use an American example, Tyler Labine in Reaper.
In Lesbian Vampire Killers, that role is taken quite ably by James Corden (The History Boys’ Timms, who’s been previously paired with Horne on TV’s Gavin & Stacey and Horne & Corden). As Fletch, Corden gets away with most of the script’s winningest lines.
That said, the script (by Stewart Williams and Paul Hupfield) just isn’t as hilarious as I imagine it could have been, given the patently preposterous premise.


Still and all, it’s a bit of harmless, goofy fun (the sort of fun where lesbian vampire blood isn’t red at all, but rather, a milky white substance, looking much like gallons of… umm… err… never mind).
There’s also what could very well be a fleeting verbal nod to hentai classic, Chôjin densetsu Urotsukidôji. (I was hoping for a subsequent visual, but sadly, that never came to pass.)
So if that sounds to your liking, well then, check Lesbian Vampire Killers out by all means.
It may not be a classic by modern horror-comedy standards, but it does give it a good go.

“Lesbian vampires?!”
“Next time, he’ll have me bummed by a big, gay werewolf, I swear!”


Parting shot: Reviews of Severance, The Cottage, Slither, Planet Terror, and The History Boys can be found in the Archive.

(Lesbian Vampire Killers UK quad and images courtesy of empireonline.com.)

Sunday, July 5, 2009


VINYAN
(Review)



Paul and Jeanne Bellmer (Rufus Sewell and Emmanuelle Béart) are a couple living in Thailand, still reeling from the loss of a child to a recent tsunami. But when a brief glimpse on a DVD offers the tantalizing hope that, just maybe, their son is still alive, the couple goes on a trying, soul-torturing odyssey to recover that which has been forcibly taken from them.
That’s Fabrice Du Welz’s Vinyan in a nutshell, and it’s another film from the Belgian writer/director that stretches the boundaries of the modern horror film.


As with Du Welz’s Calvaire, Vinyan is endurance cinema that doesn’t travel the usual Grand Guignol route, instead focusing on the mental and emotional tortures visited upon its unfortunate protagonists.
Anchoring the production are the raw, turbulent performances by Sewell and Béart, whose Bellmers are a husband and wife severely damaged by their loss. Guilt and grief weigh them down, Jeanne struggling to retain the belief that she will see her son alive again, while Paul can do nothing except stand by her.


Largely eschewing the blood-and-guts school of thought, Vinyan finds much of its horror in the minefield of emotions that lies between individuals who’ve experienced the brutal lashings of cruel fate. Amidst the turmoil of love and loss, Du Welz mines for the existential terror that dwells in the thin line separating hope from delusion.
Which is not to say that Vinyan is completely bloodless. It has its visceral moments as well, but it’s in the sweat-soaked, rain-drenched desperation, in the fragile mental state of the bereaved, that the narrative finds its most compelling elements.


Oh, and just so you know it isn’t all weighty matters at hand here, it’s also got Julie Dreyfus (Kill Bill’s luscious Sofie Fatale), and one Petch Osathanugrah looking like a crazy-a$$ anime character come to flesh-and-blood life.
And it’s shot by Benoit Debie, who also shot Calvaire for Du Welz, as well as Gaspar Noe’s infamous Irreversible. (There’s a seedy, neon-drenched, handheld sequence early in Vinyan that actually elicits vague echoes of Irreversible.)
What more could you want?


Once described by Du Welz as “a mix of The Brood by [David] Cronenberg and [Nicolas Roeg’s] Don’t Look Now,” Vinyan is a disturbing descent into the netherworld born from the anguish of loss.
It’s a potent sophomore effort from Du Welz that further solidifies his stature as a director willing and eager to test the limits of the cinematic envelope.
One wonders what could be in store should he decide to rip the envelope wide open…


Parting shot: Vinyan went up against the likes of Sean Ellis’ The Brøken, Kim Ji-woon’s Joheunnom nabbeunnom isanghannom (The Good, the Bad, the Weird), and Pascal Laugier’s Martyrs, for Best Film at Sitges 2008, though ultimately, Jennifer Lynch’s Surveillance took home the big prize.

(Vinyan French OS courtesy of impawards.com; images courtesy of carpenoctem.pl.)

Friday, July 3, 2009


VIKAREN
(THE SUBSTITUTE)
(Review)


Ole Bornedal first came to my notice with his 1994 thriller, Nattevagten, which I heard good things about back then, and which he then remade three years later as the English-language Nightwatch, with Ewan McGregor, Josh Brolin, and Patricia Arquette.
Having missed the original, I made it a point to check out the redux, and found it to be an interesting, but flawed effort. It felt compromised, which happens quite often with English-language remakes, even if the original’s helmer is still in place.
After 1997, Bornedal fell off my radar, till he screeched quite forcibly back with 2007’s Vikaren (The Substitute). Following a bunch of students who suddenly discover their teacher is an alien, Vikaren sounded, at first blush, like Robert Rodriguez’s The Faculty.
So here I was, with a film that not only brought my attention back to Bornedal, but also potentially felt like a vindication of the “my teacher is an evil alien” idea, which was largely squandered by The Faculty (a double disappointment, since it was a tantalizing team-up between Rodriguez and screenwriter Kevin Williamson).


Vikaren is perhaps most interesting in that Bornedal (with co-writer Henrik Prip, who also plays inept school psychologist Claus) chooses a tone which successfully mixes horror, black comedy, and bizarre humour, to produce an entertaining hybrid that’s miles better than The Faculty, and yes, is indeed a vindication of the “my teacher is an evil alien” idea.
Said evil alien is one Ulla Harms (Paprika Steen), who goes down as one of the most gonzo, politically incorrect, apparently hormonal substitute teachers in film history. A significant portion of the film’s humour stems from Steen’s performance, as she essays this inhuman entity who’s heretofore only known violence, but has arrived on Earth in order to learn about love.
Yes. Love.
But, being an evil alien, Ulla naturally just goes about things the wrong way, almost instantly alerting her students to her otherness, and ultimately uniting these misfits long enough to take her extraterrestrial a$ on.

Another refreshing tack Vikaren takes is to have a bunch of young kids (as opposed to horny teenagers) as our protagonists. Trapped in a world of mostly clueless and ineffectual adults, who never listen when he really needs them to, Carl (then-newcomer Jonas Wandschneider) not only has to deal with a recent family tragedy, but also bring his classmates—some of whom don’t particularly like the “weird” kid—together to stop the alien’s insidious plans.
And while the film buckles in certain portions of its tail end (sudden leaps in logic and editing; a missed opportunity to highlight the class as a cohesive, empathetic unit), it’s still very much a wild and welcome ride that’s not quite like anything out there that comes readily to mind.
It’s oddball, yes, but it isn’t really the horror-comedy of titles like Edgar Wright’s Shaun of the Dead or Christopher Smith’s Severance.
Actually, this feels closer to David Lynch territory. Sort of.


What must also not go unmentioned is the fact that, since the protagonists are essayed by child actors, the performances aren’t uniformly laudable.
There are some rough patches here, but nothing that can be considered a major stumbling block.
After all, Vikaren is all clearly in good fun.
Though I expected it to be more deadly serious than it turned out to be, Vikaren is nonetheless a title to be checked out.
At the very least, it’s loads better than The Faculty. (Yes, even without Famke.)

Parting shot: Almost as if to make The Faculty link even more overt, Vikaren also employs Faculty composer (and frequent Wes Craven collaborator) Marco Beltrami.


(Vikaren DVD cover art courtesy of wordpress.com; images and The Substitute DVD cover art courtesy of shocktillyoudrop.com.)