Wednesday, 27 August 2014

Film4 FrightFest 2014 : Part Three

Here are some more, miscellaneous reviews from FrightFest that didn't make my Little White Lies Top Twenty :

Dead Snow 2: Red vs. Dead
(Tommy Wirkola, 2014, Norway)

Kicking off with a recap of the zombie avalanche that ended its 2009 predecessor, Tommy Wirkola's bigger, dumber sequel may be in possession of more assured tech credentials, but suffers in its witless pandering to an international audience. Sole survivor of the Nazi zombie uprising, Martin (Vegar Hoel) wakes up in hospital to find himself the prime suspect in Dead Snow's mountaintop carnage. The infected arm he took off with a chainsaw appears to have been re-attached - well, an arm has been re-attached anyway - and he's soon on the run, both from the cops and the advancing horde of uniformed undead. Wirkola demonstrates a schlocky imagination when it comes to dispatching living and dead alike, and there's an effectiveness to the escalations of the final set-piece (especially a one-on-one bout of fisticuffs between Martin and Nazi commander, Herzog), but the introduction of a Star Wars-quoting, American zombie squad falls excruciatingly flat. Female, gay and disabled characters draw an almost invisibly short straw, with Wirkow's only real affection saved for the travails of one, long-suffering zombie sidekick.


(Matthew A. Brown, 2014, USA)

Taking a leaf out Travis Bickle's book in a bid to get organizized after a vicious gang-rape, Julia (Ashley C. Williams) signs up to an alternative - to say the least - therapy programme that promises empowerment through bloody revenge. Billed as a 'neon-noir', there's really little here to earn South African director Matthew A. Brown's debut feature the noir tag, even if the prevalance of a neon-drenched lighting scheme makes the description at least 50% accurate. Instead, it's rape-revenge by numbers, the sole distinguishing feature its distinctive lensing by cinematographer Bergsteinn Björgúlfsson. Brown makes explicit his fondness for genre classic, Lady Snowblood - not least in his frequent recourse to Japan-infused pop from Icelandic outfit, Ske - but you've got to wonder where his head's at when he has his brutalised protagonist claim of her ordeal, "In many respects it was the best thing that ever happened to me..."


The Last Showing
(Phil Hawkins, 2014, UK)

This woefully dated exercise in bad screenwriting sees an English-accented Robert Englund stage a lock-in at the multiplex he's been working as projectionist. Demoted to the concession stand after refusing to attend training for the new digital technology, he conspires to wreak revenge on the midnight movie audience for their poor viewing habits and disregard for correct aspect ratios. Singling out a couple at a screening of The Hills Have Eyes 2, our projectionist casts them as the leads in his own homemade horror movie, setting the stage for a laborious trudge through pages of meta-driven exposition of the kind that was fresh for about three months in 1996. Visually flat, bereft of suspense and littered with poor performances - not least from its star - The Last Showing's every expression of theme and character is so explicitly stated in dialogue it's as though director Phil Hawkins has a personal vendetta against subtext. Taking a swipe at multiplex apathy towards its audiences can never be a bad thing, but if you're going to mount an offensive against terrible movies, making one yourself ought not to be your weapon of choice.


(Lowell Dean, 2014, Canada)

There's no doubt that Wolfcop will find its fans. Whether you're one of them depends entirely on your appetite for another cheapjack throwback firmly in the post-Grindhouse mould. Much like the 80s antecedents to which it's so completely in thrall, Wolfcop was financed on the basis of its promotional art work - nominally a great poster by Tom Hodge  - and following tradition, mostly fails to live up to the promises made therein. Following a basic western template, the set-up is straight-forward enough, little more than a coathanger for some lycanthropic lols. A drunken buffoon of a deputy (Leo Fafard, a poor man's Bruce Campbell) in a no-good town finds his police work given a boost after being attacked under a full moon. Cue dodgy one-liners and comedy gore as Fafard dons his uniform in wolf-mode to take down the local scum. If the majority of its gags fall flat, a urinal-set transformation and an extended inter-species sex scene manage to raise a smile. It may revel in its cheap looks and bad acting - and one might argue that's the point - but retro-riffing or not, cheap and bad is still cheap and bad.


All Cheerleaders Die
(Lucky McKee & Chris Sivertson, 2013, USA)

Re-packaging their similarly titled, lo-fi 2001 debut as a slick, knowing homage to such barbed, female-centric high school staples as Heathers and The Craft, McKee and Sivertson's second stab at the material may be efficiently crafted, but fails to navigate the same pitfalls that marred McKee's previous feature, The Woman. "Girls are bitches and boys are dogs... It's gangsta," head cheerleader Alice informs us - moments before her neck snaps in a training exercise - the continuous procession of lithe female bodies the directing duo parade across the screen only serving to prove their confusion at how best to present a subversive critique of the male gaze and sexual currencies without simultaneously reinforcing the very attitudes they're targeting. There may be fun to be had with the brio in which familiar ingredients are lobbed into the pot - despite being at the expense of narrative coherence - it's just a shame that it finally finds so little to say with its vamps and their ire, especially when compared to the irreverent smarts of Joseph Kahn's similarly pre-occupied Detention.


The Sleeping Room
(John Shackleton, 2014, UK)

With production values and tech credentials - not to mention performances - on a par with your average UK soap, The Sleeping Room proves a tiresomely pedestrian exercise in laboured exposition and non-existent chills. When call-girl Blue gets over-familiar with a client renovating an old Brighton brothel, the discovery of a secret room behind its walls sees her soon obsessed with unearthing its grisly Victorian secrets. With flat lighting schemes and direction offering only the most perfunctory coverage of a given scene, the way The Sleeping Room telegraphs its denouement's unintentional hilarity quickly amounts to the least of its problems. Just as its characters remain cyphers, so finally does its superficial dalliance with cod-Victoriana. Dreadful doesn't begin to cover it.


The Mirror
(Edward Boase, 2014, UK)

There's an easy, jocular chemistry between the three young leads at the centre of Edward Boase's found-footage yarn, The Mirror that does its director a world of favours. Said performances breathe some life into the first act of what quickly descends into over-familiar territory. The micro-budget ensures action is largely confined to the pad the trio share - how they afford it (or the tech at their disposal) is anyone's guess, given that none seem to work - the captured footage serving as an entry for a ghost-hunting competition they hope to win with the aid of a haunted mirror (bought on ebay, natch). Boase's commitment to a first person perspective makes readily apparent the difficulty in balancing an informal shooting style with the just-so calibrations of an effective scare. The ubiquity of the found-footage film necessitates at least some degree of formal innovation by now, or at least a demonstrable understanding of existent forms. If you ain't gonna do anything different, at least do it better. As one character says, waiting on his ghost, "I'm so ready to be scared. Come on, scare me". The feeling is mutual.


Starry Eyes
(Kevin Kolsch, 2014, USA)

As Sarah, an actress willing to go to extreme lengths to obtain a dream role, Alex Essoe gives better than she gets in Kevin Kolsch's casting-couch nightmare, Starry Eyes. Way before the ironically exploitative misjudgements of the final scene, or the stab-happy escalations of its third act, Kolsch telegraphs far too much in the sub-Lynchian audition scenes that set Sarah on her path to succubic possession. There's potential of course in tinseltown's vampiric feeding on the desperate dreams of the naïve and beautiful, but Kolsch seems little concerned with examining any ethical dilemma or engaging with the moral bankruptcy of an industry's outer fringes. Instead, he populates his film with fodder for plot reveals (the producers of Sarah's film job) and carnage (her stock gaggle of friends) - none serving any real human function. It's disappointing that Starry Eyes itself rapidly becomes a mirror to Sarah's situation, Essoe committing herself to a lead role that promises insight, but finally proves more interested in getting her bloodied and naked.


I Survived a Zombie Holocaust
(Guy Pigden, 2014, New Zealand)

Hoping to re-capture the lo-fi charms of Peter Jackson's Bad Taste and Braindead, writer-director Guy Pigden turns the production of a B-grade zombie movie into a meta workshop of Z-grade misfires. Excruciatingly unfunny, it's surprising the lengths Pigden is willing to go to point out the schematic constructs of his screenplay. It's one thing to parody the one-dimensionality of your film-within-a-film, but it might be an idea to ensure you're not equally as guilty of that which you're so laboriously lampooning. Characters possess single defining traits, and none interact with each other in any way representative of actual human behaviour. There's nothing wrong with playing your comedy broad, but it has to be anchored in at least some form of recognisable reality. Pigden is evidently a genre fan - much like his protagonist alter-ego - but name-checking Romero and Carpenter just isn't enough. Despite spending so much time telling us he understands genre and the politics of a film set, there aren't many moments where he takes the opportunity to show us.


White Settlers
(Simeon Halligan, 2014, UK)

It's serendipitous for those behind White Settlers that it should arrive just a couple of months ahead of the Scottish independence referendum. Not that the film itself is interested in expressing any political agenda in its home-invasion-by-numbers dynamic. There's a brief flirtation with the question of city/rural divide, as a middle-class English couple are shown around the Scottish fixer-upper they intend to call home - informed by the estate agent that the locals are being priced out of an area they've lived in for generations - but any hopes for a Straw Dogs-style inquiry into local pride and prejudice in the face of outsider arrogance is kiboshed in favour of a faceless (well, pig-faced) cat-n-mouse runaround. UK genre talent du jour Pollyanna McIntosh (The Woman) acquits herself well enough, but the behind-the-camera team simply aren't up to the task of instilling White Settlers with even the barest modicum of suspense or visual identity. There's plenty out there that handles the bread and butter of a game of hide-and-seek so much better - Moreau & Palud's Ils first springs to mind - that it's a shame White Settlers finally attempts so little else.


Doc of the Dead
(Alexandre O. Philippe, 2014, USA)

The usual suspects are once again rounded-up for Alexandre O. Philippe's whistle-stop tour through the annals of zombiedom. Befitting its subject matter, it's mostly a stumbling, shambolic affair, marred by awkward framing devices and a propensity for YouTube-sourced collage that point to its genesis as a side project for vlog sensation, Red Letter Media. There's little here to surprise even the most casual horror fan, the filmmakers failing to see the irony in pointing out the extent of the genre's pop-cultural saturation, whilst simultaneously explaining its 'rules'. There's even a five year old contributor on hand to swiftly undermine said necessity. Still, sifting through the usual allegorical regurgitations, there's some interesting stuff on the cultural history of the zombie, with its roots in colonialism and slavery, this despite one commentator's questionable invocation of news coverage of Hurricane Katrina as reason for the recent surge in the genre's popularity. At least Romero's on hand to crush the spirit of one zombie-walk obsessive with a witheringly delivered, "Why would you do that?"


The House at the End of Time
(Alejandro Hidalgo, 2014, Venezuela)

For his debut feature, Alejandro Hidalgo has certainly done his homework. Packing a weekend bag with a studiously lifted series of tricks, it's readily apparent that he knows how to implement some more than others. A haunted house yarn firmly in the nouveau Latin gothic tradition, the most plentiful ghosts on display are increasingly those of superior films. Amenábar's The Others, del Toro's The Devil's Backbone, even Nacho Vigalondo's Timecrimes, it's hard to escape Hidalgo's influences in his unwaveringly po-faced approach. It may be easy to denigrate the facility of a jump-scare, but they're effectively executed here, despite being diluted in their plenitude. What's missing is any sense of dread or foreboding, the film swiftly re-setting one's pulse between the shock-piece quickenings, leaving it to finally flounder amidst the reams of exposition required to sell its high-concept - but insufficiently interwoven - narrative revelations.


Stage Fright
(Jerome Sable, 2014, Canada)

Feeling like a personal affront to my long-held belief that you can learn a lot about cinema by studying the films of Brian de Palma, Jerome Sable's smug, smart-alecky tribute act goes a long way to prove that fandom doesn't necessarily equate understanding. Tiresomely dated in its been-there, post-Scream self-awareness, it's a bargain basement Phantom of the Paradise for the Glee club set, proffering grating musical numbers in place of even the most perfunctory human interest. Stage Fright's helmer even manages to unwittingly find himself a proxy in the theatrical summer camp's own director, Sable mocking the pretensions of his noxious luvvie's staging of 'The Haunting of the Opera', while simultaneously engaged in his own acts of self-gratifying, intertextual masturbation. Risible in the dim misconception of every trope and text it purports to parody, the biggest laughs come from the braggadocio with which its consistent misfires are delivered.


(Adam Spinks, 2014, UK)

Here we go again. Another witless found-footage film that defies all formal and psychological logic, and another excuse to eschew any attempt at style or even basic aesthetic values in favour of a first-person, point-and-shoot pseudo-dynamic. Featuring a commitedly irritating (though mostly offscreen) lead performance, The Expedition follows a research group into the Peruvian rainforest (Peru, Wales that is), where they're attacked by dinosaurs. Playing such material as straight as director Adam Spinks does requires at least some understanding of how to generate suspense, but all we're left with are a series of questions and the odd ropey dino (an Eyesaur?). Why does the supposed expert only speak in quotes from Jurassic Park? Who let such consummate unprofessionals along to document this trip? Seriously, what is this cameraman's problem? Who wrote this script? At least they all go some way to distract from the ridiculous question of why the camera's even running.


(Milan Todorović, 2014, Serbia)

Things don't start well for Serbian director Milan Todorović's bargain-basement, Franco Nero vs. killer mermaid flick, Nymph. An awkwardly staged prologue of heavy accents, tits and poorly judged cuts eliciting a sigh and a hasty bid to remember if you checked the running time. Yet, against the odds, Todorović quickly finds his feet - or at least one of them - proving himself capably in charge of his dopey low-fi thrills. The script may hardly be top-tier (having seemingly been engaged in a back and forth tug-of-war with Google Translate) and he presumably thinks Bechdel is a type of white sauce, but his patience in delivering a long, character-driven first act pays off. Sure, the film's limited budget remains front and centre, but the Mediterranean setting makes for a welcome change from the gloomy corridors elsewhere at FrightFest, just as the creature effects prove more than simply functional. There's even a whiff of Kong-style pathos in the mermaid's demise. Still, this cheerfully competent film finally belongs to Nero, whose early warning monologue to the vacationing mer-meat is riper than a six-week banana.


Truth or Dare
(Jessica Cameron, 2013, USA)

As the title of actress Jessica Cameron's laboriously sadistic directorial debut suggests, Truth or Dare purports to set a stage for a game of revelations and one-upmanship. A crazed fan hijacks the basement set of YouTube faux-snuff sensation 'The Daredevils' after being snubbed by the troupe during a chat show appearance. Forcing them to reveal their darkest secrets and perform acts of (increasingly sexualised) barbarity... Well, that's it. Hilarity ensues. With performances and production design - the set consists of a room draped with different coloured sheets - barely a notch above your average porno, the film's ugliness extends far beyond its queasy satisfaction at the sight of a disembowelled uterus. It would be a misnomer to describe the characters as stock, not to mention an offence to one-dimensional slack-jaws everywhere, the only distinguishing traits those moronically revealed during the game's moments of 'Truth' - "She told me she was 15!" "Incest is illegal!" "I was born a man!" - you get the idea. Not that Cameron appears interested in character anyway, or in exploring the lines between voyeur and participant her snuff/YouTube framework might suggest. Torture porn? Sure. The principal torture being its 90 minute running time.

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