Thursday, 29 August 2013

FRIGHTFEST: Big Bad Wolves


From the creators who brought us the first ever Israeli horror film - the unexpected and refreshing slasher flick Rabies - comes, yes, the second ever Israeli horror film. The darkly comic revenge thriller Big Bad Wolves is the duo’s next project and sees vigilante cop Miki (Lior Ashkenazi) stuck in the immoral mix between a gentle teacher (Rotem Keinan) accused of murdering a young girl and the dead girl’s vengeful father Gidi (Thazi Grad) who has kidnapped him to torture at his secluded cabin.

For the two pioneering directors it’s a bold move away from the slasher genre and a career-defining step towards the unhappy-ending vengeance story. Weaving three very different characters into an unlikely trio and unfamiliar situation, Big Bad Wolves is clearly in pursuit of, and given the scope to toy with, first-time reactions, amateur criminality and unforeseen circumstances. The moral efficacy of the torture induces a see-saw of decisions, while the ambiguousness of the teacher’s innocence upholds the strained tension until the bitter end.

But, repeating a trick from Rabies, it’s the timely comedic moments that are peppered almost too inappropriately between the disturbing themes of paedophilia and child rape that really hones in on its intricacy and exhibits its diverse capabilities. It’s a risky way to play and a hard balance to strike to avoid making light of the dreadful act, but Keshales and Papushado hit gold in distracting from the underlying raw tension with neat one-liners and gawky situations too opportune to refuse a chuckle.  
Perhaps one of the most memorable is when Gidi’s elderly father stumbles upon his mess in the basement after popping round for soup. Thanks to a full house of superb and complementary performances and smart script writing, a serial of hoots follow as one unplanned misfortune and ‘food’ mistake leads to the next.

Though often conventionally characteristic of a revenge movie, it’s by no means a contender for shocking brutality or extreme torture porn, and it doesn’t intend to be. Instead, the interest in each of the character’s methods and reactions takes precedence over the finger and toe chopping, providing much more of a slow-burn thriller intermittently vamped up with bursts of shocking revelation and emotional outpour. The violence is a reminder of the seriousness of the accusations, the comedy a niggling cue that it’s okay to have a little fun. Together they act to fine tune a tangible yet truly horrifying and mesmerising atmosphere that keeps the shocks and surprises rife.
VERDICT: A bold, gutsy and sophisticated effort from Keshales and Papushado that will undoubtedly further help their deserved cause: to keep that very bright spotlight on Israeli horror.
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Saturday, 24 August 2013

FRIGHTFEST: Cheap Thrills


What would you do for $250,000? Such provocative questions have invited much scope for fun and psychological interest in the genre, as human morals are measured and tested against the want for financial reward. Would You Rather? is one of the recent ventures to have hopped aboard this concept and here, in his directorial debut, E.L. Katz examines this dark theme in this black comedy horror.

When middle-aged new father Craig wakes up one morning to find an eviction notice stapled to his door and is let go from his job later that day, he hits a dead end. His financial worries for his wife and newborn are unfaceable as he watches the weight of the world sit unfairly on his shoulders from a tacky bar down town. So when he bumps into an old friend who starts getting friendly with rich couple Colin and Violet, Craig wilfully joins in and thinks he’s struck gold when the couple start giving them money to down their shots. But things turn violent and start reaching absurd extremities when the ‘game’ is resumed at their mansion and money begins to be bet in its thousands. 

The one night that comprises the plot’s framework starts out like a more mature Hangover with drinking dares, goofy behaviour and laddish bets eliciting random boozy intimacy. Though this provokes a few sleazy sniggers, its familiarity will cause a few to sneer at its tediousness. But the interest is quick to pick up when the tipsy trio and an unconscious Craig head back to the mansion, and when its initial turning point sees a domineering Vince persuade Craig to turn the tables and put the power in their hands. From then onwards the situation walks an intriguing line and this soon to be overused concept heads down a more ambitious and fulfilling path. Friendships are tested and the primal desperation for money takes a back seat to competition, greediness and revenge. Personalities unravel and switch places, while the point of no return fades into the bleak distance as the two friends battle it out for Colin’s cash.

Exactly what it says on the tin, the cheap thrills are plentiful with its sheer, trenchant brutality (some that deserve a ‘don’t try this at home’ forewarning label), while its contrasting overt dark undertones are well handled to bring more depth and substance to the predicament of Katz’s characters. The theory that ‘money makes people do mad things, just as people do mad things for money’ couldn’t be better envisaged, as Katz gives Cheap Thrills the edge by interestingly perceiving both angles from the rich and powerful members of society to the working class. 

Katz really knows how to throw an unconventional party and it’s certainly one you wouldn’t decline an invitation for a back row seat. But even when things get out of hand and the party really peaks, the decisions of every character retain their reasonability and we stay surprised at their next move again and again.

Healy (The Innkeepers, Compliance) really does shine as a family man in despair that pushes his own limits to the point of frenzy, while Embry makes for a satisfying mismatch for the underdog. Koechner tones down his characteristic brashness but is as eccentric and dominant as ever, as his manipulative character gets his kicks from destroying the lives of others. And, while Paxton has a more subtle role than she’s been used to in Last House in the Left (2009), The Innkeepers (2011) and, more recently, Static (2013), she plays her part as Colin’s spoilt, inconspicuously twisted trophy girlfriend.

Its hybridity of genres provides an entertaining and well-balanced flick, naturally playing off serious elements with a comic value – a trait which was no doubt an influence from his former involvement in the genre and working relationship with Adam Wingard (having written and produced Home Sick and co-written Pop Skull, among several other credits.) Toying with black humour and calamity until the bitter (and it’s a very bitter) end, the final scene ends it the only way it could have – with one cruel, inappropriate yet fitting chuckle.

VERDICT: A smart and damn right fun flick- a good time to be had by all. Having already been acquired to direct a segment of anthology ABCs of Death 2, which is set to be released next year, it wouldn’t be surprising if Katz became a household name in horror.

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Thursday, 22 August 2013

FRIGHTFEST: Painless (Insensibles)


This long-awaited, Spanish-language debut feature from Carlos Juan Medina presents a powerful and heart-rending dual-story that fictionally scrutinizes the painful consequences that surfaced from a disrupted Civil War Spain.

In two interweaving stories, one tale set during the Spanish Civil War sees a young boy amidst a group of peculiar children who are sectioned and used as experimental subjects in a prison because they are incapable of feeling pain, while the other takes place decades later in the present time and follows a surgeon trace his family history to try and save himself from a fatal disease.

Writer Luiso Berdejo ([Rec], Quarantine, [Rec 3]) channels the contrasting stories through David’s journey to dig into his family’s past, coupled with intermittent flashbacks of the Spanish war conveying the context. Berdejo to and fros between the two until they eventually cross paths, making this sophisticated and allegorical storytelling an ambitious project for the first-time Spanish director.

But it’s the first scene in which Medina proves his capability; in the pre-cred sequence two young girls play nonchalantly with fire as one is ablaze and unknowingly catches the mortal other alight. It’s a chilling sequence and one that immediately establishes Medina’s haunting and dramatic tone for the rest of film. The somewhat bright and familiar scenes of the present provide a striking balance to the more disturbing and poignant settings of the other, allowing stark but fluid transitions.

The tragedies that unfold during the War invasion are the more enticing and dramatic of the two, and are emblematic of the true horror stories in history that took place during the fascist regime of Francisco Franco. Its delineation bears a salient likeness to Del Toro’s masterful accounts through the eyes of a child who is the victim of child abuse or experiencing a lurid youthful struggle – something that has become much missed since the Spanish auteur has seemingly departed his trademark. The identity of the professor who tries to understand the children’s condition shines a light on the opposing theories and unregulated treatment of pre-World-War-II medical science, while the psyche of the imprisoned boy and affected persons is positioned as the definitive and direct result.

The performances by all are solid, and a dignified precedent is set on the psychological states of each character. Sorrowful expression, a sickening desperation to forget and the consequences of secret pasts shape the majority of the characters, and their connections with one another and to the prison are central to the story. With a running time of 100 minutes, and considering many modern day pictures don’t hold back to break the 2 hour mark, a lengthier commitment to the character development of the significant adults wouldn’t have gone amiss. Nevertheless, its operatic silences are consuming, and these are the places in the stories that rightfully receive the most deliberation. Painless transitions from one abhorrent, nightmarish environment to the next, but Medina excels in creating an aesthetically pleasing picture, the cinematography of the brash surroundings the most strangely beautiful and delicate of its kind.

Digging deep to evoke every emotion, Painless defiantly upholds its sincerity in a complex series of powerful and melancholic scenes, peaking in its most theatrical and operatic moments.

VERDICT: A fine and exemplary, carefully crafted work of art, Medina executes emotionally-charged scenes from the first to the last, time and time again, in what can only be described as a remarkable modern masterpiece.

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Thursday, 8 August 2013


In his first feature since The Amityville Horror in 2005, Andrew Douglas tackles another true story, this time of two teen boys who made legal history in 2003 when they were caught up in a criminal internet-fuelled incident. The investigation into the serious but uncanny crime and the court case battle that followed was notoriously concealed from the public and media domain, and now, ten years on, Douglas’ depiction of this urban tragedy attempts to unveil the true events whilst examining the potential of the internet and the calamitous consequences it can have for both individuals and society.

Confident and popular schoolboy Mark (the legal pseudonyms of both boys are used), played by Jamie Blackley (London Boulevard), is full of life, his overt boisterousness and tongue ‘n’ cheek manner as endearing as his cyber teen romance with his chatroom sweetheart Rachel (Jaime Winstone). But when Rachel, who cannot reveal herself due to being signed up to witness protection program to protect her abusive and criminal boyfriend, tells Mark to watch out for her loner brother and his classmate John (Toby Regbo), the two boy’s kindling bromance plunges them into a disastrous, life-changing predicament.

FeardotCom (2002), Cry Wolf (2005), Untraceable (2008) and Chatroom (2010) are amongst those that have acted to unveil the horrors and the lessons to be learnt from the consequential use of cyberchat, and uwantmetokillhim? too tackles this incessant  continual human concern – a concern that has been troubling our ever-growing instant-messaging cyber world long before the Facebook era.
Nowadays it’s not an uncommon feature of films to uncover true stories and Douglas does well to divulge the story through a deserved and insightful realism whilst ensuring not to surpass the dramatic elements of his own vision of the account or forego the moulding of his two subjects’ characterisation.

As Jack takes ‘weird’ john under his wing, their bourgeoning relationship carries some profound heartfelt moments and in turn the sincerity of the boy’s troubles involving. The chemistry of Blackley and Regbo is electric, often touching, and the initial prioritisation and vast depth given to understanding their friendship allows Douglas to effectively captivate the viewers before honing in on the harrowing reality of Mark and John’s fate.

It’s only when the situation escalates and Mark loses control to the power of public order institutions that, had it not been based on a true story, is where you’d think its credibility wavers. Mark’s wordly inexperience and naivety edges exploitation to the forefront of the plot’s focus henceforth as his lonely quandary spirals down a tragedy of manipulation, deceit, sociopathicism and demented fantasy. It provokes a few ‘what if’ and ‘what now’ scenarios, without overly squandering the opportunity, and Blackley excels in communicating Mark’s self-battle and moral struggle.

A few unexplained inconsistencies arise as it nears its conclusion and its shortcomings lean towards a rather abrupt ending after the sudden realisation of the truth; the lack of insight into the aftermath can only be down to the legalities of the two subject’s undisclosed identities. But these slight inadequacies do not undermine Douglas’ extensive efforts to tell the tale, and thus it succeeds all-around as a tense, gripping and absorbing cyber chiller that all too truly exposes the disastrous and powerful effects of internet abuse.

VERDICT: An unnerving story that will resonate with most and make even the internet-savvy shiver, uwantme2killhim? goes further than its predecessors to expose the vulnerability of youths in todays digital world.

FRIGHTFEST: Hansel and Gretel & The 420 Witch


The two siblings take a funny turn in this stoner comedy, but has the modern retelling of the Grimm brother's fairytale gone to pot?

When the opening credits comprise the lyrics ‘Do You Wanna Get High?’ playing over a sequence of pill pots and cannabis leaves, you know this isn’t going to be your traditional bedtime story. The Grimm brothers’ Hansel & Gretel has become a feverish modern theme, recently cropping up in a number of action and thriller renditions and comedy parodies. This fairytale horror stoner comedy is the latest to hone in on the crumb-filled path and sees a teen Gretel (Molly Quinn) on the hunt for her missing boyfriend Ashton after he fails to return from a scavenge for weed.

Little old lady Agnes (Lara Flynn Boyle) lives in Pasadena and grows the best weed around. But there’s nothing sweet about this granny pothead. After luring teenagers to her home with the lethal home-grown stash she dubs ‘Blackforest,’ she eats them alive and inhales their youthfulness to make herself younger.

The references to the classic tale provide slight entertainment, but the distracting deplorability of the embarrassing acting and idle dialogue serve to provide fewer laughs. Its gory outset is short-lived and the tale’s sweetness is replaced with nearly two hours of cheesiness, the only hint of sugar being found in the skittles that are placed by Gretel to guide the way to safety.

For a relatively high-profile teen horror, starring Twilight’s Michael Welsh and Castle’s Molly Quinn, as well as Hollywood has-been Lara Flynn Boyle, it has limited highs. Cannibal witch Agnes’ emerging sassy character simply makes a few minutes of lesbianism and bitch scraps possible, and just when you think it can’t get any more potty, slasher and stoner gimmicks get downplayed by an absurd concoction of gangster drug lords, trashy cops and – wait for it – one zombie.

VERDICT: It’s a constant relapse of spoofs that would be – I imagine – intolerable to even the most stoned viewer. If you seen this, you’ve seen it all.

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Thursday, 1 August 2013



Sanitarium presents an anthology of three short stories, each segment uncovering the disturbing past events that have led to the crazed mental state of a particular inmate at a mental asylum. Following the Creepshow and The Twilight Zone-esque structure, each tale is framed by the interrupting narration of the three patients’ sinister psychiatrist Dr Stenson (Malcom McDowell) from within the walls of the sanatorium. As he examines the mental health of each one, the stories venture back into the patients’ history to demonstrate how excessive grief, guilt, obsession or abuse can turn you insane.

The directorial trio examines multiple psychological and situational human crises that lead to trauma-induced psychosis, and each of the three independent tales is delivered with contrasting tones. Providing an eclectic mix of realism and fantasy, Sanitarium thrives on blurring the line between the two, taking us on a voyage into the initial stages of a messed up mind where we encounter hallucinations, alternate realities and mystical beings. In the introductory words of Dr Stenson himself, “The mind is unbelievably resilient. It can create whole entire fantasies to protect us from reality and blind us from the truth.”

From monsters under the bed to disastrous obsessions with an extra terrestrial apocalypse, to a world of mind-bending talking puppets, there’s a fair amount of mayhem to keep you watching. One could take this title and delve deep into the staggering complexity of the psychological state of the mind, stringing questions that have no answers and attacking the screen with futuristic imagery that has no coherence or definite meaning- in other words, create a mental head fuck. This approach has proven to have its narrative and artistic value - when done well - especially in literature that now often uses cross generic sci-fi and horror forms. But here, Ortiz, Ramirez and Valderrama present a refreshingly simple and plainly enthralling anthology that throws up little in the way to baffle or confuse. It presents some stimulating misdirection, a few quizzical ‘whos’ or ‘hows’ into the paranormal, and succeeds in tugging at the heart strings. At most it’s overly imaginative. But doesn’t go out of its way to leave you scratching your head in a state of infuriating frustration.

The third and final chapter of this film is its talking point and sees Lou Diamond Phillips continue his sporadic contributions to the genre in what is largely a solo performance as James, a man warped in a blinding delusion that there is an extra terrestrial presence taking over the world, amidst which causes him to murder his family. Convinced of an outer world control and unaware of his family’s misfortune, James traps himself in an underground lair in his garden, struggling with his commitment to understand what has happened to the world and his fear of confronting the truth that his mind is denying him. Undeniably the strongest and most memorable segment of the three, we too adopt James’ heart-wrenching pain at the bereavement, as well as temporarily experiencing an uncertainty at the events that have occurred.

The movie ends back in the sanatorium with Dr Stenson talking to James as a patient somewhat months or years later. I expect something clever, probably reflective, ambiguous or philosophical, ends the movie. It is Malcolm McDowell after all. But as the copy I watched was a hair-lined scratched screener disc, I couldn’t quite make out Doctor Stenson’s last line.

VERDICT: Sanitarium is a worthy contribution to horror’s revival of short stories and anthological works from three hopeful newbies to the genre, and largely stands alone in its ability to balance mental instability and human monstrosity against a sympathetic disposition towards the victims who are too the proprietors.