Monday, 21 October 2013

The Last Horror Movie


In the run up to the DVD release of Julian Richards' Shiver, Virgil Entertainment have re-released his 2003 found-footage mockumentary horror, The Last Horror Movie.

Meet Max (Kevin Howarth), a serial killer who is making an amateur film about his murders. Hiring an unnamed assistant (Mark Stevenson) to record his “intelligent movie about death” and self-narrating his day-to-day proceedings, Max gives us an explicit and immersive look into his profile.

Initially, it’s Max’s smarmy, self-celebratory attitude that hooks our attention as he talks to the movie’s viewer (us) with a controlled poise and convincing deliberation, justifying his random killings through absurd theories, and purposely questioning their natural inquisition and moral plight through the watching of his acts. Howarth (Razor Blade Smile, Summer Scars, The Seasoning House) is more than convincing during his largely one-man show and, true to most roles he adopts, manages to be both scarily harrowing and unconventionally charming.

As he hides behind his wedding videographer career and buttons up his sheep’s clothing in family company, Max’s self-righteous display is truly an absorbing observation, and one which intensifies when we see the fatal attacks in his amateur home videos. The snuff movie or ‘snuff film’ has been a reoccurring plot device for filmmakers for decades and one to primarily shock and distort the line between real and fictional killings. Here, director Julian Richards combines slasher conventions with lingering shots and vivid close-ups of the deaths’ entirety. Graphic? Yes. Brutal? Absolutely. But while it is Max’ simplistic methods and amateur skill that make those scenes that much more titillating, it can sometimes comes across a bit silly and, whether or not intended, its mockumentary style often detracts from the horror.

The autobiographical concept wears thin after a while and, although the outcome of him and his (‘trophy’) movie manages to warrant a strong interest till the end, his rambling tumbles as he delves into ‘serial killer’s best practise’ and ‘tips on how to kill’ in the final twenty minutes. Whatever Max’s, or indeed Richards’, message is trying to say or do through the movie, it gets a little lost in translation at this point and becomes repetitive and almost overly self-explanatory – even to the point where it feels the need to explain the movie’s title.

VERDICT: Richards’ takes us on an involving and entertaining journey into the psyche of a serial killer, succeeding to shock through the unnerving tropes of the snuff film. Unfortunately, for an audience that will feel the need to uncover a deeper message than what’s visible at the surface, they will be left disappointed. With a sore brain.

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Thursday, 10 October 2013



In the run up to the DVD release of Julian Richards' Shiver, MVD Entertainment have re-released his 1996 mystery crime thriller, Darklands.

When investigative reporter Frazier discovers that the murder of a trainee reporter’s brother and the sacrifice of an animal in the local church may be linked to a local druid cult, he is determined to solve the mystery and seek justice. But in doing so, he finds himself knee-deep in devil worship, satanic rituals and deviant conspiracies. Past the point of no return, Frazier must battle with his dark past to try to fit the pieces together and put an end to those who walk the ‘darklands’. Otherwise human sacrifice may mark his fate.

A mystery crime thriller imbued with religious extremism, Darklands is for the most part a slow burner, and at times dwindles its running time away. Frazier’s love interest Rachel both attracts and distracts him from his involvement in the crimes, while his amateurish detective work unravels the cultural demonizing connotations of the extremist cult and society’s stereotypes of the gypsy suspects occupying hostile, primitive and violent existences. As disclosed information reveals betrayal and deceit by those around him, we encounter the path of Frazier’s progressive awareness until its bloody end.

But although these topics are thought-provoking and the chases stirring alongside its conventional 1990s energetic score, Darklands takes its time to up the momentum to Julian Richards’ standards. Ultimately it’s the behind-the-scenes activity of the celtic cult that provides the electrifying pace and suspense. Dressed in thick make up and ritualistic paint, and dancing in rings of fire, the traditional satanic group led by a deep-voiced, calmly spoken chief may be all too obviously reminiscent of The Wicker Man (1973), but is nonetheless mystifyingly fantastical in its underworld of urban Wales setting – something in which Richards’ excels. Gruesome depictions of throat-slitting animals and bludgeoning murders for their sacrificial ceremonies make up much of the gory sequences and are, too, effectively simplistic but realistic.

With such a dominating screen presence, it’s no surprise Craig Fairbrass (Cliffhanger, The Bank Job, Eastenders) made many future appearances in the genre. Largely a one man operation, he holds his own as the paranoid journalist transitions from the hunter to the hunted, and stands out amongst the largely melodramatic performances, as does Dave Duffy (The Secret of Roan Inish, Hamlet) as the cult’s initiator.

VERDICT: As one of the Richards’ first crime thrillers, Darklands bravely dances around then-controversial themes with a good script to match an unforeseen finale, even if it fails to expose them from the get go.

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Tuesday, 8 October 2013



From the director of Interview With A Vampire comes another gothic vampire tale, this time set in urban Ireland and based around Moira Buffini's 2008 play, A Vampire Story.


Clara (Gemma Arterton) and her daughter Eleanor (Soairse Ronan) are vampires, roaming from one city to the next in constant escape of the dark past that seems all too quick on their heels. The two rogues lead lives of lies with ever-changing identities and achieve survival through preying on weak lives and exploiting them for their needs. Clara prostitutes herself to filth on the street for fleeting company, quick feeds and fast cash, while Eleanor simply exists to float around and stick it out. But when they settle in a small seaside town and Eleanor finds a light in the darkness with Frank, relationships are tested and their habitual existence questioned forever.

Neil Jordan (The Company of Wolves, Interview With A Vampire) certainly has a knack for bringing an unnerving realism to his dark fairytales, as vampiresses walk the pavements alongside an ignorant humanity and inhabit the seediest corners of urban Ireland. It’s a stark example of Gothic fiction, brought to life through nightmarish circumstances, scene-after-scene depictions of morbid dystopias, and a story spanning a vast timeline dating back to the Napoleonic Wars.

But Byzantium seems a few years too late to claim a gothic revival, and thus stands more as a British amalgamation of borrowed concepts. The theme of the roaming, suburban vampire on the run who struggles to live with the consequences of their immortality in a modern society stemmed from European horrors like Let The Right One In (2007), We Are What We Are (2010) and We Are The Night (2010). Even the mythical context of their existence is reminiscent of the ancient folklore so commonly depicted in contemporary fictional works like TV drama Vampire Diaries.

However, where similar works have kept its immortals almost isolated to their own segregated fold, Byzantium’s protagonists are very emerged into society, and it’s that physical involvement that allows it to flourish with its characters and lead performances.

Eleanor is the narrator, the window from which we are invited into their secretive world, and the film’s more intriguing character. Ronan embodies a mature role as the righteous, good-willed monster, and impresses in her natural effortless to transition seamlessly into the innocent, childlike girl. We observe Eleanor’s coming-of-age tale through a series of self-prose, of which she confesses her haunting past to subconscious minds and blank pages as a vehicle to dispose of her pain. The predominantly classical score is chilling, complementing her thoughts and revealing the melancholy of her existence. 

But it’s the torn relationships Eleanor has with Clara and Frank that really exposes the strengths of Moira Buffini’s original play, A Vampire Story, which she adapted for Byzantium’s screenplay. While Eleanor damns Clara’s moral behaviour and is frustrated at the unforeseeable prosperity in their nomadic lifestyle, she shows strong affection towards her mother and an incapability to live without her. After stumbling upon Frank - a sorry, friendless soul recovering from Leukaemia who takes an immediate fancy to her – their oddities attract and their befitting bond grows to be the most touching and complex of all. Ronan and Landry Jones (The Last Exorcism, Antirival) must be the best in the business at performing awkward but endearing character roles. And together, they shine on the screen.

From the trickling drops of blood from a hanky to the gushing blood red waterfall, the exotic cinematography throughout is stunning, the imagery equally so. Unfortunately, the story is quick to lose direction after an hour when its attention switches from neat character interaction to the trudging back-story, which becomes confused with an overabundance of mythical substance. The tone too becomes warped as the initial efforts to create an enchantingly eerie mood become sporadic, giving way to irrelevant action set pieces and a hasty rush to end with some sort of climatic finale.

VERDICT: Ultimately, though Byzantium excels in creating an alluring atmosphere, it fails to maintain an enchanting hold by veering down an over complex route. Thus it escapes by the mere skin of its teeth through captivating visuals and superb lead performances.

Tuesday, 1 October 2013

FRIGHTFEST: The Borderlands


Elliot Goldner’s found-footage feature debut may sound like another crummy camera recording fresh from the tapes. But have they ever featured a bat-shit crazy priest and a church with a mind of its own before? 

Two Vatican investigators Mark (Adrian McArdle) and Deacon (Gordon Kennedy) are sent along with techie Gray (Robin Hill) to a newly-opened church in the British West Country after its priest reports that paranormal activity had recently taken place during a Christening there.

Largely exposed through the found-footage medium, The Borderlands succeeds in its amalgamation of clever paranormal scrutiny and some of the creepiest church scenes in horror history. Playing with atypical religious characters; Gray’s overbearing dry humour; and intent to prove rationality, it allows us to follow a modern day sceptical pursuit into the unknown. Familiar to the concept of Eli Roth’s The Last Exorcism, it’s the believers who have encountered false claims and explained the seemingly supernatural only to do so again the next time round, that initially snatches our attention. 

When the team reach their cottage in the middle of nowhere, the rural landscape’s uninviting The Wicker Man-esque austerity provokes an instant discomfort and an unwelcoming eeriness. The dark, sinister tone is sealed as a curious, well-contrived backstory of the church, matched with the character’s anecdotal experiences, unveils themes of satanic cultism and ancient supernatural myth, bringing much more contextual scope to the film’s provincial, small country setting.

But what is most satisfying is that, though the character’s collective situation – the investigation – is intriguing, it’s the individual problems of Deacon and the unnerving mystery surrounding Father Crellick that really keeps you guessing. The slow progression of the blossoming friendship and harnessing respect between Deacon and Gray also provides a tangible feel to their nightmare. Here, character development is given more than a mere scribble on the screenplay.

A universal fault of found-footage film is often its inability to account for hidden cameras and constant filming in times of crisis. Thankfully, Goldner’s ensures it’s fully justified and the static positioning of the cameras allow for lingering scenes of observation. As wispy crys lurk in the walls and crucifix’ fly from the altar, the audience are given the green light to watch strange occurrences met by characters’ reactions, rather than being thrown around the screen via a manic handheld camera as soon as there’s the slightest bump in the night. For once, it doesn’t feel as though you’re being guarded of the true horrors. Sights and sounds are amplified, and it’s petrifying. However, though Gray’s bold hilarity and absurd comments warrant a few early laughs, his continuous commentary when the lights go off is a little distracting when, really, silence would’ve received the biggest payoff.

Ultimately though, it’s the unspectacular end climax that lets it down. A lazy, too-soon cut-off leaves too many questions unanswered and presents an open-ended ambiguity that does little to spur a tangible explanation, even when pushing to the very limits of your imagination. A little betrayed, you can’t help but think that the clever premise has amounted to zilch.
VERDICT: A lousy ending casts a disparaging shadow on what was, up until that point, a enjoyable viewing. Nonetheless, Goldner has proven that found-footage (or in this case, forever-forgotten-footage) is not dead, and that there is something to be said for fantastic production in the subgenre.
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