I thought this focus on horror cinema was a good chance to wrap up some of the horror flicks that have been released this year. Here are five that fit the bill, nicely capturing a fair range of horror tropes – vampires, monsters, horror-comedy, alien abduction, home invasions. In order to keep your reading time somewhat manageable, I have tried to restrict myself to 300 words per film which is pretty short for a rambler like me. Speaking of rambling, I went on a fair rant earlier in the fortnight in terms of the state of distribution here in Australia when I was sharing the Patrick (2013) trailer with you. Well here is some more evidence for you about how rubbish the system has become here. Three of these films (including the two which blew me away and got top marks) did not even get a cinema release. Another film I considered reviewing as well was The Evil Dead (2013) which only managed to play in a single cinema in the entire country. Anyways enough ranting, onto the reviews!
Let’s get the bad out of the way first of all shall we? The Guillermo Del Toro produced Mama (2013) is all kinds of bad. The film starts promisingly enough, with an atmospheric opening and the really high production values shining through (however it does feel a little too glossy). I was a big fan of the first appearance from the titular Mama as well and quite like the change-up when films reveal the monster early, like in The Host (2006) for example. The premise is classical, but not without promise – two young children are found after surviving a number of years in the forest, watched over by a spirit of some description.
But the overall experience of Mama is one that does not entirely flow. The creepy-arse kids give good performances but I did not love their characters. Unfortunately Jessica Chastain, one of my favourite actors, is not very good in this at all. I am all for breaking down typecasting and exploring new genres, but here as a tattooed rocker chick, she does not seem to be feeling the role which results in one of her lesser performances. Not only is the performance bad, her character is entirely unsympathetic too. Narratively the film is both derivative (the ol’ long shut-down nearby mental asylum plays a major role here) and on more than one occasion pretty nonsensical too. Not only that, but for long stretches of the film, nothing at all really happens.
Mama was a flat experience for me that only managed to provoke annoyance rather than anything approaching a satisfying horror experience. Poor casting and a tepid, confusing narrative round out a ride that is nothing but a disappointment.
Verdict: Schooner of Tooheys New
From the terrible to the really good and more importantly in this case the absurdly fun Grabbers (2012), which went straight to DVD/blu-ray out here. Horror-comedy films are so hit and miss. When they are good, they are exceptional, when they are bad they are truly terrible.
Most of the best horror-comedies in my experience tend to focus on the horror aspect more than the comedy. Grabbers is an exception to this rule though, as it is really quite hilarious, in an Irish kind of way. Much of that Irish kind of way is down to booze. Hilariously, one (scientifically proven) way to survive the terror that is afflicting all these folk, is to lock themselves inside the pub and get pissed all night. But it is underpinned by the horror elements and the fact it is a seriously well made film. It is beautifully shot, the performances are all good and when it wants to, the film creates tension of the highest order. The two lead performances, from the hilarious Richard Coyle who I know best from the TV show Coupling and Ruth Bradley as his sassy cop offsider are really wonderful. And one of the best aspects of all are the effects. For what I assume is a pretty low budget outing, the creatures look amazing. Everyone loves a good creature feature, and the sea monster/alien hybrids that are the focus of Grabbers look amazing and act really logically too.
I cannot emphasise enough how fun this film is. A hilarious script with leads who have wonderful comedic chemistry and effective monsters wreaking havoc on a sleepy coastal town are a great start. Any film that manages to successfully combine the adventure, comedy, crime, horror and love story genres as well as this is more than alright in my book. Destined for cult classicdom, so jump on the bandwagon early.
Verdict: Longneck of Melbourne Bitter
I can’t really remember the last alien abduction style flick I saw, so checking out Dark Skies (2013) was an interesting experience for me. Particularly because against expectations, this film scared the utter shit out of me more than any other film in this wrap-up and actually more than any other film this fortnight.
The story is set in arch suburbia where a young family begins to be plagued by increasingly strange goings on. Every night, something happens in their house, ranging from the playful to the sinister. The early going sets up the rhythm of the film – blandly scripted and poorly acted (with one exception) daytime scenes and really moody, chilling and original night time scenes. I am rarely scared by horror films, but the night time set half of this scared the pants off me. I was watching it late one night, sitting up by myself, and I actually had to turn it off and regroup the next arvo. And the conclusion wrecked me, the director wisely holding most (but not all) of his cards close to his chest for a really frightening, alien filled finale. I’m getting flashbacks to those creepy silhouettes now. It is a shame then that the rest of the film, the characterisation and progression of the family narrative, is so weak in comparison. Mad props must go to Keri Russell who plays the mother though. She is a really good actress and stands out in comparison to those around her.
I liked Dark Skies, but the overwhelming feeling I am left with is that there is almost unlimited wasted potential here. The real meat of a horror film, the scares, are so exceptionally done here. But everything else is midday movie standard… and not even good midday movie standard at that.
Verdict: Stubby of Reschs
One of the most beloved horror releases of the year, along with The Conjuring (2013), is the home invasion slasher You’re Next (2011). It even managed to get a release in cinemas out here, though I am not sure how much the casting of Aussie actress Sharni Vinson helped with that.
The arc of Vinson’s heroine is probably the most interesting aspect of the film actually. The new girlfriend who appears to be a highly trained expert in handling any horror film situations, preferably in slow-mo. This is a really well told story, the setup of Vinson’s Erin as an outsider to the well-off family is succinctly and well handled. Actually a good sense of character is quickly established for all the main players in the film. You’re Next does not waste too much time though and ramps up both the blood and the action relatively quickly as the family members are picked off one by one. Whilst there is a hell of a lot to like about this film, the big twist was a fairly big letdown for me. Not only that, but I feel like it sucked a lot of the tension and fraught atmosphere out of the goings on. Sometimes simpler is better and I think this is an example of that. Plus, knowing who was behind those freakyarse masks made them less horrifying. Having said that though, the very end of the film is I think handled very strongly and makes up for the lag.
Managing to be both really original and to incorporate elements of numerous classic slasher films, it is easy to see why You’re Next has so many fans. And despite my issues, I definitely count myself amongst them. A brilliant Home Alone (1990) reference and a very black sense of humour help.
Verdict: Stubby of Reschs
I so wish I had more than 300 words to profess my love of Neil Jordan’s Byzantium (2013) to you. This is a surreally good film, a classic vampire narrative that reminds you just how artistic and adult a truly great horror film can be.
To put it in exceedingly simple terms, Byzantium deals with the eternal limbo of vampires. It is a very classical notion and it is brought to life by some classically beautiful photography. Gemma Arteton and Saorise Ronan play the mother and daughter vampires respectively. Ronan’s character is the focus and so much of the film’s success is down to the fact that she gives a stunning performance. I was actually quite taken aback by how good she was, because I have actually not been a fan of hers in anything else I have watched. If, like me, you are always disgruntled at the manner in which vampire mythology is treated in horror films, you will love this one. It examines, interprets and showcases so many classical ideas but manages to mix them with the contemporary as well. The manner in which the two of them feed is just one really good example of this. As well as doing all of these things, the film manages to throw in a teenage love story that actually enhances the whole film. This subplot gives us the third really excellent performance of the film from Caleb Landry Jones, who I have not come across before.
Bloodthirsty, pretty, classical, intense, contemporary, adult, frightening, romantic, chilling, rich intelligent, moody, atmospheric, dark, weighty and steadfastly refusing to deal with events or people in black and white terms, Byzantium is seriously a great film. One of the best I have seen in all of 2013.
Verdict: Longneck of Melbourne Bitter