I have caught a couple of films in cinemas over the past week and on both occasions I have been subjected to horror that is the trailer for Dracula Untold (2014). Not horror as in an exceptionally crafted trailer for a film that looks terrifying. Rather a trailer that appears to be promoting the most utterly terrible film of the year. It looks like it could even be the worst Dracula film ever which is no mean feat. The concept is moderately interesting. Dracula actually seeks out his transformation into a vampire to help protect his family. But it looks to be rendered in the most bland and cliche and unimpressive manner imaginable. You can check out the horror for yourself below. Does anyone out there hold any hope for this?
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
October means Halloween for many people. I am not really one of those people. Being an Aussie, the holiday is, well not really a holiday here. Having said that, I have gotten increasingly into horror films over recent years, so any excuse to watch a buttload of horror flicks is a good one in my book. So over the next 14 days in the lead up to Halloween, I am going to be covering a huge range of horror films here on the site, hopefully capturing everything from iconic classics to the latest releases.
To go along with my usual ranting and reviews, I also have 4 or 5 great guest posts lined up as well, from some awesome writers. The first of these should hit the site tomorrow with others to follow regularly over the fortnight.
There will be a DVD prize courtesy of Madman Entertainment on offer as well. I have not confirmed the exact prize as yet, but will keep you all updated. In any case, rest assure it will be awesome.
Entries to the comp will be open to all readers worldwide. To enter, do any/all of the following for each of the posts over the next 14 days:
- Like the post on Facebook for one entry
- Comment on the post on Facebook for two entries
- Share the post on Facebook for two entries
- Retweet the post on Twitter for two entries
- Like the post on this site for one entry
- Comment on the post on this site for two entries
To kick things off, give me your top 3 horror flicks of all time in the comments section below.
Given the presence of director James Wan, I am claiming this review of Insidious (2010) as part of my focus on Australian film. Wan and creative partner Leigh Whannell famously had to head abroad in order to get the necessary financing for their film Saw (2004). It has worked well for them too, with both of them carving out nice little careers in America.
I have been enjoying horror films more over the last year or two, after realising that whilst atmospheric and at their best highly tense to watch, they were not going to leave me all that scared, unable to sleep for days like I feared. Whilst it didn’t keep me up for days, Insidious is one of the scarier horror flicks I have seen. The first half is a near perfect Haunted House jaunt that is seriously tense and creepy. It sees a married couple, played by Rose Byrne and Patrick Wilson, have their son fall into a coma. Soon after, numerous creepy happenings start taking place. One of the best aspects of this section of the film was that it felt like a pretty realistic presentation of how a couple would react to such an intense situation, as fractures begin to emerge in their relationship. The second half, whilst perhaps not purely as successful as the first, successfully takes the story into some interesting and delightfully creepy places. It also leads to a conclusion of the film that is satisfying, and I for one loved the setup for the sequel at the end.
Watching this film got me thinking how little respect or even attention Wan gets here in Australia. His films get decent releases, but there is not the same focus on him as ‘one of our own’ and how well he is doing in comparison to other actors and directors. Perhaps most of that is due to the fact that he is working in the horror genre which does not get the respect it deserves. Hopefully this will change eventually, because on the evidence of Insidious, Wan is one of our very best directors. The film looks incredible under Wan’s stewardship. Even in the scenes of relative normalcy, Wan is very good at using the camera to create tension in a really disconcerting way. He achieves this generally in a very simplistic, old school manner, by really thinking of the best place to place the camera in each scene. A level of thought that is seemingly not bothered with in so many films. I am not for a second suggesting Wan is the next Hitchcock (he isn’t), but the way he thought out his scenes and took the care to think about the spot that placing his camera would bring the most to each scene, reminded me a lot of the great Brit’s work.
The Aussie flavour to the film leaks over to the cast as well. Rose Byrne, as the female lead, gives the best performance in the film. She is able to give a real sense of her character and the troubles that have plagued her life. Whannell partners up with Angus Sampson to fill a comedic relief slot. I liked the performances of those too, but was not so fond of the characters. Tonally the comedic stylings were just a little too light and not integrated with everything else that was going on. All the performances in Insidious were at the very least decent. Patrick Wilson, whilst in the shadow of his onscreen wife Byrne, is quite good. Lin Shaye as the employer of Whannell and Sampson, does really well to balance her role as part old kook who cannot be trusted, and the only hope for those involved. I also really liked the use of sound in Insidious. One of the major gripes I have with sound in many contemporary horror films is the fact that it is used cheaply to trick people into scares. In Insidious the sound is used to build atmosphere, but more importantly to boost the effect of scares that are already happening on screen.
I’m shamefully behind on catching up with Wan’s films (this is the first I have seen). But Insidious impressed the hell out of me, so I will be getting on to the others. A clever update on the classic haunted house flick that is genuinely scary, I can definitely recommend this film to anyone with the slightest interest in the genre. Or just if you want to see the work of one of the better young directors working today.
Verdict: Pint of Kilkenny
I missed the V/H/S, but I have been intending on catching up on it as I heard some really interesting (if varied) things about it. I better get cracking, because the sequel V/H/S/2 is coming our way soon. They seem to have some pretty impressive directors responsible for the short films that make up this anthology. Even though I am not generally a fan of found footage films (I mean who is really) I am pretty intrigued to see this I have to say. What about you guys? And what did you all think of the first one?
Some films are more difficult than others to describe in writing and Peter Strickland’s Berberian Sound Studio (2012) is certainly one of those. Perhaps it is because in a medium dominated by the visual language, this film communicates using the language of sound so to speak.
Toby Jones plays Gilderoy a documentary sound designer who travels to Italy to work on a film. What he does not realise is that the film is an Italian giallo horror flick which will have a great impact on him and more particularly his mental wellbeing. One of the truly original masterstrokes of the film is that whilst the characters continually see and are impacted by the film that is being made, we are never privy to the content of said film, as it always appears off-screen. It is a bold conceit that definitely pays off. It is tempting to say that this is a film about film. But really it is more a film about sound on film. The constant close-ups of sound recording and foley equipment are extremely reminiscent of Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation (1974) as are a number of other aspects of the film. To this end, the sound design of the film immediately draws you in and makes you listen closely to it. Some sounds are emphasised, some muted and the effect is to make the viewer pay close attention to the goings on of the soundtrack, as one would generally do for the visuals of a film. If you don’t have a really good sound system at home, then I would recommend that you watch the film with headphones, so you can more easily pick up all the nuance of the soundtrack.
As far as constructing a period piece, Berberian Sound Studio ticks all the right boxes. The trimmings, clothes and interactions, appear truly spot on which makes this world of 70s giallo horror filmmaking really come alive. The contrast in clothes and mannerisms between the very British Gilderoy, who still lives with his mother and his Italian colleagues, is also starkly done. As an exercise in the creation of atmosphere, the film is a rousing success. All the filmmaking elements go to the service of creating a certain atmosphere on film, one that gradually becomes more and more loose and unhinged as perhaps our protagonist’s mindset does the same. Aside from the sound which I have mentioned in detail, the editing is the other technical aspect of the film that really impresses, especially the continual use of match shots, often incorporating very stark and strong imagery, to give proceedings a decidedly creepy quality. Toby Jones is always good, but he generally does his work in supporting roles. Here he is in the lead role and his character is a rather placid, retiring man. It is hard to really ‘own’ that kind of role, but he does it well, bringing some conflict and complexity to Gilderoy.
Not an easy film to categorise, this highly creative psychological thriller is an easy one to recommend. You definitely do not have to be overly familiar with giallo film (I’m certainly not) to get a real buzz out of the tension that this film builds. Any film fan will be intrigued at just how the inner workings of the art are incorporated into this thriller.
Verdict: Pint of Kilkenny
The awesome Jon Fisher from The Film Brief has kindly submitted this review of Canadian indie horror flick Pontypool as part of Halloween Week. Be sure to take a look at Jon’s site.
Pontypool is a quiet, carefully paced thriller that hints at becoming a full-throated horror film without quite getting there. Scratch that – Pontypool does manage to be a horror film, but not the kind we’re accustomed to seeing, all guts and blood with little to think or care about behind the mayhem. This is a film that knows that the potential of the zombie genre lies not in the splatter and viscera, but in the terror that lies in its very premise – mankind being thrust back into the food chain as its civilised societies and its safeguards collapse in the blink of an eye.
This film – made in 2008 on a shoestring budget of around $30,000 – has an interesting twist on the zombie genre. Rather than focusing on a disease that is transmitted via blood, bile, or the bite of an infected corpse, zombies are created through a disease transmitted by words – certain words (including, as we learn, terms of endearment that are meant sincerely like ‘honey’ or ‘sweetheart’) carry the infection, seep into the victim’s mind, who becomes crippled by the most horrible word salad syndrome possible before deciding in their exasperation that the only way to cure themselves is to attack those around them.
The idea is ludicrous, of course, and at times the film feels a bit like a half-thought-through idea that an undergraduate student of a writing course might come up with (or worse yet, like an M. Night Shyamalan film), but there are moments of true tension and suspense. The film is set almost entirely within a radio station – another detail that could come across as too clever by half, but is convincingly presented – and we see the events unfold from the perspective of a former shock jock turned radio announcer (played terrifically by Stephen McHattie, who evokes Tom Waits here and seems like the sort of actor who should be better known than he is) and his crew. After an encounter with a seemingly confused woman on a snowy road in the quiet Canadian town of Pontypool, the announcer begins his night shift, before finding himself reporting on the aforementioned zombie apocalypse.
Pontypool never quite transcends the innate tackiness of its idea (which was adapted from a novel by Tony Burgess), and it lurches from contrivance to contrivance towards the end. But in the celebrated zombie genre, this is a film that has the guts to underplay its hand. With a few nifty performances and one or two sequences that intrigue rather than disgust, Pontypool attempts to be – and partially succeeds in being – a peculiar and worthwhile entry into a cluttered genre.
Verdict: Stubby of Reschs