Monday, April 26, 2021

Review: Malevolent (2020)

One of the most noticeable things about the plethora of low low budget films on Amazon Prime and Netflix is the number of ghost and haunting-type screenplays that there are. I guess this is because making a haunted house/shop/lift/car film with a small budget is easier than most other sorts of horror flicks. I tend to think this shows a lack of imagination and ambition, and is perhaps insulting to classic low budget films of the past like Night of the Living Dead and Halloween ...

Therefore when you see a film which says it's about a group of so called paranormal investigators scamming victims with fake 'exorcisms', my mind immediately went to the cheap and rubbish setting. But in this case, I was doing the film a disservice ...

We chose this one to watch as one of the leads, Ben Lloyd-Hughes, actually stars in my wife's forthcoming film The Stranger in Our Bed (she wrote the bestselling book on which the film is based, as well as the screenplay). We've not yet seen the film ... so we thought we'd catch up on what Lloyd-Hughes was like as Jackson, the lead investigator ... and he's brilliant!

Malevolent, directed by Olaf de Fleur Johannesson with a screenplay by Ben Ketai and Eva Konstantopoulos, based on the novel Hush by Eva Konstantopoulos, starts out like many other Haunted House films: a group of young and pretty investigators looking into some hauntings, faking some results and then claiming they have removed the problem ... except it's all a scam to get money.

Then they get a gig at a crumbling mansion in which the owner, Mrs Green (Celia Imrie) claims there is screaming. They investigate, but Angela (Florence Pugh), one of the team who actually does seem to have real psychic powers, starts to see young girls appearing, but they have their mouths sewn shut. The house has a murky past, and Mrs Green was somewhat involved ...

This is then where the film turns on its heel and becomes something of an Eli Roth torture-porn-type film, with Mrs Green turning out to be a dab hand with the needle and thread, as well as with a hammer, a pair of garden secateurs, and other sundry nasty implements of pain.

If you have a strong stomach, then it's not a bad watch. There are some moments of WTF as we progress, with previously unseen characters appearing, and a confusing ending - I don't think the writer or director really knew how to end it ... or they wanted it to appear on those websites which explain the endings of films to people ...

It's certainly a step above other fare, with great production values, some superb performances from all concerned, and convincing effects. The cast also includes James Cosmo - and he's always worth the price of admission - but Celia Imrie, along with Florence Pugh, are the real stand-outs here - both holding their own as the paranormal erupts around them!

Friday, April 23, 2021

Review: The House of Screaming Death (2017)

We found this film on Amazon Prime, and with no expectations, decided to give it a whirl.

It's always something of pot luck with films on Amazon as they seem to have no quality control at all, and so many is the time that we've started and then failed to finish a film. With The House of Screaming Death, at least we managed to stay the distance, but it was a struggle.

The good points first. The title is superb. Except that when you watch the film, there is no screaming ... plenty of death though. Ian McNeice, playing The Architect, is superb. A quality actor, with a smashing voice which brought back fond memories of John Houseman telling the story of the fated smugglers at the start of The Fog. He acts as the Storyteller here, introducing the four tales which make up the film. The sequences are well staged and shot, and promise much ...

Then we have the four short stories which make up the film. And this is where the problems start. None of them are particularly coherent, falling into the trap of low budget filmmaking of having them way too drawn out and talkie. There isn't much in the way of action, and characters spend interminable amounts of time standing and talking to each other ... and the dialogue is often not up to scratch too. There are several anachronisms scattered throughout. For example, in a sequence set in 1974, one character laughs off that his partner is scared by saying 'I see dead people all the time', which is of course a line from The Sixth Sense, released in 1999. A better line would perhaps have been 'They're coming for you Barbara', from the 1969 Night of the Living Dead

There are also one too many stories here - the film is overlong and needed to have half an hour at least cut from it - so the first story, 'The Lady in Grey', where a voice-over narrator tells us a tale while a chap mopes around the house, should have been cut completely. It's the weakest of the four.

Next is 'The Witch in the Mirror' which shows more promise, but which falls down as it is so complicated. A stern edit could have sorted this one out. But the acting is mostly dire and stagy, and believability is a real issue.

'The Vampyre' is third, and while it seems modelled on an M R James-type scenario, is nowhere near as good. The effects are also poor - the vampire's make-up has unfortunate visible lines in it - and the talking ... the endless talking ...

Finally we have 'The Diabolique' which is another talkie tale, virtually indistinguishable from the others. So much so that I'm struggling to remember anything about it!

The film purports to be an homage to the great days of Hammer and Amicus, and portmanteau films like Asylum and The House that Dripped Blood. But the filmmakers needed to have a good close look at what made those films work: simple stories, a camp sense of fun, and an outrageous tone in the horror which presented true surprise scares and endings for the audience.

I suspect that no-one will be surprised by the end of The House of Screaming Death, except to wonder what it all means and why all the dead bodies are there ... It is, to be fair, a classic anthology ending, and McNeice plays it for everything.

It's always saddening to have to give a poor review to something into which an awful lot of time and effort has been put. I wish the filmmakers had had the courage to step away from their own scripts, and to take advice from elsewhere, or to adapt extant stories from the plethora of British horror anthologies which exist. A good script editor would also have been a boon here. However, I have to say that this is nowhere near the worst film that we have tried to watch ... there is a lot of promise ... and even getting a project of this scope completed is a major achievement!

One thing the makers did get right is the publicity. Looking online there are loads of teaser trailers, posters and imagery which promise something far, far better than they actually presented. A case of their ambition outstripping their resources perhaps. I hope they get something together to do another film, and next time, keep it simple, keep it fun, and get in a really good scriptwriter!

Review: A Cure for Wellness (2016)

This is billed as a psychological horror, and I'm not sure if that is 'code' for confusing and bemusing as that's the reaction that I had to it.

Directed by Gore Verbinski (who was behind three of the Pirates of the Caribbean movies and the 2002 The Ring) and written by Justin Haythe, based on a 1921 novel The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann, the film follows Lockhart (Dane DeHaan), who is sent by a financial company in New York to Switzerland to retrieve their CEO, Roland Pembroke (Harry Groener) who has decided to stay at a 'wellness centre' in the Alps. Lockhart's attempts are blocked by Dr Heinrich Volmer (Jason Issacs) and when he leaves the place he is involved in a car accident, and wakes at the centre, discovering that he is now an inmate himself. 

There then follows all sorts of strangeness, where the water from the local aquifer is given to all the patients, but it is toxic and makes their teeth fall out. Lockhart befriends Hannah (Mia Goth) who has been there all her life and she turns out to be Volmer's daughter, who he wants to marry - there is a 'cure' which they take from small blue bottles which seems to prolong their lifespans. There are also eels in the water which eat desiccated human bodies which are tipped in there ...

The explanation from Wikipedia runs: 'Lockhart discovers the transfusion wing of the spa is a front for macabre medical experiments, and that the water from the local aquifer possesses unique properties – toxic to humans, but with life-restoring properties for the eels living in the water. The baron had devised a process to filter the water through the bodies of humans and distil it into a life-giving essence; Volmer uses the patients as filters for this process.'

Thus Lockhart has his stomach filled with eels whilst lying in an iron lung contraption, and his body starts to excrete the 'cure' ...but Volmer has a fake 'face' - we see several, presumably replacement faces, growing in a lab - and the whole thing ends with the facility going up in flames during a ball for the patients, and then Lockhart escaping with Hannah ...

It's a long, confusing and confused film, although beautifully shot and edited. DeHaan is as one-note here as his next performance in Valerian, however, and you are never quite convinced that he is this trusted emissary from the financial company as he just looks too young. There's a lot asked of him though, and in the end he does acquit himself somewhat. Lockhart starts to lose his teeth, but then they come back again, and what about all the eels in his stomach? We never see them removed, so is he now immortal as well? And why does Volmer want to marry his own daughter? I suppose because she's the only other immortal that he can be with? Why do they capture and keep the CEO of a company, someone who is sure to be missed? And then do the same with the emissary sent to retrieve him? Isn't this just drawing attention to yourself?

And what's with the eels? And the poisoned water? It's all very arbitrary in its explanations and plot.

The film reminds me a little of Dario Argento's Suspiria in as much as we have a hero who is forced to stay at a facility where they are getting up to all manner of nastiness under the covers ... but here there are no witches, just science. It's interesting that Mia Goth went on to play Sara in the 2018 remake of Suspiria!

Overall it was an enjoyable, if confusing, watch. There's some nice material here, and, DeHaan aside, the performances are good. Hannah seems very child-like in her movements and innocence, but this at least is worked for in the plot and explanations. It's also somewhat overlong, and could perhaps have been shortened to when Lockhart realises his own fate in the institute. That would have been a bleak ending though, and one suspects that early screenings revealed that audiences might prefer a more feelgood ending ... and so they added another 30 minutes or so to the film as a result! I have no idea.

Wednesday, April 21, 2021

Review: Anti-Life (2020)

Well that was something of a mish-mash of ideas! Anti-Life (which also seems to have been called Breach) has elements of Alien in there, and The Thing, and also pretty much any sci-fi film with Bruce Willis ... add in conceptual stuff like Earth being evacuated, Humanity in giant spaceships heading for a new planet, and you might start to get the idea of what Anti-Life is all about.

The problem with it is that there's almost too much going on, and stuff happens for no particular reason than to progress the action. Basically there's a ship heading off to a new planet, and Our Hero, called Noah (Noah's ark ... get it), played by Cody Kearsley, gets on it with his pregnant girlfriend Hayley (Kassandra Clementi), who happens to be the daughter of the Captain. She is put in stasis for the journey, but strangely Noah pretends to be a junior janitor and joins the crew who are to keep the ship going for the next 80 days or however long it will take to get there.

Meanwhile, Bruce Willis is there as Clay, a senior janitor, who makes moonshine in the cargo hold ... there's also a worrying amount of some powerful acid-like stuff on board which eats through everything a little like the Alien's blood in Alien does ...

And there's an alien life form too ... not sure where it comes from but it's inside one of the crew, Shady (Johann Urb), and bursts out of him, exploding his body as it goes, and then infecting another crew member, Blue (Johnny Messner), who is nearby. Annoyingly the effect is cut away from and we don't see the monster ... in fact this is a common trend throughout, not showing anything until we get to the Big Bad at the end ... and then we realise why ... it's just not very good!

The alien infects person after person, turning them into zombies which then rampage and attack everyone else ... and so the thing spreads. The crew discover that guns and lasers and so on might chop the humans up into pieces, but those pieces then join back together to form a Thing-like composite creature which continues to rampage ... And then they discover that the acid stuff kills the human shells - melting them away.  So they use that ...

Meanwhile the alien collective has got into the nuclear power centre of the ship and has accelerated it towards New Earth - it wants the planet! So Noah and Hayley have to stop it!

The film had the potential to be quite good, but there's too much running around and shooting, and not enough of the monsters (apart from the infected humans, who drool black goo, have a tentacle where their tongue was, and scream a lot!).

Oddly, the whole thing reminded me of author Sam Stone's far superior short novel, The Darkness Within which deals with similar themes (human race heading to the stars on a ship, an alien incursion, turning the humans into zombies etc) but which handles them far more logically and cleverly than this film does.

Overall it was an enjoyable mess of a film, with Willis phoning in his performance, and the effects of the composite monster at the end being something of a letdown. Diverting, but annoying, as it could and should have been so much better.

Saturday, April 17, 2021

Review: Love and Monsters (2020)

This film crept up on us ... and we watched it on Netflix the other night ... it's a revelation!

It starts with a nice Zombieland vibe with a narration and animations from our genial hero, Joel Dawson (Dylan O'Brien) who is living in a bunker with a group of friends. An asteroid has wiped out most life on Earth and caused reptiles and insects to grow to giant size and prey on the humans. In the bunker, all but Joel have paired up, leaving him lonely and with only kitchen duties to look forward to as he freezes up when attacked.

Joel decides that he needs to go and find a girl called Aimee (Jessica Henwick) who he was separated from when the humans first fled from the enlarged amphibians. So he sets off alone, armed only with his trusty bow and arrows. Along the way to the beach, where he knows Aimee is from her brief radio contact, he is rescued from a monster's nest by Clyde Dutton (Michael Rooker) and Minnow (Ariana Greenblatt) and makes a friend in a dog called Boy. There are monsters large and small and eventually he arrives at the beach only to find that Aimee and her colony have been 'rescued' by an Australian called Cap (Dan Ewing) ... but all is not as it seems.

What I liked most about Love and Monsters is that it presents a straightforward character in an extraordinary situation ... and just about managing to muddle through it all. There is a great deal of charm in the script by Brian Duffield and Matthew Robinson, and director Michael Matthews makes it all sing. The monsters are superbly realised. They look real and horrific, and move in ways which make your flesh creep. It's a marvellous tour de force of CGI and really does not disappoint.

As the film progresses, so much of it becomes simply charming. I loved the sequence with the active robot, giving Joel a glimpse of his parents again; the dog is incredible, acting so well on cue and stealing the show; the giant crab at the end, echoing what Joel had been told earlier ... and so on. Everything is worked for here, and the characters and the effects mesh seamlessly together to create a very believable narrative.

It's a hugely enjoyable film, with a nice feelgood ending, and I can see that it's one which we might need to return to.  

Review: The Reckoning (2020)

It's hard to know where to start this review. Once upon a time, the name Neil Marshall was the best new hope in horror, with his debut feature Dog Soldiers being one of the top werewolf films ever made - up there with The Howling and An American Werewolf in London - and the follow up, The Descent, being a brilliantly claustrophobic creature feature of the very best kind.

Since those two classics, however, Marshall has struggled. His science fiction opus Doomsday was a flat re-telling of Escape from New York, and Centurion was a dull historical yarn. His segment of Tales From Halloween was disappointing, Hellboy was a bit of an improvement, and now we have another historical tale in The Reckoning.

Set in the plague-ridden 17th Century, Marshall tells the story of a woman, Grace Haverstock (Charlotte Kirk), who loses her husband to the plague, and who is then accused of being a witch by the local squire (Steven Waddington). The witch-finder Moorcroft (Sean Pertwee) is called in, who proceeds to torture her to confess to being a witch, which she refuses to do.

It's all very predictable and hopeless, recalling the much better Witchfinder General, and, strangely, elements of Captain Kronos Vampire Hunter, and although Pertwee is by far the best thing in it, the other main cast members are weak and unbelievable. Especially Kirk, who seems to walk through it all with something of a bemused air. Of the supporting cast, Emma Campbell-Jones is great in the brief time we see her as Charlotte's mother, before being burned at the stake, and the young lad (Maximillian Slash Marton - I think ...) who takes pity on her is likewise excellent. 

There's some nasty torture here which Charlotte seems to shrug off with indifference, and some sort of gruesome internal torture device - which is inserted into an unnamed cavity and then slowly opened - would have left her bleeding to death, and yet she seems unaffected by it. Perhaps she really is a witch.

It's such a shame that the plot is so unfocussed and rambling. It takes about ten minutes of screen time to see Charlotte's husband killing himself and for her to find him, dig a grave, and bury him, all interspersed with flashbacks explaining what happened. We should have opened with him dead, and then got on with it!

The visuals are excellent, though, with plague-masked villagers ganging up on Charlotte, and the scenes of death and poverty are well done. One thing I've never quite understood about the whole 'witch mania' which apparently gripped England, was why other men and woman were so eager to decry their neighbours as being witches, knowing full well that it could, and sometimes would, be them next. The film doesn't explore this, and instead seems to be more about how Charlotte can stay above it all, protesting her innocence, while Moorcroft tries ever-more painful and degrading tortures on her.

There's a very vague supernatural element as Charlotte seems to see the Devil (Ian Whyte) at various points, but this is not expanded on or explained - perhaps it's her hallucinating due to the pain? Perhaps it's real? Perhaps it's an allegory? There are no answers in the film.

Ultimately this seems to be a film with a weak script, starring an unimpressive lead, and telling a story which has been told many times before. As a viewer I was left wondering what the point was. It's a great shame as Marshall has a great sense of the visual, and yet he seems to be struggling to find the right projects to realise. I hope he can come back more strongly soon.