Tuesday, May 31, 2022

Review: Shark Bait (2022)



I love a good monster film ... and sometimes I think we don't get enough of them ... but this example falls back on a tried and tested trope: Sharks! Yes, those much-maligned denizens of the sea, who have a habit of being caught in tornados - or sharkenados - or terrorising innocent humans in everything from Jaws onwards.

Perhaps my favourite shark-menace film of recent years is The Shallows in which Blake Lively finds herself trapped on some rapidly submerging tidal rocks off a deserted beach as a highly intelligent shark attempts to snack on her ... and common with many of these films, the shark shows more intelligence than the humans it's trying to eat ... however with Lively, it might have met its match!

Which brings us to Shark Bait (called Jetski on IMDB, presumably an alternate title) ... another teens in trouble romp, where a group of dysfunctional kids on spring break - Nat (Holly Earl), Tom (Jack Trueman), Milly (Catherine Hannay), Tyler (Malachi Pullar-Latchman) and Greg (Thomas Flynn) - all with their own neuroses and sleeping with each other and angst and so on, head out to sea on a couple of stolen jet skis only to accidentally crash them into each other, leaving them all huddled on one ski, which of course won't now start. And one of them has broken their leg ... bleeding into the water ...

Cue the shark!

And that's more or less it. The kids are pretty hopeless and daft and you don't really care that much about them as they get picked off one by one by this shark ... the gore effects are realistic and nasty, and the water turns red on several occasions ...

Of course we have a Final Girl (I think she's Nat, but I could be wrong) who manages to outwit the shark, gets the jet ski mended and operational again, and heads to shore on some deserted beach somewhere - it's not clear where she ends up - but ol' sharkie is still out to get her ... even jamming itself between shallow rocks in an attempt to deprive her of her legs ... it's something of a daft scenario, and just how hungry must this shark be? It's already eaten four of her friends! Maybe it wanted some brains ... the one thing missing in this film.

Overall I found this to be a fun, but improbable, film. It's one where you have to leave your critical faculties at the door and just enjoy it - probably with some beer and friends. It's nicely made and the effects are excellent. The shark looks/seems real and it provides a tangible threat to the imperilled teens. Just don't expect anything more than a succession of deaths!

The only real issue is that shark attack films are very common ... and it's therefore hard to produce something which really stands out (as The Shallows managed). 

SHARK BAIT is released on digital platforms and DVD from 6 June 2022

SYNOPSIS: A group of spring-breakers enjoying a weekend in Mexico. After a big night of partying on the beach until dawn, the friends steal a couple of jet skis and take them out to sea, but end up in a horrific head-on collision. The group finds itself stranded miles from land and struggling with a badly injured friend. With no clear way home and predators circling in the choppy waters below, the true horror begins…

Thursday, April 28, 2022

Review: Demonia (1990)

What to say about this new Arrow release of a 1990 film co-written and directed by Lucio Fulci, he of Zombi 2 and The Beyond fame  To be totally honest, I've never 'got' why people admire him so much. The best of his films seem just okay, and the worst ... well ...

Sadly Demonia falls into the latter category. Apparently it was denied any release anywhere until picked up direct for DVD, and watching it you can see why. It opens with a scene of some nuns being inexplicably crucified in an underground vault somewhere - scenes which reoccur later in the film - and this is the most exciting thing about it! Then we cut to the present day, where archaeologists are exploring the area, and you think, maybe they'll find the crypt and unleash zombie nuns who will slaughter everyone ... nope. Instead one of the archaeologists, a girl named Liza (Meg Register), who has a penchant for looking upset and cross, and staring out into thin air a lot, and who previously fainted at a seance and saw a creepy nun, goes exploring and finds the crypt. She seems horrified by her discovery and starts smashing a wall down to get to where the nuns were crucified ... She's an archaeologist, so coffins and bones should excite/intrigue her, not horrify her ... and where's the 'preserving the scene' instinct ... completely missing!

Thereafter random people start to die by harpoon gun, in a meat freezer, torn in two in a trap in the woods, and, most hilariously, clawed to death and eaten by pet cats!  Seems the ghostly demon nuns are out and about and after some sort of revenge! Liza has been possessed or something, and so the archaeologists storm the crypt and set the remains of the crucified nuns on fire, allowing Liza's dead body to appear on the ground ... and the film ends.

Sadly it's slow and ponderous, and the narrative follows Liza as she mopes about, staring into space (the photo here is typical of her expression through most of the film). It's a relief when the killings start, but you do wonder how ghostly nuns could arrange all these deaths. In particular the one where the chap is ripped apart in the forest: nicely set up, and the gore is not too badly done ... but it's more laughable than scary. You just don't really care about anyone in the film!  It's been described as a 'nunsploitation' film which seems about right. There's an info-dump in the middle where we learn that these nuns had been having sex parties with local boys, killing them as they reached orgasm an drinking their blood! 

The Arrow print is, as usual, good, and shows off the cinematography nicely. The underground crypt is a great set, and the locations are scenic. It's a shame that the script is just not up to scratch.

For fans of Fulci though, and admirers of what is described as perhaps his last good film (I dread to think what the subsequent ones are like), this is a smashing restoration and package!

  • High Definition Blu-ray (1080p) presentation
  • Deluxe crucifix-style packaging featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Graham Humphreys
  • Illustrated collector’s booklet featuring new writing on the film by author and critic Kat Ellinger

DISC 1: DEMONIA

  • 4K restoration from the original 35mm camera negative
  • Restored original lossless mono English and Italian soundtracks
  • Optional English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing for the English soundtrack
  • English subtitles for the Italian soundtrack
  • Audio commentary by Stephen Thrower, author of Beyond Terror: The Films of Lucio Fulci
  • Holy Demons, a video interview with uncredited co-writer/assistant director Antonio Tentori
  • Of Skulls and Bones, a video interview with camera operator Sandro Grossi
  • Fulci Lives!!!, camcorder footage of a visit to the Demonia set, including an interview with Lucio Fulci
  • Original trailer

DISC 2: FULCI TALKS

  • Fulci Talks, a feature-length 2021 documentary by filmmaker Antonietta De Lillo, based on an in-depth, career spanning video interview with Lucio Fulci from 1993, conducted by De Lillo and critic Marcello Garofalo
  • Original lossless mono Italian soundtrack
  • Optional English subtitles


Thursday, April 21, 2022

Review: Doctor Who: Legend of the Sea Devils



Oh my word. There is so much to say about this episode of my old favourite Doctor Who ... it was so anticipated following the trailer at the end of the previous episode which revealed that the Sea Devils - last seen in 1984 and before that in 1972 were coming back!  The visuals in the trailer which then appeared were spectacular too ... but we've been here before: the show looks great, but disappointed in the plotting ... what would 'Legend of the Sea Devils' bring ...

Okay ... I think it was Russell T Davies who said, or expressed the view, that if you were writing a Doctor Who and you came across something in your story/plot which could be filled with something from the show's past, then why not use it.  Better to use it, even, than to invent something 'new' but which was, in actuality, exactly the same.  I think this was how the Macra came to be involved in the 'Gridlock' story. It seems that current showrunner Chris Chibnall both understands, but fails to understand this approach.

Original Sea Devils, 1972
He brings back the Sea Devils, great idea! But then changes several key elements of their heritage. (No real surprise here as the show has consistently, in its modern incarnation, reinvented and changed classic monsters from the past - I'm thinking Cybermen, Silurians, Zygons, Ice Warriors - and most often not for the better. In fact, even a modern monster - the Weeping Angels - were consistently evolved by their creator into something which their original 'incarnation' was never said to be ... so this 'development' for want of a better word, happens all the time. Oddly, though, Chibnall's take on the Sontarans in the Flux series was miles better and closer to the original idea and ethos of the creatures than anything previously in the modern series.)

Marsissus
For a start, these Sea Devils ... why are they called Sea Devils? That name came from a (probably) drunk, (definitely) shell-shocked rig watchman in the middle of the sea, when asked by the Doctor who had attacked and killed his friend. This is something that we might call 'Ice Warrior Syndrome' as they too were called that by a scientist upon discovering one buried in the ice. It's not their name! Ice Warriors are actually Martians! Sea Devils are what ...? We've actually never been told, although the Doctor claimed that the Silurians (a land 'cousin' of the Sea Devils) should have been called Eocenes as they came from that period of the Earth's history, and not the Silurian era (amusingly it is the Doctor himself who first uses the term Silurian to refer to them) ... At best they would perhaps be called Earthlings as they all come from Earth ... Modern humanity should then perhaps be called Holocians? As we live in the Holocene era ...

Anyway ... for the purposes of writing about them, I'm going with the flow and calling them Sea Devils as well.

These are Sea Devils from 1533 ... and possibly earlier. There's no information given as to how long they had been around and active. Again, from the earlier story, and with no background given in this one, the Sea Devils (and Silurians) put themselves into hibernation when the Moon, as a rogue asteroid/planetoid was thought about to crash into the Earth. It didn't and went into orbit instead (note that this is 'Who' history and bears no resemblance to real life history!), and the hibernation chambers then failed to wake the creatures. They eventually woke when disturbed by humanity's explorations of the sea bed and underground digging ... Potentially not something that was happening in 1533! So it's not explained why the Sea Devils were active, or even what they were doing in 1533 ... presumably trying to change the Earth's poles to create climate instability and to flood the place so they could take over again ...

Marsissus
And then we have the issue with the Sea Devils - the technology they have in 1533 (or that this particular group of them have) is at odds with what we had previously seen. In the past they used hand-held heat weapons to burn the undersides of boats, to burn through walls and to kill people ... The Silurians had a third 'eye' which was used to manipulate machinery, operate controls, and also to kill others. (It also seemed to be a flashing indicator of speech in 1984, but lets gloss over that!). In this story, however, the Sea Devils seem to have some sort of teleport ability, and gravity-nulling control (their ship can fly through the air! And they can leap enormous distances unaided). They also have electric cutlassses with the same blue light threaded through them - a little like light sabres I suppose. They also use something called Hexotoxic poisoning - something the Doctor claims is a Sea Devil weapon - except that we've never seen them use it before.  It sounds like someone remembered that in 'Warriors of the Deep' the humans used Hexachromite gas to kill the invading Silurians ... but that wasn't a Silurian/Sea Devil weapon, it just happened to be on the seabase. But they remembered it wrong and thought that the gas was supplied by the invading reptiles. No idea. They also have a blue device on their tunics which flashes when they speak. No idea why as it does this even when Sea Devil talks to Sea Devil ... maybe the race just likes to have things which flash when they speak.

Ying-Ki
Their control centre seems powered by some sort of green liquid, and then there's this gemstone which will reverse the magnetic fields of the planet ... not sure how it does that! And where did such a gem come from in the first place? The Doctor says it's Sea Devil technology ... They can also put a human into temporal stasis for hundreds of years, and then thaw him out apparently unscathed. This is at least in line with their being able to hibernate and revive themselves ... or would be if they were not reptiles and so actually able to hibernate and come back to life. Something that cold blooded creatures can do, but mammals would have a hard job achieving. But I guess we could assume that their equipment works on both reptile and human ... that is if they didn't treat mammals with disdain and as totally inferior - so why develop and test the tech to hibernate them as well?

The Myrka, 1984
So they've brought back an old, well-remembered monster from the show. Costumier Ray Holman and Monster-Maker Rob Allsopp made them look amazing! And they do! From the animatronic/CGI heads, to their amazing pirate costumes they are brilliant!  They even managed to get the voices almost right too ... just a touch more sibilance and they would have been perfect!  They even sampled the Sea Devil 'death scream' from the original 1972 story for when they were killed. A lovely touch. But they changed all the tech, and gave them little motivation to be doing what they did.

And then there's their 'creature', the huge and brilliantly realised Huasen, which emerges from the sea and attacks everything it encounters! Now ... in 1984 the Silurians/Sea Devils had a sea monster called the Myrka - which, frankly, was dreadfully realised, looking more like a bright green pantomime horse than any viable threat. So why not call this new sea monster a Myrka? It's back to that original comment that if you have something which could be from a past story, then why not use it?

Madame Ching
So ... we have our monster ... the plot. however, is a little all over the place. In 1807 a pirate captain called Madame Ching (Crystal Yu) follows a map to find a giant statue of a Sea Devil which is protected by a man, Ying Wai (David Tse), and his son, Ying Ki (Marlowe Chan-Reeves). She hits at it with a sword until a gem falls off. This gem had trapped the Sea Devil Leader, Marsissus (Craige Els), in stone for hundreds of years ... and now he comes back to life and goes on the rampage, summoning other Sea Devils to attack the village. The Doctor (Jodie Whittaker) and 'fam' (I hate that term) (Dan: John Bishop, Yas: Mandip Gill) arrive, hear the screams from the village, and go to help. They trap Marsissus in a net, but he escapes and summons his ship (still there after 274 odd years) which flies in on the air ...

And the Doctor utters the phrase which probably got this story commissioned: Pirate Sea Devils in 19th Century China!

So Madame Ching is looking for the lost treasure of the Flor de Mar, a ship which sank in 1533 ... she wants it to pay a ransom on her sons who have been captured by other pirates. But no-one knows where the wreck is ...

Dan
So the Doctor and Yas head back in the TARDIS to 1533 to find out. They discover that the ship was attacked by Sea Devils and sunk - so they know where it is. However, returning to 1807, and it's nowhere to be seen on the sea bed. But then the sea bed falls away and the TARDIS is apparently swallowed by the Huasen which emerges from the revealed cavern.

The Doctor and Yas are now, suddenly and inexplicably in the Sea Devil base. So where is it? Inside the Huasen? No idea. But the Sea Devils have the captain of the Flor de Mar, Ji-Hun (Arthur Lee), captive in stasis, as well as the TARDIS. It seems that these powers come from the gem - to freeze light and time, and to transport matter - which the Doctor says is Sea Devil technology.  See my earlier comments! And IF these powers all come from the gem, then how could Marsissus teleport and fly and whatever without it earlier on in the story?

Ji-Hun
The Sea Devils' ship heads for the surface when the Doctor activates some lever to make it do that, and inexplicably they escape and swing over to Ching's ship, where Dan and Ying Ki have been roped in as crew. Not sure how they escaped from the Sea Devils though ... the missing jewel is around Ying Ki's neck, so Marsissus appears and takes it - he wants to use it to change the Earth's magnetic field and melt the ice caps!  But suddenly there are Sea Devils climbing up the outside of Ching's ship ... and they all fight. The Sea Devil ship returns underwater with the Doctor as she intends to destroy it ... and she's also angsting about Ji-Hun killing Marsissus - what about all the other hundreds of Sea Devils that the six of them fought off and killed, without a scratch to any of them!

Anyway, so the Doctor engineers an implosion/explosion sort of thing, but inexplicably for it to work, two cables need to be held together, so she tells Yas to get out! But Ji-Hun is there and he insists on making the sacrifice himself. So the others all head back to the beach before the ship explodes, presumably killing all the remaining Sea Devils on it as well as Ji-Hun - the Doctor doesn't seem so upset about this. She's too busy leading Yas on and making provocative statements about loving their time together and wanting it to last forever ... wasn't that what Rose said to the Doctor in 'New Earth'?

ROSE: It's beautiful. Oh, I love this. Can I just say, travelling with you, I love it.

DOCTOR: Me too. Come on. 

My overwhelming feeling having watched the episode twice now, was that it improved on the second watching as you knew which bits to try and listen to for explanations ... the sound mix is awful and the effects and music often drown out key pieces of dialogue, especially from the Doctor as she tends to gabble, her accent also getting in the way of understanding what she's saying.

The Doctor, Yas and Dan meet Madame Ching
However, it felt to me more like watching an extended trailer for a story rather than the story itself. Director Haolu Wang uses a lot of fast cuts between scenes with material missing which make you wonder what happened. Like one moment the Doctor and 'fam' are on the beach, they hear screaming coming from the village, and the next scene, Marsissus is caught in a net trap engineered and set and sprung by the Doctor and 'fam' ... there's a lot of this short-cutting in the episode, leaving out explanations of how and why in favour of action and movement ... which is fine, but you end up not really caring any more, as if the script can't be bothered to explain things, then why should you worry about it too ... 

I wonder about Marsissus and his Sea Devil pals. He presumably vanished back in 1533 when he was turned to stone and displayed at the village (and why was the statue giant-sized and holding a tiny human in its hand?) ... so what happened to the other Sea Devils? Are they all just incredibly long-lived and so sat around in their underwater lair, twiddling their fins, waiting for their boss to come back. Why didn't they slaughter the village in 1533 and take their leader back? And when Marsissus is revived in 1807, how come all the Sea Devils are suddenly there to take commands and attack and whatever ... are these new Sea Devils? Or the same as before? Where have they been hiding? Why haven't they been attacking and generally pirating while their boss was away ... and no other Sea Devil became the boss? No-one took charge and decided what to do?

The Doctor
There's other elements too which make little sense. At the start, the Doctor's earring is affected by magnetic fields out at sea - which can also apparently make rocks bounce off it ... so is her earring made of iron, nickel or cobalt? Surely it would be made from silver or platinum, neither of which are magnetic (but then neither are rocks) ... and if it affected anything, then why weren't all the things on shore drawn to it - why just her earring ... why not Dan's hook hand, or his metal trouser fly, or buttons, or anything made of a magnetic metal really ... It doesn't stand up to any scrutiny at all.

This theme continues with things happening which you just have to roll with ... yes it's all exciting and looks amazing, and the music is great ... but you need a good plot to weld it all together ... and this is something that Chibnall and his writers (this episode is co-written with Ella Road) seem to consistently miss. I have to say though, that as the Whittaker era has progressed, things have slowly improved in the plotting department. Her first season was pretty woeful, but improved in the second, Flux showed a lot of promise, but they totally dropped the ball on most of it at the very end. And now we have 'Legend of the Sea Devils' which actually has no apparent Legend in it ...

I can't even hand on heart say that it's some new modern way of storytelling, as series after series of other shows prove that you can tell emotional and exciting stories in a 45 minute format ... that you can care about characters and plot, and make it all work ... it's just Doctor Who which seems to muff it every time and lose sight of the importance of plot and character over flashbangwallop.

Finally ... and yes this has gone on a bit ... when fans are more excited over the trailer for the next episode, than the episode you've just seen, then it must be obvious that something is not working ... 

And a CODA: people commenting that I didn't like it ... well strangely I did enjoy it ... faults and all it rushed past in a manic panic ... visually stunning, some great performances, loved ALL the costumes and sets ... it's just that darned annoying thing called a plot that was lacking!!!


Sunday, January 23, 2022

Review: Archive 81

There's a lot of material on the streaming services these days, so when something appears which is actually really good, it's worth shouting about.

Netflix's ARCHIVE81 is such a show! It's an 8 part, hour long set of episodes, chronicling the story of a man named Daniel (Mamoudou Athie) who is hired by Virgil Davenport (Martin Donavan) of a company called L.M.G.to salvage and preserve a set of Hi8 video tapes recorded back in 1994 by a woman named Melody (Dina Shihabi) ... it's all tied in with an apartment building in New York called the Visser which was destroyed by fire, and what happened to Melody at that time ... As Dan digs deeper, so he finds himself reliving Melody's nightmare as she investigates the Visser for an oral history of the place as part of her PhD. She records everything on her video camera and so it's all there to be salvaged and played back in the present day.

The strangeness starts to emerge as Virgil seems to know that Dan's family was killed in a fire when he was a child, and also that Dan must work out of a deserted facility in the middle of nowhere ... with no contact with the outside world. Dan's father appears on Melody's tapes proving that he's somehow involved in it all ... and a young girl, Jess (Ariana Neal) who helps Melody make contact with some of the apartment's residents also seems involved somehow.

As the episodes progress we're introduced to a strange cult operating out of the Visser, worshipping an ancient icon, and using an unnerving aural chant to invoke a fugue-like state ... And the mystery piles on as more people are introduced, including a present-day Melody who turns out to be an impersonator, Melody's friend Annabelle (Julia Chan) starts drawing images of a mystery-woman who turns out to be the original leader of the cult ...

I'm not going to say much more as the complexity and twists and turns of the production are one of it's strengths. It's got a great structure, with Dan in the present day looking back at Melody in 1994, and Melody in turn is seeing things from 1924 ... it's something of a crash of years and ideas as this icon-worship has persisted through the years and forms a backbone for the narrative.  Another strength is the sound design - and as part of the ritual is a strange humming cadence, this is used, along with a simple yet chilling note sequence in the music and sound design, so that the whole production becomes permeated with dread and horror as you watch. It's very clever.

The show is based on a podcast, also called Archive81, which can be found on Apple Podcasts (https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/archive-81/id1098194172?mt=2), and all major podcast apps. The Archive81 Wiki explains that it's a found footage horror podcast created by Dead Signals about ritual, stories, and sound. It describes the Podcast thus: After Daniel Powell goes missing following employment by the Housing Historical Committee of New York State, his friend Mark Sollinger receives hundreds of hours of audio of his archiving there. The audio, released by Mark in the form of the podcast, documents Dan's listening to an extensive collection of cassette tapes, containing interviews from a high-rise apartment building in 1994. So it certainly has a similar background to the TV show.

I found the show totally engrossing, and very creepy. As Dan listens and watches the old tapes back, alone and isolated in this strange compound, so we visit 1994 with Melody ... and when Dan and Melody actually meet and interact, then you know that some deeply weird stuff is going down here ... each episode brings something new, and the nightmare deepens the farther you get.

If I had one complaint, it is that I would have given the last half hour or so a good script polish as there are elements there which just leave questions hanging as to what actually happened, and you don't want that after 8 hours of great drama.  It's telling that there's already an article on DigitalSpy explaining the ending, and the search is also one of the selections on Google - it seems a lot of people felt the same way as I did ... what did happen?  And that's not really what you want.






Monday, January 10, 2022

Review: Jack In The Box: Awakening (2021)



The Jack in the Box
 was a fairly decent 2019 film, now available on Prime. The premise was simple, there's a 'haunted' Jack in the Box toy, which, if opened, allows the demon within to emerge and to take 6 victims. 

Written and directed by Lawrence Fowler, the film manages to stay serious, and also manages to add a pretty decent new villain to the great horror pantheon ... though quite why this demonic Jack is claiming all these victims isn't clear ... 

Move forward a couple of years, and now we have The Jack in the Box: Awakening, a sequel of sorts, but one where Fowler seems to forget the rules he established in the first film, and now presents the demonic toy as some sort of wish-granting entity. The box has been obtained by the son (Matt McClure) of a dying old lady (Nicola Wright) and she opens the box.  The demon (James Swanton) will then take 6 lives, and once this has been done, it will grant her a wish - to be well again.

And thus the film plays out as per the first, with a variety of people: cooks, housekeepers etc being stalked and taken by the Demon ... strangely as this happens, so the old woman seems to get better ... looks like her wish is being granted as the killings progress ... But will she gain her health again at the end? And will feisty housemaid Amy (Mollie Hindle) win out? You'll have to watch to find out!

The main downside to watching was that on the preview copy, they had decided to put the text SCREENING PURPOSES ONLY over the bottom quarter of the screen, all the way through ... very distracting!

I enjoyed the first film a lot. I felt it showed promise, and had a nice, simple premise. Certainly it's cut from the same cloth as many other films from Hellraiser to Wishmaster and so on, but the makeup is good on Jack, and the actor playing him is suitable creepy.  I was reminded too of the 2018 Channel Zero season The Dream Door which featured the character of Pretzel Jack ... only that was far superior!

The sequel however is to be commended for not just rerunning the same plot as the first film, but also in trying to find a new angle, the writer/director seems to have played fast and loose with his 'rules' ... and the problem with that is then your franchise starts to lose credibility ... You need to stick with the rules and legend you have created, and only expand ... you can't start changing....

THE JACK IN THE BOX: AWAKENING is out now on Digital & DVD in the UK and available in the US on January 18th 2022