Sunday, 22 April 2012

Livid (2011)

"Don't you know it's bad luck to whistle on the moor on Halloween?"

- Ben, Livid

What do you do when you find out the comatose old lady you're caring for is hiding unimaginable riches somewhere in her creepy, forbidding old mansion? Go back there at night with torches? Wrong. You go back on Halloween night, with one single torch.

This is more or less the premise of Livid, the latest film from Julien Maury and Alexandre Bustillo, who in 2007 gave us the superbly twisted home invasion thriller Inside. Lucie, a trainee nurse, learns on her first day on the job that one of her charges - an emaciated hag on a life support system - has hidden a treasure away in somewhere in her vast, decaying moorland residence. Together with her boyfriend Will (who so far takes the 2012 prize for Horror's Biggest Dumbass) and his brother Ben, she breaks into the mansion later that night to discover - gasp - that some treasures are best left unfound.

After a steady, well-crafted opening, Livid dives into its haunted house exploration theme with relish. Populated with spooky dolls and snarling mounted heads, and filmed with an adept economy of light, the house is spooky, and gets even more so when the old lady upstairs proves to be less comatose than she seemed. Upon the discovery of the "treasure" (spoiler: it's not treasure), the house seems to awake along with its owner, spilling its history as vengeful ghosts, animal-headed animatronics and bloodthirsty witches creep out of the woodwork to terrorise the invaders. The hag, it transpires, was a heartless ballet teacher in the life before her coma, and the mansion still holds the remnants of the cruelties she inflicted on her students - one of whom was her own mute daughter.

If this sounds like the premises of a few different films rolled together, well, you'd be right. Livid's problem is that it's trying to be every horror film at once, and while this concept has potential in the right hands, those hands just aren't Messrs Maury and Bustillo's. Everything from the story to the set-pieces to the scares have clear and direct influences from Hammer, Tim Burton, Dario Argento and Guillermo del Toro, and there are more specific visual references to the likes of An American Werewolf in London, Nosferatu and Suspiria. The overall effect just feels watered-down, as if the creators couldn't agree on an overall theme so they just threw everything at the script to see what sticks.

Some of it does stick - there are some good scares (creepy clockwork zombie vampires are creepy) and the story - which shifts into Burton-esque Gothic fantasy by the end - still engages, but it wraps up with too many confusing plot holes and irrelevant twists to be satisfying. Even the scares are inconsistent, lurching from Woman in Black-like haunted house tension one moment to violent, flesh-tearing body horror the next. All this said, the overall experience is still good fun and Livid makes a decent watch - but it feels like a messy step backwards from the focused, carefully-crafted Inside.

I caught this at the Bradford Film Festival and stuck around for the Q&A with Julien Maury afterwards, where he talked about his attachment to various remakes/sequels of Hellraiser, Nightmare on Elm Street and Halloween, all of which have fallen through for one reason or another. It's a shame because if nothing else, Livid demonstrates that Maury and Bustillo have the filmmaking style and knowledge of the genre to put together a good entry in any franchise. If they were given a single story to focus on, instead of mashing together elements of about a dozen, this directing duo has the potential to make something great again.

Sunday, 15 April 2012

The Cabin in the Woods (2011)

Curt: "This isn't right. We should split up."
Holden: "Yeah, good idea."
Marty: "...Really?!"

- The Cabin in the Woods

The Cabin in the Woods has attracted a lot more hype than there is for your average horror, and that may have a little something to do with it the attachment of russet-bearded thundergeek Joss Whedon as writer. We knew we'd be getting something different - the promo material suggested something along the lines of The Evil Dead by way of Cube, and that's not completely wide of the mark - but even going in with full knowledge of Whedon's love for genre-bending, pop-culture-dissecting comedy, The Cabin in the Woods still surprises and amazes. It's a horror film, and it's a horror film about horror films. Spoilers ahead - and Cabin definitely falls into the "less you know, the better" category.

The premise: five college kids (fulfilling the horror Major Arcana of Stoner, Jock, Nerd, Slutty Blonde and Innocent Girl) head for a beer-and-drugs-soaked weekend in a remote woodland cabin. Unknown to them, their every move is being watched and manipulated from the get-go by a shadowy organisation operating out of a surveillance facility deep underground - a gleaming, hi-tech steel-and-glass complex that's somewhat at odds with the inept, cynical staff who run its day-to-day business. This business, it transpires, is to callously kill off the kids using any one of a vast array of movie monsters (bored staff members run a sweepstake on which one the kids will choose), which are stored warehouse-fashion until needed.

The Cabin in the Woods pitches itself somewhere between parody, loving tribute and total re-imagination of the conventions of horror. It would be so easy for a premise like this to fall flat, but it's Whedon's relentless inventiveness and his great eye for in-jokes ('stupid gas' released by the surveillance team ensures the kids don't outwit the redneck zombies sent to kill them; even the archetypal creepy gas station attendant gets a great comic scene) that sets the pace and sustains it. From the brilliantly schlocky opening, Cabin never stops being creative, and has the good sense not to let its subtext - the voyeuristic and desensitising nature of graphic horror - ever get in the way of the fun.

The cast deserves a lot of credit for breathing life into a slew of characters we've seen a thousand times before, with special mentions going to Fran Kranz's stoner savant, and Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford as the bickering, coffee-slurping jobsworths controlling the action. Just as good is the creature design - there are a lot of monsters in this film, paying homage to everything from Ringu to Hellraiser, all of which come out to play in a frantic, blood-soaked climax that feels like the movie's centrepiece. Aside from anything else, this demonstrates that director Drew Goddard (of Cloverfield fame; perhaps unfairly overshadowed by Whedon in the promo) knows his way around a great action sequence.

If I have a criticism, it's that the big reveal at the end feels just a bit too knowingly cheesy, almost like an afterthought - but that's only because everything that's come before it has been so very well-judged. It's really just the tying up of a big loose end, and it's hard to be too disappointed when you're still reeling from everything the film's thrown at you. That's about it, though - all in all, I'm confident The Cabin in the Woods will be the most fun you've had at the cinema all year.

Monday, 9 April 2012

Evidence (2011)

Ryan: "What if there's bears?"
Brett: "Stop, drop and roll."

- Evidence

Evidence is a tricky one to do a proper review of because I try to avoid spoilers as much as possible, and (spoiler alert!) a fair chunk of the film is going to be impossible to talk about without giving anything away. Suffice to say that it begins like a normal found-footager, with a group of friends recording their first camping trip together. There's all the normal wisecracking, simmering tensions (it's no surprise that one of the group really hates camping) and weird screeches around the campfire - in fact, it's so by-the-numbers to start off with that you might be forgiven for wanting to switch it off after the first half hour or so.

If you like the sound of it so far, I recommend you stop reading here and just go and watch it, because here be spoilers. After glimpsing a strange creature in a ravine and having an uncomfortable midnight run-in with a gun-toting stranger, the group soon come under attack, forcing them to shelter in the RV and roll the cameras less often. There's a palpable sense of dread as the sparingly-glimpsed creature - somewhere between a Bigfoot and a big dog - tries to batter its way through the van and at this point, you might expect the film to carry on in siege fashion, with the survivors being picked off one by one: but this is where Evidence goes absolutely apeshit.

After the gang decide to make a break for it, the film shifts gear into a nausea-inducing kaleidoscope of gunfire, monsters, spattering evicerations, babbling crazies, military installations and zombies (yep, zombies) as the survivors desperately try to find somewhere safe as what seems to be a world-shattering outbreak of something or other unfolds around them. Compared with the sedate-but-creepy first act and the claustrophobic jumpiness of the RV, the last half hour is just one long insane dash, pock-marked with explosive gore, half-glimpsed nightmare creatures, roaring helicopters and radio chatter. There's no way to judge the timeframe of what's happening, and certainly no explanation - the outbreak seems to be military in origin, but that's about the best I could piece together - the whole sequence is an authentic snapshot of all the panic and confusion of the Apocalypse, minus the details.

Not since Kill List have I seen a film hang such a colossal left on the audience in the final act, and it's one that's well worth sticking around for. Like many films of its kind, it was made for next to nothing (about $12,000, and I'd guess 90% of that went on the last 20 minutes) but delivers bigger and better shocks, scares and balls-out weirdness than any number of high-budget efforts. Not everyone's going to like the fat middle finger it gives to their expectations, but even if you've read this far and you know what's coming, it's well worth seeing for the experience.

Tuesday, 20 March 2012

Marebito / The Stranger from Afar (2004)

"I'd go so far as to imitate a psychopath to record the terror of the victim on my retina and videotape."

-  Masuoka, Marebito

From Takashi Shimuzu, director of The Grudge, comes this weird little story about a numbed cameraman who is obsessed with understanding and recording pure fear. Even as the story begins, all is not well in Masuoka's world - living alone in an apartment crowded by TV screens and recording equipment, taking (and then not taking) Prozac and listlessly watching snuff in an attempt to catch a glimpse of the weapons-grade terror he's searching for, it's implied that we've entered the story at an unknown juncture of a colossal downward slope.

Things take a turn when Masuoka records a disturbing suicide on the Tokyo subway. Watching and re-watching the clip obsessively causes it to change in Masuoka's eyes - for a second, the suicide victim looks right into the lens, prompting a miniature headtrip in which he percieves a shadowy other world under the city, populated by skittering half-people. Venturing beneath the subway, he finds yawning Lovecraftian vistas (Richard Sharpe Shaver and At the Mountains of Madness are name-checked) and a beautiful, naked girl, whom he rescues from the underworld and brings back to his apartment.

Marebito ultimately turns into a strange brew of vampire romance, Chthonic fantasy and mind-of-a-madman narrative, all unfolding at a cool, unemotional pace that mirrors the narration of the detached Masuoka. It's hard to decide exactly what's happening on a first viewing, partly because there are several competing strands of confusion: Masuoka frequently states that he can only experience reality through a video camera (leading us to wonder whether the frequent changes from handheld to third-person viewpoint are significant), and characters who seem less crazy than him hint at a hidden backstory, which might offer a more rational explanation for what we're seeing.

I'm not sure Marebito even is a puzzle that can be deciphered by analysing scenes to filter out what's real and what's Masuoka.While the tone is completely different, it's an American Psycho-esque meeting of internal and external experience, underpinned by an oddly specific and obscure mythology (The Shaver Mysteries, which I'd never heard of before this but might hold a few more answers) and a monster-human love story that may or may not be a fantasy.

The most rational reading is that we're sharing the delusions of a psychotic as he ambles further and further from reality, but it could just be interpreted as an open-ended piece of surrealism about a man journeying deeper into his subconscious, complete with symbolic killings and beautiful monsters. Definitely more of a chin-stroker than a creeper-outer, Marebito's still got enough scary to watch it as a straight-up horror, but it demands interpretation rather than just viewing.

Monday, 12 March 2012

Antikӧrper / Antibodies (2005)

"Who did you expect, Hannibal Lecter?"

 - Gabriel Engel, Antibodies

Serial killer films often follow a formula that makes them kind of a guilty pleasure - a freak show where a human monster (usually with an inventive mode of killing or a quasi-mystical philosophy underpinning his actions) is eventually undone by the one detective with the mental resources to defeat them. Antibodies may not tread too far from this model, but by resisting sensationalism in favour of a thoughtful, downbeat examination of evil, it creates a much more absorbing story than the usual fare.

The film opens with a police team moving in on the Berlin apartment of Gabriel Engel, a paedophile serial killer who paints in his victims' blood. Engel loads a shotgun and prepares for his last stand, fatally shooting one policeman and diving out of a high window before his arrest by police commissioner Seiler. Crippled and in custody, he makes a leering confession to the murders of thirteen young boys, but fails to mention Lucia Flieder - his only female suspected victim, from the nearby rural town of Herzbach.

Meanwhile, Herzbach's starchily Catholic constable Michael Martens is struggling to deal with the aftermath of Lucia's butchering in the suspicious, tight-knit community, as well as the increasingly disturbing behaviour of his son. Drawn to Berlin in the hope of laying the case to rest, he tries to interrogate Engel but only has his buttons pushed by the smirking monster in the cage. Before he leaves, Engel tells Martens that he knows who killed Lucia, a hook that guarantees he'll be back for more.

While there are token elements of the procedural detective story in Antibodies (including a mismatched partner in the sleazy, whorehopping Seiler) they are almost incidental to the main show: an upright man of faith's corruption through exposure to a poisonous mind. Engel not only succeeds in rattling Martens, but remains on his shoulder long after he has left the cell, infecting his repressed sexuality, his relationship with his family and, inevitably, with his God.

Lacking the arch wit of Lecter or the detached, fanatical conviction of Se7en's John Doe, Engel has no apparent grand plan or moral lesson to teach: he's openly, almost cheerfully committed to his depravity and just seems intent on taking one more soul down with him. Martens, whose suspicions about Lucia's killer shift back to his home town, follows him a little too readily down the rabbit hole and finally comes apart in a conclusion that proves a multi-layered test of his faith.

Writer/director Christian Alvart has put together a tight thriller that perhaps owes a little too much to the films already alluded to, but is nonetheless completely gripping from the explosive beginning to the end. The plot unfolds at a patient, measured pace without feeling baggy, with the occasional gore and queasy sex scenes providing flashes of colour in the generally cold, washed-out tone.

Playing mind games with serial killers never goes well for on-screen detectives, and Antibodies doesn't break much ground in this regard - but it's deftly shot, superbly cast, tightly plotted and engrossing. More importantly, by depicting Engel not as a cartoon bogeyman but an uncomfortably believable sociopath, it allows its moral and religious questioning to achieve a rare impact.

Monday, 5 March 2012

Incoming - John Dies at the End

Well, here's something. Don Coscarelli, the man behind the completely awesome Bubba Ho-Tep, Phantasm and, um, The Beastmaster is extending the trip further with an adaptation of the novel by David Wong of Titularly done-for protagonist John and his friend Dave discover a new drug (street name: Soy Sauce), a paranormal psychoactive that allows users to exist in the past, present and future simultaneously and read other people's thoughts. So far, so Philip K Dick, but using Soy Sauce also seems to catch the attention of masked cults, interdimensional shamblers and other hideous agents of the unknown.

I'm not completely sure the above description is accurate, since the only thing most reviewers seem to agree on is that John Dies at the End is a headfuck and a half. I take this as a good sign, and the addition of Paul Giamatti as the reporter hearing Dave's tale in flashback (John presumably having carked it by this point) and veteran rent-a-creep Angus Scrimm is also welcome. Don Coscarelli has made some truly mind-bending comic horror in the past (go watch Phantasm, now) and I look forward to seeing how this psychedelic little number plays out. It's already been confusing audiences at Sundance this year, but no word yet on UK distribution.

Saturday, 3 March 2012

Incoming - V/H/S, Skew

Both of these are kicking up a bit of interest for different reasons: V/H/S because it's a collaborative effort helmed by (at least) six directors with pretty respectable credentials; and Skew because it won quite a few awards last year, which shames me slightly because I only stumbled across it a couple of days ago. They're also probing some of the more interesting possibilities of the found footage subgenre, which is always nice.

Tabloid-baiting tales of  viewers collapsing in terror at screenings aside, V/H/S should catch attention for its directing crew alone. Ti West (The House of the Devil, The Innkeepers), Adam Wingard (A Horrible Way to Die), David Bruckner (The Signal), Glenn McQuaid (I Sell the Dead), Joe Swanberg (Silver Bullets) and Radio Silence (the three-man team behind several acclaimed shorts) helm this found footage anthology, and Simon Barrett (Dead Birds) is also on the writing team.

In the tradition of the horror anthology, there's a single wrapper that ties all the stories together: an eccentric gang of criminals are hired to break into a deserted house and retrieve a videotape. There they find a dead body and more than one videotape, so they decide to put them on for shits and lols, providing the frame for the films-within-a-film format. The tapes range from a creature feature to a slasher-in-the-woods yarn, revisiting the story of the misfits in the house in between each one.

I love a good anthology, I love a good found footage flick and I love many of this team (admittedly I'd never heard of Radio Silence, hated I Sell the Dead and haven't seen Silver Bullets, but whatevs), so I'm reasonably pumped about this setup. It's been picked up by Momentum Pictures for UK distribution, says Screen Daily, so hopefully it'll be hitting a festival or two soonish.

Skew takes a different tack with a superficially more traditional friends-on-a-road-trip-videotaping-their-larks plot, but again looks like it's handling the subgenre in a fresh way. Three people off to attend a friend's wedding have their buzz killed when cameraman Simon complains that people's faces keep looking "all fuzzy and fucked up ... and then they die!" As the bodycount rises, Simon becomes more unhinged and soon the carefree jaunt turns into a nightmare.

It doesn't look too mind-blowing from the trailer below, but more than a few critics have been praising it as an original and intelligent found footager, so I'm guessing the approach is a bit more intricate than "evil camera what kills people". Add to that a slew of awards (from A Night of Horror in Australia, Fear Fete in Louisiana and Urban Suburban in Philadelphia) and writer/director Sevé Schelenz's debut looks well worth keeping on the radar. It's been on Netflix in the US for quite a while now, but apparently the UK'll have to wait until it premieres on the Horror Channel later this year.