Ghost Stories

”Things are not always as they seem.’

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Lights Out

Be aware of things that lurk in the dark…

If, like me, you are afraid of both the dark and mannequins you will pretty much be done in by the opening sequence. If they’d also included spiders I probably would have walked out… Anyway ‘Lights Out’ is a feature film adaptation of a rather successful short film (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tOI4bJ0-IrY). On the whole it is a very effective horror movie, utilising old-fashioned fears and old-fashioned scares to great effect.

Rebecca (Teresa Palmer) left the family home a long time ago. She now lives in an apartment on her own, far away from her mother Sophie (Maria Bello) and half-brother Martin (Gabriel Bateman). She’s been dating Bret (Alexander DiPersia) for eight months but struggles with the concept that he is her ‘boyfriend’ – these issues with relationships stem from her turbulent past with her mother that lead her to leave home as soon as she could. Several months have past since the mysterious death of her step-father Paul (Billy Burke) when her brother gets back in touch. It appears their mother, who has a history of mental illness, is struggling again. But when Martin explains some of the strange ongoings in the house, including their mother talking to a friend called Diane when she is actually talking to herself  and strange things being seen in the dark, Rebecca becomes desperate to unlock the truth and soon comes face-to-face with a terror that haunts the shadows. 

Horror is not exactly one of my favourite genres. Honest admission time: I’m easily scared by some of the most ridiculous things and really don’t take pleasure from being scared. Attending this preview screening at The Soho Hotel (which genuinely has the fanciest toilets in London, a comment unrelated to the fact I saw a horror film there!) seemed like a stupid notion, especially as I was going on my own, and yet I went. And I actually really enjoyed the film. Admittedly I clutched the armrest of my chair  (very comfy/fancy seat I hasten to add!) for the entire running time and watched a good third of the movie through my fingers…yet I was somewhat surprised at how much I appreciated the film. Impressively for all the terror I felt I underwent I laughed a lot to, with the film not at it. It easily passed the six laugh test with intentional gags.

At just under 90 minutes long it’s taut, no time is wasted on unnecessary scenes or information. The pacing is strong and unrelenting. The story itself takes familiar tropes of horror films (‘Don’t go in the basement!’ ‘Why are you going on your own?!?’ etc.) and plays around with them. Some moments do not surprise and some moments really do. Whilst there are some rather obvious elements to the story, and a rather problematic use of mental illness to explain character behaviours/story, there is enough freshness to everything that make these issues less jarring.

This is also helped by some excellent acting by the cast. The central trio are definitely three actors to look out for. Eleven year old Bateman, playing Martin, is fantastic as one of the leads. He conveys an excellent amount of emotion and really holds his own amongst the cast. Palmer as Rebecca was certainly convincing balancing her desperate need to know with an adequate amount of logic and cynicism. DiPersia as her boyfriend was a magnetic presence on the screen and suitably charming. The only issues I had with their ‘relationship’ was the obviousness of their characters – both being dressed in black, her music choices and the themes of the posters decorating her apartment. It felt obvious what they were trying to say about her character and yet needless as this an element of the story that was not explored. Maria Bello did a good job with what she was given, although it felt undermined by the flawed use of mental illness to explain away her character and certain elements of the story.

And then there’s Diana, our villain of the story. Having a villain who can only appear in the dark is an inventive idea, one that is used to great and very effective effect. The places that she manages to pop up in..! And then there’s the noises we quickly come to associate with her – whenever she approaches the noise of fingers against a chalkboard pierces the air. Then, when she makes an attack, her roar (she literally roars) it’s actually really terrifying! Most of my deciding to watch some scenes through my fingers came from those noises. My only problem with her as a villain as how undefined her powers were, she seems to suddenly have a skill for every means and possess multiple superpowers. These skills come with no explanation or discussion and soon become convenient rather than believable. And yet she still managed to unnerve me so greatly I did sleep the following night with my bedside lamp on. Just in case.

‘Lights Out’ is a more than solid horror movie, providing thrills and chills within a neat less than 90 minute running. A great way to spent the evening watching, then much of the night trying to forget!

stars

‘Lights Out’ is in UK cinemas from August 19th. 

 

Ghostbusters

Bustin’ makes me feel good!

I love Ghostbusters (1984). I even love Ghostbusters 2 (1989). I now say loudly and proudly that I love Ghostbusters (2016). Whether it’s a reboot you wanted and whether it’s a reboot you thought necessary, well, it’s here. And it’s great. Just because it’s rebooted doesn’t mean the original does not exist – it’s still there if you want it – but the new film does a fantastic job of bringing the ghostbusters to the 21st Century and hopefully inspiring younger generations. I’m not going to comment any further on the (needless) controversy surrounding the film, except the villain of the film is a ‘weirdo’ loner millennial male who hides behind technology rather than humanity, who thrives on negativity and rejects modernity – few villains have been so well-timed and apt…

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Erin Gilbert (Kristen Wiig) is a scientist and lecturer at Columbia university. She’s extremely close to getting tenure there, a job for life, when both that and her academic reputation is put under threat by an old friend re-entering her life. Years earlier she and Abby Yates (Melissa McCarthy) wrote a book on the existence of paranormal phenomenon. Erin walked away from the book and Abby. Abby has put the book back on sale and has continued to work in investigating the paranormal, now working alongside  Jillian Holtzmann (Kate McKinnon). When Erin goes to Abby to persuade her to take the book off the market she gets swept back into her old line of work when ghosts start to appear all over New York. The trio are soon joined by Patty Tolan (Leslie Jones) and the four of them make up the Ghostbusters, ‘aided’ by the world’s worst secretary Kevin (Chris Hemsworth).

I really enjoyed watching this film. Hooked in from the first scene – which featured Zach Woods aka ‘Jared’ from Silicon Valley – I laughed. A lot. The film is centered on feel-good and it’s a watching experience that is really uplifting – spirit raising in more than one way (sorry-not-sorry for the pun!) Deciding to make the film, yet another reboot some of you may cry, probably was an easy decision for the studios. But, considering the aforementioned controversy  (which I will discuss no further, promise) it required director Paul Feig and his cast to be fearless. And they really are!

Watching the film is a truly enjoyable experience for on many layers and for many reasons. Some are saying the film is ‘safe’ or ‘not enough’ – I personally think it’s a step in the right direction. An entry-point update of a classic which can be pushed further with the next in the franchise (which is the same criticism most gave of The Force Awakens no..?) And, arguably, this film does better than TFA at blending the old with the new. The ‘old’ doesn’t detract attention here. It doesn’t distill the zeitgeist with nostalgia. Instead Ghostbusters has nods to the past whilst being fun, funny and full of energy. Much of this is down to the cast, whom there is not a weak link amongst- all are extraordinarily brilliant in their own ways

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. Wiig as Erin is probably the closest I’ve ever seen a cinematic version of myself; a woman driven by logic who totally loses all rationale around her passion (the paranormal) and attractive members of the opposite sex  (Kevin). Her journey kick-starts the film and then drives it to the end as she rediscovers what she truly believes in  and who the people that truly matter to her are. Best line: Books can’t fly and neither can babies!

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Melissa Mccarthy = comedy gold. No matter the film she still manages to sparkle and steal most of the scenes she is in. This film is no exception. Abby is classic Mccarthy character, a joy to watch and laugh with/at. Her timing is immaculate whether that be swapping lines or kicking ghost-ass. Best line: I will kick the the unliving crap out of you and you and especially you! 

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I hadn’t really heard of Leslie Jones prior to her casting in Ghostbusters (sorry Leslie in the unlikelihood you ever read this!) but she’s definitely a comedian I will be checking out. Not only is she a fellow tall lady (we’re both six feet tall) but her facial expressions are hilarious and her delivery of lines is beyond on point. I know there has been a lot of discussion over the fact she is the only non-scientist of the group but her character is very well-presented, she’s just as smart as the others but in a different yet no less important way. Best line: I guess he’s going to Queens – he’s going to be the third scariest thing on that train.

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If I really had to choose my favourite Ghostbuster (and that’s only if, to paraphrase The Princess Bride, death was on the line) I’d have to pick Jillian. Kate McKinnon is a truly magnetic performer, every scene she featured in I found myself drawn into watching her. She brings a crazily wonderful energy to the role and creates a fantastically memorable character. Also, her lip syncing ‘Rhythm of the Night’ by Debarge caused me to have many unexpected feelings… Best line: Just try saying no to these salty parabolas!

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I have to also briefly mention Chris Hemsworth as Kevin. Not only is the man the physical embodiment of human perfection he is also utterly hilarious (is there no justice in the world?!?). Everything he says is funny, and you have to stay during the closing credits for his dance number. Best line: An aquarium is a submarine for fish.

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All in all, I loved Ghostbusters. It may even be one of my most enjoyable film watching experiences of the year so far. It’s a feelgood classic in the making and a whole lotta fun to watch. I ain’t afraid of no ghosts!

4 stars

 

Tale Of Tales

A twisted take on twisted tales

I bloody loved this film. It has everything I love in one place- fairytale s (the dark kind), kings & queens, tricks & spells, deals & plots, oaths & secrets, love & betrayal and tales of the unexpected. It’s all told so well, with so much love and care, with everything looking absolutely gorgeous. Last week I criticized Alice Through The Looking Glass for many things (see my review here)  but the main one was for being a ‘film which feels like it was made by people who read a book called ‘Pretending To Be Weird For Dummies”. Those ‘people’ need to go see this because this is how you do it. If you’re looking for strange, dark and morbidly entertaining tales then look no more!

The Queen of Longtrellis (Salma Hayek) is desperate to have a child but everything she and her husband (John C. Reilly) try fails to work. When a mysterious stranger, a necromancer (Franco Pistoni), visits the castle he offers a risky solution. They need to find a sea monster, kill it and then have its heart cooked by a virgin which the Queen must eat. She will fall instantly pregnant. The necromancer warning that this will be at the cost of a life – a warning the Queen ignores. 

The King of Highhills (Toby Jones) befriends a flea that appears to be able to follow instructions. A friendship soon blossoms and the flea grows and grows. When the now extremely and unbelievably large flea dies the King uses  the flea’s skin as part of a game – whoever can guess the what animal the skin belonged to will get to marry his only daughter. Such a shame for Princess Violet (Bebe Cave) that it’s an ogre who guesses correctly. 

The sex-obsessed King of Strongcliff (Vincent Cassel) hears the voice of an angel whilst prowling his kingdom. He pursues the voice and demands to seduce her, not knowing the voice belong to an elderly woman Dora (Hayley Carmichael) who lives with her equally elderly sister Imma (Shirley Henderson). Dora intends to lead the King along, knowing that she is putting her’s and her sister’s life in danger. A chance meeting with a witch provides her heart’s greatest desire – but is it too good to be true?

That’s only the beginning of each tale. There’s so much more for you to see – so much of which is unexpected, some of which is slightly scary, and all of which is a true pleasure to watch. It’s a feast for the eyes, the brain and the heart. The performances are all solid and utterly believable. There’s depth within each character, a reason and motivation rooted in their decisions. Hayek is stand-out, as is Toby Jones as a man who shifts from arrogance (‘ha ha they’ll never guess what animal it is and I’ll keep my daughter forever’) to devastation (‘Now my son-in-law is an ogre!’) in truly sympathetic manner. Even Cassel’s lustful pursuit manages to be bizarrely sympathetic for all parties involved.

The three tales are interwoven, tentatively linked within the story but fully linked in terms of message. The three tales are based on stories from a 17th Century anthology, they are La Cerva Fatata (The Enchanted Doe), La Pulce (The Flea), La Vecchia Scorticata (The Flayed Old Lady)- but they have been freely adapted with elements of other tales by Giambattista Basile, as well as a touch of artistic license. Although set in a medieval Italy it does feel that their are messages being targeted the audiences today – about consequences of decisions and the nature of family.

The costumes are jaw-dropping, the monsters Kafkaesque, the settings breath-taking, the soundtrack haunting yet never overwhelming and the performances totally memorable. Films like this don’t come around very often so see it whilst you can!

4.5

 

10 Cloverfield Lane

The low budget “spiritual successor” to Cloverfield

Cloverfield was a serviceable found footage horror film that did well at the box office predominately due to its marketing strategy which featured things that took the burgeoning viral marketing to a whole new level. MySpace accounts were created for each of the characters, websites for the fictional companies that featured in the film could be trawled through for clues and the film itself was announced only as a series of numbers which formed clues that were eventually revealed to the release date. Cloverfield appeared in a few films of the year lists and that was about it. Producer J.J. Abrams would regularly be hounded for details of a possible sequel but appeared not to be able to give a definitive answer. When the upcoming release of 10 Cloverfield Lane was announced early this year there was real surprise as no-one had known that it was even filming let alone finished. This was due to the fact 10 Cloverfield Lane had not been filmed – originally based on a script called ‘The Cellar‘ it was adapted and linked to Cloverfield it was filmed under the codename ‘Valencia’. Here we are in March 2016 and 10 Cloverfield Lane has been released and it bares little resemblance either in tone or story to its predecessor. And it’s good. Very good indeed. So good that it’s definitely in the running for my end of the year top ten list.

Fleeing New Orleans and her fiance, intentionally leaving her engagement ring behind in the process, Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) drives far away from the city. In the process she ends up in a nasty car accident. Next thing she knows she wakes up in a basement, her injured leg is handcuffed to the wall. She desperately does all she can to escape but all attempts are futile. The locked door opens and she is greeted by Howard (John Goodman) who explains that he saved her life and yes he is keeping her trapped down in the basement but it’s for her own good. His rather menacing nature and pointing out of how much Michelle owes him hugely unsettle Michelle who is desperate to leave. She also meets the other resident of the bunker, Emmett (John Gallagher Jr.), who has known Howard for most of his life and is certain that Howard is a conspiracy nut but fundamentally a good guy. Time passes before the pair admit to Michelle why she cannot leave the bunker, a chemical attack has taken place in the outside world contaminating  the air and killing the world’s population in the process. The unknown assailants have made the outside world unlivable and the trio’s only hope to stay alive is to remain in the bunker. All of life’s comforts are there, as Howard has spent most of life preparing for such a situation, but Howard’s increasingly controlling and menacing behaviour makes Michelle desperate to leave. Taking matters into her own hands Michelle soon realises the truth of what has happened.

What is truly impressive about this film is how cleverly it terrifies the audience. Considering it is a 12a (something I have an issue with concerning the themes and some of the moments of the film) it manages to do so much with so few of the big violent scares of other horror films. Two of the film’s tensest moments are when Michelle crawls through the ventilation shaft, twice. Through a brilliant combination of editing, camera work, sound and acting they were both sequences I had to watch through my fingers whilst desperately hoping for the best possible outcome. There are a few moments of big and jumpy scares, many of them coming from loud noises that have never sounded so scary, but most of the moments are slow-building subtle fears that build to genuine terror. This is through the fantastic storytelling and narrative. Information is so carefully withheld then slowly realised to the audience. Every new revelation requires a reassessment of what we know and what we expect will happen next.

We know little about what has actually happened outside and we have little reason to trust our primary source for that information. John Goodman is truly terrifying as mysterious Howard whose character gains murkier and murkier added depths with each conversation. He’s a dangerous blend of menace and deluded altruism with every sequence in which he appears forcing us to eye him dubiously, wondering how much he says is actually the truth and how big a threat he plays towards Michelle. The slow revelations that follow only complicate our distrust and unease of his character. Gallagher Jr.’s Emmett is a much-needed comic foil into the tense mix, when tension hits sky-high level it is masterfully lowered with  a dose black humour. Winstead’s performance as Michelle is the best of her career, making a character who is truly sympathetic and one which we are desperate to succeed. I’d even argue that, in a year which saw Brie Larson win an Oscar from Room in which she played a woman held in captivity, that Winstead’s performance rivals Larson’s. Winstead’s blend of determination to leave and her struggling to accept the awareness of its possible futility may have resulted in one of the finest acting performances of the year.

If you’re looking for a film that clocks in at one hour and a half, that will drain you of every emotion possible, make you jump out of your seat and shield your eyes in concern, then you’ve come to the right place. Well worth seeing, if you dare…