“Wake up. It’s a beautiful day.”
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!
‘Lights Out’ is in UK cinemas from August 19th.
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!
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…
The Closest We’ll get to Cinematic Masterpiece this year?
This film is unlike any other. It’s intelligent, provocative and deeply haunting. Shot and told with expert precision whilst feeding on audience paranoia and helplessness – this is not a film for the faint of heart. There are few films that have been, or that will be, released this year that will end with you leaving the cinema drained and exhausted (in a good way at least…)
Idealistic FBI agent Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) leads a kidnapping raid in Chandler, Arizona that results in a discovery far bigger and much more gruesome than was expected. Her findings cause Kate’s boss (Victor Garber) to recommend her to an elected government task force which has a sole focus of the ever-escalating war against drugs on either side of the US – Mexico border. After a brief interview Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) offers her the position, using her emotional ties to her previous case as reasoning to join his team. His team promises results far greater than those she can achieve in her current position, plus a chance to find and punish those involved in the tragedy she unintentionally unearthed. She accepts immediately. Kate’s FBI partner Reggie (Daniel Kaluuya) is instantly distrustful of Matt and fearful for his partner’s well-being. Kate squashes his concerns, but when she arrives for her first day of work she realises how little she know and how little Matt will actually want to tell her. The unexplained arrival of mysterious Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro) furthers these worries, as does their preceding to fly with her to a different destination than the one declared to her and concealing their purpose for being there. Was Reggie right to have been so worried for Kate? Will Kate get to make the difference she wanted to? Will she even make it out alive?
What truly makes this film enter the threshold into ‘great’ is the components that make it so taut, tense and thrilling. The acting is masterful – Blunt is understatedly brilliant as the at-times frustrating but always sympathetic Kate, Brolin’s Matt oozes charm with dark undertones and Del Toro lurks on the outskirts so intriguingly that his gradually revealed character arc is utterly enthralling. The music, and the superbly well-chosen moments when it is absent, frame each sequences with an eerie sense of both danger and inevitability. Not a shot or piece of dialogue is wasted – everything either contributes to the plot or the power of it. Aerial shots revel not in the landscape, but instead reveal the depth of the poverty and crime and the sheer vastness of it.
Where the film builds and retains most of its power is in its message. Whilst easy from trailers and posters to misconstrue as just another social-issue drama or drug-related thriller, Sicario has much more to offer. Few films have tackled the ‘war on drugs’ with such informed perception of the grey area surrounding it. The primary question is of lawlessness – who are the good guys in this war and who can be trusted? Most importantly – when the do the ends stop justifying the means? This is reflected upon in such a spectacularly suspenseful manner; it is rare to find a film that can leave an audience so fantastically haunted.
If you’re looking to spend two-hours in a realm of dread, brutality and nerve-destroying darkness then commit to numb ruminating…you’d best go buy your ticket!