The Shallows

Just when you thought it was finally safe to go back in the water…

Jaws (1975) revolutionised cinema in three ways. 1) It established the career of a certain well-known director by the name of Steven Spielberg. 2) It was one of the first, if not the first, Blockbuster movie. 3) It made sharks seem really really scary, continuing to turn generation after generation into galeophobics (those with an intense fear of water due to sharks). 41 years later (yep, just take a minute to ponder that!) The Shallows comes along, using a great white shark to once more terrify audiences. Does it work? For the most part yes it really does!

Shortly after the death of her mother medical student Nancy (Blake Lively) decides to take a break from college and go travelling. She’s decided to retrace her mother’s steps and has travelled to a secret beach in Mexico to surf. Her favourite photo of her mother is her being stood on the beach, surfboard in hand, just after finding out she was pregnant with Nancy. Kind local Carlos (Óscar Jaenada) drives Nancy to the beach and drops her off. Nancy proceeds to surf for hours, first alongside two local residents and then on her own. After sensing a commotion in the water she travels a little further out when a great white shark attacks. A badly wounded Nancy drags herself to a pile of rocks roughly 200m from the shore, but the beast is circling and stopping her from reaching the shore. What will follow is a test of wills between man and nature – will Nancy survive?

In the 41 years since Jaws (again, can you believe it?!?) about 83 movies (yep, I counted) featuring killer sharks have graced big, small and non existent screens. For every Jaws there’s been at least ten Jaws:The Revenge. Thankfully The Shallows  is more like the former than the latter.

There’s a few reasons The Shallows has the makings of something of a modern masterpiece. There’s the fact it’s a bottle thriller – a movie set solely in one small location, think Buried (2010), Moon (2009) and 127 Hours (2010)- is an excellent decision. Bottle movies play us right in the situation the characters are in , we the audience cannot escape just as the character we are watching cannot. Having Nancy trapped on a small pile of rocks, that are soon to disappear with the tide, really ratchets up the tension. It allows us to connect with the tension she is feeling and develop our own sympathy tension. Even though we have only just meet her we know quite a chunk about her and we are desperate for her to pull through, no matter how unlikely that regularly seems.

This, however, would not be as effective were it not for Lively’s performance. It is not hyperbolic or oversimplified to say she carries this film. For the majority of the film, aside from a temporary companion seagull she names Steven, she is alone on screen. At least 60 minutes pass where she has no-one to communicate with and no-one to help her. Lively excels in communicating every emotion – from the pain of her energy, the horrendous worry over her situation to her savvy quick mindedness as she handles each situation. Should it have really been warranted Lively truly proves her skill as a fine actress.

Her excellent performance is immensely well served by the cinematography. The sequences of the shark attacking are as chilling as you’d hope/expect/want. The scenes where the shark cannot be seen, when we know it is lurking, are equally-wracking. An excellent balance is used between showing the beauty of this secluded and breath-taking beach along with the horror that lurks beneath the surface. There’s also an effective integration of social media/mobile phones early on which whilst highlighting this is a modern movie also had to the believability of the situation and of Nancy as a character.

The only negative has to be the final 5 minutes/ ending which really test the realms of believability.

All in all The Shallows has plenty of thrills and chills, with scares that will compel  most of the audience. And, at less than 90 minutes long, it’s a taut and lean thriller. Well worth a watch.

3.4

‘The Shallows‘ is in cinemas now. 

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. 

 

Green Room

An intelligent and electrifying horror

Usually me and horror don’t mix particularly well. Almost two months on and I am still occasionally haunted by visions of Black Phillip the goat from The Witch and I still feel a bit twitchy when I think about what I would do if I were to be trapped in a basement 10 Cloverfield Lane – style (is it normal to worry about that as a hypothetical scenario..?) But then again, Green Room isn’t your typical horror film. Yes there is gore (I’ve become very aware of my hands for the past hour since watching) but it is never overused. Whilst the narrative follows a ‘well-that-escalated-quickly’ structure it is founded in a series of cause-and-effect plot points that seem both believable and terrifying in equal measure. Then when you chuck in the superb pacing, swift editing, nerve-shredding soundtrack and  some superb character performances…well you’re in for a great time!

“The Ain’t Rights” are a punk band who are travelling through the Pacific Northwest, playing gigs and scrummaging whatever they can to get by.  The band – formed of Pat (Anton Yelchin), Sam (Alia Shawkat), Reece (Joe Cole) and Tiger (Callum Turner) – end up playing a gig in rural Seaside, Oregon to a club filled with Neo-Nazi skinheads.Upon seeing their Anti-Semitic surroundings Pat jokingly suggests they play a cover of The Dead Kennedys “Nazi Punks Fuck Off!” The band play the song during their set to  a less than receptive audience. Set over and cash in hand they make a move to leave, a move which the show organiser hastens to speed up, when Pat has to run back to grab the band’s mobile which they left charging. He stumbles across the scene of one of the skinheads leaning over the body of a young female punk with her still-alive friend Amber (Imogen Poots) rendered numb in disbelief. The band are then locked in the green room with the pair and the dead body. Reinforcements are called in the form of club owner Darcy (Patrick Stewart). The band have seen too much. Will any of them make it out alive?

There are so many reasons to like this movie. I want to say enjoy but considering the subject matter and content the verb ‘enjoy’ seems in rather poor taste. Semantics aside this is a cracking horror film. The slow-build of tension, the overwhelming sense of inevitability and the shock factor of many of moments. This is a film made with an equal blend of style and substance. The film looks damn good – the shots are well chosen with some excellent lighting choices that make for truly memorable sequences.

All of these factors would be pointless were it not for the excellent performances that drive the story. The characters are presented in a way that is a balance between wanting them to live but not really knowing them well enough to mourn any losses that occur on the way. You experience a degree of ‘oh no!’ because you care about them when certain things may or may not happen but are detached enough from them to not feel too aggrieved should/when something happens to them. Yelchin is superb as the accidental leader of punk trope. Poots is truly kick-ass as a female character who is not just cast to the sidelines, doesn’t spend the entirety of the film in shades of hysteria and who is capable of holding her own in certain situations. This is definitely/hopefully  showing a changing of the tide in Hollywood horror as her character is in line with that of Mary Elizabeth Winstead in the aforementioned 10 Cloverfield Lane. And then there’s Patrick Stewart as a properly scary baddie – whose calm and collected demeanor is unbearably (in a good way) unnerving to watch.   

Tense and taut (clocking in at 94 minutes) with some powerfully acted performances along with an admirably well-written script that is black humour laden this is definitely worth a watch.

4 stars

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…

The Witch

Moral of my story: Don’t go see this on your own in an empty cinema.

What makes a horror film a horror film? In the past week or so I’ve heard both praise for this film and a good degree of backlash. Many felt that it wasn’t a horror film, that it wasn’t scary enough and that it was too slow. As a dedicated Wittertainee I’d heard Mark Kermode champion the film stating that ‘the greatest strength of The Witch –that the audience will see in what they want to see, or believe’  So, when a bit of free time opened up in my schedule I thought ‘why not?’ Even after three nights where by sleep has been haunted by a goat called Black Phillip I do not regret my decision, as The Witch is an immensely rich watch and an outstanding debut from its director and writer Robert Eggers.

In 1630 a farmer called William (Ralph Ineson) and his family are excommunicated from their New England community due to the crime of “prideful conceit”. He and wife Katherine (Kate Dickie) must raise their children away from the community they came with when they left England and now live in exile in a forest. They have five children – teenage daughter Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), on the cusp of adolescence Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw), fraternal twins Mercy (Ellie Grainger) and Jonas (Lucas Dawson) and new-born Samuel.  One day, when Thomasin is looking after ber youngest sibling and playing a round of peek-a-boo, Samuel disappears. The family is utterly devastated and grief takes its toll, bringing tensions to the surface and testing both the love and loyalty of each of the family members. Is a supernatural force of evil haunting them or is it all imagined?

The greatest choice, of many, that this film makes is to show Samuel’s disappearance to the audience. The audience gets to see a witch, possibly the witch of the title or possibly not, drag poor little baby Samuel into the forest with her. The characters, however, do not get to see this. It’s a classic case of dramatic tension that is oh so effective – this comparatively small piece of information alters how we view the characters and makes us assess then repeatedly reassess what we are seeing. The knowing what actually happened to Samuel lets us watch the consequences with a layer of cynicism, as the family falls apart at the seams. How the dynamics of the family shift and tear creates a deeper level of both atmosphere and tension as we know something they do not. When the blame shifts to teenager Thomasin we automatically defend her. For her family she is the obvious target of blame, after all she was watching him when he disappeared, yet we know that she isn’t. Or is she? As the film plays out the audience is forced to question what they actually know, or if what they actually know is not the whole story.

All of the cast are fantastic, not a single weak link. Ineson is solid as the righteous father who may have let his ego take his family onto a path of destruction. Dickie is wonderful as the grieving mother who doesn’t know where to turn. Taylor-Joy is an extraordinary presence as a girl who has come of age, and how this very fact will change her life. The Witch is rich for cinematic analysis, most obviously the treatment young women which is seemingly reflective of how life would have been for someone of her age in 1630. Scrimshaw possess the kind of face and aura of someone who has lived a thousand lives, a real one-to-watch. The twins are as creepy as you would expect from a film of this sort. That just leaves us with the aforementioned Black Phillip. I’m even going to add a picture here of the beast, just to prove my point.

BlackPhillip

Look at him. Just look at him! I genuinely believe there should be a category added to the award ceremonies next year for, ‘scariest performance by an animal’ as Black Phillip would be a solid contender. At this point I’m not even going to tell you what he does, nor will I hint. I don’t think I could even describe it in a manner that would reflect in a  succinct enough manner the terror this beast is capable of. Just like the rest of the film, he gets under-your-skin and into-your-brain.

The Witch is a spooky, slow-release terror that is well worth seeing. Few newcomers could create a film with this depth of atmosphere and tension. I already look forward to what Robert Eggers has to offer us next.

Krampus

The gift that keeps on creeping…

Christmas is a time of festive cheer,

for singing loud for all to hear.

But what if good ol’ Saint Nick was nowhere near?

Instead Krampus came to fill you with terror and fear…

Max used to love Christmas. He used to love wrapping presents with his sister and parents whilst watching ‘A Charlie Brown Christmas’. He used to somewhat enjoy when his extended family of aunt, uncle and four cousins made their annual visit from December 22nd to just after Christmas. But every year it’s gotten worse. His parents are growing apart, his sister spends all her time with her boyfriend and his cousins use him as a play toy to amuse themselves. Only his paternal grandmother Omi can see how his Christmas spirit is fading. When his extended family arrive once more the four adults, and surprise guest Aunt Dorothy, clash over the dinner table whilst his cousins brutally tease him for still believing in, then writing a letter to, Santa Claus. It’s the final straw for Max. He rips up the letter in anger and throws it out of the window. That’s when the storm starts, a snow storm like no other. Under the cloak of the blizzard Krampus and his villainous cronies start to arrive…No-one is safe. 

What a pleasant surpise this film was! It’s far from perfect and the pacing of both the first and third act is slightly off, but overall this film is a superb antidote to the kind of movies that some of the little-known Sky channels have been showing since mid-September.  It’s properly funny, has some jump-worthy moments and holds your attention for most of the 98 minute running time.

The story itself is deceptively clever. Though the myth of Krampus is centuries old it feels incredibly immediate and relevant.  The film opens with a sequence that has become unsettling familiar in recent years – a supermarket opening it’s doors for pre-Christmas sales. The crowds rush in, rioting, pushing, shoving and shrieking in their quest for unnesscessay discounted purchases. The fact this is soundtracked with Perry Como’s ‘It’s being to look a lot like Christmas’ successfully exemplifies the increasing commercialism of Christmas. It sets a great tone for the upcoming penance that will have to be paid.

The characters who will soon endure Krampus’ house invasion are well pot rated.  They are the right amount of unlikeable, each given just enough reason to warrant the inevitable onslaught but redeemable enough that you start to care what happens to them. The film doesn’t treat the adults any differently from the children – they have been just as naughty as their parents so need to be punished. As a secondary school teacher I can’t actaully say that Max’s two tween female cousins deserve to be punished,  but I can say that I hope they learn from their mistakes.

Krampus’ and his squad, made up of evil-looking reindeer, scary elves, oh so creepy toys and hilariously horrific gingerbread men own this film. The portryal of the homicidal gingerbread men would be my standout favourite, their evilish giggles haunting the house and they haunt it’s residents.  In fact they did somewhat remind me of Christmas horror-comedy classic ‘Gremlins’ which would make an excellent double movie feature with ‘Krampus’.

If you’re looking to briefly escape the festive season , or see and Old Testament-style backlash against it, or you just want a movie for laughs and a few scares, then this is well worth a watch.