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. 

 

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…

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.

Goosebumps

“Viewer beware, you’re in for a scare!”

It’s easy to be a book snob. It’s easy to tell children which books are good to read and which books are bad to read. What constitutes a bad book for children? If it inspires just one child’s imagination,  gives them fears and feels in equal measure,  then surely a book can’t be bad? I’ve read Wilde, Dickens and both Poe. But I’ve also read Rowling, Wilson and Stein. Those six authors, along with countless authors, formulated my literary past and thus set the foundations for books to be read in the present and the future. J.K.Rowling may have figuratively taken me to Hogwarts and made me lament not receiving my letter when I was 11 (obviously during that period the ministry of magic was busy with other matters…), but it was R.L Stein that gave me a taste for ghouls, goblins and gore. Watching ‘Goosebumps’ felt like a risk, either prompting rage from my inner adolescent or transformative nostalgia. I’m very happy to report it’s the latter. Through a blend of live-action and animation the film manages to capture the goosebump-inducing fear of the books whilst also being rather light-hearted and funny.

A year after his dad has died, Zach Cooper (Dylan Minnette) and his vice-principal mother (Amy Ryan) move from New York to Madison, Delware. Though frustrated at his new small-town surroundings he knows that his mother’s new job will good for her, and the change in scenery may be good for both of them. When moving in, and having a box fall apart on him, he meets his new home-schooled neighbour (Odeya Rush). But their brief introduction is halted by Hannah’s grumpy and rather scary father, a man who may or may not be R.L. Stein (Jack Black). Hannah manages to sneak out and spend a day with Zach, but upon getting caught by her father she is punished. When Zach goes to rescue her, bringing along loveable loser sidekick (Ryan Lee), he stumbles across a bookshelf filled with what appear to be manuscripts for every Goosebumps story every written. However, after opening the manuscript of ‘The Abominable Snowman of Pasadena’ [side note: it is in my top ten Goosebumps] the Abominable Snowman itself comes out of the book. After a series of exciting events, manufactured by the Dummy of ‘Night of the Living Dummy [side note: definite top five contender] all of the manuscripts are opened, bringing all the monsters that Stein has ever written to live and bringing havoc among their town. Stein, Zach, Hannah and Champ must get all of them back in their books, where they belong. But things won’t be easy, and not everything is as it appears…

I really like this movie for numerous reasons, and in fact have a rather big soft spot for it. First of all, it brings all the monsters that once haunted my imagination to life. During the big crowd sequences I desperately searched the crowd for the familiar faces of the guests who overstayed their welcome in my nightmares. Going back to my opening point, I think it’s important that child can read books that scare them, and then show them how to defeat these fears. For children, and adults of a nervous disposition, this film does have rather spooky moments. There are one or two jumpy moments, and few monsters that are rather unsettling, but these are well contained moments and are more fun than fearful.

This leads me onto my second point, how surprisingly funny the film is. There are jokes for the children, and then there are jokes that will go over their heads and will crack up the adults in the audience. My three personal favourite jokes, which led to the emittance of loud laughter from many at the screening I attended, were a gag about the suffix –phile, a discussion about Stein verses Stephen King and a joke about domestic sales of books. Those three jokes (which I have intentionally poorly paraphrased) were well written, as are many others within the film.

The characterisation is good, with each character being more than likeable. In quite a nice shift, Hannah is the braver one whereas Zach and Champ are both rather jumpy in comparison. The animation is well-placed, never jarring with how it fits into the live-action, which is rather laudable. The music is never interfering, subtlety and successfully building the tension and fear. The pacing is also good, the 1hr 40mins never dragging and filled with more than enough twists and turns. This film is what family cinema should be. It shouldn’t patronise the younger members of the audience, or pander the humour towards them. It should engage them, spook them a little and excite them, just as Stein’s books did for me all those years ago.

If you’re looking for a light-hearted movie with a bit of bite, or something to entertain your children that won’t melt your brain, this is it. A very pleasant surprise.

The Gift (2015)

Dare you look inside?

This film is good. Really good. It’s wicked, smart and tense. So tense, you’ll be on the edge of your sheet for most of the film’s 1hr 50min running time. Few contemporary Hollywood films are able to hook in an audience so quickly, so subtly, and keep them gripped to the end credits. Belonging to the ‘thriller’ genre this film (written directed and starring Joel Edgerton) it manages to avoid all the perils of a bad thriller movie. Typically films of this genre are set up with a chunk of exposition, a boring and obvious way of introducing character and story. With ‘The Gift’ Egerton totally avoids this hurdle, instead he sprinkles exposition into dialogue. Twists and turns are set up in a way that it is only once they happen that you realise they were even set up in the first place. Not once does the film dip in tension or give any hints on what will happen next. If you’ve seen the trailer and thought you’d seen it all, you really haven’t!

Robin (Rebecca Hall) and Simon (Jason Batman) move from Chicago to California, to an area not far from Simon’s hometown. When shopping for new home supplies the pair are approached by ‘Gordo’ (Joel Edgerton) who identifies himself as being an old school friend of Simon’s. Gordo quickly establishes himself in their lives, dropping off gifts and making surprise visits at their home. Although Robin seems happy enough to maintain contact with the ‘socially awkward’ Gordo, Simon grows uneasy with Gordo’s behaviour and decides to ‘break-up’ with him and ends their friendship. Gordo does not let this go easily and continues to have a hold over the pair. Secrets from the past swiftly and menacingly threaten to ruin their seemingly idealistic life.

This film is both modern yet welcomingly old-fashioned. Its plot and pacing align it with Hitchcockian storytelling. The fact that much of the film focuses on Robin’s perspective is a throwback to the Gothics of the 1940s. Her doubts over Gordo, and as a result doubts about her husband, are never overblown or ‘too’ melodramatic but rooted in a degree of realism and with complete sympathy. What could be a one dimensional role is instead fully rounded with Hall’s nuances, her subtle discomfort apparent yet carefully and gradually revealed. Bateman is equally as good, barely recognizable in a role that goes far beyond type. All too often taking the role of fraught and downtrodden father figure, he places the role of Simon with ease as he carefully navigates the fine lien between charming and douchebaggery. Whilst we are swift to become uncertain of Gordo’s intent, we soon realise that we know just as little about Simon. His interactions with both Robin and Gordo remain intriguing and frequently unsettling from start to finish.

 But it is Edgerton who remains the star here, portraying the oddest and most secretive of the three leads. Often films like this will signpost, practically with flashing neon lights, what will happen next and who we can trust. Within his script, cinematography and characterisation Edgerton doesn’t do this. All of these dimensions are far too complex for that, refusing to let the viewer rest on their laurels or take a breather. Nothing is certain in this cinematic universe; no-one can be trusted.

A surprise of a movie, engrossing and unpredictable in equal measure. This is a fantastic directorial debut, a tense psycho-thriller and well worth seeing.