Gareth Evans, no matter the genre he’s working in, has a tendency to throw everything he can think of into the mix, and it’s a tactic that has won me over. In his monumental Raid films it was action sequences piled onto each other so fast and furious it left the viewer gasping and in his gorgeous, positively blood saturated pagan horror extravaganza Apostle it’s every kind of gristly, folk horror inspired, uber-gory piece of horror mayhem you could shake a bloody stick at. Dan Stevens and his eyes so intense they could melt steel play a haunted missionary sometime in the 18th century, tasked with infiltrating a spooky cult residing on a British Isle, the last known location of his estranged sister who has up and vanished. After a stormy, discomforting boat ride out from the mainland, he arrives to find a drab, bleak spirited colony full of whispers, shadows, brooding malcontent and the subtly felt presence of something… otherworldly. The tribes leader is a man of frothing fervour, played by the always excellent Michael Sheen in an impossibly implosive turn with a nice, unexpected arc. The villain isn’t who you think it’s going to be here and once the real piece of work antagonist rears their head, the film shifts from creeping uneasiness right into third gear of fucking maniacal, over the top horror mayhem that doesn’t quit until the exhale on the heels of one of the most jaw dropping third acts I’ve seen in a while. Stevens is a terrific actor in any role, I greatly enjoyed his work in the underrated Liam Neeson thriller Walk Among The Tombstones as well as the schlocky 80’s inspired bit of madness that was The Guest. He’s brilliant here, a picture of hell before he even arrives on the island, and progressively more fierce and despairing as each passing hurdle beats him down. Sheen turns on the wild eyed tenacity as the zealot chieftain who discovers that mutiny and past deeds aren’t even the worst things about to befall him and his freaky little community. This is a ruthless, mile a minute slice of horror and there’s some shitty humans doing terrible things to each other that one must bear witness too, but there’s also some darkly beautiful elements of earthen, witchy horror that balance out the crazed religious mania with something refreshingly more esoteric. Just wear a metaphorical raincoat though, because there’s so much blood n’ gore in this one that no matter where you sit you’ll feel like you’re in the splatter zone. A pretty magnificent horror film.
These days when a film with Liam Neeson comes down the pipeline you can generally have a good idea what it’ll be about in our post-Taken era. Revenge, chases, gunfights, he’s usually in his old dude action pic groove but there’s the odd one that strays from the flock. Scott Frank’s A Walk Among The Tombstones, although encasing a few quick, breathless action scenes in its narrative, is far from the kind of film we’re used to seeing from Neeson and as a result is one of my favourites he’s done since Joe Carnahan’s The Grey.
Chilly, brutal, bloody, realistically violent and unrelentingly dark are the energies this thing traffics in. Neeson plays Matt Scudder, a shambling ex cop turned private eye with some demons in his past that don’t quite hold a candle to the outright malevolence he must face this time round. He’s contacted by a shady mid level drug baron (Dan Stevens) whose wife has gone missing, and who chooses him over the cops because of their collective unique business ventures. This leads our antihero down an increasingly dangerous and suffocatingly scary on the hunt for two serial killers (David Harbour and Adam David Thompson) who are the distilled definition of pure evil.
I’ll be frank and upfront here: this is not a pleasant viewing experience or an uplifting film, in fact it’s downright oppressive in tone and for the most part emotionally desolate. However, there’s a stark beauty to this tale and I wouldn’t let the darkness deter you from experiencing one of the best and most atmospheric and suspenseful crime thrillers in recent years. Neeson is grim, haunted and adept at doling out graphic bodily harm on anyone who prevents him from getting to the truth. The two killers, Harbour in particular, are unrepentant, sadistic monsters who you just pray will be stopped before committing another murder and making you sit through the specifics of it which the film does make you do in one instance. Stevens comes from a Downton Abbey background but there’s a fierce, implosive aura to him that works great in darker roles like this (check out his work in The Guest too). This is based on one in a series of books by Lawrence Block that all focus on Scudder’s character. Jeff Bridges played the role once back in the day in another adaptation too, but Neeson makes a fierce predator out of him, with a hidden humanity that comes forth in interactions with a street kid (Brian Bradley) who becomes his sidekick of sorts. A very overlooked film in Neeson’s filmography and just in general as well. Oh and how about those eerie, sinister opening credits for setting the tone ?
The world is currently obsessed, it seems, with 80’s throwback media, and as a die hard fan of the style, I say bring on as much of the delirious synth music, lurid body horror and deep cut, bleeding neon as possible. From Stranger Things and It Follows to The Void it’s been a heyday renaissance, and Adam Wingard’s The Guest is a bit more obscure but no less of a celebration of the genre. Working from a vague Terminator/bone smashing action vibe, it’s a neat reworking of the ‘invincible antihero thrown into quiet suburbia’ vibe, but that’s so specific that maybe it just invented a new sub-sub genre. Dan Stevens is a a steely eyed new talent who has shed his Downton Abbey pretty boy image like a snakeskin and emerged as a serpent of solid tough guy portrayals (check out his awesome bad/good guy work in A Walk Among The Tombstones), and he carries the whole flick here as the mysterious David, a strange and scary dude who shows up on the doorstep of an all American family, claiming to be the army buddy of their deceased son. There’s clearly more to the story, as the familiar formula sinks in and unwinds, but it’s terrific fun watching it all play out time and time again. He’s got a particular set of skills reminiscent of the super-soldiers of that era, impresses the family patriarch (Leland Orser) who shows simultaneous fascination and suspicion with this new dark stranger in their household. He also gets close with their daughter (It Follow’s Maika Monroe), until he’s heavily invested in her’s and the family’s life, but it’s also the one thing that’s putting them, and the whole damn neighbourhood, on a course for trouble. Death and danger seem to follow David, like when a shadowy Army spook (Lance Reddick subtly channels 80’s Danny Glover) shows up looking for answers, and despite his emerging best intentions for the family, at the end of the day he’s a volatile black ops asset that can barely control his own trajectory. It’s a slight film that breezes by and never hits too hard, but sits in the genre groove wonderfully, with all cast members giving good shout outs. Wingard made his debut years ago with an impressive little Troma-eque bizarro slasher flick called Home Sick, went on to collaborate on the famed VHS anthology series and has wowed yet again here, I hope he continues to be a wicked voice for horror. Composer Steve Moore lets the synths rip, roar and rumble for a score that’s right up my 80’s fanatic alley, and gilds the film neatly. Cool stuff.