Ted Geoghegan’s We Are Still Here is a blissfully simple yet tremendously rewarding exercise in dark comedy/horror that hits the mark incredibly well by castling well known faces that are already totems in the genre, employing sidesplitting situational comedy that hovers on the edge of droll and a script that anchors it all with a well written confidence, not to mention a cool retro visual palette that brings to mind minimal yet affecting stuff like Rosemary’s Baby, The Evil Dead and others from back in the day. A middle aged couple (Andrew Sensenig and Barbara Crampton) have moved into a rural house and are still grieving the loss of their son but this house, naturally, is spectacularly haunted and they find themselves and their friends plagued by a vicious dark force emanating from the basement. The life of the party is Larry Fessenden and the gorgeous Lisa Marie as their avant-garde hippie friends who arrive for a seance and get way more than they bargained for. Fessenden has a way of delivering dialogue that just had me holding my sides even when he wasn’t trying to be funny, while Marie is an ethereally beautiful presence who has mostly shown up in various Tim Burton films over the years and not much else, but it’s lovely to see her branch out. The special effects are gruesomely tactile, the scares genuinely unsettling and the story, albeit scant and simple, works very well in servicing some intensely gory mayhem in the third act after a blessedly slow burn getting there. This may be an uncomplicated, super traditional exercise in genre horror that doesn’t necessarily bring anything we haven’t seen before to the table but what it does set out to do, it does exceedingly well and I had a great time with it.
Indie horror can go a lot of ways, but it’s always life affirming when you find a real hidden gem, and Hunter Adams’ Dig Two Graves is just that, a morally complex, atmospherically beautiful, unpredictable modern fable with horror hues woven in and, most important in any production, believable human characters that you can actually empathize with and take a journey alongside. Young girl Jake (Samantha Isler) loses her brother one day in a cliff jump gone wrong, or he appears to be missing anyways. She lives in a small Illinois county with her parents and loving grandfather (Ted Levine) who is also the sheriff. She finds herself stalked by three mysterious men who have a vaguely occult aura, and they tell her they have the power to bring her brother back, but at a heinously dark price. This is only the surface level premise of the film and I don’t want to spoil much because it’s truly a beautifully unpredictable narrative. Ted Levine has spent most of his career in memorable but sidelined supporting roles, he gets a lead here and is wonderful as the conflicted, caring grandfather who has sin, guilt and violence in his past but will do anything to protect the granddaughter he fiercely loves. This is a small film with a huge emotional impact as we see the karmic cost of revenge, sins of the past refusing to be forgotten and, as we’re reminded by Levine’s character, that no person is just one thing, there aren’t heroes or villains but simply choices human beings make both negative and positive, left the rest of their lives to reconcile them. Fantastic folk horror family drama revenge saga with gothic undertones, beautiful cinematography and a story worth investing one’s time and emotion into.
If you’re going to bill your film as a ‘biblical horror version of Assault On Precinct 13’ you’d better make damn sure that the thing lives up to that legacy and is a worthwhile experience, and Let Us Prey is a terrible one from icky start to unpleasant finish and all the way in between. One day a mysterious stranger called 6 (Liam Cunningham) literally walks out of the ocean along the coast and ends up in county lockup under the collective watch of Scotland’s sleaziest small town police force. He then makes everyone’s life literally hell by forcing the cops and fellow prisoners alike to confront their sins and… well die, I guess, his motivations never seem too clear. The staff consists of deviants, killers and violent sexual offenders to the point I wondered how the fuck there weren’t proper background checks in the academy, but oh well. Cunningham is a terrific actor and does all he can playing what’s clearly supposed to be the devil, but the film is so murky, muddled and disorganized that not even his slick performance and a sometimes witty script can do anything to pull it out of the quicksand of haggis it wilfully wanders into. The characters are mostly vile, idiotic, psychopathic and very annoying characters, their dark deeds shown in flashbacks that are needlessly gratuitous, cruelly exploitative and explicitly show extreme violence and sexual torture inflicted on children, which I could have done without and I’d warn anyone who gets easily upset by that to keep a wide berth. Pollyanna Mackintosh as the precinct’s only good cop is also the only character with any redeeming qualities but she spends the film so terrified and traumatized it’s tough to root for her beyond wishing her character would pack up and leave for a less tasteless, bitter hearted film. Cunningham’s Satan is charismatic and almost likeable in a sardonic way but he’s just doing his job I suppose, and Liam has a way of making any character resonate no matter the quality of the film. It’s got an intense, stylized opening credits sequence but beyond that, this is needlessly excessive trash with a barely discernible storyline and far too much ill advised gore, nihilistic barbarism and crass inhumanity. Fucken waste of time.
Some films just place you right into the action without a moments setup, exposition or prologue, they just ruthlessly air drop you right into a furious bedlam of urgency and incident with nary a moment of narrative foreplay or warmup and I love them for it. Ted Geoghegan’s Mohawk is a breathless, unconventional and altogether brilliant horror/western hybrid (my favourite genre amalgamation) that tells the tale of young Mohawk woman Okwaho (Kaniehtiio Horn) fighting alongside her two lovers against a vicious regiment of American soldiers hellbent on her destruction as her Mohawk elders try to retain the tribes neutrality amidst a nasty personal vendetta on both sides. Peace and neutrality unfortunately just weren’t in the cards for the early days of America and the hatred, rage, violence and conflict of it all are reflected in this lean, mean, taught, streamlined and spectacularly thrilling piece of esoteric escapist exploitation that I have fallen in love with and immediately ordered the DVD. Horn is actually part Mohawk herself and owns the role with intimidating physicality and stoic yet emotional resolve, I’ve seen her work in Letterkenny and noticed her in Brandon Cronenberg’s Possessor earlier this year, she’s one to watch out for. Okwaho’s two lovers are a fierce fellow Mohawk named Two Rivers (Justin Rain) and young British officer Joshua (Eamon Farron, who we remember as the evil Richard Horne in Twin Peaks: The Return). She does her best to protect them and the entire time she’s forced to run, fight and survive she is also with child, which makes for one intense character arc. The American soldiers are a mottled, complex bunch led by a cold, hard bastard of a captain played by the otherworldly looking Ezzra Buzzington in a performance of terrifying sadism, unabashedly verbose fury and curiously contradictory rationality that makes him a believable character with dimensions as opposed to a villain composed simply of leering caricature. This is in contrast to his second in command who is a gruff, racist asshole with headgear that Ichabod Crane would be proud of, played by Robert Longstreet who was so good as the groundskeeper in Haunting Of Hill House. I’ll be honest, not everyone is going to love this film: it’s severely low budget which is noticeable, it does this tightrope walk between brutal splatter horror sensibilities and eerie, surreal mysticism that might not work for every viewer and it may just be too much of a nerve wracking gauntlet for some to get through and keep up with the pace, violence and mile-a-minute sociopolitical flourishes peppered into the colourful, detailed dialogue. The things I’ve mentioned are all part of what made me appreciate this film though; the stirring opening credits scooped me up and threw me right into the action, the emotional core of Okwaho and her two lovers kept me caring for them even when action took over for character development a bit, the dastardly nature of the soldiers and preening theatricality of Buzzington’s villain was engaging, the audaciously unapologetic violence and surging momentum literally had me putting down my phone and hovering on the edge of my seat in rapturous tension. Not to mention the gorgeous, propulsive, dark-synth laden score by Wojciech Golczewski that keeps mood, atmosphere, menace and emotion thrillingly alive and pulls the slack shockingly tight for the duration of the film until it’s unbelievably fearsome climax. If you love sweeping, emotional stuff like Last Of The Mohicans but you also appreciate mean, fucked up, grisly horror tinged westerns like Bone Tomahawk you’ll dig this absolutely terrific film.
I’ve seen a lot of Mexican vacations go wrong in the horror/thriller arena but never as specifically and drastically so as it does in The Ruins, a stressful, gruesome, brightly lit body horror vehicle written by someone who probably had a traumatic experience with poison ivy as a kid. Your typical American kids are lounging at a resort, dealing with petty relationship issues and getting drunk when a German backpacker tells them of an archeological expedition at a nearby Mayan pyramid, so they decide to take a day trip and check it out. Well this pyramid just happens to be covered in an exotic, sentient and very pissed off species of carnivorous vine and once touched, you’re fucked. The local villagers have apparently already had run-ins with it and surround the ruin with guns, blocking off any escape or further contamination. This leaves these kids atop the pyramid to slowly be hunted, starved, preyed upon and driven insane by this horticultural nightmare, which is fun enough as a B grade exercise in grossology. The kids are all played by reliable actors like Joe Anderson, Jonathan Tucker, Shawn Ashmore and Jena Malone and they handle the desperation, fear and anguish fairly well. The vine thing itself is kinda neat, it looks like weed leaves and does this cool thing where it’s flowers can mimic people’s voices and other sounds to confuse and terrify it’s prey. There are some extremely unsettling moments of bone shattering gore and uncomfortable body horror that is effective and shocking, but most of the film is set on top of the pyramid in broad daylight so it’s not terribly evocative in terms of atmosphere. It’s fun enough, but nothing great.
I love the first Urban Legend film and always wondered if the two sequels were worth a look, and after checking the third one last night I can say with resounding conviction that no, they are fucking not worth a look. At least not this piss poor Bloody Mary one, which barely registers as a passable motion picture at all, let alone a near half decent horror flick. A very young Kate Mara heads up a group of college friends who are stupid enough to invoke the wrath of Bloody Mary, a vengeful mirror dwelling ghost who was once the victim of date rape at the hands of leering frat boys which we get to see in a cheap, sleazy prologue. That’s really about it, the story barely exists, the ghost looks nothing close to as terrifying as she does on the poster and resembles a hungover Spirit Halloween employee in the film itself. The acting is beyond amateur except for Mara, and although I’m a sucker for her in anything, not even she can do anything for this dollar store mess. It looks like it was shot with a bleeping fax machine, the horror effects are painfully cheap and just… everything, *everything* about it is lame, ridiculous and underproduced. The thing is, the first Urban Legend film is really good, it’s got a huge prolific cast, well written script and high production value for a horror of its caliber, and yeah I mean sequels in this kind of franchise are never as good as the first but like, I didn’t expect *that* much of a drastic drop in quality, this thing is just hurtin, man. I’ll thank Kate Mara for being the literal only reason I could sit through the entire thing.
Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation revolves around a brief but very important exchange of dialogue between two strangers in a crowded park, recorded by unseen surveillance experts. But the real conversation, at least from what I felt, was one that the introverted main character has with himself, one of guilt, conflict and paranoia. The introverted protagonist is Harry Caul, played by Gene Hackman in one of the film’s surprises, for we are used to this actor in abrasively alpha, outspoken, charismatic leads. Caul is a pensive, restless, reclusive fellow who dutifully does his job, and does it very well too but we always get the sense that he’d rather be somewhere else and is somehow broken inside. The first thread of his unravelling is pulled when surveillance on the aforementioned conversation in the park picks up a brief swath of dialogue implying murder, or at least the attempt thereof. Caul is now at loggerheads with himself between delivering the audio footage to a shady operative (Harrison Ford playing against type as quite sinister) working for someone known as The Director (I won’t spoil this cameo because it’s too juicy) or keeping it to himself and potentially saving two innocent lives. I wouldn’t necessarily call this film a thriller, at least not in the traditional sense. There are moments of intrigue, shocking violence and certainly a good deal of suspense, but the most effective aspects are the shrouded nature of Caul as a character and how he interacts with those around him including mouthy coworker Stan (John Cazale), even mouthier business rival Bernie (Allen Garfield) and others. He’s a very religious man which obviously clashes with the frequently clandestine and often dangerous nature of his work, providing fascinating conflict. The key moment of the film is an eerie dream sequence complete with a fleet of fog machines and very tricky camera angles in which Harry follows the female target of his surveillance mission, trying to tell her details of his personal life, warn her of impending danger and just simply level with her. This is an important scene because it’s the only time he actually verbally communicates with someone he’s hired to bug, and perhaps this is the core of what has broken him: human interaction relegated largely to wire taps, cameras, vans parked around the corner and informal, all seeing secrecy. That can’t be good for a soul, and it clearly haunts his, alongside the collateral damage of what that job can cause, in terms of violent repercussions. Anyways it’s a fantastic film with a truly captivating Hackman performance, a terrific supporting cast, sensationally immersive retro-tech sound design, a kick in the nuts twist ending and the kind of narrative that has you thinking for days.
Robert Zemeckis’s Death Becomes Her is a such a frickin sexy, good looking film that you think it’s glamorizing death but it cleverly ducks that later on, using its devilish central premise to poke fun at just how vain, petty and superficial some people are and to hilariously show the awkward clumsiness and unwieldy, bizarre nature of the human body getting older and dying using morbid dark humour and screwball comic sensibilities. Goldie Hawn and Meryl Streep are two bitter rivals with a decades long feud over the same man, mild mannered undertaker Bruce Willis. When I say mild mannered I mean that as an understatement; this is the antithesis of classic Willis tough guys we are used to, he’s constantly shook, rattled, neurotic and absolutely hysterical as a poor sod stuck in between two crazy bitches. Streep’s character just can’t even handle her body getting older, so she obtains some magic potion with suspiciously vague properties from a shady gypsy witch (Isabella Rossellini is like… unreasonably sexy here) and suddenly she’s a perky, nubile young’in once again… but it’s not without its side effects. When she’s accidentally ‘killed,’ her body just doesn’t wanna stay dead and she’s basically a really whiny zombie chick… and just wait til you see the kind of undead insanity it escalates to from there. Hawn and Streep are terrific in their roles as these two supremely unlikeable shrieking banshee harridans, while Willis is a royal hoot as the hapless, anxiety ridden boob. I like the film’s overall condemnation of materialistic whinging over ones physical appearance and the incessant vanity that permeates western culture. The special effects are wonderfully wild and even quite scary in places as a spectacularly uncoordinated zombie Meryl Streep jerks and careens about her mansion like a drunken slinky, terrifying everyone in sight. Playful direction from Zemeckis, caustically witty screenplay courtesy of David Koepp, engaging lead performances and a spooky Alan Silvestri score, this one is a barrel of fun.
So Bruce Willis got his official Death Wish remake (which I still haven’t seen) and now it appears that Antonio Banderas has scored one too, albeit unofficially. Acts Of Vengeance is pretty much just another assembly like cheapie action thriller with a few big names attached, some decently choreographed fight sequences and a few recognizable character faces in underwritten throwaway supporting turns, a collective undertaking that seems to permeate the direct to VOD realm these days.
Antonio Banderas brings his Latin stoicism as a self absorbed defence attorney whose wife and young daughter are murdered one night on the way home from a song recital that he missed because he’s too busy with work (when will that plot point not be a thing anymore). He first descends into a guilt ridden booze cruise and then learns some martial arts with a Mr. Miyagi proxy and proceeds to hunt down his family’s killer, with the half assed help of a Detective (Jonathan Schaech) who literally spends his scenes texting on his phone rather than doing police work. Karl Urban shows up in an utterly thankless role that anyone could have played as another cop who is sympathetic to his crusade for revenge and helps him out here and there, but the role is way beneath his talents and I found myself just wondering why someone as cool as him would spend his time on such a baseline cop role. The late great Robert Forster has a pretty badass cameo as Antonio’s pissed off father in law, showing up for one single funeral scene to give him a stinging verbal beatdown and disappearing for the rest of the film. Paz Vega also shows up as a friendly nurse who takes him in when he receives one of many ass kickings at the hands of thugs, she’s a nice sort of ‘Penelope Cruz Lite’ presence. It’s a really derivative, fairly dull film to be honest, there’s absolutely nothing new here, it’s all been done much better elsewhere, Banderas is a listless protagonist, the character motivations (particularly that of the ludicrously written, out-of-nowhere villain) are pretty questionable and it’s just overall… bland. I did however notice that the end credits are dedicated to the director’s family, who I’m guessing he lost at some point? This would appear to be a personal project for him and I don’t want to detract from that but I have to be honest about the film on its own terms.
Sean Penn’s Into The Wild is ostensibly about a young college grad who abandons societal norms, traditional Western aspirations and archetypal beats to live first on the road and eventually in the wilderness, but that’s really only the framework for something more elemental and profound. What I got out of it, thanks to meditative filmmaking and an ensemble cast for the ages, was a quiet, studious anthropologist’s discourse on how many different human beings conform to, tear free from or abide just outside what society deems ‘normal’ or ‘allowed.’ Emile Hirsch’s Christopher McCandless is perhaps the most extreme and outright noticeable example within the cast of characters, a young boy just starting out in life who has decided to flip the proverbial table and rewrite the collective standards of living in our world to suit his strikingly literate, ambitiously philosophical nature. This is one of those films where the main character is on a journey and meets/interacts with many varied, interesting folk along the way. Penn loves to use this motif (check out his masterpiece The Pledge for quite a different version of the idea), is terrific with ensemble casts and many actors of considerable talent thankfully flock to work in his pictures. Christopher’s parents are played by Marcia Gay Harden and a heartbreaking William Hurt, two actors who have never been pinned down into playing one role or typecast, both very clearly the materialistic, compassionate yet volcanically dysfunctional proud suburban parents. Jena Malone is Christopher’s supportive, loving sister and from these relatives he sets out on a cross country journey with Alaska as his endgame, and meets a host of people who could be a collective time capsule of late 80’s/early 90’s Americana. Vince Vaughn is a rowdy farming magnate who takes Christopher in, gives him work and a boisterous big brother presence, for awhile. Kristen Stewart is the teenaged hippie girl he finds romance with in a wistful trailer commune… for awhile. Signe Egholm Olsen and Thure Lindhart are two effervescent European backpackers he shares a watering hole with.. for like ten minutes. Hal Holbrook will break your heart into pieces as a fatherly widower with a tragic past who gives him shelter and paternal companionship.. for a brief time. The running theme here is that Christopher never stays anywhere for long and it soon becomes clear that some human beings, himself included, were simply meant to roam restlessly until their soul finds a place it can be at peace. My favourite among his interactions is that with an ageing hippie couple played by the wonderful Catherine Keener and someone called Brian Dierker, who I’ve never heard of before but makes a striking impression. They’re a loving pair with tragedy in their past who find kinship and parental caring for Christopher, and I felt like if there was one place or group of people on his journey he may have ended up staying with permanently, it would have been them. We all know how this film turns out and what the story tells us, but for me it was a beautifully episodic, sweepingly melodious exploration of human beings and how they interact, migrate about the landscape and find their own customs, relationships and purposes with the lives given to them. There’s a montage right near the end where as we witness Christopher arrive at the final beat of his arc, we also see everyone he met and cared about in life at the exact same moment in time elsewhere, each in various snapshots of joy, anguish, libation or introspection. It’s a brilliantly edited sequence because it sews the final stitches together in a thread of human experiences the film gifts us, and I’ve seldom felt more connected to the “connectedness” of human beings overall than I did in this beautiful sequence. This is a masterpiece, and I won’t even go into the brilliant album composed by Eddie Vedder because we’d be here all day.